An Ode To 2-Wheel Freedom
Cold on a motorcycle is like being beaten with cold hammers while being kicked with cold boots – a bone-bruising cold. The wind's big hands squeeze the heat out of the body and whisk it away. Caught in a cold winter rain, the drops don't even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone falling from the skies of Hell to ping my fogging face shield.
Despite this, it was hard to give up my motorcycle in late November, and I know I’ll rush to get it on the road again soon, as early as mid-February. Lapses of sanity like this are common among motorcyclists.
Since 1970, when I took my first motorcycle ride, I’ve been riding in winter. Not this winter, though. Winter 2010-11 has been harsh. Or have I just become a wuss in my old age? Probably so, yet even the hardiest of souls must admit that December 2010 was bitterly cold, compared to most Decembers.
When I let a motorcycle into my life, only 41 years ago, I changed forever. The letters "CM" are stamped on my driver's license right next to sex, height, and weight, as if "motorcycle" was just another of my physical characteristics – or maybe a mental condition.
Then, when warm weather finally does come around, all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle season is worth any price. A motorcycle is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a motorcycle is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life.
We spend all our time these cold winter days sealed in boxes, while cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box to store-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated and smelling of carpets.
On a motorcycle I know I'm alive. When I ride, even the familiar seems strange and glorious. The air has weight and substance as I push through it, its touch as intimate as water to a swimmer. I feel the cool wells of air that pool under trees and the warm spokes of sunlight that fall through them. I can see everything in a sweeping 360 degrees, up, down and around, wider than Panavision and higher than IMAX and unrestricted by ceiling or dashboard.
Sometimes I even hear music, even with the radio off. It's like hearing phantom telephones in the shower or false doorbells when vacuuming; the pattern-loving brain, seeking signals in the noise, raises acoustic ghosts out of the wind's roar. On a motorcycle, though, I hear whole songs: rock 'n roll, dark symphony orchestras, men's voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.
At 40 miles-an-hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells and grass-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it's as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me, wanting only the most casual of rumbling time machines to unlock it.
A ride on a spring afternoon can border on the rapturous. The sheer volume and variety of stimuli is like a bath for my nervous system, an electrical massage for my brain, a systems check for my soul. It tears smiles out of me: a minute ago I was dour, depressed, apathetic, and numb; but now, on two wheels, big, ragged, windy smiles flap against the side of my face, billowing out of me like air from a decompressing airplane.
Transportation is only a secondary function. A motorcycle is a joy machine. It's a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a piston-driven prosthetic. It's light and dark and shiny and dirty and warm and cold lapping over each other; it's a conduit of grace, it's a catalyst for bonding the gritty and the holy.
By contrast, cars lie to us and tell us we're safe, powerful, and in control. The heating fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, "Sleep, sleep." Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth – we are small and exposed, (and probably moving too fast for our own good), but that's no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.
I still think of myself as a motorcycle amateur, but by now I've owned a handful of bikes over all these years, and waited out rainstorms under many a bridge. I wouldn't trade one second of either the good times or the misery. Learning to ride was one of the best things I've done.
So, the big white Yamaha sits in the garage, its store-box, waiting for better days, eager for a gentle pat from me as I walk past it to get milk out of the garage fridge. It is my duty to protect this plastic-and-metal Moby Dick from the slippery snow and ice, and all the corrosive salts on the road. It wants to run, like a thoroughbred, regardless of consequences.
Meanwhile, this old fogey, exercising uncharacteristic caution, says, “Nah, let’s wait another day (week, month) – things will get better…”