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.