The Harley Experience

Why not a Harley ? The M 50;story followup.

A friend read my previous post about the M50 Harley-Davidson, actually an Italian Aermacchi, a company Harley bought in the 60’s in an attempt to broaden its appeal in the era of the Honda takeover of America. He seemed surprised that I had owned a Harley, even if one in badge name only, because he had only known me to like European, and the occasional Japanese, motorcycles.

Harleys seem to be a point of division in motorcycling with some riders feeling that they are the only “real” bikes worthy of consideration and others just as adamant that they are overweight, underpowered, anachronistic garage art, not suitable for riding other than down to the bar.

Neither of those attitudes has much traction with me.

(There have been lots of jokes about HD’s leaking oil, but as a past owner of several British bikes and an MG car, I cannot take a position against owning a leaker.)

In my early youth, I hung out at Jim Stewart’s Harley shop in Ashland, one of several teenagers who roamed tentatively around the edges like feral dogs at a Neolithic campfire, hoping for a scrap of motorcycling knowledge to be thrown our way. If I could have afforded anything Harley offered in its American built line back then, I’m sure I would have bought one. Even then, though, it would have been a Sportster, the lighter, more nimble bike with a spare, lean profile. I am drawn to that sort of thing, lightness and handling over huge displacement and weight, and that is what drew me into the European orbit from my childhood until now.

In my 50’s, Brenda and I made a trip to Las Vegas for a meeting I had to attend and while there, we rented a Harley Electra Glide for a few days of exploring around the western deserts. At the time, it was the only thing offered for rent in town and anyway, I wanted the experience.

We picked it up early in the morning at the lot outside of the Strip. It was an imposing thing, enormous and dark blue, with color matched saddlebags and a huge top box on the back. (Once years ago while I was riding through Tallahassee Florida, I encountered a man motoring through town on a similar bike with a full-size German Shepard, wearing goggles, sitting in bottom half of just such a top box). It had a wide “bat-wing” style fairing across the handlebars with speakers for the stereo system (an option that remained unused on our trip).

After clearing the city traffic, we headed for Red Rock Canyon as our first tourist spot. As we neared the park, I noticed that a large number of Harleys were converging on the road leading up to the visitors center, pulling off and parking in a line. We proceeded on to the Scenic Loop Road through the spectacular rock formations, with the winding low-speed park road providing me a good opportunity to get used to the weighty motorcycle. We left the park and headed back down to the highway, now seeing what appeared to be an endless line of Harleys of many styles, from cruiser to chopper, etc. parked along the shoulder, front wheels all turned the same way, obviously waiting for something. We reached the stop sign at the T-intersection and turned west….and I watched in my rear view mirror as the entire line of bikes began filing out behind us.

We proceeded on for a few miles, the long queue of motorcycles stretching out of sight in my mirrors, until I pulled off into a gas station. Several of the bikes came in with me and as I got off to pump our gas, one guy ran up to me asking where was the next stopping point. He seemed puzzled, then a bit miffed when I told him I had no idea, I wasn’t part of this group.

Freed of our tour-leading duties, we proceeded on for a few days, experiencing the Harley in the deserts (an excellent mount for cruising across the open flat country, the big V-Twin just loping along, completely unstressed), over the twisting mountain passes on old Route 66 through Oatman, AZ (heavy bike squirming on the the slippery tar snakes, wrestling around the tight switchbacks, rider somewhat stressed) and through Death Valley (iconic views and, in keeping with my superpower of bringing rain to any ride, a brief thunderstorm in one of the driest places on the continent ). The bike never faltered, didn’t leak oil, or at least not very much, and served as an extremely comfortable passenger accommodation for Brenda.

I enjoyed the experience. I can see the attractions, but they are not for me. Like golf, gin, and wearing ball caps backwards, it is one of those things that I understand other people like very much, but I just don’t feel the pull.

That does not mean that I think others shouldn’t enjoy them (well, maybe golf might be an exception), just please don’t make it a personal failing if I don’t share your particular form of the passion and I’ll do the same for you. I love motorcycling, it has been a constant, defining part of my life for nearly 60 years and I hope to keep doing it, in some form or another, as long as I am able. I like smaller, more nimble, purpose-focused motorcycles and the travel on and off road they allow me to do. And if you like something else, more power to you.

We motorcyclists have enough approbation from the non-riding public to sow such division within our own ranks.

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My son forwarded to me this ad from an auction site. He has heard many times, I’m sure, of the one like it that I once had.

When I was in high school, I owned one similar to this, but red and white, for a few weeks. I had taken it in trade for something and while attempting to sell it for some cash, I enjoyed riding it around our small home town. One morning as I was riding it to school, my friend George sped past me , pegs dragging the asphalt, as I turned right at a corner and disappeared in the distance on his Harley Sprint, this bike’s 250cc much bigger brother, painted in the same colors. Moments later, there was a police car with flashing lights behind me.

The exasperated officer berated me for running from him and announced more than once that he had clocked me at more than 50 mph in the 35 zone prior to the corner where George had passed me. It was immediately obvious to me that he had been pursuing George, not an unusual event in those days, and had mistaken me for his prey.

My protests of innocence were completely ignored for I was : A) a teenager, and B) one not unknown to the local constabulary in the context of motorcycle-related shenanigans.

At school, George found it much more amusing than I did, focusing on his eluding of his just desserts rather than them being served undeservedly to me. The fact that I too had often escaped consequences for similar infractions and outright stupidity did nothing to ameliorate my rage at such official treatment.

With the righteous indignation of youth, I was certain that this travesty of justice would be rectified and thus failed to mention to my beleaguered parents that the summons had occurred and made my way alone to the Police Court on the appointed day. I already knew the way there.

What transpired next was seen, by me on the day, as a triumph of planning and execution, a victory over “the man” who would try to oppress me. In hindsight, with some greater experience in the court system over many years of law practice, it actually was more a temporary amusement for the court personnel, a diversion from the routine.

In those days, before the unified court system was installed in the mid-70’s, police court was, I think, conducted by the County Judge who did not need to have any legal credentials for that position. I do not know if the one I appeared before had such training or if he (and they were pretty much all “he” in those unenlightened days) had his experience in the day-to-day political encounters of a small town.

I waited for my turn to be called and then approached the bench. The judge asked how did I plead and I launched into my impassioned explanation of what happened. I finished up by pointing dramatically at the window, saying that the bike was parked outside and if the officer could get it to go that fast, I’d gladly plead guilty and pay the fine. The judge sat for a moment, smiling pensively, and then told me I was free to go. Knowing what I know now, I’m sure that he and the others in the courtroom burst out into laughter as I closed the door behind me. I sold the M-50 a few days later for, I think, $100, not sufficiently prescient to predict today’s prices.

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Rt. 50 is one of the older highways in the American system, cutting across the country at about waist level. In the mountains of West Virginia, it offers that motorcyclist abundant curves, great scenery and lots of tiny towns to meander through on your way over to Front Royal where the Skyline Drive starts south to hook up with the Blue Ridge Parkway. About 35 years ago I was on my way there, riding my old BMW R90/6 on this road and stopped for the night at the little motel (now long gone, unfortunately) in Grafton West, Va. The next morning when I went across the street in the rain to the restaurant for breakfast, there was a new Honda Goldwing parked there with what appeared to be a large, very nice , suitcase, not of the motorcycle luggage variety, bungi-corded awkwardly to the seat. Inside I met a man in his later 50’s who told me over our eggs that he was a lawyer in Washington DC and a few weeks ago he had been sitting at his desk, immersed in the legal minutia of his profession when he suddenly realized how much of his life had gone by in just such labor. Though he was not a motorcyclist, he got up, left his office and walked down the street to a Honda dealer and bought the big Gold Wing, rode it home and there, to his wife’s consternation, packed up the suitcase and told her he’d be back “in a while”. He had been out west, into the the deserts and the mountains, had gotten wet and cold , overheated and felt the wind through his jacket. On this morning he was headed back home, presumably to finish the work he had left on his desk. I hope he still rides.

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Move It or Lose It

In the winter, people I encounter while riding my motorcycle often ask things like “aren’t you cold ?” and the classic “little coool out there, ain’t it ?”, which they deliver with that carefully long drawl that one might use with one who is too dim to know the dire fix he is in.

These questions are rooted in the curiosity about why someone would choose to ride a motorcycle when cars are ubiquitous and keep their users safer and conveniently climate-controlled. I get fed lots of theories, sometimes by folks who do ride, but mostly by ones who do not, about “wind in the face”, “thrills”, the ever popular “rebel”, “daredevil” and “death wish” and on and on. None of those are accurate. I have had people tell me that they have a convertible automobile, “which is just the same thing”. (I’ve had several convertibles : it isn’t).

The answer is “I ride because I have to.” When I was 10 years old, I took my first ride on the back of a motorcycle and the effect was instantaneous and permanent. I cannot imagine a life without doing it. It is what I do.

What it is, at its most elemental I think, is movement.

I am acquainted with a woman who climbs rockfaces, high in the air, hanging sometimes by her fingers. I’ve never asked her why, because I think I know. Several people in my circle fly airplanes, large and small. Others ride bicycles insane distances and in all conditions. And horses. And, and, and. It is, for all of us I think, movement of the body through space. The feel of it, the control of it, the pull it exerts on us, the physical need to have it.

When I am on a motorcycle, leaning into curves, tilting the horizon this way and that, I am at peace. Every sense is engaged, my attention fully occupied and my body is integrated into the machine. The bike is where I am comfortable. At my advanced age, a septuagenarian, sitting in a chair, standing at a counter, even walking, can be uncomfortable, often painful. But on a bike, I fit. My body settles into its familiar position (and that is, on the bikes I ride, the “ergonomic chair” arrangement where my feet are under my hips, spine straight, my weight on the ischial tuberosities, hands lightly on the bars with no grip needed to stabilize, rather than the “cruiser” style slouch, but that is a whole ‘nother article) and though sometimes there are pains and cramps I don’t really notice them. It is the movement, the gentle (or sometimes not) rocking back and forth of the turns, the rising and falling of the terrain, the feeling of everything that is out here with me, hot, cold, rain, snow, mist and fog. Back when I was young enough to ride at night, there was the experience of feeling the temperature drop as the bike descended into a dip and then increase again as we came out of it. The delicious reveal of the road ahead in the headlight’s beam with the next set of decisions to be made.

While I do enjoy the adrenaline hit of a well done curve at speed, speed alone isn’t a significant part of the experience. I’ve traveled at high speeds in a straight line on a racetrack and after the frisson of the first time, that isn’t exciting at all, it is the curves that count. I’ve gone 600 mph in an airliner and didn’t feel a thing. “Cheating death” is often offered, but that is not it in the least. While I agree with the sentiment expressed by Churchill when he said “nothing is quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result”, I certainly would not seek out such experiences. A leisurely ride down a country road also serves to quiet the craving.

In a car, enclosed in a steel box, I can be warm, dry, relatively “safe” and utterly, utterly bored.

In bad weather, cold, rain, even snow, the need for the movement continues. Like a caged animal needs to run, I need to feel the sensation of a motorcycle traveling from here to there. I ride with layers of clothes, heated gear and gloves, bundled up like an astronaut and just as awkward off the bike as they seem on an alien surface. But on the motorcycle, none of that is felt. Everything is in its place, doing what it should be doing and I am comfortable being me.

It is woven in the fabric of who I am. It is not all there is of me, but I would not be me without it.

if I could put it on a shelf when doing it is inconvenient, then perhaps I would…but I can’t.

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In January of 1977, the Ohio River froze over solid enough for cars to drive across. The mercury went down to 25 below zero that month, some of the coldest days on record in Kentucky. On one of those days, I and a dozen or so like minded souls were out in the woods in northern Kentucky, just a few miles from that frozen river, riding trials bikes in the snow.

We had Observed Trials competition events scheduled far in advance and more than a few in the winter because we were, for the most part, young men and therefore impervious to reason and any arguments that might keep us off of two wheels. In our minimal defense, this kind of weather was unusual to say the least and not in our contemplation when the competition schedule was drawn up in the spring.

So on that January weekend, we gathered at a place named “Rolling Hills” just south of Cincinnati. There was a small restaurant by a lake and beyond that, maybe a hundred acres of, well, rolling hills with trails meandering through the trees and rocky creek beds typical of the area. Around a loop, the organizers had devised trials sections to test the mettle of riders of varying degrees of skill.

But when we arrived that day, the extreme cold meant that none of the spouses and significant others who were to act as scorers for the sections wanted to spend the day freezing in the woods. So they passed the time in the restaurant, with the children who ordinarily would have been gamboling through the woods, while we few optimists/idiots mounted our bikes and charged into the snowy forest for a self scored event.

Coming prepared for competition, but not the weather, we wore thin leather gloves, ventilated trials helmets, jerseys and jeans. In minutes, we were freezing, but loath to admit it to each other until the crashes started. Combining youthful enthusiasm, iced over trails and cold-enhanced stupidity, bikes began falling with increasing regularity. Many of us had plastic “Preston Petty” fenders on our machines because they were indestructible…until the temperature got into the minus 20 range. These previously malleable fenders, which were so flexible one could tie them in a knot during summer temps, shattered like glass in the extreme cold. Somewhere in the rolling hills of northern Kentucky there are still fragments embedded in the dirt, probably being used as durable nesting materials by enterprising mammals and birds. I would later discover that, despite my firm belief in those days that I was invulnerable, I had frostbite on all of my fingertips, the effects of which would dog me for decades.

Somehow the plastic carnage managed to get through to us that this was a fool’s errand and we shivered our way back to the restaurant to join the smarter ones of our entourage for lunch in the warm. Children, however, having been confined inside, wanted to go out and play for a bit, soon returning with urgent news. A duck had frozen to the surface of the lake and was in acute distress.

A delegation was dispatched to assess the situation. The lake, like the river, was frozen solid and there was, indeed, a duck firmly attached to its surface. A very unhappy duck. Its billed companions had left it there, saying they had urgent business elsewhere, but would be sure to write. The bird had flapped his wings in a futile attempt at extraction until he was exhausted. We tried gently working fingers under his breast, to no avail. My son was sent back to the restaurant to fetch hot water, which we poured around the duck to loosen the grip. The cold was so severe that the hot water became ice almost immediately upon contact, offering us no help at all. Finally, when it appeared that the frantic fowl was fading fast, I reached as far as I could under the bird with my fingers and yanked.

The duck came free with a sound like industrial strength Velcro being ripped off a kettle drum and the bird’s surprised squawk still reverberates in my memory all these years later. He had a bare spot the size of a playing card on his breast, but he was too exhausted at that point to care.

The bird collapsed in my hands while I carried him back to the restaurant where it was warm inside. I sat him down on the floor. Within minutes, the duck was walking around the place, smacking his webbed feet on the hardwood, quacking indignantly at anyone he encountered, acting as if he owned the facility and why the heck were these people taking up his space ?

The human owner, a kind soul, assured us that the bird would be treated well and returned to the outside after the weather broke and he’d recovered. Still, I couldn’t resist the straight line when someone asked me later “how is the duck?”, so I replied “delicious”.

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Turn the Page

On this last day of 2019, listening to Bob Segar’s “Turn the Page”, with the lyrics ,

“On a long and lonesome highway, East of Omaha,

You can listen to the engine moaning out its one-note song,”

But your thoughts will soon be wandering,

The way they always do

When you’re riding 16 hours

And there’s nothing much to do

And you don’t feel much like riding,

You just wish the trip was through….”

I certainly have been on such a highway, east of Omaha, and I have spent more than 16 hours in the saddle on occasion. I know well the one-note song and my thoughts often wander….but I can honestly say that in 56 years of riding motorcycles, in all but two of the 49 continental states and in sixteen foreign countries, I have never once wished a trip was through. I can recall the occasional day that I was looking forward to its end, in an all day rainstorm, hail and once in a hurricane, when I knew I’d find a warm dry place to stay for the night. But not the trip. Never.

When I’m achy, tired, feeling my age, I can mount my bike and the old body settles into position and I don’t feel those things anymore. There still are pains, but they are way in the background, hardly noticeable behind all of the sensations provided by operating the motorcycle. Starting out on a morning without knowing where the day and the roads taken might lead, the optimism, is for me, the perfect place to be. Not exactly a time machine, but the years are much lighter on a motorcycle, going anywhere or nowhere in particular.

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Winter Respite Day

I rode up to Ashland on my motorcycle in December, one of those rare days in winter when a major weather change on its way here pushes warm clear air into our area for a single day. Like Brigadoon, a beautiful summers day suddenly appears out of the gloom and we know it will not be here for more than 24 hours. Well, always there is the wind, but we’ll take it anyway.

On my way back from a visit to my nephew’s house, I detoured off to Boy Scout Road , a winding blacktop ribbon that descends into a creek valley.

Off to the left, at the bottom of the descent, there is a subdivision of fine homes now, but when I was young there was only a dirt road that crossed the creek and wound up into the hills. I rode motorcycles in those hills nearly every weekend, year round, exploring the paths that now are paved roads and backyards. Usually I was alone, but I recall one cold, wet, winter afternoon when a friend came off his bike in the mud and launched the Triumph off the side of one of those trails. We watched as it crashed through the tops of pine trees on its way to the valley floor.

In my childhood, there were few homes along Boy Scout Road and the Boy Scout Camp for which it was named sat in the middle of its length. I spent many nights camped there in a canvas tent or on the floor in the rustic cabin that served as its headquarters. Across the road is the field, formed by the creek’s overflow through centuries, where formations were held, and in some of my best memories, night games commenced. We would play Capture the Flag in the field and surrounding woods. I recall vividly running through the woods in the dark, only moonlight for illumination, but feeling no particular limitation. Young eyes take in so much more light.

Just up the road is the sweeping curve where as a teenager in an old yellow MGA, I steered hard to make the aged rattletrap go around and heard a strange “plink, plink, plink” sound, like someone playing the high ends of a vibraphone. It was the spokes of the steering wheel, the ones that attached it to the column, breaking one by one with increasing rapidity until I was skidding, wheels locked, into the gravel shoulder holding the now separated wheel in my two hands, like some sort of character in a silent film comedy.

I meandered over to Rt. 168 where I could see the gas line and power line cuts which used to offer an opening for dirt bikes to go anywhere across several counties. Back then, in the days before everyone went offl-roading, they were unfenced, open from the two-lane blacktop and usually trimmed a couple of times per year so that the utility company employees could get to them in Jeeps or on foot. One was particularly challenging, requiring a rider to descend into a wide, deep ditch and then immediately ascend a steep rough slope to make it to the first leveled off spot where some degree of controlled riding could be attempted. On more than one occasion I had crashed badly enough in the effort to require riding home crookedly, holding bent bars, with my body sitting sideways on the seat to offset the damaged front end. But sometimes I made it and the ride the trail then offered was enough to keep me, like the lab rat that pushes the lever for a food reward, coming back.

There was the apple orchard, Pattons, along the way, a fall stop every year with my parents when I was small. We would get a crate of the red fruit to take home and I would stand watching the ancient wooden screw-type cider press in its brutal work of crushing apples into the brown, unfiltered juice which ran down a worn trough to fill glass gallon jugs. Back home, a drink of the fresh cider with its intense sweet flavor and slightly pulpy texture was close to nirvana, heightened by the smell of the apple pie Mom was baking for later. Dad liked his warm pie with a wedge of cheddar cheese, while I preferred ice cream. In my early teens, I used those glass jugs to siphon gas out of Dad’s car (the inevitable mouthful of gasoline was not nearly as tasty as the cider) on occasion to refill my moped enough to get it down to the Ashland station at the bottom of Gartrell hill. There, a couple of quarters would provide the necessary fill up for a weekend’s riding. The orchard is long gone now, replaced by a group of houses.

Up the road was the place where a work friend of my brother lived. It seemed that whatever device we needed, whatever service such as welding odd things together, could always be found there.

The drag strip was on Rt. 168, a roughly quarter mile straight marked off by a couple of faded paint stripes placed there long before my time by earlier teenagers eager to try their mettle against each other. Friends and I made countless passes down that strip on motorcycles and sometimes in cars, even though the four-wheelers meant that someone was in the wrong lane for the duration. The painted lines are gone now.

Near the end, before 168 joined Rt. 60, there was the house where I made the deal to purchase my Spanish branded motorcycle dealership in the early 1970’s. As grand as that sounds in this current time when motorcycle dealers are huge edifices stuffed with dozens or more shiny machines, mine began as a van load of miscellaneous parts in boxes, some parts books and manuals and the exchange of an amount of cash that even then wouldn’t have bought much of a used car. The two guys I was buying it from were only a little older than me, though by then much wiser in the ways of going broke in one’s passion. Later, I would tell myself it was much better to have done it and failed than to wonder in my old age what would have happened if I tried. I’m in my old age now and I still think that is correct.

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I wanted to do something sort of special to mark my graduation into the ranks of septuagenarians. The last couple of years leading up to that status had been pretty rough, with four significant surgeries in less than eighteen months, a substantial loss of my ability to walk and a shoulder repair that resulted in a partially paralyzed left hand. Things had been looking pretty grim, but a lot of work and many rehab sessions with some excellent physical and occupational therapists had produced considerable improvement and I was beginning to feel somewhat functional again.

Bicycling had been an interest of mine, though not exactly a passion. But now, with walking very much restricted, I needed to do something to keep moving, for exercise and to expend enough calories to accommodate my addiction to pie. I decided a few months before the big Seven-Oh that I would return to the Virginia Creeper Trail and do the whole thirty four miles at one go. I know that’s nothing for a dedicated bicycle person, but for me, it seemed a challenge and an attainable goal for the purpose. I had done the Trail three times before, years ago, with friends and family but in two day halves, going down from Whitetop Mountain to Damascus one day and then the next, from Abingdon to Damascus to complete the journey. There are shuttle companies there that make that sort of thing easy. This time, a few days after my milestone birthday, I would get a shuttle from the Abingdon end to Whitetop and ride back to my truck.

On the day, I left my motel room and drove to the little park where the trail begins or ends, depending on your direction and waited for the shuttle driver. He took me and my bike to Damascus where I boarded another van with nine others for the long winding trip up the mountain to Whitetop. Dropping us off there at 9:45 on this cold morning, with a light misty rain starting, the driver told us that if we really wanted to do the entire length, we would need to go seven tenths of a mile in the other direction to the actual beginning and start from there. The rest of the shuttle passengers headed down the trail while I and a young couple from North Carolina took his advice, heading the opposite way along a muddy track that looked as if it had seen little traffic lately. We ducked under some fallen trees, skirted a few mud holes and finally came to a road that seemed to be the end of the trail. The only avenue across the road was someone’s gravel driveway, marked by a mailbox. We had thought there would be something more to mark it, but this was it. As we started back, we came to a stone marker, visible from this direction, indicating a half mile. The young couple went on at their quicker pace, leaving me alone as I had wanted it. This was to be, in my mind, a solitary endeavor.

This was what I had envisioned, a day by myself on the trail without anyone else’s schedules or needs to consider. It had been several years, but it came back to me quickly that I really loved being out in the woods on a bicycle. The quiet, the calm, the peace of the forest though it’s a cliche, is true.

The rain stayed with me, intermittent, all the way down to Damascus. Never really enough to get very wet, but enough to be on my glasses and make me cautious for slippery patches.

The first 17 miles of this trail are downhill, sometimes fairly steep, and on this day, muddy. There are rocks and roots and holes, enough to keep my street bike, with its lack of suspension and skinny tires, jolting the whole time. The trick is to stand on the pedals, balancing your weight and like riding a dirt motorcycle, keep nearly no pressure on the grips, holding on just as lightly as possible while maintaining contact with the bike, two fingers on the levers.

Once in a while I would hear a clatter behind. me and a young person or couple would call out “On your left” and fly past, confident in their strength and reflexes, unworried about any consequences of a fall. I remember being like that.

Sun broke through the overcast intermittently as the elevation decreased and the trail leveled out, requiring a bit more pedaling. . By late morning, I had come out of my jacket and stashed it in the little backpack brought for that purpose. Near noon, I stopped for lunch at the crossroads in Taylor Valley, the Va Creeper Cafe, where I got a “super foods salad” and, there being no pie, their “famous chocolate cake”, a bottle of water and a cup of coffee. Smokers had gathered inside, so I ate on the porch, holding down my paper plate from the light wind.

I rolled into Damascus at about 12:30 and went to Sundog to drop off payment for my morning shuttle. To straighten out my legs and back a bit, I wandered around their extensive shop, perusing the various bike-specific goodies on offer, but being a less than Really Serious Biker, I didn’t find anything I needed enough to have to carry in my pack. I backtracked to the little restaurant/bakery and ice cream shop on the east side of Damascus for a snack but since my last visit here, the place has been sold to the Damascus Brewing company and made into a restaurant with beer and sandwiches but no pie and no ice cream.

On the other side of town the trail changes character for a while, running beside the highway for a bit before ducking down again to stay by the Holsten River. There are rapids at various points, so raucous that I can hear the whitecaps before I see them. There are more riders here, probably because this portion is flat and connects the two towns of Damascus and Abingdon. A few miles from town I meet a woman, head down and riding hard, coming the other way, who frantically flags me down. She is so tired that she drops the bicycle when she stops. Breathlessly she tells me that “two couples from Kentucky” had encountered a black bear in the road, standing up on its hind legs, and that the big animal had then run over the embankment toward the water and, of course, the Trail. She gasps at me to “go the other way, fast”. I look at her and she at me, there’s a long pause and then she says quietly, “you’re going on, aren’t you ?”, and I reply “yes”. She shakes her head slowly and gives me the “lost cause” look that I am so familiar with, and resignedly picks up her bike to pedal off.

Since I am here writing this, you may assume that there were no marauding bears to challenge for the trail ahead. I did feel the need to tell the few other riders, as they came up from behind, that I had been warned. They, like me, went on. One girl said, laughing, “I need more information !” I told her others had gone ahead of her and most likely the bear had eaten them instead.

Nearing Abingdon, the trail widens and becomes a steady, very slight, uphill just enough to require pedaling, but not much effort. The beautiful wooden bridges, some curving with the old railroad path over the wide rocky stream are more frequent now. Sometimes as I approach one, the afternoon sun now bringing out the soft colors of the yellowing grass, the water glinting and a barn off in the distance, it seems too perfect, a picture postcard or a Disney cartoon. As Queen put it, “is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?” There are benches in the shade at various points now and I stop at one to rest a bit and just take in the scenery. I’m eating an energy bar when a chipmunk pops up from the grass across the trail. I flip him the remainder of my snack and get back on the bike.

A few miles from the end the trail runs behind the suburban houses, causing me to wonder what it’s like to live in a house with this marvelous place across the back fence. Would I, if I lived here, get jaded to it, not come out here anymore ?

I reached my truck at the Abingdon end at 3;41 PM, having started at 9:45 that morning. My bike speedometer/computer on the handlebar says my actual time rolling was 4 hours and 30 minutes and, including my backtracks and detours, a bit over 37 miles. As I’m loading the bike into my truck, a couple arrives to unload theirs. They aren’t going far, they say, just spending a little time there to unwind. I have to agree it’s good for that.

Back at my motel, I’m tired but not as much as I thought I would be. I decide to celebrate with a dinner at the Tavern, an historic restaurant near the downtown. I’m escorted to the balcony overlooking the courtyard and provided with a fine meal while I watch the couples dining al fresco below. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Then the bill comes and I realize that my wallet is still in the little pack I had used on the trail, safely ensconced back in my motel room. Welcome to my 70’s !

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Just like us…

For centuries, many people believed that animals, like dogs, had no feelings, no independent thought, and some even believed against all evidence that they didn’t feel pain. They were, in this system, automata, living but unfeeling machines. Some religious groups still, I am told, subscribe to that notion, despite its obvious falsity. One needs only to spend a little time around any of the animals we are accustomed to sharing our lives with to know the difference.

An anecdote on point.

Simon, the adopted poodle,  spent the last four years of our cat Diana’s life with her as a constant presence in his world. She tolerated him, played with him when it suited her and generally ignored him when it didn’t. He seemed to think that he was the dominant member of the pair, though clearly he was not. By her own choice, she lived in our heated garage, away from the house, with several heated beds, food and water and her litter box. I would put her up at night, to protect her from coyotes (or, knowing Diana’s absolute confidence, to protect them from her) and each morning Simon would lead me to the garage and bark for me to open the door and let her out. We would go in and she would pad down the stairs from the upstairs bed she preferred, jump up on my workbench to get petted and a few treats, and then she and Simon would exit together to start a new day. A few months ago Diana’s end time came, from old age, and we had her put down.

Now I am not one to overly ascribe human characteristics to animals, nor do I believe in magic or other unexplainable phenomena. I can only report that from the time I came home from the necessary but awful trip to the vet, Simon would not go in the garage. He did not bark at the door and if I opened it to go in for my own business, he would not follow unless I firmly called him in. Even then, he would not go into the separate shop portion where the workbench is.

Then a few weeks ago, four months after Diana’s death, Simon suddenly started going back out to the garage in the morning and barking to be let in. He went in the shop and stood at the base of the stairs, looking up, apparently waiting to hear Diana’s feet hitting the floor above. When nothing happened, he would look at me, look up at the empty workbench and then, seeming deflated, walk out of the garage. Now he still does it, but his time at the foot of the stairs is shorter, his glance at the workbench is brief.

I cannot explain rationally his refusal to enter the garage after the time of her death nor can I explain why, after a gap of four months, he suddenly began expecting her to have returned.

I do not claim to know what goes on in a dog’s mind, but I think I do know from the evidence in front of me that definitely they have one and that it is active in trying to understand the world they live in and the creatures they share it with. I know without a doubt they feel happiness, they feel a form of sadness, and it is beyond cavil that they feel pain, both physical and psychological. If one can define so broad a concept as “love”, they feel that as well by nearly any definition.

Simon is our pet, he is a cute little dog whose antics amuse us on a daily basis and yes, on occasion he can be a bit of a nuisance when he insists on our changing our plans to meet his desires of the moment, though we do it gladly. But he also is an independent creature in this world, making sense of it the best way he can, with the information that he has, doing what must be done so that his needs are being met in the situation he is in….in other words, doing exactly the same thing we humans, and every other animal in the world, are doing every day.

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We live in an old farmhouse surrounded on 3 sides by open land. Mice live here on this land, as they have done for probably thousands of years. The “foundation “ of our house is stacked limestone rock, leaving lots of mouse-size holes giving the furry little guys easy access. .

In my garage, away from the house, I have stored in the rafters, about seven feet off the floor, a variety of things that I hope to someday find a good use for, including several lengths of leftover plastic electrical conduit (basically plastic pipe) some of which are 2 inches in diameter and perhaps 5 or six feet long. One recent day I did think of a need for some and went to pull down a piece…getting showered by several cups of seed hulls, a double handful of shredded insulation and I am sure, a great quantity of mouse poop. I wasn’t happy, but I had to stand there for a moment, looking around the space, marveling at the ingenuity and persistence of the residents. To accomplish this, the mouse had to find the stuff, carry it from its location into my garage, go up a concrete block wall to the rafters, walk across the rafter to where the pipe was located (remember, he or she had to have located it first and identified it as a good homesite) then crawl out several feet on the rounded, slick plastic surface and go over the end of the pipe from the top to the inside, all without losing the cargo being carried. And, being mouse-sized, the extent of cargo carrying is limited to what can fit in the mouth, so all of this stuff required many, many trips back and forth. The seeds are outside at the bird feeder, about 60 feet from the garage, the insulation is, or was unfortunately, in the walls of my house a bit farther on, so each round trip was about 120 feet or more. For a creature that is about an inch and a half long (not including the tail of course) I make a generous assumption of an individual stride of about a half inch. Covering 120 feet each trip is nearly 3000 steps, which for me, with an average stride of a bit over three feet is equivalent to about one and seven tenths miles, give or take, assuming the mouse makes a bee line each time. Imagine if you had to walk nearly two miles carrying each item you bring home from the grocery (not bag, each individual item) including climbing up a wall and shinnying across the rafters and then ducking inside a pipe from the top, and then do it again until you had brought home enough stuff to make a place and a food supply for your family. Very impressive little critters.

One of my core principles is that killing another creature never should be the first option. We live-trap them when they get in the house and carry them across the creek up into the field where they can go about their business until they find a way back in. They live out there all summer and try to re-establish residency in the house when the weather turns cold

So I will continue the battle each year with an adversary that makes up for its small brain by using all of the other assets it has, not the least of which are ingenuity and persistence. And someday I will be gone from here and they will win, as ingenuity and persistence always does.

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