An Old Broke Montana Rancher Tells You Some Motorcycle Tales

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Vintage motorcycle headlight

It all started in about 1957, I'd guess, on a family outing to one of Montana's famous hot springs. As we walked from the parking lot, something caught in the corner of my six year old field of vision - something burly and shining, and the first impression that came to me was somehow of muscle and chrome.

And there were more than one - I stood mouth agape, staring in awe at a whole group of Harleys in the parking lot. Lo and behold, the owners of the machines came out of the lounge intending to head back to Billings. They were members of some nameless riders club. My brother and I continued to stare in silence at the awesome behemoths.

One of the men saw us and said, "your dad around?"  

I said "that's him over sitting at the picnic table."  

He says, "we'll give you kids a ride if it's ok with your parents."

Times were simple then. Dad says "sure," and so begins my love of - no,  obsession with motorcycles.  

Motorcycle on roadNext I'm 13 and sweeping floors at the local Honda MC shop. At 16, I'm the parts manager and head salesperson. I worked for that shop through high school, and all through college. If I came home from college for a weekend, I reported to my job at the cycle shop. I have bought, sold, and owned more motorcycles than anyone else I know. Trail bikes, trials bikes, dirt bikes, motocross bikes, road bikes, cruisers, baggers, you name e'm, I've owned them. I've horse traded them, customized them, fixed them, and to be honest, broke a few, and couple of bones to go with. If you want to know the truth, I didn't always been able to keep them chrome side up. But it is safe to say I fell in love with Motorcycles. And sure, I like trucks, trains, horses and guns, and mountains as do a lot of Montanans. But with motorcycles, it's love.

Fast forward again to 1978. I have a grouchy old friend that lives a few doors from me that has a Harley a 1977 FLH aka The Electra Glide.                      

Well he's starting to show the effects of smoking 4 packs a day and finds the big bike, at 770 pounds, a bit much to handle. You've heard about Harley's unjustified reputation: you ride it an hour, you work on it an hour. So he is adjusting the chain or some such routine maintenance when the wrench slips, and he skins his knuckles. After a minute or so, he quits cussing, and as he wipes blood from his hand with a rag, he says, "for two cents I'd sell this hog."  

I don't know whether he means it or it's the sort of thing a man says in the heat of the moment but doesn't feel in his heart. So me, being an incorrigible smart ass, proceed to dig a couple of shiny pennies out of my pocket and set them down on the seat. He looks at me with a withering smile and says "it's a figure of speech, you idiot."  

"Well you do seem to enjoy polishing it, but in my mind it ought'ter be ridden once in a while."  

He stretches his shoulder blades out and grunts, the kind of old man noise that made me laugh then and which I myself make now. 

"I'll take $2400 for it, but only for the next 10 minutes, or until I change my mind.  And you fix the pig," as he lights up a smoke, drawing out the "aaannnddd" with evident pleasure.

So I glance at the odometer and notice it has 600 miles on it, and quickly get my check book. By the end of that summer it had 24,000 miles on it.

So twenty years after my intro to Harleys I own one, and now the stories begin. Some of my stories go back 50 years.  These are just a tiny little slice of the great big pie that are my Harley stories.  If you happen to like these, send up a signal flare and I'll write a dozen more.

Motorcycle on open road

There is nothing quite like the sound of a Harley, as deep and throaty as the growl of a bear, but with a little purr in it too, like a puma's. It is the sound of Steppenwolf's "Born to be wild" in a way, the sound of the big 45-degree twin is music to the ears. Or it is so with my ears. I cannot speak for more refined palates.

Here's one that probably wouldn't go the same way were it to occur today: in 1978, my brother and I pull out of a small western Montana town that sits in a valley at river's edge with a long hard uphill pull to the top of the ridge. We go through the gears side by side, with drag pipes wide open (that beautiful noise) only to get pulled over at the top of the hill by a representative of the local constabulary.  

Now there have been more than 25 million of these motorcycles registered since 1978, but back then they were still kind of rare, so the cop says to us, "I won't arrest you for the speeding, or the loud pipes, if you will go back down to the edge of town and do that again."  

He said, "I just love the sound of those bikes."

Motorcycle at sunset

Or here's another tale of the Montana I used to know: In 1979, there was a group of about six of us Harley ruffians that went out for a three day weekend.

We ended up in Northwestern Montana, pulling over for the night at the evocatively named "Chewing Black Bones Camp Ground." The camp host turns out to be a young Native-American woman. She is beautiful, but eyes us warily. Finally, she says, "there is a KOA just up the road. You boys might consider staying there. Some of the folks in these parts are not overly friendly to strangers." 

"Ok thanks. Is there any other reason we can't stay here on the banks of your beautiful lake?"

She says I'm not kidding. You should not stay here.  

One of my peers speaks up and says "surely no one wants to cause trouble for a respectful group of bikers that intend to mind their own damn business and get out of here first thing in the morning. And if, say, any bears were to attack, as bears will sometimes do, we are capable of fending for ourselves." He then pointed at the saddlebags, brimming with mysterious and potentially deadly contents. He may have even winked when he said 'bears.'

"So if you happen to know any bears, ma'am, you might tell 'em that we're just here to bed down, and don't want no trouble."

She grumbled something under her breath, but we had a very peaceful night.

Darned if my old fingers aren't starting to cramp from typing - but I'll be back with more biker tales if you'll have me.  See you on down the road.

Wide Open Road
Wide Open Road

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

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Todd L (not verified) , Sat, 10/17/2020 - 10:57
Hi, I have enjoyed your writing about motorbikes, Bigfoot, and UFOs. I hope to read the next installment soon. Thanks! -Todd
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