I’ve Never Owned a Car

I came to this rather odd realization. Surprisingly, I’ve never owned a car.

Just like my parents’ Dodge Dart

In 1979 I learned to drive in a green 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger that belonged to my parents. They bought it used from my uncle who never held onto a vehicle for very long so it was in good shape.

A year later, halfway through high school, we became a two-car family with the addition of a red 1974 VW Super Beetle. I used that to commute to my job in the frozen foods department of the Heartland Grocery store in Seekonk, MA. After a long day or work my foot slipped off the clutch while rounding a corner in the store’s parking lot and I drove it into a cement light pole base, crunching the front end like an empty coffee can, and filling my forehead with tiny bits of glass that kept the emergency room nurse busy for a hour.

In 1982 I purchased my first vehicle, a 1971 Ford Econoline E-100 cargo van for $900.   The exterior had been painted a flat grey color by hand with a paint brush by the previous owner. I rattle-canned it with cheap gloss black paint, and later painted a yellow Z-stripe on the sides, inspired I think by television’s “A-Team” van. The E-100 had a 3-speed transmission with a really wobbly shift lever on the steering column. The steering itself was lose and unpredictable with a ton of play in the steering wheel. Me and my friend Chris would drive it around Lincoln, RI for hours coasting in first gear at idle, feet off the pedals, puttering non-stop around quiet neighborhoods, country roads and through empty intersections at a snail’s pace.

Like my 1971 E100

That old Ford van changed my life. Owning the cargo van afforded me the opportunity to get my first real film production gig as a production assistant on an indie film shot locally in Rhode Island, but produced by some NYU film school grads who lived in NYC. In the fall of 1983, at the end of the two-weekend shoot in Narragansett, I drove the crew and their film gear back to NYC and couch-surfed in their Hoboken, NJ third-floor apartment for about five months.

As a film and TV location assistant in the 1980’s in NYC I drove production vehicles provided by my employers. Cars, cargo vans, passenger vans and a box truck once in a while. The subway was really the only good way to get around in NYC anyway. Relearning to drive in NYC’s traffic madness in the 80’s was invaluable, and with a film scouting permit from the Mayor’s office I could park just about anywhere with impunity.

I bought my first motorcycle in 1988, I think. It was a 1981 Yamaha XJ650 Maxim with about 10k on the odometer. I used to park it in the narrow hallway of my brownstone apartment on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. One summer later I got side-swiped by a car changing lanes and although I was unscathed, the car punctured a huge hole in the side of the motor and oil spewed everywhere.  I scrapped that bike.

My Old U-Haul in 1993

Around 1990 I bought a decommissioned vehicle from U-Haul in Brooklyn, NY for $1500. It was a Mazda B2000 with a small, square aluminum U-Haul box on the back. I used it to haul around Location department supplies and traffic cones on “Night and the City” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities“. When I decided to leave NYC in 1991 I filled it up with my belongings, lashed a dozen milk crates full of stuff to the roof, and headed west to Seattle. Once settled on the west coast I outfitted the box with some wooden shelves and used the Mazda as a camera / grip truck. I sold it a couple of years later.

I found that most of the cameramen in Seattle were driving minivans so I bought a used blue Dodge Caravan, a ’87 I think, and outfitted it with a auxiliary battery and a 12v power inverter so I could power small video lights and charge batteries in the field. I put a lot of miles on that van and finally sold it to a couple of laborers in 2000 when I bought a brand new Honda Odyssey.

My neighbor in Crown Heights, Seattle, had an second generation Honda Odyssey and I really liked the look of it. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many Odyssey’s on the road back then. Since I had a baby on the way and business was good, I got a loan and bought the van. Finding one in silver turned out to be a bit of hassle and I had to have one delivered from Spokane, WA. We met the dealer in Ellensburg, signed the paperwork, and drove it home. In the last 20 years the Odyssey has served well. It had the faulty gearbox problem that plagued early Odyssey’s so the transmission  had to be swapped out twice within the first 50k miles, but otherwise it’s just been oil changes, filters and brake pads. At the 200,000 mile mark I had the suspension rebuilt proactively. When my second son Miles got his driver’s license in the fall of 2018 I handed over the Odyssey keys to him with 213k miles on the clock.

The Old Honda SC700 Nighthawk in 1995

There have been a few other motorcycles along the way too, including a Yamaha 600 and a Honda Nighthawk SC700 in the early 90’s. As of this draft in 2019 the BMW K75 doesn’t see much use and the Versys 650 is the steed of choice.

The big 15-year-old E350 former cargo van, remolded into a utility/camper-van with just 115k miles on it does the heavy work.

Will I ever own a car? Probably – when I can’t ride anymore.

Making MOTOTREK

Back in January I came up with the idea of producing a mostly-educational YouTube series about motorcycle riding technique and safety. I was searching for an excuse to combine two things I enjoy doing; riding and making films.

I pitched the idea to Bret Tkacs, a professional motorcycle safety instructor, co-owner at Puget Sound Safety, and regular contributor to the popular AdventureRiderRadio podcast. After a couple of meetings we decided to have a go of it!

The plan was simple. Make short educational videos about Bret, motorcycle riding and gear, and publish them quickly. I didn’t expect to build an audience quickly, and so far that’s been the case. The subscribers are trickling in.

A couple of the early episodes were documentary style and took a full day to shoot, but lately we’ve been more focused and can shoot a piece in about an hour. Post production averages about one long day per episode which is quick by some standards.

I’m using a DJI OSMO for most of the filming, supplemented by four YI action cameras and a Canon C100 mk2 for zoom lens and shallow focus shots. The whole kits fits in the Pelican top box on the back of the Versys. Initially I carried a selection of EOS lenses for the c100 but I’m finding all I really need is the 24-105mm f/4 zoom.

Good audio has been a challenge from the start as we figure out the best workflow. Initially we tried to make the Sena helmet cam the primary audio but the noise cancellation on the is horrendous. It’s fine <5mph but terrible at speed because of the wind. Attaching a Rode VMPR to the OSMO and C100 works well in close quarters if the ambient sound is fairly quiet. A Sennheiser lav mic feeding an old Tascam recorder works best, even if the double-system sound needs to be synced up later.

We’ve shot in a variety of on-road and off-road locations throughout WA state and a bit in OR. So far no problems with the gear bouncing around in the top case for hours on end, even bouncing through the roughest trails of the WA BDR.

Overall these have been fun to produce and Bret has been great to work with. Each episode is better than the previous one, and I expect they’ll keep getting better as we refine the process.

The videos are available on the project’s web site, MOTOTREK.net, or on our YouTube channel.

Snowblock in Capitol Forest

With temperatures barely hitting 50F for a few days last week I rattle-canned some of the KLE’s green to black and then tried to put a few local miles on after the paint had dried.

I roamed around out towards Shelton and McCleary and then cut back to the west side of Capitol Forest. There are both paved and unpaved routes for vehicles through the forest.  Both are amazing rides but this early in the year the paved D-line will be covered with slippery moss and ice in places. The muddy C-line sounded like more fun anyway.

Heading east on the C-line in Capitol Forest near Olympia, WA

The C-line’s condition was actually pretty good. Plenty of ruts and mud from all the rain we get up here (it’s a rain forest, you know) but the KLE650 handled it fine, certainly instilling more confidence than the heavier and sportier K75.

Cold and muddy January ride in Capitol Forest.

It was Friday afternoon and with the exception of a few logging trucks, I had the road all to myself.

As I gained elevation I started seeing more snow on the roadside, and finally at about 1100′ the road was wall-to-wall snow and ice. Non-passable for this rider. After a quick photo break I turned around and headed back down to US12, and then back home to hose off the dirt.

The end of the road for me! Near “Fuzzy Top” in Capitol Forest.

It was a short and sweet break from the winter doldrums.

Winter is Hard for This Motorcyclist

The 2016 motorcycle season ended for me on November 1st when I buttoned-up the K75 in Cranston, RI and flew back to Olympia. It was a good year for bike traveling (23,000 miles mostly west of the Rockies) but not a great one as several trips were cut short due to work, weather and family stuff.

In November, as the winter gloom and rain moved into the pacific northwest, I hunkered down in the warm house and caught-up on Adventure Motorcycle Radio podcasts and unread motorcycle forum threads while the new KLE650 trickle-charged out back. Oh, how nice it would be to live in sunny southern California where the weather always welcomes the motorcyclist!

A smattering of work delivers distraction, and the winter solstice and holidays pass, but still the months-long absence of two-wheeled travel is cutting a hole in my heart that hurts. Motorcycle withdrawal has set in. Day dreams of next year’s riding interrupt duties and downtime. Where to go? Who to visit? Can I make motorcycle traveling lucrative?

I should explain that last bit. Traveling is unquestionably rewarding for me. It clears my cluttered mind and kindles creativity. After a week of fresh air and extremes on the road my brain wakes up and changes gears. The road is emotionally gainful, but can I turn it into a business? I’m working on it. But back to my whining…

To be clear, it’s not the riding I miss most in winter. The cold and wet makes riding up here uncomfortable but not impossible and plenty of Washington riders continue to commute through the winter. Traveling by bike is more than just riding. The bike invites connection and encourages exploration. It opens doors to conversations and sometimes relationships like nothing else. A solo motorcycle traveler is seldom lonely. Every fuel stop, cafe and campground brings new introductions and stories. But not in the winter.  Those interactions are what I miss in winter… and the twisty mountain roads.

Winters off the bike do have some advantages. There’s time for maintenance, ordering parts, researching new gear and planning for the next season. I’ve added a spare clutch cable and air filter to the KLE’s panniers, installed a high-viz rear LED light bar, and added a couple of Horizons Unlimited meetings to the calendar. It’ll probably be February before the rubber meets the road. Which reminds me, I need to wear these OEM Dunlop tires down soon so I can switch to Shinko Ravens.

In the meantime I’ll need to be patient, I suppose. The world is warming but the best PNW roads will still be coated with mossy slickness for a while.

A Week in Tokyo

I did some traveling for work recently, but without the motorcycle.

On Saturday November 5th, after three weeks travelling cross-country on the K75, I flew home from Providence to Olympia, and promptly headed to the office to pack up video camera gear. The next morning it was straight back to the airport for a long 14-hour flight to Tokyo where I’d work for a few days shooting behind-the-scenes video for the Classic Rock Music Awards which took place at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan sumo arena on Friday 11/11.

I arrived in Tokyo at about midnight on Monday, took a short train ride from the airport with my producer, then a cab, checked-in at the Marriott Ginza, and had Tuesday morning free to wander around downtown Tokyo. The cab drivers we found in Tokyo did not speak any English and communicating our destinations was a little problematic. We tried to show them addresses on the smartphone but I suspect they had trouble reading the small displays.

Later in the afternoon on Tuesday, my producer and I visited the recording studio where the house band for Friday’s show was rehearsing.  Mostly we just hung out so that the musicians could get used to us. We’d come back the following day with cameras and we were hoping they’d let us get up close and comfortable.

Phil Collen (Def Leppard) rehearses with Ray Luzier, Dean Deleo, Robert Deleo, Ray Luzier and Tommy Henrickson.

After breakfast at the hotel on Wednesday morning I wandered around Ginza, a popular upscale shopping area of Tokyo, and then southeast towards Tokyo Bay. Downtown was clean, organized and not as crowded as I expect it to be.

Honda moped in Tokyo.
Honda Benly CD90 in Tokyo.

“Tokyo, February 20, 1998 — Honda Motor Co., Ltd. has announced the launch, on March 20, of the new, improved Benly CD50/CD90 business bikes with specially toughened “Tuff-up” tire inner tubes to minimize the risk of punctures now fitted as standard. With their 4-cycle OHC single-cylinder engines, which provide plenty of power at lower and medium revs to give a very smooth ride, these bikes have sold well in Japan for many years.”

Near Tokyo Bay
Near Tokyo Bay

On Wednesday afternoon it was back to the recording studio / rehearsal space, this time with cameras and audio in-tow. We filmed a string of visiting musicians who had come to rehearse with the house band. Jeff Keith, Frank Hannon and Brian Wheat (Tesla), then Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and finally Johnny Depp. We finished the day with an amazing traditional sushi meal in a basement restaurant hidden on a dark, downtown street thanks to the executive producer.

On Thursday morning I took a short walk down to the famous Tsukiji fish market. I brought my Fuji XE2s still photo camera and a 14mm lens, but after seeing all the hustle and coordinated chaos in the market I decided to shoot video, something the Fuji camera does not do very well.

On Thursday afternoon we loaded-in to the sumo arena location where we’re be for the rest of our visit. I shot behind-the-scenes video of the bands practicing and setting up on stage.

On Friday morning, even though I didn’t have very much free time and it was pouring rain,  I decided to head back to the fish market to shoot a few stills.

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Turret truck at the Tsukiji fish market

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Tsukiji Fish Market

I got soaked down to my skivvies in no time, but fortunately the camera gear was not affected.

The market is an amazing place. The hustle and bustle is unending. Ideally the best time to visit would be at sunrise near the summer solstice. All the real action happens very early in the morning, and by 10am things have quieted down.

The rest of the day Friday was spent shooting video back at the sumo arena. Sound checks, red carpet shots, backstage interviews, but mostly I just wandered around trying to capture moments with the old rockers having a good time.

During the show on Friday night I spent most of the time on stage behind the drummer and guitar amps filming towards the audience.

Caught shooting behind Johnny Depp’s guitar amp.

Took the 10am bus from the hotel to the airport.

Got to the airport early on Saturday morning and had enough time for a good ol’ American waffle breakfast from Tully’s! It was actually kind of gross. The waffle felt like a kitchen sponge and the whipped cream was unnatural. On the other hand, I flew Asiana Airlines round trip to Tokyo and the Korean meals onboard were fantastic.

The icing on the cake was a trip back in time!
I departed Tokyo at 2pm on Saturday and arrived in Seattle two hours earlier that same day!

Riding the K75 to RI

During the last three weeks in October, 2016  I rode the K75 from WA to RI so that I could leave the bike on the east coast permanently.

It was a cold and wet ride most of the way. Heavy rains from Washington to Montana, and the temperature never really got above 50F degrees all the way across the country. The days usually began in the 30’s and then peaked in the 40’s. I stuck mostly to the interstate highways to save time since daylight is limited this time of year, but I tried to venture off-road at least once a day for an hour or so. I packed camping gear but never used it. There was never a problem finding cheap motels.  Route Map here.

Map of the ride from WA to RI.

I made it to Missoula on my first day and stayed in a tiny motel downtown across from an Indian restaurant. After an early start and some good espresso on day 2 the clouds opened up and the sun started to come out on the eastern side of the Rockies.

In eastern Montana I diverted off road through a canyon for about ten miles.

Some Canyon, MT

Double rainbow, Montana.

Scary weather on the way to Bismarck, ND.

I spent a full day visiting the Dakota pipeline protest camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. I was hoping to make some photos of native peoples preparing for the upcoming winter. In order to receive permission to photograph in the camp I agreed to a whole list of restrictions imposed upon the press including the promise not to photograph children, animals, food prep, or any adult without express permission. It was very limiting.

Protest camp, ND

Near Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY

Near Ithaca, NY

I stopped to visit with friends in Ithaca and Kingston, NY, and then finished the ride east and parked the bike at my dad’s place in RI.

Horizons Unlimited Meeting @ Yosemite

I rode I-5 to Eugene, OR, then east to Crater Lake, then south past Mount Shasta and into the Sierra mountains to the Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting just east of Yosemite at the Mariposa Fairgrounds.

It was a great ten-day ride.

Made some new friends, met Mr. Sam Manicom and got to explore some new excellent California back roads.

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Final stretch of OR highway just north of California.

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The road south from Lake Tahoe, headed into the hills.

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Camping outside the office HQ at the Horizons Unlimited Meeting.

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Lotsa lights and stickers

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More lights and stickers.

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The always entertaining and well-travelled Sam Manicom

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A little bike that recently traveled Cuba.

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Passes are open!

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Interesting bike.

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Travelers Aaron Mitchell, Sam Manicom, Sean Farnan and Jens Becker

How Not to Buy a New Bike

Kawasaki valve shims are a perfect fit for the BMW K75’s valve adjustment, and the Kawasaki dealership is right down the road, so in July I stopped in to buy a few of the $5 hardened steel discs. Positioned on the left and right of the dealer’s main entrance were a couple of brand new, bright green 2014 Versys 650’s with “SALE! $4995” price cards. I sat on one and thought it felt a bit small. The upright riding position was not what I’m used to. I purchased the shims and returned home to finish the valve adjustment on the BMW.

I did a bit of research on the Versys and found that most owners loved them and found them incredibly reliable. They have quite a following in Europe as an all-arounder type bike. It was hard to find any negative Versys feedback in forums and blogs, and the YouTube reviews are glowing.

A couple of weeks later while enjoying the K75 on the roads around  Capital Forest on a beautiful early afternoon, I thought to visit the Kawasaki dealer and have another look at the discounted Versys. You see, after the  K75’s last valve adjustment, it was clear that the BMW engine would manage only another 5 or 10 thousand miles before requiring a top-end rebuild. The valves are actually already below spec and there is no more room to adjust them.

After the dealer answered some of my questions about the Versys, mostly maintenance related, I decided to take a test ride. The scanned my driver’s license, I signed the waiver, waited almost an hour for them to prep the new machine, and then hopped on and headed off towards the country. I made it two blocks before promptly slipping on an oil patch going around a slow-speed corner and the bike fell out from underneath me instantly. I had forgotten how slippery brand new tires are, and I wished the dealer had reminded me before handing me the keys.

The low-side fall happened in the blink of an eye.  I landed unscathed on my right shoulder while the bike slid on its side for a couple of feet towards the middle of the road. I stood up swearing at my poor judgement. A passing motorist helped me lift the bike and offered help, but I was fine. I looked over the Versys for a minute and then hopped back on and rode it two blocks back to the dealership.

I wandered around the showroom floor for what seemed like hours waiting for the verdict from the service department. I silently shuffled acceptable repair values around in my head. Maybe the salesman would exclaim the fault was not mine and I could leave uncharged! Maybe I should make a run for it! Although damages were entirely cosmetic, the repair bill for parts and labor tallied-up at $2100. Ouch. The thought of a $2100 test ride made my head hurt. Financially it made more sense to buy the bike than to pay and walk away, so that’s what I did.

I returned to the dealership a week later to retrieve the Versys. The service department un-bent the brake pedal and assured me the bike was sound, albeit a bit scuffed up here and there. I took it slow out of the lot and through town, careful not to lean into the corners on those shiny Dunlops. The sky was clear and the weather perfect so I headed to my favorite local destination, Mt Rainier National Park.

On familiar country roads through Yelm, then Ashford  and into the park’s west entrance the bike started to grow on me. Careful not to exceed the recommended 4000 rpm maximum during the engine’s 500-mile break-in period, I was surprised at how smooth the ride was. Kawasaki’s parallel twin engines have a reputation for vibrating, but this Versys wasn’t too bad. Up to the lodge at Paradise for a quick stop then over the pass and down the east side along Steven’s Canyon Road to WA-122. Leaving the park’s south entrance and then west towards home on US-12 I felt like the Versys’s tires had enough miles on them to experiment with handling, and I discovered that the bike enjoys turning.

After about 200 miles, with the sun setting behind me, I arrived home feeling like things were much better than I had expected.  I wasn’t ready to buy a new bike this summer, emotionally or financially. But the Versys seems like a good value and I anticipate it being less needy than my K75.

Hot Rockies Figure 8

Here’s the route.

In June I jumped on  US-12 through WA and ID and met some moto friends from across the country in Red Lodge, MT for week of fun in the sun. Or should I say “in the heat”. It was hot enough to break all-time records across the American southwest. Three of us rode the Beartooth Highway east of Yellowstone National Park and then zipped down to Logan, UT where we met up with another three riders.  Over the next few days we dipped further south in Utah, then east into Colorado, down to the Four Corners monument where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Then it was north through the endless beauty of Utah’s canyons back up to Salt Lake City where we wrapped it all up.

Johnny on the Beartooth Highway

Headed south through UT

Johnny on the Moki Dugway in Utah.

Dan on the Moki Dugway, UT