When I awoke this morning, there was plenty to be grateful for. The thick, dark rainclouds that loomed overhead last night had drifted away over the steep rolling hills that surrounded me. My camp was dry thanks to a giant canopy that i had stumbled upon in the midst of the Hungry Valley Reservation, and I felt a deep sense of accomplishment because it was my 300th day on the road.
Todays journey began in Gorman, California, and I was excited about the variety of terrain that awaited me to the west in the Los Padres National Forest. Throughout the morning, I had my normal ups and downs with varied weather conditions and confusing route changes, but I never suspected what would happen as the day unfolded.
As I rambled through the mountains, I exercised caution because of the many sections of road that hid small patches of black ice. Ruckus was bundled up under his blanket, and slept soundly throughout the morning. I stopped for lunch just outside the city of Taft, where the temperature had risen significantly due to a steady decline in the elevation.
I started off my afternoon by making a wrong turn on route 166, which led me east past large orchards and fenced in oil fields. There was so much to see on this road, that I didn’t realize my blunder until 25 miles later. Instead of backtracking, I dug out my map and figured an alternate route back toward Taft. As I rode along through towns with funny names like Weedpatch and Pumpkin Center, I tried to calculate how far I'd be able to go with the amount of light remaining.
Approaching the outskirts of Taft, my engine started making a horrid sound that was coupled with an equally disturbing vibration. The motorcycle had been running so good up to this point, but now it sounded like a tumble dryer with a pound of pennies in it. I stopped immediately to look for the problem, but visually everything appeared to be in order. My next priority was to find camp and eat, because darkness was rapidly creeping up.
That night, I slept at the Taft municipal airport, making camp at the end of a runway in a dry river wash. When darkness fell, the red and blue marker lights came to life alongside the runway, and it gave me a peaceful feeling to gaze at them.
The next morning I rode into town and the engine noise had become noticeably louder. I found a motorcycle shop and went in to tell the mechanic my tale of woe. He let me use his phone, and I contacted the factory in Preston, Washington in hopes that they could pinpoint the problem based on the info I could provide. For the next few hours, I followed the suggestions of the factory troubleshooter who spoke with a very thick Russian accent. After removing the top end of the engine and finding no irregularities, the troubleshooter suggested that I bring the motorcycle to a factory authorized dealer in Ventura California. The only trouble with this new development, was that Ventura was 90 miles away over the mountainous route 33. I had complete confidence that the motorcycle wouldn’t make it, thus began evening number two at the airport.
The next morning after much prayer and contemplation, I decided to go for it. I filled my gas tank, bought a loaf of bread and hit the road at 8 am. I made it all the way to a sign that read “ NOW LEAVING TAFT”, which was a whopping one mile from the airport. The engine made one last loud clunk and then sputtered to the side of the road in a cloud of smoke. As I stood there absorbing the situation , I tried to decide if I should laugh or cry first.
I made a sign using an old piece of cardboard that I found along the roadside, indicating that I needed a pickup to Ventura. Saturday morning traffic was light, so I read a book and tried to focus on something else while waiting. Just when I thought it couldn’t get much worse, a highway patrolman stopped by for a visit. He informed me that I was a visual hinderance, and that if I didn’t move along I'd get towed away. About that time my luck took a turn for the better.
A man in a pickup truck pulled up next to the officer and asked if he could be of a help. Bill was his name, and judging by the tattoos on his arms he was no stranger to motorcycles. For a reasonable fee he agreed to take me to Ventura, and so we loaded up the motorcycle and got on our way. Bill had a lanky build and was dressed from head to toe in black. Reflective glasses hid his eyes, and the smell of alcohol seemed to ooze from every pore on his body, but I had no doubt that he would get me to Ventura.
On our way to Ventura, we stopped to fuel up and to pick up Bill’s wife Patty, who was waiting at their home in the next town over. Patty was polite and quiet, only speaking when spoken to. For the next few hours she sat between Bill and I in the cramped confines of the truck methodically consuming a half pound bag of skittles candy and adjusting the stereo reception which constantly drifted in and out. We talked about all kinds of things as we climbed the steep grade up route 33, and stopped briefly at the summit for a break. I walked Ruckus, shared some sandwiches and then we resumed the journey. On the steep and curvy downgrade, Bill and I took turns telling tales of near death experiences that we both had on roads just like the one we were on. There were stories of brake failure, ice patches, and near disaster on sharp corners with no guardrails. In recounting these stories, I realized it was good to be alive , and having a blown motor didn’t seem like a big deal anymore.
We arrived at Mark's Custom Cycles in Ventura, and I immediately went in to talk to the boss. Mark informed me that the shop would be closing shortly, so I quickly unloaded the motorcycle. Bill and Patty had to get on their way, so I thanked them and waved goodbye to my new friends. Next I had to separate all the things from the bike that I would need to survive the next few days. My tent, sleeping bag, food, flashlights, blanket, books, dog food etc. all got thrown into a big pile on the pavement, and the bike got a push into the shop until my return on Monday. I scanned through my book of people I’ve met on the road, and searched for someone that might live nearby, in hopes of finding a place to stay. A week ago I had met Bob, and he offered lodging if I was ever in town, so I gave him a ring. Luckily he was home and sympathetic to my plight. One hour later, I was piling my dog, my belongings and myself into his car and headed for Camarillo. Bob Stella was a tax software consultant, who shared my interests in motorcycles, dogs and freedom, and was only too happy to help. When we arrived at his home, the day was just about gone, and so I settled in.
That evening I sat on a big comfortable chair, inside a luxurious motorhome that was parked in Bob's yard. I ran through the events of the day in my mind as I sat there relaxing, and I just couldn’t believe how things turned out. Here I had a bed, TV, stereo, refrigerator , bathroom and many other conveniences at my disposal, all because someone understood. My needs had been met beyond all my expectations today, and it was all due to average people giving of themselves. I thought about how my entire journey had been this way, and it brought tears of joy. I closed my eyes and listened to some blue grass music that played on the radio, and at that very moment there was nothing that could disturb me. All fear, uncertainty and worry seemed to drift away as if the music carried it off. I was convinced that with a little faith and the help of ordinary people, there were no obstacles that were insurmountable.
Part of the journey that I’m on involves riding a motorcycle on the infinite combinations of backroads that wind through small towns, big cities, farm country, and barren desert. Simultaneously another journey takes place that's more complex, one that I would’ve liked to navigate, a route drawn in invisible ink. There's only faith on that journey to guide you, and if you have it, you'll never question that where you're at is exactly where you're supposed to be.
When I was a young boy growing up in Weymouth, getting a haircut wasn’t something to look forward to. It meant consumption of valuable playtime on Saturday morning, followed by an itchy sensation in my shirt all afternoon and finally the dreaded Saturday night bath to rinse the loose hairs away before settling down to watch Donnie & Marie.
As the years went by and my routine changed, it became my responsibility to get a haircut. There were a variety of barbershops in South Weymouth at the time and they all were about the same distance from my house. There was Dick’s, Mike’s, two different Al’s and a salon of sorts on the first floor of the Chauncy Building. I narrowed down the field by the quickness in which the barbers had me in and out of the chair. I had tried each shop a number of times, but I eventually found the one for me.
Across from the Stetson Building, on what’s known as Ruggles Block, Al had his barber shop in a brick building with a giant front window. Often times, Al stood at the corner of the window with his foot on the sash having a smoke and looking deep in thought. Al’s son Mark was friends with my older brother Mike, so I always felt a kinship of sorts when I went in for a haircut.
Al was a stocky man who spoke with a gravelly voice. He wore a dark blue uniform of sorts and always seem to have a cigarette in his mouth. Al would squint his eyes and hold his head at an angle to avoid the smoke that wafted continuously around the chair while simultaneously clipping away at my hair. My favorite thing about Al was that he was incredibly quick but equally precise,. because of these qualities, it didn’t seem like a hassle anymore to get a haircut.
Al passed on some time ago and since then ownership has changed hands. As a result, I started to roam again from barber to barber trying to find an adequate replacement. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in Weymouth, but my search continues nation wide. Sometimes I’ll go five or six months between haircuts, because I’m a chronic procrastinator. I don’t wait till I’m having a bad hair day, but more like a bad hair month.
I got a haircut in Salt Lake City, Utah last September at a Mormon barbershop and it was an interesting experience. The barbers sat on a long bench like bellhops at a fancy hotel and when a customer entered one would spring to his feet to assist. It was the first barbershop I’d seen where barbers consistently outnumbered the customers. A clean cut man began his routine of seating me and then draping my clothing with a poncho. Once I got settled in, he then asked what my religious background was. I thought for a moment he might ask me a trick question like “how would I like my hair cut”? As he combed and snipped away at my mop, we had a conversation about world religions. He answered my questions about the Mormon Church and told me of his missionary work in numerous countries. He aspired to teach people about his faith, but at the moment he was between assignments.
The next time I got my hair cut was March of this year in Los Angeles, CA. It was rapidly getting to be a matter of either wear barrettes or find a barber. I started off by asking random strangers “where could I find an old fashioned barbershop”. Most people I surveyed recommended going downtown to the Spanish speaking part of town. The best suggestions I’ve gotten have come from total strangers, so I decided to give downtown a shot.
After a few wrong turns, I ended up in an area known as South Central. It’s springtime here in LA and the fashion conscious in this neighborhood are wearing brightly colored body armor. Luckily I didn’t have to go too far before I spotted the telltale barber’s pole. I parked in front of a mortuary that was having a sidewalk sale and walked past the coffins to the adjoining barber shop. When Lupe wasn’t doing the hair of the deceased, he would take a few live ones in his chair. Over in the corner, a small group of women were crying and comforting each other. I wondered if it was over the quality of Lupe’s work. Apparently, part of his waiting area doubled as the grieving area for the mortuary. I sat and tried to decipher the Spanish tabloids while children ran in and out looking at the stranger who had the funny motorcycle outside.
Lupe was dressed immaculately in wingtip shoes and a silk outfit that made him look more like a bandleader than a barber. He motioned for me to approach the chair and in his best English asked how I would like my hair cut. After describing to him how I wanted my hair cut, he pointed to his own head and said, “just like me”? It was close enough, so I gave him the thumbs up. After getting my hair washed, a big towel was wrapped around my head. Lupe had stepped out to go have a smoke and I wondered how long I would have to sit there looking like a spokesman for the Taliban.
Lupe returned and took out his scissors and got down to business. He danced around the chair like tango music was playing in his head stopping sporadically to comb with dramatic movements. Rather than worry about his eccentricity, I decided to just sit back and watch the show. Older men from the neighborhood came in to drink coffee and children rode their bicycles in and out of the shop, but nothing broke Lupe’s concentration.
We talked a little about our backgrounds to break up the silence that hung in the air. I told him that I had been roaming North America for the last 10 months trying to develop short stories based on people I meet. Lupe reminisced about his convertible that he had forty years ago and the big German Shepherd that loved to ride around town with him.
When he finished, we walked together toward the register and judging by the amount of hair I left on the floor, I expected a pricey bill. Lupe held up a big stack of bills that were business related and said,” I envy you, you’re a free man”. Lupe was tied to his business, it had a strangle hold on his life and he resented it. He said he once had dreams of going places, but now he was immersed in responsibilities. He wouldn’t take my money for the haircut, and as he walked me to the motorcycle, he said “remember to stay free”.
I sometimes forget how differently I live from most people and often my situation is used as a gauge by the individuals I meet to measure their own contentment. I’m not working on a cure for cancer or doing something completely unique, I’m just trying to be true to myself in the pursuit of what makes me happy. This is something that becomes less obtainable with responsibilities, expectations and the duty of family, business and most obviously time. For a while, I’ve felt that what I’m doing is crazy, but most people I meet say I’d be crazy not to give it my best shot. As I rode away, I remembered Lupe’s words, “stay free”.
By: John Segalla
Subject: One For The Road
When I started off this morning on my ride everything seemed to be status quo. The skies were blue , the motorcycle made its normal ticking noise and my life was completely uncomplicated at that very moment. Around noontime, I arrived in a small town, similar to the thousands that I had visited in the past. I had a piece of paper in my pocket that had the name of a man that I had hopes of locating. I didn’t have an address or phone number to go with his name, so finding him could prove to be a difficult task.
My friend Red from Arizona told me that if I ever passed through this particular town, I should stop and see Tom. Red told me of Tom’s accomplishments in the world of motorcycles and so I was anxious to meet him. From what I gathered, Tom seemed to be a fly by the seat of your pants type of guy. When he got an idea in his head to do something, he would, despite the danger, cost or how it affected his personal life. In the process of living with this compulsion, he became famous. His stunts were written about extensively in newspapers and magazines, but I was more interested in who he was, more than what he had done.
I wasn’t in town long, when I received a tip on where Tom could be found. I was having lunch at a small café, when I met a man who called himself Santa. While sketching a map to Tom’s place on a napkin, Santa told stories that added more color to the picture that I was trying to paint of Tom. It sounded like Tom was either incredibly focused or borderline insane.
One hour later, I was knocking on the door of a beautiful home that overlooked the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean I studied the breathtaking landscape and intricate stonework while waiting for a reply. The door creaked open and an old man appeared before me. He stuck out his hand and welcomed me in before I had a chance to tell him who I was, or why I was there. Clearly, he had no fear of what I represented. Eventually, I explained the reason for my visit and he assured me that it wasn’t an inconvenience.
For the next few hours, he took me through the various rooms that housed his trophies, plaques and photos. He also showed me the numerous stories that had been written about his feats and accomplishments, but it was the way the house was furnished that held my attention. Classic motorcycles were on display in the different rooms we walked through and hundreds of bottles of wine were neatly stored in fancy wooden shelves everywhere.
As the afternoon turned to evening, Tom asked if I would stay and join him for dinner. Being in my tent most every night has a way of getting old, so he didn’t have to say pretty please for me to accept the invitation. That night, we drove about twenty miles of twisting Oceanside highway back to town in his old Jaguar. After a ride in a car like that, I wondered if I acted too hastily in my decision to live a simpler life. As we enjoyed the fine foods and talked about our experiences, Tom began to put away more than his share of mixed drinks.
After a while, he very frankly stated that “because of my drive to be the best, I’ve sacrificed my family, my health and any chance of a genuine friendship”. I sensed his loneliness long before his statement. I also surmised that his best friend was Mr. Jim Beam, judging by the frequent appearances of our waiter. On the way home, my concern for our safe return was quieted by Tom’s precise and practiced “driving while pickled” technique.
Shortly after our arrival, Tom began to drink more and it became impossible for me to communicate with him. Finally, he achieved the numbness he desired and then announced his departure for bed. About two minutes later, while in the process of thinking to myself “Thank God that’s over”, I heard an ominous thud from upstairs. I knew what the noise was, but I hoped that I was mistaken. I called out for Tom, but I got no reply. I ran upstairs toward his room, and a cold feeling rushed through my body at what I saw, Tom had collapsed onto the stone floor and blood streamed down his face.
I sat him up and held a shirt against the gash on his forehead. I yelled his name, but he didn’t reply. The panic and uncertainty of the present situation seemed surreal. Instead of calling an ambulance or trying to find his car keys, my mind drifted back to the tranquility of my morning ride. Within minutes Tom regained consciousness and then we began our game of twenty questions. The first question he had was “who are you”? Followed by “why did you hit me”? The evening became morning as the game went on and on. Tom replenished his blood loss with a few more glasses of Jim Beam and then was down for the count.
The following day, as I was putting the last of my belongings on the bike, Tom awoke from his less than peaceful slumber. In the process of saying farewell, Tom asked if I would be writing about any of his accomplishments in motorsports ? It amazed me how he was totally unaware of the dried blood that covered the side of his face and the front of his shirt. It was now my turn to be frank. I said “Tom, as far as I can see your greatest accomplishment is waking up every morning with the way your living your life”.
Tom was stunned by my remarks, but he stunned me even more when he gave me permission to write about our meeting. Understandably, he asked that I not use his real name or where it had all taken place. I thanked him for his hospitality and his generosity and spared him a temperance lecture. Clearly, he was resigned to the idea of living his life his way, and so I got on with mine. It was a beautiful day, the skies were blue, my motorcycle made its normal ticking noise and my life was once again completely uncomplicated at that very moment.
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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