Out the other side:
"So you're still trying to kill yourself riding one of those murder-cycles, huh?"
Those were the first words out of the mouth of a man I used to work with but hadn't seen in years. We had a chance encounter at a gas station where I was refueling Sophie. I'd let the fuel run down lower than I usually do. This created a need to stop farther North. This guy's hometown.
Like a drop-down menu on a computer, a hundred possible replies scrolled in front of my mind's eye. Should I be defensive? How about offensive? Was there any way to explain to this man with limited capacity to understand? My redneck country raising stopped me. Grandpa always seemed to explain things to me based on horses or pigs. I could understand the horse thing. We rode, roped, and rodeo'd. But pigs? Never had anything to do with them except eating the things.
"Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig."
Here's the other favorite one. "Never wrestle with a pig. You'll just get muddy and the pig likes it."
Armed with my redneck wisdom I chose another answer. I would be philosophical with just a hint of a put-down.
"I may well die on a bike, but in the meantime I will have lived more than most of you!"
My voice expressed what was in my heart. After Russ died I spent a lot of time thinking about riding. I thought about the ever-increasing risks. I thought about my own increased exposure. I'm riding farther to work than I ever have before. For a while it was like being in a dark tunnel. I call it a tunnel because I shortly came out the other side. Riding is too important to me to quit. Life would be too empty without it.
What surprised me is that I even thought about these things at all. I've always had the attitude that no matter what happened I would find the answer at the right time. These times of contemplation are a new development. Is it because I'm finally outgrowing the youthful feeling of being immortal? ( twenty some years late ) Is it because the kids are grown and I know how alone Katie would be if I were gone? ( maybe she wouldn't be lonely, that's a scary thought ) Is it the coincidence of having several friends perish on bikes in a short time? People like Larry Grodsky who you think would be the last ones it would happen to? My friend and understudy Russ? Has Superman finally discovered that the effects of Kryptonite are actually real?
What I do know is that I will ride as long as I possibly can. There may an eventual price to pay. That price tag will still be less than what I've gotten in return. This post is a carthasis. ( look it up ) Take what you will from it. Encouragement, conviction, determination. Or just entertainment. Your choice. Allow me my passage out of the tunnel and we will move on to bigger, better, and fun things.
Commuting by bike IS more dangerous than driving. It is an undisputed fact. We are less visible, more vulnerable, and bad decisions hurt us much more. The situation is made more deadly by the shear numbers of idiots driving. I use the word "idiots" with the full connotation implied. It doesn't take brains to drive a big, fancy, SUV. Just money, it seems. It looks like it doesn't take any skill to commute in a car. Judging by what I see over and over, all you have to do is be good at juggling. If you can't actually "drive" but you can "aim" the car, you're good to go. To top that all off, if you can adopt an attitude that traffic needs to look out for you instead of the other way around, so much the better. It's no wonder that we get bummed out looking at how the odds seem to stack against us even more.
The physical hazards by themselves can be daunting enough. Then we have to be subjected to the mental hazards. These same people who have no driving skills and are afraid to do anything "different" have the audacity to condemn us. Can you imagine?
Some of it is the fault of riders. You notice I didn't say "our own fault". I acknowledge no kinship with some of the riders out there. The only thing we have in common is the fact that we are using two wheeled vehicles. Putting on a helmet does not infuse "smart waves" into a person's head. Some of it is that people are afraid of things that are different than what they know. If a person is brainwashed into a mold then anyone who breaks out makes them feel uncomfortable. Then there's those who are just plain envious. They wish they had the nerve to do what we do. Instead of being happy for us they try to make it look like we are "bad" in some way. I guess it makes them feel better about the fact they have no guts. Lastly, there's those who are like parrots. They repeat what they are told without any thought going into it. Someone said motorcycles are dangerous so that's enough for them.
Whoa! Looking at all that makes it look like a big problem, doesn't it? It's easy to just sort of get stuck there. Going 'round and 'round in some sort of endless spin cycle. I almost got caught up in the whirpool, myself. If it can happen to me than I won't think less of you for being there. Let me share with you how I pulled the plug.
First, the physical hazards. I don't believe in fate. My conviction is that we make our own luck. At the same time none of us are immune to "time and unforeseen occurrence". If I spend a lot of time on a bike, there's a bigger chance I'll die on a bike. It could be a boat, a plane, or anything else. We had an air show this last weekend. A 73 year old man brought a vintage fighter plane to show off. He was a flight instructor and had over 4000 hours in a variety of old planes. When the show was over he took off. Shortly afterwards the plane plunged to the ground, hitting a house. The fireball killed the man. Nobody was home at the house. This man pursued what he loved and died in the process. What do you think about the quality of HIS life? Is it fair that a skilled pilot would crash like that? It's like the old question of why the Grey Whale, the biggest creature around, has a throat opening so small they can only eat very tiny things like shrimp. IT'S JUST THE WAY IT IS! In some sort of strange way it's kind of comforting.
I'm determined to keep my mental and physical skills as sharp as possible. Fortunately, I'm an instructor which provides ample opportunity to visit the honing wheel. I would urge you to seek out any chance you can to refine and test your own skills. Battles will happen. How fierce your opponent appears depends in large measure on what weapons you are able to bring to bear. Idiots on the road are beyond our control. Available weaponry is something we CAN control. I face the hazards with newfound strength and resolve. The death of my friend Russ still haunts me but I chose to use it as a positive. For example, when Katie and I took a ride Sunday we came upon an elderly couple in a Silver Buick. They were doing 40 in a 55 mph stretch.
I'm sure I felt the same urge Russ felt to pass the slower traffic quickly. Thinking of Russ, I waited a little longer to pass. We were on a rural road with several houses on the left. The driver could have been going slowly waiting for a driveway. Or just because old people typically drive in less of a rush. It was a simple thing that didn't hurt me at all to wait until we were at a stretch with no driveways on the left. Patience was my weapon of choice. Thank you, and Godspeed, Russ!
Mental hazards are another thing we can control. Here's my take. What possible value can I get from something a barely skilled commuter in a car could say to me? How could anybody who's afraid to try something "daring" have any right to pass judgement on me for riding? The average commuter in a car tries to drink coffee, smoke a cigarette, and talk on the cell phone. All at the same time!! The same people who really should spit out their gum before they walk down the sidewalk. ( if you get the reference about walking and chewing gum at the same time ) Tell you what. I'm an intelligent person who daily puts my skill and wits to the test. Why don't they at least TRY to ride a bike? Then, just maybe, we'll have some sort of barely common reference point for a discussion.
I know it sounds harsh. Ponder it for a while. What possible reference point can there be that makes what they have to say mean anything at all to us? Any fool can flap their lips and make sounds come out. Doesn't mean it's worth anything. It's all about being Teflon. Don't let it stick.
There's my two answers to the obvious problems. Further musings reveal the fact that riding is just too valuable to give up. More than valuable, really. I'd use the word "precious".
One of these days I'm going to write a book entitled "Everything I Wanted to Know I Learned From Motorcycling". If I crash and die tomorrow it still will not change the richness I've known from riding. It would take too long to share all the good. Happily, I don't have to. Unlike the car commuters, you have the common frame of reference. You KNOW.
I want to leave you with a last thought based on what Grandma would tell me when I didn't want to finish a meal. I'm sure you heard something similar. She would tell me how children were starving in poor countries so I had the moral obligation to finish my food. As a child my reaction was to urge her to send this disgusting stuff to THEM. Now I realize the wisdom in that statement.
Recently we watched a young woman waste away and die from cancer. She was able to get a couple of rides on a bike from someone who was trying to help cheer her. The rides lit some sort of fire inside her. She found the joy we feel. She never got the chance to pursue it. A year or so ago my dear old friend Walter passed away. When I met Walter he was 84. This man was a teenager in the Mid-West during the Dust Bowl days. He told me of being on a tractor and seeing the sky turn black with dust. Younger days saw trips across the USA on an old Harley. Walter still wore the leather cap. I took him on rides with me on the back of a bike as I could. Eventually he got to the point where he couldn't sit on the bike anymore. Walter died in his 90's. You should have seen his face when he got off my bike. You should have seen the sadness when he could no longer even ride as a passenger. There are many more examples of those who would love to ride but can't for some reason.
I really think it's a sin to not enjoy what our hearts move us to do while we are able. So many have been robbed of the ability to even have a choice in the matter. It isn't limited to riding. Bikes just happen to be our heart's passion. I have a passion for riding and teaching others to ride better. To go with them I've been blessed with the physical and mental faculties to pursue that passion. I will not willingly turn my back on the gift I've been given. To do so would just be wrong. I have come out the other side stronger and with even more appreciation for riding.
Miles and smiles,