An intensive care unit (ICU) is a great place to think – there is so much time on your hands at all hours of the day and night, and you get to meet all these really nice people. The problem is you really can’t focus on much, the shadows dance against the wall and change. I blame it on the Dilaudid, or Plato, or life itself. Much of my waking hours early on were filled with a kaleidoscope of images from the past, in some cases the distant past: people, places, and bikes for the most part, and questions.
I was out for a ride one weekday morning back in the 70s, by myself, running out the backroads that weave parallel to the Potomac River on the way to Harper’s Ferry. No reason at all, just riding nowhere to ride. On the return, I stopped at a monument – it was still early morning somewhere between Antietam and Poolesville. There was one other person there at this out of the way obelisk, and he was riding a Harley-Davidson Sturgis – the bike was new at the time, first year. It was low, it was black with orange highlights, it screamed unfettered freedom. It looked unhurried, as though it moved at its own pace. It was, Then Came Bronson, it was, Captain America heading to New Orleans. That motorcycle captured my imagination.
I always remembered that Sturgis; that image, another solo rider just out killing time and miles, the moisture in the air and the open secondary roads. I was in that ICU for five days about two weeks ago now. I thought about where I might be going. I thought about how I got from there to here.
My conception of what constitutes a motorcycle has changed over time, in some cases dramatically. The environment changes, needs change, expectations change. I was, and almost universally am, wrong about any conclusion I draw at any given time concerning these matters. The only constant I can point to is change and usually a suspension of any semblance of, “common sense,” on my part. And that’s how it started…
I charted my progress through life by bikes, how they had changed over time, and how the times and I had changed as well. The streetbikes got bigger and faster, they covered distance more comfortably, and handled two-up duty without breaking a sweat. I developed a tank-bag fetish and soft-bag collection.
And then came racing… Be forewarned: If you have the requisite bees in your brain that require an environment where all hell is breaking loose at once with 10,000 variables in motion to fully concentrate on, and you simultaneously relax such that time slows down, racing may be your path to enlightenment. And poverty, and maybe the emergency room. It will become an obsession. Steve McQueen’s old quote about racing being life, everything before or after is just waiting, will become your mantra. You will crave sideways 1-minute boards, green flags, the rush for Turn 1, and the community in the paddock. It can, and will if you are predisposed, take over your life every time the visor goes down.
Some people race a few races and move on. Some start racing and never stop chasing a checkered flag at some level or another. I was hooked. Four decades of trophies later, I still am. My conception of bikes has changed. Love as I might some of them, race bikes at the end of the day are tools. If it has number plates on it, it’s a utilitarian device. If you pitch it down the track, it can be fixed. An endurance bike is community property, and money spent racing is not real money. It is the only place where I can find the peace that comes from that level of concentration. It will rearrange your life, your finances, a collarbone or two, and maybe a few ribs from time to time, maybe worse. And you will be compelled to do it; all else will be just waiting. But life keeps changing yet.
I met a nurse after I was transferred from the ICU and moved to a regular ward. She saw a bike magazine a friend had brought me. It was a thoughtful gift, but I simply couldn’t focus on it in my state. It did spark a discussion, though, with this nurse. She asked me what I thought of trikes. This can be a contentious issue – even fresh out of the ICU I knew that, and so I answered honestly but with consideration for the topic and who was asking. I told her I had met a lot of people who really enjoyed their trikes, particularly folks with a physical malady of some sort that had opted for trikes when two wheels were no longer an option.
Well it turns out she likes trikes, Harley-Davidsons to be specific, one wheel up front, two astern. Her husband had ridden all his life but had a work accident involving a transformer on a job site that ended up atop his leg. He could no longer ride on two wheels, but a trike worked just fine. It was really nice to talk to her about bikes, trikes, her husband and how much they enjoyed taking road trips on that Harley three-wheeler. The enthusiasm was there, on a ward of all places, me in a hospital gown and tubes running everywhere, and the two of us bench racing of all things. As strange a venue as I’d ever seen for talking about the Blue Ridge Parkway and three-wheeled bikes.
And she left and I had time to think again, and that was when it hit me – that Sturgis and that rider in Central Maryland that morning back in the ’70s.
What if one day life changes again? What if it’s changing now, like that nurse’s husband? What would I do? I don’t know, but I know that image of that Sturgis has been stuck in my head for decades unexplored, maybe for a reason. I’ve ridden my share of Harleys, but I’ve never actually slowed down, thrown concerns about cornering clearance and standing the bike on its nose, and countersteering like a judo throw out the window and just grabbed the wife and enjoyed the ride. What if we meandered and built some new memories in a completely new way?
I have a good buddy, Ray Chilson, and we raced together for years. Ray was one fast guy, and one summer he did something completely out of character – he bought a V-Max and he and his wife at the time would go cruising around the Lake Cayuga area up in Ithaca, New York. I’d ridden a couple V-Maxs before. Great engine – giggle like a cartoon mouse type of great engine – but the chassis was an afterthought. It was an absolute blast in a straight line and cornered like a Panamanian tanker.
What if I’d be trying to live somebody else’s dream, or like Ray, I’m just too set in my ways? I remember thinking when I was younger that hard bags were a sign of early dementia. Then I discovered how useful they were in all forms of weather, and particularly touring, and my thinking changed, or dementia was setting in, or both.
I guess we’ll see. That Sturgis sticks in my head, and I know one thing, the only constant is change. There’s more traffic today around here, there’s more cops, and maybe there is something to this stopping and smelling the roses deal. Maybe like hard bags it makes sense – it has just taken over half a century to really understand it. Maybe the ideal bike is the one that works for where you are at in this trip.
Ride safe, look where you want to go, check your tire pressures, and steer clear of the day-old gas-station egg-salad sandwiches.
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.
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