They live to ride. Perhaps they have been infected by some rare germ that makes them motorcycle thousands of miles in a matter of days–the kind of distances that leave others gaping. Or perhaps they are really not of this world–not of the sedentary, safe circumscription of our modern lives. Perhaps they are responding to something primal in the human spirit: to rove–and to never feel quite so home as when they are riding away from it.
The flag under which they gather is that of the Iron Butt Association, and its rising membership–now some 50,000 worldwide–is testimony to what has been lost to modernity’s drive toward greater comfort and connectivity: the need to test endurance, alone.
Over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been an explosion in the number of long-distance motorcycle rallies. There is the White Stag Rally, the Cape Fear, the Minuteman 1000, the Mason-Dixon 20/20, the Utah 1088, and the granddaddy of them all, the biennial Iron Butt Rally, eleven days and eleven thousand miles of life-changing perseverance against exhaustion. Modeled on the scavenger hunt, in which riders amass points for proof of having gone somewhere–collect a poker chip in Reno, then get a receipt from a barbecue joint in Louisiana–the long-distance rallies yield no monetary gain. On the contrary, they cost hundreds to enter, on top of a small fortune in modifications to a touring bike to make it a competitive long-distance machine. These machines end up looking like what the U.S. military would assign to its special ops forces if it issued motorcycles. The bikes speak eloquently, if silently, on the subject of extremity.
Each motorcycle succinctly describes the future. It’s apparently a future of urgent needs. The bikes are lavishly wired and welded and stickered and accessorized and packed and rethought. They bear fuel cells to carry extra gas, water that can be taken on the fly, dual GPS units to keep them on track, and ports to power heated gear when the night air of the mountains (following the insufferable heat of a day riding across a desert) might otherwise prove unbearable. These bikes are prayers in the form of motorized vehicles, each clause and syllable carefully considered, ready to be launched Godward.
At the end of it all, all the lack of sleep, the pressing onward, the calculating and the riding, riding, riding? A cheap awards banquet in a hotel dining room. This modest banquet, I suspect, brings them here just as much as the opportunity to test themselves alone on the roads of many continents. Here is where they reacquaint themselves with old friends who live in other time zones but who are close in the way that only people who have been through a severe trial can be.
I am one of them. Or rather, I came as close as I could, in order to look over the edge and learn just how far away the others are. The initiation ride, a thousand miles in one day, was for me the longest day of my life. I dismounted to rest. They continued on. I could only wave goodbye. Godspeed.
I had made it through 17 hours and 1,075 miles. I knew enough now of what they faced to know that I was made of different stuff. They were on the inside of a small and extraordinary coterie. I was like the twice-a-week jogger standing on the sidelines of a marathon.
A friend of mine, a man who spends more of the year on his motorcycle than he does at his supposed home, once notified me of his upcoming schedule. He would be going to the annual Iron Butt Association dinner in Daytona. “I have to,” he wrote. “Where there are my people, there must I be.”
My people. Is any lure stronger? A familial blood formed cell-by-cell out of common experience.
Outsiders–even some motorcyclists who might take a Saturday jaunt on local back roads and return in time to put something on the grill–often find the desire to undergo serious privation incomprehensible. But they forget that we desire more than comfort and stability. We also desire extremes.
The patently absurd things we sometimes do–swim across the Atlantic, compete in the Self-Transcendence Race (ha! exactly!) by running 5,649 half-mile laps in 51 days, kill ourselves on icy mountaintops for the sole purpose of trying to get there–are a compulsion left by our evolution. We were built to contend with threats that swept down from trees, food that ran swiftly away, blood that spilled and could not be stopped. Pushing a heavily piled cart at Wal-Mart does not count. Long-distance riding returns us to the daily life-or-death struggle we knew as forest-dwelling hunters. Without pursuits that strain our mental and physical capacities, we start to itch. We want to feel fully alive, and fully ourselves. In this way, riding to extremes takes humans home again.
In one of our earliest incarnations, we were people who brought our homes with us: our food, on the hoof, consisted of grazing animals whose essence is to range. And so we ranged with them; we became nomads. The modern nomad on a motorcycle is an updated type: he brings his energy bars with him. Still, he expresses something fundamental about being human.
Long-distance motorcyclists head out on perilous hunts for points, but the point isn’t points. Moving is the point. Moving through the weather, the breakdowns, the night, the miles. Moving toward return. To a steam-table buffet and a beer, chatter and togetherness, and the matchless satisfaction of a nearly impossible challenge met. It is nothing less than a return to who we were meant to be. It is a return to one’s people. It is going home.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of The Perfect Vehicle, The Place You Love Is Gone, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, and most recently, The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. She lives in Shokan, New York.
*Photo courtesy of Melissa Holbrook-Pierson.