They don’t ever mention memory loss. “They” being the books, songs, TV shows, films, and so on that talk about depression. Each situation is unique, I suppose, but I’ve never once seen it mentioned.
Maybe I’m not depressed. Maybe it’s something else. Because “they” also don’t mention hypochondria, or incandescent rage, or waking up every morning in pain. Whatever it is that’s wrong with me, the memory loss bothers me most. I assume it’s some sort of natural defense mechanism gone wrong; my mind is trying to protect me from trauma by jettisoning huge chunks of my past.
BEING WARM IS GOOD
Get Your Hands on a TMO Hoodie
Perhaps I used to be part of a super-covert operation – one of those Six Underground deals where the government disavows any knowledge of your activity – and I’m the only one who survived. To spare me the horror of seeing my team die over and over and over in my nightmares my conscience has dumped the whole thing and I live in ignorance. Perhaps all the broken brain stuff I’ve been suffering over the last year is my subconscious fighting against the forgetfulness defense mechanism; one day I’ll wake up to realize that I know how to kill a man with a tube of Burt’s Beeswax Lip Balm.
That’s probably not the case, though. To the best of my knowledge I’ve led a charmed life and not much of it needs or wants removing from my mind. My brain doesn’t seem to know this, however, so I struggle to hold on to things. I can’t remember huge chunks of my life, especially if they happened more than a week ago. All of which I offer as explanation as to why this story isn’t really a story. It’s more of a collection of snapshots – the fast-fading Polaroid photos that have yet to fall from my grasp.
The snapshots come from a road trip I took roughly 15 months ago on a Harley-Davidson Street Bob. The idea was to ride to 32 of the 33 Harley-Davidson dealerships in the British Isles – the ‘British Isles’ being the western European archipelago that consists of at least 4,000 islands* and includes the sovereign states of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and the not-quite-sovereign states of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The 33rd of those dealerships is located in Jersey, which would have required 15+ hours on a boat and a more robust budget. I suppose I could have originally included it on my list, though, since other waypoints ended up getting dropped.
In total, the trip was supposed to have seen me clocking up more than 2,500 miles. I estimated it would take 64 hours to complete. I was wrong. This is not surprising; I am usually wrong when it comes to estimating my abilities. But in this case I don’t suppose it mattered. Either way, I spent a lot of time riding a Harley-Davidson.
THE BIKE IN QUESTION: A Love Letter to the Harley-Davidson Street Bob
The Street Bob had been in my possession through the summer of 2018, loaned to me by Harley-Davidson UK & Ireland on the promise of my writing lots of articles about it both here and on RideApart, to which I was still closely tied. Or, at least, to which I had been closely tied when the long-term loan had been offered.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, however, I had been eager to separate myself from RideApart, keen to establish The Motorcycle Obsession as some sort of indescribable, beautiful thing that also somehow made enough money to pay bills. The fact I still can’t really synopsize what I want TMO to be is probably all the evidence necessary to know my business case was weak. By September 2018 that was painfully clear. I had dug myself into several thousand pounds of debt and been forced to go out and find a full-time job. In fairness, I found a good one, working 40 hours a week for the marketing-communications department of one of the world’s oldest companies**. The pay is good, the people I work with are kind, we have an on-site cafeteria that serves curry every Thursday, a coffee shop that sells chocolate orange muffins, and a gym. In terms of workplace amenities it’s arguably the best job I’ve ever had. But it’s not the job I want. So, in the weeks before starting I felt a great sadness. I felt I had arrived at the end of an era.
I planned to keep TMO running – because I like motorcycles and I like telling stories even when there’s no money to be had – but I knew I wouldn’t be able to dedicate as much time or energy to the thing. I knew pageviews would drop, and with them my relevance in the moto world. And with that, my ability to get hold of the latest bikes and take them on adventures.
A week before I started the job, and with the Street Bob due to be returned shortly thereafter, I set out to tackle one last big ride. The final hurrah before 9-to-5 normalcy. The last good thing.
In Search of Sneaveweedle
Armed with a selfie stick and a Kriega bag I made my first stop just a few miles down the road, at Cardiff Harley-Davidson. I was wearing my Indian Motorcycle Rocker jacket, Resurgence Gear Voyager jeans, Schuberth C3 Pro helmet, Klim Adventure gloves, and Dainese Tempest boots – all spoils of my waning moto-journalism career. Woe is me that I now have to pay for stuff myself. There are questions to be asked, I suppose, over whether moto-journalists unintentionally feed a bullshit machine, creating the illusion of an unattainable lifestyle. I mean, yeah, sure you can go an awesome road trip when literally all your gear and bike have been given to you. What about when you’re footing the bill? These days I’m fretting about finding money for tires.
Lately I’ve become obsessed with the VanLife movement, which is fuelled by Millennials and Gen-Z kids who have dropped out of “normal” life and chosen to live in old vans converted into beautiful mobile homes, which they show off in stylised Instagram posts and drone-rich YouTube videos. Said vans usually have wooden interiors and use strings of Christmas lights to provide atmospheric lighting. My favorites have wood-burning stoves. Usually it is a couple living this life, sometimes it is just a surprisingly attractive woman who does yoga, and just occasionally it is a dude with a who is hyper-focused on fuel efficiency. Most of them are Canadian; there is almost always a dog.
I consume this imagery obsessively. I cannot make myself stop. I watch YouTube videos, scroll through Instagram posts, then lose an hour or so on AutoTrader looking at used vans. I alternate between wanting to stab these people in the eyes and being so envious I feel physically sick, but at all times I have one primary thought: “HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU PAYING FOR THIS?”
I am angry and jealous and I can’t stand it. I hate them because I am not them. I’d hope people haven’t felt such vitriol toward me and my moto exploits. I mean, there’s nowt glamorous about trundling along a motorway in the dwindling light, which is what I was doing en route to Swansea Harley-Davidson. A few months before this I had decided that GPS tools hinder my enjoyment of motorcycling more than they help, so in prepping for the trip I’d decided to leave the TomTom at home. I mean, hell, if Elspeth Beard could get all the way around the world without satellite navigation surely I could fumble my around some small islands.
Easier said than done. I’ve lived here for 13+ years but have yet to develop an inherent sense of direction in Europe. In the United States I can just feel where I am. I can make my way to a place simply by looking at a map once, and arriving on a combination of memory and instinct.
Here I’m useless. Nothing feels natural or right. It’s like if I were to tell you a Welsh phrase but not tell you what it means; you could probably recite it back to me immediately, but your brain wouldn’t connect with it enough that you’d be able to repeat even a part of it 20 minutes later. This is how I am in Europe: stop bike, look at map, figure out where I want to go, put away map, start on route, manage first turn, forget everything, stop bike, repeat. So I ended up hitting my Swansea stop in the dark, long after the dealership had closed and more than an hour behind schedule.
In the picture I took of myself in Swansea I am wearing my waterproof gear (which I did actually pay for myself), so, I assume it was raining or cold or both. I don’t remember. I don’t remember any part of the ride to the ferry port in Fishguard, nor, indeed, whether I sailed out of Fishguard. I’m pretty sure I did. I mean, I know that I took an overnight ferry to Rosslare, but perhaps I took the one that runs from Pembroke Dock.
No, according to Google Timeline, I sailed from Fishguard. And yes, I can remember that now. Off the top of my head, I think I’ve only been to Pembroke Dock once: in the first month of living in the United Kingdom. My ex-wife and I had arrived on tourist visas a month before my student visa was set to take effect. In order to activate the student visa I had to leave the country and come back, making sure to get said visa stamped by an immigration official. So, Rachel and I took the train to Pembroke Dock and spent the night in a hotel overlooking the Rosslare ferry port. It was there that I came up with the idea for The Adventures of Penhill and Sneaveweedle, one of the many brilliant novels I’ve never finished writing. My whole life is a series of grand ideas abandoned or downsized to mediocrity.
On the subject of this particular grand idea, the only aspect of the Swansea-to-Fishguard section that I can remember is my disappointment in the Street Bob’s headlight. It’s not very good. Or perhaps I should say it may not be very good; it may also be that the headlight simply needed to be aimed higher, but I would not consider that possibility until much later. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had, however, because I didn’t have the right tools. I found myself thinking of a story Panhead Jim tells of the electrics going on his 1933 Harley-Davidson VL. Most of the stories he tells about that bike involve it letting him down in some form or another. In this yarn he had to navigate the Blue Ridge Mountains at night by taping his iPhone to the handlebars and using its light.
I can’t remember when the ferry arrived in Rosslare, but it did so on time. It was dark outside and after watching the crew struggle to get the main door open I was let loose into the cold, wet, pitch black of Irish morning. I got to Waterford Harley-Davidson pretty quickly, took a picture, then – I assume – found breakfast. I don’t remember doing that but I remember thinking I should. The last time I’d ridden up the Irish coast – on an Indian Scout Sixty – I had inexplicably chosen to pass every breakfast opportunity and arrived Dublin in a state of hanger-induced stupidity.
Supporting the assumption I ate breakfast this time is my memory of arriving Dublin in a good mood. This despite hitting bumper-to-bumper morning traffic on the M50 – or perhaps because of it. The Street Bob filters through traffic so well, thanks to a low center of gravity, that it’s actually fun to do so.
I have memory of lingering outside of Dublin Harley-Davidson for quite some time but can’t remember why. Nor do I remember much of the journey north from Dublin, save the mild excitement I felt at the thought of crossing the Ireland-Northern Ireland border – even though I knew there was nothing to be excited about. The upshot of that story about Rachel and me travelling from Pembroke Dock to Rosslare back in 2006 is that when we returned to Wales we discovered there was no one to stamp my visa. Ireland and the United Kingdom have a close relationship; there aren’t any border checks.
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Perhaps things weren’t always that way but they are now. Indeed, the desire to maintain that status is one of the sticking points of the Brexit quagmire. So riding into Northern Ireland lacks intrigue. It is no different than crossing from one town to another. I can’t even remember whether there was a sign to note I’d travelled into a different country.
Belfast Harley-Davidson is not really in Belfast, or, indeed, anywhere near. Oh, it’s closer to Belfast than, say, Cleveland, Ohio, but really it should be called Antrim Harley-Davidson. I got lost trying to find it, got lost some more, then got lost again. I considered dropping the dealership from my list for fear of missing the ferry to Cairnryan, but found it, snapped my selfie and sped to Larne.
The ferry journey from Northern Ireland to Scotland is a short one, just long enough to eat lunch at the ship’s cafeteria, which I don’t actually remember doing. But I remember it was part of the plan. I wonder what it says about me – or if it says anything at all – that I rarely remember meals. In my first few years of college I had a long-distance relationship with a girl and we kept in touch primarily through letters. Her letters were more often than not just a record of what she had eaten that week. In my enthusiastic young male state I wanted letters full of explicit descriptions of what she’d like to do when we were next together. Instead I got menus.
Any clear memory of the ride from Cairnryan to Glasgow is lost to the wind but my brain has at least left a little note in the place where those memories should be: “It was nice. You liked it. You want to ride there again.”
I wanted letters full of explicit descriptions of what she’d like to do when we were next together. Instead I got menus.
If I try particularly hard I can remember the sensation of smoothly curving road, minimal traffic and relaxed pace. I remember a red post box built into mossy, old stone wall. It was dry and warm enough that I had shed my waterproofs. I remember feeling content, even as traffic picked up near Glasgow.
Perhaps part of my ease came in the fact I had been to West Coast Harley-Davidson before. Or, I’d been to its car park, which it shares with Triumph Glasgow. Earlier in the year the car park had served as the start/end point for a day of riding on the Triumph Tiger 1200. Triumph had taken me on a (very) fast-paced tour of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, fed me, then given me the keys to ride the bike home, so I could write a gimmick story about doing 1,200 miles on the Tiger 1200.
West Coast had just closed for the day when I arrived and rain was starting to fall. I pulled on my waterproofs, sped across Scotland (the easy way) to Edinburgh Harley-Davidson, then pushed toward England and my hotel for the night. Initially the ride south along the A1 was pleasant, especially compared with the time I’d taken it as part of an Iron Butt ride. The rain let up and the dying light saw me riding close enough to the coast that I caught occasional glimpses of the sea. It was pitch dark by the time I crossed the border, though, and once again the Street Bob’s subpar (or poorly aimed) headlight put me in a state of simmering rage.
“This is the problem with these sort of endurance rides,” I said to myself later, sitting in the bar of a Holiday Inn outside Newcastle. “I start out thinking they’re clever, but, in fact, I hate this shit.”
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I mean, maybe that’s what I said to myself. I don’t know remember my exact thoughts/words.
“Equally, this sort of ride is the antithesis of the Harley spirit,” I may or may not have continued. “I’d argue it’s the antithesis of the motorcycling spirit in general, but this shit is definitely not what the Street Bob is about. It can go far – I’ve proven that – but you’re supposed to enjoy going far. And you’re supposed to enjoy going far not for the sake of distance but for all the stuff contained in that distance. This is stupid. I didn’t eat properly today; I didn’t stop in any nice places; I just pushed and pushed, and now I’m tired and miserable. This is the last time I’m going to get to do something like this for who knows how long and I’m screwing it all up.”
With that, my plan to wake at 04:00 the next morning was scrapped, and Preston, Chester, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Newmarket and Lakeside were dropped from the list of stops. I ordered another pint, enjoyed it, then slept until… I don’t remember. It didn’t matter.
The Harleyest of Harleys
I’ve long held a fondness for the people of Northern England. As well as their charmingly indecipherable accents, the thing I admire about Northerners is their pride of place. Often they’re so proud of being from the North they don’t seem to think other personality traits are necessary. I can relate to that. When I was 13 years old, my family moved from Houston to the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, Minnesota, and I initially struggled to make friends because I couldn’t comprehend that being from Texas wasn’t a reason in and of itself to adore me. Standing wide-legged and cheerfully shouting, “I’m Chris! I’m from Texas!” didn’t win me a lot of pals.
In the first few months of living in Minnesota I got so homesick I fell ill; I had stomach aches and couldn’t eat. My mother took me to the doctor, and after thoroughly poking and prodding me with everything he could find the doctor politely grimaced and said: “Chris, I think this is just in your head.”
It was and I was cured. These days when I am homesick, not having seen some of my friends and family in nearly four years and unlikely to see them for at least four more, I will try to make the pain stop by adopting that doctor’s same tone and telling myself: “Chris, this is all just in your head.” But it rarely works now. Homesickness is the mental equivalent of Crohn’s disease: hard to predict, difficult to manage, sometimes sufferable, sometimes life-threatening, and always shitty.
But I digress. My point is that Northerners are endearing. I like them, and in a strange sort of way I feel kinship. So when I spotted the Angel of the North while heading south from Gateshead Harley-Davidson I got all kinds of stupid excited. The Angel of the North! The Angel of the North! The Angel of the North!
In the car park I met a man walking his dog who had so many wonderful Northern turns of phrase that I wrote them down, phonetically, so I could attempt to incorporate them into my speech later. That’s my memory, at least. Which is to say that, like my ride from Cairnryan to Glasgow, there is not in my mind an actual memory but a sort of Post-It note that says: “There was a man who was funny. You wrote down the funny things he said.”
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If I did write them down there is no physical evidence to support that claim. I do not remember carrying a notebook with me on that trip, nor am I able to find one now. Since I can’t remember any of the funny things he said, I will tell you instead of a clever turn of phrase I heard from a Yorkshireman on a trip to the Yorkshire Dales in 2014. In explaining that something was difficult he said it “t’were like suppin’ lead.”
This bloke at the Angel of the North was Geordie, though. Or, I assume he was since we were near Newcastle; I cannot recall. I know he talked to me about the bike for a while, probably doing the thing everyone does when they see a Harley: telling its rider about every person he or she has ever known who has ridden a Harley. I think he also told me a difficult-to-follow story about being a young man in [Name of Town Goes Here] where he and his friends liked riding their motorbikes up a particularly steep hill. One with cobblestones I think? And then one day there was a lorry? Or a van? Or a funeral procession? And somehow someone ended up in a hedge? I can’t remember.
My wife has a mindfulness and meditation app that she downloaded to try to help me deal with my broken brain. Each night we sit together on the couch and listen to a nice lady with a Canadian accent tell us to “focus on the breath” and “be in the moment.” This latter piece of advice I should be paying attention to more because I’m clearly unable to hold moments for later.
I can’t recall anything about Leeds Harley-Davidson, HarleyWorld Chesterfield, Robin Hood Harley-Davidson, or Sycamore Harley-Davidson, nor anything about the spaces between. I probably stopped a few times for petrol, a few more times to go potty. That is the way of road trips. I probably ate lunch. I do remember being happy that day, though – feeling so content and.. full… at the fact I was out on a Harley-Davidson on a weekday. I’m going to struggle to express myself here, but there is something so incredibly satisfying about the Milwaukee Eight engine, which was introduced to the Softail line for 2018. Its sound, the way it responds, its weight, its vibration. Indeed, the strongest memory I have from the whole trip is the overarching memory of feeling deeply connected to the Street Bob.
At one of my stops – I think it was Sycamore Harley-Davidson – I met a young man who had just bought a Street Bob in Vivid Black. He was in his late 20s (I’m guessing) and had traded in a Kawasaki [Letters and Numbers Go Here], feeling a sportbike wasn’t his style.
“I’ve always wanted a Harley, you know?” he said. “I guess everyone does.”
I first fell in love with the Street Bob model in summer 2017, when it was part of the now-defunct Dyna line. If you’re unfamiliar with Harley-Davidson’s line-up history, for roughly 35 years the company’s cruisers were split into two sub-groups: Softails and Dynas. Largely the difference between the two was that Softails had shocks you couldn’t see and Dynas had shocks you could see.
The old boys of the Church of Jesus Christ Harley-Davidson will tell you it’s more complex than that. They will also tell you Dynas performed better, but that’s misleading because neither performed well. Or stopped. Or went. Up until quite recently these aspects of the motorcycling experience weren’t high priorities for Harley owners.
I’m sure many would argue they still aren’t. Harley-Davidson puts heavy emphasis on intangibles – aspects of motorcycling that can’t be quantified. But in 2013 the company began the process of allying its bikes more closely to the expectations riders had for other brands, starting with its touring line-up. The bikes were given better suspensions and better brakes. In 2016 they were given a new engine: the Milwaukee Eight. So named because it has four valves on each of its two cylinders. Please don’t ask me what that means; I have never understood engine stuff. I’m simply regurgitating press releases.
What I do understand about the Milwaukee Eight is that it is markedly better than its predecessor, the Twin Cam. When I went to Washington state in September 2016 to ride Harley’s new Milwaukee Eight-powered machines, I discovered that the market-leading Street Glide bagger was suddenly so much more fun to ride than the Twin Cam-equipped Street Glide I’d ridden a few months before. Whence began my conversion to Harley fandom, I suppose. Though, ironically, my real love for the brand was formed as a result of getting a second chance to appreciate how wonderfully stupid its bikes can be.
In summer of 2017 Harley-Davidson went to the trouble to teach me how to ride flat track, then invited me to Kings Lynn to race a Street Rod 750 at Dirt Quake. This remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, which, in fairness is a phrase I could use for most Harley-Davidson press outings. Right now, off the top of my head, in this moment, here are the ten best moto things I’ve done:
- BMW flew me to North Carolina to ride the K 1600 B and watch a total solar eclipse, then let me borrow the bike to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway. Also on that trip BMW took us to one of its performance driving centers and I got to drive a car so recklessly it made Morgan Gales feel sick. Morgan is infinitely cooler than me, so being able to make him queasy with my driving is one of my life’s greatest achievements.
- Harley-Davidson took me on a road trip to Prague.
- I rode to Tuscany on a Suzuki V-Strom 1000. I paid for this myself, riding my own bike, and it was my first-ever road trip to Europe. I swam in the River Aare in Bern and it was a borderline religious experience.
- Harley-Davidson took me to Dirt Quake. I didn’t suffer any injuries and I got to ride the Street Bob (Dyna) for the first time, which is a story I will get back to in a second.
- Indian Motorcycle flew me home to the Twin Cities to ride the Scout Bobber, then delayed my flight back to the United Kingdom for two weeks and let me borrow a Springfield, which I rode to Duluth to meet Aerostich founder Andy Goldfine.
- Pirelli brought me to South Africa, where I got to ride track for the second time in my life and go on safari. On the flight home I was sat next to a morbidly obese older woman named Patricia. Initially I was annoyed by this but by the end of our 13-hour flight we were best friends and she invited me to come visit her in Peckham.
- Harley-Davidson brought me to Tenerife to ride the Sport Glide, put me up in one of the nicest resorts I’ve ever seen and fed me food so good I felt intellectually challenged.
- Harley-Davidson took me to Daytona, Florida, to ride the Street Rod 750. I crashed the thing going 60+ mph, but still had a fantastic time. Sometimes when I am really sad I calm myself by remembering Daytona.
- Harley-Davidson brought me to Washington state to ride the aforementioned Street Glide, as well as the Road Glide and the über-expensive CVO Limited.
- Harley-Davidson brought me to Barcelona in the week before a contentious and illegal (and ultimately unsuccessful) independence referendum to ride its all-new Softail line-up. You might remember that this article is ostensibly about one of those bikes, the Street Bob, but I’m coming to realize that actually that’s not really what I’m writing about.
Dirt Quake 2017 took place a few months before the new Softail line-up was announced. Most industry watchers anticipated Harley-Davidson would be bringing the Milwaukee Eight to its cruiser models, but at the time the line-up was still powered by the rattling Twin Cam V-twin that had been around for 20 years. The engine was less than great and, despite balance shafts and rubber mounting, it shook so much it could have been used to mix paint.
I had failed to qualify for the second day of racing at Dirt Quake, which was not upsetting. At its most exciting, flat track racing is a dirty, 100-mph sumo match, with riders nudging each other for position. Everything occurs at the limit of ability – both the rider’s and the bike’s – and things quite often come undone. At this particular Dirt Quake, for example, former racer Carl Fogarty ended up being airlifted to hospital with 11 broken ribs, a broken shoulder and a punctured lung. I’m not into that sort of thing; crashing is hurty and runs opposite to what I like about motorcycling. So, I was happy to skip the racing and take a press bike to explore the surrounding area.
King’s Lynn is an otherwise unexceptional market town on the western edge of Norfolk. A lot of people in the United Kingdom, motorcyclists especially, speak ill of Norfolk because it is flat and interconnected by largely straight roads. Try to guess why a guy raised in the US Central Time Zone might find it appealing.
The weather that day was dry and hot enough I could wear the Sully jacket Harley-Davidson had given me at the aforementioned Daytona event. With all the subtlety one would expect from branded clothing, the jacket has “HARLEY-DAVIDSON” written across the back in 3-inch letters. I felt that if I were going to wear this jacket I should do so while riding the Harleyest Harley that Harley makes, which, to me, is the Street Bob. This was especially true of the Dyna Street Bob. It is all kinds of stupid, which makes it wonderful. In shuddering through Norfolk’s America-like farm fields at ~60 mph I was the happiest I had been in months. I felt like the coolest motherhugger alive. It was one of those moments in which I wish I could go back in time and shout to my younger self: “Look! Look at me! Look at you! Look at what you get to do, man! Hang in there, because this moment is waiting for you!”
The modern Street Bob is now classed as a Softail, with Harley-Davidson having decided to scrap the Dyna line altogether. The old boys grumble about this decision because to them a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet. In reality, the new Softails are better than any other heavyweight cruiser Harley-Davidson has ever made. The modern Street Bob retains its old spirit but is no longer the sort of thing you suffer in short bursts. You can ride several thousand miles without (much) complaint. And as I now rode through Norfolk en route to Lind Harley-Davidson Norwich, I was able to enjoy the fact the scenery reminded me of home rather than lament any pain in my back or skull.
Norwich, by the way, is beautiful. Who knew it was such a nice city?
In the late 1990s I studied at Portsmouth University for a year as part of an exchange program and had a friend there, Andrew “Zippy” Chapman, from Norwich. In explaining where Norwich is he observed that the outline of England looks a tiny bit like the silhouette of a man crouching to take a shit.
“I’m more or less from the asshole of England,” Zippy explained.
Unsurprisingly his description of Norwich spoiled my opinion of the place and hitherto I hadn’t made any effort to go there. It turns out, though, that Norwich is very much the sort of place I like: not far from the sea, with tree-lined thoroughfares, nice houses, quaint buildings and convenient access to… uh… well… nothing. But that’s part of its charm, I suppose.
The dealership was closed by the time I arrived. I remember enjoying the end-of-day feeling as I rode back out of the city and south, but don’t recall much else. I think I was eager to get to the M25 before it got dark. The M25 is lit, which would have countered the Street Bob’s ineffective headlight. I think there was a stretch of time there when I was concerned about running out of fuel. I ended the day at a Holiday Inn in Maidstone, having clocked more than 400 miles since morning.
Somewhere between dinner and breakfast I decided to drop both Warr’s Harley-Davidson locations from my itinerary because I didn’t want to ride into central London in the morning rush hour. The “stop, look at map, go, forget map, repeat” thing is a pain in the ass when battling congestion; finding regular places to pull over and get your bearings is tricky in London. I aimed instead for Shaw Harley-Davidson in Lewes, which is now apparently called Sykes Harley-Davidson. I arrived just before opening hours as guys were pushing bikes out front. They offered me coffee and explained that Lewes is pronounced “Loo-wis,” not “Looz” as I had assumed.
Southeast England, I once read or heard, is the most densely populated area in the whole of Europe. Reportedly it is here where all the money is made, yet the road network is abysmal. Narrow, too-old, dirty, broken routes connect towns and cities that bleed into one another from Hastings to Southampton. Trudging along the A27, unable to filter between too-close rows of bumper-to-bumper traffic, I found myself surprised at the fact there are not daily riots here. There are too many cars (and vans and lorries and buses) and the roads haven’t been been upgraded since Thatcher was in office. How do people put up with this?
SOMETHING I WROTE A LONG TIME AGO ON A DIFFERENT BLOG:
A Drive in Summer
My wife’s best friend lives in Pulborough, about 30 miles straight south of London, and some of my best friends live in the capital. Jenn and I often daydream of moving to be closer to them, our ambitions hampered slightly by the fact we earn a third of what’s necessary to live in the region. On this morning, however, struggling to make any sort of progress west, I lost my appetite for life down here. Sure, it’s drier than Wales and there’s more stuff to do and and the motorcycling culture is more dynamic and, by default, people complain less about the English, but IT TAKES THREE HOURS TO TRAVEL 70 MILES! Guildford, Reading and Oxford were dropped from my list of stops and I aimed for Southampton Harley-Davidson, not getting there until lunchtime.
As I sat outside eating a sausage sandwich I’d made by raiding my hotel’s breakfast buffet I received a phone call from the editor of Motorcycle Sport and Leisure. He wanted to know if I could cover the launch of the BMW R 1250 GS on short notice. I explained that I really, really, really, really wanted to but I was… uhm… kind of supposed to be starting a job the next week. I thanked him profusely for thinking of me and hung up, only to have my phone start ringing again. This time is was Piaggo’s UK representative explaining that he was planning to take some people to Italy to “just sort of ride around” on Moto Guzzis. Did I want to come along? I was so desperate to tell him anything but no that I lied and said I needed to check my schedule.
I sat there angry and panicked at the fact I was letting these opportunities slip away. Maybe I had given up too soon. TMO had been coming along, just slower than I needed it to (a lot slower), but maybe – maybe – if I could just hang on a while longer opportunities like this would start rolling in more regularly. I texted my wife to tell her about it, saying I wanted to give up on the full-time copywriting gig. She pointed out that two opportunities is not necessarily a guarantee of three or four or the steady string I would need to make a living, and that only one of the opportunities was actually a paying gig. She was right. Just sort of riding around in Italy would have been fun, but with Moto Guzzi not having delivered any new bikes in a while (this was a few months before the V85TT was unveiled) it would have been a difficult article to sell.
When I was in my 20s my father’s father told me a story of how he ended up working public relations for Dow Chemical Corp instead of taking a gig covering the Oilers (an erstwhile NFL team) for the Houston Chronicle: his wife, my grandmother, had told him flat out that that was what he was supposed to do. My grandmother was a famously fierce woman (my cousin and I once managed to get out of trouble in town simply by mentioning her name), so I can only imagine how direct she was in explaining to Papa that the stable, well-paying job at Dow was better suited to the family man she expected him to be. He told me this story with a strong current of sadness and regret, then offered advice that I ponder every time I make a decision of even the slightest importance: “Sometimes, Hoss, the right thing to do isn’t the right thing to do.”
My wife was not playing the role of my grandmother here, though. She was simply stating fact. I was woefully in debt; throwing away a solid job in hopes things would rapidly change, despite very little evidence to suggest they were going to, would have been colossally stupid. Not brave or even charmingly naive – just flat out stupid. Like, hugging a bear stupid. Sometimes the right thing to do is the right thing to do, no matter how much you wish otherwise.
After finishing lunch I pointed the Street Bob to the A303 and Cornwall. There are 150 miles between Southampton Harley-Davidson and Plymouth Harley-Davidson; I can’t remember one of them. I remember that Plymouth’s dealership was set on a hill overlooking the surrounding area, which was not, in and of itself, terribly engaging. My memory has placed it above an American-style intersection – a four-way stop with traffic lights. Beyond it there is a shopping mall. Go look at the dealership on Google Maps and you will see my memory is almost entirely wrong. There’s a hill, sort of, but every other part of the memory is false.
I have a friend whose parents came to the United States from Vietnam, managing to escape shortly before the fall of Saigon. The story I had always told myself about her was that her father had been a colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force and able to pull some strings to leave with relative ease. A few years ago I made passing reference to this story only to discover that it was completely and totally wrong. The tale of her parents’ escape is horrific and heartbreaking – full of death, “we’ll never know” lost family members, detention centers and constant, terrifying uncertainty.
But that is how my brain works: it fills the holes with bullshit. I wonder how much of my life has actually happened. Though, in the instance of Plymouth Harley-Davidson, its surroundings are not very memorable. One of the things I learned, or at least inferred, from this trip is that land is cheaper the further it is from anything interesting. So, motorcycle dealerships tend to be in industrial estates on the outskirts of towns, slotted into nondescript corrugated metal buildings. By this point in the trip I had seen 17 of them and felt no desire to see more.
Even though my route would take me right past them I decided to drop Bridgwater and Bristol from my list of stops, as well as Cheltenham. Back onto the A38 and from Exeter onward I was on autopilot. My wife is from Devon; we make this trip as often as we can. The M5 is familiar territory. I hung out in the slow lane, composing most of this article in my head, but that was 15 months ago, so I now have no idea what I intended to say. I have an incomplete memory of some aspect being profound. It probably wasn’t.
Back in Wales I returned to Cardiff Harley-Davidson for one final picture. Looking at photo timestamps, the whole trip took exactly 72 hours and 1 minute.
15 Months Later…
It hasn’t been great, the year or so since that trip. In fairness, it hasn’t been a nonstop hell, either. It’s just been a lot harder than I’d like it to be. So hard I’ve had to take a few weeks off work. When I was in my 20s, a friend and I found ourselves lost and penniless in France after a night of heavy drinking. As I am wont to do in such situations my mood became dark, so Stace countered my pessimism with the observation that “if you put livin’ and dyin’ in an even race livin’ always comes out ahead.”
His observation holds true, but sometimes I get lost in daydreams of a different life. Inevitably those daydreams revolve around getting a new bike (or, increasingly these days, a van), which I’d then ride off to be amazing in someplace different to the 20+ other places in which I’ve thus far failed to be amazing in my life.
I am so tired of not being the person I should be. I have had all these opportunities, all these lucky breaks, developed all these tools, but I just always get it wrong. And I am so, so tired of it. I am tired of being afraid of I don’t know what; I am tired of being tired. I’m tired of forgetting, of panicking, of being unable to think, of crying for no reason, of screaming. There is some part of me that hates me with ferocity and venom, and when it’s not punching me in the head and chest it is locking me in cycles of rumination. It reminds me of things I’ve done in the past, shows me how I missed the opportunity to build upon them, and tells me such things will never happen again.
Last week while lost in the rabbit warren of looking at used bikes on the internet, I came across the Street Bob – the Street Bob. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can remember that bike’s registration number. This was the bike: “my” bike. The bike that took me around the British Isles, the bike that took me to Prague and back, the bike I rode all over Wales. It’s being sold for £9,793 at Wolverhampton Harley-Davidson. Someone else will own it soon enough. It will be his or her good thing.
* A key facet of living in the British Isles is that you have to pedantically argue the veracity of every single fucking thing. So, along with disagreement over whether the British Isles are even called the British Isles there is serious disagreement about how many islands are therein contained, due largely to disagreement over what an island is. Some accounts say the British Isles archipelago consists of as few as 76 islands, whereas some others put the number at 6,289. Most of the sources I found suggested there were at least 4,000, so that’s what I’ve gone with.
** I am not allowed to state on social media where I work. But you can probably guess.