The call of the road

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
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A decidedly younger editor Backus prepares to venture off to parts unknown on his ’74 850 Norton Commando as riding pals Kai Derr with his Suzuki GS1150ES and Ken Tripkos with his Dunstall-ized 850 Norton Commando look on. Tripkos was the real stud of the trio; the next summer, he rode his Commando from Kansas to Alaska – and back!

Of all the things I didn’t do in 2007, my biggest disappointment was failing to get in a really good road trip.

When I had my Norton, a 1975 Commando with the big, 6.5gal Interstate tank, I would routinely load up my saddle bags and head off for points unknown. It didn’t really matter where I was heading, just as long as I was riding.

Friends on newer bikes thought I was crazy: “You rode that old bike how far?” they’d ask in odd indignation after I’d filled them in on my latest blast to the West Coast. Firm believers that new equals better, they just couldn’t understand how I could trust an old piece of iron to take me on more than a casual Sunday morning ride. And yet, that old Norton carried me for tens of thousands of miles, north, south east and west.

Over the years, I grew increasingly comfortable on my Commando. There’s nothing like getting some serious miles under your belt to really understand your motorcycle. With the Norton, I got to the point where I rarely used mileage to signal maintenance, instead relying on the bike’s feedback as I rode. After awhile, you can tell just by sound when valves are loose or if the timing chain needs adjustment. Yes, the Norton did occasionally let me down, but in hindsight those breakdowns usually resulted in the most memorable moments of a trip.

Normally, having your Norton’s clutch hub come loose in the middle of the East Mojave Desert would be considered bad luck. But in my case it afforded an introduction to the odd culture of California’s desert rats — strange old guys who float around the scrub country, digging in wherever they find a place where they can be left alone or, as in the case of Vinnie the exorcist from Brooklyn, an audience who won’t throw them out.

On another trip, riding through New Mexico, a broken exhaust led to meeting a group of Navajos who ran a tumbledown repair shop on the edge of nowhere. Importantly, it was right where I was, and better yet, they had a pit (the better to get down to eye-level), a torch and some welding rod. It only took 10 minutes to fix the break, but thanks to their hospitality it was three hours before I finally headed off down the road, a paltry $5 lighter in my wallet but immeasurably enriched from the brief experience.

In Maine one year, riding northeast towards New Brunswick, Canada, and keeping as close to the Atlantic as I could, I was sidelined by a broken throttle cable. Dialing up the idle to about 2,000rpm, I managed to keep forward motion until I happened to ride by the only bike shop for miles. The proprietor specialized in Hondas and Moto Guzzis, but a love of old British iron meant he carried spares for his own Norton and Triumph bikes. He gladly sold me one of his spare cables, and even though it was a pleasant enough day outside, he insisted I take advantage of the comfort of his small shop and his tools to get the Norton fixed.

Encounters of this type seem to weave their way into every road trip I take, and for me they’re a big part of the call of the road. The stops are unexpected, but maybe that’s part of why I ride older bikes — it’s my own, odd way of ensuring a modicum of unpredictability.

Maybe this year. The Laverda’s finally back in one piece, the cylinder head rebuilt and the engine running sweetly again, well enough perhaps for a long run down the road and a few chance meetings — assuming, of course, I’m lucky enough for a few breakdowns on the way. — Richard Backus, Editor-in-chief

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