In a couple months, I will cross over the mathematical point where I will have been a motorcyclist for more than half my life. When thinking about this in recent days, I realized that I have been riding motorcycles for a lower percentage of my life than most – if not all – of the motojournalists I know – even those who are almost a generation younger than me. Although I may have started motorcycling comparatively late in life, when I fell for it, I fell hard. Motorcycling changed my life in more ways than I could ever explain.
Without going in to all the maudlin details, 26 years ago this month, I found myself alone in a half-empty apartment a mere five months, five days after standing in front of all the friends and family that mattered and uttering the words “until death do us part.” To make matters even more dire, I was out of work because of a Director’s Guild strike that had essentially shut down the film industry in New York. So, there I sat, stewing in my own juices until one morning, as I walked to my local donut shop to buy a coffee, a motorcycle passed me on the street.
Over the next several days, I began to see motorcycles everywhere. Brooklyn, in January, had suddenly become a hotbed of motorcycling – or so it seemed. Because I’d endured a decade of forced reading of Anne Landers and Dear Abby columns about the dangers of motorcycles (after I’d shown a youthful interest in the machines on the cover of the Easy Rider soundtrack in my parents’ record collection), I took my budding fascination with motorcycles as a clear sign that I was suicidal. Nothing else could explain it.
So, I did what any avid reader, who didn’t yet know that he was going to be a writer and just so happened to have tons of time on his hands and absolutely no money, would do: I went to the library. The Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Library was within walking distance, so I spent my days there studying.
To those growing up in the internet age, it’s impossible to explain the feeling of walking into the main branch of a massive library system and knowing that all the information I was looking for was right there, waiting for me to access it. I spent hours and then days in the periodicals section loading microfiche after microfiche of motorcycle magazines, accident studies, motorcycle safety training information – anything I could find about motorcycling.
I learned how to translate the alphabet soup of motorcycle model names. I discovered that, despite the image of motorcyclists as outlaws openly mocking society’s norms or as reckless kids unaware of their own mortality, a good many thoughtful people rode – and wrote about – motorcycles. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps I wasn’t suicidal at all. Perhaps, I was on the cusp of a big, important change in my life – something possibly even life affirming.
I began to formulate a plan.
All my life, I’d read books about travel, a small contingent of which dealt with that most American of modes, the road trip: On the Road,Travels with Charlie, A Turn in the South, Blue Highways, to name a few. (I didn’t discover and obsess over Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance until much later.) I decided to buy a motorcycle, pack up my troubles, and see America, not stopping until I ran out of continent.
By late-summer, I was loading myself and 65 pounds of gear onto a shiny, new EX500 as I set out on a three-month 11,000-mile journey west. Somewhere, as I slept on couches, on creaky motel beds and on the ground in campsites, off fire roads, or at the end of trails that led to a ridge with a view, somewhere in the humid South surrounded by bug-song or in the arid West with vistas the expanse of which could never be measured on a human scale, somewhere as I rode in the rain or got speeding tickets or sat on the shoulder repairing crash damage with a hose clamp and baling wire, somewhere, at some point – and I can’t specifically say where – somewhere, the rebound relationship I was having with my motorcycle became a deep, life-changing love.
And through that love, I found the person I was meant to be.
Once I landed in the San Fernando Valley, I immersed myself in the California motorcycle culture. When I wasn’t working on movies that most people would never see, I rode my bike, churning through an endless series of tires as I set out to find every winding road in Southern California. Eventually, I stopped hanging out with my college friends getting loaded on Friday and Saturday nights because I wanted to be sharp for the next morning’s ride. Sundays, my riding buddies and I used to say, were sacred, and we spent the mornings on the Angeles Crest Highway before afternooning on the roads around the Rock Store.
When I decided to go to grad school to become a writer, I supported myself by teaching motorcycle safety, and it was through a fellow instructor that I learned of a job opening at a motorcycle magazine. Now, after 18 years scribbling about motorcycles, I often find myself considering how much better my life has been than the one I’d planned out and had derailed when I was 26.
On my first day working at Motorcycle Cruiser, my boss and mentor, Art Friedman, introduced me to the rest of the staff with the statement, “Another productive life ruined by the motorcycle industry.”
Over the years, I’ve come to a differing conclusion: Motorcycles didn’t just make my life; motorcycling saved my life.