Ralph Couey

Ralph Couey
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions

About Me

My photo

Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 63 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Motorcycles and Hard Economics

The Object of My Dreams and Obsessions
Taken by Ralph Couey in Fort Valley, Virginia

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey
Picture and written content

Ownership, or more accurately, the relationship with a motorcycle is unique in a person's experience.  It is transportation stripped to its bare essences, and thus a journey is less one of physical necessity and more of a spiritual exaltation.  As I have written ad nauseum, the hours and miles spent in this kind of communion are priceless for those who truly understand the essence of the ride.

But, like all things, this comes at a price.

Motorcycles are a different animal than cars.  They require a great deal more attention to details such as tire pressures and oil change intervals than do cars.  Mainly because when something breaks on a car, the owner is still inside a steel cage wrapped up in a cocoon of seat belt and airbags.  When something breaks on a motorcycle, it can, and does, result in very mortal outcomes.  Safety requires upkeep, which requires $$$.

My mechanical skills are limited, as are my collection of tools.  Hence, when my bike needs something, I turn to my local factory-trained neighborhood wrench.  This is especially true in that time of year when winter is finally driven back into it's dark, cold cave for another year.  The sun warms the air, the snow disappears, the spring rains wash the road of sand and salt.  And after months of painful dormancy, motorcycles hit the roads.

After sitting in the garage all winter (and especially if the bike sat outside), there are tasks that need to be done in order to make sure that the only thing the rider need worry about are the other drivers who have become blind to two-wheeled conveyances.  The oil needs to be changed, the tires, brakes, cables, and wires need inspection.  Every two years or so, the brake, clutch, and radiator fluids need to be swapped out.  And then there are the occasional mechanical items that need attention.  For me, this means a new front tire and a new clutch.  The mechanical bill is going to be substantial, and the labor costs (at $90 per hour) effectively double that.  But it's my very vulnerable butt on that seat, so I don't really mind spending the dough.  

Riding saves me money over the long term.  Over the last three years, the motorcycle has reduced my fuel costs by over $2,000 per year, which more than pays for the repairs and maintenance.

Thankfully, now that the federal government has an honest-to-Abe budget, (and not just another continuing resolution) agencies have begun to release overtime hours to deal with the accumulated backlog of work.  Giving up some off-days (much less painful when it's 15 degrees and snowy outside) has enabled me to accumulate some extra money to shower upon the motorcycle.  However, timing has been difficult.  After a three-day tease of 70-degree days, winter rebounded with a 10-inch fall of snow.  Now it will be necessary to wait for this slug of white stuff to melt, and a good rain or two to cleanse the street surfaces before I can safely navigate the streets.  The good news is that meteorologists are broadly hinting that this is likely winter's last act of vengeance before the delights of spring settle in.

Spring is a rebirth.  Earth awakens, turns green, and populates the hillsides with the brilliant colors of wildflowers.  The very air changes from the edge of a knife, to a soft caress, restoring that love of life within us all.

And there's no place better from which to experience the joy of this new life than from the back of a motorcycle.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why We Riders Go To The Show

Mentally, he's on the road aboard Honda's new Valkyrie.

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Every year, I attend the traveling International Motorcycle Show, lately sponsored by Progressive Insurance.  A big part of my motivation to do this stems from my heartfelt commitment to The Ride, lovingly accumulated over the past 20 years.  The other motivation is rooted in my dislike of the first two months of the year, a period of time I have come to call "The Long Dark Tunnel."  The show hits Washington DC usually in mid-January, thus providing a nice reminder that despite the gloom and cold of Winter, spring, and another riding season is on the approach.

There's a lot to see at these shows.  The major manufacturers display their entire lines, and unlike most dealerships, people are encouraged to swing a leg over and sit on every one.

The criteria a choice for a particular bike is different for every rider.  The first criteria is deciding what kind of riding a person is going to do.  That determines the type of motorcycle to buy.  Sport bikes, the powerful high-speed types commonly referred to as "crotch rockets," sport tourers, almost as fast but designed for the long haul, standards (also called nakeds for the lack of body panels), cruisers, the iconic beefy American design.  Adventure tourers, also called dual sports, which appeal to those who prefer the back woods and trackless deserts along with regular paved surfaces, dirt bikes, basic frame-and-engine designed purely for off-road use, and of course, the big baggers, the touring bikes which carry loads of luggage and every comfort and convenient device ever conceived for motorcycles.

A relatively new design, the trike, has made serious inroads into the marketplace.  There are two types.  The conversion types, manufactured by companies such as Lehman, take existing bikes and convert them to three-wheelers, putting the dualies on the back.  The other type, familiar through the Canadian firm Bombardier, puts the dual wheels on the front.  These provide a transition point for those moving from cars to bikes for the first time.  They also make it easier for those aging folks whose legs are no longer strong enough to hold up a bike, but are not yet willing to give up The Ride.  Also, having three wheels expands the weather parameters into conditions that ordinarily would leave the bike in the garage.

Price point, of course, is the primary driver for this choice.  But the most important factor is the fit.  The rider has to be comfortable, because the focus must be on the road, not on the body's aches, pains, and cramps.  So the act of sitting on the bike can be the point at which the rider accepts or rejects a particular motorcycle.  

You don't so much try out a motorcycle as much as you try one on.  It's a lot like buying a pair of jeans.  You know you're going to wear this thing for a lot of hours, so it better feel good.  Riding positions range from the crouch and crunch of a sport bike, to the more upright posture of the sport tourers, tourers, and standards, to the feet-forward and reclined posture of the cruisers.  Older riders find out that their knees won't take being bent up for long periods of time and they are required to seek out a more relaxed seating position.  Seat height is also crucial because when one rolls to a stop, you have to be able to stand the bike up with one or both feet planted firmly on the ground.

These are all practical matters.  But there is one consideration that sits at the heart of the entire decision process.

Riders all understand the phrase "two wheels feed the soul." There is a spiritual aspect to The Ride which is all but impossible to articulate, but deeply understood nonetheless.  Even within the walls of a convention center, this effect can be seen.

The rider approaches the bike, carefully doing a walk-around.  Putting the bag full of brochures, catalogs, and freebies on the floor, the hands grasp the grips, the leg swings over and the body settles into the seat.  The controls are measured for comfort and control as the eyes scan the gauges.  The bike is leaned upright, and then something amazing happens.  The eyes soften, the face slackens just a bit.  At that moment, the convention center has been replaced by an open road, a clear horizon, and a perfect day with nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there.

This is an exercise in visualization; the search for the answer, "Can I see myself riding this bike?"  This is the decision point.

For most, the connection between rider and machine is more relationship than ownership.  The exact reason for this is a bit hard to understand.  Why is it that a collection of mechanical parts, fluids, and paint gets under a person's skin like this?  We know it happens, but we never question it.  After all, why question euphoria?

A motorcycle show is a great place to mingle with others who share the passion. In a world grown increasingly impersonal, its a place to feel connected, less alone.  

And that's how it should be when a dream is shared.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Favorite Rides: Fort Valley Loop

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Maps from Microsoft Streets and Trips,
and Google Maps
160 miles
3 hours
US29, US211, US11, Edinburg Gap Rd., Ft. Valley Rd., VA55, VA626.
This enjoyable jaunt takes in some beautiful Virginia countryside with a couple of history lessons thrown in.
This run starts in the parking lot of the Manassas National Battlefield Park visitors center.  This large park is the site of two major engagements during the Civil War.  In July 1861, public pressure was strong for a march to Richmond, the Confederate capital, to quickly end the war.  Union Commander Irvin McDowell pleaded for more time to train his very green troops and officers, but the political pressure overcame his objections and he was forced into battle. 
It was expected, but the public at least, to be an easy victory.  People from Washington came out with baskets to picnic on the battlefield and watch the fight.  But it turned into a bloody rout.  McDowell's orders were poorly executed by his untrained officers and after a heroic stand by an unknown VMI Colonel named Thomas Jackson, hereafter known as "Stonewall," the Union troops were routed.  Throwing aside their weapons the fled for Washington, along with the terrified civilians.
A little over a year later, in August 1862, Robert E. Lee was on the offensive.  He sent Jackson's Corps on a wide flanking march to capture the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction.  After two inconclusive engagements, Jackson dug in on a ridge.  Convinced he had Stonewall trapped, Union Commander John Pope committed most of his troops on a direct assault against Jackson.  Unknown to Pope, however, another corps of Southern troops under James Longstreet broke through at Thoroughfare Gap, marched to the battlefield and hit Pope's forces in a massive flanking attack.  Pope's army was crushed, the remnants sent into retreat.  This time, the Union troops didn't flee all the way to Washington, but collected themselves at Centreville.  It was a disastrous defeat just the same.
Leaving the visitor's center, turn left on Sudley Road and go up to the US29 intersection, by the Stone House.  Turn left and head west.  After about 18 miles, you'll have to navigate some heavy traffic through Warrenton.  Look for the turnoff to US 211 and take it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Favorite Rides: Southwest Sojourn

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alamogordo, New Mexico to Tombstone, Arizona
330 miles, about 6 hours
US70, I-10, NM80, AZ80
There's something special about the Southwest.  It's hard for people from the more forested regions of the United States to see the inherent beauty within the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the desert.
This ride starts in the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, nestled at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains.  To the west lies the Tularosa Basin which humans inhabited some 11,000 years ago. The city was established in 1898 when the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad extended their line into the area.  The name, Alamogordo, which means "large cottonwood," was inspired by the presence of a grove of the hardy trees.  From the 1940s on, Holloman Air Force Base was the site of aerospace work, including rocket sleds and high-altitude balloon flights.  The two chimpanzees who flew in space, Ham and Enos, were trained here.  That tradition carries on with the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
Heading west on US70, you cross the basin and the Rio Grand Rift.  To the north, the forbidding desert called Jornada del Muerto, Journey of the Dead, points your attention to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Favorite Rides: The Winelander Run

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
For six great years, I hosted a two day motorcycle ride which I called "The Winelander Run."  The route started in Kingdom City, MO and ran through Fulton, Columbia, Rocheport, Jefferson City, Hermann, and ending up in Hannibal on Sunday. It was a great run, and a great weekend with fun had by all who attended.  This was the Ride Brief I provided to the riders before we started.
Winelander Run
Welcome to the Annual Winelander Run!  I am very happy to have you along today and hope your ride will be enjoyable.  First, a few rules for safety and fun enhancement:
1.  Fill your tank before the ride starts and at all designated fuel stops.
2. When possible, use the approved staggered method of riding.  Don’t ride directly behind the bike in front of you.  On twisty roads, however, stretch the spacing out and use as much as the road as you need.   
3.  No passing. That is, maintain your position in the group through out the ride.
4.  After the ride has started, please don’t leave the group unless you suffer a breakdown or a medical problem.
5. Each person on the ride is responsible for the rider behind him when making turns.  If you have lost sight of the rider in front of you, continue straight ahead, assuming that he will wait for you at the next turn or change in route number.
6.  While in the curves, ride at a pace that is comfortable for you. When you come out of a curve, use the straightaway to catch up.
7. Do not tailgate.  However, in congested areas, keep the formation tightened up and staggered as much as you safely can as you approach traffic signals so that the group moves through the light as a unit.
Now a few notes about the route.
1.  This is “critter country” that we’re riding through.  We shouldn’t see many deer during the day, but there are plenty of dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, etc., so be alert.  Also, the great Missouri turtle migration starts about this time, so watch for little helmets with legs and avoid them.
2.  There are places where you will see me slow down a bit.  Some are curves where there is always a spray of gravel around.  There are other places where I have often seen deer cross in the past, so if you see me slow down and begin to scan the roadsides, there’s a good reason.
3.  If you need to stop for gas or to pump bilges (an old Navy term) give three long beeps on your horn and I’ll pull over at the next available spot.  We will take breaks about every 60 minutes or so.  The travel distance to Hermann on this route should be about 190 miles.   I have scheduled the fuel stops within a mileage range that should not present a problem.  
 Here’s the route for Saturday (220 miles, 5 hours):

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Favorite Rides: Virginia Byways

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey

Virginia Byways
US50, Snickersville Turnpike,
VA7, Blue Ridge Mtn. Rd., US17,
VA55, Middleburg. 
70 miles

Virginia encases a lot of history, from the first settlements, The Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, and on into the modern era.  While many sites are well-known and well-marked, others require sojourns off the main routes onto those quaint country lanes that existed, some as Indian trails, for hundreds of years.
West of the busy ‘burbs of Fairfax and Chantilly is an enjoyable loop that has become one of my favorites, and only partly because it’s so close to home. 


Heading west on US 50, the transition from city to country overtakes you.  Before you realize it, the forest of newly-built homes and townhouses recedes in the rear view to be replaced by rolling hills, bucolic countryside, and the vast picturesque horse farms that have earned this part of Virginia the descriptor “Hunt Country.”  The first checkpoint is the town of Aldie.  

Favorite Rides: Der Weinstrasse

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey

The Weinstrasse
Jefferson City, MO – St. Charles, MO
140 miles, mainly US 50, Routes 100 and 94


When the words “Missouri Wine Country” are spoken, most people react with a blank stare, and if they’re from Napa, California, outright derision.  But as John Adams once remarked, “Facts are stubborn things.”  And the facts are these.  
German settlers arrived in the area around 1801.  The soil was rich, but the abundant hills in the area made agriculture difficult, but proved to ideal for viticulture.  The first commercial grapes were grown prior to 1850.  Napa got its start about 10 years later.  Up till Prohibition, Missouri was actually the second largest wine producer in the United States.  When the 21st Amendment was ratified, the vintner industry throughout the U.S. was pretty much destroyed.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the industry began to rebuild itself.
The Federal Government, recognizing the rebirth and vibrancy of American vintners, in 1983 began to establish American Viticultural Areas.  The first one was in Missouri, not California.
Start this trek in Missouri’s capital city, Jefferson City, the only American capitol city not on an interstate highway.  Head east on US 50 for just under 15 miles to the town of Loose Creek.  There you take a left on County Route A. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Favorite Rides: Arizona Mountains and Canyons

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Arizona Mountains and Canyons
Route 89/89A
Start: Congress, AZ
End: Flagstaff, AZ
Miles: 130


People who think of Arizona as being the exclusive home to sandy desert are woefully uninformed.  This route, first ridden by me on a 5000-mile sojourn through the Southwest, starts in the desert northwest of Phoenix.  The first challenge is a collection of twisties known locally as the Yarnell Hill.  Unfortunately, riders aren’t the only ones who know about this.  Law enforcement, undoubtedly drawn by the high number of motorcycle accidents, patrol this stretch heavily.  It’s still twisty enough, however, to have fun at the legal limit.  The road flattens and straightens until just past Wilhoit.  You begin to ascend, bending and twisting as you go.  Things get interesting as you cross Copper Creek.  The turns get tighter as you get into the mountains.  Then things ease off as you coast into Prescott (pronounced “Prescutt”).  Continuing north, you take Route 89A as it splits off towards the east.  After a few miles of flat desert, you begin to ascend again towards Jerome.  The road, following the mountains, begins to twist and coil again.  This gets a bit hairy, since there are places where guardrails should be, but aren’t. Shoulders are narrow, if they exist at all, and prone to patches of gravel and chunks of rock.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stealing a Day of Riding from December

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Tuesday is one of my regular days off, one I try to reserve for chores, appointments, and riding, weather permitting.  Today was chilly (mid-40s), but sunny so I decided to take the bike out for a spin.  I plotted an 80-mile course on some roads I hadn’t been on yet, which according to Google Maps should take about three hours.  Yes, it is the second week of December, but as long as it was above freezing and not snowing, that’s a reasonably good motorcycle day.
In deference to the chill, I dressed carefully, starting with a base layer then jeans and sweatshirt, a pair of heavy sweatpants over the jeans, then my jacket with all the liners in and chaps.  Under the helmet I donned a balaclava.  The final addition was a pair of heavy lined leather gloves.
Even with all those layers, it didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate.  Still, the sun felt warm.  I went west on US50 to Aldie, VA where I picked up the Snickersville Turnpike. 
This historic route was the first toll road in the United States, opening in 1786.  It was part of a longer route that connected Alexandria, VA with Winchester.  The section between Aldie and Bluemont (originally Snickersville) is 15 miles of narrow, windy blacktop that passes through both rural farms (all carrying sophisticated names) and dense Virginia forest.  At one point it crosses Hibbs Bridge, a short 180-year-old arched span of stone and mortar that roofs Beaverdam Creek.  The road terminates at Virginia Route 7, which continues on to Winchester.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Using Stats Like a Gumby Doll

On a New Hampshire Jaunt.

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey

For reasons that still astound me, the admission that I ride a motorcycle nearly always sparks the same response. The other person dives into a terrible and tragic story of someone they knew who was seriously injured or killed in a motorcycle accident. I get that there may be an on-going macabre fascination with violent death. But there are, at last accounting, 10.4 million motorcycles in the United States, a number that increased 58 percent since 1998. Statistics show that the average rider is a responsible adult who rides straight and sober, has insurance, and rides responsibly. Yes, I know about the squids. Despite their high visibility however, riders who actually engage in riding stupid are well in the minority.
But that doesn’t stop people from taking pot shots.
Fox News Latino published on November 28, an article which reported on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that tallied up the costs of death and injuries from motorcycle accidents. Deftly weaving numbers in and through what was a thinly-veiled hit piece on the motorcycling community, the fair and balanced journalists (who went nameless in the byline) painted a grim picture. 82,000 injuries. 4,502 deaths. $16.2 billion in direct costs.
The tone and tenor of the writing implicated the motorcyclists themselves as being the sole cause of the entire tragedy.
But in this journalistic dance, the authors completely side-stepped what continues to be the most important source of motorcycle accidents.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Riding into the Sunset

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
The experience of life can best be summedup as a series of beginnings, middles, and endings.As the years pile up, what changes is that endings begin to outnumber beginnings.Some things are given up simply because we get bored and move on.Others fall by the wayside due to other demands upon our time.This is natural.Time is always in motion; things and people are always changing.
But there are those things we give up because…well, we just can’t do them anymore.
Softball was once my second religion.It was how I spent just about every summer.I can still recall the rising sense of excitement as I walked through the humid Missouri evenings toward the complex of diamonds already lit.I was never a star, but I played hard.The competition was tough and I loved every minute.But as I got older, I grew weaker and slower.Frozen ropes that once leapt off my bat became dying quails.I knew the end was coming, but it wasn’t until I suffered the humiliation of being thrown out at first base by the left fielder that I finally accepted inevitable and hung up my cleats for good.
But there are still times when I can pick up my glove, slip it on, and wait for the aroma of leather, sweat, dirt, and chalk to fill my senses and bring the inevitable flood of memories.
It was in my late 30’s that I discovered motorcycles.In the 20 years since, riding has been my source of joy, freedom, and soul-satisfying inspiration.Although primarily a commuting tool, I’ve done a lot of miles through countless countrysides, mountains, prairies, plains, deserts, and coastlines ranging from 2-hour Sunday jaunts to a 9-day 5,000 mile sojourn through the southwest.
I would tell you that I’m in the middle of this particular activity, but I have to be honest and admit that I can see just over the horizon the sorrowful day when age will force me to lay this aside as well.
I want to make one more long trip while I still can.But a few things will have to happen first.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Skyline Drive and the Perfect Day

The delicate palette of an evening's colors cloak the Shenandoah.
Copyright 2012 © by Ralph Couey

A perfect day is hard to come by.For one to happen, you really need three things to synch up.

First, it has to be a day off.Yes, we can have rewarding days at work. But perfect?Secondly, it has to be a day on which you have nothing scheduled, nor any errands to run, and an empty honey-do list.Thirdly, it has to be a perfect weather day.Partly cloudy is great, but nothing’s better than that clear blue dome above.Oh yes, and the temperature has to be right.Not too hot, not too cold, like baby bear, just right.

During the last week of June, I had one of those days, a Tuesday.It was a day off, with my somewhat unusual work schedule, my “weekend” runs from Sunday morning through about Wednesday noon, when the walls of work once again enfold me.The weather couldn’t have been any better if I had special ordered it on Amazon.com. The sky was clear of anything resembling a cloud, and the temperatures were forecasted to be in the low 70’s, a rare day indeed for Northern Virginia in late June.

I had but one mark on my calendar, a short appointment that was done by mid-morning.My honey-do list was clear for the first time since we moved into our new home in April.With the appointment done, I gleefully headed home, geared up, climbed aboard my motorcycle, and headed west.

Still new to this part of the country, I’m in the process of finding out where all the good roads are. This day, with all its beauty and freedom, was written for the Blue Ridge.

Leaving Chantilly, I headed west on VA 234, Sudley Road, which assumes a number of identities as it meanders through the Virginia countryside.After crossing US 15 at Woolsey, it becomes Waterfall Road.The path is mixed open and forest at first, but once on the Waterfall segment, it becomes mostly forest.

I have a real affection for trees.I’m not a “tree hugger” per se, I just appreciate their majestic beauty.The forests in this part of the state can be dense enough to bar passage to all but the smallest critters, but on this stretch, the undergrowth is mostly ferns and short grasses.The high crown of leaves and branches cools the air and softens the colors underneath.It is the kind of place where I feel peace emanating from the very land itself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paradigm Shifts in Personal Transportation

Delivery, Korean style

Copyright 2012 © by Ralph F. Couey
This summer has seemed interminable. Record-breaking heat, coupled with some violent storms and drought that hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl days of the thirties. The weather has dealt a direct blow to an already-creaky economy, driving up utility usage, damaging infrastructure, and with a slim harvest approaching, food prices will likely spike and stay high through the winter.
For a while, gas prices were headed in the right direction. But in the last few weeks, the gains have been lost to an uncertain supply situation in a market where fuel usage continues to rise.
For motorcyclists, this has been a dangerous season. Most states are reporting increases in crash-related injuries and fatalities. In addition, there have been many accidents that involved the motorcycle simply driving off the road for unknown reasons in broad daylight. You have to wonder if extended exposure to the triple-digit heat and high humidity is not taking a hidden toll.
But the increases in crashes has been readily apparent to anyone who has followed the news. For a few years I carried an updated post on my motorcycle blog, Soul of a Motorcyclist, in which I posted brief summaries of motorcycle accidents culled from the news courtesy of Google news alerts. Normally, updating the blog involved an hour or so a couple times per week, but this summer the accidents were coming so quick and fast that I finally abandoned the task.
A large majority of the accidents involved the rider being the victim of a failure to yield by a car or truck driver. The second-most often cause involved riders losing control of the bike for various reasons. But drunk riders really made the news this summer, in crashes that more often than not involved very high speeds.
The DUI and DWI accidents are worrisome. But what the increase in failure to yield accidents highlight a continuing trend of drivers looking, but not seeing, approaching motorcycles before turning left, or pulling into intersections. One expects these kind of incidents to surge early in the riding season when bikes are re-emerging from hibernation. But by this time of the year, they are far from being a rare sight on the road. If there is any comfort in this, it’s that courts are finally acting against such drivers, charging them with felony counts of vehicular manslaughter, among other charges.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Requiem for a Sojourner

Picture credit:  Washington Post

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey, written content only
All rights reserved

Requiem enim Peregrinus
Requiem for a Sojourner

Life on this earth is an existence bound by the limits of time and space.  Every journey has a beginning and an end, as does life itself.

Today you left home on your motorcycle.  And somewhere out on the road, your journey of life came to an end.

To a rider, a motorcycle is not just a machine.  It is the ticket to adventure; a way of leaving the mundane and passing through the musty wardrobe into a world where the possibilities are as limitless as the universe that surrounds us.  It was in that moment when you felt most alive that death took you away. 

We who knew you, who loved you, who shared the joy of your life now feel an empty ache, one that will never completely heal.  But in the midst of our sorrows, we take comfort that your last moments were ones imbued with that singular joy of a motorcyclist facing an endless horizon.  We will think of you when we are on the road.  We will think of you when we feel the urge to ride towards that horizon seeking places we’ve never been, things we’ve never seen, experiences we’ve never had.  

When the horizon calls to us, it will be your voice that we hear.

You now travel a road without limits on a journey of indescribable beauty.  You have nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there.  Joy trails in your wake.  Peace lies ahead.   The sun is warm, the day is perfect, the road is wide open. 

Ride on, Brother;

Ride on.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Motorcycles and the Summer Heat

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
It was going to happen, whether I wanted it to or not. After becoming accustomed to the mild summers in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania for the last seven years, I now find myself in Northern Virginia, where they have REAL summers.

It’s been a pleasant spring. But today, on the first day of summer, temperatures vaulted from the delightful upper 70’s to near 100 degrees. With dew points in the 65 to 70 degree range, “sweltering” was the word of the day.

Days like this create something of a moral dilemma for this motorcyclist. Up north, winters run from mid-October to mid-May, so one is loath to surrender a riding day for any reason. Here, the warmer climes make a 10-month riding season possible, “warmer” of course being a term of some subjectivity. But in the same way I had to surrender to mountain winters, here I need to re-think my standards with regards to heat. I work in a shirt-and-tie environment and arriving for duty sopping and smelly doesn’t sit well with my co-workers. Thus, the hottest days find me in the air-conditioned comfort of a car with the bike in silent, but reproachful repose in the garage.
Some years ago, I did a trip to the southwest. Mid-July found me in Phoenix, Arizona, the land of triple-digit summers. I fully expected dry heat, but unbeknownst to me, July is monsoon season for the desert. That means the usual bone-dry air mass is replaced by a soupier tropical pattern. So not only was I faced with 114-degree heat, I also had to deal with Florida-like humidity levels. I learned a lot that day, not the least of which was the addition of Gatorade to my diet. That saved the trip, and quite possibly, my life.

Now faced with similar conditions, I thought it might be prudent to dust off some advice on riding in the heat.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Splitting Hairs Over Splitting Lanes

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Several years ago, California enacted a law that legalized the motorcycle practice called “lane splitting.” This involves the rider easing through heavy traffic by utilizing the space between the lanes, riding along the painted lane divider. There are several very good reasons for this. First off, it’s a way to get at least some of the traffic moving during those legendary Southern California traffic jams. Secondly, the stop and go ooze is hard enough on a car. A motorcycle is far more prone to things like overheating engines and burned-out clutches. And nobody needs yet another disabled vehicle on the roadway. It’s safer for the rider, avoiding the very real possibility of becoming the meat in a tractor-trailer sandwich. It thins out the traffic herd and is better on the environment since there are fewer things dirtier than an idling engine.

But Southern Californians, normally a pretty laid-back group, decidedly don’t like lane splitting.

A recent survey conducted by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) turned up some disturbing results.

Though lane splitting has been legal for some time, that’s news to some 53% of California drivers who thought the practice against the law. But even among drivers who do know the law, it’s still highly unpopular. Motorcyclists, though, thoroughly love it.

But buried in the statistics was a disturbing number. 7% of drivers admit to cutting off riders and even opening their doors to try to block them. This isn’t news to the two-wheeled set, all of whom have their private stock of horror stories to relate.

Now, 7% doesn’t sound like much until you consider the larger picture.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Motorcycling Month of May

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
“While riding down the street one day
In the motorcycle month of May
I was taken by surprise
By a minivan of size
And a soccer mom who ruined my day”
--Lyrics twisted by Ralph Couey
With abject apologies to Edward Haley

May has been proclaimed National Motorcycle Safety Month, and across the country states are launching public information campaigns urging the driving public to increase their awareness of motorcycles with which they share our national roadways. But it’s not only to remind motorists, it’s also for reminding the riders themselves to learn and employ safe riding habits.
Motorcycle accident deaths have been trending downward for the last few years. That’s really good news, even though in the context of human tragedy, a single death is one death too many. The issue is still being studied, so nobody has yet pinpointed the reasons for the reduction. But like many others, I have my opinion.

1. Better training. In nearly all states a prospective rider can avail themselves of rider training courses offered through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). In most cases, passing the course earns you that coveted “M” endorsement on your license. The course is dynamic, updated every year to reflect the growing body of knowledge. As a result, new riders hit the street much better prepared than in decades past.

2. Better riding habits. Though squids still abound, most riders are, in my observation, riding much safer and more defensively of late. Much of that may have to do with the increasing mean age of riders, which has changed from the mid-20’s to the mid-40’s, a much more mature, responsible age group, well aware of the limits of mortality. Although as comedienne Caroline Rhea is fond of pointing out, “Men don’t mature. They just get old.”

The New Allstate Motorcycle Insurance Ad

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
In the process of relocating, one can expect some disruptions to the even tenor of our lives, the mail being one of them. As a result, I just recently received my June RoadRunner magazine. For me, this has been the perfect motorcycle periodical. I am a “go-far” rider, more content with long rides, the chief characteristic being a Zen-like communion with the world around. RR’s presentation of road trips allow me to live those journeys vicariously through the vivid photography and expressive prose. There are bike reviews, but they are almost exclusively the kind of machines that are built for doing three states per day, rather than three-digit speeds down the local freeways. 

The issue was great, as usual.  But it was the ad on the back cover that really got my attention and my dander all aflutter.

Since the day I threw a leg over my first bike, I’ve been very focused on riding safe and sane, a philosophy reinforced by three accidents over the last 20 years. I took the Beginning Riders Course back in 1992, and to this day I can remember the instructors steady pounding of the mantra, “Use the FRONT brake!” It was hard at first to remember. After all, that’s how I brought my trusty Schwin 1-speed to a halt. But as they repeatedly pointed out, there are physical forces involved in stopping a 600-plus-pound motorcycle that just don’t apply to their non-motored kin. For example, when a rider executes an emergency stop, the weight shifts to the front wheel. The rear tire now has far less weight, causing a corresponding reduction in frictional coefficient. Since the rear tire now has less grip on the pavement, it's going to take a lot more distance to bring the bike to a safe halt. In addition, a likely outcome of a rear-wheel skid is a catastrophic loss of control as the the rear of the bike slides out from underneath the rider. 

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) maintains that the front brake provides, according to recent testing, 90% of a motorcycle’s stopping capability. With the weight shifted forward, the frictional coefficient of the front tire is increased dramatically. This means that, properly done, a front wheel emergency stop does not have to end up as a long skid. The increased grip can slow the bike much quicker, while still keeping the bike under control. 

Despite that proven knowledge, there are far too many riders who rely solely on the rear brake to stop the bike. James R. Davis, a recognized courtoom expert in motorcycle accident forensics continually points out the fallacy of that habit. On his website he carries several case studies of accidents, one of which caught my eye.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sojourn: A Guide for a Motorcycle Trip

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

In the past, vacation trips were rarely about a particular destination.  They were rather about the trip itself and the many stops along the way.  It was that philosophy that sent Americans out on legendary highways such as Route 66, Route 50, US 1, and California 1, the famed Pacific Coast Highway.  If you left Chicago on Route 66 heading west, you weren’t just traveling to the Santa Monica Pier in California.  You were going to see St. Louis; cowboys between Tulsa and Amarillo; the high plains of Tucumcari, Albuquerque, and Gallup; The deserts and mountains of Holbrook, Flagstaff, Kingman, and Barstow, and then, and only then, the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean.  The point of the trip was not to dabble your toes in the surf, but all the natural beauty and wonder of the American west.

People don’t travel like that anymore.  Most have a single destination in mind, minimize the travel time to that place, and then rack and stack everything you want (or feel obligated) to do into those few days.  That kind of a killer schedule has led to the oft-voiced phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation.”

However, that old spirit of adventure hasn’t vanished entirely.  Within the motorcycle community it lives and breathes in the hearts of sojourners who have never forgotten the power of a journey.

I’ve taken a few long trips, all of which still live in vivid recollections.  While they were all fun and adventurous, there were those things I planned well, those I didn’t, and other details I never thought about.  Hopefully there is some value in those experiences that will assist others in planning trips.

Planning the trip

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rambling Thoughts on Calendars, Seasons, and Motorcycles

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
September 15th.
Man, wasn’t it August just 20 minutes ago?  Time is absolutely flying by these days, and for once I can’t blame it on my busy life.  I am busy, but the kind of busy that usually causes the clock and calendar to shift to warp speed.  This may that part of growing older that I’ve read about, that as the years pile up, the days seem to move much faster.
But whether I want it to or not, September is officially half over.  October, my favorite time of year is rapidly approaching.  It’s the one month of the year that I wish would slow down, take its time and drift languidly through its 31-day lifespan.  But as usually happens, there is a significant gap between what I want, and what actually is.
The heat and humidityof summer has finally left us here in the mountains.  The first breaths of cool air have blown down from Canada, and we are now in that time of year when weather shifts wildly and sometimes rapidly.  Two days ago, it was warm, humid, and still.  Tonight, we will have our first frost of the season.  This does create difficulties in dressing one’s self, especially for motorcycling.
In the mornings, I install the zip-in liners in jacket and pants, and don a sweatshirt for one more layer.  I put on my heavy gloves and take off for work.  The air is chilly, especially on the hands and feet, and with the shortening daylight, the commute is now done in the gray half-light of dawn.  On my mind also is that this is the time of year when deer become active, and I must be extremely vigilant as I travel.  But while the daylight lasts, the ride is spectacular.  In another three weeks or so, the leaves will start dressing themselves in their Technicolor hues and the mountainsides will become iridescent.  The sky will lose its milky shade and turn a spectacular vivid blue.  The sunlight, freed from summer’s haze, will make all nature’s colors starkly beautiful.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Kawaski VN900LT: My Take

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
I don’t think there’s a more difficult thing for the American male than to admit a mistake, especially when it comes to the purchase of a particular motorcycle.
I’ve been riding for 18 years and over 200,000 miles.  My passion for riding started with a job some 35 miles from home.  The commute was becoming a real burden, with gas at that time a killer $1.14 per gallon.  My better half had thus far resisted my entreaties with that consummate skill all wives possess.  But by this time, the kids had become old enough that she decided I could risk my neck in the cause of the family budget.
I acquired my first bike, a 1981 Suzuki GS550T, for $500.  It was a sharp-looking standard, cheap enough to buy and maintain while I learned how to ride.  I dropped it a few times, but the only casualties were the turn signal lights, which stuck out from the forks.  A nearby salvage yard managed to keep me supplied with fresh ones.  I rode a lot in all weather conditions (save snow and ice) and that bike taught me a lot.  Over time, I moved up to a 1980 Yamaha XS Eleven Special, then a BMW K75RT, and a Honda PC800 Pacific Coast, with which I enjoyed an enduring 100,000-mile relationship.  However, once I sold the PC, we went into a period of financial trial that forestalled the purchase of a new bike for two agonizing years. 

Finally in the spring of 2009, I bought a 2007 Kawasaki Vulcan 900.  I had that bike for about two months before having my third accident.  I was distracted by a car that had started to pull out of a parking lot across my path and thus didn’t see the guy who had stopped in front of me.  I applied the brakes, which were quite a bit more reactive than what I was used to, and locked up the front wheel.  My lane positioning was completely wrong, riding in the “grease pit” portion of the lane, so the bike snap-rolled to the left and went down hard.  I was saved from a broken leg by the crash bars, but still managed to crack a rib.  With my own elbow.  Fortunately, this happened right in front of a hospital, so I had two doctors by my side in seconds.  I survived.  The bike was totaled.
It took a couple of months for me to heal up.  (A busted rib is a whole new kinda pain, let me tell you.)  But I managed to find a 2006 Vulcan 900LT with fewer miles for a real good price, so I bought it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Share the Road!

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
The past couple of weeks have been mostly meteorological nirvana for motorcyclists in the region.  After a hard winter and a frustrating April, the sun and warmth of spring have finally arrived in the Laurel Highlands. 
But it’s also a hazardous time.  Drivers are still growing their “motorcycle eyes” as evidenced by the numerous near-misses I’ve seen already this month.  Every year, PennDot and motorcycle groups like the American Motorcycle Association and ABATE issue cautionary statements urging drivers to look carefully for those single headlights before pulling into or across traffic, or changing lanes.  Usually it’s June before I see a general improvement in people’s observational habits.
Drivers are not the only issue.  All motorcycle riders experience that joie de vivre of the ride, but some take that joy to extreme.  Speeding and weaving, pulling stunts in traffic, riding impaired, and tailgating are some of the actions I have come to call “riding stupid.”  You’re having fun.  I get that.  But you not only risk yourself, you risk other people on the road who may have to swerve out of your way, even getting into accidents themselves. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Throttle Back and Live

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey
For the last year or so on one of my websites, “Soul of a Motorcyclist,” I’ve been tracking motorcycle accidents.  I started this as a way of educating myself on common factors involved in accidents and applying that knowledge to practical self-defense on the road.
Motorcycling, for all of its joys is an inherently dangerous activity.  The multitude of hazards are too numerous to list in the space allotted here.  However, the most common are well-known to riders: 
·         Failure to yield:  When another vehicle turns left across a rider’s path, pulling out from a side street or driveway, or changing lanes.
·         Sudden Stops:  A vehicle slows or stops suddenly in the traffic lane in response to a traffic jam or to execute a left turn.  The rider is unable to react in time.
·         Single-bike accidents: Usually a catastrophic loss of control for a variety of reasons, such as road conditions, debris, animals, or a medical incident with the rider or a mechanical problem with the bike.
·         Excessive speed, carelessness, distracted or impaired riding.
Adding to these hazards, many riders are woefully ill-informed with regards to proper braking technique.  Experts now say 90% of a bike’s stopping power is in the front brake.  In an emergency stop, the bike’s weight shifts forward, taking weight and therefore frictional coefficient from the back tire.  Riders who primarily use the rear brake will find their stopping distances increased significantly. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thunder in the Valley 2011: The Dream that Roared

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey

Summer is rally season for the motorcycle community. Every weekend throughout these hazy crazy days somewhere motorcyclists are gathering.

Every June since 1998, this valley has resonated with the thunder of motorcycles. In the years since, Thunder in the Valley© has become one of the premier events of motorcycling. From across the country, riders stream into the Johnstown area for four days of fun, food, and fellowship. Scheduled the week after Laconia, New Hampshire’s Bike Week, it provides a nice segue for east coast riders and a great way to polish off a two-week two-wheeled vacation.

Every rally has its separate attractions and charms. But this one, “The Little Rally That Could…And Did” has become something special.

Thunder in the Valley© combines the best elements of a motorcycle rally. In the fellowship of 200,000 riders are people who instinctively know why we own these machines. Vendors provide a plethora of items to shower upon our bikes and ourselves. Music is always present in several venues, so that you’re never out of earshot of entertainment from the toe-tappin’ to the foot stompin’. Food is present in abundance, from traditional rally fare to regular restaurant cuisine. Manufacturers provide the opportunity to take their bikes for test rides, and offer good deals should your heart be captured. And outside of town lie dozens of roads that twist and turn through the heart-melting beauty of the Laurel Highlands, providing many hours of what could only be termed perfect rides.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Song of the Open Road

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The sun is just rising into a clear sky, the day still fresh, new, and unspoiled.  After one last check of the loaded bike, the key is turned, the starter punched.  The engine roars, and with a final good-bye, the bike rolls down the driveway and onto the road.  The spirit soars, for we have answered the call of the open road.

Every spring, I suffer the pangs of adventure.  I try to satisfy, or at least allay them with 200-mile Saturday rides, and taking the long way home from work.  But as the weather warms, and the day lengthens, I cannot help but open a road atlas and dream a little.

Dramatic landscapes float through my mind, much like a high plains thunderstorm gliding across the sky. In those visions is a voice, subtle and seductive, that calls me to flee the box of my life for the freedom of the open road. 

A map is the canvas upon which I paint my dreams; a portrait of limitless plains, powerful mountains, shifting deserts, and shoreline highways. My eyes follow the multi-colored lines on the page, but in my mind, I feel the sun on my shoulders, the wind in my face, and the exultation of a questing and restless spirit.

Even in my childhood, the horizon always beckoned.  For others, that line between earth and sky is a barrier, a protective wall surrounding the known and familiar. To me, however, the horizon is a gateway to places I’ve never been and things I’d never seen; people I’d never met.  Experiences I’d never had.  I am irresistibly drawn to the unknown beyond the known.

We traveled far as a family. Before I was 12, I had already been to 21 states, Canada, and Mexico.  But it wasn’t until I began my relationship with a motorcycle that I discovered the real joy in the journey.

My first long road trip was a Labor Day escape to the shores of Lake Superior.  I remember that day well.  The heat and humidity was already oppressive by 8:00 in the morning as I headed north, crossing the farmlands of northern Missouri and Iowa.  Departing Minneapolis in the evening, I raced the sunset for Duluth, cresting the hill above that port city just after sunset.  Below me, the city glittered like jewels scattered along the shore. 

But the best moment was when I reached my campsite at Two Harbors.  After 700 miles and 14 long hours, I beheld a huge full moon rising over the still waters, its soft light bathing the world in silver.  Even today, the memory still leaves me breathless.

Two years later, I embarked on an epic 9-day sojourn through the rugged beauty of the American Southwest.

Yet today, I can close my eyes and remember the easy grace of Kansas’ Flint Hills, the torn and beaten land in Oklahoma and West Texas still scarred from the dust bowl.  And an old weather-beaten shack off the side of the road; the wooden gravestone of a broken dream.
I see the verdant valleys of New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains, and the stark, empty desert of the Jornada del Muerto.  There was a lovingly restored Tombstone, Arizona; the incredible heat of Phoenix, the natural artistry of Sedona, and the raw beauty of Oak Creek Canyon.  Through Colorado’s Rockies, I careened along twisted mountain traces, balancing the centrifugal against the centripetal on a knife-edge of lunacy.

There was the retired couple who really understood the “why” of my journey.  The 4-year-old boy in Tombstone, how wide his eyes were, sitting on the motorcycle’s seat.  And the longing in them as his smiling father led him away. 

So, it is on this April night that a thousand memories visit, leaving behind a familiar sweet ache.  I want to go again.  It does not matter that I am not the young man I once was.   I am certain the time will come again.

Someday, the rising sun will find me once again on a bike packed for adventure and discovery.  And I will joyfully ride to the distant horizon, my heart singing a glorious anthem…

The song of the open road.