Article And Photos By: Scooter Tramp Scotty
Originally Published In The January 2017 Issue OF Cycle Source Magazine
Years ago… Early summer was upon us and perfect weather oversaw this journey as the two heavily loaded motorcycles picked their way slowly through the strikingly green forests of one small Virginia highway. Behind my aging Electra Glide Michelle followed on her old Honda Shadow. Five years earlier, having never ridden a motorcycle before, Michelle had paid $700 for that bike, practiced on it for a week, loaded her worldly possessions aboard, then hit the road. She’s been a technically homeless motorcycle vagabond ever since and is the only full time female drifter I know. Most often, Michelle travels alone, but on occasion, we enjoy the opportunity of riding together for a while. Today’s was a mountainous terrain and as we topped a long upgrade I went to shift from third to fourth gear but instead, was met by a strange sensation. There was a little hesitation, a kind of light snap, then no gear at all. The others seemed fine, but fourth was gone. This was a new one for me. We’d just entered a tiny town (as are most Virginia towns) where I found a strip of mowed grass to pull the bike onto and shut her down. Tools were retrieved from the saddlebag and I pulled the transmission’s top cover (four little bolts). A look inside revealed the obvious problem: one of the shifting forks had broken which allowed two gears to engage simultaneously. This action had busted the dogs off the side of first gear—which is what engages fourth gear—and bingo, fourth no more. Next, I pulled the shifting drum (four more little bolts) then pushed a magnet-ona- stick through the oil and to the bottom of the transmission’s insides. All broken gear pieces came out in big chunks. Having only limited experience with the inner workings of Harley Davidson transmissions, it looked as though I was about to get a crash course on this subject. The question was what to do next.
The bike was still rideable and, in truth, had I known then what I know now I’d probably have just kept riding until a better opportunity for repair presented itself. But I didn’t know, so the search for a solution began. Asking around town, I’d learned that a mile back down the road from which we’d just come was a guy who worked on Harleys. Least that’s what I was told. His number was not listed and, in the thick greenery of this sparsely populated land, I had doubts that the guy even existed. Still, it was the only option so back down the road we went. It took two passes to finally see the sign. It had been hand painted onto a sheet of plywood and simply read, HARLEY SHOP. We turned in. The dirt driveway passed alongside a small creek as it led ¼ mile through a little valley surrounded by hills and forest. At the stream’s far side I could see two buildings while farther up the hill a small house sat alone. One of the closer structures was a freestanding garage and I noted the motorcycles parked on its concrete driveway. A little wooden bridge soon crossed the creek and we pulled in. Inside the garage a bearded man sat on the floor behind a late model bagger as he worked on somebody’s old Sportster. I introduced myself. His name was Shovelhead Steve. But the guy seemed preoccupied, distant, maybe a little lost in his own world. Being in a bind, I began to explain the situation. Steve said he had none of the specialty tools required for serious transmission work. Although no expert, I knew that most of a five-speed trannies can be disassembled without special tools. Steve obviously had his hands full with customer bikes and didn’t want to deal with this job, but couldn’t help seeing we were on the road and in some real trouble. I watched a slight warmth creep into his eye, that old biker mentality kicked in as he said, “I don’t really have time to deal with your tranny, but you can pull the thing apart here in the driveway if you like. You’re welcome to any tools I have.” After moving my FL to a spot just outside the shop door, I pulled the tool-bag and started the job.
It had been well into the afternoon when we’d arrived and before long Steve’s work day was done. Cruising outside, he paused to note my work—which hadn’t gotten too far because I’m an insufferably slow mechanic. We got to bullshitting and Steve brightened when he learned we were on the road full time. He also found it interesting that I’m a writer, because so is he—though neither of us makes a living at it. I asked if we could make camp by the creek. Steve said, “Sure”. But when I asked about a shower to knock the grease from my body, Steve told me the water in his house was gravity fed from the stream and barley dribbled anyway. Whatever the reason, I didn’t think this guy was big on having visitors in his house. In fact, neither Michelle nor I would ever see the inside of that place. No problem, I was just happy to have use of a shop. Since it looked like we’d be here a while, Michelle and I picked the best spot by the stream and set up a semi-permanent camp. Next, I plopped into the creek and used about half a bar of soap. The night was quiet after that. The following day Steve and I took considerably more time getting to know each other. Being the only shop for many miles, this place had a surplus of motorcycles in for repair and Steve had himself under a lot of pressure to get these jobs done. It seemed to me that he was so overwhelmed with work, bills, and the making of personal security (money and such) that this guy spent his time doing little, or maybe nothing, else. He was stressed out, man. I also learned that Steve suffered from muscular dystrophy. As muscle-mass slowly deteriorated, this disease was sapping his strength and, although none of us gets much time on this planet, I wondered how many usable days were left for him.
My bike had well over 400,000 miles on it now. At 337,000 the old Harley had suffered its first real transmission problem when one of the inner bearings had gone south. Although I’d pulled the clutch, exhaust pipes, etc., thus making it very easy to access the transmission’s innards, a shop had done the actual internal repairs. Their mechanic had shown me that when one bearing goes out, it spits bits of metal into the tranny which in turn takes out the other bearings as well. I was afraid that had happened again and therefore wanted to completely disassemble and replace, or at least inspect, all inner transmission bearings and their mating surfaces. Steve didn’t have the proper tools to pull the main drive gear, which meant that the bearings inside that sucker could not be inspected or replaced at his shop. I needed another plan. Years ago, the bike had suffered some other mechanical issue in Asheville North Carolina (100 miles south of Shovelhead Steve’s place) and I’d repaired it in the parking lot of a one-man shop called Mountain Cycle Works. The owner and I had been friends ever since and, whenever visiting that area, I always make camp in the yard of his home. Jody’s Asheville shop was easily equipped to handle heavy tranny work, so I called him. Jody said to bring it down. That done, the next order of business would be any needed new parts. I put in another call to a friend who makes most of his living selling Harley parts. Rather than send only what I needed, he insisted on shipping a complete Andrews gear set, brand new and still in the box. I gave him the address for Mountain Cycle Works. The next question was how to get that transmission to Asheville? I decided to pull the tranny, strap it to the back of Michelle’s bike, ride double-up to Asheville, rebuild the tranny, bring it back to Steve’s, install it, and ride away. Simple, right? By now Steve and I had put in plenty of hours on the bullshit wagon. More-so than I’d realized, his mind had begun to wonder beyond the bounds of this property line. So, when I talked of riding to Asheville, Steve spoke enthusiastically of coming along. There were old friends in Asheville he’d not seen for a long while because he’d not left the stress of this property for quite some time. We would leave in the morning.
I’d grown accustomed to birdsong emanating from the impossibly green forest surrounding Steve’s property and today was no different as we readied the two motorcycles. I attached Betsy’s transmission to the rack of Michelle’s Honda while, oddly enough, Mr. Shovelhead Steve packed his twin cam bagger. I don’t actually know if he even had a Shovelhead. Anyway, the sky offered perfect weather as we set off into the mountains. Famous among motorcyclists for its twisting curves and forested beauty, The Dragon’s Tail also exists in these mountains. I’ve been there many times. Mostly, that place is renowned for its name and the little store that offers t-shirts and other overpriced bullshit to the crowds of motorcyclists that congregate in its parking lot. But in truth, the Dragon’s Tail’s not much better, if at all, than most any road in the Smoky/Appalachian Mountain range. In other words, for its entire duration this was a fantastically rich and beautiful ride. As the cobwebs blew from Steve’s brain, I watched the dull glaze leave his eyes. It seemed his sleeping spirit was again waking up. . .