Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Aging Rider

My father used to tell me “It’s hell to get old”. I’m beginning to understand and move that comment from the joke category in my brain to the section reserved for current events. My friend Gordon recently made this picture of me at one of our Sunday morning print meetings and I see my father. And I’m saying to myself “It’s hell to get old”.

Standing at the kitchen sink last night with a handful of Methotrexate I realized something had changed. Almost overnight I’ve traveled from oblivious through denial and on into acceptance that I’ve become an aging rider and with it all the rights and responsibilities attendant to a change in physical ability.

A week ago I was standing in a hospital gown with my back to a wall while two rheumatologists at Johns Hopkins Medical Center recorded measurements of joint flexibility, pain and range of motion, and finally confirming the diagnosis of my family doctor -- “You have psoriatic arthritis Mr. Williams.”


Aging is a natural, nearly invisible process until it isn’t. And one day a light is turned on and you realize some new limitation has formed, some new element to be managed. And it reaches out to every detail and aspect of living and informs a new life. It branded me an aging rider.

Men live in denial though.  I can't speak for women.

Two months ago I was deep in it, telling myself that my arthritis would have no effect on my riding. Sitting astride the Vespa was easy and I could ride all day but stopping was another story. The joints in my toes were on fire and walking was a problem. Pushing the scooter onto the centerstand was a challenge. And walking to make a photograph along this winding gravel road in Rothrock State Forest was near torture.

But I ignored it and pushed onwards in the rain.

I see pictures when I ride and especially ones where the scooter plays a role. Standing some distance away from the Vespa, thinking about this shot, I was regretting wandering so far from the seated comfort of my ride. Not yet thinking of myself as an aging rider I rode on.

Fear of aging generates denial. It takes time to acknowledge the fear and more time to understand what the march of time means. Personal dishonesty in this area can lead to bad decisions. An acquaintance comes to mind -- a fellow in his early 70’s who purchased his first motorcycle two years ago -- a Harley Davidson Ultra Glide. He had never ridden before but was persuaded by a friend that he would love riding.

Whenever I run into him I ask if he still has the Harley. His face lights up and he responds with a bright “Sure do!”. What I’m careful not to ask is if he rides it (which I’m sure he doesn’t) Not long after his purchase he discovered that riding a big motorcycle is not an innate skill and after a few scary moments on the road he parked it in the garage for good.

Denial is a wonderful thing and is helpful in making irrational decisions. I’m not saying a 70 year old can’t ride but I might suggest a different path to the road for a first time rider of any age. The accumulation of years (and wisdom) will quickly raise its case in these kinds of situations.

Back on the road I continued to ride and find opportunities for more pictures. Picking my way through the rocks on sore feet finally illuminated my limitations. I was going to have to change the way I think about my capabilities.

The Death Equation.

I like to think that I’m not the only one doing death mathmatics in their head -- calculating the difference in years between your current age and the age of your father or grandfather when they died. I can’t remember when I started doing this but it’s definitely related to aging and a growing awareness of the finite number of days at my disposal. I should add that it’s not depressing or obsessive but a result of an awareness and acceptance of my mortality. And fueled by my latest medical adventure.

Right now the only thing keeping me from riding to work is the fact that the Vespa is in for service. I postponed the work until a time I can meet with the technician to photograph him for a blog post. But soon the scooter will be parked again outside my office like it is in this picture expect the sportbikes will cease to appear as winter descends.

In the meantime Junior continues to keep me busy though our walks have diminished in favor of drives to the part where I can stand in one place and heave the ball across the field for him. He’s a potent reminder of the mobility that I have lost for now. He’s always in motion. I’m always.... not.

The change is something new to manage. Like rain or snow or darkness. As I assess routes and weather I now have to assess my physical state. Reading the current issue of the BMW Owners News I’m impressed by the number of aged riders piling up tens of thousands of miles every year. During murky thoughts it helps remind me that the passing of years doesn’t have to relegate me to the rocking chair, or worse, a trike. Actually, I’ve never ridden a trike. Experience has shown me that I really need to try something before judging it harshly.

A shiver of excitement swept over me as I stood in the road with the Leica. Despite any current physical ailments the road still rolled on ahead. There are more rides to make and things to see. And I'll view these rides through a new filter... an aging rider.


Charlie6 said...

A very thoughtful and insightful posting Steve. I've only two comments based on recent events involving long term neighborhood friends and just something I read somewhere....

First: The future is not guaranteed, you can plan and save towards retirement and then out of the blue, a medical crisis foils all their planning.

Second: No one gets out alive.

Pain can be managed, to some extent. I plan to ride as far into old age as possible.



ps: the word verification for my posting was "soremen", coincidence?

Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Rogier said...

I am going to order a scooter much faster than planned... Life is to short.

Steve Williams said...

Charlie6: (dom) Your two points are worth remembering. Easy to forget in the rush of things.

I'm with you about riding into old age. I hope to be posting about rides here in 2031.

Steve Williams said...

Rogier: Full speed ahead!

Circle Blue said...

Yes, aging brings change and change nearly always means adjustments . . . or as you pointed out denial. And, denial can be a killer.

I chuckled at your term "Death Mathematics." I've not been doing quite the same thing, but I've noticed a new thought creeping into my mind from time to time. I wonder what it is that will take me out. Cancer? Heart? During a surgery? Accident? Side effects of a medication I'm taking? And, like you I'm not obsessing about it or find it depressing. It just is what it is.

I wish you well finding the balance point with this new challenge. I've had a few challenges and some of them really have turned into opportunities for my world to open up. Others have just sucked.


bobskoot said...


Your words echo similar thoughts that I have been thinking about but could not express in such eloquent words. I too have had problems with my foot. At times it was like walking on broken glass and taking small steps but I too was in denial hoping that it would go away, even though it has happened before. It is still not back to normal and I am afraid that it may never . . . I manage and work around my limitations and continue onward. I guess it is a symptom of the aging process.

I don't know how it happened, that our youth is slowly escaping our grasp never to return. Recently two of my friends have passed on, and they were much younger than myself. It almost feels like I am on borrowed time

Riding the Wet Coast

Toadeus Maximus said...

As always, well said.

I'm 46 and your words about "death math" struck a chord with me. Those calculations have been running through the back of my head for years, up to this point, I'd always focused on what I thought was the "halfway point". Figuring that my family is long lived stock. They all smoked, I don't. So I always told myself that I'd make 90. Most of my grandparents lived into the 80's so I made 45 my halfway point.

As I neared 45, without really realizing it at first, I started editing the formula telling myself that those first 18 years really didn't matter too much. I didn't know much of anything, didn't have any money. As for life experience, they didn't count. Using my "New Math" I was only a third of the way!

At this point I feel like a much smarter 25 year old trapped in a body that takes days to recover from things in the past I'd bounce back from by the next morning.

I try not to get too quote-y but with perspective some seem to ring truer with each passing day.

"Life is what happens while we're making plans".

"Youth is wasted on the young".

As I look forward, reading writers such as yourself, I try to remember what I'll be remembering fondly in another 20 years. Will I be glad I passed up any amount of riding for what is on my to-do list for tomorrow?

I'd rather be sore from doing a long ride than from cleaning out the basement. Either way i'm sore.

Saddle up!

PS, I'm trying to decide how much it will hurt to ride a 24 year old GSXR across the country and back to meet up with old riding buddies I haven't seen for 12 years! That door is closing.

Doug said...

Steve, I'm sitting here tonight with a heating pad on my shoulder hoping that things will be loose enough tomorrow for a ride. As my friend Keith says "Gettin' old ain't for sissies." And to that I add "I'm not going quietly."

Steve Williams said...

Circle Blue: Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I hope, as you say, that my current situation turns into an opportunity. I suppose one never really knows what a new day will bring...

Steve Williams said...

bobskoot: I know a lot of people don't like to think about this stuff but I believe addressing it diminishes a lot of the fear and lets us get to the important stuff -- living today.

We are all on borrowed time aren't we?

Dar said...


I can tell you that women live in denial too. I am a new rider at 47 years old and unfortunately fell on one of my first outings. The fall I took back in January is still haunting me 11 months later and I fear is the game changer for me. I am noticing muscle weakness & nerve issues in the area of impact. I don't bounce back like I once did. I was very active when I was younger and when I would get hurt I would "walk it off" not anymore. One of my regrets about starting riding so late is that I feel like I am trying to make up for missed time, so I ride everywhere and in every type of weather. I think women live in just as much denial, if not more because we tend to ignore things and look after everyone else.

I hope your arthritis settles down and you get some smooth sailing.

Orin said...

Steve, I suggest an MP3. Or a sidestand.

Seriously, I find I can relate completely to what you've said here. I was at a motorcycle dealer's Xmas party earlier this evening, and about all I could think about as I looked at the Triumph Tigers and Daytona 675s was, "I don't think I'd be able to hold it up... or pick it up if it fell."

I think we're about the same age, and what I often find myself saying to no one in particular is, "I don't recognize that person in the mirror."

I've just finished reading a collection of Kurt Vonnegut's short stories, and the one that resonated was one where people's personalities had separated from their physical selves. On occasion, a body would come in handy, so they'd go to a central storage facility and borrow one.

That would be nice.

Scootin' Old Skool

David Masse said...

Steve you have a knack for leaving me speechless. Your posts about your personal challenges are full of courage and open honesty that are the complete opposite of denial. You are where all of us need to be. Facing the future squarely, bravely and looking challenges squarely in the eye. We are all better off for the painful trudge you take to capture that second and third perspective of your bike from the forest. I ride thanks in large measure to your example and will continue to do so. You inspired me, continue to do so, and are surely inspiring others. Keep up the good work.

Steve Williams said...

Toadeus Maximus (Todd): I like the sound of your new math. Anything to give myself more time!

Everyday is a collection of choices. I suppose those choices are what life is made of -- the actions and activities that we undertake. Like you I often wonder about the choice between cleaning the basement and riding. Or something similar.

I'm glad you stopped to comment. There is a lot of things you've raised that are worth thinking about.

Good luck on that cross country trip. Hurry along before the door closes!

Steve Williams said...

Doug: I've found a new appreciation for heating pads, ice, and hot foot baths. The simple things are always best.

I'm with you -- I don't want to go quietly into the night.

Steve Williams said...

Dar: I understand the feeling of trying to make up for lost time. Much as I can I try to focus on what I have to do today but it's not easy to keep my mind focused there.

Be careful out on the road in all weathers. You don't want to have to heal from any new mishaps.

Ride safe.

Steve Williams said...

Orin: I was hoping you would suggest a BMW 1200 GSA. Or a Ural rig. Or even the Triumph Tiger 800XC.

Right now the challenge for me is to make sure I actually think about how I'm feeling before I jump on a scooter or motorcycle. I'm so quick to want to ride that I just go since I never had to consider any health issues. I don't want to find myself along the road somewhere struggling to get something on or off a centerstand or too fatigued to ride on.

For now things are ok. But someday I will have to look a bit further.

And some new boots with solid soles that don't feel that stand pushing up towards my foot will help.

Steve Williams said...

David Masse: Thank you for the kind words about this post. My intent is never to leave anyone speechless. Just want to share what's going on in my head as it (sort of) relates to riding.

The future is coming, ready or not, so I am trying to get a head start on acceptance.

I'm glad that you find something useful and I'll try to continue to make photos of the scooter out in the world.

And your print is packaged and ready to go. All I need to do now is take it to the post office. I'm a leaky vessel when it comes to mailing anything...

Bryce said...

Interesting commentary, as usual. My own father died at age 62, in 1982. I
rolled over age 65 this past May 30. Have had numerous health problems beforehand including Lupus and cancer with much chem. Sold my beloved Goldwing in the midst of the chemo; the will, desire and ability to ride was no longer available. And now, like you also have arthritis in my joints. Due to my overall big size and prior health problems, surgery is not in the future for any one specific part of my anatomy.
Decided some weeks ago to trade my 13-year old Honda Civic (which I could get into comfortably in the past) on something bigger, more my size more hefty. A Honda Ridgeline truck with all the toys except the navigation system. Now it is NOT a two wheeled machine however as I age it shall do quite well. There's a sun roof; something I have never had in the past. Too big for a top down sports car, this will have to suffice.
As to running with Junior, keep doing it. maybe I can buy both of you something at the Creamery next spring.

Steve Williams said...

Bryce: Reading your post I can help but think the challenge in life is to accept what the day presents and do with it what we can. Writing that I have some regrets at wasting so many days...

A big change from a Civic to a Ridgeline. Four wheel drive too?

Tiny Puppetmaster said...

Hi, Steve. I wish I could contact you directly. I'm a total twit for not responding to YOUR kind words in response to my comments a month ago. My other blog Edgar Bickley's Script was started when someone showed me a tiny 5 inch doll. And all of a sudden a whole story came to mind and I took off after that idea like wildfire. It was great fun, my aim was to create an intimate relationship with the viewer all wrapped up in something like an old European folk tale and a little theatre. I stopped the blog because his life was going to be the same day after day. And, now I'm working on a book with Edgar. So I'm hoping that works out in the near future. Thanks for your interest. And your post "The Aging Rider" is simply flat excellent. Best and warmest wishes for you. Martha

Tom Hill said...

First, thank you for your wonderful blog. Your words about riding and the bikes you ride are wonderful. The photography you exhibit really has a perspective that's inspired my own photography when I'm on the bike.

Here's the thing I suggest and I hope I write it well enough to mean anything.

This road we're on is full of bumps that try to divert us from the path that's best for us. The challenge is to get past those bumps, stay on the path, and keep looking forward. Riding is a fantastic metaphor for this life philosophy, there are bumps yet we mush stay on the "path".

I mention this mostly to help with perspective. As it is, the most important mental thing to do is keep looking forward which is what we do with riding. There are bumps... we adjust... we might accelerate... we might even stop. But, we never look anywhere than forward down the path.

Thank you for this fantastic post... Also, thank you for your wonderful images and stories.



Steve Williams said...

Tiny Puppetmaster: Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them.

Your projects sound wonderful. A creative adventure of the best kind. Best wishes on your book project -- let us all know how it turns out!

Steve Williams said...

Tom Hill:Your description of bumps in the road and always looking forward is excellent. I agree with most of it save for one thing I can't let go of. From time to time I find it healthy to look off to the left or right, look away from the path ahead lest I become too single-minded and cut off from the wonderful serendipity in life.

But most of the time I want to move forward.

Thanks for commenting here. I love reading what others think of their own riding lives.

RichardM said...

A very thought provoking post. I have been thinking similar thoughts but have never been able to put them down on paper. My father just passed away and the arithmetic was one of my first thoughts. I discovered the joys of riding late in life and, like Dar mentioned, feel that I need to make up for lost time but given where I live, that'll never happen.

After dealing with cancer a few years ago and struggling with diabetes now, trying to exercise enough to "get healthy" has almost become an obsession.

BTW, that last photo is wonderful.


Rogier said...

Check out this short movie :-)

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Wonderful writing. I mean it.

George Ferreira said...

A great post Steve. I plan on riding until the end, whatever that may be. I'm not obsessing about my age or even think much about it, turned 50 last January and all of a sudden I'm going for 51, what worries me is that time flies by and we never know what will stop us from riding. It could be tomorrow or it could be when I'm 75, no one knows. Last year I made a resolution that I wouldn't leave for next year what I could do this year. From 25 to 50 I postponed too many things because of family, home, job, now I plan my life with a different attitude.

Kathy H, Delray Beach FL said...

Steve, I have read your blog for about six months. It helped me get back into motorcycles after a three-year break.
Your aging post presents one of the dilemas of aging: if we don't think we're old, are we? My eldest son once told me he has a lot of friends who are quite young, but who act as if they are senior citizens. "On the other hand, you are pretty old and you act pretty young."
I want to keep feeling pretty young, because I know once I start thinking I'm old I will be! And so far I've been able to pull it off - probably thanks to good genes.
But that little niggling thought that keeps playing in the background: what will I do when I find out I'm 68?

Steve Williams said...

RichardM: Thank you for the kind words about the post and for sharing your experiences. Often I find what people write in comments helpful as I wrestle with my own thoughts about life and riding.

So far I haven't felt a strong desire to make up for lost time but I can sense it out there not too far away...

I hope I can assume some healthier behaviors but find I'm still in the "I can start tomorrow" mode.

Hope things continue to go well for you.

Steve Williams said...

Rogier: It's a great video. First saw it on the Selvedge Yard site. It reflects the kind of experience I can only dream about. For now.

Steve Williams said...

Tuscan Foodie: thanks!

Steve Williams said...

GeorgeF: Thank you for your compliment on the post.

I hope I can ride until the end whatever and whenever that will be. Riding fits nicely into my life right now. I only see problems if my dreams grow larger than life -- say I want to ride round the world or something...

Steve Williams said...

KathyH: Glad I could help you back into the riding world.

I definitely think aging is a state of mind, at least a big part of it. Family, friends, and even ourselves, we contribute to the idea that we should stop doing one thing or another.

Keep riding. Hard to get old on a motorcycle or scooter!