By Meggie Cramer
There is a certain smell that radiates from the earth in Wisconsin. I’m not sure if it’s too many cows, too much corn, or too many factories, but it’s unique. To me, it is the smell of the past; but that smell, when captured on the back of a motorcycle, is enhanced to a degree that it fills my senses, overwhelms me. The dry leaves are more bitter, the industrial smoke sharper, and the farm runoff more pungent. It’s the smell that makes me hold my breath, and count to ten, in the hope that I can keep it with me. When Wisconsin hits my nose, my accent loses its Chicago air and makes me elongate my o’s and even slip in an occasional d for my usual sharp t’s.
For twenty years my father had wanted another motorcycle. My mother had insisted that he get rid of his old Honda when they got married. It was no longer sensible to have long hair, wear leather, or play the bass when you were a married man. She explained to him that it was time to step up to the plate, quit drinking, and quit doing drugs if she was ever going to have children with him. He complied and even when I was born he resisted the urge to buy a bike again. He drove Volvos, but whenever we drove through Wisconsin up to our cabins he would cock his head just slightly at the sound of a Harley, distinct in its low rumble and Twin-V engine purr. I think he chose our cottage not only for the panoramic views of Lake Michigan, but also because whenever we drove there we passed the Harley-Davidson factory. It was a ritual that when we passed it Dad would start chanting, “Bow your heads! Bow your heads!” I giggled in the back seat, straining my eyes to see the massive industrial village that housed the production, design, and warehouses for the entire Harley-Davidson corporate headquarters.
When Dad could no longer resist the urge to purchase a motorcycle, I was ten years old. He had just been declared cancer-free and drove straight to that factory to buy a Harley. At 48, he could no longer pretend that he was happy sitting behind the wheel of a foreign luxury vehicle. I was baffled at the motorcycle in its entirety. It was small, not the motorcycle you think of when you picture a Harley. It was a 1998 Sportster in candy-apple red and Dad treated it like a second child. I rode it as much as he did and there were countless instances when I would ask, “Dad, will you take me to my friend’s house?” and he’d reply, “Only if we go on the motorcycle.” I’d roll my eyes and pull on my helmet, silently cursing him for ruining my hair. Yet despite my complaining, the bike was a place where I could feel the close to my father. I would lean my head against his back and close my eyes. We would take Saturday afternoons and drive north, towards Wisconsin.
The moment you pass Milwaukee on I-94 the scenery is completely different. The large houses and apartment complexes start to grow further and further apart and the fast-food joints become dots in the rearview mirror. Dad and I would stop before we got too far out at a burger joint called Kopps, a local establishment that sells the best burgers this side of Lake Michigan. They’re round and flat and the size of a grown man’s palm – huge. I’d get mine with ketchup, Dad with fried and raw onions. I was always thankful we were on a motorcycle after he ate that burger; the smell in the car could be deadly.
With full bellies, Dad and I would hop back on the Sporty. He would get on first, steadying the bike under his legs, then me. I’d pull on my leather jacket and my helmet, which matched the motorcycle to a perfect hue, then toss my leg over the bike, grasping his back. Dad would give me a good smack on the head to make sure my helmet was “protecting me enough.” Then he’d turn the key, kick the clutch, and we’d be off. Once we got past Kopps and the Milwaukee skyline was behind us, he took exit 17A to Waukesha and we were in a completely different landscape.
Gone were the skyscrapers and mirrored windows of the industrial city, in its place were miles of corn, wheat, soy, cabbage, and of course, cows. On one trip in late August, Dad took a detour after the exit and onto different back roads. I knew Dad had discovered this route without me, on one of his Sunday trips with his HOG (Harley Owners Group) buddies. They would spend anywhere from three to eight hours on the back roads, discovering new trails like pioneers, the chrome of their Hogs casting sunlight on the fields.
On this particular afternoon, Dad was practicing for his Road King certification. Dad had spent weeks creating a route that none of the other members had ever taken for their test and even on this ride, the last we’d take together, he still hadn’t perfected it. There was too much time on the freeway, not enough on the back roads. He wasn’t satisfied with the turns or the scenery; there was too much monotony. He wanted vibrant colors to shock the other riders; he wanted something no one else had ever done.
The smell of gasoline mixed with the odor of Wisconsin and swirled around us as we leaned through turns. The Dyna (his new bike) was larger than the Sporty and I had more room to stretch my legs and lean back on the sissy bar. There is a quiet calm that overcomes the passenger on a motorcycle, a mix between the hum under your seat and the whizzing scenery around you. I would let my mind wander and relax, allow myself to sink into the closeness with my father, the bike, and the world around me. The rows of corn along the back roads of Wisconsin are dizzyingly hypnotizing. The perfect symmetry and geometry of their planting lulls one to sleep, which you cannot do on a motorcycle. The corn paired with the constant vibration from the motor under me would usually force Dad, on long trips like this, to slap my knee a few times when he felt my head falling forward or my body becoming too limp to move with him on turns.
Dad stopped very rarely, and usually only for things like farmer’s markets in little towns or to let me off to stretch my legs. We usually continued our silence when we stopped, if only to keep the mood right for the ride. After almost three hours we’d arrive in Oostburg to a warm welcome from friends at their cottage and Dad would shake his own hands out, drape his jacket over the bike, and take off his chaps. Art and Liz, our friends in Oostburg, would greet us with bratwurst and non-alcoholic beers along with new stories of their war-protests or stories about home-schooling their two sons. I’d sit quietly, glancing back at the bike every once in awhile, still reluctant to break the silence.
Dad was six days away from his Road King certification when he died of a heart attack in his sleep. The route was planned, maps were made, and each turn was calculated down to the minute. My father was an immaculate planner. Mom and I found the folder entitled “My Ride” on his desk two days after he died, before the funeral. I brought it with me and gave it to Moses, the current head Road King, and he promised he’d do something with it. He had brought two Road King patches to the wake. They were to be placed on the leather vest all HOG members wore. One was placed in the casket with Dad and the other was given to me.
After my father died, our house was filled with grieving friends and family doting over my mother and me. Occasionally, I would go out to the garage and sit on the bike, feel the leather under my black funeral dress, and picture the ride with him in front. Three days later, when the commotion had died down, I got a call from the Kenosha HOG head saying they were planning to continue with Dad’s ride, make it a memorial. I was reluctant to let them go through with the ride, afraid that another leader wouldn’t understand the heart my father had put into it, wouldn’t appreciate the hours he spent getting lost then finding his way back again.
September 12th was an exceptionally cold Sunday and Mom drove me up to the ride with most of Dad’s leather in the back seat. It was a different silence in the car. Instead of the quiet calm that used to settle over my father and me, it was a tense, electric quiet that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and made me avert my gaze to the window, not wanting to meet my mother’s eyes. It was suffocating. I tried to take the deep breaths I took on the back of the bike with Dad but instead, each time I inhaled, a knot formed in the back of my throat and I could barely breathe.
We arrived at Uke’s Harley Davidson, the meeting place for the group, to a parking lot full of motorcycles. Moses greeted our Volvo with a smile, opening the door for my mother and me. Moses is a huge man. At first glance he is intimidating. He is at least 6’3” and 220 pounds (fat, not muscle) with salt and pepper grey hair and a long beard. His coonskin cap is almost always on his head and I don’t believe he owns anything but leather jackets. As Mom and I walked up to the members Mom began to cry. The members helped me zip on Dad’s chaps, pull on a Harley sweater, a leather jacket, his leather vest, two pairs of gloves, and a facemask. After I was suited up, Moses led a prayer and all of the members mounted their motorcycles.
I was assigned to ride with Moses on his Road King, the biggest bike Harley makes. A Road King doesn’t just have a sissy bar; it basically has a Lay-Z Boy for the rider. Fifty bikes revved their engines and headed off with Moses in the front, being the replacement for my father. Every member of the group had on a black armband to represent a “brother” lost; they wore them when they led the funeral procession and I wore one with them that day. At the funeral, I had wanted to ride with the HOG members but my mother insisted on me riding in the limo. I watched out the tinted windows as the black bands flapped on their arms and thought of how it was the biggest funeral my county had seen in ten years, how over 100 motorcycles were leading the hearse, and how happy my dad would’ve been, not about the size of the crowd, but of the roar of engines that led it.
Driving along the route I had vaguely known weeks before, I noticed the scenery was different. It was cloudy and most of the corn had been harvested, the fields were bleak and filled with snapped-off bottoms of stalks. But the trees were on fire. The seasons were changing at full speed and when we were off the highway the oaks, maples, and elms bloomed with colors. The red, orange, and yellow of their leaves contrasted with the grey clouds above them and highlighted every branch. We saw six deer on that ride, all in a recently harvested soybean field. They raised their heads when the roar of our engines passed them, but they didn’t run; we were far enough off for them to remain motionless as we passed. The farmer’s markets my father and I had stopped at weeks before were gone and on this ride there was no stopping to stretch my legs. I glanced at the empty lots where the vegetable and fruit carts once stood and wished I could search them for the jams my father always bought, or the summer squash my mother loved. Dad had always bought as much produce as he could stuff in the saddlebags and even made me carry a watermelon on one ride. In the emptiness there was sorrow.
About forty-five minutes before Oostburg, Lake Michigan announced its presence with startling blue, overwhelming the horizon. Dad had said that this was his favorite part of the ride because for miles it had been nothing but corn and trees, but in that moment, when the water shows itself, it makes the ride worth it.
The weather changed and the sun pushed its way through the hanging clouds. It never cleared up completely but when we arrived at the launch point Dad had planned on stopping at for a photo-op there was enough sun to warm our faces, but the wind still blew at our backs. All fifty of us dismounted and took a picture in front of the lake with me in front. If you look at that picture today you’ll see a girl with tears running down her face in front of forty burly, Harley men. The moment we arrived at the lake I began to cry. Lake Michigan was a sacred place for my father, even more so when he arrived on a motorcycle. If it was warm enough we’d strip off our jeans and jump in the water, shaking out our tired legs and planning our ride back. The day of the ride was too cold to jump in, but the waves splashed in behind us and hit my father’s leather chaps, leaving behind large watermarks. I cried because I’d never ride up to the lake with my father, would never plunge underwater to rinse myself of the Harley smell, and never truly feel that connection with anybody again. Inhaling once more before mounting the bike, I stretched my legs, pulled on my jacket and slapped my own helmet to make sure it was still protecting me.
When we arrived at Art and Liz’s they already had bratwurst cooking and a cooler (one of the ones my dad sold) filled with non-alcoholic beer and soda. I peeled off my layers of clothing and laid them on Moses’ bike, as I followed behind the herd of hungry men. With the waves behind us and the smell of Wisconsin in the air, I sat along with my dad’s Harley brothers, glancing towards the lake, the motorcycles, and the sky.