On July 22 John and I ride our motorcycles up north in Wisconsin. It’s a short, three-day trip, enough to give us a sufficient break from city living.

On the way home we pull into a truck stop in Green Bay to get gas. After I fill up, I turn my key, pull in the clutch, and start the bike. Nothing. I try a few more times. Still nothing. There had been no warning signs.

John pushes the bike off to the side, and over lunch we call a few friends who know bikes. None of us can figure out exactly what’s going on, so we decide to get a tow to the nearest Harley-Davidson dealership through Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) Roadside Assistance.

I am the only female in the truck stop café other than the waitresses, as I’m sure they’re referred to by the men: farmers, drivers, laborers with baseball caps and stained blue jeans who fill the booths and are lost in a Mitt Romney press conference on television.

Their attention is broken only when the tow truck comes for my bike, and they come alive. Eight or so of them slide out of their booths and crowd around the one with the best view.

“Well, look at that.” “That there motorcycle is dead.” “Look at that guy with tattoos all up and down his arms, you see that?” “I bet it’s his.” “Poor sucker.” “That there’s a sweet trailer.” “Someone ain’t going home tonight.” “Them Harleys cost your firstborn to repair.” “Yep.”

I had remained inside to finish my food. The tow truck driver and John get the bike turned around. The tow guy grabs the handlebars and John pushes on the back. They start to run with it. The men inside start to whoop.

“Look at ’em go!” says one, pressing against the window. “Don’t miss that trailer now!” says another. Laughter. I roll my eyes.

John and the tow guy run my bike up the ramp and inside the trailer. As it crests, the men inside collectively holler, “Whoa!”

I grab my helmet. As soon as I stand, the guys see me with my gear and they get real quiet and stare.

“It’s a broken down bike, so what?” I say.

I have to ride in the tow truck because John’s bike is not set up for a passenger. The truck is a behemoth and stepping up real high to get into it won’t cut it, so I have to hop a few times on one leg to get some momentum going. The driver and I pull out of the truck stop, with John following us.

The driver’s name is Gary. We start talking. Real nice guy, married, a father, been a tow driver a long time, and he has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Gary grew up riding dirt bikes, he tells me. When he became an adult he bought a street bike.

“I passed my rider course, took my test and got my license the next day. My second time out I made a turn into some gravel. My wheels went out from under me and I slid about twenty feet. Messed up my hand and tore up my jeans. Got scars up and down my leg. I decided right then and there to just give it up.”

I tell him I don’t blame him. We talk about the dangers of motorcycle riding. That so far this season I know of six people who were killed when their motorcycles crashed. One guy was in the same H.O.G. chapter as me and John. A few weeks ago a Wisconsin couple lost control of the motorcycle they were riding and went down. They both died. They had three children.

“The roads aren’t what they used to be,” says Gary. “There are so many more of them, so much more traffic, and people drive like they’re only thinking about themselves.”

He tells me about some friends, a couple who were riding their motorcycle on a highway when the tire of the truck in front of them blew.

“There was so much traffic they had nowhere to go,” he says. “That rubber just came flying back at them. The bike tipped back and forth several times before he was able to regain control. When they pulled over, he and his wife stared at each other for two minutes straight without saying a word. He sold the bike after they got home, but a year later he couldn’t stand it anymore and bought another one. His wife refuses to ride anymore.”

Even though it’s 2012 and I think there should be more women riding than there really are, it’s still largely a man’s thing, and I am a girl who has always loved doing what mostly only boys do. I’m proud to have my motorcycle license.

But I don’t love riding the way John does. Before I got my license, I used to ride on the back of his bike, which we rode as far east as Maine and as far west as Idaho. One year we rode all the way around Lake Superior. Spectacular trips.

I used to take pictures back there. Sing songs in my head, do a lot of thinking. Get really bored. Every once in a while I’d look down at the pavement as it whizzed by beneath our feet. One false move and we’re down and it’s all over, I’d think. Then I’d look back up and try to forget about it.

Gary and I talk more about the people he has rescued over the years along the sides of various roads: stranded RVs, broken-down motorcycles, stalled cars. People from all over.

“Just last week I took a guy to the same Harley dealership I’m taking you to,” he says.

“You must see a lot,” I say.

He can’t even form the words and shakes his head instead. He gathers himself and tells me about the road rage, excessive speed, cutting across lanes, cell phones, texting, impaired driving, accidents.

“Truck as big as this, you’re up high,” he says. “You see everything.”

He tells me about a woman who broke down on the freeway he went to help.

“She was in her car when I pulled up behind her and threw on my red flashing lights. A car went around me, but I guess he didn’t see her when he pulled back over. He ran right into her. She died instantly.”

He runs his hand over his head. “Forty-one years old. Two kids, the same age as mine.”

We don’t say much after that.

The problem with my bike turns out to be minor: loose battery cables. On our way back to Milwaukee, I glance at the pavement passing beneath me. I am not anxious to the point where I pose a threat to myself or others on the road. But I am always respectful of the fact that anything can happen, anywhere, anytime. Bike or not. A point driven home to me two and a half years ago when my best friend Greg died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Then again last fall when my mom died ten weeks after her cancer diagnosis. Then again every time I get on my motorcycle.

 

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12 Comments

  1. Your eloquent narrative beautifully illustrates the transitoriness of all life. A decision to make a quick trip, an unexpected delay leading to an encounter with the locals, to whom you offered a momentary distraction from their troubles, a ride with a stranger, who is really not so strange after all. Acts are accidents, connections fleeting. These are the threads that weave our lives together with all others.

  2. Thank you very much, Denise. I really appreciate your comment, and your friendship.

  3. And you also…for a kindred spirirt of sorts, discovered by serendipity

  4. I think about this stuff when I’m riding at night, on roads that aren’t crowded. When I have time to consider what a brave thing it is to ride a motorcycle. Then again, given the amount of stupidity I see around me on the roads every day, use of any motor vehicle is a tremendous risk. Consider: Use of turn signals is no longer a requirement. How can it be? After all, we need one hand for the wheel, the other for the phone, right? Laws regarding texting while driving are merely advisory in nature. Necessarily, since what these people I see literally every day are doing in the car next to me it of such a critical nature that it transcends mere local and state law. Laws (and common sense) against distracted driving are likewise obsolete, obviously written before we understood how important that phone call is.

    I see these things every day, usually several times.

  5. (continued) When you’re on the road, especially on a bike, don’t drive defensively. Drive like they’re out to hurt you.

    -T

    • Hi Tom: I don’t have anything to add; you say it all. I ride my bike the same way I drive our car: constantly checking mirrors, turning on a signal before changing lanes, enough room between me and the person ahead of me, anticipate that the person you’re passing could decide to move into your lane. All that. You have to. A lot of ridiculousness out there, as you point out. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Well done, Robin. I think about this stuff every time I drive, not just every time I ride my motorcycle. And like our tow truck driver I see a lot from the vantage point of my truck when I’m working too. Last night on my way out to Columbus in the truck I saw an accident on I-94 eastbound west of Oconomowoc – car badly damaged and large truck rolled over in the ditch. Speed, and distracted or careless driving are responsible for most of these accidents. When I am in ANY vehicle, I am constantly checking to make sure people see me and preparing for the dumb thing they might do because they often do it. One of the problems not mentioned by the tow truck driver is the power and handling capabilities of today’s vehicles. That is a big contributor too. Thanks for the great blog post and for sharing the tow truck driver’s insights.

    • Thanks, John. I know you see a lot too as a truck driver. Gary may have mentioned the power, but I forgot about it or neglected to get it into the story as I roughed it out. Overall, he said that roads and traffic aren’t what they used to be. I thought it interesting for a relatively young guy (38-40, I’m guessing) to say. Assuming he’s been driving 20 years, that’s only 1992, and I don’t think in terms of things like roads and traffic changing like that. Except for the fact that cell phones and texting have entered the mix. That’s probably enough of an impact. Thanks again.

  7. Interesting that you used present tense throughout. Unusual but effective for relating past incidences with a sense of intimacy. John Updike used it on his entire series of novels called the “Rabbit” series. The last one is one of my favorite books of all time.

    • Hi, Lance, thanks for reading and writing. One of my favorite writers, Mary Karr, moves back and forth between present and past tenses like no one’s business. It’s so effortless, seamless that you don’t even notice it as you read it. I’ve been messing around with present tense the past few months, and although I balked at first, I like it now; I’m using it in a longer essay that I plan to submit to a few literary journals. I too love the “Rabbit” series and should probably reread them. Thanks again.

  8. Robin, Bravo! Nice little slice of life featuring semi-miscreant chuckle-headed characters N all. You put me right in the cab however, casting a slight pall on the joys of riding as a dyed in the wool motorcycle enthusiast some what troubling. . Hahaha! I can see trying to run an 800+ pound Harley up the ramp as I write this. Yikes. Love it. I’ll be watching for more!

  9. Thanks for your comment, John. I’ve loved our social media debates on the joys and sorrows of riding. Ride safe out there in beautiful Nevada. Your green bike is gorgeous, and the videos you guys shoot of your exploits amazing. Feel free to post them here.

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