Most of us take our anatomical structures for granted. Until we lose a limb or organ, our bodies are one united tangle of cells, bone, skin and senses. Even after losing a piece of our body, our central command system still ‘thinks’ it’s there. Phantom limbs are more a reality than a movie feature. I tend to think the same applies to our senses. Do we have Phantom senses?
What does this have to do with motorcycles? Be patient. It’s coming.
After spending several days as a passenger on a bike, I am seduced to the Dark Side. Sitting on two wheels with only the basic guts powering them forward, exposed to the elements, gives a thrill that only riding a horse can equal. A motorcycle has more horsepower, can cover more distance and isn’t as temperamental as a horse. Nevertheless, the sensations are nearly the same.
Nothing can best covering ground while in such close contact with the elements: the heat, sun, rain, wind, smells, sights, colors, sounds, the feel of the ground under your seat and feet. You are exposed to everything that you pass by: other vehicles, bystanders outside their houses or businesses, variances in temperature created by changes in topography and surfaces, the smell of cows in the field, the dead skunk on the side of the road, gravel road obstacles and moving hazards on the highway. The colors, smells, shapes, temperature fluctuations, wind, rain, sounds…… All while hundreds of horsepower rev under your seat and between your knees, controlled only by shifts on the handle bars and foot pedals. It is candy to a sensory junkie.
Unlimited amounts of clothing can protect you against the wind, rain, and sun. It shields against bugs that persist to commit suicide against your body. A June bug colliding with your face at 50 miles an hour is not a pleasant experience. But all these protective measures sacrifice sensory reception, and each rider must weigh what he or she is willing to sacrifice to experience it all.
Helmets protect your face and head from trauma, terrorist bugs, and wind. But it also shields that which you want to experience from most of your sensory organs: your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Although wearing a helmet you can still see, unless you are riding for the blind with an automatic pilot implanted in your skull, the rest of your senses are deprived of the very essence that riding a bike imparts its thrill.
Riding behind the Pilot on a bike for many hours over several days allowed my mind to wander, as it is prone to do anyway. Riding a bike doesn’t prevent that at all. As a passenger I had the luxury of isolating my senses and their associated anatomical parts on my face and body as they interacted with the elements.
Eyes: I confess my eyes are wind weenies. Simply wearing my normal prescription glasses did not adequately reduce the buffeting wind against my poor wet naked eyeballs. Eventually my vision became distorted parallel with the speed of the bike and the wind in my face. Despite the old-timers’ testimony that “Aw, you’ll get used to it!”, I learned quickly that I would not. On the advice of my motorcycle-experienced daughter I tried on several pairs of goggles, finding a vented pair that covered half of my face, dark enough to avoid permanent squinting and even accommodated my daytime prescription glasses. I looked like I stepped out of the movie Predator , but I could finally enjoy the scenery without it looking like a Picasso painting.
Hair. Sure, we all love the wind whipping through our hair, but not the aftermath. I learned what my daughter meant by ‘bike hair.’ I saw more of my forehead than I’ve seen since most of my front hair was burned off by an exploding oven. My hair was permanently pushed back into contortions that a perm would rival. I previously thought the skull caps were faddish until I experienced their utility. The added perk was soaking it in cold water before tying on my head on a hot Texas summer day ride. I also acquired a border of sun-induced pink and white under the hem of the rag on my forehead. My forehead acquired a seam with no stitch lines.
Ears: The sounds of a bike can be thrilling, just as the roar of the muffler on your truck when it acquires large holes. I learned quickly the myriad of sounds that bellow forth from some of the custom choppers to the whisper of the BMWs. Blue (a blue Harley Dynaglide) was relatively quiet. It’s comforting hum reminded me of the brass section of a quintet, a solo up and down or a constant accompaniment.
What bothered my ears was the wind blowing in them, diverted off the skull cap on my head. It was if an invisible giant was trying to stuff a fist in each ear. “Dude, get those fists out of my ears!” A simple solution: those little squishy earplugs. Compact, fits easily in your jean pocket, and quick to insert. Hint: don’t put them in your back pocket. They tend to conform to the shape of your buttocks while you sit and won’t fit into your ear canal.
Mouth: There’s little sense in trying to talk audibly over the sound of the bike and the wind. Except for an occasional giggle at the cows, an exclamation at the insulting stink of a roadside kill, a frequent "Woohoo!!", or the grunt escaping you when the rear tire under you bottoms out in a dip or pothole, there’s no need to utter anything sensible. No one will hear you.
At high speeds on the road, if you relax all of those hundreds of tiny muscles that involuntarily hold your mouth in place, the wind will catch your skin and flap your lips and cheeks. Invisible fingers grab and contort your face into a myriad of fanciful expressions. I admittedly had fun with that. I may have looked like a salivating dentist patient just out of a root canal and several shots of novacaine, but I was confident in my disguise that no one would recognize me to taunt me later. My loose lips and cheeks flapped in the wind so much that after awhile I was afraid that my lower face was permanently stretched out like the Africans that insert disks in their lips. It’s a good way to air out the gums, but you take a chance of getting a suicidal bug in your teeth.
Lips: The wind and sun tend to dry out the sensitive mucus tissue that gives us our characteristic smile. A tube of chap stick the size of shotgun would protect our lips, but not very handy. A strong UV inhibitor is required to prevent lips from eventually becoming two dried wrinkled pieces of leather attached to your face. Maybe many of the veteran cyclists refrain from smiling because their lips crack and bleed down their chins.
Skin: When I see folks in the South with brown weathered wrinkled faces, my first suspicions are that they ride horses, tractors, or motorcycles. Usually their clothing completes the association with their image. You don’t typically find a horse rider or farmer dressed in black leather and Harley Davidson apparel. However, motorcyclists wear many hats: computer geeks, store managers, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, even an occasional equestrian/scientist.
Unless the rider always wears a helmet and completely covers him or herself with protective gear, the weather elements leave their mark on exposed skin. In the South where the sun doth shine with fury, shades of brown suggest hours of exposure to the hot sun. Although the wind provides some relief while riding, the laws of physics don’t apply to blowing away ultraviolet rays. Applications of sunblock at regular intervals is a common occurrence with bike riders.
Each rider has to consider and weigh the trade-offs in their decision on what degree to separate themselves from the environment through which they travel. Enclosed in a 4-wheeled vehicle, that is less of an issue, if one at all. Riding on two wheels and exposed to all that Nature and man-made provides on the way presents a challenge that can also be a thrill. The impact can be immediate or accumulative, and each one of us has to decide what we are willing to risk on any given day, on each ride we take.
Risk is an inherent side dish to life. We can shield ourselves from everything but never live. So before you start your bike, or sit behind a Pilot, consider what you are willing to feel today at the risk of tomorrow. What are we willing to sacrifice to avoid the risks?
If we don’t go out into the forest, we may never know. And we may never live.
Ah, it’s a good night to see, hear and smell the night of a full moon.