My dad and I shared road trips—some forty years apart. This is what happened.
In the summer of 1976, our nation’s Bicentennial, my buddy Colt and I decided to buy two Harleys and ride from Miami to California. This was long before dentists and other grey-haired Republicans took to being “bikers” in late-middle age, their obnoxious stereos blaring from fairings (!) to overcome the glorious roar of a Harley with short pipes.
No these were the days when only real outlaws—”one-percenters” they called themselves—rode Harleys in their OMGs (Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs). The days of the Hells Angels and the Bandidos, the Pagans and, yes, the Outlaws.
So when we set out on our cross-country adventure, we got the evil eye—a lot. From law enforcement, from “civilians,” and from actual Outlaws. At times, we were concerned.
Like the evening we pulled into a small town in Missouri for gas. Since we could only go about a hundred miles on each tank, we stopped often. This place was tiny. Its town square was more of a circle, a cul de sac, with every young redneck from miles around hanging out with their gals. They looked at our long hair, blue jeans, and leather jackets like they were seriously considering target practice. We could see the guns in the back of their pickups—and the scorn and mistrust on their faces.
We left and hoped the next gas pump wasn’t far.
But we also ran into some of the nicest people in America—back before we were so divided. You know, the Bicentennial and all. It meant something then, because we had a president who knew and understand what that meant. You know, history.
In the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, I had a flat. (Not a fun thing on a motorcycle by the way, especially when it’s the front—steering—wheel.) We managed to get it off my bike and Colt rode us—me and my wheel—to the nearest gas station. It was late, going on ten, and the kid there was ready to close. But he said, “I think I might have something might work.” And he climbed and dug around and found a used tire with entirely too much tread for a road bike, but it fit. While he changed it, we laughed, drank sodas, and told stories. Then he charged me a few bucks and we went on our way to huddle under some bushes to avoid a brutal Plains windstorm.
All of that was great; but my main memory of that night was hearing the just-out “Blinded by the Light,” and how we laughed about the lyrics: “Wrapped up like a douche, another runner in the night.”
I still sing it that way. We had our mishaps—lots of falling over. In Marietta., Georgia, we stopped at a K-Mart for something, parking next to each other in one space. Colt forgot to put his kickstand down and stepped off his bike, sending his damned FOUR FOOT SISSY BAR into my head.
Thankfully, I hadn’t taken my helmet off.
In Oklahoma somewhere, after an ill-advised hill climb soiree, we set out across the mesa in two deep ruts of a dirt “road.” One each. And once again, when he stopped to discuss our exit strategy, Colt put his foot on the slope of the rut and his damned FOUR FOOT SISSY BAR came down again, this time sheering off my taillight completely.
I had questioned that stupid thing; but Colt had to have one, for old time’s sake. He said it went with his ‘52 Panhead chopper. And it got me twice. At least he thought it was funny.
In Nevada, after the wonderful uphill ride from Carson City into Virginia City—the best half-hour of our entire trip—we swung into a large, gravel parking area to reconnoiter. As there was a group of teens hanging out, we made a production of it—circling around, blipping the motors, to meet facing opposite directions, me towards the road, Colt away. We decided to continue through town—as if…what else? I don’t know. But we looked cool, man.
So, I head off, go all the way through the little town thinking he was behind me, only to find at the other end that he was not. So I went back to find Colt having just gotten his bike back up on its wheels—he and the kids all laughing together.
See, Colt loved—as many bikers do—to lift his feet up as soon as he was barely moving. He did it that time, only his bike chugged—and died. And he went down in a heap of shame and ridicule. But because he laughed so hard at himself; the kids joined in, and joined in helping get righted again. So it worked out.
I only fell over twice. Once on a pebble-slick steep driveway. My bike was 11”-over with no rake—meaning that it was extremely top heavy, so I was unable to lift it on my own. Fortunately, that time Colt came back to save me.
The second time wasn’t so great.
We ended up in South Lake Tahoe for the Bicentennial. Fourth of July runs up there had been an annual thing for California bikers; but in 1976, it was huge. I saw things I could still get arrested for even talking about!
Needless to say, there was a lot of partying going on. And partying meant accidents. I saw a few guys clowning around and going down, and we heard stories of a death or two. Maybe more. Lots of alcohol and rampant substance abuse will do that.
That and trying to impress the babes.
We hooked up with a small club, kind of a rough bunch but not bad. Rowdy, but not murderers. Their Prez had been a Hells Angel but was now a math teacher. Nice guy. And the rest of the “gang” did whatever he told them to do—to the T.
They made fun of my replacement front “tractor tire”—renaming my bike a Harley-Ferguson—and since I laughed with them, they invited us on a run. Down the mountain we went—at 90 m.p.h. Now, I had never been 90 m.p.h. on a bike. I was scared shitless. But I held tight, and at the end of the ride, there was a welcomed beer. So far so good.
But on the way back, just outside in Tahoe, we were riding in a line. I was second behind the leader, Colt and the others behind me, with the Prez bringing up the rear in a black trike. (He could keep an eye on things from the back.)
An ambulance came up behind us and we all pulled over to the side of the freshly black-topped highway to allow it past. Being from Florida, I didn’t see a need to actually stop; no one in Florida actually stopped for ambulances.
But the guy in front of me stopped.
When I saw his brake light go on, I slammed on my rear brake, giving it as much front brake as I thought safe. Okay. But the back brake locked up—something I later learned was a common problem on my early Shovelheads.
We went down.
The leader saw it and rode off the highway into the powder-fine dust three or four feet below, while I laid my heavy Harley down like a pro, pulling my leg out from under it just in time and sliding it to a stop.
My passenger wasn’t so lucky.
Yes, I had a tiny thin girl on back who was wearing tiny thin shorts, tiny thin tank-top, and tiny thin sandals.
She went over the handlebars.
After several tumbles on that fresh asphalt, she had “hamburgers” on every part that stuck out: elbows, knees, ankles, wrist bones, and hands.
Amazingly, she was otherwise unhurt.
I wore through two pairs of jeans to earn a single razzberry high on my right butt cheek.
Of course, everyone in the club was there in an instant to help and make sure everyone was okay—if shaken. My handlebars were twisted, so we twisted them back enough to ride. My primary case was scraped, but oh well. Otherwise, it ran. And that girl, to her everlasting great credit, turned down a ride back to camp in the trike because, as she said: “If I don’t get back that bike, I will never get on another one as long as I live.”
At that point, we realized that the leader’s bike was sunk hub-deep in the talc-like high California “soil,” and sitting straight up. We got our first laugh—and dug him out to head home.
Oh, and the ambulance never stopped. Bikers, right.
Half a bottle of Jack Daniels later, and a dozen laughter-riddled retellings of the “event,” and we were all good. I had earned my stripes—but that tiny young lady had earned twice the props I ever would.
The rest of the trip was mostly a letdown—except for the Big Sur section, which is drop-dead. Plus, we stopped at Julia Pfieffer (Burns State Park) and hiked up to the hippy hole where we went skinny-dipped with, wait for it: Clint Eastwood. (Although he kept his tighty-whities on—something I can never forget whenever I see him being tough in a movie.)
L.A. was nothing but concrete. The ride to Blythe was absolute hell—as in 114-degrees on a bike in the sun hell. Actual hell. My bike started acting up in Indio and we had to rent a U-Haul truck to get us back to Miami—a miserable ending to The Great Road Trip (something for which Colt has still never forgiven me).
And a last note on Blythe.
Back in 1937, my then 15-year-old father and his best friend hitchhiked from Bluefield, West Virginia, to Los Angeles. In 1937! There weren’t even proper roads. They wore borrowed military school uniforms so that they could get rides. It took over a week.
On their way back, they got stuck in Blythe, on the Arizona border, in winter. It was so cold they had to put two 55-gallon drums together— a total of four—with a fire in one, so that they could sleep in the other and not freeze to death.
When Colt and I slept out on the ground behind a truck stop on our night in Blythe, the ground was still hot at four in the morning.
That was their road trip. And this was ours.