Labor Day weekend was a full one for me. Some of us in the Sabre/Magna group got together at New Matamoras, Ohio, for a Disorganized Ride-In, a concept ride intended to test the boundaries of off-the-cuff anti-planning. We had a full weekend of swooping through some of the best of the Ohio Valley twisties, at the cost of somewhat relaxing our rigid spur-of-the-moment regimen. But on Monday I had planned to ride with the cmh-moto group, so I went back to Columbus on Sunday night to reorganize.
I've been enjoying riding with these people more each time I go out with them. Most are HSTA members. Nearly all are skilled, experienced riders, with good instincts and safety habits. In fact, they're quite similar to the SabMaggots with the exception that they mostly favor newer, sleeker sport-touring machinery. Like the 'maggots, there's a core of eight to ten riders who will show for any event, no matter how extemporaneous. I met them literally on the day I moved here, a rare warm late November morning.
I laughed when I pulled up to the dozen or so riders and bikes parked outside the Bob Evans, because I knew I wasn't going to be a total stranger in this group. Standing there was Jeff Arend, who I'd met the previous year at the Cleveland bike show. He had seen my Iron Butt Association hat and hailed me, and we had talked about our Saddlesore rides briefly. If you met Jeff, you remembered him: tall, bearded, bespectacled, with a huge toothy grin; often he was wearing a wide-brimmed leather hat bedecked with ride pins, and a black jacket with Geeky, the rec.moto mascot, grinning from the most prominent patch. This is, of course, if you met him while he was off his bike, which wasn't all that often. The man just exuded friendliness to whomever he met, and I can hardly see how it wasn't always reciprocal. So that's the face that goes with that online "Maverick" character on cmh-moto. Well, good. I should have known.
I found out on that beautiful November day in the Hocking Hills that Maverick was an excellent rider too, as I happily settled into the third position in the pack behind him and Mike Solace on a pair of Staintune-equipped VFRs. By the end of the day, I'd also met Mark McCoy, Eric Pincus, Bruce Ridenour, Dave Brickner, Bryan Dunlap, and Bil "Woovis" Swartz. Great riders all. It's not often that I ride with folks with well-honed skills, and when I do it's even less frequently that our riding rhythm is similar as well. Few things make for a more enjoyable day than being part of a proficient group, riding in sync on technical roads.
There wasn't much group riding left with the onset of winter, but this gang has a regular get-together on Tuesday nights at a local sports bar to bench-race, nosh, and watch Speedvision. Each time I came in, Maverick would welcome me with a big, hearty "Ph-i-i-i-l!" He had a talent for making you feel like you were his special friend each time he saw you, and it didn't take long for me to start feeling that way.
Somehow I managed to miss most of the group rides this spring and summer. I've been traveling solo a lot when not riding with the 'maggots this season, and I suppose one can take his local buds for granted much too easily. I did manage to catch up with Mav and the gang for a couple of the HRCA dinner rides, the Vintage Days and Superbike events at Mid-Ohio, and some Tuesday evening cafe racing down in the Short North district. I finally joined the HSTA as well, even though I'd had some philosophical differences with its leadership in the past. Once I got to know some of the local members, I didn't have much reason to hold out any longer.
So early on Labor Day we met at the Cracker Barrel for a ride down to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, by way of the Hocking Hills. Again I settled in behind the Givi-equipped VFR with the burbling stock-car exhaust, and again I had a memorable ride, more scenic than twisty but still plenty of excitement at times. One such moment came when Maverick bumped through a railroad crossing that had a deceptive double dip to it. Seeing the extreme nature of his suspension compression, I braked hard enough to prevent my tank bag from doing to me what Mav's had just done to him. "I could see you laughing at me in your helmet for the past five miles," he laughed at the next stop. I had really just winced in empathy, but I laughed now too, remembering another incident on a ride earlier this year: a turkey buzzard, feasting on roadkill on the centerline, had miscalculated its takeoff roll, and Mav had nearly centerpunched it with his VFR. Both ducked at the last instant. These are the sort of things that happen when you are always leading the way, things that make for great memories of ordinary rides made extraordinary just by the shared experience.
A few days later, we met again for a dinner ride. No twisties, hardly even any curves; just an intimate group of six for a half-hour ride to West Jefferson and a pleasant outdoor dinner at a family restaurant on the main drag. Afterwards, I led on the way back with my extra-bright auxiliary lights. As we approached the Outerbelt interchange, Mav pulled up next to me, honked, waved, and then arced away gracefully down the ramp. If it hadn't been dark, I would have been able to see his grin behind his helmet. It was always there.
That was the last time I saw Jeff Arend.
I returned home this past Sunday afternoon from another satisfying weekend in the Marietta area. After hanging up my gear and checking my phone messages, I dove into my e-mail to see what my friends had been up to over the weekend. Then I saw Billy Mehl's terse message.
Maverick. Killed on his VFR. Somewhere in Kentucky. Oh, no. No!
I don't remember getting up from the computer and going outside. I do remember just pacing around aimlessly in the back yard as hickory nuts dropped out of the trees around me. Then I just stood there and listened to them fall for a while. Still numb, I went back into the house and faced the remaining queue of messages which, I now noticed, all had "Re: Jeff Arend" in the subject line.
There are any number of ways to receive this worst possible news. I've gotten it over the phone, in letters, and in person. Receiving it via e-mail seems to provide for the most profound shock, since it's almost like a non-sequitur. You're reading yet another message about valve adjustments--delete. Your sister's new job--save for reply. Or the latest disagreement in field recording methodology--delete thread. Delete. Delete. Oh, by the way, your friend is dead.
There is no appropriate keystroke to deal with that.
Three days pass. The cmh-moto list has taken on a sadly familiar pattern, which I've just seen unfold on both the SabMag list with the death of Tim Freeman and on the LDRider list with the deaths of Doug Holmes and Fran Crane. The bond among bikers is remarkable to begin with, and friendships among riders who are geographically and demographically divergent flourish with the immediacy of electronic mail. These friendships are cemented when we take the next logical step and meet for riding and face-to-face fellowship. It's been a profound change in the way our riding society works, the way the internet has brought so many so close in such a short time. I've never had so many friends--real friends, not just acquaintances. For that matter, I've never had so many acquaintances either. When one of us dies, the outpouring of grief is immediate and genuine. It's been happening a lot lately. I don't know if it's just been a bad year or this is the statistical result of having so many riders so interconnected. I do know that each time it seems to get closer and closer to me.
Any rider with a little common sense and experience knows the dangers. We tell our families and friends that it's a manageable risk. We take the extra training, we spend lavishly on the best safety gear and tires we can afford, we obsessively maintain our bikes, and we work on our skills constantly. But all of us know that the chances of a serious accident are always there. For riding to remain enjoyable, we have to be able to suspend this knowledge just enough so that while it's not always at the forefront of our consciousness, it's close enough to govern our skills and best safety instincts. Incidents like this simply destroy the restraints that hold this knowledge back. We're left frightened, shaken, and very, very vulnerable. Any sentient rider is forced to reevaluate his or her entire rationale for riding. Some of us find our justification wanting. Then the leathers go into the back of the closet, and the bike goes into the classifieds: best offer, helmet included.
While angrily sorting out a silly, mindless flame war on the mailing list I co-administer this past Tuesday evening, it finally made sense to me. We can't logically continue to ride in the face of such morbid realities just for the simple joy of riding, as rewarding as that may be. There has to be a better reason.
When I started getting fairly proficient at motorcycling, I thought the answer lay in the pure thrill that comes from accelerating and banking through a curvy bit of pavement, from the way the motorcycle howled as I ran it up through the gears, from the way I was able to express myself through riding. This admittedly narcissistic rationale sustained my enthusiasm for riding for a number of years.
I thought for a while, too, it was the bikes themselves, as diverse and charismatic a class of mechanical objects as have ever existed. I even went to work for a prominent motorcycle-oriented organization to help curate their collection. Ironically, it was there that my disillusionment began. There was a lot of furtiveness, circumlocution, half-answered questions, and an oppressive sense of conflict about the place. This was the very opposite of what I had come to expect of motorcyclists. I noted with some surprise that few of them actually were motorcyclists. Shortly after that, they summarily terminated me for no apparent reason and in an especially petty manner. Maybe they saw that I'd caught onto them.
So as I sat in front of the computer the other night and watched the angry, pointless messages flit back and forth, I finally lost it. My grief for the fallen riders--friends I hadn't met yet, a legendary rider I had met once, and now a friend with whom I had really connected--came pouring out, along with the realization that had been so fuzzy and nebulous and long in coming.
It's not about the bikes at all. It's not even about the riding.
It's about the people.
I rode to Maverick's viewing in Holgate on Wednesday afternoon. Holgate is in the Black Swamp region of northwestern Ohio, about two hours from Columbus, a region of incredibly fertile farmland. It had been a difficult decision to ride at all, not knowing his family, how well or poorly they had accepted his enthusiasm for motorcycling. But I rarely drive anywhere without a good weather-related reason, and in my heart I just couldn't see how my riding there could be construed as being in poor taste. I didn't know Mav nearly as well as many of the cmh'ers did, and not at all outside the context of motorcycling. But that was his context, and he was my friend, the closest friend I've ever lost riding. There didn't seem to be any other way to say goodbye properly. Even then, I needed the reassurance of several of my friends that I was doing the right thing.
I'm so very glad I did ride.
Wednesday afternoon in Ohio was just beautiful, a perfect day to ride. Temperatures were in the high 60s, with just a few fluffy clouds. As I left, I plotted a route that took me through no cities, few towns, and on no freeways. The leaves are beginning to turn, and goldenrod and ironweed dotted the pastures with color. Green is turning to gold; indeed, it seemed that a golden glow suffused the entire day. As I made my way northwest the rolling hills gave way to the flat expanse of rich farmland, and the scent of withering corn and wheat chaff from the harvest began to predominate over the intermittent odors of animal husbandry. Clouds of dust marked the progress of combines in the wheatfields. I thought about how Mav must have enjoyed riding home to see his folks during this time of year. I'll bet he didn't often take the freeway either.
The ride was over much too soon.
I felt a sense of dread as I entered the funeral home. It was time to face the reality that my friend was truly gone. After signing the register, I nodded at some of the guests and walked slowly towards the bier, fighting for composure. The family had posted a collection of photographs on a board nearby. There was the usual collection of school pictures, that temporal progression of the life of a young man as he goes through the trials of youth, through what must have been successive periods of awkwardness, self-consciousness, and then growing achievement, confidence, and self-knowledge.
But there weren't any of fishing trips, or vacations, or athletics. The entire balance of photographs showed Maverick and his motorcycles: Mav on his old Intruder, ready to travel; Mav proudly posing with his new VFR; Mav at the race track with his parents and his YSR50. When I saw this, I breathed a little easier, knowing now that his parents, his only survivors, were not going to deny the importance of the role of motorcycling in his too-short life.
I met them. They are wonderful people. Retired farmers, they had encouraged their only child to pursue his own vocation in the knowledge that he'd have a less-difficult way to make a living. Thus they'd already had some experience letting go. I come from a farming family too, and rural people are very down-to-earth and matter-of-fact when it comes to death. It's more a part of that life than it is in a suburban existence. Even so, they broke my heart. Is what I get out of riding worth the very real possibility of putting my family through this?
I finally got to the bier. Flowers everywhere: from cmh-moto, from national and regional HSTA, from the YSR racing league. Many others. Truly, every man dies, but few men really live. A wreath surrounded his urn. On top of the urn was a little compass. It was from Woovis' bike; Mav had always admired it. Peeking out from between the wreath and the urn through his orange hood was a little figurine of Kenny from South Park. I smiled through my tears at the irreverence. How appropriate. Kenny has some experience with this.
Soon there were about thirty of us riders there, far outnumbering the family. Mr. and Mrs. Arend seemed profoundly touched by the outpouring of support from Mav's many, many friends. I don't think they had realized how many people Jeff had touched personally. It was truly his special gift. Few people I've known have been as outgoing, as uncritically and unconditionally friendly. Combine this with a passion for motorcycling and a talent for organizing, inspiring, and leading, and you have a personality that leaves a very big mark on a large number of people. As Bryan Dunlap said, "There's going to be a big Maverick-shaped hole in things for a long time to come."
About twenty of us went to a nearby restaurant afterwards. We ate, we talked, we even laughed some. Before we rose to leave at nearly midnight, Mark Hatten led us in a toast to Mav. I doubt he would have minded that it was done mainly with iced tea and cola.
It was considerably cooler on the ride back, so I was very glad to have brought my electrics. The evening was as beautiful as the day had been, a perfect night to ride. The moon was so bright that it cast a Sabre-shaped shadow on the road next to me. No trouble seeing clearly tonight.
As I rode, I reflected on both the highs and lows of the day: the sharp, poignant beauty of the journey; the sadness of saying goodbye to a well-loved friend; the closure of a life that was no less well-lived for having been so foreshortened; and the glow of good fellowship that now takes on an even more special meaning. This, truly, is why we ride.
At intervals my vision blurred and my cheek pads dampened as I looked up at that extra-bright light that led my way home.
Godspeed, Mav. May your roads be curvy, your engine be strong, and your friends be true.