Ed Hertfelder: Learning Curve. Artwork by Mr. Jensen.

Learning Curve

The last thing we expected to see was a new rider, and I’ll tell you why: the temperature and humidity readings were in the high 90s, and Perry Hodges had promised us 90 miles of riding. Hodges is a past president of the East Coast Enduro Association, and his annual trail ride in Ocean County, New Jersey is on the sand roads and trails in the state. Ocean County was recovering from a forest fire, and you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that fire-damaged trees would provide no shade on the sun-scorched trails.

It was not a good day for a new guy to show up, especially if he was geared up for a late fall ride in the Pennsylvania foothills. On a hot day in deep Jersey sand, he was potential buzzard meat.

Hodges asked Norm and me to ride with New John and promise to at least get him out of the woods and onto a hard-top road. If the buzzards ate him after that, we wouldn’t be accountable.

The main thing New John didn’t have was water; remember, the humidity was so bad we were sweating a pint an hour even before the sun came up, and no one was saying, “Warm isn’t it?” because it just wasn’t funny. Norm rummaged around in the back of his van and found a green plastic army canteen embossed with “DO NOT APPLY TO OPEN FLAME” – twhich makes you wonder just what sort of intelligence tests those grunts have to pass to “be all that you can be.” We filled it from the five-gallon can of water I carry in my van because I’ve learned that radiator hoses prefer to split near the tops of hills, and water tends to be near the bottom.

New John didn’t want to take the water but we convinced him that it was a case of take the water or go home.

We then convinced him that while the Belstaff waxed cotton pajamas looked just fine, they had to go; then we went to work on his motorcycle, which was—depending on which magazine tested it—marvelous, suitable for off-road riding, tri-purpose or marginal. It was the new Kawasaki KLR650, and I’ve seen them ridden, sometimes two-up, from Barstow to Vegas at unreasonable speeds over unreasonable terrain by unreasonably talented riders—which this guy wasn’t. Norm removed everything that would come off the KLR without tools: saddlebags, a huge accordion-style tank bag and both rear view mirrors. When asked about tire pressures, New John produced one of those high-tech digital pressure gauges and reported 22 front, 23 rear. He thought we were kidding about bleeding off 10 pounds at each end until he popped the gauge on my Honda XL600 and assured himself that was what I was running.

Artwork: Mr. Jensen.

New John’s off-road experience was midway between some and not very much, but he had a whole big extra helping of whatever it was that made him pick his motorcycle up from deep sand and keep going… and pick it up and keep going… and pick it up and keep going some more.

Norm gave him the standard advice about not going fast enough and starting out in second gear and looking ahead down the road. When New John asked him how far ahead to look, Norm said, “Try Ohio”. I told New John to keep accelerating in the deep stuff—just another way of adding power to lighten the front wheel, but it sounded more civilized than just, “You ain’t going fast enough.”

The recent forest fire damage was severe but we were pleased to note, among the blackened bare spires of dead trees many trees were now anchored in an almost three-foot high growth of living green. The smell of burned wood was matched, and in some placed overcome, by the sweet smell of regrowth.

New John absorbed our sand-riding expertise very quickly, and we covered 38.2 miles of trail before the “sweep” crew caught up to us. Dropping behind a sweep is stupid, and expecting these carefully selected, strong and experienced fellows to ride slow as we were going would be thoughtless, so we returned to the ride’s start at the next blacktop we came to.

New John had learned a lot, but perhaps the most important thing he learned was when Norm checked the canteen he hadn’t wanted to take and told him there wasn’t enough water in there to drown a maggot.

Norm sure has a way with selecting the perfect words.


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This column originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.