Retirement is underrated, which I discovered both too soon and too late. Fifteen years ago, my employer of 36 years eased me out their door. “If you can’t climb stairs,” they told me, “then you can’t work here.” I don’t like to use the word “handicapped,” but that’s what they called it. It’s actually muscular dystrophy, and I’ve lived with it since my 30s. After they let me go, I didn’t dwell on it, but what life held next was a mystery. I was looking for something to do when my buddy Scott suggested going to the Sturgis Rally. I thought, Why not? There would be 12 of us total, including a few wives and girlfriends riding pillion. They were all on Harleys; I was the only dissenter on my BMW R 1150 RT.
From my place in Zanesville, Ohio, Sturgis is roughly 1,700 miles away, so I estimated the trip would take two days. We started on U.S. Route 40, a few miles from my home, and I knew after the first 5 miles it wasn’t going to be much fun. We were going 80 mph one minute, 60 the next, stopping every 75 miles to gas up, puff down two cigarettes, then talk for 20 minutes about the guy in the group who failed to use his turnsignal.
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We rode for several hours this way. In Illinois, we ran into a light rain, with Scott and me bringing up the rear. I’ve ridden with friends forever, and we never rode side-by-side. Scott and I watched the bikes, riding tandem at 80 mph (then 60), waiting for a mistake that would surely bring the others down.
We got to Iowa City midafternoon. I thought we were stopping for gas (again), but no, they were already looking for a motel! There were still at least five more good hours of daylight. I’d had enough. “Hey guys, I’ll see you there,” I said and left.
Several hours later, I found a mom-and-pop campground west of Des Moines. Even though the sign said “NO Vacancy,” I spotted a grassy area out back in a corner, nearly surrounded by corn, and the proprietors let me have it for half price. I went out for a ham-and-Swiss sub and a six-pack and rode back to my home for the night. I’d ridden 600 miles – not bad – and was ready for a beer.
There were land yachts all over and kids throwing a ball around. One of them saw me and walked over, followed by five or six others. “Hi, where ya from?” they asked. My bike was a kid magnet.
We chatted while I pitched my tent, hoping no one would be offended if I sipped a beer. When I mentioned that the site could use a picnic table, they scrambled off, and I saw them talking to a group of grownups. Four of the dads got together and grabbed an extra table, each holding a corner with one hand and a brew in the other. Suddenly I had my own personal dining table in front of my tent. I felt right at home. The day was ending a lot better than it had started. That’s life on the road on a good day, but aren’t they all good days?
I called Scott that night. He told me he had wanted to join me, but he was riding his brother’s Harley, so his brother called the shots. He said there was only one room with a single bed available at their motel. Eleven people in one bedroom! I thanked my lucky stars. Staying in a room with only one toilet, packed so close you could smell each other’s feet, drinking in the lounge with rows of quarters already on the pool table, sliding a $5 bill across the bar for a beer and getting 50 cents back. Sorry, not for me.
After my new friends left, I sat at my picnic table until 1 a.m. I’d set up my tent facing the interstate and was mesmerized by traffic racing by, streaks of white light in one direction, red in the other, vehicles of all kinds. Sitting alone, soaking all this in, was like a lullaby. It was maybe the best night in a tent I’ve ever experienced. I slept like a baby.
The next day, I raced west to Nebraska. I made a gas stop and decided to call my cousin Matt, who was driving to Sturgis, hauling his homemade camper/trailer complete with a kitchenette with water, a bed, and clamps on the floor to secure motorcycles. After some conversation about our respective locations, I realized I should have turned north at Des Moines and was on the wrong interstate. What to do? I don’t carry maps, so I kept riding west, figuring there would be a highway north somewhere.
I rode to North Platte, then went north on U.S. Route 83 until I saw a sign for Interstate 90. I could taste Sturgis, now only an hour away. I felt late for the party I’d been racing to get to.
When I hit Sturgis, I peeked at my odometer. I’d ridden 954 miles! I wanted to head out again to ride another 46 miles, but it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone but me, and I was parched. It was just Matt and me at the campsite. My friends, on bikes with gas tanks too small, didn’t arrive until the next day.
Over the next two days, we rode all around the area, hitting the Badlands first. It was amazing, like another planet. Scott had never been out of Ohio before. His brother and Matt knew of a bar just beyond the Badlands. It turned out to be a dump of the first order with a dirt floor and no restroom; you just walked out back and let it flow – girls too. I definitely wasn’t in Ohio anymore. At least the beer was cold!
The next day we rode to Spearfish for a burnout contest. Matt entered his Harley and put on a great show – so much smoke you could barely see him. Everyone thought he was the favorite, but the last entry was a topless lady. She won.
After Spearfish, we went to see Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and finally to the Needles in Custer State Park. It was beautiful country, but I’d seen enough. This was a Harley universe, not mine. It was time for me to go. I asked Scott to come along with me, but he was leashed to his brother and declined again. That was okay. I was used to riding alone – nearly all my past riding friends had either died or moved to Florida.
I was out the next day at first light, unaware that the best five days of my riding life were in front of me. I rode west to Devils Tower, then north. My ride was untarnished, racing along, a world away from Ohio. I ended the day in Custer, Montana, at a great mom-and-pop campground. I pitched my tent and eased into the evening with a chilled six-pack. Seeing the Milky Way brought me back to my childhood. Never having been to the area, everything felt both so real and so unreal. The air felt different, and the smells were spectacular.
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The next day, I rode east on U.S. Route 2, to this day my favorite road, wide and straight, with fields of wild sunflowers. The 75-mph speed limit meant I could go as fast as I wanted.
I made it to Ross, North Dakota, a small town with a train terminal and several sets of tracks. I found a campsite, pitched my tent, and went looking for beer and a sandwich. I’ve camped at some very nice places, but I’ll remember this one forever because of the trains. In Ohio, I had only seen trains that were a few cars hauling coal, but these trains, with four engines pulling 200 cars, seemed a mile long. The tracks were maybe 500 yards away, and one train would come right after another, each one making its own unique sound, some with squeaky wheels, others with wheels that pounded the track like they were square. I sat at the picnic table until midnight, and to this day, I can still hear the sounds of all those trains.
The next morning, I called Scott. He wasn’t with his Harley group. He had been complaining about noise coming from the rear wheel of the Harley he was riding, which turned out to be a bearing. It let loose, the wheel locking for just a second, with the tire terminally resting against the swingarm. The Harley bit the dust. He was alone, and no one came back looking for him. His brother and the group simply abandoned him. There was, however, a friendly fellow nearby, and Scott spent a few hours drinking free beer on his front porch. Luckily, he had Matt’s phone number. Matt came to the rescue and loaded the broken bike in his camper.
The next morning, I left at first light, still riding east on Route 2. I rode at my own pace. Not many people live that far north, probably because of the brutal winters. I passed through towns about every 20 miles – no stop lights, just reduced speed limits. The sideroad signs with white numbering meant gravel; those printed with blue meant the roads were paved. White ones were more common, seemingly 10 to 1.
Over the next two days, I passed through Minnesota, then Wisconsin. Lake Michigan is simply mesmerizing. Every few miles, I spotted a shanty and slowed to see what they were selling. One spot had fresh smoked fish. I never pass on seafood, so I bought two pounds of smoked trout and continued down Route 2 to a very nice campground.
The final day of my trip, I crossed the Mackinac Bridge connecting the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan. I had been warned about the bridge, specifically the mesh steel surface which can lead to motorcycle tire wandering – more than a little unnerving. But one lane was paved.
When I hit Interstate 75, it started raining. But it was warm, so I didn’t bother to put on my rainsuit. I needed a shower anyway. When I hit Detroit, I was surprised by how clean and orderly the city appeared, contrary to the image I had of it being dirty and smoky. Also, there were never less than five lanes of roadway, so I cruised right through. Every big city should do it so well.
In Ohio, I got on U.S. Route 30, four lanes racing through miles of corn and soybeans, then I rode south on State Route 13 on my way home.
I made it home just before dark, our three dogs yapping up a storm. I settled in as my wife made me dinner, and in the shower, the water that dripped off me was cloudy with dirt. I was done, home after nine days and 4,800 miles. That night in bed, I cried, thinking it was probably my last long motorcycle ride. And it was.
Because of the muscular dystrophy, I had been having difficulty with my legs during the trip and was happy that I didn’t drop my bike or fall down. My brother Bill lives a similar life – our mother did too when she was still with us. Back then, my MD was an inconvenience. Now it’s a nuisance, controlling every part of my day.
But after Sturgis, I didn’t stop riding. I had two more motorcycles to wear out, saving the best for last. With my failing health, when I could no longer support myself on two wheels, I moved to three. My last bike was a Can-Am Spyder RT, which I dearly loved. In six years, I rode that bike 188,510 miles – until I couldn’t.
My mobility may have been stymied, but not my mind. I have more than enough memories to fill another lifetime. When I close my eyes, I can be anywhere, always picturing myself on one of my old bikes. When I slip out to my garage for a quick beer or two, I’m surrounded by reminders of my lifetime on two wheels, then three. On the wall are about 20 of my old license plates. Some aren’t especially notable, but there are a few that, if you ask me about them, I’ll talk to you for hours, many of my tales going back to the six or seven or eight special bikes I’ve owned.
There are also two sets of pistons – one from a Gold Wing, the other from an ’83 Honda CB1100F – and posters of concerts I’ve ridden to. There’s a drum skin I caught at a Scorpions concert after drummer James Kottak signed it and threw it into the crowd. And my tools are spread out everywhere from the days when wrenching on my bikes was a favorite pastime. On one of the walls is a newspaper clipping of a story by my brother Ken when he was on assignment covering the Indy 500. One of his pictures shows me, shirtless, leaning back on my cycle, soaking up the sun. He didn’t even realize that I was in his shot until later.
My first 12 years of retirement were nearly perfect; the last three, not so much. Still, I see my glass as being half full. My most recent set of wheels is a powered wheelchair, and I can still get around in my custom golf cart. I sold my Spyder to Ken. He still calls it “Chuck’s bike.” I see it often when he stops by, giving me my needed motorcycling fix. It still looks new. To me it always will.
After decades of riding almost nonstop, with well over a million miles on my motorcycles, the one thing I’ve learned is: Never take tomorrow for granted. Live for today. Always, ride on.