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 used to think that the best rides – mostly by motorcycle – were long, elaborately planned missions that took time and much deliberation and savored in anticipation.
My attitude has changed over time, however, and now I see the value in shorter rides, in road trips, and what you find along the way.
One of my first road trips was with my friend Van, one of the best people I’ve ever known. We met in 1975 on my first date with his cousin. She later became my first wife, then my first divorce, and dropped out of my life. But Van and I had become good friends and have stayed that way, to this day.
We always talked about doing a road trip, but the opportunity didn’t materialize until September 1994. We both found ourselves with no obligations over a long weekend, so I drove from my place in Sandusky, Ohio, to his house in Morgantown, West Virginia.
This was in my early days of motorcycle riding; I had my first bike, a 1974 Honda CB750 that I didn’t trust for a long ride and so my Chevy Corsica was the vehicle of choice. We drove east, to the coast. It had been too long since either of us had seen the Atlantic, so we decided on Ocean City, Maryland.
It was a good drive. We stopped at Antietam National Battlefield, which was fascinating and emotionally moving. That’s worth another visit. We made it to Ocean City, stayed a day, and headed back.
I don’t know how we found it, but we saw a used-book store on U.S. 50 in Trappe, Maryland. It was called the Unicorn Bookshop, and (since we’re both bibliophiles) we had to stop.
What a perfect bookstore. It was literally crammed with books, the shelves packed and books stacked in the aisles and hallways so you had to edge yourself carefully around the bookcases, like a mountain climber wary of starting an avalanche. But it was organized enough that you could find the subject matter that interested you and still stumble across something interesting on the floor. And it was church-quiet, no corporate-mandated music blaring from hidden speakers, just the buzz of fluorescent lights in the ceiling.
I was hunting for motorcycle-related books in those days (still am) and I found a copy of Bike Fever by Lee Gutkind. It’s still in my collection today. I was happy to score it, and we went home satisfied.
Fast-forward 10 years and I’m now married to Linda and we’ve been living outside of Washington, D.C., for four years. We take our first trip to the coast, on U.S. 50. To my astonishment, Unicorn is still there.
Inside, it’s exactly the same. Just for chuckles, I find the motorcycle shelf in the same place and by God, there’s another copy of Bike Fever. I buy it.
The counter still has an ancient Burroughs adding machine. The guy carefully writes up the purchase on a carbon-copy receipt and gives it to me. I drive home in wonder.
Fast-forward to January 2014, another 10 years later. Linda has found some antique stores in Salisbury, Maryland, so we plan a three-day weekend. Looking at the map, I see we’ll be on U.S. 50 again.
And Unicorn is still there, unchanged, I mean really unchanged, like a Twilight Zone episode. That’s astounding, if you think about it. Small businesses don’t last and bookstores vanish more quickly than an April snowfall. And yet, here it is, still cramped and quiet, reminding me of the shop Alice visited in Through the Looking Glass, the shop with the sheep. I visit the motorcycle shelf again, fully expecting to find a third copy of Bike Fever, but it isn’t there. Perhaps there are limits to synchronicity.
But I find books, as I always do, including some for Van. I’ll give them to him soon, with Unicorn business cards slipped in the pages.
Unicorn probably isn’t a magical place that’s stopped in a backwater of Time, but there is something special about it. It’s the kind of thing you can only find on a road trip.
Our most recent visit, Feb. 21, 2022. That’s owner Jim Dawson behind the counter.
Apart from ogling bikes, one of the reasons I go to motorcycle shows is inspiration for improving my own.
Terra Nova, for example, needs some upgrades; she could use crash bars, a stronger bash plate, a decent set of auxiliary driving lights, a new pilot/pillion saddle and reconfigured passenger pegs. These items will be added one by one in time, much as I did with Endurance.
But I’ve also been pondering another addition to Terra Nova; a way to beef up the mounting brackets for her panniers.
A brief aside: Panniers – sometimes called sidecases – are the aluminum boxes you see on the rear. (Cruiser-type motorcycles, such as Harleys, usually have leather bags called saddlebags.) Whatever the name, they’re used to haul tools, spare parts, riding gear and maybe a quart of oil. Riders like me, inept at packing, tend to overstuff them.
Terra Nova’s panniers have a three-point mounting system: two at the top, one at the bottom front. I’ve been looking for a way to add a fourth, at the bottom rear. Something to strengthen the whole affair.
I spied a BMW R1200GS Adventure with a set of panniers and a removable bar across the back, which made me think of fabricating a similar set-up that would strengthen Terra Nova’s panniers. There’s an idea.
Found out last month that Ohio Motorcycle, a Honda/Yamaha/Triumph/KTM dealer off I-271 near Cleveland, has closed.
It’s not far from my parents’ house, so we’d stop there every now and again during visits home. They had a nice selection of bikes and gear and it was reassuring to know there was a Yamaha outlet nearby if Terra Nova developed a problem while we were out that way.
I’ve developed a habit of learning the location of motorcycle shops when we travel. It started with Endurance, and my discovery that BMW maintains a slim number of dealers around the country. So I’d do my research and start knitting my safety net.
In a similar vein, I mapped out distances between gas stations on U.S. 395 between Reno, Nevada, and San Diego the first time I took Discovery on a ride to see my Uncle Robert. The bike has a four-gallon gas tank and I wanted to know where my refueling points were.
I don’t know the financial specifics of OM, but I’m aware that motorcycle businesses are difficult to maintain. There’s the seasonal aspect of riding; buyers come out mostly in nice weather. And some owners see bikes as expensive playthings that can be sold if economic times get tough.
But all motorcycle riders appreciate bike shops. They’re places of commerce, spare parts, and other necessities – and dreams. So I’m disappointed to see Ohio Motorcycle close. It’s one less light on the dark road home.
My first ride of the year was to work today, Jan. 1, and wasn’t a big deal, since we live around five miles away. But the temperature was in the low 50s and it seemed a shame to leave the bike at home.
So I wheeled Terra Nova out front, suited up, shooed Lexi off the saddle, bungeed the laptop case on the back, and took off. I used the time on the road to get reacquainted with the bike and tried to figure out how many days it’s been since I last rode.
First rides of the year. You read about them all the time in motorcycle magazines. Most of them are mini-epics, conducted in the chill of winter, long stretches of roads under snow, tires cutting bands of gray across white.
I can ride on snowy roads as long as the pavement isn’t icy or the snow too deep. But I remember one ride in snow in late December 1995, in Reno, Nevada. I had taken Discovery to work early in the day in good weather and left after dark.
By then it wasn’t particularly cold, but it was snowing, and I hadn’t expected it. It was one of those heavy, wet-flake snowfalls, the stuff that piles up fast, and I rode the bike slowly through snow two or three inches thick. My heart was in my mouth the whole time.
Getting back to the apartment wasn’t too difficult, but getting into the apartment complex was. Snow had piled up in the entryway and I had a devil of a time getting Discovery through it. The tires just couldn’t find a grip. I struggled getting it up the drive and finally succeeded, watched the whole time by a guard who never left his warm guardhouse to offer me a hand.
First rides of the year. Portents, we hope, of better days ahead.
One of my favorite riding partners, my Uncle Robert, is in his late seventies and has given up his driver’s license. His eyesight and memory are starting to fail and we won’t be riding together anymore.
My uncle (I’ve written about him here) was a distant but enduring inspiration to me in my youth. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, where my grandparents settled after World War II. After a stint in the Navy, he moved to San Diego and started a family there.
He was the closest thing we had to a family legend; a police officer in San Diego, he rose to lieutenant and commanded the force’s SWAT team and he had done the most interesting things, traveling, writing, motorcycling, horseback riding. His stories filtered back to Ohio in letters and late-night phone calls, when long-distance rates were cheaper.
Being so far away, our lives intersected only a few times as I was growing up, each time for only a tantalizingly few days. It was never enough. I used to stare at maps and trace the long roads that ran to magical faraway California, my fingertips moving slowly across the paper…
His mythology started for me in February 1964, when he rode his year-old Honda Dream, a 305cc motorcycle, from San Diego to Cleveland. He was unprepared for the weather and got caught in a snowstorm and fell down on an icy street in Indiana, where he was rescued by a guy in a delivery truck.
A brief aside: A 305 Dream with 28 hp and a 52-inch wheelbase, was considered a big bike in the early 1960s. Bikes have gotten larger since then. Terra Nova, for example, has 110 hp and a 61-inch wheelbase. By comparison, Linda’s 300cc Vespa scooter has 22 hp and a 54-inch wheelbase.
My brother Rob found me a 1965 Dream at the swap meet at the AMA Vintage motorcycle Days in Lexington, Ohio (the same place we rescued a kitten five years ago, while riding home from San Diego). It is a small bike and I wonder how difficult it would be to ride across the country. I named it Santiago and I hope to restore it someday.
My uncle made it to Cleveland on his scooter-sized motorcycle, surprising the hell out of my grandparents and the rest of our family. I was about six years old and I remember him in his black leather jacket when he came to see us. I thought he was the coolest guy in the world.
I don’t know if I thought, “I’m gonna do that someday,” but his ride stayed with me, like a half-remembered note in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. It wasn’t just the ride that made me admire him, it was the fact that he’d gotten out of Ohio and moved to Southern California, gone to college, and loved books and could write, like I wanted to.
But his ride was always there, somehow, though I didn’t start riding motorcycles myself until 1994, thirty years after his epic journey. When I was offered a job at the Reno, Nevada, newspaper in September 1995 I jumped at it. Besides being out West, Reno is 600 miles from San Diego, a lot better than the 2,400 miles that separate San Diego from Cleveland. While filling out a Reno apartment application, it hit me, and I was able to tell him over the phone, “Suddenly, you’re now my closest relative.”
When I moved to Nevada, Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, was in the U-Haul trailer behind my pickup truck.
That’s when we started riding together, he and I and his wife Suzanne, and my cousin Shannon, who is the best cousin in the world. My uncle’s motorcycle, a 1,000cc 1976 Honda Gold Wing, had been sitting idle for a while and Shannon and I chivvied him into getting it back on the road. He eventually did and named the bike Lazarus. We dreamed and talked and schemed of Route 66 and began with short day trips, graduating to longer ones. Our significant yearly rides were from San Diego to:
1997: Yuma, Arizona
1998: Kingman, Arizona
1999: Tombstone, Arizona
2000: Enid, Oklahoma
2001: Route 66 in Arizona
2003: Zephyrhills, Florida
2004: Los Angeles to Bullhead City, Arizona
We called these our Odysseys, and I can tick them off one after the other, like Apollo moon missions, because they were something we looked forward to every year, months of maps and late-night phone calls. They were the highlights of our summers.
The 2002 ride was our best. We took the same route to Cleveland as he did in 1964, seeing the same sights and even eating at two of the restaurants he remembered. We stayed at my parents’ house, where I grew up, and it was a good time.
Things started to waver the next year. A planned ride to Inskip, Tennessee, for a mini-family gathering, had to be aborted in Florida because his bike broke down; he had to truck it back to California. We argued and it was not pleasant.
In 2004, I flew to San Diego from Washington, D.C., and borrowed his wife’s bike, a 1982 500cc Honda Silver Wing. We rode to LA and then east on Route 66, passing through Ludlow and Baghdad and Amboy and everything was absolutely great, the rift between us healed, and I was feeling something that I can only call a state of grace.
Then the Silver Wing’s front brake seized on an exit ramp near Bullhead City, Arizona, and threw me off the bike. I was going slowly but I hit the pavement and felt something pop in my left leg as the bike fell on it. We stopped at a motel and he had to pull the boot off my foot and my lower ankle was already swollen and turning purple. It later turned out the fibula, the smaller of the two bones between the knee and ankle, was fractured.
That trip ended in a rental truck back to San Diego, too. But we had lunch in a Mexican restaurant and I told him that it had been a great ride and I was glad we’d done it, even though I’d fallen, and we smiled and clinked glasses across the table.
But that was the end of our long rides. Linda and I rode from Washington to see my uncle and Suzanne for a few years after that. We did a few short rides around San Diego County and up to Julian but it really wasn’t the same, he was starting to feel his age and it was more difficult to keep his motorcycles street-worthy. And then Linda and I started visiting our relatives in Europe and riding motorcycles there and it got harder and harder to get back to California.
In time, everything slips away from us, and my uncle has slipped away from me. Once again, we are on opposite sides of the country. We’re still friends and talk on the phone and I occasionally send him a book on motorcycling or Lawrence of Arabia or something. I wish we lived closer to him and his wife, so I could be a better part of their lives.
All things may end, but I’m realizing we don’t have to walk away empty-handed. We have our memories, our good times together. And I find some comfort in knowing the kid who watched a guy in a black leather jacket wheel away west on a chilly Ohio street 50 years ago would someday catch up with him and ride, side by side, like he always wanted to do.
So I made the yearly hegira to Crossroads Cycle today for Endurance’s state safety inspection sticker. It’s something I do every April.
“You’ll have to give me a few minutes,” says Dennis Ferm, the owner, as he checks my bike. “The state has computerized the inspection records so now it takes three times longer.”
Crossroads Cycle was true serendipity. We must have been going to the REI in Bailey’s Crossroads eight or nine years ago when I happened to spot a white building on a side street with about two dozen motorcycles parked outside. Naturally, we had to investigate.
We found a small independent motorcycle shop with three or four guys who specialize in older bikes, especially Triumphs. There are older Japanese models there, along with a few Harleys. They fix up and sell a few bikes and do repairs on others.
It was a lucky discovery, time capsule-like, because independent motorcycle places – apart from those that customize Harleys or choppers – are a vanishing breed. It takes a special know-how to keep these bikes on the road. Those who can, like Dennis and his colleagues, are genuine mechanics. They really don’t work on the type of bikes I own, but I ended up gravitating there every year for inspection.
Most modern motorcycles are nearly miracles. They’re computerized and more complicated, but they run better and stay in tune longer than old bikes. Fault systems can pinpoint trouble spots in wiring looms. Factory production turns out sturdier components.
The improved quality, however, comes at a price of increased disassociation between owners and their machines. If you have a problem with your modern motorcycle or car, you can’t pull out your toolbox and fix it. You have to take it to the dealer so a mechanic can hook it up to the computer.
It’s to the point where people are discouraged from trying to fix anything. I hate that, it’s like being a prisoner of one’s own ignorance. Even though I’m not a mechanic, I can at least do some minor tasks like change the oils and filters and install some upgrades and try to learn what I can. I know when the bike is running badly and I have an idea of what should be done.
What little I know makes me greatly respect people like the Crossroads guys.
Understand that older motorcycles can be impossible to work on because: 1) it’s tough to find needed parts for discontinued models, and 2) older bikes are usually victims of neglect, sitting outside in the rain or parked unused for years. Tires crack and go flat, mice nibble wires, gasoline decomposes inside carburetors and leaves a gummy shellac. Most major dealerships won’t touch them because they can tie up mechanics for days.
It takes time, patience and institutional knowledge – the hard-won wisdom from lots and lots of time on disassembled bikes, parts fiches and greasy manuals – to work competently on older bikes. The guys at Crossroads are like this. They could probably get better-paid jobs at modern motorcycle dealerships but they wouldn’t be using all of their talents and doing what they really enjoy.
They’re in it for the love of it. They know older bikes are worth the effort.
A somewhat related aside: On the way to work a few years ago, I used to drive by a black late ‘70s BMW R100 Slash 7 parked on a residential street. It was there every day, rain or shine, uncovered and unmoved no matter the weather. It got to me so much I eventually stopped and left a note on the guy’s door, asking if he wanted to sell it. A suspicious neighbor confronted me as I was looking at the bike, as if I was going to steal it. I explained what I was doing and even gave him one of my business cards, but I don’t think he was convinced.
A day or two later the BMW disappeared and I never saw it again. The silly twit of an owner never contacted me but a few months later a used Kawasaki Concourse appeared in the BMW’s place, parked in the same spot, rain or shine, uncovered. I felt bad for that one, too.
The point is, if you have a motorcycle, you should try and take care of it, or get it to someone who can. Those who don’t aggravate those of us who do.
I think the craftsmen at Crossroads would feel the same about that BMW. And maybe that’s another reason why I look forward to paying my respects every year.
You probably know Thomas Edward Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia, the British hero who united Arab tribes against the Turks in World War I. If you’ve seen the 1962 David Lean movie, you’ve also seen Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) fatally crash on a motorcycle in the first three minutes of the film.
T.E. Lawrence is a fascinating character in history, not only for his part in the Arab Revolt, but also for his Renaissance-like talent to excel in a variety of fields. He was a scholar, warrior, author, mechanical engineer, mapmaker, translator and historian, to touch on only a few of his abilities.
Lawrence loved motorcycles and began riding in earnest upon returning to England after the war. His favorite bike was the British Brough Superior SS100 (Brough is pronounced bruff) which was made in Nottingham from 1919 to 1940.
The 1000cc Superiors were touted as “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” made by hand and prohibitively expensive. In the 1920s and ‘30s, they cost more than a year’s pay of a man making the average weekly salary.
Lawrence lived a relatively austere life after Arabia. A man of conscience, he was furious how the Arabs were treated after the war. The British broke their promises of self-government for the Arabs and though Lawrence championed the Arab cause, he was ashamed of his part in the political betrayal.
In a bit of convoluted atonement, and needing income, he re-entered military life, enlisting as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force in August 1922. He collected notes for a controversial book on life in the RAF ranks that later became The Mint. RAF officials were disconcerted by his presence and discharged him in February 1923.
Lawrence next tried the army, joining the Royal Tank Corps in March 1923. He never felt comfortable there (“like a unicorn in a racing stable” was how he described it) and lasted until July 1926, when he was transferred back to the RAF, where he remained until 1935.
He wrote a long version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which detailed his role in the Arab Revolt. This is known as the 1922 edition. A more tightly edited version, 84,000 words shorter, appeared in 1926 under the same title. It’s the version most commonly available today. An even more condensed version, Revolt in the Desert, was published in 1927. His third book, The Mint, was published in 1955.
Seven Pillars remains in print; the others are easy to find. Lawrence’s writings have been gathered into other books and many biographies of Lawrence have been written.
But Lawrence also loved speed and precision machinery, and owned eight different Brough models. A ninth Superior was being built for him at the time of his death. He traded in his old bike whenever he got a new one. Each one was named Boanerges, a biblical term defined by Lawrence as “sons of thunder.”
Lawrence’s riding lived up to the name. Many who knew him characterized him as a recklessly fast rider. He rode “like a bat out of hell,” said one acquaintance.
The second-to-last Brough Lawrence owned was a gift from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, his wife Charlotte, and friends. Shaw was a fellow motorcycling enthusiast.
(Jay Leno is an affable guy, but he’s wrong on a few details of Lawrence’s death – there was no “drunken postman,” for example. And if, as Leno asserts, Seven Pillars is a challenge to read, the reward is worthwhile. Try the rarer 1922 edition over the 1926 publication. Nonetheless, Leno’s video (above) of how to operate a Brough is pretty good.)
With a wheelbase of 59 inches, the Superior was roughly as big as a modern-day 1200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster. But it weighed only about 340 lbs., compared to the Sportster’s 570 lbs. Lawrence was rather small in stature, about five feet, five inches tall, so the bike may have looked too big for him. A three-speed, the Superior was guaranteed to reach a hundred miles an hour, an impressive speed for a bike of that day. It was reputed to handle very well, but the brakes were less than adequate.
Lawrence kept his bikes in his tiny garage – barely large enough to squeeze a car into – adjoining his cottage in Dorset, about 110 miles from London. The cottage and its grounds were known as Clouds Hill. It was there Lawrence would fuss with his motorcycle, tinkering with carburetors and oiling systems and putting air into tires using an old bicycle pump.
His motorcycles found their way into Lawrence’s writing. The most famous passage is found in The Mint: It’s 1926 and Lawrence is riding home from a RAF air base when he sees a Bristol fighter plane low overhead; he waves, the pilot points to the road and challenges him to a race. It lasts 14 miles and Lawrence wins.
Riding a motorcycle was the last thing Lawrence did. On May 13, 1935, he left Clouds Hill on a bright and calm morning and rode to a nearby post office where he mailed some books to a friend, sent a telegram and started home.
Lawrence came over a blind hill at about 40 mph and swerved to avoid two 14-year-old boys on bicycles. The Brough clipped the back wheel of one of the bicycles and skidded off the road. Lawrence, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown about 20 feet. He never regained consciousness and died six days later. He was 46 years old.
“A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness.”
A friend of mine who reads this blog once remarked, “Linda is either devoted or daft to be riding with you.”
It’s a legitimate observation, and not just in the context of my wife. The same can be said of anyone who spends a lot of time on a motorcycle’s passenger seat. The British call it the pillion.
I’m not sure of the term’s origin, but it could be “passenger who has to peer around the pilot’s helmet in order to see anything.”
To be honest, being a motorcycle passenger can alternate between utter boredom and sheer terror. You’re literally putting your life in the hands of the pilot – if something goes wrong, there’s not a damn thing you can do except watch as the crash, collision, tipover or skid unfolds.
It happened to me just once, in 1997. I was helping a colleague in Nevada pick up his new Road King – a 700-pound beast of a bike – from Reno Harley-Davidson one afternoon.
He was a little out of practice but excited about riding again. The plan was for me to pilot the Harley three miles back to work where he would acclimate himself in the company parking lot. When we got to the dealer, though, the bike was parked outside, all washed and waxed and shining in the sun, looking perfect. He asked me if he could ride it back to work, with me as a passenger.
Like a nitwit, I said sure. It was only three miles.
We made it about halfway when he turned right onto a side street and started to swing wide, taking us over the dividing line into the oncoming lane and towards the curb. I heard him yell, “I can’t hold it!” and I thought to myself, hey, it looks like we’re going to hit the cur–
And we hit the curb, were ejected from the bike, and in the next picosecond I was on the ground, sliding face-first across the sidewalk into some bushes. I was astonished at how fast it happened. I was wearing gloves and a leather jacket and I got away with a quarter-sized scrape on a knee, where the Levis had shredded away. Everything else was fine. I later found a twig lodged in one of the helmet’s air vents.
My colleague suffered much more; he had a dislocated shoulder, a hurt leg and was badly scraped up from the sidewalk. He ended up going to the hospital. (I went back to work.)
The Harley, amazingly enough, was unscathed; it hit the curb, threw us off, and spun around 180 degrees before shutting down and coming to rest on the sidewalk. It stood upright on its engine guards, the bars that protect the sides of the bike. It looked like someone had parked it and walked away.
To his credit, my colleague, who apologized about eight million times, recovered and went on to take that Harley across the country less than a year later.
I don’t dwell on that day but it’s an experience that helped shape the way I ride, especially with a passenger, most especially with Linda. I make sure that everyone who gets on behind me knows that I take it seriously, that I never screw around and I never take chances.
I simply take care, always.
That’s the sheer terror aspect. The utter boredom is a lot more boring to talk about, especially on long rides, during which the passenger has nothing to do but watch the world go by. It may be interesting for 20 or 30 miles, but the novelty soon wears off.
So on our long-distance rides of 400 to 500+ miles per day, passenger comfort has to be a priority. Besides agreeing on how many miles we want to cover in a particular day, I start by making sure Linda has the right gear, helmet, riding suit, gloves and boots, comfortable and durable. She picks out the styles and colors.
On the bikes, I put in more comfortable seats and add a backrest for her; Endurance has had a backrest for more than a decade and I’m in the middle of installing one aboard Terra Nova now. During last August’s ride to Montana, I rigged up a beverage cup with a straw for her, an improvement that will be used again in future rides.
To stave off monotony, she shoots pictures with a digital camera while we’re moving, and has come up with some really nice shots over the years. She can use an iPod while we travel. She’s also our ambassador on the road, waving to people in cars, especially children, who always seem fascinated by motorcycles. She’s the one who pays the occasional toll, since she has two hands free.
Our system isn’t perfect, of course, and we have arguments and tense moments like anyone else. But we’ve gotten better at it.
And sometimes being a passenger is an advantage, as it was for her in Glacier National Park last year. She was able to enjoy the park as we wound our way around The Going-to-the-Sun Road while my focus was solely on the road itself, staying on it and not tumbling us into a valley. The scenery was brilliant, even though she had to look around my helmet to see it.
So the weather had warmed up Sunday morning and I was thinking of taking Terra Nova out for a ride of some kind. I took delivery of her on Sept. 9 and through a series of events too tedious to relate here, she had only 475 miles on the odometer. I wanted to get her over the 600-mile mark and in for the first necessary maintenance.
New motorcycles have to be painstakingly broken in to avoid engine damage. It varies by manufacturer, but the first 600 miles are usually the most critical. You have to put those miles on carefully, taking heed not to run the engine above 4,000 rpm. At the 600-mile mark, you (or your dealer/mechanic) change the engine oil and filter, the final drive lubricant and make some other adjustments.
I put on those 475 miles as I should. I took the additional precaution of changing the engine oil and filter and the final drive oil at the 110-mile mark, just to be safe. Now, all I needed was those extra miles.
Waiting for Linda to get home from church, I threw a video in the DVD player – One Crazy Ride, by Gaurav Jani, an independent filmmaker in India and a true motorcycle traveler.
A brief aside is necessary: I became a big fan of Mr. Jani after seeing this film and his earlier documentary, Riding Solo to the Top of the World. I’m fascinated by motorcycle travel and I really liked the two Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman films, Long Way Round in 2004 and Long Way Down in 2007. The two actors had a substantial back-up crew and cameramen to film those rides. Both are interesting and very well done.
Mr. Jani, however, is far superior. In Riding Solo to the Top of the World, he’s a one-man film crew documenting his own ride in 2005 from Mumbai to the Changthang Plateau in Ladakh, India, near the Chinese border. He rides through incredible cold, desolate but beautiful landscapes, and oxygen-starved mountain air to meet and learn about the reclusive people of the plateau. It’s an incredible work of filmmaking. And his third film, Motorcycle Chang pa, is due out soon.
One Crazy Ride, the one in my DVD this morning, is a movie about a 2008 motorcycle ride Mr. Jani and four friends took from Mumbai to a remote part of northeast India. One could sum it up this way: friendship, hardship and awesome scenery. This, too, is an exceptional film. I ended up giving a copy to Gopal Ratnam, one of the defense analysts at work, when some of us were trying to coax him to give in to his desire to get a motorcycle. Gopal looked over the DVD and said he thought he knew Mr. Jani. I ended up buying a second copy.
So the replacement DVD is on while I’m fussing with the bike, getting it ready for our own little ride in our corner of the world. Linda gets home, we suit up and take off. There’s no real destination in mind, other than maybe Orange, Virginia, an antique-y type of small town we’d visited once before.
Twenty-five miles out, we stop for fuel at a 7-11 station on U.S. 29 in Gainesville, Virginia. Linda gets a soda while I grab a can of Red Bull. The cashier is a friendly guy, from southern India, as it turns out, and he’s curious about the motorcycle and asks where we’re from.
“In my country,” he says, “a lot of people don’t like motorcycles. They are everywhere, they’re all that most people can afford for transportation. So they are everywhere in the streets.” Many consider them a necessary nuisance, he says.
I enthusiastically tell him about watching One Crazy Ride that morning, but, dang it, I can’t remember the filmmaker’s name. But the cashier is familiar with the region they visited. We gather up everything and leave, and he wishes us safe travels.
Instead of getting back on the bike, we finish our drinks and I dig out a pen and part of a notecard and write down the film’s name and Dirt Track Productions, the movie company, intending to give it to the guy and ask his name. When I go back in the store, he’s in the restroom, but a co-worker says he’ll give him the card. So I didn’t get to know his name.
The rest of the ride goes smoothly; we make it down to Madison, Virginia, then turn around and head home, stopping for dinner at a chain restaurant. It was a little chilly, but all in all, a good day, a decent ride, and Terra Nova now has 649 miles on the clock. And I hope my friend at the 7-11 gets to see those movies.
No matter how many rides a motorcyclist takes, a few always stay in memory, like the spiny cockleburs that stick to your jeans long after a walk through the forest.
The best rides are the reasons we set out again and again; the worst – including the I-can’t-believe-I-did-that ones – provide lessons and good stories for your mates.
My coldest ride was Nov. 18, 1995; I’d just moved to Reno, Nevada, the farthest from home I’d ever been. I’d gotten a new job at the paper there. I drove across the country in a 1991 Ford Ranger XL with a 5×8 foot U-Haul trailer containing lots of books, a little furniture, some clothes and, most important, my motorcycle, a 1994 Yamaha Virago XV750.
She was the first bike I’d bought new. I got her from a dealership in Fremont, Ohio, and it was with her I started my tradition of naming my motorcycles after Antarctic exploration ships. I called her Discovery, from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 expedition, which was also the first of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of my heroes.
Nov. 18 fell on a Saturday and I was off work. I’d been in Reno for seven weeks and I’d already taken the Ranger down to San Diego to see my great motorcycle-riding uncle Robert and beloved cousin Shannon the month before. I had taken small rides to explore the area around Reno and Carson City and Lake Tahoe, but I was itching to do more.
I was dying to see San Francisco – the Golden Gate Bridge, City Lights Bookstore, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, everything. It’s about 220 miles from Reno to San Francisco and I kept thinking about doing an out-and-back ride, some 440 miles. It would be the longest ride I’d yet attempted in a single day.
I dawdle around the apartment early that sunny morning, thinking it over, then, in a burst of energy, I stuff a few things into Discovery’s saddlebags – tools, extra sweatshirt, rainsuit, heavy gloves – check the tires and engine oil, and take off.
The temperature is in the mid-70s and I’m wearing boots, Levis, a sweatshirt and a medium-heavy leather jacket. I have a pair of lined leather gloves and a white Bieffe helmet I’d bought from some independent motorcycle shop in Huron, Ohio.
The ride starts out great. I shoot north up 395 and turn west on I-80, intending to make time. Interstates are known more for function and less for scenic beauty, but 80 cuts a beautiful path through the Sierra Nevada. Once I get past Verdi, on the state line, I’m dazzled by the mountain pass and the ancient railroad tunnels. I pass the Donner Summit, the place where the Donner party was marooned by bad weather and reduced to cannibalism in 1846.
There’s a special feeling in riding a motorcycle over unknown roads. Everything is new and you’re much more in tune with the road, the scenery, the very air you’re flying through. Outward bound, the hours zip past and the highway signs count down the miles to San Fran.
Traffic gets heavy as I fly across the Bay Bridge, but I don’t care. I jump off at the first exit and follow the signs to Fisherman’s Wharf, moving slowly in the thick of traffic but seeing everything and the Golden Gate in the distance and loving it. I end up at last on Columbus Avenue and roll past City Lights and looked up and see the sign for Jack Kerouac Alley. And, like Sal Paradise riding through Colorado in On the Road, I keep thinking, “Damn! Damn! Damn! I’m making it!”
Then I cross the Bay Bridge again and start home.
At first I don’t notice anything because there is still lots of daylight, even though I’m not making good time. The sun is noticeably lower when I reach Sacramento and lower still when I refuel in Auburn. That’s when the air starts getting chilly. I put on the extra sweatshirt and keep going. The sun is gone by the time I reach Colfax and the air gets seriously colder as I climb into the Sierra.
Night comes down hard in the high desert and like a fist in the mountains. It’s a peculiar, heavy dark, unpunctuated by streetlights except for occasional small towns on hillsides. The stars are bright in the clear air but the cold makes them seem even more distant. As the traffic thins away and the elevation gets higher, I start freezing.
It’s a perfect comedy of errors; I’m in the mountains, in the dark, so the air is colder. I’m underdressed and don’t have the proper gear. And Discovery, bless her V-Twin, has no fairing or windscreen to deflect the cold air I’m riding in, creating a wind-chill effect of 30 degrees, or so it feels. Whatever it is, I’m shivering like a madman.
I stop to refuel and warm up in Emigrant Gap, a small station in the middle of nowhere. I plunder the saddlebags for anything wearable but find only the rainsuit and the other gloves. “Man, you look cold,” says the attendant when I come in to pay and suit up.
The rainsuit is a yellow plastic two-piece affair that smells like the liner of the cheap backyard swimming pool you had as a kid. I pull up every zipper and close every snap, hoping it will keep the cold hands of the wind off me. I make sure all the helmet vents were shut, pull on the heavy lined suede gloves, fire up the bike, and take off.
I soon find the rainsuit doesn’t help. It cuts the wind a little but the chill slips under the sleeves and around my neck. The suede gloves seem worse than the leather ones – I can almost feel the frigid air streaming through them, making my hands feel as if I’ve plunged them into buckets of ice. They’re so cold they feel like they’re burning.
It goes on that way for the next 50 miles, an endless, piercing cold that makes me feel as if I’m riding on the bottom of an ice-choked river. I have to force my hands to work the clutch and brake levers. I keep telling myself that it will get better once I get out of the mountains.
After an endless time, I sweep past Verdi and descend from the Sierra Nevada, where the bright lights of Reno blaze across the valley floor. I am so glad – so relieved – to see them. The air warms slightly and I make it back to the apartment, where I put the cover on the bike and stumble off to bed.
Things are much changed since then; Discovery is long gone, given to my dear cousin Shannon in Missouri in 2000, when I moved back East. She is still there. Endurance and Terra Nova, my current bikes, have frame-mounted fairings and windscreens that protect against the chill. Both bikes have large plastic shields over electrically heated handgrips.
I wear insulated textile suits and layer up beneath them – SmartWool shirts and polypropylene, and an electric Gerbing underjacket that draws its heat from the motorcycle’s power system. That Gerbing saved my life on my first Iron Butt ride, 1,000 miles in 24 hours, that I did in October 2005.
I have a variety of cold-weather hoods that fit easily under the helmet and keep my head warm. I have serious winter gloves galore. And I make sure that Linda, my wife and favorite riding partner, has them, too.
I still have both pairs of those old gloves, in a box in the attic. I don’t use them any more but I can’t bear to get rid of them. I run across them every now and again and I think of that night, the distant stars, the lonely gas station and that cold, cold ride.
I have much respect for the guys who rode across the country decades ago. Think about it: Bad roads, mechanically questionable bikes, spotty gasoline supply — they make our interstate rides look like spa vacations.
One early rider was C.K. Shepherd, an RAF officer from Birmingham, England. Fresh out of World War I, he bought a four-cylinder motorcycle in New York in 1919, toured the U.S. and finished in San Francisco, leaving June 13 and arriving Aug. 10, covering 4,950 miles.
Those are the dry facts. He bounced across the country and wrote a book titled Across America by Motor-Cycle, which was published in 1922. It’s an expensive book these days and difficult to find, though some companies in the U.S. and UK are republishing it in softcover.
My hardcover copy from e-Bay is a library volume taken out of circulation long ago. It still has the stamped page on the inside back cover; the last date, in red ink, is September 1942.
Shepherd tells his story in a breezy way, but he’s a bit of a British Mark Twain with his Sahara-dry humor. In search of food, he hails a horse-drawn cart:
“Hi, brother, got anything edible on board?” I shouted.
“I gotta lot o’ old boots here,” he replied, evidently in ignorance of the meaning of the word “edible.”
He is given to frequent remarks on language differences, road conditions, hospitality and America in general. He counted how many times he fell: “I was thrown off 142 times, and after that I stopped counting! Apart from that I had no trouble.”
Shepherd provides much detail about his travels — he’s ticketed for speeding near Hagerstown, Maryland. The fine is $25.75, roughly $315 in today’s dollars, and he says. “The idea of that goat-faced Judge and his sleek-eyed friend the “speed cop” having a good dinner together at my expense did not appeal to my better self.”
However, he tells very little about himself or his motorcycle. He doesn’t tell you what brand it is, but stops at a Henderson dealer in Kansas City. But his bike doesn’t look like a Henderson. Close examination of the two bike photos in his book make me believe it’s from the short-lived Ace Motorcycle Company of Philadelphia. One of the Henderson brothers started Ace in 1919.
Shepherd traveled partly on the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the first transcontinental roads. Instead of numbers, the PPOO, like the Lincoln Highway and others, had names in the romantic era of early road building. The idea was to drum up public support for funds to build and maintain the roads. But the captain was not impressed by American roads of the era:
“In theory I was traveling on the “Dixie Highway,” reputed (by advertisements theron appearing) to be “the finest and most luxurious highway in the States.” As far as my experience, I found it paved with good intentions and bad cobblestones.”
I took Terra Nova this afternoon over to Arlington to meet a few friends and colleagues for lunch at the Afghan Kabob House on Wilson Boulevard. It was threatening rain, but I hadn’t had the bike out for quite a while; it was a good excuse to ride.
The sky started spitting before I got out of our neighborhood but I kept going anyway. The rain strengthened to a steady drizzle but it still wasn’t bad. The temperature was in the low 40s but it seemed warmer and I had layered up beneath the Belstaff jacket. Even brought out the heavy winter Harley gloves I bought in Reno more than 12 years ago.
I found a parking garage and eased into an unused space between a parked car and a bank of elevators. Dripping wet, I pulled off the helmet and gloves, pocketed the keyring and was walking out when a passing delivery guy pushing a cart looked at me and said, “you’re a real rider!” and I laughed and thanked him, surprised that anyone had actually noticed, and went out into the drizzle to find my mates.
I have a thing about gas stations while traveling long distances on a motorcycle and I suspect it’s more than just worrying about running out of gas.
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for them over the years. They’re like small oases on long rides, a place where you can get the fuel to keep going and a small comfort for yourself, like ice water when the weather is hot and hot chocolate when it’s cold.
My fascination with gas stations started when I was living in Reno, Nevada, and was planning to visit my favorite uncle, Robert, my motorcycle guru, in San Diego.
That’s about 600 miles and I was on Discovery, my 750 Yamaha Virago so I carefully calculated the distances between towns on U.S. 395 prior to leaving. The Virago has a 4-gallon gas tank so I plotted things accordingly.
I took U.S. 395, one of America’s most underrated highways. It’s a lonely road with towns far apart, but it passes through scenic deserts, stark and beautiful. It’s an exhilarating ride on a bike.
I made that trip many times during my stay in Reno and I got to know exactly where to fuel up. I knew that I could leave Reno, enter California and fill up at the Chevron in Bridgeport, and again at the Texaco on the southern outskirts of Bishop, or keep going to the Shell in Independence.
From there it was the Texaco in Olancha, with the odd Quonset hut on the east side of 395. Then the Shell station at Kramer Junction, at the intersection of 395 and California 58.
Now you can keep going until you hit I-15 in Hesperia. The population is denser and there are gas stations everywhere.
Most of the roads we rode in Slovakia and Hungary were more lively than 395 but the gas stations felt about the same. Maybe motorcycle riders appreciate them more. They get a mention near the end of the documentary Long Way Round.
Every so often I wonder about the Quonset hut Texaco in Olancha, Calif. I should go back there and see it. It would be a good ride.
From the late 1980s to 2007, Harley-Davidson motorcycles were the most popular bikes in the world. In the 1990s, people were put on year-long waiting lists if they wanted to buy a new Harley.
Now, however, the company is in trouble. Sales have fallen dramatically, along with the stock price, and H-D announced Oct. 15 that it will discontinue selling Buell motorcycles and sell off Italian motorcycle maker MV Augusta to concentrate on Harley bikes.
I’m sorry to see Harley’s troubles. I think Harley-Davidson motorcycles, especially the FX models and Sportsters, are the best-looking bikes on the planet. I like the visual harmony and spare lines. I like the way they sound. They’re the perfect, quintessential image of a motorcycle.
But I’ll probably never buy one.
I desperately wanted a Harley, when I first started riding around 15 years ago. But that was during the company’s heydays, when they were extraordinarily popular, and if you wanted a new Harley you probably were put on a waiting list lasting a year or more.
I spent a fair amount of time in Harley dealerships and walking out pissed off over the arrogance of the sales staff, who acted like they were doing you a favor by talking to you.
Things are different now. Dealers are friendlier. But prices are still high, and new bikes usually lack items I think should be stock — dual disc brakes up front, an external oil cooler, and a front fork brace. I want this stuff for the sort of long-distance riding I do. They can be added on, but they’re damned expensive.
I think this is why Harley is in trouble. It’s marketed itself to high-income customers and now that market has dried up. One wonders where the next group of buyers will come from.
June 2008: You never know what you’re going to encounter on a motorcycle ride. Eastbound on the way home, we run into cold hard rain that dogs us from Illinois to Ohio. It’s become a ride of extremes: The temperature hit 113 degrees in Baker, Calif., and it’s been unseasonably hot all the way into Missouri.
At one point Linda was giving me ice chips and I was sucking down water from a new Camelbak I bought in desperation near San Bernardino. Now it’s an unrelenting downpour and we’re both cold and miserable.
I can barely see through the water splashed up by cars passing us on I-70. I give up at Lafayette, Ohio, and swing north on U.S. 42, hoping for a slower pace and fewer splashy cars. The rain rumbles east and lets us go and the sky turns a lighter shade of gray.
“I’m really cold,” Linda says at a gas station north of Delaware. “Can we stop somewhere and get a dry shirt?”
I start looking for a place to buy clothes, only we can’t find anything. We see gas stations and gardening stores and garages and bars and anything but a place to buy a shirt. In Lexington, I find a Dollar General store. “There has to be something here,” I say.
Inside, Linda finds a long-sleeved shirt and a gray Ohio State sweatshirt. She goes to the restroom to put them on and I go outside to the BMW.
I fumble with the yellow North Face bag bungeed on the back and notice a commotion taking place around a silver minivan in the parking lot. A guy is kneeling next to it, fishing for something beneath as his two young daughters anxiously look on. Finally, he emerges, holding a kitten.
It’s a tiny thing, black and white, and scrawny. By this time, about a half-dozen people have gathered to see what’s going on. Linda comes out of the store and we join them.
“Can we keep him?” one of the daughters asks, and the man says no. “We have too many already.”
“Well, I can’t take him,” says one of the store clerks. “My dogs don’t like cats.”
“He’ll have to go to the pound, then,” the man says. The clerk pets the kitten, whose eyes are runny. There are scabs on his nose. The clerk sighs and says, “He won’t last long there. Probably get put down.”
Probably get put down. Good God. Three years ago, we found an abandoned beagle on a highway near Tampa at night. We were in the car and took her to a vet with connections to the humane society. They told us there wasn’t much hope of her being adopted.
“We’ll take her if nobody claims her,” we told them.
The beagle (Linda named her Molly) ended up at the Hillsborough County Humane Society and we visited her and it tore your heart out to see that horror — 700 hopeful, pleading dogs in cages about a mile long and all of them waiting to die and there was no way, no way, we could save them. Jesus. And that was our choice, either we take Molly home or she dies.
I could not leave her there. We said we’d take her, but they had to keep her for two weeks so we had to leave and Linda flew down to get the beagle and we ended up flying her back to Washington from Orlando. It was ridiculous, insane, but I would have paid twice the airfare to get her out of that awful place. It still haunts me. And now here’s this kitten and the ride has turned into another rescue mission.
Linda and I look at each other and she says, “Can I hold him?” The man hands over the kitten, who settles in Linda’s hands and starts purring. Linda looks at me and I say, “Maybe we can take him.”
“On a motorcycle? How you gonna do that?” one of the daughters says.
I’m thinking, how, indeed. There’s no room on the bike. The two sidecases are packed with spare parts and gear and he couldn’t ride in one anyway — no air. She can’t just hold him, or stuff him in her jacket, he could squirm out and fall. We’re 80 miles from my parents’ house in Cleveland, which is where we’re supposed to be tonight. They’re watching our dogs, and our car is there. So if we can just get him safely to Cleveland…
“Let me see if they have a cage or something,” Linda says, and hands off the kitten to me. He’s still purring. “Even a big plastic box,” I say, figuring I can drill holes in it.
Miraculously, she returns with a cloth cage that zips together and has screens for ventilation. She also has a towel for the kitten to sit on. The kitten goes in the cage.
Now we do a Laurel-and-Hardy routine to get everyone aboard. I get on the bike. She hands me the cage. I balance the cage on the tankbag in front of me and steady the bike as she climbs on and settles into the passenger seat. I grab the cage with one hand and carefully pass it to her. She grips it between us and I can feel it against my back, even through the armor in the riding jacket. She taps my shoulder, indicating we’re go for launch.
The clerk wishes us good luck and watches us ride away.
On the road, it’s not as bad as I expected. I have to edge forward on the saddle to give the cage enough room, but that’s all. I get on I-71 near Mansfield and head north, stopping for gas at a BP station near Medina.
It’s starting to get dark and the air is a little chilly, and we can’t find anything to wrap around the cage, to cut the wind. Instead of tearing into the duffle bag, I take off a shirt and we pull it over the cage. I call my parents to let them know we’re coming and what we’re carrying.
“Another cat? Oh, no,” my mother says and laughs.
It’s dark by the time we roll into my parents’ garage. The kitten is fine, unfazed by his motorcycle ride.
He’s been with us for a little more than a year. After a few vet visits, he’s healthy and full size and playful. Linda named him Lexie, for Lexington, where we found him. He gets along with Molly, the beagle, and other dogs and cats we have. He knows he’s home.
June 2002: I think my fascination with motorcycles truly began in February 1964 when Robert McDaniel, an adventurous uncle of mine, rode a black 305cc Honda Dream from San Diego to Cleveland, more than 2,000 miles.
He intended to ride to Florida to see his parents (my grandparents) but learned enroute they were in Ohio. He turned north in New Mexico, riding U.S. 70 where he passed through starkly beautiful country. He paused on the roadside for a smoke near the craggy mountains of Organ, N.M., and dreamed of Indians crossing the valley floor.
He had not anticipated riding north and was ill-prepared; his gear consisted of a leather jacket, Levis, light gloves, and three-quarter helmet with face shield. It was warm when he left California but he ran into a blizzard in central Ohio and skidded off an icy road and was nearly hit by a delivery truck.
But he toughed it out, kept going and finally arrived; Instamatic photos show him exhausted and disheveled in a black motorcycle jacket, images of family legend.
I tell you of his ride because it was the first pivotal moment in my personal history; I was six years old and it seized my imagination. We recreated his ride in June 2002 and stopped at the same place he did 38 years earlier; the mountains were still stark and serene.
August 2006: I’m on the motorcycle, rolling westbound on I-10 outside of El Paso in western Texas in the early evening when I see a huge dark cloud build up to the south. It’s so impressive I stop and take a few pictures as I put on a jacket.
The cloud keeps growing and getting darker, promising rain (rare for this part of the country). When the rain finally comes down, hard, I bail, looking desperately for a building with an overhang — a car wash, a bank with a drive-through window, a funeral home (don’t laugh, I spent an hour at one during a downpour in Eddyville, Kentucky).
In Socorro I find a darkened school administration building with a recessed entry way and nearly empty parking lot and I ride the bike right up the handicap ramp. The entry is 30 feet wide, 10 feet deep, and totally dry. Perfect!
A stack of sandbags lines one inside wall. I back the motorcycle into the opposite corner and set her up on the centerstand. Then I put my helmet and gloves on the top row of sandbags and sit down…I find it’s really comfortable, because the wall is angled inward toward the windows, giving me a natural place to recline.
I relax on the bags and watch the rain pour down. I’m dry and I have a half bottle of Gatorade and a package of peanut butter-and-toast crackers. Things could not be any better…I feel almost smug. The rain continues to alternate between moderate and ferocious.
A little over an hour later, the main door opens and a janitor comes out. He glances at me, says hello in a friendly way, and turns to watch the rain.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m going to give it another 20 minutes and then take off. I should be going anyway.”
“Oh, no problem,” he says. “Just watch out for the black widows.”
“Black widows?” I say. “The spiders? Where?”
“There,” he says, and points in my direction. “They like to hide in the sandbags.”