She was beautiful, brilliant, funny, and well-read. She had been married a scant two years, and had been riding Harleys only just over one. She was daring, fierce, and independent; a thoroughbred, with much in common with the spirited hunter/jumper horses she rode professionally for most of her life. She had just moved South after a life spent in New York City; her career was beginning to move forward again in leaps and bounds after a brief stall due to a serious injury and a couple of other, more minor setbacks. She rode her pearl-white Sportster carefully and sensibly, eschewing undue risk and recklessness in favor of enjoying nice, leisurely rides on back roads and scenic country lanes. The horses were a somewhat different story; she’d known them longer.
She was 33, which is too young to die. But despite all she was, all she was becoming, all her potential, and all she meant to all the people whose lives she touched — and they were many — she did die. And I saw it. And can’t stop seeing it.
We all, all of us who live this lifestyle, are as familiar with the risks as with the rewards. The feral joy of flying down some old two-lane blacktop with the sun on your face and the wind at your back is ruthlessly counterbalanced by the ever-present possibility of a fistful of loose gravel in the wrong place at the wrong time leading to being torn literally to pieces in another senseless tragedy. Every time we saddle up is another roll of the dice; we know it, and yet we go out and do it anyway.
An old greybeard Harley guy told me years ago that the first time you swing a leg over one of these things without being a little afraid, that’s the time you need to start thinking about selling it and walking away for good. He was right, like the older ones usually are. After all, so many of us are denied the opportunity to get where the old road dogs are, to learn the lessons that only survival can teach. Their knowledge — and the price they’ve paid for it – demands that we pay careful attention.
Indian Larry died a couple of years ago, only a few miles from where I sit typing this. Think he woke up that morning knowing that he was going to end up a pile of parts lying broken on the asphalt before sundown? Hell no. Think he woke up that morning knowing he might? But of course. And yet he went out and did it anyway.
What makes us do it? What makes us all so willing — so downright eager, some of us — to spit in the devil’s eye; to take those unnecessary chances; to gamble with our very lives, for the sake of a thrill the average squarejohn citizen can’t even get his mind around, much less appreciate?
I don’t have the answers. I’m sure you’ve guessed that the lovely and audacious woman I spoke of above was my beloved wife, who I had the honor and good fortune to ride beside for far too short a time. After the accident that claimed her life, I considered giving up riding for good, as has many a better man than I after such an ordeal. I’ve been riding my entire life; riding has been a comfort to me when nothing else worked, a source of exhilaration and bliss when all seemed dark and joyless, a place to hide when I needed to escape. But the day Christiana died was also the day I nearly walked away from all that, in sorrow, anger, and bitterness.
A few weeks later a close friend talked me into going for a short ride with him, and I’ve been back on my own Sportster pretty much constantly ever since. I don’t so much as leave the driveway without remembering the awful sights and sounds of that accursed afternoon in late July — and yet I go out and do it anyway. Because somehow, for some reason, that’s what we do.
There’s no explaining her death, and there’s no explaining this life. I can’t really explain why I’m saying all this to you now. But I do know a couple of things. One is that way too many of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about, from your own painful experiences. The other is that the riding…well, it really does seem to help somehow.
Maybe that’s why we keep on: because we’re all looking for something that we’ll never find in this world, but that the wind in our faces gets us just a little bit closer to. The snarling roar of those finely-tuned Harley engines, to some of us, is like a Mozart piano concerto, or a Rembrandt portrait, or a high-strung, purebred jumper neatly clearing a five-foot fence is to others: something that hoists us right up against the stifling boundaries of this world, and lets us peer over the edge for a brief and electrifying glimpse of a beauty beyond.
It’s been said that one can’t jump into the arms of God; one has to fall. Perhaps that’s the answer: the letting go, the surrender to outrageous fortune, the risk we accept in exchange for whatever earthly payoff we can manage to harvest from it. I won’t say it’s worth it; nothing whatever can compensate for the permanent loss of a precious loved one, nor fill the void created in the hearts of those left behind. But I won’t demean that loss by saying it isn’t, either. I’ll just say that I’ll keep riding, and I’ll keep smiling into the sun when I am, and I’ll know that when I feel its warmth on my face and in my spirit, she’s smiling right back at me. Because, if only for a little while, she felt it herself.
I don’t ride particularly cautiously or safely myself, so I won’t insult or patronize anyone by insisting that they do. As I’ve been saying for years, I ain’t anybody’s mother. But however you do it, keep on riding, people; know the risk, respect it, but go out and do it anyway. Because that’s what we do. I’m beginning to believe that for some of us, it just might be the only help, and the only hope.