Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Back In The Saddle

Crater Lake National Park
I took my first long ride on the new Gold Wing this past weekend, a quick run down to the little town of Gerlach, Nevada, for an annual gathering of long-distance riders. It was a shakedown run for the both the bike and me. I haven't ridden much more than 75 miles in a day for the past few years because of problems from old injuries. But events conspired to bring me together with Jumbo the Gold Wing a while back, and more sobering events prompted me to make the trip to Gerlach.

Ascot Racer

Motorcycle riding is a dangerous activity, no matter how we try to pretty it up. Life itself is no walk in the park, either. This year saw the passing of four members of the long-distance community, two from accidents while riding and two others from illness. Like the members of any tight-knit group of like-minded enthusiasts, LD riders squabble and disagree, often about astonishingly trivial matters, but in my life I've come across no more generous and giving a bunch of people. Despite only passing acquaintances with them, I felt the loss of these men as if we'd been the best of friends.

Because I've been more or less on the shelf for a while, I split the trip to Gerlach into two easy days. The weather report called for temps in the high 80s, and since I'm no fan of heat I planned to get up at the crack of dawn and ride to Klamath Falls the first day, grab a room at the peak of the afternoon swelter, and continue on to Gerlach the next morning.

At a gas stop in Alturas, California, I saw a group of antique cars heading for an event called Street Vibrations in Reno. The driver of the car in the photo above had a small brass cup of grease in his hand and was lubricating various old-timey gizmos under the hood with a glob on the end of his finger. The car had "Ascot Racer" painted on the side, and the driver said the car was indeed an old dirt-track racer. When he was done he heaved the engine to life with the crank while his wife fiddled with the controls in the cockpit, and they chugged away.

In case you're hosting a picnic for 40 of your friends.

Bruno's Country Club in Gerlach really needs quotes around Country Club. It's a bar and a restaurant with a banquet room in the back, all on the one main street in town. Down the street are two blocks of motel rooms operated by Bruno's. Both blocks were full of LD riders for the weekend.

For some reason I was given an apartment--sorry, "apartment"--with some odd amenities. In the freezer was an ice pack with nothing but Japanese writing on it, along with a box of cling wrap, also in Japanese. There was a John Wayne painting on one wall of the living room, and a John Wayne clock on the opposite wall. One of the kitchen drawers was full of plastic utensils; the one below it was filled to overflowing with used plastic grocery bags. There were no screens on any of the windows, at least not the windows that opened, and a tiny air conditioner struggled gamely to mitigate the stifling heat in the airless room.

Rally ho!

On Saturday morning a select group of masochists lined up to participate in an eight-hour mini-rally. Watching them leave constituted the only town-based entertainment open to non-gambling non-drinkers for the rest of the day, so later a few of us went out to the Black Rock Desert to visit the Iron Butt Association's Circle of Honor.

The Circle of Honor

The Circle is where LD riders remember those who have, as they say, ridden on ahead. Each stone has a name inscribed on it to mark the passing of a comrade and friend. It's situated on a hillside overlooking the playa, the vast, flat expanse of the Black Rock. It's a somber place, capable of tempering the usual high spirits that prevail during the Gerlach weekend and turning the mind to thoughts of lost friends, and past rides, and how damned temporary everything is that we like to think of as permanent and unchanging.

Later that night we sat down to a banquet prepared by Bruno and his staff. The food in the restaurant out front is food. The food served at the banquet is the food of the gods. Guys who've never missed a meal in their lives starve themselves the entire day in anticipation of the wonders that come forth from the kitchen.

After the banquet the results of the mini-rally were announced. Two riders tied for first place, and the winner was determined by a game of rock-paper-scissors. After that everyone headed out to the playa in the pitch darkness, where a tiny light shone in the distance.

The bonfire on the playa is the heart of the weekend. Out there under a black canopy of a zillion stars you feel justifiably small. As the bonfire dies down, so do the voices, and eventually it's time to remember the riders who aren't there, and why. One by one people step into the firelight and tell stories about them, their generosity, their spirit, their competitiveness, the joy they got from life, the hole their passing leaves in the lives of the rest of us. Bottles are passed around, cigars are lit, and the bonfire burns to embers, through which by tradition all first-time Gerlach attendees must walk.

Sunday morning at 7:40 I left Gerlach with my friend Paul Peloquin (the loser of the previous night's rock-paper-scissors smackdown) giving myself permission to stop for the day if conditions, either meteorological or physical, worsened. But the weather was cool, the roads were deserted, and we made great time to Klamath Falls, where it was pouring rain. We parked in the shelter of a car wash bay while Paul had a coffee and I ate a muffin. Then we shook hands and took different routes to our homes.

By then I was thinking it was entirely possible that I could make it all the way home that day. The Wing is the most comfortable bike I've ever ridden, and the aches and pains that had deviled me for years were so diminished as to be inconsequential. I stopped several times for breaks and snacks, and rolled into my driveway at 4:45 p.m., sore but exhilarated. I'd ridden 440 miles in one day, a trifling distance by LD rider standards but a huge accomplishment for me.

Every time I get ready to go to Gerlach I remind myself there's really nothing to do there, and it's always hot, or dusty, or cold, or all three at once, and I wonder if I really want to go. Every time I get home from Gerlach I remember the feeling of standing on the playa at night, under the roof of infinity, in the company of the oddest, orneriest, most open-hearted and accepting community of people I've ever been proud to be a part of, and there's no question about it. I'm going back next year.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Really Big Addition To The Garage

Lead Wing. Hondaminium. Hondapotamus. Go ahead, laugh. I've heard 'em all. I don't care. I love this thing. I've put just two tanks of gas through it and I'm already addicted to the stereo and the cruise control.

Contrary to my long-standing custom of not naming motorcycles, I've begun to refer to this one as Jumbo. I once rode a real, live elephant. This is sort of like that, except it's faster, and smells better, and has more trunk space.