Austin didn’t know how long the airplane had been sitting in the side lot of Tri-State Regional Airport near Huntington, the place where we were being taught how to ride a motorcycle.
He shrugged and said, “It had always been there for me.”
It’s been there as long as the 22-year-old has taught the Riding Academy classes — the new rider course — at Black Sheep Harley-Davidson in Huntington. So, a couple of years, at least.
Austin said he’d been teaching since he was 18.
The airplane wasn’t going anywhere. The tires were flat, and I imagined the engine had rusted through by now, but it made me think of my flying lessons.
An old familiar feeling ...In March of 2018, I’d embarked on a monthlong adventure to fly the friendly skies. There were a lot of reasons for me to do that — a lifelong curiosity, a more recently developed wariness of heights and bragging rights.
It’s also something not a lot of people know how to do.
Everyone from my instructor, Bill Motsinger at Hanger 9 in Ona, to Tommy Shaw from the rock band Styx thought I’d love flying — that it would expand my horizons — and, once in the air, I’d feel a greater sense of freedom.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, when Bill and I finally went up, I felt awful. The back of my head sweated and ached. My chest felt tight, and it was a struggle to answer Bill’s questions.
Terror, more than gravity, tugged at me. I was afraid of crashing the plane — of doing harm not just to myself, but to an entire neighborhood of people who hadn’t signed on for one of my monthly adventures.
My fear wasn’t rational. Bill could have taken over the controls at any time. But rational or not, flying high above Cabell County, I felt like I was drowning, and I was never so relieved as when he landed the airplane and I drove home.
I would always make a better passenger than a pilot.
Some danger, but not as much you think
Learning to ride a motorcycle, to me, seemed similar to learning to fly. The bikes were more complicated than a car, almost alien in comparison to a car, and peril wasn’t just implied. It was acknowledged in writing.
Back at the dealership, along with signing off on what we wanted for lunch that first day, we were required to sign a statement acknowledging we all understood there was a certain amount of risk in learning to ride a motorcycle.
Still, a lot was done to ensure our safety. The motorcycles had been rigged not to go too fast, and a vehicle protection system was in place on each bike. This kept us from dumping the bikes on the pavement and damaging them but also protected the riders from easily getting pinned beneath a machine.
At the training site, we chose our training motorcycle and put on our gear. We were required to have a Department of Transportation-approved helmet, a shirt or jacket that fully covered our arms and a pair of gloves.
Helmets varied. About half of the students had half helmets, which required them to wear special glasses. The rest of us had full helmets with visors that slipped down over our faces.
I’ve always thought the full helmets looked cooler and never understood why more people didn’t wear them.
Nobody said anything about the over-the-ankle riding boots, but they’d been on the list.
Wearing a leather jacket and a full helmet, but also oversized, clunky work boots and loose, leather gardening gloves, I thought I looked less like a motorcycle rider than a really weird farmer.
Gentlemen, start your engines ...
in a minute
We began slowly. The first exercise wasn’t really much more than moving the bikes away from the trailer to the course. We pushed them into place.
Austin went over the basic anatomy of the motorcycles again, reminding us where things were, and then had us start the bikes up — move the engine cut-off switch to “on,” turn the ignition key and press the starter button.
The motorcycles roared to life, a cool sound, but we kept them in neutral and got used to the weight.
After a minute or so, Austin showed us how to slip the bike in the gear with our left foot and we “power walked” the bikes, gently eased off the clutch and let the motorcycle’s engine drive the back wheel slowly forward. While seated on the bike, we walked along with it.
We didn’t really need to roll the throttle in our right hands.
Finally, he had us take a couple of steps and then swing our feet up on the body of the motorcycle.
I killed the engine once before I got the bike under my feet.
Learning through trial and lots of errors
We rode short distances of a few yards at first. I kept letting off the clutch too fast and stalling the engine — or else my right hand betrayed me and gave the engine too much gas and I shot off across the lot.
One time, I went straight at the airplane and only just barely managed to avoid hitting the completely immobile aircraft.
I dropped the bike twice, too, testing the vehicle protection system. Nobody else seemed to be doing that. I felt like a second-grader taking the SAT.
Half the class seemed to be breezing through the lessons, while a couple riders struggled. It felt to me that I was the only one struggling a lot, though that was hard to gauge. I was so hyper-aware of everything I was doing and too busy swearing that I didn’t pay that much attention to what everyone else was doing.
My head began to ache.
Finally, one of the other students, Gary Keck, a hardware salesman, said, “You’re nervous. Try to calm down.”
Gary was doing great, but he said he’d gone through the same thing when he first sat down on a motorcycle a year or so ago, after decades away. I just needed some practice and some confidence.
“You can do this,” he said.
I honestly wasn’t so sure, but I kept at it.
Halfway through the damp, gray morning, during one of regular breaks, I shed the leather jacket in favor of a thin sweatshirt.
The jacket looked cooler and was better protection in the event that I ended up being dragged along behind the motorcycle, but I was hot and drenched with sweat.
Most of us were. We’d all been warned to layer our clothes, and the only person who seemed to be mostly comfortable was Austin, who had the most experience and was riding the least.
The sweatshirt helped, but my jeans were soaked through, and my feet were aching. I could feel a blister rubbing through the back of my left heel. When we broke for lunch, I was grateful to get off the bike for a while.
We ate inside the trailer, hydrated and checked our messages.
After the break, we went back on the bikes for another hour, worked on steering and switching from first into second gear before parking the motorcycles for the day and heading back to the dealership for a tour and some classwork.
It came at a good time. By then, I was done with riding and really just wanted to go home. Black Sheep Harley-Davidson was a good enough alternative.
Back at the dealership
On a Saturday afternoon, the motorcycle showroom in Huntington was a raucous party. It was Derby Day, and the dealership was celebrating Cinco de Mayo a day early. Nachos and a tub of sodas submerged in ice had been set out. A couple of the women working in the Harley-Davidson apparel and merchandise store attached to the dealership wore hats.
Whenever someone bought a motorcycle, which seemed to happen about every half-hour or so, they’d ring a bell, pump up the rock music a little louder and gather the entire dealership staff together to cheer and clap like the customer was a winning contestant on a game show.
I’d never seen anything like it. Nothing like that had ever happened when I bought one of my sensible cars. Generally, the sales staff seemed glad to be rid of me, I thought.
After a little time to meander and browse the dealership on our own (I almost bought a belt), we were given a tour of the different departments and even met a guy who was considering taking the riding academy course.
“I’ve never been on a Harley,” he said. “I’ve never been on anything.”
“Me, either,” I said. “This is my first time.”
Kyle Arms, the other relative newbie in the group, said, “I hadn’t been on anything more than a dirt bike since I was a kid.”
We told the man that we felt like we were learning something, that it had been a good experience so far.
I didn’t mention almost hitting an airplane.
We finished the day after a little classroom work. We read through the riding academy workbook, discussed safety and the test we’d take the next day.
It was another early start, and the weather forecast looked even worse.
Austin said, “We’ve got a few more lessons to go through, and then we’ll do the road test.”
He said it wouldn’t hurt if we looked over the handbooks.
“You’ve also got to pass the written,” he said.
Almost as if he was reading my mind, Austin added, “Nobody I’ve taught has failed yet.”
At home, I stripped off my reeking clothes and pulled off the work boots to inspect the blister on my heel.
My feet, inexplicably, had been dyed orange.