“Few things you can do in life are as dirty, noisy, uncomfortable, expensive, exhausting, frightening, exhilarating, terrifying, and downright dangerous as driving a race car,” writes Ed McCabe in the book “Fifty Things to do When You Turn 50.” Exchange “race car” for “motorcycle” and you get the idea.
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I turned into the empty Walmart parking lot one chilly April morning and spotted my older sister, Liz, parked and waiting for me, a big smile planted on her face. Wearing a black leather jacket, black gloves and boots, a helmet, and sunglasses, she and I could’ve been twins that morning. She was sitting on her cycle, primed for practice.
“I ignored all the skeptics’ opinions…”
We had met to practice riding our motorcycles, having decided the previous winter that we should really do this thing and that it was going to be so worth it to learn how to ride.
Four months later, there we were in the parking lot, doing circle-eights and follow the leader, just like we had on our bicycles in grade school. We were having so much fun that we soon became bolder. We gunned our bikes up a small hill into another empty parking lot, just to see if we could do it.
After circling back to our starting point, I stopped and said, “This isn’t so hard!” Then I asked her, “What happens if you do this?” and took my hand off the left handlebar thingy. Not missing a beat, my bike dutifully responded by suddenly jerking forward, tipping me over. The cement was hard, I might add.
Now, a little more than a year later, my motorcycle has more than 2,000 miles on it. I have been coaxing myself to ride it as often as I can since that scary lesson in the parking lot. Even after taking a motorcycle class, which I miserably flunked the first time and had to take over, I was still freaked out by the thing. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s heavy—it weighs more than 500 pounds, I’m told.
When I bought my motorcycle, I didn’t tell anyone except my sister. Then the onslaught of questions poured in. I ignored all the skeptics’ opinions about how I was not (fill in the blank) enough, how I was too “this” or too “that” to be riding a motorcycle, and all the “What were you thinking!” exclamations. “How are you going to pay for it?” was a statement that came up frequently. Those comments echoed in my head as I stood in my freezing garage, staring at this gargantuan black and silver machine with fancy buttons and lights and levers sticking out of it that I knew nothing about.
What was I thinking, indeed?
What I was thinking was this: Look, I sit in a cubicle all day long, five days a week, and I’ve done that my entire adult life. That’s my job. I sit on the bus morning and night every day, and I sit at home to pay all my bills or watch TV. And so guess what—I’m tired of sitting still, OK?
When I am riding my motorcycle, every muscle in my body is engaged. Riding is 90 percent mental, they told us in class, but it is also incredibly physical, especially for an office gal like me. It’s loud, dirty, buggy, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and wet and icky when it’s raining.
But when I shift into third gear, I leave my chatty brain behind and forget all about my responsibilities, problems, and worries. I am so focused on keeping with the flow of traffic or avoiding the city’s legendary pot holes or dodging inattentive motorists that all my energy is channeled into what is ahead of me. Everything else recedes into the background.
When I was 13, I was in a serious accident on a minibike, so you would think that would have scared me off of bikes forever. Not so, yet a subtle fear still hovers over me on my morning commute or those times when I am cruising along at 55 mph. When I turn right (for some reason I have trouble turning right), I slow down too much and then worry I will tip the bike—in front of everybody, no less.
Driving through an intersection can also be a hair-raising experience, as it was last summer when I was riding in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Somehow I found myself in the crosshairs of an intersection with cars going every which way, and gosh, I wasn’t really sure whose turn it was to go, there were so many! So I did, and, uh, that was a close call.
People riding their bicycles are scary. Driving west through downtown Milwaukee last summer, maneuvering rush-hour traffic with the sun glaring just about perfectly in my face, I barely noticed a young man glide into my lane from the right side-street, and my heart leapt into my throat. I would’ve honked at him, but I couldn’t find the horn— which made me madder. (A horn on a motorcycle isn’t that obnoxious anyway, but I still would’ve honked if I could have.)
There are lots of things to be frightened about while learning to ride a machine that could drive itself up a tree if it wanted to. But fear is good because it makes you hyper alert and forces you to become present, to live in the moment. This is something that is often very difficult for me to do. It is so easy in this life to have regrets from the past, to worry relentlessly about your future and to forget that today is all that really matters. No, actually, this moment is all that really matters.
That’s what motorcycling has done for me. It has given me the gift of present-moment awareness. Seriously, for me it’s not about the “culture” or the “image” or the accessories, like the advertisers would lead you to believe. Oh, sure, I confess I want to look like that chick in the ad with the sunset reflected in her sunglasses, a cute guy next to her on his own bike. But that’s not reality.
Reality is forcing yourself to get up and go ride when it’s cold out because you told yourself you would. Reality is bugs hitting your face when you are flying along a country road at dusk. Reality is not drinking alcohol when you meet friends on the weekend because you’re “riding tonight.” Reality is that you could get really hurt if you hit an animal or slide on gravel and so you have to wear proper gear even when it’s 85 degrees outside. Reality is helmet hair.
I would like to tip my helmet to all the women who have chosen to learn how to ride a motorcycle, whatever their personal reasons for doing so. This incredible sport has taught me not only that it is possible to rewire one’s brain to learn a new skill at 50 years old, but also that I am capable of making it happen if I keep trying, even when others are doubtful.
As I went for a spring ride the other day, I actually turned right without even thinking about it. “Right on, Heidi,” I told myself.
Or should I say, ride on!
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