Where riding is part of living.

Riding Tribes

Vesparados cartoon from the New Yorker magazine

I attended a conference last week that focused on the challenges of science communication at a time when political agendas and propaganda needs drive conversations — GMOs cause AIDS, the moon landing was a hoax, a foot bath will detoxify your body. And while it’s easy to ascribe positions to liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, the reality is that many have more to do with the groups we align with than political parties.

Or so the thinking goes.

Humans have always congregated together to achieve common goals since the first meeting in a cave. Today it’s suggested people exhibit the same behavior in creating tribes — now more and more on the internet. And our tribes have beliefs and requirements for membership and reject those who don’t ascribe to them.  People don’t like being rejected by their tribe.

Research indicates how that might work in the real world. Psychologists in Australia and the United States have been looking at the phenomena which demonstrates that the more information and data you provide someone about a suspect belief — let’s say childhood vaccines cause autism — that their belief actually becomes stronger. And it’s not because they’re embarrassed to admit they’re wrong on anything like that, but rather they are loath to be rejected by their tribe — others with whom they share a common belief system.

So how is this all connected to a New Yorker cartoon titled “The Vesparados”?

The world is full of riding tribes — actual groups who gather in person, and virtual groups who share a common set of beliefs . When I saw the cartoon and after a little chuckle I was wondering who the hell made up this group of desperados? Certainly isn’t my tribe.

I know there are scooter clubs and gangs. The same for motorcycles. I read about them on forums and blogs. Fanc Roddam’s film about mods and rockers, Quadrophenia, famously depicts two tribes of riders who each have a serious belief system and any attempt to dissuade those beliefs means trouble.

And then I started thinking about all the little rider beliefs that float around — not wearing a helmet is an expression of individual liberty and freedom by one tribe and by another emblematic of moronic behavior and stupidity.

Stuff like that.

Try to dissuade a rider of their beliefs with data or statistics and see what happens. It’s seldom, “Hey, thanks, I didn’t know that. I really appreciate the information, I’m going out and buy a helmet today!”  The same holds for lots of ideas and beliefs from brands of machine and gear to how and when to ride.

I’m not here to call out any particular tribe or belief — just looking in the mirror wondering about my own moronic beliefs.

I’ve been wondering what tribes I belong to — in the world of flesh and blood, and those virtual communities with which I spend time. I know I’m not part of a badass tribe of scooter riders but maybe I am a part of a winter riding tribe that’s ripe with beliefs and exclusionary thoughts.

This is where my brain goes on a Sunday morning while sitting with the dogs.

I read an article about New Yorker cartoons and the fact that you can apply one of three captions to each cartoon:

1. “Christ, what an asshole!”

2. “What a misunderstanding!”

3. “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”

Looking at a couple dozen cartoons I can see that it works pretty well.

As I think about the cartoon, and myself, I keep coming back to caption number one…

Little Pink Pill

One pill of Plavix

The ride to work today was a frozen, shivering, torturous experience despite being clad in my winter riding gear.  The worst part was it was only 50 degrees outside.  Fahrenheit.

At work it was suggested I just needed to acclimate to the colder days.  50F — seriously?  This is almost summer weather.  It was worse riding home for lunch, so much so that I returned to work in the toasty, elegant environs of a minivan.  Later in the day I would test the arctic weather on foot with winter jacket, hat and gloves.  The dogs were indifferent but I was freezing.

A phone call with a knowing friend suggested a reason — the little pink pill — clopidogrel; an oral, thienopyridine-class antiplatelet agent used, in my case, to prevent myocardial infarction — another heart attack. As it does it work to thin my blood is it making me less cold tolerant? Is my soldiering through winter on the Vespa scooter on the edge of extinction?

I don’t know.

Construction cranes over State College, Pennsylvania

As evening approached I found myself photographing a construction crane over State College, Pennsylvania, an act unique solely because I didn’t get out of the warmth of the van to make it opting instead to photograph through the dirty windshield of the minivan.

A quick search of the web showed a variety of ways a heart attack victim could die in cold weather and practically every shivering symptom a body could produce was a harbinger of doom.  While writing I was reminded of something my cardiologist said to me when questioned about activity limits — “Experiment.  Test your limits.  Explore what’s comfortable.  You know what symptoms of a heart attack feel like for you.  Pay attention.  Take your medicine.  Live your life.”

Basically he told me not to worry and get on with it.

So maybe this cold angst is just a passing discomfort that I’ll adapt to.  The morning promises to be even colder and mixed with rain.  And I plan to experiment.

As American poet and essayist T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

I’m going to see how far I can go…



Change the Way You Think

Vespa GTS scooter and Mt. NittanyAfter several days, the rain stopped leaving a cold, grey world in its wake.  The view across the Nittany Valley hints at the autumnal changes underway — leaves turning yellow and red and daytime temperatures in a steady decline, all demanding you change the way you think.  Especially for riders who feel the bite of even small changes in temperature. After months of warm and hot it’s startling to shake and shiver on a ride, especially when the temperature is just a hair below 60 degrees.

The first cold days are the worst. They’re not even cold but I swear my brain screws with my body.  The moment I don’t wear the right gear, or forgot to close the jacket vents, or just aren’t ready to accept the cold — I begin to shiver and shake.

Vespa GTS scooter on the way to workIt usually takes a month or more for me to become fully acclimated to the cooling days. Regardless of how well I dress for the ride I just feel cold. Today I had the heated grips on full just so I could focus on one warm place.  But the light and left over moisture combined with the cool air conspired to overwhelm the warm and fuzzy feelings that the heated grips usually provide.

The dog days of summer have led directly to the wimpy days of fall.

Riding Anxiety

Vespa along the freeway in the morning

Have you ever stood along the road and wondered where you were going?  Or worse, why you even got on the scooter or motorcycle instead of staying at home.  It’s a rare but unsettling mental space to dwell.  A form of riding anxiety.

Not the sort related to thoughts on the inevitability of a crash or the fear that every car is about to make a left turn in front of you, but rather an intuitive anxiety that something’s not right.

A situation that’s best met head on by riding.

Vespa GTS scooter along Interstate 99

Cool air and an ominous sky sparked my fight or flight mechanism this morning as I rode toward the Allegheny plateau.

An uneasy feeling swelled in my gut this morning as I pushed the Vespa out of the garage.  The kind I would get at the dentist just before a syringe of Novocaine was pushed into a nerve cluster, or the sinking sense of doom in a dream where I suddenly realize I forgot to ever go to my college chemistry class.

It’s not a good way to begin a ride.

I had no destination in mind and wondered why I was standing in the driveway.

Vespa along a winding freeway

The road is dangerous.  

Every good rider knows this and takes actions to mitigate the risks — other vehicles, road surface irregularities, small and large mammals, physical detritus from careless drivers, weather and personal failures of judgment and technique.

Portrait of Vespa GTS scooter

Intelligent management can be applied, to some degree, to each of these potential problems.  But sometimes, for me at least, another kind of risk appears that I can only label as something between heightened intuition and irrational paranoia.  It’s between my ears and I can stop it from talking.

At the heart of riding anxiety are questions.  About me, about what I believe to be true, about what I fear.  It doesn’t happen often — perhaps three times in ten years — and each time a change in how I see the world.  A quickened acceptance of the world of the road — the risk and danger along with the joy and bliss.

Vespa GTS scooter on gravel road

Miles of gravel and rock.  Not the Vespa’s strong suit.  A last minute decision brought me to this place.  The last time I came through was twenty years ago.  It was wild then and remains so today.

prescribed burn area in Pennsylvania Game Lands

All morning intuition whispered something wasn’t right and grew with each passing mile.  Two vehicles passed me in this empty place and both times I wondered if the drivers weren’t serial killers or worse.  My eyes kept scanning the mirrors for their return while I made mental notes on off-road evasion techniques.

The trees and plants were burnt, spindly and drained.  I was reminded of an area farther north ravaged by a tornado.

I was awake and aware.

Vespa GTS scooter at a prescribed burn area

Much of the area I rode through was laid waste by prescribed burns — efforts by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to enhance wildlife habitat and reduce risk of wildfires.  The place looked desolate as if something bad happened here.  My thoughts would provide fodder for horror novels if I were so inclined.

I rode on.

Vespa GTS scooter on a rocky road

With the Vespa’s small wheels and limited suspension travel speeds are limited and even moderate speeds grow problematic with the sudden appearance of rocky stretches of roadbed.  Riding in rough conditions on a Vespa requires a little extra physical work, careful attention to the brakes and a thoughtful approach to balance and handling.

If you want to stay upright.

Steve Williams with Vespa GTS scooter along old forest road

Much of the ride was gloomy with the light levels low and the breeze creating odd sounds in the forest.  I couldn’t help but think of the way the Blair Witch Project touched some frightened place in so many people where a rustle of leaves could trigger a pounding heart or ears would hear a faint moan in the woods.

I stopped, parked the scooter, removed my ear plugs and listened for ghosts.

Working with the camera on a tripod and fiddling with the radio controlled shutter trigger worked its magic over my imagination much in the same way it does with my fear of heights — put the camera in front of me and all fear vanishes.  It’s what has allowed me to climb smokestacks and walk out along crane booms to make pictures — situations that would not be possible without the camera leading the way.

So a few pictures, a banana, and a drink of water, it dissolved the riding anxiety.

Vespa GTS scooter on gravel road

It’s been awhile (I think) since I’ve done much riding on gravel roads, particularly rough roads.  A few times I wished for the winter or knobby tires.  Or a dirt bike.  The Vespa can manage the gravel but it’s a slow slog.

For me at least.

Vespa GTS scooter in the forest

Every ride is different.  It’s part of what brings me back to the road over and over again.  And at some level I’m a different man each time.  Or so I like to believe.  On this ride I stepped into the gloom and let it wash over the scooter and I to see where it led.  I didn’t know where I was going when I left but a journey unfolded as the miles moved by.

Riding down off the Allegheny Front I reached a paved road and headed north toward home and a stop at the Pump State Cafe to make a few notes and wonder about the morning.

The anxiety — maybe it was the approaching supermoon or the lunar eclipse.  Perhaps the earth passed through an energy field that affected only myself and other sensitive people.  Or maybe it was nothing more than what Ebenezer Scrooge suggested, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.  There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Riding anxiety?  Bah, Humbug!