The Unexpected Joy of Motorcycle Riding

I may have to add an asterisk to the saying that buying things can’t make you happy. I bought a motorcycle, and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t made me one percent happier than I used to be. Then again, we all know that spending money on experiences can make you happy. A motorcycle isn’t just a vehicle to move you from place to place– it’s an experience every time you ride it.

My brother has loved motorcycles for as long as I can remember. So has my uncle. But despite “the disease” obviously mixed up in my blood, I never really thought twice about riding a motorcycle. It was sort of like stamp collecting to me– something other people do, and obviously derive some sort of pleasure from, but I hadn’t given it more than a passing thought.

Last December, for some reason or another, I thought that it would be novel for all of my vehicle registrations, inspections, licenses, etc. to be legal and up to date. I drove my RV back to Texas to renew the registration and get inspected, made sure the insurance was current, and paid off old tickets. The only remaining infraction I was guilty of was driving my folding scooter without a motorcycle license, which is required in California.

I don’t like holidays very much, so with all of my other friends going to parties or downtown, on New Years Eve I looked online for a motorcycle course I could take before returning to San Francisco. I immediately registered for the one beginning that evening.

Going around the class, each person shared their name and their reason for getting a motorcycle license. I wasn’t exactly showered with respect when I said that I had no interest in motorcycles and was only getting the license to legally drive my 74cc scooter.

But my interest in motorcycles materialized quickly on day two. People remember when they first fell in love with their significant other, and I remember when I fell in love with motorcycles. It was during the first hands-on drill, when we bumbled our way into first gear and drove across the abandoned auto lot that served as our driving course.

I flew back to San Francisco, and immediately dedicated a few hours a day to researching motorcycles. I hadn’t even decided to buy one, but I was infatuated and couldn’t help myself. I initially had my heart set on a Hayabusa, only because it’s the fastest production motorcycle on planet earth. I was (and continue to be) terrified to go fast, but I’m a sucker for superlatives. Then I found out that it’s so powerful that merely accelerating to 40mph too quickly causes it to do a wheelie, and decided that maybe a motorcycle purchase should come with a side order of responsibility.

I ended up going for style, buying a red 2003 Ducati Monster 620, the least powerful bike Ducati makes. A couple months later I bought a more powerful Monster S2R 800, managing to dodge buying the 1000cc model only because the 800 has a lighter clutch, which is great for city driving.

Unlike any other purchase I can conceive of, a motorcycle changes you. You’re not just a guy with a motorcycle; you’re a rider. You feel cooler, and you ARE cooler. I remember being surprised at thinking my friend Jonah was cooler once he became a rider. It’s because a motorcycle isn’t something you have, it’s something you do. You ride. You risk your life for a chance to turn a commute into an adventure. An errand becomes a whole-body experience.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sounds like a funny name for a book. But once you ride, especially your first few times an a highway, you experience complete presence in the moment. You don’t think about what just happened or what’s going to happen. You don’t even think about what is happening. You just experience the moment and react on instinct as you fly down the highway. The wind booms so loudly that you can’t hear anything else, or even imagine any other sounds. Each bump in the pavement gently pushes you like a wave on a boat. Your eyes can hardly believe what they see; the motorcycle disappears and you’re only aware of the world you’re streaking through. The first time I got up to speed and experienced all this, I couldn’t help but say “wow” inside my helmet.

I bring all this up not because I think I had some unique nirvana moment on the motorcycle, but because I believe the opposite: anyone can have this experience. I would have never considered riding a motorcycle if I didn’t need to get the license, and I worry that other non-riders feel the same way, and may go through their lives without this experience. So my suggestion to you is to go take a motorcycle class and ride. You’ll probably love it.

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I had the good fortune of randomly sitting next to two blog readers at Samovar yesterday, Chloe and Nick. Nick created Skritter, which seems like a really cool tool for learning Chinese or Japanese.

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