I wrote this in the fall of 2019, the year before Big Basin burned down. I'm sharing it now in gratitude for regeneration.
On Sunday I rode a motorcycle through the Santa Cruz mountains for the first time in forty years. When I was 17 my boyfriend had talked me onto his Yamaha, and I'd ridden the same windy roads through the redwood trees, but the next weekend, riding solo, he'd gone down on a gravel road. It wasn't a serious injury, but then my sister Amy went down on a bike too, and left a bit of her beautiful shoulder on Highway 1. That did it for me. I'd never been one for taking risks—I didn't have a great sense of balance and I didn't crave adventure, especially if I wasn't in control. So I decided I'd never ride again.
But I learned over the decades that risk-taking isn't a choice. Risks permeate everyday tasks and encounters, not just the big planned adventures. The choice lies in looking beyond the risks, in seeing yourself not only as surviving but as feeling the joy, the beauty, the exhilaration, the peace—whatever the payoff might be. This "looking beyond to the light" was no easy lesson, but in my 50s life took me where I least wanted to go so I could learn what I most needed to learn. I practiced being brave when I didn't have control, and learned that control isn't even really a thing. I practiced being brave when I felt out of balance, and learned that true bravery is always balanced by kindness, to and from others. I bought a t-shirt that said "be brave and be kind" and wore it so much it got holes. I called it my Holy Shirt, because the phrase was my touchstone for how to be. It helped me get through hard things, while keeping them from hardening me.
So last week, when my best friend suggested that we go for a ride on his Harley, I balked out of long-ago habit—but then caught myself and said yes. In fact, instead of borrowing the necessary gear, I bought a classic leather Harley jacket and motorcycle boots. With that purchase, I went from "well, okaay" to being ALL IN. Like the t-shirt I'd worn into rags, it symbolized a commitment. I would look beyond the risks and see myself not only surviving, but loving the ride enough to do it again, even if only to justify the jacket.
The autumn skies were clear on the morning we rode, and a warm wind blew redwood incense under my visor. The road was twisting but smooth, and I didn't have to clutch at my friend to feel secure. After all, he wasn't some show-off teenage boy. I felt the tranquility of trusting an expert, and the awareness of his extra care—of my bravery, his kindness. The ride was both peaceful and exhilarating. Everywhere I looked, I saw beauty. There was clarity in the window-free sunshine and unfiltered air, a liberating perspective of greater depth and detail. The trees spun past me in aubergine stripes, and the forest floor was lime with lacy ferns. Dragonflies shimmered and dust motes hovered in shafts of ethereal light.
The first mile of illumination destroyed any lingering fears; the second brought visions of lounging at Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline, and of roaring down Route 66. Obviously, I would also need to buy a bandana and chaps. By the third mile I was planning my first tattoo: be brave & be kind inked in art on my back, where brave would meet spine and kind hear the beat of my heart, and where the ampersand, marking my center, would bring them together.
At our destination, Big Basin State Park, we bought cinnamon hot chocolate and basked in the sun on the Visitor’s Center deck with the chipmunks and jays. I felt grateful for my friend’s gentle pressure to take this ride, and for all the little things he'd done to put me at ease . I was soaking up the joy of letting go; I was reveling in being all in. I was proud of myself for scaling a forty-year wall. Though I’d done some other brave things since my teens—for wildlife, my kids, a pond, dogs, trees—-it was in that moment that I felt the payoffs of risk for me. I knew I'd be taking more rides with my friend, that the balance of courage and kindness would mitigate risks. When a tourist expressed his envy that we'd come through the woods on a bike, I, in full poser attire, just smiled and let him think that I do this all the time.
One month later, I got the tattoo. One year later, the historic Visitor’s Center and deck at Big Basin State Park, where I had spent many childhood vacations and this special day, burned down to the ground.