Using a sentence from the brilliant, Eagles ‘Hotel California’ track in the title to this post is both a privilege and an inspiration. So, I’ll keep going with the theme………”On a dark desert highway, Cool wind in my hair”…….I rode a Harley for the first time in my life, and in Arizona, USA. Ha! Actually, being brought up in Europe where sports bikes (now replaced by adventure bikes….) ruled , a Harley didn’t really seem that attractive because it was seen as slow, wasn’t skittishly fast handling or could stop on an unused condom from 80mph in 20 feet. The sound just didn’t resonate either. Two stroke triple engined screamers evolved to 4 cylinder howlers and then onto to v-twin growlers. That was my local scene, and Harleys were generally exclusively, excluded. However, things change. Last year, my wife and I visited our eldest son and his wife for 2 weeks in Phoenix, Arizona, and one of the planned, tourist trips out was to the Grand Canyon. I enquired as to how we would be getting to the Grand Canyon as it is about 3 and a half hours drive from Phoenix. ‘By car’, was the answer I got. This was where I got the ‘Harley thought’ for the first time ever.

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Bike rental in the USA seems quite a mature business industry, so after checking the Eagle Rider website, I learn that booking a Harley is a bit like booking an Easyjet flight in Europe. You go on-line, choose your bike, the dates you want it, pay for it, check-in, and the next stop is ‘pick-up’ day. All very easy. Long story short, I arrive to pick up my ‘Soft tail classic’, hand over the usual documents, have a quick run through the bike with the shop dude and I’m away and into the bright Phoenix sunshine. The riding position was both new and predictable. Riding a bike with footboards instead of tiny footrests was novel. The gears clunked positively on every change, the bike sounded good and it pulled like a train when accelerating. All good. Smily-city-central. The first stop after picking the bike up on the way back to the house was at a really big Harley dealership as I had decided to treat myself to a new helmet as the rental one was, a rental helmet. My wife didn’t quite get my logic of buying ‘another’ helmet as I had several back at home. ‘Why hadn’t I thought to bring one with me?’ was the question. ‘No room in the cases’ was the answer. Anyway, a fully branded HD Bell helmet was procured and looked very Evil Knievel with the tinted bubble visor.  I had a day or so blatting around Phoenix on the bike, and then it’s time for the Grand Canyon road trip.

Excitement fills my body on the day of the trip to the Grand Canyon and we set off. Our son votes to travel by Harley with me and the rest go for the air conditioned box. About an hour into the ride and I start to really ‘get it’ about this ‘Harley thang’. Whilst the desert around us seems to change colour and shape every 40 minutes of the journey, the Harley just keeps going. It is a stable bike and meant for this type of road, and not the twisty bits of Europe. A smirk becomes fixed on my face as I enjoy the rustic, but non-intrusive vibration of the bike, as well as waving at all of the other bikers that we pass, and who are almost exclusively on the big HD branded bikes. The USA does seem to really support its own motorcycle industry……….

We stop every now and again to look at something interesting, have a toilet break or a drink. At the first stop, which was about an hour and a half in to the journey, I notice that the exhaust pipe has melted the heel of my shoe (I didn’t bring along, or buy any big boots either, so the Barbour branded trainers had to do). I go through the emotions of WTF! to trying to work out how logically, it is possible on a new, 21st century bike, to melt my shoe. It was bizarre. I put my melted-shoe-foot on the footboard and try to work out how it happened. It turns out that when I go to use the rear brake and lift my foot off the footboards, my heel naturally pivots a little bit and right where there is a hot exhaust pipe. Like I said, bizarre, and it had obviously happened to the previous rider as well because there was already some black melted boot on the exhaust pipe just behind my own melt-mark. Like all things, time changes the view of the moment, so what was a ‘WTF! moment’ now provides me with a nice feeling when I look down at my still-melted shoe. A good memento it is now!

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I went for this particular HD model because I wanted the classic armchair riding position and the big screen to keep the desert bugs off me. It all worked just fine. The other thing that resonates with me, is that even though many countries worldwide all make motorcycles, they all come to the design phase from a different place, logic and perspective. Take the panniers on this bike for example. Firstly, they suit the bike. Secondly, they are quite big, although not lockable, and weirdly, the top entrance to the bag is actually quite small so you can’t get a helmet into the big space inside. I’m used to hard case, expanding, waterproof, lockable, German made BMW panniers that have a lid which folds down and gives access to the full space. Anyway, they’re not wrong panniers on the HD, just different.

The gear change clunks positively into gear whether a light touch is used or a good stomp is made, and it gets its gear every time. We stayed in Sedona on the first night, so the landscape changed again about an hour from our destination, and we got into some great, twisty and climbing roads leading into Sedona. Whilst the HD is clearly not the most agile motorcycle on the road, I soon got the technique to help it roll in and out of corners without de-stabilising it. The boy on the pillion behind me seemed to be enjoying it and was regularly doing photo and video shoots of the journey. We stay overnight and do the Grand Canyon sights the following day, including the mighty Horse-Shoe Gorge. On the final day, my wife and I decide to take a different route back to Phoenix together on the HD, and we say goodbye to everyone else and head off in the direction of the town of Wickenburg. It is a Sunday and Wickenburg appears to be ‘very shut’ for the day. However, I do get chatting to another HD biker who is having a stop and a coffee in the baking sunshine. His HD is well chopped and called ‘Stella’. Top bike!

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We stop in a few towns on the way back and my wife starts complaining about the seat she’s perched on. Whilst my seat is a big, comfy thing, the pillion one on this bike isn’t that great. I’ve made a note of this for next time…….

I’d rented the bike for 4 days and enjoyed every minute of it, and I was even a bit sorry to hand it back to the team at the phoenix Eagle Rider store. As for my shoes, the right one has a melted heel and the left one doesn’t.  The question is, do I keep renting one every time I go to the US or actually try one out in Europe and think differently about my riding experience? Regardless of my decision, HD motorcycling, like all motorcycling, really is like The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ track, in that ‘you can check out, but you can never leave’, and why would you?

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All photos by the Author

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