Last weekend, I found myself faced with the unhappy task of a 700-mile round trip to attend the memorial service for a friend who had lost her battle with cancer. Since I came to motorcycling during a period in my life that I largely associate with loss, I have continued to use two-wheeled travel as a means to work through and let go of the emotions associated with difficult times. So, naturally, I expected to ride up to the event, but when I informed Editor-in-Chief Duke of my plan, he reminded me of why he’s the boss (and I’m just a hired hand) by saying that it might penalize the FJR1300ES in our upcoming sport touring shootout if I put those miles on the Michelin Pilot Road 4 tires without prior experience of their longevity. I could handicap the FJR in its title defense against the other sport tourers on their fresh rubber.
I hate it when he’s right. Sigh…
Looking at the other bikes in my garage, a GSX-R750 and a 2003 R6, made me realize that my trip was going to be on four wheels instead of two. A younger me would have said, “Screw it,” and ridden up on one of the sporty bikes anyway. However, a realistic assessment of undertaking two 350 mile trips in one day and the desire to have my dress shirt not look like it had spent six hours in a duffel bag strapped to the pillion cemented my decision to drive.
While my wife’s couple-month’s-old Nissan Rogue is a fine vehicle for racking up the miles, I felt more than a little ping of sadness as I slipped into the seat at 3:30 AM. Yes, I did have a holder for my insulated cup of hand-brewed Batdorf & Bronson Dancing Goats Blend coffee fresh out of the AeroPress, but as I set the cruise control at 82 mph on I–5 N and took my first sip of the mood-lifting elixir, I knew it was going to take more than great coffee and Pandora to keep the drudgery interesting.
I didn’t always feel this way about cars. I don’t come from a motorcycling family, so they weren’t part of my childhood. Instead, it was Hot Wheels and, as a teen, car magazines. My first car was a 1976 Datzun 280Z – a car that still holds tremendous fascination for me. In fact, I was so associated with that car that my college friends spelled my first name with a z instead of an s. After 170,000 miles with the 280Z, I traded it in for a Toyota Supra. Yet, that love of automobiles changed the moment I bought my first motorcycle.
Although I’m fond of my Volvo wagon – I’ve shared tons of road trips to races with its cargo area full of photo gear and, in the case of World Superbike at Miller Motorsports Park, camping gear, too – it’s still just been a tool for hauling me, the kids and stuff for the past eleven years.
And that’s the crux of it. Cars are perfectly functional – massively convenient, even – but they do nothing for me. Cars are merely appliances that get me from one location to another. Driving, from my perspective, is about the destination or, maybe, the cargo. Riding is about the journey.
The immersion in the environment, all the little things – the air rushing past; the insect impacts on any exposed skin; the road sound of nearby cars’ tires; the throbbing of the engine in the seat, grips and pegs; the sudden drops in temperature when passing through low-lying areas of the pre-dawn air; the overwhelming stench of the cattle stockyards in California’s Central Valley – they locate me within my body. Motorcycles don’t blunt my senses but rather call on me to use them and, consequently, keep me in the present.
On my way back home to Los Angeles, I realized, through a happenstance glance, that the temperature had risen from 70 degrees at the beginning of my return trip to 98 degrees in the Central Valley, and I hadn’t even noticed. I began looking for what other environmental information I was missing, and it took a surprisingly long time to ascertain the wind direction – something I would have been intimately aware of on a bike.
In a car, I feel like an observer with the world projected on a big screen framed by the windshield. Pre-kids, when my wife owned a Miata, the sensory involvement of driving with the top down was a little more pronounced, but I never feel truly one with a machine unless I’m astride it. In a car, which way I shift my butt in the seat has no effect on its cornering. On a motorcycle, how I hold my body has a direct impact on how it handles, the subtleties of which I’ll probably still be learning after another 26 years of riding.
Perhaps, it’s because motorcycles need me as much as I need them. Without intervention from me, my motorcycle’s natural position is lying on its side. Without my motorcycle, my natural position would be reclining on my ass rather than upright, leaning into the wind, my appendages ready to interact with the world as it flies past my body. I’d rather not be locked in a box with my experiences filtered – even if the box is comfortable and safe and I can eat a burrito at speed. Give me the open air.
Yeah, I think I can live with that.