Freezing to Death for 3000 Miles On the Back of a BMW Motorcycle

Semi trucks started edging us sideways, pushing into our lane, trying to run us off the road. Gas stations and roadside restaurants saw us coming, switched their ‘open’ signs to ‘closed’ in their windows and front doors.

Windy Winter Trees Along the Road

1966. I was 21, living in an upstairs apartment on Mason Street in North Beach, San Francisco. I was a very junior artist at a top advertising agency, being trained in The Game — designing ads, learning how to deal with reps from Skippy Peanut Butter, Foremost Dairies and other large companies.

For each order, I was given the basics of the ideas the job boss wanted, no more. I drew hundreds of sketches, did color combos, created mockups. I sat silently with my boss – not allowed, as junior, to say a word — even as they tore my work apart and demanded ‘something better.’

When they chose the design they wanted, I was the one who handled the formatting, type-setting, photo acquisition and endless copywriting.

Eventually, I was allowed to meet with clients with only one supervisor along. For every job I had multiple ideas, and mine were almost always chosen over the old art directors’ mockups. I started to feel like I was important to our team.

However, for some reason, every guy I walked past, including the senior officers of the company, thought he had the right to grab my butt each time I even came close to them. They’d brush against my arms, breasts, butt, hips, even stroke my hair, as we took the elevator up or down. Or — well, I don’t need to add more. You can guess.

After a very short time, I came to severely detest them, the work, and especially, The Game. I saw exactly how ‘important’ I was not.

I wanted to quit, but didn’t dare.

There was this guy, Joe, who lived in the apartment across the hall from mine. He and his brother Duncan kept their huge, souped-up, very loud BMW motorcycles in the garage under my apartment. Joe’s R60 was black, Duncan’s was an unusual off-white, even the leather of the saddle.

They were down there playing at ‘fixing’ the damn things at all hours. I thought it was odd, since BMWs are known for how quiet they are. Turned out the guys had augmented the mufflers to ‘Harley-up’ the sound. Such juveniles.

One night in a fit of angry impatience, unable to sleep, wondering when they’d stop with the rrrrrummmbling their damn engines, I ran down and, hands on hips, face probably red as an apple, scolded them left, right and top to bottom.

They just laughed and invited me in for a beer. I hate beer. It just tastes to me like bubbly piss. But I went in and I sat with them for a bit, and over time, was able to relax and gradually come to know and like them.

Joe and I became lovers. He moved in. It was fine until one day I came home from work to find greasy engine parts all over my kitchen — including inside the oven. He was rebuilding the thing from scratch, and supposedly had to heat certain parts to get them apart. From then on, every thing I tried to bake in that oven tasted like motor oil. I gave up after three attempts. Motor oil carrot cake is really horrifying.

The following spring, Joe, Duncan and I decided we’d ride across the country on the bikes. I told my ma about it, all excited. After we hung up, she must have freaked out, because the very next day, my dad flew all the way out from New York to ‘put me in an institution’, because he didn’t feel it was right for me to ‘be so promiscuous.’

I know, right? Crazy.

“Dad. I’m a 21-year old divorcée, remember? What on earth are you thinking? Promiscuous? How did you even get to that?”

I made him his favorite garlicky roast lamb (in Joe’s oven). After hours of arguing, he finally relented, and flew back home.

It didn’t end there. I found out that my granny disowned me for being ‘a sex pervert.’ Good grief. Talk about Victorian.

Oh, and she had my name removed from the list of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Like I even knew I’d been on it! I was apparently the first one to break the family line since the revolution. Oh darn.

I finally quit my job. Not only could I not bear the body grabs and blatant disrespect from almost every man there, I was bored. After the initial excitement of being allowed to do so many mockups and call major design shots, it suddenly dawned on me that the four guys who made up the design department with me were bored of the work, too, and let me do it because it got them off the hook. Hah! Buh-bye — back to work, boys!

Joe, Duncan, and I spent hours planning routes, watching the weather reports, and marking maps. We bought tents, sleeping bags, camp cookware and other supplies.

At last, we were ready to go, side saddle packs bursting with gear and food. Our neighbors came out to cheer us as we careened down Mason Street and on out to the freeway.

The first week riding was bloody cold. Despite having wind-deflectors, we had to stop early each evening to thaw out, because we were turning into icicles. Sitting on the back with nothing to do and no way to move around at all, I was the most serious case of ice-body. Joe and Duncan were protected behind their windshields. Even when I went skiing up in Banff, Canada, I never was cold enough that my teeth chattered like they’d jump on out of my mouth like this. I wondered why I’d come on this trip.

At last, as we got close to the southern states, the cold eased up a tiny bit. But now it was the wind, either chasing us and forcing us to over-use the brakes to keep from being blown faster than we wanted to go, or the wind was howling smack into our faces, making headway seem like trying to beat through a six-foot thick wall.

We crossed into Texas and found out right fast
how welcome hippies were not.

Joe was a lanky 6’2”, Duncan a bit shorter, each with shoulder-length hair and beards. Neither of them would wear helmets, instead wearing WWII fighter plane flight caps, hair flowing out from the backs. We all wore bell bottom jeans. We must have seemed like aliens to the down home, reg’lar guys of the south.

Semi trucks started edging us sideways, pushing into our lane, trying to run us off the road.

Gas stations and roadside restaurants saw us coming, switched their ‘open’ signs to ‘closed’ in their windows and front doors.

Cops pulled us over for nothing, making us stand in the cold desert air for hours, haranguing and harassing us, letting us go at last, our bladders painfully close to bursting.

We camped at national camp grounds every night, hunkering down right next to the fire, warming up at last, cooking a meager dinner, pitching our tents, crawling into our sleeping bags as soon as dark hit.

God it was cold. If I never do one thing in my life ever again,
it’s ride a motorcycle across country.

Well — if I get to drive, I’ll do it! But not as passenger. That’s just torture.

I’d been looking forward to getting to see New Orleans and Louisiana. I figured it would be warm, at least, and the countryside beautiful.

We started to drive across the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, an estuary that connects to the Gulf of Mexico, but couldn’t go more than 50 feet because of severe cross winds. It felt like being picked up like tattered old hankies. Those bikes were heavy, but we just knew we’d be flung out onto the water. Scary as hell. So never mind that.

We found a campground by a swamp. I’d always thought of swamps as rich, fecund places of mystery, incredible diversity and fertility. That swamp was a rich, fecund home to only one critter: the biggest, baddest, bitingest, least mysterious, 747-sized mosquitos on the entire planet. Maybe in the entire universe.

Although we’d planned on camping for a few days at that campground, going back to see if we could cross the bridge the next day, we spent one night there.

Trying to cook and eat dinner, we were completely ravaged by those mosquitos. We gave up and set up our tents.

We might as well have slept naked and out in the open. Although it was sweltering hot, the only way we could figure out to keep them from eating us alive — even inside our tents — was to dive down and get completely covered under our sleeping bag, with one finger tip holding the top down, even though it meant that tip was outside the covers.

Just before dawn we gave up and got up. The sleeping bags were drenched with pools of sweat. Even our hair was soaking wet. Our finger tips were so swollen from so many bites they looked like puffy red balloons on the ends of our fingers.

Surrounding us as far as we could see, immersed root-deep in the silky water of the swamp, were the classic cypress trees, hanging moss and all. Silvery glassy water, the woosh of big bird wings soaring overhead, crawking and calling. Frog splashes, ripples ringing out beyond them in infinite circles.

There was a heavy duty fence to keep the swamp creatures out of the campground. As far as I was concerned, the alligators could come — they couldn’t have competed with those mosquitos.

I wished we could stay longer so I could look and draw and paint, but I’ve never been so eager to leave a place, ever.

All the southern states — same nastiness from people — shun shun shun, rude rude rude, semis and local trucks trying to run us over, honking and swearing and throwing beer bottles at us. It’s a wonder none of them succeeded in hitting us.

We got out of Alabama right before a huge race riot. Drove through the other southern states as fast as we could.

We almost ran out of gas several times because so many gas stations hauled out their closed signs before we even stopped at the tanks. Little grocery stores, same. It never occurred to us that the semis were calling ahead, warning them about us.

We were so happy to get to North Carolina, where we found the first-ever friendly restaurant, that served, to us, the best food in the world.

By the time we got to the Appalachians, I had finally learned how to be one with the movement of the bike, leaning in and over, hard, at every hilly curve, really enjoying feeling like one of those racers you see blasting along the tracks at top speed. So exhilarating.

From there on north it was fine. We were able to relax a bit. The weather was warmer, and we could end our days without feeling like human-shaped blocks of ice. We detoured over to Ohio to visit Joe’s family, where we left Duncan, and then across to New York to mine.

After living in California with real mountains that roar high up in the sky with sharp snowy peaks, the ‘mountains’ back east just seemed like big hills with poofed-out chests pretending they were important.

Until I’d ridden right out in the air through the eastern states, I hadn’t realized how many trees there were. You drive along in a car and the feeling isn’t as visceral. You have this box of metal all around you. You can’t hear the wind, feel it on your face, smell the changing environments. The trees are just … trees. But out in the air, they were more alive, somehow, had more presence.

The highways and local roads were down-to-the-road bordered with thick forests of deciduous trees. I began to feel so crammed in I couldn’t wait for the rest of the trip to Long Island to end.

Well, until we got to my parents’ house. Hoo boy. Looking back at when my own kids were only 20, 21, I can see how young and clueless my parents thought we were. And they were right. Still …

I had somehow fantasized that we’d be welcomed, hugged,
ushered inside, here, take your heavy jackets off,
let’s go out in the garden and have some coffee . . .

Nope. None of that.

Right off, from the very moment they set eyes on us, it was rag rag rag, how could you even think of doing such a thing?
Are you crazy?
We’ve been so worried about you this whole two weeks!
Why didn’t you call?
As if we wanted to stand freezing to death out in the open at pay phones in the middle of gonna-getcha southern inhospitality to get yelled at! Nope.
Don’t you know how dangerous it is out there?
Snort! Ummm — yeah!
You could have been killed!
Good thing they didn’t know how true that was.

Joe and I looked at each other and groaned, our shoulders slumping, feeling so disappointed, so sad. I felt my heart shrink and close, the sides of my mouth sag downward. We’d thought to stay and rest, visit at least a week, maybe two. With a non-welcome like that, who would want to stay five minutes more?

Can you guess how long we did stay?

One night. We should stick around and get nagged like that? Even Louisiana was better than this.

I guess I should have known better.

I always have such high hopes for people.

Yeah, they meant well. Still.

Before we left California, Joe had arranged to sell his bike to a college friend who lived in a town nearby. We ducked away that very afternoon and met with him. Instead of the money he’d negotiated for, Joe decided to make a trade — for an old, decommissioned ambulance!

I was shocked and delighted. An ambulance! The inside was worn, but had been well cared for. No old dried blood, no mess, no shredded upholstery. The lights on top were gone, and the name of the company that had used it was sloppily painted over, but it still looked like and rode smooth like an ambulance should. And so much room, after riding on the bike!

Next stop was a store to stock up with food, supplies we’d run low on, and other goodies. We started to feel better.

After suffering through an awkward, stilted dinner, we spent that night at my folks’ (in separate bedrooms, of course).

Early the next morning we were Out. Of. There.

Back to beautiful, free, beginning to be full of hippies, California.

Now we could keep on keeping on.

For a fleeting instant, I thought maybe I’d even try to get my job back. Nah. There had to be something better than being a wage slave.


Image: Windy Winter Trees
© Angela Treat Lyon 2022
text: © Angela Treat Lyon 2023


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