“Why must I do these things?” I ask my best friend. On the phone Ubering to the Minneapolis airport, I tell Gwen I’m nervous to ride a motorcycle in Southern California, mostly solo, for the next four days. Thanksgiving is in two days.
I’m a cautious “newer” rider. I bought my 2016 Heritage Softail Classic 18 months ago and have logged 13,000 miles, many of them solo. It’s not the riding part I’m nervous about.
Alone is not the problem either. I love alone. I have strong loner tendencies.
As for Thanksgiving, I don’t love it—too much tan-colored food. Football is okay, but for 10 minutes or less. And I’d rather scrub toilets than go shopping on Black Friday. Alone + no Thanksgiving = good.
What’s to fear?
Loneliness. Alone and loneliness are two different things. Alone tends to invite loneliness, and, for the first time in my life, I find myself afraid of the feeling of loneliness. I fear loneliness will consume me. That it will eat me alive.
“Why do I travel alone so much?” I ask Gwen. “Why couldn’t I just stay put in my soft chair this morning, under the warm blanket drinking coffee?”
“Because you are strong and brave and you want to live big,” she says.
I don’t feel that way. I feel weak and scared and am thinking a much smaller life in my chair with a blanket and coffee would be quite nice.
Loneliness has been my companion since I was five. There was no specific trauma that brought about loneliness, just the typical, dysfunctional family stuff. I’ve done my best to escape loneliness with less-than-healthy behaviors over the years. Now in my 40s, I’ve ditched most things that undermine my well being and am more comfortable with discomfort. Until lately.
Recent heartbreak brought loneliness back, bigger and more persistent than ever. I find clever ways to avoid it with obsessive vacuuming or garage sweeping. But it returns, looks me in the eyes, and gives me a knowing smile: “Hi Stace. I’m back.”
They say if something keeps appearing in your life, it will keep doing so until you have learned the lesson it is trying to teach you. I’m ready to learn what loneliness has to offer. It must have one redeeming quality. So loneliness comes with me to California. We will ride together.
Day One: Not knowing, despair, and sleep
When I land in Orange County, it’s warm and sunny, just as Southern California should be. I peel off the 15 layers of clothes I arrived in, get my loaner 2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic Softail, and hit the road.
I ride east on Highway 74 toward Hemet, just outside Mount San Jacinto State Park, near the start point of the next day’s ride. I don’t know what motels, if any, are in Hemet, and I don’t research it. I like not knowing.
It’s well past dark when I roll into Hemet, so I’m relieved to find a room. But my relief is short-lived when I step into a skanky-beyond-measure room. To further my despair, the couple next door is fighting and she’s wailing and screaming and my deadbolt doesn’t work. I go drink tequila at the nearby Mexican restaurant, call my three kids, return to my room, push the orange chair against the door, and stare at the grungy ceiling. I sleep like a baby in Hemet.
Day Two: Big picture, oasis baby, and cleaning up
San Jacinto State Park starts the day and Joshua Tree National Park ends it. Highway 74 into the San Jacinto Mountains is simply gorgeous, with pine trees covering every slope and ridge. It’s warm and quiet. I’m warm and quiet.
From Mountain Center, a quaint mini-town with gas, general store, and café, I ride Pines to Palms Highway and stop at the turnout just before the final descent to Palm Springs. I have wide views of the city and see every bend of the long, snaking road that leads there. It’s the big picture.
I’m usually a big-picture thinker, but in hard moments I lose the ability to know, let alone see, there’s a bigger picture that includes an oasis.
One year after our first child is born, we are ready for number two. Four miscarriages, five surgeries, 10 million tears, and three and a half years later, Claire is born. She looks like the Gerber baby, rarely cries, and is happiest when she has a fresh poop in her diaper, which I love. Dirty diaper? No problem. I’ll get to it in a few hours.
No way can I see the bigger picture during this time and understand something important is happening. I’m breaking and being rebuilt into a stronger version of me. And Claire is the oasis.
Loneliness is with me as my body lets go of babies not meant to be. Like a fog, loneliness rolls in after loss and fills empty space. It does not make me feel full. It makes me long. Loneliness is longing.
On my bike in a line of cars waiting to enter Joshua Tree National Park, I watch people leaving. Sometimes I create stories romanticizing people’s lives—so I can compare myself to them because we all know how productive it is to compare ourselves to others. I see perfect parents in their perfect 4Runner with two perfect kids, returning to their perfect house where the kids will perfectly behave, and the couple will make perfect passionate love.
I ride Park Boulevard for a bit and then pull off. I want to be close to the Joshua trees, so I walk ahead to a long expanse of them. They look like they were planted in rows. I recall how my (now ex) husband and I were the perfect couple with our perfect law firm jobs and perfect house, kids, clothes, vacations…
I actually don’t even know what perfect is, but I know this: Perfect doesn’t happen on the outside, and it never happens in things. It happens on the inside, and always in our heart. It happens in little ways that feel especially big.
Perfect happens when I ride, in how I feel when I ride. When I catch an earth smell or ride through a pocket of warm air. When someone sees I’m a chick on a hot bike, like the Heritage Classic I'm thoroughly enjoying, and gives me a thumbs-up. Of course there’s plenty that’s hard—gear snafus, scorching temps, dropping the bike, dehydration—but riding consistently provides me with perfect.
Standing next to these Joshua trees, my bike waiting for me on the road, loneliness is consuming me. It is eating me alive. I let it. I feel awful, but I’m not afraid. It’s cleaning me up. Clearing me out. Loneliness is preparing me for what’s next. I go back to my bike.
Day Three: Thanksgiving sunrise, dead fish, and hot dogs
Thanksgiving morning, on my knees, I thank God for everything. Even loneliness, who is still hanging around because it’s Thanksgiving and I miss my three children and what kind of a horrible mother am I for not being with them. I return to Joshua Tree at 6 a.m.
Joshua Tree at sunrise is bucket-list material. I roll in as the sun crests—everything is a silhouette. It’s holy here. I make a decision: In spite of Thanksgiving, I will love this day.
It’s about one hour through the park, and the topography changes from iconic Joshua trees, to cholla cacti, to tall and rounded boulders. Every mile is new.
Out of the park I ride south on Box Canyon Road, easy curves through dry, desolate, and scenic rock formations. Arriving in Mecca, an agricultural community on the north shore of the Salton Sea, I ride through a wall of humidity and sweet fragrance. I continue south on Highway 111 to Bombay Beach, where high salinity in Salton Sea has poisoned much of what used to live here. The town of Bombay Beach is run-down. Dead fish and birds and rusted docks litter the beach. Here you can hold death in your hand.
I’m glad to meet my friend Jay in Bombay Beach and we stop at the Ski Inn, a watering hole—an institution, really—beloved by locals and tourists. We ride to Brawley, where I spend the evening with his family. My Thanksgiving feast: a hot dog and margarita. The house teems with children who ask where I came from. Jay tells them he found me on the railroad tracks looking for toads. Not that far from the truth.
I call my kids. My nine-year-old son says he’s playing a game with animal figurines that involves mass death and destruction. Sounds grim, I say. Yes, he says, but it’s okay because everyone comes back to life. His little-boy voice makes my eyes sting. In my strong voice I say goodbye, hang up the phone, cry—and vow to never to be away from my children ever again. No more travel. I’m done.
After a few minutes of swearing to a new, no-travel lifestyle, I go admire my bike. Tomorrow I ride with Jay and his family. I can’t wait to hit the road.
Day 4: Into the sunset
When I ride alone, I feel like just simple, little ol’ me. But when I ride with a group—a gang as we were—I feel so much cooler.
We travel many miles of Imperial Valley’s seedling fields, showcasing the massive scale of Southern California food production. We stop by Desert View Tower, off I-8 near Ocotillo, and check out the store’s desert hippie treasures. We roll on to Old Highway 80, another easy curving, beautiful ride, which brings us to Sunrise Highway and heart-bursting views of mountains and desert. We land in Julian, a little mountain town and with lots of shopping and apple pie.
I dive deep into my psyche while riding solo. I hear people say their minds clear when they ride. For me, however, it’s usually the opposite. I think and feel a lot because I have the space to do so on my bike. Today, however, not-solo brings on a new level of discovery and feeling of being connected to something much bigger than just me. It’s like my space multiplied by 10 for these friends, mountains, deserts, and little moments that feel so big. I feel big.
It’s time for me to say good-bye and finish my journey back to Orange County. I go west on Highway 78. Cows are grazing. The sun is setting.
Loneliness and I, we ride off into the sunset. I chuckle at how ridiculous and perfect and sad and lonely and grateful I feel. This loneliness character, it’s here to stay. And that’s the point. To keep my heart longing, and clear the way so I can receive it.
My motorcycle—it’s my safe place. It provides sanctuary when I am afraid, when I need space, and when I need to create my own perfect. Whether I share it with others or keep it to myself, it carries me to all the places I want—and need—to go.