Three Things That Worked

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You get really finicky about your gear when you ride a motorcycle.

Small things can quickly turn into big discomforts. You can’t carry a lot of stuff, so you have to pick and choose and make sure you get it right, because chances are you’ll find out it’s not right when you’re a thousand miles from home and can’t replace it.

Three things that worked during our Washington-to-San Diego ride in 2008:

Fieldsheer unlined deerskin gloves
In hot or cold weather, good gloves are a must. The fit must be perfect; too tight and your hands will feel as if they’re in a vise, too loose and the material will bunch up between your palms and the handgrips and be really uncomfortable.

The deerskins were perfect for hot weather. I bought a pair of natural brown ones because I liked the material so much. I don’t know much about leather, but I like the feel of deerskin. It’s soft and sort of molds itself to your hands, no matter where your hands are — throttle, brake, gas pump.

Buff headwear
Better than bandannas, Buff makes lightweight cloth tubes that are commonly worn around your neck as a scarf. But you can also roll them up and wear them as headbands, or as doo-rag hats, or as a facemask, bank-robber style, if the wind is too bad.

I wore mine as a scarf and even though the jacket was open, I didn’t feel as battered by the wind as I did without it.

Camelbak
These are water containers you wear on your back and let you drink through a hose and bite valve while you’re moving on the bike. California was miserably hot on our way home and we stopped at a sporting goods store near San Bernardino, looking for something to provide relief. Linda suggested the 2-liter Camelbak and I got one, and it was a godsend. We ended up filling it with ice which slowly melted during the day so I had cold water whenever I needed it. Perfect.

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Harley-Davidson in Trouble

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.

Saving Lexie

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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.

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“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.

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Ghost of My Grandfather

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August 2009: I have a thing about old motorcycles because I can’t help but see one and start scheming, no matter how rusty and decrepit it is, to resurrect it, get it back on the road, make it useful again. I think there’s nothing sadder than a non-running motorcycle. It’s one of my great weaknesses and gets me in trouble from time to time.

In Slovakia, my father’s cousin Cyril was a motorcycle rider; he had a Czech-made 125cc Jawa decades ago. It was a practical machine for commuting during the days of communism, but it looked like fun, too. I have a black-and-white photo of Cyril on his bike and he’s smiling beneath his helmet.
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Motorcycles tend to slip away from us. Maybe it’s the bad weather that prevents us from riding, or the necessity of suiting up like a deep-sea diver before riding or the bit of maintenance that eludes some owners. Sometimes it’s easy to put the bike away and forget about it for a while, and if you leave it long enough the tires go flat and the gasoline turns to shellac in the carburetors, or a cable rusts and snaps the first time you try it.

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My grandfather’s 1916 Harley was sold to a neighbor while he was in the hospital, nearly 20 years before I was born; I would love to find it and restore it, but that won’t happen, there are no clues to its whereabouts after the neighbor resold it to someone else.

My uncle’s 1976 Honda Gold Wing was parked for a couple of years and suffered for it, but he did get it back on the road after I pestered him about us riding together. That’s a machine that should be given a ground-up restoration and be ridden frequently.

Cyril still has his Jawa, as I was surprised to find, under a tarp in a barn at the family home in Drahovce, Slovakia. After learning I wanted to see it, he led me outside and we pulled back the tarp.

Oh, it was in sad shape. It was covered with dust and the headlight was broken and the engine was gone, hidden away in another part of the barn, apparently. I wanted very much to roll it out into the sunlight and assess its condition, but it would have taken us half an hour just to clear a path and I didn’t have the time. I think Cyril was slightly embarrassed over its condition and preferred to leave it where it was. My poor Slovak prevented me from knowing.
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But I put my hand on the Jawa’s throttle grip and wondered what it would be like to run it down the road. And I would have given a lot to have the Jawa in pristine condition, and have Cyril slip on his helmet again, and the two of us take our bikes across the Slovakian countryside, just as I wished I could go riding with my grandfather on his Harley.

Pulled Over in Piešťany

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August 2009: During my first solo ride in Slovakia, I was pulled over by a cop.

I was heading to Drahovce from Piešťany, a distance of maybe seven miles, to see Cyril and Ilona at the old homestead. Linda and Iva had gone shopping.

So I’m alone on the motorcycle, and decide to take a small detour through Piešťany. We’d walked through town a few times and I wondered what it would feel like to take the bike through the streets. There were only a few cars on the road and I take it easy, though I do stand on the pegs a bit while rolling over the speed humps.

Then I see this police officer up ahead and he motions me to the side with a quick hand gesture. I pull to the side, in front of him, and he motions again to shut off the engine, which I do.

The officer is a young guy, maybe mid-20s, and he has a mustache and aviator sunglasses. He says something to me in Slovak that I don’t understand.

“Prepachte,” I say, “Moje slovencina je velme zla.” Which means, excuse me, my Slovak is very bad. It’s one of only a handful of phrases I know, but it did impress the Slovak Embassy staff back in Washington.

He says something else that I understood as “your Slovak is good” to which I say, “Nie, lutujem. Ucim sa len kratko.” Which means, no, I’m sorry, I’ve been studying only a short time. “Rozprovatche po anglicky, prosim?” I add hopefully, which means, do you speak English, please?

He says no, and starts walking around the bike, checking it out.

I pull off my gloves and remove the helmet and earplugs and start wondering what he makes of this. There are American and Slovak flags on the left sleeve of my flight suit and the bike has an Austrian license plate.

And I can’t figure out why he’s pulled me over. I have two theories, either he thought I was going too fast or he’s looking to make the town some revenue.

Iva’s husband Jozef was pulled over in Kosice while driving us across the country three years ago — something about making an illegal turn, forbidden by a sign that was pretty well hidden. The fine was outrageous and consensus was the officers were engaging in revenue enhancement.

Now the officer stands in front of the bike again and says something I totally can’t understand. “Lutujem, nerozumiem,” I say, which means, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

We go back and forth like this for a bit, until he finally tires and motions for me to go. “Ah. Dakujem,” I say, which means thank you.

The rest of the ride to Drahovce is uneventful, but over dinner with my Slovak relatives that night there is much laughter when I tell what happened. They say the officer was probably just looking to collect a quick fine.

Motorcycle travel