A rider’s journal on sunset, highway, and wind

Riders Gregory Ormson and Debbie Iozzo in the golden moment on Arizona's I-8.
Riders Gregory Ormson and Debbie Iozzo in the golden moment on Arizona’s I-8.

When my motorcycle journey is about to begin, I throw my leg over the bike and sink into the worn leather seat, push the start button, twist the throttle, and feel iron and steel vibrate beneath me. As a biker, I’ll soon be in that golden moment as the sun sinks behind the mountain and I’m in the wind.

I turn up the Big Twin, and it barks at me in a vocabulary of decibels as gawkers in metal boxes stare and point. Quickly, they return to their distractions, messing with their cell phones, Cheetos, and dirty windows.

They are insulated from sound, wind, heat, cold, rain, snow, ice, dust, and smell, and they grudgingly put up with our choice to ride a motorcycle. They can’t understand us or why we ride the edges of a drama in six gears, where every act and every scene turns into a new plot twist. We know and accept the risk and the reward of our unfolding play.

My bike’s throat is opened with a slight twist of the throttle as I rumble away. I pause to stop for a red light at the entrance to Highway 60. I see the green arrow and twist the throttle. Other drivers at the light are slow to react, and I watch them shrink in my mirror. Harley-Davidson riders use “Milwaukee Iron” to describe their motorcycles, but the iron is more than a Midwestern emblem of power.

I recall visiting the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and looking at an engineer’s CAD diagram of the Big Twin engine. It was highlighted by a four-word explanation to describe in layman’s terms what’s happening below my belt. The caption reads: “Suck, squeeze, bang, and blow.”

I test the diagram’s theory as the wind buffets my face. Several lanes converge, and I jump to Highway 202. Noticing my turnsignal, a car in the next lane moves over to create a small space for my machine. Leaning into gravity, I shift lanes, and in seconds I’m slipping away at 80 mph.

Motorcycling safely requires me to stay ahead of the distracted masses. It reminded me of the book, Left of Bang, in which the authors discuss a heightened sense of fear based on the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter program. They advise readers to avoid trouble by spotting the clues in advance and taking action before the bad event occurs. That’s where I want to be, ahead of the bang from a road disaster.

I’m on alert when I see a black truck in front of me, spilling small rocks from its bed. Twisting the throttle, the Big Twin opens its throat, roars, and fires me past the hazard. Soon, I am away from the others and sink into ease, listening to a sound I enjoy. It’s the Big Twin, and a smile – fueled by a rich mixture of heat, highway, and high-octane combustion –forms across my face.

After cruising for a few minutes, I change lanes for the merge. The overpass is bathed in a soft purple light, a subtle tint mixed by the setting sun, dust, and shadow. I’m out for a summer ride on a highway I’ve taken before, but tonight the pavement is baking and a dry heat cuts through me.

Every day the road reveals something new, and I notice an ominous, smoky odor. The fires. The sixth largest fire in Arizona’s history is burning not far from where I ride. Perhaps tomorrow wind from the west will bring the acrid scent of livestock or roadkill to my nostrils.

Along the highway I see a blimp tethered by a long line flying above the Lexus dealership. It reminds me of the Hindenburg and its world-shaking explosion. By faith alone I trust the explosions happening beneath me will not send me up in a ball of fire. I breathe out to enjoy the moment and jettison my tendency for never-ending analysis and multi-tasking.

Coming to an overpass cluster, I tilt my bike into a steep corner angle, and my confidence remains unshaken. The Dunlops hold securely, and I speed up to get away from a silver van with a dirty rear window.

To the east, the Superstition Mountains shimmer. To the west, the setting sun looks small but turns my face golden. My bike’s headlight throws a glare on the hot highway, and my steel steed follows it like a summer bug to a bright light.

At 80 mph, everything is loud and yet soothing. I’m okay with the mystery of this motorcycle cacophony. It’s one ingredient of the therapy that happens when Big Twins put wheels in motion. We call it “wind therapy.”

Therapy and theater intertwine on every ride, and during this shifting drama, I realize motorcycling is like life itself, with its share of obstacles and distractions. Bikes get old and worn out, and so do we. Bikes need gas, we need food. Highways are made of destinations and dangers: autos, animals, and detours. I try staying to the left of bad characters acting out the drama of road rage.

Next to me, I pass a sedan of caged ones singing along to a fluffy pop song. They’re eating, texting, drinking, and talking. Thinking to myself that comfort leads to complacency and inattention on the road, I open my bike’s throttle to get away from them as fast as I can.

Perhaps the caged riders will forgive us if we make a mistake, but the road will not. Yet we choose to travel that ever-challenging curve because the wind in our faces is irresistible. In the golden moment, that is enough.

With a little luck and my phone tucked away, I’ll ride home on the wind tonight, bathed by a setting sun and satisfied by the experience of a full, therapeutic moment above the explosions and between the wheels.