Uncle Park blew out 5th gear on his bike. It was a red, 1000cc BMW – my dad said the faring didn’t really start to work until you hit like 85. That was Uncle Park though – always living a little too fast.
I bought a motorcycle 3 years ago. It was a cherry red 1985 Honda NightHawk CB650 with a touchy throttle and temperamental engine. The first time I saw it I was enamored – barely cared how it ran. Those classic lines and the vintage style – it was so Steve McQueen. I’d asked an experienced rider friend of mine to come along for a test ride and second opinion since I didn’t have a Class M at the time and truthfully didn’t know much at all about bikes. “Felt a little wobble at speed,” he said. “Oh come on,” I brushed him off, “it’s perfect,” – bought it on the spot for $2,200 cash.
I was late to the two-wheeled game compared to my dad and Uncle Park. Back when my dad was finishing up his Ecuador stint with the Peace Corps he and Uncle Park had ridden a pair of BSA Victor 441 dirt bikes from the Panama Canal to Wilmington, Delaware – the scenic route they said. As a kid I worshiped this one picture of them sitting on the bikes somewhere down in Costa Rica – knobby tires, dark shades, sleeves rolled up over thick, suntanned forearms. That yellowed photograph was the pinnacle of human existence to my young eyes. A couple years after my dad got back from Ecuador, he and my mom spent almost two years riding half-way around the world on a 750cc BMW for their honeymoon – Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa. If that wasn’t enough, apparently my mom had actually owned her own little 175cc Honda back when she and my dad were dating. I’ve never believed this. She says she used to use it to zip around for groceries and even made one harrowing ride on I-95 at rush hour.
So I grew up seeing motorcycles as a sort of rite of passage – an inherent ingredient of manhood that I wanted to understand and call a piece of my own identity. And what if it was true – the very woman who changed my diapers and spanked me could handle a throttle and clutch herself…?
I got my motorcycle permit when I was 19. “You can’t,” said my dad, ” your mother won’t sleep at night.” That wouldn’t have stopped me, idiot that I was, but they said they’d drop me off the family health insurance which was a bigger battle and bill than I was willing to take on as a broke college sophomore. So my six month learner’s permit and two-wheeled dream expired. In the years after I’d think about bikes from time to time, but there was the expense, the traffic of my congested home city, and the new risks that came with dawn of texting and driving — it just didn’t happen.
Other than always wanting a motorcycle, I struggle to really remember exactly why I ended up pulling the trigger and finally buying a bike when I did. I think part of it was I had found a discount for this cool flat finish motorcycle helmet online that I liked. Once I bought it and it was sitting in my room prominently on my desk, I felt like a real fake looking at it each day and not even having a bike or being an accomplished rider – it was a travesty against my bloodlines, and it weighed heavily on my conscience. I ended up hiding the helmet in my closet and poring over Craigslist until the day I got my NightHawk.
Now that I’m a few years in and have a couple thousand miles under my belt, I think I understand the world of motorcycling – some of it anyway. I like to ride. All the stuff you hear about the zen of riding bikes is pretty much true – the feeling of freedom and independence, the heightened sense of your own mortality, the time you have to think and observe from the solitude inside your helmet, and how scenic routes just look better from the saddle. A few months ago I wrote a magazine article on a couple mechanics who run a great little bike garage in the city. The three of them have literally ridden across America together like three times. One of them told me that riding can become an out-of-body, intergalactic experience – a philosophical journey offering nothing short of transcendent self-discovery.
Beyond the experience of motorcycling, there’s this aura around it too. I’ve found that people generally view motorcycles one of two ways – either as reckless, insanity or a fun, free-spirited adventure. Both perspectives make you feel cool if you ride a bike – cool and brave and competent. You stand out from everybody else on the road, and you’re part of a storied street fraternity. The whole motorcycle look is not bad either. A while ago (it was before I rode), a GQ issue had this one Dolce & Gabbana ad of a European dude in a sport coat, scarf, and aviators riding a MotoGuzzi up some cobble stone street in Italy. Damn, I wanted that – the slick style with a dash of danger, the adventure in store around the bend – it had more credibility too than these other air-brushed shirt models made deity by a camera angle.
You can get lost in all the motorcycling accessories too. The first summer I got my bike, one of my best buds and I used to ride down to Cycle Gear on Saturdays when it was nice out – we’d roll up just to look around, try on all the jackets and gloves like two girlfriends at Macy’s. I think the store associates hated us because we barely ever bought anything, just poked around for 20 minutes through kevlar blue jeans and sport bike posters before throttling back home through the sunshine.
I love to ride, but some things suck about it too – like always having to warm up the engine, being cold if it’s less than 65 degrees out, breaking down and having to push 500 pounds of unwieldy iron 2 miles to a garage (yes – it’s happened). The biggest one I think for me though is the anxiety. I never realized it until I’d been rear-ended twice (terrifying) and then went 6 months with a motorcycle as my sole mode of transportation. It’s the stress of constantly being “on,” looking for oil spots, edge traps, and gravel patches, being paranoid about what’s coming into your rearview mirrors, studying hubcaps at every intersection for a twitch of movement. It demands an exhausting amount of focus, but after a while, you start to get dangerously comfortable – begin to compromise here and there. All the stuff I swore I’d never do – never ride helmetless, stay off the highways at rush hour, never ride in shorts, check my tire pressure frequently – I don’t hold strictly to any of it anymore.
I used to ride every single day – anywhere I needed to go. I remember once telling my riding buddy that I thought it was stupid to keep a motorcycle just as a toy – essentially the way he only used his for joy-riding. I think the opinion was rooted in my beginner’s enthusiasm early on – that and remembering my parents bold venture halfway around the world. I’ve changed my mind though. Maybe it was the 6 months of daily commutes in any weather, or dealing with the stress and risks of it all the time, but I find I appreciate it more now that I ride more recreationally. The two wheeled thrill is fresher when I’ve been trapped in a car all day or the weather hasn’t been good for a week. I’ll still do my work commute occasionally, but now I try to save my gas for a twisty route along the river through the golden light of a Saturday evening.
I don’t always think of my dad and mom and Uncle Park when I’m out riding. The times I do though, I like to think that our experience is much the same – that the zen of motorcycling is somewhat a constant, able to transcend the generations and societal evolutions better than other things. I like to think I’m following closely in their tracks because, whether it’s 2018 or 1976, when you throw a leg over the saddle, it’s still just you and the elements and the laws of physics, still an old-fashioned fusion of man and machine. I often get nostalgic for the past (right or wrong), wishing I would have been born in the 40s or 50s or something. It’s weird but sometimes I find riding my NightHawk both takes me back and locks me into the present all at once – like a curious form of time travel that still drops me off on my doorstep at the end of each journey. I doubt that’s what my mechanic friends meant by “intergalactic experience,” but I never watched many Sci-Fi films so it still works for me.