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Southern Rail: A loner’s group therapy

By Robert Filla

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I am noted as being a solo rider, traversing the nation by myself for the last 40 years, with little backup other than my own ingenious self-reliance. I don’t participate in group rides, parades or poker runs, and I’d much rather meet you at a rally than ride there with you. (It’s not you; it’s me. Really.) And I found my niche years ago behind a lens and now use my profession to justify the quirkiness of my solitary life on the road by recording the images of riders without having to ride with them. An old friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in several years called the other day and said he wanted one more big trip before he got older. His brilliant suggestion was that we ride together from Texas to Sturgis. I felt immediately ill and am considering changing my cell phone number. (Remember, it’s not you.)

Starting at a young age, I always ventured forth alone, either on foot or bicycle, covering great distances with no safety net. The independence was addictive and fed some inner bravado spirit, fortifying my boldness and swagger. (Just what all Texans need—more bragging rights.) By the time I graduated to motorcycles at age 14, weekend camping trips and journeys that spanned hundreds of miles from home were common. (I’d like to think that my parents were confident in me, allowing me the freedom to develop my autonomy when the probable reality is that my three younger siblings were challenging enough without any extra worry expended on a wayfaring teenager.) So I expanded my range, riding further than anyone else I knew, bumming around from town to town and writing my own personal adventure story in my head. And being alone never, ever meant being lonely.

Now I have had riding companions in the past. But almost all have held a position on the rear pillion and offered more to the trip than simply conversation. And as I got older, even the advantage of having convenient sexual accessibility has waned due to my hectic schedule and the amount of miles that needed to be covered. So the pattern continued to the point where I have no riding buddies today, and I do not participate in group rides, poker runs or parades. And then something very bizarre occurred.

I was slated to cover Iron Cylinder Sunday, a gathering of vintage bikes that take a 70-mile group ride each year (see page 12 of this issue). I normally stake out a position along the route and take shots as the riders snake through the countryside, or I jump ahead to the destination point and wait for their arrival. While trying to figure out my best vantage point for my photography, I realized I was running well behind schedule and I’d really have to accelerate my pace to have time to set up my gear. And then, I made a decision so outlandish, so aberrant that it would be considered deviant to my longstanding nature—I would ride with the group.

I arrived with barely enough time to register and was soon in the middle of a pack of 150 antiques zooming along two-lane back roads—my old Shovelhead clanking along happily with the rest. And then after about 30 minutes into the ride I realized I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. I was actually enjoying myself—me, riding with a group and having fun. I’d get passed by some hot rod on a Shovel and I’d gather up speed and overtake some 45″ Flathead. A beautiful Pan dresser would sidle up alongside and then some rat Knuckle would take its place. And every rider and passenger was sporting the same damn grin. It was grand.

When we pulled into the destination tavern, the camaraderie between the riders was obvious. We had accomplished something pretty damn special—a joint venture forging a special bond. One that, I dare say, felt almost like brotherhood, a word I’ve never used lightly and, one I haven’t used in a very long time.

Since that day, I’ve joined the ranks of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America and started conducting some horse trading with a Pan owner in need of some parts in my shop that are just collecting dust. So maybe there is room for change.

Will I stop riding solo completely? Can an old man find road companionship after so many miles of isolation and adapt to a revised riding pattern requiring an escort? I doubt that will happen, but… I am open to the possibility of at least hanging out with these antique guys when possible and maybe even taking a few coordinated rides together. As far as riding with my bud all the way to Sturgis—are you outta yer freakin’ mind?

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