I was 4 years old. My mother, then 3 months pregnant with my sister and still feeling queasy, had decided to take me and my older brother shopping for clothes - brave woman. When we finally arrived I stood outside the doors of the biggest store I had ever seen. I just knew that inside there was going to be so many new things to see and so many new places to explore. I was not disappointed. There were pathways everywhere. Trails through clothing lead in different directions, each one beckoning me to follow, to find where it led. Suddenly, I stopped short as it appeared before me - the escalator. I had never seen an escalator before and I was mesmerized. Stunned, I watched as those magical moving stairs disappeared into the ceiling. “I wonder where they go,” I thought to myself. I just knew I had to escape from Mom and find out.
So, the moment Mom was distracted with my older brother, I seized the opportunity and darted over to the base of the stairs, climbed aboard, and disappeared into the second floor of the JC Penny’s department store.
Flash forward some 40 years. I am riding on a big metric cruiser belonging to my longtime buddy, Paul. We are heading up into the north Georgia hills. A road catches my eye off to the right. I gave the turn signals a quick flash as a courtesy to Paul, and turned the big cruiser to the right taking us higher and deeper into the hills. “I wonder where this road leads,” I thought to myself. Whoa! Déjà vu.
As we continued the ride and slowly got ourselves good and lost, I realized that this is what I love most about riding. Giving in to impulse, taking a road just to find out it’s a dead end. Or, to find it leads to a totally new experience, a breathtaking view, or a revival of past feelings long dormant. This was an unplanned, unrehearsed, and totally unapologetic homage to the freedom of the motorcycle, and we loved every minute of it.
Paul quickly caught on to my sudden change in direction, and realized the general route we had planned was fast becoming a memory. Earlier that morning he had asked where I wanted to go. I pointed north to the distant hills and said, “Let’s head out in a general THAT WAY direction and go wherever the road leads.”
“Cool” he replied. “Then you take the lead.”
And so I did. For me, that ride is the very best of what motorcycling is about. It’s that simmering anticipation of riding into the unknown. I suspect it has always been what appeals most to many bikers. It’s the feeling of going somewhere new, riding into the unknown, or doing something for the first time. It becomes intoxicating. Too quickly our lives are filled with the mundane, the habitual and the routine. The morning shower and breakfast routine, the daily commute, meetings, even our weekend fun is predicable. A ride with a known group of friends, heading to some local rally quickly becomes yet another habit.
So, when you finally get a chance to get away, why follow another routine? Why do we feel the need to plot out on a map or GPS every turn, consult a book for every sight, and pull up a webpage for every destination? Break free. Venture out. Point that big chrome and steel monster in any direction and just GO!
This is exactly what Paul and I did. The morning air was heavy, and thick with the smell of rain. In the distance, puffy marshmallow clouds embraced the emerald green hills of Georgia. The day was shaping up to be a warm and wonderful adventure.
We rode out of the quiet suburbs and headed in a general northerly direction. I don’t remember the names of the roads, the highways and thoroughfares we traveled. But, what I do remember are the happy, almost giddy feelings and the silly smiles we both wore for almost 10 hours that day. As the road disappeared under our tires the scenery changed. The beautifully manicured subdivisions gave way to smoke-veiled hills and hidden meadows. The trees began to surround us and provided a cooling canopy from the sun’s harsh rays. Coming around a gentle turn on the right I spied another rather nondescript looking road which headed up the side of a rather steep hill. “I wonder where that road leads,” I thought. We turned again, following our whim, and climbed the hill.
That famous southern humidity began to thin, and the air became cooler as we headed up the steep incline. The scenery below was simply breathtaking. The myriad valleys, draws and tiny creeks beckoned for our attention, while the narrow country road we were on demanded it. The north Georgia and southern Tennessee hills were a perfect setting. Latticed with endless back roads, county and country lanes, mixed-gravel dead-ends, and hundreds of view spots where you can stop for a moment just to take it all in. Small, seldom travelled roads, gravelly intersections and beautiful vistas were all part of the ride. When riding in this manner, your mind wanders, reminiscing. The smell of pine, fresh cut grass and the weight of the humidity brought back memories of grueling summer football practice. As the day went along, we never tired of where the road led us. It was all new. It was true touring. Sure, there are planned rides, events, and festivals one can visit. Check any local bike rag and you see something almost every weekend. But, too seldom is the chance just to ride and be so…okay, corny line here…so, “in the moment.”
As a young man I had attended North Georgia College (NGC) for a few semesters. NGC is a military college located in the charming town of Dahlonega, Georgia. Of course, that was decades ago. I only mention it now because the small country road Paul and I were exploring had just spilled onto a vaguely familiar stretch of state highway. We turned onto GA 52, and the memories rushed back in a torrent, and became, at once, overwhelming! The road into Dahlonega appeared before us and instantly I was a young cadet again. All the sights, sounds and smells of past days I had spent there flooded my senses. For the briefest of moments, I was transported back in time.
We stopped at the local ice cream shop and relaxed, reminiscing about the days when we were both cadets. Getting up at 0400 for some PT (Physical Training) and then a brisk 3 mile run in the dead of winter. It was so cold the winter Paul and I were at NGC, the water in the toilet bowls had actually frozen solid! We laughed, remembering the crazy female Literature professor whose thinly-veiled hatred of all things male had become legend. The lack of food, the camaraderie, praying for a weekend pass, the good times and the bad times, laughter and tears - all spilled forth, all vivid.
The intention was not to end up here. It was not a predetermined destination. It was a surprise proffered to us as we followed our fancy. It was a gift given to remind us that riding, as in life, is about taking chances, trying something new, going where you never dreamed you would go. Only then to realize that what you are doing is learning about yourself - understanding that these experiences are greatly responsible for making you who you are.
As we headed for home, I took one last, long deep breath. I wanted to make another memory. At a quaint white church we turned into to take a few photos. I was drawn to these small tombstones all in a line with one large one at the end. Looking more closely at the dates, I noticed these are all children, and not one of them made it past the age of 4 years old. Those were some mighty tough times. The big tombstone at the end of the line belonged to Mama and Papa Keel. I am surprised they both didn’t die of broken hearts with so much loss and pain in their lives. Some pictures tell their own story.
The best memories are not rehearsed or planned, but spontaneously experienced and etched boldly and forever in our hearts. Get on your bike, ride out, explore, and ask yourself, “I wonder where this road leads?” Then find out! Take the road less traveled. It will, indeed, make all the difference.
Final Note: Mom finally did find me on that second floor of the JC Penney’s department store. I received a good scolding and a slap on the bottom for the scare it had given her. Though sorry for upsetting mom, I secretly fell in love with the freedom and excitement that the adventure provided. I’ve been hooked ever since.
By DangerMan Todd Mehrer