The Birthplace of Memorial Day

This year for Memorial Day, I decided to go straight to the source — the birthplace of Memorial Day, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a small village with a lot of history. They have a big event in town every Memorial Day but I went yesterday instead. For one reason or another, it kept coming up as the better day to ride. The timing was better, for one thing, and I knew there would be less traffic, better weather and a decreased likelihood that I would run into 100 “bikers” riding tire to tire on some sort of pack run.

I left at 8 in the morning. Solo. Of the two guys I ride with, it was too early for one and the other was working. No worries, I’ve always loved a good solo ride. As soon as I stepped outside I knew it was a great day for it– blue skies and the morning was nice and cool. Unable to find the charger for my beloved digital camera the night before, I grabbed a disposable at the drug store on my way out of town and shoved it into my jacket pocket. (I have to say, though not intentional, using film lent a nice feel to the pictures.)

I could have done the round trip in 120 miles but the interstate is just a way to get from point A to point B in a straight line without seeing anything so I stretched it out to 200 miles. In fact, I started by riding in the exact opposite direction of my destination just to get to the good stuff. After just over an hour of great back roads, I stopped at Halfway Dam in R. B. Winter State Park (PA 192). I used to go there a lot as a kid. The one thing that stands out the most about it from my youth is that the water was notoriously cold. To be the first one in was like a feat of daring when we were kids. Of course, I wasn’t there to swim. I got off, stretched a little and  watched some old man finish up his fishing for the day.

I continued through the state park and on into farmland. The road straightens out considerably and you can see a straight line of road cut through the sprawling independent farms for what looks like miles. I passed three guys on horseback. They were either old order Mennonite or just really country and while two were riding single file along the shoulder, one guy’s horse kept walking sideways and taking up the whole lane. I slowed and crossed the double yellow, seeing clearly ahead that there was nothing coming. He waved and I couldn’t help but relate to riding something with a mind of its own.

The country ride seemed like it could go on forever but I knew I was leaving the farm land for a college town when I simultaneously saw a sign for an “outdoor gospel sing” and just past it on the other side, another for Hooters. Boalsburg borders State College. In fact, I thought it was part of State college until last just last year.

Entering into Boalsburg was like going into some out of the way New England town and for a place that was having such a huge event the next day, it was surprisingly still and quiet — ghost town quiet. Of course, busy holiday weekend or not, it’s still a Sunday in a little Pennsylvania village. I pulled up to the Boalsburg Tavern, around which the town was built around 200 years ago. There were no cars parked in the street, just two people walking and a couple of bicycles. I saw one guy riding a bicycle and he appeared to be talking to himself — or worse — to me in a sing-song voice. “There’s going to be a band there tomorrow. No, not the kind that walks.” Of course, as he got closer I saw a child in the seat behind him. “Look, there’s a motorcycle…and it’s a cool one too.” I asked the pedestrianswhere the cemetery was. Though looking back, there only appeared to be three streets. I’m sure I would’ve found it.

I got back on my bike and headed to the cemetery to find the monument and maybe even the original graves marking the place where Memorial Day began. I rode slowly through the small cemetery filled with a mix of old and new stones and saw the monument, set apart between the church and the main road nearest the oldest stones. I didn’t find the original graves but it’s possible that their age led to their replacement with the newer monument built in 2000.

I got on my bike and headed back, this time on PA 45. The section leading out of Boalsburg is the Purple Heart Highway — a designation that my grandfather helped campaign for several years back. He had been awarded the Purple Heart himself after his service in WWII. Even though 45 is essentially another farm-filled country road, after 192 it felt like a super highway. On the way back, I saw a crowd gathered and a few rusty old cars. As it turns out it was an antique car auction. I pulled over and fell in love with a few trucks. There was nothing shiny there, just a bunch of projects looking for a home. Poking around looking at old cars and trucks isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, even better on top of a good ride.

As I approached my bike to leave, I saw a guy getting ready to board his Goldwing. He and his wife were the picture of Centre County and the whole Goldwing, RV bike thing. He pushed the button, started it up and Joe Cocker was blaring on the stereo. The woman hoisted herself onto the bike, settled into the comfortable looking armrests and took a big gulp of her Pepsi as he pulled out almost knocking the can into her face. It was a hell of a sight and a priceless lesson in why you shouldn’t drink (even a Pepsi) and ride.

I took 45 so I could stop at Guy Zerby’s shop, one of the few independent British bike shops left. Well, it was. Under the landmark Triumph sign I knew so well was a new sign for the new shop. His bikes were still there and except for a few hints of the new owner, everything looked the same but it was clear that it was no longer a working brit bike shop for Zerby any more. His shop is like a museum with bikes like the Silver Jubilee sitting there from the time they were new. Guy Zerby knows more about these old machines than anyone I know. I could talk to him for hours. In fact, I have and I’ve always tried to soak it all in.

I took this picture from the hip, thinking I had more exposures left but it was the end of the roll. I was lucky to get this one. I guess it’s true that all good things come to an end.

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RIP Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper by Douglas Kirkland

That looks like a lot of distance behind you.

Here’s a clip from 1967’s The Glory Stompers. That’s pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper playing a real good bad guy, Chino, head of the Black Souls. There are some good bikes and great riding in this one which has become one of my favorites of the B Biker movies.

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You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine

Yesterday, I was riding up the back roads on what used to be a pretty mellow, traffic free ride through Pennsylvania’s woods and farm land in the area of Pine Creek Gorge, “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon”. The new gas drilling boom seems to have reduced most of our winding country roads to truck routes. Where at one time you could go for a couple miles without seeing anything but the road ahead and the scenery around you, you can now hardly make it to the next turn without a row of five or six trucks blasting past you in the opposing lane, kicking up wind and grit. If you can see it past the trucks though, everything that matters is still there.

I was going at a nice pace, having just crested a hill and on the other side was a PennDot truck,  The driver signaled for me to slow down. I did. Around the next twist in the road, I saw a crew of four road workers walking along the shoulder. Just as I passed them, an impressively large deer ran out in front of me from the woods on my left. I can only imagine the workers heard my bike, looked up and saw what they thought would end in a wreck. I was close enough to the deer that I could see every tuft of hair that stuck up from its otherwise smooth coat. I could see its muscles move. With my heart racing, I got to the far left of my lane and the deer kept running. It must have barely made it to the shoulder, still in full stride as I passed. Once I was almost certain from its unflinching run that I wasn’t going to hit it, I was able to really appreciate what an incredible animal it is. I was in awe of it.

What do you do when you come that close? Pull over at the nearest country church and say thanks for road crews and near misses.


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Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God

…was a really good movie. I went for humbler reasons — a cheeseburger and some nostalgia. Through the lens of nostalgia, all the disrepair and faded paint read more like patina than decay. Having spent countless summer days there as a kid, Coney’s always been a favorite place of mine. Like all things old in our new and disposable society it’s being cast aside in the interest of what some people call progress. I went at what seemed to be the height of talk of its questionable fate — talk of tearing it all down to build condos for the rich as if that hasn’t happened enough in NYC. While Coney Island’s amusement district may not technically be closing, it is going to be changing drastically and this was the final season as I knew it, 2008.

I’ve been wanting to ride to Coney Island since before I even had a motorcycle. When I had a ’40 Plymouth, the plan was to fix it up and take it there. I always wanted to take a picture of it next to a Coney Island landmark. As it happened, I sold the Plymouth to buy the bike and transferred the plan. Though I didn’t know it then, I went on the last day for Astroland Park — home of the Cyclone (though that’s staying).

I left my house in the early morning on September 7th on my 66 Triumph Trophy with little notice.  It was a solo trip — no support, no one to call, too few tools beneath my seat and a quart of oil in my messenger bag. It was a pretty uneventful ride to the city. Having made no plans for the trip, I didn’t get a chance to pick a route on the back roads so I took the straight shot — route 80 — as I had so many times before in my parents’ car. Almost every time I stopped for gas both ways I was delayed talking bikes to people that used to own Triumphs including one guy road tripping on a 69 Electra Glide. I can’t say I minded.

My wife wasn’t thrilled at the thought of me riding through the city traffic but was calmed a bit knowing I planned to take the Holland Tunnel and just nip Chinatown on my way to Brooklyn. Somehow, with all my navigational prowess, I took the wrong exit and instead of taking the Holland tunnel, I ended up taking the George Washington Bridge which spits you out in the Bronx. I ended up riding the city all the way down to Coney. It’s a hell of a way to see New York and having gone over the GW a million times before to get to the Bronx on purpose, I can say there was nothing like taking that bridge on an old motorcycle — way better than a station wagon. I rode past the Yankee Stadium, my family’s neighborhood in the Bronx, through Harlem and past Central Park, then I rode along the coast to Chinatown where I pulled over to shed some layers and call my wife before proceeding to Brooklyn.

Rounding the long sweeping curve of road along the coast I saw the parachute drop, then Keyspan park. I was there. It was awesome being on the same streets I had always known but different, even better to be there on my bike with a couple hundred miles behind me. When I pulled up to the Cyclone, a guy who owned a 71 Bonneville started talking bikes with me. It turns out he was a photographer for the New York Post, his partner asked me some questions and he took a few pictures. I don’t know if I ever ended up in the Post or not.

I walked around, soaking up the vibe for a while and the vibe was strange — revelry with a tinge of somberness. For some, it seemed like they were visiting a dying relative. It kind of felt like that for me too. For the most part though, it was still as I had always known it. Plenty of people were having a good time and seemed oblivious to the changes ahead. I took a few pictures, got a cheeseburger at Ruby’s, bought a sticker for my bike and a T-shirt for my wife. I probably spent about an hour and a half there before heading back to my bike for the long ride home. I felt like I had accomplished something — certainly not the longest or most impressive ride anyone’s ever done but one I had been wanting to do for a long time and the way things change I won’t have the chance again. Even if I go the same way, I won’t end up in the same place.

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From the Vault

Here are a couple of pictures from my dad’s old photo album. They are from the South Bronx, presumably in the early sixties. I’m not sure I even know the people in the photographs but if they knew my dad back then, I am sure they’d have some great stories.  The entire album is amazing but these are the two that most fit here. See it’s not all British motorcycles.

This one is technically lacking any actual motorcycle content but it’s probably the coolest picture of two guys on a scooter you’re likely to see so it stays.

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And so it begins…

I’ve always had a passing interest in old cars and bikes but  having not grown up around either, that’s almost where it stopped. Then one day I met this guy who had a couple of old Triumph motorcycles — one fairly stock and one far from it. His bikes had a vibe I couldn’t put a finger on. Everything about them was different from what I was used to seeing around. They were as far removed from the played out biker thing as he was. They weren’t these big hulking machines but trim, low and nimble. They were hot rods on two wheels.

One day I was standing over his shoulder, hanging out while he worked on one of them in a hot garage with a big British flag on the wall. We ran around and got a few small bits of hardware and after a little more sweat and labor , he was ready to fire it up. It took the better part of a day’s work but when I heard that bike rumble to life, I was hooked. Everything about it seemed perfect even if it wasn’t — the look, the smell and the sound — definitely the sound. I wanted one in the worst way but I knew it would be a while until I’d be in a position to make it happen.

Fast forward about seven years and I finally got a chance to get a bike. Only a 60s Triumph would do so I set out to find one. I found it in a classified ad (the actual paper kind, if you can believe it) posted by an older guy named Skip. The ad said it was a 1966 Triumph Trophy and that it was actually inspected and ready to ride. I was pretty psyched but kept my expectations reasonable because “ready to ride” means different things to different people. As it turned out it was titled as a 66 but had a 68 motor and a 69 front end. It made no difference to me. I wanted a rider, not a perfect restoration. I made plans to go check it out 140 miles from home with my wife and my friend Scott. It was my wife’s birthday but she had a good celebration the day before so she was pretty gracious about spending her day on a motorcycle hunting excursion. Believe me, you need a good woman like that or none at all if you’re going to get an old bike. Except for the fact that Scott rode a motorcycle, we had no plans for bringing it home — no truck, no trailer. Depending on what we found, he was either going to ride it out or we were going to drive out bitching.

Skip lived out in the middle of nowhere and on the seemingly endless ride there I played over and over in my head what this thing might look like for the price. By the time we got there I had resigned myself to the idea that it was going to be in bad shape and worse paint. I was excited at the potential though and was thinking of what I’d do with it. I had decided that, among other things, I was going to paint it black and silver.

When we pulled up I saw this bike gleaming in the sun — all glossy paint and polished aluminum. I assumed he had a couple of them and my bike was back in the garage somewhere but no, this was it — the bike we came to see — and in black and silver paint, no less.

The bike made the roughly  140 mile trip home with a stop at the first chance for an impromptu lesson. I took to it pretty quickly and having conquered the North Pocono Middle School parking lot, couldn’t wait to get on the road. Scott rode it the first 90 miles on the interstate and through a few bursts of hard rain. About 50 miles from home we stopped to eat and he asked if I was ready to ride it the rest of the way. Being new to motorcycles (and manual transmissions for that matter) I stalled at more than a few red lights. Still, I had an amazing 50 mile ride home through small towns and farmland despite the stalling and kickstarts. The closer I got to home, the harder the start –no matter though, I was almost there. Kick more, mutter under my breath a little more and I was off.

When we got back to town, we stopped at the bar where my friends were. We all gathered in the parking lot to check out my new find. I hopped on and gave it a good kick — and another, and another. Nothing. Of course because everyone was around, the bike wouldn’t start. As I kicked more, sweating and swearing and throwing my jacket off in what would become an all too familiar dance, they all went back to their drinks — except for the tinkerers among us. I  pushed the bike over to a patch of light in the dark lot and we fumbled around until it was time to give up and have a drink. Running or not, I had my bike and that was reason enough to celebrate…and of course my wife’s birthday.

That was a few years ago and just the beginning of my getting my bike on the road in fits and starts and, as one friend was quick to point out, it was more fits than starts at first. Just when I was ready to ride, that bike would decide it wasn’t moving. There were a lot of little things wrong with it. Much of it was electrical (another trait of the vintage British bike experience) but the whole bike was in need of some attention and it was a long time until I could go any distance and expect my bike to make it back.  A lot of work has gone into it and a lot of miles have come out of it with countless more still ahead. The work that goes into it make the ride that much better and if you wrestle with any machine long enough, you’ll get to know it pretty well. That bike can run for hundreds of miles at a time without hesitation from back roads to highways and New York City traffic and I plan to make it do just that — every chance I get. Of course I still keep my tools handy because even a good old bike is still an old bike and that’s half the fun. Anybody can own a motorcycle but there’s something gratifying about keeping an old machine on the road.

I’ve had some great rides, taken a few pictures, met some good and knowledgeable people and learned a lot about my bike along the way. I’m going to use this page to post up about some of it and whatever else seems to fit.

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