Mexico’s Day of the Dead with MotoDiscovery

Most US residents have little understanding of one of the major celebrations of our neighbors to the south in Mexico. The Day of the Dead event (Desfile de Día de Muertos) is one of the oldest Pagan holidays and a majority of Mexican people wholeheartedly embrace and participate in the multi-day event. It mixes sadness and fond remembrances of family and friends who have passed away, the creation of elaborate altars with raucous, tequila-fueled partying, fireworks, and parading through the streets in costumes and elaborate face paintings.

The Day of the Dead could more accurately be described as “Days of the Dead” as it begins Oct. 28, with a focus on children who have passed. The major festival kicks off on Nov 1 at 3 pm when fireworks welcome the arrival of the spirits of dead loved ones. Until noon the following day, the dead are believed to cross back into the land of the living and visit families and friends, as long as they are remembered. To ensure these memories, families create elaborate altars with brilliant marigold flowers, incense, food, water, and photographs of the deceased, often with “Ofrendas” (offerings) in the form of favorite items of the deceased. Fireworks at noon the following day, Nov. 2, announce their leaving.

My partner on this trip is Kevin Brown. He and I land in Mexico City on October 29. We are met at the airport by MotoDiscovery Tours, who get us to downtown Mexico City Hotel in one piece and brief us on the following day’s travel to Puebla to pick up our rental motorcycles. We’re immediately grateful to have competent and professional oversight, as Mexico City and its 22 million souls are intimidating. Leaving the Grand Hotel Ciudad De Mexico on the largest downtown square in the center of Mexico City the following day involves over two hours of navigating streets snarled with cars, bicycles, buses (like our bus and many even larger), each competing to move forward a few yards at a time before the road clears and we speed off toward Puebla.

A terrific primer on the Day of the Dead celebration is the Disney animated, award-winning movie “Coco,” which I jokingly refer to as the “Day of the Dead Documentary.” Surprisingly, it gets a lot right about this ancient celebration, one of the only pagan festivals not “culturally appropriated” for modern times. Most of today’s revered religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and more were “baptized,” as the good Reverend Doctor Kevin Brown would say, making them no longer pagan celebrations, but Christian. And while the Catholic Church in Mexico largely ignores the celebration, the Day of the Dead has incorporated numerous religious observances such as All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day, albeit it without the solemn tone.

After a fun day in Puebla, we ride roughly 500 km (310 miles) south to Oaxaca, to spend two nights at the Casa Conzatti Hotel, a small establishment centrally located across from a beautiful park. Oaxaca is the epicenter of Mexico’s Day of the Dead activities. Shiningly bright Aztec marigold flowers are everywhere. Altars appear along the street, in hotel lobbies, and in most business places. (When riding to the top of Mexico’s tallest building in Mexico City we even passed an altar on the way to the elevator). After parking the bikes in front of the hotel and storing our bags, we head out to explore in the late afternoon. We join a group of revelers, along with a marching band ensemble, and trek down a 2-mile long street, past various squares, courtyards, and markets. Participants sport ornate face paint, all with a “dead” theme, and some Halloween-type costumes. Turning in after a 9 PM dinner start time, we heard celebrations continue long into the night.

MOTORCYCLE RIDING MEXICO

While the ride from Puebla to Oaxaca was an incredibly fun ride, it does not compare to what comes next. One of the premier twisty roads on planet earth runs for 180 miles (270km) from Oaxaca to Huatulco on the Mexican Pacific coast. Highway 175 leaves Oaxaca and runs mostly flat, with nice sweeping turns for just short of an hour until you pass San Bartolo Coyotepec. Then it turns into tight, technical, and tremendous. Turn after turn, quick climbs and drops snake us through lush mountain forests. We ride through small villages with names like Miahuatian de Porfirio Diaz, Rancho la Soledad, El Portillo Paxtlan, and San Mateo Rio Honda. Most memorable are the suspension destroying topes (speed bumps), sometimes with “Reductor” signs indicating a slower speed is prudent. It feels like a continuous Tail of the Dragon, but for 6 hours instead of the 15 minutes/11-mile Deals Gap road in Tennessee. “I don’t think I ever got to third gear,” one rider exclaimed, wiping sweat dripping from his neck, breathing in the rich humid air as we arrived in the parking lot of the Quinta Bella Hotel, with its 4 restaurants, two pools, beach access and views of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean.

We owe this magical day and road discovery to Juan Stanglmaier of MotoDiscovery, who learned of it during the years he worked with the La Carrera Panamerica race. Revived in 1988 from its historic beginnings, the Panamerica is a competition for cars made between 1940 and 1965 in a variety of categories. In 2009 the race moved to these roads in southern Mexico beginning in Huatulco, here in the State of Oaxaca, and became the most important classic car rally-type automotive sporting event in Mexico. Paying critical benefits for the riders on this trip is Juan’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the sort of roads that appeal to adventure seeking motorcycle riders.

We take a rest break near a town named San Jose Del Pacifico, 3 hours south of Oaxaca and home to the renowned magic (psychedelic) mushrooms, harvested in the local forests. Nearby villages are homes to the artists best known for creating “Alebrijes,” the brightly colored animal-like sculptures, which we learn much more about later in our trip.

Before leaving Oaxaca, MotoDiscovery had arranged for us to visit a family living in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, about 30 minutes directly east of Oaxaca. The family’s business and home are fully dedicated to weaving and they graciously talk us through and demonstrate each step in the process of converting sheep’s wool into beautiful rugs and artistic woven wall hangings. After the demonstrations, they serve a meal of traditional foods, all fun and delicious. The dried and flavored grasshoppers I’d acquired at an open-air market hours earlier were welcomed, although the lime taste flavoring on the ones I’d bought was not as good as the spicier ones they served.

Most fascinating to me about the weaving demonstration was how they colored the yarn, all with natural ingredients. The red-colored dye comes from the cochineal, a soft-bodied, oval-shaped insect that penetrates prickly pear cactus leaves and lives on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. The insect produces carminic acid which is extracted when they pinch the bug between their fingers and use it to create red carmine dye.

After lunch and just before 3 pm, the patriarch of the family, a spry 60-ish man who’d guided his 23-year old son through the demonstrations for what looked like his first solo effort, allowed us into a back room of their home. There we found a substantial alter he’d created to his father, who’d passed away at 91 years of age, just 40 days earlier. As 3 O’Clock approached, he lit a large bowl of incense and began to wave the billowing white smoke over the alter with the photograph of his father – a wrinkled face with gentle eyes and Mona Lisa-like smile. Then as if on cue, the fireworks began, louder and closer than any of us expected. Moved, I asked Juan to translate my condolences to the man, but we both failed as our emotions got the better of us and we began to cry. The only way to communicate our feelings was to put our arms around each other.

Eight of our nine rental bikes are from BMW, two 1250GS’s, two 1200GS’s, an 850GS, 750GS, 310 GS, and one lone Honda Africa Twin. Tour leader Juan Stanglmaier rides his own (non-rental) 1150GS and Bill Eakins commands the chase vehicle containing our luggage, tools, bottled water, and snacks besides pulling a trailer in the event of a mishap.

Road rules in Mexico are similar to many countries in Europe, pure heaven for some motorcycle riders but absolute terror for others. Essentially, motorists on Mexico’s roads expend more effort on keeping traffic moving than on obeying what any particular traffic sign indicates. For instance, roads painted with large yellow double lines (as in the USA) down the center meaning it is unsafe to pass. In Mexico, this translates to mean if you are traveling at a moderate pace, you should move over, putting your right passenger side wheels off the road onto the shoulder, allowing enough of a gap for someone to pass, counting of course on oncoming traffic doing the same thing, creating a center “okay to pass” area. If unaccustomed to crossing double yellow lines to pass, especially with limited visibility, it takes a bit of getting used to. But with a motorcycle, it presents less risk and is easier than in a car. As in Europe, drivers in Mexico focus on their driving, not cellphones, radios, or conversations with passengers. There is little of the “competitive” driving you see in the states. While people will push and crowd with their vehicles, the sense of “we’re all on the road together, let’s do the best we can to get everyone through this,” best represents how most drivers behave. Traffic police are essentially non-existent and you’re free to ride at whatever speed appears appropriate for you, the weather and traffic.

Arriving back in Oaxaca, we began the next day off the bikes with local guide Benito Hernandez. His first stop is a several-hour visit at Monte Alban, an expansive pre-Colombian archaeological site above the plains in the Valley of Oaxaca. This ancient city is estimated to have had over 800,000 inhabitants, covering thousands of terraces and dozens of mounded clusters. It is believed the city lost significance around AD 500-700 and was abandoned and only used, since that time, for smaller reoccupations and occasional reuse of the structures and tombs built by the former inhabitants. The site reveals some of the earliest evidence of written language and a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of time and calendars. Only small sections of the site have been excavated and the site has thousands of unexplored layers, rooms, tombs, and commercial spaces.

After lunch, our second stop was a family enterprise along the lines of the weavers we’d seen a few days earlier, but this one involved the creation of colorful Alebrijes sculptures. One can’t spend much time near and around Oaxaca without running into the brightly painted, whimsical carvings. This marriage of native woodcarving traditions began with Mexico City artist Pedro Linares. In the 1930’s, Linares, an artist specializing in papier mâché sculpture, fell ill. While unconscious, he dreamt of a place with weird trees, animals, and rocks which turned into strange animals. On recovery he began sculpting donkeys with butterfly wings, roosters with bull horns, or a lion with an eagle’s head, meshing together horns, antlers, wings, and fins onto various animals. In his dreams, these creatures all were screaming “Alebrijes!” and so that is what he named them. Over the years the medium moved from paper mâché to wood and this part of Oaxaca state is famous for their creation. Some people believe Alebrijes are “spirit animals” who guide the souls of ancestors as they make their way back and forth between the living and dead during the Day of the Dead period.

Like the weavers we visited the prior day, we got to know this local family business. We watched the steps in the six-month process from a piece of wood to the finished piece. It is all done by hand, with a level of precision and detail hard to believe, as you watch paint being lovingly hand-applied with tiny brushes and the use of a powerful magnifying glass.

There are two levels of Alebrijes production. The first, this stop, offers unique, high-quality, labor-intensive pieces. The best of these pieces gain reputations for the artists and command high prices. It is not unusual to find, as we are seeing here, entire families involved. There is a lower level of repetitive, average quality inexpensive pieces which can be found anywhere. Having the chance to visit and meet this family of carvers was unusual. They typically sell through middlemen who move the products to dealers in Mexico and abroad. While dogs and cats were plentiful, we also saw many armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, elephants, deer, and fish.

The first step in creating an alebrije is carving. Copal is the most commonly used wood and comes from the healer tree family called Bursera. The tree was sacred to the Maya people, particularly because of the resin, now known as “Mexican Frankincense,” but is related to Frankincense and Myrrh and can be found in sweat lodges and Day of the Dead ceremonies. Sometimes woods like walnut, willow, cedar, and sabino are also used. Once the appropriate wood is selected, the artist “sees” the shape and decides the most appropriate shape into which to carve it. Carving may take several days, depending on how complicated the piece. The next step is drying, which is done naturally. It is the longest part of the process. Then it’s off to polish and sand it, then apply liquids to preserve the wood and ensure it will never attract insects. Then any imperfections are addressed using natural materials mixed with sawdust arising when they cut and sanded the wood. It then goes through repeated sandpaper steps, using finer and finer grains of paper until it’s super smooth and the final sealer is applied. This sealer is designed so that the colored paint adheres easily and is permanent. Painting is the final step. It appears as if they use hundreds of different brushes, some to shade, others to anchor, and other finer ones to make the decorations. Depending on size, this step can take from 2 to 4 months, as the colorful decorations representing life and joy are each unique.

Just as we are about to leave, it turns noon, and fireworks erupt all around us, as the living bid goodbye to their ancestors who’ve they’ve been around for the previous 21 hours and will now begin their trip back to the spirit world. A special Alebrijes was featured in the Disney film “Coco,” which was released in 2017 and is now available on the Disney Channel.

Another highly visible aspect of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration is the elaborate and colorful altars erected in private homes and public places. They are created to help guide the dead back from the spirit world to those who remember and cared for them when they were alive. They feature photos of those souls who have passed, memorabilia, things they loved (a piece of jewelry, model of a car, or favorite tool), along with representations of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. We saw toys of dead children, bottles of tequila, mescal, or special foods like candied pumpkin or sugar skulls. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls of those who have passed, so they will hear the prayers and words the living send in their direction. We found these altars in the private homes we visited and saw them in public places like libraries, museums, and especially cemeteries.

The bulk of the celebratory activities are concentrated over 3 days. Most families visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with altars (ofrendas), almost always including bright orange Mexican marigolds. In Mexico, marigolds are known as the flower of the dead, with the belief the bright color and scent attract the souls of the dead. I was able to photograph many of these alters and found all of them moving and significant. Some pictures below:

Perhaps due to over-caution and some questionable judgment on my part, Kevin and I ended up with a day to kill in Mexico before flying back to the US. We chose to spend it in Puebla, an industrial and rapidly growing city of over 2.2M people. We stayed in a terrific hotel (the Azul Talavera) where the final tour dinner was held. It is close to historic and older areas of the city, beautiful parks, and massively large old Catholic Churches. We hired Omar and his son Brandon (who is studying to be a pilot and acted as our interpreter) to give us a tour of the city. You can’t imagine a more generous-natured and accommodating pair to guide one through a city. Unfortunately, their kindness was not equaled by a knowledge of the city. We had a pleasant enough time, saw some new buildings with terrific architecture and compelling designs, but didn’t learn a whole lot more about the city. (See photos below.)

Thus we found ourselves at the terminal for the luxury buses to take us to the Mexico City airport around 2 PM. The terminal and buses are quite posh and our $17 bought us wide seats with tons of legroom with significant recline capabilities. And we could watch a movie in Spanish through the provided sterilized earbuds.

It felt so good to get back on the road and ride again after Covid had shut so many doors. Mexico is a fascinating country, a close neighbor with a different language and culture, full of family-oriented and gentle people. The roads were incredibly good, well-paved, and full of twists and turns, to the delight of our group of riders. True to its reputation, MotoDiscovery delivered the goods, providing spectacular hotels, fun and interesting places to eat, but mostly thinking through all the hard stuff so we clients could concentrate on having a great time.

END

Traveling in Times of Covid: Crossing a pedestrian overpass from Mexico City’s International airport we spend the night in a crowded airport hotel. We spend two hours attempting to get the eVerifly app to work. This app is a complete joke and our biggest complaint on the trip. First, it is horrendously slow, then when asked to enter the date and time of our Covid tests (the primary purpose of the app), it gives a range of dates and times to select from that does not include the dates of when we had our tests. Entering dates and times from amongst the ones offered, although incorrect, allowed us to move to the next step which is to upload our “proof of negative Covid test documents.” An automated message in the app then told us those documents would be evaluated and they would get back to us. About an hour later, we got emails indicating we could go online and check our results, which were not accepted because “…there was a discrepancy between the dates on our Covid test paperwork and the information we entered on their form.” The only reason they were wrong is the application would not allow us to enter the correct ones! Fortunately, when we got to the airport, this eVerifly step is not at all required, and our paper documents showing we’d had our test within the 72-hour window were more than sufficient. Any claims by eVerifly indicating they are simplifying the process for getting onto your flight is entirely and utterly false. We wasted 2 hours the night before and another hour the following morning, only to find this step completely unnecessary.

Harley Pan America

OverlandExpo

On Saturday, Sept 25, I joined a few friends in Flagstaff, AZ at the Overland Expo West, an event growing exponentially over the past few years to include vendors from across the outdoor experience world. Represented were every truck and off-road-oriented vehicle, motorcycle companies, tents, yurts, lights, knives, water purification, backpacks, and hundreds of exhibitors with accessory products to make your outdoor trekking more enjoyable. Here’s the complete list.

Harley-Davidson had a booth entirely given over to their new Pan America adventure motorcycle. This bike is an outright divergence from Harley’s dominant cruiser market. Since its introduction earlier this year, reviews are popping up everywhere, even some by former colleagues of mine. But my first chance to ride it was this past Saturday. Having ridden and written about many motorcycles for magazines like RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News, RoadRunner, and The Overland Journal, I’m keenly aware of the fierce competition from manufacturers in this space. Before making my own choice for the best bike in this class to buy personally, I spent over two years extensively reading and testing the BMW 1250GS, KTM 1290, Ducati Multistrada, Triumph Tiger, Honda Africa Twin, Kawasaki KLR-650, and Yamaha Ténéré. These are all terrific bikes and their makers have been fine-tuning their capabilities and advantages. I had my doubts on how well Harley would do. Their past attempts at innovation included the V-Rod which (introduced in 2000 and dropped in 2017) had a revolutionary new motor designed jointly with Porsche but the Harley faithful never took to it. In 2019 the LiveWire electric bike was introduced with great fanfare but withdrawn the same year. Some readers have asked my opinion but I’ve been holding off until after I had a chance to personally take one for a ride. Well, now I’ve done that, and will give you my thoughts.

Harley Pan AmericaWhile a short, twenty-mile jaunt involving only a brief bit of gravel, it was revealing. My years of having to quickly assess and crystalize my impressions of a motorcycle for publication resurfaced and, I found that part of my brain went right into gear after throwing my leg over the orange Harley. Here are my early observations:

  • Harley fans looking for an upright seating position on a premium Adventure bike with a Harley logo, now have a solid choice. The seat is comfortable, the handlebars well-placed, the windscreen adequate, and the controls easy to reach and understand. Like most other bikes in this category, it seems more than capable for touring and moderate off-road use.
  • Sound matters to many Harley riders. My immediate impression was the sound of the Pan America owes a bigger debt to Buell than to the Harley cruisers cracking the throttle as they speed past my house on Thunderbird Road, often with aftermarket pipes. With wind and chain noise, valve-train clatter, lifters, cam sounds, and the clutch and gears chiming in, the exhaust note is very much in the background until you aggressively get on it.
  • Performance/engine. It’s a Harley, so it couldn’t be anything other than a V-Twin and it is. It’s a big, beefy 1252 cc motor with good low-end torque — true to expectations. For its size and weight, it has more than enough grunt.
  • ride-modesThe suspension surprised me with the level of adjustability. As I left the Overland Expo vendor area full of strolling show-goers with wagons, bikes, kids, and dogs, I kept it on the “Rain” setting which cuts the horsepower. Once heading south on Hwy 89A, I switched it to Sport mode and in a few seconds, it became much peppier. A “Road” setting is also offered, along with Off-Road and Off-Road Plus shuts off anti-lock braking. It also has three fully customizable ride modes. Going through these at the end of the ride with the Harley rep, I considered them straightforward to tune, allowing an almost unprecedented amount of personalization for your preferred riding setup.
  • The controls were all easy to understand. I even figured out the cruise control for the first time while riding with no instructions, meaning it must be simple. That says something, as several bikes in this category manage to make these features difficult, unintuitive, and hidden behind arcane menu systems only an engineer could love. It has cruise, heated grips, and decent wind protection.

Summary: While originally prepared to dismiss this bike, given my prejudices regarding Harley’s past lack of focus on performance, I was grudgingly impressed. Harley didn’t just copy the leading hefty adventure bike brands in this class. Instead, they studied what riders of those bikes appeared to want and provided that and a bit more. For instance, some prospective riders of big adventure bikes, particularly those with limited inseams, fear their height. How cool is it that the Pan America lowers itself as the speed decreases and by the time you come to a stop, it’s adjusted to the shortest possible reach to the ground? At 560 lbs. wet, it is right in line with others in this category, a bar I would have thought Harley could never meet, given all its power and features. Although a definitive recommendation would require more extensive testing, if this bike appeals to you right now, I’d say go for it.

I look forward to seeing the Pan America on one of my upcoming trips, either the “Oaxaca-Day-of-the-Dead” nine day ride in Mexico with MotoDiscovery at the end of October or the ride into the Arizona high country in a couple of weeks.

Good heads deserve great helmets

new-klim-helmet

Few decisions are agonized over by motorcyclists as much as helmet choices. There’s color and type (full face, modular, shorty, off-road, touring specific, etc.), as well as construction material and features. Women shopping for swimsuits struggle less to find the “perfect fit” than motorcyclists selecting a helmet. Arai, supposedly, fits those with longer, more oval-shaped heads. Round-shaped heads are better off with Scorpion, Nolan, Bell, or maybe Schuberth, I can’t recall, maybe it’s the reverse. But when we find “the one” and it fits, it’s like trying to give a cat a bath to get us to relinquish that and buy new. But to save our noggins, we need a new helmet every 5 years or so.

LaZer Monaco helmet
LaZer Monaco Carbon Fiber Modular Helmet

In the first few rides after buying my LaZer Monaco carbon helmet in 2014, I was in love. At $500 it was the most expensive helmet I’d ever purchased. It was the lightest modular helmet on the market, carbon fiber with a photochromic lens. A significant and unanticipated safety feature of the helmet turned out to be its light weight. Toward the end of a long ride, even though tired, I was still turning my head and looking around, checking both directions at intersections. I sensed this may not have been the case with my heavier helmets. The transitional lens freed me from having to worry about dark glasses, which ones fit comfortably under a helmet, and where to stash them when off the bike. My face shield automatically darkened in the bright sun and turned completely clear at night or on cloudy days. Plus, because it was modular, I didn’t have to take it off every time I stopped for gas or just wanted to talk to another rider or get a drink of water. But I had a problem.

Snell (a nonprofit organization focused on safety standards for helmets) recommends replacing a helmet after five years and I was in the red zone, two years beyond the discard date. Interesting sidebar, the Snell Foundation was created in 1957 and named after Pete Snell, a sports car racer who died in 1956 of head injuries he received when his racing helmet failed to protect him. A group of his friends, physicians, and scientists, got together and formed the group to promote research and education which eventually lead to the development of more effective helmets.

Klim TK1200 helmet
My new Klim TK1200 Karbon Modular Hemet

Most recently, every time I went for a ride, Maggie asked, “When are you getting a new helmet?” So I began the process that is almost universally abhorred by myself and many of my friends – shopping. While on motorcycle errands over the past few months, I made it a point to wander over to the helmet department and try on the newest models. I looked at Cycle Gear and RideNow. Over the summer I had long wait times at GoAz in Scottsdale so spent lots of time looking at helmets there. The new helmets were nice, but none had the combination I was looking for – super light, modular, transitional lens, and good looking. With a ride in Spain on the horizon, I went to the #1 go-to helmet place in Arizona, Helmet Center on Union Hills Road in Glendale. While they carry a lot of motorcycle gear and even service bikes, there is no one better than them at going through the latest options and perhaps most importantly, ensuring you have a perfect fit. They are magicians. Going through some catalogs we found a motorcycle helmet from the folks at Klim called the TK1200. Most of us in this business think of Klim as the inventors of some of the best motorcycle jackets and pants on the planet, but not helmets. And yet, here it was – a beautiful carbon fiber, lightweight, modular helmet with a transition lens. I ordered it immediately and a few days later went back to check it out. It turns out Klim teamed up with the company that made my original LaZer and improved it, all the while keeping the things I valued the most. I was in heaven. The new helmet is the old LaZer Monaco but with better ventilation, an improved release system for the modular portion, and it now also goes back over the top of the helmet — a great safety feature. They’ve also increased the amount of room in the front, which was one of the few things that I didn’t like about my old helmet. Plus, its sold by Klim, with their extraordinary reputation for customer service. It doesn’t get any better!

Thanks to the skilled folks at the Helmet Center, my new TK1200 also has my Cardo Packtalk Bold unit installed and functional. Time for more great riding.

Look at the back of Klim TK1200 Karbon

Yamaha’s new Ténéré 700, a Suzuki DR350S and two Harleys

This is a story of my testing the new-for-2021, Yamaha Ténéré 700, an on/off-road motorcycle.  But first, here’s a bit of my history with this category of bikes.  If you’re lucky, I’ll work a couple of Harley-Davidsons into the story, too.  These days I love reviewing a new bike like this without an editor forcing me to focus, limiting me to 2,000 words (or less), keeping me on track, and worst of all, making me get it done before the deadline.  By the end of this story, you will have a far greater appreciation and respect for the role of editors than ever before.

When we moved to New York from Los Angeles in the early 1990s, I brought my Suzuki DR350S Dual-sport bike with me from California, a mistake you might think. You’d be wrong.

My Suzuki DR350S

The Suzuki had turned into one of the best purpose-built machines I’d ever owned.  Other than it being the most cold-blooded, hardest-to-start pig in history (of course, kick start only), I loved it. A single-cylinder “thumper,” it had all the nostalgic wonder you can imagine – loads of low-end torque, especially after adding a sprocket with more teeth to the rear. It could pull stumps from the ground. It was rugged, impossible to kill even when pointed nearly straight up a mountain carrying two people.  Its overly soft suspension made it wallow when going too fast in corners but otherwise made it hugely comfortable for all-day riding. I found it sublime then, but I was a younger rider. No doubt, if I rode one with today’s bones and muscles, I’d find it horrible.

Maggie and I riding in Mountains east of LA. Note old football helmet instead of proper gear.

In California, the bike stayed at Eric Wood’s cabin in Big Bear.  From there we rode thousands of miles on logging roads, out into the desert, and all over the mountains. Eric had a Yamaha 350 and I rode my Suzuki. At some point, we also acquired an XL500 Honda dual-sport. It was too heavy and not as much fun, but it sure looked good.  When we moved to New York, I had my doubts about where I’d be able to ride the Suzuki.  However, someone else was paying our moving expenses so I brought it anyway.  The first time I rode into New York City I had my answer.  It was perfect!  The potholes, cracked and loose asphalt, and generally rotten NYC road conditions made the Suzuki’s long-suspension travel and aggressive tires ideal.  Soon I was tearing all over Manhattan, through Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, and the Bronx, exploring everywhere.  Although a bit harder to find, I eventually located a series of off-road trails in Westchester County where we lived.  The new Ténéré would be an excellent fit there, too.

After about a year of this, I fell in with some guys where I worked who rode. They owned only street bikes. It didn’t take a genius to see the Suzuki looked decidedly out-of-place amongst their shiny Harley Davidsons.  One weekend on a ride with my daughter we stopped at a motorcycle swap meet.

Franklin Mint model of Harley Heritage Softail

A Franklin Mint model of an HD Heritage Softail caught my eye. It was new, still in the box, remarkably detailed, and not horribly expensive, less than $100.  I had a thought. How about floating the idea of buying a new motorcycle to my wife, get the lay of the land on the degree of trouble I’d be in if I seriously broached the subject, and do so with little risk?  I brought my daughter, Ginger, in on the plan – well, at least part of it.  We bought the model and I instructed her that when we got home she should rush into the house and loudly and excitedly exclaim, “Mom, Dad bought a new Harley Davidson motorcycle when we were out today. It’s brand new, very shiny, and oh, really, really pretty.”  But she was NOT to tell her mother it was only a model, but let her think we’d bought a full-size motorcycle.  Ginger, always the actor, loved the idea and threw herself into her role.  When I got my gear stowed in the garage and came into the house, Maggie looked at me and said, “Well, did you really buy a Harley?”  I looked as chagrined and remorseful as I could and said, “I’m sorry, Honey, I should have talked to you first, but they only had this one.  It was gorgeous and was on sale,” all technically true.

Expecting the wrath of seven hundred hells, I was relieved when she said, “Well, I’m not surprised.  I’ve heard you complaining about how your current bike isn’t entirely compatible with the guys you’re riding with now. Did you trade in the Suzuki or do we now own two motorcycles?”  At this point, Ginger and I confessed our ruse and showed her the model of the HD motorcycle.  My daughter giggled at the joke, Maggie was relieved and I filed away an important informational tidbit; were I to buy another motorcycle, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And of course, within six months, there were two Harley-Davidsons in my garage, but let me save that story for a bit.  I’d forgotten this model and story until on a ZOOM call in early March of 2021. As I listened to my old British-bike-loving pals go on and on discussing the proper way to kick-start a Norton, I happened to spot a model of an HD motorcycle over the shoulder of one of the Zoom participants, a UK friend, and fellow rider, Jeremy.  After the call, I found my model, took photos of it and sent them to Jeremy for comparison. He immediately wrote back confirming they were identical, his being a gift from his father.

Alex Moore and I in Utah on a Moto Discovery off-road ride.

Before explaining how I ended up with two Harleys in our New York garage and introducing you to my good friend and colleague Larry Ashkenazi at Prodigy and my best friend in New York, Rob Kost, I better get to the Yamaha Ténéré residing in my current garage.  The bike belongs to Alex Moore of Moto Discovery. He has been running a business renting road-legal off-road bikes in Colorado successfully for several years.  He also leads tours in and around the western half of the USA and Mexico. Colorado weather forces him to put his rental fleet into hibernation and shutter his touring business for half the year, it occurred to him he could move his operation to Phoenix during those months.  The past several weeks I’ve been helping him try this out to see if it will work in Phoenix.  In this process, Alex asked if I’d test out his new Ténéré and all the cool kit he’d added to it, and especially take it out and see how it would do on the backroads around the Phoenix area. No need to ask me twice.

While a full 700cc bike with generous torque and loads of power, the bike is narrow, making it feel on the trails as if you’re riding something much smaller and lighter.  I suspect it has to do with how narrow the seat and bike are and how quickly it turns into corners.  Alex has outfitted it with Oxford heated grips, a god-send when you get into the higher altitudes around here. He’s installed the HDB Ultimate Handguards, a super aggressive protection system for your hands that also reinforces the handlebars while providing convenient spots for adding mounts for things like GPS or smartphones. The bike can be comfortably ridden standing or sitting, and the controls are perfectly located for both.  Alex loves the Ténéré because it’s rugged as hell with no complex things like traction control that can go bad and leave you with a hard-to-solve issue way out in the bush.  Its only real adjustment is turning the ABS on or off and that’s just one button.  It’s more than decent on the street although it would not be my first choice for touring, to put it mildly.  The Ténéré is certainly more on the “off-road” side of the scale where, for instance, a Suzuki V-Strom would be almost the opposite, decent on the street, tour capable and okay for minimal back-road use as long as it’s not too tough or too long.  I’ll be sorry to see the Ténéré go, but my backroad journey and test ride motivated me to remount my TKC80 knobby tires onto my GS and see how much dirt I could get it to accumulate.  That’s a story, too, but it will hold until later.

My BMW GS kitted out for the dirt
My GS kitted out for the dirt, knobby tires, etc.

For me as an individual rider, the Ténéré and my GS are almost a total wash – I can’t come up with a favorite.  Their respective advantages and disadvantages closely balance each other out. The Ténéré wins on lower weight, easier maneuverability, and simplicity for navigating tough terrain, but for me, it is a tad too tall, and the seat isn’t comfortable for more than an hour or two and its luggage capacity is limited.  The GS, while far heavier, allows me to get both feet on the ground when I want to, has massive power from any of the bottom gears, and an excellent seat.  It takes more skill to navigate difficult terrain with the GS, but if you take the time to acquire the skills and keep in practice, it can be done.  Let’s get back to the Harleys.

One late summer day, my friend Larry Ashkenazi approached me at work.  I knew he rode and he’d taken me into the parking lot a couple of times to see his two gorgeous Harley Davidsons.  One was a new, nearly-stock Ultra Glide Classic with a full tour package, radio, and all the tricks.  The other was an FXDB Dyna Wide Glide extensively customized.  It had a kit to increase horsepower, lowered suspension, aftermarket pipes, beautifully stitched after-market seat, and a killer paint job. It was gorgeous, fast, and fun.  It got looks. Larry was embarrassed.  He’d borrowed money from the wrong sorts of people and now, had to pay up fast or be in deep do-do. He offered me a deal — lend him $20,000 for one year, interest-free, and he’d give me both of his bikes to hold as collateral, including the titles. His only request was he be allowed, on occasion, to come and borrow one of his bikes for the weekend, always bringing it back when he was finished riding.  He would maintain insurance on the bikes and he expected I would make liberal use of them when they were in my possession.

I was able to drag Rob Kost into my riding avocation.

Hmmm… now, this was some offer.  After spending a few minutes with my friend Rob Kost, an intellectual property attorney and advanced science and patent expert who’d previously plied his legal schooling at the Office of Technology Assessment in Washington, DC, we wrote some kind of legal-looking agreement. BTW, like most non-legal people, I frequently think of all lawyers as, well, lawyers. To this day if I were to be charged with a crime or had a property issue, or was being sued by someone for shooting a drone down over my house, I’d call my friend Rob in and ask him what to do. He HATES this, but I don’t care. I like to talk to him. And he’s lots smarter than me. He didn’t practice law or bother with passing the bar in several states where he lived, but he still has one of the sharpest minds on the planet, legal or otherwise.

It turned out these two Harleys were my entry ticket to the HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) world. Larry and I rode his two bikes all over Westchester and Rockland Counties and Connecticut.  The roads to and through the towns along the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie to Albany and east to Hartford, Waterbury, and Stamford and then back toward the Hudson River were custom made for Harley Davidson motorcycles.  They are all well-maintained, 2-way blacktop roads, crossing low hills, and filled with gradual, predictable curves.  Ideal speeds are between 40 and 60 mph, but not much more. For the first time, I understood why a person would own one of these large, heavy, over-weight, under-preforming, technologically inferior bikes.  Riding the roads north of New York City in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess County and New Jersey’s Rockland County, on a fall day with the leaves turning color in the cool, crisp air is as close to motorcycle heaven as you will ever be.   The HOG group with which Larry rode welcomed me with open arms.  The ticket wasn’t dues but having a love and appreciation for these unique motorcycles – and owning one, of course. While costumed on the weekend to look mean, rough, bad, and evil, the members’ workday lives typically were that of dentists, insurance agency owners, IT managers, and other professionals. After all, you had to be doing pretty well to shell out $25K or more for, essentially, a toy.

While the next observation may appear critical, it isn’t. While riding motorcycles was a part of why these groups got together, it wasn’t the primary reason and thus, actual time spent on the motorcycle was far less than I’d experienced riding with other groups.  The Harley owners I rode with in New York loved to gather in large groups, often numbering 50 bikes or more. This required road captains, tour masters, Sargent at arms, tail gunners, enforcers, and more. The process of getting this many bikes into or out of a parking lot could take 20-30 minutes. Once dismounted, it took at least 45 minutes to stroll among the various bikes, admiring the newest additions friends and fellow members had made to their rides. And, of course, there was lunch, requiring the selected restaurant to arrange their tables and chairs into one large banquet offering, suitable to the group. Then seating, ordering, eating, and talking.  Resolving restaurant billing issues (someone always forgot to ask for separate checks) added another 15-20 minutes.  With all of this, it was no surprise the amount of time actually riding motorcycles was constrained.  But it was okay.  This was a community of people who shared a passion, loved each other, and enjoyed their time together.  Time spent in a restaurant eating and talking, leisurely wandering parking lots admiring bikes communally may have been more gratifying to them than the time on their bikes, locked alone inside helmets with just their thoughts.

As the end of the year approached I fully expected to be the owner of two Harleys at a ridiculously low price. I was wrong.  About a week before the due date, Larry came into my office with $20,000 in cash. He paid off the loan; I gave him back the titles to his bikes with expressions of deep gratitude for a wonderful year and hundreds of important lessons. I still miss those bikes.