Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Favorite Ride

We have all had that experience where when we return after a long absence to scenes of our youth the place seems to have shrunk, and yet we know it is we who have grown not the places that have shrunk. So it is with a stretch of road that may be three miles long, possibly, and yet in my memory it was a proving ground that could never quite be dominated in its entirety.

Of course when I returned to this stretch of mountain roadway for the first time in 25 years, in 2007, it looked short and ugly and all torn up. I remember this place before the road was even paved and then when they put asphalt on it around 1973 it became a smooth black ribbon of perfect joy for a kid on a bicycle, or better yet a moped, and later a "proper" motorcycle. Nowadays it is frankly, horrible, as the pictures will show, all patches tar snakes humps and holes.
The signboard is accurate in its destinations but the distances shown from the top of the hill La Rocca to the various towns and villages. From this spot around 3,000 feet up I am not convinced Todi is but 13 miles away. When I used to come up here to get away there were no signs at all so I suppose one shouldn't be cavalier about progress.
There is also signage along the way now advising of twists and turns ahead (yes!) and falling rocks (no!). I remember a night trip I took with my mother in what must have bee the early 1960s. We used to take off from our winter home in England in the beginning of summer and my mother would drive or put the car on a train for part of the journey and we would arrive she and I and my two sisters twins and elder by ten years after a frazzling journey. This time in particular I recall driving this white graveled road very vividly for some reason, and I recall the banks of gravel, the overhanging bushes swinging in and out of sight as the car crunched down the hill in a cloud of white dust. In those days everything was covered in dust. And when, the next day I hauled my fat tired bicycle out of the cellar and got riding it was only a matter of time before my chubby young knees got stripped of skin by a mixture of white dust, pebbles and grit. I remember the sting and the dramatic rivulets of scarlet blood oozing through the white dust. I hated falling on the gravel but that never stopped me riding. In Italy I was free to wander as I never was in England. Much the way Key West children are free today.

This road then was where I learned to ride. I got my Vespa 50 when I was twelve and it wasn't long before I negotiated the gravel road to the top of the mountain. The fun really began when the road got paved. That was when I could carve corners as I liked, not following the dictates of the rocks ruts and piles of gravel.
This was not an era where young lads got rider training. Especially not for a 12 year old not yet legal on mopeds permitted for 14 year olds, who themselves were not required to seek a license to ride! So I got my practice by learning to shift the Vespa on the public piazza and when I figured I had it down I puttered off to see what I could see. Things were a little slack in those days and my mother loved motorcycles enough she learned not to worry about me. I went everywhere on that little orange Vespa. Once the gas cable broke and and a perfect stranger to me (he knew who I was!) stopped and got a piece of string and jury rigged loop from the carburetor that I could jiggle with my foot and thus get home... That was the world I was privileged to grow up in. That first fix-it taught me a lot about lateral thinking when I was off touring on a motorcycle.
So when the road was paved I read my motorcycle magazine religiously and learned from the aces how to corner, using pressure on the handlebars to counter steer and using my body to influence the bike in the turns. and this was where I did it, pretty much traffic free and undisturbed, least of all by the Carabinieri - the local cops based over the hill who almost never showed up in our neck of the woods.

Let's face it, it was a great piece of road to have to myself and I rode these curves most days for the sheer joy of it. Some days I set myself tests, trying to get from top to bottom with the engine off (what that did to the transmission was of no concern...) or trying speed trials without killing myself on my 40mph 50cc.
I cannot say I have ever seen deer around here and when I was a kid there were no wild boars. They were introduced later to give avid hunters something to chase but in any event there isn't much in the way of wildlife up here. Hitting a deer seems very unlikely.
The formative places and experiences of ourselves leave a mark that frequently we don't notice as we go forward through life. When I rode this highway early in September this year it occurred to me for the first time what a profound impact these curves have had on me. The thing I have noticed is that I have an unfortunate tendency to imagine that my experiences of almost complete freedom combined with the ypungster's innate desire to learn has been replicated in most other riders. In fact I find it hard to imagine how one comes to motorcycling later in life. There is so much to learn about riding and traffic is so intense these days and middle age is a time not for bungee jumping but reflection... And then I have to remind myself also that not everyone rides to live or lives to ride, for some it is just another experience. I tried sailing and I enjoyed the traveling and I also enjoyed the act of driving a boat under sail but somehow once I had learned how to operate sails I also discovered how travel by sail limits sightseeing with its emphasis on fixing things in exotic places and the inability of the sailor to leave his vessel unattended while he travels inland...Motorcycling also has a learning curve and is also useful for travel but it is also much less expensive than alternatives like car ownership, it is actually useful (you can't commute by boat most places) and makes mundane moments interesting. Then there is the fear factor and this eon is tough for me to come to grips with. The possibility of death dismemberment or paralysis is there, but I don't view the risk as being any more fearsome than any other risk in daily life. I nearly fell off my sailboat once in strong winds off the coast of Mexico. That disn't put me off sailing and the drumbeat of fear that sometimes is the only sound accompanying a motorcycle ride gets to be wearing for me. I find joy in riding not fear and riding this road reminded me where that joy was born. You can see my elbow in the picture below and clearly I was not wearing a jacket, though a helmet is required across Europe these days and I prefer to ride wearing gloves. It was as close as I could get to the good old days.
I learned to ride here as though on my own private stretch of track. If I fell down and hurt myself I picked myself up. I practiced taking dirt short cuts, I was fearless, as unfraid of mechanical failures as I was of falling off or getting run down. I came up here by myself when I could squeeze a couple of hundred lire coins out of my mother's purse to buy enough gas with two percent oil mixture to ride for a morning, or an afternoon all by myself practicing the tricks I'd read in Motociclismo. This picture below shows what we simply called Il Curvone -the Big Curve. It was a hairpin that was built quite wide open and always presented a speed challenge to a young racer. Before the road was paved mounds of gravel collected on the outside of the curve like a white parapet with deep wheel ruts circling like chariot marks in the white dust. After they paved it the challenge was to come down hill with the engine off without touching the brakes and without - falling!
I am a fool sometimes when I allow myself to forget, or fail to think about how other people come to motorcycling. It is hard to remember that 43 years ago when the world had half the population it has today and motorcycles were sophisticated if they had turn signals I was out here learning to ride, the hard way. In those days there was very in the way of communication so we read what publishersublished but we had no real communication with anyone outside our circle of living friends. Of all my friends and acquaintances only Giovanni caught the riding bug in similar fashion and we rode a lot together but of the outside world we knew very little. Nowadays the internet makes respiration and repair easy, locating cheap parts simple and allows exchange of odeas and stories with almost no effort at all. That's the good part. But the bad part is that the internet also manages to remove a certain element of adventure from the process. You can ask almost anything of anyone online and spare yourself from feeling like a pioneer. I know it is all helpful and I have availed myself of this process but sometimes I feel as though the pursuit of electronic knowledge - advice - tends to replace the pursuit of experience itself. Go out and do it is what I tell people who persist in asking my advice ( which they never follow) and when I was a youngster that was all there was. I went and did because no one told me not to. I rode across Europe on hopelessly unsuitable motorcycles, clip on handlebars, no spares to speak of, luggage cobbled together and paper maps scrumpled into tank bags. Nowadays people won't leave their driveways without spacecraft quality electronics, motorcycle built for the purpose and oddles of advice from unknown voices on the ether. In any event I hope everyone who wants to has a chance to ride or if not to ride to take a chance in some way that matters to them, Internet critics be damned.

Not everyone had that chance, in fact most people never did get a chance to ride when children, as most parents I instinctively loathe anything two wheeled and if powered by an engine even more so. Me? I grew up in my own world much of it less than desirable but some of it quite lovely.
So as we come to the bottom of the hill and Morruzze is erroneously posted as being just two thirds of a mile away, one kilometer and it is at least three times that, it may become apparent why my attitude to riding is sometimes different from many people who take up,riding later in life. I have never expected other road users to see me or notice me or pay any attention to me. I don't wearing clothing that is bright because I don't count on anything saving my life on the road other than my own wits. I wear black because I am lazy any black hides dirt. When you see me occasionally riding around town without a helmet you see a middle aged fool and I see what you see in these pictures, my childhood of freedom.
My childhood buddy Giovanni tells me I draw perfect lines when I ride a motorcycle, he calls me the Architect for that reason and it is quite a compliment coming from someone who rides faster than any other known amateur human being in the region. Yet my speeds are never particularly fast but I do enjoy tracing an accurate line through corners when I'm on a bike. It's the pleasure of the ride to me, not the speed, so my time spent on the mountain was well worth while. And believe me there were no brown tourist road signs indicating a "wine route" in those distant days! Perhaps it is better today I don't know.
So after all the riding it was time to get home, hair blown back, eyes streaming behind my glasses, none the wiser for my imaginary adventures in the hills, Snoopy style Red Baron motorcycle ace. The rest of the world was going about its business,,sowing and reaping what they had sown, my mother at home organizing the dinner menu with the cook...all the organized world that I escaped from on my motorbike.

So for me the last couple of miles back to the village are a ride down memory lane, the places where I rode taking shortcuts on dirt and I enjoyed having alternative routes. That's what I miss most about living in the Keys. I try to make up for the lack of choice buy changing my riding style, some days slow, some days not to slow, some days taking side roads, even if they don't actually lead anywhere, just for a change of scene. Coming back to my old riding grounds today I realize with fresh eyes how lucky I was to live in the midst of so many roads, trails, hills, and curves. And I was left alone to enjoy them.

I have always enjoyed reading about riding and I am currently enjoying Carl Stearns Clancy's epic First Ride Around the World annotated by Dr Greg Frazier: http://www.amazon.com/Motorcycle-Adventurer-Stearns-Motorcyclist-1912-1913/dp/1450221416 . Many years ago I remember reading about some guy in England who rode motorcycles in the middle of the twentieth century and he was no one famous and he certainly set no records. Yet he rode far and wide around England and wrote a charming little book that I managed to lose in the intervening decades. He did say one thing I remember well, discussing his journeys. He felt sorry he said for people who only get to ride in cities and never the larn the pleasure of the open road. At the time I had little understanding of his belief as I longed for a few bright lights and busy streets in my life. But now I do.
A fine medieval village in which to grow up. Not really, but as base from which to ride it is as good now as it ever was, once they finally paved the highways and byways!