New Orleans, Louisiana
Twenty-six floors below me, the freighters winding along the Mississippi river through New Orleans, dodging the paddle wheelers teaming with tourists, seemed touchable.
Several hundred Vespa owners converged at the Hilton Riverside for the 22nd annual AmeriVespa rally in mid-June. Scooters, ranging from grandfather vintage to tricked-out with rocket launcher signal-lights, or in nautical attire and, of course, our modern classic, cruised the Big Easy.
This rally, which included a scooter ride around Lake Ponchartrain and a scooter wedding, has been on MacGyver’s To Do list for three years. We missed Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and San Diego, California.
“Happiness happens faster on a scooter,” the bride, Cynthia, told me outside the Lafitte Blacksmith Shop bar on Bourbon Street. The California scooteress met her future husband, a Philly boy, Christian, in 2011 at an Idaho Vespa rally. Two weeks later at the New Orleans AmeriVespa event, she “told him that I loved him,” she said giddily, not an hour after saying “I do” in front of her scooter friends.
Eighteen wheels make, and save, us money as we travel the big roads of North America. Our two wheels, on the Vespa, travel the smaller paths.
Those 18 wheels have a big, BIG, number to report. We changed our steer (front) tires, low-rolling resistance, Michelin XZA3+, at 267,946 miles.
“It’s too early,” MacGyver pleaded with me at the London, Ohio Travel America truckstop. “There’s more tread. This is the best fuel mileage.”
Truckers brag when they clock 200,000 miles on their steers. Our trucking guru, Truckin’ Ed, who regularily gets north of 225,000 miles from his steers, was impressed.
“You done good kids,” Ed texted, via his co-driver, Salena.
The mechanic — during our March Landstar 120-day DOT Inspection — noted 6/32nds of tread remaining on our steers. Then we drove 33,000 miles, including two trips from Latitude 35 in North Carolina to Latitude 55 in Mackenzie, British Columbia. A third of our entire 2013 miles in three months.
The minimum legal tread for steer tires is 4/32nds. The first week of June was the annual Roadcheck where DOT officers inspect commercial trucks. I decided it was time to replace the front tires.
“If you’re giving money away, I want an extra $100 in my June allowance,” my head mechanic, MacGyver, told me, as we watched the TA mechanic mount the driver side steer tire backwards.
“I don’t think that’s right,” MacGyver, ever the Gentlemen Trucker, told him. Oops!
And there was life left in the tires because we received $110 for the remaining, evenly worn, tread. It’s called a casing credit. I am not really sure what it means, I’m the grocery expert, but basically, a new tread is put on our casing and then is sold as retread tires.
During this process we found another tire problem. The Vespa’s rear tire was flat. Truck stops and tire shops across America change a big truck’s tires while you wait, but not the Vespa.
We phoned several shops along our route. They wanted us to leave the scooter for a few days. Not possible. There was no choice. We needed freight to Florida. MacGyver ordered two new tires, one for insurance, and replaced it himself. Emersing the tire in soapy water in our Florida garage he confirmed a pin prick hole.
Before MacGyver and his Vespa, the only motorcycle I knew was the Harley. To me, Harley riders were balding, bearded and big-bellied. Or rowdy and red-neck. And rich and Republican.
The scooter crowd is some of that, but different. Like the Harley crowd, it is overwhelmingly white people. I saw one black woman from California, a sprinkling of Asian riders, one or two Hispanics and one guy that seemed to be of Middle Eastern heritage, I read his name tag. Like Harley owners, scooter owners span the entire social, educational and economic scale. A few Harley owners are scooties at heart.
“Did you get lost,” I asked the guy, straddling the rumbling Harley, lining up next to us for the New Orleans Police Department escorted ride through the city.
“It’s a 50,” he said smiling.
The scooter owners are a cult of personality. You know the dogs-look-like-their-owners thing, well virtually every scooter had a story, a personalized look, and a rider with an adventure in their past. There was the hot chick on the scooter with the rocket launcher turn signals, the blue-water sailor with his homage to the sea, the preppy argyle scooter babe, even chopped-down, tricked-out high-performance scooters, Sophia Loren-style vintage scooters, the naked Helix and the Ruckus.
Scooter owners are willing to test their endurance, riding these dinky bikes coast-to-coast. Every two years there is a Cannonball race — which MacGyver has informed me he will do, sometime, while I am at the beach near a Spa — a coast-to-coast scooter race. This year the riders started in The Friendliest Ghost Town in America, Hyder, Alaska, where the fish and chips were less than an hour out of the water, and rode 10-days to New Orleans.
It was also a weekend of unexpected conversations. We talked to a retired Detroit, Michigan cop, who patrolled the bad side of town. “I put my gun down when I retired and I haven’t picked up one up since,” he said, intimating that no one needs a gun.” In his 70s, he travels North America by scooter. He loves Nova Scotia.
Ted, a Nashville, Tennesse executive drove his favorite “bike”, a bright yellow Vespa to New Orleans.
“What’s happened in this country is people have been taught to hate the poor, to look down on them,” he said. We spent two hours discussing inequality and Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap and Hedrick Smith’s 2012 book, Who Stole the American Dream.
We met Tony and Heather, who keep five scooters between them in California, including two vintage models. Retired military, he works for the owner operator’s arch enemy, CARB, the California Air Resources Board and she’s a globe-trotting florist, having worked in Australia in her younger years.
The AmeriVespa rally is three days of riding scooters, showing off said scooters, chatting with scooter lovers over lunch and dinner and riding a little more.
The main event was a six-hour ride from the river front around Lake Ponchartrain and back, the big social event, was riding to the scooter wedding. There was a Gymkhana for precision riding, a trade show, where I picked up an “over-priced, under-sized, all Italian” Vespa T-shirt, ending with prize giveaways.
“This is the best location I’ve seen for the last day raffle,” Eric, a Cannonball survivor, who placed fifth on his longest-ever scooter trip, told me waving at the stacks of beer cans in the NOLA brewery.
Twenty-years ago, when his friends were buying BMW motorcycles, he bought a Vespa, the 45-year-old from LA said. “It just seemed more fun.”
And it is. Kids of all ages waved, as we passed by on our ride through New Orleans.
Next year, Indianapolis! The organizers have promised an official Vespa ride around the Indy 500 track.
And there’s a Conrad por moi!