May 20, 2012 — My thumb hurt. Somewhere between a cramp and an ache, my right thumb felt like it didn’t want to be part of my hand anymore. It was tired of squeezing the throttle on my ’83 Honda GL1100. It’d been about 90 minutes since I set off from Evanston, IL to intercept my buddy Bree on his way back from Minneapolis.
This 150 mile intercept trip was the GL’s proving run. I wanted to see if the old machine could be trusted. After a year of tinkering, would the bike prove reliable in the wild? Would my body be comfortable? So far, the bike had been flawless, and aside from my cranky thumb, I was content to ride on.
Our rally point was just outside the town of Beloit, WI. The sun was shining and the temperature was stretching up on its tippy toes trying to grab hold of 90º. With a bladder of ice water on my back, I’d set off from home just after noon. That is, after checking the GL from wheel to wheel. Maybe it was the eclipse, or maybe it was the year’s worth of mechanical work I’d done to the bike, but I simply didn’t trust the thing yet. For all the time I’d spent with my GL, very little of that time was actually riding it. For a touring monster like a Goldwing, this was an absolute shame. This bike was born to gallop and as yet, we’d only really trotted around town. With all major repairs complete, and all maintenance finally up to date, there was no excuse not to let the old boy finally stretch his legs a bit.
The first hour of the journey was spent simply getting out of town. The GL and I rumbled down Golf Rd in search of HWY 14. These minor motorways let me see a side of outer Chicago I hadn’t experienced before. These sleepy, outer suburbs reminded me of the western ‘burbs in Minneapolis. I’d ridden through those little towns many times in search of good county roads. Nice to see that Chicago wasn’t that different after all. Eventually the road opened up to a 55 mph limit and I left the suburban sprawl in my howling exhaust. The GL felt better and better as I throttled up into fifth gear — the little purple overdrive light coming on in the tach. I kept scanning the gauges, looking for warning lights. The red oil light was dark. The temperature gauge swayed through its normal range. The motor sang its jet engine sewing machine’s song. No hesitations. No faltering. Just a bike satisfied in finally having real work to do.
The other half of this mission was my buddy Bree. He was riding his 2007 Triumph Bonneville T100 back from the Twin Cities. Like me, Bree has recently moved to the Chicago area for work and adventure. We were colleagues at a former job in MSP, and scooter/motorcycle buddies since then. So having him in town is a real treat. That day, his was a rescue mission. Bree had flown back to the Twin Cities to retrieve his Bonneville. Originally, I was going to ride the GL to the Twin Cities myself and then be Bree’s wingman for the ride back. However, two consecutive breakdown experiences on previous motorcycle trips to Alma convinced me to take a smaller bite for the GL’s first real proving run. The last thing I wanted to do was break down somewhere between Chicago and St. Paul. If past experience was any indicator of future disaster, that’d be exactly where it would happen. There, or in Hastings, MN.
So rather than a two-day, 800 mile trek across rural Wisconsin, I’d ride out and meet Bree a couple hours from home, along his way to Chicago. In retrospect, I think the GL would have made the Minneapolis-and-back trip no problem. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? There’s no way to know without getting the bike out on a proving run. What my little trip lacked in ambition, it more than made up for in satisfaction.
About 90 minutes from home, I was now well out of the ‘burbs and enjoying the rolling Wisconsin farmland. Hovering right around 60 mph, the GL had been gobbling up miles with little effort. Up in 5th gear overdrive, the engine hummed along at just over 3,500 rpm — right in the bottom of its power band. Each mile added more and more to my confidence in the machine. This motorcycle really was healthy. Everything worked. Everything was comfortable (except for my damned thumb). The GL’s stellar performance also meant I could actually turn my attention to appreciating the ride itself.
With the green hills passing by on each side and the gray road unfolding in front of me, it was a flood of memory. This! This is what all the confounded motorcycle tinkering is really all about! It hit me like a bucket of water just how long it had been since I’d taken a real ride — how much time had passed since I took a long wander up the highway on a steel horse. All the wrench work wasn’t just for the sake of skill acquisition. It was so that I could get out and ride. Had I lost sight of that? Was I too caught up in the machines to remember what they’re really for? I hadn’t bought this grumpy old Goldwing as garage decoration, had I? Getting out in the wind and the howl was a much-needed reminder of what owning a motorcycle is really all about. It’s about getting out there. It’s about travel — about going — even if only to return home again.
I reached the Wisconsin rally point ready to keep on riding. Could I somehow intercept Bree further up the road? There was plenty of trip left in me and in the GL, which I was very happy about. That’d have to wait though. Rally first. I parked the bike on the edge of the Mobil station parking lot where it was the most visible from the highway. No way Bree could pass by and not see it. There’s no missing a gigantic, chocolate brown, naked Goldwing.
I purchased an ice cream cone from the station’s freezer, then returned outside and sat down on the little raised concrete platform at the end of the row of gas pumps. Before me was my GL, and behind it was the highway interchange and an ever-darkening sky. I’d encountered 30 seconds of sprinkles on my ride out, but nothing that constituted real rain. I was thankful for that. Looking to the west, the sky was growing dark and menacing. It was going to rain, the question was when and how much? Was Bree chasing this storm, or being chased? His last text message had him about 90 minutes out. Hopefully that’d be enough. No sooner did I finish my cone, it started raining. Steadily more and more the water fell to earth, but I didn’t want to go inside yet. I had a perfect view of the approaching highway and was seated on the leeward bank of fuel pumps, pretty much completely out of the rain. As the downpour intensified, I watched as a group of five motorcycles turned off I-43 seeking shelter. They pulled into the Mobil station just as all rainy hell broke loose.
The wind and rain intensified and I started actually getting wet under the pump awning. I grabbed my helmet and rushed inside just in the nick of time. The other riders and I watched through the windows as the windy rain became an angry monsoon. The wind accelerated up to what had to be at least 60 mph. The rain thickened to a solid wall of water and blew sideways like the world’s largest pressure washer. I’ve seen fire hoses with less enthusiasm. A mere 15 yards away, the place where I’d been sitting wasn’t even visible through the thick sheets of sideways rain.
I was inside, thankfully, but my motorcycle was completely exposed. Would the bike blow over? The GL was parked broadside to the heavy winds, but stalwart so far in the deluge. This GL came with an extra wide, roll-off center stand and it was perfect for the job. Both wheels sat firmly on the blacktop and the stand’s horizontal steel feet acted as outriggers against the high-velocity rain. The storm raged, and the wind huffed and puffed, but the GL stood its ground. It’d take more weather than that to blow over 640+ lbs of resting mass.
Right at the storm’s crescendo, we all watched awestruck as a lone rider on a midsize sportbike dove in under the station’s refueling awning behind the other bikes. We weren’t sure he was going to be able to stay upright. He shouldered his machine into the wind on its side stand and dashed inside as fast as he could. The door closed behind him and quieted the whooshing storm outside. There he stood, cellphone in hand, the wettest human being I’ve ever seen. He would’ve been drier under water. Miraculously, his phone still worked. “I’m okay,” he told his wife, “I just got really wet. I’ll be home soon.” We were all grateful to be out of the weather in the shelter of the station.
As quickly as the storm had flared, it subsided again, leaving just a steady, moderate rain in its wake. A couple of the bikes on side stands had shifted, but nothing fell over. Trash cans had gone flying across the road. But for everyone gathered there, no bikes were damaged and wrinkled fingertips were the worst injuries. My timing had been incredible. Had I arrived 15 minutes later than I did, I would have been the sopping wet guy on the Ninja — and that’s if I’d arrived at all. I couldn’t help but wonder though, where was Bree in all of this?
The rain steadily lightened and I soon got a call from Bree. He’d stopped for gas in Madison and was about an hour out. We reconfirmed the rally point with iPhone map markers and he was on his way — thankfully well behind the monsoon that’d just blown through. It was sunshine and blue skies where he was. “Bring it with you” I told him. The weather radar projections on my iPhone were painting a big green wall of rain all the way back to Chicago. Hopefully wet would be the worst of it. All I could do at that point, however, was to sip my iced tea, have a sandwich and wait for Bree to arrive. The GL waited too, likely with water in places that hadn’t seen moisture for more than two decades. Hopefully nothing would short out or misbehave from newfound wetness.
Right on time, Bree arrived safe and dry on his Bonneville. I’d forgotten how good looking that motorcycle is. The classic lines, the understated paint scheme. It’s just gorgeous. After a fuel stop and a short rest for him, it was time for me to see if the return half of this journey would start successfully. That is, it was time to see if the ridiculous rain had fouled something in the GL. I put my key in and hit the starter. “Chunga, chunga, chunga GROWL!” The GL fired to life. The starter seemed a little sluggish, but it does that sometimes. Wary of battery issues though, I pulled out the choke to insure the bike would run happily long enough to settle and idle for sure. I didn’t want to have to restart it unless absolutely necessary. Old bike, after all. Thankfully, it ran just fine.
To the northwest, a hole had opened in the clouds and the sun was raying through dramatically. The sound of my engine was just drowning out the angels. To our southeast was a wall of dark gray. That’s where we were headed. It wasn’t cold, thankfully, so if we did get wet, it would be unpleasant but we probably wouldn’t wind up with hypothermia or numb hands. With nothing for it but to go, we set off down HWY 14 and toward whatever weather would present itself.
To my surprise, we only saw maybe 90 seconds of actual rain on our journey back to Evanston. That isn’t to say we stayed dry. The road spray was horrible for the first 30 minutes or so. Every car in front of us and every car that passed us going the other way hit us with fresh spray. My knees were soaked and my hands were starting to get cold inside my mesh gloves. Why hadn’t I brought my zip-in rain liner? Why didn’t I have my insulated gloves? Why hadn’t I looked at the weather before I left? I’d been so worried about the motorcycle, I’d failed to do even the most basic trip planning. I’d chickened out on the long ride to Minnesota, but I hadn’t even bothered to bring basic tools with me 75 miles from home. I had no rain gear. No spares. I didn’t even have an analog map. What was I thinking?
The sunshine followed us all the way to our shared garage. Through speeds of 25 mph up to 60 mph, we’d blasted back to civilization. Both machines were healthy and both riders tired but better for the experience. Bree had successfully delivered his Bonneville to the Windy City. I’d confirmed, pretty conclusively, I think, that the GL was healthy and could be trusted with longer journeys. It was mission accomplished. A year’s worth of work had paid off and best of all, some real riding got done. More riding, in fact, than I’d ever done in a single day. The GL had taken me there and back again without issue, and in complete comfort. That is, except for the wicked soreness in my thumb.