by Roger Poppen
The DuQuoin Mile was an annual attraction for the best flat- track motorcycle racers in the country and for bikers throughout the midwest. It may be still; I don't know — I've not been back in thirty years.
I'd come late in life to motorcycles, as I had to other sins of the flesh. After three decades in the classroom, as student and then professor, I was eager to learn from that rumored best of teachers, Experience. In the seismic shifts of the '70s, I'd divorced a wife but acquired a motorcycle and a biking buddy — I'll call him Bob — a young man hip to current culture.
On our first visit to DuQuoin, we watched in awe as a pack of machines hurtled down the front straightaway in a booming thundercloud of dust and smoke. They simultaneously pitched over, steel-shoed left legs serving as outriggers, rooster-tails of dirt spraying behind. They maintained a choreographed slide around the turn, then disappeared down the back straight. Lap after lap the show went on, through the heats, the quarterfinals, the semis, and the glorious main event. The atmosphere in the grandstand hung thick and oily, smelling of beer and gasoline and the sweat of spectators broiling in the summer sun.
Off-track, hordes of Hell's Angels wannabes paraded their choppers around the Fairgrounds, biker mamas perched behind, happily complying with chants of, 'show your tits.' Impromptu drag races scorched the narrow access roads. A pair of bikes would line up, all flame-paint and chrome pipes, extended front forks and ape-hanger handlebars, a drunken pilot struggling to hold his machine upright. A guy in the middle of the roadway raised a red paisley bandana and the unmuffled V-twins revved to Richter-scale roars. The flag dropped and the bikes lunged forward in clouds of sulfurous tire-smoke, slewing from side to side and careening over speed bumps. On-lookers jamming the curbside fell back, dousing each other with beer and gleeful curses.
Bob and I rode Japanese bikes, lonely 'rice burner' petunias in a Harley-Davidson onion patch, making us careful not to intrude on the more raucous revelers. DuQuoin had a state police headquarters but there seemed to be a tacit arrangement that, as long as the good citizens of the town were not molested, anything short of murder inside the Fairgrounds was permissible.
After a couple years, even this spectacle began to pall. So, that last time, Bob and I decided to enhance our observations by emulating the great chroniclers of our era, like Kerouac and Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, with a few micrograms of Dr. Timothy Leary's prescription for the 20th Century. Arriving shortly after the gates opened, we took a dose calculated to wear off by the main event, leaving us straight enough to ride home. Gradually, my Gestalt of perception fractured into a thousand pieces, and each piece into a thousand more. This pointillist universe was wondrously weird and inexplicably funny. It would be dangerous to become too lost in the intricacies of a burly biker's tattoo, or find too much amusement in the contours of his babe's breasts, so Bob and I checked each other periodically with a, "You're fine, how am I?"
As the heat races got underway, gusty breezes chased empty beer cups across the ground and murky clouds roiled overhead. Silent sparks of lightning flashed on the horizon and a brief shower hinted of more to come. Rumor spread that the races were cancelled, and then the confirmation. Everyone had to leave the Fairgrounds. Blind panic, or curiosity if I could get it together enough to drive, presented themselves as options.
The crowd swept us along to the parking area. Things seemed normal, then some obscure detail would zoom to the fore and I struggled to regain perspective. Automatic acts, like breathing, required conscious effort. We found our bikes and I check-listed the controls: left hand, clutch; left foot, gearshift; right hand, front brake and throttle; right foot, rear brake. We were moving. Respiration sounds echoed inside my helmet, reminding me I was just another machine requiring direction. At the exit, a state trooper funneled the mass of cars and bikes into a single lane. Why was he staring at me? I noticed the lengthening space on the road ahead, took a breath, and wheeled out into the world.
I followed Bob in the line of traffic. Then he was in the passing lane, his taillight dwindling to a red dot and winking out. My focus switched to keeping a safe distance from the Oldsmobile in front of me. My eyeballs ricocheted from speedometer to tachometer to the Oldsmobile's rear bumper while I debated whether to upshift or downshift, accelerate or brake. This buzz of activity held off lurking thoughts of doom.
Thankfully, traffic thinned and the road stretched straight before me. Suddenly, the pavement shattered into bits and fluttered over my shoulder like a flock of gray pigeons. I blinked and the road again appeared solid. Until it broke into a flock of pigeons a second time. And a third. I felt my jaw clenching 'til it seemed my molars cracked. 'Breathe' I reminded myself.
I found Bob in a video game arcade, playing Asteroids. "Where you been?" he asked.
A little triangle whirled about on the screen, shooting tiny dots at wandering blobs. The Asteroids machine rumbled and bleeped and the blobs disintegrated into a thousand pieces. An absurd game.
"On the road," I replied.
Kerouac and Kesey and Thompson all are gone now, having sacrificed themselves for art. My brush with sacrifice was enough and I retreated, remarrying and reviving my career, my bike moldering in the garage. But when I retired, I got another motorcycle — still seeking Experience, and grateful still to be in one piece.