An old motorcycle restored, a friendship cemented
I will never forget that frigid winter afternoon the 1924 Harley-Davidson JD model was unceremoniously dragged from the back of a semi-truck. Dull, lifeless, rusty, and forgotten, somewhere around five decades had slipped by since the bike was last ridden. Heading for the workshop behind the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, museum owner Dale Walksler had been entrusted with the task of breathing life into this then 80-year-old motorcycle. I was there to document the story, and didn’t know I was about to be taken on an adventure: an adventure that would journey deep into my soul, as Dale and I traveled back through ours.
Intensely energetic, Dale spent his entire adult life riding, collecting, and wrenching on American motorcycles and the museum remains a monument to his incredible passion. Out back in the warm, quiet sanctuary of the workshop, we went to work on the ’24, our efforts observed only by a handful of vintage machines in various states of repair. The work was slow and methodical, and working closely together we began to strip away the years of dirt, grime, and neglect the bike had silently endured.
The 1924 Harley-Davidson JD model Neale and Dale worked on, now in possession of the Audrain Automobile Museum. Photo by Audrain.
This also gave us time to strip away some of our own layers. As I learned that the bike has the original frame and engine, so I learned about Dale’s first motorcycle. I told him about my ride across the Himalayas of Northern India, he told me how his incredible collection started. We talked about our families, our kids, and, as the bike came back to life, so our lives came back to us.
Over the next months, as the five o’clock shadow of green grew into a full beard of leaves across the neighboring mountains, so the ’24 was reawakened from its deep sleep. A stuck valve was replaced, fluids were changed, and the motor spun free. Buds became flowers, the sun now brought warmth, and we saw our first spark. Parts were fabricated and new tires took their place. And then, as the first tourists rode into Maggie Valley, Dale’s workshop reverberated with the sound of laughter and a booming 1924 JD Harley-Davidson. Filling the place with smoke, the bike ran for the first time in 50 years. It was like one of writer and actor Spalding Gray’s perfect moments, a moment of intense joy shared by two people who had embarked on a successful journey and become friends along the way.
Weeks later, on a warm summer afternoon, it was another wonderful moment to see museum visitors enjoying this rare old machine as a fully functioning motorcycle and not the lifeless carcass it had been when it first arrived. Enjoying the sight myself, I realized that the ’24 never stopped being a motorcycle; it just lay dormant for a time. Sitting by the river with my youngest son, my thoughts roamed to the many people I’d met returning to motorcycling lately. They had never stopped being motorcyclists. Just like the ’24, skills rusted, but their passion never died. It had been waiting for a re-awakening, parked for a time as children were raised, businesses grown, and careers attended to.
A story read in a magazine or on a website initiates a visit to the local dealer. A friend starts riding and a training course is taken. A machine gets chosen and the adventure begins. The passage of time is erased, and the magic of motorcycling continues. A little older, a little wiser, but still with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth they return. Journeys are planned, friendships developed, and before long, as with the ’24 circulating the peaceful grounds of the museum, it’s as if they have never been away…
*Neale’s photos from his original report remained the possession of that publication, now defunct. The photos provided here of that very motorcycle are from the current owner of the 1924 JD model, Audrain Automobile Museum.