Harleys and Winchesters  

I head west at dawn on state route 14 between Sheridan and Cody Wyoming across a magnificent landscape and the bike putts along nicely. I’ve crossed 15 states and I’ve had no mechanical issues. If I had an odometer it would probably show about 3,000 miles crossed in the last week. The August weather is oppressively hot in daytime but nights are remarkably chilly in the western mountains. I’ve camped the whole way and am not ashamed to admit I haven’t taken a proper shower in a week. Camp side sponge baths in small streams and in old gas stations are the hygiene order of the day. The bike is laden with gear and I really don’t have the horsepower to exceed speed limits on the old girl. My rig is a black 1952 Harley Davidson. I avoid big interstates and see lots of local town police and county sheriffs along the way. I get more waives than ominous stares, but I get those too. It’s rare nowadays to cover so much real estate and not get pulled over once. I ponder that and wonder if it’s the bike. A big Gold Wing or a modern Harley may have a different effect. Then again, that would make it a very different adventure. Nothing more than a wave and a nod from the men and women in blue as I cross this great country. The only thing besides its vintage that makes the bike stick out as ‘different’ is the long leather sheath strapped along the right front fork containing a Winchester lever action Model 94. With a brass receiver, octagon barrel and burled walnut stock it looks like something “The Duke” would carry strapped to a big chestnut mare. It contains exactly six rounds of 30-30 Centerfire ammunition in the tubular magazine, and one in the chamber. A 20-inch barrel, technically a carbine, great for brush hunting, hog shooting, beds of pickup trucks and sheaths on old horses — and old Harleys. We all have a greater understanding of the history and heritage of Harley Davison’s in America, but how about Winchesters? I happen to love the old lever action throwbacks. I own quite a few of them, having picked up on my Dad’s small collection and run with the proverbial ball. This variant was produced in 1966 and is known as a “Classic” model. It looks lovely sheathed in leather with its brass butt plate protruding atop my handlebars. The bike older than the gun, the gun almost as old as me. They appear to have been made for each other. Complementing one another’s patina, history, and iconic AMERICAN style. At a glance you would think this panhead rolled off the assembly line with the lever action strapped to the forks. John Browning designed these pieces of American History for Winchester in, you guessed it, 1894. Probably around the time the Davidson brothers and William Harley started putting pen to paper and dreaming of small singles in bicycles frames. Since then, Winchester has produced over 7 and a half million of these particular guns between 1894 and 2006 and they have been gracing hunting camps, hearths, military installations, gun cabinets, and pickup truck racks ever since. For historical reference we’re talking about the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures right here in the American west I navigate through. Incidentally, Teddy was a Winchester ‘95 fan. A fancier gun with cartridge loading from a box magazine beneath the action instead of a tube under the barrel as does mine. My bike is not fancy, neither is the gun. We roll down the road together nonetheless in our simplicity. Face in the wind, a small American flag flapping away behind me to complete the nostalgia of it all!

So on this particular day I am westward in Wyoming on State 14, a rural 2-lane road crossing the Big Horn National Forrest. I had been rolling since an just before sunlight, kicking the old girl to life at a creek side camp somewhere in eastern Wyoming just south of Gillette. I hadn’t seen but a couple cars and a logging truck the entire time. In the days preceding this point I had questions at gas stations from friendly folks. Some about the old girl, some about the old gun, some both, mostly men. All professing to have owned Harley, Winchester or both. Just west of Shell, Wyoming I gassed up, slugged down the last of the ‘camp’ coffee from an old thermos, percolated over embers hours before, as God intended. After a couple of miles I noticed what appeared to be a police cruiser about a 100 yards behind me pacing. I trust my speed was about 50. At a 55 limit I knew my follower was probably coincidental or, at most, curious. After a few miles the blue lights on the cruiser flashed but didn’t stay on long. As if they were ‘blipped’ for an instant, just to get my attention. I instinctively slowed and moved to the shoulder foot clutching and hand shifting over to a grassy patch. I watched him in my lone rear mirror and as is my custom on a bike I shut her down and waited. The cruiser pulled in behind. I never move for the wallet until the officer asks. Knowing the carbine sticks up just enough for him to be concerned as anyone would. No furtive movement is good roadside etiquette. He exits his cruiser and dons his wide brim hat looking quite dapper, although I guessed he was no more than 23 or 24. He approaches from behind and saunters, as I’m sure he’s rehearsed at least 6 times. I am surprised how young he actually appears once bike-side. The older I get, the younger everyone looks! I wait for the first question. It’s always a question. You certainly know how it goes. “Do you know how fast you were going?” “Your not from around here are you?” “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Occasionally it’s a simple statement: “License and registration!” Not this time. This time I was asked a question that I had never been asked before by a police officer. He looks at my ’94 and asks straight-faced: “Is that thing loaded?” My immediate answer (without hesitation): “Well, Officer, if it were not, then it would just be a big expensive stick”. He does not laugh, not as much as a smirk as I had anticipated. He cups his chin between thumb and index finger and ultimately grins a little. A pregnant pause ensues. Any sane person would have to be thinking ‘that — is a clever answer’. I give a small chuckle and he cannot help himself and grins. “Good Answer”, he says. He breaks right into the same story I’ve heard repeated on the road, of his father’s Winchester, etc… etc.. He turns out to be a really nice fellow and simply seems bored out on the open road with no suspect to pursue or calls to answer. We eventually get to the license and insurance part but its more a roadside chat than a traffic stop. We spend about 20 minutes talking Winchesters. He reminds me of the large collection of Winchesters at the Buffalo Bill Cody museum 100 miles west, my destination. He tells me he’s been out of the academy less than a year and on the road solo only a month. He’s actually from Maine and moved west after a stint in the Army. He admires the bike as well and talks of his ‘soft tail’ at home. A pleasant exchange that breaks the monotony of miles of asphalt for both of us and lightens my day with his good company. We shake hands and part ways. He gets back in the cruiser and I trust he takes pleasure in my rehearsed starting sequence, which luckily takes only one kick. Of course adhering to the age-old law of antique bikes that a ‘kick started bike’ will take as many pumps of the leg to ignite the motor as there are people who are watching you try! A different result outside a crowded bar of course. I pull out onto the roadway throttling up hand shifting and foot clutching my way westward. I cannot help but chuckle to myself. I do believe the charm of an old Winchester, universally admired, had allowed me another positive human interaction. Old Harleys have their place in the world. Admired by most, piloted by few. Old Winchesters strike the same emotional cord. Together, they represent what is best about America. Hand made quality, timeless style, beautiful utility. I motor along and smile to myself. God this is a great country.

Well, signing off for now.  Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home.

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