Sure, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Over the years, I’ve tinkered a bit, which usually went something like me poking and prodding around until I had to tow my bike to a notoriously gruff mechanic in Brooklyn and pay him out of my ears to get me out of the trouble I got myself deeper in. Over the past decade, I’ve had two motorcycles and knew virtually nothing about them or bikes in general. That was until the proverbial shit hit the fan yesterday.
Before I delve into that saga, let’s start with Mingus - the first motorcycle I had. He came to me like a miraculous gift from the heavens. I was in Goa, India, after working two weeks outside of Bangalore at the InfoActivism Camp. The Camp was a seminal event in my professional and personal life. It was a gathering of 150 human rights activists, lawyers, technologists, creatives and some of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. We shared tips and tactics to enhance our human rights campaigns, camped in tents and took over an old, abandoned hotel that once held the Miss Universe Pageant and made it our playpin of idea and skill sharing. It was surreal on many levels, and the first and only place where I had rats climb over my forehead at night.
After the Camp, I headed to the coast to meet with friends in Goa and then join Bergen, one of my dearest friends, to join him for a month riding motorcycles throughout Southern India. A daydream that had been with me since I was a teenager, but one that required me to find someone to buy a Royal Enfield off of within two days.
My generous hosts in India introduced me to Gregor, an exceptionally attractive Frenchman who had opened up one of the fanciest restaurants in the area. Goa is infamous for how its lush tropics and rolling hills meet some of the prettiest beaches in South Asia. It is a mix of rich indigenous culture with dropped-out hippies. When I was there, it had just hit full-stride with the drum and bass clubs and organic juice bars. A predictable development.
I met Gregor during our dinner and asked him if he knew anyone who had a motorcycle they would rent or sell me for the journey. He just so happened to have had his second child and his wife was not keen on him riding his bikes anymore. To make the situation sweeter for me, he had found an old, beaten-up and rusted Enfield under a tree in the countryside and spent the better part of the year restoring it.
After copious amounts of cloudy French liquor, he agreed to sleep on my offer to buy his bike and promised me he would have an answer in the morning. The next day, I meandered down the overgrown path to find him with his rusty, yellow Enfield and a key for me. With a 25-liter tank, its 350cc engine looked like the largest Harley you would find in Asia. It was a beast.
I jumped on the bike and took it for a spin with my buddy Bergen in-tow. It rode beautifully and after a delicate negotiation, he agreed to sell me the bike with assurances I would pass it on to a local human rights organization that would grant him access to it as he desired – or as his wife would allow him. With that, Bergen and I were off the next morning and had one of the most rewarding and inspiring adventures I’ve had. Throughout, Mingus – which I named for its beautiful, exceptional timing like the great legend, Charles Mingus – never gave me an issue. I rode it for six weeks without even a mechanical hiccup.
Mingus spoiled me silly and I had hoped all bikes would be as stable, kind and classy as it. Sadly, that hasn't been the case and my current bike is teaching me the hard-won lessons of motorcycle ownership and maintenance. I’m still trying hard to get Zen about it.
Fast-forward six years and a few thousand dlollars later, I’ve got my current bike. Unnamed but incredibly loved, s/he has tested me for four years, but never more than the past few weeks.
I have always loved the look and feel of old BMW bikes. I swore to myself that I would get one when I had enough money. When I did, I jumped head-first in the murky water of vintage motorcycle ownership. While living in Brooklyn, I bought my bike from a middle-age banker who needed to offload his 1979 BMW R65.
Over the years, it has survived two hurricanes, a few tip-overs in New York City and the pothole-riddled streets of Brooklyn. The bike was conceived when I was, and I always thought that was a romantic notion, never more so when I embarked on this project connecting with other men who lost their fathers to suicide. There are many reasons why I chose to motorcycle cross-country to meet and interview these generous, courageous men. Mainly, I love riding bikes, love the diversity and splendor of the United States and I figured riding would help me clear my head after each interview so I could better reflect and retain insights that I would gain from the conversations.
Well, that was the romantic notion and hasn't been the reality of late. These past few weeks have been exhausting. Cracked mufflers breaking off in Canada, parts flying off on the highway, wiring breaking, fuses exploding and a failure to start have all been part of the journey. However, nothing compares to the most recent challenge: The bike dying on me randomly. Often.
As I made my way from my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, to Wichita, the issues got worse. It felt like everything was coming to a head. As I was trying to mentally and emotionally prepare for visiting my family, paying respects to my father’s grave and hopefully getting the chance to get into the room where he actually took his life, all I could do was pray my bike would make it the next 10 feet.
So, yesterday morning I was riding to the house where my mother grew up so I could go down memory lane. On my way there my bike sputtered and died. Again. I pulled over and tried to adjust what I knew and got it starting again, but only for a few minutes. As I was tinkering and praying to the gods of metal, oil and grease, a man pulled up beside me on a gorgeous, new BMW. Chuck introduced himself asked if I need help. I begged him to tell me there was a good BMW garage in town. He told me not within 150 miles, but that I may be in luck.
He told me how there was a weekly breakfast gathering of BMW motorcycle enthusiasts the following morning and that was my best bet at getting help. He gave me his phone number, the address and wished me luck. I got my bike started again and continued on memory lane. Slowly.
This morning I showed up at Riverside Café in Wichita to find a table of mostly retired motorcycle lovers. They jumped right in, eager to help me as a Kansas boy who has returned from New York and was trying to get back on the road. One particularly generous soul made a few calls within minutes and got ahold of Tom Gard, the man who saved my bike and kept me and this project rolling.
Hours later I rolled-up to Gard’s house in north Wichita. He invited me to ride my bike back to his garage and let his adorable dog lick my hand until it was raw. When he opened his garage gates, it was like he opened the gates of motorcycle heaven. Inside, he had a mechanic’s wet dream of an operation. Lifts, drills, welding equipment and more tools than Ace Hardware. This man was the real deal and as he inspected my bike with genuine zeal and curiosity, he transformed from a mere mortal to a genuine Saint.
Over the next five hours, Saint Gard performed a series of miracles on my bike and gave me the education I had craved for. As I looked over his broad shoulders, I was in awe of his confidence, agility and wisdom. We started with taking apart, cleaning and re-tooling my distributor and ended with re-setting all of my valves and carburetors. Along the way, he explained everything to me and let me jump in with him as best I could.
I went in with a bike that couldn’t keep its fire and felt like it was on its last leg and bringing me and the project down with it. Five hours later, I left with a powerful, humming engine that had been reborn. Though it may be commonplace for Saint Gard, for me, I witnessed a miracle. In addition, I had one of the most beautiful affirmations of human kindness and tenderness.
When we were done, I was spellbound and speechless. I was overwhelmed by Gard’s thoughtfulness, openness and commitment to getting me back on the road. Along the way, he taught me more about bikes and how to learn the feel of my own bike more than I could of imagined. I used tools that I didn’t know existed and he helped me find the courage to continue on, but now I would be taking more informed risks. Most importantly, Saint Gard gave me a great dose of that older, male energy and wisdom that I have been craving for decades.
I’m grateful for Chuck stopping to check on me when I was broken down and for inviting me to the most fortuitous breakfast I’ve had on the trip. I’m grateful for Bill for jumping right in and calling Tom Gard – and for picking up my breakfast tab. I’m grateful for Saint Tom Gard for him simply being him and for giving me more gifts than I can adequately articulate. Ultimately, I’m grateful for all the support that enables me to be on this journey – from the kind words, emotional support and financial backing that keeps fuel in all of my respective tanks so I and this project can keep rolling forward.
I’m back on the road, heading to Denver on Friday, and riding with a bigger grin, recharged mind, body and bike. Here’s to the road and where it will take me, this project and who will enhance us on the journey…