Article By: Scooter Tramp Scotty
Originally Published In The January 2020 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
It had been a wonderfully warm winter so far south of the Mexican border, but spring was approaching fast. Every May, a string of motorcycle rallies begins in Florida, continues up the east coast, and ultimately into New Hampshire. These evenly spaced events offer vendor work for anyone who wants to travel. For years, this was the way that I was able to earn enough money by spring to provide comfortable, financially trouble-free travel for the remainder of the summer. As usual, my yearly work season would soon begin with the Thunder Beach Rally in Panama City Beach along the Florida panhandle. Having emerged from Baja Mexico into southern California, I turned east for the cross country ride. While in camp one evening I received a call from Joe Rader from Blacksburg Virginia, I’d been listening to him squeal about the cold weather, ice, and lack of motorcycling all winter long. At one point, I’d thought he might be better off just committing suicide. “Where you at Scotty? Where are you going?” I told him. “You think I could get a job at the rally?” “Probably Joe. Every other wondering shmo who comes looking for work seems to have found it.” “Do you mind if I catch up to you?” I didn’t.
The early May weather was warm as I approached the sunny shores of Panama. I arrived early so I could relax a while before the intense work week would begin. I set a course for my favorite camp spot deep in the woods. But things had changed. Although Panama City Beach, which sits just west of Panama City, remained mostly intact, Panama City itself had been all but destroyed by a recent category five hurricane. I’d seen other hurricane-ravaged areas, but nothing like this. Buildings lay in shambles everywhere. Businesses, movie theaters, grocery stores, etc. had been battered into little more than rubble. Huge metal buildings had been reduced to grotesque masses of steel. And there was more. I arrived at the dirt road leading into my forest camp spot only to be confronted by the huge trees that had fallen across my path. It was impossible to tell that a road had ever existed there at all. Wow! I knew Panama had other areas of untouched woods, and I set out to find one. Every forest I saw had been blown to the ground with only a few spindly trees still barely standing. Obviously local forests could no longer be used, so I started to think about all of the wasted buildings?
After investigating a few, it was in an industrial area that I located an abandoned electric motor shop. Its dirt driveway led around to a large fenced back yard. Protruding from the shop’s rear side was an open room that was devoid of a wall between it and the back yard. This space had once served as a kind of outside work area. After moving some debris and sweeping the floor with a broom that had been left behind, I moved in. Two serious problems that often torment the full-time drifter are boredom and a lack of purpose. So many times, I’d seen guys come to a new town to stay awhile not realizing what it will be like. The locals are attending to their jobs and homes and are in their everyday mode. The drifter has hours, and days, and weeks, with nothing that must be attended to. But how long can one sit around twiddling his thumbs before he goes entirely mad? Intense boredom sets in. So he tells his buddy, “Ain’t nothing going on here Bob, let’s go to the next town.” And it’s the same. Then the next town, and the next, until, eventually, the last one is home. In contrast, all the drifters who’ve remained out here long enough have overcome this crippling obstacle by developing a personal routine—a set of predetermined activities they attend to. These vary from person to person. For example, If I come into a town with Panhead Billy, we may establish a mutual camp spot before he takes off, and I don’t see him again until evening; his routine is very different from mine. I set to my activities. Days passed.
The call from Joe came in. He was in town on that little green 300cc Kawasaki Ninja. After meeting at Starbucks, I showed him to our condo. Immediately Joe deemed this place a great home. Its advantages would become quite welcome as we’d come to sit out a few heavy rainstorms in our dry cubby hole. Although it had taken time to establish my own routine, Joe’s seemed to come quite naturally. He likes to swim and found aquatic centers at which to do so. Going to the gym is also a passion, and we sometimes visited these places together. Joe’s into health food and spent time searching out the best places to acquire such fare. Then there was always chasing women, as well as the other little adventures that come naturally when engaged in this lifestyle. In fact, once established, I hardly saw him, though we did spend a day together, which included the exploration of a hurricane-ravaged hotel. I had a preset vendor job changing motorcycle tires at this rally, but Joe was desperately seeking employment. It was still days before the show would start when he was offered what I thought was a mediocre job. So, I placed a call to a reputable parts vendor that I knew paid well, and Joe was hired. He’d start in a few days.
Josh, a Kansas resident, had been calling me with questions for over a year. His ambition was to move fulltime onto his motorcycle. Last year he’d worked up to the starting line then chickened out. Like it does for so many, fear had beaten him. To my surprise, however, this year, Josh had actually left Kansas and was now in Panama looking for me and a vendor job. His call came in while Joe and I were sitting in Waffle House. After hanging up, I said, “Hey Joe, why don’t you call Josh with the number of that first vendor you were gonna work for?” He did, and Josh was immediately hired. The new boss offered lodging, which kept Josh from setting camp in our cramped little electric shop. Josh and I spent a day touring the town and exploring hurricane buildings. His nervousness at the reality of his new surroundings was keenly evident, and I just figured he’d mellow in time. But, the new boss kept Josh busy and I seldom saw him after that.
I received an invitation from the owner of 8Fifty (a local independent H-D shop) to drop in for a visit. After a tour of the place, Vaughn, the owner, took me to lunch. We made a pit stop at his house, and I found out his roommate Tim lived at the house also. There was a big back yard and garage full of motorcycle projects… this was obviously a serious motorcyclist bachelor pad. The rally began, and I rode into Frank Brown Park to take my post at Randy’s Cycle Shack. His was a mobile bike repair shop that was set up in the sea of motorcycles and vendors. Joe needed a new tire, and my boss ordered his size. When it arrived, Joe pulled his back wheel so I could install the new rubber. Vendors are a subculture; we were all in the same boat, and most of us knew each other. Due to the connections he now had, Joe paid only cost of the tire. In years past, the only full-time motorcycle drifters I’d known had been Panhead Billy and myself. However, in recent years there’s been an influx of new guys intent on this lifestyle. Most had contacted me before, or soon after, they’d hit the road. Of the many questions so many had thrown at me, the most common was about finding work at the rallies. I’d told them what I knew. All who’d come to find jobs had and many were working here now. When time allowed, we visited with each other.
As the rally wound down, an idea struck me. We’d all be exhausted after the show and could use a place to rest and regroup. I placed a call to Vaughn, “What do you think of letting a ragged group of motorcycle vagabonds hang in your back yard for a few days?” Seemingly delighted, he’d said, “That would be great! I’ll bring the beer!” I was a little surprised at his enthusiasm. Every drifter I talked to thought this was a great idea, so I passed Vaughn’s address around. At the rally’s end they began showing up. There was Chip, who’d been on the road three years with his beat-up, early 2000s, Road Glide. Laura, a small independent vendor who Chip often stayed with, came to park her trailer in the front yard. Then there was Mike, Chip’s buddy who spent summers out here with Tank the Chihuahua on his Softail. Josh came. And let’s not forget Nick, who’d been out over a year on his FXR. Then Joe and I. It was the first motorcycle drifter convention I’d heard of.
Things soon settled into a wonderful, if not mellow party. When we were all gathered together, the talk of bikes and travel was intertwined with our other conversations. Everyone, except maybe Chip, because he’s a dirty bastard, had hot showers, and Vaughn had a washing machine we could use. There were so many personalities tuned towards a shared ambition, it was a fantastic few days. Eventually, guys began filtering out into varying directions. Most, however, would make the 600-mile journey to work the upcoming rally in Myrtle Beach, NC. On the third day a handful of our little crew struck out for Myrtle. With me in the lead, the pace was slow and relaxed. But, as with most new to the road, these guys were chomping to burn up the miles, and I could feel their tension behind me. Josh decided to hit the interstates and blast through so he could meet a girl. Chip and Mike only see roads as racetracks and lasted just a half-hour before leaving me in the dust. This left only Joe and me. Eager to learn, and obviously enjoying the ride as much as I, Joe moved contentedly at my relaxed pace. It would be days before we reached our destination. But the journey would prove to be its own extraordinary adventure.