Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Pointless Conglomeration of About 15 Posts

Every time I write about motorcycles I seem compelled to note how riding engages all the senses. This all-sense perception makes it fundamentally different from car travel (or from planes and trains for that matter). And I think it's the sense of smell that delivers most of the impact.

Your sense of smell isn't really engaged when driving your car, except to note that the diesel-belching monstrosity you're stuck behind in traffic is giving you lung cancer. But on a motorcycle the smells are immediate and engulfing, and they acquaint you with so many things about the environment through which you travel: a freshly-plowed field or recently-mowed lawn, livestock in the vicinity (or manure spreading going on), someone cooking meat on a charcoal grill, passing a lake or river, the leaves falling in autumn, freshly-laid tarmac--you'd miss most or all of these things in your car, but you can't avoid them on a bike. You smell rain and can feel the change in the air on your skin before the rain actually starts. There's a certain profundity to this experience; the vulnerability intrinsic to riding a motorcycle makes one more alert, and the heightened assault on your senses leaves an imprint. You simply feel you're living the experience more fully this way. Maybe it's that (as I know I've said before) the sense of smell is supposed to be closely linked to memory; whatever the reason, I find I'm in a more emotional state when riding the bike, and this in turn gives a fullness that I never experience in a car (I wonder if taking a trip in a convertible would replicate any of this sensation?). Surely this is a big part of why people ride bikes in the first place.

I rode the Buell over to Minneapolis Monday afternoon to meet my friend Chris for a long walk. This is a tradition we began 25 years ago when I was living in Stillwater, which was a beautiful place tailor-made for exploration on foot. What began there as a lark became a regular activity in the ensuing years. Ever since that first walk we've made it a priority to meet up two or three times a year and spend the day on foot catching up. We've always had the kind of relationship where where we openly discuss any and all subjects, and these walks have given the perfect opportunity to bring each other up to date with the most minute details of whatever has been on our minds or going on in our lives. Most of our walks have taken place in the Twin Cities, initially because one or both of us lived there, and now because it's a convenient middle ground for both of us. But we've also logged many miles in other places: our home town of Brainerd (where Chris still lives), Chicago, New York, even several days of walking in Paris in the late '90s. In the decade I've been in Appleton we've managed a couple long walks here as well. We've walked in all seasons and weather, and there's always food involved. Sometimes we structure our walks around where we know the good food is, and other times we just sample whatever comes our way. Over time we've tacitly established the 20-mile mark as connoting a 'proper' walk, though we're both older than we used to be and circumstances don't always allow for it. Our longest have been in the 25-mile range, and we rarely manage less than 10.

Yesterday's tally ran to 13 miles before we needed to make our ways homeward. We started at our hotel down South of Edina and walked Northward through several South Minneapolis neighborhoods to the vibrant Lakes and Uptown areas, and thence Northward along Hennepin Ave. into downtown. After making a quick survey of the new Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins--a fabulous new facility) we continued toward the University, where we met up with our own Jeffy, who gave us a ride back to our hotel. We could not have had better weather--sunny and about 70° with a light breeze.

With each passing year these walks take on a more nostalgic aspect for me, especially the ones in Minneapolis. This in turn dovetails with my weirdly emotional state from the bike ride into town (and back home again later) to make this seem an especially full experience for me. I spent 20 years in Minneapolis--my whole adult life, really, before I moved away to WI--and I have so many memories and experiences hidden in the cobwebs from that time. But the city has changed so much since I lived here, and these walking days now are a combination of rusty attempts to remember what is where and what streets and businesses are called, and of wonder at how much has changed since my time here.

It's really this latter that marks the passage of time for me. It would seem easy at first glance to imagine erasing all the intervening years with a wave of the hand, except that so much of the place I called home for 20 years--most of it, I'd venture--has changed. On my ride into town I detoured down into the St. Paul airport where I did my flight training and where I instructed students of my own before embarking on an airline career. My last couple of MN residences were a stone's throw from the airport in downtown St. Paul proper, and this setting is the most recent and vibrant in memory. But most everything has changed here. My old flight school is gone now, not just the business but the the very buildings have been demolished and the setting paved over--not a trace of it remains. A new flight school under the same name reopened a ways down the road shortly after my school closed, but even that is now boarded up.

To go further back in memory than these last MN days feels almost like visiting another person's memories (despite three houses owned and 13 years of marriage and 9 years at the University of Minnesota and a 10-year career driving a city bus). These days spent on foot become a kind of continuous inventory of all that has changed.

After a perfect day walking (hampered only by having to forego a Twins game in the new stadium--we both needed to get back home), we got back to the hotel and collected our things and headed homeward. I rode a much-altered freeway system through rush hour traffic and Eastward out of town and onto the rural interstates of WI, riding with my back to the setting sun. All the senses register the ebbing of the day's warmth and the encroach of nightfall. I noted a hundred passing scenes as I rode: people out walking--some with dogs, others not--along a quiet dirt roads out in farm country, families and friends collected for a cookout, campgrounds being spruced up in anticipation of the travelers to come (the school year would soon be done). Each setting is familiar home turf for someone yet I'll never know these places--so very little of the world do we ever get to experience.

I stopped for gas in the little town of Thorpe, WI, a chance to stretch my legs and take my helmet off for a few minutes. At the little gas station / convenience store / restaurant, a couple cars pull up and out jump a bunch of boys, maybe 11-14 years old, all in their pinstripes after a ball game. Their parents are with them plus friends and other family members, and everybody tumbles out for ice cream. A letter-perfect night for baseball, I thought. All the boys in their uniforms, still kids but just barely, the men they would become visible. Life goes on.

I rode the last couple hours in darkness, stopping occasionally to wash and squeegee the bugs off my visor. Spring is here early. (I wonder for all the people who confuse climate with weather, those who dismiss global warming as a hoax; I've heard the caustic dismissals that follow each snowfall, but what do they make of the early spring? Alas, that's another post.) I must be extra vigilant for deer in the darkness. Deer and motorcycles don't mix very well. I rolled into town, saddle-sore but filled up, about 10:pm. Bedtime.


As a postscript, I spent the next day giving the bug-splattered Buell a thorough cleaning. And I find myself infuriated and depressed all over again at the utter stupidity of Harley pulling the plug on Buell. With another 600 miles in the saddle, I'm reminded that even if it's not a perfect motorcycle it's remarkably good at what it's trying to do--and as close to perfect as any bike I've owned. It's lovely to look at, nicely constructed and it just works really, really well. It's nimble and responsive and it has eager and very usable power, with an emphasis on what gets you quickly around town (rather than the racetrack). Looking at things up close with my cleaning rag, I'm impressed at how nicely-sourced the components are, and at how well-thought-out everything is. This is not something thrown together by some yahoo in his garage; it's really a world-class effort that is frankly more successful than I would ever have expected from a little shop in rural Wisconsin.

And to stoke my malaise, the latest crop of motorcycle magazines reveal that Bombardier (who were contracted to build the 1125cc Helicon motor for Buell) wanted to purchase the two machines that used the new motor and sell those bikes under the CanAm brand. Refused by HD. Then it's said that Bombardier offered in the vicinity of $125 million to buy Buell outright. Refused again. Instead, Harley spent about that same amount shuttering the company. To my mind that looks like a quarter billion dollars that went the wrong way. It makes me want to axe-murder the whole board at Harley (instead of writing ineffectual letters). I'm ashamed to say that their current financial woes give me a bit of schadenfreude. Their treatment of Buell was stupid, a boneheaded mismanagement that someone should pay for.

OK. I'll stop now.


BrianAlt said...

The whole smell thing just makes me think one thing:


wunelle said...

My wife's sentiments exactly!