Q & A: The Camera

A week before I set out on the ride, my beloved Canon A2 camera body broke after seven faithful years of hard use. One of the dials lost its traction and spun freely, rendering the camera useless.

I really didn't have money lying around for a new camera. I had just bought some spendy leather pants, and the details of the trip ahead were all unknowns, including the financials. So, instead of buying a camera equivalent to the A2, I decided to throw down $99 for a cheap, discontinued Rebel body - my logic being that, essentially, a camera body is just a little box that keeps the film dark. I shoot strictly manually and never use the programmed settings.

However, the body is only half the camera; there is the lense, as well, and though I like shooting with a more basic body, I never compromise on a lense. I only took one lense on the trip, my delectable 28-70 f2.8 Canon L Series lense, a lense that still makes me swoon every time I hold it. It is gorgeous; heavy; worthy of being the centerpiece on a dining room table - if I had a dining room table...if I had a dining room.

Anyway, along with being cheap, the Rebel body is extremely light, and with my lense attached, it was totally unbalanced - it felt like I was holding a lense with a growth on the back of it rather than a camera with a lense on it, and it made shooting with one hand impossible. None of this was the end of the world, but it was definitely a nuisance.

It should be noted that everything I have said about camera bodies here pertains to film cameras. I shot film on the trip, not digital. I love film, with a deep, romantic love that will never die. The names alone - Portra VC, TMAX 3200 - make my heart flutter, as does the smell of processing chemicals, the time alone under a dim red light bringing images to life.

But, these things are as foreign in Wyoming as palm trees, and so when I moved here, I began shooting digital. Charlie's early photos were shot with a borrowed Nikon D70, which was a great camera, but I yearned for my sexy Canon lense and recently bought a Canon EOS 30D. It reminds me of my A2 - fewer bells or whistles than the other models, but savvy enough for one to be confident in, and it has a nice heft, creating the perfect balance.


Fifty-Nine Days In

I can’t stop grinning this morning - and it’s more than grinning; hysterical laughing, actually, and cackling, and uncontrollable stoner giggling. I wonder what I look like to passing cars - leathered out on a Vespa, ponytail flapping, cracking up laughing.

The mellow highway turns into Main Street; a boy, about thirteen years old, hangs out of the back window of a minivan in the lane next to me. He’s smiling right at me, half his body leaning out the window, one arm raised in a strong and enthusiastic thumbs-up. It gives me a smile that lasts for blocks.

I notice that when I’m spontaneously smiling down the road, kids on the sidewalks and in cars around me smile and wave in return.


Going Somewhere, Always

Between the head and the heart is the voice, and our voice reflects our choices: the way we reconcile what we think and what we feel; what we know and what we desire. Our voice reaches the world through the manner in which we live - sound is unnecessary; we show others who we are by the way we go through life, and touch everyone we meet with who we are in that moment.


All Consuming

After riding though two states of flat, endless fields of corn and soybeans, I reach Chicago. Chicago, the second largest city in the country; different from others in how absolutely alluring it is. I walk down the streets and revel in the energy. What I notice, after being mostly in the middle of nowhere for a month, is the waste; the mindless gluttony. It's not even a mindful gluttony - rather, it seems to go unnoticed, taken for granted - the countless paper napkins slightly crumpled, slightly dirty, scattered along the edges of sidewalks; plastic shopping bags snagged in every chainlink fence and blowing by in the curling gust from each passing bus. What filled these bags at one time? What was served with all these napkins?

Where is it all now? We don't need most of what we have, and I wonder how things got this way. I'm certainly no exception to the attraction of consumption - even after a month on the road with only three shirts and one pair of shoes, even with this theme consciously planted in my mind, I walk past a boutique and covet, with visceral longing, the blood-red leather purse displayed in the window.


Q & A: Tips For Distance Rides

A few simple things can save grief in the long run when you take off on a long haul - or even to the next town over...

Check tire pressure every morning. Invest in a quality tire pressure gauge - don’t trust your life with those cheapo stick gauges.

Consider a windshield. Depending on your location, how fast you like to ride, the time of year and average air temperature, a windshield can make for a more comfortable ride. I know this because I didn’t have one - in the Nevada desert, the incoming air was a cooling relief; in Montana, it was brutal, cold, and felt like I was getting punched in the chest for hours on end.

Know where to find help. Before I left, I used the online yellow pages to make a list of Vespa dealerships and motorcycle repair shops along my route with addresses and phone numbers.

Let go of your worries. Stressing the whole time about what might go wrong defeats the purpose of your trip. Be aware and be safe, then let go and enjoy.


After A Month Of Riding In The Country

I’m in Chicago, deep in it - the madness of the city swirls around and slams itself through me. I’m in it and of it - instantly morphing back into city mode, dodging potholes and running yellow lights. It’s amazing how quickly I adapt. Life speeds up a thousand times - ten thousand times - it speeds up until it rockets off and is an entirely different universe altogether...


Q & A: What I Brought

It’s the high season for travel, for taking off down the road for an afternoon or a week or more, so I thought I'd finally answer what many of you have wondered: What, exactly, did I bring on my cross-country journey, and where did I put it?

There’s no place on a Vespa for traditional motorcycle accoutrements such as saddlebags or tank bags (no tank), so my available storage was limited to the compartment under the seat (which is the size of a full-face helmet), the tiny 'glove box' below the handlebars, a stock Vespa pod (topcase, technically), and a small, square cooler bag I strapped to the seat behind me.

My sleeping bag, maps and directions, and a pair of flip flops went under the seat. In fact, the seat would not close properly with a haphazard stuffing of the sleeping bag - it had to be mashed free of air and then rolled and folded at the same time like a fancy burrito.

The glove compartment is hardly larger than a pair of gloves, but into it I crammed rain pants, my fancy tire-pressure gauge, 18 feet of nylon rope, coarse sea salt (to counter dehydration), and extra-large rubber utility gloves that fit over my leather gloves in the rain.

The cooler bag was mostly filled with film (call me old-fashioned), along with my camera and a refreezable icepack to keep the film cool. It also held my journal and two pens; my cell phone, charger, and three extra batteries; sunscreen, sunglasses, a lighter, a flashlight, and a pocketknife; my wallet, a water bottle, two neckerchiefs (which I wore wet when it was hot and dry when it was cold), and an mini can of fix-a-flat (which I never used). I didn’t bring a tent, but did bring a tarp to sleep on or to cover the Vespa with if necessary. I folded the tarp to fit on top of the cooler bag and strapped it all down with a bungee net.

Everything else went in the pod. My clothing for two months amounted to two pairs of thin wool socks, one pair of kneesocks, three tank tops, three t-shirts, two bras and a handful of underwear, silk long underwear, one long sleeved shirt, a fleece hoodie, and a pair of lightweight cargo pants. The other necessities: travel-sized toiletries, spf chapstick, mascara, a nail file, extra contacts, a folding hair brush, hair bands and bobby pins, a very thin camping towel, insect repellant, and four small rocks, because I have a thing for rocks.

I rolled my clothes into long tubes in order to cram as much as possible into the oddly-shaped pod, and packed toiletries in small bags to fill small niches. Everything I needed, fit; and there was not room for anything more.

That was it; plus, of course, my daily uniform: leather pants, leather jacket, leather gloves, and motorcycle boots. That was all I had for two months, and I never felt deprived. Though the first thing I did in NYC was go buy a pair of jeans.


Where The Lessons Are

Adversity is a teenager with studded lips and lobes and a sullen expression. If you turn your back or say cruel things, it will glare at you in return and be none the worse off; it expected such behaviour, anyway. It comes to you on the defensive, but comes to you nonetheless. And if you are not intimidated or disapproving; if you are not judgmental of an exterior you may consider harsh, and instead, relate to it in respect, you’ll find a liveliness and a brilliance, a purity, a revelation, a gift.



The road is straight and desolate; cars are few. I ride through Pine Ridge and continue on Highway 44, through towns that all begin with W: Wanblee, White River, Wood, Witten, Winner. The land is hot, beige. I feel tiny here.

The dry, brown earth extends wide and unobstructed; I don’t understand how it’s plotted, or who owns it, or what it’s used for. It stretches out lazily to each horizon like a mountain lion stretched in the sun, impossible to tame or own; it’s simply too wild and self-possessed. As I ride the pavement that cuts through this land like a gash, the wind and heat beat forcibly upon me, emissaries of the landscape to keep it pure of men.


A Tiny Huge Distraction

Yet again, I've been away from this website for a month... beginning when a ten-day-old orphaned coyote baby came into my life and moved into my cabin with me. It is an experience filled with wonder, one that I've given every free moment to enjoy. Now that I've managed to find a balance between Real Life and lovin' up the coyote (he's sitting on my lap as I write this), I'm back.

New posts will start rollin' next week.


Wayward Traveler

The road widens gradually, imperceptibly, and the few cars that travel it fall away, so that soon I am the only one on this road and the road is wide and soft.

The road is a thing of beauty, winding through aspen groves, rivers sliding by here and there. I fly up the road and around the sweeping curves. A large, mottled hawk is flying in his own curve.

At the same moment we notice each other, and in that moment, see that our paths are about to intersect. Our eyes lock as we realize our impending collision less than a second before it’s bound to happen.

The hawk rockets backward, impossibly, as if on a rubberband as I jerk the Vespa to the right in a quick swerve. The noise I make is something between a laugh and a gasp.

"I almost collided with a giant hawk!" I think to myself out loud - because there’s no one to tell. I tell it to the aspen trees; the hawk is probably doing the same, it had looked as surprised as I was.


Getting Philosophical

Riding curves is an art, and on this northern Nevada mountainside I finally did something beyond a doodle. The road was carved into the mountain and traversed the slope in curves and twists. The edge dropped off just feet from where my thigh cut through the open air, solid earth giving way to canyons and valleys. I leaned deeply into each turn, beaming, in joy and bliss and concentration - immersed in the exquisite thrill of being synchronized with the road and the ride.

In every curve there’s a moment that feels out of control. A common reflex stemming from fear, from the feeling of loosing control, is to squeeze the brakes in the center of the curve. Yet if fear is allowed in, trouble often follows. The key to riding curves is in the acceleration, not the breaking. We are meant to join forces with the momentum. A slight, steady increase in speed helps maintain the desired course. Curves ask us to lean into the abyss, to understand that letting go a little is what carries us through. Mastery comes from trusting enough to look beyond where you can see.


Bad Blogger!

I've been MIA for a while... because Spring finally came to Wyoming and after spending the winter in a log cabin with no running water and a woodstove as the only form of heat and temperatures averaging below zero for months on end, I had to bask in the sunlight and frolick and play. Please forgive me.

Totally non-related to Vespas and cross-country travel, here's a bit of Wyoming spring - horseback rides and baby calves. (Yes, mother cow has her tongue in her nostril; they do that.)

New posts of the ride on their way, pronto!


The Connection Keeps Us Going

I had my one and only mental meltdown in an Erie, Pennsylvania gas station parking lot. I’ll get into the details of that later, but the short version is that I wanted to just lie down on the pavement and not get up. Ever. But as we know, I am not still lying prone in a corner of a gas station. Though it took over two hours to muster it up, I did finally stand up, pull on my gloves, and pull on my helmet.

I stood, straddling the Vespa, letting it run stationary beneath me. I focused my mind away from the way I was feeling, away from the loneliness, away from the frustrations. I forced myself to focus on the noise and commotion surrounding me, to focus back on the ride. And as my attention focused on everything going on around me, everything going on inside of me began to recede.

I maneuvered slowly through the parking lot and pulled out into the road. I leaned into the left turn and my connection with the Vespa took hold. I felt the revolutions of the engine build, the gears shift. This is what endures.


When The Going Gets Tough

The roads I had chosen from Geneva to Buffalo looked on the map to follow the edge of Lake Erie, but they do not. They are slightly inland. They cut through strip malls and suburban sprawl. The immediate surroundings are ugly and characterless, but the route is close enough to the lake to receive the cold, damp air that sweeps in from across it. It is colder here on this straight, semi-urban thoroughfare - or cold in a worse way - than it had been in the Jackson fog or the Montana rain. This is an insidious chill, it is subtle and more painful, the way it whispers itself into me and seeps through my core.

Road construction makes this ride a frustration. Orange diamond signs mark each stretch: Road Work, Motorcycles Use Extreme Caution. The noise from jackhammers and earthmovers and heavy machinery is penetrating - insolent noise that I cannot escape. Huge sections of pavement have been removed, sliced away to create a sharp ledge that drops three inches to the base layer - graded cement raked in an undulating wave pattern of ridges and grooves, haphazardly dusted with gravel and sand. On two wheels, tires can get trapped in these grooves; gravel and sand corrupt ones ability to maneuver. It’s rough riding, and my collarbone is sore and pulses - an old break that never healed properly, it throbs when jarred consistently. After traversing each missing stretch, I must jump the Vespa up the ledge of pavement back onto smooth road.

Over and over again, the pattern repeats - the orange diamond signs appear, broadcasting their warning; the sharp smells of construction filter in to reinforce them; the pavement ends; the Vespa lowers with two blunt jolts as each wheel takes the drop; forearms tense to burn as I slowly navigate a wavering course; my body hardens and there is no enjoyment.


I Was So Proud Of Myself That Night

After a long, gorgeous day of riding, I pulled into a state campground on the shores of Lake Erie just as dusk was falling and the collecting rain clouds were deciding if they would unleash themselves or not. The park cop told me I was welcome to spend the night in the laundry room since I didn't have a tent, and I thanked him, thinking that sounded like a nice plan.

I parked the Vespa at the campsite I had paid for - a lovely spot, the only site with a tree - then walked down to the laundry room to check it out. It was home to a terrifying mass of the largest spiders I have ever seen. I will ride a Vespa across the country but I will not sleep with giant spiders. I returned to my picnic table and my tree and decided to make a shelter. It was dark at this point, so I tucked my mini maglite into my bra strap and set to work.

I tied the rope I had brought (because you're supposed to bring rope on trips like these) to two branches of the tree and stretched it diagonally above the picnic table, which was too heavy to move. I draped my tarp over the taut rope and used hair rubberbands to secure it in place, and with that, created a funky shelter. I avoided the spiders, though several moths flew down my shirt, attracted to the flashlight in my bra.


Thinking (Wyoming)

It's about now. We so easily get wrapped up in thoughts of then (be it past-then or future-then), we miss out on or ignore or are blind to or rush past the gifts of now.


Connecticut Dawning

I take the dirt road out of town, through woods and fog, past stone walls half-hidden, slowly overtaken by brambles and moss. Mist hangs in the air around me, obscuring the definitions of things so that they are felt more than seen. Colors are soft and muted; silver-blue sky blends delicately into a silvery-green meadow, silver-barked trees look leafless and glowing, semi-obscured by the mist. The mist rises from the earth and settles in from above - one can't tell from which direction it originates, only that it meets everywhere and everything becomes part of everything else.


Traveling With Time

Storm clouds threatened in the skies above as I left Bozeman, Montana. I made it 26 miles before the rain began. I had just reached the neighboring town - Livingston - and ducked into a coffeeshop to wait out what I hoped would be a typical Montana storm: hard rain for an hour, then blue sky. It wasn't; it lasted all day.

I became fast friends with Kate, the owner of the coffeeshop, and she invited me to put off riding in the rain and stay the night at her house. I accepted, on the condition that I at least wash dishes for her at the coffeeshop. The next morning dawned beautiful and clear, and Kate and I got up early to open the coffeeshop and have a cup together before I set off.

There were only two possible roads east out of Livingston: I-90, or 25 miles of dirt called Old Convict Road. I had planned to take Old Convict Road, but neither Kate nor I really knew how to get to it, and after the rain it could have easily turned into impassable mud. I decided to try to find it anyway in order to stay off the interstate.

I was gathering up to go when the first customer of the day came in - a huge, burly man named Time Keeper. He was a miner and a biker, with a ponytail beard and the most gentle laughing eyes I've ever seen. His gloves were so big I could have worn one as a hat. A beast of a motorcycle, decorated with skulls, was parked outside next to my Vespa.

I asked the Time Keeper if he knew how to get to Old Convict Road. He did, and as he drank his coffee he began explaining the way. After several directions of the "turn left at the third fence post" variety, my eyes glazed over and I interrupted him to dash for a pen and paper. Amused, he asked when I was going.
"Right now," I said.
"I'll ride out there with you," he said. "I've got the morning off."
And so we zipped up our leathers and waved to Kate and must have looked like the oddest pair to anyone out that early.

I followed the Time Keeper's massive, graceful silhouette into the sunrise. He led me out of town and into the open land to the unmarked turnoff that was Old Convict Road. Before he turned back to Livingston, I gave him a hug and showed him the tiny skull decal that discreetly peered out from the back fender of my Vespa.


A Recap - To Get In Gear, So To Speak

I left San Francisco on August 1st with the leather outfit that encased my body and not much else: a camera, my journal, a sleeping bag and a tarp, a few t-shirts, one pair of pants, long underwear, toiletries and first aid, a cell phone with three batteries, a can of Fix-a-Flat, and a few sentimental totems. I didn't bring a tent, and I didn't bring mace or any other weapon. I spent some nights alone, some with friends of friends, and some with complete strangers I met along the way. I rode in formation with Harleys, and shared the road with tractors and Amish buggies. I rode my Vespa into a bar, a coffeeshop, and several stranger's garages. My route took me down back roads, dirt roads, and secondary highways; through a glittering high-speed underwater tunnel and over quaint wooden bridges. I rode through gravel and mud and only eight miles of interstate. I reached elevations of 8,000 feet; survived a record-breaking storm; and endured temperatures that ranged from 109 F to 42 F. I drove through lightning, thunder and some of the most gorgeous landscapes ever seen; was rescued from a budding tornado by an entire community of people; rode a longhorn steer in a Badlands bar and hugged a cheetah in Cincinnati. I ate a lobster on a dock in Maine and fresh cantaloupe in the Dakota dust; made friends I'll keep for the rest of my life and experienced more than I could have imagined.

When I arrived in New York City, I was stunned at how difficult it was to end the ride, how heartbreaking. It had seemed like a life, a lifetime, a lifestyle; I didn't want to give it up. Sitting on the curb in Brooklyn one night, I reflected on my ride - two months, moment by moment. And there, the truth of the trip emerged. We are here to live on this earth in awe, of people, of place, of ourselves.