October 9, 2016

Motorcycle Zen: Fear, Adventure & Surrender on the Italian Coast.

courtesy of author, Toby Israel

I must have contemplated my death a hundred times that day.

Hairpin turns and sudden stops. Engine hum in my bones and ocean wind in my hair.

Maybe hopping on a motorcycle sounds like a stupid risk to you; maybe you understand the allure. For me, every ride is a powerful metaphor for the precipice we all walk—every day of our lives.


It was the last weekend of August, and my friend and his vintage motorcycle met me at the Salerno train station a half-hour from Napoli, and we (along with crowds of Italian holiday-makers) set off for the Amalfi Coast.

The fresh wind in my face balanced the hot sun as we followed hairpin turns opening onto one dazzlingly beautiful vista after another. The hum (or, more accurately, roar) of the engine blended with the waves and the wind, and conversation was sparse. The sky turned to dusty rose, orange, teal, and we rounded past Amalfi and up the Sorrentino coast just in time for sunset.

An hour later, the headlights of oncoming traffic blurred as we raced down the centerline of the autostrada (highway) from Sorrento to Napoli. I settled into the peculiar flow of navigating traffic, weaving in and out.

Yellow lines, black sky, breathe in, breathe out.

Yellow lights, black tires, breathe in, breathe out.

Accelerate, brake. In. Out.

It was just me and my friend. Fear had hopped off that train long ago…


I must have contemplated my death a hundred times that day.

I usually do when I travel as a motorcycle passenger, and I don’t think it’s morbid. I think there’s a quality of zen to this process that renders it uniquely compelling for me.

There’s the, “oh sh*t, this is dangerous” moment, followed by the, “there’s nothing I can do to change my vulnerability in this situation” realization, culminating in (temporary) total surrender to the inalterable fact of my own mortality.

Then a sudden acceleration and, “oh sh*t,” and we begin again. As the minutes or hours blur on, I slowly stop picturing the many gruesome ways in which things could end badly, my pulse slows, and my shoulders relax. Once that last ripple of fear smooths out, I enter a space of zen-ed out acceptance—it’s pretty blissful there.

If you’re thinking I sound nuts, let me ask you a question:

How often, in your day-to-day life, do you contemplate your own mortality?

If you’re a healthy, well-enough-off human, I’m guessing it’s not all that often. And yet, we are all mortal; we are all helplessly vulnerable to myriad risks. We all walk a fine line between life and death all the time.

We are all on a precipice.

That yellow double line of a Napoletano highway, framed by black sky and black asphalt, is only a metaphor, no more and no less terrifying than the reality we all face. Every day.

The magic of this “motorcycle zen” I so love is not the “added” risk. Rather, it forces me to reckon with the transience always enveloping me—always enveloping us—and to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy the view.


Author: Toby Israel

Images: Author’s Own


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