Motorcycles were rolling into the bar at the Broken Spoke Campground on Tuesday of the 2013 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The bikes were packed in like sardines, but they kept coming. NorCal Bureau Chief Felicia Morgan and I were representing THUNDER PRESS for the Editor’s Choice Bike Show, and we had our work cut out for us. Both Felicia and I favor old iron, and we had our eyes on a cool Knucklehead, an Ironhead, a Shovel and a few more vintage beauties when “Panhead” Billy Burrows silently pulled in on his road-worn Panhead. Game over. The decision had been made. Panhead Billy’s Pan was our Editor’s Choice.
I’d first met Panhead Billy five years ago at the Rhinebeck Grand National Meet put on by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America in Rhinebeck, New York. I recognized Billy and his Panhead immediately from photos in numerous magazines. As do many others, I find a certain fascination with Billy’s nomadic existence, but he was just leaving for another event and we didn’t have much of a chance to talk.
Billy and I had crossed paths a few times over the years, but the first time I had a chance to speak with him at any length was in Sturgis last year. Over the course of an evening, Billy told us a little about his past, and a lot about the Panhead he calls his home.
Panhead Billy hails from Massachusetts, but he’s been living on the road since 1976, using various modes of transportation. His first big road bike was a Kawasaki, and he started living on the road with that. But he always wanted a Harley. He got his Panhead, a 1960, in Canyon City, Colorado, more than 31 years ago. “It was a basket case,” he says. “It was all apart. The tranny was in pieces, and the engine was all together. But it was a really nice basket case.”
Billy got it for about $1,100 or $1,200—“a fair price for a basket case,” he says. He took it to his buddy’s shop in Canyon City and put it together. He had to get tranny cases, some hardware, some nickel-and-dime stuff… and in two weeks he had it up and running. It was the first Harley he ever owned, and the first motorcycle he ever put together.
When Billy first assembled the bike, it had a Wide Glide front end with a 19″ wheel and a drum brake, a Sportster tank and pullback six-benders. Now she’s got internally wired buckhorns and double four-gallon tanks, and a cat’s eye dash with a speedometer that’s never been hooked up. “I put it together with what was there, and some stuff that people gave me.” The tanks and rear wheel were the only changes he made for a long time. It went from a chain to a belt primary within a few years, and he eventually painted it silver. It’s got a 1960 engine and tranny, a ’93 Springer front end with a disk brake, and a ’48–’53 wishbone frame. It’s been raked out, and the front end is now 4″ over. He runs a 21″ front wheel and a 15″ rear car tire. The car tire was a friend’s idea because he was tired of getting only 8,000–10,000 miles out of a 16″ tire. Billy tells me, “The 15″ tire goes about 40,000 miles and they come with a road hazard warranty.” He goes through two and a half to three front tires for every back one.
“This bike and I have developed a passion for each other. A lot of things I had to learn, like the braking power of drum brakes. They’re not too good. After I assembled the bike, I took it for its first ride. There was no doubt in my mind I could ride this bike with a foot clutch and hand shift; I knew I could do it. I maneuvered around traffic, went back to the garage and I hit the wall.”
Billy tells me he rode it to One-Eyed Jack’s, his favorite watering hole in Canyon City, backed it up to the curb and, with the loud, short exhaust pipes, let it bark to announce, “I’m alive, folks!” He loaded the bike in his van and went back to New England. “I couldn’t wait to show my friends.”
“I knew it was something good here, man. Everything just played together. Then I started riding. My days of hot rodding were gone. I got rid of the drag pipes and put some mufflers on before I got in a lot of trouble and before I hurt the engine.” The Panhead became his main source of transportation in ’84. When it got too cold, he headed south. “Probably been to Sturgis from the East Coast 27 or 28 times, a few times from the West Coast. I just started adventuring.”
He works at bike rallies, rodeos, swap meets, sometimes Renaissance fairs… “I do whatever other people don’t want to do; whatever someone wants me to do—painting fences, baling hay; I work an honest living.” What possessed Billy in the beginning? “It’s about the ride. I do it because I can. Kind of like Forrest Gump; just put one foot in front of the other, and before I know it, I’ve been across the country.”
When I asked Billy how many miles he has on the bike, he simply responded, “I don’t know. I never hooked up the speedometer or odometer. I haven’t had a vehicle with a speedometer or odometer that works since 1979. I don’t keep track. That’s not why I do it. I do not know how fast or how slow I’m going or how many miles I’ve ridden, but I will tell you where we have been.”
Billy’s Facebook page answers some of the most common questions people ask when they meet him on the road: He uses at least 800 gallons of fuel a year, and in spite of his not keeping track of mileage, he reckons he puts between 25,000 and 30,000 miles a year on the bike. He’s visited 800 Harley-Davidson dealerships and all the state capitals, except for Alaska and Hawaii, as well as almost all the Great Lakes—all but Lake Superior.
I wondered what he carries on his bike. It was August, so he described his summer wardrobe and the other gear he packs: “Two pairs of jeans; sometimes three, but I don’t need three. Probably too many T-shirts (four or five), and a long-sleeved T. Now I buy good socks—maybe four pairs. A bathing suit and towel. A hooded sweatshirt, leather jacket, gloves, stocking cap, scarf, helmet, sleeping bag, two Pendleton wool blankets, my journal and writing implements, shampoo, which I also use for soap, toothpaste and I use my fingers for a toothbrush. And bandanas as wash rags.
“I carry some tools, primary belts, spark plugs, set of points, set of brushes for my generator, patch kit for tires, electric air pump, tire irons, tent, tarp—I use the tarp more than my tent. I would rather sleep on the tarp on the ground or I make a lean-to if it’s humid. I’ve been carrying most of this stuff for a long time. When I get too much stuff, I ship it home to friends.”
Billy says, “I’ve been on the road 28 years straight except for when I got involved in a hit-and-run accident in ’93 in Piedmont, South Dakota. I spent six months in the VA hospital in Hot Springs, had several operations and spent a year and a half on crutches.” He’s been on the road ever since.
The Panhead has had three names. The first was Sacajawea (a.k.a. Bird Woman), after the female Shoshone Indian guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Then was Illusions, the name Billy gave her after he read the Richard Bach book of the same name, where all the protagonist wanted to do was fly a biplane from cornfield to cornfield. In the end, he thought he was an illusion. “And now her name is Vision of Dreams—she takes me to my dreams,” Billy says.” She’s like a hunting dog you take out of the pen. It knows it’s going hunting. The tail wags; the tongue wags. When I fire up the Panhead, she knows she’s going someplace too.”
Billy takes great pleasure “inspiring people who might want to get out and enjoy their lives.” He says, “I’ve been blessed. I get to go to some really fine parties, and I get to meet some really fine people. And it’s really gratifying that people remember me. I’m nothing special. The young kids with the bobbers; they remind me of myself when I was young. They just think of riding, not of breakdowns. Now I think of preventative maintenance. If the bike breaks down, if it fails me, it’s because I’ve failed it.”
Panhead Billy follows a lot of American Indian history, as well as Revolutionary War, Civil War and Spanish-American War history, which weaves its way into their journeys. He estimates that at least 90 percent of their riding is on two-lane roads. They have followed many historic byways such as the Pony Express Trail, the Trail of Tears, the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Chief Joseph Trail. Billy’s message to everyone who rides is, “I recommend seeing America before you get too old.”