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Solace and Scooters

Life lessons on two wheels ...

Went for a ride on the Vespa last night.  By myself, as My Bride is slogging through the 800+ pages or so of Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  Hadn’t ridden “just to ride” in awhile, so it allowed me the time and space to kind of free-associate on other rides I’ve taken, the people I’ve encountered … the bugs I’ve killed.  My Bride had just opened that weighty tome, so I figured I had some time to burn…

I’ve been riding motorcycles for more than thirty years now, and while there have been long stretches of time when I wasn’t an owner – the three years in Sweden; and, the long, dry spell as my second marriage began to implode (probably when I needed it most).  There are as many reasons that people ride motorcycles, I suppose, as there are people who ride them.  For me, it has always provided a solace unattainable anywhere else, or doing anything else.  My Bride and I call it “helmet time;” a time during which you are well and truly cut off from anyone else’s thoughts or prattle or opinion.  It is a near-meditative state, which is a little odd, admittedly – because when you’re on a motorcycle or scooter, you have to be hyper-attentive to what you, and your fellow motorists, are doing at all times.

As I rode through Decatur, I flashed on some of the times I’ve had on two wheels, and how those times have actually helped define me along the way.  On my first long tour (to the Maritimes on a Yamaha SR500 thumper, of all things) Mark and Dave were two New York dopers that I met on the MV Bluenose, ferrying us and our bikes from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  Mark was on an old Harley dresser and Dave rode a Kawasaki Z-1.  They were a party on wheels – I think they slept off whatever it was they’d been doing the night before during the entire six-hour ferry passage.  It was so foggy crossing the Bay of Fundy that this Hoosier farm boy had to peer straight down over the railing to see the ocean for the first time.  When the Canadian Customs Agent flagged them over in Yarmouth, I figured it would be the last I’d see of them – but they surfaced at a campground up the Nova Scotia coast two nights later – still partying like it was 1999.  And this was 1981.  Now, as then, I wonder what has become of them.  I think I learned some things not to do from them...

On a 1997 trip between my home in Nashville and my family in northern Indiana, I made a breakfast stop in Glasgow, Kentucky.  A little out of the way, not much more than a wide spot in the road.  Glasgow exudes that sad, small town blight that happens after the Interstate bypasses downtown.  If comedy is tragedy plus time, not enough time had passed in Glasgow.  As I pulled the Triumph onto the centerstand, a man of about 35 and his 8-year-old son greeted me on their way into the only open diner I could find.

By the time I got the bike buttoned up, helmet off, gear straightened, the man and his son were already inside, and, when I entered the café, motioned for me to join them.  What followed was an engaging and interesting breakfast conversation – they had just returned from five years in Scotland, where the man’s wife had just completed the research for her PhD dissertation.  He was hungry for some “outside” chatter, I suppose.  We talked of our respective expat experiences, what we each missed most when we were abroad, a little of Scottish history and the British Royal Family.  His 8-year-old had the most unusual accent I’ve ever heard:  a lilting fusion of Scottish brogue and Kentucky twang.  I don’t remember what I had for breakfast, but the conversation was memorable.  If you're open to it, you never know who you're going to meet when you're on a motorbike.

Another inside-the-helmet snapshot came from the summer solstice in 1999.  I was living in Gothenburg, Sweden.  Gothenburg is on the west coast of Sweden, across the country from Stockholm at a latitude of 57° -- that's a couple of degrees north of Moscow, for reference.  Because of the high latitude, Swedes enjoy nineteen hours of daylight in the summertime.  On that particular June 21, I had attended a traditional Swedish “Midsummer” festival with friends and was riding home, late, on a rented Honda 750.  The weather had turned misty and wet, with dark cumulus clouds puffed up by the summer heat.  It was about midnight, and the clouds parted for just a moment – long enough for the setting sun to refract the most gorgeous rainbow I’d ever seen.  A rainbow, at midnight, on the summer solstice in Sweden.  It was such a spiritual, tranquil, zen moment that I pulled to the side of the road, in the rain, and just sat there, motor running taking it all in.  The drizzle, the clouds, the eerie, nether-world quality of the light and that amazing arch of color will always be with me. 

Tonight’s ride wasn’t anything out of the ordinary … just a shortish toot on the scoot to reflect, relax, rejuvenate.  The Dali Lama says that one should live a good life, an honorable life, so that when you think back, you can enjoy it a second time.

Sounds like the Dali Lama has spent some time on two wheels.

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Tom Lee August 16, 2012 at 06:27 PM
I totally relate. I've been riding off and on for years - from a dirt bike obsession in my teens to vintage moped affection in college to my current love of vintage Japanese and British motorbikes - and there's no place to be "mindful" than on two wheels. It's meditative b/c it forces you to pay attention, to be mentally present in the moment, and that's so very Buddhist. I'm restoring an old '66 BSA now. I can hardly wait to reintroduce it to the road after about 20 years in a backyard, exposed to the elements. Motorcycling is hard to explain, but I think your vignettes above get to the heart of it.
Chris Callahan August 16, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Good to connect with a True Biker. Your description of the meditative state is better than mine -- riding DOES force you to be in the moment...and for that fleeting instant, there is no "other" -- everything just "is." Best of luck with the BSA project -- Victor or an A65? Ride safe.
Tom Lee August 16, 2012 at 08:14 PM
A65L You too

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