Top: A Maico Typhoon Street Bike
Bottom: A Honda CB 350 Street Bike
Life is better when traveling on two wheels. When I was growing up in Kansas, then California, and then back to Kansas, I had a succession of bicycles.
At around age 11 I got my first “motorcycle,” which consisted of no more than a box containing a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine with a rope pull start, a seat on the box, a floorboard covering a twin tube frame and a simple front end with a primitive yoke to which the handlebars attached.
The engine was more or less controlled by a throttle handle on the right side of the box. Stopping was risky since the only brake was a leather block that tried, mostly in vain, to push against the rear wheel when I slammed down with my foot on a brake pedal. Stopping was something I tried to avoid since I was never sure it would happen. Top speed was a startling 15 mph. I loved that odd contraption and rode it everywhere in my neighborhood in Topeka one summer.
I worked in a grocery store as a stock boy all the next winter to save money for a real motorcycle and got one in the spring: a used, battered 50cc motorized bicycle that was a huge improvement. That summer I was going 25 mph and my “territory” expanded to neighboring towns and rural Kansas back roads.
Through my high school years I was founder and head of a hot rod club we called “The Saints of Topeka.” While I still kept a beaten up old motorcycle or two for riding in the country, racing in amateur “scrambles” and hill climbs, and riding with some motorcycle buddies, motorcycling took a back seat to trying to do my best imitation of James Dean: black penny loafers or white bucks, blue jeans, white T-shirt with a pack of Chesterfields rolled up in the left sleeve.
In college, first at Washburn University in Topeka, then at Wichita University I rode a variety of used motorcycles, the most memorable being a Maico street bike that I rode pretty much all over the state of Kansas, and into Missouri and Oklahoma. My “territory” had expanded much further and, while I was not conscious of it, I was beginning a love of motorcycle touring that would be with me for the rest of my life.
I was married at 18 and soon had one son, quickly followed by another, followed by the birth of my daughter. After graduating Wichita U we moved to Boulder where I got a Master’s at Colorado U and from there to New York state where I worked on a doctorate at Cornell University which I did not complete because I ran out of money. My doctor’s degree would come almost 40 years later, but that is another story.
Out of money and deeply in debt I quit Cornell and we moved to Schenectady where I worked for Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Executive Development in Albany for a year. My big break came when I scored well on the Federal Civil Service exam and was asked to come to Washington DC to work for John Kennedy in the Executive Office of the President. I was 23.
During the years at Boulder and Cornell I had neither the money nor the time for motorcycles. I think it was during that absence that I realized for the first time how much motorcycling had become a true passion, to the point of obsession, with me.
I missed riding and I particularly missed the freedom of touring, just getting on a bike and riding with no particular destination or purpose in mind. I longed for that sense of being at one with the bike and at one with the environment. I felt increasingly cooped up in a car, going through the country but never being “in” it, being part of it: the sounds, the smells, the vibrance of life were blotted out in a car. It is not by accident that motorcyclists call cars “cages”.
As soon as we settled in the DC suburbs I looked for another bike. I found a used Honda CB350, arranged financing, and was back riding again. The sense of freedom was immediate and my sense of “being myself” once again is a feeling that cannot be described. The purchase of that motorcycle was more than just buying a machine, it was buying back a lifestyle that had captured me and would remain with me the rest of my life.
And, since I was embarking on some serious work, with long hours and an enormous sense of needing to do my very best if I were to honor the privilege of working for the President, motorcycling would become my escape into a world of beauty, nature and solitude that I would need desperately as a relief from day to day pressures. I was beginning to realize that riding was much more than just something to do, it was my way of finding balance and personal pleasure in a life that nearly spun out of control.
To come: Starting to seriously tour, finding joy in like minded riders, attempts at being a serious racer, the beginnings of a serious drinking problem, and observations about finding a life well lived rather than a life well spent.
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