Around the time I decided to visit the southwestern USA, I happened to pick up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a Peruvian book exchange. “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other,” I read. “In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
My decision was made. Just one minor hurdle – I didn’t have a motorcycle licence. I liked motorbikes and had been a pillion passenger on occasions, so now seemed the right time to be in the driving seat. So I enrolled for a Direct Access course – 5 days of intensive instruction, hopefully culminating in a successful test.
Day One – Basic Training. Two guys on my course were just 16 years old – younger than my driving licence. I realised I was an old dog to be learning this new trick. But the day went well, and I passed the first stage. Theory test the following week – passed that too.
Days Two and Three – practicing on a 125cc machine. No problem.
Day Four – my first day on a 500cc bike. Catastrophe. Ever have one of those unco-ordinated days, when you’re inexplicably clumsy and drop things and knock them over? Not good to be having one of those days when you’re sitting on a huge throbbing motorbike. The day reached its nadir when I managed to topple over at a busy right turn and a passing car missed my head by inches. My instructor was ashen-faced. “That’s the closest I’ve ever come to losing a student,” he quavered. “Maybe we’d better put you back on the 125.”
Day Five – Test Day. I’ve been demoted to the 125 for my own safety and that of all other road users. I’ll be trying for just a restricted licence, which will allow me to ride anything up to 33bhp. But I’m having a technical problem – my bike keeps cutting out. During the test it inexplicably stalls twice, and the second time it refuses to restart. “We’ve run out of time,” says my examiner. “I’m going to have to terminate this test due to mechanical failure.” So I neither pass nor fail. I’ll have to re-take.
My second attempt starts out well. The nearest examination centre that could fit me in before my departure for Ireland is in St Albans. It’s snowing as I ride up there with my instructor, but I’m riding surprisingly well, and I start to feel cautiously optimistic. I even seem to have finally cracked the U-turn.
We arrive at the test centre. “We don’t have anybody booked in to take a test now,” we’re told. “Are you sure it’s today?” We check with the motorcycle school. They have a faxed sheet confirming the time, date and place. There’s been a cock-up at the examination centre, but nothing can be done. No test for me today.
So I’m still licence-less. Maybe third time lucky.
In the meantime, I’ve had another idea. As I’m going to be in the US to learn what the white man can learn from the Native American way of living in harmony with nature, maybe I should be thinking about a more environmentally friend mode of transport. An electric scooter.?