Thousands of miles from home, caring for his father during his final days, John McMahon got a surprising offer from a neighbor he barely knew: a ride on a beautiful high-end motorcycle and slice of pie that just might change his life.
A long motorcycle ride can be a cure-all. It’s a great release for pent-up worry or fear or stress. To get away from traffic onto a twisting road with no lights or stop signs. Roads where the bike can wind out in the upper gears and you can take corners from the high side. To focus all attention on what’s coming on the road ahead, knowing you have to make the right decisions because the wrong one might mean your ass. It clears the mind of life’s malarky and lends a truer proportion to daily problems. It’s a unique experience and one I have taken comfort in for a long time.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been called with the news that my father was dying four times. I should come to see my parents, to help my mother out, and be there for his last days. Each call was a false alarm. My father was in the late stages of Parkinson’s when I got the last call, and at 84, after a long life of hard work, his abused body had fallen apart. He hadn’t walked in years and needed full-time assistance. When my sister-in-law called, she thought I might not have time to make the ten thousand mile trip from my home in Pak Nam Pran to my parents’ in Encinitas, California.
I live in Thailand, where I have done the majority of my riding over the last two decades. I ran a motorcycle tour business there for five years and have visited every province in Thailand and a great deal of the neighboring countries as well. I haven’t done a lot of riding in the US, and a last-minute trip to see my dying father certainly didn’t seem like the right opportunity.
Ted must have recognized my condition from afar since, as he told me, he had played caregiver to both his parents while they died. So he prescribed the pie as part of the treatment he was offering.
When I arrived at their generic retirement community home six days after I got the call, my father was still alive but only just. He was greatly diminished even from a few years earlier. He had been hospitalized for the two previous months with a serious MERS infection and pneumonia. The hospital decided there was no getting better for him and sent him home to spend the last of his days in hospice.
My mother wouldn’t consider sending him to a care facility, so between her, a daily caregiver, and myself, we took care of him from early morning till bedtime, moving him from bed to shower to easy chair with a rolling hydraulic lift. He was no longer strong enough to sit up in a wheelchair. We fed him and took turns toileting him and took his blood pressure and filled in charts. There was a paper bag in the refrigerator that held all kinds of opioid-based drugs for the final days, including four bottles of hospital-grade morphine. The message was pretty clear that this was for assisted suicide when it came to that.
At least once a day, it seemed he would die. He refused to talk and was unable to eat. He was so weak we were spoon-feeding him. Then he would wake up from a night of drugged sleep in his hospital bed demanding four pancakes and sausage, which he would eat along with his morning coffee, fruit, and all the different potions and pills he took each morning. Sometimes he would hold on to some level of interaction throughout the morning, but it was just as likely he would fall asleep while still drinking his coffee and spill it all down himself and across the table.
One morning, as I was walking my parents’ one-eyed rescue poodle, their neighbor, Ted, stopped me and asked — as if we were old friends — if I could make time for a ride up to Julian with him for some pie. I didn’t know where Julian was or the significance of getting pie there, but I accepted the offer like a thirsty man would a cup of cool, clean water.
Early the next morning, Ted’s garage door was open for the first time in my memory. The garage had been converted into a little workshop and was set up neat as a pin. Front and center sat an Aprilia Mana 850 automatic and a Triumph Bonneville 800 with most of the excess flash stripped off it. They were both great-looking bikes, but there was no doubt as to which I would ride.
I had never owned a Bonnie but I had owned many like motorcycles so the familiarity of sliding my leg over it, rocking it onto its center stand, and firing it up to give it a check over was immediate. I was sure we were going to get along beautifully.
Four-wheeled traffic all but disappeared, but the tribe on two wheels became more and more regular. Coming and going, they dropped the two-finger salute.
Thailand scores in the top ten worldwide every year in road casualties. Twenty years of riding a motorcycle there, both rural and through the choked streets of Bangkok, has made me a highly defensive driver. Unfortunately, this style isn’t any good for the US. I don’t trust others to stop, or turn or even come up from behind me when I’m riding alone. Riding behind a local, though, I can switch off most of that defensiveness and just follow that rear tire and never fear speeding or passing illegally or, forgetting where I am, switching over on a turn to ride on the wrong side of the road.
Ted is a perfectionist and expert rider who went over each bike in detail. The chains were lubed, the tires filled and the oil checked. He set me up with riding gear and we were on the road. I felt nervous for a tic but it soon enough came rushing back to me. The pull of the throttle and that beautifully coordinated clutch in-shift-clutch out rhythm filled my fingers with their vibration. I let my knees relax and followed just on Ted’s six out of the tangled Boulevards and Avenues of Encinitas and into the valleys around where the roads got narrow and traffic lighter.
I kept pace about four lengths behind Ted’s Aprilia, working with my bike to follow the curves and twists of the road as we began to ascend Palomar. Four-wheeled traffic all but disappeared, but the tribe on two wheels became more and more regular. Coming and going, they dropped the two-finger salute.
Two fingers down — it means keep the rubber on the road. It means they wish you a safe ride. But whoever they are under all the carbon and kevlar, they also understand the need to feel the edge, to tempt the fates, to choose two wheels knowing full and well the repercussions. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crotch rocket, a chopped hog, a weekend show-off machine, or a hardtail bobber, being on a bike is the important thing.
Going to Mount Palomar might mean a weekend camping trip in the park for hiking and picnicking at Doane Pond. Palomar is one of the most popular weekend ride-outs in the San Diego area. Saturday and Sunday every weekend, hundreds of bikers come to comb through the twists and turns of Rt 78 and 76 to catch the vistas of Cleveland National Forest below. Not many were headed for the Palomar observatory that day, but Ted and I were.
Ted is a musician and inventor, a bit of a DIY geek. So am I, with different goals. The Palomar observatory interested us both for different reasons, but we were both eager to tour it. Ted was into the minute details of the instruments, but for me, the 1950s “World of Tomorrow” design of the place had my attention. The observatory also supplies excellent views of the surrounding hills.
We headed through farm country up to Julian. Before that day I didn’t know San Diego county had horse farms. I never suspected the hills and mountains that separated the commercial spread of the coast from the desert were going to be so rugged, so completely different than all the stucco strip malls and housing estates of the suburbs. The air had cooled to a chill and there was the sharp tang of pine and the scent of cedar in it.
Julian is an old gold mining town hanging onto existence as a tourist attraction for the curious who want to see how people used to break their backs in the streams and shafts for a trace of yellow sand. There’s a diner, a hardware store, a general store where you can get everything from souvenirs to saddle rope, and, of course, the Julian Pie Company.
That afternoon, motorcycles filled the streets of the little town, cruising at idle as riders checked each other’s bikes out; many of them recognized each other, some of them were old friends. We met an 80-year-old man in overalls who owned more than a hundred bikes. He was riding an ancient Harley Knucklehead worth as much as a Porsche. I talked to a middle-aged woman on an Endsfield Himalaya who claimed she had just ridden across the continent on it, and a German professional rider who was out for a cruise on a terrifying-looking superbike that could top 200 miles per hour.
Ordering pie was a must, according to Ted. I wasn’t particularly hungry. Adrenaline was running through my veins. Getting out of my parents’ house for an afternoon riding was like having a yoke lifted from my shoulders. Ted must have recognized my condition from afar since, as he told me, he had played caregiver to both his parents while they died. So he prescribed the pie as part of the treatment he was offering.
Julian has been famous for its apples since the late 1800’s when a would-be horse rancher from New Orleans named Madison recognized the fertility and put in 500 trees. Named the apple belt of the world by 1890 apple orchards cover the area growing a range of varieties. From this abundance, there are many apple pies made in Julian but there is only one Julian Apple Pie Company.
We had our pie on the wooden porch of the pie company with a cup of coffee. All around bikers were talking about tire specs, epic rides, and describing near tragic accidents. The parking lot was full of bikes and pick-up trucks and American flags flew from the roof of the overhang. A man walked across the parking lot kicking up dust wearing cowboy boots with a matching hat. I thought it might be the most American scene I’d ever been involved in.
Is Julian pie really that good? I don’t know, I like tarts. I always thought apple pie, American icon that it is, is too much. It wants to do too much, and then people add raisins to it and top it with a piece of cheddar cheese and ice cream — well, now this is a 3,000 calorie meal. I don’t eat much apple pie, but I certainly never had a better piece than I did that afternoon.
The sun was setting out beyond the Lake Hodges viaduct as we rode down out of the hills. I didn’t recognize the backroads we took back into the burbs so coming up on Encinitas Boulevard and its choked traffic was like a slap in the face. We were suddenly back into the honeycomb of my parents’ cookie-cutter retirement complex with its meticulously maintained golf course and beds of generically planted flowers.
People say that riding a motorcycle is pure foolishness and that riders have a death wish. It is certainly dangerous; there are no fender benders on a motorcycle. I think all motorcyclists recognize this — and it is just that danger that rejuvenates the desire to live.