Lonely Roads and Fueling Up

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.

Pack It Up

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.

The Next Bike

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.

We’re insatiable.

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.

Night Wind Points Motorcycle Over Lost Country Road in Angel Zen Adventure

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.

The Best Motorcycle Magazine

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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
Flynch
— 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.

Three Things That Worked

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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.

Buff headwear
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.

Camelbak
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.

Harley-Davidson in Trouble

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.

Saving Lexie

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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.

lexie1

“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.

lexie2

Ghost of My Grandfather

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

Pulled Over in Piešťany

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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.

Crossing Paths

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.

We know this place. 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.'”

We know this place. It 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, D.C.”

“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.”

Jack Kerouac is Dreaming of a Motorcycle

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…”

Night of the Odocoileus

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.

Cyril and His Motorcycle

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.

Salvador Dali’s Gas Station

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.

The 1964 Odyssey

Endurance eastbound on I-70 overlooking the mountains near Organ, New Mexico.
Endurance eastbound on I-70 overlooking the mountains near Organ, New Mexico.

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.

Out of the Rain

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.”

Motorcycle travel