Vespa TransAmerica 1981

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by conchscooter, Jul 27, 2007.

  1. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    For people around the world of my generation, 13th May 1981 was the day Pope John Paul II was shot while cruising the piazza in St Peter's. Those were more innocent times, when Popes and Presidents made themselves available to the public, and from time to time got shot for their temerity.
    As an historical footnote 13th May 1981 was also the day I landed in the US for the first time. I had $10,000 in my pocket (which got me the undivided attention of the very nice lady flight attendant when she handed me the appropriate Customs form) and A Plan. I was going to buy a Vespa.
    The plan got off to a good start at Immigration. The officer asked:
    "How long do you want?"
    Me: "How long can I have?"
    Him:" I asked first."
    Me (calculating desperately the odds) : "A year?"
    Him (eyeing me- we neither of us had heard of Al Quaeda): "6 months?"
    Me: "Cool!"
    I bought a Vespa at the dealer in Brooklyn, Kings motorcycles I think and paid $1500 dollars for a scooter with one mirror, floormat and rear rack.
    I left New York immediately after tasting an English muffin which was neither English nor a muffin. There began my education.
    Wasn't I young and innocent, and wasn't Congress clean and white?

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  2. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I steered a cold wet course across the South, heading for New Orleans. Night after night I looked for somewhere to sleep after a day spent splashing through the rain. The weather reports on TV in my flea pit motel rooms reported it to be wettest spring on record ( they always do) and i completely missed the Shenandoah Valley in the downpours.
    My Vespa pulled about 63mph in top gear and in those days the national 55mph speed limit kept me in the middle of the pack on the roads, even on the freeways, which i rode as little as possible. I got to New Orleans via Vicksburg and the Mississippi Delta and then made my way backwards to Key West. I had A Plan.
    I stopped in Ft Lauderdale to get a first service and get my faulty electronic ignition replaced (The is was the year before Vespa pulled out of the US). I was backfiring all across the South and the herky jerky style of progress was wearing me out. You wouldn't know it from the happy me picture.

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  3. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I rode the old Highway One to Key West from Ft Lauderdale, and tiring it was too. I'd slept badly on the beach in Ft Lauderdale, a free night in an effort to make up for all the motels on wet nights up north and strange men kept coming up to me and asking me if i was okay. Very friendly I'm sure but it ruined my sleep.

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  4. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    A friend in Italy had sponsored me for membership in the National Geographic Society, which was the only way those days you get the magazine, and I had read about a ferry service to Cancun from Key West. The Plan was to ride smartly to Mallory Square, load self and Vespa and ride back to the US from Cancun. Even I had heard of Cuernavaca and Tampico and all the tropical delights of the Gulf Coast.
    Imagine my surprise when I pulled up in Key West and I asked some dude where the ferry to Mexico left, and he fell over laughing.
    "Canned that ten years ago," he said and handed me a brown paper bag. I sipped warm beer and contemplated my next step.
    Not much else to do but head north again...back into the rain.

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  5. BeemerChef

    BeemerChef Wandering Homeless

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    Got to love it!!! great shots... so... what are your plans now???
    By the way... if you get smugmug you can post many pictures at the time...
    How are things in the keys?... hot I bet...
    Can't wait to read more... of the "plan"... so were the days!

    Be well...

    Ara & Spirit
    #5
  6. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    Back, back to New Orleans in something like 24hours over two days, an Ironbutt record of some sort i think, at the time. I remember freezing my sorry ass off in the middle of the night when I stopped for gas and the convenience stores were arctic cold. The Vespa had a 1.5 gallon tank which was good for about 90 miles. I had to switch the tank to reserve ( by hand young'uns!) after about 70 so I was stopping a lot. In ft Lauderdale I had bought a front rack and used that to carry my waterproof sleeping bag made of newfangled material called Goretex, and very expensive it was too. I also carried, to complete my comfortable accomodations, a foam mattress pad. Ah youth! I had no tent and nothing with which to cook.

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  7. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    Plans Ara? Hell, I've got a mortgage! I'm thinking about doing this trip in reverse next year on my Vespa250- should be a piece of cake by comparison, even if I compress it into 3 weeks! If I did this downloading thing all the time I'd try to learn the smug mug thing but I am technologied-out at the minute...(I say to the man with a portable satellite uplink).
    Anyway I rode across Texas which took me a long long time. I met a nice Sheriff in a small border town on the Rio Grande and he chatted with me for a while, cautioning me not to cross.
    "Lived here all my life," he intoned, " and I ain't never been to Old Mexico." He was the living embodiment of the Wild West I had read about growing up. H told me a story of discouraging "wetbacks" from stealing from his truck while he was out fishing. He told me he put a rattler in a cardboard box on the front seat. The lure produced a satisfying series of squeals, he reported with a grin.
    I enjoyed the hell out of Mexico.

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  8. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I look back on myself and wonder how I managed. It was actually easy, and I owed it in large part to my state of mind. I was new to the US and didn't have built-in prejudices, I took people at face value. This innocence backfired from time to time, when someone would ask me what I thought of America I would tell them the truth, what I liked and what I didn't and I think occasionally I offended them, for which I am, retrospectively sorry. People on the whole were really cool, they befriended me in the campsites, me sleeping on the picnic table in my bag, swatting mosquitoes, them in their 40-foot Winnebagos with all mod cons.
    "You came from New York on that?" was the chorus as you might imagine. Nowadays everyone has an opinion about scooters ( even if most despise them) but back then a Vespa was something a Martian might own. Well, I was an alien after all- my Visa said so!
    Tropic of Cancer and me in full riding gear, helmet, gloves, leather jacket and flip flops.

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  9. Kamala

    Kamala Long timer

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    Excellent!

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  10. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    By this stage I was also armed with a 2.5 gallon metal fuel jug which extended my range quite nicely for the wide open spaces out West. The vespa used premium at 60 miles/gallon. Premium was hard to find in Mexico, especially far from cities. Pemex didn't have the network of nice modern gas stations they have now. Plus the exchnage rate was- get this- 4 old pesos to the dollar. I had expected a flourishing black market on the border such as existed in Africa on my motorcycle trip of two years previously. Instead the open market meant open exchange rates and everything was very above board. Premium back then cost about $1.20 a gallon up to a maximum I remember of $1.90 outside the whorehouse in Lathrop Wells, NV. Just for the record, you understand.

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  11. toothy

    toothy Grin

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    Phenomenal!

    :thumb

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  12. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I toured Central Mexico weaving a path via Guadalajara ( where I slept on the streets completely unmolested) to Tepic and Mazatlan on the Pacific Coast. I was of course overwhelmed by the sight of this mythic body of water so i promptly went for a swim and nearly drowned thanks to the undertow. A small Mexican body surfer saved my life by lending me his boogie board and I rewarded him with a fistful of currency- guarenteeing me yet another night sleeping in the dirt, such was my budget. I also met a bunch of surfers riding the coast in their VW van. They even were amazed by my means of transport! I'm the one with the beard and flip flops.

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  13. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    All good things come to an end and I aimed my tires back at the US. Mexico was in some way very familiar to me, it was much closer to the Italian way of life than the US ever was. People didn't expect much, other than friendship, and I spoke no Spanish (Italian to bust a myth is not much help!) but I smiled a lot and had a great time, even on rough roads with large trucks.
    This was on the road to Nogales.

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  14. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I passed the border, there were minimal lines those days and i had a multiple entry visa (I checked before I left) and rode north back in the land of National Geographic. My travel tool was a Rand McNally road atlas strapped to the front rack on top of the fuel jug and mattress pad, sleeping bag and usually my leather jacket. I opened the atlas to the appropriate page and slipped it under the bungees on the front rack. Then I pulled over from time to time to check my progress. I still like traveling without a GPS, I've used them on sailboats where I really like them, but on land, when I'm touring I like getting lost. You never know what you'll find.
    I found Oak Creek south of Flagstaff to which I have returned since then but its never as amazing as the first time when I came across the winding road by accident.
    The Grand Canyon was grand and I hiked in and out in one day. They had no overnight permits left and I was 23, so even though it was mid August I left camp at dawn and staggered back to the rim by dusk. The most dangerous thing I did on the whole trip.
    This was the day when Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married. Someone in the campground had heard my plummy accent and thought I should be awake to watch the event on live TV. I think he was offended when I declined and fell back asleep. I have never been much into Royalty, even after I became a US citizen.

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  15. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I hit all the famous spots I could. By this time I had figured out that cities weren't the star attractions but nature, and particularly the National Parks were the sights to see. At first I thought cities with interesting names (Athens, Georgia say) would be worth seeing, but I was soon disabused of that notion.
    My scooter was a bit battered after getting knocked around on this 6 month journey but she was running fine. I de-coked the engine in Mexico because I was using gas station two-stroke oils which weren't terribly hi-tech and I think the turn signals had long since bitten the dust but for the rest she was fine. Which was just as well as I met a babe at this stage of the trip.
    I was sitting on a bench in the small town of Lee Vining, California, in front of the grocery store drinking some milk after a restless night in the desert (you don't need a GS to off-road young'uns!) and this woman comes and asks in broken English if I was riding the Vespa, and did I know it was made in Italy...
    Well, when a woman like that asks for a lift to Reno what do you do? Stick to your plans to go to Yosemite (per the National Geographic Plan) or do you run to the nearest KOA shower and head to Reno (per the Little Head Plan). A picture is worth a thousand words, in this case.

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  16. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    Well, she was worth it. We rode toegther from Reno to San Francisco where she had a plane to catch- it was the end of her vacation (darn! just my luck) blowing the back tire on the way and falling down in the mountains near Truckee. She got an ambulance ride to the hospital, I grovelled in the dirt changing the rear wheel ( love those spares on the old Vespas!) and after she was patched up she got back on the Vespa, her bandaged leg sticking out the front on the left side and her crutch out the front on the right and we rode deep into the nigh to san Francisco on I-80. what a hell of a woman. We went out together for some years as she lived in Florence a couple of hours north of my home in Umbria. Last I heard she emigrated to Montreal as she spoke French better than English. sigh.
    Anyway I had a National geographic plan to stick to so i rode(alone) round California.

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  17. conchscooter

    conchscooter Long timer

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    I left the Vespa with friends in San Francisco and when later i emigrated i kept it for years commuting around Santa Cruz county on it.
    By way of background I suppose I should mention that this wans't my first motorcycle trip, I had ridden round Europe on a couple of unsuitable cafe racers, an MV Agusta 350 and a Moto Morini 31/2, both air cooled twin cylinders with clip ons and aftermarket hard cases (what else was there but aftermarket!). I had toured the North African Coast too with great pleasure and lots of (unphotographed) adventures. I even, in 1979 rode a Yamaha SR 500 single deep into Central Africa, a trip that went sour when I got hepatitis and had to be flown home. A group of young Frenchmen on (French) Peace Corps work in Cameroon shipped my motorcycle home for me and I learned the lesson that whatever goes wrong, there is a solution, and frequently the solution leads to a great story and possibly a friendship.
    The trip by Vespa was a way of testing a new-to-me-theory that keeping it simple is more fun.
    Its a lesson I still carry with me today, as I try to remember that the point of any motorcycle trip isn't, for me, to carry the kitchen sink, but to enjoy the ride, and to do that, its better to travel light.
    Anyway that was me then, on the best (and most photo'ed) trip I had taken to date, and that in my memory lives on as a truly great experience. I hope some people with less money and smaller bikes may be inspired to test their limits. And if you do I hope you don't regret it and hate me!
    I'd love an old P200 Vespa if I had a garage to store it in and take it out for sedate Sunday rides (that and a Guzzi S3!) but I wouldn't trade my modern 250 GTS.
    Thanks for listening.

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  18. Mini Trail

    Mini Trail n°°b

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    You are my hero.
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  19. motoital

    motoital Dork on 2 wheels

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    :clap
    Fantastico ! ! ! Brings back some great memories when I had my P200E.

    Grazie mille for sharing.
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  20. emmettken

    emmettken Long timer

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    Great!! :thumb
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