Culture Gauges: A Marine Veteran Finds Catharsis on the RoadFrancisco Martínezcuello, a Marine veteran who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, explores his life after the military.
- Words Francisco Martínezcuello
- Illustrations Jeff Langevin
Weapon, gear, self.
It is a mantra indoctrinated early on to all Marines. It’s a list of priorities:
1. Take care of one’s weapon: ensure functionality, cleanliness, and battlesight zeroed.
2. Take care of one’s gear: ensure accountability, cleanliness, and readiness.
3. Take care of one’s self: ensure all required training and readiness are complete.
The individual is last and an afterthought; mission is always first with zero tolerance for failure. That was my life for 20 years, until it wasn’t.
The autumn sun falls toward the horizon. I countersteer around the corners and switchbacks of historic Highway 1; it’s a dance really, and my partner is a 2015 Indian Scout. I am uneasy about completing my first long ride, especially alone as a novice with only 5,000 residential miles under my belt.
San Diego looked big when I left at dawn; by the time I hit L.A. traffic I miss America’s Finest City and split lanes until I cross the Ventura County line. It’s 430 coastal miles to Big Sur. I have no choice but to ride my motorcycle. The economics and logistics of flying didn’t make sense, and I don’t think my car would make it without breaking down. I’ve been awarded a scholarship to attend a weekend writers’ workshop at the Esalen Institute, a New Ager paradise. Esalen co-founder Dick Price suffered a psychotic breakdown in the late 1950s, and was then involuntarily committed by his parents before meeting fellow co-founder Michael Murphy in 1960. The deadline to check in is seven o’clock at night. My last refueling stop was somewhere near Pismo Beach; I remember because of the Monarch migrations and the dinosaur caves.
I notice a gleam from the instrument cluster on the Scout console — I am running out of gas. There are so many things to consider when taking a long trip on a motorcycle: weather, luggage, toolkits, water, food, rest — and my overlooked, pre-planned stops to refuel.
The “low fuel” indicator lamp doesn’t make a sound when it is triggered. Even if the sun-like warning glow of the indicator lamp did ding, it couldn’t compete with the roar of the V-twin engine or the scream of the wind trying to smack my helmet off. My body feels like a canopy; arms serve as suspension lines, holding on is an arduous task without a windshield as I parachute north. I don’t feel grounded, more like I am buoyant, the way the sun floats above the Pacific horizon.
I hadn’t made myself a priority until I started therapy late in my Marine Corps career. Therapy was the catalyst for purchasing the Scout. I remember at the end of a session, the Navy psychologist asked, “Do you ever help yourself? What is one thing you’ve always wanted to do?” I have always wanted a motorcycle. “So, what’s stopping you?” Perhaps I was a bit too institutionalized.
The Corps has two missions: win battles and make Marines. There’s no market for feelings.
The Marine Corps is its own machine, sucking you in when you enlist and spitting you out when your time commitment expires. It’s disorienting, violently mechanical, and by design. The Corps has two missions: win battles and make Marines. There’s no market for feelings.
“Low fuel” illuminates when about one-half gallon of gas remains in the tank. I am no longer a Marine, but it’s hard to outrace the impending failure in completing the mission. I had all day to get to Esalen. What happens if I don’t make the deadline? Will I have to turn around and return to San Diego? Will they accept me as one of their own? What if I didn’t fail the psychological eval when I applied to the police department? What happens when my daughters graduate high school in two years? What will be my identity then? The lamp shines a light on my lack of direction and all the failures and insecurities as a man, father, Marine. I have a destination, but I feel lost.
My mind races. The throttle rolls and I accelerate.
Why didn’t I refuel in Morro Bay? There were plenty of opportunities to stop, stretch, and gas up along the way from Cambria to San Simeon when my back was aching me. The same backache that comes, over time, with compressed discs from wearing flak jackets with ceramic trauma plates in combat zones. The doctors recommend spinal fusion, but I ignore them, too. The self-doubt bursts in a flower bouquet pattern like an IED, which quickens my heart. I instinctively hold my breath until I remember the most lethal aspect in a blast is the overpressure — the pressure caused by a shock wave or explosion above normal atmospheric pressure — so I open my mouth and take short breaths.
If I were to gauge my anxiety at the moment, I would say it is greater than when I slid off the road after a car cut me off on the way to base in 2015, but less than my deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, and about the same as the day after I stopped wearing the uniform.
Historic Highway 1 is lonely. I ride on coastal bluffs and through a stretch of fresh asphalt paved after the 2017 landslides. The hills are littered with scorched patchworks where death meets life. The road is absent of pedestrians, vehicles, and houses. The scenic landscape helps contain my toxic self-criticism. There’s no signal on my phone and I don’t have a map or GPS, so I concede that I will keep riding until I either see life, run this bike dry and walk to the nearest gas station, or die.
Poor decisions still haunt me. Once neatly compartmentalized bad memories now spring out like the oak and redwoods that dominate the central California coast.
Why did I stay in the service for so long if I didn’t like it? A year-long deployment to Iraq and long hours at work lead to strained relationships, but the Post-9/11 GI Bill had passed in 2009, which meant I could transfer education benefits to my daughters — benefits too good to pass up. But it required another four-year commitment and all the deployments and long hours that come with it.
A green placard catches my eye, and I lay off the throttle hoping the sign will greet me with good news, but it’s too hard to see through the coast brush. As I get closer, I notice bouquets and a wooden crucifix but, in my mind, I see a Battlefield Cross. I think: What would have happened if I didn’t survive Afghanistan? Would those GI Bill benefits help with my family’s grief? Would a highway designation solidify my legacy? Or a bridge? Or a street? What lies would the placard say?
Another sign catches my eye to the left, a couple of hundred yards away. It’s definitely Esalen. I lean into the turn and down a hill. The engine turns off, so I put it in neutral and coast to the concierge welcoming me to the institute. I exhale.
Francisco Martínezcuello is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He was born in Santo Domingo, República Dominicana and raised on Long Island, New York. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan while serving on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. Follow Francisco at themotorcyclewriter.com
Francisco also recommends So Say We All’s Veteran Writers Division, a cohort of veterans across generations and all branches of service interested in the written and spoken word. So Say We All offers workshops, classes, and drop-in/meetup safe spaces for aspiring writers to create content, free of judgment or pressure to share. | sosayweallonline.com.