I have always loved motorcycles. When I was a small child, my parents were friends with a young couple who wore black leather jackets with white fringe. They let me straddle their motorcycle and I would dream of speeding down the highway with the wind in my face. As a teenager, I watched episodes of Then Came Bronson on television and envied the main character’s sense of freedom and adventure. The idea of motoring across the country with no set agenda sounded to me a bit like Heaven. In college I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Robert Pirsig convinced me that a romantic life of riding unprotected from the elements was the way to find oneself and become one with the universe.
Then, the summer after I graduated from college, my brother Scott and I went on a motorcycle trip to Canada. The first day was spectacular, with clear skies and bright sunlight. I still remember how the farms in the Cherry Valley section of New York looked like patchwork quilts and how the golden sun warmed my back through my leather jacket. We traveled into Ontario and slowly drove along Niagara Falls, where the mist gathered on my helmet’s face shield and shivered the back of my neck. As the week progressed the weather became cloudy and finally, on the way home, it poured a chilling rain that soaked through our jeans and leather jackets and left us shaking with cold and yearning for hot showers and our mother’s homemade soup.
I had not been on a motorcycle since that summer until last week, when my younger brother Kevin and I took his Harley Davidson through the White Mountain National Forest. I met him early on a cold Tuesday morning and borrowing my sister-in-law’s leather jacket and helmet, climbed on the back of his bike. Kevin is a big man – 6’5” and a fire fighter. He is calm and methodical and I trust him intrinsically. But as he opened the throttle and I watched the stripes on the pavement blur, it occurred to me that this adventure might be a bit dangerous.
This had never happened before. When I was younger I never considered the fact that I always wear a seatbelt in my car, but there is virtually nothing between the pavement and a motorcycle rider. I had never wondered if while leaning into the curves, we might tip too far and catapult to the hereafter. Before, I could stand on the foot pegs, hands lightly on my brother’s shoulder, while we screamed down a highway at 75 miles an hour. Now, I tucked my head down to stay out of the wind, and felt my shoulders tighten against the cold. “Good grief,” I thought. “I’m getting old!”
It doesn’t take many nudges like that to get my dander up. Although I accept aging, I do not embrace it, and I do not like reminders that the years are advancing. I certainly do not like to catch myself thinking like someone who has become settled and safe. I looked up at the trees rushing by us. They are painted the colors of autumn now- gold, russet, crimson. I deeply inhaled, taking in the scent of falling leaves and spicy pine needles. Above us hung a low lying blanket of gray and white cotton batten, which at rare moments would split open to reveal azure sky and spill warmth like melted butter. I relaxed my shoulders and closed my eyes, feeling the wind on my face. I remember this feeling. This is the feeling of freedom. This is the feeling of trust. This is the feeling of relinquishing control, of releasing to the fates.
I spent the rest of the day drinking from this cup of freedom. The mountains were dark and silent, their gentle contours like the folds of a blanket. The foliage glowed in muted pigments. We took a short hike to Sabbaday Falls and when I teetered on the edge of a wet rock, Kevin held out his hand to steady me. My mind flashed to days when I held his mittened hands as he learned to skate on Number 1 Pond. “Moments like this,” I thought, “are treasures, to be savored and kept in our hearts for eternity.”
Neither of us is young anymore. It takes us a little longer to get on and off the bike. We have to stop more frequently to stretch the kinks from our muscles and loosen our aching joints. Truth be told, it took four ibuprofen and two cups of coffee to get me going the next morning. But for a few hours, we were young and free and maybe even just a little badass.
Okay… maybe not the badass part. But definitely, we were free.
Bronson, eat your heart out.