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It's Nelly's World

You Didn't Stop Me: Part II

alec vanderboom

For the first year after the break, voices reached out to me, through the electronic ether. People who just wanted to know how I was doing. People who could read my dreams. They were the ones who would not give up. “Get a bike.” “Get a bike.” “Get a bike.”

Till I began to repeat it too, “Get a bike?” And suddenly, one day, impossible as it seemed, ill-fitting to my life as middle-aged mother of one, fairly alone in all ways, the question mark became period. It did so in part because of the messianic fervor of some of these voices, impossible to ignore in the same way it is impossible to breathe in fumes of incense while gazing at the heaven of a gothic vaulted ceiling, medieval chant bearing you aloft, and not believe in the holy spirit. These priests shall remain nameless in case some of them are here. But what they wanted to bring me back to is in fact better than a religion, which after all is just a set of beliefs. Biking is more than that. It is an experience in this time and this space, one that takes not just the mind, but the body and its heart, for a ride.

It now seemed proper for a more sedate mount—and one that would start more reliably, too. Gone were the days (or so I needed to believe) of laying out parts on a city sidewalk over the course of long weekends, a metal picnic shared with other unencumbered friends, or chasing mail-order spark plugs in rare sizes across continents. The time was right for the Other Europe.

Still, I fretted. The world had changed, and so had I. Reading glasses. Another few million cars every year I had been out. The advent of cell phones, and of SUVs. Worse, cell phones and SUVs together. But I had been fretting for so long, and about so many things, that I finally wore myself out. And the day that I heard, at long last, a smooth, low triple singing in increasing volume from down the hill, then turn in to my drive where I saw it coming from behind the window where I had been watching, I stopped. I could no longer fret, because all I wanted now was to ride.

The relief. Relief from incessant what-ifs, the voices of unreason and counter-reason in my head. A relief to act, to start living again. To wake from sleep.

And so my bike’s first act of salvation was to provide a community to replace, or at least enfold, the one that was shattered for me. It came rushing back, the memory of open arms, the generosity of strangers, who are not very strange, so long as they are riders too. I was united, powerfully, not only through common desire, but by the very constitution of the blood, shared in what feels like an evolutionary drive that forms you like this, needing to ride, and joining with others who “get it.” We were isolated, together, by something that is beyond the ability to explain. Or, anyway, the time it would take to explain is time you cannot spare.

I wondered about what it is, exactly, that binds us so tight together that people you barely knew would, say, ride two hundred miles to lend you gear until you could free your own from the prison of crated storage. Or spend a few days hanging out to fix a leak, with the only payment a couple of salmon burgers and a not unreasonable amount of chocolate. Or answer endless e-mails about the new issue of “lowering,” which you learn has generated a veritable Wikipedia of insight into the arcane world of Bavarian after-market expenditure.

I found an answer one day, in a book about those utopian communities of mutual aid that spontaneously spring up in the wake of disasters. It is titled A Paradise Built in Hell, not that that is always apt in reference to motorcycling, though it is on those days when starters fry or rubber ruptures or cables snap. The author quotes a sociologist named Charles Fritz, who was an Army Air captain stationed in Britain in World War II, and so presumably knows whereof he speaks. What I am about to read here from Fritz’s conclusions about group behavior seems to strike most closely to the heart of why motorcyclists represent one of the most cohesive, and caring, groups it is possible to encounter. Quote: “The widespread sharing of danger, loss, and deprivation produces an intimate, primarily group solidarity among the survivors, which overcomes social isolation, provides a channel for intimate communication and expression, and provides a major source of physical and emotional support and reassurance. . . . The ‘outsider’ becomes an ‘insider,’ the ‘marginal man’ a ‘central man.’ People are thus able to perceive, with a clarity never before possible, a set of underlying basic values to which all people subscribe. They realize that collective action is necessary for these values to be maintained and that individual and group goals are inextricably merged. This merging of individual and societal needs provides a feeling of belonging and a sense of unity rarely achieved under normal circumstances.” End quote. Indeed, I had always thought, What a funny idea, bikes antisocial. Who’s more social than bikers?

As proof, I now encountered the new brave new world of online forums, wherein countless like-minded riders spent every last minute they were not on two wheels on their modems, slinging clever barbs at one another with such astounding vigor one could only duck to avoid dismemberment. I could not even hope to participate until I overcame the fear that I could never create an avatar and moniker that would meet the off-color comic standards of most of these groups, much less enter the fray that made yet another of our great secrets manifest: per square inch, bikers possess more humor as well as more intelligence than any other group it is possible to name.

In re-encountering this aspect of belonging and commonality, I felt another kind of salvation coming down like gentle rain. What was this strange yet vaguely familiar feeling? Good god. It was happiness. I could not remember when I had last known that rich, smooth sensation. Here now was not only the animal happiness of riding, but the happiness of laughter, and the happiness of unearthing something wonderful and well-missed that had been long buried as in those attic boxes—my own sense of humor. Even if I was not yet a full-fledged wiseass.

Although I aspired to it. Oh yes I did. Thus I found bikes rejuvenating, literally, returning to youth, more specifically, age twelve, the height of one’s powers as a caustic comedian. This was purest pleasure, and I was now ready for pleasure; the lusciousness of the road and the shared wave cut into high relief how long it was that I had gone without. I had to make up for lost time, then, drink a double. Every sort of desire: the newly awakened do not differentiate among physical, emotional, intellectual pleasures. It was on a ride one day that it occurred to me that perhaps the biggest secret we share is that what we are doing out there in the open as we brake and gear down and lean is exactly (so far as our neurology is concerned) what other folk usually hide behind the bedroom door.

It was all bound up, too, in the pleasure of dreaming of where to go on my bike, and what it would feel like. Yes, I still had school lunches to fix, and bills to worry about, but I also now had road trips to plan: the promise of pleasure made only to myself, after years of what felt like living only for others. Although I did have monthly girls’ night out, I admit. Selfishness as salvation, arriving on the back of a blue ’92 K75.