Present Moment essay #14: On the Road

“I crashed my motorcycle.”

That was what I said to the few people I told. They asked if I was OK and asked about the damage to the bike. I said yes, nonchalantly, I had bruises on my legs and the bike would need repairs. Only a very, very few knew what really happened, how I ended up laying on the road under a motorcycle I had purchased on a Wednesday, insured on Thursday, and taken out for a practice drive on a Friday.

I had moved out of my apartment and re-gifted, sold, or donated almost all of possessions in the early fall of 2014. About 7 boxes of items were stored at a few locations until I built my next nest, fluffed out my feathers, and settled down. My plan was to stay with friends and family and focus on my writing and network marketing business. A motorcycle seemed like a logical part of my downsizing plan. Even though I owned a first gen Prius, 95% of the time it was only me in the car. Anyone caught in San Francisco bay area traffic or a hard time finding parking knows what I mean. I wanted to use the carpool lane and have easy parking. Light and nimble drove my decisions.

The original plan was to wait until my house sold to buy the motorcycle.  The Prius’ hybrid battery began its death wheeze in October and I upped my original timeline, figuring I needed some form of transportation, as I was then staying with a friend in Grass Valley and there was little public transportation. I had taken classes from Moto U  in the summer months before saying adios to my apartment. They did not believe in the weekend classes format. They wanted you to take a series so your body slowly acclimated to the bike and the skills. I believed them.

When I mentioned my goal to transfer to two wheels and a motor, people either loved the idea of me on a bike, dubbing me a ‘Buddha on a bike’ or they hated it, worried about my safety. My son, 19 at the time, said: “Mom, motorcycles are so unsafe.” I paused, noting the oxymoron of him admonishing me at a moment in his life when all things unsafe were considered his purview.

I took my Moto U instructors’ advice and bought safety gear, including a lovely, luminescent yellow jacket, along with padded pants, thick gloves, and a DOT approved helmet. I found the perfect starter bike at a good price in Grass Valley. The one recommended by my instructors. A Honda 250 Rebel.

I wanted to take it slow. Problem was, there were a number of circumstances that did not support that goal. Challenge one was that several months had passed since my classes of a new skill I had not really mastered. Second, there was no real slow in Grass Valley. The roads where I was staying are hilly and also curvy.  My intuition kept prodding me with this data. Heeding my inner valid worry, I found a weekend class and signed up, but it wasn’t for a week and a half after I had bought and driven home my fledgling motorcycle. I  paused, pondered, and then decided to climb back on the verve and fragile confidence that had gotten me home from the motorcycle store atop my new ride.

My plan on Friday was to go for a simple circle drive. I hate admitting my first mistake, because it would come back to send me to the wrong side of the road. When riding, you first open the throttle fully to warm up the engine. You then down it down. I was sitting on my bike, letting it warm up when a car pulled up facing me with people sitting in it. Why I let them dictate my next actions is beyond rational thought so I will just say it.  I was making up stories about what they thought about me sitting there, so I drove away. My plan was to turn the throttle down at the end of the road, but I became completely wrapped up in managing the bumpy, narrow downhill beginning to my practice run and I forgot.  I then missed my crucial third turn because the smoother, wider road was still curvy and I saw the turn too late. No worries, I would just turn down the next road, but it did not come for a while, and then each right turn sent me onto road after road that didn’t lead me home. Cars would show up in my rearview mirror and urge me to drive faster. As my heart raced, I repeated what I learned in my classes – hug the bike with my knees, sit with a straight back, check my mirrors, keep my wrists flat, and don’t go over 35 miles per hour. After about 20 minutes, I came to a stop sign and decided to take one more right and find my way home, no matter what. I was completely exhausted with a roil of panic in my gut.

It was then that, as my mom would say, that mi inteligencia se me fue a mis pies. I saw a car coming on my left and would have preferred to wait for it to pass. There was a car behind me and I foolishly let that push me to decide to turn rather than wait. My next rookie mistake was revving the engine a little too much at the beginning of my turn. This is when the throttle still on high became the final extra push of power to unhorse me.

If anyone reading this rides a motorcycle, you will know there is a difference in how you change direction than what happens with a car. On a motorcycle, you crank your head all the way toward your destination and that tells your body what to do. Instead, I did what I do as a car driver, I turned my head slightly because the hands turning the steering wheel are what turn a car, not the head.

Where did my bike go with my head only slightly turned and my engine revved? It turned past the right lane and into the oncoming traffic lane. In a split second I knew my life was in complete danger because there was oncoming traffic and I held on for my dear, precious life.

I collided head on with a Prius and ended up on the road, underneath my bike, my padded gloved hands still gripping the bike handles. Laying there for a minute, I scanned my body. No searing pain and no mangled body parts. I slowly released the handles and slid out gingerly from under my bike. Some men who had stopped helped me pick up the bike and move it to the side of the road. The left side of my pants had ripped through the first layer. I was flooded with gratitude, adrenalin, and total vergüenza.

The woman who was driving the car that I hit ran over to me. “I thought I had killed you,” she said, and burst into tears. I hugged her, saying: “I am so sorry.”  She finally calmed down and looked at me. “You’re a miracle,” she said.

I didn’t feel like a miracle. I felt like a fool, like I had proved everybody right who had warned me this motorcycle plan was a bad idea. An ambulance arrived and the paramedic checked me out quickly, almost too quickly. I could have had a concussion. They didn’t look under the torn pant at my knee. By then the police had arrived on the scene and I answered their questions completely. After listening, the officer said “OK, we’re not going to take you in”.

Take me in? I then realized they were assessing whether I had been reckless or under the influence of any substances. Certainly laws of reason and intuition had been violated. Meanwhile, the husband of the woman arrived and also gave me a hug. They were being much nicer than I was being on myself. They even drove me home after the tow truck carted off my banged up bike. Close to tears at what I knew had been a brush with death, I had called Dee, my only friend in the area and my shopping partner when I bought all my gear. She met me at home, incredibly solicitous, and treated me to dinner and a margarita.

Over the next few days my bruises spread until my thighs were many shades of purple, while my left knee remained swollen and stiff. I had a few scrapes on my left arm and side, but it was so little given the possibilities of harm. The woman I collided with called me and texted me periodically, asking after my health and continually reminding me I was a miracle. I appreciated her care, and yet her communications also opened up my regrets of the series of unfortunate events that led to my brief moment as a biker mama. My motorcycle was not so lucky, and the insurance adjuster declared it totaled. I sold it for parts to the man who had sold it to me, both of us disconsolate about the circumstances.

A week later a friend posted one of those quotes that shows up regularly on Facebook: “10% is what happens to us and 90% is our response”. I added a comment:
“10% = crashed motorcycle 2 days after buying; 90% = grateful to be alive, focusing on healing bruises, refusing to be drawn into shame and blame, dealing calmly with insurance companies, and planning to get back on a bike once I have fully healed!”

Despite my cheerful post, I did decide to delay my motorcycle era. Not right away. I had signed up for that weekend class and I dragged myself there one week after my crash, wanting to give myself a positive experience on a motorcycle. I hung in there for almost the entire 2-day class. Just a few minutes before they ran us through the final test to award us a temporary license, I became confused with the signals of the instructor as to whether to stop, turn left or turn right. I braked and turned, landing once again on my bruised side. This time I had on my padded boots, which saved me somewhat, but my ankle was sore and cranky. I tried to walk it off and one of the instructor’s gave me some stronger pain pills (whispering to keep it between us), saying I was sure to pass the driving test. Even though I could have toughed it out mentally, my ankle refused to be silenced and I regretfully left the course with another “fail.”

I called my friend, who still rides a motorcycle in her seventies, to flush out my frustration. She gracefully talked me through the jag threatening to engulf me with more shame. It was the best medicine for my wounded body and soul and I returned home ready to give myself all the emotional and physical rest required to make sound decisions about two-wheeled, motorized creatures.

I sold or gave away my gear, creating a clean slate. Like donating organs, women are out on their bikes protected by gear I know, sin duda, works. It has been two and a half years since the accident. I Lyft, walk, bus, ferry, BART, get rides, and rent cars. I have been dubbed a Valkyrie, a vagabond, a gitana and, more surprisingly, an inspiration for folks to re-think their beliefs about the nature of permanence, the car culture, and possessions.

I do ride a two-wheeled motorized creature – an electric bike I purchased in 2015. My tiny wheels, folding bicycle gets lots of love from strangers and friends alike, further inspiring people to consider their transportation options. I favor bike paths as I have no protective gear beyond a helmet and gloves and I know who will lose if a car collides with me. (photo by Minal Hajratwala)

I used to think that my decision to not share the details of my crash was because I was embarrassed and didn’t want people to think I was una loca if one day I do join the motorcycle tribe again. In sharing this story about a year after the crash to a friend, I admitted that I had not done so before because I really could have died. It could have been a bus or a ten-wheeler instead of a Prius. It is not even my possible death that kept this story quiet either. It was the reality of how my death or even serious injury would have impacted the driver, and more importantly, the people in my life who I love – most specifically, my twins. I didn’t want to look at that. Telling this story now is part of forgiving myself and realizing what that sweet woman I crashed into said is true: I am a miracle. I bet all of you, like I did that day, have made some less than wise decisions and we are all here today. Let’s forgive ourselves once and for all so we can rejoice in every moment and every breath of life. #52essays2017 #motorcycles #crashes #miracles

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