It’s eight hours into the first day of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse I’m taking at a North Carolina community college and my instructor is baffled, maybe even annoyed. Preparing to weave my way through an obstacle course, I released the clutch too quickly on my loaner Yamaha TW200 and it stalled—again.
Getting a feel for a bike’s friction zone—the slight space between the clutch being completely open and completely closed—is one of the most important skills any new rider will learn. I am sweating beneath the spring sun, my hi-viz yellow helmet hugging my cheeks, as the instructor walks over to talk. How have I not mastered this yet, the balance between holding on too tightly and letting go?
Learning to ride is a serious, fun, humbling thing. One minute you’re leaning gracefully into a series of curves, feeling at one with the bike beneath you, and the next you’re stalling out on blacktop in front of strangers. I can’t help grinning, though, even when I get it wrong.
In Zen Buddhism there is a concept known as “beginner’s mind.” Rather than placing expectations on an action, the beginner approaches it with openness, flexibility, and non-judgment. Think of all the times you’ve felt totally absorbed in the task at hand, joyful in the moment, OK with any outcome. During our two days of hands-on instruction, my new friends and I try our best, make mistakes sometimes, and try again.
After getting the motorcycle designation on my license, I purchase a 2009 Suzuki DR200SE from a kind, long-time rider in central Carolina. He knows every inch of this dual sport, has cared for it like a child, and tells me to get in touch if I ever have a question. The DR growls to life instantly warm or cold, but for the first few days it sits unused in my garage. Whatever skills, confidence, or excitement I tapped into during the short course have momentarily disappeared. What if it stalls? What if I drop it? And the biggest question of all, the one I inevitably ask myself before big moves, big trips, and big decisions: Why am I even doing this?
Around this time, my father plans a family reunion, and aunts, uncles, and cousins from across the country flock to the small sailing town where we live on North Carolina’s Inner Banks. We catch each other up on our lives, but I don’t bring up my motorcycle, or the motorcycle magazine I work for. My aunt’s first husband, who founded a Harley shop in Santa Rosa, died five years ago after having spent nearly 20 years living with brain trauma he sustained in a motorcycle accident. I grew up hearing stories about his repair shop, his biker friends, his cross-country move from Minnesota to California with my aunt, his larger-than-life presence. My desire to ride has always in some way been connected to this person I barely knew, and this has always been impossible to explain. Before leaving, my aunt snaps a photo of me next to the Suzuki, and my uncles, like every motorcyclist I will meet, advise me to wear protective gear, to pay attention.
Days later, my neighbor spots me sitting alone in the backyard. He fixes up dual-sports for fun and has a DR-Z400 that looks like it could be my DR’s older brother. “You bought a bike!” he shouts through the trees separating our houses, smiling. What I’m pretty sure he means is: “It’s beautiful outside! Why aren’t you on your bike?” He’s getting ready to ride. Do I want to come?
I pause for a moment before telling him no, maybe another time. I’ve always preferred to do things alone, to learn alone. Mostly though, I’m refusing to be a beginner. I’m still thinking of the what-ifs. What if I fuck up and there’s a witness? What if everyone’s right, that this is unsafe?
We agree to ride on some unforeseen date in the future and he pads back to the DR-Z, pulls on his helmet, and rolls on the throttle, whipping onto the street and away. The thick rev of his motor is a siren song. I listen as it rises and falls.
It’s a warm, sunny, dry day. The nearby Neuse River is kicking up a slight, swampy breeze. I stand there, waiting, hands in my pockets. I walk back inside. And then I turn around and run.
In the garage, boots go on, helmet goes on, jacket’s on, gloves are cinched tight. I push the bike to the end of the rocky drive, swing my leg over, thumb the switches, and listen to it come alive. We sit there for a few minutes getting used to each other again, my machine and me, warming up.
The sun is still bright in the evening sky and for a while I ride circles around my small town, past the sailors and shrimpers charting a path down the river, past fishermen casting over the side of a small pier. My neighbor is long gone, but I imagine him rounding the next corner, both of us smiling inside our helmets as we pass.
Instead, I roll up to a deserted stop sign and release the clutch too eagerly. The bike stalls and I breathe. I laugh, thinking how nice it will feel when I find that fine balance. I look left, right, hit the starter, and pull away.
Lynn Crothers lives in Oriental, NC and is a copy editor and writer for RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel. You can follow her on Instagram at @lynnmarymoon.