Apr 15, 2010


All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

After an afternoon teaching an MSF Experienced Rider Course, I got into a conversation about the new bikes I'd be interested in owning. It's always fun to dream about a bigger budget, a bigger garage, and unlimited time to play with extra toys. I'm pretty happy with the few toys I own and really don't fantasize about owning a collection of bikes that I would rarely ride. Still, there are a lot of cool motorcycles and when guys get together to talk about bikes we don't bother with practical considerations.

When I started talking about some of the cool small Japanese bikes we don't get in the US, the Yamaha WR250X Supermoto, the Kawi Versys, the updated Kawi Ninja 250, and even some of the weird new scooters, the other riders wanted to talk about Euro-trash and big chrome weirdness. I'm as fascinated as the next guy by the old country and some of the freakin' strange stuff that old guys swing a leg over in the interests of aging-male-psychology, but the conversation stopper came pretty quickly when one of the guys said, "Japanese bikes are well built, but I like a motorcycle that has personality."

Wham! I'm out of the conversation, tuned into listening to the other guys discuss "personality" while I try to figure out what that means when it comes to motorcycles. Webster's says personality is "the quality or state of being a person" or "the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual . . . " Ok, motorcycles with personality sounds like the ultimate in anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. Disney would be proud.

I'm only half-on-board with vehicles with personality, though. I admit to cursing my motorcycle, shop tools, the unfairness of life, and the atmosphere surrounding my workspace when my tiny brain fails to grasp basic mechanical properties or forgets where I put the 10mm box-end ten seconds after I last used it. I don't, however, believe that any of those targets of my rage hear a word I say.

1'cause you got personality,
Walk, personality
Talk, Personality
Smile, Personality
Charm, personality

So, I did some research on the bikes my new friends mentioned by browsing bike reviews of motorcycles with "personality." Immediately, I see phrases like "the bike mysteriously turned itself off twice in hot weather," "neutrals could be found between every gear," "high altitude oxygen depletion was fixed with a . . . kit," "operational quirks," "infuriating feature that caused the headlights to switch off when the twin cooling fans would turn on." I found those comments on a single page describing the experience with three Euro-exotica bikes. Whipping through bike rag after bike rag, I see these kinds of comments passed on, and over, as calmly as my wife relays an important telephone message from a telemarketer.

So, personality means "design flaws?" I can only hope not, but from my own experience with European motorcycles I could believe that is part of the mystery. If that's part of the attraction, I'm only going to be more confused. I've been around odd motorcycles my whole biking life. I sold Ossas for a short while. I have friends who own and have owned everything from eastern European dirt bikes to Bimotas and Vincents. Honestly, I wouldn't consider heading into the back country on any of them. Between the lack of parts, dealerships, competent mechanics, factory support, and the penchant for Euro-complexity, the whole experience is too high-maintenance for me. What do I know? I've been married for 42 years because I lucked into a low maintenance, high reliability woman when I was young and impressionable and I have no motivation to test my luck again.

It's in the reliability area where I most dislike personality the most. When I was young and stupid, I owned a British car (an MGA) and, before and after, a couple of British bikes (a BSA and a Rickman). Both experiences taught me that "personality" in a motor vehicle should be left to folks who have no family, friends, life, or interesting hobbies. A buddy in California owned a Mercedes and a Porsche, both were highly regarded models of those brands and both were broken more often than running. I tried working on the Porsche for one weekend and was embarrassed for the 25% German of my heritage. Plywood floorboards? Didn't Henry Ford give that up after the Model T?

My experiences with European bikes, both as an owner/rider and as an entertained observer, have convinced me that I do not want mechanical personality in my motor vehicles and I don't like being in the vicinity of motor vehicles with personality. Part of my aversion to riding with other people is that I have spent too much of my riding time ferrying another rider back to civilization to obtain parts, tools, or a pickup to rescue one of those personality-laden bikes. In 350,000+ miles of riding, I have never had the pleasure of having that favor returned. Maybe I haven't put in enough time traveling in groups to earn payback, but I have put in enough time to know that it's easier to rescue myself than it is to get tangled up being the rescuer. Add poor engineering and parts unavailability to the mix and I choose to enjoy this kind of personality in the safe confines of museums.

I don't get personable style, either. Some of the personality bikes that other folks rage over leave me cold, appearance-wise. Those ever-changing Euro lines that are supposed to be so stylish just look dated and over-stated, like last year's Apple laptop or big hair and bell-bottom jeans. Of course, some of those bikes just photograph poorly, like the KTM Duke.

My friends say I´m a fool
But over and over
I´ll be a fool for you

Not me. I'm a big believer in the adage, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." You can argue that riding motorcycles is risky and foolish and I can't disagree with your logic, assuming you are using logic for that conclusion. Money is the root of all evil. Eating meat is bad for your cardiovascular system. Bread is fattening. Beer makes you stupid. Going outdoors is dangerous. Urban air is full of carcinogens. Rural air is contaminated with bacteria and poisons. The globe is warming, the poles are shifting, and the sky is falling. Some risks have a bigger payback than others. I don't need to experience the wonder of motorcycle personality more than the few times I've suffered that affliction.

I accept all of the nasty things of life and more, but I don't want any backtalk from my motorcycles. I just want to ride them, go places on them, look cool standing beside them, and swear at them when I do something stupid with, or on, them. If my motorcycle has opinions or eccentricities, I don't care to know about it.

1Lloyd Price, "Personality"

Apr 14, 2010

Highway Blues

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

A while back I spent a flu-infested weekend watching European motorcycle travel videos. For several minutes a critical aspect of the first film, the smooth on-bike camera work, made absolutely no sense to me. Eventually I decided that European roads must actually be paved competently. Any attempt I've made at Minnesota on-bike camera footage has been marred by massive vibration. One incident cost me a few hundred dollars in camera repair bills when the trip vibrated the guts loose in a supposedly "indestructible mini-cam." Over the years, I've had a few videos submitted for my Motorcycling Minnesota show that were interesting, but too regularly interrupted by camera glitches and sync dropouts to be used without hours of frame-by-frame editing. I did that once and decided to never be tempted again, no matter how interesting the footage. I've been trying to do a helmet noise test for the last year, but my solid-state sound gear keeps shaking to pieces while I try to gather road data. Highway construction is simply not a skill belonging to the citizens of this state.

For example, MNDOT built an extravaganza of weird highway engineering in my backyard. Some government genius decided that the five minute traffic jam that occurs every weekday rush hour was justification to build an LA-style multi-lane freeway mousetrap that will filter two lanes of 35E into two lanes of I694. Esher would be proud of MNDOT's assortment of swooping overpasses, but I think they created one of the nation's last monuments to mindless urban sprawl. After two years, the construction is still on-going and I figure MNDOT will finish this shrine a few minutes before gas hits $10/gallon and everything north of White Bear Lake and south of the Humphrey Airport becomes a collection of tele-commuter ghost towns.[1] When the asphalt mousetrap is finished, I give it about three weeks before it all decays into the rubble Minnesota calls "pavement." The crap that passes for asphalt here wouldn't be used for patching rural driveways in other parts of the world. Minnesota and other eastern states build the world's only water-soluble highways.

For the most part, the United States (and, especially, in the east) are incapable of building highways worth traveling. Moments after we pave a section of road, it begins to crumble into disconnected chunks of asphalt, strip-mine-sized potholes, and mini-canyons. It's probably a nasty combination of corrupt bureaucrats and incompetent contractors, but the result is that roads last a few seconds before they begin disintegrate. There is a section of I35 just a bit north of Albert Lee that is so freakin' awful that I once stopped to see if I had a flat front tire or a disintegrating wheel. Heading west on I90, the right lane of the freeway was so trashed that my back was practically pounded into dust. These two pitiful excuses for roads typical of Minnesota's attempts at the art of road building. At the local level, most of St. Paul's residential streets would make a respectable motocross course and Minneapolis is no improvement. Many of our two lane roads are simply a waste of tar and paint.

Before I condemn all of American highways, I have to admit that Colorado actually manages to put a surface on a roadway that approaches a decent paved standard, although they often take a decade to build a mile or two. New Mexico is astoundingly un-American in its ability to manage asphalt and cement. However, Rust Belt highway engineering is a national embarrassment. Chicago's freeways and toll roads are unattended bomb craters. It's hard to tell Cleveland and Detroit pavement from volcano rubble. My limited experience with east coast freeways and highways always makes me appreciate the fact that I'm only partially responsible for the condition of rental cars. Face it, from the western edge of Nebraska heading east, "highway engineering" is an oxymoron.

So here's my suggestion: Give It Up. As a nation, we can't manage construction, so we should admit failure and quit trying. The rural dirt and gravel roads we have are actually pretty drivable, in comparison to the paved disasters. Even if our dirt roads weren't better road surfaces than our freeways, I'm happier knowing that traction and road surface will be consistently poor; rather than inconsistently mediocre.

One should always go with the talents one has, rather than waste effort on unobtainable skills. Since we can't manage pavement, I advise that we give up the whole idea. We're simply not smart enough to deal with it. I recommend that we plow up the highways, freeways, and streets and give back most of the land to the homeowners to whom that property originally belonged. We can leave just enough asphalt for paved bicycle trails, because if MNDOT can't manage pavement, it appears that the folks who design the DNR's bicycle trails are almost competent. A little of the roadway could also be left "undeveloped," for off-road vehicles. I don't mean four-wheel blimps because that's just a waste of space. I mean vehicles like . . . dirtbikes. Good old fashioned, real motorcycles; not girly-man whimp-bikes that require impossible-to-build smooth-as-a-baby's-butt roadways, but real motorcycles that can negotiate any terrain nature coughs up. This brilliant solution would inspire mass transit design, getting the idiots out of their SUVs, and reduce hydrocarbon emissions.

And it would be a lot more fun to ride to work.

[1] A depressing, but complete site for all sorts of links to information about the coming energy crisis is http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/.

Apr 9, 2010

Traveling Heavy, Traveling Light

"'cuse sur. Soes stay here." It took me a bit to figure out what he was saying. I was in the Dodge City Best Western for my father's funeral. It was 5AM and I'd wandered the motel's halls discovering the closed pool and the locked gym area and I'd found myself in the "hospitality room" breakfast area. I'd almost sat down to take advantage of hospitality coffee when an employee dressed in kitchen whites pointed out that I needed "soes" to be in that area.

It brought me back to memories of California, almost instantly. As I plodded back to our room, I thought about how strange it was that the wealthiest, hippest place I'd ever lived, Southern California, was the least formal and the worst places I'd lived, Dodge City as a prime example, were the most formal. One of our favorite hangouts in Huntington Beach was Duke's Beach Restaurant and Barefoot Bar another was Mazotti's. I doubt that I ever wore shoes into either of those great places or half of the other restaurants where I spent money in California. The "shoes" I wore for almost all of my spare time were flipflops and they were practically invisible because my feet were covered in sand most days away from work. Along the beach, which is the only place to be in California, not only are shoes optional but clothes were optional-to-minimal.

Travel 2,000 miles inland to the worst armpit villages you can imagine in the Midwest and you may be expected to wear a tie and sport jacket for food that is barely digestible and "atmosphere" that reeks of feedlot aroma. You will not be allowed to grab a coffee and roll wearing a swimming suit and towel without being reprimanded by a non-English speaking hotel employee. This isn't about insurance liability or any practical value, it's a local taboo with a long, strange history.

If taboos in 2010 weren't so pitiful, they would be a lot funnier. Hell, it's hard for me to say the word "taboo" without laughing. It conjures up images of bones in noses, pedophile priests torturing heretics, and baseball players living in the same sox all season.

Clothing, especially formal clothing, has been designed to project an image of wealth and power or function and utility; if you are working class. The more you know about the history of clothing, the funnier looking rich humans become. Ties, particularly, provide a lot of entertainment. Like loop earrings, they provide a handle for an opponent in a fight, so wearing either is a demonstration of either helplessness or a good bodyguard. In a business environment, those of us not blessed with pencil necks are cursed with poor blood flow while wearing ties and buttoned top collars. Shoes are pretty hillarious, too. Recent research has found that modern shoe design might be a cause of foot, knee, hip, and back injuries. It turns out that walking and running barefoot could be dramatically healthier than walking or running in any shoe design we've yet devised. Go figure. A couple million years of evolution beats the best work of New York's fashion designers?

I'm a big fan of shoes, particularly boots, on my motorcycle. The heavier, the less-flexible the better. But I'm not planning on walking much in those boots. Their purpose is to protect my feet from the abrasive effects of asphalt and gravel. My favorite riding boots have done that job pretty well in the past.

It turns out that my packing skills are better suited for solo motorcycle travel than for crossing the country in a station wagon with my wife. I'm more comfortable sleeping in a campground in a tent than in a hotel suite and I pack more what I need and less what I think I might want in the limited constraints of a motorcycle's storage. For example, I brought three books, this computer, school course work to organize and homework to grade, a suit, two pairs of uncomfortable shoes, a couple dress shirts, a tie, but I forgot to pack a warm jacket or comfortable shoes. On the bike, I live in my 'stich Darien gear and my riding boots, and I pack a pair of camp shoes that I live in once I'm off of the bike. If I don't need it, I don't pack it on the bike. I could haul a rock band in my wife's Taurus station wagon.

Summer is coming and I'm going to need a long ride to sort out all of the baggage I'm taking on this weekend. Where ever I go, shoes will not be required any time I'm off of the motorcycle.

Apr 5, 2010

Benchmarks and Standards and Mortality

I'm lucky. Mostly, my friends have managed to stay alive. Most of my family has been pretty healthy, outside of a few car crashes and the usual infirmities that go with passing 50 without collecting anything more than $200. I made it to 62 when I always assumed I'd die in some fiery rock & roll death or something equally painful before 30. I'm not broke. I live where I want to be living. My wife has stuck with me for 42 years and she still tolerates me. My kids don't say awful things about me to my face and they let me hang out with their kids. I can still swing a leg over a real motorcycle (although not a real dirt bike) and ride to work every half-decent day. I can even think about taking yet another idiot two-wheeled trip across some part of the country that I've never seen or want to see again.

There is nothing about any part of the above paragraph that was under my control. It's just luck that I ended up here from where I started off. Where my trip started was Dodge City, Kansas. I was born in eastern Kansas, but made it to Dodge when I was 2 and left when I was 17. Some of my family, including my parents, lived most of their lives in Dodge. "Get out of Dodge" has always had a special meaning for me. I am a bit of a connoisseur of Dodge City history, but I'm not much of a fan of the place, itself. The place has too many feedlots, packing plants, and corporate farms and too little respect for what makes a town a community. Dodge, like most of small town Midwest, is an example of what happens when lazy rich people convince hard-working middle-class and poor people to vote against their own interests.

A bit of my string of good luck came to an end this week. Sunday, my father died and my step-mother died almost a year ago, making my father a widower twice. Dad was almost 90 and had been pretty miserable for almost a decade. He'd survived a heart attack when he was 60-something and cancer around the same time, but surviving wasn't the same as thriving. He was incredibly active until his mid-60's and by the time he was 80 he was tied to an oxygen tank and more-or-less housebound.

Only the fact that he wasn't able to play tennis, first, and golf, finally, bother him about being stuck in Dodge. WWII was all the traveling and adventure Dad wanted to suffer. He was an LST pilot for the invasion of Italy, Normandy, and ended up venturing across the South Pacific on aircraft carriers for the end of the war. Most notably, in his mind, he and his gun crew were "famously" pictured watching a Kamikaze pilot miss their ship, the U.S.S. Petrof Bay, by a dozen feet or so and crash into the ocean. If you find that picture, zoom in and look for the dark haired young guy in officer's uniform with his mouth open. That's my father. Dad said they shot everything they had at that plane and didn't put a scratch on it. The pilot just missed a ship the size of a half-dozen football fields and missed landing on my father by a whole lot less distance.

Until he was in his 70's, Dad didn't talk about that war at all, ever. He had a chest full of Navy mementos, a few patches and medals, but it wasn't part of the world he shared with us. In fact, he didn't share all that much except his income, discipline, and humor. He loved teaching and, especially, coaching high school and he worked steady 80-90 hour work weeks doing that. He was very much the quiet, damaged war veteran that gets a bit more attention today and was expected to man-up and rejoin society without a hitch or complaint in 1946.

In 1966, I became a Vietnam War protester and we found ourselves permanently on opposite sides of politics. He could not understand my opposition to all-things-Johnson-and-Nixon and I was mystified by his disinterest in the foundations of that invasion. When he began to talk about his WWII experience, his loyalty to chicken-hawks became even more mystical when I learned that he was a dedicated non-combatant and only volunteered for Navy service with the personal and declared condition that he would never shoot at another man. The men who ran the guns under his "command" were completely in charge of what they shot at because he never ordered anyone to "fire." He just tried to keep them safe and supplied.

With that background, you might have some idea why he always asked, "What did I do to raise such an idiot son?" Whenever I took off on some harebrained motorcycle adventure, he was convinced that I had lost what few marbles he'd managed to pass to my collection of genes. He wasn't any more in favor of--or understanding of--my backpacking, ocean kayaking, bicycle racing, or the places I chose to live (especially California). He wanted to be as far from "excitement" as he could get and Dodge was definitely a place like that; outside of occasional tornadoes and flooding.

When he was hospitalized for cancer, Dad lost enough of his eyesight that he was unable to read normal and oversized print. I bought him books on tape from one of my favorite authors, David Halberstam, about one of Dad's favorite subjects, baseball; Summer of '49 and October 1964. Dad loved the Yankees his whole life, especially the Mantle/Maris Yankees. He barely listened to either books because he was so upset that Halberstam chose to print the uncensored language of the players. He was especially disappointed with Mickey Mantle.

Being the Midwestern-guilt ridden son that I am, I've always had my father and his morals and his personal standards in the front and back of my mind. Hard to believe, I know. My writing laptop's desktop picture has a collection of my whacked hobbies and the motto, "Write as though everyone you know is dead." It's an attempt to free myself from the constraints of disappointing those who love me; mostly my father. All of my favorite writers have, most likely, disappointed their parents with their subjects and language. It's almost a requirement for anyone who makes any kind of attempt to accurately reproduce or create believable characters.

Dad's reaction to Halberstam and Mantle made a mark on me. I have at least 3 books almost to the easy-to-finish stage that I've abandoned because I couldn't write them with Midwest Methodist censorship standards and couldn't stand the idea of re-writing them with that constraint. So, consider this fair warning. While everyone I love is far from dead, the one who influenced what self-censorship I obeyed is gone. It could get pretty honest from here on.