Long ago at a hardware store far, far away, I made an impulse purchase—a package of three flashlights at an incredible price. They even included brand-name batteries. I should have known better. Within a short time, the big D-cell flashlight dismantled itself at a less-than-opportune time, and shortly afterward the mid-sized C-cell flashlight failed me, too. While it remained intact in an outward sense, the little parts that comprised the switch went awry. Was the Prince of Darkness in the flashlight business now? These were even less dependable than the Lucas electrics on vintage Brit bikes. As the old axiom goes, you get what you pay for.
As another saying goes, burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me. I wasn’t getting burned a third time, and so the third flashlight was consigned to the junk drawer. Eventually, two household moves ago, it went into a box along with the rest of that drawer full of odd parts, wiring bits, loose screws, and other little items that seem to have no apparent use. How could a self-respecting biker discard those bits and pieces? Someday, out of that pile, I might pull the critical part to save the world, or at least return a bike to the road.
I also swore off those evil impulse purchases (well, at least when it came to flashlights) and proceeded to buy an indestructible, variable-focus, anodized aluminum flashlight for every bike I own. I even decked them out with carabineers so I could hang them from the bike for hands-free lighting during roadside service sessions. All was good with the world, darkness was forever banished, and time marched on.
A few months back I made a valiant effort to clear some space in the garage for a new riding mower. I unpacked a-dozen-plus boxes that I had moved unopened twice, and after wasting my time sorting through them, all I could save were a few odd fuses and a small AA flashlight. The batteries in it were still good, so I tossed it into the glove box of my truck and forgot about it.
Two days ago, I was out running some errands on a fine spring day with my dog Buddy and my truck. Like all dogs and bikers, Buddy likes the feel of the wind on his face and so, after sunset, when we encountered some road construction and a big traffic jam, I dodged off at the exit and decided to give Buddy a ride along the river road. This slower route would bypass all the traffic, keep us moving, and give Buddy a wide range of interesting things to sniff at out the window.
A short way from town in a deserted industrial area, I spotted an older touring bike on the side of the road. It had its flashers on and the rider was peering at the motor in the darkness. I pulled in behind it, put on my four-ways and high beams to illuminate the situation, and hopped out to see if I could help. Seems he had a fuel-delivery related problem, as the bike had been recently serviced for this very same issue. His garage couldn’t come and pick it up, but with some cell-phone advice from his mechanic and the flashlight from my truck, we figured a way to get the bike to run. I followed him as he limped to an open service station at the edge of town where there was light, fresh fuel, and he could be safely off that dark windy road while he sorted out his machine.
He was very thankful for my help and tried to offer me something as a thank you. I politely declined, asking instead that he pass the help along and stop for another stranded biker. He assured me he wasn’t far from home and expected the fresh fuel would make a big improvement. As I got into the truck and started to put the flashlight back into the glove box, I realized he needed it more than I did. I handed it to him out the window and drove off into the night.
Yesterday I bought one of those fancy flashlights for my truck as a replacement. While in the hardware store, I remembered just where that flashlight I gave away came from—it was bought on impulse at another hardware store long ago. Maybe, in this case, I did get more than I paid for. I think I will add one of those cheap flashlights to each vehicle I own; they do have a value, after all.
Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, my only form of personal transportation, besides shoe leather, was a motorcycle. Cars in the Big Apple were a curse, with garage space costing as much as a suburban apartment, and street parking requiring that one’s whole life revolved around arcane alternate-side-of-the-street rules, meter maids, and the ever-prowling tow trucks. Before the bike I used mass transit locally and rented cars to escape the land of hot tin roofs and taxi cabs. Then came the bike.
That first bike changed everything; I had, to quote The Who, “Gone Mobile.” The world opened up for me—now I could go anywhere anytime, and I did. From supermarket to superslab to rural America I did roam. As time passed and I moved into the suburbs to be closer to the good riding roads, I became a commuter. I thrived on the daily combat of hustling a motorcycle through rush-hour traffic with all the manic cagers, buses, and cabs. In the days before Rudy Giuliani, and to some respects 9/11, New York was almost a Wild West frontier town. The roads were nearly lawless, especially around rush hour and in the tunnels that go under the Hudson River. Nowadays it is much different, but back then almost anything went, and you had to fight to survive.
I learned to ride kick-butt-or-die style in NYC—you just made them other drivers know you were there and they better give you space, or forgettaboutit. Of course, it did not hurt that back then everyone bought the Hollywood B-movie crap that bikers packed weapons and were more dangerous than a herd of woolly mastodons. One good scowl at a driver at a tunnel merge, or a glove-fisted tap on their window, was all it took; no horn needed, just yell at them.
I also insisted on running all my errands on the bikes. The dresser could haul enough groceries for a week, and any excuse to ride was welcomed. Heck, I brought a sewing machine home from the mall once, with a passenger to boot. I even brought home a completely decorated Christmas tree on a 650cc cruiser, riding the length of Manhattan, but I digress. Suffice it to say that I used the bike for every errand or trip that I could. That is, until one day.
I had just returned from a three-week, almost 9000-mile trip from New Jersey down to the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, across to L.A, up to Vancouver, B.C., across Canada and then back home to N.J. All those miles were covered uneventfully. I woke up the next day and needed to go to the store; my poor other bike had wasted away for three weeks without being ridden. Off I went, and two miles from the house a yuppie lady in the left-turn-only lane with her left-turn signal blinking suddenly made a right turn; she was headed into a gas station to ask for directions. Unfortunately for her, there was no one there since they were closed. Unfortunately for me, I was in the right lane at the time. No amount of safety training could save me from her mistake and the laws of physics. She clipped me. What is it they say about the first five miles from home being the most dangerous?
Well, by the time I had learned to walk again and the bike was repaired, I had decided that I would just use the bikes for pleasure and not for little trips to the store where the mindless and lost wander comfortably in their minivans. That is, until recently.
My bikes get between 35 and 50 MPG, the highest-efficiency vehicles in my personal Citizen’s Average Fuel Efficiency (or C.A.F.E.) rating. Since we have been getting &%^$ lately by the combination of OPEC, hurricanes, Big Oil, and environmentalists preventing the building of new oil refineries or new domestic oil production since the 1970’s oil-embargo days, I have decided to brush off my old NYC biker armor. I am riding my bike on every errand or trip that I can. I am also telling everyone who will listen that I am fighting back by riding and doing my part to lower the demand for fuel. So look out SUV America—that woolly biker is roaming into the war zone of the supermarket parking lot. You might want to do the same and tell EVERYBODY. Maybe we can make it a movement, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie: an entire two-wheeled Motorcycles-Are-Everywhere-Saving-Gas Movement. Bikes and Bikers Rules!
Unless you have an automatic, a rare bird in motorcycling, shifting gears is a constant part of riding. Shift up, shift down, row those gears and keep the motor in the power band—then you are always ready to respond to changes in traffic. Being prepared to respond to changing conditions is part of both the challenge and excitement of riding a motorcycle, and it is in the ability to effectively respond to change that our greatest advantage is found. As any experienced rider knows, traffic is only one of many shifting challenges that we must contend with—there’s also road surfaces, speed zones, unexpected debris, contours of the land, and fickle weather. Then there are the changes that occur on a longer cyclical basis; while these are more predictable than, say, finding a retread carcass in your path, they can still surprise you if you let them.
Seasons come and seasons go, and each has its own unique requirements in terms of riding gear. If you ride beyond the peak warm season, you will probably need to make changes of gear during the course of any long day’s ride. While it is true that summer (or, for that matter, winter) rides can call for changes of gear, fall and spring days are truly the gear-shifting seasons. Turn that day ride into a weekend excursion, and the potential changes of gear can become dramatic. Over the past few weeks this has become very apparent to me again. One would think that with a few decades of riding under my saddle, I would have made the shift automatically. No such luck.
Years ago, living in the snow belt of New Jersey, it always seemed that the cooler weather came on like throwing a light switch. One day you walked outside and—ouch—it was markedly cooler and you got the very clear message that things had changed. However, where I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the shifting seasons are much more subtle, more like a constant-velocity transmission than a standard shift. While it may feel just fine to walk the dog in shorts and a t-shirt, enjoying the sunshine and gentle mountain breezes, it is another thing entirely to go riding. Last week my three-season perforated-leather jacket was still hot riding all day in it; the other day it felt great when I started, but by the time I got home it was feeling a little too air-conditioned. (OK, it was actually cold.) Along the way I stopped to add a layer, only to find that my cool-weather gear was not in the saddlebags. Standing at a scenic mountaintop pullout, I remembered removing all that stuff a few weekends ago for some early Christmas shopping at some of our favorite little touristy shops.
What had been good planning for a late-summer ride through the mountains, with lunch and shopping as a destination, had shifted into poor planning for an early-fall ride into higher elevations. Luckily, a refolded map placed between the jacket perforations and me cut the cold breeze enough to get home—old-fashioned paper maps can’t give you turn-by-turn directions or instantly reroute you if you miss a street the way GPS units do, but they cover a lot more frozen biker than a three-inch LCD screen will. That day it seemed as if the seasons had short-shifted on me, but then the next day was 80 degrees and shorts weather again. Well, that is nature after all: she is a fickle woman and you are wise to not fool with her.
Now the bike is repacked with the correct gear to handle any seasonal shift in the weather. Of course, this means I couldn’t bring home much of anything from the store if I wanted to. There is maybe just enough room for a container of broccoli in spicy garlic sauce, but I will tell you another time why I will never put that in my saddlebags again. As 2010 slowly shifts from prime riding season into fall foliage, then downshifts again into winter, I am ready to respond to the changes in temperature. Gear-wise at least. But I also have to shift my riding technique and my hazard alertness. The ranks of lumbering RVs and spandex-clad bicyclists are thinning, but wet leaves and the dreaded black ice will soon replace them. And somewhere in between that shift will be the leaf lookers, driving around with their eyes, and minds, in the trees. So as the seasons and the hazards shift, keep your eyes on the road and traffic and your bike in the power band.
I am sure all of you know that old childhood game: Rock, Paper, Scissors. Unless I am mistaken, there was even an adult version that was a reality TV show with a Las Vegas finale and a large cash prize. For those of you who either had a deprived childhood or have lost too many brain cells to remember, the game goes like this—two players face each other and each makes a fist. Then they raise and lower their fists three times, and on three they throw their choice of rock, paper, or scissors. Rock is a fist, paper a flat hand, and scissors a pair of fingers held in a V shape. The rules are simple: rock breaks scissors, paper covers rock, and scissors cut paper. It is a fair game; anyone can win just so long as the opponent happens to choose the weaker option. Often this game is use by children to decide the outcome of some issue that is not readily resolved by consensus, like who gets the good player on their team, or who get to go first.
Well, I have a feeling that some so-called adults have invented a new version of this game, one that can be played to deadly consequences, and often for things of equally little value as who goes first. I have seen it played on roads all over the country, even in my polite, peaceful mountain home. Fortunately, I have not seen it played to the death or even major injury, but I have heard the stories of folks hospitalized for months or, worse, killed. I must admit that I too have succumbed to the temptation to play, though fortunately with no harm to anyone, aside from the psychic shock of knowing I just did something stupid that could have gotten me killed. Heck, as I look back to my earlier days of riding a motorcycle in New York City, I remember being a master at the game; the fact that I am here to write this proves that I was undefeated. However, ask any child—no one remains undefeated at Rock, Paper, Scissors forever; sooner or later winners become losers. In my case, I can only believe that it is simply by the grace of God that I stopped playing before I lost.
In the new game played on our highways and byways, the issues being decided are never worth the consequences, especially to the loser. For the winner the price of victory can often be cheap, even when the loser has lost his or her life. The rewards for winning can only be valued by folks with a twisted value system, in my humble opinion. The game has at least three choices for the players: truck, car, motorcycle, though sometimes you can add bicycles or mopeds. The game is played for high stakes, as in life or death, yet the players never see that until it is too late. The method of play varies according to the players, the road, and the momentary object in contention, but it always seems to start with a few basic mindsets on the part of the initiator—selfishness, disrespect, and maliciousness. In reality it is not a game at all, but it is truly childish to engage in it.
It could be a bicycle hogging a whole lane on a twisty mountain road, forcing a motorcyclist to cross the double yellow to pass, or a motorcycle recklessly disregarding that same yellow line to pass a car. A car and tractor-trailer playing tag, endless passing each other just so they can be “first” on the highway, or a pickup truck and sports car weaving in and out of crowded traffic to avenge some perceived affront to their man- or womanhood. The examples are endless in their mutations, yet they all have a common thread: they are ignorant, the road is not a school playground, and road users are supposed to be adults. While we can work with the American Motorcyclist Association to pursue the Justice For All Campaign—designed to make drivers responsible for injuring or killing others—there are a few things that will not change. Roadway confrontations are not a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors because there will always be the inherent unfairness of size. It goes like this: truck crushes car, car flattens motorcycle, motorcycle smashes bicycle. It is not a game, folks, so while we wage the good war to pass better laws and hopefully train better drivers, I would like to offer some sage advice, given to me by a highway patrolman in lieu of a ticket. Let the idiot who wants to play games go, slow down, turn off the road, take an alternate route, don’t ever pull over to “talk it out.” If they follow you, head to a place with lots of witnesses, or better yet to the local police station. The only way to win in this game is to not play. Ride Safe out there so you can ride another day.
Do you remember where it all started for you, this two-wheel passion thing? Of course you remember that first motorcycle ride, as surely as you remember your first carnal experience. Odds are that you remember your first bike as clearly as your first lover. While those memories of that first ride and first bike are certainly strong, clear, and close to the surface of our awareness, I believe that for most of us, those memories are not truly the primal ones, the ones that really inspired our moto-selves.
Somewhere, perhaps deeply buried or simply unrecognized by our conscious minds, there lays a deeper memory. An experience or happening in our lives that came first in the sequence, which programmed us into the bikers we have grown to be. It is the first line of moto-code in our two-wheeled DNA. This often simple, maybe even innocuous experience became the first turn in our learning curve of self that ultimately brought the bike/s into our garages and landed this blog on your screen today. Ponder it for a moment or two. Can you trace it back past the obvious?
I think I may have traced mine back, but the pathway to awareness that I took today came not from an intended introspection but rather from telling my wife the history of one of the objects from my past that lives in my garage. Let me explain. My garage is equal to the size of my house; it is home to my motorcycles and, like yours probably is, is also filled with all those things that as a packrat I cannot bear to discard. I spent today working in the garage clearing an area for a workbench and reorganizing my assorted packrat stuff. It was near the end of this process that the awareness of my primal memory arrived.
Mary, my sweetheart, brought me a cold beverage, and while I took a short break from my work to talk with her, she asked about an unusual piece of furniture sitting in the pile of stuff I was rearranging. My father, who was a carpenter, made the item in question; it was designed to custom-fit in an apartment my parents and I lived in long ago. My father passed away when I was six and my mother kept it when we moved because it was one of the things he had made. However, it did not fit in any place my mom lived since I was ten. When my mother passed in 1990, it came to my garage, and it hasn’t found a purpose in any place that I have lived, either—that is, until today. It carried a memory revealing a purpose so much deeper than its function as a piece of custom furniture.
During the process of relating the idea and the origin of this object to my sweetheart, I described my childhood home to her. I told her of the floor plan of this railroad-style flat and where it was located in the South Bronx. When I described my room, I came across that primal memory. My bedroom was the last room in the back and its windows faced towards the middle of the city block. About three blocks from my bedroom windows was the Cross Bronx Expressway, a fifties-style, sunken highway that cut across the Bronx, connecting the northeastern suburbs and states with New York City and the George Washington Bridge.
That major artery, while not as crowded then as it is today, was busy all day and night with traffic. The canyon-like structure of the road made the sounds of engines and spinning wheels echo through the local streets and alleyways and into my bedroom. When I was describing that room and the sounds that inhabited it, I had one of those moments of clarity that is often accompanied by an expression of: Aha! Those first years of my life I slept to the lullaby of the road as it played its constant, almost unnoticed drone over the slumbering city. I realized that the music of engines and the road was ingrained into me from way before I even saw my first motorcycle. For me, that was the first line of code that programmed the wanderlust and moto-mania into my soul. Till this day, whenever I sometimes hear a motor roaring in the distance or the chorus of singing tires and honking horns, I feel a sense of comfort in those sounds. I reconnect with my Primal Memories.
Copyright Bill Hufnagle 2014