“An easy one,” I told the motorcycle rental man. “I haven’t ridden in a long time, so I’d like your easiest one.”
“Izzy wun,” he repeated, looking over the two dozen shiny cycles lined up in his parking-lot-cum-rental-shop on the island of Ko Samet, Thailand.
He strode forward and put his hands on a sleek machine with the red-and-yellow Manchester United logo painted on its side.
“Thiz izzy,”’ he said, smiling as he wheeled it over to me. “Mannches Yoonite,” he said, pointing to the logo and then to his eyes and his head, indicating that I should remember my bike by the distinctive logo.
He sat astride the bike and flicked up the kickstand, then looked at me. He put his hand on the left brake and squeezed it. “Bak brik,” he said. Then he put his hand on the right brake and squeezed it. “Fron brik.”
“Numbah wun bak brik. Allway bak brik.”
He released the back brake and then squeezed the front brake. “No bak brik, fron brak,” he said, and with his hands he portrayed the motorbike somersaulting through the air. “No goo.”
“Got it,” I said.
“Make go,” he said as he mimed turning the accelerator with his right hand.
“Now star.” He squeezed the left brake, turned the ignition key, then pushed a switch, and the engine magically chugged to life.
He turned off the key, stepped off the bike, and gestured for me to get on. “Yoo try.”
I repeated the three steps and the bike again chugged to vibrating life.
Now came the problem. I knew I’d ridden motorcycles before. I’d definitely ridden them in Thailand 40 years ago and I was pretty sure I’d ridden a cycle or two since then, though I couldn’t remember when or where. And in one day on this tranquil Thai island, where the only cars were pick-up-truck taxis, I’d seen all manner of humanity, young and old, tourist and local, blissfully motorbiking along the roads.
How hard could it be? I’d asked myself over breakfast earlier that day, studying a map of the compact island and conceiving this suddenly death-defying plan.
The problem was that the rental place was situated halfway down a steep hill, and the downhill portion of the hill was a national park off limits to motorcycles, so to get out of the shop, I had to gun the engine to ascend the hill and simultaneously turn a hard right to get onto the road, which was still slippery-slick from last night’s rain, then avoid plunging straight into the viney hillside opposite.
I got on the bike and tentatively gunned the engine. The cycle spurted forward and veered crazily to the right and my left leg shot out and my sandals skip-skip-skipped along the road and I barely stopped the cycle before tumbling ignominiously onto my side.
The rental man’s grizzled partner walked up and looked me over. “You OK?” he asked, clearly indicating that he thought I would be better off spending the day reading a book on the beach under the palms.
“I’m not sure,” I said, and at that moment alternative scenarios flashed through my mind.
I could give up on the motorcycle idea and instead take a taxi to town and spend the day walking around. I could even take taxis to some of the more remote beaches and just explore the island that way. But how would I find a driver in the middle of nowhere? On the other hand, I could simply lounge on the beach at Ao Prao, lazing under the palms and swimming and napping and scribbling in my journal. That would be a fine way to spend a day.
But I wanted to explore the island. And the only practical way to explore the island was on a motorbike.
“I’m OK, “I said, definitively.
“OK,” the rental man said. He got on the bike and indicated that I should climb on behind him.
I held on and he started the bike and made the turn onto the road and then gunned the engine up the hill until we reached a spot where the road leveled off. He stopped, turned off the engine, got off the bike, and patted me on the back. “You OK,” he said.
“Thank you!” I said, grateful for the reassurance. Then, too terrified to even look back, I squeezed the left brake, turned the key, flicked on the engine, and gave it the gas. And off I flew, wobbling a bit to get my balance at first but then straightening out and wheeling along the sun-dappled road.
We all have our comfort thresholds. For some it may be zip-lining in Costa Rica or bungee jumping in New Zealand. For others it may be eating that first slice of sashimi in Tokyo or plunging into the subway in New York.
While the actual challenge differs hugely from person to person, the process of confronting the challenge, of crossing our comfort threshold, is essentially the same. The pulse quickens, the heart pumps, the mind weighs the pros and cons, desperately groping at all manner of excuses and alternatives—and then, in one impetuous, soul-soaring moment, we say, “I’m going to do this!” And off we go.
Of course, these thresholds exist for good reason, and it’s not always wise to trespass them. Sometimes we weigh the risks and benefits and decide not to descend that treacherous-looking path or board that sketchy bus or eat that bowl of questionable mush.
But often, the thing that really holds us back is our fear of failure. And to my mind, in most cases, the biggest failure of all is not trying.
My day on Ko Samet turned out to be glorious. I bounced along tree-shaded seaside paths as the wind whipped by, cooling my red-kerchiefed head. I breezed down the town’s main street, past silk shops and sizzling food stalls, then followed the coastal road south to hidden beaches and ramshackle resorts. I splashed through puddles and wound up hills and stopped to admire sweeping views over the glinting Gulf of Thailand. Eventually I reached the literal end of the road at Ao Pakarang, where I parked my bike and walked for 15 minutes through thick trees to the southern tip of the island. It was exhilarating.
I had so much fun that I kept the bike many more hours more than I intended to, and when I finally, and reluctantly, decided to head back to the rental shop, night had fallen. It took me a few minutes to find the headlight switch, but once I did, I was ready to ride.
The air was cool, and the jungle beside the road was alive with night chirps and trills and hoots. The smell of smoke laced the air, the moon shimmered off the sea, and a thousand stars lit the sky. At one point I felt like I was riding through those stars.
When I reached the bike shop, the rental man greeted me with a wide smile. “OK?” he asked.
“OK!” I replied. And as I handed him the keys, we both knew he’d given me more than a motorcycle ride.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.