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Riding alone

Thursday, April 11, 2019   (7 Comments)
Posted by: Stuart Kirk #55005

At the beginning, I had to ride alone.

In my mid-40s and under the spell of a quixotic impulse, I bought a new red 1991 BMW K 75S. But I was unprepared to ride. I couldn’t test ride the Beemer or ride it home, because I didn’t have a motorcycle license. Besides, I hadn’t put my leg over any motorcycle for a quarter of a century, back when I had swapped a Yamaha Trail 80 for a used VW bug. I was nervous about whether I could even handle my new motorcycle, and simply getting a 500-pound bike on or off the center stand was a challenge.

Living in rural upstate New York, I couldn’t look to others for help as I had no friends who were active motorcyclists. On my first ride down a nearby rural road, despite going slowly, I crashed within my first two miles, and my lack of motorcycling skills was unmistakably confirmed. The K 75 and I suffered cracks, scrapes and bruises, although fortunately, no major damage. But the wounds to my confidence and psyche were much deeper and longer lasting.

My fantasies about traversing New England that summer were replaced with anxieties about developing elementary motorcycling skills. It was late winter, and there were no nearby motorcycle training opportunities. I had to ride and learn alone.

Some weeks after my crash, I mustered up enough courage to resume short forays onto empty country roads and get comfortable with the mechanics of riding, including accelerating, shifting, braking, going around turns, stopping and starting smoothly. The K 75 is top heavy and I strained to lift it after dropping it while making a U-turn. That sort of mistake is best done without witnesses, if you are even able to pick up the bike.

Skilled riders have to watch their pace to remain within the speed limit on many roads, while I was trying my best to avoid being mistaken for a stationary object! My rides were so cautious that getting up to the speed limit was beyond my ability. The idea of traveling briskly and leaning the bike through turns was something I hoped to master in the distant future.

Most proficient riders, I believe, do not seek the company of a frightened trainee like me. I imagined that chaperoning a newbie would remove the joy of a brisk ride, requiring other riders to stop and wait frequently. I didn’t want to be a burden or to endure the embarrassment of being an incompetent rider. On my own, I slowly gained elementary skills, and my anxieties gradually subsided. I began to sense the joys of riding, though my trepidation still outweighed the pleasure by about 10 to 1. My ambition was to reverse those proportions.

Traveling on familiar roads evolved into longer rides on unfamiliar routes throughout the Berkshire Mountains. Although I still harbored fears, I glimpsed the exhilarating experience that accompanies motorcycling. There was the sensation of being alone, embracing the countryside which provided a moving landscape of experiences: the changing air temperatures from valleys to mountain passes, the aromas of the forests and farm land, and the accompanying rumble of the engine, the comforting encasement of my new black leather gear and air swooshing around my helmet. What had been so overwhelming to me as a novice was slowly morphing into a sense of confidence and a surprising feeling of freedom about where to go and what to do with only a map, a credit card, and a few gallons of gas.

Within my first year, I ventured beyond my local training roads and expanded my solo rides throughout New England to the coast of Maine and later, a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. While I noted my growing eagerness to ride often and for greater distances, my non-motorcycling friends thought me insane. As my skills and confidence improved, I began to think that I might not be such a burdensome riding companion.

This speculation coincided with an unanticipated career move to Los Angeles. By coincidence, my wife and I found housing near the famous motorcycling café, the Rock Store, nestled among the twisty canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains. I had suddenly traded the rural tranquility of solo riding in New England for the high energy, canyon carving sport bike circus of Southern California. It was an entirely new moto world to me.

Riding alone became nearly impossible. My daily commute to work involved lane-splitting on gridlocked freeways, a stark contrast to the tranquility of riding alone; instead, it’s like a quarterback sneaking through a horde of gargantuan lineman intent on crushing him. Even on weekend rides, the canyons were alive with hundreds of motorcyclists, from novices like me to those who had honed their skills on race tracks. Riding alone for me now meant compulsively watching my mirrors for the next pod of racer boys, exhibiting a level of skill that I had never seen as they whizzed past me.

Fortunately, I quickly found a group of middle-age motorcyclists who were willing to shepherd me into this different style of riding and for the next 18 years, my weekend ventures were with this group. With them, I improved my skills, enjoyed companionship, discovered relatively less traveled roads, and shared the joys of motorcycling. Particularly memorable was the thrill of being part of a small group scooting up and down canyon roads at a brisk pace, using the same braking points and lines through corners while spacing ourselves safely apart, but moving as if linked tightly together in a choreographed performance.

Over thousands of miles, I was a regular within one of those swift pods routinely passing others and nimbly getting around and through traffic. But even with the benefits of a group, I still coveted my humbling early solo excursions and occasionally preferred to travel alone. Over the ensuing years, I travelled solo throughout the West Coast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain states.

There are benefits to riding alone. Trip planning need not be negotiated with others. In fact, planning may take little more than heading out of town on one of my favorite roads, without knowing exactly what my route or destination will be for the day. I may choose a familiar route or spontaneously turn onto an unfamiliar but intriguing county road, without the need to consult a map. How adventurous do I want to be, how long do I want to ride, and where will I find a motel and decent place to eat at the end of the day?

Riding alone means all decisions are my own, for better or worse. When and where to take a bathroom break, have a coffee or snack, take some photos, or get gasoline. The pace of travel fluctuates with my mood and energy, and my assessment of riding conditions. Other considerations include the likelihood of icy roads, the risk of wildlife unexpectedly strafing the pavement, the implications of a darkening sky, or whether the recent rains may have flooded the roads that dip down through the arroyos. When fatigue sets in, I make the call about whether to end the day’s ride at the next motel or campsite. None of these decisions are particularly difficult, and making them alone, rather than through a roadside committee, makes the trip less complicated and comes with the quiet satisfaction that the ride is entirely my own.

I admit that there are moments of fear while riding alone. Since I prefer secondary roads and sparsely inhabited regions that often are without cell phone service, I recognize that isolation has its risks. Mechanical failures, collisions with animals, a dropped bike, a skirmish with gravel, or running wide on a decreasing radius turn, all can become more threatening.

I look beyond the risks to the quiet pleasures of solitude. There is a paradox of being in nature while riding a motorcycle. I’m gliding through a verdant meadow, a stone walled canyon, an evergreen forest, or arid plain, environments that exhibit hardly a trace of human tinkering, beyond the pavement. It is awe-inspiring to be alone in a place where the landscape has been relatively unchanged for tens of thousands of years. It is the wilderness that draws people to hike the Pacific Coast Trail or canoe down an isolated river alone. But I am very aware of the incongruence of being astride an ingeniously designed ultra-modern motorcycle controlled by electronic wizardry that didn’t exist two decades ago. Whether hiking or riding, I am immersed in nature while moving through it, being relatively isolated, and largely self-reliant—no man-made intrusions, with the exception of my conversations with myself, hour after hour.

As the writer Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, 1968) said, “I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.”

In the end, I’ve come full circle and sometimes ride alone.

Comments...

James T. Harris TSOS says...
Posted Monday, April 29, 2019
I had a similar experience while riding my first large bike after not having ridden anything over 250 cc in thirty some years. I had the dealer move the bike to an area easier to take off from and safely made it to the street. I had no problem riding straight a traffic speeds or higher but curves, including freeway connector roads and the like, scared me. In fact, I avoided freeways for several months of riding. I decided to go on a toy ride several miles from my home. It was white-knuckle on the freeway all the way. We did our toy run. Somehow the 500 plus motorcycles didn't seem to bother me. Then I headed home getting on the freeway without really checking my speed headed for the car pool lane only to see compact and slowing traffic. That's what I needed - gridlock for 70 miles! I checked my speed on noticed I was going 95 mph. White knuckle days were gone except around high speed curves. I do like the independence of riding alone having made several multi-state rides alone.
Dan Webster says...
Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Your words about why we ride alone ring true! Its difficult to explain to others that we're not anti-social or snobs. I find it extremely character building to be self sufficient through all kinds of adversity and joy! I've been through most of it, having been through all the lower 48 and Alaska, all 10 Provinces, including Labrador and the Yukon...Over 110,000 km's in 6 years, one month at a time. The only place I cant get to is Nunavut, no roads! All on one bike, My trusty 2010 F800GS with nothing more than tires, chains sprockets and oil. My girl is bulletproof. And she IS my girl...you really develop a bond. I dont think there is a weather/cager event I haven't experienced. Even one nasty get off. For those "thinking" about going solo, do it. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. In a few years, Look for me in the nursing home, I'll be the guy with the endless loop of pictures playing on his laptop. : )
Scott Clemmons says...
Posted Saturday, April 20, 2019
As a somewhat more introverted person, riding alone provides not only the chance to command the ride and make it mine, but also to recharge myself in a way that only solitude can. I also group ride as well and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with people who share this passion and the experiences it provides; however, nothing beats the adventure of heading down a new road on a whim just to see where it leads, which you just can’t do when your with a group. Thanks for sharing!
Todd Milliren says...
Posted Wednesday, April 17, 2019
I love riding by myself! Most people just cant ride as long and hard as I often prefer to. I love it...:) Great article!
Scott Purkerson says...
Posted Monday, April 15, 2019
Your article put a big smile on my face! I too used to ride an old Yamaha Trail 80 until a friend wrecked it. Fast forward 45 years to today's 2000 F650, and I'm starting again with anxiety similar to yours. I am so blessed to have a couple people willing to mentor me while I only have a learner's permit. Thanks for sharing a part of your life with everyone!
Joe Tatulli says...
Posted Monday, April 15, 2019
Stuart your honesty is refreshing. Thanks for sharing your story. I have been riding since 1970 but only doing any serious riding the past eight years. My experience is similar to yours with riding alone most of those early years. I joined the MOA about 13 years ago and that helped, but it was when I joined my local club (The Ocean State BMW Riders) that my riding experience accelerated. I still enjoy riding alone and usually mix the two (group and solo) regularly. I am very grateful for the friends I ride with now, from which I have learned a great deal about riding in general and also about safety and long distance adventures. But I still enjoy the time I spend alone and am glad to know the balance between the two different ways to enjoy motorcycling. Kind regards, Joe T
Vince Kelly says...
Posted Sunday, April 14, 2019
Great book Stuart! I bought and read it a couple of years ago! I’m in PA but flew To LA in 2016 to buy a GSA. Rode the Mulholland highway and hung at the rock store and met a riding buddy I still stay in touch with. Our stories are similar: I hadn’t ridden since 1975 and jumped back into it headfirst in 2010. Haven’t looked back!

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