Did you ever dare to ask a girl on a date who was clearly out of your league? Leggy, exotic, European, high-maintenance, a bit of a handful, strikingly if unconventionally attractive? A girl that you knew would make for an awesome ride if everything went well? But who may crush you into the ground and kick sand in your face, possibly favoring a more (ahem) capable partner?
And for a while she scared the crap out of me. And for a while we had an amazing time. And then she slapped me to the ground like the tiny overconfident sunufabitch I had become. And now I love her more than ever.
She’s my KTM 950 Adventure S.
We met on a blind date. I caught up with my KTM dealer buddy Don Lemelin from Scuderia West in San Francisco. He had brought her up to a KTM rally at Lake Tahoe, where I was riding my “street legal” 450 MXC. Glowing in her blue and orange dress and almost as clean as the day she made her debut on the showroom floor. She was the tallest of the tall, a 2004 KTM Adventure S featuring an extended suspension over the more pedestrian Adventure model, and a very tall seat. Her previous owner had lavished on her the sort of jewelry only a man in love would offer. I wondered: Why did he leave her? Did she crush him? Surely she would not do that to me. Surely she would love me.
Extra driving lights, carbon bits, Hepco-Becker Gobi bags and top case, and a lovely Garmin GPS firmly grasped by a Touratech mount with more individual parts than a Swiss watch. She was clean—evidence of a minimal (or at least well concealed) dirty past. The final nail in the wallet was a peek into the storage box that revealed exceptionally clean and well labeled wiring for all the accessories.
The carbureted engine rumbled to life through lovely Remus exhausts. A flick of the throttle released a big-twin roar that instantly projected me into the Dakar desert. A snick into gear and we frolicked away. Finding some open roads proved a challenge on Tourist-Top Mountain, so I darted through a neighborhood into a remote area. What a sweetheart —massive power, smooth and plush. Yes, I was in love.
Her first warning to watch my manners was our first off-camber stop sign. That extra 5mm reach to the ground almost had me on it. A twitching thigh muscle later and we were back to perpendicular. Ms. Austria hummed a ditty… R-E-S-P-E-C-T was her warning. I made a couple of valiant attempts to show her I was still cool, but I’m not sure she was convinced.
Our relationship matured slowly over the next few months. Though the population centers of Texas are surrounded by dirt, 84 percent of the state is privately owned; there are no close-by tracts of BLM-type land. A test trip was in order. Off to Big Bend, with both the MXC and the Adventure on the trailer. I felt I could conquer anything—except my trepidation about harming my super-clean 950.
She stayed on the trailer save for a ride down the paved and famous River Road on the Mexican border, and a few drive-by passes for friend Lee Klancher of Octane Press shooting images for his Adventure Calendar. The U-turns on loose gravel, mixed with the insane seat height and the clumsiness of dirtbike boots, made for panicked stabs under pressure.
Flash a few months forward and the type of call that any photographer lusts after comes through: shoot video for a Jeep press event in the Durango/Silverton/Telluride slice of heaven that is the Rocky Mountains. I knew I needed a motorcycle to get through the conga-line of 25 Jeeps in order to get back ahead in position to shoot again. A little convincing (of myself, the client, and the lead shooter), liabilities and responsibilities discussed, I boldly chose the 950 over the 450. The weekend had me in the garage-majal fabbing up video camera mounts and custom carry tubes for tripods and gear. I left off the saddlebags to keep her trim.
At 10,000+ feet there are many places where things can go horribly wrong on a motorcycle. Add in the complication of international drivers on technical roads in new vehicles and the constantly wary eyes of engineers, managers, and business partners and the stress could be overwhelming. But it never was. With the exception of a near “stall-fall” that again had me humming Ms. Franklin’s hit, the 950 and I bonded. Massive power and that long-travel suspension had me clearing up chicken-sized-boulder hills, crabbing past solid-axle cages on gravel flows alongside “trails,” and occasionally executing lovely smooth jumps and wheelies out of sight of the unconvinced.
Over the course of five days of some of the most spectacular riding any enthusiast could imagine, mixed with the fun of photography and the joy of getting paid for it all, she never let me down.
Brimming with confidence, a month later we were exploring trails in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My blue sweetheart wept only some fork oil, the by-product of her aging seals and my endless pounding. We brazenly clipped up trails with a renewed sense of companionship and a shared lust for what was around the bend—and then I was on my head. She had rejected me with a cold slap. It seems the simple addition of the saddlebags had made a pronounced impact on her trail worthiness—and an equal impact on an unmovable part of Mother Earth.
There we lay, our collective egos and some of her lovely bodywork bruised. It was in the moments that followed that I finally committed to naming her. From that point on, she took a name as unexpected as our relationship. Aretha and I will proudly ride on to more adventures together as a couple.