Lessons Learned

Company Along the Way

The article “Company Along the Way” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 09/15/17.

“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” —William Butler Yeats

I’m currently suffering from jet lag after a busy few days that included taking an Uber 50 miles to purchase and ride home a Triumph Street Triple, then packing, dropping my boy Spud at the farm, and catching a flight to Las Vegas. My hastily thrown together plan was to fly to Las Vegas, rent another Street Triple, and ride to Hoover Dam and the 300 miles or so to the Grand Canyon; one man-made and one natural wonder, both of which I’ve always wanted to see.

I picked up my Triple in Vegas and, with help from Dyllan, attached a charging port under the seat to charge my cell phone … which, a few hundred miles later, I realized was lying somewhere along Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman, AZ, due to a combination of speed, wind, and lack of a rubber strap on my RAM mount.

Along Route 66 East of Kingman, Arizona

The South Rim of the canyon on Saturday evening was very crowded. I made a plan to wake before dawn Sunday, ride the two miles back to the rim, and enjoy it in silence before heading west toward Vegas. I took a few quick photos but then put the camera away. I was more interested in being there than in recording having been.

Sunday morning was a cold ride, but the sight that greeted me was well worth the early wake-up call. There was no wind, no noise but the random bird chirp, just me and the colors of the canyon. I’ve always loved sitting near the ocean for the same reason I loved standing there that morning. As out of control and random as life can seem, it’s calming to be in the presence of something so ageless and unalterable.

My ride back took me through Kingman, where I met Chris, who helped me replace my lost cell phone, and in the process mentioned that he wanted to get his first bike but was afraid his youth and need for speed might be a problem. The best advice I could offer him was to get good gear and wear it, develop a skill set, and gain confidence in his riding before trying to go fast.

Hoover Dam

Returning my bike, I met Michael, in town on business, who had rented a BMW F 800 GS for the weekend. We shared a ride, after which he showed me photos of his home in Austria and talked about hiking, riding, and traveling in Europe. After returning the Triple, I took another Uber downtown, driven by a friendly woman named Victoria. In our 15-minute ride, we covered such topics as our work histories, our thoughts on how employees should be treated, and what I should see on the strip on my last day. I also stopped to commemorate the trip with a small tattoo added to my sleeve by V-Rod, who, while inking me, told me stories about a friend of his who owns a Hayabusa.

What struck me during this trip was how often in our day we have the opportunity to ask someone’s name, where they are from, find out a little bit about them, let them tell their story. People want to tell their stories, and if you show the slightest, honest interest, they will. Everyone wants to matter, to be noticed—not for having done something necessarily, just for who they are. We all like connections, though I think we often forget they are possible in our everyday comings and goings, as we hurriedly pass each other by, anxious to get somewhere else.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, we won’t be here for eons; we have but a handful of years to figure out why we are here and to help others figure it out too. This trip taught me that even in a place as fast-paced as Las Vegas, there are opportunities to connect in meaningful ways with complete strangers and to make the world a bit smaller in the process. I’ll never forget riding in solitude for hours and finally seeing the Grand Canyon. But in recalling this trip in the future, I’ll also remember the few minutes I spent with those mentioned here as well as the dozen or so others I met but didn’t mention, who made it even more memorable; people who could’ve simply just done their jobs, but instead offered more, exchanging small pieces of themselves in the process.

In recounting my stories of lost items to my friend Grace, she said, “You left a lot out there.” “Yeah,” I said, “but I brought more back.” No one ever really travels alone—you may leave alone and return alone, but there’s always company along the way.

Old is New Again

The article “Old is New Again” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 5/23/17.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

—Henry David Thoreau

It’s early February and I haven’t ridden much in weeks due to weather, but I have kept myself busy with other motorcycle-related projects. I find myself at a crossroads physically, dealing with the still lingering side effects of Lyme disease and nerve pain associated with a spinal stenosis flare-up. This while I watch my mother undergo chemo treatments without complaint. Compared to her trials, mine seem miniscule, but when you’ve self-identified as an athlete for most of your life and then are no longer able to, it’s a difficult transition.

I wasn’t raised to complain, but pain is pain and causes limitations that you can’t ignore forever. Once you’ve raised a child and buried a parent, however, life loses some of its ability to knock you off your stride. I do find myself having to adjust course, redefine myself, and accept some new physical restrictions, though. Thankfully riding isn’t one of them; but the time I would normally have spent working out has been replaced by remodeling my home and, of course, tinkering with and upgrading my motorcycle. This year’s additions included LED headlights, engine guards, grip pads, tank pads, and a peg lowering kit.

Zen MotorcyclistLast summer I replaced a worn-out chain and sprockets and, rather than throw the old parts out, hung them on a pegboard in my garage in a pattern that resembled a sort of misshapen face: the draped chain formed a wide smile beneath two dirty, mismatched sprocket eyes. I started thinking it’d be a pleasant diversion, and a nice addition to the home I’m decorating, to make something from the parts. A clock seemed like an obvious choice.

I’ve never considered myself particularly crafty, and if you’ve read any of my old blog posts you know that my history with tools is at best a humorous one. I found the clock-making process, however, to be cathartic and motivating. I figured I’d either end up with something original to hang in my home, or a mess of a conversation piece to hide in the garage and laugh about over a beer and to remind me of a pleasant distraction during a particularly stressful winter.

I’m happy with the way the piece eventually turned out. I’m glad to have had a few hours every other day over the weeks it took to finish it to focus on creating something unique, rather than dwelling on mom’s impending treatments and my own nagging pains. The welcome distraction of cleaning and painting, finding the right clock movement and perfect curved glass to cover it and the materials to hold it all together, served as a metaphor for me. Though the parts may be worn-out and past being useful in the manner intended, they needn’t be discarded and can, with a change of focus and intent, be put to another use: to start over and live a second, previously un-imagined life.

The clock I made now hangs in my sunroom. The chain and sprockets it is made from propelled me some 15,000 miles over the better part of two years. I’m sure each link represents a dozen memories from that time. Several people have told me I could make them to sell, but the value to me isn’t in what it might be worth but rather in what it represents. By craftsman standards I’m sure it would be considered amateurish at best. Just like motorcycle riding though, the lasting value is never in the arriving, in the completion. The lasting value is in the process; in how much you change, reflect, and grow along the way and in what memories the effort leaves you with. In the words of Henry Miller, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Regarding my recycled timepiece, I will always see far more in it than there is to look at. This may even become a winter ritual. When the weather warms, I’ll get started on the next recycling project, maybe a pendulum clock this time, or a lamp of some sort. I can’t decide; but I’m in no hurry. It’ll take another 15,000 miles or so to get the parts ready …

The Road Not Yet Traveled

The article “The Road Not Yet Traveled” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 7/31/17.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”  -The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

 

When I started blogging for RoadRUNNER five years ago or so, I used the title “The Road Often Traveled” for my first few posts. Commuting by motorcycle was what I thought I knew something about, so I borrowed and butchered a line from Robert Frost’s 100-year-old poem. I often heard it referred to as “The Road Less Traveled,” but the title is actually “The Road Not Taken.”

I recently had a phone conversation with the head of marketing for a sports eyewear manufacturer. It turned out to be an unexpectedly in-depth conversation not only about how I started riding but also writing, as well as my professional career path. It got me thinking about the Frost poem and about how decision leads to decision and one path leads to another. After a bit of research, however, the poem has come to mean something new to me.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “the road less traveled” used to sell everything from cars to vacations, to self-help books. You’ve seen it inscribed on mugs and on inspirational posters. While Frost’s poem is easily one of the most searched pieces of literature ever written, it is also one that is almost always misinterpreted.

The poem speaks of a traveler coming upon two roads diverging in a yellow wood. In most cases (car commercials, for instance), the words are used as a celebration of rugged individualism and people boldly choosing the path that not many do; but the poem isn’t about that at all. Rather, it’s about reconciling our decisions later in life, looking back and coming to terms with our choices long after they’ve been made. As the poem says, both roads are equally worn and there is no difference between them—a fact many eager to push product always miss.

Frost initially wrote the poem to poke fun at his friend, English critic Edward Thomas, who had the habit of regretting whatever path the two happened to take during their walks in the countryside. After coming across this fact about the poem, I felt better about it. I had always thought the poem somewhat sad, since the narrator says he would speak of his choice of direction many years later with a sigh. I’d always thought that sigh meant that he’d lament having not chosen the other road, that, given the chance, he’d want to go back to see how things might have turned out had he chosen otherwise.

As a motorcyclist, I can point to the specific events that prompted me to start riding, of choosing that “road.” I’ve written about them often in the last few years. In the broader sense though, I’ve given thought to the other “roads” I’ve taken in life. Recently my friend and coworker Brian asked if I’d ever thought about what career path I might have chosen if I hadn’t pursued computer-aided design. As is the case with my decision to start riding, I couldn’t help but smile and say, “No, actually, I am where I’m supposed to be.”

The decision to begin riding motorcycles was the most natural I’ve ever made. I needed my brother’s company after our father’s death. To look back with a sigh and imagine having not decided to ride isn’t a question at all—never was, never will be. Truth be told, I can’t think of a path I’ve been down that I’ve regretted or would choose not to go down again. You are the sum total of the roads you’ve traveled, and if you love yourself (and you must) then you must love those roads, those choices that made you who you are. Rather than an arbitrary choice to be re-examined with a sigh years hence, I’ll look back on riding, as I do now, as a liberating decision that expanded my circle of friends and created a vehicle of expression for feelings that might otherwise have gone unexpressed.

Riding itself can be seen metaphorically as “the path less traveled,” and, my friends, it certainly has made all the difference. When I hear advertisers get Frost’s poem wrong, I have to laugh. More than 100 years later he’s still having fun with us while at the same time making us think.

Wherever you find yourself on your road, I hope that you are looking ahead to your next choices and content with those already made. After all, that road, your road, really is the road not yet traveled.

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.