Flula Pass in Switzerland.
The following was written by reader and rider Max Paley after being sideswiped by a taxi on his Kawasaki Concours. He broke his neck, shattered his wrist, and had a traumatic brain injury. “I don't think I'll be riding anymore,” Max says. Yet his accident hasn’t blunted his love of motorcycles, a love he was trying to explain in a letter to his mother when he penned these words. Thanks for sharing, Max. And we hope you go riding again. – Richard Backus
Recently on a trip back home to Kansas, I was reminded why I love motorcycles. My father and I set out for a ride late on a bright Saturday morning, crossing the Clinton Reservoir Dam on our way into the bosom of Douglas County. He was testing out his recently purchased 2001 BMW R1150R, while I was exercising his primary bike, a 1983 BMW R80ST. He led the way on a route that was routine for him, exploratory for me.
However, neither of us came prepared for the wildlife encountered along the way. Great Blue Herons stalked the outer rims of every body of water we passed, competing with equally majestic white cranes for the baitfish that nuzzle freshwater shores. Migratory birds swam overhead, alternating patterns of envious organization and recognizable chaos. At one point on the extreme Western end of Clinton Lake, we crossed a bridge to discover hundreds of white pelicans patrolling their temporary pit stop like naval battle cruisers laying siege to Somali pirates. These avian visitors are uncommon in Kansas; never before had I seen a pelican in my 20-odd years living there. However, astride my two-wheeler in an area I never would have found myself otherwise, I had to wonder if they had been there all along, only I had neglected to go looking for them.
Riding motorcycles transforms your relationship with the landscape around you by providing an exciting opportunity to go out and see it. When cars were first introduced to the public at an affordable price, driving for pleasure was common. Rising gas prices and a modern view of the necessity of automobiles have transformed them into tools rather than toys, rendering the traditional Sunday drive not only obsolete, but downright wasteful. Not so for motorcycles. For every daily rider commuting to work or the grocery store rain or shine, there are twenty weekend warriors waiting patiently for sunny Saturdays or holidays so s/he can get out on the open road. Too many people ignore the landscape around them, sticking to a designated route to get from home to work, school, or the store and back. Discovering the countryside in the saddle allows riders to get in touch with the topography and ecology of our locale while also providing wholesome entertainment, a manifest video game with recognizable consequences but far greater rewards.
I moved from Kansas to northern New Mexico about six months ago, an area renowned for its natural beauty. Unlike many Kansans, residents of this high desert, mountainous region routinely make outdoor activities a priority. The reasons may seem obvious, as Kansas lacks the universal beauty of ocean or mountain that attracts visitors to other outdoor destinations. However, on a bike in places seldom traveled, eastern Kansas makes an argument for tourist-quality splendor.
The rolling hills of the Wakarusa River Valley quietly mock, in a backhanded Midwestern manner, the endless flats and treeless vistas of the clichéd high plains that dominate much of the state. While New Mexico boasts readily available photo opportunities that incite oohs and aahs from friends back home during obligatory slide shows, Kansas challenges both residents and the few tourists it lures to find beauty in unexpected places, whether in the rural miles of loose-fit stone walls designed during the Depression to offset unemployment or in the innocent, prudish tingeing of maple leaves during the last days of an Indian summer before the autumnal, arboreal fireworks really get going.
Motorcycles provide the perfect excuse to visit the unvisited majority of rustic Kansas, to warm the oft-neglected county roads crisscrossing the countryside at equal distances as precisely as longitudinal lines. With the ranks of traditional Sunday drivers increasingly limited to cattlemen commuting to and from pastures or high schoolers escaping the home or the law to sneak kisses or smoke dope, motorcycle enthusiasts are among the last of the great explorers who, unlike the famous Lewis and Clark, are re-discoverers, greatly benefited by the use of maps instead of bilingual guides, precedence then disregard instead of the unknown.
Riding also allows for a great degree of personal reflection without interruption from any other human. Even riding tandem, the throaty roar of a well-tuned engine can prevent rider and passenger from conversation short of yelling themselves hoarse. A group of motorcyclists cannot communicate effectively except for the most basic and important of concepts, such as signaling turns or dangers in the road ahead.
Despite years of enthusiasts biking together, motorcyclists have yet to come up with an elaborate hand signal language to express the beauty of a blue heron exploding out of the brush, stretching its wings a full six feet, or the thrill of hammering a curve at fifty-five miles per hour when it is marked at twenty-five. Thus the motorcyclist holds it all in until the end of the ride, or the coffee break in the middle, when excited words spill out of mouths forced shut for hours, and riders can finally share their experiences from the ride.
The meditative aspects of motorcycling are ill understood by the four-wheel public; the engine that to them sounds impossibly loud is to us a Gregorian chant. Whistling wind that prompts the raising of windows for them is Mozart to us. Even the intrinsic dangers of riding add to the enlightenment of enthusiasts. Staying alert and conscious of road conditions, other drivers, and personal riding ability sharpen the senses and the mind, clearing the subconscious of other thoughts that might distract from avoiding disaster. Even the classic riding position can prove yogic in its unbending qualities. If purposeful discomfort and disciplined stillness are standards of meditation, 1,000-mile rides could be the litmus test for gurus.
Motorcycles provide much more than mere transportation. Although many will extol their excellent fuel economy (who could complain about a $10 fill up with gas prices today?) or their convenience in terms of parking and storage, when it comes down to it motorcycles are just plain fun to ride. This entertainment inspires owners to get out and explore the world around them, constantly seeking new roads and novel views to conquer. To sit in a saddle and guide yourself safely through this world professes the ultimate love for a most persistent mechanical pastime. – Max Paley
Max takes a selfie during a tour somewhere in Switzerland.
The Rocky Mountains, somewhere between Colorado and New Mexico.