Ralph Couey

Ralph Couey
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions

About Me

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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.

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.