Observations: What are we doing here?

Published on: April 26, 2012

All alone in a rest area in Kansas.  Mitch Traphagen Photo

All alone in a rest area in Kansas. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I pulled off the quiet country road and dropped the motorcycle’s kickstand just as the sun touched the distant edge of the earth on the flat Kansas horizon. I was starting to worry. It would be dark soon and I was miles from anywhere. In truth, I was afraid.

I was in a lonely rest area off a lonely two-lane road, the number of which I can no longer recall. There was one car in the parking lot. As I stepped off my motorcycle, a well-past-middle-age couple and one other man emerged from the building and got into the car. I recall the couple referring to the third man as Uncle…Joe? Bob? Perhaps he just looked like someone’s uncle. I’ll never know. Our mutual existence only briefly touched and, as I removed my gloves, they drove off leaving me alone under the darkening sky.

That was the beginning of the loneliest and oddest night I would ever spend on the road. I pressed the starter on my bike and resumed my westward travel. My global positioning system indicated I was passing small towns, however I saw nothing at all. For mile after mile there was blackness interrupted only by the occasional highway sign.

After far too long, I saw lights on the horizon. Road signs indicated a town, but all I found was a brightly lit gas station and convenience store. For no particular reason, other than a pervasive sense of loneliness, I pulled in and went inside the store. The man behind the counter mumbled a greeting and then warned me of the impending danger of an overzealous law enforcement officer lying in wait 20 miles down the road.

Lying in wait for what? There was no traffic and this man was the first human I had encountered since the rest area. It was not the first time that I had wondered to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

That seems to be the theme of my life. Am I alone in that? I’m seriously starting to wonder. I spend so much time traveling to somewhere else and much of that time looking forward to getting home that I’m beginning to realize that it just doesn’t make sense. Or, perhaps, I’m simply looking for something that doesn’t exist where I am. Or maybe I’m just plain crazy. I keep looking towards the horizon, but I look for something that I can’t quite put my finger on and it is something that, at best, I can only occasionally glimpse out of the corner of my eye as it scurries on. So I keep moving, hoping that one day I’ll catch up to it. I wonder if I’m just seeing things. As the years have passed, I’ve started looking more at what’s around me rather than what is ahead.

That night in Kansas stands out because I’ve never before felt so alone. I’ve also never felt so motivated to find anything at all over the horizon because it had to be better than where I was: on a dark two-lane road in the middle of nowhere. The ironic part is that I ended up in a generic trucker’s motel off a freeway just outside of Wichita and there was absolutely nothing memorable about it except, of course, for the ride that lead me there.

I was alive that night. I felt fear and anxiety, but I was moving forward — moving towards something and it was exciting. It didn’t matter at the time that the end game would be a generic cinderblock motel near a freeway, I just knew I had to get somewhere. I felt passionate about everything — about the bike that was taking me through that night, about the air passing over me, and about the pitch-black horizon ahead of me. It was a privilege to be free enough to be out there, but it wasn’t easy.

These days I feel like I’m on a dark two-lane road in the middle of nowhere, but I’m not moving. “What am I doing here?” I frequently ask myself. The answer isn’t forthcoming. In the past few years, I’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles. I’ve spent nights alone on the Atlantic Ocean and nights on trains passing through decimated small towns that only exist because a handful of hardy souls refuse to accept that their time has come and gone. Perhaps that description fits me as well because in all those miles I never found the place that tells me, “This is where I belong. This is what I should be doing.”  Yet at the end of the day or the end of the trip, I always end up back home in Florida.

I know that some people have a calling because I’m privileged to tell their stories in this newspaper, but does everyone have a calling? Do you have a calling? If so, did you answer it? I’d really like to hear from you and perhaps together we can answer some of life’s questions. Unless, of course, it turns out that I’m alone with those questions. If so, never mind.

My bike has a thick layer of dust on it, and I’m pretty sure the battery is dead. Over the years, I’ve had friends severely and permanently injured while riding motorcycles. There is usually a story in the daily newspapers about a motorcyclist being killed somewhere in the Tampa Bay area. It would be no fun being hurt or killed on a motorcycle, but perhaps an even worse death would be that of simply fading off without passion, a little fear, and a lot of excitement about what lies over the horizon. Somehow, with the passage of time, it seems I’ve lost my passion for dreaming about what is over the horizon. Is it possible that the safe and easy road is the most dangerous route of all?

I’ve long known that the journey itself is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. To me, that makes sense both for a road trip on a motorcycle and for life itself. I might not remember a night in a generic motel in Kansas, but I’ll never forget the night on my motorcycle that led up to it.

The longer I live the more questions I have. I don’t have many answers, but I’m becoming more certain about one thing:  I need to start looking for the pot of gold again. Maybe, just maybe, it’s in a cinderblock motel somewhere off a freeway.