My Newspaper Article:
Subject: There’s no bird like a Slowbird
By: John Segalla
For the past two months, I’ve been riding my motorcycle around the vast expanses of desert in Southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona trying to stay warm and everywhere I go I see the slowbirds. This is the term used for people who migrate south to the arid climates of this region. Most are retirees but there are many others who fall victim to their wanderlust, those who have sacrificed everything for the life the road offers.
Day by day as the temperatures plummet the migratory routes become more congested with motor homes of all descriptions. The size and cost of these coasting castles would boggle the mind. Some of the more luxurious liners can run into the million dollar range. If the size alone doesn’t define the owner’s economic status, then the vehicle in tow will offer more clues. I’ve discovered by a close study of their habitat that there’s a pecking order among these slowbirds.
At the top of the food chain is the motor coach crowd who primarily will settle close to golf courses having their meals at fancy eateries with catchy names like “the nineteenth hole”. This particular species will cringe if their home is referred to as an R.V. (recreational vehicle).
Next on the list is the R.V. crowd who make up the majority of the slowbirds. This species is so diverse that they’ll have to be divided up into several categories.
First, we have the motor home, a close relative to the motor coach, only differing in the amount of gadgetry and cost.
The next class is made up of four kinds of travel trailers which include 5th wheelers, double- axel, single axel/pop ups. All are pulled by a separate tow vehicle which can be as elaborate as a big rig tractor or as simple as a plaid pick-up truck. The vast majority use expensive diesel engine pick-up trucks with all the bells and whistles because when they park their trailers the tow vehicles become their primary source of transportation. So when granny says, “fetch the truck, Jethro”, Jethro returns with a forty-five thousand dollar truck.
Next is the pick-up truck camper class which is basically a vinyl sided tree house that’s jammed into the bed of a truck. The next species of slowbirds are closely related to the Partridge family. They take decommissioned Greyhound buses and old school buses and transform them into private homes adding everything from homemade curtains to roof mounted solar panels with massive storage batteries below for electrical independence. But the species of slowbird that I find most interesting uses none of the above mentioned modes of travel, they are a stranger breed of bird, perhaps one that dropped out of the nest as opposed to leaving in a timely manner. These birds are on a slightly different flight pattern going a little slower than the rest of the flock. They’re easily identified by the amount of gear tied to the outside of their rigs in a less than safe manner.
Often times they have more pets than family members aboard. Their vehicles puff smoke as if propulsion was achieved by one or more coal burning stoves. These birds don’t feed at the nineteenth hole or stay in fancy resorts with names like Sunny Vistas or The Trail’s End, they’re more likely to be spotted somewhere in the desert between Yuma and Quartzite, Arizona where their nearest neighbor can be reached by smoke signal or ham radio. Nobody will ever ask these folks to pass the grey poupon, but more likely the duct tape. Perhaps I seem harsh in my description of this class but, let it be known, I belong to this group as well. This, of course, would be the slowbird class and their motto is “easy does it”. These species travel in old cars, trucks, vans, bicycles, motorcycles, on foot and last, but not least, the motorcycle/sidecar combination.
This category I have created on my own. With three wheels and close to 1400 pounds of bike and cargo, I consider my rig an R.V. of sorts. I sleep in a tent, cook on a propane stove and use a mess kit that’s all stored aboard. I carry enough food and water for both myself and my dog and so I call it my home. In the lowly slow bird category there’s a strong camaraderie and appreciation that exists for each others resourcefulness and perseverance.
Usually being a member of the slowbirds means hardship and complete reliance on mother nature as well as owning every tool known to mankind. I talk with many people who are members of the other categories as well because after all we are all birds of the same feather. We love to travel and we enjoy people and who we talk to is often as close as we will get to having neighbors. In the future, I hope to write more about all the wonderful people that I meet as I continue to ride for the next 18 months in and around our beautiful country.
Starting in Montreal the slowbirds near their desert destination. Victor, Natalie and Little Robin have traveled for three (3) years across five continents with their little boy to pass out crayons at third world schools.
A few years ago on a motorcycle trip to Maine, I took my picture by a road sign that read “Welcome to Mexico”. With all the negative information that I’ve read or heard through various forms of media, I would have never imagined that someday I’d ride south of the border.
Mexico has a long list of hazards that await the casual traveler, starting with the popular “agua situation”. I was warned repeatedly not to drink the water unless I budgeted for industrial strength depends. The unsanitary conditions of food at markets and restaurants were also a concern.
Next, I was told of rampant petty thievery that existed in most every town and the corrupt police. The local law liked to exercise what is commonly known as “La-Mordida” which means the bite. While tourists known as “Gringos” typically have more money than most so they’re more frequently stopped for laws that exist only in the minds of the imaginative officers. There’s nothing here that can’t be overlooked if you make a large enough contribution to their income.
Another hazard is the kidnapping of tourists and business travelers for a moderate ransom. Kidnapping/Negotiation/Extraction insurance can be purchased before entry so it’s an acknowledged problem, not one that’s exaggerated or easily solved. All of these factors would be a definite deterrent to most sensible travelers, but for some reason I would end up riding 2500 miles within this perceived no man’s land.
Since the very beginning of my trip in May of 2001, it was both a fear and an enticement to someday ride over the border. As the months went by, I polled other travelers on their experiences in Mexico hoping to narrow down what was fact and what was fiction. I spent the first 2 months in Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes Region and it was seldom I found anyone who had traveled in Mexico. However, most everyone I spoke with did their best to dissuade me with their fears.
As more time passed, I found myself in the Southwestern states and I got the chance to speak with and observe Mexican people. I found them to be hard working, family orientated people who were just as curious about me as I was about them. I speak very little Spanish, but with sign language and patience, we were able to learn about each other. Unfortunately, my mime skills developed more rapidly than my Spanish. Based on these new personal experiences, I started to foster hope of a more positive trip in Mexico, but still I continued on with my inquiries, hoping to find more people who could alleviate my subtle anxiety.
Around Thanksgiving, I received from home all the certificates that would allow my dog into Mexico. I was doing the legwork for an organized entry, but still my gut feeling was not completely clear. The turning point in my decision came around Christmas when I was in the mountains of the Mojave National Preserve in California. As I was riding along the snow-covered dirt roads that led into Nevada, I ran down a mental list of where I could go to stay warm in the U.S. I had been to Yuma, AZ, and it didn’t exceed 65 degrees. San Diego was about the same, but according to weather reports, Mexico was a consistent 75 degrees. My instincts to stay warm seem to override my common sense concerning the dangers ahead.
I left Las Vegas on Christmas day and spent the next four days winding along back roads to the West Coast. It had been June since I last saw the ocean and my resolve to stay in the U.S. was melting away. Through rose-colored glasses, I saw visions of white sand beaches and palm trees that awaited me to the South. I gathered enough tires and miscellaneous equipment to last a few months while in the San Diego area, and on New Year’s Day, I crossed into Mexico at Tecate. Because of the holiday, there were lax conditions of security. The Mexican border officials waved me through like it was a routine stop at a road construction site. Now it was time to gather my own experiences. I was perplexed why they didn’t single me out for an intrusive search after all this is what I was used to at all the other border crossings. I was to learn that this was just the first of many fears that would gradually dissolve as I rode along.
Within one day of entry, I needed to get more water and found that filtered water was readily available. A few days later my food supply was low, and so I started to visit the small town markets that appeared along the roadside. Most markets didn’t have refrigeration or lights and the doors were always wide open so that the thick clouds of dust that were kicked up by big trucks settled over everything inside. All sales were calculated on paper with a pencil because the dust had chocked the life out of the electric cash registers. Eventually, I found things I could eat, but unless more modern markets came along, I would be starting an involuntary diet. I visited small towns that had restaurants, but the atmosphere of free roaming chickens and the prospect of having to defend my food from flies that circled in attack formation kept me on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich kick.
On many occasions the local and federal police drove by in the opposite direction. I acknowledged their presence with a wave and surprisingly they would smile and wave back. Again, I expected ammunition clad, cigar smoking, Pancho Villa types that muttered phrases like “we don’t need no stinking bahchez” to immediately pull me over and shake me down, but they let me be.
I started to feel more secure as I met fellow travelers from the U.S. and Canada. They gave me many helpful suggestions concerning food, fuel, safe areas to camp and places to avoid. I was 4 days into the journey when I discovered what the real danger was in Mexico. I believe that rather than being kidnapped, robbed, extorted or sickened from food or water, your more likely to meet your demise attempting to drive on the peanut brittle surfaces of the main highway with the insane antics of the local drivers. The first few days, I must have been preoccupied with the newness of my surroundings to notice, but it quickly came to my attention as if a bright light were flicked on.
It’s a well-kept secret, but Baja, CA has the world’s longest graveyard, it’s 1059 miles long and runs continuously alongside of Mexico’s Rt. #1. Grave markers and memorials seem to outnumber the guardrail posts. The burnt, wrecked, carcasses of autos resting alongside the road are as common as the kilometer markers, but nobody seems to heed these morbid reminders. Cars and trucks pass one another as if a blind corner or the crest of a hill were an added challenge to the already undersized lanes. Here, it’s completely normal to see a car that looks like a used pinyata go whizzing by that would appear to be participating in some college stunt, where a prize is won for the most people stuffed inside. In addition to bad drivers, there are mammoth potholes, free roaming cattle and large portions of road that have been washed out. I saw road signs that read “Curra Peligrosa”, and either it means dangerous curve or family plot. It’s sad to see that in a country where there’s no rush to do anything, so many people die rushing to do nothing.
All in all, Mexico suffers the same social illnesses and criminal activities as other countries. To have never explored it would have been to rob myself. Here, I’ve discovered people who smile and continue on through staggering poverty, corruption and with the knowledge that the situation won’t be changing anytime soon. In Mexico, I got a chance to confront my fears and gather my own experiences, and in the process develop a new appreciation for the everyday things that I have taken for granted. Today I feel a new sense of gratitude when I call myself an American.
Red Hartman was part of a dying breed of businessmen. He put people first.
It was a Wednesday about 4:15 p.m. I had just left Tombstone, Arizona, and my next stop was Sierra Vista. I rolled along the twisting back-roads past the barrel cactus and the baked gray earth.
As I approached the city limits, I began to scan the landscape for a place to camp. There were lots of fields with small trees that would easily offer concealment. It was still too early to set up camp, so I decided to go downtown.
I had come to Sierra Vista specifically to find a Ural motorcycle dealership. I have a booklet that lists their addresses in every state, and this one was on my list to visit.
I ride a Russian made motorcycle/sidecar called a Ural, and outside of a few problems, it's been very dependable. For the past six months, my dog and I have been on the road and covered about 22,000 miles.
In every state I visit, I seek out the dealerships and see what they have or don't have. The Ural has been imported into this country for about eight years, but because of its ancient technology, the network of dealerships remains small.
The Ural is not what you'd call a chick magnet. It's not fast, powerful, or sleek in any way. It's fair to say that it's the Yogo of the motorcycle world. It does not have a macho roar when it's kicked to life, like other brands do. In all fairness, it sounds like a sewing machine with an attitude problem, so for these reasons it's not exactly in demand by your average rider. Most shops sell it as a novelty bike to supplement their major brand sales.
I've learned to keep an open mind and a sense of humor when visiting these dealerships because I never know what I'll find. Even though most of the dealerships have had no bikes and very few parts, they have all done their best to help me. So far, I have visited several, and this is what I've found.
At Mr. Moto's in Missoula, Montana, the bikes were sold out of the family room of a house. In Salt Lake City, Utah, the local foreign car repair shop had one collecting dust in the comer. In Spearfish, South Dakota and Spokane, Washington, they had several pictures, but no bikes.
What was I to find in Sierra Vista? I rolled onto the lot of Hartman's Motorcycles, and from a quick glance around the property, I surmised that this was not your average shop. As I got off the bike, I spun in place, absorbing 360 degrees of clutter that was the result of 55 years of accumulation.
Old bike parts were stacked like cords of wood, shopping carts were filled with old exhaust systems, golf carts sat in various stages of disrepair, and lawn mowers, chainsaws, and weed trimmers were mixed in among dozens of engines that lay rusting in the tall grass.
I couldn't tell if the place was open or closed. Maybe this was just a storage yard? Next to an old camper sat a mid nineties Ural. I went over to have a closer look and was amazed at what rough shape it was in. The bike looked like it was used as a chock block for a bulldozer. Later, I found out that it was rolled in an accident.
I saw that the shop door was open, so I made my way inside. I called out, hoping to find someone, and to my surprise, I saw two more Urals insided the showroom. An older gentleman walked out from the backroom. I introduced myself and told him of my journey as we walked over to my bike. He was amazed that I was traveling on a Ural, since not many long distance riders would choose this bike. We talked a while about how it was performing and what I had experienced so far.
Red insisted that I camp at the shop and then showed me around the rest of the place. While he finished up his work, I made some soup atop a stack of old rims. I often write for 2-3 hours a night, so Red ran a droplight out to my tent for me. The next day, he returned at 10 a.m. to find me working on my bike. I needed to change a tiord and catch up with some routine maintenance.
My plan for the day was to just hang out and see what I could learn about Red. I learned right away that Red was part of a dying breed of businessmen. He put people first in a day and age where profit normally dictates actions.
Red was originally from Illinois and at the age of 28, he rode his 1946 Harley Davidson out to Arizona to try and ease the symptoms of his asthma. He arrived in Douglas and went to work as a mechanic while living at the local YMCA. He and a partner started a business of their own after realizing it was 175 miles to the nearest motorcycle shop.
A few years later, after a lot of letter writing, Red got a visit from the Harley Davidson factory representative. I was now 1948, and Red had become the state's third Harley Davidson dealer. Soon after, his partner sold his half of the business to Red, and since then, he's been on his own.
Within a few years time, Red had gotten married, and over the years has had six children. The first few years were tough, and to make ends meet, Red worked construction. It was 20 years before he hired his first full-time employees.
In the early 1950s, Red became active in flat track dirt racing on the local circuit. He was the third owner of a 1948 WR Harley factory racer and admits having more fun than wins.
In 1962, he opened a second shop in Sierra Vista, and in 1967, a third in Safford. Red took on cars to sell as well at the Douglas location. Over the years he's sold Volvo, Subaru, and the short lived German D.K.W.
He recalls going to California with five friends in a car to pick up the new Subarus. The purpose of this was to save on the delivery charge. At the time, the tiny cars had a two stroke motorcycle engine, and they would race them back across the desert for the break-in-treatment. Some of the car companies folded, and some just dropped Red because he wasn't selling large volume. So he refocused on motorcycle sales and again expanded to take on Honda, B.M.W., American Eagle, Simplex, Cushman and Doodlebug. The same thing happened with the motorcycle companies as it did with the car companies. Either they went out of business, or they dropped Red for the larger markets of Tucson and Phoenix.
Eventually, Red consolidated operations to Sierra Vista and continued on with Harley Davidson. In the mid 1980s, Harley Davidson came back strong from slumping sales and less than reliable reputation, due to a new engine design and new marketing strategy. The strategy was to shed the reputation of a product made solely for the hardcore biker and project a more wholesome image to blue collar America. It became a status symbol overnight to own a Harley.
They also focused on converting existing dealerships into clonelike sanitized franchises that sold everything from leather to negligees. The bottom line was that if you didn't have access to a money tree to build one of these bike boutiques, then you were excommunicated from the Harley Davidson family. After 42 years of representing, selling, repairing, and riding their product through good years and bad, Harley disposed of Red.
Today, Red sells Urals, Royal Enfields, Puch, Quads, and even chainsaws. Finally, in 2000, Red opened up a museum in Bisbee, Arizona that features his collection of bikes and memorabilia.
Red has been in business 55 years, has started numerous bike clubs, has been in a movie as a chopper riding hellion, and is old enough to be my grandfather. My experience with him is not one that I will soon forget.
Businesses seldom put their customers' needs ahead of their profits. Businesses that operate like Red's don't become Fortune 500 companies, they become legends. I learned a valuable lesson from Red that day by listening to his story. It's not the bottom line that defines success, it's how often you can help others in the process of doing what you love.
John Segalla is a Weymouth resident on a cross country adventure with his dog. He occasionally writes stories about his journey.
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