FireMotorcycles are a polarizing form of transportation. Broach the subject and you will find people fall into two groups. On one side are the folks who think they are loud and dangerous, ridden by dirt-bag miscreants who eyeball women. On the other are those who lecture how the vehicle offers ultimate freedom, complete with the self-bolstering undercurrent of a social outsider. But like most matters in life, the truth is an alloy of these viewpoints. And the real beauty of a motorcycle comes from the random and at times dangerous events that occur along the way. This is the stuff that makes stories and legends for years to come, told and retold with steadily growing warpage of the facts.

This is one of those stories.

One day my phone rang. It was David. “Eh Mate. Whadda say we ride to Cottonwood, Arizona next week for The Smokeout?” he asked as if his mouth was full of marbles like all improper Brits.

The motorcycle rally would be the same as the rest: overpriced consumables, crowds of poorly-socialized gorillas, and the inevitable apparel stating such crowd-pleasing favorites as, “Show me your tits” and “If you can read this the bitch fell off.” But rallies are little more than an excuse to go somewhere on a motorcycle. The trips are about riding together and living unplanned for a few preciously free days.

“Just you and me?” I asked.

“Nah, Gilby’s comin’. You could meet us in LA on your way from San Francisco.”

I said yes and packed my things.

My journey of 1004 miles from Berkeley to Cottonwood began with the proverbial single step right into the ‘MacArthur Maze,’ a cheeky nickname for the junction of interstates 80, 580, and 880. This masterpiece of civil engineering has an uncanny ability to produce traffic jams at the least provocation, especially when fueled by Californians, a breed of driver who firmly believe they are entitled to occupy the fast lane regardless of speed or ability. Navigating such pandemonium on two wheels takes great skill and patience. But how could I exhibit such a virtue as a mother next to me turned completely around in her seat to yell at her kids? A highway patrol officer drove right past her on his cell phone laughing, maybe about the fact that as a cop he did not need to follow the law. A lifted Chevy Suburban with mud tires and a Harley-Davidson sticker in the back window cut me off, reminding me of one of the great truths in life: Huge trucks with Harley stickers are typically driven by folks who do not own a motorcycle and behave like they have something to prove. I kept to the slow lane, the only one that moves with consistency.

Exiting the Bay Area revealed route 101, a beautiful thoroughfare of alternating farm land and rolling hills that transforms from elephantine redwoods in the north to wind-sculpted Blue Oaks and pungent smelling eucalyptus in the south. There are even the occasional palm and cork tree. The landscape and myriad of trees, many of which were introduced from Australia, Europe, and Africa, created a spectacular backdrop for a road trip.

Just south of San Jose the road entered the Santa Clara Valley, the heart of Steinbeckian California. Dusty farms dotted with migrant workers picking produce and tending crops lined my passage. Occasionally a person looked up, drawn by the engine rumble, though most ignore my existence. A jackknifed truck sat dormant in the opposing lane, surrounded by scattered crates disemboweled of lettuce. Some men collected the heads while other swept up the leaves. The entire stretch of highway contained random produce strewn along the road like remnants of some great war of vegetables. Gilroy, a town famous for garlic, enveloped my nose with the rich and homely smell of welcoming kitchens.

From Washington to California route 101 is peppered with enough amenities to ensure a comfortable transit. That is unless you are a person with a propensity for finding any stretch of road deficient of a gas station. Travelling south on a barren stretch of the highway, my small handmade gas tank ran dry and the bike sputtered to a halt. Checking the petcock, it was already on reserve! How could this have happened when I and I alone ride and work on my bikes? Clearly some lowlife scoundrel insinuated themselves into my shop and flipped the switch. It was the only logical explanation.

Waiting on the roadside for a AAA truck to deliver gas to your motorcycle crushes all undercurrents of a social outsider.

Gassed up and back on the road, 101 came to San Luis Obispo Bay. The highway graded up past a set of retired railroad tracks to reveal the endless majesty of the Pacific Ocean. At Pismo Beach I stopped for food and shelter. Skipping the quarter-driven showers, the ocean happily removed the road’s grimy remnants. Bobbing gently in the surf with nothing more than boxer shorts on, I watched the sun set.

In Los Angeles, Dave and Gilby were packed and ready to go. After listening to my recount of running out of gas, we agreed an extra can of gas was needed for the stretch to Cottonwood. Of course the can needed to be carried on my bike, since it was for me. And luckily I had prepared.

Earlier that year, my cousin gifted me a 1981 Honda Goldwing that could only be described as a real standout. It came complete with flat tires, rusted shut brake calipers and gasoline in the tank that was so old it smelled like turpentine. The only way the engine would run was starter fluid – a superbly volatile mixture of hydrocarbons, diethyl ether, and carbon dioxide – dumped directly into the carburetor in amounts copious enough to set fire to Satan himself. Once the engine did turn, it shot fire from the exhaust, sputtering and stumbling like an asthmatic old man with a gimp leg. The bike did have one redeeming attribute though: nice hard bags. And in the weeks prior to the ride, I mounted a single hard bag to the motorcycle using vacuum clamps. It was next to the rear wheel on the right side, since the left side would not accept it because of the license plate. When finished, the bag was three inches above the shot-gun-style exhaust pipes, plenty of room for heat to be carried away by the rushing wind of the open highway. And from San Francisco to Los Angeles this well-grounded hypothesis was validated. The cool breeze of the 101 in fall had left the bag unmolested by exhaust heat. My understanding of thermodynamics remained triumphant, or so I thought.

Our path from Los Angeles went due east by Joshua Tree National Park, where gnarled trees reminiscent of Dr. Seuss dotted a landscape ceaselessly assault by sunlight eager to transform its energy to heat. Gently undulating miles of road were bound by spiring mountains standing like sentinels in the distance. We rode through transfixed by the desert tapestry and the hot air rushing over our skin; friends on the open road in the vast and still wild west.

Needing water and gasoline, we stopped in Twentynine Palms. Exercising proper English, one would hyphenate ‘twenty-nine’ in the town’s name. However, this tiny Southern California hamlet has decided they have no need for such superfluous fanciness. And as the name suggests, there are palm trees there. The main road through town, aptly named Twentynine Palms Highway, is lined on both sides with mature, well-groomed palm trees. It was there in the Mojave desert that we learned just how much hotter the air had become.

Dave pulled up to the inside line of pumps in front of a car with a young Asian couple. Gilby chose the outside line of pumps with me behind. Hopping off my bike, I found Gilby standing before me with huge saucer eyes visible behind those ever-present aviator sunglasses. He began frantically waiving a pointing finger at my bike. Casually turning to see what he was carry on about, I found the Goldwing hard bag emitting what could only be described as liquid fire from a gaping hole in the bottom. Far worse, the fire was rapidly collecting in a puddle just feet from the pumps.

Silencing Gilby Clarke is one of my outstanding achievements in life. This is a man who spent his life as a rock musician, at times playing with mega bands like Guns n’ Roses. The type of bands who purchase hair products by the gross, have groupies that behave like lemmings, and use pyrotechnics indiscriminately. One simply can not spend decades doing this without seeing some pretty crazy stuff. And while Gilby will freely admit that he dropped out of high school, he is quite well spoken and has no impediment to inserting his viewpoint in debate. Take any topic, any group of people or any location, and Gilby will materialize out of thin air to ensure his right to exercise free speech. Yet now he could not muster a single word.

The fire was growing, spreading towards the pumps.

Now might be a good time to explain how a series of grossly miscalculated steps resulted in our motorcycle bonfire. The assaulting heat of the desert combined with the heat of the exhaust pipes had slowly begun to melt the bottom of the plastic Goldwing hard bag. As the hole grew and heat pored in, the gasoline in the can expanded, escaping into the bag and out the hole. Now gasoline does not simply combust with moderate heat. It needs an ignition source to begin burning. In this case ignition came from the shot-gun-style exhaust pipes, which when the bike was shut off expelled the last remnants of fuel-air mixture as a lovely blue-green flame with a charming “pop” sound. It was this tiny flame, a simple afterthought of the running engine, that forged our own private hell.

The world transformed into a slow-motion theatre with a series of near-coincident events. The attendant inside the station began doing a chicken dance at the sight of the fire. The Asian couple yelled something and jumping into their car, peeling out of the station with one door still open. Dave, comprehending the scope of the situation, ran towards my bike and missed being hit by the escaping Asian couple’s car by a last-second vault over their hood Bo Duke style.

Understanding why a person would run towards fire at a gasoline station demands knowledge of the inner workings of a man like David Perry. As a former member of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, subtle military behaviors still permeate his everyday actions. He works regimented and long days. He has an overpowering need to color categorize his shoes. Above his desk hangs a painted picture of his mariner grandfather. Given the chance, he will describe the man at great length with glossy-eyed reverence. Dave has an inherently high energy level, similar to a hyperactive child who stumbled upon a box of unguarded pixie sticks. Once he cajoled me into running a twenty-kilometer race through the woods while it rained. The course took us up mile-long hills of clay-rich mud that stuck to our shoes with unrelenting accumulation. When he finished this joyous event well ahead of me, he turned around and ran back so he could finish the race by my side, cheering me to go faster. I contemplated punching the evil bastard. With barely operating motor functions remaining, I crossed the finish line and Dave began bouncing around transfixed on the fact that we must now go to the pub. And of course, we did.

Dave grabbed a window squeegee from a tub of cleaning fluid and started smacking the flaming bag on my bike. After a few whacks, he ran back to the container, dunked it, then came back and returned to smacking. Gilby, agreeing this was a wise course of action, grabbed another squeegee and followed suit.

As more fire poured out of the bag, the need to get rid of the gas can became evident. The flames were now to the pump housing. Popping off the top of the hard bag, a column of fire erupted to the awning, forming a tiny little black spot on the white surface. My hand went deep into the bag, grabbed the can, and launched it towards the street. It was a bad shot. Rather than making it to the road, the gas can hit the trunk of a palm tree and exploded. Twentynine Palms was in distinct danger of becoming Twentyeight Palms.

The trunk and surrounding side walk were ablaze, creeping further and further into the street. Cars skidded to a halt with brakes locked. One person threw their car in reverse, returning from where they came with the transmission gears howling. Another did not stop at all, but just did a squealing U-turn and drove down the wrong side of the road. Across the street, a woman walking with a boy grabbed the youngster’s hand and drug him urgently away as he gaped at the ensuing wonder.

Frustrated with battling the growing fire with a squeegee, Gilby grabbed the entire container of window-cleaning fluid and dumped it on my bike. Dave dumped another, effectively quenching the blaze. The bike was left scarred, but it was not so bad. It had been created pale with a rough-hewn demeanor and so took brilliantly to the sooty and burnt remnants, which to this day remain as a ghost of stupidity past. The Goldwing bag on the other hand was decimated. It had melted to the ground in a puddled mass like oversized black drapery. I had nothing left beyond the clothes on my back.

We stood and watched the tree and sidewalk continue to burn as the police, fire, and ambulance brigades arrived, wielding a cacophony of siren salad. They ran around doing their business as we tried to stay out of the way, each envisioning the level of accommodations at the Twentynine Palms jailhouse.

In time, the fire was out. The gas station was safe and the palm tree intact despite a newly-acquired patina of black on its trunk. The fire chief ambled over, and taking off his hat drew in a deep breath. Before he could speak, I summoned the only known response from a catholic upbringing – guilt – and launched into a diatribe of explanation, excuse, and, most importantly, apology. He listened with relaxed intent, not allowing expression to escape his gaze wrinkled from years in the brutal desert sun. Several police officers and fire fighters joined in to listen, enjoying the sight of a cornered animal. And why not? I nearly blew up their town and decimated one of their beloved palms! Short of breath and out of words to defend myself, I shut up.

The fire chief cracked a smile and said leisurely, “Mad? We’re not mad, son. Hell, this is the most excitement we’ve seen round here in years.” They began to laugh, and slowly Dave, Gilby and I relaxed as we realized we were not going to be thrown in jail. The chief halted our effervescent banter with a hand and said, “One thing, son. Next time this happens, go ahead and use that.”

Following his finger, a fire extinguisher hung two feet above my smoking motorcycle.

28 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading about your adventure and can’t wait for more.

  2. You do particle physics or material science at UC,right?
    Almost rocket science, but it must deal with much smaller,simpler particles/molecules
    than gasoline :-)
    Great story, and very well told.

  3. Haha you almost created a major incident. Fun story.

  4. great write-up. I felt like I was there (but glad I was not)

  5. Great and entertaining story. Looking forward to more.

  6. Simply brilliant. I anxiously await the next post. :)

  7. Glad you didn’t pull something like that on our ride to Sturgis. I might have turned around and headed back to LA.

  8. I can only wait to own the book.

  9. My son saw you on a History Channel episode of Factory something-or-the-other. Anyway, I googled and found you.

    • Yup. I host two shows for National Geographic Channel that get picked up by History and and a few others: Ultimate Factories and Man Made. It is fantastic that someone finds it acceptable to subject the TV audience to the likes of me.

  10. I hope your next adventure is far less incendiary.

  11. This was simply wonderful! My neighbor Rozz forwarded this to me and I’m so glad he did. Great adventure and excellent writing :)

  12. Just running out of gas on the motorcycle would have been enough excitement for me on one trip. Great storytelling. I appreciate your insight of the people and the road.

  13. Great writing!!! Great story. A couple of years ago I had got the pleasure of meeting you with Riki at Alice Cooper’s Town, good times… You guys told us the story of the Cocktagon, now that is a story that needs to be told here!!! I look forward to reading more of these great adventures!!!

  14. Great story and wonderfully written …you tell a good story. LMFAO!

  15. Quality story! Great to see a ‘different’ bike blog for once – keep up the good work.

  16. OMG…You got me.Totally Sucked me in for a nice “easy rider” motorcycle ride, to a gut wrenching tearful laughfter, boy I needed that today. I can so picture the chaos… Still laughfing! THANK YOU!

  17. Great blog and awesome story! Great writing. Brilliant!

  18. Enjoyed this story. Easy to relate to and made me smirk at the end ;-)

  19. Your storytelling is quite engaging.

  20. You lost me on “broach”.

  21. I’ve been riding Harley’s and Vespa’s for 12 years. Been to Sturgis, Daytona and Laconia. I’ve grabbed parts as they’ve fallen off my buddies “restored” Shovelheads, but this is hands down, the best story I’ve heard! I’m really enjoying the Blog!

  22. Somehow this one got by me, another great read. I must say that I too have a lifted vehicle (with a HD sticker on the bumper). However, in the event I am not able to ride, I am ever vigilant of my fellow bikers. But those types of goons are out there.