Grand Assumptions

too-many_minds 4When I was a kid, growing up in western Kansas, I assumed that everybody knew how to ride a horse. I did, after all, and I was a “city kid” and most of the people I knew were city kids and all of them rode a horse at some time or another, I assumed. I had an uncle who had a large eastern Kansas ranch and who kept horses, a lot of horses. I started riding horses when I was about five and kept at it until I was in my mid-twenties. When I moved to Dallas, Texas in the late-60’s, I discovered practically no one in that city had ever seen a horse outside of television. I was practically considered a “cowboy” because of my hometown and the fact that I knew how to saddle and ride a horse.

2012-Nissan-Frontier-4X4-PRO4X-dash-viewNow, I take more than a little crap from the fact that I own a manual transmission pickup, one of the last made and sold in the US: a Nissan Frontier. “Nobody” drives a manual anymore.” It’s almost true. Fewer than 3% of cars and trucks sold in the US have manual transmissions. Ten years ago, half of the vehicles sold had manual transmissions, especially trucks. It won’t be long before the only people who know anything about shifting gears will be motorcyclists and even that could change quickly. Scooters have always been “automatic” shifters and some motorcycles are going that way, too. My wife tolerates our pickup, but she has decided she wants a mini-van with an automatic transmission and all of the extras. My driving days are numbered and I’m not complaining. Part of the deal we made with the pickup was that I’d keep driving as long as we had it. When we go back to an automatic transmission vehicle, I’m moving to passenger-only status. It’s not a punishment for her, but a reward for me after driving more than a million miles in my lifetime, I’m opting out.

Some people believe that possessing a driver’s license is an important thing. A rapidly increasing number of Americans disagree. “Among young adults, the declines are smaller but still significant—16.4 percent fewer 20-to-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11 percent fewer 25-to-29-year-olds, 10.3 percent fewer 30-to-34-year-olds, and 7.4 percent fewer 35-to-39-year-olds. For people between 40 and 54, the declines were small, less than 5 percent.” Owning a car and driving are less important in urban areas and are becoming less important in small-to-mid-sized cities. Red Wing, for example, has a terrific bus service that will pick me up at my driveway. It’s only 3 miles to downtown from my near-edge-of-the-city home, so walking or bicycling makes a lot more sense than driving about 90% of the time to go downtown. Getting to the Cities is more complicated, but not impossible. Amtrak has a daily “shuttle run” to the Cities, even though the times are weirdly inconvenient. There is talk of a “Red Rock Corridor” rail that would connect Red Wing and other Mississippi Valley cities to the Twin Cities. If that happens, even these rural areas1 could see a drop in car ownership.

automated_carsIn 2017, it might seem impossible to imagine a future where most people don’t drive their own cars. In 1900 it was pretty impractical to imagine a future where most people didn’t own a horse. In 1960, it was difficult to imagine a future where most Americans didn’t own an American-made car. In 2030, it could be hard to believe that people once drove cars, rather than simply instructed their autonomous vehicle to take them to a destination while they relaxed, read, did homework or work-work, or yakked on the phone. By 2050, it is entirely possible that the only people who will “drive” their own vehicle will be the ultra-rich, since they will be the only people who can afford the liability insurance. Imagine that.

1 An unanticipated effect of this shift would likely be even more abandonment of the rural areas, fewer resources for small towns and disconnected areas of even high population states like California, and more electoral catestrophes like the 2016 election unless the Electoral College idiocy is addressed. Not all Future Shock stresses are desireable or healthy. They just happen and we react as if “nobody knew it would be this complicated.”

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The Cycle of Life

_grandloopSo, a few years ago, this was the only camping vehicle I needed or wanted. I could go anywhere I wanted, any time I got the time to go somewhere, without worrying about anything from someone else’s schedules to what the roads are like where I wanted to go. The WR with my Giant Loop gear was the perfect touring vehicle at the time.

20140704_142353Then, I retired. We bought an RV. Ok, I bought an RV, but I did it because my wife wanted a few adventures now that I wasn’t working a bizillion hours a week. I mean this was a serious months long nag that finally convinced me to look for an RV that would hold both of us, that my wife might drive (since I still hate driving four-wheel anythings), and that could tow a trailer for bicycles and the WR. Being the dumbass I am, I picked the Winnebago Rialta you see at right. I wrote a whole series of rants about how awful that played out.

2016-02-16 Blizzard & RVSo, we sold the Rialta and decided to downsize and move to someplace less noisy than Little Canada and our beloved I35E backyard noise generator. We moved to Red Wing, downsized about 1600 square feet, from 2700 to 1100, lost about 35dB of average noise, Still with a jones for traveling, she decided we needed to “seperate our camping house from our vehicle,” so we bought a pickup with towing capability and a camper trailer. And there it sat, wind, rain, snow, heat, and rince and repeat for two years. This week, we finally got the damn thing out on the road, mostly to practice backing it up and parking it. She wanted nothing to do with any part of the process and decided the whole camper experiment had been a mistake. I concur.

_grandloopSo, we’re going to put the camper up for sale. Maybe, buy a minivan for short haul camping trips (that we’ll probably never take), and we haven’t decided if we’re keeping the pickup. Since I sold the bike trailer, we might hang on to the pickup and ramps. In the meantime, I’m back to my original camping rig and other than all of the hassle involved between then and now, I’m ok with that.

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Feelin’ Lucky, Punk?

Lots of terrific things have happened to me as a result of my association with Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly magazine, but getting to know Kevin Cameron ranks really high on the list. I’ve saved much of the last seven years of correspondence with Keven because, like his Cycle World column, it has been brilliant.

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Social Engineering & Motorcycling

One of my favorite things about Mount Rushmore is the statements the Park Service selected from each of those Presidents. George Washington’s words are, probably, my favorite, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Life and democracy are just a series of experiments, some successful and some not so much. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab of any sort knows that you just move on when an experiment fails.

So, with that background in mind, I think the MIC has been clueless in its sudden approach to find new customers. I’ve been saying, for almost 20 years, that new riders will not be the same people as the old riders. The Hardly/biker/gangbanger crowd are old, clip_image002white, poor, and stupid. They are, literally, on the way out; and good riddance. Their redneck replacements will be even more poor, dumber, and will satisfy themselves with the old stock easily found on practically every block in the country. Harley stock-piled bikes in warehouses, dealers’ lots, and in the garages of wanna-be yuppies who are so underwater on their chrome toys that they’ll never see dry land again. In the meantime, those “nicest people” Honda once convinced to buy motorcycles have moved on to other things. In Sound Familiar?, my last post, I ridiculed the traditional approach the MIC is taking to try to cling to the biker business in spite of the fact that bikers are about as trendy and hip as Disco Dan. A local Red Wing motorcyclists’ Google group I sometimes follow was on a similar subject, based on that Bloomberg article and the fact that internal combustion powered vehicles are losing ground faster than expected.

One member seemed to think electric motorcycles are a joke and that my suggestion that motorcycling advocates try to seperate motorcycle licensing from cage licenses was ridiculous. “I’m envisioning an electric moped running the ironbutt rally. Pulling a trailer full of batteries. Picking up fresh batteries every 100 miles.

“Not to mention that a driver’s license is much more than a license to drive, but also establishes residency, personal identification and even implied nationality. 

“In my opinion, it makes sense to learn to drive in a car. Protected by a cage, one can learn traffic patterns etc without the undue risk associated with a bad/inexperienced decision on an MC.”

Since the Iron Butt is probably the ultimate motorcycling conspicuous consumption event, 1000 miles a day for no reason other than to burn fuel and attempt suicide-by-deer, I don’t think many motorcyclists or motorcycle manufacturers take it into account in their product planning. I suspect there are more motorcyclists who don’t know about the IBR than who do. I’d never heard of it until I moved to MN in 1996 and I’d been on two wheels for 40 years at that point. People who might commute by motorcycle are, or should be, a far bigger concern of the industry than the 12 guys who spend as small fortune on their once-a-year IBR extravaganza and the rest of the year recovering from that crippling event.

However, you might envision the ass-kicking suck-pow-blow bikes are getting at Pike’s Peak. Like horse-and-buggy owners at the turn of the last century, electric vehicles are coming on a lot faster than the old guard thinks and the speed of that change is only going to get quicker.

clip_image004In fact, a drivers’ licenses is exactly nothing “more than a license to drive.” There are identification cards that serve the identity purpose of a drivers’ license and you get them at the same DMV office or, in civilized states, at the post office or your local library. Red state voter suppression politicos try to make ID cards as difficult and expensive to obtain as cage licenses, but those folks are fighting a losing battle. Demographics and economics are going to be driving this bus and no matter how much voter repression goes on in the red states, those two things will be driven by forces outside of political control.

That last argument is what I think of as the ultimate helicopter parent whine, “I’m gonna put my half-witted offspring in the largest SUV possible, in case little Douchebag gets distracted by his cell phone, video game, and in-dash movies and loses control of his vehicle and kills your kid; who was responsibly walking, bicycling, or motorcycling.” If you think young drivers are learning traffic patterns, you haven’t been on the road in any sort of state of consciousness. You don’t learn patterns or good habits from being inside a well-protected, smarter-than-you vehicle. You learn by immersing yourself in the environment where you will sink or swim. That’s why walking, bicycling, and motorcycling are better educators than cages, but it’s also why we’ve become a nation of pampered, lazy, uneducated spoiled brats who are non-competitive, trailing-edge, and have traded democracy for idiocracy.

hondaad2I’m not convinced motorcycles have a future in the industrialized world. When the only people who can afford the average motorcycle are the 1%, the market has shrivelled to unsustainable. There was a reason Henry Ford paid his workers enough that they could buy the products they built. There was an even better reason Honda tried to market their 1960’s motorcycles to “the nicest people.” Today, a reasonably practical new motorcycle costs at least $5,000 and that same money will buy a decent used car that will get the same or better fuel mileage, last longer with less maintenance, and be useable year-around.

I really believe it’s time to experiment with the whole motorcycle paradigm. I know of more than a few young people who could be tempted to obtain a motorcycle license before they mess with a car license. They might not ever bother with the car license, given mass transportation access and automous cars. While some people imagine that “drivers’ education courses” in high school or privately provides some level of competence, that would just be more of that silly idealizing-high-school crap. Drivers’ Ed courses are notoriously taught by the guy who couldn’t clear the lowest bar in teachers’ education, worse than phys-ed, and the classes are barely a joke, academically or practically. Currently, all licensing testing is designed to put butts in seats as efficiently as possible. Safety and competence isn’t any significant part of either drivers or motorcyclists training. That could and should be changed. Completely decoupling the cage license from motorcycle licensing could provide an opportunity to enhance all aspects of motorcycle training, which would make both motorcycle and car licensing more productive. Obviously, tiered licensing only makes sense. I can’t think of a single good reason to put a new motorcyclist on a liter bike; or a new driver in a 2,400 kilo SUV.

Electric motorcycles might make even more sense than electric cars, given the fact that most motorcycles don’t travel more than 1,500 miles a year and the advantage motorcycles could have in parking, lane-sharing, and storage. An electric motorcycle with a 150 mile range would more than do the transportation job for most people and a $0.06 fillup would just be icing on the cake.

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Old Habits and New Fears

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

I retired in 2013 and my wife and I escaped our first Minnesota winter in 18 years in a used Winnebago RV. That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, I discovered a whole lot about Volkswagen and that company’s non-existent product support along the way (Ducati owners beware!). So, instead of a 13,000 mile trip to the southern California and up PCH to Portland, we spent the winter (all five months of it) in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico while I troubleshot our Eurovan’s electronics and contemplated going back to some kind of work since “retirement” had turned into such a disaster. Along the way, I met some really terrific people who also owned the same POS RV (Ours was a 2000 Winnebago Rialta.) and had a bunch of discussions about what kind of person makes a “good” RV traveler. Many of us came to the conclusion that the fact that I was perfectly happy traveling by myself, staying in cheap motels or sleeping in a hammock or on the ground probably meant I would never be a “real” RV sort of guy. Some of you might know that I generally don’t like driving any sort of four-wheel vehicle and would rather take the train, bus, or hitchhike than be anyone’s designated driver. Sometime during my early 20’s I passed the million-mile mark in work vehicles, driving 100,000+ miles a year for almost a decade, and any love I might have had for cars or trucks vanished. I own a pickup because it can carry a lot of crap, including my motorcycles and because my wife hasn’t given up on that damn RV dream. On my own, I’d rent a car when I need one. 

We bought the Rialta because it was supposed to be fairly easy to drive. As long as you didn’t have to back it up with a motorcycle trailer in tow, it wasn’t particularly painful to pilot. I ended up doing most of the driving because my wife freaked out about the motorcycle trailer, but she did at least 20% of the driving later in the trip and that made 20% of the RV traveling tolerable for me. Mostly, I wasted most of that first year’s summer getting the RV ready to travel: new flooring, transmission cooler, overhauled the A/C, new entertainment center, and a full 75,000 mile point-by-VW-point service. 2,000 miles later, after being stranded in a snow and ice storm in Carlsbad National Park for a week, the many flaws in VW’s wiring and electronics put the vehicle in “limp home mode” and we eventually limped into Truth or Consequences for the next five months. In April of 2014, we drove the VW/RV back home, cleaned it up, and sold it. End of story?

I wish.

habits_fearsLike I said, my wife had not given up on the RV dream but her new mantra became, “You want your house separate from your vehicle.” Slowly, I got talked into thinking about trying the mobile life again. Too many of the VW’s problems came from the poorly implemented electronics that controlled the automatic transmission, so I started looking for something with a manual transmission that could haul a motorcycle and pull a small trailer. Just in time for the move to Red Wing, I bought a Nissan Frontier in great shape with a manual transmission and cruise control; the Holy Grail of traveling vehicles. After some nagging and pleading, we stumbled on to a small camper that had the layout, weight, and price we’d decided on. We bought it last fall, knowing the chances that we’d go somewhere in it were slim due to other commitments for the winter. I’m writing this in mid-July and the camper hasn’t moved an inch since the previous owners parked it in our yard. Like 90% of the campers purchased on this planet, it is serving as a yet-unused spare guest room.

“What’s the problem?” You ask.

“General disinterest, marginal backing up skills, and practically no familiarity with towing anything other than a U-Haul trailer,” would be the answer.

I’m perfectly happy with a tent and sleeping bag, and rolling down the highway on two wheels. I don’t need to learn the new skills required to setup and drive a vehicle pulling a 3,000 pound trailer. My wife’s interest in traveling by RV is still strong. She, on the other hand, is expecting me to find the motivation to not only do all of that crap but to teach her how to do it, too. We’ve been married almost 50 years and all of our worst moments have been when I was stuck being her coach or teacher. I am a professional teacher, but she is a life-long stubborn resistant-learner. She has absolutely no self-teaching skills, instincts, or motivation and I would rather hand feed an alligator tiny pieces of steak than be forced to teach my wife anything difficult.

And there is the problem.

My memories of our five months “camping” are mostly of me trying to sort out VW’s well-hidden and inaccurate service information, crawling around under that damned Eurovan POS or disassembling the interior or engine wiring to find the three cobbled-together engine and transmission computers or worrying that I would be abandoning our $20,000 RV investment in New Mexico (the home of many abandoned retirement dreams). The “good moments” of that winter were mostly spent on my WR250 bombing around Elephant Butte Lake’s dried up shores relearning how to ride in deep sand. I’ve been told that when fellow campers heard the bike fire up they’d drag lawn chairs to the lake-side of their campsites and place bets as to how long it would take before I endo’d into a pile of sand. I rarely disappointed them. Other fine camping moments were when I’d given up hope on the VW for the day and settled down with a few bottles of beer and my Martin Backpacker to sing Kink’s songs to the coyotes. The best moments where when I’d given up on the VW entirely and loaded up my camping gear and headed into the Gila National Forest mountains for a couple nights of solo camping while my wife stayed with the camper and dog and our new friends at the hot springs in Truth or Consequences. 

Speaking of the dog, the obvious problem here is getting and old dog to learn new (not particularly desirable to the dog) tricks. The idea of driving a fairly large pickup with a camper in tow is just not inspiring. I am really nervous about the whole concept. It seems claustrophobic and dangerous and complicated and expensive. In fact, at the moment I’m a lot more inspired to start the process of convincing my wife that we’d be better off selling the camper and giving up on the whole idea of traveling together than I am to learn how to be a competent RV’er. When I see something like this moment appear in my motorcycle students, I do not encourage them to press on. Maybe pulling a camper isn’t the same kind of risk as riding a motorcycle, but it does feel like the kind of thing that you shouldn’t be doing if you can think of a better way to travel. I don’t, honestly, have any faith that I’m going to be good at pulling a trailer and I have absolutely no motivation (other than making my wife happy) to learn how to pull a trailer safely. “Why me?” is the phrase that comes to mind every time I look at the thing parked in my yard.

Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, I’d have bulled through the fear and loathing and learned how to do this thing that I really don’t want to do. At almost 70, not so much. The only good to come from this moment, so far, is that I have a lot more empathy for my motorcycle students who really don’t want to be out on the range learning how to ride a motorcycle to please someone else.

MMM Winter 2016

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Sound Familiar?

Bloomberg just published an essay titled, “The Motorcycle Industry Is Dying.” Not a new concept and much of their analysis has been seen here first, but it’s slightly comforting to see some one else get it. The article puts a lot of weight on the new Honda Rebel 500 and I have to admit that is entertaining. I rode the Rebel 250 for the first time in a MSF class a couple of weeks ago and it is awful. There is nothing about that motorcycle that would have enticed me to get into motorcycling.

“Honda’s Rebel is the latest entry in a parade of new bikes designed for first-time riders; almost every company in the motorcycle industry has scrambled to make one. They are smaller, lighter, and more affordable than most everything else at a dealership and probably wouldn’t look out of place in the 1960s—back when motorcycling was about the ride, not necessarily the bike. They are also bait for millennials, meant to lure them  into the easy-rider lifestyle. If all goes as planned, these little rigs will help companies like Harley-Davidson coast for another 50 years.” Good luck with that daydream.

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I personally can’t imagine anything other than a hoard of electric bikes in the $5,000-territory that will turn the motorcycle economy around, but power to them for finally waking up and discovering Boomers are dying off. “A motorcycle is a picture of discretionary spending, and they can be tricky to finance even in a healthy credit market. Even now, with the stock market on a historic bull run and after the U.S. auto industry posted its best year on record, traffic in motorcycle stores has stayed slow. In 2016, U.S. customers rolled off with 371,403 new bikes, roughly half as many as a decade ago.”

Too little, too late has been my analysis for the last decade. This author sort of agrees, “The problem, however, with this sudden industry pivot to younger customers is that it may be coming too late. For years, it was too easy to just keep building bigger, more powerful bikes.“ It was easier and Boomers were dumb enough to buy into pretending that 60 was the age of midlife crisis. Ride down WI35 and look at all the Harleys out on the front lawns for sale. It’s over boys, now what are you going to do? One problem with a lot of these little motorcycles is that they aren’t as energy efficient as many cars. If anything makes motorcycles a purely recreational toy it is lousy fuel economy.

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Sound Familiar?

Bloomberg just published an essay titled, “The Motorcycle Industry Is Dying.” Not a new concept and much of their analysis has been seen here first, but it’s slightly comforting to see some one else get it. The article puts a lot of weight on the new Honda Rebel 500 and I have to admit that is entertaining. I rode the Rebel 250 for the first time in a MSF class a couple of weeks ago and it is awful. There is nothing about that motorcycle that would have enticed me to get into motorcycling.

“Honda’s Rebel is the latest entry in a parade of new bikes designed for first-time riders; almost every company in the motorcycle industry has scrambled to make one. They are smaller, lighter, and more affordable than most everything else at a dealership and probably wouldn’t look out of place in the 1960s—back when motorcycling was about the ride, not necessarily the bike. They are also bait for millennials, meant to lure them  into the easy-rider lifestyle. If all goes as planned, these little rigs will help companies like Harley-Davidson coast for another 50 years.” Good luck with that daydream.

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I personally can’t imagine anything other than a hoard of electric bikes in the $5,000-territory that will turn the motorcycle economy around, but power to them for finally waking up and discovering Boomers are dying off. “A motorcycle is a picture of discretionary spending, and they can be tricky to finance even in a healthy credit market. Even now, with the stock market on a historic bull run and after the U.S. auto industry posted its best year on record, traffic in motorcycle stores has stayed slow. In 2016, U.S. customers rolled off with 371,403 new bikes, roughly half as many as a decade ago.”

Too little, too late has been my analysis for the last decade. This author sort of agrees, “The problem, however, with this sudden industry pivot to younger customers is that it may be coming too late. For years, it was too easy to just keep building bigger, more powerful bikes.“ It was easier and Boomers were dumb enough to buy into pretending that 60 was the age of midlife crisis. Ride down WI35 and look at all the Harleys out on the front lawns for sale. It’s over boys, now what are you going to do? One problem with a lot of these little motorcycles is that they aren’t as energy efficient as many cars. If anything makes motorcycles a purely recreational toy it is lousy fuel economy.

It could be a bigger trend than motorcycles, though. Driving, in general, has lost a lot of appeal to practically everyone.

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