Saturday, May 13, 2006

From The Perfect Vehicle

By Melissa Holbrook Pierson

All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.

—Rudyard Kipling

There are only two kinds of bikers: those that have been down and those that are going to go down.

—Biker saying

At precisely this moment someone, somewhere, is getting ready to ride. The motorcycle stands in the cool, dark garage, its air expectant with gas and grease. The rider approaches from outside; the door opens with a whir and a bang. The light goes on. A flame, everlasting, seems to rise on a piece of chrome.

As the rider advances, leather sleeves are zipped down tight on the forearms, and the helmet briefly obliterates everything as it is pulled on, the chin strap buckled. This muffled weight with its own faint but permanent scent triggers recollection of the hours and days spent within it. Soft leather gloves with studded palms, insurance against the reflex of a falling body to put its hands out in midair, go on last.

The key is slipped into the ignition at the top of the steering head. Then the rider swings a leg over the seat and sits but keeps the weight on the balls of the feet. With a push from the thighs the rider rocks the bike forward once, again, picking up momentum until it starts to fall forward and down from the centerstand. At this moment the rider pulls a lever with the first finger of the right hand, and the brake pads close like a vise on the front wheel's iron rotor. At the almost instantaneous release of the brake, the bike rises slightly from the forks, which had telescoped under the heft. Now the 450 pounds of metal, fluid, and plastic rests in tenuous balance between the rider's legs; if it started to lean too much to one side, the weight that had lain low in a state of grace would suddenly assert itself in a manic bid to meet the concrete with a crash. Inherently unstable at a standstill, the bike is waiting for the human to help it become its true self. Out there running, it can seem as solid as stone.

The key turns; the idiot lights glow. The green is for neutral gear, the red for the battery, another red for oil pressure. The starter button on the right handlebar, pressed, begins a whirring below. A simultaneous twist of the right grip pulls the throttle cables and the engine bleats, then gulps, then roars. There is contained fire within inches of the rider's knees. As the plugs in the two cylinders, posed in a 90-degree V, take their inestimably quick turns in sparking a volatile cocktail of fuel and compressed oxygen, the expanding gases forcing back the pistons, the machine vibrates subtly from side to side.

A flip of the headlight switch on the handlebar throws the garage walls to either side into theatrical relief. (The rider knows to run through all the lights—turn signals, taillight, brake lights tripped by hand and foot—to make sure they work, but is sometimes guilty of neglecting this step.) The rider pulls in the left-hand lever, then presses down with the left foot. There's a solid chunk as first gear engages.

In the neat dance that accomplishes many operations on a motorcycle—one movement to countered by another fro, an equilibrium of give and take—the squeezed clutch lever is slowly let out while the other hand turns the throttle grip down. The bike moves out into a brighter world where the sun startles the rider's eyes for a moment and washes everything in a continual pour.

Out in the early-morning street there is little traffic, for which the rider sends up thanks: on a bike, cars are irksome, their slow-motion ways infuriating. Pulling out of the drive, the rider shifts into second, this time with the boot toe under the lever to push it up. The small jolt of increased speed from the rear wheel is experienced in the seat, just as in the elastic pause when a horse gathers strength in its haunches before springing into a canter from a trot.

To warm up the tires, the rider shifts so slightly in the seat it is hardly noticeable except to the bike, which dips left. Then quickly right again, then left, then right, until the machine is drawing a sinuous S down the road. They could dance like this all day, partnered closely and each anticipating the next step so surely it is not at all clear who is who.

As they reach the exurban limits and turn onto a narrow road that ascends among trees and infrequent stone houses set back in the shadows, other riders are accelerating up highway ramps; riding gingerly in first gear between two lanes of traffic jammed on a city bridge; hitting the dirt front-wheel-first after being launched from the top of a hillock in a field; trying to pass a motor home making its all-too-gradual way into a national park; feeling a charge move from stomach to chest as the bike straightens up from the deepest lean it's yet entered; following three friends also on bikes into the parking lot of a diner for coffee; slowing down, cursing, to the shoulder because the clutch cable broke.

Today, on the way to a particular, longed-for destination, while joy taken in the wheels' consuming revolutions conflates with the desire to arrive, the journey becomes one of combined anticipation of its end and pleasure in its duration. Riding is an occupation defined by duplicities.

Take the numbers: seven million who ride stacked against 225 million who don't. (To get an idea of the minority status this number confirms, consider the fact that some twenty million Americans call themselves dedicated birdwatchers.) Those who ride are both alone and held tight in the fold of the elect. They draw together for protective warmth and take strange relish in needing to do so at all. The glue between these relative few can be tenacious: a rider traveling through a small town, spotted by a rider who lives there, is—because of this simple fact—invited home and given food and advice. A rider stopped by the roadside, even for a cigarette, prompts another biker to stop and ask if help is needed. At the very least, barring the occasional internecine feud that can make motorcyclists embody a sort of nationalism on wheels, they wave as they pass one another. It's as if they all came from the same small burg where street greetings are as obligatory as wearing clothes.

The road, constantly turning, constantly offers up the possibility of something unexpected around the bend—gravel in a tumult across the road, a car drifting over the yellow line, a dog maddened by the din from the pipes. The rider processes data from the road and its environs with a certain detachment, translating them nearly as quickly into physical response: eat or be eaten. There is no room in the brain for idle thought (except on the highway, when idle thoughts appear and float and reconfigure in endless array), and a biker can go for miles and miles without waking up to any sudden realization, including the one that nothing at all has been thought for miles and miles. The faster you ride, the more closed the circuit becomes, deleting everything but this second and the next, which are hurriedly merging. Having no past to regret and no future to await, the rider feels free. Looked at from this tight world, the other one with its gore and stickiness seems well polished and contained at last.

This peculiar physiological effect, common to all high-concentration pursuits, may be why one finds among motorcyclists a large number of people who always feel as if there were a fire lit under them when they are sitting still. When they're out riding, the wind disperses the flame so they don't feel the terrible heat. The duration of the ride starts to be the only time they know happiness, so they go on longer and longer or for more and more rides, while their families become more and more unhappy. For a few, those who become racers, relief is to be had only at 160 mph down a straightaway. They simultaneously embrace and deny the risk, the worst outcome of which is confined to accidents, that which is outside the norm. But the norm stands for much less here than it does elsewhere, and the realm of accident is much larger. Instead of admitting to insanity to want to live in such a place, they imagine their way out of it: Well, if I fall, I'll land on the tires or hay bales or grass berm. Then I'll pick up the bike and if it's not too badly damaged I'll finish the race. That's what they're prepared to allow. Their once colorful leathers are scuffed gray and held together with duct tape.

Every rider of a motorcycle lives with a little of the same denial, which is after all healthy and spares us from living in a world made entirely of dread. It is also the price of admission to a day like this. If the rider wants, the throttle can be cracked open so suddenly the handlebars yank the arms, threatening to run away with that paltry creature on back now reduced to hanging on and enjoying the ride.

The roar left to ring under the trees as the machine passes is like the laser arc of red drawn by a taillight in a long-exposure photograph at night. It is the ghost remnant of how the bike cleaved the air, and what the rider felt as gravity battled flight against the rider's body. The curves play games with the rider, and the rider is lost in the concentration it takes to match wits with an impressive opponent. How fast to enter this turn? The fact that you can be sadly mistaken is what gives the right choice its sweet taste.

But the rider has never known a fear quite like the one when riding just ahead is the object of deep affection. Flying along in tandem, an invisible wire stretched between them to connect the distance through a moving world, the one looks to the other like an insect clinging to the frenzied body of its prey. The rider, behind, watches this transformed human and sees right through the leathers to the tender skin as it looked while sleep was upon it. In one flash the rider sees how laughably easy it would be for something to happen. It is that pernicious distance between them that does the trick: a few yards that is an unbridgeable gap. Perhaps it's all projection—that the rider, looking toward the other, at once feels how vulnerable the self truly is. But isn't that what love is anyway? In hoping for the other, you realize how much you hope for yourself?

When things conspire—the traffic is thick and wild, the sun is leaving moment by moment, rain slicks the surface of the road—the rider best understands what can otherwise remain hidden: that a motorcyclist is both the happy passenger on an amusement park ride and its earnest operator. The rider splits into two, navigating between vacation and dire responsibility.

As the road leaves home farther and farther behind, it makes its own friendly advances to keep the rider happy: See, this is where you stopped your bike once and ate an apple from the tank bag and took off your boots to feel the damp grass beneath your socks; this is the place your beloved bought you a handful of fireballs when you stopped for gas. And there is always the chance that the unexpected around the bend may turn out not to be a danger to avoid, but a sight or smell that appears suddenly like a check in the mail.

Now, with a hundred miles on the clock, the going has taken on a life of its own. The rider has nearly forgotten what it means to sit anywhere but on this seat; the eyes are swinging back and forth in unchanging rhythm like sonar. Brake; slow; lean; heat up. Brake; slow; lean; heat up. Again and again until it's a rocking chair, a hundred freestyle laps, a hand absently stroking the skin.

The road's painted line, a vanishing point in reverse, is eaten up under the wheels, like a video game where the landscape flashes past while the vehicle stays put. The wind is a steady reassurance on the chest. The rider now becomes susceptible to white-line fever, which feels not so much like a need to continue on forever but as if all options for anything else have been removed. It is simple: the power to go, the power to stop, are as reduced as a metaphor and made to fit in one small hand. The rider, naturally, fears this state. And, keen on the perversity that always hides deep in pleasure, the rider, who is me, wants nothing more.

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