The weather is freezing, and we’ve gone as far north and east as we are able. Time is crushing us and we have to get back to the middle of the country for a western route that will take us all the way to Utah on the last leg of the trip. We start across Pennsylvania in one shot, stopping once to get gas and once to make the latest in an inexhaustible supply of sandwiches. Later, I find myself exhausted, but pushing along the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 11:30 at night. My wife has given out and is asleep, beautifully, in the passenger seat.
Somewhere just outside of Harrisburg, we start climbing. Endless switchbacks. There’s a three-quarter moon, yellow to orange, right ahead of me, and the traffic is light.
The switchbacks continue, and the climb is steady. Somehow – and this is not normal – Winnie Cooper is running like a small sedan. The accelerator is responsive; its nimbleness amazes me.
A Harley Davidson, its distinctive rat-a-tat-tat sound coming first, passes me. The guy has a black helmet with “Tommy” stenciled on the back. He begins to pull away, but I give it some gas and follow along behind him. We’re doing 60 mph for the first couple of miles. We occasionally come behind two or three semis struggling up the hills. I keep thinking that we’ll level off, hit a valley, something, but the incline is steady.
Eighty miles from Pittsburgh I notice I’m up to 70 mph. The pavement is glassy smooth and the moon gives a little light. But it’s still a highway near midnight so it’s dark everywhere else. We bend left and right, up the switchbacks. I keep thinking, what the hell is the elevation here? How high are we going?
Two semis have to weave from the slow lane in front of me. Tommy, the bike guy, is still ahead. The slow lane has narrowed because of construction barriers. The semis are in front of me; I ease off the gas and watch my speedometer start to fall. This is more normal. Winnie is brave, has a V10, but rarely goes north of 50 mph on hills like these.
Off to the right, up another climb, I see Tommy’s tail light as he pulls away. I tap my steering wheel a while, and I take a drink of water out of a bottle next to me. It takes about five miles for me to pass the semis, but when the road flattens temporarily, I really get rolling. I hit 75 mph and the road is empty.
I have my window open, and the wind is rushing through here like I’m on a roller coaster. I see Tommy’s light ahead of me. In a few minutes I’m behind him and we settle in together. We bank the long, slow corners, he a second ahead of me or so, and we use both lanes, the left lane for bends that way, and the right lane when we cut back.
He’s aware of me – he couldn’t not be – but he senses I’m not passing. We climb higher and impossibly higher. As we pass about the 50-mile mark, we haven’t seen another car in five minutes. I look down once and blink. My speedometer says 80, and the sound of both engines is nearly deafening, the echoes slapping back from the rocks that crowd both sides of the turnpike.
Higher still. Impossible, I think. The moon hangs ahead of us, the only light save our own, and we’re headed up another switchback when I hear Tommy’s engine misfire a time or two. Altitude. The gas mixture on the big bike is off a hair, not noticeable anywhere else but here.
He drops to 70 and I stay behind him. When two semis appear ahead of us on the right, Tommy pulls into the slow lane and gives me one finger point, motioning me to go on ahead. He eases his throttle back as he nears what appears to be a level spot of highway.
I go past, not waving, not looking, just pushing on. I eat up the two semis and am now on a giant sloping downhill. In a dream of some kind, I see the speedometer flicker back and forth on either side of 85 mph. The hum of the engine and the roar of the wind is exhilarating. It’s the best I’ve felt about anything in a year, maybe five years. That’s a horrible and sad thing to say, and my life is full of incredible blessings. But tonight is extraordinary. It’s one of the best nights of my life. I love driving, I guess. Highways. I love the feeling of going somewhere. There are few things as beautiful as the rushing of the wheels.
My love of place, of new places, has to have a genesis. There has to be a reason why a night like this brings me such happiness. My folks worked for a long time in the hotel industry, and we would move every few years. About the time I’d find a friend in one town, we’d move on to the next. I learned not to put posters up on the walls of my bedrooms, or to get too attached to my teachers. And as I got older and left for college, I realized that I never gave a shit about any place that was called home. That’s 25 years ago, and I’m still moving, still running. I’m going someplace else. Anyplace. Anywhere.
And suddenly, there’s Tommy again. I can see his single headlight coming up. We’re on a flat when he pulls even with me.
We’re more than an hour into this event. I can see the lights of Pittsburgh in the distance, and though part of me wants to keep pushing along under this moon, I’m tired, sleepy, and ready for rest.
I think about Tommy. He looks to be my age, or a bit older. On a Sunday night like this, I think he is going home, home to someplace where someone is waiting for him. I look over at my wife, her name is Beth. Beth since I was nineteen years old, and Beth for all of my life. I would drive to the end of the world if I knew she were waiting.
It’s one in the morning. Another day and another place.
Just before an exit, Tommy goes by, the Harley pouring through the night like sand.
I pull into the parking lot of a giant Wal-Mart that is closed for the evening. As always, a handful of other motorhomes are here, scattered loosely in the furthest regions of the parking lot. I pull in under a soft yellow light and wake my wife up. I don’t tell her anything but, “We’re here. We’re stopping for the night.”[+]
For eight months in 2003-2004, my wife and I lived in a 29 foot motorhome and travelled 20,000 miles to 43 states to interview 62 American poets for my third book, Poets on Place. This is an excerpt.