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.