Ride with fear as long as you have to

It’s hard to admit I’ve been afraid to ride for about a month. In that time I’ve dutifully gone to the garage and started Connie every few days to keep her battery charged and the fluids moving around, but I have not ridden. The fear arose when I had back-to-back incidents. On Dec. 15 I was hit. The damage cost less than $300, but that hit scared me. I got Connie fixed, and then I dropped her the very next time I went to ride.

Getting Connie out of my apartment garage is much more complicated than it should be. I have to move my car out of the way, then perform a comical back-n-forth shuffle to get Connie out of the parking stall, temporarily park her in a nearby stall, return to my car to park it, and only then can I get on Connie and raise the garage door to leave. This little vehicle dance takes between five to ten minutes. The simplest part of the whole process is when I park Connie. All I have to do is pull into a nearby stall, put her kickstand down, swing my leg off and go park the car. Simple, right? I’ve done it at least a hundred times, but this time I somehow failed to fully extend Connie’s kickstand, and she began to fall as soon as I shifted my weight to swing my right left off. Connie is super heavy. She’s in the neighborhood of 750 lbs. Once she starts to fall, it’s almost impossible to stop her from hitting the ground if you don’t catch her early. I came nowhere near catching her early this time, and my left leg was pinned under Connie as she fell onto her left side. I somehow got my leg free and tried to stand Connie back up, but I just couldn’t do it. All I succeed in doing was scraping the paint on her left mirror a little more than it already was. I ran upstairs, found my apartment building janitor and talked him into helping me get Connie up off her side. I’ve been afraid to ride ever since.

I was going to address my fear this last Saturday, but the weather was a little colder than expected, so I opted out. Honestly, I allowed fear to talk me out of riding again. I awoke Sunday with a renewed sense of purpose. I dressed and slowly ate as the outside air temperature steadily climbed into the mid-50s. I walked up to Connie at 1pm and began the vehicle parking dance. This time I was extra careful, and I made double sure the kickstand was fully down before swinging my right leg off. She stood there confidently while I backed my car into the empty parking stall.

A few minutes later I’m up to speed on southbound I-5. Riding through Seattle’s busy traffic can be a lesson in controlled panic, and I’m feeling that and more as I ride uneasily south. My goal is to ride until I stop being afraid. I’m willing to ride as long as it takes, because I miss riding. I miss leaning into corners and the thrill of throttle response. I miss that feeling of solitude I get only when I’ve ridden Connie for hours. I miss it all, and I’m desperate to recapture those motorcycle feelings.

However, it’s not happening. I’m tense as traffic shifts unpredictably. I’m staring at the bumper of the truck ahead of me. My hands have a white-knuckle death grip on Connie’s handlebars, and my shoulders ache with tension. The well-worn cowboy boot on my right foot hovers anxiously over the rear brake. Riders have a phrase for what I’m experiencing. It’s called “target fixation”, and it’s incredibly dangerous. What happens is that you tunnel vision onto the single thing directly in front of you. You might think that intense focus is a good thing. However, you’d be wrong, because to ride safely you have to stop fixating on one thing, and make yourself pay attention to everything. That includes never riding in the blind spot of that mini-van driving soccer dad. That means listening to what’s coming up behind you because you often hear passing vehicles before you see them. That means watching all of the traffic ahead of you including potential road debris. You can’t do everything if you’re hyper-focused on the bumper of a single vehicle in front of you. You’ve got to force yourself to UN-focus.

Staring at that truck’s bumper, I miss a turn and now I’m on the wrong highway. A wave of panic washes over as I realize I’m making all kinds of mistakes, and I’m not in control of this ride. So, I exit the freeway in Renton and look for a parking lot where I can clear my head. The next few minutes are hard while I wrestle with fear as the high whine of traffic noise buzzes in my head.

I’m back on the interstate 30 minutes later, and I’m headed south. Connie carries me for an hour before I slowly realize I’m relaxed and riding comfortably. That’s when I notice Connie needs fuel, and we pull off the road to fuel up at a big gas station several miles south of Tacoma, Washington.

I fill up Connie’s tank and I get myself a cup of hot coffee in the convenience store. The girl behind the counter smiles and says, “I like your bike,” as she extends her hand that holds my change.

A shiver tingles down my spine as our fingers touch, and I flirtatiously reply, “Thanks, I do too.”

Stepping out to the parking lot, I realize I’ve recaptured a little of that motorcycle feeling. I think that feeling is about hope. I believe it’s about looking forward and being excited about what might be out there. You can’t see it yet, but you might find it if you keep going.

I finish my coffee, pull on my gloves and helmet and hit Connie’s starter button. She fires up, and we’re rolling a few moments later. The ride home is beautiful. The sun warms my new jacket and the back of my left leg. I’m on a country road east of the interstate when an owl drops like a bomb out of a tall tree next to the highway. Extending her wings, she swoops up and silently glides parallel to the ground right next to me. We look into each others eyes. I doubt animals feel the complex mix of emotions that we do, but part of me believes they can feel simple pleasure, and I think that owl was smiling as we flew down that road together.

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