It was a sad moment. We put some fuel stabilizer in my Suzuki Boulevard S40’s gas tank and ran the stuff through the lines. My bike has that safety feature on the kickstand; if it’s down, the engine is cut off. So I sat there in the garage in my winter jacket, boots, hat and gloves, feeling the motor run. She’s cold-blooded, is my S40, so I needed the choke on until she warmed up a bit, then gradually decreased the choke until the engine was running without any aid, either from choke or throttle. I won’t get to ride until next spring, when the snow has melted and the soft, spring-fed ground has firmed up after runoff. And I regret the fact.
It’s quite a change, from the first day on the practice range. I can remember walking my bike to the line with the rest of the class, listening hard to the instructor’s directions – hold the brake, throw your leg over, keep your feet flat on the ground. Don’t do anything unless told to by one of the range coaches. Those with experience, be patient – we’ll get to more advanced exercises soon enough. Start the bike, first exercise will be ride-walking it across the range, getting a feel for the friction zone and throttle.
And then he said, “Before we get started, is anyone scared?”
I was the only one who raised my hand.
There were times, back in the beginning, when I wished that Jerry hadn’t insisted on getting the S40. It was new – what if I fell, or let the bike fall because I couldn’t handle it? What if I got into an accident and crippled myself? And… if he hadn’t insisted that we sign for it, I could put off learning to ride, I could simply go on daydreaming without experiencing any danger, I could just act wistful when my brother, our buddies Ivan, Dan, Renee, all went riding. I didn’t have to get up onto a machine that outweighs me by a few hundred pounds and ride completely unprotected from other, more powerful weapons on the road.
Because that’s what a car or a truck is.
“Weapon. Noun. A thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or damage.” You can’t tell me a car or truck can’t fall under that definition, but so many people treat them casually, as though they don’t understand the power they control with their hands, their awareness, their skill. And that’s almost a pity; the roads might be a good bit safer if folks treated their vehicles with the same kind of respect they use with their guns.
Or not. I’ve known some people who displayed appalling casualness toward gun safety.
The point is that riders are vulnerable. To the elements, to other vehicles and careless drivers, and far, far more vulnerable to the consequences of their own mistakes.
I can’t tell you how often I wished that it was possible to just mentally download my buddy Ivan’s skill, so that I wouldn’t have to go through the dangerous stage of learning.
But I was committed – not by my own will, but by circumstance.
Or maybe not. I wanted to learn to ride; had for years as a kind of half-wistful longing. I had sent that wish into the Universe more than once. But I never have been good at follow-through. By what I believe, and from what I’ve learned, maybe the matter was simply taken out of my hands. The Universe heard my yearnings, and acted to make them reality, providing the means and the opportunity over and above my fears of what might happen.
In the spring of my skill, the first time I rode the bike, I wouldn’t go faster than forty-five miles an hour; my hands were white-knuckled and my wrist ached for hours afterwards (the left, not the right – you’d think it would be my throttle hand). The wind buffeted me from front and sides, and even though I was wearing my helmet, boots, gloves, and long-sleeved jacket, I cringed at the thought of turning too sharply, skidding along the ground, rolling and tumbling to the music of screeching metal and my head bouncing on the pavement.
I don’t like pain. Pain hurts. And the jacket I was wearing was my favorite – my car wash jacket, from the place where I had met Jerry. Over twenty years I’d kept it safe – worn, but untorn. I found myself wishing I could return the bike to the dealership
Ivan, escorting me for the first twenty or so hours I spent on the bike at Jerry’s request, told me it was okay, but soon I would have to get used to driving the speed of the traffic. Since we all live on the back roads of rural Minnesota, no worries about traffic while I’m practicing. But I wondered if I would ever be able to ride through town. And what would be the purpose of having a motorcycle if I didn’t go places with it?
Time moved on as it has a tendency to do – I got a windshield installed on the bike, dug out a leather jacket I’d had for – again – over twenty years, though this jacket I had scarcely worn. I kept riding, working my way up to 55 mph. My cornering was still questionable – I still slowed way down for turns, accelerating through them but using speed to control the curve, not my own lean. Leaning over at fifty miles an hour is scary; you’re tipped at an angle, seeing the ground come closer and closer through the corner of your eye during a stiff or changeable breeze… or sharp curves.
But at the same time, I was starting to think that riding was fun.
My rides got longer; I started soloing, just toodling on the back roads (Tar. Always on the tar. Gravel roads on a motorcycle are frightening, and I do not like the feel of gravel squirting out from under the sides of the tire, sometimes taking the wheel with it), usually with the camera. I went on hundred-mile rides with Ted or Ivan or both, even to driving through town. I had scares when riding along curvy roads only to see around the next bend one car passing another in a no-passing zone with limited visibility; another time when a juvenile eagle spooked from roadkill and flew down the road in front of us (wish I’d had the GoPro on for that one). I was gaining in skill, getting comfortable with my own bike; growing into her, as the guy at the dealership had said. I was enjoying it more, leaning further, driving faster; though always within legal limits, 55 mph was beginning to feel… almost slow.
Then one windy day I had errands to run; one of the things I needed was a bookshelf, and driving the car to town I felt… cut off. I couldn’t feel the wind, hear the hum of tires on the road, the bumps in the pavement didn’t jostle me. I couldn’t see; there was glass and frame supports everywhere! I found myself wishing for a way to carry cargo on the bike…
And I thought, I get it now. I understood why people ride, why it becomes such an important thing that riders are willing to risk rain, traffic, wind, just to feel that total freedom, that oneness with the road and the world around you.
It’s coming on toward winter; ice on the roads, cold wind cutting through the thickest of clothing. It’s time to put the S40 to bed… and dream of spring.