God, Trust, and Motorcycle Journeys: Part One

God, Trust, and Motorcycle Journeys: Part One

Some time back I wrote about the Patron Saint of Motorcycles. It’s in this blog and I won’t spoil your suspense by telling you who was chosen for this honor. Bikers pray, like most people do, for things they want and don’t want. “Oh God, don’t let a part of me or Big Red end up on the Tree of Shame at the Dragon’s Tail!” is an example of one form of the most earnest prayer recited by thousands of bikers in North Carolina each year. I recited it just recently. Some of us pray, like beauty contestants, for world peace. Some bikers see a handsome man or a beautiful woman ride up on an incredible motorcycle and “Oh God” is often mumbled under the breath. Don’t know about you but I always thought there was a fine line between some prayers we utter and coveting. By the way, just to make sure we are on the same page, we are talking about desiring the motorcycle, aren’t we?
Prayers of gratitude are often uttered by bikers as they realize their blessing at being able to ride through the astonishingly beautiful world we have. Prayers of thankfulness are soulfully felt, including the slow sideways shaking of the helmet at the hard to believe realization of one’s good fortune. All the religions I know about declare that you have done nothing to earn this privilege so feel humbled and fortunate, incredibly and eternally thankful. That old Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used to say that people relate to things of only relative importance (cars, money, homes etc.) as if they were of absolute importance and relate to absolute things (like God, loving others) as if they were only of relative importance. I know it’s a mistake that I often make. Being out on a bike in the silence and nature helps cure me of that, if only temporarily.

But not all bike rides are purely joyful. Sometimes in our lives we are going through what St John of the Cross called: The Dark Night of the Soul and if it only lasted one night we probably could knuckle down, put our kickstand up and ride through it. But if you’re like me these nights (and days) can go on seemingly forever, with no end in sight. That happened to me two years ago when my marriage of twenty five years fell apart and my life in Ireland started to crumble. I was completely disoriented, had emotional and spiritual vertigo and eventually moved back home to Georgia.The disorientation didn’t stop there. Sartre said: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I was both dizzy and anxious.

The bike provided me with a way of spending time alone, wandering physically and spiritually that helped get me through this dark night. Family and friends, letting go, being in the moment, reflection and prayer saved me. And not the good old Irish prayer: “May the road rise up to meet you….!” No biker wants the road to rise up and meet them! That’s surely a way to get yourself on the Tree of Shame! Instead, new prayers came, new ways of looking at the world.

But sometimes the dark night, like the road can go on seemingly forever. You feel lost, adrift, and can’t see beyond the flotsam and jetsam of your past which is constantly floating around you, reminding you of what your life once was. Though it can be terrifying at the time there’s great value in being and feeling “lost” and I, and plenty others have written about it. It’s important to not give up hope for you will come out of it; you will find a new and better destination.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it perfectly:
“God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says” (St John of the Cross), “because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.
Taylor, Barbara Brown (2014-04-08). Learning to Walk in the Dark (pp. 146-147). Harper Collins. Kindle Edition.

Stay tuned for part two. Join me if you want to go for that ride. Kickstands up.

Tail of Tale of the Dragon: Part Two

Big Red and me riding the Dragon

Big Red and me riding the Dragon

Tale of the Tail of the Dragon: Part Two
People come to ride the Dragon for lots of different reasons: some to test their skills, others for the adventure, and some because they were talked into it by friends (they didn’t want to look bad so they agreed). I came simply because my buddy Jeff told me to.
Nah, not really. In fact, he tried to scare me out of it with tales of death and injury and the Tree of Shame, the place where recovered broken helmets, scudded and shredded leather and twisted motorcycle parts live out their days like horrible Christmas ornaments, providing a visual and visceral warning to the overconfident or overbuzzed (adrenalin, drug or alcohol high).

At Deal’s Gap, North Carolina we paid our respects to the Tree of Shame. Walking around it were riders of all ages: young riders thinking “that would never be me”, older men lamenting “but for the grace of the God there go I” and middle agers opining “that helmet looks exactly like mine”.

Also located there is a combination motel, restaurant, pub and shop ( “I survived the dragon” tee shirts) along with a parking lot filled with bikers, some in groups, some couples and some riding solo. There were mostly Harleys and BMW’s, a right many Honda’s and Kawasakis, a few Victorys and Ducatis, a lone KTM and a there was a tall guy riding on a miniature bike (not sold separately). Folks were friendly but more subdued, less vocal, more serious and sober than at other gatherings of bikers I’d been to. For good reason. Regardless of your skill level, a two lane road of 11 miles with 318 curves is still a tremendous challenge especially when the oncoming (or overpassing) traffic can be filled with daredevils and knuckleheads (And I mean that in the nicest way possible!) violating your sacred space. There are 1-2 deaths a year on the Tail of the Dragon and crashes are a daily feature.

The advice is clear: know how and where to position yourself in the lane for curves, pick your line through the curve, don’t look at the obstacles you want to miss (e.g. the side of the road, the car coming in the other lane) but instead look where you want the bike to go, don’t cross the yellow line, use brakes as little as possible, ride your own ride, at your own pace , don’t try to catch up with others, don’t look at the views, stay focused and don’t panic. And if you don’t know what all of these mean or how to do them you shouldn’t be riding the Dragon or anywhere else with curvy roads. You get extra points if you know how and when to do counter steering. And going very slow won’t guarantee your safety. We met two people at our motel who crashed the same day we rode. One told us he was only going 20-25 mph. He was pretty well banged up with suspected broken ribs and definitely a fractured ego.
Off we went. The curves were tight, blind, and there were plenty of switchbacks. As soon as you came out of one curve you were into another. Curves going uphill and downhill. “S” curves. Switchbacks. There’s little shoulder to the road and steep drop offs. But frankly I found the road easier than I had anticipated. Challenging yes, fun absolutely, but not frightening. (Of course, I’ve been cross country twice on my motorcycle and have worked on the skills I mentioned above after nearly crashing two years ago in the North Georgia mountains). I got into a nice rhythm, kept breathing, kept my eyes on the road ahead, didn’t panic, stayed focused and just enjoyed the ride. I managed to stay centered (in more ways than one) and didn’t cross the yellow center lines or the white side ones. Jeff and I rode between 30-40 mph and a few folks zoomed past us. We stopped at the top at an overlook and chatted with car drivers and other bikers. The view was magnificent, rolling hills covered with trees, some already intimating that autumn was coming. Then we rode back through it again, bought our Dragon tee shirts and headed back to the motel to hear the stories about success and crashes.

The next day we did the Cherohala Skyway a 36 mile, two lane, mile high skyway between Robbinsville NC. and Tellico Plains, TN. A wide, well maintained road with wide curves and great vistas and overlooks. We rode through two national forests, the Cherokee and the Nantahala and coming near to Tellico a white water river hummed alongside of us. The ride was hauntingly beautiful, the views spectacular and some of the curves were as challenging as the Dragon’s. Except, apparently for the two Ducati’s who rocketed past us.

At the end of the skyway we stopped at ate some fine food at Tellico Grains and then headed home. The four lane past Blue Ridge and Ellijay was straight and fast and provided a chance to let go of the intensity of concentration I had built up. I caught myself praying and giving thanks, for the beauty of the ride, the gift of family and friends, even the grim reminders of mortality we had ridden through. But I especially gave thanks that neither a part of me nor Jeff, nor Big Red, ended up hanging on that old Tree of Shame. This time.
Thus ends the Tale of the Tail of the Dragon.

Tale of the Tail of the Dragon – Part One.

Tale of the Tail of the Dragon – Part One.

Looking forward to riding the dragon next week, well the tail of it anyway. Not sure where the whole dragon is but this part, called “The Tail of the Dragon”, is on the Tennessee border with North Carolina. It’s a two lane road that runs 11 miles (18 K) and has 318 curves all of which the rider hopefully will negotiate. Crashes and deaths are reported each year on the “Tail”, police and emergency vehicle stake it out daily. Folks come from all over the world to ride it. The advice I’ve received so far has been contradictory. My buddy Jeff who is accompanying me said to ride it at my own speed, whatever I’m comfortable and confident with. My buddy Ronny Parker says to ride it at 60-65 mph. I’ve known Jeff longer so I think I’m going to go with his advice. The “Tail” definitely looks challenging but then again I have ridden across America twice on some pretty diabolical back roads so I should be able to handle this one. I’ll let you know next week. Hopefully.