Lessons Learned

Parallel Lives

“I have no criminal record and I don’t do drugs”, J said emphatically, nipping any fore-drawn conclusions in the bud. His outburst would find its context as we spoke, and I got the feeling this issue has arisen  before. “But I didn’t assume” I could have said, truthfully. Instead I just let him speak.  J has been a dedicated biker since leaving school; he’s now in his 50s. I have to ask how his passion for motorcycles started. “I was 16 and wanted to be mobile”, he reveals. Rather than wait another year for a provisional car license and the associated expense of lessons; he took the short-cut to mobility and started out on two wheels instead. Although chosen from a standpoint of convenience, biking soon won him over and he became a lifelong convert, well, so far at least.

“I just loved it”, he says, so much so that he was an all-weather, year-round biker until the age of 30. That’s dedication, especially during the extremes of the UK’s often miserable climate. Eventually the novelty wore off and for the last 2 decades J has switched to his car for the dire winter months. Yes, ultimately the weather always wins.  “It makes you a better car driver”, he says of his life on two wheels. That makes sense, viewing the road from the exposed perspective of a biker must certainly highlight the hazards of the daily commute. Not only that but the awareness of other bikers is elevated. So many are killed, or injured by car drivers who somehow ‘didn’t see’ the two wheeled road user in front, or to the side, of them.

So, whilst dedicated to his bikes, his biker friends, and a good portion of the life that is part of the package, J also moves effortlessly and carefully through the civilian world. He maintains a home, a job, a family, normality by any other name. It takes a little care, but J is well practiced through necessity. Certain behaviors engender associated consequences, usually delivered on the expectations of others, while J is merely minding his own business. “When you pull up (on a bike) alongside people at traffic lights they think you are trouble”, he reveals, admitting a conscious effort to redress the balance when not on the road. “I don’t look like a biker and it’s not on my resume.” The latter point came from a conversation with a former boss, who advised him never to mention it on a resume. Doing so would automatically render him a liability, akin to an “extreme sports” enthusiast in the eyes of prospective employers. He continues: “I hide the tattoos on my arms, even though they are not ‘biker’ tattoos.”  Nonetheless, all the elements contribute to a certain image that could work against him when he wants it least: in the context of a paying job for instance. In some respects J’s care amounts to hiding his true self, by his own admission.

Our society is not yet ready to accept J’s (or anyone’s) parallel, biker life on equal terms, though interestingly and perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t see any separation: “It’s all part of the same world”, he emphasizes. Social media is an ongoing, homogenizing force: the profiles of bikers, civvies, work colleagues, and more all co-exist on J’s Facebook page, side-by-side, each with equal weight and status. The lives behind them glide past each other like ships in the night whilst J’s path crosses them all.

The common, media-fueled perception of bikers, however, is the only consideration to most outsiders unwilling to think beyond prejudice. However like most myths, at the heart of it, there is a rare nugget of truth that most of us have no business with. The world is large enough to contain many rarities, all waiting to be found if you are prepared to search hard enough. Sometimes it’s wiser not to look.

Through a difficult time, a mid-life crisis that saw uncertainty and a change of relationships, J sought the company and perhaps the validation of a biker fraternity unashamedly nonchalant about their reputation among the often fearful mainstream: a “1%er” patch-wearing bike gang. The self-appointed “1%er” label originated in 1947 following a statement issued by the American Motorcyclist Association during the media frenzy that followed the Hollister (California) bike rally, aka “The Hollister Riot”. In attempts to counter the negative press, the A.M.A declared that 99% of motorcyclists are in fact law-abiding citizens. This inspired the hardened clubs of the period to blatantly declare that they were therefore the “other 1%”, choosing to value their own codes above the rule of law and thereby setting their reputation in stone.

After two years as a “prospect” (a would-be member tested for his obedience, respect and dedication), J became a full member although subsequent events were not set to follow his initial plan. He describes his adoptive organization in terms of “family”, but with a dedication over and above any biological equivalent. So much so that he could envisage his own flesh and blood family usurped and sidelined until only his biker brothers remained. This was only the start of his concerns. They saw him as intelligent and useful, even dangerously so. He could potentially be called upon to participate in risky, hazardous endeavors and remain the least likely suspect, such was his ability to blend with everyday “normality”. His clean record meant that any future legal transgressions would be met with relative leniency by the system, should he “take the rap” of course, something that he quickly realized he would be obliged to do. Any legal ‘difficulties’ would also have serious repercussions for his livelihood, such was the nature of his work. The far-reaching consequences of his membership were coming into grim focus: “Until you’re in it; you don’t realize”, he admits.

Usually there is no way back or out, but occasionally there are tales of those who have managed to extricate themselves. With his inevitable future becoming more apparent, J realized he must free himself or be trapped by events that could not be undone. Fortunately his mainstream job involving technical systems would provide the perfect leverage. Work would take him abroad for extended periods, forcing an absence from his biker life and its increasing commitments, much to the irritation of his internal and external families. With stress at home and the demands of work to contend with something had to give. On presenting his case to his gang superiors, it became apparent that he could no longer do his membership justice, and it was with some relief on J’s part that with due consideration they allowed him to step down and also to leave on good terms. “They’re less harsh than in the USA”, he tells me.

Today, nearly two decades later, he still remains good friends with some of his original bike chapter, but as a welcome outsider, a rare breed. His former life, although relatively brief, still follows him as an ex-member of a particular gang. There are places and events that he can’t visit, all territories marked by rival organizations that cannot be crossed now that he is indelibly stained for life by association with the enemy. Some shadows cannot be brushed aside, a cautionary tale.

Meanwhile, we may pass him in the street, and suspect nothing. After all: he still doesn’t look like a biker.

Riding Your First Motorcycle

vulcan-900Many people, men and women alike, believe that motorcycles are easy to handle. After all, most of us mastered a bicycle by the age of eight and like a bicycle, motorcycles have two wheels as well. How difficult can they really be to manage on the road? The average person can get a bicycle up to around 30 mph on a flat surface. A pro cyclist can get to around 50 mph. A motorcycle can go from zero to more than 60 mph in under 4 seconds. That’s a steep increase over a bicycle, and one that should be your first clue that riding a motorcycle is going to take quite a bit of practice to get right.

If you are in the market for your first motorcycle or you know, as many riders do, that your life will be enriched through the travel options that owning a motorcycle will bring, you should take a few things into consideration before making your purchase and before hopping on the seat to take it for a spin. A motorcycle does not come equipped with an airbag or safety features like an automobile, and until you have been through some training, you simply do not want to just “hop on” and try to ride away into the sunset. A simple mistake when driving a car may end with a small scratch or even a slight fender dent. Making a mistake on a motorcycle can end your life. Be aware though that while riding a motorcycle is often thought to be dangerous, so are many other things in life and you can control the danger level by gaining experience and learning to be safe.

Before you ride your first bike, you may want to consider taking a motorcycle safety course with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) as they offer safety courses nationwide for motorcycle owners and those interested in riding. Taking a course is not mandatory, but (more…)

Motorcycles: The Balancing Point

JOHN-G-YOGA-BIKE-1024x683Motorcycles: The Balancing Point

An exploration of how riding motorcycles is a form of meditation, by John G. (originally published for Burn Out Italy)

I saw my first motorcycle when I was four years old, and instantly knew that I was meant to be on two wheels.

Bruce Lee At the age of 14, I was very fortunate to meet and spend time with two of my older cousins who live in Greece. Both happen to be (more…)

Beautiful and Broken

The article “Beautiful and Broken” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 11/01/2015.

Broken-ZenIn the Aftermath of a Crash –

Kintsukuroi (or kintsugi) may sound like the name of the latest model from one of the big four Japanese motorcycle companies. Actually, it is the Japanese art of repairing the cracks in broken pottery with gold or silver—literally “golden repair.” The belief is that an object is more beautiful for having been broken. One of the historical accounts of the origins of kintsukuroi is that a hot-headed military leader was given a specially crafted bowl for a tea ceremony. The bowl was dropped by another person and broken. To avoid the wrath of the leader, a guest ad-libbed a poem equating each of the five pieces to one of the other guests. The true life of the bowl began the moment it was broken. In kintsukuroi, it is the belief that the vulnerability of the object is what makes it beautiful.

When I read about it, I thought about motorcycles in general and mine in particular. I ride a 2005 Suzuki V-Strom adorned with scars and scratches. If I were to walk a stranger around the bike I call Big Red, I could tell them the story of the motorcycle from those marks. New motorcycles are beautiful, but they have no past; and it is history that brands anything and gives it life. A motorcycle’s life begins the moment it is ridden.

After calling several dealers in my area looking specifically for a red V-Strom, I finally found one; but the dealer informed me that vandals had thrown bricks through the dealership window that bounced across the motorcycle. The romantic in me knows that great tales have interesting beginnings, so I drove up to take a look. I found it in the back, under a tarp, and covered with dust and bits of glass. A week later, after haggling about repairs and negotiating a great price, my brother Dave and his wife, Michelle, accompanied me on their ’94 Nighthawk to pick it up.

Fast forward three years to 2008. On my morning commute, I was broadsided by a Pennsylvania white-tailed deer at 45 miles an hour. His head hit Big Red’s gas tank directly in front of my left knee and destroyed nearly everything from that point forward: headlights (in a thousand splinters), front fender (split), turn signal, mirror and bar end weights (destroyed), and left side cowling (split in two). Plastic shards were everywhere, and I was in a ditch with a broken collarbone and severe bruising (but otherwise fine).

In his book, Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer wrote, “The fragility of crystal is not a weakness but a fineness.” Modern motorcycles are miracles of engineering and can withstand a tremendous amount of punishment; but crashing in that way, at that speed, their fragility becomes evident, and the destruction can be complete. I thought Big Red was done-for, and that I’d merely be telling anecdotes about a bike with an interesting beginning and tragic end that I had once owned but is now in a scrap heap.

One call to my brother and he was in a flatbed on the way to pick up the wreckage. A neighbor near the crash allowed me to push Big Red into his driveway and another stacked the fragments into a neat pile that resembled a memorial cairn. How fitting, I thought. One look at it and Dave told me how lucky I was. By that point, I knew I was fine, and my only concern was to resurrect my bike so I could ride again. I knew I would do so as soon as I was physically able, but I wanted to use this one again, my bike, the one I found broken and forgotten under a tarp and covered in dust and glass. I suspect that Dave knew exactly how I felt.

In the months that followed, we ordered parts, tore Big Red down to the frame, and rebuilt it. Or rather, my sibling did while I watched with one arm in a sling. As I healed, so Big Red was healed. The pieces of a broken work of art mended and were made more beautiful for having been broken. Each time I remove the left side cowling and see the skull shaped dent in the gas tank, I am reminded of that time in Dave’s garage (and my brief stint in the air that day).
I like to see the visible signs of wear on things, especially motorcycles. They mean that its purpose has been fulfilled. Each imperfection is a chapter in a chronicle that, often, only the owner knows. Kintsukuroi dictates that repairs are to be made with precious metals like gold and silver, but some repairs are made with things even more valuable, like a brother’s love and skill. Five years and 40,000 miles later, I still ride Big Red—the bike I found broken and that I will always find more beautiful for having been.

Ride Through the Twisties and Bhagavad Gita

DSC_0571As I twisted the throttle rounding a particularly exhilarating curve along my favorite twisty road and heard the satisfying exhaust burble of my Teutonic sport tourer, I thought of the first chapter of Bhagavad Gita.  Bhagavad Gita is one of the most sacred Hindu texts and a literary masterpiece that served as the source of inspiration for among others, Einstein, Thoreau and Emerson.  The epic poem traces the dialog between Arjuna, a decorated warrior, and Lord Krishna, the Divine who presents Itself to Arjuna as his charioteer.  The topic of the dialog between Arjuna and Lord Krishna is the life in Yoga.  As I strengthened my bike I saw the smiling face of my Guru.  A profound truth was about to be revealed to me.

I took no hallucinogens before my ride and have not been diagnosed with any condition of the body or mind associated with randomly appearing visions.  It is just when I am on a motorcycle alone with the wind and fully present in the experience, things, important, often deep things, come to me.

Nearly three months ago I got back from India after spending three-and-a-half weeks studying yoga and meditation and absorbing the wisdom of the Himalayas with my youthful Master, extraordinary Yogi, and a fellow motorcyclist, Anand Mehrotra.    My experience in Rishikesh, a small Indian town on the banks of the Ganges River, at the foothills of the Himalayas was beyond powerful.

Yet, upon returning I had no idea what happened to me.  Sure, I felt uplifted and inspired and to anyone who would DSC_0515listen I would tell how trans-formative my journey was.  Inside though I felt more dissatisfied than ever with nearly every aspect of my life.  As the pressures of everyday routines began to mount, I quickly fell into the same destructive patterns I thought I had left behind long before.  Even though I maintained a daily yoga and meditation practice and even taught these powerful disciplines to others, the disconnect within seemed as deep as ever.  I often wondered if I felt into the trap Anand warned so much about – acquiring a new vocabulary and a few ideas, but no depth beneath.

Then, on that motorcycle ride I thought of the first chapter of Bhagavad Gita.  In it, as Arjuna surveys the two armies about to engage in a bloody battle with each other, he tells the Great Lord that he does not want to fight; that he finds the bloody battle he is about to engage in utterly pointless; and that he likes the great men on both sides of the battlefield and feels sorry that they will lay their lives down in a useless feat.   Krishna, the Almighty Presence, the God of Yoga, tells Arjuna to fight indeed and do so fully without caring the slightest bit about the results.  And only then, Krishna begins to tell Arjuna about life in Yoga.

You see, what I got on that ride is that true change begins with awareness which then turns into presence with whatever is.  It is only after awareness and then presence that we can even begin the teachings of Yoga.

As my iron stead settled into the rhythm of a serpentine road – I understood.  After three and a half weeks in the Himalayas I simply began experiencing awareness, not yet presence.  But, I was transformed indeed, as I took the first tiny step towards life in Yoga.

Interview with Grant and Susan Johnson

 

Several months ago we reviewed the Achievable Dream DVD Series, produced by Horizons Unlimited, a worldwide portal, resource and meeting spot for motorcycle travelers. Recently, Zen Motorcyclist.com contributor, Henry Yampolsky, spoke with Grant and Susan Johnson, who after spending ten years traveling around the world on their modified BMW F80GS, founded Horizons Unlimited, which now has members in over 160 countries, hosts travelers meetings worldwide and provides one of the most comprehensive resources for motorcycle travel.

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The Walk Around

The-Walk-AroundThe article “The Walk Around” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 12/16/2012.

There have been a few occasions on which I failed to do a quick “walk around” before setting off on a ride. It’s easy to forget sometimes, we get in a hurry and want to hit the road and, honestly, how often do things just stop working on today’s modern bikes? It does happen on occasion, though, and (more…)

Darker Side of Autumn

Darker-Side-of-AutumnThe article “Darker side of Autumn” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 10/28/2012.

When I started riding I had no idea what the term “rut” meant. I knew there were a lot of deer in my home state of Pennsylvania but had no idea that they fought and mated primarily from Mid-October until December. It’s at these times of the year when deer are (more…)