It had been a long, long time—perhaps measured in eons—since I had visited a shop like this. Oh, mind you, I have been to countless dealerships of factory bikes lately. Shiny new edifices of brick and steel, polished to a high sheen, corporate logos blazing in neon. Highway billboards announcing their location for miles around. Service bays so clean and brightly lit that they resembled hospital operating rooms. Fine coffee flowing free and maybe a pool table to amuse you and some deep leather chairs to relax in while your steed is checked over and repaired. But not here. There was nary a greaseless seat available; in fact, the most comfortable place to sit was the curb of the parking lot. The only leather in sight was my riding gear and the only pool table was at the local bar/hooker hangout across the alley. As for coffee, well, although I make it strong enough to tan your stomach, I decided to pass on theirs; the smoke from the crusty pot smelled more like gear oil on an overheated muffler than coffee.
I was on the road, my machine needed service, and the nearest dealer didn’t work on my brand. So I found the shop. What is it they say about any port in a storm? I pulled up near the service door and dismounted. Like junkyard dogs, some shop kids came clamoring out to have a look-see at the unusual bike. Actually, my bike is not that unusual, but compared to the rusty, greasy, well worn-out machines lined up outside, it was surely a rare sight. I have not seen such a collection of dilapidated iron for almost as long as I haven’t seen a shop like this.
Here in the bad part of town, away from the genteel folks, where only the outcasts of society travel or ply their trades is where, decades ago, all motorcycles shops were located. At that time dealers of factory bikes weren’t commonly called dealerships, just motorcycle shops, and they definitely did not cater to today’s mainstream biker clientele. In those days we all were unwelcome in polite company, but we always had a home at the shop. Back in the halcyon days of my moto-youth, I spent uncountable hours—truly stated, days at a time—hanging around shops much like this one.
Of course, those long-ago shops were less cramped and slightly cleaner than this one, since rents, and everything else for that matter, were cheaper, and the equipment was probably newer than the bikes being worked on. Here, a look into the dark recesses of the service area revealed six bike lifts crammed into what would be the area of two service bays at a modern dealership. Under the dim glow of humming and flickering fluorescent lamps, aided by a few yellowish pools of illumination from work lights, the art of motorcycle repair was being practiced. A careful eye revealed that, although most of the machinery of the shop was older and greasier than the bikes on the lifts, it was all well cared for. Which was more than you could say for the bikes. Yes, this was a contemporary of the shops I haunted long ago, albeit now with the accumulated grime and wear and tear of the last several decades. Perhaps this is how I, and some of you, look to the new blood of our sub-culture—old and crusty, far from hip and new.
But can you blame them for considering shops like this, and vintage riders like us, as old and crusty? After all, most new folks in our sport have come along in the new golden years of motorcycling. A world built by the hard work and investment of dedicated enthusiasts like the folks at this shop, aided in the last few decades by the corporate success of America’s only surviving original motorcycle manufacturer. How many new folks are flooding to our ranks each year? How many come with their minds filled with images of TV-star bike-building in sano shops that are more stage sets than actual workplaces? Back in the day, if you drifted into this lifestyle, it was around shops like this, populated by old-timers with cigars permanently attached to their faces and grease tattooed into their hands. Punk kids like me were not welcomed openly, yet we were accepted and little did we know how much they liked having us around to learn the ways of the wheel and the wrench. “Sweep the floor, kid, and keep out of my way!” Well, that was then as this is now, but one thing has remained the same—this shop did right by me, good work at a fair price, with a greasy handshake thrown in for good measure.
The title seems a little strange, I know, but this one is like the truism: “If I have to explain, you won’t understand.” The idea is going to be closer to your heart than you might think—that is, if you are a biker or a dog lover, or both, like me.
First, let’s lay out what I think is a fact of life. How can anyone live, I mean really live, without riding a motorcycle? Yes, you can exist, survive, be a consumer, go from cradle to grave without ever throwing a leg over a motorcycle. My personal experience has revealed that you will not experience life, freedom, and self-reliance with the same in-your-face reality as riding provides. You might be connected in a 4G LTE social-networking, four-bars virtual way, but when the LI-ON battery is drained, where have you been that you will remember in life’s rocking chair? Virtually nowhere, plugged in, connected and absent all at the same time. It is today’s version of “turned-on, tuned-in and dropped-out.” No thanks!
So what if motorcycles were dogs? To start, let’s understand how motorcycles are not dogs. Bikes will sleep in your garage virtually forever without ever needing to go out. They don’t need food or water. In a sense, they never die. Left unused they will just fade away. You can walk by your bike everyday and it will never acknowledge your existence. Yet if you choose to key it to life, they will growl and run, as long as you tend to the battery.
If you have had dogs in your life, you know they demand a lot more attention than a parked bike. When you return home, they will put on a show filled with love and expectation of love, and maybe cookies in return. They require regular feeding and if you don’t take them outside on a very regular basis, you will be reminded in an unpleasant way. While you may walk past your own dog with little more than a following glance or sniff, strangers will receive a growl or a bark or a warning worth noticing. Sadly, dogs do die; this is one of the more painful realities that teaches you to pay attention to them while God graces you with their companionship. If you don’t know the pain of laying a good dog to rest, consider that having your bike stolen from under you at highway speed won’t even come close. Loosing a good dog is road rash on your soul; it heals, with time, yet while the pain fades it is not ever forgotten. Yes, I love my dogs—two lay near me as I write this—and my bikes. If you asked me to choose between them, I would know for sure that you were either insane or from the government. In either case, you would not like my answer.
So what if motorcycles were dogs, or at least like them? Well, on rainy days, they would pester you nonstop: “Hey, I am here, bored silly and I want your attention!” They would communicate in no uncertain terms that they want you to pet them, pander to them, love them, and assure them that the storm will pass and tomorrow the sun will shine again. They would in return remind you that indeed these dark skies will pass and tomorrow will be a new day filled with the possibilities of new adventures. Dogs want you to walk them, take them out to explore the world, to see the sights and smell the scents of life beyond the front yard. When you head for the door, they follow you in anticipation and unending hope. Dogs live in the now, there is no tomorrow, no maybe next time, no fear. They just are in the here and now and want you with them, and want to be with you more than words can express; yet tails will tell.
So imagine for a moment that that motorcycle parked in your autumn garage was your good and faithful dog? What would it communicate to you? Yes, it is cooler outside and the skies are gray, but let’s go and play. It would gently nudge you to get up off your butt and live. It would drop its keys in your lap and pace back and forth from you to the door with a grin on its face and a twinkle in its eye. It would love you. So what are you waiting for? Don’t let that bike fade away—ride while God graces you with a bike for a companion and the ability to ride. That rocking chair is closer than you think!
Recently, I finally entered the GPS universe. I had resisted for years, having always felt that riding did not require me to know with the precision of a cruise missile where I was headed. Even when I did have a destination and a schedule, I was good to go with just a map and compass. If dead reckoning was good enough for the old timers, it was good enough for me. Besides, the more I ride, the more I see it as a way to get away, not to get to somewhere. I have never been lost, but even when I do get slightly misplaced, I always find new cool roads and places. A perfectly workable situation: just head out in the general direction and enjoy the journey because the journey is the best part.
So, why did I buy a GPS? Well, there are two different reasons. One is that I enjoy hiking; living in the Blue Ridge Mountains offers many such opportunities and a GPS is very helpful. The other, more relevant reason is that I have become increasing curious about all the different little roads I see. Here in the mountains there are so many routes that look great at their junction with the main road but quickly prove to be dead ends or to dwindle out into gravel. More often than not there isn’t any “No Outlet” or “Dead End” sign; you just find out the hard way. Paper maps of the region show a traveler’s level of detail, but I wanted more. I wanted an explorer’s tool.
So I tried Google Earth, and found that the satellite views are not all that recent; the same applies to other satellite view services. Then I looked into computer map programs, which offer some pretty good detail, but the cost of highly detailed map quadrants adds up fast. Besides, the computer stays home. I finally found a GPS unit with multiple maps that gives me the ones I need, along with a tool to log interesting roads as waypoints for later research on the computer. I can even look at them on satellite view so I can plan adventures. This is a new level of fun.
So the other day I put it all into use and laid out on the computer what looked like a cool ride, connecting several new roads, and then I downloaded it to the GPS unit and told it to start navigating. Unfortunately, it kept telling me that it could not do turn-by-turn with this map and these waypoints. After some time on the phone with the help center in India, I finally figured out (on my own) that I had to be a lot more precise in placing the waypoints for the route. When I did that, it worked. With the unit mounted on my handlebars, I was ready to explore.
Everything was working fine, but I did note that using a GPS for the first time can be distracting. I will have to develop the discipline of watching the road, not the unit. Several turns into my ride I came to a road I had been seeking for years, which was to be the high point of this trip: old US Route 70 between Black Mountain and Old Fort, NC, replaced long ago by Interstate 40. Well, guess what I found? It is there, but it ain’t a road anymore—it’s a gated paved bicycle and walking trail. And right at the start is a gravel road that, according to the map and GPS, wanders around and down the mountain to intersect with the other end of this trail. Since I know all too well that an 800-pound tour bike is not a dual-purpose vehicle, especially on unpaved mountain roads, I had to turn around and go back to dead reckoning to pick up the route further on.
It seems that progress, in the form of the interstate highway system, made the old route obsolete. Since it was no longer maintained, it was ultimately closed. Over time, a new use was found for that old roadbed and it was paved as a bike and hike trail. Yet people still wanted another way around, which is natural since the interstate, being limited access, doesn’t connect the little places in between exchanges. The roads in that area have evolved and devolved with the passage of time. I have seen it before around here: eventually, the gravel road will get tar and stoned, then after years of growth it will get paved. Some time in the future I will ride that newly paved old road, and sooner than that I will hike that new trail. In both cases, I will be traveling on evolutionary road.