The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I'm a motorcyclist, have you seen me lately?

It’s been a while since my last posting. Sorry about that, Fearless Reader. I’ve either been markedly uncreative, or just working too hard. Or maybe both.

I'm on a plane, writing this. A short flight, from a lovely city in the Southwest, heading home to the Bay Area. I have some extra time to write on this leg, since an unfortunate airline employee, while loading luggage into the plane, apparently broke the handle on the luggage compartment, and condemned us to a couple of hours sitting on the tarmac while it got replaced. Many of the passengers got annoyed – one even swore at the flight attendants. My perspective? The flight attendant wasn’t involved, man. And if the handle was weak enough that the ramp rat could break it, can you imagine what the pressure change from sea level to 37,000 feet would have done? Me, I'm thanking the worker for doing their bicep curls, and saving me from something else. But I'm going to miss my doctor’s appointment, and have really bad traffic. Oh well.

But that’s a nice segue to what I want to talk about, for real. It’s not funny, today. Sorry.

Traffic is my topic today – or, rather, my method for avoiding it periodically when commuting to work.

I'm a motorcyclist – have you seen me lately?

Much of my life, I’ve been fascinated with motorcycles. They just shouldn’t work, and yet they do. They are the ultimate freedom. They are dangerous. They are alive. They are fear. They are sex and youth and anger and love. They are an opportunity to be nonconformist, and an opportunity to be annoying. They are … well, motorcycles.

Took a look down a westbound road/Right away I made my choice
Headed out to my big two wheeler/I was tired of my own voice
Took a bead on the northern plains/And just rolled that power on
--Bob Seger, Roll Me Away

I never rode a motorcycle when I was younger. I was afraid. My parents were clear with me – I couldn’t risk myself. I knew the jokes – “donorcycles”, “there are two kinds of motorcyclists – those that have gone down, and those that are about to go down” – and knew that only “bad people” ride bikes.

And I knew that I couldn’t get the image out of my mind.

And we rolled/We rolled clean out of sight
Rolled across the high plains/Clean into the mountains
Felt so good to me/Finally feeling free
--Bob Seger, op cit

A few years ago, I learned to ride a bike as a part of a mental health exercise – I always wanted to learn, why not do it? So I bought a little tiny Honda – small, light – and went to a Motorcycle Safety Foundation class to learn to ride safely. I rode around parking lots, back roads, and lots of orange cones. I wore safety gear. And read books. And watched videos. For hours. In the heat.

And loved every minute of it. It was all true. What I knew when I was young, is still true now that I'm … not young.

I'm hooked.

This summer, my partner and I rode down to a motorcycle rally in Hollister, on the July 4th holiday. This particular festival is pretty crowded, and full of bikes. It’s the only time I can remember riding down a freeway, and seeing lots of other bikes around me. It felt odd – like being part of a group, and yet not. I knew none of them, with their leathers and full face helmets, their tattoos and their women, riding within feet of me, yet miles apart. I don’t know what they do for a living. Are you those bad guys that “everyone knows”? Or are you like me – a RUB, on a bike, living vicariously?

You wave, and they wave back, but you don’t look at them – you have work to do. It’s not easy riding. It’s not like driving a car. You have to work for a living on a bike.

But, on the last leg to Hollister, you turn down the road that takes you through the fields and you get another un-car-like experience – the strawberries are growing, and blossoming, in the sun. They are bright red, almost picking season. And they smell. More than you can imagine. Not like seeing them from a window. It’s like you have just covered yourself in fresh strawberries. A whole different, immersive, experience. It’s like the smell of honeysuckle in bloom at the end of the summer – when it’s so hot, and sticky – in Arkansas. It’s not a smell, it’s an experience.

I'll never forget the smell of those strawberries. That feeling. The tiredness in my arms from the bike vibration, how my legs feel after clenching around the gas tank for a few hours. So different from the Mercedes I often drive – which is a wonderful machine, but oh-so-antiseptic. Protective. Safe. Isolating.

A bike, in contrast, puts you IN the world, not amongst it.

Those curves feel very different when your vehicle leans into them. Those bumps are MUCH bigger. The sun is brighter, and the air conditioning doesn’t work well...

And sometimes the cars around you don’t see you.

I'm a motorcyclist – have you seen me lately?

Sometimes, on Fridays, during the spring and summer, I'll ride my bike to work. It’s not small, nor is it a dark color – it’s big, bright purple, with grey smoke flames on it. It’s hard to miss, when you look for it. But I'm a lot smaller than that SUV.

I ride because it’s fun. And I ride because it’s faster.

In California, where I live, “lane splitting” is legal. It’s legal to ride a motorcycle down the lane divider, over those bumps, while the cars on either side of you are stopped in traffic. It may not be smart, but it’s legal.

I lane split Friday evenings, coming home, up the 680. There’s no carpool lane on that stretch of road, so there is complete gridlock. For a long way. (Knock, knock? Anybody from the DOT reading this? Hello?)

I don’t do it when traffic is going faster than about 40 mph. But at that speed, yes, I'm going to go between you. I probably won’t be flying through there – it’s a little scary – but I will be going faster than you are in your car.

And I'll be watching for your eyes. Because you may not see me. And you may decide to, say, feel that the lane next to you is going faster, and change lanes suddenly. Trust me, it isn’t going any faster. And WOW will my heart be going faster as I slam on the brakes to avoid you. On the other hand, my heart will be going slower – a lot slower – if I don’t avoid you after all.

You also can’t really see better if you cruise right on the line. You move over, thinking that you can see around the car in front of you. The problem? As you do that, the distance between the cars gets less. My bike doesn’t get any smaller. You get far enough over there, and there won’t be space for me to get through. Listen, I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you a couple of things. I promise there are more cars up there. And at some point, in the near future, there won’t be more cars up there. Until then? Please give me a little space to get by.

I'm not blaming you – my desire to ride a bike isn’t your problem. I’ve been in my car, and been surprised by a bike going by in between lanes. And I try to remember to watch my mirrors when traffic slows down. But sometimes I'm surprised.

If I'm the left hand lane, and a bike goes by, I move over into the median, just a bit – it’s nice to have some more room when you’re on a bike, lane splitting. Maybe you could think about the same thing when you see a bike coming up?

I'm a motorcyclist – have you seen me lately?