Addiction to prolonging life, therefore, often reflects an unhealthy theology or a form of nihilism. Uploading our consciousness to digital form, as Ray Kurtzweil’s singularity project proposes, along with other less ambitious moves toward transhumanism represent forms of secular religion that think human-concocted technology is our best and only hope for a kind of salvation.
From this vantage point, perhaps riding a motorcycle expresses a confidence in a different philosophy of life. To be sure, there are several reasons why a person ought not ride a motorcycle regularly. For instance, Virtue in the Wasteland podcast co-host, Dr. Dan van Voorhis has admitted on the show that his “cage” driving is precarious enough on its own (though he’s never been in an accident); thus, getting on a vehicle that lacks seatbelts, a roof, and airbags is a foolhardy endeavor for him (perhaps, but I'm still scheming). More on this in a moment. For now, note that while attention to safety and responsible riding make motorcycling a much safer pastime than many assume, riding without any real barrier between your body and a Ford F150, a random deer, or the very pavement beneath you is of course a risky endeavor.
Perhaps to set the proper assumptions about all this, we might look to Aristotle’s definition of virtue: it is the equidistant point between excess and defect. Thus, the virtue of courage (what a motorcyclist needs) is the midpoint between recklessness and cowardice. Is it possible for a virtuous person to ride motorcycles, therefore? Yes and no. It depends on ones various vocations, station in life, abilities, and preferences. We all take calculated risks, every day. The question is only whether these risks are worth it, and whether these risks disproportionally affect those around us. For this essay, allow me to enumerate 5 reasons not to ride a bike, 5 reasons one should ride a bike, and 5 things for a person to consider when a loved one suggests they would like to ride a motorcycle.
1.Don't ride a motorcycle if you have a medical condition that keeps you from having good balance or prolonged wrist movement. There are other, similarly freeing endeavors to enjoy.
2. Don't ride a motorcycle if you are a single parent with young children who would be uncared for were you to become injured or a globule on the highway. Some might write in anger about this, but when calculating risk, it seems that someone in such a situation can delay gratification for a few years, until the young ones are ready to fend for themselves.
3. Don't ride a motorcycle if you physically freeze up when in the midst of fear. Are you the sort of person who slams on the brakes (in your car) whenever you get into a stressful situation? Are you the sort of person who cannot make urgent decisions quickly? If so, I recommend avoiding motorcycling. You will need to calmly use evasive maneuvers to mitigate the risks of being vulnerable. Cars have protection. Motorcycles can accelerate or swerve out of trouble. But if you can’t accelerate or swerve in due time, your time may be up. Know thyself before you wreck yourself.
4. Don't ride a motorcycle if you don't enjoy it but simply want to be part of a group of risky riders. They will pressure you into exceeding your limit and you will be flying of the edge of some twisty mountain road before too long.
5. Don't ride a motorcycle until you come to terms with your own mortality. Figure out the religious questions. Become a person who is at peace with whatever comes your way.
6. Don't ride a motorcycle if you don't have the proper care for your loved ones if you should die, such as life insurance and godparents. Make a will.
7. Don't ride a motorcycle if you have weak impulse control and know that having a bike would cause you to ride too fast too often into many precarious situations. If you are a daredevil by nature, the one exception might be to pick a vintage, small cc bike that feels fast at 50 mph. They can be a lot of fun.
8. Don’t ride a motorcycle if you refuse to first learn on a reasonably safe bike. Jumping right into a big bagger or a bobber without a front brake and a hand clutch is a recipe for doom.
9. Don’t ride a motorcycle if you haven’t first taken a motorcycle safety-training course. Motorcycles move in ways that can be perplexing even to folks who know physics and engineering, so beginners will likely pick up false or misleading information from motorcyclist friends if they don’t get the basics down from certified instructors. (Also, it is highly recommended that you get the book on proficient motorcycle riding. There is a bit of controversy about different philosophies.)
10. Don’t ride a motorcycle if you are unwilling to maintain it regularly. Even lack of attention to slight fluctuations in tire pressure can increase your chances of getting into trouble.
With these caveats out of the way, the chief question that instigated part I was the idea that motorcycle culture tells us something about larger trends in culture. One of the trends that culture has taken is an obsession with safety that may eliminate too many calculated risks that make life worth living. Swimming pools and oceans claim many lives each year. But if anyone were to avoid these altogether, life would be impoverished. The same is true with motorcycles. The disdain folks have for others experiencing the joys of calculated risks is something virtuous citizens should resist, since there are many good reasons for folks to consider riding a motorcycle.
1. Ride a motorcycle if you want to focus your mind. I find that a half hour of good riding does something to my brain. This isn’t the emotional part, mind you, I’m talking about an actual change to the way my mind works. If you’ve heard me on the podcast, you’ll know that I can get a bit manic and bounce between topics. Motorcycling brings focus. It’s much like yoga, without the eastern philosophy. And I like motorcycle gear better than yoga pants (on me). After riding, I am better able to focus on research and writing. You may find it grounding and stabilizing as you conduct your hectic life.
2. Ride a motorcycle if you are overcoming trauma. The old saying goes: “there are no motorcycles parked outside of therapist offices.” Despite that joke, if you are involved in professional counseling, don’t quit. Nonetheless, I know several guys who have found that riding is one of the most effective non-medicinal ways to address trauma and stress. This is arguably why combat veterans have been so often part of motorcycle culture. A friend of mine, and former next door neighbor Paul Rand has connected the dots between motorcycles and mental health in his doctoral work in psychology. His research led him to create a nonprofit called Riding4Right that helps folks with PTSD through riding.
3. Ride a motorcycle if you want to truly experience your surroundings. I know my community better when I ride, since I can smell, hear, and sense what’s going on around me better. I know what my neighbors eat (sometimes what they smoke), and when they are burning wood in the fireplace. It isn’t voyeuristic; it’s that I feel present. When I’m in a car, it feels like watching life on television. On a bike, I’m alive and aware.
4. Ride a motorcycle if you want to get good parking at crowded events. My wife and I once passed a friend who was meeting us at the Orange County Fair. I was able to cautiously split lanes (legal in California and rightly so) and enter the parking area. Once there, they kindly waved us to the motorcycle parking, which was situated right at the entrance, next to the parking for the disabled and VIP guests.
5. Ride a motorcycle to save on gas. My motorcycle gets better mileage than a Prius. Some twice as much. Note that they are not as efficient due to wind resistance issues, but the overall consumption of fossil fuels is less, unless you carpool with five colleagues.
6. Ride a motorcycle to turn your commute into recreation. If you are the typical employed lady or fellow, you likely spend 5 or more hours of your life commuting in a car. Do that on a motorcycle and you have a virtual touring vacation each week.
7. Did I mention riding a motorcycle is like flying? It’s tons of fun. Have you tried it? Take the class at least and tell me it’s not a blast.
8. Ride a motorcycle if you are a decent, responsible person to help us drown out the sound of the idiots that make riding look bad. There are surely several outlaws, shirtless idiots on crotch rockets who endanger others, and neighbors with pipes that wake you up at 5AM. Help the world by changing that ethos. This is more of a request on behalf of those of us who ride than something you’ll gain, other than the satisfaction of serving your neighbors.
9. Ride a motorcycle if you want a venue for building community and camaraderie. You don’t have to join an outlaw club! I’m talking about the meetup groups, vintage bike events, and swap meets in your area. Go check sites like cyclefish.com to see what’s happening in your area. We live increasingly isolated lives; motorcycling can reconnect us. Even if you like to ride alone, folks with two wheels easily strike up friendly conversation. Did you ever notice that riders wave to each other when they pass on the highway. We are saying something like “isn’t this amazing; do we really get to experience this joy; isn’t this cool?; it’s good to see another person enjoying this life as much as I am right now.” We’ll wave to you too if you join us.
10. Ride a motorcycle if you want to get busy living. Midlife crisis? Go with it in a way that doesn't leave your family and friends behind forever, but leave them for only for the time it takes you to cut through the canyons on Saturday morning. Not midlife time yet? Why wait? Get with the joy factor now. Retired? Perfect; go marinate in creation. Check out the twisties. Feel the desert air on your body.
To elaborate on point ten, allow me to throw in three related quotations:
“We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.”
-Randy Pausch (1960-2008), The Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon
“You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!”
“I had a dream about a motorcycle," said Harry, remembering suddenly. "It was flying." Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beet with a mustache: "MOTORCYCLES DON'T FLY! Dudley and Piers sniggered. "I know they don't," said Harry. "It was only a dream.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
[Note: the picture to the upper left is my son Auggie's first ride. It was hard to let him go, literally, but it was an eye opening experience, thanks to the Hess family of Bremerton, WA.]
Maybe you don’t want to ride, but someone close to you does. You may or may not know this, but you are an important factor in all this. You want to help them. So let me help you think through the best way to do this. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about 16 year olds in your life—we all want to keep them safe; so if restricting riding at that stage is what you think best for your child, so be it (though a dirt bike might be a good compromise). This section is geared for thinking about spouses or adult children who want to ride.
1. Don’t resist someone’s decision to ride for your own selfish reasons. If you resist their desire to ride, is it because you care about their safety or you because you want to keep them on a leash? Seriously, be clear about this before you weigh in on the matter. If your loved one is reckless, drinks and drives, or has a special calling that an injury would disrupt (see the list of ten reasons not to ride above), then you are likely being a caring friend when you caution against motorcycling. But if you are worried that letting someone in your life truly live will detract from your ability to control that loved one, you are doing something vicious. As Sting said, if you love somebody, set them free.
2. Before any final decisions on the matter, consider taking a motorcycle safety class with them, and get a motorcycle endorsement yourself. This falls into the don’t knock it till you try it category. If nothing else, the class will help you understand their desire, and it will also teach you important safety tips that you can remind your loved one about later.
3. There are worse things than physical injuries; weigh the mental health issues too. Motorcycles can be medicine for a troubled mind. Your loved one may be restless and feel trapped. They call it midlife crisis because it is a real existential crisis for many. You can mock it. Or you can go with it and smile. The best thing you can do in such cases is give them a healthy outlet through which they can feel alive, freed, and ready to love you without limits. Anecdotally, after a good ride, I’m a better father and husband. I don’t feel as restless, and that means less resentments at home.
4. If you are bold enough to join them (whether on the pillion or on your own bike) you may have just stumbled upon a way to connect and enhance your relationship. Maybe a long trip to Yellowstone is in your future. This goes for parents and children as well as spouses. You don’t have to be a freeway rider. You can consider anything from scooters to dirt bikes to enjoy the fun of two wheels.
5. No one ever kept a relationship together by taking away the fun of being alive. There are surely folks whose vocation is incompatible (at least for a time) with riding. Be the one to encourage your loved ones to pursue their passions and watch the love grow.
Why do I share all this on a site dedicated to vocation and civil courage? Because this matter is a helpful study of one part of our overall culture. We seem to have come to a place where love means restriction, where sanity means boredom, where safety prolongs lives dedicated to tedium. We live in a world where people seem proud that they have said no to joy. What are we so afraid of. Seriously. What are we afraid of? Let’s figure that out first before we try and take away the last avenues for experiencing the playground our Creator has set before us. I think we are afraid of living because we secretly know we haven’t yet begun to live. There will come a day when the end is so close we don’t get any choice in these matters. Don’t be reckless. Don’t be a coward. Take courage, whatever your ride and whatever your road.
Epilogue: I said I was aiming for a Harley Fat Bob. The reason this second part of the motorcycle post took so long is that I sold my Suzuki Volusia to pay for another vehicle for my 16 year old son to commute to school (saving me several trips a week). The more I read others’ blogs and listened to their podcasts, like the Cleveland Moto, I realized that half the fun of motorcycling is getting something affordable and tinkering with it. So I made a relatively unwise decision to buy a 1981 Harley Davidson Knucklehead. This will probably mean two hours wrenching to every hour riding. I did it so I had something inexpensive to tinker with. Someday, I’ll get a reliable long distance bike. But for now, I want to get back to working on something vintage with my son. Now that he’s 16, I already can see that he will be on his own soon. I’d rather use motorcycles to strengthen that relationship than have something reliable that takes me away from this loveable son. Pictured below is the sleazy beast. It cost less than I got for my old bike, and less than some people’s paint jobs so the risk is minimal.
For further exploration:
Cleveland Moto Podcast
The Pace Motorcycle Podcast
Helpful Advice about the Harley Question
Deus Ex Machina
Iron & Air