Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Final Days

(I pick up here where I left off in September, on the final days of my last motorcycle trip. Thanks to cousin Dan for the nudge.)

I slept in the following morning, warm and cozy in my tall bed.  I ventured out to the dining room, where I’d eaten dinner the night before.  With a breakfast of French toast and fresh squeezed orange juice, I reviewed brochures about the city of Lewisburg. 

I’m a product of the North, more thoroughly that I’d known up until that meal there.  The two men that worked in the restaurant during my stay where black men, both with a charming southern drawl.  They were dressed in back pants and white short-sleeved shirts topped with black vests.  I was greeted with a “hello Miss, where’d ya’ like to sit this morn’n?”  My first feeling upon seeing them?  Shame.  They were waiting on me in a colonial home in the South, filled with antiques.  For a moment, I felt lost in time, as though they were servants.  I felt uncomfortable, out of sorts.  I had to talk myself into the present day: they were employees.  They were being paid.  And I would tip them. 

Much of my trip was filled with this juxtapositioning of time, people and situations.  I found myself yearning for some time off the bike and for connecting with the people of the town.  I decided to explore the town.  I walked down a gentle sloping hill into a cluster of shops.  I decided against trinkets for myself and picked up a birthday gift for a friend instead.  Lunch was a light salad and glass of chardonnay in a restaurant serving mostly local fare- it reminded me of Mia and Grace back in Michigan.  While out strolling, I found a movie theatre and checked show times.  I enjoyed an afternoon nap and snack before returning for the movie.  I ended the evening in one of my favorite ways- in bed, writing.

The following morning, I was unsure of whether to head to Michigan or continue West into Kentucky for another day or two of riding. I’d already ridden my “must-do routes” and felt unsure.    I decided to ride north and see how I felt after my day of rest.  It was cold and drizzling and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be wet again.  About 40 minutes into my drive, I decided to head home.  I was done battling the rain. 

My final day of riding was infused with tension.  I was eager to get back to familiar landscape, to my bed.  At the same time, I was still on the bike, surrounded by beautiful land.  Just like in the dining room of the Inn, I felt myself held in two different times- on the bike and in my own home.  This is a familiar pattern for me- stuck between where I am and where I want to be.  In this case, I was happy to be on the bike but also terribly frustrated that so much of the trip had been punctuated by rain.  I was proud of myself for planning and making the trip, and simultaneously aware of the trips I could have had.  This last day was filled with these dichotomies- the road I could have taken and didn’t.  There was no regret or sorrow- enough of the new direction was behind me that it had begun to feel like the only choice to take after all.

I was so deep into West Virginia that I was far from the expressways and mentally shifted gears to enjoy that leisurely leg of the ride while the straight and fast highways waited ahead.  Animals dotted the landscape and 2 lane roads narrowed into river forging bridges. The roads I found myself on mimicked my inner experience- I was nestled against the mountains while at the same time, entertained valley views.  I felt supported while I sought new experiences. 

At a gas stop, I reviewed maps and found my quickest route home. I’d get myself into Ohio and catch 77.  There was a time when my mind left me on the bike and I thought only of home and warmth and my animals waiting for me.  I wanted familiar smells and sounds.  I wanted straight roads that showed me where they ended, instead of tricking me with turns.  Something would jar me out of my reverie – gears grinding when a semi-downshifted on a steep slope – and I’d be back on the bike again, wading between hills like waves one after another. 

I wanted to find a route that would take me past wind turbines, though I wasn’t coming out the same way I’d gone in.  Sure enough, cresting over hill, I saw several in the distance.  I hoped to capture a picture of them.  Sure enough, I found myself along a perfect path between mountains that lead me through a field of turbines.  I was between two realities again- I was saddened by the killing of trees needed to make room for them, yet mesmerized by their presence.  Each turbine I passed was nearer and nearer and thus larger than the one before.  Even a single blade was incomprehensibly large: I was awed by their stature: a trio of turbines, peaking out between two mountains with limbs that reached toward me.  A single turbine perched on a hill, peering down at me.  A series of towering points along a distant ridge with arms that swirled around and around.   I never got that perfect photo - yet still they sit, still etched in my mind.

Once in Ohio, I realized there was no hiding from the roads between me and home.  While in a car, I seek out things that distract me from the journey- something to make the trip feel shorter.  When I get that feeling on a bike, I recognize it as a warning flag; my mind is wandering, my body is worn out.

It wasn’t until I stopped for gas that I realized I was stuck in the think-loop of “I’m almost home.”  I was at least 4 hours from home, but since I’d already ridden 10, it felt like I was nearly there.  In reality, I’d been riding in darkness and rain with only the taillights of the vehicles ahead to guide me when I finally  stopped.  This is the danger in riding long distances- the mind can trick you but the body knows when it has had enough.  So I found a motel.  I hadn’t eaten in hours and was so hungry and tired by then, I couldn’t decide what to order from which restaurant.  I finally pulled quarters from my duffel and selected orange juice and a tube of nuts from the vending machine.  I soon settled into sleep.  In the morning, I packed up the bike for the final time and readied myself for the leg home. I reveled in familiar names on roadsides: Ann Arbor, Lansing, Ionia, Lowell.  When I entered my driveway, I noticed a sense of relief I hadn’t felt since I’d first started riding- I was glad to have made it home.  My bike did not break down, nor did I.  In fact, while tired from the week-long journey, I also felt invigorated. 

Planning this trip was simple- getting out of my head about the logistics was the biggest challenge- and easy enough with the help of a few friends to guide my route.  Taking the trip was even easier.  I needed to leave my work life behind and tap into other parts of myself.  Parts that are easier to access while on a bike, engaged in the ride.   I also recognized this trip as an important part of assessing my readiness for a trip to South America.  I’d been entertaining a 2 week journey without being on a bike for more than a few days at a time.  With this ride behind me, I knew I could do it.  I’d have to make more preparations, but I’d banished all doubts.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Driving Rain

I awoke the next morning of my motorcycle trip- in no hurry to venture out into the rain.  I met two other couples in the dining room of the motel and we chatted about our routes over breakfast.  They had come from Seneca Falls and recommended it for the scenery.   Although the cabins they told me about would be something I’d enjoy, I really wanted to head south.  

The fourth patch I could earn on this trip was for traveling a trio of roads: 219, 250 and 220.  A glance at my map, revealed two options for this route- I decided to take 250 east to 220 then head south.  That would put me in southern West Virgnia, where I could sleep in one place for a few days and take short day trips on the motorcycle.

Before falling asleep the night before, I’d washed all my clothes and developed a strategy for getting through the following rainy day- a habit, by now.  I’d dried my gloves on the vent and let my pants and jacket hang to dry overnight.  That morning, I lined my duffel bag with garbage bags and packed all of my belongings inside them. I wore lightweight pants under my rain suit and tucked my feet into plastic bags to prevent them from getting wet again.  Then I slipped my rain jacket on over my leather jacket, put on my helmet and took off in the rain, headed for 250.

Within a matter of minutes, my hands were freezing.  I was going to be battling the rain and the cold.  I stopped at the mini-mall to find a pair of latex gloves.  The only pair available ripped as soon as I put them on.  I rode on further- determined to make a go of it.  I didn’t get far before I pulled over to gas up and change under the awning.  Water had managed to leak into my right boot and my foot was soaked.  I changed my socks, adjusted the plastic bag turned liner.  I also exchanged the leather jacket for the heated jacket.  Topped with the rain jacket, I would stay warm and dry, yet still have freedom of movement.  I also put on my heated gloves.  Newly armed, I ventured back out into the rain.

The rain lightened up a bit as I wound around and through the mountain roads past streams and forests growing from rocking outcroppings.  Riding in some mountain ranges, one can see the towering rocks pushing up into the sky.  Through this area though, it was the tree tops that formed the mountain range.  All the trees linked together created a great sea of green rolling across the edge of the sky like a wave.  At the base of this sea was a great golden “beach” of farmland dotted with farmhouses and barns.  As I rolled through each curve, I’d see this range and the farms below it through the breaks in the trees at the road’s edge.  It was like a little gift each time the trees parted to afford me that view. 

 I was riding my favorite kind of roads in beautiful country but felt like the ride had become all about dealing with the weather.  Instead of challenging my riding skills, the trip was challenging my coping skills. The rain was pouring down.  I felt like I was just hanging on for the ride.    The bike was holding up, the roads were in excellent condition but the rain was seeping into me and sapping my strength.
To get a break from the rain, I stopped in a quaint town for sandwich and tea.  My map made 220 look like a straight shot and I thought I’d pick up speed and cover some ground. 

Sure enough, the ride was fast and easy.  Covington, appeared to be one massive industrial plant.  Three separate driveways along a one-mile stretch lead into the plant.  It was like coming upon a scene in a sci-fi movie.  Semi’s turned out of the plant, one after another.  Piles of saw dust stood high as sand dunes underneath conveyor belts.  This town felt empty and sad.   I left it behind quickly by jumping on 64 west; I was on a mission to find lodging for the night.  There were several hours left in the day to ride, but my body was done.  I spotted signs for a visitor center and stood just inside the door, a pool of water gathering around me, as I asked for suggestions.   The B&B they referred me to, didn’t have any clean beds after the holiday weekend; she steered me “just 9 miles down the road” to Lewisburg, West Virginia with promises of an Inn and an attached restaurant.  Rain continued to poor down on my ride and my reserves were gone- I needed the charm of an Inn, rather than another Super 8 and marched on expectantly.

I pulled up to a 2 story white colonial with a circle drive and front porch that beckoned me in with its double-door entry.  Inside, an antique desk with a ledger and hand-loomed oriental rugs greeted guests.   A drawing room off to the left was filled with antique chairs grouped together around a fireplace.  I followed the hall around the corner down to my room.   Inside, a double bed stood so tall, I needed a stool to climb into it.  It was topped with a down comforter and 4 fluffy pillows.  Next to it was a small walnut desk and chair and beside that a narrow closet for my riding jacket and pants.  A television stood atop and antique dresser across from the bed.  In the corner, a narrow door lead into a crisp white bathroom just big enough to stand in.  I lugged in my bags, hung my gear up to dry out and filled the tub for a hot bath.  Although these accommodations were more luxurious than I’d intended for my trip- they were exactly what I needed.   I called the front desk and told her I’d take the room for two nights then I grabbed a book and settled into the tub to warm up and relax.

After cleaning up, I nestled in bed with my computer to write.  Up until that point, I hadn’t carved out any time to write.  I promised myself the next 2 days would be devoted to writing and enjoying the town.  I’d had enough of trying to get somewhere.    I wanted time to reflect on all I’d seen. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Take me home...

I awoke, on the 3rd day of my trip, in Winchester, Virginia to wet pavement and dry skies.  I expected rain, after the forecast but hoped I’d get lucky, like the day before.  There were clouds above with patches of sky and sunlight poking through.  My first route for the day consisted of a purple line at the top of my map - across route 50 from Gore, Virginia heading West to Grafton, West Virginia.  This is another RIDE club patch road.  I hadn’t intended to make my entire trip about getting patches but it was lining up that way.  From the map, it looked like it would be great route for views- it runs along the base of the mountains- as well as for curves – it squiggles across the page.

I gassed up and headed out, expecting to find breakfast at a little diner along my way.  I eased out of Winchester along route 50 which took me toward the mountains.  Misty clouds hovered along the peak just at the edge of town.  I slipped through a mountain pass and found myself on the other side of the mountains, beginning to wind my way up and through them.  About 40 minutes in, I rounded a corner and came down a hill into a town with a quaint diner posting a sign which read “Open Labor Day.”  While I’d been glad to gain an extra day by planning my trip over the holiday weekend, I hadn’t considered how many businesses would be closed on Sunday and Monday.  It made my strategy to acquire patches a good one- there wouldn’t be much site seeing off the bike.  I sat down for a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage while I reviewed my maps.  After 50, I’d planned to head south for a 3-road tour and another patch.  I’d have to see how the weather held up first.

Filled up and warmed up, I hopped back on the bike and settled in for the ride.  I continued through the mountains, which meant the roads continued to climb up and up, while off to one side stands of trees flitted by.  A few were turning color here and there, so I’d be surrounded by green when a lone tree, dressed in red would appear, standing amid them.  I found myself once again lost in the road, trying to stay in the best lane position while it snaked back upon itself.  An occasional car would appear from around a bend in the road, alerting me to stay wider in corners than I’m used to.  Riding tight on a track, when I can see all the way through the turn is one tact, but the mountain twisities require another. 

I’d been a little afraid of this trip and what it would bring up for me.  I knew I’d see some beautiful things and hoped I wouldn’t mind too much seeing them by myself.  When I’d come around a corner to find a break in the trees and get a glimpse of the valley below- that’s when I’d pull over and grab the camera for a shot.  Taking my camera with me was a way to bring a friend with me- I thought of those back home who’d be waiting to look at them with me.  When Erica asked me why I was doing this trip, I told her it was because I really wanted to and was really afraid of it at the same time.  We have this common understanding, her and I, that our fears sometimes direct us to what we really need to do.  As I was riding along that day, the fear was gone.  I found myself narrating my route, eager to share it, but glad to be there alone. 

The road continued on, winding through the hills.  At one point, a great wind picked up some fallen leaves and swirled them up and around me as I passed by- it felt like a hug from the wind- I smiled and a song from John Denver came to mind: “West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads.”

Route 50 took me from Virginia into West Virginia, Maryland and back into West Virginia, all in one straight stretch heading west.  It was a marvel riding through this area, marked into statehood by such strange boundaries- not a river or a mountain range or even a lake, as is Michigan.  It had me wondering how these territories came to be divided.  

The rain started in, sprinkling here and there and I hardly noticed it for the rivers sneaking along the roadway and the rocky outcroppings out of which the forest grew.   The sky above was filled with layers of clouds in all shades of gray until finally, they opened up and sheets of rain came down.  From Grafton, I headed south on 119 to 250. 

West Virginia is loaded with signs along the roadside proclaiming historic areas- the first farm, the site of a particular battle or the home town of a general.  So much of this state’s history seems to reside in its place in the civil war.  I remember very few details of the war from elementary school and don’t feel it’s pull on me.  In fact, quite the opposite- I felt repelled by the signs urging me to visit a battle ground.   This contrast was made even more stark as I pulled into Elkins to find a place to stay for the night.  Across the street from the Marathon station and the McDonald’s was a “trading post” selling “genuine Indian” artifacts, which most likely meant turquoise jewelry and moccasins.  How is it that current literature about the civil war proclaims victory in battle during the French and Indian War, while stores hock “artifacts” from cultures our ancestors denigrated and destroyed? 

The last hour of riding had soaked clean through my riding pants and jeans.   My leather jacket was soggy and gloves useless.  My feet were sloshing around inside my boots.  I found myself a restaurant in hopes a hot meal would warm me up enough to continue.  I thought I could use the dry table to spread my maps out and plan the rest of the day. 

Once inside the Applebees, I warmed up my insides with a few cups of coffee and some wings.  The manager was kind and gave me leads on a few places outside of town.  He urged me to head east toward Seneca Falls where I’d find cabins to rent ‘real reasonable like.’  I sketched out a few ideas on the map but couldn’t get a feel for how much further I wanted to go.  Once outside, I got the clarity I needed.  It was cold, still raining and I was still wet.  I decided to call it quits right there and headed, once again, for the cheapest place in town – the Super 8. 

The place had been updated recently and I found  a washer and dryer for a dollar a load in a room right off the lobby.  I parked my bike out back and lugged my gear inside.  I separated my belongings into 2 piles.  Wet and clean and wet and dirty.   I threw the clean pile in the dryer, the dirty in the washer and headed back to my room to dry out my gear.  

In planning this trip, I was looking forward to the roads I’d ride and the views I’d see.  I was hoping for a neat side trip or two and thought I might meet some other motorcyclists on the way.  I prayed I wouldn’t have to deal with any bike repairs, or worse, any damage to me, after taking a corner to hot.  What I didn’t expect to get out the trip, was a sense of achievement from tackling the elements.   Nevertheless, that was already shaping up to be one of the big “take-aways” from the trip.   

Friday, September 9, 2011

5 States in One Day

Riding through western Ohio reminded me a lot of Michigan.  The roads were straight with views of fields and farmland as far as I could see; it was beautiful.  Because the land was more flat than Grand Rapids area farmlands, I could see much farther.  Groups of trees were more linear, demarcating the fields of wheat from corn, from alfalfa.  The sky above was filled with whispy billowing clouds.  After 69 turned south, my body asked for a break from the pummeling it takes at high-speeds so I got off the expressway and I headed east from Auburn through Defiance into Findlay then south toward Columbus.  I passed through lots of small towns where the speed limit dips down to 35 mph.   It’s a welcome change of pace though it slowed me down.  I fought off frustration that I had turned off the expressway too soon and lost valuable time.  Then I caught myself- it was only day one and I was already feeling like I’d messed up.  I pushed those ideas from my mind and focused on the road in front of me.  I eased through the farmlands at a moderate pace with very little traffic.  I finally hit 270 around Columbus and made a push for Zanesville via I-70.  I crashed at a Super 8 right off the highway and grabbed dinner at the A&W next door.  I retired early knowing my next day of riding would be a long one. 

I woke on Sunday morning to hear that Hurricane Leo would be bringing in storms with expected flooding over the Midwest and South throughout the week.  As I packed my bags, I tried to fight off the frustration.   I wasn’t concerned about riding in the rain but I was worried about how well my rain gear and my spirits would hold up if it rained non-stop.   More than that, I’ve found that rain and cold are fatiguing.  I’d planned for 2 long days of riding with rests midday at roadside parks.  Without the option for a quick nap, I’d have to find a new strategy for getting down into southern West Virginia where the great roads were waiting.  I couldn’t count on covering a lot of miles if I needed to take frequent breaks to warm up.  And I’d need  a Laundromat to dry out my gear.  The weather radar showed rain was expected in every area I would ride in the next 2 days.  I briefly considered abandoning my planned trip and choosing another area to ride in.  From the radar, it looked like I'd have two days of rain no matter which route I took, so I dismissed the idea of riding out of it.

My plan for the day was to run the 555 from Zanesville through to Little Hocking and then ride through 4 other states.  That'd get me two RIDE patches in one day.  I'd expected to do the 555 the first day so I was slightly behind schedule and wasn’t sure if I could do it.  I reviewed my West Virginia map again and set up several alternate routes that could get me through each state more quickly if needed.  I didn’t know how long it would take me to get through the winding routes so I left the motel at 9:00am, fueled up, checked tire pressure and headed out.  Although, feeling behind, I knew I wouldn't enjoy the trip if I focused on the variables I couldn’t control.  I decided to take it one road at a time.  I wanted to get on the 555 and see where it lead me. 

A few turns out of town I found myself in the most beautiful country.  Eastern Ohio is hilly territory.   The 555 curves unlike any I’ve ever been on- even Deal’s gap.  It’s  nestled between hills that wind through tiny towns divided by farms.  Neighborhoods consisted of groups of houses clustered together between these farms.  I marveled at the twists these roads took- perhaps fashioned from old horse and buggy trails.  Not only did the road jog from side to side but it climbed up and down.  Riding along at top speed- only 25-30 mph- felt like riding a roller coaster.  I could not travel faster safely, because I could not see the road in front of me for the hills and the twists.  More than once, I’d slowed for a hill only to discover it took a sharp turn just beyond the crest.  I continued the route, slowly and took in the views.  I remembered requests from two friends to take lots of pictures so I found myself stopping every few miles to snap a photo.  I came upon only 3 other vehicles on that route- a car, a truck and an ATV – so it felt very isolated.  I often stopped right in the middle of the road to snap a picture.  I was riding at the edge of beauty. 

I felt myself staring into the landscape as though prying into another life.  What is it like to live for the land and the animals you keep on it?  The hillsides were dotted with cattle of every color- unlike the Michigan dairy farms I’d seen with black herds.  Whatever kind of cattle they were- beef or dairy- no doubt the signs advertising their products would say, “grass fed” for these small herds were spread over hundreds of acres of land.  I wondered what these hills and valleys, and the roads winding through them, meant for the people who live there.  How had it shaped them?  When I was riding through it, it felt like undiscovered territory.  I don't think that's just because it was knew to me;  I think that was the feel of the land.  When I ride along Michigan's western coastline, I feel an absolute sense of freedom- like I'm opening up inside.  When I rode this part of Ohio, I felt like I was coming upon a secreted place.  These homes and lives were hidden amongest these hills.

I finished the 555 and turned towards Parkersburg, West Virginia.  I didn’t know yet, if I could make all 5 states but I planned to work my way toward it one state at a time.  Crossing into West Virginia, the road continued to swerve around, this time through dense enough forest that I caught glimpses of a massive steel structure through clearings.  At first glance, I couldn’t imagine what it was, as I’d never seen anything like it before.  As I drew nearer, I noticed a river- a very wide Ohio river and realized I was seeing a bridge.  I’d have loved to get a picture of it - it wasn’t just a feat of engineering, it was an artist’s vision.   Because I was on a freeway, I couldn’t get a shot of it.  Crossing the bridge put me in state 2 for the day and I headed northeast to hit Pennsylvania along route 7. 

This part of West Virginia felt a lot like eastern Ohio without the hairpin turns of the 555.  I continued to marvel at the farms that stretched out before me that were placed amid such sloping acreage.   The road traveled alongside streams with slate stacked hills on the opposite side.  Between the stream and the mountains beyond, were plains that had become farmland dotted with rolls of hay.  I tried to imagine riding a tractor in this terrain.  It must feel as though you were leaning back in chair, riding up those steep hillsides.  

I made it into Pennsylvania without a hitch and found a café just off the expressway.  I just missed the first of the pouring rain as I settled in for lunch of homemade perogis in a butter sauce.  I pulled on rain gear before hopping back on the bike.  Each time I stopped for gas at a place right off the expressway, I found myself facing familiar fast-food stops and gas stations.  While the landscape was different, the businesses weren’t. 

I gained understanding of the term “Anytown, USA” because so many towns were edged by the same businesses: McDonald’s, Shell, Family Dollar, Applebee’s, Days Inn.  It was hard to feel like I was leaving anything behind, when I kept coming upon the familiar.  I recalled the fact that I have boycotted McDonald’s and Wal-mart for over 10 years, until recently.  I had avoided McDonald’s after reading Fast Food Nation and Wal-mart after watching a documentary about it.  I found the business practices of both to be unsettling and I determined that spending my money elsewhere was my way to take a stand.  Riding past another group of the same tired businesses, woke me to my naïve thinking.  Wal-mart and McDonald’s weren’t the problem.  They were only two examples of many who are part of our capitalist society.   It’s not that my boycotts were misguided, but I was seeing they were ineffectual.  

As I headed south into Maryland, thoughts flitted through my mind but then the landscape would jolt me out of my reverie and I’d be right back on the bike, on the road, making my way into a new world.  It felt like I was clearing away debris.  And as I climbed into the mountains, I looked up to see a huge thundercloud hanging in the sky up ahead.  It occurred to me then, that hurricane Leo hadn’t done what the forecasters said, or what I’d feared.  It hadn’t wrecked my trip.  I was nearly through my second day of riding and I had gotten caught in a few sprinkles, but not the serious downpour I was expecting.   At that point, I had only one more state to get through to earn my second patch of the day, and it was clear in my mind, if not the heaven’s above, that I would make it into Virginia before the day’s end.

Virginia greeted me with more twists around mountain curves.  I could rarely focus on anything around me except the road for all it's switchbacks.  At points, trees from both sides would canopy me in and I'd ride along as if in a tunnel of filtered light.  I'd clear the tunnel and sweep left, then sharp right up a steep incline.  Back and forth, I'd ride, the engine whirring faster, then slower, again and again.  Finally, the road evened out and I dared look out beyond it into the valley below where farmhouses nestled at the base of the mountains.  

Finally, hungry and tired, I headed for the expressway and the businesses I knew would be at it’s edges. While the rain hadn’t wrecked my trip, the long day of riding had sapped my energy.  I pulled into the  Super 8 at 9 PM, unloaded my gear from the bike and changed into dry clothes.  I dined on sushi and sake at the place next door and then settled into the bed for a little T.V. until my eyelids grew heavy.  Sated in every way from the riding, I turned out the lights and settled in for a restful sleep.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Planning My Trip

On Saturday I left for a solo motorcycle trip down south.   After much deliberation, I finally realized I really wanted to go alone, but was concerned about how to plan it.  The bookstore, riding friends, and two girlfriends helped me.

I’ve never ridden longer than 5 hours a day and I’d never taken a multi-day trip with overnight stays in more than one location.  When I’ve heard others talk about long trips, it was always broken down into miles as in, “we covered about 400 miles per day.”  Some of the best things I’ve seen have been by accident and I was hesitant to plan too carefully yet the distance I hoped to cover required some homework.  To prepare for it, I talked with several friends for ideas.  Michael had just come back from a solo trip of his own around two of the Great Lakes.   He told me he’d started with how many days he wanted to travel and then worked on a general route with a few ideas for day trips, should he decide to stay in one place more than one night.  That first conversation helped me realized I didn’t need to worry about being too rigid in my planning.  I could make this trip whatever I wanted and didn’t need to feel constrained by miles, hours, too specific a route or overnight accommodations.

I made two trips to the bookstore to review books written on “scenic byways.”  While there weren’t books specific to motorcycling, I found one that outlined scenic routes from Ohio, south to Kentucky and Indiana and west up through Illinois.  Ken leant me a motorcyclist’s guide to scenic routes in the south including West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.   After studying these routes on Mapquest, a general plan began to develop.  I found myself drawn to eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.  I purchased state maps and started highlighting scenic routes from Ken’s book.  Finally, I met with Michael again, to review my route ideas.  He had ridden West Virginia a few years back with Geoff and Mark and said the roads there could keep me occupied for days.  He also told me it was easy to find motels near expressway exits and mom and pop places at the edge of town.  He taught me a thing or two about reading maps and reminisced about his own trip as we finger-traced routes.

I was also interested in challenging myself in another way on this trip- I wanted to incorporate some “best roads” and “challenge” patches from the RIDE club.   Once a RIDE member earns 10 patches he earns a “doctorate” from “Two-lane University.”  This is the playful part of RIDE membership that I really enjoy.   After this trip, I’ll be referred to as “Dr. Souldance.”  Michael and I mapped out a route I could take to earn the “5 states in one day” patch.  I also planned to ride Ohio’s 555 and a route in West Virginia and Virginia covering roads 219, 250 and 220.  With the 9 days I had available to ride, I was also hoping I might bring home the “2,500 miles in one trip” patch.   Planning around these patches helped me break the trip down into little bite-sized pieces and made organizing the ride less daunting.

The week of the trip, I set up final preparations.  I laid out all my gear including supplies for rain, cold, hunger, bright sun and bad hair: rain suit, heated jacket, granola bars, sunglasses, and a hat.  I also gave the bike a bath and an inspection.  Patrick changed my rear tire, which arrived just in time.  Anita agreed to watch my kitties and Amy volunteered to keep watch for me via text.  Armed with well-marked maps, a few changes of clothes and my camera for charting my trip, I set-out for Ohio.

In my excitement, I talked to several friends and coworkers and got lots of interesting responses: 

            “What are you doing that for?” 
            “Aren’t you dreading the drive?”
            “Oh, my!  All by yourself?”

Each answer lead me closer to my own understanding of why I was taking the trip.  I needed to be alone.  I needed to take stock of what’s important to me without the influence of others.  I needed a break from daily life in my home and at work.  I needed to carve out enough time for myself so I could reconnect with the part of me that has answers at hand, instead of those that come only after sifting through other’s expectations and desires.  I wasn’t just taking the trip alone, I was also tuning out email, Facebook, phone calls and texting.   I know I sometimes use these communication tools as a crutch when I’m feeling lonely.  And the irony is, I often don’t feel less alone after a conversation than before it.  I wanted to take enough time for myself so that lonliness, even if it crept in, was only part of all the many things I felt in a day instead of the feeling I kept trying to drive out.

As I pulled out of my driveway, I was undecided about which route to take to get out of Michigan.  I realized then that all the planning I needed was already done.  My Michigan map was laid out in my magnetic map pouch and affixed to my tank.  I just had to pick the first road to start out on and from there the rest would come.  My destination was Zanesville, Ohio where I would pick up the 555.   Tom was the last person I spoke with on Friday night before I headed out.  He encouraged me to quickly make my way east through Ohio as “there is nothing” in western Ohio.  I picked 96 East out of Grand Rapids  to begin my journey.  It turns south and heads straight into western Ohio.  Once I got into Ohio, I didn’t know if I’d jump on the tollway and run quickly east or stay on back roads and head south.  Once I got to the exit though, the answer was clear to both my mind and my body.  I headed south.  I was as eager to ride along the rural roads as I was to find out what “nothing” looks like.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Choices: Bonneville or Thruxton?

Months after the Gilmore Car Mueseum’s motorcycle show, I continued to fantasize about the Thruxton.  Because of that, I started searching for ways to transform the sophisticated Bonneville into the racey Thruxton.   While I adore my Bonneville, I’m determined to find a way to combine what I love most about each bike. 

An extensive study of websites selling Triumph parts reveals numerous options.  Through bike church, I met another Triumph rider who directed me to  This site revealed a variety of parts to customize my Bonneville that improve both function and style as well as performance.  My search also lead me to a few other sites including Cal-moto, Bellacorse and Pure-Triumph.   I love the simplicity of my Bonneville and have never before considered altering her appearance or performance.   Previous purchases included saddle-bags for convenience and gear for various riding conditions.  When I bought my bike, there were add-ons like colored cam covers, valve stem caps and seat cowls but I was surprised to see so many other options on these websites:  custom oil filler caps, brake fluid filler caps, colored sprockets, chains and brake lines.   A whole world was opening as I discovered all the parts available.  Next, I searched for photos of Thruxtons and Bonnevilles and zoomed in for ideas.  Hours later, my mind was awash with images and ideas.

It is possible to spend thousands of dollars on modifications, but since I’m still making payments on her, I didn’t want to spend another two grand on upgrading her  suspension with new shocks and forks or her engine performance with new cams or race carburetors.   While I believe some mid-range suspension upgrades will make a noticeable difference in the ride, that is a change I can make next year or the year after.   Delaying modifications is a simple choice when I consider other plans I’m saving for.   I don’t think I need that level of performance upgrade on a bike I already enjoy so much.  Besides, what I really like about the Thruxton isn’t her performance so much as the riding position and sportier feel.    

After eliminating the pricier options, I focused instead on cosmetic changes I could make while spending less than a thousand to achieve it.  After considering cost, my next decision was to determine an overall vision for the bike.  I have the 2008 Bonneville black with chrome accents.  Unlike Thruxtons, which have two-toned color scheme, my fenders, side-panels and tank are all painted the same color, and my engine is neither chrome, nor brushed metal, but matte black.  While I want a sportier feel, I want to be true to the Bonneville styling and the red or yellow seat cowl and cam covers aren’t to my liking.  I have no brushed metal on the bike so the brushed metal options were easily dismissed. 

To help me get clear on what options made sense, I gave the Bonneville a bath and then sat across from her and studied her.  I started with her headlight and moved toward her back end.  I considered fork gaitors, front faring and headlight accessories.  I looked past her engine to her side covers, foot pegs, chain cover, chain, sprocket and guard.  Finally, I examined her rear fender and lights.  I imagined changing out parts I’d seen on the various websites I explored.  Each part I changed in my mind’s eye, came with it an accompanying feeling of promise or disregard.   Using this approach, piece by piece, it became clear which parts I would change and which I would leave. 

This is also the approach I use when trying to make other kinds of decisions in my life.  For example, I’ve been yearning to take a vacation so set aside the week after Labor Day.  I had several options available for travel and I narrowed them by focusing in on one thing at a time.  Firstly, I realized I really wanted to take a motorcycle trip.  Secondly, I realized I didn’t want to do a trip planned around someone else’s schedule.  And finally I realized I wanted to ride more days than not.  What I ended up planning is a 7-day solo trip down south.  I’m making it sound easier than it was – I was nervous about up-ending plans with a girlfriend in California and 3 others I was planning on hanging out with Labor Day weekend.  There are a few new folks joining the Gap trip this year, which was also an option and while I knew it would be an interesting trip, what I realized was that the only person I want to please that week is me. 

As for the changes with the Bonneville, there’s a whole lotta things I could do that might make someone else happier with her performance- new carbs and even engine enhancements.  The thing is, those aren’t things that I really need or even value.  One friend laughed at my changes, which include some chrome accents, saying it was a waste to spend money on something that only improved the bling factor.  He said he doesn’t care much for improving the look of a bike.  My automatic retort: “a person doesn’t buy a bike like this if she doesn’t care about looks.”  And right there in that moment, I had resolution to an internal conflict I didn’t know I’d had up until that point.  I was feeling some reservations about spending money on this great bike that were only intended to improve her looks.  In fact, most of the changes would probably go unnoticed by most.  But there it was: I value the look of the bike as much as her ride.  I don’t need her to be the fastest production bike ever made and I don’t need shocks that offer performance perks I’ll never benefit from with the way I ride.

The fact is, I fell in love with the Bonneville because of her looks.  And then I rode her and I fell for the feel of her ride.  And I haven’t fallen out of love – I still turn around to look at her after I get off her.  I like how she pulls me through corners and powers from a stop.  I know she likes 4th gear more than any other and that she stumbles a little until I get her there.  I recognize her hesitation up around 100 miles on a tank of gas – 124 if I’ve ridden slower- when she needs her reserve tank. 

There may come a time when I want a little more power out of her.  But that’ll be after a southern solo tour, and after an adventure tour in Peru next Fall.  I changed out her handlebars, so they’re lower and a little straighter.   I replaced her round upstanding mirrors with rectangular bar-end mirrors for a little sportier look.  I also replaced the choke and idle knobs and the oil filler cap with chrome ones.   I'll be putting on the new fork gaitors over the Winter and I hope to find a deal on a black seat cowl and front fly screen, too.   For now, though, she done- and she’s as pretty as ever.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Gilmore Vintage Motorcycle Show

Each year the Gilmore car museum hosts a vintage motorcycle show.  I look forward to seeing the old bikes and to test driving the new models that Lifecycle brings out.  This year Patrick and I road down together after meeting up at bike church.  On the way there, we found ourselves positioned behind a pack of motorcyclists out for their Sunday ride.  They were lazy riders, slowing down by at least 10 mph to crest a hill and manage the curves.  I found it frustrating to be “stuck” behind a large group I couldn’t get around.  I like pushing myself through twisting roads and challenging my skills.  This group wasn’t interested in riding that way but rather were out for a leisurely stroll.   The weather was perfect for a day of sightseeing – a little cool - and the roads on the route we took were filled with motorcyclists I imagined were either coming or going from the museum.

This year seemed to have as many visitors as the last several years.  They had more food carts – all selling the same fare: hot dogs, nachos and elephant ears.  We parked in a field with hundreds of bikes of all varieties and surveyed the grounds.  There were a few rows of trailers and tables set up swap-meet style with an assortment of motorcycle parts and accessories.  A few vendors were selling embellished bandanas, chrome polish and t-shirts.  Lifecycle set up a great display again this year with two huge tents of gear, a semi trailer to dyno your bike and a cache of bikes to test ride.  At the center of all the vendors was a sea of bikes on show. 

Patrick and I started out with a trip to the food carts to warm up with a hot beverage.  Once there, we ran into Deanna, Ben and Andrew – part of the Deal’s Gap crew.  Together we strolled the grounds, checking out the old bikes.  The show hosts a variety of bikes- from choppers that appeared to be assembled in a piece-meal fashion, to pristine bikes fully restored to vintage glory. I continually found myself drawn to the BSA’s, Nortons and Triumphs, particularly those set-up in a café racer style.  They have a paired down appeal to them with little plastic and just the right touch of chrome.  Signals tend to be smaller, handle bars simple and straight.  I like the design touches, too, with strategic placement of traditional parts.  One of my favorite bikes this year was styled with bar end turn signals and mirrors mounted to the headlight.  It was simple and stunning. 

While checking out the grounds, I ran into two guys I know from RIDE motorcycle who I went to Detroit with for the MSF rider course back in April.  One of the bikes on display was from a man I’d met the week before at Festival in downtown Grand Rapids.  I found myself standing in front of the bike he’d shown me pictures of just the week before.  It was a chopper with crazy styling- huge bars, a long rake and a small tank painted with a blood-shot eyeball at it's apex.   I spotted Pat, my mechanic from Lifecycle in the crowd of museum-goers as well as several people from bike church.

It struck me then, that my motorcycle life was on-display for me that day and not just the bikes.  I was running into people from all parts of my motorcycling life:  my club, the coffee shop, trips and late night rides.  All these friends I’d made, all these faces familiar because of my love of riding and my riding life.   It was a welcome realization; I found myself marveling at the coming together of all these people, from all these travels of mine. 

We finished the show off with two demo rides each – an easy ride down and back a strip of pavement long enough to capture your heart if you liked the bike beneath you and short enough you don’t mind if it doesn’t.  I took out a Triumph Speed Triple first.  When sitting on it, I felt as though I was perched atop it rather than nestled into it.  The bike was agile but the ride was flat and left me wanting more.  

The second go-around was on the Thruxton.  Her forward bars and rear set controls grabbed my attention within seconds of mounting her.  She was nimble  and responsive on the throttle.  I felt excitement and didn’t want to get off her when we lapped back around to the starting point.  I’ve always loved the styling of the trio of Triumphs: Bonneville, Scrambler and Thruxton.  A few years back I rode the Thruxton and the Bonneville on this very track and had disregarded the Thruxton for its forward riding position which I thought would be uncomfortable around town.   A month later, I ended up purchasing the Bonneville; a front-runner in style and ride.  So here I am three years later, at the same show, and I find myself falling for the Thruxton.  I shouldn’t be terribly surprised because all three of the Triumphs I love are based on the same bike with the same engine, but differ in their styling details and a few performance modifications.  The Scrambler, for example, has high pipes that come along-side the bike.  They’re chrome and showy hanging about calf-height, one stacked on the other with a chrome heat guard for protection.  The distinctive styling of this pipe grabs me every time.  Details that make up the Thruxton include a tachometer, shortened rear fenders, a front faring around the headlight, exposed chain, rear foot controls and handlebars that have the rider reaching forward with the foot controls slightly behind.  The racier feel in the styling- often with a stripe or checked pattern down the tank is backed by adjustable forks.   The way I feel about the Thruxton, is pretty much how I feel about the Bonneville.  It’s got a hold on me and I can’t get it out of my mind.  In fact, I’ve been thinking about what modifications I can make to the Bonneville to get her a little closer to the café styling of the Thruxton without sacrificing around-the-city riding comfort.

Like all annual events or activities I engage in, the Gilmore Museum trip has become another way for me to measure time.  It makes me reflect on the changes in my life since the first visit 3 years ago:  the people who are in my life and the ones who aren’t.  Towns surrounding Grand Rapids are now connected by familiar back roads.   I’ve changed my career path from elder care to women’s health and now am working in family medicine.  The 8-inch pots of perennial grasses I planted in my backyard have grown three feet around and 8 feet tall.  The paint on the garage door has weather and faded.   I ride the motorcycle now, not to conquer fear, but to connect with myself and remember what’s important in my life.  I’ve fallen for a machine- my Bonneville lives and breathes with me.  I feel the subtle shift in power just as the last bit of gas leaves her primary tank, before I flip it to the reserve.  I notice when her front end loosens up at high speeds and when the clutch has too much play.  I climb off her only to stare at her- the parts I have become familiar with through maintenance and cleaning- and I see both the individual parts that make her up and the wondrous wholeness of her.  I love what my life has become because of her- the riders I’ve met, the adventures I’ve had while riding her and learning to care for her.  Sometimes the ride seems too slow- like the trip out to the museum where I felt held back by the riders ahead of me- but upon reflection, and with the perspective of time, the ride feels like it’s all unfolding as it should.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Riding and Writing Life

I awoke Sunday, just as I did Saturday, knowing I would ride.  It’s a comfort, this riding, the will to ride.  It’s an old friend I return to.  I started the day with bike church and met another Triumph rider named Andrea.  And I met Julie, who plans to take an MSF course next month and is thinking of getting a Triumph.  Her smile and eyes danced with anticipation for the class.  She’s been wanting to learn for a long time.  She’s met lots of women who ride and thinks they are sexy and strong and cool.   Its seems to me that some of her yearning to ride is connected to her observations about those women.

When my mom talks about her career as a nurse what she says is that the work is what gave her a sense of herself as a strong, capable, intelligent woman.  I am in my sixteenth year as a nurse and what I know of myself so surely arises from that work that I can’t identify all the ways it has informed my sense of myself.

There was a time early in my nursing career when I would meet someone who asked me, “what do you do?” and I would answer, “I am a nurse.”  After a time I found myself too identified with the nurse role and started telling people “I work as a nurse,” when asked the same question.  This represented not only a change in language, but a shift in perspective that gave me more room to cultivate other aspects of myself.   Those parts that make me feel “sexy and strong and cool.”

Today I felt equally pulled to write and to ride.  I felt that if I rode, I’d shake loose some thoughts and free them up to write about them later.  So I climbed on the bike and headed south.  Last Fall, Dick took me out to his shooting club.  On the way there I found myself on a short stretch of curves that I thought’d be fun on the bike.  Today, as I passed 100th street off of M-37, I decided to turn toward the club to see if I could find that winding road again.  Within a few minutes I spotted my favorite road sign- the yellow sign with the curving black line on it- the one that signals twisty roads ahead.   I continued on, turning again and again, guided by instinct. 

Finally, sunburned and slightly tired, I headed back toward Grand Rapids to my favorite bookstore so I could write.  As a result of the ride, my thoughts had slowed down and words had risen up from within, asking to be heard.  This is how writing is for me.   Just as some of my best rides come from turning onto roads that seem to call out to me, rather than following familiar roads, so too, does the writing start with words that just fall onto the page without a clear idea of exactly where they are headed.  Sometimes I ride to get where I want to go and sometimes I ride to find where I need to be.  This is writing, too.  Sometimes I write to say what needs to get said and sometimes I write to find out where I am. 

I have written on and off for most of my life whether journaling, completing homework assignments or for work projects.  Still, there have been times when the idea of writing was more alive for me than the writing itself.  I would dream of a life that was filled only with the writing, where I was paid to write and loved the freedom the writing offered me.   It was at those times that I often was not writing, but rather dreaming of the writing life.  So the will to write was not always connected to the actual writing itself but what I thought about it, or what I thought it might mean for me.  I think Julie is there, too, thinking about riding and what it might mean for her.  

These days my writing is steady and I return to it often and consistently.  I’ve written my way into the writing life and it looks nothing like I thought it would when dreaming about it years ago.  This shouldn’t be surprising- I never imagined that those first tentative rides on the Dirt Squirt, would have lead to friendships, vacations and a wardrobe driven by a passion for motorcycling.

Today the writing and my life feel a little aimless.  There’s no sure path, there’s no direct line, no end point visible.  It’s hard to write this way, or rather hard to let the writing be just this, without trying to make more of it.  This too, is life.  Sometimes I don’t know where I’m headed.  I can’t see where the road leads, I’m just turning at each intersection, refueling when I need to and continuing on.  I think I’ll know when it’s time to stop.  I take stock now and again but I just keep pushing on, not sure of exactly what’s next for me.

This is the real work of writing and the real work of life, too.  It’s being willing to be lead by an inner compass, without the assurances of where it’s going.  I was dating someone once who told me how wonderful it is to be in a relationship with someone because you always know, “no matter what, you’ll always have each other.”  I didn’t agree then and I still don’t.  There is challenge in relating deeply with another- I’ve often found myself pushing against someone rather than aligned with them.  It isn’t always us against the world but rather one of us against the other, trying to find the best way and knocking each other over in the process.  And the kind of writing I’m talking about now is just like this.  I don’t know what the writing wants of me, I don’t know what direction it’s taking me in and I don’t know if I’ll like what it shows me once all the words are out on the page.

What I do have now, that I didn’t have ten, or even five years ago, is experience.  My women friends would call it wisdom, even.  It’s a trust in the process and in myself that I can do this, one word at a time, just like I take the riding one road at a time. 

Sunday, while following these twisting roads around through farmland, it felt like I had entered another world.  I’ve ridden alongside farms before but something was different that day.  I found myself riding past acres of farmland as far as my eyes could see.  Undulating fields, with neatly plowed furrows were dotted with white farmhouses and red weathered barns.  Beyond every turn was another field,  another farmhouse, another barn.  There was a familiarity to the scenes rolling out before me and yet it was new at the same time.  Even though I didn’t know where I was headed, I trusted the images, the scene, and the roads to get me where I needed to go.

A few times, I found myself with tears caught in my throat as I tried to make sense of all the feelings arising within.  I don’t know what’s caught there and I don’t know why.  I want to know both.  I hope I find out.  And soon.  But for now, I’m just going to keep writing until the tears dry and the way is clear.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Let's get out of this place

I’ve been saying for weeks now, “I just want to get out of here.  I just want to get on the bike and go.”  So last weekend I finally made it happen.   Sporadic plans encouraged me to venture close to home rather than head out of town all weekend.  While I’d been yearning for different scenery, far from the obligations of house and home, I decided to travel to nearby cities and find new roads and routes on the way.

I left work early on Friday and rode out to Muskegon with Patrick.  We shared a gourmet lunch at Mia and Grace while there.  All their fare is made from scratch from local farm-fresh ingredients whenever possible. To drink, I had a lavender vanilla soda which was a perfect accompaniment to the pear tartlet appetizer.  My main course was entirely home made from the all-beef hotdog to the mustard, ketchup and bun served with a side of fennel coleslaw.  I finished with key lime pie – the tangy tartness was the perfect end-note for the meal. 

We jumped on the expressway back towards Grand Rapids.  Although not my preferred way to travel on a bike, after so many weeks of cool, wet weather, I found I needed the jostling about that me and the Bonnie get when traveling over 70 miles an hour.  So I took the route home at 80, barely aware of the landscape around me, riding just to feel my hands gripping the bars, the wind knocking me around and pulling at my clothes.  We rode that way until we came to the Coopersville exit, until familiar roads could guide us home.  The swish and sway of the highway, along with the noise of the wind, had lulled me into a calm so that the view from the road could penetrate me.  We slipped through a village at 25 mph where houses hugged the road and the post office, small as a single stall garage, had room for only 2 cars out front.  Underneath the canopy of tree-lined streets we rode.  We passed houses with hanging plants and bundles of lilies for sale.  Before long, the houses came farther and farther apart and were set back further from the road.  Out past hedges and picket fences we rode toward farm country where the roads curl around and through the fields.  The road-side trees fell away and arms of lush green fields opened up to greet me.  My breathe came deeper with these fields before me.  The spaciousness of it seemed to move into me -it’s as though the sky swooped down into me and filled me up.  My spine lifted up and I felt myself pulled up into the air as though being picked up from above.  The ride seemed to clean me out, wake me up and at the same time, relax me.  We rode like this for some time, eased by the scenes passing by us.  As we approached town, little business cropped up- a gas station, an ice cream shop, a tailor - and stop signs turned into stoplights.  The asphalt hugged the tires and I felt weightier, settled.  That night I slept heavy and hard and dreamless.

Saturday I awakened quickly and wrote for some time before the sound of an incoming text grabbed my attention.  It was an invitation to ride - and within half an hour, I was off on the bike again.  We ate a quick breakfast and then headed out on some of my favorite roads- West River Drive to Cannonsburg to Honeycreek.  We rode down into Ada past the covered bridge and softball field under the railroad tracks and around the lake.  We passed neighborhoods and baseball diamonds and rode along the river.  Sometimes there is no one ahead of me on this route and I can take it about 10 over the posted speed-limit swaying and swerving through corners.  This morning I was put in check by vehicles up ahead, including a truck pulling a trailer-full of lawn equipment.  There was no getting around this group.  We took Thornapple River Drive through one small stretch of curves at a pace much too slow for me.  But I was patient - I had ridden this patch before with no one ahead or behind and I will do so again on another day.  Finally, the cars turned off and after one last light, we were off quick as the flick of a wrist, the road speeding past.  I took my friend down along the river through a residential neighborhood.  He was cautious and I was less so.  The road was familiar and I navigated the curves with a press and a lean on the bars.  We hit 84th and my friend was done with me.   I too, needed to ride alone.  I felt the pull to follow my own route without concern for his preferences, his manner of riding.  He headed off toward town and I turned in the opposite direction, free to explore on my own. 

A few years back I led a ride south of 84th Street, armed with maps and a GPS but Saturday I let myself be guided by memory.  I wound my way down through Middleville and out past the last of the familiar roads.  At the next T in the road, I did what I love to do most when riding out by myself.  I looked left and then right and I turned toward what felt most “right” as though guided by an inner compass.   I repeated this pattern until I came to M-43 and followed these signs on a lark.  Before long, I realized I was headed toward Kalamazoo and I decided to continue on to Lifecycle.  The ride took me through curves and past lakes.  Fields of green swept out and away – so far away, the green looked misty in the distance.  It made me feel as though I was in a dream.  This, yet another aspect of the ride that I love: the way the landscape takes on a dream-like quality.  I become part of the dream and with that shift in perspective, problems loosen their grip on me and recede into the background.   If I let myself ride long enough, this feeling always returns.  It is in fact, the reason I ride.  To get to the place where problems in life know their place and everything else, the truer and richer part of life comes alive again.

I continue on, these roads unknown.  There is something special about riding when I don’t know what’s around the next bend.  Each sweeping curve is a surprise and so is what’s beyond it.  Finally I came to M-43 and M-89 where the Blackhawk Bar and Grill sits.  Last Fall I went there with a group of friends during a Sunday afternoon ride.  I drove on past, reassured to have found something familiar.  I continued on and before long, I reached Lifecycle.  I looked over their gear for women- they have the largest of any of the motorcycle shops I frequent.  What really grabbed my attention though, was the seat I’ve been coveting.   It has vintage appeal – a flat topped, embroidered 2-seater -but was updated for the 2010 model year.  It has been carved out for comfort with a narrower front and firmer base.  It’s a much better fit for my body and at half the retail price, was a fit for my wallet, too.  While there I asked if the seat bolts had been upgraded yet; a design flaw, the bolts can only be reached with a long armed allen wrench - but not too long, for the taillight would catch it.  Triumph has manufactured the extenders I’d been hoping for so I picked those up, too.  Despite the rain, as I pulled out of the parking lot to head home, I was cheerful.  My purchases were for long-awaited finds and I was thrilled to have both. 

I took the expressway north until familiar roads beckoned me off it.  I don’t remember much about that part of the journey.  After a long day of riding, I had melted into the bike and my mind had left me.  I wasn’t thinking anymore, just riding.  I do remember passing one area in particular as if in slow motion.  Trees along the roadside parted to reveal a pond surrounded by trees.  The sky was deep gray and the lake was a metallic black, its surface pierced exquisitely by droplets of rain so that for a moment it seemed as though the rain was coming up from the lake rather than falling from above.  It was one of those moments that seem free from time – so much so that it is isolated in my mind.

That view, like so many views from the seat of a bike, was just what I needed that day.  Sometimes those moments come 10 minutes into a ride, and other times it takes all day.  In that moment, underneath the grey sheeted sky, rain falling all around me, I realized there really is no best time to ride.  If I were only a fair weather rider, I would have missed that view, missed that reminder.

Sunday morning started with biker church.  I said hello to familiar faces and started conversations with new ones.  A couple from England, regulars there, invited me to their annual season opener (riding season, that is) with a cook-out at their home in Holland.  I spent several hours that morning riding around again, this time into Yankee Springs and west out M-89 into Plainwell.  I stopped for an afternoon visit with Amy then headed off on the bike again toward Holland for the cook-out.  I met lots of new people - several from the Triumph rat club - and munched on some chili before the clouds and my weariness got my attention and asked me to head home.   I let chores go undone and gave myself what I needed most: a another ride to lose myself in.

While I didn’t get an out-of –state adventure (what I thought I really needed when I kept repeating to myself, “I need to get out of here!”) I did have a fabulous weekend of riding. It took more than a few miles but finally I abandoned the notions of what I thought the ride should be and where it should go and let the ride and the route arise spontaneously.  I put over 500 miles on the bike and found a new seat, more favorite roads and more life lessons.  Last week on the bike reminded me that there is beauty in all the routes, while with another or alone, on familiar roads or foreign, in fair weather or foul.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Be Watchful and Wary

The other day I was driving along and a group of deer leapt across the road in front of me.  Two charged on and one turned back around.  If the last one hadn’t averted its course, I may have run into it.  Another few miles and a squirrel skipped across the road, too.  I navigated around potholes and steered past the gravel lying in the corners.  I counted the blind driveways and intersections on my route.  All of this note taking, all of these near misses, happened on my last day with the rented truck.  I’d call it a stroke of luck that I wasn’t on the bike when all these obstacles showed themselves, but I don’t think of it that way.  Rather, I think it was one good test before the riding season actually began for me.  A sort of practice run before the fun starts, before my “danger detection” brain kicks in.

Riding a motorcycle has made me a better driver – I’m constantly scanning the path ahead of me for potential problems.  I’m a defensive driver now, alert to hazards, watchful of road conditions and the play of shadows on the street.   I’m also more mindful of other vehicles on the road.  That said, I’m more lax in a car, than on a bike.  I’ll eat breakfast on my way to work.  Make a quick phone call.  I’m not constantly wary while in the truck.  I think that last drive in the truck was meant to put me back into alert mode.  It worked. 

Now I can’t stop seeing all the hazards while driving around.  It’s those first rides of the season that really get my mind working again because I’m forced to remember all the riding tips that keep me safe.

It’s like picking up a golf club.  My dad and mom are both avid golfers so it was natural that dad would take me out in the front yard, armed with a pile of practice balls and a 5 iron and set me to swinging.  In the years since his death, I’ve picked up his clubs a handful of times to hit balls.  Each time out, it’s like I’m 12 years old again, listening to him tell me how to line up the ball.  Sometimes I can still feel him standing across from me on the driving range with a basket of balls on its side between us.  Every now and again, he’ll scoop up a few balls and push them my way, rattling the rusted yellow bucket with his club to shake them free.  There among divots and broken tees, we stare out at the flags marked with numbers- I pick the closest flag- 150 yards- and point my shoulder toward it like he tells me.   I balance my weight on both feet, line the ball up with the inside edge of my left heel and  intertwine my fingers on the club in a secure grip.  I straighten my arms, draw back slowly without breaking my wrist and swing down and through while keeping my eyes on the ball.  I have never acquired the love of golf my parents have, but I do love to hit balls.  It’s special time I have with my dad, listening to his instruction all over again.

Riding the motorcycle early in the season, is just like hitting balls. I hear all the rules for riding that are designed to keep me safe.   As I pass a large black object I can’t identify until it’s right underneath me, I hear a voice saying “look where you want to go” not at what you want to avoid.”  When going through a curve I catch myself scanning for gravel and I hear the same voice saying, “look up ahead through the curve.”  Sometimes the warnings come in other ways. I would have hit a brick last week had I been traveling in a different part of the lane.  That was a good reminder to keep a longer following distance behind cars so I have time to react to an object that suddenly appears from under a car as we’re driving along.

Last week I went over to Livonia with 10 other members of the RIDE club for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course.   A few of us rode over while others trailered our bikes.  I had a prime spot in the passenger seat of Ken’s truck.  I napped on the drive there and back.  After spending all day in class, I welcomed the comfortable seat for the ride home.  The course consisted of several hours of classroom time followed by skills practice on the range.  There were nearly 50 participants in the class and we divided up into four groups for range time.  This class was different from other MSF courses I’ve taken because we discussed various strategies for riding while in small groups.  It was more collaborative and interactive.  Another exercise had us look at slides of road signs and situations to see how much we could take in, in just a fraction of a second.  It was a lesson to find out how much I miss with just a quick glance.   On the range, we practiced some familiar skills such as cone weaving, swerving and quick stops before we progressed to turns and curves.  I like to begin the riding season by reviewing riding techniques and follow it with practicing maneuvers on a closed course.  It was fun to be on the bike alongside others who love riding, too. 

It’s still early in the riding season and I have lots of opportunities for riding this year.  Between RIDE, biker church and the Deal’s Gap crew from last Fall, I could be riding with someone every weekend if I want to.  I’m not sure how I’m gonna decide what to do but I should probably get the calendar out soon and mark down a few dates.  The last few weeks have prepared me well for a Summer of riding adventures.  I’ll be listening for all those voices telling me what to watch out for.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Summer Dreams

I got in another ride today.    Took the Bonnie out at nightfall for a little ride downtown.  It was too chilly for anything lengthy or fast without the heated gear.  I wasn’t the only one, either.  I passed one other rider and several other bikes parked along the city streets.  I know there will be a time when the heat of Summer is so strong it presses itself against me like a lover but right now that is just a memory- and a hope.  I’m trying to enjoy the days for what they are but the fact is that this time of year- the time between Winter and Spring is a difficult time of year.  The cool stagnant energy of Winter is not yet gone from the air, the ground, my body or my life.  I still find myself hibernating;  tucked away from friends with brooding foreign films and cheap crime novels for company. 

I long for the vibrant colors of Spring and pungent smells of soil.  Spring isn’t far off I know, for the tulips and hyacinths are pushing their way out of the earth in my yard, bearing promise of color and life.  In the backyard, while taking my kitchen scraps out to the compost pile, I found lily of the valley.  This plant has long wide leaves with slim green stalks bearing tiny white flowers shaped like inverted bells.  They have an intense floral fragrance that is shocking as it comes from such a quaint petite flower.

A few weeks back I attended a yoga workshop held in the Aquinas College student center.  It was a mid-week workshop and happened to be held on a day that was one of the warmest we’d had.  Despite the snow on the ground, people were out biking and running, walking dogs - enjoying the warm-weather offering.  The man conducting the work-shop is from Arizona and he was marveling at our proclamations of the warmth.  He said, “this is hope people!  There is snow on the ground and yet you see Spring!”  This is what avid motorcyclist do, too.  Temperatures hit 50 degrees and we squint our eyes to see ourselves mid-Summer riding winding roads amid Michigan farmland despite the layers we don to enjoy those first early rides of the year.

Those tiny white bells so fragrant in early Spring are like beacons to those of us yearning for the longer and warmer days.  Their scent breaks into the reverie of Winter by forecasting the bright blessings of Summer just like these early cycle rides are mere hints at the rides to come.

While riding along today I was surprised to find myself standing on my footpegs for potholes I remembered.  Next I swerved around a man-hole cover and took a turn wide due to the gravel in the road.  I was surprised because without quite realizing it, I had in fact been memorizing the road conditions over the past several months.  Once I recognized this, I realized I had already mentally mapped out the “line” I would take on my route to work.   This line has me avoiding all those fatal features that can be deadly on Spring rides when the potholes and gravel feel like an obstacle course for the motorcyclist.  Riding is so second nature: that I am “riding” even when in my car. 

A few weeks ago when I squeezed in a mid-day cruise over the weekend, I found myself enjoying cornering.  I forget how much I miss it until I get a taste of it again.  I love twisting my wrist on the throttle and feeling the bike pull me out of the corner tight and fast.  I like it so much that the last few weeks in the truck haven’t been quite the same.  I’m frustrated with the lack of power it has, with all the metal blocking my view, with how heavy and cumbersome it feels. 

I’m ready to give the truck back to its owner and get myself back on that bike for a good long while.  I promise I won’t complain about the wet days still ahead as Spring beckons or the cool weather that lingers;  I will be on my bike.  And I need my bike.  I need her more than I want to admit and more than I should.  She makes me feel young and strong and alive and free.  She makes my body feel agile and alert- like Summer does.  I walk a little taller and with a little more spring in my step because of her, the bike and the rides she takes me on.  She reminds me that Summer is coming and that Summer is more than a season.  It’s a feeling that eases into my body, my days and my way of being.  I’m looking forward to Summer, to the riding and to the feelings that await me.