The Season of the Bike
by Dave Karlotski
There is cold, and there is cold on a bike. Cold on a bike is like being beaten with coldhammers while being kicked with cold boots, a bone bruising cold. The wind’s big hands squeeze the heat out my body and whisk it away; caught in a cold October rain, the drops don’t even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone falling from the skies of Hell to pock my face. I expect to arrive with my cheeks and forehead streaked with blood, but that’s just an illusion, just the misery of nerves not designed for highway speeds.
Despite this, it’s hard to give up my bike in the fall and I rush to get it on the road again in the spring; lapses of sanity like this are common among bikers. When you let a motorcycle into your life you’re changed forever. The letters “MC” are stamped on your driver’s license right next to your sex and height as if “motorcycle” was just another of your physical characteristics, or maybe a mental condition.
But when warm weather finally does come around, all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle summer is worth any price. A bike is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a scooter is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life. We spend all our time sealed in boxes, and cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated, and smelling of carpets.
On a bike 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 and its touch is 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. 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. But on my scooter I hear whole songs: rock’n roll, dark orchestras, women’s voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.
At 30 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 summer 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, 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 plane.
Transportation is only a secondary function. A scooter is a joy machine.
It’s a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a motorized 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.
When asked to describe what they love about motorcycle travel, riders toss around romantic vocabulary like “freedom” and “escape.” We think there has to be a more tangible component, a key sensation perhaps, or a unique emotion that can only be roused by humming tires, rushing wind and the promise of a long ride. But what is it- that sensation that once tasted, leaves us so eternally hungry? Where’s the magic in a motorcycle journey?
Perhaps it’s in the posture. When you’re riding down the highway on your cruiser your arms are open and extended as if you’re expecting an embrace. In this position you’re uniquely receptive and vulnerable to the world as it rushes towards you . . . I know that when I roll off a few miles and click into my riding posture, I suddenly feel at peace. And when I know I can stay in that position for hours–I feel joy. The weight of my world rolls off my shoulders and gets lost somewhere in my wake.
The danger and subsequent concentration might also play a role in the satisfaction. Have you ever taken a moment to realize how much stimulation your mind and body calmly absorbs while you ride? The wind’s noise, vibration, buffeting and the cold or the heat would quickly reach intolerable levels if you were standing still. The sound alone would be enough to separate you from your skin. Realizing how subtly these things register while we’re riding reminds us how focused we are. It’s fundamental meditation without the lavender and tea lights.
Perhaps another explanation can be found if we tear apart what makes a motorcycle trip so different from other acutely pleasurable experiences in our lives. Think of your favorite things for a moment . . . things that heighten the senses and quicken the heart just to imagine doing them. Maybe it’s eating perfectly tendered abalone, stepping into a bubbling Jacuzzi, or making passionate love. Even at their best the thrill of these things simply doesn’t last long enough. All too soon we’re sated and left to remember the joys of expectation. Motorcycling is different. Riding is an ongoing, endless state of anticipation that requires no apex to bring satisfaction.
Unlike most other forms of travel, riding lets us feel the world we’re moving through. We get to taste every nuance, smell every subtlety, feel every pulse of the elements. It puts us in touch with the essence of the planet and separates us from all that distorts it. In order to travel any distance on a motorcycle we’re also forced to pare down our own clutter until we find what’s vital. The process of strapping these fundamental items onto the spine of such a simple machine is in itself an act of purification. In motorcycle touring there is simplicity, and with simplicity comes fulfillment.
The answer to what makes motorcycle travel so magical may not be so complex. Perhaps it’s just like a delicious book you hate to put down. Each journey is a chapter and each corner a twist in the plot. It’s a story that lasts a lifetime, with a moral only its own characters can understand.