16 Songs

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

– Joni Mitchell, “My Secret Place”

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

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

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

Karen and Richard Carpenter
Karen and Richard Carpenter

This is what she heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnny nash
Johnny Nash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

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

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

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

Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel

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

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

The Worst Day

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

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

– Yvon Chouinard

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

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

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

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

restaurant-la-maison
The snooty restaurant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perce to Matane.
Perce to Matane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irving gas station.
The Irving gas station.

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

Where’s Linda?

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

Then a few more…

And a few more…

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

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

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

SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE.

Ah, jeez, I think. Here we go.

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

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

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

No answer. At 2:15 I send:

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

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

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

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One of my favorites in Canada.

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

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

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

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

Working on the GoPro.
Working on the GoPro.

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

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

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

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

And that was the worst day.

Uh-Oh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working space.
Workshop space, with essential Mountain Dew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the rear.
Except for the rear.

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

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

The 10th Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

logoImpression

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

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

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

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

Remnants of A Man’s Life

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

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

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

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

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

Hardware in Jif jars.
Hardware in Jif jars.

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

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

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

The tools.
The tools.

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

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

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

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

 

That Forlorn Little Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrecting ’Em

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

 

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

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

— Ted Simon, “Jupiter’s Travels”

 

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

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

In Jessup, Maryland.
In Jessup, Maryland.

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

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

Just a quick charge.
Just a quick charge.

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

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

Dealing With Over-Design

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

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

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

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

Oh my God, what a frickin’ nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

Labeling the fasteners helpled.
Labeling the fasteners helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Ride

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

– Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From 1982
From 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Short a Season

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Hopper Moments

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

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

– Edward Hopper

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas, 1940
Gas, 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nighthawks, 1942
Nighthawks, 1942

Talking About the Vespa

talk1

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

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

talk2

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

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

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

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

talk4

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

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

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

talk6

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

But their rides have been too short, he says.

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

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

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

The Odd Couple

NS scenic 1

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

–T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reacquisition, finally

vespa.gas1

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unable to Reacquire (Part 2)

LARGE_621581_vespa_gts_fuel_pump

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unable to Reacquire (Part 1)

DSCN0703

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

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

 

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

It didn’t turn out that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What caused it to stall?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t get it started,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But today’s not over yet.

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN0697

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

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

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

 

‘It’s My Own Invention’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points of Reference

DSCN0613

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Road Trips

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

I used to think that the best rides – mostly by motorcycle – were long, elaborately planned missions that took time and much deliberation and savored in anticipation.

My attitude has changed over time, however, and now I see the value in shorter rides, in road trips, and what you find along the way.

One of my first road trips was with my friend Van, one of the best people I’ve ever known. We met in 1975 on my first date with his cousin. She later became my first wife, then my first divorce, and dropped out of my life. But Van and I had become good friends and have stayed that way, to this day.

We always talked about doing a road trip, but the opportunity didn’t materialize until September 1994. We both found ourselves with no obligations over a long weekend, so I drove from my place in Sandusky, Ohio, to his house in Morgantown, West Virginia.

This was in my early days of motorcycle riding; I had my first bike, a 1974 Honda CB750 that I didn’t trust for a long ride and so my Chevy Corsica was the vehicle of choice. We drove east, to the coast. It had been too long since either of us had seen the Atlantic, so we decided on Ocean City, Maryland.

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It was a good drive. We stopped at Antietam National Battlefield, which was fascinating and emotionally moving. That’s worth another visit. We made it to Ocean City, stayed a day, and headed back.

I don’t know how we found it, but we saw a used-book store on U.S. 50 in Trappe, Maryland. It was called the Unicorn Bookshop, and (since we’re both bibliophiles) we had to stop.

What a perfect bookstore. It was literally crammed with books, the shelves packed and books stacked in the aisles and hallways so you had to edge yourself carefully around the bookcases, like a mountain climber wary of starting an avalanche. But it was organized enough that you could find the subject matter that interested you and still stumble across something interesting on the floor. And it was church-quiet, no corporate-mandated music blaring from hidden speakers, just the buzz of fluorescent lights in the ceiling.

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I was hunting for motorcycle-related books in those days (still am) and I found a copy of Bike Fever by Lee Gutkind. It’s still in my collection today. I was happy to score it, and we went home satisfied.

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Fast-forward 10 years and I’m now married to Linda and we’ve been living outside of Washington, D.C., for four years. We take our first trip to the coast, on U.S. 50. To my astonishment, Unicorn is still there.

Inside, it’s exactly the same. Just for chuckles, I find the motorcycle shelf in the same place and by God, there’s another copy of Bike Fever. I buy it.

The counter still has an ancient Burroughs adding machine. The guy carefully writes up the purchase on a carbon-copy receipt and gives it to me. I drive home in wonder.

Fast-forward to January 2014, another 10 years later. Linda has found some antique stores in Salisbury, Maryland, so we plan a three-day weekend. Looking at the map, I see we’ll be on U.S. 50 again.

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And Unicorn is still there, unchanged, I mean really unchanged, like a Twilight Zone episode. That’s astounding, if you think about it. Small businesses don’t last and bookstores vanish more quickly than an April snowfall. And yet, here it is, still cramped and quiet, reminding me of the shop Alice visited in Through the Looking Glass, the shop with the sheep. I visit the motorcycle shelf again, fully expecting to find a third copy of Bike Fever, but it isn’t there. Perhaps there are limits to synchronicity.

But I find books, as I always do, including some for Van. I’ll give them to him soon, with Unicorn business cards slipped in the pages.

Unicorn probably isn’t a magical place that’s stopped in a backwater of Time, but there is something special about it. It’s the kind of thing you can only find on a road trip.

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Our most recent visit, Feb. 21, 2022. That’s owner Jim Dawson behind the counter.

There’s An Idea

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Apart from ogling bikes, one of the reasons I go to motorcycle shows is inspiration for improving my own.

Terra Nova, for example, needs some upgrades; she could use crash bars, a stronger bash plate, a decent set of auxiliary driving lights, a new pilot/pillion saddle and reconfigured passenger pegs. These items will be added one by one in time, much as I did with Endurance.

But I’ve also been pondering another addition to Terra Nova; a way to beef up the mounting brackets for her panniers.

Yamaha_Super_Tenere_25664A brief aside: Panniers – sometimes called sidecases – are the aluminum boxes you see on the rear. (Cruiser-type motorcycles, such as Harleys, usually have leather bags called saddlebags.) Whatever the name, they’re used to haul tools, spare parts, riding gear and maybe a quart of oil. Riders like me, inept at packing, tend to overstuff them.

Terra Nova’s panniers have a three-point mounting system: two at the top, one at the bottom front. I’ve been looking for a way to add a fourth, at the bottom rear. Something to strengthen the whole affair.

I spied a BMW R1200GS Adventure with a set of panniers and a removable bar across the back, which made me think of fabricating a similar set-up that would strengthen Terra Nova’s panniers. There’s an idea.

Ain’t Seen That Before

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I made a minor, but fascinating, discovery at the annual motorcycle show in Washington, D.C.: A small electric winch designed for motorcycles.

It was bolted to the tailplate of a 2013 Yamaha Super Tenere on display. It’s meant for off-road users; if you get stuck, you can use it to hoist your bike back to solid ground.

It’s a Warn XT17 portable winch, which the manufacturer says weighs 8.5 pounds and can pull up to 1,700 pounds. It has a 40-foot synthetic cord and runs off a 12-volt battery.

The display gave no clue how the winch is used, so I asked the guys at the Yamaha booth about it. They didn’t know. But the manufacturer’s video here does a good job of explanation.

I don’t do much riding like this, so it’s unlikely I’ll buy such a winch. Still, the idea is intriguing.

Clear Line of Sight

Bikes in shade, ice-cold Coke, roast beef sandwiches, and a clear view. Ahh...
Bikes in shade, ice-cold Coke, roast beef sandwiches, and a clear view. Ahh…

Most motorcycle riders carry a bit of justifiable paranoia when they ride: the notion that car drivers are out to get them. It’s a closely held awareness that helps keep riders alive.

For some riders, that paranoia extends to stops along the way, especially when we’re going long distances and stop to eat. No matter what sort of restaurant we’re in, I always want a window table so I can keep an eye on the parked bike. And, when we’re in motels, I want to be able to see the bike from my room window.

You get the idea.
You get the idea.

It isn’t always possible, of course. But parked or moving, motorcycles are vulnerable. The lack of enclosed space, and the other characteristics that make them great for travel, opens them up to prying eyes and hands. “On a cycle, the frame is gone,” says Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Thieves have been known to cut bungee cords and steal bags, tool rolls, and navigational gear.

We’ve been lucky and haven’t experienced any of this ourselves. But still, I try to be careful and maintain situational awareness. A clear line of sight to the bike is a great relief. And besides, it lets you admire your own ride.

Ohio Motorcycle is Closed

DSCN0494Found out last month that Ohio Motorcycle, a Honda/Yamaha/Triumph/KTM dealer off I-271 near Cleveland, has closed.

It’s not far from my parents’ house, so we’d stop there every now and again during visits home. They had a nice selection of bikes and gear and it was reassuring to know there was a Yamaha outlet nearby if Terra Nova developed a problem while we were out that way.

I’ve developed a habit of learning the location of motorcycle shops when we travel. It started with Endurance, and my discovery that BMW maintains a slim number of dealers around the country. So I’d do my research and start knitting my safety net.

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In a similar vein, I mapped out distances between gas stations on U.S. 395 between Reno, Nevada, and San Diego the first time I took Discovery on a ride to see my Uncle Robert. The bike has a four-gallon gas tank and I wanted to know where my refueling points were.

I don’t know the financial specifics of OM, but I’m aware that motorcycle businesses are difficult to maintain. There’s the seasonal aspect of riding; buyers come out mostly in nice weather. And some owners see bikes as expensive playthings that can be sold if economic times get tough.

But all motorcycle riders appreciate bike shops. They’re places of commerce, spare parts, and other necessities – and dreams. So I’m disappointed to see Ohio Motorcycle close. It’s one less light on the dark road home.

The First Ride of the Year

TN2My first ride of the year was to work today, Jan. 1, and wasn’t a big deal, since we live around five miles away. But the temperature was in the low 50s and it seemed a shame to leave the bike at home.

So I wheeled Terra Nova out front, suited up, shooed Lexi off the saddle, bungeed the laptop case on the back, and took off. I used the time on the road to get reacquainted with the bike and tried to figure out how many days it’s been since I last rode.

First rides of the year. You read about them all the time in motorcycle magazines. Most of them are mini-epics, conducted in the chill of winter, long stretches of roads under snow, tires cutting bands of gray across white.

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I can ride on snowy roads as long as the pavement isn’t icy or the snow too deep. But I remember one ride in snow in late December 1995, in Reno, Nevada. I had taken Discovery to work early in the day in good weather and left after dark.

By then it wasn’t particularly cold, but it was snowing, and I hadn’t expected it. It was one of those heavy, wet-flake snowfalls, the stuff that piles up fast, and I rode the bike slowly through snow two or three inches thick. My heart was in my mouth the whole time.

Getting back to the apartment wasn’t too difficult, but getting into the apartment complex was. Snow had piled up in the entryway and I had a devil of a time getting Discovery through it. The tires just couldn’t find a grip. I struggled getting it up the drive and finally succeeded, watched the whole time by a guard who never left his warm guardhouse to offer me a hand.

First rides of the year. Portents, we hope, of better days ahead.

Riding in Rain and Fog

DSCN0283Aug. 7, 2013: This was our worst day, weather-wise, on the Blue Ridge Parkway ride. Rolling northbound, we’d pulled into Little Switzerland, N.C., the night before, in the worst fog I’ve ever been in. It built up from drifting veils of mist into solid walls of fog that made me think of Holmes and Watson on the Devonshire moors in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’

The next morning was worse, foggy with cold rain, and even though we had the BRP almost to ourselves, it didn’t feel right. Visibility felt like 20 feet and the rain was the cloying type that clings to helmet faceshields and turns them opaque. The air was chill enough that the shields tended to mist up inside, making them twice as difficult to peer through. You could open the shield slightly for better airflow, but then the rain would creep in, stabbing your face with tiny needles of water.

We stopped at the Linn Cove Viaduct visitor’s center, where I shot this photo, and refueled in Blowing Rock, N.C., deciding to call it a day after a paltry 53 miles. It would have been foolish to continue. The hotel didn’t have a guest laundry, but it did have lots of spare rags as a courtesy for folks on motorcycles. We shrouded the bikes, brought in our bags, and began drying out our riding gear.

The Man in the Gift Shop

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Aug. 9, 2013: One of the many people Linda and I encountered on the Blue Ridge Parkway was the clerk at the gift shop at the Peaks of Otter Lodge http://www.peaksofotter.com/ .

We were northbound homeward and Linda wanted to stop in and look around so we did. It was empty of customers, except for one or two others who’d drifted in. The guy behind the shop counter broke the ice by saying to me, “I can’t keep my eyes off your jacket. What are all those patches?”

I gave him a brief explanation and told him where we were from and what we were doing. His name, according to his shirt tag, was Walter. He was from the Peaks of Otter region originally, but had moved away years before. He said he’d moved back from Princeton, New Jersey, where he’d been a technical writer.

I told him about our motorcycle rides in Europe, and he said he’d spent some time in Scotland in the 1980s, staying with friends who’d found lodging at a castle some miles from Edinburgh. The owners were able to get some sort of government subsidy by taking in boarders. Walter’s friends, a married couple, were lodgers; the husband was an oil rig worker on the North Sea and the wife, whose name was Sophia, was a teacher. She was always worried that her husband would get hurt in an oil rig accident. (He never did, fortunately.)

“I had tea with the owners, a duke and his wife,” Walter said. “They were always interested in who their boarders were.”

I asked how long he’d been living here and he said, “I moved back here 12 years ago from Princeton when my partner died.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, stunned. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“My partner and I discussed it before he died,” Walter said. “We agreed that the best thing for me afterwards would be to go home to be near family. And that’s what I did.”

He said the area was very beautiful and he was able to walk to work but said he was living alone and didn’t go out much. “I’m a hermit these days,” he said.

Other people were starting to come in, but I asked what plans he had, if he’d thought about going back to technical writing, and he said no. He said he was taking his time deciding what to do next.

We ended up buying some apple-strawberry wine, a product of the local winery. It was a small bottle, about the only thing I could fit in Terra Nova’s sidecase. Walter rolled it carefully in bubble wrap, tightened a plastic bag around it and wished us luck. We shook hands.

“Thank you,” I said, and gave him one of my cards. “Send me an e-mail and I’ll let you know if we get it home without breaking it.”

He took the card, but I haven’t yet received an e-mail. I probably won’t. It’s silly, of course, but I’d like to tell him the wine bottle got home safely. I hope he does, too.

So We’ll Go No More A Roving

Lazarus, my uncle's 1976 Honda Gold Wing.
Lazarus, my uncle’s 1976 Honda Gold Wing.

This is a story about endings.

One of my favorite riding partners, my Uncle Robert, is in his late seventies and has given up his driver’s license. His eyesight and memory are starting to fail and we won’t be riding together anymore.

My uncle (I’ve written about him here) was a distant but enduring inspiration to me in my youth. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, where my grandparents settled after World War II. After a stint in the Navy, he moved to San Diego and started a family there.

My uncle at a rest stop in Needles, California.
My Uncle Robert at a rest stop in Needles, California.

He was the closest thing we had to a family legend; a police officer in San Diego, he rose to lieutenant and commanded the force’s SWAT team and he had done the most interesting things, traveling, writing, motorcycling, horseback riding. His stories filtered back to Ohio in letters and late-night phone calls, when long-distance rates were cheaper.

Being so far away, our lives intersected only a few times as I was growing up, each time for only a tantalizingly few days. It was never enough. I used to stare at maps and trace the long roads that ran to magical faraway California, my fingertips moving slowly across the paper…

His mythology started for me in February 1964, when he rode his year-old Honda Dream, a 305cc motorcycle, from San Diego to Cleveland. He was unprepared for the weather and got caught in a snowstorm and fell down on an icy street in Indiana, where he was rescued by a guy in a delivery truck.

Honda Dream, 305cc.
Honda Dream, 305cc.

A brief aside: A 305 Dream with 28 hp and a 52-inch wheelbase, was considered a big bike in the early 1960s. Bikes have gotten larger since then. Terra Nova, for example, has 110 hp and a 61-inch wheelbase. By comparison, Linda’s 300cc Vespa scooter has 22 hp and a 54-inch wheelbase.

My brother Rob found me a 1965 Dream at the swap meet at the AMA Vintage motorcycle Days in Lexington, Ohio (the same place we rescued a kitten five years ago, while riding home from San Diego). It is a small bike and I wonder how difficult it would be to ride across the country. I named it Santiago and I hope to restore it someday.

Preparing Lazarus for a ride.
Preparing Lazarus for a ride.

My uncle made it to Cleveland on his scooter-sized motorcycle, surprising the hell out of my grandparents and the rest of our family. I was about six years old and I remember him in his black leather jacket when he came to see us. I thought he was the coolest guy in the world.

I don’t know if I thought, “I’m gonna do that someday,” but his ride stayed with me, like a half-remembered note in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. It wasn’t just the ride that made me admire him, it was the fact that he’d gotten out of Ohio and moved to Southern California, gone to college, and loved books and could write, like I wanted to.

But his ride was always there, somehow, though I didn’t start riding motorcycles myself until 1994, thirty years after his epic journey. When I was offered a job at the Reno, Nevada, newspaper in September 1995 I jumped at it. Besides being out West, Reno is 600 miles from San Diego, a lot better than the 2,400 miles that separate San Diego from Cleveland. While filling out a Reno apartment application, it hit me, and I was able to tell him over the phone, “Suddenly, you’re now my closest relative.”

Roy's Motel & Cafe in Amboy, Calif., on Route 66.
Roy’s Motel & Cafe in Amboy, Calif., on Route 66. That’s Lazarus on the left and the Silver Wing on the right.

When I moved to Nevada, Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, was in the U-Haul trailer behind my pickup truck.

That’s when we started riding together, he and I and his wife Suzanne, and my cousin Shannon, who is the best cousin in the world. My uncle’s motorcycle, a 1,000cc 1976 Honda Gold Wing, had been sitting idle for a while and Shannon and I chivvied him into getting it back on the road. He eventually did and named the bike Lazarus. We dreamed and talked and schemed of Route 66 and began with short day trips, graduating to longer ones. Our significant yearly rides were from San Diego to:

1997: Yuma, Arizona

1998: Kingman, Arizona

1999: Tombstone, Arizona

2000: Enid, Oklahoma

2001: Route 66 in Arizona

2002: Cleveland

2003: Zephyrhills, Florida

2004: Los Angeles to Bullhead City, Arizona

We called these our Odysseys, and I can tick them off one after the other, like Apollo moon missions, because they were something we looked forward to every year, months of maps and late-night phone calls. They were the highlights of our summers.

The 2002 ride was our best. We took the same route to Cleveland as he did in 1964, seeing the same sights and even eating at two of the restaurants he remembered. We stayed at my parents’ house, where I grew up, and it was a good time.

Inspecting the original Route 66 in California.
Inspecting the original Route 66 in California.

Things started to waver the next year. A planned ride to Inskip, Tennessee, for a mini-family gathering, had to be aborted in Florida because his bike broke down; he had to truck it back to California. We argued and it was not pleasant.

In 2004, I flew to San Diego from Washington, D.C., and borrowed his wife’s bike, a 1982 500cc Honda Silver Wing. We rode to LA and then east on Route 66, passing through Ludlow and Baghdad and Amboy and everything was absolutely great, the rift between us healed, and I was feeling something that I can only call a state of grace.

Then the Silver Wing’s front brake seized on an exit ramp near Bullhead City, Arizona, and threw me off the bike. I was going slowly but I hit the pavement and felt something pop in my left leg as the bike fell on it. We stopped at a motel and he had to pull the boot off my foot and my lower ankle was already swollen and turning purple. It later turned out the fibula, the smaller of the two bones between the knee and ankle, was fractured.

Approaching Amboy, Calif.
Approaching Amboy, Calif.

That trip ended in a rental truck back to San Diego, too. But we had lunch in a Mexican restaurant and I told him that it had been a great ride and I was glad we’d done it, even though I’d fallen, and we smiled and clinked glasses across the table.

But that was the end of our long rides. Linda and I rode from Washington to see my uncle and Suzanne for a few years after that. We did a few short rides around San Diego County and up to Julian but it really wasn’t the same, he was starting to feel his age and it was more difficult to keep his motorcycles street-worthy. And then Linda and I started visiting our relatives in Europe and riding motorcycles there and it got harder and harder to get back to California.

In time, everything slips away from us, and my uncle has slipped away from me. Once again, we are on opposite sides of the country. We’re still friends and talk on the phone and I occasionally send him a book on motorcycling or Lawrence of Arabia or something. I wish we lived closer to him and his wife, so I could be a better part of their lives.

Me and my Uncle Robert.
Me and my Uncle Robert.

All things may end, but I’m realizing we don’t have to walk away empty-handed. We have our memories, our good times together. And I find some comfort in knowing the kid who watched a guy in a black leather jacket wheel away west on a chilly Ohio street 50 years ago would someday catch up with him and ride, side by side, like he always wanted to do.

So we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.

— Lord Byron

The Craftsmen at Crossroads

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So I made the yearly hegira to Crossroads Cycle today for Endurance’s state safety inspection sticker. It’s something I do every April.

“You’ll have to give me a few minutes,” says Dennis Ferm, the owner, as he checks my bike. “The state has computerized the inspection records so now it takes three times longer.”

Crossroads Cycle was true serendipity. We must have been going to the REI in Bailey’s Crossroads eight or nine years ago when I happened to spot a white building on a side street with about two dozen motorcycles parked outside. Naturally, we had to investigate.

A 750cc Triumph Bonneville.
A 750cc Triumph Bonneville.

We found a small independent motorcycle shop with three or four guys who specialize in older bikes, especially Triumphs. There are older Japanese models there, along with a few Harleys. They fix up and sell a few bikes and do repairs on others.

It was a lucky discovery, time capsule-like, because independent motorcycle places – apart from those that customize Harleys or choppers – are a vanishing breed. It takes a special know-how to keep these bikes on the road. Those who can, like Dennis and his colleagues, are genuine mechanics. They really don’t work on the type of bikes I own, but I ended up gravitating there every year for inspection.

Most modern motorcycles are nearly miracles. They’re computerized and more complicated, but they run better and stay in tune longer than old bikes. Fault systems can pinpoint trouble spots in wiring looms. Factory production turns out sturdier components.

A row of bikes at Crossroads.
A row of bikes at Crossroads.

The improved quality, however, comes at a price of increased disassociation between owners and their machines. If you have a problem with your modern motorcycle or car, you can’t pull out your toolbox and fix it. You have to take it to the dealer so a mechanic can hook it up to the computer.

It’s to the point where people are discouraged from trying to fix anything. I hate that, it’s like being a prisoner of one’s own ignorance. Even though I’m not a mechanic, I can at least do some minor tasks like change the oils and filters and install some upgrades and try to learn what I can. I know when the bike is running badly and I have an idea of what should be done.

What little I know makes me greatly respect people like the Crossroads guys.

classic speedometer of a Harley Big Twin.
Classic speedometer of a Harley Big Twin.

Understand that older motorcycles can be impossible to work on because: 1) it’s tough to find needed parts for discontinued models, and 2) older bikes are usually victims of neglect, sitting outside in the rain or parked unused for years. Tires crack and go flat, mice nibble wires, gasoline decomposes inside carburetors and leaves a gummy shellac. Most major dealerships won’t touch them because they can tie up mechanics for days.

It takes time, patience and institutional knowledge – the hard-won wisdom from lots and lots of time on disassembled bikes, parts fiches and greasy manuals – to work competently on older bikes. The guys at Crossroads are like this. They could probably get better-paid jobs at modern motorcycle dealerships but they wouldn’t be using all of their talents and doing what they really enjoy.

They’re in it for the love of it. They know older bikes are worth the effort.

Like this, only black and left out in the rain.
Like this, only black and left out in the rain.

A somewhat related aside: On the way to work a few years ago, I used to drive by a black late ‘70s BMW R100 Slash 7 parked on a residential street. It was there every day, rain or shine, uncovered and unmoved no matter the weather. It got to me so much I eventually stopped and left a note on the guy’s door, asking if he wanted to sell it. A suspicious neighbor confronted me as I was looking at the bike, as if I was going to steal it. I explained what I was doing and even gave him one of my business cards, but I don’t think he was convinced.

A day or two later the BMW disappeared and I never saw it again. The silly twit of an owner never contacted me but a few months later a used Kawasaki Concourse appeared in the BMW’s place, parked in the same spot, rain or shine, uncovered. I felt bad for that one, too.

Street legal for another year.
Street legal until April 2014.

The point is, if you have a motorcycle, you should try and take care of it, or get it to someone who can. Those who don’t aggravate those of us who do.

I think the craftsmen at Crossroads would feel the same about that BMW. And maybe that’s another reason why I look forward to paying my respects every year.

Tools for Tots

This is what they gave me...
This is what they gave me…

Spend $6,000 to $20,000 on a new motorcycle, any type, any brand, it doesn’t matter – dig out the tool kit they give you and you’ll be astounded at the piss-poor quality.

These days, it’s less of an open secret and more of a joke at how cheap manufacturer toolkits have become. They’re giving you fewer tools and the ones you get are made of low-grade metal, stuff you can practically bend with your hands. They’re the equivalent of children’s toys. And they come in these horrid little vinyl pouches that are more flimsy than a ketchup packet.

On one hand, it’s a way for manufacturers to save money. Or perhaps they figure you’re just going to go buy your own set of Sears Craftsman tools anyway. Japanese makers are notorious for it, but most of the others are just as bad. BMW has gotten worse. Harley gives you nothing.

Cheap tools are usually made of inexpensive alloys, while good tools are made of steel, which is stronger and less likely to bend or deform while you’re putting pressure on them.

Then there’s the manufacturing process itself, the way metal is shaped into a tool. Cheap tools are usually made by casting, which is heating metal until it’s liquid enough to be poured into a mold. Better tools are drop-forged, a process of hammering or pressuring hot metal into a die. These tools are stronger with more precise tolerances – your drop-forged wrench is less likely to slip off a stubborn bolt head, for example.

At any rate, onboard toolkits are important, especially if you travel any lengthy distance on a motorcycle. You have to carry a set of tools to fix any reasonable trouble that may occur.

...this is what I'll use on Terra Nova.
…this is what I’ll use on Terra Nova.

Say you’re out riding and one of your mirrors shakes loose. You stop to tighten it, only to find you need a 14mm wrench. And you have exactly one combination wrench in your little vinyl bag, a 10mm and 13mm. No adjustable wrench. So you screw the mirror back on as best you can, but now it’s pointing at the sky. And it’ll stay that way until you get a 14mm wrench or its equivalent.

What most riders do is assemble their own kits. We go through the bike and note the fasteners – hex head, Allen head, Torx – and rabbit off to Sears or Home Depot or Lowes or (if you can afford it) the Snap-On truck down the street.

That way, you know you’re covered. Ideally, you calculate need against weight and you carry enough tools to do regular maintenance on the road. You keep the tools for special jobs at home.

Some companies, like Cruz Tools, offer kits that contain decent tools in durable bags. I’ve used these on occasion – Terra Nova will have a kit originally meant for a BMW GS – but I’m always fussing with and swapping out the contents, making sure I have what I need.

Cobbling together your own kit is costly and time-consuming (who knew I needed a 27mm socket for the axles?) but it’s worth it for peace of mind.

Or I could just carry this.
Or I could just carry this.

But it’s curious how the discarded cheap tools hang around your workshop, stuffed in drawer or on a shelf or something. And they’ll stay there for years, because you can’t throw them out because, even though they’re cheap, they’re tools, you know?

Lawrence of Arabia Rode Camels and Broughs

Lawrence's Brough Superior SS100 on display
Lawrence’s Brough Superior SS100 on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

You probably know Thomas Edward Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia, the British hero who united Arab tribes against the Turks in World War I. If you’ve seen the 1962 David Lean movie, you’ve also seen Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) fatally crash on a motorcycle in the first three minutes of the film.

Lawrence in Arab headdress.
Lawrence in Arab headdress.

T.E. Lawrence is a fascinating character in history, not only for his part in the Arab Revolt, but also for his Renaissance-like talent to excel in a variety of fields. He was a scholar, warrior, author, mechanical engineer, mapmaker, translator and historian, to touch on only a few of his abilities.

Lawrence loved motorcycles and began riding in earnest upon returning to England after the war. His favorite bike was the British Brough Superior SS100 (Brough is pronounced bruff) which was made in Nottingham from 1919 to 1940.

The 1000cc Superiors were touted as “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” made by hand and prohibitively expensive. In the 1920s and ‘30s, they cost more than a year’s pay of a man making the average weekly salary.

Lawrence lived a relatively austere life after Arabia. A man of conscience, he was furious how the Arabs were treated after the war. The British broke their promises of self-government for the Arabs and though Lawrence championed the Arab cause, he was ashamed of his part in the political betrayal.

In a bit of convoluted atonement, and needing income, he re-entered military life, enlisting as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force in August 1922. He collected notes for a controversial book on life in the RAF ranks that later became The Mint. RAF officials were disconcerted by his presence and discharged him in February 1923.

Lawrence in the RAF.
Lawrence in the RAF, 1928.

Lawrence next tried the army, joining the Royal Tank Corps in March 1923. He never felt comfortable there (“like a unicorn in a racing stable” was how he described it) and lasted until July 1926, when he was transferred back to the RAF, where he remained until 1935.

He wrote a long version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which detailed his role in the Arab Revolt. This is known as the 1922 edition. A more tightly edited version, 84,000 words shorter, appeared in 1926 under the same title. It’s the version most commonly available today. An even more condensed version, Revolt in the Desert, was published in 1927.  His third book, The Mint, was published in 1955.

Seven Pillars remains in print; the others are easy to find. Lawrence’s writings have been gathered into other books and many biographies of Lawrence have been written.

But Lawrence also loved speed and precision machinery, and owned eight different Brough models. A ninth Superior was being built for him at the time of his death. He traded in his old bike whenever he got a new one. Each one was named Boanerges, a biblical term defined by Lawrence as “sons of thunder.”

Lawrence’s riding lived up to the name. Many who knew him characterized him as a recklessly fast rider. He rode “like a bat out of hell,” said one acquaintance.

The second-to-last Brough Lawrence owned was a gift from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, his wife Charlotte, and friends. Shaw was a fellow motorcycling enthusiast.

(Jay Leno is an affable guy, but he’s wrong on a few details of Lawrence’s death – there was no “drunken postman,” for example. And if, as Leno asserts, Seven Pillars is a challenge to read, the reward is worthwhile. Try the rarer 1922 edition over the 1926 publication. Nonetheless, Leno’s video (above) of how to operate a Brough is pretty good.)

With a wheelbase of 59 inches, the Superior was roughly as big as a modern-day 1200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster. But it weighed only about 340 lbs., compared to the Sportster’s 570 lbs. Lawrence was rather small in stature, about five feet, five inches tall, so the bike may have looked too big for him. A three-speed, the Superior was guaranteed to reach a hundred miles an hour, an impressive speed for a bike of that day. It was reputed to handle very well, but the brakes were less than adequate.

Garage at Clouds Hill.
Garage at Clouds Hill.

Lawrence kept his bikes in his tiny garage – barely large enough to squeeze a car into – adjoining his cottage in Dorset, about 110 miles from London. The cottage and its grounds were known as Clouds Hill. It was there Lawrence would fuss with his motorcycle, tinkering with carburetors and oiling systems and putting air into tires using an old bicycle pump.

His motorcycles found their way into Lawrence’s writing. The most famous passage is found in The Mint: It’s 1926 and Lawrence is riding home from a RAF air base when he sees a Bristol fighter plane low overhead; he waves, the pilot points to the road and challenges him to a race. It lasts 14 miles and Lawrence wins.

Riding a motorcycle was the last thing Lawrence did. On May 13, 1935, he left Clouds Hill on a bright and calm morning and rode to a nearby post office where he mailed some books to a friend, sent a telegram and started home.

George Brough and T.E. Lawrence.
George Brough and T.E. Lawrence, 1930.

Lawrence came over a blind hill at about 40 mph and swerved to avoid two 14-year-old boys on bicycles. The Brough clipped the back wheel of one of the bicycles and skidded off the road. Lawrence, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown about 20 feet. He never regained consciousness and died six days later. He was 46 years old.

“A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness.”

– T.E. Lawrence

The View From the Pillion

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A friend of mine who reads this blog once remarked, “Linda is either devoted or daft to be riding with you.”

It’s a legitimate observation, and not just in the context of my wife. The same can be said of anyone who spends a lot of time on a motorcycle’s passenger seat. The British call it the pillion.

I’m not sure of the term’s origin, but it could be “passenger who has to peer around the pilot’s helmet in order to see anything.”

To be honest, being a motorcycle passenger can alternate between utter boredom and sheer terror. You’re literally putting your life in the hands of the pilot – if something goes wrong, there’s not a damn thing you can do except watch as the crash, collision, tipover or skid unfolds.

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It happened to me just once, in 1997. I was helping a colleague in Nevada pick up his new Road King – a 700-pound beast of a bike – from Reno Harley-Davidson one afternoon.

He was a little out of practice but excited about riding again. The plan was for me to pilot the Harley three miles back to work where he would acclimate himself in the company parking lot. When we got to the dealer, though, the bike was parked outside, all washed and waxed and shining in the sun, looking perfect. He asked me if he could ride it back to work, with me as a passenger.

Like a nitwit, I said sure. It was only three miles.

We made it about halfway when he turned right onto a side street and started to swing wide, taking us over the dividing line into the oncoming lane and towards the curb. I heard him yell, “I can’t hold it!” and I thought to myself, hey, it looks like we’re going to hit the cur–

And we hit the curb, were ejected from the bike, and in the next picosecond I was on the ground, sliding face-first across the sidewalk into some bushes. I was astonished at how fast it happened. I was wearing gloves and a leather jacket and I got away with a quarter-sized scrape on a knee, where the Levis had shredded away. Everything else was fine. I later found a twig lodged in one of the helmet’s air vents.

My colleague suffered much more; he had a dislocated shoulder, a hurt leg and was badly scraped up from the sidewalk. He ended up going to the hospital. (I went back to work.)

The Harley, amazingly enough, was unscathed; it hit the curb, threw us off, and spun around 180 degrees before shutting down and coming to rest on the sidewalk. It stood upright on its engine guards, the bars that protect the sides of the bike. It looked like someone had parked it and walked away.

To his credit, my colleague, who apologized about eight million times, recovered and went on to take that Harley across the country less than a year later.

I don’t dwell on that day but it’s an experience that helped shape the way I ride, especially with a passenger, most especially with Linda. I make sure that everyone who gets on behind me knows that I take it seriously, that I never screw around and I never take chances.

I simply take care, always.

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That’s the sheer terror aspect. The utter boredom is a lot more boring to talk about, especially on long rides, during which the passenger has nothing to do but watch the world go by. It may be interesting for 20 or 30 miles, but the novelty soon wears off.

So on our long-distance rides of 400 to 500+ miles per day, passenger comfort has to be a priority. Besides agreeing on how many miles we want to cover in a particular day, I start by making sure Linda has the right gear, helmet, riding suit, gloves and boots, comfortable and durable. She picks out the styles and colors.

On the bikes, I put in more comfortable seats and add a backrest for her; Endurance has had a backrest for more than a decade and I’m in the middle of installing one aboard Terra Nova now. During last August’s ride to Montana, I rigged up a beverage cup with a straw for her, an improvement that will be used again in future rides.

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To stave off monotony, she shoots pictures with a digital camera while we’re moving, and has come up with some really nice shots over the years. She can use an iPod while we travel. She’s also our ambassador on the road, waving to people in cars, especially children, who always seem fascinated by motorcycles. She’s the one who pays the occasional toll, since she has two hands free.

Our system isn’t perfect, of course, and we have arguments and tense moments like anyone else. But we’ve gotten better at it.

And sometimes being a passenger is an advantage, as it was for her in Glacier National Park last year. She was able to enjoy the park as we wound our way around The Going-to-the-Sun Road while my focus was solely on the road itself, staying on it and not tumbling us into a valley. The scenery was brilliant, even though she had to look around my helmet to see it.

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Cloistered With the Bike

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I finally got around to changing the engine oil and filter on Endurance today, she was badly overdue and I was feeling guilty for not getting to it sooner. In addition to that routine job, I’m tinkering with the sidestand – the thing you’d call a kickstand on a bicycle.

The sidestand had loosened up during our ride to Montana last August and was letting the bike lean over farther than normal. With all our gear piled on it, the lean angle looked kinda scary. It held up okay during the ride, though.

My shop is small, only 8 x 15 feet. It’s crowded, but there’s enough space to work on one bike at a time. All my tools are there and it’s brightly lit and heated.

I put in RaceDeck tiles a few years ago which really helps. The wall behind the main workbench has photos from past rides and a U.S. map with our cross-country routes highlighted.

Even though I’m not mechanically inclined, I get satisfaction from working on the motorcycles. (The bicycles, too, come to think of it.) Even something as simple as changing the oil is gratifying; you feel closer to the machine and a little more competent by doing the job yourself. And, as my good friend and mechanical wizard Andrew Virzi says, “it just seems to ride better after you’ve changed the oil.”

And Cody is always ready to help.
And Cody is always ready to help.

Wrenching in the workshop reminds me of a scriptorium – the workroom in which medieval monks copied and bound their books. I lay out the tools, throw in a CD, open a Mountain Dew or Arizona Ice Tea, and get to work. When I’m cloistered in the workshop, the day passes quickly.

That’s Not Gonna Work

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One of my secret vices is motorcycle movies. I’ve gotten more selective over the years – crikey, some of them, especially from the sixties and seventies, are really bad. The bikes are there as props or symbols of danger or ruggedness or whatever.

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But anyone who’s spent any time aboard a motorcycle soon realizes that most movies simply gloss over the reality of being on a bike. The riders never get tired or sore or cold or miserable. The weather is always nice…ever notice how it never rains in Easy Rider and only once in Wild Hogs?

That’s what I think about when I watch the pilot of the 1969-70 TV show Then Came Bronson and see Michael Parks and Bonnie Bedelia riding together – two-up, as we say – on a Harley-Davidson Sportster. They’re literally crushed against each other on a saddle that’s thick as a Better Homes & Gardens magazine. And they’re going mile after mile after mile…

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I shake my head at this, even though I like Then Came Bronson. (Despite some admittedly sappy episodes, some were good and the show had its heart in the right place.) And Parks on his motorcycle fired the imagination of any kid who watched him.

But people watching Parks and Bedelia weren’t thinking, “Gee, that looks like fun.” No, they must have been thinking, “Good God, that looks painful.”

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But the prize for Most Uncomfortable on a Motorcycle should go to Theresa San-Nicholas, the young woman at the end of the 1991 movie Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Mickey Rourke offers the attractive hitchhiker a ride on the back of his Harley; she sits on the bare fender, about an inch from the spinning tire, wraps her legs around him, snuggles in, and they’re off. And you know darn well she won’t last a mile in that position.

From Here to India

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So the weather had warmed up Sunday morning and I was thinking of taking Terra Nova out for a ride of some kind. I took delivery of her on Sept. 9 and through a series of events too tedious to relate here, she had only 475 miles on the odometer. I wanted to get her over the 600-mile mark and in for the first necessary maintenance.

New motorcycles have to be painstakingly broken in to avoid engine damage. It varies by manufacturer, but the first 600 miles are usually the most critical. You have to put those miles on carefully, taking heed not to run the engine above 4,000 rpm. At the 600-mile mark, you (or your dealer/mechanic) change the engine oil and filter, the final drive lubricant and make some other adjustments.

I put on those 475 miles as I should. I took the additional precaution of changing the engine oil and filter and the final drive oil at the 110-mile mark, just to be safe. Now, all I needed was those extra miles.

Waiting for Linda to get home from church, I threw a video in the DVD player – One Crazy Ride, by Gaurav Jani, an independent filmmaker in India and a true motorcycle traveler.

A brief aside is necessary: I became a big fan of Mr. Jani after seeing this film and his earlier documentary, Riding Solo to the Top of the World. I’m fascinated by motorcycle travel and I really liked the two Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman films, Long Way Round in 2004 and Long Way Down in 2007. The two actors had a substantial back-up crew and cameramen to film those rides. Both are interesting and very well done.

Mr. Jani, however, is far superior. In Riding Solo to the Top of the World, he’s a one-man film crew documenting his own ride in 2005 from Mumbai to the Changthang Plateau in Ladakh, India, near the Chinese border. He rides through incredible cold, desolate but beautiful landscapes, and oxygen-starved mountain air to meet and learn about the reclusive people of the plateau. It’s an incredible work of filmmaking. And his third film, Motorcycle Chang pa, is due out soon.

One Crazy Ride, the one in my DVD this morning, is a movie about a 2008 motorcycle ride Mr. Jani and four friends took from Mumbai to a remote part of northeast India. One could sum it up this way: friendship, hardship and awesome scenery. This, too, is an exceptional film. I ended up giving a copy to Gopal Ratnam, one of the defense analysts at work, when some of us were trying to coax him to give in to his desire to get a motorcycle. Gopal looked over the DVD and said he thought he knew Mr. Jani. I ended up buying a second copy.

So the replacement DVD is on while I’m fussing with the bike, getting it ready for our own little ride in our corner of the world. Linda gets home, we suit up and take off. There’s no real destination in mind, other than maybe Orange, Virginia, an antique-y type of small town we’d visited once before.

Twenty-five miles out, we stop for fuel at a 7-11 station on U.S. 29 in Gainesville, Virginia. Linda gets a soda while I grab a can of Red Bull. The cashier is a friendly guy, from southern India, as it turns out, and he’s curious about the motorcycle and asks where we’re from.

“In my country,” he says, “a lot of people don’t like motorcycles. They are everywhere, they’re all that most people can afford for transportation. So they are everywhere in the streets.” Many consider them a necessary nuisance, he says.

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I enthusiastically tell him about watching One Crazy Ride that morning, but, dang it, I can’t remember the filmmaker’s name. But the cashier is familiar with the region they visited. We gather up everything and leave, and he wishes us safe travels.

Instead of getting back on the bike, we finish our drinks and I dig out a pen and part of a notecard and write down the film’s name and Dirt Track Productions, the movie company, intending to give it to the guy and ask his name. When I go back in the store, he’s in the restroom, but a co-worker says he’ll give him the card. So I didn’t get to know his name.

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The rest of the ride goes smoothly; we make it down to Madison, Virginia, then turn around and head home, stopping for dinner at a chain restaurant. It was a little chilly, but all in all, a good day, a decent ride, and Terra Nova now has 649 miles on the clock. And I hope my friend at the 7-11 gets to see those movies.

The Coldest Ride

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No matter how many rides a motorcyclist takes, a few always stay in memory, like the spiny cockleburs that stick to your jeans long after a walk through the forest.

The best rides are the reasons we set out again and again; the worst – including the I-can’t-believe-I-did-that ones – provide lessons and good stories for your mates.

My coldest ride was Nov. 18, 1995; I’d just moved to Reno, Nevada, the farthest from home I’d ever been. I’d gotten a new job at the paper there. I drove across the country in a 1991 Ford Ranger XL with a 5×8 foot U-Haul trailer containing lots of books, a little furniture, some clothes and, most important, my motorcycle, a 1994 Yamaha Virago XV750.

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She was the first bike I’d bought new. I got her from a dealership in Fremont, Ohio, and it was with her I started my tradition of naming my motorcycles after Antarctic exploration ships. I called her Discovery, from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 expedition, which was also the first of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of my heroes.

Nov. 18 fell on a Saturday and I was off work. I’d been in Reno for seven weeks and I’d already taken the Ranger down to San Diego to see my great motorcycle-riding uncle Robert and beloved cousin Shannon the month before. I had taken small rides to explore the area around Reno and Carson City and Lake Tahoe, but I was itching to do more.

I was dying to see San Francisco – the Golden Gate Bridge, City Lights Bookstore, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, everything. It’s about 220 miles from Reno to San Francisco and I kept thinking about doing an out-and-back ride, some 440 miles. It would be the longest ride I’d yet attempted in a single day.

I dawdle around the apartment early that sunny morning, thinking it over, then, in a burst of energy, I stuff a few things into Discovery’s saddlebags – tools, extra sweatshirt, rainsuit, heavy gloves – check the tires and engine oil, and take off.

The temperature is in the mid-70s and I’m wearing boots, Levis, a sweatshirt and a medium-heavy leather jacket. I have a pair of lined leather gloves and a white Bieffe helmet I’d bought from some independent motorcycle shop in Huron, Ohio.

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The ride starts out great. I shoot north up 395 and turn west on I-80, intending to make time. Interstates are known more for function and less for scenic beauty, but 80 cuts a beautiful path through the Sierra Nevada. Once I get past Verdi, on the state line, I’m dazzled by the mountain pass and the ancient railroad tunnels. I pass the Donner Summit, the place where the Donner party was marooned by bad weather and reduced to cannibalism in 1846.

There’s a special feeling in riding a motorcycle over unknown roads. Everything is new and you’re much more in tune with the road, the scenery, the very air you’re flying through. Outward bound, the hours zip past and the highway signs count down the miles to San Fran.

Traffic gets heavy as I fly across the Bay Bridge, but I don’t care. I jump off at the first exit and follow the signs to Fisherman’s Wharf, moving slowly in the thick of traffic but seeing everything and the Golden Gate in the distance and loving it. I end up at last on Columbus Avenue and roll past City Lights and looked up and see the sign for Jack Kerouac Alley. And, like Sal Paradise riding through Colorado in On the Road, I keep thinking, “Damn! Damn! Damn! I’m making it!”

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Then I cross the Bay Bridge again and start home.

At first I don’t notice anything because there is still lots of daylight, even though I’m not making good time. The sun is noticeably lower when I reach Sacramento and lower still when I refuel in Auburn. That’s when the air starts getting chilly. I put on the extra sweatshirt and keep going. The sun is gone by the time I reach Colfax and the air gets seriously colder as I climb into the Sierra.

Night comes down hard in the high desert and like a fist in the mountains. It’s a peculiar, heavy dark, unpunctuated by streetlights except for occasional small towns on hillsides. The stars are bright in the clear air but the cold makes them seem even more distant. As the traffic thins away and the elevation gets higher, I start freezing.

It’s a perfect comedy of errors; I’m in the mountains, in the dark, so the air is colder. I’m underdressed and don’t have the proper gear. And Discovery, bless her V-Twin, has no fairing or windscreen to deflect the cold air I’m riding in, creating a wind-chill effect of 30 degrees, or so it feels. Whatever it is, I’m shivering like a madman.

I stop to refuel and warm up in Emigrant Gap, a small station in the middle of nowhere. I plunder the saddlebags for anything wearable but find only the rainsuit and the other gloves. “Man, you look cold,” says the attendant when I come in to pay and suit up.

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The rainsuit is a yellow plastic two-piece affair that smells like the liner of the cheap backyard swimming pool you had as a kid. I pull up every zipper and close every snap, hoping it will keep the cold hands of the wind off me. I make sure all the helmet vents were shut, pull on the heavy lined suede gloves, fire up the bike, and take off.

I soon find the rainsuit doesn’t help. It cuts the wind a little but the chill slips under the sleeves and around my neck. The suede gloves seem worse than the leather ones – I can almost feel the frigid air streaming through them, making my hands feel as if I’ve plunged them into buckets of ice. They’re so cold they feel like they’re burning.

It goes on that way for the next 50 miles, an endless, piercing cold that makes me feel as if I’m riding on the bottom of an ice-choked river. I have to force my hands to work the clutch and brake levers. I keep telling myself that it will get better once I get out of the mountains.

After an endless time, I sweep past Verdi and descend from the Sierra Nevada, where the bright lights of Reno blaze across the valley floor. I am so glad – so relieved – to see them. The air warms slightly and I make it back to the apartment, where I put the cover on the bike and stumble off to bed.

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Things are much changed since then; Discovery is long gone, given to my dear cousin Shannon in Missouri in 2000, when I moved back East. She is still there. Endurance and Terra Nova, my current bikes, have frame-mounted fairings and windscreens that protect against the chill. Both bikes have large plastic shields over electrically heated handgrips.

I wear insulated textile suits and layer up beneath them – SmartWool shirts and polypropylene, and an electric Gerbing underjacket that draws its heat from the motorcycle’s power system. That Gerbing saved my life on my first Iron Butt ride, 1,000 miles in 24 hours, that I did in October 2005.

I have a variety of cold-weather hoods that fit easily under the helmet and keep my head warm. I have serious winter gloves galore. And I make sure that Linda, my wife and favorite riding partner, has them, too.

I still have both pairs of those old gloves, in a box in the attic. I don’t use them any more but I can’t bear to get rid of them. I run across them every now and again and I think of that night, the distant stars, the lonely gas station and that cold, cold ride.

The Intrepid Captain Shepherd


I have much respect for the guys who rode across the country decades ago. Think about it: Bad roads, mechanically questionable bikes, spotty gasoline supply — they make our interstate rides look like spa vacations.

One early rider was C.K. Shepherd, an RAF officer from Birmingham, England. Fresh out of World War I, he bought a four-cylinder motorcycle in New York in 1919, toured the U.S. and finished in San Francisco, leaving June 13 and arriving Aug. 10, covering 4,950 miles.

Those are the dry facts. He bounced across the country and wrote a book titled Across America by Motor-Cycle, which was published in 1922. It’s an expensive book these days and difficult to find, though some companies in the U.S. and UK are republishing it in softcover.

My hardcover copy from e-Bay is a library volume taken out of circulation long ago. It still has the stamped page on the inside back cover; the last date, in red ink, is September 1942.

Shepherd tells his story in a breezy way, but he’s a bit of a British Mark Twain with his Sahara-dry humor. In search of food, he hails a horse-drawn cart:

“Hi, brother, got anything edible on board?” I shouted.
“I gotta lot o’ old boots here,” he replied, evidently in ignorance of the meaning of the word “edible.”

He is given to frequent remarks on language differences, road conditions, hospitality and America in general. He counted how many times he fell: “I was thrown off 142 times, and after that I stopped counting! Apart from that I had no trouble.”

Shepherd provides much detail about his travels — he’s ticketed for speeding near Hagerstown, Maryland. The fine is $25.75, roughly $315 in today’s dollars, and he says. “The idea of that goat-faced Judge and his sleek-eyed friend the “speed cop” having a good dinner together at my expense did not appeal to my better self.”

However, he tells very little about himself or his motorcycle. He doesn’t tell you what brand it is, but stops at a Henderson dealer in Kansas City. But his bike doesn’t look like a Henderson. Close examination of the two bike photos in his book make me believe it’s from the short-lived Ace Motorcycle Company of Philadelphia. One of the Henderson brothers started Ace in 1919.

Shepherd traveled partly on the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the first transcontinental roads. Instead of numbers, the PPOO, like the Lincoln Highway and others, had names in the romantic era of early road building. The idea was to drum up public support for funds to build and maintain the roads. But the captain was not impressed by American roads of the era:

“In theory I was traveling on the “Dixie Highway,” reputed (by advertisements theron appearing) to be “the finest and most luxurious highway in the States.” As far as my experience, I found it paved with good intentions and bad cobblestones.”

The Compliment

I took Terra Nova this afternoon over to Arlington to meet a few friends and colleagues for lunch at the Afghan Kabob House on Wilson Boulevard. It was threatening rain, but I hadn’t had the bike out for quite a while; it was a good excuse to ride.

The sky started spitting before I got out of our neighborhood but I kept going anyway. The rain strengthened to a steady drizzle but it still wasn’t bad. The temperature was in the low 40s but it seemed warmer and I had layered up beneath the Belstaff jacket. Even brought out the heavy winter Harley gloves I bought in Reno more than 12 years ago.

I found a parking garage and eased into an unused space between a parked car and a bank of elevators. Dripping wet, I pulled off the helmet and gloves, pocketed the keyring and was walking out when a passing delivery guy pushing a cart looked at me and said, “you’re a real rider!” and I laughed and thanked him, surprised that anyone had actually noticed, and went out into the drizzle to find my mates.

The Loneliness of Little Bighorn

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August 2012:  I’ve always been fascinated by George Armstrong Custer and the battle at Little Bighorn. Perhaps it’s from watching too many westerns as a kid or because pop culture constantly references it – the 1941 Errol Flynn movie, for example, and the 1963 Twilight Zone television episode and the movies “Little Big Man” in 1970 and “The Horse Whisperer” in 1998 and countless others.

The battle took place in June 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone* and the year of the American centennial. It was a cultural spike in American history that shocked the public.

Linda and I have traveled fair distances on the motorcycle but never got to the northwest quadrant of the U.S. until recently. We rode through Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in 2010 but didn’t have enough time to cross over into Montana.

Montana didn’t happen until 2012, when we took the Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park. That was a great ride in itself, making up for the many exhausting miles we covered in too few days. On the way home from Glacier, we were able to stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

To get to Custer’s Last Stand, you drive across grass fields to a toll booth and a big parking lot with a restroom and a ranger station/visitors’ center. Beyond that is Last Stand Hill, with its white obelisk, bearing the names of fallen men of the 7th Calvary. Historians say 263 soldiers were killed and 55 wounded in the battle against several thousand Indian warriors. No one knows how many Indians died; estimates vary widely from 30 to 300.

The remains of the soldiers themselves are in a common grave around the base of the obelisk. Tombstone-like markers have been placed where soldiers are believed to have fallen. A black iron fence surrounds them.
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The battlefield was designated a military cemetery in 1879 and became part of the national park system in 1940. Its name was changed later to Custer Battlefield National Monument. The park emphasized the losses of the U.S. Army until 1991 when Congress changed its name again to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It became a memorial to a clash of cultures in addition to the memories of the soldiers and the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.

An Indian Memorial was built in 1996 and red granite markers showing where warriors fell were added starting in 1999. All of which was overdue, I think.

But nothing really prepares you for the park itself. Already tired from the day’s ride, we park the bike, take off our helmets, and stumble wearily toward the center, moving awkwardly in boots and armored riding suits, like astronauts on a heavy-gravity planet. The white obelisk beckons from the top of the hill, so we bypass the center and walk toward it.

Distance from the visitors’ center to Last Stand Hill is maybe the length of a football field but once there, everything is different. The top of the hill gives a view of rolling grasslands in every direction, falling away forever, land so empty and immense and eternal it seems to swallow up sound. The only thing you can hear is the wind ruffling the long dry grass.

That’s when I realize how god-awful place this is, how damned lonely and remote and uncaring. A true cemetery. It didn’t take much to imagine being pinned down on this hill and hearing war cries and the shrieks of the wounded and dying. It was too damned real. It was in that moving grass like memory.

We walk around and go in the visitors’ center and see the exhibits and watch some of the videos but nothing touches me like those moments on Last Stand Hill. We fire up the motorcycle and slam out of there, stopping to refuel at the Exxon pavilion in Crow Agency, on the Indian reservation just outside the park.

We’re tired and hungry and decide to eat at the KFC outlet – a KFC, of all things, on a reservation. A Native American takes the order and he’s talkative enough to make me consider asking him if he’s been up on Last Stand Hill and what he’s felt there. In the end, I don’t, preferring not to look like a dopey white tourist. Besides, I’ve already felt something myself.

* – Ignoring for now the patent controversy between Bell and Elisha Gray in February of that year.

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“I Had a BSA Once…”

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

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

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

While My Final Drive Gently Weeps…

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

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

Until August 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

Endurance in Montana.
Endurance in Montana.

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

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

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

2013-Yamaha-Super-Tenere-Black-1920x2560

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

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

Motorcycle travel