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Living on two old wheels

Posted on 19 Apr 2011 in Opinion | 4 comments

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The motorcycle is a mainstay of cinematic self discovery. The other night, on a lark, I watched One Week — a movie starring Joshua Jackson about a guy who gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, buys an old Norton 850 Commando, and rides it west across Canada. Jackson’s character, Ben, uses the bike to escape his diagnosis, his fiancé, and confront a lifetime of “safe” choices. On paper, it’s an endless list of tired clichés, but it works. Besides being a love letter to the Canadian landscape, One Week weaves a quiet, introspective story that made me not just pull for Ben, but long for my own long distance bike adventure. As expected, the moral of the story is to examine our lives and make sure we’re doing the things we really want to do. You know the moral from the opening titles, but it still hits home by the end.

This movie shouldn’t work. It ought to make me roll my eyes from one end to the other. Yet I’m still thinking about it days later. I think the reason it does work is because of the bike they chose, the vintage Norton. I think almost any vintage bike could have worked — Honda CB750, Triumph Bonneville, BSA Goldstar, Royal Enfield Bullet — anything standard, foreign and well aged. The reason it works is because it’s such a simple, essential bike. The motorcycle gets to be a supporting character in the story, but without ever begging for attention.

All of this had me thinking. What is it about motorcycles, especially vintage ones, that lend themselves so perfectly to this kind of story? Crossing Canada in his minivan wouldn’t have worked at all. I think it’s the exposure. It’s the danger — the intimacy with the road required to ride a motorcycle. I think it’s the lack of pretense in riding an old standard bike versus a big, noisy Harley or chopper. I also think it has to do with uncertainty of riding an older bike. Will the bike break down? Will I be able to get it going again if it does? There’s a flavor of freedom you can only taste if you’re that far removed from the myths of safety and dependability*. I think that for some, it’s only when they’ve confronted the reality that they really will die someday (whether a week, a fortnight or a generation from now) that they give themselves permission to embrace that kind of freedom. I for one can’t think of a better way to really live than riding on two old wheels whenever I can. It makes me better appreciate the things and the people that I’d hate to be without, all while embracing the fact that someday, something’s gonna get me. What are you doing to be alive this week?

*Old bikes can actually be plenty dependable, and we specialize in keeping them that way.