Zen Motorcyclist: The Best Lessons
I have a tendency to meet people at the supermarket when I take the motorcycle for my weekly supply run. I like the looks I get carrying my grocery bags and helmet; people wonder where I’m going to put everything. I’ve written before about others feeling at ease walking up to me when I’m dismounting or packing my purchases in my saddlebags. I’d like to think it’s my countenance that puts people at ease, but I think maybe it’s just the bike that draws them in. I’ve had interesting (and occasionally bizarre) conversations with complete strangers who always part by telling me, with a smile, to be safe. I love that aspect of motorcycling.
I recently met a young aspiring rider who works for the store where I do my shopping. I was packing an eight-pound bag of dog food into my side case and heard “Wow, that thing is huge!” from behind me. The young man thought my V-Strom was a big bike, which made me smile. “It’s not that big a bike, tall maybe. The luggage makes it seem bigger than it is.” He went on to tell me with wide, enthusiastic eyes that he was planning on getting his first bike. He was thinking a small bike to start, despite his friends’ insistence that he get “at least a 650” as a first ride. “Wise decision,” I said, “riding safely requires a lot of those.”
I walked him around my bike, and as we talked, a million thoughts— words of advice mostly—flew around in my head. I imagined myself at his age and wondered what I might say to a young naïve me eager to ride motorcycles. I know what I’d want to tell him: some of what’s taken the last 16 years and 160,000 some odd miles to compile.
I’d tell him that one day he’ll crest a hill and literally feel the beauty of the valley in his chest as he drops down into it, butterflies rising up in his stomach. It will feel like riding into a living painting someone has created just for him. It will be that beautiful, that perfect, that immersive. I’d tell him that he will one day give some people, who were formerly afraid of motorcycles, their first ride, and how he’ll hear their laughter behind him. That experience, I’d offer, short of having a child to care for, will be the greatest sense of responsibility he’ll ever feel.
I’d tell him that he’ll meet all kinds of people, some of whom he may never have met were it not for riding. He’ll meet some much older, some much younger, and the differences between them will never hold sway over their one commonality: that they ride; that they love to simply take it on the road and put their faces into the wind. They’ll share that simplest of pleasures and it will be so transforming that whomever else shares it he will consider a friend.
I’d tell him that there will come a time, as comes to us all, when he will be so grieved that he’ll have to remind himself to breathe and will start to doubt that the sun will rise; but rise it will, and riding will be his one great solace. The ride will be a place where things begin to make sense again (and sometimes it will be the only place they do).
I’d tell him that the confidence he gains from riding will reach into other parts of his life and that things which have always scared him no longer will. He’ll grow to fear no situation, person, or circumstance; he’ll come to realize that the obstacle is the path. “Motorcycles will make you formidable,” I’d say.
Of course, I never told my new friend any of those things. They would have been too much to hear. Those things only make sense when layered one upon the other over the course of half a life. Looking back, the puzzle pieces make sense and you can discern patterns and meaning; looking ahead, they are just an intoxicating tangle of possibilities that you can’t reach fast enough. As we parted, I recommended he take a safety course, gear up, listen to the voice inside that will keep him safe, and reject without discussion any advice that speaks counter to it. I gave him my business card and told him to look me up when he got his first bike and we’d go riding together. The best lessons are demonstrated, not dictated.
We sometimes get a chance to inspire, to take the time to share the pleasure and seriousness of riding with someone so excited you can see the fire flickering in their eyes. I love those moments both for what they offer the receiver and for what they return to the giver.