The Journey

Help Me Understand, America

Last summer I spent a month driving across the United States, exploring 10 states –– Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas –– in the iconic road-trip machine that was my mother’s Toyota Prius.
Oh, sure, it’s not a ‘63 Mustang or a Harley-Davidson FLXWTFBBQ –– a Prius may not be everyone’s go-to choice for a road trip –– but I counter all criticism with the fact I was able to drive from Minneapolis to Kansas City on just $20 of gas. (Travel tip: Pay cash at Pilot) Plus, my parents don’t have a motorcycle that I could have borrowed. It was the Prius or walk.
Still, my mind remained two-wheel focused and I soon found myself using the 4,500-mile peregrination as an opportunity to observe the state of motorcycling in my homeland. I may not have visited your particular neck of the woods, but based on my observations I’d say that overall things are pretty good. Certainly, they are better than I remember from even a few years ago. And by “better” I mean “more diverse.” Diversity is a good thing. Cities with diverse economies are more vibrant; ecosystems with a diverse plant and animal species are more resilient. A diverse motorcycling world is better.
There’s nothing wrong with with white men on Harleys, but there is something wrong with nothing but white men on Harleys.
From my observation it appears there are more genres of bike out on the road. Cruisers still dominate, but in some urban areas –– in particular my old stomping grounds of Minneapolis and St. Paul –– that dominance is not nearly what it once was. I saw sportbikes, of course, but also dual sports (man, Americans love a Kawasaki KLR650), standards, retros, super nakeds, sport tourers, and whatever we’re classifying the Ducati Multistrada as these days. I saw a Moto Guzzi Griso in Hannibal, Missouri; I had to pick my jaw up from the sidewalk. I wouldn’t have thought Moto Guzzi owners would even know where the Show Me State is, let alone choose to live there.
Additionally, overall numbers of riders seemed to be up. Yes, a lot of those riders were eligible for AARP discounts, but increased numbers are increased numbers. So, things are good or getting better. But I’ll admit that there are some aspects of American motorcycling that my years of living outside the Trump Wall make it difficult for me to understand. Things that I suppose I never thought about before moving to the United Kingdom, but which now befuddle me.
The whole not-wearing-gear thing, for example. Throughout my travels, the most geared-up people I saw were a group in New Orleans: a quartet of gentlemen from the Ruff Ryders crew. Their flak-jacket-style leather vests left their arms uncovered but they had helmets, gloves, the aforementioned vests, jeans, and boots. Elsewhere, I observed that women were more likely to wear helmets than men, but by and large folks everywhere chose to ride sans protective gear. Extreme examples came in the form of leathery old dudes I saw in Louisiana, Iowa, and Minnesota who were riding shirtless.
I don’t understand this.
I get the idea of Freedom. I’m a big fan of Freedom, and from a purely philosophical standpoint I would even go so far as to say I passively agree with the argument against helmet laws. You have a right to expose your bald head to the Lord and sundry while speeding down the interstate at 80 mph, and I don’t want to take that right away from you. But just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you actually have to do it.
I mean, you also have the right to insert your index finger into your anus, then immediately place that same finger in your mouth. You have the right to do that over and over again. You have the right to use other digits, if you so choose, and the right to place those digits in other chosen orifices (as long as they are your own). God granted you those rights, son. They are inalienable, and ain’t no government fat cat that should tell you to stop. But that doesn’t mean any of it is a good idea.
I am baffled as to why so many American riders choose to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and at least some basic gear. You don’t have to squeeze yourself into some ridiculous $5,000 CE-approved Power Ranger wündersuit, but at least wear something better than Dockers and flip flops. 
I must be missing something. Just as I’m clearly missing the reason American riders are so obsessed with highway pegs. For the uninitiated, highway pegs are the footpegs that cruiser riders place on their engine bars so they can splay their legs out as if preparing for a gynecological exam. They make a person look ridiculous. Yes, I realize, as one who was observing all this from within a Prius, I have little ground to stand on when it comes to declaring things to be ridiculous. And just as I’ll defend the Prius on the grounds of practicality I can at least understand why a rider might want highway pegs when crossing the vast American expanse. I’ve had plenty of long-distance days, so I’m familiar with the ache that can develop when keeping legs in the same position for too long.
What I don’t, get, though, are the dudes (and it was always a dude) who insist on using highway pegs in urban areas. For example, the owner of a shiny new Indian Chief Vintage who had his legs akimbo while in Houston traffic. Have you ever driven in Houston?! No one is paying attention; they are all on their phones, Snapchatting about how awful Houston drivers are. That is not the sort of situation where you want to prop your foot far away from the rear brake (which is traditionally the more effective brake on cruisers).
In Memphis, I witnessed a man in stop-and-go traffic who insisted upon swinging his feet all the way to his highway pegs between bouts of duck walking his bike forward. Why? What’s wrong with just placing your feet at the controls? I realize that not every American has received high-falootin’ rider training. Or even wants it. (My brother vehemently refuses to take an MSF course despite the fact I’ve offered to foot the bill.) So, not everyone has been schooled in the Right And Proper Way To Do Things. But I can’t imagine a teaching-yourself-to-ride scenario where an individual would come to the conclusion that keeping his or her feet far from a bike’s controls is a good idea in slow-speed maneuvers or heavy traffic.
The logic behind these two practices completely escapes me. But I feel that because so many riders do it there must be something I’m failing to take into account –– some “Oh, that totally makes sense” facet of riding through traffic gearless with your feet on highway pegs that I’ve simply overlooked. Please, America. Help me understand.