Taking a motorcycle tour on his Honda CB750 was just the thing to remind the author — and the bike — that both of them were more than urban drones.
One hundred miles east of Manhattan is a place where the locals say the only thing farther east of its windswept dunes and tall sea grass is Portugal. To most urbanites this is the end of the earth. I set out at dawn one day on a motorcycle tour with my 1975 Honda CB750 KS — to ride right off “The End.”
With a population of over 8.1 million in an area of 321 square miles, New York is the most populous city in the United States and the most densely populated major city in North America. So says the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 population estimates. But I betcha they left out the cabbies, those nomadic men and women who live in their cars and sleep three hours a day, forever outrunning the NYPD, the taxi and licensing bureau, and sometimes the INS.
There are days living here where it feels like all 8 million are right behind you, ready to stand on your neck.
Depending on how you feel about bikes, you couldn’t ask for a better or worse existence than life as a street urchin. My Honda CB750 sits outside uncovered every day that it doesn’t snow, and the only way to keep her young is to use her. Classic Honda motorcycles thrive here. Sure, you see the usual Brit fare, but usually only in motion going from one parking garage to the next. Rarely do you have the honor to park your old Rising-Sun special next to a Trumpet or Norton. I had a Norton once, and the city ate her in two weeks, but this Honda is indigestible.
When I got her she was languishing in a garage on Long Island, stiff from lack of use. She doesn’t smoke and is light on her feet. I keep her in gas, tires and oil, and she moves too fast for rust to catch her. I’ve had her close to 10 years now, and she has been my only transportation for long periods during those years. I’ve ridden her crossed up sideways in snow, and I have raced and chased the hipsters and their classic British motorcycles through Brooklyn. It has been true love.
As for me, I don’t know how I ended up here, over-educated in grad school only to hump Vespas around the city during the day and baby sit drunks in bars at night. Maybe it was fate. Maybe I was bored.
I get to ride at all hours and my Honda CB750 is an old friend to the avenues, but all this running around makes a bike seem like a tool. She is better than the subways and the tunnel rats, but at times I think she forgets she is a motorcycle, a soul-stirring machine, and just does her job of getting me around, feeling no better than a used Hyundai. I guess motorcycles need vacations too, ribbons of pine-laden, two-lane back roads or sun-bleached sandy costal routes to remember how not to be appliances. Or maybe I just need one to keep a step ahead of getting my neck squashed.
I make my break at 4:30 a.m. The bar lets out at 4 and I pick up my pay and am out on 8th Avenue in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s Sunday, the sky is still dark, and the street is empty. One kick and the CB750 is a purring sewing machine. The Brit nails may have that wonderful thump-thump sound, but a Honda Four inspires a religious faith that, barring some major catastrophe, she would carry you forever if it were possible. We are ready to run out of road.
I take the 59th Street Bridge out of town, which has one of the best views in the city if you are going in, and still a good look on the way out. The construction crews have grated the surface for new asphalt and there is no warning, The Honda becomes an enduro, and we truck across the moon-like road surface at 50mph. The city doesn’t want to let us go easily, but we are strong. Soon we’ve moved on to the warehouses of Long Island City, jockeying the cabs for a lane to grab the Long Island Expressway into oblivion. Dawn breaks. The LIE is the quintessential slab. It’s long, wide and semi-smooth. The drivers talk on cell phones, eat and do makeup. I am in fifth gear, north of 5,000rpm, and dancing between 90 and 100mph. At this speed I feel like I’m cheating death, but I tuck a little closer to the tank and keep it wicked up. The river of cages carrying city refugees slows to a trickle, and by the time I’m through Queens I am passing cars only occasionally. I keep her cranked like this for the better part of an hour, with nothing much to see.
I top off the tank in Manhasset, N.Y., the place where my love of bikes began. Manhasset is a jarring experience, mostly because it looks, feels and smells like a small town, yet we are only 15 minutes from the edge of the big city. At some points on the hills you can see the shadow of Manhattan looming, the dark skyline whispering, “One day I’m going to get you, but for now you are safe.”
Manhasset is not a grid town and has a lot of winding roads, switchbacks and occasional glimpses of Manhasset Bay. I blew up my first Kawasaki Triple here, and I still keep a 1971 Suzuki T500 in my father’s garage for the occasional romp down side streets when I come out for Thanksgiving. If you ever find yourself in Manhasset with a CB350 twin and a couple of hours to kill, it is your civic duty to motorcycling to linger and explore.
I take one of the back roads through the neighboring towns: Port Washington, Roslyn, Glen Cove, Lattingtown, Cold Spring Harbor and Huntington. I roar down to Port Washington, splitting the bay at its lowest point and rumbling through to Main Street. Soon I am near the sand pits where I cut my teeth dirt riding on an old Honda CR125, on what is now a golf course. Two left-handed sweepers and we are through the middle of Roslyn. The road winds on through the offbeat shops, gas stations and trees into Lattingtown, dissolving into farm fields and woods. These back roads are baskets of snakes, each one a challenge of elevation and cornering prowess. My inner café racer has taken over.
I make my way back to Route 25A and streak into Huntington, a beautiful New England style town with one of Long Island’s last independent book stores. I pass “The Shack,” a roadside food stand and café racer sanctuary with old wooden picnic tables and Cajun chicken sandwiches, and where sport bikes, cruisers and muscle cars all peacefully coexist. But it’s 5:30 a.m., and all that is closed. I take Route 110 back to the LIE, blurring the strip malls in haste to get back on track.
The highway disappears out from under me at exit 72. The wind roar dies down and I get my first real breath of fresh air. The road is full of switchbacks, and the houses here are set far back and surrounded by trees, giving the illusion of riding through the woods. The road dips down by Peconic Bay, and I step through the curtain of sea air and feel the salt in my nostrils. The air is crisp and refreshing. It washes over me and wakes me up. It is the feeling after you have been slapped where your skin crawls, telling you “thank god that is over.”
I pass through the town of Sag Harbor. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden while living here: He felt he was fulfilling his great destiny. I feel as if I have all the time in the world and nothing moves faster than the tides. It makes me want to paint, write a novel, create with a vengeance. I could not ask for a better destination, but this is not my port of call. I am after “The End.” I want to see Portugal.
The old K5 has remembered she is a motorcycle. The roads out here are super smooth and, with the exception of little splashes of sand in the odd apex, very grippy. Gone are the “what-was-that” rattles that NYC potholes seem to elicit from every component on a vehicle. The Four is athletic in the cool air. I find myself scrubbing the commuter square off the center of my tires. I lean right and feel the right edge of my shoe and the case guard touch down simultaneously. My CB is waking from her city coma, shaking the stiffness out of her joints and finding her stride.
I join up with Montauk Highway in East Hampton. This is the epitome of “The Hamptons,” and it’s worth a visit at least once for a burger at Rowdy Hall — the only safe haven from the Coach Store and Ralph Lauren. We streak through Amagansett and drop down to the mouth of the Napeague strip. The strip is a two-lane road and straight as an arrow for several miles. It feels as if someone stole a piece of Southern California costal highway and is hiding it near the end of Long Island. The road is spotted with summer cottages, roadside food shacks and surf shops. To the right the dunes tease with promises of the ocean, reassuring you it is there with sound and smell.
The road diverges. I go right and take Old Montauk Highway, the official scenic route. While new Montauk highway is straight and efficient, Old Montauk Highway feels as if it were laid out by horse and ox cart. To live in downstate New York and not experience this little stretch of road is to deny yourself one of the great local motorcycling experiences. The road climbs, dives and reverses as if it were running away from you. I roll along at a steady pace, old surf rock playing in my head along with the hum of the 750. The ocean swells and crashes. Manhattan is a million miles away. I am tired, yet I am driven on; we are one tumbling staccato of salt water, gasoline and long board dreams. We are a stone cast far out by the tide and now the waves draw us back in.
As I roll into Montauk, the town is not yet awake, and my CB750 sounds like a fury down the empty main street. We are but a couple of miles from the end. Forsake the coffee, forsake the bakery and fresh bagels, we are so close we have no time for distraction. “The End” calls.
There is sand in small pockets on the road everywhere. The ocean is slowly trying to reclaim this land. I am less than a mile from the point and I have a crucial decision to make. I could continue to the geographic Montauk point, where George Washington commissioned the lighthouse to be built, and where in a couple of hours day trippers will congregate, pay for parking and walk carefully laid out paths. A nice trip for some, but the CB and I are after our Montauk Point — the moment where we can stand on a quiet beach and stare out at the expanse of the ocean and soak in its vastness. It is with that in mind that I take a left on East Lake Drive.
We pass the Montauk airport, a small strip catering to a few private planes and weekend warrior pilots looking for a day trip destination with an accessible beach. There is an old Stearman biplane parked on the ramp. The Honda has noticed and it is as if these two machines are talking in frequencies I am unable to hear. I can feel the connection these two machines have despite being separated by nearly 40 years. They were both made when their construction contained much less science and much more black magic and art. They are machines meant to connect with man, to be visceral in every aspect of operation. They inspire confidence in the noise the wind makes passing through the cables, not in the isolation that seems to be the overarching point of modern machines. Still, after a moment, we press on.
Our journey ends in a parking lot, or rather just past a parking lot. East Lake Drive terminates at the mouth of Lake Montauk. Here the lake joins the Long Island Sound about a mile away from where the Sound joins the Atlantic Ocean. I can look left and see the docks and the trawlers. Straight ahead are the Sound and the faint edge of Connecticut. To the right, beyond the horizon, lies Portugal.I ride the 750 across the parking lot and on to the beach itself (something that is not advisable by the park ranger who woke me up several hours later). We go a few feet and tumble down into the sand. Exhaustion has finally caught us and we can give no more. I shut the fuel off but am too tired to lift the 750 to her wheels. Instead I crawl around and prop my upper back against the seat. Before sleep gets the better of me, I stare at the wide expanse of blue and the fine line of horizon separating it. I feel as if I have earned the right to sleep free of sirens and the white noise generated by 8 million people shuffling about. If only we could ride to Portugal. MC