Wednesday, January 16, 2008

White Line Fever

Ever since I can remember I've had a fascination with motorcycles. When I was no more than five we lived next door to a man named Clyde Austin. He was into bikes in a big way and would spend hours tuning them in his garage. I would wander in, sit down and watch, and as long as I was good he would let me hand him the different tools that he needed. When he would fire one up and let it rumble I was always thrilled. I knew one day I would have to have one.

That day came sooner than I could have imagined. My parents divorced when I was about six and that summer my father bought me a 50cc Honda mini bike that I rode until it fell apart. By age twelve I had gone through two mini bikes and had graduated to a 125cc Honda dirt bike. The 125 had begun its life as a street bike that someone had stripped the lights off of and converted to an off road machine. One of the things they neglected to do was put the right kind of muffler on it and as a result it sounded like a ban saw cutting corrugated tin. Jeeeesus! I loved that thing. In retrospect, I can't imagine what the hell my father was thinking putting that kind of power in the hands of an adolescent boy. I now believe that it was a reckless bit of parenting on his part. I felt a bit different about it at age thirteen. As you can probably imagine I found the arrangement sublime.

I swore many an oath to the old man that I would ride responsibly and not take any foolish chances. He made it clear to me that there were safety rules that had to be observed at all times or there would be grave consequences. And observe them I did, religiously, whenever my father was around. I even tried to be good when I got out of sight of the house, but the truth is there were many unanswered questions that needed to be addressed. Questions like... Could a bike that heavy really clear a fence that high? Or... How far past a hundred would that little red needle go?

How the hell did I survive? There were a number of close calls and outright catastrophes. There was the time I broke my collar bone crashing into a cast iron mailbox. I lost all kinds of skin tumbling ass over teakettle down the pavement.Once I forgot to put the gas cap back on, took off, and discovered some twenty minutes later that I was covered from neck to nuts with high octane. The stuff was sloshing out of the tank and dripping down onto the hot engine as I made my way cross country. Well, boys will be boys...

As I grew older the machines grew bigger. I got my fist street bike in college. A 500cc Honda Ascot. Not the best bike in the world but a bike nonetheless. About a year after school and about the time I relocated home from Florida I purchased a 600cc Honda Shadow VLX. Hands down, without a doubt, the finest machine I have ever laid hands on. It was stylish, light weight, reliable and quick. I loved it, and over the course of the next decade it would be my only source of transportation, taking me from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. When I finally sold it in the spring of 2005 it had just over 60,000 miles on it.

In the fall of 1995 the comic book company that I worked for in NYC was purchased by a video game company. They wanted us for the licenses we held on a number of popular characters. Swearing that they had no intention of interfering with our production of comics they waited no more than six months before they fired many of the artists who worked there. I was pissed because I really loved that job but they say every cloud has a silver lining and mine came in the form of unemployment checks. Those bucks funded a cross country road trip on the Honda. The open road beckoned and at its end lay the cool beaches of southern California, the movie industry, and the promise of gainful employment.

But the getting there, that's the thing. I was going to take my time. I was going to see America in a way many people dream of and few people get to do. And by God, I did. Back roads, greasy spoon diners, flea bag 10 buck a night motels and always the road. The endless, endless road. After Oklahoma I said to hell with the motels and would sleep out on the side of the road somewhere.

Even though I took that trip over a decade ago the sights, smells and sounds still linger. The experience still resonates and probably always will. I remember what it was to wake up in the dirt beside the bike and roll over on my side shivering. Inches away from my face was the chrome of the muffler and reflected there was the sun as it broke across the desert. The acrid smell of diesel from a passing semi and the turbulence of its wake at high speed. I will never forget what it was like to be holed up under a highway over pass in Death Valley as a sand storm raged, reducing visibility and leaving its strange bitter taste in my mouth. I loved the feeling of walking into a small quiet diner in the afternoon. The dull thump of my boots on a wooden floor and the creaking of leathers while sliding comfortably into a booth. I even liked the thinly veiled contempt of the blue haired waitress who took my order and couldn't help but notice that I had of late been a stranger to soap and water.

I'll never forget stopping the bike just to get off and look out at the grain fields of Kansas. It was October and the harvest was in full swing. Combines the size of starter homes devoured amber waves. Those waves dissipated into sagebrush and scrub grass as I got into western Oklahoma, and that gave way to the light and color of Santa Fe. In Arizona I rode to the lip of El Diablo Meteor Crater and saw a 50,000 year old scar on the face of the earth. Such a sight proved to be only a warm up for the overwhelming view at Grand Canyon. I was so happy and grateful to be young and free in a world of wonders, riding a steel horse into new territory.
Over the next few years the Honda Shadow proved to be the ideal transportation in Southern California. A place where rain is seldom seen and snarled traffic is ubiquitous. The little bike would carry me right down the center line, past mile after mile of frustrated commuters. It was like a concrete war zone and I thought the misnamed freeways were nothing more than vast POW camps. Day after day I would roll past the prisoners stuck in their plush Japanese and German cages. I wore a full face helmet that had a tinted visor. This gave me the opportunity to watch people in their cars while stopped at a red light. How unhappy they looked. Alienated.

I'll be the first to admit that riding is a young man's game. The risks to life and limb are extreme. There are times that I look back on the many close calls that I had and shiver. After nearly 30 years of riding motorcycles I may well be a fugitive from the law of averages. Even though I was never seriously injured I was by no means unscathed. I've had two broken fingers, one rib and a fractured collar bone. There are no end of scars and minor abrasions to show for my commitment to that form of transportation. Those who know me will be the fist to tell you that I am about as far from a macho persona as you can get. In fact, I would go so far as to say that when it comes to pain, I am a full blown pussy. But I would say this more than anything else is the reason I didn't come to greater grief. Oh sure, when I was a boy, I had no idea I could be injured. But one tussle with a iron mailbox at high speed permanently altered my worldview. After that I rode with a commitment to caution.

I have a good friend named Wes who loves bikes as much as I do and I remember in college he once shared with me a pearl of wisdom. "Charles," he said, "there are old riders and bold riders...But there aren't any old, bold, riders." I agree. Next year this little weenie turns forty.

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