Saturday, August 29, 2009

See SPOT Run

The morning dawns—or not quite.

My first thought upon lifting the coffee cup to my lips, 4:30 a.m. on the 21st, the bike standing outside, shrouded in its cover and ready to go: Remind me why I am doing this?

It is, naturally, a fundamentally unanswerable question, like all the most essential ponderings about life. And not just the ones concerning riding. Suddenly it seems so pointless, just like many of my ideas when they come to the point of doing, as opposed to the point of conception. Ride a thousand miles in one shot?

The purpose—for the lark of doing it, that’s all—was to know a little whereof I hoped to speak. Google Maps graciously gave up the simple number, the mileage to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where on August 24 at 10 a.m. a hundred of the best motorcyclists would leave a hotel parking lot on the mother of all pointless quests, the twenty-fifth running of the Iron Butt Rally. For the next eleven days, at the rate of more or less a thousand miles each day, they would crisscross the country on the trail of bonus points procured with camera, flag, gas receipts, and pure inhuman drive. The pointlessness was the point.

Some things you just have to see for yourself.

With the addition of a couple hundred more miles, I could find out for myself what it felt like, this racking up of numbers for their own sake. I could find out if I was capable. I had no idea, but I was going to try for my first Saddlesore 1000, an Iron Butt Association certified ride. I would do so under the tutelage of an IBA master, who offered his signature on my initial witness form, and myriad other bits of invaluable information, as well as a SPOT tracker to memorialize the event; no one else would care, but one must have a SPOT track these days, apparently. He would stay behind me all the way, permitting me the semblance of my own ride. And more than a semblance of my own mistakes.

My hoped-for 9 p.m. bedtime somehow turned into 11:30 p.m. (and it was not just fault of last-minute preparation of the two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches that, together with the six bottles of water already tidily asleep in the topcase, would form the cornerstone of the next day’s sustenance). Then it was hard to sleep. And then it was hard to stay asleep.

The sun rose as we went west, into what felt like beautiful adventure. It always feels like beautiful adventure when you’re only an hour into the ride.

That was the thing: we were going west, in order to go south. We were going west to add miles, not to go anywhere in particular. This knowledge, this South Carolina by way of Erie, Pennsylvania, struck me at once as shameful and as gleeful, like paying a good five dollars for a ride on a Ferris wheel that returns you to exactly the same place after rotating you for seven minutes.

The majority of motorcyclists do not get this; some are adamant in their belief that this is not motorcycling, as they understand it. Motorcycling is about travel. It is about hitting the turn signal when the urge strikes, lying in the grass by the wayside, being taken by serendipity, and taken in by alluring signage. About stopping as much about going. But as I was throttling down the highway, it hit me: Long distance riders do see things along the way; they just do it faster.

Indeed, I was seeing things: after six hundred miles, I was either seeing a state border sign, or I was imagining it. Where the hell was I now, Virginia or West Virginia? Did I cross just as I was inserting myself at 80 mph between the closing gap of one truck about to overtake another?

It turns out I was going too fast, which was tiring me, which made me anxious, which made my muscles ache, which caused me to take too long to stretch out at the gas stops, which then made me feel like I had to go fast once I got on the slab again.

I felt the imperative now to go, to go. My bike and I were pressed by time and desire into one item, and we needed something. I was getting it.

The miles continued to fly past. My mentor was keeping track, in a way I was unaccustomed to thinking, along lines of pure consumption. “Only two more stops,” or “This is number 5,” he would say, so I could note the stop number and the odometer reading on the back of the gas receipt, sparing me the more picturesque method I had originally conceived of, or a few minutes of searching through the previous receipts because of my inevitable inability to remember my own past, immediate or not. If not for him, and the IBA’s raison d’etre in record-keeping as crucial partner to experience, I would have been laboriously notating things (and thus attenuating effort) in a small black loose-leaf binder that had belonged to my father and for which I had previously never found other use. I wonder what he would have thought of his daughter out here on the highway; no, I know. Bemusement. And acceptance. Just as he accepted all the permutations of human endeavor, especially the most extreme and therefore the most pointless of all.

Was this the purpose of the rainbow that, around one corner, now banded the sky and made one end the goal of the road’s vanishing point? Oh, sure. Saddlesore; pot of gold: same thing.

The state lines were passing; not exactly flashing by, but here comes North Carolina, and with it the sudden piercing thought of someone who lives there, someone whom I think of often and always with an aching sadness. That made thirty miles go by. What is geography but memory painted over a map like those topographical greens and browns?

The last 80 miles were the ones I did not think I could make. Probably because I knew there were only 80 miles left to go, and I would not, could not stop now. I blinked my eyes quickly; I felt angry at the traffic this late at night. It did not seem fair to impose tailgaters on someone who was just trying to get somewhere, and stay awake doing so.

Then, suddenly, Spartanburg. And in a few miles, the glowing red letters that spelled Marriott. We made the last turn, and I was there. A thousand miles were past, gone forever. And here, arrayed in neat lines, were the hundred bikes of the truly devoted, waiting shrouded for their own start, just as mine had been earlier that day, though it seemed like in another life entirely.

I got to bed at 1:42 a.m., after nearly twenty hours awake. The next morning, watching at the meticulous multi-step tech inspection of these greatly modified machines, with their fuel cells, dual GPS, hydration systems, and shipboard packing layouts, I realized the smallness of what I had done, and the enormousness of what they were about to launch themselves into. For the next two days, the intensive preparations continued, as they had for each of these hundred riders for the months and even years before. The Big Dance was nigh. The quiet motorcycles radiated an energy of anticipation, it seemed. And finally, at ten a.m. on Monday, the signal was given, a hundred engines cranked, and something caught hold of my throat. I was held motionless as one by one they were taken by motion: in a precise ballet, each one at thirty-second intervals cut a smooth, sharp turn out of the parking lot. The riders waved, and the air filled with the sound of their horns’ final farewell. In minutes they were gone. What they left behind was a memory, heavy as air, of their having been there.

Now I am haunted. I keep thinking of them still out there, running the roads of North America, back and forth across the map of the nights between then and now. I have resumed my life, gone to my own bed night after night, but they are each alone with a machine and the miles falling away behind them. More, and, more, and more. I think I see the point.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

All the Way Down the Road

The first hour was pure joy. A state route of two lanes, good pavement, and happy memories from not too long ago. Butter yellow sun in sky blue sky at the outset of a trip much anticipated. Therefore, no other traffic was to dog my heels, or bar my progress, however fast or slow that wanted to be: nobody to interfere with streaming along these high-speed sweepers and the feeling that in the base of them, the road was trying to dip down and kiss the lips of the dense green Catskills reservoir waters at its edge.

This was Route 30. I say it now as others say the names of their favorite roads, too—Oh, man, you gotta do 221, it’s amazing; Don’t miss 79 whatever you do—as if numbers themselves could sing.

On 17, where 82 mph is discovered to be this particular machine’s optimal cruising speed (though 75 also works, as does 91), and where it is rediscovered that some earplugs, though necessary, sometimes cause the cartilage to start aching terribly, thoughts started to appear like passing scenery. One of them was a sinewy line about the notion of a “biddable” motorcycle, just as they use that word to refer to a soft but smart, acquiescent but independent-thinking working dog. That little sashay you do when changing lanes, when the subtlest shift of weight in the seat causes the bike to lean in, cross the dividing line, then stand up, so quickly it might never have happened, might just have been something you imagined but are not quite sure. The faster, more subconsciously this can be done, the more biddable the bike. My definition, then, of “biddable,” whether applied to dog or motorcycle, is that it will do anything for you within reason. For a dog, that means exercising the intellect (in the case of a border collie, that is substantial indeed) and weighing the evidence. If what is being asked is injurious, morally or emotionally, the dog refuses. For the machine, though, although it can almost feel like ethics or emotion, it is really physics and mechanics that draw the line. Ask it to push past what it can do according to these laws, and it refuses.

Sometimes the refusal is rather spectacular. We don’t want to go there.

Stay inside the lines, though, and the sensation is inimitable. It is the joining of two things that were made separately but are now a single creature. The bike and the dog both lend to us their impossibly greater powers. They ask only in return that we remember that we are only borrowing these for a time. Stay humble, stay moral, stay in gravity’s precincts, and the reward is to be borne heavenward. Or at least toward a road you will bore everyone else by telling them they just have to try. It will stop being boring only at that moment when the contact patch shifts, the throttle pours on.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Build Me an Ark

Oxfam has reported that, in the past twenty years, the incidence of weather-related disasters has quadrupled. If the great consensus of credentialed climatologists is correct (barring the occasional right-wing crank who claims “the jury’s still out” regarding climate change—yeah, out of its mind, and into the pockets of Big Industry), then we’re in for more. Much more.

We are getting a little foretaste here in the northeast. (The polar regions, where none of us pitch our tents and therefore is off our radar, is changing at a far more rapid rate, with frightening levels of icemelt reported.) A little time to build our big boats, the only thing that will help us now. But whither to set sail? Why, let us dock in the deserts of the southwest, there to tie our ropes to the railings of a million abandoned Arizona palais de trop, now sunk ten feet atop the drained aquifer. Let us climb the mainmast to train our spyglasses on the vast browned fields of desiccated golf courses that represent our willful childishness, greenswards that should never have been put here in the first place.

This is the summer that wasn’t. I kept waiting for it to begin, waiting through rainshower after rainshower. Mushrooms sprout in the side yard; the scent of incipient mildew spreads through the house. The boy waits, waits for a day in which the temperature climbs enough past 70 to make swimming, that old summer pastime, a desire. The dog waits, going to the doorstep to peer out through the sheets of silver wet, then giving me a baleful look (You’re not going to push me out into that, are you?) and turning around to take up her supine position on the kitchen rug again. Or else on the couch. Or maybe my bed. Her hair coats the house, in this humidity.

Summer was once the Promised Land, stretching into infinity, three months of heat and various stickinesses (popsicle juice, sweat) to enjoy for what seemed like forever. This season, we have gone to the swimming hole exactly once, and it began raining shortly after we arrived. The dogs and people started streaming back to their cars, but we stayed. We were wearing our rain gear, I mean bathing suits, after all. Last weekend I pitched my small tent, last used years and years ago at a rally in West Virginia in another young life, and shivered through two nights in a cheap sleeping bag that was rated for warm summer nights, while the cold descended from a hard, deep sky occasionally giving up wishes in a flash of shooting star. It had been hard to pull myself away from the bonfire, even though I was tired, and even though I did not really want to see what might happen if the one person overindulging in gulps from a bottle of bourbon lost his balance near the pot of flames that was glowing red from all the wood being heaped on it; by midnight he had attained the general status of gas-soaked rag, which needs only one spark to combust.

In the couple of weeks left of this season—though it seems impossible that another one is in our sights, or on the calendar already, but nature does not lie, and this morning I walked partway up Ticetenyck Mountain on a path gently littered with scarlet sugar maple leaves—I will have to work hard to get my share of summer. Ice cream cones and ferris wheels head the list. I need these to make myself feel, if only for a little while, that we have not lost this all, these pieces of the past that seasonally recur, just yet.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

There You Go Again: Part III, Finally

Duality is all. Eleven years after falling into that numbed slumber, I awoke to both new perils and new joys. It seemed significant numbers of people were having serious difficulty these days distinguishing between their right and their left, because both sides of the road were much more often occupied at once by the same rather large car. It turned out I did need to buy some new gear, because there was this new stuff called “armor” they now put inside all the joints of clothing to make you walk funny. Well, better to walk funny than not walk at all, so pony up I did. The wonderful sight of so many, many more motorcycles on the road was tempered by the fact that a proportionate number were themselves hazards to other bikers, when they rode in trick-riding close formation without trick-riding skills, wearing plastic teacups perched atop their heads to protect the exact 15 percent of skull surface that is rarely to never landed on.

Far happier to me was the presence of vastly greater numbers of women riders. A couple weeks after taking possession of my new bike, I had an experience that could never have occurred a decade before: on a Friday afternoon jaunt up Route 28 in the Catskills, a woman rider overtook me in the passing lane at exactly the same moment we both waved to another woman heading toward us in the oncoming. The only three riders in sight.

The omnipresence of GPS units on virtually every other machine made me defensively question what the heck was so bad about yellowing map pockets anyway, as well as the fact that I don’t really like the idea that a satellite knows exactly where I am at all times—not unless it’s going to care about me too. I had resisted a cell phone far into the transformation of human beings into animals who sprouted wads of black plastic and wireless impulses from their left ears. Then, suddenly, the night that found me riding an unfamiliar machine up the Thruway in the dark alone, a decision was made to enter the new century, and lo, yet another monthly bill from Verizon.

But GPS—could I really embrace this? I have yet to really figure out how that cell phone works, after all. And I was always so proud of my well-honed ability to read maps and distill them into magic-markered hieroglyphics easily read at speed. You’re going to tell me this was obsolete.

Well, yes.

The thought briefly visited that I sounded like someone irritably protesting how crank telephones had been good enough for Aunt Olive; what did I need one of those new dial machines for? Then came the evening when a few motorcyclists were visiting, and I brought out my 1997 Rand McNally atlas pulling apart at the seams in order to show off my local-roads prowess: one of them started laughing and said, “Look! It’s analog GPS!” I figured I would soon succumb there too. And figure out how to pay for it later, like so much else.

Yet motorcycling remains a fundamentally mechanical experience in a digital and electronic world, one that is increasingly distant from three dimensions. In it we still put our feet on the pegs, engage our muscles; our eyes relay information to and from our brains, and then there we are, in a real cutting-through-the-air moment. The dirt under our nails is real, and hard to get out. We are members of a society with drive and purpose to life, a world larger than ourselves. We create situations with certain difficulties, then go about solving them—together. Something to do, and in that concrete something, we find a way to be. It allows us to be good, to express that goodness to others. The gift of giving that becomes a gift to ourselves. It’s all a great relief. And this is the secret we hold.

It is still morning for me. I have just arisen from sleep. I learn new things while memories of the first life gently float to the surface, bursting as they reach air. I remember thinking I had written everything I had wanted to say in the first book, but this time I know for certain I did not. I could not. Because this is an infinite experience, spiraling deeper and deeper, all the way into what it means to be human. But how could a simple machine take us there? I do not know. And if you have to understand, I couldn’t possibly explain. But I still just might try.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

You Didn't Stop Me: Part II

For the first year after the break, voices reached out to me, through the electronic ether. People who just wanted to know how I was doing. People who could read my dreams. They were the ones who would not give up. “Get a bike.” “Get a bike.” “Get a bike.”

Till I began to repeat it too, “Get a bike?” And suddenly, one day, impossible as it seemed, ill-fitting to my life as middle-aged mother of one, fairly alone in all ways, the question mark became period. It did so in part because of the messianic fervor of some of these voices, impossible to ignore in the same way it is impossible to breathe in fumes of incense while gazing at the heaven of a gothic vaulted ceiling, medieval chant bearing you aloft, and not believe in the holy spirit. These priests shall remain nameless in case some of them are here. But what they wanted to bring me back to is in fact better than a religion, which after all is just a set of beliefs. Biking is more than that. It is an experience in this time and this space, one that takes not just the mind, but the body and its heart, for a ride.

It now seemed proper for a more sedate mount—and one that would start more reliably, too. Gone were the days (or so I needed to believe) of laying out parts on a city sidewalk over the course of long weekends, a metal picnic shared with other unencumbered friends, or chasing mail-order spark plugs in rare sizes across continents. The time was right for the Other Europe.

Still, I fretted. The world had changed, and so had I. Reading glasses. Another few million cars every year I had been out. The advent of cell phones, and of SUVs. Worse, cell phones and SUVs together. But I had been fretting for so long, and about so many things, that I finally wore myself out. And the day that I heard, at long last, a smooth, low triple singing in increasing volume from down the hill, then turn in to my drive where I saw it coming from behind the window where I had been watching, I stopped. I could no longer fret, because all I wanted now was to ride.

The relief. Relief from incessant what-ifs, the voices of unreason and counter-reason in my head. A relief to act, to start living again. To wake from sleep.

And so my bike’s first act of salvation was to provide a community to replace, or at least enfold, the one that was shattered for me. It came rushing back, the memory of open arms, the generosity of strangers, who are not very strange, so long as they are riders too. I was united, powerfully, not only through common desire, but by the very constitution of the blood, shared in what feels like an evolutionary drive that forms you like this, needing to ride, and joining with others who “get it.” We were isolated, together, by something that is beyond the ability to explain. Or, anyway, the time it would take to explain is time you cannot spare.

I wondered about what it is, exactly, that binds us so tight together that people you barely knew would, say, ride two hundred miles to lend you gear until you could free your own from the prison of crated storage. Or spend a few days hanging out to fix a leak, with the only payment a couple of salmon burgers and a not unreasonable amount of chocolate. Or answer endless e-mails about the new issue of “lowering,” which you learn has generated a veritable Wikipedia of insight into the arcane world of Bavarian after-market expenditure.

I found an answer one day, in a book about those utopian communities of mutual aid that spontaneously spring up in the wake of disasters. It is titled A Paradise Built in Hell, not that that is always apt in reference to motorcycling, though it is on those days when starters fry or rubber ruptures or cables snap. The author quotes a sociologist named Charles Fritz, who was an Army Air captain stationed in Britain in World War II, and so presumably knows whereof he speaks. What I am about to read here from Fritz’s conclusions about group behavior seems to strike most closely to the heart of why motorcyclists represent one of the most cohesive, and caring, groups it is possible to encounter. Quote: “The widespread sharing of danger, loss, and deprivation produces an intimate, primarily group solidarity among the survivors, which overcomes social isolation, provides a channel for intimate communication and expression, and provides a major source of physical and emotional support and reassurance. . . . The ‘outsider’ becomes an ‘insider,’ the ‘marginal man’ a ‘central man.’ People are thus able to perceive, with a clarity never before possible, a set of underlying basic values to which all people subscribe. They realize that collective action is necessary for these values to be maintained and that individual and group goals are inextricably merged. This merging of individual and societal needs provides a feeling of belonging and a sense of unity rarely achieved under normal circumstances.” End quote. Indeed, I had always thought, What a funny idea, bikes antisocial. Who’s more social than bikers?

As proof, I now encountered the new brave new world of online forums, wherein countless like-minded riders spent every last minute they were not on two wheels on their modems, slinging clever barbs at one another with such astounding vigor one could only duck to avoid dismemberment. I could not even hope to participate until I overcame the fear that I could never create an avatar and moniker that would meet the off-color comic standards of most of these groups, much less enter the fray that made yet another of our great secrets manifest: per square inch, bikers possess more humor as well as more intelligence than any other group it is possible to name.

In re-encountering this aspect of belonging and commonality, I felt another kind of salvation coming down like gentle rain. What was this strange yet vaguely familiar feeling? Good god. It was happiness. I could not remember when I had last known that rich, smooth sensation. Here now was not only the animal happiness of riding, but the happiness of laughter, and the happiness of unearthing something wonderful and well-missed that had been long buried as in those attic boxes—my own sense of humor. Even if I was not yet a full-fledged wiseass.

Although I aspired to it. Oh yes I did. Thus I found bikes rejuvenating, literally, returning to youth, more specifically, age twelve, the height of one’s powers as a caustic comedian. This was purest pleasure, and I was now ready for pleasure; the lusciousness of the road and the shared wave cut into high relief how long it was that I had gone without. I had to make up for lost time, then, drink a double. Every sort of desire: the newly awakened do not differentiate among physical, emotional, intellectual pleasures. It was on a ride one day that it occurred to me that perhaps the biggest secret we share is that what we are doing out there in the open as we brake and gear down and lean is exactly (so far as our neurology is concerned) what other folk usually hide behind the bedroom door.

It was all bound up, too, in the pleasure of dreaming of where to go on my bike, and what it would feel like. Yes, I still had school lunches to fix, and bills to worry about, but I also now had road trips to plan: the promise of pleasure made only to myself, after years of what felt like living only for others. Although I did have monthly girls’ night out, I admit. Selfishness as salvation, arriving on the back of a blue ’92 K75.