by Martin Eden
It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
I HAD JUST ORDERED A CUP of steaming coffee at the counter inside the old roadhouse, a relic from the stagecoach days, and had sauntered up to pair of riders conversing near two machines parked not far from my own. The two bikes couldn’t have been more different. One was a brand new sports-bike, gleaming lazily in the pale early morning sun. The machine was fairly dazzling, its sleek, rakish lines and arresting colors clearly betraying its purpose. The other was patently nondescript.
It may have been black. I can’t clearly recall now. It was certainly European: BMW and Moto Guzzi come to mind. It might have been an early Harley-Davidson or Indian, though, now that I think back; or perhaps an Excelsior, or Brough-Superior. The actual brand was of no consequence regardless of the marque, it exuded the classic and unmistakable aura of the quintessential motor-cycle. I regarded the newer machine for only a fleeting instant before fixing my gaze on the elder of the two. There was something about it, something indefinable, yet tangible to a fault and then I noticed its rider.
He was much older than his mount; that was certain. He was not particularly tall, nor stout, but as I recall now, seemed inordinately substantial. There was something about him that was singular and rare, much like the motorcycle he had ridden there. His face was an unusual blend of features: symmetrical, yet wrought with character; indistinct, yet unforgettable. It was a countenance at once confident and curious, sagacious and naive, courageous and circumspect, placid and mettlesome. His eyes, set wide under a deep and craggy brow, sparkled as he talked. One moment they would glitter with the wonder of a babe, and the next glint with flames of passion and certitude. I stood quietly by and listened to his disquisition unfold. I recount it here in the way I remember it: august, wise, and eminently powerful, couched in words and phrases rarely heard and far from fashionable, yet fraught with a power and substance that is timeless.
“I SEE you want to be a motorcyclist,” the old man instanced to the younger. “Are you prepared to suffer through all which that entails?”
The younger man looked askance at this question, which was clearly misdirected, as far as he could see.
“You scoff, “the old one smiled as a Cheshire Cat” and the unmistakable curl of your lips and shallow sea of words that seeks to issue from them reveals as much. After all,” he continued expansively, eyes a-twinkle, “you do appear the part. Clad in a skillfully-crafted suit fashioned of the finest materials, cut in the latest style, and bursting with color, you stand athwart a mighty machine, sleek in form, replete with power. It is the latest thing. The technology and features found in this machine no doubt surpass all others.”
“It’s the fastest bike made,” the young fellow affirmed. “I can take anyone on the hill with this bike.”
The old man gave a barely perceptible nod and continued. “Certainly,” he offered, “you have attended all the important schools: this one, that one, the other one. ‘See,’ you point out; ‘I’ve worn away the footrests, the exhaust pipes, and worn the tires to their very edges. Isn’t that proof of my prowess?’ Still concerned that we may not be convinced, you name several illustrious “motorcyclists” with whom you keep company, and who are regarded as “fast.” You convey no equivocation when asserting you are faster than Tom, quicker than Dick, and more skillful than Harry. ‘So you see,’ you proclaim in deed if not in word, ‘I am most certainly a motorcyclist, because I have reached the pinnacle of that which defines “motorcyclist.” That is to say, I am the fastest; or at least, I am as fast as the fastest.’ ”
The young man appeared defiant, yet confused, not knowing how to respond to this unusual characterization.
“You have, mayhap, acquired great skill,” the old man acknowledged, “and have impressive accoutrements. But skill alone is merely the beginning. Skill and equipment, by themselves, are ephemeral and contribute nothing of value to becoming a motorcyclist. These can be had, in varying measure, by anyone with a modicum of physical ability and modest financial means. But a true motorcyclist is a philosopher of the highest order he seeks to understand the substance of life itself. The motorcycle is but a means to that end.”
“Understanding life?” the young man retorted, summarily rejecting this new-age discourse. “Motorcycles are about having fun, and camaraderie, and skirting the law. What could motorcycling possibly have to do with understanding life?”
“Just this,” the old one replied. And when he spoke thus, his voice changed in timbre and hue, taking on a depth and power that was utterly enthralling:
When you have crossed the most rugged and daunting peaks in utter darkness, while the heavens pour out their fury upon you and you grapple for control, the feeble ray of light before you barely visible;
When you have traversed the endless tracks of blistering deserts, the sands a roaring furnace all around, and the sun a burning torch above;
When you have prevailed upon the tortuous traces left by those who came before you, seeking to tame a wild land and forge a better life;
When you have stood alone in the vast and terrible chasms hewn and rent from living rock by the immutable forces of nature, and felt yourself so small as to disappear;
When you have merged in perfect union with a stunning, cloudless sky fueled by the fragrant wind alone, to follow the sinuous course of a thundering river to the mighty cataracts that form its source;
When you have felt the sublime and awesome hand of God in your every move, and in your soul a communion with the ineffable;
When you have clasped in desperation the hand of a comrade who has fallen, his machine a twisted, steaming wreck, as the very life flows from his bosom and he becomes still in your arms, never again to draw breath;
When you have done all this, not once but again, and still again, and can yet gaze with wonder in the quiescence of deepest night upon the machine that was your accomplice, partner, and associate in all this;
When you have come to regard it in your inmost reflections as sinister and seductive, soulless and transcendent, ordinary and ennobled;
When you have done this, and yet thrill to the promise of the unrisen sun that will soon shine upon the hook and crook of a gnarled mountain trace, fully apprehending the machine’s propensity to deal death or exalt life — then will you have become a motorcyclist.
I was stunned and near-breathless. I had never before conceived of motorcycling to be such, and yet could not deny the truth of his words.
“There is one more thing,” the man said, his eyes alight with an inner flame. “When you have done all these things, and can yet stand unmoved in the shallow, weltering storm of words which issue from small minds, with the quiet humility and certitude borne of hard-won experience, while those about you crow and caw of their accomplishments and credentials, then you will not only have become a motorcyclist you will have become a man.”
There was no single thought in my mind. The utter truth of his words had prevailed upon me like the blow of a mighty hammer. I felt as though a boundless vista of experience had been laid before me, and I would never again look at motorcycling in the same way. I finished the last swallow of the now-cold coffee, fired the engine in my own nondescript machine, and rode away, all the while pondering the old man’s words and knowing I could scarce live up to his exhortations; and in that moment I resolved to spend the remainder of my days in a sincere quest to become not just a motorcyclist, but also a man.
Author’s note: In 1903, 24-year-old George Wyman became the first man to make an intercontinental crossing on a motorized vehicle — he chose a 1.25 horsepower motor-bicycle weighing 90 pounds. Wyman packed and pushed the machine as often as he rode it, completing the trip in just 50 days. To my way of thinking, Wyman is perhaps the first true motorcyclist. The Motorcyclist is dedicated to George Wyman and all those who share his spirit. –M.E.