On a summer night in Los Angeles around the year 1980, when I was approaching age 50, I found myself riding on the back of a motorcycle for the first time ever. The pavement raced beneath my feet, inches away. The lights along Venice Boulevard streaked in undulating waves of gold, silver and ruby.
My arms were wrapped around Russ, a leather-jacketed near-stranger who had offered me a ride home from a party. As we donned helmets preparing to leave, he said, “Okay, wait ’til I tell you before you get on. I need to balance us first. See that chrome tube, there? That’s the muffler. Very hot. Could burn. Keep your leg away from it. Don’t get off until I tell you. Okay to go?”
“Okay,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t mess up and dump us in the street.
An unexpected giddiness engulfed me from the moment we took off – the pavement liquid beneath me, the light show, the scent of leather directly in front of my nose. all this was accented by an aura of risk. Beyond the possibility of annihilation in an accident, I sensed an unknown future involving this man with his leathery smell and enticing possibility.
Soon we pulled into a restaurant-bar near Venice. “Care for a drink?” he asked. I felt that this would be no ordinary decision. What I said was somehow going to matter.
“Sounds good,” I said.
Not long after that night we were again on the bike with friends Vernon and Joyce on theirs, heading north on Interstate 5 to visit their friend Harry’s pig farm near Sacramento. I began to learn about being a bike passenger and about motorcycle life in general.
We were riding Hondas. This apparently put us into the fogy category of those who had no tattoos and whose bikes were considered hopelessly square in the world of Harley Davidson. Harley riders varied from bad boys to Harley snobs, both of whom felt themselves superior to the likes of us. Over time they proved to be a mostly cordial bunch. They seemed to pity us lesser creatures who couldn’t afford a really good ride.
I learned that some motorists actively hated motorcycles. As we headed north on this, our first long trip, Vernon suddenly yelled at Russ, “Look out! That car on the right is after you!” Immediately Russ shifted to the median left lane, the one you were never to drive on. A woman with set jaw and blazing eyes yanked her wheel to the left and jumped into the space we had just vacated. We didn’t belong on her private freeway, that much was obvious.
I found that motorcycle people often met each other with a friendly wave or two, recognizing that we shared an edge over those in stuffy, possibly smoky, automobiles. Those folks couldn’t enjoy the excitement and sensory joys of bike travel.
Those delights were an unexpected bonus for me. We moved through bands of cool air, warm air, through sweet scents of new-mown hay and flowering orchards. We could look up into a 180-degree sky with spectacular clouds, lovely sunsets and dramatic moon rise. We were very much a part of the passing scenes, solidly in the middle of them all.
Years later, a notable ride took us through Zion National Park, part of which is a narrow winding canyon between immense vertical cliffs. Our unobstructed view of these straight-up walls would never be possible in an automobile.
Once we entered a restaurant after many miles of driving next to fields being burned in readiness for planting. We noticed that people were staring at us, though trying to pretend that they weren’t. I found out why she made a quick trip to the restroom. In the mirror, I saw that I was thoroughly coated in black soot from those fires. No wonder people stared.
We roamed all over the west, and once drove from California to Michigan, camping along the way. We never tired of exploring new places.
Once, as we sped along a freeway in southern Idaho, I decided to fix us a snack of salami on crackers. Sitting in the passenger seat, I sliced away, handing some to Russ. Finally it dawned on me that this was incredibly stupid behavior. One bump could mean disaster.
We had become too casual, discounting the inherent risks of a tiny vehicle in a world of huge trucks and lumbering buses. We needed to pass trucks quickly because if a truck lost a retread, as they frequently do, the flying rubber could damage and even kill.
As we aged we began to realize that we were not invulnerable. One day, entering a parking lot, the front wheel hit the end of a thin piece of scrap lumber. It flew up and lodged in the front wheel between the spokes, jamming into the front forks. A dead stop sent us flying off the bike, hitting the pavement. I landed on my face and was instantly grateful for the wind shield that I had snapped to my helmet.
We limped into a drug store where kind people bandaged our scrapes. We had been going about four miles an hour. All I could think was that had we been going even 14 miles an hour, we would have had serious problems.
After that, we seemed to lose much of the carefree joy of the ride. Eventually we put the bike up for good, a surprisingly easy decision.
Now when I see couples enjoying their rides, I feel their excitement. Our biking years remain happily alive in memory, but I don’t miss flirting with disaster.
May these people never see a flying retread or a furious motorist. And may they never even think about slicing salami while riding in the passenger seat.