“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
— Lao Tzu
The Vespadebacle ended Saturday1 when we went to Scoot Richmond — where we probably should have gone in the first place — and bought a new 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni GTV.
It was a drama-free, no-regrets event that let me think about the scooter itself during the meandering ride home.
I was gauging how it felt, the way it handled, and whether I’d be scared silly while sharing the freeway with demented, uncaring, inconsiderate northern Virginia motorists who are better at texting than driving.
We rolled out of Scoot Richmond’s lot with 11.5 miles on the clock and hadn’t gone 50 miles when I realized the saddle just wasn’t working. Sliding back on the seat gave my legs and arms more room, but the saddle is contoured and I ended up on the seat’s edge, which felt like sitting on the short side of a 2×4.
I’ve got to get a new saddle, I remember thinking.
But that was the only thing, aside from vibration at stoplights, which is expected since we’re talking about a single-cylinder engine. The Vespa has nice acceleration and was good on the sweeping county roads like U.S. 255 and stable when I got on the freeway. The ABS-equipped brakes felt reliable.
And I didn’t feel ridiculous on it as I thought. How I look may be another matter.
I swapped seats — my first modification! — between the Sei Giorni and Linda’s GTS2 the next day, which will make both of us more comfortable, I think. There’s a list of other changes I’ll be making.
“What’s the idea of a scooter if you already have a motorcycle?” a colleague at work asked, a righteous question, certainly; it’s still hard for me to articulate why I wanted a Vespa.
They’re much quirkier machines than either of my motorcycles but they still have a certain attraction for me.
I still like both of my motorcycles3 and couldn’t give them up.
The Vespa is something radically different, forcing me to think differently in terms of riding and touring. It’ll be slower-paced, and we’ll have to take less than we usually do. I’m thinking that may be a good thing.
Continuing my predilection for naming my bikes after Antarctic exploration ships, the Sei Giorni will be called Erebus4.
Now we have to figure out where to go.
1 — I put a down payment on that poor Sei Giorni at the Honda dealer when it seemed they were making an honest effort to obtain a brown/red key. Sadly, the previous owner did not return their calls and they were flabbergasted by the quoted cost to replace the ECU and ignition switch. They dropped the price a bit more but Richmond offered a better deal on a new bike, with bonafide key and two-year warranty, so I withdrew from Honda and went to Richmond instead.
I still feel bad about that keyless Sei Giorni, though. It deserves better.
2 — The Sei Giorni is essentially the same as Linda’s GTS with the same engine and ABS. The seat swap was with her consent, of course.
3 — Both Endurance and Terra Nova will be around for quite a while.
4 — The HMS Erebus (and the HMS Terror) visited both the Antarctic, in 1841, and headed for the Arctic in 1845. Both were lost until they were rediscovered in 2014.
“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Still captivated by the idea of slower-paced motorcycle touring – a fixation I couldn’t dislodge with a bulldozer – I gave up on the Honda Super Cub 125 after a discouraging dealer encounter and started looking at other small motorbikes.
The focus drifted to Vespa, where I started paying attention to the Vespa Sei Giorni II, a 300cc scooter with the HPE engine, like Linda’s 2020 GTS.
It’s a beautiful machine, even more sexy than the green-and-yellow 300 Racing Sixties HPE I once admired at the dealership in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The Sei Giorni (which translates to “Six Days” and pronounced say JOR-nee) is based on the winning team of 125cc Vespa scooters in the 1951 Sei Giorni Internazionale enduro race in Varese, Italy.
That’s a brutal six-day endurance race. The team won nine gold medals, a stunning success.
Today’s Sei Giorni is styled the same way as those winning scooters, but with updated electronics, fuel injection and ABS. The headlight is mounted on the front fender instead of the handlebars. It’s garnished with the racing number 6, front and rear.
The damn thing grew on me, gnawing at my subconscious, until finally I decided to look for one. The hunt, of course, is turning into an endurance event of its own.
We patronize Scoot Richmond in nearly all things Vespa, but they’re 110 miles from us, a bit too far for casual looking just now.
So on Saturday we went – just to look, you understand – to the closest dealer, La Moto Washington in Arlington, Virginia, whose website said they had one for sale.
“Oh, we have one, but it isn’t here,” said the nice salesperson at La Moto. “We store it off-site since we can’t keep everything here.”
She says she’s there by herself since the other salesperson wasn’t able to make it in and mentions that it might not be a good idea to walk over to the other site because of the cold and ice but we could come back.
We say that’s fine, we’ll come back the next Saturday and thank her and take our leave.
Walking back to the Jeep, Linda suggests we go to Richmond but it’s a little late in the day for a long drive and we veto the idea for today.
“Hey,” I say, “why don’t we go back to the Honda dealer? Let’s see if that Super Cub is still there1.”
So we do, and we enter the place, and I walk back to check the row of used bikes and I see…
…a 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni2 with 356 miles3on the odometer. Exactly what I want.
Seriously. It’s right there.
The coincidence is overwhelming – Twilight Zone scary, even! – and I’m marveling as I circle the Vespa. It looks good, really clean, a few minor scuff marks inside the front shield, but still, really, really good.
The sales guy, probably young enough to be my grandson, comes over and we talk for a bit and I ask, “so what’s the out-the-door price on this?”
He does a quick calculation in his head and names a figure roughly much more than I would pay. I look doubtful and he says, “I can run some numbers if you like.”
“Well…okay,” I say, convinced nothing will come of this, but the Sei Giorni looks really good so we head over to his desk.
He’s on his computer for a moment and then fetches the sales manager, who turns out to be the same Mr. Killjoy4 from the Super Cub debacle literally 29 days ago.
But Mr. Killjoy is carrying a piece of paper, a printout – hey, the printer’s working! – and says they’ve done some price cutting and hands me the paper. It turns out they’ve had Sei Giorni for 90 days or more, taken as a trade-in. It must’ve been parked downstairs; I haven’t been down there in a while.
The price is a lot less than I expected, still a little high, but a good starting point. The mood is entirely different from last time, there’s no take-it-or-leave-it vibe and I’m actually starting to feel hopeful. We say we’ll think about it, thank them sincerely and leave.
We go home, pull the sales papers from Linda’s 2020 Vespa and find a few discrepancies in dealer prep and so on. We talk the idiocy of getting yet another bike but Linda senses my rising enthusiasm and understands me as usual so we decide to go back and make a counteroffer.
Mr. Killjoy comes back with a counter-counteroffer that’s a hundred bucks higher. I say okay and we get the paperwork started. I call our insurance company and get the Sei Giorni added to the policy.
It’s really happening at last and we wait and let the paperwork machinery whirr along.
I start thinking about the Sei Giorni and what modifications I want to make (larger windscreen, additional brake light, maybe some auxiliary lights on the front) and which Antarctic exploration ship I’m going to name her after.
Then the sales guy looks up and says, “We don’t have an owner’s manual. In trade-ins, we sometimes don’t get one.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “That’s not a problem.”
And it isn’t. I can go online and print one; I’ve already done it with Linda’s Vespa, two copies, one aboard the scooter itself, the other in the garage at Starbase Nashville.
“And,” the sales guy says, “we don’t have a spare key.”
If this story had a soundtrack: Here is where the needle would skip across the record and make a horrible scratching sound and send the tone arm clattering off the stereo.
“Wait,” I say. “You don’t have another key? You don’t have a brown key?”
“Uh, no,” he says. And, as if someone’s tossed a bucket of sand into it, the deal machinery screeches to a halt.
A brief but necessary technical digression…
All modern computerized Vespas are sold with two keys:
A blue key, which is used as a standard ignition key, for day-to-day operation of the bike. It has a tiny transponder chip.
A brown key5, which is the bike’s master key. This is the program key, used to work the bike’s onboard computer and program the bike to accept new keys and a whole lot of other stuff.
When you buy a new Vespa, the salesperson will hand you this brown key and say, literally in bold capital letters:
“DON’T LOSE THIS KEY.
KEEP IT SOMEWHERE SAFE.”
You can get other blue keys as spare ignition keys. (I got two for Linda’s scooter.) However, you need the brown key to program them, to make them work.
It’s an aggravating quirk of the Vespa system. The computer controls an immobilizer system on the bike, which means you can’t start the engine without the properly coded keys. You need the damned keys.
You can’t get a new brown key without replacing the bike’s Electronic Control Unit and the ignition barrel (the thing in the dash with the slot you stick the key into). All that costs a lot of money, upwards of $800 or so with parts and labor.
I am not making that up.
You can get new blue keys cloned but it’s a pain in the ass without the brown key and there’s no guarantee they’ll work.
…and now back to our story
“I’m sorry, but we need to have that brown key,” I say. “That’s a deal breaker.”
The sales guy goes looking for the key without success. It’s not in an office, it’s not aboard the Sei Giorni.
We try to explain how necessary the brown key is, but you just know the sales guy and Mr. Killjoy think we only want a key with a different color or something. You can see the disconnect in their eyes.
“I’ll get you the brown key,” Mr. Killjoy says, and I believe he is sincere but I also believe he thinks he’ll just go to the nearest Vespa dealer – La Moto Washington, in another bit of irony – and pick up one.
He wants me to sign the paperwork anyway and I say, I’m sorry, I really like the bike but I can’t do that, not without a working brown key.
So we leave it like that, with them saying they’ll get the key and they’ll call the previous owner to see if he still has it (though he should have surrendered it with the bike as part of the trade-in).
Like 29 days ago, we leave empty-handed.
We get home and I start to think how this will play out and I’m quietly convinced it won’t happen.
We’ve been in a Samuel Beckett absurdist play for 20 minutes, talking about keys with different colors and the dealership’s Vladimir and Estragon don’t quite understand because they haven’t done their homework. Vespas can be costly and complicated and dealers don’t like complications when selling used vehicles.
What’ll probably happen is that they won’t find the original brown key or get a new one and I won’t buy the Sei Giorni.
They’ll end up selling it to someone unfamiliar with Vespas and that person will buy it and toddle off and things will be fine until they discover they need a brown key and find out they’re screwed.
I’ll wait and see what happens. If under-powered Vespa scooters can win a six-day endurance race, it’s possible Godot will actually show up with a working brown key.
“Based around the air-cooled 125cc single … the 2019 Super Cub is almost as much a time machine as it is a motorcycle.”
– Rider magazine review, Feb. 8, 2019
I’ve been craving a Honda Super Cub C125 without knowing why until the Rider comment that made me realize, yes, that’s it – it is a sort of time machine.
The Super Cub is not the type of motorbike I normally lust after. I prefer adventure-type motorcycles1 like Endurance and Terra Nova, which is why they’re part of the fleet of five2 here at Starbase 8.
I was briefly drawn to a 2021 BMW R1250 GS Adventure at Bloodworth Motorcycles in Nashville last December, a real beauty that got me going until I saw the heart-stopping price of $26,590.
But something’s been quietly nagging at me at odd moments, the notion that long-distance motorcycle travel need not be aboard a $20,000 BMW Leviathan. Maybe it’d be better if you Marie Kondoed it down to a smaller, slower bike.
Three things sent me down that path:
The Long Way Down documentary in which riders had motorcycles that were a thousand times more expensive than the net worth of all the African villages they were visiting3.
My dream of riding across Vietnam on the largest bike I could rent, which would probably be no more than 250cc’s.
Ed March and his you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it website C90 Adventures4, which chronicles his insane rides across Canada in winter, Alaska to Argentina, and Malaysia to the UK, all on a Honda C90 Cub.
The Super Cub took residence in my imaginary garage when I first laid eyes on a blue-and-white model at the Washington, D.C., motorcycle show in 2019. It was there because Honda was reintroducing it to American riders for the 60th anniversary of importation to the U.S.
A time machine. I’d seen pictures of it in motorcycle history books, of course. It was first made in Japan in 1958, then imported to the U.S. in 1959 as a 100cc model. Honda built its sales campaign around it, the ubiquitous You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda. That was in contrast to the hoodlums depicted in the 1953 movie The Wild One5 with Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin.
There was even a song about it, Little Honda, written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Another group, the Hondells6, covered it and it rose to No. 9 on Billboard 100 in 1964. Give it a listen here on Shindig; you’ll enjoy the song and be grateful for improvements in music videos since then.
Other advances since early Sixties include the bike’s engine, which Honda upgraded periodically. Style-wise, the Super Cub7 looks pretty much the same, with its wide handlebars, round mirrors and signature white leg shields.
Honda stopped exporting it to the U.S. in 1974.
And now the Super Cub is back, in red and white (even better!) for the 2020 and 2021 models, making me dream of riding it with Linda down rolling country roads, stopping for ice cream in small, picturesque towns, bedding down at a B&B in the Adirondacks, and zipping up Highway 1 toward Hanoi in the rain.
A time machine, a dream machine, a simple machine. Something that asks you to slow down and really, really look at where you are.
So we went to the local Honda motorcycle dealership … and that’s when things started going south.
The sales rep was a good guy but did not seem to know much about the Super Cub on the floor. We tried to open the saddle to look at the gas cap, but it wouldn’t budge – the battery was too low to activate it. They put it on a charger.
That was okay, but then I asked about price, which brought in the sales manager, a Mr. KillJoy8, I think.
He ushered us over to his desk, located (inexplicably) in the Ducati section.
“We don’t have much of a margin on these,” he said, and started futzing with his computer, looking up numbers, finally coming up with a price that was almost $900 over MSRP, which I thought was nearly as outrageous as the $26,000 BMW in Nashville.
He started reading off shipping charges, tax and title, dealer prep and other such nonsense and Linda asked if we could get a printout.
“Our printer isn’t working,” Mr. KillJoy said.
The whole enterprise crumbled into a take-it-or-leave it affair and he appeared not to care either way. It reminded me of the Harley-Davidson dealerships I visited in the 1990s9.
They didn’t even ask for our contact information, a really bad sign. It was time to go.
“Thank you for your time,” I said.
On the way out, we took another look at the Super Cub, so sad with its battery panel off and charger nearby. I was tempted to buy it anyway, just to rescue it from Mr. KillJoy. We didn’t, of course.
So we left that beautiful little bike behind but dreams die hard.
What’ll probably happen is I’ll go back and inquire about a reasonable price and Mr. KillJoy won’t budge and I’ll get pissed off and either rationalize away the Super Cub or look for it elsewhere.
Or look for something else. The Royal Enfield Himalayan, 400cc, is genuinely interesting. And Go Little Himalayan could be a catchy tune.
1 – Though I really don’t ride mine off-road. They are big, comfortable and powerful, though.
2 – Yes, five: Linda’s 2007 Yamaha Vino 125; her 2020 Vespa GTS 300 Super HPE; Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150 GS; Terra Nova, my 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere; and Santiago, my 1965 Honda CA 77, awaiting restoration in the woodworking shed out back.
3 – I really like the Long Way series, but they (and other such on-the-road documentaries) got me to thinking about guys riding high-priced bikes in economically disadvantaged areas, passing through as if people in villages were simply background in a movie. Robert Pirsig talks about the difference between motorcycles and cars while traveling – “…through a car window everything you see is just more TV” – but doesn’t a $700 Shoei helmet and $1,000 Roadcrafter suit have an opposite effect on the people who see you? In both situations, you’re set apart.
4 – I can’t recommend Mr. March strongly enough. He’s funny, wise, witty, adventurous, and a mechanical wizard, just the sort of guy you’d like to ride with. Do go see his site, please.
5 – Which apparently scared the bejeezus out of moviegoers back then. The film really hasn’t aged well.
6 – In a move that was breathtaking for its crass commercialization, they actually created a music group, named them the Hondells, and had them sing about Hondas and motorcycles and such. Their first album Go Little Honda was motorcycle-related and though Little Honda is fun and bouncy and gets stuck in your head, the other songs soon get on your nerves after a while. Their second album, released about 20 minutes later, was imaginatively titled The Hondells. I’ve yet to hear it.
7 – We’re talking about a motorbike with small engine, about the size of a loaf of good bread, a single-cylinder affair that makes 9-10 horsepower on a good day. That’s on a par with Linda’s Vino scooter. Terra Nova, by comparison, has about 108 hp.
8 – Actually not his real name.
9 – Oh, those guys were awful. Harleys were selling like crazy back then – there were actual waiting lists – and dealers were copping attitudes like you were lucky they let you in the door. There were stories of dealerships jacking up profit margins by making you buy overpriced accessories before they’d sell you a bike. It was that attitude that drove me elsewhere, to BMW as it turned out. I bought Endurance brand-new in 2000 at Sierra BMW in Sparks, Nevada. Now that’s a great dealership.
Tuesday, Sept. 8 | 36 Days Before: Some of our best moments on motorcycles are encounters with bike riders and nonriders – the former who share their stories and the latter who ask, “What’s it like?” to ride a motorcycle.
Both are great to talk to1, but riders are my favorites. You get gifts of revered memories and sometimes even a glimpse of a far-away place, a shadow of road fatigue, or ghost of a frosty night.
This was a mission-prep day. We needed riding time to break in the new Vespa and ended up meandering around coastal Maryland to see a few Chesapeake Bay lighthouses. It was Linda’s idea and they were actually pretty interesting.
The Best Peter Fonda Story I Ever Heard was at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, a fascinating place even if you’re not into lighthouses and boats and the sea2.
We’d stumbled out of the museum carrying our helmets and jackets and riding gear and had commandeered3 an outside picnic table to write postcards4 to friends. We spread everything out across the table.
That’s when Joe, the lead grounds keeper at the museum, stopped by. He’d seen the Vespa and Terra Nova parked outside and our riding gear strewn about the table. He asked about our bikes and of course we started talking about motorcycles.
He was a long-distance Harley rider and a true raconteur5, a great storyteller, and among the stories he told us was this:
He’d been at a motorcycle rally in Daytona, Florida, with his girlfriend Nanette. They had their pictures taken with Easy Rider actor Peter Fonda, paying $5 each for a charity donation.
About five months later, Joe is putting gas in his Harley at a gas station in Montana. He’s been riding two-up with Nanette, who’s in the store.
While she’s inside, Joe sees Peter Fonda pull up on his own bike and start fueling up. It’s not that big of a surprise, Joe tells us, because he knew Fonda owned a house in that part of Montana.
Joe goes over to Fonda, says hello, mentions their brief meeting in Daytona and asks a favor.
“When Nanette comes out, make like you remember her,” he says. Fonda just smiles and says okay6.
Joe goes back to his bike and Nanette returns. Joe motions over to Fonda and says, “I’m pretty sure that’s Peter Fonda. Why don’t you go over and say hello?”
So Nanette walks over, hesitantly, and Peter Fonda looks at her and says “NANETTE! How are you?” And Nanette’s jaw hits the ground.
During the whole ride home, Joe says, Nanette was excitedly pummeling his ribs and saying, “He remembered me! He actually remembered me!”
3 – Since no one was around, it wasn’t really an act of piracy.
4 – These weren’t notes from a momentous journey, since we were only 80 miles from home. But it’s never a mistake to let people know you care about them. Besides, the cards were nice. I’ve heard that few people send postcards these days, what with email and Instagram and so on. But we still do.
5 – From the French term raconter, which means “to recount.”
6 – I just can see Peter Fonda smiling at the idea. I’ve seen Easy Rider, of course, and Ulee’s Gold, in which he was great and deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor, and read his autobiography Don’t Tell Dadand watched him on Ride With Norman Reedus. He always seemed like a stand-up guy, a genuine good person who rejected being a Hollywood stereotype. And he loved motorcycles. I’m sorry to say he died on Aug. 16, 2019.
Joe told us about a few of his other epic rides and I practically begged him to start his own motorcycle blog. He’d be great.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
– C.S. Lewis
Saturday, Nov. 21 | 21 Days Later: Let’s cut to the chase: The crew at Scoot Richmond say the Vespa’s oil loss came from its breaking-in period, not because of some deeper engine problem. A top-end overhaul isn’t needed.
Ambivalence carried the day. “Are you sure?” is what I asked, since we – that is, I – had thrown away the St. Petersburg ride on what I thought was an engine malfunction. Did we just have to add some oil and keep going?
A boring recap: We left home for St. Pete on Oct. 14, rode about 400 miles in two days1 and suffered significant engine oil loss, about a pint, in Wallace, South Carolina, on Oct. 15.
I replaced the oil and we trucked the scooter back to Richmond, arriving on Oct. 29. They checked the oil level, found it was good, no leaks, and told us to put 500 miles more on it.
We picked it up on Nov. 7 and put 490 miles on2 over the next two weeks, returning on Nov. 21. They checked the oil and it was okay.
Scoot Richmond, I should note, was very supportive throughout all of this. I have no reason to doubt them.
The theory is this: Most engines suffer some oil loss during their break-in periods3. It takes about 2,500 miles for a Vespa to break in. Linda’s Vespa has less than 2,200. So we lost the oil during the break-in to Wallace but didn’t lose any more during the 490-mile test.
“Just keep an eye on it,” the service guy says. “If you have a problem, you’re still under warranty.”
And that…was that. We rode the 103 miles home and I checked the oil the next day and it was fine.
Talk about an anticlimactic ending. It’s tough to watch your cherished yearly ride get sucked away like precious water spilled on desert sand, but at least I learned to be more vigilant about checking the oil and knowing more about the bike. I just wish the lesson weren’t so costly.
1 – Yes, that’s a rather leisurely pace but it’s still fun.
2 – In two trips on two weekends, one to Gordonsville, Virginia, the other to Poolesville, Maryland, for the historic White’s Ferry. Both rides turned out really nice.
3 – Assuming you’re unfamiliar with engines (not that I am, of course, as these events testify) that’s the number of miles you have to ride the bike in order to smoothly wear in engine parts such as pistons and valves.
“And so it ended, except in my mind, which changed the events more deeply into what they were, into what they meant to me alone.”
– James Dickey, “Deliverance”
Saturday, Nov. 7 | Seven Days Later: After too many days and too many miles in the back of a rental truck, we got the Vespa from the mechanical medics at Scoot Richmond and rode it home.
We’d left it there Oct. 291 on the way back from St. Pete. The diagnosis is: (1) We overfilled the gas tank on Day 2 in Wallace, South Carolina, and temporarily fubared the EVAP system2, and (2) The engine may have a pre-existing problem from the factory which requires a top-end overhaul3.
Oy vey. In the days since returning home, post-mission analysis confirms the overfill was our fault, but probability is high we could have continued riding after the fuel had evaporated from the EVAP system’s charcoal canister. That would have taken some time, perhaps overnight.
The oil loss, however, is a different matter. There was no leak but the scooter simply should not have been be using that much oil in that short amount of time. Some other Vespas with the HPE4 have been reported with similar oil consumption problems.
So Scoot Richmond will take a look, under warranty. Per their instructions, we took the Vespa home, put 500 miles on it, and will return it to them on Saturday for their inspection.
All this is a boring and anticlimatic ending to a disappointing ride, motorcycle-wise, but I was grateful anyway. We’d emerged from the cloud of uncertainty that overshadowed the entire trip, with a few sleepless nights for me worrying how I was going to get the bikes in and out of the rental truck.
At about 370 pounds, the Vespa didn’t worry me. The Yamaha, at 575, did.
Part of it was YouTube disaster videos of guys riding their motorcycles up ramps and falling off. Here, this will give you an idea; go full-frame for the best effect.
In Wallace, there was no one around to lend a hand. The truck ramp was 10 feet long and about 26 inches wide. The cargo deck was 33 inches from the ground. I found a place where the ground sloped upward that reduced the ramp angle.
That was better, but it took me longer than I’d like to admit5 to work up the nerve to ride Terra Nova up that damned ramp and into the truck.
That got us over the peak, as they say. Linda and I push-pulled the Vespa up the ramp and we were able to use Home Depot tie-downs6 to secure both bikes upright in the truck. I checked them every time we stopped.
After that, it was a matter of just driving home.
Driving home. Usually I’d be brooding over the loss of a motorcycle trip, but the relief after loading the Yamaha stayed with me on the highways into Virginia.
It was kinda like the successful failure of Apollo 13, I reasoned; Linda and I may have lost the ride, but we still had each other, we were safe, the bikes were secure, we’d had a good time in St. Pete, and the Vespa would be fixed to ride another day. And we will ride another day.
1 – The official end of the mission, I reckon.
2 – EVAP is shorthand for Evaporative Emission Control System, which closes the vehicle’s fuel system to prevent gasoline vapors from the tank and fuel system from escaping into the atmosphere. Overfilling the tank can cause fuel to enter the EVAP’s charcoal canister which, on the Vespa, causes a stalling/starting problem until the fuel is cleared from the canister.
3 – A top-end overhaul involves taking the engine apart and replacing a number of parts, which could include piston rings, the piston itself (Vespas are single-cylinder engines) and valves. As you might guess, that’s a lot of work.
4 – High Peformance Engine.
5 – It really did. No one likes to admit he’s a wuss, but I was genuinely scared silly that I’d fudge it up somehow and take a tumble.
6 – Four tie-downs on each bike, which may have been overkill, but I had more to make sure they wouldn’t fall over. In addition to those stupid YouTube videos, I was haunted by the experience a relative had while taking his bikes back home to California from Florida in 2003; the bikes weren’t properly secured and ended up falling over inside the truck. I didn’t want that to happen to us.
From the mission archivist: This is probably a better anecdote for house hunters and Kerouac readers than motorcycle travelers, so feel free to skip if you’re so inclined. You’re forgiven in advance, so go in peace.
Sunday, Oct. 18 | Day 5: Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg in 1969 at age 47, leaving behind a substantial body of work, his novel On the Road that influenced generations of readers, and a house on 10th Avenue North that you wouldn’t look at twice unless you knew he’d lived there.
I’m a Kerouac aficionado (certainly not a scholar) and we’ve stopped by this house at 5169 10th Ave. nearly every year we’ve been coming to St. Pete.
Why that is, I can’t rightly say; we feel the need to pay respects to those we admire1, including writers whose words make you see the world differently.
That sentiment has been shared over decades by other Kerouac fans, who visit the house and put short, heartfelt notes in the mailbox and screen door. I’ve seen some of them myself, like the one pictured above.
And now, on this St. Pete motorcycle ride (suddenly without motorcycles2) I discover Kerouac’s house has been renovated and is for sale.
An open house is scheduled for Saturday, the day we arrive, and again on Sunday, the next day. The coincidental timing is too perfect to ignore, so we decide to go.
“Are you here for the house or the history?” asks the real estate agent3 when we arrive. It’s a legitimate question and we say both, because we’ve entertained thoughts of moving to the St. Pete area in a few years.
But mainly I want to see the inside of Kerouac’s house, renovated and sanitized and HGTV-ready though it may be. I also feel duty-bound to take as many pictures as I can for my best friend Van Yasek, who introduced me to Kerouac and deserves a full report.
Most of the visitors are not here for history, it appears. We talk to a few while waiting outside and they confirm they’re house hunting.
“Oh, we’re here for the house,” a young woman says. “This is a nice area and we’re looking to buy.” The won’t-you-please-sign-in guestbook echoes a similar theme.
Kerouac lived here with Stella, his third wife, and Gabrielle, his invalid mother. He was reportedly working on a novel about his father’s print shop in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the time of his death.
Gabrielle died in 1973 and Stella died in 1990, in Lowell. The home had been in stasis since then.
A St. Pete-based nonprofit group hoped to buy the house and turn it into a writer’s retreat4 but was unable to reach an agreement5 with Kerouac’s in-laws, the owners. It was sold this year to Flip Side, LLC, a house flipper, and is now on the market for $350,000.
Inside – at last! – we see the sellers have taken care to acknowledge Kerouac’s presence while touting the house as a nice place to live.
It’s still a bizarre coupling of two worlds; inspecting the interior, I feel as if I’m in a TV show that’s a cross between Flip or Flop and House on Haunted Hill6.
Some items are labeled “Pending certification from the estate of Jack Kerouac” which presumably means the estate will determine if Kerouac actually used it. Most of the furniture has been moved out over the years, including Kerouac’s iconic desk, which was exhibited at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
“The house was in pretty bad shape,” the real estate agent says, and lists the repairs: a new roof, new HVAC system, wall paint, and deep cleaning. The outside walkway has been replaced for greater curb appeal.
She also says the renovators saved the original interior whenever possible. In the kitchen, “the appliances are the same and cabinets are, too. The door handles are original.”
Everyone comments on the terrazzo floors7, which sparkle throughout the house. “Oh, yes, they did a great job polishing the floor,” the agent says. Even I’m impressed.
We take our time walking around, looking at rooms, noting the cedar closets and 1960s-era wallpaper and wondering what books Kerouac had in the built-in bookcase.
The house does look good and it’s fascinating to see the inside, though I feel like a bit of a voyeur looking at everything, taking in details like door handles and wallpaper.
However, I can’t forget the utter sadness of Kerouac’s last years. He didn’t really want to move to St. Petersburg – he called it “a good place to come die” – but the climate was better for his mother, paralyzed after a stroke.
He was brutalized by the unexpected celebrity that sprang up after On the Road, his seminal work8, was published in 1957.
That book and the later writings of Kerouac and others created what came to be known as the Beat Generation9 (whose members questioned and rejected middle-class values and were later belittled and marginalized as beatniks). Kerouac became known as King of the Beats, a title he didn’t like and refused to accept.
Kerouac was an alcoholic for much of his life. He died at nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg of an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. His funeral was held at St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell, where he once served as an altar boy.
Someone, probably soon, will buy the house at 5169 10th Avenue North. They may be mindful of its famous occupant and integrate his memory into their new home, but that’s doubtful. After all, one can’t truly live in a museum; anyone who buys a house wants to make it their own. I understand that.
But the American way, the method of living shunned by the Beat Generation – the same attitude that propels us to rush ahead, forget the past, tear out what we should pause to appreciate, and calculate the quick profit – will likely prevail.
I’m thankful to have seen Kerouac’s house, but I’m certain that, when we come here again next year, I’ll look at it, see what the new owners have done, and think: We’ve all blown it again.
Addendum: Maybe It Will Be Okay
The Tampa Bay Times reports the house has been sold to a couple who want to preserve its history and open it to the public, either as a writer’s retreat or a place for literary events.
This comes as a surprise to me and I’m very glad to hear it. Perhaps it will work out after all.
1 – We’ve also visited the Jack Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and his gravesite in Edson Cemetery in Lowell.
2 – Since our motorcycles are parked in Wallace, South Carolina, 570 miles from here.
3 – Whose daughter was evidently staving off boredom on the sofa with her smartphone.
4 – A different nonprofit, The Kerouac Project, had success in Orlando, Florida, where they transformed one of Kerouac’s former houses – the one in which he wrote Dharma Bums – into a writer’s haven.
5 – I am sorry this did not come to pass. We attended one of their fundraisers last year and I was impressed by their vision and sincerity. The Tampa Bay Times said the Flip Side owner bought it partly because it was Kerouac’s retirement home, but mostly because he considers “it in a real up-and-coming neighborhood.”
6 – The 1959 classic film with Vincent Price, Richard Long and Carol Ohmart, of course.
7 – Terrazzo floors are a near-liquid composite of marble, quartz, glass and other material and are poured, smoothed out, and allowed to dry. It has a reputation for durability.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
We can’t run the scooter because it may screw up the engine even more and maroon us in an even more inhospitable place.
A towing service isn’t available – I ask the gas station clerks and they say there’s one tow truck driver in town and he stops working at night2.
The Vespa will have to stay here tonight. Linda finds a room three miles away at the Baymont Inn in Cheraw, South Carolina. She stays with the scooter while I take Terra Nova to Cheraw to secure the room and drop off our bags.
From the mission linguist: Cheraw is pronounced Shuh-RAH, with accent on the second syllable, not Chair-Rah. (We were mystified, too.)
I return to fetch her and we put the black Dow cover over the Vespa, making it less of a theft target. We go back to our room and end up walking over to a convenience store for a late-night dinner3 – two small cans of Beefaroni for me.
We try and decide what to do. We’ve paid for 10 days at a condo in St. Pete Beach and won’t be refunded for days we’re not there. So we need to get going.
We could ride two-up on the Yamaha but it’ll be overloaded and really uncomfortable and we have lots of miles to go.
We could get a rental truck and take both bikes to St. Pete and drop off the Vespa at a dealer for repair. But I don’t have faith the Vespa can be fixed in time for us to go home, especially if some exotic parts have to be ordered from Italy or someplace. Or if the engine needs major work.
In the rainy morning, after an uneasy sleep, I suggest this: We store both bikes here and rent a car to drive to St. Pete. On the way back, we’ll get a rental truck and take both bikes home, dropping off the Vespa at Scoot Richmond for repair.
That way, we only have to travel to Richmond, 100 miles from home, instead of mounting some super-expedition to retrieve the Vespa from Florida or Savannah.
Linda agrees this makes sense so I start calling for towing and storage and she looks for a car to rent. Her first discovery is that the Enterprise rental in Cheraw is closed permanently because of the coronavirus. She starts searching elsewhere.
The first storage place I call says they’re full up.
The second place has space but doesn’t accept motorcycles or vehicles. “We really discourage them,” the guy says. “Oil could leak, gas could be a fire hazard…”
The third place has space and will take bikes. I reserve a space, though we’re not quite clear on its location. Google Maps is vague.
Then I call the we-don’t-tow-at-night towing service and speak with a woman who says they can help. She calls back 10 minutes later.
“I talked with our driver and he doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid the bike will get damaged.”
I say we’ve done this before4 and tell her I’ll secure the scooter myself and absolve them of responsibility.
“No, we can’t do that,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
Well, is there another towing service?
“No, not really,” she says and I grit my teeth and say thank-you and good-bye and refrain from throwing my phone across the motel parking lot. I’ll push the damn thing theremyself is what I’m thinking.
But then we start getting some breaks.
The Baymont Inn folks very kindly allow us to pile all our baggage in the vacant lobby while we take the Yamaha to look for the storage space and rent a car.
We check on the Vespa and find it unmolested at the Shell station.
Then we cruise down South Carolina 9, past the Dollar General, looking for the storage place. I’m thinking I’ll have to push the Vespa a half-mile, maybe more.
But we can’t find it. I turn around at the elementary school and head back to Shell station, and suddenly we see the place near the Shell station. It’s within easy walking distance, maybe a football field’s length away.
The nice woman behind the counter – unlike a few others we’ve encountered that morning – makes it so easy. We pay for the space, get a lock, and I push the Vespa over and secure it inside a 10×12 locker.
We ride 20 miles north to Rockingham, North Carolina, to get the rental car Linda has found, a white Hyundai. We go back, park the Yamaha beside the Vespa and lock the door. Then we fetch our bags, profusely thank the nice woman at the Baymont Inn and finally, finally, leave around 4 p.m.
The vacation is still on, but our problems are not over. I reserve a rental truck for the bikes but I’m not yet sure how to get them up the ramp – it’s kinda steep5. I’ll have to be careful while strapping them down inside.
But I look at all our motorcycle gear suddenly turned useless and unnecessary, the helmets, jackets, boots, gloves, rain gear and I feel another loss, like last year. Maybe we’ll try again next year. And check the oil more often.
1 – That may be a bit of a reach, but I love reading history and Kennedy’s Executive Committee advisers didn’t want to make a decision that made things worse. That’s what I was thinking: Let’s not make this worse.
2 – Perhaps he engages in towing as an occasional hobby.
3 – Food options were limited at that point.
4 – It’s true. It was in Zephyrhills, Florida, in 2003, when my uncle’s 1976 Honda Goldwing refused to run. A guy with a flatbed tow truck came out and transported it to a repair shop that ended up not repairing it. Both his motorcycle and my aunt’s went back to San Diego in the back of a U-Haul truck, our Inskip Odyssey aborted, one of the great sorrows of my life.
5 – I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of guys messing up and having their motorcycles fall off ramps while riding them up into trucks. I’ll have to be careful.
Friday, Oct. 23 | Day 10: The markers for my grandparents look about the same as last year, though the grass has started encroaching on the granite. I use the shears we’d brought for the flower stems to cut back the grass, trim it down.
We’ve been stopping here every year since we started coming to St. Pete Beach, taking one day to drive up to Zephyrhills to see the site of their old house and pay our respects here.
And even though the motorcycle ride has gone south, we’re here. We trim the grass and clean off the markers and put fresh flowers and water in the vase. Purple was her favorite color.
One time I noticed the date plate on my grandmother’s side had come loose; I removed it, using the Phillips screwdriver on a Leatherman, and reinstalled it using a bit of Locktite blue hastily bought from an AutoZone store down the road. Today, the plate is still firmly in place.
As usual, we don’t stay very long. The work is minimal and it takes only minutes to shoot a few photos that I send to faraway relatives to let them know all is well here.
Wednesday, Oct. 14 | Day 1: As usual, we start much later than anticipated and as usual it was my fault and I don’t know why, except I took too much time trying to design an interior support for the three – yes, three – laptops1 we were hauling inside a 1520 Pelican case.
We both have an irritating yet enduring problem with packing light, perhaps a lack of mission resolve, as the British would say. I take too many tools and probably too many clothes, though I did trim back the number of books this year2.
But we finally roll away a little before 5 p.m. and crazy stuff starts happening about an hour later.
Linda unexpectedly stops her Vespa on the left shoulder of a divided four-lane state highway in rural Virginia, forcing me to overshoot and stop ahead of her, parking Terra Nova literally inches from cars racing past.
Sidestand down, I jog back and ask what the hell is going on.
It’s a dog that was trying to cross the road and was hit by a semi. It happened literally in front of Linda, and the truck kept going without hesitation. The poor dog is on its side in the tall grass of the median.
Some other guy appears, a nearby resident, I think. He has a cellphone in his hand and looks on as I kneel beside the dog, a white pit-bull-type terrier, young, about 25 lbs. He is unmarked, but most assuredly dead. He has a chain collar but I can’t find a name tag.
Another guy in a pickup truck stops, asks if we’re okay, and we try to explain what happened. There doesn’t seem to be much concern for the dog on their part. The pickup truck guy leaves and we ask the cellphone resident if he can call someone to get the dog, but he appears to not quite understand what we’re saying.
There isn’t much else we can do and it’s getting even later and we’re both tired with miles to go. So we leave, figuring we can call the sheriff’s office or someone after reaching the hotel.
The dog, of course, follows us for the rest of the night. We have three dogs of our own3, one of them literally rescued by us on I-95 two years ago, so the terrier’s death haunts us, especially Linda.
We stop for gas at about 8 p.m. at a Sheetz station in Orange, Virginia, both of us tired and hungry. With the coronavirus still raging across the country, we’d decided to stay away from indoor restaurants and end up getting sandwiches and such at the station.
The outdoor seating is vacant and fenced off, so the base of a lamp post becomes an impromptu table. We eat standing up in the parking lot.
And we press on after that, through an empty Gordonsville, Virginia, on U.S. 15, deserted at this late hour but wonderfully lit up with white lights hung in Main Street sidewalk trees, a marvelous, warming effect.
It’s colder than we expected so we add extra layers4 and move along a series of dark county roads, wisps of Halloween fog rising and passing around us. The new light bar on Linda’s Vespa really brightens up the back of her scooter; watching it ahead, I’m glad I installed it.
After fueling at one of most locked-up Exxon stations I’ve ever seen – more like Attica than a rural gas station – we shut down the bikes a little after 1 a.m. at the hotel outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.
We’re now really tired and beat. We take the bags upstairs, put the covers on the motorcycles, and, about 280 miles and too many hours from home, go to bed.
1 – We usually each carry a work computer in case news breaks (I put in a few hours when George H.W. Bush died in 2018) and she needed a second computer for her online Hungarian class.
2 – One paperback, “Rice and Dirt,” about a couple riding through Africa on a Vespa, and my usual 8×5 Moleskine notebook.
3 – They are: Cody, an 11-year-old Shetland sheepdog; Remy, a 7-year-old border collie; and Skipper, a 5-year-old treeing Walker coonhound, the one we found along the highway.
Linda’s Vespa was brand-new, so some pre-mission upgrades naturally had to be made, specifically the brake lights and forward running lights. We’d be moving at night and I wanted (1) the scooter to be as conspicuous as possible in the dark, and (2) more lighting for the road ahead.
That meant more mail-order stuff from scooterwest.com and clearing out my tiny workshop1 at Starbase 8 to wedge the Vespa inside. It also required protecting the scoot from our curious cats2 by covering it with enough old towels to resemble a ghost in a Bowery Boys movie.
I’d upwired enough accessories on her 2010 Vespa for bad memories to linger. I find Italian scoots rather difficult to work on, with tight spaces and overly complex hardware.
The headache started after the AdMore light bar arrived; the wiring harness was too short for our model and I had to order a two-foot extension. And then I had to learn how to solder the wires3 together.
But, over a few days, I eventually figured it out, got all the lights and bodywork installed, and felt better afterwards. I finally wheeled the Vespa out of the workshop, leaving a space that reminded me of the Time Machine’s departure4:
The Time Traveller was not there. I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment — a figure so transparent that the bench behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The Time Machine had gone.
1 – About 7 feet wide x 14 feet deep, I reckon, or roughly the size of three phone booths combined.
2 – Lexi, especially. He’s the black-and-white cat we rescued from the Dollar General in Ohio in 2008 while traveling aboard Endurance. He’s developed an affinity for lounging on the saddles of all our motorcycles and scooters.
3 – The harness contained six wires, all 26-gauge, which is pretty thin and challenging to work with. I had to get a proper soldering iron, the correct 60-40 lead/tin solder, paste and heat-shrink tubing, and watch about 400 YouTube videos to learn how to do it.
4 – From the 1895 H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine. The narrator reaches the workshop just in time to see the machine vanish, leaving a poignant space behind.
“I worried over that blunder for an hour, and called myself a great many hard names, meantime.”
– Samuel Clemens, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”
Here’s one I’ll never forget: While mounting the rear luggage rack, I managed to drive two bolts into the plastic gas tank of Linda’s Vespa.
It was both the simplest and greatest piece of mechanical idiocy I’ve ever done; I simply took the wrong bolts and unmindfully began screwing them into the threaded holes in the rear panel. They were metric M6 bolts, same diameter and thread count, just twice as long as needed.
I’m spinning them in by hand with an Allen wrench. They go in smoothly at first, then start to balk. I try a little more force, then back off and unscrew both.
That’s when I realize I’m using too-long bolts, precipitating one of those anguished head-in-your-hands moments of oh, sweet Jesus, I can’t believe this. I thought I was using the right ones. We’ve had her scooter a week and I’ve already ruined it.
I’d even been warned about it; I’d watched the Vespa Motorsport video on luggage rack installation1 and Robot2 mentions it at 6:38 into the video. “Had people put too long of a screw in there and puncture the gas tank, not a good thing,” he says. Oh, sweet Jesus.
It’s times like these you have to talk yourself off the ledge and I think about the passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which author Robert Pirsig mentions an instruction sheet for putting together a bicycle.
“Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind,” say the instructions, and Pirsig goes on about peace of mind and says “If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working, you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
It wasn’t a lack of serenity that caused the mistake; I simply picked up the wrong bolts. But maybe serenity includes acting properly within the moment, which I certainly was not doing.
So after a lengthy period of critically severe self-beratement, I move from Self Destruct to Damage Control mode and start to assess how bad it is. The gas level is low, so it’s not possible to check for leaks yet, but there’s no smell of fuel from the threaded holes.
I run a hand-held mechanic’s light on a flexible tube up inside the back fenders but see nothing. (I do relearn that Vespa buttons up everything very tight on its scooters and it’s impossible to get your hand around the tank, or even get a good view of it.) So I can’t feel or see what I did.
But I can shine the light down into the holes and see new thread lines scored into the plastic below. Online views of the fuel tank show the back is sculpted like a valley, so it appears I’ve cut a little into the valley walls, instead of boring directly into the tank itself.
I take one of Tera Nova’s reserve fuel bottles and fill the Vespa’s tank to the brim of the filler tube. And wait. No leaks.
That was on Aug. 18.
On Aug. 22, we ride out toward Deltaville, Virginia, as part-tank-test, part-get-the-mileage-up-to-600 for the service. Aside from the rain, everything is okay.
And finally, we take the Vespa back to Scoot Richmond on Saturday, Aug. 29, for the 600-mile work and ask the mechanics to check.
It’s impractical for them to remove the tank on the day we’re there – it’s a three-hour job, like most things Vespa – but they say they couldn’t see any leaks. “And since you haven’t seen anything, it’s probably okay,” says one. “Just keep an eye on it.”
I’m afraid I’ll do much more than that. I’ll be consumed, obsessed, haunted by it and I’ll carry the concern like Quasimodo’s hump. Maybe a new gas tank, installed in the fall, will restore my peace of mind.
1 – Vespa Motorsports how-to videos are top-notch, in my opinion.
So Linda hit the commit button and traded in her 2010 300cc Vespa for a 2020 Vespa; same style, same engine size, almost the same daring shade of red, you can’t hardly tell them apart. We brought the new scooter home from Scoot Richmond on Saturday.
What’s different is that the new bike has anti-lock brakes and traction control, making it a safer machine than its 10-year-old mate. It also has what Vespa calls HPE, a High Performance Engine that offers a little more horsepower than the old 300.
“Have you ridden her bike?” the young woman armed with Scoot Richmond’s financial paperwork asks me. “You’ll have to try this new one, you’ll really feel a difference.”
Linda and I had talked about her trading up to a new Vespa, especially when the company was reportedly planning to build a new 350cc model. Since we were doing more long-distance travel, we wanted that extra horsepower.
And I really wanted her to have a machine with ABS. She was amenable to all that, but in red, of course1.
Alas, Vespa scuttled its 350cc idea2, but my interest was piqued by the new HPE. We started dropping in on Vespa dealers to look at them, and when a red one arrived in Richmond, Va., we got it.
We got it for the ABS and the engine, of course, but also because we’ve decided to take the motorcycles to St. Petersburg, Fla., this year as our traditional long-distance ride3.
In this time of coronavirus, it seems to be the best choice, the best compromise between breaking the rule of going someplace new4 and not going anywhere at all. More on that later.
But it was difficult to say good-bye to the 2010 bike, which we’ve had for nearly nine years and more than 14,000 miles. It had its moments, but it never let us down.
I put some effort into upgrading it for her, including a windscreen, brighter headlights and running lights, an exterior power socket for a heated vest, a quarter-sized Formotion thermometer, and flashing hyperlights that really brightened up the stern when she braked.
So there are memories in those parts, and others, like the green sticker put on the windscreen by someone in a Marriott hotel garage in New Orleans in 2017. Terra Nova has one, too.
The 2020 bike will get some of those. I transferred, from old to new, the Hungarian flag5 bolts for the license plate and the Vespa logo valve-stem caps obtained at Modern Classic6 in the District a few years ago. The thermometer migrated over, too.
We got our first taste of the new bike duo on the way home from Richmond, taking U.S. 522 instead of I-95, a good ride through rolling Virginia countryside.
We stopped at the picturesque deli & grocery7 in Winston, an area best described as a combination of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and one of those spooky places you photograph, examine later, and discover someone staring down at you from an abandoned third-floor window.
We looked around a bit, and then, as we were suiting up to leave, some little red-haired kid came around a corner, forced open a shed door and, in a true Children of the Corn moment, emerged with a sheathed hunting knife the size of a Marine Corps KA-BAR8. He went into the main building and never acknowledged us, or even looked at the Vespa.
New bike, new ride. I’ve already started futzing with the 2020 Vespa; I wonder how many Winstons we’ll see between here and St. Pete.
1 – She loves Vespa red more than the Cookie Monster loves Oreos.
2 – It was something about the inability to upsize the engine and still keep the classic Vespa profile, or some such.
3 – Hence the new mission designation.
4 – This one sort of hurts. We always say we’ll go someplace we haven’t been before, and we’ve been pretty good about that, up to now. At least we’ll see some new places on an untraveled route, since we usually go by air.
5 – They were actually bolts with the Italian flag on them, but if you rotate them 90 degrees counter-clockwise, they become Hungarian.
6 – Modern Classic closed about three months ago, we learned. It wasn’t the coronavirus, but because the owner retired. He’d mentioned to us in 2019 that he was considering it. It was a great shop; we shall miss them.
7 – I assume it’s permanently closed for business, though someone is living there.
8 – Which is an acronym for Knife Attachment-Browning Automatic Rifle. In other words, a good-sized knife.
Since our motorcycle travel plans are in a state of coronavirus-inspired limbo, we’ve been taking some time to work on the Nashville house and naturally I’m making motorcycles a part of it.
We go to Starbase Nashville two or three times a year and had a two-day layover on the ride back from New Orleans in 2017, during which I futzed with Linda’s Vespa in an unsuccessful attempt1 to replace the speedometer cable.
It was nice to have that haven, 780 miles from home. It started me thinking about Nashville as a second home of sorts, or at least a second garage.
The notion comes from my father’s garage, I think. He has a two-car space with a workbench in the back, enough wrenches to overhaul the Queen Mary and machine stuff like power saws and grinders and sanders that make life so much easier. And the knowledge to make them work.
So this week, I went through the two-car garage at the Nashville house and got rid of a lot of unneeded stuff. The goal is to make it a motorcycle-friendly place that can be used as a staging area for future rides.
A certain amount of work will be involved. We had the house foundation re-aligned last year and we’re getting a new roof this year. In the garage itself, there’s some water damage I’ll have to fix, starting with power-washing the affected cinderblocks and sealing them.
I’ll paint the interior white, which will brighten up the place considerably, and put in new lighting. We added a second tool chest today, which will help with organization. Race Deck flooring is on the list.
I’m still sorting through plans, but one aspect is definite: Linda loves Vespas, so this will be a Vespa-themed garage, with Vespa art and color scheme. Lowe’s offers multi-color metal pegboard, so I’ll get green, white and red panels and make them into an Italian flag across the back wall. ScooterWest offers clocks, tin signs, thermometers and insane loads of other items as décor.
The whole thing is like creative application of art to a functional2 workspace, I suppose. It’s a nice diversion from this horror of coronavirus and the reassuring feeling that I’m actually accomplishing something with my own two hands.
1 – No Vespa dealer in the area had a replacement cable on hand. The part had to be ordered, which I did when we got home.
2 – Emphasis will be on function, of course; I won’t simply tack up Vespa posters everywhere. We’re talking about a comfortable, well-equipped place to work on your motorcycle in a space with a good amount of Vespa visual references.
It would probably be this 2021 GTS 300 HPE Racing Sixties model, with a classic paint scheme of British racing green and yellow – the same as Lotus 7 sports car featured in the 1960s TV series The Prisoner.
Sloan’s turned out to be an impressive dealership, with 55,000 square feet of space, roughly the size of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, in motorcycle terms.
It has a wide selection of bikes (and ATVs) but it’s anchored by Indian Motorcycle, which has a designed floorspace that’s nicer than our living room2.
Indians are nice, but I was drawn to a Kawasaki W800, a Triumph Bonneville-styled bike, and some of the Moto Guzzi ADV models.
Still, the green & yellow Vespa was so perfect, so classy, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I probably won’t get one, but if I did, I’d have to fix up our place to make it worthy of the Vespa’s presence. Maybe I could get some fixer-upper tips from Indian.
1 – Vespa’s largest engine is 300 cubic centimeters, rather small by contemporary motorcycle standards with about 23 hp. The HPE, or High Performance Engine, is a redesigned affair that keeps the same number of ccs but increases output by a few horsepower. They also have anti-lock brakes and traction control.
2 – Seriously. The floors are faux wood, some of the walls are brick, and the furniture looks like it came from an HGTV make-over reveal. All that’s missing is a wood-burning fireplace. It must be some sort of Indian Motorcycle presentation rule; we saw something quite similar at Motorcycles of Dulles in Chantilly, Va., another nice dealership.
We took our second official ride of the year down to Scoot Richmond on Saturday, where we 1) got out to ride; 2) looked at new Vespas; and 3) found a great road.
Scoot Richmond1 is one of our favorite dealers. We discovered it not long after Linda bought her 2010 300cc GTS Super. They’ve done some maintenance on her Vespa and we buy some riding gear there every now and again.
The Scoot Richmond jaunt was also a bit of a test run for a possible ride to St. Petersburg in October, assuming half the nation hasn’t succumbed to the coronavirus2. We looked at a Vespa GTS Super 300 HPE3, which is fairly close to what Linda has now, except this new model has ABS and traction control, which are good things to have. We’re considering options now.
While it’s good to have a destination, the ride is still the thing. We took I-95 south to Richmond, which was somewhat of a mistake because that interstate is frustrating enough to be an expressway to one of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell4.
It was soul-crushingly hot, too, the heat just bouncing off the bare cement. The rolling roadblock of endless stop-and-go traffic, with no discernible reason, was another Dantesque bonus.
But the ride home was great. Instead of the hellscape boulevard of I-95, we took I-64 west to U.S. 522 north and things got better immediately. 522 is one of those twisting two-lane roads of Robert Pirsig lore5 that takes you through tree-shrouded rolling countryside.
It’s kinda what motorcycles are made for. Freeway pressure disappears and the road opens up and you’re enjoying yourself. You pass into shade thrown by a line of trees and the temperature drops, like going from a hot porch to the kitchen and opening an icebox door.
And there’s more to see, more life to observe: An old stone church with an ancient cemetery that we really should have stopped at to investigate; a family-owned gas station where customers park pickup trucks and are hailed by name by the women behind the counter; and farmhouses and barns and abandoned fruit stands and everything else that waits for you around every curve.
All told, about 267 miles, according to Terra Nova’s odometer. A good day on the road, with my favorite riding companion.
1 – It started as a scooter-specific dealership but has expanded to selling Triumph, Moto Guzzi and KTM. Accordingly, they’ve changed their name to Moto Richmond, but Scoot Richmond is still our moniker of choice.
2 – I’m still part of a group that covers coronavirus and it’s so disheartening to see the blacklash against science.
3 – I downloaded a PDF of the Vespa brochure and found it to be 37 MB worth of rather garish color photos, with only one (above) tangentially connected to travel. I’m aware how sales pitches use lifestyle appeal, but why the yotz6 can’t Vespa acknowledge that their scooters, at least the 300cc models, can be both fun to ride and capable of long-distance travel?
4 – I’m betting it’s the fifth one, Anger, since drivers are apparently driven mad by the stop-and-go traffic and start cutting in front of innocent motorcycle pilots.
5 – In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Pirsig writes: “Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst…Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment.”
6 – That’s another Farscape reference. You’re welcome.
We saw this BMW R75/5 being towed by a pickup truck on I-81 on the way back from Starbase Nashville a couple of weeks ago; at first glance I thought it was an old Honda CB750 because of the color and chrome fenders, then we got closer and I saw it was a BMW.
We stopped at a hotel in Wytheville, Virginia, for the night and I was pleasantly surprised to see the BMW owner had picked the same hotel. I didn’t get a chance to speak with him, but I was able to eyeball the bike early the next day, while taking the dogs out for their morning constitution.
What a beautiful bike. Closer inspection made me think it was carefully restored or extremely well preserved and maintained, but it was near-perfect either way. There were 28,344 miles on the clock (maybe it was actually 128,344 since it was a five-digit odometer) and the state safety inspection sticker was current, as was the New York state plate.
I’ve always liked the classic BMWs. The Slash/5 models were produced from 1969-73, according to bmbike.co.uk. This one has about 50 hp and a top speed of 108 mph.
With Skipper, our hyperactive Treeing Walker Coonhound1 tugging on her leash, I photographed the bike from all sides.
And here’s where it gets slightly weird. It wasn’t until later, looking over the photos, that I learned the significance of the sticker on the right side below the saddle: Philip Funnell, a legendary BMW rider, dealer and builder from Canada. He’s taken bikes around the world at least twice and was inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2010.
One of his bikes, his handcrafted R75/6 Podcycle, is on display at Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland, a dealer whose service department has taken care of Endurance in the past. Linda and I were there five days ago, looking at touring bikes. I must have walked right by the Podcycle.
I don’t want to say I feel cheated, but I would have loved to learn where that New York BMW had been and whether its owner knew Mr. Funnell. We’ll call it a near-brush with history and leave it at that.
1 – Skipper is the dog we found abandoned and starving on the side of I-95 southbound while driving to Myrtle Beach more than two years ago. She’s doing fine now and can pull that leash like a sled dog.
So we broke out the bikes on July 4th with no real destination in mind, only a desire to get away, and we ended up riding west to West Virginia.
The entire trip was low-key though it was hot and humid, not the dry, soul-scorching Arizona inferno of Yuma to Gila Bend, but still. You have to take the weather as it comes, so we Winston Churchilled it through. Once you’re moving, the air cools you and it’s really not so bad.
It was a good ride, of course; I figure we did a leisurely 262 miles in 8 hours, most of it off-interstate on old U.S. highways and state routes through rolling countryside. We stopped to fuel up a couple of times and drink cold Diet Dr Pepper (Linda) and Gatorade (me).
My interior monologue followed a script of crikey, I really haven’t done this in a while, have I? as unfamiliar aches and pains in the shoulders and arms began reporting in.
Opportunities for unwanted intimacy with the gas tank arose when I kept sliding forward on the saddle, no matter how I planted myself. It was something I hadn’t remembered from before and it got really annoying after a while.
There was also the rediscovery of other, more pleasant things I’d forgotten, like the ability to smell the places you’re cruising through. On this day, there were some inescapable whiffs of hot tarmac but also the scent of pine trees, which reminded me of motorcycle trips we’d taken in the Sierra Nevada, years ago.
I reckon the apex of the ride was in Baker, West Virginia, at a pleasant, old-style, country-store type of BP gas station1 on State Route 259. Two other riders pull in as we’re filling up and the guy on the Suzuki asks about Terra Nova:
“How do you like that?”
And we start talking about the year and model and how he likes his Super Tenere2, and we rabbit on about Yamahas and BMW shaft-drive problems and Adventure Rider.com and as he’s pulling away I realize we’ve been talking for 3 or 4 minutes without either of us wearing a coronavirus mask and I feel like a right frelling3 idiot. And we were doing the mask thing and social distancing during the ride, too.
Masks deployed, we find ancient patched wood floors inside the store and two tables’ worth of Donald Trump campaign memorabilia. The nice lady at the cash register asks Linda about the Vespa and says, “That’s a real cute-looking ride.”
We get home without incident and I start fiddling with Terra Nova’s saddle the next day, making no progress as I futz with different leveling positions and search for smaller rubber contact pads and tools. I end up tearing apart half the workshop to find a T50 tamper-proof Torx wrench, which was absolutely ridiculous.
But it was really good, even with the aches and pains and out-of-kilter saddle and ludicrous tool hunt, to get out and ride again.
1 – With adjacent post office.
2 – Which is what Terra Nova is, a Yamaha Super Tenere, 2012 model, Generation 1. On the infinitesimal chance the Suzuki pilot is reading this, I haven’t done the ECU reflash but I did upgrade the clutch basket and the cam chain tensioner with Gen 2 replacements.
4 – Look, this is part of some needless design overkill on the part of Yamaha for its OEM sidecases. One could argue that they hinder the sidecases from being unbolted from the bike and stolen, but it’s nearly impossible to fit a Torx or standard hex key into the sidecase rail bolts when the sidecases are still on the bike. Besides, any self-respecting thief is going to carry “tamper-proof” wrenches anyway without trusting to chance.
Also: Belated apologies to Gabriel García Márquez for the category.
Linda’s 2007 Yamaha Vino scooter. Remy will be here to investigate; Cody is around somewhere.
The coronavirus has virtually shut down the world, but we won’t be talking here today about the number of infected persons and the awful fatalities and the monumental screw-ups that have ushered this pandemic into our streets. I work for a news organization covering this and at times you just have to get away from it, for the sake of your own sanity.
Linda and I have been assiduously working from, and staying at, home since March 13 and only recently have I turned back to our motorcycles, parked silently in stasis out back.
The new tools, plus the mail-ordered bolts for Terra Nova’s luggage plate.
I started with her 2007 Yamaha Vino scooter, a 125cc bike that was her first two-wheeled motorized vehicle. It’s possible – when all this is over – that she’ll ride the Vino or her Vespa to work in the District so I started futzing with things to make it road-ready. Even though that road is at least a month or two or three away.
It didn’t have much in the way of an onboard toolkit so I ordered a basic set of Cruz Tools and augmented them with a couple of extras, a 17mm wrench and 8” crescent. That got wrapped in plastic and put into the storage bucket below the saddle.
Then I started wondering about fuses; I hadn’t put any spares aboard, and God knows you always need to carry extra fuses.
Damn. A glass cartridge.
Checking the manual, I was astonished to see the Vino runs on glass-cartridge fuses1, 10 amp, only two, one working, the other a spare. Glass-cartridge fuses; I haven’t had a motorcycle with those since my very first bike, a 1974 Honda CB7502.
Also to my surprise, the Vino started with only a little fussing, maybe a dozen attempts on the kickstarter to save the battery. But she fired up more quickly than I thought, and stood there purring away, waiting to go somewhere.
So the Vino is online. I’ll try and give her a bath this weekend, along with Linda’s Vespa and Endurance and Terra Nova. Working on the bikes is good. Now I’m starting to think about places to go.
1 – I carry spare fuses on my bikes, but they’re all blade affairs; I ordered a pack of glass cartridges online just for peace of mind.
2 – Thinking of my old Honda made me think of my friend Stephan Wargo (Steve’s nephew) and his 1978 CB750, which is just about showroom perfect. (How did he get the rust off those chrome fenders?)
The Shimano [shifter] also has thumbscrews for easy adjustment. Like the SunTour, it has plastic sleeves over its lever arms to make your grip on them more secure. Some think this is inelegant, but it works.
– “Two Wheel Travel, Bicycle Camping and Touring,” Peter Tobey, editor (Dell 1972)
Spotted an ancient Fuji bicycle this morning on the way to a haircut – I told them to cut only the gray ones and so emerged nearly bald – and paused to look it over. What a nice bike.
Motorcycles and bicycles have small styling cues that etch themselves in memory, place them in time and sometimes transport you.
Example: My first motorcycle, a really-used 1974 Honda CB750, had green-faced speedometer and tach dials. I can’t see one of those dials, on another bike or in an eBay photo, without thinking of that Honda.
But this Fuji is obviously someone’s commuter, nicely kept, and like the Raleigh I found in Coventry two years ago, it’s a genuine ghost from the past. I have a yellow Fuji S-10S, purchased during the Ford administration, and this orange Gran Tourer SE outside the barber shop is about as old1 with lots of identical components.
Circling around, probably making passersby wondering what the hell I’m doing, I see lots of memories:
the two multi-colored stickers around the seat tube2
wheel reflectors mounted 180 degrees opposite the Schrader valve stems (to balance out the wheel spin)3
the brake’s safety levers, which were never considered very safe (since they couldn’t impart enough gripping force, they used to say)4
the aluminum disc spoke guard behind the freewheel5
the rat-trap pedals with toe clips and straps
the Nitto Olympiad handlebars
And there are others, the chrome front forks and quick-release lever and gumwall tires and Fuji-badged SunTour components. The “Fuji Vx” rear derailleur is really a SunTour device and I’ve mourned the loss of SunTour since forever.
The derailleur shift levers are mounted on the handlebar stem6 and they have the classic plastic sleeves that make me think of the line Some think this is inelegantbut it works in “Two Wheel Travel: Bicycle Camping and Touring,” a 1972 book that was my bible for a time.
But it’s the Dia-Compe centerpull brakes that almost have me laughing out loud because they make me remember a long-ago visit to Broadway Cycle, a long-gone bike shop in Cleveland.
It was a genuine bike shop, rather dark and not very wide but deep, with a variety of bikes at different price levels. It was run by two guys who knew their stuff and liked their work. I bought my first 10-speed there, a silver AMF Roadmaster that served me well.
Anyway, some friends (Tom McCray and Eric Blemaster among them) and I had bicycled out there to get parts or tools or some such and we were jonesing over new bikes we couldn’t afford. For some reason, I asked one of the shop guys about brakes.
“Are those brakes Dia-Compe?” I asked, pronouncing it dee-a-com-pay which I thought made me sound like a cognoscenti.
“You mean die-comp?” the guy said, not missing a beat, and my friends burst into laughter and dee-a-com-pay became part of our lexicon, our language, our legend, something we would joke about decades later.
I was half-tempted to find the Fuji’s owner and congratulate him or her for keeping it on the road. But one doesn’t do such things, of course. And I probably wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to ask about the dee-a-com-pay brakes.
1 – Circa 1980 or 1981, near as I can tell.
2 – My Fuji lost the bottom one years ago. The other remains by the grace of Scotch tape.
3 – I removed my wheel reflectors because they just weren’t considered cool.
4 – Ditto for the safety levers.
5 – And for the spoke guard. “It’s just extra weight,” the bicycle magazines used to say, and its absence forces you to pay attention to the rear derailleur’s adjustment, or risk sending your chain into your spokes on an ill-advised shift.
6 – Mine came mounted on the downtube, which I really like. It makes you get more involved with the bike while shifting, or something.
Each stage, system, subsystem and component is analyzed to determine its contribution to loss of mission, vehicle, crew, or other critical objective.
– NASA Tech Brief 68-10252, July 1968
The meticulous three-week itinerary was etched in Excel, a named mission, a route and a list of friends to visit along the way, some of them cherished colleagues I hadn’t seen in years.
Terra Nova was packed and parked in the driveway, perfect; I was suited up and had helmet in hand, GoPro cameras mounted and ready. All I had to do was climb aboard, fire it up, and ride away.
And when I got to the door, I stood there, looking at the motorcycle, thinking about the long miles and days ahead and having only one thought: What’s the point?
And I went back in the house, put down the helmet and unsuited. And I didn’t go1.
That’s…unprecedented. We’ve done one decent long-distance motorcycle ride nearly every year for almost a quarter-century. But I didn’t go2.
That was nearly four months ago and here would be the place to insert something funny about a team of system analysts reviewing reasons why. The truth is, I just lost enthusiasm3.
The main reason was family related; my mother died in April 2018 and my father has been struggling alone since then. A sort of creeping dementia has taken hold of him with a climactic scene between us back in May.
I’d gone up to spend a couple of weeks with him since my sisters and brothers were doing the yeoman’s share of looking after him. I live six hours away from him and they all live within minutes, but that’s no excuse. Staying at the house with him would ease some of their burden for at least a while, I reasoned.
Alas, no. Growing up, he and I were not close and two rough weeks in April stretched into a worse third one in May and then it all turned tragic, with him telling me I wasn’t his biological son. Which is patently not true.
Whether the dementia gave him the voice to say what he’d secretly wished over the years or simply made him truly confused, it threw a shadow over my long, bitter drive home alone in the Jeep4. And the rest of the year, as it turned out.
But things slowly got better. Linda and I went to St. Pete in October, as we’ve been doing, which helped. And now it’s 2020, another year we used to read about in science-fiction stories when we were kids. I’m determined this year won’t slip away.
St. Pete Beach, October 2019
1 – Not to mention how I tried, during those three weeks, to readjust the ride by cutting a day here, another there, and others. I ended up calling and sending emails to friends apologizing for not seeing them as planned. They must have thought me quite mad, as the British would say.
2 – Because she started a new job and didn’t have enough vacation time, Linda couldn’t have gone with me this time out. But let’s be clear on this point: the mission abort was not her fault, absolutely not. It was all me.
3 – I was particularly unenthusiastic about riding the endless flat dismal desolate stretch of I-70 through Kansas and eastern Colorado. Traveling alone on a motorcycle means lots of time to think in the solitude of your helmet (hence the mission designation). I couldn’t bear the prospect of those dark thoughts bouncing around the confines of the Arai over that piece of highway.
4 – I can testify to being really pissed. “Spitting nails” would be a useful description.
When you hear hoofbeats in the street, look for horses, not zebras.
Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS, has been sitting reproachfully under cover on the back patio for months now, waiting for me to get her back online. I’ve been taking more guilt trips than road trips, it seems.
I’ve been out on Terra Nova but the rest of our bike fleet has been down. We took Linda’s 300cc Vespa in for a tune-up and new tires and her Yamaha Vino 125cc scooter in for new tires and valve stems.
I saved the BMW for last. I bought yet another battery, washed off the dust and most of the cobwebs, and got to work.
Then I turned the key and pressed the start button. The engine fired up but idled rough. I shut it down and tried to think. It had been quite a while since I had it going but I’d put Sta-bil in the fuel tank before winter and I couldn’t recall any problems the last time I’d had it running.
My only answer was that the fuel had gone bad so I started making preparations to pull the tank and empty it. It’s a multi-step process; you have to unbolt the tank, disconnect various fuel lines, and the wires to the fuel pump (which is inside the tank).
This was going to take a while. I hadn’t fully removed the tank since installing the crash bars way back in 2000 at Starbase Reno.
Throttle cable, seated and unseated.
I was preparing to disconnect the fuel lines when I had a thought: the starboard throttle cable. It’s a quirk of the BMW fuel system — the cable can slip out of the knurled housing and desynchronize the engine.
So I looked and there it was, the cable was unseated. I moved it back into place, checked everything else, and tried the engine again.
She started up and purred like a kitten. A little thing like that. Another lesson learned.
Sept. 9 | Day 3: We arrive after dark, the GPS giving me muddled directions, or maybe I was just tired and confused. Linda and I roll into the driveway around nine o’clock, I think.
And yet the woman I have come so far to see and her husband are still holding dinner, hugging us as soon as we get off the motorcycles.
“Forty years ago, did you ever think we’d be meeting like this?” she asks me, and I have to say, honestly, no, no, I did not.
Let us call her The Poet. She was a girl I’d known in high school, a true poet, a perceptive and heartfelt writer, a genius, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most Zen-centered people I’ve ever known.
She was best friends with The Artist, another girl I knew, a gifted artist and soulful poet and writer who dazzles me with her intellect, insight, empathy and clarity of thought.
We hung out together (as we used to say) but they were a binary star I orbited at a distance since I could not match their brilliance.
I admired both. I learned from them and remembered them — though it was less a case of remembering and more of never forgetting. After graduation we built our separate lives, fanning out across the country, across decades.
Forty years — what a mammoth block of time. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her and now she’s standing before me, and I’m with my wife and our motorcycles, the vehicles of my own time that brought us here, all on a dark driveway in Tennessee.
“Well, come in, come in,” they say. “Are you hungry? We’ve got dinner.”
Since we’re staying the night, I pull the bags off Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa and we go in to eat. Over savory bowls of Thai-inspired chicken-and-rice soup, we fill in gaps four decades old:
For me, a couple of wives and a series of newspaper jobs around the country. For her, a journey of self-discovery out West, meeting a wonderful man and having children. A deep-rooted faith in their Mormon religion and church.
The night runs late and the dishes grow cold on the table. I want to hear more. She speaks of how they ran their own family dairy farm, honest caregivers of the land, their lives entwined with those of neighbors, community, and church.
I want to hear everything and she tells us this:
Their first child is a loving and happy and intelligent son, and learns to talk and walk early, following them around the house. At age five, he begins fetching mail from the box across the rural road.
An avid talker, he tells his parents about an angel, saying to his mother, “Mom, I saw an Angel and I know what they look like.”
And one day…
“He was running across the road to get the mail and a motorcycle came over the hill,” she says. “He was hit and killed.”
Time stumbles as the shock ripples through us. I had not known, even after all these years. I struggle to focus and a somber voice in the back of my mind whispers I never thought we’d be meeting like this.
I can’t remember what Linda and I say beyond oh, my God and I am so sorry and such; it was inadequate anyway. Still and silent, we listen.
She tells us how she, her husband, their families and everyone they knew were devastated beyond comprehension. She says to her husband, sometime later, “I don’t see how we can survive this.”
And he, from a place of inner strength I did not know could exist, offers the most courageous and unforgettable thing I have ever heard.
He tells her: “We can be bitter, or we can be better.”
Slowly they take up their lives again. The church and community rally around them. They forgive the rider on the motorcycle, giving him back his life. They have more children. They rebuild around the awful loss.
It is very late. We all say good-night and are ushered into a guest bedroom. But it is hours before I sleep.
It’s impossible for me to reconcile the sweet girl I adored in high school and the pain of that day; they cannot exist in the same space. I’m in awe of the strength and courage of her husband, who gave them a way forward. I grieve for the wonderful child I will never know.
And how, dear God, we’ve come to their doorstep on motorcycles.
Time has lurched on, but I am forever haunted. We were only 52 hours into the mission, with 16 days, two thousand miles, and now the rest of our lives to go.
The next day I call The Artist long-distance after we shut down the bikes in Birmingham, Alabama. We talk and I weep a little and she, with her wisdom, pulls me back from the edge.
But Linda and I are subtly changed, tempered somehow, forced to take a different perspective. The belief we can be better takes up residence in my head1.
We’ll find the New Orleans motorcycle ride will be more intense, more deeply felt, than anything we’ve done before. All that’s ahead of us — the fall in Underwood, the stranger in Selma, the lonely sadness of Bryant’s Grocery and everything else — began that night in Tennessee.
Note: It took more than a year for me to write this story. I’ve shown it to my two friends; they have kindly given permission to post. I could not have done so otherwise.
Addendum: In later correspondence, she tells me, “Following his death I imagined his sweet spirit running across the road into the arms of an Angel while his earthly body was waylaid and left behind.”
1 — Where it stays to this day. And I will testify his words helped me deal with Steve Wargo’s death, 164 days later.
“We either make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
— Carlos Castaneda
Sept. 4 | Day 5: So we weren’t traveling by motorcycle, but naturally I couldn’t stop thinking about leaving Terra Nova behind and wondering (in random moments) how to prevent it from happening again.
Besides the obvious remedies of sensible packing and taking time to properly load the bike, I started fixating on other motorcycles, ones more suitable for long-distance, two-up travel. Perhaps that was part of the answer.
I started with Harley-Davidson, of course, since we were seeing so many of them on the highway. Harley touring bikes are big, heavy, and comfortable.
They’re also stable on the road. I remember riding through terrifyingly heavy wind on our way back from Mount Rushmore in 20101 — “It was like someone was trying to kick the bike out from beneath me,” commiserated a fellow rider at a fuel stop2 — and seeing Harley tourers ride through that wind unaffected. It was their weight, low center of gravity, and long wheelbase that helped.
Big, heavy, and comfortable. And expensive, as we found during impromptu visits to Harley dealers3 starting in Hays, Kansas, and continuing during our sweep back and forth across the country.
As noted during our 2015 visit to Premont H-D in Quebec, I like Harley shops — the bikes, the tools, the garage signs on the walls. So we started looking at Harley touring bikes.
Expensive. I liked the Road Glide with the fixed fairing4 but couldn’t countenance the double headlights5. The Street Glide was next, and I liked it, though the fairing is on the forks. The Road King wasn’t bad, either.
But they are expensive, starting at $19,000 and soaring northward. So buying new is no-go, though there were some interesting used bikes, priced to inflict mild dysrhythmia instead of full-on cardiac arrest.
So we paused at Harley places in Golden, Colorado Springs, Durango, and a few more, where I casually inspected bikes and nonsensically started collecting H-D poker chips, a Harley thing6.
Since returning home, I’ve looked at other bikes, sport-tourers like the BMW R1200RT, a really nice touring bike with final drive reliability issues, just like my Endurance. Alas, I found Triumph no longer makes the Trophy motorcycle.
Yamaha’s FJR 1300 and Kawasaki Concours are other, less pricey, possibilities.
I’m not sure if I’ll actually get another motorcycle. But I am thinking about it. And looking at bikes while Terra Nova languished at home took some of the sting out of driving a car while we should have been on a motorcycle.
1 — It really was frightening, more so than the Sierra wind blasting across U.S. 395 as I rode Endurance home to Reno from San Diego. I had to pull over and wait out that one.
2 — We met two riders from Pittsburgh at a South Dakota gas station and naturally we talked about the wind. It was somehow comforting to know they were as unsettled as I was.
3 — No matter how you regard Harley, it has an unmatched widespread dealer network. Most of them are located just off interstates, which (while perhaps putting them in a locale class with McDonald’s) makes them easy to find while you’re on the road. In comparison, there’s like one BMW motorcycle dealer in all of Montana, last I looked.
4 — In which the wind-cutting fairing is attached to the frame instead of the front forks. It lessens the effect of wind on steering, since a fork-mounted fairing wants to take the front wheel with it.
5 — It gives the bike a deal-killing space-shippy appearance, at least for me.
6 — Look, I don’t know why. At one to two bucks apiece, they were probably the least-expensive souvenirs of the mission. And there’s a nice tactile pleasure in clicking them together in your hand. Lots of Harley riders collect them, apparently.
“I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it.”
— Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Aug. 31 | Day 1: It isn’t easy to admit1, or even remember, but here it is: We ended up not doing a motorcycle ride this year — the motorcycle ride, the thing I long for the most, every year.
Ah, it was my fault. All that work — getting the bike in perfect shape, installing a new saddle, bolting on highway pegs for me, fitting a passenger backrest & longer footpegs for Linda, extending the luggage plate — all for naught.
The cause was simple: I did not allow enough time to pack the bike.
In a series of events too tiresome to list here, we weren’t able to leave until literally 1:30 a.m.
And then, when I finally get everything aboard, and Linda climbs on, Terra Nova is way too heavy. We take a couple of turns around the block and she handles like the Exxon Valdez.
In the dark, I shut down the Yamaha, stare at it, and force myself to rationally consider the options:
1) Full abort, no ride at all;
2) Delay another day and try and make it work;
3) Take the bike solo, and leave Linda home;
4) Take the bike myself, with Linda following in her car;
5) Leave the bike and take her car to Colorado.
The first is right out, as the Monty Pythoners say. This trip is essential, I’m carrying the memory of an old friend who has died, and Colorado was special to him.
The second is tempting but carries no guarantee. We’re already running late and we have a mission itinerary in which the first few days depend on us being somewhere. Each miss puts us farther behind.
The third is a complete no-go because I love my wife and we do these things together. It wouldn’t be fun without her.
The fourth is ridiculously, sinfully, wasteful.
The fifth reluctantly wins the day. We have to unsuit — I even had the Camelbak on, filled with two liters of icewater — dock Terra Nova in back of the house, throw the bags (sans motorcycle-related gear) in the back of Linda’s Honda Fit, and drive off.
I seethe for the first few days, until we cross Kansas and get into Colorado and the mountains rise up in front of us. We have places to visit and people to see.
Still, for the entire trip, I can’t help but notice lots and lots of motorcycles on the road. And not one of them is mine.
1 — Which explains why it took me so long to write this.
It started Feb. 19 with the death of Stephen Wargo, one of my oldest and best friends, continued with my mother unexpectedly dying in a hospital on April 15, and persisted with a motorcycle-riding colleague getting killed June 8 while riding a bike.
All those dates, now etched in marble somewhere. An awful year.
Emotionally detached, I went into near-stasis for weeks, focusing on what only needed to be done at that moment. Just numb, no energy or desire for anything else. Everything pretty much went to hell.
Straight to hell, including the motorcycles, which waited silently as I tried to figure out what to do. The covers never came off Linda’s scooters. The battery aboard Endurance flatlined from lack of use. I think I commuted to work on Terra Nova exactly once.
The one thing we had to do was not give up our annual motorcycle ride. Linda and I have been doing long-distance rides since 1999, with an unbroken string since 2007.
We rode two-up for years, but started riding our own separate bikes in 2013. The only criteria is that we go someplace we’ve never gone before. Someplace with meaning.
At first we looked overseas, with thoughts of renting a bike in Vietnam, Australia, or the U.K.
The U.K. took the lead for a while. I even put up a Michelin map of Great Britain in the hallway and circled destinations like Dundee, Scotland, where Scott and Shackleton’s ship, the RSS Discovery, is now a floating museum; and Dorset, England, where T.E. Lawrence lived at his Clouds Hill cottage.
I highlighted Portmeirion, the tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales, where Patrick McGoohan filmed The Prisoner back in 1966.
And RAF Fairford, an air base not far from London where my father was stationed in the early 1950s while he was in the Air Force.
But Linda underwent extensive foot surgery in June and the recovery process was slow and painful; she did not think she could safely ride her own bike. Then other circumstances intervened and we regretfully decided it was not prudent to go overseas this year.
That left a domestic ride, with us going two-up on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. But where to go?
And that’s when I started thinking about Wargo1, though I’d never really stopped thinking about him.
He’d hitchhiked to Colorado in 1978 or thereabouts, an epic adventure, with two high school friends. They went to see Wargo’s older brother George, who left Ohio for the adventurous Rockies, made a life there, and never looked back.
I remembered the last conversation Wargo and I had in person, in November 2017; I was getting ready to leave and we were standing outside in his driveway, saying our good-byes. He was talking about Colorado and how much he loved it and how he wanted to retire and move there.
“It’s like nowhere else, dude,” he said. “It’s beautiful. I really want to go back.”
I thought, well, maybe that’s a trip we could take sometime, and I said something to that effect, and we laughed and nodded and said yes, maybe we could because we stupidly thought we had time.
And then I went home and three months later things started falling apart and I found myself at his funeral in February, giving his eulogy, being his pallbearer, and remembering everything we talked about, especially Colorado.
Colorado. Linda and I crossed the state while traveling from Reno to Washington, D.C., but never spent significant time there. Going two-up on Terra Nova meant we could go farther, even travel cross-country as we did before.
And so the ideas gradually came together and hammered at me: Wargo. Two-up. Farther. Colorado. Of course. Why did I not see this before?
We’ll leave Aug. 31, burn west across I-70 and see what Wargo saw back in 1978. We’ll go to Golden, where Wargo’s older brother George lived, pay homage at George’s grave in Arvada, ride to the summit of Pike’s Peak2, and then loop south through the San Juan Mountains up to Montrose and visit Wargo’s nephew Stephan (George’s son).
I’ve contacted Stephan to let him know we’re coming and I’ve let Wargo’s sisters know of our plans. I’ve reached out to Wargo’s friends and the two guys who were with him on that epic hitch-hiking odyssey 40+ years ago; I hope to talk with them soon.
Terra Nova is at the Yamaha dealer for full maintenance and new tires. I’ve ordered a new, more comfortable Sargent saddle. Brackets for the passenger pegs have arrived from Ringe, Germany. We’re finally, finally in motion again.
The ride will be a bit of a challenge; we haven’t ridden two-up since 2012, when we went to Glacier National Park aboard Endurance. We’ll have to pack super-light. We’ll be in the Rockies so we’ll have to prep for heat, cold and rain.
I’ll take a framed photograph of Wargo and leave it with his brother George. And I’ll find one rock, just one, from the Colorado mountains and leave it with Wargo when I visit the Northfield-Macedonia Cemetery.
I’ll try to see Colorado the way Steve saw it. I think it won’t be difficult, because — like the Third Man in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land3 — he’ll be there with me.
And while this Colorado motorcycle ride won’t restore what we’ve lost, it will make 2018 just a bit less awful.
1 — We most always called each other by our last names. It was just one of those things.
2 — I started thinking about Pike’s Peak while considering Colorado; I’d read “Across America by Motor-Cycle,” a 1922 book by C.H. Shepherd, an RAF officer who rode a motorcycle from New York to San Francisco after World War I. Linda and I visited Steve in July 2016, the first time I’d seen him in years; he was wearing a Colorado T-shirt. I went looking for a photo of that shirt (for the top of this page) and was surprised to see Pike’s Peak there, too. It conferred further blessing on the mission.
3 — “Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?”
June 2: It’s not precisely motorcycle-related, but I’m wandering the magical Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on a brief photo recon for a dear friend — photographing scenes of distant memories for her — when I stumble across a memory of my own.
It’s a 1970s-era Raleigh Grand Prix bicycle, white with black trim, the exact same bike owned by a couple of my high school riding buddies, Tom McCray among them, I believe1.
It sits there like a thunderclap from the past, loosely chained to a bike rack. I circle it in delight, thinking, “McCray has got to see this.”
It has the same three-armed cottered crankset, DiaCompe centerpull brakes, chromed front forks, high-flanged hubs and Simplex derailleur group. I can’t get a good look at the rear derailleur without moving the bike, which I’m loathe to do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Prestige2.
It has to be someone’s daily commuter bike, and — aside from some surface rust and the handlebar tape starting to unravel on the left drop — looks pretty good for being 40 years old. The brake cables even have clamped metal caps on the ends, to prevent the cables from fraying, a nice touch.
That was the highlight of the day until, searching for the location of the former renown Coventry restaurant earth by april3, I walk into the Bottle House Brewery and Meadery on Lee Road and find a beautiful Colnago on the wall.
Ah, Colnago, the high-end Italian racing bicycle. And this one, a 12-speed Nuovo Mexico from 1982, is perfect. Hand-made steel frame, all Campagnolo components (rear derailleur looks like a Super Record) chrome front fork, tightly-spaced Regina 13-20 freewheel, flawless paint job, just beautiful.
Just beautiful. Seeing it clamped to the wall as a decoration is revolting, but this is a seriously expensive and relatively rare bicycle. Maybe it’s safer inside. Still, it seems a shame it’s not being ridden; that’s why it was built.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, bicycles were a precursor to motorcycles for me. Both are vehicles of freedom, taking you farther than you thought possible.
So I remember our bicycling days with gratitude, to the extent that if the Grand Prix owner had appeared on Coventry Road, I would have made an offer for the bike, for the memories of where we’ve been, and the promise of where we’ll go.
1 — Eric Blemaster was another Grand Prix owner.
2 — Grand Prix bikes came with Simplex Prestige rear derailleurs, which are notable because they were the first with parallelograms built of delrin, a hardy plastic that could be finely machined. Unfortunately, delrin was not as durable as metal.
3 — It’s earth by april, no capitalization, since the name was taken from the 31st line of the e.e. cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town. The restaurant closed decades ago but is still fondly remembered. It was located, not in the space occupied by the brewery, but at the corner of Cedar and Lee streets. The Cedar-Lee Theatre has expanded into the building.
En passant (in passing): In chess, a French term1 for a special pawn move allowing the capture of an opposing pawn on the fifth rank.
We met, not on the fifth rank, but way, way back in the fifth grade, at a school where I was new and alone and kinda scared.
I’ll never forget him turning around to look at me as we were identifying ourselves in class and how he caught up with me later and introduced himself. We were mates, as the English say, after that.
Thus began my decades-long friendship with Stephen Wargo. I became friends not only with him, but with his entire family — his parents, his brother George, and sisters Kathi and Barb, who always made me feel welcome. Wonderful folks, all.
I never called him Stephen, though I did call him Steve, but most times it was just Wargo or Dude. Or (rarely) Pišta, the Hungarian nickname used by his family. He called me Petras, of course.
We hung out together a lot, into high school, where we ran together on the cross-country team (though neither of us was very good) and we did a few epic bicycle trips to Punderson State Park and camping rides across Ohio 87 to Pymatuning State Park on the Pennsylvania border.
Those trips are important because they fired my desire for travel and eventually evolved into long-distance motorcycle rides2.
Steve and I drifted apart after high school, long before I got on motorcycles. He was ahead of me in doing some amazing courageous things, like hitchhiking Jack Kerouac-style to Colorado to see his beloved older brother George3.
Hitchhiking — I’d dreamed about doing something daring like that but could never work up the nerve, could never get past the danger. But Steve just went and did it. He loved skiing and fishing and Colorado and the West.
“Once you cross the Mississippi, you’ll never want to come back,” he told me. I thought about that in 1995, while I was driving from Ohio to Nevada for a newspaper job in Reno.
I was in a Ford Ranger pickup pulling a 5×8 trailer with Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, stuffed inside. I wished he could have seen me then.
I saw him briefly on a visit home to Ohio in 1997 but we didn’t see one another again until 2016, when his sister Barb found me on the Internet.
My wife Linda and I visited Steve that July. His mother had passed away in the previous November, I think, and it was obvious he was still deeply in mourning. But we were very glad to see each other and it was as if the time had not passed, or did not matter.
We had a lot of laughs and we talked about the bicycle rides and the hikes and the cross country team and our crazy rubber raft ride down the Chagrin River. I’d gotten some sort of two-man inflatable raft as a Christmas gift and he and I took it on the river through the Cleveland Metroparks.
It was really a stupid-ass thing to do. The river still had ice on it and we managed to slice open the underside of the floor chamber. The raft still floated, though.
Then Steve dropped one of the two paddles and the current took it away and I ended up crawling out on the ice to retrieve it. If the ice had broken, I would have gone in and probably risked hypothermia.
Good times. A link to the 3-minute video I did for him is here.
Somewhere, in the jungle of our attic at home, I have a photo of us carrying that raft. I also have pictures from our other adventures, the bicycle rides and the hikes.
I came away from our 2016 reunion seized by the idea of us retracing one of our grand bicycle rides, because it seemed like he was so steeped in grief about his parents and I wanted to get him out of the house and back on the road, or something. You know, something fun.
I wanted to recapture the magic, the special feeling that’s endured from those rides to the motorcycle adventures Linda and I had later.
I kept talking to Steve about it (putting myself at risk of becoming a pest, I’m afraid) but I think maybe he was getting used to the idea or I was wearing him down; the last time I saw him, in early November 2017, we visited a nice bicycle shop, and looked at a Fuji Touring bike that was really sweet. So I like to think we would have eventually done the ride.
But we didn’t. Steve died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 19, 20184. The last time I saw him was Nov. 4, 2017.
I’m trying to remember every moment, everything Steve and I talked about. It’s like I want to account for every minute. Since Steve didn’t have email, I was writing physical letters to him once or twice a month and calling at least once a month, or more.
It’s so easy to let friends drift away; life crowds in, as they say, which is so true. I didn’t want to let Steve drift away again.
And now I have to find a way to cope with his death. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that. I think of him often, and I smile at many of those memories, and sometimes laugh out loud, and that helps a little.
I’ve talked to Linda and Tom McCray, another good friend who was a part of those bicycle rides, about recreating Pymatuning. That may happen.
But even if it doesn’t, I think I need to see Ohio 87 and Pymatuning again, on a bicycle or aboard Terra Nova. Either way, I know Steve will be there.
1 — It literally does translate to “in passing.” Phonetically, it’s pronounced “on pass-on,” in case you were wondering.
2 — Hence Wargo’s inclusion in a motorcycle-travel blog, though he himself did not ride a motorcycle. He’s mentioned elsewhere in Motorcycle Days, and I printed out and mailed him a couple of the travel stories since he disdained computers and was not online.
3 — George was a just super guy, the cool older brother I always wished I had.
4 — We knew Steve was sick, but I suspect the correct diagnosis came too late. I put together a video for his funeral, gave the eulogy, and was one of his pallbearers. God, I miss him.
Sept. 25 | Day 19: They say the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor at dawn in 1941 hear a Japanese children’s song — Menkoi Kouma1 sung by a teenaged girl — as they follow a Honolulu radio station broadcast to their unsuspecting targets ahead.
The pilots listening to that sweet song are carrying death to the battleships, destroyers and other ships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The carnage defies description.
More than 2,400 people2 die in the attack. Three battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — are sunk. Eighteen other ships are damaged.
One of them is the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). One hundred and six of her crew are killed. The ship is later raised, repaired and sent into the Pacific theater. It earns five battle stars.
I’m thinking of the West Virginia as our motorcycle ride to New Orleans comes to an end. This is our last day on the road and we’re about 230 miles from Falls Church. We’ll be home this evening.
But first we’re stopping here in Clarksburg, W. Va. I’ve researched the West Virginia’s history for a story that was published on the 75th observance of Pearl Harbor and there’s something from the ship I need to see.
Linda and I park the motorcycles on West Main Street and cross over to the Harrison County Courthouse. It’s a typical county government building, except for its art-deco entrance, which favors two fierce eagles that look uncomfortably close to something you’d find at a Nuremberg rally.
A flagpole from the West Virginia is supposed to be here. We check the two poles outside the building, one with an American flag, the other with a state flag, but don’t see anything special about them. I carry my helmet into the courthouse to find someone to ask.
Inside, I find three uniformed sheriff’s deputies ensconced behind inch-thick plexiglass and a heavy duty metal detector.
Speaking though a hole in the plexiglass — it’s like shouting down a well — I tell them why I’m here and ask where I can find the relic from the West Virginia.
The deputies look at one another, puzzled. “I’m not sure,” one says.
I thank them and go back outside, determined to look at the poles more closely and check the perimeter of the courthouse.
One of older deputies comes out and motions us over to the American flag pole. Ah, he’s made some inquiries and has come to find us. Good man.
That’s when we see the plaque at the base, plain as day, maybe 15 inches wide.
The West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes port side, began to burn, and threatened to capsize. The crew counter-flooded the starboard side and the ship sank upright into the harbor, its main deck nearly even with the waterline.
Fire crews extinguished the flames aboard ship and preparations were soon made to raise the vessel and take her stateside for complete repair.
That’s when the salvage workers started hearing noises, a banging sound, coming from inside the ship, below the waterline. They realize there’s someone still alive on the ship, trapped below decks, making noise in hope of rescue.
There’s no way to get to the trapped men. The harbor water is still thick with diesel fuel; cutting with torches could cause an explosion. There’s a risk of explosive decompression if the hull is breached below water. There’s no way to get to them.
The salvagers keep working. The banging sound continues. Legend has it that the men on guard duty at night put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing it.
The West Virginia is refloated on May 17, 1942, 162 days after the attack. In a dry forward storage room, workers find the bodies of three sailors, Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.
There’s an eight-day clock with them, and a calendar with days crossed off in red. The last day marked is Dec. 23, 1941. The men had survived 16 days after the attack.
A Navy officer retrieves the storeroom calendar and sends it to the Pentagon, where it is lost and never seen again. The eight-day Seth Thomas clock was saved and is now on exhibit at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, W. Va.
The families are never officially told how the three sailors died. Their grave markers have Dec. 7, 1941, as the date of death. The story slowly seeps out to relatives, other sailors in the Navy.
After extensive repair at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., the West Virginia takes part in significant battles in the Pacific, including Leyte, Mindoro, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The battleship is also part of the massive Navy presence in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally sign documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The West Virginia and the light cruiser USS Detroit3 are the only two ships from Pearl Harbor that are in Toyko Bay that day.
The West Virginia was decommissioned in January 1947 and sold for scrap in August 1959. Her jackstaff4 was given to Harrison County in 1963.
One of the three: Clifford Olds, right, with shipmates Jack Miller, left, and Frank Kosa on the night before Pearl Harbor. Kosa was killed in February 1944.
I think about Pearl Harbor as Linda and I wheel away from Clarksburg. The attack is a story of tragedy, horror, courage5 and profound grief, and America does its best to honor it.
But I believe history would’ve been better served if the documents of surrender had been signed aboard the West Virginia instead of the Missouri6. The ship paid a heavy price at the war’s beginning; she should have been the setting for its end. The ship and her crew — especially Endicott, Olds and Costin — deserved it.
1 — Which translates to Come on a Pony.
2 — The official count is 2,403.
3 — The Detroit was not damaged in the attack.
4 — The flag pole is the West Virginia’s jackstaff, the pole in the bow of the ship.
5 — Doris “Dorie” Miller, a cook aboard the West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism — he fired an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese planes and helped injured men to safety when the ammo ran out. He was the first African American sailor to receive the medal. (If you need further reference, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”) Miller was killed on Nov, 24, 1943, when his ship the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a torpedo near Butaritari Island.
6 — They say the Missouri was chosen because Harry Truman was from Missouri and had a personal connection with it; his daughter christened the ship. But it was also the flagship of the Third Fleet and served honorably in the war. You could also make a reasonable case for other ships. I can understand that, but I still would have argued strenuously on behalf of the West Virginia.
And in the morning when you filled my eyes I knew that day I couldn’t do, ahh, no wrong, I couldn’t do
— Cat Stevens
Sept. 7 | Day 1: We leave well after dark on the first day, just to get underway and put some distance between us and home. The destination is Woodstock, Va., about 85 miles. The motorcycles — and the first song — are ready at 2230 hours.
Two years ago, I started the tradition of playing a song for Linda at the start of each riding day, and this trip is no different. Since we’re heading for New Orleans, choosing her first song, the one she listens to this dark night, is easy: The City of New Orleans, by Arlo Guthrie.
I loaded about 30 songs on the iPod for New Orleans, with some mission-specific tunes from Louie Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, and a few others. Other pieces were meant to lighten the mood after visiting somber places like Selma, Alabama, and Money, Mississippi.
The list wasn’t perfect, of course. I anticipated Chattanooga, but we changed course going home and unexpectedly stayed in Memphis. I would have given much for the haunting Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn. Alas, I wasn’t packing a laptop, so there was no way to download it.
Not all of the songs were directly related to New Orleans. We heard You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice at dinner one night at the Italian Café, so it was sort of a touchstone in addition to the nice sentiment.
Two Hearts was blasting across the night in 2009 at a remote Shell station in Slovakia2. We had left Hungary, crossed the Danube River enroute to Zvolen, and got lost after dark. I shut down the rented BMW motorcycle to refuel at the gas station, where the song was playing, incongruously and very loud.
Louie Armstrong also carried a poignant reminder of Jozef Pavlovic, the husband of Iva, one of my relatives in Slovakia. He passed away unexpectedly in 2012 at a young age. We met him during our travels to Slovakia and Hungary and he was a truly wonderful person.
He liked Satchmo’s music and I thought about Jozef quite a few times during the ride. I deeply regret the inability to get to know him better, but I’ll always remember him.
Music preserves memories, they say. Accordingly, our mission soundtracks constitute a special archive all their own.
1 — I love the 1965 video of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Notice how someone hastily put a piece of paper with the band’s name on it over the front of the bass drum.
2 — Curiously, we heard American music everywhere during our two motorcycle trips in Europe. It may be common, but I had not expected it.
Sept. 12 | Day 6: I sometimes do things for the most trivial of reasons1 and our stop in Saraland, Ala., was one of them.
At work four months earlier, I discovered Saraland by accident while compiling a massive database of retail store closings across the country. By coincidence, I was working with an intern named Sara2, a brilliant graduate student at American University.
“Hey, look,” I wrote when forwarding her the link. “They named a town after you.”
“As well they should,” she said.
Idly curious, I searched for other Sara-named towns in the U.S. — Saraville, Sara City, Sara Heights — and found only this Saraland, a town of 13,000.
So Saraland became a bit of a running joke between us, though I suspect it was more of a one-way street running from me to her.
The notion of actually visiting Saraland didn’t occur to me until Linda and I decided on New Orleans as the 2017 motorcycle ride. There were places I wanted to see in Alabama on our way outbound and Saraland fell into the flightpath.
That’s why we’re spending a few moments here in Saraland, off I-65 some 43 miles south of Atmore, Ala.
Just for chuckles, I shoot a few Saraland photos and email them to Sara and I find a Hibbett Sports store3 where I get a Spartans athletic shirt. Linda and I have lunch at the Saraland Sonic4.
I’ll carry that shirt aboard Terra Nova all the way back to Virginia. Later, I’ll box it up and send it to her at work. So now Sara has her own Saraland Spartans shirt purchased in Saraland.
Sara and I may never work together again.
But we’ll always have Saraland5.
1 — I once visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to see if I could find a Marine mentioned by Michael Herr in his excellent but disturbing book, Dispatches.
2 — Who went on to a better position, job-wise. She’s doing some great work, too.
Sept. 16 | Day 10: We got up early on our last full day in New Orleans and walked over to Café Du Monde, where the beignets and cold milk are the best, and cut through Jackson Square on the way back.
The Square1 is crowded with tourists, street vendors and what looks to be homeless people, who’ve taken the lead in commandeering metal park benches that line the street.
Linda wants to look at some shops along St. Peter Street and I investigate one or two myself and find high-priced stuff I don’t need. She’s in someplace that sells linen or something and I’m dawdling on the sidewalk when I hear raised voices across the street behind me.
I turn to see a group of six or seven apparently homeless guys on a bench angrily yelling at another guy nearby, also apparently homeless, with a medium-sized black-and-white dog. The dog owner is folding up a sheet of plastic.
“Don’t you hit that dog!” one of the bench dwellers says to the owner.
“That is not cool, man!” says another.
The owner says nothing. I’m standing there trying to figure out what’s happened. The dog is on a leash and is following the owner, who’s finished packing his stuff and is walking off. The dog — and this is important to me — does not seem cowed or afraid.
The bench guys, briefly united against a perceived cruelty, settle down.
Linda returns and I tell her what happened, adding that I did not see the guy hit the dog and that the dog seemed okay.
We walk around the Quarter for a while longer, trying to savor this last day, knowing we’ll suit up and head into Mississippi on the motorcycles tomorrow.
But now there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind as we range from Chartres to Royal to Bourbon Street and beyond. Is that guy abusing his dog?
Linda and I have two dogs and four cats back home at Starbase 8 in Virginia. So we love dogs and cats and the notion that there’s a dog suffering out there on Jackson Square starts to consume me.
We make a reservation at Irene’s Cuisine for that night, our only dinner in the Quarter. We’ll walk there, of course, but now I have an idea.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I want to go by Jackson Square,” I say to Linda. “Let’s see if we can find that guy and his dog. I want to know.”
My understanding wife consents to this ridiculous reconnaissance. Night falls as we regain the square, still sprinkled with tourists, and we walk the length of St. Peter Street twice under streetlights.
“We’re probably not going to find them,” I say, resigning myself to it, and suddenly, there they are.
There they are. We sort of surreptitiously follow them for a short distance — I want to see the relationship between the guy and the dog.
He’s a young guy, middle 20s, I think, and there doesn’t seem to be any abuse going on. We approach by asking about the dog, what he is, his age and that sort of thing. Linda pets the dog, who looks happy.
The guy thinks his dog is a mix of Dalmatian and some other breed. He came from friends who couldn’t keep him. The guy says he was living somewhere but has been on the street for a while.
“Would you have some change you could give me?” he asks, and I make the biggest mistake of the New Orleans ride and give him three measly dollars from a pants pocket, not wishing to pull out my wallet on the street.
He takes it with thanks but I sense he’s a tad disappointed that it’s not more. Or maybe that’s my projected guilt.
Linda gives the dog a final pat and we say good-bye and watch them disappear into the night. The intersection ends there; we go to dinner and back to our lives, and he and his dog continue with theirs.
I’m relieved — greatly relieved — that the dog is okay but I kick myself a hundred times for not giving more to his owner. I’ve failed to live up to the example set by the baseball cap gentleman in Selma, Alabama, six days ago. All because I didn’t want to take out my wallet.
Later that night, I offer a bit of karmic atonement by donating online to the New Orleans Humane Society. But it isn’t enough.
The next day, two guys — the first with a baseball cap, the second with his dog — haunt me as I pack up the bikes. They stay with me as we ride north toward Hattiesburg, Miss., to pay tribute to a U.S. Navy pilot who died in Korea 67 years ago.
1 — Jackson Square is named after President Andrew Jackson, considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The battle was a series of skirmishes between U.S. and British forces in 1814 and 1815, and is considered the last major engagement of the War of 1812.
Sept. 18 | Day 12: The original plan was to leave New Orleans, ride to Natchez, Miss., and pick up the Natchez Trace northeast to Tennessee. We’d scheduled a full-day layover at Starbase Nashville to check the bikes and take it easy.
But we were only 111 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., home of the African American Military History Museum. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since learning of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black carrier pilot.
We change plans and head for Hattiesburg, crossing Lake Pontchartrain on I-10.
A short — 39 seconds long — 360-degree video of the lake crossing. You can play the video and use your cursor to spin the image around and view it from different angles. It’s best with the sound off. (Trust me.) Go ahead, try it! You won’t break anything.
Brown, who broke the color barrier to Navy flight decks, is one of the most overlooked men in U.S. military history.
He grew up a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg and fell in love with flying while watching planes take off and land at a nearby airfield. He entered the Navy through the college V5 program while studying architecture at Ohio State University.
He persevered in flight training, endured some racist instructors, and earned his pilot’s wings.
He was flying a Corsair F4U-4 providing close-air support for Marines in the freezing Chosin Reservoir in North Korea when he was shot down by groundfire and crash-landed on Dec. 4, 1950.
His plane started smoking and threatened to catch fire. Brown was pinned inside.
Brown’s wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, ditched his own Corsair to try and save him. But Hudner and a Marine rescue helicopter pilot could not extract Brown, who froze to death in his own plane.
Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his attempted rescue. The Navy named a destroyer after him in 2017; I went to Bath, Maine, in April to cover the christening ceremony for the Navy Times. I was fortunate enough to meet Hudner there.
Brown has always fascinated me for his courage, for the way he refused to give up his dream of flying, even in the face of intense opposition. He didn’t just become a pilot, he became a Navy carrier pilot – the best of the best.
I’m not sure why that is. Most Americans are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the ground-breaking African-American pilots who flew combat missions in World War II. But Jesse Brown is virtually unknown1.
The Hattiesburg museum helps remedy that with a detailed exhibit on Brown. That’s what I want to see.
Back on the bikes, we find the museum with little trouble. They’re usually closed on Mondays, but I’ve emailed them and Latoya Norman, the manager, kindly invites us to visit anyway. She unlocks the door and we leave our riding jackets and helmets by the front desk.
The museum is a handsomely refurbished USO club that opened in 1942 for African American soldiers at Camp Shelby, an Army training site for armored vehicles north of Hattiesburg. Once inside, I marvel at the painstaking care with which the building has been restored. A common room, used for informal gathering, is warm and inviting. I can see myself playing chess by the stone fireplace.
Ms. Norman tells us to take our time and withdraws to her office to work. We find ourselves in a first-class museum.
“Look at all this,” I say to Linda.
The exhibits, covering service from the Revolutionary War to today, are well designed. Paintings and murals are exquisite and the lettered presentations have a Smithsonian quality. Someone put in a lot of love and effort here.
I’m fascinated by all of it, especially the Jesse Brown exhibit, which has an imaginative presentation of him on the deck of the USS Leyte. I’m gratified to see Brown, an ensign, listed as flight leader, with Hudner, a lieutenant, as his wingman.
So many other references get it backwards. Hudner outranked Brown, but Brown had more flying experience, which qualified him as flight leader.
We soon thank Ms. Norman and take our leave, but Brown stays with me as we ride away.
I wonder about the ifs of that day in 1950 — if it had not been so cold, if the flight squadron had drawn a mission earlier in the day, if the Corsair had not been vulnerable to rifle fire from the ground, if the helicopter had carried a cutting torch, if a second rescue helicopter had been available … perhaps Brown might have survived.
But what would he have come home to find? Mississippi and America were still mired in the Jim Crow era of unyielding racial segregation. Brown, like other African Americans, risked his life in service of his country; his life would’ve still been at risk from southern whites after he returned.
The civil rights movement wouldn’t really begin until four years after Brown’s death. I’ve wondered what he would have done, and I asked members of Brown’s family that question the day I met them in Maine.
“Oh, yes, I think he would have been part of it,” said Lura Brown, Jesse’s younger brother. “If not for himself, then certainly for his family. He would have gotten involved.”
I ponder that as we ride north that afternoon, through Jesse Brown’s lost Mississippi. We’ll be in Greenwood tonight. Emmett Till waits for us tomorrow.
1 — It may be simply because Jesse Brown served in Korea; shamefully, Americans have never given the Korean War and its veterans their due.
Sept. 19 | Day 13: We find the store — “the ghostliest structure in the South,” author Paul Theroux says — shrouded in kudzu on a lonely stretch of Leflore County Road 518.
Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market is a collapsing two-story brick building in Money, a tiny community in Mississippi. The day after leaving Hattiesburg, Linda and I are stopping here on the motorcycle ride home from New Orleans, now 300 miles behind us.
This is a sacred place, worthy of attention. What happened here 62 years ago is still with us today.
It was in this store, on Aug. 24, 1955, that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, spoke with a white woman behind the counter and was horrifically murdered four days later in an act of brutality that shocked the nation.
Carolyn Bryant, 21, was the woman in the store. On Aug. 28, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, both white, came with guns to the house where Till was staying with relatives. They took Till away.
Till’s body, naked and mutilated beyond recognition1, was found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31; he had been shot in the head. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had accosted her and whistled at her — a black man propositioning a white woman2.
After deliberating 67 minutes, an all-white jury acquitted the two men on Sept. 23.
Like Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., 10 years later, coverage of Till’s death and the murder trial grabbed the national spotlight and helped drive the American civil rights movement3.
Though Till was a teen, his brutal death might have eluded national attention during those unforgiveable Jim Crow times — countless other African-Americans were killed by whites who also escaped justice — had it not been for two things:
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. “I said I want the world to see this because, there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like,” she said. The Sept. 3 service drew 50,000 people. Photographs of Till’s body were published in African-American magazines and sparked additional outrage. Till was buried Sept. 64.
J.W. Milam, left, Roy Bryant and their wives celebrate the acquittal.
After the acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam5 for a story that appeared Jan. 24, 1956, in the mass-market magazine Look6. The two men admitted killing Till and expressed no remorse. Despite the confession, they could not be tried again under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment7.
All this horror started here, in a simple grocery store that’s falling into itself. The roof is long gone, there are trees growing inside. The wood porch has collapsed. A sign stapled to plywood over broken windows warns trespassers will be prosecuted8.
We shut down the bikes and look around. A Mississippi Freedom Trail sign out front explains the store’s significance. We later learn this sign is new — someone fired bullets into the first one, requiring a replacement.
The road is quiet with only two or three cars passing by. It’s as deserted as a town after the apocalypse.
Across the street, there’s an abandoned Canada National railroad locomotive that looks as if its engine has caught fire. The building next to the store looks like a old gas station under refurbishment. But there’s no one around.
The store itself is cordoned off by orange netting, itself falling down. In the back, wood and old lengths of metal gutters are lying where they’ve fallen. On the south side, where the walls aren’t as heavy with vines, I can see the ghost of wood stairs angling up to the second floor.
And yet there are old signs of tribute: a white plastic planter is on the old concrete porch and there are long-dead flowers, roses perhaps, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with ribbon.
So people have come here to remember Emmett Till and 1955, which is why we’re here, too. The institutionalized and relentless subjugation, the brutality of the murder, the callous indifference of those who committed it and those who acquitted them, is beyond my comprehension.
And though it seems like a poor effort on our part to even stop here, we would have been remiss in simply passing by.
History like this has to be remembered, because it will confront us again and again and again. I think of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, for example, and I wonder how those people would have treated Emmett Till.
As we prepare to leave, I find thick shards of glass on the concrete porch, small pieces of a shattered front window. I consider taking one for a colleague I respect, a journalist and virtual civil-rights scholar.
I hold the glass for a while, thinking about putting it in Terra Nova’s tankbag, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s like stealing from a cemetery. I put it back but I tell my colleague about it after Linda and I get home.
“You did the right thing,” she says. “You were on hallowed ground.”
1 — He was identified by a ring on his hand.
2 — After decades of silence, Carolyn Bryant, now 83, recanted her testimony in 2007. In an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she said Till did not accost her or touch her. She was unable to say exactly what Till did in the store that day, but she did say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her memoirs are at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives but won’t be made public until 2036.
3 — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, is credited with starting the freedom movement. She considered moving to the back of the bus, but, as she told the Rev. Jesse Jackson later, she thought about Emmett Till and “couldn’t do it.”
4 — Till’s body was exhumed in June 2005 as part of a federal investigation into Deep South murders during the Jim Crow era. DNA tests proved conclusively that the body was that of Till, but no new charges were filed. The original glass-topped coffin, which by law could not be reburied, was later found at the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2009.
5 — J.W. Milam died of cancer in 1981; Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.
6 — William Bradford Huie and Look magazine paid Milam, Bryant and their attorney a total of $4,000 for the interview, about $37,000 today, accounting for inflation.
7 — Huie talked to both men again for another Look article that was published on Jan. 22, 1957. He found both had suffered financially after the community turned against them. Black workers refused to work for them and black boycotts shut down their businesses. Even many whites turned against them, some fearing they might be shot, too. It was difficult for the two to get loans for farming.
At the time of the second interview, Milam was driving the same Chevrolet pickup truck in which Till was taken.
Over the years, other details have been brought to light. Tyson’s spellbinding 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lists others present at the time of Till’s death and postulates a relative of Milam pulled the fatal trigger.
8 — The building is reportedly owned by a son of one of the jurors who acquitted Bryant and Milam. Over the years, plans have been floated to turn it into some sort of civil rights museum, but nothing has come to fruition.
Friday, Dec. 29: It wasn’t that long or notable of a ride, but I took Terra Nova to work this day, suiting up for temperatures that — according to the finicky dashboard thermometer — ranged from 27 degrees in the driveway to 37 degrees in the parking garage.
It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I pulled the Dow cover off the Yamaha, inserted the key, and thought if she starts, I’ll take her in. The engine hesitated at first, then turned over and ran smoothly. That’s it, then.
The only problem was the cold air streaming through the helmet, setting my face on fire and forcing me to lower the faceshield. But it was fine, and I was the only motorcyclist on the road I saw. As I was pulling off the jacket and supporting layers at work, I got comments of appreciation from a fellow biker, a Vespa owner.
I parked on P6, the lowest level of our parking garage, figuring I could hook up my small charger if Terra Nova’s battery needed it for the ride home. But it didn’t.
We live about 5 miles from work, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, it felt good. Woke up the next morning to find an inch of snow on the ground.
“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.
Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.
Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.
In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.
In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.
On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.
You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.
With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatinglybad form) or start over.
So you have to think ahead with both.
I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.
“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”
— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”
Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.
It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.
“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.
Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.
It happens when I’m about half a football field behind her. A beat-up brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move around a white panel truck and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.
I see this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself for the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it. The picoseconds stretch out and I start thinking about how I’ll stop behind her, prevent cars from running over her, stop the bleeding, call an ambulance, watch them load her into the back.
She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.
And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.
She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.
Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.
My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.
And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.
I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.
Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.
We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.
But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”
I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.
Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.
Sept. 15 | Day 9: We didn’t ride to New Orleans because of Easy Rider, but since we were there anyway, why not visit a site that was featured in the movie?
I like to ride motorcycles, so it stands to reason I watch motorcycle movies, though most are admittedly dreadful.
But I will watch Easy Rider every now and again. The 1969 classic, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, follows two long-haired chopper riders from Los Angeles to New Orleans.
There’s a memorable — some say confusing — New Orleans sequence in which Fonda and Hopper and two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) drop acid in a cemetery, have sex, and generally freak out.
Those scenes were shot in New Orleans Cemetery No. 11, which opened in 1789 in the French Quarter. Filming took place without permission and the Catholic Church, which owns the cemetery, was reportedly scandalized when the movie opened.
I’m looking for the large statue that Fonda climbed on, and — using real, personal angst to drive his character in the film — began talking about his mother’s suicide.
Frances Ford Seymour, the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and mother of actors Peter and Jane Fonda, committed suicide2 on April 14, 1950. Peter was 10 years old.
As the camera rolled, he used that awful memory to get into his character’s bad trip while sitting on “Italia” in the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb, a mausoleum that was built in 1857 at Cemetery No. 1.
“Italia” is the statue I want to see.
We get to the gate at Cemetery No. 1 and a woman sitting at a card table just inside says, “That’ll be $20 for the tour.”
“Excuse me,” I say. “We’re not with the tour. We just want to look around ourselves.”
“You can’t do that,” the woman says. “You have to join a tour. It’s $20 per person.”
“You have to pay to look around the cemetery?”
“Yes,” the woman says. “You have to join the tour. It’s $20 per person.”
“Hmm.” I say. “Well, no, thank you.”
And we leave. Forty dollars to look at a cemetery?
I’m rather stunned at this, and I kvetch to Linda on our way back to the hotel. A sign at the gate says tour proceeds are used for the cemetery’s upkeep, but it looks as though most of the money is going elsewhere.
“Oh, yes,” says the hotel concierge upon our return. “They’ve been doing that for years. It helps keep out the vandals. I’m surprised they didn’t charge more.”
We later find out that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public in 2015 but allowed tour companies to pay the diocese for rights to conduct for-pay tours. If you have a relative buried there, you can apply for a permit to visit.
So Cemetery No. 1 is now a for-profit venture.
Still curious about New Orleans cemeteries, we take a streetcar out to the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, built in 1833, where most of these pictures were taken. It reminds me a bit of Père Lachaise in Paris, historic, sobering, haunted.
I later discover that “Italia” has not fared very well. At some point, either by vandals or natural means, the statue’s head has come off, along with one of the hands. Other statues are damaged, too.
Which is obviously pretty sad. Maybe I was too quick to forgo the cemetery tour, but tell me who’s repairing that statue and I’ll be the first to put my contribution directly into their marble-dust-covered hands.
1 — Yes, that’s its real name.
2 — Jane Fonda, writing her memoirs decades later, discovered her mother had been sexually abused as a child.
That’s what we heard from lots of people while test-driving a 2017 Polaris Slingshot SLR for a USA Today review. The Slingshot, which looks like a sports car but is categorized as a three-wheeled motorcycle, attracted lots of attention.
It was unnerving at first, but we got used to it. It’s fun to drive, but I’ll stick with conventional motorcycles for now.