The Relief and Revival After Getting Back on a Motorcycle

When you get back on a motorcycle after a long break it's as if you have taken a breath after being under water for far too long

X-ray of wrist after accident
14 screws and a titanium plate put a long hold on motorcycle riding, but after getting back in the saddle the feeling was revitalizing.Photo Courtesy of Jerry Smith

I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly well-rounded person—and I’m not just referring to my waistline, which after 55 years has long since gotten over its youthful shyness and has started to expand its horizons, as well as my circumference. I ride, I write, I play the guitar and the piano—well, I can make musical noises on them—I shoot both guns and photographs, and I train dogs. So when I overhear someone sum me up as “a motorcycle guy,” it makes my back hair stand up a bit, even though I’ve been riding for 38 years. “There’s more to me than that,” I want to say. A lot more.

I got a reality check on that particular peeve in January, when an oncoming pickup truck crossed the double-yellow on a two-lane road and hit me head-on. I was in my car, or you wouldn’t be reading this (scoff at airbags on motorcycles if you will; I’ll never drive a car without them). While I survived the accident—the other guy didn’t—I got pretty busted up: four broken ribs, a fractured bone in my foot and a badly broken wrist. I knew how badly right away when I tried to open the car door and my left hand flopped around like a dead fish. Both the radius and the ulna had snapped, and the ends were displaced so far that there were, for a time, two distinct, right-angle bends between my hand and forearm.

The ER docs shot my wrist full of lidocaine and yanked on it until the bones were more or less lined up, then sent me to surgery, where another doc installed a titanium plate and 14 screws. They come with a lifetime warranty, because that’s how long they’ll be in me. When I came to, it hurt to breathe because of the ribs, it hurt to walk because of the foot, and everything else in my originally left-handed life was a complete pain in the ass, thanks to my left hand being strapped into a splint, which was soon replaced by a cast.

That ride was like the first deep breath after being under water.

I went home after six days in the hospital—not soon enough, because hospitals drive me crazy. But the craziness would only get worse. My ulna refused to heal up, screws notwithstanding, and what should have been six weeks in a cast stretched to 12 weeks and then four months. I needed another operation in May, which started the healing process all over again.

You’d think I would’ve had more important things to think about while I was recuperating than riding motorcycles. After all, I had to learn how to do everything not only one-handed, but right-handed, which on some days would have made a hit series on Comedy Central. But the worst part was walking by my KLR650—which I’d bought new two months before the accident and had only put 1500 miles on since then—every time I let the dogs outside.

With all the other stuff going on in my life, it’s amazing how frustrating that was. I eventually had to sell the bike—work is scarce for a one-handed motojournalist—and it was almost a relief not to have to look at it every day knowing I couldn’t ride it. It was only a temporary relief, though. I started haunting local motorcycle shops, sitting on bikes in their showrooms, draping my swollen fingers over the grip and reaching in vain for the clutch lever.

When I wasn’t doing that, I was thinking about which bike I’d buy when I could finally ride again. I burned hours of Internet time, scoured all the motorcycle magazines in the house and struck up conversations with every rider I saw, hoping they’d let me just sit on their bikes.

My first post-crash ride was on my chiropractor's Honda Magna. It took place seven months and four days after the accident, and one day after I told my orthopedic surgeon I wasn't going to wear that damned cast a minute longer. I was as nervous as a bomb-squad rookie as I fed the clutch out and hit the street. But not for long. That ride was like the first deep breath after being under water too long. I felt alive again, renewed, reborn, better than I had since the accident—maybe better than before it.
I felt something else, too. I felt like a motorcycle guy. Because, as it turns out, that's what I am.