Ridin’ With The Big Dawgs

-photo by Jerry Burns, StudioBurns, Atlanta, GA

We met for breakfast at a family owned diner.  If you didn’t know how to sop gravy with a home-made biscuit, you probably would have trouble with the menu.  As soon as I sat down, I formed a crook with my index finger and a coffee cup handle appeared around it from out of nowhere.  I sensed some magic in the air–breakfast cooking for a large crowd will do that, especially with extra helpings of scrambled laughter.  Additionally, restrooms were right there on the property.  The crowd could’ve turned on a mean streak had it not been for that.

What a colorful group of people!  All kinds of images and designs: some on vests, jackets, and hats; some on skin.  And not just the customers, either!  The ladies on duty with the wait-staff and behind the counter sported some of the more interesting tattoos in the building.  Greetings and laughter as well as coffee were plenty warm.  It was morning, but by the glint of mischief that was in some eyes in that diner, you might suspect some in this crowd to be capable of a different kind of party come sundown.  The suspicion was never confirmed.

Must’ve been thirty or forty folks sitting together in a group that seemed to know each other very well; I knew a couple of ’em, and was soon introduced to others.  From the attire being sported, any stranger would know right away that motorcycles were about to gallop off in a thunder carrying riders feeling things only felt by those who ride.

It is fair to say for the most part, senior discounts in many places could be had by most of us without having to show ID.  But once we were rolling, we all felt younger, and age didn’t really matter much anyhow.  About the only tell-tale sign was that we hardly ever exceeded the posted speed limit by more’n thirty miles per hour.  Such conservative behavior is seldom observed in younger folk who ride.  I remember a time…well, never mind.

Out in the parking lot, a fleet of wheels stood together off to the side with sparkling bits of the morning sun from chrome, windshields, and high gloss paint jobs.  Several well known manufacturers were represented.  A variety of models and styles stood out.  Each one was outfitted no doubt for cruising long distances.  Some were similar in make and model, but no two were exactly alike, and the same could be said of the riders.

If you stood looking at any one of ’em by itself, the first thing you’d say would be: “Nice Bike!” There was diversity in that herd of fine machines as well as in the collection of helmets and leather jackets many of which advertised wild intentions of fun, and good times.

Outside, we walked over to where the cycles stood together waiting for the starting gate to open.  Sixteen bikes and sixteen riders socialized a bit before mounting up.  The rest of the crowd–friends and family of some of the wild bunch were there to see us off as if it were a parade, or the beginning of some holy season–and that is exactly what it was.  The springtime brings out the very spirit of the riders, and rides that generally get limited use in the wintertime.

It was my first ride with this particular group.  Standing next to some of them, I asked if they had a set lineup so I’d know the place to fall in.  My buddy smiled and said:

“We’re just gonna ride!” The man next to him immediately responded:

“Thass whut I’m talkin’ about!”, and I knew this morning was getting started off right.

Jackets and helmets began to find their places, and saddles began to fill.  After awhile, you begin to know who the bell-cow is by the behavior of the rest of ’em.  When the obvious pack leader mounted, it was the only signal needed.  Engines fired.  Everybody within a wide range about would recognize that music.  Even a deaf person would feel it.

It was to be a day of it, but we would first pay respects to a family known by several of the others.  Just a few miles down the road from the diner, we turned into the parking lot of a church where a visitation was beginning.  A man I didn’t know, but well connected to the group as a whole, was mourning the loss of his father.  I went inside politely with the others even though I don’t think I’d ever met the deceased, and did not know the family.

I stood by to the side as several in the group went up to a man; shook his hand, and hugged him.  There was a hint of tear in his eye.  It was something I understood.  Before I realized it, the shift in the crowd had me standing face to face with a stranger at a time of deep grief.  He looked into my eyes.  He smiled at me and extended his hand.  I took it; introduced myself, and said to him the only thing that came to mind:

“You don’t know me, but I’m with some friends of yours.  Please accept my feelings for your loss.  My dad was the best man I ever knew.  For you and your family, I wish the strength found in your memories will help you some through all this.”

I felt a little awkward, but my friend told me what I said was fine.  I just hope that man was okay with it.

In the parking lot, the gathering was similar to the scene outside the diner, only a little quieter this time.  Soon the alpha mounted up, and the procession headed down the drive.  As the motorcycles reached the main road, all other traffic stopped long enough for our entire group to turn left onto the highway and begin the next phase of finding the best part of our day.

We didn’t see any interstate highway, but took only backroads through country full of winding curves and glorious up and down hill runs.  In some places, the shoulders of the road were bordered by ditches.  At a younger age, It would’ve been harder for me to avoid the attraction, but these guys seemed to want to stay on the pavement, so I went along with ’em.  Truth be known, we were riding machines not designed for that kind of fun, anyway.  Not only that, but the agility to take off through the woods and the mud was long gone in most of our cases, not to mention the brittle conditions of most of our bones.

It was a courteous bunch, and we managed not to bump into each other so as you’d notice.  Road hazards such as tree branches fallen on the right-of-way, and a ‘possum or two that had picked a bad day to cross the road were pointed out by hands and feet of the riders in front of you.  At some point ahead of me I could see a squirrel maneuvering frantically between bike tires, but he made it to the side of the road safely.  I think he was right back where he’d started, but waited for the rest of us to all pass before continuing on to whatever appointment he needed to keep.

By mid-morning the alpha dawg must’ve intuitively known bladders were becoming an issue for some of the older buccaneers on this cruise.  Up ahead appeared an island of probable fuel commerce if needed, and hopefully some convenient comfort to the elderly.  A couple of the fellas bought fuel while the rest of us stretched our legs.  Some of us grabbed a quick smoke, but that was about all.  The sign on the door declared “No Public Restrooms”.  A few went inside to buy bottled water or soft drinks, but I hardly felt that was what I needed under the circumstances.

A line formed between two dumpsters blocking the view from the road, but not entirely from the subdivision right behind the service station.  Nobody seemed to mind.  I suspect it would’ve been a clear sign of idiocy to object since some of us were a tad beyond patiently waiting.  Any stranger would see our our crew as at least a little intimidating by appearances, and I have to admit that I felt a bit bad-ass myself, if for only a moment.  At my age, I’m little threat to anyone less I trip and fall on you.

The cool morning air had gone away leaving the warm sun to be more noticeable.  So for some, a little bit of strip-tease was in order: dickies and head socks came off, as did some of the leather and other accoutrements.  Sun screen was dabbed onto a few of the newly exposed areas.  One guy pulled out a gauge to re-check tire pressure, and several of the others made minor adjustment to mirrors and inspected saddlebags and bungee cords just out of habit for reassurance.

One of my highway pegs was a little loose.  It was about the only thing I didn’t check before leaving the house.  I noticed it hanging down in a pitiful and useless way about halfway down the road, but waited for a proper rest stop to adjust it.  I had to give it some attention with an Allen wrench, or else some of that new fangled medicine that boosts blood pressure selectively.  The Allen wrench was sufficient.  I was ready to ride again, and anxious to test it out.

We were off again with a chorus of “varooms” that sounded so good as we accelerated quickly to a four-way stop just down the road.  It’s always smart to check your brakes now and then, and we all did.  Not one single bike was touching another, but you couldn’t tell it by looking.  What had before appeared to be like a huge psychedelic zipper the length of a football field now looked more like a knot in a rope.

With no interfering traffic, we proceded stretching back out, and headed on through a few small towns, and beautiful countryside.  The flowering bushes and trees, and the flock of buzzards overhead reminded us all to be grateful to be alive, and instilled in us a desire to remain that way for a while.  The steady drone of the bikes and a restful atmosphere you only find in the country has a lulling effect.  Thankfully, we passed by a pig farm, and the bouquet woke me up from my nap.

Our destination would be the lake home of one of the friends of the group.  We turned off the main road to a weaving trail through a patch of woods leading us to a long, gravel driveway.  My mule don’t care much for gravel which would also be true for some of the other beasts and hawgs rolling carefully down the path.  Luckily, nobody spilled, but I think that was the only time in history when that many motorcycles jumped on a gravel road without someone falling at least once.

We circled around a grassy field to a designated place to park.  The morning dew was gone, thank goodness.  My bike likes wet grass almost as much as it likes gravel.  Me and some of the others produced some kind of flat accessory to place under our kickstands.  Experience has taught me, and obviously others, that soft ground is not to be trusted with a kickstand unless you’re in a great need of exercise.  None of the bikes fell over, but I’m sure that was an accident.

The dismount was regimental, and all leathers that had not come off earlier were shed quickly.  Helmets, mostly black, were left to gather the heat of the sun, which hopefully is no fair indication of our intelligence.  Honestly, I don’t know why we do that.  We always do, and we always regret it.  I guess it is human nature to hope for things to get better without us changing a damn thing about the way we go about our business.  Maybe it has to do with the belief that all improvements and positive change must be somebody else’s job, I don’t know.

On the back of the house, facing a heavenly view of the lake, was a screened-in porch with benches, chairs, and tables loaded down with snacks, drinks, and condiments alerting us to what was coming.  The owner of the house was busy out on the deck managing a huge grill loaded down with hamburgers.  The aroma of food is so spellbinding when you’re hungry.  Breakfast had pretty much worn out by then, so I was beginning to drool.  Some of the others were staring at the grill with their mouths open, so I knew I wasn’t alone.  When the platter came in from the grill, no one seemed bashful.

This brotherhood swapped interesting stories, and some were hilarious.  The cookout by the water was a nice bonus to the ride.  A warm, spring day it was, but early enough in the year for the mosquitos to not be a problem.  A small fly did light briefly on my cheek, but it tripped over a wrinkle and broke its neck in the fall.

I got to know a little more about this group of men during the social time.  Most of them were smoke jumpers, firemen, and EMS professionals–some active, some retired.  These men have a natural sense of urgency should the need arrive.  Luckily for us that day, it never did.

But there is something special about a person that spends their life helping other people. These are often the first responders to terrible wrecks, explosions and fires hot enough to melt steel.  They intentionally jump into forest fires so hot that some of them never get out alive.  They’ll go into burning buildings at the risk of their lives to rescue men, women and children that for the most part, they don’t even know.  They’ve even been known to risk their lives for someone else’s family pet, and don’t even hesitate.

When you talk with them, it isn’t anything they seem to mind doing at all!  In fact, it drives them.  Something inside of ’em is made out of a goodness the we should all appreciate and respect.  Yet for some reason, these folks who specialize in saving lives and reducing misery are not always treated as well by the very communities they serve as they should be.  But you know what?  They weren’t complaining about it.  I said what I did here not out of any encouragement from them for me to do so.

After lunch, I noticed a couple of guys passing a hat.  Seems they appreciated their friend fixing lunch, but didn’t think it fair for him to be saddled with the expense of feeding all of us.  I watched the others to determine what would be appropriate.  Some put five dollars in the hat.  Another put in a ten, and took out a five.  Still another put in a twenty, and took out a five and a ten.  That was it.  On occasion I’d seen something like this going on in a church, so I knew what to do: I put in a one and took out a twenty.  This was good, as I would surely need to buy gasoline before I’d get home.

With appetites satisfied, some of us meandered down by the lake and a nearby patch of trees.  It was hard to leave such peaceful surroundings.  There was no real sounds of traffic, no sirens, no television blaring gloom, doom and despair; even my cell phone didn’t work out there.  I told the host if he and his ever got to feeling too lonesome way out there in the boondocks, and needed some spark of civilization, to just give us a call.

Without any formal announcement, riders began gathering back around the bikes.  By now, most leather jackets and even some shirts had been packed away.  Several tubes of sun screen appeared which mostly is a good thing, or at least for my generation and perhaps others.  My dermatologist encourages people to go to the beach, but says to go at night.  He says he gets plenty of business without sinister motive.  I believe he is sincere.  It is an admirable attitude for others to have, but I doubt I’ll ever succumb to it.

By now, all of our helmets were nice and warm.  Putting them on ahead of the bell-cow would allow you all the time needed to work up a good sweat.  There just isn’t anything at all like sitting still in the hot sun with a black plastic hat on your head.  In a few minutes, the leader cranked up, and we headed up the gravel driveway with little attention to throttle, and avoiding anything impulsive with brakes.  Once out on the road, we opened it up for a bit to dry out our helmets in the breeze.  The ride back was just as much fun as the ride out.

Standing on the side of the road, you would’ve counted sixteen bikes and sixteen bikers.  But that didn’t count the ones you couldn’t see.  There was a sense and a feeling for some others long gone that were riding along with us in my mind.  Not really ghosts or illusions–just memories: some relatives, some friends, some friends of relatives, some relatives of friends, and some just friends of friends I knew about.  Maybe some of the others had similar thoughts.  I don’t know, we didn’t talk about it.

The closer we got to our starting point, the herd thinned as individuals and small groups splintered off in various and sundry directions.  When my friend who had invited me veered off to the right at a fork in the road, I followed.  I knew where he lived, and figured I could find my way home from his place since I’d done it before.

With the group splitting up like that, I knew there would be no bonfire and wild party that night.  But you never know for sure when you head down the road with a bunch of bikers.  Some of these bikers, like me, were old geezers now, and feeling the urge to get home to a cold beer or something.  In the old days, the beer was for breakfast, but my motorcycle is getting old too, and wouldn’t be able to stand up for much of that anymore.

It had been an exhilarating fun day, and good medicine for the kind of sensory depravation that can shrink your world in solitude.  Just the same, and fun being fun, I reckon I needed to get this old body to a resting place.  Home would be it.  So it’s the destination or the journey?  I reckon we need some of both.  Those who are all journey, have no destination; those who are all destination have no journey.

At home, there is a comfortable chair that would recline.  I could ride it with my eyes closed, and no worry at all of it tipping over.  I wouldn’t even need boots or a helmet.  The bike gets better mileage than the pickup truck (unless you tend to twist the pig’s ear hard), but the chair burns no gas at all.  You don’t need a license to drive that chair: even my dawgs can ride it in their sleep–they do it all the time.

Well, did I ever find and identify the best part of my day?  Yep.  It was a many faceted jewel you could see from many angles.  The sparkle shined onto a process more than any single event.  A lot of it was feelings and observations; some ingratiating, some humbling or awe inspiring, some funny, some thrilling, and some just plain ol’ “feel good” stuff.  It wasn’t just the going to, or the where we were, or the getting back.  It was the whole thing.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. From one “easy rider” to another, WELL DONE, MY FRIEND! Ride safely.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Betty on April 8, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    You’re braver than I am!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Wayne on April 8, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    Van, I especially liked the aroma from the pig farm being your alarm clock, while riding. Also, I hope your pastor does not read this, or the video cameras will be on you, when the offering plate is passed. Your story did inspire me to join a local tricycle club.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Robin on April 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Loved it! I bought myself a 26″ Schwinn bicycle; the old fashioned kind with no gears or hand brakes. The brakes are on the pedals. If we ever get spring weather up here, instead of just daffodils and forsythia shivering in the frost, I’m planning on some ridin’ of my own. I won’t get as far as you ride, or have the social bonding, but I look forward to it. Did I mention my bike is pink?

    Reply

  5. Posted by David on April 12, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Another excellent reminiscence, Mr. Wordsmith. Thank you for sharing your experience and, in doing so, revealing a little bit more about what makes you tick.

    Reply

  6. Posted by betty on August 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Enjoyed this one!!
    Betty

    Reply

  7. Enjoyed reading this.

    Reply

    • Posted by thevanbrown on April 14, 2016 at 12:59 am

      Thanks, Johnny B. Ride well, and ride safely. Drag a little peg on a few sharp turns, but don’t drag helmet–ever. 🙂

      Reply

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