About 10 miles outside Tacoma, emergency sirens scream from behind and I pull to the side to let the fire truck pass. Immediately, my mind is flooded with panic responses: Is it a motorcycle? What mile marker am I at, what landmark is near and is anyone hurt? Where did I last see EMT Vicki and how far away are sweep vehicles?
Then, I remind myself that the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Run is over and I’ve returned to simply being a solo rider; I’m not part of a migratory herd of antique bikes making their way coast to coast anymore. I find myself rather blue about that. For 19 days, I’ve been part of something much bigger than myself and today is the first day of being alone. Suddenly, the sense of family is gone and there’s a huge emptiness that comes with the realization. I toe the Beast into gear, ease back onto the crowded freeway and nestle into the memories from the almost 4,000-mile ride.
Technically, my job every other year as Director of Media Relations during the MCR is to handle the public relations part of things, but it’s more than press releases and blog posts. Friend Michael Lichter calls me “Mother Hen,” and I suppose that’s right since I tend to worry incessantly. Watching the rider’s faces for signs of distress or dehydration and their tires for low pressure, I fret over their safety. I remind the sweep guys to take a breather because they work so hard at tending broken motorcycles that they often neglect to tend themselves. I hand out snacks to those too focused on their ancient iron to have remembered to eat and keep an eye on the road for parts that fall off the old motorcycles while watching the side roads for broken machines, or wounded riders. In between, I take photos, write daily posts for the website and send messages to faraway wives to let them know their husbands are healthy and happy, but tired. I help push tired old bikes to life, assist riders in lifting their machines onto the rear stands and hand tools to greasy guys intent on flogging another day’s miles out of their beloved but cantankerous motorcycles. The women riders seem to laugh less as they wrench on their rides, but they verbalize more, and I try to be an ear as they all agonize over engine failures. In the evenings, I wash my socks in the hotel sink while downloading photos and wait for the daily scores to be tallied. I make sure volunteers have the next day’s course instructions and try to remember to keep gas in my own motorcycle.
As with each of the two prior Motorcycle Cannonball Runs, I arrived at the start with no transportation. Or plans for any. The Beast was in Junction City, Kansas, the halfway point for this year’s run, since it’s too consuming to establish a routine and shoot photographs on my own wheels. Photographer Michael Lichter finds a solution by riding backwards on a Victory as his pilot Dave receives headset dispatches on jockeying lane positions for the best photos. For me, part of the adventure includes the freedom of arriving at the start with no particular commitment.
From Daytona Beach, I bummed a passenger pad and chauffeur services from three-time Cannonball volunteer Joe Sparrow and for the first seven days was grateful for his superb riding skills and work ethic. We made a great team while stalking riders in their natural environment: traversing the back roads of America on bikes built before 1937. We focused on shooting all 105 participants, though I’m not sure I was successful in that since I haven’t managed to wade through all the thousands of accumulated images.
For the second half of the run it was back to my own bike, spending the days trying to get from point A to point B in time to shoot riders in parking lots, gas stops and check stations. I laid in ditches for road shots and beat the sunrise as the adventurers lit out in the mornings. In between were calls and interviews with journalists, TV stations and radio DJs from around the world.
There were running jokes from roommates about my nightly sock washing, frustration over Internet problems and communication issues with our web guy. We all tried to shore each other up as exhaustion set in, and the pace became frenetic. Then, just as suddenly as it all started and as quickly as the new family was born, it was gone. Abruptly. Today, as I settle back into chasing the horizon alone, I notice the wind seems to be whipping through a hole in my heart. I wonder how many miles it takes to heal an empty spot left by a nomadic herd of migratory motorcyclists?