We’re kicking off the Spring 2019 online issue with something that is really worth the read.
We hope you find Doug’s story as stirring as we did.
Here it comes:
Leaning Into It
Days after I decided to travel to the Blue Ridge Mountains on a motorcycle, I bought a new bike after years of thinking about and preparing for it. Surrounded by flashy motorcycles on a commercial strip in the Washington D.C. suburbs, I lifted my left leg over the fuselage of a shiny white one. Pasted prominently on the tank’s top, a disclosure warned that “Improper weight on the rear of the bike could cause serious injury or death.” Why in the world would anyone put themselves at such risk? Having ridden two-wheel motorized machines off and on for about fourteen of the last forty years or so of my adult life, I thought I knew the answer. But at sixty, I felt unsure of my decision to buy the 500 cc machine that waited silently and patiently beneath me for my test ride. I swallowed hard, straightened the handlebars and looked over the motorcycle’s windscreen through the large doors of the dealership onto a parking lot and a busy suburban road.
Reaching for Passion
“You did pretty good,” Scott said to me after the test drive. “You stayed with me the whole time.” I mumbled something about jerky starts and being a little rusty and thanked him, but I didn’t reveal the discomfort I had felt in both hands as I manipulated the clutch with my left and the front brake with my right. The opening and closing of my fingers caused soreness after only ten minutes. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage riding two and a half hours. This whole idea for a motorcycle trip to the Shenandoah National Park, where I would spend a week at a conference, seemed like a way to develop a story. But if I had been honest with myself, the trip two weeks before my daughter’s wedding had more to do with my recent change of law firm jobs and dissatisfaction with the direction my life had taken.
The next morning, after buying the Honda CB 500X, I woke dreaming about crashing it on the highway. As a college student I had ridden a Yamaha 350 cc motorcycle all around and through central Pennsylvania. I seldom felt frightened while riding back then. Maybe I had felt spurts of fear during moments on Route 15, the major secondary road that wound through central Pennsylvania and passed Bucknell, where I attended college. The whole bike would vibrate while traveling 65 miles an hour. I understood the consequences of hitting the pavement at highway speed. But mostly I had ridden with complete confidence back then, ironically, before I had a motorcycle license, before I even had taken a motorcycle safety course.
Now, the anxiety occurred sporadically. Mostly, it sprouted to the surface when I thought about riding, not while actually riding. The doubt had started in earnest a year earlier after an SUV almost ran directly into me as I rode my Vespa, travelling on two-lane Route 355 north of Rockville. At the time, I was riding to the Triumph motorcycle dealership in Fredericksburg. The driver of the SUV apparently hadn’t seen me until the last several seconds before impact. Fortunately several seconds was all he and I needed to avoid the crash but it got me thinking.
Crashes and accidents killed 4,957 motorcyclists during 2012, two years before I bought the motorcycle, a seven percent increase from the prior year, according to the then most recent recorded data of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During the several weeks preceding my motorcycle purchase, I had heard a multitude of stories about the dangers of motorcycle riding from people responding spontaneously at the sight of my Shoei helmet.
During the days I waited for the installation of a top rack and crash bar on my new Honda. I suffered the abrupt realization that I might not have enough storage capacity for the week-long trip. I started to perform internet searches for packing Honda CB500X’s, packing motorcycles, and motorcycle luggage. One site warned about distorting the center of gravity. Low hanging and centrally located luggage seemed to create less potential for handling problems. This information dashed my vision of simply wearing a large hiking backpack on my back during the trip. The logistics were daunting. I absolutely had to travel with a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea. That alone weighed 20 pounds and occupied a large bag. I needed to bring a laptop, power cord, camera, telephone and chargers. Together they probably weighed ten to fifteen pounds. I also needed medicine, toiletries and some clothes. I had no idea how I would load everything up for the trip, I thought in a panic.
The deliberation, calibration, and risk-weighing I performed during this packing and planning phase of my journey resembled familiar characteristics that had marked my adult life. For over two decades, I had considered a job change, from law firm back to the public sector, from law firm to a corporate setting, a lateral switch to another practice area, and even to a non-legal job. This latter option always seemed inaccessible. In truth, I was afraid, and, in a way, this trip to the Shenandoah National Park felt like I was doing more than riding to a conference on a motorcycle. It felt like I was breaking a self-imposed barrier of fear.
Taking the Risk
After waiting two weeks for the dealership to install crash bars, which protect the turn signals and other exterior accessories from damage caused by a parking lot fall, and a top box, which provide a locked storage container to keep my helmet or other light baggage when not riding, I picked up the bike. It looked bigger than the day I bought it. Scott, my twenty-something year old salesman, provided a superficial overview of key features. He then checked about ten small square boxes on a delivery invoice before handing it to me to sign. I started asking him for explanations about a number of items on the checklist and jotted notes of key service and maintenance requirements that seemed important to monitor. I had to check the oil once a month, lubricate the chain twice a month, change the brake fluid every two years, and change the coolant every two years. I began to wonder why I purchased the motorcycle to begin with.
Handling the hand clutch and foot gears, working the hand and foot brakes, and adjusting to the greater engine acceleration came relatively quickly after a few days, although I was a little rusty. However, the psychological aspect of riding a two wheel machine at high speeds did not feel the same as it had when I was twenty. On occasion, I found myself rubbing my knees and legs, feeling acutely aware of the comfort, no pains or aches, and I suddenly felt simultaneously both grateful for my health and well being, and anxious about sacrificing all that I had. At the same time, I started checking MapQuest directions, researching one and two piece rain gear, and thinking about packing, committed to follow through on this long-held dream.
At Battley Motorcycle in Rockville, a Harley and Ducati dealership, scores of leather clad people, mostly men with gray beards like me, milled around the parking lot against the backdrop of parked Harleys and other large cruisers. A band played at the far end as two people danced alone near them. Vendors sold motorcycle memorabilia under a white tent at the other end of the lot. I parked my adventure bike, which was built for on and off road use. Adventure bikes sit higher than cruisers and have a more slanted frame towards the back of the bike that gives them a racier look than the cruiser, which is reminiscent of the motorcycles we used to see in photos of biker gangs like the Hell’s Angel’s when I was a boy in the 1960s.
Craig, a thin short guy, helped me find equipment. As it turned out my red Shoei helmet was seven years old, about two years older than desirable. He explained that after about five years the interior starts to decompose and lose its effectiveness. I bought a new similar Shoei, this one black. Craig showed me an Asai that fit well, but it was not Snell approved. I remembered from my motorcycle safety course that helmets should be DOT and Snell approved. The Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1957 after the motorcycle death of Pete “William” Snell, certifies motorcycle helmets based on independently developed standards supported by scientific and medical research. After buying the helmet, waterproof rain gear, which included a jacket, pants and pull over rubber boots, and a black motorcycle jacket, which had padding in strategic places, I paid the almost $1,000 bill and left for the Honda dealership. I rode out of Battley’s parking lot wearing my motorcycle jacket and helmet, trying to smoothly shift gears and quickly accelerate as I rounded the turn onto the road from the lot under the watchful eyes of two couples standing behind their Harleys on the other side of the two-lane road across from the dealership.
The Shenandoah National Park, established in 1935, covers 200,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a corner of Appalachia and Virginia, rich with history and folklore. My trip to the Park started the day before I departed. I rode to Bethesda on a partly sunny summer day to check tire pressure. The breeze blew gently in my face, and I glided on the two wheel machine through a natural world of air and clouds and sun and earth. As I waited for my tires to cool before filling them with air, I sipped a decaffeinated coffee, savored a chocolate croissant, and listened to chirping birds.
When I initially saw my first motorcycle at twenty, the red 350 cc Yamaha sitting idly on an old brick patio of the owner’s small two-story house in Lewisburg, a dot of a Pennsylvania town with a couple of bars and a pizzeria on its single main street that extended from a two-lane bridge over the Susquehanna River on the northern edge of town to an interconnection with Route 15, near the high school, at a point about half way between a federal prison and the pockmarked barren hilltops of empty, strip coal mines further south, on the way to Harrisburg. My closest college buddy, Bob Wentz, who coincidentally owned the identical make and model motorcycle, came with me. The owner wheeled the bike onto the narrow street in front of his house. After several failed attempts, the Yamaha coughed its way to life. It was a carburetor problem that plagued the bike for the entire time I owned it. It was the spring of 1975.
I struggled to test drive the 350 cc Yamaha in the nearby high school parking lot. After judging my capability, the owner offered to show me how to stop and turn the bike. He didn’t appear too concerned with the fact that I had never ridden a motorcycle before and had neither a learner’s permit or motorcycle license. I bought the motorcycle the next day, after a failed attempt to borrow money from the local bank, with most of my semester’s food money.
For those of you who have never ridden a motorcycle, the operating mechanics, especially the handlebar clutch, may seem strange. Certainly, at the time, the front wheel handbrake and rear wheel left foot brake felt unnatural to me. I learned how to shift the gears with the left foot pedal fairly quickly, although, the coughing carburetor punctuated each attempt to shift from neutral to first, a slight downward notch on the left foot pedal together with a squeeze of the left handbrake, which serves as the clutch. But the rapid coordination of both my right hand and left foot on both brakes simultaneously proved more difficult. It took several weeks for me to feel comfortable riding on the roads around Lewisburg.
It might be important to express the feeling of loneliness and desperation that lurked beneath the surface of my consciousness back then which I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand. I tell you this not for sympathy or concern, but for appreciation of what I feel is a celebration when I think of motorcycle riding. For me, it represents the independence of adolescence, the confidence of youth, the joy of first love, the hope of young adulthood, the dreams of middle age and, increasingly, the reality of growing old. Looking back as an adult, the yearning for the thrill of those turns, the rush of air on my face, the roar of the engine was always there. But I didn’t act on it for fifteen or twenty years. In the beginning, I was too busy enjoying fatherhood. However, as my three children started getting older, I felt the yearn for that motorcycle grow intensely. My trip to the Shenandoah National Park felt like a leap of faith, a return to myself. As I searched for direction I began to trust my feelings – that I needed to make a change even as the fear of falling continued to hold me back.
As my departure approached, the most daunting task was packing the long list of necessary school, hiking, and motorcycle supplies. At the time, I had been practicing law for over thirty five years. Yet, even I had trouble harmonizing the gross weight limit specified in the owner’s manual with the packing and weight information posted on the bike’s fuselage, which cautioned about complying with the net limit. Another thing was figuring out just how much 6.5 pounds allowed in the top box where I wanted to store my laptop. I guess I could have looked it up on the internet, but I was too involved deciding how to cram everything into the saddlebags and tank top.
Finally, after practicing the day before my departure, I felt I could fit everything into one of the several bags or storage areas. During that practice session, I loaded the saddlebags, including the CPAP machine and other gear, onto the bike, which involved removing the seat, laying the connecting strips of the saddle bag across the bike, and strapping the bags onto the bike with bungee cords. This was my first time performing this task with the saddlebags fully loaded and I had made a rookie mistake. I left the key in the bike under the seat where it opens the lock and allows the seat to come out. The saddlebag on that side was so heavy that it bent the key. At least it happened at home where I had a spare key, I thought. I now knew not to leave that key in the receptacle while loading the packed side saddlebags.
I rode a mile to the local high school parking lot and practiced figure eights using the parking space lines to mark loosely a forty by forty foot area in which to ride. The bike felt sluggish with the heavy bags, which I guessed weighed at least sixty pounds. The objective of doing the figure eights was to control the bike well enough to ride inside the outer parameter of the small rectangle, and to perform the maneuver without placing my feet on the pavement or falling. My first few attempts were moderately, but not completely successful, because I either drove outside the square or, on occasion, needed to put my foot on the ground to keep from falling. My marked areas kept migrating and after a few minutes, I barely missed riding over broken glass. All my effort to prepare would not help if I punctured my tire, I thought, so I drove home without further practice, wondering if I really was ready for this journey.
After a fitful night sleep, I woke early and somewhat systematically packed all my gear and supplies on the bike. With all my practice, I had not spent any time trying to balance the weight in the two side saddle bags. This required some slight repacking. After loading the bike and strapping all the bags and packs tightly to it, I slipped on my knee supports and football pads under my jeans. Craig from Battley Cycle had suggested this possible substitute for motorcycle pants. The knee pads slipped on easily even though they produced a tightness around my knees. The high school football pads were stitched into a nylon girdle that hung to me tightly and created bulk under my jeans on my thighs, back, and pelvis. But I felt it useful to wear them in light of the highway portion of my journey. I kissed my wife goodbye, placed my arms inside my black leather motorcycle jacket, tapped my pocket to confirm I had my clip on sunglasses and keys, and one last time felt the anguish of making this trip so close to my daughter’s wedding. At the time, I thought my wife had given her approval, but I eventually learned that I had not read her response properly.
With all the risk I assumed with this trip, I would never forgive myself if I were to die or were injured two weeks before Libbie’s wedding. What possessed me to take this risk? I thought briefly, but put it out of my mind as something else, a sense of desperation for a dream, selfishly outweighed my concerns. Within minutes, I turned onto Route 495 (the eight lane beltway that surrounds D.C.) and began the first part of the hour and a half drive. This was the portion of the route on major highway roads that required me to drive the fully loaded motorcycle at over sixty-five miles per hour. Straddling an engine travelling that fast on an asphalt road balanced on two wheels in the midst of merging and lane-changing cars and trucks scared the hell out me. I didn’t remember feeling this way before, although highway driving never had been my favorite, but my memories and the feeling of riding a motorcycle had always been strong and positive.
Making a Leap of Faith
Back in 1975, I would ride my Yamaha on winding, two-lane roads around Bucknell near Lewisburg with Wentz. We traveled under canopies of reds and oranges with the air splashing into our faces, the sun striking our chrome handlebars, and the high pitched rrrrrmmmm of the engine drowning out the small quiet country sounds that surrounded us. We passed apple stands, Amish farms, former strip mine towns, state parks, and miles of the Susquehanna River. Sometimes, we’d stop in the small Union County localities to drink Genesee Cream Ale. These were mostly worn towns with a solitary bar and single gas station, empty tracks on rusted bridges and fewer jobs than motorcycles. When I rode, I leaned into turns on empty country roads with the breeze in my face and pulled back the throttle on the open blacktop under the sun with nothing on my mind.
With some of that same feeling reemerging, I approached Sperryville, Virginia, a one-street town with a bakery that does not serve decaffeinated coffee, which lies in the lowlands of a corner of Appalachia below Old Ragg Mountain, and only a short drive on curvy mountain roads to the Shenandoah National Park’s Thornton Gap entrance. These roads to the park were high motorcycle accident areas, according to the road signs, yet here in the forest on these turns near the park I saw more motorcycles than cars. The wind in my face and the beauty of densely packed trees evoked a sense of self: a kind of oneness with the world around me and completeness with the person within.
Back when I was a pudgy, black haired, brown eyed twelve-year old, I felt free when I rode my bicycle away from the stony silence of my step-father’s inattention and the suffocating anxiety of my mother’s glare. Let me pause and say here that before my stepfather died several years ago, he and I had exchanged unspoken apologies to one another, and I began to view my mother’s tireless efforts to raise me with the respect it deserved. But before all that, in 1966, I was playing street football with my schoolmates, throwing dirt bombs in pretend army raids with friends, fantasizing about unbuttoning the blouse of the girl next door – and riding my bicycle.
I rode my bicycle miles away to visit friends, to reconnoiter downtown Richfield, a quaint Connecticut town, which back then was a four-block community with a dime store, old Italian barbershop, and Fourth of July parades. Richfield was nestled along Route 7 between the larger Danbury and the cluster of similar small commuter towns further south on the way to New York City. It was a time of simplicity and complexity as my adolescence unleashed a long search for meaning and identity – and, I think, also peace.
There I stood almost fifty years later straddling the new white Honda CB 500X at the Thornton Gap entrance to the Park, nine miles from Skyland Resort where I would be staying at a week-long writing residency, hiking the trails in the national park land that once belonged to others, reading about Appalachia by women writers from the region, and trying to contemplate changes to my life. During the week stay, we hiked Stony Man trail, which leads up to a rocky overlook that exceeds 4,000 feet, one of the highest in the Park. We walked segments of the Appalachian Trail and saw deer, snakes, and black bears. The Skyland Resort accommodations nested on the ridge of the mountains along Skyline Drive. Although we were not completely removed from automobiles, plastic bottles, noise, and the excessive waste of human consumption, they were limited and contrasted with the dense forests, picturesque views, and numerous hiking trails.
Handling a fully loaded motorcycle on a highway in crowded traffic can be a drain. I rode through stop-and-go traffic on a six lane road packed with cars and trucks on my return trip. Machines on asphalt surrounded me in the humid June heat. My black motorcycle helmet and black leather padded jacket retained, and seemed to amplify, the heat. The birds, deer, and bear of the forest all had disappeared. As I accessed the highway back towards Washington, D.C., I felt the contrast between development and the National Park, between suburbia and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I rode across the Virginia-Maryland line feeling relieved that I was almost home and began looking for my exit. As I travelled under the strong sun, I turned to check my left lane for traffic, and the wind ripped my clip-on sunglasses off my lens and onto the highway behind me. It was an ominous sign, but I had neither the patience nor energy to dwell on it. Hot air pressed through the open visor against my face as I leaned into the turn off River Road several miles from home.
The blossomed flowers and green shrubs cast a freshness to the frames that passed, and I struggled to concentrate, all the while thinking of my family as I rested my left shoe on the ground in front of a stop sign near home. It was the weight of the saddlebags, I think. Maybe I had been in third gear instead of first. It is possible I didn’t accelerate enough. Whether lack of motion or excessive weight or some combination, the 500 plus pound motorcycle struggled to keep its feet as I attempted to round the turn onto Bradley Boulevard two blocks from my destination. The engine sputtered and stalled with suddenness. I felt the heavy frame tilt, weighted down by packed saddle bags, a loaded top tank bag, and a backpack strapped to the rear of the seat full of books and other items.
Some things happen in milliseconds. I knew I did not have sufficient time to restart the bike. Instinctively, I tried to pull the right handle bar up to stabilize the frame. It was a futile attempt to fight gravity. My new motorcycle fell to the pavement like a wounded animal, and gasoline leaked over the pavement under it like blood. Unable to lift the new Honda off the road, I started to unload the packs and bags. But within seconds, a young woman driving a pick-up truck offered to help. Then, two boys pulled their car to the side, and the four of us lifted the Honda on to her feet.
The balance, the motion, the feel of the air, the lean into a turn on a motorcycle and the acceleration out of it constitutes one of those interminable good feelings, yet taking those turns too fast can be dangerous. I learned that years earlier in a near wipe out on my used Yamaha. The sound of gravel as one’s two-wheeled machine slides towards the edge of a highway is not easily forgotten. The trip to the Shenandoah National Park had inspired my confidence in dreams. Mindful of the dangerous portions of road ahead, I decided to pursue my long-held desire to teach English. Less than two years after my trip I retired from my law practice, giving up my hard-earned partnership and I began a two-year teaching residency in Baltimore. Now, in my second year teaching World Literature at Western High School, I feel the wind in my face every day at school, even as my motorcycle awaits my return home.
The hour commute to Baltimore and day-to-day responsibilities of teaching in an urban school can deplete. But like the glide in a turn on a motorcycle under a canopy of fall trees with cool air caressing your cheeks, there is a fragile beauty and vulnerable satisfaction that comes from achieving a dream. I woke this morning on my sixty-fourth birthday at the end of a vivid dream in which I saw my oldest son, Ted, and his wife walking arm in arm with an old college friend on the streets of what looked like New York City. As consciousness crystallized, I realized how little time I have left, how much I may not accomplish, and what little I actually have accomplished; and I thanked God for my dreams, the dreams of youth, the passion of a lifetime, and, hopefully, the wisdom to choose wisely which dreams to pursue for tomorrow.
Doug Canter’s writing has previously appeared in the Evansville Review, Talking Writing, 20-Something Magazine, and Public Utilities Fortnightly, among others, as well as on the websites of the American Bar Association, Discovery Channel Tech, and Danya Institute. Doug currently teaches English in Baltimore City. When he is not preparing lesson plans or writing, Doug is walking the C&O Canal in suburban Washington, D.C., or hiking the trails in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2011, Doug received a Master of Arts in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.