Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Machine Age

Through cool weather one day I rode with the Orange Ninja into corners that we know fairly well. It was the day after we made slight adjustments to my bike’s suspension, so I was intending the bike perhaps more than usual on the ride. Did the bike just turn faster than before? Should I make another adjustment? Perhaps on a race track I would have an easier time noticing the difference. Still, the machine moved well and there were turns to enjoy.

On a long, straight and boring road headed northward a dog crept up from a ditch where it was previously hidden and strolled directly into my path. Two fingers leapt from the throttle to the brake lever and pulled it back. Fluid traveled from the master cylinder through hoses that don’t flex to the brake calipers. I heard the shush-like scrape of sintered pads on the front rotors as the springs in the front forks compressed a few centimeters. The muscles in my arms came alive and I was properly upon the dog when it finally noticed us and ran to safety. It had a collar.

I avoided an accident through decision, physical action and the response of a network of engineered parts. That is pretty much how things are done these days and for the most part the arrangement works well. So well, in fact, that it contributes to self-deception.

A neighbor of mine came into contact with a canine while riding and died at the scene. He rocked gear, rode sober and didn’t have a particularly fast or unwieldy motorcycle. He also had more years riding experience than I have years. I mourned the loss and resolved to continue the development of my skills. I had to be better. I had to get this shit down to a science, ride like a well-oiled machine or some other modern improvement metaphor. Yeah. A look at my scarred hand reveals that such a style was not to be done.

On a teched out planet, one that the founders of the World’s Fair could not have imagined, our patterns of expectation have made an illogical jump. News wires are rife with breakthroughs of some kind. A gene is isolated. A better fuel cell is created. A new method for whatever the fuck is devised. Slowly the narratives have simmered, until at last we have come to expect that the answer to all problems will come, that it will take only effort and focus.

Kenneth Kaunda called it the Machine Age Heresy. He said that people are quick to apply the patterns of advancement in technology to politics, to the social sphere, and that this is a mistake of the highest order. It causes us to desire and expect that which simply cannot happen. Sometimes there is no X factor waiting to be discovered that will dissolve our personal and social problems. Sometimes there is no team of professionals who will uncover a secret hidden in nature. Sometimes the only thing that can bring an end to our troubles is time. And this, only because death is the point to which everything tapers.

Similarly, there will never be a time where I can become as reliable and precise in my thought and action as my bike is in its function. Nor can I get the world to behave with the regulated harmony of a tuning fork. I may rock safety gear. I may increase my skills every time I ride but I will always, ultimately, be naked before the road. On the bike as it is in life, at the mercy of the forces in the periphery and the fore. Hope I can pull the brake lever in time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Garden

The sound of a bamboo thicket is far from the mere rustling of leaves in a winded meadow. Even in a slight breeze, one is subjected to a symphony of creaks and artifacts that that refuse placement. It is as though something is lost in those shoots, maybe something that should stay lost.

I am only near the bamboo for a moment on the path. Soon enough, I encounter kangaroo fern, or a fringe tree, or just an open field in which no children are at play. I also encounter people, mostly white and old. I think, If I am here at my current age, what will I do if I grow as old as them? Will a manicured garden near a singing tower continue to charm the elderly me? In the future, what will there be to look forward to? Amidst the greenery is the occasional statuette of a monk. Probably a saint, someone who watches over and keeps peace. Across the clearing, a sleepy child clings to its mother. I could use a nap as well, but there are miles between me and a place of rest.

The tower is an aberration in this region, where even the orange groves seem less elegant than the local strip malls. The structure is a few stories high, stone and crafted glass. somewhere within, the bells play. I heard them in the distance when I was on the approach. Chimed renderings of songs sung by cowboys long ago and anthems for patriots. But the song had died by the time I got near. The crowd had crept away and the sky grew a shade darker beneath a thick cloud.

As I look at a swan wading in the moat before the tower, a damning phrase subtitles my scene. I get it. This is the eulogy for all experiences that should have been lived through. The disillusioned utterance of an intellect that believes the idea to be more sufficient than orchids, azaleas, roses. I know I have done a wrong thing, but it is too late.

My bike rocks a light luster from a sliver of afternoon sun. When the kickstand is up, the bike goes away, along with the self that I carried into the garden. On my exit, the bells in the tower strike. I don’t know how far their sound travels. Already, I can barely hear them.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Orlando to Tampa

The main happy memory of most who celebrate christmas usually involves a tree and the destruction of wrapping paper. It is a fun experience for the lads but I have had enough christmas mornings to happily never celebrate the holiday again. So spending the 25th alone in Orlando was not a lamentable sadness. Quite the opposite, as I got to spend time at the movies in a mindless big budget stupor. (As a note, Sherlock Holmes is barely alright. A slushy buddy movie that really shouldn’t be filed under ‘Mystery’. Avatar is a deplorable narrative extremely well told. Take your kids to see it, but afterward give them a stern lecture about the myth of the noble savage and naive enlightenment humanism.) I left the cinema visually satisfied and philosophically frustrated, got back on the bike and rode to a silent night at the homie’s crib.

I stepped outside the next morning into a chill that tugged at my bones. I mounted the machine and rode to a road to which I have never been and waited there. It was near the intersection of two major highways and seemingly dead ended around a corner. As I stood, cars rolled up and parked on the shoulder near me. This was a place for waiting, it seemed. I watched as other cars rolled up and domestic exchanges were made. Mostly children, shuffling from one parent’s car into a another. I wondered if such a style came by divorce or design. I wondered also if either cause was preferable to the other. The answer did not come, but I didn’t think about it long. The Buell had come to get me.

I greeted my man and we spoke of the weather. It would not be keeping us from fate today. He bid me to follow him and off we went to the good roads.

Most of the time, the protective walls of a car reveal only the need to get to a particular place. Gotta get to work, or to the store, or to whatever and then home. Four wheels give us only the means to get somewhere. But the moto causes a kind of incredulity toward destinations. Locations are just excuses that riders use to string routes together. Once, a friend of mine said to me: “hey, my lips are chapped. I think there is some lip balm in a convenience store in the next town over.” And off we went. Yeah, the moto unsettles the space of meanings within which roads and such tend to sit. So when I tell you that an airport service road gave me the best riding experience outside of a track day, please don’t think me mad.

We stopped for a moment at an intersection. The Buell looked back at me and nodded, pointing forward to the road ahead. It was like I could hear his voice. “This is that shit right here, lets do this.” I half expected his front tire to come up as he flexed ahead. I followed with the same excitement but with more hesitation since I hadn’t seen this future. The Buell disa-fucking-peared around the first turn, a well cambered right hander with a nice guard rail on the outside just in case you thought this was a game. I squeezed toxic fluid through steel-braided lines as I blipped the throttle, down-shifted and let out the clutch lever. A catholic may have said a hail mary, but the atheist on the Atlas just aimed for the apex and let it ride. People talk about man and machine, or mind and world, or soul and body, but I don’t see the split. When the lean angle hits 45 degrees, it’s Spinoza or nothing at all.

By the time the last corner was in view, I was already thinking about the U-turn I was going to make to rip this shit once more. But the plan changed when we passed a squad car. I mean, sure, maybe fortune does favor the bold. But so does death, groin-targeted knee attacks and civil penalties. We made our escape and rocked the tarmac elsewhere. But man. Those corners were just evil. Like I might turn into a pillar of salt if I looked back at them.

I spent more time in Orlando. A couple days of reflection in joy and sadness. Then I hit the fateful exit home down I-4, watching the world lose its color once again. I got back. Night fell with the temperature and I laid upon my couch with no feeling of conclusion or accomplishment. My blanket was woven from responsibilities I had to face and friends from whom I had to seek forgiveness. It was a return to unrestful sleep and the birth of a new kind of desire.

I think I might ride to New York. Or maybe just off the edge of the Earth.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jax to Orlando

The sun didn’t want the sky to be so gray, but it couldn’t quite pierce the clouds over jacksonville. Through the haze it was a dim bulb that did not shine so much as burn out over an epic traffic jam leading toward the shopping centers of Orange Park. Holiday shopping may be done out of love, but it is not a pretty sight. At a traffic light I notice a bumper sticker on a truck, depicting the American flag next to the phrase “these colors never run.” The sticker was deeply faded by exposure to the elements and the irony made me chuckle. Patriotically.

But there was a lesson: Some things should peel off before they fade. Which included me. I rocked exit from jacksonville and my family the next morning. By the time I hit the state road it was clear that the weather was too warm for the many layers under my leather. But finding some place to take off my thermals and pack them just seemed like a frustrating endeavor. So I rode toastily into the day.

There is a phenomenon I have noticed while driving and on the moto it is no exception. It is the feeling of encountering a town as something to be rolled through. A kind of orientation to the gas stations, roads and vehicles that you pass. I’m not really here, yall. I am just passing on and there isn’t much outside of a breakdown and a potty break that can make me take you seriously. You are not really a place to me. You are all places like you. Thanks for the gas, turkeys.

After a few missed turns and reroutes—who puts a dirt road on a map?— I rolled into the Ocala National Forest. I first caught a glimpse of it at the top of a bridge leading into it from the north, a wide expanse of evergreen-ish trees that part ways for a flat state road sparsely populated by cars that needed to be passed as quickly as possible. I crouched over the tank bag and pulled into the oncoming lane to pass a Volkswagen—V-dub, baby—and learned the limits of the aerodynamic shell that was my helmet. I really should have sprung for the raised windscreen. Now I would have to spring for a neck massage.

I stopped at a kind of light shopping center where I saw a few bikes parked. There was a convenience store, a coin laundry spot and a welcome center where a black haired lady told me to beware of bears and dirt roads. I got a slice of pizza from the convenience store and ate outside where the locals regarded me with question marks. This was a sleepy town without youth or diversity. Behind the strip I saw a legion of mobile homes and got a sense of the quietude and disconnection of this scene. I am looking for something similar, but it has to be in a spot where my persona doesn’t solicit double-takes. Back to the road.

The National Forest is a preserve without question, but it is also quite residential in places. Power lines and old school homes. Wooden fences, drive ways. Ranches with names that make little sense and horses going for a lunchtime jog. I gots to ride a horse some time. It’s like an all-terrain moto that would like a bite of your sandwich. Maybe it could also help me find out where I should have been going. Suspect cell coverage had me waiting on the roadside for the digital map on my phone to load and tell me which road I should have turned on, but it was all good because the roads that lost me were curvy. Still, I had to note that the more miles I picked up in a day, the worse my line science became. Thankfully, before long the woods opened into lush fields and a network of lakes that supported a yet another chill town, this time with roadside taverns whose signs invited bikers in for a drink. Seems like a bad idea, but I guess I appreciated the gesture.

At a stop I surveyed the gathering clouds above and my position on the map. It occurred to me that I didn’t necessarily have a place to stay in O-town. What I had was a key that possibly opened the door to a friend’s place. I had stayed at her place once, the night before I very nearly missed a flight to the SBK races. But I was pretty sure I lost her key and that the one in my pocket opened a shed somewhere. It was far from certain and everyone I knew in the city, including her, was out of town. So. I could easily hit home from where I was and this is what I decided to do until I got back on the road. Say yes to whack weather and 50/50 chances for free lodging, I thought. When I rolled up to the homie’s crib, a light mist had begun to fall from the sky. When the suspect key opened the apartment door, I sighed a sigh of triumph. I guess we aren’t punished for every choice we make, after all.

I entered the living room and caught a glimpse of myself in an oddly placed mirror on a far wall. I looked like I had just strolled in from a ride around the block. I realized that part of the reason I had decided not to hit home yet was because my journey hadn’t yet gotten difficult or particularly exciting. I was expecting hell for leather, a moderate test of my ability to doggedly stay in the saddle. But the riding was mostly ease. There would be no moto-resilience-in-the-face-of-twisted-tarmac narrative. Probably not a great deal of revelatory soul-searching, either. Just me on my bike, trying to find my way. It’s not even worth stretching that into metaphor.