Dearest Explore Reader,
On a Saturday morning, I learned how to ride a bicycle. By Sunday, I was on a dirt bike.
It was one of these little 50cc bikes that haven’t really changed in 30 years.
Today, you can buy virtually the exact same motorcycle I had in 1979. To me, it was a rocket ship that could take me anywhere. One of the first places it took me was to the sand dunes of Corpus Christi. My dad had this big enduro bike and we would putter around the sand dunes together, and I can still remember looking at the rear tire of his bike and just marveling at how BIG his bike was. It was my DAD’S bike – which meant that it was the most amazing piece of machinery to ever exist. And I wanted to be just like him, so I would try to keep up. It was a pivotal bit of history for me, because those rides in the sand dunes introduced me to a past time of motocross that would affect me tremendously.
Because before I knew it, my dad and I were at the race track with my bike. All of 5 years old, I was competitively racing motocross. While doing this, I met some great friends who were out there with their dads conquering the motorcycle universe. This picture here is of (L-R)Shane McGee, Rowdy Flanagan, and me. This would have been somewhere around 1984.
We were at Rio Bravo MX Park outside of Houston. You see, not only did we get into motocross racing, but we REALLY got into it. We traveled all over the state, and became quite competitive with it. Shane and Rowdy were really part of my family of fellow racers that I knew I would see every weekend as we would embark out for the latest race.
Eventually we all moved up in bike size as we grew, and we all got more and more into the racing scene. My mother, on the other hand, hated every minute of it. She was certain that I would get severely hurt, and we (my dad and I) scoffed at her. She would go with us to the races, and to this day, we laugh at some of the old home movies where she is cheering for me as I go past, and then spends the next two minutes praying for my safety until I come back around the track.
Her fears took a most tragic turn in January of 1985.
At the same Rio Bravo MX Park, Rowdy and I were watching the older kids race on 250cc bikes. We were watching in a back corner of the track, and Shane McGee’s cousin, Chris Gunter, came storming down the track. We watched him crash horrifically, and he hit an oak tree hard. Rowdy and I ran to the EMS tent, alerted them, and I can still remember looking down at Chris’ mangled body as he laid on the track. My next memory was of a prayer circle that people organized at the track as we all prayed for Chris. My last memory of that event was his funeral, with his boots and helmet lying on his casket. He was 16 years old.
From there, some of us just gravitated away from motocross. I moved from Corpus and headed up to Boerne. Rowdy got into skateboards, and of course, we all discovered girls. I’m not sure what Shane got into. I guess my memory just didn’t store this tidbit. My mother was of course happy that I had hung up my racing boots, and my life just simply moved on from the sport and on to different things.
Shane, Rowdy, and myself all lost touch with one another in the late ‘80s, and after high school I left for college. It was at this point that I felt the motorcycle bug again, and so I took my student loan money and bought a 125cc bike on a Saturday. I just remember thinking that it was something I had to do. I loaded it in my brother’s truck the following day, drove it to the local riding area, put on my helmet, and woke up in a hospital. I can still remember the moment before I crashed, as I was thinking “This is going to hurt”. The next thing I remember was lying in an MRI machine. I had broken all the bones on the right side of my head and required reconstructive surgery. I now have several titanium plates that are holding my eye socket and cheekbones in place.
So, for the second time, I sold my only motorcycle and hung up my riding boots. At this point, the advice from my mother was “You will NEVER own a motorcycle again.”
I bought a motorcycle last month.
It’s a big giant enduro – just like my Dad’s. And my 6 year old son rode behind me on his 50cc bike just yesterday. My wife shakes her head at me and yells as I leave the house “You better have your helmet on!” but she hasn’t given me too much of a hard time about it.
Dad just asks lots of questions and smiles. My mom sighs and rolls her eyes, but I guess she knows it’s futile.
And I’m not sure why it’s futile. I have no idea why I can throw my leg over a motorcycle and feel both 11 years old as well as indestructible. I just do. I’m free, and dangerous, and alone, and I’m my Dad all at the same time. And on a recent ride around the neighborhood, I got to thinking about Shane, and Rowdy. And I thought about Shane’s cousin, Chris Gunter.
I thought about all of those memories I have, and I wondered where they are today. So sure enough, after a bit of clicking around, I found both of them on Facebook. Shane’s profile picture is of him standing in front of his dirt bike. Rowdy’s picture is of his little boy riding a 50cc.
Seeking clarity, I even went so far as to pick up the phone and call Shane and Rowdy. It was great – like going back in time.
Come to find out, much like me, they both got back into motorcycles in their early 20’s, eventually learned that getting hurt isn’t much fun, and yet they still toodle around on bikes. And both are enjoying watching their children ride. And they both still can’t listen to the voice of reason that does, in fact, exist in our heads that tells us that we have no business riding dirt bikes at our ages. And yet here we are, doing the very thing we probably shouldn’t.
And so, because you’ve read enough of my Publisher Letters to know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I mean, why the inexplicable urge to do something that ultimately brings us great joy, but also brings us great pain?
It was fascinating to listen to their stories about how their lives have turned out, to hear about their kids, and also to hear the great stories about our racing days that I had forgotten. I jotted a few notes from the conversations: Rowdy explained, “I think, maybe it’s not about the memories, or the stories you get to tell. Those are just the bonuses from racing. Those are fun, but those are not what keep you coming back. When the helmet goes on, and the gate drops, it’s as if you’re a warrior, riding into battle, sword drawn up high, only seconds before combat and your yelling FREEDOM!!!! That’s what it’s about.”
Shane added, “Something about it was, well, for a lack of words to describe it, it was just who we were. Racing is something no one can take away from you and something no one can do for you. The unfortunate thing is that you never get it out of your blood. At some point you just start to get too old to do all that you used to be able to do and it’s not that you can’t still do it; your body just starts hurting too bad after you do it. It seems that after racing, you spend your entire life looking for what you had while racing.”
And I think that last line from Shane is perhaps the proverbial “nail on the head”. You spend your entire life looking for what you had while racing. I had dreams, and my whole life in front of me, and it was dangerous, and it was a rush, and it was insane. My friends from school were on the youth baseball team, and I was suiting up to go race at 50+ mph on a dirt track while jumping 75 feet. It was living life to the fullest. And yes, I want THAT.
And THAT doesn’t only come on two wheels. It comes in a ’69 Corvette.
And THAT lives on in an old speedboat. And it’s in a Harley. And it’s even in an old Willis Jeep.
Women from all over the world agonize over the husband’s decisions to purchase toys such as those above. They even have a word for it: mid-life crisis. Wives grind their teeth when their husbands return with some ridiculous sports car or some completely over-the-top fishing boat. “What are you thinking?” they scream. The man invariably mumbles something, but he’s lying. What he’s really doing is seeking the danger, the intrigue, and the excitement he had in his youth. I’m not saying it’s entirely a great thing (let’s talk about my broken face for a while), but it is a real thing. And men want THAT.
No amazing ground has been covered here today, except that I think I’ve unpacked a little bit about why men seek THAT. It’s because we have to. We really have no choice. Yes, even your timid CPA husband truly thinks that he could sail around the world…if only he had the right boat. Just like I truly think that if only they made enough protective gear, I could truly go dirt bike racing again. And just like my dad probably believes that he truly could drive a Jeep across the Baja Desert, if only he could find a mechanic to go with him.
Yes, I know that if I truly MUST ride a motorcycle, it should be a big, heavy Harley that would be much safer. But man, I can’t take a Harley to the sand dunes! So I think I’ll just putter around on my giant enduro, and ride some trails. I think I’ll take my son, and let him try to keep up. I’ll slide on my helmet and I’ll flash back to all the times that I suited up to race for championships. I’ll throw my leg over the bike and remember my Dad whispering advice into my ear as I lined up to race.
And then I’ll cruise around my neighborhood. I’ll rumble along and look back at my son as he watches me. And I’ll be grinning from ear to ear the entire time.
Welcome to July. I hope that your summer is shaping up to be the greatest ever. And I hope that you take some time to remember your passions of years gone by and perhaps find them again. Most of all, I hope that you EXPLORE that which allows you to live life to the fullest.
And do THAT.
Benjamin D. Schooley