“Oh, the places you’ll go.”
When it comes to motorcycles and touring, those five words from a poem by Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” ring in my ears. Using words and drawings, Geisel created changing worlds of imagination, of discovery and adventure. I like to think that motorcycles do the same thing for me, taking me to places I’ve never been, meeting people I otherwise never would have known.
Toward the end of college I took my first motorcycle tour, riding my metalflake-blue Yamaha XS1100, the “excessive 11” — think Nigel Tufnel in This is Spinal Tap: “These go to 11; it’s one louder.” My riding gear consisted of an open-faced Bell helmet, a pair of sunglasses and a heavy leather jacket. In case of rain, I had a bright yellow rain jacket, a pair of blue nylon pants, and trash bags to cover my feet. Ten miles into my trip, as the skies opened up and rain lashed my face, I discovered a few Essential Truths: One, if you’re going to tour, get a full-face helmet; Two, if you use trash bags to keep your feet dry, don’t buy the cheap ones — they shred to ribbons in less than a mile.
Somewhere between Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, the rain gave way to oppressive heat. Stopping at a rest area to escape the 105 F temps (Essential Truth Number Three: don’t tour with a winter-weight jacket in the summer), I was resting on my bike when a Kawasaki KZ900 blasted into the parking area. Roaring right up to me, the rider screeched to a halt and jumped off his Kawi, words flying out of his mouth before he even had his helmet off. “Hi! I’m Ernie G. Witt! You like that bike?! I love this Kawi!”
And he was Ernie G. Witt. It said so right there on his belt buckle, an enormous brass casting the size of Texas proudly displaying his name. It also said so on his chain guard, an impossibly bright chrome cover with “Ernie G. Witt” etched into the metal. Ernie, in his late 70s, short and wiry but full of pluck, wasn’t giving in to the heat.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Ernie had been riding his entire life, “since about 12,” he said. His first bike was a Henderson, and he claimed he used to run whiskey from Canada into the U.S. riding the Henderson and an old Indian.
We talked for a few more minutes, but with a self-enforced deadline in front of me (Essential Truth Number Four: tight schedules and discovery don’t mix) I decided it was time to head back into the heat. I bid Ernie goodbye and took off, but a few miles down the road I saw Ernie again, as he blasted past me on his KZ, burning down the road like there was no tomorrow.
Some years later, I found myself riding my Norton through the small town of Nipton, a stone’s throw from the Nevada border in California’s Mojave Desert. Most famous as a stopping point for 1920s film star Clara Bow — “The It Girl” — who bought a ranch nearby, Nipton is an otherwise unknown spot on the desert floor.
Ducking into the general store, I met ex-Brooklynite and self-proclaimed exorcist Vinnie. Eschewing the clamor and confusion of the city, Vinnie had escaped to the desert to pursue a calmer life. And he had discovered his calling; driving out spirits who remained in limbo in the ramshackle cabins that haphazardly littered the area, making the structures fit for the next inhabitants. He attended to his duties seriously, an unlit cigar always in his mouth, slowly disappearing as he chewed the tobacco down to a stub.
People like Ernie and Vinnie are everywhere, but you won’t meet them staying home. You find them by accident, by the happy coincidence of discovery and adventure that motorcycling brings. — Richard Backus