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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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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Isle of Man, 1994

In 1994, we made our first motorcycle trip to Britain, renting a Honda ST1100 near London and setting out to see what we could see. In addition to wandering around the three countries, I had to make a pilgrimage over to the Isle of Man, an iconic, perhaps THE iconic, place for two wheeled culture. Or at least it is if one is like me, steeped in the traditions of the European motorcycling world and the many legends of the Isle of Man TT races. Our visit was a week before the fabled races begin, when preparations are in the final stages but the enormous crowds have not yet arrived. We found our way down from Scotland to England’s west coast to meet the ferry, the King Orry. Heysham is a coastal town, of course, and they all have a certain look to them, one of the many places in this sceptered realm that I look at and say, “yes, I could live right here.”. After locating the dock, we are about an hour or so early so go back into Heysham Village for gas and another tea break. The older lady at the Shell station tells us that she’s the first and last chance gas from the boat so during TT weeks she gets thousands of bikes and stays open extra hours to accommodate them. Our pre-ferry snack is tea cakes and “Toasties” which are grilled cheese sandwiches, at a little Bayside tea shop. As we are sitting there looking out the window, an older couple, maybe 50s or early 60s, comes in, both dressed almost formally, looking like a retired headmaster and schoolteacher, but the man stops for a long time in the parking lot to look admiringly at the Honda. He comes over to our table, saying “are you the proud owner of that dream machine”? He tells us of the motorcycle travels he and his wife had in their youth. The wife says they’ve been over for TT week many times and find it “smashing”. She urges us to ride the race course while we’re there.

The ferry is a huge ship that swallows row upon row of cars, lorries and our Honda without even a burp. We take our place in the summer lounge on board waiting for it to depart.

It was a long wait. The captain made several rather nervous sounding announcements regarding engine trouble and got underway three hours late, arriving on the Isle with daylight all but gone. It was a “smooth crossing” according to a local resident who befriended us on the boat, meaning that waves only occasionally splashed over the C- deck windows as we neared port.

Our hotel, the Castle Mona, was easily found right here on the promenade. It is a good deal fancier than our usual local B&B lodgings since this visit would coincide with our anniversary, calling for special accommodations. It literally is a castle, built originally as the home for the Duke of Athol. Now a few centuries later, it is a five-Crown hotel with a lounge for “smart dress only” and uniformed staff at every turn. Still, as in most places we have been in Britain but especially here on the Isle, the sight of leather clad motorcyclists causes nothing but smiles. They treat us as honored guests and tell us that we are a bit early for the TT but hope we will stay for it. If not, they hope we will ride the course and enjoy it. Try getting THAT at a US Holiday Inn. We change clothes, rest up for a bit and walk down to a nearby Indian tandoori restaurant for excellent dishes I cannot now recall the names of, washed down with Boddington’s bitter and Stellar lager.

In the morning, while Brenda slept in,I set out at 6 AM to take my first lap of the TT course. The hotel clerk gave me directions to the start and cautioned me to mind the speed limits in small towns, but adds that there is no limit between towns. He recounts the story of Phil Reed one of the all-time greats, being banned from the Isle after a spot of early practice, before the course was closed to do so, when he was clocked  by the local police at something around 150 mph in a 30 zone. I won’t do that, I assure the clerk.

I am in a cold mist as I take the outside coast road, spectacular, with views of the sea, green fields and village homes, all seen from eagle’s eye perspective. At Ramsey I joined the course markers and sandbags put up in preparation for next week’s competition on these public roads. Everywhere are signs saying “Links Fahren, bitte”, there to remind the German tourists that here one drives on the left side of the road. Apparently, it’s a recurring problem.

From Ramsey, I start up the hill, through the Hairpin, (incredibly sharp turn, uphill, how do they do that at speed?) and on toward Snae Fell, the highest point on the island. The temperature drops noticeably and I can feel my ears pop as I rise. Up there, through Bungalow Bends and the Verandah, the scenery is stark, beautiful, and dangerous. Though sunny down below, it is gray overcast up here and the cold wind blows hard across the bare landscape that has no trees to slow it. If a racer went  off here, there’s nothing to impede a launch into an awful lot of empty air to the valley floor far, far below. Again how do they do it? At the aptly named named Windy Corner, the blasts can come off the open bay, through a natural funnel to the corner in just the right place to blow a bike sideways.

I am riding very carefully, somewhat erratic, because I’m timid with this large rented bike and the exotic conditions. These races have been going on here since 1903, but I won’t break any lap records, no matter from what year. Down the hill, past Kate’s Cottage and straight on into the hard right hand corner at Craig-ny-Baa where if one was too enthusiastic, one would wind up in the lobby of the hotel standing at the apex. I hear that it has been done more than once, including the story of a racer who slid his bike through the doors on its side, got up leaving the smoking wreckage on the floor and casually went to the bar to order a beer.

I have seen many photos of riders leaning hard through the corner at Governor’s Bridge which I see now is nearly as sharp as the Hairpin, but downhill and bumpy. They made it look so easy.   Brenda isn’t up yet back at the hotel, so I go out for another lap. There are hundreds of turns, some gentle, some severe, most lined by stacked stone walls and curbs that would ensure a high side penalty for a slightly too wide line. The good racers have memorized every one of these curves on the 37 and a half mile course. I haven’t. On through Kirkmichael, up through Ballough Bridge (with both wheels firmly on the ground) and down into town.  Now it is filled with normal traffic, kids going to school, etc but in a week there will be motorcycles here traveling at insane speeds through these city streets. Soon I am back in Ramsey, around the Hairpin and headed up onto Snae Fell for the long mountain stretch.

This time I open the throttle a bit more, hitting 100 mph at one point just to see what “doing the ton” feels like. It is cold and terrifying, actually.

I’m soon back at the Castle Mona, where I pick up Brenda and we head out, starting on the course, but soon veering off toward the town of Peel, an old fishing village on the coast with very, very narrow streets and a huge old castle on the promontory that stretches out into the bay. We stop for tea and breakfast at a beachside tea shop. Though it is after 10 AM, they’ve just begun the opening up process. Folks don’t get in much of a hurry here on the Isle.

We wander on along the western coast road with scenery almost like the California coastline …if the California coast was lined on the sides with ancient stone walls and populated everywhere with sheep. We rejoin the race course at Kirkmichael and roll on into Ramsey where I stop in at a motorcycle shop to browse. It is a real working shop, not a tourist spot or boutique, catering to riders, not shoppers. On the floor, they have MZ’s and Royal Enfields, among other fine old used machines.

From Ramsey, again through the Hairpin (my performance no better this time) and we climb the mountain to stop in at Murray’s Motorcycle Museum on the top of Snae Fell. It is a low building, mostly green inside with a cold dampness from the nearly perpetual fog that stays up here. We are greeted by one of the owners, given all kinds of information, pamphlets, free stickers and Brenda gets a pair of gold “3 legs” earrings. (The symbol of the Isle of Man, noting that they have never been fully conquered, though many have tried. The symbol means, “whichever way you throw me, I will stand”). John, the bearded assistant in his gray coveralls, shows me around and tells me some little known routes to take, urging me to return for the vintage races at Castleton later in the year.

We head off following his route down the right hand turn out of the museum and are quickly on a very steep downhill switchback run, single lane, into the bottom of a glen. We stop briefly at the Celtic craft center where the young lady proprietress greets the leather dressed cyclists like they were the most important people she’s ever met. And then on to more of the single track,  through outstanding scenery. We come finally to the TT course again, near Kirkmichael and proceed down to Ballough bridge and turn toward Druidsdale. We end up again on a narrow lane, some places the “road” is barely wide enough for the bike, a kinked path across the hills back towards Snae Fell. It is wild and desolate, populated only by sheep and the view is magnificent. I took no pictures because my camera could not even begin to encompass what we see. We rejoin the course near the museum and follow it back into town. We had been advised to stop on our way over to Castletown, to stop at Fairy Bridge to say hello and give good wishes to the “little people” to assure our continued good fortune. We did, and it appears to have worked so far.

Castletown is another ancient, narrow-streeted town, with a huge foreboding castle, but all we can do is ride through it.  There is no vacant place to leave a vehicle this morning, even a motorcycle.  We press on toward Port Erin, the southernmost tip of the Isle and the “home of the 4 horned sheep”

There we stop for snacks, bran loaf and some sort of Manx cake bread with tea, and the café clerk gushes over us, the motorcycle and the TT week. It’s so nice to be in a country where motorcyclists are treated this way! Onward, down the coast—I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives for the scenery—through the medieval village of Craigneish and down to the very end, the cul-de-sac where one can see the Calf of Man across a short stretch of water. There is a tiny road visible on that island and I have no doubt that some hardy Manx soul lives over there, stiff-upper-lipped to the circumstances that would make a Spartan seem Sybarite.

Then we take a back road, actually a semi paved path, across the top of the (heath? moor? I’m never sure which), and down a winding lane with more wonderful views of the bay and village below, back into Port Erin. The huge Honda is capable of negotiating these tiny trails, but it would be much easier on a smaller dual sport. (If only we could have one of the bikes in the movies that converts instantly, scene to scene, from heavy touring machine to nimble dirt bike and back again, with the sound track of a big V-twin coming from what is obviously a two-stroke single.) Finally it’s back to Douglas, to our Castle and a stroll down the Strand in search of a pub. The first two we find – many are closed since the tourist and TT season isn’t open yet—are loud with a big rugby match on the TV. We do have to stop in at “Bushy’s”, the legendary TT week pub, for a beer.

That pub is now gone, I hear, torn down in the name of progress. The Castle Mona is up for sale and probably will never offer us a room again. I do hope to return to the Isle before I hang up my riding gear. I suspect my performance on the race course will not have improved and my capacity for trying the local food and drink in the evenings is much diminished. But I still want to be there.

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The fourth, and probably final, installment of the emails I sent to my grandsons on the occasion of their taking up street riding.

Managing any risk involves an assessment of the upside and the downside, the consequence and reward. There is no such thing as a risk-free life and if there was, it would be relentlessly boring.

I recently listened to an interview with the guy who “free-solo” climbed the 3,000 foot high vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite. That means without ropes or any protective device, just his skill and the friction of his climbing shoes and fingertips. Any…literally any… mistake would have been fatal. He said it took him seven years of practicing with rope assisted climbs, mental visualization and preparation, knowing every single hand and foot hold he would use, every move he would make all the way up, so that when he finally went to make the ascent, he felt that there was, in his mind, no risk. He didn’t make any mistakes in executing his plan and he survived. Those who are amazed at his feat typically don’t know about or emphasize the seven years of preparation for a 4 hour climb.

Operating any mechanical device has risks. (For example, picture getting the strap on your bathrobe tangled in an electric mixer). Operating any motorized transportation device among other people doing the same increases the risk exponentially.

In very broad, simplified terms, the risks come in a few categories.

1) Inherent risks.

2) Environmental risks

3) Self induced risks

Whether you make it home from your next ride smiling, upright and functional depends on your assessment and managing of those risks.

The inherent risks are those the machine itself presents. For motorcycles those include

1) balance: it falls over if not balanced, 2) traction: it only has two small contact patches of rubber connecting it to the surface, 3) mechanical reliance: you have control of the few things the motorcycle can do, (turn right or left, go faster or slower down to a stop), but the controls have to be in good working order and you have to know and constantly practice how to use them. And, by the way, cars have the same situation, though with far less emphasis on balance (it won’t fall over, we hope, but balancing the weight in a curve is important) and two more contact patches.

Environmental risks are much broader and less predictable, meaning the control that you do have becomes more important. They include the other vehicles around you, driven by imperfect humans or now, perhaps, imperfect AI, as well as the usual things like temperature, weather, and surface conditions. Such things as paying attention to the sun: if it is behind you (your shadow is in front of you) the oncoming traffic can’t see you well, if at all, and this increases the prospect of someone turning left in front of you among other errors. In rain, cars will tailgate and they can’t stop as quickly as they think. They can hydroplane and be in your lane. I represented several truck drivers, 18 wheelers, and they have told me that when the road is wet, they can’t stop quickly and once a 40 foot trailer gets out of control, the tractor it’s attached to is just along for the ride. Know the seasonal hazards: grass clippings in summer, farm tractor mud in any rainy season and in the fall, leaves, walnut goop under trees, and deer anytime but particularly in the fall,

Self induced risks are the easiest category, but since we are all humans with the complicated mental processes that status entails, one of the most difficult and trickiest to control. It should go without saying that you never ride impaired by drugs or alcohol, or by extremes of fatigue, heat or cold. Riding or driving requires that we have confidence in our abilities and it is normal for most of us to want to test the limits sometimes, but overconfidence is hazardous to your health. We must be brutally honest with ourselves about our abilities, always practicing to improve, and use only yourself as the standard. Don’t worry about what someone else might think, don’t burden yourself with thinking about the “judgment” of others. The ones who are loudest in judgment usually are covering up their own inadequacies.

When I was a trials rider, I was pretty good, but I was not ever going to be in the first rank. I still had a marvelous time doing what I could do. In my brief motocross career, I was average at best and overestimating my abilities brought me to a hospital ER and a sadistic dentist, neither of which do I want to repeat. On the street, I was a fairly quick rider, not fast, not slow, but I hope I came across as more of a smooth and competent one. Going too fast on the street ramps up all of the risk factors I have mentioned way over onto the “downside” end of the scale. As my friend Boone used to say, “the best thing that can happen is you get there a few minutes sooner. The worst thing is you die”. I would add that there are, in my experience and opinion, far worse things than dying and they too are high on the list when going too fast on the street.

Riding motorcycles and driving cars are extremely satisfying and fun activities, which I have enjoyed for nearly 60 years. I want you to do the same. None of these things I write are meant to scare you, but rather to keep you aware of what it takes to consistently make it home with a smile on your face for the next 60 years or so and so you can pass this marvelous experience on to your next generation.

Your parents and grandmother have been pretty cool about letting me expose you to motorcycles from an early age. All of us, me included, have been worried about the time when you would start riding on the street. If you are going to crash and get injured, wait until after I’m gone so that I won’t have to face your parents and grandmother after it happens.

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(The third installment from a compilation of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began riding motorcycles on the street)

Riding a motorcycle on the street is not a “safe” thing to do. But neither is living. Both require us to make a lot of decisions, every day, every minute and sometimes we don’t make the correct one. After a while though, riding a motorcycle, we begin to trust our decisions because we have to and I think that makes us better at both riding and living.

Riding requires all of our senses, all five of sight, hearing, smell, taste (some smells, like diesel fuel and agricultural chemicals have a taste associated) and touch, and what some folks refer to as the “sixth sense” which is, in my opinion, just pattern recognition….that feeling you get when something just isn’t right even though you can’t put your finger on exactly what. Pay attention to what these are telling you and ask yourself what it is if you don’t recognize it immediately.

Motorcycles crash for a reason. In the movies and TV shows, they often crash for the silliest of causes, or no observable cause at all except that the plot required it to happen, but that is not real life. They crash because something failed…a tire, a suspension component, a mechanical part….or because someone did something wrong…you or someone else.

Always dress for the crash: helmet, gloves, boots, jacket with armor, preferably riding pants as well.

When deciding what to wear, picture yourself sliding down the asphalt and decide which parts you don’t want protected from the impact and abrasion.

Practice your braking and swerving yes, but also practice your mental skills. As you are approaching an intersection, ask yourself what you would do, what sequence of controls and movements you would make, if that oncoming car turned left in front of you. Or if that car passing another coming toward you doesn’t get back in his lane soon enough. Or if you had a flat tire right now. Or if the speed you set for that next curve turns out to be too high for your comfort. Having thought about it ahead of time gives your brain a template to follow when it does happen.

Surfaces. In a car, watching the surface is important, but not nearly so much so as on a bike. Cars have four big contact patches separated by a lot of bracing steel and, often, independent suspension, so that what happens to one wheel isn’t all that important if the others are on relatively good pavement. It won’t fall over if one wheel slides. Bikes don’t have that. There are two small contact patches, often less five feet apart, and the physics of the machine count on them to keep it upright.

A rear tire skid, within reason, can be dealt with, often scary but recoverable. Front wheel slides can be dealt with, but the “within reason” margin is much, much smaller. There are lots of cool videos showing Moto GP rider Marc Marquez casually using his elbow to lever the bike back up on its wheels in a front wheel slide at speed…but like 99.999% of the world’s population, you are not Marc Marquez.

That said, most of the time, on good pavement, a tire at either end isn’t going to just suddenly lose all traction and drop you on the ground. Old tires, “back in the day” sometimes would do exactly that if one exceeded their traction, but modern tires almost always will slide predictably and give you some warning…again noting that the front tire’s margin for error is small. But any kind of lubricant, traction reducer, can change the timeline on the warning drastically, perhaps even with your young reflexes and information processing, so that the first you realize that something went wrong is when your butt is on the pavement and you are watching the bike slide away in front of you. I have been exactly in that spot more than once.

Things to watch out for: Painted stripes when they are wet. Loose gravel (a very rough rule of thumb is that if you can count the pieces, it probably isn’t any problem to run through, but if it’s too numerous to count, slow down and stay upright). Broken asphalt, places where the pavement has deteriorated back into a fine grained gravel-like situation that gets spread out in the spots where pressure is applied by car tires….often in the middle of turns (leaning into a shaded turn, particularly with sunglasses on, makes this stuff nearly impossible to see. Ask me what happens next), tar snakes particularly in the summer when they are greasy, pavement just after the rain starts when the dust and oil and tire residue becomes a slippery paste until it gets washed off, gravel dust near quarries, mud from tractors or trucks entering the road from a muddy field, particularly in spring, horse poop in Amish country (you really don’t want to crash and be sliding down the road in that stuff…the EMT’s might say “no way you’re getting in my clean ambulance, Dude !”) , oil spills, diesel fuel spills,

Grass clippings in season (though despite what the internet memes may say, it isn’t that bad if you don’t lean into it or brake hard while on it…just riding through grass clippings while upright at a reasonable speed isn’t usually a problem).

In general, stay in the left or right wheel track on the road, avoiding the middle where the black stripe of accumulated oil can be a bit slippery, particularly when wet.

The list can go on and on. Many, if not most of these things will announce themselves through smell or sight, but some are more subtle, requiring experience to learn the signs.

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Riding the Street: Part 2

(This is the second installment of a compilation of emails I sent to my grandsons as they, after years of dirt riding on motorcycles, began to venture onto the street)

Now that we’ve talked a bit about getting stopped, lets see about riding.

Curves are, in my opinion, the fun part. They also account for the largest number of single-vehicle motorcycle crashes, typically when the bike runs off the outside of the curve rather than following the intended path.

Many of those are explained by the crashing rider as “it just wouldn’t turn”. Yes, actually, it would, but you, Mr. Crasher, didn’t turn it.

Motorcycles turn, above a walking pace, by countersteering, by “out-tracking” the front wheel briefly in the opposite direction from the desired path. There are lots of treatises about why this happens and how, but suffice it to say for now, that is how it works. When you are approaching a curve to the left, you will turn the bars briefly to the right and the bike will lean left and go around the curve. You can affect the motion some with “body steering”, using your weight, but that is more fine-tuning than a turning technique. You turn with the bars.

I find it easiest to push with one hand on the bar in the direction I want to turn, leaving the other arm relaxed. This tends to reduce the “survival instinct” of tensing both arms when you think you’re getting into trouble. That is what leads to the “it wouldn’t turn” explanation, because the rider was fighting one arm with the other, both tensed, and neither bar got enough pressure to make the lean. Push right to go right, push left to go left. Leave the “upper arm” the one that is now on the “high side” of the turning bike, relaxed. And no, this routine isn’t an absolute. You may come to another way of dealing with it, but the principle is the same. Countersteering is what causes a motorcycle at speed to turn at your command.

A motorcycle on modern tires will lean a lot farther than you are comfortable with. Again, as long as the pavement is relatively clean, the bike will lean over until hard parts start grinding on the asphalt at which point that will lift one wheel or the other off the pavement and you will crash. The rider can almost always use a folding footpeg or the toe of the downside boot as a feeler to tell you how close to the hard-part-grounding you are coming. But you won’t need to worry too much about that. Such a lean angle is extremely rare on the street and you’ve probably already made a mistake estimating your corner speed when you get to that point.

The important thing to remember is this: the bike will lean farther than you think, so if you are in a turn at a speed you suddenly aren’t comfortable with, overcome your “instinct” to straighten it up (which will put you off the road or in the oncoming lane) and lean some more. Keep your eyes up to where you want to go and keep leaning. That way, if you are going to crash, it will be a “lowside” with your actual impact with the pavement starting from a few inches high. We will address braking in a turn, usually not a good idea, but sometimes it is, later.

The far better course is to learn to set your corner speed where you want it.

Entering a corner, keep your eyes up to the “vanishing point”, that place where the edges of the road appear to come together. The farther out you can look, the better off you will be, because, among other things, you will go where you look. I like to use the “late apex” line in most curves, where I’m on the outside of the curve until I can see deeper into it, see the exit, then make my lean. The “racing line” works great on the track, but not so much on most backroads. On a motorcycle, you don’t have to be going at maximum speed for curves to be exciting and fun.

There will be more of this, and I may revise the above for completeness and clarity, but this will get you started.

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This is a compilation of a series of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began transitioning from riding motorcycles off road to street riding.

Dirt bike riding is fun and can be done casually for the most part, without a great deal of harm done from mistakes. Typically there is only oneself to worry about, since trees don’t pull out in front of your path.

Street riding is a different concept, one that has more in common with piloting an airplane than driving a car if one stops to consider the number of variables involved and the consequences of inattention to them.

There are very few “absolutes” in terms of “never do this” and “always do this” (well, ok, never grab a handful of front brake on ice, never get your country involved in a land war in Asia and never play cards for serious money with a guy called “Doc”.)

Getting hung up on absolutes reduces your riding or driving to a checklist of rules and since reality doesn’t read the rule book, you often will find yourself scanning the mental list for a solution that isn’t there. Understanding what you are dealing with and using that knowledge to apply to the situation you are in is the key. In riding, as in life, deal with principles more than rules.

Motorcycles can do only a few things and those are always in your control. It can go faster, go slower (including down to a stop), it can turn right or left. And it can do more than one of those things at the same time. (Yes, it can fly briefly, do wheelies and stoppies, but if you think about it, those are just extensions of the basics.)

You control those movements with the handlebars, the throttle, the brakes (front and rear together or separately) and your body weight.

Everything that controls the motorcycle is important, but if one has to assign a rank, the brakes are paramount. In a car, it is easy to just step on the pedal and the consequences of getting too much may be embarrassing, but not usually too harmful. Bikes are different.

You need to practice braking every time you go out. What you are looking for is the ability to apply smooth pressure to the brakes to the absolute maximum for the conditions you are in and do it as a “muscle memory” so that it is happening before the conscious thought forms.

Riding, or driving a car, is about weight control and the physics involved. The machine is a weight connected to the road by rubber traction. The weight, once set in motion, wants to continue going and to go straight (See Mr. Newton and his basic laws of motion). The weight must be made to turn or stop by applying an external force.

On a bike, you have two contact patches, ovals of rubber about the size of a quarter or two laid on the pavement. Everything you do affects how those two patches are connected to the road.

When you are sitting on the bike in the driveway or at a stoplight, the weight is pretty evenly distributed, with a slight bias toward the rear tire. When you shift your body front or rear, side to side, or if you add a passenger, you change that distribution.

When you move away from a stop, the acceleration moves the weight back to the rear, lightening the front. When you back off throttle or apply brakes, the weight moves back to the front, making the rear lighter.

When you lean over to turn, the contact patches shift from the bottom of the tire to the sides.

More weight equals more traction…up to the point where you have asked more of the contact patch than it can handle, then the tire will begin to slide. Unless there is some lubricant on the pavement (sand, gravel, oil, water…even chocolate milk, as a good friend of mine once found) the slide will be predictable, something you can feel and deal with, though this takes a lot of experience.

Nearly all of your effective braking is on the front wheel. Take your bicycle down from the wall and push it along the driveway, then apply the front brake. It will stop. If you apply the rear brake only, you can continue pushing it with relatively little resistance. Motorcycles aren’t that dramatic, but the principle is the same. Applying deceleration force moves weight from the rear to the front and can, with some bikes, even lift the rear wheel off the ground, giving that wheel zero traction.

The best braking uses both, but with modulation taking into account what I’ve noted above.

You want to apply the brakes smoothly, not jamming on the front before the front suspension has settled just a tiny bit to put weight on the front wheel. Squeeze, rather than grab. If you just grab the front brake as hard as you can all at once, you can (not always, but can) stop the wheel from turning before the tire has attained the necessary weight for traction. If that happens, without ABS, you need to become your own ABS and modulate the pressure to get back some traction. Ideally, you would want to apply just a tiny bit of rear to settle the front down and then continue putting increasing pressure on the front until you’ve stopped. That ‘s the textbook way, but seldom is what actually happens in a panic stop on the street. Practice squeezing the front in a controlled fashion. I don’t care if you wear out a front tire in 1,000 miles practicing hard stops. Tires are cheap compared to the results of not knowing how to do this.

(To be continued)

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In the Beginning…

I’m 71 years old. I’ve owned more than 30 motorcycles and have ridden them, on and off road, more than a half million miles, by my own rough calculation. I have raced them on the streets, on drag strips, motocross tracks and competed in Observed Trials in several states and twice at the national level. I’ve ridden them in all but two of the continental US states and in 16 foreign countries, in both northern and southern hemispheres on both sides of the world. They have in many ways defined my life over six decades.

I first was exposed to such things by an accident of fate, by a whim of my brother Fred, eleven years older. I was a tow-headed kid in shorts and canvas tennis shoes, playing in the front yard when he pulled up on the black bike with the huge white seat. He had borrowed the British 500cc single from a friend as a lark and had come by the house to show Mom & Dad, but encountered me instead. He took me for a short ride and I can to this day, 60 years later, recall where on that brief trip I felt the change in me that would last a lifetime. It was like the tumblers of a lock finally receiving the correct key to turn them to their pre-set positions.

It would be several years before I could actually throw a leg over the saddle and operate the thing myself, but for those ensuing years I was motorcycle crazed, a pint-sized fanatic haunting the magazine stands in my little eastern Kentucky town for anything related to two wheeled motorized transport. I swiveled my head so often to follow a bike’s progress that I probably started then the neck arthritis that plagues me today. I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on, which wasn’t much in 1950’s eastern Kentucky. By accident of fate, the local newsstand in Ashland, a narrow corridor between two stores by the old Mayo Arcade, had in the back, near the magazines a kid my age wasn’t supposed to see, some issues of foreign motorcycle papers, the newsprint type things that were intended for local news in England among motorcyclists. I devoured those on the rare occasions they were available and began reading Floyd Clymer’s Cycle magazine. This one was a thin slick paper publication that reflected the interests (and prejudices) of its publisher, whom I later learned was a giant among the early US motorcycling scene. It featured mainly paeans to American brands, chiefly Harley Davidson, but also dabbled in some foreign makes as well. There seemed to be a requirement that ever so often a photo appear with Clymer performing his signature “riding while sitting backwards on the seat ” trick.

Then in 1962, a new publication appeared, Cycle World, published by Joe Parkhurst, and the horizon truly opened in front of me. This magazine covered everything related to motorcycles, everywhere in the world it was happening, or at least so it seemed to me at the time. There were articles about GP racing in Europe, bringing me names like Hailwood, Agostini, Read and Surtees, and about ice racing in Finland and speedway where alcohol-burning 500cc singles went round in circles with the back end passing the front, and about flat tracks and even road racing in my own country. There was something called Observed Trials that interested me from the first time I saw it in the magazine, though I wasn’t to experience it in the flesh for another 12 years.

The summer of my 14th year, Sears mo-peds began to appear in the ranks of people I knew. These were Puch 50cc motorcycles with bicycle-like pedals to start them and to assist when the little shot-glass sized piston just wasn’t enough to get it up the hill. In Europe, I’m sure these were used for family transportation and were taken somewhat seriously. Here, though, they were considered toys, sold by Sears through the catalog for boys like me to lust after. And lust I did. Steve McComas had one, a used-and-abused model his father had picked up somewhere. Then others appeared as if by magic and the teens who had one drew instant status and respect. I wanted the bike more than the status (though I’m sure the latter wasn’t entirely absent from my thinking…those girl creatures were beginning to become interesting, after all..) I pestered my parents as only a 14 year old boy can do and soon, they (well, my father mostly) relented. My dad was older than the parents of my peers, born not long after the beginning of the 20th century and 43 when I came along, closer to a grandfather’s age than a father’s in that era. He was the product of an eastern Kentucky family, a culture where boys operating machinery wasn’t a matter of when the law allowed, but when they were big enough to reach the controls. I found a used model appropriately cheap and then, simple as that, I arrived. I was a motorcyclist for real, not just in my fantasy-filled magazine reverie.

The little Puch served me well, introducing me to the principles of mechanics when the shifter cable mechanism required constant repair, the benefits of teamwork (getting 4 guys downtown with one moped) and to the law….since I didn’t have a driver’s license. I made my first court appearance, foreshadowing my later career, on driving without a license charges, and learned about the obligation of candor to the tribunal when the Police Court Judge asked me how long it was until my birthday. I told him it would be in just a few weeks, at which point he seemed inclined to cut me a break….then I added, “I’ll be 15″. Since this was still a year shy of the requirement for legal driving, he fined me and told me not to drive, but complimented me on my honesty.

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