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Authors: Tom Cunliffe

Good Vibrations

BOOK: Good Vibrations
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This edition published 2012

First published in 2000
Reprinted 2000, 2005, 2006

Copyright © Tom Cunliffe, 2000

The right of Tom Cunliffe to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Map by Robert Smith

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, nor transmitted, nor translated into a machine language, without the written permission of the publishers.

Condition of Sale
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.

Summersdale Publishers Ltd
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West Sussex
PO19 1RP

Printed and bound in Great Britain

eISBN: 978-0-85765-569-1

Substantial discounts on bulk quantities of Summersdale books are available to corporations, professional associations and other organisations. For details contact Summersdale Publishers by telephone: +44 (0) 1243 771107, fax: +44 (0) 1243 786300 or email:
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Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 1
– Searching the Streets for Betty
Chapter 2
– Bureaucracy Baffles Bikers
Chapter 3
– Wild Beasts, Camping and Tourism
Chapter 4
– Questions of Time
Chapter 5
– Running the Storm
Chapter 6
– Banjos, Moonshiners and the Feds
Chapter 7
– Firetrucks and Bibles
Chapter 8
– Old Man River
Chapter 9
– Music of the Ozarks
Chapter 10
– The Beginning of the Big Wide World
Chapter 11
– Riding the Plains
Chapter 12
– Pounding the Prairies
Chapter 13
– Ranchers and Farmers
Chapter 14
– A Close Call on the Reservation
Chapter 15
– Style or Substance?
Chapter 16
– The Great Divide and the Deep Green Redwoods
Chapter 17
– Changing Times on the West Coast
Chapter 18
– Flat Out to Death Valley
Chapter 19
– Gamblers and Good Vibrations
Chapter 20
– Tickets in Texas and Love Bugs in Louisiana.
Chapter 21
– Crazy and Cool in the Deep South-East
– The Last Lap
About the Author


For many travellers, the mode of transport is arbitrary. To others, a charismatic vehicle such as a sailing vessel or a motorcycle can raise the mere function of running off the miles into an end in itself. Both demand a high degree of awareness and co-ordination, while abuse of either can lead directly to disaster. Despite the dangers, however, a diverse multitude of individuals undergo inconvenience, discomfort and sometimes penury just for the joy of making them go. On a major trip, boats and bikes have a way of opening doors that might otherwise remain shut, thus adding double value to the voyager's experience.

Most of my working life has been spent sailing; my preferred road machines have always had two wheels and a hefty engine. America has often been my destination and for two years its shoreline was home. This story is about how I struck out inland with Roz, my wife, to investigate the rest of the United States from the perspective of a pair of itinerant bikers. The ride alone was worth the fuel bill, while the people we met rounded out thirty years of intermittent familiarity with the coastal communities.

Conclusions about other nations are hazardous, and I have hesitated to draw any. Readers may find their own among the tyre tracks.


The day began with a hunt for a bike suitable for Roz. It didn't take long to exhaust the slim pickings off the Washington Beltway and move on to the hot-house streets of Baltimore. We were both jet-lagged after a classic departure from Britain – four hours' sleep, a delayed flight and aggravation in the luggage queue – so morale was easily eroded. Buying a motorcycle might not sound a major challenge for a woman in good shape who has battled gales off Greenland and fronted up to drunken dockers in Leningrad, but we'd found nothing in two sweltering days and I could tell that the latest used-bike joint shook her confidence.

From the outside, it was a squat, oblong box set 10 yards from a shouting street corner where brakes squealed and vehicles poured out their heat at the traffic lights. Inside, the racket was hardly muted by the thin walls and there was no air-conditioning to ease our pain, but at least we were sheltered from the sun. Tossing the local newspaper advertisements page on to a pile of rubbish behind the door, I glanced around. Dead machines of indeterminate ancestry lay against the walls; rat-bikes still carried the dust of the plains in the spent oil beneath their crank cases; in a greasy corner a man with a nasty scar was ripping the skin off his knuckles trying to coax life into a Japanese no-hoper, while up front stood a ‘full-dress' Harley-Davidson sporting the most tasteless, mock zebra seat cover ever devised. The motorcycles were demoralising, but it was the character slinking out of a door labelled ‘Sales' that seemed to be creeping under Roz's skin.

She wore white stiletto slingbacks, a heavy chain on her right ankle and a long red dress slit to the knickers with a couple of buttons for modesty, which weren't done up. The higher reaches of the creation were equally revealing and a colourful tattoo of a murder weapon leered out from its left side just north of the cleavage.

‘How can I help you?' Voice low and breathy. She ignored Roz and planted herself in front of me, looking directly up through the mascara.

At six and a half feet tall, I enjoy a splendid view of women in low-cut dresses who stand too close. I benefited from this now, but tore my gaze from the dripping dagger.

‘My wife,' I said, ‘wants a used Harley-Davidson that'll make it to the West Coast and back.'

She tossed her frizzed blonde mane and countered by asking if I was Australian. Lucky for her she wasn't accusing an Aussie of being a Brit, I thought. He might take offence. Not me though. I began to tell her that I was from Lancashire, but she had already clambered away through the heaps to an elderly blue Harley with an $8,000 price tag. For an awful moment I feared she might throw a leg over it, but she invited Roz to give it a go instead. The seat had been fashionably lowered in some former life, so at least the bike was the right height from the ground. The first we'd seen.

Gingerly, Roz wormed her way into the sagging saddle to reassure herself that with the ‘chopped' custom styling her feet easily reached the grimy floor. This was at least a beginning, because if a girl can't reach God's firm earth and has to support 600 pounds of iron from a standing start, she's backing a loser. Despite evidence on the tank and handlebars of a slide down some highway, this bike was the first to be chalked up for the trial squad, but it only took a couple of seconds to conclude that it wasn't going to make the final selection.

‘Never mind the state of it,' Roz hissed in my ear, ‘check out the starter button.'

There wasn't one. The bike was so ancient it had a kick-start.

A week earlier, on her forty-fifth birthday, Roz had passed her motorcycle test rather than risk sitting behind me for the entire trip. Paddling her own canoe has always been her style, but the sixth-hand, lightweight Suzuki that had satisfied the Minister of Transport's legal representative on the breezy heathlands of southern England, cut no ice with the massive reality of the all-American road-burner. The only similarities between ‘Suzie' and this two-wheeled monster were a lack of electric starting and a readiness for the bone yard. Booting a tiny, worn down two-stroke into life might just be acceptable, Roz's look implied, but jumping up and down on an ill-tuned lump of rust more than ten times its mass was not on her list of ‘things I must do'.

I didn't blame her. I remembered walking with a limp for weeks after spraining an ankle starting my Matchless, easy meat compared with this wild animal. That had been thirty years earlier back in Liverpool when I was a law student and founder member of the ‘Ton-in-the-Tunnel Club'.

In those days, the 2-mile Mersey Tunnel suffered from a provocative 30-mph limit. The trick was to hit the entrance at 3 a.m., dawdle casually past the security men, wind the bike up to 100 along the straight section under the river with your exhausts howling back from the walls and the lights flashing by like a lunatic fairground, then trundle out the other end after stopping for a minute or so before the last corner in case the cops were timing you through. I fancy I'm smarter now and didn't relish kicking the Harley either, so making lame excuses about blue being the wrong colour, we made for the door.

‘What shade d'you want then?' The dragon came back fighting, armed with a closing question cunningly sheathed in compliance as her victims slipped the trap.

‘It would have to be red,' replied Roz, marching on to sure ground. There wasn't a red Harley in the shop.

‘Red's easy,' retorted the lady. I looked at her outfit and agreed. ‘We can have it painted in a couple of days. You wanna take her for a blow down the road, Honey, while the big feller's sorting out the money?'

Having just been nailed by the hoariest selling trick in the book, we escaped by deploying the toughest chestnut in the unwilling buyer's manual.

‘Great bike,' I lied. ‘We'll think about it and let you know.'

Out on the street, the temperature was way up in the nineties with humidity high enough to soak our jeans. Watching the traffic, I thought about my own Harley, fresh off the boat from England and waiting to be bailed out of the customs pound down at the docks. Eighteen-wheeler trucks roared by shaking the ground, their engine covers the size of shipping containers, while tiny imported motor cars and self-conscious American lookalikes shuffled around their mighty tyres. Size has mattered for transport here ever since the first transcontinental railroad locomotives arose to dwarf their British forebears. The tradition has continued through rolling stock, the Flying Fortress of World War Two, the battleship and, of course, the automobile. Building things large is the American way. The trucks seemed an honest part of the scene. Not so the private transport.

Why, I wanted to know, has Detroit become embarrassed about its heritage, and whatever happened to those glories of the road that so recently proclaimed, ‘Nobody else in the world can afford to be the size I am. I've got Style, Baby, with a capital S.'? The car manufacturers might have abandoned tradition, but nobody could accuse the only surviving motorcycle builder on the continent of capitulating to passing fashion. Heavy, chrome-embellished, noisy, with performance akin to a mad rhinoceros, Harley-Davidsons are Neanderthal by the standards of most modern motorcycles. Fast enough in a straight line, they offer no quarter when it comes to turning a corner and they are the very devil to stop, yet nothing on two wheels can approach them for charisma. Steel horses for the cowboys of today's concrete prairies, they remain as lonely survivors from the sunshine days when gas was cents for a gallon and Americans knew who they were.

‘I think I need to chill out,' said Roz, as we slumped back into our rented Oldsmobile. The idea that discovering the right machine inside the US would be anything other than easy had never crossed our minds, yet here at the fountainhead, the bike we sought, if it existed outside our imaginations, was keeping itself securely hidden. Still reeling after Washington, Baltimore was now flogging us into retreat with its soul-sapping humidity. Desperation was eating at our composure, so we gave up on the newspaper small ads and headed south-east to Annapolis in search of a local dealership cooled by breezes from the Chesapeake Bay.

An hour later we swept into town past the soaring domes of the Naval Academy and on to where ‘Harley-Davidson of Annapolis' stood squarely at the opposite end of the ‘Sales and Service' spectrum from the witch's cave. We parked under a huge Stars and Stripes floating on the afternoon breeze, dashed across 10 yards of superheated reality and stepped into a climate-controlled fantasy world of self-confident tranquillity.

Gleaming bikes stood at ease on every side, modestly diverting attention from their colossal price tags. There were no brand-new ones because of a national two-year waiting list, with factory machines rarely making it as far as the showrooms. No such hold-ups trouble the buyer back in Britain, a situation that beggars understanding, but it was not for us to question the wisdom of one of America's most successful corporations. We had to leave that to millions of frustrated local bikers.

Glimpsed through the spotless chromium forest, a girl with eyes to go to jail for presided over racks of leathers and other flash gear. Out the back was the parts counter with an old-fashioned biker in charge. Tall and weather-beaten, the years whirling beneath his spokes had left him a grey ponytail and a pair of John Lennon glasses that stayed on if you were a straight operator, but looked as though they might still come off for an occasional showdown. Behind him and all around us, the cool, cream-painted walls were set off with giant posters proclaiming the true religion of the motorcycle.

Just inside the door of this air-conditioned temple, a jaunty, low-slung yellow bike sat coyly on her side stand perfuming the air with oil and polished leather. It was love at first sight. Roz hopped aboard before Scott, the dealer's son, had had time to check us out. She inspected the ‘peanut' gas tank with its bold ‘883 Sportster' insignia; caressed the stylish saddlebags designed for Posers' Boulevard, made to hold a half of nothing; wrapped her long hands around the sexy buckhorn handlebars; then frisked the leather tassels hanging demurely from various strategic sites waiting to stream bravely on the wind. I noted the straight-through exhaust pipes that promised a clatter like an early machine gun and mused on noise emission laws.

Received wisdom is that nobody can push an 883 more than 100 miles, let alone across the continent. The engine just isn't hefty enough, it is said, and the diminutive fuel tank will never make it to triple figures. We deliberated this and Roz tried her luck with a 1200-cc. Not a chance. It was far too heavy for someone whose last machine had been virtually a toy and besides, the seat seemed so ill-fitting for a lady that it could generate blisters without leaving the showroom. Clearly, there was only one choice. It had to be the sunshine Sportster and to hell with the pundits.

The bike was wheeled out into the furnace blast of the late afternoon while Roz kitted up. Proper motorbike boots, leather jacket, gauntlets and full-face helmet.

‘You'll fry, Babe,' the man with the ponytail said kindly. ‘Leave your helmet here. We'll look after your armour.'

I could see Roz was already sweating inside her gear, but I understood her concerns. For all she knew, she'd drop the Harley on her leg at the first junction. It generally takes a minute or so before someone reacts to help you, and as you lie there pinned down by the weight, the hot metal of the exhaust pipes soon burns through your jeans. Next it's your calves for the branding iron, and the cooking smell is depressing. There's also the skin ripped clean off your shoulders and the broken arm. With all this in mind, she was easing back on fashion and comfort to opt for some protection.

‘I've left my leather pants in the car, you know,' Roz said, hoping to mollify her advisers, and I knew that even this had taken moral fibre. She had never been on a bike without full shielding before and I could sense her anxiety as she dug deep into her reserves of self-belief and let in the clutch. I was terrified the bike would stall, or she'd decide it was too much of a beast and the whole trip would be over, but the engine hesitated for a split second, then throbbed powerfully, pulling steadily away. After an initial, heart-stopping wobble, things seemed to stabilise as Roz changed up and opened the throttle. I almost cheered out loud as she rode off down the street.

To set the 883 in perspective for the lay person, it needs to be said that until the Japanese arrived on the scene in the 1960s with their ‘rice-burners', few bikes of more than 650 cc had been available in Europe. A motorcycle the size of the Sportster would have been beyond the dreams of the craziest pack leader at the Ace Café on London's North Circular Road in the monochrome days of rockers, Nortons, Bonnevilles and Marianne Faithfull, when ‘good' was middle class, ‘bad' misunderstood and the motorcycle offered stark hope to a generation of inarticulate searchers.

One look at Roz test-riding the primrose Harley reminded the boys in the workshop of the Betty Boop cartoon glamour girl who seems always to be hanging on in extraordinary circumstances; so ‘Betty Boop' the bike became. Tim, the parts man, was still shaking his head over the choice of so ‘small' a vehicle, but the question of whether Betty would arrive back on the East Coast smiling after 10,000 miles or be dumped, defeated, far out in the desert, could not be resolved in a shiny showroom. The answer would be found in the lands where talk is recognised for the jade it can be, and only the crankshaft bearings speak the truth.

We paid for Betty at six o'clock, long after the insurance underwriters had left their offices. There would be no riding her that evening, so we did a deal on a 3.5-gallon highway tank to be fitted the next day and used the phone to locate an old friend. Clark answered the call, and we hopped aboard the cool, white Oldsmobile and steered southwards into the woods.

BOOK: Good Vibrations
8.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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