My first sexual let down came when I was ten years old. My parents and brother were out of the house, and I was alone watching television in the family room. Clicking through the channels with the dial on the face of the TV, I came across a PBS documentary on pregnancy. It was just starting, and the announcer revealed that the show would culminate with the birth of a baby. I was hooked, held in rapture at the promise of seeing vagina for the first time.
It was 1984, well before the days of internet pornography, and none of the boys I knew had gotten their hands on a nudie magazine. A few boys claimed to have seen their female cousin naked or a neighbor girl through a window, but none of them could describe the vagina clearly. One kid said it was a little container girls had between their legs to hold their things. He knew this because his older brother was always talking about his girlfriend’s “box.” Another boy from an Italian family of bakers argued it had something to do with bread because he had seen his mom pointing at her crotch and complaining about a yeast problem. I needed to see a vagina and make sense of all the stories. This show was my chance to do so and become a respected authority on the topic at Bala Cynwyd Middle School.
After an hour of boring documentary crap, the moment came. The camera showed a woman sitting up on a gurney soaked in sweat and screaming. She was surrounded by a doctor and nurses dressed in white. I got off my belly and moved towards the screen on my knees, getting close enough to make out the green, red and blue phosphor dots. The nurses moved about the woman as the doctor barked out orders. The frame cut to between the woman’s legs, and there it was – a massive bush of dark pubic hair encircling the purple crown of a baby’s head. Bloody secretion squirted from her crotch as she howled. The shriveled baby shot out of her before the scene cut to the doctor cutting the umbilical cord and handing the child to the mother. The doctor’s face filled the next frame as he pulled down his surgical mask to reveal a theatrical look of relief.
I turned off the television in shocked disgust, vowing never to touch vagina.
The memory came to me while riding east through the Central Valley of California. I had not only broken my promise to avoid vagina but impregnated one too. My wife was four months shy of giving birth to our son, Gage, and was clearly showing. We had told few people about the pregnancy earlier in case there were any complications. But now we were letting everyone close to us know, including my buddies from Los Angeles. I was on my way to Sturgis and would meet them in Utah before we were to continue on together. Until then, I had a long ride alone. Or so I thought.
Leaving the dusty flatness of the Central Valley, I began ascending the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Fields of crops gave way to rolling hills of grass dotted with cows and Live oaks. Here and there small chunks of rock jutted from the ground, a suggestion of what was to come as my motorcycle and I ascended the mountain range.
California Route 120 led to the Yosemite Valley where Big Oak Flat Road followed the north side of the Merced River. Families played along the river between boulders of granite that had fallen countless years ago and settled at the lowest point between the mountains. Cathedral Rock soon appeared. Then Sentinel Dome. Then Half Dome, its shape imprinted in my mind as the icon of outdoor life in Northern California.
Waterfalls lined the giant granite walls of the valley. Fed by the melting winter snowpack, they had seen their peak in the spring. But it was now late July, and the treacherous beauty their full flow was giving way as they slowed for the season.
I got off my motorcycle and hiked up to Bridalveil Fall. Enough water still fell that winds caught the dropping water and blew mist sideways to create a rainbow in the sun’s light. A group of Japanese tourists took pictures as a pair of Midwestern parents scolded their son for running off beyond their sight. The boy looked glum until he saw something interesting and took off running again.
Leaving the park, I stopped at the junction of Big Oak Road and Route 120 for gas. A meadow adjoined the station and after filling up I got a beer and sat on a log next to a meadow. A ranger walked up and stood next to me.
“Lovely day,” I said, waiting for her to question me about the beer.
“Sure is,” she said without looking at me. Her attention was on the meadow and not my beer.
“What’re you looking at?” I asked.
She put binoculars to her eyes and said, “There’s an adolescent bear in the meadow. We have been following him all day and want make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. The roads are close.”
I saw the small bear in the grass rummaging near a felled tree. “Are there a lot of bears in the park?” I asked.
“A good number. They tend to stay away from people, but sometimes they come too close and that’s when we have to intervene.”
We watched the bear going about its business until it meandered off. The ranger left, and I got on my bike to head east. I turned out of the gas station and came to the first bend when the same young bear we had been watching in the meadow popped out of the trees and darted in front of my bike. It was 10 feet in front of my front wheel, and I missed it only with a hard swerve. I pulled over and got off the bike then yelled “Get your ass in the woods!” as I shook my fist in the air. The bear neither changed pace nor looked at me, ignoring my tantrum like youth often ignore older folks around them. The adrenaline wore off and I realized I was laughing. Even after a near accident it was hard not to smile at his furry behind waddling into the woods.
Later that day, I came to the top of Sierras. Route 120 made its was through massive outcrops of fractured granite separated by grassy meadows filled with patches of flowers. The dry summer air carried the scent of Ponderosa pine and Juniper. The rhythmic beat of engine below me and warm sun above lulled me into a state of content.
Coming down the eastward slope of the Sierras, the sun was setting. It was time to find a place to camp. I had assumed it would be easy to find a place to pitch my tent, but I was wrong. Every camp site along route 120 was full. I even rode onto a few gravel side roads but nowhere looked promising. To make matters worse, a ranger station was just down the road. It only takes one time being woke up at 3 am and told to “move along” before a person gets weary of popping a tent anywhere.
As the sun dropped below the mountains, I returned to the first campground I had looked at in hopes of finding a place to tuck in amongst the campers. I found nothing. But just as I neared the exit, a man came jogging over and yelled over my engine.
“You need a place to stay?”
“Yes!” I said, hitting the front brake by mistake and digging the wheel into gravel.
“Come on,” he said waving me over. “We have plenty of space.”
“You’re a life saver!” I yelled over the engine.
“No problem. We even have an extra tent if you need it.” He pointed to a large blue tent adjacent a camping trailer.
“I have my own, but thanks for the offer. I thought I was gonna be sleeping on the side of the road.”
“I’ve done that before and it’s no fun.”
The man extended his hand to shake. “I’m Jason.”
“Well Kevin, drop your stuff and come get some food. We’re just about to eat dinner.”
I smiled and began pushing my bike to the space with Jason’s blue tent. The opening was by a creek where the water was going in force. Pine trees were all about, and their needles had collected in a thick mat on the ground. I doubled them up for extra cushion then set up my tent. Once my place we set, I cleaned up in the creek and got on a fresh shirt for dinner.
Jason’s camp was nearby. As I made my way there I found his very extended family – about 30 of them – occupying seven camp sites along a creek. They all congregated at his trailer around the fire pit and tables. I took a seat next to Jason as he finished speaking with a boy who appeared to be his son.
He turned to me. “You want a beer?”
“God yes.” Jason handed me a can from the cooler. “You certainly have a big family.”
“Yes indeed,” he said laughing. “It’s not all mine though. My brother and sister are here with their kids, a few cousins, some friends and hell, a few folks I’m not even sure I know. We’ve been coming here since my great uncle started the tradition thirty years ago. We always book the same line of sites along the creek.”
“Is your great uncle here?”
“No. He died five years ago.” Jason looked toward the creek then said, “You see that small redwood on the island? We planted it for him when he passed. I put his ashes under it.”
“I’d say that means he is here.”
“Yeah. I guess he is.” After a moment he continued, “Come meet the family.” Jason stood up and introduced me to his wife and kids and their friends. It was summer break, and they were happy to be out of school and in the woods. The youngest ones ran around like crazy people while the teenagers tried to act cool. Jason called the family to a line of picnic tables, and we sat down for a dinner of barbequed London broil.
After dinner, we sat around the campfire. The last vestiges of light were coming through the trees as the sun set somewhere on the other side of the Sierras. Jason went into the camper and returned with an air rifle.
“This,” he said lovingly, “was my father’s.” He checked the action and began loading the chamber. “It’s a competition pellet rifle. Basically, a high-falootin’ BB gun.” Jason handed me the rifle with care. It was fantastic. The iron sights were finely machined, and the handle was solid mahogany. “Don’t shoot your eye out,” he said smiling.
“Ha! It doesn’t look like a Red Ryder to me.” I handed the rifle back to Jason.
He looked it over with respect. “We shoot cans and paper plates when we’re here. It’s tradition.”
I had not noticed, but Jason’s sons were running about the creek decorating trees with cans and plates. They scurried back to us then Jason started showing the targets. Watching him reminded me of my grandfather’s pellet gun and how growing up I had watched him shoot squirrels on his lawn. My grandfather never shot his rifle with us kids for fun.
Jason handed me the rifle, and I shot the nearest cans and plates. It was a sighted remarkably well.
I gave the rifle back to Jason, who handed it to his oldest son. The boy and his friends shot away with glee. Few things excite a boy like an air rifle. Jason watched them and said to me, “They’re good kids.”
“You enjoy being a dad?” I asked.
“God, yes! But it sure has changed my life.”
“Before I had a family, I got into all sorts of trouble for really stupid shit. I did all the wrong things with all the wrong people and ended up in juvenile hall for stealing a car. When I had my first kid that all changed. All that stuff suddenly became pointless.”
“I’m going to be a dad in a few months,” I said. “My wife and I are expecting our first.”
“That’s great!” Jason put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Do you know what you’re having?”
“No. We’re gonna let it be a surprise.”
“Yeah. We didn’t know the sex of our first either. Ended up being my boy there.” He pointed to his oldest son, who was watching his younger brother shoot at a can across the creek.
“I never thought I’d become a father,” I said. “But one day my wife and I just changed her minds. And her we are.”
“Life has a way of doing that. I think you’re gonna make a great dad,” Jason said warmly.
“I hope so. The idea of raising a child is overwhelming.”
“You’ll be alright. Just take it one step at a time.”
We watched the kids until dark. Later that night around the fire the family told stories of camping from years past. Jason’s mother – “Grandma” to everyone there – had a bit too much to drink and told her own stories with wild gesticulations. They had clearly been heard many times before because family members would fill in parts of the story before she could finish. Several times they all began bickering about what really happened.
My eyes became heavy. It was time for bed. In my tent, I thought about my coming child and what it was going to be like to be a dad. What would it be like caring for something so helpless, so dependent? How was I going to handle it? After some time, Jason’s words from earlier that evening came to me: “One step at a time.” I thought some more, but it became less clear as the rush of the creek lulled me to sleep.
The next morning I rose with the sun. To the East lay the Mono Basin, a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The sun was just peaking over the top of the distant Cowtrack Mountains as I made my bedroll and tied it to my bike. Artifacts from the previous night were strewn everywhere: smoking embers of logs in the fire pit, soda cans peppered with pellet holes, and old-style fold-up aluminum chairs with brightly-colored plaid webbing.
I didn’t want to wake anyone but had a message to leave. There was no paper or pens to be found, so I went to the creek and collected a handful of rocks. Returning to the family campsite, I placed the rocks in from of the steps to Jason’s camper so they read:
Pushing my bike beyond earshot, I started it and continued my journey east.
Lake Mono is beautiful, but alien. A salt water lake in the middle of a desert, its edge is peppered with giant white towers of limestone that give the landscape a lunar feel. The towers formed over millennia as rain dissolved salt from surrounding rock. Runoff carried the salt into the lake, allowing it to collect to a level making the water like brine. When fresh water percolates up into the lake and mixes with the dense, salty water, massive white limestone towers form. Some of these towers are over thirty feet tall.
After I parked my bike by the south side of the lake, the smell of salt water hit me. A French couple sat at a picnic table eating cereal and smoking cigarettes. After greeting them with a bit of crappy French, I walked down to the water’s edge and stood in awe of the lake. Seagulls stood by the water edge catching tiny fish in the shallows enjoying the warmth of the rising sun. The desert was alive.
For the next three hours Route 6 ushered my way into Nevada. First came sparse pine trees on rolling hills, where the deer or ground squirrels occasionally showed their presence along the side of the road. Next came desert scrub on flat, rocky valleys between distant mountains, barren of trees. As I rode through an especially open and still stretch, I came upon a man standing next to his BMW in the middle of the road. It was an old touring model burdened with enough gear for the man to travel endlessly. He was motionless, staring at the horizon, and as I came closer I slowed to see if he was all right. The man broke his attention from whatever he was looking at and casually waved. He then went right back to looking at the horizon. I rode on.
Some time later in the hamlet of Tonopah, Nevada, I pulled into the only gas station and went inside for water. The woman behind the counter, a surly number who had clearly spent her entire life in Tonopah and had no intentions of leaving, looked at me and waited to hear what I had to say.
“How far until the next gas station?” I asked.
“Which way ya headin’?”
“Ely.” There was no need to tell her what road. There was only one.
“186 miles,” she said without pause. This was a problem. My tank held enough gas for 175 miles, so there was no chance of making it. But before I could say anything, she continued, “You look like you’re on a motorcycle? I can sell ya straps and a can.”
“I’ll take the can, but I don’t need the straps. Got my own.” There was no choice on whether to buy the gas can. The desert was hot and desolate. Being stranded in a place where few folks passed could be a death sentence.
I filled my motorcycle’s tank and the can then strapped the can to my fender. As I prepared to leave, four guys pulled into the station on motorcycles. Their bikes were covered with travel bags and bedrolls, so I asked, “Are you guys heading for Sturgis?”
“Sure are,” one of the men replied.
“Are you taking Route 6?”
“Yeah,” the same guy replied.
The men all rode bikes with similar-sized gas tanks as mine. “I just spoke to the woman inside and there’s a problem with going that way.”
We discussed the distance and decided to ride together. The four men filled their gas tanks then got something to drink. While three of the men were still inside the station, I approached the guy who seemed to be the most colorful of the crew and introduced myself.
“I’m Beretta,” he told me.
“How did you get that name?”
“An incident with the gun,” he said with a peculiar smile. I asked no more of the subject.
I didn’t know what to make of Beretta. On one hand, he seemed like the skinny guy in a country bar who laughs loud and smacks you on the back but snaps with one wrong word. On the other, he had the aloof warmth of an older brother who likes you and doesn’t want his friends to know. After talking a bit more as we waited for the other men, I decided I liked Beretta. Or at least I liked having him on my side.
Along the way to Ely, we stopped under a patch of trees by a house with a large shed. Nobody could be seen, but an air compressor rattled on from within the shed.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked the group.
“Sothern California,” one of the men said. “We came up 395 through Kings Canyon. None of us like highways. These smaller roads are more fun and you get to see stuff like this.” The man pointed to a lush field of crops behind the house that was surrounded by an expanse of brown dryness. A shack made of river rock stood across the street from the house. It looked long abandoned with no door and waxy shrubs growing from between the cracks in the rock.
“Do you want a drink?” Beretta asked me as he opened his saddlebag to reveal cans and bottles on ice.
“Please,” I said. He offered me a 24-ounce Budweiser and Clamato, but I declined for the bottle of water that lay next to it. He cracked the clam-beer for himself. “Do you guys go to Sturgis every year?”
One of the men took a drink and replied, “Nah. We haven’t gone in ten years.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Life,” Beretta said shrugging. “Things get complicated and before you know it a decade has passed.”
“Then you must be excited to get back,” I said.
“Not really,” Beretta said. “It’s just an excuse for us to get together and ride. We could be going anywhere. We just so happened to choose Sturgis.” He finished his beer and after crushing the can to save space, replaced it in the saddlebag filled with ice.
The five of us made Ely without using our gas reserves. It turned out the distance was 168 miles, not 186. Whether the woman in Tonopah simply made an error by transposing the 6 and 8 or she had a comfortable scheme of selling gas tanks and straps to passing motorcyclists was not clear. Either way, it didn’t matter because it resulted in me meeting Beretta and his crew.
While gassing up in Ely, I bequeathed the gas can to a fellow driving a crappy, old pickup truck. He was elated, giving me a smile that revealed two missing teeth.
After lunch together Beretta’s crew and I shared the road for a bit more before parting ways. They stopped for the night just out of town to camp. Still having a long way to go to Utah, I continued riding.
The mountains steadily grew to haunting monoliths as I entered the Great Basin National Park. They were nearly void of vegetation, showing the strata of their sedimentary rock that had been deposited millions of years ago at the bottom of the sea.
At sunset I arrived in Delta, Utah. I was too tired to set up my tent and got a hotel and after filling myself with dinner fell into bed, sleeping the sleep that comes after riding many hundred miles in the desert.
The next morning I woke leisurely. I wasn’t meeting my friends until two in the afternoon, so I walked to a diner and had breakfast with locals who spoke about cattle and the alfalfa crops. An old timer pointed me toward the local hardware store where I could pick up a handful of things I needed. He offered to take me to his farm for the supplies, but I politely declined. I could pay my own way. Full of hotcakes and hardware, I returned to the hotel to load my bike and head east to meet my friends.
Route 50 took me Highway 15, and after 10 miles I exited to the town of Fillmore where we had agreed to meet. After filling my tank and grabbing a soda, I took a seat on the curb in front of the station. A couple pulled up on a loaded Harley bagger and after filling their tank sat down with me. They were from San Diego and were on their way to Sturgis. They shared their beef jerky with me as we spoke about this and that.
By the time they were gearing up to leave, my cell phone rang. It was Gilby. “Where are you at?”
“I’m sitting at the Fillmore exit. I’ve been here over an hour and you guys are late! Where the hell are you?”
“At the Fillmore exit!”
“What?” I asked looking around. There were no other motorcycles or gas stations to be seen. “No you’re not. There’s nothing here but me!”
“Well we’re here. We’re at the diner.”
“Diner? There’s no diner here. Are you sure you’re in Utah?”
“Hold on.” I went inside and grabbed a map. The town was small enough to see across, yet Fillmore had two exits from highway 15. “I got it. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
When I got off the other exit to Fillmore, I saw a line of motorcycles in front of a greasy spoon. It knew it was Gilby and the gang, not because they were the only motorcycles in sight but because of Gilby’s unquenchable thirst for crappy diner food. The greasier the better. If you left feeling like someone deposited a brick in your stomach, it was a good meal by his standards.
I saw several of our crew working on their bikes as I pulled into the diner parking lot. EJ and Taime were tinkering on something less serious while Gilby’s brother Dean was deep in the primary of his Shovelhead, a bike that broke a different part on every ride we took. We said our hellos and gave hugs before I made my way inside where the rest of the crew was finishing lunch.
Two booths were packed with motorcycle riders contently with full bellies. Gilby was still working on his bacon when he looked up and saw me.
“You found us!” He got up and gave me a hug.
“Whoever thought Fillmore has two exits,” I said shaking my head.
I released Gilby from the hug but kept my hand on his shoulder. Looking at my friends, I thought of the journey from San Francisco. About meeting the ranger. And Jason and his family. And the French couple. And Beretta’s crew. And then I thought of my coming child.
“I have something to tell you all…”