Night Riding

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Some things are better done in the dark. Riding a motorcycle, for instance. 

At night, you do not have the sun in your face. You have the stars, above – backlit, perhaps, by some moonshine. The sight is spectacular, a kind of moving planetarium – and you have the best seat in the house. 

Well, aside from your passenger. 

Take her along for the ride and she’ll never want it to end. It is as close to being a kid again and looking up at the night sky through the glass roof of the family Vista Cruiser. Assuming you were lucky enough to have been a kid when there were Vista Cruisers – and weren’t child “safety” seat (or seatbelt) laws and you could lay on your back and look up at the night sky, feeling the warmth of the drivetrain underneath the carpet.

Night riding is more focused because of the absence of light, except that lighting your way and whatever moon and star-light there is. You slow the pace some to give you more time in the event something you ‘d be able to see sooner in daylight – like a deer – suddenly bounds into your path from the darkness on either side. 

And also to prolong the ride.

Everything looks different at night, chiefly because you cannot clearly see a lot of it. If you’re riding in the country, late at night, darkened fields seem numinous. Distant light from what could be a still-open gas station beckons. It is a wonderfully, otherworldly solitary experience  – even if you have a passenger. In almost no other imaginable circumstance can two be so close and yet so wonderfully alone – while also being so together, at the same time.

The experience is shared but profoundly different. The rider is focused on directing the bike’s course, his vision narrowed to the task at hand. His mind living in the moment, as each changes from one to the next. A glance at the gauges. A tap of the left toe to shift for conditions. Roll on the throttle. Ease into the brakes.

Where to, next?

The rider has no other task but to enjoy the ride. If the symbiosis is right, she trusts the rider’s skill implicitly, her body adjusting, automatically – and so is free to just see – everything. She can keep her eyes on the numinous field, the darkened woods on either side. Or on the dome of twinkling moonlit sky, above. 

The rider sees directly ahead, the rest through his peripheral vision. He is focused on the darkened tunnel into which he perpetually rides, only seeing as much of it as his headlight can penetrate. Every now and then, the light from the bike’s headlight is reflected back by the eyes of something in the woods. Otherwise, there is only the beacon of light streaming forward, the glow of the gauges and perhaps a glint of moonlight on chrome.

The wind feels different at night, too – especially if you’re not wearing a helmet. The warmth of darkness is very different than the warmth of sunshine. It is all around you rather than just above you. Occasionally, the warmth is replaced by cold – as the bike rolls down an undulation in the road where the warmth of the day has dissipated. She snuggles closer, perhaps, to warm up. You rely on the warmth emanating upward from the engine until you catch up with the evanescing warmth of yesterday.

Sound is different, too. The pitch and tone of darkness is heavier, closer – more intimate. Even the engine sounds different, perhaps because your ears hear more of it, there being less of other things to hear. The night air also seems to localize the usual sounds of engine, tires and road, which daytime tends to dissipate.

If there is an analog to night-riding, it is perhaps night-sailing. The boat rides the waves; below it the unfathomable deep. Inside, a warm cabin alone in the vastness of the endless ocean.

The pilot steers her course.

At the wheel or in the seat, you are Master and Commander. The interruptions of the world recede, replaced by the world around you, which seems at night to be without limit and entirely yours, alone.

. . .

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  1. “I AM…the NIGHT RIDER! I’m a fuel-injected, suicide machine! I’m a rocker! I’m a roller! I’m an out-of-controller! I am the Night Riger, and it’s me and Marmaduke, and we ain’t never coming back! The Toecutter…he knows who I am. I am the Night Rider!

  2. My ’90 300ZX had the glass T-Tops. Very nice at night, especially in the desert.

    Growing up, my “night riding” was in the back of a Chevy pickup because Dad was tired of my brother and I fighting; the entire family was crammed into a single cab pickup. So my brother and I were up against the cab trying to keep warm from the exhaust heat coming up between the cab and the bed. Good times…

  3. Great stuff Eric. Thank you.
    I have very limited experience riding street at night, but some more in the dirt.
    It is similar experiences though as you describe so well.
    A few years ago I decided to double-down on off-road racing cause my son was ‘going for it’, so I didn’t want to miss it, and do it with him and his friends.
    So, my older body has to practice at least 3-5 days before an event or I won’t finish the grueling race. When we have the time change and it gets dark at 5, I get home and, crap, I HAVE to get on the bike. So I said f-it and put a light on and do it. Was wild! Yeah I crashed on stuff the shadows hide, ohh well. But I do it a lot now and it’s certainly different fun and unique.

  4. My pal at “collige” had a ’67 Vette 427 ragtop. He blew up the engine so my brother came up with a fairly good 350 swap.
    What was notable on the car was the headlight setup. The high beams were aircraft landing lights that amazed for illuminating the way. All other lighting could be turned off easily with a single switch. Half a mile ahead could you see.
    Most of my bikes have marginal at best headlamps. Perhaps I can upgrade them to acetylene.

  5. Eric,

    On the way to my Dr. appointment yesterday, I SAW a Vista Cruiser! That’s right; for the first time in ages, I saw a Vista Cruiser in the wild. It was in very good to excellent condition too; it looked like it had rolled off the showroom floor a year or so ago. I honked and waved to the driver as I passed…

  6. Prose at its finest. Most elegant. .

    You triggered a few of my own distant memories many decades ago riding a Honda 750 through the Colorado Rockies in the pre-dawn hours with my lady love and our bedroll strapped to the sissy bar.

    Thank you, Eric.

  7. Go slow. At night, there are critters, raccoon, deer. A motorcycle and cyclist are at risk if a deer jumps up out of the ditch and you hit it at a good speed. It will be sayonara.

    It has happened. Ya gotta be extra-careful at night.

    The biggest raccoon I ever saw was on a city street at about 1:30 am early on a Sunday morning. He knew when the trash day pick-up was and was making his rounds.

    Saw two raccoons cross a street and climb a tree so fast, you would think nothing happened. You could not spot them in the tree. Mink live along river beds and banks.

    Take a ride during the Perseids. August is a great month for Aurora borealis.

    Happy trails.

    • Yes, and Good Gosh made Campagnolo brakes saved me from coming down at 45+ to a slow porcupine ambling on the road. Daylight helped a great deal. in standing the pedal machine nearly to overturn we went our separate ways. I like light weight two wheels with big brakes. And screw you all that dismiss high perf pedal bikes. As for big butt station wagons, once I got the draft just behind some mommy with a load of teen girls. That was in the old days when they would cheer you on and you loved it. Two is really better than four excepting in heavy snow.

  8. ‘Occasionally, the warmth is replaced by cold – as the bike rolls down an undulation in the road where the warmth of the day has dissipated.’ — eric

    You’ll never experience this in a climate-controlled cage — the microclimates in hilly country, where cool air pools in each creek bottom, and the crosswinds pick up at the tops of ridges.

    It’s the closest thing to running your hands over the folds of the earth, at a macro scale that’s not possible at walking speed.

    Well done, Eric.

  9. In 1973 rode from Vegas to Barstow at night. We wised up after getting charbroiled riding into Vegas during the day.

    Full moon, 80 some degrees, it was an awesome leg of our trip. Our chase truck with home made wood canopy allowed us to overnight in the Barstow desert without snake worries. One in the cab one inside the canopy two on top.

    These days my night vision isn’t great, it was never good. My worry is critters jumping out in front. Anyway, a night cruise on two wheels is a very different experience as Eric aptly described!

  10. You painted a numinous picture, full of rich imagery. Thanks for that. We all need a break from the doom and gloom from time to time.

  11. Perceptions of all things change at night. Eric alluded to the reason sound might be different. Perhaps because your predominant perception, your sight, is restricted, you lean more on your other senses. Doing any thing at night focuses one’s attention, on the circle of light. On a number of occasions, when someone lost a small object in the yard, I counselled to wait until dark. With a flashlight, one can only focus on what’s in the beam. No distractions. Often questioned about my lack of fear of snakes when frogging at night, my response was “I can see them better”, for the same reason.

  12. “Night Riding…..”
    Sounds like a great title for a TV show starring David Hasselhof, and a talking TRANSAM.

    Oh….wait a minute.
    Never mind.

      • Night Rider – A shadowy ride into the dangerous (BUT SAAAAAAFEEEEEETYYYYYYY!!!!!) world of a man who exists.

        Eric Peters, an aging journo on a crusade to champion the cause of combustion, the freedom, and power in a world of criminals who advocate EVs for all.

        I inherited my grandfather’s Member’s Only jacket. It fits!


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