week 3: nothing but air (and helmets) to keep us safe

In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 3.

nun3I’ve had a driver’s license since I was 16, but I didn’t own a car or really drive on a regular basis until I was 40. I don’t love it and can still get a tad nervous if confronted by too many trucks on the road or having to follow confusing directions to somewhere I don’t know. I ride my bike less and less these days because of my fear of navigating congested roads. Walking on my two solid, slow feet up to the top of Mt. Tabor I shake my head in nervous awe at the kids slicing around the park’s curves on their skateboards.

In other words – words I’ve used before – I’m allergic to adrenalin. I’ve gotten a lot better about tolerating, even enjoying, the adrenalin that feeds the sweet ticklings of butterflies in my stomach. I’ve gotten slightly better at navigating the stronger surges that arrive with any kind of vulnerability (say, asking a scary question or giving a public performance). But I’m still highly sensitive to the adrenalin that comes with physical danger, the stuff that makes people jump from a plane or off a cliff. The stuff that makes people long for open roads to race their cars across. The stuff that makes people hop on their motorcycles every day and wind across the unforgiving pavement.

The fact that so many people ride motorcycles, so many people I know, has always made me think I needed to get a ride on one at least once in my life. What if it was the one thing that would thrill me like nothing else? What if speeding through the wind would cure me of my adrenalin allergy? To be honest, I was pretty sure about the answers to these questions, which is probably why I didn’t get around to actually trying it for 46 years.

I knew if I was going to do this, it would be with my friend who teaches motorcycle safety and has been riding for 35 years. I trusted him completely. Still, I woke up nervous, knowing I’d agreed to go on a ride later in the afternoon. In the morning I splurged on a lovely breakfast at a cafe up the street, laughing at myself for thinking this might be my last breakfast. It probably didn’t help that I was finishing a great book about death (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty). As I sat waiting nervously for my friend to arrive, I thought about the stacks of old journals I hadn’t yet burned and the writing I hadn’t yet published. I thought about the lack of plans I had for what should be done with my roadway-mangled corpse.

But then, so quickly, I had a big ol’ helmet on my head. I was lifting myself onto the back seat of a slick, black bike and without any instruction other than hang on to me, we were off. All the cringing and grimacing going on inside my helmet was not because of anything dangerous my friend was doing. There was only the obvious danger of moving quickly along the city streets through all that air with nothing but air to keep us safe.

Then we turned onto the highway.

I’m not a fan of highway driving in a car. On a motorcycle, no fucking way. But there I was with nothing to do but surrender. I tightened my grip around his waist but not so hard he couldn’t breath. I didn’t squeal. I didn’t piss my pants. I probably gave myself some new wrinkles with the tightened expression on my face, but I never actually feared something bad would happen. Despite the fact that my glasses were pinned so tightly to my head I was getting a slight headache, I thought the force of the wind might blow them off. That was my only fear. The adrenalin didn’t let me think or feel anything else, not even its own nauseating course through my body.

We eventually pulled off the highway and made our way to Marine Drive where the Columbia was lit up with what felt like the last of the season’s sun. And Mt. Hood stood bright and snowy in the distance. My boots rattled against their perch. My arms grew slightly tired in their bow around my friend’s torso. My jaw softened.

As we pulled back into my neighborhood, I felt that I’d done all the motorcycle riding I’d ever need, but if I needed to, I could do it again. And if I wanted to, for some strange reason, my dear friend would happily invite me on another ride. I freed my head from its helmet, put my solid, slow feet back on the ground and felt the adrenalin retreat from my limbs and lungs alike. To my surprise, no damage was left behind.

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