Motorcycles Are Dangerous, so Why the Hell Do I Keep Riding?
My daughter’s two months old, cooing her first coos and smiling her first smiles. I’m a continent away, chasing a pair of goons along the banks of the Klamath River in Northern California, splashing from one pool of sunlight to the next and letting the torque of a big German bike pull me through a set of switchbacks. Cliffs are close to my left. To the right, the world splits in two: a blue sky halved by ragged hills and slow waters.
I should be concentrating: focusing on every apex, coaxing a little more angle out of this machine, trying a little harder to keep myself out of that hungry river. I’m not. I’m wrapped up in her. I heard her heart before I saw her eyes, listened to the churning chant of her life through the thin skin of her mother’s belly and wondered at the long world ahead. It nearly broke me.
I am selfish and want her to love motorcycles the way I love them-as dangerous and endangered things, as machines that haven’t yet lost their grace or teeth, as a meditation.
A good bike exists in the blissful realm of the purposeless, shoulder to shoulder with the goldfinch and the sundress, the purple iris and the poem-all pointless and necessary in a world consumed with meaning. It stokes a fire in your chest you didn’t know existed or forgot somehow, comfortable and exciting. It’s a feeling spurred by all precious and secret things.
And we’ve got a handful of them here, as wild and varied as the reaching firs around us. There’s R& T’s Editor-at-Large Sam Smith’s old Kawasaki beater, a dogged and course first-generation KLR-a perfect riot. After two years in storage, it’s shedding parts like sheets of skin, ditching them in ritual rebirth. Yesterday we lost the muffler, then the mid pipe. We wade through roadside grasses, pick up the pieces, and wire them back in place.
Michael Chaffee’s ’76 R90/S is the looker of the bunch: the Golden Girl. Like the KLR, it’s on its own revival ride, having spent a decade sleeping in his Castro kitchen. Its odometer shows a baffling 90,000 miles. Chaffee rides it like a newer thing, dragging jugs and carrying the kind of speed that makes the younger bikes blush. He stays out front, and the rest of us do our best to keep pace.
Then there’s this machine: a brand-new BMW R nineT. I can’t stand the name, a piece of marketing that feels a little too pleased with itself. There’s some cowardice there, too, as if the bike or the company behind it shied from strutting up and claiming the dusty R90 throne. What a shame. We call it the Runt, and our playful subversion makes the thing a little more endearing.
Not that it needs help. The 110 horsepower from the boxer twin pours out in a lusty gush that starts somewhere below the topsoil. Nip the throttle at a standstill and the bike rocks its shoulders, a throaty radial engine sound swelling from the raked pipes. There’s heart down there somewhere, buried under a dusting of sensors and catalytic converters. I’ve had plenty of time to find it.
We left San Francisco two days ago, punching out of the city’s traffic for the California coast. The dusty hills are grown over with gold grasses swaying in a slow breeze, and the occasional line of fence-row eucalyptus shade the smooth and wandering road. Chaffee and Smith flit from one wide apex to the next, slipping from shadow to sun.
We pick up a stray for a spell, Davey Johnson, from Car & Driver, on his Moto Guzzi V7. We dole out nicknames. For the bikes. For their riders. Shambles. Four Bag. The Goose. The Killer. We commune at gas stations and roadside pull-offs, recite our disbelief at whatever wonderful slice of country we just blitzed through. More than anything, we’re all so damn happy to be alone with ourselves, sequestered to the echo of our helmets.
It’s a rare thing. With the world in your pocket, you’re never alone. But there’s value in being forced to contend with your own mind, to drown a bit in the world with nothing to shape or hammer your opinions but your own eyes. To be bored, to pull your gaze off your lap and let it wander. A motorcycle refuses to let your universe fit in your hand.
My daughter’s been born in an age concerned with the notion that maybe our best days are behind us. Watching her brown eyes devour the new world around her, I can’t believe that’s true. New bikes and cars and stand mixers and houses all made to look older than they are, movies and television and music painting up the same stories for a new generation, all desperately grasping at some sliver of authenticity.
The Guzzi does it better than the BMW. With its wide V-twin poking from below the tank and a few acres of chrome, it looks 40 years older than it is. By some miracle, it acts its affected age, modern fuel injection balking in cold weather in a fitful tribute to missing carburetors. The sound of a beleaguered Italian starter fills our misty mornings like clockwork, coaxing us out of cheap roadside motel rooms and into another day.
Johnson takes off for other obligations just outside of Eureka, California, leaving Chaffee, Smith, and I to continue our wandering north. The upper quarter of California and Oregon’s southern counties have been conspiring to run off together since the ’50s. The area’s peppered with State of Jefferson flags, a pair of white Xs on a dark green field. The population is good and sparse when we turn off of the main two-lane for a handsome, 120-mile shot through Six Rivers National Forest and into Klamath. It’s some of the best riding of my life.
The Runt rubs the sleep out of its eyes and gets to dancing. The road picks its way through the hills, hugging close to the water below. It’s as green as anything, frosted where the rocks give it some speed. Tall bridges sweep across valleys too steep to descend or climb back up again, and we tear through it all.
The bike is a warm glow beneath me. I leave it in fifth and let the motor’s wide range do the heavy lifting. We’re clipping along quicker than we should be, but it feels too good to quit. At 90 mph, there’s so very little between you and oblivion that there might as well be nothing there at all. You feel your mortality humming like a plucked thread somewhere behind your ribs, and somehow, it’s worth it.
A bike demands an ante. The wager is the rest of your life. All of it. Every dreary Monday, every willowy summer dusk. Every word you might utter, the whispers of unknown lovers, smiles and tears, and chest-bursting pride. The crunch of snow under your boot and the first saltwater kiss of the sea. You put it all up every time you twist the throttle and go reaching for some crooked stitch of unknown asphalt.
I want my daughter to know those terms, and why I accept them so gladly.
Zack Bowman, Road and Track magazine
(Thanks Mike S. of the BMWMCO Club)