Switchbacks: How We Leave The Past Behind, One Turn At A Time.
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
There was a time before my hair went silver, before children and dogs and married life, when I rode motorcycles. I started off with a single cylinder 650 engine and soon graduated to my then-boyfriend's 1150 BMW weighing in at roughly 500lbs dry. Twice the power and weight of my first bike; a surprising amount of machinery for the 112lb frame that I was back then. But riding as it turns out, has nothing to do with strength or brute force...
Learning how to ride was my birthday present to myself. My father rode dozens of motorcycles all through his life and as much as I remembered what it felt like to be in the back seat as a child, I wanted to know the thrill of driving one. Once I got my bearings and enough practice hours under my belt, I invited my father for an overseas visit from Italy. We headed to the Smoky mountains in search of an iconic stretch of road called "Tail Of The Dragon: " motorcycles and a piece of Americana, the perfect summer roadtrip.
Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, it's a narrow section of the longer US 129, or as some North Carolina folks call it, “that damn road to Tennessee”. Featuring one lane in each direction and 318 hairpin turns in 11 miles, the road is a Mecca for sports cars and motorcycle enthusiasts. Riding it smoothly is a real badge of honor, especially for motorcycle riders who have to gauge the right speed and cornering to achieve the perfect "lean;" that moment when the principles of gravitational force take over and the motorcycle and rider tilt effortlessly toward the ground. That's how you distinguish the good riders from the wanna-bees and as the daughter of a serious rider, I really didn't want to end up in the "wanna-be" category.
So we set off with my ex in the front setting the pace, me in the middle and my father in the back. I was warned that there's no shoulder on the road and with a steady stream of sports cars and motorcycles, you had to keep going until the end of the road. Seriously, short of a fiery crash (and this road has seen more than it's share) there's no where to stop. A nerve-racking proposition and one I wasn't quite prepared for.
The first few miles were absolute hell. It's possible I held my breath the entire time. I was so tense from squeezing the handlebars and fighting the bike's natural tendency to lean into the curves that my neck and back were starting to have spasms. The RPMs were all wrong from my panicked over-shifting; It wasn't elegant or smooth or cool or anything that motorcycle riding should be! I imagined this poor growling BMW engine underneath me saying "what the hell is wrong with you lady? Don't you know I'm the Ultimate Driving Machine?!?" I also imagined my father behind me shaking his head and wondering how he ever agreed to this in the first place... perhaps pining for a situation when instead of worrying about me, he could fly through the turns with his knee inches from the pavement.
But here was another hairpin turn and some serious adjustment needed to be made for me to be able to begin to enjoy this nightmare. So I did what is generally recommended to do in situations like this: I started to breathe. Serious, long and deep get-your-shit-under-control type breaths. And it worked. Cause breathing is magic and it instantly unlocked my hands which in turn relaxed my shoulders which then freed up my back enough to actually start to lean into these damn turns.
So I kept breathing and focusing on the stretch of road just in front of me and the sound of the engine which told me everything I needed to know about when to accelerate and when to ease off the throttle. I trusted the lean of the bike because it's what it's meant to do and breathing taught me that the more I tried to fight the laws of physics, the harder the bike fought back.
When I was done I felt elated. And exhausted. I had gotten through the 318 turns in 11 miles, but most importantly, I had overcome the images of impending doom in my mind. The breathe kept me exactly where I was supposed to be at any given moment.
Sometimes I still think about that road. I think about the increased sense of independence and confidence it gave me. I also think about the fact that maybe it wasn't just about the challenge of motorcycle riding...
My father had been somewhat estranged from my life up to that point. From the time my parents divorced when I was a teen up until this particular road trip, there were many difficult periods of silence and conflict. But through it all I had the memories of my father and his many bikes: the time for example, when he took me to lunch to a mountain village in the Alps a couple hours from Milan. It was summer but by the time we reached the destination, the temperature had dropped dramatically at the current altitude. We didn't have extra layers so my father pulled a tried and true trick of veteran riders: he bought a newspaper and wrapped pages around my waist and chest under my jacket. Voilá, instant insulation.
I remember the time when I hopped on a bus in downtown Milan after a visit to my father's place of work. I looked out the window and there he was: weaving in and out of rush hour traffic on his black BMW with the yellow seat, just following the bus, splitting the lane of incoming traffic... even through his helmet I could tell he thought it was hilarious.
I also remember when he was hit by the over-zealous car and sent flying off his bike on the other side of the street. He didn't remember how he ended up in the hospital but somehow he came out of it with all his limbs still attached and within a few months he was back on the motorcycle. That was my father.
He always had this playful, dare-devil side, this ability to get utterly transported by the the things he loved the most: motorcycles and travel, mostly. But he also had a dark side, a temper fueled by regret and the things that weighed him down in life and made him feel small. I didn't understand it at the time, but I've come to understand that people are flawed and complicated and half the time they're moved by forces they can't explain.
This roadtrip on motorcycles was in hind-sight a way to bridge the gap. A way to distill some shared history through this symbol of ultimate freedom: the open road.
So much of what you know about yourself is guided by your past and the cliché about not being able to move forward until you've freed yourself from the past is never as true as when you're holding onto a motorcycle for dear life through 318 hairpin turns. I think that's what my breathe taught me that day: let go. Look through the turn and let the rest go.
Many years later and in the middle of a pandemic, my father moved to the United States to be closer to me and his granddaughter. He drives a very sober Volkswagen SUV and on any given day, can be seen walking his 10,000 steps along the lakefront with his hands clasped behind his back. I wonder if he ever thinks back to that trip, and the many twists and turns that have brought him here.
The Switchback Cowl