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Bikin’ with Thoreau in mind

The author’s 1982 Honda Nighthawk, his first motorcycle.

When you buy a motorcycle, everyone thinks you’re going to die. You become a cautionary tale for friends, family, colleagues — a dead man riding. After I bought a 1982 Honda Nighthawk, I was no longer a rational, sane citizen of the world. I was a cowboy, a reckless simpleton destined to hurt myself or worse.

I wanted to rebel against the safe. So only hours after learning how to ride it, I steered it onto Route 2 — a major state highway — and rode it from Cambridge to Concord, a half-hour away. It seemed an appropriate destination, the stomping grounds of Henry David Thoreau, author of “Civil Disobedience.” The act would be my own refusal to obey conventional wisdom.


About a mile into the trip, I pulled into a Shell gas station and realized I didn’t know how to put gas into the big machine. I didn’t park close enough to the pump, so I had to pull the hose taut and lean in close to the bike. I pressed my calf against the muffler and felt my skin liquefy. The injury was a bad omen. I should have turned back. I didn’t.

Perhaps everyone’s caution is justified. Mind you, I had never actually ridden a motorcycle before I bought one. I began running experiments with people. First, I would act cavalier. “Just bought a motorcycle,” I would say with a proud grin. As expected, this invited cautionary tales. It seems everyone knows someone who has had a accident on two wheels. “See you at your funeral,” a friend said. Other times, I would act meek and nervous when I told people about my bike. The reactions were subtler, but everyone still thought I was an idiot. “Be careful,” most said. “Make sure you wear a helmet.” Those who work in health care really gave it to me. Before I could say, “Don’t worry, I’ll wear a helmet,” they would fire off their most horrific emergency room story. Whether I was proud or thoughtful, a motorcycle was bad news.


But maybe it wasn’t the motorcycle. Perhaps it was me. I had just turned 30 — could everyone see that this way my last-ditch effort to delay becoming a responsible adult? Maybe it was just me being contrarian — again. Or maybe it’s because I don’t always wear a seatbelt and they know it.

Despite my bravado, when I hit Route 2, I got the distinct feeling that I was in over my head. I was struck by how exposed I was. There really is nothing between the rider and the possibility of a lot of pain. It wasn’t until I arrived in Concord’s city center that I realized how tightly I had been gripping the handle bars. Before I left Cambridge, I considered myself a poster child for living on the edge. I was a modern day transcendentalist, I thought. But in truth, I was shaken by the ride. Deeply frightened. And I still had to get home. I walked the streets aimlessly, delaying my departure. The trip, I admitted, had been rather unsafe of me.

Safety has its merits. It keeps us alive, for one thing. But on the eventual ride home, gaining confidence at last, I realized one can also be too safe and take no journeys at all. When I got back, I allowed myself to reflect on how much the experience had scared me. I thought about Thoreau and how he went to the woods to “drive life into a corner, reduce it to its lowest terms.” Sometimes life can drive you into a corner and reduce you to your lowest terms. Life can scare you. Motorcycles can scare you. But perhaps it’s better to scare yourself now and again than to be scared of being scared.


“Living is so dear,” Thoreau said, yet he did not “wish to practice resignation.” Like Thoreau, I desperately, profoundly, dangerously do not “wish to live what is not life,” or, when I come to die, “discover that I had not lived.”

I’m glad I took that ride.

Dustin Grinnell can be reached at dustin.grinnell@gmail.com.