On the Road with 50 cc’s and a Handful of Angels

I began the trip with the following adage firmly in my mind: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Admittedly, at the time that apocryphal quote might not yet have been uttered, but I was nevertheless well familiar with the principle.

The trip was an end-of-the-school year ride from downtown Atlanta to Prairie Village, Kansas on a 50 cc piston displacement Honda motorcycle. I don’t know of anyone else who has tried it, but I can attest, in hindsight, that it is a risky idea.

But it was adventuresome, and adventure was what my twenty-one year old mind craved after spending another school year trying to force college physics into my head. But I knew there was no way to get permission. I would just show up at my parent’s doorstep, and accept the consequences later. Considering how it turned out, that was a reasonable plan.

A stroke volume of 50 cc is minuscule for road bikes. It is in fact approximately equal to the cardiac stroke volume of a typical nine-year old child’s heart. No nine-year old I know is capable of carrying a 145 lb college student on his back for over 800 miles. Not even close. But that was what I was asking that little Honda to do, and it made a valiant effort to do just that. Of course I had to help by not exceeding 35 mph.

The logistics had seemed doable; 862 miles at 35 mph yielded about 24 hrs of driving. The Honda dealer advised me to keep the speed no higher than 35 mph since the top speed for the little Honda was 40 mph. I was also advised to stop about every 30 min to an hour to let the engine cool down. That seemed like reasonable advice, to which I adhered religiously, except for one time.

In late May headed northwest I should be able to count on almost 12 hours of daylight. So I would leave Saturday AM, and arrive late Sunday. Just to be sure, I’d allow three days and tell my parents to expect me Monday evening.

They assumed I’d be flying commercial.

Route to the Mississippi River (from Google Earth). Click for a larger image.

Due to the low top speed of the 4-stroke, overhead valve Honda engine, the trip was planned for small, two lane roads. And that path laid out for me a route through small towns of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, a sliver of Kentucky, and Missouri with colorful names like Natchez Trace, Bible Hill, Howes Mill, and sometimes curious names like Boss, Minimum, Meta, Enon, Chloride, and Topsy. I travelled through towns so small and out-of-the-way that Google’s Street-View cars still haven’t found them all.

A sign of things to come happened soon after I entered hill country. Having spent much of my life to that point in eastern Kansas, I was starved for vertical relief. When I came across an inviting road-cut during one of those down-times, when the engine was cooling, I set about to climb the road-cut, just for the fun of it, and perhaps to scout the road ahead. It was a scramble, loose rocks slipping beneath my feet, but eventually I worked my way to the top. But coming back down proved more daunting. For some reason the slope seemed even more crumbly than on the way up. As I was pondering which way to step, a car, one of the very few I had seen on that road, pulled up below me. The driver asked if I needed help.

How nice. Of course I said I was fine, but thanks, and they drove off. After all, unless they were angels with wings to pluck me off the rocks, what could they do?

As they made their way around the bend, out of sight, my next step was not good, at all. I started sliding, turning around instinctively to grab something solid, and managed to open a 5 in. long tear in my corduroy pants with the only solid rock I unfortunately found. If I had not been wearing tough cloth, that tear would have been in my leg.

Upon reaching the bottom where my bike rested, I motored on, thoroughly embarrassed by my naiveté.

As my first day of travel neared an end in a respectably-sized town, I dragged myself up the steps of an old two-story house with a “room to rent” sign in front of it. And that is where I met my first angel.

As the elderly lady came to the door, she recoiled slightly at the sight of the young man with pants with unintended earthen streaks on them, and a long tear hanging open. After hearing my story, of the young son heading home on a wimp of a scooter, her sense of mothering must have overcome her sense of caution. She fed me and let me shower and sleep in her house that night.

She didn’t have wings, but she might as well have.

Route through Missouri (From Google Earth). Click for a larger image.

I met the second angel the next day, on Sunday. Early that day I ran out of two-lane road. There was simply no way to continue on my way without a hopefully short run on an interstate highway. You may not have noticed, but most interstates in the U.S. have a 40 mph minimum speed limit. My Honda had a 40 mph speed limit too. So I set off, hugging the right edge of the road, just barely meeting the legal speed limit. When semi trucks passed me I was able to draft them for a few seconds, feeling myself accelerated up to maybe 50 mph by the truck’s suction. It was exhilarating.

But probably not too good for the bike. Not long after making my way back to two-lane country roads, the engine began to run roughly. And it’s top speed was declining noticeably. My scooter and I limped into a small town on Sunday afternoon, and I set about to find some help. Stopping at a gas station I was sorely concerned with my seemingly hopeless predicament, until one of the men sitting outside pointed to his small engine repair sign propped in the gas station window. Well, a 50 cc engine is a small engine, and if he was willing to help me out, I was willing to let him.

The fact that his man might have been an angel occurred to me when he started taking apart my little engine, on Sunday afternoon mind you, and found the problem was due to a broken piston ring. No problem, he happened to have a ring that would fit a small Honda piston. What are the odds of that?

I learned a lot that day about small engines, and about the kindness of small town folk who are accustomed to coming to the rescue of those in need. I paid the man the pittance he asked for, to cover the cost of the piston ring, and hit the road an hour or two later with a revived engine.

Hickman Ferry (photo credit Buddy Rogers)

Upon reaching the Mississippi River at Hickman, Kentucky, I and a semitrailer truck were parked at a ferry ramp waiting on the next ferry. We had a long wait ahead of us, and the mid-day heat was becoming oppresive. Just as I was surrendering to the inevitability of a long, hot wait, the truck driver opened up a small access door in the back of his semi and pulled out a cool watermelon. He had an entire load of them, and with a wink he confided that one wouldn’t be missed.

I’ve never had any better watermelon than that one.

On Monday, the last day of my planned trip, I still had 350 miles to cover. At 35 mph it would be doable in daylight  if it weren’t for those incessant cooling down breaks. But as I inched across the map of Missouri I knew I would be arriving in Prairie Village Kansas after dark.

Unfortunately as dusk was approaching, the headlight which had been burning for safety nonstop since my departure from Atlanta, died. Truly, the thought of driving into Kansas City traffic at night without a headlight was simply untenable, not to mention illegal. So I made the decision to press on without the engine cooling spells. I would try to beat nightfall to my doorstep.

Two things brought my trip to a premature end. I pulled into a truck stop in Raytown, Missouri, on the outskirts of Kansas City, as it became fully dark, and as one of the engine valves decided it was too burnt to continue.

The phone call home that night was intense.

Even though my Dad offered to pick me up, I told him I’d make it the rest of the way on my own; which I did. The next morning after a short bus ride home, I walked up to the house and received the dressing down I deserved.

At home at last, Prairie Village, KS. The tear in these same pants had been repaired by the time the photo was taken.

But as the emotion of the moment wore off, I could see a little smile of pride, and wonder, at what his son had done.

My Dad and my bride, after I'd matured a little, and graduated to a 350 cc Honda.

By the way, after the bike was repaired, it was shipped back to Atlanta, not driven.