Tuesday, Oct. 11 | Day 7: I think only good friends Andrew Virzi, Tom McCray and Karl Gelles will truly understand this one, but if you’re feeling optimistic, do continue. I’ll keep it short since this is a rather quirky piece about hardware stores.
Interjection from the mission logistician: Owning and modifying a motorcycle or Vespa means doing at least some work on your own. Accordingly, you end up fabricating some parts and even tools. Thus, hardware stores can sometimes be among your best friends.
After four days of motorcycle travel, Linda and I got to St. Pete Beach late Saturday afternoon and took some time to relax and sort things out. Part of this required a stop at the South Pasadena Ace Hardware.
We’d been here before, but only briefly. Linda ended up looking for corks for her antique bottle collection and we ended up down one long aisle where I was amazed to see cabinet after cabinet of specialty screws, nuts and other items, many of which I’ve sought in the past without success, others I didn’t know existed.
It had everything, including (1) classy, knurled thumb screws that would have looked good on a set of Campagnolo downshift levers; (2) brass acorn nuts; (3) plastic caps for buttoning over the scratchy heads of screws.
And it was so clean and thoughtfully organized, not the sad chaotic mess one usually finds in the well-picked-over aisles of Home Depot or Lowe’s.
I bought a 24mm 12-point socket (I would have preferred a 6-point) for the oil drain fitting and some rubber plugs that may work to prop open the passenger peg extensions aboard Erebus and Terror, two Vespas that were parked a thousand miles away.
South Pasadena Ace Hardware was so nice I wanted to move there, which is ridiculous, but it’s a testament to how important well-stocked hardware stores are. At least to me.
While checking over Terror1, the 2016 Vespa I recently bought from a nearby Vespa dealer2 to use in the 2023 Scooter Cannonball, I discovered they’d drastically over-filled the engine oil.
The oil on the dipstick was way above the MAX mark – which is not good, of course, since too much oil means too much pressure inside the engine, causing leaks and other damage.
I put about 8 miles on Terror just riding it home, which shouldn’t present a problem.
The dealer said they’d changed the engine oil and transmission oil before selling it. I asked about brake fluid, since it’s hygroscopic and absorbs water over time.
You really don’t want that. Water in brake fluid compromises braking and causes rust in steel brake lines and elsewhere in the system.
They said they didn’t know when it was last changed but said their mechanic “looked at” the brake fluid, presumably in the reservoir, and said it was okay.
Apologies, but that’s bullshit, too. You need to test the fluid with special test strips or an electronic meter – you can’t just “look” at it. Everything I’ve ever read says you should change the fluid every two years or so.
This 2016 Vespa is six years old.
But back to the engine oil. On Friday night, after sticking a clean plastic straw down the filler hole, I laboriously and patiently and carefully sucked out the excess oil like it was a toxic milkshake.
Motul 4T 5W-40 full synthetic looks like red wine salad dressing but most certainly does not taste like it.
I got the engine oil level down to where it should be. The excess went into a gallon jug that formerly held Arizona iced tea. It was about ¾ inch deep, which seems a frightful amount.
On Saturday, I rode the Vespa 153 miles south to Scoot Richmond3. They’ll change the brake fluid and engine coolant, to give me a baseline of maintenance. Linda and I will pick it up on Saturday, Aug. 6.
And that was the latest Vespa adventure, with the apparent lesson being you have to check everything.
_ _ _
1 — Which is named after the second ship of the James Clark Ross expedition to the Antarctic in 1839. We’ve been over this before, right?
2 — Who shall remain anonymous. The sales person was very nice, though.
3 — Who has the only Vespa mechanics I can trust, apparently. It doubles my regret at not waiting and purchasing a similar vintage Vespa that popped up on their site after I bought Terror.
It’s one of my favorite stories and I think that’s because I had a great time talking to the riders I interviewed. Fascinating people, every one.
So now I have two Vespas.
There’s an indescribable feeling you get when crossing the dividing line between spectator and participant. I felt it most keenly in my first Marine Corps Marathon, taking my place among the other runners and thinking to myself I’m really doing this at last.
Likewise, writing about the Cannonball made me think could I do this?
The marathon had its roots in my high school cross-country days, back in the Pleistocene era1. The Cannonball dream is more recent, of course, and I’m learning more about its logistical demands, which are roughly akin to those of the Normandy invasion.
The planning elements comprise a long list2, but choice of scooter – what am I going to ride? – is probably paramount.
Scooters get punished during the Cannonball. Small engines aren’t intended for sustained high-speed travel over 8 to 10 days and riders often do maintenance chores in hotel parking lots when they’d much rather be sleeping in their rooms 10 feet away.
I could take Erebus, my 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni, but it’s sort of a special-edition model and I started having visions of being dopey-tired and dropping it at gas stations and such. I really didn’t want to bash her up3.
That made me think about getting a second scooter, one, er, nice but not as nice as Erebus but still sturdy enough to get me across the country. Linda and I looked at Japanese scooters4 but then I saw the 2016 on La Moto Washington’s website.
It’s a 2016 Vespa Super Sport, a 300cc scooter with ABS, much like Erebus but less sporty-appearing. The engine isn’t an HPE like Erebus and Linda’s GTS but it’s still powerful, relatively speaking5, and has longer maintenance intervals. It had 872 miles on the odometer.
Long story short, I rode it home eight miles in the rain today.
I had to give her a name and, continuing my preference for naming my motorcycles after Antarctic exploration ships6, chose the moniker Terror, after the second ship of the James Clark Ross expedition of 1839-1843. Erebus was the first7.
Terror is in my workshop now at Starbase 8 with 880 miles on the clock. I’ll start learning how to work on it, how to change engine oil and filters and how to replace transmission belts and variator and clutch rollers. It will be a steep learning curve for me.
I’ll baby Terror and take care of her, but I’ll be secure knowing that I can take a tumble and – while aghast at the damage I’m causing8 – think: At least I’m not fucking up Erebus.
_ _ _
1 – Admittedly, I wasn’t a very good runner, then or now. I’ve had bystanders tell me to just get a cab.
2 – That’s not an exaggeration. You have to decide if/how to ship your scooter to the starting line, reserve rooms at hotels/motels along the way, arrange for space on support vehicles and figure out how you’re going to get your scooter home when the rally is over.
3 – Any motorcycle or scooter can get damaged while traveling but the Cannonball carries a higher risk because of long days, insufficient sleep, enforced timelines and intense navigation. I just didn’t want to risk Erebus like that.
4 – A Honda ADV 150 or Yamaha SMAX were on the list. They have smaller engines and less power than Terror but are considered extremely reliable.
5 – Terror has 22 hp; Erebus has 24.
6 – It’s true; I have three motorcycles and two Vespas of my own (not counting Linda’s Vespa and Yamaha Vino) and all but one has an Antarctic-related name.
The outlier is Santiago, the 1965 Honda CL-77 awaiting restoration in a shed out back. It’s named after one of the five ships Magellan took on his circumnavigation voyage in 1519.
7 – Both were constructed as “bomb ships,” built with extremely strong hulls to withstand the impacts of naval explosions. Sadly, they were lost during the 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. Erebus was found in 2014; Terror was discovered in 2016.
8 – And will fix, since it’s a really nice scooter.
Saturday, Aug. 21| “I love the songs you play here and on the street, they’re really good,” a woman tells an employee inside This n’ That Amish Outlet in Old Town Warrenton, Virginia, and I restrain myself from yelling, “Yes! I think so, too!” across the store.
I’d unconsciously started noticing the music stream myself – golden oldies, they’d be called these days1 – after we’d wedged the Vespas into a parking space on Main Street.
We were in Warrenton as part of a short, simple 90-mile ride to get us out of the house and back on the saddle, preparatory for the St. Petersburg mission later this year.
The realization crept up in a subtle way with me thinking, gee, that’s an oldie and then haven’t heard that one in a while and suddenly, wait, what’s going on?
I feel silly asking, but a very polite staffer at The Open Book tells me their music comes from Spotify, brought in by computer and played on Bluetooth speakers. She doesn’t know what other stores on the street use but says the choice is theirs.
“We use indie-folk because it’s calming and doesn’t distract from people reading,” she says.
You hear music in every commercial venue, often to the point of saturation. So you ignore it, even as you’re being manipulated. Retailers often use music to make customers more susceptible to buying things, psychologists say2.
Part of that is music’s ability to shift you in time, to trigger memories you’ve stuffed away. I wouldn’t have been surprised to catch Blind Faith in the bookstore, but it was like the entire town was playing the same Spotify list, making me think it was 1971.
The ride itself was good. Erebus seemed more comfortable, or maybe I’m getting used to being uncomfortable.
I ended up buying the new biography of Malcolm X at The Open Book. I intended to get it at some point3, but it’s always good to patronize independent bookstores whenever possible, even if insidious, scheming, diabolical music-wielding market researchers will claim the purchase as a victory4.
1 – No Rolling Stones or Beatles, though.
2 – Loud music causes shoppers to leave quickly; soft music entices them to stay. And some studies say music in a minor key is associated with sadness, which shoppers address by buying something to release reassuring dopamine.
3 – I’ve read the 1964 autobiography, written with Alex Haley, but I want to compare this highly regarded new book with the bios written by Bruce Perry in 1991 and by Manning Marable in 2011.
Let’s get right to the point: Erebus has been delivered to Richmond for her 600-mile service1 and I’ve spent some time and effort on upgrades for comfort, utility and visual appeal.
I’m still getting accustomed to the small size2 of it – it’s a 2020 Vespa 300 GTV Sei Giorni – but the flat seat, the one obtained with the swap from Linda’s GTS, allows me to sit farther back.
I’ve also started using the passenger footpegs, which make it more comfortable and gives it more of a motorcycle feel3. And I attached an inflatable AirHawk cushion, which is working so far.
I feel a bit less intimidated on the freeway now, even with clueless Virginia drivers passing like they’re in practice for their own private Le Mans. It’s getting better, though. And it does feel good on meandering county roads, with a slower pace and less traffic.
One problem is a lack of storage space. There’s a small glovebox-like compartment in the front shield that could conceivably carry a pair of gloves, and a small tub4 below the saddle that can fit a half-helmet, a rain jacket and a real pair of gloves on a good day.
But the Sei Giorni (as we discussed earlier) is patterned after a racing bike, laughable when you think about its 24-hp engine, but still. I want to store tools and rainsuits and spare parts and such without turning it into the truck from the Beverly Hillbillies.
A few other additions:
A windscreen from Scooter West/Vespa Motorsport, along with handlebar-end weights, an extended footpad for the sidestand, a rubber floormat and a small luggage rack for the floorboard. (That’s where the main toolkit will reside.)
From Scoot Richmond: A luggage carrier behind the saddle and a set of crash bars.
I attached two plastic canisters that each hold a 30-oz. MSR fuel bottle. The canisters5 look like a pair of small torpedoes or maybe warp nacelles from a Starfleet vessel.
Installation of all this was just basic tinkering, though it took me a while to figure out how to position the fuel carriers on the underside of the luggage plate. I also had to fabricate a way to attach them.
But at least now I can carry a half-gallon of gas in reserve.
I dithered over the floorboard rack but decided I liked it. It’s low-profile enough to carry the toolkit without looking junky. It’ll be a pain to remove when it comes time to fuss with the battery, though.
The acclimation process continues. And have you heard about this Scooter Cannonball Run? It’s this coast-to-coast endurance rally, see, and I was thinking…
1 – Though the odometer shows 1,021.7, which makes it plain that the dial is recording distance traveled in kilometers instead of miles. 1,021.7 kilometers equal 634.9 miles, if you want to know.
2 – Relatively speaking, in reference to the BMW and the Yamaha.
3 – Aside from the saddle problems, foot placement can be a bit maddening at times. There’s some space on the floorboards to move your feet around, but I found myself wanting more. I tried folding out the passenger pegs and using them and it works, sorta.
4 – The tubs are called pet carriers because you absolutely can’t carry petsin them.
5 – They’re actually tractor manual carriers from Agri Supply. I read about them somewhere quite a while ago; the MSR bottles fit perfectly. I have a set on Endurance and Terra Nova.
Thursday, Oct. 15 | Day 2: The day begins with a cryptic communique from work on my smartphone, a harbinger of changes to come, employment-wise; it throws a heavy shadow over the morning and kicks my focus off the ride for a while.
We pack up the bikes as I laborously exchange emails with trusted colleagues until I’m convinced the changes can be handled. We set course for Orangeburg, South Carolina, a 227-mile chunk of travel that will put us within arm’s reach of Georgia tonight and touchdown in St. Pete Beach, Florida, 40 hours from then.
With its 2.2-gallon fuel tank, Linda’s Vespa decides when we pause for gas. I refuel when she does, though it means putting about three gallons into Terra Nova each time we stop1. As on other rides, we develop a rhythm that works.
The rhythm has us stop 30 miles later at an Exxon station2 in Moncure, North Carolina, where I see a guy on an older Triumph Tiger, an adventure-style motorcycle like Terra Nova.
I admire Triumphs of all eras but Tigers are special. I came close to getting a Triumph before deciding on the Yamaha, a Super Tenere, in 2012.
I examine the Tiger until the owner emerges from the station and I introduce myself. He’s Jack Locke, from Sanford, North Carolina, not far from here. What year is the bike? How many miles does it have? I ask.
“It’s a 2002 Triumph, with 162,000 miles,” he says, proudly. “And I put them all on myself.”
He’s a disaster-aid assessor for the Red Cross and has piloted that Triumph around the country. We walk around the Tiger and he points out modifications he’s made over the years, including turn signals held in place with duct tape (“someone kept breaking them off”) and other upgrades he’s done himself.
He tells us about a divorce – “she said ‘it’s either that bike or me’ and I said, well, good luck,” and listening to his travels, I’m fascinated and urge him to write about them3.
We wish each other safe travels and as Linda and I wheel away, I realize we’ve had one of those on-the-road encounters that are gifts for motorcycle travelers.
This is one of the reasons why we’re out here and my spirits lift from the hasty emails of the morning. We’re living our own lives now.
We eventually cross over into South Carolina and pull into a Shell station in Wallace, which is not much more than a crossroads of three gas stations and a few other buildings, from what I can see.
I can’t resist getting out the phone again and checking email, exchanging a few texts with a colleague. Everything’s well enough there.
Daylight starts to fade as we motor away from the gas station and pause at the red light on U.S. 1. The Vespa stalls.
Terra Nova and I wait behind Linda as she hits the starter button. The Vespa starts but stalls again.
“Shut off the key and do a hard restart,” I say. It doesn’t help.
Fortunately, there’s no southbound traffic behind us. I move the Yamaha to the curb and she does the same with the scooter. I try starting the Vespa myself. No luck.
“We can’t stay here,” I say. “I’ll push it to the station.”
The Vespa is relatively light and easy to manuever. I walk it back to the parking lot, off to the side. Linda waits with the scooter while I fetch the Yamaha.
I pull the bags off both bikes and get a flashlight, tools and rags. I check the oil; the dipstick is nearly dry. That’s bad, really bad.
How could we lose so much oil in so few miles? Granted, I hadn’t checked it that morning, but we’ve come about 400 miles in two days, not many for a brand-new vehicle.
It’s dark now and I’m crawling around on filthy asphalt. I look for leaks; nothing there. I have spare quarts of engine oil for both bikes4 and I carefully, carefully top off the Vespa5. It takes about a half quart to register full on the dipstick.
I try the starter. This time the engine runs, but unevenly. It doesn’t want to idle and sounds rough even in a run-up to full throttle.
By this time, I’m running out of ideas, only knowing this: There’s a problem with the engine; it’s probably oil-related; I don’t think I can fix it, at least tonight.
And the closest Vespa dealer, with mechanics, diagnostic computers and spare parts, is in Savannah, Georgia, 200 miles from here.
1 – The Vespa gets better gas mileage than the Yamaha, though the latter’s gas tank is much larger, about six gallons.
2 – The Jordan Dam Mini-Mart.
3 – Seriously. I think some people quietly lead lives that are substantially more interesting than most, and Mr. Locke is one of them.
4 – Castrol Power 1, 5W-40, full synthetic.
5 – Using a long, narrow funnel I bought at a Harley-Davidson dealer in Maryville, Tennessee. Vespas are beautiful but quirky machines that need funnels of an special shape that can reach through the crash bars to add oil – a procedure that’s frustrating in the dark, even with a headlamp.
We can’t run the scooter because it may screw up the engine even more and maroon us in an even more inhospitable place.
A towing service isn’t available – I ask the gas station clerks and they say there’s one tow truck driver in town and he stops working at night2.
The Vespa will have to stay here tonight. Linda finds a room three miles away at the Baymont Inn in Cheraw, South Carolina. She stays with the scooter while I take Terra Nova to Cheraw to secure the room and drop off our bags.
From the mission linguist: Cheraw is pronounced Shuh-RAH, with accent on the second syllable, not Chair-Rah. (We were mystified, too.)
I return to fetch her and we put the black Dow cover over the Vespa, making it less of a theft target. We go back to our room and end up walking over to a convenience store for a late-night dinner3 – two small cans of Beefaroni for me.
We try and decide what to do. We’ve paid for 10 days at a condo in St. Pete Beach and won’t be refunded for days we’re not there. So we need to get going.
We could ride two-up on the Yamaha but it’ll be overloaded and really uncomfortable and we have lots of miles to go.
We could get a rental truck and take both bikes to St. Pete and drop off the Vespa at a dealer for repair. But I don’t have faith the Vespa can be fixed in time for us to go home, especially if some exotic parts have to be ordered from Italy or someplace. Or if the engine needs major work.
In the rainy morning, after an uneasy sleep, I suggest this: We store both bikes here and rent a car to drive to St. Pete. On the way back, we’ll get a rental truck and take both bikes home, dropping off the Vespa at Scoot Richmond for repair.
That way, we only have to travel to Richmond, 100 miles from home, instead of mounting some super-expedition to retrieve the Vespa from Florida or Savannah.
Linda agrees this makes sense so I start calling for towing and storage and she looks for a car to rent. Her first discovery is that the Enterprise rental in Cheraw is closed permanently because of the coronavirus. She starts searching elsewhere.
The first storage place I call says they’re full up.
The second place has space but doesn’t accept motorcycles or vehicles. “We really discourage them,” the guy says. “Oil could leak, gas could be a fire hazard…”
The third place has space and will take bikes. I reserve a space, though we’re not quite clear on its location. Google Maps is vague.
Then I call the we-don’t-tow-at-night towing service and speak with a woman who says they can help. She calls back 10 minutes later.
“I talked with our driver and he doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid the bike will get damaged.”
I say we’ve done this before4 and tell her I’ll secure the scooter myself and absolve them of responsibility.
“No, we can’t do that,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
Well, is there another towing service?
“No, not really,” she says and I grit my teeth and say thank-you and good-bye and refrain from throwing my phone across the motel parking lot. I’ll push the damn thing theremyself is what I’m thinking.
But then we start getting some breaks.
The Baymont Inn folks very kindly allow us to pile all our baggage in the vacant lobby while we take the Yamaha to look for the storage space and rent a car.
We check on the Vespa and find it unmolested at the Shell station.
Then we cruise down South Carolina 9, past the Dollar General, looking for the storage place. I’m thinking I’ll have to push the Vespa a half-mile, maybe more.
But we can’t find it. I turn around at the elementary school and head back to Shell station, and suddenly we see the place near the Shell station. It’s within easy walking distance, maybe a football field’s length away.
The nice woman behind the counter – unlike a few others we’ve encountered that morning – makes it so easy. We pay for the space, get a lock, and I push the Vespa over and secure it inside a 10×12 locker.
We ride 20 miles north to Rockingham, North Carolina, to get the rental car Linda has found, a white Hyundai. We go back, park the Yamaha beside the Vespa and lock the door. Then we fetch our bags, profusely thank the nice woman at the Baymont Inn and finally, finally, leave around 4 p.m.
The vacation is still on, but our problems are not over. I reserve a rental truck for the bikes but I’m not yet sure how to get them up the ramp – it’s kinda steep5. I’ll have to be careful while strapping them down inside.
But I look at all our motorcycle gear suddenly turned useless and unnecessary, the helmets, jackets, boots, gloves, rain gear and I feel another loss, like last year. Maybe we’ll try again next year. And check the oil more often.
1 – That may be a bit of a reach, but I love reading history and Kennedy’s Executive Committee advisers didn’t want to make a decision that made things worse. That’s what I was thinking: Let’s not make this worse.
2 – Perhaps he engages in towing as an occasional hobby.
3 – Food options were limited at that point.
4 – It’s true. It was in Zephyrhills, Florida, in 2003, when my uncle’s 1976 Honda Goldwing refused to run. A guy with a flatbed tow truck came out and transported it to a repair shop that ended up not repairing it. Both his motorcycle and my aunt’s went back to San Diego in the back of a U-Haul truck, our Inskip Odyssey aborted, one of the great sorrows of my life.
5 – I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of guys messing up and having their motorcycles fall off ramps while riding them up into trucks. I’ll have to be careful.
Wednesday, Oct. 14 | Day 1: As usual, we start much later than anticipated and as usual it was my fault and I don’t know why, except I took too much time trying to design an interior support for the three – yes, three – laptops1 we were hauling inside a 1520 Pelican case.
We both have an irritating yet enduring problem with packing light, perhaps a lack of mission resolve, as the British would say. I take too many tools and probably too many clothes, though I did trim back the number of books this year2.
But we finally roll away a little before 5 p.m. and crazy stuff starts happening about an hour later.
Linda unexpectedly stops her Vespa on the left shoulder of a divided four-lane state highway in rural Virginia, forcing me to overshoot and stop ahead of her, parking Terra Nova literally inches from cars racing past.
Sidestand down, I jog back and ask what the hell is going on.
It’s a dog that was trying to cross the road and was hit by a semi. It happened literally in front of Linda, and the truck kept going without hesitation. The poor dog is on its side in the tall grass of the median.
Some other guy appears, a nearby resident, I think. He has a cellphone in his hand and looks on as I kneel beside the dog, a white pit-bull-type terrier, young, about 25 lbs. He is unmarked, but most assuredly dead. He has a chain collar but I can’t find a name tag.
Another guy in a pickup truck stops, asks if we’re okay, and we try to explain what happened. There doesn’t seem to be much concern for the dog on their part. The pickup truck guy leaves and we ask the cellphone resident if he can call someone to get the dog, but he appears to not quite understand what we’re saying.
There isn’t much else we can do and it’s getting even later and we’re both tired with miles to go. So we leave, figuring we can call the sheriff’s office or someone after reaching the hotel.
The dog, of course, follows us for the rest of the night. We have three dogs of our own3, one of them literally rescued by us on I-95 two years ago, so the terrier’s death haunts us, especially Linda.
We stop for gas at about 8 p.m. at a Sheetz station in Orange, Virginia, both of us tired and hungry. With the coronavirus still raging across the country, we’d decided to stay away from indoor restaurants and end up getting sandwiches and such at the station.
The outdoor seating is vacant and fenced off, so the base of a lamp post becomes an impromptu table. We eat standing up in the parking lot.
And we press on after that, through an empty Gordonsville, Virginia, on U.S. 15, deserted at this late hour but wonderfully lit up with white lights hung in Main Street sidewalk trees, a marvelous, warming effect.
It’s colder than we expected so we add extra layers4 and move along a series of dark county roads, wisps of Halloween fog rising and passing around us. The new light bar on Linda’s Vespa really brightens up the back of her scooter; watching it ahead, I’m glad I installed it.
After fueling at one of most locked-up Exxon stations I’ve ever seen – more like Attica than a rural gas station – we shut down the bikes a little after 1 a.m. at the hotel outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.
We’re now really tired and beat. We take the bags upstairs, put the covers on the motorcycles, and, about 280 miles and too many hours from home, go to bed.
1 – We usually each carry a work computer in case news breaks (I put in a few hours when George H.W. Bush died in 2018) and she needed a second computer for her online Hungarian class.
2 – One paperback, “Rice and Dirt,” about a couple riding through Africa on a Vespa, and my usual 8×5 Moleskine notebook.
3 – They are: Cody, an 11-year-old Shetland sheepdog; Remy, a 7-year-old border collie; and Skipper, a 5-year-old treeing Walker coonhound, the one we found along the highway.
Linda’s Vespa was brand-new, so some pre-mission upgrades naturally had to be made, specifically the brake lights and forward running lights. We’d be moving at night and I wanted (1) the scooter to be as conspicuous as possible in the dark, and (2) more lighting for the road ahead.
That meant more mail-order stuff from scooterwest.com and clearing out my tiny workshop1 at Starbase 8 to wedge the Vespa inside. It also required protecting the scoot from our curious cats2 by covering it with enough old towels to resemble a ghost in a Bowery Boys movie.
I’d upwired enough accessories on her 2010 Vespa for bad memories to linger. I find Italian scoots rather difficult to work on, with tight spaces and overly complex hardware.
The headache started after the AdMore light bar arrived; the wiring harness was too short for our model and I had to order a two-foot extension. And then I had to learn how to solder the wires3 together.
But, over a few days, I eventually figured it out, got all the lights and bodywork installed, and felt better afterwards. I finally wheeled the Vespa out of the workshop, leaving a space that reminded me of the Time Machine’s departure4:
The Time Traveller was not there. I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment — a figure so transparent that the bench behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The Time Machine had gone.
1 – About 7 feet wide x 14 feet deep, I reckon, or roughly the size of three phone booths combined.
2 – Lexi, especially. He’s the black-and-white cat we rescued from the Dollar General in Ohio in 2008 while traveling aboard Endurance. He’s developed an affinity for lounging on the saddles of all our motorcycles and scooters.
3 – The harness contained six wires, all 26-gauge, which is pretty thin and challenging to work with. I had to get a proper soldering iron, the correct 60-40 lead/tin solder, paste and heat-shrink tubing, and watch about 400 YouTube videos to learn how to do it.
4 – From the 1895 H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine. The narrator reaches the workshop just in time to see the machine vanish, leaving a poignant space behind.
“I worried over that blunder for an hour, and called myself a great many hard names, meantime.”
– Samuel Clemens, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”
Here’s one I’ll never forget: While mounting the rear luggage rack, I managed to drive two bolts into the plastic gas tank of Linda’s Vespa.
It was both the simplest and greatest piece of mechanical idiocy I’ve ever done; I simply took the wrong bolts and unmindfully began screwing them into the threaded holes in the rear panel. They were metric M6 bolts, same diameter and thread count, just twice as long as needed.
I’m spinning them in by hand with an Allen wrench. They go in smoothly at first, then start to balk. I try a little more force, then back off and unscrew both.
That’s when I realize I’m using too-long bolts, precipitating one of those anguished head-in-your-hands moments of oh, sweet Jesus, I can’t believe this. I thought I was using the right ones. We’ve had her scooter a week and I’ve already ruined it.
I’d even been warned about it; I’d watched the Vespa Motorsport video on luggage rack installation1 and Robot2 mentions it at 6:38 into the video. “Had people put too long of a screw in there and puncture the gas tank, not a good thing,” he says. Oh, sweet Jesus.
It’s times like these you have to talk yourself off the ledge and I think about the passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which author Robert Pirsig mentions an instruction sheet for putting together a bicycle.
“Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind,” say the instructions, and Pirsig goes on about peace of mind and says “If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working, you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
It wasn’t a lack of serenity that caused the mistake; I simply picked up the wrong bolts. But maybe serenity includes acting properly within the moment, which I certainly was not doing.
So after a lengthy period of critically severe self-beratement, I move from Self Destruct to Damage Control mode and start to assess how bad it is. The gas level is low, so it’s not possible to check for leaks yet, but there’s no smell of fuel from the threaded holes.
I run a hand-held mechanic’s light on a flexible tube up inside the back fenders but see nothing. (I do relearn that Vespa buttons up everything very tight on its scooters and it’s impossible to get your hand around the tank, or even get a good view of it.) So I can’t feel or see what I did.
But I can shine the light down into the holes and see new thread lines scored into the plastic below. Online views of the fuel tank show the back is sculpted like a valley, so it appears I’ve cut a little into the valley walls, instead of boring directly into the tank itself.
I take one of Tera Nova’s reserve fuel bottles and fill the Vespa’s tank to the brim of the filler tube. And wait. No leaks.
That was on Aug. 18.
On Aug. 22, we ride out toward Deltaville, Virginia, as part-tank-test, part-get-the-mileage-up-to-600 for the service. Aside from the rain, everything is okay.
And finally, we take the Vespa back to Scoot Richmond on Saturday, Aug. 29, for the 600-mile work and ask the mechanics to check.
It’s impractical for them to remove the tank on the day we’re there – it’s a three-hour job, like most things Vespa – but they say they couldn’t see any leaks. “And since you haven’t seen anything, it’s probably okay,” says one. “Just keep an eye on it.”
I’m afraid I’ll do much more than that. I’ll be consumed, obsessed, haunted by it and I’ll carry the concern like Quasimodo’s hump. Maybe a new gas tank, installed in the fall, will restore my peace of mind.
1 – Vespa Motorsports how-to videos are top-notch, in my opinion.
So Linda hit the commit button and traded in her 2010 300cc Vespa for a 2020 Vespa; same style, same engine size, almost the same daring shade of red, you can’t hardly tell them apart. We brought the new scooter home from Scoot Richmond on Saturday.
What’s different is that the new bike has anti-lock brakes and traction control, making it a safer machine than its 10-year-old mate. It also has what Vespa calls HPE, a High Performance Engine that offers a little more horsepower than the old 300.
“Have you ridden her bike?” the young woman armed with Scoot Richmond’s financial paperwork asks me. “You’ll have to try this new one, you’ll really feel a difference.”
Linda and I had talked about her trading up to a new Vespa, especially when the company was reportedly planning to build a new 350cc model. Since we were doing more long-distance travel, we wanted that extra horsepower.
And I really wanted her to have a machine with ABS. She was amenable to all that, but in red, of course1.
Alas, Vespa scuttled its 350cc idea2, but my interest was piqued by the new HPE. We started dropping in on Vespa dealers to look at them, and when a red one arrived in Richmond, Va., we got it.
We got it for the ABS and the engine, of course, but also because we’ve decided to take the motorcycles to St. Petersburg, Fla., this year as our traditional long-distance ride3.
In this time of coronavirus, it seems to be the best choice, the best compromise between breaking the rule of going someplace new4 and not going anywhere at all. More on that later.
But it was difficult to say good-bye to the 2010 bike, which we’ve had for nearly nine years and more than 14,000 miles. It had its moments, but it never let us down.
I put some effort into upgrading it for her, including a windscreen, brighter headlights and running lights, an exterior power socket for a heated vest, a quarter-sized Formotion thermometer, and flashing hyperlights that really brightened up the stern when she braked.
So there are memories in those parts, and others, like the green sticker put on the windscreen by someone in a Marriott hotel garage in New Orleans in 2017. Terra Nova has one, too.
The 2020 bike will get some of those. I transferred, from old to new, the Hungarian flag5 bolts for the license plate and the Vespa logo valve-stem caps obtained at Modern Classic6 in the District a few years ago. The thermometer migrated over, too.
We got our first taste of the new bike duo on the way home from Richmond, taking U.S. 522 instead of I-95, a good ride through rolling Virginia countryside.
We stopped at the picturesque deli & grocery7 in Winston, an area best described as a combination of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and one of those spooky places you photograph, examine later, and discover someone staring down at you from an abandoned third-floor window.
We looked around a bit, and then, as we were suiting up to leave, some little red-haired kid came around a corner, forced open a shed door and, in a true Children of the Corn moment, emerged with a sheathed hunting knife the size of a Marine Corps KA-BAR8. He went into the main building and never acknowledged us, or even looked at the Vespa.
New bike, new ride. I’ve already started futzing with the 2020 Vespa; I wonder how many Winstons we’ll see between here and St. Pete.
1 – She loves Vespa red more than the Cookie Monster loves Oreos.
2 – It was something about the inability to upsize the engine and still keep the classic Vespa profile, or some such.
3 – Hence the new mission designation.
4 – This one sort of hurts. We always say we’ll go someplace we haven’t been before, and we’ve been pretty good about that, up to now. At least we’ll see some new places on an untraveled route, since we usually go by air.
5 – They were actually bolts with the Italian flag on them, but if you rotate them 90 degrees counter-clockwise, they become Hungarian.
6 – Modern Classic closed about three months ago, we learned. It wasn’t the coronavirus, but because the owner retired. He’d mentioned to us in 2019 that he was considering it. It was a great shop; we shall miss them.
7 – I assume it’s permanently closed for business, though someone is living there.
8 – Which is an acronym for Knife Attachment-Browning Automatic Rifle. In other words, a good-sized knife.
We took our second official ride of the year down to Scoot Richmond on Saturday, where we 1) got out to ride; 2) looked at new Vespas; and 3) found a great road.
Scoot Richmond1 is one of our favorite dealers. We discovered it not long after Linda bought her 2010 300cc GTS Super. They’ve done some maintenance on her Vespa and we buy some riding gear there every now and again.
The Scoot Richmond jaunt was also a bit of a test run for a possible ride to St. Petersburg in October, assuming half the nation hasn’t succumbed to the coronavirus2. We looked at a Vespa GTS Super 300 HPE3, which is fairly close to what Linda has now, except this new model has ABS and traction control, which are good things to have. We’re considering options now.
While it’s good to have a destination, the ride is still the thing. We took I-95 south to Richmond, which was somewhat of a mistake because that interstate is frustrating enough to be an expressway to one of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell4.
It was soul-crushingly hot, too, the heat just bouncing off the bare cement. The rolling roadblock of endless stop-and-go traffic, with no discernible reason, was another Dantesque bonus.
But the ride home was great. Instead of the hellscape boulevard of I-95, we took I-64 west to U.S. 522 north and things got better immediately. 522 is one of those twisting two-lane roads of Robert Pirsig lore5 that takes you through tree-shrouded rolling countryside.
It’s kinda what motorcycles are made for. Freeway pressure disappears and the road opens up and you’re enjoying yourself. You pass into shade thrown by a line of trees and the temperature drops, like going from a hot porch to the kitchen and opening an icebox door.
And there’s more to see, more life to observe: An old stone church with an ancient cemetery that we really should have stopped at to investigate; a family-owned gas station where customers park pickup trucks and are hailed by name by the women behind the counter; and farmhouses and barns and abandoned fruit stands and everything else that waits for you around every curve.
All told, about 267 miles, according to Terra Nova’s odometer. A good day on the road, with my favorite riding companion.
1 – It started as a scooter-specific dealership but has expanded to selling Triumph, Moto Guzzi and KTM. Accordingly, they’ve changed their name to Moto Richmond, but Scoot Richmond is still our moniker of choice.
2 – I’m still part of a group that covers coronavirus and it’s so disheartening to see the blacklash against science.
3 – I downloaded a PDF of the Vespa brochure and found it to be 37 MB worth of rather garish color photos, with only one (above) tangentially connected to travel. I’m aware how sales pitches use lifestyle appeal, but why the yotz6 can’t Vespa acknowledge that their scooters, at least the 300cc models, can be both fun to ride and capable of long-distance travel?
4 – I’m betting it’s the fifth one, Anger, since drivers are apparently driven mad by the stop-and-go traffic and start cutting in front of innocent motorcycle pilots.
5 – In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Pirsig writes: “Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst…Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment.”
6 – That’s another Farscape reference. You’re welcome.
And on the way home, we’ll do a one-day layover in Nashville and have dinner at the Loveless Café, one of our favorite places. We’ve been there before, but never on the motorcycles.
Note from the mission historian: The Loveless Cafe has no relation to The Loveless movie, a 1981 film noir by Kathryn Bigelow starring Willem Dafoe.
The restaurant began in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless sold fried chicken and biscuits out of their home to travelers on Highway 100. The food proved popular, they converted the house to a restaurant and later built a motel.
The motel eventually closed – small shops occupy the rooms these days – but the restaurant’s Southern culinary fare has become part of American mythos. You may have seen the Loveless Café on TV, on shows that venture out of big cities in search of country fare.
So Linda and I have made a date at the café. Being there on the motorcycles at the end of a ride will make the Loveless Café part of our folklore, too.
After much procrastination, delay, and downright dithering, we’ve decided to forgo The Great River Road for now and head to New Orleans in September for this year’s motorcycle ride.
It’s never taken us this long to decide where the annual motorcycle ride will go and I can’t explain the delay. Time, age and work have been more of a distraction this year.
We figure about 2,400 miles total, but we don’t have a real mission profile yet. There are some good possibilities, including Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee, then southwest to Mobile, Alabama, where we’ll pick up coastal roads to New Orleans.
Then maybe we’ll head northeast on the Natchez Trace, which we haven’t been on since 2002.
Linda’s been to New Orleans twice, the last time for an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar last year, but I’ve never been there.
Closest I got was I-10 north of Lake Pontchartrain in 2000 in my uncle’s car during a madcap dash from San Diego to Flagler Beach, Florida, to my grandmother’s funeral. Not much joy then.
But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to arrive in New Orleans aboard a motorcycle. Perhaps that comes from reading too many Tennessee Williams plays, or being swept away by the romantic history of the French Quarter, or simply watching Easy Rider too many times. But at last, I’ll be there.
“By the Lord God I promise to take the fleet out, and through the grace of God, bring it safely home again.”
– James Clavell, “Shogun”
Day 5: Wednesday, Sept. 7: It was the last thing we wanted to see on a long-distance ride: The equivalent of a “check engine” light on the Vespa’s dashboard.
It’s the fuel injector warning light, a cheery little orange disc on the left side of the dash. It flashes once as Linda is struggling to back the scooter out of a deep gravel driveway in Swanton, Ohio.
We were attempting to find the house of Don Lee, a good friend and colleague of mine from Sandusky Register days. The Garmin Nuvi GPS told us we were close, but I overshot and we ended up using the driveway to turn around.
Linda tells me about it at Don’s house, but says she only saw it once. The light is connected to the scooter’s fuel injection system that delivers fuel to the engine. If the system fails, the engine shuts down.
“Keep an eye on it and let me know if you see it again,” I say.
We roll north into Michigan on U.S. 23 enroute to Frankenmuth when the Orange Signal of Death flashes again, just once, outside of Ann Arbor. I’m flying wingman behind her, as usual, so I follow to the breakdown lane when she pulls over. It’s afternoon rush hour and cars are rocketing by as I try to figure out what’s wrong.
I can’t, so we agree to get off the highway to someplace safer. We find a BP station and fuel up. After some discussion, we agree to continue to Frankenmuth, where I’ll hunt for the nearest Vespa dealer.
The nearest Vespa dealer. Vespas are exotic Italian machines and I have no idea where we’ll find one. It’s the same problem I feared while running Endurance, my BMW GS; the support network can be mighty thin.
But we get to Frankenmuth and once online I’m relieved to learn Michigan has more than a half-dozen Vespa shops. This allows me to sleep.
Next day, I start making phone calls early. The first is to our Vespa mechanic at Modern Classics on V Street N.E. back in Washington. I describe the problem.
“Oh, that is not good,” the guy says. He gives me a few scenarios, suggests I find a Vespa dealer with a diagnostic computer, and says, “You really should get that checked out.”
I call Traverse City. “Well, I guess you could bring it here, I could try and fit you in,” the guy says hesitantly. “I may not have the parts you need, though.”
I call Grand Rapids. “I’d say bring it in, but my computer’s not working,” the guy says.
I call Dearborn. “We have a Vespa mechanic, but he only works Tuesdays and Thursdays,” the woman says. Today is Wednesday.
I call Lansing. “Sure, bring it in,” says the guy. “We’ll see what he can do.” He says his name is Brendan, and I tell him he’s my new best friend.
Our mission navigator estimates it’s 90 miles from Frankenmuth to Lansing. We have reservations in northern Michigan that can’t be broken without losing fees, so Frankenmuth to Lansing to tonight’s destination of Tawas City will mean a long 260-mile day for us, plus whatever time we have to spend in Lansing.
I insist the Vespa be checked. We’re riding north into Ontario, Canada, and we plan to arc around the northern shore of Lake Superior. While it’s not the Dalton Highway in Alaska, it’s still fairly remote, and we won’t find any Vespa dealers on the Trans-Canada. It’s irresponsible to do otherwise.
So we ride to Lansing and find Full Throttle Motorsports, and Brendan, a young, optimistic, competent guy, soon has Linda’s scooter hooked up to his computer. In less than an hour, he has a verdict.
“It really doesn’t look too serious,” he tells me. “It looks like the fuel injector is getting a slightly higher charge from the voltage regulator – not all the time, just once in a while.
“I can’t tell if it’s the injector or the regulator. Could also be two wires are crossed and affecting the voltage sometimes.
“But you should be okay.”
I tell him where we’re going and emphasize the remoteness. “Will we get another 2,000 miles out of it?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, “Easy.”
I thank him profusely and ask how much I owe. “No charge,” he says, “You’re on the road. Glad to help.”
I collect Linda from the showroom floor and we prepare to leave, but I go back to the Service desk and give Brendan a $20 bill. “Dude, you saved our ride,” I say. “At least buy yourself some beers on me. Please.” He laughs and says thank you. And we ride away.
For the next 13 days I will think about his diagnosis and he proves to be right because the Orange Light of Doom never reappears, not once, for the rest of the ride. I will marvel at this every day as the mission progresses.
Late that night it begins pouring rain as we approach Tawas City. We and everything on the bikes get soaked. We pull all our stuff off the cycles and spread it out to dry, an explosion of wet gear across the damp motel room floor.