Keep The Shiny Side Up is the motto of us knights of the road. It means keeping the bike upright. Not so easy. I fall off. I have near misses. It has never been anyone else's fault. I'm not a good driver. Sometimes I am admiring the scenery or myself in the mirror or a leggy girl on the pillion of a fellow knight or otherwise not paying proper attention, so I go into a ditch or the back of a parked car or a pothole. Fortunately I have not yet tumbled into the path of a moving vehicle or broken a bone. I have escaped with bruises, cuts, grazes and quiet evenings at home picking gravel out of my skin with tweezers.
I panic in the face of danger in a way that I don't in a car or on a bicycle. I bang down on the heel-and-toe instead of the rear brake or accelerate and brake at the same time or brake too hard or freeze and do nothing and all this on a dry, quiet, sunny, secondary road at 30kph/20mph.
The reward is to feel in touch with the world, senses heightened not dulled in the isolation bubble of a car. I take three times longer to get anywhere but feel I've done something worthwhile. There doesn't need to be much of a view. A bird, a tree, the grass at the side of the road, brought to life by the breeze of going past, give a sense of witnessing something. And by witnessing the world I witness myself.
A lot of the time I watch the tarmac for potholes, debris and roadkill but even this can be enthralling on different shades and patterns of grey, like travelling along an unending abstract painting. I am a connoisseur of road surfaces and get a thrill when they are unusual or beautiful. I once went out of my way to follow a tractor pulling a trailer-full of fresh slaughtered sheep because of the blood-red splashes in the white dust. I recently lay on the asphalt with Harley pinning down my left leg, entranced by the close-up of pearly gravel scattered in mother-of-pearly oil glistening in the sunlight. Aesthetic enjoyment may have had something to do with the elation of not being dead but this is true of many pleasures.
A hazard on the back roads is tortoises. I have yet to see one among the road kill. Perhaps it is because they are not built for darting out in front of you. There is plenty of time to see them, like rocks in the middle of the road. Another possibility is that they sleep at night, when most road killing happens. The hazard is more for drivers, who brake, pull over, get out to carry the tortoise out of danger and are hit by passing vehicles. I like to enhance the tortoise’s flight, soaring up and plummeting down, banking and weaving, making aeroplane noises. The aerophobic shrink into their shells, others crane their necks to enjoy the view or paddle their legs under the illusion that they are responsible. Or dreaming. Or a shaman among tortoises.
It seems odd that the tortoise is one of the symbols of speedy Hermes in sun hat and seven league sandals, the messenger of the gods. The reason is that he invented the lyre with a tortoiseshell as the soundbox, the first bouzouki.