Folks can spot somebody “cool”. Not counterfeits, like the cocky jock masking insecurity or the greasy hipster generating image. But a person who is entirely themselves, true to their nature in every manner. One who makes their own code and lives by it unapologetically. Maybe that person is the misunderstood actor who smokes aloofly, drives cars fast, and dies young. Or maybe it is someone closer to home, like the stoic girl tending the neighborhood bar. Either way, they stand out. They are often emulated. And they are rare.
But then there is the very rarest of cool. A type of person few of us ever get to see: one who lives by their own mantra, but still includes and cares for those around them. They exercise virtues that transcend simple cool. Traits like honor, integrity, or the one I witnessed, forgiveness.
Riding east through the Sierra Mountains, Taime Downe was beside me. Every item on him was black. Black vest. Black jeans. Black boots. Black hair. Black helmet. Even his Harley was flat black. Yet somehow the absence of color was not redundant or overwhelming. His confidence took the darkness and made it part of his very being, like an obsidian aura of cool. As we barreled down the road, he smiled and bobbed on his motorcycle to music playing only in his head.
I can not help but admire Taime. He plays in the rock band Faster Pussycat, a name that hints with sledgehammer subtlety at years of debauchery. And judging by the stories told over beer, the name is no misnomer. But my admiration is based on something much greater. Taime is rock and roll. He does not just play music, he lives it: the physical embodiment of the sounds that emancipated teens in the ‘50s with repackaged blues, gave hippies free love in the ‘60s, and convinced bands in the ‘80s that permed hair was tough. A powerful and resounding soundtrack orchestrates his life, which is why he can ride for hours hearing music without headphones.
Our road wound through a sea of rock and pine. Massive outcroppings of white Sierra granite flecked with black mica jutted from steep mountains. Gaping fissures and weathered edges decorated the rock, giving proof that even boulders succumb to Mother Nature. Giant conifers occupied every bit of dirt between the rock monoliths. Clusters of Ponderosa pines towered into the clear blue sky, each fighting for the honor of tallest. Juniper trees with gnarled bark and thick limbs reverberated the sound of our engines from their trunks that bulged like columns of the Parthenon. It was a beautiful and unforgiving land once feared by pioneers heading west without the benefit of our paved road.
We came across a cabin on the side of the road. It was a convenience store with a single gas pump and a covered porch with rocking chairs. Taime pulled in and parked his bike next to a picnic table near a teepee and covered wagon with a not so fresh coat of paint. Without taking off his helmet, he lit an American Spirit and stood by the door of the teepee quietly reflecting on the world around him
Smoking suits Taime, and though the habit is bad for him, I just can not picture him without a cigarette. He once quit smoking and it was downright unnatural, like Pete Townsend play the guitar without smashing it, or Mick Jagger singing through tiny lips. So I never pressured him to quit like I did my poor uncle.
When I was a kid, my Uncle Greg smoked like a chimney. The Vietnam War had left him overstressed and slightly unbalanced. He often skipped town to escape life, and one time he took his two sons, my brother, and me on a retreat to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The moment we got there he disappeared. Left unsupervised, us kids regressed to upright animals: sinking canoes, urinating on toads, burning anything flammable, and making spears with the bowie knives my uncle bought for us on the way there. The trip has since been branded, “Mountain Mania.” During the drive to the cabin, the five of us were packed in my uncle’s tiny Datsun 280ZX sports car as he chain-smoked. We harassed him to stop, but he simply told us to shut up with the blunt force used by adults in those days to quiet children. In a sudden fit of insanity, I grabbed his carton of cigarettes and threw it out the open sunroof. The kids turned in time to watch his carton hit the road and explode, sending a plume of cigarettes into oncoming traffic. Slowly, we turned back to see my uncle gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. He quivered, looking straight ahead with an eye twitching. He finally let out a deep breath and said maybe now was a good time to quit.
“Thanks for coming on the ride with me, Taime,” I said.
“No problem. I wanted some time to hang with you,” he replied warmly with the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“You’re such a teddy bear.”
“You mean cat,” he corrected me.
“No, a teddy bear.”
“I am a cat,” he said deadpan with a Mona Lisa smile.
“Fine. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
“That’s OK. You’re my bud,” he said finishing his cigarette.
We got back on our motorcycles and continued east. In time, we reached the eastern slope of the Sierras and were presented with an endless panorama of the Nevada desert. As we descended the mountain, trees shrunk in number and size until they vanished entirely at the edge of the valley floor. There, all green disappeared, lost to a vast desert stretching five hundred miles to the Rockies.
We had ridden hard and it was time to stop. In the town of Fernley we had dinner, then found a motel. It was a mom-and-pop place and after checking in we sat in the lobby talking with the owner. She smiled and told us about her family and the town. But the conversation kept returning to the new über-hotel destroying her business. Her lament was not new. It was a story heard in countless towns across the country.
Motels are a dying piece of American History. They once dotted roadways from the Atlantic to Pacific, being as integral to travel as stainless-steel diners and families packed in station wagons. Folks could pull their car or motorcycle right up to the door, unload their belongings, and then sit on the veranda to enjoy the breeze. Doors were often left open so fellow travelers could meet and share experiences. But now hotel chains with shiny elevators that cart guests from sheik foyers to isolated rooms are slowly replacing roadside motels. Folks no longer want to talk and share tales, they rather quarantine themselves to pay-per-view and internet social media. With the isolation comes detachment, and with detachment comes loss of community.
The next morning we woke to hunger. Long miles from the previous day had sapped our energy, and now our bodies needed refueling for the long journey ahead across spartan desert terrain. Taime pulled out his iPhone, diddled with it for a bit, then said he had the place. We packed the bikes and set off.
A mile later, we arrived. We were ready. We were starving. We were men on the edge of a desert who needed sustenance. Shutting off our machines, we sauntered in and looked the man in the eyes until he spoke.
“Welcome to Starbucks. How may I help you?”
“I’ll take a Venti caramel macchiato, extra foam,” Taime proudly announced.
“And I’ll have a vanilla latte with an extra shot of espresso,” I added.
Taime turned to me and revealed, “I grew up in Seattle. I’ve drunk Starbucks my whole life. It’s my favorite.”
“I never expected a rock star to drink a caramel-flavored coffee drink.”
“That’s funny. Cause I expected a scientist to drink a whipped vanilla one.”
With frilly drinks and baked goods in hand, we went outside. Two men and a woman sat on the patio in metal furniture talking over coffee. All three had ridden there. One had a BMW touring bike, another an old Harley, and the last a Honda cruiser.
“Mind if we sit with you?” I asked.
“Not at all. Grab a seat,” one guy replied.
“We’re just talkin’ local politics,” added the other guy wearing a biker vest.
Etiquette dictates avoiding three topics in conversation: sex, religion, and politics. Each can lead to uncomfortable situations or arguments, so intelligent folks typically avoid such subjects, differing to benign matters like the weather. But being hard headed, I ignored such advice and dove right in.
“What’s the issue?”
“Politicians are morons. Especially the guy who’s now running the show out here. He wants to cut water flow to the local farms and raise taxes. And what’s worse, the guy’s from here. He grew up in town!”
“Then shouldn’t he support what you guys want?” I asked.
“You’d think. But he’s turned on us. Took sides with the damn liberals from over there,” he said pointing at the Sierras.
The mountains are not just a geographical divider, but a sociopolitical one too. Nevada is a conservative state while most of California is liberal, and coming down the hill we had transitioned from firmly blue to firmly red politics.
“You boys live over there, you know the type of crunchy kooks I’m talkin’ about,” he said pointing at our license plates.
The guy was smiling and probably meant no harm, but anger swelled in me at being labeled with pejorative slang. I was ready for a fight when Taime, reading my face before anyone else, stepped in.
“Those bastards!” he said seriously.
“Damn right!” one guy returned.
Smacking his hand on the table, Taime continued, “I’d be pissed too. You guys need to give this guy a piece of your mind.”
“Yeah!” the other guy and lady agreed.
“Then you need to go after them,” Taime said pointing at the Sierras. “This isn’t even their state!”
And there it was. Taime had taken control of the conversation with confidence. He sided with them, offering the support they clearly wanted and in many ways needed after an outsider infiltrated their community. Their political tendencies did not matter, only that they needed an ally. And for the next twenty minutes, Taime spoke with them like old friends, smoking cigarettes and bashing politicians, red and blue alike.
“Come on. It’s time we hit the road,” Taime said tamping out his last cigarette.
We spent the next day making our way across Nevada on Route 50. The two-lane road led us through small towns and outposts, each a tiny oasis in the brutal desert heat. At the Utah border we met friends and continued east, spending a week riding through the country with little more to do than live and move forward.
Near the end of our trip we came to a lake. I had been there before and always made a point to visit when in the area. Our road passed over a mile-long levee with several places to park and enjoy the magnificent view. Taime, who had not been there before, was leading the pack, and as we neared the first pullout on our left he seemed confused whether to stop. It was not the best overlook, and in a fit of excitement I crossed the double-yellow line and passed the group on the left with the intent to lead everyone to the right spot. It was a stupid maneuver. Had he decided to turn left, we would have collided. I could have killed us both.
Realizing my thoughtlessness, I pulled into the next overlook and quickly got off my bike. Taime stopped several parking spots away, took off his helmet, and catching my gaze showed more anger than I had ever seen from him.
“That was dangerous as hell,” he fired at me. “Don’t ever do that again.”
My collar tightened and heat built in my chest. But I said nothing, frozen in disgust with myself.
Taime walked to the overlook and lit a cigarette. He stood quietly taking in the grand lake. I moved next to him and watched him, without trying to look like I was watching him. He showed no acknowledgement of my presence until I spoke.
“I’m sorry, Taime.”
He took a drag and exhaled. Without turning, he put his arm around my back, pulled me close, and said, “It’s alright. We’re still buds.”
After some silence, I looked at the lake and said, “And you’re still a cat. A big, snuggly pussycat.”