Yellowstone is filled with motorcycles: the majestic scenery and winding roads form ideal conditions for such travel. I love seeing them everywhere I go. They remind me of my dad, and of a vision I once had of myself. I have long imagined myself riding one, but haven’t yet found the nerve. The closest I’ve come to piloting such a vehicle was taking my friend’s new moped around the block, but I have often been found riding on the back. I remember my mom telling me that when I was a baby, she and my dad would put me between them on the motorcycle. I don’t think he owned his Harley then, but maybe an old Kawasaki. (Then again, maybe I imagined this altogether, but it’s a happy, if unsafe, image).
One summer when I was 19, I rode on the back of my friend Joel’s (pronounced Jo-el’s) bike along the coast of Lake Michigan. This famous Chicago strip of road is known to locals as L.S.D., and as chance would have it, Jo and I had just ingested L.S.D. of a different kind.
Why my 19-year-old brain thought it was wise to mount a machine driven by a man on drugs, I’ll never know. My only defense (a poor one) is to say that we weren’t going that far, and we weren’t that high (yet). It was my friend Josh’s birthday and we were headed to his house to surprise him with a hit of his own. This was long before the demons of adulthood and prescription drugs would grab him.
The last time I saw Josh was 10 years later (we hadn’t kept in touch). It was our high school reunion. We got into some kind of argument and I got into a car accident. (I don’t remember either very well.) That was the last time I touched alcohol, and a few months later he was dead. It was never clear if it was an accident, or an overdose, or a suicide. The motive was vague but the mechanism was clear: pills, pills, legally prescribed pills. One day he just didn’t wake up.
(If my own daughter ever chooses to experiment with psychedelics, may it please be somewhere safe, somewhere beautiful, somewhere still. Further, I pray pray pray that she never touches the bad drugs. You know the ones: meth, crack, heroin, and pills. It is not so difficult to fear needles, and strange liquids simmered in dirty spoons, but all those colorful little tic-tacs seem so safe—after all, they come from doctors. So may she please be especially wary of those.)
All these bad associations not withstanding, or rather, taken into account, Lakeshore Drive that summer—as seen from the back of a motorcycle and enhanced by the onset of hallucinogens—was breathtaking. The drugs had just begun to take hold. Our pupils—like saucers—were seeing greater detail; taking in an unnatural levels of light; observing the world in euphoric, high-contrast Technicolor, but the images and ideas had not yet begun to dance.
Joel said, “Nico, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Feeling so pure of heart and so sure, I replied, matter-of-factly, “An artist.” I wasn’t an artist yet, but in that moment I felt certain that someday I would be. “Everyone wants to be an artist,” he said. “What do you really want to be?” I can’t remember if I responded at all.
The same weekend I got into that car accident—a minor one involving only me, a sign, and my boyfriend’s car; but one significant enough to change my life—Rafal was taking an immersive weekend course to gain his motorcycle license. I believe the fact that he had both an outlet for his anger and a source of deep delight that weekend is partly why he did not leave me.
Nearly two years into our abstinence from alcohol, Rafal fixed up our neighbor’s bike. Her Honda Rebel had been sitting in the back yard collecting rust, and Rafal—ever the handyman—got it up and running again. Once again, I found myself on the back of a motorcycle, this time on the winding back roads of SIU campus, along the edges of the Shawnee Forest. This time, attached to someone I love, I felt the trees and the moon forgiving me. I felt the past becoming the past. I felt bathed by the wind and made new. Rafal was about to leave for the summer, but our connection was electric. Weeks later, with Rafal en route to Yellowstone alone, a little blue plus sign would appear.
We will probably never hold her between us on a motorcycle. But I like pretending that we will.