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To readers of a certain generation—we who were born under the Truman or Eisenhower administrations—mere utterance of the word motorcycle could invoke no other image but that of a young Marlon Brando: shades, comb, black leather jacket (“The Wild One,” 1953). Teen boys gazed admiringly. Young girls giggled nervously. Shopkeepers cringed and police officers scowled whenever a biker rolled into town…
Curiosity. Surprise. Nervousness. Admiration. Whatever your particular visceral reaction, almost everyone feels something when the earth rumbles and a herd of Harleys stampede into view.
Today, of course, most people probably know someone who rides, and understand, intellectually at least, that (to quote the ever-insightful George Carlin), today’s riders are: “Dentists and bureaucrats and… software designers….”
Nevertheless, there’s still some primal essence in us that recognizes that something about these people is different. And so there is.
Recently at an open house at Baer Sport Center in Honesdale, PA, a Harley-Davidson, Polaris, and Victory dealership, I had the privilege to meet numerous intriguing individuals, and hear many absorbing stories. Each conversation always included these two questions: “How many miles do you ride each year?” (most average about 5,000 miles annually—pretty impressive in a part of the country with such a limited riding season.) and “What are your favorite routes and/or destinations?” (More about that later.)
None of the interviews that sunny day encapsulated the biker spirit as succinctly as Chief Joseph Graywolf of Damascus, PA. Here is a man who has been riding motorcycles for as long as I’ve been alive (Truman administration, remember).
When I posed the first question to Chief Graywolf, he paused, almost as if perplexed that anyone would even ask so outlandish a thing. He thought a moment before replying: “Just as much as I please.”
From anyone else I might have taken this as a wiseacre response, but somehow I knew that this was not a man who would waste my time or his own with frivolous evasions. I had a sense that his answer was more profound than superficial interpretation would suggest, and I filed it away for subsequent analysis.
Expecting a similarly vague and philosophical response, I nonetheless fired off my second question: Favorite destinations?
This time his companion, Melanie, provided an immediate, concrete, and very revealing answer: “Once, he woke up and said he wanted to go for breakfast at this great little diner we know about, so off we went—on a four hundred mile ride….”
That was the moment when I suddenly realized that these people, and others like them, were really on to something here, something the rest of us can only hope to find at some point on our journey through life.
Most of us are taught—indoctrinated, really—to plan, to analyze, to set concrete, measurable goals and engineer our way toward attaining each in turn. Study so you can get good grades. Get good grades so you’ll be accepted into a prestigious college. Go to college so you can land a lucrative job. Work hard so you can acquire the things you desire. Acquire those things so you can… what?
So “the one who dies with the most stuff wins?”
We are conditioned to approach life as a series of milestones. “Keep your eye on the ball,” we are incessantly enjoined.
“Plan your life and live your plan.”
How easy it is, with our eyes so fixedly glued on some nebulous destination, to totally ignore the rich and varied scape along the way.
So, does this mean you have to sell that minivan, buy a Harley and set off on a cross-country jaunt like “Easy Rider” in order to be happy?
Of course not. What brings one person joy would bring another only discomfort. Viennese psychiatrist and author W. Béran Wolfe wrote: “If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.”
The mantra of “bigger,” “better,” “more,” “flip this house”… is utterly inimical to the true biker mentality. While most of the bikers I interviewed clearly lavished great effort on maintaining and accessorizing their vehicles, almost none seemed at all inclined to “trade up” every couple of years. Rather than seeking fulfillment in that next acquisition, these people are completely focused on enjoying and appreciating what they already have.
Living in the here and now. What a concept!
As I pondered this avalanche of profundity on that sunny Sunday afternoon at the Baer Open House, I suddenly realized something: I wasn’t sure at first, so I started looking around, and sure enough, I was
Nowhere in this gathering of several hundred people did I spy a single individual chatting on a cell phone, texting some far-away phantom, or surfing the web. I saw nobody videoing the event for future analysis. They were there, for goodness sake. Completely. Wholeheartedly. They were with the people they loved.
I have owned and ridden many motorcycles over the years, and thought I had a pretty good handle on what it means to be “a biker,” but I discovered some valuable insights at this event—not only about bikers, but about life as well.
In her novel “Magic Bleeds,” by bestselling author Ilona Andrews, she writes: “Everybody has something, that one thing they must do to feel happy.”
If you have already found that thing, then may this article serve to remind you how very fortunate you really are. Otherwise, let it motivate you to find your unique, personal wellspring of fulfillment.