Before Interstate 10 and the ability to make sound life choices, Joe Gresh's Harley-Davids
I used to ride cross-country a lot, usually in March for Daytona Bike Week. This was before Interstate 10 was completed. Back then, the four-lane highway petered out in several places and you had to get off your motorcycle and bushwhack a path through penetrable jungle. I didn’t mind; it was a break from the wind. Anyway, I was heading home to San Diego, leaving Van Horn, Texas before dawn on my basement-butchered 1968 Harley-Davidson Sportster. Riding past a darkened Chuey’s Mexican restaurant, traffic was non-existent. Soon the cold, crisp air of the Sierra Blanca Mountains swirled around inside my helmet.
The Sportster hobby-horsed on the rough road into El Paso. The temperature rose and then we crossed into New Mexico and started the long, gradual climb up the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. At 3000 feet, it began to get chilly again. I wore black, unlined, one-piece Langlitz roadrace leathers, light gloves and Converse Chuck Taylor Hi Top basketball shoes. The leathers fit so tight I didn’t have room for clothes inside, just underwear and a T-shirt. I looked damned sexy in that outfit, like Bart friggin’ Markel.
By 10 a.m. my legs were numb from just below the knees all the way to my toes, giving a prosthetic feel to shifting. My hands were so cold, they solidified into a handle grip shape. Remember GI Joe—the way his little plastic paws were molded so he could hold his little rocket launcher and flamethrower? That was how my hands looked.
Pulling off the highway at Deming, shifting and braking were haphazard. My legs weren’t working right. I was lost in the icy grip of hypothermia: a cruel mistress in the best of times; a right bitch on a motorcycle. Using line-of-sight, I managed to fold out the kickstand and the Sportster fell onto it in the parking lot of the first restaurant I saw. I stilt-walked inside and drank coffee as sharp-pointed blood needles stabbed into my arms and legs.
After thawing out, I dumped a half-quart of 50w oil into the Sportster and threw on everything I could: tube socks over my gloves, a long-sleeved sweater and a shredded yellow rainsuit. I looked less like Bart Markel and more like a Costa Rican banana plantation after a hurricane.
The sun was well up by now, and I was in pretty good shape except for my frozen feet. Those damned Hi Tops! Dropping down into Arizona, the air warmed and the Sportster started missing. Near Tacna the V-twin was running on its final cylinder. There was one lonely exit, so I sputtered off and dug out my toolbag.
You’d think out in the middle of the desert a guy would get a moment to tinker with his bike, but nooo. Within 5 minutes a hippie and hippie chick materialized from the sagebrush. “Bike okay?” Tools strewn on the ground, inky sparkplugs in hand, I should have said, “No, I often ride out here from San Diego to perform routine maintenance.” But I didn’t because Charles Manson’s killer hippies had made national headlines not long before. Longhairs were scarier after the Sharon Tate murders.
I got the bike started, but it ran worse and worse. The headlight became a dim-red ember, indicating generator problems, so I pulled into a Yuma service station to effect repairs. The voltage regulator’s wires had disintegrated. I stripped the insulation, twisted the bare wire underneath the regulator screw terminals and connected the gas station’s armoire-sized charger to the dead battery. Within 3 minutes the acid was at a nice, roiling boil.
It was late at night by the time I reached the foothills of the Laguna Mountains. Another climb and another agonizing deep-freeze over the passes had me stuffing newspapers under the yellow rainsuit and wishing the hippies had finished me off in Arizona.
I made my final approach onto Locust Street at 3 a.m., and parked next to the basement door. The next morning, I poured in another half-quart of oil and began kicking. Nothing about the previous day’s ride or the fact that the bike wouldn’t start seemed unusual to me. That’s how it was before Interstate 10 was completed. MC