Thanks, Charley & Ewan

In late 2004 my friends and I found ourselves tuning in to a TV show unlike any we’d ever seen. The heyday of reality television at the time seemed to hyperbolically wrap everything into some version of fear, surreal or extreme. Houses and bodies alike were being manipulated ad nauseam subjecting couch potatoes to pure schmaltz. My friends and I, on the other hand, had found a gem of a real story: two friends making their way around the world on motorcycles in Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s epic adventure Long Way Round.

Weekly we watched the action unfold as they traversed Western Europe, Kazakstan, Mongolia, Russia enroute eastward from London to New York City. While we marveled at the scenery and laughed at their camaraderie a synapse fired deep in my brain. I clearly remember sitting there on the floor, a makeshift camp of food and bodies, watching the adventure thinking: I gotta get a bike.

Those who know me best know I’m prone to intense interest in things that later fade. Hobbies-a-plenty become all-consuming. When I get in, I get in deep. Thousands of dollars have been spent on gear for climbing, cycling, painting, camping, sculpting, sfx makeup and guitars. Hobbies that have been around the longest like photography and writing have served me well over the years but the cash I spend is trivial in hindsight since what I learn often pays dividends down the road. My friends, however, shook their collective heads at me as I carried on endlessly about motorcycles. No detail was too small to share. Bless them.

By the spring of 2005 I had scads of research swimming in my head about everything from riding position to brands, models and accessories but hadn’t actually ridden a motorcycle. Though I have many friends none were of the two-wheeled variety so with some nervousness I took the local safety course. There I found twenty or so others who, like me, had a keen interest but needed first to learn the mystic art of dodging orange cones in a parking lot.

MSF road training on a Honda Nighthawk

The ink on my motorcycle endorsement was still wet as I visited every bike shop in town. A small pile of cash was burning a hole in my pocket but no matter how I squinted at a price tag the numbers never changed in my favor. It wasn’t until I inquired about a private sale of a 2002 Honda Shadow (750cc) that my searching yielded a possibility. With my lollipop-red helmet buckled tight I went for a shaky test drive. Too nervous that I would crash, I don’t think I went more than a mile. The owner and I both knew my abilities went only as far as 2 days of training but I completed the ride, bike intact. To my luck I somehow convinced the owner he’d be better off with my $2800 than the $3200 he was asking. I was so ecstatic I hugged him. I had my first bike.

Then, sheepishly, I asked him to drive it home for me.

Down the Natchez Trace Parkway on the Shadow

My former wife would call my motorcycles the “mistress”. She’d wake up in the morning and I’d be in the garage shining bits of chrome or off making larger and larger circles slowly escaping our neighborhood. I got more fluent, more confident and performed my own two-wheeled mapping of every rural road throughout central Tennessee. The trips got longer and I’d find myself hundreds of miles from home wondering how far I could/should push it. This was a freedom like nothing I had ever known. To paraphrase Ted Simon, being on a motorcycle in the elements allows you to experience the landscape instead of seeing it postcard-like through a windshield.

Those day trips were exhilarating but physically battering. I was starting to see a new view of the world but at the expense of comfort, the Shadow just wasn’t cutting it. There was too much to see and I wanted to go further which, of course, meant a new bike.

Ramble On

The Honda ST1300 I subsequently bought was not only bigger in physical size and engine but would take me thousands of miles and coast to coast over the years — from Kitty Hawk over the Blue Ridge mountains, across the desert and to the west coast. This was a needed and massive upgrade. Roads beneath turned to a blur as I decided to ride full-time, selling my car in the process.

About this time I started to take an interest in motorcycle racing. MotoGP, World Superbike and AMA are fine to watch on TV but there’s nothing quite like being trackside. I was fortunate to make friends with a race team out of Wisconsin. Over the next years I spent countless hours at any number of tracks a day or two ride from my home.

Paul James (#70) at Barber Raceway in the wet

Those days spent standing at the edge of a track ready for a pit stop are embedded in my memory. I will forever dream about the smell of race fuel and the sound of bikes warming up at first light. In a world of subcultures the teams of families who make their dream a reality going from race to race are inspiring. About that time I was so inspired I penned a (mostly unfinished) screenplay about an up-and-coming woman road racer. For those in the know, think: Melissa Paris/Elena Myers.

About that time my company was arranging travel to the upcoming January trade shows in both Las Vegas and San Francisco. On a whim I said, “pay for my gas and I’ll get there on my own”. The folks I worked with knew how much I like a good road trip but I had something else in mind. I prepped and gathered what I thought were the necessary bits but on January 3rd, when the weather was 18˚ with snow flurries in the wind it was too late to rethink my cross country trip. That first day I had but two goals: don’t freeze and get as far southwest as you can.

35˚ at the Tennessee/Arkansas State Line

People returning from their New Year holiday travel must have thought I was quite the sight — dressed like the Michelin man and astride my STeed. I was aware of wind chill from the previous years riding but an average of -8˚ for the better part of the first day, heated gear on full, found me frazzled and exhausted just a bit over 600 miles away in Greenville, TX. It got somewhat better after that.

White Sands, NM

It seems when I tell people about my solo trips the common expression is “what if something happens?” This kind of unspecific fear is everywhere, tied to every kind of activity so I generally pay it no mind. Only once on my trips did I feel my heart beat through my ten layers of (heated) clothing.

Somewhere along I-10 just east of El Paso the gas light on my bike turned on noting I was heading into reserves. I tapped my GPS and found a station a few miles up and exited, crossing over the highway and down into, I think, a Chevron station. As I pulled down toward the pumps I noticed a few people next to their cars out front but, right at dusk, the station lights weren’t on just yet. The pavement leading to the pumps was derelict, gravely cement broken up by disrepair and the constant summer heat.

I pulled up to a pump, dismounted and took the couple of minutes it usually did for me to get my gloves, helmet and balaclava off. I reached for the pump handle but there wasn’t one, just a dangling hose. I looked up noticing my pump and all the others under the rusted awning had been torn open and stripped of their guts. In the waning light I hadn’t seen this. I sighed, defeated but since there were a few people outside and I could see movement inside thought I get in a quick pee and ask for directions to the nearest working station.

Inside the station there was a deli counter and a few small tables. The man behind the counter looked up, surprised at my entrance as I asked for directions to the bathroom. He motioned around the corner and it wasn’t until I was turning away that I noticed the store, including the deli area, actually had no food. The walls inside were mostly devoid of decoration and I don’t even think I saw a cash register. Now I’m freaked out.

Rounding the corner to the bathroom I immediately spot two guys who quickly turn away, one toward the door past me, one toward the sink. They make short work of getting out of the room as I step up to a urinal in my full bike suit. Stopping for a “quick pee” in a multi-layered, heated bike suit is anything but and it takes me some time to complete the task of undressing *just* enough. My heart is starting to race and I’m thinking about the exit, my bike, the lack of people or food inside, about the guys outside and the gravel I’ll have to maneuver in order to make a quick exit.

I’m still zipping up my jacket when I head toward the front door but my path is blocked by a large man in a plaid shirt. He looks down at me more than a foot above my own height. He’s got a bushy beard and I immediately think of a horror movie version of the Brawny lumberjack. I meet his eyes and all that falls from my mouth is “gas station?”

He doesn’t break eye contact with me saying, “Twenty miles up the road. Go.” There’s something in his expression that tells me I shouldn’t question but I want to and he sees it. Instead of saying anything else his face twitches just enough, his neck craning down fractions of and inch emphasizing the nonverbal “go”.

I move past him and out the door to my bike. Though it’s cold I don’t put on my balaclava or gloves but stuff them down my collar and into my jacket. I throw on my helmet without buckling the strap and fire up the bike. My bike lights turn on illuminating the inside of the store where I can see other shapes moving I didn’t notice on the way out. The guys outside next to the cars start to yell something at me but I don’t pay attention. Instead I make a quick exit past as they throw something (rocks?) at me and my bike. Through the gravel and up toward the highway my heart is beating through my suit, my hands don’t feel cold though the temperature is surely in the low 40s and the windchill is increasing.

I hit the highway at full speed looking back at the gas station. I can see now, even in the last light of day, it’s not been operational for years. The awning is falling down in places, the parking lot is full of tumbleweeds and junk. How could I have missed all that on the way in?

Down the road, running on fumes, I find a gas station right across from a US Border patrol station. Exactly 20 miles. It’s small but busy and well-lit. I fill up quickly and sit on the curb for half an hour to let the adrenaline subside. The Friday night traffic heading toward El Paso and the Mexico border streams along next to me in great waves. I’m never more happy to be in the company of a multitude of strangers under the florescent lights. Now, ten years later, I can still see that man’s face and his eyes steady on mine saying “go”.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Work and life intrude on my motorcycle habits over the next few years. And, as things happen, some of the joy I originally had was lost. I stopped riding, bought a car and eventually sold the ST to a nice fella from Wisconsin. Bikeless, I moved to the west coast not much later.

Now, here’s the thing about living in Northern California — the landscape is beautiful but traffic sucks. (See also: traffuck). I find myself hating the commute, sitting in a car or ferry for an hour each day from my east bay home to the city. Going home is worse and it makes me consider starting a support group for road rage. So the itch comes back as I see bikes weave between cars making short work of the standstill Bay Bridge traffic.

With the exception of my early interest in bagger-style American bikes I’ve always been drawn to Japanese or European bikes. I checked out the new Triumph Thruxton or Ducati Monster looking at their narrow handlebars for ease of maneuvering through traffic. 10+ years from my initial bike purchase I’m no longer afraid to test ride and take out a number of bikes always feeling the goldilocks syndrome creep in: this one’s too big, this one’s too small.

Instead of go all out on a new ride I nab a beater that gets me back in the game — a 2003 BMW Dakar. Expertly designed for rough terrain, this bike may hold the title for most awkwardly dressed bike in history — named after a North African city, built by Germans and painted up with all the red, white and blue gusto of an American fourth of July parade. The saving graces of this bike are it’s amazing agility and pocket change cost.

BMW Dakar

For all the things the Dakar is good for it leaves me hungry like the 8 seconds after devouring a Big Mac. Long or short rides leave me not wanting more but less Dakar. Maybe if I took it off road I’d feel different but my daily commute just seemed to drop in satisfaction the more miles I put under the wheels.

Now, when I said there was a single thought that occurred to me watching Long Way Round I may have fibbed. Sure, the essence of what I wanted was a bike but what I really longed for and have since 2004 was a BMW 1200GS. I know, I know. Groan if you want but that bike has been the ghost I’ve been chasing, the paramour I’ve always wanted in every test ride since.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before to rent one but eventually that’s what I did. And oh my. It’s every bit as nimble as the Dakar but all grow’d up. Not only is it more stylish the GS is 70lbs lighter or, if you prefer, as much as an 10 year old, than my ST!

Thrashing the GS over Mount Tamalpais, along the coastline on Highway 1 and into wine country was the feeling I hoped every other bike would someday have but didn’t. That boxer engine purrs beautifully down at your toes and is oh-so confidence inspiring when combined with the steering, suspension and even a decent set of tires in the tight twisties.

BMW GS on Mt. Tam

I have to admit there was a moment I considered not taking it back to the rental shop. If my credit card wasn’t on file I swear Baja was calling to me from off in the distance. But, alas, the bike rolled effortlessly through morning traffic and back to the shop on the saddest Monday I’ve had in years. Key fob in hand (keyless start!) I walked into the shop and reluctantly handed it to the clerk. Ride over.

…until I saw one sitting there, same color, same package…with a For Sale sign.

J. Curtis is writer and product developer living in the East Bay. He’s always hatching another story idea and balancing a dozen interesting projects at work and home.

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