On our last day of scribbling around Cape Breton, we made our gray, rainy way to Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. The weather was discouraging, the scenery was monotonous, we'd been at it for 10 days and I allowed myself to forgot the full-time emergency that is motorcycling. I settled into a numb motormeditation.
We were behind a car as we rounded this curve, and we saw two chipmunks on the side of the road. They made a break for it, together, ahead of the car. They must have been good friends. They must have been thinking, “As long as we’re together, nothing can happen to us.”
Boom-boom, and suddenly, both were lying twitching, in the road.
The trip contained a number of incidents like that, which I might have taken as omens.
But omens are only omens if you ignore them. I took it as a warning, and reminded myself to wake up—and to fight the creeping assumption that just because Tom and I have survived lots of recklessness before, this probably wasn’t the first time the chipmunks crossed the road, either.
As Tom and I get older, our idea of danger matures—did Knievel leave his turn signal on at Caesar's Palace?—even if our sense of humor retains its dorm-room flavor.
A gentleman farmer friend of mine says from experience, “When you have a bulldozer, every problem looks like something to be pushed over.”
When you ride a motorcycle a long way, the metaphors ride on two wheels too.
Convictions require courage. You want to accelerate through trouble, generating more centrifugal force and pushing you down harder on the pavement. Chicken out in a turn and hit the brakes and you’ll stand up, wobble and crash.
You can handle more than you think. Just when you’re leaning over as far as you can imagine without losing traction—you must have faith that you can go down farther. You can!
You’ve got to know where you’re headed, not just where you are. When making a sharp and long turn, the sure way to blow it is to look down at your front wheel to see how you’re doing against the white line. The sure way to make the turn perfectly is to look 20 or 30 or 40 yards ahead at where you’re headed. As if by magic, the motorcycle simply goes there.
The most important motorcycling metaphor has to do with risk versus reward, confidence versus competence, and how all those calculations change with age.
I once interviewed a 64-year-old motorcycle racer who told me nothing had changed since he was raced as a young man, “I still crash and I still get hurt. I don’t have fear. I’m still good. I still do the best I can with what I’ve got.”
And then he forgot to put gas in the tank and stalled on a practice lap and had to be brought back to the pits on trailer.
But better—and even safer—to be overconfident than overly cautious.
And much more importantly, better to think about reward than to dwell on risk. Better, and as I age, harder.
When I was young, the reward was infinite, and all out in front. (In a college journal, I once allowed myself to doubt I’d be satisfied if my writing career amounted to no more than Kurt Vonnegut's.)
It’s easy to risk your potential, because it doesn't really exist.
It’s harder to risk your kid’s father, your wife’s husband.
And even harder than that to risk missing a mortgage payment, to risk running out of tuition money, to risk having to work hard for money when you’re 70. Losing the two vacations a year, having to choose between golf and drinking money, cooking instead of going out, giving up the babysitter (and the movies).
To risk the “personal brand.” To say “fuck you” to your boss or your wife, and risk being punched in return. To tell someone you can do something you've never done before and risk fucking it up royally. To surround yourself with strangers and risk comprehensive rejection.
To learn, to feel, to actually listen: Natural to a young person; increasingly terrifying as we get older.
When you’re young, you must try to control your impulses. As you get older, you must notice your impulses. Outer aggression demands inner aggression. “Every once in while a man must do something he’s a little afraid of,” is how my dad used to put it.
But when you do that—and it really is all you have to do: something you're a little afraid of—the risk and the reward melt together, into one single good thing.
When motorcyclists pass one another on the road, they take their left hand off the grip and give each other a casual, low wave. Early in the trip, I spent a lot of time thinking about what that wave signifies, what the right-wing Harley guy thinks he has in common with the Eurostyle BMW rider and the city geeks on new Triumphs made to look old.
It is: Everybody in the world knows the risk of riding a motorcycle, and anybody with an imagination could probably conjure the reward. But nobody knows quite how good it feels when you mix the risk and reward together—and how the mix feels better every year you get older.
Nobody but us—and we'd rather keep it that way.
That's why the wave is casual, and that's why it's low.