August 2022: This is another old one, from the Geezer blog (never published) in 2008. I thought enough of the title to turn it into a t-shirt and I still wear that shirt often. I sent this one in from “the field” as I was on my way back from a Canadian trip and was a little too close to worn out.
Got up early, hit the road in the wrong direction, made a u-turn, and headed back down Vermont 17. Turns out my excursion to the inn last night was actually on my GPS plan. Once I’d started looking for a place to stop, I quit looking at the GPS, which must have frustrated the electronic biddy in the box, but I’d turned where I was supposed to turn by accident. Not knowing that, I reversed directions and headed back to 100. My GPS kept telling me to make a u-turn, but I figured it was stupid, or something. Finally, I stopped, looked at the map, realized the GPS was smarter than me, and went back up the hill. Sorry, east coasters, the mountain. Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a little, tiny, rounded top, tree-covered mountain.
Vermont 17 is a blast. The speed limits are totally cowardly, but the road is good, the scenery is tree-lined but occasionally nice, and the ride is a good morning workout. I’ll be ready for breakfast after 150 miles of this. My GPS plan kept me off of main roads and on fun backroads all the way through Vermont into New York. I am amazed at how little traffic and how few houses there are in this well developed part of the country. I went through a town called Moriah that was celebrating its 200th birthday. Amazing, 200 years and they still haven’t found the time to build a restaurant. Makes me feel much better about coming from a younger part of the country. We may be new at this business of civilization, but we’re better at it. We don’t talk funny, either.
I stumbled on a convenience store/restaurant/campground on New York country road 84. I was entertained with an incomprehensible “upstate New York” dialect that combined with my single unplugged ear turned ordering breakfast into a Laurel and Hardy routine. I could have sworn he was saying ‘have some home fries,” but he was saying “don’t have home fries.” Turned out, his wife is the official cook, but she was occupied with getting the kids sorted out. He did an ok job with the sausage (“I like sausage.”), but the pancakes were burned and a bit flat (“I don’t like pancakes, you should have ordered an omelet.”). Later, he tried to convince me that I needed ice cream to go with my breakfast, since it was a balmy 45F outside that morning. I think we entertained each other enough, so I am on the road again.
New York speed limits are some kind of testament to the conservative nature of old America. What New York considers to be a 25mph corner, Colorado would label 45mpg. New York 35mph corners wouldn’t be worth the trouble to label or even put up a turn sign in the west. I kept seeing twisty corner signs and being disappointed with gradual curves hardly worth pushing on the bars. I guess that goes with calling 2k bumps “mountains.”
I kept going through New York the coward’s way, I90. After slogging my way through zillions of dots on the map jokingly called “towns” with the usual 4 miles of 30mph speed limits and no buildings or residents in sight, I gave up on “seeing New York” and decided to blow through every thing from Rochester west. I missed many valuable history lessons, I’m sure, but at least I wasn’t bored. New York freeway drivers are challenging, even if the freeway is a freeway (except for the $11 toll I paid to be on the US taxpayer subsidized interstate system). I whipped though most of the tiny bit of Pennsylvania the same way. I’d lost interest.
I was aimed for the Cleveland home of an old friend and I made it to their general territory about 8PM . I’ll be there for a day or two. I have a vicious plan for the last couple of days of this tour. Stay tuned.
August 2022: Another old one that didn’t find its way into this blog. This is a 2008 Geezer column that was inspired by the zillionth time someone asked me about a “beginner’s bike.” I don’t like the question much because it implies a small motorcycle that will quickly be replaced by a larger, faster, less competent bike that will, likely, rarely be ridden.
One of the common things about being an MSF instructor is getting asked, “What’s a good beginner’s bike?” This is a question that every experienced rider has attempted to answer dozens of times.
Kids (people younger than 30) ask straight-forward questions, expecting straight-forward answers. When a kid asks me this bike question, I count off a list of mid-sized, practical motorcycles that I’d recommend for a beginner with a reasonable expectation that they will look into and consider some of the bikes on my list.
All questions asked by “adults” (people older than 30) are a double-edged, convoluted, culturally-loaded, context-sensitive questions. When I was a kid, you started riding a motorcycle when you were a kid. I didn’t know anyone, in 1965, who decided to be a motorcyclist when he or she was approaching retirement age. Now that the English language has lost all sense of proportion, being “young enough” to take on a physical skill can apply to anyone. After all, we pretend that 50 is “middle aged,” owing $200,000 to the bank is “home ownership,” our prisons are part of a “corrections and rehabilitation” system, and some folks even think being called “conservative” is a complement. When an “older person” (people over 50) asks the bike question, I give them my usual answer, but I rarely expect them to consider the bikes I recommend. Old folks usually don’t want answers to their questions, they want “affirmation.”
In the current Baby Boomers in Decline climate, my generation is desperately seeking to restore a deluded self-image. They want to move insanely fast from being rank beginners to “experienced” and respected riders. What they are hoping for is knowledge and skill “transference,” not training. In fact, older people starting a new physical or mental activity are at a disadvantage due to physical limitations and mental “stiffness.” With that in mind, my small light beginner bike recommendations might be toned down to mopeds and scooters for adult newbies, but I know that’s not what they want to hear. They see themselves in a completely illogical light and expect the rest of us to play along with their fantasy.
I’ll use, for example, a guy (who we will call AC, as in “Advertising Consultant”) who sent his wife to a Minnesota Basic Rider Course a few years back. Apparently, this dude is not from Minnesota because he was astounded and irritated at the fact that basic riding classes are held rain-or-shine; and it rained. She was lucky it didn’t snow. In an attempt to impress me with his insight as a motorcyclist, AC bragged that he was the new owner of an “Anniversary Edition of the Heritage Soft Tail Classic” and had passed down his old Harley Sportster to his wife. I think he might as well toss her a hand grenade with the pin pulled. A 1200cc (even considering the Sportster’s modest 50hp or the 883’s timid 43hp), 500+ pound motorcycle is not a beginner’s bike. The only beginner quality you could assign to the Sportster is the 29″ seat height. Throw in the “stable” cruiser steering and you have a bike that will be easy to roll into traffic. Once she gets on the road, making emergency maneuvers is a different matter. AC and his wife see themselves as something other than beginners and their choice in motorcycles reflects that delusion.
This is typical of the kind of starter bike affirmation that old beginners want. Motorcycle Consumer News published a letter from a 60-year-old new rider who thought his MSF training “250cc bikes were ridiculously small.” After struggling through the course, he had his “big Harley” delivered to his home because he knew he “wasn’t prepared to take it into traffic.” He terrorized his neighborhood for three weeks until he finally “hit 40mph in second gear.” After three months of additional self-instruction, reading, and watching videos, he had convinced himself that he could “put the bike anywhere [he] wanted.” I’d be surprised if he could pass a basic skills test on his big Harley. Of course, if that old beginner had the wisdom to to start off with a beginner’s bike (instead of a motorcycle that many experienced riders would avoid), he might have had a positive and effective learning experience.
When you are 60 years old and are desperately looking for evidence that you’re still a virile, active male, considering a real beginner’s bike is a hard sell. A typical overweight American adult looks comical on, or in, anything short of a farm implement. (I’m feeling your pain. “Friends” say I look like an overstuffed, over-aged sausage on my bike and in my Roadcrafter.) Regardless, an identity crisis and peer pressure are poor justifications for buying exactly the wrong beginning motorcycle.
When I was a kid, 55-185cc bikes were as common as “custom” Harley’s are today. Adults often rode Honda Trail 90s around town. A 305 was big enough to take on two-up long rides across the country and a 650cc bike was considered a large and powerful motorcycle. While the technology of those motorcycles was miles below all but the worst bike available today, the power and weight of the typical mid-sized bike was about right for a beginner motorcycle.
While that MSF-deriding 60-year-old newbie may think that a 250cc motorcycle is “ridiculously small,” there are a passel of 250cc bikes that are more than capable of typical freeway speeds (and legal) and more than equal to beginning rider skills and needs. Several of the 125cc bikes used in the Minnesota program are more motorcycle than most of the new riders can handle. I, personally, often ride my 250cc Kawasaki Super Sherpa on the freeway and around town and it regularly hauls my 210 pounds and extra gear quickly and comfortably. I know a few experienced riders who own 400cc and smaller bikes and ride them long and often.
If you want my advice on a beginning bike, feel free to ask. If you want confirmation that your hippo-bike was a brilliant choice, ask someone else. I think beginners belong on beginner bikes, regardless of age.
Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly magazine, July ,2008 Issue #104
July 2022: Turns out, this might have been the first article I wrote for MMM in late 1997, published in issue #13. If that’s true, I don’t know what happened to the letter that I intended to create to incite all sorts of hostile responses to prove MMM’s readership, since it had to have been published before this article.
Every year, since I moved out of Colorado, my expedition to the Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle Week gets a little tougher. Last year, I flew to Denver, borrowed a friend’s Honda Hawk, and nearly missed my flight home when my luggage fell off of the Hawk in the middle of traffic on I-70, spreading my belongings and plane ticket all over Colorado. This year, I decided to ride the whole 2,400 miles. Next year, I may try walking.
My bike is a ’92 Yamaha TDM, which is a weird cross between a crotch rocket and a dirt bike. It’s probably the closest thing Japan will ever come to importing a Paris-Dakar style bike to the US. Out of some weird allegiance to my dirt biking past, I put dual-purpose tires on the bike this past winter. Because of that strange heritage and hardware, I actually hoped to do some real cross-country touring this trip. Some people do not get wiser as they get older.
Because I had a few days of vacation to burn up, I left for Denver early Sunday morning, September 7th. Steamboat’s Vintage Motorcycle Week was September 10 to the 14th. The start of my planned route was diagonally across Minnesota, via highways 169 and 60, to Sioux City. Early in the day I passed the Mennonite settlement of Mountain Lake, MN, where there is a “phone museum” and other exciting attractions. I’d always thought of Mennonites as hardworking, honest types, but this place had to be their equivalent of a Florida swamp real estate scam. There is no no mountain and no lake, as far as I could see, anywhere near Mountain Lake. I have a new sort of respect for Mennonites.
I stopped in Heron Lake for my first fuel stop. I discovered, by drenching my bike and feet in gas, that the fuel shutoff was defective. With the helmet and ear plugs in place, I nearly dumped two gallons of gas on the ground before I noticed I was creating a Super Fund site. From here out, I did my trip documentation after filling the tank. It didn’t surprise the lady at the counter though. She said, “that side don’t register, this side does,” when I told her about the screwed up pump. I kept an eye on the mirror, as I left town, half hoping for a mushroom cloud to compensate me for the wasted fuel.
Just south of Worthington, I tailed a yuppie in a Range Rover who showed no fear of Iowa’s CHP. He got me through that mind-numbing state in record time. I stopped at an interstate rest stop in Iowa where an old lady with a highway department uniform told me “I used to be in the bidnez worl’, that’s why I’m workin’ here.” I thought she meant the business world ruined her life, but she was just working for the exercise. Go figure. Just south of Sioux City, I hooked up to highway 77 and to some even less regularly maintained roads.
I used to live in north eastern Nebraska and I mistakenly thought that gave me some ability to pick my way across the state. I ended up on a newly graveled road, about 10 miles north of North Bend, that was terminated by a large crane and a missing section of road. When I stopped to look at the construction damage, my wheels sunk past the rims. My next short cut took me though about 5 miles of really deep gravel and sand. By the time I escaped that desert riding experience, my front fender had a 3″ hole pecked into the back side and my chain picked up about an inch of slack.
After relocating asphalt, I picked up 30 at North Bend and headed west. I failed the “will to live” test and stopped for a hamburger in Columbus, NE (Actually, I figured that ought to be the safest place in the US for a beef-eater, after that city’s most recent 15 minutes of fame.) Making up for lost time, I stuck with 30 to Grand Island and jumped to I-80. By the time I got to Gothenburg, NE; 630 miles from home, I was wiped out. I stayed in a truckers’ motel that night and set the alarm for a 5:00AM takeoff.
Poor road maintenance almost bit me in the butt this morning. I had a low rear tire and thought I’d developed an oil leak when I stopped in Julesburg, CO. The tire was low, but OK. I washed the engine and discovered the oil leak was just chain lube that was heating up and dripping off of the engine cases. I promised my self I would watch my oil level and temp gauge carefully for the rest of that leg of the trip, just in case. I managed to hold to that promise all the way to Denver, about 120 miles. Later in the trip, my failure to extend this pledge to the whole journey would haunt me.
By noon Monday, 372 miles later, I was in Denver. You can’t see the mountains until you are about 55 miles from the city. Mountain cloud cover suddenly becomes mountains and the air seems cooler and fresher. The last 50 miles into Denver seem to go quickly and the horizon’s view is terrific.
When I stopped, my butt hurt. My kidneys were falling out in chunks. My bike needed about 10 hours of serious maintenance. Being the high tech, serious maintenance guy I am, I lubed and re-tensioned the chain, put duct tape over the hole in the fender, washed the bike, checked for loose hardware, washed my laundry, and hung out in a bar until Wednesday morning.
Six of us left my friend’s home for Steamboat Wednesday at about 8:30AM. We were probably the weirdest collection of motorcycles on the highway that morning: a Yamaha TDM (mine), two Honda new Magnas, a ’78 Kawasaki Scepter, and an ’83 Yamaha Venture. After a few miles, we strung out across the highway in a several mile long “touring pattern.”
We intended to get to Steamboat by noon so we could catch a little of the dirt track speedway racing in Hayden that afternoon. We’ve made that plan five years in a row. Like the other years, this year we didn’t get to Steamboat until 1:30PM, our trip schedule was sabotaged by several coffee, fuel, and meal beaks. Some of the group, including me, thought the lodge’s hot tub looked more interesting than another 100 miles on the bikes. Those who stayed watched the clouds cruise the mountain tops and drank beer. Those who left got to Hayden just as the last of the racers were leaving and got caught in a short rain storm on the way back. I try to make each of my millions of mistakes only once.
The next day, I went to town by myself because none of my group was all that hip on the trials event. This is the sport with which I ended my 15 year off-road competition career. In fact, the years defined as the end of “vintage” were state-of-the-art just before I quit trying to luck into a trophy. Every once in a while, Steamboat makes me reconsider my constant fear of knee injuries and I think about buying a Bultaco Sherpa T or a Yamaha TY and doing a little cherry-picking. Steamboat’s vintage traps are almost all easy enough that a good rider could zero out on a street bike.
This is also the day where the “geezers on Beemers” sub-title for Steamboat really becomes appropriate. There seem to be an incredible number of retired executives, military officers, and other non-working class types doing the vintage-bike gypsy tour. They live in 40’ luxury campers and tow bike-trailer/work-shops that make my garage look puny and unequipped. A few of them even have trophy wives in tow. Since most of these guys are pretty near my age and I don’t have any of that stuff, I try not to make too many comparisons or I’ll get discouraged.
I really get a kick out of seeing how many ancient bikes have been modified for trials. I didn’t even know BSA or Greeves made a 125 or that anyone was riding trials pre-WWII before my first trip to Steamboat. This is like a dirty, live-action museum with some dirty, active museum caretakers riding the exhibits. It rained a little about 10:00AM, just enough to send me back to the bike for my jacket. As soon as I had two arms full of stuff to carry, the weather got hot and I spent the rest of the morning sweating and grinding dirt into all of my body parts. I don’t know who won, probably some geezer with a collection of Beemers and a Yamaha TY in like-new condition.
Friday is vintage motocross day. Another of my favorite events. Again, I was up and out before the rest of the group. I spent the early morning walking through the pits, taking pictures, listening to experts talk about the history of various, long-dead motorcycle manufacturers. It’s still hard for me to reconcile Rickman, Bultaco, Ossa, Norton, BSA, and the rest of the deceased as being not only dead, but long dead. Seeing these bikes back in their prime, sometimes much better than prime, is a lot of retrospective fun.
Speaking of deadends, three other TDM’ers showed up for Steamboat. We belong to an Internet maillist for our bike and some of us have been writing each other for a couple of years without ever putting faces to names. I recognized a couple of the guys by their bikes. Yamaha orphaned the TDM after importing it to the U.S. for two years (1992-93). Most of us have done a lot of little things to personalize our bikes and it was fun getting to see the mods I’d been reading about. Everyone got a good laugh of the state of my front fender and the general condition of my bike compared to those whose owners, intelligently, avoid dirt roads. We experienced our “fifteen minutes of fame” when another biker recognized us as “those guys who met on the Internet.” We took pictures, talked for a couple hours, and headed in four directions for the rest of the weekend.
The actual races are almost anticlimactic. It’s always a kick watching Dick Mann win. He was a Baja hero of mine when I was a kid. He’s still heroic at sixty-something. Dave Lindeman, a Denver fireman, put on a good show in the Open Twin Expert class, dueling and beating Rick Doughty’s zillion dollar Rickman/BSA on a cobbled up Yamaha XL650.
But lots of the actual races are pretty boring. There are wads of timid, over-forty wannabes who barely turn their bikes on in the straights and come to a lethargic near-stop at every corner. The race to the first turn is often more humorous than exciting. Everyone is so concerned with avoiding contact and a crash-and-burn that they barely make it to the turn, let alone work for a decent position on the other side. In the bulk of the races, there is rarely more than two half-decent racers. The other two dozen geriatric cases are nothing more than track obstacles when the fast guys start lapping them. The upside, for me, is that I regularly get pumped about buying an Elsinore and stealing a trophy. The downside is after making a couple of deep knee squats, I remember why the majority of the riders are going so slow. Getting old is hell. The body can’t even remember how to do what the brain told it to do.
Fairly late in the afternoon, the races are over. We cruise the streets of Steamboat, looking at bikes we will never own. This really is a BMW convention. I doubt there is a bike BMW ever made that isn’t represented here. Seems like there are more Harleys this year, too. Maybe that’s why the local paper doesn’t have a single word about the events. In years past, I could read about what I’d seen the previous day in the local rag. Not this year. There must be several thousand bikers in town and the only mention of motorcycles was when a local biker got smacked by local cager. It’s not like this is a pack of Outlaws, tearing up the bars and defiling local women. A pair of women, climbing out of a Jeep Cherokee on their way to lunch, asked one of my buddies if we were a “biker gang.” He told them, “Yeah, after our nap, we’re gonna take this town apart!” That’s about the speed of everyone at Steamboat. Sedate. Old. Mostly intent on finding a good restaurant and a decent hotel. I guess we still found a way to scare them.
I didn’t cruise much Friday night. We really did find a great place to stay and I headed back, well before dark, to sit in the hot tub and watch the clouds and the mountains flare and fade in a crimson tinted sundown lightshow. Beer, a good book, a hot tub, and tired, old aching joints really go well together. If a local female stripped herself and jumped into my hot tub, I might have defiled her but I’d have more likely been pissed that she got my book wet. I bought my beer at the Clark Store, so I didn’t even have a chance to think about trashing a bar. I’m a pretty poor excuse for a biker, I guess.
Saturday is vintage road racing and the first opportunity we have to look at the concourse. We buy pit passes, which are $20, and head for the pits. I’m not much of a connoisseur of street bikes. In fact, I never paid any attention to street bikes at all until I’d been riding and racing for almost 15 years. I still don’t really know one cruiser or crotch-rocket from another. I don’t much care about cars either. But there are some really neat, loud noises coming from the pits and one of my friends has a great time describing all the bikes to me. I lecture on the dirt bike days, he does the street day.
About two hours into Saturday, I got bored. This is a terrible thing for a “reporter” to admit, but I’d have rather been riding than watching. When I fell asleep and lost track of where the rest of my group had gone, I decided it was time for me to hit the road. I’d planned on leaving that day, anyway, and it seemed like the time to do it. I wandered around the course for another hour, trying to find everyone, with no luck. I stuck a note on a friend’s seat and started getting ready for the long ride back to Minnesota.
Sunday is the modern road race. I have been going to Steamboat for 6 years and I’ve never stayed for the modern road race. My justification for leaving early is that I can watch modern crotch rocketing any weekend during the summer and I never do. Why blow a good day of riding watching someone else have a good day of riding? Like all the years past, I left on Saturday and missed the really fast guys. They’d just discourage me, anyway.
The real reason I wanted to leave early was that I wanted the extra riding time so I could go back the long way, through Wyoming and South Dakota. I retraced my trip into Steamboat back over Rabbit Ears Pass. About 30 miles east of Steamboat, I turned north on Colorado 14. This is one of the prettiest roads I’ve traveled in Colorado. It’s a neat combination of mountain plains and ranch land. The road isn’t particularly twisty, but it does curve its way through a beautiful section of the Rockies. The road is well maintained and completely unoccupied by cage or cop. I made good time to Walden, where I picked up 127 and continued north to Laramie, WY.
The scenery doesn’t stop when you leave Colorado. Good roads and great views all the way to Laramie, where I copped out and took the freeway (I80). After 300 miles of awesome two lanes, I80 was a complete bummer. But I stuck to it to Cheyenne, where I swapped freeways and took I25 north to Wheatland. I spent the night in Wheatland, at another truck stop. Leaving Steamboat early allowed me to knock off 250 unproductive (destination-wise) miles before I seriously head for home.
The actual route I took from Wheatland to Deadwood is up for discussion. I know I stayed on I25 for a few more miles to Wyoming 160. I know I swapped off of 160 to 270, because I had breakfast in Lusk, WY. I’m not sure I stuck with 270 all the way to Lusk, though. A good portion of that trip was on dirt roads. I mostly used the sun as a compass and tried to keep going north at every intersection. I popped out of the last section of dirt road on highway 85, just a few miles south of Lusk. I had been on reserve for about 30 miles when I filled up in Lusk. I’d like to tell you 270 to Lusk is a terrific road, well worth traveling, because it is. I’d like to tell you that I strongly recommend this route for the scenery and adventure, because I really enjoyed that aspect of the trip. The fact is, this is a route that requires a great suspension. The road (the real road, not the dirt road) is heavily traveled by farm equipment and is pretty rough. The TDM ate it up, but a crotch rocket or cruiser would deliver a severe pounding. You decide.
Leaving Lusk, I forgot to reinsert my ear plugs. Good thing. I heard several nasty noises and pulled over for a maintenance stop. You’ll probably notice that I haven’t mentioned maintenance since just before I pulled into Denver. I hadn’t done much since then. Another brain fart. The older you get, the more of them you’ll have. I discovered the front fender had a new hole, this one on the front, from poor tire-to-fender clearance and flung gravel. I pealed away pieces that were touching the tire and “fixed” that problem. I also discovered my chain was really wearing out fast, probably due to the offroad portions of the trip. It was actually hanging up at spots as they passed over the countershaft sprocket. I bought a can of WD40 and thoroughly cleaned the chain. I lubricated the chain and made some more promises to myself regarding maintenance.
The next section of the trip was sort of frightening, considering the condition of my bike. There is next to nothing between Lusk and Deadwood, 140 miles of nothing. There are some towns listed on the map, but they are barely bumps in the road. Some of them aren’t even that. But I took this route because I was bored with the trip across Nebraska and Iowa, so I figured it was worth continuing. Not that I had much of a choice.
Wyoming is a great state. I suppose every state has a motto. Nebraska blabs about some mystical “good life” that no visitor or resident has seen any sign of. Iowa yaks about “liberties” and “rights” and parks a cop on every road to make sure no one ever even dreams about freedom. Colorado’s “nothing without providence” is totally meaningless. But Wyoming is the “big country” and you don’t have to look far to find real cowboys just like the one on their license plate. Some of those cowboys drive farm trucks on highway 85. I only saw four vehicles on the road between Lusk and the South Dakota boarder. All of them were doing 90+ mph and they all waved when they went by me. I would have stayed with them, but I wanted to live through this section of the trip with chain intact. There is nothing, in any other part of this country, like the concept of “safe and reasonable” as a speed limit. It almost makes me feel like an American. Out there, Mamma Government is in short supply and nobody misses her.
The weather totally cooperated. From the beginning of this day until I hit the plains, just west of Wall, SD, the sky was clear, the temperature was in the low 70’s, and the wind was nonexistent. South Dakota’s Black Hills are a national treasure. South of Deadwood, 85 winds through the hills like the best Rocky Mountain highway. There are miles of twisty, narrow highway that parallels beautiful streams and cuts through wooded valleys and farm land. I could take a summer long vacation, traveling the roads of the Black Hills, and never grow even a little tired of it.
I made it to Deadwood in one piece. Stopped for gas, lubed the chain, washed the windshield, checked the tires, and thoroughly inspected the bike. Then I walked to the Deadwood Historical Society museum and wasted an hour looking at the coolest of western history. There are Harleys all over Deadwood. It’s only a few miles from Sturgis, which must account for all the heavy iron.
I still hadn’t eaten when I left Deadwood. I was making, and having, such good time that I couldn’t convince myself to waste any of the day in a restaurant. Slightly north of Deadwood, I struck interstate and there I stayed until Minnesota. Once you pass Wall, the home of Wall Drug, there isn’t much to say about South Dakota. Every diddly-butt town has some kind of tourist trap. None of them are worth stopping for. It’s not just that there’s nothing to see in those towns, there’s nothing to see in that part of South Dakota. It’s just miles and miles of flat, boring plains. Most of the state’s rest stops are “out of order,” probably to force travelers to waste time and money in the state’s tourist traps. I stopped for gas at Wall, Chamberlain, and Sioux Falls. There isn’t much more to say about the space between any of those cities.
The wind was killer, once I passed Wall. It was 50+mph and I felt like I was making the world’s longest right turn. 420 miles of right turn. I wanted to make Sioux Falls by nightfall, but I was forced to take a stretch break every 50 miles. My arms, back, and butt were going numb and the road never seemed to end. I swear that some of the mileage signs increased the distance to Sioux Falls as I drove east.
The only break in the monotony comes a few miles before Chamberlain, SD. The Missouri River valley almost instantly changes the scenery. It takes you from flat, barren plains to green rolling hills in only a few miles. The river is awesome, especially after 200 miles of desolation. It’s as wide as a lake and as blue as an ocean. Unfortunately, 10 miles east of Chamberlain, I’m back in a windy desert. That evening, 650 miles from where I left that morning, I pulled into Sioux Falls and headed for a Super 8.
The next morning, I tried to sight-see in Sioux Falls but failed to find any interesting sights. I left town at about nine and headed for home. I repeated the original leg of the trip by exiting I90 at Worthington and take 60 to 169, through Mankato, and on to the Twin Cities.
I got home a little after noon. I popped the cap on a beer, filled up the hot tub, and fell asleep dreaming about high mountain passes, unlimited speed limits in Wyoming, and gorgeous snaky roads in the Black Hills. I woke up, sweating, later that night when the dream turned to wind blasted, straight and boring South Dakota interstate dotted with hundreds of Iowa Highway Patrol cars.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been pretty much stuck on 2-pedaling wheels. My myasthenia gravis and the double-vision symptom are back with a vengeance and I don’t drive more than a few miles on good days and the motorcycle is likely parked until I sell it. Odds are against me that, this time, drugs will suppress my hyperactive immune system and I’ll get my life back. This Sunday, my wife got bored and decided we need to go for a drive somewhere we haven’t been for a long time; Taylor’s Falls, MN; about 75 miles north of our house. That’s a long drive for her and I wouldn’t be much help behind the wheel after the first 40-50 miles, when the double-vision kicks in for the rest of the day.
We got up and out early, mostly to take advantage of my eyesight working, usually, for a couple of hours in the morning. After a stop for breakfast, we made it through Stillwater before that tourist town’s crush began and arrived at the Franconia Sculpture Park before their volunteers even managed to put up a donation bucket. It has been at least 8 years since we visited this terrific multi-acre outdoor gallery and we almost had the place to ourselves until about 11AM. From there, we went to downtown Taylor’s Falls, found a convenient place to park, and walked to the Interstate Glacial Park for a hike along the cliffs of the St. Croix River. Around 1PM, we moved the car to a favorite local drive-in and had lunch. So far, so terrific.
After lunch, traffic was really starting to build up and going back the way we came through town was going to be a long, slow, slog while Minnesotans and other tourists struggled to crawl through the one light in town going either across the river to Wisconsin or back southwest toward the Cities. So, we went another way and wandered through the city to where we could jump the line and head back the way we came, right at the intersection of the light.
About 5 miles down the road toward Stillwater on MN95, in the oncoming northbound lane, were at least 100 blubbering, unburnt fuel-spewing goobers on an assortment of motorcycles heading for the unsuspecting, already overloaded town of Taylors Falls. The intersection of US8 and MN95 (where that one light lives) was already piled up a half-mile or more north on MNwith rural goobers, tourists, bikers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
When that gaggle of bikers lands at that intersection, it’s save to assume that one of the idiots will be a Minnesota “Road Guard.” The 2012 Guard idiocy is one of the dumbest, most short-sighted, most anti-motorcyclist bills our half-witted legislature has ever created. "Minnesota State Statute 169.06, subdivision 4(f) authorizes motorcycle road guard certificate holders to stop and control traffic for motorcycle group riders. Drivers of vehicles stopped by a flagger may only proceed if instructed by a flagger or police officer." All it takes is $30 and "three hours [of remedial training including] . . . classroom time and practical training at a live intersection near the training site" and you can pretend to be an important asshole stopping all sorts of legitimate traffic to allow a parade of idiots on motorcycles to spew fumes and fuel, to disturb the peace with all sorts of blatantly illegal noises, and demonstrate the usual biker incompetence for as long as it takes for the idiots to waddle indecisively through an intersection.
When those morons in their rolling bowling pin formation landed in Taylors Falls, I’d bet the local psychic temperature went up at least 50oF. The town was already full, so if they stopped anywhere it would be the middle of Bench Street where they could imagine themselves to be the center of adulation while pretty much everyone in town and in any other kid of vehicle fumed and plotted against the next solo motorcyclists they found on the open road. We were glad to be out of town heading in the opposite direction and felt lucky to have avoided the bulk of the incoming disaster. We won’t be going back to Taylors Falls on a weekend anytime soon.
One of the downsides of being a motorcyclist is that when people find out that I ride a motorcycle they immediately start stereotyping me. My 12 year relationship with Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly started out when I met a young couple at a music magazine party, who my daughter had introduced to me as “people who ride motorcycles.” They were youngish, relative to me, dressed in black with a fair amount of leather in their ensembles, and pretty much fit in with the hipsters who were attending the party; although they had taken over a couch a corner of the house out of the line of party traffic. I have no clue how I was dressed. I’d driven my daughter, her year-old son, and my wife to the party, so I could have been wearing the “business attire” crap required for my corporate job or I could have been outfitted in my usual away-from-work worn jeans, long sleeve tee-shirt, and high-tops “fashion statement.”
I don’t like parties much, so I was mostly looking for a conversation near the door so I could pretend to be polite, say “hi” and “nice to meet you” and slip out the exit and take a long walk around the neighborhood until my family was ready or willing to let me get the hell out of there. Crowds of more than three people make me nervous and there must have been fifty people crammed into that house. I was not looking to strike up a friendship or even a long conversation. I got the feeling they were hoping our introduction wouldn’t waste a lot of time, either. Troy Johnson and Erin Hartman were making similar assumptions about me that I made about them. When they politely asked, “What do you ride” in response to my daughter’s introduction of me as a “biker, too” they were clearly surprised when I replied “an 850 Yamaha TDM.” To them, I was an old guy and they had made the logical assumption that I would be pirating along on some sort of Hardly or a Hardly look-alike. Likewise, I had made similar assumptions about them.
After we reassembled our interior stereotypes, we actually had a conversation that resulted in Troy’s complaining that nobody who read the magazine ever bothered to write in with either agreement or complete disgust about anything published in the magazine. I offered to write an article that I guaranteed would create response. They offered to publish it for a nominal fee if it was any good. That article ended with “We’re, on average, a freakin’ nation of posers and squids and we aren’t worth the effort it takes to run an EPA test.” The next few weeks, Troy and Erin fielded more letters to the editor than they had received “in the history of the magazine.” I’ve been a columnist for MMM since that first brief October 1999 shot across the bow of what passes for motorcycle journalism and community.
The point, of course, is that even motorcyclists assume the worst about people who ride motorcycles. And, usually, they are right. Be honest. You are hanging out at a restaurant and this guy rides up with similar looking buddies, puts a kickstand down, and waddles into the building. What are you thinking? I know I’m going to wrap up my meal and get the hell out before one of those characters sights in on my helmet and Aerostich gear and decides to have a conversation with me. If I’m lucky, they haven’t kicked over my WR or V-Strom in a little-boy “rice burner” exhibition of stupidity and bullshit fake patriotism and I can get the hell out of there without any sort of incident. For all I know these guys are all lawyers and doctors dressing up as bad boys, but I’m not looking for poser friends, ever, and there is nothing about any of the possibilities that is worth testing the waters.
When I showed this guy’s picture to my wife, she said the guy who did the welding for a theme park project she designed 20-some years ago looked just like him. I looked at the early assembly of that stuff and mentioned to the project manager that they might want to hire an independent welding inspector before the frames were covered up with fiberglass artwork. I wouldn’t trust my kids to something that guy had welded. I’ve known a few great welders and they were all as personally meticulous as they were professionally picky. If it looks like a slob, acts like a slob, and sounds like a slob, I’d assume it is a slob in all areas of life. Her “welder” was just another shop guy who’d fooled some ignorant management moron into believing he could weld “good enough.”
On the other hand, I know several brilliant musicians, a few genius college professors (physics, sociology, electrical and mechanical engineering, philosophy, music, and neurology PhD’s and MS’s), more than a few technicians and engineers (mechanical, alternative energy, and electrical engineering), and a couple lawyers who have all of the above biker’s physical and sartorial attributes except for the excess lard (although I know a brilliant Colorado lawyer who could wrap himself in that biker’s “gear” without much discomfort). The problem with stereotypes is that they don’t allow you to pick out the one-in-some-large-number exceptions. The reason we naturally create stereotypes (“profiles”) is because they are more often than not accurate. They save us time, energy, and create some safe margin of distance from people who are often dangerous or useless.
One of my favorite recreation-reading authors, Minnesota-ex-patriot John (Camp) Sandford, is pretty typical in his “civilian” outlook on motorcyclists. In his newest book, Mad River, Sandford has one of his state cop main characters’, Lucas Davenport, thinking about where you look to find criminals: “Davenport had spent the best part of two years building a database of people in Minnesota who . . . knew a lot of bad people. He had a theory that every town of any size would have bars, restaurants, biker shops, what he called ‘nodes’ that would attract the local assholes.”In a list of three places in all of society where you might find the worst criminals “biker shops” makes the grade. Something for all of us to be proud of? Pound your chest and whine “that’s not fair, we’re not all assholes” as much as you like, but you know Sandford is just writing what everyone is thinking. By “everyone,” I’m including us, even we think most bikers are assholes.
In 2007, I made what is going to be my one-and-only trip to Alaska by motorcycle. Lots of things went wrong with that trip, mostly because I was burned out, discouraged, frustrated, and clueless about what to do next. My employer, the late-not-particularly-great McNally Smith College of Music (previously the very great Musictech College) had fired my boss, Scott Jarrett, very likely the best thing that ever happened to that school outside of the Director, Michael McKern, who hired both Scott and me and the cream of the school’s technology group. Scott is one of the closest, best friends I’ve ever had. And when he was knifed in the back by a pack of low-life, lucky-beyond-belief academic goobers and the two eponymous nitwits who were doing their best to turn their unearned golden goose into a pile of ashes I was torn between quitting the best job I’d ever had and going my own way or keeping the job and going my own way inside their totally chaotic “organization.” I’d planned the Alaska trip as part of my usual “system” of isolating myself to figure out hard stuff.
As I explained in an earlier essay, my wife had “plans” for how my solo trip would be curated by a friend of hers who was also trying to organize a ride to Alaska. He’d been there several times before, if I remember right, and had an agenda. His agenda and mine had almost nothing in common.
After a series of clusterfucks, incredibly long days that often wore on for more than 1,000 miles, and a decision that I didn’t make that resulted in me being somewhere I didn’t want to be and a crash that prevented me from going where I wanted to go later, I ended up crossing the Copper River by ferry out of Dawson City and riding to the Top of the World border crossing without a US passport (another long story). As an Alaska tourist site explains it, “The length of the Top of the World Highway is 175 miles/281 km and connects Dawson City in the Yukon to the Alaska Highway at the Tetlin Junction. The Highway is only open from mid-May to mid-October, however, it has been known to close earlier due to snow. Many travelers use the Top of the World Highway when driving between Fairbanks, Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon, which is 398 miles/640 km. The distance from Tok Alaska to Dawson City is 187 miles and the distance from Dawson City to Chicken, Alaska is 106 miles/171 km."
The Poker Creek Port of Entry was open when we arrived there on June 10th, but G.W. Bush had changed the rules for Canadian-US travel shortly before my planned departure time and I’d decided to risk it hoping my expedited passport would get to me before I needed it. Worst case, the US wouldn’t let me back in and I’d have to settle for being Canadian. I could live with that. Hell, at the time I was considering taking a teaching job at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the desperate hope of moving to Canada before Bush trashed what was left of the country and economy. So, the threat of not being able to “go home” was pretty weak. In the picture (above) you can see Michael doing the paperwork to cross from Canada to Alaska. When I rolled up to the window, the Border Patrol guy pretty much told me to go back to Canada.
I backed up to where you see me in that picture, hauled out a camp chair, my eBook, and a canteen and granola and proceeded to get set to stay awhile. Mike, now on the other side of the border was perplexed. Worst case, I’d ride back to Dawson, find a campsite (all the hotels were booked for the Dawson City Music Festival), and worry about my next move when I felt better. I didn’t have to wait that long. There wasn’t a lot of traffic through that remote crossing and the border guy was curious enough to walk over and talk to me. When he realized I was there for a while, he started asking questions about my passport, where I lived, where I worked, and what the hell I was doing in his place blocking non-existent traffic? While we were talking, a couple of guys came through the border, twice, heading toward Canada and coming back an hour or so later. One of the guys had driven his Hardly off of a cliff and called a buddy to bring his truck and trailer to carry back the remains. I have no idea how they managed to rescue that half-ton hippobike.
So, while we watched the two guys and their load slide down the hill toward Chicken, AK, we continued to talk about my “predicament,” which was more of a problem, I guess, for him than me. At that moment, I hurt badly enough that I would have settled for a nice hole with some dirt tossed over me. My list, discovered several days later when I finally found a doc in Valdez, included several broken ribs, a separated shoulder, and a fractured index-finger metacarpal on my right hand. Pain focuses you mind, though. The stress from my situation was dramatically lower than it had been for the last year or so and I was beginning to put a lot of things in perspective. “Finally,” as Mrs. Day would say.
Growing bored with our stalemate, the border guy got more aggressive/inquisitive in his questions. His last question was “Where were you born?” My answer, “******,” (concealed to protect my personal data) was a godawful eastern Kansas town that I’m sure no self-respecting terrorist would know about or pick for any reason. He waved at the crossing gate, which did not need to be raised for me to get around it, and said something like “Get outta here.”
And I did.
Michael was waiting not that far from the crossing and seemed to be relieved that we were still traveling together. I think my wife had somehow made him feel responsible for my welfare. He is that kinda guy. The US side of the Top of the World Highway is/was a mud trail. The Canadian side was a pretty decent gravel and asphalt road. It had been raining for days when we crossed and headed down that 4500-foot section of the mountains and it was slipperier than hell. I saw several trucks and motorcycles sunk to their axles and beyond when they had missed a turn. Usually, there was no stopping to help, either. Either because the road was too narrow, too slick, or the dumbass trucker behind me was intent on tailgating me until he slipped off into a ditch himself, I more often just had to keep going. With my injuries, there wasn’t much I could do to help anyone, anyway.
The first stop on the US side is Chicken, AK. There isn’t much to see or do in Chicken, except in my case to borrow a hose and blast off a thick coating of mud and clay from my ‘Stich, boots, and the bike. The rear brake was totaled from being coated by mud, but the disk mostly seemed to be newly “machined” by the abrasive material. So, I put a new set of pads on the rear wheel and cleaned things up as best I could. We had lunch at the Chicken Cafe and headed out toward Glenallen. And Glennallen is where we spent the night in a converted railroad car that had been used as housing for the guys who built the Alaska Pipeline. The next day, Michael headed for the ferry to Juneau and I met up with my son-in-law’s cousin.
July 7/2022: This is another really old one that should have made it into my WordPress blog years ago. I’m adding a story from this trip and needed something to reference some parts of the story to so I don’t have to recreate the whole trip for a small funny moment.
When I was a kid, growing up in flat-as-a-pancake and boring as television western Kansas, I led a kind of Walter Mitty life. On the surface, I was a normal kid. I went to school during the week, went to movies and church on Sunday, played sports, threw a paper route and had part-time jobs, and tried to act normal. Under the surface, I read science fiction and adventure books, listened to jazz records, and planned my escape. My two favorite writers were Mark Twain and Jack London. My two favorite escape destinations were California and Alaska. I lived in California for almost a decade and discovered that frontier had been overpopulated long before I got there. Alaska is different.
I read about Twain and London’s adventures in the wilderness and among men who risked their lives for a chance at doing something unusual and imagined myself living that kind of life as soon as I ran away from Kansas. I imagined myself saddling up a couple of horses and taking off for some remote part of Canada or Alaska, never to be seen again. The phrase, “this isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto” held nothing but positive connotations for me. I couldn’t wait to get as far from the Midwest as I could travel. Life didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined and I’ve spent most of my life near the center of this country, including a dozen years in Minnesota. Now that my kids are grown and on their own and I’m in pretty good shape, financially, and in reasonable shape, physically, some of that old wanderlust returned to itch at me.
Three years ago, my 60th birthday was on the horizon and a collection of unrelated events jumpstarted my interest in traveling to Alaska. I began to seriously plan an extended trip to Alaska in the spring and summer of 2007. “Extended,” for me, meant more than two weeks. I’ve been employed since I was 14, so two week vacations have been the limit of my adventures for more than 45 years. I planned to take 30 days to ride to Alaska and back. I mapped a route through northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, up through Alberta, nicking British Columbia, into Alaska. I’d hoped to hit every significant historical and natural high point in the Alaska before I headed back down through British Columbia into Washington. I had a fairly extensive route planned for my return, too. There was a lot of wiggle room in my plan, because I’m usually pretty spontaneous once I get on the road, but I had a specific set of goals in mind for my first real adventure.
Then my wife stepped in and starting maneuvering some “security” into my plans. She, apparently, decided that I’m too old and fragile to do something like this on my own, so she recruited a work friend, Michael, to ride with me. She and I had dozens of conversations about how this wasn’t going to happen, but I lost. “Conversation” is the word wives use for “argument” and “agreement” is the word they use for “I won.”
For 50-some years, I have done almost every cool thing in my life on my own. I backpack alone, scuba dive alone, bicycle alone, and I dislike riding in a group, even for short distances. A “group” is two or more people. Having someone else along on my first month-long trip was a major concession for me. “Concession” is the word I use for “losing.”
Michael and I met once, in January, as part of my wife’s plot to get me to take on a co-rider. My wife introduced us. Michael asked when I wanted to leave. I said, “the first of June.”
He said, “That’s too early, it will be cold.”
I said, “That’s when I’m going.”
He said, “Huh.”
He rightly seemed to think I was far too stupid to ride with, if I thought Alaska in June was a good idea. I figured that ended that and went back to planning my trip. In May, my wife mentioned that Michael had put in for his vacation days and had been given the time off from work.
I said, “Huh?”
She had, apparently, continued recruiting him for the trip all through the winter and he’d decided that June was good enough for him. Now I had a co-rider, so I began to rationalize how this might turn out to be a good thing. By mid-May, I’d almost convinced myself a traveling companion would be less uncomfortable than a sharp stick in the eye. I figured we could start off together and, if it didn’t work out, we could go our own ways. We’d both been on long solo motorcycle trips and we’d proven we could do it alone. That’s the ointment I used on myself to keep from giving up on the trip altogether.
We had one more meeting, a week or so before June 1, and I discovered that Michael had his own route planned and it was a lot different from mine. I assumed we’d be going our own ways a lot sooner than I expected. You know what “assume” means, I assume.
Due to two cases of Midwestern Guilt and both of our well-evolved desire-to-get-along genes, it took us ten days to split up. The first 3,500 miles of my trip plan were scrapped for a route that Michael picked and one that only included a few hundred miles of my plan. I’d waited more than 50 years to make this trip. Some of Michael’s plan was better than mine, but I’d have rather gone where I wanted to go. We went north, mid-Montana, into Saskatchewan instead of making the crossing at Glacier National Park where I’d planned to exit the US. We attempted to ride the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, where I crashed, separated a shoulder, cracked a collection of ribs, bruised a kidney, busted a bone in my right hand, and gravel-rash’d my bike and luggage. The Dempster had not been on my route plan, but I’d hoped to make a run at the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse.
In Glennallen, Alaska after a day of rest and maintenance, I was sort of back on track; although I was off schedule and busted up. Michael and I shook hands and began two different adventures. He needed to get back home for work. I needed to get used to being on my own with my mending injuries. I arrived at the base of the Dalton Highway, just north of Fairbanks, where it took me an hour of staring at the road to accept the fact that I was too beat up to take on 1,000 miles of dirt road. As I turned south to explore more of Alaska and Canada, I also realized that I was completely in charge of where I’d go next. The next 6,500 miles and 18 days were some of the best moments of my life, let alone on a motorcycle. Nothing beats being by yourself, in the middle of nowhere, knowing that you are in control of everything that happens in your life at that moment.
So, if my wife ever tries to recruit you into going on a motorcycle trip with me, she’s working on her own agenda, not mine. If she tells you I’m old, feeble, incompetent and suicidal, she’s probably right. If she tells you that I need someone to take care of me in the wilderness, she’s still probably right. If she says I want someone to ride with, she means she wants someone to ride with me. She is working from the purest of motivations. However, she is also working with poorly socialized material; me.
I’m as likely to want company on the road as I am to want you to slide your foot into my airport bathroom stall. I’ll call you if I want company, otherwise, I’ll be on the road; alone and enjoying my solitude.
About a year into the pandemic, I was marveling at the anti-vaxers willingness to test their own immune systems often followed by their panicked attempts to jump to the head of the line in healthcare and even begging for a vaccine after being hospitalized and even just before going on a ventilator. My friend said, “Stupidity should not be a death sentence.” And I disagreed. “Stupidity has always been an evolutionary driver behind large scale mortality and morbidity, have you not heard of the Darwin Awards?” “Yeah, that’s true,” he admitted.
In his “The Basic Laws of Stupidity," Carlo M. Cipolla defined a stupid person as “A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.” Keep that definition in mind as we take another look at loud and illegal exhaust systems.(In the illustration at right, you can see Cipolla’s 4 classifications of human intelligence: Helpless, Intelligent, Bandit, and Stupid. If you follow the link to Cipolla’s article, you can learn a lot more about the characteristics of Stupid.)
Several years ago (2008, to be exact), I foolishly and optimistically wrote a Geezer column for MMM titled “Hearing Damage and Motorcycling.” I had some wild hope that there was a rational way to get motorcyclists to think about how much damage they were doing to themselves while they were irritating everyone else on the planet. I thought this statistic would be an eye-opener, “My generation, the Boomers, is experiencing a higher rate of hearing damage than our parents suffer at their more advanced age and the generation following us is even worse hit by hearing loss. The reason is noise exposure.” Not a chance. When I wrote that article, I owned about $10,000 worth of professional audio test equipment and had access to multiples of that number through my employer (a music school), friends in the audio testing industry, and professional relationships. Nothing I experimented with gave me any significant different data than my own gear. Riding a motorcycle is tough on your hearing, even if you are careful: good quality full-face helmet, high quality ear plugs, and a quiet motorcycle preferably with a decent fairing. Change any of those 3 decisions and you are gambling with your hearing. Once you’ve damaged your hearing, you are unlikely to live long enough for medicine or technology to bring it back.
My wife, for example, is definitely not stupid although she often falls into Cipolla’s “helpless” quadrant. She worked as a professional sculptor for 40-some years, which means she spent a lot of time with a Sawzall and shop grinders. She stubbornly resisted hearing protection for at least 30 years. Today, if she’s watching a movie or television, captions are always on. She misunderstands practically everything said to her, often comically. In any kind of crowd, the conversations around her are worse than meaningless. In the last decade or so she became almost meticulous about wearing hearing protection, the big earmuff things, but it’s too late. It doesn’t hurt to start protecting your hearing anytime, but once there is damage it will only get worse.
I was goofing off in downtown Red Wing yesterday when a pack of biker goobers and a couple of unnecessarily noisy diesel pickups went by. As usual, the noisemakers got the disgusted stare from bystanders that they so desperately crave, but it struck me that as awful as those vehicles sounded at 100’, they were at least 10-20 decibels louder on the bikes or in the truck. The inverse distance law of sound pressure decay masks that one obvious even to the math-disabled. For the motorcyclists, it might even be worse because so much of the exhaust noise that they are so proud of is field-restricted by the road under the noise generator, which means substantially more sound pressure is directed upward toward the rider rather than omnidirectionally toward the intended bystanding victims.
Since I started riding street bikes in 1979 I’ve owned three motorcycles with illegal aftermarket exhaust systems. I bought them used and they came with that crap installed by the original owners: a 1992 Yamaha 850 TDM with a Kerker exhaust and a 1999 Suzuki SV650 with an even noisier Two Brother’s Two-into-One M2-Oval Exhaust System and my beautiful Yamaha WR250X that came with a hacked up stock pipe. The TDM also came with the stock pipe, so I yanked the Kerker, sold it, and bought something useful with the money. The WR and SV’s original owners had tossed the stock pipe, but I found a super-cheap stock pipe on Craig’s List and sold the Two Brothers POS a couple of years later. I just tossed the hacked-up WR pipe. What I learned from those experiences is that all that noise did make me feel like I was going faster than I was (as The Marching Morons author predicted 70 years ago) and that riding either of those otherwise terrific motorcycles more than a couple hundred miles in a day was torture. The fatigue that kind of noise produces is uncomfortable and dangerous.
Which brings me to my point about the connection between illegal, noisy exhaust systems and stupid people. Yes, they are making a statement that they are untouchable by the law; which are often biker gangbangers themselves. Yes, they are irritating everyone they ride anywhere near. However, they are also driving themselves deaf in the process and deserve absolutely no sympathy when that bill comes due. So, in Cipolla’s terms, Stupid bikers are definitely doing lots of damage to the peace and quiet of every place they ride, and even causing some actual physical harm to those close enough for hazardous noise exposure. But bikers are “deriving no gain” from their noisemaking as every statistic on the planet demonstrates that loud bikes receive no safety benefit from their noise and, in fact, those same people are over-represented in crash, morbidity, and mortality statistics and for all of that the bikers are also making themselves deaf in the process.
This was one of my personal favorites among the 20+ years of Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly essays I wrote between 1999 and 2017. I’m referring to it in my next Geezer rant and was disappointed to discover I hadn’t yet ported it to my WordPress blog. So, here it is, a blast from 2008.
It’s tough to talk about technical things without technical language. So this article is going to be burdened with technical terms and other debris that can’t be avoided. If thinking makes your head hurt, you may want to move on to another page.
A lot of motorcyclists suffer from tinnitus; “a noise in the ears such as ringing, buzzing, roaring, or clicking.” My generation, the Boomers, is experiencing a higher rate of hearing damage than our parents suffer at their more advanced age and the generation following us is even worse hit by hearing loss. The reason is noise exposure.
You may wish to blame sinus infections, being dropped on your head as a baby, or bad luck for your tinnitus, but the real reason is probably your long term exposure to excessive noise. Even worse, your tinnitus was probably caused by exposure you could have prevented if you’d have cared about your hearing when you were younger. “If I’d have known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” sayeth (said-eth?) vintage rocker Al Kooper.
Motorcycling is a particularly abusive activity, as far as your hearing is concerned. If you are one of the “loud pipes save lives” crowd, you are probably a charter member of the “what did you say” group. Even by OSHA’s conservative, obsolete, and employer-friendly standards, the kinds of noise levels we expose ourselves to riding motorcycles is beyond the harmful levels and into the “are you crazy?” territory. Good old mommy OSHA only grants our employers a “maximum allowable duration per day” of 1/2 hour at 110dBSPL (Sound Pressure Level) before hearing protection is required. OSHA “weights” that noise level with an “A-filter,” which reduces the measured low and high frequency content, which would be appropriate for low level signals (under 55dBSPL unweighted) but is an improper use of the filter for high level signals. The original 1940’s source for the OSHA standards, NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), has continued evaluating this hazard and now says that “exposure for any duration” to sound pressure levels above 106dBSPL (unweighted) “may pose a serious health risk”
Inside a full face helmet, behind a moderate windshield, at 70mph, my noise measurement equipment says that I’m exposed to about 110dBSPL (C-weighted or mostly-unfiltered, for the technically inclined). These numbers have been confirmed by other test and measurement sources, but you’re welcome to test your own gear. I’ll even help if you don’t mind riding your motorcycle for a few miles with small microphones stuck in your ears. Riding without a helmet and without hearing protection exposes your ears to sound pressure variations very near the levels of the loudest rock and roll concert you’ve ever attended; add loud pipes to that and you are probably venturing into uncharted territory.
The folks with the biggest noise exposure problem are probably those who ride big twins. After stripping off the manufacturer’s already noisy pipes, these riders often add chrome exhaust farkles that boost the bike’s low frequency (LF) noise output substantially. This, supposedly, compensates for the lack of actual power with the illusion of power; more noise. The problem with low frequency (below 150Hz) signals is that they pass through most acoustic obstacles (including your head) relatively unattenuated. Those LF signals cause all sorts of hearing mechanism damage. If this wave motion is strong enough (the signal is loud enough), it rips the cilia (hair-like structures inside the cochlea) from the inner lining causing loss of sensing at the frequency band previously measured by that cilia. Maybe more often, the noise just “flattens” those sensors so that they are less sensitive. This loss of sensing results in a neurological feedback loop that causes tinnitus. If enough cilia are damaged, you may hear a constant roaring or multiple ringing tones. Pete Townshend (songwriter and guitarist for The Who) described his tinnitus as having progressed into sounding like a constant “loud metallic waterfall.” Your tinnitus may not be that bad, but it could get worse.
If you’re looking to blame someone else for your tinnitus, you are a true American. However, you’re probably stuck with either your parents to blame or yourself. The overwhelming majority of hearing defects are noise-related, but some of us have inherited our hearing sensitivity or defects. A life of sinus infections is probably not the cause of tinnitus, but the allergy medications you’ve taken could be. Other medications can also cause hearing damage and tinnitus.
Lots of us suffered hearing loss from 1960-70s pre-OSHA industrial noise exposure and some of us added to that with motorcycles and music and other bad habits. The problem with trying to overwhelm your tinnitus with more noise is that you are causing more hearing damage and even more tinnitus. I sympathize with that maddening noise you’re hearing, but trying to kill it with noise is self-defeating. If that constant noise bothers you during a distracting activity like riding, how do you sleep? If you move that constant noise from background to the loudest thing in the room won’t that be much worse? Eventually, you’d think that we might begin to pay attention to Al Kooper’s warning about taking better care of ourselves in case we have to deal with the consequences later.
In the last decade, there have been a lot of studies on noise and biological noise effects. I don’t think this is something we should take lightly. We (as motorcyclists) are on the leading edge of a coming noise pollution reduction movement. In many urban areas, motorcycles are one of the most identifiable and prominent noises. Noise is making us, as a country and species, dumber and less civilized. Lots of countries are realizing this and attacking noise sources with science and legislation. Sometimes I suspect that in the US we may be too damaged to make much progress on this front, but that isn’t a good thing for our future.
On a personal level, I think you should consider wearing hearing protection when you ride (regardless of your exhaust output) and I would be very cautious about the noise levels you are suffering when you listen to music while you ride. If you wouldn’t listen to music at that volume in your living room, you shouldn’t be putting up with it while you ride. My wife’s argument is “if it hurts to hear, it hurts your ears.” Like most of our critical organs, the sensitive parts of your hearing are not repairable. If you overuse it, you will lose it. That is true for political clout, too.
While I was in my backyard working on one of my wife’s godawful honey-do projects, a couple of mostly bald, scroungy pony-tailed, noisy and blatantly incompetent Hardly goobers fell over in the driveway of the abandoned dump next door. For some reason, one of the geezers felt the need to adjust something, probably his truss, in this very large and pretty damn flat driveway and instead of parking he decided to fall over “Laugh-In Tricycle” style. The other Willy Nelson-wanna-be followed his bro into the driveway, bumped into the first downed bike and fell over in the opposite direction with his pony tail dangling well into the outside tire track on our country road. I listened to them bitch and moan and struggle to get out from under their hippobikes and after about ten minutes they were back in Greasy Rider mode and on their way to the nearest bar. Not only did they not look even a little embarrassed during the whole episode, but they kinda had that arrogant, biker-badass scowl on their faces as they wobbled down the road.
I, for one, am jealous. If I were that oblivious to how ridiculous I look, I’d fuckin’ wear a Speedo to the damn grocery store. Nothing else. My wife said if she had that kind of self-confidence she wear a see-thru blouse and a mini-skirt to City Council meetings. These guys really think people are looking at them thinking “Wow! That dude sure is cool!” Trust me, they aren’t especially if they have shout to hear themselves think.
I know bikers think I look like a “fuckin’ spaceman” in my Aerostich gear, but who cares what they think? They are more often bloody grease spots littered all over our country roads and city streets, so their sense of style is mostly a comedy act as best I can tell. But it is hard to top that kind of oblivious confidence.