The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Spit-shake promises

(or! why I became a Vagabond)

When I was a young boy at summer camp, I had a friend who, upon our parting at the end of a week‘s friendship, invoked the spit-on-your-hands oath on me to seal a promise between us. The oath required each of us to go home execute a feat of daring and adventure on a bicycle that we had dreamt up.

We both thought it was just plain crazy, so crazy in fact that we must, absolutely must do it. Since we each lived in separate cities, we would have to be satisfied with individual achievement. But the hilarity, the glory if we succeeded, the pride of accomplishment – required that we return with proof of our deed. We swore a spit-shake oath that we would come back the next summer to share the epic story of adventure and triumph.

But by the next year, my family had moved to a different state, and I remember that moment when I realized that our move meant I couldn‘t go back to that same summer camp again. I was bitterly disappointed, because I had already kept my side of the bargain, and was eager to get back to summer camp and exult in the triumph of Scar Acquisition.

Half of the deal was the doing, the other half was the telling. The story itself was a story of hilarity, pride, and drama, because of the consternation I had caused adults, and for the pluck, physical pain, and daring it took to achieve that feat. The dream was big, the achievement even bigger. And never once for a moment did I ever doubt that my friend had also triumphed, or that it had cost him any less than it cost me to achieve it. It has been a long time since I have thought of that story, but for many years through childhood and young adulthood I imagined what his version of the story must be, wished I could hear it, and wished I could tell mine.

The challenge of that experience got something started in me. I began to add like-minded accomplishments that would fit with the eventual story-telling should we meet again. I once fought a fierce coastal headwind riding to Garibaldi northbound, pumping as hard as my long, skinny adolescent legs could pump just to keep moving forward, feeling the thrill of speed when I turned around and headed home at 45 miles per hour with tailwind. I rode an 85 mile ride through the wheat fields of Walla Walla on the spur of the moment one Sunday afternoon, wearing out a friend who hitched a ride, but still had the decency to have the guy pick me up too when he caught up to me a few miles up ( I hadn‘t realized the route I chose was over 100 miles). I got a speeding ticket on the bicycle in my small college town, something even the judge who fined me thought I should hang on the wall with pride. I learned to ride a tandem, and to ride a friend‘s Honda CBX, a motorcycle with a monstrous 6-cylinder engine, and rode that thing all over the county whenever I could borrow it. All these small stories were added to the list of epic tales we would have to tell if I ever ran across my friend again, hoping that the extra escapades might make up for having missed our first rendezvous.

At some point in my childhood, bicycles and motorcycles had already begun to merge in my dreams of freedom. My dad and I would ride through the back roads together on his motorcycle on weekends, I sitting on the back, learning to feel the movement and balance of the motorized bike‘s faster speed, learning to be aware of the passing world that was finally in sync with my short attention span. Weekend rides weren‘t for me to catch up with the world, it was for the world to catch up with me. I developed a strong attachment for the out of the way places, spots I could only imagine might exist until we got there. And I imagined! I dreamt of wild places, wide open places, and places I could get lost in for as long as I wanted. It wasn‘t as if this penchant for adventure came to me out of the blue. In addition to my dad, my grandpa was a motorcyclist, two of my uncles rode, and even my great-grandpa had had his day in the saddle in his youth.

But the person that fueled my thirst for the open highway the most was someone I never knew. It was in the same autumn that followed my summer camp experience. As my dad and I were out riding, we saw a biker at an out-of-the-way gas station in the southern Californian desert, as we rode past. He was loaded with pack and bedroll, and was heading into the high desert. The roar of his open exhaust as he pulled onto the road overwhelmed all the other sensations I had of that moment. The sound of those pipes, roaring past and then fading into the distance, pulled at my imagination so hard I have never recovered. And the only moment‘s contact I had with him was a quick nod and wave he cast my way as he saw father and young son together. I wanted to wave. I tried to wave. But the moment was too fast, and I was too busy savoring it to raise my 10-year old hand until it was too late. I waved at his shrinking figure behind us disappearing into the horizon‘s heat mirage a quarter mile back.

And if I‘m honest! I‘ve never stopped.

Today, with the sun well into the morning sky, I pulled onto the roadway rested and ready for the short two-hour ride to my meeting. Behind lay nearly a thousand miles of mountain, sea, and forest highway between me and home. The mid-morning sun shone through and around an armada of billowing clouds that drifted across the sky like silent glider-bombers, navigating their way to a secret target beyond the horizon. The road turned and twisted gracefully, a welcome relief from the dramatic and challenging mountain pass yesterday. The bike beneath me rumbled comfortably through rolling hills, sometimes covered with boreal woodland, and other times open to farmland carved out of the midst of this vast forest that stretched as far as I could see.

Clusters of houses emerged occasionally on plots that left room for men to build shops with tin siding. Nearly every one of these clusters had at least one sign hanging next to the road: “Welder for Hire”, “Hay, Delivered”, or “Walt‘s Welding and Repair”. Ranches proudly announced that they raised draft horses, cattle, farms that sold hay, and that they had been doing so since 1959. And so the communities announced to the passing travelers not just that goods or services were to be had, but that they were done by real people, doing what they loved, and what they excelled at. Workman‘s pride were written on these highway signs. I wanted to know these folk, to hear about their stories.

But I knew that to experience these stories, I also had to learn about how Aunt Marabel had got the shingles last winter, and was still in an awful way, and that Roy up on Winter Hill Road had driven his pickup into the ditch last week, drunk off his gourd, and it served him right that the tow truck had pulled off a fender and possibly twisted the frame getting him out. Heck, it was his sixth accident in the last two years.

This is how those stories come. They never sound proud of themselves or their work. But the signs don‘t lie.

And so through this country I rode towards a business meeting. You might think that having a business that allows me to ride a motorcycle to the ends of the earth, to ride through country like this, sounds like a dream job. Well – it is, and more than you know. I‘ve never been especially good at sitting in one place. Having a place to be every day – even the thought is excruciating. But being able to spend time on lonely highways, sorting out the millions of thoughts that constantly flood through my head – yes, it‘s the kind of dream someone who lives in mortal fear of being stuck inside on any given day lives for.

I like to think I‘ve paid my dues. I‘ve knelt on the aft deck of a submarine in January, covered in salt-spray and rain, chipping paint. I‘ve sat in a noisy, stifling sonar room in the tropics trying to resurrect equipment that had succumbed to the humidity. I‘ve worked through the night pursuing the answers to defiant technical problems that absolutely, positively had to be fixed, overnight. I‘ve had more than my share of dreams come to nothing. Many times I‘ve failed myself and others. And tomorrow? Tomorrow I‘m liable to make a mistake due to laziness, loss of focus, or inexperience. But not today. Today I‘m following my dream. Today I ride the open highway, adding another story to a spit-shake promise from my childhood.

Today‘s ride took me through a small city, and then worked the grade upward and northward out of town. When I reached the top and the road leveled off and resumed its meandering turns, I saw to my left a cluster of homes. A pair of boys played, with their dog cavorting beside them, in the summer sun. The dog was jumping and spinning while one of the boys whirled a stick over his head. Both boys, and presumably the dog, were laughing and leaping through the grass in a crazy dance of hilarity. The boys stopped when they heard my bike rumble from down the hill and around the bend, leaving the dog dizzy and still spinning, chasing a stick that was no longer there. They both looked up at me, cresting the hill and beginning down towards them through a long, sloping corner that curled around their field, and one boy started to wave. It was a self-conscious half-wave from the hip, as if hoping I didn‘t see him staring at me, but wanting to look ready if I did. The other, smaller boy, dropped the stick and stared in with reckless abandon, leaping up and down in a frantic exaggerated over-the-head wave that destroyed the first boy‘s hope of not being seen. They continued to wave, turning with my passing, following my progress through the sweeping turn that encircled them. There was something about the first boy‘s gaze that I recognized. This boy was in awe. It was not for me personally that he was transfixed – he saw a dream. He thought of possibilities, the idea that two wheels could take him somewhere so far no one else knew about it. It was the same dream I had, staring after an unknown biker, wondering what road he would take, what compelled him to ride it, wondering what it was like to be free, dreaming of the unknown down that highway I had never been, waiting for my chance to find out what was over the horizon. I knew the power of that dream to shape an entire life.

Curiously, just a little while earlier I had come across the phrase, “Seize the Day” lying there in my head as one of my random thoughts. I had rolled it around in my mind like a fine wine, and had enjoyed the small afterthoughts that come along with such mindless internal banter that bikers that have ridden a long highway know. But now, it suddenly seemed serious, and more than an accident that I should have had thought it just now. In the space of a couple short seconds I remembered, as if was yesterday, my friend‘s spit shake, and the solemnity to which we bound ourselves to take action to accomplish a daredevil feat of such epic magnitude that it would require a retelling a year later. I remembered how it was the beginning of a dream of the open road. I remembered how another biker‘s wave of acceptance had stuck with me for so long. I realized how far that oath had driven me. In a sudden gesture to compensate for that long-lost moment and the importance of its promise, I mentally took hold of the dream I was seizing this day, and squeezed it hard, until its juices spilled into my gloved hand, and through my fingers. I raised my hand, dripping with the joy and freedom I held now, and waved to those two boys a spit-shake, a promise that through all the heartache of failure that might come to them, a boy‘s dream can still come true. Dare big. Do the things you must. Find the furthest horizon you can find and chase after it. Get on a bike and ride into the darkest storm you can find. What you seek will show up when you least expect it.


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2 Responses to “Spit-shake promises”

  1. Fred J. Aun says:

    Powerful, poignant stuff. Gave me the chills. Made me feel happy, but also mournful about those long-ago days of boyhood, bicycles and mini-bikes.

  2. Brig says:

    Well done sir, well done indeed…

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