why do we fall?

this is a story about crashing my bike; about the buildup, the fall, and the reflection. if you’re fond of me, this may not be easy to read. i think about my parents, and specifically my godfather. i’m sorry, but i’m compelled to share it.

easter morning comes around hot and sunny in san cristobal de las casas. at eight, rick and i crawl out of our tent on the rooftop of hostal akumal and stand looking down at dan, inside his sleeping bag in a hammock in the courtyard below. he cheerily informs us that he was rained on during the night and warns that the dog has shit at the base of the ladder. moving without any urgency, we pack up, load up, and prep the bikes to leave. rick swaps out his frayed clutch cable, i lube my chain. we get tips on lodging in the yucatan from an australian named john and exchange meaningful farewells with erick, the beanie wearing, chain-smoking owner of hostal akumal. ‘travel safe,’ says everyone, and with sincerity.

north of san cristobal the mountainous ridges are blanketed in jungle and indigenous villages are connected by improbable dirt paths. for the whole of the afternoon we feel like real explorers. we receive blank and universal stares from the natives. it’s easter and everyone is in the street. the young boys wave. the women and girls are dressed in identical outfits, the designs but not the colors changing perceptibly with each new village. each time we stop to ask directions, the men crowd around us to help and the drunk ones shake our hands. at one poblado we’re directed through a market. we can barely walk the bikes through without knocking over wooden posts strung together with tarps for shade. women sit in the dirt with baskets of fruit. the boy who points the way is offended when i decline to give him a lift to the highway.

and when it comes to the riding… oh it’s amazing. i seem to have become the best offroad rider, or at the least the most confident one. i practice standing on the pegs as i push ahead through packed sand, gravel, rolling potholes, washouts, grazing donkeys, and rockfall from the adjacent slopes. all this as we switchback through dense jungle and a dozen villages stunned by our presence. thirsty and exhilarated, we reach the highway and a sign - ‘palenque 96’. we stop and stretch, drink red bulls and eat local bread. and then we’re back on the bikes, eager to reach town before dark, with only an hour of smooth pavement to go. i push play on some upbeat music and we shove off - rick, dan, sean, in that order.

we pass frequently. we have to. the trucks are slow, the mexican roads curvier and busier. at village speed bumps, our suspension allows us to swing past cars. on uphills, our lightweight bikes can get around a struggling truck in an instant. weeks ago, on the flat desert roads of the baja, we started using a thumbs up to signal the following rider: you’re good to pass. now, on the way to palenque, rick swings around a green coach bus and puts up his left thumb. i can tell dan’s clear to pass, but he doesn’t see the signal. he waits until he crests the hill at the end of the straight and swings out himself. three quarters of the way through the pass, he puts up a proud thumb. back in the baja, we defined this clearly. it means ‘i think you're clear’ - the judgement is still your own. but as the days have grown on, we’ve become more comfortable, more bold. our signals have started to come more easily and we obey them with less hesitation. as dan throws his thumb out, i’m already behind the bus and closing on it, prepping for the possibility. and yet as i roll the throttle and swing left, i’m skeptical. ‘wow,’ i think, ‘he must have an interesting vantage.’ i can’t see much road ahead - it curves downhill and to my right. from where he is, how can he see much more? ‘this isn’t safe,’ my gut says, ‘gun it and get back in.’ i’m at the midpoint of the bus when dan’s thumbs up abruptly becomes a wild, swinging stop! signal. a small white pickup rounds the curve at speed, and way too close. clutch brake brake! and instantly, to fall back behind the bus, but there’s not much time. 

when you stomp the rear brake of a motorcycle, the rear tire locks up and skids along the road, and a calm head and good balance is needed to keep the bike upright. i had done this half a dozen times already, once with a passenger even - i actually thought myself more than capable of handling a rear brake lockup. but now i’m traveling at 45/50 mph, and i can’t handle this. the bike bucks violently, maybe 3, 5, 7 times. there is a microsecond where i think i’m fucked, then a microsecond where i think i’ll hold it, and then quite a few microseconds where i am fucked. as the bike bucks left my foot releases the rear brake and i get the feeling of throwing the bike at the oncoming truck as i hit the pavement with my right hip, forearm, and shoulder. i roll a bit, then slide, and the momentum carries me into a stance, two feet planted on the yellow center stripe of the two lane highway, poised to dart.

such an astonishing thing, that at the very instant i’m popping up to stand, my brain has processed enough to know that i’m whole enough to run, to dodge the new hazards that befall a stationary man in the center of a highway on the side of a hill. i feel briefly like prey, like a gazelle in a circle of lions. three girls still sing in harmony over electronic beats in my headset. the charging cord dangles from my ear. ready to fight, but… i don’t need to dart.

the traffic has stopped around me. i’m eight yards from the white pickup, ten yards past the bike. the bus has passed and the sedan which had been behind is rolling to a stop level with the bike. there’s some shock, sure, but mostly i feel hyperactive. i jog over to murtaugh, my battered partner, kill the ignition and close the fuel line. i stand and page dan to let him know i’m down. four or five guys are around me now, asking if i’m broken in the brief silence before i hear ‘intercom failed’. and then the damn music is on again! a downed motorcycle on a mexican highway won’t stay down long - five of us pull murtaugh upright and one guy smartly puts down the stand as my hyperactivity begins to dull. i’m convincing the last two men i’m fine when dan and rick pull up. my helmet is still on and things are still moving too quickly until dan looks at me - slowly and seriously - ‘i’m so sorry man.’ he says it twice. the clown that he usually is means i’ve never seen him say something like this. maybe it’s the most serious apology i’ve ever received. staring at dan, my breathing slows. i’m alive and unhurt. i laugh.

rick goes ably into first responder mode, asking me about specific possible injuries. having seen my headlight swerve in his rearview, dan had radioed rick and the two returned expecting to find me immobile on the pavement. convinced i’m whole, rick recommends we pull off the road at a small opening a hundred yards ahead and assess the bike and its rider. safely off the pavement, we’re all shocked. aside from scrapes and a pinched throttle tube, murtaugh’s unhurt. i’ve come away with a deep bruise on my hip and a raspberry on my forearm, miraculously located between my two new tattoos. my jacket, pant, and right boot have got some tears, but nothing serious. somehow i kept my head off the pavement and my helmet is untouched. rick helps me clean my arm while dan fixes the throttle and then it’s time to go again, to saddle up. how can it be this easy, to get back on the bike? i’m cautious, but not nervous. why not?

with music off now, i’ve got an hour of reflection ahead. i spend a lot of time thinking about falling. the act of falling itself, the art of it, the big falls i’ve taken in my life. the snowboarding falls, the rock climbing falls, the thousands of dives playing soccer in the backyard. i think about batman’s dad asking him ‘why do we fall bruce?’ i’ve read that we have an instinct to rationalize our survival after a crisis, and i find myself ignoring what i did wrong and trying to identify what i did right. i’m sure many of those that read this story would be inclined to involve god in their reflections following such an accident. but for me there are only two variables to ponder: circumstance and action. as i ride, what i question - perhaps you could even say struggle with - is delineating exactly what influence my actions had, if any, on the circumstances. it’s difficult to conclude anything, because following the decision to pass, conscious thought basically left the theatre. my inclination is to congratulate myself. how clever, i think, to have laid the bike down on the right and not gone off the slope. what an athlete, i think, to have slid to a stance prepped for the next hazard. but how much of this congratulating is actually deserved? did i throw the bike between me and the truck or did it just feel like that? did i really hit the pavement the way my dad taught me to fall when i was a kid? or did i just happen to be wearing good protective gear that would leave anyone at all in the same state? wait - should i congratulate myself on choosing the right gear? so this is what my brain was doing as i reflected - trying to steal from the ‘luck’ category and assign whatever it could to ‘skill’. at the least, it was trying to reach honest conclusions and realizing there couldn’t really be much conclusiveness to any of it.

but i will congratulate myself on something. even if the truth is simply that i was an idiot for passing and a lucky idiot to walk away, i’m proud of the way i greeted the world afterward. within my very first minute back on the bike, we rounded a left hand curve and i saw the low angled rays of the sun outlining the steep green hillsides. how beautiful, i thought. and then i realized what i was thinking, acknowledged the proximity of fear and beauty, and smiled inside my helmet. fuck yeah, i thought, i’m a survivor. what a beautiful world to be alive in.

reaching palenque, we pull in as darkness falls around us. we rent a cabana from a charming old woman, just outside the gate to ancient mayan ruins. we drop our gear and walk to the bar, but before we have a drink i know i need to say something to dan, to make sure he’s not blaming himself. i put my arm around him as we walk.  ‘dude, that’s all on me today. i was an idiot to go.’

‘dude i can’t believe i almost killed you.’

‘hey man, i trust you with my life.’

‘yeah, see where that gets you!’

at the bar, we toast to my luck and spend hours talking openly about the way we ride and what we’re each doing right and wrong. it’s a cathartic and honest conversation over dinner, and the memory of it will only be slightly marred by the fact that rick will wake up in the middle of the night with food poisoning. but hey, he’ll survive.