Monday 29 December 2008

Riding on the Edge

By John Hall.

“Sure we got into some shootings and serious shit. But most of it was just good, clean fun, like drinking beer all night and standing up on the seat of your motorcycle, drunk and without a helmet, at three o’clock in the morning, while you blew every red light on Hempstead Turnpike.”

I suppose one could debate whether that is an apt description of “good, clean fun”, but what I found quite interesting about this book was that Hall describes a 1960’s outlaw scene that was totally devoid of any criminal activity of a serious nature – no drug dealing, no trafficking, no prostitution – just “good, clean fun”. And so I suspect that there’s either a lot Hall left out of the narrative or there’s quite a bit of revisionist history being presented here.

But while Hall may have been selective in his recollections, Riding on the Edge still opens a window on the outlaw culture at the time and the early days of the Pagans as they began their march to become, according to the book’s jacket, “the most violent criminal organization in America”.

The story line is pretty typical and quite repetitive – getting drunk, taking offense, trashing bars, screwing underaged groupies, internal power struggles, who’s righteous and who isn’t. Reading about all that is good clean fun in its own way but what really differentiates this book from others of the same ilk are Hall’s periodic detours into the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Mennonites and the Brotherhood of Zion, observations on Polish family traditions, and so on. Finding these gems scattered among the wreckage of yet another trashed bar or run-in with the authorities is what makes the book readable and kept me turning the pages (I read it in 2 days). It’s still not great literature, but it’s a decent, entertaining read.

Oh, and one last nit to pick: the inside cover says, “In the 1960s, John Hall, a Harley-riding hell-raiser hooked up with the Pagans...”. According to the book, Hall rode a 1963 Triumph TR-6.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Riding with Rilke

Well you sure can't ride 'em this time of year, so second best is reading (and writing) about 'em.

Riding with Rilke is one of the better motorcycling books I've read recently. And while motorcycling and literary research seem to be an unlikely pairing, Bishop brings those worlds together in a fine story worthy of your attention on those cold winter nights when all one has is memories of rides past and anticipation of rides to come.

A more complete review is here.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Bill 117

I know it's now well into winter here in Ontario and all but the most foolhardy bikers have lovingly put their two wheels to bed for the winter, but that doesn't mean we can ignore what's going on at Queen's Park. Bill 117 is another step closer to reality and WILL BECOME LAW if we don't stop it.

As recent experience shows, this government will only respond when public pressure becomes uncomfortable. When the young drivers mobilised to decry the restrictions on their ability to carry passengers, that provision was dropped from the legislation. WE NEED TO DO THE SAME.

So do your bit.

Write letters to your MP, your newspaper, Premier McGuinty and let them know how you feel. Join Facebook groups. Sign petitions. Get everyone you know, whether Ontario residents or not, to do the same. Be heard and be LOUD.

Not a motorcyclist? Be very worried. If they get away with this, next it will be cyclists with their kids in tow, or skateboarders, or snowboarders. You too have a vested interest in stopping this law.

Look here, and here for some background and contact information for the Ontario legislature.

And drop over to
The Lonely Rider for a good summary of what's been going on and some excellent background material.

Friday 12 December 2008

Manyberries, Alberta

For motorcyclists, winter is a time of reflection up here in the frozen north. Barring a mid-winter trip to Daytona or some such southern locale, we know we won’t be riding for at least 5 months so we spend our time reminiscing about trips past. This is one such recollection.

1976. Having been in the workforce for all of six years at that point, I had decided that I needed an extended vacation. Looking back on it now that was probably the one time in my working life I least needed a long break as being low man on the Ottawa civil service totem pole didn’t exactly warrant hazard pay, but being so low in the hierarchy also meant they wouldn’t miss me for 10 weeks. So I strapped a tent, sleeping bag, fishing pole and an extra pair of jeans on the Honda 550 and headed west to Vancouver, where I would meet up with my girlfriend (now wife) who was going to fly out and then accompany me on the return trip.

While in Vancouver we stayed for a couple of weeks with friends of friends who turned out to be terrific hosts, making us feel welcome and right at home from day one. So to show our appreciation, on our last night we presented them with a copy of the then-new photo book, Between Friends. As it was a going away party, the beer and the hippie lettuce were in abundance, and we were all well under the influence when we came across a picture in the book of two grizzled old cowboys standing in front of a grain silo in a place called Manyberries, Alberta. For whatever reason that photo struck us all at the time as being particularly hilarious.

So it was that a few days later when we came upon a road sign on Highway 1 pointing the way to Manyberries that we just had to detour to see the now-famous town. I'm not sure what we expected exactly, but I grew up in a small village in western Quebec so I'm no stranger to small towns. But this was small-town living on the edge. A few low buildings, a grain elevator or two, and that was it. Surrounded by endless prairie, Manyberries was the quintessential small prairie town – nice, but a bit worn out, like your favourite old sofa at the cottage. And there was no sign of the cowboys; just a very attractive young lady driving a bloody great tractor through town wearing cut-off jeans, a bikini top, and a straw cowboy hat. An injudicious remark that she should have been in the book instead of the two old guys earned me a quick jab in the ribs from the girlfriend and a reminder that it was going to be a long ride home if I didn't behave.

We took a look around and, being dry and dusty, we stopped at the local watering hole for a quick pint. I don’t remember the name of the establishment, but I do recall being the only two people in the place besides the bartender – and I don’t think he was too pleased to have a couple of long-haired “hippie bikers” in his bar. But our money was good, and he was keen to take it, so we quenched our thirsts, saddled up, and headed back out of town, north to Medicine Hat and Highway 1.

It was a beautiful day for riding - hawks circling in a clear blue sky and antelope in the fields. Not too hot and not too cold. One of those rare, perfect days that you just know can't last. And sure enough, it didn't.

There is only one hill between Manyberries and Medicine Hat, and it was just as we crested that hill that we came into intimate contact with the gumbo that’s used to surface roads in those parts. A mixture of water, oil, and dust, this goop is spread and graded until it packs down and dries into something of the consistency of concrete. But while it’s being worked, it’s more like molasses, very, very thick molasses. Which is what it was when we hit it. At about 70 mph. At the same instant we saw all the heavy equipment all over the road. We went down so fast I didn’t even have a chance to say, “What the f....?”

Some of the workers raced over to help us up out of the mud and their safety guy dragged out the First Aid Kit to patch the scrapes and minor cuts. Fortunately, aside from a bit of road rash, a broken turn signal, and a bent handlebar, we and the bike were fine. It was only when they told us how lucky we were because “The guy last week went right into that grader there. Killed him.” that I got a little irate and suggested, very politely under the circumstances I thought, that they should put up a FUCKING WARNING SIGN! With that, we prised the mud out from under the fenders, got on the bike, and continued on to Medicine Hat, me driving with the left handlebar pointing to the sky and both of us covered head to toe in oil and mud.

We managed to find the Honda dealer in Medicine Hat and as we entered the store, the parts guy took one look at us and said: “Coming up from Manyberries?” which, as one would imagine, elicited the appropriate amount of cussing and a few more Manyberries stories. But we got our parts and found a campsite just outside of town where we could pitch our tent and affect the necessary repairs. It turned out that the campsite was right between Highway 1 and the major east-west CP Rail line, both very busy, and a popular camping spot for the local Hell’s Angels chapter. But that’s another story.

Friday 5 December 2008

Ontario one step closer to banning under-14's as passengers on motorcycles

Yesterday Ontario’s Liberal majority forced this piece of nanny-state legislation one step closer to becoming law by passing it at second reading and referring it to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy.
This after a debate in which Dr. Jaczek (the bill’s sponsor) stood up in the Legislature in support of her Bill 117. By way of preamble she used the example of a 10-year-old child “who had been run over by a car”. How that was any more relevant than a child who was injured falling out of a tree is unclear to me.
The second situation she quotes is from an online article in, by “concerned parent and experienced motorcyclist Art Friedman”. In the article, Friedman states, "Here's a typical disaster in the making, one that I've seen far too frequently. A motorcyclist rides down the street with a kid sitting in front of him, a helmet four sizes too large bouncing around on the child's head, its little hands trying to hold on to the gas tank or the rider's legs.”

Now I don’t know who Art Friedman, what makes him an expert, or where he rides, but in 4 decades of riding I have NEVER seen this on the street – a dirt bike at the cottage perhaps, but never on the street. Besides, this is already illegal in Ontario and more rules aren’t going to make one iota of difference to the idiot who would carry a child on a motorcycle like that.

But then, after quoting Mr. Friedman as a sort of expert witness, Dr. Jaczek says, “Although Mr. Friedman concludes his article by saying he believes children can safely be passengers with proper preparation, I must disagree.” So it’s okay to agree with his ridiculous example because it supports your argument, but when he doesn't support your argument he's wrong? Typical bloody politician!
Anyway this is doing nothing for my blood pressure, so you can read everything she had to say here , along with the presentations by other members both in support of the bill as well as against it.
The fight is not over folks. Keep those cards and letters flowing.

(See here for background).

Monday 1 December 2008

"I refuse to tip-toe through life only to arrive safely at death"

That anonymous quote got me thinking again about the latest Ontario government initiatives to coddle its citizenry, protecting us from ourselves, and furthermore protecting us from ever having to take any real responsibility for our actions. (Previously blogged on here, here, and here.)

Nanny-state legislation, most often initiated as a political knee-jerk reaction to an unfortunate death or injury, seems particularly problematic in Ontario. And without a major backlash, its relentless progression will eventually turn us all into a society of zombies. As we move from one protective bubble to the next, we will live our lives totally unexposed and to some extent oblivious to the real world around us with all its excitement, beauty, and, it must be said, dangers. Unable to conceive of taking any personal risk, we will become solely focused on immunizing ourselves from life so we can survive forever, without fear and without pain. Ironically, in order to live longer we become the walking dead ourselves.

I’m certainly no Edmund Hillary when it comes to living on the edge, but I’ve had my moments (many of which I'm proud to say would now be against one or more laws) and I simply can’t imagine being 100 years old and only having a white bread life to look back on. As the old joke goes, the doctor says if you give up drinking, smoking and wild women you’ll live to be 100. To which the patient replied, why would I want to? Exactly!

Any life worth living is inherently risky. Sure, some of us pushed it too far and, paraphrasing James Dean, lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. Other friends, colleagues and family members didn’t make it this far due to countless other factors beyond their or anyone else’s control. But most of us make it through just fine, in spite of it all. And facing those risks, feeling that excitement, winning... and losing, even those near-death experiences define who we are. They are the underpinnings of our character, the same human character that brought innovation and progress to the western world at an unprecedented rate over the past few generations. It’s the same human character that gives us our heroes, in war and in peacetime; the same human character that lets us dig deep to find that irresistible force needed when faced with one of life’s immovable objects; and the same human character that every society needs in order to survive and that we, as humans, need to truly live.

Losing a loved one before their time hurts, and it’s understandable that those suffering such a loss will cry out for more rules, more limits, more controls so that no one else will ever have to feel their pain. But personal pain is not a good forge for public policy, and we should expect our politicians to be wise enough to realise that.

(Cross-posted from