Why I Ride

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“Motorcycles are dangerous. I know of someone who died from head injuries/lost his leg/is a vegetable.”

Yes, motorcycles are dangerous. I figured that out in the 90s when I moved to Phoenix, Arizona and experienced frightening incidents with traffic routinely. Certain that my days were numbered if I continued, I reluctantly donated the motorcycle to my older brother and retired from riding. For the next twenty years, I didn’t give motorcycles much thought.

That all changed when a homeless man stole an acquaintance’s 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter. Although he never got the scooter running, he damaged it extensively with a claw hammer and screwdriver while trying. Why would a homeless man even have those tools?

In the process, he made such a racket that neighbors eventually peered through window blinds to investigate the commotion. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived, and reminiscent of a Charlie Chapman film, gave chase to the homeless man.

Sometime later, the police returned the scooter to its dismayed owner, who relied on the diminutive machine to commute to college. With no insurance, tools or the knowledge necessary to repair it, he found other transportation. For the next few months, the broken scooter gathered dust. I am a sucker for potential, however, and that broken scooter soon caught my eye.

I bought it for a song and fixed it like new, spending much more money and time than I could justify. During its return from brokenness, I fell in love with that quirky and admittedly cute machine.  When I finally tightened the last screw, fired up the engine, and twisted the throttle, the feel of the wind in my face and the purr of piston and valves between my legs reawakened a dormant passion.

Before I’d even sold that scooter, I convinced my wife to allow me to buy another for my sixtieth birthday: a 2011 Yamaha Zuma with a top speed a shade under 60mph—with a decent tailwind. “It’s all the motorcycle I’ll ever need,” I promised.

That Zuma transported me to heaven as I drove it hundreds of miles over the next few months. I had not been so happy in years. However, its limitations soon became apparent.  After an ambitious hours-long ride to the top of South Mountain and back, I needed a nap to recover.  It was one of the harshest motorcycles I’d ever ridden. The suspension was bone-jarring stiff and to make matters worse, the small size and limited power restricted me to pothole ridden surface streets. The more I rode, the more painful it seemed. It wasn’t long before I reminisced about more capable steeds:  motorcycles that formerly carried me thousands of miles through fifteen states.

Nonetheless, I feigned contentment, that is, until I encountered a website proclaiming “Tour the PCH on a Motorcycle!” The Pacific Coast Highway: a two lane strip of asphalt hugging the western U.S.  coastline from Seattle to San Diego. As adrenaline coursed through my veins, the scooter quickly lost its appeal.  I longed to ride farther, and longer, to see the world again as I once did: as a free spirit awash in the natural elements.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself at RideNow Powersports in Chandler, swinging my right leg over one motorcycle after another. Eventually, I spotted a perfectly outfitted model: A Suzuki V-Strom 650 Adventure bike.  A-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e.  Now, that’s what I’m talking about. I salivated as I the word reverberated through my mind. After noticing that it was the previous model year and on sale for 40% less than the current model, I was sold. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I drove the V-Strom home the next day. “Motorcycles are dangerous,” she reminded me.

I think about that all the time. Have I lost my marbles? I’m 60 years old, not twenty. What the hell am I doing riding a motorcycle? Loving it, that’s what. Once you’ve spent time on a motorcycle, it becomes a part of you—a rung on your DNA ladder.  And when you put on your leather jacket, sporty helmet, and gloves that fit like a second skin, you are twenty again. I rode and rode. As I did, I had plenty of time to think and here is what I realized…

We are lulled into a false sense of security by fractions of an inch of glass or steel separating us from catastrophe as we drive our automobiles. Oblivious to the dangers surrounding us, we distractedly text, converse on cell phones, joke with friends, tend to our children, or sing along with the radio.

We fly on jet airplanes at tens of thousands of feet at insane speeds approaching that of sound. Any number of events could end our lives in the blink of an eye. Can a jet even land safely anywhere but a major airport?

When I ride, I acknowledge danger constantly. One wrong move, one animal crossing my path or debris falling from a truck could be the end of me. I am connected with my mortality, my fragility, my vulnerability. It doesn’t make me fear, it makes me feel alive. What I am experiencing is real and involves all of my senses. Riding is completely immersive requiring both hands and feet to brake, shift, apply the clutch, throttle or turn signal while keeping a close watch in both mirrors and ahead for potential trouble.

On the other hand, I hear everything from the sound of transmission gears and rev of the engine to the muted or aggressive exhaust note in response to my bidding. I accelerate or brake more swiftly than all but the most exotic automobiles. The wind in my face communicates my speed without need of a speedometer. I feel the temperature drop when I pass green fields and the heat of the engine when the wind shifts. My panoramic view is unhampered by steel beams or tinted glass and the only music I hear is that which I hum in my head. Despite the fact that only gravity holds me on this machine, I feel more grounded than ever.

Roads that I’ve traveled uneventfully for years suddenly come alive. Every crack, pothole, change in texture, and whether the road widens or narrows becomes a life-threatening concern. Animals scampering in the brush along the road side—jeopardizing my existence should they leap unexpectedly in front of me—never escape my watchful eye. A bird swooping across my path could render me unconscious or at the very least, knock the wind out of me, and a single well-placed bug splat on my visor could rob me of vision.

I notice much that I previously missed:  the vastness of the desert southwest, the raw beauty of Arizona sunsets, the intimacy of a winding mountain road on which I lean so sharply that my foot pegs nearly scrape, the sheer delight of flawless new asphalt, the luxury of having roads to myself while everyone else eats dinner, sits glued to video games, or vegetates to a television series.

Riding makes me appreciate our world like nothing else, and when the ride is through, I can hardly wait for my next adventure. One thing that I especially enjoy is the fact that more often than not, fellow motorcyclists will wave at me in acknowledgement of our shared passion. I wish that more people could share such a connection.

Already, I am planning my first road trip: 1700 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Fort Collins, Colorado and back. I’ll witness some amazing scenery from a viewpoint that can’t be beat. Until then, wish me safe journeys and please, be watchful for, and considerate of motorcyclists. If you encounter one of us, feel free to open your window, extend your hand into the wind to share a bit of our world, and then wave.

About the Author:

Ken Dickson is the author of Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Detour from Normal is the shocking true story of how our broken medical and mental health care systems robbed Ken of his life as a respected engineer and devoted family man, and landed him in a high security psychiatric ward. In The Road to Amistad, an unprecedented psychological change catapults people from all walks of life into an extraordinary new level of human consciousness. For most, this leads to confusion and heartache, but for some, it is their calling. They are a new breed of human: resilients. Ken Dickson lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and a motley crew of pets.
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