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It's Nelly's World

A World

alec vanderboom


Last summer--how can it already be that long ago?--I traveled to the National.
What's "the National"?  And of what nation do we speak?
Read on.  
This is the unexpurgated version of a piece that appeared in Motorcyclist magazine.
And these are two of my favorite photos taken by my pal Joe Sokohl; used here by kind permission.
Now, excuse me while I go pack to go to another rally.

 


I am in northern Pennsylvania on one of the oldest highways in America, the transcontinental U.S. 6, doing what I love best: eating a luggage-smashed peanut butter and jelly while sitting on the curb at a gas station in the company of the vehicle that brought me here.   I am scribbling in a notebook a few of the six hundred - odd thoughts that occurred to me during the past 140 miles (tank limit), and also on why I seem compelled to do this mainly when I sit on a curb, looking at my motorcycle.  Through it also; air is its heart.  A bike is both solid and insubstantial. I write that down too, as it occurs to me it’s a good metaphor for pretty much everything.


And it makes strange sense, because I am making for a gathering that is simultaneously as unlikely as chance can make anything, and as absolute as familial blood: the 41st annual national rally of those who ride the motorcycle conceived in 1920 by three World War I veterans of Italy’s Corpo Aeronautico Militaire and built in a village perched on the rocky shore of Lake Como.   Then there is the fact that we are meeting to pledge allegiance to our small-town Moto Guzzis in a village in the Virginia foothills of the Shenandoah, Buena Vista.  If that isn’t a little weird, I don’t know what is.


Guzzisti are themselves a peculiar lot—a bit like the air-cooled V-twin itself, maybe, an engine about as refined as a tractor’s but curiously gorgeous too—and in the decades I have known them I have compiled the riders’ Identi-Kit: in descending order, their livelihoods are most likely to be engineer, IT, photographer, pilot, musician, and academic.  They are “independent thinkers,” and they are a veritable portrait of middle-class America (with the exception of Billy Joel).  An owner of one of Mandello del Lario’s output is most likely to retorque his own bolts, possibly wearing a tee that reads “Moto Guzzi: Going Out of Business Since 1921.”


I know motorcyclists who have never been to a rally, but I don’t understand them.  A rally is a combination community barbecue, mutual need society, and tent revival. A rally on the calendar is the motorcyclist’s ritual call to prayer, his muezzin.  From May through September, hundreds of regional rallies convene various tribes, which will each attract a couple hundred; it is the nationals that are the big deal.  BMW’s is an industrial-scale shindig with hundreds of vendors and a full docket of seminars and tours for its 10,000 attendees.  For Moto Guzzi, which is lucky to sell 600 production units a year in the U.S., four hundred diehards will converge.  This year the factory will send neither demo bikes nor even a representative, perhaps in memory of 2007’s disastrous rally in Houston, Minnesota: a flash flood swept away their entire fleet not to mention the semi they came on, along with much else.  A rally is the usual ride, writ large: Four days and hundreds of miles; four nights of beer, bourbon, mediocre potato salad, campfires and campfire tales; four hundred buddies, not four.  We will meet whatever comes—pain or pleasure, or usually both—together.  The banner hung from the park pavilion’s rafters proclaims a truth.  Moto Guzzi: A World of Friends.


On the first day of two I need to get there, I choose the back roads that my bike—a 1986 650cc Lario—prefers over “the slab,” the anonymous interstate that gets you somewhere without letting you know just how.  I am traveling old-school, with tent and sleeping bag strapped to the seat, paper maps, and a route cribsheet in the vinyl map pocket of my tankbag to read while riding and therefore invariably misread.  I had to make a guess at the junction of I-180: lo, it does not in fact run north-south as it does in my road atlas.  OK, then, West.  I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right.  I have never won the lottery, either.


But I chose right, in a way, the way of the journey.  On the phone to friends waiting that evening for me at a Comfort Inn in Maryland, I report the good news: I have discovered an amazing road in Pennsyltucky (as it is called, presaging the next day’s dive into the real South).  Route 74 from Port Royal to Carlisle exceeds every criterion of goodness the motorcyclist asks—little traffic, uncountable curves, scenic surprise.  Then there is the bad news: I had to go a hundred miles out of my way to find it.  No matter.  As a famous long-distance rider I know says, “There is no such thing as a bad day on a motorcycle.”  I would eat a grocery-store meal in the room when I got there, after the rest had returned from their pub dinner.  For some reason, my notion of what constitutes excellent grub reverses itself on a motorcycle trip.


The good day/bad day switch occurred to Tom from Massachusetts the next day. We were finally on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the legendary road that always inspires a prayer to dual gods: the one in charge of providing an asphalt dancing partner who never steps on your toes and can seemingly waltz all night, and the one who permitted us to safely wade into socialist waters long enough for the WPA to build an unprecedented temporal museum of culture and geography the length of a road.  Tom dropped out of sight in our rearview mirrors, and when we doubled back to find him at a scenic overlook, he announced that the main seal on his lovingly restored 1973 Eldorado had given way.  It’s not a Moto Guzzi event without leakage.


It is also not a Guzzi event without the selflessness of the brotherhood’s bond becoming manifest. Tom got on the phone to a fellow sixty miles away who immediately agreed to come with a truck; once at the rally, the Eldo traded places on another rallygoer’s trailer with his Norge (named after the Guzzi that in 1928 accomplished 4,000 km to the Arctic Circle).  Tom would head home at the end of the weekend on a fully functional late-model machine, a kindness extended simply because both men had, one day, found the same object of an outwardly inscrutable affection.


As we pulled in to the rally grounds at Glen Maury Park, my long anticipation of arrival—and to me, a rally is as much about expectation as it is about being there—insured that all I could see were the tents massed along the treeline, the people moving back and forth between their sites and the bathrooms, the pavilion like Valhalla on the hill ahead, bikes passing us on the drive as they headed for ice, or for a ride on the fabled roads of Virginia.  Who might I meet again, after years that would seem as moments? It was only later, after I had unpacked and furled the tent, that I even noticed the park was dominated by Paxton House, an imposing antebellum mansion.  This gathering, from all corners of a united republic, of fans of a European motorcycle few have heard of would be overseen by the ghost of a Confederate general. 


In his honor, perhaps, or maybe just because they’re tasty, that night we enjoyed mint juleps by the light of tentside tiki torches.  In honor of no one but global warming, the next day we sought refuge from the excoriating heat (102 and counting) in a pool below Panther Falls, attained by carefully negotiating three miles of steep downhill gravel road.  And that night, all hell broke loose.


After dinner, the time of commingling and chat, beer drinking and good-natured complaint, someone walked over, smartphone in hand.  “Folks, there’s a big storm headed our way.  About fifteen minutes.”  The radar showed a dense green mass, admixed with angry yellow and orange, stretching from southern Ohio to Tennessee and moving east.  Within ten minutes, rallygoers had assisted everyone in battening down tents and bringing bikes under the pavilion’s roof.  Then we waited for the show to begin.  Some thoughtful person had left a box of Cheezits on a table, which we devoured while watching lightning shear the night sky and trees bend under the force of brutal winds. The storm was a derecho, and when it had passed, it was revealed as one of the most destructive storms in American history.  We had felt strangely calm.  Everything was going to be all right, or would be made so later.  Guzzi people are good at fixing things.


The next day brought departure.   A friend familiar with local roads saw me on my way by leading a private tour, and that is when we saw the storm’s full aftermath: great trees snapped in half, wires festooning pavement.  He found what was certainly the state’s only craft brewery with enough generator to power both air-conditioner and pizza oven.  Afterward I said goodbye.  I was headed north, home, alone.

But a motorcyclist knows this is not how it will always be: alone. Next year we will be rally-bound again.  There will be new expectation.  New affiliations.  And a new date on the calendar on which to fix an anticipatory pin, every year.  When we come together, and when we arrive.





{Photos: Joe Sokohl}