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Vroom, Vroom, Hmmmm: Motorcycles As Literary Metaphor

Biker Ron Hamberg says he's read Dickens, Twain and Gandhi's autobiography, but as for books about motorcycles, "I just ride 'em, I don't read about 'em." (Solvejg Wastvedt)

Motorcycles provide an open road for literature — literally and figuratively. They're sometimes the dramatic device writers use to talk about many things: adventure, rebellion, even inner peace. But motorcycles aren't just a metaphor at Bartel's Harley-Davidson shop in Marina Del Rey, Calif. They're loud and shiny and very real.

This is where we find Jeff Bragg, who claims he has been riding since he was 3. He reads an excerpt from Hunter S. Thompson's book Hell's Angels: "Tense for the action, long hair in the wind, beards and bandanas flapping, earrings, armpits, chains, whips, swastikas and stripped-down Harleys flashing chrome as traffic on 101 moves over, nervous, to let the formation pass like a burst of dirty thunder."

In literature, motorcycles — and the people who ride them — often represent an outlaw spirit, danger and sex. For motorcyclist Allie MacKenzie, that's a no-brainer. "Who in their right mind can pass up a bad boy on a bike?" MacKenzie rides a Harley Sportster Forty-Eight. At Bartel's, she picks a passage from the book Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley: "I was panting, and he was cursing. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. If he would have asked me to, I would have jumped on the back of his bike and ridden to the ends of the Earth with him."

For more great cycling tales, check out NPR's Book Your Trip series. We've got recommendations for literary travel by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocketship, time machine and even giant peach.

On the opposite end of the motorcycle fascination spectrum sits Matthew B. Crawford. By his own description, he's in the "knowledge industry." He has a Ph.D. and has worked at think tanks. He also owns his own motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va., and he's the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft — a manifesto for the importance of working with one's own hands. Fixing, restoring and riding motorcycles, he says, is very different from writing about them.

"Writing-with-a-T is like pulling teeth," he says, enunciating the "t" sound. "There are moments of pleasure when you feel like you've really nailed it. But it's this activity where I have to force myself to sit and go over something over and over again to try to get it right, and it's rare where you hit that state of flow where things are just clicking — which is kind of the routine experience on a bike, especially when there's like heavy traffic that's moving fast and there's all these obstacles. All of your senses are just keyed in and kind of hyper alert, so it's a very heightened state of consciousness."

That state is what Rachel Kushner captures in her novel The Flamethrowers: "I was going one hundred miles an hour now, trying to steer properly from my hunched position as insects ticked and thumped and splatted against the windscreen. It was suicide to let the mind drift," she reads.

Kushner's protagonist, Reno, races through the desert trying to break a land-speed record. "She's in the moment, very present to it, because she doesn't want to crash," says Kushner. "I wrote it based on, to some degree, my own experience. I know what it's like to go very fast on motorcycles. Those moments, they stay with you."

In literature, motorcycle trips are sometimes an escape, a way to chase away a bad marriage, a midlife crisis. A more profoundly political coming-of-age ride took place in 1952, when a 23-year-old, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara set off from Buenos Aires with a friend on the back of a Norton 500 to explore South America. Guevara's book The Motorcycle Diaries was published in 1993, years after his death, and was later turned into a movie.

"These two young men with a shared love of adventure, of women, of speed, and this bike, and this shared political yearning," says journalist Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Anderson says the seven- or eight-month motorcycle trip was really a coming of age for medical student Guevara and his friend.

"The idea [was] that they needed to see something of their continent beyond the rather privileged confines of their Argentina, their white Argentina," says Anderson. "They took off on this bike and traveled through the indigenous and mestizo back roads and backwoods of their continent. It was an extraordinary experience for young Guevara. It really was a determinant in his life, deciding what he would become."

The Norton broke down, as motorcycles will — but even that experience can take you someplace, a phenomenon Robert Pirsig examines in his now classic 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

"When you get stuck on fixing motorcycles, that's not a bad moment. That's actually a pretty good moment," he told NPR in 1974. "The times I've been stuck, I've been able to catch myself at being stuck and, instead of getting mad, just gone off and had a cup of coffee. And I notice whenever I'm stuck like that, that if I look at the clouds, the clouds are much more beautiful. I find at the very moment of stuckness, if you just stop and look around you, you find the world is very real."

Back at Bartel's, biker Ron Hamberg reads from Zen, a moment in which Pirsig contrasts riding a motorcycle with the more passive act of driving in a car. In a car, Pirsig writes, "you're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle, the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore. And the sense of presence is overwhelming."

Hamberg — covered with tattoos — rides a Harley. He says he has read books by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Mahatma Gandhi. But as for books about motorcycles, he growls, "I just ride 'em. I don't read about 'em."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Reading is often all about the journey, isn't it? Well, it's definitely the case in our summer series, Book Your Trip. We're looking at writing that involves travel or modes of transportation. And Today, NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks at how motorcycles have inspired literature with the open road, wind on your face and plenty of this...

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Motorcycles aren't just a metaphor at Bartels' Harley-Davidson shop in Marina del Rey, California. They're loud and shiny and very real. Biker Jeff Bragg claims he's been riding since he was 3. He reads an expert from Hunter S. Thompson's book "Hell's Angels."

JEFF BRAGG: (Reading) Tense for the action, long hair in the wind, beards and bandannas flapping, earrings, arm pits, chains, whips, swastikas, and stripped-down Harleys flashing chrome as she moves over nervously to let the formation pass like a burst of dirty thunder.

DEL BARCO: In literature, motorcycles and the people who ride them often represent an outlaw spirit, danger and sex. Motorcyclist Allie MacKenzie says, yeah.

ALLIE MACKENZIE: Who in their right mind can pass up a bad boy on a bike?

DEL BARCO: MacKenzie rides a Harley Sportster 48. At Bartels', she reads from the book "Motorcycle Man," by Kristin Ashley.

MACKENZIE: (Reading) I was panting, and he was cursing. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. If you would've asked me to, I would have jumped on the back of his bike and ridden to the ends of the earth with him.

DEL BARCO: Yeah. Then there's Matthew B. Crawford. He's got a PhD and worked at think tanks and owns his own motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. He's also the author of "Shop Class as Soulcraft," a manifesto for the importance of working with one's own hands. Fixing, restoring and riding motorcycles, he says, is very different from writing about them.

MATTHEW B. CRAWFORD: Writing with a T is like pulling teeth. It's this activity where I have to force myself to sit and go over something over and over again. And it's rare where you hit that state of flow where things are just clicking, which is kind of the routine experience on a bike, especially when there's, like, heavy traffic that's moving fast and there's all these obstacles - all of your senses are just keyed in and kind of hyper alert. So it's a very heightened state of consciousness.

DEL BARCO: That's what Rachel Kushner wanted to capture in her novel "The Flamethrowers."

RACHEL KUSHNER: (Reading) I was going 100 of miles an hour now, trying to steer properly from my hunched position as insects ticked and thumped and splatted against the windscreen. It was suicide to let the mind drift.

DEL BARCO: Kushner's protagonists, Reno, races through the desert trying to break a land speed record.

KUSHNER: So she's in the moment - very present to it because she doesn't want to crash. And I wrote it based on, to some degree, my own experience. I know what it's like to go very fast on motorcycles, and those moments - they stay with you.

DEL BARCO: Motorcycle stories also offer escape. That was the case for two young men in 1952, Argentina. A 23-year-old prerevolutionary Che Guevarra set off with a friend on the back of a Norton 500 to explore the cultures of South America beyond Buenos Aires. Guevarra's "The Motorcycle Diaries" was published in 1993, years after his death and later turned into a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Spanish spoken).

JON LEE ANDERSON: To young men with a shared love of adventure, of women, of speed, you know, and this bike and the shared political yearning.

DEL BARCO: Che Guevarras' biographer, Jon Lee Anderson, says the trip opened the eyes of Guevarra and his friend.

ANDERSON: They needed to see something of their continent beyond the rather privileged confines of their Argentina, their white Argentina. They traveled through the indigenous back roads of their continent. It was an extraordinary experience for young Guevarra and really was determinant in deciding what he would become.

DEL BARCO: The Norton broke down as motorcycles will, but even that experience can take you someplace, as Robert Pirsig told NPR in 1974, talking about his classic "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT PIRSIG: When you get stuck on fixing motorcycles, that's not a bad moment. That's actually a pretty good moment. And I - the times I've been stuck - I notice whatever I'm stuck like that, that if I look at the clouds, the clouds are much more beautiful. And if - that's getting a little bit sentimental, but I find that at the very moment of stuckness, if you just stop and look around you, you find the world is very real.

DEL BARCO: Back at Bartels' Harley-Davidson, shop biker Rob Hamberg reads from Pirsig's book.

ROB HAMBERG: (Reading) On a cycle, the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore. And the sense of presence is overwhelming.

DEL BARCO: Hamberg, covered with tattoos, rides a Harley. He says he's read books by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Mahatma Gandhi, but as for books about motorcycles...

HAMBERG: I just ride them. I don't read about them.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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