Even though I don’t drive (yet, at least), and even if I could I certainly wouldn’t drive motorcycles, I’ve always had a fascination with two wheels. Since my earliest childhood, I’ve loved Harley-Davidson motorcycles in particular, and part of me will always thrill to hear the throaty roar of a loud engine, even if the idea of actually riding a hog is too terrifying to countenance. I can’t explain why I love motorbikes so much; they’re beautiful machines, of course, but it’s more than just that, I think. They symbolise freedom and nonconformity and a certain ‘chasing the horizon’ way of life, which has always appealed to my soul, even if my innate carefulness (and constant lack of money!) quails in the face of it.
It could also be tied up with my devotion to classic rock and roll, too. There’s always that aspect.
Part of this fondness for motorcycles encompasses a love of the classic American road trip of ‘Route 66’. As long as I can remember, I’ve known about Route 66, and it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to travel the length of it. When I close my eyes I can see the straight road, bounded by flat countryside to left and right, and the rolling mountains on the horizon; I can step inside the diners and gas stations that dot the route. Of course, I’ve never set foot in the United States, so all of this is purely imaginary – and, I’m sure, largely idealised. It’s no wonder America seems like the land of dreams to people like me, when I’m basing my knowledge of it entirely on movies and music and long-held ambitions.
Then, last night, while flicking idly from channel to channel on the TV, I came across a documentary about travelling Route 66 on a motorcycle. I’d missed the very beginning, but I was immediately drawn in. I watched as the adventurer racked up mile after mile on this, my favourite road in the world, and so much of it was exactly like how I’d imagined. Wide, flat, open sky, totally straight road with nothing in your way, the only sound that of your own engine. It looked like pure heaven. The subject of the documentary met interesting and eccentric people in every little town he stopped in, people who were warm and welcoming and wanted him to feel at home, but he also saw at first hand the decline of some of these small towns, and the reality of what Route 66 has become.
Route 66 was (I learned last night) originally designed and built to connect up the small towns and cities it passed through. It was supposed to be an artery, bringing together the city of Chicago and the west coast of America, and was a lifeline to those emigrating West during the Great Depression and after. However, in recent years an Interstate has been built not far from Route 66, and it has taken away a lot of the traffic that would once have used it. This means that some of the small towns on Route 66 are dying, and the road itself has been left to fall into disrepair in several spots.
I hadn’t realised this, and I found it so upsetting. It’s one of these things you can’t explain, and one of those moments when you’re broadsided by emotion that comes from a very deep place. It was hard to watch the show’s host, a skilled motorcyclist with years of experience, struggle to control his vehicle on the dreadfully pockmarked road as it wound its way through Oklahoma City, and to watch his sadness as he passed through small towns which would once have been vibrant and bustling and which are now shells of their former selves – with the busy Interstate roaring with traffic a couple of miles away. It made me think about dreams, and how different they can look up close, and how working your way towards something you’ve always dreamed of might seem like the hard slog – but it’s not. It’s actually staying on the road once your dream begins to take shape that’s the challenge. It’s only when you’re on the road that the potholes and the re-routes and the detours and the dead ends start to appear. Getting on your motorcycle, starting the engine, looking at your map, and beginning to drive are all necessary parts of following the dream, but when the road begins to crack beneath your wheels, it takes grit not to turn back.
In the end, I’m sure the journey was worth it for the motorcyclist; I’m sure my own personal journey will be worth it for me, too, but I reserve the right to grin ruefully at how, sometimes, you think you’ve finally understood something only for the road to twist beneath you and send you off on another journey completely. It doesn’t mean taking the trip wasn’t a good idea – it just means you may not end up where you thought you wanted to go. All I know is, I’m not going to turn back now, wherever my road is going to lead me.
(And yes, in case you’re curious, I do still want to travel Route 66, even if it’s crumbled into dust by the time I get there. Some dreams will never die!)