As a human race, we are constantly advancing in achievements of medicine, art, technology, sciences and yes, motorcycles. We bikers likewise benefit from the evolutionary process that hurls us forward. Dynamic suspension, traction control, electronic ignition and much more, give us reliability and comfort never imagined just a decade before.
I trust as a subspecies, that being “Homo -Motocyclistius Bi-Wheelius” our senses get numbed and our appreciation softens, for the roads our biker ancestors have forged in the last 100 years. Imagine the roaring twenties. You pilot your ‘old grey fellow,’ three horsepower, belt driven, two speed, over shale and dirt byways pre-interstate, with no rain gear or helmet, at a numbing 20 miles per hour. The thirties come and internal combustion progresses, but not much. Yet, Americans flock to dealers, yearning for the freedom of the open road for the same reasons as they do today. Simply put: because ‘riding’ is different then ‘driving.’ It is different for a million reasons. It’s cheaper, faster, more fun, riskier. Everyone has their own reasons.
That said, it was with childlike anticipation that I looked forward to an invitation given to me by Jimmy O’Brien (Slim’s Customs in Atlanta) to a relatively tame ride to Alabama, with a dozen or so guys, each aboard ‘vintage’ bikes. A few hundred miles of ‘vintage riding’ into the countryside then back to reality. My flashback in time just for a day was seemingly occurring some 50 or 60 years prior given our chosen steeds. An oddly romantic notion of hard tail suspensions, ‘points’ based ignitions, ‘kick’ only starters and bias ply tires. Wow, this was going to be fun. It would be just like it was back in the 40’s and 50’s.
Our motley crew of ‘old souls’ left Atlanta under mostly sunny skies, with early morning blue puffs of smoke, created solely by the owner’s propulsion of the motor with his starter leg! Some jumped and came down but once. Others struggled with 5 or 10 kicks. All reveled in the effort as a sort of initiation to this odd club of evolutionary throwbacks. A time machine at least for the day. We chugged out I-20, 1940’s style at an even 55 miles per hour. Nary had a car passed us that did not give a thumbs up or at least a quizzical stare. Engines rapping potato, potato songs, some tenor some baritone, yet all grease slinging chains wildly propelling us forward in movement yet back in time. Each song a testament to the rider’s biker spirit.
Stops were frequent: tools tightening loose bolts, reattaching a wire here or a nut there. Even if not needed, at the many gas stops precautionary maintenance simply just seemed necessary to be in the period. We arrived at the Barber Motorsports Park for the “Vintage Days” weekend triumphant. I did not notice if crowds stood and cheered, but they did in my mind. 75,000 other riders and attendees probably did not notice us. They had arrived on Harleys, Vincents, JAPs, LaVerdas, Nortons, Triumphs, Matchless, and many more makes gone to the ages. I felt like Dick Mann, Peter Fonda and Mike ‘the bike’ Hailwood, all rolled into one. After 3 or 4 hours passed, we were all a bit sore. Lack of modern day biker comforts, you know. My group planned a weekend of it, but I had obligations otherwise, so I just went for the day. A cold one and a cigar and I was to return alone on that long asphalt ribbon that brought me hence. Simple, was my thought. Same trip, just back. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
As I headed out of the park, a sense of lonesomeness came over me. My Panhead chugged a solo and lonesome song. Within 10 miles, the sun began to retire to the western horizon. Ominous clouds loomed eastward in front of me and I just thought, “a couple hundred miles, I’ve done this a million times.” Au Contraire. Now I was about to see what a real 1940 biker did when he was far from home and things turned rough. Family obligations prevented me from just ‘hoteling it,’ so I pressed on. Then the rains came. Driving rains. Truckers ignorant of my plight swished by, pouring gallons of water over my head, down my back inside my leathers and into my boots, till they filled and spilled over. Water continually flung off my fenderless front wheel, seemingly slicing my torso neck and face in two with a constant spray of road dirt and water that could not be helped. That I drank that stuff in copious amounts was evidenced by the worse case of the poops mankind has known. Clearly, I write for accuracy, not propriety.
My scooter took on so much water that she began to sputter and cough, laden with wet soaked air through the intake fouling my fuel/air mix. My fix was a late night truck stop that had ladies panty hose, which I affixed over my air cleaner, restricting the invasion of water which permeated everything else. The temps dropped to the 50’s and my 60 year old headlight with single filament bulb was about as useful as a handful of wooden matches. “Homo-Motocyclistius Bi-Wheelius” INDEED!!! Who was this forgotten ancestor? Is it possible that he was as tough as I? Nay, more so. That reality struck me as I approached home shivering and blinded, regurgitating mouthfuls of dirty road water from deep in my belly. A loose fender and broken brake cable. My momentary discomfort a flash to be laughed at. Who was my biker predecessor? This forgotten spirit dug trenches on rain soaked battlefields in France. He toiled in filthy northern factories and dangerous western coal mines and built a staggeringly powerful economy with his blood and sweat, his work that we now squander. He raised 5 or 7 children with one wife and one bathroom, one car and one bike and never did nor expected to retire. He went to war on thousand foot battleships having never left his Iowa corn farm and reenlisted because his country asked him to. He ate simple food, drank beer from a can, honored his country and all it stood for, rode on that shale and in that dirt and loved it and was loved for it. He died under no pomp nor circumstance yet forged a road across this land and in your hearts. I do not know his name, but his ghost dwells about your steed, watching, shadowed, guarding, to someday be replaced by your likes, so long as you earn your own journey, gulp your own road dirt, and appreciate what you ride and your inheritance from those who forged your path.
Well, signing off for now. Ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home.