A Stop at Bryant’s Grocery

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Sept. 19 | Day 13: We find the store — “the ghostliest structure in the South,” author Paul Theroux says —  shrouded in kudzu on a lonely stretch of Leflore County Road 518.

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Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market is a collapsing two-story brick building in Money, a tiny community in Mississippi. The day after leaving Hattiesburg, Linda and I are stopping here on the motorcycle ride home from New Orleans, now 300 miles behind us.

This is a sacred place, worthy of attention. What happened here 62 years ago is still with us today.

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It was in this store, on Aug. 24, 1955, that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, spoke with a white woman behind the counter and was horrifically murdered four days later in an act of brutality that shocked the nation.

Carolyn Bryant, 21, was the woman in the store. On Aug. 28, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, both white, came with guns to the house where Till was staying with relatives. They took Till away.

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Till’s body, naked and mutilated beyond recognition1, was found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31; he had been shot in the head. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had accosted her and whistled at her — a black man propositioning a white woman2.

After deliberating 67 minutes, an all-white jury acquitted the two men on Sept. 23.

Like Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., 10 years later, coverage of Till’s death and the murder trial grabbed the national spotlight and helped drive the American civil rights movement3.

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Though Till was a teen, his brutal death might have eluded national attention during those unforgiveable Jim Crow times — countless other African-Americans were killed by whites who also escaped justice — had it not been for two things:

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Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. “I said I want the world to see this because, there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like,” she said. The Sept. 3 service drew 50,000 people. Photographs of Till’s body were published in African-American magazines and sparked additional outrage. Till was buried Sept. 64.

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J.W. Milam, left, Roy Bryant and their wives celebrate the acquittal.

After the acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam5 for a story that appeared Jan. 24, 1956, in the mass-market magazine Look6. The two men admitted killing Till and expressed no remorse. Despite the confession, they could not be tried again under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment7.

All this horror started here, in a simple grocery store that’s falling into itself. The roof is long gone, there are trees growing inside. The wood porch has collapsed. A sign stapled to plywood over broken windows warns trespassers will be prosecuted8.

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We shut down the bikes and look around. A Mississippi Freedom Trail sign out front explains the store’s significance. We later learn this sign is new — someone fired bullets into the first one, requiring a replacement.

The road is quiet with only two or three cars passing by. It’s as deserted as a town after the apocalypse.

Across the street, there’s an abandoned Canada National railroad locomotive that looks as if its engine has caught fire. The building next to the store looks like a old gas station under refurbishment. But there’s no one around.

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The store itself is cordoned off by orange netting, itself falling down. In the back, wood and old lengths of metal gutters are lying where they’ve fallen. On the south side, where the walls aren’t as heavy with vines, I can see the ghost of wood stairs angling up to the second floor.

And yet there are old signs of tribute: a white plastic planter is on the old concrete porch and there are long-dead flowers, roses perhaps, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with ribbon.

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So people have come here to remember Emmett Till and 1955, which is why we’re here, too. The institutionalized and relentless subjugation, the brutality of the murder,  the callous indifference of those who committed it and those who acquitted them, is beyond my comprehension.

And though it seems like a poor effort on our part to even stop here, we would have been remiss in simply passing by.

History like this has to be remembered, because it will confront us again and again and again. I think of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, for example, and I wonder how those people would have treated Emmett Till.

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As we prepare to leave, I find thick shards of glass on the concrete porch, small pieces of a shattered front window. I consider taking one for a colleague I respect, a journalist and virtual civil-rights scholar.

I hold the glass for a while, thinking about putting it in Terra Nova’s tankbag, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s like stealing from a cemetery. I put it back but I tell my colleague about it after Linda and I get home.

“You did the right thing,” she says. “You were on hallowed ground.”

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1 — He was identified by a ring on his hand.
2 — After decades of silence, Carolyn Bryant, now 83, recanted her testimony in 2007. In an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she said Till did not accost her or touch her. She was unable to say exactly what Till did in the store that day, but she did say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her memoirs are at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives but won’t be made public until 2036.
3 — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, is credited with starting the freedom movement. She considered moving to the back of the bus, but, as she told the Rev. Jesse Jackson later, she thought about Emmett Till and “couldn’t do it.”
4 — Till’s body was exhumed in June 2005 as part of a federal investigation into Deep South murders during the Jim Crow era. DNA tests proved conclusively that the body was that of Till, but no new charges were filed. The original glass-topped coffin, which by law could not be reburied, was later found at the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2009.
5 — J.W. Milam died of cancer in 1981; Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.
6 — William Bradford Huie and Look magazine paid Milam, Bryant and their attorney a total of $4,000 for the interview, about $37,000 today, accounting for inflation.
7 — Huie talked to both men again for another Look article that was published on Jan. 22, 1957. He found both had suffered financially after the community turned against them. Black workers refused to work for them and black boycotts shut down their businesses. Even many whites turned against them, some fearing they might be shot, too. It was difficult for the two to get loans for farming.
At the time of the second interview, Milam was driving the same Chevrolet pickup truck in which Till was taken.
Over the years, other details have been brought to light. Tyson’s spellbinding 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lists others present at the time of Till’s death and postulates a relative of Milam pulled the fatal trigger.
8 — The building is reportedly owned by a son of one of the jurors who acquitted Bryant and Milam. Over the years, plans have been floated to turn it into some sort of civil rights museum, but nothing has come to fruition.

 

Down on P6

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Friday, Dec. 29: It wasn’t that long or notable of a ride, but I took Terra Nova to work this day, suiting up for temperatures that — according to the finicky dashboard thermometer — ranged from 27 degrees in the driveway to 37 degrees in the parking garage.

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I pulled the Dow cover off the Yamaha, inserted the key, and thought if she starts, I’ll take her in. The engine hesitated at first, then turned over and ran smoothly. That’s it, then.

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The helmet still has bugs from the New Orleans ride.

The only problem was the cold air streaming through the helmet, setting my face on fire and forcing me to lower the faceshield. But it was fine, and I was the only motorcyclist on the road I saw. As I was pulling off the jacket and supporting layers at work, I got comments of appreciation from a fellow biker, a Vespa owner.

I parked on P6, the lowest level of our parking garage, figuring I could hook up my small charger if Terra Nova’s battery needed it for the ride home. But it didn’t.

We live about 5 miles from work, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, it felt good. Woke up the next morning to find an inch of snow on the ground.

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Why is a Motorcycle Like a Fountain Pen?

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“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.

Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.

Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.

In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.

In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.

On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.

You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.

With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatingly bad form) or start over.

So you have to think ahead with both.

I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.

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I Am the Angel of Death — Behold, Thy Day of Reckoning is At Hand

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“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”

— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.

It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.

“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.

Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.

It happens when I’m about half a football field behind her. A beat-up brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move around a white panel truck and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.

I see this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself for the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it. The picoseconds stretch out and I start thinking about how I’ll stop behind her, prevent cars from running over her, stop the bleeding, call an ambulance, watch them load her into the back.

She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.

And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.

She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.

Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.

My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.

And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.

I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.

Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.

We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.

But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”

I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.

Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.

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It Ain’t Easy to See the Easy Rider Cemetery

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Sept. 15 | Day 9: We didn’t ride to New Orleans because of Easy Rider, but since we were there anyway, why not visit a site that was featured in the movie?

I like to ride motorcycles, so it stands to reason I watch motorcycle movies, though most are admittedly dreadful.

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But I will watch Easy Rider every now and again. The 1969 classic, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, follows two long-haired chopper riders from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

There’s a memorable — some say confusing — New Orleans sequence in which Fonda and Hopper and two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) drop acid in a cemetery, have sex, and generally freak out.

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Those scenes were shot in New Orleans Cemetery No. 11, which opened in 1789 in the French Quarter. Filming took place without permission and the Catholic Church, which owns the cemetery, was reportedly scandalized when the movie opened.

I’m looking for the large statue that Fonda climbed on, and — using real, personal angst to drive his character in the film — began talking about his mother’s suicide.

Frances Ford Seymour, the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and mother of actors Peter and Jane Fonda, committed suicide2 on April 14, 1950. Peter was 10 years old.

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As the camera rolled, he used that awful memory to get into his character’s bad trip while sitting on “Italia” in the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb, a mausoleum that was built in 1857 at Cemetery No. 1.

“Italia” is the statue I want to see.

We get to the gate at Cemetery No. 1 and a woman sitting at a card table just inside says, “That’ll be $20 for the tour.”

“Excuse me,” I say. “We’re not with the tour. We just want to look around ourselves.”

“You can’t do that,” the woman says. “You have to join a tour. It’s $20 per person.”

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“You have to pay to look around the cemetery?”

“Yes,” the woman says. “You have to join the tour. It’s $20 per person.”

“Hmm.” I say. “Well, no, thank you.”

And we leave. Forty dollars to look at a cemetery?

I’m rather stunned at this, and I kvetch to Linda on our way back to the hotel. A sign at the gate says tour proceeds are used for the cemetery’s upkeep, but it looks as though most of the money is going elsewhere.

“Oh, yes,” says the hotel concierge upon our return. “They’ve been doing that for years. It helps keep out the vandals. I’m surprised they didn’t charge more.”

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We later find out that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public in 2015 but allowed tour companies to pay the diocese for rights to conduct for-pay tours. If you have a relative buried there, you can apply for a permit to visit.

So Cemetery No. 1 is now a for-profit venture.

Still curious about New Orleans cemeteries, we take a streetcar out to the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, built in 1833, where most of these pictures were taken. It reminds me a bit of Père Lachaise in Paris, historic, sobering, haunted.

I later discover that “Italia” has not fared very well. At some point, either by vandals or natural means, the statue’s head has come off, along with one of the hands. Other statues are damaged, too.

Which is obviously pretty sad. Maybe I was too quick to forgo the cemetery tour, but tell me who’s repairing that statue and I’ll be the first to put my contribution directly into their marble-dust-covered hands.

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1 — Yes, that’s its real name.
2 — Jane Fonda, writing her memoirs decades later, discovered her mother had been sexually abused as a child.

 

‘Say, What is This?’

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That’s what we heard from lots of people while test-driving a 2017 Polaris Slingshot SLR for a USA Today review. The Slingshot, which looks like a sports car but is categorized as a three-wheeled motorcycle, attracted lots of attention.

It was unnerving at first, but we got used to it. It’s fun to drive, but I’ll stick with conventional motorcycles for now.

A link to the USAT review is here.

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Where Does Your Music Come From?

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Sept. 14 | Day 8: We were in some home furnishings shop that Linda had dragged me into on Chartres or Decatur Street, when I start listening to the music playing in the store and thought to myself this is pretty good.

It’s a haunting song, and knowing I would never remember any lyrics that would let me find it later, I ask the 20-something woman at the counter if she can tell me the title.

She looks at her computer screen and says, “Peaches. The group is ‘In the Valley Below,’” and bingo, I realize I’ve made another accidental music discovery.

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Some people say our taste in music stalls out as we age (we stop listening to new stuff and are content with what we know) while others say our preferences simply evolve.

Growing up, I didn’t really seek out music. I caught stuff on the radio sometimes, and benefited from suggestions of my more-astute friends.

For example, Steve Wargo, one of my oldest friends, introduced me to David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Pure Prairie League, and many others, for which I am eternally grateful. Many of those songs are on my iPod today.

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But nowadays, music seems to find its way to me by happenstance, with some notable tunes surfacing during our motorcycle rides. Some of the music I’ve discovered by accident:

  • Into My Soul” by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gabin in Budapest, Hungary, during our 2009 ride.
  • “Wish to Fly” from “Best of Chilhowie” in Zvolen, Slovakia, in our 2011 ride.
  • Powerful” from Skye Edwards’ “Mind How You Go” in a series of motel room AMC commercials on my way back from San Diego aboard Endurance in 2006.

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There are others, of course, but the motorcycle tunes seem to stand out the most. The music filters through the cacophony of life and I pick it up in bits and pieces, track it down the best I can, and add it to my collection. Maybe I need to develop new listening habits. Or just ride more.

Kept the Date

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Sept. 20 | Day 14: As promised — back in August — we made it to the Loveless Café in Nashville on Wednesday night, parking the bikes in the coveted “motorcycles only” spaces after riding in from Memphis that morning.

We were tired, so our celebratory dinner was rather subdued. The restaurant turned out to be over-air-conditioned, so I got a gray souvenir sweatshirt for Linda. It was easier than breaking into the sidecases and less ridiculous than wearing the riding jacket.

Best biscuits and jam I ever had, though.

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All on the Same Day (Part 2: Selma, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: The waterproof mapcase resigns without notice somewhere between Underwood and Selma, turning my AAA Alabama issue into rain-soaked mush. We’re playing hit-and-run with Hurricane Irma’s skirts today and we soldier on, getting irreparably drenched.

We reach Selma and stop on a side street before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge so I can switch on the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. A long stoplight separates Linda and me, so I cross the Alabama River alone.

That bridge, a symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, opened in May 1940 and was named — doesn’t this just figure — after Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate general and KKK leader in Alabama. He died in 1907 and is buried about a mile from it.

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The span was designated a national landmark in 2013. Today, it’s quiet with meager traffic moving through the rain. Weather-wise, it’s a miserable day.

We park the bikes at the bridge’s southern end and look around. A group of tourists, students maybe, files off the bridge and crowds into a tour bus, but otherwise it’s quiet.

We walk across the bridge ourselves, both ways. It’s a solid, massive structure. I try, but can’t begin to imagine, what those brave marchers felt in 1965, knowing that baton- and tear-gas-wielding state troopers were waiting for them.

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There’s a small park dedicated to Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement, but it’s deserted and lonely in the rain. Nearby shops appear rundown; some are boarded up.

Selma is located in Dallas County, which has a high unemployment rate: 7.7% in August, compared to the national average of 4.4%. An Auburn University report sets the county’s poverty rate at nearly 37%. We see ample evidence of this as we ride through Selma.

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This isn’t white guy discovers Southern poverty — Southern poverty is not new, economic stats for other Southern counties are shockingly higher, and it’s been this way for generations. But this is the first I’m seeing with my own eyes.

And history waits patiently everywhere.

We’re wet, tired, and hungry, and Linda finds a Church’s Chicken outlet about a mile from the bridge. We park the bikes and peel off wet rainsuits with difficulty.

Behind the restaurant, we can’t help but notice an abandoned four-story brick building, its windows broken, grass growing wild. “Good Samaritan Center” is across the front.

I’ll think it’s some sort of housing unit until later, when I discover it’s the Good Samaritan Hospital.

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The Good Samaritan Hospital. Oh my God. This is where Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, a Baptist church deacon and civil rights activist from Marion, Ala., died on Feb. 25, 1965. He was shot by an Alabama state trooper following a peaceful protest for a jailed civil rights worker. Jackson, unarmed, was shielding his mother from police assault.

Jackson’s death was the catalyst for the Bloody Sunday march weeks later. The people injured during Bloody Sunday were treated at this same hospital1.

But I’m unaware I’m standing in front of a historic place as we turn away and enter the restaurant.

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There are two or three other customers. We grab a table, pile the dripping rainsuits in a corner (they’ll create a puddle roughly the size of Lake Superior, which I’ll mop up later) and order chicken.

As we eat and fuss with maps, other customers begin to drift in and soon the place is half-filled. As it happens, we’re the only whites there. A couple folks, seeing the helmets, ask about our ride and Linda entertains them with stories about the Vespa. They wish us well.

One guy in a Minnesota Vikings shirt engages us in lengthy conversation, telling us about himself and asking where we’re from. He asks, as politely as possible, if I have any money and I give him two or three dollars I find in a jacket pocket.

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Seeing this, a friend of his, a younger guy in a baseball cap, inserts himself amiably into our conversation and they exchange few friendly barbs. It’s plain they know one another. (Linda will later say she thought he was a counselor of some sort — he had that vibe.) As I pick up the rainsuits, preparing to leave, the baseball cap guy asks:

“Say, how much, how much did you give that guy?”

“Oh, not much,” I say. “A dollar or two, I think. Not much.”

“Listen, I know that guy,” Baseball Cap says. “He’s just gonna drink it up. You don’t have to give him something.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Here,” Baseball Cap says, pulling something out of his jeans pocket. “Y’all are traveling. I want you to be safe, to travel safe. Here, take this.” And he presses some crumpled bills in my hand.

I’m astonished. Even a non-motorcycle person can see Linda and I are not in need. We’re wearing pricey, armored riding suits (mine with patches from the places we’ve traveled — Slovakia, Hungary, Quebec and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and carrying Arai helmets, one with a GoPro video camera attached.

“Sir, this is really, really nice of you, but, really, we’re okay,” I say. “Please, I really can’t take this.”

“No, no, you keep it,” he says. “Y’all are on the road. You keep it, okay?”

And this is where I fail miserably. In the milliseconds that follow, I struggle to think coherently but I can’t find a way to gracefully decline. Baseball Cap is totally sincere.

“All right. Okay.” I say. “Thank you, sir. This is very kind of you, thank you.” And we shake hands.

“Y’all be good,” he says, as we leave.

I take the crumpled bills and shove them securely into an empty pants pocket, where they’ll stay for the next 130 miles as I wonder, in the solitude of my helmet, why a stranger in one of the poorest counties in America should give us a couple of bucks.

Everything is soaked, including that helmet. At fuel stops, it’s like sticking my head in a bucket of cold water when I put it on.

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We press south through steady rain. The Vespa runs low on fuel and the Oak Hill Grocery on Alabama 21 has only 87 octane (the bikes prefer 91) and an awning that doesn’t provide much cover. I pour our 1-gallon reserve into Linda’s tank and top it off with 87 as she tries to stop the rain from falling in.

Finally, we arrive at Atmore, Ala., our destination for the night.

“All I need is a guest laundry and some old towels and I’ll be happy,” I tell Linda as we shut down the bikes. It’s after dark and the rain has let up at last.

She reports the hotel doesn’t have any rags. “They say they threw out everything a week ago.”

I won’t be deterred. We need rags to stuff inside our sopping helmets, boots and gloves, to dry them out. We end up taking Terra Nova to a Walmart five miles away, where we find they’ve just had a power outage and are waiting for their computers to recover. Holding a couple stacks of towels, we make friends in the delayed checkout line.

Our long wet day is winding down at last. Inside our room, the gear is spread out to dry. Bath towels are stuffed inside our boots and in both helmets. Washcloths are inserted into our gloves. I’m using the guest laundry machines to wash and dry everything I can. We’re good.

Until I clear out my riding suit and find the crumpled bills given me by the baseball cap guy in Selma. I thought he’d given me two dollars.

He didn’t. There were two five-dollar bills in that pocket. Ten bucks. Ten bucks from a guy who thought I needed it more than he did.

“Look at this,” I say to Linda, and we talk about what to do with it, how to pay it forward2.

It’s only much later that night, when everything is dry and folded and put away, when the room is dark and silent and I’m awake and staring at the ceiling, that I think about how I didn’t even ask his name. Or those of the two landscapers in Underwood who stopped to lift the Vespa.

Or how folks who have little can be more willing to offer help than those with a lot.

And how all this — all of this — happened on the same day.

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1 — Good Samaritan was built in 1944 and closed in 1983. In 2016, city and county officials proposed reopening the hospital as a specialized clinic; funding did not materialize and the plans remain in limbo.
2 — We later donated to the Selma Food Bank.

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All on the Same Day (Part 1: Underwood, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: We suit up for rain that morning in Birmingham, Ala., knowing we’ll get wet this day, even though the mission navigator1 has kept us away from Hurricane Irma. It’s already drizzling as I load the Vespa and Terra Nova.

We leave I-65 and head south on county roads toward Selma, Ala., a holy site of the American civil rights movement.

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It was there on March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, that Alabama state troopers prevented a group of voting rights protesters from marching from Selma to Montgomery by brutally attacking and beating them bloody.

That horrific assault, the savagery of which cannot be overstated — photos and videos of it are still difficult to see, even today – galvanized the American public and Lyndon Johnson ordered federal troops and National Guardsmen to protect the marchers in a subsequent attempt. They walked for five days and reached Montgomery on March 25.

The violence of that time tipped the balance of American opinion. Historians say it made it easier to pass the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

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The courage of those marchers, who knew the awful danger they faced, has never failed to move me. We plan on stopping in Selma and seeing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an iconic focal point of the marches.

The rain grows stronger, nearly torrential, as we head south on 261 and 17 past Helena, Brantleyville and other small towns. This is classic rural country, black asphalt roads, gently rolling hills, lots of trees and fields. Traffic is almost nonexistent. The rain forces me to keep the helmet visor cracked open a bit, up enough to prevent it fogging up, down enough to keep the rain from stinging my face.

In Underwood, Highway 17 ends at 22. We turn left, passing a small Citgo gas station, then a quick right to head south on County Road 15.

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Ahead of me, Linda makes the right onto 15 and I watch in shocked amazement as the Vespa slips out below her and she falls down hard on the asphalt.

The scooter slides across the road on its right side and she is underneath. I am so surprised I find myself thinking How did that happen? Is she moving?

I hit the brakes, slow down, and roll ahead of her, thinking to myself, Be careful. Don’t make this worse.

I stop Terra Nova, hit the kill switch for an emergency shutdown, kick the sidestand, and get off as quickly as I can. She’s still on the ground as I rush over.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I ask. The Vespa’s engine is still running and I hit its kill switch and start pulling at the scooter, trying to move it off her.

She says she’s all right. “I don’t know what happened,” she says, and starts wriggling out from underneath the Vespa.

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I start to defocus from crisis mode and realize — the perceptions arriving late, a second or two out of sync — that a couple of cars have already passed us without stopping. Some sort of white SUV glides past, barely slowing down.

Then there are two guys beside me, in the rain, and they help wrestle the Vespa upright. They’re Hispanic, two working guys, their truck says they’re landscapers. Linda gets up and we thank them profusely, in our crappy Spanish: gracias señors, muchas gracias.

They are the only ones who stop.

Linda walks back to the gas station, literally across the street, and I push the Vespa behind her. Rain is still falling. I park the scooter under the storefront awning, make sure she is all right, and fetch the Yamaha.

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We get drinks and Motrin from the gas station store, make sure we’re calmed down, and assess what happened. “What did I do wrong?” she says.

Not a damn thing. I had eyes on her the entire time she was making the turn and I assure her she did nothing wrong. She made a proper turn at a cautious speed. Her tires have good tread and were properly inflated. I had checked them myself.

Searching for a reason — we always need to know why — I walk back out in the rain, looking for oil or coolant on the road surface, something that would have thrown the Vespa. I find nothing.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The simplest explanation, the one I believe, is that something on the road surface made her fall. She’s wearing good riding gear, which absorbed some of the impact, but still…

“What do you want to do?” I ask, knowing her answer will decide whether we abort the mission here and now. “Do you want to stop or keep going?”

“I’m okay,” she says. “I might be a little sore later. But let’s keep going.”

This is worthy of comment: As you may imagine, many people get spooked after falling off a motorcycle, even a low-speed get-off, especially not knowing exactly why it happened. Self-doubt arrives and towels get thrown in. It’s really easy to quit and go home.

We saddle up and head out. She makes the same turn on 15 without incident and I find myself thinking that’s a hell of a woman as we ride on toward Selma. The rain continues to fall.

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1 — That would be Linda.

 

But They Did Get Us Home

Oct. 1 | Six days later: We got back on Sept. 25, having traveled 2,896 miles in about 18 days – 17 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, to be exact. The bikes ran well, but not without complications.

On the return leg in Decaturville, Tenn., the Vespa’s speedometer and odometer died, the needle comatose at zero, making me suspect I had not tightened the speedometer cable while installing the new windscreen back home.

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I tore into the headlight nacelle – again – at Starbase Nashville, Linda’s parents’ home, only to discover the cable was attached but broken. The four closest shops told me the part would have to be special-ordered. I decided we could go without, promising to replace it once we got home.

Again underway, outside of Ashland, Ky., the Vespa began to hesitate a bit, a microsecond of indecision when Linda accelerated on long downhill runs. It was annoying but not particularly troublesome if it did not get worse.

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We made it home without further incident, arriving after dark, exhausted. I pulled everything off the bikes and put the shrouds on. I left them in the driveway like that for six days, as we went back to work, paid bills, and sorted through our gear.

With time to breathe, I walked the Vespa to its parking spot out back (making mental notes on what it needed) climbed aboard Terra Nova, turned the key, and hit the starter button.

The engine cranked, but did not fire. Wait, what?

I switched off, waited a bit, and tried again. Same thing. Well, that’s never happened before.

Just for chuckles, I tried the Vespa. It fired right up.

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I could not get upset — still can’t. The bikes had done what we’d asked on five consecutive longrides without so much as a cough. So I dare not complain when my motorcycle strands me in my own driveway at the end of a ride. Of all places to break down, that has to be the best.

And finally, as if to emphasize end of mission, I had to cut the lawn, which resembled a rain forest after three weeks of neglect. But the Briggs & Stratton needed gas, so I poured some of Terra Nova’s precious 93 octane reserve into the definitely-not-a-motorcycle lawnmower engine. It fired right up, too.


Addendum: I went to the online Yamaha Super Tenere forum and found Terra Nova probably has a problem with its ECU — engine control unit, the bike’s computer. I charged the battery and started the engine using a multi-step process of ignition key and kill switch manipulation. Later, it started normally when the weather warmed up. So she’s mobile, but there’s more to be done.

Four from the Quarter

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

A Date at the Loveless

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It took me a while to punch through work and the other obligations that kept crowding in, but we finally have a mission profile that will take us to New Orleans and back.

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This year’s ride won’t be on a par with Long Way Round but it will offer some high points:

We may see an old friend of mine from high school – 40 years ago! – if our schedules allow.

We’ll ride the Natchez Trace again. We rode the Trace exactly once 15 years ago and we’re looking forward to seeing it.

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We’ll get to ride along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans and we’ll ride part of U.S. 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan in his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

We may get the chance to visit the African American Military History Museum, which has a special permanent exhibit for Jesse Leroy Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.

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.

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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.

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And We’re Off to the Races

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Back on Track

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“Yeah, I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

– Peter Fonda (as Wyatt), “Easy Rider”

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.

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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.

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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.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end like Easy Rider.

Mission Logistics Is On It

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Another Damn Battery

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Pulling the BMW battery. Cody is always willing to help.

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.”

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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.

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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.

First Ride of the Year

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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.

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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.

Great Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

The USAT review is here.

You Guys Ride Harleys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s just sitting there.”

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

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

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

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

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

A Couple of Souvenirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point of Departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Really, Really Depends on How You Say It

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

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

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These.

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

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

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

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

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

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Not these.

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

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

Boiler Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The 180-Mile Divert

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

– James Clavell, “Shogun”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

polaris

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

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

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

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

“But you should be okay.”

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

“Oh, yes,” he says, “Easy.”

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

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

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

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

Overheard at Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No glitter,” her companion says, softly.

This Year’s Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, yes, I suppose it is pretty

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Linda records video in Manassas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The USAT review is here.

 

Motorcycles in Movies

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Prince aboard the Purple Rain motorcycle.

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

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

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

Steve McQueen’s Triumph in The Great Escape

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

Marlon Brando’s Triumph in The Wild One

Michael Parks’ Harley Sportster in Then Came Bronson

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

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

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

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

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The USAT story is here.

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

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

 

What Vera Wang and Snap-On Have in Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vera Wang.

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

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

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

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

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Leica M3

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

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

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

Reading & Riding

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

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

Oh, I do.

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

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

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

Vintage Kerouac novel...
Vintage Kerouac novel…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alain de Botton.
Alain de Botton.

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

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

The Fifth Helmet

The helmets.
The helmets.

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

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

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

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

On the shelf.
On the shelf.

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

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

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

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

The white paint scar.
The white paint scar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first Bieffe.
The first Bieffe.

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

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

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

The Imaginary Garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans
Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans

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

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

Harley-Davidson Night Train
Harley-Davidson Night Train

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

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

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

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

People You Meet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denis Neron.
Denis Neron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shell station on Boulevard Rene Levesque.

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

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

“Have you looked at those?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the Dark Horse

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

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

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

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

2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse

 

 

 

One for McCray

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

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

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

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

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

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

VGT
The venerable SunTour VGT rear derailleur.

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

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

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

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

A Great Place to Pee

DSCN2661
Which way to the Noguchi gallery, please?

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

— Alain de Botton, “The Architecture of Happiness”

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

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

Greatness awaits within.
Greatness awaits within.

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

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

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

16 Songs

ipod 01

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

– Joni Mitchell, “My Secret Place”

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

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

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

Karen and Richard Carpenter
Karen and Richard Carpenter

This is what she heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnny nash
Johnny Nash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

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

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

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

Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel

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

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

Motorcycle travel