Wednesday 6 November 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part VIII - Philosophy of the Motorcycle in New Orleans

Ducati 916 motorcycle in Louisiana palm trees

Part VIII of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VI and Part VII.

Sunday morning is another beautiful day in Birmingham. Attendees of the Vintage Festival were blessed with three perfect days of weather: 80-90 degree temperatures with blue skies and low humidity. Barring our spark-plug-fouling gridlock adventure on Saturday morning I was never uncomfortable. The dread of riding north into cooler weather was starting to dawn on me.

I wake up early to do my laundry and scribble down some notes for the previous two days. Saturday had been such an intense, whirlwind day that I never had the opportunity to stop and (literally) collect my thoughts, so I took the time to put my experiences on paper while they were still fresh in my mind. It still felt unreal and scarcely believable that I met so many interesting people and experienced so much in the course of a single day. I truly believe it will remain one of the most memorable days of my life. But I sincerely hope it isn't - better things await in the future. It's a line of thought that will become important over the next few days.

Ducati 916 and Yamaha XS400 motorcycles

Winslow invites me to breakfast with his friends at Waffle House. A fixture at offramps across the USA, Waffle House is pretty much what you’d expect: a cheap, greasy breakfast diner. It is the sort of place that is packed with locals nursing hangovers on a Sunday morning, members of our group included. I order a gummy waffle the size of my face with a side of obscenely greasy bacon, served with corn syrup and artificial butter. Not margarine - fake butter. I've never seen such nonsense at a restaurant before. I vocally lament the lack of legitimate maple syrup south of the border but the others don’t seem to get it. Spot the Canuck.

Motorcycles at Waffle House Birmingham Alabama

I decide to skip the Festival today and head straight for New Orleans, passing my Sunday ticket along to Winslow to dispose of as he saw fit. It was to be a 400-mile day on the road and I find the prospect of riding after dark disconcerting, especially in an unfamiliar city. I have terrible night vision and the lights on a 916 are somewhere between kerosene lantern and three Maglights with weak batteries taped together on the candlepower scale. The main beam is so worthless that it is virtually invisible in daylight, so I ride with the high beam on at all times just to be somewhat visible to other drivers. I've never understood the American propensity to drive with no running lights at all, and then bitch about mandatory lighting. I'd rather be noticed as much as possible on the road to lessen the possibility of some absent minded dolt running into me. Maybe that's the result of riding a bike in Montreal for 8 years, where I'm constantly threatened by absent minded dolts who are also aggressive vehicular sociopaths.

I hit the road around 11 am. Today's ride is boring. I pass through the remainder of Alabama and then cut through Mississippi, stopping only for a quick lunch and gas along the way. I will forever remember Mississippi for having the single worst Wendy's in the history of fast food, but not much else. The landscape has flattened out now, the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina having progressed into the hills of Georgia and Alabama and now the flat swampland of the Gulf coast. The vegetation changes noticeably as well - from dense, overgrown forest into shrubby bayou as you near Louisiana. The progression of the landscape makes me realize just how far I have traveled. I left the Great White North in near freezing temps a week ago and now I'm sweating it out within spitting distance of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Interstates of Mississippi are dull, with the least appealing rest stops I encountered anywhere on my journey. It’s long, boring rides like this that allow me to formulate my ideas, sketching out the themes of my writing in my mind. Or maybe that’s just how I console myself for enduring many hours of straight, dull as fuck Interstate over the course of this trip. “At least I got lots of quiet contemplation done.” Next time I do a trip like this I’m going to allow myself more time to explore the sideroads along the way.

Louisiana Coast

I enter Louisiana and reach the coast of the Pontchartrain, an inland river connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly I feel at home. This is a setting I’m familiar with: marshland and flat sandy beaches surrounded by cottages and fishing communities. I grew up in rural New Brunswick, near the seaside town of Shediac. I am immediately reminded of the landscape of my youth, of time spent playing on beaches, of the sandy ground extending inland blanketed with thick marsh grasses. My heritage is Acadian, from the same French lineage as the local Cajuns (“Acajun”). I’m struck by how our common ancestors, thrown to the winds par Le Grand Dérangement, ended up resettling in such similar locales at different ends of the continent. It’s an eerie realization that is accompanied by a strong sense of deja vu, one that is only disrupted by the presence of palm trees. We don’t have those in Shediac.

Louisiana Coast

Driving along I-10 into downtown New Orleans I spot countless boarded-up buildings and empty, overgrown parking lots. Dilapidated and collapsing properties dot the landscape. It is immediately clear that the scars of hurricane Katrina are still present, eight years after the storm. The modern skyline rising above the city contrasts with the signs of destruction and destitution that are visible from the freeway above the city.

I roll off the Interstate and get lost in a rough looking neighbourhood that exhibits more evidence of Katrina. Poverty is omnipresent and permeates the scene. This is what we Canadians are unused to seeing when we head south of the border. This is what inspires those Mad Max nightmares of getting mugged and shot by roving bands of miscreants, just waiting for an innocent Dudley or Deborah Do Right to stumble into their trap. Canadian cities are homogeneous and largely gentrified. Poor areas might have simpler architecture, a bit less maintenance done to the infrastructure, a couple fewer Starbucks locations. But here it is different; the gaps between the wealthy and the poor areas are extreme and immediately visible. The transitions between good and bad 'hoods are stark and impossible to miss. It’s hard to find the words to describe why this is apparent but upon arriving it becomes immediately clear. I was on edge riding through these depressed areas, exhausted from a day's ride, desperately scanning for my destination. I wasn't scared, but I did not want to be there either.

I make my way into the French Quarter, mere blocks away from the rough area I entered through, and the difference is staggering. Within the span of a few hundred yards you go from boarded up and collapsing buildings to stunning colonial architecture and lush greenery surrounding picturesque streets full of eclectic bars and restaurants. Within minutes I begin to see the appeal of living here in the French Quarter, and I start to understand why JT is so fiercely proud of this city. But I can’t shake the unease of seeing the two extremes laid out before me within the span of a few blocks.

Ducati 916 motorcycle French Quarter New Orleans

I park the 916 in front of the Studio, a simple two-story building on the edge of the French Quarter. JT hasn’t arrived yet. Earlier he had recommended I stop at Checkpoint Charlie’s down the street. I discover it to be a dark, mercifully air-conditioned dive bar on the corner of Esplanade and Decatur, just the place to sit down and cool off. I am exhausted, my shirt soaked with sweat, my hair matted into a perfect helmet-head coif - I am in no condition to impress anyone so a dark, no-pretenses bar is just the ticket for me. I dump my luggage at a table and order a beer. The Saints are playing the Patriots on the TVs hung overhead and the game dominates the attention of the patrons. A mix of interesting locals populates the bar, all engaged in intense discussions of life, philosophy and football. I learn pretty quickly it is quite easy to spot whom the locals were: they are the eclectic mix of tattooed bohemians who appear more or less in control of their faculties. The tourists are the fat, pasty Midwesterners stumbling sideways down the middle of the street with plastic go-cup in hand.

Checkpoint Charlie's New Orleans French Quarter

I settle in and start taking my notes for the day. I like bars like these. No bullshit. Cheap booze and food. Always populated by interesting people. They might seem seedy and intimidating to an outsider or a person weaned on nouveau-riche trust-fund baby nightclubs, but they are often the most friendly and welcoming joints out there. They lack the phony, contrived pretenses of the haute-bar scene. I once found the flash and trappings of those wealthy haunts appealing, until I got to know the people who frequented them and began to see through the façade. Years of working in the “Luxury” business have taught me that brands, places or people that cater/aspire to an image of luxury are not authentic. Places like Checkpoint Charlie’s are.

Ducati motorcycle in French Quarter New Orleans

It makes me realize how much I hate my day job. But that is a lament for another day and another venue.

I spot JT wheeling the Legacy out of a trailer across the street. I gather up my gear and head over. JT lives in the Studios, which is an open space that is more artist’s loft than garage. Pass through a glass façade and you'll encounter a heavily modified Harley flathead bobber, a Bimota SB8R, and the Magnolia Special.

Bienville Studios Magnolia Special

I had hoped the Special would be here. It is a staggering accomplishment, a beautiful neoclassical car built from scratch and powered by an alternative fuel that JT drove across the United States. But he seems almost embarrassed that I’m enamored by it. I’m here to talk bikes, why would I be interested in that thing? I don’t press any further. I will learn soon enough that he is a man who is always looking forward, not backwards at his previous work.

Bimota SB8R Motorcyle

While all the equipment and tools you'd expect in a builder's shop are present, there are a few details that distinguish Bienville Studios. Upstairs you’ll find a living area with a couple of spartan bedrooms. The shop is dusty and moderately chaotic but relatively well organized and filled with interesting objects, at least compared to the places I've worked. One rack is piled with spare parts and mockups from the Legacy. A lone Moto Guzzi twin sits on a stand in a corner. A bookshelf loaded with design yearbooks, pictorial histories, and art compendiums sits in the corner. Not the typical objets you’d expect in a run-of-the-mill garage. Instead of girlie posters the walls are littered with paintings, sketches and a few prints. Several of the artworks show a recurring pattern of interlocking circles and horizontal lines – this is JT’s design touchstone, his “circles and lines” framework. A pair of antiquated looking machines hang from the rafters, scarcely more than heavy-framed bicycles. One has a tiny single-cylinder engine. They are Simplexes, and they serve as symbols of two things: local industry, and what happens to those who fail to innovate. These are two important themes in JT’s work: he is fiercely loyal to New Orleans and he is always trying to innovate.

Simplex Motorcycle Bienville Studios

The bathroom is, however, exactly what you would expect in a garage. I had been warned about that bathroom by one of JT’s friends. "It couldn't be that bad" I thought.

It was that bad.

I was half tempted to go to the corner store and buy a case of bleach and disinfectant, just to lessen the Lovecraftian horror in store for the next poor soul who had to make use of the facilities. Fortunately we had more pressing matters to attend to.

We head over to one of JT's favourite haunts, Molly's At The Market on Decatur. He buys me an unidentified JT-special, a tall drink that is definitely of the sneak-up-behind-you-and-club-you-with-an-iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove variety, and slaps a pack of Camels onto the table in front of me. Fuck. I'm an ex-smoker, free of the vice for just over a year. This is probably the last place in North America you can still smoke in bars ("Last bastion of freedom" according to JT), which makes it a bad place to be for a reformed smoker like myself. But I maintain my will, decline the smokes, and start drinking.

French Quarter New Orleans

We discuss life, motorcycle, and OddBike. JT is an intense, passionate individual - opinionated and not afraid to express his views. He is very intelligent and extremely perceptive. He is idealistic and refuses to compromise on his values, and has nothing but disdain for those who do. If you've read his more outspoken commentaries you already have an small indication of his intensity. It is not an internet-tough-guy routine that evaporates in real-life encounters. He really is that honest and direct, and he is not afraid to call people out on their bullshit.

Chatting with him as the night progresses I realize he has high hopes for my writing, as well as where OddBike can go in the future. This intimidates me. As I sit here in Molly’s and nurse my whiskey-somethingorother I suddenly dread that I won't live up to his expectations. I am a simple, young, freelance writer who has a dull day job and a passion for bikes. I'm still green and I lack experience. He throws some intense motorcycle-related philosophy at me and it sails clear over my head, my comprehension dulled by the booze.

By the end of my second drink my willpower has broken and I grab a cigarette. I immediately regret the decision, even in my tipsy state. I vow in my head that I would only cheat for this night, in this place, in this situation. When else will I have the opportunity to get drunk in New Orleans with one of the most famous motorcycle designers of our generation? Of course that calculated rationalization came later. At that moment my line of thinking was "fuckit to hell, I want a cigarette." And goddamned if it wasn't the most magnificent, head-lightening, nerve-easing smoke I've had since I first picked up the habit 9 years ago.

French Quarter New Orleans

I think JT was waiting for me to snap. I'm more relaxed now. I spend most of the evening listening, taking in the ideas he is throwing my way. I make no attempts to pretend to understand when he begins to lose me. As we both get progressively more smashed I quickly learn that he is man of many facets, far more than I had previously imagined. I will note I am piecing together the details after the fact, many elements having disappeared into the cloudy haze of a night of drinking, so apologies to JT if I missed anything important. I do recall that despite his purity of vision, he appreciates and enjoys a wide variety of bikes in terms of performance and design. He isn’t a snob - he appreciates good design wherever it may emerge. He adores the Yamaha R6, and would love to own a first-generation Suzuki GSX-R 1100. He has a deep respect for old British bikes and ran a Triumph dealership for two years. He wrote for Iron Horse magazine under the editorship of David Snow, a man who he credits with nurturing modern chopper culture (the legitimate, hands-on culture - not the phony OCC commercial bullshit). He has done a little bit of everything, and he speaks of his experiences with enthusiasm and passion.

He exhibits nothing but contempt for Soichiro Honda, a man who he deems a “destroyer”. Honda dominated the industry by crushing his contemporaries, in particular the British, when he could have helped them and developed a relationship of mutual advancement. He refused to share technology or expertise and mercilessly eliminated his competitors from the market. He asks why. Would it not have been better if both had existed side by side? Like many of JT’s thoughts it is perhaps an idealistic view, but it reveals a philosophy of motorcycles as being something more than digits on a spreadsheet.    

At some point in the evening he asks me what my favourite OddBike article is. I pause and think for a moment. Well it would probably be my first one, the Bimo- “Nope, wrong answer. Try again.” I dunno, I suppose I’m quite proud of the Nemb- “No. Do you want to know the answer?” He tells me how Alan Cathcart had asked Pierre Terblanche and Miguel Galuzzi what their favourite design was during a charity dinner at the Barber Museum on Friday. They too got it wrong. The best article (or the best motorcycle design, such as the case may be) “is the next one.” You must always look forward. It’s a point he repeats over and over. You may look to the past, and you may respect it, but you must not be determined by it.

By this time we are both properly drunk. We leave Molly’s to seek out food. JT takes me to a nearby restaurant, Mojo, where I have a fantastic steak and round out the evening with a glass of wine, which I am utterly unable to appreciate in my current state of inebriation. It’s now the halfway point of my trip, in terms of mileage and time. I have been on the road for a week and traveled 2000 miles. I significantly underestimated the length of the trip – I originally anticipated about 3000 miles, round trip. So much for my Google Maps estimate.

Tomorrow I will be conducting my proper, not blind drunk interview of JT and spending another day in New Orleans before I begin the long journey home.

Ducati motorcycle in New Orleans


  1. On the Waffle House thing: If you're traveling on 75 roughly between Atlanta and, oh, I don't know, about halfway through Tennessee, a fun game is to count the number of "food places at this exit" signs with waffle houses on them. I think I counted about 60 miles worth of interstate where there was not one exit without a waffle house on an iron butt ride through the area. Funny to see the local grub as you make it through different regions.

    Great writing and an enjoyable read as always, thanks!

  2. Like getting the extra points for an 'Iron Butt', going home to Canada via New Orleans gets you the respect from me!

    George TBS

  3. have enjoyed every post more than the last but not as much as the next

  4. jason, i've been lucky enough to be in your shoes as you describe here with JT. you've captured the velocity and intensity of the experience better than i've been able to so far. for what it's worth, here was my first attempt...