Wednesday was my birthday. I've quit counting, of course. It just doesn't matter anymore. I did find myself considering the fact that I've more riding years behind me than ahead of me. I've been riding for 43 years. I'm pretty sure there's not that many still to come. My life's riding season is well into Fall.
My middle son had a birthday the day before me. He just turned 25. I was awake most of last night thinking about another thing. If I could write a letter to myself at 25 what would I say? A lot, as it turns out. However, since this is a motorcycling blog I limited myself to that subject. That's really been the platform that everything else has been built on, anyway. Looking back, here's what I'd write. It means something to me. It may mean nothing to you. So be it.
So you've turned 25. Let me be the first to congratulate you on still being alive! You've survived a lot for one still so young. An Asian jungle where you lost some buddies. Now your nose is buried in police work. You grew up in an environment where guys proved themselves with their fists. You can thank Gramp for that. Yet, he also taught you about honor, respect, and duty. About how you never touched a woman in anger. Gramp was a man who should have lived in the Old West. He immersed you in that same cowboy code. Complete with horses, rodeos, and horseshows when rodeo got too hard on his body As time goes by it will seem like fewer and fewer people are showing these traits. Don't cave in and become apathetic. These qualities will always matter. Lead by example.
Never lose the piss and vinegar. Those elements are too deeply ingrained into your being. Besides, it makes life a lot more fun! Doors will open because of it that might otherwise have remained forever closed. It might amuse you to know that Katie still considers us to be her swashbuckler. The slight limp from that rodeo crash and stomping will stay with you forever. It's okay. Katie says we're Indiana Jones walking like John Wayne. There's much worse things a wife could say about her husband.
The key is to remember that you control the aggression, not the other way around. You must exercise controlled aggression. In other words, be strong enough to be gentle. That's something you will instill in your own sons in the years to come.
I'm going to offer some wisdom about one of your great loves. No, not Katie and your young family. They are certainly your greatest love and will remain that way. This is about your love of riding that's been there since you got that first dirt bike at eight years old. The reason you need this wisdom is because you're at a crossroads, of sorts. So far you've ridden smaller dual purpose bikes. Dirt riding is still hard to resist. Now you're considering trading up to a dedicated street bike. There's this two year old Honda 900 you've got your eye on. You can afford it, now. There's an obstacle besides money, however.
People are saying things to you. They point to your young family. How can you be so irresponsible as to even think about riding one of those dangerous motorcycles? Some people are even calling them "murdercycles". There seems to be no shortage of folks telling you how it's selfish to take the chance of depriving the family of their breadwinner. Nobody should be subjected to the pain and suffering of seeing a loved one maimed, crippled, or killed.
It's starting to get to you. You're a good man who cares about your family. The things people are saying certainly have a validity to them despite the less-than-tactful presentation. You're just about ready to give up riding until some misty and vague time in the "future".
I'm urging you with everything I've got not to give up riding. Sure, there's risks. Most of the family won't approve. At least, not for a long time. On the other hand, you'll gain insights and value far beyond what you can imagine right now. The key is to do it right and to do it for the right reasons. I'm going to leave you hanging there for a bit while I tell you a story about what happened to me today. Bear with me. You'll understand what I'm saying so much better when I'm done.
Today found me on the motorcycle like most days. I'm blessed with riding for work. You'd be amazed to see how far bikes have progressed these days, by the way. I'm riding a 1300cc black beauty made by Yamaha. It's classed as a sport-touring bike, but her wild heart pumps mostly sporting blood. We're a hundred miles from home in Vancouver, Washington. There's a Fred Meyer department store with gas pumps close by. The bike gets fueled. I decide to do the same for myself as it's past lunch time. Your weakness for department store deli counters will probably haunt you for the rest of your life.
Normally I try to park away from the crowd and out by myself. This place was so busy that it just wasn't possible. I scouted out a space next to the building. There were three empty spots. I slotted into the middle one and dismounted. As I was pulling off my gear I noticed a large, silver, Mercury Marquis sedan heading for one of the spots beside me. The driver was an old man alone in the car. Fair or not, I kept a wary eye on him. He didn't just pull smoothly into the spot. It was more of a fit and start kind of thing. He'd pull forward a foot or two and then stop. I watched as he looked at my bike, the car on the other side of him, and the upcoming sidewalk. Satisfied that he was okay, he'd pull forward another foot or two. The recon process would start anew. Finally, with tires bumping against the curb, he was settled.
The Mercury is a big car with big doors. The old man slowly swung the door open wide. He needed a lot of room to maneuver himself out of the car. I noticed that he was careful not to hit the bike with the door. A fact that I greatly appreciated! I saw the cane emerge first. Then the left leg touched the blacktop. Followed by him twisting in the seat. The right foot came out and found terra firma. Standing up was a slow and painful process but he got there. I assumed it was painful judging by the wincing he was doing.
The man looked over at me. His eyes appeared to be all pupil. I couldn't see any colored iris. I wasn't sure if his eyes were actually like that or if it was an effect from the lenses in his glasses. He offered a greeting. I returned it. The old man lingered. He could be resting up for the walk but I felt like he was waiting for something. I had the feeling he was waiting to see if he'd be brushed off or not. Seeing my smile, he looked at the bike and then back at me. Then the old man asked me how I dealt with traffic, bad weather, and some other things.
I knew he wasn't actually after information. He was well past any riding he might ever have done. Besides, I've found that guys who actually used to ride will say so early on. There wasn't any note of challenge in his words. I correctly guessed that he was just hungry for conversation. The old man probably knew that riders liked to tell war stories and he was providing the opening lines of the script. This wasn't about me, it was about connecting with a lonely old man. I gave him a short, but polite answer and turned the conversation back over to him. His face lit up and we were off.
I won't bore you with the details of our conversation. This is really about the connection. He told me that he was there to have a chicken breast and mashed potatoes. The old man told me his trick. You ask the deli clerk to make an indentation in the top of the potato pile. That way, he said, you get more gravy! I told him that I was after some food, too, but I liked the fried chicken strips with some coffee. Would he like to keep me company? Needless to say, we had lunch together.
So what does this have to do with your decision to keep riding? More than you know. Here's the moral of the story.
Remember how I told you to ride, but to do it right and for the right reasons?
The doing it right part is self explanatory. Good training and quality gear will go a long ways in mitigating the risks. The naysayers are correct in that you have the responsibility to look after your family. It's your responsibility to do everything you can to manage the risk of riding. The same as any other risk. Interestingly, giving up riding will not eliminate all risk from your life. There's still plenty of things left waiting to suddenly attack us. So enjoy, but ride prudently.
Providing materially for your family is only a part of the picture.
Katie will prove to be the most loyal and trusted friend you could ever want or imagine. I know you won't really appreciate that until much later. For the next few years life will be full of the pressures and routines of raising children, conducting business, and making a life with your young wife. One day, though, you'll be walking along and holding her hand. Over three decades of being married to that same pretty young bride will be behind you. You'll marvel that this woman is not only your wife and mother to your children, but the closest buddy you've ever had. For right now just remember that she deserves your very best.
You'll be drawn to demanding jobs. You thrive on the personal challenge and proving worthy. Victories are so much sweeter when they're hard fought, aren't they? Deny it if you want, but I know you better than anyone else will ever know you. You and I are one and the same. The downside of these careers will be that some days will leave you totally drained. Other days will leave you wound up tighter than that time you ran over Gramp's new throwing rope with the lawnmower. The rope was wound impossibly tight around the blade shaft. Gramp was would up even tighter. Your wife and family will rightly expect their loving husband and father to be the one coming home to them, not some pissed off jerk.
You've already had a taste of how the motorcycle ride home both drains off the tension and recharges your battery. Life just somehow seems right when you're riding, doesn't it? This is a very good thing. Reap its benefits. All of you will be much better off for it. Remember, they deserve your best. Riding helps bring out that "best".
You also have the responsibility, privilege, and joy of helping your children to realize the fullest potential they're capable of. What kind of humans they turn out to be will depend so much on what you do now. You know what's interesting? Sociologists say that what happens with children in the first fews of their lives sets up what they will be later. At the time children are the most impressionable and vulnerable, young fathers are still trying to find themselves to some extent. How do you lead the way when you're still trying to find it yourself?
Thing of it as guiding your youngsters through a very thick textbook. You may find it comforting to know that you don't have to get to the end of the book yourself right away. All you need to do is keep a few chapters ahead of your pupils! I hope that helps.
This is where we come back to the old man. Remember I earlier told you to keep riding but to make sure you were doing it for the right reasons? It might help to zoom out a bit and look at the bigger picture.
A lot of people don't ride for noble reasons. You know what I'm saying so we'll leave it at this. If a person isn't enough without it, they'll never be enough with it.
It seems people are always being judged for their accomplishments. Some folks leave behind some medical breakthrough or scientific invention that totally changes the world for the better. I'm sorry to say, but we haven't won a Nobel prize or done anything spectacular. If you think about it, the percentage of humans who actually achieve such a thing is pretty small. So how do the rest of us know what we accomplished?
Rather than look at personal accomplishments, what if we looked at what a person helped others to accomplish? It's like having the camera focused on us but then turning it around. Now the focus is outward. This next bit may seem like it rambles a bit. Bear with me. It's the best this old man can do!
A motorcycle will prove to be the physical vehicle that takes you on a spiritual journey. A tremendous amount of physical miles will pass beneath the wheels of your motorcycles. The miles will be far surpassed by the personal growth you will experience in the process. Different people have different vehicles for this journey. Some use meditation. Some use academic study. The list is very long. Motorcycling works for you. You've tried some other things but keep coming back to riding. This is the summation.
Everyone has the duty to become a better person tomorrow than they were today. You are a better person on a motorcycle. Therefore, you have a duty to ride.
Lead by example.
Here is how you focus your reasons for riding. I'm not saying you can't have fun. Boy, would that suck! Ride with a purpose, not just for fun.
People look up to a rider, man or woman, who appears to have it together. I'm talking about the way they ride, the gear, the bike, the quiet confidence, and so on. You've seen examples. The kid who waves from the back seat of the car. The mother in the front seat who looks worried as they look you over. Seeing that you don't appear to be a "threat", her face relaxes into a smile when she sees you waving back at her offspring. You've seen it with men in cars next to you at a traffic control device who look almost envious. You've seen it in the people who approach you at a gas station or a store parking lot. I saw it in the old man who struck up a conversation with me.
Your mantra should be this. People look up to me. I am an example. What am I an example of?
Making the deliberate decision to always exemplify the best while on a bike will spill over into your personal life. The rewards to you, your family, and others who you touch will be tremendous. It all starts on a motorcycle. In fact, for you, none of it will be possible without riding. You need to keep riding for so many reasons.
People already seem to open up to you. Total strangers will tell you the most intimate details of their life. You're puzzled by it. Sometimes it can be a real pain. I'd encourage you to take a look from another angle. The reason people open up to you is because they feel safe near you. That's because you come across as strong and confident. Strong, but gentle. Sound familiar? You're taking what you were taught and internalizing it. Through the process of riding a motorcycle.
I'm not saying you should be the listening post for every soul who needs to express themselves for whatever reason. What I'm saying is that creating that condition is a very valuable skill. Believe me, you'll need it when some of your children become teenagers!
The old man in the Mercury was drawn to me. It cost me absolutely nothing to treat him with respect. Nor to let him enjoy some conversation. It was obvious he was hungry for it. I actually enjoyed his company. You can bet it made his day. In a small way I made his world better. Multiply that by each small encounter you will have. It adds up. Do you want to leave the world the same as you found it or a bit better? I know your answer. Remember, I am you, but older and wiser.
One day you'll discover you have a real passion for training riders, both new and experienced. You'll actually be pretty good at it, if we may say so ourselves! You have this drive to always get better. Lead by example, remember? Your riding skill level will be very high. That same drive to excel combined with caring about people will push you to develop even better communication skills. They will need to trust you and open up to you. In order to get them to point X it's critical to know where they are at the start of the trip. You won't just be teaching people to ride, either. You will be helping them to achieve their own dreams and goals. The same as you did for your children but on a much larger scale. Nobody will ever be as important to you as your kids, but you will certainly affect a large number of people for the better. You won't ever know, exactly, but the sheer odds say you will save a lot of lives. You will save a lot of families from dealing with losing a loved one. A tremendous amount of pain and suffering will be avoided. Not to mention the important fact that you will be helping them to enrich their lives. The same way that your life continues to be enriched through riding.
Some of your students will go on to become instructors themselves. As so the benefit multiplies.
I'd say that's not a bad answer for those accusing you of being selfish at the moment, don't you? If there is a final accounting for humans, your lifelong pursuit of riding a motorcycle will leave some pretty impressive entries on the credit side of the ledger.
So, young man, I wish for you the very best. Keep riding. Trust me. It will all turn out pretty darn well. I envy you, actually. I'm looking in the rearview mirror. For you, though, there's so many possibilities still ahead of you over the handlebars!
P.S. In two or three years there will be a man named Howard. He will open a trendy little coffee shop in Seattle named Starbucks. When the company goes public, buy stock. Lots of it.
Miles and smiles,