DISCLAIMER: The screaming in my mind while riding with the St. Louis Scooter Club is not in any way a reflection on the Club or it’s members.
What do I mean by screaming? For example: OH MY GOD I CAN’T STOP THIS BIKE I'LL NEVER MAKE THAT TURN I'M GOING TO GO OFF THE CLIFF OH MY GOD I CAN'T STOP THIS BIIIIIIKE!!!
From my perspective, I'm careening straight down a very steep hill and somehow I'm supposed to make a sharp curve right in the middle of it.
Two days before beginning this 3,400 mile journey, I met with my brother and we evaluated my braking technique. I'd been taught one thing in my safety class and now, just before leaving, everybody was offering their opinion about what were the safest braking practices. Having only logged a few hundred miles on a simple Vespa scooter the previous summer, I had crammed 1,000 miles of training into the two weeks before departure. On top of that, I was now riding a Piaggio MP3 250, a peculiar scooter with two wheels in front and one in back. So I needed to know once and for all if I had to adjust my braking style, two days before leaving.
My brother used to race motocross, and when he climbed on my scooter and raced around the high school parking lot, he made it do things I'd only seen on the Piaggio website, performed by professionals. My heart was in my throat as he whipped the bike from side to side and came within inches of dragging his knee on the ground. He rode back to me and calmly said, “It's pretty top-heavy, and the two wheels in front give it a pretty different balance." He explained that it would be easy to lock up the front tire if I applied too much pressure to the front brake, and the back tire could skid out of control. "In the end, I think you actually should brake the way you were taught.”
But now I was pulling my left brake with all my might and I was still flying straight ahead while the road curved sharply right. I screamed out to John in my mind, “I have no choice, John! I’m gonna go easy!” I didn’t really think I had time for easy, and I was past the turn before I could evaluate how I did. I couldn’t tell you how much I used that front break for the rest of the ride.
Maggie Madonia, the leader of the St. Louis Scooter Club, always leads the ride. The novice rider goes behind her with another experienced rider bracketing right behind. Two days before, she and Pete rode 40 miles out of St. Louis to meet me and ride me into the city. Now, this has it’s own kind of stress, because there are other riders to keep track of, keep an even distance from, etc., but these two worked seamlessly as a team to keep me safe. Maggie would signal that she was going to change lanes, I'd look behind me, and I'd see that Pete had already changed lanes and was holding the traffic for me. Working together they created a kind of shield around me, and it was amazing. I was beginning to understand what it might have been like to learn to ride under their tutelage, instead the way I'd learned, out on the road all alone.
On this journey to Bixby, MO, Maggie was at the lead, then me, then Pete, then about eight others from the St. Louis Scooter Club. It was a wild mix of scooters and Harleys, truly a "come one, come all" attitude. Our stop at the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge was my first chance to talk to some of the riders that I'd only seen for a moment at our safety review before we left the hotel that morning. I was blown away by that first segment of the ride. At this point, I thought my arms were going to fall off. They felt like they had the first week I started riding, but now each turn was coupled with elevation and either braking or driving throttle. On the first incline when we took a curve I realized, “Whooooooa, that is a CLIFF there! No barrier, just road, a few inches of dirt and then trees lacing a CLIFF.”
That was the last time on the ride, though, that I had enough time to even think a complete thought. The mantra-prayer sentence I'd been reciting throughout my tour, whenever I was stressed (when I was first learning to ride the gentle wide sweeping turns at higher speeds, the foggy three-and-a-half hour ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Paradise, the ride through a near tornado into Wausau, Wisconsin) was reduced to a single word: “LIGHT!” I could not even speak the word. I shouted it in my mind, just once, at that first curve when I saw the cliff. After that the prayer had to become an action, and time and space were compressed.
When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind ... In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into is own.
But in the second segment of the ride, there came a moment of sheer terror: I got ahead of myself in a turn and I was skidding off to the very edge of the road. From my view there was only a few inches of gravel, then trees, then — cliff. I didn’t have time to picture what could have been — only to realize that my eyes were on the piece of ground that I was sliding on, and in the last instant to do what I had taught myself in the 2,700 miles of turns before; it was just a moment for me to lift my head, which resulted in what I had practiced: “LOOK UP! at the final edge of the corner and let the bike LEAN to that point!” But this correction required a quick, hard and fast lean and then... I made it. My heart was beating about 240 bpm, and I know what that feels like, because my heart had beat that fast at times when I was in the ICU.
Did my practice save me? My instincts? Certainly the fact that I was only going 30 at the final recovery moment helped. If you look at my drive reports (part of my real-time tracking on my web-site), you will see that I was going 30 every single time the tracker located me in that pass. I have Maggie to thank for this. There was a great deal of talk about how I “rode my own ride”; for those of you who don’t ride motorcycles/scooters, this means I didn’t feel pressured to ride above my ability just because I was riding with a group. Now that is partially true - we went super slow for me all day - and the members of the St Louis Scooter Club were angels about it, charming actually, talking about how they had noticed that a certain farm had horses, or saw certain kinds of trees they had never noticed, because they had never ridden this road so slowly (as an aside, I didn’t see anything except Maggie and the road; I knew it was green on either side of me but that was about it).
The truth is, for all my panicky thoughts and momentary terrors, Maggie and the St. Louis Scooter Club guided me through my first technical ride. Now what do I mean my technical ride? This is the term for a ride that requires skills, not really a ride for a novice rider. If I have anything “bad” to say about my experience with the St. Louis Scooter Club, it is about their cute little term for a technical ride: they call them “Twisties.” It sounds like a treat you might get at the Dairy Corner, right?!
And here is another lesson: had I known what the level of difficulty was, I probably wouldn’t have done the ride. But the fact is if Maggie and Pete, these two experienced riders who had ridden into St. Louis with me the day before, didn’t think I could handle that ride they would have made another plan. Okay so I won’t ever go into a ride “blind” again, but in this case, in the end, I'm glad that I did; otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to raise my riding level, safely and carefully, with their guidance. It would have been a sadly missed opportunity. And again, to be clear, Maggie repeatedly said, “We will take this at your pace and you will be fine.” Which is exactly what happened. We did take it at my pace, and I was fine.
BUT... the real challenge came in the third section of the ride. As I was finally beginning to get the hang of the braking, the throttle, and the degree of lean needed to meet these turns, I felt a deep sharp pain in my right hip and abdomen. This was a bigger OMG moment, when I realized that this distraction could lead to an error, which could mean a ride off the cliff. I had another moment of terror when I almost failed to navigate my way around a curve. So now I had to stay with the “ride” with my full concentration on staying safe, while managing constant stabbing pains that came sometimes when I was braking and sometimes when I wasn’t.
I knew the pain could mean one of two things: it could be the unthinkable, a severe abdominal injury (which could mean a surgery that my surgeon, the best in the country, has repeatedly said he's not sure how - or if - it could be done again on my body); or, it could just be torn scar tissue, which though painful is not a big deal. I figured I would know by morning. In the meantime, I needed to “ride over it,” mainly because there was no other way out of this terrain. And if I were to stop the bike on that steep, winding road I'd have risked a major accident for myself and everyone behind me. There was no time for prayer, just work: the brake, the throttle, the road, and the lean. I just had to focus on each turn, each moment, each now.
Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable (emphasis added). Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action. If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills or are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur. The climber will feel it when the mountain demands all his strength, the singer when the song demands the full range of her vocal ability, the weaver when the design is more complex than anything attempted before, and the surgeon when the operation involves new procedures or requires an unexpected variation.
When we stopped at the Country Store in Bixby, MO I let the photographer/motorcyclist on our two-day film team ride my scoot the final 15 miles into Salem, MO. I told the St. Louis Scooter Club that I was fatigued. Only my crew and my husband would know about the potentially disastrous situation I was in. I'd just have to sweat it out until morning...
...and low and behold, in the morning, after no significant pain in the night, I knew it had only been torn scar tissue, which I'd experienced when I first started riding the scooter. "Whew!" would be an understatement. I’m truly thanking God on that one.
I knew that meal was my last chance to talk to my scooter club friends, because I was moving on and they would be heading back to St. Louis. I'd met several of them the day before at Maplewood Scooter, but it seemed I'd had so little time to talk to them before this unforgettable ride, this ride where they held me to my own line, the day I learned to ride with a group, the day I became, in my own mind, a rider -- the first day that I met the edge of the road, with fear, and recovered. Of course it was just another day for them, another ride to a beloved spot, Bixby; but for me it was my first technical ride. They can call it a “Twisty” if they want.
When we stopped just after my “near incident” I sheepishly said, “I’m sorry about that you guys,” because I knew that if I had blown it and gone down I would have put every bike behind me at risk too. The guy we called “Extreme Ed,” a big Harley rider with a shaved head and a helmet decorated with a grinning skull, calmly said, “You were okay. That is the hardest turn in the trip. It has a double apex. You had the first one, then you were too high for the second one, but you figured it out and got yourself down.” Each time we stopped he'd had something encouraging to say to me. He added, “The Rule is: when in doubt, LEAN. If you're in more doubt, LEAN more.” I hope I hear his words the next time I’m in trouble.