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 62 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.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Welcome!

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

This is my 5th blog, a compilation of motorcycle-related posts from my "Race the Sunset" blog. While I write about a good many things, my most consistent and reliable muse has been the experience of riding. In 18 years and some 220,000 miles motorcycling has become my greatest passion, the penultimate expression of a freed spirit and unshackled joy. 

As a writer and freelance columnist, I have a responsibility to put into words my reflections and emotions generated as life and I flow past one another.  However, I have yet to achieve that collection of words and sentences that satisfactorily convey what happens within me while rolling down a road dappled in sunlight and leaves on a perfect day; the horizon beckoning my soul, my heart overflowing.

But that's a challenge that manifestly appeals to me. 

Enjoy your stay and feel free to drop a comment or two.  If you ride, if you know the passion of which I speak, in this place you're among friends.

Warmest Regards,
Ralph Couey
Somerset, PA

Managing Risks

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A couple of years ago I discovered a neat tool, part of the Google universe, called “Google Alerts.” You set it up with one or several key words and an email address, and Google then searches the ‘Net 24/7 for results. As the backbone of my job is research, this has made things easier and much more efficient to find those snippets of information that I need. Most of my alerts are work-related, but some of them are there just for fun.

One alert I titled simply “motorcycle.” My intent was to keep up to date on new developments in the industry as well as finding about motorcycle events around the nation.

However, as a by-product of that search I also get news reports of accidents as well.

I read these, not out of a prurient or morbid interest, but as a way to perhaps learn a little more about safe riding. In reading these reports, I’ve been somewhat surprised. It seems that most of these accidents involve factors that are in control of the rider.

These are a representative sample:

In Clearwater, Florida, a car pulled out of a driveway on one side of a street at the same time a motorcycle pulled out from a driveway across the road, turning in the opposite direction. The two collided, the rider taken to the hospital. The photo shows the car sitting on top of the bike.

In Rancho Cordova, California, near Sacramento, a group of sport riders were practicing stunts on the streets of an undeveloped subdivision. One rider, after completing a trick made a sharp U-turn, turning into the path of another bike. The two collided. The rider of the second bike was killed. Said one of the witnesses, "Each one of us... We got a real reality hit. We gotta think twice about everything. I told myself: I'm not riding anymore. Physically can't. Mentally can't."

In Emery County, Utah, a man driving a Mazda sedan drifted across the centerline, colliding with a motorcycle. The rider died.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hard Truths and Sacred Cows

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In our lives, we have come to accept some ideas as irrefutable truths. Some are ideas that have stood the test of time and research; others are accepted for no other reason than they “feel right.” Sometimes, a sacred cow has only remained sacred because nobody has studied it carefully.

For motorcyclists, one of those sacred cows is the idea that if a car turns left in front of a biker, then the car’s driver is completely, totally, 100% at fault.

Well, maybe not.

While doing some research for a column on motorcycle safety, I stumbled on a very interesting website. “Motorcycle Tips and Techniques”  is a site run out of Houston, Texas by James R. Davis and Attorney Elaine Cash Anthony. Together, they run the Master Strategy Group.

Their accomplishments are many, varied, and impressive. Ms. Anthony, in addition to being an accomplished practitioner of the law is also a producer, author, actor, and poet. Mr. Davis is now retired but has been a senior executive in both the securities and IT industries. He is also a court-recognized expert in the area of motorcycles, riding, and the scientific dynamics of both, having been an expert witness in numerous court cases, as well as the author of over 260 articles.

Both Ms. Anthony and Mr. Davis are passionate motorcycle riders. James, in particular, has been riding for over 50 years, logging a half-million miles. Out of that mutual interest arose a suite of websites that has scored with some 17 million readers.

What got my attention was Mr. Davis’ assertion that, in a failure-to-yield accident, the motorcyclist was not entirely blameless. Now, I’ve only been riding for half his miles and years, but I was certain that when a car turns in front of us, that’s a judgment of responsibility that qualifies as a “no-brainer.” I instituted an exchange of emails with him, which at one point turned a bit testy (my fault). But after reading his replies, and perusing the case studies, I was forced to change my mind.

A sacred cow has been cut from the herd.

If Walt Whitman Wore Chaps*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 17, 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I've been reading Walt Whitman's wonderful poem, "Song of the Open Road," a magical piece of prose that speaks to the heart and spirit of all who have sought the far horizons.  In reading this, I think ol' Walt was ahead of his time.  Had he lived today, I think he would own a motorcycle. 

Always in search of ways to express the magic of the ride, I decided to play around with this poem a bit.  I didn't want to post the whole thing -- over 9 pages and 2,800 words -- but I chose verses that I thought appealed to the spirit of the ride, and the rider.  And yes, I did "update" some of the language.

Maybe I've committed an act of literary sacrilege.  I'm sure the Whitman Society would say so.  But after reading about 50 or so of his poems, and reflecting on my own 18 years of open roads, I think Walt Whitman and the modern motorcyclist would be cheerfully inclined to go together, seeking spiritual fulfillment; riding together and singing..."This Song of the Open Road"

Mounted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long path before me,
Leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth, I ask not good fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth, I whimper no more,
Postpone no more,
Need I, nothing.

Strong and content, I travel the open road
The earth expanding right and left,
The picture alive, every part in its best light.
The engine sings amid the trees, the cheerful voice of the public road.

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour, I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently but with undeniable will, divesting myself of that which would hold me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why We Ride

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

There's a horizon out there.

On the far side are places I've never been...
Things I've never seen...
People I've never met...
Experiences I've never had.

All day long I ride to that horizon, freed by the knowledge
that I have nowhere to be,
and all the time in the world to get there.

There is no destination because the ride itself is the adventure.
I touch the world and the world touches me.

And yet, I am driven by the desire to go there,
see that,
do that...
feel that;
The urgency of a finite life in which to explore the infinite universe.

And the best part?

Every morning there's a new horizon out there;

Calling to me...

I just don't think life gets any better than that.

Why We Ride 2*


Hull Canyon, south of Jerome, Arizona

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
June 6, 2010

Copyright © 2010 words and image by Ralph Couey

An open road stretches before me under a clear sky, the horizon pierced by the blue peaks of distant mountains. The world glides by in unmatched grandeur. Grasslands bend in concert before prairie zephyrs. Across endless deserts, each rock, draw, and tumbleweed is starkly defined in the clear air. And in those mountains, it begins to bend, twist, and dodge, seemingly alive. Overhead, a dome of blue marks not a limiting roof, but the edge of infinity. Beneath, the engine sings its song among the trees, the steady beat of pistons pounding the pulse of life.

I am intensely alive. I have nowhere to be, and all the time in the world to get there.

Motorcycling is difficult to explain, even to other riders, a conversation that usually starts and ends with…

“You know.”
“Oh, yeah.”

The quest to capture the essence of that experience defies articulation. Oh, we can talk endlessly about sunny spring days gliding along country lanes, the air rich with the scents of an awakening world…

Eternity and the Road


Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico

Copyright © 2010 words and image by Ralph Couey

I’ve been a motorcyclist for almost 18 years. I still remember with great clarity the first ride I took on my ’82 Suzuki GS550T. I was nervous and not very smooth, but the sensation of gliding down the road, the wind blowing past my head, the sky open and glorious above, seized my soul with a powerful embrace, a grip that hasn’t loosened in almost two decades.

Most of the miles that lie in my past were expended on commuting. For some odd reason, we’ve always lived at least 30 miles away from wherever I’ve worked. I’m not sure why that has happened, but it did provide the opportunity to turn a mundane act into a little adventure every day. Looking at my fuel logs, I estimate that I’ve put down in excess of 220,000 miles in that span.

Of course, there were the weekend rides, undertaken after I was freed from my chore list. Also, I took a lot of short trips, less than 500 miles, each time stretching the envelope of my experience. Twice, I embarked on even longer trips, a 6-day jaunt to Lake Superior, and the other a 9-day trek through the U.S. southwest, easily one of the most important times of my entire life.

I still peruse maps from time to time, contemplating other journeys. Time is passing and I know that the physical ability to endure such trips will not be with me much longer. So while I ponder the future, I also allow myself to dream.

A Song of Wyoming

Words and music by John Denver

I’m weary and tired, I’ve done my days ridin’
Nighttime is rollin’ my way;
The sky’s all on fire and the lights slowly fading,
Peaceful and still ends the day.
Out on the trail night birds are callin’
Singin’ their wild melody;
Down in the canyon the cottonwood whispers
A Song of Wyoming for me.

Well, I’ve wandered around the town and the city,
Tried to figure the how and the why.
I’ve stopped all my schemin’;
I’m just driftin’ and dreamin’,
Watching the river roll by.

Here comes that big ole prairie moon risin’,
Shinin’ down bright as can be;
Up on the hill there’s a coyote singin’
A Song of Wyoming for me.

Now its whiskey and tobacco and bitter black coffee,
A lonesome old dogie am I.
Wakin’ up on the range,
Lord I feel like an angel;
Feel like I almost could fly.

Drift like a cloud out over the badlands,
Sing like a bird in the tree;
The wind in the sage sounds like heaven singin’
A Song of Wyoming for me,
A Song of Wyoming for me.

--John Denver

The Magic of the Open Road*


*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 7/30/2006

Copyright © 2010words and image by Ralph Couey

The other day, I was passed the URL for the website of an acquaintance, actually a list member of the Internet motorcycle group I belong to. He embarked on a trip that is the stuff of legends. Between July 2 and August 13, he rode 10,000 miles.

According to his online log (updated daily courtesy of WiFi) he traveled from Tennessee all the way up to Dawson and Skagway in Canada’s Yukon Territory and back.

Most of us in the motorcycling community know someone who has taken long, epic trips. I think for the rest of us the reaction is universal; a tinge of envy, yet sharing the excitement of the journey, and with today’s global interconnectivity, living the day-to-day adventure, if only vicariously, via the Internet. For those of us left behind, the walls and ceilings that make up the invisible boundaries of our individual lives seem to close in. For the first time, we sense the prison of obligation and responsibility we’ve built.

A Wyatt Earp Pilgrimage

Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico

Copyright © 2007 words and images, except where noted, by Ralph Couey

“Cross the most rugged and daunting peaks in utter darkness,
the heavens pouring forth their fury while you grapple for control,
guided by a feeble ray of light barely visible
on a highway black as death. Traverse endless, blistering deserts, the sands a roaring furnace below and the sun a pitiless, burning firestorm above.  Follow the tortured paths left behind by those who pioneered the way, seeking to tame a wild land and forge a better life. 

Merge in perfect union with a stunning cloudless sky
and breathe deep the fragrant prairie zephyrs. 
Follow the sinuous course of a thundering river
to the humble streams that form its source. 

In every moment, feel the sublime and awesome hand of God
and in your soul a Communion with the infinite.

Look then to the dark sky and thrill to the promise of the unrisen sun
that will soon shine upon the hook and crook of a gnarled mountain trace,
knowing in your heart the machine’s power to exalt life or render death.
 In the quiescence of the deepest night gaze in wonder upon the machine;
your accomplice, partner, and soul mate.

In your innermost reflections, you will come to know this machine
as sinister and yet seductive;
soulless and yet transcendent;
ordinary and yet unique.

Know that even though you own the machine,
 the machine possesses you.

 The Horizon is calling;
Heed the call.
 Go Ride…”

 --Original Author Unknown
Additional Material by Ralph Couey

I like maps. Maps are the sketchbooks upon which I plot my fantasies. Open roads, new adventures, alien landscapes, all become a part of the dreams that float through my mind, much as a high plains thunderstorm glides across the horizon. Most people see a road map as a myriad of lines, dots, and words. For me, however, the lines, dots, and words spring into a pseudo-three dimensional reality; limitless plains, powerful mountains, shifting deserts, and countless 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 reassuring rumble of a V-twin engine. In the summer of 2002, the urging of those dreams put me on the road to chase my horizons.

PREPPING THE RIDER, THE BIKE, AND THE SOUL

I spent much of my youth chasing about the southwest, first with my father and then as a summer employee of a Texas-based cattle operation. During those years, I fell in love with the wide-open skies and the many-textured and multi-hued terrain. It was so different from my home state Missouri, where the rolling hills made the horizon seem much too close, almost claustrophobic. The west seemed limitless. Even when mountains became the horizon, their dramatic angles and features gave them an aura of eternity. With this land of wide horizons, I also had a deep personal connection. In a youth spent searching for meaning and the answers to questions eternal, the west had given me perspective; a perfect backdrop upon which the musings of a young man’s mind could range as far as the stars and nebulae that populated the night sky, with thoughts as personal and intimate as the inside of a sleeping bag. The memories of those priceless days brought me great comfort over the years during those times when reality became a burden.

My Lake Superior Adventure

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

For every person who gets into a relationship with that two-wheeled heartbreaker known as a motorcycle at some point the road beckons. Not the afternoon ride, or even the weekend junket; but a true epic journey covering several days and many thousands of miles. It’s inevitable, especially for an American kid who grew up watching the lone hero on horseback ride through countless westerns. We, all of us, go through our days feeling the ties of obligation and responsibility. And we all dream at least a little about shucking off those burdens for a feeling of freedom. For me, that first urge hit in the late summer of 2001. More and more, I was finding myself perusing road atlases, unconsciously choosing routes and stopovers, measuring the miles with my eyes and imagining what it would be like to watch the road unwind beneath my wheels.

I chose the Labor Day weekend, adding a couple of days on either end. And after weighing my available time and pondering the direction of my soul, I chose the destination: Lake Superior.

Lake Superior was gouged out of the tough hide of the Canadian Shield during the last great Ice Age. It is the largest fresh-water body by surface area, and the third largest by volume. It’s very name reflects its place among other lakes in North America. Shaped like a stylized wolf preparing to devour Minnesota, it is a place of heart-stopping beauty. It is also a place where, in the late fall and winter, Mother Nature unleashes her wrath with storms of terrifying fury. Hundreds of shipwrecks lay in her depths, most notably the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. Along her shores lie forests of deep green and rocky shores bearing mute witness to the power of her waves. As I read about the area, I knew it was a place I had to see.

DAY 1

Saying Goodbye*



*American Motorcyclist 5/2007

Copyright © 2007 words and image by Ralph Couey

There comes a time in a relationship when parting becomes the necessary, even logical thing to do. For riders, guys especially, the time we spend with our bikes is less "ownership" than "relationship." Over the years and the miles, a bond develops between us and our machines. It's difficult to articulate exactly why this is so.

In most cases, riding is viewed as a solo activity. Whether it's a ride through spectacular natural beauty, a vigorous prosecution of hairpins and switchbacks, or simply time spent clearing one's head, the experience is an internal one. Ronald Reagan once said, "The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse." Change "horse" to "motorcycle" and most riders would sagely nod in agreement.

A motorcycle, despite our willful anthropomorphizing, is a mechanical construct; an engineer's vision executed by an assembly line. The unenlightened insist that it is a soulless collection of metal and plastic parts. But riders can feel the collection of parts rise in concert and transcend themselves to a higher plane of existence, taking us along for the ride.

Riders change, acquiring more skills as time goes on. The bike that was such a challenge to us in the beginning now seems to be unable to follow us to the places our skills can take us. "Upgrade" is the operative word here. Our habits change, as well. At first, maybe we were content to commute and take rides in the country over the weekend. Now perhaps we feel the horizon calling and need a bike that can haul camping gear and a couple changes of clothing. Also, we have a desire to share the things we love with the people we love, which means that person needs to have a comfortable place to enjoy the ride. Whatever the reason, we will find ourselves one day ruminating about Making a Change.

Snow Day

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

I looked out the window, as I am wont to do these days when time is hanging especially heavy on my hands. The sky was cloudy and those big, heavy flakes that characterize the Great Lakes Snow Machine were pouring out of the sky, piling up on the ground and giving familiar objects in the distance the soft, hazy look of a Japanese watercolor. The wind gusted, rattling the shutters and temporarily changing the trajectory of the snow from vertical to horizontal. I turned away from the window and put another log on the fire, trying to ignore the spasm of a restless spirit.

Looking into the flames, hungrily licking the new wood, my mind began to wander. Instead of the dreariness of mid-winter, my mind's eye began to see a blurred white line, tracing a ribbon of sun-splashed asphalt bisecting the cathedral-like splendor of a Pennsylvania forest. I made a sudden, perhaps rash decision. I left the warmth of the living room and headed for the back door, pausing to pull on a pair of snow boots, heavy coat, gloves, and cap. I mumbled to my long-suffering wife that I was going to the garage. She looked at me and smiled slightly. No one knows my moods like this remarkable woman. I walked out the back door, ignoring the wide-eyed questioning looks of our two cats. Committed outdoor denizens that they are, even they were staying indoors today. I trudged through the fresh snowfall across the short space between the house and the garage, entered the building and shook the snow off my coat.

The garage was utterly quiet, and in the silence I could almost hear the raspy whisper of the snowfall through the roof and walls. With a sharp click, the hum of fluorescent lights replaced the silence and bright light dispelled the winter gloom. And there, standing patiently and faithfully was my motorcycle. Ostensibly, my purpose was to crank the engine over, run the bike through the gears, charge the battery, and accomplish those necessary things that keep the essence of life in an otherwise moribund piece of machinery. But on this day, when my mid-winter blues were deepened by the grim weather, I felt a deeper need, one that sprang from deep within me. I opened both garage doors for ventilation and swung my leg over the seat, a movement made awkward by heavy clothes and boots. With a small sense of drama, I pulled the choke and inserted and turned the key. The instrument panel flashed its colorful lights and the garage was further lit by the bike's powerful headlamp. My thumb came forward on the starter switch and the slow, labored sound of a starter left alone too long issued from the bike. It took a couple of tries, but the engine finally caught with a satisfying throaty roar. Breathing a relieved sigh, I leaned back in the seat, enjoying the sensation of a live bike underneath me.

The Future of Motorcycles

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

Motorcycles are one of my passions, I will readily admit, although at times, my wife has suggested the “O” word (obsession). I have written uncounted words about the emotions bikes have awakened in me, and while I am respectful of tradition, I am always looking for those designs that not only push the envelope, but change the paradigm altogether.

Engineers continue to push the limits with engine designs and suspension setups to enhance performance. But with gas prices continuing to climb, and environmental issues impacting transportation, the future will, by necessity, bring fundamental changes to the sport and the vehicles themselves.

New propulsion systems are being considered, but since many are still in their big-boned clunky stone-age era of development, their utility on a two-wheeled conveyance is still in the future. There are some prototype all-electric bikes, and hybrids can't be far behind. Ultimately, manufacturers will be forced to abandon oil altogether, which means the rise of the hydrogen fuel cell. A British firm has built such a bike, called the ENV, but it is small, short of range, and wouldn't work in the wide-open environment of American roads.


The ENV, from the Intelligent Energy website

Lately, there have been some intriguing developments that not only involve pushing development, but changing the basic machine as well.

The Honda PC800 Pacific Coast

My '95 On Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

History, Design, and Mission

Riding a Honda Pacific Coast makes you a lightning rod for all kinds of questions and comments. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the worst of them, realizing that any motorcyclist who utilizes the term “rolling porta-potty” has issues of their own.

The Pacific Coast, or PC800, was introduced by Honda in the 1989 model year. It was a revolutionary look back then, the bike completely sheathed in plastic body panels, and a spacious clamshell trunk in the place of traditional saddlebags. The appearance was pure Starfleet, sans phasers and warp drive. Had it arrived in ET's UFO, it could not have been more striking. The futuristic shape caught the eye of filmmakers, appearing in movies such as “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Bourne Identity.”

Honda wanted a bike that would appeal to the suit-and-tie set; a bike one could ride to work without the risk of soiling the Armani. With that in mind, they purposely modeled the rear end after the very popular Honda Accord, the Yuppie flavor of the month for that era. But while the broad rear and long taillights looked good on the car, it was a decidedly odd look for a bike.

Honda produced the PC initially for two years, the ’89 in an ethereal Pacific Pearl White, and the ’90 in a magnificent Candy Glory Red. However, the marketing folks at Honda rolled consecutive gutter balls, choosing a soft, jazzy, avante-garde approach for their ads (a technique also used initially by Infiniti automobiles). The popular image of the motorcycle, all leather, do-rags, and sweaty biceps, completely clashed with this approach. Bikers snickered, and Yuppies remained confused. The price point was too high, and the flood of execu-commuters never materialized. With a ton of surplus machines on hand, Honda halted production.

Deal's Gap*


"Yeah, baby!"
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Killboy.com; Powerhead Productions
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 7/30/2006

Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey

One of the best known (and most notorious) motorcycle destinations in this country is Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, more specifically, the 11-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 129 known as “The Dragon.” This road traces the southwest border of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and consists of 318 curves in its tightly twisted length. It is considered by many to be the ultimate test of a street rider’s skill.

The Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited National Park, according to the National Park Service, is a scenic gem. Part of the central Appalachian chain, the Smokies stun the senses with beautiful mountains, dramatic overlooks, and dense cathedral-like forests. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, parts of which were filmed in the Park, than you know already about the abundant natural beauty to be found here. There aren’t a lot of resort or amusement park type properties in the region, but you can hike, bike, drive, canoe, raft, kayak, or indulge photographic passions to your heart’s content. The roads, although twisty to the extreme, are very well-cared for.

You can enter The Dragon at either end, but the “official” kickoff point is at the intersection of 129 and North Carolina route 28, the location of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. This is not a luxury hotel, but simply a bare-bones place for the rider to sleep at night. The rooms are Spartan, but spacious, clean, and the owners have designed and developed services that cater to the motorcycle rider. For a more comfortable stay, there is the Fontana Village Resort, which is 11 miles away on NC Route 28.

The road itself is truly a challenge. Most of the 318 curves are of the hairpin and switchback variety, along with a few decreasing-radius turns that will take you by surprise. Although hundreds of riders navigate this road successfully, accidents do occur. The most common spill happens when a rider enters a curve too fast, or has their mind somewhere else. This is particularly bad for some cruisers, touring bikes and full-dressers, since their low profile severely limits the available lean angle. There are no shoulders to speak of, although there are a few gravel-covered pull-outs. If you find yourself in crisis corner, your options are usually limited to a sheer rock wall, or an unplanned tumble down a long, steep rock-and-tree-covered slope. At the Motorcycle resort is a monument to those who have been “bit by The Dragon” called “The Tree of Shame,” an otherwise unassuming Sycamore that has been liberally decorated with parts of motorcycles that failed to complete the route. You can always find a group of riders silently regarding the tree, a stark reminder that this is a serious road for serious riders.

Thinking About a Motocycle?*


A wedge of Honda Pacifc Coasts
Photo taken by an unnamed IPCRC member
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 3/28/2006

Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey

Gas prices have fallen, but consumers are still nervous about the volatility of the past, and seem to know instinctively that they could zoom once again, as dramatically as a climbing fighter jet. With that in mind, people are looking at two-wheeled conveyances with a far more speculative eye.

It’s tempting. Even big motorcycles can average better than 30 miles per gallon, while scooters can average better than 60 mpg. Practicality aside, motorcycles are just plain fun to ride.

I’ve ridden the better part of 18 years and well over 220,000 miles, the memories of which still bring a smile. I encourage people to entertain the possibility of riding. However, it’s important that folks go into this purchase with their eyes wide open.

If you are a new rider, and even if you have some past experience, the rider safety courses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation are extremely valuable. Over the space of a few days, you will learn skills that would otherwise take years to acquire on the road.

I will never forget the reaction of one veteran biker. At the end of the course, when he was called up to accept his certificate and card, he said, “I thought this would be a waste of my time. In fact, I learned things here this weekend that the school of experience couldn't teach me in 25 years of riding.”

Males, Middle Age, and Motorcycles*


Livin' Large! The Author at Deal's Gap.
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat April 29, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Spring is a wonderful time of year. The snow has finally gone, the sun is shining warm, and from the budding trees, we can hear the glorious sound of birds, the sounds of their songs reminding us how much they have been missed. If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear another sound of spring. The sound of a husband trying to convince his wife how much he needs a motorcycle.

There are obvious reasons. Economy, price, fun…but make no mistake; for the average middle aged American male, there is another motivation, the roots of which are buried deep within.

Middle-aged men are fighting a losing battle these days. In a society where feminists rage about equality and strength, we’re still called upon to deal with spiders, rodents, and strange noises in the night. We try to treat them with fairness and equality, only to get our heads torn off when we fail to open doors for them. Society denigrates the successful among us, then summarily equates our character with our job descriptions. (Think I’m exaggerating? Eavesdrop on a group of women sometime. When talking about men, one of the first two questions is always: “What does he do?”) Our culture, also obsessed with youth and the appearance of vitality, is ruthless in the effort to push us aside, out of sight. Even our points of view, borne out of decades of facing and defeating adversity, are dismissed as being out of step with the times.

Mainly though, it’s the age thing. We blossomed during the Woodstock era, when it was okay to lead with your glands and a sense of adventure. But then something terrible happened. We grew up. We had children. We acquired mortgages and responsibilities. We lost our hair. Now we find ourselves in our 50’s, squeezed out of the “wanna do’s” of life by the “have to do’s.” Everything hurts, especially in the morning. We find ourselves athletically outdone by the youngsters we used to “school” on the courts or in the fields. We begin to hear ourselves described as “that older guy.”

Moto-Macho



Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

Two years ago, I sold my motorcycle. For those who don’t ride, I’m not sure I can clearly convey the emotional trauma of such an event. The years and miles that unroll ‘neath man and machine really aren’t “ownership” as much as “relationship.” As riders know full well, you may own the machine, but the machine possesses you.

So, you ask, why sell? Well, the bike had 95,000 miles and, truthfully, I was ready for a new machine. The plan was to wait until winter had subsided, then “spring” for a new ride. Unfortunately, some high-priority expenses laid claim to the meager resources allocated for the bike.

The realization that I would be bike-less for the summer hit hard. For me, riding is not an exercise in transportation. It is an experience of the heart and soul; a spirit freed from the mundane to fly free from horizon to horizon. The roar of an engine is the siren song of the open road, the call of freedom…

Yeah, I know. Blah, blah, blah….

So I did what most men in my situation do: I moped. I became a skilled professional moper. If there had been an Olympic Moping team going to Beijing, I would have been its captain. Predictably, this drove my poor wife bananas. Last June, she took pity on me, and in one of her extremely rare moments of rash decision-making, she suggested that we rent a motorcycle and take a trip together.

What followed was a marvelous 6-day adventure on a Honda Goldwing (bells and whistles included) through the mountains and seashores New England. We had a great time, although I learned that it was far better to have the world’s most vociferous driving critic at an arm’s length, rather than draped across my back. (That helmet slap really gets your attention.) I was ecstatic, thinking this was the thing to put the bike purchase over the top.

"Let's Be Careful Out There"*



*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, April 28, 2009

Copyright © 2007 words and images by Ralph Couey

Riding season is upon us. As the weather warms, motorcycles will once again populate the roadways. The responsibility of survival in traffic rests upon the shoulders of both riders and drivers. For the sake of everyone, please read and heed these prudent reminders:

DRIVERS: Motorcycles are small and easily lost in the background of other traffic. Take that extra moment to look carefully before pulling into traffic, particularly when turning left.

RIDERS: Remember the first rule of inattentional blindness: Even if they look directly at you, they may not actually see you. When approaching a possible situation where a driver could pull out in front of you, plan an escape route, if possible. Watch the driver’s eyes and flash your high-beam if there’s any doubt.

DRIVERS: When merging onto a highway or changing lanes, please make the effort to actually turn and look over your shoulder. Don’t rely on that glance in the rearview mirrors. They are small and leave blind spots around your vehicle.

RIDERS: Like you, drivers are human. They have the same propensity for mistakes as you do. In traffic, leave room for the unexpected and you will lessen the risk.

DRIVERS: Don’t tailgate. A fender-bender between cars is an annoyance. The same impact could maim or kill a rider.

RIDERS: Don’t tailgate. Your headlamp could blind a driver by reflecting that light from their rear-view mirror into their eyes. Also, your proximity could unnerve or distract the driver, making the likelihood of a panic stop more likely.

The Worst Ride

Copyright © 2008 words only by Ralph Couey


Wall cloud...on steroids. Picture from NOAA


The weather here lately in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania has been a bit of a mixed bag. The geography of the mountains and the proximity of the Great Lakes (Erie in particular) normally generates a fairly wet climate. It's rare, even in the driest part of summer, that we go more than three days without precipitation.

Now, this can make for a frustrating time for motorcyclists. Nobody likes to ride in the rain, but neither do we like to see our machines idle in the garage. Consequently, bikers in this area (at least the more dedicated ones) will bite the bullet from time to time, don the rain gear and hit the road. I've done this on several occasions, sparking some interesting reactions from my colleagues. A few understand the passion, tending to nod knowingly with respect. Most, however, just shake their heads scornfully. This has made for some interesting elevator rides, especially when I step in, still dripping from my ride in.

Once in a while, I get the question, usually from folks motivated to determine exactly how mentally bent and crazy I actually am:

"What's the worst ride you've ever taken?"

What??? You Bought ANOTHER Motorcycle???

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

My passion for motorcycles has been well-documented on this blog and through the pages of the Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat. Through many posts and columns, I've tried to verbalize the emotions that this activity has stirred in me through the years.

(A partial list, for those who care in indulge...)
"Eternity and the Road"
"Let's Be Careful Out There"
"The Journey"
"Why Do We Ride?"
"Moto-Macho"
"Males, Middle Age, and Motorcycles"
"Thinking About a Motorcycle?"
"Deals Gap"
"The Honda PC800 Pacific Coast"
"Snow Day"
"Saying Goodbye..."
"My Lake Superior Adventure"
"A Wild West Ride on a Wyatt Earp Pilgrimage"
"Bikes and Big Ben"

In May, I had an accident on a bike I had owned about a month. While the injuries were painful, they weren't serious enough to dissuade me from buying another one, a purchase completed June 25th.

The reaction among my family and co-workers was universal dismay. Suddenly, I found that all the sympathy and concern accumulated during my recovery evaporated into an orgy of head-shaking befuddlement. One colleague, who had sent me flowers after the accident, declared, "You only get one bunch of flowers from me, kiddo!"

Intellectually, I can well understand their reaction. After all, why would any reasonable human being go back to an activity or situation that resulted in pain and injury?

Face-to-Face with Ol' Mr. Asphalt

In Pace Requiescat
Kawasaki Vulcan VN900LT

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Despite the picture that television and the movies paint, rarely does anyone sense any anticipatory moments before serious events occur. That’s certainly been the pattern in my life. One moment you’re sailing along, immersed in the mundane things that seem to carry us through the day. Then instantly, it all goes sideways. Usually it is some kind of accident that happens, whether in or out of a vehicle. The suddenness and violence by which the event is thrust upon us leaves us dazed and confused.

I’ve certainly had my share of these events in my life and even when recalling them in their lurid detail, I still find myself wondering why I couldn’t get that anticipatory tap on the shoulder.

It was a new motorcycle, well, new to me anyway. I had been bike-less for the better part of two years, as we sorted through some tight financial times. And it was a thing of beauty. Long, low, sleek, just the right amount of chrome, it joined the long line of dream chariots which have shared my garage over the past 17 years. I remember the day we closed the sale and I joyfully rode the bike home from the dealership – taking the long way, of course. The throttle responded to my hand and the bike leaped ahead down the highway, flitting among the sun-dappled shadows. Consciously, I held back. I had never owned a cruiser-type before and I had yet to learn is traits and balance points. Nevertheless, my spirit soared as I rode, the bike’s voice, that guttural roar echoed back from the rocks and trees and spread in my wake, like a noisy contrail. After a couple of hours, I returned home, backing the machine into the garage. Almost reluctantly, I shut the engine down. In the resulting silence, I contemplated with quiet joy a new relationship begun.

For about a month, I rode often on open roads at high speeds and inching along city streets in heavy traffic. I was getting comfortable with the bike, although I would still have an occasional awkward moment. As far as I was concerned, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Motorcycles and the Death Wish



Copyright © words and image 2008 by Ralph Couey

My Vulcan 900
Around my day job, I’ve become a highly-visible practitioner of the motorcycle arts. Hence, when an issue comes up concerning the sport, I become the recipient of many questions. But nothing generates conversation like an accident.

We humans are seemingly riveted by death and destruction. I think a big part of that is our fascination with the amount of destructive potential that exists in the simple act of driving down the road. Also, there is that sense of compassion for those victims who lives have been turned upside down. A motorcycle accident, however, is particularly horrifying.

In July, a motorcyclist was leaving town on a trip to Tennessee. He didn't get very far. As he approached the entrance to a shopping center, a driver turned left in front of him. The pictures in the paper were horrifying. The bike, a big cruiser, had essentially disintegrated; the rider, killed instantly. Over the next week or so, several concerned colleagues, some who had known the deceased, wanted to talk about that tragedy. Dependably, at some point, those conversations would wind around to the question, "Do you ever worry about accidents?"

I do think about accidents; all responsible riders do. In fact, one of the ways to avoid them is to think through the possibilities and plan for those situations. I don't, however, dwell on death. People burdened with that particular obsession have far more serious issues than traffic.With forethought, planning, and a lot of practice, the average motorcyclist can avoid accidents most of the time. Mostly it's the simple things, like...

Hibernation and the Motorcycle

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

The wind blows stiff and cold. The skies are leaden, casting the world in a sort of gloomy semi-darkness. The warm days of summer, and even the sparkling days of fall seem distant. I, like millions of other motorcyclists, stand mute and sad in the garage, having come face to face with that depressing reality. It’s time to put the bike away.

I’ve lived in many places, the last one in Missouri. Winters there mimic the ones here in Pennsylvania temperature-wise, but get far less snowfall. But around here, that first accumulating snow can come as early as mid-October. And once the road crews lay that thick layer of sand, salt, and cinders on the roadways, riding season is officially done. Even on those rare days when the sun shines and the temperatures flirt with the upper 40’s, all that stuff on the pavement renders riding a hazardous undertaking. One of the worst feelings for a rider is to be leaned into a curve and hear that tell-tale zetz as the back wheel slides out from underneath, sending you and the bike skidding wildly across the oncoming lane and into a culvert.

With those dangers in mind, the prudent ones among us go through this annual ritual of hibernating the bike, and the first taste of separation anxiety.

"Back in the Saddle Again..." Getting the Motorcycle (and the Rider) Ready*

YEEEEEEEEE HAWWWWWWW!!!!!!
(Deals Gap Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions)

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat, March 24, 2010

Copyright © 2010 words only by Ralph Couey

Ahhh! Sunshine, warm days, soft breezes, clear roads…all welcome signs that winter is finally behind us and another motorcycle riding season beckons.

Most of us have watched our bikes sit idle in the garage since October or November. It’s likely that the engine hasn’t been started but once or twice, if at all, during that time frame. Before you give in to Spring’s seductive caress, there are some things that you should do first.

Clean it up good. Not only will it look better, but getting the winter’s accumulation of dust and…whatever…off the machine will make it far easier to spot any problems.

Charge the battery. And if your battery is more than three years old, replace it. While original batteries may last five or six years, most mechanics recommend replacing aftermarket units after three years, regardless of how good they may seem to be. Unlike a car, battery failure will kill an engine, even in mid-ride. This has happened to me twice (yeah, I’m a slow learner), both times far from civilization.

Change the fluids. Oil changes are no brainers, but don’t forget the other fluids, such as brake, clutch, any other hydraulic fluid, as well as radiator and final drive, if applicable. Most bike manufacturers recommend this be done every two years or 20,000 miles. If you decide to do this yourself, make sure you bleed the air completely out of those systems, especially the brakes. Air in the lines will keep your brakes from operating. Not a good thing to happen when you’re approaching a stop sign.

If your bike is chain-driven, check the chain for condition, lubrication (if required), and proper tension.

To Ride or Not to Ride: Weathering the Choice

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Like many other aspects to life in the Laurel Highlands, spring is quite often an acquired taste. We came here from Missouri, a land where sauna-like summers and long, relatively dry winters are sandwiched around a few weeks of temperate nirvana we call spring and fall. We did have weather fluctuations from time to time, but the climate was fairly consistent. And predictable.

This is important to a motorcyclist. The decision to take the bike out for a spin or a commute involves a complex analysis of many climatic factors. Spring, at least around here, is a time when you scrape frost off the windows in the morning and wear shorts, sandals, and t-shirts in the afternoon. Jim, Tim, and Tony may tell you with confidence that the chance for precipitation is low, only to endure a tropical downpour or a snowburst on the way home.

As a weather nut, I understand the orographic influence that mountains have on air masses and how that can make forecasting a crap shoot. This leads to the inevitable question: “Do I ride today?”

Before you jump to conclusions, let me introduce you to the dynamics of my commute.

The Evolution of a Motorcyclist

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

Like most other endeavors, motorcycle riding involves a sort of evolutionary track for the rider. From the day we first mount up and through the years and decades to follow, each ride is a learning experience, accumulating skills and experience and constantly becoming more proficient.

My first motorcycle was a 1981 Suzuki GS 550T, a relatively small naked standard. I learned a lot on this bike, like how to execute a climbing right hand turn from a dead stop, how to maneuver around a sofa and cushions that had flown off a flatbed trailer in front of me, and what to do when riding into a fogbank at night and having your windshield, faceshield, and then glasses cloud up leaving for visibility only that small gap between the edge of my glasses and my cheekbone available to find the solid white line that marked the edge of the shoulder, and safety.

On that bike, I fell over several times (a common occurrence for newbies), doing slight damage to the machine, but incalculable wreckage to my ego. I learned how important it was to be on a first-name-basis with the closest motorcycle salvage yard.

Most importantly, this was the bike I took to the MSF Rider Safety Course. That was a real eye-opener. I learned a ton that weekend, and I wasn’t the only one. On graduation day, a grizzled old guy got up and said that he had taken the course to reduce his insurance rates. But, he said, “I learned (stuff) this weekend that I haven’t learned in 25 years of riding.” That was all the endorsement I needed.

Thunder's Positive Rep Spreads*


*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
Special Thunder in the Valley section
June 24, 2010

Copyright © 2010 words and image by Ralph Couey

For over a hundred years, the valley embracing the city of Johnstown thundered with the sound of steel and iron. Hard times silenced the mills in the ‘80s, but starting in 1998, the valley once again thundered, this time with a different kind of steel and iron.

Thunder in the Valley, or in local shorthand, “Thunder,” began as a modest gathering and has grown into one of the premier motorcycle events in the eastern United States. Attendance at this June event has climbed to over 200,000, quite an accomplishment for a city a tenth of that size. It’s like hosting every man, woman, and child from Richmond, Virginia or Montgomery, Alabama for the weekend. Neighboring towns, like Somerset and Ebensburg, seeing the financial bonanza, have chimed in with their own events, spreading the spirit across two counties.

The benefits to the community have been substantial. Although a full-blown economic impact study has never been done, Lisa Rager, who heads the Thunder team at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, conservatively estimates a payday of $20 to $30 million. That’s a lot of coin to an economically distressed area.

In addition, Johnstown’s profile is raised in the eyes of the visitors, nearly all of whom leave with a very positive impression of the city and her people. Cruising just a few of the plethora of motorcycle lists on the Internet, one finds uniform praise for Thunder, and for Johnstown, flowing from those who have been here.

Thunder in the Valley has been popular for not only attendees but residents as well. Some cities merely endure their rallies. Johnstown embraces ours. The annual incursion is recognized for the economic benefits, and for bringing a few days of color and excitement into the life of the community.

Bikers from across the country have put Johnstown on their summer schedules, even with the country in somewhat less than rosy economic conditions. There are numerous rallies across the country every summer. But what is it about Thunder that makes it such a unique event?

Biker Down! What Do You Do Now!*


The end of a perfect ride.

*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
July 15, 2010

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
July 18, 2010

Copyright © 2010 words only by Ralph Couey

It was a beautiful day; bright sunshine and comfortable temperatures. A line of motorcycles stretched out in front of you, thundering along roads dappled in sunlight and leaves. Suddenly, it happened. An oncoming vehicle strays across the centerline. You see a bike swerve to avoid the collision and go down. A shower of sparks flies from the sliding machine as it shreds itself all over the road. Everyone pulls over. People jump off bikes and rush toward their fallen friend. Men are shouting, women screaming; the scene has devolved into chaos. And from over the hill, you hear the unmistakable roar of a coal truck headed your way.

Summertime is the best time for group motorcycle rides. Most times, the rides are smooth and uneventful. But occasionally, it all goes sideways. In those situations, you have to act. But knowing what to do, or just as important, what NOT to do can keep a tragedy from becoming a disaster, and an injured friend from dying.

There are a host of possible injuries a rider could suffer in an accident, head and spinal trauma being the most serious. Broken bones, dislocations, lacerations and abrasions (that dreaded road rash), internal and external bleeding, and even partially or completely severed limbs are some of the injuries that could present themselves.

You can prepare yourself for this eventuality by taking an advanced first aid course and carrying an advanced first aid kit when riding. Urge all riders to wear protective gear, gloves, chaps, armored jackets, and yes, helmets. But medical and accident scene experts say there are specific things we can do to help an injured rider during the first few moments of trauma’s “Golden Hour.”

1. Secure the scene. Send someone at least 150 feet to either side of the accident to stop traffic. If you’re on a hill or a curve, go to the top of the hill or around the curve.
Assign specific people to the following tasks, and get everyone else off the road and out of the way.

2. Call 911. If this happens in one of those rare places lacking 911 coverage, call the operator, making sure it’s a local one. DO NOT YELL. Talk slowly, calmly, and clearly. Don’t hang up until the dispatcher tells you to. Give the following information:

• Your name and phone number first, in case you get cut off.
• The type of accident (car vs. motorcycle, car vs. car, etc.) and the number of vehicles involved.
• Location, as accurately as possible. Include the road name or number, which lane, the mile marker, or distance and direction from the nearest town, or landmark.
• Number of injured, and if anyone’s trapped.

3. Don’t turn off ignition keys. This may surprise you but according to Johnstown, PA Police Officer Erin P. Kabler, Lead Crash Investigator, “As an investigator, I would prefer that the ignition not be touched unless absolutely necessary (in case of fire). We can get a lot of information from the motorcycle prior to the ignition being turned off.”

4. Don’t disturb the evidence. An accident almost always involves a violation of the law, so treat it as a crime scene. Even setting a fallen bike upright can contaminate the scene and make it harder for investigators to determine the cause of the accident and assign responsibility. Someone who has their wits about them should start to write down what happened, including gathering names and addresses of witnesses. If moving one of the vehicles is medically necessary, first commit to memory its exact location and position.

5. Don’t move the injured unless they’re in immediate danger, such as:

• Face down and not breathing.
• Lying under hot metal, or if the vehicle is on fire.
• Lying in a pool of gasoline.

If it is necessary to move the injured, use three to four people. MAINTAIN SPINAL IMMOBILITY by log rolling or a blanket drag. Only move them the minimum distance absolutely needed. Drag. Don’t carry. Take them upslope away from leaking gas, or upwind from fire. Don’t remove helmet or clothing. If the person is having trouble breathing, loosen their collar. Gently support and immobilize the head and neck, as well as any obvious fractures. If the injured party is fully or partially conscious, talk to them by name. Keep them awake and aware of their surroundings.

6. Remember the ABC’s of first aid: Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. Use approved methods of artificial respiration to keep them breathing. Control bleeding by direct pressure to the wound. Do not use a tourniquet unless a limb is completely severed. If they’re conscious, ask them about any medications they’re taking and write them down. Above all, remember that you’re neither a doctor or a paramedic. You do only the minimum necessary to sustain life until help arrives.

7. Once First Responders are on-scene, back off. Direct law enforcement to the person who was writing the accident down. Only one person should talk. Multiple and simultaneous conversations only waste time. If you know the person’s next of kin, give that info to the police. Let them make the call. The last thing a spouse or parent needs to hear is a call from “Grossed-Out Greg” or “Terrified Tina.”

Above all, remain calm. Panic accomplishes nothing except further injury.

When a friend or loved one is hurt, we all want to help. But we must be smart about what we do, or risk doing serious harm.