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Southern Rail: Off the leash

By Robert Filla

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It was in the early 80’s and there were four of us riding two-up from Texas to attend a wedding somewhere in Vermont. I knew neither the bride nor groom but it was an excuse to ride. Plus my riding buddy Blackjack and I had scored a cool grand by skirting around some tie-wearing sales geek and convinced my boss to install an industry-size trash compactor at my place of employment. Blackjack and I each walked away with 500 bucks commission money, enough to hit the road and skip all responsibilities for at least a month (it was the 80’s, remember?). I recall informing my boss that I needed some highway therapy and would be gone for a while. He flatly restricted my trip to no longer than a week and if, for any reason whatsoever it looked like I might be running a day late, I damn well better get in touch with him pronto. And I did. I sent him a postcard from Niagara Falls in the middle of week #3. (It was the 80’s.)

I was aboard my trusty ’67 while Blackjack was riding one of those new-fangled Shovelheads, you know, that weird-ass cone motor with an alternator. I was leery of it and reminded him, “It’s not like we can just throw a set of brushes in it, ya know?” By this time, I’d owned my ’67 for around 10 years, having bought it as a full dresser Electra-Glide (it would be another 20 years before the term “bagger” would be coined). But in that decade of ownership, I’d gone loopy and discarded bits and pieces of the Glide here and there along the way. First, I took a hacksaw to the rear end and lopped off major components in preparation for a weld-on hardtail section. I threw the stock swingarm and shocks in the trash. I let the OEM 5-gallon fatbob tanks go for 10 bucks. A 2.5-gallon Mustang tank took its place. I traded the two-up sprung buddy seat for a six-pack of beer and bolted down a pair of mini butt buckets with a 36” sissy bar instead. Soon it was an open primary, drag pipes and a rectangular headlamp in lieu of the stock elephant-head nacelle, blinkers and spotlights. Oh yeah, I was living the biker life and taking a six-week, 8,000-mile ride on a bone shaker with drag bars and a 100-mile fuel range—max.

But we made the wedding and then later, a bunch of parties in a cornfield… somewhere. Slept in some guy’s garden out on Cape Cod, learned how to harvest baby-neck clams and met some very interesting people. It was… yep, it was the 80’s, back when a majority of America was experiencing “interesting.”

We eventually landed near Blackjack’s hometown in Massachusetts and linked up with a bunch of characters who lived on Dog Hill. They were a loose-knit group who made up an organization called Dog MC. Thing is they were so loose-knit that there was no way that the Dog MC could ever be construed as a true bike club. But they were a fun lot to ride with and everyone seemed to get along pretty well, all shacked up in a single house on Dog Hill where an early-morning pee trip to the john usually meant tiptoeing over half-naked people you’d only met a few hours earlier but somehow had formed a weird bondship with over alcohol or possibly more potent herbal entertainment. The front yard at Dog Hill was constantly littered with motorcycles. And when I say littered, I mean littered as in no formal parking arrangements, no rhyme or even the faint possibility of reason. Often you’d walk out on the porch in the morning and there might be as many three bikes simply laying over on their sides, looking like they had also partied a little too hard and forgotten to put their kickstand in place before retiring for the night.

Yes, it was a wonderful summer on Dog Hill. I learned to appreciate Little Kings Cream Ale, 80-cent chow mein sandwiches and mason jar moonshine straight from the hills of Kentucky. But despite all this northern enlightenment, there was a down side. The Dogs ended up corrupting me. Seems they were all vintage bike freaks, mostly riding flatties, knuckles and panheads. Blackjack and I actually had the newest bikes on the Hill that summer. And I fell totally in love with the style of a sprung saddle, leather bags, full-skirted fenders and a whopping 3-1/2 gallon gas tank.

So as soon as I got back to Texas, I began a search for all those parts I’d tagged as non-cool 10 years earlier—the buddy seat, a solo seat when riding alone, a T-bar to connect the seats to the bike, a pogo stick to make the seats pogo, a set of five-gallon tanks, a wide-glide front end with drum brake, a 16” front wheel assembly, and stock taillights and headlights. By the time it was over, I’d spent more money scrounging up crap I’d tossed out a decade before than the original cost of the “full dresser” back when I bought it in 1972 ($1,500). But I rode that Shovel in that form for almost 30 years and it served me well. And all due to one wild summer spent with a bunch of crazy Yankees on Dog Hill. I only hope that some of ’em are still around—salute the Dogs.

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