On that trip our bikes were both going on the same journey, in the same direction. There was no competition. We just got up in the morning and rode. We were at peace.
On the second week of August we loaded two motorcycles into a trailer and drove them up to South Dakota, land of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. My family was gathering to celebrate my dad’s 65th birthday. He had always wanted to ride motorcycles in the Black Hills, he said, so we unloaded the bikes in Hot Springs and took to the road.
I followed him at a reasonable distance. Neither of us had ridden those roads before and we gave them an ample amount of respect. Entering Custer State Park the grasslands rolled back to the dark pines of the hills. They’re almost black, if you look at them right. Violet wildflowers speckled the grass. Pronghorn antelope and deer grazed on the prairies.
We passed a lone bison bull down in a meadow that had found his perfect spot. At first it was a statue, stood still, until his tail switched and he shook his hump. He seemed almost fenced in by his loneliness. There was a patch of cleared-out grass where he pawed, his favorite spot, and it made me think of the recliner my dad liked to sit in every night. His one place in the world that was undoubtedly his and his only. I wondered if I would ever have one of those myself.
For the next three days we rode the classic highways — Needles, Iron Mountain Road — alternating the lead, always maintaining a strict focus on control. As a child, it’s easy to lose it when you’re not in the presence of your parents. But I’ve foregone that desire to go wild when alone. I’m finally learning how to keep my head.
There are the small things you do around your dad that make you feel like a disappointment, like starting the bike in gear when it should be in neutral, when you know he’s told you a thousand times how to do it correctly, that give you a certain tightness, an anxiety. You try as hard as you can but somehow you’ll always be less than perfect to your parents. Whether or not you actually have done something with your life that’s good or bad, you still want to be president of the United States for them. You want to buy them a new house, a new car. I couldn’t do that, but this was one thing I could do: get on a motorcycle with my dad and not screw it up, not go over the guardrails, not blow it somehow.
He’s been trying to teach me control my whole life — to learn how to take the turns, to see problems before I come to them — and there are few better classrooms than a large motorcycle on a mountain road that’s tortuous with switchbacks and hairpin curves. It’s the kind of thing that you have to pay attention to, that requires sharp focus. You can ride as fast as you want, gun it down the stretches, but you must stay in control. You have to know what you’re doing.
I used to think I didn’t have that much in common with my dad. I always thought of him as tougher, more macho somehow. As I aged and saw some of the world, I believed we had less and less in common. Now I know that’s not true. In fact, I probably have more in common with the man who raised me than with 99 percent of the people in the world.
One thing we can agree on is a love of motorcycles. My whole life I’ve known him as a farmer, but anyone who’s been in that business knows farmers do a lot more than grow crops. The cold seasons are passed preparing farm equipment for the coming work. I spent my cold-month childhood among engines and machine parts. We waited out the winter in sheds and barns next to space heaters, on creepers under treble lights. The work is all made worth it when the machines run well in the spring. Horses were too impractical for the farm, we used ATVs, and the art of motorcycle maintenance takes me back to my childhood.
Throughout the farm crisis of the 1980s my siblings and I were told to study in school. To go to college. That farming might have been a good way of life but there was no money in it anymore. At the same time we were asked to farm, to do this work at home that we saw little future in. Our work was a contradiction to the parental message. I resented it, and I resented the man who made me do it, but there was no way around it. It’s taken me a long time to understand the implications of all of it.
We switch bikes back and forth on that trip, but first he was on the black Harley Davidson Electra Glide. Harleys are the road bike of choice of many American male. Loud machines of gleaming chrome and excess power. But this was a particularly special bike for me because it once belonged to Bob, the father of an old friend.
As a teenager, when I was on the outs with my folks and unwilling to stay home, when my relationship with my parents had gotten so strained that we couldn’t be around each other, I spent a lot of time under Bob’s roof hanging out with his son. I was deeply sad when he passed. When Bob died, at an age not too much older than my father is now, my dad bought the bike and has kept it running ever since. Bob rode the highways up there during Sturgis, and to be able to keep his bike alive in that way meant we were keeping his memory alive as well.
The other bike, the one I was on first, was a chopper painted to resemble the American flag. The bike looked a lot like what Peter Fonda rode in “Easy Rider,” a movie I first watched with my dad. When my mom would be gone and it was only us in the house, he liked to rent man movies. We’d sit in the family room with a tape in the VCR and he would make us a little cocktail of schnapps and let the film play. No skipping the violence or the other R-rated parts. That was how I first watched “The Godfather,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Raging Bull.” During the “Easy Rider” scene where they’re all tripping acid in the New Orleans graveyard, I can still remember him saying “I don’t remember this movie being this weird.” But he let it play.
That was before all the conflict.
If you’re anything like me then your relationship with your father swings on a pendulum from slightly strained to on the level and back to strained again. As a teenager, I took a few years off my parents’ life while taking a few off my own. Fights. Skipped school. Broken curfews. Trouble with the law. I used to think I was trying to define and assert my own identity through rebellion. I’m not sure I believe that now. I think I was idealistic and angry and couldn’t express myself. I didn’t know who to be until I started writing and that was years later.
When conflict with family arises it’s easy to believe we’re born very far from where we’re supposed to be. We grow into personalities that don’t fit with our kin. We find others like us outside our family. Learning how to stop fighting that has been one of the major revelations of my adult years. I can’t be something I’m not. Why would I want to? Asking for understanding is too much when the people you would ask don’t understand the question. The difficult balance then is how to take care of the people you love while still living the life that best suits who you need to be. I have given up trying to make everyone happy, but it doesn’t have to be as selfish as that makes it sound. I want to be closer to my father. To everyone in my family. It’s just hard to know how.
I’ve established my own identity as I’ve gotten older. The only person I can be is myself. Every tree has apples that fall close to it and those that roll down the hill. I came home and tried to roll myself back up the hill, but gravity hasn’t complied. I like what I like; I do what I do. Not many of those things are in direct opposition to what my father does or what he stands for, but we don’t always value the same things. So to have an opportunity to do something as he is getting older that might bring us together, any activity that we can agree on that might slightly heal all that previous friction, is a rare opportunity, something I’m grateful for.
I don’t want to become a stranger to my family out of irreconcilable differences. To hide what I want out of life or who I am. At least to both of us motorcycles make sense. They’re dangerous, my mom dislikes them, they’re the kind of machines that could kill you, but they’ve always appealed to both of us.
We don’t go fishing. We don’t farm together anymore. But on that trip our bikes were both going on the same journey, in the same direction. There was no competition. We just got up in the morning and rode. We were at peace.
In that moment, my first time riding a big motorcycle in the Black Hills, on the road with my dad, leading, on hairpins, pigtails, switchbacks down Needles Highway, he might have been satisfied that the fatherly message he had tried to impart to me had finally come through. He could see me executing the turns correctly, staying in my lane, able to do it without putting myself at risk. In turn, I was trying to give back to him, a thank you for what he had taught me, to say I’m doing this one thing we might have in common as well as I can. I’m doing everything as well as I can.
About the author
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts.
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