The Canyon (Pfeltner; Father’s Day, 2000)
I got lucky today and drew number 11 which is my starting order out of some 50 bikers. That means less bikes in front of me and less trash on the road. Something crazy happens to people when they get on a fast motorcycle, but I wouldn’t know about that. I sat on the bike checking things that had been checked too many times already. There was nothing wrong with the bike, but I was nervous and needed something to do. I started the bike to let it warm up and sat facing west. The morning sun felt good on my back, but the cool desert air wasn’t going to remain cool for long. A stream ran beside the road and the sound of water and the smell of flowering trees in the morning reminded me of Kentucky. I was born in a small town near Wolf river at Dale Hollow. Dale Hollow, I never thought of it before, but I don’t even know why they called it Dale Hollow.
Dad usually went fishing with uncle Martin, but when I was old enough he took me along. They always caught fish, but some how fishing wasn’t really why they came. They talked about other things. That is things other than catching the fish that were all around the boat. The fish that I was intent on catching and eating. The whole reason we came to the lake was to catch fish, at least I thought it was the reason. They talked about hunting trips and fish they had caught a hundred years ago, instead of showing me how to catch the fish not twenty yards from the boat.
The here and now was my concern, because I was too young to have a past. The conversation always gravitated to the trip they took out west in ‘54. They would talk about the different towns, but it was the mountains and the deserts and the National Parks that really got them going. Driving for two days without seeing a tree and jumping out to take pictures of the first tree by Route 66 going west. This was the original Route 66 mind you, not some dolled up elevated interstate highway of today. This was two lane blacktop right down on the desert floor with the cactuses and coyotes. I could hear them saying it as they completely ignored the fishing rods in their hands. Half the time their hooks weren’t even in the water. If I was going to eat fish tonight, I would have to catch them.
They talked about trees that were older than the United States and so big they had names. They drove through the middle of one tree and stopped to take a picture with the car parked inside the tree. On dry land, we would be looking through a scrap book or a slide show about now, like I hadn’t seen those pictures before.
I think Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park were their favorites. Having fresh trout in that Jackson Hole restaurant cooked just right with an almond and butter sauce. They talked about the drive along the Grand Teton mountains through the forest coming out at in the valley floor and finally reaching the Old Faithful Geyser and the bubbling mud pots. That was what really lit up their faces. The geyser blowing exactly on time at one hour intervals, shooting tons of water half way to the moon. The mud pots were a bubbling lake of red streaked gray mud with a strong smell of sulphur. They walked on narrow planks out over the hot mud and were very concerned about falling in the boiling mud.
They talked for hours about the mules in the Grand Canyon, the painted deserts, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and the Elk in Montana. Just when the conversation would never end they suddenly stopped. They smiled, bit their lips and shook their heads. After a long moment of silence, dad would say, “Do you think we’ll ever make it out that way again?”.
The answer never came and their eyes clouded up. The two blabber mouths were through talking for the day as we sat in complete silence in a boat looking at water, not seeing water or even knowing why we were anywhere near water. It wasn’t a fishing trip at all. It never was a fishing trip, it was a place to go to talk about other things. I was too young to know that we weren’t in a boat and that we weren’t fishing. I was too young to know anything, but I knew we weren’t eating fish tonight.
The noise around me picked up and someone slapped my shoulder. The man with the flag pointed at me and I revved my Ninja motor and it roared like a wild animal. I had three minutes to clear five miles of a curvy canyon road. Not as easy as it sounds, but then races never are. It was a timed race through the canyon and then it breaks out across the desert for a hundred miles. We left the line in three minute intervals to keep all fifty bikes from crashing into the canyon walls. I pulled up to the line, the motor roared, and then I was gone. The bike pulled through the gears as I passed one hundred partway through third gear. The wind played on my shoulders and just turning my helmet could turn the bike.
As I entered the canyon I leaned hard into the first curve and the scream from the motor bounced off the walls. I was reminded of cowboys on horses being chased by Indians through the canyon. The rim of the canyon was a great place for an ambush by Indians with bows and arrows. There must have been thousands of Indians around these canyons over the last 500 years. They camped in the meadow, hunted the buffalo that grazed on the grass near the flats, and speared fish in the stream off to the left. I picked up speed and the jagged canyon walls became a smooth blur of color. The layers of rock melted into wide bans of earth tone colors fresh from an artist brush.
The meadow suddenly popped up on the right with pink and white flowering dogwood trees near the creek that passed through the middle of the meadow. The fragrance from a dozen different flowers filled my helmet. I knew many of the flowers, but dad knew them all. He knew the Latin names and how to make them grow. He was a walking encyclopedia on plants, because plants were his life. I never needed to read a book on flowers, because I had listened to dad. I don’t remember the Latin names, but I certainly remember how deep to dig the holes for the plants.
I dropped down a gear and leaned into the bike and hammered the throttle. Speed smeared the meadow into a three dimensional collage of colors. I passed two blue birds in flight and freeze framed them across my living canvas creating some kind of strange Monet painting. I let off the throttle and coasted by the birds in silence. I forced myself to breath slowly, as I turned in the seat, my eyes followed the birds as they floated to the white dogwoods near the water. I looked up and a much larger bird hung over the meadow. Perhaps waiting for a rabbit or eyeing a fish in the stream. Fish I now knew how to catch. The only thing missing were the buffalo and the Indians, one being nearly as extinct as the other.
This was the straightest patch of road in the canyon and I was wasting it. I leaned into the bike and pushed it hard. The bike was heavier than most in the race, but I wanted that extra large radiator and weight for stability on the hundred mile run. Others could beat me through the canyon, but the heat and wind would play hell with them on the open run through the desert. The scream from the motor was echoing off the canyon walls all around me, and suddenly it was gone as I cleared the canyon. I let go of the throttle to cool the motor and took a deep breath as I coasted in the cool desert air.
All was silent and I was floating, perhaps in a boat on a lake, not talking, not fishing, and not caring. Maybe it was a genetic curse or perhaps it was a test older people use to see if they can still remember the past. A test for dementia without asking embarrassing questions out loud. Some kid on a new factory supported bike would win this race. A kid too young to have a past and he wouldn’t know when to set the fishing rod down and spend time talking to his dad. Like my father, I thought of other things. I saw the canyon the way they would want me to see it. The painted desert was ahead and I was where I needed to be.
I smiled at the temperature gauge and ran the tack up for the long haul. The tires were expensive and the motor was balanced and blueprinted. I leaned forward on the bike and wound out fifth and pushed it into sixth gear to burn up the remaining miles to the finish line. A helicopter don’t catch me now. The desert was in full bloom and the cacti were old and huge. I saw a badger and several other animals up real close and a deer came so close I could touch it. There were no bikes behind me and I passed a couple of bikes that were smoking. Literally they couldn’t wait till the end and pulled over to share a funny cigarette. I suppose to some this was just a social event.
As I finally blew by the finish line, I ripped the number off my chest and threw it on the ground. There was no reason to stop. The race wasn’t why I was here. I leaned into the bike and listened to the motor roar like a wild animal. Something crazy happens to people when they get on a fast motorcycle. I was back in sixth gear and like I said a helicopter don’t catch me now. The road was down on the desert floor with the cacti, snakes, and whatever else there was to see. Not one of those dolled up interstates mind you, but more like the original Route 66 from the old days. I make Jackson Hole by night fall and tomorrow, I see Yellowstone.