Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Perfect Vehicle

Melissa Holbrook Pierson's book The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles contains the absolute best passage I've read about the start of a ride. I've passed this book around to lovers, friends and relatives who thought I was crazy, at 43, to start riding a motorcycle. That was twelve years ago. I'm still riding, still loving it almost all of the time, and I still get a thrill every time I swing my leg over my bike, thumb the starter, and the bike comes to life. Riding a motorcycle is approximately 1,000% more fun than driving a car. And I dearly love my motorcycle friends.

I'm starting to vaguely though, in the back of my mind, somewhere, question just a little if the motorcycle is in fact, after all, the perfect vehicle.

I started riding motorcycles in a roundabout way. When I first moved to Seattle I didn't own a car and hadn't yet discovered motorcycles. I rode my bicycle everywhere. A good bit of my early time in Seattle I was unemployed, and I worked out some of my frustration with that on long bicycle rides up the Burke-Gilman to Kenmore and back, almost every day. Later, my office was on a houseboat in the U-District, and I lived in Wallingford. It was a lovely commute. Riding to meetings with clients was perfectly in line with the environmental ethos of my practice. In 1996 at the urging of a very cute woman on whom I happen to have a huge crush, I decided to ride the Cascade Bicycle Club's Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, popularly known as the STP. Training for and riding the STP turned out to be great fun (and it worked out quite well romantically, I might add) but at the end of the ride I realized that my left ankle was in a fair amount of pain. I tried getting a bike fitting, tried custom carbon-fiber orthotics—nothing seemed to work. Eventually I went to Eric Sundine, and got myself an electric motor for my bicycle. It was an early model which functioned through friction—a rubber wheel spinning on the tire of the bicycle. I was living on Capitol Hill by then, and still commuting by bicycle to my office on Portage Bay. The electric assist however, was not strong enough to assist me up Interlaken. Just not enough boost to relieve the ankle pain brought on by the slightest mashing of the pedals. It also turned what had been an elegant, lightweight, beautiful machine—the most efficient means of transportation—into a heavy contraption that did not work particularly well. My sense of design was offended, and yet still the problem was not solved. In the end, I gave up riding my bicycle altogether.

In 1991 my old old friend Tom O'Brien, bandmate, housemate and classmate from architecture school in Toronto, had visited Seattle on his BMW R65, and had given me a ride around the block. My first time on the back of a motorcycle since I was a ten-year-old, flying down Route 322 in western Pennsylvania on the back of Ben Hawn's '63 ElectraGlide. That planted a seed. Then, five years later, on the wall of Scott Mantz's office on the houseboat, was a photo of his Ducati Paso in Eastern Washington, on the side of the road, in the Palouse maybe. Looking fast and gorgeous. The idea of riding a motorcycle started to take shape. Still two wheels...but a completely new world. In 1998 I bought my first motorcycle.

And what a trip it's been.