When I was 21 years old I wanted a motorcycle. A Honda Rebel 250, to be precise. In red. I was an English major at a small and lovely Southern liberal arts college. Perhaps the neo-Gothic dignity of my academic environs, where I spent my time explicating John Donne’s poetry and debating themes within Russian novels, did a little to push me towards something that would brand me as raw and rebellious. I had a pen. But I wanted a sword.
I graduated college sans motorcycle. But the fascination lingered. Many years later I found myself in another quiet, decorous environment, this time on a tree-lined street in suburban Pittsburgh. And the urge to shatter the quiet grew irresistible.
Granted, the past years had been difficult. I’d lost family members, including a cousin younger than I, and before that, my Harley-riding uncle. There was professional upheaval as the company I worked for underwent an acquisition, and personal upheaval through an interstate move. I searched for something that would center me. I searched for an escape. And sure enough, fate brought me into the path of another red Honda Rebel.
The student in me chose the classroom route for learning to ride. I gathered with 7 other aspiring motorcyclists on a bright morning in the parking lot of a community college. My borrowed helmet glommed onto my head like a barnacle, growing hotter and heavier as the day warmed.
My first challenge was simply starting the bike, and it quickly assumed Herculean proportions. I had never done this before. Manual transmission was as foreign to me as driving a horse and carriage. Conceptually, I understood what was supposed to happen: Turn on the ignition. Open the choke. Set the engine switch on. Pull in the clutch. Start the engine. Ease the clutch open. Gently roll on the throttle.
Perversely, the motorcycle refused to cooperate. Every time I either opened the clutch too fast, or the throttle too soon, or some combination of both, and the engine would stall out amidst the stares of my classmates. After about two dozen attempts the motorcycle lurched forward, carrying me with it – but handling and braking hadn’t been taught yet, and I quickly lost control of the bike. Down we both went.
So far I was about 20 minutes into my motorcycling career, and it was kicking my ass.
Nothing prepared me for the sheer physicality of motorcycles. I bruised my leg on the pavement, burnt my hand brushing against the hot engine. My wrists ached from the unfamiliarity of using the throttle. But I refused to give up. No one else could ride the bike for me.
So I did. Somehow, at last, the bike started and together we moved forward in a cautious glide. I had no more falls. I learned how to brake, and to turn, and by day’s end I was riding between a series of staggered cones in a way that felt almost easy.
I am not a Jedi yet. I’m only closer to being mistress of my fear. I’m a little closer to being able to go into an arena where failure is not only probable, but certain, and once I’ve failed to get back up again. There is a thrilling beauty in breaking away from the known. There is the thrill of feeling, for the first time, the bike respond to me, of body and machine working together. Few other places in my life have such visceral immediacy.
As we age, fewer things are new to us. We grow wary and risk-averse. We avoid danger, because we know better. We gain comfort and experience but lose the ability to lose ourselves. Motorcycling gave that back to me. The rebel rejoices.