During my recent visit to California, my friend Rich and I took a short motorcycle ride to explore some of the wonderful twisty roads north of his home in Escondido. I rode his new BMW R Nine T the first half of the ride and his big 2019 BMW 1250 GS-A during the return. After years of writing about motorcycles for magazines like RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News and others, a part of my brain immediately begins logging impressions every time I throw a leg over a new bike. The designers of the Nine T had a very clear idea of the riding experience they wished to create and the way this bike feels was instantly cemented when I switched to the big GS-A, especially because the GS-A is so much like my daily ride, the non-“A” version of the big bike.
The Nine T is gorgeous to look at, oozing style from every angle. Few bikes possess this degree of timelessness right out of the box. One look and you know it’s going to be as attractive ten years from now as it is today. A classic is forever. Of course, it helps if the horizontally-positioned boxer cylinders are something you like or, at least, are accustomed to. You may think these wide appendages will keep you from dragging a knee, given the degree to which they stick out to the sides, but that thought disappears when you are riding.
Within the first couple of miles on the Nine T, any prejudices I may have had regarding BMW being able to make affordable, naked sportbikes evaporated. The bike immediately brought to mind the Ducati Monster, legendary for its sublime ride and extraordinary handling. I rode my first Monster, a tricked-out, yellow 900 with race suspension and custom exhaust, on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club (AFMC) trip in Italy in 2001. Returning to California, it wasn’t long before a bright, new, red Ducati Monster sat in my driveway. It became one of my favorite bikes of all time, ideally suited to the roads between Sausalito and the northern California coast where I was living then. I spent hundreds of glorious hours all over Mt. Tamalpais, Hwy 1 to Muir Beach, and through the tunnel and back along Frank Valley Road. Never have a bike and a set of roads been so well-matched. The Nine T has the same quick corner turn-in, light and flick-able as the Ducati, although with a bit smoother gearbox. It’s not an all-day touring bike, but for 2-3 hour jaunts it is fine, especially at speeds high enough to create a cushion of air on your chest to ease pressure on your arms and wrists. While weighing a bit more than the Monster, it feels just as light. The brakes have a snappy bite which adds to the intuitive handling, a signature characteristic of many BMW models.
For years no one believed BMW could make sportbikes. Then, in 2009, they introduced the S1000RR superbike and put that misperception to rest once and for all. WELT has a film showing how this bike is made in a 50 minute, beautifully recorded, and well-narrated documentary. Highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yROGg3_vHBc
The Nine T cuts to the basic elements of riding and hits many of the buttons that make riders fall in love with motorcycles. There is no traction control; it lacks electro-suspension features; there’s no fancy GPS or dash display; forget about cruise control and, in fact, anything that takes your focus away from just riding. At just under 100 HP (95.8), it moves off the line quickly and eagerly pulls away as you straighten it up out of a corner. It’s like baby bear’s porridge, not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Smooth ribbons of two-lane twisty roads are where the Nine T shines. All-day on a super slab, not so much. The lack of wind protection, cruise control, and narrow seat will get old fast, especially if you are a bit old yourself. Thanks for letting me take it for a spin, Rich. It was absolutely sublime.
Most US residents have little understanding of one of the major celebrations of our neighbors to the south in Mexico. The Day of the Dead event (Desfile de Día de Muertos) is one of the oldest Pagan holidays and a majority of Mexican people wholeheartedly embrace and participate in the multi-day event. It mixes sadness and fond remembrances of family and friends who have passed away, the creation of elaborate altars with raucous, tequila-fueled partying, fireworks, and parading through the streets in costumes and elaborate face paintings.
The Day of the Dead could more accurately be described as “Days of the Dead” as it begins Oct. 28, with a focus on children who have passed. The major festival kicks off on Nov 1 at 3 pm when fireworks welcome the arrival of the spirits of dead loved ones. Until noon the following day, the dead are believed to cross back into the land of the living and visit families and friends, as long as they are remembered. To ensure these memories, families create elaborate altars with brilliant marigold flowers, incense, food, water, and photographs of the deceased, often with “Ofrendas” (offerings) in the form of favorite items of the deceased. Fireworks at noon the following day, Nov. 2, announce their leaving.
My partner on this trip is Kevin Brown. He and I land in Mexico City on October 29. We are met at the airport by MotoDiscovery Tours, who get us to downtown Mexico City Hotel in one piece and brief us on the following day’s travel to Puebla to pick up our rental motorcycles. We’re immediately grateful to have competent and professional oversight, as Mexico City and its 22 million souls are intimidating. Leaving the Grand Hotel Ciudad De Mexico on the largest downtown square in the center of Mexico City the following day involves over two hours of navigating streets snarled with cars, bicycles, buses (like our bus and many even larger), each competing to move forward a few yards at a time before the road clears and we speed off toward Puebla.
A terrific primer on the Day of the Dead celebration is the Disney animated, award-winning movie “Coco,” which I jokingly refer to as the “Day of the Dead Documentary.” Surprisingly, it gets a lot right about this ancient celebration, one of the only pagan festivals not “culturally appropriated” for modern times. Most of today’s revered religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and more were “baptized,” as the good Reverend Doctor Kevin Brown would say, making them no longer pagan celebrations, but Christian. And while the Catholic Church in Mexico largely ignores the celebration, the Day of the Dead has incorporated numerous religious observances such as All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day, albeit it without the solemn tone.
After a fun day in Puebla, we ride roughly 500 km (310 miles) south to Oaxaca, to spend two nights at the Casa Conzatti Hotel, a small establishment centrally located across from a beautiful park. Oaxaca is the epicenter of Mexico’s Day of the Dead activities. Shiningly bright Aztec marigold flowers are everywhere. Altars appear along the street, in hotel lobbies, and in most business places. (When riding to the top of Mexico’s tallest building in Mexico City we even passed an altar on the way to the elevator). After parking the bikes in front of the hotel and storing our bags, we head out to explore in the late afternoon. We join a group of revelers, along with a marching band ensemble, and trek down a 2-mile long street, past various squares, courtyards, and markets. Participants sport ornate face paint, all with a “dead” theme, and some Halloween-type costumes. Turning in after a 9 PM dinner start time, we heard celebrations continue long into the night.
MOTORCYCLE RIDING MEXICO
While the ride from Puebla to Oaxaca was an incredibly fun ride, it does not compare to what comes next. One of the premier twisty roads on planet earth runs for 180 miles (270km) from Oaxaca to Huatulco on the Mexican Pacific coast. Highway 175 leaves Oaxaca and runs mostly flat, with nice sweeping turns for just short of an hour until you pass San Bartolo Coyotepec. Then it turns into tight, technical, and tremendous. Turn after turn, quick climbs and drops snake us through lush mountain forests. We ride through small villages with names like Miahuatian de Porfirio Diaz, Rancho la Soledad, El Portillo Paxtlan, and San Mateo Rio Honda. Most memorable are the suspension destroying topes (speed bumps), sometimes with “Reductor” signs indicating a slower speed is prudent. It feels like a continuous Tail of the Dragon, but for 6 hours instead of the 15 minutes/11-mile Deals Gap road in Tennessee. “I don’t think I ever got to third gear,” one rider exclaimed, wiping sweat dripping from his neck, breathing in the rich humid air as we arrived in the parking lot of the Quinta Bella Hotel, with its 4 restaurants, two pools, beach access and views of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean.
We owe this magical day and road discovery to Juan Stanglmaier of MotoDiscovery, who learned of it during the years he worked with the La Carrera Panamerica race. Revived in 1988 from its historic beginnings, the Panamerica is a competition for cars made between 1940 and 1965 in a variety of categories. In 2009 the race moved to these roads in southern Mexico beginning in Huatulco, here in the State of Oaxaca, and became the most important classic car rally-type automotive sporting event in Mexico. Paying critical benefits for the riders on this trip is Juan’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the sort of roads that appeal to adventure seeking motorcycle riders.
We take a rest break near a town named San Jose Del Pacifico, 3 hours south of Oaxaca and home to the renowned magic (psychedelic) mushrooms, harvested in the local forests. Nearby villages are homes to the artists best known for creating “Alebrijes,” the brightly colored animal-like sculptures, which we learn much more about later in our trip.
Before leaving Oaxaca, MotoDiscovery had arranged for us to visit a family living in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, about 30 minutes directly east of Oaxaca. The family’s business and home are fully dedicated to weaving and they graciously talk us through and demonstrate each step in the process of converting sheep’s wool into beautiful rugs and artistic woven wall hangings. After the demonstrations, they serve a meal of traditional foods, all fun and delicious. The dried and flavored grasshoppers I’d acquired at an open-air market hours earlier were welcomed, although the lime taste flavoring on the ones I’d bought was not as good as the spicier ones they served.
Most fascinating to me about the weaving demonstration was how they colored the yarn, all with natural ingredients. The red-colored dye comes from the cochineal, a soft-bodied, oval-shaped insect that penetrates prickly pear cactus leaves and lives on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. The insect produces carminic acid which is extracted when they pinch the bug between their fingers and use it to create red carmine dye.
After lunch and just before 3 pm, the patriarch of the family, a spry 60-ish man who’d guided his 23-year old son through the demonstrations for what looked like his first solo effort, allowed us into a back room of their home. There we found a substantial alter he’d created to his father, who’d passed away at 91 years of age, just 40 days earlier. As 3 O’Clock approached, he lit a large bowl of incense and began to wave the billowing white smoke over the alter with the photograph of his father – a wrinkled face with gentle eyes and Mona Lisa-like smile. Then as if on cue, the fireworks began, louder and closer than any of us expected. Moved, I asked Juan to translate my condolences to the man, but we both failed as our emotions got the better of us and we began to cry. The only way to communicate our feelings was to put our arms around each other.
Eight of our nine rental bikes are from BMW, two 1250GS’s, two 1200GS’s, an 850GS, 750GS, 310 GS, and one lone Honda Africa Twin. Tour leader Juan Stanglmaier rides his own (non-rental) 1150GS and Bill Eakins commands the chase vehicle containing our luggage, tools, bottled water, and snacks besides pulling a trailer in the event of a mishap.
Road rules in Mexico are similar to many countries in Europe, pure heaven for some motorcycle riders but absolute terror for others. Essentially, motorists on Mexico’s roads expend more effort on keeping traffic moving than on obeying what any particular traffic sign indicates. For instance, roads painted with large yellow double lines (as in the USA) down the center meaning it is unsafe to pass. In Mexico, this translates to mean if you are traveling at a moderate pace, you should move over, putting your right passenger side wheels off the road onto the shoulder, allowing enough of a gap for someone to pass, counting of course on oncoming traffic doing the same thing, creating a center “okay to pass” area. If unaccustomed to crossing double yellow lines to pass, especially with limited visibility, it takes a bit of getting used to. But with a motorcycle, it presents less risk and is easier than in a car. As in Europe, drivers in Mexico focus on their driving, not cellphones, radios, or conversations with passengers. There is little of the “competitive” driving you see in the states. While people will push and crowd with their vehicles, the sense of “we’re all on the road together, let’s do the best we can to get everyone through this,” best represents how most drivers behave. Traffic police are essentially non-existent and you’re free to ride at whatever speed appears appropriate for you, the weather and traffic.
Arriving back in Oaxaca, we began the next day off the bikes with local guide Benito Hernandez. His first stop is a several-hour visit at Monte Alban, an expansive pre-Colombian archaeological site above the plains in the Valley of Oaxaca. This ancient city is estimated to have had over 800,000 inhabitants, covering thousands of terraces and dozens of mounded clusters. It is believed the city lost significance around AD 500-700 and was abandoned and only used, since that time, for smaller reoccupations and occasional reuse of the structures and tombs built by the former inhabitants. The site reveals some of the earliest evidence of written language and a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of time and calendars. Only small sections of the site have been excavated and the site has thousands of unexplored layers, rooms, tombs, and commercial spaces.
After lunch, our second stop was a family enterprise along the lines of the weavers we’d seen a few days earlier, but this one involved the creation of colorful Alebrijes sculptures. One can’t spend much time near and around Oaxaca without running into the brightly painted, whimsical carvings. This marriage of native woodcarving traditions began with Mexico City artist Pedro Linares. In the 1930’s, Linares, an artist specializing in papier mâché sculpture, fell ill. While unconscious, he dreamt of a place with weird trees, animals, and rocks which turned into strange animals. On recovery he began sculpting donkeys with butterfly wings, roosters with bull horns, or a lion with an eagle’s head, meshing together horns, antlers, wings, and fins onto various animals. In his dreams, these creatures all were screaming “Alebrijes!” and so that is what he named them. Over the years the medium moved from paper mâché to wood and this part of Oaxaca state is famous for their creation. Some people believe Alebrijes are “spirit animals” who guide the souls of ancestors as they make their way back and forth between the living and dead during the Day of the Dead period.
Like the weavers we visited the prior day, we got to know this local family business. We watched the steps in the six-month process from a piece of wood to the finished piece. It is all done by hand, with a level of precision and detail hard to believe, as you watch paint being lovingly hand-applied with tiny brushes and the use of a powerful magnifying glass.
There are two levels of Alebrijes production. The first, this stop, offers unique, high-quality, labor-intensive pieces. The best of these pieces gain reputations for the artists and command high prices. It is not unusual to find, as we are seeing here, entire families involved. There is a lower level of repetitive, average quality inexpensive pieces which can be found anywhere. Having the chance to visit and meet this family of carvers was unusual. They typically sell through middlemen who move the products to dealers in Mexico and abroad. While dogs and cats were plentiful, we also saw many armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, elephants, deer, and fish.
The first step in creating an alebrije is carving. Copal is the most commonly used wood and comes from the healer tree family called Bursera. The tree was sacred to the Maya people, particularly because of the resin, now known as “Mexican Frankincense,” but is related to Frankincense and Myrrh and can be found in sweat lodges and Day of the Dead ceremonies. Sometimes woods like walnut, willow, cedar, and sabino are also used. Once the appropriate wood is selected, the artist “sees” the shape and decides the most appropriate shape into which to carve it. Carving may take several days, depending on how complicated the piece. The next step is drying, which is done naturally. It is the longest part of the process. Then it’s off to polish and sand it, then apply liquids to preserve the wood and ensure it will never attract insects. Then any imperfections are addressed using natural materials mixed with sawdust arising when they cut and sanded the wood. It then goes through repeated sandpaper steps, using finer and finer grains of paper until it’s super smooth and the final sealer is applied. This sealer is designed so that the colored paint adheres easily and is permanent. Painting is the final step. It appears as if they use hundreds of different brushes, some to shade, others to anchor, and other finer ones to make the decorations. Depending on size, this step can take from 2 to 4 months, as the colorful decorations representing life and joy are each unique.
Just as we are about to leave, it turns noon, and fireworks erupt all around us, as the living bid goodbye to their ancestors who’ve they’ve been around for the previous 21 hours and will now begin their trip back to the spirit world. A special Alebrijes was featured in the Disney film “Coco,” which was released in 2017 and is now available on the Disney Channel.
Another highly visible aspect of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration is the elaborate and colorful altars erected in private homes and public places. They are created to help guide the dead back from the spirit world to those who remember and cared for them when they were alive. They feature photos of those souls who have passed, memorabilia, things they loved (a piece of jewelry, model of a car, or favorite tool), along with representations of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. We saw toys of dead children, bottles of tequila, mescal, or special foods like candied pumpkin or sugar skulls. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls of those who have passed, so they will hear the prayers and words the living send in their direction. We found these altars in the private homes we visited and saw them in public places like libraries, museums, and especially cemeteries.
The bulk of the celebratory activities are concentrated over 3 days. Most families visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with altars (ofrendas), almost always including bright orange Mexican marigolds. In Mexico, marigolds are known as the flower of the dead, with the belief the bright color and scent attract the souls of the dead. I was able to photograph many of these alters and found all of them moving and significant. Some pictures below:
Perhaps due to over-caution and some questionable judgment on my part, Kevin and I ended up with a day to kill in Mexico before flying back to the US. We chose to spend it in Puebla, an industrial and rapidly growing city of over 2.2M people. We stayed in a terrific hotel (the Azul Talavera) where the final tour dinner was held. It is close to historic and older areas of the city, beautiful parks, and massively large old Catholic Churches. We hired Omar and his son Brandon (who is studying to be a pilot and acted as our interpreter) to give us a tour of the city. You can’t imagine a more generous-natured and accommodating pair to guide one through a city. Unfortunately, their kindness was not equaled by a knowledge of the city. We had a pleasant enough time, saw some new buildings with terrific architecture and compelling designs, but didn’t learn a whole lot more about the city. (See photos below.)
Thus we found ourselves at the terminal for the luxury buses to take us to the Mexico City airport around 2 PM. The terminal and buses are quite posh and our $17 bought us wide seats with tons of legroom with significant recline capabilities. And we could watch a movie in Spanish through the provided sterilized earbuds.
It felt so good to get back on the road and ride again after Covid had shut so many doors. Mexico is a fascinating country, a close neighbor with a different language and culture, full of family-oriented and gentle people. The roads were incredibly good, well-paved, and full of twists and turns, to the delight of our group of riders. True to its reputation, MotoDiscovery delivered the goods, providing spectacular hotels, fun and interesting places to eat, but mostly thinking through all the hard stuff so we clients could concentrate on having a great time.
Traveling in Times of Covid: Crossing a pedestrian overpass from Mexico City’s International airport we spend the night in a crowded airport hotel. We spend two hours attempting to get the eVerifly app to work. This app is a complete joke and our biggest complaint on the trip. First, it is horrendously slow, then when asked to enter the date and time of our Covid tests (the primary purpose of the app), it gives a range of dates and times to select from that does not include the dates of when we had our tests. Entering dates and times from amongst the ones offered, although incorrect, allowed us to move to the next step which is to upload our “proof of negative Covid test documents.” An automated message in the app then told us those documents would be evaluated and they would get back to us. About an hour later, we got emails indicating we could go online and check our results, which were not accepted because “…there was a discrepancy between the dates on our Covid test paperwork and the information we entered on their form.” The only reason they were wrong is the application would not allow us to enter the correct ones! Fortunately, when we got to the airport, this eVerifly step is not at all required, and our paper documents showing we’d had our test within the 72-hour window were more than sufficient. Any claims by eVerifly indicating they are simplifying the process for getting onto your flight is entirely and utterly false. We wasted 2 hours the night before and another hour the following morning, only to find this step completely unnecessary.
Few decisions are agonized over by motorcyclists as much as helmet choices. There’s color and type (full face, modular, shorty, off-road, touring specific, etc.), as well as construction material and features. Women shopping for swimsuits struggle less to find the “perfect fit” than motorcyclists selecting a helmet. Arai, supposedly, fits those with longer, more oval-shaped heads. Round-shaped heads are better off with Scorpion, Nolan, Bell, or maybe Schuberth, I can’t recall, maybe it’s the reverse. But when we find “the one” and it fits, it’s like trying to give a cat a bath to get us to relinquish that and buy new. But to save our noggins, we need a new helmet every 5 years or so.
In the first few rides after buying my LaZer Monaco carbon helmet in 2014, I was in love. At $500 it was the most expensive helmet I’d ever purchased. It was the lightest modular helmet on the market, carbon fiber with a photochromic lens. A significant and unanticipated safety feature of the helmet turned out to be its light weight. Toward the end of a long ride, even though tired, I was still turning my head and looking around, checking both directions at intersections. I sensed this may not have been the case with my heavier helmets. The transitional lens freed me from having to worry about dark glasses, which ones fit comfortably under a helmet, and where to stash them when off the bike. My face shield automatically darkened in the bright sun and turned completely clear at night or on cloudy days. Plus, because it was modular, I didn’t have to take it off every time I stopped for gas or just wanted to talk to another rider or get a drink of water. But I had a problem.
Snell (a nonprofit organization focused on safety standards for helmets) recommends replacing a helmet after five years and I was in the red zone, two years beyond the discard date. Interesting sidebar, the Snell Foundation was created in 1957 and named after Pete Snell, a sports car racer who died in 1956 of head injuries he received when his racing helmet failed to protect him. A group of his friends, physicians, and scientists, got together and formed the group to promote research and education which eventually lead to the development of more effective helmets.
Most recently, every time I went for a ride, Maggie asked, “When are you getting a new helmet?” So I began the process that is almost universally abhorred by myself and many of my friends – shopping. While on motorcycle errands over the past few months, I made it a point to wander over to the helmet department and try on the newest models. I looked at Cycle Gear and RideNow. Over the summer I had long wait times at GoAz in Scottsdale so spent lots of time looking at helmets there. The new helmets were nice, but none had the combination I was looking for – super light, modular, transitional lens, and good looking. With a ride in Spain on the horizon, I went to the #1 go-to helmet place in Arizona, Helmet Center on Union Hills Road in Glendale. While they carry a lot of motorcycle gear and even service bikes, there is no one better than them at going through the latest options and perhaps most importantly, ensuring you have a perfect fit. They are magicians. Going through some catalogs we found a motorcycle helmet from the folks at Klim called the TK1200. Most of us in this business think of Klim as the inventors of some of the best motorcycle jackets and pants on the planet, but not helmets. And yet, here it was – a beautiful carbon fiber, lightweight, modular helmet with a transition lens. I ordered it immediately and a few days later went back to check it out. It turns out Klim teamed up with the company that made my original LaZer and improved it, all the while keeping the things I valued the most. I was in heaven. The new helmet is the old LaZer Monaco but with better ventilation, an improved release system for the modular portion, and it now also goes back over the top of the helmet — a great safety feature. They’ve also increased the amount of room in the front, which was one of the few things that I didn’t like about my old helmet. Plus, its sold by Klim, with their extraordinary reputation for customer service. It doesn’t get any better!
Thanks to the skilled folks at the Helmet Center, my new TK1200 also has my Cardo Packtalk Bold unit installed and functional. Time for more great riding.
Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece. The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:
Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”
I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”
And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”
Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.
My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind. But first, these four:
Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team. Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs. I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living. And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was. My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.
The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars. My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind. Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much. These four have core similarities: First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?” Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent. For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.
Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.