Some years ago…
The time in Billings, Montana had been unusually strange, if not a little fantastic, but the story I’m about to tell would not begin until two weeks later in Kansas.
It was just after Sturgis, and while on the road to Montana, that the weld on my transmission’s shifting arm (I always weld those) broke. The entire arm began to wobble loosely and I knew it was just a matter of time before the thing failed, leaving Betsy stuck in a single gear and un-shift-able. This was not an easy fix for although the parts are relatively small and inexpensive the job requires removal of the entire clutch, compensator, and inner primary before the transmission can be gutted and the new parts installed. But all was not lost…
It had been earlier that year an old friend had loured me into a promise of coming to Lyons, Kansas to re-roof one of his mother’s rental houses. Having been a contractor and journeyman roofer in another life, I had agreed. Now seemed a very good time to make that journey…
Derek McCloud is an entrepreneur/workaholic who grew up in the little town of Lyons. Although he’s built and sold a verity of successful businesses over the course of his lifetime, for many years Derek and wife Donna have been buying and selling wholesale Big Dog, custom chopper parts and, having visited before, I knew his world would easily accommodate the needs of my little transmission dilemma.
With an easy foot attuned to the weakness of my screwed up shifter, a course was set for Kansas…
In a vast sea of wide open no-man’s land, Lyons is one of those places that makes one wonder what it is people do in small, isolated, towns. On its outskirts a little cloud of dust trailed the old FL as I gazed from the pilot’s seat to beyond the arrow straight dirt road and across the miles of farmland and sporadic trees separated by only an occasional ranch house. Beautiful country. The gate that led to Derek’s 85 acre parcel was unlocked and I turned into the driveway. To the right his old house, the one with which I was familiar, sat abandoned while farther on the left stood the new place, which had been constructed in the image of a huge barn. Three of its sides were surrounded by a large man-made pond stocked with fish while beyond that stood a line of trees for added privacy. A three bay garage was attached to the house with two SUVs parked out front while farther down the driveway sat a large metal building. It was an impressive sight.
Derek met me at the door and I was ushered into what was quite possibly the nicest “barn” in existence. Donna soon greeted me with the Boston accent and warm welcome I’d come to expect of her. After dinner we retired to lawn chairs set before a rock fireplace built into the back patio. Both of my hosts are beer drinkers and the bullshit session dragged on into the evening. Again I wondered why this guy has always thought so much of me because, in general, he hates people. For this reason most of his business is conducted over the internet. In colorful contrast, he also harbors an uncommon sense of community. As a service to the little town, Derek works one day a week as an elected official to the County Commissioner’s seat. This position is largely involved in appropriation of town finances, and because of Derek’s uncommon ability in this arena the townspeople repeatedly reelect him. He’s also made a few anonymous contributions to the community. Still, he generally hates people. What a trip. Still, there’s little more I love than listening to the exploits of his, to me, strange world, and it was with genuine interest that I continually goaded him to tell more stories. For to him the world of business is only as one big Monopoly board. Just a game. In contrast again, Derek wears everyday cloths and his favorite tennis shoes are held together with duct tape. I find this guy totally entertaining.
Although offered a room in the house, I opted to set camp in the metal building instead.
Morning brought a moment’s disorientation as I came awake to the sight of a metal roof hovering high above, then took notice that my bed was pushed against a wall, set on a concrete floor, surrounded by a sea of high-dollar choppers, and a rather large family of cats and remembered where I was. Reaching for the container of cold coffee that’s always on my bike by
morning, I took a sip then and, as usual, spent a good stretch on the ritual of waking up. Eventually the driveway led me to Derek’s front door and from there the day was spent mostly bombing around town in his SUV. We visited Derek’s warehouse in town and I searched through racks of parts in attempt to locate those needed for the job. But it was more than the transmission that I intended to fix…
A couple years ago I learned that the reason the older bikes scream down the highway is because they were geared lower than modern five speeds, turning about 3,400 RPM at 70 MPH. Very irritating. The factory’s switch to higher gears had been made sometime in the early 90s by simply changing clutch and compensator ratios in the primary. One year ago a friend had talked me into rectifying this inconvenience by simply installing a front belt-pulley with two extra teeth that would accomplish the same thing. This inexpensive mod had reduced my ratio to only 3,100 RPM at 70; a much improved highway ride. Problem was now my Electra Glide now lacked the power to get its fat ass up steep grades at highway speeds. I’d decided to install an Andrews EV-27 cam to gain the needed power. In Derek’s sea of high power chopper parts however, there was not a cam to fit my bike to bike.
Back at the house Derek led me to an older Softail that had been sitting a long time. He said if I made it run I could use it while my own bike was down. After that he’d sell it. It took less than an hour to breathe life into the neglected thing.
That night Derek ordered my cam from the net with his own credit card because I’ve never had plastic money.
Again we sat to a long bullshit session before the evening’s fire.
Next day I set to the task of gutting my transmission and cam compartment. Although necessity has pushed me to become a fair HD mechanic (there’s not much I can’t fix really), I don’t work on bikes everyday and am pretty slow. Therefore, the better part of a week was allotted for this job.
That evening, as would many to come, was spent bombing around town on my new Softail while visiting or running into a few friends from previous visits.
When installing a new cam it’s a good idea to have the cam-gear pressed off the original then installed onto the new cam. Failure to do so can cause either serious gear clearance problems, or simply a lot of unneeded noise. Fortunately, All Things Chopped was just 20 miles away in the town of Great Bend. This was a small, one man and wife, HD shop and the owner swapped my cam-gear for $20.
Within a week my FL trany was right again and, after richening the carburetor as per Andrew’s instructions, the bike was running better than ever while also producing more power. From this experience I learned that the stock cams are EPA, and, in reality, the valves need a little more duration to accommodate the V twin’s long stroke. In other words, this simple bolt-in cam was not hot rod stuff, but simply made the engine run as originally designed to.
With that segment of the work behind, a short break seemed in order. I said goodbye to the Softail, loaded a jacket onto the old FL and lit out for the town of Hutchinson and the “Kansas Cosmo Sphere and Space Center” located some 40 miles away. Although far bigger than Lyons, Hutchinson is by no means a major city and it amazes me that such a stunning museum should be located in this small and relatively isolated Kansas town.
A good friend had left San Diego many years ago and now lived in Hutchinson and I intended to pay him a visit while there. We’d known each other for 25 years. Clint rides a late model Softail and it was at his little bachelor pad that we talked into the night. Before I left for the ride back to Lyons at 2am, we vowed to do some weekend riding together.
Next came the roof job and I spent the better part of a week on that project. When the smoke finally cleared I was $1,500 richer.
But now I was in debt; for besides the new cam charged to Derek’s card, I’d also purchased new boots, tent, and a few other odds and ends. Although Derek wasn’t really worried about my bill, I was. Rather than paying cash, for Derek it’s always a option to simply work your debt off. Again the labor began.
Derek makes his living by buying large loads of brand new, and possibly slightly dinged or defective, chopper parts and the occasional complete or partially disassembled motorcycle at an obscenely reduced rate then selling them on eBay. This business generates the great piles of slightly screwed up or partially disassembled transmissions, engines, etc. that littered the floor of his warehouse in town. To settle my debt, I set to assembling whole, functioning, six speed transmissions for later sale to Derek’s customers, then was put to work on the choppers that surrounded my camp inside the metal building.
Days came and went.
On weekends Clint and I made a habit of joining forces to carouse the area on motorcycles and generally ended up at a party, BBQ, or whatever. Being a local, Clint tended to know where all the happenings were.
In past I’d always ridden through small, isolated towns and wondered what it is people do there. I learned on this extended stay that, if there’s any event in even the tiniest backwoods town, people will often ride from within a 100 miles to be in attendance. Because of this farmland ritual we got to travel a lot of beautiful country and I came to see the same faces again and again.
One weekend Clint called to invite me to a birthday BBQ in his X wife’s back yard. Said his two kids and all her X husbands would be in attendance.
Sounded weird. Of course I’d go.
It was a big old house and besides ourselves only one other rider was in attendance. The air was friendly. It was a good low budget backyard party. Although aged a bit (as have we all) the X was pretty much as I’d remembered from 20 some-odd years ago, and it was good to see her again. In private Clint explained that her present husband and X-number-two are best friends. Both were in attendance and a closer look revealed he was right. Then there was Clint (X number one), a couple of old boyfriends, and I’d even had a shot at her back in the day. This seemed to be a “who banged Kathy party”; which I found rather funny. Nevertheless, all were friendly amid an uncommonly good vibe. Amazing how she’d pulled that one off. I had a great time.
With the bike again mechanically sound, my pocket filled with change and, as always eventually plagues the motorcycle drifter, the road was calling again. But the chilled air that now leaned into the coming fall made the southbound highways that meandered toward warm southern climates seem a good choice. As the old Electra Glide beat its fateful rhythm against the southbound pavement of this American dream, my mind wondered back over the strange events that, once again, had replenished the simple needs of a single drifter.
Ahead lay the town of Austin, Texas and I wondered what manner of adventure might lie there…