A Son, A Sport Bike, And A Road Trip
Motorcycle parked in my driveway, I walked up the stairs to my front door as a dead man walking, dead man walking, I was a dead man walking. A 3-day, 900-mile tour of Canada complete, I was returning home without my 16-year old son. I had no idea where he was. Inside waited my wife whose blissful world was about to be ripped apart by the news, and I would deliver the blow that would drop her to her knees.
Matt was in elementary school when I bought him his first motorcycle, a Yamaha PW-80 that begged longingly to me from the side of the road like a lonely puppy awaiting adoption. It was on the way home from his school, so every day I drove Matt home it teased me with fantasies of desert escapades and forest road explorations with my youngest child.
I bought the PW-80. So our riding life began, camping trips as we rode the sand dunes of Washington State (yes, we have sand dunes) and exploration of the surrounding mountains followed by yet one more watching of Dust to Glory. Life lessons were inserted along the way including how to clean your bike and put your toys away when you were done.
Spousal support vacillated between lukewarm encouragement and benign acceptance of the moto addiction building in us but even my wife could see father and son bond over life and the machines we used to explore it. A non-biker, even she knew something special happened when you rode a motorcycle with your son. Those who have done it understand: worries dissolve, stress fades, smiles don’t wipe off and you can’t hold a smartphone when you are holding handlebars.
Matt and I spent many summer days exploring the mountains and yes, the sand dunes of Washington State.
A succession of larger dirt bikes followed as Matt grew but he always had a certain pang of longing when I left him behind to tour. He wasn’t old enough, or ready yet for 300-mile days on sport bikes navigating technical tarmac.
Matt’s 16th birthday was memorable. A dollar and a case of beer purchased his first car and as a surprise gift I enrolled him in a motorcycle riding school. Within a week of having his drivers license, he had his motorcycle endorsement. I could have predicted what came next.
A Yamaha XT225 was his mount back then and not a good pairing for his first street ride with me on my 1998 VFR800. His yearnings to tour grew so after some discussion, the XT was sold and the hunt began for Matt’s first street bike.
We traversed Washington to look at a Kawasaki Ninja 500R I spotted on Craigslist. A military veteran tried unsuccessfully to mothball the bike while he was away. Long term storage had not been kind to the Kawasaki. In person it looked worse than on my computer screen but we had traveled so far it would have been a shame to not let Matt test ride it. He did, and fell in love.
In my mind I listed all the things wrong with the Ninja 500R: cracked tires, stretched chain, worn sprockets, droopy kickstand and damaged fairings held together with giant globs of super glue. The battery barely charged, the bike hardly started, it coughed and wheezed like an asthmatic when it ran and had a Kerker exhaust whose sound deadening efforts were merely a suggestion. Like a zombie the bike was not quite dead, but not fully alive either. From that day on, I called it the Zombie Ninja.
The Zombie Ninja in the foreground, along with others from the Wild Rose Squad.
So the bike came home followed by a flurry of 12 hour days of spending, wrenching and testing. After the new tires, chain, sprockets, battery, cables, wiring, carb cleaning and tuning it still barely started and ran like it had emphysema. On one test ride, the Zombie Ninja ran out of gas. When Matt flipped the petcock to reserve it sent a stream of rusty gas straight to the carbs, clogging the needle seat and sending gas straight to the ground completely bypassing the combustion process. I needed help. Enter Todd Shiflett, a.k.a. The Carb Whisperer.
Master powersports mechanic, professional welder and all around good guy, The Carb Whisperer’s exploits are legendary: exhausts repaired in the middle of roads, CBR fuel pumps rigged with tractor parts and stomach viruses cured with doses of Yukon Jack. He had the carbs pulled before I could grab him a cold beverage.
Fiddling done and carbs installed he prodded the Zombie Ninja to its stumbling idle then put his ear to the bike like the RCA dog listening to his master’s voice. The magic began. His screwdriver instinctively adjusted carb settings as his eyes stared into space while his prefrontal cortex did things only carburetors and people with doctorates in computational fluid dynamics could comprehend. He shut the bike off, paused, then hit the starter button.
On the first rotation of the crank the bike came to life with the scream of an angry demon then settled into a smooth idle. It had never done that before. A blip of the throttle produced a smooth, spine chilling shriek from the open Kerker megaphone that woke the dead. The Zombie Ninja was alive.
Matt came back from his test ride wide eyed and fully hooked. Saddlebags were fitted to the Zombie Ninja and after little over a month of getting his driver’s license and motorcycle endorsement my 16-year old son went on a 3-day, 900-mile tour with the Wild Rose Squad to Canada.
What could possibly go wrong?