Why two wheels? Because motorcycle riding may be one of the best ways to get to a healthy mind.
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may have come across the idea that Motorcycling is Mindfulness, and if you haven’t you might as well start there. Harley claims that riding a motorcycle improves focus and reduces stress. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that riding a motorcycle is a multi-faceted path to more general mental health. I’m going to use this particular page as a place to bookmark all of my best arguments and observations so that when someone asks “Why make that trip on a bike instead of a car?”, I have one place to send them. Some of these are ready to read now, some are teasers to be filled in as I have a chance to do more writing.
Motorcycling is Mindfulness: Mindfulness is having a moment in the sun right now, but being briefly popular doesn’t change the core benefits.
Lost Connections and the Cost of Belonging: It’s probably no surprise that many people’s social interactions are, well, fucked up. Why do so many people have depression and anxiety and what can we do about it? Thoughts on motorcycling as it relates to Hari’s work on addiction and depression as well as other works.
Riding Fast and Slow: Thoughts on long solitary rides as it relates to Kahneman’s work on human cognition.
The mind needs nature: it’s no coincidence that the most popular rides are set against amazing natural scenery. Much of our mental wiring evolved to find food, mates, and avoid danger. Nature is complicated, and the complex texture of nature is something that makes our brains happy. Thoughts on motorcycle travel involving research I was first exposed to by Levitin.
All of these things might be attainable in other ways, but stick with me as I fill in the blanks as to why riding might be one of the best mental health bang for your buck things you can spend your time on.
There are things you can buy that are more or less tried and true, steady and dependable you might even say: is a Leatherman pocket tool really going to be that much different from year to year? Is one year’s Mustang going to be so radically different from the next year’s Mustang that you hesitate to buy before the next model year comes out? Is refrigerator technology going to radically advance such that you’ll wish you’d waited?
But some things are not “tried and true”, some things are advancing so quickly you are always at risk of buying old news … and Fear Of Missing Out keeps you on the sidelines. You risk fear of feeling like a stooge for taking the discount on the current model year as they make room for something different and better and amazing. Cell phones come to mind, maybe gaming consoles, mayve TVs. Motorcycles? Naw…
As I mentioned in A Tale of Two Test Rides, I rode a fixed fairing Road Glide on the same day I decided to take my Chieftain Dark Horse Home.
Six months later, Indian unveils this:
Obviously, there’s a lot of real-world miles ridden on fixed fairing bikes: this is a good configuration for long haul touring. That’s why I was interested in a Road Glide! (I also hate the lines of the ‘batwing’ Harley fairing.) You also get a little bit of extra storage in the fairing. I have been privately suspecting for a couple of years that European emissions standards were going to basically force liquid cooling into more motorcycle models before too much longer – it can be very expensive to have radically different platforms on each continent for global manufacturers, and the world is on high alert after the BMW diesel emissions cheating scandals. Even someone like myself, with a somewhat poor level of V-Twin of engine knowledge, though, knows that air-cooled engines require looser tolerances. Metal expands as it heats up: pistons rub against the block, tiny metal shavings wind up in the oil, break in services are required at 500 miles vs. 5,000 miles or “never” on liquid cooled engines. This need for a little fudge factor impacts engine design in fundamental ways such as what compression ratios are safe.
This new PowerPlus 108 also makes more HP. A lot more HP. The stock ThunderStroke 111 makes 79hp. Keep in mind, I love this engine, but as I learned earlier this year, HP does matter even when you have a torque-monster bike that can shred tires at every stop sign. Passing HP and fun on the highway and sweeping turns needs that higher RPM power. 125 HP and 128 ft/lb of torque? That’s an amazing stock engine even if the bike does way 800lb dry.
In addition to the extremely appealing new engine and the fixed fairing, there are some tech upgrades:
Lean sensitive traction control.
Those red line tires…
New Ride Command with weather and traffic overlays – this is a big deal. People who have ridden with me know I’ll happily ride optimistically into the storm of the century because we can “just roll through it”.
This motorcycle is a big jump, and I’m not just talking about the War Bonnet on the front fender lighting up or the puddle lights. This motorcycle is a bridge.
My father, and his boomer generation pals, grew up lusting for a Harley long before most of them could afford one. In the ’90s and early ’00s, many of them finally got them, and set up a bubble and a generational gap that has landed Harley where it is today. There are enough people like me who want an American V-twin but not enamoured enough of Harley to pay the premium for a bike that isn’t all that premium to give Victory and Indian enough sales to cause a ruckus in the marketplace. The Challenger is a bridge product: those who have some nostalgia, and US home-bias, and want an American V-Twin but not enough to go get an air cooled machine. They also want performance and technology, but not enough to go get a BMW or a GoldWing. They want reliability, not the promise that “If you break down there’s Harley dealers everywhere!”
This motorcycle is a bridge for all those who want technology and dial-tone reliability, gas mileage and turn by turn directions, but who also have to admit that an American muscle machine is just plain cooler than a GoldWing. People who appreciate the engineering of a turbocharged Subaru but who might buy a Dodge Challenger or a Mustang instead for the exhaust sound and the body style.
As I was typing this, Harley unveiled the new Revolution Max engine on it’s 2021 Pan America.
60 degree V-twin. Liquid cooled. High horsepower. An engine that may not appeal to those for whom an air-cooled pushrod motor is the One True Way. This engine did not come out overnight in response to the Power Plus – Harley is looking in the same crystal ball as Indian and trying to be ready for the future. I think they’re both doing the right things, and I think competition is good for everyone.
My riding season consists of several things: taking the 1st 70 degree day off work, taking in a bike show or two, a local charity ride or two, a bike night or two, riding to work, and one big trip. Having gone to the Smokey Mountains in ’15, ’16, ’17, and ’18 I wanted to do something different this year. My sister (a crazy person) moved to Idaho, and I had the beginnings of a plan.
I knew I wanted to avoid the “Sturgis Scene”, but the timing worked out to be hitting South Dakota as Sturgis was closing out. I talked to people who had been and I was assured that Sturgis was mostly over by this point and finding a place to sleep wouldn’t be a problem. With the beginnings of a route in mind, I put out the call for riders: the timing was bad, work was too busy, the distance was too far. Only one rider could make it work: good ole Wingnut Dave.
Since I had only recently moved over to a 2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, I was still in the process of outfitting the bike and trying some new gear myself. As I approached doing 5,000mi service on Black Sunshine, I added a few things:
Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – I was skeptical that the “Gunfighter” seat new to the 2019 Chieftain line would be good enough for touring and wanted a little softer seat. I turned out to be more than right…
Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I liked the idea of having clear glasses, flashlight, sunscreen etc. close at hand.
Cardo PackTalk Bold – Wingnut Dave had long used a CB system on his ‘Wing, but I thought this would be an easier entry to road communication. This meant in addition to my usual half helmet I’d be bringing a modular helmet.
Day 1: Motorcycling is Mindfulness
My family, Wingnut Dave, and myself were all attending a conference at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells. I was speaking on my favorite topic: mindfulness meditation. As the conference wound down, the siren call of the road was too powerful to ignore, and we left with a first day goal of reaching Fairmont, MN. Heading West on I-90 is just as straight, flat, and boring as you can imagine. After reaching the hotel we picked up some of the necessary supplements for traveling together: microbrew, bourbon ( I had accidentally left my flask at home ) and some Fireball. Dinner that night was great at the Bean Town Grill.
Day 2: Fairmont to Keystone
The weather attempted to make it exciting by providing some of the worst headwinds I’ve ever ridden through: leaning at a 45 degree angle just to keep from being blown off the road at 80mph. We did see at least one bike down headed East. For the entire day we didn’t pass nor were we passed by a single bike headed West, but we did see hundreds of bikes going East presumably headed home after Sturgis.
If you’re heading out here, a National Parks annual pass might be worth it. It would turn out that I spent more money on park entrance fees than I did on beer this trip. As for Badlands National Park, I’ll let the video speak for the beauty.
The restaurant here was pretty good as well, serving me the first of many bison meals on this trip. I had a fantastic view, and once I went back to my room for the night I was completely overcome by gratitude. I was on an 8 day trip (with padding for weather), I was on a new bike with all the gear I could want, my wife was at home taking care of the kids, I was seeing one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I recall feeling so grateful I could just sit and stare.
Look at this doofus blocking the sign!
Stations like this would become the norm out here.
My driveway for 2 days.
Bison prime rib!
I found Black Sunshine an Indian pal to park next to.
Day 3: Taking It All In
Today was the day I got to see why people return to the Black Hills area again and again.
The motel was directly on the Iron Mountain Road so we were able to do most of this completely by accident as we made our way to various other attractions. First up was Mount Rushmore, which I had not seen in at least 30 years. I stared at the mountain, I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in America, and I don’t have anything new to say about Mount Rushmore.
There are many pictures of Rushmore, but this one is mine.
No drones, denied!
This guy again…
The closest viewing area was under construction.
This individual is why people are skeptical of meditation…
Next up we went to the Needles Highway. This both contained some of the most technical switchbacks of the entire trip, and yet also failed to live up to the hype. It was a bit like the Tail of the Dragon: while technical the views are largely limited by trees and too many cars. We followed a truck hauling watercraft that I dubbed “Captain Canoe” for most of the road.
While I’d been obsessing over some parts of the trip for months, I went into the Crazy Horse Memorial knowing nothing about it other than a little about the historical figure, Crazy Horse. From the photos, it’s hard to get a feel for the scale, but all of Mount Rushmore would fit on his forehead. When finished, it will be the world’s largest sculpture and include a University for Native Americans. The story of the treatment of Native Americans by the US Government is… unflattering. For the second time on this trip I was completely overwhelmed. We took a bus down to the base of the mountain, and our guide suspects they might finish the sculpture in another 70 years. As of 2019, they were working on the knuckles of his hand. We had some ‘meh’ tatanka stew and an excellent microbrew and headed for deadwood.
This “Sturgis Edition” Chieftain was being raffled off.
I expected Sturgis proper to still be a complete shitshow, but since I’d recently been watching the HBO series I wanted to see Deadwood, SD. There are various plaques an callouts to the town’s history, but otherwise if you’ve seen one town overrun by bikers, you’ve seen them all. At a different time, on a different trip, I could see myself spending a couple of days here enjoying living music and people-watching, but the clouds rolled in and I’m not a big fan of treacherous mountain roads while they’re wet.
Was this someone’s sense of humor, irony, or just going their own way? It made me laugh, anyway.
We did catch a bad lightning storm: it has to be pretty bad for me to wait one out at a gas station but this one did it. We got back to the Powder House Lodge cold and hungry and some Elk steak put me back into the right frame of mind.
Day 4: Boring and Amazing
Day 4 was going to put us within striking distance of what I was most excited about: Beartooth Pass. I’m sorry to say that Wyoming is … mostly terribly boring to drive through. The last time I had come out West, there was a point where I could no longer get 91 octane gas, yet somehow had good luck until I was nearly home. Getting closer to the end of the day we finally had some nice scenery at Big Horn Pass. I’ve only ridden in the Smokey Mountains before, which I now feel like “aren’t real mountains” compared to the Rockies. I was not ready for the 30 degree temperature swings as we went up and down in elevation. The views were spectacular though. At the top of BigHorn pass, we met some folks who had flown in from Australia and rented bikes to do the Black Hills area.
I guess getting through Wyoming was worth it.
We ended the day at the Bear Tooth Hideaway in Red Lodge, MT. In all my travels, by bike and otherwise, this was the first hotel hot tub that was actually hot. Nothing like heat & jets to soothe a biker’s ass after a thousand miles of travel on a new seat. At the recommendation of hotel staff, we ate at Foster and Logans pub and it was fantastic. In one of the awesome coincidences that happen on the road, two folks sat down next to us and we started talking. They were both from Wisconsin.
This was such a cool place, I can see coming back for the Beartooth Rally some day.
Finally saw a buffalo!
Sinclair dinosaurs remembered from the roadtrips of my youth.
I got up the following morning and followed the sound of running water, literally 15ft across the street from the motel. This is what I saw:
This place will spoil you for views. Every little bit you see a scene worthy of a calendar or postcard. Why does anyone choose to live anyplace less beautiful? It’s complicated.
Day 5: The Big Event
I had been dreaming of going over Beartooth Pass on US 212.
It did not disappoint.
This is the best road in the mainland USA.
Beartooth pass is technically a good road: meaning there are technically difficult switchbacks, great sweeping turns, and tons of elevation changes. What really makes this the best road in the US are the views: majestic Rocky Mountain views around every corner. One second you’re focusing on leaning the bike and looking as far through the corner as you can to avoid a stray elk or errant cager, the next moment you’re confronted with a godlike vision of the landscape … and then you need to focus on negotiating that next turn. What good are guardrails if your bike stops and you keep going over the handlebars just in time for a 7,000 ft hill roll?
This repeating rote of joy –> life-or-death moment –> beauty –> life-or-death moment –> gratitude –> life-or-death moment is why we love motorcycling. What better way to appreciate the value of every heartbeat and every conscious thought of life than to risk it in a dangerous yet controlled experiment? What better assertion of your skill and confidence than to challenge the mountain to kill you and walk away with your life the victor?
In “The Life of David Gale”, Kevin Spacey’s character tells us we’re never happier than when we’re thinking about future happiness, and the Art of Manliness tells us that Anticipation is a powerful source of dopamine, but after months of anticipation I feel like I was perfectly happy in each moment climbing Beartooth Pass, and then I was happy in each moment descending since I got to experience the same level of scenery but also be warming up foot by foot.
The top is around 10,900 ft in elevation which was enough for me to have a little trouble breathing. I’ve been as high as Pike’s Peak (14k ft) and this isn’t that bad, but you notice.
As we went through Yellowstone, I was thrilled to see tons of buffalo, one of them 5ft away on the side of the road. Wingnut Dave got yet another earful of my incredible vocabulary through the intercom: “Holy fuck, fuck fuck fuck, a buffalo, right fucking there!”
Yellowstone might be the hardest part of the trip for me to describe. I have been here before, but it’s been a good 30 years. I felt a lot of gratitude rolling through Yellowstone, this time for my parents. My folks took us kids on a ton of epic road trips when we were younger, and I’m sure that’s a part of my wanderlust and my appreciation for these landscapes today. Yellowstone is just … so big. It’s not just mountains, it’s tremendous plains, far away are tremendous mountains. There are rivers, waterfalls, sulphur springs. The air is so clean you can see forever, it’s impossible to know if you could reach the mountains across the plains in a day, or two weeks.
Maybe you can get a little taste of Beartooth Highway and Yellowstone with these videos:
After we were a ways into Yellowstone it was time to separate from Wingnut Dave for a day and a half. I was going to see family in Idaho, and he was riding the Sawtooths and other awesome roads in Northern Idaho.
Day 6: Family and Rest
After Yellowstone, I road down into Central Idaho and spent some time with family in Pocatello. I did not get the adventure that Wingnut Dave got, but I can tell you for sure that Idaho is a well-kept secret. It has a little bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, and the alien landscape of its Southern neighbor Utah. It has more river frontage than any other state except Alaska. Idaho requires a lot more exploration.
I was mauled by nieces and nephews I seldom see, and I ran out exploring Pocatello for a while. The small city hosts at least two micro breweries and a lot of one way streets. I got lunch and a lot of samples at the Port Neuf Brewery in old Downtown. Arriving, I parked next to an ancient Kawasaki touring bike that turned out to belong to the owner or manager. He mentioned that some other bikers had been through recently: nice folks from Australia who went a long way towards drinking the place dry. Based on my description, and the unlikelihood of multiple Australian parties in the area, it had to be the same folks I met at the top of BigHorn.
We drank beers, and grilled stakes, and watched Aliens and did the things that families do. I stayed up too late, but still met Wingnut Dave on time the next morning.
Day 7: Back Roads into Steamboat Springs
The goal today was to make tracks for the small Skiing town of Steamboat Springs, CO. We could get there by avoiding the freeway which meant some more time in Wyoming, and to my pleasant surprise, Utah.
Wyoming is so sparsely populated, this was the only place I was legitimately worried about running out of gas. Up until this point we had remarked that we had pulled into whatever local joints looked good and not had a single bad meal. I won’t say we had a “bad” meal, but the food and service at the Badlands Lanes Saloon wasn’t great either.
I had recently done a family reunion in Southwestern Utah, and immediately realized I had to come back on the bike. The landscapes are amazing: red rock mountains, black volcanic rock, bizarre sunsets. Being in Utah makes you think you’re on Mars. We hadn’t planned it, but our 2-lane roads took us into Utah for a while, and I was not disappointed.
Despite having ridden thousands of miles with Wingnut Dave, I do not recall him having an obsessive bike-cleaning habit before now. My bike had collected so many insects, he was begging me to clean it, or even let him clean it. I let the bugs stay until the next time we hit rain.
Steamboat Springs is a typical Colorado Ski town: food, stores, and hotels that a town this size couldn’t support without the powdery slopes. Despite not being ski season, it was fairly busy. We stayed on the East end of town closest to the Rockies, and had some great barbeque and local microbrews at the Steamboat Smokehouse.
In yet another example of the great people you meet on the road, we met some folks in the hotel hot tub who do off-road riding in Utah.
If you’re in an area without too much light pollution, the night sky in Colorado is worth the trip. Another great day.
Day 8: Rocky Mountain National Park
The idea for day 8 was to conquer Rocky Mountain National Park, have lunch in Estes Park, CO, and part ways until next time.
Do you want to know the definition of being spoiled? Seeing this kind of scenery and thinking “Yea but Beartooth was better…” Rocky mountain national park is epic.
Of course there’s some video as well.
As we descended, I had to remind myself that the rest of the way home would be solo. I thought about the last time I had to say goodbye to Wingnut Dave, and it seems unreal that it’s really a year in between these big trips. We both had long, boring, high-miles trips across the plains to get home, but first one more local restaurant. This one just said “Restaurant” on the side, which is usually a sign you’re entering a greasy spoon that might make you wish you’d found a George Webbs instead. Once again, we got lucky, and the “Restaurant” was an excellent spot called Bird & Jim. It’s a reminder of how the Internet has spread things like “Food culture” to every corner of the world. Here we are in Estes Park, CO, and the first place we find has an eclectic menu including some gourmet hipster chili-cheese dogs with house made chili and 4 cheeses.
Yes, I ate them both.
After we parted ways, I had about 30 minutes of gorgeous mountain roads, then a couple of hours of getting through smaller cities north of Denver: 99 degrees and “it’s 2pm on a Thursday whythefuckisitsobusy?” traffic.
Helmets: I had been wearing a modular/full helmet up to this point to use the Cardo Packtalk. When we parted ways I switched back to my half helmet. I hate to admit how much I like having my ears & face uncovered: it’s far less fatiguing from a noise perspective, and your connection to everything around you is so much more real. I have to admit that wearing a half helmet is pretty damn close to not wearing a helmet.
As I rolled through Nebraska, I had the 2nd close call with gas this trip. I stopped in a true shithole gas station that only had 87 octane, and used my Octane Booster for the first and only time this trip. Obviously modern engines have anti-knock technology, but the last time I was in SD I put a few takes of 87 in my Victory and I felt like it “wasn’t quite right” until the next tune up, so I carry octane boost with me.
My target was to make it to Grand Island, NE this day. I had found a hotel that looked pretty close to the river, and had a local BBQ joint in the same parking lot. I barely beat a wicked looking lightning storm in, only to find a mixed bag of luck: the local BBQ joint had closed, the Arby’s in the gas station was still open, and the hot tub was open until 11pm. I swallowed my “no chain restaurants” pride and got a snack at Arby’s. I sat in the hotel hot tub with a can of The Banquet Beer and reflected on my trip so far. This hotel was the only one that would let me park under the front pavilion, so I finally got a picture to match my favorite shot of Red Sonya under the pavilion in Kentucky.
… and a good thing too! I had barely beat the storm, and it did pour that night. Not a big deal, but it does take some work to dry out my sheepskin butt pad.
Day 9: Freeways home
Every time I take a trip, it seems I leave myself with a 600-700mi last day and a grind getting through Chicago to get home. This Friday morning, the Indian Ride Command gps said 645mi to home and the weather showed a couple hours riding through rain right away in the morning. I hate wearing rain gear (I probably just have uncomfortable, shitty gear) so when I’m not in danger of getting too cold, I prefer to just roll through it and dry out on the road.
It was 10am in Nebraska, I had my half helmet on, my music on, and I was doing 80mph through the rain. Yes rain hurts your face at 80 but it wasn’t raining super hard. I was sad that my trip was nearly over, but excited to see my wife and kids. All of a sudden, I realized that this rain on the freeway was going to massively clean up all the bugs I’d accumulated on this trip, and how happy that would make Wingnut Dave. I started laughing uncontrollably, and my mood went through the roof. I was singing along with my music at the top of my lungs, passing cars, and loving life. I can only hope there were dinner table conversations that night “So this biker was getting rained on and absolutely plastered with road water by the big rigs but was smiling and singing, I’ll bet he was taking the drugs!” Every day above ground is a good day, something bikers understand better than most.
I stopped for dinner and didn’t get home until about 10pm. My great trip of 2019 over, it was good to be home safe.
3,400 miles, though I had planned just over 4,000. What a great road trip.
So how did all the new gear perform?
Kuryakyn Highway Pegs – I should have just taken these off my previous bike before I traded it in. These pegs are great and adjustable enough to try different things. One wrench and some allen wrenches I’d be carrying anyway and they’re easy to adjust on the road.
Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – This was a big help, since the stock seat sucks for touring (see below). I do feel like it lives up to the promise of helping keep you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool as the 30 degree mountain temperature swings proved. It does get wet and collect overnight dew easily, so be prepared with a cover or to have dry hotel towels to dry it off in the morning.
Indian Aftermarket ThunderTrunk – I feel like it “bounces” a little bit during travel, but this was a great $1k spent, especially when you consider that an Indian brand sissy bar is $900, and this is a much nicer backrest + storage + luggage rack.
Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I like this, it’s super convenient, and the exotic magnets stick this so firmly to the tank I have no worries of it ever falling off, yet also no worries of it scratching the tank. It’s about the right size to hold extra sunglasses, flashlight, iPass, sunscreen, etc. In addition it has a see-through top section that I could use for hand-written directions if I wanted. My only complaint is that it’s too tall with the stock handlebars: meaning if I’m backing the bike around a parking lot sharp turns will hit the hand controls: radio volume on the left side and electric windshield on the right side.
Cardo PackTalk Bold – This took some getting used to. Installation is key: make sure when you install this that the speakers are RIGHT under where your ears are, even if your ears do not quite line up to the “ear holes” in your helmet – otherwise volume will be intolerably low. On balance, being able to call to each other to block a lane, “watch out for that pothole”, “Hey dude there’s no left arrow don’t go yet!”, was a net positive over the increased noise fatigue and loss of peripheral vision that came with wearing the full helmet. Road noise would indeed have made the system useless, so you do need a helmet that can shield the mic or a tall enough windshield that there’s not any actual wind in your face. We even discussed on a larger ride that it’d be useful just having 2 people with this system riding lead & sweep to block lanes, etc.
Sedici Modular Helmet – Good helmet, versatile, but it made me really appreciate my half helmet after 2500 miles. I guess I should admit that my half helmet is very close to not wearing a helmet.
GoPro – I was worried about not having enough storage, so recorded video in 1080p instead of 4k. This was a mistake, it could be the GoPro, or it could be YouTube, but even though I don’t have a 4k TV, the 4k video looks outrageously better. I need to keep working on a better GoPro mount, and always do 4k in the future.
What About the Bike?
What about the Indian Chieftain?
All in all, I’m still super happy with this bike. The infotainment is fantastic and the GPS is extremely helpful on a trip like this. The bike is torque-y, good-looking, and has awesome storage. It proved it’s handling chops a thousand times over on the mountain switchbacks. My complaints are few and all fixable:
Indian has to fix the Ride Command app. It crashes 100% of the time when I load my 4,000mi route. Since I started planning my next ride I notice it also breaks terribly when planning routes that involve Canada. You can only adjust your route on a full desktop/laptop computer, not a phone, and no one is carrying a laptop on a roadtrip like this. Indian needs to keep investing in this app.
The “gunfighter” seat standard on the 2019 Chieftain models seems woefully inadequate for touring. I dare say I have a narrower-than-average ass, and the seat is still too narrow to provide long-haul support. I can tell from my multiple-IronButt experience that I could ride basically forever on this bike with a better seat.
The bike is a torque monster, but when trying to pass at highway speeds… the claimed 79HP stock is just not enough. I don’t want to ride a GoldWing, but I also don’t want to be embarrassed by a GoldWing in passing maneuvers. I’m going to spend some money (hopefully not as much $$$$ as the 116 kit) to see if I can get some more HP without sacrificing that delicious torque.
I got so many compliments on this bike. The adjustable windshield, the audio, the storage, the ground clearance – it was all so excellent on this 3500mi trip. I just need to do a little more to make it perfect.
My friend Spaz, formerly known as Corvus to some, is now blogging/vlogging at Spaz on Wheels. This guy rides a lot, does a lot of bike customization, and should have a lot of interesting stuff to say. He’s got a Harley Ultra Limited and an Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, both heavily customized. Go check him out.
Here I am at the 5th Annual Brewtown Rumble on June 2nd, 2019. What’s the Brewtown Rumble, you ask?
The Brewtown Rumble is a ride-in vintage motorcycle show. It doesn’t matter the make, model or condition of the bike. It just matters that you ride it! Everyone is welcome – riders and motorcycle enthusiasts alike.
The Rumble also features live music, a pin-up show, vendors and food from some of Milwaukee’s best cafes, restaurants and food trucks.
Proceeds from the Rumble support the BUILD Moto Mentor Program. Come see the BUILD bikes in person, and see which team wins the BUILD Cup.
The sun is shining, ABATE of Wisconsin has a booth, there’s bikes, beer, food, and music. This is my third time attending the Rumble, and I have to admit I was a bit concerned by the bikes this year. Between years of Momma Tried and the Brewtown Rumble, I’ve already got pics of a lot of the bikes within riding/trailering distance of these Milwaukee events. I tried to take pictures of bikes that I haven’t shown before, but I make no promises.
As I mentioned, my main reason for being here was to help set up and work the ABATE of Wisconsin booth.
We had a lot of traffic and conversation, but something was missing. The same thing that’s always missing: people under 50 signing up to be members. I continue to marvel about the degree to which everyone involved in motorcycling at all is now grappling with the question of how to create the next generation of riders. More on that in a minute, first I had to stop next door and say hi to my Indian Motorcycle friends.
Does Royal Enfield Get it and No One else Does?
Across the street was the Royal Enfield lot. The got themselves a lot of space this year and I had to go check it out.
I do not get Royal Enfield. They are 1-cylinder bikes that ride funky to me. Who’s their target demographic? Are these retro bikes? Hipster commuter bikes? Bikes for dedicated Anglophiles who can’t get behind Triumph? I walked over and talked to a young lady who turned out to be involved with brand management and marketing for Royal Enfield’s North American headquarters. Within moments it became clear that she could teach things to me and perhaps others in the ABATE of Wisconsin crew.
Since she’s awesome and willing to talk to us, I’m going out of my way not to out her. The bottom line is that Royal Enfield is killing it, growing sales year over year at a time when most brands are struggling to slow down the decline. What have they figured out?
Royal Enfield has a story to tell that’s different from Harley or Indian. I don’t want to fuck up paraphrasing it here, so I’ll save my interpretation of their story for another time after I’ve been able to do more research.
I asked my guide if there were… certain stereotypes that I could guess about RE buyers. Did they also have man-buns, anachronistic curly mustaches, and perhaps have an affinity for mechanical typewriters, Polaroid cameras, and bizarre IPAs? She cut me off “Yes, it’s OK to say it: hipster boys buy these bikes”. These are 1 cylinder bikes with plenty of space around the main components: you can learn to work on these bikes easily. Royal Enfield has “shop days” in dealerships where interested folks can show up on weekend mornings and learn how to wrench on their bikes from certified mechanics: more on this later.
Royal Enfields are also inexpensive: my guide claimed that every single RE bike was under $7,000 and here’s an additional kicker: she claimed the bikes are nearly always naked on the showroom floor. There is no bait-n-switch or upsell where you fall in love with a bike on the dealer floor only to find that the beauty you’ve been talking yourself into buying is sporting thousands of dollars of extra parts. What you see is what you get and they hand you a catalog to make it your own. My guide quoted figures that are all to familiar: Millenials and Gen Z have student loan debt and credit card debt. They are less likely to own homes and start families than their parents and grandparents; their economic outlook is decidedly pessimistic. Being able to get a new bike with a great warranty for under $7k? Royal Enfield may be exploiting a great market niche.
My guide seemed a little confused: maybe thought I was drunk, hitting on her, angling for a photo, or any of the other bullshit that women have to deal with at trade shows. I explained that I was with ABATE of Wisconsin and that the question of reaching younger riders was something of an existential issue for us. I said I would really appreciate it if she had any advice for us.
ABATE of Wisconsin marketing badass Doris was primarily responsible for our being at The Rumble this day, I went back to her and said “You need to meet this individual.” Doris talked to her and this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship: again, I don’t want to “out” anyone but this was a very productive day and I’m grateful.
When I come to events like this, I’m always energized. I try to figure out how to put into words whatever it is about this motorcycle culture that so captivates us. Those of us who are “into it” often wind up being really into it. It becomes less a thing we do and more who we are. I believe it’s less about the self reliance of wrenching on your own bike, and less about an excuse to drink beer and look at tatooed young people while a loud, obnoxious band plays.
I will talk more about this in the near future, but I believe the Fellowship of Those Who Balance on Two Wheels is simply a strong connection and shared experience, and we have reached a point in American history where those things are rare. No one at work understands why I’d want to ride from Milwaukee to Idaho – at the Brewtown Rumble I can talk to any random person in the crowd and they’ve either done a ride like that, plan to do a ride like that, or wish their knees were healthy enough to do a ride like that. If I talk about wanting to buy an offroad bike so that I can just leave the road, enter a national park, and truly disappear: every single person I talk to at least understands why even if it’s not “for them”.
It’s good to be among one’s people. It’s good to have people, to have a tribe. I used to have trouble making friends, and by most practical definitions I still do. But I do have people. Thanks to technology, I can enter the Internet and come out the other end with a group of fun bikers at a bizarre alien-themed bar in Campbellsport, WI 120 miles from home where the locals at the bar just down the road warned us to only drink from bottles and cans because “Those alien weirdos don’t do their dishes very well”. Me, a guy with all the social skills of a potted plant, could have burgers with Good People™ every single day of the week both during and after riding season. All because there’s something special about this motorcycle culture. Going to an event like the Brewtown Rumble is like a more intense version of “the wave” you get from another biker rolling past you. You are surrounded by your people, and that’s a good thing.
Maybe I’m full of shit. As the creator of This Motorcycle Life points out, there’s a would-be philosopher underneath nearly every motorcycle helmet. Maybe someone else has already said it better.
Of course, it’s a ride-in show and it’s always about the bikes. I don’t think I have taken pics of any of these bikes before, but I also didn’t go back and check.
I thought maybe this was a zombie survival bike, but it’s for something a little more practical…
The Gold Wing has LONG been a force in American motorcycling.
I feel like this must be Captain Phasma’s bike.
A very Milwaukee scene: brewery with sidewalk exposure.
This wooden bike was interesting and I don’t know why
Bikers are not known for their grammatical prowess.
Black Sunshined parked right at 5th street, an early arrival
Every side street is full of bikes
A Moto Guzzi sidecar setup
Sun and steel, a unique bike fit for the Zombie Apocalypse.
Orange bikes still reach out and grab me, this is a really hot chopper.
Another bike that screamed out to me “An industrial music fan seeks to survive the Zombie Apocalypse”
A raked out, retro trike with old school pillions. Hot!
Black Belt Theatre provided the sounds during the day.
If you follow Adam Sandoval, of course you’ve heard of The Ritas
I had the joy of traveling for work recently: Milwaukee, WI to San Jose, CA. It had been a while, and I forgot how much I hated air travel.
It’s not that flying bothers me: it’s amazing to travel thousands of miles in a few hours. It’s not that packing bothers me: indeed I rather like planning and compressing my needs for a week down into what I can carry. Rather, I hate the ceremony and the complete loss of control that comes with modern air travel.
“The Ceremony” is simple: if you fly in America today you have a taste of what it’s like to live in a police state. You need various identifiers and identification; if your name does not appear exactly on your driver’s license as you booked your flight, you may not get to fly. The US Government can put you on a “no fly list” without telling you, and without giving you any due process of law that would allow you to see why you are on the do-not-fly list, and without a clear legal path to getting off of it. Furthermore, in the United States you will soon need a “Real ID”, much closer to- or equivalent-to a Passport in order to fly.
All this to fly domestically. In the “land of the free”.
So you need “your papers” in order to fly: something the average middle-class traveler in Soviet Russia would certainly understand. But wait, that’s not where your privacy violations end. You are going to get SCANNED.
Consider first the “millimeter wave” scanners deployed at almost every US airport now. Depending on which article you read, this may or may not present TSA officers with a high resolution contour of exactly what you look like naked. The thing that people forget about TSA officers is that they are just like all other officers: they are just people. That means they are no better or worse than the average American. Some of them will be ethical and honest, with their mission in the forefront of their minds as they do their jobs. Others will behave as though they were a 14 year old boy who suddenly had X-ray vision into the girls’ locker room.
The TSA can also simply embarrass you. Suppose you, like my father, have various iron and titanium pins in your legs due to severe injuries from motorcycle accidents. The metal detectors are going to alarm as you walk through. You’re going to have to explain yourself at the very least. Maybe you’ll get “extra screening”.
Finally, the TSA can search your luggage at any time and for any reason. If you have a diver’s computer, a special piece of hardware for work, or maybe a particularly flashy pack of condoms in your luggage: someone with close to zero training is going to be flagged that they should look through your luggage. Did you bring a pair of fuzzy handcuffs on your vacation with your wife, or did you bring something to clean your CPAP, or are you traveling with a few things to spice of the bedroom while you vacation in the Caribbean? The TSA can poke, prod, and confiscate any of that.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a certain age, a doctor is going to poke around your most private parts and ask you uncomfortable questions. This is a part of getting older: we get pap smears, testicular cancer checks, breast cancer scans, prostate checks, and so on. But being a doctor is not easy: when you drop your pants for a doctor you are doing so for someone who has gone through 8-12+ years of school and has seen it all before and has everything to lose from being accused of sticking their finger in the wrong place. A TSA agent is different from a doctor in all the wrong ways.
Once you are physically on your flight, you lose even more freedom. You must obey a US Air Marshal or any random Southwest employee or face felony charges. Sure, nearly every flight goes well, but how do you feel about the idea of being beholden to someone who didn’t like the political message on your jacket? Remember, people are just people…
If, by Odin’s grace, you don’t make your flight, you are likely fucked. Did you get trip insurance, or did you get the kind of tickets that will not be refunded? You see, Americans have decided over the past 25+ years that all they care about is the cost of a flight. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting literally on top of someone who is hand-pumping their colostomy bag out into their neighbor’s coffee, if they can get to Vegas for $50 less they’ll deal with it. They will not remember this experience and vote with their dollars to have a more dignified flight next time. So, you are likely missing a day or more of your vacation if you miss that flight. Does it matter that it’s Spring Break and Airline X didn’t staff their counters enough? Nope, go back home loser.
Maybe you get bumped from an overbooked flight. Maybe you have to hand over a prized pocketknife you had in your jeans out of pure habit. Maybe the counter was too busy and they leave without you…
But the Road Won’t Leave Without You
Now, suppose you are instead packing for a motorcycle trip. Assuming that everything you’re packing is legal, you have nearly zero concern for anyone looking at it. The chances of you getting pulled over and searched are, anyway, incredibly small.
Suppose it’s spring break for some local schools and you start out a little late?
Oh well, you sit in traffic a little bit. You don’t miss your flight, you don’t lose a whole day of your vacation.
Suppose a tornado tears across the road a few miles in front of you? OK, you wait, and you move on when it’s safe.
Suppose the thunderstorm of the century tears across the state you’re riding through and you find yourself stuck in a rest area in Knoxville?
Fine, that’s great. Survive. There is no large insurance company who will not let your bike take off without considering a billion variables: you can leave whenever you feel like you can ride. If you take off and discover that the roads are really terrible, you can pull off on the side of the road and sleep anywhere you’re equipped to sleep. Sure you shouldn’t build campfires on someone’s private property but you can judge for yourself. You are in control. Maybe you do pull off the highway and park your bike in a ditch and throw your bivy over yourself. Rain pours, lightning strikes. Thunder follows. A man who is shurely Clint Eastwood reincarnated rides a horse near the tree you’re camped under and politely but firmly asks what the hell you’re doing on his property. Flustered, you explain how you’re on a motorcycle trip and you pulled over to escape the storm and you meant no disrespect to his property rights…
There was a time when he might have said at best “Why don’t y’all come up to our cabin” and at worst “Y’all take care, feel free to camp on my land, but ride up and tell me if you’re staying past tomorrow.” The way we treat each other today, that’s a topic for another day…
You see, the Road won’t leave without you, and the Earth won’t refuse to let you sleep there. When you are traveling on your own steed, you have so much more freedom. An airplane cannot decide to camp underneath an overpass. An airplane cannot ask the bar owner if you can pitch a tent out back. Your saddlebags know that anything packed in there is not for anyone else to know about. You can pull over to the side of the road and wait out traffic if that’s what makes sense. If not, you roll on by in your rain gear.
If you make a mistake, you leave a little late. If the road is unsafe, you choose another road. You decide how much risk to take, you decide how long the “layover” is. You travel with your rights and dignity intact. You can even carry a bottle of water if that suits you.
The airlines will leave without you, they’ve already got your money and quite frankly you dropping dead in the check in line or not is all the same to them. Out on the road, though, you’re in control. There may be challenges and decisions to make, but the road won’t leave without you.
I’ve seen so many Facebook threads, internet memes, and satirical Youtube videos lately focused on one question: What makes someone a Real Biker™?
Why does it matter, because it apparently matters a lot? Let’s unpack this idea in a few stages.
Why does anyone care what a real biker is?
Firstly, it’s nearly universal that when people attempt to define what “A Real XXX” is, there is high perceived value in being A Real XXX. Real social status, deserved fear, privileged access to resources, or unassailable authority is attributed to members of that in-group. There are no arguments about who is “A real serial killer” because it’s not considered desirable to be in that group and it confers no advantages. A “real biker” has an opinion that matters more than a fake biker, is assumed to have more and better stories and more and “more real” experience than the RUBs. Real Bikers are true and Original, possessed of motives as pure as the driven snow, modern day cowboys or desperados. Modern day Pirates, banditos and gangsters on two wheels. Guys want to be them and women want to be with them, and even when the cops are busting them they are thinking: god dammit they sure are cool though.
Side note on RUBs: if doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers hadn’t bought a lot of Harley’s in the ’90s would American motorcycling have been decimated? Should we thank the RUBs for their investment dollars but not let them play in our reindeer games?
In any community where you can be considered either a piece of shit or a god and everything in between, there’s a notion of “paying your dues”. Did you grind for years on the stand-up comedy circuit or play every shithole bar and birthday party with your band? Did you work as a waiter and do unspeakable things to gain your first big acting break? Congratulations, you’ve Paid Your Dues. Paying Your Dues is a common value in Honor Cultures. Another common requirement is a Rite of Passage or Initiation. Boot camp is a rite of passage any US Marine has in common with every other Marine. The “Rush” in fraternities. Residency for doctors. The bar exam for lawyers. These shared experiences knit a group together: it’s completely reasonable for a group to be suspicious of those who did not pay their dues and go through the initiation rites. The rich would-be politician who uses wealth and celebrity to instantly “make it” is reviled by all the others who worked their way up from Town Alderman to State Senator to US Congress.
Those who view themselves to be in a good place and they got there the “right” way will naturally revile those who took a different path.
Secondly, the inverse of the “Really belonging” idea is the notion of being a tourist, a fake, a poser. These are clearly undesirable labels.
What’s a tourist? Well, the dictionary says “A person traveling, especially for pleasure.” That’s fine, but I prefer my friend Chris A’s definition, a definition with a lot more negative connotation: “A person who travels to observe a radically different way of life, but they see it as one would see an animal in a zoo and don’t allow themselves to be changed by it.” A great example of this is a huge influx of people visiting Woodstock, Alabama after the hit podcast S-Town. People showed up to (Steve Irwin voice) See the wild US Redneck in his native habitat. No one wants to hang out with someone who’s going to go back to work Monday and say “Oh man, you would not believe what these bikers actually say!”
Fake should be self explanatory.
What about a poser? Well when I was a kid this meant people who wore Vans and carried around a skateboard but basically couldn’t skate. It implies that the thing that makes you a part of the community is hard or dangerous but you want that social status without putting in the work, so you pretend.
Side note on posers: a lot of people hate on those who trailer their bikes, especially to big events like Sturgis. While I’m generally not a big fan of “purity tests”, I tend to agree that if the baseline assumption is that you rode there, you’re riding on stolen valor if you rolled your bike off a truck 10 miles out. This is not meant to disrespect folks who can’t do that for health reasons.
Side note on danger & difficulty: I will wave to any biker on the road, but I am torn about things like Can-Am riders. Traveling balanced on two-wheels is just harder and more dangerous and it seems like that’s table-stakes in our community; when I see an old-timer on a trike I wave my respect, assuming he’s one knee-replacement too far to trust his balance anymore but still wants the wind in his face, but a lot of people I suspect should just buy convertibles instead. That’s my bias, peace.
In any culture where there’s any kind of purity test or acceptance test, you will face arguments and standards that evolve over time. This results in a no true Scotsman kind of attitude, where the criteria for being a “real biker” evolve over time to be more exclusive as more people fit the old criteria. I am told, by someone who would know, that in the ’70s you were either in a club or you were a fake. I’ll bet there are a lot of independants out there today that would pass absolutely anyone’s smell test for being a real biker.
The entire first season of the country music podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, has many examples of this kind of thinking. Throughout the 19th century the definition of “real country music” was always basically one generation behind what was going on in the country music scene. The lesson is one of dictionary conservatism: if you are not exactly like the status quo, you are fake.
So then, what is a real biker?
For some background I think it’s good to go all the way back to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1967 book on the hell’s angels. There may be more and better sources, but this is a pretty good one. A lot of what’s taken for granted in biker culture today comes out of this place and time, and I do not mean any special favor to the Hell’s Angels here as a modern club. People do things because they’ve seen others doing them, and have no idea why.
Wearing leather. Wearing a German Iron Cross. Being tough. Patches. Choppers. Racing. Being outside of society, misunderstood by the law. Being A Proud Outlaw. Codes of respect. So much of what we know as biker culture has its beginnings with men who came back from World War II and Vietnam. They found that the country they loved and fought for did not offer them the same opportunities for close brotherhood that the military had (see the links on honor culture above). The safe streets of America seemed boring to their heightened tolerance for danger. They brought together the danger, exclusivity, initiation rituals, ranks and titles, logos, and much more from their former military lives and created motorcycle clubs. These men were rebels. So bikers were originally:
Believed in some kind of Honor Culture, has a code of mutual respect
Tough, manly men
Outlaws and rebels
Risk takers, thrill seekers
Rode motorcycles everywhere
Wrenched on their own bikes
I am the first person in my entire extended family tree to go to college, so I’ll never be a Real Biker. No woman can ever be a Real Biker. No weekend warrior who doesn’t ride his bobber to a factory job every day can ever be a Real Biker. No one who voted Democrat, or is gay, wears safety gear, or has a white collar job can ever be a Real Biker. So on, and so forth.
Except that, as Cocaine and Rhinestones illustrates better than I ever could, the distance between the “Real OG Old-skoolers who truly get it” and the “Upstart pretenders who are ruining everything”, in any human subculture, is always nearly exactly one half of a human generation. Country music? Check. Hip-hop? Check. Muscle cars? Check.
Guns? Politics? Sex? Bikes? Check, check, check, check. Everyone is watching the next generation destroy their pure faith and their perfect culture. If I had studied Latin in college I could bust out something profound sounding like a priori ergo melior. Before is better.
Every American generation is more or less convinced they’ve got it all figured out, while they watch their kids and grandkids send the world directly to hell in the most efficient manner possible. Motorcycling is no different.
Can ladies be badass bikers? That seems clear to me. Can even rich Hollywood types be bikers when they slept by their steeds in the wilderness for over a year? Seems reasonable. Can a lawyer be a biker when he’s got half a dozen Iron Butt Extreme rides under his belt? Why not? No matter what the price of belonging is, some will still find reason to shun the newcomers.
Obviously it’s not up to me to say who is and isn’t a “real biker”. I’m not one, and no amount of three-thousand mile trips and rugged two-wheeled camping will make me one. I can claim that it’s a continuum: be more biker-y and not less biker-y. We used to be a nation of individuals. Don’t let a Facebook thread or a motorcycle commercial tell you what you are. A motorcycle dealership can’t make you a rebel. Wearing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t make you an individual. Get out, ride, camp with nothing more than you can carry, ride through the rain and cold, stop and help someone on two wheels stuck on the side of the road, stop at a dive bar you’ve never been in before, show respect, be real, be judged by your actions.