Arizona makes you do weird things—or at least things you probably would never do if you lived anywhere else in the world. Like wear flip-flops to work because of the heat. Or carry a gun because you can. Or learn to ride a motorcycle.
Motorcycles have always been on the list of things that scare me, right beside demons and sharks, thanks to all the horror stories about brains smashed on guardrails and legs ripped off by speeding semis.
But then I was forced to move my beau's bike from the side of the house to the driveway after the homeowners' association complained. The moment I sat on the seat and gripped the handlebars, a kind of magic flowed through me. I knew I had to ride.
I also knew I had to have his bike, which he was kind enough to sell me at a massive discount after he found one he liked even better. So I had the bike, and I had the magic. Next up was the gear.
A kick-butt Department of Transportation-approved German helmet was first on the list, followed by a brand-new pair of properly heeled riding boots in a somewhat putrid peacock green. Safety glasses are another must. Since the cheap goggles that fit over my regular glasses made a total stranger in the motorcycle-gear store guffaw loudly and proclaim, "You look like a f-ing bumblebee!" I knew I had to go for something a bit more stylish. Non-bumblebee prescription safety glasses fit the bill.
Insurance, five-year registration and the ridiculously priced vanity plates rounded out the preparations, bringing the cost before I even changed a gear to some $800. And that's only because I already own at least three leather motorcycle jackets.
Now, the real fun could begin with motorcycle lessons. Riding a motorcycle isn't like riding a bicycle. Nor is it like riding one of those Euro scooter things where you just sit there and pick "fast" or "slow."
You have to master this thing called the clutch. While such a device may be second-nature to anyone who grew up driving a muscle car, it's not for someone who grew up with a hatchback, and then didn't own a car for 17 years in New York City.
Figuring out the clutch is akin to making your hand do ballet while your foot kicks the gears around. The only problem is the hand ballet and foot-kicking have to match. While tough at first, the clutch eventually becomes second-nature, except when you forget to grab it for a quick stop, or are scared to unleash it when you first take off.
Unleash it too slow, and you sputter sideways. Unleash it too quickly, and, well, you can ask my neighbors what happens to the gravel in the front yard when a motorcycle goes roaring through it.
Once the clutch is figured out, the rest is gravy—or at least less-lumpy. There's still that part about learning to stop at an intersection without looking like a Weeble. And taking off from the stop sign without looking like a Weeble on drugs.
Keeping an eye on the statistics is another integral part of learning to ride. They can help keep you safer if you use them to lower your odds of dismemberment, death and the brains-on-the-guardrail scenario.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Motorcycle Operator Manual notes that "nearly 40 percent of all riders killed in motorcycle crashes had been drinking." Don't drink and ride. The manual also says most motorcycle crashes occur on trips that are fewer than five miles long and at speeds lower than 30 mph. No, that doesn't mean go faster than 30 mph and travel at least six miles. It means wear your helmet—wear your kick-butt German helmet.
It's also imperative to remember that people driving around in cars tend to "not see" motorcycles, especially at intersections. The manual warns you to keep your eyes on the road, anticipate where you'll be in the next few seconds, and be prepared to dodge Dodges and Chevys when they cut you off.
Book knowledge is dandy, but practice is where you really get to explore all those wobbles, swerves and dodges the manual talks about. With about 18 hours of practice under my helmet, I have yet to take a spill (knock on wood) and have only disrupted the gravel in two front yards. I have learned to stop without stalling, swerve without falling and even park without once again running over the evergreen bush.
Best of all: My hand and the clutch are well into their ballet, while my foot kicks the gears in harmony.