Getting on the Road

I grew up in Rutherford, NJ and throughout my high school years I rode a Schwinn 12-speed bike all over Bergen County.  I loved that bike, I rode it every day in the summertime and as often as I could when school was in session.  My 17th birthday wasn’t until December of my senior year so I had to wait until then to get my driver’s license.  Riding my bike was no only my favorite hobby, it was also the only means I had of self-transportation until I was old enough to drive.

While I can’t remember the exact time, I can recall in vivid detail the exact moment and place that my interest in motorcycling was sparked, and it all happened very quickly.  I was stopped at the red light on the corner of Jackson and Union in Rutherford.  A gray-bearded man on a Harley-Davidson pulled up next to me and stopped at the light.  He looked to his right where I was waiting on my Schwinn, and nodded hello.  The light turned green, and with a loud roar of his engine, he took off across Jackson Avenue at what seemed like 100 mph compared to the top speed of my bike.

Out of nowhere, my Schwinn suddenly felt entirely inadequate.  There was something about the nod the guy gave me that was intriguing.  It was almost as if it were some sort of acknowledgement that there was a kinship between the two of us being that we were both riding through town on two-wheeled vehicles.  As the noise of his engine faded while the distance between us grew, all I knew was “Man, when I’m an adult, I gotta upgrade to one of those!”

A few years later in college, one of my Fraternity brothers bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883.  The 883 model was, and still is, a very good starter bike.  It has the lightest frame of any standard Harley and has the smallest engine, making it the easiest to control.  It is also the cheapest making it affordable to my buddy.

One day he took me for a ride on the back of it up the Hudson River Valley.  It was a fall day and the foliage was beautiful.  It was an entirely new experience seeing the colored leaves from a bike, I was surrounded by them in a way that was completely different than if we had been enclosed in a car. He showed me the wave, and it was the first time I noticed that bikers do it.  Every time he approached another bike headed in the opposite direction, he waved with his left hand and the other rider always reciprocated.  Above all else, I learned that day that being on a motorcycle was not about the destination, it was about the journey.

It took me a few more years to actually go and do something about it.  Lack of funds was pretty much the only thing that was holding me back until I was out of college for about two years.  It was a bit of a “now what do I do?” moment when I decided to go ahead and learn how to ride.  I was getting used to being an adult and making my own decisions and I had a few bucks in my pocket.  I was bored living in a small apartment and I needed a hobby other than drinking.  A few friends and I signed up for the Rider Education of New Jersey motorcycle safety program.

The RENJ program was geared towards beginners and was held over a weekend at a community college in New Jersey.  Half of the course was in a classroom, and the other half was on motorcycles that they provided.  They put us on the bikes, set up some drills, and showed us how to do them.  The bikes were very small and underpowered and very difficult to put into gear without stalling.  It was my first time ever at the controls of a motorcycle and even in a parking lot was very exciting.  At the end, we had to pass a written test and a road test.  Once that was done, we were eligible to get our motorcycle endorsements on our New Jersey licenses.  Happy to say that I aced both tests and was on my way.

I did some shopping around for various brands of bikes, but I knew what I wanted.  After a few courtesy visits to Honda, Yamaha, and BMW dealers, I went to Legends Harley Davidson in Clifton, NJ and put a deposit down on a 1999 Harley Davidson Sportster 883.  Legends was a hole-in-the-wall run by a bunch of slovenly looking jerks who had the people skills of prison guards.  It was quite the contrast of today’s modern Harley Davidson dealership that is bright, large, airy, and run by friendly people.  Either way, my check cleared so they were happy to sell me a bike and then have me come back for service on it for years.

At that time, Harley Davidson was a much different company than it is today.  You couldn’t just walk into a dealership and buy whatever bike you wanted off of the floor.  You had to put a deposit down and wait.  They gave me a six month estimate and it took eight for the bike to arrive.  I spent eight full months filled with both excitement and dread about the day I would be able to ride off.  I knew I had to get the bike from Clifton back home to Hoboken, which was a harrowing concept.  My experience on a motorcycle was on a 125cc Suzuki in a parking lot, I never even got it higher than second gear.  I would have to take an 883cc Harley home on at highway speed.  On top of that, there was a grated bridge crossing the Passaic River that I knew I had to cross.  All my training manuals had special advice on how to handle grated bridges as they tend to make the bike feel like it doesn’t have traction and makes it wobble.

My Sportster 883

My first bike, a red Harley-Davidson Sportster 883, pictured in October, 2004 near West Point, NY.

The day came in May 1999 to pick up the bike.  I had a few friends take me to the dealer in Clifton and I rode it around the block a few times.  From what my buddies told me, the people standing around the dealership could easily tell that it was my first bike and were laughing at me trying to shift gears.  I had my buddies follow me in the car as I headed home.  We got to Route 21 in Clifton and I started to accelerate and upshift.  It felt so fast I thought I was doing 80mph.  I looked at the controls and was doing 35mph.  We hit Route 3 and headed east, towards the grated bridge.  Eight months of dread were over as I crossed it with no issue.  I pumped my fist in celebration and kept on towards home.  Sitting in traffic under an overpass on Route 495, I revved the engine just to hear the echo.  Not as loud as I would have liked it, but it was a start.

I made it to Hoboken without incident.  All the fear and dread was gone, I knew I could do it from then on.  I had arranged for a parking spot at a local lot in Hoboken and pulled in.  I went through the checklist in my mind from the dealership on how to turn the bike off.  I cut the engine, took the key out of the ignition, and got off the bike.  Instantly I realized there was a detail that they didn’t give me because they assumed I would have figured that part out.  Before you get off the bike, you have to put the kickstand down.  I promptly dropped the bike on its left side and my left foot landed underneath it.  The only thing that kept me from getting pinned was the saddle bag on the rear that caught the bike at the bottom.  After all that, I dropped my brand new bike on my first trip home. At least I wasn’t moving!  I managed to pick it up, no small feat considering that it weighed about 500 pounds and surveyed the damage. I had bent the clutch lever at its tip, and scratched the side view mirror.  I sure learned that lesson the hard way.

This was 1999, it is now 2015 and I am on my third bike.  I now own a 2006 Harley Davidson Fat Boy, my dream bike.  This bike is an exact replica of my second bike which was stolen the year I bought it from my garage.  I loved it so much that I called the dealer immediately and told him to build me a new one exactly like the last one.  The big difference is that now I have LoJack! I have a custom green/black paint scheme on the sheet metal, which to this day is very rare.  I have a set of Vance & Hines Short Shot exhaust pipes, it is decorated with the Harley-Davidson Skull logo on all sides, and it has a detachable sissy bar with a touring rack.

My Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

My current bike, a 2006 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Pictured here in July 2014 on Skyline Drive outside of Front Royal, VA. This was during a week long trip, the touring mount provides enough cargo space for a long trip.

By my estimate, since my first day on the bike, I have over 85,000 miles of riding experience.  I’ve been from Canada to Georgia, covering every major mountain range in between.  I take my camera whenever I’m on the bike (iPhone photos suck in comparison to a regular point-and-shoot) and have pictures of everywhere I’ve been.  I’ve been to the Green Mountains, White Mountains, Pocono Mountains, Allegheny Mountains, Catskill Mountains, Adirondack Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Smoky Mountains, and a bunch of others up and down Appalachia.  I’ve hit every standard motorcycle trip there is along the mountains on the east coast such as Tail of The Dragon, Cherohala Skyway, The Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.  I’ve invented some of my own routes along state and US highways, along roads that you wouldn’t have known were there unless you went looking for them.

At my first dealership, they threw in a t-shirt with the purchase of the bike.  It read “Harley-Davidson: If I had to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”  As I write this blog today, those words still hold true.  Riding a motorcycle is a very personal experience that affects individuals in different ways.  I’ve adjusted my style over the years, in the beginning all I wanted to do was to see how many miles I could rack up in a day.  These days I take a much more deliberate approach, making stops on the way to see the sights along the way.  But when I’m on the bike on an out of the way road, and I’m all alone with my thoughts, nothing can touch me.  I’m immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of my surroundings, all while at the controls of my own personal roller coaster.  It is an experience that can’t be substituted in a car on a bicycle.  Riding a motorcycle defines who I am and I can’t imagine what life would be like without my bike.

It’s now March, 2015.  I was going to buy myself a new bike for my 40th birthday last December but got cold feet for two reasons.  One is that I’m saving up for a new primary home and every dollar counts at this point.  But, more importantly, I’m not ready to part with my bike.  It doesn’t have some of the fancier bells and whistles that the newer bikes have, but it’s mine and I don’t need anything else right now.  Barring unforeseen circumstances such as a crash or a catastrophic engine failure, I’m hanging on to it for the foreseeable future.  I have this week off of work and yesterday the weather cooperated for the first time all year.  I started it up for the first time since October and took it to my dealership in Morris Plains, NJ.  Man, did it feel good to get back on it.  I have an electrical issue with the speedometer which the dealer is going to fix and it will be ready for the season.  I am looking forward to my first Saturday all-day ride.

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