Up at the hunting camp there is a guy named Billy-Mac. He’s the general caretaker of the entire property…retired from a long career of mechanical work. The guy can fix anything. Literally, he’s amazing. And Billy-Mac owns two beautiful motorcycles: a silver 2004 BMW R-1150 RT and a 2000 Honda Valkyrie Interstate. Both are serious road bikes on which Billy-Mac has put many miles. He mostly rides with his brother Wayne, who has an identical BMW, only in black. They go on these long, epic, “Let’s see how many states we can hit in two weeks!” type of trips.
BMW motorcycles are renowned, always have been, and have a legendary ability as “sport-touring” bikes. Compared to the lumbering locomotives like the Harley Electra Glide and the Honda Gold Wing, the BMW is lithe and agile while carrying nearly as much “stuff” in its saddlebags. They’re for the guy who enjoys riding as well as traveling. BMW’s are bikes you can hop on in New York and easily ride to, oh, California while only stopping for gas. I’d never ridden a BMW but had always wanted to.
Honda Valkyrie Interstate
(The above pictures are only representative of, but exactly like the bikes we rode. I wanted to get pictures of "our" bikes but...well, I'll explain that below.)
When I first met him, Billy-Mac was proudly showing me his bikes when I casually let it slip that I used to own a Harley Sportster once upon a time. At that, he brightened noticeably. “We’ll have to go riding sometime!” he said enthusiastically. I agreed, thinking it was one of those far-off things that never come to pass.
And last weekend was “some time.” I’d flown the Boss up to the camp, and the he was off on a dove hunt. It was one of those picture-perfect, cool days I love so much, and I had nothing to do. Billy tossed me a helmet as he pulled the bikes out of the garage. “Let’s go!”
I was a little nervous. Okay, a lot nervous. Getting from the camp up to the main highway requires a seven-mile trek up a winding dirt road. I hadn’t ridden in a long time - ten years or so, save for one short jaunt on Jacob’s little 250cc putt-putt bike (don’t tell him I called it that). I wasn’t looking forward to taking that big bastard BMW up any dirt road as my initial, getting-to-know-you ride.
As predicted, the trip up the dirt road was harrowing. First of all, it was like riding on a two-inch layer of talcum powder. The tires kept slippin’ and a-slidin’. The BMW is tall and top-heavy. The brakes are so touchy that a one-finger squeeze on the lever or a little tap of the toe could (and would!) lock the wheels. I kept thinking, Dear God, please do not let me drop this bike. After a while, like about mile 3.5 I began to loosen up a little and relax and let my riding instincts take over. Nice bikey…nice bikey…
Fortunately…miraculously, I did make it up to the pavement without falling down. At which point, before I could even catch my breath, Billy-Mac speeds off southbound, leaving me in the considerable dust. I punched the throttle and took off, trying to catch him. We spent the next hour tearing around a bunch of back-country roads in central Alabama. They were just a blur to me. Every time I dared to look down at the speedometer it never indicated less than 70. And me, on an unfamiliar bike, on unfamiliar roads, behind a guy I’ve never ridden with. I was working very hard trying to make friends with the big BMW while staying up with Billy-Mac while not doing anything really stupid in the process.
As luck would have it, Billy-Mac is an excellent rider: Steady and predictable and smooth; very easy to ride behind. Just fast. Very fast. I trusted that he wouldn’t get us in over our heads. I mean, more than I already was. And, thank the Lord, the roads were empty on this particular Sunday afternoon.
In the town of Greenville we met up with brother Wayne. Fed and refueled, we struck out again, this time with Wayne leading, me in the “slot” and Billy-Mac bringing up the rear. More back roads, we settle in at a nice, comfortable 65 mph. I happily think to myself, “Ahh, so the younger brother is the slower of the two.”
And no sooner are those words formed in my brain, Wayne nails his throttle and takes off like a rocket. In my rearview mirror I can see Billy-Mac coming up from behind in a hurry. He’s on the gas hard. I shake my head and sigh. Oh, maaaaaan. Here we go… I stomp the shifter down two gears, grit my teeth and open my throttle fully. I catch up to Wayne, who is hauling ass. I steal a glance down at the speedo: 100 mph. Lord, are these guys crazy?! They’re old men – old enough to be my, well, older brothers. But they ride like friggin’ teenagers!
Mercifully, Wayne finally slows. I start breathing again. My heart comes down out of my throat and slows in rate from parakeet to astronaut-at-shuttle-launch. It feels like we’re just crawling. I look down: 65! And I laugh to myself. After 100 mph, 65 feels like 40.
We pass through a little town…more like a settlement, really. At least he knows the roads… Once clear, he nails it again. Oh, jeez… When I look down this time, I see 110 on the speedometer. Steady 110. Not good. I have not ridden a motorcycle like this in…well, ever. Okay, maybe in my crazy youth, decades ago. Hell, my last bike was a damn Harley fercryinoutloud! I can clearly see the newspaper headline: “Three motorcyclists killed in bizarre accident near Montgomery, body parts everywhere, no brain matter found.” How do I get myself into these situations? I’m a helicopter pilot but I’m gonna get killed in a motorcycle wreck!
I would like to tell you about the BMW – how it handles and rides and shifts and feels and sounds…but I cannot. I would like to tell you about the scenery in this part of Alabama, but I cannot. Most of the time on the bike I had my eyes tightly closed and was just holding on for dear life, waiting for the inevitable death and destruction. I wanted to take pictures…you know, the requisite snaps of me and the guys smiling and leaning on the bikes at some picturesque place. No dice. The only time these guys stopped was to let me pee (at least that’s what I told them), and only because I begged. And Wayne never even got off his bike. These boys are serious riders.
(Now, it must be said here that we weren’t doing anything, um, really crazy or stupid. The speeds at which we were traveling were probably well within Billy-Mac and Wayne’s capabilities. I was just overwhelmed because I hadn’t ridden in so long and had never been on that particular bike before and didn’t know the roads. Still…I did think that 110 was a little too fast.)
We were pushing darkness and low on fuel again. It was the first day back off daylight savings time and we’d gotten a late start. Wayne slowed and pulled over at a proverbial fork in the road. We’d be splitting up and he’d be heading back down to Greenville; Billy-Mac and I would shoot back to the camp, arriving right at sunset if we hurried.
“You guys are nuts!” I said as I took off my helmet.
“We may be old, but we haven’t lost our grip,” Wayne chuckled, making little throttle-motions with his hand.
“Yes you have, on your sanity!” I said. They both laughed, although I wasn’t really joking.
“We don’t normally ride that fast with strangers,” Billy-Mac said sheepishly. “But I knew you could ride when you made up the dirt road without falling.”
I’m not one of these “need for speed” guys. Really. I’m no daredevil or risk-taker. I’ve made it to age 52 without killing myself or breaking too many bones. I’d like to see how many more years are left. Yet I keep finding myself, quite unintentionally (I think) in these strange, kinda crazy, “This is stupid/I know I shouldn’t be doing this…” situations. And you don’t know the half of it. Because like I said, there are stories we guys don’t tell. The above should be one of them, but I felt the need to confess. However, there are some that I won’t even share here. But I’ll say this: Chances of me making 53? Not good.