Bagger’s Banquet | Touring America's Other Left Coast

Victory in Florida. Yes, Florida.

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Colleen Tagle

My wife Colleen and I have traveled thousands of miles two-up on motorcycles. And for most of those miles, she’s complained about the passenger accommodations. It’s not so bad for me: Wind noise and exhaust roar drown out the tortured cries emanating from the back seat. It’s kind of like that clanking noise when the refrigerator compressor kicks in. After a while, you don’t even hear it.

If it’s not the seat she’s critiquing, it’s the luggage capacity. My motorcycles are all bare-bones love machines, so we bungee our stuff wherever it’ll hold a hook. Style limits the amount of gear we can carry. Still, I let her bring anything she likes—as long as it fits into a zip-lock sandwich bag.

When Robert Pandya, Victory Motorcycles’ PR agent, offered up a Cross Roads bagger to use on our long-awaited tour of Florida’s Left Coast, I was hesitant. It’s taken me 28 years to forge Colleen into the violent-yet-pliant biker chick she is today. Can I risk undoing all that training for one brief moment of luxury? On the other hand I’m a realist: Motorcycle manufacturers aren’t lending me bikes without Motorcyclist magazine’s market penetration, and this writing gig can’t last forever…

I picked up the bagger from Larry, who keeps the lightly used media-pool Victory in a hanger at Daytona Beach International Airport. I’m immediately leery of the weight and sheer bulk of “Nessie." This motorcycle is gigantic. Respect the bagger, man.

I manage to keep Nessie upright across mid-Florida, arriving in Tallahassee where Colleen flew to join me. She brings one zip-lock bulging with personal items, plus the clothes she has on and one other outfit. If I were a stickler for The Rules, the remote shutter-release she bought for my camera would have put her over the limit, but I’d be a poor husband if I didn’t allow the little woman to buy me gifts. The Cross Roads swallows her gear with nary a burp, leaving plenty of room for my camera equipment, my clothes, my jackets, my rain gear and my new shutter release.

South out of Tallahassee we rumble through towns that could fit inside the Victory’s saddlebags, many incorporating nothing more than a signpost. We putter into Perry, gateway to Florida’s Left Coast and historic home of the last segregated bar in Florida. Perry gained national notoriety in 2001 when the bartender of a local watering hole, who was not exactly up to speed on current events, instructed visiting Maryland lawmaker Talmadge Branch to drink his beer in the colored section.

Outside of Perry, County Road 361 meanders west toward Keaton Beach and the ocean. Marshland bordering the Gulf of Mexico forced Highway 19, the Left Coast’s main north-south artery, inland. This fortunate trick of topography has kept development low-key and isolated. For travelers used to Florida’s concrete economy, the small enclaves of modest homes huddled along the ocean are a pleasant reminder that paradise has not been totally extinguished in the Sunshine State.

Either the Cross Roads is losing weight or I’m getting stronger. The more miles I ride, the less it wants to fall over and crush me. Fully loaded with pillion and baggage, or deadheading solo, the bike handles nearly the same. Under the saddlebag lid there’s a chart with recommended shock air pressures. We’re running 25 psi. The max rating of 75 is used by well-trained circus elephants.

There’s a whole lot of jungle and funky beach savannah between towns on the Left Coast: perfect motorcycle country. Traffic is sparse, so we try out the remote shutter-release, riding back and forth in front of the camera lens dozens of times in an attempt to get a sharp photo. The Cross Roads' steering stem is situated ahead of its fork tubes, a backwards arrangement made popular by H-D. Whatever they’ve done, it’s surprisingly easy to spin two-lane U-turns. I try different shutter speeds, apertures, stabilization on/off; nothing gets rid of the blur. Apparently, studying Ken Rockwell online did not turn me into a photographer. It’s hot and Colleen is starting to look dangerous—a tell-tale sign she’s hungry.

Located at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River, Roy’s Restaurant is a must-eat landmark. We have the place to ourselves. When I joke with our waitress about how slow business is, she hands us off to the cook and doesn’t speak to us again. Wisecracks are not tolerated at Roy’s. Cookie brings us hush puppies, clam chowder and iced tea. I might have to pump a few more psi into that shock after all.

The primordial scenery ends all too quickly—this is Florida after all—and the coastal loop dumps Nessie back onto the main highway. Four lanes wide and lightly traveled, Highway 19 gives me a chance to play with the Victory’s cruise control. When you hit Resume there’s a split-second of panic as the throttle twists all by itself and the bike roars up to speed. After initially pooh-poohing the gadget, I come to rely on it. Slack-jawed and sloe-lidded, I willingly hand over riding decisions to my little electronic co-pilot. Turns out, cruise control is not so good at maintaining following distance. Colleen smacks me upside the head: Nessie’s tailgating again.

Sleepy Hernando Beach has but one place to lodge—a combination motel/beauty parlor where you phone the manager at his home to come let you in. We take a ride around town. There are a couple of really nice dry-stack marinas, several shuttered eateries. The foreclosure signs outnumber For Sale signs. This is the boom-bust Florida I love. Since she was such a trooper today I treat Colleen to a romantic sunset dinner of tortilla chips, salsa, Underwood deviled ham and sell-by cheese purchased from the Zippy-Mart next door. She nearly swoons in my arms. It might not be from gratitude: Zippy-Mart doesn’t have the freshest inventory.

The Cross Roads has so much storage capacity, our packing gets lax. What used to fit easily in the saddlebags now spills out into a stuff-pack strapped to the rack. Nessie shrugs off our slog through stop-and-go Tampa traffic, but long periods of idling stresses her cooling ability to the limit. The hotter she gets, the harder she shifts. The fuel injected engine runs perfectly no matter the temperature. Fences and detour arrows surround our destination: the Salvador Dali Museum. Turns out downtown Saint Pete is preparing for a Grand Prix. We are diverted to a parking area where busses shuttle museum visitors back and forth. The neighborhood looks kind of dicey. I don’t feel comfortable leaving Colleen behind guarding Nessie, so we ride back into traffic and head south.

After a night on Fort Myers beach, loading Nessie becomes a real challenge. Nothing fits anymore. I dig around the bag liners and unearth five new pairs of shoes. This is the first motorcycle I’ve ever had that my wife can hide things in. When did she buy shoes? I don’t recall stopping at a shoe store. She must have called in an air-drop from one of those C130 shoe tankers.

We ease out of the Beacon Motel’s sandy parking lot. Halfway onto Estero Boulevard Nessie emits a pifff-caff sound and the cold engine stalls, catching me off balance. A thousand pounds of wife, shoes and touring motorcycle suddenly lists 45 degrees to starboard. My right boot slams onto the sandy asphalt. Amazingly, the asphalt holds. I’m in full deadlift mode now, tendons popping, discs slipping, expecting the bones in my leg to explode at any moment. Nessie slowly rolls back to an even keel. Respect the bagger, man.

This embarrassing situation cries out for drama. I look accusingly at the big V-twin and dramatically fumble around in the engine compartment like there’s a mischievous shoe jammed between the cylinders that killed the bike. I realize I’m holding up traffic, but I don't care: I need people to know that it wasn't my fault!

After Fort Myers, we turn away from the Left Coast and head home through Everglades National Park. Respect to the bagger, man. Colleen has spent three days on the back and I’ve not heard any complaints, although I was too busy playing with the cruise control to pay much attention. She did seem to wiggle less than normal on this bike, though.

Now maybe Nessie can do something about that noisy refrigerator...

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