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Day 26: Homecoming

There are various reasons why I delayed writing about this last leg of my ride. Sure, returning to “real life” meant less time to write, but it also appeared to mean more time for Netflix binges and staring at screens. Perhaps, I wanted to prolong the journey and relish in the suspense. But, really, it was a simple act of avoidance.

I realized I sort of dreaded this day. The day I had to sum it all up. Try to make it tidy. Offer up my final wisdoms from the road. Tell you something profound.

I mentally chewed on my homecoming regularly for the last three months. What comes up is neither tidy nor wise nor profound. It is none of these and all of these. It’s a mash of lumps in my throat and tears in my eyes and feels in my gut. It’s grief and joy and sadness and smiles and endings and beginnings. It’s all of this all at once while also being just a 26-day motorcycle ride over 5000 miles with little adventure at all.

Part of me feels like the action and drama along the road was merely embellishment. There was awesomeness and quirks and fun. But, the ride was generally safe and uneventful. On the other hand, part of me knows my mental shifts were siesmic and intense.

I guess this last day of 2017 is as good as any day to button this all up.

I wasn’t meeting my lunch date until noon and the cool autumn weather meant I was afforded the opportunity to relish in the luxury of a king bed until close to 9am. Coffee, bagels and cream cheese fueled me as rode away from West Hartford on the last day of my ride across America. I was headed toward Charlie’s Diner in Spencer, Massachusetts.

Exactly thirteen weeks earlier, I left Massachusetts on an airplane. Although I had no return ticket, I did have a crazy plan to return on two wheels. At that time, I did not know the circumstances of my return. For those of you following along with my journey, you know my marriage, my livelihood and whether I would stay in Massachusetts only long enough to pack up and move on were all in question. And, if you followed along, you know the cliff hanger about my marriage was on it’s way to being resolved…er reunited, as the case may be.

Somehow, in the span of 5000 miles, we found a way to heal ourselves, overcome the hurt between us and return to each other.

We parted with enough respect, love and hope between us to makes things salvageable later, but it wasn’t the 5000 miles, it was the thirteen weeks that mattered. I don’t know exactly how this happened, but I doubt it would have if we remained in the same house during those thirteen weeks. And thirteen weeks is a blink compared to the 42 years of mental plaque I needed to sort through. I can’t speak for what he did in that time, it doesn’t matter.

As I wound my way through the New England countryside, only a tiny speck of this philosophical reflection was on my mind. New England was sparkling and the air was crisp. I was taking in the moment and relishing in this last day on the open road. I meandered through Windsor, crossed the Shenipsit State Forest and skirted around Stafford before breaking northward toward the Massachusetts border.

Since the day I rode back to Massachusetts, I’ve had time to sort through some of this. On this last day of 2017, through this post, I am able to only put some of it in context and out to the world in a way I feel okay with.

Four years ago my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The end was predictable; the journey and time to get there was not. My anger at her illness unearthed things in me I thought I had long ago shed. Twenty-four years ago, I walked away from my abusive father with little more than my wits and raw determination. The anger and self-loathing I buried beneath my hard, prickly exterior sizzled to the surface in eruptive and unpredictable ways and grief intensified it.

Thirteen weeks before I found myself closing in on the Massachusetts border, I left Massachusetts to escape my failing marriage, my failing midlife crisis, and my seemingly failing life, but mostly, I left to escape myself. Being alone with myself is a funny way to escape myself. No, it wasn’t a reprieve. It was only a way to deal with myself and nothing but myself.

So, as I pulled into Charlie’s Diner in Spencer, Massachusetts, it was an uneventful moment. The perfect riding weather, the nondescript diner, the “last day of a 26-day, 5000-mile ride” was all just another day like the last 26. Uneventful, yet profoundly different than the day I boarded a plane thirteen weeks earlier.

Happy cooking and happy New Year.

Day 25: Medford Lakes to West Hartford – The Garden State

Close your eyes. Think New Jersey. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Take a mental snapshot. What do you see?

Years ago, I stood on a train platform in New Jersey watching train car after train car zoom by. I think it was a trash haul. It smelled like a trash haul. I’ve driven the New Jersey Turnpike in awe of the 16-lane wide interstate lined petrochemical storage and industrial facilities. There are so many lanes, they have dual exits – one at the right and one at lane 4 flying up to an over pass. I’ve stayed in a bed and breakfast in Jersey City that took a measure of bravery and luck to safely reach on foot from the subway. But until Day 25 of this ride, I never really knew what put the “garden” into the Garden State.

Prior to hitting the road that morning, I toyed with the idea of riding the full length of Manhattan to Montauk and catching a ferry there. I was talked out of that, in perhaps rightfully. I knew I had no desire to ride the petrochemical stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. So, Margo and I hatched a plan for me to head straight north out if Medford Lakes along the New Jersey boarder then cross into New York at the Newberge bridge and head to Connecticut. Google maps didn’t care for this idea, so I had to rely on my brain to get me past Trenton, avoid the New Jersey Turnpike, skip the Garden State Parkeway and head north into New Jersey farm country. It does exist. Really, it does.

My head buzzing with a whiskey hangover (look at the horrifying picture and know my hangover was strong), I parted ways with my spirit animal on the promise that soon we would gather with other bad ass women adventure warriors to break bread, talk story, plot new adventures and probably drink more whiskey. Ouch, no more whiskey for now. I tee-up the appropriate New Jersey soundtrack. Nope, not the Boss, not some Jovi, but the best New Jersey Album you never heard of – Meadowlands by Wrens – a melancholy little rock album that was fitting for the morning.

Headed north from Medford Lakes, I had my hang over and a running list of memorized directions to contend with. North on 206, past the on ramps to the New Jersey Turnpike (for fucks sake, don’t get on the New Jersey Turnpike). Take a left at Dunn’s Mill Road by the Wawa store. Suddenly merge onto It 130 then take 295 around Trenton to Route 31. Then, turn on the map and plot an off-highway route to Newburgh, NY. And, most importantly, don’t get your ass flattened by those New Jersey drivers while your at it.

I don’t totally recollect that part of the ride except that riding the morning rush hour around Trenton was an abrupt awakening to the fact that I had fully crossed into he urban north east which is chalk full of north east drivers. A special bunch with special skills.

Despite having put more than 4000 miles on two wheels between myself and the west coast, I did not look forward to riding with the drivers of the urban north east. Until now, most drivers had offered at least a small moticum of respect for motorcycles. Not in this part of the country. They are aggressors. They don’t believe in personal space on the roadway. They don’t signal; it’s a sign of weakness. They don’t offer nicetities like not tailgating or not cutting you off or not letting you know their thoughts with finger signals and fists. They like their horns. Don’t get me wrong, in a car, I generally like this. I am one of them, really. But on two wheels, I finally realized why “Motorcycles Are Everywhere” is so prominent in the north east. The drivers here, that’s why.

Perhaps the extra shot of adrenaline was good for sweating out the whiskey toxins because when I emerged on the other side of Trenton, well the other side of the many northern suburbs of Trenton, I was rewarded with the late-September ride of a motorcyclist’s dream.

The air held the promise of the coming fall- still warm, but tinged with a chill. The sun, in full retreat from the long-ago summer solstice, stayed high above my my back and warmed me even if my fingers lingered just on the cool side. Everything seemed to sparkle with contrast. The few trees starting to change stood out while I chased my shadow along the blacktop. These were long stretches of New Jersey farmland that made it the Garden State. It was complete with winding roads, rolling hills, cows chewing cud, farmhouses and quaint, idyllic towns. It’s a shame you pictured the crowded, smoggy, industrial, urban part of New Jersey when you closed your eyes earlier because this is much better.

For miles, a pair of touring bikes followed along accompanying me in silent acknowledgement of the perfection of the day. When we finally stopped in a single traffic light town, they asked “Did you ride that from California?” As the light changed, I shouted back “Yes!” I noticed, in my review mirror, he raised his hand in a fist pump acknowledging my accomplishment. We later split at a fork in the road. I headed toward Interstate 84 and they to more farmland probably. We parted with a sort of salute of solidarity. Good to share the road with you, my friends.

Although I could have extended my farm country jaunt into New York then Connecticut, the day’s ride was waning on and I had friends, a hot shower, a cozy bed and a beer waiting for me in West Hartford. So, I scuttled out of the countryside and onto the highway.

I will spare you my rant about New York drivers, see above only dial up the aggression and tighten up your size of acceptable personal road space to mere inches and you get the idea. To save my sanity, I alternated between highway and side roads.

What might have been 5 harrowing hours along the New Jersey Turnpike and I-84, turned into a day of stark contrasts – city, industrial, countryside, small town, highways, and side roads. And my longest day in the saddle – 9 hours.

Worth it.

Happy cooking and happy holidays.