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  • Writer's pictureOwen Johnson

"Keep Your Head Up, Keep Your Eyes Open"

On my Dad and I, and our relationship with danger, life, and motorcycles.

Dad (Brent Johnson) Bump starts a reluctant Yamaha 250

Every time I get on a motorcycle there are three goals I must accomplish.

1. Don’t Die.

2. Get Where I’m Going.

3. Enjoy Every Second.

If even one of these goals isn’t achieved each time I ride, it’s not worth the risk. I’m lucky enough to have a second transport option—I have a car as well—so I have the luxury of making “enjoy every second” a requirement for myself. I also have the luxury and burden of understanding the risks, knowing how much I’m risking at every second on the road.

I’m lucky enough to have learned from others’ mistakes.

I have been fascinated and excited by bikes—motorized and otherwise—since I was old enough to walk. When I was old enough to go out on my own, my best friend Cade and I would hit the town on our bicycles every day during the summer.

I first rode my friend Aidan’s motorcycle when I was maybe ten or eleven. My dad was there, and we both knew that when I first put the bike in gear that my life had changed forever.

I wasn’t able to see my dad’s face as I sped away down the dirt track on a 50cc minibike but I imagine it was sad. He’d known that my love for motorcycles was inevitable but had been holding out hope that just maybe it would skip a generation. It didn’t. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand. He understood just fine.

Dad with his CRF250 and a borrowed 450cc bike in FairPlay, 2018

On Christmas day, 2013, I straddled my first motorcycle. It was a 2008 Honda CRF80F (80cc) dirt bike, expertly procured by my dad from craigslist. It was red and white, and fit me perfectly.

Despite it being the middle of winter, we found ourselves at the top of my long driveway, standing in warm sunlight. I had never been so happy to not have a white Christmas. My motorcycle was cold, and without an electric starter, it was up to me to kick the engine on.

With my second-hand helmet squished onto my skull and chest armour strapped firmly to my shoulders and around my waist, I kicked hard down onto the starter with my grass-stained hiking boots.

Now, an 80cc four-stroke dirt bike doesn’t exactly “roar” when it turns on, but to my ears, tigers and thunder exploded from the exhaust pipe. Exhilarating. It was loud and full of life, the bike and I both breathing hard and heavy.

My dad leaned forward and held onto the handlebars while I got on. In classic my-dad style, he gestured down the driveway and explained my next steps, to slowly let the clutch out and coast down the hill in first gear. He turned and looked me in the eye and told me to be careful, to keep my head up; That he’d meet me at the bottom. He could see the impatience in my face and my excited breathing.

Just like when he taught me, teaching my cousin Meg (except I had worn a helmet)

I nodded and popped the clutch open. The engine choked and the jerk of momentum threw my stomach over the gas tank and into the handlebars. My dad was patient.

“Slowly. Give it a little gas,” he said, mimicking twisting the throttle and releasing the clutch smoothly, “and you’ll feel it pull you forward." He leaned forward, miming the bike's movement. "Don’t let it out all the way right away. Just let it out slowly.” I nodded and he nodded in return, stepping back to give me room. I did as he said, and let the bike pull me into a slow roll. The front forks compressed slightly as the clutch opened all the way and I leaned into the tank. At the bottom I pressed the breaks and came to a stop. I was ready to go again. I wanted more speed, I wanted to go faster and shred like the racing motorcyclists I’d seen at Thunder Valley. I barely heard my dad’s next instructions as blood pumped in my ears. When I sensed finality in his directions, I nodded my head and slowly let the clutch out again. Once I was moving, I wasted no time getting the bike into second, third gear. Blazing down the little private street, I felt cold December air bite at my ankles and press tears out of my eyes. The smell of the oil heating up rose into my helmet and mixed with the sharpness of the exhaust fumes and the freshness of winter wind. There was nothing like it.

"Just give it a liiiiittle bit of gas..."

As I reached the end of the street, I pulled in the clutch and began slowly waddling in a semicircle, guiding the bike around to bring it back to Dad. It leaned into my left leg and weighed me down. I felt my balance evaporate and I let go of the clutch as I threw my left hand out to stable myself. The bike lurched forward, and I slid back on the seat. My right hand clung to the accelerator, and as I was pulled back by the force of the movement, causing me to pull down harder on the throttle. The bike bounded over the curb and screamed across my neighbor’s lawn.

The front wheel collided with the side of their home, and I was launched off the bike as the front suspension bounced forcefully off the brick wall. I landed on the concrete steps next to the front door with a thud, the air knocked clean out of me. I shakily stood up and pulled off my helmet. My vision blurred as my head as adrenaline flooded my brain.

Dad ran over to me, and I did my best to walk it off while he talked with my concerned neighbor who had come outside to see what had just smacked into his house. The two of them heard a thud and turned around to see I had fainted in the front yard, head narrowly missing the sidewalk.

I was fine.

After that, I called it a day on the bike, which turned into months as the warmer weather anomaly vanished for the remainder of the winter season.

Dad learned to ride a motorcycle in part from his dad but learned to ride it well from tearing up the ground in the forest next to his childhood home. To this day he remains adamant that any motorcyclist should learn first to ride a dirt bike, to feel comfortable, to learn control off road before riding on the roads. He describes the funny and perilous adventures that he and his older brother lived in the podcast portion of this story. Listen to it here.

Dad (right) and my uncle Darin on Darin's Yamaha 100. Circa. 1972

Dad teaches gently. Hand gestures, mimicking, vocal inflections, all act as tools to explain the intricacies of handling a motorcycle. He managed to survive the trials of self-learning and sees each teaching moment as an opportunity to help someone to learn without the same risk to life and limb he undertook. His empathy makes him easy to listen to and he is never condescending. His patience lets the learner make mistakes without shame and creates a trust that resonates with the new rider. I’ve watched him teach my mom, my sister, and now my cousin, just this last weekend.

When something is vitally important, his tone shifts. There is no anger in his words, but the gravity of his meaning is never missed by the learner.

“I knew that teaching you would in a way be dangerous. Well, it was hard. I knew that you were going to ride motorcycles… since like… that first time. Even before that, I believed you would. Even so I was still thinking that maybe there was a chance you wouldn’t be interested. So, when it became clear there was no avoiding it I jumped on the chance to teach you so that, well, there’s only so much you can do, but in the end, if you’re going to ride, I would want to know that I did all that I could to make sure you were safe.”

There’s a melancholy chord in his words. I'm sure believes he wouldn’t have been able to prevent me from riding, so he encouraged it, to make it something I did out of enjoyment and passion, not spite or rebellion; and it worked.

I ride my motorcycle nearly every day; to work, to the store, every chance I get. This means that every day my parents could wake up in a world that I’m not a part of anymore, just because a truck didn’t see me when it chose to merge, or a car runs a red when I’m turning left, or maybe I just lose my balance.

Motorcycles are just hot blocks of fire with handles. No seat belts or air bags; you’d be lucky to have ABS enabled breaks. A helmet can keep you alive but it won’t keep you from ending up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

My biggest fear in the entire world is leaving my parents behind if something bad were to happen, but I still ride every chance I get.

“Keep your head up.” Dad says whenever I put my helmet on. “Keep your eyes open.”

There’s a lovesick dance in our minds, and we can feel it pulling every direction simultaneously. The fear and danger tug-of-war with the love and freedom that comes with the twist of the throttle and the clunk from the transfer case as you put the bike into gear. Some would describe the relationship to that of a drug addict to their ideal vice, but the difference to my dad and I is that it adds to our lives and makes part of why life is worth living.

So when we head out on the road, we wear helmets and gloves, we keep our heads up and our eyes open. We try not to die, we get where we’re going, and we enjoy every second of it.

Selfie in Fairplay, 2018


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