The Lights

by Eric Landstrom

In the dark of a driveway I mentally ran through a list of things I had packed, making certain I hadn't forgotten anything that couldn't be found on the road. Satisfied that nothing was overlooked, I swung my right leg over my bike and thumbed the starter button. In the cool evening air the engine turned over three times, sputtered once, and came to life with a sharp growl that settled into a steady gallop and evened as it warmed. I looked forward as the headlamp illuminated the darkening alley in dancing yellow relief. Reaching for my helmet that rested atop the tank bag revealed a road map in the map case that had an arrow drawn from right to left with the word "WEST" boldly printed in heavy marker above it.

Finished with tightening my chinstrap, I slipped on my gloves and reached down to grasp the handlebars of my first new motorcycle. I didn't know where I was going or how long I would be gone, but I didn't care. My only plan was to follow that light illuminating my path around the country. You only live once, I thought, and I wanted to see what America was like perched from atop a motorcycle.


For motorcyclists, the machines we ride are a medium that transcends race, gender, education, and income. For us it doesn't matter what type of machine you ride, what your education is, or the position you've achieved. In the end, there is a feeling of power, of satisfying independence and brief moments of achievement that fulfill us from the act of riding. For motorcyclists, the motorcycles we ride are a common thread that not only binds us together but also allow us to express who we are, or would hope to be.

Coming together in out of the way places, we gather to talk about our machines, our travels, and moments of glory. We often express the same reverence and enthusiasm for motorcycling that is normally reserved for zealous discussions of God and religion. Although rarely speaking of what these machines truly do for us, or how deeply personal the act of riding affects us, we seek to be in the company of those who share the same reverence because they also know of that which we do not speak. We do not speak of it because it is difficult to ascribe with simple words. It is something that is tough to put a finger on, but nevertheless tangible. And we are drawn to those that also know of the feeling of empowerment and freedom that riding delivers.

Yet it is in the winter months that motorcyclists, caught in the snow-belt, and unable to ride and gather together, begin to believe that they will explode from the monotony of it all. Outwardly appearing normal, we walk among you, but inwardly we look forward to the hope we share of the spring thaw. In patient solitude, we privately wage a battle through the winter months, fighting the urge to move to a warmer climate where we could ride year round because we fear that might somehow lessen the satisfaction of riding. Still, it is during the long cold winters that many of us work on project bikes or perform long overdue maintenance in preparation of embracing the coming warmth. The effort of doing so keeps us connected and sane, allowing us to remain involved with something related to our passion.

Before the last of the snow and ice vanish from the shadows and the morning frost turns to the morning dew, we are out from among you and back in the saddle. We consciously, nearly frantically, begin packing a year's worth of riding into the few short months during the summer season. Life's other distractions are downplayed as we begin our summer sabbatical. We look for excuses to ride, our destination often only a direction because riding is thought to be an expression of freedom in movement and destinations will still linger long after we have passed.


Those thoughts danced through my mind as I looked at what was left of my motorcycle as it hung from the rafters of my garage suspended by a winch, slowly swaying side to side like a giant-green-five-hundred-pound piñata. Since I had blown up the engine in the fall of 1998, the bike had quietly sat in the corner of the garage while dust had slowly settled on it from three years of neglect while I pursued my calling of preparing for the ministry. That had changed over Christmas vacation when my brother called me, saying that he had located a replacement engine on the web. Having passed on the contact information to me, I hung up and reflected upon the last time I had followed the dancing-light before me in Wisconsin on the bike I had thought to restore yet again.

The engine shrieked between my knees. Quickly the tachometer climbed towards the red as long shadows from the setting sun flickered through the trees on the road before me. I knocked the transmission up a gear without backing off the throttle. I glanced 80 mph on the speedometer before the sweeping left turn looming ahead and demanded all my attention. Setting up for the corner, I knocked the transmission up another gear and shifted my weight so that all of it lay on the outside right-hand foot peg and leaned the bike over quickly. Hanging off to the left, I continued applying more gas, smoothly feeding it on. The motorcycle leaned over impossibly, it's tires struggled to keep their grip on the speeding ground below as I consciously kept my left knee from touching down. Through the corner I felt the undulations of the asphalt rushing below through the left foot peg as it ground on the pavement leaving a shower of sparks behind in its wake. Almost out of the corner, the rear tire lost it's battle with the fast moving asphalt and stepped out to the right. Sideways at 100 miles per hour, I let the bike move underneath me and managed the gas to maintain control avoiding a severe fishtail that would result and the inevitable crash if I chopped it. Completely through the left-hand sweeper, I straightened out the motorcycle, and hit the front brakes hard to set up for the sharp right-hander ahead. Scrubbing speed off quickly, all the weight transferred to the front wheel and the rear wheel, with nothing left to do but tag along, floated above the ground as though supported on nothing but ether.

Crazy, I mused--gazing upon the replacement engine as it sat atop the shipping pallet it had arrived on from the East Coast, looking as though it expectantly awaited to catch the bike suspended above it.

I reached a gloved hand to the winch control that had raised the motorcycle off the floor and had left the old engine beneath its empty husk. With the setting sun, the chill of the winter air began to bite through my winter jacket and I moved slowly pondering upon the idea that this bike was one of the few meaningful links that I had with my past before I had fervently converted to Christ.

My friends, my motorcycle buddies, had often boasted of the sad fate that this bike had endured off the showroom floor. It was true of what they had said: I had abused this bike and it, me. I remember once, traveling out west, I had stopped for gas in a sleepy hamlet in Montana when a trooper roared into town. Doing over one hundred miles per hour, he glanced at me through his right-hand window and locked up his brakes to make the entrance to the station. Pulling up to me, the first thing I heard was, "I've been chasing you for ten miles!" We made friends, and he let me go with a warning—making me first promise never to be seen cruising the highways at 130 mph again. I had been following the dancing light that day, and it was moving fast.

I had ridden this bike around the country and throughout those years I'd worn out or wrecked everything but the headlamp and the engine at one point or another. On it, I traveled with the wind and had seen the nation's sun baked deserts, golden plains, and smelled the fresh thin air from its mountain peaks. In passing, I'd seen the glory of the nation's great cites and the loneliness of a single yard lamp from 30 miles away looming in the darkness. From the farmer who gave me some gas so I could make it to the next town to the guy who had brought friends to start a fist fight with me because he didn't like the way I rode; I had met people from around the nation on this bike. The names of those people and places I met and saw are now all nearly forgotten but the smiles and the vistas are not.

Through it all, I'd wrecked on this bike five times; one of which had left me hospitalized for nine days. It was something of a miracle that I survived the accident at all, people said. Although I lived, the bike did not. With the time it took to recover, my brother and I replaced nearly everything but the engine and the dancing headlamp that I had faithfully followed for so many years to get it back on the road.

And there it hung from the rafters, gently swinging side to side filling me with memories.

As I reflected upon the fact that nothing really remained of the original bike but the headlamp, it occurred to me that this bike paralleled my own walk with the Lord. Externally, like the bike, I still looked much the same as I did a decade past. But internally, like this bike, there had been massive changes. Things worn out or useless were being replaced with something better. Things not necessarily seen, but nevertheless known. I searched my soul and it dawned on me that unlike that young man, who without destination, had set out to see America, I now had a destination. I knew exactly where I was headed. I had followed that dancing light from the alley for too many years. We would again ride together this bike of mine, but this time the bike would follow its light and I would follow mine, that of Jesus Christ. And finding that my thoughts of God were more satisfying than my thoughts of motorcycling, I took my hand off the winch control. I would finish this job later. The motorcycle could be left hanging for now.

© 2002, Eric Landstrom

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