Recollections of a Rookie: The 2017 Virginia QSO Party

March 20th, 2017

Five minutes in and I’m already surprised.  I kind of went into it thinking 40m would just light up.  Not so much.  Activity emerges slowly, like individual stars at twilight. That isn’t the big problem, though.  The big problem is that I can only hear half of each of those contacts!  I can hear the Indiana or New York or Ohio end just fine – and the exchange makes it clear these are VaQSO Party contacts.  But the Virginia side is a murmuring, incoherent burble, surfing along the noise.

 So much for NVIS and short-skip.  I’m already regretting what I did with my antennas.

Tuning up and down the band.  Fourteen minutes in I finally stumble across a strong, readable Virginia signal.  It’s Arno W4AKO!  And he’s already up to number 14!  Wow.  Something about separating the wheat from the chaff…

With my first, virgin contact in the log, I settle in.  The buzz of anticipation is over.  This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Up and down forty.  Running to one end, then the other, like a disconsolate motorcyclist off his meds.  Over the next hour I make three more contacts.  Embarrassing.

In retrospect, letting go of a band that isn’t working seems obvious.  But it’s harder than it sounds.  Forty, for me, has always been the heavy hitter.  The one HF band that works when all the others have gone squirrely.   And all that got reinforced in the weeks leading up when I studied John KX4O’s Cabrillo stats from previous years’ VaQSO Parties.  I marked up a sheet of paper with which bands are open and “fat” on an hour-by-hour basis.  I figure propagation might be a little worse than last year, given where we are in the sunspot cycle, but the general characteristics should be about the same.  That paper now stares back at me from where I have it pinned at eye level.  Eighty comes and goes.  Twenty comes and goes.  Forty?  Forty is just simply always there.  Old reliable.

So, yeah, letting go is hard.

But if 40 has gone all drunk and messy, 80 is just the opposite… bright and clear-eyed!  Virginia stations dotted all over the band.  And so I bend to it and go to work.

It’s still slow.  But it’s steady.  After a few hours I’m ready to draw another conclusion… Search and Pounce is fine when working DX.  But it’s like a sniper carefully working a shot.  It’s laborious and slow and takes lots of patience.  It’s decidedly not the way to rack up points in a hurry.

This is my first contest, so it’s a work in progress.  Or, rather, I should say I’m the work in progress!  But I’m already getting an inkling.  My mind stretches back a couple months to when I was reading Contact Sport, J. K. George’s account of the 2014 World Radiosport Team Championship.  The boys and girls in that contest didn’t wander the bands, searching for quarry.  They set themselves up as bait and let the airwaves come to them.

I’ll pause here and confess.  There are elements to this Ham Radio thing that are fraught, at least for some of us.  Hearing, interpreting, and remembering call signs on the fly isn’t a skill I was born with (am I the only one who, for the first couple of months, kept a written-down copy of my own call sign there in front of me, lest I forgot?!).  Nor were phonetics – neither the standard ones nor the non-standard ones, much less the off-the-wall ones – any part of my lexicon before I started down the road with this hobby.

When I’m working DX, I can be that sniper.  I can take my time.  I can listen to however many contacts I need in order to get his call sign right, to get his cadence.  I can do a quick lookup on QRZ if I want.  I can move up five or down ten or wherever the nearest clear frequency is and tune up to within a gnat’s eyelash, before moving back.  I can get positioned just so before lifting my rod and casting the line.

And yet you can’t do all that and not forget, not appreciate, that that guy or gal on the other end has no such benefit.  What you might take two minutes to prepare for, thoughtfully and deliberately, he has but a couple of seconds… usually intermixed with a bunch of competing stations!  In a heartbeat he has to parse that babel of voices, interpret the phonetics, and pull something out of the morass of signals.

I listen to the radio and shake my head at the poise and presence that so many of you display.  I only hope that one day I can become half as competent.

All of which is to say, being on the receiving end of one of those dreaded pileups was something I had never experienced.  And so it’s with no little trepidation that I first venture out.

“CQ, CQ, CQ.  Virginia QSO Party.  This is Kilo-Four-Yankee-Whiskey-Zulu.  K-4-Y-W-Zed.  Listening.”


Again.  And again nothing.

One more time.  Once more, a fruitless pause.

And it’s not long before I conclude that I’ve done my duty.  It’s with a sense of quiet relief that I reach for the VFO knob.

I’m halfway up the band when I turn back to the computer.  Placing three fingers on the trackpad of the Mac, I swipe to the adjoining desktop.  The one with John’s spotting network up in my browser.  I’ve been watching it periodically since I began.

And now I’m staring at it in disbelief.  My own call sign sits there, beaming back at me.

Crikey!  It’s one thing to bail on your own.  But when someone has gone to the effort to spot you it creates… I dunno… kind of an obligation?

Spinning back to 3.829, I sigh with relief.  It’s still clear.  I begin once again.  “CQ, CQ, CQ…”

The words are hardly out of my mouth.  And here they come.

There’s a pregnant pause with the first one as I suddenly realize that our exchanges are reversed.  But then I’m into it and working them and after a few of ‘em I see, like most things, there’s a rhythm to it.  You just find that and go.

And boy is it fast!  An elation takes hold as I realize how quickly my contact and multiplier counts are growing.  This is the best thing since sliced bread!

It doesn’t last long.  A dozen or fifteen contacts and it’s over.  But not before I’ve experienced a little bit of magic.  Something I won’t soon forget.

Speaking of John’s spotting site… it was invaluable.  You’re sitting there with only one band working and all the stations you can hear are already in your log.   Sure, you’ll find the odd new one when it shows up by tuning up and down.  But it’s world’s easier when you see it show up on the spotting network.

MacLoggerDX, my logging software, worked fine.  One of the first things you learn is that determining if a station is a dupe is such a critical part to all this.  I can’t imagine doing it without software!

Most of the day Saturday I’ve gone back and forth between the desktop where I have MacLoggerDX up full-screen – and running my normal DX cluster – and the adjacent desktop where I have John’s spotting site.  Manually copying the call signs from the spotting network back to MacLoggerDX is a bit of a pain.  Too much swiping back and forth.  Too much getting half the call sign and having to go back to get the rest.  So late in the day I reverse that… I light up John’s spotting network as the telnet cluster within MacLoggerDX.

Much better!  Now it’s mostly Virginia stations showing up in the band map.  Now I can just click on them to populate the call sign box to see if they are a dupe.  And spotting them takes only a single click, versus filling out several fields on the web form.  I leave it like this for the rest of the weekend.

I discover radio contesting is a physically demanding sport.  Who knew?!  No surprise, really.  A lot of sitting and not a lot of moving.  Not all that different from a long motorcycle ride in that respect.  Late in the afternoon, my neck and shoulders sore, I start getting up more often.  Bringing in a load of wood for the woodstove helps.  As does walking the half-mile to get the mail.  And at the end of the day, Ibuprofen is your friend.

Saturday ends quietly.  I toast the day – my Spartan results rather a contrast to the rich experience I’ve enjoyed – with a big bowl of ice cream.  And then I head off to bed.

Sunday is a mix.  I wake up excited to get back at it.  Dreaming of more of those pileups and my score ratcheting up like Rapunzel’s hair.

But the bands remain diffident.  Eight O’Clock is lonely.  And 40m still has the flu.  It will prove a little better than yesterday.  But that’s not saying much.  Mostly it’s a day to stay on 80, with brief excursions elsewhere.

I rue not having 2 meters.  I’ve got the KX3 that can do that via the full-length J-pole outside my window.  But there’s a problem with the FTDI cable Elecraft shipped with it and I’m still waiting for the replacement.  Until they send that I’ve got no CAT control.  Probably wouldn’t much matter anyway.  Three watts out is fine for hitting our local repeater.  Maybe not so much for making it to Skyline Drive.  Still, there’s a twinge of regret every time I see one of those spots show up.  And I’m guessing it might be a key to band-hopping… something I still need to learn more about.

Speaking of Skyline Drive… I don’t hear Andy K1RA or Jason KJ4EOO the entire weekend.

There are some other big stations, though.  W4VA is ubiquitous, and I can’t help but smile every time I come across them.  And in one of my contacts the fellow asks me if I’m a member of the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association.  It’s with a sense of pride that I reply “Indeed, I am!”

K1RO out of New Hampshire had just the best signal all weekend.  He was something of an epiphany for me… emphasizing that an out-of-state station can often be in a fantastic situation to play a QSO party.  The propagation woes that bedeviled most of us in-state guys, and poked veritable holes in all the NVIS theories (kidding), was his strength.  Not that he didn’t leverage it with lots and lots of operating expertise – he surely did.  But he also made me realize that looking beyond your state’s borders for a QSO party can be handsomely rewarded.

Finally, I’ll just say that I marveled at many of you guys.  One of the interesting things about the exchange is that your pal on the other end knows instantly where you are; and you know exactly where s/he is.  I would just shake my head at some of the scores I heard.  No excuses.  No worrying about band conditions.  Just making it work.

My hat’s off to you.


What I wrote….


What I should have written….

















Musings on the 2016 BMW R1200GS Adventure

January 21st, 2017

The descent down to the creek runs through dense woods.  A lonely road wending its way through a series of esses.  The trees brown, having lost their color, now holding hard to their last few leaves before giving up the ghost on yet another season.

Lifting my eyes, I scan for deer.  First, quickly, the edges.  Then deeper.

The first, quick right-hander emerges suddenly, like a jab from a boxer.

I smile.  I haven’t been here in awhile.  But it’s all the same.

The bike, now a few months old and with some thousands of miles on the clock, is no longer a stranger.  At my nudge, it responds instantly, eagerly.  Into the corner, it hews a perfect, clean line, slicing a razor-thin slice off the thing I hold in my head.

The remembrance of the road washing over me, trailing throttle as I think about the turn two curves ahead, I press down on the shift lever.  Third gear.  There’s the slightest judder as the engine’s computer matches the speed.

Past the one-lane bridge, the road opens up.  A quarter-mile, lifting ascent.  Dangerous because of the deer.  But I can never help myself.

When I roll out a few seconds later I’m at the top, fifth gear, and into triple digits.

That’s when I see them.  Just a flash, distant through the trees.  But enough.

My eyes narrow, my heart ratchets.  The old thing.  How long has it been?  How many months?  But today, once again, I can’t help myself.  Like a drunk falling off the wagon.


I already know, but like a pilot on approach I glance down anyway.  Dyna.  Solo rider.  Hard.  I downshift one gear, using the clutch this time.  Just for old time’s sake.

It doesn’t take long.  They’re running a good pace, but short of a Panigale… nah.

There are two of them and within a mile I’ve pulled up behind them.  Then it’s the three of us, two sportbikes and a big behemoth of something bringing up the rear, full of prejudice.  The lead rider bumps his pace, gapping his friend.

You can feel it, the indignation.  You can always feel it.

I don’t need much room.  Coming out of a corner and there’s the tiniest little piece of straight.  Both of us lifting out of the lean and accelerating hard.  I get him when he shifts, the tiny, little pause enough.  I have to shift too, of course.  But I stay hard into the throttle and just toe my boot up into the lever as I come around him.  As I duck back in front of him I can imagine him talking to his buddy later.  “You won’t believe how fast that fucker shifted!”  The thought of it makes me laugh.

It takes another half mile for the other guy.  On the tight, narrow, downhill slalom.  Probably the place he least expected it because it’s bumpy and narrow and you’ve got to use some brake and the suspension on most bikes gets packed through there.

The two bikes quickly slow and drop back.  As I come down off the high I shake my head, a sudden feeling of guilt washing over me.

Looking down the road, framed by that view I’ve loved for so long – the dash and handlebar of a fine motorcycle – I abide a moment of self beratement.  Then a grin slowly breaks out under my helmet.

The saddlebags.  They always hate the saddlebags.




On more than one occasion I have observed that the BMW GS-series of bikes are the ugliest on the planet.  The boys in Berlin definitely bought into form follows function when wrestling with that model.

But then you walk around the new liquid-cooled BMW R1200GS Adventure and you kind of shake your head.  It’s a handsome bike.

Now maybe that’s just my long familiarity taking hold.  Or a newly found appreciation for what has now become a very, very polished product.  Whatever.  I like it.

The visual perception differs, depending upon your angle.  From the front, walking slowly towards the back, the lines of the bike first are svelte, sure of themselves.  The curves and angles and lines melt into each other.  They integrate well.

But then you get back towards the seat and that huge tank emerges.  You can’t not see it.  And the sense of svelteness quickly begins to disappear.

Once that’s in your consciousness you can’t dismiss it.  And once you begin wheeling it around by hand, that only gets underlined further:  this is a big, heavy bike.  Beast is the word that comes to mind.

No question the GS Adventure can be an intimidating motorcycle.  It’s dense.  It’s bulky.  And it’s top heavy.  Even those of us who come from the world of 800-pound Harley’s can appreciate its gargantuan nature.

Out of the Fog…

Seated, your knees press upon the metal sides of that tank.  Yeah, it’s big.  But it feels good.

As your eyes drop further, you see that those engine jugs are not so apparent as they are on the Oilhead.  Not so naked.  Like a girl, seeing you look at her, who has self-consciously fastened another button on her blouse.

Dash layout is about as clean as one could expect, given the numerous control and information-rich elements that all beg for attention.

Notably, the left handlebar now sports a Japanese-style turn-signal switch.  Press left for left.  Press right for right.  And press in the center to cancel.   After literally decades of being panned by every magazine road test that ever got published, BMW has finally thrown in the towel.  That said, I kind of miss the old paddle switches.  I never quite saw the problem with ‘em that all those other journalists did.  But the new one works great.  Simple as it gets.

The lockable, factory-integrated GPS mount is very nice.  It attaches to a bar above the dash proper, affording a perfect sight line and easy access to the touch screen of your Sat Nav.  Along with the Wonder Wheel and the integrated communications between the bike and Sat Nav, it’s about as ideal a GPS solution as you could wish for.  More anon.

The analog speedometer looks nice, but isn’t very functional.  The lines and the numbers printed on the face are too numerous, too close together, and too small to make determining speed anything other than a several second, stare-hard-at-the-speedo-clock-face proposition.

Not that it much matters.  Both the information display LCD and the GPS can be configured to digitally display speed.  Easy peasy.

Climbing on doesn’t do anything to diminish the beastly gargantuan-ness of the bike.  It’s heavy.  It’s bulky.  And it’s tall.  You’re reminded every time you mount or dismount.  And you’ll laugh the first time you pull up next to a gas pump, hoist it up onto its center stand, and prepare to fill the tank.  I’m 6’ 2” and, standing next to it, the top of the tank comes to the middle of my chest.  This, for sure, ain’t your down-low Harley!  You have to reverse the gas pump handle in your hand – thumb pointing backwards up the hose, little finger pointing at the nozzle – and it’s all just a tiny bit techy.

But Lordy, Lordy, that tank!  It holds just a hair under eight gallons.  After a lifetime of riding bikes with a practical range upwards of two hundred miles – those of us who have stood there on the side of the road with an empty tank can attest to what practical means – suddenly having another hundred miles in the can is huge.  The first few tankful’s feel positively surreal.  It’s like a car… you just keep going.  And going.  And going.  And the pleasure of stopping, to pee or buy a bottle of water or take off some clothes, or whatever… is sharpened immeasurably by riding right on past the gas pumps.  I honestly didn’t think the fuel capacity would be that big a deal.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Thumbing the starter brings another surprise.  The engine sounds different than the boxers of old.  A little bit raspier, with a tiny bit less bass.  Not quite as macho.  Blip the throttle and the engine responds instantly.  It has very little flywheel effect.  And sitting there, stopped, there’s only a hint of that old sideways rocking couple that’s always been iconic to the boxer-twin.

Honestly, sitting out there in the parking lot preparing for my demo ride, I was disappointed.  Your first impression is that the engine isn’t a twin at all.  It feels more like a triple or an inline-four.  WTF?  And, crikey, the size of the bike!

But then you pull in the clutch and press down into first and you give it some gas and feel for the engagement point – all while the hangers-on there at the dealership are standing around watching you – and, as the bike begins to move, the first of several epiphanies begin to unfold.

The first, and probably most important, is that instantly – as soon as the wheels begin to turn – all that weight, all that bulk, all that tallness, all that intimidating gargantuan-ness… simply disappears.  Like flicking a switch, the bike becomes light as a feather.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, on other bikes.  How well-suspended rolling mass, carried by a good frame, can attenuate many of its sensory failings.  But nothing remotely like this.  The GSA performs a mystical sleight-of-hand that is akin to Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth.  The transformation is magical.

The clutch pull is very light.  The throttle pull is both very light and very short.  Extending two fingers to the front brake lever – just a caress, like gently wiping the tear from a woman’s cheek – and you can feel it down through the Telelever, bleeding off however much speed you want, however quickly you want it gone.  Amazing, great brakes.

The rear brake is the best I’ve ever felt.  You can feel the bite, in contrast to the wooden numbness most rear brakes exhibit.

Everything feels light.  All the controls.  The whole bike feels crisp, responsive, and alive.  After two miles, my first impression is one of ease.  That sensory conclusion is a profound irony, given how you start out thinking about this bike.  But it’s true.  There’s an elegant effortlessness to riding this motorcycle.

It’s when I turn off the big road and head into the first set of twisties that I know that I’m done.

I bought my ’05 GS on something of a hunch.  I had fallen in love with how a nice, torquey twin could comport itself when the road begins to dance.  And long after I had totaled that SV650 in a hard crash at VIR, I still remembered.  It occurred to me that a bigger, heavier twin – something with longer legs and good luggage – might make the perfect all-around bike.

What I didn’t expect is that it would make such a terrific sport bike.  After riding it for some time I wrote, “up to the last few percentiles of what could be considered reasonable on the street, this is the easiest-to-ride-fast bike I’ve ever been on.”  I ride with guys that are very good, very fast, and who show up on a wide variety of compelling, very serious machinery.  I never once, in all the years since, ever felt outgunned when I showed up with that GS.

The question in front of me, then – really, the urgent question at the heart of all this – is how much of that sporting prowess would I give up on this big, hulking GSA?

And having framed the question that way, I’m stunned when I have to flip it.

Steve has left the bike in Road mode and so that’s what I’m in when I lean gently into the first turn.  The bike follows my lead with what seems to be a casual little smile.  And as I feel that rush in my chest and hear the old swimming in my ears, my right hand reflexively brings up the throttle.  The bike goes faster and faster, but that early sense of ease and lightness never leaves it.  It paints the road with precise, clean lines.  Deft, narrow, and always meticulously correct.  Whatever I think, it does.

Like perfect sex.

My mind flashes back to the invoice.  How this is just an “I’m kinda curious” demo ride.

Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  “How can I possibly do this?”

You sell three motorcycles, is how.  And thank God you got ‘em to sell.

There’s more, of course.  It’s not long before I’m in Dynamic mode.  And the perfect sex just gets perfecter.

Into the Mountains…

Turns out the new Wasserboxer motor isn’t worse than the old one – quite the contrary.  But while retaining traces of the old character, it is different.  Its free-revving nature lends to the bike’s overall precision, its ability to execute quickly.  It lays down a thick, unending layer of torque everywhere, just like its forbears.  Only more of it.  And that otherworldly quality of the old Oilhead – the one where when things get serious and the road is demanding and you feel for that perfect place in the motor where the berm is, you know, that place where the well of power lies but a hairbreadth’s away, so that when you call upon it it’s already there, already left on the road – that’s there, too.

The motor has perhaps the best fueling I’ve ever experienced in a fuel-injected bike.  Not all that far away from those nicely carbureted engines of yore.  It isn’t perfect – trailing throttle still flails around a bit, trying to find itself – but all things considered this is an exceptional motor.  The Oilhead, in all its variants, was and is a remarkable design.  This water-cooled version is just the next improvement on an already proven concept.

The ride modes are a revelation.  Road, Rain, Enduro, Enduro Pro, Dynamic… I’m not going to reprise what they do – that’s recounted in lots of places.  But they each transform the bike, softening this, sharpening that, in ways unique to its mission.

It’s no little irony that the quest that led me to the GSA started out with my looking for a lighter, more capable off-road bike.  After a particularly epic 19-mile off-road excursion last spring – a wet, sloppy down-the-old-creek-bed adventure that I wasn’t sure we were all going to come back from unscathed… I came looking for new answers.  Lighter, more agile answers.

One might ask how you get from there to a 78-pound wet weight heavier behemoth.  You get there with software, is how.

The electronic suspension is amazing.  Remember the days when you had to stop, pop the seat, pull out your tool kit, find the special tool, and then heave this way or that on the shoulder of your rear shock to change the preload?  And that that’s all there was – there being no compression damping or rebound damping or inverted cartridge forks or any other such exotica?  And how we thought we had left those primitive times behind when our bikes finally got better.  And how we were really in high cotton when we upgraded to Fox or Penske or Ohlin’s bits?

‘Tweren’t nothing.  ESA has stolen a march on everything.

The biggest problem with motorcycle suspension is that it’s arcane.  Even on those bikes that have decent shocks and forks – and simple dials to tweak them – most riders don’t understand the physics and the componentry well enough to set them.  So, mostly, motorcycle suspension has been a set-it-and-forget-it proposition.  Usually set badly, to boot.

A button on your dash, a few seconds, a simple user interface – rider, passenger, luggage (add ‘em up); soft, medium, hard – and, voila, all that changes.  Stupid simple.  And it works.

The quick shifter – Shift Assist Pro in BMW-speak – is another little option I thought would be a cute, nice-to-have.  What it does… is make you feel like Valentino Rossi.  You go balling the jack through a set of esses and as the road opens up those clutchless upshifts are just so… cool!  You want an instant grin?  Just dial up some throttle and toe up that lever.  The boys in the MotoGP paddock should thank their lucky stars you don’t have a ride.

Now, then, comes the guilt.  A bike that goes this well surely must make you pay, right?  My GSX-R1000, a straight razor if there ever was one, could dice up a curvy road with the best of ‘em.  But it never let you forget the price you were going to pay.  Ibuprofen was a standard part of the riding kit.  And after a little bit, even that wasn’t enough.

I’ve said for years that my Harley Road King is the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden.  Well, the GSA is very, very close.

I ended up fitting my ’05 GS with a nice Sargent seat.  On the GSA the stock seat works just fine.  Very comfortable.

The general ergonomics will vary from rider to rider, of course.  For me, this very big, very tall BMW is just about perfect.  The wide-set handlebar gives you lots of leverage.  It requires much less pressure and much less effort to steer than the clip-ons on a sportbike.  The upright seating position gives you great visibility.  And the tallness that might seem less than ideal when fueling or mounting and dismounting… becomes a great asset when big miles are in the mix.  You can drop your boot off the peg to stretch out your knee without having to spend the muscle energy keeping your foot off the pavement.  You just drop your leg down straight and rest for a few moments.  And the foot pegs make standing up very easy and comfortable, either to stretch during long pavement runs, or for serious off-road work.

Wind protection is well nigh perfect.  With the screen in its down, retracted position you get just enough spill around your shoulders and head to remind you you’re on a bike.  Come cold or rain and you just reach forward and twist the little knob.  The screen ratchets up and just as quick as that you’re in a mostly quiet cocoon of air.

The big tank and the cylinder heads sticking out form a seamless shield in front of your lower body.  For a bike that’s supposed to be more naked than not, you’d be forgiven for wondering why its protection is more akin to that of a full-boat tourer.

I promised more about the GPS.  Actually, it’s about information.

After bringing that demo bike back, after I knew I was done, I started looking into all the details.  One of them was that I had dropped a cool grand on a new Garmin 590LM little more than a year earlier.  I wasn’t exactly keen on paying the stiff premium for the BMW-branded Nav V.  Could I use the 590?  Alas, no, it didn’t take long to find that my 590LM was not compatible with the GSA.

What I didn’t know then, but would find out shortly, is that GPS navigation is the least of it.

The deal is this… the GSA is an information-dense motorcycle.  An incredible amount of data is being transmitted continuously, in real time, along its system bus.  The rider can access part of this information through the dual-screen Multi-function display on the dash.  The upper and lower sections of that display, toggled via a button on the left handlebar, display such things as fuel level, clock, regular odometer, several trip odometers, fuel range remaining, ambient temperature, engine temperature, oil level (only works when the bike is stopped), individual readouts for front and rear tire pressure (corrected for temperature), several fuel consumption readouts, current speed, average speed, alternator voltage, overall time, and driving time.

The Nav V functions exactly as you’d expect as far as GPS functions.  It seems to have the same (up to date) processing engine and interface as my 590LM.  It works great.

But it doesn’t stop there.  It also reads from the bike’s system bus and is able to display a whole host of other kinds of bike data.  Some of it – things like speed, tire pressures, etc., – are redundant to the Multi-function display just beneath it.  You can configure where you want that information to appear.  But it also contains lots of information unique to itself.

To make accessing all this information easy while underway, there’s a round wheel just inboard of the left handgrip.  This wheel – the wonder wheel – is rotated up or down, or is pressed, or is pulled.  Those four simple actions are sufficient to control most of the complexity of the Nav V.  It’s hard to describe.  And it’s brilliant.

That’s why, even if you already have another GPS, you’ll want the Nav V.  It was designed as an integral part of the bike.  It’s as much an information display, a portal into what’s going on within the bike, as it is a GPS.

The electronic cruise control is amazing.  Just like in your car.  And just that easy to use.

The heated grips are great.  It’s the feature I most miss on the Harley when out on a cool, crisp fall day.

The LED lighting is fabulous.  It looks uber cool.  But it also flat works.  You’ll want to search out dark roads at night just to be able to use it.


That includes the fog lamps, which are likewise LED.  When you’re up on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading towards Cherokee on a rainy, dense-with-fog day – your shoulders all tense because you can’t see shit – you’ll be glad you’ve got them.

Getting my ’05 GS on its center stand was awful.  Despite the extra weight it carries, this GSA’s center stand is world’s better.  It has a much better balance point.

The side stand holds the bike much closer to vertical.  I don’t know if that was a conscious design decision to ease the weight a rider has to deal with.  But it works well.

ABS Pro and ASC – Automatic Stability Control, BMW’s version of traction control – are your safety nets.  They both get tweaked depending upon which mode you’re in.  And they both, hopefully, will never be needed.  But it’s nice to know they’re there.  Having ABS that works while you’re leaned over seems especially crazy.  I don’t plan on testing it!

The OEM aluminum panniers are stunningly good.  They’re robust and have what appears to be a very solid mounting system.  They’re larger than the Vario boxes that were on my ’05 GS.  And the top-load design makes them so much handier.  The problem with side-load panniers is that stuff falls out.  With a top-load box, everything is an easy, one-handed operation.  And these are huge.  They hold an amazing amount of gear.

Aluminum does have a downside, beyond its extra weight… oxidation.  Depending upon how long you leave stuff in your bags, and how much it moves around, you’ll end up with grayish-black soot marks on everything.  BMW could have solved that by clear-coating the insides.  But they didn’t.

I ordered the BMW bag liners.  When they came in I was surprised to find they weren’t the zippered, cordura-type liners that came with my old Vario panniers.  Instead, they were expedition-style, canoe-type dry bags.  You know, those real tall urethane bags that you fold down a bunch of turns, and then buckle with straps?  They’re an obvious choice for a white water adventure.  Or maybe a weeks or months-long motorcycle journey into some remote place, where you want a second-level of moisture protection.  But for the more civilized adventures most of us do, most the time, they’re way too much hassle.

I ended up ordering a set of Kathy’s Liners.  Problem solved.

I’ve used tank bags on nearly every bike I’ve ever owned.  Decades ago, on my Japanese bikes, they were the only luggage I had.  I quickly learned to love them for their yeoman utility.

Long ago, BMW did tank bags better than anyone.  The OEM bag I had on my ’93 K1100RS seemed to have been designed in conjunction with the bike itself, just like its panniers.

Later, BMW lost its way, utilizing glued-on Velcro attachments and all sorts of other nonsense in its tank bags.  They clearly had become afterthoughts.  The OEM bag on my ’05 GS was abysmal.  I quickly replaced it.

After looking hard at the aftermarket, I took a flyer on the new GSA item and bought the OEM bag.  My first surprise was how diminutive it is.  For such a big bike, it’s positively tiny.  And its internal shape – following the steeply sloped angle of the tank – is slightly odd.  But it’s got a clean mounting system.  I tossed in a set of dividers and some padding on the bottom and it does its job of keeping my cameras (35mm rangefinders; big DSLRs or medium format need not apply), wallet, smartphone, and handgun all easily accessible.  I like it.

As good – no, as great – as this bike is, it’s not all peaches and cream.

The elephant that will always be in the room is its weight.  The 78-pound wet weight difference between it and my ’05 model actually understates the challenge, as I’m sure those measures were taken sans luggage.  When you consider the extra weight of the three aluminum boxes vs. their plastic counterparts, and you consider that many of us will be carrying somewhat more weight in them – in my case, I’m carrying a nicer, rather heavier, set of tools than I did with my ’05 model – you’re really looking at a 100+ pound weight difference.  And the old model wasn’t all that light to begin with.

The big GSA may do a Superman transformation once underway, but that doesn’t help when walking the bike around by hand.  You’re always conscious of it.  You always know how quickly it could get away from you.

The tool kit is a total joke.  A complete embarrassment.  One wonders why they even bothered.

The single, OEM Powerlet-style outlet is located in the dash.  Convenient for powering phones or whatnot.  Or for charging up something inside the tank bag.  But it still has the 5-amp Canbus limit.  Nowhere near enough juice to power electric clothing or an air compressor or anything else serious.  It’s just stupid.

My dealer, as a standard part of their bike prep, installs the optional “secondary” power outlet on the left side of the bike, just beneath the seat.  It’s wired directly to the battery and hence doesn’t suffer from the Canbus limit.  Pay for it if you have to.

And, finally, there’s the power output of the bike itself.  I’ve always been surprised that for a bike intended to travel across the great beyond – and thus had designed-in reserves to get a rider through whatever challenges might come his way – had such a marginal electrical system.  My ’05 GS came with a little 12Ah, 240-CCA battery and a 600-watt alternator.  I replaced batteries more frequently on that bike than any I have ever owned.

The big GSA is not any better… an 11Ah, 230-CCA battery and a 510-watt alternator.  Sure, the LED lighting requires less juice.  And all of the modern electric components are certainly more efficient.  But… and that’s really the deal… this bike has more electronic wizardry than a starship.  Alas, all that hocus-pocus goes south in a hurry once voltage drops beyond a certain, not-that-low threshold.  This bike needs its electric system.

Take good care of your battery.




I’m torn.  An hour before dawn, and it’s still pitch black up here on the Parkway.  I have the whole day in front of me and that always impels an anxious push to get going.  But I promised myself last night.  And as I debate the question the part of me that wants the pictures points out to the part of me that wants to get moving that this little trip of mine is open-ended.  I can take as many days as I want.

Even with my fog lights lit I almost miss the overlook.  But I’m not moving that fast and when the break in the pavement appears I get on the brakes in time.

Off the bike, my eyes peer east while I break out the tripod.  There’s a tiny, little bit of pink starting to bleed into the sky.  Pressing the Leica into place, the Arca-Swiss mount tight, it won’t be long.

How long’s it been?  My mind goes back to that trip, fourteen years ago, the year that I was unemployed and everything was awful.  I was shooting film then.  I remember how I headed into Boone afterwards, for breakfast at the Hardees, and was there when the rain came.  My camp down at Price was a soaking disaster by the time I got back.

I smile.  I’m reminded that the trips we remember most are those where there’s some drama.  Those where everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan.  The trips that we always hope for – perfect weather and perfect roads and perfect everything – just kind of merge into a pleasant nothingness after awhile.

While I wait for the light, I look at the bike, its features vague in the still-mostly-darkness.  I’ve been blessed with some great bikes in my time.  But nothing like this.  This one is special in ways I don’t have words for.  A month and a week in I still don’t know how I got so lucky.

What I do know is that being on the road, deep in the mountains, in that special darkness… and then to watch as the first tendrils of light leak towards you from the horizon, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole world.

God’s Grace…

A fast bike – the very best you’ve ever been on – a fine road, the whole day stretching in front of you.

And God’s grace in your pocket.


Boxing Day Ride

December 30th, 2016

 Inspired by Nick Diaz’ Facebook posting a couple days ago of his post-Christmas ride, I decided to offer up this little ditty of my own.  The Blue Ridge Beemer ‘Boxing Day’ ride, circa 1994.  Steve Coburn persuaded a small handful of intrepid buddies to spin a few miles on the day after Christmas.

RIP, Steve…


Dawn is beautiful.  A red slash rising in the East, illuminating a suddenly clear sky.  The kitchen window is cold to the touch as I review options.  I’ve been up for awhile already, drinking coffee and trying to recover data from my PC’s failing hard disk.  I really ought to keep working on that.  Or, then again, I could go for a ride.  It’s cold outside now, but the forecast is for sunshine and a high in the low fifties.  It should be a really nice day.  And Steve has dusted off a tradition from his days out in California.  He has scheduled  a Boxer’s day ride – whatever that is.  This morning, on the day after Christmas.  In Charlottesville.

I continue working on the hard disk and don’t really decide to go on the ride until, really, it’s too late.  Once decided, there’s a mad scramble to get dressed and packed.  Then there’s a false start down the driveway only to realize I have left my wallet on the desk.  Geez.  Stop.  Sidestand down.  Unplug the gloves.  Unplug the vest.  Walk back to retrieve the wallet.  Walk back down to the bike.  And I’m getting really warm in these clothes.  Sigh.  Finally, after much ado, I’m moving.  OK, let’s see now.  The clock in my cockpit shows 9:21 as I exit my driveway.  The guys will be leaving The Tavern, the Charlottesville restaurant where they are enjoying, I’m sure, a nice relaxing breakfast, at 10:00.  A normal ride from here to Charlottesville takes an hour and a quarter.  And, once I get there, I’m not even sure where The Tavern is.  Uh, something tells me there’s something very wrong with this picture.

Route 29, southbound.  My head tells me to give up this thing.  There’s just no chance I can catch the guys in Charlottesville.  Why not go west, instead – take 211 over the mountain, like on yesterday’s Christmas Day ride; and just ride down in the Shenandoah Valley for awhile?  But my heart says Charlottesville, and so the turnoff to Warrenton, and westbound 211, passes behind me.  OK.  So I’m committed.

The arithmetic is simple.  I’m running thirty-five minutes behind.  IF the guys are a few minutes late in suiting up to leave the restaurant.  And IF, on getting to Charlottesville, I can find the place in no more than, say, two minutes.  And IF I can shave twenty minutes or so off the normal travel time.  Then I might get to go on this ride.


The K1100RS is running smoothly.  As its coolant temperature approaches normal I give it a little more throttle.  Five thousand RPM gives me better than 8o mph.  Spin just a little more and I get an even 90.  OK.  So that’s my baseline.

Traffic is sparse.  The sky is clear blue and I squint against the brightness of the sun.  I have Ray Ban Aviator’s in the tank bag, but dare not slow the couple minutes it would take to put them on.  That would cost precious seconds.

The risks are not lost on me.  This stretch of 29 between Warrenton and Charlottesville is heavily patrolled.  Known for both it’s stationary and rolling radar enforcement.  And being nailed while doing as much as thirty-five over the 55 limit would be, well, a problem.  I try to think of some excuse that might sound even remotely reasonable.  Nothing comes to mind.

The route is one I normally eschew.  Partly because of the traffic enforcement.  But also because it’s mostly flat and, for the most part, straight.  About as exciting as watching winter grass grow.  Today is different, though.  The necessity to get there now has transformed the road.  I ride with a focused intensity normally reserved for fast work in the mountains.  There is a projected sixth sense.  And an intent peering for telltales in the flow of traffic – an unexpected brakelight; or flashed headlamp in the oncoming lanes.

Be smooth, I tell myself.  Be inconspicuous.  My movement around traffic is a swift, soft, steady  flow.  That’s cool.  Only I’m wearing a flaming red Aerostich Roadcrafter suit and riding a Mystic Red BMW sportbike.  Inconspicuous in my dreams.


Traffic stacks up as I enter Charlottesville.  It’s 10:15.  Working through the lights, I watch the oncoming lanes for riders.  Nothing.  There is no urgency now.  I’m just rolling with the flow of traffic.  I figure the boys must be long gone by now.

At 10:20, just after passing under the 250 bridge, I see the large sign on the left announcing The Tavern.  And, wonder of wonders, there are several riders – just pulling on helmets.  Steve, riding his K100RS; Boyd Anderson, on his R100RS, Last Edition; and Alex Dudley, on “GNOO,” his nearly-new R1100GS, are the contingent.  Another ninety seconds and I would have missed them.  I must be living right!

I stop only long enough for shouted greetings, and to finally put on my sunglasses.  Then we’re off.


Heading out of Charlottesville, we turn northwest, taking Barracks, then Garth roads.  I am amazed at how quickly any sense of urban environment is lost to us.  Almost immediately we are riding through a pleasantly rural landscape.  After several miles, Steve turns north on route 601, leading us towards the little crossroads junction of Free Union.

These roads are all new to me.  Steve had noted this would be a ride around the area, mostly in Albemarle County.  I’ve always associated Albemarle County with horse farms and the gently rolling countryside of the Virginia Piedmont, home of the landed gentry.  More home to Bimmers than to Beemers.  But these roads are good stuff.  And they continue to get better – windier, narrower, and more lonely, as we proceed.

The day remains brightly clear and is now beginning to become pleasantly warm.  I reach down and switch off my electric vest and gloves.  A few more miles, and we stop for a ten minute break at a tiny general store.

Past Free Union we continue north, carving our way towards the intersection of route 810, at Boonesville.  There we turn west, twisting through Blackwells Hollow, and then south, following the Browns Gap road back down to White Hall.  Route 810 continues south and we follow it’s path, passing near Crozet.  By now we have scribed a large, cone-shaped loop, and have passed through some of the prettiest countryside in central Virginia.  I make a mental note to come back in the Spring and do some more exploring around here.

At our rest stop, Steve had mentioned perhaps heading up on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a while.  “Anyone cold?” he asked.

“Nah,” we replied.  This crew’s in good shape.

So I’m not surprised now when we turn west towards Afton, and the beginning of the BRP.  I am a little taken aback, however, when we turn south off of 250 shortly before climbing the mountain to Afton.  Not to worry, though.  Steve leads us up and around this winding, narrow road.  Cool scenery.   We pass a tiny little stone house set hard by the roadside that could have been lifted from the Swiss Alps.  I grab hurried glances at the landscape.  They’re brief, though.  This is tight, slow, second-gear terrain that demands attention.

A hard, curling right-hander and, lo, we pop back out on 250.  Now up the mountain, and to the Parkway.


It’s noticeably cooler up on the Parkway.  I reach down and flip my electrics back on.  We roll south, and pass only a couple of cars.  We have the place almost to ourselves.  The road, as always, is wonderful.  We slice casually back and forth through the turns.  “What a treat,” I think, “to be riding the Blue Ridge Parkway on the day after Christmas!”

Along one section, in deep shade, we pass heavy ice floes where water has frozen as it has run down the rock face.  “It’ll be a long time before that melts,” I think, my chin aching from the cold.  The road itself remains, thankfully, clear.

At the 20-Minute Cliff overlook we pull in for another rest.  Amid the easy banter about BMW’s, VFR’s, and GS’s, Alex relates his satisfaction with his new ride.  He apparently has no-little experience in riding where the pavement ends.


Rest Stop Along the Blue Ridge Parkway


In the valley down below a light ribbon marks a small dirt road that wends it’s way along the forest floor.  Alex seems to know where it goes; and from whence it came.  He and Steve discuss plans for an off-road adventure.  Peering down, I shake my head.  Surely there are no fast sweepers down there.  Then again, a GS costs, um, how much?

Leaving, we continue south on the Parkway.  A few more miles and we exit at route 56.  We head east, into Nelson County.  This road is a favorite of mine, with memories stretching back into early childhood.  The route is a motorcycle classic, slicing it’s way back and forth down the mountain in a spastic dance.  Every October it is crowded with city folk, out to see the leaves.  Today, they’re all at home and we have the road to ourselves.  We take advantage of it.

Back and forth, down and around we fly, a smoothly flowing Beemer train.  In a tight left-hander, the ground comes up and gently bumps  my foot, like it was a friendly game of tag.  Whoosh, and a right-hander sticks me good, the ground lifting my foot off the peg.   Past the store and the pond at Montebello, down, ever down, we roll.  A quick sweep takes us around Crabtree Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.  On our right, the trout waters of the Tye River flash bright sunlight.  On our left is just the rugged mountain fastness.    On through Tyro, and then on to Massie’s Mill, where things finally straighten out.  A big grin road.

Massie’s Mill.  Looking around as we pass through, I think to myself how little remains of the scars from twenty-five years ago.  If you didn’t know better, it would be hard to believe that here, on a humid August night in 1969, hurricane Camille unloaded thirty-one inches of rain – a years worth – in just six hours.  A hundred and thirty people died in Nelson County that night.  And Massie’s Mill mostly just disappeared, swept away by a raging Tye River.  But it’s back, and today so are we.

From Massie’s Mill we take route 666 over to 151, coming out at Jonesboro Baptist Church.  Then north on 151, through Bryant, snaking over Horseshoe Mountain, and through another set of switchbacks, at Brent’s Gap.   Past Wintergreen, rolling into Nellysford, we stop at the Blue Ridge Pig for lunch.  The place is kind of nondescript.  Just two rooms and a small kitchen attached to an adjoining general store.  Hard, unyielding wicker furniture unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  The place certainly has character.  And the barbecue is delicious.  This is one of those secret little places.  It’s always nice to travel with people who know where to eat!

Leaving, we continue north on 151, Alex now in the lead.  We’re only a couple of miles from Boyd’s place and he peels off as we roll past his driveway.  Oh, to live as close to the mountains as Boyd!

A few miles further and Alex takes a road to the right.  We’re heading back towards Charlottesville, and the end of the ride.  But the fun is not over.  Alex has chosen for us a twisting, circuitous, meandering set of roads that are the perfect capstone for this ride.  By the time we get back to Charlottesville, and The Tavern, I know that this ride has been worth all the risk in getting here.  And that riding was most definitely the right thing for me to be doing today.




November 27th, 2016

Even the rankest of greenhorns gets caught up in expectation. You do a thing a handful of times, you figure out the patterns, and – voila – you’re suddenly bound to something. Even if you don’t know squat.

“Dave and I are running at eleven,” Ginny says.

“The battlefield?” I ask. She nods.

The slow-rolling morning has sharpened the tiniest, little bit. When she walks to the door a little bit later I smile. “An hour,” I tell myself.

I love hitting the switches. First the power supply. A modern, switching supply so it doesn’t really need to warm up. But I can pretend. Waiting a few pregnant moments before I hit the button on the radio. While I wait I remind myself that someday I’ll have an honest-to-God tube-type rig to go with the modern stuff. And I won’t have to pretend anymore.

After enjoying the momentary power-on display – does one ever get tired of seeing their call sign? – my hand reaches towards the coax switch. My mind abides for the most fleeting of moments… the wire strung up in the tree outside, just outside the window. And then just as quickly returns to the task at hand. As I flip this last switch the faint buzzing – the pure noise I can hear before even putting the earphones on – turns to something else.

Patterns, patterns. I bend towards the radio and with an ease which has already grown practiced, gently lay my finger upon the VFO knob. And begin the slow dance I have already fallen in love with.

On a motorcycle, soft hands might be the difference between living and dying. Here, it’s nothing nearly so dramatic. But, still, it’s important. It’s the difference between making the contact, or not. And the gearhead in me is deeply impressed with the weighted smoothness of the control, its delicacy, its lovely precision.

First, the tour from 14.350 down to 14.225, pausing a few times at the QSO’s in progress. Just like always.

Then a quick click down to 40 meters, and the same thing there.

I quickly debate calling CQ. And just as quickly decide against it. Partly because of the mic shyness which still holds sway. Partly because I want to try something else. Something new.

Turning to the laptop, I click a couple times. With the skimmer lit, the graphic of the globe rotates to North America, with the glowing dot of my own location in the mid-Atlantic superimposed with my call sign.

It only takes a few seconds. And then there’s the pinging sound and my radio changes frequency and the globe on my Mac rotates on around. We’re off to the races.

What I’ve already learned about Ham Radio is that people not in the hobby think it’s about talking. But they’re wrong. It’s about listening.

And so that’s what I do. Listening to the pings and watching the map roll around and hearing the voices. Lingering there.

For years I’ve gone into the November woods with rifle in hand, climbing the steep ridges behind camp in the dark. Emerging hours later in a different place. A place lit by desire and exultation and hope and excitement. Breathing the clean, sharp air and feeling for the patterns of the earth. Seeking to discern the endless, aching puzzle in front of me.

I don’t know much, but I already know that radio is like that. There’s something ethereal in it.

My heart ratchets when I hear a station in Puerto Rico. Fifteen hundred miles. Never worked. But although I’ve got him solid coming in, he never hears me. After ten minutes I reluctantly move on.

The minutes tick by. Skimming and tuning and adjusting this and tweaking that.

Changing bands once again, the clear, British accent catches my attention. Posting up his call sign, at first I don’t believe it. Surely I heard this wrong?

But, no. I listen as he works carefully through QSO after QSO. Soft spoken, unhurried, his cadence is polished and smooth. I envy his poise.

But I’m utterly gobsmacked that I can hear him. I think of my little barefoot rig and its 40-meter OCF dipole. That little strand of wire runs almost directly north-south, not nearly high enough. And although I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how its off-the-ends performance has been – north to Canada and south to Florida both seem a cakewalk – this is something totally beyond the ken.

The Falkland Islands!

Reaching for the mug off to the side, I take one last swallow of coffee. Then I grasp the boom on the Heil and pull it down. Turning to the radio, I hit the ‘VOX’ button. Waiting patiently, it doesn’t take long.

I make several calls. Nothing. And no surprise. I can’t imagine he can possibly hear me.

Glancing at the Kenwood, my eyes quickly scan the display. A touch verifies that I’m putting out every one of my hundred, precious watts. I think to adjust the pass band filter. But, no. At 1400 hertz I’m already narrower than I need to be. And I can hear him just fine.

I shake my head at the S-meter every time he comes through. Never higher than 5-3, but clear as can be. Just like on 6 meters yesterday. What a difference a low noise floor makes!

Thinking back to the spreadsheet I made the afternoon I hung my antenna, the one where I filled in the SWR readings for each of the bands, I remember that 10 meters was only okay. Reaching forward, I press the ‘AT’ button. It only takes a second to get the beep from the internal tuner.

Back in, it’s like false casting into the dying light at dusk. The rises felt and sensed more than seen. But then there’s that ineffable moment when you know. Even before the 3-weight line and 6x leader fall upon the water.

Back through the ether his reply comes. To me.


An Echo from Across the Years

May 6th, 2016

I know it’s in here somewhere, the old camera.  Gently moving aside a couple of bags, several straps, an old light meter, and a potpourri of other little-used-anymore photographic detritus, it only takes a minute.

Carrying it into the living room, I sit down and slowly turn it over in my hands, waiting for the flash of cognition that will remind me how everything works.  After a long minute, concluding that no such epiphany seems imminent, I turn to Google.  I’m not really surprised.  It’s been a long time.

No worries.  In a couple of seconds I have a badly Xeroxed PDF of the old owner’s manual in front of me.

Ah, so that’s where the battery-check button is!  The new lithium battery seems to work just fine.

Gently pressing the shutter release button, the metallic thwack is much louder than the thin, muted snick of my film Leica’s.  But it still brings a smile to my face.  This camera and I go back a long ways.

A Canon AE-1, it was given to me in January 1978 by my then-girlfriend.  And it sparked a passionate interest in photography that has never abated.  My first serious camera – an honest-to-God SLR – for years that Canon and I went everywhere together.  It accompanied me to work, sitting ever ready in the telephone truck that was my home away from home.  It ascended telephone poles.  It went on motorcycle rides, near and far.  It chronicled family and friends, weddings and parties and graduations.  And a few years later it captured the first images of my children.  Ever present, always at hand, that camera became part of my life.

Alas.  In 1987, right about when I was contemplating buying a new camera – some of ‘em now even had this neat feature called ‘Auto Focus’ – Canon abandoned the FD lens mount, instantly orphaning my little three-lens kit.   I was pissed.  And the new camera I eventually ended up with bore the Nikon label.

And so began the long, slow progression of steadily better cameras and gear, across the years.  A parade of Nikons – N8008, N8008s, F4s, F5 – later to be joined by Leica, Hasselblad, Bronica, and Voigtlander.  Storied names.

Film.  Then digital.  Then both, together.

I loved it all.  And my delight in capturing a good image remains as charged today as ever.

Still, on the odd occasion when I’d remember that old AE-1, sitting in the dark in that cabinet, unused now for decades, there’d be a twinge of guilt.  Like abandoning an old friend.

And so it was more than a lark that prompted me to order a new battery from Amazon a few days ago.

As the sound of the shutter recedes, my thumb is reflexively stroking the film advance lever.  There is a flash of surprise – even after all these years I know precisely how that stroke should feel.  Glancing quickly at the film counter window, I confirm what I already know.

There’s film in this camera.

My eye moves from the ‘20’ centered in the counter window to the ASA dial.  It’s set on ‘25.’  What the hell?

Turning to the bottom of the camera, I press the small rewind button and then unfold the rewind crank and slowly, gently begin winding the film back into its cassette.  I can hear, feel, and sense that the film is brittle.

With the film rewound, I pull up on the arm and the back pops open.  I reach in and extract the cassette.

Tech Pan.

Huh?!  My initial wonder at what this old film might hold – if anything – instantly changes to… not much.

Kodak’s Technical Pan was very much a niche film.  Originally developed for the military, its extreme high resolution and lack of grain lent itself to high altitude aerial reconnaissance – think U2 spy planes photographing Soviet military infrastructures.

Its use in normal pictorial photography was limited.  Very slow, with extended red sensitivity and a very thin base, the film was finicky.  Developed in a conventional black-and-white developer such as D-76, HC-110, or Rodinal, the resulting images were very high contrast.

But Kodak did provide a special developer – Technidol – which extracted a full tonal response from the film.  And it was that combination – the film and the developer together – that was of interest to photographers.  If you could live with the slow speed and the slightly odd spectral response, the combination gave the promise of hitting way above its weight: grain-free enlargements from a 35mm negative that were more akin to what one might expect from medium format, or even 4×5 large format.

At least that’s what the magazines said.  The enthusiast, amateur rags would periodically run an article on Tech Pan, extolling its benefits.  To a poor young man who couldn’t afford those larger formats, it was an enticing promise.

The sidebar here is that even in the heyday of film, when labs were literally around every corner, you couldn’t get Tech Pan developed.  I suppose there might have been the odd professional lab that did, but when, after deciding to give it a go myself sometime in the early 1990’s, I couldn’t find one.  It was Tech Pan that forced me to begin doing my own film development.

Still, I never shot more than a very few rolls of the stuff.  And I certainly don’t recall ever feeding a roll through that AE-1.  Hence my surprise.

The other side of the story is that Kodak stopped selling Tech Pan a dozen years ago.  There’s no fresh Technidol to be had.

But… walking into the other room, I rummage through my box of darkroom supplies.  Sure enough, after a moment I have my hands on it.  The yellow box still has five of its original six foil packets.

Technidol comes as a liquid.  I have no idea how long it’s good for.  And, unusual for Kodak, I can’t find any kind of expiration date, either on the foil packets themselves or on the yellow box they came in.

Calculating, I muss that this film could be thirty years old.  Base fog will have increased, perhaps by a lot.  And my packets of Technidol are probably fifteen years old.  They likely have lost some – if not all – of their potency.

Wrangling everything together, I decide on twelve minutes at 68 degrees.

Sitting down with the changing bag, I first select two unexposed, sacrificial rolls of Tri-X.  I still shoot a lot of film, but in the last couple of years it’s been almost exclusively medium format.

I pick up the first roll of Tri-X and, in the room light, practice putting it on the Hewes stainless steel reel.  Just reaching back for the old muscle memory.  It feels tiny, after such a long time of using the much larger roll film reels.

After a time or two I take the second roll of Tri-X and place it in the changing bag, along with the reel, tank, scissors, and can opener.  Full dress rehearsal.

Then the main act.   As I expect, as soon as the Tech Pan is released from its metal cassette, it blossoms in my palm, an unruly mess of reverse-curl.  After a moment of fighting it I just go with the flow and begin feeding it on the reel backwards.  I know there are no do-overs with this.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it’s done and safely within the confines of the tank.

Two-minutes of pre-wet.  Develop.  Water stop.  Four minutes of fix.  Water rinse.  A single drop of LFN wetting agent.  Done.

There’s a long, bated moment as I drop the washed reel into my hand and slowly begin unrolling the film.  Inches and then more inches unfold… blank, blank, blank.  But, then, there it is… an image!  And then there they come, rolling slowly into view.

Hanging the film to dry, I’m happily surprised to see images of people mixed in with other stuff.  Not of the kids when they were little – that’s the only disappointment in all of this.  But squinting at the negatives I can already tell what this is from:  Hunt Camp.

It’ll be the next day, when the film is dry and I can run it through my scanner, before I have the rest of the story.  Turns out the pictures are from November 1991 – a fact evident from the car license plates in one of the images.

The images are far from great.  But that’s not the point.

Even a mediocre image from twenty-five years ago has a special resonance.  Some of the people in the pictures are gone.  And even those who remain, still, are very different.  Different places.  Different circumstances.  With much gained, but also much lost, in the interim.

That’s the special magic of photography.  And especially of film.

That it can provide a glimpse into the past.  An echo from long ago.

Jim Stephenson


Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, John Rolfe Lester


Jim Gleason, Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, Ron Settle


The Old Hunt Camp


This is our old camp. We cooked and ate in the trailer; slept and otherwise hung out in the tent. The structure to the right is the old “officer’s quarters.”

A year or so after this we moved upscale… into a permanent cabin one hollow up.


Ben Stephenson


Stu Rhodes



Craig Gleason



Ron Settle


The Razor’s Edge: The Sport Rider Stories

January 15th, 2016

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book The Razor’s Edge: The Sport Rider Stories…


“Riding a motorcycle at speed invites one of life’s most profound experiences.  Living as it does in that narrow space between danger and exultation, a fast motorcycle represents one of modern life’s last anchors to something ancient and timeless.  Done well, riding a fast bike on a good road holds the power to put a rider in a state of exalted grace.

Jeff Hughes wrote for Sport Rider magazine for eight years and, during that time, described that magic better than nearly anyone else.  In this book you will find the complete collection of his stories that appeared there, including such iconic features as Degrees of ControlThe Devil on My ShoulderThe Most Honest Place I Know, and the title piece:  The Razor’s Edge.  Part cautionary tale, part joyous recollection, in these 53 stories Hughes puts us on the seat behind him and entertains, edifies, and educates–even as he offers rare insight into the world’s finest sport.”


The Razor’s Edge: The Sport Rider Stories


Available in both ebook and paperback editions:


AMAZON (ebook and paperback):

APPLE (ebook):

BARNES & NOBLE (ebook):

KOBO (ebook):



The Trials and Tribulations of DIY Book Formatting

January 10th, 2016

I’m not a Navy SEAL and have never been through BUD/S. But after 24 weeks, you can imagine how those wrapping up their time at Coronado must view the new arrivals.

“You poor f*cks!”

And so it was a few weeks ago, as I was finishing the editing of my book. I mean, wrangling the words is the heavy lift, right? Now for the fun stuff. An easy glide to publication…

Looking back, I shake my head at the naiveté.

Even going in with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I suppose the first question is why do it oneself? Why subject yourself to the this-is-most-definitely-not-a-fun task of book formatting? When, just like there are cover designers and copy editors and proofreaders who specialize in those things, there are plenty of professional book designers who bring an exacting eye and long experience to the table?

For me, the answer was simply that I was averse to ceding what I anticipated might be a naturally iterative process to the one-and-done (or two – or thrice – and done, for those more flexible designers) dynamic that surely must underlie this work. I had zero expectation that, having shipped off my .docx file and received a formatted PDF in return, that I would be done. Indeed, even as I write this, I intend the final, FINAL edit of my book to be when I have the physical proof – a real book – in hand. YMMV.

With that as the backdrop, I thought I’d note a few of the issues I encountered, in the hope it might help some other poor f*ck – sorry, I mean author – treading along this path behind me.


First, like many here, I long ago determined to have both ebook and paperback versions of my book available. KDP and CreateSpace are not the only options out there. But they have certainly been front and center in making that ebook/paperback duo easy and increasingly common. There’s not much reason anymore to not do both.

The first, pleasant, surprise was that getting my ebook ready was a piece of cake. Notwithstanding the aura of here-there-be-dragons that has long wrapped itself around the topic – Guido Henkel’s Zen of Ebook Formatting has lived on my iPad for quite some years now – I found the one thing that made it painless. The magic pill.


Yeah, it’s not cheap. Especially if you spring for the unlimited license. And, for sure, it’s not going to be everything to everyone. But it’s among the more elegant pieces of software I’ve used in awhile. And, more importantly, it does exactly what it purports to do.

From the time I compiled out of Scrivener – where I do my actual writing – it took all of fifteen minutes in Vellum before I had epub and mobi versions built and ready for publication. And it only took that long because I had to manually go through each of my 53 chapters and un-tick the box that adds a chapter number.

A sidebar: For years I’ve done final editing on paper. My eyes just seem to pick up typos and grammatical issues and other faux pas better there than on-screen in Word or Scrivener. In using Vellum, I discovered that reading an epub or mobi version inside the iBook or Kindle apps on my MacBook Pro is an even better way to spot those errant rogues. Much better, even, than paper. I now have a new editing process as a manuscript heads into its final stages.

Seriously, fifteen minutes. Vellum. Just do it.

My excitement at having my ebook ready to go got an even bigger boost when my cover designer ( – highly recommended) sent me the mockups for my cover. I loved it! I could smell the finish line.

There was only one little thing. I had ordered both ebook and print book covers. Now everyone knows a cover for a paperback book is slightly different from its digital cousin. The physical print cover has a spine and a back and both of those elements must be included in the design.

My first hint of the new road I was on was when Dane asked me for my trim size. And the page count.

Trim size is easy, right? Just pick one. I go to my library, pull out a volume by an author I like, same genre. “Sure,” nodding my head. “I’ll just make it like this one.”

Page count was a little harder. I mean, for months, while I performed an iterative series of edits, Scrivener dutifully reported my 83K word count. And when I moved over to Word to finally format it, it reported I had 234 pages. Of course, that was 234 letter-size pages. I knew the page count would grow when scaled to a smaller page size. But how much?

It was right about there that I first began to have an inkling of what lay in front of me. That, alas, whatever good Karma I had gained in using Vellum on the ebook side… was exhausted.

Second sidebar: It was also right about then that I recognized the mistake I had made many months previous. Now my book is a collection of 53 stories, printed in Sport Rider magazine over a period of eight years. For each of those stories I had two copies sitting on my hard drive – the final, block-formatted, single-spaced, paragraphs delineated-with-a-blank-line draft I had made when writing it; and the conventional, paragraph-indented, double-spaced draft I had actually submitted to the magazine.

When importing into Scrivener, preparatory to putting my book together, I chose the former, block-formatted versions. M-I-S-T-A-K-E.

Now there’s probably a quick way in Scrivener or Word, or both, to reformat my block-formatted originals into a conventional, indented style. Alas, despite long use I don’t pretend to be a maven in either of those pieces of software. I just use ‘em for what I need, pretty much ignoring the features around the periphery.

And Vellum actually obscured the problem – handily transforming my ebook version.

So it was way late in the game when I realized my print-version manuscript was a problem. I had a million of these non-indented paragraphs, separated from their kin above and below by a million blank lines. I didn’t relish manually going through the draft, fixing them. What to do?

After much faffing around with Scrivener (compile to paperback), Calibre, and a couple other already forgotten dead-ends, Vellum once again rode to the rescue. It has a little-used “export to RTF” feature. It boogered up some of the lovely formatting from my ebook – losing drop caps and section breaks, most particularly. But it fixed my big problem.

Import that into Word, save as a .docx, and I’m ready for the final lap.

It was a long lap.

I’ll stop here and confess that despite a lifetime of reading books – thousands of ‘em, literally – there are many little things I apparently never noticed. Even if one is in a hurry to get to the words, how does one miss, for instance, that nearly all books are full-justified? That would be me, the late-middle-aged guy in the back, slowly raising his hand.

For trim size I told Dane it would be 5.25×8. That was wrong. But I didn’t know it yet.

For margins I faffed around for awhile, finally settling on 0.75” on the top, 1” on the bottom, 0.75” on the outside, and 0.75” for the gutter. Mirrored, because this is a book.

Margins, beyond the minimums necessary for a good reader experience – having sufficient space on the outside to rest one’s thumbs, for instance; and not having your text disappear into the gutter – are an aesthetic. Simply what looks right and balanced. But they’re also very much interrelated with the font, font size, and line spacing. And all those together then inform the trim size.

I’ll jump to the end of the story and reveal that I had to tweak my margins. I found my rather ‘texty’ headers were crowded; while the footers, containing only page numbers, had too much white space. The whole effect felt like a pressing towards the top. So I flipped them, putting the 1” margin on the top and the 0.75” on the bottom. That worked. No more feeling like my pages were scrambling out of a box.

I played around with fonts a bit. I tried Garamond and Bookman and Palatino and a few others. In the end I came back to my old standby… Times New Roman. 12pt. I know, I know. Boring, done to death, and too narrow. I can’t help it.

Line spacing was single-spaced, at ‘exactly’ and 15pt. All other boxes in the paragraph dialog zero’d. No particular reason. Just tweaked until it looked right.

Text was justified on all sides. And, funny, as soon as you hit that box up in the toolbar, the suddenly square right margin puts you in mind that, yes, you really maybe have a book here.

With all that done, I quickly decided that the line length in my book was too short. Too dinky. Not enough gravitas. So after some mild angst – I discovered that after choosing a trim size you feel rather bound to it – I changed the trim size to 6×9. Much better.

The Vellum-created version of my ebook had hooked me on drop caps. Putting them back in my print version wasn’t hard. Just tedious. Opening each chapter, one by one, putting them back in by hand. But soon enough it was done. Mostly… A word of warning: changing most anything related to fonts or paragraph formatting will sh*t-can all those pretty drop caps you just spent thirty careful minutes putting in. Get your other formatting square. Then do your drop caps.

The ornamental section breaks that Vellum had also hooked me on were another story. After faffing around for awhile – by now it should be clear that this whole process included a lot of ‘faffing’ – I discovered that Word includes… count ‘em… all of one section break symbol in its character table. And not the really cool ones that are in Vellum, either. The good news is that after you get over the angst of not having the exact symbol you want, the one included in Word is quite serviceable. And OPTION-6 is the built-in keyboard shortcut to insert it.

I’m told that Adobe’s InDesign has a more sophisticated kerning algorithm than that built into Word. I have no reason to dispute that. But neither did I find the results out of Word to be deficient in any way I can point to. I had a handful of widows and orphans to manually deal with. But, generally, I found the text flow to look very nice.

At this point I had a print-version draft that was largely comparable to my already completed ebook. I thought I was nearly done. Once again, I was wrong. Very wrong.

I’m not going to detail the morass of quicksand that I was about to step into. Nightmares, especially those born in Redmond, are best soon forgotten. I’ll tell you what I wanted… I wanted a professional-looking layout job. With proper formatting of the front matter and a clean, neat Table of Contents. I wanted Roman numeral page numbers in the front, and Arabic numbers for the content itself. I wanted chapters to all begin on odd pages. I wanted my even page headers to display my book title. And I wanted my odd page headers to display the chapter title. Except for the first page of chapters, where I wanted no header at all. And, finally, I wanted blank pages to be blank – no headers.

Getting any one of those things is mostly pretty easy. What I soon discovered is that getting them all is where the rub comes.

And now I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you what the secret is. Two secrets, actually. One big, one small.

The small secret is that you have to learn about Styles. Actually you don’t, unless you want a Table of Contents. But most books have one of those, so, yeah, you do. You don’t need to become a maven. But you do have to understand the basics.

You can build a Table of Contents (TOC) two ways in Word: manually or automatically. Making one manually looks like sh*t. It just does. Trust me. Not to mention you’ve just created a very high opportunity to get something wrong. A minor, last minute tweak somewhere and you forget to redo the TOC and, voila, you’re all set to hear about it when some Amazon reviewer gives you two stars.

Word will also build you a beautiful, the-text-is-all-aligned-the-way-it’s-supposed-to TOC, and will update it any time you want with the click of a mouse so the page numbers are all what they’re supposed to be. But to have it do that – you guessed it – you first have to have used Styles.

Again, I’m not going to belabor all the faffing around I did trying to create custom styles, saving style templates, and everything else under the sun that didn’t work. If you’re like me you just want to write your story, not fiddle-fart around with “Heading This” and “Title That.” The fanciest I usually get is making chapter headings 18pt. My whole friggin manuscript is “Normal.” That’s fine. Here’s the version for us simple folk: go to your first chapter heading. Yeah, the one there in 18pt. Select that. Now go up to the toolbar, with the ‘Home’ tab selected. Head over to the ‘Styles’ section, right-click on “Heading 1,” and then click Update to Match Selection. Voila! Your “Heading 1” in the toolbar is now your style. Now go thru your document and iteratively select each chapter heading, each time heading up to the toolbar and clicking on “Heading 1.” You’ve now made each chapter heading a “Heading 1” style. And now you’re golden. Now you can let Word build your TOC. And it just works.

The other thing – the big secret, the most important thing I have to tell you in this whole, long epistle – is that you have to learn about Breaks. Again, you don’t have to become an expert. But you do have to understand the difference between page breaks and section breaks. And then you have to understand the difference between the types of section breaks. Don’t try and ignore them. Don’t try and slink around them. You’ll be sorry if you do. Learn about Breaks.

Here’s the reason… having the proper break in the proper place is the only way I know to pull all those other threads – a split between Roman and Arabic numeral pagination, even-page headers, odd-page headers, different headers on chapter start, proper blank pages, etc., etc. – together. So bite the bullet, spend a few minutes looking into how breaks work, and I guarantee you’ll live years longer.

One tiny little hint related to Breaks… there’s a paragraph symbol up in the main toolbar section of Word. I never much noticed it before. I surely never clicked on it. But it stands for “show all nonprinting characters.” Just like the old “reveal codes” in WordPerfect, twenty-five years ago. Once you put in a break, you’ll need that little tool to help find them. It mostly works fine. Except that if you put your cursor at the very top of a chapter – typically the blinky is sitting there just to the left of the first letter of your chapter title – and you insert a break there, you won’t see it.

Here’s a second small hint related to Breaks… double-clicking in either the header or footer portion of a page will bring up the header/footer overlay – and it will instantly tell what section you’re in.

Breaks… learn to love ‘em.

And now, finally, at long last… you’ve got your Word document formatted exactly like you want. It’s perfect. Now all you need to do is save it to PDF, ready for your print house.

The bad news is that the place you’re naturally going to head – File->Save As->PDF – sucks so bad you won’t believe it. You’re going to get a message thus: A header and a footer of section 1 are set outside the printable area of the page. Do you want to continue?

Actually, you’re going to get a whole bunch of these messages, one for each section you created. And if you, indeed, click through each of those messages Word will dutifully create your PDF. Only it won’t have your page numbers or headers. You can’t use it.

What’s going on is that Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, is convinced that this PDF you’re creating is destined for that laser or inkjet printer you have over in the corner. A printer which has much quicker constraints in terms of printing towards the edge of your paper than does your professional print-on-demand print house.

Alas, no amount of faffing around in Page Setup or Layout or anywhere else is going to fix it. Don’t even try.

The good news is that the much more obscure option of File->Print->PDF… works like a charm. Just use that. And now you’re done.

And with that, I’ll bid adieu. Other than to say that DIY book formatting certainly isn’t for everybody. But I’m glad I went through what I went through. I love how both my ebook and print versions look. And the next go-round will be far easier.

That said, I absolutely have two C-notes waiting for the first developer that creates a Vellum-like tool for the print-book side. I’ll toss in a bottle of your favorite beverage. And my eternal gratitude…

Tyro School – Late 1890′s

June 27th, 2015

Of photography’s benefits, the greatest is its ability to confer a sort of immortality.  So it is here.

When I visited my dad last weekend for Father’s Day, wherein I presented him with a series of of repaired and enlarged and re-printed pictures from the late 1940′s and 1950′s (see previous post), he showed me something else.  A faded, scratched, and wrinkled copy of an old school picture from the 1890′s.

Tyro is a tiny community hard within the fastness of the Blue Ridge mountains, a bit above Massies Mill.  The tiny thread of rt. 56 corkscrews up to the little village, connecting it with the valley below and even remoter locales further up.  Tyro has never been much, just a few hardscrabble families eking out a living, anchored by the early-1800′s-era mill.  What little is there was nearly wiped away during the catastrophic overnight flooding from hurricane Camille in 1969.

The picture was in sorry shape.  But despite that, there was a touch of magic.  You look at the image, of 29 people – young, hopeful, earnest, with what they hope and expect will be most of their lives still in front of them – and you can’t help but be touched.  This was the annual school picture, a tradition that echoes down even to today, and you can’t not notice the seriousness in their eyes.  The gravitas.

But you also notice other things.  The wide range of ages, from young child to young adult.  There was neither the population nor the economic capacity to provide the more targeted education we see today.

You notice the formal attire of the boys, and the severe, Victorian-style attire of the girls.  Like church, school picture day would have warranted one’s ‘Sunday best.’  And yet even that was tough for some to manage.  One boy is barefooted.

You notice the boy on crutches is missing a leg.

You notice the bicycle.  And one girl’s head tilted in what one wonders might be a hint of mirth.

You look at the names and you realize that several families supplied all these children.  You begin to appreciate the interconnectedness of all these people.

You realize that every single person here… is dead.  However their lives turned – good or bad, short or long, rich or destitute – they finished long ago.  Lives remembered, if at all, by a swiftly declining handful of descendants.

And this picture.


Tyro School – 1890′s


After getting the scan back from McClanahan’s, I set to work repairing the image.  It will never be great – the poor original quickly limits what can be done – but is world’s better than it was.


Left to right…


Back Row:

Tom Withers, Robert Massie, Nettie Massie, Florence Massie, Maria Massie, Frank Hughes, Miss Gertrude Coleman (teacher), Susie Gleason, Billy Hill, Minnie Coffey, Mattie Lee Wood, Emmett Gleason, Forest Coffey, Homer Gleason, and a part of Massie Yuille showing on side of picture.


2nd Row:

Lovie Mays, Maria Gleason, Jim Higginbotham, Lora Higginbotham, David Gleason, Sally Hill, Caskie Withers, Margaret Massie, Frank Massie,Eddie Wood.


1st Row, sitting:

Pat Withers, Harry Massie, Bland Mays, and Abby Wood.


Patrick Massie Withers:  Born Nov. 28, 1881

Thomas Austin Withers:  Born Sept. 25, 1883 – Died Nov. 23, 1966

Caskie Withers:  Born Nov. 22, 1888

Lora Higginbotham Withers:  Born 1892




The Gangsters

June 27th, 2015

Circa 1948. Young men of the Greatest Generation, during the interlude between the end of WWII and their taking on the mantle of responsible adulthood – wives and jobs and babies and all the rest.

That’s my dad, second from the right. The other three fellows are long gone.

Kent and I laughed when we squinted at the tiny (~2×3″) contact print a couple months ago. We quickly dubbed the shot “The Gangsters.” In a miracle, Kent had the sleeve of negatives that went with the little prints. I borrowed ‘em.

A high-resolution drum scan later and I could see just how badly damaged the negative was. A million tiny and not-so-tiny scratches. Ahead lay hours of digital restoration work. But, finally, I had an 11×14″ print that I could present to my dad.

The gangsters, indeed.

Happy Father’s Day, Pop.

The Gangsters

The Garmin 590LM GPS

May 21st, 2015

After scrabbling about on the gravel for an hour next to the Harley, my aching knees have about had enough.

Am I really going to have to remove the goddam fuel tank?

Shaking my head, I head back inside and sit down with the laptop.  The wiring harness is a true… harness.  In addition to the expected twin power leads, with inline fuse, the harness comes with three audio/mic wires – terminated with individual connectors for headphones, audio in, and audio out – and a long wire terminated with a large, female USB connector.  The morass of wires is a fucking mess.

I’m a simple guy.  I want power to the GPS and that’s it.  I’d like to cut off the extraneous wiring, put a dot of silicone on the exposed bits of copper, and be done with it.

Alas, my google searches are indeterminate.  Some suggest you can perform surgery on the harness.  Others say that by so doing you’ll brick the GPS.

Sighing, I go to the fridge, extract a cold Pale Ale, and head back outside.

An hour later it’s done.  No surgery necessary.  No removing the fuel tank.  And the extra cabling zip-tied and coiled up under the seat.  It’s going to be okay.

My old Zumo 550 had been mounted in a beautiful, chromed piece of billet.  Looked like it could have come from the factory in York itself.

I go simpler this time, utilizing the Ram Mount pieces that came in the box.  Doesn’t look quite as good.  But it mounts up good and tight and is easily adjustable.  It’ll do fine.

A few days later the Touratech mount shows up and the BMW GS gets its turn.  Again, a few hours of scrabbling around in the gravel.  More shaking my head at the enormity of the wiring harness.  More zip-tying and coiling up under the seat.  Another beer.

And back to square one.  Finally, once again, having a GPS unit that I can use on my R1200GS, my Road King, my pickup truck, my car, or in a rental vehicle.


That old Zumo 550 of mine had been a revelation.  After using it for a while I became convinced that a good GPS was second only to electrics (for the non-cognoscenti, that would be heated clothing…) in terms of its positive influence on our sport.


Alas, after eight years of yeoman service, my old Zumo was feeling its age.  It was taking an inordinate amount of time to locate satellites – and frequently required a power cycle or two to complete that necessary task.  Its touch sensitive screen was increasingly not so sensitive, requiring greater finger pressure and more and more offering up a quizzical game on what might be selected when you did push hard enough.  And most frustrating of all, its 1GB of flash memory had long been superseded by map size requirements.  One night two summers ago I sat in a hotel room in Huntington, WV, shaking my head while trying to pigeonhole a partial map of the eastern United States onto the aging GPS.

It was clearly time for a change.

I looked at smartphones, of course.  My iPhone 6+ is a very nice piece of gear.  And mapping in that world has gotten better by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Alas, smartphones still lack the robustness, weatherproofing, and back-end-software routing and trip planning that I consider essential.

Which sent me back to the only game in town… Garmin.

Garmin has released a number of motorcycle-specific GPS units since the original Zumo.  But theirs has been a schizophrenic product road map, as hinted at by the all-over-the-place model numbers.  For a while it looked like they were trying to deprecate the original Zumo design and get everyone moved to what were essentially waterproof Nuvi’s.

It took quite a few years for them to get back to their roots.  The Zumo 590LM finally seems like the fitting upgrade that the legion of original Zumo owners have long waited for.

What Garmin charges for the 590LM is obscene and unwarranted.  More on that, anon.

The device itself?

The screen is the first thing that hits you, of course.  The whole unit has gotten larger and the screen is 2x or 3x the size of the Zumo 550.  After using the 590 for a week, picking up the old Zumo feels like playing with a toy.  Very much the same experience as picking up an old iPhone after using the 6+ for a while.

The screen itself is a mix.  Garmin calls it transflective.  The good news is that when sunlight shines directly upon it – heretofore the Achilles heel of motorcycle GPS screens, a scenario where most wash out – it remains very visible.  In fact, to me some of the very best screen viewing on the 590 is with direct sunlight in the picture.  The not so good news is that in more muted light, say in softly lit overcast conditions, the screen, even turned all the way up, is not bright enough.  Sunglasses – and, presumably, tinted shields – exacerbate that difficulty.  And if the angle is just right, even in good, bright sunlight, the screen can wash out.

I should stop and point out that I wear reading glasses for any kind of close-range work.  But I don’t wear them while riding or driving.  My vision is quickly challenged by dim light.  I suspect younger eyes won’t have as much issue with the 590 screen, regardless of conditions.  Us older guys just have to get our squint look down.

On balance, the screen of the 590 is a major upgrade over that on the 550.  The extra screen real estate combined with the much higher resolution means much more information can be presented, in a much cleaner way.  Watching and interacting with the screen is a very pleasurable experience.

The 590 is vastly more responsive than the 550, the result of a much faster processor.  Everything from boot time, to searches, to route calculations, to going into data storage mode when plugged into a computer, is very quick.  Much better than the old 550.

Garmin has also added a sleep mode which makes access even faster.  When disconnected from power, the 590 counts down to power-off just like the old Zumo – with the user having the option, just like with the old Zumo, to interrupt that and move to internal device battery power.  But with the 590, the default behavior is now to turn off the display and move to sleep mode.  Upon reattaching to external power, or by clicking the power button, the GPS instantly awakens and is ready for use.  You can still do a complete power-off by holding the power button for several seconds.

The touch screen interface is worlds better.  Very little pressure is required to talk to the GPS.  It’s not as sensitive as a smartphone, but the touch screen responsiveness is much closer to one of those than to the original Zumo.  You can even swipe the screen to pan around.  Not as quickly and lightly as the delicate swipes on a smartphone.  But it works.

The whole user interface is improved.  There is a screen of dedicated apps that are available.  Different ‘layers’ that a user can configure.  Shortcuts that can be added to the Saved Places / Favorites window.  Interacting with the 590 is a lot better than working with the 550.

Internal flash storage has been bumped from 1GB to 8GB.  A huge upgrade.  It’s wonderful to once again be able to have a map of the entire United States when you go on a road trip.  I added a 32GB micro SD card and suddenly, after years of feeling pinched, I now feel like I have plenty of storage.  I even loaded my 24K Southeast Topo map to go along with the usual City Navigator map.  Something I normally use with my 62st handheld unit while hunting and fishing.  Now, should I find myself in some off-road wilderness after that single-track peters out, I can see how fucked I truly am!

The new unit has ‘look ahead’ features that very much enhance its usefulness.  If you are following a route, the very top of the screen will tell you where your next turn is, the name of the road that turn joins, and the distance.  At the very bottom of the screen, in smaller font, is the name of the current road on which you’re travelling.

The scrolling map also presents POI (points of interest) icons for fuel and food.  A little bit less of the quick double-take as you pass some establishment and then scramble to do a U-turn to come back.

The unit alerts for school zones as you approach, a nice touch.

In addition to the speed-you’re-travelling indicator that all GPS’s have always had, the new Zumo adds a separate field displaying – where available – the posted speed limit.  It also helpfully turns the speed-travelling-indicator a magenta color if you are above that posted limit.  Garmin cautions that this field may be inaccurate – and, of course, certainly has no bearing on any legal difficulties you might find yourself in.  But I find that speed limit data for most roads, including remote secondary roads, are in the mapping database and are pretty accurate.  I find this feature very helpful.

The unit has an intelligent auto-zoom feature, which zooms in to show pertinent intersection features, where appropriate, then quickly zooms back out to show the larger map.  It works better than you’d expect.  Another very nice feature.

Lane Assist and Junction View are related features, utilized when following directions or tracking a route, that tell you which lane to be in and – frequently on major roads like interstates – dropping a split-screen with an actual picture of what the intersection looks like.  On my old Zumo I frequently had to hit the screen to see if the next turn was left or right, so I could be in the appropriate lane.  Not anymore.

The 3-D mapping looks and works great.  It gives the impression that the road you’re following just kind of gets smaller and trails off into the distance.  Just like visualizing a real road.  It’s a nice effect, probably the salutatory confluence of greater screen size and greater screen resolution.  The older 2-D option is still there.  But to be honest, I haven’t tried it.

Bluetooth connectivity is supposedly one of the 590’s strengths.  I say ‘supposedly’ because beyond pairing my iPhone to the device – something that was very simple and straightforward – I’ve not tried any of that stuff.  I don’t listen to music when I ride.  And I don’t use helmet communicators.  So although I appreciate the option to do those things, they’re far down my list of wants.

That said, there is indeed one handy thing that this robust Bluetooth capability opens up…  Garmin has written a separate smartphone app  that talks to the 590 and provides a channel for presenting traffic and weather information.  The app is free.  But you have to subscribe to the traffic and/or weather data.  And, yeah, Garmin hits you with a one-time charge for those:  twenty bucks for the traffic subscription; five bucks for the weather.

You’d think that after dropping all the serious coin that you did to buy the 590, Garmin could throw in those relatively low-cost extras.  I mean, really?!


The business of pricing aside, the app does seem to work okay.  Traffic, especially.  I’ve thankfully been excused from the pain of commuting, but if I was still in that game I could see enormous everyday benefits to knowing what the traffic situation is.  You don’t normally think of a GPS as being a great asset on a commute you’ve done a million times.  You might be wrong.

That commute aside, it’s less helpful for a motorcyclist.  Most riders I know head for the hills when they’re doing a ride for fun.  They go where the traffic ain’t, in other words.  Still, once you’ve ponied up the twenty bucks, it’s there whether you need it or not.  I’ll need to play more with the traffic and weather to see how they might be helpful, or not, in my world.

Supposedly, the 590 does Pandora through your smartphone.  Garmin thought enough of that feature that they wrote about it on the box.  I haven’t tried it.

The 590 sports one feature that I think is potentially huge:  a tire pressure management system, or TPMS.  Tire pressure is kind of nice to know about in a car.  But on a motorcycle, it’s critical.  There are very few rides I go on that I don’t first bend to each wheel, early in the morning before the first mile has been spun, and check those readings.  An automated, consistent, accurate readout of air pressure in both front and rear tires – accessible in real time while you’re riding – would be an enormous safety benefit.

Alas, the system requires yet another expenditure… sixty bucks, apiece, for the sensors that go on each wheel.  They’re simple, simply screwing onto the valve stem, but they require metal valve stems.  Those sensors then pair – Bluetooth, again – with the 590 unit on your handlebar.

Yes, Garmin continues to rape your wallet.

No, that threaded stem that you screw the cap on on your wheels is almost certainly not a metal valve stem.  Even though, um, it’s made of metal.

I have bought two of the sensors along with a pair of chrome valve stems.  I’m really looking forward to trying out the system, but am not going to pull the wheels and break the beads and install the new valve stems until I’m ready for a tire change.  So it’ll be later this summer before I get to try it on the Harley.  And later this fall, or early next spring, before the BMW gets a go.

Beyond the improvements in the interface and the screen, navigation as a whole is improved.  One thing I’ve always wished for is a ‘Scenic Roads’ option.  Garmin now provides that very thing – they call it Curvy Roads – to go with the standard Fastest Time and Shortest Distance selections.  You could get something of the same thing in the old unit by deselecting all big roads.  But this seems to work a little better.  And it certainly is quicker to get to.

Another neat navigation addition is something called ‘Round Trip.’  You select a location (which can be your current location, a saved location, an address, etc.) and then tell the GPS the distance you’d like to travel, the duration, or some remote location you’d like to hit, and it calculates several route options for you, ending with you back at your starting point.  I’ve only played with this feature a little bit, but it seems to work great.  Especially for motorcycle day trips – “okay guys, how long do you want to ride today?” – I can envision it being a great ad hoc planning tool.

The 590 includes a ‘TracBack’ feature, allowing you to reverse the route you’ve followed.  The old Zumo could get you back to whatever destination you like, of course, but more often than not via a different calculated route.  Especially on curving, complicated routes where many turns have been made, you often want nothing more than to backtrack the same route you came in on.  Now you can.  Another great addition to a motorcyclist’s toolkit.

On the back end, Garmin has equipped the 590 to recognize selected via points as ‘shaping points.’  The difference between regular via points and the new shaping points is that shaping points do not alert as you approach them and do not attempt to route you back to them if you miss one.  You make that property change in Basecamp – where any serious trip planning is taking place.  Since, for me, the vast majority of via points are simply to nail down my route, to force the GPS to route along a particular road, I don’t want to be alerted.  And if by hook or by crook I happen to miss one, I sure as hell don’t want the GPS contorting my route in Lord knows how many ways trying to make sure I go back and ride over that spot.  Garmin still has work to do, IMHO, to get us to the point where we can easily and simply ride the roads we’ve selected on a route.  But shaping points go a long way towards getting us there.

Physically, the cradle mount of the 590 is simpler and more robust than its predecessor on the 550.  The GPS unit pops in and out without any of the futzing that the old mount sometimes required.  And once seated it seems very secure.  I like it.

So, with all these cool, new things, what’s not to like?

Well, it’s hard to not be hit square between the eyes by that cost thing.  The 590LM unit itself costs a ton.  Far more than automobile-oriented Nuvi units with comparable features.  Far more, arguably, than it should.

The simple, vinyl zipper case, which Garmin included in the package with the original Zumo 550, is now a $25 extra.

The traffic and weather subscriptions are extra.

The TPMS sensors are extra.

If you have multiple bikes with which you wish to use the unit, you have to buy additional mounts/harnesses and additional mounting hardware.

The plastic weather cap that serves as a protector for the exposed pins in the cradle is a separate piece.  You’d think after spending $67.95 for a second mount/harness, the weather cap would be included.  Nope.  If you want another one, you have to buy it separately.  Another five bucks, for a part that probably costs ten cents to make.

Looked at as a whole, the Garmin 590LM ecosystem is very expensive.  Not expensive in the sense that you’re paying a premium, because it’s a top-of-the-line product by the market leader.  But expensive in the sense that Garmin is taking advantage of customers during what is probably a closing window of opportunity.

True, the market bears what it will.  And the fact that many of us have jumped suggests that Garmin has thought this through.

I think, perhaps, though, that Garmin will rue the day it made customers feel like they paid what they had to, in order to get the equipment they felt they needed, but made them feel naked in the process.

The smartphone cometh.

Other nits?

That awesomely humongous wiring harness.

The lack of a security screw.  It now takes all of two seconds – literally – to pop the 590 from its cradle.  I’m using a lockable Touratech mount on the BMW.  On the Harley?  Well, let’s just say that every five-minute stop at a gas station or convenience store will now be charged with the question of whether to pop the GPS from its cradle and take the unit inside with me, or leave it exposed to the wandering public.

The only this-might-be-more-than-a-nit I’ve discovered is the 590’s handling of Favorites.  It seems to store all the waypoints you choose to save (up to 1,000, I believe), but it only displays the closest fifty.  You can get around this limit, inelegantly, by selecting a distant city as your Searching Near… locale, but a thoughtful fellow might ponder why such clumsy machinations should be necessary.  The only thing that makes sense is the engineers were trying to limit the hit to active memory (I’m talking about actual device memory, not flash storage).  Yet even that ancient Zumo 550 of mine managed to lift its way past fifty.  You just kind of shake your head.

The last thing I’ll mention, hinted at above, is that usability science and software engineering do not appear to be Garmin’s strengths.  Their mapping software – Map Source, Road Trip, and, now, Basecamp – have always seemed rather arcane and non-intuitive.  But then that’s often true of powerful software – Adobe’s Photoshop comes to mind.

What’s more concerning is that Garmin seems to struggle at having a clarity of what users truly want and need – and then getting that implemented.  The 590 has now been out for about a year, for instance.  It’s already gone through a couple of firmware updates.  Yet in the latest release (firmware version 3.10) the TPMS system will instantly begin nattering at you when you take the GPS off of your motorcycle, on which you have installed sensors, and place it in the automobile cradle in your 4-wheel vehicle, on which you have not.  The GPS software knows you’re in your car – the vehicle icon changes to reflect that – but is not intelligent enough to deduce that the TPMS system, paired with two sensors, is for a motorcycle.

In the meantime, while ignoring that fairly obvious flaw, they took it upon themselves to have their software team implement a whole new feature called ‘Dynamic Fuel Stops.’  As if every motorcycle most of us have ridden in the last thirty years – and every car any of us have ever been in – didn’t already have a perfectly functioning fuel gauge.

Garmin is clearly not a software company.

That all said, I don’t want to leave on a sour note.  On balance, I am utterly delighted with my new GPS.   The Zumo 590LM performs amazing feats of navigation.  It is a wizard at getting you where you want to go; and, sometimes, where you didn’t know you wanted to go.  It integrates seamlessly with a leathered old motorcyclist’s wandering lifestyle.  And it works equally as well in a pickup truck, with a camera on the seat beside you, and a fly rod or rifle in the back.

I love it.