Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Ride Less Travelled

(8"x10" box camera paper negative, 240mm Fujinon Xerox lens stopped down to 3mm aperture)

Today I took a motorcycle ride, early in the morning, with the intention of just riding, not really planning any specific route or destination, just to enjoy the cool morning air and freedom of the road.

My motorcycle is not your typical breed. The usual bike is either of a sport-oriented design with powerful inline engine, short wheelbase and racing suspension, or a heavy V-twin cruiser bike, like a Harley or one of its many Japanese derivatives, with a more laid back riding position, but less sophisticated braking and suspension. While the Harleys are legendary, their belt drive and air-cooled engines, combined with premium price, don't attract me. I'm more of a loner, looking for something the usual person wouldn't consider. This is true in cameras as well as many other aspects of my life.

I started motorcycling later in life than the typical rider. I didn't ride a dirt bike as a kid, for instance; although I did a lot of bicycling, there's only so much skill that transfers to the engine-driven variety. So I started off with an Italian motorscooter, the 49cc variety that doesn't require a motorcycle license endorsement. I learned the basics of riding this way, even commuting 30 miles round trip per day on the little dude, and learned to ride comfortably and alert in heavy traffic (a task that remains uncomfortable to many motorcyclists).

Several years later, the limitations of the little motorscooter got the better of me (I couldn't ride out of town, or on faster roads), and I therefore attended the Motorcycle Rider's Safety Course, and soon afterwards bought an entry-level sport bike. The motorscooter began to collect dust, and I eventually sold it off (which I've subsequently regretted).

Several years later I began to get bored with my ride, and was looking for something different. I looked into sidecars, but then began to get interested in trikes. I eventually found a local shop that does trike conversions, and that's where I found my present ride. It's a Lehman conversion of a mid-1990's Suzuki Intruder 800, an older Japanese water-cooled, shaft-driven cruiser bike. By trike standards it's small, and doesn't have the smoothness and creature comforts of a triked-out Honda Goldwing, for instance. But it was affordable. Think older cruiser bike with three wheels.

For storage I looked around and found an aluminum toolbox that I converted into a trunk box, and bolted to the back luggage rack. I repositioned the rear turn-signal lights to the back of the box for better visibility. And that's about it.

It's a different ride; other bikers ask me about it, wondering if I'm somehow physically (or mentally) handicapped, why not a two-wheeler. There's this unspoken stigma of being a trike rider, like you've got to be handicapped, ailing or elderly to justify one. In actual practice, more upper arm strength is required to ride a trike than a two-wheeler, since you can't use counter-steer and weight shifting to induce a turn; and riding twisty, bumpy mountain roads is more of a challenge, requiring more riding skill. For instance, the rear axle conforms to the contour of the road, sometimes causing side-to-side motions that cause the chassis to lean in the opposite direction from that required to safely complete the turn one has already committed to (i.e. you're in a sharp left turn on a high mountain road and the right wheel dips into a road depression, causing the body to lean right, fighting your turn). And you're constantly adjusting for the crown of the road, shifting your weight off the center of the seat and inducing a steering bias in the opposite direction, like an airplane crabbing into a sidewind, something a two-wheeler never thinks about.

But I've also been in situations where having three wheels instead of two has been a blessing, like suddenly rounding a bend in the road and a crew is tearing up the road and you're forced to ride on the gravel shoulder, or the asphalt has been ground down to a rough macadam that causes your front wheel to drift uncomfortably back and forth while your handlebars are vibrating with a bone-jarring staccato, or you find yourself on the interstate highway in 50 mph gusty crosswinds. It is not only times like these that I'm glad I have a trike, but also that I've been able to take my grandson for rides, something I (and his parents) would have been much less keen on with a two-wheeler. I've told him on numerous occasions (enough so that I honestly think he now believes it) that he's a real lucky kid to have been riding on the back of a motorcycle since age seven or so.

I arose early this morning (preparing my body clock for a return to my work schedule tomorrow morning), rolled the trike out to the driveway and gave it a good washing. After drying it, I geared up and went for my ride. As I stated earlier, I didn't have any planned agenda, but there's a usual route I like to take, especially nice on a cool, late summer's morning with the sun peaking over the Sandia mountains through a smattering of high clouds, the cold air drifting down from the higher country from the night before, the day promising rain later on. It feels like neither summer or winter, spring or fall, sunny or cloudy, only cool and comfortable, like a pleasant dream before some inevitably rude awakening. I rode up to Tramway, then proceeded north along the mountain's foothills, and curved west, heading down to the Rio Grande valley, from which I could see the entire city and surrounding desert vista, and distant mountain ranges, all laid out in a dramatic panorama, the cool morning air enveloping me in a cocoon of comfort. I rode up through the Sandia Reservation, past tree-lined fields of hay and alfalfa, past herds of grazing cattle. I decided I was heading to breakfast at the Range Cafe in Bernalillo, but got there only to find that they didn't open till 9am. So back down the same road I went, past the cool, verdant fields, through the north valley of Albuquerque, then into downtown, heading up Central Avenue - the old Route 66 - to end up at my usual breakfast haunt at Winning Coffee.

I had the good sense, prior to heading out, to bring the AlphaSmart Neo and a novel to read ("Lowboy", by John Wray), but was uncertain whether I should have taken my writer's bag with fountain pen and notebook instead. No matter; the method isn't as important as the fact that I can sit at breakfast and write, the trike parked outside, ready for my return. Around the university district near UNM the traffic police are constantly writing tickets to parking meter violators; motorcycles, however, are exempt.

There are times in the year when one is glad they are not on a motorcycle. Like in a torrential summer's downpour, or a wintry blizzard. But for the rest of the year motorcycling is a uniquely pleasant experience. One rides along country roads past fields alternately cultivated and fallow, the subtle temperature and humidity differences between the two signaled by strikingly obvious variations in sensation, one moment cool and moist, the next moment hot and dry, only to be followed by cool and moist once more. You notice these things on a bike that you don't in a car, even with the windows rolled down. You can smell the breakfast burritos cooking as you ride past a little north valley eatery. You can smell fresh roast brewing as you ride past a local coffee shop. This time of year you can smell the almost-marijuana-like aroma of freshly roasting green chiles smouldering in the cool morning air. You can also smell the truck ahead of you is burning oil (not all the smells are pleasant, but that's life). Riding a bike, one feels immersed in the environment, part of the landscape, not merely watching it float by as if on a cinematic screen, caged in steel and plastic.

The day is beginning to warm up, and my coffee cup is empty. Time to saddle up. It's going to be a good day.

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~Joe

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