Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gathering Speed

The first time I laid eyes on the book Gathering Speed by David A. Braun, I knew I beheld something unusual and maybe even rare. I'd been coasting through general search of motorcycle related books on Amazon.com when I stumbled upon it. As usual, the cover intrigued me the most. At first glance, the photo tells the story of your every day rider out for a jaunt on a stretch of asphalt that's about to get very interesting. But the cover also plunges me into my own memories of strapping whatever I could manage to the pillion by whatever means available and striking out for parts unknown.

I'm a sucker for nostalgia. There's a certain romantic quality to the memories I revisit of my early days of riding -- a place, much like home, impossible to visit again in the same way. Good motorcycle stories, I believe, do just that. Well-told tales reach back through time and retell even our hardships in a manner that reveals the sacred in those stories. The teller as well as those along for the ride experience the thrills, chills, and spills without having to relive the unpleasantness of the actual situation. And let's face it, catastrophe or near there abouts make the best tall tales.

For instance, I'll never forget sweating desperately over the kickstart of my '78 Yamaha as my downstairs neighbor, an enormous, hairy mountain of a woman, bore down on me across the small square of brown grass separating our apartment complex from the street. Stabbing her finger at me and swearing, I vaguely recall urinating into her barbecue grill the previous evening from the second floor balcony. See? That particular motorcycle left me stranded more times than I comfortably care to recall, mostly in uninteresting ways. But throw in a big woman and a drunken stupor and we've got the makings of something special. I digress.

The stories Mr. Braun presents aren't unified in any way that would suggest an overarching theme in this collection. What we have here are a series of vignettes, roughly categorized and irreverently spun, that drop us into crucial moments of the writer's life as a motorcyclist. With softbound covers, the book's width and height measure the same as a periodical. Sprinkled throughout the 198 pages, black and white photos reminiscent of the cover's flavor add a flair to each accompanying tale.

We ride pillion through the author's formative years. We could even stand idly by just outside the door to his garage, watching him sweat and curse his way through a tire change, the curiously addictive scent of fresh rubber mingling with a whiff of old motor oil. We might clutch a cold drink in one hand. I'm fond of Coca-Cola in the old glass bottles myself. Bruce Springsteen's crooning from the radio. So ease a shoulder up against the door frame, sip your beverage slowly, reverently. Hand David that tire iron as we turn a few pages and take a ride on the way-back machine.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Winter Solace

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.
--Anne Frank


Our January in Kentucky sported unusual temperatures. For the first time in several years, I hauled out the tent, sleeping bag, and other assorted outdoor gear and headed for the woods in midwinter. I enjoyed the sunrise from the shores of Kentucky Lake at Birmingham Ferry, a campground located about 10 miles or so beyond the north entrance to Land Between the Lakes national recreation area. Vacancy in the campground illustrated the benefit of sleeping outdoors during the typically colder months of the year. As the silence and chill of the evening settled in, my small fire mirrored the dim lights winking through the trees on the lake's western shore.

The life of the lone rider turned my eye inward from the moment I first threw my leg over the saddle of that beat up old '78 Yamaha I received for free from an uncle of mine. And in this lean winter month of the year, when darkness and cold come so readily each day, the golden wonder of the fading day and gentle washing of the shoreline by the water, I relished as a rare gift. When the rusted light of my campfire pushed away the night and the prayer of smoke rose toward the stars, I stared into glowing coals and allowed the memory of warmer times to to fill my spirit with hope for the days yet to come.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Who Says You Can't Tilt a Harley?

One of those fabulous displays of police motorcycling skill discovered on Google Video during the wee hours of the morning.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lights Out

I've experienced some trouble with the auxiliary lights that were included with the purchase of my BMW 1150 RT. What I suspect started months ago as an intermittent short in one of the lights grew into a full failure of the brake-side fog light in the early days of December. After I returned from the Blue Ridge Parkway, I noticed, particularly at night, as I went over a bump in the road, the light would flicker and sometimes go out. Another bump and the light would return. I decided that in order to ascertain whether the problem lay in the fog light itself or somewhere in the spaghetti junction of wires and leads, I needed to work my way back toward the harness and test the leads as I went.

My first approach was to check the bulb, socket, and the wires leading directly from the fog light housing. I hoped for a simple loose or bad bulb, easy in and easy out. When I removed the top caliper mounting bolt, which also secures the light housing, the bolt was difficult to break loose. I applied some WD40 and when the bolt still refused to turn freely, I applied heat via a propane torch. I feared that the bolt had seized somehow in the caliper. Upon removal my fears were confirmed. The silver on the mounting screw indicates that the threads from the caliper had twisted out with the bolt. The most likely culprit would be mismatched metals between the aftermarket mounting hardware and the stock brake caliper. I decided to remove the right side fog light as well. While the mounting bolt disengaged without a hitch, it showed a remarkable amount of corrosion on the threads.

The errant bulb theory didn't pay out as it appeared to be in good operating condition, no discoloration of any kind. When I tested the socket I received no current. I decided to trace the wire to the first lead and test the connection at the lead. As the wiring extended beyond view under the gas tank, the tank needed to be removed before I could proceed. With the self-sealing quick connectors in the fuel lines and the accessibility of all parts required to disconnect from the RT's right-hand side, the RT's tank has to be one of the simplest tank removal systems I've run across.

Until I can properly repair the short in the system, I decided to remove the aftermarket equipment as a precaution and install original equipment mounting hardware in the front brake calipers. I discovered that not all of the threads for the left hand caliper had twisted loose and a significant enough portion remained to accept the OEM hardware and hold the caliper in position. The leads remain in place, taped and held with fresh zip ties, should I decide to install any additional equipment of my own.

Over the past six months of ownership, I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the Beemer's stock systems. The valves are easy to adjust. In fact, it takes more time to remove the body panels than to actually adjust the valves. The wiring and connectors all seem to be located in logical areas and are simple to separate. It seems as if the machine is put together with a rider in mind, one who is encouraged to do his or her own work. My complaint with many aftermarket parts lies in the fact that they are often complex for the sheer sake of complexity or are not manufactured to specifications comparable to standard equipment. As it stands, I converted the bike back to the simple, stock setup. And in my book, simple is just plain better.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Riding the Ridge: Interlude--The Road to Willville

My first night camping in the Shenandoah National Park left me a little wary of the experience the following day. I'd spent a near 200 miles in the saddle during my second day on the Blue Ridge, and I hoped to find a more comfortable place to lay my head than I found in Mathew's Arm the previous evening. One of the truly remarkable pleasures of traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway by motorcycle lies in the abundance of cycle only campgrounds sprinkled at regular intervals beginning at roughly the half way point when running the Parkway from north to south. For the uninitiated, these spots are campgrounds that cater only to motorcyclists or, in certain cases, those travelers towing motorcycles.

I pulled in to Willville Motorcycle Campground located off of the Parkway at mile marker 177. A few miles west on Route 58 revealed a gravel drive and a large orange sign announcing the bike camp to the left of the road. What Willville offers, like many of the motorcycle only campgrounds I've had the pleasure of visiting, is the company of others of the two-wheeled persuasion. In my experience, camaraderie can be in short supply in campgrounds frequented by RV's, families squeezed into minivans, or school buses packed with cub scouts. MC camps offer amenities that rarely are standard at conventional campgrounds, such as laundry facilities to accommodate motorcycle gear, some form of communal shelter, hot showers, and often times coffee and other beverages for a small donation.

Willville was more pleasant than most. From the moment I arrived and established my camp in the grass (no gravel tent pads here), the owner and other riders went out of their way to make me feel as if I'd been there for days. I parked my butt in one of the easy chairs under the shade of the central pavilion and didn't leave the camp for two days.

I managed to meet a few of the regulars as well as a couple others like myself just passing through. One oldtimer promised to send anyone who would drop him an email a list of all known gas stops within one mile of exiting the Parkway. He'd built the list over years of traveling the roadway himself and information gleaned from those passing by. I was tempted to stick around through the early part of the coming weekend to take part in a Ural rally that would call the camp home over about three days. From the stories my fellow campers told, riders of the unique Russian marque are as charismatic as their machines. But being a youngin' (not yet retired), quite a few more miles of Parkway beckoned before I had to turn the Beemer west toward Kentucky. I left on a Friday morning, heading south.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Too Bad the Writing Doesn't

Last Christmas, my wife purchased several books off of my Amazon wish list. As one of those typical motorcyclists who will probably find the opportunity to tour exotic places by bike a distant dream, I've been rather fond of reading the exciting accounts of those riders who actually manage to pull it off. While I dearly love to read the exploits of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, it's always intriguing to stumble upon a book written by one of the rest of us. The not so super rich, that is.

When I added The Road Gets Better from Here to my list of must-reads, the title and subtitle fascinated me. The photo on the cover is absolutely spectacular. Surely, this must be the book that exemplifies how the rest of us would tour the Road of Bones through the former Soviet Union. I know I couldn't afford a fully loaded BMW GS1200, the helmet cams, the support crews with all the spare parts. My friends certainly wouldn't have come along for the ride. Most would have had me committed for even suggesting the idea. I want to ride my motorcycle around the world. Really? Wait right here; I have a special white coat I want you to try.

I appreciate everything about Mr. Scott's adventure--the audacity of climbing on an enlarged dirt bike and heading out into foreign countries, the magnitude of the time involved in the journey, the limited resources of the common man dedicated to a dream. I appreciate everything except the narrative. It reads like a blog entry--a 400 page blog entry. After about the first hundred pages, I felt as I'd been bouncing along on the passenger pillion across the rutted landscape. That's not a good thing; it's a KLR650 we're talking about here. I was tired and worn out. I kept having to refer back in the book to remember what nondescript person in which nondescript country I was reading about. In short, the narrative is tedious, and that's without the typing errors.

I've put off writing this review for so long because I've desperately wanted to like Mr. Scott's effort at mototravel journeling. My disappointment in this book is in that it doesn't begin to convey the panache of such a journey. While the book gives us the facts of the trip, it fails to entertain the reader. Traveling by motorcycle on a limited budget isn't just a challenge for most of us, it's a fact of life. Mr. Scott, however, should have used the funding he saved from the trip and spent it on an editor.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gateway to the Gorge

Over the weekend, I took the Beemer on a short excursion to the Red River Gorge Geological Area located to the southeast of Lexington, KY. I was hoping to catch the last of the fall foliage. Traffic through the area was minimal. The temperature may have had something to do with it. In the sunshine, the temps rarely crossed out of the upper 40's. At night, they dipped into the high 30's. While the leaves have passed their peak, enough of the fire of Autumn still clings to the branches to make the ride worthwhile.

The Nada Tunnel runs an east/west route into the heart of the Gorge. Originally cut through the rock with steam-powered drills, dynamite, and hand tools, the tunnel was completed in 1911 and was the only through way to the Gorge's interior. The tunnel was designed to accommodate 25 and 35 ton locomotives used to haul timber from the interior to the saw mill at Clay City. The Clay City mill, at one time, was the largest in the eastern United States.

According to local lore, only one man was killed during the construction of the railway tunnel. Apparently, he attempted to thaw several sticks of frozen dynamite by the heat of his campfire and well. . .

The tunnel is 900' long, around 20' in height, and 15' wide. The excavation crews began the project in 1910 and completed it in a little over a year in 1911. Given the tools of the times, the tunnel is a marvel of early 20th century engineering.

As a gateway into the Red River Gorge, the Nada Tunnel prepares the eye for the stunning vistas of the rock formations and blaze of Autumn color that lies beyond. The valley in which the Red River flows has been home to human beings for over 14,000 years; the earliest evidence of people living in the region can be found in the artifacts they left behind in cliff shelters. As I threaded my way along the narrow road under fading trees, listening to the river shush it's way through the valley, I wondered what I would leave behind for others to find. Perhaps only an echo of my passing, lone horse and it's rider.