Motorcycle Diaries I — Making Friends with Insignificance
Pass then through this little space of time comfortably in nature, and end thy journey in content — Marcus Aurelius.
Sun’s yet to rise. The mist condenses slowly all around. My fingers on the motorcycle’s handle stiffen from the chill, making me question if I was right leaving home so early on a winter morning.
Soon as I wake, a thousand things run in my mind. Searing pain in my knee, remnants of a freak stab wound, pending work queries, my unfinished musical compositions, passages half-formed in what would be a book one day, and personal conversations I have yet to initiate. Although there is physical silence around, my mind is anything but still.
I limp out of bed, walk around the house. My injured leg groans at having been disturbed. Four days since I mounted my bike.
I look out the window where the highway is clearly visible. My mind is pensive at the thought of not being able to ride. But the sight of the highway is enough for spur me into action.
I pack my bags in less than five minutes, pick up my new companion that’s incarnated as cane, lock the door, tie my bag onto my bike, hoist my cane, and head out.
Outside, the wintry air hits me hard. A slight rev-up and I feel my teeth grit, my helmet frost, and my injured foot affright. I gear up to the highest one and rest my injured leg on the crash-guard. For I know my discomfort will soon yield towards the insignificance.
As I pass through the city limits, with naught traffic as my obstacle, I can already feel my brain reorient itself in a way that all thoughts take a backseat. As I pass the toll road and meet the highway, my mind is responding only to visual stimuli. I respond to the wind with my accelerator, clutch and see blurring images of hanging posters, loitering stray dogs, and people going about their lives, their motives insignificant.
I like this state of being. Where I don’t have to formulate words to speak or thoughts to collect. Where my babbling brain tries to conjure up something from my memory but fails due to the deafening whoosh of the wind. Where I imagine all the conversations I want to have, friendships I want to build, courtships I wish to initiate, but never can, from my own inability or the reluctance of another. Where all communication happens by hand or through my blinkers, where language becomes insignificant.
I have many a conversation this way. I pass someone, someone passes me, I honk, someone steps back, I brake and someone crosses over. I overtake someone, someone overtakes me, sometimes in a not-so-polite manner. I occasionally swear but he/she can’t hear me, nor can I catch him/her as they disappear far into the horizon, my anger, insignificant.
I think of all the people I come in contact with. The effort they put in to find common ground which is seldom successful. And my own lack of appreciation for it, feeding a vein of guilt that morphs into a voice in the back of my head. A voice made insignificant by the roaring thump of my engine.
There are days I like to think of myself as having gained valuable knowledge from books, people, entertainment, music, and my career. My professional experiences make up a considerable part of my life. But no surge of wisdom comes to me in the vast outline of helmeted nods, light flashes, and the distant mirage.
I think of sentient intelligence, of gods and man, and all those who have passed before me. No room nor voice to debate out on the highway, where everything is just a fraction of error away from death, my combined knowledge, thoughts and experiences, insignificant.
I have seen the highway far too many times to count. I occasionally tell people that the highway is like a home away from home. But I only touch the road to soak in this all-too-familiar feeling of insignificance.
I have had several labels attached to me in the short span of time I have been alive. ‘Motorhead’ being one of them.
But, contrary to what most people think, it is not merely the act of riding itself that gives me pleasure. I attach neither joy nor sorrow to what I do. I am content in the realisation that I touch the highway only to feel the insignificance.
I merely say insignificance because no synonyms describe it so well. And I dare not lapse into spirituality, lest I be construed as a self-help guru, for I am anything but.
I am only perplexed by the complexity of the world, and how much exists outside the realms of our consciousness. I think of the cosmos, of creation, and the nature of time. A worldview of ourselves as the center of our own universes, here and now, is a strangely comforting thought but one that makes no sense to me.
I think of times I have been no more than a blip in one’s mirror, or a passing shadow in another’s periphery. I contemplate the sheer number of people I have never met and probably never will. Of the many outcomes I will never experience, of the deep connections of cause and effect that will alter my life without giving me a choice.
I think of times I have been a barely registered spec in someone’s vision. And a spectacle in the eyes of a child who waves with enthusiasm from his mother’s arms as I blaze through his village. I think of all the dogs that consider me and my bike a prey and chase with little success.
I look at the sky and see mountains, chariots, and dragons in cloud patterns. I can see how men of yore came up with stories to be remembered by. The temper with which these stories were crafted, which fuelled literary imagination beyond the realms of existential introspection. The enormity of my contemplation makes me realise I will never be able to understand the significance of it all.
I have rarely considered myself as a lofty, superior individual. In reality, I am good at the things I do only because I am not good at something else.
Trees on both sides of the highway sway in the wind, nodding assent to my introspection. My mind goes blank coalescing with nature as my steel hulk of a machine rides away, my hands and feet on autopilot, as my thoughts, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, disappear in the sweeping horizon.
At this point, I can observe my own thoughts in a fully detached manner. My mind has often wondered concepts like techno-singularity, where a fusion of man and machine will be achieved to perform prodigious feats. My mind is amused, for anyone who sees the highway as much as I do, already is performing feats well above the average man.
My mind ponders the statistical improbability of its own existence. And the ability to do all the things that it can do. The non-linearity with which thoughts, memories, ambitions, and regrets come to the forefront, creating scenarios that will never occur. An endless void, much like the road marks being swallowed by my windshield.
On the face of it, the above lines may sound depressing. Or the work of a mind experiencing severe pain. But they’re anything but. Contrarily, his veritable stare into the void is what gives me hope. The fact that everything will function without my say-so.
All my life, I have lived amongst people bigger and better than I, but strangely, I have never understood lofty goals. I have been an asset for some, a liability for another, and a ghost for many. I have seldom impacted anyone in a big way, although snippets of my observations may have helped a few gain perspective. But I realise it is no more than like a shade to a passing traveller, as I ride under the swathe of trees.
The large canopy gives way to a massive clearing as I approach the mountains. The enormity of these structures humbles me. Dwarfed by the peaks, I ride towards a destination I don’t yet know — a state of mind I am very familiar with.
As I climb the mountains, the sweeping vista brings me out of stupor and I stop. The road is lonely, and the sun right above my head. I hear no vehicles approaching, nor sense the footsteps of another soul. As I remove my helmet and stand on the side of the road, I can hear the insects buzz, the eagles cry, and the wind’s ominous sound, establishing superiority over me.
They say time is relative. Standing on the side of the road in front of the imposing view, makes me feel like I’ve stepped off a temporal plane and entered a continuum different to my own. My breathing rhythm, different to the tune of the air, fuses into a strange symphony in my head.
I alight from the bike, open my walking stick and limp to the side of the road. My injured leg groans for being pushed so far.
I remember a time, when my head was heavy. Converging thoughts without conclusions, making me reel as if a huge weight was upon my head. But out on the road, my head is lighter.
I smile at my observation and ponder the insignificance of my actions through the years. I realise that despite myself, I always long for the road, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Not for any sense of freedom, joy, or liberation it provides. Merely because the roads do not care.
I think of the sum total of all thoughts that occur to me every day. The endless humdrum of words, in various languages, mixing together to form sentences that would never see the light of day in text. A notion, I have been falsely accused of even while speaking.
I have seen a lot of road — just road — names and places mean very little. I always find common spectacles in every city, every town, and village. Whenever people ask me of my riding experience, I always quote Billy Joel’s line, “After a while and a thousand miles, it all becomes the same.”
I think of times I have been injured. Times when I’ve been compelled to use crutches, the pain searing through my legs as I make the slightest move. Of the many fevers I experienced as my body fought the excruciating pain. A lot of the pain still lingers, like a phantom within, reminding me of my own mortality.
I realise that the one common thing across the endless roads has been my own thoughts. My hopes, fears, and predispositions attempting to define every place I have ever visited, creating perceptions insignificant to anyone else. A lens over my eyes that blind rather than reveal.
I go out on the road, not so that I can see new places. I go, for the more I feel in touch with my insignificance, the more this lens is cast out, and the more I see and notice the way things are.
I always say I do not judge — a statement that meets with much disbelief. I never justify it, for I know its insignificance. I have often been accused of being unnaturally stoic in all circumstances, much like the roads I have been on.
I merely like to think of myself as one with the road. I realise that the paradigmatic dispassion that flows out from the highway is the one thing that always draws me out.
The same dispassion that allows me to be in the centre of things and yet remain detached. The dispassion that allows me to remain calm in the midst of hailstorms, in physical pain, and in the presence of innumerable thoughts.
I don’t feel superhuman, I don’t feel empowered, nor do I come across any spiritual awakenings. I only feel silence, silence in front of the world that creates, silence in front of the one that destroys, silence in front of the world that succeeds, silence in front of the one that fails. Silence in the face of existence, silence in the face of insignificance.
I stand observing the blades of grass in the sloping horizon and feel the wind back me up. The whooshing sound beckons me to the road once more. I take a deep breath, nod at the vista before me walk back to my bike. My leg complains from hours of riding, another sign of me pushing myself beyond physical limits.
As I start the bike, a wry smile finds its way onto my face. I wear my helmet, adjust my mirrors, dust the handles, and lock my foot in position. As I shift gears, my brain begins reorienting itself once again.
Out in the distance, there is absolute motor silence. Out in the distance, there still lies a road unexplored. Out in the distance, there lies another place I will lose myself into insignificance — but will I be really lost?