Waving at Strangers

Saturday Essay - Dave SorensenIt started when I was twelve years old and my father consented to buy me a mini-bike. It was the real deal, a miniature motorcycle, not some boxy frame with a lawn mower engine. Sixty CCs, one hundred and twenty pounds, it would do fifty miles per hour. What a foolish gift.

There had been a couple of go-carts around the neighborhood before bikes took over. Two brothers had cobbled one together but had yet to master the complexities of throttle control or brakes. We put their sister on it, wound it up, and let it go. I don’t know how she eventually came to a stop, but she was last seen careening between the trees in our beloved public park. It was obvious from that experiment their machine had two too many wheels.

I probably knew a dozen kids with mini-bikes. My friend two blocks away had one identical to mine, and ours were among the coolest. Most common were the Honda 70s. Ugly, but they could keep up. The boy across the street had a Suzuki Trail Hopper. Pathetic. Honda 50s were tiny. The clown car of mini-bikes. One kid had an Indian which sounded like a chainsaw cutting sheet metal, yet law enforcement was strangely absent for a couple of summers when the world was young.

There were price wars at the gas pumps and fuel bottomed out at twenty-five cents a gallon. A quarter to fill the tank. Through alleys and a network of trails, we formed roving gangs, riding fearlessly across town, endlessly inspired by a movie then in theaters about daredevil Evel Knievel. Racing around corners was fun, but launching ourselves off the face of the earth was better. An old door off a grain car made a good ramp, and there was always Killer Hill, which fell away from the flat field above it at a precipitous angle. We’d ride to the edge and soar into the abyss like ski jumpers, landing gently on the incline below. Somehow the guardian angel of motorcycle safety wrapped us in her wings as we learned, the dicey way, we didn’t have wings of our own.

I won a second-place trophy racing at Roger’s Honda Village on the little motocross track behind the store, where indulgent parents hauled their hooligans to the races and let us have at it. The world being young, we didn’t need an abundance of protective gear. Did I mention these were my golden years? In sixth grade I was still good at sports and math, and it’s been downhill ever since. We had quick reflexes and weren’t distracted by such things as good judgement or common sense. Those were for the adults we might grow into if we didn’t snap our necks in a “get off.”

“Get off” is biker slang for a crash. I started learning biker slang thirty-eight years later when I returned to riding. I ride a dual-sport “thumper” and I try to stay off of the “slab.” A “thumper” is a four-stroke, single-cylinder engine. The “slab” is a freeway. I always watch out for “cages” (cars) and assume my high-vis vest is a cloak of invisibility, because that’s how it seems to function with the goddamn cagers. Two wheels good, four wheels baaaaaaad.

Bikes able to ride both on and off the “dreaded bitumen” (pavement) used to be called enduros, but now they’re called dual sports. Those aren’t slang terms, just types of motorcycles. These days you mostly see sport bikes or cruisers. I wanted neither, and I didn’t want to put on a pirate suit and ride to the bar.

Until I bought a motorcycle I had never been a buffer of mechanical objects, but that has changed. Deep into middle age, for no apparent reason, I bought a little bike and started plotting day trips while perusing the Gazetteer. I wasn’t riding to be seen, I was riding to disappear, preferring a heavy cross-traffic of cotton-tail rabbits. Once you’ve left the cagers behind, you can relax and cruise county roads between the farms. Cabin country is good, beyond the power lines is better. Having gotten my ya-yas out thirty-eight years earlier, I putt around like the old man I am, and couldn’t go fast around a corner if I wanted to. Not only are my reflexes not what they used to be, but my vision is clouded by good judgement and common sense.

I wear a lot of protective gear, based on this thought experiment: imagine yourself sitting in the backseat of a car going fifty-five miles per hour. On the count of three you will open the door and jump out. What do you want to be wearing? Consider that my public service announcement. I dress like I should be walking on the moon.

Sometimes I’ll find myself parked on a bridge across some little no-name creek, and as the tall grasses shimmer and sway, the sunshine lifts me by the face. An addictive mix of new terrain, oxygen and adrenaline wells up inside, though I know there are more important things than ecstasy, and I know burning fossil fuel is wrong, even at eighty miles per gallon. On one level it’s a decadent, jerk-off motor sport, and though I never leave the approved roads or trails, you might think I look like a redneck as I ride back into town half-covered in mud. But I have been to “BFN” (don’t ask) and back before dinner, coming home to the cats waiting in a sunny window, and one day’s ride feels like a week’s vacation. As the friends of my in-laws would say, I have “blown the stink off me.”

But you need to ride in traffic to get to those idyllic, hard-pack “twisties” (curving roads) beneath the pines and Maxfield Parrish clouds, and cagers are not to be taken lightly. They are distracted and blind to your narrow profile. As cars wait at intersections, watch their hubcaps for the first sign of movement, and assume you are invisible.

Yet, traffic also means other bikes, and my favorite thing about riding in traffic is “The Wave.” Some summer days I have twenty strangers wave at me, simply because, like the wavers, I am out-of-doors, not in a cage. It’s a low wave with the left hand, which is on the side of oncoming traffic and not needed for the throttle. Here, divisions between bikers break down in recognition of another human who understands why dogs hang their heads out the window, who knows the edge of hypothermia and the face of the sky, and the joys of waving at strangers.



about 5 years ago


A great summation of why I ride and dress the way I do when riding.

Joe N

about 5 years ago

When I was 10 in the 5th grade, my little friends starting getting mini-bikes.  Obviously, too young to have driver's licenses.  Some had Honda 70s and others Honda 50s.  My mom thought it was too dangerous for me.  Then one of my friends ran a stop sign at a busy street and was hit and killed.  My first real brush with a death.  Guess my mom was right.


about 5 years ago

Ha, I had the clown car of minibikes - the Honda 50 cc. So much fun. We did graduate to the goofy-looking Honda 70cc. It had the fold-down handlebars to make it easier to load on the back of the camper. I found a picture of a very shiny, well-cared-for 70. Not mine.

Christopher LaForge

about 5 years ago

This is good writing.  The word choices are inventive and the narrative easy yet compelling.  I felt the youthful glee of the rider.

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