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.
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.