Friday, November 19, 2010

I lay awake at night

...thinking about how much coffee I drink.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Caribou Barbie:

"...Palin is running for Prom Queen of America and she’s more than willing to give out free cookies (literally) to bribe the feel-good vote."   —from

Heh. That's funny. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

This is Why I Do Not Ride in Groups

I generally avoid discussing specific incidents, because they don’t often have a broader applicability or relevance. But I will make an exception for last weekend’s horrific accident in California—involving two cars, twelve motorcycles and twenty-one motorcyclists. Four motorcyclists and a passenger in one car died, and a number of motorcyclists were hospitalized for a variety of horrific and life-altering injuries.

Short version: ‘Riceboy’ attempts to pass a group of twelve motorcycles on a remote two-lane highway. Driver of oncoming vehicle panics, drives onto the right shoulder, over-corrects and swerves into the middle of the pack of motorcyclists. Car driver suffers fractures; his passenger dies from a motorcycle impacting the passenger-side door. ‘Riceboy’ fled the scene.

The injured car driver appears to be an innocent victim. ‘Riceboy’ is currently the object of a massive manhunt in both California and Mexico. But…

…But goddamn those motorcyclists. They should have known better.

Look—our roadways and our traffic laws and conventions are intended for units of one vehicle, whether that one unit is a motorcycle or a tandem tractor trailer. They are not meant for social organisms. The rare—and in this case, ironic, exceptions are funeral processions; but even those operate under strictly defined protocols, very constrained circumstances, under a societal imprimatur and generally with an official escort. But a pack of a dozen motorcycles, operating en masse?

Let’s assume the most concise configuration—six pairs of bikes, riding side-by-side, ‘ChiPs’ fashion. That alone will occupy about five to seven standard car lengths. Stretched out single-file, the same bikes could occupy up to fifteen car lengths. Now, in a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter. But as the members of the Saddletramps MC tragically found out, we live in a very imperfect world. Who knows why the driver of the mysterious gold Honda Civic couldn’t bear to stay behind a group of twelve motorcycles any longer? Maybe he didn’t like the sound of twenty-four loud pipes? People have all kinds of reasons for wanting or needing to pass, and we won’t know his explanation until he is brought to justice.

I have on several occasions observed large motorcycle groups under the direction of a “Ride Marshall,” an individual, often self-appointed, with the putative responsibility for overseeing the ‘safety’ of the group. The Ride Marshall generally starts their motorcycle first, then rides or steps into oncoming traffic, bringing it to a halt while the remainder of the group files onto the roadway one-at-a-time—a process which can take several minutes. This commandeering of the public roadway in this manner has no official sanction; it is simply done because nobody has the nerve to object. This group protocol would appear to provide some modicum of safety to the motorcyclists en masse (by excluding automobiles from their midst) but that appearance is simply an illusion. It creates an unnatural situation and an utterly false sense of security. Formation riding on public roadways neutralizes a motorcycle’s greatest inherent safety asset—its superior maneuverability, acceleration and performance.

I cannot fathom what riding gains by being part of a pack of a dozen or a score or several dozen or ten thousand riders; I get uncomfortable when another motorcyclist begins to encroach on any portion of my full lane-width. I know from experience that free range of lateral motion is a critical part of a motorcyclist’s defensive tools. Safe riding often depends on having a generous bubble of open space on all sides that allows me to make full use of a lane as circumstances vary. Having another rider in my space is just a bad practice, regardless of any fellowship gained by riding in close formation.

I know Saturday’s carnage is not the fault of the Saddletramps. But I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to happen to them, and that there were lots of little things they might have done to forestall such a tragic and senseless outcome. Whatever fellowship they set out share with one another in their close formation ride has been irrevocably shattered along with the lives of the survivors.

This is why I do not ride in groups.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Good old H.P. also foresaw the 'Tea Party...'

...Otherwise, how could he have written this trenchant critique of the movement, 84 years ago?

“…the inability of the...mind to correlate all its contents…a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity…dissociated knowledge…such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein…either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age…a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind…This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly…with undecipherable characters…the seat occupied the centre, whilst the long, curved claws of the doubled-up, crouching hind legs gripped the front edge and extended a quarter of the way down toward the bottom of the pedestal. The cephalopod head was bent forward, so that the ends of the facial feelers brushed the backs of huge fore paws which clasped the croucher’s elevated knees…a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this…perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and…a nasty, slopping sound…It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness. There was some peculiarly abominable quality about them…mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror…built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars...hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. Slowly, amidst the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene…the titan Thing…slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus…” 

—At least, that's how I read it.  

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Election Day 2010, seen from three-quarters of a century ago:

"As for the Republicans — how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead."
— H.P. Lovecraft, 1936

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How One Thing Leads To Another...

Saturday was a day chock full of overlapping errands, interconnected tasks and nested interruptions—a typical Saturday, made more hectic and frazzled by the expectation of company’s arrival in the coming week.
But certain things cannot be ignored, and the irrepressible enthusiasm of a house-bound dog who believes a walk on a sunny afternoon is imminent ranks high on that list. At one point mid-afternoon, we set our cleaning and other projects aside to take Carrie and Schroeder out for a brief walk, if for no other reason than to calm Carrie down a bit.
We set out down the gravel driveway for the usual round of peeing and sniffing (Schroeder marks, Carrie examines). As we dawdled into the pine woods—where much sniffing was required—we could not help but notice the pine litter everywhere erupting with mushrooms. The piney ground was an undulating carpet, where the pine needles were pushed up and aside by countless clusters of tan mushrooms.
They looked like ‘short stacks’ scattered through the woods—mysterious little clumps of glossy golden brown discs, some perfectly round, others missing a chunk here and there, where some woodland creature had nibbled on them. They were beautiful, and looked utterly benign in the afternoon light.
But the mystery of the mushrooms did not concern the dogs, so we pushed on through the pines, and down the lane, and wound our way back to the house and the chores and cleaning and errands, stopping to chat with the neighbors along the way. But later that afternoon, as the shadows lengthened and the evening light cooled, we revisited the pine grove, guidebook in hand.
Kneeling in the cool fragrant litter with sample mushroom in one hand and taxonomic key in the other, we carefully worked our way through the key, learning proper mushroom nomenclature, mushroom physiology and making a few false starts before tracing our way to a definitive identification: Dentinum Repandum, (also known as Hyndum Repandum, sometimes called 'Hedgehog mushroom' for its teeth on the underside of the cap)—an edible mushroom!

The 'Hedgehog' is our fourth foray into the world of wild fungi: a massive sheepshead mushroom in Pennsylvania decades ago, a solitary morel in Arlington, and another solitary morel a few years ago here.
We picked a handful, marveling at their oddly sticky surface and beautiful coloration. They became the centerpiece of our dinner, sautéed lightly in butter and folded into the center of an omelette made with a handful of the day’s newly gathered eggs. The mushrooms were delicious, delicate and tender, with a mild, subtle yet distinctive flavor.
We survived the night without ill effect, and returned Sunday evening to pick a small basketful. Some of those became part of Tuesday’s dinner, along with fresh pesto and braised carrots; with luck, we will dry enough of the bountiful crop to supply us through the winter. We even recommended some to our neighbors, who were trusting (or bold) enough to take us up on the offer—though, now that I think of it, I haven't heard from them since...
There’s something pleasingly…empowering…about trusting your land and your judgment enough to identify wild mushrooms. I'm very happy we did this; I hope we continue making discoveries like this.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Assert your Individuality:

An oldie but a goodie from "Basic Instructions" by Scott Meyer, pretty much the consistently funniest webcomic out there.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Noted without comment:

From the New York Times:

As recently as late December, Monsanto was named “company of the year” by Forbes magazine. Last week, the company earned a different accolade from Jim Cramer, the television stock market commentator. “This may be the worst stock of 2010,” he proclaimed.
Monsanto, the giant of agricultural biotechnology, has been buffeted by setbacks this year that have prompted analysts to question whether its winning streak from creating ever more expensive genetically engineered crops is coming to an end.
The company’s stock, which rose steadily over several years to peak at around $145 a share in mid-2008, closed Monday at $47.77, having fallen about 42 percent since the beginning of the year. Its earnings for the fiscal year that ended in August, which will be announced Wednesday, are expected to be well below projections made at the beginning of the year, and the company has abandoned its profit goal for 2012 as well.
The latest blow came last week...Monsanto’s newest product, SmartStax corn...was providing yields no higher than the company’s less expensive corn...Monsanto has already been forced to sharply cut prices on SmartStax and on its newest soybean seeds, called Roundup Ready 2 Yield, as sales fell below projections...Sales of Monsanto’s Roundup...have collapsed this year under an onslaught of low-priced generics made in China. Weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, dampening the future of the entire Roundup Ready crop franchise. And the Justice Department is investigating Monsanto for possible antitrust violations.
Until now, Monsanto’s main challenge has come from opponents of genetically modified crops, who have slowed their adoption in Europe and some other regions. Now, however, the outspoken critics also include farmers and investors who were once in Monsanto’s camp.
“My personal view is that they overplayed their hand,” William R. Young, managing director of ChemSpeak...They are going to have to demonstrate to the farmer the advantage of their products.” Brett D. Begemann, Monsanto’s executive vice president for seeds and traits, said the setbacks were not reflective of systemic management problems and that the company was already moving to deal with them...Begemann said that Monsanto used to introduce new seeds at a price that gave farmers two thirds and Monsanto one third of the extra profits...But with SmartStax corn and Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, the company’s pricing aimed for a 50-50 split. That backfired as American farmers grew only 6 million acres of Roundup Ready 2 soybeans this year...and only 3 million acres of SmartStax corn...So now Monsanto is moving back to the older arrangement.
Monsanto has also moved to offer farmers more varieties with fewer inserted have to buy traits they do not need — such as protection from the corn rootworm in regions where that pest is not a problem — in order to get the best varieties. This issue has surfaced in the antitrust investigation. ...The yield of a crop is mainly determined by the seed’s intrinsic properties, not the inserted genes...Mosanto is bound at some point to face diminishing returns from its strategy of putting more and more insect-resistance and herbicide-resistance genes into the same crop, at ever increasing prices.

Monday, October 04, 2010


I'm pretty sure I was the only motorcyclist heading from the piedmont to the suburbs to go riding on such a beautiful Sunday morning. It was a classic fall morning, cool and crisp, with broken grey clouds hugging the horizon while they massed their forces for a late-afternoon assault. Outbound bike traffic was steady and constant, and included some relative exotics, including a beautiful Moto Guzzi, along with the usual assortment of sportbiker and hog herders. I think I even saw my first S1000rr, but it went past so quickly...

The point of my retrograde mission was to help BroT inaugurate his new 2003 R1150r. New to him, it's a low-mileage beauty fully equipped with everything you need to have an outstanding riding experience. We met at his house, giving me the opportunity to watch him don his also-new custom Roadcrafter suit-in fluorescent yellow. The suit, combined with his strobing brakelight, nearly sent me into epileptic convulsions as I rode behind him. But the bright sunlight helped overcome the dazzling suit/brakelight combo, and we were on our way.

We left Falls Church and wound our way through McLean, stopping in downtown McLean to gas up before heading north. We hopped on the beltway and wound the bikes out for a short sprint, savoring the thrill of the superslab oh-so-briefly, before exiting to the Clara Barton Parkway towards Great Falls.

I must say, as odd or counterintuitive as it may have seemed to leave the piedmont and head into the suburbs to go riding, it was a kind of homecoming for me. When I worked in town, by lunchtime most days I was ready to get out of the building and screw my head back on straight with a short-but-spirited ride, a condensed road trip that could be shoehorned into a workday.

These were some of my favorite riding roads for a quick out-and-back when I only had an hour or so to spend riding, and I hadn't ridden some of them in years. As we approached MacArthur boulevard, I knew immediately we would be turning left to ride the short-but-sweet, winding stretch of road from Old Angler's Inn-an ascending stretch of sinuous curves that allow you to gently accelerate all the way from bottom to top, and coast all the way on the return.

At the very moment we stopped to turn around, just short of the entrance to Great Falls, a peloton of cyclists launched themselves onto our return path; BroT and I fell in behind them obediently, to the amusement of some of the riders-"Hey, we get a motorcycle escort!" But they rode well, kept their speed up, and I coasted behind them without gaining or falling behind until we reached the bottom of the hill.

We parted ways with the peloton when they swooped onto Clara Barton and we continued on MacArthur, where shortly after, we paused in the warm midday sun for a styrofoam cup of coffee from the local quikee mart. We talked about our bikes (R1150r's, matched for all intents and purposes) and about riding, and watched the traffic pass-bicyclists and pedestrians, joggers with strollers, agitated car-drivers on their cellphones.

The dregs of the coffee watered the shrubs, and we were on the road again. MacArthur, Clara Barton, Chain Bridge, Kirby, Glebe, Williamsburg-all the old familiar traces, made new again. Through an odd set of circumstances, lunch became barbecue in the old neighborhood, signifying this was indeed a bona fide ride, because after all, what is a ride without barbecue?

We returned to BroT's, parked the bikes, and endulged in the obligatory post-ride tire-kicking and self-congratulations. Much discussion of this-and-what, hows-and-whys, what's good and what isn't, then all of a sudden, the sun is heading west-and so must I.

Such a small and quiet moment; yet it's hard to find words to express its immense import. Looking forward to many more such miles, well spent.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cider Time

Looks like cider time is upon us again. We pressed our first batch from mixed summer apples the 10th of September, and subsequently have pressed twice more, for a total of approximately twenty-six gallons under airlock, representing five different variations:

  • 'Primitive'—not treated in any way, but simply allowed to ferment away with whatever yeasts (et cetera) it brung with it. I think I'll call this one 'Rabid Raccoon.'
  • Raspberry—sulfited, pitched with Pasteur champagne yeast, and with a pound of raspberry puree (thank you, Prince...) added. A beautiful rose color at the moment, which seems to change subtly day-by-day.
  • Standard—Sulfited, pitched with Pasteur champagne yeast. 
  • Modified standard—Sulfited, pitched with Nottingham ale yeast
  • Cider-Perry blend—Approximately 60% mixed summer apples, 40% Asian-type pears from our tree. Sulfited, pitched with champagne yeast. Splitting the difference between the apple s.g. of 1.050 and the pear s.g. of 1.040. Six gallons. 
We hope to keep this pace up for the rest of the fall, entering 2011 with a full cider locker. We've had good results this season by making each pressing into three 'cheeses,' filling each bag partially and using all three at once—instead of maxing out the press-basket with one single bag. More juice flows in less time with less effort, making the whole process that much faster. Apparently peasants the world over have known this for millennia, and it only took me twenty years of pressing cider to figure it out.

Stay tuned. We'll see what happens...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hearty Congratulations

Hearty congratulations are in order for BroT, who last weekend passed the Rider Course with flying colors, and was granted a motorcycle endorsement on his license for the first time EVAR, despite having a long and somewhat checkered riding career—albeit, most of that back in his misspent youth.

BroT began his riding career on a Honda 50 step-through scooter, upon which I vaguely recall beginning my career as a pillion. Eventually he moved on to a BSA, and probably a Honda 360 (because who didn't own a Honda 360 back in the day?) and I believe he even rode in such far-away and romantic locales as Guam. In that particular instance, it was a steam-powered motorcycle, fueled with chunks of coconut meat, a la Gilligan's Island.

Later, BroT graduated to a Yamaha XS650, which in its day was quite the performance machine. There is still a fairly large and active enthusiasts group for this particular ride, though for the most part the XS650 that are still running today aren't burdened with a first-generation Vetter Windjammer fairing weighing about as much as a newly-born manatee and only slightly less aerodynamic.

Fast-forward to the immediate present, and in short order, BroT will take delivery of a sweetly-set up 2002 BMW R1150r, in a hideous yellow-ish configuration.'s not what's on the outside that matters. What matters is that BroT will now have the opportunity to go out and attempt to answer the unending question.

Welcome aboard, Bro.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

And Slowly They Appeared, One By One...

We heard the hawk’s cry from far above us at the chicken yard—keening, lonely, intense, insistent. The hard blue September sky was brilliantly clear, and that lone hawk circled far above us, riding the thermal that rose from the stream valley like the more common buzzards.
It was not a menacing presence, to us or to our flock of chickens. They squawked in minor concern, but went about their business without the great consternation they would have displayed had they been truly menaced by a hawk or owl in the immediate neighborhood. A brief time later, we saw the hawk again, circling farther overhead. Then another. And another.
Suddenly, we realized we were seeing the migration of a kettle of Broad-Winged Hawks, members of the Buteo family which migrates from North America, as far north as Alberta, to the tropics. At one point, we could see at least two-dozen individual hawks, briefly pausing just to our south; they appeared to be calling to other hawks in the area before reforming into a long, broad column flying south again.
The sky was too brilliant, and the hawks too distant, for us to discern any detail in individual birds. They were thick, muscular birds, riding the air with grace and power, and they were most deliberate in their travels. Shortly they will be over the Smoky Mountains, as they follow the deflective air currents along the Appalachians towards their winter homes far to our south. Their migrations are an annual event for many bird watchers, and nearby, Shenandoah National Park is a prime migration viewing point—for those not fortunate enough to be able so see them from their back yards.
Interestingly, Monarch butterflies are often seen migrating at the same time. They share the same flyways for the same reasons—seeking the favorable air currents to take them to their wintering grounds in Mexico. We did not see monarchs this time, but have seen them migrating years ago, in Arlington.
They clustered around our butterfly bushes, and slowly ascended the column of air. As we watched them rise, we realized we could see an unbroken line of butterflies as far up into the sky as they could possibly be seen, and they trailed off to both the north and south. They find their way to a place they have never been before, the valley where they were conceived and where their ancestors were conceived for generations out of mind.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sorta Counter-Intuitive, Innit?

…Bicycle, scooter, motorcycle…couriers are sought. As always, only couriers with direct DC courier company experience will be considered. Those highly experienced and capable couriers must also be hard working, dependable, polite, clean, and intelligent. You are not yet qualified…just because you enjoy bike riding and working outdoors, are a good rider or fast learner, or because you've done courier work in another city, delivered pizza, flowers, furniture, or hardware, drove a taxi, built an aqueduct in Africa, or really think you can do the job if given a chance. One must begin one's 'career' elsewhere, and perhaps try back after at least six months to learn the business. It's not necessarily that you are not capable of learning, it's just that we are not interested in teaching, or in taking the extra time and effort required to help you learn…
I pulled this nifty little quote off the internet this morning. It's from the website of a D.C.-area messenger service, from the 'employment' heading (Not that I was looking). Despite the lapse into the passive voice, I find the tone charmingly engaging, and can almost hear the speaker. I give them props for specifying “…hard working, dependable, polite, clean, and intelligent,” characteristics that, if I recall correctly, were frequently left by the wayside by many of those responsible for hiring couriers.

But I must take serious exception to the fundamental philosophy on display. There’s a slightly delusional whiff of hubris about it, a haughty arrogance that I think is undeserved. Come on guys—being a bike messenger ain't rocket surgery, is it?

Back in the day, I took the diametrically opposite approach.

My ads called for “Enthusiastic Bicyclists—Experienced couriers need not apply.” Despite the occasional offended phone call from irate couriers, who would attempt to convince me of the error of my ways, it was a pretty fool-proof approach. The ad attracted a caliber of bicyclist who might not have considered working as a courier, but loved the idea of making money by bicycling. These riders were definitely cut from a different cloth than your typical bike messenger, and that was a real plus in what is first and foremost a people-oriented service business.

My logic was two-fold: First, I attracted good, interesting staff for whom, frankly, the pay was a secondary consideration (the mantra was “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this…”). Second, I didn’t have to break the bad habits that someone picked up at a poorly-run competitor, also known as the ‘beaten-dog syndrome.’

Rookies were paired with a trainer of my choosing for two days. Day one, the rookie followed and observed, shadowing their trainer's every move; day two, the rookie did all the work and the trainer observed. Day three, the rookie was up and running solo as a productive member of the team—assuming the trainer gave their blessing. If somehow an unqualified person slipped through my net, the trainer had the authority to recommend they be dismissed. A small investment of time and money yielded a smart, capable, reliable fleet of enthusiastic bicyclists.

Now, this is not to say that I didn’t engage in some “poaching” from time to time, if I came across someone riding for a competitor whose work ethic, people skills and intelligence I admired. But I didn’t have the patience for running a ‘cattle call’ for disgruntled, dissatisfied, underperforming hooligans who I had no intention of ever unleashing on our customers. (They would do us so much more good working for the competition…)

I know for a fact some of my best riders—people who became my close friends, and who have gone on to happy, successful, satisfying lives as real people in the real world—were rejected by the company quoted above. It’s a perfectly valid business model. I just don't think it's a very smart one, and it's not a policy I would ever agree with.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Allman Brothers Band, Live At Fillmore East (1971)

Wow: Listening to it again for the first time—Four sides of incredible vinyl awesomeness. A couple of full-vinyl record side jams (...carried over onto "Eat A Peach" with the amazing two-vinyl record side 'Mountain Jam.') What shows those must have been in March 1971.

Obligatory motorcycle content: Duane Allman and Berry Oakley both died in senseless motorcycle accidents within about a year of each other—the classic vehicle turning left in front of them. Better rider training et cetera might have let them age into senescence and irrelevance, ala Chicago. We'll never know.

But damn, what an album...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Testosterone Poisoning, Squared

The other day I read a little blurb beneath the fold in a local paper. Seems a local LEO received minor injuries (treated & released) when he lost control of his vehicle while pursuing a motorcyclist who was "driving recklessly" and "speeding."

Does anyone sense any irony here?

Apparently the LEO began pursuit without notifying dispatch, a requirement I believe is standard in most police departments. Some jurisdictions—like those who have lost multi-million dollar lawsuits resulting from police pursuits gone awry—require a supervisory officer to approve pursuits, put restrictions on the circumstances which justify pursuits, and allow supervisors to call off pursuits when appropriate.

Nevertheless, this LEO began pursuit of the offending motorcyclist, and while the motorists sharing the highway were able to move aside and make a clear path, somehow the rear end of the police car left the roadway and the LEO overcompensated, crossing over the road and going off the other side. (The article was not clear on the exact path of the police car).

Shortly downstream, the motorcyclist collided with a signpost, abandoned his bike, and fled the scene on foot. He was arrested a short time later at a nearby residence. Not surprisingly, he was found to lack a motorcycle endorsement on his license, as well as insurance, registration and inspection on his bike. My guess is he was also in possession of a mullet, facial hair, multiple tattoos and a wife-beater as well, but there's no accounting for taste.

Neither of these guys comes off looking too great here. I have absolutely zero sympathy for the motorcyclist; he should go to jail and never hold a license again (not like that would keep him from driving, in any case). But "reckless driving" and "speeding" are somewhat subjective terms. I can imagine a lot of normal, reasonable, safe behaviors on a motorcycle that could be construed unsympathetically as 'reckless.' Speeding is another matter—but I'd like to see the evidence before assuming this 'fact' is factual.

But for a LEO to engage in a motor vehicle pursuit is second only to deciding to unholster his weapon and draw down on a person in terms of awesome responsibilities. It represents an irrevocable life-and-death decision involving not just the LEO and the person he is pursuing, but that person's innocent passengers and the driving public at large.

In an age of instant communication, it makes no sense to willfully engage in deadly and unnecessary actions, contravened by well-known safety concerns and broadly understood best-practices. A simple radio call can alert authorities downstream of a potential malefactor without endangering the public. An officer patiently waiting in a suspect's neighborhood for his return home offers a similar potential for a successful apprehension, minus the risk to all.

Yes, I am second-guessing the LEO and Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking as well. I can't imagine the harm that motorcyclist presented to the public which was so egregious as to demand a vehicular pursuit. If there are policies in place concerning such pursuits, and the LEO in question ignored or contravened them, then perhaps he should be restricted to driving a desk for the same period of time the motorcyclist is consigned to being a pedestrian.

In recent months, there have been a rash of high-speed pursuits of motorcyclists by various local LEAs—mostly for speeding—resulting in crashes and serious injuries to the motorcyclists involved. Unless the motorcycle is a getaway vehicle for a serious felony, speeding—by itself—should not be justification for an officer initiating a pursuit with potentially fatal consequences for more than just the suspect. (Note: Please don't start with the "...flight implies guilt" nonsense. Being stupid—last time I checked—is not a capital offense in this country. Good thing, too.)

All I take away from this incident is two men operating high-performance vehicles. One has been granted the power of life and death by the state; the other is cursed with a serious case of the stupids. Each seems to suffer from a bad case of testosterone poisoning. Maybe next time something like this comes up, the more grown-up of the parties involved can ratchet it down just a notch before someone really gets hurt.

A Dry Season

Yesterday I walked down the bed of our little stream, from the culverts at the road all the way down to the deep pool. Dry stones clinked and clattered beneath my feet; the coarse sand banks crunched and gave way freely as I trod them. Save the shallow pools and puddles every few yards, the stream bed was bone dry.

The stones and sand served as a canvas for countless animal tracks—the deep gouges made by the abundant deer who bounded across the stream in their travels from woods to fields; the delicate, busy marks of the tiny-handed raccoons, the direction-less skitterings of anonymous birds.

The rapidly diminishing pools and puddles were crammed full of frantic minnows, dashing from one side to the other, desperately seeking room to move. They shared their tiny oasises with a handful of frogs and crayfish, the former shown only by their sudden leaping from the shore to the water at my approach, the latter identifiable by the distinctive tracks they left in the muddy bottom.

This now represents the third summer of the five we have lived on this hilltop in the woods to face drought. The abundant snows of last winter—more than two feet worth that slowly melted, lingering into March—seem to have done little to ameliorate the long, hot, dry summer's impact. Learning year-by-year, we have gradually added a dozen rain barrels to help buffer the rain across the dry spells. But when there is no rain, the rain barrels can offer little help; they were tapped dry several times over.

Last night, we received our first real rain in over a month—maybe an inch. Today holds the promise of more rain to come, but I am not holding my breath. An inch of rain, coming on the heels of such a drought, does little but dampen the top layer of soil and temper the wildfire danger for a few days. The mindless voices on the radio are already chirping about the beautiful days that will start the workweek—more warm, dry, sunny days, which we need right now like a hole in the head. I would be happy for a nice, collapsing tropical storm that drizzled steadily on us for a couple of days straight.

Keeping fingers crossed.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

City Girl in The Dirt

Campaigner was an ‘83 R80st, BMW’s short-lived, streetified variant of the dual sport R80GS. She spent most of her life getting flogged around on the streets of D.C., (a true city girl at heart) but once in a while, she got the chance to feel the grass beneath her wheels and get off-road for a bit.

The ST’s rear wheel came on and off easily (like a car’s wheel, by way of three nuts) and I had a spare rim fitted with a knobby tire for just such opportunities. From time to time we mounted the knobby and took her to Windy Hill, the eight acres of rolling, hilly open land in the Shenandoah Valley where my mother lived.

In the grassy fields, the kids would ride in front of me, holding onto the tank bag, or behind me, depending on where they fit better at the time. We would rip madly from one corner of the field to the other, dashing wildly up and down the slopes without worries of traffic or other distractions, only bothered by the clouds of grasshoppers we disturbed en route. Solo, I would practice J-turns and power slides, occasionally going arse-over-teakettle into the weeds, but never getting so much as a bruise.

Across the way from Windy Hill, prominent to the northeast, was a big hill—or maybe a small mountain. It rose about five or six hundred feet from its base in the valley at Ida to a wooded summit. A wide swath of this hillside was pastureland, and broad strip of open space ran up the hillside most of the way to the top.
I couldn’t look at that hillside without wondering what it was like to sit at the wood’s edge, along the top of that long alpine-looking pasture, and see the view back to where I stood. So one summer afternoon, I took Campaigner and we went to the weathered farmhouse at the base of the hill to introduce ourselves.

I told the old man who stood in the farmyard I was the son of the woman who lived across the road. Whether he knew her or not, I can’t recall. But I explained my interest in exploring his hillside, and he didn’t seem to mind—at the moment, most of his cattle were occupied elsewhere. As long as I didn’t make any trouble and closed the gates on my way through, I was free to go up the hill.

I thanked him and promised to respect his property. I think, truth is, he was kinda tickled to see us there. He sure seemed to take a shine to Campaigner in a crooked-grinning-John-Deere-Cap-removing-head-scratching sorta way. I suspect he may have been recalling a long-lost motorcycle adventure from the shadow of the past as I rode off.

Now, putting a knobby tire on an 800cc BMW doesn’t qualify it as a ‘dirt bike,’ any more than putting a Viking hat on a puppy lets it sing Wagner. For one thing, it’s a big bike, and the suspension lacks the travel serious off-roading demands. But it has loads of torque at low speeds, and it’s fairly nimble overall; it still had the original wide bars, so controlling it was easy. With this in mind, I slowly made my way through the dusty farmyard, getting the feel of the place, and paused to open the metal gate leading to the pasture—and to the hillside I had admired from afar so many times.

Closing the gate behind me, I paused to take in the view and envision my line to the top. The flat field let to a series of gentle rises, undulating and building towards the last stretch—a long, uninterrupted run up the hillside to the treeline.

The grass was cropped short by the grazing cattle; this made the contours of the land conspicuous, and it was mostly a matter of picking my way between various natural and man-made obstacles: roots, rocks and tree stumps, abandoned equipment and fenceposts. As I gained speed, I stood up on the footpegs in true off-road fashion, letting my legs absorb the rise and fall of the terrain. Campaigner eagerly ate up the rolling ground, and shortly we were riding a dirt rollercoaster with abandon, gradually working our way back and forth across the broad slope.

The perfect line to the top began presenting itself. The pasture opened up in a straight shot all the way to where the grass petered out and the trees began—some five hundred feet in elevation from where we started. One more small rise to cross, then we’re home free.

I kept my eyes on the long line towards the summit as we crossed that small rise.

Only it wasn’t a small rise.

It was a ravine. A deep ravine, hidden by the lay of the land.

I watched in slow motion, waiting for—for the earth to come back, I guess. Instead, it kept falling away without revealing a bottom. Or so it seemed for the eternity I was poised there. I noted with detachment the collection of old appliance dumped there: several refrigerators and freezers, washers and dryers, lying haphazardly where they were dumped countless years before. Their colors: white, pastel pink, pastel green, rusty brown; each representing the epitome of fashion for the era from which it was expelled.

Just before Campaigner’s rear tire cleared the ground, I grabbed a great big honking fistful of throttle, and gassed her into space; she pitched up and flung herself across. We hit the far side with the front tire on flat ground, the rear tire frantically clawing earth. I came down on the gas tank hard enough for it to knock the wind out of me, and held on for dear life until I knew we were on solid ground. 

Heart pounding and metallic taste in the back of my mouth, I paused safely past the edge, still standing on the pegs. I never did actually see the bottom of the ravine—cluttered with debris as it was—but at that moment I knew if I had started falling, I never would have stopped.

I was still only halfway up the hillside, with most of the intriguing open strip still above me. I caught my breath, stood on the pegs again and began to pick my way up the hill.

Hillsides are wildly fractal affairs. The smooth, delicate surface they present from a distance reveals itself, on closer examination, to be as rugged and tortured as their parent mountains, just on a different scale. The ravine was an example; the broad open space I saw from afar was in fact, rough, eroded terrain, littered with rocks, stumps and lumpy hillocks of tuft grasses.

We made our way slowly—never getting out of second gear—making little more than a walking pace for the rest of the climb. Where the pasture turned to forest, the ground was scattered with random chunks of logs, remnants from some-long ago clearing effort. My line dwindled to little more than a vague footpath before ending where the logs encroached for good.

At this point, there was no mistaking an R80st for a real dirt bike. Campaigner could go no further. Stopping, I dismounted, propped one hot cylinder head against a log and shut off the engine. I sat on the ground and stretched out my legs as the bike cooled, snapping a few pictures from this exalted vantage point. The hillock where Windy Hill sat just a stone's throw away looked very small and very flat from here. Trees hid the house from view, but parts of the drive, the garden and the fields were plain to see. I swept the crystalline vista that spread before me—Ida…Windy Hill…Stanley…Massanutten…New Market Gap…Little North Mountain and the Alleghenies, stretching far off to the hazy southwest.

I had accomplished what I set out to do—to explore the beckoning hillside and once there, to see what I could see. On the way up, I learned a little bit about off-road riding, and some other ‘life lessons’ that I squirreled away—like something about ‘looking before leaping’ and ‘making assumptions’ and ‘keeping your eye on the ball’ and so forth.

The return trip, following a decent interval, was calm and uneventful; mostly low-gear riding that let the engine to do the braking. I cut a wide swath around the hidden ravine, and saw a different slice of the hillside on the reverse trip. Sore and tired, I paused once again at the gate, then rode the short distance back up to Windy Hill, to continue the important business of showing the kids what motorcycles are all about. 

The Ten Best-Looking BMWs you’re likely to actually see:

Because you can never have enough top-ten lists:

1.   R100RS  (1976-1984)
2.   R65LS  (1981-1985)
3.   K75S (1985-1995)
4.   K100RS (1983-1992)
5.   R1100S (1998-2005)
6.   R90S (1973-1976)
7.   R75/5 LWB “Toaster” (1969-1973)
8.   R69S (1960-1969)
9.   R100S (1976-1980)
10. R80ST (1982-1984)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Motorcyclist's Bestiary

Viewing the world from the saddle of a motorcycle offers you a unique—and generally confrontational—perspective on wildlife.

The animals you encounter while riding will tend to fall into one of five categories. Note that this listing is not comprehensive, and generally addresses Eastern North America. Obviously, there will be some overlap among the categories, but you’ll get the general idea:

1. Big Enough To Seriously Eff Your Ess Up:

Moose & Elk
The Maritime Provinces of Canada indicate “Moose hazard” by a triangular yellow sign showing the silhouette of a standing moose and a crumpled car. There’s a reason for that. Colliding with a moose will not necessarily damage your motorcycle—odds are, your bike will continue happily down the road for some considerable distance before it realizes it left you plastered on the moose’s ribcage as it blithely passed beneath it.
Cows, Calves & Horses; also Black Bears
Livestock are very clever and persistent about finding the weak spots in their enclosures—see “other side of fence, grass is always greener on.” A slow moving, irritable and unpredictable wall of meat is the last thing you want to see chewing its cud on your line.
And that big “black plastic trash bag” slowly blowing down the shoulder of the road? It may actually weigh two or three hundred pounds, and have sharp pointy things at several of its extremities.
A close encounter of the worst kind will be really bad for both of you. All three of you, if you count the bike.
Whitetail Deer
See also “Did Not Evolve In The Presence Of Motor Vehicles.” Deer have a defensive strategy of a) freezing completely motionless when they sense a threat; b) if the threat continues approaching, waiting until the threat is nearly upon it, then bolting in an unpredictable direction. This makes sense: If the deer fled sooner, it would give the predator a greater opportunity to identify its escape vector. Waiting until the last instant preserves its options.
But when the perceived threat is an inanimate object with absolutely no interest in prey of any kind, this response is less useful. As the “pursuit curve” does not actually concern the deer, responding as “prey” is inappropriate.
Deer-Motorcycle conflicts generally end very badly for the deer, and with mixed results for the motorcyclist and motorcycle. With good gear, good training, experience and a good bike, a rider can frequently remount with little more than bumps and bruises and a gut full of adrenaline. More commonly, the outcome is a few broken bones (collar, rib, wrist…), a few hundred dollars in repairs to the bike, and a ditch full of venison.
Winged Threats
Accipiters (those big meat-eating birds including hawks, eagles, owls and vultures) thrive along the edges of forests and roadways, where they have easy access to a steady supply of fresh road kill as well as good access to small animals living in the fringes.
Unfortunately, those who hunt from these locations do not check peripherally before launching an attack; they swoop down low and fast, focusing on their distant prey, and often fly directly across the path of oncoming traffic.
Likewise, carrion eaters with full bellies tend to take off low and slow before gradually gaining altitude. A highway-speed encounter between a low-flying vulture and a motorcyclist will be unpleasant, to say the least, as several biker have found out the hard way.

2. Crazy Enough To Make You Eff Your Ess Up All By Yourself:

Dogs, Cats, Squirrels and Foxes (et cetera)
All wildly unpredictable creatures. Furthermore, we have strong personal and cultural aversions to injuring animals which we have anthropomorphized since childhood. This combination creates a situation where our response to the presence of the animal is more of a threat to our safety and well-being than the animal itself is.
Hitting the animal would be regrettable and unfortunate, and would certainly make most riders feel a not insignificant remorse. However, most riders would concur that swerving into oncoming traffic or riding into an immovable roadside object to spare a dog/cat/squirrel would be a much worse choice.
For the past few years, I have been consciously training myself to ignore small, fast, twitchy animals within a certain radius of Beast. In effect, I created a rolling blind spot. I will not endanger myself for the sake of a creature whose actions I cannot control.

3. Clearly Did Not Evolve In The Presence Of Motor Vehicles

Opossums, Porcupines and Skunks
All evolved fascinating defense strategies against predators. Unfortunately, they are useless against motor vehicles.

4. “I’ll Take Arthropods for $200, Alex—"

There are countless ways bugs mess you up. My personal favorite was catching a flying cicada in the middle of my tee-shirted sternum at about 50 MPH—35 of it mine, 15 of it his. It felt like I had been shot, and I expected to see blood pouring down my chest. Also: stinging insects flying into your helmet, butterflies landing across your face, bug splatters obscuring your vision and otherwise distracting you from the task at hand.

5. Obligatory Assists

Anytime I encounter a live reptile or amphibian in the road—turtle, snake, frog or toad—I’ll make an effort to move it along in the direction it is headed. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle nudge with the toe of my boot. Other times, it means parking the bike, walking back, picking it up and gently tossing it across a ditch or fence*. I think we’ve stacked the deck too heavily against these little beasts; it’s appropriate to lend a hand from time to time.

*Hey, it didn’t look like a rattlesnake from a distance.

One more snide remark at H-D's expense, in passing...

"H.O.G.," the "Harley Owners Group," is—to my knowledge—the only factory-sponsored motorcycle affinity group.

Among the handful of Beemer aficionado groups I can think of, not a one receives any sponsorship from BMWNA; hell, BMWNA generally won't give them the time of day.

But the factory backing its own enthusiast club? Isn't that like, oh, I don't know—paying someone to take your sister on a date?

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Fitting Denouement

The sorghum ale has found it's target demographic at last.

I've taken to giving the chickens a bottle or two of it in the afternoon, 'round bout the time humans would be knocking off for a brewski or two. They don't care much for the head, and the carbonation seems to perplex them something awful, but once it settles down a bit, they're on it like white on rice.

Carbohydrates, B vitamins, yeasty sediment? What's not to like? And a chicken with a gizzard-load of homebrew is just a happier chicken, you know?

Rebels and Romantics

Winding my way across Bethel Mountain Road, I mulled over a conversation my friend and I had the night before regarding the phenomenon of the venerable V-twin motorcycle.

He recently had the opportunity to take a big twin out for a spin on the interstate, and while apparently enjoying the hell out of the noise and the ape-hangers and the visceral thrill of it, he did confirm that it—and here I quote verbatim: “…rode like a paint shaker.”

We pondered the popularity—nay the dominance—of such an inherently discomfort-inducing engine design (two large-bore cylinders, 45-degrees apart, sharing a single crankpin), in the end unable to come to any particular conclusion other than “there’s no accounting for taste.”

However, as I darted in and out of the cool shade on the serpentine road, I vaguely recalled something that shed light on the inexplicably ubiquitous V-twin, and helped me make sense of something that had baffled me for decades.

I recalled that in some indigenous cultures around the world, there is a custom I would describe as “conspicuous impracticality.” Owning something impractical as a status symbol. It indicates someone well-enough off to afford something not utilitarian, someone who is not devoted strictly to the business of surviving day-to-day, someone who has enough excess to afford something frivolous.

I have long made the argument  (disingenuously, no doubt) that the choice of motorcycle is practical, reasonable, rational and pragmatic in the extreme. Yet buried within that sober message is an unacknowledged betrayal, a bit of casual dissembling that denies the irrational passion at the heart of motorcycling. I can make a convincing case for the rationality of motorcycles and motorcycling—but cannot disguise that motorcycling is, in fact, an irrational undertaking of the highest order.

A corollary to my disingenuous argument is the passion with which V-twin partisans look askance at sleekly faired, vaguely insect-like sportbikes. They sneer at ‘rice burners’ and ‘crotch rockets’ as soulless, bland, antiseptic machines wholly without personalities or redeeming qualities, stamped out by robots for robots. Sentiments like “I’d rather push ‘X’ than ride ‘Y’”—that sort of thing.

 I must admit I agree with them to a certain extent.

There is an icy heartlessness in the Teutonic Bauhaus functionality of my third-generation boxer twin sportbike. It is a digital bike, far removed from its analog airhead ancestors, and it roars like an angry sewing machine when provoked. Those who design the public face of sportbikes must temper their aesthetic aspirations against the unrelenting logic of the wind tunnel and the dynamometer. Convergent evolution, forcing the same demands on all manufacturers, pushes all sportbikes into a narrower and narrower pathway, stripping away any real distinctiveness—they all appear somewhat related. I admit to generally having a difficult time distinguishing one marque from another at any distance.

Not so for the brash art deco exuberance of the endlessly customized V-twins, for which the sky is the limit—vis the extreme customization (unto utter unridability) of the “butt jewelry” cranked out by the fertile minds inhabiting the world of the chopper.

The stereotypical posture of “motorcyclists v. society” is one of rejecting staid societal mores, of adolescent rebellion writ large. First codified by  Marlon Brando’s “Johnny” and Lee Marvin’s “Chino” in “The Wild One,” (a fictional exploitation of a real, though wildly sensationalized, and insignificant incident in Hollister, California) this rebellious dynamic was updated for a new generation a decade-and-a-half later by  Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” and Dennis Hopper’s  “Billy.” Different era, different drugs—same rejection of society’s conventions.

Fast forward from the 1969 of “Easy Rider” to 2010: Harley-Davidson holds the largest portion of the domestic motorcycle market; cruisers (H-Ds, plus their endless clones and imitators) dominate the industry.
Having birthed and fledged the “Buell” thought experiment—supplying H-D engines for modern, high-tech, high-performance sport bikes designed and built by motorcycle visionary Eric Buell—H-D clawed Buell back into the nest—and smothered it.

In killing the Buell marque, H-D squashed any possibility of internecine market fragmentation and consolidated its grip on the centerpiece of its brand appeal—its iconic legacy engines, a technology largely unchanged since decades before “The Wild One.”

 But at the same time H-D has risen to the top of the motorcycle manufacturing world, the prices of its products have likewise risen, likely placing them firmly out of reach of any latter day ‘one-percenters.’ Today, the average H-D owner is a white man pushing fifty and pulling down around seventy-seven thousand dollars a year. Financing is the most popular option, and the most profitable part of H-D’s portfolio. If today’s new H-D buyers were asked, like Johnny in “The Wild One,” “What’re you rebelling against?” do you expect they would reply with “…Whaddya got?”

Sadly, I suspect there is not the least whiff of rebellion against the values of society about these latecomers to the game—“Rubbies,” as they are so dismissively known, for ‘Rich Urban Bikers.’ I suspect beneath the officially logoed leather vests and wallet chains and officially licensed do-rags, they are more likely to be the enforcers of a status quo than its upenders.

No, the statement they make is not one of rejection and rebellion against “…whaddaya got?” but instead one of status, of being well-established enough, ensconced in the management class to afford not rebellion but conspicuous impracticality.

Certainly, the rise of the Rubbie has coincided with the rise of corporatist cubicle culture, that fiercely reductionist engine grinding away all that is not practical, pragmatic, purposeful, leaving behind a skeletal right-sized world of beige boxes occupying modular grey spaces. We are all shaped—like those sportbikes in their windtunnels—by the unrelenting demands of a uncaring corporate machine seeking to maximize throughput and minimize overhead.

Meanwhile, the guise (dare I say costume?) of ‘biker’ has been drained of any menace by this dress-up Rubbie charade. Biker garb (like its sibling signifier, the tattoo) may garner a passing notice, but it has long since lost any frisson of danger—of denoting someone you’d best not cross.

While I would never go as far as to actually ride a H-D, (…pause to adjust monocle…) I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. It is the same sentiment that drove the Luddites, that drove the original Dutch saboteurs, that still drives the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites. It is the sense that new technology should not be embraced for its own sake, but that technologies should be critically evaluated and judged for the quality of life they yield.

Will the change make things better? Will we put the time saved to good use? Will we become enslaved by the technologies we embrace? What do we stand to lose? The burden should be squarely on any new technology to demonstrate its improving the quality of our lives—not on us conform and make ourselves fit a new technology.

It is not the black leather trappings of Brando’s “Johnny,” rejecting Eisenhower’s America. It is a more universal statement of rebellion: a rebellion against the juggernaut of mindless technological progress, a throwing down of a fingerless, studded black-leather gauntlet, saying in no uncertain terms “The tide of change stops here!

Well, damn straight, brothers. I’m with you. Let’s ride.

I realize that in the above, I've made a mush of two related ideas. For the sake of my own sanity, vanity and editorial pride, let me see if I can restate things so I might even understand what I'm trying to say: 

  1. The appeal of the V-Twin—which is lost on me—is that it represents resistance to change for the sake of change.
  2. Motorcycling per se is no longer rebellion against the status quo, but has become an  expression of status.
  3. This expression of status, while most frequently expressed via the V-Twin, is not directly related to the V-Twin in and of itself; therefore, I am dancing dangerously close to post hoc ergo propter hoc territory.
  4. Enough bullshit. Let's ride.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Notes to a Newbie

So you think you want to start riding. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Beginning Rider's Course. NOW. Wait lists can be long, and classes aren't always offered year-round. A Friday evening, a Saturday and a Sunday, then Wa-fricking-la, you've got your license.

If you're already riding, then sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Beginning Rider's Course. Once you've passed that (should be simple, right?) then take the MSF's Experienced Rider Course.

2. Don't kid yourself about the size bike you're going to start out on. A 250 may not be 'big enough to get you into trouble,' but it sure as hell isn't big enough to get you out of trouble—and that's a much more likely scenario. Think 650cc minimum to start.

3. Allocate a grand ($1,000.00) beyond the purchase price of your bike for gear: helmet, boots, gloves, riding suit, rain gear and incidentals. If you're lucky and smart, you'll come in under that amount. Check online sources like You can certainly get by with boots, gloves and jackets you already own, but sooner or later you will want motorcycle-specific gear to address the unique challenges riding presents.

4. The first 6 months/600 miles on a new bike are the most dangerous. This learning-curve counter resets with each new bike.

5. Three simple rules: (A) You are invisible (B) Everyone is out to kill you (C) The worst thing will happen in the worst place at the worst time—be ready for it. Always operate with these rules in mind and you'll have a fighting chance.

6. You're the one who decided to undertake the risky activity—don't expect anyone else to look out for you and don't whine when they don't.

7. Riding is like any other kind of outdoor activity, except more so. You are subject to sunburn, windburn, dehydration, fatigue, hyperthermia and hypothermia—sometimes all in the same ride (BTDT). Dress appropriately and plan for the weather to change. Odds are any given ride will be colder than you expected, and cold (especially the early stages of hypothermia) affects your judgement insidiously. Carry thin, light extra layers you can take off and put on easily. In an emergency, plastic trash bags and newspapers make great raingear and insulation.

8. ATGATT: "All The Gear, All The Time." No excuses. Lots of riders have died from stupid, simple 'just-going-to-the-corner-to-get-milk' incidents while wearing flip-flops, tank tops and sunglasses. At a bare minimum, the MSF course requirements: Long sleeves, long pants, helmet, full-fingered gloves, sturdy shoes.

9. Know your limits. Have that conversation with yourself everytime you get on the bike. If you're not 100%, find some other way to get there. Always ride 'your own ride,' as they say. Don't ride a pace you aren't comfortable with, regardless of your riding company.

10. Don't be an ass—Just being on a bike doesn't give you any special rights or privileges.

Cool Air (2009)

August departed promptly, and took summer’s thick cloak of haze and humidity with it; September dawned cool, brilliantly clear, blue and bejeweled with dew. We have reached mid-September with the weather remaining modestly in character. I have lived in this area long enough to expect that eventual sucker-punch of debilitating, energy-sapping Indian summer, but keeping our fingers crossed, this weather is all we could hope for.

Riding weather, at last.

On cool clear nights such as these, the still air stratifies. This layering is not apparent to the eye, but it is obvious to an exposed rider. The gently rolling hills have their heads in a stratum of mild warm air but their feet in a pool of heavy frigid air—a difference of fifteen degrees from crest to trough. The visual cue I had not noted before was the highly local fog—“patchy fog” the weather people call it. Looking out across the piedmont from a high vantage point, the landscape is dotted with dozens of small smoking smudges. Each reveals the presence of a body of water—usually a man-made pond or lake, otherwise invisible, concealed by vegetation or terrain or sightlines.

Once I made the connection, I began to recognize the long low horizontal (and clearly artificial) line of a dam; set back from and above the road, the water was unseen. But these pools hold heat in their water, and when the air temperature suddenly drops, they work to reach their own equilibrium by driving water vapor into the air above them. This appears as fog, and in some places, it pours like a viscous fluid down a grade—following the flow of the cooler, heavier air—and out across the landscape. I rode through such a flow the other day, an eerie experience: like a spill of some inscrutable spongy mass, it rolled from a field down an embankment and across both lanes of the road. My head was above it, my body immersed in it; my passage roiled it into dissolution.

This morning I rode among tendrils of fog here and there, and the rising sun shone—from one moment to the next—first from below the plane of the fog, defining it as a ceiling; then from above the fog, making it the floor. Similar to flying through layers of clouds in an airplane, but on a more human scale.

The air has a taste and feel of its own, filled with liquid exhalations of the thousand flowers blooming in late summer exuberance, the goldenrod and ironweed, loosestrife and Joe-Pye weed, the late-passing Queen-Anne’s lace and countless other stems large and small whose riotous color spreads across the fields. Their days are numbered—these cool evenings but a prelude to the chill nights to come—the inevitable frost waiting just a few weeks out ahead of us. We will get all the blooming in that we can before that frost calls an end to our fun.

Friday, August 27, 2010

First Drafts from Folsom Prison

I shot a man in Reno just to see if the gun still worked.
I shot a man in Reno for changing lanes without signalling.
I shot a man in Reno for driving with his turn signal on.
I shot a man in Reno for driving fifteen miles below the speed limit.
I shot a man in Reno for driving in the passing lane.
I shot a man in Reno for tailgating.
I shot a healthy man in Reno for parking in the handicapped space.
I shot a man in Reno for parking in the fire lane.
I shot a man in Reno for improperly using apostrophe’s.
I shot a man in Reno all the way from Tahoe.
I shot a man in Reno for using ‘reactionary’ when he mean ‘reactive.’
I shot a man in Reno for talking on his cellphone in the movie.
I shot a man in Reno for wearing a ‘Guinness’ shirt while drinking a Bud Lite.
I shot a man in Reno for generically referring to motorcycles as ‘Harleys.’
I shot a man in Reno for randomly using “quotation” marks.
I shot a man in Reno for using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively.’
I shot a man in Reno for misusing the HOV lane.
I shot a man in Reno for arguing with the cashier over a 25¢ coupon.
I shot a man in Reno for having 12 items in a 10-item express lane.
I shot a man in Reno for organizing his entire financial portfolio at the driveup ATM.
I shot a man in Reno for ordering that drink he ordered at Starbucks.
I shot a man in Reno for saying “fewer,” when he meant “less.”
I shot a man in Reno for using ‘your’ when he meant “you’re.”
I shot a man in Reno
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. ü

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beast Music

     I. If I had to pick the exact moment the day began to go off the rails, I have to say it was when I chose to stay in rather than head across the vast parking lot for some fast food. Instead, sometime later that afternoon, stomach grumbling, I opted for a stopgap plastic-wrapped “fish sandwich” ransomed from the vending machine and resuscitated with ninety seconds in the microwave.

That may have been the single most uninspiring lunch of my life.
Besides leaving me neither hungry nor sated, it set a dispiriting, dehumanizing tone that lingered with me like a stale fart until the next morning.
When the workday finally ground to an end, I suited up without any real sense of exhilaration at the prospect of five and a half days of free time to do nothing but ride. I suited up and shuffled out of my cubicle, only to arrive bikeside minus a glove. Sweat was already breaking out under the steamy sun as I carefully retraced my steps back across the parking lot, along the sidewalk, back through security into the building, all the way back to my desk.
Nada. Re-retracing my steps, I spied the errant glove hiding in the shadows within a pace of where I had been standing by the bike. Now completely drenched in sweat, I buttoned up and rolled into rush hour, lurching foot-by-foot the entire mile of the dusty strip to the nearest gas station for a quick top-off before hitting the road.
Forty-five minutes after I first started starting, I actually hit the interstate and found my little niche, tucked in amidst the screaming tractor trailers, in time to get ten minutes of riding before the storm hit. Like flipping a switch, the rain began and within seconds, water stood on the road and the blasting trucks filled the air with filthy spray. I got off the highway and watched the madness from the safety and comfort of a gas station awning while the storm sorted itself out and gradually moved on east.
Welcome to West Virginia. Elapsed time: One hour. Miles travelled: Sixteen. And I could still taste that fish sandwich.
For the next four hours, the storms played cat-and-mouse with me. As I rode northward, the sky would clear, the road would dry, it would be beautiful, and in just a few miles the clouds would regroup and the rain would resume. Twice it got bad enough for me to exit the highway and sit it out; I was not the least bit interested in proving anything on this ride.
Eventually, we reached a compromise—it would rain steadily, but not heavily. And so it did, for the last two hours of the first day of my long anticipated vacation. Which, it so happens, corresponded with the beginning of the real riding part—extricating myself from the superslab and entering the highway hugging the west shore of the Susquehanna.
Admittedly, the rain was gentle and erratic enough that I was able to enjoy the riding and the beautiful mix of mountains and river. But as the road wound on, it slowly began outrunning my riding stamina. I was worn from the workday and the hassles of getting this far; the light was fading, I was chilled from the earlier sweat mixed with the spots where the insistent rain had found its way in my suit, I was hungry, Beast was running low on gas, and I had no idea how far it was to my destination.
Did I mention I planned to camp tonight—tent, sleeping bag, the whole nine yards?
Maybe that goes farther to explain the “going off the rails” than a single fish sandwich from a vending machine. Because in pretty much every instance, ‘camping’ is synonymous with ‘outrunning my stamina,’ ‘chilled,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘low on gas,’ ‘tired,’ ‘getting dark,’ and ‘damp.’ That’s exactly what camping means, at least in our household.
Getting annoyed with myself, I started looking for a motel appropriate to my circumstances, meaning ‘cheap’ and ‘willing to shelter a bedraggled motorcyclist as long as he doesn’t do an oil change in the room and ruin our linens.’ Strangely, the little college town I was passing through seemed to have lots of places catering to parents well-enough off to send their kids to a fancy private college in the foothills of the Poconos and overlooking the confluence of the two branches of the Susquehanna, (read: pricey and fancy) but oddly, fairly few targeting my specific demographic. Hmm. Go figure.
No matter. I would bravely soldier on, trusting fate there would be something appropriate down the road somewhere.
But by now, the rain had abrogated our earlier agreement; it was raining both steadily and heavily. It was full-on dark, and both my visor and glasses were spattered with rain and fogged; oncoming headlights made it almost impossible for me to see the road ahead. I rode awkwardly and hesitantly into the darkness, fumbling my way down the highway until I finally recognized a road of the right aspect heading in the right direction. I followed it.
In short order, it took me to the route number I was looking for. Making a calculated guess between left and right, I turned onto the road and began looking eagerly for my destination—the campground.
Prior to this, I had been riding in daylight or in built-up areas; I was now in the country, and it was very, very dark. Except for the headlights of the onrushing cars, which were very, very bright. I really wasn’t liking this part very much at all. The low-gas warning light had been on for a really long time, and there wasn’t a gas station to be found. There wasn’t much of anything to be found, it seemed.
Then suddenly (…really suddenly, like I had to grab a fistful of brake because all of a sudden there it was, and thank FSM for ABS…) I was there. Oddly enough, at almost the exact instant, two Ducatistis arrived, making us the only folks there on eurobikes—everything else, without fail, was a V-Twin, American or otherwise.
A huge fire burned in a ginormous metal bowl near the entrance. I parked Beast, and slowly, creakily, made my way towards the light and warmth. Squishing my way along, I noted the campground was on the fertile flood plain of the Susquehanna (evidenced by the rich cornfields just beyond the road), which also meant the land was very, very flat, and all that rain that had been falling since I left Virginia four hours ago was sitting right where it fell, all two inches or so of it. Right where my tent was going.
Yeah, I was starting to think that perhaps camping was the weak link in my plan.
But angels can come in all shapes and sizes, and in this case my personal angel was a big, beefy, hirsute, tattooed dude riding a triked Suzuki through the gloom. He introduced himself and invited me to come hang out by the fire. Even more betterer, he actually had a tent available for my use; a great big tent. A great big dry tent. With a queen-sized airbed already set up in it.
Perhaps camping, per se, would not be the downfall of my trip after all.
I retrieved Beast, got her secured near the tent, and offloaded what I needed for the night. Once ensconced in my snug, relatively dry castle, I set out in search of dinner at the roadhouse that sat cheek-by-jowl with the campground, a roadhouse with a line of H-Ds filling the parking lot out front. What a beautiful place to find at the end of the road.
Dinner was a 12-ounce Budweiser longneck, downed in two swallows while standing at the bar. I slogged back through the fog and darkness to my beautiful, beautiful tent, stripped off my clammy riding gear (which had absolutely no chance in hell of doing any drying under the circumstances), climbed into my sleeping bag and fell immediately asleep. I dreamed spectacular dreams of broad rivers rushing, of trucks passing on the road, of trains rumbling by, of big V-Twins firing up and thundering into the night.
Then in the early grey light, I loaded up my gear, paid my respects to my angel as we stood by the smoldering remains of the night’s fire, and rode into the dawn of a new day—firmly on the rails, where I would remain for the duration of the trip.
     II. A Sunday Morning in August, 8:00, a Diner with An Undetermined Number of Calendars on the Kitchen Wall:
“God-damned motorcycles.”
The shoulder belonging to that sentiment wrapped around the door at about the level of my forehead. Oddly, its hidden owner had apparently not noticed me pull up.
Nevertheless, I responded with a hearty “Alleluia, Brother!” as I unzipped my riding jacket and sidled into a convenient booth. “Coffee, please.” The waitress hands me a menu, smiling brightly as the enormous speaker exits, muttering an unintelligible addendum as the door jangles shut behind him.
“Don’t mind him, hon. He wunt talkin’ a you.” A compact woman addresses me across a jumbled plate of home fries and toast crusts, coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other.
I smile back at her. “I probably agree with him, anyhow.”
“Naah. My nephew was just killed last week, riding his motorcycle.”
Suddenly this conversation seemed way too personal to be having so casually on a summer Sunday morning, and the diner seemed to shrink all around us.
“He was twenty-seven. Just back from his third tour in Afghanistan. Got out of the Army. Was getting ready to go back over there as a civilian—you know, as one a those contractors. Gonna make some real money for his trouble.”
The coffee comes. A tall, cobalt blue ceramic mug; two creamers. Too hot to drink right now.
“He left a wife behind. They had a service for him down in Charlottesville—that’s where he was living—and a bunch of his buddies gave him a ‘ride off.’”
“Charlottesville? That’s down near where I’m from.” I pause. “I might have seem him on the road…”
“Yeah.” She offers a brief description of him and of his ride. “Some of his buddies are bringing his ashes up here, his riding buddies.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” I find nothing else to say, and I cannot begin to unpack the onion of sorrow she has conveyed in such a brief conversation—not here, not now. Who was this man—what kind of man was he, that he survived a war in a distant land, made it back safely to his wife and family, just to die alone on the dark streets of his hometown? I think about it for a few moments, then, I can think no further.
“God-damned motorcycles,” I say quietly to myself as my eggs arrive.*
     III. Sometimes when you are riding, it seems like everyone you talk to has, had or wants a motorcycle. Without fail. And they want to share that with you.
Which is really nice.
     IV. Quaint Old Vermont Sayings: “Heavier Than A Dead Minister.” Discuss.**
     V. Route 17 is one of those roads, like Trinity Road in northern California, or U.S. 129 in North Carolina, that are notable less for what they connect than for what they are. The road is the destination; its endpoints are incidental.
I rode Rt. 17 on Campaigner when it was a relatively new bike and I was half my age. I am pretty sure it was the only place I ever ground a valve cover on that R80st while riding. Phil and I drove it (several times, as I remember) in a 5-speed Toyota a decade ago, when his license was fresh and driving was thrilling. Now me and Beast were warmed up on a beautiful summer morning, ready to attack the road west-to-east, Bristol to Waitsfield.
Rt. 17 is exactly the kind of road Beast was built for. Rising steeply from the valley floor, it winds its way up and over the Green Mountains at Appalachian Gap, then descends sharply into the valley to the east, gradually leveling out before reaching Waitsfield. The road itself is a motorcyclist’s dream, two sinuous lanes of frost-heaved asphalt looping, rising and falling from the deciduous forests of the lowlands to the sweetly scented firs and balsams of the summits. Curves build madly upon curves, piling up so rapidly you ride like a rotary phone being dialed.
I had been waiting for this moment for ages—for years. And when the moment came to finally address Rt. 17, I rode Beast like someone’s elderly grandmother. She might as well have had tennis balls stuck on the ends of her fork legs.
Grind the valve covers? Are you kidding me? I didn’t even remove the vinyl slipcovers from the sofa or rearrange the anti-macassars on the rocking chairs. If I had taken a full week to make some easy practice runs, I might have gotten to know the soul of the road well enough to really do it justice. But I didn’t have a week to learn it—I had one pass at it, and I approached it with great reserve, caution, and deference. I rode the rule I learned at the Dragon’s Tail: Your gear equals how many seconds ahead you can see. In some cases, that wasn’t very far ahead at all; I took an awful lot of turns in first or second gear. Nevertheless, I did have a few opportunities to wring Beast out and get to what I came for.
Beast Has A Happy
When we finally arrived at the gap, I pulled in to admire the view, and to get a picture or two. I caught Beast in profile, silhouetted against the western vista as she ticked away the accumulated heat. If she had been a greyhound, she would have been panting hard, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth, with a great big goofy smile plastered across her face.
In the end, it turns out I had a second crack at App Gap, returning in the early afternoon and swapping ascending side for descending side by going westbound. The little bit of practice in the morning let me ride the return much better. I took a much more fluid and graceful approach, and except for getting bottled up behind a gaggle of brake-burning flatlanders for much of the descent, I think I did pretty well.
By the time I reached the valley floor at Bristol, the sport bikers were appearing in buzzy packs of two and three, queueing up eagerly to make their pass over the mountain. In the brilliant primary colors of bikes and riders, they seemed childlike and unserious, expensive toys clad in expensive raiment, out for a moment’s romp in a grown-up’s mountain playground. 
I watch them go by me, and smile.

     VI. "Blue Highways" is a book written by William Least Heat Moon, also known as William Trogdon, describing his journey around the United States in a white van in a time of personal turmoil. He stuck to the "Blue Highways," his term for the lesser highways that Rand-McNally designated in blue in their highway atlases—in contrast to the interstate highway system. Blue Highways take you right up to the edge of people's front yards, with lemonade stands (really), yard sales, gardens & vegetable stands, ramshackle sheds and pristine cottages. You can smell their lunches and their laundry, hear their dogs bark at you, and project your own hopes, fears and wildest imaginations onto the screens of their lives as you flash by.

Interstate Highways, on the other hand—regardless of the scenery they traverse—are a long, slow, soul-sucking passage through the dark twisted colon of corporatist America***.
     VII. What is the World Coming to?
A classic Pennsylvania roadhouse, sitting beside a shady two-lane highway nestled deep in the recesses of anthracite country in northeastern Pennsylvania, and above the door, sticking out from the front of the building where passing traffic can’t miss it, is a beer sign. Actually, it is an Ale sign. For Chimay Ale.
I’m not sure what to make of that, actually.
* I'm pretty sure she was referring to Corey Guthrie.

**Bill Bryson actually discusses this at length in "I'm A Stranger Here Myself."

***I know that on close examination, that analogy falls apart. But I still like the sound of it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Few Words About Turkeys

When we started looking into raising turkeys early this year, we kept coming across a few consistent threads of turkey lore—that they are stupid; that poults have to be shown what to eat at first; that turkeys will stampede at the slightest provocation, trampling and suffocating each other; that turkeys will drown in a heavy rain; that turkeys break their eggs because they lay them standing up, and so on.

I beg to differ.

Our experience may be uncharacteristic, because we are raising Narragansetts, a breed closely derived from the Eastern Wild Turkey. These are not the grotesquely deformed 'Butterballs' which have had their natural avian grace replaced with bland tasteless tumors of white meat. Narragansetts are spectacularly beautiful birds, large, stately and graceful, with woodland markings. They recall, from deep within, what it is to be a real bird. And when the Toms display, they are the very strutting epitome of what any first-grader or buckle-hatted Pilgrim would recognize as a Turkey—gobble, wattle, snood and all.

Unlike chickens, turkeys have a social structure, which implies they have some awareness of individuals. They have elegant, stylized, sometimes comical display and courtship behaviors. They communicate with one another and with the rafter—the term for a group of turkeys—as a whole. They are muscular fliers, and frequently leap into the air and wheel about for no apparent reason, often half a dozen bursting into flight nearly simultaneously.

They are curious and inquisitive, and have a broad vocabulary of vocalizations that seem to express a wide range of moods, from quiet contentment to pique, alarm and distress. A certain distinctive cry will make them all look in a particular direction and freeze for several seconds. They listen attentively to the flock of chickens, who are out of sight and some distance away across the ridge, and will echo and amplify calls of distress or alarm they may hear from their galliform brethren.

They are generally tranquil and appear thoughtful, unlike the frantic and seemingly pointless activity of chickens. They will cock their heads sideways and quizzically watch an airplane far overhead. I would go as far as to say they are affectionate, recalling how when they were younger (and mercifully smaller) as many as seven or nine young turkeys would hop onto my shoulders, back, neck and extended arms until I couldn't support any more. Once there, they would pick at my hair and ears, cooing quietly all the while.

As a way of showing our appreciation for these magnificent birds, we have gone all out in revamping their habitat. We began with significantly expanding the footprint of their enclosure into the adjacent forest on several sides. We then replaced the standard tee-stakes and four-foot welded wire fence with ten-foot black iron pipes driven two-and-a-half feet into the ground and five-foot welded wire.

We then replaced the lightweight netting roof with 2" mesh aviary netting, held up with/suspended from a complex rope web. Large ropes run from tree to tree outside the enclosure, and smaller ropes run from the tops of the pipes, connected to the suspensors through the netting with carabiners. A final run of rope traverses the perimeter of the fence, providing an edge for the netting to be pulled over. It is a spectacular flight cage, a clear-sky tent of swooping catenaries and vast volumes for the birds to play in, with rough-cedar roosts for them to sleep on under the stars.

It is a real pleasure to share the place with them. Many an evening we have spent just sitting, quietly watching them go about their gentle routine of strolling about their enclosure nibbling the odd bit of forage, preening, stretching like little feathered ballerinas, convulsively dirt-bathing or softly dozing off...