The Map is Not the Territory
A Tale of Idols and Angels

by John Firman


It’s important to know your way when you’re on a 260 mile round trip into unknown territory. So when I fired up the FXD and rode into the morning chill, I had my trusty map clearly visible in its holder on my tank bag. I was off to the Polar Bear Run at Jamestown Harley-Davidson in the Sierra foothills, a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Good cause, good ride, good map.
    Across the Bay, out I-580, and over Altamont Pass I thought more about maps. A map gives me independence, self-confidence, security. I glanced down at my tank bag and felt smug satisfaction as I traced my progress across the State. Like a god, I could see the past and future laid out with clarity and precision. Lulled into a false sense of security, I settled back and enjoyed the ride.
    Then just after Tracy I ran into that monstrous tule fog. Hey this wasn’t on the map! As I groped blindly ahead, a car cruised past me as if beckoning me to follow—an angel showing the way. I accepted the invitation and we plowed through the fog in tandem.
    A second angel led me off my exit and quickly into a surprisingly tight and prolonged low speed curve, a potentially dangerous turn even without fog. Hey, this wasn’t on the map either!
    The feeling of security I’d gotten from the map was now a bit shaken. The map’s reassuring clarity didn’t match the tortuous grey twists of reality. I slowly followed several other helpful angels for another 20 murky miles until the fog finally lifted around Oakdale. Relieved, I let out the FXD and it lept with exuberance under the clear winter sky.
    And very gradually I drifted once more under the spell of The Map. I glanced at my tank bag and savored the enticing landmarks on the way to Jamestown, fabled Gateway to the Motherload. I felt self-sufficient and in control again, and the help of angels faded from memory.
    After another lovely 60 miles among pastures and hills, I joined a couple hundred riders at Jamestown Harley-Davidson. Upon signing in, I was very pleased to be issued, you guessed it, a map! Well, sort of. A clearly printed list of directions that described every turn to La Grange, the run destination.
    I brimmed with confidence as I loaded the directions into my map holder. All I had to do was follow these simple instructions. I didn’t have to worry about losing the group, wandering around lost, or freezing to death in some lonely snow bank. With my map I felt safe and self-assured. (Beware false gods.)
    Waiting for the run to begin, I chatted with several riders from Jamestown H.O.G. [Harley Owners Group] who noticed my San Mateo H.O.G. colors. Ben assured me that the run wouldn’t take us up into the snow and sand of higher elevations. Fred spoke well about the need for political action through organizations like ABATE. And John and Ellen taught me about late afternoon deer and tule fog.
    Should I ride with some of these friendly locals? Then I wouldn’t need a map, plus I could continue to enjoy this warm camaraderie. But oh no, not me. I was pledged to my idol, The Map. So I carelessly fiddled about while most began the run.
    Riders left in groups for the next half-hour, and when I was good and ready I too headed out, finding myself leading (or so it seemed!) a few other riders through historic Jamestown and out into the far reaches of Tuolumne County. My directions stood proudly in their plastic holder, and I confidently followed them to the letter.
    Right on Humbug Street, right on Main, left on Seco, left on Algerine. Everything unfolded without a hitch and we rode through green rolling pastures, across streams, past windmills, waving happily to a chap out splitting fire wood. Right on Twist Road, left on Jacksonville Road, and across wide Tuolumne River sparkling in the sunlight. Then at Highway 49, The Map commanded: “Right Hwy. 49.” Unquestioning, I turned right and headed north up the river.
    But soon I noticed an odd thing: those riders I was leading so resolutely through the countryside were nowhere to be seen. Do they know something I don’t? Naw, I must have outdistanced them. They’ll catch up. All I have to do is enjoy the ride and watch for my next turn, Marshes Flat Road. Keep the faith.
    And before long, a shocker. Couldn’t believe it. There before me was Jamestown Harley-Davidson again! Say what?! Dumbfounded, I pulled in and whined to a group of riders that the directions had led me in a circle. One guy joked, “Those were the test directions to see if you can follow directions! Now you get the real directions!” We all laughed, but I was secretly reeling from the failure of The Map.
    I stood around stunned, bemoaning my shattered idol. Then a woman kindly offered, “Hey, if you can wait 15 minutes, you can ride with us.” You see? Here was another angel. Say yes, you jerk. Nope, not me. I couldn’t let go. And then someone gave me a verbal map, in short: ride down the highway and turn right at the sign for La Grange.
    So off I go again, just me and The Map. Independent, alone, and in control as ever. Fool. Never mind the earlier angels in the fog, never mind already getting lost once, never mind the kind offer of company. But the FXD took me dutifully down Highway 49, and voila, there was a small forlorn sign to La Grange at a tiny place called Chinese Camp. Is this a street? Almost looks like a driveway. Ah well, it does say La Grange this way.
    Well, this was Redhill Road, a narrow, bumpy strip of lonely asphalt winding tightly among rocky outcroppings and scrub brush. I doggedly followed this thin twisting path to a sign that read, “Road Closed.” Oops. Must have been the wrong La Grange sign back there. You’re in for it now, guy.
    But I continued stubbornly on, past a few lone horseback riders, right next to a bank of bee hives, and through streams—yes, that’s right, through streams: a couple of times I splashed through rushing water a couple feet wide and a half foot deep. Lift those boots!
    Then a sign pointed me down deserted La Grange Road (J59). But this took me through some very eerie landscape: a low-lying mist amongst barren oak trees, and the ground studded with weird rock formations like great black beasts ready to pounce. I was ready for a werewolf to jump out of the mist any minute.
    Finally across another branch of Tuolumne River and left on Highway 132 into La Grange. And there was everyone: two long rows of bikes lining both sides of the road, a mini-Hollister. It looked like another small town taken over, as black-clad bikers jostled in the street, slowed citizen traffic, and flooded the La Grange Saloon & Grill.
    In a daze, I parked and made my way into the Saloon and out the back where there was an open area crowded with reveling bikers. I grabbed a sandwich and took a seat while a talented Modesto H.O.G. member sang karaoke. Munching thoughtfully, pondering maps and angels, I heard a familiar voice, “So you made it finally? You should have ridden with us.” There she sat, the angel who had invited me at Jamestown. “Yeah,” I said, embarrassed, “but the directions where wrong...”
    But my voice trailed off. I knew who was wrong here. True, the printed directions should have read, “Left Hwy. 49,” and not, “Right Hwy. 49.” And yeah, maybe that was the wrong La Grange sign. But more importantly, I should have followed the angels and forsaken The Map. Ah well, I sighed, another good lesson taught me by the road.
    Or hey, maybe I could get a GPS...

[This article was published in Thunder Press in February 2003.]

 

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