During my recent visit to California, my friend Rich and I took a short motorcycle ride to explore some of the wonderful twisty roads north of his home in Escondido. I rode his new BMW R Nine T the first half of the ride and his big 2019 BMW 1250 GS-A during the return. After years of writing about motorcycles for magazines like RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News and others, a part of my brain immediately begins logging impressions every time I throw a leg over a new bike. The designers of the Nine T had a very clear idea of the riding experience they wished to create and the way this bike feels was instantly cemented when I switched to the big GS-A, especially because the GS-A is so much like my daily ride, the non-“A” version of the big bike.
The Nine T is gorgeous to look at, oozing style from every angle. Few bikes possess this degree of timelessness right out of the box. One look and you know it’s going to be as attractive ten years from now as it is today. A classic is forever. Of course, it helps if the horizontally-positioned boxer cylinders are something you like or, at least, are accustomed to. You may think these wide appendages will keep you from dragging a knee, given the degree to which they stick out to the sides, but that thought disappears when you are riding.
Within the first couple of miles on the Nine T, any prejudices I may have had regarding BMW being able to make affordable, naked sportbikes evaporated. The bike immediately brought to mind the Ducati Monster, legendary for its sublime ride and extraordinary handling. I rode my first Monster, a tricked-out, yellow 900 with race suspension and custom exhaust, on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club (AFMC) trip in Italy in 2001. Returning to California, it wasn’t long before a bright, new, red Ducati Monster sat in my driveway. It became one of my favorite bikes of all time, ideally suited to the roads between Sausalito and the northern California coast where I was living then. I spent hundreds of glorious hours all over Mt. Tamalpais, Hwy 1 to Muir Beach, and through the tunnel and back along Frank Valley Road. Never have a bike and a set of roads been so well-matched. The Nine T has the same quick corner turn-in, light and flick-able as the Ducati, although with a bit smoother gearbox. It’s not an all-day touring bike, but for 2-3 hour jaunts it is fine, especially at speeds high enough to create a cushion of air on your chest to ease pressure on your arms and wrists. While weighing a bit more than the Monster, it feels just as light. The brakes have a snappy bite which adds to the intuitive handling, a signature characteristic of many BMW models.
For years no one believed BMW could make sportbikes. Then, in 2009, they introduced the S1000RR superbike and put that misperception to rest once and for all. WELT has a film showing how this bike is made in a 50 minute, beautifully recorded, and well-narrated documentary. Highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yROGg3_vHBc
The Nine T cuts to the basic elements of riding and hits many of the buttons that make riders fall in love with motorcycles. There is no traction control; it lacks electro-suspension features; there’s no fancy GPS or dash display; forget about cruise control and, in fact, anything that takes your focus away from just riding. At just under 100 HP (95.8), it moves off the line quickly and eagerly pulls away as you straighten it up out of a corner. It’s like baby bear’s porridge, not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Smooth ribbons of two-lane twisty roads are where the Nine T shines. All-day on a super slab, not so much. The lack of wind protection, cruise control, and narrow seat will get old fast, especially if you are a bit old yourself. Thanks for letting me take it for a spin, Rich. It was absolutely sublime.
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.
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.
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.
While 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.
The 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.
Here in Arizona, our house overlooks a golf course, as do 84.4% of all homes in Phoenix (just kidding). But neither Maggie or I play. In fact, if you asked any of my golfing friends “Does Steve play golf?” the most likely response would be “Not so much.” This story is not about golfing, although I suspect both golfers and non-golfers will find something of interest.
Living in the Twin Cities from 1997 – 2003, after joining the founding team of Net Perceptions, we purchased a nice home on Bent Creek Golf Course in Eden Prairie. I loved the unfolding deep green lawn stretching from my backyard seemingly to forever. Better was it never needed my non-existent gardening ambitions. Our deck overlooked the green of the first hole, a 520 yard, Par 5, providing hours of entertainment. Being the first of 18 holes, the final players of the day passed our home pretty early. This allowed me to take a bucket of balls after the concluding golfers had passed and chip them from my backyard onto the green. Then I would step up onto the green, and putt them all into the hole.
While never playing the course, I got along well with the club management, pro and groundskeepers. Once they’d needed to use our lawn for some sand trap repairs and I’d made it easy for them. I knew most of the groundskeepers and waved every morning as they made their rounds. One time I noticed an older guy operating one of the riding mowers. That seemed odd. All the rest of the crew appeared college age and in pretty good shape. This guy was neither. I never spoke with him, but asked about him one day at the club’s golf shop. After describing him, a look of acknowledgement came across the course manager. “Oh, he’s not a regular groundskeeper; he’s one of our members. Due to all his DWI arrests, he’s lost his driver’s license. But he misses driving. So, his wife brings him over here and we let him drive the mowers around.”
Although not a true golfer, I’d become familiar with the game during my five year stint at AT&T, where golf is part of the culture. Not only were deals done on the course, AT&T sponsored golf events (Pebble Beach Pro-am for one) and invites high-value clients and arranges for them to play a round with a genuine professional and AT&T executives. Like it or not, I was expected to attend and play. While no need for me to be a stellar golfer, embarrassing the company by shooting a poor game was also not acceptable. After several lessons and lots of practice, my game settled into one where although never hitting the ball very far, I always seemed to hit it straight. It turns out this often resulted in a half-decent score, especially when playing with those who tended to plaster the ball a great distances but in all the wrong directions.
My golf clubs were purchased used for $15 at a garage sale in the early 90s, and I never really thought much about them. When going to an event, I threw them into my trunk, and then onto a cart. Perhaps someone looked a bit askance at my clubs now and then, but after seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s bag of clubs in Caddyshack, I was glad the size of my bag was at the other end of the spectrum. For at least 10 years of playing and a good number of prestige events, those were my only clubs.
As it turned out, Net Perceptions was a success, and went public in 1999, just before the Internet bubble burst in 2001-2002. Before the crash, it appeared I had a great deal of money, although most of it was on paper and in lock-up agreements. One downside of suddenly acquiring a big chunk of money is the mistaken belief you’ve also acquired extra brains in the process. This leads to thinking you must have the magic touch when it comes to picking investments. Of course, those opportunities are being thrown at you right and left by people whose business it is to follow newly-rich people around with the goal of snapping up some of that loot. This is how I was exposed to and made a $25,000 investment in a company that manufactured custom golf clubs. Here is how the scam, oops, I mean “business model” worked.
It begins with a desperate-to-improve golfer in a golf shop talking to the local pro on ways to improve his game. Everyone knows buying something, like special long-range balls, or the “super driver of the decade” or the “magic putter” which makes all putts roll accurate and true, is much simpler than taking lessons and actually practicing. And so, sales are made. It reminds me of the story of the couple passing a talented piano player at a bar, leaving a tip as they depart and saying, “Wow! You were just great. I’d do anything to play like that. Well, except take lessons and practice, of course.”
Back to our story: At some point, the pro suggests the stock off-the-shelf clubs the player is using may be holding him back. What might help is a special set of custom-made clubs, where grips are tailored specifically to the hands of the player, the shaft lengths cut to fit the player’s exact height and the heads all angled for his particular sweet spot. “Expensive?” he asks. “Oh my, not really, and think about consistently shaving half a dozen strokes from each game,” the pro replies.
A full set of top brand irons typically ran about a thousand dollars then, and the fully-customized set with a fitted set of shafts and grips was about $2,000. So, the pro arranges for a “fitting,” using the computer software, camera and other goodies provided by the company in which I’d invested. Once the company got the specifics for the golfer, they tweaked their stock shafts, clubs and grips to match the order sheet, applied the logo of whomever’s brand was specified (Callaway, Ping, Wilson, etc.) and then, finally, the most important and perhaps costly step, packing them up to look like high-value works of art.
Part of my $25k investment was a set of custom clubs. They would arrange for me to go to the factory—which was local—and be personally fitted for a set of clubs and receive those clubs for free. Of course, at this point, I already knew the cost from the business model was around $200 bucks, but still, I couldn’t resist “free” and was on time for my appointment the following week. Arriving on Saturday morning at the company’s warehouse-like facility, I removed my clubs from the trunk of my car. They’d asked me to bring the set I currently played with, perhaps as some sort of baseline—I wasn’t sure. But I hefted them onto my shoulder and strolled through the wide open double garages of the warehouse space where I was welcomed by the investment guy and one of the measuring pros. The pro grabbed my bag, looked at it and said, “Oh, Mr. Larsen, you must have grabbed the wrong bag, these are lady’s clubs. Did you pick up your wife’s clubs by mistake?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “I’m serious, these are Mickey Wright signature clubs.” Apparently this Mickey Wright logo I’d been seeing for the past decade wasn’t some famous male golf pro, but a famous woman golfer. Oh god. Do you recall the scene at the end of the “The Six Sense” when Bruce Willis’s character flashes back on all those scenes, realizing he actually wasn’t in them and redefines the entire film, giving it a whole new meaning? My mind flashed over years of looks from other golfers and caddies as they saw my clubs, then shot a look at me, then again at my clubs.
Duh! It finally hit me—what all those funny looks were about. Upon reflection, it came home to me that acquiring money doesn’t make you any smarter than you were the month or year before. Unfortunately, the market crash and subsequent IRS issues wiped out any semblance of my “being rich,” which in the long run, was probably all for the good. I stopped looking for homeruns and returned to saving at least 20% of any money that came my way and while perhaps not the “smartest” play one can make financially, it’s consistent with my values of hard work, persistence and determination. In the end, they’ve always served me best. And I stopped playing golf and gave my $25,000 clubs to my cousin.