Why Do We Do This To Ourselves
Lily Brooks-dalton gets her butt handed to her by an Iron Butt ride
In that warm, mostly empty diner, a waitress tried to figure out what two half-frozen women in motorcycle gear were doing in rural Utah. She reminded us that the temperature would drop below freezing. Jaime tried to explain the Iron Butt challenge to her: 1,000 miles in 24 hours. “Is it for cancer or something? For charity?” she asked. It would make more sense if it were. The little diner, nestled in its neon glow, was a godsend after miles of unlit, twisty roads, the two of us tensely anticipating the next herd of deer to leap across the blacktop—living reminders that we could choose speed or safety but not both. If only we’d stayed on the damn highway, I kept thinking.
I realized I’d been there before, feeling not so different than I felt at that moment: cold and hopeless and ready to quit. Every long motorcycle trip I’ve ever taken has beaten me at times. Each has touched my limits and propelled me past them. Choosing the hardest option on the table is a time-honored tradition for me, followed by inevitably wondering what the hell I was thinking.
“We had been on the road for 16 hours. We were running on caffeine and willpower. We slowly, stubbornly began to realize we were on the verge of making fatal mistakes.”
Our bodies aren’t made to go this fast, to press up against the elements so intimately. On a long-distance ride, the physical duress seeps into the emotional. Along with the heat and the cold and the rain and the wind, there is the despair, the struggle, and the determination to overcome something as mundane as weather or fatigue. There is helplessness when you simply cannot.
This was an impromptu trip. I agreed to it on a Saturday, and by 4 a.m. Wednesday I was sitting on a borrowed Honda Rebel 500, ready to go. Jaime, a new friend with a penchant for motorcycle adventures, had agreed to accompany me, despite her hellish cold and knowing me barely a week. She is a force to be reckoned with. We met up in a Los Angeles alley, synced Bluetooth systems, adjusted gear, and zipped out onto the dark, quiet streets.
The route would take us to Zion National Park and back, an even 1,000 miles. In hindsight, a long ride south on the interstate would have served our purpose far better, but the writer in me required a breathtaking destination. What’s the point in tormenting yourself if there’s no poetry involved?
We rode 100 miles before the sun came up, and we were cold as hell, but we took heart knowing that things were about to get warmer. We stopped for breakfast and Jaime considered turning back for the sake of her health but then decided to press on, madwoman that she is.
Approaching Nevada, gusting winds started pushing us around. We tensed for each new gale that rolled across the highway and tried to roll us with it. The Rebel 500, a perfect choice in almost every other department, is so light it was especially terrifying. Outside Vegas we played a slot machine in a gas station, ate donuts near the Utah border, and took longer than we should have whenever we stopped to fill our tanks. The riding in between was uneventful—punctuated by big trucks and cracked pavement. We were laying down miles, simple as that.
On one of the shortest days of the year, daylight passed in an instant. Sitting in a line of construction traffic in Utah, we turned off our engines and watched the sun as it sank in our mirrors. The last time I was in this state, I marveled at its rock formations for hours after stopping to look out across the canyons at every conceivable pullout. This time, all I could think about was how many miles we still had to go and the fact that we were only halfway there. So much for poetry.
We sped through the park, racing twilight, stopping for the requisite photo, and riding on. Zion should have been a celebration. Instead, it was marked with doom and frost. The sun set and the real challenge began. The sky blackened, deer came out to linger by the side of the road, and the temperature plummeted.
When we left the diner I had tears in my eyes—from exhaustion, from nostalgia, from determination drowning in defeat. I walked outside and my body started to shiver immediately. On the bike, I huddled around my own engine, trying to catch even the tiniest bit of heat. My hands became rigid first with knives inside each finger cutting my skin from the inside out and then with a dull ache my brain couldn’t even locate. I kept moving my throttle hand back and forth, just to make sure I still could. We pressed on, but the hope of success had gone. We still hadn’t returned to the highway, and each mile felt like a hundred.
By 8 p.m. my extremities had lost the ability to thaw. The heat of gas-station coffee seeped right through our hands and out the other side. We had to stop every 50 miles to regain feeling in our fingers, but even indoors, warmth was a distant memory. Stopping that often would never get us back to LA in time. Not stopping was physically untenable. We had been on the road for 16 hours. We were running on caffeine and willpower. We slowly, stubbornly began to realize that we were on the verge of making fatal mistakes.
If it had just been the fatigue, I know we would’ve made it. If it had just been the cold, we might have pushed through. But between the two, our bodies had already quit. It was just our stupid brains that had gotten us that far. And the farther we went, the clearer it became: This challenge wasn’t about grit anymore. It was about surrender.
Admitting defeat was the most difficult part of the experience. And the sweetest. Somewhere in Nevada we got a room at a casino, collapsed into warm, white beds, and slept away the last few hours on our doomed Iron Butt clock.