Great Bike

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I review motorcycles every now and again for USA Today online and the 2016 Honda Africa Twin is probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most, to the point of considering buying one myself.

All the bikes I’ve tried were great – the Indian Dark Horse and Springfield were the best-looking and really fun to ride – but the Africa Twin appealed more to the type of riding I like to do. Or aspire to.

The Africa Twin is a venerable Honda model that was introduced in Europe. It won Paris-Dakar four times in the 1980s and was popular overseas but was never sold in the U.S. It was considered the quintessential motorcycle for long-distance, world-spanning travel. Honda stopped making it in 2003.

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Much like “the Olympics, the distant dream of anyone who has ever laced up a pair of track shoes,” (as sportswriter Jerry Izenberg wrote) I suppose most everyone who has a motorcycle dreams of riding around the world.

The AT, billed by Honda as a “go anywhere” bike, could do it. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much, it lived up to the hype and matched my dreams.

I took it out to West Virginia with Bob Hamilton, a riding buddy, and later up to Cleveland for my high school reunion. The rain photo was taken on I-66 eastbound when I realized I was still having a good time. Great bike.

The USAT review is here.

You Guys Ride Harleys?

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We’re talking by the coat rack when she passes us on the tile floor, barefoot with red-painted toenails, a sweater on one arm and a drink in her hand. She must have recognized our motorcycle references because she pauses and says, “Do you guys ride Harleys?”

It’s a wedding reception for good friends of ours, and Linda and I have escaped the loud music of the dining room/dance floor to talk with another couple who also ride. It’s better than having to shout.

We pause and exchange glances all around – is this a friend of yours? is the unasked question – and say no. I have a Yamaha and a BMW and the nice folks we’re talking to have a Suzuki and something else I can’t remember.

“Well, would you be interested in buying my husband’s Harley?” she asks, and waits expectantly, as though we catch left-field questions like this all the time.

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“Your husband’s selling his Harley?” I say. “Why’s that?”

“He got it in some sort of mid-life crisis or something,” she says, and it comes out they have their own business and their kids are grown and gone.

“But he hasn’t ridden it in two years. It’s just been sitting in the garage. I think he should sell it.”

“Why doesn’t he ride it?” someone asks.

“He did, for a while,” she says. “He’d get up real early, while it was still dark sometimes, and go on these long rides. But now he doesn’t.

“And he doesn’t want to get rid of it. So it’s just sitting there.”

“Do you go riding with him?” Linda asks.

“I did, a few times,” the woman says, shifting her glass to her other hand. “But I really didn’t like it.”

“Well, I’ve seen some of those Harley passenger saddles,” Linda says. “Some of them look really uncomfortable.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that,” the woman says. “He got me a nice seat. But the rides were boring, and I’d rather be out in the garden or even reading a book or something.

“So it’s just sitting there.”

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I’m tempted to say that maybe her husband thought riding a motorcycle together would be adventuresome and he wanted to share that with her. I’m tempted to say no wonder he’s letting his Harley sit in the garage because she’s made clear her contempt for it. And I’m tempted to find her husband and say don’t give it up.

And though I marvel at her effrontery to practically sell his bike out from underneath him, I keep my own counsel. I don’t know the whole story, and I certainly don’t know this woman and her husband, and I’m not going anywhere near that minefield.

Motorcycles aren’t for everyone, I know. And even with effort from the pilot, riding as a passenger can be dull. We’ve talked about that here.

But even though I’m projecting, I can imagine him at the Harley dealership, looking for the perfect bike. I see him ordering the special saddle and bolting it to the rear fender and I can almost feel his anticipation at the wonderful rides ahead.

I can see that because I’ve done it myself. And maybe that’s why I find their story so sad, because it was so close to my own, which had a much better ending and didn’t, didn’t, thank God, wither away and collect dust in a garage.

A Couple of Souvenirs

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: So this guy comes striding at me across the floor of a Tim Hortons, fixing me with his eyes and moving with such purpose I think he’s either going to shake my hand or punch me in the face.

Fortunately he shakes hands, vigorously, saying, “Welcome to Ontario. Where you from?” Ah, he’s noticed the Virginia plates on our motorcycles.

Linda and I had stopped for lunch in Harriston, Ontario, on our way to Niagara Falls after leaving Kincardine and Boiler Beach that morning. As usual, we grabbed a table with a good view of the parking lot.

The gentleman and his wife had come in on a yellow Honda Gold Wing, parked a few spaces away from Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa. Linda’s at the counter for more tea.

He’s a bit older than I am, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, and I give him a brief mission recap. He’s impressed with the distance we’ve traveled.

“Listen, I have to go,” he says, “but I’m going to put a couple of souvenirs on your bike, okay?”

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“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” I say, envisioning some religious tracts folded carefully under the Yamaha’s windscreen. Even so, that’ll be fine with me. We shake hands again and he wishes us safe travel.

He turns to go and I see BLUE KNIGHTS across the back of his T-shirt. So he’s a Canadian police officer, most likely retired.

Linda and I finish eating and walk out to the bikes. I start looking for a piece of paper but instead see something rolled and wedged in the handle of Terra Nova’s tankbag.

“Hey, look at this,” I say to Linda. It’s two shoulder patches from the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police. One for each of us.

I put them in a plastic bag and into an inside pocket of the tankbag and carry them home.

Weeks later, I’m still not sure what to do with them but I think I’ll have them framed so I can hang them on a wall at home. They’re more than souvenirs — they’re echoes of a brief conversation and a good memory from the road.

Why Harley Bikers in Leather are Sexy and Long-Distance Riders Look Like Grubby Astronauts

Day 6: Thursday, Sept. 8: Last night’s road to Tawas City, Michigan, was a nightmare of heavy rain in the dark, a constant downpour that soaked through my rain jacket and into my riding suit, helmet and boots. When I woke up still soggy the next day, my only thought was I don’t care what it costs, I’m getting a rainsuit today, dammit!

Nearly all motorcyclists hate riding in rain. You get wet and cold and squishy and clammy, and your visibility is reduced, making you even more vulnerable to inattentive motorists. And your own attention to the road is diverted to water streaming across your faceshield and down your back.

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So you have to be smart and suit up for the weather, which is why they say Harley riders are more attractive to the opposite sex – it’s not just the cool bikes, it’s the leather. The rest of us, I’m afraid, look like helmeted vagabonds. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is why you seldom see rain in motorcycle movies. It’s just not sexy.

But this morning in Tawas City, I feel like an absolute doofus. For all my focus on ride preparation, I’d given little thought to a rainsuit, probably because we’d been pretty lucky in avoiding rain. But now we’re hitting it like seldom before – not just small cloudbursts, but hours of pummeling by firehoses.

Linda was using a North Face rain jacket and pants that worked fine for her. My North Face jacket didn’t quite do the job and I’d mailed home the NF pants three days before in a fit of pique while trying to reduce Terra Nova’s cargo. Ah, I probably won’t need it, I thought, while stuffing it into the box. Another pound gone.

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Au contraire, as our friend Ivo would say. So I ‘fessed up to Linda and we started looking for motorcycle shops. Found a Harley-Davidson on our planned route to St. Ignace, Michigan. Perfect!

Besides leather, Harley makes well-crafted, if overpriced, motorcycling gear. But we roll up to the Harley place in Mackinaw City, Michigan, and discover it’s a yuppie-looking boutique without motorcycles sandwiched in between a wine store and a Starbucks. This won’t work, I think, all they’re gonna have is T-shirts and shot glasses with Harley logos on them.

But miraculously they have rainsuits, and I find one – well-fitting with good conspicuity.

“We just got these in,” the guy at the counter tells me. “It’s been raining a lot and we begged the main office to send them over.”

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It’s sunny as we ride away to cross the Mackinac Bridge, but I’ll end up wearing the Harley rainsuit over my BMW jacket and Rev-It pants nearly every day for the rest of the ride.

I’ll find it seals out the rain quite nicely and provides an extra layer of insulation across the northern shore of Lake Superior. So I’m much less miserable, even though I look like a grubby astronaut.

Point of Departure

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Day 2: Sunday, Sept. 4: The jumping-off point for Thunder Bay – a sort of final shakedown to see how well we prepared – was my parents’ house near Cleveland.

It’s always good to see my folks, of course, and I get special pleasure in showing Dad the modifications I’ve made to the bikes.

He’s helped on past projects; we installed highway pegs on Endurance’s crash bars and he added small washers to stop the bike’s PIAA 510 covers from rattling. Later, he had the perfect hardware for mounting Touratech brackets to Terra Nova’s sidecases so I could carry extra fuel. So his work has become part of our rides.

We arrive late Sunday afternoon and take them to dinner at Balaton Restaurant, a fine Hungarian place we’ve discovered in Shaker Heights (the beef goulash is to die for). The next day, in Dad’s garage, I start fussing with the bikes.

I’ve ridiculously overpacked Terra Nova as usual, and I really want to get the weight off, so I jettison things we won’t need: a set of tie-downs, a fleece pullover, the copy of At Dawn We Slept I was reading as research for an ambitious Pearl Harbor graphic for USAT and some other items. I FedEx a 12-lb. box home.

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We also discover problems with our riding gear: There’s a hole in the right pants pocket of my Rev-It pants, just large enough to make every coin I put into it disappear, and Linda’s Olympia jacket loses its main zipper pulltab. My parents leap into action.

“Want me to fix that?” Mom says, and she expertly sews up the hole in the Rev-It pocket as she did when repairing my jeans when I was five.

Dad finds an inch-and-a-half-wide fender washer, drills a tiny hold into it – “Here, try this,” he says – and we wire it to the slider body of the zipper, which lets Linda work the zipper while wearing thick motorcycle gloves.

Carrying these blessed talismans, Linda and I putt away Tuesday morning for points west to really start our ride.

But I’ll quietly think of my parents for the rest of the mission, through Michigan and Minnesota and across the Trans-Canada and beyond, every time I feel the secure stitching in that pocket or look at Linda’s jacket at every gas station stop.

As the miles fly by beneath our wheels, I’ll draw a parallel between my childhood home as a launch point for our ride and the start of my own journey to adulthood. The years are flowing as fast as the miles and I realize how grateful I am, for my parents, for this life, for this ride.

It Really, Really Depends on How You Say It

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Day 8, Saturday, Sept. 10: Intrigued by a billboard on Route 28, Linda suggests we stop at a local bakery in Wakefield, Michigan. She wants to try a pastie.

(Interjection from the mission linguist: The pasties we’re talking about are pronounced past-tees. We are not talking about the items pronounced paste-tees. You’ll understand the distinction later.)

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These.

We park in a side gravel lot and clomp into Randall Bakery, a homey place with scuffed tables and old cafeteria chairs that’s instantly familiar and inviting. Big glass cases hold scads of baked goods, the real thing, not the boxed Entenmann’s stuff at the Safeway.

Pasties are hamburger-sized meat-and-potato pies with origins in Ireland and Cornwall, Great Britain. Immigration brought them to Michigan, where they remain popular, a part of state lore.

I’ve never had one, but I remember Bill Bryson writing about them in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Bryson, who lived in England for years, finds a pastie seller in Michigan and eagerly buys one. He hasn’t had one since moving back to America and can’t wait to try it; he takes one bite and sadly puts it back in the bag and throws it out. He never tells the hopeful seller, though.

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I scrawl in my notebook as Linda looks over the rolls, turnovers, cookies and other items. She talks to the woman behind the counter, who’s originally from Poland, lived in Chicago for a while, and owns some rental property by the lake.

The pasties look good when they arrive, but I’m aghast to see they have onions, which I’ve hated since forever. I’m more disappointed than Bill Bryson. But it’s really good once I extract the offending vegetable, through intensive mining operations.

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Not these.

So we finish our pasties and suit up and by this time Randall’s is starting to fill with locals coming in for a late lunch. We wheel away toward Duluth, but I sorta get stuck on the dichotomy of pasties, the food, and pasties, the adhesive nipple coverings required for strippers in gentlemen’s clubs.

That’s where precise pronunciation comes in. I suppose it would be possible to order a “paste-tee” from a bakery in the risqué part of town and the waitress would say, “well, okay,” and start to unbutton her shirt. At least it wouldn’t come with onions.

Boiler Beach

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: I spend most of the morning hustling around Kincardine, Ontario, fueling up the bikes and looking for a tire pump at nearby gas stations. The Vespa and Terra Nova have lost a pound or two in both tires.

It’s a brief comedy of errors: I find the Petro-Canada station serves only trucks, and the Esso station’s tire pump isn’t working. I feel lucky to get gasoline into both motorcycles.

I hate leaving things unfinished, especially bike maintenance. But Nancy, at the Marriott TownePlace Suite’s front desk, sees I’m carrying a helmet and asks about our ride. When I say we’re heading for Niagara Falls, she says, “Oh, you should stop and see Boiler Beach before you go.”

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“Boiler Beach? What’s that?” I say, imagining some sort of Yellowstone-like thermal spring in Lake Ontario.

“There’s a ship that blew up in the 1800s not far from shore,” she says, instantly warming to the story. “The only thing that’s left is the boiler and you can see it from the beach. That’s why they call it Boiler Beach. It’s a couple of miles away.”

Her enthusiasm and my interest in shipwrecks convince us to go. Linda gets directions and we set off with me promising myself to attend to the tires later.

We locate the correct road but can’t find the beach. After Linda queries a woman walking her dogs, we cruise on and catch a glimpse of something through a break in the trees. We park the bikes and walk down to the shore.

And there it is, the rusting hulk of a ship’s boiler, in a few feet of water about 20 yards from shore. We later learn it’s from the Erie Belle, a 112-ft. steam-powered tow tug that exploded and sank Nov. 21, 1883.

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The Belle was struggling to free the J.N. Carter, a schooner that ran aground during a storm. Why the Belle blew up is a matter of conjecture, but they say a pressure valve on the boiler had been wired shut to build up more steam power.

The boiler exploded and the tug sank. Four of the 12 crewmen died and the stranded schooner rescued the rest.

Afterwards, the Belle was pulled closer to shore and taken apart for salvage. Later, others used a winch to drag the boiler inland, intending to cut it up for scrap, according to the Kincardine News. They were stopped by police.

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So the beach became known as Boiler Beach, and its namesake has been quietly rusting away. People have been coming to see it for decades, apparently.

Our photos don’t do it justice, I think. My only wish is that my good friend Don Lee, an authority on all things with Great Lakes shipping, could see it, too. It’s kind of a quiet, sad place, as is the site of any shipwreck, I suppose. We stay a bit, lost in the memory of this tragic sinking, then go on our way.

 

 

The 180-Mile Divert

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“By the Lord God I promise to take the fleet out, and through the grace of God, bring it safely home again.”

– James Clavell, “Shogun”

Day 5: Wednesday, Sept. 7: It was the last thing we wanted to see on a long-distance ride: The equivalent of a “check engine” light on the Vespa’s dashboard.

It’s the fuel injector warning light, a cheery little orange disc on the left side of the dash. It flashes once as Linda is struggling to back the scooter out of a deep gravel driveway in Swanton, Ohio.

We were attempting to find the house of Don Lee, a good friend and colleague of mine from Sandusky Register days. The Garmin Nuvi GPS told us we were close, but I overshot and we ended up using the driveway to turn around.

Linda tells me about it at Don’s house, but says she only saw it once. The light is connected to the scooter’s fuel injection system that delivers fuel to the engine. If the system fails, the engine shuts down.

“Keep an eye on it and let me know if you see it again,” I say.

We roll north into Michigan on U.S. 23 enroute to Frankenmuth when the Orange Signal of Death flashes again, just once, outside of Ann Arbor. I’m flying wingman behind her, as usual, so I follow to the breakdown lane when she pulls over. It’s afternoon rush hour and cars are rocketing by as I try to figure out what’s wrong.

I can’t, so we agree to get off the highway to someplace safer. We find a BP station and fuel up. After some discussion, we agree to continue to Frankenmuth, where I’ll hunt for the nearest Vespa dealer.

The nearest Vespa dealer. Vespas are exotic Italian machines and I have no idea where we’ll find one. It’s the same problem I feared while running Endurance, my BMW GS; the support network can be mighty thin.

But we get to Frankenmuth and once online I’m relieved to learn Michigan has more than a half-dozen Vespa shops. This allows me to sleep.

Next day, I start making phone calls early. The first is to our Vespa mechanic at Modern Classics on V Street N.E. back in Washington. I describe the problem.

“Oh, that is not good,” the guy says. He gives me a few scenarios, suggests I find a Vespa dealer with a diagnostic computer, and says, “You really should get that checked out.”

I call Traverse City. “Well, I guess you could bring it here, I could try and fit you in,” the guy says hesitantly. “I may not have the parts you need, though.”

I call Grand Rapids. “I’d say bring it in, but my computer’s not working,” the guy says.

I call Dearborn. “We have a Vespa mechanic, but he only works Tuesdays and Thursdays,” the woman says. Today is Wednesday.

I call Lansing. “Sure, bring it in,” says the guy. “We’ll see what he can do.” He says his name is Brendan, and I tell him he’s my new best friend.

Our mission navigator estimates it’s 90 miles from Frankenmuth to Lansing. We have reservations in northern Michigan that can’t be broken without losing fees, so Frankenmuth to Lansing to tonight’s destination of Tawas City will mean a long 260-mile day for us, plus whatever time we have to spend in Lansing.

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I insist the Vespa be checked. We’re riding north into Ontario, Canada, and we plan to arc around the northern shore of Lake Superior. While it’s not the Dalton Highway in Alaska, it’s still fairly remote, and we won’t find any Vespa dealers on the Trans-Canada. It’s irresponsible to do otherwise.

So we ride to Lansing and find Full Throttle Motorsports, and Brendan, a young, optimistic, competent guy, soon has Linda’s scooter hooked up to his computer. In less than an hour, he has a verdict.

“It really doesn’t look too serious,” he tells me. “It looks like the fuel injector is getting a slightly higher charge from the voltage regulator – not all the time, just once in a while.

“I can’t tell if it’s the injector or the regulator. Could also be two wires are crossed and affecting the voltage sometimes.

“But you should be okay.”

I tell him where we’re going and emphasize the remoteness. “Will we get another 2,000 miles out of it?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, “Easy.”

I thank him profusely and ask how much I owe. “No charge,” he says, “You’re on the road. Glad to help.”

I collect Linda from the showroom floor and we prepare to leave, but I go back to the Service desk and give Brendan a $20 bill. “Dude, you saved our ride,” I say. “At least buy yourself some beers on me. Please.” He laughs and says thank you. And we ride away.

For the next 13 days I will think about his diagnosis and he proves to be right because the Orange Light of Doom never reappears, not once, for the rest of the ride. I will marvel at this every day as the mission progresses.

Late that night it begins pouring rain as we approach Tawas City. We and everything on the bikes get soaked. We pull all our stuff off the cycles and spread it out to dry, an explosion of wet gear across the damp motel room floor.

Overheard at Breakfast

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Day 12: Wednesday, Sept. 14: We stumbled down late to eat that morning at the Sault Ste. Marie hotel after arriving past dark the night before. Linda always finds hotels that offer breakfast and we loiter over paper plates and plastic cutlery to map out the day’s route. I scribble notes from yesterday’s ride.

Seating is limited, so we’re in the middle in a row of closely-packed tables, tiny affairs less than two feet square. We’re between two women to my right and an Asian family on my left.

I study the map as Linda goes for food. Conversations are rippling back and forth across the room, but the woman next to me begins talking to her companion across their table. I don’t mean to listen, but it’s impossible not to; the woman is seated so close I can almost reach out and put my arm around her.

“I have this friend, J__,” she says to her companion. “We’ve been friends for years but I haven’t seen her in quite a while. But she always sends me letters at Christmas, and she always puts glitter – you know, that shiny holiday stuff – in them. It always falls out the envelope when I open it.

“I got a letter from her last Christmas and I was a little surprised, because when I opened it, expecting the glitter, you know, nothing came out. So I pulled out the letter and I thought to myself, maybe this will tell me why there’s no glitter.

“So I started reading and by the end I was bawling. She started by saying, ‘I’m living a mother’s worst nightmare. My son was killed in a drunk driving accident.’

“She’s a single mom and since then she’s had a real tough time of it. A few months ago she started dating some guy she met and sent me a picture, and I swear the guy looks a lot like her son. I mean, a lot. I wasn’t going to say anything, but she and I talked on the phone a while ago and she mentioned the resemblance, and I said, yes, I think so, too.”

“No glitter,” her companion says, softly.

This Year’s Ride

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It’s never really a question if our annual motorcycle ride will take place, just a matter of where we’ll go, as long as it’s some place we haven’t been before. This year, after some dithering, we’ve decided to circumnavigate Lake Superior, with Thunder Bay, Ontario, as mission objective. It’ll be about 3,000 miles in 18 days, all told.

This will be our third consecutive ride in Canada; last year was Quebec and the Route Des Navigateurs and the year before was Halifax and the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. Both of those were great rides, and we really fell in love with Quebec.

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We talked about Newfoundland but decided we didn’t have enough time to do it properly. Then we thought about Key West and taking a few days to explore the Keys before using the Amtrak Auto Train to come home, but the traffic and heat dissuaded us. So we looked north again.

Circumnavigating the Great Lakes was out, again because of time. But the northern sweep of the Trans-Canada Highway around Superior appealed to me – beautiful country, remote yet accessible. It looked perfect.

It’s a clockwise journey. We’ll see family on the outbound leg, take ferries across Lake Erie, challenge the Mackinac Bridge, ride some beautiful roads between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and see Toronto and Niagara Falls before heading home.

Linda will ride her 300cc Vespa scooter and I’ll be on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. Both bikes have been serviced – new tires on both! – and are ready. I’ll carry extra fuel for the Vespa just in case.

As usual, I wonder what we’ll find out there.

Why, yes, I suppose it is pretty

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Linda records video in Manassas.

I was fortunate to review the 2016 Indian Springfield motorcycle for USA Today online recently. It’s a great bike that’s fun to ride.

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As we see during rides with Linda on her Vespa, motorcycles attract attention, most often at gas stations. The more exotic the machine, the more people it will draw. Even those with only a passing interest in bikes will come over and ask about your Triumph, old Honda, or Indian.

Indian motorcycles are stylistically distinctive. The full-skirted fenders and large headlight nacelle let people identify them a mile away.

So it was the same thing with the Springfield. It drew in the older gentleman, a former Harley rider, in Washington, Va.; the sports-car enthusiast at the outdoor tables at a restaurant in Manassas; the bike riders at the Sheetz station in Chantilly.

Some guys base their bike choices partly on how much attention they’ll get riding them. I was never that way, though I do enjoy talking to people about bikes.

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In addition to comfort, performance, and cost, part of doing these reviews is how people honestly react to the bike you’re testing. So nearly every conversation I have is fodder for the writing. But not all.

“That’s a real pretty bike,” said a young woman on her way in to the Manassas restaurant, and I almost started laughing, wondering how to work that into the review. I could have asked what she liked about it, whether she’d been on a bike before, and would she consider riding it, but in the end I only said oh, thank you, and let it go, thinking, yes, I suppose it is pretty.

The USAT review is here.

 

Motorcycles in Movies

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Prince aboard the Purple Rain motorcycle.

Though it’ll never be as famous as Easy Rider’s Captain America motorcycle, Prince’s Purple Rain bike gets pretty close as a movie icon.

It doesn’t take center stage in the film, since the movie isn’t constructed around the bike. It does have a good amount of screen time, more than you’d expect in a film about music. It’s even featured on the movie poster and album cover.

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Besides the Easy Rider bikes, these immediately come to mind when I think about motorcycles in movies:

Steve McQueen’s Triumph in The Great Escape

Mickey Rourke’s Harley in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man

Marlon Brando’s Triumph in The Wild One

Michael Parks’ Harley Sportster in Then Came Bronson

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I started thinking about the Purple Rain bike while researching Prince’s family tree for a USA Today graphic the day after Prince’s death. I was running a few of his songs on my personal laptop – just to keep me in the moment, you understand.

I’m not really a Prince fan, though I do like a few of his songs. I’ve seen the movie once or twice and the motorcycle always sort of stood out.

So I finished the genealogy, did a bit of reading, and put together a short article about the bike for USAT, seeking to answer the unasked question: Did he really ride, or was the bike just a prop?

As it turned out, Prince’s bike was a 1981 Honda 400 Hondamatic, one of Honda’s attempts at a motorcycle without a clutch. And Prince, I was gratified to learn, actually did ride that bike. He liked the Hondamatic because of the no-shift operation and because – since he was only 5-foot-2 – he could get on and off it easily.

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The USAT story is here.

Steve McQueen, however, will always have the best motorcycle scene in any movie.

It’s near the end of The Great Escape, when he jumps the Triumph over the first fence but fails to clear the second and gets tangled up in barbed wire. As the Germans close in to recapture him, he reaches down and pats the gas tank of the Triumph as if to say, “Not your fault.” Not even Prince can beat that.

 

What Vera Wang and Snap-On Have in Common

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“Ed loved fine tools and instruments and conversely had a bitter dislike for bad ones. The honest workmanship of a good microscope gave him the greatest pleasure. Once I brought him from Sweden a set of the finest scalpels, surgical scissors, and delicate forceps. I remember his joy in them.”
– John Steinbeck, “About Ed Ricketts” from “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

I once convinced Linda to purchase some Vera Wang cutlery – forks, spoons, and knives – because they felt as good in my hands as a Snap-On wrench.

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I surprised even myself at that. Who thinks of garage tools while looking at table settings?

Apparently I do. To the exasperation of my wife, I normally don’t care what we use in our house. Dishes, glasses, bowls, none of them really interest me. As long as they’re durable and do the job, I’m happy.

But I was killing time in Macy’s one day, waiting as Linda was trying on something, and I drifted over to housewares, found the flatware, and started studying patterns, mostly those from Vera Wang. Wait, Vera Who?

Vera Wang (I learned later) is a celebrity Manhattan designer known for her clothing and bridal designs. She also designs jewelry, eyewear and lots of stuff for your house. Kinda like a classy, more expensive Martha Stewart, I reckon.

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Vera Wang.

I didn’t care about that as I toyed with her Blanc Sur Blanc1 forks, knives and spoons, stainless steel utensils that have a minimalist design with a simple grid pattern on the handle. I was thinking, “These feel just like a Snap-On.”

Both are polished steel and feel good in your hands, nicely balanced and just heavy enough to make you realize you’re holding something substantial and valuable.

You have to look hard to find items of substantiality these days, since most things are designed to be used for a while and thrown away. You don’t toss out hand wrenches, but my sole Snap-On feels more durable, more precise, than any of my Craftsman, Husky or Kobalt tools. Those tools are good, the Snap-Ons just feel better.

They feel like the Leica M3 rangefinder camera I once saw in a camera shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The M3 is a thing of mechanical perfection, absolute precision, and I wanted it very badly, but I couldn’t afford it. Nearly 30 years later, I remember what it felt like in my hands. I still want one today.

leica 01
Leica M3

But like that Leica with its tactile precision, better tools and tableware come at a prohibitive price. Linda found some Blanc Sur Blancs on sale, else we would have never bought them. I doubt I’ll ever break down enough to pay the asking price of Snap-On.

Even so, my appreciation for tools has extended to tableware. Both can be works of precision and objects of art. And I wonder what a set of combination wrenches would look like, if Vera Wang designed them.

1 – Which is French for “White On White.” The cutlery line has been discontinued, sadly.

Reading & Riding

One or two for the ride.
One or two for the ride.

“Books. I don’t know of any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take a lot of space but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing.”
– Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Oh, I do.

I always take a book or two on motorcycle rides. It’s true, they take up space, and they’re heavy as heck.

Linda and I do a great deal of reading at work; among other things, she edits, researches, rewrites and clarifies news stories to make them infinitely better and I do research for graphics and other projects. Much of this is on deadline and under the gun.

Riding motorcycles is a getaway from work and deadlines. Reading for pleasure helps us attain escape velocity. With exceptions for the Weather Channel, we try to stay away from the TV.

Vintage Kerouac novel...
Vintage Kerouac novel…

I was jarred into this realization during an impromptu layover one night years ago at a lonely, run-down motel in Adelanto, Calif. I was on U.S. 395 going home to Reno from San Diego, got tired, and decided to call it a day with 200 miles down and 400 to go.

The room TV had absolutely nothing worthwhile and I plundered the saddlebags on Discovery, my ’94 Yamaha 750 Virago, to see what I had.

Besides a repair manual, I had one book and it was perfect: an old Signet paperback of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, given to me by my good friend Van just before I moved from Ohio to Nevada. I didn’t even remember stowing it aboard the bike. I read it again that night and started packing books on every long-distance ride.

...with some of Van's original artwork.
…with some of Van’s original artwork.

I still do that to this day. I pick the titles carefully, tending toward lighter fare. There’s no pattern I can discern; the choices are as scattergun as an outhouse squirrel.

You won’t find The Brothers Karamazov or In Search of Lost Time or Les Miserables in Terra Nova’s sidecases. I prefer substantial meals on the bike, not seven-course dinners.

But the authors who accompany me are pretty good, I think.

Some of them include Mark “Tiger” Edmonds, who writes about motorcycles and is a great storyteller; anything by Ted Simon, author of Jupiter’s Travels, the premier tale of motorcycling around the world; Edmund Morris, whose The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt I literally could not put down; and Michael Korda’s Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia was fascinating and illuminating.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes along for a ride every once in while, too.

Mark "Tiger" Edwards.
Mark “Tiger” Edmonds.

I used to carry tales of motorcycle adventure, an effort to bolster the documentation of my own travels. That’s faded away in favor of other books.

My écrivain du jour is Alain de Botton. I discovered The Art of Travel, which fit my own perceptions of life on the road, especially the pauses at gas stations and greasy restaurants.

But I found de Botton fascinating. How Proust Can Change Your Life was unexpectedly funny and illuminating about the life and work of venerated French writer Marcel Proust and how even a schmuck like me could benefit from knowing him.

Alain de Botton.
Alain de Botton.

His other books, on architecture, work, and philosophy, are equally good. So de Botton has earned his place in my sidecases.

Just a couple of books, on every ride, nestled among tools, a quart of oil, tire pump, battery charger, and other essentials for the road. While the latter items keep you going, the books stay in the confines of your helmet and offer something to think about while you’re getting there.

The Fifth Helmet

The helmets.
The helmets.

When I first started riding, I also devoured motorcycle magazines, which rapidly littered the house like November leaves on your lawn.

Motorcycle magazine content is hit-or-miss, but I remember reading a Peter Egan Cycle World column in which he marveled at the mountains of motorcycle gear he’d accumulated over the years.

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Is he just bragging?”

Fast-forward 21 years and I realize he was telling the truth. I realized it when I bought my fifth motorcycle helmet.

On the shelf.
On the shelf.

Manufacturers tell us helmets have a lifespan of about five years before they start to lose their protective qualities. The Snell Foundation1, a nonprofit organization for high standards of helmet safety, says:

The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation.

Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation.

Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance.

The white paint scar.
The white paint scar.

Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards.

Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.

I buy full-face Arai helmets, which are admittedly expensive, but well-fitted. (We look for them on sale.) Comfort is important on long rides – you’ll be less fatigued after hours on the bike if your helmet sits right and shields you from wind and noise.

I get Arais for Linda, too; she can choose the color and style. But she has to have a safe helmet.

New riders quickly come to find how extremely personal helmets can be. You spend hours inside them, and the enclosure has to feel right. I’ve ended up eschewing graphics and colors and going with white helmets, which have better visibility to texting car drivers. Linda’s Arai matches the color of her Vespa scooter.

But what do you do with old helmets? Some people donate them to fire departments, for practice in motorcycle-accident responses; others make lamps or planters out of them.

In the space pod garage.
In the space pod garage.

Ours are lined up along the top of a bookcase in the guest bedroom, faceshields open, reminding me of the row of waiting spacesuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I take down the older ones every now and again and dust them off. Sometimes I’ll use one to take a bike for a quick ride after a wash.

But mostly they just sit there, self-contained with memories and stories of past rides. My father used my first Bieffe when I took him for a short ride aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, many years ago; the black Bieffe has a white paint scar from hitting the side of a gas pump while fueling up with my Uncle Robert in California.

The first Bieffe.
The first Bieffe.

I wore the red Arai for our motorcycle travels in Europe; the white Arai was the camera mount for my first GoPro video, through Glacier National Park in Montana.

Motorcycle helmets. The memories they protect are the most precious of all.

1 — The foundation was created in 1957, the year after William “Pete” Snell, a popular sports car racer, died of head injuries in a crash. The helmet he was wearing failed to protect him.

The Imaginary Garage

1995 Triumph Speed Triple (Fireball Orange)
1995 Triumph Speed Triple (Fireball Orange)

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

– Everett Sloan (as Mr. Bernstein) “Citizen Kane”

Motorcycles are visceral machines, vehicles to which you react with your gut and your heart, not your head – ethos a’plenty, logos in short supply, as they say.

Those of us who ride are always looking at bikes, even when we’re not looking to buy, and I think all riders keep an imaginary garage to store the bikes they lust after. This can go on for years and some of those garages can get pretty big.

It can’t be helped. Usually, the bike you don’t buy is attributed to a) money, or b) the deep-down realization that you won’t ride it as you should. I like riding long distances, for example; and so the bikes I have suit me.

Triumph Speed Triple (Diablo Black)
Triumph Speed Triple (Diablo Black)

That doesn’t stop me from putting bikes in my imaginary garage, though most of them probably would not be comfortable for cross-country rides.

A 1995 or 1996 Triumph Speed Triple is parked at the front of my stable. I saw one at the Triumph dealer in Reno, Nevada, back when Triumph was starting a comeback under its new owner, John Bloor.

The Speed Triple was a 98-hp factory café racer, available in two colors, Fireball Orange and Diablo Black. That’s a beautiful bike, lean, lightweight, fast. It looked positively menacing in Diablo Black but I loved the iconic Fireball Orange. I had the poster in my workshop for years. Even now, I still think about getting one.

After 1996, Triumph spoiled the Speed Triple’s look by giving it dual headlights and changing it from a café racer to a streetfighter. That killed it for me, but I still love the ’95 and ’96 models.

Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans
Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans

Next to the Speed Triple is a Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans, a 91-hp sport-tourer manufactured from 2001 to 2005. I saw a red one – the perfect color! – at a bike show in Washington one year and, like Mr. Bernstein, was never able to forget it. I fell into a daydream where I’d take it out West, in one of the empty states where all the highways are drawn dead-straight with rulers, open it up to 15o, and let it fly.

So I think about the V11, too. Moto Guzzi has the v7 Racer these days, a sweet bike, but it’s not the same.

Harley-Davidson Night Train
Harley-Davidson Night Train

Then there’s the 1999-2009 Harley-Davidson FXSTB Night Train, a blacked-out Softail with stripped-down chopper appeal, though it’s certainly not a chopper. I loved the drag bars and the lean, no-nonsense visual aspect of the bike, but it wasn’t the bike for the type of riding I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, though.

There are others, of course, like the mid-’90s Triumph Tigers and the 2004 Ducati 998 in Matrix-inspired green, and Honda’s CBR1000RR in Repsol livery. Or the BMW R1200R Linda and I rented in Vienna and rode through Slovakia and Hungary in 2009. These are all beautiful bikes.

But they’re bikes I probably won’t get, unless I see a Speed Triple or a V11 for a really good price somewhere. That’s unlikely.

Besides, I enjoy riding Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS and Terra Nova, my 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere. And I’ll bet if I was riding a Speed Triple or a V11 I’d probably be on the lookout for a GS or a Tenere, looking to move them from my imaginary motorcycle garage to my real one.

People You Meet

Amelie and Linda at the Auberge Aux Deux Lions.
Amelie and Linda at the Auberge Aux Deux Lions.

The conversations started easily in Quebec, no doubt because a) the motorbikes and b) we weren’t Canadians and therefore a little farther from home. Or maybe c) folks in Quebec are just super-nice people.

You meet people on every ride, but Quebec was special. In just one neighborhood on the Boulevard Rene Levesque:

Amelie, the young woman piloting the front desk at Auberge Aux Deux Lions, is the most enthusiastic motorcyclist without a motorcycle I’ve encountered. She used to ride with her brothers when she was young but drifted away from bikes after college.

“I used to ride, it was fun,” she tells us. “I miss it.”

Motorcycles, especially insurance, is expensive in Quebec, she says (“Oh! Outrageous! And the smallest accident – poof! The rates go up!”) but she’s still trying to find a way to do it. She asks us all sorts of questions and for recommendations on bikes.

I have no doubt she’ll be on her own bike someday soon. She’s one of the most positive, outgoing, and effervescent people I’ve ever met.

Denis Neron.
Denis Neron.

Then there’s Denis Neron, owner of the bookshop across the street, A La Bonne Occasion.

Good grief, what a wonderful store, with books on every topic stacked precariously everywhere. Though most of them are in French, we find the English section, small but not shabby, and I end up getting a biography of Anne Frank.

At checkout, Linda says that the Aux Deux Lions directory lists Mr. Neron’s store prominently, which is how we found him. He asks us where we’re from and we recite our usual litany for this mission – motorcycles, traveling, Washington, Gaspe Peninsula…

“Ah! So far? Marvelous!” he exclaims. “I used to ride a scooter myself. I had so much fun! I put it away when I started a family, though. Sometimes I still miss it. Where else have you gone? How did you like it?”

We talk a little of our travels and he listens to ours and perhaps remembering his, smiling with complete understanding. At the end, he wishes us farewell:

“Perhaps in the next life we will see each other on motorbikes and we will go for a ride together. I would like that. Safe travels for you.”

And the night before we leave, I have an intense 20-minute talk with an anonymous guy in his thirties at a Shell station down the boulevard.

I’m checking the tires on Linda’s Vespa and he comes off the street and asks about motorcycles, saying he was looking at bikes and wanted to buy a Triumph Tiger 800XC, a really nice adventurer like Terra Nova, only a mite smaller.

shell01
The Shell station on Boulevard Rene Levesque.

We talk about owning bikes and I tell him about the troubles I’ve had with Endurance, my BMW, though I still love her and will never give her up, and why I decided to buy a Yamaha.

We talk about styles of bikes, and which would fit his type of riding, and I mention the Suzuki V-Stroms, the 650s and 1000s.

“Have you looked at those?” I ask.

“I did and I found I didn’t like them,” he says. “They don’t really have much character.”

That leads to a discussion of motorcycle character and why some bikes seem to have them and others don’t, and I concede that my BMW seems to have more character than my Yamaha, though I’m unable to say exactly why. It’s an indefinable quality that we can’t measure that night.

We talk about the dangers of riding, and the absolute cluelessness of most car drivers, and I strongly recommend he take some sort of safety course for beginning riders, mentioning some of the crazy things I’ve seen drivers do. He sees the wisdom in that.

And in the end, we shake hands, he wishes me well, and walks off into the night.

People you meet, and talk to, and sometimes wish you could know better. We found them all over Quebec.

Riding the Dark Horse

The 2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse.
The 2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse.

I’ve done a few motorcycle reviews for the online version of USA Today. The latest one is on the 2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse, a blacked-out cruiser that’s proving popular among riders.

Cruisers usually aren’t my first choice of bike, but I really like the Dark Horse.  It handles very well and feels solid and dependable — and exciting — on the road. And I think the color scheme works.

You can read the USAT review, along with photo gallery and 2-minute video, here:

2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse

 

 

 

One for McCray

Still rolling after all these years.
Still rolling after all these years.

“One of the most important days of my life was when I learned to ride a bicycle.”
— Michael Palin 

I always stop to look at bicycles, they’re vehicles of freedom as much as my Super Tenere, Terra Nova. When I saw this SunTour rear derailleur on a nondescript bike in Quebec, I had to take a photo for Tom McCray.

Tom has been a friend since junior high and we fixed bicycles and took them for long (relatively speaking) rides across the Ohio countryside.

He was also a motorcycle rider for a while, but sadly my entry into motorbikes started after his ended. I’ve always been faintly jealous of the ride he took with our good friend and classmate Mark Day to Virginia Beach, and his own solo ride to San Diego.

But as bicycle riders, we loved SunTour components. The Japanese company invented the slant parallelogram rear derailleur, a design still used today, and its equipment worked amazingly well and cost less than Italian Campagnolo or Japanese Shimano.

VGT
The venerable SunTour VGT rear derailleur.

I had a SunTour VGT rear derailleur on my 1975 Fuji for decades, until I had to upgrade, regretfully, to Shimano. My 1990 Raleigh Technium still has its SunTour fixtures and they still work.

The SunTour Seven was one of the company’s mid-range derailleurs, close to what I had on the Fuji.

But SunTour went out of business in 1995, the victim of insane competition dominated by Shimano. Which is why my 2006 Fuji Touring bike has Shimano gear.

But even though I don’t ride bicycles as often as I should, I miss SunTour, and I appreciate seeing their components still being used. I bet Tom does, too.

A Great Place to Pee

DSCN2661
Which way to the Noguchi gallery, please?

“Works of design and architecture tell us about the kind of life that would best unfold in and around them. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously invite us to be specific sorts of people.”

— Alain de Botton, “The Architecture of Happiness”

The best restroom I’ve ever seen is in Premont Harley-Davidson in Quebec. It’s like the Museum of Modern Art or the set of Star Trek.

When traveling by motorcycle, Harley dealers are good places to visit, even if you’re not on a Harley. They’re easy to find and are usually open on Sundays.

Greatness awaits within.
Greatness awaits within.

I’ve picked up Harley gloves – a little pricey, but well-made – and stuff for Endurance and Terra Nova every now and again. And sometimes I’ll get a long-sleeve shirt as a souvenir, like the ones from rides in Budapest and Halifax.

But I started laughing the moment I hit the Premont H-D restroom. It was so over-the-top with its purple Manhattan nightclub mirrors and Le Corbusier sinks that I almost forgot why I was there. Fortunately the place was empty.

I’ve seen a fair number of good and bad restrooms, with some of the bad ones resembling staging areas for food fights, but not with food. So I’m not complaining about Premont, but it’s the first time I’ve come out of a motorcycle place thinking about architecture and not motorcycles.

16 Songs

ipod 01

“I’m gonna take you to my special place. It’s a place that you, like no one else I know, might appreciate…”

– Joni Mitchell, “My Secret Place”

The idea came to me unexpectedly on April 24, 134 days before we took the motorcycles to Quebec.

We were in the James S. McDonnell Space Hanger at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, listening to the astronauts of STS-125 talk about their mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. One of them, Megan McArthur Behnken, I think, mentioned that Mission Control in Houston would wake them every day by playing a song, one with special meaning for a member of the crew.

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell

I remember thinking oh, the genius of that and filed it for our own mission, months away.

The right song is essential at the start of the day, and later inside your motorcycle helmet as you’re flying down the road. It helps set, and keep, the day in motion.

I didn’t say anything but started making notes, jotting down possibilities when I’d think of a song or hear something played on the radio or in a commercial. It was a delightful side job to the overall mission prep and I could do it without up-wiring the Vespa or bolting something on Terra Nova.

So on the first day, shortly before we left the house, I handed my iPod to Linda and said, “There are 16 songs for you, one for each day. This is the first.”

And she put in her earbuds and heard a Carpenters song, admittedly schmaltzy, but oh, so fitting.

Karen and Richard Carpenter
Karen and Richard Carpenter

This is what she heard:

Day 1, Sept. 5: We’ve Only Just Begun / Carpenters

Day 2, Sept. 6: America / Simon and Garfunkel

Day 3, Sept. 7: Go Where You Wanna Go / Mamas and Papas

Day 4, Sept. 8: Every Day is a Winding Road / Sheryl Crow

Day 5, Sept. 9: Cruisin’ / Huey Lewis and Gywneth Paltrow

Day 6, Sept. 10: Sweetheart Like You / Bob Dylan

Day 7, Sept. 11: My Secret Place / Joni Mitchell

Day 8, Sept. 12: Country Road / James Taylor

johnny nash
Johnny Nash

Day 9, Sept. 13: Secret Garden / Bruce Springsteen

Day 10, Sept. 14: Ride Away / Roy Orbison

Day 11, Sept. 15: I Can See Clearly Now / Johnny Nash

Day 12, Sept. 16: Lovely Day / Bill Withers

Day 13, Sept. 17: I Got a Name / Jim Croce

Day 14, Sept. 18: Tangled Up in Blue / Bob Dylan

Day 15, Sept. 19: I’ve Been Everywhere / Johnny Cash

Day 16, Sept. 20: Homeward Bound / Simon and Garfunkel

I actually had 22 songs in that corner of the iPod, keeping a few in reserve to be swapped in if needed.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

But there was only two substitutions, I think. Heroes by David Bowie fell out and Ride Away came in, for the laugh it gave Linda because she thought of the chicken in the Geico commercial.

Right Beside You by Sophie B. Hawkins withdrew in favor of I Got a Name to later emphasize something I said to Linda on the ferry from Baie Comeau to Matane.

It turned out I misunderstood the meaning of a couple songs, but I kept them in anyway, just because chorus worked so well. America is kinda sad if you really listen to the last part, but you can think of it as the need to work to keep a relationship going.

Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel

And Go Where You Wanna Go is almost two different songs, the chorus as encouragement to lead your own life, the verses about being left behind.

But I Can See Clearly Now was perfect the day after our rain on the Gaspe Peninsula and I’ve Been Everywhere and Homeward Bound were the best endings, the best music to play as the credits were rolling for our ride.

The Worst Day

Fueling up in the rain.
Fueling up in the rain.

“For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”

– Yvon Chouinard

Sept. 14, Day 10: Things went south on only one of this year’s 16 day/3,000 mile motorcycle ride. It was largely self-induced and non-life-threatening, but it started simple and snowballed quickly.

We’d rolled in to Perce the day before as the sun was setting – a beautiful night. Linda got us a room at the Chalet Au Pic de l’Aurore, a B&B with a nice view of the Perce Rock in the bay.

Perce Rock, short side.
Perce Rock, short side.

We unloaded the bikes and had dinner at an overpriced but snooty restaurant called La Maison Matilde where the waitress looked down her nose as we tiredly clomped into the place in full riding gear, helmets banging off the backs of chairs in the crowded section into which we were pushed. It was like having dinner in a phone booth. We ate, got out of there, fueled up and went back to the chalet to get some sleep.

restaurant-la-maison
The snooty restaurant.

The chalet’s parking lot was gravel so next morning I move the bikes to level pavement and reload the bags. The skies are threatening but I’m making pretty good time getting everything aboard. But I feel a few raindrops as I’m cinching the last bag and then it starts coming down.

I pull on my jacket and helmet and gloves but I’m already wet. It puts me in a foul mood because it means I’m starting out wet and I’m only going to get wetter as the day goes on. But we mount up and ride out.

Barely a quarter-mile later, I start thinking about the GoPro camera – a small video camera that fits in your palm – attached to my helmet. The chill rain is really coming down by now and I realize I have a vented case, one with slots that are letting rain get to the camera. So I have to pull over and stow the camera.

The Perce Rock.
Perce Rock, the long side. The tunnel is submerged at high tide.

A tiresome digression: When we’re on separate bikes, I ride behind Linda as her wingman. In traffic, I keep over-zealous drivers off her tail and stand watch. The ride protocol, which we violate constantly, is:

(1) Keep each other in sight as much as possible.

(2) If the line of sight is lost, the lead rider slows down and lets the second rider catch up.

(3) If the second fails to appear, the lead pulls over and waits.

(4) If the second still fails to appear, the lead turns back and starts looking.

(5) If that doesn’t work, the lead stops before going too far, pulls out the cellphone and calls.

It’s just a set of simple rules in case we get separated. Keeping one another in sight is much easier for me since I’m looking ahead. It’s difficult for her, especially if we’re spread far apart, since she has to keep me in her mirrors.

So on Day 10 I stop in a parking lot, pull off the gloves, fumble the GoPro from the helmet mount, unclip the tether around my neck, and shove it in the tank bag.

Linda vanishes as I’m doing this and I try to hurry because I hate being the guy who holds up everyone. I restart but don’t get far because she turns around to find me. We ride in the rain, pausing to admire the Perce Rock, a worthwhile tourist attraction in the bay.

We head for Matane, about 250 miles away on 132, the Route des Navigateurs.

Perce to Matane.
Perce to Matane.

The rain is falling hard and cold now, and we get splashed by passing cars. We’ve gone about a dozen miles when I feel something tap my right thigh, just once.

It feels like the time that the Garmin GPS unit jumped out of its handlebar bracket, hit my leg, and was saved from destruction on I-95 only by the power cord attached to the dash.

But I’m not running the Garmin today, and I think to myself, “now what the hell could that be…” and I start looking around. The RAM mounts for the GPS and EZPass are still attached and everything looks fine. So I start to relax a bit until I see the tank bag is unzipped. Oh shi-!

The GoPro has fallen out, bounced off my leg, and is now lying somewhere on 132 in the rain. I have to find it. Even if it’s been run over, there’s a 64GB memory card that maybe I can save.

I use a parking lot to turn around and zip back toward the spot where it fell. I’m looking but it’s not easy to see because the rain has turned the helmet’s faceshield opaque and I can’t raise the shield too high because the rain will start fogging my eyeglasses instead.

I don’t see it as I’m racing eastward. I go until I’m sure I’ve passed the place where it fell and I turn around again, retracing my original route, knowing this is my last chance.

And suddenly, miraculously, I see it, lying face up in a parking lot close to the street. It must have bounced off the road and into the lot. I hit the brakes, park, and in seconds the camera is back in my hands.

The Irving gas station.
The Irving gas station.

The case’s lens shield is shattered but the camera lens itself looks intact. One of the mounting brackets is in pieces. I scoop up everything and put it in the tank bag, making sure it’s zipped tight. I can check the camera later, but right now…

Where’s Linda?

I take off and start looking in the rain. I ride for maybe five minutes when I see her headed my way. She goes past me with traffic and I find an empty driveway, park, and wait. She’ll come back this way, it’s the only way to Matane. The rain keeps falling as a few minutes tick by…

Then a few more…

And a few more…

And I start to get worried. Did she not see me? How is that possible?

I wait about 10 minutes more before firing up Terra Nova and heading in the direction she was going. Surely she’ll be waiting by the roadside.

But she isn’t. I go east a few miles, then turn around and sweep west. No sign. I find a gas station and fuel up. In waterlogged boots I squish and slosh inside to pay and buy a Mountain Dew and crackers. I’m famished and worried. I pull the cellphone from the Ziploc bag in my jacket pocket, tap in her number and get:

SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE.

Ah, jeez, I think. Here we go.

We reconfigured our phone settings to operate in Canada during the trip. But that doesn’t help if cell service isn’t available. And it isn’t.

But I do have a wifi connection. So I try e-mail. And it’s crazy, but the easiest access to e-mail is through our company system, so I use that. I’m e-mailing her at work.

“It’s 1:39 pm. I’m at Irving gas station on the main road we were traveling on. No phone service. I’ll wait here until I figure out what to do.” I tap into the phone.

No answer. At 2:15 I send:

“I’m going to leave the Irving station and cruise the street to look for you. If you see this, stop some place big and obvious and send me an email telling me where you are. I’ll come to you.”

After some anxious moments, her reply comes through, bringing big relief for me:

“In what city are you? What happened? I’ve been looking for you because I thought you got ahead of me.”

tim-horton-web_1
One of my favorites in Canada.

She says she’s at a Tim Hortons in Hope – 36 miles away! – and will wait there. I get turned around by faulty directions from the French speakers at the gas station – they must’ve thought I wanted the closest Hortons. So that was another delay.

But I make it to Hope and see her Vespa parked out front. The rain is letting up. I shut down Terra Nova and squish into the Hortons, where we have a semi-emotional reunion, watched by a few curious customers over their coffee and doughnuts. It turns out she passed me and didn’t see me, assumed I was still westbound, and turned around and raced to catch up. We simply missed each other in the rain.

Linda fetches me a cup of Hortons restorative hot chocolate and a sandwich and I buy socks at a nearby Dollar General and change out in the Hortons restroom. The joy of warm dry feet is indescribable. We suit up again and head for Matane, 200 long miles away.

The rain returns to find us on the road in the dark. Tired, wet and exhausted – I feel as if I’ve been beaten with sticks – we roll late into a Quality Inn where things immediately get better:

Working on the GoPro.
Working on the GoPro.

– For some reason, we’re given a handicap-accessible room that’s roughly the size of Yankee Stadium. I could’ve parked both bikes comfortably in there if I could have gotten them through the door. (Don’t think I didn’t consider it.)

– The night clerk, a good guy by the name of John, unlocks the guest laundry room where I wash all our wet stuff and dry it. That was like heaven.

– I swap out the shattered GoPro lens shield and replace it with a spare. The GoPro still works, I find.

It’s well after midnight by the time everything is sorted out and we go to sleep.

And that was the worst day.

Uh-Oh

Reacquistion at Modern Classics in the District.
Reacquistion at Modern Classics in the District.

It’s among the most infuriating of times: When you fix one thing and break another.

Motorcycle conspicuity, the art of being seen, took up permanent residence in my head when Linda started riding her own bike.

Her 300cc Vespa scooter is a bright red – Rosso Dragon is the official color designation – and she wears a matching Arai helmet and a bright fluorescent lime-green jacket, one of the really obnoxious colors. She calls it her “don’t hit me” jacket.”

All well and good, but I’m never satisfied. I added a set of bright LED Hyper Lites to augment the Vespa’s brake light last year, and they work pretty well.

Hey, the front lights work!
Hey, the front lights work!

But motorcycle riders need every advantage they can get, every modification they can think of, to increase their visibility on the road they share with distracted drivers – the ones who are on cellphones, or texting, or eating, or fiddling with the CD player or GPS unit or yelling at the kids in the back.

It’s not an exaggeration; I’ve come close to being hit by these people. They are simply not paying attention.

I remember one time aboard Endurance, going to work in the morning and I saw a car start edging out of our building’s driveway as I drew near, kind of a jump-stop, jump-stop, jump-stop and I knew this one wasn’t looking.

I lit up all of Endurance’s forward lights, the super-white high beam and the dual auxiliary PIAA 510s, the whole panoply, and I throttled back, ready, and the driver just cruised out into the street, turned her head, saw me, and stopped in the middle of the road. I braked in plenty of time but her mouth was literally hanging open, her eyes wide. She had no idea I was there.

That’s because she wasn’t expecting to see me. They never do. And they don’t see what they don’t expect to see, because they’re not looking for it.

Working space.
Workshop space, with essential Mountain Dew.

They don’t see us. I remember that every time I’m riding as Linda’s wingman, whether we’re on a highway or a country road. I hunt for the errant drivers, the careless ones, the dangerous ones.

Against them, we line up motorcycle modifications. I hunt around for upgrades, lights, horns, brightly colored things, to tip the odds in our favor.

One modification I found for the Vespa was a set of LED front running lights. These are ingenious devices that fit into the same space as the front turn signals. They work as turn signals but also light up the front of the bike, making it harder to ignore.

So I got a set from Scooter West, a shop in San Diego, and carefully and patiently installed them on a Saturday morning. I tested them that night and they’re actually pretty good, just what I wanted.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “Now I’ve got the front and rear of the bike covered.”

Until I tested the brakes and found the Hyper Lites weren’t working.

It was one of those son-of-a-bi– moments that left me dumbfounded; I hadn’t touched the brake system. And I hadn’t fiddled with the electrics much at all. The brake light works fine, but the Hyper Lites, which are wired directly into the brake light, stay dark.

Except for the rear.
Except for the rear.

Other than that, the Vespa is ready for Quebec. We took her to Modern Classics, an independent scooter shop on V Street NE in the District for a tune-up, engine oil and filter change, and fresh brake fluid. Terra Nova is at the local dealership getting a new clutch basket and cam chain tensioner upgrade so I can sleep at night. I get her back tomorrow.

So now I’ll have to spend time with the Vespa. I’ll backtrack what I did during the install of the forward lights and test the Hypers for loose connections and whatnot. Solving electrical problems can be infuriating, but with luck I can fix it. Without breaking something else.

The 10th Photo

quebec01

There’s a quiet collection of 9 4×6 photos in carefully mismatched frames in one of the bookcases in the living room. Each one is a picture taken of Linda and I during our annual travel event – the special one that usually involves motorcycles.

The photos became a ritual as I neared 50 and started (like everyone else) thinking about fleeting Time and how someday photos and memories will be the last things we’ll have. It seemed vital to document those travel days, the days that mattered. That’s why the 9 photos are in an unassuming corner of the house; they’re documentation, not braggadocio.

Each year, the days that matter require us to try and go somewhere we’ve never been before, with the exception of Slovakia and Hungary because they’re wonderful places and they never get old.

But since we had to rule out Europe as a destination this year (though we’ll fight for it next year) we had to decide where to go in the U.S., with Linda on her Vespa.

As our past motorcycle rides show, I’m a sucker for roads with names – the Blue Ridge Parkway, Natchez Trace, Lincoln Highway, Going to the Sun Road and the Cabot Trail are just a few we’ve traveled.

“Find me a road with a name,” I said to Linda.

We talked about taking Highway 1 down to Key West and the southernmost point in the continental U.S., or riding to Tennessee and North Carolina for the Dragon’s Tail and Cherohala Skyway.

logoImpression

And then she sent me an e-mail: “What about this Navigators’ Route near Quebec?”

I looked at the map, saw how the Route ran along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and looped around the Gaspie Peninsula and I thought: that’s perfect.

It’s ambitious, but we’ll ride north again this year, farther than the Cabot Trail, about 2,600 miles according to the mission profile. With luck, we’ll see Quebec and the St. Lawrence and take the ferry from Baie-Comeau to Matane and ride clockwise around the Gaspie.

The ride will take about 16 days and we’ll try to make them days that matter. And document with the 10th photo.

Remnants of A Man’s Life

Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.
Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.

It caught my eye from a shelf of old tools in an antique store: a cut-down wrench about four inches long, an Armstrong wrench as it turned out; good steel, nice heft and fit in the hand. Half-inch open-end.

It reminded me of tools my father and I cut down and modified decades ago to work on my old 1972 VW Super Beetle. One of them, a 1/2-inch Craftsman box, was for removing the carburetor.

We cut about a third or so off a combination wrench and ground down the outside of the box to fit the pesky 13mm nut hiding between the intake pipe and the engine fan housing. Dad took the ragged edge of the box wrench handle to the grinding wheel and smoothed it off perfectly.

The Armstrong reminded me of that wrench and as I toyed with it absently I started looking at the other items on the shelf. There were about two dozen mechanics tools, wrenches, pliers, ball-peen hammers with wood handles seasoned with sweat, and plastic jars of hardware – bolts and nuts, finishing nails, and other stuff.

Hardware in Jif jars.
Hardware in Jif jars.

It was the perfection and uniformity of the jars – old Jif peanut butter jars that were immaculately clean – that made me realize that most of these items had been taken en masse from some guy’s garage or workshop. Some guy who was probably now in a nursing home or no longer alive.

And I started wondering about that guy, who he was, where he worked. I could imagine him cleaning out those Jif jars, removing every bit of old peanut butter, cleaner than his wife’s dishes, and carefully filling them with bits of machined metal. The jars had labels, applied by the antique seller; the owner didn’t need labels, he could see the hardware and he knew what it was.

And what happened to the owner, what brought all his beloved tools to this store for strangers to paw through? Is this all we can look forward to, that all of our tools and books and special things will someday be found in a place like this? Didn’t he deserve better than this?

The tools.
The tools.

I ended up buying the Armstrong for three bucks along with a sad little Canadian Fuller 1-inch wood chisel that I can sharpen and use around the house. Days later, I learn from a query on Garage Journal.com that the Armstrong is a machine shop or engineer’s wrench, specially made for use with machine tools.

“They’re not good for anything but tightening a nut or bolt on the machine they’re used for,” wrote a respondent. “They’re used so some employees don’t steal them and take them home.” I love that observation.

No matter. The Armstrong and chisel will join that 1/2-inch Craftsman box, one of many tools I can’t bear to part with, tools that Dad gave me, and my Uncle Robert, and Dad’s cousin Cyril in Slovakia, and Wendell’s father, Van, and a few others.

Tools that will inevitably end up in someone’s second-hand store one day. Until then, I’ll use them and enjoy them and sometimes think about their histories. And of the guys who owned them. Even the guys I don’t know.

 

That Forlorn Little Bike

iso2

The saddest Honda I’ve ever seen was parked alone in isolation, as if the other motorcycles were avoiding it.

I was wandering the service department of Coleman PowerSports in Falls Church Saturday morning, waiting for Linda’s Vespa to get its annual safety inspection sticker. (Usually we go to Crossroads Cycle for inspections, but I was in a hurry and Coleman is closer.)

bike1All bikes, especially older ones, have a story. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to it.

It was a dusty 250cc Honda Rebel, a 1986 model, as I discovered. The official designation is CMX 250, introduced in 1985 and still in production. They’re essentially small two-cylinder cruisers with a dash of Harley style. They’re good entry-level bikes, and you often see them used in Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes.

Oh, but this one has been badly treated – torn saddle, mirrors pointing every which way and surface rust everywhere. Someone had painted the gas tank flat black, giving it sort of a chopper look, and added an aftermarket engine guard.

odometerBut the right-side cover is missing, exposing the glass cartridge fuse block. The rear blinkers are broken, one gone, and both brake levers are curiously curled outward, on purpose for some obscure, ill-advised reason.

There are 5,815 miles on the odometer, pretty low for a 29-year-old bike. The last safety sticker had been issued in 1996. A George Mason University parking sticker on the rear fender expires in 1992. Next to that, a small dealer sticker: K&R Honda, Bellerose, New York*.

I see a bronze fob attached to the ignition key and turn it over; TOYKO TOWER it says on one side, with the reverse covered in English and Japanese writing. This is a memento, all the way from Japan, of the Eiffel-Tower-shaped communications rig in Tokyo.

And yet, at long last, the little Honda is here, sitting hopefully waiting for service.

Linda’s Vespa is soon brought round with a new sticker and I pay the inspection fee.

“I have to ask, what’s the story with that Honda?” I say to the guy behind the counter.

cover2“Oh,” he says, “Guy brought it in wanting to get it fixed up. We looked at it and started adding up what was wrong and the bill got too high. More than it’s worth, probably. He’s trying to decide what to do.”

It’s a common story and probably explains why the Honda has been neglected for so long. As David Snow used to point out in Iron Horse magazine, Japanese bikes don’t seem to hold their value.

One of the magazine’s recurring features was a monthly page on discarded Hondas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and Yamahas found on the streets of New York City. The owners had simply parked them and walked away. You could find literally dozens of them, but never a castoff Harley, BMW, Triumph, Ducati or other foreign bike.

I take my leave, briefly and irrationally considering the economics of buying the Honda and saving it. It would make no sense, of course. Linda’s interested in scooters, not motorcycles, and the Honda is too small for me. Besides, I still have my own restoration project, a 1965 305cc Honda Dream that’s at home.

sideviewSo I left the Honda there, hoping its owner will find the wherewithal to get it back on the road. It obviously holds some good memories for someone; perhaps there is still time for a few more.

* — no longer in business, according to an Internet search. Curiously, it was located not far from Queens.

Resurrecting ’Em

Don't let them sit too long.
Don’t let them sit too long.

 

I flood the carburetor. ‘For God’s sake, start!’ I mutter. ‘Don’t give me any trouble. It’s too hot to wrestle with you now.’

One kick and she starts. ‘Oh, you lovely machine.’

— Ted Simon, “Jupiter’s Travels”

 

I’ll cop to it upfront: I let our bikes sit too long this winter. It’s an awful, inexcusable thing to do to a motorcycle.

But three of the four forgive me, and it’s only Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS, that won’t respond. The battery has gone bad, I find.

In Jessup, Maryland.
In Jessup, Maryland.

So I rabbit off to Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland, and get a replacement battery, engine oil filter and oil. Saw a 2015 R1200GS Adventure for $22,000.

Back home, Endurance accepts the battery and fires up on first try. Terra Nova, the 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere, is fine.

Just a quick charge.
Just a quick charge.

Linda’s 300cc Vespa GTS cranks over readily and starts easily, but her Yamaha Vino 125 needs a battery charge. After that, it’s no complaint.

Endurance has more than 92,000 miles on the clock and is due for a major tune-up. I’ll take her up to Bob’s in a week or so. Then it’s time to start planning this year’s ride.

Dealing With Over-Design

This is what the Vespa looks like with the floorboard and other panels removed. Sunny is ready to investigate further.
This is what the Vespa looks like with the floorboard and other panels removed. Sunny is ready to investigate.

YouTube became my best friend and prevented me from throwing tools across the room while prepping Linda’s Vespa for Nova Scotia.

I wanted to install a couple of outlets on the dashboard so she could plug in her heated Gerbings jacket. As we’ve talked about elsewhere here, having heated clothing can make the difference between misery and comfort on a ride.

Ignorant of Italian design, I thought it would be a simple job. “Two wires, how long could it take?” I figured 20, 30 minutes, tops. A simple job, right?

Oh my God, what a frickin’ nightmare.

I had two outlets, a powerlet (like a cigarette lighter, only smaller in diameter) and a Gerbings coax power plug, much smaller and designed to work with Gerbing gear.

But where to put them? Vespa has two plastic “kneepads” on the dash. The right one conceals the fluid reservoir for the cooling system. The left one opens into the front of the frame and has space for extra wires — the obvious choice.

I wanted to hardwire each plug directly to the battery, which is located below the metal floorboard. I started by removing the big rubber mat.

That’s when things got interesting. I took off panel after panel – battery cover, kick panel, front grille – and discovered a perfect bottleneck for wires in that little hump between the rider’s feet.

Existing wires to the headlights and horn and whatnot were packed into this tiny passageway and there was no way to thread extra wires through. I had to pull everything, including the front panel, glovebox hatch, ignition switch, fusebox, passenger footrests, and rear mudguards. Everything was connected; you had to take out one piece to get access to another. Not to mention the chrome and rubber trim over it all.

Labeling the fasteners helpled.
Labeling the fasteners helped.

And the fasteners! The screws and bolts were starting to pile up and I was afraid I’d overlook or lose something and mess up the reassembly. So I got some cardboard, punched holes in it and put in the screws, labeling them as I went along.

I found myself consulting a couple of YouTube videos, one from Scooter West that showed you just about everything, and another from some German fellow who was doing the same thing I was. Those visual demonstrations really helped, especially after I watched each one about 400 times.

This sort of complexity isn’t just Vespa; every vehicle has its quirks. I remember having to remove a footpeg and shifting levers from Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha 750 Virago, just to get to the oil filter.

It’s ridiculous, but there you are. And the first time you do any work of this sort is the hardest. Each time afterwards becomes easier and you don’t waste time by wondering why in hell the bike is engineered this way.

This is how it turned out.
All that for this.

I ended up trying to do it as my father would, taking my time and devoting the better part of a weekend to install those two wires. (It wouldn’t have taken him that long.) Reassembly went pretty smoothly and both plugs worked after everything was bolted back together.

As it turned out, Linda never needed to use her heated jacket during the Nova Scotia ride. But she could have, if needed.

The Lost Ride

DSCN2454

I started the motor and it rolled into life. We moved, then slipped, years too late, into the sky.

– Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient”

 

One of the motorcycle rides I always dreamed of was to see my grandmother in Florida.

When I was six, my maternal grandparents, Walter and Charlotte McDaniel, moved from Cleveland to Zephyrhills, a small town not far from Tampa. They were tired of the cold and snow of Ohio winters and wanted the sunshine and beaches of the Gulf.

I remember it was hard to see them leave, since they were going so far away. A few years later my parents started driving us all south to see them in the summer; for a few years it was an annual ritual, packing us in the car, the interminable drive. Dad often drove straight through.

Getting there was worth it. My grandparents lived in a tiny house, roughly 24 feet square, but it was a magical place. Spanish moss grew all over the trees and you could find tiny frogs in the glass jalousie of the screened-in porch. We used to sleep on that porch and wake to the cries of blue jays in the back yard.

My grandparents had a series of small sheds around the property for tools and lawnmowers and such, and we used to play in and around them. We would go to Clearwater Beach, my Grandma’s favorite, the sand like sugar, and it was there I swam in saltwater for the first time. I loved it.

Years passed and Life started crowding in; graduation, college, jobs. My grandfather, a career Navy man, passed away in 1981 but it wasn’t until the next year I was able to get back to Zephyrhills.

It was good to see my grandmother and the way her fierce independence was carrying her along. We went to Clearwater and the salty Gulf. I was studying photography then and shot many pictures of her and the house.

From 1982
From 1982

She took me to the cemetery where my grandfather was buried, and we stood silently over the grave site. She ran her hand over the blank space on the marker next to my grandfather’s name. “Here’s where I’ll be,” she said.

I was with her for less than a week, I think, and then I went home.

A marriage turned into divorce and I moved around the country chasing new jobs. Another Florida trip wasn’t financially possible; I wanted to go, I meant to go, but I did keep in touch with my grandmother through phone calls, letters and postcards.

I moved to Reno in 1995 and re-established contact with my favorite motorcycle-riding uncle in San Diego (my grandmother’s son). Along with his daughter (my wonderful cousin Shannon) we started riding together and began planning our big ride from California to Florida to see Grandma.

She was getting on in years and having memory problems and was living with my aunt’s family in Flagler Beach. But she still loved to talk on the phone.

And we kept making our plans, seriously this time, clearing space on the calendar, prepping the motorcycles, poring over maps to find the best route and I had this vision, you know, of all of us at long last rolling triumphantly to my Grandma’s door.

We set launch for the first of May 2000. Everyone was excited, green lights across the board. And then, 21 days before we were to leave, the phone call came. She had collapsed and was in the hospital.

The mission was on hold. Doctors weren’t sure how long she’d be hospitalized. For a while, she got better. Then everything nosedived and she passed away on April 26.

We went to Zephyrhills, in a mad cross-country dash in my uncle’s car. We got there just in time for the funeral. I put my last postcard to Grandma, written out the weeping night before, in her casket. Shannon put in something, too, but I can’t remember what. My uncle put in a sprig of violets, I think. They were Grandma’s favorite flower.

“She loved your cards,” my aunt from Flagler Beach told me at the service.

That was nearly 15 years ago. I live just outside of Washington, D.C., now and my wife Linda and I go to St. Petersburg every November to walk on the beaches and enjoy the sun and saltwater. We’ve been doing this for 8 or 9 years now.

DSCN0032And we stop by Zephyrhills to see the house I loved when I was a kid. We go to the cemetery, too, and brush sand off the marker if need be. One time I reattached a small American flag over my grandfather. The last time we were there I tightened the screws on one of the date plates on my grandmother’s side.

And every time we drive away from the cemetery, I reflect, bitterly, I admit, that now I have time to go see them, years too late. I realize I’ve visited Zephyrhills more in the last 10 years than I have in the previous forty. I mourn the misplaced priorities of those 40 years and I wish, oh, I wish, that we could have taken that lost ride.

Too Short a Season

DSCN2507
We had our first snowfall a few days ago, nothing special beyond the timing, but the onset of winter depresses me. It’s just getting too damn cold to ride.

We live in northern Virginia, less than 10 miles from Washington, D.C., and we don’t get much snow – at least compared to Cleveland, where I grew up. The riding season is longer here, if the roads are clear and you’re suitably suited up.

Ah, suiting up…like an astronaut on the far side of the moon. Riding in cold weather is a test of one’s manhood, ingenuity and perhaps sanity. I rode to Catonsville, Maryland, yesterday to return a loaner bike, a 2014 Honda CTX 1300. It was a 40-40 ride, about 46 miles with temperatures in the middle 40s.

That’s not extreme in either measure, but I didn’t use my heated Gerbing liner, opting instead to layer up beneath the Belstaff jacket. It wasn’t enough for the Mare Australe but it was okay, though I would’ve been chilled had I gone much farther.

We’ll be seeing cold-weather guys on motorcycles and scooters for a while longer, until serious snowfall. I take heart from them and try to get out myself and ride when it’s chilly. Otherwise, it’s really too short a season.

Edward Hopper Moments

Mahwah McDonald's, 2014
Mahwah McDonald’s, 2014

“You know how beautiful things are when you’re traveling.”

– Edward Hopper

Just to clarify, we're talking about Edward Hopper...
Just to be clear, we’re talking about Edward Hopper…

 

Most days on the motorcycles we took it easy, sleeping in and leaving the motel or hotel around 11 a.m. or noon, and riding at a leisurely pace. We were on vacation, after all.

We often ended up traveling after nightfall and I would always ride the Yamaha behind Linda, watching the glow of her Vespa’s brake lights ahead.

Night simplifies a motorcycle road and riding after dark transforms common scenes into something more than they are. Sight-seeing aside, long distances on bikes are quickly reduced to basics: riding, eating and fueling up. Ordinary restaurants and gas stations eventually become your best friends, especially at night.

...not Dennis Hopper.
…not Dennis Hopper.

It was night in Mahwah, New Jersey, when I started thinking about American painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967). I hadn’t thought of him till then, and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

We were at a strange little Gulf station right out of Lost Highway and we badly needed to refuel. Jersey is a don’t-pump-it-yourself state, but the indifferent attendant said, “yeah, sure,” when I said I’d fill the tanks myself. We were tired and hungry, and there was a McDonald’s next to the David Lynch station, so we went in.

It was late and quiet. The place was nearly deserted but a small family sat together a few tables away, talking and laughing and enjoying themselves, untouched by the darkness without. I wondered what it would be like to be among them, but we had to saddle up and move.

Gas, 1940
Gas, 1940

Outside, I saw them again through the sheet glass like a Big Mac version of Nighthawks, Hopper’s famous 1942 oil painting of isolated customers at a late-night New York City diner. I love the color and composition and detail that Hopper put in; it’s one of my favorite paintings.

And it seemed Hopper joined our ride after Mahwah, especially during night stops at gas stations or arrivals at motels after dark. Everything at night started reminding me of Hopper scenes, like Gas, his 1940 oil painting of a solitary Mobil station on a country road.

It's Hopper-esque...
It’s sorta Hopper-esque…

Art historians tell us Hopper’s paintings were social commentary. Gas, they say, shows the automobile encroaching on American life, and the overbearing fluorescent lighting of Nighthawks creates a space that both attracts and alienates the viewer.

All that’s probably true. Nevertheless, I was grateful for Hopper’s presence during the ride; he helped me see it with new eyes.

But I wonder if Hopper’s outlook would’ve been different, if he’d climbed aboard a Harley instead of a 1925 Dodge to travel and sketch across New England. I bet he would’ve appreciated a full tank at the Mobil station, hot coffee with nighthawks at the diner, and the simplicity of a motorcycle road.

Nighthawks, 1942
Nighthawks, 1942

Talking About the Vespa

talk1

At every gas station from here to the shores of Cape Breton Island, someone wanted to talk about the Vespa.

On our rides, we’ve learned that motorcycles almost always attract attention. The bold people charge right up and start asking questions while the hesitant folks eye the machines from a distance and sidle over and study the license plates. They glance at the Yamaha, but they really want to know about the Vespa.

talk2

A simple “morning” or “howdy” breaks through their shyness and they start with questions like, “Where you-all from? and “You ride that thing all the way here?”

“Oh, yes,” Linda says, and they want to know what’s it like to ride the scooter, how fast does it go, how comfortable is it, how many miles to the gallon? Can you take it on the freeway? Doesn’t it shake?

Linda talks with them – hey, it’s her bike! – and answers their questions as I silently marvel at it all. We plug into everyone electronically and avoid face-to-face contact with strangers. Few people start conversations at gas pumps, but bring in a motorcycle or scooter and they get a little bolder.

We find genuine inquisitiveness drives most of the encounters, but there’s submerged desire in the eyes of a few who talk to us. Perhaps it’s the gas pump anonymity that lets it surface, that lets them tell us, “I always wanted to try that.”

talk4

We heard that sentiment a few times. As we load the bikes at the Willow Bend Motel in Truro, N.S., a woman from two rooms down tells Linda she’d like to ride a scooter but now she’s married and a mother, so…

Without proselytizing, Linda tells her about motorcycle safety classes and the challenges and fun of riding. You can tell our fellow lodger is thinking about it as she’s leaving.

Those are the hesitant ones. The ones who start talking without preamble are usually riders themselves and they want to know immediately where we’re from and how far we’re going, like the young guy at the truck stop in Southington, Conn., who walked over and told us the history of his Harley. It’s common to compare bikes and offer stories of past rides.

talk6

A guy dressed in black and wearing an earring, driving a pickup truck, tells me at a Petro-Canada station in Moncton that he’s got a BMW K1600 (a really nice touring motorcycle) and his wife has a 150cc Piaggio scooter. Instead of them riding two-up on his BMW, she’s been taking her Piaggio on the road with him.

But their rides have been too short, he says.

“I been trying to get her to ride more. Can I take a picture? I gotta show this to her.” He uses his cellphone to photograph the Vespa.

The Vespa has a 2.4-gallon gas tank, which required us to stop every 90 to 100 miles to fill up. That’s a lot of refueling. And a lot of conversation.

And sometimes, they just talk amongst themselves.
And sometimes, they just talk amongst themselves.

The Odd Couple

NS scenic 1

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

–T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

 

We’ve been home a week now and the bikes are still and silent and safely parked out back. I can see them from every window and I remember how they looked at the gas stations, the motels and on the roads of Nova Scotia.

We’ve been home a week and there are notes and photos and video and memories to be sorted. It was a frantic rush to get the bikes ready for this year’s ride and a two-week test of stamina to put the miles on the odometers. Now is the time to reflect on what we’ve done.

This year was the second ride we’ve done on two bikes – Linda on her 300cc Vespa scooter and me on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere.

We ended up riding 2,900 miles in 16 days, from Falls Church, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C., across New England, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to circumnavigate the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, and back. We took the 10-hour ferry from Yarmouth, N.S., to Portland, Maine, to save time on the way home.

Motorcycle travelers pique people’s interest but we were the road’s oddest couple, drawing attention everywhere we stopped, especially the Vespa. You seldom see scooter riders a thousand miles from home.

“You guys made my summer,” said the salesman at Privateers Harley-Davidson in Halifax, eyeing our bikes as he unlocked the door to let us out. “That’s some touring rig.”

Linda piloted that scooter like a pro, through cold rain in Jersey and insane Massachusetts traffic on I-495, never complaining, always forging ahead. She became the mission navigator after my Garmin Nuvi GPS proved useless – satellite information ended at the U.S. border because I hadn’t thought to upgrade the unit to include Canada.

And so we’re home after following the lines I day-dreamily highlighted across AAA maps months ago with markers filched from work. I look at those lines, and the other lines still unmarked, and think about the next ride.

Reacquisition, finally

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As the light grew swiftly around them, and the shrunken sun lifted once more into the Jovian sky, Poole and Bowman reached out silently and shook each other’s hands.

Though they could scarcely believe it, the first part of the mission was safely over.

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”

 

After an absence of 56 days the Vespa is home. Getting it back was an odyssey itself.

We leave early Saturday on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. Naively, I thought we could scoot down I-95 and get into Richmond without hitting too much traffic.

vespa.traffic1Well, that was pretty stupid. Southbound traffic quickly turns thick and 95 becomes a parking lot of grimly determined vacationers at the merger of the high occupancy vehicle lane. I can feel clutch plates burning as we negotiate the stop-and-go traffic. It would have been quicker to go to Jupiter.

But we finally arrive, four hours later, and the Vespa looks perfect.

“You’re good to go,” says Chelsea Lahmers, Scoot Richmond’s owner, and she explains how the old pump used plastic parts that expanded and seized when the pump got too hot. The new fuel pump, she says, has different material that’s unaffected by heat. The replacement was under warranty.

I ask about the notion that a Vespa gas tank should be kept a quarter-full for cooling purposes and she laughs and says no. “That’s just the Internet,” she says.

We hang around Scoot Richmond to admire the Triumphs and Vespas, and talk to Chelsea about SR’s impressive expansion. After lunch at Camden’s Dogtown Market, we take our leave.

We stay off 95 for the ride back, taking U.S. 60 west and turning north on U.S. 522 to State Route 28 and then home on I-66.

We’re both tired but it’s a wonderful ride over quiet rolling hills past small towns and old buildings and I realize how much I’ve missed these pre-interstate highways that cross America. Route 66 gets all the glory, but some of those other roads are just as impressive.

60Route 60 is an old friend of ours. We rode it through Salt River Canyon in Arizona in 2007; that was an awesome ride. We were aboard Endurance, my BMW R1150GS, and waited out a hellacious rainstorm under a gas station canopy in Show Low with two guys on KTMs and a couple on a Harley. It was like riding through a car wash.

We left when the rain eased up a little, but the descent into the canyon turned London foggy and the rain started up again. We were riding through gray sheets of water with only a tiny guardrail between us and a thousand-foot drop to the canyon floor and I started laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all; Linda thought I’d lost my mind.

Someday, I’d like to retrace Route 60’s original path. It used to run from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles, though it now ends northeast of Yuma, Arizona, at the intersection of I-10 at Quartzsite. That’s a ride for another day.

vespa.gauge1We’re too tired to do much once we get home but I fiddle with the Vespa the next day, installing the quarter-sized thermometer Linda liked and a new bracket for the rear Hyper-Lights. I have more work to do before this year’s ride, but it’s good to have the Vespa home.

Unable to Reacquire (Part 2)

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The voice of Mission Control faded out. At the same moment, the alert sounded.

“What’s wrong?” called Bowman, although he already knew the answer.

“The Alpha-Echo three-five unit has failed, as I predicted,” said Hal.

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”

 

If the Vespa were Discovery, the spacecraft in “2001,” its fuel pump would be our AE-35 unit.

Scoot Richmond discovered Linda’s bike was part of a manufacturer’s recall to replace faulty fuel pumps. They’ve ordered a replacement and are installing it now. We should be able to retrieve the bike on Saturday.

We should have been notified about the recall, but perhaps Vespa wasn’t aware we had one. At any rate, the replacement is free.

This will probably solve our stalling-out problem but I’ll be keeping an eye on the bike – and thinking about the pump – all during this year’s ride.

Advice on the Modern Vespa website says Vespa pumps need a bit of care. As with most vehicles, the pump is inside the gas tank, but on this scooter, the gasoline acts like a coolant. So we shouldn’t let the gas level get below a quarter-tank.

That’s rather a pain in the ass, because it will force us to stop more often than we’d like. But we can handle it. I’ll still carry extra fuel aboard Terra Nova.

Motorcycles are said to have “character” when they develop a quirk that requires some looking-after. Older British motorcycles and pre-1984 Harley-Davidsons are famous for them.

So now the Vespa officially has character. And I have something that’s going to quietly haunt me to Nova Scotia and back.

Unable to Reacquire (Part 1)

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The word “rescue” was carefully avoided in all Astronautics Agency statements and documents; it implied some failure of planning, and the approved jargon was “reacquisition.”

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”

 

It was supposed to be a simple day: Get up early, take the Yamaha to Richmond to reacquire Linda’s Vespa, and come home.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Linda’s bike was at a shop called Scoot Richmond, a full-service dealer in Vespa scooters and Triumph motorcycles. We’d dropped off her scooter six weeks ago for body work, a tune-up, and new tires.

DSCN0699Getting the scooter there and back is an exhausting process – Richmond is about 110 miles from us down I-95, which is a miserably crowded highway in the summer.

But the shop is the closest one for mechanical and body work on Vespas. We’ve been there before and they seem pretty good.

I should have expected trouble, because we had difficulty getting the Vespa there in June.

Linda was riding it and I was following on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. After getting off the highway (two miles from the shop!) the Vespa stalled out at a city intersection and refused to start.

I’m pretty much mechanically illiterate, but I know some basic stuff. We parked in the delivery bay of an office building, mercifully closed, and I tested for vapor lock, switch settings and whatnot. The bike cranked over fine, but didn’t want to fire.

It appeared low on fuel so I rabbited off to the nearest gas station – in an apparently dicey part of town, judging from the thickness of the Plexiglas inside the building – and returned with a two-gallon container of Sunoco high-test. That didn’t help.

We called Scoot Richmond, which sent a Toyota pickup. After filling out some paperwork, we went home. Over the next few weeks, I phoned SR for updates, with particular interest in what caused the stall. They were working on it.

DSCN0696Today the Vespa is ready. The bodywork is done, the new tires installed and mechanical work completed. They’ve taken it out for a test ride and all is well. I scan the paperwork and everything seems in order, but…

“What caused it to stall?” I ask.

“You probably just ran out of gas,” the guy says. “Even after you put gas in, you probably didn’t crank it enough to get the new gas into the engine.”

I suppose this sounds logical. I don’t have much experience with Vespas, they’re exotic machines, but this simple explanation could be possible.

Linda isn’t convinced. “It doesn’t sound like you addressed the problem,”she says to one of the mechanics.

But the Vespa starts up fine and idles perfectly. So we ride away, north on I-95. She’s lead, I’m wingman.

I-95 is the highway we love to hate. It’s the main freeway down the East coast and it’s a perpetually gridlocked parking lot in summer, especially on weekends. We left home extra early to avoid the crowds heading for Virginia Beach and we hope to miss their mass migration home.

There are other roads to Richmond, of course, but they’re out of the way. Distance can negate speed.

We’re moving pretty well, but traffic starts blocking up and soon we’re in pause-and-crawl mode, in the right-hand lane. Everything stops a little north of the Thornburg exit, and Linda turns around on the Vespa and says something I can’t hear. Something’s amiss.

I roll up next to her. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t get it started,” she says.

It’s the same thing we encountered six weeks ago: the starter cranks heroically, but the engine won’t fire. Uh-oh.

DSCN0700I turn Terra Nova to the right and we move into the breakdown lane. We set the bikes on their centerstands and pull off our helmets. I start checking the Vespa. Traffic starts moving again, leaving us behind. It’s around 3 in the afternoon and we’ve come 50 miles.

I call Scoot Richmond and they say they’ll send out a truck. I try different things, including adding more fuel just for the hell of it, without success. And we wait.

I call my father in Cleveland to see if he has any ideas. He makes some suggestions and wishes us luck.

Traffic speeds up and the bikes rock a bit in the backwash of passing trucks, even Terra Nova, which weighs around 560 pounds. Passers-by mostly ignore us, including the occasional motorcyclists, who are guilty of breaking The Code of the Road, which mandates a motorcyclist should always offer aid to a stranded biker. Perhaps we don’t look desperate enough.

Only one couple, in a white pickup truck with a caged German shepherd in the back, stop to offer help. “We ride, too,” the woman says, and we thank them and explain someone is coming.

I keep fiddling with the Vespa and after 70 minutes of waiting – I check my watch – I try the ignition and the engine starts. I figure it has to be a balky fuel pump that’s affected by heat. The engine starts smoothly and idles perfectly each time I try it. We wait for the SR truck anyway; the bike isn’t safe to ride.

Two hours after our breakdown, the SR truck – the same black Toyota that rescued us six weeks ago – arrives around 4:30. Two guys load the Vespa and secure her with tie-downs. They apologize for taking so long and say they’ll check it out. We watch them drive away.

DSCN0702We’re two-up on the Yamaha and we find a Friendly’s restaurant and stop for ice cream.

Over black raspberry and watermelon sherbet, I think about the Vespa and how I’ve never been stranded on the road with mechanical failure. Mostly, that’s because I pay attention to preventive maintenance. But I really should be a better mechanic.

We did have a minor breakdown aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, near Indio, California; an E-clip slipped off the gearshift pivot and the shifter fell off. I was able to rig a clip with a grommet from a tool roll and some baling wire and soon we were on our way. That was years ago.

But today’s not over yet.

Traffic is light on the way back to I-95 and we pass a series of shopping centers. I see a brown car make a right turn from a parking lot on my right.

To my astonishment and growing anger, the driver speeds up and races for the far-left lane, the one we’re in, totally unaware he’s about to sideswipe us. I hit the brakes, hard, and Linda’s helmet bangs into mine. The car moves into the lane ahead of us and the traffic light turns red.

We’re safe but I’m furious and somehow in the rush of picoseconds I think about a motorcycling friend of ours, who was on a bike and hit by a teenager running a stop sign. His wife, on her own bike behind him, saw everything with horrified eyes. He ended up losing a leg.

The adrenaline takes over and I don’t care who’s in the car and I do something I’ve never done before, I pull up alongside and shout at the driver, “DID YOU SEE WHAT YOU DID? YOU ALMOST RAN INTO ME BACK THERE!”

The driver turns out to be a girl, maybe in her late teens, brown hair, cute, clueless, deadly. She turns toward us in shock and says, “I’m sorry,” genuinely surprised, and I glare while simultaneously almost feeling bad for her. I hear Linda say – incredibly polite as ever – “Ma’am, you almost caused a wreck. You really need to watch,” and the girl sorta shrinks back into her seat.

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The light turns green and I throttle away with an overlap of emotions, fury at the near-collision, at her obliviousness, and shame at making someone else feel bad. A polite conversation would not have been possible, I suppose. Nor would it have had the same lasting effect.

We make it home exhausted without further incident – an 11-hour day, all told – and use the Jeep to go to dinner, slaying a bottle of Tormaresca in the evening.

This week I’ll research fuel pumps and pester Scoot Richmond. With luck, we’ll be able to reacquire the Vespa next Saturday, without the need for rescue.

 

‘It’s My Own Invention’

167-White-Knight-Its-My-Own-Invention-q85-1322x1472

“What does it matter where my body happens to be?” the Knight said. “My mind goes on working all the same.”

– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”

Like the White Knight, I like to tinker with things, especially with the motorcycles. And, like the Knight, I’ve found myself thinking of the bike throughout the day.

We’re preparing for this year’s ride, a sojourn through New England and into Nova Scotia. Like last year on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Linda will be on her 300cc Vespa and I’ll be riding Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. The Vespa is getting an extensive tune-up at Scoot Richmond and I’ve been working on the Yamaha.

DSCN0679The preparation has been a drawn-out exercise for me, with plans and ideas fitted together over the course of days. Much of it has been thought up in idle minutes, staring out at the bike in the morning, daydreaming while driving up to Cleveland to see my family, or snatching a few minutes of computer time at work for a motorcycling website.

I’m using this year’s ride as an excuse to add a few extras, including engine guards, which are tubes of steel that protect the sides of the motorcycle in case of a fall. (Call them crash bars if you want people to think you live dangerously.)

There’s also a bash plate that shields the bottom of the engine, a set of HyperLights that blink bright and furious when you apply the brakes (to wake up texting motorists behind you) and a power outlet (sort of a cigarette-lighter socket you commonly find inside cars). This lets you hook up heated vests and other gear and allows you to easily charge the bike battery.

Linda’s Vespa has a 2-gallon gas tank, which cuts down our refueling stops to roughly every 100 miles. That’s not a big deal for us, since it sort of slows down the ride and makes it more of an observational thing, rather than just rushing down the road as I normally do.

So I’ve been thinking about innovative ways to carry extra fuel. Last year, I used six MSR quart-sized aluminum fuel bottles in a pair of Aerostich panniers slung over Terra Nova’s gas tank, along with a 1-gallon plastic Kolpin gas cell in a sidecase. We used the extra stuff only once, but it was good to know it was there.

I ended up buying two 2-liter containers and brackets from Touratech and mounting them to the back of the sidecases. They’ll carry about one gallon. They seem to work pretty well and they look good.

But I’ve been daydreaming about the Yamaha’s luggage rack, a flat aluminum plate attached to the rear of the bike, behind the passenger seat. It’s a problem because the Super Tenere was introduced in 2010 and its after-market support is still kinda thin.

DSCN0687I took measurements, went online and looked at scores of plates and racks. I finally found one offered for Suzuki V-Stroms.

I got one and modified it by notching out two corners with a hacksaw. I used a Dremel grinder to smooth out the edges, spray-painted them black, drilled four holes and mounted the plate to the Yamaha’s tail. It seems strong enough and I may be able to add a couple of plastic tubes for additional MSR bottles.

Most of this was done over a span of weeks; I would, say, pick up a bracket and position it on the bike and think how it would work in conjunction with the rest of the machine. And even after I put down the bracket, I would think of it later even when I wasn’t beside the bike.

It’s taking little mental sidesteps, as Alain de Botton – who’s surely familiar with the White Knight – says in The Art of Travel: “Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks.” You step away from the problem in order to solve it.

I won’t know until journey’s end if Terra Nova performs as expected or if I’m making some spectacular goofs that screw up everything. The road is the final arbiter. But it’s a strangely pleasant process to make your very own modifications, to think them through and fabricate them yourself. To let your mind go on working all the same.

Points of Reference

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I’ll be the first to admit I have too many books. They’re in every room in the house: bedrooms, office, family room, living room and workshop. Everywhere except the bathroom.

With a few exceptions, the ones in the workshop are special purpose. It’s there I have my reference books for all our vehicles, including the motorcycles.

Those reference works are security blankets. They’re a holdover from my early teen years, where bicycles were my entryway into the world of mechanics. Too young for a driver’s license, I loved bikes and the freedom of travel and promise of adventure they provided.

The bicycles – especially my first 10-speed – were a prelude to motorcycles, of course. They were my vehicles of discovery, my very own Santa Maria and Mayflower and Susan Constant. I recall getting the same thrill of anticipation when buying my BMW R1150GS in 2000 as I did when I got my Fuji S-10S in 1975.

My high school friends and I learned to work on our 10-speeds. Tom McCray and I can still joke about the satisfaction (and amazement!) we got when we figured out the last mystery and learned how to adjust the rear derailleur to hit all five cogs in the freewheel. It was like we were freaking magicians, man.

DSCN0612A lot of that knowledge came through books. I still have ancient copies of the books we used; one of them is “Two Wheel Travel: Bicycle Camping and Touring,” which still has grease stains on the illustration across pages 90 and 91 which helped me rethread a chain around the jockey and tensioner cogs of a derailleur.

That’s a really great book, by the way, and the authors wrote a helpful companion book devoted to motorcycles. “Anybody’s Bike Book,” by Tom Cuthbertson is another great bicycle reference, with excellent drawings and clear directions.

When I finally started driving, I discovered one of the best manuals of all time, “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,” written by John Muir with illustrations by Peter Aschwanden. That was the book that convinced me I could do it, I could wrench on my Bug and on other things.

DSCN0618Even though I seldom consult them these days, I still keep those books around. Muir’s manual is just down the shelf from all the motorcycle references crammed into makeshift shelves in the workshop. I pull out those books whenever I pick up any tool for the motorcycles. I check what I’m doing because I don’t want to make any expensive mistakes.

I leave oil stains and scribbled notations on pages for future reference. Sometimes those marks and smudges remind me of past labor on machines, the way I can look at the page 90 illustration and recall working on my AMF Roadmaster in my father’s garage decades ago.

That’s the security of manuals. Working on the bikes, I may fumble about, but the manuals bring me back. And all of those pages led here.

The Value of Road Trips

One of the owners of the Unicorn Bookstore.
One of the owners of the Unicorn Bookstore.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Motorcycle travel