When I pulled the Shovelhead out of my garage in North Carolina, it was drizzling and around 48 degrees. My fever had abated somewhat; it might have even finally broken a hundred in the down direction. It was 5:30 AM, a Labor-Day-weekend-Friday. The weather wouldn’t ordinarily have been this sour this early in the fall, but the forecast was for clouds, rain, and unseasonably cool temperatures all the way up I-77 through North Carolina, across the spine of western Virginia on 81, and well into Pennsylvania. I expected the temps to moderate somewhat, but I couldn’t reasonably hope for sunshine until at least Carlisle, Pa. By then it would be almost dark anyway. Red, weepy eyes, check. Snotty nose, check. Headache, check. Full-body aches, check. The gear was in the saddlebags, the gas tank was full, the 1971 Harley 74-inch motor tuned as perfectly as I knew how to do it. I was as ready as I’d ever get. Destination: New York City. A good 12-hour ride away, in the rain, on a Fatbob FLH with apehangers, suicide shift, lousy suspension, and zero amenities.
No, I wasn’t crazy. I was in love. By the end of the day I would be damned sure that there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between the two.
So I rolled the white-and-red-flamed pig out of the driveway, jumped on the starter (kick only, no electric; I was a real man in those days) and rolled. The day looked grim but with the barest likelihood of brightening; I optimistically put on shades instead of goggles. I’d be paying for that choice later.
I’ll bet you think you’ve been cold before. I’m going to tell you right now that you haven’t, not unless you’ve spent hours in the saddle of a bike with no windshield in the rain in the mountains in September, after having spent the last three days sick as a dog from some godawful sort of flu. But to tell the truth, I barely noticed. I was on my way to NYC, and there was somebody waiting for me who was going to make the trip very much worth my trouble. As I sailed up 77 across the Virginia line, my heart was in the clouds – which, I noticed, were getting darker and heavier.
The rain suddenly picked up when I got to the top of the mountain at Fancy Gap. The wind really started to cut loose too; it was getting almost scary. I slogged a few more miles and suddenly realized that I was the only thing moving—every other car and truck was sitting on the shoulder waiting for the storm to pass, and probably snickering at the crazy biker flying blind through a hurricane. I finally pulled over to switch to the goggles; the shades weren’t cutting it, all fogged up and rain-streaked. I couldn’t see fuck-all. I eased over onto the shoulder and whipped the Ray-Bans off my face and stuck ‘em between my teeth. As I eased to a stop a gust of wind ripped them from my mouth and I hit the brakes, coming to a stop about ten feet beyond where they lay on the asphalt. And that’s when things started to get ugly.
I looked back and started paddling the bike backwards to get my prized Wayfarers. There was a solid line of cars parked all along the breakdown lane—you can’t screw up like I was about to without an audience, you know. A mammoth burst of wind came roaring across the highway like the wrath of a pissed-off God and just blew 750 pounds of American-made motorcycle and two hundred pounds of sopping-wet me right over. The wind literally rolled me off the blacktop and into the little ditch at the side of the road.
I yanked the bike back up (adrenaline is a wonderful thing), grabbed the shades, and looked the scoot over. Not a ding, not a scratch to my expensive custom paint. The front brake lever was snapped off, that was it. No biggie, I thought; I’ll buzz out to Brooklyn H-D when I get to the city and grab a new one. I never go anywhere without a minimal tool kit, so I wouldn’t have any problem putting the new one on. The front brake was a drum instead of a disc, and the old Harley drum brakes are about as useful as tits on a boar-hog—i.e., not. I still had the rear disc to stop me, right?
I stopped at Roanoke and topped off the tanks, smoked half a joint in the back corner of a Shoney’s parking lot just to allow me to pretend that things were going well, and then kept toiling ever-northwards. Around Winchester about two-three hours later, the bike coughed. Cool—it’s fuel-stop time again. I switched over to reserve and started scanning exit signs for an Amoco station. My rolling stock gets nothing but Amoco Ultimate, known to farmers everywhere as “white gas” due to its lack of caramel food color, which gunks up your cylinder heads something awful. I know you all think the gas probably all comes from one big tank in the ground, but believe me, it makes a difference when you go to rebuild a motor, pull the heads, and they’re all semi-clean and non-carbonated.
If I remember right, it was the next-to-last Virginia exit. The rain had all but stopped and the temp had moderated somewhat, but it was still chilly; the big Amoco sign looked like my private invitation to a brief tour of Heaven. I could gas up, warm up, maybe grab some coffee. As I dropped off the throttle and started easing onto the ramp, I looked up ahead. Red light at the end of the ramp, and a line of cars waiting for the change. Pas de sweat—lemme just step on the rear brake pedal here, and….
Shit. Nothing. My foot met no more resistance from that brake than a 52-year-old Pamela Anderson will offer when the latest rock-and-roll flavor of the month asks what she’s doing after the show. I was still running probably around 50 or so and all of a sudden that red light with the line of traffic looked to me like the lions in the Colosseum must have looked to the Christians when they first came out of the gate.
I started jamming down through the gears, trying desperately to get back to first to slow the pig down a bit. No way could I get stopped before the intersection; I was going to have to slide by on the shoulder, turn right, and hope that anyone coming through the light was paying attention and mentally prepared to deal with unusual traffic situations, such as a large white Harley suddenly careening semi-controlled into his path. I already knew from bitter experience that my luck wasn’t gonna be anywhere near good enough for me to reasonably expect a green light by the time I got there.
I darted a quick glance to my left, just so’s I could be certain that the oncoming car or truck that I was about to become a permanent feature of was painted a tasteful color at least. It was an old hat-wearing geezer in a beat-up pickup truck. Figures. From the way it looked, the most intensely challenging traffic situation this guy was equipped to deal with was the one he was already negotiating; namely, getting his junky farm truck through a busy intersection when he had the right of way. I kept rolling, leaned the bike over to the right till the pipes scraped, took a last loving farewell look at my left knee (which at that moment was about four feet from his right bumper, and my, doesn’t that thing look big), and closed my eyes to await that sickening metallic crunching sound that would mark the end of my being able to walk without expensive appliances and accessories.
A few seconds go by, and I still seem to be rolling. No crunch, no pain, no topsy-turvy end-over-ending. Hmm. Maybe I should hazard a look…open my eyes and lo, I’m headed for a big shopping-center parking lot. Cool. I hop the curb and grind to a stop in the lot. Another guy in a pickup comes flying up, leaning out the window and yelling, “You okay? You okay?” I seem to be, somehow, and I tell him this. He jumps out and says “I knew something was wrong the way you just blew right through that red light” just as the old geezer pulls up to check on me. I apologize profusely to the old guy and explain that my rear brake failed, and my front brake is gone too. Turns out the young cat is a biker himself. I pull the cap off the master cylinder and see that the fluid has decided not to make the trip with me and got out along the last hundred miles or so of highway. Bad seal, and it’s gonna have to be fixed. Either of you guys know of a Harley shop that stocks master-cylinder rebuild kits for 1971 FLH’s?
“Oh yeah, the dealership is off the next exit about three miles down the road. Can’t miss it.” Cool. So I fire the beast back up and go on down—slowly—to the next ramp. I get to the shop, go straight to parts, and tell my tale of woe, naively thinking that I’m going to get something other than the first-class buggering I ended up with. Silly me.
Harley people used to be famous for looking out for each other. Used to be, a nomad on the road could always count on the local H-D shop for all sorts of consideration and help if he was in trouble. I’ve known shop owners—dealership guys, mind you—who would get out of bed at 2 AM, jump in their pickups, and drive sixty miles in the rain to pick up a stranded biker. That’s just the way things used to be, back befofe a whole bunch of yuppies and Hollywood types hijacked Bikerdom and hauled it off to Planet Dipshit. You know, back when Harley shops sold more bikes than T-shirts and fringe-festooned leather “lifestyle accessories.” A good long while ago, you understand.
So I figured once I made the shop, I was all set. I smiled and told the parts guy what I needed—a front-brake lever and a master-cylinder rebuild kit—and waited while he dug them up. Now, the total cost for those parts back then should have been no more than twenty bucks or so. Imagine my surprise when he tots me up a bill for forty-eight dollars and 73 cents. No way, says I. Au contraire, says he. Chopfallen, I ask if there’s another shop anywhere near here; obviously, I’ve come to a Honda dealer by mistake. Nope, says he. This is the only one. Right.
So I pay up and ask if there’s any place in back where I can do the repairs, just a patch of concrete out of the way someplace. Nope, says he. Well, where should I go, then? “I don’t care, just make sure you’re outside the fence. We’re closing in ten minutes.” Thanks a pantload, buddy. Don’t pretend to care, I might have to marry you. I hump the stuff out to the gravel lot, dreading the inevitable, which is that I drop one of the teensy pieces from the rebuild kit and it disappears into the heavy gravel, no doubt to end up burrowing through the Earth’s core and popping up in a rice paddy in China somewhere.
As I’m doing the job, with much cursing and gnashing of teeth, the mechanics begin to file out. Not one of them gives me so much as a “Hi, how’s it going,” which no longer surprises me. I’d already concluded they build bikers according to a different blueprint in that part of northern Virginia, and it’s just as well nobody said a word to me, because all I needed at that point was to get in a scrap – which is exactly what would have happened if any of those guys had said anything to me other than “Hi, need some help?”
I got the MC rebuilt and bolted back on just as the rain was cranking up in earnest again. I really didn’t care that much by then; how much wetter was I gonna get, anyway? What bothered me most was the fact that there was now no way I’d make New York before about 9:30 or so. By the time I tromped the kicker again it was about 4:30 or worse. I’d left so early precisely because I wanted to get to NY early. But after the day’s misadventures, delays, and SNAFU’s it just wasn’t going to happen.
Back on the road and everything seems to work. Amazing how you just don’t fully appreciate things like brakes until you’re forced to slow down from 75 mph in a hurry and have only the soles of your boots to do it with. People talk a lot about the power of prayer, and it may be so, but I can’t recall ever hearing of it stopping a Harley at freeway speed before. I’ll take my prayer with a side order of discs and calipers, please, and hold the leaky master cylinder.
There’s really not much more to tell; actually, there is, but I don’t have space to tell it all now. I blasted out of the Holland Tunnel around 9:45 (by some miracle I don’t even begin to understand) and beelined it to Avenue B between 13th and 14th like Old Scratch himself was at my heels. I rolled the bike into the hallway of the ground floor apartment that would soon be home and was met at the door by two smiling, beautiful women, one of whom was looking at me as if I was some unearthly mix of Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Tarzan all rolled into one. It’s a good way to be looked at by someone you’ve come to think of yourself as a nice amalgamation of all the best qualities of Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, and Donna Reed (circa It’s A Wonderful Life, when she just happened to be the most beautiful woman ever to grace this cold hard world – feel free to substitute Natalie Wood if you must). The girls had chicken soup all ready. After the longest, hottest, and most blessedly perfect bath I ever took before or since, we sat around with some good Kentucky whiskey they’d picked up and chatted a bit. I was that good, happy kind of tired that you feel way down deep in your heart and bones, and a nice soft bed was sounding pretty good just then.
Of course, these were New York girls. We hit the bars instead, getting back home around 8 the next morning, and that was just fine by me too.
I swear every word of this story is true.