HOT BIKE

I went to the community college in Ashland for my first two years, finding a job to support myself and pay for my schooling. This meant that often I had night classes, so I could work during the day. My principle transport was a well-worn Ducati Monza 250, (See previous post “Kind of a Drag” for some of its uses.) In those innocent, late 1960’s days, in such a small town, the few of us who rode motorcycles parked them on the lawn in front of the college building and left our excess books and jackets and helmets on the seat. Theft just wasn’t a consideration (perhaps because of those who would steal in a small town, books weren’t high on the list of desirables.) Bruce had a Ducati Mach 1 250, a race-replica bike I lusted after, but like many of us in those teen years, his maintenance of the machine was somewhat less than perfect. It had an oily film around the open bell-mouth carb, sans air filter, and wasn’t always easy to start with the awkward left side under-the-footpeg kick starter necessary to accommodate the rearset pegs. One late fall night as we left class, he put his books down and began the ritual of tickling the carb and swinging the short-throw lever to bring the single to life, as I did the same on mine. I looked over at him just as a tongue of flame shot out of the bell-mouth, setting fire to the oily residue. Bruce kept kicking away, oblivious to the fire developing under his leg . I yelled at him, but he was absorbed in his task, until the heat coming through his jeans finally got his attention. He leaped off the bike and began jumping around, screaming (in hindsight, he probably thought, with good reason, that his leg was on fire as well as his bike). I ran into the building and grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall. I pointed it at the burning machine and pulled the trigger, only to get a dribble of white liquid falling on the ground right in front of my shoes. Note to self: check fire extinguishers frequently. I ran back in and pulled the fire alarm for the building, which brought quick results, if probably overkill. By then however the poor Mach 1, object of my desire, was but a shell with melted bits of seat and tires dripping on the ground. I helped him push it through town the next day, back to his home, where he began the slow process of bringing it back to life. It eventually Phoenixed as a blue metalflaked café racer….but still oily and hard to start.

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FROZEN FOOLISHNESS

It was a day much like we have had recently this cold winter, but in the mid-1970’s when I was young enough to stand it. Three of us “observed trials” riders were getting some winter practice in January in the abandoned strip mines at Hanging Rock, Ohio. (See an earlier post “Bad Day at Hanging Rock” for further goings on there)

The strip mines offered an utterly ruined landscape, making the moon look like a country club golf course, with jumbled rocks, deep holes and large ponds where the mined pits had filled up. After roaming around in the rock tailings and frozen cascades on the hillsides for a while , we ventured down to the low spots where the ponds had frozen over. Having more sense of adventure than any of the common variety, we rode out onto the icy surface after careful examination of its potential safety (which consisted of a glance over and “Yeah, that looks OK”)

We skated around for a while, low pressure trials tires skittering, doing donuts on the thin skim of snow, and then, being young men, had to line up for a race.

Trials motorcycles are specialized machines, built to crawl over obstacles and make incredibly tight maneuvers in difficult terrain….not, in any way, to race on ice. Had YouTube, or even the internet, existed back then, our efforts at staying upright, much less gaining any speed advantage would have become an instant sensation in the “Stupid Human Tricks” category. I recall one episode where the three of us tried to enter the same turn simultaneously and ended up locked together sliding sideways, utterly without control until we hit the opposite bank of the pond, where we were laughing too hard to pick up the bikes or ourselves.

The “racing” went on until Tommy broke through the surface at one edge, ending up with both wheels up to the axles in slush.

We moved over to another pond, where we found an abandoned grocery cart partially stuck in the frozen mud near the edge. With some effort we freed the cart and set about figuring out what possibilities for mischief it might offer.

Quickly, one of us was dispatched to the bike trailer, returning with a couple of the long, sturdy nylon tie-down straps. We placed one hook in the mesh of the cart, linked two straps together, and hooked the other end to a rear frame loop on one of the bikes, giving us about a 15 foot “ski rope”between motorcycle and the basket. The cart was intact, with all four wheels, though if one of them was typically stuck, it wouldn’t matter on the ice. A volunteer climbed into the cart and the experiment in Darwinism began.

With some careful effort, the contraption could get moving and then pick up speed. The fun part came when a turn could be achieved causing the grocery conveyance to “Crack the Whip”, flinging the cart and its occupant flying across the ice and at the same time pulling the back wheel of the motorcycle out from under the rider, causing him to fight for control (almost always unsuccessfully) as the cart now became the tail wagging the dog. The usual end was a crash of all parties into the snow bank at the edge. All three of us took multiple turns as driver and as cart passenger/unguided missile.

They say that Providence favors drunks and fools, and we were entirely sober. Our attempts at self destruction went on until the sun got too low to provide even minimal heat and sufficient light, with nary a broken bone to show for it, though we would all be sore for days to come. We packed up our bikes, leaving the now somewhat battered cart for the next group of guys (it is, sadly, most often guys who engage in such semi-organized lunacy) to experiment with and headed for home. I think it was nearly two weeks before the checkerboard imprints from the cart’s wire mesh left my skin. To this day, when I pull a cart out of its rack at the grocery, I get a twinge in my hip.

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THE MOTORCYCLE SHOP

In my travels on motorcycles, I often stopped at motorcycle shops in small towns, sometimes because I needed something, or just to look around and talk with the owner and folks inside.

Shops in those days, the 1960’s and 70’s and on up into some of the 80’s, were typically single line, small affairs, with the smell of oil and grease and chain lube all mixed together.

The people who ran them were enthusiasts who were trying to make a living out of something they loved to do. I tried that myself with a small dealership for a couple of years in my early 20’s, but found I was too much an enthusiast and not enough of a business person to make it a go.

A rider could stop at one of these, even if it was a different brand from the one he or she was riding, and be welcomed (though sometimes with some good-natured ribbing about choices) and spend a pleasant hour or so. Often you could find the thing you needed in the glass case under the counter or hanging on the wall and sometimes end up with something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

There are few motorcycle shops left. We have “power sports centers” that have multiple lines and four-wheelers, ATV’s and jet skis, in huge buildings or even complexes of buildings around a parking lot. One can’t see the mechanic area and parts are seldom available “but we can order that for you”. I understand the reasons for much of this and a lot of it is our own fault, we motorcycle consumers. We buy things on line now, clothing and accessories and tires, etc, because it is nearly impossible for a small local business to compete with the volume of choices found at the internet suppliers. Dealers don’t make their day-to-day money on motorcycle sales, but rather on the peripherals and service. So the day of the small local shop isn’t going to come back.

That means today’s riders, the young ones, will never know the experience of parking a bike a few feet from the door in a gravel lot, walking up to the front of the shop past other bikes of various kinds parked in a row, some for sale, some just visitors, and going inside, inhaling the blended aromas of oil, gasoline, cosmoline, leather, an old dog and, in those days, stale tobacco smoke. Often in cold weather such a shop was heated by a wood stove or a coal burner, adding that to the mix. The walls are strewn with an array of clothing items, gloves, jackets, maybe hats and vests. There are parts and accessories, some brand specific, some not but of brands that don’t exist in their original form anymore. Langlitz and Bates leathers, Buco and Bell helmets, Full Bore two stroke oil, maybe a Vetter fairing hanging from the ceiling. And a very useful invention, the Snuf-R-Not. Some of those names are still there, but now the original company has been absorbed into a conglomerate somewhere else other than the US.

If you had a question, the parts guy, who may also have been the owner and the mechanic, knew what you were talking about and what you needed, even if you didn’t.

In my teen years, when I had a somewhat dilapidated Ducati 250 Monza, I could go to the shop above Huntington, West Va and the owner Leon would let me borrow his tools and disassemble the shifter cassette in his “showroom” so that he could again sell me the $1.00 return spring that had broken. Leon once took me for a ride on his deep red Norton, though he knew without doubt that I could not afford one and wasn’t a prospect for a sale.

In those years I often hung out at Jim Stewart’s Harley shop a few miles from Ashland, when it was a small cinderblock building off what was then a two-lane Rt. 60. Jim was the “real deal”, a man melded with motorcycling as an integral part of his life. He had raced flat-track with factory teams, wrestling the brakeless, no rear suspension motorcycles around dusty half mile ovals all over the country and rode the heavy bikes of the 40’s and 50’s everywhere they could be taken. Now he made his living from this shop, selling and repairing Harleys. Despite his gruff exterior, Jim was an avuncular figure to we teenagers who lurked his shop, like dogs at a Paleolithic campfire hoping to be thrown a scrap of motorcycle knowledge. We bought cans of evil-smelling Gunk, motor oil, and small things we could afford just to have an excuse to be there. There were stories told of adventures, legal and otherwise, that titillated for some of us our urge to wander and in others, a sense of fear of venturing outside the comfort of the familiar.

Jim’s shop dog, Topper, was a constant presence, an enormous German Shepard who mainly slept in the corner…or wherever he wanted…most of the day. He was a fierce protector of the shop and Jim. While he was calm as long as you kept your distance, we knew not to rile him. I recall once coming to the shop and finding it closed. I went to the window to peer inside and then heard the pounding of paws headed my way. I made it up on top of a parked car just in time to avoid being eaten on the spot. It took some talking before Topper would accept that I was someone he knew well enough to let me down.

Jim told the story of one night in the shop, working late with two other men and adding considerably to the pile of brown long-necked beer bottles out back. After a while, as men often do, the alcohol led to boasting and one of the guys showed off his strength by lifting a heavy engine off the floor. The other responded by hoisting something heavier and it went from there. Jim watched calmly and then said, “there’s something in here I can lift that both of you together cannot”. They protested their superiority until Jim strode over to the corner, picked up the sleeping Topper and deposited the big dog, blinking, onto the workbench. Jim then stood back and said, “your turn”.

I don’t think that sort of thing happens much at the Power Sports Center.

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CONCRETE

We recently had some concrete work done here at the house, fixing some broken areas and replacing my post-surgery wooden ramp with a more permanent one. Watching the crew of workmen preparing the site and pouring the mix brought back a lot of memories.

For much of my youth, from fifth or sixth grade up until my college years, my father, whose hobby was masonry of all sorts, had me mixing what seemed like endless wheelbarrows of cement for his various projects, wheeling the heavy wet mixture up ramps and down in hollows where he was constructing some surface or wall. Once he purchased the bricks from a large church that had been demolished and I spent a summer cleaning the old mortar off them with a hammer and chisel, then wheeling them to the sections of the retaining wall he built to expand the parking area and patio at our house.

This experience came in handy in my teen years when I would make gas money by riding my motorcycle out in the country, finding construction projects underway and earn a few bucks by wheeling the wet concrete for the workers. They, who were getting workman’s wages, were more than happy to pay the dumb kid a couple of dollars to save themselves hours of heavy work.

Now I watch these guys, using a “Georgia Buggy” tracked vehicle with a hopper, easily transport five times as much concrete as a wheelbarrow will hold, anywhere they want it in minutes with no more effort than pushing or pulling the steering handle. They are much more skilled at the finish work than I will ever be. They know exactly how much to pour for a given space, glopping it out into the middle in a pile, then smoothing it out with barely a trowel’s worth of excess.

I’ve driven past our old house a few times in the last couple of years. Dad’s walls and surfaces are still straight and strong, more that a half-century later, long after he departed this world. My own efforts in the past at construction and repair have been mediocre at best, leaving for me the best option of hiring someone who knows what they are doing. Like many things that a teenager finds boring or useless, I ignored what I should have paid more attention to when dad tried to teach me.

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Going North Part II (Flying Squirrel Touring)

(We left our wandering innocents on the Badger ferry, steaming its way across Lake Michigan, still not knowing where they were going after that.)

  Soon we were out of sight of land, ensconced  at an outside table on the top deck, sipping a beer (it was, after all, going to be 4 hours) and watching our fellow passengers applying sun tan oil.  We could learn to live like this.  A Guzzi rider from Wisconsin struck up a conversation and enthralled us with tales of cross-country travels by motorcycle, places we hadn’t been but vowed we would see. At the end of the ferry ride, in Luddington Michigan, he helped us pick up Jay’s Harley which had fallen over in the hold, and we helped him push-start the Guzzi down the ramp.  It seemed that the starter had quit some long time before, but he’d never really bothered getting it fixed. Real men don’t use buttons to start motorcycles.

It was late afternoon when we rolled through the streets of the little port town, wondering where we might stay for the night. We wanted to camp, for budgets sake, but there didn’t seem to be a surplus of campgrounds around.  Finally, as the sun was beginning to disappear, we just turned up a dirt road and followed it to a clearing where we put up our shelter (actually my son’s backyard tent, borrowed for the trip) for the night.  Then, as the darkness deepened, we learned about Michigan Mosquitos.  There were, by a conservative estimate, two and a half billion of them in the tent with us.  Although it was about 85 degrees, our only refuge was to crawl deep into our respective sleeping bags, fold the ends over to close them off, then try to kill the million or so of the little bloodsuckers that had come in there with us. It was the longest night of my life, but like all such experiences, valuable in its own way.  If I’m ever captured by foreign agents, or even worse, the IRS, I can now laugh at whatever torture they threaten.  I’ve been through worse.

Then it began to rain.

Our tent was of K-Mart issue, with the special fabric that lets water in, but not out.  We broke camp in the morning, rolling our wet tent and sleeping bags into a sodden mass that we bungied on our bikes.  Jay had actually acquired a rainsuit, the yellow plastic kind, which immediately self-destructed one leg on the Harley’s exhaust pipe.  I donned my Army-surplus poncho, a device specifically designed to funnel water into one’s crotch. At speed–any speed– it ballooned out on the sides giving an accurate impression of a 180 pound flying squirrel on a motorcycle.

The dirt road we’d followed to this sylvan glade was now a muddy mess.  What the heck, I’m an old dirt rider, right?

  Not on a Suzuki 500 with street tires, I’m not.  I made it about 200 overconfident yards before sliding the twin onto its side, much to Jay’s amusement.  Let’s try this a bit slower.

We rode on into the grey Michigan morning, rain pelting down, plastic flapping, to the first available restaurant for breakfast and some parking-lot surgery on the Suzuki’s shifter, bent in the fall.  The rain slacked off a bit after breakfast, the sun came through the clouds and it was again a wonderful road trip.  It’s amazing how quickly the aggravation fades when the good parts show up again. Even now, that return of optimism, so reliable, continues to  fuel my addiction to bike traveling. 

By late afternoon we were on the “thumb” of the mitt that is the state’s outline.  It was cool now with a stiff wind blowing at us from the bay, but as we went around the tip of the digit, the character changed completely, so dramatically that Jay and I just looked at each other with disbelief as if the other would confirm that we were hallucinating.  Suddenly, with that one turn, the wind stopped, the sun seemed warmer and the look of the shoreline was so different that we could have been on opposite coasts of the country, not just a small peninsula.  We decided this was sufficient omen to warrant stopping for the night. We chose a very small, very cheap, shoreline motel with tiny individual cabins dotting the water’s edge. We spread out our wet stuff to dry and then walked down to the shore where we both quickly fell asleep in the sun.  Not bad.  I think I like this touring bit. That night we went to a local restaurant just down the road where we learned it was an “all you can eat” buffet–and good food besides, a combination not often found together.  We were still young then and our easy gluttony of that night continues to impress me now. We waddled back to our “cabin” for the night.

The next day we entered Canada through Sarnia and took route 7 up  to Stratford, Kitchener and Guelph (always fun to pronounce) headed for Toronto–we didn’t know why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  We motored along carefully, minding the metric speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) fearing the imposition of an international ticket.  Then as we got closer to Toronto, we noticed that the traffic kept getting faster.  Finally, on the four lane leading into town, I realized that the little two-stroke was running at an indicated  85 or 90, straining its little heart out and we were still being passed!  So much for strict speed limits.

Toronto was a beautiful cosmopolitan city, filled with ethnic enclaves of every description making a rich mix of the crowds and the shops on the streets. Everywhere, the skyline was dominated by the CN Tower, then the highest free-standing structure in the world, jutting into the sky.  We motored around the town, just taking in the sights, sounds and smells, till we finally stopped for the night at a little motel near what we were told was the German part of the city.

  As luck would have it, the proprietor was a British immigrant who looked enviously at our bikes and travel paraphernalia, then told us stories of traveling his country after the War on an old BSA Bantam. He directed us to a good German restaurant where we took a table in a high alcove. surrounded by heavy, ornately carved wood, overlooking the rest of the diners.  I still recall the Black Forest cake–in fact, I believe I’ve gained weight just remembering it.

We breakfasted the next day in the restaurant about 3/4 of the way up on the CN Tower. One can eat well while watching the city slowly change places below. At one point the airport out in the lake is in view and the planes coming in for landing are far below the restaurant. It’s spectacular, if one isn’t bothered by heights.

From Toronto we went south around the edge of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls (“a bride’s second biggest disappointment”)–after all, we were tourists.  Niagara had a special significance for me in relation to motorcycles.  I’d been there on vacation with my parents when I was 14 years old, a bike-crazed teenager filled with advertising and Cycle World magazine information but extremely limited in experience.  I was walking across the parking lot, when I heard a sound that I now know was the hissing of tires on wet pavement.  I turned to see a BMW R 69S coming slowly up behind me, cruising the lot for a parking place. The shiny black Beemer had bags and a leatherclad rider–both bike and pilot looked as if they’d been places and seen things.  I was hugely impressed by the fact that I’d heard the tires before I was conscious of the sound of the quiet engine.  BMW’s ads from that era always featured some world traveler, pictured on top of Gibraltar, out in the Sahara or in some Alpine pass.  I’d dreamed over these ads and the adventure they promised, but I’d never actually seen one of the beasts in the flesh.  Somehow it made the promise seem more real, something attainable.  I got my first bike, a Puch moped, that fall.

No such epiphany on this trip, however.  The falls still fell, the gift shops were, well, gift shops and we were soon on our way.  Our destination became Buffalo, New York where Jay had some old friends from our hometown. We found them, somehow, and spent the evening telling “do you remember when we…” stories and drinking some sort of local beer while our laundry swirled in their machine.  We slept on the floor of their rec room, then left early the next morning, cleaner but still without real direction. We had come to really like it that way, and this free-form mode would mark our trips from then til now.

By this time the Harley had developed a habit of shedding its exhaust pipes at fairly regular intervals. We’d be riding along, minding our own business, when the Sportster would, like a petulant child ridding itself of a pacifier, spit one or both pipes (there weren’t any mufflers, remember?) onto the pavement.  I’d dodge them if I was following or I’d notice –as if one couldn’t–the sound of the pipeless monster behind.  We’d go back and pick them up, wait for things to cool a bit, then bolt them back on and proceed anew till the next time. This slowed us down only a little more than the constant search for the correct 2-stroke oil for the Suzuki.  I’d started the trip running the thing on the same premium synthetic that I used in my trials competition bikes, but had, to put it mildly, some difficulty in finding it on the road.  I decided that the Suzy could go on a more plebeian cuisine and started putting in the universally available outboard motor oil.  I learned that it didn’t matter. I believe that bike would’ve run forever on kerosene and hair oil. 

We located a Harley shop in southern Pennsylvania and discovered that a factory kit was available to eliminate exactly this kind of antisocial acting out on the part of Sportsters. Jay purchased one and while we were installing it in the parking lot, the shop guys regaled us with tales (illustrated with examples of crunched machinery there in the lot) of bikes and riders felled by nocturnal collisions with area deer and other wildlife.  By the time we left, we were determined to find lodging before dark. We made good progress now–the pipes only fell off half as often as before.

Johnstown, the sight of the famous flood, was fairly near and became our home for the night.  We found another cheap motel ( our penchant for camping had been dulled somewhat, and besides, I don’t think our sleeping bags dried out till that winter) with a restaurant nearby.  The talkative waitress –we were the only customers–told us her entire family history, complete with life-threatening illnesses in relatives, heart-warming success stories, children in medical school etc,etc.  I think Lassie saved a town in there somewhere and I’m sure there was a kindly old grandmother, a prison, a train and a pickup truck. It was near midnight when we made it back to the room.

The next day the weather began to deteriorate with storms bringing rain and high winds, followed by episodic sunshine.  We followed back roads, some too small to be on our maps or have numbers, just heading generally west.  We knew it was the downhill leg of the trip and we wanted it to last as long as possible. At one point we stopped to get out of the rain and have lunch at a little restaurant somewhere near the West Virginia border.  As we walked in, dripping on the floor, our arrival was punctuated by huge thunderclaps, lightning and then the lights went out.  Quite an entrance.

  We found a corner table, peeled off our wet stuff down to remaining decent and waited for some return of power–it was too nasty to go outside, but without electricity, the restaurant couldn’t do anything for us inside either.  We  and all the other customers just sat there.  The storm worsened, getting so black that  for about ten minutes, the interior of the eatery was completely dark. There was nervous laughter and some slightly apprehensive comments made from within the darkness as we waited to see what would happen next.  I thought of the pilgrims in ” The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” the travelers who all died in the collapse of the bridge and the monk who traced their respective paths to that place.  How had all of us happened to arrive at this out of the way greasy spoon that was about to be smithereened by some natural tantrum?  Then, announced by the sudden resurgence of the jukebox, the power returned, the lights came on and a collective exhalation marked the release of tension.  I. guess we won’t be in the book after all.

We left in a light drizzle with that curious summer mix of sunshine and rain, headed down into West Virginia. Just as we crossed into the Monongohela National Forest, we found fresh blacktop on a perfect curving road, deserted except for us, and the rain stopped.  Someone up there decided we’d been hassled enough and deserved some respite.  It was wonderful.  We swooped into the curves–well, sort of, considering our mounts and our talents–as if on our own private course, breathing the moist pine-scented air and just enjoying the freedom. It couldn’t last (because if it could, none of us would ever work for a living) and it didn’t. As if the Forest were truly enchanted, upon leaving it the storm began again.

This time was no ten minute nuisance. The sky was dark, the winds high and the rain ever increasing.  We were just pottering along the mountain curves, me in front flapping my squirrel wings and Jay behind, trying to decide whether the danger we were in was bad enough to overcome the ridiculousness of the sight in front of him.

It was getting colder and wetter.  Traffic was dwindling even though we were getting closer to Charleston. Other people had better sense than we were demonstrating as we slithered around in the wind and wet, barely able to see.  As we descended one mountain, a truck coming up from below began frantically flashing its lights.  I rounded the next bend to find a huge fallen pine tree completely blocking my lane and most of the other one.This was getting serious.  By 8:30pm or so, we were in the outskirts of Charleston, looking for a room.  It was pitch dark, emphasized by the total absence of any street lights or even traffic  signals. There were signs toppled over and debris everywhere in the streets. At the first motel we tried, the clerk told us that a tornado had just come through about 15 minutes before. From his description, we’d been following it into town. There was no power in the city and no room at the inn.

Exhausted, we pressed on to South Charleston where we finally located a motel that was cheap, dry, lighted and vacant–everything we wanted.  We unloaded our still-wet gear and went to look for something to eat. The streets were quiet, though we could see emergency lights flashing in the distance on the other side of the river.  Not much was open, so when we found a Steak n’ Ale, we pulled in.  The greeter looked askance at my soaked jeans (the wettest portion, thanks to the poncho’s directive characteristics, was rather embarrassing) and directed us to a small separated room off the main dining area and away from the “normal” customers.  Jay, somewhat dryer (except for his right leg), pretended not to know me and walked  a few paces apart until we were seated.

I still remember that evening as one of the finest meals of my life, though I have no idea what we ate.  It was the overall sensation of relief from fear, fatigue and hunger, combined with the knowledge that this was the last night of something that had become very important. We sat there near the fireplace, talked over where we’d been and what we’d seen ( and how wet we’d become in the process) and just let the experience soak in like the rainwater in our clothes.  I’ve completed many trips since then  and been to places I couldn’t even dream of on that first excursion, but I still remember that damp evening in Charleston.

The next morning dawned clear and bright with that just-washed look to everything that comes after a good storm–and this had been a GOOD one–for our final run back to the old routine.  We meandered through some of West Virginia, coming back into Kentucky at Louisa, then across the Daniel Boone National Forest and on to our homes.  We knew that we’d do this again.

I went out the next day and bought a rainsuit.

Forty years later I’ve motorcycled in almost all the US states and in sixteen different countries on a variety of machines, camped in the rain in a tent that doesn’t leak, and stayed in tiny B&B’s, and “five crown” European hotels, eaten in diners, “holes in the wall” where I had to just point to things on a handwritten bill of fare in a foreign language and in “white linen” restaurants with portions fashionably small enough to starve a hamster. The bikes we have now would’ve been beyond my comprehension and imagination back then, as would the camping and other equipment now available. I wouldn’t go back to those former ways, anymore than I would go back through my teenage years again–but I recognize that with all I’ve gained, I cannot equal, cannot replace, can never recapture, except in memory, that feeling of the first real trip.

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GOING NORTH WITHOUT A CLUE

In 1980 I decided to take up street riding again after a decade or two of mainly dual sport off roading and Observed Trials.

In the classifieds I located a somewhat derelict Suzuki Titan 500 two-stroke twin that met all my criteria….it was cheap.

Off came the previous owner’s “King and Queen” seat and ape-hanger bars, replaced by a stock seat from a junker at the local dealer and a set of my well-used Renthal trials bike bars, painted black.  New tires and some decent fork oil, lube the chain (and, it turned out, the back of my shirt as well) and I was ready to go.

I rode that bike through the spring and early summer with brother in law Jay on his newly acquired 60’s era Harley Sportster. His had a slightly questionable past and came complete with bayonet sissy bar, straight pipes, stepped seat and the original anti-lock brakes.  In fact, they were anti-stop brakes. Handling it on a curvy road was, if I recall, much like I would imagine elk-wrestling to be.

Being ambitious sorts, we decided that a road trip was in order.

On a sunny Saturday morning in early summer of 1980, four of us left my house in Kentucky headed “north”. There was Jay, worldly goods stashed in a pack lashed to the bayonet, Rick on a 67 Harley Sprint with “Glad Luggage” (i.e. garbage bags) and Joe on a Honda 750 sporting the only windshield and bags in the bunch. I had bungied my stuff in an old Boy Scout pack on the seat behind me, festooned with numerous bottles of two-stroke oil stuck under the elastic cords at every available spot. Brenda said I looked like one of those traveling medicine show wagons in the old western movies. Off we went in a cloud of ring-ding smoke penetrated by the bark of the Harley’s pipes, bound for adventure.

Actually, bound for the first intersection.  This trip hadn’t exactly suffered under a great deal of planning and it showed.  We didn’t really know where we were going and it quickly became obvious that we didn’t all have the same trip in mind.

  Every crossroad became a committee meeting to decide wither to and how goest the lot. We lurched on in this fashion through Indiana, past the ski country, headed vaguely northward.  Somewhere along there I took a direct hit in the chest from a bee, sufficient only to aggravate him to the point of revenge all the way down to my navel, inside my t-shirt and a future fondness for bikes with windshields began to form. By nightfall we were on a 4-lane going into Crown Point Indiana, traveling at really irresponsible speeds behind tractor trailers serving as windbreaks to shield us from bugs thick as a sandstorm. We were trying to make it near to Chicago to find a Harley dealer because Jay’s Sportster had gotten into a snit and refused to run unless push-started at every stoplight. That can really slow down one’s progress.

The next morning found us in a, shall we say “less desirable” part of the Windy City in front of the Harley shop just as it opened.  Our motley collection of machinery–particularly the two Japanese bikes–drew jaundiced looks from the shop hangers-on and we were told in no uncertain terms that we didn’t need to (and therefore shouldn’t) wear helmets in Illinois. We thanked them for their advice. 

The Sportster needed a battery and it had to be charged, so we went across the street to a bar and grille which offered the only semblance of food in the neighborhood. Jay ordered–at 9am–something with Polish sausage and a variety of other gastric-distress-inducing materials, but the rest of us made do with orange juice–hold the vodka, please–and snacks.  There was a huge, white-muzzled German Shepherd dozing behind the bar unbothered by the proprietor stepping over him. While we were there, the city Health Inspector came in, clipboard in hand, and proceeded to poke into the various places inspectors poke.  As he repeatedly maneuvered around the big dog, he berated the proprietor for the animal’s presence, saying he couldn’t allow this, the license couldn’t be renewed under these conditions, etc, etc.  The proprietor apologized said it wouldn’t happen again, etc etc.  After the official left, the barkeeper told us they’d been having that same argument once a month since the dog was a pup.

 Newly electrified, we motored out into Chicago traffic where Jay promptly was assaulted by a large lady in an even larger Buick.  I was behind him and watched in disbelief and horror as twice she purposefully tried to run him off the road, swerving into the lane then slowing down, falling behind and speeding up to do it again. Caught at a light, Jay started to get off his bike to go over to her car, but she rocketed through the red signal and off into the throng.  We decided to leave town “with all deliberate speed”.

Onward, still without a real destination, we headed up through Wisconsin with some general idea forming for a trip across Canada. We got as far as Manitowoc where we learned that there was the Badger, a coal-fired ferry we could take across Lake Michigan.

Jay and I decided that this was irresistible but Joe and Rick felt this was a good place to bail from this madness and head for home. We said our goodbyes, watched them ride south, and tied down our bikes in the hanger-like hold of the ship.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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OF MICE AND MEN, PART II

We share our old farmhouse house and grounds with the mice whose ancestors and ours did the same, with my species’progenitors being the newcomers to the scene. There were mice here long before humans and there will be mice here long after, I think.

I have learned a bit about mouse personalities, mainly that they in general mirror our own. We are not such different creatures as we humans would like to assume. There are brave mice, frightened mice, curious mice, introverted and extroverted mice and probably even contemplative mice who wonder about all this variety.

If they would learn to stay in one place, and take their eliminations outside, we would be happy to share our dwelling with the cute little critters, but alas, they will do neither. So we can’t have them in the pantry or the living spaces, getting into our food and laundry and other such places. Like many relationships that seem like they would be a good idea, but aren’t, we will have to break up.

I cannot abide the notion of poison, even if it would affect only the mouse that ate it. And killing traps are just too brutal. I tried that once for a mouse that we couldn’t seem to deter any other way and the result put me off such things forever. So after much research and many false starts, I have arrived at a kind of humane cage trap, a small version of what I use for the groundhogs when they get too numerous and intrusive.

I bait the live traps with a whole-wheat cracker smeared with peanut butter which seems to work better than cheese, despite hundreds of cartoons to the contrary. Some mice eat the whole thing overnight in the trap, sort of the equivalent of a human eating a family-size pizza all by himself. Others just nibble around the edges after eating the peanut butter off the top. Once in a while, a mouse will ignore the food entirely as if in self reproach for being so foolish as to allow temptation to put them in this fix.

When trapped, some mice seem to explore the cage with curiosity, not being bothered too much by me picking it up to look at them. The dog, who always must accompany me on our relocation trips, takes great interest in the mice and some come willingly to the wire to touch noses with him, perhaps understanding in some way that if they can’t get out, he can’t get in.

Some bounce all over the inside like some sort of CGI superhero in a movie. Others cower in a corner of the cage, remaining still so that predators such as humans can’t see them. Some hide under the trigger plate, with a thin tail sticking out being the only betrayal of their presence. One recent occupant managed to push the cracker up under the trigger plate, presumably to have something to eat while hiding.

At first I trapped them and took them up on the hill, about 500 feet from the house, on the other side of a creek that could be crossed on stepping stones that I thought were too wide apart for mice. I was wrong. For a while I was getting several at a time, nearly every morning. Then as I was releasing them, I noticed that instead of searching about wildly for shelter, as they had in the beginning, they were making a beeline for the brush pile near the release point. It hit me that these were the same mice and they had learned the routine. They were getting back to the house within a few hours, making it across the creek and looking forward to their next peanut butter treat and a ride up the hill. I had created a parkour course for mice with a reward at the end.

More reading revealed that two miles was the minimum necessary distance to put between me and them to dissuade their return.

Now I drive them to a patch of woods about four miles from the house, located beside an interstate highway, a “gore”, the triangular space between the entrance ramp and the two lane, about 3 acres or so. I can’t see that it could be developed in any way, certainly not in the reasonable life expectancy of a mouse. There are no houses nearby and I assume it is owned by the state or federal government as part of the highway right of way. It is rough woods, on a slope, with lots of underbrush for hiding places and nest sites. Not as cozy as our basement, I’m sure, but one can’t have everything one wants, regardless of species.

Our rate of incursion has dropped dramatically, now one or two a month at most, usually only in the cold weather or during severe rainstorms. I have no illusions, however, that I have won the battle for the territory. They will continue to find a way and eventually I will be gone and they will be here, waiting to challenge the next resident.

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44 Trees

Walking the dog along the edge of the pond, I paused to look around at our place. We moved to this 5 acre plot almost 25 years ago when it was essentially an old farm house surrounded on three sides by empty cow pasture. There were a few trees, most very old and on their way out. Now there is a house on either side of us.

I have planted, through the years more than 40 trees here. Some were replacements for old trees that had died or become so fragile that removal was necessary, but most were just because we like trees. Brenda reminded me that when I planted them, I typically said “I’ll never live long enough to see this mature” but I was wrong. Several that were not as thick as my arm nor as high as my chest when planted are beyond my hug’s circumference and too tall to see the top without more back bend than I can now manage.

The list includes:

2 willows

2 willow oaks

2 Tulip trees

13 Hemlocks

1 Sycamore

2 River birch

7 white pine (3 were Christmas trees)

4 maples

3 redbuds ( 2 now gone)

2 Schumerd oaks

2 Pin oaks (plus 3 volunteers)

1 Apple

1 pear

1 peach

1 plum

Recently we sold off the upper field, half of our property, so that the neighbor can use it for his horses. It had been a pasture up until we bought the place and now it is again. Trees never did well up there with the thin topsoil covering a layer of limestone rock that roots just never seem able to penetrate. His gorgeous animals enjoy the good grass that base provides, I no longer have to mow it and they give us the pleasure of their presence.

Down here on the rest, our trees are doing pretty well. When I compare old photos to what I see now, it is amazing the transformation that trees can make. There is shade nearly everywhere with birds of many species constantly calling, going about the business of making and surviving another generation each year. The brush pile composed of each season’s fallen limbs and other trimmings is by the pond, giving shelter to whatever needs it. In the last few years, since the various oaks have begun producing a bumper crop of acorns, red and gray squirrels have moved in, much to the dog’s chagrin and our amusement.. Other animals, rabbits,opossums, groundhogs, a fox or two, herons, turtles and terrapins, muskrats, raccoons and even a mink (just passing through, we think) have made their homes here, taking advantage of the tree cover and the contributions each of the others make to the ecology of the whole. In spring and fall we have a visiting flock of geese who stop on the shaded pond for a day or two on their migration. For a quarter century I have watched the yearly progression of nature through its phases, knowing that I am just a small part of the overall scheme. (I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the elephant and the Mayfly regarding an acorn on the ground. The elephant says, “One day that will become a mighty oak tree”, and the Mayfly replies, “That is ridiculous. I’ve been watching it my entire life and it hasn’t done a thing.”)

We’ve lost a few of the trees to bad weather and some have succumbed, as must we all, to old age, but most are thriving, doing what trees do: making oxygen and storing carbon all while being beautiful. If only I were so useful.

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Electronic Assistance

I got a GPS. After 58 years of riding motorcycles all over the US and a lot of other places in the world using only paper maps and dead reckoning, I thought, in my 70’s, it might be time to try one.

A few years ago my usual riding partner, my wife’s brother, got one for his BMW and we did find it useful for our travels, locating services and answering the frequent question “where the heck are we?” We tried using it mounted to our Yamaha XT250’s on the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route, a mostly off road excursion across several states, thinking that the unmarked trail turns might be a bit easier with some technological help. It wasn’t happy outside of its BMW mounting cradle, with the screen going dark at inconvenient moments and the thing often refusing to give us any directions except back to where we started. I’m not blaming the machine…I’m sure it was something in the translation between Old Geezer and Modern Tech.

The one I selected for myself, a Garmin Zumo XT, looks a lot like his without the BMW logo and comes with a cradle that can be put on any bike with a wiring plug for 12 volts. For the maiden voyage, I picked my DR650 as test mule and hooked it up for a ride.

I put in a destination, my nephew’s workplace in Greenup, Ky, about a hundred miles or so from my house and set off in the early dawn light.

I had selected the “adventurous route” option from the screen, expecting the thing to take me on new paths to this familiar location. I thought I would arrive at his shop drenched in mud, trailing vines behind the bike, with a few arrows in the soft panniers. But no, my electronic guide figured familiar Route 60 was as adventurous as it could find, though it did throw in a five mile up the hill and down route that circled off of 60 and right back to it only a short distance from where it left.

Still, it did give me a heads up for turns coming, but since I don’t have a Bluetooth headset, (there’s only so much technology I can stand at one time) I had to look at the screen which I found a bit distracting.

The routing gave me an estimated time to arrive, which also was distracting since it kept changing. On curvy Rt. 2 I found myself mired in a string of large gravel trucks going to and from some construction project and the arrival time kept getting longer. The psychology got interesting since even though I had no specific time I needed to be anywhere, somehow that increasing time on the screen created a subtle sense of being late. After passing the last truck and traveling for a bit at somewhat “exuberant” speed, the time came back down and I felt, completely unnecessarily, a sense of relief.

After arriving, “on time” and sans arrows, I headed for home without assistance from the screen, but left it on just to see what else it offered me. It does have a speed limit monitor, handy I’m sure, and a compass telling me always where north was located. That is quite useful. There is a little window that gives me what I assume is an accurate speed, telling me that my DR’s speedo is a bit less than 10% optimistic, which is what I thought anyway.

Later in the day I was on some tiny backroads wandering around when one of them became dirt and gravel. The GPS didn’t name the road and it was unclear from the screen if this thin little line on the display actually connected up to any other thin little lines. But there was a guy coming out of a farm driveway in a truck, so I asked him if this one went through or dead-ended. I’ve had this sort of encounter many times and “Where are you trying to get to?” is always, always the question they ask. It’s hard to get across adequately in such a brief encounter the idea that I really don’t have a destination nor do I care where this track goes, I just want to know if it is a dead end. He finally assured me with a wave of his hand that it “goes around there” and so I took off up the rutted, graveled hill. It did go somewhere, though I still don’t know where, exactly, that was, but the view from up there was marvelous.

It is the beginning of the relationship, always a time of learning and adapting. I’m sure we will be able to get along just fine.

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ONE ON THE SIDE

After a lifelong fascination with sidecar rigs, as seen from a distance, I got into them in my late 60’s because I wanted to learn something new and experience something different in this motorcycle thing that I had done since my early teenage years. Those goals have been met, in spades, though the learning process is still continuing. This asymmetrical combination of motorcycle and third-wheel device provides sensations and experiences nothing else can equal, but it is not a motorcycle and it is not a car, nor is it a “trike”. It is, as we used to say in the legal profession, “sui generis”, a creature unto itself.

I’ve now owned two different rigs and have more than 30,000 miles under my three wheels, and while not an expert by any means, I have formed some impressions.

The takeaway is that they are marvelously stable up to about 55 mph, and increasingly weird after that. Like any good companion, no matter how wonderful they may be, there are some quirks that must be taken into account.

Consider the different ways the machine encounters its environment.

The motorcycle, when not attached to the sidecar, is designed to experience the world in a particular linear manner, straight up from the contact point. Forces applied through the frame, the tires, the suspension, from the designer’s intention, should arrive and be dealt with in that line. The forks and rear suspension rise and fall with the contours of the road surface. Even when in a curve, the bike is leaned over and most of the forces it encounters still are coming up through the suspension and the frame mainly in a straight-through-the-suspension fashion, viewed from the perspective of the machine. Picture in your mind leaning into a bumpy turn and watch as the front and rear suspension reacts to the undulations of the pavement with the front tire, though in a canted position, still rolling over the bump and the forks allowing it to come up to accommodate and then the rear tire doing the same. Yes, there are side forces involved but they are minimal at this point, at real-world speeds.

Now picture the sidecar rig. The motorcycle is locked into a nearly vertical position, perpendicular to the pavement (one expert recommends “a half bubble off plumb’ but it is not clear if he means the bike or the operator). Traveling in a straight line, it still encounters the world in a linear fashion, but it is constantly experiencing a side pull from the weight and drag on one side. When it enters the bumpy curve, the wheel still rolls over the uneven parts, but with the added stress of centrifugal force, countered by the traction of the tire pulling the rig to the outside. The forks and steering stem, wheel bearings, rear swing arm and suspension all are experiencing a substantial side load in addition to the up and down motion for which they were designed. A right turn makes the car want to “fly”, placing a tremendous side-load on the motorcycle’s wheel bearings that are now carrying the weight of the car and any load it contains, at an angle that the designer never intended. A left turn side loads the front and puts mulch of the rig’s weight on the car’s suspension, causing the rear wheel of the bike to rise (particularly if braking is involved) even to the point of digging the nose of the car into the pavement if one lets it get out of hand.

In a well designed rig, driven responsibly, this all works fairly nicely, up to a point. It does remind me of Samuel Johnson’s comment, “… like a dog walking upon its hind legs, the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all”.

There are, of course, racing sidecars with specially built frames that become much more like three wheeled automobiles, designed specifically for these side loads, but that is not what most of us (EML drivers notwithstanding) operate on the streets. The variety of styles and attachments to various motorcycles means that one can tailor the characteristics to suit what you want to do.

My own experience from driving two different high-bodied “adventure” sidecar rigs is that up to about 55 mph, the combination is remarkably stable and a joy to experience. There is the relief, at my age, from any fear of falling over, slipping the front or rear wheel in a turn on uncertain surfaces, parking lot maneuvers, etc. Riding in late fall with leaf-covered roads, in winter with the prospect of ice, on backroads where gravel or sand can often be found in curves, all of these concerns are erased for the most part and one can just enjoy the motion and the scenery.

The rig is still all of these things as speeds rise, but then the feeling creeps up on the driver that the forces acting on the three wheels in asymmetrical contact with the road are not always in harmony.

At 65 or 70 mph in a straight line or in gentle bends, the rig feels perfectly comfortable, but I have the understanding that sudden evasive maneuvers can unsettle the beast and set it into motions that may be unpredictable for one such as me. In curves, as speeds rise, one must be always cognizant of the sharpness of the curve, the pitch of the road, whether the curve is ascending or descending and most importantly, is it a right or left on top of all those factors. In all motorcycle riding, we know we must look as far ahead as possible and anticipate conditions. The sidecar makes this doubly important and multiplies the cost of error.

The driver must always be aware of the effect of the sidecar. Power applied, whether by engine or gravity, will try to pivot the combination of bike and car one way or the other. When accelerating the car is a drag so the rig veers right. When decelerating, the car wants to keep going on (that whole Newtonian “a body in motion” bit), if it doesn’t have its own brake, and pulls the rig to the left. The first couple of hours driving a rig is a constant exercise in balancing these forces to keep the thing in a straight line. Soon though, it becomes second nature, receding into the background like all of those other details we had had to learn when first we started riding motorcycles. You learn to use these characteristics to ease your progress through turns, getting the thing oriented toward the desired direction by rolling on or off the throttle or applying a brake.

If the sidecar does have a brake, a lot depends on how the stopper is set up. I like mine adjusted so that the sidecar wheel is braked just a little bit before the pedal actuates the motorcycle rear brake so I can use it to begin a pivot going into a right turn, setting up the orientation of the rig.

A sidecar rig has three “tip lines”, drawn between the axles of the three wheels forming a triangle. An excess of weight or force or both on the outside of any of those lines can cause the rig to pivot over the axis of that line. Underestimating the sharpness of a right hand turn at speed can result in the car rising and, if not rolling over, the rig with its steering now compromised, going inexorably into the oncoming lane. Overcook a downhill left and brake too hard, the rear wheel rises and the rig can tumble over the front. While not common, too much acceleration on a very powerful bike can cause the front wheel to rise, but instead of a typical wheelie, the rig now wants to pivot around the unpowered sidecar wheel and lurch to the right. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Riding the sidecar on curvy roads becomes a very different experience from the same on two wheels. When I was young on two wheels, the curves were the thing and I was focused only on them, the lean angle and the sensation of the flow, not so much the scenery around me. Now the rig makes me slow down and at its preferred pace, I can feel more, see more (though it can be unforgiving of a lapse of attention to its place on the road) and be more calm.

There are those who tout the speed potential of sidecars, some even saying that they can maintain as quick a backroad pace on a rig as they once did on two wheels. (Remember, “the older I get, the faster I used to be”) Those boasts may be true in some cases and with some combinations of sidecar and bike, but I think it seriously misses the point. Trying to get a rig into a significant speed on a curvy road seems like teaching a hound dog to sing opera…it takes an awful lot of effort, puts a great strain on the dog and the best result you can achieve is not much improvement in performance. The driver must use body weight to counter, as best one can, the forces that are trying to upset the equilibrium of the rig, hanging out over whichever tip line is in play, hoping that it is enough for the speed selected and that he or she isn’t on the wrong side of the line when it counts. Such antics can be entertaining for a while, but are exhausting in the long run.

Sidecars, in my opinion, are not for going fast on the streets and backroads. They are for enjoying the moment, the sensations only they offer including the calm for the driver, the amusement factor for everyone else, and the conversations they start at every encounter with the non-motorcycling public. ( SDF, “Sidecar Delay Factor”, is a real thing and must be planned into any time line for a trip, long or short.)

A listing of of these quirks is not to discourage anyone from experiencing a sidecar. These are, in my experience, the reality of such an unusual device, but if we started listing the analogous characteristics of an automobile, a motorcycle, an airplane, etc, we would see that we take those things for granted because we are accustomed to them. The sidecar rig is different from our ” normal” experience, so the new things it brings seem strange and off-putting at first. For me, the unusual nature of the thing is a large part of its charm.

Everyone seems to like a sidecar. As one person put it, “when I ride my motorcycle, it makes me happy. When I drive my sidecar rig, it makes everybody happy !” A sidecar rig just touches something in most onlookers, some sort of nostalgia, I think. While two-wheeled motorcycles sometimes are seen by the non-riding public as intimidating, nearly everyone who sees a rig going by will react positively, often with a wave. On a recent trip, a lady in an SUV, turning into a grocery store mall, gave Brenda an enthusiastic head-nodding grin and a thumbs up…then went in to get her family’s groceries. I can’t help but think she had a little moment of travel fantasy while pushing the cart.

And, should I feel the need for the groceries, the sidecar is the perfect vehicle for fetching them home. There is the puzzled look on the face of the grocery checkout clerk when the guy in motorcycle clothes, carrying a helmet, leaves her cash register with ten brimming bags. For all errand running, the sidecar rig becomes the preferred mode, leaving the four-wheeled vehicles languishing in the driveway. Sixty pounds of birdseed, a ten pound bag of dog food, a few bottles of wine and an eight foot piece of trim for the door…no problem.

I haven’t touched upon the passenger’s experience here, but I’m told by Brenda that after decades as a two-wheeler pillion, it is now her preferred way to travel. Many if not most dogs seem to enjoy the experience and having a four-legged passenger definitely ramps up the smile reaction from the general public. (I have seen a video of a bear riding in a sidecar, but I wouldn’t suggest that for a first time out.)

I still have some two-wheeled bikes and I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet, but i find myself increasingly going to the rig.

The above is just a small taste of what I have found it is like to live with a sidecar rig. I recommend David Hough’s comprehensive book, “Driving a Motorcycle Sidecar Outfit” and other instructional materials which can be downloaded for free from the United Sidecar Association website, sidecar.com, for more information.

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