The Old Broke Rancher Fails His Driving Test

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
motorcycle sunset

Ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you that I am stubborn, and if that anyone really knows me, then they'll know I'm fiscally conservative, which is a fancy way of saying I'm cheap.  

Or maybe not - I've been accused of being a spendthrift, too. I remember watching a documentary once on History Channel before it was all Bigfoot and aliens. It was about some old Roman city, and the ancient graffiti they found there. One of the graffitis was a joke, which just goes to show that things don't change all that much over the millennia. The joke was as follows: a man is checking out of an inn the morning after his stay, and the innkeeper is presenting him with his bill: that'll be 10 gold coins for the six bottles of wine, 15 gold coins for the lute player, 8 gold coins for the roast pig, and 5 copper coins for the feed your donkey ate. The man responds, "that donkey's going to be the death of me." 

I guess I don't like having to pay for the donkey's stay either, and there's no bigger ass to feed than the US government.

Granted, when the state of Montana passed a law, that said one needed a motorcycle driver's license, in order to operate said motorcycle, they did offer a grandfather clause. At first I got excited about this, thinking it must be some perk for the elderly, such as myself. Finally, I thought. Some recognition for my generation's hard-won wisdom! But what it turned out to be was that you could easily get a license for the bike for a nominal fee, providing you could prove you had a registered, legal, and licensed bike. Nominal, in this case, was to the tune of a mere eight bucks. 

Only, the thing is, I had designs on that eight bucks - namely, a sixer of Rolling Rock.


Besides, I had sold my old MC in order to be able to afford the ranch we'd bought, so I saw no immediate need to forfeit the donkey feed. I knew well enough how to drive , after all. I could even go through a roundabout and everything. So rationally thinking, I made the decision to forgo the fees and save money, get the license if, or when, I ever were to got another MC.

Years later, my third son asked for a motorcycle. I was too sentimental to deny him. Plus I had one when I was a boy, and it helped to make me into the man I am today, such as I am.

We started looking around for a good machine for him at about the same time he started his driver's education classes. In my leisurely search, I found a very nice machine down in Wyoming. After a lengthy and pleasurable haggle over the pice, I went out there to retrieve it just as the first flakes of snow began to fall - an auspicious sign since motorcycles being sold by private concerns tend to get offered up a little cheaper in inclement weather. We got it cheap, but I have to admit it wasn't donkey feed cheap.

As the paterfamilias, I was tasked with teaching him to drive a car as well as a motorcycle. I sat in the passenger's seat and he sat in the driver seat. He reached for the wheel. 

"Tsk tsk tsk!" I slapped his hand away. "Before we start, there's something I need to tell you. It's the key to passing that test. You ready?"

He nodded. 

"Don't listen to your driver's ed instructor," I said. "Listen to me instead. He's just some jerk, and I'm your father."

"He's been a driver's ed instructor for seventeen years, Dad."

"Oh yeah," I said, raising my eyebrows. "Then why hasn't he gotten a promotion then? He ought to be a four-star general by now."

"There aren't Driver's Ed generals, dad."  

I noticed thereafter that he was not as attentive in his lessons while I showed him how to give the finger in traffic, race through a yellow light, or how to lose a tail. I found out later it was because of advice offered to my sweet little boy by his mother, my wife. The advice was to utterly ignore everything his father told him and listen to his driver's education teacher.

To this day, he retains some of the bad driving he learned from his mother and that hack teacher of his. Just as one example, he will slow down with caution upon discovering a snowdrift on the ranch road ahead when everyone knows the right thing to do is put the pedal to the metal and hit the drift at high speed in the hope of plowing on through to the other side. 

Traffic cones

Even on the Hi-Line summer comes eventually, as it did this year. The boy had his driver's license, and that 600 lb metallic beast was begging my son to get on and ride a while. Heck, I thought it might be fun too. But what to do - neither of us had our motorcycle license yet! Why, we'll just get one! Even mom threw her hat in the ring and decided to get her MC driver's license also, making three.

But because I had refused to pay that $8, which meant I had to take both the written test and the driving one. Worse, it soon becomes completely obvious to me that the person who wrote the State of Montana Motorcycle License Study Guide, had never actually ridden a bike, maybe didn't even know what it was, animal, vegetable, or mineral. My son, and wife, heedless of my protestations, studiously attended themselves to the book, while I reasoned I already knew everything there is, and so studiously attended to a Rolling Rock or a few.  

Turns out the written test isn't so easy. The only silver lining, from where I was sitting, was that all three of us flunked it that first try because at least I had done as well as them. Look where all that studying got them!

Second try, both of them passed while I flunked. 

Fallen traffic cone

Ready at long last to debase myself, I decided to read the book, even if it was all wrong, to humor them, to do whatever was necessary to get the license. I thought it was pretty noble of me, to humble myself that way.

And finally, I passed the test. I gloated over it to my wife and son at dinner, while they rolled their eyes in unison.

What's left was the driving test and the old man's opportunity to shine since I had hundreds of thousands of miles spent on my old Harleys, probably enough to have driven around the globe. I might even teach that instructor a thing or two, I said.

Wrong, the nightmare only gets worse. The DMV has gone completely insane. They want you to weave through the cones, a little obstacle course, but they place them impossibly close together. You'd have to be Stuart Little to be able to make it through them. Wait, it gets worse: you must turn the big road bike both right and left, in a space so small, you could barely turn your head in. 

Then comes the emergency stop test. You accelerate with blistering speed, only to slam on the brakes, tires skidding, leaving what look like streaks of black crayon behind you. Next was the swerve test, where you haul butt to a yellow line about 20 feet away, and after passing it with the front tire, immediately swerve to avoid a red line that indicates the placement of an imaginary truck. I was imaginary-decapitated by that imaginary truck a baker's dozen times over the next twenty minutes. Finally, he told me I had to stop trying because he was late for his lunch break.

My wife and I flunked the test but the teenager, somehow, passed. I can't prove it, but I suspect it may have come down to a bribe.  

Now comes the most bizarre rule of all. If you pass the written test, they can issue a learner's permit saying that - get this - you must do your learning from a licensed rider no further than 100 feet away from yourself at all times. Since it would seem kind of difficult to learn anything from your, sigh, teacher from a different vehicle dozens of feet away, I had to conclude that the singular purpose of this policy is to humiliate old men for the amusement of their punk kids. 

Suffice it to say, I have endured many hours of abuse since at the hand of my son. I could have avoided all of the abuse, with just a small fee, in the first place, but I'm still reluctant to take any fault in the matter. In the meantime, I'm just trying to figure out who to blame.

Before that first ride we took together, my son and I, him a fully-licensed motorcycle badass and me a sniveling, lowly holder of a learner's permit, my son pulled up beside me before I fired the ignition.  

"Remember," he said. "Stay within one hundred feet! And the second thing," he continued, "is that since I'm your teacher now, I want you to forget everything you've ever heard about riding motorcycles and only listen to me, got it?"

I put on my helmet to hide my scowl, and we took off onto the open road.

Ranch 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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