Why Am I Doing This?
A Short Story by Scott Ocamb
I was riding my Kawasaki KZ 550 east on Interstate 80 in a stinging downpour. My best friend, Ross, was keeping pace next to me on his Norton 850 Commando, both of us pushing the envelope at sixty miles per hour. It was the summer of 1981, and I was twenty-four years old.
Cars whizzed past us, splashing us with water. I glanced down into my rearview mirror so I could keep an eye out for eighteen-wheelers. I had learned from experience; it was best to be ready for them. Large trucks drive much faster than cars, even in the rain, and they displace more water and wind, so they are dangerous if you are not on the lookout.
It was the third day of constant rain, so we had cut our annual motorcycle trip short. I looked over at Ross, three feet to my right. He wore a helmet and aviator goggles that he thought made him look cool. I preferred a typical helmet with a face shield.
I thought about how the day had begun. We typically avoided interstate highways. Twisting hilly roads, the kind you can drag your footpegs on as you go around a curve, are much more fun. We had chosen interstates that day so we would get home quicker.
The first day it rained was not a big deal—we had been there, done that. We were thrilled when the skies cleared, and we rode into a beautiful sunny day. We pitched our tent and fell asleep under the stars. Around midnight, we woke to a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning, followed by a torrent of rain, but we were warm and dry in our tent.
We woke up, and it was still pouring. We lay there for about two hours before we decided to break camp. We packed up our stuff inside the cramped tent as best we could, so we would stay dry. Ross unzipped the tent, and we emerged into the deluge. We took down the tent and loaded up our bikes, squinting our eyes as rain poured down on us. I wiped my dripping face and hair with my hand before I put on my helmet.
We rode half of the day in the rain, and then, as before, rode into a bright afternoon. We set up our campsite and went out to a steakhouse for dinner. The rain started again late in the night. “I don’t believe this!” I said.
The next morning, we again broke camp in the rain, but we did not ride out of the storm that time. We figured it was following us, so that afternoon, we decided to stay in a motel in Albany, New York, and cut our trip short.
We checked out in the morning and found a breakfast joint where we could plan our route home. I spread out the map on our table. “A warm bed felt good for a change,” I said.
Four days of beard growth masked Ross’s mustache. “That’s for sure. I usually don’t want these trips to end, but this rain really sucks. I just want to get home.”
A waitress appeared and took our order. Ross turned to look at her butt as she walked away. I knocked on the table with my fork. “Can we please focus, here? We’ll be going close to New York City, so we need to be sure we don’t end up there!”
Ross swiveled back and looked at me, smirking. “Okay, let’s see the map.”
Our route would take us south on a few interstates to I-95, which would bring us to the Philadelphia area. We would then split up and return to our homes. Our route would take us near New York City. I did not want to go into the city on a motorcycle on a good day; on a day like this, I wanted to avoid it at all costs. I pointed to the George Washington Bridge. “We Do Not want to go here.”
Ross picked up the map and folded it into a square, making sure our route was visible. He put the last forkful of eggs in his mouth and said, “Let’s go.”
We walked outside; it was raining harder than before. I wiped the water off my face and put on my helmet. Ross placed the folded map in the clear cellophane sleeve on the top of his tank bag and put a large wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. “Want some?”
I had tried chaw once, and it was terrible. I hated the taste, would always swallow the juice, and thought constantly spitting it out was gross. Ross knew I hated it but kept asking me anyway. “No!” I answered.
* * *
A blast of wind and a wall of water hit me, jolting me out of my daydreams and causing me to swerve. An eighteen-wheeler zoomed past us, followed by two more. I saw an overpass coming up, so I beeped my horn and made a pointing motion to the shoulder of the highway. We slowed down and stopped under the bridge.
It felt good to be out of the rain. We both dismounted and stood together on the side of the road. Traffic whizzed past us every second or two. Ross spit out some tobacco juice. “This is like banging your head against the wall; it feels good when you stop.”
I was in no mood for jokes. “Let me see the map.” I wiped the water off the tank bag and looked at the map. I-95 was just ahead. We were a little under two hours from home, and I could almost taste the bacon cheeseburger and shot of Jack Daniels I had planned for dinner. We stood there looking at each other, wishing the rain would stop but knowing it wouldn’t. “Let’s hit the road,” I said.
“Bad choice of words,” Ross said. “I’ll lead.” We accelerated into traffic, leaving the relative comfort of the overpass behind.
After about thirty minutes, we rode past a junction on the highway that didn’t look right to me. I beeped my horn and motioned to pull over. We stopped on a grass island between two highways; traffic zoomed past us on all sides. We had to yell to hear each other.
“This doesn’t look right.”
“We’re going the wrong way.”
“I don’t know?”
Ross spit out some tobacco. “Trust me.”
We pulled back into traffic. I was soaked to the skin and damn sick of being doused by water every time someone passed me. We passed an exit with a sign that read Last Exit Before Toll. “Damn!” I yelled at the rain.
We pulled up to the toll booth for the George Washington Bridge. I took my wallet out of the pouch in my tank bag and handed the toll to the attendant. Six lanes of traffic filled the upper level of the bridge. Ross pulled next to me as I looked over at him and yelled, “Why did I ever listen to you?” He smiled and shrugged.
We went under a sign that said “Welcome to New York.” In the middle of the George Washington Bridge in a downpour, as we crossed the Hudson River, I wondered why I had ever started riding motorcycles.
Scott Ocamb is an author who tells unusual stories about growing up in a small town, the great outdoors, hiking, camping, and motorcycles. He is working on a memoir about how motorcycle trips helped him learn that forgiveness does more for the forgiver than the one being forgiven. He is also a freelance author specializing in agile and lean software delivery. Please see https://www.scottocamb.com/ for details.