Updated: Sep 18
There was an opportunity to go to school in California and I jumped at the chance to move across the country. Flying to California didn’t sound very interesting and I came up with the idea that I would ride a motorcycle across the United States to get there. The problem was I didn’t know a thing about motorcycles, didn’t own a motorcycle, and didn’t have a motorcycle license. But those were trivial details. I picked up a used motorcycle for a few hundred dollars, and left a few weeks later.
I was allotted 10 days to report to my new duty station. Which meant I was able to spend 9 days wandering 5000 miles across the country. Before I left, I had made photocopies of a road atlas of the United States. Each morning I would take out a photocopy, insert it into a ziploc plastic bag and scotch tape the ziploc bag to the gas tank. Then, on the 10th day, I was front and center, checking into my new unit.
In my second semester in school, I needed an English credit and opted to take a Creative Writing class. I was still new in town and had been in California for less than a year. The kid I randomly sat down next to in class engaged in casual conversation and we became friends. Casual conversation morphed into he asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. That was a thing in California to hang out at a coffee house and drink fancy coffee. In Wisconsin, kids got beer and hung out in a cornfield. Here it was a coffee house. I was introduced to his friend group as the kid from the Upper Midwest with the funny Wisconsin accent.
We hung out every Friday at Weatherstone’s or New Helvetia coffee houses in Midtown, a trendy area of downtown Sacramento surrounded in large Victorian homes with 100-year-old trees lining the city streets. There were no cell phones yet, we would just meet there. Almost every Friday, I would bring fresh stacks of photos with me from motorcycle rides I had taken exploring my new home, which had an ocean in one direction, and a mountain range in the other direction. The motorcycle was in every photo and the running joke was ‘Find the bike’.
The group wasn’t all guys, some of the fellas in that group had girlfriends and our Friday nights were spent sitting around talking, laughing, and drinking coffee. It was at coffee I met Sarah. The kid I had randomly sat down next to in my Creative Writing class, Sarah was his girlfriend.
Overall, I thought my college friend group was rather boring. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and didn’t even drink coffee, I would order a hot chocolate and sip it like everyone else. I didn’t have a car and my brain was constantly plotting the next big ride.
Big rides yearn for big bikes and a Yamaha Venture 1200 showed up at my doorstep one day and I proceeded to put 60,000 miles on the bike in two years. Weeks after that bike showed up, I rode 6000 miles in 8 days across the South in the middle of winter. Six months later, I left on a month-long 10,000-mile solo journey to Alaska riding near the Arctic Circle into the Yukon Territory. I had almost no money, didn’t even bring a tent, carried 20 lbs of military rations to eat, slept in parks, snuck in and out of campgrounds, and along the side of the road in the weeds. Sometimes I stayed with random people I met on the road who welcomed in the California Kid, fed me, and treated me like family. I looked military with my high-and-tight flat top hair, combat boots with pants tucked in, and black flight jacket full of Marine Corps patches. It was an ice breaker and it worked great.
When I got back from the month-long Alaska ride, I immediately began plotting the next 10,000-mile journey across America from California to Nova Scotia and across Newfoundland. There was no real reason to go there other than Newfoundland was the most eastern point you could ride to in the Atlantic Ocean. The extent of my plan was to wander across America, get a picture of the Atlantic Ocean, and ride back.
My plans got sidetracked when I saw a red and gold Triumph Spitfire for sale locally. The motorcycle was my only mode of transportation. My college buddies all had girlfriends, but I had no car to take a girl out on a date. A tiny British sports car that poured out black smoke, barely ran and had an electrical system built by Satan seemed like a great idea at the time. I had to pull the motor and rebuild it down to the bare block. The interior was covered in orange shag carpet you would use in your living room in the 1970s. I already owned a Spitfire, but it was in our barn up on blocks back in Wisconsin. I shipped my other Spitfire to me in California and combined the two cars into one using the best parts from each and met a gal a few months later. Driving my spiffy bright red convertible, we dated a few months but it didn’t last. She wanted commitment, and I wasn’t ready. She ended up marrying her old boyfriend before me.
The Flight Nurse
During school, I had always been a business major, but got interested in the Chiropractic field & changed majors to pre-med. I had gotten friendly with a classmate in my Anatomy & Physiology class who sat right behind me. She was 10 years older than I was and a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force. I was a Corporal in the Marine Corps and we hit it off immediately with our shared military experiences. She was a Flight Nurse for the Air Force and studying for her BSN. We dated all that semester, she was super smart, tall, and slim with long auburn hair. When the semester ended, we were both sent to our respective duty stations. She headed for an airbase in San Antonio and we traveled to Texas together. I flew back from Texas and was sent to a Marine base in Oahu to work on trucks as I was a heavy truck mechanic.
When we both came back from our respective duty stations, she had time to think and didn’t feel the relationship should continue. I was heartbroken and spent the next several months writing an anthology to heal my broken heart. I couldn’t see it then, but the Flight Nurse breaking up with me was probably the best thing that could have ever happened.
When I finished school, I was presented with several different job offers with very different career paths. The last four years had been spent working nights at FedEx loading delivery vans. When I started there, our shifts started at 3 am and were four hours, as business increased, our shift extended to as long as 6 hours. We would start work at 1 am and work till 7 am when the drivers would arrive to head out to deliver all the packages. Every package had a specific place in the van and we loaded every package in numerical order. I would load three box vans all at once as an endless stream of boxes, big and small, came down a four-foot-wide conveyer belt. It was an intensely fast-paced and physical job with a very high turnover. Some kids they hired lasted one shift and never returned, others lasted a few days and quit. I eventually became the most senior loader and trained all the new hires. I viewed it as we were being paid to work out. At my yearly physical fitness test, I did 32 pull-ups. FedEx preferred to hire college kids. And they would recruit us into their management training program as we completed our studies. Several of my workmates took this route and I was offered a full-time salaried supervisory position at FedEx.
I had shown an interest in accounting during school and my summer job offered a booking-keeping job with on-the-job training. A previous employer also offered me the chance to get Microsoft certified and be an instructor at their computer training school. I wasn’t smart enough to understand getting Microsoft certified was likely the most lucrative offer and could have provided a pathway into the IT field which was exploding at the time. A colleague was starting a brand-new company and offered a Project Manager position at his startup. The entrepreneurial start-up sounded exciting and I gave zero thought to the overall risk involved. None of those other offers sounded very interesting, and I took the startup.
The new job involved a lot of travel around the state and I had just sold my ’90 Yamaha FJ1200 and was super excited to pick up a ’93 Kawasaki ZX-11D. It was the big boy at the time, and my Hayabusa didn’t exist yet. I was into big horsepower bikes and the ZX-11D was also perfect for all-day sport-touring. It was bright red and beautiful from end to end. I rode 20,000 miles in the first year all over the state for that job. Often taking the twistiest, longest route to my destination, did my dog-and-pony show for our client, and then rode an extra day to return home while exploring new roads plus photographing the roads along the journey.
After school ended, I had lost track of my Friday night coffeehouse schoolmates and all the kids I had hung out with. Some had real jobs, some paired up, others still had their part-time jobs from school and didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
It was the late-90s and the internet was still brand new at the time and so were websites for businesses. We hired a guy to build our start-up a website. I became immediately interested in the process even paying the design guy to come to our office to try and teach me how sites were built. It was done entirely by hand and you had to learn HTML coding to build anything. Website building programs like Frontpage or Dreamweaver didn’t exist yet.
My work encouraged me to learn HTML coding and I signed up for a night class at the local community college for webpage design. The evening class after work wasn’t even at the college, it was in a random office building miles from the school. Part of passing the class was building your own webpage and the build process was writing the HTML code from scratch to make the page look and work right. Our instructor encouraged us to create pages about things we were interested in.
I was into motorcycles, and I had developed a hobby of taking photos of twisty roads from my travels around the state over the last few years. I had stacks of photos and a flatbed scanner at work. Back in the olden days, digital cameras didn’t exist yet and you had to take the photo, pay to get the film developed, then individually scan each photo on a flatbed scanner to acquire a file that could then be loaded into the webpage. I slowly built a webpage for the class and called it California Motorcycle Roads. Our instructor also encouraged us to acquire a domain name. I chose Pashnit.com which was the license plate on the motorcycle. Each road in California would have its own webpage and I was going to photograph, ride and write descriptions of every twisty road in the state.
Leaving the class one evening, I ran into my old college buddy from the Creative Writing class four years earlier. Coincidentally, he was taking the same class and had signed up for the night class right after mine. The chance meeting resulted in the usual how have you been, what have you been up to since school ended, let’s go out for coffee again like old times and catch up. The old group met for coffee and Sarah was there. My buddy and she were still together, but in the last throes of their relationship ending.
My sister is a professional artist and had a painting at a gallery in downtown San Francisco. The painting had to be retrieved once the show ended and I asked Sarah if she wanted to accompany me to pick up the painting. I was the model in the painting and that seemed a good hook to get her interested to come with me. We picked up the painting at the gallery and for our first real date, we went to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. The artist Keith Haring was big at the time, and there was Keith Haring stuff everywhere. Since I was into photography, I asked Sarah if I could photograph her. We drove out to Ocean Beach at the end of Golden Gate Park and I shot a roll of black-and-white film against the graffiti-covered seawall near the Cliff House. The attached photo of your mom is from our very first date together.
Scraps of Paper
The two of us reconnected and built on our friendship from the coffeehouse days back in school. Sarah was into Goth; she had voluminous jet-black hair, carried a coffin purse, and wore all black every day of the week. And, she was a vegetarian. I was about as meat-and-potatoes midwestern clean-cut farm boy as they come, but it worked. I was enamored, smitten, and wildly attracted to your mom. We would go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner and I would scribble poetry about your mom on the edge of the menu, the placemat, even a napkin, then push the scraps of paper across the table. I still have all those scraps of paper. After six months together, Sarah gave me her grandmother’s wedding ring and said give it back when you’re ready. It was a vintage platinum design and a family heirloom. But I wasn’t ready and another year together passed.
I took Sarah to anything remotely motorcycle related and she didn’t seem to mind. We went to the World Superbike Races at Sears Point, Speedway Bike Races at Auburn, the Sacramento Mile to watch flat track racing, the National Motocross Championship at Prairie City, and even the local drag strip at Sacramento Raceway. I wasn’t into cruisers, but that didn’t matter so we went to the EasyRiders Motorcycle Show at the state fairgrounds. It was there we found the Teknic leather jacket I’m still wearing today. To celebrate one year together, we rode two-up to the MotoGP races at Laguna Seca. After the races, Sarah donned high heels, a long slinky black dress, hiked it up, and contorted onto the back of the motorcycle. We giggled our way through the cold ocean air a few blocks to a restaurant in Monterey. When we arrived, she shimmied the skin-tight dress back down to her ankles and we walked in to celebrate.
We rode out to the ocean together and into the mountains, but she grew to dislike riding two up. She decided to get her own motorcycle license and took the MSF course at the local college. We bought her a Ninja 500 and we went on a couple of rides while she got used to the little Ninja motorcycle. We both rode down to Hollister to Corbin Seats and had his-and-her custom solo saddles made for our bikes. They custom make the seat while you wait and shape it just the way you like.
The biggest motorcycle event of the year in Northern California was the 3-day International Motorcycle Show in the Bay Area in December. I had been going to the show for several years and would spend all three days there. It was like a religious experience for me to attend that event. Gun nuts have gun shows, nerdists have Comic-con, and bikers have motorcycle shows.
Forget all the ring in the champagne glass cliches, I’d ask her there. I carried the ring around in my pocket for two days and couldn’t find the courage. On the third day, we signed up for a BMW demo ride. I was out of time and it was the last day. I knew you always stopped halfway out before the group turned around and headed back to the show. I was so nervous during the ride, I practiced saying the words aloud with Sarah behind me on her own bike and a long line of BMW bikes in front of me. I was shaking and didn’t think I could get up the nerve. At that stop, I got down on one knee along the side of the road, pulled your great-grandmother's ring out of my pocket, and asked your mom to marry me. She said yes and started jumping up and down.
The High, the Low, and the Scary
I wish I could tell you the story ends here and after that, it was all puppies and unicorns. Being with someone has its high points, low points, and really scary times. I was 28 and had never lived with a woman before. I had spent the last 10 years completely on my own, lived on both coasts, wandered around the country, and had never had a long-term relationship with a woman for more than a few months.
We got married on Mother’s Day, which also makes this our anniversary. Four months after we got married, your mom was pregnant with you and then your brother & sister followed. Those were the high points. I got your mom pregnant six times and she miscarried for three. Those were the low points. And there were scary times too.
In 2017 while leading a motorcycle tour, a blood vessel inside my brain broke and I began to bleed out internally while riding. I had a brain bleed stroke, and Sarah drove 500 miles to a Neurological ICU to sit with me for seven days, then bring me home. Your mom took care of me, re-learning to talk (dysarthria) and re-learning to do basic math. Two months later, I was back leading motorcycle tours on a borrowed motorcycle since I had crashed mine during the stroke.
Six months after I broke the inside of my brain; Sarah was diagnosed with cancer. A rare (five in ten million) type of tumor known as a clear cell sarcoma was growing in her knee. And the roles reversed, it was my turn to take care of her. There is no rhyme or reason to cancer, and there is no why. There is only move forward. Months of tests ensued and it was determined the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes yet and could be surgically removed. Her knee was rebuilt with cadaver parts and a year-long recovery ensued to regain her ability to walk with many follow up tests to ensure the cancer hadn’t returned. Those were scary times.
Winning the Lottery
If any tiny detail of this story would have been different, none of it would have happened and we wouldn’t have your mom. If I had flown to CA instead of riding a motorcycle across the country with zero experience & the ink barely dry on my new license. If the Flight Nurse hadn’t decided to call it quits. If I had taken any other job than the high-risk start-up which folded a few years later. If I hadn’t decided to learn how to build a website to share my fascination with motorcycle roads in California, I never would have run into my old college buddy in that hallway & reconnected with my old college friend group. An unrelated series of completely random and unplanned events get us to our destination, which for me was your mom.
When the moms were handed out, we won the lottery. But you probably won’t figure that out or understand that till you’re older. Your mom has a bottomless reservoir of warmth and kindness inside her that could power a small city. She would take in every stray kitten in the neighborhood and every local kid that needed a place to hang out after school if she could.
My only goal in life is to be the old guy on the park bench holding the hand of the gray-haired lady next to me. As we turn into that gray-haired couple on the park bench, we may not look like the attached photo I took of your mom on our first date anymore, but it will be the same hand holding mine on that park bench, and that’s the only thing that really matters.
Call your mom. It’s Mother’s Day.