[This is a reposted of an article I had on Facebook.]
I wish I could say I’ve been riding all of my life. More importantly, I wish I actually had been riding all my life. I missed out on a lot of enjoyment and adventure. But, like so many other areas in my life, I was a late bloomer. Having grown up under non-conventional circumstances, like foster homes and such, I didn’t have the environment where someone would buy any kind of motorized thing for me. In a lot of ways, I was one of the poor kids in relation to those kinds of big ticket items.
At one point, I did have the most bitchin’ 5-speed bicycle ever. It was metal flake grape with a matching banana seat. And, yes, a giant sissybar. This was back in the day when you were expected to go out and play all day. I remember riding until I got lost more than once... something that still happens on occasion. Now I call it “trusting the adventure”. While my mother was a great parent, I’m sure she had no idea where I was sometimes. I didn’t either.. sometimes. But she generally didn’t need to. It was a different world then and I was an able-bodied, howbeit somewhat chubby, boy out having adventures on the coolest bike ever. Then, like now, I always came home.
One Sunday morning, when almost all businesses were closed in Cheektowaga, NY, I got out early and went riding. Most people were either in church or sitting at home sipping their coffee and working their way through the newspapers. I don’t remember if it was a real estate office or insurance office, but it was a couple miles down the road from the apartment we lived in. Turning into the vacant driveway, I cut across onto the sidewalk directly in front of the building. On one side was grass. On the other side was a flowerbed with big gravel in it. For whatever reason, my front tire went off the sidewalk and dropped into the gravel. It was true then, as it is now, that gravel (or sand) will decelerate a moving vehicle pretty quickly. I’m not sure why I didn’t just put my feet down. Shock? Surprise? Fear? Stupidity? Who knows? But I can still picture the sidewalk coming up to meet my face. I went home with a big goose egg on my forehead and a valuable lesson about energy absorption. It’s amazing how clearly I remember it. Like it wasn’t some 45 years ago. Like I wasn’t knocked nearly unconscious.
But I digress. Mini-bikes. You were the cool kid if you had a minibike. I was not. What I did have was the occasional neighbor who would get a mini-bike or snowmobile. It was a rare occurrence but it happened. And they were a blast for the very, very short time I got to ride one. I suppose I could have built a one but I had no access to a frame. Or an engine. Or wheels. By that time, I was “just” a foster kid. If I did have access, I wouldn’t have the know-how to make it happen or access to anyone who cared enough to teach me.
I remember the first time I got to ride someone’s minibike. One of the guys down the street got the typical minibike. Lawn mower engine tacked to a square frame. Hardly a Harley. But it had an engine and you didn’t have to pedal. It was the coolest thing ever and he was the closest to being a biker any of us got. Even now, I see one occasionally and it looks like fun. The basic operational training ensued.. this is the gas.. this is the clutch.. this is the brake. Remember the brake. If you forget everything else, remember the brake. Yeah, pretty sure he told me that. Or maybe that’s just the life lesson I gleaned from the experience.. because I remember coming at the intersection with lots of cross-traffic and completely panicking. I could have just used the brake, I guess. But I forgot about the brake. Like my moment of hesitation with the sidewalk, I did everything but use the brake. I survived but I really didn’t get to ride other people’s minibikes much after that. Talking about it now, I’m starting to recognize a theme. Luckily, I didn’t end up with a goose egg. I was getting better at this.
Fast forward through a motor-less puberty and into the US Army. My first exposure to a sport bike! My roommate had a Suzuki Katana and I got to be a guest passenger for a good number of twisties. There might have been some mind altering chemicals involved but I can neither confirm nor deny that. I was a lot younger and a slightly dumber then.
After moving to California, I bought a used Suzuki GT750 from a guy. If I remember correctly, I paid the guy $400 for the water-cooled three-cylinder two-stroke motorcycle. I’m pretty sure it had hard saddlebags but I’m positive it had a trunk. He had just rebuilt the whole engine and the old parts were in the trunk. The only problem with the bike was that it smoked like a forest fire when it started but, as it warmed up, the smoke cleared. Being excited about just having a bike, I handed over my cash and rode home.
At the time, a guy I knew had recently t-boned a truck on his bike and had metal pins sticking out of one of his legs like an erector set. Walking was a chore. It was a serious injury. If he took care of it and did what he was supposed to do, he was supposed to heal. He didn’t take care of it. I lost track of him shortly afterward but I always wondered if he made it out with his leg intact. But, at the time, it served as a warning. Anytime I would get out on the road and get a little throttle on, I would see his pins sticking out. It was a reminder that things can go very wrong. I also tended to keep a low profile because I had no license… or insurance. I don’t recall if it was even registered. But it was a blast and I loved it. Central California is a wonderful place on a motorcycle.
I’m not a mechanic. I never have been. But at some point, I decided that I was going to tear into the engine and find out why it blew smoke. I suspected some bad seal somewhere. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but it wouldn’t be the first time I tore down an engine just to explore. It was quite the chore just getting the engine apart. It seemed like some of the parts were fused on. And I thought more than once, “Shouldn’t there be a gasket there?” I still had the parts in the trunk from the “rebuild”. As I rummaged through them, I started believing that they weren’t so much “old parts” as stuff that was left over when he put it back together. My beautiful bike was a death trap with an unlicensed driver. Peachy. For reasons I don’t want to share, except to say that it wasn’t prison or rehab, I ended up leaving the carcass in the garage when I left California. But I miss her when I think about her. Someday, I might hunt down another one.
Fast forward another eleven years or so. Throughout the years, my wife mentioned several times that we should get a motorcycle. I’m pretty sure she had no idea what she was getting into. But everything has a season and it wasn’t yet time for me to dive back in. I was focused elsewhere and, I guess, had really forgotten how much I loved riding. It had been a long time. On a perfect day in New Hampshire, when I was driving home from work, I passed someone going the other way on a bike and it was like an amnesiac getting their memory back. I went home and announced my brilliant idea, “What do you think about me getting a motorcycle?” I don’t recall her exact words but I’m sure they were along the lines of, “You’re a genius. That’s a great idea. You should do that.”
There’s a lot of opportunity to give my wife credit throughout our time together and one of them is her attitude about getting a bike. Her take on it was, “Get whatever you want so you’ll be happy with it for a long time.” Come on. What guy doesn’t want to hear that? I checked with the few friends I had that rode, who all recommended a big bike. My concern was that I hadn’t been on a bike in over 10 years. When they say something is just like riding a bike, I think they mean bicycle. I was virtually a beginner again and I had my eye on the Honda Shadow 600. I still had no license and the thought of not passing the test had me second-guessing how much I wanted to invest in something that could be a waste of money. Not knowing what was involved, I found myself thinking, “What if I can’t pass the test? How much do I want to spend on faith?” I really considered everyone’s advice. So when I bought the Shadow, I did it with the expectation that I’d outgrow it quickly but if I failed the test, it wouldn’t break the bank.
I still had no license. But I did have a bike that cost several thousand dollars. It was time to get legal. I tooled around until my permit was done and had a buddy take the Honda down for the skills test. I think they sent me home after I ran over the first cone. The whole thing seemed silly to me. If I see staggered cones on the road, I’m certainly not going to weave in and out of them. I’m going to pick a side. Or avoid them altogether. I got back to work the next day and found a small orange cone sitting on my desk. Thanks guys.
Now things were getting serious. If I couldn’t get my license, I just wasted a lot of money on a vehicle I can’t drive.
I didn’t know, at first, that in New Hampshire, you could take the safety course and they’d administer the test on the last day. The course was on little Kawasaki 125s and Honda Rebel 250s. Smaller bikes to be sure. And.. the test was stuff that you JUST got done doing in the course. I took the course and passed the test. I was now a legal rider. A biker! Still, I took it to heart though when they said, “This means your a legal rider. It doesn’t mean you’re a good or experienced rider. All of you should continue to build your skills.” Challenge accepted.
I still break into a sweat when I see cones in the road.
I rode the Honda for the rest of the year until it was time to put it up for the winter. In the spring, I started riding again and decided I had outgrown the bike. I wanted to be able to travel on the highway for longer distances and felt the 600cc wasn’t really up to it. And so the shopping began.
I like bikes. Sport bikes. Cruisers. Mini-bikes. I’m not a bike snob at all. Okay.. maybe mopeds. Actually, after seeing those guys out with me in 26 degree weather, I’m building a new respect for them too. But when it comes to buying and riding, I lean toward cruisers. I ended up buying a 2008 Yamaha V-Star 1100. I really liked that bike and made it my own. Several people, with untrained eyes, mistook it for a Harley. It was good to me and I rode it whenever I had a chance. In New Hampshire, that meant three quarters of the year. I was usually one of the last people to put it away for the winter and I was the idiot riding in slush the following Spring. One of the first things to get the snow shoveled away was the path from the walk-in basement, where the bike was stored, to the road.
Moving to South Carolina meant that I could ride year round! And ride we did.. until I started hearing bad noises from the rear end. My beloved V-Star was in need of a transmission, which was going to cost a good deal of money. It was time to consider a new bike again. I looked long and hard at the Harleys. (Harlies?) It seemed like I should own one Harley before I die and this could be my last chance. I wanted the chance to see what all the hype was about. None of them really appealed to me except the Wide Glide, with it’s slightly higher rake on the front. It had good bones and plenty of possibility. I traded my beloved, but aging, V-Star on a 2013 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide named Scarlett O’Harley, an homage to Gone With The Wind and my new girl’s Southern heritage.
That bring us to today. Averaging around 20,000 miles per year or so, I couldn’t imagine putting on as many miles on my previous bikes as I have on this one. I rode the V-Star a lot. I ride the Harley like there’s nothing else. I’m not trying to be a fanboy and don’t care much about my Harley “image”. I just LOVE the bike. I love the way she looks. I love the way she rides. I don’t know if it’s the change of bike or a change in me. What I DO know is that the list of places I want to go expands every week. For every place I ride, there’s two more added to the list. In my travels, if I ever find myself losing the wonder of riding, I drift back to how much fun I had on those rides along the way… and it’s new and fun all over again.