A Long, Strange Trip

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A LONG, STRANGE TRIP

OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE ROAD



IT ALL STARTED WITH AN, “UM, NO.” THAT WAS MY response when my editor approached me in the office last summer and asked, “Have you ever ridden a motorcycle?” He followed that up with, “Do you want to?” Learning how to ride a motorcycle is something that I had planned on doing, eventually. It was right between finishing up half-done tattoos and training the raccoon that lives in my backyard to open a beer can. So I said, “Eventually.”

He shot back: “Well, Harley-Davidson thinks they can train someone who has never been on a bike to ride over the course of a few weekends, in time to join a long ride celebrating the company’s 110th anniversary. And there is no way I am doing that, so your ‘eventually’ is next month.”

So it was decided. A few weeks later, I packed a sturdy pair of boots, a shirt that I thought would be thick enough to prevent road rash, some drinking money for the airport, and not much else. I was a humble travelogue of a weirdo from Jersey on his way to Los Angeles for a chance to saddle up with Harley-Davidson’s Rider’s Edge program. Whatever was about to happen on this escapade would have to stew in my memory banks until my hands stopped shaking long enough to get it all down on paper.

WELCOME TO L.A. I caught some well-deserved shut-eye on my cab ride from LAX to the hotel where I would meet the Harley crew for the first time. Any notion of sleep the night before had been a pipe dream. Up until now, my experience on a motorcycle consisted of being toted around my yard as an infant on the back of my dad’s bike. Needless to say, I was a bit unsettled. My only comforting thoughts were: A) I love to drive, and B) I love to ride bikes—of the pedal sort.

I’d packed inexcusably light; I’m pretty sure I had to buy a comb in the lobby, maybe a tooth- brush. I felt like Pretty Woman as I checked into the W in Hollywood, dangerously out of place and clearly worse for wear. I was unshaven, unwashed, and carrying a duffel bag containing three pairs of socks, two hats, and some T-shirts. I also had a pair of broken sunglasses.

The other newbie riders I met were no ordinary group. It was an Avengers-like task force of writers, artists, and extreme athletes, all of whom were about to saddle up and ride after a 24-hour crash course in all things Los Angeles. We got acquainted with one another and hit the Sunset Strip. Los Angeles can be a strange place for a first-timer. In New York, the streets are filled with a mishmash of folks. Some of them are normal, some are completely and unashamedly demented; it’s not unlike a gigantic bag of Chex Mix, where the weirdos are the pretzels and the normal folks are the tasty bits.

L.A. was different. In the wee hours of the morn- ing, the streets were empty and quiet, except for a few people who were bold enough to brave the late-night exploits of a town too crazy to apologize. They were the pretzels. I remember briefly press- ing my face against Alfred Hitchcock’s star on the Walk of Fame before being ushered into a club for a night that resembled that crazy-ass dance scene from one of the Matrix movies. We bounced around L.A. until we practically deflated, then piled into a caravan of taxis and hit up a drive-through. With a spinning head and a gut full of In-N-Out Burger, I headed back to the hotel. So far, the city and I were doing all right. But the next day, I was going to start a 48-hour motorcycle boot camp. It was time to pony up and learn to ride.

RIDING SCHOOL Learning to ride a motorcycle in your 30s is a lot like trying to become a trapeze artist in your 30s. My teachers had been doing this their entire lives. The folks from Harley-Davidson who invited me on this trip had been riding since before I even had my crappy high school job at the mall. I was 30, thirsty, and tired, standing on a crispy tarmac in Glendale, CA.

Luis “Tico” Chacon, one of my instructors, didn’t even own a car. He and the other instructor, rode their bikes day in and day out, rain or shine, with smiles on their faces. The ease with which they operated the machines was a mystery to me; they might as well have been headlining cellists at Carnegie Hall, and I the second-chair cymbalist.

Harley had set us up with everything we would need to become world-class bikers: the best teachers in California and head-to-toe gear. Over the next two days, we eased out of first gear and ran a course of cones and tight turns in the blazing July sun. Southern California reflected up from the black asphalt, and the dry air and slow breeze convinced us all that we weren’t burning to death, as we riders—gloved, helmeted, leather clad, and goggled—slowly dehydrated as hours faded into days. At the end of each session, we would stumble back on the bus back to the Rider’s Edge headquarters for some much-needed book learning.

In 48 hours I learned how to handle every possible catastrophe the road could throw our way, from gravel to ice to stray dogs. We completed the course so many times that we could ride it blindfolded. It was time for the open road. We were street-tested and DMV-approved, and after a celebratory commencement inside the airconditioned riding school, we were shipped back to our respective locales, thirsty for more.

The course took place in L.A., a mad dash and crazy-fest in a new place, with new people, miles away from responsibility and familiarity. It had been isolated and self-contained, and the experience was very, very learning intensive. But I live in New Jersey, one of the few states that doesn’t honor all the hard work I had done while cutting my teeth on the other coast.

With the aid of Harley I saddled up once more, in my ancestral homeland. I took the course again to get a New Jersey license, and it was a foreign affair. L.A. was all smiles and laughs, I had been part of a crew I jabbed at and joked with, my instructors had been SoCal bikers without a care in the world. (Also, Jay Leno drove by about three times in one afternoon, in three different ridiculous cars.) My course in New Jersey, however, took place at an armory up the highway from my parents’ house. It was led by a paramedic and an ex-motorcycle cop from Paterson, NJ; these guys had seen some shit. Where my L.A. tutorial had overflowed with stories of the freedom of the open road and the lifestyle associated with bike ownership, my Jersey class, as informative as it was, mostly included cautionary tales of split skulls on the highway and busted drug runners. Instead of Leno, my only sighting on this occasion was a fox coming out of the woods behind a Wendy’s, and he looked kind of sick.

RIDING AT LAST After earning my stripes on both coasts, I was ready to ride. I had roughly a month before the Harley-Davidson 110th anniversary bash in Milwaukee. With my license in hand, I headed to Bergen County Harley-Davidson to rent a bike. I had been riding for days in empty lots and abandoned landing strips, and I knew the fundamentals like the back of my hand (which should always be at a ninety-degree angle from the throttle), but I had never hit real pavement.

Having never driven on an actual street, let alone a New Jersey highway, I chickened the hell out and let my buddy Brian Shapiro lug the Iron 883 back to Jersey City, where I could ride the congested streets of Hudson County.

The last thing I wanted was to look rusty in Milwaukee, so after sundown on a Sunday evening in Jersey City, I dragged my bike out of the garage and decided to explore my backyard on two wheels. I bundled up and grabbed anything reflective before heading out. I remember barely being able to hear the pep talk I was giving myself over the sound of the engine. I made it about a mile from home before a minivan with no side mirror almost ran me off the road, then another one. What started as a white-knuckle torture-fest up U.S. Truck Route 1-9 soon melted into a tranquil biker spree across the bridges and expanses of the Meadowlands.

I had free run of the road, swerving in and out of each lane, speeding up to see how fast I was brave enough to go, then slowing back down to 65 because I thought for sure I was going to die. It was all starting to feel natural, and by that, I mean having my ass fly off the seat every time I hit a bump feels natural. I got lost on roads I’d driven for 13 years, I sped up side streets and looped around back home, almost forgetting to refuel. I made it as far as a reservoir 30 miles from home, then turned back and called it a night. I tucked my bike away and limped to my front steps still wearing my helmet, with a sore back, a leg on fire from the exhaust, hands frozen in the throttle position, and a terrified girlfriend on the couch.

It was time for a reality check. I had taken the Rider’s Edge course twice and passed both times, but by the skin of my teeth. My mind replayed a montage of instructors’ raised eyebrows and averted glares. I hadn’t been a star pupil, but I blamed crummy turns and missed marks on the fact that my feet (size 13) were too big and kept getting stuck under the shifter, or the fact that I forgot to put on my glasses. Still, I had convinced myself I was a decent rider: Those weren’t mistakes, they were blue notes—I was riding jazz and everybody else was riding classical. Yeah, that’s the ticket. My delusion was not at all helped by the fact that I had no reference point as to what kind of rider I was. I was alone on the highways of New Jersey, so graded on a curve, I had earned nothing less than an A.

MILWAUKEE, THE GOOD LAND Had Frank Sinatra grown up in Sheboygan, WI, instead of Hoboken, NJ, we’d all be singing “Milwaukee, Milwaukee,” my kind of town indeed. The land of beer, cheese, and meat became a dear friend all too quickly. Within minutes of landing, I called my pal Pete Clemens, who had moved here a few years back, to grab a drink and kill some time before a meet-and greet-with the Harley crew. After chasing beer with cheese, and vice versa, for what seemed like only a few moments, Clemens received a phone call from an unknown number and headed outside. Returning moments later, he handed me his phone, and with a ghostly stare, he said, “It’s for you.”

Clemens and I had been listing each other as emergency contacts since high school, which is the last time we shared residency in a state. On this sunny day in Milwaukee, our 10-year-old tradition finally decided to make itself useful. I’d been jotting down Clemens as my emergency contact on tattoo waiver forms, dentist appointments, and kayak rentals. Not my mother, not my girlfriend, not my editor … Clemens. And never once, in all the years since this tradition’s inception, had he received a call, until I flew to the city where he lives and sat next to him at a bar. The Harley-Davidson representative who was to be my keeper for the weekend had misplaced my number, but luckily he still had my waiver form. The weekend had begun.

The Taste of Freedom Tour was designed to introduce the Harley-Davidson brand to a new crop of soldiers, ready to hit the road and spread the word to the herd. The riders were a slew of young, influential nomads in multiple disciplines, from extreme sports to the arts, and a bunch of stir-crazy journalists itching to ride. Before our bikes arrived, we met at the Harley-Davidson Museum to celebrate the company’s 110th anniversary.

Early the following morning, I dusted myself off and went to meet the bike I would be riding. It was a 1200 Custom the color of a rich Cabernet that had skulls on it and also a strap across the seat where I could keep my hat. I was the happiest I had ever been at 7 a.m. The plan for the day was to visit the Queen Bee—Harley-Davidson’s engine plant, which had red-hot cinders, molten metal, and, from what I’d heard, a decent cafeteria.

It was my first time on a bike in more than a month, and I was confident, eager, and possibly still 30 percent asleep. We hit the streets in tandem, out of first gear and into second. A few seconds later, out of second and into third. The engine made a sound that I’d only heard in the movies. This was the second time I had ever been on an actual street, and within the first minute of my first real ride, I had exhausted all of my training. I had never been out of third gear, and had yet to enter a Milwaukee highway. But there I was on the Fond Du Lac Freeway with just seven hours of road time under my belt.

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ON THE ROAD FOR REAL “Milwaukee is a bit windy,” is something I might have said if the 110th anniversary of Harley-Davidson also included a contest for understatement. Within my first 30 seconds as a real biker, my helmet, guided by the laws of physics, shot about two inches off the top of my head like a parachute at the close of a funny car race.

To remedy this, I compensated for the slack on my chin strap by opening my mouth as wide as I could. This transformed me from a timid first-time rider into a screaming bug vacuum on two wheels.

Before I could conjure the strength to free a hand and tighten my helmet, everyone I knew in the Midwest was a mile down the road. My bike was capable of flirting with 120 miles per hour, but at a mere 75, my brain tried to turn my hands off. This was the fastest that I had ever gone, and I loved it. I calmed myself, hummed a tune in my head while simultaneously screaming it out loud, and tried my best to catch up. No worse for the wear, I arrived at the plant about 30 seconds after everyone else.

The next few days were just like that: getting the shit scared out of me, then learning how to ride for real. I was a student of the best riding school in the world, and it still took a few days on the open road, hand shaking as the needle hit 90, before I understood what I was doing. We zipped past Lake Michigan, headed into the farm country, stopped for burgers, and sat on the road’s shoulder and soaked in the view from the hills of Wisconsin. And then, just to keep us rookies in check, the rain came.

A CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE We waited about two hours for the storm to pass, and then we dried off our bikes and burned up the wet country roads on our way back to the highway. Since day one of riding school, both the Harley team and my instructors had been talking about that “aha” moment when everything I’d learned would click. They would usually mention it after I’d botched a turn or stalled out, or when they’d watch me ride with a scrunched up face that made me look like a chaperone in a mosh pit. I can’t say that I ever really reached motorcycle nirvana, but on the way back to town, I definitely caught a glimpse of it.

Everyone gunned it down the open, flat roads of the farmland. I rode as fast as I could, still about a quarter of a mile behind everyone else, but I was gaining ground. Once I was back in formation with the group, I looked to my left and saw one of the photographers who had been riding with us that day, Josh Kurpius. With a camera around his neck, and flying close to 80 miles per hour, he let go of the handlebars and snapped a few photos. In a show of solidarity, I let go of one of my handlebars, waved politely, then realized what I was doing and quickly put both hands back on the bike. A few moments later, he zoomed past me again. This time, his hands were on the bars, but he had kicked his feet up under him and was crouching on the seat. In response to his display, I nodded, as if we had made an agreement that one of us was going to surf the bike, and he’d beaten me to it. But I was cool with it. Then he let go of the bars and surfed down the freeway like Teen Wolf on top of the van, if the van had two wheels and Teen Wolf was taking pictures.

As I watched him go, he snapped a photo. I saw it later, and I’m making a face that has no earthly presence on a human head; it’s as if all of the faces on that pain chart they make you point at in the doctor’s office had coalesced into one. Obviously, I had more to learn before I’d be comfortable with all the things that could be done on two wheels. I was watching a man surf past me on the freeway and all I could think of was that scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy’s house is spinning around in the tornado and the witch flies by while laughing. But when we got back to home base, everything was in color. I said good-bye to my ride, wanting nothing more than one last lap around town. But maybe it was for the best; if I had gotten back on at that point it would have been like trying to take a final swing after getting someone pulled off of me in a fight that I was losing.

THE FINAL HOURS That night, we toasted our triumph at the Up and Under Pub. Outside, in celebration of Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary, the road had been shut off to cars and through the windows, I watched the spectacle, which included bikers, greasers, and a young couple that seemed to be screwing on a bike at 10 miles an hour (the bike was going 10, not them).

The next day, with a few hours to spare, I decided to commemorate the weekend with a tattoo. A guy named Drew Ladwig, at Horseshoe Tattoo, was going to draw a mean-looking cat with spiky hair on my leg. Why not? I left Milwaukee in the most fitting way possible—with the crap kicked out of me, but victorious. I’m still far from being a biker, but thanks to Harley, I know how not to die on a bike.

Now every time an engine revs or I see some dude at a bar with a helmet sitting next to him, I feel part of the club. I will remember the way I felt tearing down a farm road in Wisconsin, terrified and thrilled at the same time. Harley-Davidson had really taught me to ride, which I’d thought was improbable. Thanks to them there’s one more safe rider on the road—jittery, sweating, and screaming, but still safe and competent.

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