Ronnie always blamed Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper for his absolute fixation with California and the restless, and relentless, desire to experience the open road on a motorcycle in the style of Captain America. In 1969, when the movie Easy Rider came out in the theater, he was a sixteen-year-old, pimply and plump, sex-starved sophomore with the single prospect of working as a clerk in his dad’s midwestern paint shop. When he saw that film, his worldview changed. It brought about feelings of freedom, ease, thrills, being hip—which was clearly something he wasn’t—and women. The need to exit his tiny, oppressively dull world took on a hard urgency he’d never felt before, like needing milk to chase a peanut butter sandwich you just can’t swallow.
But Ronnie took the long, hard way to California. First there was finishing high school, then the local community college, then the University where he lived at home and majored in accounting—something his practical mom encouraged. Before long he was in charge of the books at a meatpacking firm.
On any given day Ronnie would drive his homely lime green Ford Pinto down the I-70 to Clinton, Missouri to put in his eight hours, windows rolled down and eight track blaring Hendrix, The Byrds, and Steppenwolf.
Get your motor runnin', head out on the highway. Lookin' for adventure, and whatever comes our way.… he tunelessly wailed. Time may have been going by but his urge for this California motorcycle adventure never wavered.
“How ya doin’ Ronnie?” his cousin Chuck asked him one Saturday afternoon at a family gathering in Springfield where they both grew up.
“Hanging.” Says Ronnie. “You know, plugging along. Putting in my time at Henderson’s Meat Packing, trying to save up to get me a motorcycle and ride it all the way to California.”
“You been saying that for years Ronnie.” Chuck says, causing Ronnie to flinch and turn red.
“Aunt Cathy tell you the latest? I’m finally getting outta here. Heading to California myself, Los Angeles. Gonna be a longshoreman out there. One of my buddies went there, says they make great money. Good weather too. You should come. Ditch that desk job. It would do you good to finally seek out that wild side your always talkin’ about.”
Something goes off in Ronnie’s head like a big, fat, sonic boom. Bang! What the hell am I waiting for? He thinks. If I was waiting for an invitation then now, I got one.
A week later—pre-internet times— Ronnie is looking at bikes in the classifieds and local circulars. What he envisions is a solid chrome, hand-built, all-American baby with stars and stripes embellishing the gas tank. A Milwaukee produced Harley, with an extended front end raked so the forks are long and sleek, lowered rear suspension, tall handlebars and a sissy bar on the back for his dream motorcycle mama to lean back on, her sexy hair flying in the wind.
The reality of what he wants versus what he can afford doesn’t merely throw cold water on his fantasy, it plunges it into an artic ice bath. Choppers in the vein he envisions start at his annual wage in 1981, not money he has on hand or will for any time soon. So, he tacks and jibes. What can he get for the $3700.00 he has saved? The choices are limited so he settles for a used, two-geared Honda cycle known as the Hondamatic and figures he’ll get the Harley once he’s made all that longshoreman money.
Bike, leathers, boots, gloves, aviators and a helmet in hand he admires his reflection in the bike shop window as he rolls out of the shop on his new-used bike. A little pudgy, but not half bad. He muses.
He eases the bike out onto the street and gets a feel for it. There is no shifting on this bike, it’s designed with two ranges, high or low, depending on the speed, so he moves from low to high as he hits the interstate.
He’s got a duffel bag strapped to the seat behind him with essentials and plans to ride from Missouri to Oklahoma, then pick up the I-40 traversing across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before arriving in California. Much of it will be on the old Route 66, thus heightening his sense of thrill and nostalgia.
The first day goes pretty well, the road is well paved and the bike is handling fine. He passes a few other motorcycles on the way and learns how to do the biker wave with a sideways peace sign. He stops for a little bite and to stretch his legs in Tulsa and then heads on to Amarillo where he plans to find a motel for a shower, meal and a bed.
Seven hours later he arrives at the Big Texan Motel and rents a ground floor room so he can park his ride right at the room’s door. He showers and then takes himself to the motel’s restaurant, The Steak Ranch, and decides to splurge and order the steak challenge dinner since he’s feeling mighty hungry from a long day on the open road. He can see by the Hall of Famer lineup on the wall that over forty big, hearty dudes have managed to eat a shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, a roll with butter, and of course the 72-ounce steak, all within one hour. He sees one guy named Victor did it in forty minutes and optimistically thinks he can beat it. He falls short by half the potato, some of the butter, and a good 30-ounces of the steak.
Sore and tired he taps his bike for safe keeping before heading into his room. He gives himself a thumbs up in the bathroom mirror before crashing into bed.
His alarm goes off at 7:00 am and he’s on the road thirty minutes later, taking a shrewd pass on the Texas-sized cinnamon rolls. The soreness he felt last night is nothing compared to today. His groin feels bruised from all the bouncing but still, he’s feeling darn proud of himself and will ride all day arriving in Flagstaff by dusk.
It’s the final day of his journey and allotting time for a few breaks, he’s got about nine hours until he reaches LA.
He honks his horn and does a fist bump to the sky when he crosses the state line into California.
Two hours out from LA, riding through Barstow where the terrain is hot, oppressive and desolate, he licks his lips and thinks how good a beer would taste right now. He’s thinking about this as he hears a distinctive vroom. It feels like the road is vibrating and he wonders if it is one of the California earthquakes everyone warned him about.
He checks his side mirror and can see a line of bikers behind him riding two per lane, two lanes wide. They’re driving choppers; sleek Harley hogs and from a glance it looks like there are hundreds of them. He gets kind of excited. He’ll get to do the biker’s wave so they can see he’s friendly and in the know. Maybe they’ll even let him ride alongside them for a while. Perhaps they will all stop and have beers and he’ll have biker brothers to rub elbows with now that he’s officially a biker, an easy rider in California. He’s pumped.
He's not sure why they haven’t passed him yet, they seem to follow him for a while.
Am I the leader of the pack now? He’s thinking.
He glances up a few more times and can see they are forming one long continuous line directly behind him.
Curious. He thinks.
Then he hears a booming roar and the first bike begins to make its way past him. All at once he feels a rather rough slap on his helmet.
What the hell was that? He thinks. Maybe it’s a stone, or the force of the bike whizzing by.
A moment later a second bike passes him, this guy’s got horns on his helmet and the words “Hells Angels” decorating the back of his black leather vest and does the same thing.
Then, there is a procession of strikes and smacks, all to the back of his head as each biker passes. Even the long-haired motorcycle mamas riding on the back of some of the bikes wallop his helmet and let out colossal laughs and expletives. It’s nothing but thwack-thwack-thwack to the skull over and over again.
Ronnie is too scared to do anything. Is this some kind of initiation? He keeps his eyes focused forward, unsure of what to do and suffers the abuse.
The last biker in this gang of Hell’s Angels motors by and gives Ronnie the middle finger while shouting, “Cheap Japanese crap. Get off the road asshole.”
Ronnie arrived in Los Angeles that afternoon feeling deflated and abused. He promptly drove to the first bike shop he saw and sold the Hondamatic. He never listened to Steppenwolf or spoke of Easy Rider to anyone ever again.