“Enjoy, but be safe, son.”
My father has always known how to make his words punch your gut. Typically his tone is light and jovial, a fatherly, Paul Harvey type conversation voice. But once in a while, when the time is right, and he needs it, he dials up Marine Corps serious: his jaw hits his chest, his voice drops an octave, the tone softens and he makes eye contact like a laser guided missile. When he speaks softly, he is carrying the big stick.
His comment on my recent story “Two Points of Contact” was one of those moments. Even though it was written on the computer screen, I could picture his lowered head, dead stare and hear the tone.
“…can’t help but notice the frequent references to maim and injury,” he commented. “Maybe it’s just part of being a dad. Enjoy but be safe, son.”
Enjoy. But be safe. Got it, Dad.
Can you enjoy and be safe? Is it possible to reconcile the two in a sport built on risk tolerance?
Riding a motorcycle is neither safe nor sane; they are temperamental machines draped in risk. Short wheelbase. Steep steering. Too much horsepower. Not enough brakes. Two skinny patches of rubber. A fuel tank between your knees. A fire-breathing engine between your shins. Delicate fingertip controls. They fall over when you turn, dive when you brake and loft the front wheel under greedy throttle. All of it screams you should have listened to your mother. Or father.
Street racing a Ferrari 458 Italia. Safe? No. Joy? Oh yes. Sorry Dad.
However, for some of us with fouled mental wiring, the risk is the draw, the siren song that permeates our dreams with visions of deep lean angles, lurid power wheelies and screaming exhausts among the redwoods. The inherent instability of a motorcycle is a God-given gift for those of us who bend gravity and physics as playthings to fill our vacant souls.
And that my friends, is the attraction. The motorcycle’s lack of safety is indeed it’s joy. In a world seeking to encroach on every aspect of our lives to save us from our detrimental choices we can still give society a shaking leather fist, don a helmet, pull on the armor and pin the throttle until the world blurs. Riding a motorcycle is the one time when we are in the most, and least control of our life. We hold tightly to what we can control while relinquishing the rest to fate’s randomness. Our skill in being a proper pilot creates our well earned yet false sense of safety.
The boss rode this beast while on an extended road trip with my crew. Yes, we rode through that deluge. Yes, we laughed it off when the sun peeked through.
Some among us are attracted to activities that require technical skill and precision to master, things requiring balance and dedication with bruises as punishment for our mistakes. Enter into such realm and you will find yourself among a tiny company of like minded fools. Some of us need to have our mettle tested constantly to see just how good we really are.
Yet no one really needs to ride a motorbike. More sane options abound. Cars are easy. Almost anyone can drive one. Some even drive for you. But scan any parking lot and you will see a fatally banal herd of safety, a sea of bland, sliver, jelly bean shaped autos with electronic intervention, airbags, crumple zones and cup holders. It is death by conformity and such boredom kills the soul. Much safety, but little joy.
How do we reconcile the two? How do we enjoy while being safe?
Everyone’s internal risk tolerance is different, choices we make based on what we are willing to risk and what we have to lose. Daring young bachelors manage their throttle differently than the rider who has a blue eyed girl with a pearl white smile waiting at home. Having kids temper one’s decisions even further. Some give up riding for a time, or entirely.
The road less traveled just might be dirt, and you have to do it on a fully loaded sport bike, in triple digit temps, with no other way out. Worth the risk. Feel the joy. I would kiss the pavement too.
But I once heard someone describe dreams like a boomerang: try to toss the dream away and it will eventually come back, hard, with pain, slapping you on the hamstring with the sting of regret and time lost. Many are those who travel the wide path of safety while those choosing the narrow road know the joy of no regrets.
Which to choose, safety or joy? Jack London had the answer over 100 years ago:
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
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I have been riding on twisty roads for decades, and still ride a sport bike at 74 years old. I am not happy perpendicular to the road, and for me, the joy is the connection between myself and my bike… that the control of it is so instinctive, that my mind is in a zen-like state when the riding is technical. My mind knows the risk, but refuses to accept that I am at risk. I think for those who have a passion (a need) for riding, those who ride instinctively… risk just isn’t a consideration.
Heather, if you are riding a sport bike at 74, then you are my kind of people. May your speed never drop below your age.
My exceedingly rare ’95 Triumph Trophy 1200 in stunning Nightshade blue/purple color has 84,000 miles on the odo and still looks as good as new, and runs even better thanks to upgrades applied over the 28 years I have owned it. At age 71 I have no need to press my luck as I have nothing left to prove. Five years of road racing in the second half of the 1980s got all that out of my system. Since racing provides plenty of opportunities to crash I took advantage of more than a few of them. My mantra now every time I ride is “rubber side down, shiny side up”. and also “no tickets, no crashes”.
A good mantra to live by. You would make my dad happy.
Great piece. Thank you!
Great piece. Thank you.