Friday, March 30, 2007

Think about ridin', not fallin'!

That darn horse did it again! This thing's got to be the Devil dressed in buckskin. The "Devil" I'm referring to is Bud, one of the biggest horses I've ever seen. One of the craftiest, too. Every effort I made to ride him ended up the same way. With my butt on the ground and the horse galloping back to the shade of the barn. I was almost ready to put the bridle and saddle on him. That would signal my defeat. I'd ride the horse but lose this battle of wills.

I'd been around horses since I was born. Now I was all of 11 years old. Around the pastures we'd always ridden the horses bareback. No bridles or saddles. Just a halter and leads. There was no way I'd give in to this horse. My stubborn streak started early in life, you can tell. Bud hadn't been with us long. By the time the picture above was taken, Bud had been well trained in the fine art of being a rodeo horse. That's him next to Grandpa on the right. For a matter of scale, Grandpa is 6'4". I've used the picture before but it seemed appropriate for you to see this evil equine creature again. For now, Bud was a young horse full of mischief. I'd soon set him right.

Rubbing my behind that had already endured three or four falls, I hobbled determinedly back toward the barn. Grabbing the leads I stared Bud in the eye. He stared back. The tension mounted. I gave the leads a sharp, hard, pull and vaulted onto his back over his lowered neck. This was something Grandma had taught me since I was nowhere near as tall as Grandpa. A saddle's got those convenient stirrups. Riding bareback meant I had nothing to give me a head start. It got to be a pain to have to try to get a horse next to something I could stand on to mount up. It appealed to my adventuresome child's spirit to imagine I was mounting up like some Indian warrior. I came by it honestly. Grandpa was a quarter Mohawk Indian.

Bud and I took off around the pasture. Again. I was worried about staying on but was doing ok so far. Then it happened. This Devil Horse had a tricky way of quickly shifting his weight from one front leg to the other and back. The skin on his shoulders seemed to be looser than normal. Wham!!! This time I was thrown onto my back and the wind was knocked out of my lungs. Struggling to breathe, I slowly got up. As I did, I heard this quiet laughter directed my way. I hadn't realized Grandpa had been in the barn and come out to watch. Now I was not only in pain, but I was also embarrassed. Grandpa was my hero. He was one of the most natural and gifted horsemen I've seen in my life. He'd also seen my crash. Grandpa dropped his cigarette butt into the dirt and snubbed it out with the toe of his worn out cowboy boot. The physical embodiment of the Marlboro Man who smoked Camels.

"Think about ridin', not fallin'!" he told me.

My embarrassment turned quickly into irritation. What was he talking about? Did Grandpa think I was trying to fall off on purpose? I know my frequent visits to the hard ground might lead one to believe otherwise, but I thought I was trying to ride that darn horse. That was the whole point of getting onto a horse in the first place, wasn't it? Good grief!

I liberated Bud from the halter. This wasn't over. It was just going to be continued another day. I avoided the situation for a few days. I remember sitting in my fifth grade class and thinking about what Grandpa had said. Miss Hiligoss was feverishly writing fact after fact about the Aztec empire on the overhead projector. My mind wandered. It finally dawned on me that Grandpa was right. I was so worried about falling off that I wasn't really thinking about riding. All my attention was centered on waiting for that next trick the horse was going to pull. I should have been concentrating on doing the things I knew how to do. In other words, using my developing riding skills in a positive way. Instead of thinking to myself:

"I hope I don't get bucked off this time", I should have been saying to myself:

"I know I can ride this horse".

The thought of falling off shouldn't have been on my mind at all. Things didn't magically change overnight, of course. I hit the ground a couple of more times but finally got Bud rode, as they say. This post isn't really about riding the horse. The story just sets the stage for a valuable lesson I still carry with me. Besides serving me well in life as a whole, it's also invaluable for those on two wheels.

"You go where you look, so be sure to be looking where you want to go".

This axiom even goes a little further than that. The flip side of the record would be to not spend much time looking where you don't want to go. That has a lot to do with how we look at and perceive risk.

I've been mulling over doing a post like this for a while, now. Several things have arisen that have made it seem like a good idea. One, for example, was a comment by Krysta. In her comment she was looking for input on "getting back on the horse" after she'd got a deputy all excited by telling him she'd just "killed Olga!" Despite the little nudges I just never quite got there. Then two things happened that pushed me off dead center. A blog post and a country song.

This is really important stuff to me. So I'm going to let it have as much space as it demands. Go use the restroom then get something hot to drink. I appreciate the investment of your time. I think you'll find it worthwhile.

The blog post was by Steve Williams on the Scooter in the Sticks blog. I'm a cowboy, not a computer whiz so I'm not putting one of those clever little links right here. The link to Steve's blog is on right of this page. Look for a post dated March 23 called "Thoughts on Risk and Personal Responsibility". If you haven't seen this post I'd urge you to go read it. What I see is an honest man taking an honest look at himself. The rider's proud of having beaten the elements but the accomplishment's tinged with a little chagrin at having attempted it in the first place. The comments both support and chastise Steve. Things that have concerned mankind since the beginning are touched on. Things like Risk versus Reward, and Personal Freedom versus Responsibility to Others. It's a powerful post. I wanted to offer some thoughts as a complement to the post before it got totally cold.

Tim McGraw has a song out called "The Cowboy in Me". Here's the words that stuck with me.

"We ride and never worry about the fall, must be the Cowboy in us all."

There's the essence of successful riding. It's another way of telling us to look where we want to go and not look too hard at where we don't want to go. It's a philosophy for coping with risk that I've held ever since my experience with Bud.

Riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than driving a car. We who ride know it to be a fact. Just in case we should ever forget, there's plenty of people out there only too willing to remind us. Where I find real humor is that a lot of these folks are comprised of what are increasingly becoming the "normal" driver. Can't you just picture someone in a cage, latte in one hand, cell phone in the other, cigarette dangling from a lip, and steering with God knows what? Whoever is on the other end of the phone line hears a comment about how a rider just passed them by in the pouring rain. Don't these people know that motorcycles are dangerous?

Risk and danger isn't limited to motorcycles, is it? As riders we figure we have the risks figured out and take measures to deal with them. We hone physical skills, sharpen mental skills, and buy nifty protective gear. Then we tell ourselves that we have it covered. We are now MANAGING RISK. We are now IN CONTROL. Let me tell you a little secret. That's one of those Jedi mind tricks we're playing on ourselves. In this case it's not a bad thing. I'm not saying we should have reckless disregard for consequences. As always, a rider should exercise reasonable prudence. What it comes back to is not spending too much time looking where we don't want to go.

The actual amount of control we can exert over our environment is frighteningly small. Our world is just too overwhelmingly complex. Even if I parked my motorcycle indefinitely, there's no guarantee I'll see summer. There's no guarantee I'll be around to put up the next blog post. Heck, it's entirely possible I won't make it home to see Katie tonight. I'm not being fatalistic. It just happens to be the bold truth about our existence. The key is what we do with this truth.

One of my favorite movies is Men in Black. There's a scene where Will Smith tells Tommie Lee Jones that the public needs to be aware that a battle cruiser is close to blasting the earth into dust. Tommie tells Will that there is always a battle cruiser or some other pending deadly disaster. The only way people can go on living their normal lives is if they don't know!

That's what we have to do with risk. Think of the alternatives. Spending too much time thinking about all the risks riders, and especially commuters, face is counterproductive. We could become so paralyzed with fear that we decide not to ride anymore. I'd hate to think about a life where I gave up riding and missed out on all the pleasures and personal growth I've experienced. The risk has a price, sure. The rewards have been priceless. What a shame it would be to have missed out because of fear. To me it's been more than a fair trade.

It's also possible we could still ride but freeze up at the wrong moments. I see this all the time with new riders. They do great during the class. As soon as I pick up the clipboard for the skill evaluation they freeze up. Now there's pressure. Now they fall apart. Think there's no pressure on the street? Fear causes a lot of crashes. A rider is afraid of running into a stalled truck, a guardrail, the side of the road they've gotten too close too, or a myriad of other things. Frozen by fear, the rider spends too much time looking at the thing they want to avoid. They worry about the fall. They let their minds get filled by the danger the situation presents. Guess where they end up? Yeah, you know. They crash hard. Ever notice how easy it is to sit at a desk and clinically look at something? Ever notice how it's entirely another thing to be actually facing the fear? In their minds, riders know what to do. Despite that, they crash anyway.

See the wisdom of thinking about the riding, not the falling? It's critical to look away from the danger and look towards where we want the bike to go. Look where you want to go. Easier said than done. A lot of the things that work to our good on a motorcycle are un-natural acts. So be it. Consider it an interesting and rewarding challenge. Since we have so little control as it is, make everything count.

I want to offer some comments directly related to Steve's post. Consider this a long comment!

Someone offered a thought that the more a person gets away with something, the less awareness they have of the risk itself. That's not an exact quote, of course, but I believe it expresses the gist of it. I agree with it. For example, someone who rides with little or no gear will likely get away with it for a long time. Sooner or later circumstances are bound to catch up with this individual. In the meantime, the attitude that "it will never happen to me" is reinforced.

I don't agree, however, that it can be applied to Steve. I'm going out on a limb here, Steve, because I'm expressing my own opinion of where you're coming from. It's not talking about you behind your back because I know you read this. I just feel it's important to make a statement here. If I'm all wrong please feel free to use the comment section to correct me. In fact, I would urge you to do so.

Being a Warrior, I plunge headlong into battle. Years of literal and figurative battle have left me assured of my ability to fight, if not win. When going swimming, I make a bold splash all at once. Steve, on the other hand, strikes me as one who is still searching for traction in this riding thing. Both in actuality and in confidence. This man has the heart of a poet and philosopher. If Warriors like me are ever civilized it will have been because of men like him. I will publicly state here that Steve has nothing to be ashamed of in his snowy ride. In fact, I applaud him. It was exactly what he needed to do at that point in time. Crazy, am I?

If I had a nickel for every time a brand new rider in my class told me they were going to ride in parking lots for a long time, I'd be rich. I tell them to "Get out there and ride!!"

They'll never grow until they face and successfully meet challenges. Not all at once, of course. Limited exposure at first followed by increasingly more complex situations is the key. Life in a parking lot will never get it done for them.

That's new riders, you say. How does that apply to Steve's ride in the snow? Fair question.

How many experienced street riders have decided that track days aren't for them? After all, it's irresponsible to ride a bike like that on the street. What good are racing skills to me? That would be crazy for a street rider like me to go to a track day. Not as crazy as you might think. While I agree that it's not acceptable to ride like a racer on the streets, not everything in a track day only applies to racers. Riders will be able to explore how far their bike will really lean. They'll get to know how to work better with the bike's dynamics. They'll understand cornering lines better. These are just a few examples. Bottom line is that next time something happens that's beyond our control there's a few more tools available. Maybe the rider will never use these things but by pushing preconceived limits these tools are now in the tool chest.

Back to Steve. Someone else made a comment that it would have been different if Steve had been partway home when the snow started. My question is how? Looks to me like either way there's riding in snow and ice involved. Would it be any more comforting to crash closer to home?

That's really the crux of the matter as I see it. That part of the country is known for cold, snow, and ice. Sometimes it's unpredictable. It's beyond our control. ( familiar theme, here? ) What do you do if you get partway home and it started to snow? Park the bike and walk? What if that's just not an option? Then you do the best you can. Steve took the opportunity to test things out. By the way, I really don't see how a guy riding slowly on a scooter presented a big hazard to other drivers. You know who the most vulnerable one was in this situation.

Would Steve purposely set out to ride in heavy snow again? I don't think so. I'm pretty proud of the fact that only Gary and I are crazy enough to do things like that. Come on, Gary, you 've said you're settling down but I know you want to, don't you? I know, I'm sick. Deal with it. Does Steve know he could handle it if the situation ever forced him into it? Bet your riding boots. It was a calculated risk like a lot of other things in our lives, sure. The time for the attempt had come. His riding level was such that the pump was primed. It was a critical step in the process. How many other riders can rest assured of their own ability to take care of themselves if the need arose?

I preach the gospel of knowing your limits then riding within them. Everyone's limits are different. It's not all about the expanding of those limits even though that happens during the journey. I'm never satisfied and keep stretching just a little more but I'm not "normal". For the normal rider it's primarily about finding out for sure what the limits realistically are. How will one know unless through testing?

Thankfully for your tired eyes, it's time to gear up and head for home through the Big City traffic. You can bet I'll be looking where I want to go. I'll be thinking of the ride, not the fall. It's going to be a great ride!

Miles and smiles,



American Scooterist Blog said...

This is a great blog. It brings up another important point. People who've ridden inclement weather may say they'll never do it again, but the fact is, they now know they can. They know they can choose to wait out rush hour traffic if they need to and still get home safely whether it be in the rain or snow. They know because they negotiated the conditions safely. Not only that but it adds to their riding skills in knowing that lesser situations which would have previously caused concerns about their ability to overcome, can now be handled with the better hand of experience. Whether or not Steve rides again on a day which shows the possibility of weather like he faced that day, he's gained knowege and skill [through it] he didn't know he was capable of before.
Irondad, if you'd be so kind, would you read my blog of March 26th and leave your thoughts? It seems Steve brought us all onto the same subject with his experience and I'd like to see your view on my own thoughts of the subject. Thanks


dan_durham said...

Very good reading.

Personally, I can relate to your comment about ever attending a track day. I have had the attitude that I will never attend becuase it is phycho to ride like that on the street. However, you have made some good arguments and that has me reconsidering... It never hurts to have a few more sharpened tools in the shed...just in case.

Salutations from Seattle,


PS happy to be back on two wheels, cage driving was getting me down!

Combatscoot said...

I can remember the day I stopped being a weather wuss: It had been a very wet spring, and was going into a wet summer. I wanted to get out and ride on my new mountain bike, and as a teenager, I had alot of energy to burn off. I was tired of rain not allowing me to ride, and I determined it was going to stop. I went out to ride. I got wet. I slipped on logs and went down several times. I was happy when I came back home, happier than I had been for a long time.

Steve Williams said...

As you so often do Dan you bring some clarity to a complicated issue for me. Your grasp of riding as a practice sort of startles me each time I read your posts that deal in this area. And I realize how much I have to learn. A lifelong path I suspect.

I find myself asking where acknowledging risk changes into avoiding it purely because I may be spending too much time on it. And when avoiding thinking about risk is nothing more than denial like your example of the person riding with helmet or protective gear.

I think you are correct in identifying my search for "traction" in riding. I find myself testing my limits mentally as a rider who is prepared for what the road may present and physically in terms of skills and techniques I might be able to deploy when needed. Without stretching while riding it would be easy to fall into a straight line easy curve easy turn easy stop skill set. Works fine until you suddenly need to do something more difficult.

I'll have to raise my hand as one who has dismissed track day as nothing more than a hot dog event for people who want to go fast. I never considered the opportunity to learn or practice something. Now you have me thinking. Our local dealer sponsors a track day at Pocono Speedway. I can picture the smile on my face passing a Ducati on a tight turn....

I also agree with your observation that the pump was primed when I decided to ride home in the snow. While I may not have consciously thought it at the time I was testing my limits and skills. I have done this in backpacking, sailing, and photography and it seems to fit that I would do it with riding.

I like to feel confident and be able to make an honest assessment of risk without hiding or ignoring. Like you said we all have to draw our own lines for risk limits. When others out of hand say this is too dangerous or this is unacceptable I have to remind myself that they aren't me and what works for them may not work for me.

Thanks for the great insights Dan. As always, you are the master.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Allen Madding said...

Grand amounts of wisdom in this post as with most of your writings. The only fall I have experienced was early on and was just as you explained - the bike began to approach the shoulder of the road in a curve. Instead of reacting, I momentarily forze with fear of running of the edge of the road and did just that. The wet foilage supplied no traction and down Autumn, my wife and I went. Had I put the fear aside and reacted as taught in class, I would have leaned into the turn and rode away unscathed.

Thanks for making me stop and think. My education continues as I strive to be a better rider.