Sept. 13 | Day 7: We parked the motorcycles inside the hotel garage and spent four days in New Orleans, most of them prowling the French Quarter, which utterly fascinated me. I was seized by the energy and vibrancy of those streets, the architecture, the music on every corner, the people crowding the sidewalks. It awakened a long-dormant desire for street photography, to document every moment in Henri Cartier-Bresson style. These musicians were really good.
Elaborate wrought-iron balconies and posts are everywhere. I liked the solitary figure of the postman against the dark door, the color of the walls, the overhead fans on the balcony.
This couple was married in a public ceremony in Jackson Square and — in classic New Orleans tradition — celebrated all the way down Chartres Street to their reception, accompanied by the Jaywalkers, a second-line brass band.
I was desperate to capture the intensity of the violinist’s face against the dark doorway behind her, but I didn’t get it. I distracted her, I think, violating the first rule of what not to do when photographing someone. I had only a wide-angle lens and was lying in the street, oblivious, shooting upward, searching for the best angle. Her nervous companion stood guard and prevented a delivery truck from running over me.
We took a streetcar named St. Charles to the Garden District. The car itself was right out of the 1950s, with marvelous old woodwork and small brass eyelets for the cord you pulled to signal the driver to stop.
And on the way home, we’ll do a one-day layover in Nashville and have dinner at the Loveless Café, one of our favorite places. We’ve been there before, but never on the motorcycles.
Note from the mission historian: The Loveless Cafe has no relation to The Loveless movie, a 1981 film noir by Kathryn Bigelow starring Willem Dafoe.
The restaurant began in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless sold fried chicken and biscuits out of their home to travelers on Highway 100. The food proved popular, they converted the house to a restaurant and later built a motel.
The motel eventually closed – small shops occupy the rooms these days – but the restaurant’s Southern culinary fare has become part of American mythos. You may have seen the Loveless Café on TV, on shows that venture out of big cities in search of country fare.
So Linda and I have made a date at the café. Being there on the motorcycles at the end of a ride will make the Loveless Café part of our folklore, too.
Finally got around to cracking open the Vespa’s headlight nacelle to install brackets for the scooter’s new windscreen. It’s another Italian engineering nightmare.
Linda accidentally dropped her bike and broke the Givi windscreen last year, just before we were due to leave for Thunder Bay. I pulled the screen and she rode 3,300 miles without it, in sunshine and in rain.
For the upcoming New Orleans ride, I ordered her a new screen — a Genuine Vespa Part! — from ScooterWest in San Diego. Now all I have to do is install it.
Things went south quickly when I saw the Givi and Vespa mounting brackets were different.
Both use expanding sleeves that slip inside metal tubes in the Vespa’s headset. Once installed, the Givi brackets can be unbolted from the front with no fuss.
Ah, but the Genuine Vespa Part requires the headlight nacelle be taken apart every time the brackets need to be removed. Another Rube Goldberg triumph.
After much procrastination, delay, and downright dithering, we’ve decided to forgo The Great River Road for now and head to New Orleans in September for this year’s motorcycle ride.
It’s never taken us this long to decide where the annual motorcycle ride will go and I can’t explain the delay. Time, age and work have been more of a distraction this year.
We figure about 2,400 miles total, but we don’t have a real mission profile yet. There are some good possibilities, including Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee, then southwest to Mobile, Alabama, where we’ll pick up coastal roads to New Orleans.
Then maybe we’ll head northeast on the Natchez Trace, which we haven’t been on since 2002.
Linda’s been to New Orleans twice, the last time for an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar last year, but I’ve never been there.
Closest I got was I-10 north of Lake Pontchartrain in 2000 in my uncle’s car during a madcap dash from San Diego to Flagler Beach, Florida, to my grandmother’s funeral. Not much joy then.
But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to arrive in New Orleans aboard a motorcycle. Perhaps that comes from reading too many Tennessee Williams plays, or being swept away by the romantic history of the French Quarter, or simply watching Easy Rider too many times. But at last, I’ll be there.
I’ve taken to dragging along a fistful of maps wherever I go, including our once-a-week date-night dinner. We’re planning the next motorcycle ride.
Though the maps may puzzle a waitress – “Are you guys going somewhere?” – and look odd next to the bread and chianti, it’s a chance to mellow out and just think ahead to where Linda and I want to go and how we’ll get there.
This year, we’re thinking about The Great River Road, a patchwork of scenic state roads that follow the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m a sucker for historic roads with names, but I hadn’t heard of this one until Ben Abramson, our Travel editor, mentioned it in a morning editorial meeting. Why am I not aware of this? I asked myself, and went to learn more.
It turns out The Great River Road is a 2,400-mile-long series of roads that runs through 10 states, from Minnesota to Louisiana. It’s been around since 1938. You can drive on either the western or eastern banks of the Mississippi.
It looks fascinating and sounds perfect for us. The only problem is getting there.
Logically, we’d like to travel the road north to south. The problem is getting out there: Itasca State Park in Minnesota, where the road begins, is about 1,300 miles from us. New Orleans, close to where it ends, is 1,100 miles away.
That means we’re traveling 2,400 miles just to get to and from the road. Add in the road and it’s 4,800 miles, more than we’ve ever done on two separate bikes. The most we’ve ever done on our separate bikes is 3,300 miles in 19 days.
We’re considering options:
Taking more time and doing the whole thing on two bikes;
Doing it two-up on one bike, probably Endurance, my BMW GS (which would also give us the opportunity to revisit the Natchez Trace on the way home);
Renting a U-Haul or somesuch and transporting the bikes to and from the start/endpoints ourselves.
Mission Logistics is working on it and will report back when they reach consensus. That’s us, of course. And a few waitresses, probably.
Took the Yamaha out for a fresh tank of gas, put Sta-Bil in, got on Endurance, the BMW, to do the same thing, turned the key and … nothing.
Even the dash clock was blank. “All right,” I think to myself, “I’ll charge up the battery.”
Once connected, the clock numbers reappeared but the charger stayed red, even after an hour, then started to get warm. So I pulled the unit out of the bike and tried to charge it again on the workbench. Same thing.
The BMW needs a new battery.
It’s my own fault – I’m just not riding it enough. I’ve taken Terra Nova, the Yamaha, for our last four long-distance rides and occasionally to work. The BMW is just sitting there, waiting.
I replaced Endurance’s battery back in May, I think, with a low-end Yuasa from the local dealer and thought it would be sufficient. And now, through cold weather and prolonged inactivity, it’s expired.
Like motorcycle tires, motorcycle batteries, the decent ones anyway, aren’t cheap. But you have to use them, otherwise the tires will crack and fail and the batteries will go dark.
So on our drive down to Myrtle Beach for comp-time vacation, we ended up stopping at Morton’s BMW in Fredericksburg where I bought an upper-range Odyssey. I’ll take it home and install it aboard the BMW with many apologies and a promise to take it out more this year.
It’s short, but this: I pulled the Dowco cover off Terra Nova this afternoon and took the bike out for the most mundane of reasons, a ride to the post office. But it was the first ride of the season, maybe 6-7 miles.
Afterwards I filled the gas tank and added Sta-Bil. God knows what sort of weather is ahead.
Tomorrow I’ll do the same for Endurance and Linda’s scooters. I do miss riding.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 orIn 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’sHero: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
I actually had 22 songs in that corner of the iPod, keeping a few in reserve to be swapped in if needed.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.”
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:
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
All 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.
But 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.
“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.
So 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.
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.
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.
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.
I started the motor and it rolled into life. We moved, then slipped, years toolate, 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.
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.
And 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.
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.
“You know how beautiful things are when you’re traveling.”
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.