Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I received an email this afternoon from the editor of Rider about an article I sold him last year, a touring story about a ride down to Sonoma, California, for Harley’s 2009 model intro. He had just now gotten around to reading it in preparation for running it in the next issue, and mentioned that he liked it—“Great story!”

Distant as I am from the nuts and bolts of magazine production, I don’t typically get much feedback about my work. I write a piece, I email it to the editor, and a check arrives at some indeterminate point in the future, by which time I’ve long since moved on to the next assignment. So when the email arrived today, I searched the folder on the computer marked "Morgue" and punched up the Sonoma story, curious to see what made it stand out.

I still don’t know, because I got to a certain point in the piece and was stopped cold by a rush of memory:

“On the way back through San Francisco I stopped at the Golden Gate Recreation Area north of the bridge and climbed the winding road until I found a place to pull over that was more or less free of tourists. As I do every time I pass this way, I stood a while looking out at the city where I was born. It’s a beautiful, almost magical place, and, perched as it is on the San Andreas Fault, maybe a doomed place, as well. That’s why I make this pilgrimage to the high cliffs above it every chance I get.”

Although I was born in San Francisco, I lived there only for three days before I was taken across the bay to an orphanage in Oakland, where I was adopted by my parents. It’s fashionable these days to differentiate adoptive parents from biological parents, but I never did, and I still don’t. They were my parents. End of discussion.

In 1973 or so I moved to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and it was from there that many of the misadventures of my motorcycling youth were launched. I got a job as an apprentice machinist at an aftermarket motorcycle accessory distributor and manufacturer, and lived for a month in my dad’s camper pick-up in the parking lot, driving it home to Santa Clara on the weekends, until I found an apartment in San Rafael.

The apartment had no garage—it barely had walls—so I stowed my Honda CB-500/4 street bike and my TZ250 roadracer in the back of the warehouse. I became a regular on the Sunday Morning Ride, an appallingly dangerous and occasionally deadly street ride/outlaw race/lemming march up Highway 1, where—to shamelessly rip off one of Jeff Karr’s most memorable lines—I saw Jesus so many times I started using him as a brake marker.

Life on two wheels was very different back then. I rode a 900cc Ducati Darmah SS dressed in jeans, Full Bore roadracing boots, and a Bell Helmets down jacket that would have evaporated in a red puff of nylon dust had I crashed in it. I was particularly proud of the buckskin gloves I had bought at Orchard Supply Hardware for 14 bucks a pair.

I continued to ride south to visit my parents every weekend, taking Highway 101 over the Golden Gate, through the City on 19th Avenue, and on to Highway 280. In summer the ride was spectacular, thanks to a dense gray tunnel of fog that would barrel in from the ocean, blanketing the towers of the bridge, and roll across the bay until it broke apart on the Oakland hills. Pouring through the Golden Gate, hunkered down on the water like an enormous slug, it looked like a blind, remorseless, world-swallowing monster in a Norse myth.

It was cold, too. I’d start out in Marin in light gear and be shivering and damp by the time I got to Golden Gate Park. A few miles later the fog vanished, and the bright sun beat down on me again, turning the cold dampness to sticky sweat.

In the folly that was my youth, I never took the time to wander around San Francisco much. I was too eager to get somewhere else, with no appreciation of where I already was. And I didn’t have any real connection with the city then, except the accident of my birth there.

It was only later on, after moving to Oregon, that I started feeling that odd tug that seems to pull some people back to their place of origin. And so began the ritual of never passing through San Francisco without pausing to ride up the narrow road on the north side of the bridge to look down on the shining city by the bay.

A while ago, before I sat down to write this, I went out to the backyard to play fetch with Daisy, Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer. Daisy’s version of fetch involves a lot of chewing the ball, and rolling around on it, and sniffing the spot where she rolled, so I bring my iPod along to fill the interludes between throws.

As I scrolled down the playlists I came to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album that got a lot of airplay during my time in Marin, and has since become for me a touchstone of those years. I clicked on the title track, and just as the guitar started strumming, a cool breeze out of the south swept over the backyard fence, bringing with it a whiff of what I could have sworn was salty air, with a hint of cool, damp fog, and before I knew it I was standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a brick-red bridge, its towers framing a shining white city in the distance.

Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world
I'm nothing but a stranger in this world
I got a home on high in another land
So far away, so far away...

I hope you enjoy reading the Rider story as much as I enjoyed living it.


Jerry White said...

Jerry, that's some damn good writing. As a resident of the Bay Area and sometime rider on the SMR, I know exactly what you're talking about. Now excuse me while I quote some Tony Bennett. It just seems to fit.

I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me.
To be where little cable cars
Climb halfway to the stars!
The morning fog may chill the air
I don't care!
My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco,
Your golden sun will shine for me!

D. Brent Miller said...

Jerry, I enjoyed the Rider article also, but was more amused at the subtle content. You rode a Suzuki V-Strom, arguably one of the finest all round motorcycles, to a Harley Davidson model release party. Now that's making a great statement.

V-Strom DL650, the yellow one.

Jerry Smith said...

I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes, I rode a bike there that, fully equipped, cost me about what the average Harley rider will spend making his bike as fast as...well, a 650 V-Strom.

Jerry White said...

Hey, didn't I just read this same story in Rider? ;-)

Jerry Smith said...

Not quite. Think of the Tread Life version as the behind-the-scenes featurette. Stay tuned for the blooper reel.

Matt Knowles said...

Your Rider article caught my attention because I started my motorcycle career 30 years ago (almost to the day I just realized) riding the roads around Alice's. But 9 years ago I moved to Ferndale, and that move was directly related to the Victorian your bike was parked in front of.

If you're ever down this way again, look me up and I'll show you some of the great roads that Rider hasn't written about yet. It does seem like they do love this area though, I think that's the 4th article in the last few years that mentioned Ferndale or the surrounding roads.

Jerry Smith said...

Matt, I remember the building, but I can't recall what it was. A B&B?

Matt said...

The Gingerbread Mansion and it is a B&B. It was the first commercial client I did a web site for, back in 1996.

misteruncledad said...

Article in RIDER was great, but maybe I'm biased, as you were writing about some of my favorite places in this messed-up, screwy, but-still-the-greatest-cycle-roads state that is California...insider tip on Alice's: stone bench out to the right, appropriately marked "Group W", is in honor of a biker--Gabe Peterson--whose story you can read about inside the restaurant...he was a founding member of the Polka Dots MC up in Sacramento (CA), rode Norton singles...last bike he had was a 2000 Ural, 'cause he could take his wife on rides with him...his unique signature is etched on the backside of the bench, and some of his loves--Dixieland jazz and cooking--are incorporated into the base of the bench...a fine and fitting memorial to a great man, but then my bias is showing again...Gabe was my dad!

Jerry Smith said...

Thanks for sharing this. Next time I'm down that way I'll park myself on Gabe's bench and thank all the guys like him who paved the way for the rest of us.