Cycles of Life

Cycles of Life

Jim Ford found peace on two wheels, and he wants you to come along for the ride

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Jim Ford was facing “a very dark time.” He had followed his father into the life insurance business but now he hated it. His marriage had dissolved and he’d moved from a comfortable house in Kensington to a small apartment in Bethesda.

He recalls that period nearly 20 years ago: “I was taking Prozac, seeing a psychiatrist, very aware that I’m in a fix here, I have no energy. I remember sitting up in that apartment and thinking: I have to find a way out of this depression.”

Then one sleepless night, he picked up a book called Living in the Light by Shakti Gawain. The author’s message was simple: “Look back to when you were young and you weren’t influenced by life. What were your interests?”

He tried to answer that question. As a boy in Perrysburg, Ohio, Ford had loved riding his bicycle through the surrounding countryside, “exploring, always, always exploring.” He had been “fixated” on motorcycles and airplanes, drawing pictures and clipping photos, but his father had said no. Too dangerous. It wasn’t the machines that entranced him, Ford remembers, “it was what the machines could do.” They were “a vehicle for adventure.”

So there he was, approaching middle age, lost and lonely, gazing at the lights of Bethesda. And suddenly it hit him: “Goddamn it! A motorcycle! Yes! It’s a no-brainer!”

Jim Ford is not the first man to confront a midlife crisis by buying a new toy. Many of those metallic male fantasies soon rust away, but not his. Since his epiphany, Ford has ridden nearly 400,000 miles and started The Rider’s Workshop, a school for advanced “high milers” that attracts clients from all over the country.

“The Great Spirit is now talking,” he says. “I connected to the flow of life. This is what I was meant to do.”

Ford’s story unspools over a long lunch at Pines of Rome in downtown Bethesda. I fear motorcycles. I’ve never ridden one and I don’t intend to start now (despite his suggestion that “I’ve got many helmets, let’s go for a ride”). And I’m deeply skeptical of men who launch themselves on a “spiritual journey” that often sounds more indulgent than inspired.

But Ford is a salesman, and gradually he sells me on his sincerity. At 60, he cuts a trim and forceful figure, 6 feet tall and almost 200 pounds, his all-black attire accented by a touch of gray in his dark hair.  

After graduating from the University of Colorado, he came to Washington to pursue a girl and a job. But the romance soon ended and so did his political career after a brief interview with a potential employer on Capitol Hill. “I’ve never experienced such arrogance in my life,” Ford recalls. “I backed out immediately and figured: I am to be in the life insurance business—without giving it much thought.”

Sixteen years later, after his night of revelation, he bought his first motorcycle and rode it to client meetings. “They got a real kick out of me. I felt I could show them more of myself,” Ford recalls. But he still hadn’t escaped his “very dark” place. So he quit selling insurance altogether, moved on to selling cars, and eventually got a job selling motorcycles at Bob’s BMW in Jessup, just south of Baltimore.

He started leading Sunday rides for Bob’s customers, but “the groups were too big, and there was always some yahoo that didn’t know how to ride and ruined it for the rest of us.”

So five years ago he opened his own business in Kensington, and instead of selling mobility or security he’s now selling his boyhood dream: adventure. Since a two-day course costs $925, plus gas and lunch, most of Ford’s clients are men (and a few women) in their 50s and 60s who have the money for fancy bikes and the time to ride them.

Part of the adventure is the style of riding Ford teaches, which is modeled on another of his youthful passions—flying. (For years he owned small planes and flew out of the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.) “The skills of instrument flying translate to the skills of riding a motorcycle at a high level,” he explains. “Their mind-set is the same.” What is that mind-set, I ask. “Precision” he replies. “If you want to fly at night, in the clouds, with rain, you have to be super precise.”

Many motorcycle riders brag about their crashes and their scars—they’re almost a “badge of honor,” Ford says—but pilots don’t think that way: “In aviation, uh-uh, you don’t crash. So I make it very clear: You come to The Rider’s Workshop with the mind-set of a test pilot. You are a pilot in command.”

The other part of the adventure is where Ford takes his students: on the “invisible roads,” as he calls them, the twisting trails that thread through the Appalachian Mountains from central Pennsylvania to northern Georgia.

“Within 50 miles of where we’re sitting is some of the best motorcycling in the world,” he says, gesturing toward where his bike, a shiny upscale BMW, is parked on Hampden Lane.

He takes only a few students at a time, and speaks to them continuously through a one-way radio, dispensing advice and adages as they bank and bend through their hilly classroom.

“To ride well, you must understand curves,” Ford says. “That’s where the great pleasure of motorcycling is, and I take them into that world really deeply. The entire 500-mile round-trip is a study of curves. There are no straightaways—a few but not many.”

There haven’t been many straightaways in Jim Ford’s life either. The boy who rode his bike through small-town Ohio is still exploring, still mastering the curves of those “invisible roads.” In his mountains and in his mind.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to svroberts@aol.com.

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