A Calmness Inside

by

Jeff Hughes

 

Two hours and 125 miles from home, with the midmorning sun hanging brightly aft of my left shoulder, and I’m in my favorite place – deep in the mountains. It’s been a glorious start to what I can already tell will be a special day. Terrific weather – slightly cool when I left at daybreak, but now warming nicely. Mostly, it’s the roads. Fine, curvy roads. I have them nearly to myself.

I mark where I am by the cut in the trees and the small rockslide on the mountain opposite, across the western side of the divide. Passing it, I glance down at my odometer, noting its number. Two more miles. At elevated speeds the turnoff comes swiftly. I’ve blown past it more than once.

I’m on cue this time, though, backing out of the throttle as the tenths on my odometer click down. Mark. And there it is, the gray shape of the tarmac appearing suddenly on my left.

Wheeling down it, second gear, and the bike pulls smoothly around the first right-hander. Then there’s a little slalom, a tease, and there’s the stop sign.

Visibility is poor in both directions. The T-intersection sits square atop the very crest of the mountain, with a quick drop-off in both directions. I’ve always liked it here. The airy peculiarity of the intersection prompts the feeling of being suspended in space. That, and knowing it’s the start of a really good run.

Turning east, I accelerate quickly into second, just enough to obviate the risk attendant to the blind crest. But then I relax, enjoying the anticipation of what is coming. The road meanders slowly down the flank of the mountain for the first half mile. A lazy, lolling, prelude. Then it sharpens suddenly, curling hard right, as it breaks into a series of high-speed sweepers that sluice down the mountain. That first right-hander has good camber and its g-forces trigger in me the heightened sensory acuity that always accompanies an aggressive run. It puts me into that edgy place – the nexus of joy and chance and consequence – that I’ve always been drawn to.

Eight miles later, down on the valley floor, and we’re done. The ebullient feeling that defined my run down the mountain quickly abates, leaving behind the quiet satisfaction of a road run well. Turning now north, the local road is interesting and fun, but lacks that sense of expectation that a truly serious stretch of road possesses. I’m actually glad of it. It gives me the chance to relax for a few minutes, like a boxer between rounds, and think about the road a few miles ahead.

The pause also gives me a chance to reflect on how our riding tends to vary a bit over the course of a long day. Usually not a lot. But over many hours our sharpness will fluctuate enough to be noticeable.

I’ve been happy so far today. I’ve felt good, with lines crisp and certain. An in-the-zone day.

Fifteen miles further on I come to the stop sign. I haven’t been here in over a year but the lightning-blasted pine tree still stands awkwardly askew across the road. It’s funny, the little things we notice sometimes.

I hold at the intersection for a moment, enjoying the odd mix of emotions I’m feeling – a calm confidence, yet tempered with the realization that the next nine miles will challenge me well beyond anything I normally experience. This is a road that, at speed, is forbiddingly technical. And its rock faces and sharp drop-offs pose a sobering consequence to getting it wrong. My heart hammers an anxious beat in anticipation. I could back it down to cruise mode, of course – that would be the prudent thing to do. But that’s never been in the plan.

Finally, nudging the shift lever down into first, I turn left down the road, westward. Back into the mountains.

Within a hundred feet the butterflies, and all those extraneous thoughts, are gone. My mind moves into that place where everything is gone save an intense focus on the road itself.

Since this is an ascent, I have the benefit of climbing elevation. I use that to advantage, leveraging gravity to help in modulating my entrance speeds. Tugging on the bar here, pushing on the tank there, I’m only distantly aware of the bike beneath me.

A mile rolls by. Then another. I’m lost in that exuberance, that special magic, that comes with piloting a motorcycle at speed.

Halfway up there’s a kink that leads into a blind right-hander. Downshifting into second, the motor settles as I roll hard into the turn. Because of my inability to see through the corner – and the risk of what might be coming the other way – I’ve adjusted my line well to the right. Right where the 12-inch chunk of granite lies, having fallen from the cliff above, as it turns out.

No problem. A quick nudge on the bar shifts my line towards the center, enough to miss it. But even as I do the world on the other side of the turn is opening up to me. I see the fractured rubble of the rest of the rock slide only an instant before I’m in its midst. The rear-end breaks hard left. And that’s when I see the car.

The wry thought that flashes through my mind in response to the unexpected flood of sensory inputs, is that my day has suddenly gotten very interesting.

 

 

Wyatt Earp, the famous western lawman and gunfighter, once was asked how he had managed to survive so many deadly confrontations. Earp replied that “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. Shooting at a man who is returning the compliment means going into action with the greatest speed at which a man’s muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry”.

It’s hard to imagine a more stressful situation than having a man a few feet away raising a gun and blazing away at you. The urge to fire one’s own weapon as fast as possible must be overwhelming. That first-to-clear-leather scenario is certainly the one played out in countless western stories, songs, and, and movies. And yet Earp’s point was that speed is only as good as one’s ability to use it in a controlled fashion. Earp insisted that the very best gunfighters were fast only up to a point. The key quality which most distinguished them from those that fell before them was a studied deliberateness. They were far less concerned with getting off the first shot, than with getting off the first shot that counted.

Unflustered, indeed.

Motorcycling, like other risk activities, carries with it the need to occasionally respond to extreme stress levels. Unfortunately, our natural responses to those occasions are often exactly counter to what we would wish. Keith Code pointed out years ago in his “Twist of the Wrist” books how, when confronted with an unexpected situation, our native, instinctive motorcycling responses typically make things worse, not better. We grab the brakes when that’s the very last thing we should do. We punch inputs into the bars which unsettle the chassis or which steer us in exactly the wrong direction. And sometimes we simply freeze, quietly riding into oblivion. The unfortunate reality is that we tend to respond to panic with scripted, wired-in reactions which are rarely helpful on a motorcycle.

And so the key is to never allow panic to emerge in the first place. We must work to engender that inner calm that those gunfighters of old had. To foster the equanimity that gives us the chance to work through whatever mess it is that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

That calm comes from one place… confidence. From having experienced – and survived – a multitude of could-have-been-bad situations. The first time a new street rider feels his bike break traction is terrifying. By about the tenth time it happens to him he begins to realize that that kind of situation is not the inevitable prelude to a crash that he once imagined it must be. And by the time it happens to him the hundredth time he recognizes that - though certainly not desirable - a loose bike is in most cases a very manageable event.

And so time and miles – simple seat time – will eventually give us most of what we need to get to that place of inner calm. If you’re a new rider – have patience. It will come. If you want to accelerate the process, get to a racetrack and do a bunch of track days, or do a little club racing.

After that, it’s just a matter of believing in yourself, having faith that no matter what situation the world throws at you, you can handle it.

My little escapade back on the mountain? It turned out ok. I stayed on the throttle, my rear-end hooked back up, and I was able to steer to the right of the oncoming car, missing it by half a foot.

Just like I knew would happen.

 

© 2008 Jeff Hughes