The long ride home

There are many times in a person’s life that are fondly remembered as phases. There’s the baby phase, which most of us can’t remember, the early childhood phase where we begin school, the teenage phase where thinking of the opposite sex seems to be the biggest preoccupation, and finally the adult phase. This last transition is often considered the most important, and in many countries there are even rituals performed when a young man or woman becomes an adult. One of the most daring examples that comes to mind, happens in the jungles of the New Hebrides, where a young man climbs a 100 foot ladder, ties a vine around his ankles and leaps off. I can just imagine what must pass through a person’s mind at that point. Thinking of everything they had accomplished up to that point, before summoning up all of their courage to literally leap into the next chapter of their life; if they live of course. For many people in the western world however, Graduation Day is often considered the official coming of age event. For me though, it was my trip to Scotland, and this is where my story begins.

It was the summer of 1982, and I was living in England in a small town called Prescot, about 15 miles from Liverpool. I had just turned 16, and my stepfather decided to get me a “coming of age” present. It was a black Yamaha DT50 motorcycle. Since it was only 50cc, it was officially recognized as a moped, which was short for a motor assisted bicycle. To add insult to injury, the government had also decided that these 50cc bikes had to be restricted to a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour (as if a 50cc engine needed any restriction). At the time though I didn’t care, because from that day, the world became just a bit smaller, and I had gained a little more freedom. It was the same feeling I had when I got my first bicycle, and could venture much farther from home in a day, than would be ever be possible by walking. Now though, it seemed that there was no place on the whole Island of Great Britain I could not get to, given enough time of course.

For the previous three years, I had been having a long distance relationship with a Scottish girl named Joyce. We had met each other on a camping trip three years earlier and became, as we called it, boyfriend and girlfriend, although pen pals would have been a more accurate description. There was a good 200 miles separating us, and without wheels or money, it may as well have been the other side of the world. I kept promising to return to Scotland to see her, but I never had the chance to get back there ….until now.

Before making such a trip though, I needed some camping supplies. I bought a small pup tent, a thin sleeping bag, a small gas stove, and a few other small items. If only I could go back in time and mention one more important item – RAIN GEAR. Another important accessory for any trip is a map. However, after examining all the coloured spaghetti representing roads, and having the further complication of being prohibited from riding on the motorway, I asked my older brother to write up some easy to follow directions. This was later taped on to my gas tank as a quick reference guide. With all my preparations made, the only thing left to do was wait for morning.

I have never been a morning person, but on that day, as soon as the sun came up, I was wide awake. It was as if I was four years old again, waiting to open my Christmas presents. This was the day I had been waiting so long for, and now it had finally arrived. I was going back to Scotland, to see my girlfriend Joyce. I strapped my tent and sleeping bag over the back seat, slipped on my back pack, tied on my helmet, and climbed on my little black bike. After a couple swift kicks, the engine sprang to life with its distinctive two stroke shrill, and off I went, leaving a light trail of blue smoke behind.

I looked down at the map and started reading my brothers directions “Go to St.Helens, When you get there look for signs leading to Preston…..”. That sounds easy enough, St Helens was only 15 miles away, and I’d been there hundreds of times. This whole trip is going to be a piece of cake. Half an hour later I was on the phone to my brother saying “I must have circled the roundabout in St. Helens five times, and there are no signs telling me how to get to Preston, where am I supposed to go?” I couldn’t believe it, 15 miles from home, and already lost. My brother calmly replied “Just head towards Southport, and you’ll probably see signs along the way telling you how to get to Preston”. I said “OK, I’ll try that”. So off I went, and sure enough, about thirty minutes later, I saw a sign for Preston, and I was well and truly on my way.

Pretty soon, I was on a two lane highway going north, and that’s when I realized just how small and vulnerable I was. Every few minutes, a huge truck travelling seventy miles per hour would roar past me, so close I could reach out and touch it. I remember looking at those big tires whizzing past me, by what seemed like mere inches away, and hoped I wouldn’t get sucked under them by a big gust of wind. In hindsight, I should have just ridden on the hard shoulder, rather than the actual highway. I was so lucky not to have been sideswiped by one of them.

It was during this trip that something remarkable happened to me for the first time. I saw a group of about ten motorcycle riders, heading towards me on the other side of the highway. Suddenly, one by one their headlights blinked on and off as they rode by. I didn’t realize why for a couple of seconds, but then the penny finally dropped, they were saying hello to me. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had been welcomed into this group of people like I was an old friend, even though I had never met any of them before. In that instant, being a motorcycle rider took on a whole new meaning for me, and I realized I shared a special bond with all of the other riders on the road. From that moment on I began greeting all the other riders on the road, and being greeted back, regardless of the kind of motorcycle they rode.

After a couple of hours of riding, the scenery started to slowly change. The buildings became more scarce, and the factories and chimneys started to give way to trees, and small cottages. The beautiful landscape of the Lake District was getting closer by the mile. Then it finally dawned on me, I had never ventured this far from home alone before. Suddenly the picture postcard scenery of the rolling green hills, stone walls and cottages, and distant sheep grazing in the hills became that much sweeter. I had actually ridden here, and I had done it all by myself.

After several hours of riding, It was obvious I wasn’t going to make it all the way to Scotland in one day. At around 5:00pm, I started looking for a place to stay for the night. I had made it to Kendal, which was a small picturesque town in the heart of the Lake District. It was almost half way to my destination, but since my rear end had become really sore by this time, it seemed as good a place as any to call it a day. I phoned my parents to let them know where I was, and how the trip was going. Even though I was ready to look for a campsite for the night, they insisted that I stay in a Bed and Breakfast while on the road, and save sleeping in the tent for my friend’s farm in Scotland. I agreed and checked in to a little B&B place, then had some supper. It had been a great trip so far, and I had taken several pictures of my bike parked here and there along the way. I guess a self-timer camera would have come in handy on this trip, but I didn’t care, having my bike in the picture was proof enough that I was there.

The next morning when I woke up, there was a brief moment of bewilderment as I looked around the unfamiliar bedroom that I had just slept in. A second or two later, my brain finally went “Oh yeah, I know where I am now”. That’s when I smiled and thought, “So it wasn’t a dream after all….I really am on my way to visit Joyce.” After a traditional English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage & tomato, I was on the road again. Several hours, and several more photo stops later, I could finally see something in the distance. My heart raced, and a beaming smile grew on my face as I approached a large white sign with a red dragon on it, and large black letters spelling out the most beautiful name in the world, Scotland. It was a sweet moment of triumph, and a symbol that I was almost at my final destination. I could see some people getting their picture taken at the sign, and I asked them if they could take a picture of me there too. I’m glad they did, because it is the only picture I have of me on my bike for the entire trip, and the only picture I can find of this trip today.

A few hours later, I was riding into the town of Biggar, 30 miles south of Edinburgh. Although the main purpose of this trip was to see my girlfriend, I was also visiting and staying with some dear fiends of the family. They were a retired couple by the name of Don & Elizabeth, and they owned a small farm in Biggar where my brother and I first camped three years earlier. I was given a warm greeting and a hot meal, then I started putting up my little tent in their large grassy field. The sheep were all staring at me as I figured out which pole goes where, and eventually got it all set up.  It was too late to visit Joyce at that time so I just relaxed around the farm talking with Don & Elizabeth before heading off to my tent to sleep. The stars seemed so bright out in the country and away from the city lights, I could gaze at them for hours. As I settled in to my little tent for the night I made another discovery. It gets really damn cold at night.

The next morning I finally rode up to the farm where Joyce lived. It was so nice to get to meet her again, and we had a lot to talk about. The next ten days were wonderful, and I spent several days visiting Joyce at her farm and going for walks. I also spent one day hiking up a local mountain, and an entire day wandering around Edinburgh castle. It was a great holiday, but like all things in life, it eventually had to come to an end. I remember riding over to Joyce’s farm for the last time the night before I was going to leave. Her parents weren’t home, so we talked for a while, then lay down beside each other in front of the fireplace. We kissed and held each other for the first, and last time that night, but being only sixteen, kissing was enough for us. It was a teary goodbye, but I didn’t leave empty handed. Throughout my visit with Joyce, she always wore a black and gold beaded necklace, but when I left, I was the one wearing it.

The next morning I packed up my tent, and said goodbye to Don & Elizabeth, then rode through the town of Biggar for the last time. As I started to fill my gas tank for the ride home, the first few drops of rain started to fall, almost as if the heavens began to cry at my departure. By the time I reached the main highway, the rain had started coming down fairly hard. I didn’t have any waterproof clothing, and it didn’t take long before my jeans and denim jacket became soaking wet. The cold wind seemed to pierce right through my wet clothing as I rode, and it was less than an hour later when I made my first stop. I pulled into a small coffee shop on the side of the road and bought a cup of coffee. I sat there shivering and soaking wet for over an hour hoping the rain would stop, but it didn’t. Eventually, I knew I had to press on, rain or no rain.

I climbed back on my wet bike, wincing as I sat down on the cold wet seat, and started heading back down the highway. To keep myself from thinking of the cold, I began to sing a song from one of my favourite movies at that time, the Life of Brian. “Always look on the bright side of life…..” After only half an hour of riding, I couldn’t take it any more, and had to make another pit stop. As I pulled into the next gas station, my whole body was so cold and stiff, I could hardly get off the bike. My hands were the worst though, since I was wearing only thin, perforated, leather gloves with no lining. They might have been useful for preventing road rash, but absolutely useless for retaining heat. I ordered my coffee, but I had a heck of a time trying to fish the money out of my wet jeans with my numb hands. Again I sat, drank, and waited to see if the rain would let up, but it didn’t. The hours that followed were pretty much the same ritual. Ride for half an hour, pull in somewhere, have a coffee and warm up, then ride some more.

By about 8pm, it was starting to get dark, so I began to look for a place to stay. There was just one small problem. Since I had made so many coffee stops throughout the day, I had spent most of the money I had saved for the ride home. I started looking around for the cheapest place I could find, and eventually found a tiny little room in an attic that I could rent for the night. I didn’t care how small it was though, just that it was warm and dry. As I climbed out of my wet clothes and into the warm bed, a sinking feeling came over me. I had only reached Carlisle, which was just over the border from Scotland. I was only a quarter of the way home, and almost out of money. I had to get home tomorrow no matter what, because I didn’t have enough money to stay another night somewhere else. That also meant the end of those half hour coffee breaks too.

I woke up early the next morning, because I had a long way to go. I grabbed my clothes from the back of the chair I threw them on, and found they were still damp. There is nothing worse than putting on cold wet clothes. I peered out the window hoping there might be better weather today, but it was still raining. After breakfast, I looked at my dripping wet bike outside, took a deep breath and thought “this is it, I’ve got to make it home today, no matter what”. I climbed aboard, and that familiar feeling of a cold wet seat was there to greet me. The hours seemed to go by so slowly, and I cursed the fact that I was restricted to a mere thirty miles an hour. “One day”, I thought, “I’m going to have a really fast bike that could eat up those long miles in a matter of minutes”.

By the time I reached the Lake District I was faced with another problem. Since I was almost completely out of money, I realized I might not have enough gas to get home. I filled up my gas tank up for the last time, looked at my fifty pence worth of change, and wondered just far I could get. Every hill I came to I pulled the clutch in and coasted down it, trying to conserve every drop of gas I could. At least worrying about my gas kept my mind off the cold. By this time my whole body was shaking uncontrollably, and my teeth were clenched so hard my jaws began to ache. When I eventually reached Lancaster, I used my last fifty pence to put a few more drops of gas into my little bike. I was still about 75 miles from home, and my gas tank wasn’t even full.

I thought to myself  “If I run out around Preston, I will have to push my bike about forty miles, but If I can make it to Southport, I will only have push it about twenty”. Each mile I rode from then on was one less mile for me to push my bike. I was convinced there was no way for me to make it all the way home with the little gas I had left, the only question was, when and where it was going to run out. Mile after mile went by, as I cautiously listened to that little engine, trying to hear the first signs of it spluttering to let me know I was down to my last few drops. By the time I reached Southport, I was starting to feel more and more relieved. I hadn’t turned over to my reserve yet, and I was still going. A glimmer of hope started to slowly emerge as I thought “Wow, I might not have to push my bike after all”. For the last few miles, all I could think about was finally getting off this bike and out of my wet clothes. It was about ten pm at night when I finally turned into my driveway at home. I was more cold, tired and hungry than I had ever been in my life, but I had made it. I had completed the almost impossible task of riding over two hundred miles on a little fifty cc bike in the pouring rain. I must have had a bad case of hypothermia too, because I was still shivering two days later.

When I look back at that trip almost twenty years later, I am proud of the determination I showed. To think that I was willing to push my bike twenty or thirty miles if I had to, demonstrated the depth of my conviction to make it home on my own. I may have left home just ten days earlier, but in that time, I felt that I had changed, perhaps matured a little, and that life would never seem quite the same again. It wasn’t a graduation ceremony or any other officially recognized coming of age celebration, but in that moment, my childhood was officially over, and the rest of my life was just beginning.

As for my old girlfriend Joyce, I saw her for the last time a couple years later, and remained in touch for a couple years after, until she got married. As for the necklace she gave me, I’m holding it in my left hand right now. It has been in the pocket of my motorcycle jacket for every trip I have ridden on since then, and I consider it my lucky charm. Although that ride to Scotland was my first big trip, it certainly wasn’t my last. One thing I’ve learned over the years though is this: no matter where you ride to, you will always have to face the long ride home.

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