Tuesday was a lovely autumn morning, I decided to use my bike to go to site (an hour away in another town) rather than the car. I had some meals to deliver for the men, but they weren’t heavy and would fit into my panniers.
I haven’t been on the bike on the highway for, well I tried to remember while I was riding, it’s been awhile. A few dawdles around town yes, but not much more than that for ages.
The experience was overwhelming at the beginning, as I hadn’t put my ear protection in. It was uncomfortable for a few reasons actually.
My bare hands on the grips felt vulnerable. I pictured myself sliding across the bitumen. Gloves or no gloves, my hands would be shredded to pieces. That would making writing very difficult – lots of things very difficult. “I should wear gloves” I thought for possibly the millionth time in my riding career.
I don’t like wearing gloves because I can’t feel anything. They are always in my bag in case I decide to put them on, despite the fact I hardly ever do.
My shoulders grew tense, I relaxed them on purpose, breathed. My jeans are kevlar lined, which means they wouldn’t shred easily on the bitumen, but every bone would be broken if I became unstuck – maybe not my ankles, the boots were good and tight.
The wind and motor noise combined to create a deafening banshee wail. This, combined with not being on the bike in ages had me pulling into a rest area about 20km out of town to remedy the situation.
When I dismounted the bike and pulled off my helmet, I discovered something else. I was shaking. I didn’t realise how tense my body had become. Little wonder given my mental catastrophising.
The thing is, motorbike riding is inherently risky. Every time I choose to go by bike, I’m taking a risk. When I’m riding more often, I get used to it. Not bored, not arrogant, but simply inured to brushing up against the fear, and continuing anyway.
There are plenty of people who ride and don’t think much about the fact that they might hit a kangaroo or other wildlife. That’s not me. I think about exactly that outcome every single time, because I’ve had some close calls.
Sheep outside Winton, a cow the other side of Injune, several encounters with kangaroos, and a group of emus outside Charleville that bolted across the bitumen in front of me and had me grabbing fistfuls of brake. A pig emerging from the early morning fog outside Blackall. A massive goanna on my way back from Lightning Ridge (that probably still bears my tyre mark across his fat tail). Two huge wedge tailed eagles that were hidden in the grass eating a carcass, who rose up like massive bombers as I drew near. An ambling porcupine, puncture perfect machine that he was, thankfully missed, a fox or two, and that sad stray dog that chased me along the Taroom highway barking.
All of my brothers have had catastrophic accidents on motorbikes. It’s a risk, I choose to take, because I like riding. It takes me out of my comfort zone and teaches me a lot about how I handle myself in uncomfortable situations.
But I swear spring is just around the corner now.
The wattle is heavy with golden blooms and its scent in the wind together with the herbal aromas of clover and tiny bush daisies that line the road is intoxicating. These perfumes mix now and then, with the rotting carcasses of roos, that have been hit by caravaners or truckies that travel this way regularly.
The juxtaposition of that picture explains the beauty vs tragedy scenario quite well I think . Wildflowers and the glory of life vs smelly decaying death. Both natural, and natural enough to think about side by side.
Which is what I was doing, there in the stopping bay, bike idling whilst I fiddled beside it with my earplugs and glasses. I hoiked my jeans up (chilly little gap), pulled my jumper down, zipped my jacket, and wrapped my neck warmer tighter. All of this with shaking hands that weren’t cold (I have heated grips) just all thumbs and clumsy.
I was reminded of the many adventures that I have been on over the years, that had begun in a similar way. With shaking hands, a slimey slosh in my belly and tense shoulders.
Death is the ghost story we tell ourselves that is actually true. So we can sincerely terrify ourselves with it. Particularly if we have a good imagination. Which I do.
I’m gentler to myself nowadays and so I said aloud, just so I could be sure and hear “you can go home if you like, there is no way you have to do this if you don’t want to”
But of course I didn’t go home. I was headed in the other direction. I was just pretending to be sympathetic to my fearful self. I’ve noticed that I like my bossy self more if I’m nice. It’s much easier when we all get on.
A few minutes later I pulled out onto the highway feeling a great deal better. The howling noise had been cut to a comfortable purr by my now installed earplugs. I could think properly and see better too. I don’t know what it is about the senses, but if one is overwhelmed the rest of them become out of balance as well. All the draughty vents into my skin had been blocked, and the sun was warm across my back.
Pleasant, blissful even.
Gradually the tension faded and I sunk into a relaxed alertness, rather than straining hyper vigilance.
The hour sped by so quickly that it was too soon when I pulled into the job site. I would have been disappointed except that I also had the trip home to look forward to.
The trip back was beautiful, the same pillion rider in death, but the grip was looser, more playful.
Here’s the thing. I never truly lose my sense of fear. I’ve done long, six and seven day trips on the bike, and every single one of them have seen me strap all my equipment on each morning with a slight shake to my hands, and a gentle sense of impending doom.
Luckily I have a good sense of humour and am particularly stubborn when set upon a course of action. It doesn’t stop the fear, but it lessens its impact to be both aware of death but also curious.
I have imagined my own funeral in full cinematic detail whilst riding along. I’ve pondered what my sister might say as she stood delivering my eulogy. Then wondered if perhaps she would become messy and not up to the task. Who else might do a better job?
What would they say about me? Family. I’m just not sure I can trust some of them not to bring up some story that they think is funny, but is not at all. I don’t mind if it’s actually funny. There should be a good balance of teary grief and raucous laughter. Although why it matters I’m not sure, I wouldn’t be there to mind either way.
My mind would be gone. That’s a weird thought. The end of all thoughts. How very …boring.
I don’t like the thought of burial nor cremation either – I jump back and forth between the two options – it can take ages and miles.
Cremation or burial?
I briefly began the debate again with myself this morning. But then stopped, it’s become dry, and I’ve told the boys it’s up to them where and how they park me. I don’t think it matters much, it’s not like I’ll hate the view – I won’t be here, no matter which direction my body faces. If I have a body? Well either way, I won’t have a body. Not for long.
The Buddhists teach that we should confront our death again and again, because in doing so we lose our aversion and fear of it, thereby entering into the state peacefully.
I’m not sure highway crashes lend themselves to serenity. Perhaps if I’m thrown clear to lie beneath a nice big tree, soft grass, blue sky. But can I be guaranteed that I won’t land on an ants nest? No. Not much chance of a higher order birth then. I hope I don’t come back as a frog. I don’t like frogs much.
Do we come back?
I don’t know what I believe in regards to an afterlife. I’ve thought about it a great deal, usually while riding, but I haven’t come to a conclusion yet.
What is certain, is that we do die and we are not here anymore, in spirit at least, although our bones might stick around for awhile.
Everyone who has ever been born and ever been buried, is still here on this planet. Or their bones and fragments are at least. Earth is a closed circuit. Do I really want to add to the litter?
Burial or cremation? There it is again – and if it is burial then I want something environmentally friendly.
But will one of those cardboard cartons stand up properly for the pall bearers? I mean, that would be a disaster wouldn’t it? What if the packaging is like those thin supermarket bags, that are so flimsy that they won’t hold the weight of the groceries, instead spilling the heavier canned goods out all over the floor?
Imagine that in the middle of the march to the graveside? Or worse, in the church. At least with my family it would be a moment lightened with humour. Note to self – tell sister not to put me in a dress. Just in case.
Death, I think, should be turned over and mulled on often. Until it becomes less of a terrifying monster and more of an affable family pet.
We don’t think about it do we?
Death fades into the background, for the simple fact that life is so full and busy that it crowds death out. And we simply forget about its existence, and our own.
Every day living is another day closer to dying. Riding reminds me of this. I can quite easily lose the spectre of my impending expiry, when I’m sitting in the office, or walking the dogs. I can forget all about it while reading a book in front of the fire, or absorbed into a Netflix drama.
But not when I am travelling at 110 clicks along the dodgy bitumen, holding onto two small grips rather too tightly, and feeling the heat roll off the engine by my calves.
Filling my lungs with life giving oxygen and marvelling at how everything smells so sharply real and alive (apart from those things which are dead)
I cannot avoid the fragile nature that is our life then. And be grateful, for every minute I spend living, whilst saying to old friend death who grips behind me
“Please, not yet, not today, it’s too beautiful.”
And perhaps she yells her reply through a windy smile
“Fair enough, I’ll leave it awhile!”
And then it’s not today. It’s not today but maybe tomorrow. And I’ll think about it then, but for today, I’m so very glad I rode, and I’ve already made the mental note, to do so more often.
*PS I don’t want to infer that all I do is think about death when I ride, I don’t, not at all. There is an awareness about the risk always, but that recedes and the enjoyment of the ride takes over.
Actually that’s not true either, because riding isn’t always enjoyable. It’s not an insulated environment like a car, therefore sometimes the temperature is too hot or too cold, the seat is hard and after awhile I develop a backache. I stop, take Panadol, continue.
I don’t think the point of riding for me is to be comfortable. The point is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. To feel the discomfort and find that it is worthwhile. To become a little more worthwhile myself by doing so perhaps.
Header photo Aron Visuals Unsplash