I stood there as Madame Chagny handed me the keys, gauntlets, helmet and goggles to a BMW R69S motorcycle. It was 1968 and I was in a work-study program in the Beaujolais district of France. I planned to take a weeklong break to meet Ian, a Scotsman I'd befriended in the vineyards, on the coast just south of Brest.
The couple I'd been working for gave me their blessings for the trip and offered the BMW as transportation.
In California, I had ridden a Honda 250 Scrambler, 305 Honda Dream, Triumph 500 Trophy and an acquisition I had shared with a good friend, an Oakland Police Special Harley-Davidson, which he had picked up at an auction.
Now here I was in le Midi, gearing up for a ride across France on a bike that had belonged to a disenfranchised vineyard manager who, the Chagnys intimated, had jilted a local woman and would not be back in the village "for a long time."
The caveat was that I had to drop off a few "winery items and paperwork along the way." I packed what Mr. Chagny wanted into the panniers and he handed me the names and addresses of where I was to go. I opened the Michelin map only to find that instead of going from east to west, essentially, Beaujolais to Brest, Mr. Chagny had me going from Beaujolais to Toulon then to Bordeaux; deep south then northwest, a huge difference in travel, time and expense. It was then that he thrust into my pea coat a wad of money, gave me a monster hug and said, "Allez!"
Some people think of motorcycles as "murdercycles" and "donorcycles" because of the inherent danger of riding on two wheels. Letting the mind wander, even for an instant, can be deadly.
I always make sure my mind is in the moment even before I ride. I check my gear. I stay aware of my surroundings every minute. There are few second chances on a motorcycle.
The upside of riding is the complete sense of being "in" the scene rather than sitting in a windowed box passing "through" the scene. Every road nuance, wind turn, raindrop is felt inside and outside of the body. It is truly a sensory experience.
What I noticed as I rode that early fall was the intensity of smells throughout France. I left Beaujolais early in the morning, and a clean southerly wind carried the smells of green fields nearby. Making my way through the village, I could smell the baking of bread as well as the primordial aromas of the village pond, its edges filled with cattails and ducks.
By the time I headed south through the Rhone Valley, the sun had warmed the back of my black, leather gauntlets, the back of my pea coat and the tops of my legs. I took many of the back roads to the south and passed through endless small villages on my way to Toulon. At a tiny hamlet surrounded by vines aching under the weight of syrah grapes, I stopped and stretched my legs. In the distance stood the spire of a Gothic church. It was about the most pastoral and idyllic scene I had ever experienced.
When I continued my ride, I began to feel something very odd. Something was not right. Just then, from around the bend behind me, came five or six German riders, clad in black leather from heavy boots to zipped collars, on low, café racers. It was as if they had blown in from the vines. I was completely surrounded.
This can be the downside of motorcycling, an encounter with the dark "culture." I had this crazy image of a World War l dogfight scene with these guys weaving around me. It was a harrowing three or four minutes as they tried to rattle me and send me into the vines on the side of the road. None of this was play; it was a very serious matter. Instead of speeding up (these café racers would have run me down, easily), I kept straight and solid, not looking right or left. I suspect that because I did not panic or act crazily, they sped off — the ride of the Valkyries — into the darkening, early afternoon skies. I had not, in my wildest imagination, experienced such intensity and an overall feeling of helplessness.
The French coast would prove to be just as daunting.
Lorn Razzano is the semi-retired owner of the Ashland Wine Cellar, where he works part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.