Skip To Content
Become a MemberCulture Wield It Well: A Father’s Day Reflection

Culture Wield It Well: A Father’s Day ReflectionOwen Clarke explains how his father's love of motorcycles rescued him.

    I’ve lived with chronic neuromuscular pain and neuropathy since I was 15 years old.

    The doctors have never discovered its origin. Perhaps some nebulous autoimmune disease. Perhaps the remnants of a childhood illness. Perhaps something else. When I was a kid, I used to believe this pain meant I was destined for something. Different. Unique.

    Soon it became clear that I was just destined for a hell of a lot of doctor’s appointments.

    My parents committed themselves completely to my recovery, supporting me as I tried everything under the sun to find relief, from hyperbaric oxygen tanks to hypnosis to ketamine to IVIg to bee venom therapy. I saw top doctors everywhere from the Cleveland Clinic to Johns Hopkins to the Mayo Clinic to Mass General. By the time I graduated high school, I had visited over 100 individual specialists, from neurologists to rheumatologists to myofascial massage therapists.

    My high school years were nigh-unbearable. I spent most of my junior and senior years standing up at a podium at the back of the classroom like some strange overseer, because of excruciating burning pain in the backs of my thighs that prohibited me from sitting down for more than ten minutes at a time. I carried a foam ass cushion around for the times I did have to sit down.

    By the time I was 19, I was much diminished. I’d been an avid outdoorsman and a particularly passionate rock climber since I was a kid. Now I could barely climb, due to nerve pain and numbness in my hands and feet. Even easy pitches felt like playing with fire. I’d think, “How much pain am I going to be dealing with tonight because of this?”

    Simple camping trips became an exercise in pain management. Writing began to become difficult. Typing on my laptop caused my fingers to tingle and burn. I was barely an adult, and already it felt like I was on the decline. Like life was slipping through my fingertips.

    That was the year my father taught me to ride his motorcycle.

    His bike is a 1979 Harley-Davidson Low Rider. At 1200cc and near 500 lbs, it was far from an ideal learner’s bike for a scrawny 19-year-old who could hardly keep any meat on his bones.

    But all things considered, I got the hang of it well enough.

    In some ways, it was odd that I hadn’t learned sooner. As a kid, I’d ridden on the back but never learned to pilot the bike myself. This was partly because I was more interested in climbing and other outdoor sports as a young kid, and partly, I think, because my mother hated motorcycles. (In her defense, I don’t know many mothers that don’t.)

    More importantly, I felt power again. For once, I was back in control, at least in some small portion of my life. That’s the beauty of motorcycles.

    Ironically, it was my mom, though, who suggested my dad teach me to ride. She said she wanted to give me something of my own. Something to replace the hobbies I’d had to put aside. Something that could take me out from under the shadow of my pain.

    And I loved it.

    Not in the pure, unadulterated way I loved climbing. Instead, it was a queer blend of fear and joy. On the bike, I was constantly on edge. I was watching for cars pulling out in front of me. Potholes in the road. Sharp turns ahead. Eyes peeled for danger.

    That said, it’s not like motorcycles were some holy remedy. The vibration in the handlebars often aggravated my neuropathy. Pain and spasms in my hips and legs made rides longer than 30 minutes out of the question. But mentally, it gave me freedom. I was so focused on whatever I was doing, the clutch, the shifter peg, the brakes that it could mask the pain that I’d lived with for so long, even if only briefly.

    More importantly, I felt power again. For once, I was back in control, at least in some small portion of my life. That’s the beauty of motorcycles.

    Riding is an exercise in control. It’s a test of how you wield ultimate power. Because on a bike, nothing holds you back. You don’t have to be physically fit (or even particularly skilled) to turn yourself into mush on the side of the road. Fatsos and weaklings blast around on two wheels all the time.

    You can go as fast as you want (or at least fast enough to utterly obliterate yourself), and you can do it whenever you want, for as long as you want.

    You just have to flick your wrist.

     

    Because it’s not about how much power you have. How strong you are. How hard you can climb. How far you can carry a heavy pack. Every man has power, even if it’s just over himself. Over how he treats others. How he chooses to live. To die.

    Everyone who rides knows a few other riders who don’t have control. Often, the tense is known, because these chaps typically end up as grease stains. If you don’t know them personally, you always see them on the street. The t-shirt and flip-flop wheelie artists. The goons fly at 80 mph through residential neighborhoods. The tailgaters and speeders and revvbombers and swervers and drunk riders.

    Then, of course, there are the ever-cautious. The responsible. Those who wear full gear, driving the speed limit with their head on a swivel.

    And sometimes those folks, too, end up dead or as vegetables.

    Motorcycles taught me that, too. You can make all the right choices and still get jammed with a bad hand, whether it’s a pickup truck sideswiping you on the freeway or an unknown illness that makes your hands feel like they’re being slow-roasted over a fire 24/7.

     

    For a couple of years after graduating college I lived in my parent’s house, unemployed, while I managed my pain as best I could. There was no flipped switch, but over several months, things improved. I started taking a few new medications. I tried a few new therapies. Slowly, my pain began to subside. I moved out. I started writing full-time and living on the road.

    I still deal with a bit of pain every day, and if I miss my daily meds I’ll wake up with numb, tingling hands and feet. But by and large, I can live my life.

    Sure, I’ll never be a concert pianist, and I’ll probably never be a strong climber again. But I can climb. I can surf. I can skate. I can write. I can (occasionally) beat my little brother in Halo when I come home to visit. I can do the things I love.

    But today, I don’t think there’s anything I value more than a mellow afternoon ride on my Bonneville. Riding is the great equalizer in my life. The counterbalance, if I ever start getting too big a head.

    Because it’s not about how much power you have. How strong you are. How hard you can climb. How far you can carry a heavy pack. Every man has power, even if it’s just over himself. Over how he treats others. How he chooses to live. To die.

    It’s not about quantity. Whatever power you do have… It’s about how you wield it.

    My father’s motorcycle taught me that.

    We don't support Internet Explorer

    Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.