Thursday, June 8, 2006
Not an earth-shaking one, maybe, but a significant one for me: for only the second or third time since I was 13, I am motorcycle-less.
I watched my beloved BMW, strapped into the bed of a Ford Pickup truck, pull away from the curb at the Detroit Metro airport and head off for a new life in Canada. I stood and watched it disappear in the thicket of traffic, knowing I would not see it again. About nine hours before, I had pulled out of the driveway, just a tick after 5:am, and made one last 500 mile dash, broken only by quick gas stops, to arrive at our prearranged rendezvous point by the airport. We met, exchanged information, strapped the bike in, and we went on our ways.
I think there will be an immediate resonance in this event for anyone who gets motorcycles in the first place. If you don't understand them, this whole post will seem as pointless as my ramblings usually are.
As I suppose happens in married life, one comes to define one's self to a degree by the tastes and judgments of the person with whom you share things most closely. That's not to say we become so much more like each other, but we're both better at defining and navigating around the roadblocks that our significant other's views constitute on the smoothly-paved four-lane of life. In this vein, I carried on something of a conversation with Susan as I drove, me conjuring what I imagined her responses would be (with the one proviso that the Susan I conjured would be willing to have this particular conversation in the first place!). This technique tends to produce predictably predictable conversations, but it also provides some basic structure to what would otherwise be random, untethered thoughts. So, did she give a damn about this bike? No. Does she give a hoot about motorcycles generally. Nah. But it's not too egregious a stretch for me to put in her mouth the question of why people bother with motorcycles at all, is it? (I just conjured her: she said "No, I suppose not." Green light!)
Actually, Susan gets motorcycles, kind of. She gets the part about them that lives cheek-by-jowl with convertibles, that place where independent, hot chicks drive around in the sun with their hair flying, looking cute and free-spirited. But factor in the driving of the machine, and the vibe begins rapidly to fade. The idea of driving for the sake of driving, of operating a moving vehicle as an end in itself is utterly anathema to her (I'm sure I've said somewhere that a road trip as a vacation would rank below elective surgery). And if you take that away, the very essence of a motorcycle--that thing which plays at the edges of the human psyche and which we love to call "spiritual"--vanishes. You did see European governments during the Second World War using motorcycles as cheap, go-anywhere transportation for couriers and the like--rather taking the place of the horse in history. But that's an anomaly. Motorcycles are really all about mankind's emotional connection with the machines we've created, machines ostensibly intended to solve a particular problem but which take on a life of their own quite apart from their mission. For most all of us there is something, some thing, in our lives which has taken this place for us--our cell phone, our computer maybe, a favorite car over the years, maybe even our house. Our connections with people are primary, of course, but things come to matter, and some in a way that is not crass materialism.
For me, motorcycles aren't about rebellion or thumbing one's nose at anyone; they're about speed and subtlety and nuance and detail and a sense of freedom that's almost like flying. True, they do what cars do: they bring one from one place to another. But they do this by placing much greater operator demands on us, and by placing us a bit in harm's way, relatively-speaking. You sit astraddle them, with fiercely whirling, heat-producing bits inches from your soft, fleshy parts. With almost imperceptible movement of the fingers and wrists, and an occasional ankle, we loose the fury of the caged beast in measured parcels to do our bidding. We collaborate. We commune.
I've been riding so many years it's hard to remember what I once felt as I learned to ride a motorcycle. I suppose it's a bit like the giddy sensation of first riding a bicycle, the thrill of that hundredth crash suddenly averted--for the first time!--as some little connection finally worked out, as muscle memories were made and confidence restored like a ray of sunshine injected into your little spinal column. Maybe it's like that. But with a motorcycle there is so much more of everything: noise and weight and speed and danger. More intense consequence to everything. And in exchange for taking that on, they bring you the world, but up close. I think the motorcycle is the perfect mode of long-distance travel (my conjured Susan is moaning). You smell and hear everything, you feel things viscerally, the road, the wind, the rain, you experience things when you're not in an insulating bubble. I love riding through a neighborhood when someone is grilling out, or riding through a forest after a rain.
The last couple bikes I sold or traded, as I bid them farewell, I kind of felt would likely be my last. I always kind of thought I'd move over to sports cars or something as I got older. But I knew today as he drove off with my girl that I'd get another, and probably pretty soon. I may do the sports car thing too, maybe; but nothing is a replacement for what motorcycles are. And I think that has been a revelation taking shape out of the mist these last few years. You're someone who rides or you're not--no big deal, no judgment. But if you're a rider, it's not something you just turn off. I guess 10-going-on-11 bikes should have made that clear to me a long time ago.