“Pardon me. Don’t you manage the South Contradictions Post Office?”
“Sure do. Deb’s the name.”
“Surtch Pherther… You, um, you might not recall, but I was there earlier this year, and you dashed out to ask about the F800GS…”
Deb’s bright eyes glinted, her kind smile became a wicked grin, and she walloped Surtch upside the shoulder. “You! It was you! This,” she said, pointing fiercely at the Triumph Tiger beside her, “this is your fault. Of course, I’ve girlied it up with flower power, on the top case too, but… Paul,” she hollered, flicking her silver ponytail as she craned her neck,” hey, Paul, this is the guy I mentioned, the one I chatted with about these big dirt bikes. Remember? Surtch Pherther.”
“Oh–seek, and ye shall find, huh?” said a ball-capped, bearded fellow on his way back from a nearby conversation.
“Ha, yeah–sometimes,” replied Surtch. “If one’s fortunate.”
“I’d like to be able to say it’s nice to meet you”–Paul smiled wryly–“but that infamous chat cost me the price of a new motorcycle–”
“And gained you a riding buddy, it seems to me,” returned Surtch, with a wink at Deb.
“Ah, true.” Paul hung his head in feigned shame. “That’s true.”
“Well, it’s certainly my pleasure to meet you. And, Deb, the flower stickers just rock–”
“Okay, everyone, listen up!” It was Mitch, one of the RoughLether Rides leaders, from across the clearing. “We’ve set these mini cones for some slow turns, so watch as my brother Steve demonstrates. And remember what we covered earlier, in the dirt lot below–be light on the throttle and the clutch, twist your outside leg in to force the bike down with your knee, and resist target fixation, especially on that front wheel. See? Just like Steve’s doing, despite his old knees. The main difference between this and a regular cone weave is that this ground is uneven and soft in spots… Now, earlier we split you into groups, so group one, saddle up and line up over here.”
“That’s me,” said Surtch.
He joined the line behind an F650GS ridden by a self-described throttle junky with whom he’d bantered a bit already.
“You know,” said the throttle junky through his full face, “these RoughLether guys are first-rate. They really know what they’re talking about. We’re lucky to be able to do this–free of charge, no less.”
“I don’t know, man. When I got my GS, I picked up a few DVDs by some fellows in Colorado… Yeah, yeah, videos aren’t live instruction–I know how you’re lookin’ at me–but their techniques are intuitive, like simply shifting weight from peg to peg in turns. That makes tons more sense than the hokey pokey twist your outside leg in and force the bike down with your knee contortions that these dudes are selling.”
“Oh, don’t fool yourself. These guys are pros. I just wish I’d been able to ride my dirt bike, but you know, a free class offered by the dealership… I didn’t wanna disrespect.”
“Remember your own words, ‘When all else fails, just crank the throttle!’ And look, others are on non-BMW dirt bikes. Hell, take arm-sling guy–he can’t even ride, but he still gets a free lesson and lunch out of it. The dealership and the RoughLether dudes don’t seem to mind.”
“It wouldn’t have been right. Still, this bike just doesn’t belong up here. I mean, it’s a Beemer.”
“Whoa! Hold up, throttle junky. You’re on a GS that’s sporting a pannier sticker that reads ‘GS: It’s a Tool, Not a Jewel’–I’m lookin’ at it right now, man–and here you’re tellin’ me that the bike doesn’t belong on mild gravel and dirt? Come on! Just swap those chrome crash bars for ones a bit less blingy, and you’ll be fine.”
“Oops, it looks like I’m up.”
“Oh yeah, ain’t that damned convenient. Ride away, man–just ride away!…”
That morning, Surtch had downed a Mcbreakfast, ridden ten-ish miles in the almost-autumn chill, and rolled in at the dealership, having about turned back for the large group already gathered there. Once inside, he’d helped himself to a styro-cup of office brew (a crutch for his nervousness) and then wandered awhile before stumbling upon a natural chance for conversation, with arm-sling guy.
“It’s gotta be impossible enough to ride street with your throttle-hand hung up like that. You’ll be working magic if you run dual-sporting drills.”
“Yeah, I thought I might skill-up by osmosis.” It seemed a ready response. “A few weeks ago my Speed Triple’s front brakes were worked on, not by the dealership. I got it back the night before a track day out at Salina Raceway. Anyway, I’d ramped-up on that back straightaway, you know.” Surtch nodded for the sake of the tale, though he’d never been on the track. “I squeezed the lever at the end sweeper, and those brakes just blew apart on me. I went down in a cloud of gravel and dust and ended up with hardware in my shoulder after surgery.”
“Holy shit!” Surtch cringed. “I won’t ask about the bike.”
Arm-sling guy went silent for a moment, his downcast gaze distant. Then he sighed. “I was unlucky then, or maybe lucky–I don’t know. But this morning,” his voice perking up, “this morning I’m just a fool. Here I woke early on a cold Saturday to attend this thing where I can’t even ride, leaving a fine, little brunette alone and warm in my bed. Damn,” he shook his head in feigned lament, “what a fool I am.”
Surtch chuckled, wondering which made arm-sling guy a greater fool–his leaving a “fine, little brunette” alone in his bed, or his getting involved with a woman who apparently had no interest in all things motorcycle. After all, thought Surtch, for many, religiousness is a condition for romance, so why shouldn’t moto-obsession be–a condition for romance and a religion?
From introductions and instruction at the store, the group had ridden (looking like an ad) a few miles east to a foothills dirt lot where the RoughLether Rides leaders prepped drills while laggards arrived. One suited-up retiree rode his fully-loaded R1200GSA into the space ahead of where the rest had stopped abreast, and too slow he tried too tight a turn. The struggle was short and the spill soft as the mega-machine eased over like a bloated sow, but something flickered in the fellow’s face: passing embarrassment, of course, but a bigger something too–a deepening distress that was born the moment he first rode the big bike off the lot.
Likely he lived unremarkably, for decades punching clocks and pinching pennies and keeping his yard on the weekends, and then one day it was a film or an ad or a chat with a pal… He got haunted by adventure bike visions–the biggest bike he could get–of going all geared-up and full tilt into a future of untold sunsets and exotic ‘scapes and ever-remote horizons, visions at which he was the center, of course, in which he was the hero. Reality, though–the machine’s heft and the serious skills required for its seemingly easy manipulation off road–didn’t measure up and was now slowly crushing the poor fellow’s dreams beneath. It was heartbreaking, and Surtch wondered if he was the only one who’d seen it.
Back at the clearing, Surtch finished his go at the slow turns, switched off Escape Artist, removed his helmet, and casually walked up beside Deb and leaned in. “Hey–you see that squashed cone out there?… Yeah, I did that.” Deb cracked up and threw her arm around his back and gave him a great, big shoulder-squeeze.
“Gather ’round, everyone, gather ’round.” It was Mitch again. The day was near mid-afternoon, and all of the riders had done the drill. “Today you leave with a few new things–a brief intro to what we offer at RoughLether Rides, a handful of dual-sporting skills, and most important, new friendships. Because few pastimes bring people together like motorcycling. Now, be safe, and remember, RoughLether Rides wants to be part of your next adventure… Oh, and one more thing–Steve and I are at Hotel Contradictions downtown and will be in the bar around seven for a few beers. Or is that in a few hours for seven beers, Steve? I forget. Either way, y’all are welcome to join us.”
The group thanked Mitch and Steve and the dealership crew, and though most continued to chat and linger thereafter, Deb and Paul geared up quick and got back astride their rides.
“We’re already late for another engagement,” said Deb, “but this was worth it. It’s been fun, everyone.” And while leaving the clearing, she made a slow pivot on a soft spot and suddenly was tilted a bit too far. Stretching her legs, her feet, her tippy-toes for a firm flat-foot or two, and straining her arms against the bike’s heft, she fought the fall, but the fall won. With an oops-rev and a thud, the Tiger had toppled, and Deb, on her back in the dirt, was laughing hysterically. The group passed glances and then broke into applause and hurrahs. Deb stood, dusted herself off, and grinning big, looked around and then bowed grandly.
Meanwhile, Mitch had strode over and kill-switched the Tiger, and after cheering with the others, he made it a teachable moment on how to raise a fallen adventure bike.
“Steve and I have observed,” he said, after he and Deb had righted the ride, “that men and women usually react to motorcycle falls as they do to failing relationships. Whereas most men will leap clear, so as not to get caught in the wreckage, most women will fight to their last to keep the thing alive…”
It… It, a constant companion–it, the critical self–it, that incessant monologue… Though Surtch sped the urban interstate home that afternoon, it would not be out-ridden, nor–however loud the wind and the road noise and that sweet internal combustion song–would it be drowned out:
Dammit, Surtch, throttle down!–Coppers lurk in these here parts–What the hell’s up with the different dual-sporting techniques, anyway?–Have others noticed?–It’s like the bike makers build freakish machines just ’cause they can–We have to learn what to do with ’em, how to ride the damn things–What kind of crazy-ass business plan is that?–“Build it, and they will come?”–Ha!–Creating a product will create its market too?–It’s like they all wanna be Steve Jobs…
It’s only mid-afternoon on a Saturday, Surtch, but it’s September–Winter’ll be here soon–Where do you go from here?–Where do you want to go, Surtch?–Should I join ’em for beers?–You know you want to, to confidently join strangers for beers and easy conversation–You’ve always wanted to be that…
You’ve made progress, haven’t you, Surtch?–You’re getting better at this, right?–Right?… Surtch?… Right?…