[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
I bought a motorcycle in July. I just needed to feel alive, I guess. My more typical methods weren't cutting it anymore. Running, drinking, writing, climbing mountains, having sex, traveling, performing. All of it was either unavailable, stale, or bordering on unhealthy. Amid quarantine, I fished for new hobbies that would not be impacted by said quarantine. I tried painting, but painting requires a certain patience and slowness that entirely bummed me out. Besides, between writing and quarantine paralysis, I was feeling creatively tapped. I bought a nice camera and slowly figured out the bells and whistles, but still, my itch was not scratched. I decided I ought to learn something new, so downloaded Duolingo with the intention of learning Spanish. That soon grew redundant and stale as well. I was running into proverbial roadblock after roadblock when I decided to sign up for a motorcycle riding course.
Prior to July, I had only ever been on the back of a motorcycle, usually with dudes trying to impress me on dates. Now that I ride a motorcycle, I see them everywhere. I notice each machine, and the person riding it, and I'm here to tell you that I've seen thousands of dudes with a girl on the back but I've never seen, or noticed, the opposite. I've also seen far fewer females than males, which is neither here nor there. Here in Orange County, there is a significant population of old, beer-bellied, grey-haired men who ride, sometimes together, sometimes alone, usually on a very loud, very souped-up Harley Davidson.
I've ridden with another person two separate times. Both were "dates" that essentially consisted of us sitting on our separate machines at red lights and nodding to each other through helmets. I didn't especially enjoy these dates. One of them ended on a particularly weird note when the guy kept telling me things about my bike that I already know: that it's carbureted, that the chain is an O-ring chain, that I need to check the oil every 5,000 miles if it's semi-synthetic (did I know the difference between semi and fully synthetic?), and that I should really think about getting it painted.
That last part annoyed me a bit. My bike is what people colloquially call a "beater." It's a 2003 Kawasaki ZS-7R, with a 750cc motor and 34,000 miles. I bought it with cash from a guy on Craigslist who took care of it so well that when I took it to a mechanic for a tune up, nearly nothing was wrong. After the man-splaining date, I signed up for a comprehensive motorcycle maintenance class with the duel intention of saving money on maintenance and being armored with more knowledge than any dude who cared to question me about it.
Then, I started reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig at the recommendation of yet another man, who happened to be spot on with his suggestion. Pirsig was a teacher and philosopher, who although much more intelligent than I'll ever be, suffered from the same inability to ever stop thinking. That may be what I like most about riding my motorcycle. At first, when it was new, I had to think only about what I was doing. Brake, clutch, shift, shift. The mechanisms of riding soon became easier, and riding took on a new life. Concentrating on one's immediate surroundings so intensely has the effect of helping one focus. And in focusing, the noise of the world dies down and falls away.
When I ride, I am allowed to be utterly alone with my thoughts. What a delicious experience. Hitherto, I only experienced this when running, but running is far slower, more physical, and less thrilling when you've done it as long as I have. When I ride, I also experience the joy of travel with immediacy. The ground is close. There is not a compartment surrounding me to ensure my safety. It feels free and daring and calming all at once, if you can imagine such a sensation.
When I was young, I never thought about motorcycles. I certainly never thought I would ride one. Here in California, I can ride year-round. The upfront cost was relatively low, and the joy a motorcycle provides is curiously childlike. It's like I'm a kid learning to ride a bicycle only now I have a motor. I can ride it to work, up and down PCH, through canyons, and across the desert. Perhaps the most tantalizing piece of all is the severe solitude. No one to call me with problems, or to add more work to my plate. There is no screen to worry about or be consumed by, which, during this pandemic, is more valuable than I originally anticipated. Best of all, I started learning to ride with a great deal of apprehension and fear, if only because it was new. And doing something despite fear is a win in my book.
You probably don't need to buy a motorcycle to experience this. You can do something that scares you any day, anytime. There is no one stopping you but yourself.
One of my favorite quotes (so far) from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is "“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”
What I glean from this quote, and from riding a motorcycle generally, is that our minds are incredibly powerful. You can say to yourself, "this is hard, but I can learn this," and you're probably right. You can get caught up in buying the best motorcycle, with a loud exhaust system and all the bells and whistles, but if all you care about is how you look while riding, you're entirely missing the point. This is also true with life. If you are disturbed, unhappy, sick, or stuck, you're doing something wrong. And you will continue to be disturbed, unhappy, sick, or stuck until you change something that you're doing, or some way that you are thinking. There isn't any other test.