All posts by George Petras

Staying Safe, Staying Sane

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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.

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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.

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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?)

‘You Mean Die-Comp?’ or: Only McCray Will Understand This

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)

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 inelegant but it works in “Two Wheel Travel: Bicycle Camping and Touring,” a 1972 book that was my bible for a time.

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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.

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“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.

 

Loss of Mission

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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 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.

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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.

It Was a Horse, After All

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When you hear hoofbeats in the street, look for horses, not zebras.

— Unknown

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.

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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.

One Night in Tennessee

Old Weathered Mailbox

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 — begins this night in Tennessee.

Stone cherub praying


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.
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And Yet Motorcycles Were a Part of It

“We either make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

— Carlos Castaneda

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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.

harley3

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.

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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.

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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.

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Fizzle, or: How I FUBARed the Mission Prep, Killed Our Long-Distance Motorcycle Ride of the Year, and Pissed Off Myself for the Rest of My Life

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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