Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Me and My M

Back in the 1990s, I did a favor that enabled an Estonian businessman to earn some money. The man had heard me muse about crossing America by motorcycle, and as a gesture of thanks, he offered to ship my bike—a Russian M—to any place I named. I chose Kansas, because that’s where my Uncle Feliks lived, and because I knew how big America was: half of it was plenty for me. I would ride West to California and, as Hunter S. Thompson had done, “smoke weed in biker bars,” “feel burning oil on my legs” and ride with the “rain in my eyes and my jaw clamped together in fear.”

But anyone who has ridden an M knows that you don’t ride it: you wrestle it. And so I spent much of the time behind the handlebars speculating about what the “M” in the bike’s name might stand for. It certainly didn’t mean Mõnus, though there was a decent chance it was Mure. If the “M” had been English, it would have stood for Mess or Mistake. But since it was a Russian bike, in all its foul-smelling, cloud-farting splendor, I searched my primitive Russian vocabulary. I assigned the “M” to Mучитель, or, since it was almost always broken, Mертвый.

What I had imagined as a romantic ride, cresting flowered hilltops, breathing purer oxygen, a busty blonde hitchhiker next to me in the mother-in-law killer, bore no relation to reality. Most days, I stood around in service stations in one-horse towns while American mechanics and their greasemonkey friends circled the M and peered into its workings. “How could we have been afraid of a nation that built this motorcycle?” scoffed a twenty-something mechanic near Russell, Kansas. “You ought to junk this thing and get a Jap bike.”

“Actually,” said a know-it-all sitting on a stack of old tires tipping back a frosty Coca-Cola, “that’s a German bike. The russkies got ‘em from the krauts as war reparations. Disassembled the factories, put ‘em on railcars, and took ‘em to Russia.”

“Maybe so,” replied the mechanic, “but it’s still a piece of shit.”

But it was my piece of shit, and I liked it. And the advantage of it was that it was primitively simple. Even though I couldn’t fix it, most any farm boy could, and when a part fell off you could always find some local MacGyver who could fashion a new one out of something he found in his yard with grass growing up around it. I replaced so much of it that by two weeks into my journey, you could have said the bike wasn’t Russian anymore. Sure, I still had to wrestle it, but it ran.

I crossed the plains of Kansas, stopping to visit all the state's superlatives: the world's tallest prairie dog, the world's largest hand-dug well, the world's biggest ball of twine, the world's biggest easel, and the world's biggest pallasite meteorite. All these places hoped to snare a passing motorist with a car full of bored kids. But my M trumped them all. I was a superstar. “Look, it’s the Red Baron!” little kids would cry, even though the bike was black and didn’t fly. Since I wasn’t hairy, had no beard or visible prison tats, tourists did not fear me. They offered me cold beers to allow them to sit in the sidecar and have their pictures made.

More than two-thousand miles later, when I finally gazed at the ocean, I didn’t feel the elation Thompson had described. I was dog tired. My body was caked with dirt. The ocean of northern California was far too cold to swim in. I forgot Thompson and thought of Kerouac whose goal was to piss into the Seine at dawn. The Pacific wasn’t the Seine but the sentiment felt right. After zipping up my trousers I turned and walked away, leaving my M on the side of the road. Thieves and buzzards would be too smart to touch it, but a rider with a soul like mine might happen by. And it would surely call his name.


Read it in Estonian in Eesti Ekspress.