Riding with Rilke . . . a book review from long ago

I keep unearthing prose from an old blog I used to publish called Midlife Rider . . . don't go looking because I gave the domain to someone else some years ago.  This bit is a review of a book I jus loved reading by a university professor's journey from deep in the Canadian heartland down to Texas to research a book.  On a Ducati.


The excitement at setting out is what I’ve come to think of as the andiamo phenomena. Andiamo is Italian for “let’s go.”  D.  H.  Lawrence calls it the most beautiful word in the Italian language. Certainly, the English “let’s go” feels flat-footed in comparison, pedestrian in the worst sense.  The Italian is like a whip about to crack; the throb on the third syllable marks the wave pulses through the word. Both command and response, with a built-in exclamation mark, andiamo conveys the exotic, carries the excitement of taking off.  It’s the word you breathe inside your helmet when you finally clear traffic and the road opens in front of you.  It’s the feeling you get when you finally clear time and space and settle in with a new book.  Heading into the silence, the platitude and possibility of silence. 

What a delicious book. By all means read what I have to say about it, but also don’t be afraid to just run on down to the local book store or click the link and add a copy of Riding with Rilke by Ted Bishop to your reading list.

Let me caveat by saying I’m a fan of words. I like to read them. I like to use them. I like to write them. Love words I do. And Ted spills them across the page like so many truffles. Or if that imagery is too girly for you, reading Ted is like sitting at your favorite bar with a pint of their finest. You get the idea. 

Ted’s an academic, something you’ll not be able to forgive him in this instance as threading the drama of chasing books, authors, libraries, and archives with riding a Ducati Monster—a bike no sane person would ride further than the next town—from somewhere hell and gone in Canada to deep in the heart of Texas is the whole point of the book.  Me? He had me about three paragraphs in.

I found Riding with Rilke while poking around Amazon. Never one to do anything without at least three agendas in mind, I was: a) Looking for some good summer reading; b) Researching what I’ve come to think of as the “canon of road books” in preparation for perhaps taking a swing at contributing my own; c) Looking for some grist for my blog. And yes, I read with a yellow marker and a pen.  And I make notes. And it takes me forever. I can’t seem to just read.

Somewhere deep into Ted’s prose I started to get it. Reading is just like riding. You can rush and miss the texture and detail of it all. Or you can put down the pen, put down whatever it is you were thinking about, and just read . . . just ride.

I should say that this little revelation came as a bit of a shot. I am easily seduced by the idea that every human activity needs to have a purpose. And purposes need to be accomplished with dispatch. Doing something with purpose beats doing something “just because” by a mile. And getting it done faster is better than slower. No savoring the smells. No dallying about. No stopping just to take it all in. Just typing this makes me sad.  51 years into the game and it finally occurs to me that there’s more to life than just getting stuff done. There’s more to reading a book than finishing it. There’s more to riding a bike than getting there. Actually, that thought occurred to me some years ago—a story for another time and place—but I’m often startled to meet it again and again like a lost dog that just won’t stop following me home.

So, Riding with Rilke is not a book to be rushed. I came to respect the rhythm of the read out of respect for the man: Given a choice between flying and riding, Ted chose the road.  Most of us who ride, heck all of us, would like to make that choice. And as we get later and later in life, we wonder why we don’t.

The highly condensed version of the book goes like this:

  • Bought a Ducati.
  • Took a sabbatical to go to Texas and dig around a really cool archive.
  • Rode “blue highways” stopping often to observe, sample, and otherwise take it all in.
  • Make a point of visiting places of bookish interest. As it turns out, even lovers of Virginia Wolf and D.H. Lawrence have spots to visit in the great American West. Go figure.
  • Arrive in Austin Texas and have a swell time.
  • Get involved with projects that further delay doing what you went there to do but also give you an opportunity to go to Europe, meet relatives of famous people, and present a paper in Rome on James Joyce. Cool.
  • Come back and more or less repeat in reverse.
  • Have a really bad crash in order to create a clever intro/outro bookend to the book

Yeah, that about covers it. And if you stop there, you’re missing the whole point. It’s the words man! It’s how the nouns and verbs and all the connecty bits work together to tell what is otherwise a pretty simple story. Just like it’s the swoops and turns and stops and gos that bring you back again and again to a favorite road, where others only hear, “I rode to Bothell and back.” Oh.

Early on Ted plays with channeling his inner outlaw . . .

I like this bit

Still, you wouldn’t ride a bike if you didn’t want to cultivate a bit of an outlaw status.  I was working on my Entrance, one of the most important aspects of being a biker.  You come into town and cruised slowly down the main street -- rump, rump, rump, cough – REVVvvv-rump rump (obviously a high powered machine, dangerous if not for your expert control) – and to the end of the street do a slow U-turn and come back to the café.  You back the bike up against the curb, taking long enough that you know all eyes are upon you, take off your helmet, put your sunglasses back on, and walked toward the door.  You use the capital Strut: shoulders back, head high, just a hint of pelvic thrust.

You step inside the door and, chin still high, moving only your head, survey the room (even if it only has four tables).  Then you take off your dark glasses and hook them in the left breast pocket of your leather jacket the way fighter pilots do in the movies.  Don’t look.  This is crucial.  If you have to fumble for the pocket, you’ve blown it and you might as well get back on the bike and leave.

Okay, by this point the men are cowed, the women trembling, and the girls behind the counter moaning softly.  One flutters over with a menu and you look her in the eye and say, “Coffee.  Black,” and then something insinuating like, “And give me a wedge of your… cherry pie.”  (I hate black coffee, but whoever said, (Jed ! There is a stranger in town and he drinks his latte with a double shot !”?)

Anyway, I’m still working on it, and there are usually some creamers on the next table that you can snag on the way back from the washroom.  Page 26

 

I so resemble those remarks, except that I only do the strut in my mind’s eye. Given my firm belief in ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), my actual strut looks more like the Michelin man’s evil brother. It’s more like a waddle.

And this.

Whether you’re writing a cruiser or a dirt bike or a big touring rig, in the eyes of the world you’re a bit of a hooligan or you wouldn’t be out there.  We reject it, we deny it, we explain at length that there is a difference between a Rider and a Biker, but we secretly relish it.  We like the idea that we’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know.  Take page 33

Anyone who has ducked into the last available hotel room in the last available hotel 40 miles after you should really have stopped will get this . . .

The room had more cigarette burns and TV channels.  It was the sort of place where you walk to the shower naked in your motorcycle boots that because you’re kinky at because Who–Knows–What lurks in that inch–deep russet–orange acrylic shag.  Stephen King must have a story somewhere about a malefic interstate shag carpet from hell that wraps its greasy tendrils around the toes of comely coeds and drags them screaming into its devouring embrace.  I flossed forlornly and watched one of the religious channels, trying to tell myself that this was so bad it was great.  The Quintessential Interstate Lodging Experience, I told myself.  It didn’t work. I burped softly; the Denny’s fish and chips tasted just as bad the second time.  I turned out the light, wondering why the knob felt both greasy and sticky.  I decided not to pursue it.  Page 51

More good words, these about that pesky notion of having purpose and resolve, qualities that occasionally come in handy hours, miles, and days into a big ride . . .

I learned long ago that the only way I could accomplish anything was to tell myself I could quit if I want to – that I could quit hiking and set up camp halfway up the pass; that I could quit high school and go work on a tramp steamer; that I could mow half the lawn and do the other half next week.  In short, that I didn’t have to go the distance.  All that inspirational stuff about focusing on your goal and never wavering from it just made me want to open a beer and apply for unemployment insurance.  But once I’d decided I could quit, things didn’t seem so bad.  And if anyone should say, “Wow, what you’re doing is difficult,” or even moderately interesting, I would square my shoulders and think, “Pff, a mere bagatelle.”  It’s true I wasn’t certain what a bagatelle was (though I suspected there wasn’t an actual bag involved), but the books I was reading at the time always linked “mere” with “bagatelle” and it was always some beautiful object or difficult exploit but they sure are treated as if it were nothing.  Take page 86

Deep into the book, our hero writer-rider decides to spiff up his ride. Another inclination I respect and follow. My riding pal Ron stands firmly in the other camp, reveling in the grime and grunge that covers his bike or car or gear as noble talismans of a road well traveled or a journey well done. Only when there is no more adventuring to be had will he break out the soap and water. Me? I’m looking for a hand car wash in every town I sleep in, exceptions being made if it’s pissing rain. 

I pulled into the bright twenty-four stall carwash and the friendly ex-Marine told me how to get my bike just right, using the final anti-streak spray.  I was going to make some excuse for being there – the Monster was just dusty, not dirty – when two Corvettes pulled in that were cleaner than my car has ever been in its life.  This was American auto culture, where having your ride clean, so clean, is more important than how it handles.  That made sense out here, were the closest curve was in Albuquerque.  But this wasn’t about logic, I realized as I bought a chamois and wiped the water droplets off my tank, the backs of my mirrors, the front forks and fender; it was about showing respect, about the ritual adoration of the machine.  Saturday night was date night, Friday night was car night.  As I pulled out from the clean well–lit bay into the dark street, I didn’t feel lonely anymore.  The camaraderie of the carwash.  Page 90

To the inevitable and tiresome question about danger . . .

Non-riders would always ask me, “don’t you think motorcycling’s dangerous?” in the tone of a foregone conclusion.  It could be, I agree, but I was a conservative rider.  Besides, I said, motorcycling is only one of a million ways you can go. You can just as easily go in your La-A-Boy recliner.  In the spring, or when I haven’t been writing in a long time, I have a moment of fear thinking about what I’m going to do, but as soon as I’m up and riding, I’m fine.  I would give the answer my father gave when people asked him, “Isn’t mountain climbing dangerous?”  “Sure,” he said, “but at least you go doing something you like.” Then in The Stone Diaries I read about a Canadian journalist named Pinky Fulham who was crushed to death when a soft-drink vending machine fell on him.  He had been rocking it back and forth, trying to dislodge a stuck quarter.  Apparently eleven North Americans per year are killed by overturned vending machines.  The next time I approached a vending machine I did so warily.  And the next time someone asked me about bikes being dangerous, I told them about the Pinky.  Page 94

We’re almost there. Being a book by a writer about reading and riding, it’s only appropriate to wonder at why some books want to be read by you, and some don’t. At least not right now. I’ve got books like that. Presently Robert Pirsig’s icon, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . . . falls into that grouping. Has for years now. I’ve also been down roads like that, roads that just don’t want to be ridden, at least by me on that day. Word to the wise. Respect the book that won’t have you. Put it away. Respect the road in the same way.

I believe a book knows when you are ready for it.  If you are not, you might as well forget about it.  You can buy it, sit down with it, try to read it.  If the book doesn’t think you’re ready it resists.  It’s as if you’re trying to pry it open, to heave open a spring-loaded door, but it snaps shut the moment you slacken your effort even slightly.  Sweaty, exhausted, your hair plastered to your forehead, you stagger away.

And then, when you’ve forgotten about it, when you didn’t even know you needed it, you glance up from your writing, not looking, just raising your eyes as if you’re looking for a phrase, and there it is.  Right there.  Within reaching distance.  It may even have edged out to the edge of the shelf.  It’s a bit scary. 

Looking back over the book, and this despite my sternest efforts, I find many more passages than these marked and noted . . . including an especially wild flight of fancy about woman and motorcycles. Deliciously sexist and sexy. It’s on page 233 if you care to go looking.

For me, I’m not sure if the book did more to inspire me to read, write, or ride. But I do know that I felt inspired . . . that tugging feeling that makes you want to put down whatever it is you’re doing and andiamo! Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

 

Kevin Hoffberg