from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #15: Motorcycle Diaries

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On Tuesday, it was raining cats and dogs, which is probably why flattened feline and canine carcasses littered the local highways on my way to and from Jeonju over the next two days. It was Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, this past week and so I made the 220-kilometer trek down to see my relatives and have a hot, home-cooked meal for once. Because a great number of the 12 million residents of Seoul also spread across the bottom half of the peninsula to visit relatives, traffic usually is no joke. Because the rules of the road don’t really apply to motorcycles, I decided to brave the trip on my little 125 cc. Honda Magma (not a typo; Daerim Honda makes a Magma).

After I finished the service in January of 2006, I spent the next six months travelling. One of these months I devoted to a cross-country motorcycle trip, starting in Atlanta (where my older brother and motorcycle-donor, Charlie, had settled down), heading north up the East Coast to New York and Boston, then west to Chicago to see my paternal relatives and revisit the town I grew up in, south to Dallas to visit more relatives, west once again to Los Angeles to visit friends who helped me get adequately liquored up before my induction in Korea, north to San Francisco to see a girl I met on a plane from Beijing, then back home to Seattle. That was the plan, but none of my plans ever really work to perfection. Actually, it was a colossal failure.

Random Exxon gas station in Connecticut

I was about 20 minutes past Schenectady in upstate New York on the second leg of my trip when the little 250 cc. Honda Rebel I had been gifted gave out. I pulled over the steadily slowing bike to the shoulder and tried to get it started again, but when I pushed the starter button, the motor sounded like a vacuum sucking up ball bearings. I hopped the towering fence into Fultonville, cutting myself on the barbed wire in the process, and wandered around the town until I found a motorcycle repair shop, then hopped back over the fence and pushed the bike back to the off-ramp and to the shop.

“The motor’s shot. The bike’s totaled,” the mechanic, James (according to the name patch on his chest), said after briefly looking at the bike. “There ain’t no oil in the engine.”

It couldn’t be. I had the bike checked out and got an oil change the day before in Atlanta, I explained.

“That’s weird. Hondas don’t eat up much oil usually.” He went on to explain something about overheating metal fusing together and that the cost of replacing the engine was more than the cost of the bike itself.

Fuck. I took out the warranty papers my brother had given me and then looked at the odometer. Fuck. The warranty was good up to the first 3,000 miles, which for me was somewhere in Maryland.

The resting place of the Rebel

I had no choice but to ditch the bike at the shop in Fultonville and catch a ride to the bus station. I managed to catch the last Greyhound out of Schenectady to Cleveland, sitting next a huge, burly woman with thick arms and thick hair on her upper lip. She smelled like cheap wine. I used Greyhound for the rest of my trip and it didn’t get any better because Greyhound stations are usually situated in the seediest areas of town where homeless people forcefully offer you directions and then threaten to beat you to a bloody pulp if you don’t cough up a buck.

In LA, I got on Craigslist to see if I could find a cheap bike to take up to Seattle. There was a cheap 650 cc. Honda Magna in San Jose and so I said goodbye to Erica and Renee and got on what I hoped was my last Greyhound.

Waiting in front of the San Jose Greyhound station, a car and a motorcycle pulled up and a mixed-race hippie couple came out to greet me. They let me take it out on the highway for about 30 minutes, mostly because they got lost leading me around, and we pulled back into the station. The bike ran smoothly—and it was fast—but I noticed the smell of burning engine oil.

“I smell burning engine oil. Is there a leak?” I was sensitive about the issue and understandably so.

“It’s nothing to worry about, bro,” the mulatto male with twisties said. “It always smells like that. I’ve never had a problem with it.”

Maybe it was my naiveté or his silky smooth voice, but I took his word for it. I’m an idiot.

His girlfriend, a lanky white girl with a considerable amount of tattoos plastered over seemingly every visible inch of bare flesh, drove us to the bank so I could pull out money to pay for the bike. “Shit, I’m almost out of battery,” I overheard my “bro” say on the way there.

“Have fun,” the couple said as they drove off to some rave, leaving me at the station with my newly acquired Magna.

At half past midnight, five miles out of San Jose, the bike gave up. I dragged the bike up the offramp to the nearest gas station to figure out what was wrong. I didn’t really have to figure it out—I knew the oil had run out—and because my “bro’s” cell had run out of battery (had they said that so I could hear it on purpose?), I sat in an empty parking lot just outside of San Jose in the middle of the night, wondering what the hell I should do.

An hour later, I was able to convince a Mexican guy to take the bike off my hands in exchange for a ride to San Francisco in his pickup. He dropped me off at my hostel in Tenderloin—”Ain’t nothin’ tender about it,” said Dave Chappelle—and I gave up my hopes for a motorcycle trip.

That was four years ago. While I’ve been regularly riding in Korea, after a couple of bad accidents that weren’t my fault (I swear!), I’ve rarely taken it much farther than my neighborhood. That is, until this past week.

Aside from bitterly stinging rain, the trip down to Jeonju was uneventful. I was cold and wet and my ass was completely numb, but I made it to the bus terminal with both the bike and my ass intact. When I woke up on Thursday, I was relieved to see sunlight streaming into my cousin’s room.

The road from Seoul to Jeonju

The scenery along the local highways in Korea is really beautiful when the sun is out. The air was clean and refreshing, the sparse clouds cast their shadows over the greenery on the mountains, the bright, aphid-green of rice paddies was vibrant, and for a great part of the trip, I had wide open road stretching out ahead of me.

I made it up past Iksan, Nonsan, Gongju, Cheonan, and Pyeongtaek, and was halfway through Suweon when the bike gave up. Fuck. Where was I going to find a place to fix my bike? Thursday was the last day of the holiday and many places were still closed. Fuck.

I found a place relatively nearby on my trusty iPhone (yes, I am not immune to the allure of technology) and walked my bike to the shop. Luckily, it was open and the proprietor of the shop was at work on a scooter for some skinny but dandily dressed old Korean man, probably in his 70s.

“Why?” he asked gruffly, and I filled in the missing words to his question in my head.

“The chain has come off inside the motor assembly,” I said, though not so eloquently because my Korean has become a bit rusty. My words were met with silence. He ignored me as he continued working on the old man’s scooter and I stood there uncomfortably, watching him continue working on the old man’s scooter. He was missing a pinky on his left hand, and the pinky finger of the glove he was wearing dangled freely as he messed around with the wires.

He fixed my bike in due time and I think he ripped me off, but they charge so little for motorcycle repair in Korea, I didn’t mind so much as long as I could make it home. An hour later, I was home, my motorcycle was parked in the garage, and so I passed out and slept for the next fifteen hours.

The Magma parked at work

You’d think I have had enough, but as the dog returns to his vomit, so I am fated to repeat the mistakes of my past. This was the not the last of my trips, although I probably will wait until I can save up enough for a bike with a little more power for the next one. If the book sells when it comes out, I’ll probably try another cross-country motorcycle trip in the States, too.


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