On the sublime and the motorcycle
Entry for $1000 Competition Accessories 2014 College Scholarship Fund. For more info,
please visit: http://www.compacc.com/e/2014-Motorcycle-Scholarship.
In January 2013, I pushed a 150-pound Motobécane Mobilette up the steep hill on Houston Mill Road just north of Emory University. I bought it because in Georgia, you don’t need a motorcycle license to operate a bike with a fifty cubic centimeter displacement engine and Emory University doesn’t charge you to park your scoot on campus. I live just out of walking distance to the university or to a bus station. That day—cold, windy, wet—the engine vibration twisted a nut loose, nearly crashing me, losing all locomotion. Still, the memory of cruising at twenty-five miles an hour the day before was fresh, and I never once thought of exchanging my two wheels for four.
Later that week, I was at a Honda dealership signing papers for a new scooter with 150 cc displacement. And suddenly, something in me broke: the tie that chained me to my feet and the goodwill of others. Instead of waiting—skulking, heavy with the life I missed out on—for my wife to pick me up behind the Woodruff Library, I could now come and go. I became myself. I became a motor, some rubber, fairings—something that had propulsion. Since I bought my scooter, I’ve had the most productive year of my life: another fellowship, several publications, significant work towards my dissertation fieldwork, multiple advancements in my martial arts practice, my first public reading in Atlanta.
But freeing me from my limitations and the schedule of others is only a small factor in the reason I choose two wheels. As a student, an intellectual, and a writer, I spend a lot of time alone: reading, thinking, writing, planning. I am in an interdisciplinary PhD program, studying culture, the imagination, Louisiana, critical theory, anthropology, and philosophy. My life revolves around working out complex issues of representation in cultural performance and popular media, while negotiating ethnographic interviews, intense coursework, expectations of writing a successful dissertation, and epistemological and ethical problems in scholarship. I sit down in front of a computer a lot. I churn out papers and blog posts and emails and websites. I read with an eye to devour and dismantle. But when I’m on two wheels, I’m meat. I’m road. I’m emptying out.
This is a good thing. While I don’t hold a mind/body distinction in my philosophical interests, when I’m on the road I’m all body. And it is terrifying in the most beautiful way. The slightest thing can go wrong and I’m dirt. But, having trained and practiced to use my scooter well, I’ve instead been able to attune my body, my being to the pure motion of it. When you’re in the middle of hugging a tight curve at thirty or forty miles-per-hour, leaning deep, and the only thing keeping you in the air is countersteering, rolling back the throttle, and guts, you don’t have time to think. To be the self that is all language and law and arguments. The road has no thesis sentence: either you’re locked in, connected to the deep physics of it or you’re dead. This is the feeling of the sublime: beauty and horror, a friction zone, a balancing act, something that forces you to know that there is something greater than what you can think and that you’re in it.
Most people will never experience what it is like to do something because your life depends on it. Most people are also trapped in a world of 24/7 labor, whether physical or intellectual. This is the price of living in this world: being part of the economy, the cultural institutions, the political systems. But the motorcycle is one of the few machines that can, for a time, break you out. When I dismount my scooter, shoving my gloves into my helmet and trying to figure out what to do with my cordura riding gear, I do so to enter back into the world of people and ideas. I am self-conscious. I am studious and thoughtful. I am also, like many others in many ways, drowning in work, pressed for time, anxious about deadlines and ambition.
Though riding takes an incredible amount of mental sharpness and strategizing, it is a different kind of strain, one that becomes invisible as my senses and logic and tendons and muscles and nerves melt into a unity. This unity might be precarious, pitched between safety and catastrophe, but it is also one grounded in hyperawareness—a type of mapping where one internalizes the hazards of the road, the husks of semi-truck tires, the other mechanical beasts slouching towards their destinations, the rain grooves in asphalt, the direction of sunlight, the smells of diesel and night jasmine and roadside grease joints and bales of hay. This unity is a me that is different from the me that sits in carrels and computer desks and reading couches, different from the me that second guesses and is overworked and tightly scheduled.
The greatest benefit of touching such a sublime state of being is that it does encroach on the borders of the not-riding-me. I keep the attunement of the road with me in my work, striving to find the precision, daring, creativity, and resourcefulness of skating on cement with two tiny patches of rubber. Riding has made me a better scholar, student, poet, friend, husband, son. It has converge the animal machine with the intellectual.
This weekend, I’m taking my rider certification course even though I already have an M-class license. I’m scraping together all the stipend money I have to buy a used Dyna Lowrider. And in between locating the perfect mix of clutch and throttle, weave and lean, stopping and starting, I’ve discovered the other great power of the motorcycle: the community of riders who all know what it’s like. It is a weird society where people from all parts of life—intellectual laborers and the blue-collar mechanics, retail clerks and telecommunication specialists, outlaws and police officers—join together, acknowledge each other, make friendships based on a common desire to become a bullet racing along the blacktop paths that connect people to people. Everyone in the biker community shares the touch of the sublime, danger, and fierce glory that comes from making one’s way through life without walls or safety nets or other pressures to conform and accept the banal reality of the 4-wheel, enclosed commute as the only reality. We, instead, chose to grip the handlebars and countersteer. To be a different kind of human, even if it is on a ten minute drive to work or a weekend plunge into a mountain road.
For me, it is pure recreation, but not in the sense of entertainment. Driving a car would mean keeping that part of myself distant, speculative. It would mean allowing myself to be distracted by the things I have to do and think about. It would mean paying for parking, worrying about high gas prices, and riding in a near soporific comfort every time I go somewhere. But those reasons to not own a car for my daily riding pale compared to the problem of the bubble I would allow to envelop me when I use four wheels. It would make a border between me and the beauty and danger of living life by the clutch and lean and armored jackets. It would allow me to be only the self that writes essays and attends courses and thinks too much about everything. In short, it would deprive me of the oxygen-rich sublime, the thrill of cruising across rock and traffic, the face-to-face encounter with who I can be as a person—frail and meaty, but competent and muscular and graceful. Every time I straddle my bike, I re-create my self and my orientation towards the geographies my body moves through.