The Greatest Show On Earth

its probably
good for you
to have a brush with death
every once in a while
these white hot flashes
of mortality
serve to clarify the mind

its not
why i ride motorcycles
but riders
that these things happen
sliding tires
you gather up
no one the wiser
how near a thing that was

after surviving
your vision sharpened
everything shining
a new focus
on what counts
learning to ignore
anything that doesn’t propel one forward

the thing about death
is that it just doesn’t manage very well
showing up from random places
at random times
and usually not
while doing the things
conventional thinking
would accept should kill you

so you can ride the wall of death
everynight my friend
you can smoke camels
drink jack
wrangle the big cats like Gunter
or be shot out of a cannon
like The Human Cannonball

none of the things
that should kill you will kill you
there’s way more than a million ways
to be struck or missed by the lightning

i know that you want
lurid twisting orange fireballs
of exploding hightest gasoline
what you get though
is blue light
a dark spot on your arm
and a silent doctor
with a concerned look
on his face




I’ve got to tell you, I get the worst PMS.

I can tell from that look on your face that you have no freaking idea what I mean.

PMS, or Parked Motorcycle Syndrome, is a debilitating condition. PMS leaves sufferers irritable, depressed, and prone to seemingly impossible extremes of emotional volatility.

And so it is with me, too.

After two days or so, I’m nervous. Jumpy.

I make these inexplicable spasmodic rolling motions with my right hand and wrist.

After about five days, I can be observed sitting rocking in the center of the rug in my den, quietly making little motor noises with my lips and tongue.

After about 7 days, I am reduced to staring out the window, insterspersed with brief spasmodic weeping.

After about ten days, I’m queing up to be fitted for that nicely tailored snug natural canvas sportsjacket with the arms that tie together in the back.

It had been thirteen days since I had ridden a motorcycle.




The fact that my lay up was a result of Doctor’s orders wasn’t making it any easier.

In fact, it was making it particularly harder.

A trip to my Dermatologist to have a bad looking spot on the back of my upper right arm examined had resulted in a nearly immediate return for some outpatient surgery.

As a full-blooded American — which is to say a 50% Irish Catholic, 25% Christian Arab and 25% Polish Jew (although there could be more stuff in there for all I know) — my fair skin is prone to hocking up all sorts of bumps and oddballs. Squamous cells, Basal Cells — a Carcinoma or two.

Considering none of my outside has ever seen the sun-containing world outside an Aerostich suit, this is puzzling, but nonetheless true.

I ought to qualify for some sort of high volume scrape ’em and 4 suture club discount.

All of these things are a tad annoying, but 98.8% harmless.

This wasn’t one of those.

This was why we needed some fast lab work, and a post haste return visit.

After spending 90 minutes making surgery can-we-please-talk-about-something-else-smalltalk with my Doctor which was supposed to be 30, a much bandaged and still more sutured me was toweled off, propped up, and sent home with the instructions “not to lift anything heavy for 4 or 5 days”.

In my slightly stress-goofy state, I remember thinking “Well, I guess that rules my K1200LT right out.”




My first notion that something was amiss came after the local anethetic had worn mostly off, and a nice beer seemed like something that might have therapeutic uses.

I decanted a Nanticoke Nectar, leaned down to enjoy the fresh hop bouquet, and then took the glass into my right hand. Everything was preceeding swimmingly until the glass — moving delightfully in widescreen slow motion — got about 6 inches from my achingly thirsty lips. As the glass got closer and closer, it moved with increasing resistance, running into the new limits of my arm’s flexibility, which apparently contained a great deal less arm than it had this morning.

Friends I’d spoken with about the the diagnosis and precedure had warned me about this. The protocol involves being very conservative, and that translates to removing a fair amount of additional tissue.

I muttered a favorite oath — one I suspected would get a good throttle stretching run over the next three weeks or so — set the glass back on the counter, and resolved to learn to drink left handed.




So there I was, stuck on the couch, comtemplating my own mortality while snared in immobility.

It was pretty dark.

And I was going absolutely nuts.

For the first week or so I was too beat up to even consider escape. If we went out Sweet Doris from Baltimore was behind the wheel.

On or around day 5, I regained enough flexibility that I could split time between drinking left handed and drinking right handed.

Having discovered this, I immediately walked out to the garage, swung a leg over the Slash 5, and assumed the position.

Given that motorcycle’s almost custom fit to my body, it was heartening that I could sit astride the bike comfortably — there was no pain to rest a portion of my weight on my arms.

Then I tried the throttle.

This was going to take a while.



It wasn’t the last such trip I made to the the garage and to my Toaster Tank.

Progress was slow, but it was progress.

Day 13 after the surgery dawned sunny, cold and windy.

My arm, though, seemed like it could stand to be wound WFO without too much discomfort.

At lunchtime, I went back to the garage, and sat back on the Slash 5. I took a few tentative rolls of the throttle. No klaxons.

I walked over to the garage door, and gently raised it.

I rolled the bike forward off the stand, and then rolled it backwards into the open door, and gingerly placed it back onto the Reynolds Ride-Off stand.

It was go time.

I wandered back inside and gathered up a set of boots, my Duluth Trading Blacktop jacket — notable because of its built in fleece lining and lack of any armor — and a fresh surgical adhesive dressing and some of the prescription antibiotic ointment my doctor had provided.

I went into the studio where Sweet Doris from Baltimore was working a new painting.

“I’m going for a ride, Baby. Could you please put a dressing back on my arm?”

“I don’t think that’s….”

Folks that know me well know that I never get like that.

This one time, I got like that. Sue me.




Out in the driveway, I snapped the collar of my jacket shut and pulled on my gloves. I swung a leg over, opened the left fuel petcock, and pushed in the ignition pin. Having sat for a while, the boxer swung through two or three more compression strokes than was customary before the engine fired. I swing the choke off before it was smart to do so, and had to repeat the drill. Afer 15 seconds or so, the engine was taking throttle, and assumed its steady near-human heartbeat of an idle.

I pushed off down the driveway, toed the gearbox down into first, and banked left up the street.


I took the long way around the neighborhood — gently rolling the bike left and right — a baby-step version of the racer’s tire warming manouvre — checking to make sure I could position the bike without running into the lowered limits of my flexibility and strength. Thanks to boxer balance, what little I had was enough.

At The Jefferson Pike, I made the right down towards The Brookside Inn, and deliberately thockked the old girl up through the gears until I shifted into fourth.

With temperature in the low 40s, the sun was shining bright in a clear sky, the wind blowing hard, this old school ride — no windshield, no heated grips, and just a set of elkskin gloves — was letting me experience the day with an unparalleled vividness.

It was bright. It was cold. It was great.

Never has such an old slow motorcycle made me feel so alive.




As much as I didn’t want to overdo it, I didn’t want to stop, either.

After a brief run up The Pike, I made the right up St. Marks Road. St. Marks leads down into The Bottoms — I just wanted to just be alone next to the creek, feeling the wheels working underneath me and being kissed by the broken sunlight coming through the trees. Where the road comes down to Catoctin Creek, it follows the streambed closely, making a series of gentle lefts and rights, with the ancient road surface providing endless contours for the suspension to follow.

After a long time as a wallflower, it felt oh so good to be dancing again.

St. Marks has a medium long straight, and feeling good, I gassed it.

I wasn’t the only one that was feeling good, apparently.

Old boxers love cold dense air, and 50 horsepower never felt so powerful. The Toaster’s sleeper motor — with its big bore kit and small valves — was right in the sweet spot, and it hit with everything it had.

I didn’t need an action cam to know about the smile in my helmet.

At the creek sits an old iron framed one lane bridge. I got up on the pegs and gassed it again — getting just a little air as I left the bridge deck.

Away from the creek St. Marks climbs steeply. The sightlines are restrictive and the road twists, snakelike, as it rises up the hill. I gassed it again and was pleasantly surprised as the front wheel lightened up and lightly skimmed the pavement over 60 or 70 feet.

Slash 5 power wheelies don’t happen very often, but today was clearly a special day.

I might hurt later, but right now that front wheel wasn’t the only thing that got lifted.




Back in the driveway, I remarked that my gear removal speeds had recorded better split times.

Then again, today wasn’t about speed, it was more about simple existance.

My Toaster is clearly a motorcycle that gets used. Its got dirt. And gear oil. And mud. It hasn’t got any ‘pretty’.

Today, though, it was a thing of beauty.

I grabbed my phone out of the phone holster that is built in to my favorite brand of cargo pants to check for messages. I had a voice mail.


“Mr. Shamieh? This is Jennie down at Dr. Han’s office. Just wanted you to know that the biopsies and labs came back, and they’re all clean. You have nothing to worry about. Call if you have any questions. ”

Seemed like a pretty good time to reacquaint myself with drinking beer right handed.


Twenty One Days

Twenty one days.

Its been rainin.

I’ve been waiting for the sun to come around.

The sound of the words wash over me, and I’m lost in memories of music, and of similar poetry.

Of an old band I was in with my buddy Crawford, singing Dylan’s ‘Seven Days’. Of Ronny Wood’s version of it. Of Dylan’s himself.

All ringing guitars and reedy yelp.

“Seven daaaaaays!

seven more days and she’ll be comin’

I’ll be waitin’ at the station….”

It took more than a little while for the Fenders to recede, to snap out of it.

When it rains like this, it just messes with the human mind.

Everyone around me has been short — angry — in a funk. I’m by no means the only one to have noticed this.

The mind is apt to wander when reality feels mostly dark, moldy and damp.

Still, if its impossible to write something utterly new, falling into one of Minnesota Zimmie’s grooves isn’t a bad place to be.


I got a bike with a good fairing, and an Aerostich suit.

And I rode in that rain.

The Washington Post had descended to publishing a collaboration piece with its readers where the readers had been writing a long, long collection of spontaneous rain Haikus.

Alcohol sales appeared to be dramatically up.

After the flood, though, only one thing can happen.

And about 2 weeks longer than everybody’s collective patience, that thing finally happened.

The sun came out.


I’m supposed to go to an all day Blues Festival Saturday.

It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, supposed to rain for at least 5 of the 7 hours I expect to be there.

So the sun might be out today, but I would be needing some rain gear.

I proposed to just wear my ‘Stich to the Festival.

Which thoughtful proposal was emphatically declined by Sweet Doris From Baltimore.

So I needed to run to the store, to get a rainsuit.

You know how I love errands.


We were definitly in the sweet spot.

Temperature was in the high sixties, the sun was strong in a cloudless sky.

After gearing up, I rolled the R90S out of the garage, threw a leg over, opened the petcocks, set the enrichener, and buttoned it to booming life.

For a day this cool, the bike seemed more willing than usual to take throttle without cold leaning out.

I kept the revs up above idle, dialed the choke lever back, and coasted the bike down the driveway. Rolling at the bottom of the driveway, I feathered the clutch, toed the bike down into first, and then gently rolled on some wrist and moved smartly up the street.


Staying on The Jefferson Pike through the light at the other end of town, I found myself on open highway on a warm sunny evening.

With a little heat into the engine after a mile and half, I wound third gear out through about 6700 rpm, listening to the flat twin music, and then gently toed up with a solid and determanistic thwack into an easy cruise in the bottom of fourth gear.

I have to hand it to Mark Delaney. If you ever owned a classic airhead, yours never shifted this nicely. To take a salvage gearbox, my case and a mystery performance shift cam of unknown provenance and produce this requires a true artist.

Coming up to Elmer Derr Road, I downshifted and engine braked through two gears, and headed for the hole.

‘The Hole’ is a 1930s vintage corregated steel culvert tunnel that runs under US 340. Folks who live in the country are accustomed to these things, but this one is the most spectacular example I’ve ever seen.

US 340 is a full blown four lane divided highway with full shoulders and a wide center median, so the tunnel has to be nearly 200 feet long. My kids have always loved this thing, insisting on gratuitous horn honks, yelling out open windows and full throttle whenever we’re inside it.

‘The Hole’ is also one one lane wide, so slowing down enough to make sure you’re the only current occupant before entering is a best practice.

Running the S up through second gear inside ‘The Hole’ and then rolling off to engine brake to the stop sign at the other end is nothing short of an internal combustion symphony.

I’m kind of surprised that there isn’t a full time resident Harley Davidson club that just hangs out there to run back and forth and bathe themselves in the sound.


Elmer Derr road parallels 340 for about 2 miles, and then cuts off across the southern end of Frederick County, allowing one to opt out of using any of our now oversubscribed and hoplessly congested highways. Coming out of ‘The Hole’ Elmer Derr Road is one long straight stretch with perfect visibility and no cross roads.

If Burt Munroe were here I know just what he’d do.

So, unsurprisinging, I usually do that, too.

The S really doesn’t like to take top gear until its well over 75. Executing a model shift into top gear and rolling back into the throttle economically illustrates what was good about tthe R90S when it was built, and what is just as good about it now.


After crossing Mount Zion road, Elmer Derr turns charmingly technical — with a series of chicanes and some 90/90 left rights that are among my favorites — some of them having full banking on the corner entries. Fun!

The S just eats these up. I have a fresh Michelin Pilot Active front that I recently mounted, and the bike is solid, planted and responsive at as much lean as is ever recommended on the street. The transition between corners are the same — pick up on throttle, swap from one side of the tire to the other, roll off and set an entry.

Hitting a long straight after the tight stuff, I can scarely contain my smile or beleive this is now a 41 year old motorcycle. Since mounting the new Flat Racer saddle, the rider’s position on the bike is much more solid than that of any of my other BMWs. Their solid seat pan and heavied up mounting hardware makes the entire pilot’s position feel as solid as if it was carved from alloy.

All of the trouble reworking the bike — the transmission rebuild, new tech clutch, even the amazing recreation of a WWII combat dogfight and the resulting electrical overhaul now seem totally worth it. The cockpit is quiet and free from vibration, and the response to control inputs — both on the gas and on the brakes — is strong, provides analog feedback, and is nuanced.

Fourty one years of progress has no doubt produced faster motorcycles, but not more balanced, ridable ones.



After hitting my local big box and snagging a backpackers FroggToggs setup for tomorrow’s show, I was just as ready to run a different set of delighfully curvy and inefficient roads to get back to the house.

It will be raining again tomorrow, but the sun is out today.


Tread Depth

a machine
can be a lovely thing
with steel
one knows exactly where one stands

a micrometer
is a tiny beautiful sculpture
its shape
its weight
the inscribed lines

but as a source of truth
it’s more beautiful still
this bearing shell
at fifteen thou
is as good as the day that it was cast
this clutch plate
at 4.7 mm
is simply done
bye bye

with steel
one knows exactly
where one stands

humans though
are more ephemeral
much less deterministic stuff
how much wear and tear
and how its shown
is really just a matter of surmise

how far down their thickness
how close to service limit
the chewing surfaces of my teeth are worn
isn’t like checking brake pads

there’s no tread depth gauge
in my toolbox anyway
that will let me check the meniscus in my knees
the disks in my back
the lining of the vessels that run though my heart
my brain

with my Avons what’s trivial
with me is impossible

“looks pretty good to me.
who knows how far she’ll run?”
who know how far i’ll run

with steel
one knows exactly
where one stands


run hard and put up wet
wear and tear’s a terrible fact


they call me
the breeze
i keep rollin down the road

when jj wrote it
even then it was
a prayer
a dimly visioned dream

i ain’t got me nobody
i don’t carry me no load

a happy biker fantasy
about a world that
ain’t the way
that this one is

some days
call me the brick
don’t go
nowhere at all

got people counting on me
carry me the heaviest
of heavy loads

makes jj’s prayer
and that breeze he’s ridin now
a sweeter thing
to think about


for jj cale
poet of the dunbar anthem — after midnight