Keep the Biker Wave Alive

Is the biker signal starting to fade?

Keep the wave alive.
Keep the wave alive.Cruiser

Historically, motorcyclists have always been part of a breed characterized by fierce individualism. Their bikes have usually reflected their individual character, and they rode when others around them couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get around on two wheels, exposed to the elements, when they could be comfortably enveloped in a “cage.” This difference in personal choice led bikers to feel a strong sense of community; everyone on two wheels felt connected, whether they rode a Harley or a Honda. The feeling of connection was often manifested in “the wave.” You still see it on the highway: two riders approaching will often give each other a nonchalant flick of the hand, acknowledging the brotherhood (and increasingly sister- hood!) of being in the wind.

When a biker pulls over at the side of the road, other bikes stop or slow down to see if their fellow rider needs a hand. At least, that is how it used to be. Last year, on my way to the Reading Motorcycle Club rally in Oley, Pennsylvania, my bike was suffering from an electrical problem; it died on Route 422 just 15 minutes away from the rally. I was struck by the fact that at least a dozen bikes rode by and not one slowed down to see if I needed assistance. Finally, a former biker who was in a pick-up truck stopped and gave me a lift into town for help. Maybe this was just a statistical fluke. Heck, out of every dozen folks in any group, there have to be at least a couple of a-holes. Maybe the roll of the die was just not in my favor that day.

But I think that there is something more going on in our world. Just last week, I took a ride through Amish country in southeastern Pennsylvania. I waved at the first two bikers I saw, and neither of them acknowledged me. Then, I started counting. Of the next eight bikes, only two riders waved. Does this mean anything? Heck, I was riding my new Harley, and most of these bikes were also Harleys. The sociologist in me tells me that there is a larger meaning to this phenomenon.

We live in a culture characterized by heightened individualism. People truly believe that it is individuals that make this world great, not groups and teams of folks working together. They think that they don’t need anyone other than themselves to get by. And, when they or others around them have problems, they believe that the individual is totally to blame. They fail to see how those personal problems are, in fact, connected to larger social issues. The whole myth of individualism that’s so strong in our country is leading many people down a miserable path of alienated lifestyles and social isolation.

During the 1950s, fifty percent of the population (my Dad being one of them) were members of a local Lions Club, Elks Club, Knights of Columbus or League of Women Voters organizations. People were connected to their local communities and active in volunteer groups. My brother-in-law is President of his local volunteer fire department, and he has told me that the average age of volunteers in his community is approaching 60! They just can’t find young people interested in serving as volunteer fire fighters.

Data from recent surveys show that people increasingly say they have no one in their lives with whom to discuss personal problems. Instead, they turn to shrinks and paid listeners. One study shows that in the middle 1980s, the average person reported that they had at least three close personal confidants; today, folks report that they have closer to zero. Our social networks have become smaller as the tentacles of individualism have taken over our lives. We are not richer for it. We are more alone.

Riding a motorcycle provides us with a unique opportunity to both express our individualism as well as embracing the larger community of bikers and all the good works that they do throughout the year. Riding is about community, too; don’t forget that as you enjoy the sweet smells of rolling into the wind. Remember community as that next rider waves to you; feel it, relish it, embrace it and be proud. And, don’t forget to wave back.