THE DEVIL ON MY SHOULDER

 

by

 

Jeff Hughes

 

 

(Published in Sport Rider Magazine, August 2003)

 

 

After a thousand miles in three days Iím tired, looking forward to getting home and seeing my family and relaxing for awhile.I split from John and Forrest a little while ago, back in Front Royal, and headed south down 340 while they continued on eastward.Iím almost home, after another fine trip into the mountains of West Virginia.

 

Like so many things, it starts with just a bit of happenstance.At Luray, as I turn onto 211, a large group of sportbikes Ė fifteen or so Ė have just turned onto the roadway in front of me.I trail them by a few hundred yards and watch with interest as we all roll towards the mountain.Theyíre the usual mix Ė 600 and 1000cc Japanese models, with a few standards and a couple of odd Ducatis thrown in.The assortment of gear is equally diverse, with about an equal split between the guys wearing one-piece leather suits, of all different colors, and the guys in street leathers.A few just wear jeans, but everyone has at least a jacket and gloves and boots.A reasonably serious group, it seems.

 

I hold my distance as we approach the Gap.The mountain rises up before us and, seeing it, even through my tiredness I can feel it begin.The strumming inside, the ratcheting of my heartbeat and the rushing in my ears.Címon, just let it be, I tell myself.Donít do this.That is my every intention, to not do anything.

 

The first curve is delicious, like the first sip from a glass of fine wine, like the first drag on a cigarette after hours of abstinence.I donít need to reset my speed, only downshifting twice to get the revs up.The curving left-hand sweeper curls hard under my wheels, the suspension firming.The feeling is instantly mesmerizing, the lean angle and the pull of the gís and me meeting them with but a delicate grasp and the merest hint of a down-turned knee.My left hand extends a single finger towards the clutch lever, even though itíll be another two hundred yards before Iíll need it again.No matter.My hands have gone all light on the grips and my boots have slipped back tight on the pegs and that sound has started in my head again, and in that moment I feel it all slipping away, all those good intentions.

 

The one turn has been enough to string out the pack of bikes in front of me, as some number of them slow for the turn.Iíve closed on the bikes in the rear and quickly swing into the left lane Ė there are two lanes heading up the mountain Ė and begin cutting past them.I figure the hot-shoes up front will flush out any radar-wielding LEOís lying in wait, and the last impediment in my mind melts away.Rolling into the first tight section I click another downshift, into third, and add a little more throttle.Bearing deeper into the rush, I feel the scurring of my peg feelers as they begin to reach down and kiss the tarmac.For the space of a handful of miles Iím in a place I canít escape from Ė grooved, in-the-zone - a place I wouldnít escape from if I could.Curve after curve, a rolling euphoria.

 

Through the narrowed slits my eyes have become the bikes still in front of me seem translucent, temporal.Ghost images, soft markers in the road as I continue rolling past.As I move towards the front of the strung-out pack I sense a growing umbrage.Maybe itís the saddlebags.For sure, this is not a race Ė thereís no striving within me to get ahead; Iím not trying to beat anybody.The other riders out there just happen to be witness.

 

As something of a forlorn excuse, I can offer only that this is, after all, my mountain.Mine in the way that our heart lays claim to those places we especially love.

 

One of them accelerates out as I pass and pulls in behind me, riding my tail.A tag-team partner, he stays with me for the last mile, to the summit.Thereís not much left after that Ė the long right-hand sweeper that begins the descent, and we ride that hard Ė but then we come upon the brake lights of traffic in front of us.The one lane heading down the mountain will force a sedate pace.

 

The thing inside me disappears as quickly as it appeared and I sit back, relaxed, once again in cruise mode.At the bottom of the mountain the rider behind me beeps and pulls off at the store, pointing at me and turning a thumbs-up.I nod and wave back, continuing on alone.

 

 

 

 

ďHello.My name is Jeff and Iím aÖĒWell.I donít know exactly what I am, what the term would be.ĎSpeedaholicí maybe?Except that that doesnít begin to capture it.

 

Itís always the same.Riding for miles, striving towards my wifeís gentle admonishment before I leave to ďbe carefulĒ.And, now, ďact like an adultĒ.Sometimes she knows me better than I know myself.And I do, mostly, smiling inwardly at how mature Iíve become.But then we get to the curves.

 

For some people itís alcohol, or drugs.For others, gambling, or raising hell on the town.for me, itís speed.Not straight-line speed.Nor the simple speed which comes with acceleration- though those things hold their own allure.No, what gets me is speed on a motorcycle, running hard through the curves on a good piece of road.Thatís my manna, my heaven.But itís also where that devil on my shoulder emerges.The one that sits there with a crooked little smile on his face, the one that bends over and whispers in my ear, ďjust a little fasterĒ.ďCímon, just a little bit more Ė you know you can do itĒ.

 

Yeah, Iím a sucker for it.And it doesnít seem to matter much which bike I choose Ė the same nattering voice being as present on my K1200RS as on my GSX-R1000.It seems that a bit of sporting competence is all that is required.That and the addiction.

 

 

The track helps.Knowing Iíve got a number of track days sprinkled liberally throughout the riding season seems to keep the compulsions at bay.Not that the track doesnít have its own little voice Ė it surely does.If anything, the voice there on my shoulder seems more animated and chatty than ever while out riding a closed circuit.But at least the track is a good environment in which to confront it.Or to let it somewhat have its way.But thatís a subject for another day.

 

So does forcing myself to ride further back in the pack of whatever group of buddies I might be out with.I donít pass too often on such social rides, and so the pace of the guy in front of me becomes my pace Ė and please God let him have a quieter voice than the one that insists on nattering at me.Running with the hot-shoes up front is a sure recipe for having that voice turn all excited and happy.

 

And time.Trying to keep in mind that Iím in this for the long haul.I want to be like that 85-year-old guy I met this past Summer at my local BMW dealer, the one who rolled in on a K1200RS, same blood-red color as mine, in the midst of a four-corners tour.All by himself.

 

You know that old saw, the one that says there are old riders and bold riders but no old, bold riders?Well Iím hoping someday to end up being that old rider, all the while being at least a little bold along the way.Doesnít quite seem fair, otherwise.Maybe we just need to ration that fun a bit, pick our moments with a bit of care.Not too much gas on the fire, too soon.

 

 

 

 

As usual when it comes to perplexing problems, I donít really have any answers.Only hopes.Looking around at other people, those with other addictions, Iím convinced Iíll never be cured.Just doesnít seem to be in the cards.Not that Iíd want to, even had I the choice.Sometimes addiction brings its own kind of reward.A bit of joy, tasted now and again, to go with the angst.

 

So Iíll just continue the search, riding all those good roads and looking for answers Ė all while holding to a fervent determination to keep it more or less in check.And sometimes, between the babbling of that voice on my shoulder, finding grace while Iím out doing it.

 

 

© 2003Jeff Hughes and Sport Rider Magazine