Paul Mihalka was somebody I knew pretty well, but I wish I had known better.
He was a man of a million ride stories, every single one of them better than the best of mine.
If you’d gone far, Paul had gone way farther, likely at least five times.
At well past 80, Paul could ride the wheels off of anything, and reduce formerly testosterone fueled twenty-somethings who’d seen him disappear over the horizon on the road to states of gobsmacked muteness.
Though, gentleman that he was, he wasn’t the sort of person who would make a fuss over himself or the things he done. Like deer. Or Montana for lunch. Or that million mile badge on his bike.
I didn’t get to have the pleasure, but those who did ride with him spoke of a routine that always involved making arrangements as to where Paul would be waiting for the rest of them when they eventually got there.
Paul was smooth as a rider, which made him fast on the road. But Paul was even smoother as a man, and that made him a good human being.
Paul had been the Gentlemen Rider that did an unhurried and lovingly detailed delivery walkaround with me on the only new motorcycle I have ever bought after the guy that sold me the bike tossed me my keys and hopped on his bike and split.
He was the guy I’d always find already very relaxed by the fire ring when I pulled in whacked at a distant rally.
One Saturday morning not too long ago, I woke up with an uncaracteristic urge to dooooo something. And that thing was to go straight down to the motorcycle shop where Paul worked, and pick up a BMW Mileage badge that I’d applied for many months previously, and promptly forgotten about.
On Saturdays I like to sleep in, or ride, but goal orientation is usually not part of the discussion.
But I had to do this.
Right freaking now.
So I rode down to Rockville, and went and saw Paul. We shook hands as Paul gave me my badge. A picture was taken.
There was nobody else I would wanted to have received it from.
I remember bro-hugging him afterward, and having him comedically mimic his own patented ‘little look of distaste’ in response to my ungentlemanly modern breach of decorum.
My friend looked just tired though. He had a homemade healthy lunch on his desk that looked picked at, but uneaten.
Tuesday Paul went to see the doctor. A week later he was gone.
Sometimes riding a motorcycle can be a thing of grace.
Where in place of a man, and a machine — a technical task with instruments, controls, feedback loops — instead becomes a simple way of being. The machine beneath you simply disappears as you read and respond to the road ahead. No gears, no braking, just a seamless dance with the ribbon of road and the throttle.
It’s then I ride with Paul.
The first time it happened was a beautiful spring day. There’s a section of Gapland Road that runs within 3 miles of my garage, and its as much fun as you can have without going to the Corkscrew or Creg Ny Baa. The middle of the run has a modern two lane replacement for an ancient one lane cast iron bridge that recently failed. The road that leads to it and away from it has a steep decreasing radius right hander falling off the riverbank leading to the bridge and then a steep decreasing radius left hander climbing fast back up the river bank on the other side. There are lots of ways that this can go wrong, and only one narrow way it can go perfectly right.
On that day it went absolutely, perfectly right.
As a child, my parents concluded I ‘wasted’ a lot of time with my buds from Warner Brothers’ ‘Looney Tunes’.
Determinations of utility and lack thereof, it should be noted, are highly subjective and personal things.
But it was like the sound of a little hotel doorman’s desk bell, straight out of ‘Looney Toons’, that announced the first time Paul, with his unmistakable Austrian accent, checked in.
‘”That was sweet. Can I come along?”
I don’t care how much ‘Looney Tunes’ one watches, or how much ‘Looney Tunes’ one is, good manners and self preservation would both seem to dictate not to be disagreeable with the departed, so agreeable I was, and consent was quickly and unequivocally given.
‘Sides, other than that Paul didn’t really have much to say, and his cheerful — was he smiling? — presence indicated that the grace of the highways had been achieved.
Future rolling rendezvous became less dramatic, but were all equally palpable.
Whenever its happens it because I’ve reached that magic place. It isn’t really surprising in any way that that magic place is where he’d be.
I just got back from a hundred winter day miles on my K bike. I’d had a few holiday days out of the saddle, and at first I was rusty, and stiff.
But as both I and the bike warmed up, fluidity, and then grace, returned.
Shortly thereafter, I sensed Paul on my shoulder again.
“Good to see you”, I said.
And a good day of cold air, narrow forest ways and flattrack-like clay roads in the North County became absolutely perfect.