Phil Gulley: How We Rolled

Illustration by Ryan Snook

If the gods of motorcycling permit, this month will find me in Wisconsin and Minnesota with the Quaker chapter of my biker gang, the Sons of Silence. My friends Mike Goss, Ned Steele, Riley Tharp, and I plan to buzz west to Galena, Illinois, then wander north on the Great River Road, before turning east and heading across Wisconsin to the Lighthouse Resort near Minocqua, where I spent an idyllic summer vacation in 1969. I phoned the resort to see if we could stay overnight, but I was told we couldn’t since none of us work for Johnson Wax, the company that owns it and employed my father. Johnson Wax is now dead to me.

In a way, my vacation began in January, seated at my kitchen table, poring over maps, tracing my finger along rivers, lakes, and twisty roads as if they were Braille communicating hidden glories. My companions and I met on winter Saturdays to discuss our venture over fried chicken and iced tea, the anticipation being every bit as enjoyable as the execution. The years following our trip will be just as pleasant, since we’ll take the ride over and over in our memories, revisiting the curves, the horizons, the thread of the river below the bluffs, the surge of the bike, the warm and drowsy evenings.

What would make our trip even better is camping out each night, effectively doubling our outdoor time, but my fellow travelers nixed the idea. They’re older than me and getting soft. I tried to convince them with a quote by the motorcycling journalist Peter Egan, who said he had never remembered a hotel room or forgotten a campfire, but they held fast.

What I’ll remember most is the outside-ness of our trip, 16 hours a day outdoors, rain or shine, far beyond the cities and interstates, witnessing the unspooling of summer. It is the closest I come to reliving my childhood, which was spent outdoors, no matter the season. Adults were indoors, kids were outdoors, their lives intersecting at mealtimes, but otherwise lived apart. The indoors held little charm for a child. The magic was outside, in the woods and fields, at White Lick Creek, which in our minds was Old Man River itself. It could carry us to the ocean if we were inclined and could find an inner tube suitable for the journey.

I read recently that children today spend 93 percent of their time indoors, a sad inversion of how life ought to be. I don’t suspect this is the children’s choice. When given the chance, most kids gravitate toward the out-of-doors just as birds seek the sky. Unless, of course, the parent is loath to push the bird from the nest, which includes most modern parents, who believe the outside world holds all types of danger—perverts, epidemics, kidnappers, drugs. When I was a kid, our town had a half-dozen perverts, but that was no reason to stay indoors. Why let a pervert squelch your joy, after all?

I was visiting a friend this past spring and made the mistake of mentioning our trip. He’s traveling to Paris for his vacation, and he insisted I shell out a month’s income to join him. Paris, I told him, is full of Americans spending money they don’t have to see paintings and structures thousands of other people are jostling and straining to see. But my misery would begin long before I reached Paris, parking my car 4 miles from the Indianapolis International Airport, then riding to the terminal in a small bus with anxious people worried they’ll miss their flight. Arriving at the airport, the absolute worst thing would happen: I’d make my flight and be shoehorned into a seat beside a large, sweaty man who doesn’t believe in climate change and would spend the next nine hours telling me why. Eventually, I’d arrive at the airport in Paris, where I would be taken to a small room and probed by Frenchmen mad at Donald Trump, despite my protestations that I didn’t like him, either. Several hours later, I’d leave the airport, walking like a bowlegged cowboy after a cattle drive. I’d rent a car and spend four hours in Paris traffic finding my hotel, where I’d discover all the other rooms were occupied by English soccer fans.

“And that,” I told my friend, “is why I’ll be taking my vacation on a motorcycle.”

He played the fear card, pointing out that someone could walk up to me at a stoplight and conk me on the noggin. In 42 years of motorcycling, I’ve never been conked on the noggin at a stoplight. Off my motorcycle, however, I have suffered three car wrecks, fallen down flights of stairs, walked into numerous walls, bumped my head countless times, fallen off a horse, crashed my bicycle, broken several limbs, been bitten by dogs, and thrown out my back. I’m safest on a motorcycle; it’s everyday life that will be the death of me. 

My friend is the timid sort, so I’m surprised he’s venturing so far afield. I imagine him in Paris scurrying from one museum to another, his hand on his wallet, the U.S. embassy on speed dial should he meet some misfortune, which he would welcome since it would confirm his belief that life is perilous.

The thrill of motorcycling is the point, the counter-narrative to the bubble-wrapped life of modern America.

I don’t court death while motorcycling. I wear proper gear to mitigate the damage if thrown from my steed, but safety isn’t my primary concern. If it were, I’d stay home and die in my recliner. The thrill is the point, the counter-narrative to the bubble-wrapped life of modern America, the metaphoric raised middle finger to the pearl-clutchers, the wall-builders, the gun-toting tough-on-crimers who see menace in every direction. I trust that my fellow humans will behave themselves, and my confidence in them is almost always repaid. Strangers engage me, pausing to reminisce about a favorite bike they once owned or suggest a scenic route. There’s nothing like a person undertaking an adventure to attract well-wishers.

Last fall, I was heading north on my motorcycle through Georgia on a twisty back road when the temperature dropped to the low 50s and it began to rain. I pulled over to put on my rain gear, and an old man sidled up to me and said, “Looks like we got ourselves a real toad-strangler today.” Then he looked at my bike and said, “Wish I could still do that.” Even in the rain.

I continued toward home, dead center in an angry band of radar the entire day. I stopped a dozen times to eat, refuel, stretch my legs, and read historical markers. Of all the days I’ve ever ridden, that day looms in my memory as one of the finest, second only to the night I camped under a rock ledge during a thunderstorm. I think of those days whenever I see a child venturing outdoors only to dash from one enclosure to another, who has spent his whole life hunched over a cell phone or console, and will never know the exquisite joy of sitting beside a creek and dreaming of oceans.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.