It’s early and the sun has just begun its task of warming up the day. I’ve been cold for last 50 miles but I remind myself that triple digit temps are just around the bend, so I talk myself into appreciating the coolness as I pulled off at a small family-owned gas station. I’m sipping at a bottle of strawberry milk while scraping bugs off the Beast when I notice a guy staring me down. I nod and continue with my tasks as he starts to walk off, then turns back to stand next to me. He’s tall, nice-looking in his late 60s, I’d guess. Dressed neat and tidy in jean shorts, a Ralph Lauren shirt and black socks emblazoned with the Harley Bar & Shield. He’s holding a cup of Starbucks.
“Nice lookin’ bike. How long will your trip be?” he asks as he looks at the Beast’s license plate. I mention Sturgis and he nods in silence with a wistful look on his face as I tell him about my job with THUNDER PRESS. A huge smile lights up his face as he tells about the beautiful custom paint job on the Ultra he bought after trading in the bad ass FXR he used to ride, back before he married the second wife. Apparently the wife really hated the FXR. He shrugs when he says that even though she said she liked bikes in the beginning, she never really enjoyed road trips and the super shiny Ultra mostly sits in the garage collecting dust. “If I’d known she didn’t like riding at all, I’d never have traded in ‘ol Blu. She was a great bike. And fast? Oh my God, that bike was a screamer!” He gets almost giddy as he gushes over the time he took ‘ol Blu out to the drags and burned up the track. He talks about the bike as if she’s the love that got away.
“I used to be a long distance rider. Card-carrying Iron Butt rider and everything. Man, I used to have fun.” Again I notice the shadow in his expression. He shakes his head as if not comprehending the memories tumbling through his mind. “That was then, a long time ago.” We chat about favorite rides, the Motorcycle Cannonball, and a few other riding-themed topics when he shares another past experience. “Have you ever heard of the Three Flags run? I used to do it every year. A bunch of my buddies would all get together and go from Canada, across the U.S. and into Mexico. It was fantastic… really great times back then.” He mentions again that it’s all stuff he used to do, back then, before he was married and he sounds sad as he explains that “all that stuff is over now,” so I finally ask him why he’s stopped riding. He gets a “deer in the headlights” kind of expression.
“Oh, well, things are different now, you know, life changes.” He looks skyward and clears his throat, then toes at the ground with his high-top tennies. “I still travel but it’s all about the fifth-wheel life now, you know, with the wife. We do everything together now that we’re retired. We just got back from a trip to the East Coast, up into Maine, visiting family. Stuff like that.” He shrugs and takes a deep breath. “It’s been good,” he adds, rocking on his feet, as if trying to convince himself that he’s not lying. “It’s just easier,” he laments in a half-hearted, faint voice.
“I envy you,” he says suddenly as he steps closer. He waves his coffee cup over the bike as if it’s a magic wand. “If I could have your life, I’d be a truly contented man. That’s a fact, young lady. There was a time when I could have just stayed out on the road and you know what? I should have. I should have just kept right on riding, but nooooo… everybody said I needed to settle down. Riding is what ended my first marriage and I thought maybe my family was right. Maybe I did need to be still for awhile. And I tried, but it was too late. I couldn’t fix it. I’m trying harder this time. I think I’m a better husband. But wow, the sacrifices you make, you know?” He laughs then looks me dead in the eye. “You don’t do that though, do you? Compromise? I’m guessing you’re not married so you don’t really have to give up anything, do you?” I tell him I believe relationships take constant tending, and work. The key is finding someone worth compromising with. He salutes me with his coffee. “Yeah, at least she didn’t make me sell it. I still have the Ultra. And the memories.”