Liverpool, Nova Scotia

Caught the ferry from St. John to Digby this morning, a long, boring, uncomfortable 2 1/2 hours. The ferry was like an airport without the release of actually getting on a plane, both being large sprawling habitrails for containing impatient waiting people. Even though the ferry was an airport that moved, it moved imperceptively slowly, and it cost almost as much as taking a plane anyway. The ferry also had the added bonus of beginning and ending with a traffic jam.

Then we rode in the rain for awhile.

We stopped for a moment on the shore of Kejimkujik Lake as we crossed the peninsula, a beautiful lake with shallow, stoney shores, the stones small and flat like tiles.

Liverpool seems like a nice town with giant old shade trees and graceful old white houses beneath them, but at the elementary school I found the remains of some kid’s jacket which had been hung on the fencepost and set on fire. All that was left was a charred cuff and scorchmarks on the chainlink — if the kid was in the jacket at the time he must’ve burned clean.

There’s a fine cold blue-grey beach, long and wide and gently sloping, backed by spruces and meadows of beach grass. No houses, no restaurants. I found alot of small black shells, maybe baby mussels, from a couple millimeters to an inch long. Lots of them, stuck in the sand like tiny crow feathers, or miniscule pieces of coal-black crow platemail.

St. John, New Brunswick

This morning I found a miracle.

Standing around in the parking lot, I looked down and saw a two-and-a-half-inch long nail sticking through the sidewall of Sean’s rear tire like a hairpin. Without flattening the tire it had passed through the side and emerged again so that both the head and the point of the nail were exposed; it was a wonder and  a spectacle, like those x-rays of  people who’ve had railroad spikes through their brains and survived. All who saw it were amazed and moved to tell their own tales of fantastic objects penetrating motorcycle tires such as pieces of fence and six-inch screwdriver shanks, inspiring tales to dwell upon! Pilgrims who came and pressed their wounds upon the nail soon found them healed, and the proprietors of the Honda/Kawasaki dealership were so touched that they sold Sean a new tire for only a couple hundred dollars. Yet another reminder that Death is just a handshake away; I always half expect my old bike to fly apart underneath me, but Sean’s is like new, a 1996 Vulcan,  beautiful and carefully maintained.

This afternoon I surgically altered my seat with a knife. Much bad foam was removed to the sound of many vertebrae cheering. The butt had mixed feelings about the operation.

Saw a bald eagle flying over a marsh near Calais, just before we crossed into Canada.

Scarborough, Maine

We left just after the thunderstorm; the air was so humid and sweet I thought I was riding home to the swamp I grew up on. It’s great to finally be on the road.

This is not properly a part of the 751 since it’s a separate trip that Sean and I have been planning in one form or another for the last year. I’d never expect him to adhere to the  751’s rigorous standards of expenditure on his vacation, and I’d be a lousy traveling companion if I just moped around saying things like, “No, no, you go ahead and get a room, I’ll just eat my can of pork and beans, then I’ll curl up under this bench.” Even though this trip is drawn from a separate fund,  it’s a chance to test  my equipment and see if this is really going to work; for that reason, and because it’s just such a damn good place to start, let’s consider the whole Newfoundland trip a prologue. In two weeks we’ll return to Manchester, I’ll take a couple days to get my act together and then the 751 will begin in earnest.

We took four hours to do two hours’ worth of riding because of the 4th of July traffic, my back feels like I dragged it behind the bike on a rope, and all we’ve got to show for it is we’re in Scarborough — but it’s great to be in motion.

Season of the bike

There is cold, and there is cold on a motorcycle. Cold on a motorcycle is like being beaten with cold hammers while being kicked with cold boots, a bone bruising cold. The wind’s big hands squeeze the heat out of my body and whisk it away; caught in a cold October rain, the drops don’t even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone fallen from the skies of Hell to pock my face. I expect to arrive with my cheeks and forehead streaked with blood, but that’s just an illusion, just the misery of nerves not designed for highway speeds.

Despite this, it’s hard to give up my motorcycle in the fall and I rush to get it on the road again in the spring; lapses of sanity like this are common among motorcyclists. When you let a motorcycle into your life you’re changed forever. The letters “MC” are stamped on your driver’s license right next to your sex and height as if “motorcycle” was just another of your physical characteristics, or maybe a mental condition.

But when warm weather finally does come around all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle summer is worth any price. A motorcycle is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a motorcycle is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life. We spend all our time sealed in boxes and cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box to store-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated, and smelling of carpets.

On a motorcycle I know I’m alive. When I ride, even the familiar seems strange and glorious. The air has weight and substance as I push through it and its touch is as intimate as water to a swimmer. I feel the cool wells of air that pool under trees and the warm spokes of sunlight that fall through them. I can see everything in a sweeping 360 degrees, up, down and around, wider than PanaVision and higher than IMAX and unrestricted by ceiling or dashboard.

Sometimes I even hear music. It’s like hearing phantom telephones in the shower or false doorbells when vacuuming; the pattern-loving brain, seeking signals in the noise, raises acoustic ghosts out of the wind’s roar. But on a motorcycle I hear whole songs: rock ‘n roll, dark orchestras, women’s voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.

At 30 miles an hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells and grass-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it’s as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me, wanting only the most casual of rumbling time machines to unlock it. A ride on a summer afternoon can border on the rapturous. The sheer volume and variety of stimuli is like a bath for my nervous system, an electrical massage for my brain, a systems check for my soul. It tears smiles out of me: a minute ago I was dour, depressed, apathetic, numb, but now, on two wheels, big, ragged, windy smiles flap against the side of my face, billowing out of me like air from a decompressing plane. Transportation is only a secondary function. A motorcycle is a joy machine. It’s a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a motorized prosthetic. It’s light and dark and shiny and dirty and warm and cold lapping over each other; it’s a conduit of grace, it’s a catalyst for bonding the gritty and the holy.

I still think of myself as a motorcycle amateur, but by now I’ve had a handful of bikes over a half dozen years and slept under my share of bridges. I wouldn’t trade one second of either the good times or the misery. Learning to ride was one of the best things I’ve done.

Cars lie to us and tell us we’re safe, powerful, and in control. The air-conditioning fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, “Sleep, sleep.” Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth: we are small and exposed, and probably moving too fast for our own good, but that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.

— Dave Karlotski

Author’s note: This piece was originally aired on New Hampshire Public Radio in either 1997 or 1998 under the title “Motorcycle Summer.” A few years later it aired on the Minnesota Public Radio show “The Savvy Traveler” under the title “Season of the Bike,” and was subsequently published in the Aerostich Rider Wearhouse catalog under that title (for which I received one of their excellent jackets, which I still wear).

This piece grew legs of its own, though, and has popped up elsewhere on the web over the years, generally under the name “Why I ride.” Sometimes it has been attributed back to me, sometimes not. I am almost always glad to see that it’s got its own life out there, and that people enjoy it.