Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gotta See a Man About a Horse

Shortly following my return from Tellico Plains, TN in March of this year, my wife and I gave serious consideration to acquiring a new machine. While we talked about owning another motorcycle for several years, the stars did not seem to align in just the right way to turn those discussions into reality. In early April, several changes in our finances gave the first glimmer of hope that the possibility of owning another bike was more than dreaming. We were two months away from paying off the loan on our truck, and six months away from completing the cycle of payments on a new furnace. After reviewing the mechanical and electrical gremlins in the Ninja upon my return from the Smokies, my wife made the comment, "You know, we can probably afford another bike now."

My obsession became like a horse pressing the starting gate. However, before I could begin, my spouse and I established some ground rules for the process.
  1. I agreed to begin my search using the intergoogle in order to establish distance and availability factors.
  2. No purchases would be made using the intergoogle.
  3. No purchase would be finalized without a test ride, whether the machine of interest was new or used.
  4. A "buy it today or the price will be different tomorrow" attitude from dealers or private sellers would illicit an automatic "Bye!" response from yours truly (preceded usually by a "Hell no!" over the phone by wifey).
  5. I agreed to remain within the parameters of the basic motorcycle type for which I was obsessing (i.e. not to leave to check out a Concours 14 and return with a Ducati 999).
Having concocted these basic guidelines, the much more difficult question of what exactly we were looking for in a motorbike-for-two needed to be sorted out. Sitting around the kitchen table with some soft jazz in the background, the scent of fresh bread baking in the oven, and the reassurance of a strong cup of coffee, we formulated our list of must-have's.

Wifey's List:
  • The bike must be designed for carrying two people.
  • The rear seat must be comfortable.
  • The bike must be designed to carry things along with the riders.
My wife's requirement of a comfortable pillion comes from her memories of riding two-up on a Harley Sportster in the bygone days of our early courtship. On one such trip around the county in which we lived, a total of no more than 80 miles, she tapped me on the shoulder and shouted into my ear, "Pull over, please. I have to get off this *&%#ing thing."

Lest those readers cry out that my wife should ride her own, let me inform you that up until my crash in 2005 on the Harley, my wife rode beside me on her Honda Rebel 450. After the accident, she never threw a leg over the saddle alone again. She assures me this is not out of fear of riding and hopes to ride her own again in the near future.

My own list of must-have's was a bit more extensive.
  • The bike must be designed to carry two passengers.
  • The bike must have hard luggage.
  • The bike must be "sporty" in it's ride style.
  • The bike must have a good reputation for reliability by those who favor the machine (nonexclusive online forums are an excellent place to garner information).
  • The bike must have. . . presence. . .(I'll get to this one in a minute).
  • Dealership support would be nice, but must be something I can do most of the work on myself.
  • While the bike can have. . . presence. . . it must not contribute to my reverting into a knuckle-dragging, boastful, loud and obnoxious piece of greasy societal mayhem.
There. That about does it.

Presence. I desired a bike that called to me from the garage, a machine that just to look at was a pleasure. Motorcycles with presence turn eyes toward them and cause them to linger, the mind to envision where it will carry you, and the heart to yearn for the road. It's arguable that all motorbikes have presence, and I would certainly agree. But some exude more of this quality than others. For instance, since the first time I ever laid eyes on one, I've coveted a Triumph Speed Triple. Why? The machine would be completely impractical for my needs. There's no room for a passenger or any real luggage, no shielding of any kind from the elements of the road, far more power than I can responsibly use on public roadways. What is it about that bike that causes my blood to race even while the bike is standing still? Because it's a muscle with two wheels attached, fire and iron and little else. It appeals to my basic animal nature and nothing more. And in the realm of desire and obsession, as a selling point, no more is required.

But the presence I wanted during the misty mornings of April appealed to a higher nature. I wanted a bike that just by gazing at it, transported me to places far from home. In that vision, I could crawl free of a tent heavy with dew, gear up, and move off through Kentucky hill country as the wispy vapor of early morning fog rises from damp fields and stands of pine. I wanted a machine that could accomplish this day after day after day without complaint, a motorcycle that aligned the compass of my spirit toward the horizon.

The list I crafted hunkered down at my kitchen table during a chilly Spring evening looked like this.

Kawasaki Concours 14

Suzuki V-Strom 1000

Moto Guzzi Norge

Honda VFR

Kawasaki Concours 1000

Harley-Davidson Electra Glide

OK. So the Harley's on the list purely for shits and giggles. While I'm sure the Electra Glide carries two passengers in comfort and it certainly has presence, it pushes the definition of "sporting" ride. Speaking only for myself, of course, I also risk a return to the draggery of the knuckles stage of my existence. Once my leg was over the saddle, I'd probably mutter something about "throbbing power between my legs" or some such nonsense. Besides, it's a wee tad out of my price range. . .new or used.

While the VFR, I'm sure, is a marvelous piece of modern motorcycle engineering, it fell off the list for two reasons. Look at the rear seat. . . er. . .perch on that thing. My wife would get a nose bleed. It was also a bit above what I was willing to spend for a new or new-to-me machine. And then there's the technical know how necessary to maintain a dual-clutch, throttle by wire. . . wait, that's three reasons. Moving right along.

The Moto Guzzi dazzles my eye every time I look at it. It looks put together right in all the right ways. Price range, even used, would be at the upper limit but affordable. But let's try a little experiment, shall we? Go out your front door, get on your cycle, and ride across town to the Guzzi dealership. What's that? Don't have one? Really? I'm convinced that locating a Moto Guzzi dealer requires membership in some exclusive club. The dues? How about your soul or maybe just your left testicle? Let's not even talk about what happens if you have no testicles.

That leaves the Kawi's and the V-Strom. The description of the Concours 14 says "variable valve timing" among other engine oddities. Guess what happens when I try to get in there with a wrench? Busted, that's what happens. The first Kawi with a check engine light. No thank you.

No offense to V-Strom owners. I've heard wonderful things about the V and the Wee, but both are as pleasant to the eye as a bag of baby puke. But you know what they say, "Beauty is in the eye of the V-holder". To each his own; presence comes in many forms.

I began to lean heavily toward the Concours 1000 after several days of thought. While that edition of the iconic sport-tourer was replaced by the 2008 Concours 14, the elder of the model line still commands a loyal following. Reports of it's reliability are legendary. Well, legendary among Concours owners, anyway. It has a big, comfortable seat and locking hard luggage. My thought was that I could spend half as much for a used Concours 1000 as I would on the 14 or the V-Strom, have a reliable bike, and save some money for farkles. So that was it, my mind made up, I began the quest for a gently used Kawasaki Concours 1000 that would carry me across four states.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Easy Indeed

As I mentioned in my last post, I experimented with a packing system for food that I adopted from the book Motorcycle Camping Made Easy by Bob Woofter. I found the system, which involved labeling and packing various foodstuffs according not only to day but to each meal of the day, a useful way of planning for an extended stay in the back country. In the course of writing the previous post, I found myself reflecting on the usefulness of the entire book.

Camping, now in it's Second Edition, despite receiving mixed reviews from the motorcycling community, remains one of Whitehorse Press' most popular releases. The book spans 255 pages from soft cover to soft cover. The contents are split between preface, acknowledgments, and introduction, 13 Chapters, lists of equipment suppliers and state by state offices of tourism, an index, and rounding the whole thing out, a handsome picture of Bob himself accompanied by his author bio. The central body of Camping progresses from a philosophy of motorcycle camping to a chapter by chapter review of the various categories of gear. The book culminates in camp skills, preparing meals, and an excellent chapter on recording and sharing the experience. Made Easy's photographs remind me of the point and shoot efforts I've engaged in myself. The true gems of the book are the quotes from various "experts" tacked in the margins and the recipes in Chapter 11, Camp Cooking the Modern Way, such as the one for mincemeat pie on page 212 complete with photos.

In my mind, what makes Mr. Woofter's work a definitive classic, isn't the seriousness with which he approaches his subject, but rather the brevity with which he approaches motocamping. Rather than spend his time endlessly debating the "best" tents, stoves, sleeping bags, etc., the author approaches those subjects from the point of view of offering general guidelines. He leaves arguments of "best" and "bestest" to the manufacturers themselves, which allows us to proceed relaxed through the book as if we're already seated by the side of a campfire somewhere, listening to the pop and shush of the fire and the quiet strumming by some dude who packed his geetar all the way from Arizona on the pillion. Oh, and let's not forget the crisp dry smell of the Autumn air or the ratcheting symphony of crickets, shall we?

The book's major detractors state that Camping is oversimplified and understated, and that quality, quite simply, is bad. I would agree that the book is simple. It doesn't overextend it's reach or purpose. I argue that due to Made Easy's simple nature, it remains a work that can be approached again and again. It's an excellent book for beginners, because it doesn't overwhelm. It's an excellent book for experienced motocampers because we all need occasionally to forget that we know all there is to know and have an easygoing mentor remind us of the basics. What Mr. Woofter reminds us all of, whether novice or so-called expert, is to relax, enjoy the ride, and kick back at road's end with close friends.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Not So Foregone Conclusion

In mid-March of this year, with the threat of late season snow still crisping the air, I loaded the Ninja with what looks to be all of my worldly possessions and set off toward the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. I'd been riding the public transit system around Louisville most of the winter, biding my time for the first shreds of Spring to visit the Ohio River valley. The forecast warned of rain, but on the morning I rolled the Ninja out of the garage, not a single cloud obscured the sun. The temperature stretched into the mid-60's and I'd put in for a week of leave from the trenches.

I was anxious to run the bike through it's gears. I spent the cold months tearing the cycle down in the garage, searching for electrical gremlins that had slowly infiltrated the system over years of use, and changing fluids, brakes, and tires. Having exposed the last of my gremlins to the light of scrutiny, I saddled up and pointed the bike south. Though the Ninja remained a mechanically sound machine, I knew that in all likelihood, this would be it's final extended trip. My wife and I had been discussing the purchase of a larger machine capable of carrying the two of us in comfort. I'd all but received her blessing to start the quest. I planned to allow the Kawasaki to live out it's leisure years with an honored spot in the garage and spirited weekend jaunts through the local countryside, while the new bike, whatever it would be, would become my workhorse and tourer de sport.

On this trip, I intended to do more camping than riding and decided to forgo the usual--and more comfortable, I might add--motorcycle campground in favor of a secluded spot along one of the old fire roads. Armed with my AAA Southeastern Campbook and Kentucky/Tennessee State Series map, I chose a primitive sight, aptly named North River Camp, along the North River tributary of the Tellico River. While it might appear that the road accessing the camp was inhospitable to Ninjas, the bike cruised along the packed gravel bed with little problem. I experimented with a system for packing food I adopted from Bob Wofter's Motorcycle Camping Made Easy in the hopes that I could limit my treks between wilderness and town. I wanted to immerse myself in the woods, to park the bike for extended periods and disappear along shadowed paths on foot. I couldn't accomplish that to as full an extent if I was forced to make the 24 mile round trip into Tellico Plains for food each day.

With the exception of a chilly ride down the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway, I set up camp on a Saturday afternoon in fading light and remained in camp until the following Thursday. The tent, a Coleman Hooligan 3, held up against the damp and windy weather admirably. At one point, after a particularly long day of hiking along the ridge above my camp, I returned so thoroughly worn out that I crawled into the shelter after a quick bite to eat and only removed my shoes before sliding into the sleeping bag. As is usually the case, I awoke in the middle of the night needing to visit the facilities--in this case, a large rock just off to the left of camp. I heard the steady rhythm of rain on the fly. I made a hazy mental note to bring an empty quart canning jar with me on any subsequent trips for the purpose of indoor plumbing. What I stepped out into that Wednesday night was a full-on sleet storm, one of the chilliest trips to the loo that I can remember. The following morning, the day of my departure saw early morning temperatures below 20 degrees.

Altogether, I spent just under five full days camped in the Cherokee National Forest. I chased the river most of these days, at times strolling along it's edge on the gravel roads as the water carved it's way down out of the mountains. On more than one occasion, I followed it from above, walking paths that twisted along the ridge used by the Forest Service to battle fires. When time came to break camp and ride for home, I felt rested and tuned. Eventually, the temperatures reached the upper 50's, and despite a steady drizzle, I was comfortable motoring along in the thin rind of my rain suit.

I stopped in the town of Burnside, KY late Thursday evening. My neutral indicator light had been flickering for much of the afternoon. I waited all day for the rain to penetrate some hidden and excruciatingly difficult section of the wiring harness and short out the entire system. I decided not to push on in the dark for home and retired to a mom and pop motel at the edge of the town limits. Having ample time before check out the following morning, I lifted off the seat to see if I would be lucky enough to find the likely culprit without too much digging. As luck would have it, I'd picked up an unwelcome guest during the cold nights at camp while the bike sat idle.

Unfortunately, my visitor chewed through much of the wiring that controlled brake lights and some of the indicator lights. I doctored a quick repair with the electrical tape I brought, and suffered a prayer to the highway gods that I'd make it back to the cozy confines of my own garage before my ass caught fire. What followed this little trip was a week of tearing the computer out of it's bracket and splicing in new wiring to replace the meal my guest had made of the original. My experience as an electrician being what it is, I put on a pot of coffee each evening and some slow jazz and took my time with the repairs. All's well that end's well.

Six months later and the Ninja sits idle next to my new machine and waiting on me to replace it's now dead battery. Truth be told, the trip south probably squeezed the last of the good juice out the old cell anyway. I feel a little guilty when I walk into the garage, like a neglectful parent. I bought the 650 after my Harley was destroyed as an attempt to recapture the motorcycling of my youth. It delivered more than open roads and scenic vistas, more than speed and thrill. It allowed me to reclaim my sense of wonder. For that, I have only gratitude.