The Existentialism of a Motorcycle Triad
I had not been able to unpack a recent motorcycle trip with two riding companions until today. Even then, it was only in a nicotine daze from an exceptionally good Connecticut Nub that I let my mind open up and think the unthinkable. Do I love these guys or want to beat them to a pulp like we all did with our best friends in grade school? Well, that is not really an option because Biggern works out on a heavy bag regularly and has the claim to fame of once entering the ring with George Foreman who graciously gave him a signed poster and begged him not to make him rearrange his face. The other riding buddy Litler, just works out regularly, even doing 300 squats at 120 kph on straight stretches where he looks positively kangarooish. I just wallow in sloth behind him as I daydream of heavy cream in my coffee and a Honey Cruller to taper the fat content. How can friends simultaneously be as maddening as an Italian girlfriend and as dependable as an old F-150 pickup? Like Anthony Hopkins they are devastatingly good at being politely malevolent.
Maybe dependable is the wrong word. Predictable is mo’ better. Here is what I know: they are connected to social media in ways that are the envy of a 13-year old; they have very different relationships with food meaning I can always piggyback onto something edible in any situation — more on this later-; they both wear uniforms of indistinguishability at every turn meaning no living person can recall a single outfit they have ever worn because they are totally non-descript to the point of not even casting a shadow; and they have their own well-developed senses of decorum and appropriateness that include the feelings of everyone including the living, the deceased, the unborn, and any hypothetical progeny. These fixed attributes mean that there is a lot of bandwidth left over to be caulked up with personal idiosyncrasy and oddballity
They might re-cast my assessment with self-flattery and adjectives of “personality” or “character”. Person-goddam-ality I say. Try to call it character when one is moaning and roaring as if fighting a bear in pre-dawn- well Biggern actually DID once wrestle a muzzled bear in an exhibition where he was publically humiliated by animal strength. Then the next day they will use their potent skills of revisionism to casually mention “I sometimes snore lightly but it never bothers anyone”. This from Litler who refuses to share a tent by claiming I sometimes snore. Biggern is in a different decibel league of snoring and considerately packs a CPAP machine so as to not shame our meager efforts.
Oh they can both ride and have very well-appointed liquid-cooled German motorcycles with 130 horsepower. Similarly, they are students of practiced motorcycling skills and do not share my history of scrapes, scuffs and unceremonious tip overs in sand. Well, this is not entirely true. Litler rode all over Kenya’s sand roads on a 250 cc smoker and Biggern still has the 40 year old pedal cycle he had as a teen. There must be some deep internal remembrance because it is, well, sorta like riding a bicycle. They are however, ready for such accident eventualities because they are ATGATT fans but as the infomercials say “But wait, there is more . . .!”
Litler is a serious gear head. There was a rock-climbing phase that required full gear-up, thus, carabiners appear on his bike, then a rekindled childhood obsession with horses that saw pack boards, trucks, trailers, saddles and horse training, thus, many quick release knots, then through-hiking across divides and Iceland and such, therefore, he rides in hiking boots. Now, the spotlight is on motorcycling so panniers sport compressor, tool kits (two!), Jet boil with two fuel canisters, pounds of dehydrated food including four pounds of dry rice, water bottles (two!), battery packs (two!), and four locator devices (Spot, Apple Locators, GPS, and Cell). Unlike me, he is lipid-deficient, thus, prone to chilling but Litler also has the lightest warmest, most expensive insulation known to REI or MEC. I would be envious if he wasn’t so generous in feeding, fixing, orienteering and outfitting me with all his extras.
Biggern likes to ride and has a garage bristling with outdoor gear, mostly aligned with camping, cooking and hunting, thus, camo riding gear sometimes appears. When not riding, Biggern likes good food with a particular gustatory goal of depopulating the West Coast of all crustaceans. We could not pass an oyster bar or shrimp boil which was fine with me. As an aspiring vegan, Litler needed reassurances that oysters were not really an animal, then he dived in like a sea otter. When restaurants saw us coming, they often hid their inventory, locked their doors and shuttered their windows as if Fast Gun Freddie had just rolled down Main Street. Maybe we should have bathed more regularly.
My ride, a 15 year-old air-cooled BMW R1200GS is a dependable old beast. She is second hand but I have put the last 100,000 trouble-free km on her. To my friends I stress the worn out, beaten up, low value, wear item nature of such an old bike. Like I have wrung all the life out of her and she is not to be worried about. Still, though there is some sentimentality, it is misplaced in a mechanicomorphic way . Truly an old nag headed toward the dog food factory. Yet, with a good suspension, a custom leather seat, new tires she is still a good for a hot corner strafe, a little wheelie and the telelever stopping stability. We swap bikes regularly and I know the new bikes to be faster and with more tech, but I find them no more comfortable or efficient and one would cry harder if they get stolen or wrecked.
Litler and I had just completed a 2,000 km ping pong of Baja and had made it almost half way through his four pound bag of dried rice. When we returned to the Meat Wagon van stashed in California, the two of us had two bikes and van to drive home. It didn’t take but a quick call to Biggern who flew down from Canada to help ride and drive north. We watched the weather carefully because snow and ice are expected in early March at those latitudes and elevations. Still, coastal riding Highway 1 and 101 were a delight in the southern stretches. Then it happened.
Biggern had been 7 months off a bike and he hopped on my old warhorse. He was making up time chasing me as I was thrashing Litler’s 1250 through the esses. Yes, the tires were cold, the pavement damp, the road unfamiliar, no traction control available, the set of curves were linked, the radius decreasing with no camber, and the verge was a parking lot of gravel. So, when I failed to see him following on the next long straight I returned to see him babysitting the upright bike planted in the ditch. It had pitched him 5 meters up a mossy embankment. Soft landing for him, scratchy slide for the bike but there was the concern about his buggered right ankle. Litler was off on a different highway but quickly found us through 3 or 4 locating devices. I talked Litler out of starting CPR, a Lactate drip and a transfusion. I understand, when you got skills, you kind want to use them. What was called for was some ass-sittin’ and observing till the adrenaline wore off.
A friendly farmer and his wife, ex-volunteer firemen, were of Litler’s persuasion and stopped to apply a tourniquet or do a roadside skin graft but no, just some sittin’ and looking at him. What was obvious was a toxic level of Catholic guilt and a dangerous titer of self-flagellation but once we helped Biggern into the Meat Wagon’s fold-out bed, he pronounced it good and took up residence like a low priced hooker. Turned out the Farmer Fireman had a strong back and lifted the heavy end of the bike out of the ditch while I wrangled the handlebars. I could probably have sat on it while he lifted but that might have been presumptuous. She fired up with the usual sluggish starter like the dependable dog she is and I took a tentative dig up the road. Wonky bars but rideable with a well-scuffed left jug. Jury is out on the frame and fork alignment but I will likely know in time. Ahhh. . . the beauty of riding a fully depreciated moto!
We did the prudent things at the Arcadia hospital, Canadian Insurance check in, X-rays, casts, opiates blah blah blah . . . his leg was stabilized but pronounced unsuitable for walking, riding OR driving the Meat Wagon. This did three things; Litler got promoted from the Meat Wagon back to his own two wheels, Biggern turned into the Queen of Sheba sprawled out on the foam mattress and started popping Tylenol 3’s like they were M&Ms, and after I stashed my bike at the airport I was demoted to driving the Meat Wagon. My cargo was a deliriously happy and prostrate Queen Biggern gabbing non-stop. North we went mostly happy though. The weather turned colder around Grant’s Pass and Litler became predictably hypothermic. Biggern went thoroughly existential on me asking deeeeeeep questions about the nature of happiness and the afterlife, drifting into why I loved my wife and what I thought an ideal father-child relationship looked like. The only problem is, he had the answers to his own questions queued up and I didn’t ever have to answer. Really, his questions were just the intro sentence to a some-eloquent disquisition on every important topic he could muster. Pro tip here: I had some Costco headphones that play through the skull bones so my auditory canals stay open for sirens, loud patient request and I could still listen to music while Biggern lectured non-stop for a full tank of gas. Seems everyone was now equally happy or miserable.
Now all of this circumstance should test friendships and trios typically make a deadly combination. If one is the loneliest number, three is the most dangerous. Some pairing will inevitably team up on the odd man out. I was in the catbird seat to align with another to serve as judge and jury of all things right and just. The problem was, I couldn’t settle on who was the least odd with whom to team up with and cudgel the other. Who should I recruit to be my mean-girl partner in belittlement? — the generous hypothermic vegan, or a gooned out and crippled benevolent philosopher? I would have to go it alone and that was no fun at all so I just chucked it all and we got along.
A decidedly non-religious friend of all of ours believes the only life-guiding goal; nae, that the only reason for our existence, is to collect good stories in this lifetime. The only word there I would disagree with is the “only” part; there might be a few other important things. Surmountable situations and the stories played out between those sharing the moments are truly important in real time. Motorcycling with friends makes these things apparent. We learn about each other and ourselves. The bike will get retrieved with a pleasant ride up the coast in warming weather; the ankle did not require surgery as the spiral fracture will self-heal with a cast; Litler finally warmed up, or will in the coming months, and has plans to van-camp back down the coast with his wife.
So, what are we left with? A story. But wait . . . there is more again! I know the bounds of friendship, what to expect when I tip a friend’s bike, what Biggern thinks is important in selecting a wife (a little late for us buddy . . .) , and what kinds of plant-based diets are recommended. Oh yes, Chipotle baked oysters are fantastic.
There you have it. Friends really do make trip stories better.