Riding on two wheels has been a part of my life since childhood. Learning to ride my bicycle with not raining wheels is one of the earliest memories of the excitement of freedom that I have. Growing up,my brother and I took turns riding our dirt bike around the farm at our grandparents’ house. As we got older and more capable we explored the vast expanses of the Nebraska sand hills in Greeley County with my dad and uncles. During college years I made the road trip to Sturgis at summer’s end with the same crew. There were a few years I did it on a borrowed cycle, until I had the opportunity to buy my own.
The years passed, as did the miles on a motorcycle, and my interest in building a chopper steadily increased, becoming irresistible eventually. With zero knowledge of “chopping” rides I searched for the perfect donor bike. After months of scouring the nation via the world-wide-web I began to slide the whole project to the back-burner, deflated in spirit. Months and months passed without much thought of a motorcycle project. We purchased our first house, and my time became devoted to remodeling our home. Mid-winter I stumbled upon a gentleman in Gretna, Nebraska trying to sell a salvage-titled version of the very motorcycle I’d been hoping to find. The bike had been rear-ended by a car, but supposedly ran and drove. A mere 30 miles from my house, my wife and I scheduled the trip as quickly as we could. We arrived on a cloudy, frozen day in pre-spring Nebraska. The battery was so dead that the motorcycle wouldn’t run without a jumper pack attached. The owner and I got it started and propped the seat somewhere between halfway on and falling off. I awkwardly juggled the booster packin my lap as I managed the throttle and clutch and did my best to stay on a seat that wouldn’t fasten to the bike. I kept a nervous eye on the tail of my coat as it danced just above a rear tire - void of a fender. My fingers froze while I drove the motorcycle up a frozen gravel road a quarter-mile and back; for as miserable as I was, I was the happiest guy in the world. We took care of the financials as I thawed out inthe kitchen with the owner and our wives. After the business was done, we loaded the bike and headed for home, setting into motion a year-and-a-half of frustration, learning, and midnight oil. I was relatively newly-wed and my wife practiced patience regularly that year; it was an hour round-trip to the shop where I worked on the project.
The guidance of a new-found friend, an expert in such things, built my confidence as I worked at stripping, cutting, and tearing the bike down to the mere basics. Building it back was frustrating to say the least, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience and I will say that every part and piece of that chopper painted a grin on my face as I stood back and watched it come together better than I had hoped.
March seemed to approach quickly that spring. That meant our annual St Patrick’s Day event, back home, was on the horizon. I had hoped to ride the chopper to O’Neill for the party and show it off to all my old friends. As the date neared, my hope of doing so began to slip; too many setbacks and not enough time seemed to become a common theme of the build. The week of O’Neill’s St. Pat’s celebration showed up, right on time, and things with the bike had kind of started to come together. With a little luck, all of the late nights and perseverance began to look like they could pay off!
On a Wednesday night just before a Thursday morning departure I sat in dim light and silence, teaching myself the finer details of running a professional paint sprayer. The scrape of my boots on the pavement and the clangs and clinks that so often accompany shop work provided my soundtrack as I worked to wrap the raw steel of the fuel tank in a flat gray primer. Keeping it from rusting was my only mission; it wouldn’t need to look pretty. Near 1 a.m. I sat in front of the bike on a bucket and took inventory of every single bolt, nut, and screw. The primer became tacky, and eventually dry to the touch as I worked at packing a book bag with every tool I could possibly need for roadside repair on tomorrow’s maiden voyage.
In the dusky light of morning I set out. The chilly wind on my face that day was totally different than any ride-induced wind I’d experienced in my life. Driving down the road on this bike was nothing short of stunning, save for the nerves of cruising on a piece of equipment planned, built, and finished by no-one other than I. The responsibility of failure would land squarely on my shoulders…much like my shoulders would likely land squarely on the pavement of a Nebraska highway should that failure occur.
I spent many miles that day staring with great intensity at the front wheel, the front tire and axle, the axle nuts, front forks and neck. Staring in anticipation for the first signs of any wiggle, wobble, or objectionable movement, pondering whether I could avoid disaster simply by intense observation.
I stopped every thirty miles to pull apart the tool kit I had assembled in my back pack. I sat alongside the road checking the tight bolts and tightening the loose ones. Ironically, it was in Gretna, where this whole story started, that I stopped into a local mechanic’s shop in need of a 5/16” bolt. They figured they’d have something that fit my bill, but I’d have to dig through their old tin coffee can of randomness to find it myself. I felt a small bit of redemption when they asked if I needed to borrow a wrench…”Nope, I’ve got that covered. I just need a bolt to tighten with it” I answered.
I made it home that day without any major malfunctions, though the ride wasn’t nearly long enough. I have put thousands of miles on that machine since- each one as enjoyable as the one before it. I’ve spent time in the rain, and the cold, and the sun, and the shine on that bike. It lends a certain sense of adventure to me that is unlike any other I’ve found, and I hope like hell that it never fades.