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Southern Rail: Roadkill King

By Robert Filla


Sturgis had been on my calendar for months and the pressure was gnawing at me. The Road King was running poorly and in need of dire care. At 10 years old and pushing 120,000 on the clock, a new motor would be the best alternative. My local wrench gave me a killer deal, but as good as the price was, it was simply not in my budget; at least not in the immediate future. Pondering my dilemma while sitting in the shop nursing a cold beer, I gave a curious nod to the old Shovel, sitting all sad and alone, feeling neglected. Could I possibly take the Shovelhead from Texas to South Dakota (and back)? I’d recently finalized a nice rebuild and she was running like a top. In the end, my only fear of such a grand adventure had a lot more to do with flesh and bone than vintage Milwaukee iron.

Other than practicing the nasty habit of oozing 50-weight from various locations, my old FLH is quite the lady; a head-turner, in fact. Kind of like a two-wheeled MILF. But she does sit in a hardtail frame and only has a kick pedal to ignite her fire. As for me, the torn ACL in my right knee is healing nicely and my sciatica almost bearable. So mostly I try and keep my Shovelhead rides limited to about 200 miles, allowing plenty of self-medication recovery time. I was tormented with the challenge of the road versus my old broken body. And then my youngest daughter reminded me that 2013 would be the 30th anniversary of my first ride to Sturgis—1983 and aboard the same Shovel. I was screwed—the Shovelhead had to go to South Dakota.

But lingering apprehension and self-doubt continued to creep in leaving me fretful. The bike was ready, but was I? I eventually faced my inner demons while standing in front of a mirror and admitting that some of the exploits of my youth were possibly beyond the capability of my gentlemanly years. And while facing that reflection of gray hair and weathered skin, I quietly repeated the mantra, “There is no dishonor in this.” And I made the phone call.

A good friend was trailering a half-dozen bikes to Sturgis for display. He had space on the rig and didn’t mind the roundtrip company. So it was set. And although I wouldn’t make the trek riding, I could still celebrate 30 years with the scooter in the Black Hills. And then it all fell apart.

Four days before departure, while checking the big rig’s brakes, my bud discovered he had a shot axle, a custom unit that would take three weeks to replace. He was out of the Black Hills action for this year. But… he had made arrangements for me and the Shovel to hitch a ride with a mutual associate in Austin whose shop was taking a trailer full of bikes up north. Fine until a few days later when he called and, due to some hired-help problems, he, too, would not be attending. It was looking like the motorcycle gods really wanted me to ride. So I began scrambling like a madman, hustling to gather extra oil, chain lube, baling wire and about 40 pounds of tools. It was the kind of supplies I’m not accustomed to packing so it took a while. And then I had to figure out how to load it all. Afterwards I took this rolling circus, along with clothes for a week and a substantial amount of camera equipment, for a test ride. I ran a few last-minute errands, stopped to gas up and then rode back to the shop. And immediately unloaded the entire mess. No way was this old man prepared for this long a trip on this particular bike. “OK, Road King; I guess it’s your rattling ass.”

A quick oil and filter change, check the tire pressure and brake fluid. And then I realized the freakin’ tags were out. After standing in an ungodly long line, two hours later I’ve got new tags. And then, as I pull into the shop, the rear brake seizes. Metal to metal, the pad is now damn near welded to the rotor, requiring two additional hours when I should be on the road.

Buttoned up and packed, I leave early the next morning. Cool temps greet me and I think that maybe this is gonna work out after all. And I will tell you, nearing the end of a 500-mile day of riding, battling the heat of the Llano Estacado and tortuous Panhandle winds, I didn’t miss that ol’ Shovel one damn bit. But I would the next day.

Twenty-five miles from the New Mexico border, the Road King dies. It had been running like a ragged dog all day and now was dead. Half an hour later it started. It was 300 miles to the nearest dealership in Albuquerque, 200 to one in Colorado but only 100 miles to one back in Texas. So I slowly backtracked to Amarillo and got a room near a dealer that was thankfully open the next day. Got it in the shop early that Monday morning and was promised by service manager Ray Varner with Tripp’s Harley-Davidson that “we never leave a tourist stranded.”

Ray called later to inform me the Road King had a broken throttle body. Damn. So although I’d never shown any previous tendencies toward successful clairvoyance, my prediction rang true—I was actually thwarted by a broken body. Just not the one I envisioned.

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