It wasn’t until I rode over Pumpkin Vine Hill in a snowstorm that I earned my stripes as a motorcycler. It was late October 2013, and I was on my way to Argentina when an overnight system descended on the southeast corner of Wyoming, turning the countryside into a colorless snow-scape. In the morning, the air was filled with light, sidewinding crystals of snow that added to the clean skiff already blanketing the ground. Waiting would have been the sensible thing to do, but sensibleand motorcyclesare conflicting concepts. I warmed my bike for ten minutes, cinched my leather gloves and mounted, hoping with a biker’s optimism that the haze would lift.
Leaving Laramie and ascending into the Medicine Bow Mountains, the flakes abandoned their light dancing and became heavy and thick, like wet sawdust. By that time, there were six inches on the ground and I was balancing in the trail cut through the slop by a wavering semi-trailer. The red glow of the truck’s brake lights burning through the miasma of white was both curse and savior, as it was both a guide through the mess as well as something for me to crash into should I falter and slip. Preventing that accident had become my purpose. My hold on the handlebars was tight and I feathered the brake as constantly as I ground my teeth. Objects along the roadside were reduced nothing but darkened, blurred images like the small, slogging bodies in Turner’s frosty “Figures in a Storm”. At some point, our convoy of two slid past a sign declaring in words partly obscured by a white film that we had entered Colorado. Intermittently, a Wyoming-bound vehicle would pass and throw up a wave of slush which coated me and the bike with a fierce smack.
It was a cold, timeless experience, but then it ended. The storm weakened as we came down out of the mountains and the sun began powering through the clouds and pouring light onto the world of grey and white. Gradually, then suddenly, the snow cleanly vanished from the road and soon the air was warm and bright. I rode on and stopped at the next turnout. The sun was out and beating down on the flatirons of nearby Boulder. There were no signs of the storm I’d just passed through. Wearing my wet riding clothes and with hunks of snow sloughing off the bike onto the highway, it was as though I’d suddenly been transported from some arctic road. Looking back towards the mountains, I could see the grey brume of the storm sweeping north, leaving a swath of frosted land in its wake. I was freezing and rattled from the ride. Several times I had expected the bike to slip out from under me on the icy road and for both of us to be flattened under a truck. The storm had been disorienting and exhilarating to pass through all at once and I felt a sense of accomplishment having come through it alive. I sat until my shivering subsided and then, lifting my foot from the ground, took off again, happy and satisfied to be riding on a clear road under a bright, open sky.
Being cold, wet, and miserable on a motorcycle is nothing new – exposure is the rider’s burden, but it’s also their satisfaction. All real bikers have, or will have in time, a similar story and it became the rhythm of my trip: a hail storm in New Mexico, a heat wave in El Salvador, another blizzard in Chile. I was always transitioning from under one weather system into another, always happily passing from bad into good. While I begrudged the bad while in it, my mood was unfailingly lifted when I came out the other side – there is elevated tranquility in good, calm weather that only comes after having passed through some horrendous storm or across a swollen, cloying desert-scape.
There are, of course, those who won’t ride in adverse weather, but they never last. It’s common to hear from people selling their bikes speak with pride about how their machine never spent a day of its existence in the rain or that it never hit the ground. These are all just different ways to say that it was never truly ridden at all. Forget time or money – there’s the reason the bike is being sold.
Part of a motorcycle’s magic is that it separates these fair-weather riders from the more dogged types. In Scotland, the original bastion of grim weather, the weather is never used as an excuse to get out of something. ‘If you don’t do something in the rain, you’ll never do it at all,’ is a phrase you often hear spoken as people squelch into pubs and cafés on a blustery winter’s night. The same goes for riding motorcycles.
Riding a motorbike is a full-bodied, sensual experience, and a battle for understanding between the mind and body. It’s difficult to do it casually – it takes too much effort, is too hard on the body. Along with the exposure to the elements, there’s also the vibration of the engine coursing through and shaking the muscle off your bones, and the powerful buffeting and whipping of the wind (let go and you’re dead). Part of the intimidation of biker gangs is that they handle these exertions in stride, silently straddling their shuddering, deafeningly loud Harleys while hanging off their handlebars like apes, their blood rushing out of their hands and unhelmeted head.
On the mental side, the mechanics of riding is something that, like skiing, can’t be overthought. Just as, when hurtling down a mountain strapped to two wooden slats, it is best not to think too deeply about how, in a few short seconds, your left leg will need to swing around and suddenly be below your right, riding a motorbike is also the act of constantly reacting without thinking, of knowing the mechanism and trusting in your instinct. This is epitomized by countersteering, or the ‘push right, go right’ dictum – to turn at speed, a motorcycler must counterintuitively push the handlebars in the direction they wish to go. More than a few beginners, myself included, have found themselves careening off the highway after musing too intensely on those backward physics.
The strains are the reason that some of the pleasure in riding must be attributed to arriving. Ridden for a long enough spell, motorcycles are a largely uncomfortable way to travel – after days or weeks with arms extended, wrist flexed at 90 degrees, legs bent and ass turned flat from saddle sores, even a hardened road warrior will longingly think about stepping off the bike for a while. Even the large Goldwings, with their wide fairings, radio, padded seats, and cruise control, can get tiring after a time.
These discomforts may seem off-putting, but they are actually the draw for most motorcycle riders. It’s the kind of torturous discomfort that is valued after it is over. The chapped skin, watering eyes, and creaking joints are signs of being exposed to something approaching the limits of stamina and energy. It’s the same satisfying ache that comes from a good day of work or strenuous exercise and tells you that you’ve benefitted somehow, even if you can’t immediately see that benefit. It’s the kind of pain which ushers in other pleasures. I can’t think of riding without remembering the sweetly scorched scent of mesquite rising out of a rain-soaked desert, or the whiff of salt and seaweed that saturates the air long before the sea is in sight. To be exposed to the elements is to be fully immersed in a place and, to do that, you need the open air. Had I met that Wyoming snowstorm from inside a train, it wouldn’t have been anything other than decorous scenery. A plane would have lifted above it, and, had I been in a car, I would’ve had both heater and radio blasting away. All of these would have been more comfortable, but none would have left me as happy to come out the other side or with as healthy an appreciation for the elements.
Earlier, I referred to motorcycles as a concept. More than any other vehicle, they convey the notions of freedom, individualism, and gumption. They are escape condensed into metal frames – all you ever need to do to be gone is lift your foot from the ground and roll your wrist. Arriving somewhere is as simple as unrolling and replacing your boots on whatever new land you have trundled onto. The disadvantages they present make the freedom they allow all the sweeter. And it is the ultimate act of escape – one where everyone can see you leaving, the odd snowstorm excluded.
BIO: James Patterson was born on a cattle and grain farm in rural Manitoba, Canada. He has worked as a farm laborer, factory worker and writer. In 2017, he was long-listed for the CBC Short Story Prize. He currently lives in Glasgow where he is working on a book.