Holy Harley - Riding High on the Hog in the Holy Land

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I picked up a kosher Hog in Tel Aviv. This is no easy thing.

Still, talk to enough people and sure enough, someone will square you away. The friend of a patron of an ambulance service had an uncle who knew a guy ... and so it came to pass that Eitan Ben-Arie of Tel Aviv Harley-Davidson had a Vivid Black Dyna waiting with bags on.

At 10:00 a.m., air-raid sirens interrupted my traffic briefing and every single citizen stopped and stood with bowed heads as the horns of Yom Hashoah wailed for 2 minutes, mourning 6 million irretrievable victims. Every Israeli shields a soldier's heart behind a creased veteran's smile.

Memorial complete, Eitan reminisced about cruising Miami with a chrome Iron Cross adorning his noggin.

"Seriously?" I raised a goybrow. "A Nazi helmet?"

He spread his hands and grinned. "Hey, why not?"

The rhythm and flow of Tel Aviv traffic resembles a cultural collision between Seoul and Milan, blue-lit by police beacons that are universally ignored. It's no wonder Israelis won't be pwned by terrorism. They commute to work as combat maneuver elements.

Tel Aviv itself is Europe with a Brazilian wax-a Levantine cosmopolis of kohl-eyed vitality; Madrid in a miniskirt with rolling acres of party cleavage shading tanned sandal toes. Beach bars pour Maccabi lager into schooners the size of a governor's arm. Men accessorize with chunky chronographs, aviator sunglasses and gun leather; women with skin, tight.

The next day, I pointed the black Hog southeast. Paved by Ottoman occupation forces to connect Jaffa with the world headquarters of religious strife, Highway 1 is Israel's mother road. Imperturbable as Jerusalem stone, my Harley plunged casually through time from Tel Aviv's beach-party future into Jerusalem's defiant, conflicting histories.

The toughest biker in Jerusalem is a diabetic stroke victim with government press credentials and a pistol permit. Tattooed with the scars of four open-heart surgeries, Alon Tuval is built like a No. 2 Dixon Ticonderoga and animated by the comfortable humor of the damned.

"Four people in the western hemisphere have my cluster of symptoms," he said, chaining off a smoke. "And the other three are dead."

Tearing through a pile of armored vests and telephoto lenses to find his helmet and a corpsman-quality aid kit ("If I bleed, I don't stop"), Alon hopped on and smacked my shoulder for GO!

"Did we touch?" he yelled a few minutes later. I waggled my helmet, unwilling to admit crunching the frame into the oily streets.

"Do it again!"

If you want to write a motorcycle story in Israel, you need your own Alon-not only for IDF access and the best arrak in J-town, but literally to show you how to get around. The secret, in this high power-to-weight country, is cheerful aggression. In a land where top predators tailgate through construction zones at triple the limit, traffic is not for the timid.

"Steal the lane!" he'd yell in my ear. "Ride Israeli-style!" Small wonder the bastard's had two heart attacks and a stroke.

Alon taught me to squeeze the Dyna through where angels fear to lane-split, but I never learned to navigate Jerusalem's antique warren of roundabouts, alleyways and bazaars. We flogged that Harley to the Old City, the West Bank, the American colony, the Dead Sea, the "Nazi colony" (look it up), the Mount of Olives and even the Western Wall. I have pictures to prove it, but couldn't guide you to those places on a rich bet.

"You get lost a lot," Alon said. "That's why you're a good rider: extra miles."

At least I found the Negev Desert. Follow blue signs south to Be'er Sheba ("Seven Wells"), then make for Ben Gurion University, perched overlooking the world's largest makhtesh. Nightfall in the Negev forms a temple to solitude, every footstep and twinkle exploding against the dark silence. If Yahweh vacations in the Holy Land, it's more likely here than in fractious, theocultural Jerusalem.

Israel's weekend is one day long: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, Sunday for tourists. When Israeli sport riders celebrate Shabbat, tripling the speed limit suddenly looks conservative. Want to see God? Try hanging with these guys.

Seeking Eitan's H.O.G. buddies for a Saturday ride, I sailed into a gas station featuring every flavor of bike from an unrestored 1942 Triumph sidehack to a fresh Ducati Hypermotard. They brought ratfighters, big trailies and a candy-apple red sea of cruisers-not one of which was a Harley.

Surrounded by unintelligible bike banter, I smiled, nodded, bit my non-Hebraic lip and waited for the Harleys to show up. They did not so do.

Riders presently abandoned chemical-orange drinks to gather for a safety briefing. All maps distributed were utterly innocent of English.

What would Alon do?

I took off after them.

The gaggle soon pulled over, commencing a field-expedient memorial service. A spade-bearded bear of a man softly addressed the crowd. Blue-starred flags snapped in the crisp breeze of the still-shiny new country. Out on the highway, my lost H.O.G. patrol thundered past.

Israel's somber Memorial Day reflection would start the next evening. After that, Independence Day parties with live bands, barbeque and beer.

A woman softly touched my elbow and whispered, "Do you speak Hebrew?"

"No," I admitted, "not a word."

"So ... you don't know what it is?"

Yes, I thought, staring into cobalt blue eyes. Yes, I do.

I didn't, of course. Besides falling in with the wrong crowd, I misjudged the speaker's gravitas. After losing his son Roi years ago in an ugly motorcycle accident, Yankele Weintraub extracts his vengeance on the world with an annual rolling party. Yankele greeted every biker like long-lost family, even ladling out cardamom coffee for the stranger from America.

I was gonna need that caffeine. Israelis are adventure riders.

While I hadn't a clue where we were headed or what to do when we got there, everyone pretended I was supposed to be bumbling around, getting in the way. Desert nomads respect ancient traditions of hospitality.

Overlooking the valley where David slew Goliath, Vulcan-mounted Moshe insisted I eat one of the kosher sandwiches his wife had packed. Then we wobbled together down dusty tank trails-cruisers and scooters et al, oh my!

One of perhaps a thousand Israeli memorials bedecks a hillside at "Peace Island," a cooperative border oasis where seven pre-teen Israeli girls were shot by a crazed Jordanian soldier in 1997. Afterward, Jordan's monarch visited Beit Shemesh to beg forgiveness from the girls' families.

"He was our sworn enemy," said John Markow, a tall Transalp rider who made aliyah from South Africa, "but King Hussein had class."

Between our last mountaintop stop and the restaurant at ride's end, I was lost no less than four times. I got lost in townships, lost in olive groves and completely bollixed by a gas pump's pigheaded insistence on my citizenship number. But without getting lost, I'd have missed the whole adventure.

Gazing across Galilee, I asked John if he believed the Biblical story recounting Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt only to wander the desert for 40 years.

"Maybe," he said. "It's our fable. We believe it."

He paused for a moment, then said, "I believe it. I don't believe in God, though."

"Neither do I," I said. "But He still rides pillion when He feels like it."

Holy Harley

Street Bob or Sand Glide? Hogs will do 0-60 in under 6000 years. Camels perform better off-road, go a whole week on a tank and look great in a halter.
Thanks to Eitan Ben-Arie for getting me lost and Alon Tuval for helping me find my way back. Between lost and found, desert and town-that's where stories happen.