Why Do We Do This To Our­selves

Lily Brooks-dal­ton gets her butt handed to her by an Iron Butt ride

Motorcyclist - - Contents -

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.

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