My Motorcycle: The Missing Piece
By Kingdom editor Reade Tilley
My motorcycle is half an hour away, parked under a tarp that’s carefully fastened so that the rain we do not have in Southern California and the sun, which we do, will not trouble the leather seat, the chrome exhaust or the fenders that I last polished so many months ago.
I think about it often, cool and quiet under darkness, hot in the day as dust and leaves are blown under its cover, and I wonder if it is sad sitting there. It’s been months since we shot up the coast, soaring along with the light of the Pacific on my left shoulder and the entire country to my right, and I feel guilty I think. The trouble I went through to get it, the joy that it’s brought me, and now… Would it bite me if I took it for a ride after so much neglect, lose traction in a turn for a half a breath to teach me a lesson? Does it know? It’s for sale, or it will be as soon as I clean it up. And then it will be gone and I’ll be missing something, though it’s tough to say what, exactly, will be absent. Georg Büchner wrote that “there is no emptiness. Everything swarms and seethes. The void has destroyed itself; creation is its wound.” And maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m terrified that I won’t have any space left, that my last blank page, the one that my motorcycle allows me to write and to re-write with every ride, finally will be filled, a period put at the end of the final sentence, and the chapter that I do not wish to end will be finished and I’ll have to begin work on the next. But then I have already. And so I find myself with a page not quite turned, curled over but not set down, and me looking at my 4-year-old daughter and my wife and pretending that I have a decision to make.
People who give up motorcycling to raise a family (or for whatever reason) and then return to two wheels later in life sometimes are called “retreads,” after a kind of used tire that’s been given a second chance. There’s even a club sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association, the RETREADS Motorcycle Club International, Inc, founded in 1969 by Naval Chief Petty Officer George Spidell. The club’s rudimentary website, which features an animated graphic of a globe spinning too fast, years flying by, has it that membership was once at 25,000, with chapters as far afield as the UK and New Zealand.
Many of us began our motorcycling years back when we were young. When we got married and started raising a family, many of us had no time or money available for such luxuries as motorcycles. However, once the children were well on their own, and free time and more money were available, our thoughts of motorcycles returned and we were itching to get back on the bikes we loved so much. So in a way, we were ‘Retreaded.’
Retread tires often come apart, explode in violent fashion and end up in so many scraps all over the highway. Perhaps it’s better to not stop rolling until you’re done and then to stop for good. Right now, promise of a distant ride sounds desperate to me and yet, while I’m at peace today with my decision to sell my motorcycle, it seems inevitable that I will be back on a another eventually. I’ve loved motorcycles since I was first set on a gas tank and ridden around the block by a family friend at the age of 4 or so. I’ve ridden them all over the world and across the United States, in blizzards and deserts and through some of the most beautiful places on Earth (and some of the ugliest). I’ve had and sold motorcycles before and somehow, years later, another has always managed to find its way into my garage, and so now doesn’t feel final, exactly. But it’s certainly different this time. One was stolen. Others were sold to make room for new options. But this isn’t about the next ride, it’s about the last. Or the last for a while anyway. This decision involves others, and I’m hardly the first to face it, as evidenced on v-twinforum.com, a discussion site primarily populated by Harley Davidson riders. In response to the question: “Did you quit riding to raise a family?” here’s a selection from a range of answers:
I did. I quit a lot of things that could’ve hurt me. The way I figured it, one jackwagon turns left in front of me, or a life altering crash desert racing, and my kids’ educations would suffer. My baby is now 30. I’ve been riding for about 8 years now.
— A guy in Arizona
My wife and I raised two children and I always kept a good insurance policy to prepare for any bad outcomes. I haven’t ever given up riding willingly. It sounds like I’m pretty lucky.
My wife always accepted me for being what I am.
— A guy in Indiana
I didn’t start riding until after my youngest left home. It meant a lot to me to be a great dad and husband so for 18 years I tried very hard to do that. Finally I told my wife that I wanted a Harley, she smiled and said “what took you so long?”
— A guy in Michigan
Part of the dilemma for anyone who rides is trying to communicate the motorcycle’s profound effects to non-motorcyclists. Those effects unexplained, non-riders see the subtraction of the motorcycle only as an elimination of danger, a step closer to life and thus, presumably, away from death. But herein lies one of the vehicle’s many paradoxes, nicely mirrored in religious authority John H Groberg’s attempt to explain an aspect of faith: “There is a connection between heaven and earth. Finding that connection gives meaning to everything, including death. Missing it makes everything meaningless, including life.”
I don’t know that giving up riding moves one further from death, exactly, although a motorcycle accident certainly is less likely. And here is where some will roll their eyes because yes, there are an awful lot of ruminations around riding and they have as much appeal to non-motorcyclists as the average fervent flyer from a streetcorner disciple. More readily likable are the motorcycle-related platitudes that adorn so many office walls, T-shirts and coffee mugs:
You don’t always need a plan, just go
We only regret the rides we didn’t take
The brave don’t live forever; the cautious don’t live at all
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere,
and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself
I recently saw an advertorial entitled “Why Accounting Software Technology Will Liberate You.” Unlikely. In contrast, while the above lines and others might seem like the worst kind of bumper-sticker koans, the motorcycle actually delivers on its promises of freedom, and it’s very difficult to leave that behind.
Steven Green did. Now 73, the former engineer turned publisher turned builder raised his daughters largely motorcycle-free, then returned to two wheels later with astouding effect. Now he’s enjoying some time in motorcycle sales, “living the dream of working around my hobby,” as he says, even as he begins a new building project.
On the other hand, a friend of mine, Jae Omar, has no immediate plans to climb off his bike. His son is in pre-school with my daughter and, with no small amount of consideration, Jae’s doing what works for him.
Creative Director at Jae Omar Design in Los Angeles, his identity and vision seem to be informed by his relationship with riding, the access to life that it provides, and I get it.
Mark Peifer does as well. The former golf pro at Tierra Rejada Golf Club in Southern California, he left the game to work in motorcycle sales at Thousand Oaks Powersports. He insists that his current job shares themes with his previous work, that essentially it’s about helping people to enjoy their lives. Once that’s sorted, he says, they might be surprised by what they find.
Looking for some perspective on the conflux of family, identity, responsibility and Harley, I spoke with all of the above. Paraphrased in their own words, here are guys who’ve been there, who are there, and who see it all every day. Maybe when the tarp is removed and my bike’s cleaned up, it will go by them on the road soon.
As for me, for now, I’m turning the page. (And so are you…)
44, Triumph Bonneville
We get these guys, I call them the ‘empty nesters,’ right around August, September, and they’re going ‘the deal was I can’t have a motorcycle while the kid’s in the house, and I just dropped ‘em off at college last week and I can’t wait to ride again.’ There are clearly good reasons why they stopped, but coming back to it is like beginning all over again, so the joy they get out of it, it’s been great to see.
Yeah, they’re totally missing something. One customer, married, things were just stale, you know? Go home, watch the TV and Friday night we do what we do; 20 years of the same thing. So he decided he was going to get a side-by-side, one of the four-wheelers, and on a whim he bought this thing and takes it home. He used to race desert back in the day, and had kids, had to quit, but always had that in his blood. So he came in and bought this thing. His wife’s like ‘you’re crazy.’ He says no, just give me a chance. So he takes her out to the desert and they’re cruising down some trail, he told me, ‘I make a left-hand turn across the desert and start gassing it and I’m running over all these bushes and going though all these washes and the smile on my wife’s face, I haven’t seen it in years!’ And he realized, ‘I should have done this 20 years ago.’
I love taking long road trips and that’s what I do now, I get on the bike, the Bonneville, and go out to North Dakota or Montana and just ride as far as I can. You spend a lot of time on the road alone and you get what I call being lost in your helmet, and you have time to think and it just messes with your head, you get really emotional.
Oh it’s freedom, yeah. And it’s not because you’re not wearing a helmet—that’s not the freedom we’re talking about. The freedom is the feeling like you’re not chained to anything. When you’re on a motorcycle you can’t carry a lot with you. The freedom is not being tied down, being able to move around and see what’s out there. When I get back from a long trip? Totally sad. Yeah. Every time I come home from a long trip. And the longest trip I did was about 6,000 miles, three weeks by myself and that was an emotional trip. I saw some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life and I couldn’t tell you what the best part of it was because it just depends on the time of the day or the mood or whatever it is; it was just great. But I remember walking into my house and sitting on the couch and I thought, ‘Well this is comfortable, somewhere soft to sit for the first time in three weeks,’ and looking at all of my possessions and thinking ‘I don’t need any of this stuff.’ And I spent the next three days getting rid of almost all of my posessions: ‘I don’t need it, I don’t want it.’ Just emptying out my place.
Camping. Hotels when you need to; sometimes it’s that the weather doesn’t work in your favor. But you try to rough it as much as you can because really, the worst nights are the nights you remember the most. You laugh in the face of it when you get there: it’s raining, it’s freezing cold, you’re trying to put a tent up and you’re like, ‘what am I doing?’
And you realize in the moment that that makes it more fun. The adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong.
47, Triumph Thruxton
That’s pretty much how I spent from 10 to 16, riding dirt bikes outside of Plymouth, Mass. Everybody did, and we’d fairly regularly get chased by police. You weren’t supposed to be out there but it was kind of like saying, ‘Hey kids, here’s Disneyland but nobody gets to go.’ I think about sending my son out to do that and it’s inconceivable. But we were out there, 11 years old, on 175cc bikes that could go 80mph in the dirt with no supervision. It was just, ‘Come back for dinner!’
Years later I moved to California, got a sport bike and got into canyon carving with friends, but one of my friends had a close call and that kind of ended our weekend assaults. The motorcycle ended up under a tarp in the garage.
I got married, almost 14 years ago. She was like, ‘Get rid of it, you don’t need a motorcycle.’ I’m smitten, so there it goes. We moved downtown, and every few months I’d get the itch because you never lose the itch to ride, and then lo and behold a Triumph dealer popped up on the corner. It was a rainy day in winter and I made them the most insane low offer on a bike I’d always wanted, and they took it. There’s the doghouse, and then if you go through the doghouse, out the back, there’s another house somewhere back there… It did not go well. I had it a year and sold it. She was relieved.
Few years later we move to Topanga Canyon, my son was a year old, and I’m driving up and down the canyon in my car and there’s just no way I’m not going to get another bike. And so I told her and she said ‘Yeah, sure, Ok.’ I think she’d sort of convinced herself that I didn’t like motorcycling, and then I got another one and I was back in the doghouse.
My son, he’ll want to sit on the bike—boys like motorcycles, it’s just in the DNA—and when he’s sitting up there leaning over the tank, she’s looking at me, shaking her head, knowing that in 10 years it’s something we’re going to have to contend with. I can’t say that I won’t be terrified, but then I don’t want him to do half the things I did, but then at the same time it’s what makes you who you are.
I know. I’m the sole income provider for my family, I shouldn’t take unnecessary risks. But some of these things have become a part of me, and to let go of a part of who I am makes me ‘less than,’ and then I’m suddenly less of a great dad and less of a champion for my family… It’s a very, very, very fine line. I do think it would be dishonest somehow if I didn’t ride, and that’s a good way to put it. Maybe at some point I’ll hang up the helmet. As for right now, I take every precaution I can. I pay my life insurance premium [smiling].
This morning I went on a ride with a friend. We get to the top of Saddle Peak, there’s an older gentleman up there with a long-lens camera, and we make conversation. ‘What are you taking pictures of?’ And he said, ‘there’s a pod of blue whales migrating through.’ And we looked. So there’s a fog in the canyon low above the trees, the green, which gives way to the ocean. The sun is starting to glint off the horizon line and there’s a pod of whales going by, and what could be wrong with the universe at that moment—if you’re in the moment, if you’re there and not anywhere else? It’s things like that that make it hard to stop.
73, BMW R 1200GS Adventure
I went out and bought a 350 Honda Scrambler. This was 1968. After that, there was a steady progression in motorcycles, Yamaha dirt bikes, a four-cylinder Honda road bike, desert riding on Huskys… Then I decided to build a house for myself, wound up marrying, had kids, two daughters. You wind up going to soccer games and other events and parenting and business, and it all got in the way of motorcycling.
Fast forward: my younger daughter was in college and came home one day with a motorcycle of her own. And as a father I was unable to speak. I wanted to say… I don’t know. It’s like, ‘I want to guide you. I appreciate your independence but is that the best bike, you know?’ I was obviously concerned for her safety.
Much later, on a different bike, she said dad, you need to get back on a motorcycle, come riding. My ex-wife encouraged me: ‘dad and daughter time.’ So I went out and rode a couple of Harleys, but they just didn’t talk to me. I took a BMW out for three blocks, turned around and came back and bought it. An R1200 GS. I was living in Nevada, but I later moved to California and met the crew at BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County, just a great bunch of people. They have classes called ‘Campology,’ so you learn how to go motorcycle camping, and it opened a whole new world for me.
Fast forward two years, I’m on the new version, the R1200 GS Adventure, and I decide I’m going to go to Alaska. I left on my 69th birthday. And if you go to YouTube, you can find it, ‘Steves Alaska Adventure.’ No apostrophe. I have 3,342 Facebook friends, and almost all are from motorcycling.
During the trip I had this epiphany: I was happier on the motorcycle living in a tent than I was married to a woman that I should have left decades earlier, living in this huge 9,000-square-foot house. So I had this life-changing event where I decided to get a divorce, to reinvent myself.
When you’re on a motorcycle and you go to a strange place, motorcyclists talk to you, people walk up to you and ask you where you’re coming from, where you’re going. You’re not isolated, there’s not a wall, a steel cage around you—motorcyclists call people in cars ‘cagers’—so you have that ability to be able to talk and meet folks and go from there.
Riding through the Yukon surrounded by millions if not billions of pine trees and nothing else except a ribbon of asphalt that is drenched in a fire-hose-intensity rain storm, and you’re alone and the rain is pelting your helmet… You can’t help but be struck by the awesomeness of what we have and what we experience and what we take for granted every day. These are seminal moments, and to have this experience gives you a whole new perspective on life and meaning.
The University of Alaska opens its dorms during summer for travelers, so camping in a tent is great but every once in a while a soft bed and a shower really feels good. It was 20 bucks a night or 25 bucks a night. I was unpacking my motorcycle, getting ready to take my gear into the dorm, and two professorial types walked by. One said to the other, ‘See that guy? He’s living my dream.’