Stories Travel

Scooter Life – Long Hauls and Big Crashes

1,500-mile journey provides inspiration for Michael as he recovers from a serious crash

I was laying on my back, looking up at the blue Florida sky. Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I found myself there by choice, but I was in the middle of Highway 1 and I found I couldn’t move.

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My right leg felt spongy and out of place; it occurred to me I might have amputated it in the act of flying across the hood of the car that had cut me off. People were gathering around my prone form and I started to feel like Kafka’s beetle: a metamorphosis was apparent and it was obvious death was coming for me. I felt strangely at peace, annoyed I was out of time, but quite warm and comfortable — as though wrapped in a healing blanket, drifting off to my appointment with the hereafter.

That won’t buff out.

That I didn’t die on August 31, 2018, was thanks largely to the remarkable medical care I received – paid for almost entirely by the excellent municipal health care plan offered by my employer: the City of Key West, Florida. I dispatch police and fire crews for a living.

It seemed grossly unfair that I was cut down while traveling serenely to my night shift, in a line of cars tootling along at a perfectly legal 45 mph. My Suzuki Burgman 200 was totaled in the wreck and I spent 12 days in Intensive Care l. There, my pelvis was rebuilt with rebar and metal plates, and my right femur was reset where it was twice broken (no amputations, thankfully).  I then spent two months in a rehab hospital in Miami, where my right knee and left shoulder were allowed to heal on their own, and I slowly learned to move and eventually walk again. For a while, all I could do was I lay in my hospital bed, not able to do much more than move my right arm. It’s not easy posting to Facebook flat on your back, with IVs in both arms, a tube up your nose, and only your right hand to hold the phone and tap the keyboard.

For a while there it was bleak.

Things Had Been Going So Well…

At 10 o’clock in the morning of Saturday, 18 August 2018, I rode up the Keys aiming for Niagara Falls, New York, 1,500 miles away.  I had a mad idea that I would try to complete the ride in less than 36 hours and add another timed long-distance ride to the two I had already accomplished on my previous bike, a 2007 Triumph Bonneville. In 2008 I had managed a 1,000-mile Iron Butt ride, followed in 2010 by a 1,500-mile “Bun Burner.” This time, to make it interesting, I was going to give it a shot on a 200cc scooter.

Interesting story that. In 2017, after Hurricane Irma flooded my neighborhood and wrecked my Bonneville – 10 years old, with roughly 1000,000 very happy trouble-free miles on the clock – I took it as an opportunity to try something different. My doctor had recently diagnosed arthritis creeping into my left wrist, so it was time to consider riding an automatic.

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I have been riding continuously since 1970, when my Italian mother bought me a Vespa in the hope I would grow up to love motorcycles. She died shortly thereafter, but I’m sure she’d be happy to know that she succeeded. I have spent the intervening yeas riding and traveling as much as I can. I’ve always had a mixture of motorcycles and Vespas in my life and have never made a distinction between my first full-sized bike – an MV Agusta 350 – and my scooters. Over the years, I’ve owned a Gold Wing, and rented Harleys and Indians, trying out the cruiser lifestyle, which never suited me.

I have toured on BMWs and assorted singles and four-cylinder universal Japanese motorcycles, but the best trip I ever took was a ride across the United States and Mexico on a brand new Vespa P200 back in 1981. I spent six months on the ride, inspired by the movie Easy Rider yet drawn to the simplicity, dependability, and ease of use of the humble Vespa. Back then the whole of the United States was restricted to a 55mph speed limit, so the scooter fit in just fine with its 63mph top speed.

A 1981 Vespa P200 E – Picture from Wikipedia

Some years later, I would try to recreate that era by buying another P200 but found it to be too slow, with terrible brakes and poor reaction times in modern traffic. The Burgman 200, however… This was my first Japanese scooter, and it blew me away with its mixture of performance, comfort, economy, and dependable low-maintenance operation.

Of course, if you are young and looking for thrills and a chance to get laid, a modest 200cc scooter will cramp your style. Even though the baby Burgman will just about touch 80 mph it is not a thrill ride; you need to stick to the Gixxers in Suzuki’s range for that. But if you are an old fogey looking to extend your riding years and recreate the seat-of-your-pants riding style of your youth – back when we pressed into service whatever unsuitable ride we had for summer touring – then the baby Burgman is the pick of the litter.

KEEP READING: Doing an Iron Butt Ride Was Utterly Pointless

I took off that August morning with no actual expectation of making it to Niagara Falls in time to complete the Bun Burner 36-hour ride. But I figured I would do my best on my 200cc banana boat. Cruising up I-95 on the Florida east coast at 71 mph I was clocking roughly 65 mpg, and the ride was perfectly comfortable. I was holding my own with traffic in the two right lanes, even passing an occasional slow poke. As night fell, rain came on and the Burgman cut through it with impressive headlights and great wind protection. I was comfortable through South Carolina and North Carolina. I rode through Fancy Gap in Virginia, a seriously steep incline, fast enough that no car caught up to me. When I hit the top of the gap it was dawn on Sunday, and I was just 500 miles from Niagara Falls with 16 hours to meet my deadline. Piece of cake.

The mountains of West Virginia were a little bit of a trial: 75 mph downhill, slingshotting onto the long uphills where speed dropped to 60 or even 55. It was here I wished I had a T-Max or a Burgman 650 – not normally a problem in my home state of Flatistan, especially commuting the slow-paced Keys. On more familiar topography I rolled smoothly along the south shore of Lake Erie, and made my way past parks filled with sunbathers in Buffalo. I reached my hotel, 1,550 miles from my home, in 32 hours, and the Burgman was running fine. It had burned not one drop of oil, and the only casualty had been the baffling inside the muffler, which had blown out in an especially deep West Virginia pothole. Now my modest ride sounded embarrassingly like a Harley wannabe. That problem solved itself in the wreck two weeks later when the bike was pretzeled and written off.

Michael survived the cold of Pennsylvania’s mountains but was less fortunate on the roads of Key West.

Ready to Do it All Again (Well, Not the Crashing Bit)

Before the ride to Niagra Falls, I had told my wife not to worry as I was statistically much more likely to wreck on my commute close to home. I should never have said anything, of course. It turned out I was right.

The good news is: I’ve found another 2014 Burgman 200 with just 400 miles on the clock. Apparently not everyone loves to ride this crazy machine as far as I do. As soon as I can walk properly – in a few weeks I hope–  I’ll be back in the saddle. This summer, when I set off for Montauk, New York (1,550 miles from my home), on another Iron Butt, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. I should get there in plenty of time. No more wrecks for a while, though.

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At the moment, I am quite enjoying every day I am alive. It’s gift to be able to walk even with a cane, and the prospect of riding – even a modest baby Burgman – is quite the boost. I am ready.

Michael is up and walking around these days, looking forward to being in good enough health to ride again.