Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Flashback 1975: Kick Starting True Romance

The girl was a stunner.

Long blonde hair cascaded from her shoulders to the middle of her back. She was an Italian beauty with skin the color of honey. I’d met her on campus in an advanced writing/communications course, where I was the only freshman in a class developed for juniors. She was two years older than me and the captain of the equestrian team. Her name was Roxanne, and she did for jodpurs what liquid rocket fuel did for the US space program.
Jodpurs-all the right gear, all the time

Besides myself, there were 25 other dim bulbs in this class of literary aspirations. It didn’t matter that I was an unpublished smart ass, who delivered opinions faster than Dominoes delivered pizzas. I still figured I could be a rising star. My first opportunity came when the instructor challenged me to critique the work of another student before the group. I took a breath, glanced around, and started critiquing with a chainsaw. Three minutes later, the deed was done and severed body parts were twitching on the floor. The venerable instructor agreed with my points. And when the class had ended, this blonde came up to me and said:

“I helped that guy write that story. You’re an asshole.”

Some men have great smiles. Other men have bodies like tanned iron. I have a line of bullshit as wide as an airport runway. I’ll take it over the other two every time. Coupled with my patented “clubbed baby harp seal look," it used to deal me into some pretty good games.
The patented baby harp seal look

Here it was two months later, and this same Italian beauty was straddling the back of my 1975 Kawasaki H2 750 Triple, on her way to spend a night camping in Harriman State Park, some 60 miles away. All I could think of was, “The baby harp seal is not clubbed in vain.”

The 1975 Kawasaki H2 750 Triple remains one of the most primitive and savage machines in biking history. It had the the hurriedly copied lines of a standard British bike and all the mechanical finesse of a chipper. The oil was injected into the cylinders from a tank under the seat and it usually started on the second kick. The choke was a lever on the handlebars, which beat reaching down to find a button somewhere under your balls. It was my first bike, and I had had nothing to compare it with. So it was fantastic.
1975 Kawasaki 750 Triple

The machine was light, powerful, and quick. You could snap your neck or slide right off the seat in four gears. But that two-stroke engine sounded like a lawnmower on steroids and it went everywhere in a cloud of smoke. It had a suspension that made a rough road feel like getting laid on hard ground over a thin sleeping bag. And since that was my weekend objective for most of the time I owned the bike, what was there to complain about?

The only accessory I could afford to put on this bike was a sissy bar and a pad. This kept “Roxanne,” and other women who came later, from becoming the unintentional slide victims of fast starts. It also served as an anchoring point to which camping gear, such as I had, could be secured. On this trip, we carried a cheap tent, a sleeping bag, a blanket, and a plastic bottle filled with vodka and cranberry juice. Nothing but the absolute essentials.

It was after rush hour when we pulled away from the curb, in Rutherford, NJ, on a clear Friday night in late May. We had dinner in a steak joint and roared onto Route 17 at dusk. (It wasn’t really a roar. It was more like, “Yinnnnnnngggggg Ying Ying Yingggggggggggg!”) Traffic was murderous on this road 35 years ago. Yet at 18, I didn’t give it a second thought. Three of the world’s first malls were at the confluence of Rt. 4 and Rt. 17, in Paramus, NJ, which lent a warm, grindhouse atmosphere to the 20 or so feeder ramps that a rider would encounter in that two-mile stretch. (I understand it’s worse now.)

Two-up on a short wheelbase with gear loaded high gave the bike a slightly top-heavy feel that was easily overcome by twisting the throttle. I twisted it all the way up to the New York/New Jersey State line. The terrain changed abruptly at the border. Rt. 17 was a much nicer road in New York. It followed the Ramapo River through the old town of Sloatsburg, which still had a strong sense of independent character in those days.

Seven Lakes Drive -- the entrance to Harriman Park -- loomed on the right, but I didn’t take the turn. The next town up the line is Tuxedo, which was once the home of an exclusive club whose members popularized a certain kind of formal evening suit. My immediate destination was just on the other side of town. The “Red Apple Rest” was an incredible combination of New York City deli and ice cream stand. Buses were welcome. Bikes were welcome. Hell, train crews from the Erie Lackawanna, whose tracks ran in back, were welcome. It was a great place to stop for coffee, or a drink, as this joint had a bar and the drinking age in New York was 18 at the time.
Legendary Red Apple Rest

I had a rye and ginger, made by an ancient barman who regarded my drinking at his bar as the end of civilization. Roxanne used the last flush toilet she would see for 14 hours. I was always amazed how every eye in the place followed her wherever she moved. (Please see jodpurs above.)

Fifteen minutes later, we turned onto Seven Lakes Drive. The high beam pierced the darkness like a stiletto. The quivering light cast interesting shadows and converted the road into a black and white movie. I slowed to 50 miles per hour, never giving a second thought to the legions of deer that move about this place. This road was initially put through just prior to the first World War, and the few intersections are marked with tight little traffic circles. Several of these are covered with grass. In daylight, I would be able to see tire marks bisecting a couple of these islands, where motorists had been taken by surprise.
One of many beautiful views on Seven Lakes Drive

I have always been amazed by the smells one encounters while riding a bike. There was absolutely no traffic on this particular evening, and the aroma of cooked motor oil was strictly behind me. We plunged through the scent of balsam and pine, the cool aroma of little glades that quickly gave up the heat of the day, and places where new growth was sprouting on the sides of the road. And all of this had to be taken by sense of smell, as it was in the dark.

I was looking for a driveway off to the right, just opposite Narrow Lake, and before the old Silver Mine Ski area. There used to be a huge paved lot that is now blocked off by boulders. The lot could easily hold four hundred cars and I could never understand why it was built. It was also about 15 feet below the grade of the road.

Turning into the lot was almost anticlimatic. There is something about a great little ride that causes one to regret its conclusion regardless if something equally nice is at the other end. I knew this lot well and drove to a copse of trees in the far corner. This was not a legitimate camping area. The bike snarled its way through the brush into a small clearing and I killed the engine.

We set up the spartan tent in the glare of the headlight. It was a $20 Canal Street special without a floor. I methodically spread a ground cloth, tightened the guy lines (such as they were), and tended to the bike while Roxanne spread out the sleeping bag and the blanket. There were no bugs and no threat of rain. Nevertheless, the tent had a distinct $20 look to it, and sagged like Nixon’s popularity. I ran two other lines from the top of each pole to a nearby drooping branch.

“Where’s the vodka,” asked Roxanne sweetly, from inside.

I opened the tent with the bottle, and the light from the headlamp illuminated her naked form, outlining her curves and creating enticing pools of shadow. Laughing, I switched off the headlight and drank in the night air. It is amazing how the perfume of a woman’s body is just the right compliment for the scent of balsam, pine, wild flowers, new growth, and vodka. It pretty much goes with everything.

Looking back at something I learned in grade school, my mind stumbles across the four food groups. I forget what they actually are, but I can tell you what they should be: a good motorcycle, a nice stetch of road, a naked woman, and a well-mixed cocktail. You may dispute this until you are blue in the face, or even add conditions, but you will not be able to improve upon my basic formula.

Everything comes to an end. The wind picked up towards dawn and the trees around us started to protest. There was a crack and a heavy branch tumbled. It was the branch I had guyed the tent poles to. Did you ever see one of those stunts where the waiter pulls the tablecloth from a fully set table without disturbing the plates, glasses, or silverware? Well this was a variation on that theme. The branch tumbled down a little hill, and took the tent with it.

It can be argued that naked women may look great wearing only the light from a bike’s headlamp... But they look pretty good in the plain light of dawn too, even as they scramble in the brush for clothing.

Jack Riepe
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Delphi)
PS (With A Shrug)
© Copyright 2008 Jack Riepe -- All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 28, 2008

My Failed Perception As A Sensitive Writer

Dear Esteemed Friends and Colleagues:

I read and carefully reread the book -- "The Perfect Vehicle... What Is It About Motorcycles?" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, and reviewed it on my blog. (Please see the previous story.) This was a legitimate attempt to deliver a useful article, that had something of value to the serious motorcycle rider.

It fell on its ass.

One anonymous reader commented that if they had known that I could write with this degree of sensitivity, we would have parted company years ago. There is a possibility that Leslie (my girlfriend who is currently keeping me on "double secret probation") left this comment. Two other reader comments dealt primarily with Ms. Pierson's opposition to the stance taken by the "Show Us Your Tit's" crowd.

Considering the poor reception this legitimate review drew from the general public, I am going back to writing true accounts of riding my bike through saloon windows, and waking up the next morning with topless dancers in wading pools filled with Jello.

It would appear that people who know me fully understand the depth of this sincerity business as far as I am concerned. The next story on my blog will be how a 1975 Kawasaki 750 became the ultimate sexual attractant for a beautiful woman who should have known better. The title of the piece at the moment is, "Disillusionment Comes With A Triple Exhaust."

The comment section on this blog has been adjusted to accept comments from all, including anonymous sources.

My new post will be up tomorrow, Tuesday, January 29, 2008.

Sincerely (Or Otherwise)
Jack Riepe
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Delphi)
PS (With A Shrug)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book Review

The Perfect Vehicle, What Is It About Motorcycles
Melissa Holbrook Pierson
(W.W. Norton and Company, 240 pages, $15.95)
My rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

There is a strong possibility that Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s work, “The Perfect Vehicle, What Is It About Motorcycles,” may also be the most perfect book on motorcycling. It is complex in content and delivers a sophisticated message that will not appeal to all. Yet there is a rare intimacy in its complexity that makes a certain kind of reader/rider feel as if they are party to a private conversation. The 240-page work is part history and part diary; part editorial and part ride report; part love story and part Greek tragedy (in which one character is left standing, surrounded by heartbreak but definitely wiser -- a number of times).
Melissa Holbrook Pierson
photo by Jenna Knudsen Brantmeye

The author easily shifts from one category to the next as if she was changing gears while maneuvering her venerable 1987 Moto Guzzi Lario. In the first chapter, she deals with definitions through the artful presentation of background material, starting with herself. Well-educated, articulate, and refined, Pierson references Mrs. King’s ballroom dancing school, graduate school, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and William F. Buckley, Jr. in the first three paragraphs. The references are incidental in telling us who she is, where she came from, and how she writes. They define the parameters of an unlikely dichotomy spanning silk scarves and greasy fingernails.

Pierson presents the generalizations and common misconceptions regarding gangs, hogs, and one-percenters in a brief few pages leading up to the elusive definition of a “biker.” The definition is so elusive that it has been the subject of debate for nearly 100 years within the rider community, whose various factions are quick to disqualify all others in exclusively claiming the title for themselves.

How then does the author define a biker?

“My own answer to the question would have to comprise all who have heard a bike sing and thought it one of the most stirring melodies they’ve ever heard; who have wished that in this moment all the cars in the country would disappear to some junkyard far away; who know that a perfect road is defined by its curves, camber, view; who look at bikes, and look for bikes wherever they happen to be.”

Pierson begins to define the allure and power of motorcycles by the emotion, passion, and images they evoke in the hearts, minds and souls of their riders. It is here that she starts to drop names of riders who’ve heard a bike’s song. The first is T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), 1888–1935, who found the ultimate release in riding a Brough Superior. She will mention other names at appropriate points... Names like Elvis, Malcolm Forbes, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Lindbergh, Konrad Lorenz, Ann Richards, King Albert I of Belgium, and Douglas MacArthur. It is apparent at a glance that each of these individuals was well-versed in living on the edge, getting the most out of life, and pretty much doing what they wanted. Pierson lets the reader draw the obvious conclusion.
T. E. Lawrence

There is a quote from Brendan Byrne, former governor of New Jersey, who states that it was the influence of billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes, that was finally responsible for getting the Garden State Parkway open to motorcycle traffic.

The history of the motorcycle is the chronicle of speed, and Pierson covers the subject in detail. She cites 1894 as the year of the first official competitive event involving motorcycles -- and automobiles -- over roads between Paris and Rouen. This was only 29 years after the last shot was fired in the Civil War. Three years later, a bicycle defeated a motorcycle in a race held in England. In 1907, however, aviation pioneer and motorcycle enthusiast Glenn Curtis got a bike up to 136.3 miles. Yet a scant 20 years after that, in 1937, German Ernst Henne would take a BMW motorcycle up to 173.5 (This is about as fast as a new BMW K1200GT will go right out of the showroom, 71 years later.)

The story of the motorcycle is also the story of social innovation and rebellion. Pierson quickly leads the reader down a familiar timeline with the introduction of the motorcycle to society (as an innovative and efficient mode of transportation for country doctors), to its present and more dubious reputation. It is World War I that first introduces thousands of young men to the motorcycle and gives the machine’s popularity a huge boost. It is World War II that cements that turns motorcycling into an obsession for so many.
Lawrence and his passion

You cannot write about motorcycles without addressing the noise issue. Pierson delves into the subject predictably enough, but here she serves her readers with the kind of surprise that makes her writing so refreshing. She presents a letter taken from the New York Times that describes the ill-feeling caused by “open muffler fiends, who put the fraternity of bikers in a bad light.” The letter is from 1912. Pierson reports that in the twenties, Harley-Davidson took out full page newspaper ads describing bikers who ran straight pipes as “boobs.” It’s interesting how some things change.

The book offers the reader a number of historical asides. Many will remember with some relief the introduction of the electric starter, which became common in the seventies. According to Pierson, it was first introduced in 1914, on an Indian.

Bikers like to refer to themselves as a great two-wheeled fraternity. And that’s what it was right up through the seventies: a brotherhood. Pierson systematically cites how the accomplishments of women, both in long distance riding (traversing the US, Britain, and Europe far in advance of paved roads) and in racing were downplayed or downright disqualified. Women racers were barred from the track or had their machines disqualified, even in cases when the same machine had been successfully raced by a man the year before. It’s nice to think that these issues were common in the early days of biking, but Pierson makes it clear that sexual discrimination continued throughout the sixties and later.

Pierson points out that women were never disqualified from riding around topless at a number of events, even to this day, while the two-wheeled fraternity shows their appreciation by shouting out, “Show us your tits.” She makes a point of mentioning that subscribers to a certain biker culture will senselessly shout this imperative at passing biker chicks who are already topless, suggesting there is a certain mind-numbing effect to this mantra. The reader gets the distinct impression that the author does not believe this behavior is essential to the biker experience.

All of this makes for great reading, but Pierson’s book positively comes alive through her ride reports and firsthand accounts of trips she’s taken. Yet she presents all of these in subtle style that makes it easy for the reader to miss some of the more adventurous points. Shortly after passing her safety course, the author did her practice riding in Manhattan before riding the bike home to Hoboken, NJ. Neither place is known to have a dearth of traffic nor riding-related challenges.

The intrepid Pierson soon takes her first road trip to Lanconia, New Hampshire, for the annual bike races. She is riding in the company of four experienced bikers. In two days, three of these guys will wreck. She uses this story to illustrate the importance of the helmet, without which two of these gentlemen would have likely died. But it must be noted that the author rode her own ride and was not pushed into the kind of circumstances that resulted in two of these crashes, in which testosterone may have been a factor.

Pierson links certain aspects of her love of riding to the love of several men. She does this in such a way that there is neither sap nor syrup in the details. In each case, the author describes a shared passion that advances her knowledge of riding, her appreciation for the machine, and her awareness of what she experiences when she rides.

The Lanconia run is repeated a few chapters later, with Franz, a one-man spare parts repository, and apparently, a hell of a good mechanic. He also happened to be a dealer for a slightly modified white 1987 Moto Guzzi Lario. This machine becomes the mechanical love of Pierson’s life. This chapter is written like a novel, with two motorcyclists battling a cold, driving rain, for hour after hour. The flavor of the Lanconia event starts with soft ice cream and lobster rolls, then expands to the smell of hot oil and burning rubber, and finally encompasses the thunderous growl of thousands of bikes in surging sea of chrome, rippling the summer atmosphere with their exhaust.
Moto Guzzi V65 Lario

The compelling details of these vignettes are an integral part of the author’s message. But they are also counterbalanced with stories of long rides she has taken by herself. She claims she writes her best poetry at 60 miles per hour.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is no dilettante waxing poetic about learning to ride a motorcycle. She rides like hell, apparently, and her preferred ride is the Moto Guzzi, one of three marques in constant production since the early twenties. (The other two are BMW and Harley Davidson.) For the uninitiated, the Moto Guzzi is regarded by the faithful as a machine capable of running forever, from time to time. It is not the preferred ride of those unacquainted with a set of metric tools. Yet there is no indication that Holbrook ever owned a set of metric tools throughout this book, and it never deterred her.

One of the best parts of this book is the account of the time the author traveled to Europe, contacted people through a Moto Guzzi network, bought a bike in Germany and rode it to visit the Moto Guzzi holy land in Italy. She sold it before returning home. (I do stuff like this all the time.)

But it must be noted that Pierson is a great writer who also knows how to turn a phase. Here are two examples of her style:

“There was no one I needed to tell that I was taking a train to Philadelphia for a day in the middle of November, so I made a slit in the face of a week and slipped unnoticed through to another place.”

“The sky looked like a used rag.”

Each of these sentences conveys a distinct emotion or image without using an emotional word or a defining color.

I gave this book five stars out a possible five (*****). If you ride a motorcycle and fit the author’s definition of a biker, then this is a book you should read.

Jack Riepe
© 2008 By Jack Riepe
All rights reserved

Monday, January 21, 2008

When Old Society Dogs Bark

An acquaintance of mine recently confided she is caught up in a family debate regarding the legitimacy of motorcycling for women. According to the facts at hand, stinging criticism has been leveled at her from a stodgy, well-heeled relative (link provided for genre comparison only), who is under the impression that an inexhaustible supply of $1,800 cashmere sweaters (and deeds to a lot of west coast urban real estate) constitute the basis of propriety. Worse, this social register plague is under the impression that the accumulation of wealth lends credibility to her opinions on anything.

It cannot be denied that a certain percentage of the world’s population perceives motorcycle-riding women, or those precariously perched on pillions, as tattooed, leather-clad, sexual pleasure kittens, eager to bare their breasts for a string of beads or a cold beer. This is largely due to a handful of publications and annual events that elevate this image to “Goddess” levels. I try to hang around at these events for as long as I can -- or until I get my pants pulled down and my ass painted blue for arriving on a BMW.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to these dedicated (but relatively few) women for reminding me that my adolescence is about one thousandth of an inch below my veneer of sophistication.As is typical with the conclusions of conventional wisdom, though, the tattooed, leather clad, sexual pleasure kitten-image of women riders is (and always has been) greatly exaggerated. I have returned from Sturgis and Daytona with tons of undistributed beads and cases of unconsumed beer. My mesh jacket is usually colored with the venom and spittle of Harley women for my efforts.

Despite hundreds of thousands of words written in various publications and newspapers over the years on the respectability of motorcycling for women -- coupled with an endless procession of names of women of merit and unquestionable social standing -- there are those who stand ready to disparage the character of women riders. And it never ceases to amaze me how often this subject arises on various online venues.

The acquaintance I mentioned at the beginning of this piece was hoping to sway her relatives with a list of names of well-established world leaders, economic drivers, entertainers, Catholic nuns, and trendsetting socialites who are women motorcycle riders. This sort of reasoning won’t work. A strategy of this nature can only be effective if all of the people on the list ride up to the offending relative’s house on their bikes and get full media coverage. Some of the names on this list will actually infuriate older relatives. Bringing up Eleanor Roosevelt to an aging Republican matriarch will simply result in an anti-socialist diatribe.Even if my acquaintance was to carry a donor organ 1,200 miles on her bike, through a forest fire and falling snow, to save the life of little Nell, some aging aunt would bring up the fact that the child will probably grow up to be a hooker.

Before attempting to engage aging, wealthy family members in a debate on the legitimacy of motorcycling (regardless of whether you are a woman or a man), you must first ask yourself three qualifying questions:

1) Do you stand to inherit anything in the way of substantial real estate or a large amount of cash?

If the answer to this question is "no," please go to question number "2."

2) Why do you give a shit what these people think? You're a biker. The traditional response to criticism from the cashmere sweater crowd is to extend one's middle finder and offer your ass for them to kiss. They will understand this combination of gestures perfectly, especially if your relatives are "old money" WASPS, who have had occasional correspondence with the Irish labor movement.

If the answer to question number 1 is "yes," then offer to get rid of the bike if the person with the loudest negative opinion will take a short ride on the pillion. Then jump 12 parked cars. Hopefully, these people are old and have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. Collect your bonus on the way back from the cemetery.

3) What could you possibly hope to gain by arguing with people who would spend $1,800 on a sweater as opposed to making a more sensible investment in sex, partying, and the spit-in-the-face-of-death-type of thrills that accompany a typical 36-hour two-wheeled road trip?

The only statement that will be acceptable to them is, “You’re absolutely right.” But if you accept one of their opinions as valid, the price of membership comes with buying them all.

For those who insist on playing with folks like this, I have four suggestions:

a) Ask for or take a good portrait photograph of them. Get it made into a temporary henna tattoo on your ass. Then go to a wild bike week rally someplace, and have your butt made into the focal point of a bike mag picture spread. Send 10 copies of the magazine to the social register.

b) Offer to write a family history. You will soon discover interesting skeletons that concern illegitimate births, affairs with chorus girls, unproved allegations regarding embezzlement, questionable business ethics, and an immigrant history that would do a Barbary Coast pirate proud. Remember to ask the old folks for quotes in the family’s defense. With luck, they'll buy you a new bike just to shut up.

c) Insist that your relative accompany you to a BMW motorcycle rally, where women riders can be observed writing poetry or reading multistep self-improvement books, while the men play chamber music from instruments carried in their panniers. At the last BMW rally I attended, two new vaccines were invented, a new opera was composed, global warming was slowed, and the loudest noise came from philosophical conversations in darkened tents.

d) The fourth suggestion is to ignore them. You’ll save on Christmas presents, holiday cards, and aggravation. Nothing gets on the nerves of these folks faster than you having a good time while doing something they can neither understand nor do themselves.

Jack Riepe
January 21, 2008
© Copyright 2008 -- All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Return to Jersey City — Again

A motorcycle can make up for a lot of things. It can make up for adolescence crushed by middle age. It can make up for a bad week in the office. It can even make up for a weekend romance gone sour. But it cannot make up an hour of lost time. Even the really fast bikes. I know this. I was on the New Jersey Turnpike headed north, letting the 71 horses of my 1995 BMW K75 run wild; but the clock on the bike’s spartan dash was always a little faster.

Dawn arrived sullenly on January 13, 2008. It sulked into the garage with a grayness left over from a seasonal temperature drop the day before. It had been 46º and sunny on the previous Saturday. But now it was 29º, overcast, and murky. Even the pale green lawn had a grayish tint to it, which I realized was a mantle of frost. I had planned to do this ride on the day before, but had been struck down by a hangover that made a concussion seem mild in comparison.

Now I was paying a double price. I’d lost the opportunity of riding in spring-like temperatures on the first half of the weekend, and was bucking a stiff crosswind on the New Jersey Turnpike at 85 miles per hour. Occasional gusts would hit the handlebar-mounted Parabellum Scout Fairing, sending a slight tremor through the machine. Yet the bike continued to track true and ran like a thoroughbred. I’d lost an hour waiting for the temperature to rise enough to thaw a few icy spots on the road, and I wasn’t gaining a minute of it back.

My destination was Exchange Place in Jersey City, 104 miles distant from the driveway in West Chester, Pa. There was no magic to this run. It was all straight slab on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes, right to the heart of the second largest city in New Jersey. It was cold, but I’d been out in colder weather. I do not yet own a set of electrics. My riding gear consisted of a Joe Rocket Meteor 5 ballistic jacket, a long sleeve club shirt, thermal silk long underwear and jeans. The fairing does a great job of keeping the wind and cheeseburgers off my upper body.

This was my second trip to Jersey City in a week. As a reentry rider in my fourth season, this kind of run is a radical departure from my usual jaunts. My preference is for sedate secondary roads through the country, with easy changes in elevation and curves that stimulate my limited skills without defying death. If I must have traffic, then I prefer the Amish kind that drops quaint road apples that must be swerved around to avoid being fully appreciated.

The previous ride to Jersey City brought me to the threshold of motorcycle-riding hell. Coming up through the oil refineries in Linden, NJ on I-95, buzzing past Newark Airport, and looking down at the world from the Pulaski Skyway provides one with the same vision Tolkien had when he wrote about Mordor in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. What appeared to be smoke hanging over the landscape was actually dense clouds of vampire bats. Yet the view must be taken in snatches as the traffic in these parts can best be described as maniacal.

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike routinely surges to 80 mph, regardless of the lane you are in. And the space between vehicles can be as much as seven feet. Most New Jersey drivers do not give these speeds nor close separation distances a second thought as they are usually chatting on the their cell phones. High-speed, congested traffic and narrow Jersey City streets were the challenge for my first ride to this locale. Both proved manageable as did the two-hour ride home in the dark. More than manageable, I had fun.

But two questions hung in my mind, “Suppose the first ride was a fluke? Suppose I actually was a chicken shit who just got lucky?” So I decided to do it again under slightly different circumstances.

Adventure is where you find it, and sometimes it must be taken in scale. I ride with the Mac-Pac, a Pennsylvania-based BMW group that sneers at miles. Many of these guys have ridden coast to coast. Several routinely ride to Texas and back, or Colorado and back, in a few days. One member, Doug Raymond, rode to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Circle (Alaska) and back in 14 days. Another member, Edde Mendes, rode his bike (a 1994 K75 without modification) from Morocco through sub-Sahara Africa, and up through Turkey, Russia, China and Korea, on a 12- month 29,000 mile run.

For me, it is enough to challenge the traffic in one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the United States. Why Jersey City? Because I am from there. Because I learned to ride a motorcycle there, in rush hour traffic, straight out of the dealer’s, after 25-minutes of instruction. Because I haven’t ridden a motorcycle there in 30 years. And because salmon, condors and Siamese fighting roaches always return to the place of their birth.

My hands were out in the breeze on the ride up but didn’t get cold once. I was wearing a new pair of Lee Parks insulated deerskin/elkskin gauntlets. These are the warmest riding gloves I have ever worn. At $179, they weren’t cheap either. They are a trifle bulky on my hands, and while fine for the slab, I switched to a thinner pair of winter gloves for more sensitive clutch control in city traffic.

I crossed Newark Bay on the NJ Turnpike Bridge, angling for Exit 14C, the Holland Tunnel, the last exit in Jersey City. Traffic advisories warned of construction just before this last exit. I didn’t see the construction but saw a snaking line of cars at a dead stop a mile from the exit.

“Screw this,” I thought, taking Exit 14b someplace around the old Ferris High School. My memory of this place told me I was headed East on the former Railroad Avenue. There used to be elevated tracks here when I was a kid. The street is now named something else and no longer looks like anything in my memory. It was a mile of green lights and I pulled into Exchange Place three minutes later.

Exchange Place was the site of a rundown trolley car diner, a bus turnaround, the old Colgate Palmolive factory, and the PATH station (subway), which had the atmosphere (sulphur-ish smell) of an old bomb shelter. These things were clustered around a decaying ferry slip, which provided a great place for my friends and I to smoke pot during lunch in high school. This was in 1972.

Exchange Place is now the financial institution showplace of the Jersey City waterfront. Known as Wall Street West, it offers first class hotels, neighborhood pubs and restaurants, soaring office buildings, a fishing pier, a promenade and an unparalleled view of New York City. It also offered an unparalleled view of Mack Harrell, my riding partner on this trip, who was sitting next to a “No parking” sign on his 2005 BMW R1200GS. Mack concluded that the 40-mile per hour breeze coming off the river was the same thing as riding at that speed, and was idling his bike’s boxer engine to power up his electric riding gear. Mack is writing a book called 150 Ways To Kill The Battery In a BMW R1200GS.

Mack Harrell's BMW GS Adventure looks positively predatory next to
the author's aesthetically perfect 1995 BMW K75 in Exchange Place, Jersey City.

The BMW R1200GS looks like an armored two-wheeler set up for riding across vast inhospitable expanses. It looks like that because it is. Mack Harrell looks like a grizzled old biker who’s dragged his ancient ass through a thousand curves. That’s because he is too.

“Mmmmpurgh phak mraghrd,” said Mack as I pulled up. There is no translation. This is how he sounds attempting to speak through his full faced helmet. He hears about as well too.

The focal point of Exchange Place is an open plaza with a statue commemorating those killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre; in which more than 15,000 Polish prisoners were murdered in cold blood by their Stalinist Russian captors. The statue is of a Polish cavalry officer being bayonetted in the back. I was once married to a Russian lady and know the feeling well. The pointblank view of the river was blocked by construction.
Katyn -- Symbolizing a Russian pat on the back for captured Polish cavalry officers

Essentially, the view I rode like a madman to see was closed.

Mack and I have been occasionally riding together for three years now. Oddly enough, we both downed bikes this past season. I took a head-on whack from a woman making an illegal left turn in a mini van, and Mack dropped the GS while stopped at an intersection. (He turned to gape at a fine- looking ass in cyclist Spandex, lost his balance, and fell over on the bike, breaking his collarbone. The punch line is the “fine looking ass” turned out to be attached to a guy. Mack needs to get out more often.)

We cut through Jersey City, by-passing Hoboken (the traffic congestion capital of the world) and headed north along the Hudson River. We zipped through Weehawken, Guttenburg, North Bergen, and Edgewater, all the way up to Fort Lee. I was looking for a great spot to get pictures right on the river, and passed one where we did not stop. Traffic was thick and despite the fact that I used to live here, I couldn’t figure out where the hell I was.

My thought was to enter Palisades Interstate Park below the George Washington Bridge, and ride on that beautiful forested road -- The Henry Hudson Drive -- that runs along the base of the cliffs, but which is still 100 feet or so above the Hudson river. There is a huge open area directly on the river just beyond the base of the bridge. Pictures taken there would be stunning. The park entrance is a sharply angled turn to the right. I swung into it -- stopping just short of the rusted chain stretched across the entrance.

The beautiful road at the base of the cliffs was closed.

“What the hell is going on?” I thought. I later discovered that the Henry Hudson Drive is only open from mid-April to mid-November.

Getting out of this little pocket was a handful for me. It was an uphill turn to the right, on a stretch of River Road, under construction, with fast moving traffic coming around a curve to the left. This little bit of heaven was covered with sand and trickling water. It was here I uttered my famous biker’s prayer. “Oh Lord, please don’t let me drop this bike in front the worthless sinner Mack Harrell, who will go among the tents bearing the tale of my humiliation.”

We picked up the Palisades Interstate Parkway at Alpine, NJ, and rode along the top of the cliffs to the Alpine overlook, before heading north another seven miles to the Stateline Lookout. Each of these overlooks has considerable romantic significance to me. It was here, 37 years ago, that I became proficient at removing the brassieres of young women. I discovered this is easy to do with one hand, provided that hand is holding wire cutters.

There's a little restaurant and bookstore at the Stateline Lookout, housed in a wood and glass structure dating back to 1937. It was constructed using native stone and chestnut wood, as a project of the Works Progress Administration. The end of the building is round, to accommodate a half-round stone counter inside. Tables are arranged on the perimeter. One of the most amazing and welcome aspects of this place is a fireplace that had a nice blaze going in it. The scent and warmth of this little surprise was a very nice touch. The damp cold breeze off the river in Jersey City, now some 15 miles to the south, had become a cool, lower 40's clear day. Stepping up to the fireplace was like finding yourself in the embrace of a beautiful woman, who smelled like burning oak.
Mack Harrell causes a woman to hide in a bush at Stateline Lookout.

I was surprised that Mack took a seat facing away from the view, choosing instead a tight perspective of the narrow aisle along the curving counter. During the course of lunch, no less than 13 hot-looking babes (one riding pillion) squeezed by with their butts at Mack’s eye-level.

“I can’t believe you chose this table to look at women’s asses,” I hissed at him.

“Wanna change seats,” he asked.


“Kiss my ancient ass,” said Mack, with a smile. “This is a harmless pastime that doesn’t bother anybody. Just don’t tell my wife.” No problem, Mack. What happens at the Stateline Lookout stays at the Stateline Lookout.

I had one of the best cheeseburgers in my life at this place. It was charbroiled, juicy, and dripping with flavor. Mack Harrell had a turkey sandwich. We hit this place around 1:10pm. There were four small groups of people there, hogging all of the tables around the fireplace. Twenty minutes later, the joint was packed.
The pleasant restaurant from 1937 at the Stateline Lookout.

You wouldn't expect to find a little bookstore here. It spans half of the counter inside and offers about 50 titles covering the history of the park, the region, or the revolution. Parts of the park were hotly contested during a few brief days in the American Revolution. At one point, Mack and I were parked at the spot where British troops landed and ascended the cliffs in the taking of Fort Lee on the Palisades. The original modest building, the Kearny House, which was tavern once and served as a headquarters for General Cornwallis during the troop movement, is still there. (I regret to report it is not a functioning tavern now.)

For those who feel like a little hike, there is a broad road running directly along the tops of the cliffs (Palisades) at the Stateline Lookout. This is the old Rt. 9W that heads up to Bear Mountain and West Point. It has since been bypassed and this little loop goes nowhere. The lookout is at 535 feet above the Hudson, the highest point on the Palisades in New Jersey, equal in height to a 50-story building.

Mack and I headed out onto the Palisades Interstate Parkway again for a couple of miles, turning south onto Rt. 9W after crossing into New York State. We were in New York a total of three seconds. Our last stop in the park was a spiraling downhill ride at the Alpine Boat Basin. The park was filled with hikers and cyclists, that popped out of the scenery at the most unlikely places. The switchbacks down to the river had a good share of cinders on them, and we also passed heaps of snow in the shadows.

The connection between the Palisades Interstate Parkway (South), Rt. 4, and I-95 is a mish-mosh of highways involving right and left turns identified by ambiguous signs at the last minute. Interest is kept high by cars and trucks vying for the same space at 60 miles per hour.

Mack and I exchanged waves where I-78 pulls away from I-95 at Newark Airport and I settled in for the two-hour ride home. At one point, I was passed by an SUV from which someone tossed the remains of a fully dressed cheeseburger. This splattered and bounced right off my fairing. I have been hit by cigarettes, cigars, and glemmies. This is the first time I took a hit from a cheeseburger.

I found myself in the left lane on the NJ Turnpike somewhere around New Brunswick. Traffic was packed across three lanes moving at well over 75 miles per hour. A handful of smart asses in cages were switching from lane to lane, barely gaining inches for each move. I suddenly saw each lane as a horizontal column of shifting steel, hammering forward in a rhythmic crushing movement, slamming shut momentarily open spaces between vehicles. It was the mill of death and I was reminded of The Song Of The Sausage Creature, by Hunter S. Thompson. For a moment I saw my fate in the mill... And I laughed like hell inside my eggshell of a helmet. Life is a series of experiences, challenges, opportunities and setbacks woven into twisted roads. I was determined not to meet the sausage creature on this one.

When the opportunity presented itself, I twisted on the power, danced through the mill, and left it behind me. It was a clear, cold twisted road home. I rolled into the garage with 284 miles under my belt for the day. The rain started less than an hour after I was home.

Epilogue: I went back to garage to take a few things out of my topcase. A delightful, familiar scent rose when I opened the lid. I carry a 4-ounce flask of Irish whiskey for emergencies. The top had vibrated off and the contents had seeped into the case. Every ride has a punch line.

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This month’s free quote:
“Every ride has a punch line.”
Jack Riepe
January 15, 2008