Coming up the thruway the other day a posse of the Pagans Motorcycle Club passed us. All of them on Harleys. All of them wearing the club uniform and insignia. When I got home I looked up the Pagans. They’re considered an outlaw motorcycle gang, with their hands sticky in the drug trade and organized crime.
And here I thought these fellows were simply motorcycle enthusiasts.
I used to be a motorcycle enthusiast. Not the Pagan kind. My friend Fred is passionate about motorcycles, an expert rider, and still a fierce motocross competitor. He taught me to ride. He still has a stable of racing, dirt, and street motorcycles, and my friend Jim has a beast of a Harley.
I no longer ride motorcycles, but I have memories imprinted from my riding days. The first and only motorcycle I owned was a pretty red and white 1985 Suzuki GS550E. I dropped and scratched it the first day I owned it trying to do a U-turn on a narrow street.
Fred and I took a week-long trip up through Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and into Canada one summer. I discovered you could pack all your gear on a motorcycle—much more comfortable than backpacking—and camp almost anywhere, including the front lawn of an unoccupied lakefront house, or next to a pond where a moose emerging from the mist greeted us in the morning, or down at the end of a dirt road where we could hide the motorcycles in the brush.
When I lived in Switzerland I borrowed one of Fred’s steeds (a Yamaha 750 sport bike), and rode solo through the Alps for a week on the curviest and steepest roads I’d ever ridden on. I was a better rider now and didn’t drop the bike this time, but one night at dusk as I got off to scope a possible camping spot, the heavy bike leaned and almost went over a ravine. I managed to grasp the handlebar and keep it upright.
My Suzuki moved with me to California, but after getting a few speeding tickets and discovering an even greater passion in mountain bikes, I sold my motorcycle. That was the end of it. I’ve ridden a handful of times since then, and might not again.
I’m not alone. The motorcycle industry is in a steady decline, with the average age of riders increasing and millennials showing little interest.
I’m not too old to ride, and I could get my skills back with some effort, but I’ve decided not to invest in recreation that burns fossil fuels, which isn’t much more than a symbolic gesture. That leaves out power boats, snowmobiles, jet skis, and other fun stuff. I have other ways to get my thrills.
But there was something free and exciting and even rebellious about riding. I wasn’t a gang guy—not like those Pagans or Marlon Brando playing a motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One.
Mildred: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?Marlon Brando, The Wild One