We Harley riders like to tell you that our bikes have “personality.” We especially like to tell you this when they break down and strand us out in the middle of nowhere. As mine did today.
Ah, did not know I had a(nother) motorcycle, eh? It’s a long story. A three-part story actually, which you’ll read some day if I ever could get the pictures off my old computer that died so bad that it won’t even turn on now. It’s on my list...
But I digress.
Today was a gorgeous day for a ride. I didn’t have to go up to Brewton, but it seemed like a good excuse to roll the bike out of the garage, as if I needed one. “Work” completed (hah), I was on the way home, taking the long way/scenic route as usual. We’re talking back roads. And I was just cruising along, not a care in the world…fat, dumb and happy, singing out loud.
Going down that long, lonesome hiway
Bound for the mountains and the…
Then the engine died.
Crikey! Or words to that effect.
Oddly, the engine didn’t completely quit. It kept running at idle or just a little above, but would not accept any throttle (an important piece of troubleshooting information that would come in handy). And it kept backfiring. And all my electrical devices were dead. It was like somebody sort of shut the key off. But not.
I stopped in the driveway of a farm, a million miles from nowhere. The bike continued to idle, and I did not shut it off, oh no! Over the years, I’ve learned this the hard way. When something is wrong and you pull over by the side of the road, DO NOT SHUT THE FRICKEN ENGINE OFF! Believe me, it will *not* restart. Just ask my friends Greg and Chuck about the time I got the “Alternator” light in my Jetta on I-10 and pulled over to the side to look under the hood. Out of habit, I threw it in “Park” and shut the ignition off. As soon as I did, we all three looked at each other with that, “Oh shit,” expression. I screwed up. Coulda just left it running and drove to the nearest exit to check things out, but noooooooooooooooooo. I had to strand us on the Interstate for a couple of hours. I am moron.
Anyway, lesson learned, as I said.
On the Harley today, I did not see anything obviously wrong, nor did I expect to. It was an electrical problem to be sure. But what? I knew there was a convenience store about five miles ahead, so I limped on down the road at about 15 mph, idling in second gear, which is all I could get out of it. Many things go through your mind at a time like this. Mainly, how much is it gonna cost me to flatbed this sonovabitch piece of junk home from here? $100? Probably.
Coughing and spitting and popping, I made it to the convenience store. As luck would have it there was another motorcycle parked outside. Turned out that it belonged to the slightly scary-looking bestudded and “gauged” teenage clerk inside with the unnaturally black hair. I switched the bike off and, sure enough, it would not restart. When I turned the key back on, no juice at all. It was almost as if…thinking now…the battery…had…completely…died. But that usually doesn’t happen. Plus it’s a relatively new battery.
I pulled the left sidecover off, exposing said battery. On the inside of the cover there was a little decal with a diagram that showed the negative cable from the battery and the location where it attached to the engine. Why this diagram is there, I have no idea. (Or…maybe I do now.) When I looked at the connector post on the back of the engine where the negative battery cable was supposed to be, it was empty – nothing attached to it. What the…?
Probing a little further, I found the wayward negative cable. The terminal end had cracked cleanly off, and then the cable had fallen down among some others that are clumped there between the engine and the frame. Harleys do vibrate a bit. Even modern ones. They’ve rubber-mounted the engine now to keep the vibrations away from the rider, but the engine itself still jumps around like a hardware store paint shaker.
So it was just a broken electrical connection. All breakdowns should be this easy! On the other hand, I had not brought along even one lousy tool, not a pair of pliers or a screwdriver, not even my trusty Leatherman which I usually never leave home without, except for today. As I said, I am a moron.
The store manager, a short, heavyset, pleasant woman named Kathy came outside for a smoke. She was about my age. And she noticed me standing there over my motorcycle, scratching my head.
“Got a problem?” she asked.
“Well, it is a Harley…” I cracked. “And it is broke.”
She chuckled. “Is there anything I can do to help?” She came over and bent down over the engine, probing in a way that said it wasn’t the first dead Harley she’d ever troubleshot by the side of the road. I explained what had happened, and showed her the naked terminal post. She fished around for the cable like she knew what she was doing. And to my surprise she discovered it without me having to point it out.
“Well, what do you need, hon?”
“A length of wire would do it, I suppose.” All convenience stores these days have a selection of automotive supplies. I figured that they’d have something I could make work. I pointed inside the store. “I’ll find something in there. I needed to stop for a cold drink anyway.” I was very affecting an air of Ah can do this ma-self, ma’am, thankyouverymuch.
Kathy wasn’t having it. She marched me inside with an odd sense of urgency. She disappeared into a back office, then came right back out with some old computer power cords they weren’t using anymore. In her hands were a pair of scissors and a razor knife. “Will this work?”
Man, I laughed. I didn’t know what to say. Of course it would work! It was exactly what I needed. So I sat down at a table and in a couple of minutes had fashioned me a new wire that I was able to splice between the old, broken one and a (different) grounding point on the engine. I knew it would get me home. I went outside, hooked everything together and the bike started right up as if it had never missed a beat. I had been there less than fifteen minutes, total. I killed the engine and went back inside.
“I don’t know how to thank you, ma’am,” I said, sincerely. (Actually, I do, and I will.)
”Bahhh, don’t worry about it, hon,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’ve watched plenty of Harleys get worked on in plenty of strange places. Things are always vibrating loose and breaking on ‘em. You just be careful riding home.”
The absolute, incredible kindness and generosity of complete strangers is one thing that constantly amazes and delights me about people. I did not know this Kathy from Adam. Yet she jumped right in to solve my little problem as if it were her own…as if I were 2,000 light-years from home, not 20.
One of the nice things about being a motorcyclist is that you get to interact with people in interesting ways. People still seem to be drawn to and friendly to motorcyclists for some reason. And when the motorcycle you ride is a Harley, you often get to interact with them under…well, unusual…circumstances. (Although having said, that, Harleys are waaaaaay more reliable than they used to be.)
In my short, sweet life, I have had far more rewarding and positive experiences with people than bad ones. And it is these positive experiences that keep me coming back for more (or is it “going out for more?"), seeking out all the good Kathys of the world so I can talk to them, even just for a little bit.
I love people. What a dreadful place this planet would be without them.