I saw a motorcyclist on Main Street last week. A hardy soul. My car’s thermometer read -2, but then, such is the lure of motorcycle riding.
I have been a motorcyclist for almost 50 years, seduced at the age of 17 by a black BMW idling quietly outside a Boston coffee house. The allure of motorcycling has been misappropriated slightly by the North American concept of “The Biker.”
Most motorcyclists around the world don’t ride Harley Davidsons, wear black leather or even have tattoos and the notion of freedom for most does not mean free to terrorize small towns or engage in organized criminal activity.
Of course, most people who call themselves bikers these days don’t do those things either; they’re accountants and grocery clerks but they like to dress the part.
The real freedom associated with motorcycling has to do with the combination of the physical and emotional responses generated by riding the machine.
Out of all the modes of transportation ever invented for land, sea or air, only the motorcycle requires a real human being to operate it.
All the others can be driven by computers or remote control. A motorcycle, however, without a human rider, just crashes. Riding a motorcycle requires focus and one’s full attention both at slow speeds in town, so that you don’t get run over by a car driver who didn’t see you, and at high speed on a twisty country road so that you don’t fly off at a corner.
One uses both hands and both feet to operate the controls and the inputs of sight, sound, touch and smell are always being monitored.
Almost every motorcyclist can tell you how the smell of rain made them fortunately slow down before a dry, blind corner that exited onto a section of wet, slippery road. Combine all that with the wind, engine sounds, vibration and the fact that the rider and the motorcycle both constantly lean into turns to balance the forces of traction and inertia and one has an experience that is exquisitely visceral.
Which brings us to a Dec. 8, 2011, Vancouver Sun article by art critic Kevin Griffin. In commenting on an exhibition at the Or Gallery called Studies in Decay, he mentions the video exhibit by Jordy Hamilton of a burning motorcycle being riddled with bullets.
Griffin comments: “Once portrayed in popular culture and in films such as Easy Rider as the ultimate freedom machines, motorcycles and their internal combustion engines can no longer be separated from oil colonialism and their role in global warming. Even if motorcycles were once marketed as embodying rebellion and freedom, they’ve become the exact opposite today. Freedom is no longer what it used to be.”
Alas, many things aren’t what they used to be. The physical and visceral have given way to the immaterial and virtual. Children no longer use their imaginations to turn cardboard boxes into club houses and fairy castles, or sticks into swords and magic wands. Now they sit in front of screens and play in someone else’s imaginary kingdom, moving virtual figures with their thumbs.
Socialization no longer involves being in the presence of anyone at all. Both conversation and confrontation are conducted in cyberspace, where people hide behind avatars, and personality and character are figments of the latest YouTube video.
Freedom, always an elusive abstraction, may not be what it used to be with cameras on every street corner and human rights routinely discounted for the sake of political expediency but I know that it exists still.
And when I encourage my motorcycle to propel me down lonely roads at extravagant speeds, all those visceral inputs of wind and sound and vibration, of gravity and inertia, acceleration and deceleration convince me that the elusive abstraction can almost be made concrete.
I am sorry that global warming may be changing the world for the worse but I am sorrier still that some people see humanity’s future in cyberspace.
Though legislators may eventually rid the planet of all internal combustion engines, the motorcycle will remain in the minds of the last surviving riders, a creation that was always far more than some marketing consultant’s illusion of freedom. It was the real thing.
And it took more than a pair of thumbs to ride.
– Jim Holtz is WEEKENDER columnist and a former reporter for the Grand Forks Gazette