Chapter Eight: Spring Break and the Big Ride (“Fear and Loathing” meets “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”)

Did you read Chapter 7: Mo’Town and My First Crush?

After graduation, my best friend from CMU bought a 1978 Triumph Bonneville. He subsequently moved to California to attend graduate school at Stanford University and left the bike behind at his parents’  house.

In my eagerness to help my friend and a somewhat misguided sense of adventure, I offered to ride the bike out to him in California over Spring Break in exchange for a one-way plane ticket back to Pittsburgh. He agreed and we set about working through the logistics of picking up the bike and title, temporarily registering and affixing a paper tag, and a cursory mechanical shakedown to assess its roadworthiness.

I didn’t tell anyone except my sister that I was going to do this. In addition to being blissfully ignorant, my parents were conveniently out of town so we could ‘borrow’ the Chevy van, bring the bike to their house for some maintenance and then take it down to Morgantown where it lived in my living room for a little while.

Some part of my brain recognized that this was probably not the smartest or safest thing I’d ever attempted and in the living room I was sharing with the motorcycle, I wrote and recorded “Odyssey”.

When I was done, I cued up the cassette tape and left written instructions to play it as a partial explanation for why a young graduate student who recently met his tragic end while riding a friend’s motorcycle felt compelled to do something so stupid.

As for the trip, it went pretty much as one would expect considering British motorcycles are not considered as reliable as their German and Japanese contemporaries. Moreover, this one was now almost ten-years old and had not been well cared for by its previous owner.

Things started out great. I left Morgantown on a sunny and warm Friday afternoon, but it was only March so I planned to go south before going west on I-40. Thirty miles down the Interstate from Morgantown, the speedometer quit working. Thirty miles later, the tachometer drive fell out of the crankcase. I had covered less than 3% of the trip and had no way to monitor my speed except my ear and the relative speed of the traffic around me. Worse, oil continued to dribble out of the hole and into the wind from where the tach drive used to be. The fine mist it formed when it mixed with the wind coated my left leg and was my faithful companion for the rest of the trip. On the bright side, my oily leg made it nearly impossible to forget to add the requisite quart of oil at each gas stop.

Speaking of gas; a Triumph Bonneville doesn’t hold much. The two-and-a-half gallon tank gives a range of approximately 150 miles. There is no gas gauge and little reserve once the engine sputters and you open the other petcock to access about a half inch of fuel on the other side of the tank. I say ‘little reserve’: it’s less than twenty miles. I am now keenly aware that there are many places in the US where the distance between gas stations well exceeds twenty miles.

The first time I ran out of gas, it was because I was a little too cavalier. The bike sputtered, I opened the reserve petcock and took the next exit which indicated there was fuel available. Unfortunately, the sign was a bit outdated and the station at that exit appeared to have last serviced a vehicle during the Eisenhower administration.

No matter, back on the highway to the next exit, then the next, then…empty. As I sat parked on the shoulder wondering what to do next (this was before cell phones), a WV State Trooper happened by. He had a siphon hose in the trunk and offered to give me a gallon or two of fuel from  his cruiser if I had something to put it in. I didn’t. Necessity being the mother of invention, we laid the bike on its side and siphoned gasoline directly from the cruiser’s tank into the bike’s tank. I didn’t realize it until later, but the rear brake master cylinder leaked while the bike was in repose and damaged the paint on the right side cover. Oops. Anyway, we got enough fuel into the tank to get me to the next bone fide gas station.

Back on my way and with a slightly more conservative attitude, I worked my way further south in West Virginia (roughly another 150 miles). The end of my second tankful of gasoline was eerily like my first except that once off the second exit ramp that indicated a gas station (and coincided with a town making me more confident the ‘services available’ sign was not lying), I realized that I had about one mile’s worth of fuel, but was three miles from the town. Stranded again; but this time not on a busy Interstate, but on a lonely county highway halfway between the Interstate and a small town.

There are precious few times in my life when I’ve been compelled to hitchhike and all of them involve disabled British motorcycles. But, there I was, thumb out and desperate. It wasn’t long before a friendly fellow in a beat-up, trash-laden pickup truck (I’m in West Virginia…what are the odds?) picked me up and took me to the gas station. The station loaned me a gas can and I put a couple gallons of fuel in it.

The same fellow that picked me up earlier actually drove me back to the bike, waited until I had gassed-up, suited up and started the engine. Then he put the gas can in his truck and followed me back to the station to return it. I topped off the tank and offered the good Samaritan $20, but he wouldn’t take it.

OK, so now I’d run out of gas twice without crossing a state line which was not only embarrassing, but slowed me down a lot. Even so, I now began to look for and take on fuel as soon as I had traveled one hundred miles. One of these fuel stops was at a Love’s Truck Stop which I remember because, in addition to fuel and oil, I bought a bottle of shampoo because I’d forgotten to pack any.

As I was getting ready to leave, a young couple in a car pulled up and the man in the driver’s seat started talking. The bike was running, I was wearing a helmet and had been exposed to road noise for hours so I couldn’t hear them. I killed the engine, took off the helmet, apologized and asked them to repeat themselves. This time, the woman leaned toward the driver’s window and said: “Are you looking for a place to stay tonight?”

This seemed odd to me since it wasn’t even dark yet and then I began to wonder what else they might want besides an opportunity to express their altruism. I figured they either wanted to do a little role playing in the “rec room” or introduce me to Jesus. Either way, I had a more pressing agenda so I politely declined and pressed on to Knoxville, TN where I spent the night.

Saturday morning I had a hearty breakfast and went out to start the bike and get on my way. Now, I’d been taught to clear the clutch before starting a British bike because it won’t go into gear otherwise. Late model bikes don’t require this, but it doesn’t do any harm unless…there’s not much clutch left. As you might have guessed, that was the situation with this bike.

So long as I didn’t clear the clutch before trying to start it, everything went fine. If I fell into my old habit (as it did on this particular morning), there wasn’t enough grip left in the clutch to turn the engine when you stomp on the kickstarter.

Clutches aren’t complicated and I’d fixed lots of them over the years, but the job does require a few tools I hadn’t thought to bring with me. Fortunately, the motel was adjacent to a trucking garage so I went over and gave the mechanic a $20 bill as a security deposit for the socket I borrowed to pull the bike’s side cover. What I hadn’t counted on was being unable to find a tool to remove the footpeg which would have allowed me to remove the cover. In the end, all I’d accomplished was letting all the oil out of the chaincase and soiling an ice bucket and a few motel towels. I made what little adjustment I could and bolted everything back together which was just enough to get the engine started and me back on the road.

Sometime after lunch and west of Nashville, the bike began to misfire. I decided to stop early and find a motel in West Memphis, AR where I could work on the bike before the sun went down. There was nothing obviously wrong and it took a long time to figure out that the problem was a failing condenser.

I’ve mentioned the less-than-stellar reputation of British motorcycles with respect to mechanical reliability. In particular, the Lucas electronics utilized by the British motorcycle industry are legendary for failing at a most inopportune time.

In fact, there are many Lucas jokes among British car and motorcycle aficionados. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Q: How can you identify an authentic three-position Lucas headlight switch?
    A: It’s labeled ‘OFF, DIM & FLICKER’.
  • Q: Why do the British drink warm beer?
    A: Lucas refrigerators.
  • Q: What’s the best substitute for a Lucas headlight?
    A: Three lightning bugs in a jar.
  • Q: What was Mr. Lucas better known as?
    A: The Prince of Darkness.

Knowing that the auto parts stores would be closed on Sunday, I rode the coughing, sputtering Bonneville to the neighborhood auto parts store in the early evening. The following is my best recollection of the ensuing conversation:

Me: “Good evening, I need a condenser.”
Him: “What’s it for?”
Me: “I’m sure you don’t have the stock one.”
Him: (slightly annoyed) “I might, what’s the make and model?”
Me: “1978 Triumph Bonneville…motorcycle.”
Him: (crestfallen) “I don’t have one of those.”
Me: “I know.”
(awkward pause)
Me: “It’s about this big” (holding thumb and forefinger aloft)
Him: “I have a universal one about this big” (holding thumb and forefinger aloft; slightly wider)
Me: “I’ll take it.”

It was now too dark to work on the motorcycle, so I had a late dinner, went back to my room, rolled a joint and turned on the TV.

Sunday morning dawned cold and clear. I waited a bit (smoked another joint) and went out to install the new condenser. The emergency repair wasn’t pretty and didn’t completely fix the problem, but the bike certainly ran better than it had the day before so I checked out, packed up and hit the road again.

I remember thinking as I rode through Arkansas that all I wanted to do was get back out. I could never have imagined that I would one day live there.

I made good progress that day despite fighting a cold rain and hypothermia. I’m not exaggerating. I would ride until I stopped shivering because I knew that meant I was in danger. Then I would stop at a diner or truck stop  and linger over coffee until the pins and needles stopped. Next came the uncontrollable shivering and when that stopped, I’d get back on the bike and do it all over again. In this way, I went the rest of the way across Arkansas all the way through Oklahoma and just into the northern panhandle of Texas.

I stopped for the night in Shamrock at a little motel next to a steakhouse. I was exhausted, but felt entitled to a big steak dinner but, there was no alcohol at this establishment so instead of beer or wine, I had to be content drinking iced tea.

After dinner, I bought a six-pack at the convenience store and took it back to my room where I, of course, rolled another joint. As I opened a beer and sparked the joint, I turned on the TV. “The Wizard of Oz” was just beginning; it had been a good day.

Monday morning in Shamrock, TX wasn’t any warmer than West Memphis had been the day before. I was eager to get going in the morning and was hoping to get past the rain so off I went. I rode about twenty miles to the next exit where I stopped for a quick breakfast and my first tank of gas in a little town called McLean.

After breakfast, I went back out into the rain, fired up the Bonnie and headed for the entrance ramp. As I upshifted to second gear and opened the throttle, the rear wheel spun on a patch of ice.

Now, hypothermia is one thing and I had accepted that, but riding a motorcycle on the Interstate in the freezing rain was more than even I was willing to risk. I carefully made a U-turn and pulled into the little motel next to the diner at about nine o’clock in the morning.

The motel was a sad, squat, L-shaped, cinderblock building and my room in it was a perfectly rectangular and equally sad unit. There was a bed, a chair, a TV, a bathroom, a window air conditioner and a little wall-mounted space heater. With the temperature outside dropping and the motel empty, the room was uninhabitably cold. I cranked up the heater as high as it would go and went back to the diner where I watched the rain turn the parking lot into an ice rink.

After a couple hours, the waitress was taking longer and longer to return and refill my coffee cup. It was obvious I’d worn out my welcome at the diner. I went back to my room which didn’t seem any warmer than it was when I checked in, crawled under the covers and channel-surfed between naps for the next eighteen hours.

By first light on Tuesday morning, I was as eager to leave Texas as I’d been to leave Arkansas. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different plan.

I mentioned that the rain had turned the parking lot into an ice rink. The good news is that the rain stopped overnight and the roads were now clear and dry. The bad news is that, in my haste, I’d parked the bike in a puddle and it was now solidly anchored to the parking lot.

Standing on the ice, I couldn’t get enough traction to move it. After scratching my head and smoking a few cigarettes, I decided to pack up, start the bike where it was and try to break it free without dropping it. It took a couple tries, but I finally managed to get it out of the ice puddle and I was back on the road.

For the second day, I fought hypothermia while riding through the rest of the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico. It was the first time I’d seen the Rocky Mountains other than from an airplane and I wasn’t particularly impressed until I realized that they didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

Around mid-morning, I reached Santa Rosa, NM and was desperate for a cup of coffee and a place to warm up. I got off the highway onto an access road that was just a few hundred yards north of I-40. The access road actually turned out to be the original Route 66, but there was little or nothing along this part of the road anymore.

After riding along for a mile or two, the only open establishment I came across was a bar. Hey, any port in a storm, right? I parked the bike out front and went in.

Inside, the proprietor was building a fire in what seemed to be the largest oil drum wood burning stove I’d ever seen. He invited me to lay my wet gloves on the stove and asked me if they were the only pair I had. I told him they were and he disappeared behind the enormous wood stove and returned with a pair of mittens that looked like something Admiral Peary would have used on a polar expedition. He told me they’d been left by someone recently and I appeared to need them.

Since this appeared to be a place where people tended to leave things behind, I asked if he had any sunglasses lying around since I’d foolishly lost mine two days earlier when they flew out of my pocket and disappeared under the rolling semi behind me. He didn’t.

I thanked the bartender for the mittens and mentally snapped back to the point at hand: did he have any coffee? He said not yet and that it would take some time to heat the water, but the beer was cold….

It was between nine and ten o’clock Tuesday morning, I was suffering from hypothermia, and I was in an empty bar. I didn’t really want a beer…or did I? OK, what the fuck. Set me up.

I couldn’t make the next part of this story up if I tried: It was about 35°F, I was sitting in a bar/at the bar drinking a beer at ten o’clock Tuesday morning when a second motorcyclist rode up. He came in, sat down at the bar with me, nodded in my direction and ordered a beer.

Now, the population density in this part of the world is pretty low so it’s highly improbable that two equally misguided motorcyclists should not only happen upon the same bar on the same Tuesday morning, but both be willing to drink beer before lunch.

Having so much in common so far, we naturally struck up a conversation and found we were both headed west. He was a stone mason named Tom Mayer who was relocating from somewhere in the Southeast to Phoenix. He had his possessions strapped to his Suzuki including a portfolio of his work and a four-foot mason’s ruler. The only reason he stopped was because he saw my bike in the parking lot.

We decided to ride together the rest of the day and share a motel room that night. So we finished our beers and headed west. By the way, Tom did have an extra pair of sunglasses and gave them to me along with a business card. I still have both the sunglasses and his card.

We rode until we were too cold to continue and pulled into a deserted rest stop on the Interstate. It was one of those minimalist rest stops that consists only of a restroom with just enough roof to discourage, but not entirely keep out the elements. We stood near the urinals where it was warmest and smoked a joint.

I think we stopped in Holbrook, AZ that night, but I’m not sure. I do remember that the room cost us $26 ($13 each). Tom noticed that the Bonneville was overdue for a chain adjustment so I took care of that and noticed that the rear tire was just about worn out. That was something I hadn’t counted on since it looked fine when I left Morgantown. But I was in the home stretch and there was nothing I could do now but cross my fingers and hope I was due for some good luck.

Tom and I checked out on Wednesday morning and we knew we would be parting once we reached Flagstaff, so we said our goodbyes before we left the parking lot and when we got to the junction, all we did was wave to each other. I never saw him again.

I limped the bike across the Rockies by fiddling with the carburetors and cleaning the sparkplugs every hundred miles or so. Amal carburetors are almost as legendary (infamous) as Lucas electronics. The pair affixed to this particular motorcycle were more sensitive to atmospheric pressure than a NOAA barometer and were much happier back at (or below) sea level when I stopped for gas in Needles, CA.

It was getting late, but I wasn’t ready to call it a day yet. As I looked at the map, someone came up to admire the bike (it’s a pretty regular occurrence) and asked if I had extra fuel for the long ride to the next gas station in Barstow. That was 144 miles away and too close to my maximum range to risk being stranded in the Mojave Desert at night.

This helpful fellow suggested I go to the service area and ask a mechanic if they had something I could put gasoline in, but when I did, the best they could come up with was a used antifreeze bottle. It sealed tightly and looked reasonably clean so I took it, put two gallons of gas in it and tied it to the seat behind me before starting out across the desert in the fading light.

It turns out that there IS a little town between Needles and Barstow called Ludlow so I stopped there for the night, poured the gasoline from my reserve container into the fuel tank and tossed the empty container in the trash.

I had traveled through West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but it was in California that I first got “Hon”-ed by a waitress (as in, “Hi Hon, what can it getcha?”). I said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”, but I was wrong.

After a meal and a good night’s rest, I was back on the road Thursday morning and riding through the central valley of California on schedule to finish the trip by sundown. Interstate 40 ends (or begins depending on your perspective) in Barstow, CA. After six days of traveling on the Interstate Highway System, I was now on California Highway 58 (The Barstow-Bakersfield Highway) and the scenery was considerably better than it had been. In fact, I was enjoying this ride so much I opted to stay on California Hwy 99 to Fresno instead of jumping over to I-5 just north of Bakersfield.

The ride west on Hwy 152 was even better, but then the fun was pretty much all over when I hit Hwy 101 in Gilroy. In fact, it was in stop-and-go traffic along Rte. 101 that the clutch started heating up and I couldn’t keep the bike running anymore. I had to pull over and undo the clutch adjustment I made back in Tennessee just to coax the bike the last fifteen or twenty miles.

My flight was on Saturday so I still had about a day-and-a-half to enjoy California before flying back to Pittsburgh and removing the cassette from my tape deck and destroying the note instructing my next-of-kin to play “Odyssey”.

On to Chapter 9:Caves, Crashes and Cocktails