My first motorcycle was a 1975 Honda Goldwing, unless you count the summer when I occasionally rode a 1973 Honda CL350 that didn’t always start, which wasn’t a bad thing, given I had no driver’s license at the time.
The Goldwing, purchased from my father, was a heavy slug of a bike, reportedly developed so that Honda, regardless of performance concerns, could lay claim to making a bigger motor than other Japanese manufacturers. I rode the snot out of it, as much as 1,000 miles a day during trips out West. Same thing with more modern, and much faster, motorcycles that since have graced my garage.
I always have liked bikes that chew up miles like the world’s fastest sewing machines, the kind that feel dialed-in somewhere north of 85 mph and invoke senses of profound smoothness and wonder once they hit triple digits and still keep pulling. Some might consider this style of riding dangerous, but there is a time and place for everything, which is why God created Highway 16 that spans the bottom of South Dakota, a 400-mile ribbon of overlooked asphalt with long sight lines and few side roads that ties the Great Plains to the Black Hills. Yes, there are deer, but you are equally dead whether you meet Bambi at the speed limit or at 135 mph, and there is less time to ponder: “I wonder what this is going to feel like.”
With the exception of a 1984 Honda Interceptor that was beyond crazy-fast and died of mechanical issues before it could kill me – I was genuinely frightened of that bike and secretly relieved when the motor blew – I’ve made it a point to know the top speed of every motorcycle I have owned, a trust-but-verify sort of thing so that I won’t be fooled by manufacturer claims or word of mouth.
This sort of thinking is not necessarily in line with the ethos of Harley-Davidson, a brand steeped in tradition but lacking in stuff like liquid-cooled motors and not having to shout because the bike’s so damn loud. It is, I have long thought, a brand with one foot firmly in the past and the other planted even further back. Who would make a motorcycle with both manual choke and self-canceling turn signals? They are slow creatures and heavy to boot. I bought one for a good price a couple years ago and sold it a few weeks later to fund home improvements – hardwood floors, like Harleys, are expensive.
My father, a diehard Honda man, taught me long ago that Harleys should be avoided. It is not, he would advise, how fast you would make it to your destination on a Harley but whether you would make it at all. His bias was born in the 1950s, before I came along, when he owned a 1948 Harley that, if he still had it, would make for a nice inheritance. He still complains about that bike, how the chain stretched and how it rattled so much you’d have to tighten nuts and bolts after each ride. All show, no dough, sniffs a fellow lover of Japanese motorcycles when the subject of Harleys arises: We know better.
Prejudice is a terrible thing, but I have nonetheless silently mocked Harley riders when pulling alongside them at stoplights and seeing arm fat undulate in unison with the motor’s throb, like a 1950s housewife strapped into one of those melt-pounds-away gizmos with a belt that goes around the waist and effortlessly jiggles the weight off. Harleys excel in the throb department, causing handlebars and most everything else to vibrate in ways only a devotee would proclaim normal.
Then I considered Mexico, where I had an epiphany not long ago during a cab ride to a middle-of-nowhere village.
This, I thought, would be a great place to ride a motorcycle as we whizzed along a humble road that took us alternately through steep jungle terrain, then alongside the Pacific Ocean at an alarming rate of speed that only increased when I mentioned that I owned a bike.
On a motorcycle, I figured, I could tool from one sleepy beach town to the next, sleeping under stars and subsisting on street food and cheap cerveza. But my BMW K1200GT isn’t appropriate for sometimes-sketchy byways where not every pothole can be flown over.
This is the issue with 152-horsepower bikes: They disinvite flower smelling. I need something smaller, something that won’t tempt me to keep going because it’s only 4 p.m. and the next town is 75 miles away.
And so, two weeks ago, I bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster.
The seat is murder and the bike otherwise sufficiently uncomfortable – I won’t be tempted to ride past lunch, let alone 4 p.m. There is no room for luggage and the tank is dangerously small, so I’ll need to bungee down a gas can somewhere. I’m calling it my Walden bike: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Which is the whole reason, really, for riding motorcycles.