“Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba…”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century
Motorcycles—and riding them—have been a part of most of my adult life. I say most, because I seem to have sworn them off any number of times, only to feel an ache to get back on.
I bought my first when I was 19, and I don’t know how I managed that without being thrown out of the house. I was an idiot who was more lucky than good, often riding without a helmet and never with earplugs. (The latter practice, combine with too speakers in a small dorm room and too many arena concerts, have left me with an annoying case of tinnitus.)
I graduated from college, took a job in Washington, D.C., and determined that the responsible thing to do as I entered the real world was sell my bike.
In D.C., maintaining ownership of a car proved too expensive. And so, I sold the four-wheeler and … bought another motorcycle. I commuted in all kinds of weather, but when it was too bad, I relied on the kindness of my roommate, Pick, who drove to work on most days, for a ride. Pick ended up buying himself a motorcycle, and we spent many happy weekends camping along the Blue Ridge.
The next rite of passage was marriage, and again, for some reason I was compelled to bite the bullet and give up on the bike. This, despite Beth not really caring either way.
A lot happened, years passed, and one day a vintage BMW motorcycle whooshed by as I sat on our front porch in Urbana. A longtime friend rode one years ago, and I always had a thing for it. Uh oh.
Next thing, I was on a used BMW R80/7.
This time around, now a parent, I took things a might more seriously. I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, bought good protective gear, and pretty much worked on my skills every time I rode. I read voraciously about technique, and even took a class at a race track.
For years that followed, motorcycling was my meditation. It might seem odd that someone like me—prone to angst and worry—would find peace in an activity that requires hypervigilance just to avoid catastrophe. But I do.
I think it’s because I’m prone to mental spinning, thinking of too many things at one time. On a bike, that stops. Maybe it’s self preservation. Or the extreme stimulation of the experience. Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, described the experience as well as I ever could:
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
For years riding was an escape—even if for only a couple hours on a weekend afternoon. I’d get on, head out to the country to a forest preserve, take a hike, and come back.
When we moved to the city,the expense of storing a motorcycle, combined with the combat attitude necessary to survive on downtown streets, led to me, once again, letting my motorcycle go.
The last few months have been especially demanding workwise, and I’ve had a harder and harder time leaving the stress behind. So I took a few days off last week and…rented a motorcycle. I had it just for a couple days and rode around well outside the Chicago city limits. Open spaces and…well…it was as good as ever.
Not sure I want to go to the trouble of buying one and finding a place to keep it and all that.
But I know this: It won’t be my last ride.