“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”—Helen Keller
One of the more frequently cited reasons for riding a motorcycle instead of driving a car is that the car isolates you from your environment, while the motorcycle makes you part of it. If you’ve ever ridden through farm country and inhaled the rich, earthy aroma of a freshly plowed field, or sniffed the moisture-laden air that precedes the rain long before the first drops hit your faceshield, you know this to be true.
This evening I sat out on the deck tossing the ball for Daisy, Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer. It had rained in the morning and showered on and off into the early afternoon. Thick clouds bowled along overhead on a breeze that brought with it the first hint of the change of seasons.
Something about those clouds, and the wind, and the slant of the sun, made me a little sad. The summers here are too brief, and this one is almost over. The rain is coming back soon, and with it days of gray skies, morning chill, and early nightfall. Time to dig out the electric vest and the heavy gloves, and put a fresh layer of Sno Seal on my boots.
But the breeze brought something else—a memory, one of Helen Keller’s “potent wizards.” A memory, almost a palpable sensation, of the desert in late autumn, with tentative patches of green scattered across the sandy monotony, a warm wind blowing, that feeling of the riding season slipping away, and a motorcycle ride I took almost eight years ago.
For a number of years, around this time, the word would go out on the long-distance riders mailing list announcing the Chiliburger Run, held around the first of October at the Riverside Inn in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. What began as a couple of people meeting there for lunch eventually morphed into a full-scale invasion of the restaurant by LD riders, who lived by the motto, “Live to ride, ride to eat.”
In 2001, I bought a Honda ST1100 from Dale “Warchild” Wilson, a former Iron Butt Rally rider and currently the Iron Butt Association’s technical inspector, etiquette adviser, and fool frightener. It was tricked out for rally riding, with fearsomely bright driving lights and an auxiliary gas tank that brought the total fuel capacity to 11 gallons, giving it a range between fill-ups of more than 400 miles.
The Chiliburger Run was accurately—and bluntly—billed as “the last chance for a ride before the weather in the Northwest turns to shit.” By that time of year the eastern Oregon desert, which lies between me and Horseshoe Bend, could in the course of a single day serve up the entire weather menu, from searing heat to blizzards. One year I rode through a rainstorm like a car wash, and an hour later sat gasping in the shimmering heat under the stingy shade of a lean-to in a rest stop where the only amenities were a trash can, and a sign prohibiting dumping trash in it.
The ST was the perfect sport-touring mount, an immensely capable bike whose limits I never discovered, mainly because I couldn’t exploit the 400-mile range with my 150-mile butt. Still, while as a rule I have no use for the desert, I approached the edge of it with a sense of anticipation. I was on a great bike, and I had all day to get to my hotel in Boise, and nothing to do the next day but get myself to the Riverside Inn and go mano a mano with a chiliburger the size of a catcher’s mitt.
As I recall, the weather that year was particularly fine. It wasn't too hot, and the few hardy things that bloom in the desert, however fleetingly, were getting on with doing just that.
Huge, brilliant white clouds floated overhead, spanning the horizons, blotting out the sun one minute and scudding out of the way the next. The air sometimes smelled like that peculiar odor of dust and moisture that means rain, but none fell. The season was turning in the desert, and I was alone on a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere, miles from help if I needed it, with nothing between me and disaster but a couple of improbably small patches of rubber and the laws of physics.
If you ever find yourself in that position, and you don’t feel more alive than you’ve ever felt, then you’re already dead.
I got to Boise that evening, defeated the chiliburger fair and square the next day, and the day after that headed home. Between Burns and Bend I hooked up with a trio of 18-wheelers barreling along nose-to-tail at 80 mph. I tucked in behind the last one in line, close enough to get a tow from the draft but far enough behind and to the side that I could see up ahead and drop back to safety in time if I needed to. I arrived home late that night by the blazing light of a pair of PIAA tree-burners.
Where I live now is about as much like the desert as a horse is like a turtle, so I can’t really explain how the smell of a breeze from the Pacific Ocean this evening reminded of a ride across the eastern Oregon desert eight years ago. All I can say for sure is it conjured up the past, and gave me a part of my life to live all over again, a part I’d all but forgotten.
Maybe that’s why Helen Keller called smells “wizards,” because if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.