I didn’t have much money that winter morning in 1971, but I had enough to catch a cab. I was a sophomore in college and would be riding the bench that night in a tilt our squad ultimately would lose. Sleepwalking my way through the morning’s shoot-around, I showered, then handed the cabbie the address of Egeberg’s Harley-Davidson in Minneapolis, figuring I’d kill time looking at bikes.
I had bought my first scooter, a Honda 305 Scrambler, as soon as I could, at age 16. My dad had raced Harley and Indian hill climbers in North Dakota and Montana with a schoolboy chum, and my older brother rode a 305 Honda Dream in high school before trading up to a snortin’ Norton, a bare-bones British two-wheeler with both bark and bite.
Now, irrational as it seemed, given I could barely afford gas for the ’57 Buick Roadmaster I owned that lay lumped beneath snow back in Morris, I was considering stepping up to a Harley.
In my defense, irrationality has for generations propped up not only my spirit but America’s spirit. Were it not for irrationality, motorcycles themselves might not exist, nor would there be people to ride them, a thought I had a few days back while considering the brouhaha that followed the unmasked gathering recently of some 450,000 bikers in Sturgis, S.D., pandemic or no pandemic.
Rational people, after all, can quite predictably and almost always safely travel from point A to point B in a car or truck, whereas motorcyclists straddle machines that are inherently dangerous, in part because their forward motion is dependent on continual recalibration of a rider’s balance and in part because a biker’s routine exposure to the vagaries of Newton’s first and second laws of physics virtually ensures injury or death in serious accidents.
Motorcyclists not only acknowledge this danger, they embrace it. It’s part of the sport’s ethos, its attraction, and while many stay-at-home types might criticize, with cause, bikers who attended the Sturgis rally as selfish monoliths who are indifferent to the health of their friends and families, they should be grateful nevertheless that some among us eschew what has become civilized America’s national pastime — calculating risk to remain safe — in favor of courting danger itself.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body,” the late journalist Hunter Thompson wrote, “but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’ ”
Indulging me that morning at Egeberg’s as I threw one leg after another over bikes on the showroom floor, the sales guy finally said, “You want to start one?”
“Sure,” I said, and I jumped on the kick starter, rumbling to life the V-Twin engine William S. Harley first envisioned in Milwaukee in 1901.
Twenty minutes later, I wrote a check for $100 to hold a bike the salesman was expecting from the Harley factory that spring.
“I’ll call you when it comes in,” he said.
• • •
Two summers later I was in a Las Vegas city park, waking up alongside my Harley. Gathering my bearings, I zeroed in on a $1.99 casino breakfast a couple of blocks away, the same windowless joint where I ate the night before after riding in from Los Angeles.
I’d been gone 2½ months, riding first to San Francisco and staying there six weeks, washing dishes overnight at an IHOP, before working my way down the coast to Los Angeles and finally, crossing the Mojave Desert in a merciless heat to Las Vegas. Now, I was headed to Austin, Texas, and home.
A high school buddy had ridden his bike with me to San Francisco, before returning to Michigan.
Neither of us, we knew, was Marlon Brando, who played Johnny in the 1953 epic “The Wild One.” Neither were we Peter Fonda in “The Wild Angels,” the memorable 1966 film that ushered in dozens of really bad biker exploitation flicks. And we weren’t Wyatt (Fonda again) or Billy (Dennis Hopper) in 1969’s “Easy Rider.”
But we knew those films intimately, and while we were far from the 1% of bikers the American Motorcycle Association warned after the Hollister Riot of 1947 were “hoodlums and troublemakers,” like a lot of bikers, we knew what it was like, even without much money, to feel, while riding, that life couldn’t get much better.
Finishing my Las Vegas breakfast, I rolled my sleeping bag tight against the base of my handle bars and squeezed a small pack between my back and the low sissy bar that rose from my rear fender.
In those days, Harleys didn’t have electric starters, and that was fine by me. Most times I could fire that baby up with one kick, and for my money there’s nothing cooler, either to do or to watch.
I was thinking about all of this the other day, after reading about this summer’s Sturgis rally.
I haven’t owned a bike for many years. But some days I get the itch, and one day this week I walked into St. Paul Harley-Davidson, where a young salesman named Dylan told me about the bigger engines of today’s Harleys, also the smoother rides, the cooler looks and the possibilities.
Finally, he said, “You want to start one?”
I thought about it a long moment, then said, “No.”
I don’t have as much irrationality in me as I once did.
But I still have some, and if I had rumbled one of those bikes to life, as I did years ago at Egeberg’s Harley shop, I might have left with it.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org