[Disclosure: Silverbelle C. Jane Taylor (Hinesburg SBs) is a resident of The Jungle and is an occasional contributor to Silverback Digest. And the publisher, SB Bill Schubart, also of the Hineburg SBs, is also a contributor. SB SM]
Spirit Traffic is a remarkable book about the unremarkable. “Unremarkable” in that it’s not about epic experiences or larger-than-life personalities, but remarkable in that the author does such a good job telling the story that the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
The skeleton of the book is straightforward. The protagonista (C. Jane) is a middleclass, middle-aged woman who passes the mid-century mark. Any of us who have passed this milestone know that it is an event of mixed emotions. Our friends celebrate us with black balloons and gifts of Preparation-H, adult diapers, and DentuCreme. They find this hilarious. The recipient, however, struggles to present a facade of good humor, but the little voice in our head is screaming:
“THAT’S NOT FUNNY!” “I’ve accomplished nothing meaningful in life!” “I’m a lo-o-o-s-s-s-er!”
Then, AARP grinds it into your forehead by welcoming you to their organization which is doubly galling, because a) You don’t have enough money to retire, even if you wanted to and b) You’re still young and vital enough that you don’t want to be associated with old, wrinkled, boring irrelevant, drooling people. And, admit it … it pisses you off that the magazine is festooned with pictures of 70 year olds who still look great in their bikinis.
When the AARP envelope arrived, Jane tore it up and bought a motorcycle, the theme from Rocky swelling in the background.
There’s a backstory here. Jane grew up in Michigan, and her mother ran a bike shop. Sandy, Donald, Fred, and Mick were the mechanics, and she describes them affectionately as “babysitters” and since there is no mention of Dad, it’s likely the were substitutes in the parental arena as well. When Mom leaves the bike shop to return to school, motorcycles disappear from young Jane’s life. The next four decades cover a lot of mileage, but none of it on bikes. Clearly there’s an element of coming full circle in the act of buying a bike.
Jane’s life journey, to this point, is long on interesting experiences but short on singular direction. In her own words “I was a high school dropout at 16, a college grad at 20, a single mom at 30. I’ve been a cook for a baroque orchestra, a sculptor’s assistant, an SEO ‘expert,’ and a yoga teacher. I started (and stopped three years later) my own welding shop. I have repaired farm equipment under the blazing sun on the Fourth of July and decorated cakes baked to resemble the Palace of Versailles on Bastille Day.”
The connective tissue in her life has been writing. She is a writer who cooks, a writer who welds, a writer who helps the sculptor. Now, she’s a writer who is going to make a cross-country trip with her husband and son, who will soon be emancipated from college, i.e. graduating. Her husband takes the lead on selecting the right machine and planning the route. He and Jane’s son (from a prior marriage) are reasonably experienced riders. All that remains is for Jane to don her leathers, gun the accelerator a few times, pop a wheelie, and ride into the sunset.
Reality intervenes. Despite her bravado, Jane does not really know how to ride a motorcycle. It’s not a bicycle.
Spring comes to Vermont. The initial ride is a baby step, a slow ride around the parking lot of their condo. On her first attempt at a turn she is thrown over the handlebars, scraping hands, bruising her shins, tweaking her shoulder, and popping the balloon of her confidence. For a woman who prides herself on strength and fearlessness, riding to California suddenly seems more nightmare than dream. When she finally summons the courage to straddle the bike again, she is a puddle of insecurities. “My legs shook, and I broke into a sweat. My heart raced. I’d get to the top of the driveway and look down the steep slope at the distinct possibility of my untimely demise and the tears would roll down my face into my helmet.”
But she perseveres, overcoming the terror of her initial failure. Progress is grudging and hesitant. This is not the path forward that Jane has come to expect in life. Along the way unexpected competition and themes begin to emerge–young versus old, male versus female, husband versus wife. It’s not conflict and it’s not always verbal, but the natural tension of life are put under a microscope. This is where the story gets good.
Initially, she is dead weight on the traveling trio, and the focus is on her ability to manage, “survive” might be a better choice of word, the co-existence of elements and machine. You might not think much about wind, for instance, in a car, but on a bike you better think about it. “It races around trees, charges up hill and down dale, hops, skips, and jumps up majestic purple mountains, tramples across amber waves of grain. The wind gusts, roils, and buffets off the backs of semi-trucks on the highway, creating gulfs of instability. The wind plays hide and seek jumping out from hidden corners to startle you, disrupting balance and peace of mind. The wind laughs and taunts.”
Later, as her confidence grows the focus becomes less about her learning curve and more about the people and places along the way. In the Rockies she gets an advanced lesson in wind management from a memorable character. “She must have been sixty or so, and probably six feet tall. She wore blue eyeshadow and menacing dark eyeliner. Her tall high-heeled leather boots came up over fashionable, strategically ripped jeans to her thighs. She wore a black leather vest over a form-fitting white t-shirt.” In summary, “Everything about her spoke of hard-earned experience.”
Like a gunslinger, the tall stranger, having observed Jane riding, approaches and says “You’ve got to just let the wind blow through you. Just be easy. Soften your arms, hollow your chest, get low in your saddle, and be easy. Let the wind blow through you, like you’re part of it. Just be easy about it and you’ll keep the rubber on the road.” In other words … relax, kid.
The riders reach the Pacific, and a different drama takes center stage, as her son, Emmett begins to feel the current of his own life taking priority over the need for further family adventure. He leaves the triumvirate 400 miles short of completion, the pull of his own life adventures too strong for even the adventure-strengthened family ties. It’s a culmination that is, at once, searing, tender, and appropriate. He doesn’t ride into the sunset or soar over the chasm, but rather pulls out of the motel driveway, an action that leaves his mother and step dad “crying softly in the emptiness.”
This is not the first recorded narrative of a traveler’s adventure, and with Spirit Traffic C. Jane Taylor has not quite launched herself into the same category as Paul Theroux, Anthony Bourdain, Graham Green, or Gulliver, but the girl can write! She has taken an experience of ordinary people and turned into a rich and enjoyable account that comments lucidly and insightfully on a broad range of subjects including motherhood, coming of age, family dynamics, feminism, and America, providing hours of entertaining reading along the way. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.
For information on C. Jane’s book tour and order, visit https://cjanetaylor.com