On a Steel Horse I Ride -- Part 1


My first real motorcycle ride began on the hottest day of the summer. I left Blackfoot, Idaho as the first arcs of sunlight raced across the wheat fields and through the sprinkler spray to splash on the sleeves of my jacket. I clunked my bike into fifth gear and charged westward on Highway 26 into the desert. The silent Sawtooth Mountains, afire with high, cold, early-morning sunshine, jutted up like the bottom teeth of a rocky underbite beyond the empty basin that cradled the highway. The afternoon would bring triple-digit temperatures, and the morning air was pretending to be a balmy sixty. But summer at dawn is thin. Cool desert air moving at 55 blows right through your jeans and up your jacket sleeves, and it feels like it’s forty. It was six-thirty in the morning, thirty miles out from Blackfoot. My teeth were chattering. And I had a lot to learn about the open road.
Unlikely folk want to talk to you when you’re straddling a motorcycle, it turns out. I’m an unabashed suburbanite. And a Mormon one at that. I had a doting mother and I got an allowance just for showing up for life every morning. Rebellion for me was skipping my morning paper route after I’d stayed up too late chugging cherry lemonade at Denny’s. I tell you this to establish that manly dudes don’t seek out my company. It’s remarkable the difference a black leather jacket and a chrome and metal steed beneath you makes, however.

I stop for fuel at an empty service station at a highway junction near Challis. As the gas fumes shimmy softly from my filling tank, a grizzly man with guns bristling from the bed of his truck ambles up. “Niiiiiiice bike,” he casually remarks. “How many horses that baby got?” I don’t know, but I’m not ready to reveal that I’m a total poser. I start estimating how many horses it would take to pull my bike… one could do it, right? I’m about to tell him I bet this baby’s got one or two horses, but then I opt for obfuscation instead. “Weeeeell,” I say, “it’s got enough to get me there, you know?” He laughs. “Bet it does!” And I roar off into the mountains, maintaining the illusion of being slightly edgy.

I fill up the next day in Fossil, a town that lives up to its name. It is a sad, dusty little grid, five streets by six, sleeping amid the low, brown north-central Oregon hills. After filling my tank, I stop in the shade of a big, leafy tree along Main Street to munch a Pop Tart and peruse my map. Main Street is anything but main on a Sunday at noon in Fossil. The town is silent, like stale heat, and the air tastes like dust. A few grasshoppers hop a little with that creaky sound they make, then they get hot and tired and lazy and settle down in the dirt. An old guy across the street is on his porch in a rocking chair. He sees me unfolding my map, and he wonders out loud if I’m lost. I tell him no, I grew up just a couple hours northwest of here. I’m familiar with the yellow and brown hues the sunlight takes on when it reflects off wheat fields and dirt and rock. He offers me water. Five minutes later I’m reclining with a glass of cool, icy water on a shady porch in Fossil on a Sunday afternoon. There’s no sound but the odd grasshopper creaking and the old guy explaining how the folks thirty miles up the road in Condon – population 627 – are snobby. Unlikely folk want to talk to you when you’re riding a motorcycle, I suppose.