On a Steel Horse I Ride -- Part 2

Riding a motorcycle is a lot of work, it turns out. Especially on the two-lane highways. You can’t go on autopilot the way you can on a ramrod straight interstate in a comfy car with cruise control. You’re constantly engaged. You lean the bike side to side as one sweeping curve bends into another, balance blended with throttle and brake and clutch, stomping up and down through the gears. You eye the blacktop in the distance, and you also watch the pavement just ahead of the front tire for slippery gravel or hot tar streaks that soften into slicks in the afternoons. You fight the unrelenting sun from above and the heat radiating off the pavement and the motor below. Dad says on a hot day the air four feet off of the highway can be 150 degrees. Dad also washed his car in the driveway one day when it was 25 degrees out, and his doors froze shut so he couldn’t go to work that night, so sometimes you have to take what Dad says with a grain of salt.

Horseshoe Bend is nothing but a Chevron station pinning a couple of highways together where they cross. It’s mid-afternoon, might be 95 degrees, might be 110. Doesn’t really matter. An hour and a half ago I parked on the shoulder of a winding mountain road, stumbled down a steep dirt bank into a cool creek, and just lay down. Shoes, socks, jeans, and all. Fifteen miles later, I was dry as a funeral drum. At Horseshoe Bend I grab a 32 ounce red Gatorade and get in line to pay. When I step to the counter ninety seconds later, I’ve already downed the Gatorade. I pay for the empty container, then circle back to the cooler for another 32 ounces of red for the road. A couple hours down the road when I stop for a sandwich, my urine is deep red. For a split second I believe I will die alone, slumped beneath a urinal at the Subway in Weiser, Idaho, and that when the dude with eyeliner and black fingernail polish manning the counter finds me next time he uses the john, he’ll light some candles, burn some incense, put on some Bauhaus, and dine on my corpse. But then I remember the Gatorade and feel a little sheepish for all the drama.

Two-lane highways are a world away from interstates, it turns out. I strung together a route west from Blackfoot out of only back roads and highways. I’d driven I-84 many times. I wanted to see new places and things. And I did. Highway 93 north of Arco, Idaho follows the floor of a lush, verdant valley, dwarfed on the east and west by sharp and craggy peaks tearing the stomachs from lazy little summer clouds. 

And Garden Valley is a lumberjack of a town along Banks Lowman Road in western Idaho’s sylvan heights. If it took human form, it would wear plaid and waders and a red beard inherited from fierce forebears from the Scottish highlands, and it would bury an ax in your skull if you spoke a sympathetic word about those “damn wolves” that eat the livestock. Garden Valley has a Mormon meetinghouse but no gas station. At times, I learned, the gas station can seem more crucial to the soul than the meetinghouse.

The back roads. Interstates are concrete conveyer belts that clumsily punch from point A to point B, shunting dirt and grass and mountain to one side, hurdling rivers, anxious to just get there. But the back roads, the highways, curve with the earth. They swing out of their way to thread little towns together. Highways are content to become Main Street for a mile or two, to succumb for a bit to the soft staccato stop-and-go rhythm of stoplights and street signs.

On the interstate we impatiently pass the wasted time that separates “here” from “there.” But the back roads almost breathe. They are like veins linking the origin and the destination. Lives pulse in the homes and backyards and front porches and diners and farms and fields and forests that butt up against the pavement. The highway rises and falls and listens, part of the land. The interstate is quick and straight and heedless. It is a scar. There’s quite a difference between the interstate and the two-laner, it turns out.