Tag: Creative Non-Fiction

A Moment in the Light – Victor Cline

A Moment in the Light – Victor Cline

Victor’s storytelling can speak for itself (and then some).

This has become one of our favorites.

Enjoy:

~~~

“Baby I was born this way”. Blasting Lady Gaga in the car on the way to the venue is an almost ceremonial affair. The lyrics speak of being born who you are: trans, gay, fat, thin, black, blue, green, bruised. Songs are a good first step in shaking off the anxiety that comes along with getting into a character and costume, only to attempt peeling articles of clothing off in a way that will seduce with deliberation and intent. My stage name is Cinderfella, a play on words denoting an alternate universe where the humble blond princess is a male burlesque performer. I’m doing 65 in a 50 to get to the Lodge on time, but this part of route 40 is quiet and rarely sees police. An inconspicuous and almost creepy venue from the outside, the Lodge is a small cabin with a big parking lot that sits atop a mountain. The only gay bar for half a state’s distance, it’s a cherished location and a stronghold for the last bit of queer performance art in our region. I park my car and make my way to the door, striving not to stumble on any of the props I’m lugging along the way. Before grabbing the knob it’s time for a deep breath. Here we go…

Like a moth to the flame I somehow always seem to find myself in a line of work that includes stress in the job description. By night an illusionist of the art of tease, by day an ER registration clerk. I’ve worked in the medical field for 6 years now. I always think I’ve seen it all, but each day brings a new set of drama and emotional turmoil for the family and patients surrounding me. I take a deep breath before grabbing this door handle as well, then I make my way to my work area. It isn’t the sites that shake you. Many an outsider would imagine blood and gore, and surely every once in the while we have our fair share, but if you close your eyes and listen, it’s the vibrations of the airwaves that will come for you here. Two screaming babies, it’s the smallest people that we try to protect the most. A man’s voice cursing at a nurse wondering when their child will be seen, “What do you mean there are 10 people ahead of us?! This is a baby! My baby!” translate: “We are the only patients here! I’m blind to other people’s problems! I’m not in the cognitive state to realize this wait is a result of a broken medical system and isn’t in any way of direct fault to you, the triage nurse that just checked all of my baby’s vital signs and found that it’s probably just an ear infection!” The whispers of “I’ll die out here before a doctor sees me.” The primal screeching and wailing of a teen girl who has just tragically and unexpectedly lost her guardian to the hood of a vehicle. “I CAN’T DO THIS WITHOUT HER!” Cynicism from police and EMS as they bring in a drug overdose. “Maybe he should have taken a little more, haha. Am I right guys? We don’t need people like this.” My boss. Ohhhh my boss. A thick Caribbean accent with an attitude problem that only gets sweeter with the knowledge that you’ve collected copays. “Victuh! What do you mean you aren’t available! I need you to work on the third of September!” Except she pronounced “third” as “turd”, a tiny sliver of immature humor that I tuck away in my pocket for rainy days. A voice overhead requests my presence at trauma room one, so I can check a new ambulance into the computer system. I haven’t lost my mind though, it’s just an intercom broadcasted from the ceiling. Nonetheless I look to the ceiling and reply “God…. God is that you? It’s me, your favorite stripper.” I tuck that one in the other pocket.

I open the door to the Lodge and quickly make my way to my work station to begin my makeup. This act calls for something abstract and ethereal. I’m going for a nearly monochromatic alien-type vibe and decide to use varying hues of pink as my eyeshadow and contour shades. My costume for the night is everything opalescent: a series of reflective straps sewed into the shape of a body harness that shifts between pinks and blues and silver depending on the angle of light, a baby pink sequin loin cloth to cover the no-no spots, tear drop shaped pasties strung together by a chain of pearls, a medical mask from the ER that I’ve decked out with white and pink lace, pearls, white flowers, and butterflies. Lastly is a large, white, cape-like covering cut into a revealing robe shape with a slit down the side. Think interplanetary extra-terrestrial temple slut that is slave to a powerful alien drug lord that she sits to the right of and fans all day long while he’s on his throne. All she really wants is to strangle him and go free to return back to her galaxy of origin. But the fans are more than just part of the concept or imagination, I HAVE them! My white ostrich feather fans are precious to me and will assist me in my motions tonight by granting me control over what and when I reveal portions of by body. They cover me and hide me from the crowd until I’m ready. My performance calls for revealing this body, but my instincts tell me to stay behind the fans all night.

Similar to the shrouded comfort of my feather fans, this tiny office in the ER permits me a moment of escape from the scene outside. The resource nurse just paged us reminding us that a trauma patient is 10 minutes out. An older man has fallen down his basement steps and isn’t doing so well. “Deep breaths”, I remind myself. I make my way over to the trauma room bay and wait for the EMT’s to arrive. We know from the paramedic consult over the radio system that his health is quickly declining. The man-made impact with his head at some point it would seem, an event that could make for anything from trivial concussion to an all-out brain bleed. When the ambulance left the scene, the man was still responsive. That’s the last thing his family saw. The family will likely still be expecting his condition to be somewhere around the same as before, but it won’t be. The worst reactions are always like this. If the patient was already in such a decline at the scene, the family would know what to expect. It’s events in which the doctor is like “Surprise! He’s dying!” that yield the most gut-wrenching reactions from the family. I’m thinking about it way too much, and now my gut is beginning to tighten a bit too.

I wouldn’t call these “butterflies”. Butterflies float on air, softly beating their wings and delicately landing on surfaces. Butterflies are not what you feel in your tum-tum before you’re about to take your clothes off in front of a crowd of 200 people. Many of the onlookers will be other gay men; men with “better” bodies than me, men without beer bellies or chub rub discoloration as a result of my thick thighs chaffing in the hot summer sun. Some of them will judge me, but if just one of them looks at my pasty white curves the way I look at cheesecake, I’ll be pleased. Our troupe displays a smorgasbord of body types. Most of our performers are biological females ranging from lean to big. The neo-burlesque community has grown to be very body-positive, and with that comes a sense of confidence for me. It isn’t my body type that makes me feel anxiety before a show, it’s my level of performance. I want to be in control of the stage, not let the lights and sounds control me. None-the less, doors are open, and patrons are flooding in. Its 2155 and at 2200 MC Commodore Bailey will announce the start of the show.

The familiar sound of a large vehicle backing up, “beep-beep-beep,” alerts us to the fact that the ambulance has arrived with our new patient. The stretcher turns the corner revealing a piece of machinery that is never a pleasant site to see. The LUCAS chest compression system is essentially a large arch with an automatic compression piece that is placed over a patient’s chest to alleviate the crew of having to perform manual CPR. The machine punches down into the patient often breaking ribs and sternum to effectively reach the heart. I’ve been in this situation many times, but something about this moment made me look away as the stretcher pulls into the room. Deep breaths.

Deep breaths. I’m up next. The performer currently on stage before me is none other than Bearcat Betty, the sideshow spectacular. She’s doing her classic sword ladder act tonight. With each barefoot step up her incline of machetes, my gut wrenches a little more… bats. There are bats in my stomach. Bats carrying bats. Fast, hard, recklessly beating rats with wings wielding Louisville sluggers. I’m concerned about Bearcats safety, but with each step I come closer to going on stage. Her act ends, and Commodore Bailey begins my intro. Something something “If I had a taste for boys, this one would certainly be it!” something something “All the way from back stage and with booty to boot, its Cinderfella!”. My humid palms grasp the curtain in a death grip as I pull it aside and make my way on stage.

I grab the curtain to the room and swing it aside. I have to get this man into the computer system right away, so doctors and nurses can begin ordering medicine. The LUCAS has been pulled off the man and manual CPR has begun. Orders are being shouted, staff are moving quickly but deliberately to complete life-saving tasks, and I’m grabbing an EMT holding a clipboard in hopes of identifying our new patient. His name and birthdate are revealed to me and I get him into our computer system.

Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” begins, a fitting song for the illusionist special effects makeup of a stitched mouth that waits under my mask for reveal time. My back is turned to the crowd and I begin spinning in place. My movements start out smooth as the song progresses, my feather fans covering my face in preparation for the first reveal of my mask and makeup. On the “James Dean glossy eyes” lyric my eyes peer over the border of my feathers to meet the crowds. It’s so bright. The spot light obscures most of the faces. If I weren’t so instinctual, I could use this comfort to my advantage; I can’t see them. They aren’t there. I’m sweating bullets. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the kidney’s automatic hormonal response to fight or flight, but the body doesn’t know there is no real threat, it just perceives what my animal brain is going through as one.

“Another shot of epi!” the doctor cries out. Epinephrine is used to jumpstart the body. It is like a dose of life, a spark from a flint stone to kick the heart into gear. After several rounds, there is still no response from the patient.

The song kicks up! My fans pull away from my face and slide down my body. I feel the fibers of each feather on my skin, and I want my audience to imagine the feeling too. I want to share in it.

The family comes in and are taken to a conference room. The doctor has called it. Time of death. The family is worried but remember, he was talking when the paramedic left. Soon the news will be given to them. I don’t want to know that feeling. I don’t want them to share that with me. We hear the wails no matter what though. Our office is just down the hall from the conference room and you can’t help but hear the wails. A light has gone off for them. A flame in their family has been blown out.

The spot light goes out. A black out moment for a buildup for the finale. I take off my mask and the light comes back on. I reveal a mouth stitched shut, powdered with shades of greens and blues and brown makeup to portray infection. Thus far my look has been angelic. White feather wings, shimmering shades of pearl. This is why I’m speechless. I’m speechless in this environment. My stitched mouth portrays my anxiety towards sex. I want them to see me as a sensual symbol. Feel my fans. Ponder on the texture of the skin of my exposed hips and ass, but now I want them to know that beyond the sights and sounds of sensuality, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of sex. Monsters of my past have taken the right to one of the simplest pleasures of life from me. I land on my knees. At this point I’m wearing nothing but thin opal straps and my small sequin loin cloth. “Some men may follow me, but you choose ‘death and company’. Why you so speechless, oooh ohhh”. My back faces the crowd at this moment. My hips are thrusting the air as if I’m riding a bull. My fans fly open as I throw my arms in the air and bend over backwards to finish out the song.

The son’s arms fly open to quickly grasp his mother before she falls to the ground. I’ve never lost anyone I truly care about. Not yet.

I’m sweating hard, but not diaphoretic. My heart rate is elevated, but it isn’t medical tachycardia. I’m alive. I’ve never felt more alive. From my place laying on the floor with my fans over my face in my finishing pose, I hear shouting. I can’t make out any words, but I know its applause. When coming down from a moment like this, applause sounds like static television snow. I’m still here. I did this. It is my moments in the ER that remind me to pursue this fantasy over and over again until I master it. Someone else’s light is going out. I can’t take these moments for granted. I can’t let fear stop me, not with the knowledge of much harder things to come. Relish this moment in the sun, this moment in the spot light.


~~~

About Victor: Victor enjoys long walks on the beach. His favorite food is fish tacos. Capricorn. Please swipe right or you’ll hurt his feelings. Victor Cline is one of those people who quickly burns through his interests, diving into the subject as deeply as possible and then just as quickly coming back up for air. Significantly knowledgeable but practically useless and a Hagerstown native, he legitimately grew up surrounded by fancy breeds of show pigeons that his dad accumulated countless trophies for in national title shows. Think AKC Eukanuba dog championships, but sky rats. Google if you don’t believe it. Victor works in the ER and is attending HCC’s RAD Program, but his true passion lies in herpetology. Biweekly, Victor volunteers at the National Aquarium Baltimore taking care of the poison dart frog population of the Amazon Rainforest Exhibit. By day an orchid hoarding, frog keeping, patient caring guy, but by night a burlesque tease by the name of Cinderfella.  

Too many pies and not enough fingers. Somebody help this man!

Photo in a Box – Eric Schwartz

Photo in a Box – Eric Schwartz

This submission from Prof. Schwartz really tugs at the drawstrings of life. Everyone’s experience is colored by sights, sounds, and sensations that remind them of where they’ve been. Sometimes the smallest things can bring conscious and subliminal self-definitions flooding back. That’s the magic of the mind.

Enjoy:

___

Photo in a Box

Somewhere in a notebook, under many other notebooks, in a box surrounded by many other boxes, upstairs in the attic is a photo of a window open to a late spring day and an old black t-shirt washed by hand that hangs on a wire clothes hanger and flaps in the breeze. No one is in the photo, but a moment of my youth is captured there, a moment not long after I sold the car that I had driven to nation’s capital, the car into which I had packed all my personal belongings, the car that broke down in the middle lane of the Beltway during the morning rush hour after a marathon drive from the Midwest. Yes, I sold that car. Broke up with my girlfriend in DC. Gave up on the job I was sure to find in that city and headed up the East Coast with my belongings now fitting in a large blue backpack that was fraying on the edges.

The backpack is not in the photograph.

I think now of that moment when my life seemed suspended, flapping like that damp t-shirt in the breeze. I had no job prospects. No concrete sense of what awaited me in the days, weeks, or months ahead. No girlfriend. No belongings except what fit in my backpack. That wide-open sense of the unknown yawned before me, an open road, a blank calendar, a life ahead with everything uncertain.

That moment seems now so far away. When I think of it, it’s not that I want to reclaim or certainly not to relive those days. But I also recognize the strange charm of that time, that power of the looming unknown, the undefined potential of youth. I know this was my story, but I also know it is not mine alone. We don’t all have that moment, but many of us do, a moment when the supporting fabric of our life is cut away, and in what is left we clearly feel the infinite variations suddenly possible in the life that stretches ahead, variations in that life that are spun by the choices we make and will make moment after moment after moment.

A couple of days after taking that photo, I caught a Greyhound bus, making a couple of stops before landing at my brother’s place in Boston. My brother offered me a place to stay. I stayed. I lived out of that backpack for another year. I probably wore that t-shirt for another year after that. I lived. I made choices that led to more choices, more life. Eventually, I got rid of the backpack. I needed more and more boxes to hold more of my life. And now that photo is still somewhere up there in the attic, in one of those boxes.

___

Eric has been teaching political science and history at Hagerstown Community College since the autumn of 2012. Prior to college teaching, he worked as a journalist and journalism trainer in the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Talk of Hammers and Crosses – by Edward Bishop

Talk of Hammers and Crosses – by Edward Bishop

Though you may or may not agree with or understand Edward’s view-and-relation of his experience, this is a compelling story nonetheless. Knowing others comes through listening to their experiences. Knowing the world comes through the same.

Enjoy:

____________

 

Talk of Hammers and Crosses

 

This is a tale about a hammer, and what that hammer represents to me. This is a story of gods and of men. It starts with a man named Jesus, who was born in a town called Nazareth and nailed to a cross. Not by the same hammer as before, but by one made from roman iron.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church I was familiar with Christ’s crucifixion. Every Sunday morning, I would analyze the look of agony on his face as he hung above the alter, and muse over the red paint that ran from his palms, feet, and from a cut on one of his ribs.  He was bare, clad in a small bit of cloth around the waist, open to the eyes of the masses like a zoo animal.

And no matter what church I went to, his face was always the same: upturned with his mouth open in pain, with eyes that never met mine.

In Sunday school I was lectured about divinity and the powers of God and his son. I was told about miracles that come about from belief; Men can walk on water, or rise from the dead, a trumpets’ horn can bring down the walls of a fortress, and a mother could rise body and soul into the afterlife.

I was told repeatedly. “God has a plan for you. He knows everything that will ever happen to you, and he designed a plan uniquely for you.”

“He knows how you will live, and he knows how you will die.”

For a while I zealously believed in God’s plan for me. I wore a cross, said my prayers before bed, learned the rosary, and I even tried to teach myself the Nicene Creed in Latin. The Roman Catholic Church provided an escape and a sanctuary during both middle school and the earliest years of high school. It served as a hideaway from the drama, anxiety, and hormonal pandemonium.

The steps where always easy to remember; sign the cross, kneel, stand, rise again, and sign the cross, kneel and pray again.

For a while I considered joining the priesthood.

So, when I say that the death of my grandfather split me to my core, I mean it made my stomach churn at the sight of a cross. Grandad was a minister and a preacher during my early childhood, and even when he stopped preaching, he was a holy man. You could walk into a room and feel his intense spirituality. When he spoke, you listened. And when he prayed you knew that there was power in his words.

I wanted to be like him, I wanted his strength of belief, and that love for other people that his ministry gave him. I wanted his confidence in God.

I was with him in the end alongside my family. I remember the way his heartbeat monitor chirped every so often, that horrible monotone “beep, beep, beep” I hated the way he breathed; his oxygen mask caught every exhale and inhale, and enhanced each one until they were a monotone gurgle.

Grandad was coherent. However, he could not move, or speak. A machine kept him alive, and painkillers kept him sedated. All we could do was wait for his brain to suffocate.

I held his hand in that little white hospital room and prayed as his pulse twitched and spasmed. I prayed the Lord`s Prayer and the Hail Mary until my voice caught in my throat.

I had begun to choke on anger.

For the first time in my life I was angry at God. My father would later say that “no one could have planned or prevented this.” but according to my childhood sermons that was a half-truth. If they were true then God knew how my grandad was going to die and he knew when and where. He knew that my grandfather’s’ heart would stop beating in his bathroom as he washed his hands after tending to his roses.

God knew that Grandad’s triple bypass surgery nine years ago was not going to do a damn thing to prevent it. Yet he allowed that scalpel to unzip my grandfather’s chest.

I found myself praying to Odin, King of the Norse Gods, and one of the gods of the afterlife.

“Take him painlessly.” I pleaded “He`s is a great man, one of my role models.”

While praying to Odin I felt as if I was having a direct conversation with him. I could feel an intimate exchange of emotion, an understanding that said even though nothing could be done for my grandfather I was not alone, my pain was being felt.

Looking back, I don’t know what spurred me to do so. I’m familiar with Viking mythology, it is something that I have studied for as long as I can remember being able to read. But I never considered the idea of worshipping the Aesir and Vanir Gods as non-fictitious beings until after Grandad`s passing.

After his death I turned away from God, Christ, and the Church. I destroyed, sold, or tucked away most Christian memorabilia in my room. I destroyed paintings, sold my bible, and broke a glass angel.

“I refuse.” I told myself “I refuse to idolize and pay homage to a deity that planned such a fate for grandad, who designed for his death to be so gruesome. Why should I recognize a deity, who made my Nanny sob into a pillow as the love of her life faded away into oblivion?”

Today modern paganism feels right to me. In contemporary Norse Mythology gods are described as beings who are living among us, almost like big brothers to humanity. The gods have wants, needs, fears and failures. And they play an active part in the activities of the world.

This expression of the divine, this level of humanization, was something that I found lacking in Christianity. Sunday school taught me that God was this supreme and iron will, and that you came to him on bended knee. In Asatru, in Heathenry, and Neo paganism you don’t have to kneel. Its permitted, but not insisted upon. Instead you lift your head high when you are speaking to your gods.

Yes, there are offerings and devotionals given to the Aesir and Vanir, but they are gods, that is what is expected. What is most important is the relationship between yourself and the deities. It is not about modeling your life after theirs, it is about accepting the existence of the gods and being a part of their lives as much as they are a part of yours.

After Grandad`s death I missed feeling spiritually connected to something, I surgically removed myself from the emotional fraternity of Catholicism and realized that I was removing the very warmth Grandad had, and that I was aspiring to hold. By cutting myself off from Christianity I emptied a part of myself that I never recognized as being filled.

Belief in the Old Gods filled that void. I have a much easier time feeling the brotherhood and energy of Neo-paganism than I ever did at a Catholic mass. The Pagan Community is full of love, respect and comradery. It doesn’t feel like a race for attention as congregated prayer does to me now.

In Heathenry a hammer is the equivalent of the Christian cross. It represents Mjolnir, the weapon of Thor, and it is commonly worn around the neck of a practitioner to ensure safety and to symbolize your brotherhood with the Gods. I have yet to buy a hammer necklace, though I do plan to acquire one in the future. And I plan to wear it with pride as a heathen.

I doubt that I will return to the Catholic Church. I acknowledge the lessons it taught me and the morals and good character it instilled. But I am still so angry.

I am angry about the death of my grandfather, a man who I childishly regarded as immortal and unchanging. I am angry that he died in the manner he did, that in return for his life of compassion, faith, and honest ministry his “thank you” was to be unable to move, unable to breathe without a machine, unable to stand up, eat, or use the bathroom. To be crippled for the last nineteen hours of his life, as his heart slowly killed itself and suffocated his brain.

I do keep a rosary, a gift from when I was confirmed. I take it out occasionally to run my fingers across the amber beads and delicate silver knotwork of its Scottish cross.

But I do not pray.

I hold it and I talk to Grandad, keep him up to date on the weather, family drama, Nanny`s latest piece of juicy gossip, or my Dads ever increasing work schedule. Neopaganism teaches that our ancestors and family walk with us, that they remain as positive influences in our future. I believe today that Grandad walks with me, that he holds my hand when I am struggling. To me he will always be that empathic old man with an infectious smile and laugh. I believe he made it into Heaven, and for the life he lived I hope he enjoys its every luxury.

I cannot walk with him beside Christ anymore.

But that is not his fault.

_________

Edward Bishop is a passionate collector of glass tankards and is a self-taught master of skills that were last used over 500 years ago. A Maryland native, Edward enjoys laying in hammocks, thrift shopping, and writing pieces of fiction.

Leaning Into It – by Doug Canter

Leaning Into It – by Doug Canter

We’re kicking off the Spring 2019 online issue with something that is really worth the read.

We hope you find Doug’s story as stirring as we did.

Here it comes:

_________________

Leaning Into It

Days after I decided to travel to the Blue Ridge Mountains on a motorcycle, I bought a new bike after years of thinking about and preparing for it. Surrounded by flashy motorcycles on a commercial strip in the Washington D.C. suburbs, I lifted my left leg over the fuselage of a shiny white one. Pasted prominently on the tank’s top, a disclosure warned that “Improper weight on the rear of the bike could cause serious injury or death.” Why in the world would anyone put themselves at such risk? Having ridden two-wheel motorized machines off and on for about fourteen of the last forty years or so of my adult life, I thought I knew the answer. But at sixty, I felt unsure of my decision to buy the 500 cc machine that waited silently and patiently beneath me for my test ride. I swallowed hard, straightened the handlebars and looked over the motorcycle’s windscreen through the large doors of the dealership onto a parking lot and a busy suburban road.

 

Reaching for Passion

“You did pretty good,” Scott said to me after the test drive. “You stayed with me the whole time.” I mumbled something about jerky starts and being a little rusty and thanked him, but I didn’t reveal the discomfort I had felt in both hands as I manipulated the clutch with my left and the front brake with my right. The opening and closing of my fingers caused soreness after only ten minutes. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage riding two and a half hours. This whole idea for a motorcycle trip to the Shenandoah National Park, where I would spend a week at a conference, seemed like a way to develop a story. But if I had been honest with myself, the trip two weeks before my daughter’s wedding had more to do with my recent change of law firm jobs and dissatisfaction with the direction my life had taken.

The next morning, after buying the Honda CB 500X, I woke dreaming about crashing it on the highway. As a college student I had ridden a Yamaha 350 cc motorcycle all around and through central Pennsylvania. I seldom felt frightened while riding back then. Maybe I had felt spurts of fear during moments on Route 15, the major secondary road that wound through central Pennsylvania and passed Bucknell, where I attended college. The whole bike would vibrate while traveling 65 miles an hour. I understood the consequences of hitting the pavement at highway speed. But mostly I had ridden with complete confidence back then, ironically, before I had a motorcycle license, before I even had taken a motorcycle safety course.

Now, the anxiety occurred sporadically. Mostly, it sprouted to the surface when I thought about riding, not while actually riding. The doubt had started in earnest a year earlier after an SUV almost ran directly into me as I rode my Vespa, travelling on two-lane Route 355 north of Rockville. At the time, I was riding to the Triumph motorcycle dealership in Fredericksburg. The driver of the SUV apparently hadn’t seen me until the last several seconds before impact. Fortunately several seconds was all he and I needed to avoid the crash but it got me thinking.

Crashes and accidents killed 4,957 motorcyclists during 2012, two years before I bought the motorcycle, a seven percent increase from the prior year, according to the then most recent recorded data of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During the several weeks preceding my motorcycle purchase, I had heard a multitude of stories about the dangers of motorcycle riding from people responding spontaneously at the sight of my Shoei helmet.

During the days I waited for the installation of a top rack and crash bar on my new Honda. I suffered the abrupt realization that I might not have enough storage capacity for the week-long trip. I started to perform internet searches for packing Honda CB500X’s, packing motorcycles, and motorcycle luggage. One site warned about distorting the center of gravity. Low hanging and centrally located luggage seemed to create less potential for handling problems. This information dashed my vision of simply wearing a large hiking backpack on my back during the trip. The logistics were daunting. I absolutely had to travel with a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea. That alone weighed 20 pounds and occupied a large bag. I needed to bring a laptop, power cord, camera, telephone and chargers. Together they probably weighed ten to fifteen pounds. I also needed medicine, toiletries and some clothes. I had no idea how I would load everything up for the trip, I thought in a panic.

The deliberation, calibration, and risk-weighing I performed during this packing and planning phase of my journey resembled familiar characteristics that had marked my adult life. For over two decades, I had considered a job change, from law firm back to the public sector, from law firm to a corporate setting, a lateral switch to another practice area, and even to a non-legal job. This latter option always seemed inaccessible. In truth, I was afraid, and, in a way, this trip to the Shenandoah National Park felt like I was doing more than riding to a conference on a motorcycle. It felt like I was breaking a self-imposed barrier of fear.

Taking the Risk

After waiting two weeks for the dealership to install crash bars, which protect the turn signals and other exterior accessories from damage caused by a parking lot fall, and a top box, which provide a locked storage container to keep my helmet or other light baggage when not riding, I picked up the bike. It looked bigger than the day I bought it. Scott, my twenty-something year old salesman, provided a superficial overview of key features. He then checked about ten small square boxes on a delivery invoice before handing it to me to sign. I started asking him for explanations about a number of items on the checklist and jotted notes of key service and maintenance requirements that seemed important to monitor. I had to check the oil once a month, lubricate the chain twice a month, change the brake fluid every two years, and change the coolant every two years. I began to wonder why I purchased the motorcycle to begin with.

Handling the hand clutch and foot gears, working the hand and foot brakes, and adjusting to the greater engine acceleration came relatively quickly after a few days, although I was a little rusty. However, the psychological aspect of riding a two wheel machine at high speeds did not feel the same as it had when I was twenty. On occasion, I found myself rubbing my knees and legs, feeling acutely aware of the comfort, no pains or aches, and I suddenly felt simultaneously both grateful for my health and well being, and anxious about sacrificing all that I had. At the same time, I started checking MapQuest directions, researching one and two piece rain gear, and thinking about packing, committed to follow through on this long-held dream.

At Battley Motorcycle in Rockville, a Harley and Ducati dealership, scores of leather clad people, mostly men with gray beards like me, milled around the parking lot against the backdrop of parked Harleys and other large cruisers. A band played at the far end as two people danced alone near them. Vendors sold motorcycle memorabilia under a white tent at the other end of the lot. I parked my adventure bike, which was built for on and off road use. Adventure bikes sit higher than cruisers and have a more slanted frame towards the back of the bike that gives them a racier look than the cruiser, which is reminiscent of the motorcycles we used to see in photos of biker gangs like the Hell’s Angel’s when I was a boy in the 1960s.

Craig, a thin short guy, helped me find equipment. As it turned out my red Shoei helmet was seven years old, about two years older than desirable. He explained that after about five years the interior starts to decompose and lose its effectiveness. I bought a new similar Shoei, this one black. Craig showed me an Asai that fit well, but it was not Snell approved. I remembered from my motorcycle safety course that helmets should be DOT and Snell approved. The Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1957 after the motorcycle death of Pete “William” Snell, certifies motorcycle helmets based on independently developed standards supported by scientific and medical research. After buying the helmet, waterproof rain gear, which included a jacket, pants and pull over rubber boots, and a black motorcycle jacket, which had padding in strategic places, I paid the almost $1,000 bill and left for the Honda dealership. I rode out of Battley’s parking lot wearing my motorcycle jacket and helmet, trying to smoothly shift gears and quickly accelerate as I rounded the turn onto the road from the lot under the watchful eyes of two couples standing behind their Harleys on the other side of the two-lane road across from the dealership.

The Shenandoah National Park, established in 1935, covers 200,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a corner of Appalachia and Virginia, rich with history and folklore. My trip to the Park started the day before I departed. I rode to Bethesda on a partly sunny summer day to check tire pressure. The breeze blew gently in my face, and I glided on the two wheel machine through a natural world of air and clouds and sun and earth. As I waited for my tires to cool before filling them with air, I sipped a decaffeinated coffee, savored a chocolate croissant, and listened to chirping birds.

When I initially saw my first motorcycle at twenty, the red 350 cc Yamaha sitting idly on an old brick patio of the owner’s small two-story house in Lewisburg, a dot of a Pennsylvania town with a couple of bars and a pizzeria on its single main street that extended from a two-lane bridge over the Susquehanna River on the northern edge of town to an interconnection with Route 15, near the high school, at a point about half way between a federal prison and the pockmarked barren hilltops of empty, strip coal mines further south, on the way to Harrisburg. My closest college buddy, Bob Wentz, who coincidentally owned the identical make and model motorcycle, came with me. The owner wheeled the bike onto the narrow street in front of his house. After several failed attempts, the Yamaha coughed its way to life. It was a carburetor problem that plagued the bike for the entire time I owned it. It was the spring of 1975.

I struggled to test drive the 350 cc Yamaha in the nearby high school parking lot. After judging my capability, the owner offered to show me how to stop and turn the bike. He didn’t appear too concerned with the fact that I had never ridden a motorcycle before and had neither a learner’s permit or motorcycle license. I bought the motorcycle the next day, after a failed attempt to borrow money from the local bank, with most of my semester’s food money.

For those of you who have never ridden a motorcycle, the operating mechanics, especially the handlebar clutch, may seem strange. Certainly, at the time, the front wheel handbrake and rear wheel left foot brake felt unnatural to me. I learned how to shift the gears with the left foot pedal fairly quickly, although, the coughing carburetor punctuated each attempt to shift from neutral to first, a slight downward notch on the left foot pedal together with a squeeze of the left handbrake, which serves as the clutch. But the rapid coordination of both my right hand and left foot on both brakes simultaneously proved more difficult. It took several weeks for me to feel comfortable riding on the roads around Lewisburg.

It might be important to express the feeling of loneliness and desperation that lurked beneath the surface of my consciousness back then which I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand. I tell you this not for sympathy or concern, but for appreciation of what I feel is a celebration when I think of motorcycle riding. For me, it represents the independence of adolescence, the confidence of youth, the joy of first love, the hope of young adulthood, the dreams of middle age and, increasingly, the reality of growing old.  Looking back as an adult, the yearning for the thrill of those turns, the rush of air on my face, the roar of the engine was always there. But I didn’t act on it for fifteen or twenty years. In the beginning, I was too busy enjoying fatherhood. However, as my three children started getting older, I felt the yearn for that motorcycle grow intensely. My trip to the Shenandoah National Park felt like a leap of faith, a return to myself. As I searched for direction I began to trust my feelings – that I needed to make a change even as the fear of falling continued to hold me back.

As my departure approached, the most daunting task was packing the long list of necessary school, hiking, and motorcycle supplies. At the time, I had been practicing law for over thirty five years. Yet, even I had trouble harmonizing the gross weight limit specified in the owner’s manual with the packing and weight information posted on the bike’s fuselage, which cautioned about complying with the net limit. Another thing was figuring out just how much 6.5 pounds allowed in the top box where I wanted to store my laptop. I guess I could have looked it up on the internet, but I was too involved deciding how to cram everything into the saddlebags and tank top.

Finally, after practicing the day before my departure, I felt I could fit everything into one of the several bags or storage areas. During that practice session, I loaded the saddlebags, including the CPAP machine and other gear, onto the bike, which involved removing the seat, laying the connecting strips of the saddle bag across the bike, and strapping the bags onto the bike with bungee cords. This was my first time performing this task with the saddlebags fully loaded and I had made a rookie mistake. I left the key in the bike under the seat where it opens the lock and allows the seat to come out. The saddlebag on that side was so heavy that it bent the key. At least it happened at home where I had a spare key, I thought. I now knew not to leave that key in the receptacle while loading the packed side saddlebags.

I rode a mile to the local high school parking lot and practiced figure eights using the parking space lines to mark loosely a forty by forty foot area in which to ride. The bike felt sluggish with the heavy bags, which I guessed weighed at least sixty pounds. The objective of doing the figure eights was to control the bike well enough to ride inside the outer parameter of the small rectangle, and to perform the maneuver without placing my feet on the pavement or falling. My first few attempts were moderately, but not completely successful, because I either drove outside the square or, on occasion, needed to put my foot on the ground to keep from falling. My marked areas kept migrating and after a few minutes, I barely missed riding over broken glass. All my effort to prepare would not help if I punctured my tire, I thought, so I drove home without further practice, wondering if I really was ready for this journey.

After a fitful night sleep, I woke early and somewhat systematically packed all my gear and supplies on the bike. With all my practice, I had not spent any time trying to balance the weight in the two side saddle bags. This required some slight repacking. After loading the bike and strapping all the bags and packs tightly to it, I slipped on my knee supports and football pads under my jeans. Craig from Battley Cycle had suggested this possible substitute for motorcycle pants. The knee pads slipped on easily even though they produced a tightness around my knees. The high school football pads were stitched into a nylon girdle that hung to me tightly and created bulk under my jeans on my thighs, back, and pelvis. But I felt it useful to wear them in light of the highway portion of my journey. I kissed my wife goodbye, placed my arms inside my black leather motorcycle jacket, tapped my pocket to confirm I had my clip on sunglasses and keys, and one last time felt the anguish of making this trip so close to my daughter’s wedding. At the time, I thought my wife had given her approval, but I eventually learned that I had not read her response properly.

With all the risk I assumed with this trip, I would never forgive myself if I were to die or were injured two weeks before Libbie’s wedding. What possessed me to take this risk? I thought briefly, but put it out of my mind as something else, a sense of desperation for a dream, selfishly outweighed my concerns. Within minutes, I turned onto Route 495 (the eight lane beltway that surrounds D.C.) and began the first part of the hour and a half drive. This was the portion of the route on major highway roads that required me to drive the fully loaded motorcycle at over sixty-five miles per hour. Straddling an engine travelling that fast on an asphalt road balanced on two wheels in the midst of merging and lane-changing cars and trucks scared the hell out me. I didn’t remember feeling this way before, although highway driving never had been my favorite, but my memories and the feeling of riding a motorcycle had always been strong and positive.

Making a Leap of Faith

Back in 1975, I would ride my Yamaha on winding, two-lane roads around Bucknell near Lewisburg with Wentz. We traveled under canopies of reds and oranges with the air splashing into our faces, the sun striking our chrome handlebars, and the high pitched rrrrrmmmm of the engine drowning out the small quiet country sounds that surrounded us. We passed apple stands, Amish farms, former strip mine towns, state parks, and miles of the Susquehanna River. Sometimes, we’d stop in the small Union County localities to drink Genesee Cream Ale. These were mostly worn towns with a solitary bar and single gas station, empty tracks on rusted bridges and fewer jobs than motorcycles. When I rode, I leaned into turns on empty country roads with the breeze in my face and pulled back the throttle on the open blacktop under the sun with nothing on my mind.

With some of that same feeling reemerging, I approached Sperryville, Virginia, a one-street town with a bakery that does not serve decaffeinated coffee, which lies in the lowlands of a corner of Appalachia below Old Ragg Mountain, and only a short drive on curvy mountain roads to the Shenandoah National Park’s Thornton Gap entrance. These roads to the park were high motorcycle accident areas, according to the road signs, yet here in the forest on these turns near the park I saw more motorcycles than cars. The wind in my face and the beauty of densely packed trees evoked a sense of self: a kind of oneness with the world around me and completeness with the person within.

Back when I was a pudgy, black haired, brown eyed twelve-year old, I felt free when I rode my bicycle away from the stony silence of my step-father’s inattention and the suffocating anxiety of my mother’s glare. Let me pause and say here that before my stepfather died several years ago, he and I had exchanged unspoken apologies to one another, and I began to view my mother’s tireless efforts to raise me with the respect it deserved. But before all that, in 1966, I was playing street football with my schoolmates, throwing dirt bombs in pretend army raids with friends, fantasizing about unbuttoning the blouse of the girl next door – and riding my bicycle.

I rode my bicycle miles away to visit friends, to reconnoiter downtown Richfield, a quaint Connecticut town, which back then was a four-block community with a dime store, old Italian barbershop, and Fourth of July parades. Richfield was nestled along Route 7 between the larger Danbury and the cluster of similar small commuter towns further south on the way to New York City. It was a time of simplicity and complexity as my adolescence unleashed a long search for meaning and identity – and, I think, also peace.

There I stood almost fifty years later straddling the new white Honda CB 500X at the Thornton Gap entrance to the Park, nine miles from Skyland Resort where I would be staying at a week-long writing residency, hiking the trails in the national park land that once belonged to others, reading about Appalachia by women writers from the region, and trying to contemplate changes to my life. During the week stay, we hiked Stony Man trail, which leads up to a rocky overlook that exceeds 4,000 feet, one of the highest in the Park. We walked segments of the Appalachian Trail and saw deer, snakes, and black bears. The Skyland Resort accommodations nested on the ridge of the mountains along Skyline Drive. Although we were not completely removed from automobiles, plastic bottles, noise, and the excessive waste of human consumption, they were limited and contrasted with the dense forests, picturesque views, and numerous hiking trails.

Dreams

Handling a fully loaded motorcycle on a highway in crowded traffic can be a drain. I rode through stop-and-go traffic on a six lane road packed with cars and trucks on my return trip. Machines on asphalt surrounded me in the humid June heat. My black motorcycle helmet and black leather padded jacket retained, and seemed to amplify, the heat. The birds, deer, and bear of the forest all had disappeared. As I accessed the highway back towards Washington, D.C., I felt the contrast between development and the National Park, between suburbia and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I rode across the Virginia-Maryland line feeling relieved that I was almost home and began looking for my exit. As I travelled under the strong sun, I turned to check my left lane for traffic, and the wind ripped my clip-on sunglasses off my lens and onto the highway behind me. It was an ominous sign, but I had neither the patience nor energy to dwell on it. Hot air pressed through the open visor against my face as I leaned into the turn off River Road several miles from home.

The blossomed flowers and green shrubs cast a freshness to the frames that passed, and I struggled to concentrate, all the while thinking of my family as I rested my left shoe on the ground in front of a stop sign near home. It was the weight of the saddlebags, I think. Maybe I had been in third gear instead of first. It is possible I didn’t accelerate enough. Whether lack of motion or excessive weight or some combination, the 500 plus pound motorcycle struggled to keep its feet as I attempted to round the turn onto Bradley Boulevard two blocks from my destination. The engine sputtered and stalled with suddenness. I felt the heavy frame tilt, weighted down by packed saddle bags, a loaded top tank bag, and a backpack strapped to the rear of the seat full of books and other items.

Some things happen in milliseconds. I knew I did not have sufficient time to restart the bike. Instinctively, I tried to pull the right handle bar up to stabilize the frame. It was a futile attempt to fight gravity. My new motorcycle fell to the pavement like a wounded animal, and gasoline leaked over the pavement under it like blood. Unable to lift the new Honda off the road, I started to unload the packs and bags. But within seconds, a young woman driving a pick-up truck offered to help. Then, two boys pulled their car to the side, and the four of us lifted the Honda on to her feet.

The balance, the motion, the feel of the air, the lean into a turn on a motorcycle and the acceleration out of it constitutes one of those interminable good feelings, yet taking those turns too fast can be dangerous. I learned that years earlier in a near wipe out on my used Yamaha. The sound of gravel as one’s two-wheeled machine slides towards the edge of a highway is not easily forgotten. The trip to the Shenandoah National Park had inspired my confidence in dreams. Mindful of the dangerous portions of road ahead, I decided to pursue my long-held desire to teach English. Less than two years after my trip I retired from my law practice, giving up my hard-earned partnership and I began a two-year teaching residency in Baltimore. Now, in my second year teaching World Literature at Western High School, I feel the wind in my face every day at school, even as my motorcycle awaits my return home.

The hour commute to Baltimore and day-to-day responsibilities of teaching in an urban school can deplete. But like the glide in a turn on a motorcycle under a canopy of fall trees with cool air caressing your cheeks, there is a fragile beauty and vulnerable satisfaction that comes from achieving a dream. I woke this morning on my sixty-fourth birthday at the end of a vivid dream in which I saw my oldest son, Ted, and his wife walking arm in arm with an old college friend on the streets of what looked like New York City. As consciousness crystallized, I realized how little time I have left, how much I may not accomplish, and what little I actually have accomplished; and I thanked God for my dreams, the dreams of youth, the passion of a lifetime, and, hopefully, the wisdom to choose wisely which dreams to pursue for tomorrow.

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Doug Canter’s writing has previously appeared in the Evansville Review, Talking Writing, 20-Something Magazine, and Public Utilities Fortnightly, among others, as well as on the websites of the American Bar Association, Discovery Channel Tech, and Danya Institute. Doug currently teaches English in Baltimore City. When he is not preparing lesson plans or writing, Doug is walking the C&O Canal in suburban Washington, D.C., or hiking the trails in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2011, Doug received a Master of Arts in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.