Soul Searching

Returning overland from Central America in 1987, I stopped in the picturesque town of Antigua, Guatemala. I had spent five months traveling by train, bus, taxi, military transport, whatever I could scare up. I once hitched a ride atop a flatbed cargo of Cuban sugar, gripping the tie-down straps for dear life. During the rough ride that was sweetened by spilt sugar, I resolved to get myself a motorcycle as soon as I got back to the States. A friend had a Honda for sale; I would make him an offer.

Getting off the bus in Antigua was like exiting a time machine. The cobblestone streets, the ancient buildings and walls, all testified to the truth of the city’s name. I wandered the streets of working shops: a carpenter making furniture by hand, a tailor, a cobbler. I bought a bolt of cloth crafted in a remote Mayan village—soft electric blue with black and white patterns—and on a whim had the tailor make a dinner jacket out of the eccentric fabric, which he called sedalana, or silk-wool.

In the cobbler’s window, next to dainty women’s pumps, was a pair of motorcycle boots. I would need gear to ride my motorcycle, and a good pair of boots is a must. My friend had complained about the muffler on his bike being too close to his calf, and the knee-high boots seemed just what the doctor ordered. I inquired within. For $35 I had boots custom-made from the softest calfskin leather, cut from a pattern drawn of my feet as I stood on a piece of cardboard. (Click image to enlarge)

They were unbelievably comfortable; I could walk miles in them, and did on my journey north. Crossing the U.S. border on foot, the customs official frowned at the boots. I told the unfazed border guard of my plans to buy a motorcycle. I was searched and my papers were photocopied. In the months that followed, the crazy dinner jacket went missing—a victim of the road—and the motorcycle went unpurchased in favor of a job offer in Japan.

Still determined to get a motorcycle and because there was no room to pack them in my already over-the-limit luggage, I wore the boots on the plane. I dragged my load through Narita and Ueno station onto a bullet train. I was met at the station by a beautiful Japanese woman who worked for my new company—I married her eight months later.

On my first visit to her family farm, she showed me the oldest building on the property: A squat storehouse called a kura. The door was about a foot thick, made of hammered iron and inlaid with wattle and daub, covered in white fireproof plaster. The building, she told me, was built in 1870 just before the Boshin Civil War (the subject of the film The Last Samurai). She showed me kimonos from another century that had been carefully stored in cabinets, perfectly safe in the building that, although musty, felt like winter inside.

I continued missing opportunities to get a motorcycle, and the next year I decided to take a break from Japan and return to college with my wife to give her a year in America. With complete confidence, I left my Guatemalan boots in the Japanese storehouse.

Lured back by a similar job, I returned to Japan a year later at the beginning of the rainy season. With a motorcycle once again on my mind, I pulled open the heavy door of the kura to retrieve my boots. Throwing aside the shed skin of a great snake, I reached for the boots and was repulsed. They were covered in a creeping gray mildew and rot. The only thing the building was not good for storing, apparently, was leather. My father-in-law laughed, “Silk yes, leather no.”

I left them where they were. They are there now, in the kura in Japan, slowly moldering. What’s the moral of my tale, you ask? Only this: If you have the perfect pair of motorcycle boots made for you, make no excuses and take no bribes. Get that motorcycle and ride.