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.


About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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