Sunday, March 30, 2014

Keep Your Head Up, Eyes Down the Road

Lindsay and I with my CB400A the day I bought it. 
It was probably a mistake. Bad timing. 

Of course, I’ve never regretted it.

There was an ad on Craigslist for the exact same make and model as the motorcycle I had when I was in college. A 1978 Hondamatic CB400A with a dent in its tank.

They all have a dent in the tank.

I hadn’t ridden motorcycles for almost 20 years at the time. I never really gave it up, just like I never officially gave up learning to fly airplanes. I started flying lessons when I was 14. One day I couldn’t take lessons anymore - I was too young and the instructor found me out -- and I just never got back around to it. 

It was the same with motorcycles. On campus at WSU and at home in the Columbia River Gorge, riding a motorcycle was fun and thrilling and practical too. Riding it was a wonderful release of stress, a mind-clearing exhilaration. It was an it’ll-be-OK machine that ameliorated the tumult of life.

College was stressful because money was tight. It didn’t help that I had quit school for semester because I became too focused on the debt of student loans and the girlfriend from Hell. 

I tried to take a shortcut that turned out to be a dead end. 

In a brief moment of wisdom I admitted my mistake and went back to college. My dead end decision, however, forced me into a dingy off-campus apartment with a disgusting roommate. My financial aid was delayed, so I worked three jobs and slogged through the slush and snow in wet sneakers, unable to afford a parking permit for campus. 

One spring day the check arrived, but I’d already managed to pay my books and tuition and fees. That left some money to buy food and pay rent. Somehow, I still had some money left over. 

As the snow melted around me, I lingered by the used motorbikes for sale at the Honda dealer downtown. It was orange, cheap and ugly in that late 70s sort of way. It also had an automatic transmission which would be perfect for a new rider negotiating the hills and traffic of Pullman.

Theoretically the $600 I spent that day on the motorcycle and helmet could have been put to better use. Yet,  I cannot for the life of me think of a better dollar-per-joy return on investment. 

I was not fast or reckless or daring. My CB400A was one of those “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” type bikes designed to be unintimidating. It was simple and fun. 

Moreover, when you are riding a motorcycle, it demands your full attention, which allows all the other intruding thoughts to ease away. 

I sold that bike with every intention of buying another. It paid my airfare to Alaska to work in a fish processing plant for the summer. My plan was that I would come home with full pockets that would not only allow me to pay for the next year of college, and to buy a new motorcycle. I had my eye on a Harley-Davidson 883. 

The fishing and the pay wasn’t as good as my wild expectations. My pockets were only deep enough to pay off some credit cards and fund my final year of college. 

Looking back, I could have bought another old bike, but I didn’t. Always meant to. I even test rode a Yamaha 850 special a couple years later. Instead, I invested it in a wedding ring for Amy. 

That was the best decision I’ve ever made.

For twenty years - years of commuting and working and even a return to school to study nursing, I always thought I’d get around to motorcycles. I just didn’t. 

Then, there it was. The same bike I sold, the same year -- the same user-friendly automatic transmission -- for $600 and only a short drive away.

The timing was all wrong.  Amy’s dad was sick and we were helping on the farm. My mom was coming down for a visit later that day. I got up in the early morning hours and hopped in my truck driving up to Raymond to meet the guy in Dairy Queen parking lot. After a short ride around the back streets, the grin was stuck on my face. I realized what I was missing. I couldn’t get the money out of my pocket fast enough. 

I tore that bike down and rebuilt it, using an owners manual and parts off of ebay. There are lovers of these old bikes all over the world and they are willing to share their knowledge. 

Amy’s dad fully recovered and but then first my mom, then my sister were diagnosed with cancer. The motorcycle didn’t occupy all my time -- it didn’t solve any problems. Yet, it was there for reassurance and relaxation, distraction, escape. 

The restoration allowed for little projects in the basement and garage to occupy the rainy days. I took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course and unlearned all the bad habits. 

During that course you pick up little lessons that apply to life as well as to riding. On two-wheels exposed to the elements, your life is in your hands and the world presents itself with much greater immediacy -- much less room for error - than when caged in the metal shell of car. Your mind is the most important piece of safety equipment on the bike. 

As you ride, you are constantly scanning for things that may come into your path, drivers who probably don’t see you as well as potholes and oil slicks that can force you to lose control of the bike.  You can look for these objects, but you don’t look AT them. You are so connected to the bike that to ride smoothly, you have to keep your eyes down the road.

The bike wants to follow where your eyes go. If you are looking at the stick in the road - you will hit the stick in the road. Instead your mind traces the path ahead, the smooth line between and around the hazards that confront you. 

You can’t trust others with your safety. You anticipate potential hazards and plan a path around them. Actions are smooth and confident. Panic doesn’t present solutions. 

Focus not on the obstacles, but on the escape. 

Five years after that trip to Raymond, I have a different motorcycle, and a different Spring is battling the rearguard of winter. There are deadlines and bills to pay and any number of catastrophes waiting around the corner. 

Yet I keep my head up and eyes on the horizon. 

And I have a motorcycle.