My 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.
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.
Aug. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Everywhere we traveled in Europe, we were met with kindness. The hospitality was amazing. People were invariably friendly and outgoing.
It’s not like we get rebuffed in the States, but there was a level of acceptance that amazed me. In Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, we ended up introducing ourselves to the town mayor, who has the same last name as Linda.
We explained that Linda’s family was from the area, and that we wondered if we were related, and he invited us in. His family started giving us tea and cookies and took out family photo albums. It turned out that he and Linda are cousins.
I wonder how things would have played out had the situation been reversed — a foreign family in the U.S. looking for relatives.
In Szalonna, Hungary, one of the townspeople took a liking to Linda.
July 28, 2010: The scariest rain I’ve ever ridden through was on I-90 in South Dakota.
We were heading home after seeing Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and a ride to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. We’d encountered heavy rain outbound through Milwaukee but the weather was pretty good otherwise.
We had omens, which I did not pick up on. In Presho we stop to refuel and a 300-lb. farmer in overalls and a green cap holds Linda hostage with a story of a world-record hailstone from a storm in Vivian, about 14 miles west. We’d seen the story on the Weather Channel that morning.
“The hail was just coming down,” the farmer says. “Cars were pulling off the highway. Lotta windshields got smashed.”
Weather reports call for scattered thunderstorms and we have a motel reservation in Canistota, about 150 miles away.
“It’ll be dark when we get there but we should be okay,” I tell Linda.
Clouds start building up to the northeast of us not long after leaving. They get darker and bigger and more impressive and I realize we’re probably on a collision course. But 90 veers a little to the south and I think maybe we’ll miss it.
Around Chamberlain dark cloud formations change and an impressive column of white starts spreading in the distance. It reaches from the sky to the ground and looks like it’s a couple miles wide. I can hardly keep my eyes off it.
It’s so white, which I’ve never seen before. I start thinking of the farmer in Presho and his story of hail…
Nearly every motorcycle rider travels in rain. You’ll hit it sometime, the only way not to is to stay home. The solution is to expect it and suit up accordingly (which we are), try not to stay too long in it, and know when to bail out.
It gets dark and the rain starts falling around White Lake and soon starts to hammer us. It’s bad but still manageable and I’m thinking to myself, “I can handle this.”
It gets worse after Plankinton, seriously worse, an absolute downpour that reminds me of an ocean storm I encountered once on Cape Cod. The winds pick up and start pushing us all over the road. Then we hit highway construction and eastbound traffic is merged into the westbound lanes, a single lane for each and now we’re buffeted by oncoming trucks rushing past a few yards away. To top it off, the pavement has those stupid rain grooves that have the front tire skittering around, seeking purchase. I ease off on the throttle and shift down.
At this point, I realize I’ve gone too far, that we should not be out in this, and I admit to myself I’m scared. My helmet visor is misting over and I have to crack it open slightly, which lets in cold stinging rain. My arms ache from wrestling with the handlebars. We’re canting into the wind but the air blasts from the trucks literally stand us upright and we keep pitching back and forth like that until I’m convinced we’re going to get blown over. It’s time to abort.
But there’s no exit and no place to pull over. We have to keep going for a few teeth-gritting miles until the next ramp, some place called Mount Vernon. We get to the top of the ramp and find a rural road with nothing on it. Off to the left I see lights in the distance and head for that.
It turns out to be a gas station/convenience store, an oasis of light in an ocean of darkness. I pull the bike under the overhang and park between the gas pumps. We shakily climb off and squish inside.
The woman is an incredibly kind soul who lets us put sopping helmets and gloves on a glass counter and says we can stay as long as we like. She’s supposed to close at 10, but keeps the store open and tells us not to worry. We buy hot tea and stop shivering after a while. Eventually the rain lets up and I refuel. We reach Canistota about an hour later, peel off the riding suits and collapse.
August 2009: I nearly got us killed on the motorcycle in Hungary.
It was one of those humbling Oh My God did I really do that moments that never really leave you, but instead are called up by memory usually in the dead of night when you’re trying to get back to sleep. There are hard lessons learned in such moments, but they’ll haunt you.
It happens while we’re riding to Miskolc, a good-sized town about 112 miles from Budapest. We’re traveling from Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, where we visit Linda’s relatives, really nice people we haven’t seen since our first encounter in 2006.
We leave Kunova Teplica around 5 or 6 p.m. The sun is fading, but it’s only 50 miles to the hotel so I’m not really worried, even running in the dark. We’ve taken the bike from Vienna to Piestany to Zvolen to here, about 270 miles, and everything has gone smoothly. Even on the two-lane Slovak roads, which gave me the most foreboding, present no difficulty. I’ve been careful to move to the right when cars want through and drivers pass us with care.
Two-lane roads weave through the countryside that Slovakia and Hungary share. It reminds me of southwestern Pennsylvania. The towns are small and dimly lit and rear up in front of us as we approach and fade away in my mirrors as we sweep through.
It’s dark by the time we cross the border, marked by a ghostly abandoned station that I would stop to examine if it weren’t so late. It’s easy to imagine barriers and soldiers with rifles, the whole Checkpoint Charlie thing.
But that was in the past. Tonight we speed through unhindered.
We reach Miskolc a short time later and Linda guides me from the passenger seat as we move through town.
We’re making good time and I have only to cross one intersection and make two left turns before we’re at our hotel — the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel és Étterem. The intersection is just ahead, a four-lane city street with a flashing yellow light so naturally I slow a bit to look for crossing traffic…
…and two cars from nowhere rocket through the intersection in front of us. I jump on both brakes, front and rear, and the BMW noses down and Linda slams into my back as we skid to a halt. I’m standing over the saddle with both boots on the ground and twin deathgrips on the clutch and brake levers. Below me, the bike is idling quietly at a thousand rpm but the adrenalin is surging. “Jesus Christ! What was that?” I yell inside my helmet and a few more cars race by.
“I don’t know!” Linda yells and I look at the lights and realize there are flashing yellow lights for the entire intersection. What is this, a malfunction?
Then I see the triangular YIELD sign, big as a billboard, on the street post. Instead of a flashing red to make you stop, the Hungarians use a flashing yellow and a yield sign.
I didn’t see it.
I didn’t see it, and by not seeing it I came within seconds of sailing us into oblivion in the intersection, where we would have been broadsided by Hungarian Speed Racers in black BMW sedans. It would have been my fault. I could have killed us both. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, months later, where the memory of those cars still makes me wince.
I thought I was doing pretty well on these European roads, but if I missed that, what else am I capable of missing and with what consequences?
We arrive safely at the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel a few minutes later and the night clerk is very kind and opens a gray gate and has me bring the bike inside. The building is old and Old-World elegant. Our room is on the fifth floor and is warm and stuffy so we leave the window open and I’m tired but can’t sleep and lie awake for hours, listening to the traffic rushing through the Hungarian night.
Many books have been written about motorcycle travel, some epic tales of vast distances covered, others simple recitations of where the writers have been.
Some are great reads in which you, the reader, are actually there; others no more interesting than reading a road map aloud.
Ted Simon is one of the originals, and perhaps the best. His books:
Dreaming of Jupiter
pretty much define the genre. His first book, Jupiter’s Travels, was written in 1977 after he rode a 500cc Triumph Tiger around the world in four years.
Round-the-world rides had been done before — Robert Fulton’s One Man Caravan comes immediately to mind — but Simon’s book helped inspire many others to do their own adventures.
Simon was an established writer in his early 40s who learned how to ride a motorcycle, a distinction from motorcyclists who try to write. The writers usually turn out better-told stories, even if the motorcyclists take more exciting rides.
Simon repeated his epic ride in 2001, when he was 70 years old. He wanted to know how the world had changed and if he could do it again. Those travels are chronicled in Dreaming of Jupiter.
There are other good books, of course. Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke does a great job of conveying the thrill of riding, as does Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a paragraph on the first page that begins: “You see things on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. …” That paragraph is worth the price of the whole book.
Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round deserves a mention, not for great literary prowess, but for its motivational effect on other would-be adventurers. (I once heard a guy in an MSF course cite Long Way Round as the reason he got into motorcycling.) The book is good, but the filmed documentary is better.
McGregor credits Jupiter’s Travels as his inspiration, and Simon himself appears in the Mongolian segment of the documentary.
For the motorcycle traveler, books are often in the shadows of travel gear, somewhere behind the bikes themselves, the helmet, riding gear, and maps that are part of the journey.
But the books provide the dreams and dreams of future rides are what we live on, especially during cold winter nights when we need the possibilities to be endless.
I have a thing about gas stations while traveling long distances on a motorcycle and I suspect it’s more than just worrying about running out of gas.
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for them over the years. They’re like small oases on long rides, a place where you can get the fuel to keep going and a small comfort for yourself, like ice water when the weather is hot and hot chocolate when it’s cold.
My fascination with gas stations started when I was living in Reno, Nevada, and was planning to visit my favorite uncle, Robert, my motorcycle guru, in San Diego.
That’s about 600 miles and I was on Discovery, my 750 Yamaha Virago so I carefully calculated the distances between towns on U.S. 395 prior to leaving. The Virago has a 4-gallon gas tank so I plotted things accordingly.
I took U.S. 395, one of America’s most underrated highways. It’s a lonely road with towns far apart, but it passes through scenic deserts, stark and beautiful. It’s an exhilarating ride on a bike.
I made that trip many times during my stay in Reno and I got to know exactly where to fuel up. I knew that I could leave Reno, enter California and fill up at the Chevron in Bridgeport, and again at the Texaco on the southern outskirts of Bishop, or keep going to the Shell in Independence.
From there it was the Texaco in Olancha, with the odd Quonset hut on the east side of 395. Then the Shell station at Kramer Junction, at the intersection of 395 and California 58.
Now you can keep going until you hit I-15 in Hesperia. The population is denser and there are gas stations everywhere.
Most of the roads we rode in Slovakia and Hungary were more lively than 395 but the gas stations felt about the same. Maybe motorcycle riders appreciate them more. They get a mention near the end of the documentary Long Way Round.
Every so often I wonder about the Quonset hut Texaco in Olancha, Calif. I should go back there and see it. It would be a good ride.
It drives me crazy, but we always take too much stuff when we travel on the motorcycle.
I take too much because 1) I try to be prepared for every eventuality, and 2) I lack the self-discipline to pare down the gear to the minimum.
Motorcycling is a minimalist endeavor because you don’t have much space. Packing light is essential for two reasons:
Weight: The bike becomes difficult to handle (especially in parking lot maneuvers and tight turnarounds) if it’s too heavy.
Packing and unpacking: What a pain in the ass. You know you’re hauling too much stuff around if you have a tankbag, duffel bag, and sidecases filled.
“You travel better when you don’t have things to pack, unpack and repack,” advised Noyes Livingston in Iron Horse magazine a few years ago.
Part of the problem is I ride a BMW motorcycle, which is not supported by an extensive dealer network. So I end up carrying a lot of stupid things like spare relays.
And spare wheel spokes! The bike is a 2000 1150 GS, which has spoked wheels that are anchored to the rim of the wheel (not the center) which let you run tubeless tires.
One of the rear-wheel spokes broke on a trip to Cleveland, and the three dealers I contacted did not carry spares — “we can order them for you. Take about a week.” I offered to buy some from one dealer if he’d give me a spoke off a floor model, but he wouldn’t do it.
So much for helping travelers far from home.
So now I carry 12 spare spokes, 6 for the front, 6 for the rear, since they’re different sizes. And there’s a tire pump that runs off the motorcycle battery, and a small battery charger. Tire patch kit. Spare headlight bulbs and fuses. Electrical wire and some hardware. Baling wire and duct tape. Quart of oil. It’s ridiculous.
The heaviest stuff goes in the two sidecases, which fill up fast with all this stuff.
That leaves us with the tankbag, which usually has stuff you want to get at quick, like cameras and spare gloves and a first-aid kit and maps and sunscreen and whatnot.
The duffel bag has the clothes, which are a real pain, because you try to anticipate the weather you’ll be riding in, which is impossible if you’re going across the country because no matter what time of year you’re traveling, you’re going to be too hot or too cold.
My cousin Shannon is a first-rate motorcycle traveler — everything she needs for a two-week trip fits into a small backpack that gets strapped to the back of the bike. Two small saddlebags carry her tools and spare parts.
I’ve gotten better at packing over the years but I still need to improve.
Everyone who rides motorcycles is dreaming of their next bike.
It doesn’t matter if we have the money or not, or even if we’re serious about buying one. We’re always looking for the next one, stopping in at dealerships on the weekend, leaving through magazines at Borders or eyeing a machine on the street that catches our attention. They don’t even have to be new.
There’s a correlation between the time one goes without a new bike and the desire to acquire one. I bought my bike in January 2000, so I think I’m due, even though my BMW R1150GS, now with 79,000 miles on the clock, has been dependable and comfortable and I have no thought of giving her up.
I’m looking at a couple of bikes now, sort of daydreaming about them: a Kawasaki KLR 650 and a BMW R1200R. The off-season for riding is often a good time to buy.
The KLR is like my GS because it’s considered a dual-sport machine. The R1200R is like the one we rented in Vienna, Austria — the perfect road bike.
So I’ve tried both, though the KLR I was on belonged to a friend in Arizona and the ride was short, just around the block a few times. It felt good.
The KLR has received much praise as a motorcycle you can ride around the world. With just a little modification, it’s capable of long-distance travel over a variety of terrain. On freeways, it’s not the best — it has about 50 hp and a single-cylinder engine, so it’s working pretty hard at highway speed. It’s not meant to carry two people for long distances, at least not very comfortably.
The R1200R is meant to stay on pavement. The Vienna bike was comfortable and powerful — about 108 hp, if I recall correctly. You could ride all day on that bike and still feel pretty good at the end of a long day. It has fuel injection — a quick twist of the throttle and you’re gone.
The BMW is about twice the price of the Kawasaki, though.
Prices aside, thinking about the next bike is like thinking about your next long ride, a delicious planning process, filled with maps and penciled destinations. Anything seems to be possible.
Other than a near-crash or a breakdown, there are few things as panic-inducing as getting lost on a motorcycle in a strange place. Especially in a foreign country.
I got us lost in Slovakia after crossing the Mária Valéria bridge over the Danube River from Estergom, Hungary, into Štúrovo. We were heading for Zvolen, running in the dark and looking for Highway 76.
We were due at my second cousin’s house in Zvolen that evening and we were already late.
We want 76 because it’s a two-lane state highway but I take a wrong turn and end up on 564, which serves tiny towns and is more like a country road with lots of twists and turns … no open gas stations and no streetlights.
It’s a damn dark night, broken only by the distant lights of 76 and the occasional car that sweeps past us. No markers that we can see, even when I have the bike’s high beams on. For a while I have only the vaguest idea of where we are.
That’s an odd feeling. In between towns, it feels as if we are still and everything else is moving around us, like a rock in a black river. The worst part happens when I go left when I should have gone right and we realize I’ve lost 564 and have to turn around. Now I really didn’t know where we are.
I pull into the first narrow sideroad I can find and have Linda get off so I can turn the bike around. I’m so frustrated I lose it and start cussing through the open helmet visor at everything and as she gets back on Linda says, “there’s a woman standing over there.”
And so there is, a nameless Slovak woman doing something in her yard in the dark, staring at us as if we’re madmen.
Which I am. Doubtless she heard my American English. So now, in addition to getting us lost and making us even later than we were, I’m on the verge of creating an international incident.
Linda taps me on the shoulder, indicating she’s securely on the bike, and I get the hell out of there. I am so ashamed I think of going back to apologize but I’d probably make things worse so I keep going.
Eventually we hit 75 and take it west to connect with E77. I see gas station lights in Tupá so we stop there to refuel.
The gas station is a BP and I need to call my cousins in Zvolen, but the station is playing American music — “Two Hearts” by Phil Collins — on the pump loudspeakers and it’s really loud so I have to take the cell phone to the edge of the parking lot just to hear.
I get hold of my cousin Lubicka and after some translation she kindly tells me not to worry about us being late and just to continue to Zvolen.
So we do, riding up E77, passing late-night crowds of kids congregating on small-town streets who turn to watch us zoom through into the dark. It is nearly midnight by the time we get to Zvolen, but we are welcomed all the same.
You may not expect a non-Harley rider to say this, but the best motorcycle magazine was Iron Horse under its best editor, David Snow.
I discovered Iron Horse during my want-a-Harley days in the mid-1990s. Iron Horse was a Harley-specific mag with a few British bikes thrown in.
Snow and the staff didn’t like the way Harley and most of its dealers were doing business — Harley taking credit for style changes that were pioneered by others and dealers for marking up prices when the bikes were objects of lust.
Snow held them accountable for their actions, and he also criticized other motorcycle magazines for their inaccurate — and often sycophantic — coverage of the Harley scene. He did it with wit, erudition, profanity, humor, and dead-on respect for the facts.
Most motorcycle magazines (with the exception of Motorcycle Consumer News) exist only to sell you something. There’s usually very little in the way of interesting content.
Not so in Snow’s Iron Horse. Every issue had something interesting in it. He could ride bikes, work on them, and build them. Snow was a genuine hard-core rider and he was a master at writing about his rides. It wasn’t just a recitation of where he’d been; reading it, you felt as if you were on the ride yourself.
The magazine’s writers were pretty good, too. Some are still deeply involved in motorcycles:
— Scott “Genghis” Wong
— Noyes B. Livingston III
— J.T. Nesbitt
Snow left Iron Horse in 1997, after more than 10 years at the helm. He came back for a few issues when the magazine reopened under a new owner, but he didn’t last long under the slapdash regime. It’s a shame this talented guy is not writing about motorcycles. It’s like Stephen Hawking leaving physics to work at McDonald’s.
You get really finicky about your gear when you ride a motorcycle.
Small things can quickly turn into big discomforts. You can’t carry a lot of stuff, so you have to pick and choose and make sure you get it right, because chances are you’ll find out it’s not right when you’re a thousand miles from home and can’t replace it.
Three things that worked during our Washington-to-San Diego ride in 2008:
Fieldsheer unlined deerskin gloves
In hot or cold weather, good gloves are a must. The fit must be perfect; too tight and your hands will feel as if they’re in a vise, too loose and the material will bunch up between your palms and the handgrips and be really uncomfortable.
The deerskins were perfect for hot weather. I bought a pair of natural brown ones because I liked the material so much. I don’t know much about leather, but I like the feel of deerskin. It’s soft and sort of molds itself to your hands, no matter where your hands are — throttle, brake, gas pump.
Better than bandannas, Buff makes lightweight cloth tubes that are commonly worn around your neck as a scarf. But you can also roll them up and wear them as headbands, or as doo-rag hats, or as a facemask, bank-robber style, if the wind is too bad.
I wore mine as a scarf and even though the jacket was open, I didn’t feel as battered by the wind as I did without it.
These are water containers you wear on your back and let you drink through a hose and bite valve while you’re moving on the bike. California was miserably hot on our way home and we stopped at a sporting goods store near San Bernardino, looking for something to provide relief. Linda suggested the 2-liter Camelbak and I got one, and it was a godsend. We ended up filling it with ice which slowly melted during the day so I had cold water whenever I needed it. Perfect.
From the late 1980s to 2007, Harley-Davidson motorcycles were the most popular bikes in the world. In the 1990s, people were put on year-long waiting lists if they wanted to buy a new Harley.
Now, however, the company is in trouble. Sales have fallen dramatically, along with the stock price, and H-D announced Oct. 15 that it will discontinue selling Buell motorcycles and sell off Italian motorcycle maker MV Augusta to concentrate on Harley bikes.
I’m sorry to see Harley’s troubles. I think Harley-Davidson motorcycles, especially the FX models and Sportsters, are the best-looking bikes on the planet. I like the visual harmony and spare lines. I like the way they sound. They’re the perfect, quintessential image of a motorcycle.
But I’ll probably never buy one.
I desperately wanted a Harley, when I first started riding around 15 years ago. But that was during the company’s heydays, when they were extraordinarily popular, and if you wanted a new Harley you probably were put on a waiting list lasting a year or more.
I spent a fair amount of time in Harley dealerships and walking out pissed off over the arrogance of the sales staff, who acted like they were doing you a favor by talking to you.
Things are different now. Dealers are friendlier. But prices are still high, and new bikes usually lack items I think should be stock — dual disc brakes up front, an external oil cooler, and a front fork brace. I want this stuff for the sort of long-distance riding I do. They can be added on, but they’re damned expensive.
I think this is why Harley is in trouble. It’s marketed itself to high-income customers and now that market has dried up. One wonders where the next group of buyers will come from.
June 2008: You never know what you’re going to encounter on a motorcycle ride. Eastbound on the way home, we run into cold hard rain that dogs us from Illinois to Ohio. It’s become a ride of extremes: The temperature hit 113 degrees in Baker, Calif., and it’s been unseasonably hot all the way into Missouri.
At one point Linda was giving me ice chips and I was sucking down water from a new Camelbak I bought in desperation near San Bernardino. Now it’s an unrelenting downpour and we’re both cold and miserable.
I can barely see through the water splashed up by cars passing us on I-70. I give up at Lafayette, Ohio, and swing north on U.S. 42, hoping for a slower pace and fewer splashy cars. The rain rumbles east and lets us go and the sky turns a lighter shade of gray.
“I’m really cold,” Linda says at a gas station north of Delaware. “Can we stop somewhere and get a dry shirt?”
I start looking for a place to buy clothes, only we can’t find anything. We see gas stations and gardening stores and garages and bars and anything but a place to buy a shirt. In Lexington, I find a Dollar General store. “There has to be something here,” I say.
Inside, Linda finds a long-sleeved shirt and a gray Ohio State sweatshirt. She goes to the restroom to put them on and I go outside to the BMW.
I fumble with the yellow North Face bag bungeed on the back and notice a commotion taking place around a silver minivan in the parking lot. A guy is kneeling next to it, fishing for something beneath as his two young daughters anxiously look on. Finally, he emerges, holding a kitten.
It’s a tiny thing, black and white, and scrawny. By this time, about a half-dozen people have gathered to see what’s going on. Linda comes out of the store and we join them.
“Can we keep him?” one of the daughters asks, and the man says no. “We have too many already.”
“Well, I can’t take him,” says one of the store clerks. “My dogs don’t like cats.”
“He’ll have to go to the pound, then,” the man says. The clerk pets the kitten, whose eyes are runny. There are scabs on his nose. The clerk sighs and says, “He won’t last long there. Probably get put down.”
Probably get put down. Good God. Three years ago, we found an abandoned beagle on a highway near Tampa at night. We were in the car and took her to a vet with connections to the humane society. They told us there wasn’t much hope of her being adopted.
“We’ll take her if nobody claims her,” we told them.
The beagle (Linda named her Molly) ended up at the Hillsborough County Humane Society and we visited her and it tore your heart out to see that horror — 700 hopeful, pleading dogs in cages about a mile long and all of them waiting to die and there was no way, no way, we could save them. Jesus. And that was our choice, either we take Molly home or she dies.
I could not leave her there. We said we’d take her, but they had to keep her for two weeks so we had to leave and Linda flew down to get the beagle and we ended up flying her back to Washington from Orlando. It was ridiculous, insane, but I would have paid twice the airfare to get her out of that awful place. It still haunts me. And now here’s this kitten and the ride has turned into another rescue mission.
Linda and I look at each other and she says, “Can I hold him?” The man hands over the kitten, who settles in Linda’s hands and starts purring. Linda looks at me and I say, “Maybe we can take him.”
“On a motorcycle? How you gonna do that?” one of the daughters says.
I’m thinking, how, indeed. There’s no room on the bike. The two sidecases are packed with spare parts and gear and he couldn’t ride in one anyway — no air. She can’t just hold him, or stuff him in her jacket, he could squirm out and fall. We’re 80 miles from my parents’ house in Cleveland, which is where we’re supposed to be tonight. They’re watching our dogs, and our car is there. So if we can just get him safely to Cleveland…
“Let me see if they have a cage or something,” Linda says, and hands off the kitten to me. He’s still purring. “Even a big plastic box,” I say, figuring I can drill holes in it.
Miraculously, she returns with a cloth cage that zips together and has screens for ventilation. She also has a towel for the kitten to sit on. The kitten goes in the cage.
Now we do a Laurel-and-Hardy routine to get everyone aboard. I get on the bike. She hands me the cage. I balance the cage on the tankbag in front of me and steady the bike as she climbs on and settles into the passenger seat. I grab the cage with one hand and carefully pass it to her. She grips it between us and I can feel it against my back, even through the armor in the riding jacket. She taps my shoulder, indicating we’re go for launch.
The clerk wishes us good luck and watches us ride away.
On the road, it’s not as bad as I expected. I have to edge forward on the saddle to give the cage enough room, but that’s all. I get on I-71 near Mansfield and head north, stopping for gas at a BP station near Medina.
It’s starting to get dark and the air is a little chilly, and we can’t find anything to wrap around the cage, to cut the wind. Instead of tearing into the duffle bag, I take off a shirt and we pull it over the cage. I call my parents to let them know we’re coming and what we’re carrying.
“Another cat? Oh, no,” my mother says and laughs.
It’s dark by the time we roll into my parents’ garage. The kitten is fine, unfazed by his motorcycle ride.
He’s been with us for a little more than a year. After a few vet visits, he’s healthy and full size and playful. Linda named him Lexie, for Lexington, where we found him. He gets along with Molly, the beagle, and other dogs and cats we have. He knows he’s home.
August 2009: I have a thing about old motorcycles because I can’t help but see one and start scheming, no matter how rusty and decrepit it is, to resurrect it, get it back on the road, make it useful again. I think there’s nothing sadder than a non-running motorcycle. It’s one of my great weaknesses and gets me in trouble from time to time.
In Slovakia, my father’s cousin Cyril was a motorcycle rider; he had a Czech-made 125cc Jawa decades ago. It was a practical machine for commuting during the days of communism, but it looked like fun, too. I have a black-and-white photo of Cyril on his bike and he’s smiling beneath his helmet.
Motorcycles tend to slip away from us. Maybe it’s the bad weather that prevents us from riding, or the necessity of suiting up like a deep-sea diver before riding or the bit of maintenance that eludes some owners. Sometimes it’s easy to put the bike away and forget about it for a while, and if you leave it long enough the tires go flat and the gasoline turns to shellac in the carburetors, or a cable rusts and snaps the first time you try it.
My grandfather’s 1916 Harley was sold to a neighbor while he was in the hospital, nearly 20 years before I was born; I would love to find it and restore it, but that won’t happen, there are no clues to its whereabouts after the neighbor resold it to someone else.
My uncle’s 1976 Honda Gold Wing was parked for a couple of years and suffered for it, but he did get it back on the road after I pestered him about us riding together. That’s a machine that should be given a ground-up restoration and be ridden frequently.
Cyril still has his Jawa, as I was surprised to find, under a tarp in a barn at the family home in Drahovce, Slovakia. After learning I wanted to see it, he led me outside and we pulled back the tarp.
Oh, it was in sad shape. It was covered with dust and the headlight was broken and the engine was gone, hidden away in another part of the barn, apparently. I wanted very much to roll it out into the sunlight and assess its condition, but it would have taken us half an hour just to clear a path and I didn’t have the time. I think Cyril was slightly embarrassed over its condition and preferred to leave it where it was. My poor Slovak prevented me from knowing.
But I put my hand on the Jawa’s throttle grip and wondered what it would be like to run it down the road. And I would have given a lot to have the Jawa in pristine condition, and have Cyril slip on his helmet again, and the two of us take our bikes across the Slovakian countryside, just as I wished I could go riding with my grandfather on his Harley.
August 2009: During my first solo ride in Slovakia, I was pulled over by a cop.
I was heading to Drahovce from Piešťany, a distance of maybe seven miles, to see Cyril and Ilona at the old homestead. Linda and Iva had gone shopping.
So I’m alone on the motorcycle, and decide to take a small detour through Piešťany. We’d walked through town a few times and I wondered what it would feel like to take the bike through the streets. There were only a few cars on the road and I take it easy, though I do stand on the pegs a bit while rolling over the speed humps.
Then I see this police officer up ahead and he motions me to the side with a quick hand gesture. I pull to the side, in front of him, and he motions again to shut off the engine, which I do.
The officer is a young guy, maybe mid-20s, and he has a mustache and aviator sunglasses. He says something to me in Slovak that I don’t understand.
“Prepachte,” I say, “Moje slovencina je velme zla.” Which means, excuse me, my Slovak is very bad. It’s one of only a handful of phrases I know, but it did impress the Slovak Embassy staff back in Washington.
He says something else that I understood as “your Slovak is good” to which I say, “Nie, lutujem. Ucim sa len kratko.” Which means, no, I’m sorry, I’ve been studying only a short time. “Rozprovatche po anglicky, prosim?” I add hopefully, which means, do you speak English, please?
He says no, and starts walking around the bike, checking it out.
I pull off my gloves and remove the helmet and earplugs and start wondering what he makes of this. There are American and Slovak flags on the left sleeve of my flight suit and the bike has an Austrian license plate.
And I can’t figure out why he’s pulled me over. I have two theories, either he thought I was going too fast or he’s looking to make the town some revenue.
Iva’s husband Jozef was pulled over in Kosice while driving us across the country three years ago — something about making an illegal turn, forbidden by a sign that was pretty well hidden. The fine was outrageous and consensus was the officers were engaging in revenue enhancement.
Now the officer stands in front of the bike again and says something I totally can’t understand. “Lutujem, nerozumiem,” I say, which means, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
We go back and forth like this for a bit, until he finally tires and motions for me to go. “Ah. Dakujem,” I say, which means thank you.
The rest of the ride to Drahovce is uneventful, but over dinner with my Slovak relatives that night there is much laughter when I tell what happened. They say the officer was probably just looking to collect a quick fine.
Signs like this marked pedestrian crossings in Slovakia. The human figures were slightly different but I liked the ones with the little hats the best. For some reason they reminded me of a riff from MST3K.
August 2008: Fleeing the desert heat, I refuel the motorcycle at the Shell station in Gila Bend, Arizona. Interstate 8 is a lonely road across the heat sink between Casa Grande in the east and Yuma to the west and this Gila Bend station is a well-known oasis to us; it’s a truck stop on the edge of town and a good place to stop, guzzle Gatorade, pause in the shade, and stuff your neck bandanna with ice in preparation for the next leg of desert travel.
It’s 102 degrees and rising.
I park the bike in the spotty shade of a palm tree and we put our helmets and riding jackets on one of the three aluminum picnic tables beneath an awning. In the desert, finding shade is the key, especially when you’re on a motorcycle; otherwise, the sun bakes the seat and handlebars and you feel as if you’re climbing into an oven when you saddle up. And you always put your helmet in shade, or, better yet, take it with you into the air-conditioned store. Leave your helmet to bake during a rest stop just once and you’ll never do it again.
Back home, I have photographs taken here from cross-country bike rides that started nine years ago. The place looks about the same; the endless clay pots and figurines lined up for sale outside the building and bottled drinks in frosty cases inside. In the restrooms, the water from both taps is warm. At the store counter, one clerk tells me, “Woman asked me why there’s no cold water. I told her, ‘you want cold water in Gila Bend, you come in December.'”
This station used to be a Texaco, but corporate deals have turned it into a Shell. Lots of vacationers stop here, many recreational vehicles and SUVs, whose occupants spill out of their air-conditioned compartments in search of drinks and bathrooms and look shocked as they’re hit by the heat. There’s no such surprise for a motorcycle rider.
Linda wanders back inside the store and I stay to watch the bike, our gear, and the land beyond. A few miles away, the desert is silent except for the wind; here, the station’s air conditioner rattles and a diesel idles out back.
The relentless heat and remote isolation of Gila Bend never fail to move me. I marvel at how far removed this place is, lost in the desert, and how difficult it must have been for early travelers without gas-powered engines, air conditioning, or ice.
As I sit there, heat-sapped and lost in thought, a rider on black Harley-Davidson touring bike pulls in and shuts down behind my BMW. Motorcycle riders commonly seek each other out at rest stops and such places; it’s a chance to swap stories, compare destinations, and sometimes see if the other guy is suffering as much as you are.
The Harley rider takes off his helmet, revealing thick gray hair, and relaxes a moment on the saddle. “Nice bike,” he says to me, in greeting.
“Thanks,” I say. “Where you headed?”
“San Diego,” he says. “You?”
We just came from there. We’re headed back East to Cleveland, and then home to Washington.”
“Really?” he says. “I live near Cleveland.”
“No kidding?” Cleveland is more than 2,000 miles from here. “My parents live in Bedford Heights,” a suburb.
“I grew up in Bedford,” he says.
“Did you go to Bedford High?” I ask.
“Yes, I did.”
That’s amazing,” I say, and I stand up, offer my hand, and say, “George Petras, class of ’76.”
His hand meets mine and I realize with a shock he looks familiar. “Terry Salvi, class of ’76.”
I have always been mildly disappointed that Kerouac never wrote about riding motorcycles. He was much more interested in cars, probably taking his cue from Neal Cassady, who reportedly stole hundreds of them as a teen in Denver.
To Cassady, cars were great places to make out with girls. In their drives across the country, Kerouac and Cassady would drive all night, blast the radio, and talk. It’s tough to do that on a motorcycle. But Cassady was given to discourse, not self-reflection. You can’t have an audience aboard a bike. Maybe there’s a correlation.
I’m certainly not a Kerouac scholar, but I’ve found only a single reference to motorcycles in Kerouac’s writing; I stumbled across it in his Book of Dreams, a collection of his remembered dreams:
“Joe and I are riding his motorcycle, I’m sitting ass back, heels of my new crepsoles dragging in the Southern town street — I want to ask Joe to slow down so I can turn around but he doesnt hear or care, it’s Rocky Mount or Kinston, we cross the railroad tracks and go out and go speeding over the countryside but suddenly it leaves us and a great gap of nothingness and sand hundredfoot canyon yawns beneath us and all we can do is fall but Joe has that wild crazy hope the wheels’ll stay upright which they more or less do, we ride the saw horse, at the bottom is a dry creek, another climb up sand steep bank like those we tumbled on Lawrence Boulevard nightmarish vast waiting…”
June 12, 2008: After leaving San Diego for the ride home to Washington, we decide to loop north to escape the heat and stop for a while at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which Linda has never seen. It’s a clear day, giving beautiful views of the canyon. We end up staying too long, and I know we’ll be riding in the dark soon.
As the light fades, we ride north on U.S. 89 and inquire about motel rooms. But the prices are outrageous, and I decide to push on. It gets darker and chilly and we realize motels are few. We stop at a gas station in Long Valley Junction, Utah, to fuel up and put on more layers.
Under the pump lights, I study the Utah map. Looks like it’s best to take State Route 14 to Cedar City and I-15, with more motels. If we stay on 89, we’ll be riding all night.
The station is closing, the employees clearing out. One stops and asks where we’re from and where we’re going; Linda tells him and says we’re going to Cedar City.
“On this road?” the man says. “Better be careful. Lots of deer out there. ”
Ah, jeez, I think to myself. Deer are unpredictable and dangerous, especially in the dark. I’ve heard way too many stories; just one can take down a motorcycle. Usually they jump out in front of you. 14 is a rural road and almost pitch black and we’ll be on it for about 40 miles before we reach Cedar City.
“I’ll be careful,” I tell Linda as we saddle up.
I’ve upgraded the stock bulbs on the BMW to high-output halogens and added a set of PIAA 510 lights, one on each side. They’re like a pair of small spotlights, but fairly powerful. We start off and I switch on the high beam and the 510s, using every light I’ve got.
The road is two-lane asphalt with gravel on the sides and it quickly turns curvy, wandering in and around hills. I keep our speed down to about 20 mph, the lights fade behind us, darkness moves closer and I start living in the tunnel of light ahead. I’ve put more than 70,000 miles on this bike and I trust her. We’re solid together. We should be okay…then I see a deer ahead, no, two, standing by the side of the road watching us as I throttle down and pass them.
“Did you see that?” I yell back to Linda.
“Yes, two!” she yells, and we’re yelling not only over the engine noise and the full-face helmets but because I’m wearing standard earplugs, which help lessen fatigue on long rides. It’s tough to carry on a conversation, though.
I tell myself we’ll see more and sure enough, brown bodies and bright eyes start appearing on the hillsides and up the road, startled by our running lights. I back off the throttle and count…3,4,5, wait, two more…Jesus! There’s about a dozen. More up ahead. We’re in a herd!
The road twists, turns and straightens for a bit; we’re moving at about 10 mph, passing deer left and right until I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn my head to the left and see a large buck galloping alongside us, getting closer. My heart stops and I twist the throttle and the bike surges ahead and away from him.
This is too much, I tell myself, and I realize I’ve left the grille covers on the 510s, which cut down the light they cast. I know I’ll have to stop and remove them. No other way.
Trouble is, there’s no place to stop without being in the road and though we’ve seen no cars, I don’t want to stop on this road in this black night.
But then I see the asphalt widen a bit, a junction with a gravel road. This will have to do. It’ll just take a second, we’ll stop, pull the covers, stow them in a side case, remount, and get the hell out of here.
I stop the bike as far to the right as I can, without straying into slippery gravel. Linda gets off, says, “What’s wrong?” and I say I have to pull the covers, I need more light. I shut off the engine, hit the four-way flashers, and get off to lift the bike onto her centerstand. But something’s wrong, Linda’s gasping, “We’re too close to the edge,” and the bike loses her keel and tilts away from me and I can’t hold it and she crashes into the gravel.
I cuss mightily and try to get her up. Linda helps and we finally get her upright. Linda steadies her as I keep a deathgrip on the handlebars and move around to make sure the sidestand is down and get the bike set.
I’m sweating in my riding suit and waiting to be run down by some drunk guy careening through the Utah night. I try to check the bike for gas or oil leaks with a tiny LED light attached to my jacket but I can’t keep a firm grip on the light and it flashes on and off, like lightning in a bad horror movie. At that moment, a car drives up and stops and the driver asks, “Are you all right?”
I can hardly hear him through the helmet and earplugs. “WE’RE FINE!” I say, trying not to yell but probably yelling anyway. And I realize how ridiculous this is; we’re standing in the dark, on the side of the road, and I can’t see or hear anything.
The driver leaves and I attack the 510 covers and find I can’t get them off. I remember they were loose before and my father and I worked on them in his garage back home in Cleveland; he added an ingenious extra washer which made them fit just right, but harder to remove until I discover how to do it. I stow the covers and look around for Linda. She’s taking pictures. I yell for her to get on the bike and finally we’re moving again.
The uncovered 510s give us better light for the rest of the ride, but we find we’re past most of the deer, only a handful by the side of the road. I’m tensed up and I stay that way until we finally reach the lights of Cedar City. We stop at the first decent motel and I’m too tired, too wrung out, to care about the price.
My father’s family came from Slovakia. My grandfather grew up in Drahovce, about an hour’s travel from Bratislava, the capital. He emigrated to the United States for better opportunities when he was 19, before World War I. He left behind his parents and two sisters, the younger of which was the mother of Cyril Kudela, the gentleman you see here.
My grandfather’s departure essentially split the Petráš family in two. He wrote his family but never returned to Slovakia. We knew we had relatives in Slovakia but no one quite knew how many or where. My father’s sister was the only one who maintained a line of communication with the family in Slovakia. I was able to contact them in 2004 and we were able to visit them in 2006. I saw my great-grandfather’s grave during that visit.
Cyril is a few years younger than my father. I don’t know for sure when this picture was taken, but I suspect in the late 1960s. That looks like Cyril’s daughter Iva behind him. The motorcycle is a 125cc Jawa, a bike made in Czechoslovakia.
June 2008: It’s already hot as we leave the hotel in the morning in Ehrenberg, Arizona, and cross the state line into California.
We’re looking for a gas station because the one next to the hotel was packed with cars and some of the pumps weren’t working, which guaranteed sweaty, irritable waits. We’d endured soul-killing heat throughout Arizona and I was too tired to fill up the night before.
The bike has enough fuel to get us into Blythe and we sail across the Colorado River bridge on I-10, getting no relief from the heat even over water. The sun is glaring. I pull into the first station, an Exxon just off the highway. It’s on the edge of agricultural fields that are baking in the heat, dry, dusty acres impossibly kept alive only by irrigation.
It’s about 105 degrees already and the air is still and dry. Even the cement of the road looks bleached. “How could anyone live here?” I wonder.
There is little relief even under the awning over the pumps. Linda gets off the bike and heads for the store. I pull the bike onto its centerstand, put my helmet on top of the gas pump, and fumble for the credit card.
While filling the tank I look around. There’s a small green metal shed with doors standing open that’s filled with old soda and beer cans. A collection point of some kind. A forlorn motel sits next door. The station itself is quiet and nearly deserted, only one other car or two.
I finish refueling and Linda returns. She stays with the bike as I go inside to use the restroom. When I come out, she’s talking with a woman who has seen the bike and wandered over, curious.
She’s deeply tanned and dressed to be looked at, sunglasses, sandals, shredded cut-offs, and a ragged shirt tied up under her breasts, leaving her belly bare. You can’t help but notice her muscular physique, like a female weightlifter, but there’s something wrong, because she looks wasted somehow, as if she’d spent a week in rehab before being kicked out. “She’s going to ask Linda for money,” I think.
But she doesn’t. Instead she’s telling Linda most of her life story, how she was a bodybuilder in California and did pretty well, but then had some sort of medical problem that required brain surgery and a plate in her head.
She and her husband stay at the motel next door after he lost his truck driving permit and they’re collecting cans and she should be taking medication but the medicine doesn’t really work for her so she drinks beer instead, calling it self-medication. Linda gently suggests this may not be a good idea, and the woman says she knows, but…
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to see a Hispanic man, a little older than me, pulling a kid’s wagon with a makeshift awning on it — four sticks and a towel stretched above. It’s piled with junk and cans and two small dogs are sitting in it, in the shade.
They have to be dying out here, I think, and the man pulls the wagon up to the hose at the station’s side and gives the dogs some water. They drink and he goes inside.
The bodybuilder is telling Linda she knows the man and that he collects cans, and she and her husband look after him. The man comes outside carrying a small bag of ice, which he puts in the wagon.
I search the pockets of my riding suit, looking for cash because I have to give this guy something, anything. And I don’t have a damn thing on me. I used up the last of my cash late last night in Ehrenberg because the truck stop’s credit card machine wasn’t working and we were buying food.
I find only four sad crumpled dollars but take them to the man. I put them in his hands and say “Vaya con Dios, señor,” the only Spanish I know, and in English he says, “in the name of Christ Jesus, amen,” and I walk back to the bike, ashamed of the four dollars, ashamed I can’t change anything for him, ashamed that I’m leaving him and his dogs in the heat.
The bodybuilder says good-bye and we climb back aboard the bike and I watch the Hispanic man leave. Where he is going I can’t imagine but later I will find him, again and again, burned into memory as he pulls the wagon and the dogs sit resigned and the ice bag melts, down the silent bone-white road, in the heat, in the sun, in the heat.
June 2002: I think my fascination with motorcycles truly began in February 1964 when Robert McDaniel, an adventurous uncle of mine, rode a black 305cc Honda Dream from San Diego to Cleveland, more than 2,000 miles.
He intended to ride to Florida to see his parents (my grandparents) but learned enroute they were in Ohio. He turned north in New Mexico, riding U.S. 70 where he passed through starkly beautiful country. He paused on the roadside for a smoke near the craggy mountains of Organ, N.M., and dreamed of Indians crossing the valley floor.
He had not anticipated riding north and was ill-prepared; his gear consisted of a leather jacket, Levis, light gloves, and three-quarter helmet with face shield. It was warm when he left California but he ran into a blizzard in central Ohio and skidded off an icy road and was nearly hit by a delivery truck.
But he toughed it out, kept going and finally arrived; Instamatic photos show him exhausted and disheveled in a black motorcycle jacket, images of family legend.
I tell you of his ride because it was the first pivotal moment in my personal history; I was six years old and it seized my imagination. We recreated his ride in June 2002 and stopped at the same place he did 38 years earlier; the mountains were still stark and serene.
August 2006: I’m on the motorcycle, rolling westbound on I-10 outside of El Paso in western Texas in the early evening when I see a huge dark cloud build up to the south. It’s so impressive I stop and take a few pictures as I put on a jacket.
The cloud keeps growing and getting darker, promising rain (rare for this part of the country). When the rain finally comes down, hard, I bail, looking desperately for a building with an overhang — a car wash, a bank with a drive-through window, a funeral home (don’t laugh, I spent an hour at one during a downpour in Eddyville, Kentucky).
In Socorro I find a darkened school administration building with a recessed entry way and nearly empty parking lot and I ride the bike right up the handicap ramp. The entry is 30 feet wide, 10 feet deep, and totally dry. Perfect!
A stack of sandbags lines one inside wall. I back the motorcycle into the opposite corner and set her up on the centerstand. Then I put my helmet and gloves on the top row of sandbags and sit down…I find it’s really comfortable, because the wall is angled inward toward the windows, giving me a natural place to recline.
I relax on the bags and watch the rain pour down. I’m dry and I have a half bottle of Gatorade and a package of peanut butter-and-toast crackers. Things could not be any better…I feel almost smug. The rain continues to alternate between moderate and ferocious.
A little over an hour later, the main door opens and a janitor comes out. He glances at me, says hello in a friendly way, and turns to watch the rain.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m going to give it another 20 minutes and then take off. I should be going anyway.”
“Oh, no problem,” he says. “Just watch out for the black widows.”
“Black widows?” I say. “The spiders? Where?”
“There,” he says, and points in my direction. “They like to hide in the sandbags.”