There is nothing quite like riding a motorcycle along an isolated country road with the cornstalks waving in the breeze or next to huge rocky mountains with a waterfall lightly spraying you as you pass. Over the past four years I have had the pleasurable experience of the wind in my face as I have cruised out in nature on my motorcycle. Although I’ve always wanted a bike, but never could afford one, I now wish I would have bought one much sooner. Cruising on my bike is not like anything else I have ever done. Oh, I once had a Lambretta scooter that I road to high school for a couple of years and a Honda 150cc that I rode to work for another couple of years, but at those times bike riding was more utilitarian, that is, it got me from point A to point B for another purpose beside the sheer joy of riding.
With a larger bike (Honda VTX 1300cc) that I use mainly for pleasure I have had a totally different experience of riding. I now consider motorcycle riding a sacred practice. I’m not saying that just because I have been a “revvvvrend” for 37 years. Nor do I consider motorcycle riding as sacred because when I ride I have religious thoughts. At one time in my life things what I considered “sacred” were most often “religious” things like praying, going to church, and reading the Bible. My concept of what is “sacred” has broadened quite a bit since my earlier days as a minister. That is probably due not only to being a creative soul, a non-traditional thinker, and someone who as of late feels somewhat disconnected from church and traditional concepts of God, but also because I can no longer box in the sacred, set boundaries for the transcendent, or find the holy exclusively in religiously prescribed places.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for traditional religious practices. I have engaged in many of these practices for a long time, such as traditional prayer, devotional Bible reading, lectio divina, journaling, spiritual direction, silent meditation, and on and on. I have also experimented with some more non-traditional spiritual practices, such as walking a labyrinth, drumming meditation, drumming the labyrinth, reflecting on icons, and using art in meditation. But, more recently none of these practices have been quite like motorcycling as a form of meditation.
It’s not like I set out to ride my motorcycle as a means of meditation. Rather my sense that motorcycling can be a form of meditation emerged from the actual experience of riding. My longer, less utilitarian rides are usually out in the country amidst nature. The motorcycle gives a direct experience of the sights, smells, and senses of the environment (and at times bugs and bad smells!). This part of what bikers refer to as the feeling of “freedom” when riding a bike on an open road going wherever they want to go with an unobstructed view.
Nature is a “natural” conduit for experiencing awe, wonder, and the sacred. Early human experience of the divine was probably connected with a more direct relationship they had with the natural elements than we have today. This makes me wonder whether the disconnection between humans and nature with industrialization, urbanization, and a technological culture plays a role in the secularization, rationalization, and disenchantment of everyday life and experience in our modern Western world.
When I ride my motorcycle along the winding roads of the Gorge along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon under a dome of blue sky, even when things are not going that well, my life is reframed within a larger picture of the world and the cosmos. It is an immediate visual, iconic message that is sensed and cannot be put into words, thus it has a contemplative character to it. I may not even be thinking of God or trying to label the experience as I absorb the presence of nature on a ride. It doesn’t require words or thinking religious thoughts. I believe that the old biker saying, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand,” captures something of what I’m talking about. Though bikers might not be thinking in mystical terms, there is something about the love of biking and the experience of riding on an open road that is beyond words. At the same time, I believe there is something slightly mystical about contemplative cruising.
What I’m inadequately trying to explain is probably best not put in words, but experienced. Maybe that old biker saying is really a wisdom proverb or a zen koan of a lone mystic, a sage rider, who understood that motorcycling is meditation, cruising is contemplation, and that “if I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.” I think I’ll quit trying to explain it and just go for a ride.
Rev. Dr. Leo Hartshorn has been a Christian minister for 38 years and a motorcycle enthusiast over the past four years. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon and on a sunny day can be found cruising the Gorge along the Columbia River.