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Almost Fiction: Men with dirty fingernails

By Sam Jones

Almost-Fiction-web

When I was a kid the men I saw riding motorcycles were men. They were big and strong, had dirty fingernails, ate rocks, smoked cigarettes, wore black leather and heavy engineer boots, sported captain’s hats with either a Harley or an Indian logo, were kind to children, dated beautiful women, made few excuses for their actions, rode their motorcycles wherever they wanted, in any kind of weather and stood apart from the rest of the world as men who were bigger than life.

The books I read and the stories I heard were all about boys who had to leave the family, go out into the world, make their way on their own, overcome obstacles, kill dragons, find the treasure and become a success, before they could return home as a real part of society… return as a man. My heroes were cowboys, mountain men, frontiersmen, knights in shining armor and adventurers who needed to see what was on the other side of the mountain or across the ocean. I still marvel at the likes of Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, Marco Polo, Sir Edmund Percival Hillary and Sir Francis Charles Chichester.

Interested in what was on the other side of the mountain, men who rode motorcycles were these kinds of people. At the drop of a hat they would ride down any road just to see what was at the end of it. They strapped rain and camping gear to luggage racks, wore fur collars on their jackets and stuck travel pins in their caps. Sometimes they took women as passengers, sometimes they went in groups but mostly they were loners traveling by themselves. All of these men cut a wide swath and I wanted to be like them.

One of my particular idols was a neighbor who didn’t own a car, rode his motorcycle every day to work, and from Friday night until Monday morning was gone on bike trips. With his goal to eventually see every national park in America and every state park in California, pulling a small trailer behind his Harley he took both major and minor motorcycle camping vacations.

After one such trip he brought me back a visitor’s pin from the far-distant Yellowstone National Park and later he presented me with one from a roadhouse/barbecue joint on Route 66.

So they could discuss with each other what happened on I Love Lucy everyone in America watched TV on Thursday night. I never knew what Lucy did to Desi. On Thursday nights I watched my neighbor pack his bike and listened to him tell of the trip he planned and the places he intended to see.

Occasionally he had no itinerary. He was just going north or east… or… just going. For a long time I didn’t understand traveling like that, especially because I knew he wanted to see every state and national park. I considered those trips a waste of time. As far as I was concerned you were supposed to have a destination, get there as soon as possible, stay as long as possible and then come home. When I finally asked him about traveling without plans he explained the difference between traveling with a goal, traveling to get somewhere and just traveling.

He explained, “And ya know, sometimes you can do all three at the same time. You can have a goal, want to get someplace and end up just traveling. Motorcycles are good for that. Start off going in one direction and end up in a completely different place. Sometimes you hit the road north and it turns out that it’s raining up north, so you change course. Once I planned to go to Idaho and ended up in Colorado. Yep, motorcycles are good for that.” He was a philosopher of the first rank.

I wasn’t very old, maybe 10 or 11 when we had that conversation, but I still remember it. I didn’t understand all of it but I knew it was an important discourse, like a sermon or the later dissertations I would hear concerning the birds and the bees. This was indeed philosophical information, some of the Facts of Life that I should file away for when I was older.

My parents signed a work permit for me when I was 14 and I got a job as a dishwasher/busboy. The man whose shift I relieved was a full-grown adult, as was the man who relieved me. I was doing a man’s job and it made me feel very mature. I made my own money and saved everything for a motorcycle. I was a lucky boy.

My life has arranged itself in a dozen different eclectic ways and has twisted down a dozen complicated, convoluted side roads. Little has been straightforward. I have had jobs teaching, jobs in big business, jobs using my hands as a mechanic, worked for huge corporations, been unemployed, worked on farms and ranches and gone into business for myself. But the one consistent thing in my life has been riding motorcycles. It started with the first one I bought as a kid and has continued for over 50 years.

Traveling with groups of friends or a large club is enjoyable but more often than not my pleasure is found wandering without direction alone on the highway. Like my long-ago friend, I once started out for Idaho and ended up in Colorado. Leaving for one destination, running from the weather and ending up in another is one of the pleasures of traveling on a motorcycle.

Of course I have a vest saturated with road grime and completely filled with pins and patches. Being clunky, beat up and dirty and not having many washings left in it, it has been semi-retired and I don’t often wear it. But I remember the first run pin I earned and the first patch I sewed. They are on either side of the pins I was given as a kid, the one from Yellowstone and the one from a long-since-gone barbecue joint outside of Albuquerque on Route 66.

Yes, I idolize loners, mountain men and adventurers; it was that way when I was a kid and so it remains. Some of them I never met, some have passed away several lifetimes ago and some I rode with yesterday. Those men with the dirty fingernails and their eyes toward the horizon are still my heroes.

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