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Back roads

A motorcycle is one of the most useless pieces of equipment ever invented -- at least if you believe my friends. When they found out I intended to buy a used Honda 400, they descended on me like a collective conscience. ``It's too dangerous,'' they said.

``I've taken a Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding class,'' I responded.

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``It's not practical,'' they continued. ``What are you going to do with it -- race cars on the freeway? You can't even carry groceries on it.''

``As a matter of fact I'm going to ride it to work,'' I said with great calm. The more my friends pointed out the shortcomings of two wheels, the more determined I was to prove them wrong. When I took delivery of my silver steed, I fitted it with a windscreen and saddle-bags, and headed off to the grocery store. ``That should keep them quiet,'' I said to myself, trimphantly.

But I was wrong. Not about my friends -- no, they are good friends, and like all good friends they quiet down after they have their say. But I was certainly wrong about the motorcycle. Though, I rationalized, I'd buy it to ride to work -- thus saving wear and tear on our worn and torn car -- I found I couldn't get it anywhere near work. The motorcycle seemed to have a kind of secret ``No!'' built into it, a warning device that sensed the approaching employees' parking lot and veered me as far away from it as possible.

Nonsense, you may say; no machine can do that. And no doubt you are right. Yet on those Saturdays when I attempted test rides to the office -- when no work was even being done, and my journey there should have been easy and uneventful -- I could not quite get the motorcycle to oblige. After about 45 minutes of riding, I began to feel a little tremor running through the machine. ``You're getting close,'' it seemed to say; ``less than 20 minutes to go. Is that where you really want to wind up?'' Sure enough, taking the nearest freeway exit, I headed toward the narrow roads of the hills.

I have no problem getting to work in the car. So after a couple of unexpected detours with the motorcycle, I spent a few days scratching my head. My friends' wisdom appeared before me like a tribunal. ``Have I made a dreadful mistake?'' I asked myself. ``Have I wasted my money on an adult toy?'' I began to feel like young Ben Franklin, squandering all seven of his pennies for a one-penny whistle. I waited penitently for guilt to strike.

But no guilt has struck. Of course this may be because I've been too busy with a completely new, unexpected adventure -- exploring the back roads of the coastal range. These roads, which I almost never drive in a car, wind their way along the San Francisco peninsula and over to the Pacific Ocean.

My explorations began more or less by accident: I landed on back roads when I left the freeway after my unsuccessful Saturday junkets toward work. Then, gradually, I chose the coastal range as my route and destination. The roads switchbacked through country I had never seen -- valleys dark under dense redwoods, pastures with ancient barns tucked away in odd nooks of the landscape, sudden high bluffs with an ocean view. Not 40 miles from San Francisco, I discovered a territory that appeared to date from the previous century, with a beauty that itself seemed out of time.

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In a way, I had always known it was there; but in my day-to-day rush to get wherever I was going, I chose a shorter, quicker route, ignoring the world con-tained in that long mountain range. What does it mean to discover a territory like this? For anyone who has ever experienced the slippery artifice of urban life, it can mean a lot. It's not more real, or better, or more virtuous than the city; but it is, thank goodness, different, wide-open, with space that encourages the mind's own release as it seeks to unburden itself, to find a little breathing room.

Ordinarily, after much fussing and planning, I head for the Sierras when I need this kind of release. My infrequent antidote is the redwood forest and the stream in the narrow gorge, or the bona fide general store where I can get basic needs, picking up a map or a new pair of jeans. Now, however, a change -- a very different, equally real terrain -- is as near as the mountains, as near as the two wheels that take me there.

So, to my friends, I have to say: You were right, and wrong. Yes, my motorcycle has its limits, at least for the time being: It has not become the brilliant pragmatic tool I insisted it would be. On the other hand, it is far from useless. In fact, it may be one of the most useful investments I have made as an adult. As nothing else has, it has reminded me that finding a release or a refuge does not necessarily mean hitting the main highway to anywhere. Release or refuge also comes from taking the back road, the new route close to home, and finding how easily it can become a whole world, intricate and vivid and complete. Tom Simmons

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