We all sat around the campsite picnic table near Keystone, unwinding after a long ride. It was hot, which we expected. Felt fine in some shade provided by trees. The plan was to check out Keystone first, then venture into the main event at Sturgis the next day.
This was in 2008, and feels like more than a decade ago.
Keith sat at the table, running a comb through his long, gnarled, blonde hair, practically ripping chunks out as he tried to straighten the mess. I mean, it was sort of brutal and shocking, and I wondered if he was injuring his scalp. It was that bad. I think I just said, “Jesus!” and he just laughed.
Even going his mellow sixty-five mile-per-hour speed had taken a toll on him, and we all felt the exhilerated exhaustion of hundreds of highway miles since Sioux Falls. Our loose convoy had proceeded like a slinky, stretching the distance between the fastest of us, the slowest (Keith) and the Goldilocks (me). Like I told him last month, I’d tried to be the glue, but had to give up after awhile, realizing that he would go his speed, and my uncle would go his.
At one stop on our way West, we sat outside a restaurant, watching other attendees roll through, pass along, stop and cool their heels. During this time, I remember him sharing stories about previous rides, and we talked about the military a little. He was Air Force. I was Army. I sensed and enjoyed a sort of gruff intelligence about him. It felt familiar, unedited, no bullshit. I either already did or was trying to embody this as well. Certain types tend to drift together.
Although I thought of myself as laid back at the time, I know now that I totally wasn’t.
I wanted very much to be relaxed, but found it difficult in some social situations or any large groups. Too self-aware in a world where I felt not enough were even remotely aware. Keith, on the other hand, just had the confidence to Not Give a Shit. Not in a rude way, but simply in a way that knew what he was about, kept things simple, and knew he would not have to explain himself, because he felt fine as he was.
The event called Sturgis is full of all types. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured on the usual collection of shiny-new black leather Harley guys, a range of seasoned and new riders, perhaps a small smattering of other types of bikes, but mostly Harleys of course. I rode my Honda Shadow. It’s just what I had, and it ran fine. Contrary to what I hear from many non-riders, it really wasn’t frowned upon or sneered at to “not be riding a Harley.” In fact, if anything, any comments I received were to the positive, people admiring somebody who rides what they ride and doesn’t care about brands. Oh, the irony…of a group of people considered ‘rebellious’ to themselves be part of the assumed hegemony of rider identity, where anything but H-D is considered inferior. But like I said, while there was a more common brand being represented, it’s not like anybody was being a dick. Shit, kind of disappointing, in a way.
But whatever. In the end, anybody who cares too much about that is missing the point. And the glad observation I made was, again, that more kindness was shown upon me than not. Probably 90% of the folks who attend are all manner of civilized brutes, perhaps only dressing up for this Halloween called the Sturgis Rally before returning the leathers and motorcycles to the mothballs.
One element of biker culture is the ‘wave’. It’s probably got all kinds of other terms, and there are plenty of articles describing this social phenomena. The basic idea is acknowledgement, the brotherhood/sisterhood. To me, the idea was always a simple “I see you,” that indicates you’d be available to help, even, should they encounter mechanical trouble, or that, unlike many drivers of other vehicles — hey, you actually See them. Just plain Safety.
Sometimes things are communicated, such as hand signals to indicate some police down the road. The wave can range from full-on, palm-forward waves, like a child waving at a parade, or more commonly is exhibited by a low, almost-lazy drop of the hand, angled slightly outward, in the essence of casual howdy-doo. Plenty of variations.
There are times you don’t wave, or shouldn’t, such as while operating your controls, going through a curve that requires both hands and concentration, while proceeding through towns with stoplights, or any other complicated setting where it just doesn’t make sense.
In more recent years, I’ve definitely noticed people waving more often when it generally does not make sense. Just through pure observation, I’ve noted it historically tends to be deployed on the open highway much more so than in traffic. Again, the idea is that it’s conducted when you might not really need that hand. Hell, sometimes you drop that left hand anyway, just to give it a break…so it’s already at the ready; some people just barely lift a finger to point, while that hand is already dropped, to indicate an acknowledgement. Hey, man, lazy is cool. Right?
Riding through Sturgis, Keith rocked this big, black, sleeveless shirt with large, white capital letters on it. The letters ran from neck to waist, from shoulder to shoulder, and it said:
To many viewers– and to me, initially — it screamed sort of a big ‘Fuck You,’ both antisocial and a command to focus on why you’re riding, to not care about who the hell sees you.
That could very well be what it’s about, and that’s it. I sure as hell know that I was sick of giving ‘The Wave’ while still about 100 miles outside of the rally, and given the constant presence of fellow riders everywhere you looked, it of course just didn’t make sense to keep waving. Makes more sense when you see another rider on some back road in the Iowa countryside in early Spring…like, “Whoa! What’re YOU doing here?”…but seems plain silly when you’re at an event that’s crawling with so many riders, you’d never be touching your left grip. Suffice to say, plenty of people still gave the wave in giddy joy near everywhere we rode.
When I saw Keith last month, and again the other day, I remembered the Don’t Wave shirt, and considered how much the sentiment fits with many other meanings.
While DON’T WAVE connotes Screw Off; that one is too busy to wave; or perhaps is just lost in the Zen concentration of riding, it can also mean you’re not saying Goodbye.
DON’T WAVE is the ultimate see-ya-later, essentially a statement that all like-minded spirits are bound together regardless, so there’s no need to waste the motion.
I gave him one last hug the other day as I was about to leave him to a nap.
On my way out, we looked at each other one more time, and I’m not saying that he was telling me Not to Wave, but his look right then, and some looks earlier that afternoon, said, “It’s okay, man. Just keep your focus, keep on riding, get out there and do it for me.”
Right on, Keith. I’ll see ya down the road. Might give you a barely discernible nod, but no Wave, brother.
And thanks for the gift.