Snapshots from the passenger seat
Despite sitting on a piano bench for 35 years I never pictured myself on the back of a motorcycle. I began to seriously think about it after agreeing to meet with my future fiancé on our first date back in 2001. Living at the opposite ends of Oregon, we decided to meet in the small central town of John Day, where he announced we would be taking a ride on his BMW K 1100. The first time I got on the motorcycle I had no idea what I was doing, such as how to sit or lean through curves. My partner, on the other hand, was completely used to this. He instructed me to scoot up closer and closer until I finally figured out this instruction had nothing to do with riding a motorcycle!
Riding for the first few years with my fiancé gave me a new perspective of traveling on the road. On an Idaho blue sky day in the summer of 2004, we were crossing over a small bridge. As we approached, my partner downshifted to maneuver a sharp turn. At the engine’s growl a hidden flock of birds feeding near the water below suddenly startled, rising into the sky like a grey kaleidoscope. In that moment I began to really appreciate why motorcyclists love the road. You just don’t get that same experience in a car.
I am a piano instructor at a community college. As the relationship with my partner deepened, I thought maybe I should learn to appreciate this thing he was into. I doubted he would be able to learn to play the piano or sing—he was asked not to sing in third grade choir. He and a friend were instructed to just mouth the words because their pitch sense was so terrible (emotional scarring no doubt), and so I thought I would attempt to enter his world of two-wheeled fun, or at least try to understand and appreciate it more.
I set off for Bend, Oregon, one weekend to begin rider instruction through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). Back then when you took a motorcycle training course and passed, you immediately received an “M” endorsement on your driver’s license, allowing you to ride motorcycles, Spiders, trikes or what have you. After arriving at the training site, I was paired with my bike for that weekend and our group began the first of nearly 20 biking maneuvers. I never thought I would be glad having grown up on my family’s 1967 three-on-the-tree Corolla, but suddenly the gear-shift knowledge was going to be extremely handy. There are a few bikes that are automatics, but obviously most are gear shift, the right being your accelerator and the left being your clutch, brakes of course on one handle bar and one foot as well. Some of our group had trouble learning this gear-shift acceleration the first time and one female rider sadly dumped her bike that day and was immediately disqualified. Every bike has its personality quirks, but I soon became accustomed to shifting smoothly and was able to finish the entire course. During one break period, my fiancé called me up to check on me.
“What type of bike did they give you?” he asked.
“A white one,” was my only response. I had no idea what type of bike it was.
I heard a snort on the other end, “Doreen, you have got to be kidding me.”
It wasn’t my only novice response to biking though. I initially called the foot pegs “foot sticks” and ape hangers “ape wings.” Although I only did that one time, my husband still loves retelling my first experiences of learning motorcycling idiom.
Following my completion of the MSF course, I began riding solo on a Moto Guzi California. It was blue, stout and sturdy in the wind. After one year I gradually realized that riding the bike was just not for me. My style of relaxing requires letting my mind wander rather than focusing on elements of surprise around every curve. As a piano instructor, if my mind wanders during a piano lesson, a wrong note is struck or should a student fall off of the piano bench onto our thick shag accommodating rug, probably no harm will ensue. Failing to attend to elements of surprise requiring instant response on a motorcycle can lead to accidents—or worse. To some degree this decision was a relief for my husband, who incidentally is well aware of my particular personality and my need to simply relax and go with the flow outside of work. For me to continue enjoying the freedom offered on a bike and remain safe, I decided to pursue two-up riding and we have happily dedicated ourselves to this ever since.
Motorcycle trips became my vacation norm, but the prep involved was at first a huge change. As a woman, packing two-up for a bike trip requires an exponential reduction of stuff. Hair dryer and curling iron? No room! A bandana will be fine. Eye shadow, face powder and mascara? Eyebrow pencil and medication will be fine. I say medication because I remember once pulling my back muscles on a bike trip. As you age you have no idea how you turned or bent to accomplish this discomfort but it doesn’t matter when you’re on the road. It really hurt to turn beyond 45 degrees laterally, but we had to get on the bike and ride at least 300 more miles that day. Well, we have muscle relaxants from an old prescription so I popped one of those, hooked up my electrics (electric liner for cold weather) and after a cup of hot coffee, hauled myself up on the bike. At our first rest stop an hour later I was stunned to realize that the pain in my back was completely gone. I think the combination of pain killer, heat from the electric vest and then the bike itself jostling my muscles for over an hour simulated a massage. For $23,000 you can purchase your own massage machine at any motorcycle dealership!
Thoughtful bike trip preparation assists in making all our rides enjoyable. One of these preps includes tracking the weather. My fiancé faithfully keeps an eye out for strong wind, rain or severe heat before every trip and in the past this was usually enough warning, usually. On one memorable road trip to Reno, Nevada, my sister planned on travelling from San Francisco to meet us there to enjoy a few days of relaxation. She dithered on riding her Harley-Davidson Sportster versus driving, the weather being iffy in her direction; she finally opted for the latter. We were set on riding though, bike already laden with full side bags, the large tour pack and a rack on top of that for lighter items such as phones, Clif bars and water.
As we neared Reno, the clouds surrounding the mountains there slowly took on an ominous dark tint and as luck would have it, it began to snow. Hard. For the next two hours, we enjoyed riding in car tracks at maybe 20 MPH while SUVs and campers passed us, looks of disbelief on the occupants’ faces. The old adage, “Take a picture it’ll last longer” sprang to mind.
But despite fickle mountain weather, I look forward to the feel of the road beneath me, which includes not festering about which outfit to pack, what blouse goes with which shoes. For our wedding (Labor Day weekend 2005), my husband and I took three weeks off to tour national parks on a trip that spanned approximately 3,000 miles. I discovered real touring in parks such as Yosemite or Capitol Reef is experienced as more than just views, but also the scents and temperature changes. I could tell when we were climbing in elevation because I would turn my electrics up higher, or turning my head to look for a tree just out of sight beyond a ridge because I have caught the sweet scent of blossoms in the air, or pulling over for a brief break, grabbing water and hungrily ripping open Clif bars before realizing a small group of Clydesdales is quietly checking us out from a green meadow across from us.
I will definitely never forget riding through the forest outside of Banff, Alberta. My husband downshifted to better navigate a decreasing-radius uphill curve. At the sudden gear shift noise, a small black bear cub startled and ran clumsily across the field (thankfully opposite us) to its mother. I felt triumphant having finally seen a live bear in the wild, not a stuffy zoo with candy wrappers littering the ground around my feet.
We have friends now that also ride with us and spending time with other couples makes the ride more enjoyable because it is shared. From the pillion seat I can relax and experience the ride without stressing over the navigational elements my husband finds an interesting challenge. Challenge away! My memory snapshots from the passenger seat will continue to include looking forward to what lies around the corner. If that happens to be a large bug, well it will probably hit the driver first!