Friday, February 08, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "The Perfect Vehicle" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

If "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop is the latest personal riding journal I've enjoyed, then "The Perfect Vehicle (What it is About Motorcycles)" was the first. In 1999 "The Perfect Vehicle" was the first motorcycle enthusiast book I'd read since recounting the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse in "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" to our children at the dinner table.

As a young rider in high school and college I don't recall books on motorcycling adventure. The exception was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which I borrowed from a friend my last year in college when it was first published. I discovered too many parallels between Robert Pirsig's first life (as Phaedrus) and my own, and gave it up to return to my own manic scholarship. I did read the 25th anniversary edition - 30 years after the first attempt.

I came across Melissa Holbrook Pierson's "The Perfect Vehicle" browsing in the original Borders Book Shop (Tom and Louis Borders started with a small used bookstore, here in Ann Arbor, in the early '70s). I had just ordered my first bike in more than 20 years, with the generous encouragement of my wife, Teri, and was feeling self-conscious of this classic mid-life behavior. Maybe it was pre-delivery buyer's remorse.

I had lots of questions. Would I enjoy riding? Was this a smart idea? Could I do this? Could I ride again - would it come back to me? I was registered for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation "refresher" course, so I had the right plan, just not the refresher.

I admit that the deciding factor in buying the little paperback was the cover. A finely detailed rendering of the Moto Guzzi 500cc V8 GP bike of 1954. Maybe the most exotic motorcycle to that time. Only two were built. My first bike had been a 1966 Moto Guzzi - a 125cc single, with only a little more engineering sophistication than a lawn mower, but Italian styling - which is why I bought that as well.

In many ways this was an ideal starter "first-person" account by a beginning enthusiast. Enthusiasm in all caps. Melissa Holbrook Pierson recounts her personal journey through passions for bikes she hungers for, bike she owns, failures mechanical, spiritual and romantic. Her first encounters with track days and motorcycle racing, and stories of a legion of fellow riders that even literati can admire, women motorcycle racers, sensitive and silent mechanics, and friends who ride skillfully and joyfully with prosthetic limbs.

The telling of these tales, and the many anecdotes, historical perspectives and statistics outside the frame of the author's voice, could be interpreted as urgent, almost frenetic in pace and amplitude. On further reflection, it mirrors much of my early days of motorcycling. The self-doubt before mastering a new skill (the slow mid-parking lot U-turn at 5 mph - riders know what I mean), the calming endorphin rush after a long ride "in-the-flow" or a fast, safe day at the track. And the regular reminder that most things that break on a motorcycle are the simple things - the ones we look for last.

If you are new to riding, or contemplating owning a motorcycle, Pierson's book is one enthusiast's (all caps, again) personal journey into a life of new priorities, new friends and cautionary realities. Pierson's insistent voice is sometimes a distraction in the diary-like recounting of her journey's astride "The Perfect Vehicle." All the same, in 1997 it was something of a landmark in the compact history of motorcycle literature. Read it like you learn to ride: a chapter at a time. A new lesson learned. More surprises ahead.

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