The first time I rode trials, I was completely disconcerted. You would think it would be basically the same as riding an enduro bike up on the pegs, only lighter. You would be wrong.
Suddenly, after twenty-nine years, I couldn’t ride a motorcycle anymore. I felt unbalanced; my clutch and throttle control vanished; my lower back hurt. What the hell? When my friend led me into the jungle on the single track, I completely freaked out. I don’t feel in control, this is not okay. Yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, I like to be in control. Random adventures and the ensuing chaos are fine, as long as they were my idea. I can happily choose chaos, but I don’t enjoy having it thrust upon me.
In this situation, the only chaos was inside myself. I was sweating and tense, and couldn’t seem to kick start the bike again. Don’t worry, everyone said, the bike is so small and light. It can’t be dangerous. But let’s back up for a minute and think about power to weight ratio. Yes, that’s 300ccs of raw two stroke power basically strapped to a bicycle with suspension. What could possibly go wrong? A LOT, my friend, a lot. I could damage the bike.
I bailed. I went back to the temple.
Oh yes, the temple. Because where else in Thailand would you practice wheelies on your motorcycle than a temple? Surrounded by jungle, the temple is large and empty; there is one lone monk, tending the grounds in solitude, and a few temple dogs lazing about, living the good life, just for good measure. On Sundays, this image of timeless solitude is shattered by the nang of two strokes. Around the temple grounds, the jungle is littered with granite boulders, a playground for the gravitationally unchallenged. In a gully, amongst the near-vertical slopes, my friends leap and hop the bikes and pause, perfectly balanced.
Back in front of the temple, I did little jumps over banks of dirt and a couple of undemanding rocks, and tried to static balance, and tried to do low-speed figure eights. On all fronts, I was terribly uncomfortable, and chastened too: I had expected this to be easier. Lesson learnt. I was back at square one, and I had to chart a new path forward.
Looking down at my adrenalin-shaking hands, I knew that I would have to police my comfort zone: pushing just beyond it, but not too far. Bit by bit. Because if there’s one thing I know riding motorcycles, it’s that you can’t do anything useful when you’re tense. Relax those muscles, unclench those fingers. And the same goes for your brain: let the panic subside so that you can build those new neural pathways without the distracting clang of alarm bells.
I wish I was here writing some story about how I’m just naturally a champion at all things motorcycling, but it’s not true. I don’t do this because it comes easily to me, I do this because I love it. I did law because it came easily to me, and look how much fun I had there.
Sitting in front of the temple later, one of the truly skillful trials riders bestowed his best advice on me. To be good at trials, he said, you must be calm. You must learn to meditate, and be like Buddha. Then the control will come to you.
That night, we drank beers outside under strings of golden lights, and I was all smiles. Sure, I had a mountain to climb, but here I had friends and beers and the opportunity to take on a challenge.
‘You’re always very happy,’ someone remarked.
Ah, I thought, little do you know of visions that haunt my dreams, or the fears that dog my heels and keep me always, always running. But he was right, just for now – in this moment – I was perfectly happy. I had everything I could want.
‘What is there not to be happy about?’ I asked him, and after a moment he agreed.
I usually try to avoid riding at night, because I can hardly see at the best of times. But, every now and then, it’s magic.
Riding home under moonlight in the blistering quiet of the mountain road, reflective road paint luminous in my high beams, guiding me gently through every dark curve. I was listening to the Rolling Stones and my playlist rolled over to Sister Morphine, a live version, rough and raw. Dark but perfect: it’s about how we all need solace sometimes, and my goodness don’t we just.
Motorcycles will always be my morphine.
No matter how cold or long the dark night of the soul, motorcycles will always be there, when I’m ready, to flood that warm feeling through body and mind. To dry my tears, to make the past irrelevant, putting me back into the present and getting me high, so high.