Drive Not Ride

In my other life, I am sturdy.

Image: jimmy brown

On the first day of motorcycle class, I sat next to Genevieve, my bravest friend, on a plastic chair in a classroom that smelled like industrial cleaner. Our instructor, Mike, was tan and strong-jawed, his face etched with deep lines; when he smiled, his teeth were startlingly, improbably white. He looked like a sheriff in a movie where the sheriff was a good guy. Mike asked the four of us taking the class to each identify a goal and a fear, which he would summarize and write on the white board. Troy, who managed a Flying J gas station up near the oil fields, told us he had recently bought two Harleys for $45,000 cash. This, he implied, was a great deal. His goal was to get his license, which Texas law mandated he do through this class, even though he’d been riding for years. He was unable to identify a fear. Mike wrote license on the board.

Next up was Charlie Musick, a sweet-faced Future Farmer of America from Blanket, Texas. He had ridden dirt bikes ever since he was a kid, and his goal was to get his license. His fear was that street bikes would be different from dirt bikes in ways that might catch him off guard. Mike wrote license on the board, and differences. Genevieve said that she loved dirt bikes, too. Her goal was to feel confident. Her fear was that she wouldn’t feel safe. Mike wrote confidence, and safety.

I was last. I looked at the room. I said that I had never been on a dirt bike, and had ridden on a motorcycle only once, just a few months prior, when I went on a trip around the Adirondacks with a friend, and how that time on the bike had been incredibly fun, but actually, you know, fun wasn’t really at all the right word for what it had been; it had been something altogether bigger than fun — terrifying, exhilarating — but even so, throughout the whole trip I had been uncomfortably aware of how dependent I was on my friend driving the motorcycle. My role had just been to sit there and hold on and not mess anything up, and so my goal for the class was to see if I could capture that exhilaration for myself without having to depend on anyone else, and specifically not have to depend on that person, my “friend,” since he and I probably weren’t going to see each other again for a long time, for complicated reasons I didn’t feel like getting into.

Mike looked at me for a second. On the dry-erase board he wrote: Drive not ride.

The more honest answer was that over the summer I had taken a motorcycle trip with someone I was in love with, but who was not able to love me, something that had been glaringly obvious to everyone but me. The whole thing was very sad, and left me feeling not only heart-broken but also very stupid. Afterward I was weak and wobbly for months; and then fucking Donald Trump got elected and I wondered, for the first time in my lucky, lucky life, whether the world was actually, at base, a malevolent place. In any case, it seemed smart to learn how to ride a motorcycle, in order to make speedier getaways during the imminent apocalypse. I also had the idea that this new skill would transform me into a sturdier version of myself. Women all around the country seemed to be feeling a similar urge to toughen up in preparation for the coming war — metaphorically, but maybe also literally. My friends who lived in cities were taking self-defense classes, lifting weights. I liked picturing the gang we would soon form, our leather jackets and confident swaggers. When I pictured future-me, motorcycle license in hand, I looked like the heroine of a 1980s dystopian movie: teased hair, a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe. Motorcycle Me wouldn’t have the time or inclination to lie in bed crying.

The next morning, Genevieve and I ate a pre-sunrise diner breakfast and then headed out to our designated meeting place, the high school parking lot where Mike and Troy and Charlie were waiting for us. Mike handed out helmets and gloves, then assigned us each a bike. Mine was small and red and low to the ground. I sat on it, getting accustomed to its feel, watching my breaths puff in the cold air. I felt moderately more badass already, even if I had not yet turned the thing on.

Mike’s instruction system was heavy on the acronyms: the FINE-C engine pre-start routine; the T-CLOCS inspection list. He explained how, on a motorcycle, you control the clutch with your hands and shift gears with your feet. We practiced easing into first gear and walking the bike forward; by the time we were picking up our feet and starting to ride in slow circles, the sun was up and I had taken off my jacket. The idea was that we’d soon all be moving in smooth, coordinated loops around the parking lot, but I kept stalling out and gumming up the system. Troy entertained himself by giving me unhelpful advice: You go easy at first and then when you need to, you give it more throttle. But not too early and not too late.

Once I finally figured out how to get the bike into gear, I continued to struggle. Making turns on a motorcycle requires leaning, which also means that you get closer to the ground. I didn’t like how that felt, so I kind of…didn’t lean. I was discovering how little confidence I had in the reliability of physics. “The bike isn’t going to fall over,” Mike kept shouting at me from the far side of the parking lot. I almost believed him. We practiced swerving around cones — not the traditional orange pointy kind, but little neon nipples that were intentionally small and low to the ground for safety’s sake, I realized, after I repeatedly ran them over. “That’s okay!” Mike said every time, smiling and showing his beautiful teeth. “You almost got it!”

During our break, we leaned on Mike’s pick-up ate the fun-size candy bars he bought for us. Troy told us all why he’d decided to make things official and finally get his license, after going without one for so long: He was going to ride one of his new Harleys up to Ruidoso to go gambling at the Indian casinos with his neighbor. His wife had been bothering him to get his license before the trip. His neighbor didn’t have a motorcycle license, either, but he also happened to be the local sheriff. “If we get stopped, I can probably bribe the guy,” he’d told Troy. “You can’t.”

The second day we practiced U-turns, emergency stops, and riding over obstacles. Everything was remarkably easier, as if all my anxiety dreams about shifting gears had actually helped to solidify the appropriate neural pathways. My hands and feet moved together like they were supposed to. We snaked through the parking lot with a moderate level of coordination. Mike beamed at me like a proud coach. “There you go,” Troy said, and I briefly considered running him over but decided it would be too embarrassing if I missed. By the end of the day, I felt solid in my capability to ride a motorcycle around a high school parking lot at speeds not exceeding twenty-five miles per hour. “Congratulations,” Mike told the four of us. “You are now legally permitted to drive a motorcycle in the state of Texas.”

I have had my motorcycle license for a month now, though I do not yet have a motorcycle. (Please don’t tell my mom about any of this.) Sometimes I go riding around with my friend Alan, who is trying to sell me one of the old BMWs he restores, and who has a discomfiting habit of telling me in detail about all the awful accidents he’s been in over the years: broken teeth, broken shoulders, skin scraped off, etc. But he also likes to talk about how his most beautiful memories involve motorcycles: that trip up the California coast in the 1970s; that time he and his wife rode up through Wild Rose Pass just after a thunderstorm, with the smell of creosote in the air and the post-rain wind that felt somehow scrubbed clean.

I have not, however, transformed into that sturdier and more impenetrable version of myself, the one who speeds down the highway shouting fuck you to death and danger and the possibility of being hurt. Motorcycle Me, who is tough and therefore oblivious! Or oblivious and therefore tough! Because it turns out that, for me at least, riding a motorcycle makes me feel the opposite of oblivious and invulnerable. Instead, I am hyper-vigilant about my environment, paying attention to things like the location of puddles and potholes, the speed and direction of the wind, what that 18-wheeler behind me is up to. If there’s not already a gang of Biker Buddhists there should be, because motorcycles are an excellent way to activate your awareness of the present moment — and also the constant proximity of death, and how skin is such a thin and insufficient way to keep all your important parts inside.

Does this all make it sound unpleasant? It is the best thing I’ve done in a long time. Fun is actually the exact right word for what it feels like to expose yourself to all that speed and sensory overwhelm. Why would anyone want to be invulnerable? The world comes at you very fast, and there’s no use in pretending otherwise.

In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.