The Life of Tradition

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The motorcycle’s salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down. Symbolizing two wheels on the ground. It’s really a necessity; whether you want to or not, riding a bike means following the tradition of those who have gone before. And part of that is the salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I grew up in Alaska. There are long winters that pour down from the mountains and over the face of the icy grey sea, the type that cram themselves though windows and doors and walls and into people’s minds. With these winters, the motorcycle riding season in Alaska is short. As soon as strips of asphalt show under their reluctant blanket of snow, the throaty roar of these two-wheeled animals emerging from hibernation resonates across the expectant mountains and out over the ocean. If they quickly retire to their dens, it means six more weeks of winter. If they stay out, it probably still means six more weeks of winter. But the season is short, so like so many bears shaking their fur free of sleep and lethargy, they emerge and brave roads speckled with the receding skin of winter. And as they pass each other, they wave–two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down–keep your wheels on the ground.

I grew up fascinated with this ritual, long before I knew what it means. I had yet to be initiated into this pagan religion that the demanded the commitment of its members, their respect, and–an ever present possibility–their sacrifice. Like Roman charioteers on their way to battle, or to the starting line at the Circus Maximus, they acknowledge each other for what they are, equals in competition and fraternity.

What drives man to do this? Why race down the road, subject to freedom and death and life? What mental process can justify the risk? The salute itself is an acknowledgement of the judgment that befalls the one who fails to respect the liturgy. Or who just lives a fragile existence.

I bring up these concepts of the salute–the respect, the tradition, and the sacrifice–because of a recent encounter with them that startled me in its stark brutality.

Every religion, can, in some way, emphasize a truth outside the realm of typical human experience. Christianity to grace, Islam to zeal, Judaism to justice, Scientology to inanity. The same thing holds for motorcycles. Sri Aurobindo once remarked that “God and truth…manifest themselves anew in whatever way or form the Divine Wisdom chooses.” Riding a motorcycle is no different. Existence is no different.

I bought my first motorcycle in Los Angeles. Riding a motorcycle in L.A. is the same as practicing any religion in L.A.; some are true to their scriptures but it’s largely watered down and commercialized. Relativism and consumerism’s dull teeth have mashed and blunted conviction and devotion. There are those who still follow the Old Ways, but they are, at best, a novelty; at worst–God forbid!–a fundamentalist.

I happen to like the Old Ways. I still flash the salute when I can–Los Angeles traffic has the peculiar ability to dictate when you can or can’t take your hand off the reigns. I still stop my bike whenever I see another broken down, even if the rider is picking his teeth with a bowie knife. As with every good fundamentalist, I don’t expect everyone to mimic me, though I often wish more would. Tradition is liberating. Ask Edmund Burke or G.K. Chesterton. Who doesn’t appreciate knowing the rules and what they are getting out of the deal? We have a thousand little religions in our lives, why not adhere to some of their tenants and learn to understand them?

Three days ago, I went for a ride. I was tired, and so was the city. The sky was a grey shawl over the suburbs; too apathetic to rain and too tired to shine. The world sighed–a woman kicking off her heels and sinking into an armchair’s embrace–and all were grateful for the break in the heat. So I went for a ride, looking for a park that my friend would often fish for carp at. I’d heard it was a restful place. I needed that. I needed to clear my head.

And so I rode, my hands guiding my horses, thrumming with the life and freedom and mortality of man, leaning into the road; straining to fly–where?–anywhere. As I rode, suspended between the earth and the sky, I danced with pagan tribesman in the shade of the mountain, penned Scripture with holy scribes, and knelt in agony at the foot of a hill, accented with three rough trees. I passed, blurring by, a streak of red in a sea of lights. And I headed for the hills ringing the city, the one place in Los Angeles that still feels reverent, like you’re a part of Nature.

I saw the other motorcycle about 80 yards off, on the other side of the street, coming in the opposite direction. I took my hand off the clutch and acknowledged him; two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down, symbolizing two wheels on the ground. He shifted into a higher gear without returning the wave and shot by me, t-shirt and jeans whipping in the wind like a standard defying the grey sky.

The sound that precluded the noise was soul-rending–like the temple curtain being torn in two on Good Friday–only reversed. It was the sound of bone and metal breaking, of plastic and flesh and life shearing away; of a mother crying and a younger brother shocked into dumb silence, unable to comprehend the pain that will later tear at his heart, with bitter strokes more real than if they had been delivered with iron or leather. The sun had just set. Twilight was shattered, streaked with furious light as the sun disappeared over the scene. The rider lay curled on the pavement, the car he had slammed into sat straddled across the road, the driver’s side crumpled up like someone had unsuccessfully tried to flatten out a balled-up piece of paper. The wheels of the motorcycle were in the air, pointed accusingly at the car they had struck, but it was nobody’s fault; what would it serve anyway? The driver shouldn’t have pulled out onto the road. One gear lower and it wouldn’t have mattered–the motorcycle would have been going slow enough to avoid him. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I helped direct traffic around the rider’s broken body. People helped. More people watched. The paramedics were there almost instantly. The whine of a defibrillator told me they were trying to revive him. And perhaps a spark of life traveled–traveled down through broken bones and failing organs– and reanimated a broken and failing heart. Perhaps.

I’ve heard stories, passed down through time from Father to Son, of people being brought back to life when their bodies have failed and their hearts long before that. When they’d forsaken the traditions that would recall them from the grave; for the traditions are stronger than death.

It was dark by the time I sat atop the hills of Los Angeles. It was dark by the time I got home. The sun broke the horizon the next morning as it had for millennia. I breathed– beautifully alive in tradition.

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