Swan Song

This was a long time ago. It started when I was still in college. My first real job was still two years away and I wouldn’t meet my wife for another dozen years. It was a great time to go for a ride!

I’m not what you would call a romantic about mechanical things, but I’m positive my life wouldn’t be as it is today if not for one motorcycle. I know that at some point I would’ve found something to ride, but certainly not like the Honda, the one that would fill my life with adventure. That bike and I were meant to be together.

For most of the twenty-five years I rode my old 750 my best pal Dave and I would take what we called our “last long ride of the season.” Long ago we’d talked our wives into letting us take off on a trip and somehow it had become an annual deal. Our season ending rides had taken us from our Ohio homes to Acadia National Park, Ely, Minnesota, to Virginia and North Carolina, and countless miles all over West Virginia, among other destinations. This year’s trip would be down the Natchez Trace, then we figured into Louisiana and maybe points east. Like many of our trips we didn’t have a plan so to speak, more a direction of travel to guide us.

Dave and I had long ago learned that no trip was like another. That all developed their own character. Not long before this trip was to begin the engine on my old bike developed an oil leak. From a mechanical point of view it wasn’t much of a problem, I just needed to keep adding oil. But from a housekeeping perspective it was a mess.

With a flashlight I’d found the source, a bad gasket at the base of the cylinders. Each time the crankshaft turned a squirt gun inside the engine pumped a small gusher out onto the case. The repair would require removing the engine, something out of the question at this late stage of our planning. I’d have to live with it.

At first the leak generated a single flow of oil from the front of the engine, to the left and over the case that housed the generator, then down and out of sight. But no small leak stays small for long. Soon there was a Tigris and Euphrates of Valvoline flowing from two points, with the wind funneling the delta back over the shift lever – and my shoe!

At a stop light the dripping oil would become a “Honda Valdez” reminder that we’d been there. Not many people can lay claim to needing an oil change every two hundred miles – for the left shoe! I wrapped a towel around the engine and let the oil collect there. When the towel got dark I changed it. It worked something like a 20-50W Wonder Bra, or better yet, a high-density Pampers diaper. It was a sight, but it worked.

Dave and I have always had a knack for discovery. Our first day out took us through the back roads of Ohio and Kentucky into Tennessee. That night we found ourselves sitting on the deck of a tiny marina along the Cumberland River. During dinner we heard what appeared to be a rock and roll band warming up, in of all places a nearby parking lot. On a makeshift stage were three men and a young woman, whooping it up.

It was immediately apparent they weren’t your typical Friday night band. They were jamming’ up a storm. We were told that one of the musicians had purchased a $5 strand of Christmas lights at a yard sale to dress up the stage. Most of the lights worked. They added to the aura.

The scene approached the surreal. These four were playing to an almost empty parking lot. There were maybe two cars and three pick-up trucks, and an audience that never reached even a dozen people. We were about to witness something unique.

The musicians called themselves Guns for Hire. They’d driven over from Nashville, an hour away to put on the show. The four were studio musicians of the highest order. The bass player was Greg Johnson. We were told that if a “name” musician came through Nashville, Greg played for them. The lead guitarist and vocalist was Randy York, who had toured with Dan Peek after he had split with America. You can’t believe the performance he put on.

The young lady was Tammy George, a lass with a mountain of talent, but for much of the show she was a spectator like the rest of us. Her claim to fame, no small feat at that, was a hit song she had written for Wynonna, for whom she’d sung back-up.


It was the drummer who stole the show. His name was Billy Mason, who toured with Tim McGraw’s band. We are talking top drawer. No one could keep up with him. Even though this was the heart of country music, these guys were pure rock and roll. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones where just a part of their show. When the drummer got on a roll he did Punk, he did Rap, pick any famous comedian and he did them as well. It was high octane!

The music rolled from their instruments. Dave and I joked that this was standing room only because there was no place to sit. A couple in their mid-fifties were dancing to our right, almost lost in the darkness. After three hours the band called it quits. By that time Dave and I were the audience. After we left the band started up again. We listened to them from our tent, maybe a hundred yards away. We weren’t much of an audience, but we knew those four weren’t playing for us. What a great way to start our trip.

Dave is one of those people who fits in anywhere. Although he’s good natured and has a great sense of humor he keeps it pretty well disguised. If there’s one constant in Dave’s life it’s his unwavering routine. He doesn’t respond well to cute of superfluous, but quietly flaunts the fact he hasn’t shaved since his last day in the US Army, decades ago.

When at leisure he’s always attired in black, sort of like how Dale Earnhardt dressed, but without the swagger. At his government job there was an expectation that he wear a coat and tie, but he was no stuffed shirt. On a Monday, the tie he would often wear was of Edvard Munch’s, “The Scream.”

Our second day was spent mostly on the beautiful parkway. The only natural breaks on the Trace are in Jackson and Tupelo, where we stopped our second night. When you visit Tupelo you’re pretty much obligated to visit Elvis’ birthplace. It was the perfect place for Dave to add to his tie collection. Together we spent maybe a hundred dollars on souvenirs. The city of Tupelo was very happy we stopped by. The king would have said, “Thankuvermuch.”

Over our many years Dave and I and our bikes had overcome all kinds of obstacles. We’d survived hail, heat, sleet, Joan Claybrook, downpours and snow. And me, Dave’s snoring. This year’s kick in the head came courtesy of Louisiana and Mississippi where we suffered through a hundred miles of “love bugs,” the mating lightning bug look-a-likes with one-track minds. Hundreds upon hundreds of blissful pairs, blindly kamikaziing against our windshields. And our helmets, and glasses, ugh, and foreheads. Our windshields became opaque, our headlights unable to pass even a token high beam. We pressed on because we had too. This was not a place to yawn.

The freeway took us around Biloxi and through Mobile. Sitting right off the freeway bridge, well below in Mobile Bay was “The” Alabama, the WWII battleship, the one with 16 inch guns. It was enough to raise goosebumps on top of goosebumps. What a sight! Focused Dave rode right by, never saw a thing.

The miles slipped by, the Florida panhandle next. It was both beautiful, nature at its finest, or repulsive, where developers had moved in to fill their pockets. In Georgia we rode through Jimmy Carter’s hometown, and Americus, and Andersonville, past its Civil War Cemetery. It was a different world for Dave and me. The tobacco and cotton fields were new to us, the statues and state flags so different from the rest of the country. I’d only seen pictures of Antebellum Mansions, but now they had life. Everywhere we saw the rich history of the Confederate South and felt the pride of its heirs. There is no part of the country where people are so genuinely polite.

When Dave and I stopped for traffic lights or for meals we talked about everything. Would Jimmy Carter join us for dinner? Why did our waitress in Florida strand us, choosing to sit and flirt with an Air Force fly boy instead, and we both wondered if my bike’s Wonder Bra was a fire hazard. We pondered the questions that have plagued mankind for years. If deer whistles work so well, why are they magnets for every dog in a two-county radius?

The miles with Dave were adding up. My cycle was doing only okay. There had been a few problems getting the Honda fired up in the morning, but nothing that delayed us. After all, it’s old. And like many of us with a lot of miles it felt a little arthritic first thing in the morning. But once it got up to highway speed it was young and vibrant once again. It purred going down the highway. There was a special place in its power band where the motor always sang to me. On every ride, I waited for it. Little had changed over all our years together. This cycle was born to run.

My bike’s physical luster had faded. It no longer shined up, now merely cleaning up. Sitting in our driveway it looked fine. But when parked next to a new machine its advancing years seemed to magnify. It didn’t matter. During my single years it had wintered in my living room. And at our new place I’d built a special shed where it lived. During the riding season, rarely would you not see us together.

In the early morning hours we woke in central Georgia to find that one of my carbs had fouled more than usual. I had to remove the plugs and give them a quick cleaning before we could get back on the road. We figured an “O” ring in the fuel cock assembly had given way and gas was flooding through any intake valve that didn’t seat properly. That meant all of them. Apparently, some of the fuel had made its way into the exhaust pipes, because when the engine finally fired it created one colossal sonic boom, a backfire of the decibel level normally reserved for Howitzers. It was impressive!


Considering all of our rides together Dave and I were already familiar with “morning sickness.” Over our miles we’d awoken to corroded battery cables, blown fuses, a flat tire, fuel leaks, more flooded carbs, more fouled plugs, ignition points that were welded shut, a bad ignition switch, a bad throttle cable and even a faulty ignition condenser. None of them were serious, all of them to become another “Ken and Dave story” we’d share back home. Pick pretty much any place where we’d been and we had a story about getting there, or somehow escaping.

During my twenty-five years on the Honda we’d been to all of the lower forty-eight, through Daytona, to Indy and up Pikes Peak. We’d been to Niagara Falls and Thunder Bay, to all of the Great Lakes, Salt Lake, seen Scotty’s Castle and been down the Devil’s Highway. We’d traveled on the PCH and up the Mokee Dugway, over the Golden Gate, Hoover Dam, the New River and the Mackinaw. Many of them two or three or more times.

Although all our destinations had been special it was the simple ride to get there that made those trips memorable. Along the way came the milestones. On this trip my cycle and I reached another. Near Milledgeville, Georgia I slipped off the highway to mark what would be our last. I had known for years that this day would come. I’d made the decision to find a newer bike, and indeed had almost purchased one a few weeks earlier. It was time to move on. This cycle would soon belong to someone else. But I needed to keep a part of this special machine, something that reflected the years we’d been together.

In a scant few seconds I stopped the one thing that had been witness to it all. By disconnecting the speedometer cable I froze for all time the odometer that had spun for two decades plus. This would be the third time the odometer would have turned over. I would replace it when I got home, to give the new owner and my Honda a fresh start.

In our years together I’d grown from a college student in his early twenties to middle age. Early on as the miles were beginning to accumulate I somehow took for granted that we’d grow old together and ride off into some sort of sunset.

With this simple act I’d put into motion the series of events that would end our time together. I hadn’t planned on being emotional. But even as I pulled off the highway I knew the gravity of what I was about to do. I only hoped that I could keep it together and not make a fool of myself in front of Dave. He appeared with his camera and took a few pictures of the odometer and of me and the bike. I kept the conversation to a minimum and finally he returned to his bike.

There were tears in my eyes when I put the Honda in gear. Releasing the clutch, the speedometer didn’t budge, the odometer standing still. Unfortunately the loose cable had come to rest against the inside of the fairing and from where I was sitting I could see its drive mechanism spinning furiously. It didn’t want to stop. It’s just a machine I kept telling myself, but if it had a heart it was breaking, just as mine was.

Although Dave and I continued to find things to laugh about, it wasn’t the same. The road home took us by peanut stands and more Georgia Pacific forests. We rode into Tennessee, through Sylva, a scant few miles from where Dave had married his Emily. I was Dave’s best man.


On our last morning we found my bike sitting on a two-cycle swamp of oil and gasoline, the size of a small bathroom. The night before I’d disconnected the fuel lines to keep the cylinders from flooding and had put a rag under the bike to hold whatever oil might be dripping. What we found might have warranted a call to HAZMAT!

I knew keeping this wonderful motorcycle was impossible. My Honda had always been a tank, but now one with cracks in its armor. I could repair the horn and the turn signal, but what of the problems I couldn’t see. I saw small shavings when I changed the oil, no doubt from where the timing chain rubbed against the cylinder walls. The brakes had been used so many times the rear drum had worn well beyond any adjustment. Each piston had been through a billion cycles. How long would it be before the motor swallowed a valve? And when something major finally broke would I be three blocks from home, or somewhere far away. The truth was I couldn’t begin to consider leaving it parked in my garage, not while I was out enjoying myself on another bike. I needed to find it a new home.

At our last stop for gas Dave and I shook hands, a tradition we’d started years earlier. With a glint in his eye Dave said that it had been “another grand trip.” And gesturing toward my bike added, “as it should be.” I already owned this bike when I met him all those years ago. He understood.

Forty miles later Dave waved goodbye, taking the exit to his home an hour to the west. During our week on the road the leaves had begun to take on their fall colors, the seasons were changing. The Honda and I were on our own, riding into the darkness. Thirty minutes from home I watched an enormous lightning storm to the east. There was the smell of rain in the air.

The magic was with me. In minutes I could make out stars in the sky. Once again I’d ridden all summer without getting caught in the rain. I’ve had the feeling for years that someone, or something had been watching over me. As I pulled onto my street I could see that a full moon had risen over my house. It was a beautiful sight. My Honda had brought me home again.

Dave was right. It had been a great ride.


I never sold the Honda. When I approached a friend at the AMA he told me that he wanted it for their Hall of Fame Museum. There it still lives, always warm and dry. For me a Kawasaki Concours was next. But it wasn’t the same. Slowly, imperceptibly, it robbed me of the joy I’d always felt when riding.

I was giving thought to ending my time on two wheels, but last year a BMW R 1200 RT ended all of that. The Beemer brought me back to the living. Will it ever be like the old Honda? Time will tell, but already we have a very good start.

I see the old speedometer every day.