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Southern Rail: What a long, strange trip it’s been

By Robert Filla

A lot can happen in 20 years. In 1992 I was married with one daughter and living on a mini-ranch in Southeast Texas. Although I still owned a Harley, it spent most of its time in the barn and was only fired up on occasion. I had greatly distanced myself from the biker lifestyle. I worked as a designer, engineering pressure vessels and flare towers for the petroleum industry. My morning commute covered 40 miles where I then spent 10 hours in front of a computer, housed in my own personal cubicle. I was an elder in my church and was often in charge of Sunday School. On the weekends I hunted squirrel and white-tail deer on my property, was often attired in buckskins while perfecting my backyard teepee camp, and taught outdoor survival skills to a group of boys from the church. I’d never heard of THUNDER PRESS.

A few years later, I went middle-age crazy; packed up my bike, grabbed a sleeping bag and my jacket and took up residence on the empty floor space of anyone wiling to tolerate me for a few weeks. In an effort to restore my sanity, I began honing my photography skills. In 1996 I took those skills to the next level and began working for a Houston regional motorcycle magazine. Three years later I felt confident enough to submit a piece to a magazine I’d only recently discovered, THUNDER PRESS . They liked what they saw, needed coverage in the South and quickly offered me my own monthly column. I soon made my first trip to Daytona Bike Week in 2002, followed by a ride to Harley’s 100th Anniversary in 2003 and one to the Black Hills in the fall of 2004. My quest to become an editor was launched and became a reality in the spring of 2004. Since those initial trips, I’ve attended Daytona eight additional times and Sturgis for the last seven consecutive years, along with several long-distance hauls to the Outer Banks and Myrtle Beach.

I married for the second time in December 2010, and along with my first daughter and a new granddaughter, acquired two more daughters and two more granddaughters in the process.

Yes, a lot can happen in 20 years. But some things cannot be cataloged in a time chart since they creep in slowly and it’s difficult to pinpoint when certain processes became the norm. The biggest change during my motojournalist career has been the slow advent of advanced electronics in all its forms.

I began my photography career with a 35mm film camera with a manual focus. Such an archaic mode of conveying images would seem quite prehistoric to a generation now obsessed with high-resolution camera phones. But those antiques served us well and I almost miss the daily runs from Sturgis to Rapid City, dropping off roll upon roll of undeveloped celluloid only to return the following day to check to see if anything decent had been captured through the lens. And then, after inspecting the prints, shipping the negatives to the California office before leaving the rally so they could begin processing. With everything we had to endure, I’m surprised we got out a single issue.

But looking back, I almost miss the uncertainty, the expectation, the nerve-wracking unpredictability of those times. Now would I ever want to return to that ancient age? Not on your life. I love my Canon EOS 50D digital, my 18–200 zoom, my 8GB memory card, my image stabilizer, my auto-focus, my auto-everything. I’m not sure I even remember how to load a roll of film anymore.

Even the advent of the cell phone drastically changed the moto-reporting business, allowing us to go further, take more chances, push the envelope. A cell phone provided a safety net that we never had before. While on the road now, and I see storm clouds ahead, with one phone call from the side of the highway I can check in with the home office for a computer weather report that will help me make crucial decisions. And I’m sure there’s probably a smart phone app that will do the same thing (that will be my next big technology leap). Last year, during the ride to Daytona on a Louisiana Interstate, I picked up a nail in my rear tire. It was during Mardi Gras and no one wanted to help. I called home to Houston, and through a series of Facebook postings (!) was picked up in under two hours, escorted to the nearest dealership and even taken to dinner by my rescuers. That’s one hell of a safety net.

I carry a damn laptop with me now. In the evenings, after a long day on the road or at a rally, I cobble my notes together in some semblance of clarity, run a spell check and then find the nearest McDonald’s. One coffee later I’m using Mickey D’s free Wi-Fi and transmitting the latest coverage to a satellite and then across the planet, if need be.

Twenty years ago most motorcycle journalists couldn’t have even conceived of ever having such futuristic aids at our fingertips. Yes, back then the job was a little more difficult; a little more time consuming. But we didn’t care; we were only in it for the fun—the same reason we’re still in it now. Yes, modern is cool—but I do miss my teepee.


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