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, 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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Types of Street Motorcycles

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Scooters: Small to medium engines (80 to 650 cc), excellent mpg, comfortable to ride, step through frames, smaller wheels, some luggage space.  But, they are smaller in size, harder for other motorists to see.  The smaller scooters may not be powerful enough for the highway, particularly when carrying heavy loads.  Because of their small size and light weight, they are also prone to high crosswinds and gusts by passing semis and dump trucks.  Honda Elite, Suzuki Burgman.
Standards:  Also called “naked bikes” because they have no fairings or body panels.  Small to very large displacement (250 to 2300 cc), good to excellent mpg, mostly comfortable, no luggage space, although some may have cargo racks.  The smaller types of this class are good for all-around general duty.  They are relatively inexpensive and cheap to maintain.  The larger types are heavy, fast, and can be a real handful for the novice rider.  Honda Rebel and Nighthawk, Suzuki GS550, Ducati Monster, Suzuki SV650, Triumph Rocket III.

Motorcycles: Choosing Wisely

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Gas prices have soared and show no signs of going down, which has driven cost of operating a car or truck for personal use high enough to be of real concern to your household budget.  In your search for ways to cut those costs, you may be considering a motorcycle or scooter.
But is it really that much cheaper?
For those of you considering two-wheel transportation, there are some things you need to seriously think about as you make this decision.
First of all, why are you buying the bike?
This may seem a bit of an asinine question, but stay with me, here.  There are nine different types, or classes of street-legal motorcycles, each designed for different purposes.  Scooters, standards, cruisers, dual sports, sport bikes, sport-tourers, tourers, trikes, and customs.  If you’re only commuting around 10 miles per day and you don’t intend to ride to Glacier National Park this summer, you don’t need a $30,000 Harley full-dresser.  You can do just as well with a large scooter, or a medium-sized standard.  Also, while you’re in learning mode, those less-expensive bikes are less expensive to repair.
How much can you spend?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hybrids and the Future of Motorcycles*

*Johnstown, PA  Tribune-Democrat
April 17, 2011
as "Raise a cheer for big electric bikes"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The internal combustion engine is living on borrowed time.  Gas and diesel fuel are vulnerable to political and environmental pressures that make its supply and price unstable.  In response to these conditions, electric vehicles are attempting to move to the mainstream, but limited range and the fact that plug-in outlets still get electricity mostly from coal-fired power plants relegate them to novelty status.
There doesn’t seem to be a single inventor of the IC engine, but rather an extensive roster of inventors and engineers contributing to its development.  The first concept was done by a Mesopotamian named Al-Jazari in 1206.  The Chinese, Mongols, and Arabs developed a working model in the 13th century.  Da Vinci produced a design in 1509.  But even with all the improvements, it’s still the same basic principal that has been around for over 800 years.
Hybrids have been a good compromise, combining electricity and a small gas engine.  The design combines the emission-less value of electrical motors with the range of the IC engine.  This development is encouraging, although no one has yet given me a satisfactory answer to the question of what do you do with the toxic battery packs after they wear out. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Motorcycles and the Statistics of Death*

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
April 16, 2011
as "Motorcycles and statistics"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Motorcycle riding season is nearly upon us, and naturally I am eagerly awaiting the nexus of meteorological conditions conducive to safe riding.
My colleagues, out of their concern for my safety, deposited the latest edition of the Journal of Forensic Science on my desk.  You might characterize this publication as the pinup magazine for Coroners.  Three articles were bookmarked.  One was entitled, “Massive Lesions Owing to Motorcyclist Impact Against Guardrail Posts,” a study of two accident victims who, after losing control of their rides, slid across the road and slammed into the posts supporting the guardrails, cutting one of the riders literally in half.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but I have to admit the pictures were kinda cool.  Another article, called, “Traumatic Testicular Displacement in Motorcycle Drivers” went into excruciating detail (including some not-so-cool pictures) about the fate of the family jewels during the trauma of frontal collisions. 
Touched as I was over their apparent concern, I read the articles over and set them aside.
The third one was the most interesting.  “Death by Motorcycle:  Background, Behavioral, and Situational Correlates of Fatal Motorcycle Collisions.”  This was an impressive statistical study done by Dr. Samuel Nunn, Professor of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, part of the Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

"C'mon, Spring!"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
This is a tough time of year for a motorcyclist.  Winter has been long and unrelenting.  Even today, approaching mid-March, as I look outside, the hill a half-mile away has gone opaque, shrouded in yet one more snowstorm.  Below my window, the Little Conemaugh River runs deep and rapid, fed by the almost constant rainfall and melting snow.  I am anxiously, even impatiently waiting for the wintry mess to give way to clear skies and relatively warmer temperatures.  Out in the garage, my bike sits.  I sense Wyatt is also feeling frustrated.  I can almost hear him whisper an exasperated “C’mon, man!”
But these are feelings grown familiar.  They happen every year about this time, especially since I moved from Missouri to the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania almost seven years ago.  In my memory, I remember March as the start of the riding season.  Temperatures were still on the cool side, but snow and ice had become a forgotten memory.  Here in the mountains, however, climate plots against me.  Every year, the last time snow fell from the sky was as late as mid-May.  The riding season is short, but tempered by the almost complete lack of uncomfortably hot days. 
Over the winter, I bought a new tire, a new crash bar, a new luggage rack, a new stator, and had my seat sent out to be re-done.  The Kawasaki VN900 is a marvelous machine.  It is a mid-size bike that comes off looking much bigger than it actually is.  Obviously, some skilled and experienced engineers were involved in its concept and design. 
I just wish they hadn’t given the seat design to the intern.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Red-Light Purgatory

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

When reads about “Dead Red” laws, the image conjured up is of some draconian McCarthy-esque measure from the 1950’s. Actually, it has nothing to do with politics.
Every motorcyclist and bicyclist is familiar with the frustration of pulling up to and intersection and watching the lights go through 2 or 3 cycles without getting the green. This problem has been the subject of increasingly vociferous lobbying from riders.

Some intersections don’t have automatically sequenced lights. They’re triggered by sensors buried in the roadway. These sensors don’t rely on weight, but mass. As a large metal object, like a car or truck, rolls up, the steel creates a “bubble” in the ambient magnetic field. This bubble is detected by the sensors which then trigger the lights. The Navy uses this method, called "Magnetic Anomaly Detection," to locate submerged submarines. These devices have to be calibrated, but vehicle used is usually the 10-ton truck the road crews work out of. In terms of magnetic mass, that’s a far cry from even the largest motorcycle. Consequently, the rider sits at the intersection…and sits…and sits…and sits…well, you get the idea.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Riding in the Thaw*

*Somerset Daily American
March 19, 2011
as "Start out slow this spring"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

As February turns into March, warmer weather will begin to spread northward.  Eventually even in the arctic-like north and northeast, the snow will melt, the roads will clear, and motorcyclists will take to the road in glee to start another riding season.
But in some parts of the nation, winter still grimly hangs on.  In those areas, however, riders will be teased by the appearance of a day or two of relatively warm weather and sun.  On those days, it is hard to resist the temptation to take the bike out for a spin. 
But there are still dangers out there.
Roads are still covered with salt, sand, and whatever else the DOT uses when the snow falls.  For a motorcycle, a road surface like that can be similar to riding on a bed of ball bearings.  Traction and control is decidedly iffy, not helped by the water left by melting snow.  Also, there are still shaded places where patches of ice remain.
On top of that, we must remember that drivers are not used to looking for us this early in the season.  Caution is the prudent style when riding in traffic.  This is especially true when approaching cross traffic, or motorists pulling out from side streets or turning left across your path.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Riders in the Storm"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Motorcyclists of all stripes look forward with great anticipation to the end of winter and the return of sunshine, warm weather, and clear roads.  Spring can be a glorious time to ride, but changing weather patterns can develop dangerous conditions.
Spring in the Midwest and high plains is a time when war breaks out between warm, moist air surging up from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, dry air making its stubborn retreat into Canada. The resulting battleground can generate strong to severe thunderstorms, some of which may spawn tornadoes.
There are different types of thunderstorms, and it’s important to know the difference.  There are isolated storms, the ones meteorologists like to call “garden variety” or “pop-up” that develop, rain themselves out and dissipate over a couple of hours or less.  The hazards of these storms are torrential rainfall, extremely limited visibility, strong wind gusts, and lightning. Most riders are familiar with these, a regular encounter on afternoon rides.  Probably the biggest danger is the heavy rain, which can induce hydroplaning, a wave of water that builds up at the front of your tires that can actually lift the bike off the road’s surface, sending the machine skidding across the asphalt.  Don’t think for one moment that rubber tires protect you from lightning strikes.  It has happened, last year in Kentucky for example.  Also, the heavy raid restricts visibility for drivers as well.  We know how hard it is for them to see us on a good day.  In a downpour, trying to peer through a windshield and wipers, it’s even more difficult.  Since these storms are isolated, i.e. fairly small in footprint, the best thing is simply to pull off and wait for them to pass, or change your route to go around them.