As with any esoteric interest, when you actively pursue the delights of motorcycling you find yourself developing a new cadre of social contacts. It’s an experience much like the one I enjoyed as a sailboat skipper in my decade afloat. Riding into the parking area at a motorcycle rally stirs fond memories of sailing into already populated anchorages on summer evenings. It carries with it the certainty that you’ll soon be eyebrow-deep in the close company of fellow enthusiasts, men and women of courage and curiosity, people of every age and status, and of every imaginable moral persuasion.
The same is true of other gathering places for serious devotees of cycling or sailing … or flying or skiing or hot air ballooning. The eager faces I encounter at big commercial motorcycle shows wear the same engrossed–often mesmerized–expressions I saw in my years of attending sailboat shows all along the east coast. And the glint-eyed people behind those faces are just as quick to defend their opinions or conclusions on any technical or philosophical aspect of bikes or of boats. In biker bars the conversations are as focused, contentious, and frivolous as they are at any dockside watering hole.
There’s always an undercurrent of competition in these first meetings, and it often persists for the lifetime of the relationship. Motorcyclists tend to develop strong commitments on a broad range of topics and values associated with riding. It is remarkably easy to elicit those assessments even when you’re not trying to. Not the least of these is the heartfelt proclamation of the absolute perfection of each rider’s chosen machine. But an equally effusive endorsement is readily on tap for his or her choice of gasoline, engine oil, tires, exhaust systems, on-board electronics (especially GPS models), headlight and taillight configurations, replacement seats, boots, jackets, pants, helmets, and concealed firearms.
REALITY SETS IN
All right… let me confess… at this point subjective values and judgements take over. This is a blog, after all. And that means it’s my intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and political pulpit. It is not my purpose to offend or alienate anyone in these pages, but this one has the highest potential for doing so. I discovered as a sailor and confirmed as a biker that I am not a herding sort of animal. I do truly like other people, and I enjoy being with them… in limited, controlled circumstances. What I can’t abide is full time, long term congestion. Maybe it’s a lingering prejudice from my long, navy years of cramped shipboard living alternating with life in a crowded barracks. Anyway, I find that, no matter what the social setting, I need regular and generous doses of private time.
On the road, when you’re sharing a route and a routine with a herd of motorcyclists, there’s a close–almost incessant–connection among its members. You carve out a tiny piece of the limited road space, you breathe one another’s exhaust fumes, and you’re compelled to make continuous allowances for an endless variation of other styles… of riding and of living. Curiously, when I spent long periods among other sailors, I found I was more tolerant in this area. But then, when you sail in company with other boats, you still enjoy the benefits of being widely separated in the open, fresh air on the unlimited track of the sea, and you’re little bothered by constant interaction… until the next anchorage is reached and happy hour begins.
But there’s more to my disinclination toward large riding groups and my greater tolerance for communal life afloat. And that difference was revealed to me some decades ago by an Australian sailor. I met Ian while living aboard my boat in Annapolis, Maryland. Sigmet, my 37-foot ocean-going cutter, was comfortably tied up in a rented, dockside berth on Back Creek. Ian, on an around-the-world sail, was a temporary tenant, hanging on his anchor, out in the middle of the creek. He would stop by my berth on his way to and from his boat (rowing in and out in his dinghy each day). Most mornings we would have time only for a quick “hello.” But evenings, when he was wending his way home from his (illegal) job in the adjacent boatyard, he would step aboard and share a toddy as we watched the sun go down. In this fashion over a period of weeks, as he banked his earning to finance his onward voyage, we became what I thought of as “friends.”
Now, you can apply this lesson to sailors or to bikers. I apply it to both. One evening, when Ian had brought aboard a luscious bottle of Cabernet and the conversation had mellowed to near melancholy, I asked him why we sailors became such close and trusted compatriots on such short acquaintance. And he had a logical and unarguable answer. “Paul,” he said, “I think it’s just this way. As sailors, our courses cross in anchorages along the backwaters of the world. We meet, we chat, we drink, we assist one another along to the next leg of our voyages.” (And he was right: we had swapped books and charts and local knowledge of his onward trek. I had helped him remove and rebuild a generator on his antique schooner.) “But, mate,” he continued, “you don’t really know me, and I don’t know you. We’re chums with a common calling, and I’ll be gone before you learn what an asshole I really am.”
The problem is this: for the most part, bikers don’t move on. They’re not from Australia or Chechnya or Norway; they’re from your own town or the one next door. And it doesn’t take you long to learn who and what they really are. And I’m sure they leap enthusiastically to similar unflattering assessments of me. I have yet to participate in a group ride, a gathering of bike enthusiasts to visit interesting places, in which I didn’t end the day with a vow never again to participate in such a chaotic and distracting endeavor. But, as I said, I’m not a herding sort of animal.
FINDING A COMFORT ZONE
So… to date I’ve been through two serious attempts toward fraternal biking, two separate months-long efforts to commune with my fellows. And both of them have failed. I’ve ridden my bike(s) with dozens of other enthusiasts over hundreds of miles, and I’m inclined toward two separate and insuperable observations. 1.) The rides are excruciating experiences. You can’t watch the road or the scenery because you’re too busy watching the bikes around you, to assure that you don’t crash into one of them. And 2.) When you get where you’re going, you have about as much in common with many of these people as you do with Sasquatch.
You have probably deduced from my descriptions of riding with my wife that I find Delcia to be a like-minded and enjoyable road companion. There are some other names I can add to that list, friends with whom I have shared–and will continue to share–almost blissful days and weekends discovering new highways. They know who they are, and so do the others, the ones who ultimately fell victim to Ian’s infallible forecast. My range of comfort has settled at two to three companions to share the challenges of traffic and terrain… a total of five bikes at most. Delcia’s limit appears to be three or four. Beyond that, we find ourselves enduring rather than enjoying the passing miles.
When I finally took up the newbie challenge of riding the length of The Tail of the Dragon (“318 curves in 11 miles”) through the mountains of Tennessee, I did so with three new acquaintances I had met just that day at a rally in Pigeon Forge. The trio often rode together, and they shared my desire to separate from the rest of the rally and the potential demolition derby that could easily lie ahead. They overcame their original reluctance to my joining them (they actually put it to a vote), and our four-bike group was just big enough for sharing the thrill and the achievement but small enough to avoid being caught up in the pandemonium that can ensue when twenty or thirty riders bunch up through the curves and the testosterone levels get out of hand. Each of us knew that the other three had skipped the beers that could have made lunch more enjoyable but would have rendered the Dragon more dangerous, and we had no ambitions to show what speed demons we could be.
Make no mistake. For all my hermit-like riding preferences, I hold a deep and abiding respect and appreciation for the larger, universal concept of motorcyclists as a community. I have seen or read about scores of instances in which bikers go out of their way to render aid and assistance to total strangers, simply because those strangers, too, are bikers. My own experiences with this sort of camaraderie and support are recounted on other pages in this blog (most notably at Saviors from the Chaos). But the biker family is no better or worse than any other, and just as your brother or sister would move heaven and earth to help you, aren’t you glad you don’t have to live with them? So it is with my cycle-siblings: I feel a true and secure affection for them as family members, but just as with my blood relations, the limited and controlled circumstances prescribed above are what keep the fondness flowing.
Now, I’ll surely get some hate mail over this entry. I have known and liked many a rider whom I could see was thoroughly enamored of the herd-on-the-highway concept. And some readers of that mind will want to call me out on my antisocial attitude. But before they write that message, they should know that just as many readers are likely to admit their own appreciation for my sentiments. Among all of us our only major differences on this topic are in the simple matter of degree– how much close order drill is enough to satisfy the herd instinct? And when is enough simply too much?
In the final analysis, of course, we have to recall the aptness of the very title of this blog. It does contain the rantings of a late-life biker, a man come to motorcycling long after he was set in his ways, both personally and socially. It’s likely that my independent streak would be far less pronounced if I had spent two or three decades riding with large groups over long distances. But I recently described my thesis for this page to a new acquaintance. He has ridden motorcycles for nearly fifty years, though he’s still younger than I am. We have never ridden together, he and I, yet he confessed that on his last large, group ride, he just dropped out of the formation. He wanted a little personal space, a little less community and a little more comfort. I’m glad he shared that bit of supportive, personal insight. Now I don’t feel so guilty or quite so much like one of those people Ian proclaimed us all to be… once you get to know us.