The Old Warhorse

by

Jeff Hughes

 

I’m late, the lame result of having stayed up too late last night watching that movie.  The sun is already high in the sky by the time I head out to the shed.  Opening the door, I start towards the R1200GS, as I usually do when heading out for a ride of long miles or indeterminate direction.  Its amenities and comfort and jack-of-all-trades expertise is a wonderful thing. 

But then my eyes fall on my old K1200RS, sitting there in the shadows in the back corner of the shed.  A tinge of guilt washes over me.  How long has it been?  A couple months, on that little ride up past Antietam?  And before that… I can’t remember.

I debate mentally for a moment.  I’d honestly rather take the GS, a bike whose lazy comfort I’ve grown quite fond of in recent years.  But that feeling of guilt just won’t go away.

I wonder if the battery even has enough juice.

It takes a few moments to push the three other motorcycles and the two bicycles out of the way.  With the narrow path thus created, I slowly wheel the KRS out of the shed into the sunlight.  My guilt gets a boost when I see the dust on the tank and the cobwebs between the windscreen and mirror.  But it starts instantly and out of that surprise I suddenly know I’ve made the right choice.  Fifteen minutes later I’ve got the tires aired up and the bike wiped down, looking somewhat presentable.  Tossing my small duffel in one of the saddlebags, I shrug into the Aerostich, pull on my Arai, and finally head down the driveway.

After spending so much time in recent months either bent to the severe crouch of my GSX-R1000, or else sitting upright on the GS, the midway position of the KRS seems oddly strange.  But looking down at the cockpit and the bars and the windscreen – a view I once knew well – prompts a sudden flood of memories, reminders that quickly gain strength as I turn out onto the road.  They should.  I certainly put enough miles on this motorcycle back in the day.

Past the duck pond, up the hill and around the bend, the hard pull of the turbine-like engine reminds me of one of the reasons I always loved this bike.  On-throttle, it flows through the corner with an uncanny grace.  Under my helmet, I break into a smile.

It’s funny.  Bikes are so individual – with sounds and smells and looks that are unique.  As my speed builds those sensory inputs draw up around me, breaking through the haze of forgetfulness brought on by bikes of newer vintage and reminding me of how it used to be.  Like meeting up with an old girlfriend.

Slowing at the stop sign, I pause, debating for a moment, then turn left.

The old route.

It’s three miles to town, and then two minutes to get past the two traffic signals.  Wending down past the high school, the landscape quickly turns rural again.  Past the left-hander where I always worry about deer, and then the pace picks up.  Within moments I’m already having to back out of the throttle, rediscovering the deceptive smoothness of the bike – 70 in a 45 doesn’t work just yet.  “Patience,” I tell myself.  I hug the white line near the shoulder through the long sweeping right-hander – the one where cars are always drifting across the centerline.  And then a few quick miles and suddenly there’s Panorama appearing on the left, a small, obscure ribbon of black emerging out of the woods.  One of the secrets I discovered many years ago.  Now I can relax a bit.

Coming from the much lighter Gixxer or the taller, more spacious GS, the KRS seems dense and heavy.  As if it was forged from a solid piece of billet.  But as I head into the first set of downhill esses it flows into them with an effortlessness that reminds me of how well it comports itself at speed.  Kind of like that date with a beautiful but slightly heavy girl who shocks you with what she knows when she stays over.

It might be a little long in the tooth, but it was that broad-ranging competence that first drew me to this bike lo those many years ago.  And re-remembering that, I’m struck by the oddity of how easily we forget such things when something newer and shinier comes along. 

Turning onto Crest View, a still-curvy but slightly more open road, I bump my speed a bit.  My guilt has given way to a simple gladness that I’m once again back with my old friend.  I’m not sure why I ignored it for so long.

This route I’m on, this collection of good roads stitched together to fashion a motorcyclist’s delight, is one I’ve ridden a thousand times.  Most of those miles were on this bike.  There are many shared memories along here.

It’s an hour and a half before we stop.  Not until we’ve crossed the Blue Ridge mountains and tracked deep into the forest beyond, to a remote valley fastness known to only a few.  I pull into the small park and pull up hard next to the gate.  With the engine shut down it’s suddenly very quiet.  That’s one of the things I like about this place – you almost always have it to yourself.

Walking the couple hundred feet to the small wooden structure housing the primitive men’s facility, my eyes sweep the path in front of me, mindful that I’m without a weapon.  I’ve seen bears up here a couple times.  But I’ve not seen sign of them in recent weeks, and I don’t see any today.

Back at the bike I break out my sandwich and crackers and bottle of water, walking the twenty feet to the picnic table.  Munching slowly on lunch, my eyes periodically pause over the old BMW.  I do that with all my bikes, of course – gaze at them with a combination of happiness and awe and appreciation.  But it seems especially evocative with this red K-bike.  My old warhorse.

Many of us have a bike that we’re especially connected with.  A bike that, through countless hours and long miles we’ve become intimately acquainted with.  Maybe because it’s our only bike.  Or maybe we simply like it best, and by virtue of that it gets the nod over others when it comes time to ride.  However it is, you end up on that machine through the slow wear of time.  What comes out on the other end is a burnished thing that is not nearly as shiny or bright as the day it was wheeled off the showroom floor.  But what you get in return is an understanding between you and the machine that is almost preternatural.

It’s then that the road tests in the magazines no longer apply.  You’ve gone into a different place.

Looking at the BMW, I’m reminded of all that.  I think of all the places we’ve been.  I remember how for years I would tell myself that when the chips were down, this is the bike I’d want to be on.  I remember all the times of mild angst when swapping bikes with someone, and how, no matter how terrific or new their machine might have been, there was always that sense of relief when getting back on mine.

The memories are as varied as the miles themselves.  Everything from mundane one-day weekend rides like this one to multi-week adventures that traversed half the continent.  Everything from the bliss of some of the curviest and best motorcycling roads in the world to the very worst interstate slogs – and everything in between.  There was the hurricane we rode through.  The rides at night.  There were the times of being frozen.  And then being baked.  Mostly, though, through it all, it was simply being struck by a sublime magic.  And, then, how many countless times, sitting and staring in wonder at the machine that might do that?

Nodding to myself, I stow my trash and mount back up.  Thumbing the starter, I hear it yet again, the old music.  Glancing at the sky, out of old habit, I judge what the afternoon will bring.  Not that it much matters.  A slow rolling U-turn returns me to the road. 

Throttling up, there’s that old lift as the machine comes alive.  A smile tugs at my lips.  We’ve hardly started yet.  Looking down at the tank, I nod in thanks at that realization.  “We still have many miles to make, old friend.”

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes