Back on the horse

I once lusted after chrome, blacktop and painted gas tanks. I longed to throttle down country lanes and see the tachometer blistering toward the red zone. Something deep inside my younger self craved a two-wheeled ticket to freedom, a magic carpet into America’s unknown corners. Back then, I wanted – no needed – a Harley Davidson Sportster.

I was young, reckless, feckless and nursing a serious “Easy Rider” addiction. Though I had only a year of college under my belt, I’d already done graduate work in Dennis Hopper 101 (may Mr. Hopper forever rattle the cages of whichever afterlife he’s currently haunting). Strap on the sleeping bag, fill the teardrop gas tank with hundreds of hundreds, get the fluid levels up to optimum and point it back to the Southwest, I told myself. The open road and the American dream were waiting out there somewhere.

I should quickly mention that the word “gang” never entered that post-adolescent daydream; the German helmet remained safely tucked in my trousers; and I was never out to bruise or batter. Patches, colors and leather would never be part of my personal ride. What I was looking for was the cross-country quest, a modern-day Odyssey over America’s dirty back roads, beyond the open horizon and through the rickety doors of greasy spoons and saloons.

There was only one minor problem – I had no Sportster and no money for one. The other hitch was that I was little more than a kid. Plus, my only motorcycle prowess consisted of Evel Knieveling my uncle’s moped off a plywood jump, through 6 to 8 inches of air and into a wrecked heap on the driveway.

But I was determined. In the name of saddling up, I dug deep and went knee deep. For the glory of American steel, I took a job roughnecking on the south Texas oil patch, and I was sure that after a few short months I could buy my Hog with a pocketful of easy money. I would rumble back into the college quad, armed with the wisdom of the road and greeted by peals of ecstasy from sorority row. I even mapped my route, marking big, deliberate “X’s” on Austin, New Orleans and Graceland. Dollywood would have to wait.

But, I’m afraid Harley had the last laugh. Those brutal summer months passed more slowly than bubbling crude. In the end, my back was crippled, my bank account was broken and the $3,000 used Sportster, the one I’d spied in San Antonio, stayed on the lot. Instead of rolling into town atop the thud of an American-made muffler, I stepped onto the concourse with a plane ticket bought on borrowed dollars.

And, yes, that dream died that summer. I quickly gave up on motorcycles, left the great New Orleans road trip to Captain America and Billy and put my first real bike – a $500 steel beauty with cranks and pedals instead of gas tank and muffler – on the plastic. Shortly thereafter I pedaled off the blacktop and haven’t looked back since. I owe it all to Texas.

I do still catch myself staring wistfully at yellow-tanked Springers and Sportsters shrouded in blue flame. And I crave speed and the open road as much now as when I first folded that moped in half. But the truth is that my current bike regimen is a horse of a different color. Most Labor Day Weekends find me taking my two wheels and high-tailing it out of town. Blame it on the numbers, the noise or the collective numbness, but the motorcycle rally has never been my favorite.

That said, I started to rethink my posture on the Iron Horse a couple years ago. On the return trip to Durango, the fam and I happened to stop at the True Grit Café in Ridgway and tripped over that long-forgotten daydream.

We stepped through the swinging doors of the burger joint only to be greeted by the kind of Labor Day crowds that pack restaurants the country over. Rachael, Skyler and I faced either a 40-minute wait or three seats at the bar next to a two sets of leathers. We opted for speed and took our chances with the handlebar mustaches.

It wasn’t long before we realized that these were not hardened gang members – their only colors were the cheddar and green chiles on their burgesas. In fact, those two buddies from the Front Range were the first to introduce.

Just like us, they were out in search of the ultimate ride. The only differences were our bikes, my embarrassing absence of facial hair and the fact that they were highly paid professionals with handsome 401Ks waiting at home. When the exchange was over, they left the waitress a handsome tip, said thank you’s all around, shook our hands and said it had been a pleasure.

“Enjoy the ride,” one of the bikers said as he ambled out toward his Sportster. The pair then took their own advice, kicking their V-twin engines to life and motoring back out onto open road.

– Will Sands