Where Thought and Riding Meet

There's a weird, strange thrill riding in the sticks that's hard to describe. Part visual, part physical, part spiritual. The ride is important, an anthem to living, a meditation on feeling blood and breath course through the body. Problems, opportunities, secrets and answers unfold on the road. Those discoveries fuel my ride.

Breathing in the Road

Honey Locust tree flowers in spring timeAimless with a wandering mind, a difficult state to visit, a worthy goal to have — at least in my world.  As the Vespa moves slowly along path and pavement under a bright sun and blue sky most noisy ideas and concerns grow limp and dissipate leaving only the scooter and the road.  The mind floats along somewhere.  This morning the fragrance of honey locust trees filled the air only to be replaced by the scent of freshly cut hay.  A little further, as the hedge rows crowd the road, honeysuckle perfume, all like a spring dream stroking sparkling senses.  Not once does the Vespa roar or growl, not a hint of gasoline or oil. We’re just silent partners breathing in the road.

Vespa GTS scooter and honey locust treesThe agricultural valleys are flush with spring and looking towards summer.  Unlike the mega-droughts in the West we still have water.  Irrigation is rare as are water intensive crops.  Wandering through the countryside is an exercise in observation — finding something interesting in the ordinary.  I don’t make mythic trips across multiple states or continents.  Circumstance requires I find adventure and satisfaction on the well traveled roads of my life.

I’ve explored this idea for nearly two decades as a photographer and found inspiration in the work of Josef Sudek and his personal explorations when trapped in his little cottage for years during the Nazi occupation of Prague.  Finding compelling subject matter to explore within arm’s reach is difficult.  I’ve tried to apply this approach on the road.

Vespa GTS scooter under a large oak treeI’ve followed these small roads halfway across Pennsylvania.  The state is a patchwork of former farm lanes now paved by townships to form a dizzying challenge to anyone looking to find someplace specific.  For a wanderer they provide a welcome escape from the tightly managed roads of daily life.

I’ve passed this tree a hundred times or more over the years, one of many that stand out.  Some have fallen, victims of lightning, development or old age.  I see them as metaphors for life and childishly believe they’ll go on forever.  Such is not the case though.

Vespa GTS scooter in Penns ValleyEgg Hill rises above Penns Valley in the distance, a small hill that divides the valley into two distinct areas.  My riding preferences usually take me to the left and on into more sparsely populated areas and eventually into Bald Eagle State Forest.

Standing here I can feel the draw of the horizon, to explore tracks and paths, and let my spirit roam with the scooter.  For now, I stay close to home and allow my body to slowly adjust my recent heart attack.  Later this week my cardiologist will evaluate progress and send me on to a cardiac rehabilitation facility to find out how much physical stress I can endure.

More adventures in life.  I hope they’re as sweet as a ride in the country on the Vespa…


Tranquility Interrupted

Gordon Harkins with his Vespa GTS 300“My Vespa is dead”.  That’s the message I got while sitting at the Pump Station awaiting Gordon’s arrival.  A quick conversation led us both to believe the battery was dead — a victim of too little riding during the winter despite being tethered to a Battery Tender.  Tranquility interrupted because of a dead battery is not the way you want to start your riding day.  The call reminded me that I want to think hard about purchasing an emergency battery for the scooter.

I arrived at the scene with the little bag of tricks.

Gordon Harkins with a Torx bitUnlike my older Vespa GTS 250 that requires a common Phillips head screwdriver to expose the battery his bright red 300 calls for a Torx bit.  Like a blind squirrel finding an acorn, Gordon had one with him and had already removed the cover so we could jump start the scooter.  I’ve jump started mine several times from a car battery.

Out of habit I flicked the kill switch on and off and hit the starter button.  The scooter engine turned over and came to life.  Gordon had one of those looks you get when you think you’ve done something stupid; I probably had the look of a magician who just pulled a fast one over the audience.

The kill switch contacts could have been dirty or the battery really is on it’s last legs.  For now it was enough to have the engine running.

Gordon Harkins on Vespa 300There’s a special camaraderie among scooter and motorcycle riders that does not extend to automobile owners — a willingness to help out when things breakdown on the road.  Not just with friends, but with strangers as well.

Vespa GTS 300 on the roadI followed Gordon home to make sure the scooter functioned ok and to let Lily the Hammer, my wife’s Belgian Sheepdog puppy play with Gordon’s dog for awhile.  Success on all counts and tranquility interrupted gave way to a fine day.

Fear of the Dark

Vespa GTS scooter on a rainy nightThis evening a friend asked me about leather jackets — the kind you might find in a department store.  His son recently got a small motorcycle and he wanted to know if the jacket made him safe. After our discussion of protective riding gear and the difference between a true motorcycle leather jacket and a leather jacket intended for casual dress I could sense fear in his voice — fear for the safety of his son.

Every rider has probably had some conversation about riding, safety and risk with someone who will never be convinced that the activity at best is a fool’s errand but in reality more akin to a death wish. Their fear of the dark is too strong to dissuade.

This evening I took a short ride into town on the Vespa in a light mist, another slow step in my cardiac recovery.  Learning to pace myself, respecting my current physical limitations, and not surrendering to any fear of the dark is where I find myself today.  Riding provides a wonderful barometer to evaluate progress and location.

Vespa GTS scooter in State College, PennsylvaniaWet roads and dying light are circumstances that must be assessed and managed.  They have their own unique challenges and do not bend to my needs or agenda.  I bend to them.  Looking at the warm pools of light on the pavement, the reflections in the puddles, the soft glow of the evening light, it’s important I don’t lose track of the important matters at hand — that the road surface has far less traction, drivers can’t see me as well, and I can’t see as well either.

Thinking about how well my physical recovery is proceeding it’s important I don’t lose track of what’s important — take my medication without fail, eat healthily, and pay attention to my physical and emotional condition.  I can’t get lost in the soft glow of an easy recovery.

Infant Emma SofiaPaid a short visit to my granddaughter this afternoon.  I’m surprised at the motivation this little person provides to live a different life.  I want to see her grow up, walk with her, talk about the world.  It’s as if there is a genetic program at work stretching back tens of thousands of years to make sure the young and the old connect.

Somehow, riding my Vespa is intertwined with whatever conversations we’ll have.

Misty farm field and old wire fence under a heavy gray skyThe warm weather has given way to a heavy gray sky and a plunge in temperature — a favored riding environment for me.  Things look different when the sun is gone.  Standing along the road looking across the expanse of green meeting the heavy sky I see only opportunity.  Any fear of the dark is supplanted by an expectant dream of adventure ahead.

Portrait of Anita K WilliamsA portrait of my mother hangs outside of my granddaughter’s bedroom, a charcoal sketch made by one of her friends when she was 18 years old.  Her face reminds me of the appreciation of adventure she bestowed on me, the desire to see what’s over the next hill, what lies around the next turn.

I’ve always considered adventure in terms of movement and travel for which the Vespa is a capable partner.  Perhaps it was just preparation for another kind of adventure.

Vespa GTS scooter and Mount NittanyAlmost home, Vespa along the road, Mount Nittany in the distance shrouded in mist.  For me, at its best, riding is a solitary experience.  The choices on the road are mine to make as is progress toward a destination.  I can’t help but think about how tangled life is amidst a sea of circumstance, desire and dreams.

Oh, the ride is breathtaking…

Explorers of Mortality

Holding an appleHow many apples have I eaten in this life?  I remember climbing a neighbors tree at nine with pocket knife and sampling slivers of green apples in the summer heat.  Or biting into crisp Red Delicious apples fresh from the branch in Adams County orchards.  Looking at an apple, a more regular component now of my new post-heart attack diet, I could see past the red fruit to the timeline of my life.

I’ve read that regardless of age, a life threatening illness turns people into explorers of mortality, searchers for meaning, waking up to a more authentic, meaningful life.

Whatever that means.

self portrait  of Steve Williams in Vespa scooter mirrorFour days after my heart attack I was back on the Vespa and exploring my new physical limits — mostly to keep my heart rate below 80 beats per minute — pretty easy when lounging on the back of a scooter. So far my recovery has been quick and without incident.

Speaking with my primary care doctor on Monday evening he said I was lucky to be lying in bed in the ER with an IV port in my arm when the heart attack occurred.  When questioned why the cardiologist who worked on me said I could drive and ride in three days while everyone else said two or three weeks he explained the difference between someone intimately knowledgeable of my condition and those delivering the general, cover their ass message.

I felt fine on the road.

Triumph Rocket and Vespa GTSMindful of my current situation I didn’t ride far, just a few errands around town and some mild meanderings.  My accountant has a new Triumph Rocket.  While we talked about motorcycles and scooters he called the local Piaggio dealer for a quote on an MP3-500 with ABS.  For now, the Vespa continues to deliver what I need.

Riding has always provided a gentle pathway into the noise in my head.  That aspect continues to be important.

Hospital bed in the PCU at Mount Nittany Medical CenterAfter two days in the ICU I was moved to the personal care unit where I had more freedom to move around the hospital.  Aside from the initial drama I felt relatively healthy during my stay, a marked difference from what I saw in other rooms as I walked the halls. If you feel you need to be reminded of the finite nature of life just visit a hospital.

Baby Emma asleep in her cribLife persists.  I stopped to see my granddaughter and saw in her all the lives that went before.  Each of us carries a part of all those mortal beings in a long chain of existence.  In an instant I could see where I came from and where I was going.

I was happy.

Dame's Rocket and VespaStopping to smell the roses, or in this case Dame’s Rocket, is more than a tired old aphorism, it’s a prescription of change.  It’s simple instruction asks only that for a moment I abandon what’s on my mind and acknowledge the world in front of me.

Riding the Vespa slowly along a country road I was struck by the sights and fragrances of spring in full bloom and allowed myself a moment to breathe it in.

Vespa GTS scooter on a farm roadI made a commitment to rest when I left the hospital.  The meaning of “rest” is different for everyone and I continue to explore its application in my life.  Not bounded by convention, a short ride on the Vespa can be as restful as time in an easy chair.  For me right now, it’s bounded by physical good sense and a close eye on how I’m feeling.  Being honest with those assessments paid off in the ER and hopefully will during my cardiac rehabilitation.

There are more than 118,000 miles of roads in Pennsylvania that don’t include these unpaved and unsigned farm lanes that crisscross the rural countryside.  There’s much exploring left to do.

Infant Emma Sofia asleep on my lapWhile it was difficult to believe I had a heart attack it’s even harder to wrap my head around being a grandfather.  I remember so clearly my daughter like this, her warm head in my hand as she slept.  In an instant memories flood over me and I understand how much has happened, how much there might be left, and my place in the story.

I would like to think it doesn’t take a heart attack to become explorers of mortality and that there are other ways to wake up to the world.  Riding already had begun to shake me awake.  Cutting off blood flow to my heart just added to the shaking.