Appreciating Good Luck
by Thomas Day
At the end of my 2009 riding season, I moved my ailing, drooling dirt bike to the back of the garage and the V-Strom was parked between our cages; ready to ride on the last ice-free days of the year before and during the period when Minnesota drops us all into the deep frozen purgatory we call “winter.” By late November, I am usually down to riding to work four out of five days and that ratio will drop rapidly until it’s time to dump fuel preservative in the tank, hook up the battery tender, change the oil, and call it a year. Why, at this late date, I had an awareness-provoking dream about motorcycling is baffling. If I needed some sort of wake-up call from my subconscious, you’d think I would have needed it at the beginning of the season when my skills are rusty and my body is creaking from hibernation disuse and I’m about to put on some serious motorcycling miles.
I dreamed I was in dense, slow-moving traffic and I’d been stuck in that groove for a long time. Finally, I broke out of the cager pack and got up to speed quickly. The road was flat, long and a little boring. It felt a lot like west Texas or southwest Minnesota. In the dream, I was dreaming about something (an egg in an egg) other than being in the here-and-now and I found myself in a long, declining-radius curve at a speed above my comfort level and drifting into the center of the road, just crossing the center line. Suddenly, there was a pickup coming in the opposite direction. For a moment, I forgot what to do. I rolled off the gas and tried to steer harder back toward my lane. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work. I woke up.
It was a dream, but a really life-like simulation of a real-life scenario. The dream didn’t include screeching tires, crunching noises, pain, butt-clenching fear or any of the usual accommodations of this sort of event. It didn’t need to. I awoke knowing exactly where it would have ended. A moment of poor concentration and bad timing and I’m facing several oncoming tons of iron at deadly speeds. After trying to regain the night for some actual rest, I gave up and crawled out of bed to think about what this dream was trying to tell me.
Motorcycling, skydiving, scuba diving, bicycling in traffic and all of the things we do for adventure leave little room for daydreaming. You drift off for a moment, lost in the thought of something unrelated to the activity, and you could awake in time to see your life vanishing before your eyes. That’s it. No chance to recover. No saving grace. No timeouts. You are literally here today, gone today. Smelling the flowers, feeling the wind between your ears, stargazing, listening to a favorite tune, and/or checking out who is checking you out and motorcycling do not go together. But everyone does it. If you ride often and long enough, you’ll find yourself snapping back to reality and realizing that you’ve doped out long enough to have caused a serious problem if your luck hadn’t held.
At a family party, I listened to my son-in-law and his brother dismiss bicycle helmets because of their long list of bicycle crashes and their continuing existence. Their durability has been pretty impressive, but every one of their descriptions included a healthy dose of luck that kept them among the living and the mobile. An inch here or a pound there and they’d have been killed or disabled and a little protective gear goes a long ways when you need it. Every long life (and many short lives) are filled with moments where, without a bit of luck, a brain fart could have turned into a life-ending incident.
Luck is a grossly underrated commodity. I’ve been present at the beginning of a trio of businesses. One was very successful, one was a disaster, and one managed to sell itself to a sucker before the bottom fell out. Luck played a big part in all three end results. The right customer finding the company’s products at the right time, and we were suddenly in the money. That same kind of customer finding the product the month after the company slid past its reserve funds and the momentum goes the other way; and no amount of talent, good intentions, or demand can stop the bankers from closing the doors.
Anyone who has ridden for a few dozen years and a few hundred thousand miles has experienced more than a reasonable share of luck. Those of us who have been less-than-brilliant in our riding habits or gear selection and can still walk, talk and carry on a semi-intelligent conversation have been incredibly lucky. I can look back on my first decade of street riding and think of more than a dozen moments where a minor obstacle placed in an unlucky position would have ended my day, riding career, and most likely my life. Some people have survived because they were prepared for the worst-case scenario, because they had well-thought-out contingency plans that worked, and because they knew what risks they were taking and they knew what they were doing. Not me. When it comes to staying alive after doing something stupid, I have been as lucky as a trust fund brat. I may have turned luck into an art form. My Plan B is to keep driving at Plan A and hope for the best.
A friend tried to give me some credit by claiming, “You make your own luck.”
I’m unconvinced. To an extent, I know he’s right. On average, I’m pretty alert, pretty conscious of where I am, what my limits are, and what I can do with my bike. If I’m not an ATGATT rider, I always ride reasonably well geared-up. If I give myself credit for being on top of my riding game for 99.9% of my time on the road, that means in my 400,000+ mile motorcycling career I’ve daydreamed away more than 400 miles. I can’t give myself credit for 99.9% awareness and I don’t want to make an accurate estimate of how many lucky miles I’ve traveled. The fact is, I owe good luck for a lot of my survivability and that’s a little scary.
There is an old saying, “If you’re not worried, you are not paying attention.” Anytime you can’t generate a little nervousness about being on the road, it might be worth considering how much luck you need to stay alive, just to keep your edge sharp. You can only make so much of your own luck and trusting luck for your survival is putting your fate to a test that you will probably fail. So, thank your lucky star or rabbit’s foot or whatever charm you trust in, but pay attention, wear good gear and stay nervous. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That goes for bad luck, too.