“I Had a BSA Once…”

Aug. 17, 2012: The guy at the hotel at Kalispell, Montana, after watching me pull the cover off the motorcycle and check the oil and tire pressure, finally came over to talk about bikes.

He said he had a BSA a long time ago but gave it up. He noted the Virginia plate on Endurance and the dealer plate frame from Nevada and asked me lots of questions about riding — where I’d been, what I’d done, what I’d seen.

His handsome wife came out from the hotel, gave me and the bike a disapproving look, cold as congealed grease, and they got into a minivan and left. The only thing I could think was, you makes your choices.


While My Final Drive Gently Weeps…


I bought Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150 GS motorcycle, new from Sierra BMW in Reno, Nevada, in January 2000. It was the perfect bike for what I wanted: lots of power, room for two-up riding, comfortable for long-distance travel.

I made small improvements over the years – a Corbin saddle, PIAA 510 driving lights, Ohlins shocks – and was totally happy with her, to the point of planning to buy BMW again, when it came time to get another bike.

Until August 2012.

A bit of backstory is needed here: BMW Motorrad successfully advertises its bikes as high-mileage, reliable, go-anywhere machines. But some BMWs have an Achilles’ heel, a failure tendency for their final drives – the collection of shaft and gears (instead of chains or belts) that transmit power from the transmission to the rear wheel. It’s a design flaw that BMW has never officially admitted, but has instead quietly addressed through a series of upgrades.

Compounding the problem is that BMW’s dealership network is spread mighty thin.  It has only one dealership in all of Montana, for example. So if you have a serious mechanical problem, you’re seriously screwed.

I learned of this a couple of years after the purchase and kept an eye on mileage, since the drives tend to break down roughly every 40,000 to 50,000 miles. I had my first service in September 2004, with 47,000 miles on the clock.

At the beginning of 2012, Linda and I decided on an August ride to Glacier National Park in Montana – a long way from Washington, D.C. At that point, Endurance had racked up a little more than 86,000 miles and I knew it was time to get her final drive serviced again.

Early in the year, I took her to an independent mechanic in Virginia who is highly regarded (almost legendary) in BMW circles. He did the work, replaced worn-out parts and gave me an expensive bill, which I expected.

Endurance in Montana.
Endurance in Montana.

As summer drew near, I prepared the bike for the ride, expanding the carrying capacity and adding spare fuel bottles and whatnot. A little more than two weeks before we were due to leave, I was checking the underside of the bike and happened to run my hand around the bell housing of the final drive. It came away wet.

I stared at it, dumbfounded, thinking, “no, no, no…” and I pulled the rear wheel to find the rear seal had blown. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t.

I had to get it fixed quickly, otherwise the ride would be impossible. I couldn’t take it to the independent since he was too far away. A nearby dealer was able to squeeze her into its service schedule and they replaced the seal and some other parts and again I got an expensive bill. Did the independent screw up or miss something? There’s no way for me to know.


Endurance ran flawlessly during that trip, but my cautious faith in BMW, admittedly shaky to begin with, died completely. I’ll keep the BMW and maintain her as perfect as I can, but when I ran across a new 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere on the floor of a Falls Church dealership, I bought it.

Following my predilection for naming my bikes after Antarctic exploration ships, I call her Terra Nova.

The Mission Profile Said: Proceed with Caution — in Event of Hostility, Withdraw

Everywhere we traveled in Europe, we were met with kindness. The hospitality was amazing. People were invariably friendly and outgoing.

It’s not like we get rebuffed in the States, but there was a level of acceptance that amazed me. In Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, we ended up introducing ourselves to the town mayor, who has the same last name as Linda.

We explained that Linda’s family was from the area, and that we wondered if we were related, and he invited us in. His family started giving us tea and cookies and took out family photo albums. It turned out that he and Linda are cousins.

I wonder how things would have played out had the situation been reversed — a foreign family in the U.S. looking for relatives.

In Szalonna, Hungary, one of the townspeople took a liking to Linda.

A Little Night Jaunt Along I-90 in the Rain

July 28, 2010: The scariest rain I’ve ever ridden through was on I-90 in South Dakota.

We were heading home after seeing Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and a ride to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. We’d encountered heavy rain outbound through Milwaukee but the weather was pretty good otherwise.

We had omens, which I did not pick up on. In Presho we stop to refuel and a 300-lb. farmer in overalls and a green cap holds Linda hostage with a story of a world-record hailstone from a storm in Vivian, about 14 miles west. We’d seen the story on the Weather Channel that morning.

“The hail was just coming down,” the farmer says. “Cars were pulling off the highway. Lotta windshields got smashed.”

Weather reports call for scattered thunderstorms and we have a motel reservation in Canistota, about 150 miles away.

“It’ll be dark when we get there but we should be okay,” I tell Linda.

Clouds start building up to the northeast of us not long after leaving. They get darker and bigger and more impressive and I realize we’re probably on a collision course. But 90 veers a little to the south and I think maybe we’ll miss it.

Around Chamberlain dark cloud formations change and an impressive column of white starts spreading in the distance. It reaches from the sky to the ground and looks like it’s a couple miles wide. I can hardly keep my eyes off it.

It’s so white, which I’ve never seen before. I start thinking of the farmer in Presho and his story of hail…

Nearly every motorcycle rider travels in rain. You’ll hit it sometime, the only way not to is to stay home. The solution is to expect it and suit up accordingly (which we are), try not to stay too long in it, and know when to bail out.

It gets dark and the rain starts falling around White Lake and soon starts to hammer us. It’s bad but still manageable and I’m thinking to myself, “I can handle this.”

It gets worse after Plankinton, seriously worse, an absolute downpour that reminds me of an ocean storm I encountered once on Cape Cod. The winds pick up and start pushing us all over the road. Then we hit highway construction and eastbound traffic is merged into the westbound lanes, a single lane for each and now we’re buffeted by oncoming trucks rushing past a few yards away. To top it off, the pavement has those stupid rain grooves that have the front tire skittering around, seeking purchase. I ease off on the throttle and shift down.

At this point, I realize I’ve gone too far, that we should not be out in this, and I admit to myself I’m scared. My helmet visor is misting over and I have to crack it open slightly, which lets in cold stinging rain. My arms ache from wrestling with the handlebars. We’re canting into the wind but the air blasts from the trucks literally stand us upright and we keep pitching back and forth like that until I’m convinced we’re going to get blown over. It’s time to abort.

But there’s no exit and no place to pull over. We have to keep going for a few teeth-gritting miles until the next ramp, some place called Mount Vernon. We get to the top of the ramp and find a rural road with nothing on it. Off to the left I see lights in the distance and head for that.

It turns out to be a gas station/convenience store, an oasis of light in an ocean of darkness. I pull the bike under the overhang and park between the gas pumps. We shakily climb off and squish inside.

The woman is an incredibly kind soul who lets us put sopping helmets and gloves on a glass counter and says we can stay as long as we like. She’s supposed to close at 10, but keeps the store open and tells us not to worry. We buy hot tea and stop shivering after a while. Eventually the rain lets up and I refuel. We reach Canistota about an hour later, peel off the riding suits and collapse.

The Moment That Freezes

August 2009: I nearly got us killed on the motorcycle in Hungary.

It was one of those humbling Oh My God did I really do that moments that never really leave you, but instead are called up by memory usually in the dead of night when you’re trying to get back to sleep. There are hard lessons learned in such moments, but they’ll haunt you.

It happens while we’re riding to Miskolc, a good-sized town about 112 miles from Budapest. We’re traveling from Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, where we visit Linda’s relatives, really nice people we haven’t seen since our first encounter in 2006.

We leave Kunova Teplica around 5 or 6 p.m. The sun is fading, but it’s only 50 miles to the hotel so I’m not really worried, even running in the dark. We’ve taken the bike from Vienna to Piestany to Zvolen to here, about 270 miles, and everything has gone smoothly. Even on the two-lane Slovak roads, which gave me the most foreboding, present no difficulty. I’ve been careful to move to the right when cars want through and drivers pass us with care.

Two-lane roads weave through the countryside that Slovakia and Hungary share. It reminds me of southwestern Pennsylvania. The towns are small and dimly lit and rear up in front of us as we approach and fade away in my mirrors as we sweep through.

It’s dark by the time we cross the border, marked by a ghostly abandoned station that I would stop to examine if it weren’t so late. It’s easy to imagine barriers and soldiers with rifles, the whole Checkpoint Charlie thing.

But that was in the past. Tonight we speed through unhindered.

We reach Miskolc a short time later and Linda guides me from the passenger seat as we move through town.

We’re making good time and I have only to cross one intersection and make two left turns before we’re at our hotel — the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel és Étterem. The intersection is just ahead, a four-lane city street with a flashing yellow light so naturally I slow a bit to look for crossing traffic…

…and two cars from nowhere rocket through the intersection in front of us. I jump on both brakes, front and rear, and the BMW noses down and Linda slams into my back as we skid to a halt. I’m standing over the saddle with both boots on the ground and twin deathgrips on the clutch and brake levers. Below me, the bike is idling quietly at a thousand rpm but the adrenalin is surging. “Jesus Christ! What was that?” I yell inside my helmet and a few more cars race by.

“I don’t know!” Linda yells and I look at the lights and realize there are flashing yellow lights for the entire intersection. What is this, a malfunction?

Then I see the triangular YIELD sign, big as a billboard, on the street post. Instead of a flashing red to make you stop, the Hungarians use a flashing yellow and a yield sign.

I didn’t see it.

I didn’t see it, and by not seeing it I came within seconds of sailing us into oblivion in the intersection, where we would have been broadsided by Hungarian Speed Racers in black BMW sedans. It would have been my fault. I could have killed us both. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, months later, where the memory of those cars still makes me wince.

I thought I was doing pretty well on these European roads, but if I missed that, what else am I capable of missing and with what consequences?

We arrive safely at the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel a few minutes later and the night clerk is very kind and opens a gray gate and has me bring the bike inside. The building is old and Old-World elegant. Our room is on the fifth floor and is warm and stuffy so we leave the window open and I’m tired but can’t sleep and lie awake for hours, listening to the traffic rushing through the Hungarian night.

Hemingways on Handlebars

Many books have been written about motorcycle travel, some epic tales of vast distances covered, others simple recitations of where the writers have been.

Some are great reads in which you, the reader, are actually there; others no more interesting than reading a road map aloud.

Ted Simon is one of the originals, and perhaps the best. His books:

  • Jupiter’s Travels
  • Riding Home
  • Dreaming of Jupiter

pretty much define the genre. His first book, Jupiter’s Travels, was written in 1977 after he rode a 500cc Triumph Tiger around the world in four years.

Round-the-world rides had been done before  — Robert Fulton’s One Man Caravan comes immediately to mind — but Simon’s book helped inspire many others to do their own adventures.

Simon was an established writer in his early 40s who learned how to ride a motorcycle, a distinction from motorcyclists who try to write. The writers usually turn out better-told stories, even if the motorcyclists take more exciting rides.

Simon repeated his epic ride in 2001, when he was 70 years old. He wanted to know how the world had changed and if he could do it again. Those travels are chronicled in Dreaming of Jupiter.

There are other good books, of course. Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke does a great job of conveying the thrill of riding, as does Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a paragraph on the first page that begins: “You see things on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. …” That paragraph is worth the price of the whole book.

Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round deserves a mention, not for great literary prowess, but for its motivational effect on other would-be adventurers. (I once heard a guy in an MSF course cite Long Way Round as the reason he got into motorcycling.) The book is good, but the filmed documentary is better.

McGregor credits Jupiter’s Travels as his inspiration, and Simon himself appears in the Mongolian segment of the documentary.

For the motorcycle traveler, books are often in the shadows of travel gear, somewhere behind the bikes themselves, the helmet, riding gear, and maps that are part of the journey.

But the books provide the dreams and dreams of future rides are what we live on, especially during cold winter nights when we need the possibilities to be endless.

Lonely Roads and Fueling Up

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.

Motorcycle travel