Interview with Skip Harrison - Motorcycle Instructor, Adventurer and Freelance WriterWritten by Jerry Maye and Skip Harrison
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’ve had the distinct honor and privilege to be able to conduct a short interview with Skip Harrison. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of taking some time just to chat with Skip about his Motorcycle adventures is missing out on a piece of a lifestyle. I found this interview with Skip inspirational, humbling, fascinating and down to earth. I would encourage everyone to take up a seat, crack open a nice cold "dang I wish I could do that" attitude while you take a peek at our interview. If you've not looked at the intro to Skip's book yet, please do so.A short "Biography details Skip Harrison when he grew up in Napa California. He is a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran. He was a North American Windsurfing champion in 1975. He has logged thousands of miles at sea as Master aboard his twenty-seven foot sloop, 120' supply vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, and 65' wooden schooners along Mississippi Sound. Mr. Harrison taught English at a public middle school for fifteen years. He is a PADI certified Rescue Diver and an MSF and Rider’s Edge® motorcycle safety and riding instructor. He has two grown sons and lives with his wife of thirty-five years in Mandeville, LA."
Author Skip Harrison: All Who Wander Aren't Lost: A 10,000 Mile Quest on Two Wheels
** All Who Wander Aren’t Lost is a day-to-day account of Skip Harrison’s forty-seven day, 10,000 mile odyssey on a motorcycle across twenty-two states of the western half of America.
Jerry: Hi Skip, it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you and thank you for getting back with me the other day. It’s like, you disappeared but now I understand why. Logging ANOTHER 10,000+ miles in 49 days certainly has all of us in awe. It’s almost mind numbing (and other things) to think that one person has the passion and dedication to a hobby/lifestyle of riding a motorcycle like you do. Your adventurous stories and detailed riding experiences of going places that the common person can only capture in a dream certainly has all of us envious and jealous. I’m not alone when I ask that you try and detail your latest annual ride in another book someday soon.
Just taking a step back, my first encounter with respect to your talents and personality is when I stopped by the New Orleans Harley-Davidson Riders Edge range the weekend of March 20-21 2011. Without hesitation you introduced yourself while handing me your business card that reads: Skip Harrison, Motorcycle Instructor, Adventurer, Freelance Writer. It’s a little embarrassing to say but silently I said to myself, “HA, Obviously an Instructor but please.. An Adventurer and Freelance Writer.. Pfft. ya right”. Throughout the course of the weekend and chatting with other folks, I ate my own words. I guess when you stop and think about it, there’s only certain things that one can put on a business card and “Certified PADI Rescue Diver” just seemed out of place.
Starting with my very first picture of you that weekend seemed to highlight a… chiseled statuesque posture. Watching you participate in "Instructor Mode" one can’t help notice your hawk-like stare concentrating on every part of the students learning to ride experience. It was amazing to see first-hand how you “conducted business” with the students. Just listening and watching your reactions as you turned experience into a lesson which seemed to resonate throughout the class as they gave verbal excuses why they couldn’t ride. Just this weekend alone removed any doubts that you have an unwavering commitment to ensuring the students maximized their potential. I must say that your magnetic out-going personality, experience and riding expertise had a motivating influence to the students that weekend and probably the rest of their lives.Jerry: When was the first time you jumped on a motorcycle and actually rode for the first time?
Skip: I don’t clearly remember the first time I threw my leg over a motorized two-wheeler, but it had something to do with a moped or Cushman scooter. I do remember buying my first bike, a 1962 Honda 50 SS. Not that little step-through, twist-and-go, that dominated the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertisements of the time, but a real motorcycle that you threw your leg over and kick started. Mowing lawns at $2-$5 each and doing odd jobs, it took me close to a year to save up the out-the-door cost of $333. I’ll never forget that ride home from Bettencourt’s Schwinn bicycle shop in downtown Napa, CA. It was fire-truck red, and I named it “Pretty One”. How sappy is that?!
Jerry: There’s a saying “It’s not "IF" you’re going to crash your bike but "WHEN"when you’re going to crash your bike.” Have you crashed a motorcycle yet or come close? What lesson did you take away from the crash that you can pass onto others?
Skip: I don’t buy into that saying about the inevitable crash. It just seems like a subliminal, self-fulfilling prophecy to me. I begin each ride with a commitment to arriving at my destination safely. I’m a strong advocate of ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time). No, I’ve never had what I would call a crash. I’ve had countless tip-overs: Those times when I was just beginning to roll, just about to a complete stop, just pushing myself a little bit over the line during parking lot practice (PLP), or excessively applying the front brake with the handle bars off center. The vast majority of my tip overs occurred during training sessions as I attempted to master new skills. I’ve had numerous sprained/twisted ankles but no road rash or need for Band-Aids.
Yes, I’ve had some brushes with death. A couple involved going wide in right-hand turns on a two-lane road. My training at Streetmasters has eliminated that behavior.
One close call that still gives me goose bumps to think about involved me turning left into the path of an oncoming car. The car was visible one second, disappeared behind a pickup stopped at a green light, then reappeared at a high velocity as I was executing my left turn. I missed hitting the car by inches. The car missed hitting me by less than a second. All I could think was this is the way one dies in a crash. One second you’re here. The next second you’re not!
The lessons I took away from those close calls are these: Frequent PLP is essential to keep your skills up to par. All assumptions are false. Guardian angels abound, but you have to meet them half way.
Jerry: We all have a mentor to some extent. Who would you say is your motorcycling mentor and why?
Skip: I have many mentors. Some I’ve never met. Take David Hough (pronounced huff) for example. He’s the author of Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling, and he’s written a plethora of magazine articles on motorcycle safety. He is also a founding father of the MSF. He has logged way over a million safe miles on two and three wheels. In the formative days of the MSF, accident causation studies were the major sources of research, and scores of crash victims were interviewed. The focus was on what went wrong. Mr. Hough and others knew there were lots of folks out there with over a million accident-free miles and decided to interview them. Now the focus was about what these folks are doing right. This approach has a very positive influence on my behavior and my attitude towards risk management. Ken Condon, safety columnist for Motorcycle Consumer News; Pat Hahn, Ride Hard Ride Smart; and Larry Grodsky, Stayin’ Safe are gurus of motorcycle safety whom I greatly admire.
Mentors I have had the good fortune to be associated with are many. Joel Callahan, a former motor-officer and current Rider’s Edge instructor trainer has done more than anyone to improve my instructor skills.
Ed Patterson, my MSF Rider Coach instructor.
Pete Tamblyn and Eric Trow of Stayin’ Safe (on-road training tours) who brought my observational skills and my knowledge of cornering, braking, and use of mirrors to a whole new level. I took their course/tour back in May of 2008, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with them as an instructor trainee.
At the top of my list would be Walt Fulton, Jr. who runs Streetmasters Motorcycle Workshops at Willow Springs Motorsports Park near Lancaster, CA. Walt is a motorcycle accident re-constructionist, a three-time winner at Daytona, a former factory team racer for Harley-Davidson and two manufactures of metric motorcycles, and the current product specialist at Kawasaki USA in Irvine, CA. Walt took me under his wing while I was attending Streetmasters back in June of 2006. Walt invited my wife and me to tour the Southwest with him and his lady friend, Nancy Foot, for nine days on their annual vacation! What an honor that was! What makes Walt such an ideal mentor? I think it’s just the fact that he’s always, unobtrusively, there for me when I need him. And being just about the best friend a person can have is a big plus.
Jerry: Proper training plays an important part of successful riding and can mitigate some of the risks. How did the courses you’ve taken over the years play into your being a motorcycle adventurer?
Skip: Training courses are just plain fun for me. I wish I could take a new one every month of the year. My spirit of adventure was deeply engrained long before I ever rode a motorcycle. It probably started emerging as a Boy Scout back in the day. In adherence to the Scout Motto, training is a big part of being prepared for adventure. My taking advanced training and frequently practicing what I was taught has contributed greatly to my urge to take the road less traveled, to venture off alone, to explore the physical world as well as my inner self.
Jerry: Tell us when you realized that you had the mojo to be an MSF/Rider’s edge coach?
Skip: I don’t think my having the mojo had anything to do with becoming a trainer. It was somewhat of a dream for me to follow in the footsteps of all of the fabulous instructors I’ve had. I credit my current status to folks like Ed Patterson and Rider’s Edge Program Managers Tim Buechel and Greg Robicheaux for having that gift of being able to see the potential in others. It was they who had the mojo to take a chance with me, and I believe their willingness to take a risk with a total stranger has evolved into a very symbiotic relationship.
Jerry: In your 2008 book, All Who Wander Aren’t Lost: A 10,000-Mile Quest on Two Wheels, your adventures are filled with routes that weren’t planned. How would you best describe the decision and feelings to go off the path and go where Skip’s never been?
Skip: I really don’t consider myself so much of an adventurer. I basically suffer from an incurable condition known as WOTS (What’s Over There? Syndrome). So in my desire to discover wots over there, I often find myself off the beaten path and behind schedule. I use the term schedule very, very loosely here. There are many general styles of touring by motorcycle, and mine is not all that unique. I have never made advance reservations for lodging, and I’ve only been skunked once. I was in the high Sierras south of Lake Tahoe and far from what most would consider a town.
The sign outside the little mom-and-pop motel read “No Vacancy”, and it was no bluff. I was forced to camp without a tent or bed roll. Okay, think hard here. That means I was compelled to sleep in ALL of my clothes on top of a rickety, badly-warped, wooden picnic table. The setting sun spotlighted the towering, snow-capped peaks looming a short distance to the east. The Milky Way glowed above me, and every star in the universe was visible. One would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful setting. And I froze my ass off! I got about two hours of sleep in fifteen-minute intervals the whole night. Lesson learned: You can’t fall asleep while shivering from head to toe.
Jerry: If you had to guess, how many miles have you logged on a motorcycle?
Skip: I calculate from actual records and a bit of memory back to the Sixties approximately 245,000 accident-free miles.
Jerry: Motorcycle Awareness Campaign stickers and signs have been seen in some pretty remote areas. Do you remember if you’ve seen a MAC sign or bumper sticker somewhere so remote that it jumped out at you?
Skip: Yes, in the August issue of BMW ON, the monthly publication of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America organization. It was a quarter-page, full-color sign. I thought that was really neat, and it shows how fast and far MAC has gone with their objectives in a few short years. It made me proud to be a member/supporter.
Jerry: I’m sure that there are many, but in your riding experiences, what has been your most memorable moment that comes to mind?
Skip: I don’t remember exactly where I was, somewhere in southwest Nevada I think. I was headed in my usual roundabout way from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to my cousin’s house in Bullhead City, AZ. The early afternoon sun was high and hot. I think I was on NV-169, one of those polka-dot-lined roads in my atlas that denote a scenic route. The terrain was very flat and generally straight, and I had not seen another vehicle in several miles. Suddenly the horizon appeared very close, probably less than a mile away. It was a perfectly straight line, and only the clear blue sky touched it. It was like a runway ending abruptly at the edge of the Rock of Gibraltar. I felt like the only living person on earth. I rolled on the throttle, imagining that sufficient velocity would put me airborne as I rocketed off what appeared to be a rapidly approaching, sheer cliff. The Vulcan Nomad 1500 and I were one. A couple of hundred yards from the edge, the most incredible bird’s-eye-view of Lake Mead came into view. I rolled off the throttle and down shifted for the approximate 2,000-foot descent back to earth. Blame it on dehydration, protein deficiency, road fatigue, a leap of faith, disillusionment, temporary insanity, or all of the above, but I have never experienced a “high” that intense before or since. Sometimes I’m Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and sometimes I’m an ACE fighter pilot over the flak-filled skies of Germany during WWII (think driving in Baton Rouge traffic), but ever since that day I’ve considered riding a motorcycle as flying on the ground.
Number two would probably be dangling my legs off a precipice at Sunset Point at sunset in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park just east of Montrose, CO. It was just a few days past the Summer Solstice, maybe June 23, 2010. The sun set right in the vortex of the canyon. I would not object if my ashes were strewn there around that time of year.Jerry: What are your thoughts about Motorcycle Awareness Campaign (MAC), Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), and Rider’s Edge efforts?
Skip: I think MAC is doing a great job of making non-riders aware of the unique characteristics of motorcycles, especially how their small size makes them hard to see and why bikes move fluidly about to maintain their road position to best see and be seen. The MSF website has a whole tabbed section dedicated to car driver awareness of motorcycles. Rider’s Edge is a formal training program. I think of it as an MSF cake with Harley-Davidson frosting on it. The extended time allotted for the R/E program allows for curriculum-based activities that enrich the experience and make it fun as well as educational. The extra time allows for a bonding of spirits among the participants that doesn’t necessarily happen in other programs. I don’t know of any graduate of R/E that didn’t have a positive experience and would unconditionally recommend the program to a friend. Few would disagree that frosting on a cake makes it a better cake!
Jerry: Family and friends play an important supporting role in almost everything we do in our lives. How do you cope with being gone so long without loved ones?
Skip: I’m not really gone all that long without loved ones. My travels allow me to visit--often for multiple days--dear old friends, other family members, and relatives. I call my wife every night where cellular service is available, and whether or not I can use my cell phone, I send an “I’m okay” email message via my SPOT Locator, a satellite-based position indicator, to ten friends and relatives who may or may not know or care that I’m no longer in town. It shows my Lat/Long and has a Google Maps link that can be zoomed in to my current motel or campsite. Pretty cool technology it is and simple enough for this technophobe to use.
During the course of most of my tours, Karen, my first (and last) wife, selects a location—Glacier National Park, California Redwoods, the Rocky Mountains, the U.P. of Michigan, or the wineries of Napa Valley—that she would like to explore. I meet her at an appropriate airport and take her along for a week or so. She takes charge of where we go, how far we go in a day, when we pee, where we sleep, where we eat, and how long we stay at any particular place. That’s when I hang a sign on the back of the tour-pack that says, “This vehicle stops at all coffee shops.” It’s a great change of modus operandi for me. When Karen’s along, all I have to do is keep fuel in the tank, air in the tires, a credit card in hand and Garmy, our Garmin GPS unit, in the “Recalculating” mode. Much too soon I have to take her back to the airport to fly back to New Orleans.
One friend I always take along is a spill-proof container of Tony Chachere’s original Creole seasoning! Do you realize how many Americans eat fish, beef, chicken, rice, potatoes, eggs, and Cheerios without a dash or two of Tony’s?
Jerry: Last question, I promise. Okay, you’ve probably been asked a billion times, “What’s the next step for Skip?”
Skip: I don’t know if I would consider it a next step as much as I would consider it a continuation. I want to improve and increase the positive influence I have over my students. I want to continue safely exploring this great country of ours on a motorcycle. I’d like to become more proficient at off-road riding and do more camping. Another book is not out of the question. I’d like to start my own training school where I can take up to three or four students out on the road for real-time, real-life training. It would follow the general format of the Stayin’ Safe and Jim Ford’s Rider’s Workshop programs. Heck, I’ve gone bust in less noble pursuits! Like Jimmy Buffet wrote in a song, “I just want to live happily ever after every once in a while.” That works for me whenever I’m flying on the ground. And it works for me when I look at all of my students’ pride-filled faces at a Rider’s Edge graduation ceremony.
Jerry: Thank you Skip for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with our readers. You are TRUELY an inspiration and we wish you the best.