It’s that time of year when lots of Michiganders head north on color tours to go leaf peeping. That means there’s going to be a lot of vehicles on the road. Plenty of those will be of the 2-wheeled variety, including us, as we’ve settled on an itinerary for our fall getaway and are heading out later this week. We’d like to stay “shiny side up,” so please, be careful out there, drivers. Here are some helpful hints for those of you encased in giant steel boxes with 4-wheels and rolled up windows and loud music to help you help us 2-wheels enjoy our time out on the road, too.
When I talk to people about riding two up, and particularly about our long weekend getaways, a question that often comes up is, “Do you have an intercom in your helmets so that you can talk on those long rides?” To which my answer is inevitably, “No. Absolutely not.” Which often gets an odd look. “You mean, you ride all that way together without being able to talk to each other?” So let me try to explain.
First off, on a practical, logistical level, the Concours is a sport touring bike. It’s not a big, noisy cruiser, and it certainly doesn’t have that extra distinctive assault on the ears that Harleys have. (Which is explained succinctly here if you’re interested. Also, that may be the most politely I’ve ever described the sound of a Harley). So when we’re tooling around on country roads, we can absolutely have brief conversations if both our visors are up and the road’s empty enough for F to turn a bit and talk over his shoulder to me.
When we get out on the highway, clearly those conversations aren’t possible — but that’s okay. It’s actually kind of nice to have a bit of solitude inside your helmet, to be together with someone but also alone with your own thoughts. Since I’ve got the easy job as the passenger, I enjoy that time to relax and soak in the scenery, to find that place of silence amidst the roar of the engine and the wind. Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I sing. (You can really belt it out inside a helmet at 70 mph.) Sometimes F sings, and I know by the way his helmet bobs about a bit when he does.
And besides, we do talk to each other, the entire time we’re riding. It’s the pat of my hands on his waist that means that I’m ready to go once I’ve gotten on behind him. It’s the tap on his shoulder to indicate we need to turn, or leaning forward to point to an exit sign when I’m navigating. It’s a point from him when there’s something he wants me to see, and a squeeze from my knees that says, “Yes, I see, thank you for sharing.” It’s the bike itself joining the conversation, and hearing what it says via pitch and vibration, like listening to a leading partner when dancing. It’s F putting his visor down before a stretch of curves or hills, a silent “Oh, this is about to get really fun.” It’s his left hand leaving the handlebars to clasp my shin, his arm snugged about my knee that says… well. I don’t think I can even translate that one into words, and even if I could, I think it would be words that are ours alone.
It was 90-some degrees and 200% humidity here in Michigan the first week of September. It’s like Labor Day hit and Summer said, “Wait a minute! I’ve got until the 21st, not so fast with your pumpkin spice, you’ve still got some sweating to do.” It’s hard to imagine that in 4 short weeks or so it will be 50 degrees, grey skies, and freezing rain. But it will be, because F and I are planning our Fall getaway together on the Concours.
It never fails. Every Fall sweeps in to Michigan all blue skies and crisp breezes and sun highlighting the magnificent oranges and golds of the trees as they turn. It’s time for cider mills and pumpkins and sweater weather, but mainly just because you want to wear a sweater, not because you really have to. It’s perfect. And then whatever October weekend we’ve set aside to head north to enjoy it all, Fall suddenly says, “Sooo, I’m taking the weekend off, but don’t worry, Winter’s gonna pop in and cover my shift.” So, my apologies in advance, Michigan folks, but we’re planning our annual motorcycle Iditarod. We’re not exactly sure where we’re going or which weekend we’re going yet, but don’t worry, you’ll know. The morning the furnace kicks on for the first time, you can say to yourself from within your warm cocoon of blankets, “Ah, K and F must be on their way up north.”
“I have a couple of bikes.”
“Bikes? Like bicycle bikes, or motorcycles?
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Like, mopeds? Or motorcycles?”
“Um, motorcycles. Yes, I have motorcycles.”
Somewhere in the midst of a marathon conversation leaning up against my car late at night, this exchange took place. It was the last night of the 2012 Renegade Theatre Festival, at which I’d performed my one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow. I’d tried to slink off without going to the afterparty as soon as I struck my set, but I’d been spotted by one of the organizers, so off I’d gone to stand around drinking boxed wine and feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t really know anyone there. I tried to escape again and got caught by an animated gaggle of actors just inside the door to the place. Across the doorway from me was an interesting looking guy, about 50ish or so, who was clearly also trying to escape, and we ended up having an amusing, wordless exchange about the actors who were blocking the way. A well-timed eyeroll and eyebrow waggle can say a lot.
Once I finally popped through the crowded doorway into the much-needed fresh air, I once again stood around uncomfortably — until Mr. Interesting introduced himself. Despite both trying to escape, once we started talking, F and I were the last two to leave. (And the rest, as they say, is history.) And somewhere in the middle of that wide-ranging conversation, somehow we stumbled across the topic of motorbikes.
We both had very different internal monologues underlining that exchange, though. His went something along the lines of, “Well, damn. Here comes the disapproval. Guys my age aren’t supposed to have a garage full of toys and go wicking it up on sportbikes.” He hadn’t exactly always had the best experience with others’ opinions of his motorcycling life.
Mine, however, went something along the lines of:
I’d ridden two up before, but it had been a looooong time. I missed it. And here was this interesting guy and he had motorcycles, too? WIN!
Once he realized that I wasn’t running away screaming, F became much more willing to talk about his motorcycles — at which point I admit that my internal monologue shifted to, “Wait. Wait wait wait. Sportbikes? Crotch rockets??”
Like most people who haven’t been around motorcycle racing, the only impression I had of sportbikes at the time was of irresponsible frat boy types zipping through traffic on the freeway in their shorts and sandals, their t-shirts flapping away behind them. I couldn’t reconcile that image with this 50ish guy in front of me. (Sidenote: Most people can’t. He gets a lot of doubletakes when he takes his helmet off. Sidesidenote: Shortly after the sportbike revelation in this first conversation came the news that he was, in fact, 62. This guy was full of surprises.) I’ve learned a lot about motorcycles in the past 4 years with F, and I have a new appreciation for sportbikes — when they’re in the hands of a truly capable rider. Which F just happens to be.
A couple weeks later he rode his Honda to meet me for lunch in Ann Arbor, and I have to admit, I was impressed. It wasn’t until I went to his house for the first time, though, that I met his other bike. This one… this one clearly had a special place in his heart. His eyes got kind of faraway and dreamy when he talked about Suzi.
I once referred to this bike as his other woman. “Oh, no… no, no, no,” he reassured me. “That’s not how it is at all.” And then, just as I started to relax:
“You’re the other woman.”
So yes, I learned to appreciate F’s sportbikes. But that still didn’t mean going out for a spin with him. Don’t believe what you see out on the road, or even the fact that these bikes have seats and footpegs back there. The back of a sportbike is not a smart place to be, and there was absolutely no way that either of us would even consider that. So, one day that fall, F borrowed a friend’s big cruiser and we went for our first ride together (a day that I think will get its own post at some point). Suffice it to say that one ride together was all it took to convince both of us that we needed to find a way to do more of that. The following May, we followed a Craigslist ad up to Cass City (I’ll give you 1 guess where we stopped to eat) and brought home our future:
I knew the second he caught sight of it in the driveway that he wasn’t leaving without this bike. But I also figured he’d still want to go through the motions of a potential buyer trying to decide. After lots of questions for the seller, F asked if he could take it for a test ride. I proceeded to stand around making idle chitchat that included, “Boy, he’s taking a while out there, isn’t he?” and some nervous laughter from the seller.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’m pretty sure it’s a good sign. And that he won’t have need of a two up bike after all if he leaves here on it without me.”
When F came back and took off his helmet, the look in his eyes was the one when he’d first spotted the bike times about 20. “So, could we take it for a quick spin together?” he asked, trying to sound like he wasn’t already mentally making room for it in the garage at home. I put on what little gear I had then (a leather jacket and gloves and an old used helmet) and hopped on — and proceeded to immediately learn that a sport touring bike is a lot different from the cruisers I’d been on.
This bike was much narrower and not built to give the passenger a cushy ride (they call those things “queen seats” on cruisers for a reason). What it clearly was built for was handling and speed, and I was going to need to learn to ride a lot more actively on the back of this than I ever had before. I was more in touch with the bike and the feel of the road under the tires. It required work from my legs so that I didn’t go sliding into F when we stopped. I was going to need to really learn to lean into curves. I wasn’t going to be just a passenger tagging along, but an active participant in the ride.
This was a whole new kind of two up. And man, was this going to be fun.
…there was breakfast at Big Boy. Somehow, there is always breakfast at Big Boy when we go for a ride. This was a rarity: the second ride in as many days without being away on vacation. It was the 4th of July of this summer, which is the only reason we had these two days in a row together. A Monday off of work butting up against a Sunday that I wasn’t on the schedule at the library meant that I’d piled all of my gear into my car and headed up to F’s house in Mason, looking forward to getting out on the road.
We’d gone for a meandering ride the day before, heading south, wandering road to road that we’d never been on before, not consulting maps. We’d decided to eventually aim toward Eaton Rapids, and after a brief stop for directions at the kind of country convenience store that clings to a house like some sort of tired barnacle — one rusty gas pump outside, sun-faded signs for cigarettes in the windows, kerosene apparently a big seller — we found ourselves at our destination. And wondering why it was our destination in the first place. It was the kind of ghost town Main Street that is all too common in Michigan these days, any viable business long since swallowed by the strip malls and box stores that had sprouted up closer to the nearest freeway. The storefronts now bore signs for the kinds of second-hand shops and electronics stores and nail salons that you knew would fold and give way to the next round before their first year was up. And not a restaurant to be found — so after a stop for gas, we headed for Charlotte, because we knew there was at least a Big Boy there.
At least, we hoped there was a Big Boy there. If you’re from Michigan, you know just how ubiquitous Big Boy used to be — and how many of them have closed up shop in the last few years. We held our breath as we scanned the signs along Lansing Street, cheering when we saw evidence that yes, the restaurant was indeed still open. We were hungry. This seems to happen to us a lot, aiming for one place with breakfast on the brain, and not actually getting to sit down to eat until a couple of towns down the road.
So this morning we’d decided to go for another quick ride, this time headed north. And we ended up at the Big Boy in St. Johns, laughing about the fact that apparently all we do is ride from Big Boy to Big Boy. “We could document this,” we said. “Write a bikers’ guide to the Big Boys of Michigan,” we said. “Roadtrip all around the state in search of the last remaining Boys, those giant, burger-hoisting Kewpie dolls in their red-and-white gingham overalls,” we said, “and document our findings in a blog.”
It was so ridiculous that clearly it needed to happen.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I wrote beyond the initial schtick, maybe we were on to something. I’m a writer who hasn’t been writing much in the past couple of years, and on more than one occasion other writers have recommended blogging to me as a way back into the writing saddle. “But what on earth do I have to blog about?” I would inevitably ask.
And of course, the answer is that trusty chestnut, “Write what you know.” And what I’ve come to know during the past few years while I haven’t been writing much is the joy of riding two up on a motorcycle. I’d ridden two up before meeting F, but not to the extent that we do. It’s a major part of our lives together, and through him I’ve come to love motorbikes and the open road in new ways. We vacation on the bike, getting away for a few days and a few hundred miles a couple times a year. I’ve discovered the thrill of watching motorcycle racing, and the joy of being a darn good passenger to the kind of rider for whom motorcycle is a second language.
So that’s what I plan to explore here: all the ways that two up has affected and influenced me and my life and my writing. This is the view from the back of the bike. Sometimes it’s open blue sky and twisty roads. Sometimes it’s freezing rain and another 70 miles to the destination.
But there’s almost always a Big Boy.