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It's Nelly's World

Leaving on a Jet Plane

alec vanderboom

I will have crossed a continent by the time this appears, but will not have crossed back. I will still be there, in California.

The last time I was there, I did not get there over this wide country in a matter of impossible hours; I traversed every foot, every mile, on the two wheels of my BMW. Well, except for the times that I was on the two wheels of his Ducati, during the days in which the clutch on my bike did not operate and it took a subtle genius to roll to the inevitable stop and then--this was the trick--not lurch to a dangerous deadness, but instead keep it alive and coax it into going forward again. Rinse, and repeat. This is not a skill I have; it is among many, many that I lack. But my redoubtable traveling companion did, and it was just one of the dozen ways in which he saved my butt on that trip. Making me laugh, frequently, was another, perhaps more valuable even than taking the bars of the Rockster and not making pained expressions as I threw a leg over his desperately beloved machine. Me! Which was not him.

Tonight, avoiding thinking of packing until the last minute has come and gone, I am arrested by one memory in particular from that trip of memories.

We consult the map. A shortcut--a long shortcut--to get where we needed to be that evening. The road starts out, as all roads do, full of promise: it seems ours alone. They give it to you like that sometimes, the arrangers of time and space. The sun falls slowly, stickily, behind us. It is rolling out a golden carpet on which we motor forth, into new scenes. Then the pavement ends. The ground tilts imperceptibly but progressively; ah, more traction for the rear wheel, anyway. As the light constricts, so too the road: its sides move in, a corset whose strings are being surely pulled. Now it is one lane, and the rocks are getting bigger as the incline is growing steeper. And as it is getting dark. That's the word for it, dark. My companion can do it; he can make his bike do anything, like a Jack Russell trained for movie stunts. But he knows my limits, knows what my mind is doing: worrying, at its depths now. He stops, and I inch alongside. "If we don't turn around now, we are going to have to continue. And it's a long way. Up into the hills. It's possible we'll be riding rocks on a single track in the mountains in the dark. What do you say?"

What I said was: Please.

Not in words. He knew I said it, even without doing so. "Do you want me to turn your bike around for you?" Gently, so as not to imply anything about my lack of skill, but I was doing all the implying for both of us. He dismounted, then took the bars from me, and magically--even though I saw it, I still do not know how he performed it--arced the bike around and then I took hold of the front brake and gingerly swung my leg back over. His red bike was next, and then we were heading down, even more difficult for me than going up. Or maybe not. Maybe it was all one inheld breath.

In a few days I will once again ride a motorcycle over one of those great bridges, a song made of three harmonies: man's engineering, the span over water, and the sun.

And then I will get on a plane again, perhaps to arrive home and wonder, was I really there at all?