Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Comfort zones

Each of us has our well-worn comfort zones.

I'm no mad adventurer. I know that because I have a very close friend who is a heli-skier. Now that's mad adventure. I know people, people I've traded e-mail with, who have crossed continents on Vespas, including Africa, and ventured to the furthest reaches of North America, to the Arctic Circle, on two wheels. That's not me, and unless something snaps, it won't likely be me.

I know that I'm more adventurous than some. I may perhaps be more adventurous than most. Just above-average on the adventurous scale. I've pushed the envelope on some occasions. Like zip-lining down a massive mountain in Colorado in pitch blackness. One of the reasons I didn't chicken-out was, that next in line behind me, were a couple of ten-year-olds. That, and I was with my son, Andrew. He's at the very least in the mid-range of the fourth MAS quintile (the Masse Adventure Spectrum).

What does it feel like to venture beyond the comfort zone? Well I certainly can't speak for anyone else. Here are my thoughts on Monday's flirtation with mad adventure.

Let me see if I can break it down.

The past me, the guy from two or three months ago, is definitely the most fearless, the most dangerously reckless, of my alter-egos. Let's call him 'the planner'. He's the guy who sets the wheels (pardon the pun) in motion. He's the guy who gets the wacky idea (how cool would it be to ride a motorbike in Florida?), the guy who chats it up with blogger-buddies, the guy who rents a motorbike, and the guy who gets on the plane.

The future me is the guy who gets the past me to plan in the first place. The future me is the cool guy who exagerates to anyone who cares to listen (or can't plot a decent excuse to break free) over a cappucino, or a Corona, or a flute of Proseco, the glorious carefree motorbike ride up the coast of Vancouver Island, along the rolling ancient hills of Tuscany, or wedged between a dome of blue sky and the vast expanse of the Florida Everglades.

The present me, the guy in the passenger seat being driven by his wife, with the credit card in his wallet, headed to the Eagle Riders Harley-Davidson rental shop in Fort Lauderdale, is the guy left with the actual job of stretching the envelope, breaking the plate-glass partition lining the air-conditioned, elevator-music, marble-floored, comfort zone, and otherwise dealing with the vicissitudes of reality. If karma is a bitch, reality can be a hard mistress.

"Hey buddy..."

That's the present me whom Ozzy at Eagle Riders is addressing. "Hi" I offer, trying to look pleasantly nonchalant, while softly and silently berating past me for my predicament. "Did they tell you that we don't have the Sportster, so you're getting a Harley Switchback?" Sadly, yes they had. I'm desperately trying to convince myself that transitioning from a 330 pound Vespa GTS 287cc bike with an automatic continuously variable transmission, to a 718 pound Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback 1,690cc bike with a 6-speed manual transmission is within some realm of possibility. I'm frantically rummaging around the attic of my psyche searching for my inner madly irrational optimist.

I'm led out back and introduced to the blue beast.
I get a thirty second tutorial on the idiosyncrasies of Harleys. Big ignition switch on the tank with a secret locking mechanism, separate left and right turn signal switches, a kill switch that isn't prominent and red, a suicide kickstand without an ignition interlock, and the starter switch that doubles as hazard flashers. How difficult could it be? Over the next couple of hours I'll find that every other time I attempt the starting sequence I'll be just sitting there with a perplexed frowning look, like Marvin the Martian... "there was supposed to be a kaboom..."

Conchscooter rolls effortlessly into the back lot, right on time, with a smile and a warm good-natured greeting. Michael admires my new rental steed and nods appreciatively.
I saddle up, and do my best to look confident.
I must have fooled Michael because in no time at all we hit the road right on schedule at eleven a.m.

Michael takes me out the back way so that I can figure out getting in and out of first gear while avoiding calamity. The learning curve is steep, but the noob doesn't stall, or drop the massive bike. A short stretch south down Federal Highway after a left hand turn at a traffic light, then a long right sweeper onto westbound I-595.

Once the Harley is rolling, it sheds its weight and becomes much more familiar. A twist of the throttle produces a deep growl to accompany the acceleration. 'I could get used to this' I muse.

Doing 60-ish once we hit the back roads, I hit the trusty control on my Sena and ask Siri to play some Colin James. Rocket to the Moon matched my mood perfectly as I thundered down the highway without a care in the world and a big goofy grin on my face.
Conchscooter leads the way. At the first intersection on southbound 27, when the light goes green, I stall. Shit. Clutch-in, hit the starter. "Ba-room boom, boom, boom..." Clearly I didn't downshift enough. I hit the shift and "thunk". 'Idjit!!' I think. And I stall again.

Lesson one: you can't get a Harley rolling in third, or second gear. Oh... and lesson two: first gear goes "ka-chunk" not just "thunk".

Amazingly, the 18-wheeler on my tail never delivered the air horn blast I fully expected as my due. He may have been killing himself laughing and was too distracted to reach for the horn.

Michael takes us down a side road off the Tamiami Trail leading south into the Everglades. Some ways in we roll to a stop on a patch of sandy grass. The attraction here is a pair of alligators.
A six footer lounging on the bank, and another in the water with just the top of its head above the waterline.
Being this close to a pair of indolent stone-cold killers in the wild might stretch some people's comfort zones, but hell, I got here on a big-ass Harley. I've busted loose. Rock on 'gator buddies, rock on! These are not the last wild alligators we'll see on our swamp tour.

Our next stop is an improbable delight. A nice little art gallery tucked away in the swamp.

Naturally, following the 'when in Rome' principle of leisure travel, we park the bikes on the side of the parking lot where an enormous alligator is sunning itself.
The gallery sells the works of Clyde Butcher. He is a large-format old school photographer who has dedicated himself to capturing the natural beauty of Florida's wetlands for all to see and enjoy. If Steve Williams were here with us, we would have never been able to tear him away.

At my suggestion, Michael and I switch bikes. The next destination is a bite to eat and still a ways off.
The Triumph Bonneville is another motorcycling icon and it's truly a privilege for me to experience a second amazing bike on this, my first real shifty-motorcycle experience. If the Harley-Davidson is a hulking freeway bomber, the Triumph Bonneville is a lithe Spitfire. The engine revs easily and delivers instant torque to the slick gearbox. This is a bike built for twisties.

Michael shared his impression of the Harley on his blog, here.
In due course, and without incident (although a one point we did have to avoid a migrating turtle making a mad turtle-dash for the other side of the road) we made it to a charming little Cuban joint out where the pavement ends at the Gulf Coast.
Michael and I shared some traditional Cuban fare and a drink or three (Michael prudently had a couple of diet cokes and I had an ice-cold beer). We lounged and chatted as bad-ass biker dudes are wont to do.

Before we knew it, it was time to shove-off. And this is where I made a serious mis-calculation. I think I have to blame Michael. At some point, Michael commented that he would have to stop for gas before hitting the Everglades.

Here is Michael prudently topping up the Bonneville.
Michael casually mentioned that I was lucky the Harley had a massive gas tank and that I could tour for countless miles. That's why I was taking pictures while Michael pumped.

As we were leaving Chokoloskee, I glanced at the fuel gauge and confidently reported a quarter tank. Michael said we'd stop at Miccosuki for gas. I kind of knew where that was (Alligator Alley and Snake Road), and did some rough calculus that indicated I could probably nurse the Harley all the way there.

Talk about wild baseless optimism coupled with a questionable and far too casual read of the fuel gauge.

During the carefree portion of the ride, the skies became threatening. Michael pulled over, and as the consummate British gentleman he is, offered me a brand new set of Frog Togs rain gear. By this time I had fully morphed into my new-to-me bad-ass-cruiser-dude persona, and so obviously I declined his generous and very considerate offer.

When the heavens eventually opened up and drenched the landscape, we rode on, content for the wet relief from the late afternoon Florida sun.

About the time I was drying up, so was the Harley. I glanced at the fuel gauge. Gosh that seemed lower than I felt it should be. Alligator Alley: definitely not an alley; definitely no alligators; definitely no gas stations either. Other than Miccosuki, that is. When the LCD display came on, cryptically indicating "R: 31" it took a mile or two for me to figure out that it was trying to tell me that my range was, by the time I figured it out, 29 miles. And there began a miserable countdown I won't soon forget.

Michael was riding sweep, because I think his calculus indicated that my burly Harley was doomed to run dryer than a bone in the Nevada desert long before we reached Miccosuki. 24, 23, 20, 18... though the sun was low in the afternoon sky, sweat was building on the back of my neck and trickling down my back. The Boy Scout side of me was tsk-tsk-tsking away, dancing images of my spare touring gas can before my mind's eye... I began to juggle scenarios in my mind... 15, 14, 12, 10... I'd see a sign looming and pray for that gas symbol and a number that fit within my dwindling range number.
No such luck... 9... and then the Harley hit me in the gut: "Low Range" it said. That meant it had given up, and saw no point in attempting to calculate the precise moment the bike would sputter and cough and coast onto the shoulder, leaving me to suffer the hot dusty gales of passing eighteen wheelers, as unseen alligators passed the word through the swamp "prime rib in the Alley, boys".

Unaccountably, I made it. Never have I been so happy to see a miserable fuel stop out in the middle of nowhere. At the intersection of Alligator Alley and Snake Road. Ordinarily not the description of a place you'd want to be. But it was gasoline heaven to me and my Harley.
The day's adventure was coming to a close.

Here we were, with two incredible motorcycles, full tanks of gas, and Snake Road winding away to the North. Now Snake Road is no Tail of the Dragon, but it is listed as a worthy riding road with requisite twisties. Michael sent me off ahead, like you would send a panting six-year-old past the gates and into the wonders of Disney World.
Snake Road is definitely twisty, in a land of ramrod straight orthogonal roadways, that is. Snake Road is a good test for getting texting drivers into the ditch, and perfectly safe for riders who haven't figured out the strange black art of countersteering a motorcycle.

Our Snake Road experience behind us, we hopped back on Alligator Alley and parted ways all too soon, as Michael swung south to the Keys, and I headed East into the tumult of South Florida rush hour insanity.

Thanks to Michael of Conchscooter fame, and Ozzy and the rest of the crew at Eagle Riders of Fort Lauderdale, I am now a bad-ass biker-dude, and fiercely proud of it. Sky's the limit, baby!!

Friday, February 20, 2015

How size matters to me, or the Slippery Slope

It's still the dead of winter.

My Vespa sits comatose on life support, shrouded in its OEM cover.  The only signs of its dormant existence are the intense glare of the reflective safety markings bouncing the car's headlights back at me, and the soft glow of the battery tender's intravenous drip keeping the battery fit for eventual duty.

That doesn't mean one little bit that very interesting things aren't happening at the ScootCommute.  They're just happening deep below the surface. Like the way that tectonic plates move and grind.  With the potential to change the landscape.

Right now I'm on a mission.  Wednesday night I was cruising along at more than 400 miles an hour, 34,000 feet above the ground.  I was heading south. It was half-past eleven, thirty minutes to midnight, and the land of perpetual summer was slipping by silently below, as Fort Lauderdale crept ever closer on the seatback monitor.  Just Susan and I, and hundreds of other anonymous fellow travelers escaping for a week of sun, and respite from the bone-wracking cold of the Great White North.

One thing that has held my mind in sharp focus these last few days is the Harley Davidson Sportster 883 I've rented for a day.
Well, not this one in particular.  I ran into this one in the men's department at Macy's in the Aventura Mall, of all places.  Until I saw it in the flesh, I was concerned it was a huge bike.  In fact it's only a little longer, and a little skinnier (yes skinnier) than my Vespa GTS 300, and not that much heavier.

That's right folks, just when you thought you had me safely pegged, and permanently pigeon-holed, as the completely dedicated Vespa guy, the urbane scooter commuter, you need to do a little re-think.

Have I been harboring a secret bad-ass cruiser-dude alter-ego?

Be warned, your host is a dreaded Gemini shape-shifter.  Two sides to this coin, my friends, and the coin is set to flip.

There will be more on this topic, much more.

Wait till I share what's in store for this coming Monday.  Crazy stuff.  Wild adventure!
The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.