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.