Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blind curves

Chris K: “It’s not like you’re going to wake up one day and say, ‘I’ve got it!’ and be a master at this.  You’re always learning.  Each day on the bike is a lesson.”

A group of 16 people on a range of bikes- dual sport, sport bikes, touring bikes- arrived in Tennessee via truck and trailer for our motorcycle getaway.  We pulled into our weekend home midday after riding through the night.  We unloaded bikes, gear and luggage then suited up, climbed on and headed for winding roads.  That first day, and each day that followed, we began our ride with a few passes at Deal’s Gap.  Also called US 129,  “the Gap” is a stretch of road in Tennessee that crosses into North Carolina.  It’s a favorite of motorcyclists all over the country because it curls around on itself again and again creating a remarkable 318 curves in just eleven miles.  This winding road is etched along side a mountain range where its path darts and dodges around the edge of each peak so while on a motorcycle, patches of rock jut high into the air on one side of you, while on the other, the tops of trees growing up from the valley far below flit by.   This was a ritual, these Gap passes, like warm up stretches before a run.  We ran the Gap before we headed out for the longer sweeping curves of other local roads like the Charohala Skyway and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Living in a large city in western Michigan, I often feel “held up” on a ride until about 15 minutes into it, until 4 lane roads are behind me and cornfields and barns are in view.  It’s like intermission before the next act of a play; I’m waiting to find out what happens next.  In Tennessee though, there is no delay- the trip begins the moment our tires leave the gravel driveway.  There is no such thing as a bad road in this part of the country.  

On a trip like this, life chores are left behind.   I’m on my bike, focused on the ride.  That’s not to say that while on the bike, I’m without a care.  In fact, this particular trip found me focused on cornering.  (The mountains of Tennessee are a fine place to practice these skills.)  With each corner I was thinking, am I entering it too hot? Braking too hard? Rolling on the throttle soon enough?  That first day of riding, I had a lot of hesitation running in and out of the corners; I was covering my front brake and making adjustments midway through the turn.  I felt like I was constantly calculating and maneuvering.   The ride was painstakingly deliberate.  I was exhausted after riding, not rejuvenated.  

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy most about group motorcycle trips are the conversations that happen after each ride.  We discuss the tactical approaches to certain roads, what line to take through corners, various theories and styles of riding.  After the first day of riding, one of these discussions took place in the garage with two other riders.  Brian was kneeling on the cement floor, his Husqvarna TE510 propped up while he changed from smooth supermoto tires to knobby dirt tires.  He was preparing his bike for trail riding the following day.  Aaron was sorting and cleaning his gear- at that moment, polishing his face shield.  Both Aaron and Brian have been riding and racing bikes for years.  I value their expertise and was hoping for some advice on how to corner more smoothly. I started asking detailed questions about corner speed and braking.  Aaron waited for my questions to subside and said gently, “I could break this all down for you step-by-step, but first and foremost, you just need to relax.”  As simple as it sounded, it was also profound.  I have a tendency to try to make things happen in my life.   I over-think, get worked up and struggle to make the right choice.   I knew that this pattern in my life was showing up in my ride.   Brian’s tip was equally profound.  He advised me to “orient toward the turn” and with this direction he rotated his upper body and leaned forward slightly.   In his depiction, I saw my yoga teacher demonstrating “open the heart” for his posture was indeed opening the heart in the direction of the turn.  In this posture, there is a willingness to approach what’s coming.  An acceptance of what lies ahead rather than a fear of it.

The following day we road toward Georgia.  We wound through the Nantahala National Forest passing hillsides covered in creeping vines, along the river filled with boulders worn smooth by the churning water.  As we eased through the landscape, I became acutely aware of my body on the bike.  I could feel the muscles in my forearms tighten, noticed my gaze drop to the ground 20 feet ahead of my front tire, followed by tentative front braking as I questioned the corner.  I watched this same pattern through a couple more turns – arms taught, vision shortened, hesitation. I decided to experiment with the next corner and as soon as I felt myself tighten, I immediately relaxed my shoulders, faced into the turn and lifted my gaze through curve.   Without thought, I rolled on the throttle and felt strong and sure as I pulled through the corner.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to navigate some relationships.  There’s one in particular involving a woman who reminds me so much of myself I can only look at her with awe.  Her expression is open and friendly, inquisitive.  When she listens, it feels like there is nothing I can say that will alarm her.  I like that I can tell her what scares me most and she just nods understanding.  I can share with her my darkest self and still she just sits alongside me steady and sure.  This steadfastness is amazing because it contrasts with my own response to what I’m telling her.  When I share with her my fears and frustrations, I feel so anxious it’s like I’m ready to jump out of my skin.  With her beside me, I’m anchored somehow.  I can be still.  

My friend had become that blind corner that I just couldn’t see around.  Like that first day riding through corners, I became absorbed, lost my focus and couldn’t figure out what was coming next.  During this trip, I realized I wasn’t seeing her in those moments, I was seeing what I want to be.  I realized that I want to be steady and solid in my own life, accepting of even the scariest stuff.  I want to feel tenderness and compassion towards myself.  

When Aaron and Brian offered instructions on how to ride, they reminded me of what I need to do in life: relax and orient toward the heart.   I don’t know how many lifetimes I’ve been searching for answers, or how many motorcycle rides it will take to find them, but I know that with each ride, I’m a finding a few more, and getting a little better at navigating the blind curves.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Preparing for the Trip

It is day one of yet another motorcycle adventure. This trip has been planned since last year, and the year before and the year before that, really. Many of those in the group heading to Deal's Gap, North Carolina this year have made the trip several times before. Each year brings a few new faces as others drop out for various reasons. I almost didn't make the trip myself, this year- other plans conflicted with it.

I'd been planning to attend a weekend music festival to camp with three friends. I started having misgivings about it, so I backed out. Then Chris, a friend from last year's Gap trip, contacted me. I could feel his anticipation as we talked. I remembered the freedom I felt while winding around the mountain, looking into the valley at the forest of maples, birch and pines, passing under electric lines lush with the growth of vines. "I wish you were coming," he said. And I realized I did, too. So began my hasty preparations for the 6 day trip.

After finding a suitable bike (mine is in need of costly service and new tires), ensuring there was a spot in a car for me and on a trailer for the bike, I began packing my gear. On a trip like this, packing the right gear is always a gamble. I don't have enough space on the bike to carry all the possible gear I could need, so I have to take what I think I might need, being careful to choose pieces that are the most versatile. Last year there was no rain forecasted for our trip, but I packed rain gear anyway and ended up needing it after all. It worked well during a particularly high mountain pass section where the real threat was cold, not rain. The temperature dropped by 20 degrees and my Frogg Toggs offered superb protection against the cold wind we encountered on that stretch of road.

Identifying the right gear for any trip requires taking stock of what you have and determining what you might need. When it comes to planning a motorcycle trip, this is easy. In life, not so much. I'm often limited to the tools I have on hand. And as the saying goes, if all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I chose one trip over another- motorcycling vs. camping- because I don't think I yet have the tools for the camping trip. Oh, I have the tent, the sleeping bag and the camp chair. But I don't yet know how to talk about the intense feelings that are coming up when I'm around this group of folks. It feels otherworldly, this intensity. It's as if a dream-life has taken hold and I'm living another life when I'm with these friends. Being with them reminds me of the life I want and not the life I have. I know I could go camping and would enjoy the music but I also know that sometimes I'd just be trying to enjoy it. Or trying to look like I'm enjoying it. I want to get past all that these days. I want to be really engaged by what I'm doing, not pretending to be.

The other night I dreamt of a beautiful man-child. He stood behind me in a mirror, his hands on my shoulders, looking into me. His eyes were compassionate and loving. Blonde curls framed his face. There was a strength to his features but I recognized more easily a tenderness, an innocence. A dream-worker friend of mine, tells me this man is calling to me, is a part of me. I don't yet know him, but feel like it's not long for the coming. A visitor from the other-world, the underworld, where sometimes things are more real than this world, is calling to me. I think I've been preparing for his visit. I look forward to this trip with him.

Tonight I'll ride my loaner bike to Aaron's house where he and Brian have their 4 bikes trailered up. We'll drive down to Kalamazoo where we'll meet up with 9 others- 2 more trucks and trailers for a long over-night drive down to North Carolina. We'll be staying in a house that rents out to all kinds of groups - many a lot like ours, headed down for a some of the best motorcycling roads in the country in the Smokey Mountains. All told, we'll have 4 full days riding and will hit 3 states - North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. While I'm there, I'll be learning to ride again. As any avid rider knows, new roads = a new ride = a new riding lesson. Instead of navigating the brick pavement, stoplights, alleys and traffic of my daily ride or the rolling hills and curves along local farms for my weekly ride, I'll be navigating hairpin turns around steep mountains with 100ft. drop-offs. It will be a study in "technical riding", as my friend Mike calls it.

This part of the journey, is all about the preparation. There's a lot of guessing, and after 10 years of riding, some experience, to choosing the best riding gear. So I'll pack my bags the best I know how then I'll just have to trust that I have what I need when I need it. It'll be a miserable trip if I second guess all these initial decisions the whole way down. So I'm gonna trust this decision to ride instead of camp. I'm gonna trust that the bike is the best place for me to begin the next part of the trip. And I'm trusting that this blog may be another place I come to get to know the man in my dreams.