A few weeks ago the president of my school asked me if I would talk about my motorcycle trip this summer with my dad at chapel service. I made a video and wrote a speech, this is that speech……
Good morning, My name is John Romano and I teach science here at Girard College.
This summer along with my father and my uncle I rode my motorcycle to Anchorage Alaska and back. When people ask me why I would do that, which many of the folks we met on the trip did, I didn’t have a good reply. At first I was going to answer with George Mallory’s famous response to why he climbed Mt. Everest….”because it’s there”.
I realized I wasn’t quite cool enough to pull off a response like this.
I guess the answer to this question starts in 1986 when I heard something that redirected the way I would lead my life. I was a young man and a person by the name of Ferris Bueller who decided to skip school one day said “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.
The interesting part about this trip is that if you asked me ten years ago that my dad and me would be riding 11,500 miles to Alaska and back on motorcycles I would say you are crazy. Not because I didn’t like my dad, but because I didn’t think he would want to. My father was not the type of person to stop and look around once in awhile. My father was the type of person who planned ahead and worked hard. He would work as hard he could to force these attributes on to me….and I of course would work as hard as I could to prevent him from doing that.
As a child my father was strict, at the age of five I started playing sports, I had no choice, he made me. At the age of ten I got a paper route, I had no choice, he made me. At the age of 14 I got hypothermia while working on our boat, I had no choice, he made me. At the age of 15 I tore down our front stone steps with a sledgehammer, I had no choice, he made me. At the age of 16 he got me stuck on a roof while doing some home repairs, I had no choice, he made me. And at the age of 18 I went go to college, I had no choice, he made me.
Anyone who has sat through my class knows that I often start a sentence by saying “Its like my dad said to me, he said son…..which is then followed by any number of clever statements that would sum up the proper way to live and how I at the time was failing miserably at doing so. Little did I know that these lessons would later bubble up from my subconscious and would always point me down the right path in life whenever I reached a fork in the road.
He constantly planted obstacles and challenges in front of me to make life difficult. Saturday mornings through most of my childhood would be reserved for yard work, and when I say Saturday mornings I am not talking about 9am, I am taking about 7am, and yes, this lasted well into my high school years. He would force me to work on the car, rake leaves, chop wood, sweep the chimney, scrape paint off the boat, shovel snow, and my personal favorite, move rocks. When I whined and complained about it as I did every Saturday he would just ignore me and just keep working.
Something I never realized until I was older was that he didn’t tell me to do work, he showed me how to do work. He was right there next to me setting the pace and I can honestly say to this day I still can’t keep up with him, in fact this was proved this May when he beat me in the Broad Street run by 13 minutes.
So how did we end up traveling to Alaska for a month together? Well little did I know when I graduated college and moved away from home for good my dad was changing. My dad was able to relax and return the fun individual he was when not trying to prepare a difficult child for the world, I didn’t believe it because when I came home to visit he would wake me up at 7am on Saturday to clean the gutters or scrape the bottom of the boat. Yes, I was an adult.
But it was also this time that we started to bond over a love of motorcycles, something I will talk about in a moment. This was the perfect way to spend time together, riding motorcycles, because we wouldn’t have to talk, we could just get on the road and ride, and not say a word. Five years ago he went with my uncle cross country to California and back. Three years ago he bought a new motorcycle and I inherited his old one, a much more comfortable bike than the one I had been riding for years and we did our first cross country trip together, we went to New Mexico and back and it was a short two week trip. However it felt quite epic at the time. So as of last year that motorcycle had been in 46 of the 49 continental US states. We decided we had to knock off the last three states, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
Washington and Oregon would be easy, but Alaska, well to put it into perspective if you go to the western most part of Alaska it is only a short 58 mile walk to Russia. This was not a cross country trip, this was a cross continent trip. Not only that but we would be heading up toward the Arctic Circle and just skirting it to get into Alaska.
We got to the border of Washington State and British Columbia, Canada in about a week. We were excited to finally head north on the Infamous Alaska-Canada highway and get to Alaska. We pulled out the map to plot out our route and realize it was still another 3,000 miles to Alaska. But our first leg was not easy. In fact the first signs that we may not make it came when we were going through the LowLow pass in Idaho. It was a very windy and mountainous road that one had to navigate carefully. When motorcyclist ride together the person in front must point out debris on the road because on a motorcycle any objects in the road can cause an accident, even some loose gravel.
We came around a corner and I saw my dad’s arm jut out and point to a patch of gravel on the road. He made me aware and I of course pointed to it to warn the people behind me. There were quite a few motorcyclist on the road and there is an understood rule that we look out for each other.
After we got through the pass we stopped to get gas at the only place for miles, a combination bait, hunting, hardware, grocery store gas station. While we were sitting out front we heard an ambulance scream by followed by police cars. We found out a motorcyclist went down and suffered a fatal accident. I felt a large knot in my throat and for the first time this trip realized this wasn’t a joke, this was serious, and I had to be careful. For the first time I felt like I no longer wanted to be riding on my motorcycle and I certainly did not want my obituary to read “Failure to negotiate a turn”.
I looked to my father who had what looked to be the same thought in his head. He looked at me and I as I waited to hear some clever statement that would make me feel better he opened his mouth and said…
“You cannot tell your mother about this”.
Instantly I felt at ease. Not because it was funny, but because I realized he wasn’t worried like I was. I then realized that all the work, all the chores, all the obstacles he set out before me were for times likes this, times when I thought I wasn’t brave enough, strong enough or tough enough I could recall all of those lessons and realize I could do this. I got on my bike with a new found confidence and we hit that road like we owned it. We would need this confidence, because when we hit the Alaska-Canada highway, the one road that traversed through British Colombia,and the infamous Yukon territory we would be tested beyond our belief both mentally and physically.
As we rode further and further north towns became fewer and fewer, gas stops now had to be carefully planned out and we stopped seeing so many people on the road. It was only truckers and bikers because this far north the only business you had on that road was either for work or adventure. This was no longer fun, it was work, to get up every morning, and ride 500-600 miles on a beaten up, broken up, forgotten about road was starting to loose its appeal. However there were times when we ride through a small town and the people would come to road and cheer us on because they knew anyone passing through on motorcycle needed that small boost of confidence.
As we rode on we actually began to talk in the evening, not about anything special, mostly about Alaska, I never realized that my dad always dreamed of going fishing in Alaska and catching the infamous and delicious Alaskan Halibut.
I wasn’t quite sure how to sum up this trip eloquently and in an articulate way that would keep you awake, so because Mr. Fisher told me yesterday he wanted the real deal behind this adventure, not the manicured made for TV version I will read you the last journal entry I wrote on the last night of the trip….It is titled “The Inanimate Road”
I have heard so many authors describe “The Road” as some emotional being that acts and reacts, shares herself and can either love or hate those who travel on her. Jack Kerouac started a generation on the road and suddenly it was the thing to do. Everyone loves “the road”. “Lets hit the road! or “ROAD TRIP” are often exciting yelps of a fun adventure to come.
However I know the road, and the road is not alive, it is merely different forms of rock, shaped and positioned so we can travel with rubber over it. For those who ride in cars you cannot comment or understand what I am talking about, do not get upset but riding in a car and riding on a motorcycle is about as similar as being in a boat and being in the water.
When you are in a car you travel through something, for example in a car you drive through Wyoming, If the weather changes roll up the window and put the heater on, if it rains, no worries. On a motorcycle you drive IN Wyoming. When the temperature drops you have to deal with it, your hand may shiver and you accidentally let go of the clutch or throttle and your bike skids over the center line into oncoming traffic or over the side of the road.
A little rain in a car, roll up the windows throw the wipers on. Rain on a motorcycle? HA! Trying Scraping your skin with a coarse hair brush over and over again, then endure that while traveling 70 mph, worse yet have one of those bb’s hit you in the eye. You now have to have the focus of a Shaolin Monk to navigate the weather. Now factor in rain makes you cold, you shiver and get mentally distracted and you make a fatally bad decision.
Take into effect the wet road conditions, where are the oil patches? gravel patches? Sealed and patched areas, what does each one of these mean to the stability of my motorcycle? Are there tire treads ahead of you? Loose rocks? Is that truck dropping sand which makes you feel like you are driving through fire when you are behind it? Should I blindly pass the truck dropping loose gravel and take my chances at driving 90mph into oncoming traffic or stay behind him and wait for that one perfect piece of gravel to put me into an uncontrolled slide?
Is the road grooved, sealed, frost heaved, oiled? The exact physical condition must be known because that it was dictates how you react to a situation. Loose gravel on the road, do not brake, throttle, or shift, drive straight through it and above all DO NOT TURN!
Then there are the other drivers, these are the most dangerous, the one’s who don’t see you, make very close lane changes to you, ride right up your backside or weave around. People who don’t understand that I am a fragile organic being riding 80mph on an engine with two wheels and no protection. Even more frightening is when a giant 18 wheeler passes you at 80mph so close you can reach out and touch it…..and the wind he displaces knocks your bike clear across the lane and have you to catch it and ease back without overcompensating and ending up under his rear tires.
It really is a beautiful dance when done right.
On a motorcycle you experience every subtle nuance around you, wind change, small bumps, road debris, how the bugs on one section of road tasted slightly salty while the others were more acrid. I have picked bug carnage our of my beard, ears, mouth, eyebrows and hair for a month now. The Yukon had the stickiest, Nebraska’s tasted the best.
A motorcyclist can detect every imperfection in the road construction, like an art appraiser who can tell a true Picasso by the imperfections in the brushstrokes a biker can detect the smallest imperfections in the road. Why? Because if we don’t it can kill us. A small rock, an errant tire tread, some sand or loose gravel, a piece of wood, a bad patch job on a pothole because the worker was out late the night before and decided to do a poor job fixing the hole.
When a line of bikers sees road debris they point as they drive by so the other riders see it. If I wanted to romanticize it I would say the road is trying to kill us, but I know it is little more than human error. The road has no feelings, it has no love or vengeance, it has nothing to offer but a way to get from point A to point B.
Unlike riding in a car you cannot let your mind wander on a motorcycle. You daydream in a car, hit a rock or tire tread and you say “damn hope I didn’t damage the car”. You daydream on a motorcycle, hit a rock or a tire tread and you hope to hear “HELP, someone call 911!” My eyes and brain are constantly scanning and processing as a ride, how many cars ahead? How many lanes? How fast are they going? Is one driving erratically? Is he going to cut the guy off ahead of me thus causing him to jam on his breaks and give me the opportunity to test how soft his back windshield is with my head? Is that a rock? oil? are we turning? is that an 18 wheeler coming up behind me? …….a thousand observations a minute, over and over again for 12 hours a day for 24 days. My mind was exhausted and a blank slate at the end of the day.
Spending the last 24 days in this hyper mode of concentration and focus has left me feeling a little off. Not sure what it is, but just off. We traveled some of the most treacherous roads in the two countries on motorcycles, roads that have claimed many lives. Roads that would go from asphalt to downhill gravel for half a mile to snow drift sized frost heaves that camouflaged themselves well as we approached at a high rate.
We learned that “watch for falling rock” meant there really was falling rock. “Warning Buffalo on Road” really meant there were buffalo on the road.
I guess I am sitting here, should be sleeping because I need to be up in 5 hours so we can head the last 299 miles to Philly but for the first time I can’t sleep. Maybe I am getting a little nostalgic, I mean I almost forgot what my old life was like. Maybe it’s because I have spent the last 24 days with my dad, the longest we have ever spent together. Granted there were times when I wanted to kill him, but I watched him change and work hard at not being short-tempered and angry at things. He honestly tried to work on changing it and to a degree he did. I am proud of him for doing that. He still has his minor meltdowns when we have driven 500 miles in 98 degree heat and are stuck in construction traffic, but baby steps here, baby steps.
We drove over 11,000 miles in 24 days over some of the most treacherous roads for a motorcyclist, we have all suffered both a physical and mental toll for the trip. Me, I am just sort off, became way more introverted with myself. I find myself trapped in that state of hyper focus that riding 12 hours a day on a motorcycle will put you into. Sometimes I can’t break out of it and just stare even when sitting down eating or resting.
Some of us just merely broke down internally and said nothing more.
If I had to describe the road I would describe it like this…
The road is like mental sandpaper, it is constantly wearing you down, you need to be made of a strong mental substance that won’t wear down easy. If not you will soften, fray and then snap and just take off from your group or end up screaming at cars as they go by………eventually losing concentration enough to make that one final bad decision.
This journal entry sums it very well, and I know that had my father not taught me the lessons he did at a young age I would not have been able to make the 11,500 mile trip and I would not be speaking to you here about it today. But what I didn’t realize was that this trip not only changed me, but my dad as well. He wrote a short blog entry for this journal ending with a section about me. I never posted it, I guess it was too personal, or I wanted to keep it special by being the only person to read it.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read what he wrote, because as of today I am the only other person to read it, but I Mr. Fisher told me not to hold back, and who am I to deny an old man his wish. So my dad wrote….
I think I discovered who my son is. I learned this by listening more and talking less. He didn’t say much, especially in the morning, but as I recall he didn’t talk much as a toddler. I was worried because other kids were talking, and he wasn’t saying much. The doctor said not to worry because when he has something to say he will say it. He has a great recall of facts and can remember where we are at any given time during this trip but I can’t remember the route if I don’t write it on my hand. Anyway who is he? He is my son, but better and improved. Every parent wants there kid to do better then they did. I discovered that he has exceeded what I hoped he would be.
To the students in front of me. You may not understand the reason for why and what we do as your teachers and adults. You may think we are just trying to make you miserable, but we are not. We are trying to improve you, we are trying to give you the proper direction so you can do better than we did. After all, as I learned, that is what every adult wants for a child.