Archive for September, 2010

Sportbikes Behaving Well; the Harley, Not So Much

Monday, September 27th, 2010

The twinkle, the flickering pinpoint of light, isn’t easy to see. Like the subtle flash of an antler on a distant ridge in the November woods. But it catches my eye.

I’m on the Blue Ridge Parkway, tracking north, and am on one of those rare sections where a snippet of the road far ahead of me is visible for a few seconds. That’s all the time it takes me to resolve the specs for what they are – a small line of motorcycles. They are north of me, perhaps a mile, traveling in the same direction.

In the November woods you’d study the distant ridge for some time, lifting the riddle and working to answer the question. You’d test the wind once again. And then you’d rise, lifting from your squat. You’d shift your rifle to your other hand and set off along the route that would, perhaps hours hence, have you meeting that buck.

Today, on the Harley, the thought flashes in my mind, a question. For a moment there is no change. But then there’s that crystallizing of intent, and the burden of debating it is lifted. The guttural sound of the big V-Twin deepens, the sound resonant, angular in the clear mountain air.

It doesn’t take as long as I thought it might. I’m running through a corner as hard as the Road King will allow, when suddenly they’re there, right in front of me. I roll out of the throttle, letting my speed fall to match theirs. I glance at the Zumo. An even 50mph.

There are five of them. All sportbikes, knotted together like bikes often do. The fellow in the rear is running a paper temporary tag. A couple of them carry backpacks. All are wearing gear. Standard fare.

Except for me, now bringing up the rear. Wearing my black t-shirt and jeans and engineer boots and Ray Bans and do-rag and shortie helmet.

And a grinning devil on my shoulder.

This is one of my favorite sections of the Parkway. Jay and I were here thirty years ago, having ridden down the day before and having spent the night at my grandmother’s. She saw us off the next morning, on a similar fall day where the air was so clear and the sky such an azure blue that it felt like an ache. It seemed you could cut it with a knife. I led Jay back to the Parkway that morning, through the tiny hamlets at the base of the Blue Ridge, along one of my favorite trout streams, and I remember thinking that morning as the wall of the mountain rose up in front of us he must be stupefied by the utter ruggedness of it all. And, of course, right there is where the road turns narrow and tortuous and deadly and there is no more time for thinking about anything else.

We stopped that morning and took a few pictures. Taking turns riding hot through a corner while the other snapped the camera. Trying to emulate the guys on the covers of the magazines.

Now, riding behind these five sportbikes as we enter that favorite section of mine, I’m conflicted. I hate the impatience that too often wells up inside of me when suddenly stuck behind a vehicle. Like the three Harley riders I came upon this morning, running 35mph, on this very same road. Ten miles below the limit. Twenty below what the cops would give you. And thirty less than I wanted to go. And a car and a truck, themselves stuck, behind them.

How embarrassing.

Not being able to stand it, after half a mile I double-yellowed first the car and truck. And then, a quarter mile later, the Harleys.

My Road King doesn’t have the powerful acceleration of my other bikes. You don’t blow past people with a whispering slash and an imagined middle-finger salute.

But what it does have is a motor that speaks to the world. One that, wound up, leaves no doubt about its displeasure. It lingers there in the air, strung out behind it, an aural reflection of its disgruntled owner.

I’m sure the three couples on those Harley’s were suitably indignant. I plead guilty.

But if I felt justified with umbrage at a rolling chicane running ten under the limit, how does one raise an argument against one running five over?

That was my debate as we rolled modestly past, like chaste schoolgirls, that spot where Jay and I took those pictures lo those many years ago.

If Ginny had been around she’d have smiled sagely, shaken her head, and suggested that I “be an adult.” But she wasn’t there. The only one there was that fellow on my shoulder, nattering in my ear. The one who had been enlivened by that run up the road to the Parkway. That road from thirty years ago. The one that holds twenty of the most challenging, difficult, technical miles in Virginia. The one that will kill you if you make a mistake. The road that – against all odds – I love more on my Harley than on any of my other bikes. The road that, having run it well, leaves you in a different place.

Riding the Parkway afterwards always seems like child’s play.

And so it’s all rather anti-climactic. One long pull on the throttle, the Road King bellowing like a cape buffalo as it rolls past the boys crouched over their heavily muscled machines.

By definition, a double-yellow straightaway means a dearth of space. You have but the space of a few heartbeats to make things work. Sometimes the cord gets stretched thin.

That’s the way it is here. As I pass the third rider I’m already judging time and space. Deciding whether I can make them all. A second later, as I pass the forth guy, I decide to go for it. The calculus leaves little left over. But the numbers work. It just means running a little deeper into the rapidly approaching corner than most Harleys ever get a chance to.

No worries. Mikey likes it.

Afterwards you can always sense the umbrage. Exiting the corner, I let my speed continue to bleed off. 80… 70… 60 – whereupon I roll back into the throttle. Let’s see if the boys want to play.

And sure enough, the lead rider has bumped his pace, the rest following in his wake. Smiling in my mirrors, I hold the pace for a moment, letting them close, letting them get their sea legs around that indignation they feel. Then the note of the V-Twin hardens once again, guttural and obdurate.

Rolling into the corner ahead, I wind slowly into the well of that motor. Searching for the edge, the berm, the place where it all hooks up. The place where all the energy flows to the same place, the tires and the frame and the suspension and the motor all coming together like molten sex.

And as quickly as I find it, they’re gone. Seems they don’t want to play after all.

The Immortality of Words

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Fifteen years ago I read a book called The Writing Trade, by John Jerome.  It depicted, journal-style, a year-in-the-life of a writer.  I loved it because it spoke to all those writerly things to which I had long aspired, ever since I was a teenager.  Here was someone doing what I so very badly wanted to do – write for a living.

A few days ago I pulled it off the bookshelf and began reading it again.  And very quickly, just like fifteen years ago, I was pulled into that world of of the minutiae of writing.  What it meant to be a writer on a full time basis.

Halfway through the book, I decided to see what John Jerome had been up to.  To see what other stuff he might have published since that 1992 publication of The Writing Trade.  Google can be a wonderful thing.


John Jerome was dead.  Thirteen years after the year he depicted in his book, twelve years after he wrote it, ten years after it was published, and seven years after I read it – John Jerome had died.  Lung cancer had come calling.

It was a sobering context with which to finish the book.

One of the things John came back to frequently was the financial struggle.  Writing had afforded him the luxury of a lifestyle that many of us – and he himself – would consider blessed.  But it had not graced him with much financial certitude.  He lived pretty much week to week, depending upon the next freelance-work check to arrive in the mail.

I can empathize with that.  After writing for Sport Rider for eight years I can attest that anyone who does it for the money must have rocks in their head.  I certainly appreciate the check that follows a story submission – and I’ve always joked that those checks pay for my tires (and they do) – but the notion of actually trying to make a living from such a relative pittance is laughable.  I don’t write fast enough that, even were there enough similar monthly gigs, I could manage even a lower-middle-class living.

John Jerome was a good-to-excellent writer who, despite a lifetime of work at it, never really made it.  There are few that ever really do.  Even Hemingway lived well not because of the remuneration from his writing, but because of his penchant for marrying rich women.

Doesn’t seem quite right.

But then again, as I finished the last half of The Writing Trade, aware that John Jerome was no longer with us, I was more aware than ever of the immediacy of the words he had written.  That the voice he laid down on paper back in 1990 carried down over two decades, until now, even past the grave.

Maybe that’s why we do it.