She held up a yellow leaf. Although we were sitting outside in the sun and warmth of the brief yet satisfying Oregon summer, she felt the need to herald the coming of winter with a visual aid. I snatched it from her hand, crumpled it up, and tossed it away. Had I perpetrated this rudeness with most people, I’d be in trouble. But my friend knew that it was symbolic and perhaps a little therapeutic, pretending to be preventing the changing of the seasons--not unlike a four-year-old using the power of a nightlight to ward off evil. Motorcycle season had tipped past the halfway point, and I didn’t need to see a greenless leaf to remind me of it.
A strange motorcycling summer this has been. It is the first time in decades I have not spent these warmer months on a Harley Davidson. Monty, my long time riding comrade and general instigator of much of trouble I get into, announced that he and I were going to ride from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide using the off-road trails. It would take a couple months and we needed to ride, gasp, non-Harleys. So, in an unprecedented spasm of practicality, we both acquired dual-sport motorcycles. He lives in Arizona so it was more than a little strange when we had this phone call:
Monty: “Okay, I got an off-road bike.”
“A few days ago.”
“That’s funny since I also just got one today.”
“Really? What did you get?”
“An ’04 Kawasaki KLR.
Silence. Then, “Yeah, me too. Exactly the same bike.”
Now, we had looked at Beemers and KTMs and Hondas. But we both independently settled for the cheaper Japanese 650cc single cylinder dual sport—a bike designed to run on and off road; doing neither as impressively as bikes designed for a specific purpose but doing both adequately enough for our purposes. I mean, we are a couple of 50+ year-old Neanderthals with mileage well over six-figures on our American motorcycle icons. Now we’re dispensing with caution, and a little dignity, and climbing onto these skinny, lightweight, brightly coloured, buzzing, metric motorcycles. My Harley looks at me from the corner of the garage, pouting and unimpressed since it has spent most of this summer lingering in the garage while I have been reacquainting myself with a type of motorcycle I hadn’t ridden since a peanut farmer from Georgia occupied the White House.
My Harley weighs in at about 900 pounds. My KLR weighs in at just over 300 pounds if I don’t kick the mud out from under the fenders. One sits in a Harley. One sits atop a KLR. This little Kawasaki has one of the highest centers of gravity of any bike I’ve ever ridden. With the springy, long, off-road suspension it was a bit like some schizophrenic engineer shoehorned a motor into a pogo stick.
The thing is, the KLR is just damn fun to ride. Being light, it is easy to park and nimble in traffic. The single cylinder engine is somewhat comical in it’s ability to move the bike and my rather American heft, but when it gets its groove on, it can scoot. Perhaps that’s a little generous. But the KLR is a monument to compromise. That light weight comes at a price: a small, somewhat wheezy engine. Frankly, the bike is built much differently than my overbuilt, under-engineered Harleys. The KLR has been on the market for years, but Kawasaki is loath to make some very necessary improvements. (If Harley still built bikes the way they did in 1988, they would have gone where Indian Motorcycles went in 1953: into oblivion.) The KLR has a cult following that makes the Apple computer fanatics look as underwhelmed as a credit card customer service rep. The KLR riders don’t care how they do it in Japan, ‘cause here in ‘merica we take what were given and get ‘er done. Ever since the KLR came out in the late ‘80s, the balance chain tensioner has been prone to failure-the type of failure that sends chunks of metal throughout the engine, rendering it into something wholly suitable for little more than a 100 pound projectile. The Faithful have engineered a “doohicky” replacement worthy of the Curiosity Mars rover. The carburetor has been leaned out to the point it might have trouble giving a Briggs & Stratton two-horsepower mower enough power to knock down a blade of dead grass. Again, this somewhat psycho cycle sect has come up with a modification that cost less than a newspaper (remember those?) that bypasses EPA settings (Shuuuuush. It’s for off road use only. They would never do it for a bike ridden on the street.) and gets the bike some freaky juice. Frankly, the list goes on: The petcock chokes with half a tank of gas left; the brakes feel like they make the bike go faster; starting the bike on hot days takes a degree in thermodynamics and a mystical amulet acquired from the nearest voodoo priestess. Such idiosyncrasies keep the tourists away in droves; yet still, many are called to ride the KLR, but few are chosen.
In the past several decades I have chosen to see the West from the saddle of my Harley. From my bike I have seen lightening strike the ground 360 degrees around me on Highway 90 through Montana, I have ridden in heat so bad my seat burned “the boys” more than McDonald’s coffee spilled in my lap, I have seen snow come so suddenly I had to follow the tire tracks of semis to get over a mountain pass, I have seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate…etc. (Apologies to Philip K. Dick) The first time I saw the marvel that is Yosemite National Park, I was astride my black, American-made, iron steed; and that experience combined with everything listed above has defined me as a motorcyclist. However, the first time I saw Mono Lake I was also astride my Harley. When I rode to meet up with some friends camping along the lake I damn near killed myself flogging that overloaded iron beast along a couple miles of gravel and sand. Fun on a Harley ends when the pavement ends.
The first time I took the KLR off-road I quickly dropped it on its side. Got my weight shifted wrong and next thing I knew, I couldn’t keep the bike under me. After a quick check for witnesses I might have to eliminate, I righted the bike with little more effort than picking up my Schwinn. It fired right up and found its way to the pavement. After a quick inspection, I was back in the dirt. It became obvious that this was what this bike was built for. It is a “what’s over there?” bike, because it will get you over there to see. Suddenly, every gravel road that I had blinded myself to on the Harley was now a ticket to adventure. Rather than surfing Reddit or searching eBay for velvet paintings of Chihuahuas in tutus, I am now on Google Earth looking to see what road ends where and how much gravel I can find. The faster this KLR goes in the dirt, the more stable it becomes. The KLR will slide around a corner and rocket up to fifth gear without a complaint. I have feared water-cooled motorcycles since they came out—yeah, I’m that old—but the KLR has kept the temp gauge at a reasonable point even when running it up to redline in 95 degree heat. After punishing the beast on the crappiest of roads, it vaults up to 70 mph on the highway and wrings out about 65 miles per gallon. After I pulled off the aftermarket racing exhaust designed to produce more deafness per gallon than any other device ever made, I found the stock exhaust is quiet enough that I can go through Finley Wildlife Refuge and not have the birders hurling all nine volumes of The Birds of the Western Palearctic at me.
Monty has also reported that he has been flogging his KLR across the open desert of Arizona with great success. One of the things we both learned independently is the need for a proper full-face helmet. One does not just do 50 mph down a gravel road and not expect facial scarring. My epiphany came when a stinging creature of indeterminate species slipped past my small windscreen and stabbed me in the face. Twice. Judging by the pain, I was sure it was a flying scorpion black widow cobra. It was probably a dandelion spore.
Aside from being able to take you places where safety gear is a must, these bikes are loved for the uncarved block of motorcycle functionality they are. Newsgroups and websites are rife with DIY modifications that range from ingenious to “hold my beer and watch this.” I personally am adding surplus ammo cans as saddlebags. Rugged, cheap, and all testosterone.
Being a lifelong macho Harley rider is not something one simply walks away from. My heartbeat will always sync up with the rumble of a V-twin, and my neck will instinctively turn my head in the direction of that rumble when it comes down the street. But the fact is my tolerance of other Harley riders has been…strained. When I am parked at a rest stop on my Harley, I am starting to dread the inevitable congregation of other Harleys that assemble when they see a lone member of their pack. When I’m out on my bike, thousands of miles from home, I’m not too chatty. Frankly, I’d rather be left the hell alone. But, the Harley subculture has dictated that one must converse with every other Harley rider one encounters and pretend to share some bond that unites us by blood until we die. There are times during the subtle and not so subtle penis-size contest that inevitably comes when two bikers share a rest stop (male riders do this, too) that I want to just say, “I think Romney is an asshole, gays should be allowed to marry, and corporate welfare has done more to mess up this economy than any Mexican waiting for work by a Home Depot. Are we done now?” Back not so long ago Harley’s reliability was so bad we all needed each other just to get home. The spare parts I carried belonged to any other rider who needed them. When you saw a Harley—actually, any rider—on the side of the road you made sure they were okay. There was a pre-cell phone ethic that required that you asked. That ethic is essentially gone. I watch Harley rider after Harley rider ride past someone stranded on the side of the road. These people who wouldn’t slow down to make sure I have water when I’m in the desert between Reno and Vegas want to pretend to be my friends when they see me at a rest stop? We used to need and care about each other. Now it seems to be all about the chrome.
The dual sport riders seem to be a much less organized and more diverse group of souls. I’ve rarely been able to predict how a conversation with a dual-sport rider is going to go. They might ignore me. They might wanna ride with me for a couple states. Either way they don’t look down their noses at my trunk made from an old cooler, mounted with bungee cords on the back of my KLR.
Monty and I are a year or so away from loading up our coolers and ammo cans for about four fortnights of fun cutting a line south to north across this land. Life keeps happening when we try to lay down plans. But we see it as a chance to get to know our new steeds a little better before hurling ourselves hundreds of miles away from civilization, only to find ourselves wondering how to change out a head gasket on the side of the trail with a Leatherman tool, a condom, and a zip tie. Not to mention polishing up riding skills left behind with our adolescence. As I segue into the last half of my life, I don’t bounce as much as I used to. Honing the skill-set that keeps the bike rubber side down is as important as my daily dose of ibuprofen and sarcasm.
For now I spend my spare time inhaling the dust kicked up by my KLR’s knobby tires on roads suited for jeeps and goats. The waning warm of summer is not to be wasted on something with more than two wheels—even if it isn’t a Harley. I’m looking forward to seeing the trees explode almost audibly with oranges and reds this fall—even if it is a harbinger of the coming graying of the Oregon skies. However, this winter I have a motorcycle in my garage adapted not only for when the pavement ends, but also for when the rain begins.