I Ride With Snoopy

We are two-up on a 125, again. As was our experience on such a small bike in India, we are fully loaded with a backpack apiece strapped onto a makeshift luggage rack (in this case a thick plastic cutting board Mark has drilled with holes to accommodate tie-down straps), a tank bag, and I’m carrying a messenger bag slung across my torso. Unlike our experience in India, this isn’t how we were meant to ride. 

We’re heading from Mark’s small village in Devon to an even smaller one in Cumbria. We recently returned from a 10-day ride on Mark’s BMW R-80 G/S through Wales and over to Herefordshire to visit my friend Pippa and her family. This is the same bike that carried us across the American Southwest on one occasion and the Northwest on another without incident, if you don’t count repairs Mark was able to make himself given the proper tools and the space in which to work. Yesterday, in preparation for the ride to Cumbria, Mark went outside to clean up the BMW and give it the once over, only to announce when he came back in that the rear wheel bearing had failed and we weren’t going anywhere on it. Given that the bike has almost 200k miles on it, it’s only surprising it didn’t break down while we were on it and riding some distance from his home. Wales, for instance, or on the way to Cumbria. 

“We’ll have to take the Honda,” he said. So far we’d been using the 125 only for short trips to buy groceries and the like. “Does it have panniers?” I asked, hoping they were stashed away in the garage somewhere. “No,” he said. “They don’t make them for this bike, it’s too small. I’d intended to modify the BMW pannier frames to fit it at some point but I haven’t got round to it.”

It’s raining when we leave Thursday morning and the forecast is for showers on and off for the next several days. At my insistence we made a hotel reservation halfway, at a small town outside of Birmingham, when I thought we’d be riding the BMW but didn’t want to push it to get there (a distance of more than 300 miles as the crow flies) in one day. We haven’t gone far before I’m wondering if we ought to have planned on three days with the Honda, since we can’t take any of the major highways (or M roads as Mark calls them) because the bike won’t go fast enough to keep up with traffic. 

I also know it’s only a matter of time before we get lost, given Mark’s stubborn refusal to ever use a Sat-Nav device. (Some people, almost certainly blissfully naive and inexperienced travelers, will occasionally reinforce this bad behavior by finding it romantic and saying so. I, on the other hand, find it maddening. I don’t disagree that paper maps are wonderful for long range planning, for looking at the big picture before and after a trip. Indeed, I love printed, colorful, folding maps. But when it comes to the daily ride in an unknown and perhaps alien environment where roads may or may not be sign-posted, it seems to me that the paper map should play back-up to its more modern cousin the Sat-Nav.) Every conversation we’ve had on the matter results in argument, with me sighing heavily and rolling my eyes and Mark mumbling some nonsense about Google sending people down nonexistent roads, and ends with him swearing allegiance to his paper maps (“I’ve always used them and by god I always will!”) while I grit my teeth and fantasize about telling him that he can damn well find someone else to ride with in future. 

We crawl through one small town after another, and soon after we leave Mark’s house, I’m already looking forward to stopping for the night. It’s 10:45 am. Traffic, crosswalks, and red lights take up so much time that we can’t afford to stop once an hour or so for five minutes to stretch our legs, something I really need. Making frequent breaks even more unlikely is the fact that with the bike piled so high with our stuff, I can’t climb on and off by simply swinging my leg over the back, rather I have to find a place to stand at least as high as a curb and preferably higher, from which to launch myself up and over the seat. Before we set off, I reminded him of this, and stressed the need to stop only where there’s that an elevated surface at my disposal. As it is, with an inseam of barely 29 inches, I struggle every time. That afternoon, Mark pulls off in the sloping gravel parking lot of a cafe where we hope to take a break from the lashing winds and rain with coffee and a snack. As I look down at the faraway, uneven ground, he chirps “Can you hop off please?” Taking a deep breath, I slide down the left side of the bike but can’t get my right foot over the seat. I pull, waiver, then begin to tip. “Shit,” I say aloud, knowing what’s coming and that I can’t stop it. Next thing I know I’m on the ground, with my messenger bag wedged under my back. I crawl onto my hands and knees, stumble to my feet, and glare at Mark. His eyebrows are threaded together in concern as he reaches out and pats my arm. “Ooh, are you okay?” he asks, getting off the bike. I mutter that I’m not hurt beyond a sore palm where my left hand hit the pavement, then we walk up to the café door only to find out they closed for the day approximately seven minutes ago. To his credit, he solicitously asks after my welfare from time to time the rest of the day.

Friday morning brings rain yet again, and it worsens as we ride. We lost close to an hour yesterday when the road signs Mark was following disappeared and we ended up riding far beyond what should have been our turn off. I fear more of the same today as he struggles to read his written notes, gradually leaking onto his maps pressed down under the opaque rain cover wrapped tightly over his ragged old tank bag with its broken zipper. Our route today is less straightforward, with more and smaller roads to find and follow.

The Honda 125 ready to go, Day 2

By late afternoon, I’m exhausted. It occurs to me that Mark must be even more tired, considering that he’s doing the driving, the weather is crap, and he has no windscreen (“I tried a windscreen on a motorcycle once but it made me feel like I was riding in a video game so I removed it”). When we stop for gas I ask him how much longer he thinks it will be before we arrive at our destination. “If we can find the road we need, we should be there in an hour and a half,” he says. I bite my tongue. I resolved before we left Devon not to argue with him anymore about getting lost, maps, and GPS devices. I didn’t say a word yesterday nor have I today, even when he was ranting about the pathetic lack of signs on our chosen route and cursing the local planning commission and their lack of foresight. Mark and I aren’t in a “relationship” – nary a kiss has ever passed between us (and I’m grateful for that, and for the ease of our friendship.) Yet a friendship is of course its own relationship, equally deserving of respect if it’s to endure. Thus there are times when you have to shut your trap if you want to keep the peace.

We get back on the bike and head north. Before long it’s pouring down rain again. Eventually Mark has to pull over because he can’t see clearly. (His motorcycle gear consists of jeans, a waxed cotton jacket that is water resistant at best after years of daily use, a beaten up, open-faced helmet, neck scarf and goggles.) Somehow his goggles have acquired a layer of grime or grease over the lenses that won’t come off no matter how many times he wipes them. We stop in a lay-by for trucks and after watching him scrub futilely at them with rain water and spit, I remember the half a lemon in a paper bag I brought with us when we left yesterday. I dig it out of my messenger bag, hand it to him and after a few swipes of his lenses with it, he can see again. We get back on the bike and as we pull out of the lay-by, I see one of the truck drivers watching us closely, a bemused expression on his face. From the comfort of his cab, he may be thinking what fools we are for traveling on a motorcycle in such lousy weather. Or he may be wondering why we are riding two-up on such a small bike. But I think it’s more likely that he’s noticing what I notice every time I sit behind Mark on any motorcycle anywhere. With his back erect, his neck scarf flapping in the breeze and his goggles wrapped around his old helmet, he bears a remarkable resemblance to…. well, you know.

For your information: our hotel was called Hatherton Inn at Stafford. It was reasonably priced and clean and in a quiet area, with pleasant and helpful staff. I recommend it. We ate dinner at the Littleton Arms, a short walk down the road. They serve fresh local food and beer, and though we didn’t stay there, they do offer rooms. The wait staff was exceptionally friendly. Prices were average. I recommend this place too.

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