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Uneasy Riders

Road Tripping from Knoxville to Portland on Beater Bikes


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Cody McMahon, a locksmith from Knoxville, Tennessee, is supposed to return to work on Monday morning. It's 6 pm, Friday night, June 6, and he's stuck in Portland—2,800 miles from home, having hitchhiked into town the night before, after his motorcycle's timing chain broke on Mount Hood. What's next?

"I have no idea. I don't have a dollar right now," he says.

That's pretty funny, I say.

"Kinda," he snarls, prompting six of his buddies to erupt into raucous laughter, smoking each other's bummed cigarettes in a circle outside the Mercury's office. Welcome, I guess, to the sensitive and mutually supportive atmosphere developed over three weeks on the road with the 555 bike club. I can't help wishing I'd been along for the ride.

I Like Smoke and Lightning

The 555 motorcycle club, whose ironic motto is "drink responsibly," is based on a stupid idea. Then again, that's probably what makes it so great.

McMahon bought a 1969 Honda CB 450 last year, and decided to show it to his brother, Jesse Fairman, who works as a chef in Portland. McMahon admits CB 450s are completely unsuitable for cross-country trips. Still, when he talked to his other brother, Mike Fairman, a carpenter in Knoxville, he got nothing but encouragement... and some company on the long ride.

"We didn't want Cody to be left in the dust," says Mike. "So we all decided to match the size, year, and shittiness of his bike, keep the gang together at the same pace, and enjoy the masochism."

Cue development of a website, the printing of some stickers, and a loosely legitimate feel to what's basically a bunch of younger guys re-creating Wild Hogs—only they have a vocal dislike for Tim Allen. Either way, Easy Rider, this ain't. It's been hard.

There are three rules to riding with the 555: Each rider's bike has to have been built before 1975; the bike has to be under 500ccs; and the bike has to have cost less than $500, including any modifications made to get it back on the road—hence, the club's "555" moniker. Also, no interstates allowed, back roads only, no windshields, and it's every man for himself. Eventually the proposition proved so tempting that Jesse decided to fly out to Knoxville and join his brothers and their buddies, journeying cross-country, all the way back to Portland.

Heavy Metal Thunder

I heard the cheapest of the 555's bikes coming from two blocks away. Engineer Will Cantrelle says his bike is the best of the pack, "because it came out of a barn in Crossville [Tennessee]."

And how much did a wreck like this cost?

"A farmer gave it to me for free."

It's covered in mud, from what Cantrelle describes as "some unsuccessful off-roading" in Idaho. There's also lots of crusted salt on the underbelly from riding across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Cantrelle even had a huge cow skull on the back before the gang rode into Portland, when it seemed like a good idea to remove it—perhaps adopting a "when in Rome" approach to a city brimming with staunch vegans.

Unsurprisingly with bikes of such dubious provenance, the 555 had their fair share of breakdowns on the trip—three in the first 88 miles, and one within the first minute out of Knoxville on May 16. Got a broken shifter? Drill a hole through it and cram in a screwdriver.

Another 555er, Eric Ohlgren, who describes himself self-deprecatingly as a cabinetmaker and bicycle shop owner, but who in fact owns a 43,000-square-foot workshop in Knoxville, shows me photos of various jerry-rigged bike parts made from soda cans that would make MacGyver proud.

"We just had to fix the bikes any way we could," he says.

Take the World in a Love Embrace

Perversely, the breakdowns seemed to have made the trip more rewarding for all seven bikers.

"When you go off the freeways, it's amazing some of the people you meet," says Mike. "Honestly, it's like the bikes knew where to break down. We met some of the kindest, most good-hearted people who were willing to help us out."

The worst breakdown of the trip took place in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, when McMahon's bike blew up and its entire engine needed rebuilding. The gang soon found new pistons for the bike, and made firm friends in the process with Louise Red Corn, the publisher of Pawhuska's Native American newspaper, The Bigheart Times, and her husband Raymond, who took them in.

"They were absolutely lovely people," Red Corn says via phone. "I went out there to meet them as a reporter, and the first thing that occurred to me was that they were all really nice guys and hadn't showered in nine days."

Red Corn and her husband put the 555ers up at their house, and fed them breakfast the next morning. That night, Ohlgren cooked paella and Jesse cooked fettuccine Alfredo as a thank you.

"It was one of the best meals I've eaten in Oklahoma that wasn't cooked by my fair hand," says Red Corn. "And of course all the other boys were dishwashers, afterward. They were perfect guests."

The gang also got hooked up with a free night's stay at a spa resort in Idaho, thanks to benevolent owners who took pity on them.

"We just couldn't believe how generous people were," Ohlgren says.

Looking for Adventure

There's been no cocaine smuggled in any gas tanks, but that doesn't mean the trip didn't have its wild moments. There was karaoke in Missouri, for example, at a bar full of professional karaoke singers. Architect Pete Ludman sang "Trashy Women" by the country band Confederate Railroad.

"I don't think the locals exactly enjoyed our efforts," he says.

While in Pawhuska, the 555ers were interrogated by the cops twice. Once after a burglary at a local convenience store, although fortunately, they had an airtight alibi—fixing a broken bike. The second time, the cops were suspicious that the bikers had been involved in a fight.

"Yeah, I kicked his ass," says Cantrelle, pointing at Ohlgren, prompting more laughter.

Crossing through Colorado and across the Rocky Mountains, Ohlgren's skateboard, which he'd been carrying on the back of his bike the whole way, finally came in handy in the desert, where he removed the trucks and used it to ride down the dunes like a snowboard. When the bikers got to Utah, they raced across the famous salt flats (where land-speed records are often tested), taking videos on their digital cameras and posting them on YouTube.

In one of the clips, three black dots emerge from the horizon, against an expanse of pure white with the mountains in the background. The sun beats down as the dots get larger and the bikers emerge, their engine noise roaring louder as they swoop past the camera, their friends waving their arms, whooping, before they're off, in an instant, into the opposite horizon, leaving only a cloud of salty dust.

"That was awesome," says the guy holding the camera. And it was.

Explode into Space

Speaking of YouTube, the 555 is inspiring in an era where self-publishing is possible for almost anyone. Take a ragtag bunch of guys from Tennessee with a great idea, create a web presence, and turn it into something more real through the power of technology. It sounds pretentious, but it seems to have worked.

David Sneed, a computer engineer, was the group member responsible for the group's technological outreach along the way.

"I had my laptop so we just posted YouTubes and pictures whenever we had the chance," he says.

Thanks to a Twitter feed and the uploading of videos and photos, the group of bikers kept thousands of followers from across the world in touch with their progress on a daily basis. Nothing will ever top the memories derived from making this once-in-a-lifetime trip—unless, of course, they do it again next year.

Discovering the country with friends on a bunch of beaters: You tell me a better way of spending three weeks.

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