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Dinner bells

Remember how the castaways on Gilligan’s Island thought they were embarking on a three-hour tour? Yesterday morning I set out on what I thought would be a familiar three-hour loop through the local foothills, only to get waylaid by a “storm” of euphoric riding enthusiasm that “shipwrecked” me up on the Blue Ridge Parkway until nightfall. The original plan already represented an abandonment of various responsibilities for the day, or at least their further procrastination, but a peculiar meteorological convergence produced a forecasted 72-degree high in December and I couldn’t waste it on chores and obligations! This truancy was especially irresistible following a grim October/November stretch packed with more cold and rain than usually plagues my part of the country in autumn. Of course, there’s also the matter of my continued infatuation—nay, intoxication—with my recently purchased R 1250 RS.

Listen to this column as Episode 9 of  The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; this episode doesn’t include a Q&A session. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].

Since acquiring this superlative example of BMW’s engineering prowess, I’ve written about its unique effects on me. No other bike among the 30-some I’ve owned over the past half-century has made me feel such an urge to ride continuously. Others have certainly been exciting and compelling, but I could achieve a state of satiation in the course of a day’s saddle-time. Although I’d usually be ready to ride again the next day, I’d welcome the late-day break. In some cases, satiety arrived after just a few hours of being folded into the sport bike jockey crouch, with aching wrists, shoulders, lower back, and knees drowning out the thrills of apex-clipping. At other times, the mental demands of riding challenges—whether droning hypnotically for hours on the interstate, negotiating dense and chaotic traffic, or maintaining ten-tenths concentration through endless mountain switchbacks—would eventually lead to surrender: “Stick a fork in me; I’m done.”

While I definitely felt significant physical discomfort after a full day of nearly non-stop riding on the RS (owing more to my lack of conditioning than any ergonomic failing of the machine), and I could tell my cognitive resources were dwindling (I didn’t pack enough food, since I hadn’t planned to be gone so long), I still hated to return home last night. It’s amazing how easy everything seems on this motorcycle, and how it invites me to just keep going and going and going. From the first few rides, I felt there was something dangerous about my new boxer, like it had the potential to divert me from all sorts of other activities essential for my survival.

This sounds like one of the hallmarks of addiction: addicts persist in behaviors despite the negative consequences they cause elsewhere in their lives and the lives of those connected to them. The pleasure (or at least the promise of pleasure/easing of suffering) supplied by the addictive action comes to override all other concerns. It may start as a particularly enjoyable thing (substance use or an activity, like gambling), but it eventually becomes the only enjoyable thing, and finally loses its capacity to produce any joy at all, delivering instead only temporary/partial respite from a host of miseries.

Although addicts perpetually pursue satiety (“Just one more will do it!”), it’s impossible for them to achieve. An alcoholic doesn’t reach a point after several drinks wherein they feel satisfied with their buzz. A pathological gambler doesn’t quit after a few rounds of blackjack, content to shift their attention to other interests. With each drink, the alcoholic desires more, and with each hand, the gambling addict wants to play another, regardless of how much they’ve won or lost. There’s no such thing as “enough,” at least not until such devastating consequences have accumulated they can no longer be denied, and no one is left to enable the addict’s ongoing behavioral pattern. Then, and only maybe then, the addict musters motivation to change course and seek help. Importantly, it’s not adequate to simply subtract the addictive activity; alternative sources of enjoyment—e.g., supportive communion with others in recovery—must fill the void. Given how addictions leech the joy out of everything else, it can take quite a while for such alternatives to evoke good feelings again.

I don’t seriously believe I’m going to stop working, eating, sleeping, and engaging family and friends because I’ll take off on the RS until my bank accounts are empty or I’ve crashed from exhaustion. Such a scenario is, however, almost imaginable and I might be flirting with disaster. As tired as I was last night, I couldn’t fall asleep because I was still in the thrall of looping replays from my epic ride. Despite the resultant loss of sleep, I awoke early this morning in much the same state, with additional energy generated by hopes of getting stuff done quickly enough to allow another ride this afternoon. Though obsessed, I’m (so far) still able to force myself to take care of business, if only just barely. I’m reminded of a little boy who “made a deposit” in the garage; he couldn’t bear to take the extra time required to go all the way inside to a bathroom whilst having so much fun in the yard with his friends. Sometimes we have to strike a compromise.

Other times, there’s really no compromise possible. When the dinner bell rings (no doubt via a smartphone app these days), kids must drop what they’re doing, no matter how blissful, and trudge reluctantly home – or pay dearly when their parents have to come retrieve them. It’s like being awakened from a wonderful dream by a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head, or being the dog racing fervently after a squirrel and suddenly reaching the end of its leash [cue choking sounds]. These are genuinely awful moments, and yet they’re inevitably part of the package for us motorcyclists.

Amazing and inspirational stories of John Ryan notwithstanding, the vast majority of us aren’t full-time riders. To borrow from the title of Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book about Ryan and his ilk, we would stop at something. We might feel we embody the Beastie Boys’ lyric, “…you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop!” but we can, we will, and we do stop. What is a poor real-life motorcyclist to do? Must we simply endure the repetitive anguish of walking away from our bikes again and again to resume mundane existence? How can anyone find the willpower to do so voluntarily?

Well, as I’ve mentioned already, there are physical and mental limitations that ultimately tip the scale in favor of rest. These hit sooner and harder in some circumstances and on some bikes than others, but even John Ryan had to occasionally pull over for a few hours of sleep. If we relinquish the ambition to spend our lives exclusively on two wheels, we can replace it with a more realistic intention to maximize riding time when possible. This probably won’t produce a sense of thoroughgoing satiation, but it might reduce the experience of ravenous hunger. Compromise. Moderation. Self-regulation is the opposite of addiction, yet it can still allow for a great deal of gratification – actually more than addiction allows in the long run.

We can incorporate riding into more of our daily activities (I just paused writing this to run an errand on two wheels instead of four). We can deliberately insert riding into our schedules like any other regular event, so it doesn’t get crowded out by so-called necessities. And we can ditch other plans when presented with extraordinary opportunities to saddle up, like a day of sunny 70s in December. Yesterday’s ride was absolutely spectacular, and worth all the make-up work I’ll have to do in its wake. In fact, such rides are priceless. They enrich our lives long after we park our bikes, providing cherished memories and great stories for the rest of our sentient days. How can anyone measure that against completing yard work projects, buying groceries, or checking off clerical tasks?

When Juliet says to Romeo, “…parting is such sweet sorrow…,” she’s expressing both her distress about their separation, and the vitalizing anticipation she feels about their reunion. Perhaps this is the best we can do: remind ourselves each interruption of our beloved avocation sets the stage for our next outing. Think about it – anticipation is a huge part of the fun of motorcycling, with fantasies and preparations providing many more hours of enjoyment than the relatively few spent with wheels turning.

Obviously, we must also keep investing in other parts of our lives. When neglected, their ability to provide joy is apt to wither, just as in the life of the addict. If we become monomaniacal about motorcycling, it’s sure to cost us elsewhere, and it will circle back around to contaminate our time in the saddle. It’s hard to continue riding gleefully in the absence of an income, a home, and good relationships. If I were to always choose riding over household maintenance, I’d enjoy being home less and less, and I’d feel increasingly more shame and dread about my expanding list of outstanding chores. Problems would worsen and become more expensive. My wife would be more frequently and intensely angry at me. Riding would take on the added burden of abetting my avoidance of all this, and I’d be nagged by ugly thoughts of what awaited me upon my return, no matter how long I delayed it. This would interfere with my riding enjoyment, and – even worse – it would yield unsafe distractions, too. It’s one thing to ride toward pleasure, it’s another to ride as an escape from pain. While motorcycling definitely offers a type of healing, a la Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, it doesn’t work so well as a way of fleeing adult responsibilities. Hopefully, the rest of our lives includes more than drudgery. If not, it’s all the more critically important for us to develop a diversified portfolio of happy endeavors.

Not only do we have to remain involved in areas unrelated to motorcycling, but we might also need to push back against trends toward one-dimensionality within our motorcycling lives. This could mean riding both on- and off-road, having both knee-scratchers and mile-eaters among our riding buddies, or learning to both work a clutch and work on a clutch. In my own case, given the RS’s uncanny allure, I have to be careful not to forget about my other bikes. While they don’t carry the same emotional charge for me right now, they’re all still fantastic machines that have brought me much delight over the years. One in particular, a heavily modified 2007 KTM SuperDuke, was my favorite bike of all time before the RS arrived. It can’t possibly be true this steed no longer has anything to offer me after a decade and a half of exceptional service! When I get out later today, I’ll force myself to ride the KTM instead of the BMW. I need a refresher course on the orange and black machine’s rousing qualities, lest my moto-focus shrink down to a single blue and white point. It may be a little like resigning myself to a dose of methadone instead of the heroin I crave, but I need to spread the love and fight single-mindedness head-on.

I’ve just realized this essay is a photographic negative of my recent piece, “A Break in the Clouds.” In that one, I spoke of the need to punctuate banal existence with transcendent moments in the saddle, whereas this one bemoans the necessity of punctuating saddle time with re-entries into our everyday routines. Oh, the struggle of balancing such a seductively exhilarating passion!

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.