The friend who dropped me at the airport kissed me deeply, and I kissed back, enjoying the rush of endorphins for a moment before pulling away, hopping out, and swinging the door so it latched with a satisfying click. I waved and bounded through sliding glass to the ticket line. He and I had engaged in heavy petting for a year or more, but I knew I would never let it advance beyond the occasional make out session. I was recovering from my latest break up with an ex who came around whenever I had gotten over him, stirred things up, and then left again, like ripping off a nearly healed scab. I would kick myself for my flimsy will and swear to say no next time, but I never did. Now, at the end of a long Vermont winter, fighting to keep the embers burning in a rusty wood stove and hitching rides when my car broke down, I was eager to get out of town.
I was heading to Daytona Bike Week for the second year in a row. I had attended the previous year with a couple of guys who saw it as an opportunity to sell their stock of cheap jewelry. They rented a space in a storefront downtown, and wanted a woman to help with sales. When they asked me, I dropped everything to go. We drove the length of the east coast, sleeping in motels, eating in diners, and chatting, until I became so sick of them I was happy to jump on the back of the first bike I saw.
The local bus company gave up during bike week, unable to compete with the constant flow of motorcycles. So while the guys waited hours at an empty bus stop, I sat on a square of padded leather, my hands gripping the thick waist of a stranger, wearing a helmet with the word bitch emblazoned across the back, and cruised the long boulevard to the center of town. The jewelry business flopped, but between shifts manning the booth I had a blast.
This time I was returning alone, with my camera, hoping to forget my heartache amid the crowds and the chaos. I boarded the plane and watched as the still-frozen land receded beneath me and we hurtled into blue sky. Florida’s eastern coast would be rainy and cool this time of year, with drenching gusts billowing off the Atlantic, but it would be warmer than Vermont. I had a reservation at a youth hostel, several rolls of film, and a three-hundred dollar tax return in my bag.
I was arriving at bike week without a bike. My Kawasaki would have been out of place anyway; in the culture of hogs and bikers, motorcycles like mine were called “rice burners” with no small measure of disdain. No, bike week was no place for a trim, practical machine. Snaking along the curb as far as one could see, new and vintage Harley Davidsons reclined on their kickstands, shapely and seductive, waiting to be admired. I would walk the rows of motorcycles, appreciating all the gleaming chrome, wondering at engine designs, considering the choice of belt, shaft, or chain drive, and laughing at the comic absurdity of airbrushed animals, demons, flames, and grotesquely depicted women. But as impressive as they were, I wasn’t going to see bikes. I was going for the scene.
Bike week was a festival of rowdiness and bad taste, politely rendered. Police conducted preemptive raids and business owners hung “No Colors” signs, a reference to the patches gang members wore, to keep Hell’s Angels and other violent elements away. A playful atmosphere reigned. Men rode the main thoroughfare bare-chested in chaps and Viking helmets, women flashed their breasts to the delight of drunken spectators, and barrooms throbbed to capacity with leather-clad revelers. Bikers for Jesus staged spontaneous performances and told stories of soul saving.
They had prayed for me the year before, when a group of them burst into the shop, infiltrating the crowd and calling out to each other over the heads of strangers. One narrator told how he had gone astray, sinning for so many years, until Jesus His Savior had shown him the light. He had a hard, weathered face but soft eyes, and he smiled broadly as he called me his sister and asked if he could pray for me.
“Sure,” I said, and bent my head toward him as he laid his hand over it. His warmth radiated down through my hair as he prayed aloud for my soul, stopping at intervals to elicit shouts of “amen” or “hallelujah” from his companions, and for a moment I felt so loved I might have joined them, even though I wasn’t Christian, and as far as I was concerned, Jesus was just a character in storybooks. If there is a god, I thought, it is in the acts of well-meaning people. It’s in human tenderness.
When the plane landed in Orlando, I headed for the information desk and encountered a guy loaded down with camera gear asking for directions. When he noticed the camera around my neck, we struck up a conversation. He was headed to Daytona, too, to photograph the drag races.
“Why don’t you come along? We can share a room tonight, and tomorrow you can help me shoot.”
In all my solo traveling, logic never dictated my decisions. I trusted my instincts, and this guy seemed fine. Plus, I was a sucker for novelty.
“Sure, I’ll come.”
We rented a room with two double beds and spread photos on the rug as we talked. He spoke about catching the motion and “in the wind” shots. I didn’t think I’d be very good at action shots, but I would try. He spoke about his time as a soldier in Panama, too, telling me about photographing the war, and the images he captured surreptitiously. He was earnest and candid, but I felt no closeness to him. When he described his feelings he seemed to be referring to some long-abandoned object, the kind you leave behind in a drawer at your parents’ house – remembered fondly but without place in your adult life. I liked him enough.
In the morning at the speedway we met up with his partner and their mobile darkroom. They gave me a pass that allowed me to stand right on the track. From the gravel perimeter I breathed burnt rubber and exhaust as souped-up bikes with fat, smooth tires on the back reared and revved, spewing clouds of smoke until the riders popped them into gear and screamed away, only to stop a few hundred yards down the track. It seemed like a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I quickly grew bored and veered off to shoot the crowds. People interested me.
At one of the campgrounds I stopped to investigate cheers I heard emanating from beneath a large canvass tent. There, in the shade, a topless woman stood before a mob of people, mostly men, who whistled and yelled their approval. She smiled sheepishly and began to move her torso, jerking so her breasts spun, first slowly, then with dizzying speed as her nipples circled round and round in a fleshy pink blur. The men’s cheers exploded in an ecstatic crescendo. Outside of this context, the woman might have appeared ordinary, but for this moment she was a star and all eyes belonged to her.
Throughout the day I handed off rolls of film for printing and the guys taped the best pictures to the side of the trailer so spectators could purchase them. As predicted, I’d had little success with action shots, but I captured some moments between people that I thought were pretty good. In one photo a man and woman talked, their faces almost touching, the man’s hand sculpting the air between them as he described something. They were completely engrossed in each other. It hung on the trailer for an hour or so before the guys told me they had to take it down.
“It’s a good shot,” my new friend said, “but that’s not his wife.”
“Make him buy it!” I said, but he just laughed.
For all the noise and commotion, being at the racetrack felt static, and I craved a more human spectacle. I declined a second day of shooting and said goodbye.
At the youth hostel I bunked above a woman thirty years older with one leg missing. Severed limbs and wheelchairs are a common sight at biker rallies, a reminder of the risk involved in riding. It’s a risk taken in exchange for the thrill of straddling a powerful machine, opening the throttle, and defying bodily limitations. We can feel superhuman for a few miles, a stretch of road, but we might have to forfeit a limb along the way, or worse. The scars, worn leathers, and gaudy tattoos declare membership in a tribe, a counter-culture, and members wear them with pride. Outwardly I didn’t look the part, but I shared the sense of marginality, the nothing-to-lose attitude, and the feeling of being answerable to nobody.
I called a friend from the year before, hoping to get together. John was a southerner who worked as a mechanic on fancy imported cars and tooled around on his Harley on weekends. I had met him at the jewelry booth, and he had invited me for a ride. He took me to a bird sanctuary, and together we walked through thick fronds of Florida forest, talking and laughing, passing the most pleasant afternoon of my stay. Later I wrote to him from my cabin in Vermont, and he sent me photos of our time together. I was looking forward to seeing him again. He had tickets to a demolition derby that night.
I reached up to hug him when we met. John was tall and blonde, with a shy smile and glasses so thick his eyes looked like a watery mirage on the other side. He limped when he walked, one knee turning slightly inward, and when he stretched his long legs to reach the pegs on his bike, I imagined it was a relief to recline and move with so little effort.
We sat high on the bleachers as we waited for the show to start. Music blasted from speakers and vendors wove through the throngs, selling pretzels and hot dogs, beer and goober peas. John bought some goober peas and offered them to me. I popped one in my mouth and bit. Immediately I spat the thing out, catching fibrous pieces of shell in my hand along with the mushy inner meat. John erupted in laughter and had to catch his breath before he could speak.
“Haven’t you ever had a boiled peanut before?” He was grinning and I thought I saw tears in the corners of his eyes.
“No. I mean, I didn’t know the shell was still on it.” I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even known they were peanuts.
“I can’t believe you’ve never had a boiled peanut.” He drawled the words with affection and giggled again, shaking his head. He seemed to revel in this realization of my foreignness, my boiled-peanut virginity, until a voice over the loudspeaker announced the first event.
I was worried; I wasn’t sure I could stand to watch people ramming into each other on motorcycles, because surely that would mean watching people get hurt. But they started with school buses, and the sight of those giant bread boxes bashing together delighted me.
After each crash the drivers would throw their buses into reverse, back up, and accelerate again, landing against the other with a smashing thud. When they paused in their sparring so an ambulance could remove an injured driver, the voice on the loudspeaker announced that they would accept volunteers from the audience. Drunken hands flew into the air, and when the next participant had been selected, the match resumed. By the time the motorcycles took to the track, I had completely forgotten my squeamishness, as I yelled to one or another of the wiry young riders to “Push that guy over!” or “Take his bike! Take his bike!”
The next day I met up with John for a ride, but my fun was cut short when a friend of his confronted me during a moment alone.
“Just what do you think you’re doing, leading him on like this?”
“What do you mean? We’re friends.”
“I mean writing to him, calling him up, hanging out with him… the guy keeps your picture in his toolbox, and he thinks you’re going to be together or something. What are you doing?” He glared at me. He knew what I thought was obvious. John and I had never even kissed, and my feelings toward him were warm, but platonic. I was stunned at this chastising, and I felt a pang of guilt. I thought about John, his gentleness, and the touch of frailty that caused his friend to feel so protective.
When I talked to him I tried to be as clear as I could. It was hard. Still I had to admit, as much as I hated being the one who cared less, the one doing the hurting, I hated it less than being the one who was hurt.
That night I took to the bars. I had been told a woman never has to buy her own drink at bike week, and I accepted an occasional glass as I circulated, pushing through a sea of black and denim, taking pictures. People drank, people laughed, people kissed and screwed in the corners, partying with abandon. There was no focal point to the festivities, but a general sense of celebration. What were we celebrating?
In the pointless fervor of the night, body to body with strangers, I felt buoyant and light, carried away by the utter freedom of it all. In the din of the barroom, had I found the essence of bike week, the frozen image of life in motion, of life “in the wind?” I laughed and ordered another drink.
When I returned to the solitude of my cabin in Vermont, the ground was just beginning to thaw. Slowly, patches of ice melted into puddles, but it would be weeks before I could pull my bike from under its tarp, prime it with fresh gasoline, and fire it up.
That first ride of the season was a reawakening of sorts; gliding along country roads, inhaling earthy sweet air, everything seemed possible again. I raised my fingers from the handlebar to wave at other bikers who passed, and they waved back. It’s a ritual between riders, a gesture of camaraderie and inclusion. For the time, I was happy to accept this loose affiliation with a tribe of irreverent thrill seekers. Sometimes, a loose affiliation is all you need.