Friday, August 17, 2018

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Rider

Tomorrow I take off for Niagara Falls on my Burgman scooter. I leave behind friends and family and of course my Rusty as I chart a 1500 mile journey by Interstate freeway to the Canadian border attempting to get there in 36 hours. By myself. 
Motorcyclists are an odd bunch, mostly because  they aren't a bunch at all but clumps of iconoclasts who stick together by style, brand or size of machine but not by common interest or for self preservation. People who ride motorcycles despise people who ride scooters. People who ride Harleys frequently can see nothing beyond the marque while youngsters on sports bikes think going slow is a death sentence when the opposite might very well be true. And then there are BMW  riders...
Naturally I cut across all these lines and artificial divisions because I rode scooters as a youngster and of course motorcycles as I got older but always had an eye on a Vespa or two in my life. I see the good in a Harley Davidson even though the foot forward style and short suspension on a 600+ pound motorcycle doesn't work for me. I grew up with European brands, exotic outside their home countries, but I have had my share of Japanese machines, derisively described as rice burners when they first appeared in the West. My motorcycles have always been useful things, machines that I enjoy riding but that will work as my daily transportation.  I prefer to ride than to drive.
Yet I ride alone mostly. Ask and I shall be delighted to offer a ride but I would never require anyone to sit on a motorcycle in traffic and face the world exposed as a potential meat crayon without their express desire. I have been lucky riding ever since 1970 that I haven't been hurt badly by my two wheelers. Beyond the luck I have gained tons of experience riding in the  hair raising flow of Italian cities, where two wheels are the only way to get around, and better  a scooter than a motorcycle:
In England I took advanced riding courses learning to anticipate traffic and understanding how to move ahead of the vehicles in the roadway to avoid unexpected turns. In the US most motorcyclists come to their two wheels from cars and perhaps its a matter of temperament but the notion of making progress is not clearly understood or deployed. I love this article from RideApart which explains perfectly how I was taught to ride:
Making Progress
It occurred to me a few years ago that the only place I feel graceful and in my element is on two wheels. My buddy Giovanni and I were riding the mountain roads of our childhood a few years ago and he coined a nickname for me; he said I was an architect as I drew perfect lines cornering through the Italian mountains. He is faster than me as he crosses the center line and ducks into hairpins braking too hard but I amuse myself by bend swinging in a more measured way without brakes, riding the gears and the gas only and cutting the apex of each corner at the exact right spot, if I can. We take our fun where we find it.
I discovered recently an old friend who was curious to take a ride and see what I see and I never made the offer to sit on my pillion. I often feel as though my pleasures are too abstruse to find any resonance and what I fear appears selfish is merely a misplaced attempt to respect other people's space. Offer a ride to someone who is fearful of two wheels, and many are, and you will find yourself exposing parts of people's psyche they do not want exposed. To me a motorcycle is a meditation, a magic carpet, a machine capable of turning the banal into a memory. I don't car if I'm riding a  scooter or an exotic brand, 15 or a hundred horsepower the mesmerizing effect of flight on the ground remains the same. For most people motorcycles are noisy smelly dangerous contraptions with no more raison d'etre than a guillotine. Why the hell would you put your head in one of those? Because I love the sensation of flying that's why.
By choosing these years in the Keys to explore small bore engines I have opened a whole new North American world of riding. I love using a small bike in a big bike role as I feel like I'm getting one over on the advertisers who tell us what we "need." Screw them, I'm fine on my little urban runabout. I go on a long distance ride to see what I can do with a plastic bodied Japanese gearless motorcycle. It would be too easy to rumble out on a full size touring motorcycle with all the bells and whistles and large fuel tank and cruise control and so forth. Where's the challenge?  I have a suspicion I shall have  a very fun ride if all goes remotely close to plan. But in any event it will be me alone for 36 hours, riding with my thoughts and hopes, pondering the meaning of life and my incompetent place in it.  
I hope that explains the why and wherefore, of me alone on the road without even my dog for company. Sometimes it just has to be done. I hope I shall be back in a week with stories to tell and joy in my heart. Always you need that joy that comes from roads like this and encounters along the way:
Image result for pennsylvania twisty backroads
 I am the architect...says Giovanni scepticism writ large all over his face:
I don't always ride scooters. Sometimes I ride 170 hp behemoths. 
You decide which is more fun and which one you'd rather ride with me.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My Town

Swimming in the canal behind my house, still a rather bilious shade of green thanks to Hurricane Irma's passage eleven months ago I asked my wife if she thought Key West has changed in our two decades living and working here. She looked at me like I was an idiot. Of course it haS she said firmly. It isn't, I wondered out loud that we may have changed and what seemed fresh and new and interesting no longer is..?  She snorted in derision.
I came to Key West in 1981 and there was no doubt the place was different. I kept coming back, visiting friends, going sailing living the life of a tropical wharf rat in short bursts before returning to real life in California where I sailed in harsh seas under gray skies through cold summers and colder winters. California was dynamic and interesting and the weather sucked. But Key West was too isolated and remote in those pre-internet pre-Amazon days for young persons like me. And then time passed and I sailed into Key West with wife and dogs never to leave.
The litany of changes that have taken place this century, for us, consists mostly in the ways we amused ourselves back when we were in our forties. My wife reminded me we used to get cheap eats on the beach at the Sands as it was known, an informal buffet place right on the water and dog friendly. We watched al fresco movies at the Atlantic Shores, the resort that was pleased to describe itself as straight friendly. Movie nights saw me chomping free popcorn with my yellow Lab on the chaise longue between my legs snoozing and oblivious to the movie crowd. Who was it on stage that handed out raffle freebies? Super girl..? Wonder woman..?  Lots of laughter and not bad movies either under the stars.
Then we had access in those pre-digital photography days to the Botanical Garden, an overgrown under attended forest on Stock Island that later fell victim to the organizational drive of a woman from Up North who mended the fences and started charging a fee and labeling all the plants. We bought pizza with Robert and carried boxes and beers out to the two picnic tables under the Canary island date palms and had supper under the trees before retreating and leaving the place to become the bums' bedroom as it did nightly. We cleared our trash of course as well. We ate at Stick and Stein and played incompetent pool and spent very little money. Or there was the buffet at Winn Dixie and the weird vibes at the Hukilau much lamented when it was torn down, Polynesia in paradise...
Things have tightened up in Paradise, where street art, bumming  a drink and standing around weaving palm fronds have  become memories for the most part. The color that was Key West, the hippy town that time forgot and that visitors proudly adopted as their away from home vibe has been buried under an avalanche of money. There is some perverse notion in me that a cleaner tidier Key West will be nicer to live in, yet despite the influx of money we still have a malodorous Duval Street with dirt ground into the paint, but we don't have the pirates or the men in tutus wandering around giving cover to those of us that like to pass unnoticed. Gone are the days you could rent cheap digs, do a couple of low stress jobs and have time left over to go fish or play a guitar or watch a sunset. When small homes in Key West sell easily for a million dollars  frivolity gets pushed to the curb. Come to Key West, pay top prices for a hotel room and see the southernmost buoy which is known to locals by several unflattering nicknames.
I admire the seashell for hanging in for now. Youth Hostel, cheaper rooms and a bit of funk. I cherish it as long as it lasts...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


If you want to know what the back country looks like off Highway One, this is it:
I took these pictures on different days in different places.

 Rusty the hot dog.
 Side roads always run into dead ends.

 You can hear cars coming from a way away.

 In winter it's harder to find roads free of the endless brigades of Spandex clad cycle racers.
Winters bring more bird life as migrations tend to settle around here in the cold months.

Rusty looks so downcast. He's actually not, he's just tired.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My Key West

I saw this sign on a recent wander and I thought to myself, I can think of nothing more ordinary in the way of modern bar food  than exactly that. It's a popular bar on Greene Street but I am not tempted to test the out of the ordinary nature. My wife made me a breakfast pizza Sunday which is about as out of the ordinary as I have had in a while. I do not need to travel to  find out of the ordinary.
There is much lamentation that downtown isn't a place to go shopping for useful stuff for locals. So I was not entirely sure which way this one might go: useful or not?
I posted this picture on Instagram mentioning how Rusty reminded me of Lilli Marlene standing underneath the street lamp waiting for her soldier to appear from the barracks.  Naturally Rusty refused to stay posed as I adjusted the camera though I liked the atmospheric look of Lazy Way Lane behind Schooner Wharf despite my dog's non cooperation.
Dinghy parking is in low season like everywhere else in this town as parents prepare to end vacations and get children back into school. There is lots of room for dinghies at the city docks.
I loved the idea of Flats Fishing for Beginners. I went fly fishing once in a  stream in Scotland where I caught a  trout and ate it for breakfast. That was about half a century ago with a Ghillie called, improbably enough Ian MacDonald. I took this photo (below) at the spot near Loch Broom when I was there last Spring because I remember that day very well. It was the first and last time I went fly fishing but I put the experience in the "done that" column. Many years later when I was a reporter I did a story for National Public Radio on fly fishing the San Lorenzo River in California and while I like the idea I find the act itself tedious and technical. I am glad I did try the fishing once. 
Yes indeed, fly fishing for all in Key West.
Key West still carries the trappings of the eccentric past that marks the town as different. I spot them from time to time between the developments and the clean ups which frankly I think the city could do more of, considering the nearly three million tourists a year who visit. Yet the weird shacks and abandoned cars dressed up are useful reminders of what is lost:
And then there is the electrical supply company across from Harpoon Harry's. I remember years ago they tried to move to the Boulevard but they have stayed put in the heart of tourist town. I used to rely on them when I lived on my boat to supply electrical gubbins and most importantly to rewire and rewind pumps and alternators and expensive stuff. They did and I am sure still do, great work. And they hold their ground downtown.
Hurricane shutters old school: a plank and some nails.
This I liked though you will never see me decorating anything around where I live like this. Restraint in decoration, that's me. Not Harpoon Harry's though:

Monday, August 13, 2018

Iron Butt Bun Burner

It is the fate of all of us to end up on the scrap heap, one way or another, whether we be machinery or  people. That thought was reinforced when I came across a new piece of trash on one of my dog walks, someone's formerly treasured ride in the mangroves. I wondered why anyone would disassemble a scooter and toss out the carcass as though it were merely a fish skeleton but I took this as an Awful Warning and reminded myself I am not ready to go out to pasture jut  yet. Thanks to good genes and lately tons of sweaty exercise I am feeling quite well thank you, strong and surprisingly fit which is as well as I plan to ride to Canada next week. Unlike this poor scooter which is never to be ridden again:
You can check out their web page for details but the Iron Butt Association is one of those groups that I was pleased to join despite the fact they were quite willing to have me for a member. I made a couple of rides a decade ago and enjoy membership number 39,523 in an organization that now boasts more than 60,000 riders. The idea is to cover a long distance in limited time and do it safely all while recording each step of the way to prove you did it. Then you get  a licence plate holder "Toughest Rider In The World" (very funny) and a certificate, but only when you have satisfied their volunteer examiners that  you completed the ride you claimed. Everything is documented by the rider during the ride as you can see I was ready for my 2010 ride to the Catskill Mountains of New York. I carried my paperwork  in the top box and signed off each stop during the 36 hours I spent in the saddle:
I put the gas station receipts and any restaurant or store receipts in the envelope and numbered them with each stop to prove I was there. This is the extract from my first ride, a 1000 mile "Saddlesore" in 24 hours the basic Iron Butt qualifier to Lake City and back, completed in a leisurely 21 hours:
That was on my 900cc Triumph Bonneville and now I want to try completing 1500 miles in 36 hours all the way to Niagara Falls.  I plan to leave Saturday morning at ten and arrive in Niagara, New York (not Canada!) before ten pm Sunday. This time I won't be riding my late lamented Triumph but instead  my new to me 200 cc Burgman scooter. Which fact makes this trip an adventure on a machine viewed as a beginner bike or merely a city commuter. I want to see how well the scooter performs on freeways and in hills and how much I enjoy riding what has turned out to be in fact my perfect commuter bike. In the land where cubic capacity rules all choices, and size makes a man manly, my choice of ride may seem eccentric or effete, but it is in a  sense a quest to seek out my motorcycling origins. The Burgman is actually a sensible machine, with a wind tunnel tested windshield, large seat, easy controls, ample storage and long foot boards in  a  seating position protected from the weather. What it has in common  with my first rides forty years ago is it has a small engine .
My first two motorcycles in the mid 70s were fire engine red Italian 350cc sportbikes and I rode them all over Europe and North Africa with luggage lashed to them and me crouched over them full of youthful bravado and joy. These days I see solid citizens riding huge machines with all the latest technology disdainful of  "small" motorcycles never mind scooters which are beneath consideration as travel machines. Yet when I was a youngster when motorcycle touring was becoming popular among the middle classes everyone  rode what they had and they had fun. A modern rider would look at my 1974 MV Agusta 350, a push rod air cooled twin with drum brakes and  ask themselves who in their right mind would go touring on this? I did, happily! I knew no better...and it cost me less than half a million lire lightly used.
The question becomes why do an Iron Butt at all? For me the answer is simple: I like a challenge and this effort pushes me far out of the Keys and in a hurry. I leave Saturday morning and by Sunday night I'm peering into Canada I hope. Great, right? Well, think of it as kinetic energy with the Iron Butt ride hauling me in a  hurry to the top of a very steep slide. After I get to the top all I have to do is let go and slide gracefully back down to Key West...and I plan to take four days touring to do that part of the program! Monday morning with the Iron Butt complete, the paperwork and receipts properly mailed in the stamped envelope I took with me, I have no more obligations to the world or anyone else. I ride for me and me alone. There I am: let loose on North America with all 18 horsepower of  Suzuki bliss with no one to answer to. That's worth an Iron Butt right there. With any luck I will have decent weather in August and so I have planned a zig zag ride home visiting friends as I go. 
I have bought a  mounting kit for my new iPhone 8 because even though the Iron Butt ride up is all Interstates necessary to maintain a high average speed,and easy to track, the way back will require me to insert the "Avoid Highways" option in my Google maps. I plan a meandering ride across Pennsylvania to see Steve and Virginia to meet Eric  and then South Carolina to make an overnight stop Wednesday in Savannah before returning to Florida Thursday for lunch with Bill in Jacksonville. I am really hoping this will be a fun way to explore the Burgman's capacity for all sorts of touring, fast and slow, mountainous and not. The phone will make touring easy, I use it in the car on all trips, but on the Burgman it will ride on this unobtrusive clip showing me the way.
All of this riding involves getting ready, making the scooter a tourer and me a long distance rider. I am confident I have put in enough miles since March to learn the scooter's foibles which are: none. So now I am busy checking the few additions I have purchased specifically for the ride.  The phone holder was a big one as I have never previously had a navigator mounted on the bike. God knows why not, they are brilliant devices. The Quad Lock is sleek and clean and comes with a waterproof cover for the phone. $100. ka-ching!
Tire sealer to reduce the chance of a flat. $12, and there is enough in one bottle for two applications.  I should ride with this stuff all the time, so this is another reason to appreciate the Iron Butt program as it forces you to make sensible preparation decisions good for daily riding. ADVRider forum members who ride off road swear by this stuff. I will also carry a puncture repair kit and an electric air pump, just in case.
In my cavernous under seat storage I will carry my waterproof Frogg Toggs and a bag of street clothes as you have  to look respectable when you are out in the world. Nowaays self standing underwear is a memory of ill laundered youth so I feel an obligation to carry some spares. 
I also bought a tail bag ($70 ka-ching!) to put my camera and my man purse and some water and some snacks and make them easily accessible...
 ...because the bag straps on with four built in bungees and lifts with the seat. Like it was made for the Burgman. Yay!
When I park the scooter I can easily unstrap it, take it by the handle and walk into the hotel with it. Its said to be rain resistant but I will line it with a garbage bag to keep the contents extra dry.
In addition the bag has some bungees on top and I'm thinking of carrying a peace-of-mind bottle of gas there. Sometimes on these Iron Butt rides you are tempted to push just a little bit further before stopping (unless you are in pee agony...) and this 30 oz bottle will give me an extra 20 miles with careful riding if I run the 2.8 gallon scooter tank dry. I ran the Bonneville dry on my first Iron Butt and it took some quick thinking and sloshing the fuel tank to get the engine started and into a gas station.
So that's the plan: leave from home just before ten, get my first gas receipt up the road which will give me my official start time and then ride to the Turnpike as fast as I can, where I shall settle in to ride I-95 from Fort Pierce, I-26 from Charleston, I-77 through Columbia and Charlotte to Wytheville, Virginia. Then US Highway 19 at Beckley West Virginia, then take I-79 to Pittsburgh and Erie, and I-90 to Buffalo and I-190 to Niagara. Piece of cake...Hoping for few road works and no accidents...I am a funny guy, because there will be all sorts of unexpected nonsense along the way and I know it already.My friend Webb who intelligently limits himself to driving sailboats says he's worried for me dealing with other drivers. He has a point, but like him on the water I shall rely on my experience and common sense and hope for the best. The thing is I am looking forward to this madness as much as Webb is looking forward to casting off and going sailing on the dangerous deep blue sea. Weird people, we are considering we could stay home and watch Netflix..
It will be a break from work, and hauling my lunch box  back and forth across the Keys...
 And most miserably a break from Rusty. I shall miss him terribly.
I shall come home a better man.

For an opposing view there is this essay by a rather splendid American writer who lives in Wales, one Chris Cope. He's a pretty good novelist and I support his motorcycle page with money, but he is an idiot when it comes to the Iron Butt, he rode in the cold and rain and fog of a Scottish summer:
Doing an Iron Butt Ride was Utterly Pointless.