To think I've lugged this body through the decades without ever, until last week, riding a motorcycle. This thanks to photographer Gary Phelps, who just had to share. Of course, I'd jump on any assignment where you can spit and curse at your leisure.
We, a gang of eight, met at The Shop, a motorcycle retail-and-repair joint. Owner David Hansen decked me out with sunnies and helmet. I passed on the helmet with flames, since I looked sufficiently flamboyant on my own.
David was the quintessential biker, so comfortable with himself that later in the day, after our ride, he fell asleep in the middle of a group conversation. I never admired a man so deeply.
In front of The Shop, David dusted my shoulder and asked if it were my first ride.
"Does it show?" I said.
He let out a raspy, ghost-town laugh and said, "It'll be the best thing that ever happened to you."
After some fiddling, I hopped on Gary's Road King, and we all set off to breakfast. A Road King is a type of Harley, and most bikes are. Our posse did include two Indians, a brand that ceased production in 1953. Like their namesake, the Indians were bought out and destroyed by a British company.
By the time we got to breakfast, I was already full from bugs and gnats. Nobody had warned me about smiling. It was a short ride, but the buzzing had gotten in my bones. I wanted more.
My first rookie move was to carry the helmet inside. Everyone else, including my wife, knew enough to leave theirs on the bike. Evidently, people don't steal biker helmets for fear of being pulverized.
We sipped our coffee with helmet-head talking about what else-motorcycle accidents.
Local John Parker said that some guys OD on testosterone. John spoke with an easy air like he had always just stepped out of meditation.
"These guys," he said, "get bikes that go 180 miles an hour, but their talent runs out at 70."
"They don't wear helmets?" I asked like a nerd.
"When you're going that fast," said Gary, "a helmet is just a hat."
Helmets are designed to protect the rider against head trauma, but it may take a little head trauma to ride in the first place.
David Hansen sat at the head of the table, but you got the feeling that wherever he sat would be the head. David's entire family rides bikes. Today he brought his 12-year-old grandson Josh. Josh first mounted a bike at age two, when the purring put him to sleep.
"It's a genetic disorder," said Dave.
Across from me sat Tiberius Callahan. Is that great? You just don't mess with a biker named Tiberius. "Ti" braves the daily commute on any of his seven motorcycles. Biking is for him a way of life.
"It's just something you do," he said. "Like wiping your butt."
I laughed extra hard because I'm not allowed to mention rear ends at the table.
Ti's wife Rhonda teaches sixth grade and rides a Harley sport bike. She is "absolutely addicted." Rhonda tried to school me about motorcycles despite my remedial level. When I see an engine, I'm looking mostly for a switch that reads ON-OFF.
Here are the parts I understood:
"Dual sport" means that a bike goes off-road but is also street legal; "bobbers" have shortened, or bobbed, fenders; and "choppers" are named for the way they set off car alarms as they pass. "Crotch rockets," if we can print that, are the neon bikes that screech by at a thousand miles an hour. They are otherwise called "café racers" or, according to Rhonda, "death traps."
The last biker at our table was Ken Partney, who had also caught the disorder. His father rode till he was 72, at which point people asked if he wasn't too old for it.
Ken's father had a stock reply: "When I put this helmet on, no one can tell how old I am."
So it goes.
On the Road Again
Gary, who was in charge of keeping me alive, reminded me of Sam Elliott in Mask: He said only what needed saying and proved that most questions could be answered with a knowing smile. All he needed was a leather vest that said, "If you can read this, the pretty-boy journalist fell off."
It should be noted that Gary was a thoughtful driver who obeyed most of the noteworthy traffic laws.
The buzzing got in my bones again. Traveling in a pack of hornets, you feel safe, powerful, and most important, loud. Other bikers waved as they passed, not a geeky Ned Flanders wave but something like an underhand peace sign. It was their way of saying, "Hey, I know how you feel."
Ti made his Indian backfire, because it was too loud to tell jokes.
We ventured through the backwoods of my home, parts I never dreamed possible. The orchards, the mountains ... the sulfur?! Okay, so we hit a sulfur deposit. You've got to take the good with the bad.
But the good more than made up. You don't realize how fantastic the world is till you see it from a bike. Everything is so close.
We passed a group of cyclists who were peddling like they had never heard of Harley-Davidson. Bikers aren't so keen on sweating. Some are so reclined when they ride that they couldn't get more laid back without lying down.
But make no mistake-bikers are intensely present. The toughest among them know the statistics. According to the Department of Transportation, bikers die in accidents 16 times more often than the rest.
"You have to drive like no one can see you," said Ken. "Assume that people will do something stupid."
Bikers don't insist on their right of way. They observe a more fundamental law: right of weight.
So you, gentle reader, might ask, "Is it really worth all that risk?"
The danger, in fact, sweetens the stake. In an overpadded society where our chief concern is slip-and-fall lawsuits, riding is extract o' freedom, an antidote to the Cookie Monster switching to vegetables and the sign at the beach reading, Ocean may be dangerous. I, for one, will take road rash over that kind of madness.
There are no fender benders on a bike. Every lane change tugs at your mortality, and you buzz along without seatbelts or kneepads or anything. In that state of awareness, you realize that dying isn't what really scares you. What scares you is not being truly alive.
"Don't let the danger prevent you from enjoying your life," said David between cat naps. "You could walk out that door right now, and something'll fall from the sky and kill you."
I myself don't see many things fall from the sky, but his point was well-taken.
The road imparted other lessons as well. Gary instructed me, for instance, to quit "fighting the lean." For some reason, instinct told me to lean away from the gravel that was thrashing along beneath my face. I had, in fact, developed a six-pack from tensing my abs.
"You learn to trust the bike," said Rhonda, unstrapping her helmet because we had just arrived at The Deer Lodge, a hot spot for local bikers. I breathed deeply of the barbecued chicken and spilled beer. A band bluesed up Mick Jagger's "Satisfaction" smack dab in the middle of the day.
Motorcycles lined the road like shiny dominoes. People flock to the Deer Lodge because drinking beer with your biker buddies is the only known cure for the personality loss caused by fluorescent lighting. It somehow makes the week more bearable.
Of course, most of these guys didn't work the nine to five. They seemed more fit for bouncing or tattooing or backup vocals for ZZ Top. Across the street a sign read "Rough Road." It was talking about the regulars.
Gary led us home through one-way dirt roads, scaling mountains to show us civilization from the clouds. Some streets we took just to see where they went. Before you knew it, we were back at The Shop, where David would ask for his gear. I had laughed so much and sat so long that I had two sets of sore cheeks. It was the longest roller coaster ride in the world, and I wanted to get back in line.
I thanked the gang for its hospitality and gave them the manliest handshakes I could muster. Hokey as it sounds, I would miss them. This day had aroused in me a yearning for the open road-the wind in my ears, the bugs in my teeth, the feeling of being exposed. And these five laid-back, mostly kidding riders taught me that happiness is a not a station arrived at but a manner of traveling.