My dad’s Harley

One bike or another, we'll ride together
Published August 7, 2014

My dad bought a salvage-titled Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle is a common thread in our infrequent phone conversations over the past couple of years, as my dad updates me with progress toward a future goal of riding our bikes, together. The Harley was bought running, but missing parts. The previous owner crumpled the forks in a collision, which as far as Harley mods go isn’t the most tasteless I’ve seen. And my dad hasn’t been licensed to ride a motorcycle for decades.

The Harley was made rideable quickly, the forks replaced, brakes repaired, and dry tires filled with air. More than a year passed before my dad navigated the DMV-CHP bureaucracy to get the bike registered, plated, and cleared for road use. He’s still working on the license.

My dad urged me to take the Harley on a joyride

I recently visited my dad’s house in the Sierra Nevada foothills, on a hot summer weekend. We stepped outside before noon, before the temperature reached triple digits, and my dad urged me to take the Harley on a joyride, with his reserved manner and a smile betraying an excited pride. He pulled back a tarp covering the bike and used a crusty rag to dust off a layer of dirt that settles on everything in his driveway, his idea of tidying up. “Do you have a real helmet?” I asked, hoping for something more protective than the brain bucket I know he wears. He pulled out a motocross helmet two sizes too big for my head and a pair of shaded safety glasses. “Gloves?” My dad did a lap of the garage, producing various sets of work gloves, none of them suitable for operating a motorcycle clutch. I didn’t bother asking for leathers. Even if he has a jacket it’d be comically big on me and the summer temperature was climbing. Ignoring my usual inhibitions, I sat in the Harley dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers. An oversized off-road helmet and a camera hung ’round my neck were my only preparation.

Contrast the scenario against my usual motorcycling; I don’t get groceries in less than an Aerostich, I don’t ride without ear plugs, and my idea of a clean bike involves micro fiber and clay bars.

He once lost a finger to a table saw

The contrast reflects a difference between my father and me that’s shaped our relationship since I was a child. I have soft hands. My dad has rough hands. I work in an office in San Francisco, he works with power tools on construction sites across the state. I tiptoe around sharp things, he once lost a finger to a table saw. To be fair, he was seventeen and hasn’t lost any since.

Growing up, my soft hands informed my recreation. I played video games, not sports, I built websites, not cabinets. When pressed, I uncomfortably dabbled in activities for rough hands, but rarely with conviction. My dad encouraged me to ride motorcycles, but after flipping a family friend’s ATV from standstill and later bloodying my right heel trying to kickstart a dirt bike, I’d had enough. It wasn’t until adulthood that I developed a taste for motorbikes.

The Harley’s motor loped a steady, sturdy pulse felt through the handlebars. Into gear, and the stiff clutch lever smoothly engaged the transmission. The tires rolled gingerly over the dusty driveway and onto the dustier dirt road that connects my dad’s house to civilization. I rode cautiously, partly for lack of my usual riding attire but also to learn the bike. My dad’s Harley is heavy, the controls chunky, seat position lazy-boy-relaxed, a motorcycle for rough hands.

My soft hands struggled against the experience. Though the Harley is recognizably motorcycle, its controls and operation nearly identical to the bikes I commonly ride, the riding experience felt shockingly foreign. My body leaned back, my arms reached forward, legs laid into brace-like supports. Over imperfections in the road — there are many in the foothills — I couldn’t stand up on the foot pegs, and instead relied on the bouncing rear shock and thick leather seat to absorb the asphalt’s wallop. The hot summer air smashed against my chest and curled over my bare arms. My face endured the rush of wind, the open motocross helmet permitted an irregular blast that at times impaired my breathing. My dad suggested I ride to a neighboring town, but without my protective trappings I turned around early, parked the bike, and shot some photos instead.

Now I think about it, my dad is rougher than the bike, which might explain why two years after buying the Harley we’ve still not done a ride together. Street riding over hundreds of miles requires some concession to comfort, practicality, and law, and I don’t know my dad can bother.

Where we might better connect is in the dirt. My dad also owns an old Yamaha TT500, and though he never talks about the bike it’s the one I see him ride. I asked him about it and learned the TT is a motorcycle he dreamed of as a teen. In the ’70s, the Yamaha brought four-stroke appeal off-road, and at the time my dad was ripping through desert washes in Arizona on whatever dirt bike he’d afforded with his paper route.

Instead of waiting for my dad to reach the street, I’m now thinking I should meet him off-road. For just a few minutes this weekend, we shared dirt, he on his 40-year-old Yamaha, I on my little brother’s 80cc Honda. I’m now scheming to convince my wife: I should buy a dirt bike that lives with my dad in the foothills, waiting for my visits.

After riding my dad’s motorcycles for just a few hours, I complained of a blister forming on my left middle finger. The finger was worn sore by the rough operation of either bike’s clutch lever. “Your hands are soft!” my dad jabbed, and he was right. But next time I’ll bring gloves.