(Colorado, USA 1996)
Near the end of the day’s ride, the wind still felt warm on my face, but I was starting to think of getting some rest after the long ride through Colorado and part of New Mexico. The sun was still up but was getting lower in the sky, and the flashes of blinding sunlight between the tall green trees reminded me that I was riding west on a one-way trip from Virginia to Los Angeles.
Once I hit Chicago, I spent some of my time riding along the original Mother Road, old Route 66, but I had ridden on the western parts of Route 66 multiple times, so I decided to deviate north a bit to explore the southern parts of the Rocky Mountains. Gliding around corners and up small hills, I eventually saw a small path to the left of the road, and without even thinking much about it, I slowed and turned down the path until it opened up into a small meadow of short grass surrounded by tall fir trees.
Perfect, I thought to myself. The place was extremely calm and beautiful. I rode a small circle in the field and stopped my Harley facing the small path I had entered from. I switched the motor off, and stillness surrounded me and my bike. Putting the kickstand down, I leaded the bike over slowly making sure the soft ground would hold up the bike. Almost as if I were trying not to disturb the natural scene, I slowly got off and calmly unstrapped my pack from the rear fender, set up my camp, and lit a small fire.
Not totally dark yet, but definitely dusk, I began to think I was hearing things. Small noises were coming from the edges of the clearing, and I began to think I was going crazy. Am I hearing voices? I thought to myself, and then she appeared. A very young woman emerged from the woods and slowly walked toward me.
“Are my cousins bothering you?” she said. I was still a little shocked, and I stared at her for a moment. She was slightly short and slightly thin. She looked extremely sturdy yet soft at the same time, and she had long, perfectly straight black hair. As she stopped at the edge of my fire, she placed both hands behind her back and repeated, “Are my cousins bothering you?”
“No, not at all,” I said. “I thought I was miles away from anything, though.”
“You’re on an Indian Reservation,” she responded politely. “We live just over there behind those trees.”
“Oh,” I said.
She had a Native American accent, but her English was perfect, “I think my cousins have been spying on you,” she said with a smile, and we could hear many kids giggling and running away through the trees.
“Where are we?” I continued.
“On an Indian Reservation. We’re part of the Apache Nation.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry about that. I’ll pack my things.”
“No, don’t,” she interjected. “It really isn’t a problem. You can stay as long as you like.”
“Thank you,” I said, and the young woman stood peacefully. She began calmly twisting from side to side with her hands still clasped behind her back. Her smooth, tan face looked wonderfully serene, and she spoke again. “Is that your motorcycle?”
“Yea, I’m crossing the country on it,” I replied.
“That would be awesome,” she continued, still staring at the machine. “Where are you going?”
“I started in Virginia, and now I’m heading to L.A.”
“No, I mean which direction,” she said.
“West,” I replied.
“A lot of my family is west near Four Corners by Mesa Verde,” she said, “but I’ve never been there.”
“I’ll take you,” I said, and after only a few moments, we agreed that I would take her on my motorcycle to Mesa Verde to meet her relatives the following morning. She was extremely excited, but the calm in her face never left, and as if already anticipating the wind, she unconsciously began braiding her long hair glancing up at me with sparking brown eyes.
We continued talking about all kinds of things, and eventually she sat down across from me. Hours went by, and the two of us, with almost nothing in common, continued to talk and talk. We spoke about her native culture and the modernity of my city, and I think we both secretly were jealous of the other. She had never been more than a few miles from the peaceful wooded area where we were sitting, and I had been stuck in traffic jams and crowded cities bustling with people, but all she could think about was how exciting it would be while I envisioned her calm life removed from the business of everything.
It was finally very late and pitch black outside the small ring of light around the fire. The entire evening was fueled by wood in the fire and curiosity in each of us. At one point, the woman, whom I learned was named Onawa, yawed widely, and our eyes met, and we laughed at how sleepy each of us had become. In those moments around the fire, we were both in love with each other, but it was a platonic love between two individuals who enjoyed sharing each other’s company on a beautiful night in the woods.
Without saying anything, she stood up straight. It was obvious that she was leaving. I stood up as well, and we touched for the first time as we politely hugged each other, and she walked away into the blackness without a light as if she were a blind person knowing every detail of a familiar area.
Although tired, I didn’t immediately sleep. It felt like I had just shut my eyes when I opened them again to find the tent lighted by the rising sun, and I peeked my head out into the bright, crisp morning. Onawa was sitting peacefully next to the unlit fire near my tent. She looked sad.
“I can’t go with you,” was the first thing she said.
“Okay, that is fine,” I replied as I crawled out of the tent and sat on the grass beside her.
“I’m too scared,” she continued. “I don’t know how I’ll get back.”
“No problem. I understand,” I responded, a bit sad that she wouldn’t be going with me. I dug a small scrap of paper out of my bag and scribbled down the address of the place I was headed to in Los Angeles. “Just in case you ever make it to L.A.,” I said, “here is my address, and you are always welcome to visit.”
Onawa took the piece of paper knowing that she’d never make it, but then she got an excited look in her eye. “Hey,” she said cheerfully, “but can you take me for a ride on your motorcycle to the edge of the reservation?”
“Sure,” I said, and we both smiled as she helped me roll up my tent and tie my packs to the motorcycle.
“Are you ready,” I said as she climbed on the back seat of my bike.
“Definitely,” she responded, and I fired up the bike which sounded like a thunderous roar in contrast to the still, quiet morning.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said as I let the clutch out and rode up the path to the main road. As we turned onto the pavement leaning low to the left, she gripped me tightly and made a small nervous noise, but as we accelerated through the trees, she let out a joyful yell, and I knew that she loved it. I patted the side of her leg and glanced back seeing her long hair trailing in the cool wind. She was smiling wildly. After only a few miles, she leaned forward, still squeezing me tightly, and she put her head on my shoulder for just one brief moment, and then said sadly, “Here it is,” and I saw another small path leading into the woods off to the left. I pulled over slowly and stopped the bike on the side of the road near the narrow path. We both got off of the motorcycle and looked at each other. She still looked exhilarated from the ride, and I could tell her heart was beating rapidly.
“Thank you,” she said as she leaned in to hug me, and I returned the embrace until she relaxed her grip on me, turned, and disappeared into the trees along the path.
It wasn’t until I was unpacking my motorcycle after arriving to Los Angeles days later that I noticed the unfamiliar box that was stuffed into the bottom of my pack. It was wrapped in brown paper, and I opened it to find a ring. It was a silver ring not unlike others I’d seen down in Navajo country near the Grand Canyon. It was made with blue turquoise and red coral. The silver was in the shape of an Eagle on both sides of the wide ring, and the turquoise and coral in the center were in the shape of the Harley-Davidson bar & shield.
Wow, I said to myself, and I suddenly felt a helpless pit in my stomach knowing that I’d never meet Onawa again. In my mind, I could still see her wide smile and her flowing hair as we shared the brief motorcycle ride. I knew that it was now only a memory, and I’d never get a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the lovely Apache who lives somewhere in the woods near the border of Colorado and New Mexico.