I confess. “Instant” is tempting. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to get rich quick, lose twenty pounds in one month eating gallons of ice-cream, and write a best-seller next week? Maybe not; I can’t think of anything fast and easy that changed my life for the better long-term. Years ago, a brilliant jazz drummer friend summed up the secret of his own success like this, “Ya gotta pay your dues, babe.” It sounded onerous but he was right! And thankfully, it turns out that once you bring a dream into focus, those payments can be fun to make, even as they challenge and scare you. 

Take, for example, the March weekend I spent in Nevada last year at the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School—which I signed up for after dropping my dual-sport bike on a lonely road and discovering that I couldn’t pick it up. When illness forced me to scuttle a plan to get there by way of an off-season motorcycle tour on my Suzuki V-Strom, I did what any reasonable sexagenarian would do—bought a little Yamaha dirt bike and towed it to my initiation into the world of knobby tires. Had Jimmy told me, before I signed up, that in The Off-Road Riding Universe foot pegs exist to be stood upon, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I suspect I was his most inept student…ever. Most of what I knew about riding on asphalt was irrelevant in the dirt, and peg-standing proved to be way out of my league. I did the drills on my butt, dumped my bike repeatedly, and demonstrated a profound lack of balance, stamina, and thigh muscles. In short, I was the student who made everyone else look really, really good…and I had the time of my life!

It paid off. Early last Fall I shrugged into my backpack, fastened a survival bag to the TW200’s tail rack, and embarked on my first solo day ride in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. I had mapped a route covering 45 miles of unexplored dirt to a favorite spot, Jubilee Lake, which I expected to reach mid-afternoon. A hour or so into the ride, having already traversed several stretches that any rescue crew I might need would only be able to negotiate in an ATV, I rounded a blind curve and rode into a stretch so packed and strewn with large rocks that turning around was unthinkable. So I slowly and clumsily leg-paddled forward–and I didn’t crash! In the next few hours I learned how to right a belly-up bike dropped just over the edge of a mountain road, slipped into a narrow rut deeper than my pegs and managed to ride out of it without breaking a leg, and rode a dozen or so miles away from my destination before recognizing that I’d taken a wrong turn. I reached Jubilee at dusk and did the remaining miles of familiar road as darkness fell, arriving home filthy and exhausted with a nearly drained gas tank. I’d spent nearly 8 hours covering 100+ challenging miles and I’d stayed on the pegs for at least half of them. I could not have been more proud of myself!

I have graduated to the pegs of my V-Strom now and I am still practicing. Only two weeks ago, buzzing on new 50/50 tires through back country gravel at around 50 mph, a sharp curve intimidated me abruptly off the pegs. The resulting weight shift, together with loose rocks and speed, created the perfect setup for a terrifyingly wide front-end wobble. But I stayed upright and took on my first stretch of 2-track a couple hours later.

So why are these small successes meaningful? Because they are preludes to the “dream in focus” that I mentioned earlier. In less than a week, I will begin a month or so of solo touring in Eastern Montana–a ride that will include many miles of gravel in areas with very few humans per square mile. And those miles will be more practice for an even bigger dream—a  MotoQuest tour in Patagonia. I finally understand that dreams worth having are dreams worth struggling for, and I am paying my dues. 

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