As a motorcyclist, it’s hard not to be at least a little superstitious. Cruiser riders have to those little bells they dangle off their bikes, racers have the lucky socks they always wear.
When I lived on the Isle of Man, I almost always said ‘Hello’ to the fairies when I crossed the famed ‘Fairy Bridge’ on the way to Castletown. Two particular times stuck in my mind, and made it into my memoir, Riding Man. The first was the morning after the Manx Motorcycle Club’s annual gala dinner, when I met an Englishman who, in hindsight, probably was a clinical example of logorrhea, a psychological disorder in which the patient cannot stop talking.
Standing at the bar, afterward, I meet two riders, an old guy and his protégé. The old guy is Chris McGahan, an Englishman who nearly made a career of racing, back in the ’70s. Since then, he’s specialized as a real-road racer, doing the major Irish meetings, the TT and Manx GP, and a few public road races on the Continent.
Chris, who’s probably in his fifties, looks like an ex-lightweight boxer who stayed in shape. Long arms, strong hands and shoulders; his most noticeable feature is a pair of large ears, the tops of which stick out horizontally like wings. “They call me ‘wingnut,’” he grins. In a room where men outnumber women at least 20:1, he seems to have two dates. (The MMC Annual Dinner was actually stag until the mid’90s.) The younger guy is Sean Leonard, Irish. “Dere’s noothin’ known about racin’ dat Chris don’t know,” Sean tells me.
They’ve hardly stopped drinking when they call me around 10 a.m. the next morning. They’re going to drive down to Castletown to meet a sponsor, then cut a couple of laps of the Mountain in a borrowed car. Do I want to come?
Chris spins one yarn after another. Famous old racers, fast women; smuggling booze back across the channel from continental races, smuggling stowaways on the ferry to the Island for the TT; serious substance abuse continuing right up to the green flag. Choose one each from columns A, B, and C. He’s driving as fast as he’s talking. Suddenly, with Chris hurtling along in mid-sentence, Sean blurts, “Fairy Bridge!”
No Island native crosses the little stone bridge without saying hello to the fairies. Sean says it, and so does Chris, injecting his “Hello Fairies,” in the middle of a sentence. I say it, too. They kind of laugh it off, like, “We don’t actually believe it…”
Of course, the one time I neglected to say ‘Hello’, I was immediately punished for it…
In fairness, the big black birds have always worked for me. They’ve protected me on days I’ve seen ’em, and indeed, I’ve had some hairy crashes on mornings when I’ve not seen them. If you set out to debunk my talisman, you’d say, “The birds calm you, and you ride better relaxed. You’re tense when you’re aware you haven’t seen one, and you ride shitty tense.” That may be true. The scientist in me is a little subtler. I think that the birds are common, after all, and there’s probably almost always one to see. I think that when I’m in a state of relaxed awareness, alert to my environment, I can count on seeing one. That’s the state in which I ride well. When I internalize, when I’m looking in and not out, I don’t see them. That’s a state in which I ride poorly.
Whatever the case, after the TT fortnight was over, I drove one of my visitors to the airport, and on the way home crossed the Fairy Bridge. Somehow, lost in thought, I failed to say hello, though I reassured myself that I’d said it on the trip to the airport and according to the letter of the legend, it is the first crossing of each day that is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.
As I was worrying through this very thought, I noticed a crow hopping in the road ahead of me. As I got closer and closer, I actually said, “Hey, take off” out loud. But it didn’t. I thought about slamming on the brakes, or swerving, and did a quick visual check to ensure the road was otherwise clear. Then I thought, “Don’t be stupid, they always wait to the last second to get out of the way.” But it didn’t. I hit it and killed it. I was fucking aghast.
That sort ended tragically, eh? However a couple of years later, I had another experience at this time of year that was quite uplifting. It happened in the Val d’Aosta, when I was trying to understand the reported heroics of a motorcyclist, in the deadly Mont Blanc Tunnel fire.
It turned out I got a lot of the facts wrong, but in the telling, I may have got some larger truths right. This is an excerpt from my most-popular story, ‘Searching for Spadino’, as it appears in my anthology, On Motorcycles; The Best of Backmarker
I arrived in Val d’Aosta in the evening, checked into a hotel cold, wet, and hungry after riding all the way up from Bologna in pouring rain. I showered, changed into dry clothes and found the nearest restaurant. I struck up a conversation with the waitress, and told her that I guessed my first stop would be the local graveyard, where I assumed Tinazzi was buried. She told me that the whole town would be in the graveyard the next day, which surprised me.
“Don’t you know what tomorrow is?” she asked me, then said “It’s the feast of all the saints and all the dead.”
The next day was All Saints Day.
I didn’t need to ask for directions. I just stepped out of my hotel―narrow streets like tributaries leading, not to a river but Aosta’s cemetery—and joined the flow of people walking slowly in fine clothes, carrying bouquets of flowers; occasionally a whisk brush, a blanket or folding beach chair; a picnic lunch. When we got there, thousands of people placed flowers, tended graves, quietly socialized; a military band played. At first, I trusted fate to lead me to Spadino’s grave, but when that didn’t work, I found someone who actually worked at the cemetery. The attendant knew of the heroic motorcyclist, but was certain that he was not buried there in Aosta.
As I walked out, I passed two cops in dress uniform, and noticed a tiny motorcycle insignia on one’s lapel. In a mix of English, French, and translation dictionary Italian, I explained what I was doing. The two cops debated something between themselves. Then, one of them gave me my first lead...