Escape: The Long and Whining Road

Harley-Davidson and Best Western team up to offer riders discounted lodging-but that's just part of the story

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Jack Lewis

The following is a paid announcement: "Harley-Davidson and Best Western Hotels sustain a warm, group hug of polyamorous co-branding."

There is no story here. Had there been a story, no doubt a real journalist would have been assigned. Instead you get an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.

"Why me?" I angsted. "I'm not a Harley guy. I ride motorcycles, not Tractor Glides. I don't even drink beer from Milwaukee-it's down on horsepower and still overpowers my chassis."

"Haven't you ever ridden a Harley?" asked Pretty Wife.

"Uh..." It occurred to me that in 30-odd years of street riding, my sole Harley-Davidson experience was on the Aermacchi-built Sprint that broke me in. As a Hog virgin (quite rare in certain Alabama counties), I experienced bruising cognitive dissonance between cheap prejudice and avid bike sluttery. If sailors were motorcycles, I'd date the Seventh Fleet. And I do like my wine...

In San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf beckoned with salt breezes and tourist gorp only four blocks from the Best Western Tuscan Inn. Turning Japanese in my plaid shirt and Nikon, I headed out for the waterfront.

My mind no longer manufactures useful new memories. After 15 years away from The City, the fishing fleet was just where I remembered it-but it took half an hour, a 4-1-1 Hail Mary and a 12-block hump to navigate back in time for supper. Along the way, I found a genuine Harley-Davidson store with plenty of black T-shirts and no actual motorcycles.

No bikes at SFO's Tuscan Inn, either; it's not in the Best Western Rider network. It did feature sleek GILFs parading unselfconsciously across the lobby, serenely rationing their power. Is it just me, or are Californians a little sexier and healthier than the rest of the country? And louder, but not in a Texas way.

Sipping the iced chardonnay that materialized in my room that evening, I phoned Pretty Wife.

"These people seem really nice," I said. "What if I hate the bikes?"

"What if you love them?" she asked.

Damn these conundra!

The next morning, we picked up a bevy of baggers at Bob Dron Harley-Davidson. I bounced up and down on my assigned White Gold Pearl/Pewter Pearl Electra Glide, squinted at the bar pods, wondered what all the indistinguishable liquorice buttons were for and prayed I wouldn't drop it in the parking lot.

Moments later we headed out for the Bay Bridge and I realized what funeral escorts and parading Shriners have always known: The Electra-steering is steady and torque lollops out rich and lumpy as heavy cream. Ride the Buick-style brake pedal and you can circle a garbage can lid at 1 mph.

Skirting the Central Valley, I spared a thought for Stockton, where a once-Best Girl grew up to take over the world. Scheduling conflicts and my severe buckshot allergy prevented stopping over.

I was predisposed to slag Sonoma for a tanplastic-breasted theme park of fauxthentic nostalgia, snooty cellars and gimcrack stores for brain-checked tourons. It is all these things, of course, but it is also rolling hills of vineyards unsullied by subdivisions. It is sun-kissed California attitude. It is old trucks, time-warp hippies and choo-choo trains. Who doesn't love choo-choo trains?

Weekday traffic was cask-mellowed. Our bikes chuffed along, unstoppable as logging elephants. Sixth gear (Sixth! What is this thing, an MV Agusta?) is the Overdude, geared for 362 mph at 2500 rpm. On my BMW S-bike I'd have been screaming into my helmet and munching fistfuls of ibuprofen for my limpish wrists, but on the Bike-a-Lounger I could just ease back, wish for a soft passenger against whom to lean and watch the vineyards roll by.

Porcine or no, the two-bagger sows have moves. After lunch, three of us took a rapid detour down an untrafficked creek gully to plumb the limits of touring talent. When neither banging the floorboards nor scotching front tire darkies at corner entries upset the massive chassis, I resolved to steal me a Harley.

Swapping keys with Toph Bocchiaro, editor of Hot Bike Baggers, I took the Road King at its name, skipped the winery-tour program and un-assed upscale Napa for Sunnyvale. Ninety-five miles south, friends who had no idea I was in California were hooking up for Thai food. If they didn't see me coming, they couldn't switch restaurants on me...

Unfamiliar with the area, I ran 80 miles south along I-680 and remembered why I moved to Washington: We may have potholes to bottom a new bike's suspension, but they're not decorating interstates.

One of the bikes gathered for pad thai was a Mission Motors development mule. Conforming to software guru Seth LaForge's strict double-secret probation, I burned all the negatives in a white-hot digital blaze to prevent you from learning that their rolling skunk works strongly resembles a Ducati 750SS, that it wears a rear sprocket bigger than your head and that its ammeter runs up to "several hundred." Hawg-rollin' into that parking lot felt like cruising a '57 Chevy onto the Microsoft campus, where geek-chic trumps jock-boy swagger 11 out of 10 times.

After supper, the Road King and I got lost, crisscrossing three of the two bridges and picking fights with deep-tinted Oakland traffic, finally stumbling back into the Elm House Inn around midnight. The next morning, Heather (think pre-surgical Drew Barrymore) told me she dreamed I'd abandoned the group because they failed to conform to my Christian values. I get that a lot.

Nothing perks up a guy like running along coastal pastures and ocean-hugging highways, smelling salt and pine and discovering a dozen places like Dogtown (population 30), an artists' colony smack at the mountain-coast interface where I'd move tomorrow, given enough money and time. Like owning a big, red biplane, that's one of a hundred dreams I can't live yet ... but pretty people were loaning me bikes, buying me drinks and pretending to like me. Strange it is to have everything you want, and still want things.

Like motorcycles: How many could you possibly need? Just one more, thanks, and make that a big, sweet Road King with callipygian saddlebags and Fat Bob cleavage. You ride that honey and you are the king of all you survey through its detachable windshield.

Along NorCal's coast road, you can ease into a no-brakes flow and watch the hills unfold, or just go for it. Toph and I chose to go.

Playing bagger-tag along Highway 1 was as joyful as wrestling puppies. Speed is relative, and doubling corner limits on the King is approximately as exhilarating as tripling them on a sportbike. Floorboards were my bitches until I grounded the frame so hard that I levered a half-ton of bike and schlub into the air and had a brief view of the troll waiting 200 feet below an onrushing guardrail.

Yes, speed is relative. And Harley builds stout, predictable frames. The troll can keep waiting, for now.

Later, I asked Toph how he kept his rhythm so smooth on the Grandissimo Glide. He raised his eyebrows and blew Lucky Strike smoke at me: "Ya' gotta hang off."

Huh? Heavy flywheels mean revs build slowly, so you carry speed through corners. Hanging off allows this. Seems I had misjudged the essence of these baggers.

They're snap-crackling, racer-boy platforms thoroughly padded with middle-aged comfort. Just like me!

Our third day of riding took us up Highway 9 at a freshening pace before trickling us over Skyline Boulevard behind a docilely driven Tesla. Along the way, I almost spattered a sportbike rider onto my windshield when he early-apexed and skittered 18 inches over the centerline. Dang kids! Then again, I've been over the line more than once. Some folks never go over the line, but I do not envy them.

Now herding a Road Glide, I had leisure to fiddle with its Harman Kardon stereo on the way to Alice's Restaurant, where my order of a BMW Burger with Jack cheese met the same gung-ho perkiness we enjoyed throughout the trip. Waitresses don't love Harleys just for the motion. When you burble in on $150,000 worth of shiny new bikeware, you ain't the Fringe, baby. You're the Tip.

In our diminished age of extended warranties and Harleys that don't even leak oil, biker intimidation seems a distant anachronism. Our sole authentic biker, Boozefighter Bill, nearly became our One True Casualty when a Mercedes SUV cranked a no-look U-turn in front of him while we were clicking along at (elided) mph. Pounding the brakes, Bill jumped the Benz's wake, pulled up alongside and addressed its driver in no uncertain terms. With hand signals. And feelin'. When I passed her moments after she nearly killed Biker Bill, she was still laughing. Be careful out there!

Mission debriefs should end with lessons learned. Here are mine: The Road Glide rode tightest, the Electra Glide was easiest to pack and I was wholly smitten by the Road King. H-D's new frames are rigid, and their 96-inch fuelie engines are dope-proof. Whine-crack-BOOM-thumpa-thumpa, drop 'er into gear and meditate on down the road. Big Twins shift like Kubota tractors-i.e. much smoother than my BMW twins.

Wear earplugs to cut down the windshield buffeting. You'll hear the music better.

While riders of any marque are welcome to polish rags and wash stations at 1250 "rider-friendly" Best Western hotels (www.bwrider.com), Harley folk get H.O.G.-tied into extra spiffs, plus Gold Elite status and pointage galore.

Harley-Davidson knows something motorcycle journalists forgot long ago, which is that riding never was just about absolute speed-ask a cowboy sometime, or a barnstormer.

All motorcycles go to Heaven.

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