The Eagle Has Landed



After crossing the Ohio River, the topography quickly flattens.  The hard-edged landscape of West Virginia, pregnant with threat, simply evaporates into a mellow, softly-rolling tapestry.


My mind and my temperament remain imbued with the aggression urged on by hours in the mountains south of the river, however, and my mood is anything but calm.  And so when I come upon the Harley rider I affix upon him the same predatory eye I’ve lent towards everything else I’ve encountered over the 400 miles I’ve ridden on this fine summer day. 


He’s riding an old Shovelhead.  I guess he must see me approaching in his mirror, because he cranes his head around and stares at me for a full second, a baleful look that makes me laugh out loud under my helmet.  As if anyone would have the temerity to do such a thing.


He’s wearing old engineer boots, dirty jeans, and a torn t-shirt – a reasonable facsimile of my own attire since I stowed the Aerostich Roadcrafter some miles back.  Except mine are reasonably clean.  He’s got that rough-edged look that makes you think he’s maybe a 1%’er.  Not that it much matters.


I hear his marker before I see it.  A rising crescendo of bass notes from his exhaust, a waveform packed tighter with each passing millisecond, as he throttles up.  Like peals of light thunder.


I’m a very good, very fast street rider, and I know it.  I’m little more than an hour from my destination – the Mid-Ohio racetrack at Lexington, where over the next two days I’ll attend Reg Pridmore’s CLASS school for the fourteenth or fifteenth time.  And where on the second day I’ll smoke just about everyone else in the ‘A’ group, riding faster than I ever have in my entire life.


So there’s no way this lanky, rawboned old thinks-he’s-a-bad-ass, riding a clapped-out old Harley, is going to stay with me if I don’t want him to.  I roll into my own throttle to match his.


Within a few ticks we’re at triple digits.  A place my K1100RS is eminently suited.  A place where I’ve been a thousand times, a place that’s like a second home to me.  The sudden surprise to me is that this guy seems every bit as comfortable there, too.


“For sure he’ll have to back off once we hit a curve or two”, I tell myself.  But he doesn’t.  He keeps that booming Harley lit up like it’s some kind of bludgeoning, heavyweight sportbike.  Like it’s God’s own chariot.  For miles it’s just the two of us, firing across the landscape in a fast, airy rush.  I can’t but admire the guy.  And there’s no way I can’t not let him have his lead for the handful of miles until he turns off, without deigning so much as the merest acknowledgment.  I salute him anyway.



There’s a thread that runs through things.  Eleven months later I’m sitting against the tire wall across the field of grass runoff down the hill from the esses out of turn four at Road Atlanta, where I’ve come to rest after an extremely violent crash.  I’m thinking this must be an awful dream.  But my body hurts all over and my right ankle feels like it’s broken.  And when I glance to my side there is the totaled carcass of my beloved BMW.  I’ve just tossed away a $16K motorcycle.




Fast forward four years and I’m heading back home on the Blue Ridge Parkway after a five-day solo run down to Deal’s Gap.  Though no particular reason attaches to it, I’ve decided to stay tonight at the campground at Crabtree Meadows.  Having a target and a destination suits my mood. 


It’s another 70-odd miles up the Parkway from the overlook where I’ve stopped for a break, I’m late, and I have to make up time.  Of course, running hard, carrying higher revs, sucks down one’s fuel that much quicker.  Especially on a K1200RS.  It surely loves the revs.  But it gets thirsty in a hurry when those ramp up.


With that in mind and with my fuel running low, I exit on rt. 80.  I’m not all that far from the campground, but I really want to start tomorrow morning with a full tank of gas.  I’ve never been on rt. 80 before, but figure that surely I’ll find gas shortly.  My heart sinks when I get to the bottom of the exit ramp – the sign indicates 16 miles to Marion; 17 miles in the other direction to Micaville.  Sigh.  Oh well.  I pause for only a moment, considering whether to abort this and continue on up the Parkway.  I turn eastward on rt. 80, towards Marion.


I think a lot of the best things in life are the surprises, the little things that we never see coming.  And sometimes serendipity knocks and leaves behind a gift.


Rt. 80 is one of the gnarliest, hardest-curving, coolest roads I’ve ever been on.  Within a couple hundred feet I’m laughing as I wrestle the big BMW around corners which seem like nothing so much as a dog trying to bite its own tail.  After a mile or so the road straightens just a little.  Not straightens in the normal sense, but straightens in the sense that the curves are ever so slightly more rideable.  I’m still in second gear.


Halfway down the mountain I come upon two Harley riders.  But these boys aren’t your typical cruiser pilots.  They have those big dressers hauling ass, making serious time.  The guy in front – with locks of whitish-gray falling out behind his shortie helmet, is riding a suitably-old model HOG which sees sparks trailing behind as he grinds hard through the turns.  The younger fellow following, on a newer-model bike, seems equally at home.  Both make short work of the mountain and I’m happy to just sit back there and watch, laughing all the time.  After a while the young guy in back – who for some strange reason I feel strongly is an MSF instructor - waves me on past.  I wave a salute as I swing out around them.



Here’s some wisdom:  Riding a Harley doesn’t mean you have to ride like a pussy.



Fast forward another five years and I’m walking around old town Warrenton on a hot August night, Leica in hand, taking a few pictures.  Across the street from Molly’s, the town’s Irish bar, I come upon a shape I recognize instantly.  Long, heavy, and low.  The windscreen is gone, as befits a summer evening.  It’s in heavyweight-cruiser mode. 


I’ve always known I’d someday own a Harley-Davidson Road King.  Even though at first glance that kind of bike is a world away from the kind of performance riding I’ve always done.  Even though it might surprise some people.


My riding DNA had its genesis in the seventies.  Back when there were still multiple British marques, built on then-decades-old machinery.  Back when the lovely Norton girl graced the inside cover of just about every motorcycle magazine.  Back when the Japanese marques were picking up steam, but were far from the overwhelming manufacturing juggernaut they would become.  Back when bikes in general were considered… just bikes.  Before specialization created the striated model categories we have today.  Back when a Sportster was still considered a sportbike.  Back when you always carried a second helmet… just in case you got lucky.


As I bend down in the gloaming to examine the black Harley, the hulking shape seems to lift from the shadows, seems to speak to me.  I walk around it once.  And then yet again, nodding slowly.


Some things reveal themselves.