By Carmen Gentile A
buddy of mine was going through a tough divorce when I suggested he visit me in Miami. “Come down and we’ll ride to The Keys,” I told Matt, an invitation that elicited an immediate and enthused “I’m there!” Two weeks later we were gawking at the rental bike he booked: a 1200cc Harley Road King with a shiny black finish and so much chrome it was painful to look at in the South Florida sun.
Matt straddled the bike, his slight build barely registering on the behemoth’s shocks, and fired it up. The engine emitted an ear-rattling and potent roar that drowned out the precision puttering of my BMW Dakar. “Listen to that!” he said. His face beamed like it did a decade earlier when we were young, carefree college students and real life had yet to kick either one of us in the urethra.
We pulled onto the highway and headed south toward The Keys riding in tandem until Matt could not longer resist ripping back the throttle and exploring the beast’s full potential. I tried in vain to keep the pace, but my 650cc BMW Dakar was no match for the monstrous Harley. I hung in there just long enough to glimpse Matt prone on the bike as if he were trying to shatter the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. After that, he was a speck on the horizon racing toward paradise. Once he eased up, Matt and I rode in tandem, taking in a tableau of island retreats and an armada of pleasure boats sailing toward the horizon, perhaps each on a quest for adventure and relaxation similar to our own.
The further we rode, the more like his old self Matt seemed. When we stopped for lunch, I noticed that the weary look he wore when he arrived had already vanished. He seemed unencumbered by the troubles he’d endured back home and fully focused on the pleasure of the now. Matt’s enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that any sourness I was carrying was also quickly forgotten. By the time we rolled into Key West we were laughing like schoolchildren and ready to take in everything that the legendary southernmost American retreat had to offer.
We spent the next few days riding around The Keys, relaxing on the beach and exploring Key West nightspots, reveling in the laid-back vibe enjoyed by bikers from all over who flock to the islands. Our last evening in Key West, Matt had me doubled over in stitches when he noted that the older female clientele at the world-famous Hemingway hangout Sloppy Joe’s were particularly interested in him. “This place is like a cougar zoo!”
His spirits raised, we headed back to Miami the following afternoon, riding that long stretch of U.S. 1 bathed in the pinkish-orange hue of a setting tropical sun. we took our time, cruising from one island to the next at a leisurely pace. But just as the sun set, my bike conked out in the Middle Keys. Matt and I fumbled in the dark to remove the tank panels and diagnose the problem by the light of our cell phones. Fortunately another rider pulled over to lend a hand. To my embarrassment, he discovered that I had done a half-assed job of installing my new battery; one of the contacts had shaken loose from the terminal. While reseating the battery and tightening the contacts, Matt elbowed me to check out the logo emblazoned on his t-shirt:
You never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office
We both knew from personal experience this was not entirely true, though remarked how this assertion was the ideal coda to his curative ride. The resonance of that Keys run and our savior’s t-shirt remained with me long after Matt and I returned to Miami. I called on those memories years later when my ex-fiancee gave back the engagement I’d put on her finger the previous year. It was mid-winter in Washington, DC. A wet blanket of snow covered the streets, not exactly ideal riding weather. However I decided I couldn’t spend another day there – I needed to put at much distance between us as quickly as possible. So with my reclaimed ring in my pocket, I headed over to the friend’s house where my bike had been parked for several months while I had been reporting in Afghanistan and recovering from the serious injury I’d sustained there that for months left me blind in one eye and threatened to end my riding days for good. When I arrived, I yanked the tarp off my Dakar and snow filled the air, unsure whether I was be able to ride it with only one good eye.
Hello, my darling. I’ve missed you.
I threw my leg over the saddle, pulled the bike upright and drew in the kickstand.The tire pressure felt low, but I reasoned softer tread would grip better on the dusting of snow covering the side streets on the way to the highway. That is, if my bike was going to start at all. It had been left out in the cold for five months and had only been started a couple of times. I inserted the key and turned it. The lights on the dash flickered. Then I closed my eyes and pressed the ignition button. For a second, nothing. The bike was quiet and my heart dropped. I tried again and the biked emitted a feeble wheeze.
Err, err, err!
I tried again.
Errr, errr, errr errr!
“Come on! I need to get out of here!” I pleaded aloud while rocking it back and forth, hoping that sloshing around of the bike’s fluids would be enough to awake it from its deep, sickly winter slumber. “Come on! Come on!” I panicked at the prospect of not being able to get away.
Errrr, errrr, errrr, errrr . . .
My bike gasped and choked while attempting to shake off all that inertia.
Errrrrr, errrrrr, errrrrr, errrrrr . . . pada, pada, pada pada . . . vroooooommmmm!
My bike caught the beat like a cardiac patient brought back from the dead with a jolt to the chest. I gave my Dakar a little time to warm up and settle into a reasonable rhythm, then eased it onto the icy street. I was so goddamn delighted it started that I’d momentarily forgotten where I was going. Then I remembered: I was heading south, back to Miami and the sun-drenched highways and warm salt-infused air that had proven so reliable a remedy for my buddy’s broken heart, hoping it would do the same for me.
I rode hundreds of miles through pelting rain in the Carolinas and Georgia, squinting through the showers and rubbing condensation off of my visor. Despite the ardor, my travels indeed proved therapeutic. The further I went, the more my Dakar strained to reached my need for quickness in my escape, the better I felt. The roar of the wind threw my open visor was washing away my grief and rejection. By the time I reached the lights sands and blue waters in Miami my malaise had lightened, as had my load – I’d sold the returned engagement ring at a pawn shop in Tampa.
The healing power of miles in the saddle once again resuscitated the formerly woeful.
[Carmen Gentile is a Vintagent Contributor
, and wrote the Notorious Mosul Moto Caper
. He’s also the author of the recently published book on his experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, Blindsided by the Taliban]