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A View from the Loft: Poetry on a motorcycle: Riding through the fear

A writer reflects on the “daunting blank page, the dangerous open road” on a trek to Sturgis, S.D.FROM ‘A VIEW FROM THE LOFT’


Poet Linda Back McKay and husband David McKay bound for Sturgis.
Courtesy of the Loft
Poet Linda Back McKay and husband David McKay bound for Sturgis.

Afraid? Of course we are. No writer — or rider — worth her salt is cocky enough to not be scared. The daunting blank page, the dangerous open road. It’s only natural to be afraid of the unknown territory that lies before us. It’s what we do with the fear that makes the difference.

It’s time for that long ride to Sturgis, S.D. This week’s rally is the 68th Anniversary of Bike Week. For all these years Sturgis has been an exuberant celebration of bikes, bikers and the motorcycling experience. If you plan in advance, you can camp or rent a room — both at inflated prices.

Some activities include new motorcycle demos, races, rides, concerts, competitions, food and merchandise vendors, tattoo parlors, T-shirts, sex toys, vests, chaps and shopping for everything you can imagine that’s made out of leather. You can get married in Sturgis — at the base of Bear Butte or on your motorcycle in your veil and thong, if you like. Sky’s the limit in Sturgis. At least during Bike Week. At there’s a timer that counts down how many days, hours, minutes and seconds you have to wait until the next rally begins. Such anticipation.

If you trailer your motorcycle, you run the risk of being scoffed at by the traditionalists. If you rise to the challenge and ride, you have a profound experience ahead of you. The kind of experience that inspired the Harley-Davidson slogan, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

Let’s say you decide to ride it to South Dakota. First of all, you will need to accept the fact that you are invisible to the folks who drive pickups with one hand while on the phone. And I mean totally invisible. The kind of invisible that Louis Jenkins writes about in his poem, “Invisible.” …”At times we are caught in a warp of space or time and, for a moment, vanish.”

There’s also road kill, frost heave, wildlife and road construction to negotiate. Not unlike writing, riding motorcycle is always a risk. You’re about as safe as a raw egg on a spoon. Why, then, even attempt this foolishness? To buck the system or pursue our true identities? To escape the bonds of our gender roles? To learn something? Is riding a sensual act, a foolhardy one, an artistic pursuit or all of the above? What inspires us to taunt society and fate?

Everyone who rides understands the connection between motorcycling and the natural world. You’re out there, with nothing between you and the sky, except maybe your helmet. Aside from the occupational hazard of bugs on your teeth, and this because you’ve been grinning again, you’re in the position to experience things that people in cars never see, hear or smell. Even the crustiest of hard core bikers can wax poetic about the fresh scent of pine on an early morning ride through the breathtaking beauty of the Black Hills, when the sun inches up above a stand of trees, spilling golden light into the valley

As a writer and rider, you notice the surprises nature doles out so generously — a sudden 10-degree drop in temperature as you descend alongside a foggy river bottom, the pungent smell of manure on a plowed field, the heady scent of approaching rain, sighting herons, wildflowers, egrets, wild turkeys and pheasants on the side of the road. The magnificence of a bald eagle eyeing you from on high. All of this is writing fuel.

And fear is a funny thing. It can serve to heighten your senses, touching you and changing you, if you are open to it. Fear can actually make your riding safer and writing stronger. The trick is to let just enough — but not too much — of the fear in.

Is getting to your writing destination the most important thing? Or, is it the journey that brings you back to writing time after time? The process of being a writer leads us through the fear into long days of sunshine and smooth ribbons of road that reward us with depth and discovery.

Now, listen closely and you’ll hear the musical tink of metal cooling in the garage. The engine is at rest. The journey is in process.

This piece by Linda Back McKay, poet and author of the forthcoming “MotoDivas: Lipstick, Leather and the Lure of the Ride,” first appeared in “A View from the Loft,” the Loft Literary Center’s membership publication.

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“Riding Motorcycle”

A poem by Linda Back McKay, from “Ride That Full Tilt Boogie” (North Star Press)

Every ride reminds me of death.
The two of us, a drunken pickup, errant deer
something explodes, slow flight after impact
a flash of time and then the fall, a branch
in the throat, a leg turned wrong
darkened shreds of skin —

Let this machine pass powerfully through me.
My body is the engine
his body is the fuel.
We rule our gears and mirrors and chrome.
Our leather stories are mortal sketches.
We swallow the horizon.