We May Laugh About This Someday, But Probably Not Today (Part 1)

Uh-oh.

Thursday, Oct. 15 | Day 2: The day begins with a cryptic communique from work on my smartphone, a harbinger of changes to come, employment-wise; it throws a heavy shadow over the morning and kicks my focus off the ride for a while.

We pack up the bikes as I laborously exchange emails with trusted colleagues until I’m convinced the changes can be handled. We set course for Orangeburg, South Carolina, a 227-mile chunk of travel that will put us within arm’s reach of Georgia tonight and touchdown in St. Pete Beach, Florida, 40 hours from then.

With its 2.2-gallon fuel tank, Linda’s Vespa decides when we pause for gas. I refuel when she does, though it means putting about three gallons into Terra Nova each time we stop1. As on other rides, we develop a rhythm that works.

Mr. Locke and his Tiger.

The rhythm has us stop 30 miles later at an Exxon station2 in Moncure, North Carolina, where I see a guy on an older Triumph Tiger, an adventure-style motorcycle like Terra Nova.

I admire Triumphs of all eras but Tigers are special. I came close to getting a Triumph before deciding on the Yamaha, a Super Tenere, in 2012.

I examine the Tiger until the owner emerges from the station and I introduce myself. He’s Jack Locke, from Sanford, North Carolina, not far from here. What year is the bike? How many miles does it have? I ask.

“It’s a 2002 Triumph, with 162,000 miles,” he says, proudly. “And I put them all on myself.”

He’s a disaster-aid assessor for the Red Cross and has piloted that Triumph around the country. We walk around the Tiger and he points out modifications he’s made over the years, including turn signals held in place with duct tape (“someone kept breaking them off”) and other upgrades he’s done himself.

Details on the fuel tank.

He tells us about a divorce – “she said ‘it’s either that bike or me’ and I said, well, good luck,” and listening to his travels, I’m fascinated and urge him to write about them3.

We wish each other safe travels and as Linda and I wheel away, I realize we’ve had one of those on-the-road encounters that are gifts for motorcycle travelers.

This is one of the reasons why we’re out here and my spirits lift from the hasty emails of the morning. We’re living our own lives now.

We eventually cross over into South Carolina and pull into a Shell station in Wallace, which is not much more than a crossroads of three gas stations and a few other buildings, from what I can see.

I can’t resist getting out the phone again and checking email, exchanging a few texts with a colleague. Everything’s well enough there.

Daylight starts to fade as we motor away from the gas station and pause at the red light on U.S. 1. The Vespa stalls.

Terra Nova and I wait behind Linda as she hits the starter button. The Vespa starts but stalls again.

“Shut off the key and do a hard restart,” I say. It doesn’t help.

Fortunately, there’s no southbound traffic behind us. I move the Yamaha to the curb and she does the same with the scooter. I try starting the Vespa myself. No luck.

“We can’t stay here,” I say. “I’ll push it to the station.”

The intersection of U.S. 1 and South Carolina State Route 9.

The Vespa is relatively light and easy to manuever. I walk it back to the parking lot, off to the side. Linda waits with the scooter while I fetch the Yamaha.

I pull the bags off both bikes and get a flashlight, tools and rags. I check the oil; the dipstick is nearly dry. That’s bad, really bad.

How could we lose so much oil in so few miles? Granted, I hadn’t checked it that morning, but we’ve come about 400 miles in two days, not many for a brand-new vehicle.

It’s dark now and I’m crawling around on filthy asphalt. I look for leaks; nothing there. I have spare quarts of engine oil for both bikes4 and I carefully, carefully top off the Vespa5. It takes about a half quart to register full on the dipstick.

I try the starter. This time the engine runs, but unevenly. It doesn’t want to idle and sounds rough even in a run-up to full throttle.

By this time, I’m running out of ideas, only knowing this: There’s a problem with the engine; it’s probably oil-related; I don’t think I can fix it, at least tonight.

And the closest Vespa dealer, with mechanics, diagnostic computers and spare parts, is in Savannah, Georgia, 200 miles from here.

(Part 2 is here.)

***

1 – The Vespa gets better gas mileage than the Yamaha, though the latter’s gas tank is much larger, about six gallons.

2 – The Jordan Dam Mini-Mart.

3 – Seriously. I think some people quietly lead lives that are substantially more interesting than most, and Mr. Locke is one of them.

4 – Castrol Power 1, 5W-40, full synthetic.

5 – Using a long, narrow funnel I bought at a Harley-Davidson dealer in Maryville, Tennessee. Vespas are beautiful but quirky machines that need funnels of an special shape that can reach through the crash bars to add oil – a procedure that’s frustrating in the dark, even with a headlamp.

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