No One Could Set Me Straight
Lots of folks in the vintage motorcycle scene are familiar with the classic Merle Haggard song about a boy who went astray despite his mother's pleading. Or maybe you favor Bob Weirʼs version (I do). In many ways, the song was autobiographical to Haggard. For me, it was a song that a poor kid from the outskirts of San Angelo Texas could find in his grandfather's record collection, back in the days when grandpas had records like mine did. But let's come back to the song, Mama Tried, in a moment.
I began teaching special education in January of 2004. And that February, with a laughable $1000 signing bonus I got for promising to teach five years, I bought my first motorcycle: a 1987 Yamaha XJ700. Never ridden before. I immediately had to learn to fix and tune a rack of four carbs at once. Despite its fits and starts, that bike turned out to be reliable, and I set out to cross the country several times on it and even made it a few times. This was before there was a Born Free or any of the events specific to the newer generation of old bike enthusiasts. At the time I just felt compelled to go. I didnʼt ask why. I needed it. Maybe the experience helped me replenish some chemicals that my childhood doctor used to prescribe me pills for.
Over time, the bikes changed, got older, broke down more, but I just kept doing it. Even made some friends who wanted to try their hand at the cross-country old bike challenge with me. There was a community of younger folks growing into old bikes. In all likelihood, motos helped keep us balanced in a time of upheaval, in our lives and communities. Maybe Iʼm just speaking for myself. Probably kept some of us out of jail. Maybe put some of us in jail a few times… (Jerimiah?).
Communities donʼt come out of nowhere though. The human brain is wired to bring us into groups for survival. Being a teacher, Iʼve learned that the need for a community can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes the same folks that kids need to feed, clothe, and house them may also be laying some heavy burdens on them that they will have to work out later in life. Working in tough schools, trauma was the toxic air I had to breathe daily. Speaking of toxic air, let's get back to motorcycles.
At first, I had no idea what the draw was. I was just feeding an addiction. Motorcycles and “motorcycle people” felt like home. It was a family. Even before Instagram and smartphones, you could take off solo for Colorado, break down, somebody would find you, pick you up, put you up, help you fix your bike, and get you back on the road. You could be vulnerable, and even stupid, but the community would take care of you. I have a hundred such stories, as do most of my friends. Seventeen years in, I realize that I wasnʼt simply trying to keep my life balanced with a stressful job, but that I was recasting myself into a community of people who were using motorcycles as a tool to deal with it all. Or in layman's terms, motorcycles are fun.
Most folks in this community can relate to the ubiquitous philosophy that we alone are responsible for our fate. The old bootstraps theory. This idea gets lodged in us, and we blame ourselves when things go wrong. Especially when we are young and donʼt know any better. Sometimes we are to blame. Many times though, we are blaming ourselves for something we have no control over. As much as we love the myth, rugged independence is not what gets us across the country on our clapped-out motors. Individual endurance, sure, but we need each other's help. Yes, indeed, the motorcycle community is largely made up of outliers and folks who donʼt fit into most “normal” communities. But the truth is, whether we are racing hard enduro, or taking a 1917 Harley across the country on the Cannonball Run, the moto community allows us to have experienced and achieve things that we would not otherwise.
Just like we need community, we also need the ability to imagine something beyond the daily grind. For a lot of people, life is suffering, at least to some extent. We need something to look forward to. That's why we race. That's why we tinker. That's why we learn to weld. That's why our bikes are never finished, and we are forever building a new one. Even though rugged individualism can screw our brains up in high dosage, it does find its place here in the balance and it's something that so many moto folks have in common. We are never finished, we are always learning more, and we are forever trying to improve ourselves, and our abilities. And for what? Just a little fun. Maybe that is the source of our balance. Maybe that's why you and I didnʼt turn twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole.
By Joel "Brandon" Smith
Photos by Jerimiah Smith