Inside the steel safety cage of a car’s frame, behind the noise-canceling windows, sipping on a soft drink as your children watch “The Incredibles” on the built-in DVD player behind you, you can be lulled into an illusion of self-sufficiency.
While the drivers around you might have similar vehicles, your vehicle is your world, and you are able to split from the caravan at any given time.
Riding with a group of motorcycles is more akin to belonging to a pack.
The bikes around you create your safety net. They provide your soundtrack. And if one splits off, the group must either adjust for the absence or stop altogether.
As I rode the serpentine back roads lining the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was thrust into an unfamiliar inter-dependency.
On the High Plains, I typically ride alone, packing my 2012 Harley-Davidson Heritage with all the necessities I might require on a short trip across the Rocky Mountains.
But when I arrived in Virginia for a five-day tour of Appalachia, I left my bagger, and its bountiful storage behind.
Instead, my hosts presented me with a late ’90s Yamaha V-Star 1100. To call the flat-black beast a rat bike would be a misnomer. Rat bikes, though hobbled together, typically come with more features than the V-Star I would come to know intimately throughout the next week.
Into the fold
The bike was little more than two tires, an engine, a fuel tank and a mercifully padded seat.
Set in the center of the tank, a speedometer needle bounced uselessly back and forth between a 20 mph radius and no fuel indicator could be found. For whatever reason, the fenders were removed and likely left on the roadside along with any other piece of metal upon which one could conceivably attach a saddlebag, tool roll or wallet.
The motorcycle did come equipped with a set of exhaust pipes, but at one point, the owner thought it would sound better without the baffles.
Indeed, it did. For about the first fifteen miles, revving the engine and watching pedestrians scatter was a barrel laughs. Eight hundred miles later, even ear plugs and killing the engine never fully quieted the buzzing in my ears.
Thankful for the ride, I hopped on the skeletal frame, smiled and pretended not to notice the trail of mud spitting up my backside.
During the planning phase of the trip, I was assured we would have a chase truck, so I wasn’t too worried about where all my gear would be stored.
On day one, I learned how to ride with the group, using the horde as cover from inattentive drivers and slipping in and out of ranks to inform the lead rider when a bike broke down in the rear.
Upon arrival the day before, I was an outsider, but not just that, I was a journalist — the “enemy of the people” in the venerable words of the 45th.
My camera, notepad and recorder were regarded with suspicion, and the number of times “fake news” was uttered would've made Mrs. Sanders envious.
In a mob of bikes, however, there are no outsiders.
Each rider must trust those on his flank, rear and front.
One mistake can mean disaster for the entire group.
By the end of day one, I’d earned my way into the rank and file by virtue of not making any life-threatening mistakes.
It was on day two, after our chase truck split with no plans to return, I found myself fully integrated into the circle.
I managed to secure my bed roll and leather jacket to the V-Star’s beach-cruiser handlebars, but the rest of my belongings were doled out among the other riders.
At the mercy of the pack
Without enough space to even store a water bottle, I was relegated to relying on others for nearly every item I might need throughout the day.
Nate Carnes stuffed my rigging and extra smokes into his hard bag. Sam Carnes charged my phone off his battery in a handy compartment beneath his seat. Matt Waggener and his ol’ lady, Cassie Boyer, stuffed snacks and drinks into the bungee cords wrapped around their sissy bar. Marla Waggener found a spot for my sunscreen (which I needed to reapply about 17 times a day). Mo Michaely strapped my camera bag on top of his ruck sack until his unfortunate accident, then Angel Suarez took up the mantle of pack mule and secured my gear to his rear cushion.
I was indebted, in one aspect or another, to every rider. Thus, I became more than another Joe looking for a story or Richard trying to bask in the unwashed glory of motorcycle culture at its grittiest.
Like Chuck Palahniuk alluded to in “Fight Club,” we have become a single-serving society, reliant only on the corporations we idolize.
But individualism isn’t served in a neat wrapper or poured from a 12-ounce can into a disposable cup.
Individuals are found in communities, each contributing their skills and abilities to ensure the group survives, and one day, thrives.