How Harley-Davidson Saved Me From the Asylum

When traveling in a car, doesn’t matter if it’s a Ferrari or a Ford Fiesta, you are in a moving sardine can looking at 4 color TV screens and working some very simple Nintendo controls. You have 2 1/2 tons of collapsible sheet meted hermetically sealing you off from the world. You’ve got automatic transmission, power steering anti-lock brakes, electric windows, cruise control, cell phones, air conditioning, stereophonic CD, and lumbar-support upholstery contoured to your contours. All the comforts of home. Sometimes more comforts than at home. Everything engineered by rocket scientists in white lab coats from Detroit, Munich, Osaka, Bologna to make you feel at ease, help you to relax, make you go to sleep.

On a motorcycle, doesn’t matter if it’s a Vincent Black Shadow or a Vespa, you are awake, you experience the world, you look down and that’s The Road, pal. You watch that black/gray blur as it rushes by. You take your foot off the floorboard/pegs and skim your toe on the asphalt at 75-per and it skips like a flat stone across a pond, and that road’s hard! You feel the wind/sun/rain in your face, your cheeks stung by sand thrown up by that SUV In front of you, burned by the windchill, caressed by the cool breeze on a hot day. On a bike you experience the terrain as you pass through it, become part of it, not just channel-surf through it like you do in a car. Even at right, you know what the land is, what you’re passing through. You can feel the heat of an open field, as it releases the energy it’s been cooked in all day. You smell that wet, swampy smell as you pass near rivers. You ride past pig farms and smell that “fresh country air” (one of the only lies my father told me).

In a car, you turn the steering wheel and your right toot controls the accelerator and the brake, That’s pretty much it. On a bike, it’s a little more complex and you learn the intricate dance of total control. You learn about counter-steering, i.e. moving the bars to the left, to go right (Imagine having to do that in a car!). Your right hand controls the crucial throttle, and, even more crucial front brake. Your left-hand controls the clutch. Right foot works the rear brake, left foot, the gear lever. Then of course, there are buttons and switches for the turn signals, horn, kill-switch (never liked the sound of that one), fuel reserve, ignition, etc. You drive a car. A bike, you ride.

You have to work on your bike constantly: Look for loose nuts&bolts; Check tire pressure; Keep it clean; Love and care for it like it was your child. Because if something goes wrong or breaks…that’s The Road, right there, pal, or, at the very best, a long walk home. With my lowered Harley Softail’s saddle putting my posterior a pinky’s length from the pavement, any thought of chassis failure is unthinkable. And, with only 2 tires (both with contact patches the size of a couple of postage stamps, where cars have 4 tires with contact patches the size of the inside of a fat lady’s thighs), they have to be perfectly pressurized, cleaned, and checked every ride. You almost feel like you’re flying An Old WWI Biplane. “Clear! Contact!”

Sure, there are bikes that now have most of the same comforts that cars have: intercoms, on-board air compressors, CB radios to talk to the truckers. Full-dress Harley Electra-Glides for Bob and Bertha Walletchain, and Honda Goldwings for Mr.& Mrs. Wingnut, but, purist that I am, I’ve always believed that if you can’t leave home without all the comforts of home … Don’t Leave Home!

Since I ride both Japanese rocket-bikes and American cruisers, people often ask me which is the best, what is my favorite. That’s a tough question, especially with all the hype, patriotism, and pride about the miraculous return from the dead that America’s best known company, Harley-Davidson, pulled off in the last 15 years (even considering that a new Harley has 40 percent of it’s parts from Japan and Korea). I can only speak from my own experience: the German, Italian, and Japanese bikes are better engineered, they’re faster, quicker, stop and handle better, get better mileage and from a nuts&bolts point of view are 50 years ahead of anything from Milwaukee. But the clear advantage still has to go to Harley. Rocket bikes have a seat that a squirrel would be uncomfortable on, i.e. a tiny plastic banana that has you squirming by the time you reach the end of your driveway. Harleys still have the old ’30’s John Deere-tractor seat that really babies your butt. After a twelve-pack and a sack of potatoes, I’m in buttock-heaven on a Harley.

On a bike, you have to be aware, your pilot-light must be lit or you are in the proverbial “World of Hurt.” You mix drugs or booze with a machine that has the power-to-weight ratio of an Indy car, and you are in trouble. With My 30-year battle with depression and my 12- year struggle with MS, some of the only times I was happy and ‘in the moment’ was in the saddle of a bike. Even when my MS made me walk like an ape, when I got on that Harley I was ‘instant grace.’ I wasn’t ill, I wasn’t broken, I was alive, zooming to freedom on my wild stallion/fighter plane/rocket ship. On a bike I was ‘Pete,’ and that steady injection of mindfulness and life and non-judgmental fun kept me from fading away; and, believe it or not, I’m still here.