Who We Are

by

Jeff Hughes

 

Lorton road is easy, just a couple miles of gentle turns. Not having given much thought to what route I should take, I turn south when I get to the stop sign at rt. 1. Going north isn’t an option, as that would mean having to cross four lanes of busy traffic. I don’t know that I can do that.

Last night I spent a few minutes trying to ride on the grass out in my parent’s field in front of the house. But it was mostly dark by the time we got home from the dealership and I kept stalling on the hill. Fear of dropping the pristine new motorcycle soon prompted me to abort those efforts. It seems that riding – on grass, at least – isn’t quite as simple as I imagined it would be. It was an inauspicious beginning, to be sure.

This morning, though, the sun is shining brightly and I awakened with that catching-remembrance that something very special awaited me. One of those red letter days that you know you’ll never forget.

Now, tentatively easing out the clutch and feeding in throttle, the orange RD350 bucks, hesitating at the less-than-expert control inputs it’s receiving, but then settles as it picks up momentum.

Rt. 1 is straight and the biggest thing I have to deal with is the overwhelming sense of vulnerability that comes with being on the road with so much traffic. I’m amazed at how exposed I feel. But within a few minutes, as those first, maiden miles roll under my wheels, the sense of abject exposure begins to diminish. I slowly begin to relax and notice other things - the raspy sound of the 2-stroke engine, the rush of the landscape, and the coolness of the wind filtering through my denim jacket. A grin breaks across my face. Finally, I’m riding a motorcycle!

Cresting one of the small hills south of Woodbridge, I see the distinct form of another motorcycle heading towards me. I’m sufficiently wrapped up in my own piloting duties that I don’t pay him much attention. But suddenly, as we close on one another, he raises his left hand in a casual, offhand wave. The gesture comes as something of a surprise – I don’t know him from Adam, after all. But his acknowledgement strikes an instant, welcoming chord in me. I’m all too aware that I’m a rank newbie at all this, but that doesn’t seem to matter – simply being out here seems to be enough. It suddenly occurs to me that perfect strangers see me in a particular, different way, simply because I’m on a motorcycle.

“Wow, that is so cool”, I think to myself, as I wave in response.

 

One of the first things that becomes apparent to a new rider is that… we’re different; that this activity they’ve chosen is not exactly mainstream. That may come as a bit of a surprise to many – to the undiscerning eye the roads seem full of motorcycles, after all. But it is ineluctably true. Society presents us with a constant stream of reminders.

Much of it is warm and welcoming and inclusive. Like we’ve joined some sort of club. However long we stay in this sport, there will always be a community of like-minded souls ready to provide support, encouragement, and camaraderie.

But society as a whole still views us with a whole range of stereotypes. To them, we seem a little strange. They can’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily embrace a risk-laden sport like motorcycling, all in the name of recreation. And they find the streak of independence which prompts such a choice to be vaguely disquieting.

In days past that unease was expressed a bit more overtly than it is today. I still remember the high school acquaintance of mine whose mother refused to let me park my bike in front of her house. She was ok with me visiting, she just didn’t want that bike parked out there. I guess she was afraid the neighbors would think that her family was consorting with hoodlums.

Today it’s a bit more muted. Now we’re more likely to simply get the occasional long, subtly disapproving look and pursed lips from the wait staff when we walk into a restaurant with our helmet.

Or the quizzical look at work when we’re discussing plans for the weekend with our coworkers. Instead of a round of golf or an afternoon in front of the TV watching football, we happily announce that… we’re riding. Of course. What else would we do?

Worst of all, of course, is the extra attention we often receive from the law enforcement community. Police officers are already wired, by training and inclination, to focus on people who live outside of societal norms, so it’s probably no surprise that many of them instinctively see us as scofflaws, already guilty. (I’ll apologize in advance to the many fine police officers – many of them riders themselves – who don’t look at us that way. It’s just that a whole lot of them do).

Notwithstanding the negatives that occasionally attach to this sport, though, being a motorcyclist has been a grand, positive differentiator for most of us. In a world which is more and more homogenized, a world which is increasingly devoid of personal risk, choosing to ride is a clear and emphatic statement about who we are, what we value, and how we look at the world.

I know that for me, personally, riding has colored my life more than anything else I have ever done. My entire adult life has been defined by it. The people in my life are without question the most important thing in the world to me – being a husband, father, brother, son, or friend defines what I am. And my colleagues at work all know what I do, of course, how I relate to the work that they do – there’s a tag that comes with that, too. But being a motorcyclist defines who I am. Everyone I know looks at me through that prism.

No one understands that better than my wife, Ginny. Notwithstanding that she definitely got the short end of the stick – having a husband, like most of her friends’, who likes to putter around the house instead of continually heading off towards some distant horizon surely would have been easier for her – she knows that motorcycles and riding are an indelible part of who I am. They are etched into my soul.

A half-dozen years ago I pulled up to my house in my pickup truck after a not-so-great track day down at VIR. Hearing me drive up, Ginny walked out onto the deck. Seeing my sad, rueful face, she glanced back at the totaled carcass of my SV650 in the back of the pickup. Looking back at me she slowly shook her head and offered “you need to find a cheaper hobby”.

We both laughed. But we both also knew it was a joke – because it’s always been much more than a hobby to me. Indeed, she has long assumed that I’ll be out riding most weekends. On those odd occasions when I’m not, she’ll be the one to ask if something’s wrong. And if I’m in a grouchy mood she’ll be the first to suggest “why don’t you go for a ride?”

She knows me well.

I suspect that’s the way it is for most of us. Riding a motorcycle doesn’t call to everyone. It carries a level of risk which is anathema to most. And it demands a level of competence, a degree of engagement, which is unusual in today’s modern society. Like an old-time craft, the skills and the wisdom necessary to be successful at it don’t come quickly, but emerge only slowly, over time. Most people today simply don’t have the patience or the inclination to deal with that sort of thing.

But for those of us who do, to that tiny minority who are drawn to it, the rewards are immeasurable. For us, riding imbues life itself with color, tinges it with adventure. It connects us to a time when people weren’t perhaps quite so shy about how they lived. A time when everything wasn’t a careful, exacting calculus of risk and reward. A bolder time when a fear of getting hurt didn’t stand as an impenetrable shield to the simple enjoyment of life.

So, yeah, those of us who ride are definitely different. But it’s a good difference. We carry something that once was common, but now is rare. Something of the distilled essence of what got us all here.

We’re the last wolves, in a land of sheep.

 

© 2007 Jeff Hughes