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vroooom, vroooom

Sage, aka: 1982 Honda XR 100

Sage, aka: 1982 Honda XR 100

Rock climbing a few weeks ago, two ski instructor friends, Jordan and Dennis, pulled me aside.  “Susan.  We heard that you’ve been riding a dirt bike.”  Dennis put his hand on my shoulder and stooped to look me in the face.  “Really??”  I bit my lip and tried not to smile.  “It just…it doesn’t seem like you.  You’re such a hippie.”  I could only nod, sheepish but proud.

Chris (my boyfriend, as introduced in my last post) is a versatile outdoors person: skier, snowboarder, hiker, camper, boater, and dirt biker.  I matched him card for card except for the dirt biking (and snowboarding) which was okay with me, but not so much with him.  Suddenly, motorcycling became a frequent topic of conversation.  Chris started introducing friends to me as “Travis, one of those super awesome guys I go biking with,” or “Laurie – man, you should see her tear it up on her bike!”  Carolyn, one of our supervisors at the Brighton ski school, got wind of the game and called several times, pointedly mentioning that her old dirt bike “could really use someone to take it out and play”.  And so, one night I went over to Chris’s house and there it was: Carolyn’s 1982 Honda XR 100.  Chris rolled it out so I could sit on it (“Just to get a feel for it, that’s all.”).  He bit his lip as I swung one leg over and settled onto the seat, and I could see him trying to contain his excitement.  I surrendered.  “Okay!  Okay, I’ll try it.”

There’s a lot to think about on a motorcycle.  Both hands and feet have important jobs, and then there’s the rest of the body, committed to balancing and steering.  The left hand operates the clutch.  The left foot shifts gears.  The right hand has to run the front brake and the throttle, while the right foot covers the rear brake.  The bike’s twenty-seven years old.  They didn’t make electric starters for bikes twenty-seven years ago.  Starting means flicking the gear lever into neutral, holding the clutch in, and then kicking the foot lever on the right side to fire it up.  It takes a few kicks to get her purring.  I was nervous as Chris coached me from neutral into first gear.  The first time I popped the clutch the front wheel lifted, I squeezed the throttle in fear, and with a terrifying roar, the bike flipped out from under me and crashed down onto the landscaping rocks in front of Chris’s house.  That was almost the end of my motorcycling career, but Chris was persistent.  The second lesson came on a Memorial Day camping trip in Wyoming.  The whole motorcycle crew was there, with their motor homes and generators, and more dirt bikes than I could count.  Huge clay hills rose steeply from the border of our camp, and from sunup til sundown, the bikes whined and snarled up and over and around and through the hills.  Except for me.  I put-putted around the camp in first gear, my body tense under the borrowed helmet, elbow pads, chest protector and knee pads.  I slid my feet in my heavy fire boots along the ground for balance.  I was in no hurry to join the crazies at the top of the hill.  “This is fun?”  I wondered.  “I’m a hippie,” I reminded Chris.  “I don’t like noisy, environment-destroying things!”

Susan the hippie's first wobbly steps as a motorcyclist.

Susan the hippie's first wobbly steps as a motorcyclist.

“Hippies invented these things.  They make it possible to do more, to go farther.  They’re environment-explorers.”  He gave me his best persuasive grin.  “Come on; let’s try for second gear this time.”

Weeks later, after more lessons and more practice, with Chris as the patient coach, I’ve learned that the bike’s weight is easier to handle when it’s moving quickly, and that the smaller, 4-stroke engine gets better gas mileage than an average 4-cylinder car.  We ride in the desert, not in the mountains, through sage brush, sand, and clay, miles from civilization.  The desert-scape is beautiful, but monotonous.  The terrain I could cover in one long, hot day on foot is less than a quarter of the distance possible on a motorcycle, and the engine’s noise dissipates rapidly in the open air.  Steep hills are still terrifying, as are speeds greater than 30 mph (braking, downshifting, and turning are also challenging), but I’m getting a feel for the interplay of clutch, gears, and throttle, and on the flat straightaway, I enjoy the feeling of being in control of such a powerful machine.  Susan the…motorcyclist?  Perhaps not, but it would seem that my hippie sensibilities aren’t as opposed to riding a dirt bike as I’d thought.

One weekend, Chris and I drove into the salty desert west of the city.  We passed the Great Salt Lake on the way.  The biggest water for miles, it runs all the way into the horizon, and with the smell of salt and the wheeling sea gulls, it’s the closest thing to the ocean I’ve seen in months.  Jack and Jen, other ski instructor friends, were waiting for us out in the desert, near the sand dunes.  They buzzed off in a second, and I waved Chris ahead while I started my bike, slipped it into first, and slowly urged it up into second, then third gear.  The terrain around the dunes was flat and solid, and I felt confident enough to relax and look up from the trail.  Chris, Jack, and Jen were small, colorful shapes ahead of me, dwarfed by the immense dunes which shone golden in the sun.  Behind them, to the east, a storm was brewing and the sky was colored indigo.  Where the furthest dunes met the horizon, the sunlight became refracted, inverting the shape of the dunes into a shimmering mirage: fata morgana, a phenomenon I hadn’t seen since Antarctica.  The warm wind felt good in my face, and I nudged the bike into fourth gear with my left toe.  That’s when I realized I was smiling.

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