Wildcat Mountain State Park

Living in Wisconsin sucks for bikers. Sorry Wisconsin-lovers, this is an objective fact not up for debate, I don’t make the rules.

For the past few years, I’ve made it a point to burn a vacation day in the spring: on the first 70 degree day I can possibly squeak out of work I take the day off and disappear. It’s a way for me to heal, to be alone, and it’s my own version of the groundhog day superstition: if RoadRunner takes off in March, spring is coming six weeks early…

This year spring was a schizophrenic asshole: 36 degrees one day, 78 the next day, snow, then rain, continuous 40-degree temperature swings in a 24 hour period. I assume I was just a cranky asshole with a motorcycle in the garage, but even a local paper concurred that this weather was shit.

I had seen a couple of online discussions claiming that Wisconsin Highway 33 was “Wisconsin’s tail of the dragon”. I was skeptical, but before Bart died he and one of his friends went out there and the result was his friend going over the guardrail bike and all – he said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen. That’s a tale for another day…

The observation peak at Wildcat Mountain State park is not the Smoky Mountains, but it is beautiful. Be sure to watch both videos at 4k, Youtube seems to murder the quality otherwise.

This is the shitty half of the twisties, and I’m still early in my moto-vlog career. I plan to go back and catch it all from west to east which seems to be the most fun way to ride it. These are also not “produced” videos in any way, no clever overlays you just hear whatever happens to be in my playlist at the time.

I need to come back here and take better video of the whole park, but if you’re in the area this is worth checking out for sure.

On Dusk

Ever since I started riding in the 1990s, dusk has been my favorite time to ride.

While riding certainly means wind in your face, there is such a thing as too much wind. As the sun goes down, it ceases powering the wind and calm prevails.

It’s still warm at dusk, and the setting sun has not yet robbed the world of heat and left the air reluctantly giving up its energy.

Working folks have been home for a while, and they’ve done their post-work duties; most of the chores are done. The lawns have been cut. The grills have been lit. There are campfires, and the sounds of gatherings reach out of neighborhoods to the through-roads. If you happen to be rolling through a town, you’ll see people at the sidewalk seating of coffee shops and neighborhood grilles; you’ll hear the ruckus from behind the wooden fences of pubs with volleyball nets, horseshoes, bean bags; you’ll hear bands warming up to play small outdoor stages.

If I’m out riding, chances are I am experiencing a world that is preparing to wind down, while I am still alive and active. I am a nocturnal creature, taking in the sights and smells of a world that isn’t prepared to challenge me. I’m probably a little sunburned, and the setting sun gives me some relief.

Without the sun powering the wind and evaporating moisture to higher altitudes, humidity rises. This, too, is a relief to my sunburn.

The best Dusk experience, really, is during a multi-day riding trip. I get to see the unique character of the sun as it rises in the morning in one location, and I get to see the unique character of the setting sun many hundreds of miles away in a different environment. If you’ve never experienced this without the UV-treated windshield between you and the world, you will not understand. If you’re in cage, you won’t feel the difference in the wind between morning and dusk. The difference in the the way the air feels and smells, of sound and the pressure in your ears. If it is a long trip, then dusk also means that rest is likely coming. I’ll be stopping for the night and joining the ruckus behind a wooden fence. People will ask about the patches on my vest, where I’ve come from and where I’m going, and I’ll be glad for the conversation even if I’m traveling with friends.

At night and far from home, with either a can of beer (it has to be a can) or my travel flask of bourbon, I am at my most thoughtful and melancholy. I’m outside, sitting on my bike, mentally time traveling. At a hotel or campsite folks are out at all hours of the night taking smoke breaks or reinforcing each others’ company and the details of their own adventures. They ask me questions, and I’m happy to talk, but something about my eyes tell them I’m not really into it: I’m already deep in my own head.

I love the dusk time, and on a warm summer evening when lighting bugs are visible in backyards and the smell of burning leaves drifts from one neighborhood to another it’s all I can do to keep myself from hitting the starter and taking off.

Dear Bart Part 1

Dear Bart,

It has been two years. I just took Adam for a ride, so I thought it was the right time to finish this letter. Adam is probably the person who needs you most, but we do the best we can.

Missing you is hard. We used to talk all day every day on the computer while we were both at work.

“How’s work today?”

“When are you leaving?”

“What are you doing tonight, can we ride after work?”

Losing my brother sucks, but losing my riding buddy sucks too. Losing my best friend is worse. You were all three. I’ll be sitting in my basement watching a movie and suddenly miss you being there. I randomly start crying at inconvenient times: not cool man. I’m fine 99% of the time, but then suddenly I’m a fucking wreck dude.

It still hurts a lot to not be able to ask what you think about the world as it changes. I’ve got an electric car, what would Bart think of that? Brooke is driving now, can you believe it?
I found some land in Northern Wisconsin that might be a serious hunting/fishing/cabin-building retreat for us. Something to have in the family long after we’re both gone. This is the kind of thing you would have flipped out over. More than 5000 feet of frontage on the Chippewa river. I won’t buy it, but if you’d been around…

I’ve taken over the website and technology for ABATE of Wisconsin. The more I’ve seen about what we do with legislation at the state level, the more I think you would have appreciated this. You were all about freedom in general and freedom of the road specifically. This would have been your cause.

People say there are phases of grief. In truth, they overlap. I’m mostly done with denial and anger. I mostly just miss you now; not in bad times, but in good times. When I’m doing something fun like planning a ride, I think about how much you would have enjoyed it.

What would you think about my new Indian Chieftain? Would you have come with me to the Tomahawk Rally last year?

You used to like Irish/Celtic stuff so much. I got some rings and I’m having them engraved with your name.

I’m planning a 4,000 mile trip right now, you would have loved this. Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa. I’m avoiding Devil’s Tower I think; this is the place I think of as the ride with you that we didn’t get to take.

Love you brother,

-D

Huh?

About once a year so far, I write a letter to my dead brother as a form of therapy.

I have known far too many men now who have taken their own lives. Every time a friend is going through a hard time that’s more than a parking ticket, I have a sudden panic that they are next. I recently got spooked and called a friend and pleaded with him:

Please, don’t make me give your eulogy. I will if that’s what it comes to, but don’t make me stand in front of your family and try to make sense of your life. There’s a fucked up sense of honor in it for me; it’s a really hard thing that no one wants to do and I force myself to do it. I’ve forced myself to do it too many times, though, and I need you to hang out for a while.

I guess this is my main point this year. Don’t be the next Bart. “Get help” is such a bullshit phrase, it has no meaning. Call a hotline? Talk to a friend? Who can appreciate the depth of what you’re feeling enough to really talk to you? Sometimes losing a job is just losing a job, and sometimes it’s the last thing a man can take. If you find yourself having thoughts of self harm, think about what you would be putting your friends and family through.

The Road Won’t Leave Without You

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.

 

Am I a Real Biker? Are You? Does it Matter?

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:

  • Blue collar
  • Believed in some kind of Honor Culture, has a code of mutual respect
  • Tough, manly men
  • Outlaws and rebels
  • Misunderstood Outsiders
  • 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

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.

The world could use more bikers.

 

 

Goals for 2019

Like in 2018, I have some goals for 2019: Goals for what I’m going to do for the good of motorcycling in 2019 and goals for myself and my love of motorcycling.

  1. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a new bagger. Why? Nothing’s wrong with Red Sonya except that Polaris is no longer making Victory. Plus, well, who doesn’t love the excitement of a new bike when they can afford it? Once the dealers are doing test rides, I’ll be picking a new two-wheeled freedom machine and writing about the experience.
  2. Get one person their first motorcycle: I have someone in mind who’s very close to joining the life.
  3. Participate in ABATE Bikers in the capitol day. More information coming in a podcast soon.
  4. Take lots of video: watching bikers on youtube helps get me through the winter months.
  5. I need to get Mrs. Roadrunner on her bike. Like, a lot. Why should be obvious, but additionally…
  6. Late in 2019 I will start planning motorcycle trip around Scotland in 2020, riding its famous NC 500.
  7. I’m going to camp more than I did in 2018.
  8. This year I’m planning to ride:
    1. To either Colorado Springs or Pocatello to visit family. On the way could be Deadwood, Needles Highway, Cheyenne, Beartooth pass…
    2. The Hurricane Highway in the UP of Michigan
    3. US 2 in Northern Wisconsin
    4. The Hoka Hey off year event.
  9. And of course I’m going to keep spreading the idea that motorcycling is mindfulness.

That’s a lot of fun for a working guy with kids at home, but I’m willing to try. Additionally I’ll probably hit some of the yearly motorcycle events like the Slimy Crud Run, Momma Tried, Brewtown Rumble, The Milwaukee Rally, and other small scale goofing off.

Looking forward to a great 2019. I’ll see you on the road.

As we enter the very cold months

I just went out and started up Red Sonya. It’s 18 degrees outside but she fired up, so I have hope that on a day where there’s not snow on the ground I can still get out and get some miles.

As we enter the cold Northern months, I reflect on the year. At the beginning of the year, I set some goals for rides. I did 4 out of 6 of those rides, not bad. I still fell 4,000 miles short of my riding goal for various reasons not the least of which is being injured for a good chunk of the prime riding weather. I went to the Slimy Crud Run, Momma Tried, the Brewtown Rumble, and lots of other small events. I went on several small day trips with the Lost Motorcycle Riders of Milwaukee.

I rode with a local MC on a Fallen Brother ride and I took my longest trip to the Moonshiner 28 and camped at the Tomahawk Fall Rally, a fantastic trip. There’s really nothing like motorcycle camping for a getaway.

Over the warmer months, I collect a lot of random thoughts that I intend to circle back around to write about. I do this to keep myself busy and fight off the cabin fever. Keep reading, and we’ll welcome the spring together.