Sometimes when I’m wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, I search out a long-ago experience or memory and hold it up to my mind’s eye, trying to remember details of the man I once was. It stops my mind from wandering and eventually lulls me back to sleep…
It was the summer of 1971; I would be turning 23 in the fall. I was finishing my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kasserine, Tunisia, a small village in the last-gasp foothills of the Atlas Mountains, not far from the Algerian border. It was (and still is) a generally accepted principle that Peace Corps Volunteers should live like their host-country counterparts, in my case, like a teacher. But I was restless so I pitched an idea to my Country Director that because I lived in such a remote location, I should have access to some form of reliable transportation, specifically, to a motorcycle. I had never owned nor ridden a motorcycle, and I’m unable to remember the logic of my request, but to my astonishment, the Director’s response was “Go for it!”
Remember: this was in 1971, a generation or two before the internet or cell phones or GPS, but somehow I managed to contact the Triumph motorcycle factory in Coventry, England (I have no idea how I did this), and ordered a motorcycle. I said I would arrive in August to pick it up and pay for my bike. My plan, if it could be called that, was to collect my bike, learn to ride and care for it in England, then cross the Channel, travel south through France, board the ferry in Marseilles, and ride back to my village. Seemed reasonable to me. Every other detail is hazy, but that was the gist of it.
Even in the wee hours of a sleepless night, I cannot for the life of me remember flying to England or how I got to the Triumph factory in Coventry. I do vaguely remember meeting a fellow there who was also looking to buy a bike and ride in England while on holiday. Fortunately for me, he was an experienced rider and, thankfully, he took me under his wing and taught me the basics of riding and motorcycle maintenance. I wish I remembered his name.
Off we went into the English countryside—to see Stonehenge, I think. Under my new friend’s tutelage, I made good progress, but fate had other ideas. One night at a Bed & Breakfast, I came down with a fever and became seriously ill. The village doctor was called—doctors still made house calls then—and he diagnosed me with some form of tropical disease, perhaps hepatitis. I remember almost nothing of the next several days, only that I was well cared for and when I was healthy enough to continue my journey, the bill for my care was negligible, thanks to Britain’s National Health Service.
My friend had moved on, but I made my way to Dover, crossed the English Channel to Honfleur (or maybe it was Le Havre) and headed south toward Marseilles. It must have been a wonderful ride, but I remember almost nothing about it, except until a few days later, while I was circling a roundabout, my load shifted, and the bike and I went down. I was uninjured, but the front forks were visibly bent and would need repair or replacement. That might not have been a big problem, but in August, all of France goes on vacation, and the closest repair shop would be closed for at least another week. I was stuck.
Somehow, I contacted French friends who lived in the region, and they graciously took me in. We explored the charming villages of Dordogne, even went horseback riding in search of ceps, delicate forest mushrooms prized by French chefs. The days passed quickly, eventually the repair shop reopened, new front forks were ordered and installed and I was on my way south again, a week behind schedule. I made it to Marseilles, pushed my motorcycle onto the ferry, and set sail for Tunisia, just a few hundred miles across the Mediterranean.
I arrived in Tunis at midnight. I had lots of paperwork to show at Customs for my new vehicle, but by dawn the next morning, I was on my way back to Kasserine, a four hour ride away. Where once I passed through towns and villages on a hot and dusty bus, now I was under my own power. People stopped and stared; I waved. By the time I arrived home and pushed my bike through the large metal gate of my house, I was exhausted. But I was home; I had a day to sleep before school began.
Now, all these years later, try as I might, I can’t bring anything else to memory’s surface. I vaguely remember the broad outlines of my month-long journey, but the details of those days are foggy, as though I’m looking back through a rain-streaked window at dusk. Or maybe I’m looking at a grainy, black-and-white photo of a young man, someone who looks like I once looked, but now all the rich colors have faded away. Only his shadow is left.
Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, wrote, “If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed, and in what unremembered seasons?” In the dark early morning hours, I think of that season of my life and fall back into a deep and peaceful sleep.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.