Too bad motorcycle riding doesn’t begin with a guarantee of assistance, reassurance, nor absolution.
Many riders who routinely traverse the country, or the globe, are accustomed to carrying the majority of their foreseeable needs in saddle bags, top cases, and tank bags. They are their own assistance. But solo riding mile-after-mile also forces an individual to take stock of what’s in his or her mind and heart. I have discovered that solitary riding offers a unparalleled opportunity to think of things I will write and say; words that I should have written and said; and thoughts that should never have been expressed considering the hurt they caused or other consequences they spawned. Riding alone over long distances requires that you be comfortable with yourself. It can set your emotions free, and from time to time, the demons too.
The taillight competing with broad daylight on the road ahead of me belonged to Ricky Matz, one of five lifelong friends from high school. There was a time when Ricky was only one of two other people I knew who rode motorcycles. Two years later (1976), we rode our bikes into a remote part of backwoods America, where Ricky hooked me up with “Laura The Animal,” a perfectly proportioned woman built on the scale of the Stature of Liberty.
My old pal from high school Ricky Matz, on his new Yamaha FJR1300, which
replaced the Honda in this story. Note Ricky's expression matches the one on his bike.
(Photo courtesy of Rick Matz -- Click to enlarge.)
There was considerable evidence that Laura had been raised in the wild and that I was the first human she had ever seen. According to Ricky, she could use her lips to remove the fur from a rabbit. I assumed this was a euphemistic way of expressing that my luck had changed. Then I discovered Laura carried a wallet made from a pelt that she had chewed off a rabbit earlier in the day. She had a good heart though, and had let the rabbit go after she gotten its hide.
Ricky had been with me most recently (2006) in Maggie Valley, North Carolina for my first participation in an event known to the biker elite as “The BuRP Rally.” (BuRP is an an acronym that stands for the “Blue Ridge Parkway, and You.) It was a long distance run for me, about 425 miles, as I was coming from the Philadelphia area. (The details of the BuRP Rally are presented in previous installments of this blog, generally preceded by the word, “chapter.” There were six in all.) But very little of the ride down counted as solo mileage. I had been escorted by Wayne Whitlock and his wife Lucy for all but 150 miles of the way.
The ride home would be a different story.
Now many of you routinely ride much greater distances than this by yourself -- and under very challenging circumstances. BMW riders openly laugh at 425 miles and will spit in my coffee if given the opportunity. This distance is nothing to Mac-Pac riders like Edde Mendez (Morocco to Philly by heading east -- 39,000 miles in 11 months), or Doug Raymond (Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Circle in Alaska from Philly and back n 13 days), or Kimi Bbush (a Red Butt ride of 1000 miles in 19 hours), or the Sorensens (Philly to Colorado in two and a half days), or Jim Robinson, who does 700 miles a day with his eyes closed (which explains his injuries). But it was a long ride to me: an overweight, shapeless, damp Wonder Bread-kind of re-entry rider, who had originally begun this trip swearing not to ride in the dark, on the interstates, nor in the rain.
On this occasion, the farthest I had ridden was 225 miles in a day, under the watchful eye of my friend Wayne, on this very trip!
I’d had to leave the BuRP rally early to guarantee I’d make the BMW Motorcycle Owners of Americas’ rally in Burlington, Vermont later that same weekend. Plagued by vicious arthritis in my knees plus the fact that my bike was an 18-year-old BMW K75, I was giving myself plenty of time to get home. Ricky had recently moved to Erwin, Tennessee and was riding point with me as far as Johnson City in that same state.
Riding a motorcycle on the sweepers of Interstate 26 through North Carolina and Tennessee was the closest I have ever come to hang gliding along the ground. The scenery is much better than you would expect from a super-slab. The road surface was superb and the traffic below Johnson City was non-existent on a July weekday morning. Ricky is an excellent rider and tends to hold the needle at 70 mph, or so. (He has an allergy to cops.) Those gently sweeping curves dove into valleys like dive bombers and exited the far end in breathtakingly graceful parabolas. The few trucks we passed were spouting black rage like steam locomotives or giving off vapors of regret from red hot brakes.
Ricky was mounted on a huge 18,000cc Honda cruiser. Having more than double the cc’s and an additional 200 pounds in iron and chrome gave him a whopping 20 horsepower advantage over my vintage bike. This meant he had to downshift less (the exhausting process by which one moves the left foot an inch or two in conjunction with squeezing the left hand) on 80 miles of hills. Ricky’d covered the Honda’s chrome headlight and handlebars with green electrical tape to cut back on the glare that was frying his eyes by coming up underneath his sunglasses. His machine ate the mountains effortlessly. My aging K75 (Blue Balls, with the Sprint Fairing) followed like a Messerschmidt with a boner. Its distinctive BMW whine was loud in my helmet (though not as loud as one of Laura’s whispers), but there was no vibration in my handlebars, a claim my riding partner couldn’t make.
We passed Ricky’s town, Erwin (named after the great Confederate General Erwin Corey), and pulled over for lunch at a chain restaurant in Johnson City. I dawdled over southern fried something, hush puppies, French fries, and a fried quart of sweet tea. Kidding myself that I was savoring the air conditioning, I knew I was just putting off the final segment of an adventure in which I would be my own company for the next 450 miles.
Stepping back out into the tropical heat of the parking lot, the sweat I had saved by sitting in the air conditioning gushed through my pores, gluing my cheap Icon Gear mesh jacket to my bloated frame. Two ravens and a vulture were sitting on my bike. A black cat ran between my legs and a hag believed to be one of the harpies from the opening scene of “MacBeth” let out a cackle.
“Have a good ride back,” said Ricky, extending his hand.
I have often remarked that farewells in motion are the best, but they never do justice to the occasion. It was a difficult left turn out of the parking lot onto a service road, and I caught a glimpse of Ricky tossing me a wave, or the middle finger, and he evaporated in traffic. A sharp right brought me back to I-26 and the reality of dueling with heavy truck traffic.
There was no bullshit here. I opened up the throttle and went left. My arthritis clock was ticking and the purpose of taking the slab was to generate maximum miles in minimum time. By the time I’d hit I-81, I’d had already gone more than 100 miles since leaving Maggie Valley, and hadn’t even put a dent in this trip yet.
There is some element of competition when you ride with a pal. The terms of that competition vary. It may have to do with a little line dancing or it might it just be in matching riding styles. The freedom from having to keep up with a leader, or watching out for the guy behind you, lets your mind free to wander somewhat -- when you are not absolutely focused on the road. And it does seem as if you develop a sixth sense that watches the road.
It was 1pm and I had a dream of doing 450 miles in this one day. I envisioned the way my club -- the dreaded Mac-Pac -- would look at me in admiration, and how some women would lift up their tops as I walked with a swagger. That reverie was shattered by a stone that landed dead center on the top of my helmet. It was like having a shotgun go off in your head, without having it come apart. I went into the first rest area on the interstate to check the damage to my helmet. The Nolan had come through without a chip or a scratch. Quite frankly, I expected to find it cracked. Had the helmet been a windshield, I’m sure it would have broken. I couldn’t help but think what could have happened to someone if they had been riding helmet-free.
This was one of my surviving wedding pictures.
Here my mother-in-law (front) delivers her daughter to the church.
(Photo courtesy of the Auto-Da-Fe -- Click to burn her at the stake.)
The summer heat settled like a mother-in-law’s curse. Trucks were running in herds on I-81, adding to the heat and stirring it. The line of my upper lip acted like a gutter, channeling sweat from my face to the corners of my mouth. I stopped at every rest area, averaging 50 to 60 miles between stops, buying water and cold diet soda (rich in phosphates and neutronium). While it felt good to extend my legs, getting on and off the bike was becoming painful. I realized there was a finite number of mounts and dismounts I could expect of these tortured knees. (These were the days when I was walking without a cane.)
This K75 was my beloved “Blue Balls,” which sported the rare Sprint fairing. It lent a very distinctive look to a bike that started out as ugly as a bowling shoe. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t taking a large degree of pride in pulling up to these rest areas on a feisty, 18-year-old German whirlwind. I was basking in that pride when a guy parked next to me someplace in Virginia. He was riding a fire engine-red 1986 Honda, also in mint condition.
My Beloved Blue Balls -- RIP, 1986 K75 with Sprint Fairing
(Photo by Leslie Marsh -- Click to enlarge)
He was a nice guy and made a big deal over my bike, which sentiment I was forced to return, despite the fact he had just unintentionally shit all over my parade.
“Where did you start out from today,” he asked.
I phrased my answer in such away as to pack a little extra punch in each word.
“Well, I had breakfast in North Carolina this morning and swung up this way through Tennessee.”
“Wow,” he said, enthusiastically! “I had my breakfast yesterday in Houston.”
“The Houston that is in Texas,” I queried.
“That’s the one!”
Why is it that every time I get comfortable thinking something, some son of a bitch shows up with something else that is either bigger or longer than mine?
This guy and I played tag for the next three hours pulling in and out of various rest stops. He took off at one where I couldn’t ride the bike right up to the soda machine, and so I spent some time sitting at a picnic table, smoking a cigar that had the same approximate dimensions as a bus muffler.
It was here that a small child pointed at me, saying to his mom, “Look how fat that man is!”
This hell-spawn’s mother glanced at me and replied, “Don’t say that, Beau. Fat people don’t like to be told how fat they are.”
I almost called after them, “And your mom’s huge quivering ass qualifies her as an expert on the subject.”
Miles filtered through the odometer like grains of sand passing through the hour glass at the Inquisition. It had just scored a total of 310 miles for the day, when I decided I’d had enough. I checked into a motel that had a little chain restaurant in front, with the rooms in a separate building about three hundred feet behind. My only requirement was a room on the first floor with parking outside the door. Imagine my surprise to find the Honda on the centerstand in the space next to mine.
Such was my fatigue, however, that dinner was three cans of Diet Coke from the vending machine and a pint of rum from my saddle bags. I never left the room once my boots were off. (I got the soda in my bare feet.)
The rain hitting the window was my wake-up call early the next morning. Every part of my body was stiff but one. A glance out the curtains revealed the Honda was gone. I opted not to ride in the rain, but to hook up my computer and spend the day working from the hotel. The possibility that my decision not to ride was somehow connected to an inner fear troubled me. I rode the bike down to the restaurant for breakfast, noting the spray coming off the front wheel. The road was wetter than the atmosphere, which was starting to lighten up.
The rain stopped in the early afternoon, and despite the grayness of the day, I opted to get on the road. This was a big deal for me. I generally give riding the pass if there is even a remote chance of getting caught in bad weather. But I felt so eager to be on the road that I knew luck would be with me. (It was, but it wasn't the sort of luck you can do much with.) “Blue Balls” blew into a heavy drizzle an hour later, and slid like a greased turd when I pulled up at a gas pump. That was a clue I had missed.
Sooner or later, you just make the decision to deal with things. I decided not to try and squeeze into rain gear that would be ghastly hot. It was very warm in the breeze at 65 mph and the road spume actually felt good. I pulled into one rest area with the rain at its peak and found a guy on a magnificent K1200GT with a custom trailer in tow. He was on his way to the BMW Rally in Vermont.
“Me too,” I said.
He looked very skeptical, as if a three-legged stool had announced it was going to do an oil painting. “Where’d you start from,” this bastard asked.
“Houston, two days ago... The one in Texas," I added for emphasis.
The sun came out just before I hit Maryland, and I was dry as I crossed the Hagerstown line. I was home three hours later. Those two days had been the longest I had ridden alone in 25 years. On that ride, I thought of the following:
• Three past girlfriends, what they looked like naked, and where they were at that moment.
• How Charles Lindbergh once figured out how many times his engine fired in an hour, and how many times it had to fire to get him to Paris. West Chester isn’t Paris, but as far as I’m concerned, it amounted to the same thing. I gave up trying to make other calculations when I hit 16,000,000.
• Clever things I could have said to each of those three women once I realized they would never lay me again.
• That I had never consciously looked at the bearings in the steering head (after swerving around a truck).
• My life in general.
• What it would have been like to have all three of those women together, slathered with warm Crisco.
• Clever tstatements that all ended with “Shove it up your ass,” to a former client.
• How I could afford a new BMW K1200GT?
• What this story would look like if I ever wrote it?
• How the woman in the car I just passed would look naked?
• Would I really feel like meeting Mack Harrell the next day and riding to the BMW Rally in Vermont as planned?
The one thing that I wasn’t thinking about was that I had over 10,000 miles on those damn Metzlers. And boy did that come back to haunt me in Vermont!
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2009
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)