For the first time in a few years I missed Sturgis this year. I’m not really bummed about it though -- I figure there’s always next year. And I get to see the pictures and hear the stories from our Editor Mike and other friends who did go. I had a pretty valid reason this year – I was off in Scotland, land of my ancestors, on what’s become an annual trip “home”. Riding in Sturgis can be crazy and insane at times, but then again riding in Scotland is just as insane and crazy, especially to those of us raised up in a part of the world where we “stay right except to pass.” However, the riding is riding no matter what, and the reaction a motorcycle brings to non-riders is the same wherever you go.
Over the years I’ve become a bit adept at driving a four-wheeled cage in a land where your drive left and steer right, although no matter how long I’m there I still instinctively walk to the left side of the car to get in – then correct myself and head to the right side. I get in and reach with my right hand to buckle up. Not finding a seatbelt there, I reach over with my left and drag it over and then key the ignition. The only real difference on that side of the Atlantic is that the steering wheel is on the wrong side – and despite how I’ve teased folks just like I was teased at first – that the gas and brake are reversed too – it’s not true. You do have to shift with your left hand, and for us “righties” that takes some getting used to. That, and you stay left, except when passing (wait a minute, that’s what folks do here too!), and try to remember to stay in the left lane when turning, least you run head along into an oncoming double-decker bus, which usually scares me into remembering to stay left the rest of the trip.
The first time I rented a Harley over in Scotland it was at West Coast HD in Glasgow. I half thought the throttle would be on the left and the clutch on the right, but like over here, it’s set up exactly the same. This was in 2005 when Tony and I were traveling we thought renting bikes for a few days of exploring the Scottish scenery would be fun. Scottish weather is much like it is here in the Pacific Northwest, in fact when people in Scotland ask where I’m from and I say Seattle, they almost always say “just like home eh?” The Rental manager, a fellow HOG Chapter Road Captain, was kind enough to map out some rides for us too. After the usual reams of paperwork involved in rentals, and getting rain gear, helmets and coats, we headed out towards the Trossachs National Park and, and as the song says, along the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
At first it’s relatively easy to remember to stay left – especially when there is lots of oncoming traffic on the right side, but out in the country with little traffic it’s another story. On roads about a car and a half wide, coming to intersections I’d almost always pull to the right on the bike. I finally solved that problem by taping a big arrow to the windshield pointing to the left to remind me to stay there. But first we had to get out into the country. In the UK, Freeways are called “Motorways”, and exits are called “junctions”. We were told to take the M-8 motorway to Junction 5 and leave the motorway and take the A-81 North. The Junction is a roundabout, and backwards to us American’s, so in our haste and speed we took the wrong ramp, and ended up in the driveway of a Scottish retirement center with a whole living room full of seniors looking out at these two American blokes in full black leather on noisy bikes who had just invaded their quiet respite.
After figuring out where exactly we went wrong, we headed back out and up through some charming small towns. Harley’s are not the dominant bike in the UK, although it seems everyone knows who they are and their sound. We stopped for some refreshments and to get off the bikes for a bit at a small supermarket, and when we walked in one of the cashiers said “those your ‘arley’s mates?” We said yes, and she shrieked “I ‘ave tae see” and left her till – with customers in line mind you – and ran out to look. We quickly paid for our Cokes and went out too where we found her fawning all over the bikes and going on and on about “’arley’s” being the best bikes and how much se wanted one. We let her pose on them until another clerk came out and told her to “get her arse inside”.
This theme was repeated throughout the trip, and every trip I’ve taken since to Scotland. No matter where we’d end up – a pub or inn parking lot, or a petrol station, folks, the bikes started conversations. And just like in America, I got to know the locals in a way we might never have otherwise. It is universal – folks love a motorbike and love bikers, envying our freedom and our metal and chrome steeds. There is just something about a bike that invites conversation and friendship no matter where you are.
At my last HOG Chapter meeting we talked about “ATGATT” which is short for “All the gear, all the time”. I have to confess I don’t always adhere to this rule. I love riding sleeveless and where permitted, helmet-less. It’s my choice, and I know not the safest one, but it’s how I choose to ride. When one thinks of Scotland one thinks of kilts. When over there, it’s very common to see people wearing them, although I’ve never seen a Scotsman wearing one on a motorcycle – and a kilt fails the ATGATT rule big time. Being Scottish, I’ll tell you I do have several kilts. I’m not ashamed to admit this, and I wear them and I must say, look damn good in them. However, I’ve only ridden in my formal kilt once and it wasn’t in Scotland.
Back in 2007 Tony and I had to attend a wedding of his cousin in Mansfield in upstate Pennsylvania. It was a Scottish/Baptist wedding -- that is a Baptist service in a Baptist Church, with everyone wearing Kilts. We figured it would be a nice part of the country to explore so we shipped my kilt outfits to the hotel in this small town, flew to Philadelphia and rented bikes for the week. What we didn’t count on was a hotel that was five miles from the church, and there was no place to change into a kilt at the church. This entailed riding five miles through town in full Scottish regalia on the back of a a Harley. Not an easy task mind you.
It takes some skill to ride in a kilt that’s for sure, but boy do you feel “free”. For one thing, you have bare parts exposed and hot leather seats sitting out in the sunshine. One also must contend with billowing fabric in the breeze. You kind of have to straddle the bike, tuck the kilt underneath the naughty bits, (especially if you wear the kilt “ken unerware” which is the Scots term for “no underwear”) You throttle up, put your feet up on the boards and hope the wind doesn’t blow the fabric out from underneath you and up into your face. Thank goodness it was only five or so miles to the church on 35mph roads. But on a Saturday morning, and past a Harley dealership full of riders and a HOG meeting, I’m sure it made a memorable if not life-scarring sight. Arriving at the church we hoped we didn’t steal the Bride’s thunder, and the photographer took more than a few pictures, and the bridesmaids all gave us a round of applause. And once again the bike stole the show and just like in Scotland, it started the inevitable conversation about riding, and seeing the world and what lies around the next bend in the road.
It’s universal I guess. Whether in Scotland or upstate Pennsylvania, or Alki Beach. A motorcycle invites discussion, conversation, and friendship. Oh, if only there were more of us “world diplomats” on Harley’s across the globe, inspiring friendship and conversation over two wheels and a V-twin engine. What a much better place this world would be wouldn’t it? It’s why I applauded Jon Huntsman when he was asked at a Republican Presidential candidate debate what he’d “bring to the White House” if elected, and he said “my Harley-Davidson motorcycle.” Can you imagine? It might just be what it takes to bring about world peace.
Gary can be reached at email@example.com and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com