It doesn't give me too much pleasure to be writing this on my 57th birthday. I can do the math. It's not going to be too much longer before I check out. I might still be a teenager at heart, but I'm well on my way to becoming an old man, and then ... ashes in an urn upon the mantle.
Sorry, but that's life, which apparently always ends in death, various theories of the afterlife notwithstanding.
I'm fighting it though, this mortality thing, which is why I continue riding motorcycles. There's something slightly foolish about an old man riding a motorcycle, especially an old man like me, for whom a motorcycle remains the primary mode of transportation.
What are you trying to prove old man? Obviously, that I'm not an old man. I ride, therefore I remain a teenager, if not in body, at least in spirit.
But that's the kind of thinking that can break your beak, trust me.
The “beak” I'm referring to is this long piece of plastic that's attached to the front of my year 2000 BMW 1150GS, the world's heaviest production dirt bike. It's not really a dirt bike at all, it's a so-called adventure bike, and I can attest to the fact that muscling a 550-pound vehicle through the dirt is an adventure. BMW pioneered the adventure bike concept in the 1980s, and added the beak, to emulate Paris to Dakar rally race bikes, in the 1990s. It's become a popular category, and lots of bikes have beaks these days.
So anyway, a couple of weeks before my 57th birthday, there was a break in the monotonous winter weather we've been experiencing, and I decided to take the bike to work. It was freezing cold up here in eastern Shasta County, so I wore my state-of-the-art winter motorcycle gear, including an electric vest and armored hi-viz yellow Aerostich riding suit. I'm a firm believer in wearing protective gear, not just a helmet as required by law.
As it turned out, it was my lucky day, and I got off work early. The sun was shining and the temperature was in the high 60s. After weeks of rain, sleet and hail, I think I may have been skipping on the way to the parking lot. It was going to be a great ride home.
I slipped into my one-piece Aerostich suit, mounted the Beemer, turned the key and hit the ignition switch. Blast off! The twin boxer engine settled into a low, muffled growl. I snicked the bike into first gear, eased out the clutch and pulled a 180 to get out of the parking lot.
I was feeling good, real good in fact, better than I had in days, and the thought occurred to me, why not pop a little wheelie? I should note the Beemer isn't stock, I've modified the motor with a titanium exhaust system and an aftermarket electronic control unit, so even though it's heavy as a pig, the front wheel readily comes up when you blip the throttle. Which is what I did. I blipped the throttle, the tiniest of blips, which set off a chain reaction of unfortunate events.
The front wheel came up and at the same time I slipped backward in the seat—the Aerostich suit is a lot more slippery than the leathers I usually wear—and my feet came off the foot pegs. As I slipped backward, I inadvertently twisted the throttle open attempting to hang on to the bike. The front end came up, way up, I was looking straight into the noonday sun Icarus-like, the bike and I were about to loop-out, until somehow I managed to get my right foot on the rear brake lever.
The bike and I came crashing down to earth. When the front wheel touched, it washed out, and the Beemer fell mightily on its right side, sliding across the tarmac on its plastic valve cover protector and plastic side case. Like a madman trying to bulldog a buffalo, I was still holding on to the handlebars and the bike was dragging me with it, right toward the rear-end of a white late model Ford pickup.
I remember thinking, as the bike and I zeroed in on the pickup's chrome bumper hitch, this is exactly like all those “redneck fail” videos I delight in watching on YouTube. I pretty much expected to be eating that bumper hitch when the Beemer's beak shattered upon impact and I was thrown underneath the pickup.
It was strange, looking up at the bottom of that pickup all of a sudden like. WTF just happened? was the thought throbbing through my mind. Somehow I knew I wasn't injured. I could hear the bike, lying on its side with the rear wheel off the ground, was still running. I've got to turn it off, I said to myself.
I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. I grabbed the bumper and slid myself out from under the pickup. I was sitting on my ass, looking around to see if anybody had actually caught this embarrassing moment, when a female voice startled me from behind.
“Mister, are you OK?!” she said. She was a nursing student, judging by her garb.
“My damned throttle stuck,” I lied. “Yeah, I'm fine.”
I was fine, but only because I was wearing the Aerostich suit. The ballistic pads had absorbed the shock from the right side of my body hitting the tarmac. Without the suit, I probably would have broken my leg or hip or both. Both my right knee and hip were sore, to be truthful, but since I was standing up, I figured they weren't broken.
But my poor bike! The beak was broken clean off, and the bumper hitch had poked my low beam headlight out and dented the oil cooler. Most people, when they get their beak broken, pretty much fall down in their tracks. That's how I figured the Beemer felt.
The female student helped me pick up the bike, and I'm sure she regretted it, because it's a heavy bastard. In my condition, I couldn't have done it without her.
“I got it now,” I assured her. In retrospect, I realize I didn't really have it. I hit that Ford's tailgate pretty hard. Even though I hadn't hit my helmeted head, I was stunned. Temporary PTSD.
I'm not sure how long I stood in the parking lot, next to the bike, figuring out what to do. Never have I felt so old. All of my 57 years and more, even though my birthday was yet to come.
I checked out the pickup, to see if I'd done any damage. Its bumper had one of those black plastic protectors on it, and I could see a few scratches in the plastic around the trailer hitch. You gotta leave a note, I told myself.
I carry all the tools you might need on any given day with the Beemer, and retrieved a pen and notebook from a side case. I don't remember exactly what I wrote: my name, address, phone number, email. I hit your truck but you can't really tell unless you look real close at the bumper guard. Something like that. I tore the sheet out and tucked the note under the driver's side windshield wiper. The owner has never contacted me.
I was standing next to the bike, still slightly stunned, when the nursing student came back and asked if I was sure I was OK.
I hadn't taken my helmet off. I swung a leg over the Beemer, turned the key, punched the starter button and it fired right up.
“I'm fine,” I told her.
She's gonna go far in life, I can tell.
I was fine for driving, but truth be told, I was suffering from an overwhelming sense of impending doom. You're too ancient for these sort of shenanigans, R.V. You're too old to be riding this big, powerful, heavy bike. Maybe you should just give up riding, period.
Fortunately, the Beemer, which is basically the same age as me in motorcycle years, suffered no such affliction. I found the muted roar of its tenacious boxer engine encouraging, and by the time we blew past Palo Cedro, beakless bike and all, my mind had wandered on to other potential causes of the accident that didn't involve my age and/or acting like a fool.
It must be Trump's fault, I pondered. This is what I get for half-heartedly supporting The Donald in public and private, despite the immense risk to my public reputation and my private relationships. I rode with that thought for a while, the accident being some sort of Karmic retribution for a lukewarm political affiliation, until I was overcome with one of those goose-stepping-across-your-grave moments: President Hillary Clinton.
In case you haven't gathered it by now, I'm a superstitious person. I believe in God, the after-life and the human soul. I also believe crossing a black cat's path is bad luck, which is apparently an American thing, because in Europe, white cats are considered bad luck. Anyway, about two weeks before I broke my beak, I did indeed cross the path of black cat, which I recalled now seeking some sort of explanation, other than my tottering old age, for the accident.
I eventually threw this “reasoning” out because I'd been driving a different vehicle when I crossed the black cat's path (my various superstitions each have their own rule books), although I'm still wondering if that feline had something to do with it.
Whitmore Road is an awesome stretch of pavement, and once you hit the twisties past Millville on a motorcycle, or even in an automobile, the curves take your mind off all your troubles. Troubles like mortality and stupid superstitions.
For its part, the Beemer performed flawlessly sans beak. Beside directing air into the oil cooler, the beak is mostly a cosmetic part and not required for the bike to run, like fins on a late '50s Cadillac. Some owners actually take the beak off because they think it looks funny, but I would never do that.
As soothing as the ride home was, I was still rattled when I parked the bike in the garage and closed the door so no one would notice the damage. Not that we get too many visitors in these parts besides UPS and Federal Express, but nice as they are, who wants those guys knowing your business?
I remained rattled in the coming days as I calculated the cost of the accident. I've crashed in the dirt plenty and laid the bike down in the street numerous times, but I'd never actually broken any major parts. Calling the insurance company was never an option. No way I was going to blemish my mostly perfect driving record. But as the toll added up, I sure gave it some thought.
A new beak, painted “night black” like my bike, was almost $500 according to the parts manual. Same story for the headlight unit, which was damaged beyond repair. Complicating matters, BMW doesn't sell painted beaks for my bike in the United States, because some ingredient in “night black” paint is barred from importation.
Thank God for eBay and the Internet. I found a used headlight unit for a fraction of the retail price. I searched the ads in vain for a beak painted “night black,” until finally relenting and buying an unpainted beak from the BMW dealer in Sacramento. I called around town to see how much it would cost to have it professionally painted, and was somewhat shocked to discover it would cost at least twice as much as I paid for the raw plastic beak.
As it turned out, some enterprising entrepreneur has developed a thriving online business providing spray paint kits for various colors that have been regulated out of business, including BMW's “night black.” The kit comes with everything you need to do it yourself, from fine grain emery paper to primer, paint and clear coat.
So I sanded, primered, painted and clear-coated the beak in the garage, even though it was 40 degrees outside and probably too cold to be spray-painting. Most of the paint stuck pretty well, but on the sides of the beak it congealed because of the low temperature and hardened into a condition that's called orange peal, because it looks like the pores of a politician not wearing makeup on HDTV.
For the next several weeks, I attempted to polish and wax that orange peel out of existence. It's not like I had anything better to do with my spare time. The rain had returned and now that all the sanding and spray-painting was done, my girlfriend let me bring the beak in the house. This led to innumerable conversations between the two of us along these lines:
“What are we going to do this weekend?” she'd ask.
“I guess I'll just polish my beak,” I'd reply.
“So that's what they're calling it these days,” she'd deadpan.
There came a point in time when the rain went away and I realized I was stalling the inevitable with all the beak polishing. I've never ridden a horse, but I figure a motorcycle is the next closest thing, and I've always held myself to the adage that if you get bucked off, get right back on.
If you thought I'd learned my lesson from this whole ordeal, that a 57-year-old man shouldn't be doing motorcycle stunts in parking lots, well, you're partially right. I won't be doing that anymore. It's not like I did it that much in the first place. Yes, I'm going to ride more cautiously in public.
But even as I bolted the freshly-painted beak on to the bike, I knew that just getting back on and going for a little joyride wasn't going to suffice. It had nothing to do with politics or crossing the path of a black cat or whether or not there's an afterlife. It was all about fear, the terror I'd experienced as the bike nearly flipped and came crashing back down to earth was still with me. There's only one way I know to make that fear go away.
Either I was an old man or I wasn't. I'm not, I can't be, so on my 57th birthday, I went out and practiced my wheelies.
Photos by Kelsey Falle