Saturday, August 28, 2010

Time Like a Bridge

I was a different rider now. I moved back and forth between two worlds, mommy world and motorcycle world. They had different people in them, different priorities, different codes and language. Citizens of these countries on the other side of the globe from each other couldn’t understand why I didn’t fully inhabit one or the other, and I could not explain. Did I want a unified life? No, I just wanted time to be endless so I could continually slip through the crack between the two people I was. I wanted all the time in the world to put on a dress and go to friends’ for dinner, drinking wine on the patio and discussing the current presidential administration while the children played in the backyard. I wanted all the time in the world to go motorcycle camping and ride to Florida and talk merits of tires and spend whole days taking pieces off engines and cleaning them and putting them back.

I did not have all the time in the world. All at once, I knew. Time had become rare, elusive, choked off and breathing hard. While I was going on my way, I had unwittingly made a passage of some moment.

There is a time like a bridge—let us say it is the age of fifty. On one side of the bridge is forever: no idea of “end” intrudes on anything, especially one’s daydreams. Tell the fortysomethings, then: Go, have your big parties with your big platters in your big houses. Sometime soon, it will all seem too big, too full of infinite hope; a little pointless. Life’s vista has narrowed. That is when you have crossed over the bridge, and that is when you find yourself thinking alarming things like, Holy shit, I may, if I am lucky, have something like twenty-five, maybe thirty, years left. And I’m not going to be riding into my seventies, probably: some people do, but perhaps they shouldn’t. Enough said. So—fifteen years left. That means fifteen seasons, those ever-shorter leases on fine weather that blaze by and melt into cold.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

This Is the Iron Butt Rally

In 2009, some thousand riders vied for a hundred spots, which were determined by lottery, and also by fiat of the emperor, who can make as many exceptions as he likes. This is to ensure “color,” in the tint of bikes like the two vintage RE5 rotary engine Suzukis from the seventies that were considered Hopeless Class entrants. They were also ones, a quarter of a century later, that gave a reverent nod to rally history. That is because George Egloff was mounted on an RE5 when he rode to one of the first place finishes in the original “Ironbutt” in ’84. Their inclusion was the equivalent of placing a george washington slept here plaque on some old stone house; historical markers signify less the commemoration of a place than the legitimation of an institution. The Iron Butt Rally was now officially a Big Event, wrapped in a corporate identity replete with sharp-minded legal counsel, an international following, two solid pages on trademarks and the association that go out to each person who becomes a member, and the voluminous storytelling—from multipart ride reports posted on blogs and forums to the official word of the organization in its daily reports during the rally and the articles in its new glossy magazine for “premier” members—that form Old and New testaments of long-distance riding’s Bible.

Besides, the underdog is an irresistible category in American self-conception. Motorcyclists may be disproportionately drawn to expressing humor of a dark sort; they are certainly fond of testing themselves, as witness the entire long-distance enterprise, and so they are driven again and again to prove that Hopeless is sometimes not so hopeless after all, provided the rider on the underpowered machine has the guts to make up for the lack of displacement. The two smallest bikes ever to survive the crucifixion that is the rally are 125s, Suzuki and Cagiva. The 2001 Hopeless Class was especially lively, with Paul Pelland finishing on a 2001 Russian-made Ural (which might as well have been a 1944 Ural) and, more heroically, a 1946 Indian Chief piloted by Leonard Aron making it all the way to the final checkpoint. In 2003, Leon Begeman came in twelfth on an EX250 Ninja that was actually the resurrected ghost of seven previously expired Ninjas. If kites were allowed in the Iron Butt Rally, someone would find a way to fireproof lightweight nylon and fit a four-valve engine to a balsa-wood frame. Then fly seven feet above the ground for eleven days, finally to crack jokes at the finishers banquet while being good-naturedly jeered for stealing a top-ten place from someone who really deserved it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


It is generally accepted as comprehensible, the Once in a Lifetime Adventure beloved of vicarious travelers, to spend three years going around the world with your girlfriend and a soon-to-be battered-looking motorcycle. The public adores it, the idea of someone doing what they would do, if only they could take the time, get free from work, family, all the bonds we spend years tying about our own ankles. So these collect sponsorships (cold-weather underwear, aluminum hard cases), stop by the wayside to write accounts for the blog the world is booting up to read, and publish a book when they return. There’s a lot of riding, but there’s a lot of people-ing, too (the readability factor demands Interesting Encounters). Hotels, hot meals, nights in tents as opposed to the saddle. Seventy or eighty years ago, an individual could easily make a First: first man around the world, first woman, first sidecar. Now you have to work to even think up some minor fillip that would make it new. In the case of Norwegians Tormod Amlien and Klaus Ulvestad, outlandish humor alone could have been their contribution to the 70,000-mile journey (self-titled the King Croesus Contempt for Death “world’s dumbest motorcycle trip” begun in 2009), but they decided to gild the lily by undertaking it on two 1939 Nimbus machines with sidecars “piloted by pure idiots.” Extraordinary, even grueling, though it remains, the round-the-world trip is . . . travel. And travel is the antithesis of the Iron Butt enterprise. Round-the-world the Iron Butt way is covering 19,030 miles in 31 days and 20 hours, as Nick Sanders did, to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

This yearning to break a record (largest chocolate-chip cookie ever baked; longest solo flight) is a purely human deviation from animal nature. Yet it has become profoundly in our nature to do such essentially unnatural things as expend energy in otherwise fruitless acts. The patently absurd things we do—swim across the Atlantic, compete in the Self-Transcendence Race (ha! exactly!) by running 5,649 half-mile laps in 51 days, kill ourselves on icy mountaintops for the sole purpose of trying to get there—are a compulsion left by our evolution. We were built to contend with threats that swept down from trees, food that ran swiftly away, blood that spilled and could not be stopped. Pushing a heavily piled cart at Walmart does not count. And so it is that long-distance riding can be seen as a proxy for the daily life-or-death struggle we were kitted out for as forest-dwelling hunters. In its absence, we feel a need to find pursuits that exercise the same mental and physical capacities. Or else they start to itch. We want to feel fully alive, and fully ourselves. In this way, riding to extremes takes humans home again.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Art of Travel

No one writes about travel anymore in the way that Henry James wrote about travel--of course, no one writes about anything in the way he did. It is not, I think, that travel has "changed," though of course it has. It is that he approached it with his full self bared to it. Every one of his senses was fully engaged, but more important, his accumulated memories were too.

He faced a new place, or an old one, with the filter that was the individual named Henry James completely unstopped, so that images and feelings flowed through, and came out transformed. He wrote about what was before him at the same time he appreciated its effects on him: the present as it quickly became the past.

Conscious that the impressions of the very first hours
have always the value of their intensity, I shrink from
wasting those that attended my arrival, my return after long
years, even though they be out of order with the others that
were promptly to follow and that I here gather in, as best I
may, under a single head. They referred partly, these instant
vibrations, to a past recalled from very far back; fell into a
train of association that receded, for its beginning, to the dimness
of extreme youth. One's extremest youth had been full of New York,
and one was absurdly finding it again, meeting it at every turn, in sights,
sounds, smells, even in the chaos of confusion and change; a process
under which, verily, recognition became more interesting and more amusing
in proportion as it became more difficult, like the spelling-out of
foreign sentences of which one knows but half the words.

This is James, upon returning to New York, from The American Scene. It is as if he is standing beside himself, watching himself return; and so the traveler is a part of the picture, and is also its narrator.

Why do we travel? To "see" things? To feel them? To feel differently than if we had not traveled? Or to leave home behind for a while, so that we may return?

There is a curious phenomenon, strictly related to sojourning in a place that is not home (or is home, but only when one has left it for good), of falling in love with a place. Then, we need and want it to stay the same and never change--that which places must do, or die, I think--in much the same way we wish our beloved to remain always as he was in the moments we first recognized, "Yes, this is love." Stay, then. Forever. James had this experience with Newport, which he then revisited years later:

Newport, on my finding myself back there, threatened me sharply,
quite at first, with that predicament
at which I have glanced
in another connection or two--the felt condition of having known
it too well and loved it too much for description or definition.

For me, it was Nantucket. Going there as a child with my family changed me forever: I discovered what magic, and love, were for the first time. I was, literally, transported by the strange difference of this simple island (yes, simple, then)--its salt air, fog, moors, the crunch of sand under bicycle tires, the sweat of August by the sea, the feeling of being away, the clam rolls, the Malachite ice cream from Main Street after dinner, the beauty of the cobbled streets, the whaling museum with its haunting old horrors.

When I was sixteen, a girlfriend and I made our first voyage into young adulthood by driving there together, alone. We prowled the docks at night, met young men from boats, and stayed up under lamplight pledging undying love to someone who would leave the next day, and whose name went with him.

The summer after freshman year of college I returned, and this time it was my journey into womanhood that was taken on the island, its beach rituals with the other working college students, the drinking on Straight Wharf, the hitchhiking, the half-price day-old sandwiches at the health-food store, the sunrise, and the sunset.

So much happened to me there. Nantucket happened to me there.

Eight years later I returned. Perhaps I was different, too, but my dear place should never have changed. I did not recognize it: gone were the clam shacks, and the easy life; in their place were Fine Dining and big money. Big, big money.

I felt pierced. Almost destroyed. I wanted to go back into its exact memories, to show the people who were important to me now why it was important to me then. This place I could not recognize, and could not afford, with its million-dollar houses coating the dunes where once there was . . . sand and air--I did not like this place. The magic seemed gone, in its place a replica Madison Avenue. I already knew where that was, for I lived there, and chose never to visit it.

I think we all have these places of the heart, and they all go and change on us. Maybe that is why we travel. Someone else's lost love of a place can become our new one, because we did not know it when. We travel in order to love.


For the next month I will be traveling. Maybe I will find what I am looking for; I suspect I will. Then I will tell you about it. In the meanwhile, the next three weeks will find here brief teasers from a work in progress. "Progress": I like the sound of that.