Photos and words by Nick Miramontes Photography
Rick Monahan “a real airhead”
When telling Rick Monahan’s story I find it only fitting to associate with a bit of nostalgia; for those of you unfamiliar, BMW officially began to produce motorcycles in the 1920’s; mainly because of the post WWI armistice, the Treaty of Versailles, which banned the German Air Force. Let’s suppose that would have never happen and BMW would’ve continued to manufacture aircraft engines instead of getting into the manufacturing of air brakes, industrial engines, agricultural machinery, toolboxes, office furniture and then on to the motorcycles and cars we now know. What a different world we may live in. We’ll never know, which probably is for the best considering what other changes we may have faced. All that presupposing aside, you my ask "Why mention it when doing a piece on an American mechanic?" Well, they would have a direct correlation and share a symbiotic relation because if BMW wouldn’t have produced motorcycles than Rick would not have fallen in love with his first bike, a 1960 R50/2 and I may never have met him myself. Who knows what would’ve happen?
But fortunately, they did make motorcycles and he did buy his first BMW brand new at age 16 from a shop in his hometown of Redding, Massachusetts for $300 plus tax and six years ago I did happen to walk into, his then shop, in Inglewood enquiring about some parts for my, at that time R90, and later to cultivate a friendship that has lasted to this day.
Although, what I find to be the greatest comparison to these coincidences is not by the chance encounters and parallels of time and life but by the way we face adversity. Take BMW, a business forced to work around guidelines that would prohibit them and one man who’s passion lead him to knowing everything he possibly could about these particular bikes. He could’ve taken many different paths from the mid to late 60’s to present day; from being drafted in to the US army during Vietnam (which he was but got out of it, that is a story for another time) to working on boats to working at an aircraft company in Torrance and finally deciding at age 55 to follow the passion and devote his time solely to the one thing that had shaped his life so long ago and accepting that the R series “airhead” BMWs were truly his calling.
To Adapt, over come adversity, face challenges head on, accept failure along with fortune and continue to follow your passions no matter what; does this sound familiar? Seems to be a mantra of the modern day “millennial gen” and who would have thought you could learn a lot about it from a 68 year-old man?
We had the pleasure to sit down with this “Airhead” Rick Monahan and pick his brain about bikes, babes, the 60’s and everything Rick. Along the way we got a life lesson or two and all we had to do was sit back and listen. If you don’t know Rick Monahan than you are in for a treat as he drops wax poetic and gives us some cleaver insights in the form of “old-timey” sayings and analogies on life as he sees it.
Where are you from?
Rick Monahan, I’m originally from Redding, Massachusetts I came to California in 1968 on my first cross country bike trip which was also on the first bike I ever owned a 1960 R50/2 little 500cc.
What made you stay in Southern California?
Well after coming here in 1968 and going back home to Massachusetts after a summer of exploring all of California I just didn’t like what I was seeing back home, it was the late 60’s a lot of my friends were either messed up on drugs or not returning alive because of the “conflict” in Vietnam. I decided to head back to Los Angeles and give it a shot; I mean, there wasn’t any drugs in California, right? Eventually I met a girl and she convinced me this is where it’s at and after a lot of convincing I got her into liking motorcycles which wasn’t easy because she had a horrible story of a friend of hers who was involved in a motorcycle accident that had depleted him to the IQ of a small dinner salad but eventually she became converted and I got her to even do a cross country trip from Boston to LA by way of Canada on my sidecar outfit. That relationship lasted awhile.
Were you a motorcycle mechanic from day one of being here?
My god no, before I decided to venture into doing my own thing and devoting my time to BMW motorcycles I did all sorts of odd jobs to make ends-meat; from working on boats to stretching helicopter propellers at an aircraft company in Torrance which was a really interesting job. Then after numerous jobs I decided at age 55 I had to give my true passion a shot and start a motorcycle repair shop; I found an add in Cycle Trader magazine advertising BMW parts for sale; so I called the guy up after waiting about two weeks to build up the nerve to accept that this was something I had to do. So I called the guy up turned out he was an ex WWII German mechanic of Italian birth, I guess he must’ve liked the more organized Nazi military than that of the Italian army. So, I went to visit him up in the valley where he lived and worked; after he was released from a POW camp he made is way here and used his expertise as a BMW guy and making the rounds at various dealers until he was 83 and now wanted to get rid of the remaining projects that were left in his garage along with some very BMW specific wrenches and specialty items that I could use to really specialize in this and get started fast. He wanted $40,000 for the lot and after a few weekends in a row visiting him; I decided I’m gonna be straight with the guy and let him know I’m interested but don’t really have the 40 large all at once. He couldn’t have been nicer and he seem to respect my honesty and appreciate my understanding of what he really had here; parts I hadn’t seen in years, multiples of things that you couldn’t find anymore he really had gold here. He told me since I was the only guy who came to see him without haggling him down in price he’d let it go for $20,000 all-in. So some good fortune and generosity had found me with two van loads of stuff right where I needed to be to really make a mark in this concept of becoming a real BMW motorcycle repair shop.
From what I know of the R series “airhead” vintage BMW motorcycle market it is very niche, particular and specific clientele, why these bike?
Well, here’s what happen. I need to backtrack a bit before my trip in 1968; back in Redding Mass in the mid ‘64-’65 there was a Bridgestone dealership, back then the people who use to make tires made small displacement motorcycles, like 50cc something like that and this dealership would rent them for $2.50 an hour so me and my friends around the age of 16 at the time would go down and rent them for an hour or two take them out the local forest area and beat the hell out of them then return them. Back then a sportster or triumph bonnie were the biggest bike you could get besides a Harley dual glide but one day while I was working as a car detailer after school to make extra cash my buddies came up and told me I had to go to Ken’s place, the Bridgestone dealership, and check out this really weird German bike; I knew I wanted to buy a bike at that time but wasn’t sure it was between that and a old ’50 Plymouth Cranbrook car that I had a hook-up on from a co-worker, it was a real stogie republican car but hey wheels are wheels when you are 16. So I went up to the Bridgestone dealer and saw this bike I had never seen anything like it in my life it was so different I had to have it; with Massachusetts tax the grand total was $381.00. So, despite a little opposition from home not so much my father who had an Indian in the late 30’s but my mother of course knowing I was a bit of a maniac falling out of trees breaking stuff you know the usual kids stuff so I went through some hoops before I was allowed to have it. Eventually I bought it; it was a 1960 R50/2 500cc little number. And of course a few weeks later showing off for some friends the old no hands, no helmet, standing on the seat one-leg style trick; I dumped it (this little mark on my arm is the remnant of that). Any way I had to return it to the dealership a defeated moment for sure but eventually I convinced my parents that I was responsible enough to have it again, just in time because as I was on my way down to buy it back the dealership was about to sell it. And I still have the bike to this day 50 years later it’s in pieces around here but it’s still all here. That gets us to the niche and particular type of people who get into these type of bikes; I would say I am a nostalgic guy for sure and I think most people who are into these type of bikes are. I guess initially before I even started to wrench on them I could relate to that. It was really my father who got me into the idea of working on these bike; he was a structural engineer very mechanically inclined and a constant tinkerer he bought a service manual for the bike and started to force me to try and do the work on the bike myself. Although, I was a bit apprehensive at first thinking things like valves had to be done by the local shop he always said “it’s not a person you aren’t performing surgery if you mess up you didn’t kill someone just take your time and if it doesn’t seem right try it again.” I guess his encouragement really sparked my interest in how things worked I can remember countless Sundays having it in pieces in the driveway when my dad who would want to take it for a ride all the time; he’d always be frustrated as to why I wasn’t out riding on a beautiful day. Obviously, I still wasn’t a mechanic but I need to know what I was riding my plan was to leave town and I wanted to know what the hell I was doing. I guess, the long-short answer as to why these bikes happened on May 16th 1968 when I decided to take that bike from Redding, Mass. via route 66 heading to Los Angeles that it was clear I would always have a fondness for these bikes and was willing to devote the time it would take to know as much as I could about them so I guess that is ‘Why these bikes’ for me.
So, California in 1968 traveling across the country at that time. Man, how was that?
Wow, traveling down route 66 I met some really amazing people had a real blast for sure. I remember finding refuge for the night in small towns in places like Oklahoma by camping in cemeteries, to avoid people and cops mostly, figuring who’s going to bother to go in there at midnight, right? You’d be surprised but it was a blast and of course at 18-19 years old as I reached Los Angeles I was hard pressed for cash so I took a job at a Aircraft factory in Torrance it was the crappiest job stretching these helicopter propellers mixed alloys for a whopping $2.48 per hour I worked there for a few months so I could save up and continue my travels and head North to Haight-Ashbury. And I eventually went up there and saw nothing but a bunch of drugged out pimply faced runaway kids and thought this isn’t the utopia I was expecting; share and share alike became nothing but a commune in the middle of the city maybe not that bad but not my thing. So I split and went back down the coast to Big Sur area met a well connected guy, Tom Crow, young guy who’s parents had a guest house so I stayed there he was really great guy who knew all the right people all the cute girls all the great parties; it was pretty amazing his dad was a WWII vet who had no problem showing you all his battle wounds the guy was shot up like swiss cheese but really generous people so I spent the remainder of my time up there it was a crazy 1968 summer it was really fun. See back then you could find stuff like that I met Tom in a connivance store while buying supplies for a night of camping it was just that way. So in 1969 I set back east but that trip is when I really bonded with my bike the nostalgia factor goes so deep, I’m a nostalgic guy as it is that’s why I still have it.
Back then what did your friends think of this bike?
Well back then everyone was really into Harley and smaller British bikes at least where I was from the Japanese market was there for sure; but there was a cool factor that my friends always took into consideration. I was really into reliability and going places; there’s and old saying ‘chrome don’t get you home’ and that’s really what the BMW was about for me getting to and from where and whenever I wanted to go. I wasn’t an ace mechanic yet so having the shaft drive and boxer engine to help keep the cylinders cool that was really key; Harley’s had a tendency for the rear cylinder to wear different because it wasn’t evenly cooled one behind the other. You could get 9,500 miles plus out of a set of points on these bikes those British bikes a couple thousand and that was pushing it that’s bragging rights on those bikes. These bikes just made sense to me there is something about these bikes you get enough gasoline in your veins and it’s all consuming; trust me they cost me some good relationships and some friendships along the way but they just couldn’t hang with the bikes they either felt is was dangerous or I was just too into motorcycling.
Where do you see these bikes in today’s modern culture of motorcycling; with all the different trends from Japanese and British custom café to the chopper scene to adventure riders and beyond, where do you see these bikes fitting today?
Some people want a warranty on their bike some people just want it for a few years and trade it in on the next new thing. But there is enough young guys out there now who real have no interest in the rolling computers of today and fancy themselves minor mechanics who would like to have something they can understand and get the pleasure out of working on with just enough customization that it becomes theirs. And if they need to take it to a proper mechanic they can at least talk intelligently about it enough to understand and communicate. And a lot of people just realize they don’t need to go 140 MPH to really enjoy what I’m doing. I think there are enough people out there who just want something they can really enjoy in the canyons and anywhere with a classic look that is reliable and that’s where these bikes fit. I’m sure even these younger guys get sick of rolling through the city and having cops just waiting for them to open it up or rattle the windows of every car with the aftermarket pipes. But these bikes really dredge up that nostalgic gene in younger guys something that tells them these 60’s to 80’s BMWs are worth preserving. I think the market today still lends itself to the quality of great bikes and this younger generation seems to see the value in quality and if the right people maintained them three or four owners before them there is no reason it can’t go 100 to 150 plus thousand miles. I knew a guy out of Vancouver who got 600,000 miles out of his bike, four wives one engine; this guy Philip still has that bike and I met him in 1970. It’s like appreciating high quality furniture; dove tail assembly instead of just gluing and slapping something together. I’ve taken a lot of these things apart and every time you just get the sense that even the people who manufactured these bikes back then really cared about what they were doing it wasn’t just a factory job I mean it use to be that BMW only hired women pin stripers exclusively obviously on decaf only, ha ha. But you just see the attention to detail all the way through the process. I think I’ll always want to swing my leg over one of these bikes even well into my twilight years somehow even if I have to pay the newspaper kid to start it just to hear the motor.
I’d say in this day and age you are a dying breed; that old school mechanic who has devoted themselves to this one particular thing, that’s rare. I would view what you do as an art form and you as an artist, you think that’s a fair assessment?
You know people say that but I never think about it like that, I mean to me, I just fix things. I view artists as those who master a perfect brushstroke or have a higher understanding of how to execute something from nothing. I just don’t see it but I guess when you consider it as a craft and you get to a point where you know it so well it’s second nature, I mean if you put it in the context of striving to be the best you can be at it and show attention to detail, than I guess; I just never think of it that way.
I mean, I still look at parts catalogs on paper I just have that kind of background. To your point of an artist to craftsman, I always look at the appreciation one takes when doing something and the time and effort they’ll put in to it so I guess that is an art form in itself I just never thought about it. I started looking at these things in 1966 and from that moment on I wanted to know more and more. I mean you can play a musical instrument well or play it forever, right? One can learn it and the other can never stop learning.
Success, what does that mean to you?
Well, from a business standpoint I can say success wasn’t going to smile on me I just didn’t have what it takes my mind just doesn’t work like that and I need to be ok with that; you aren’t human if you can’t accept failure and I didn’t fail as much as from a business standpoint I didn’t see success in the fiscal sense. I have had a lot more success at life by the relationships I’ve had and by what doing what I love and how it’s brought me closer to everything in my life. I was fortunate enough to have a strong family, six kids large Irish family, I had a great childhood and two loving parents never motivated by fear and violence it was always done through voice control when my father lowered his head and his voice you did your homework and verbal encouragement which I will always feel lucky to have had I was always told ‘yeah you can do that’ so I always had confidence. I still feel that to this day I mean I’m considering doing a cross-country walk when I turn 70 I’m just not afraid to through it out there. From the people I’ve known since grade school literally still keep in touch with to those who I’ve met through my travels on these bikes to the people who have walked through my doors like yourself I have cultivated life long friendships. As far as success goes, I always felt that I was successful in life that way more than anything but I guess I have been successful to have never have been in jail… That’s a major I mean trust me there were times I got close. No, all kidding aside success is for me what you take from the people you surround yourself with and the times you enjoy with one-another. It’s not a matter of money to me when running a shop I don’t mind showing you how to change a tire, do your oil, points, valves, change a light etc. I mean you should know how to do some of those things if you are traveling it’s important. I always felt if you need something major done you come back to me; there is plenty of work out there I’d rather you be happy with the bike and come see me when you don’t know what is wrong rather than for every little problem. Back in the day motorcycles were a cheap mode of transportation and what helped them stay cheap was doing some of the work yourself; nowadays you have these bikes with the fold out tennis courts and a smoker on the back it’s crazy the luxuries we don’t want to leave behind I don’t need to watch TV while camping in Yosemite, I think it’s ludicrous that a new BMW adventure bike is $25,000 dollars that doesn’t make sense to me that can’t be what makes you successful every nickel and dime and share nothing with anyone, I mean motorcycling has always been a culture of sharing.
Finally, what is your dream bike? And what is the strangest thing or fix you’ve ever seen come to you?
Well my dream bike is the bike I still have; my 1960 R50/2 and someday I’m gonna get her running again, I will. As far as strangest fix; man I’ve seen so much it’s hard to think and if I told you them all you’d probably run out of tape on the recorder but something recently… Oh, I saw a guy came to me and he had bypassed his headlight switch because of some malfunction with the switch or something and it was fixed by one of those pull chains you’d see on old wall-mount light fixtures, literally like you’d have in your garage or something; I just thought that was pretty wild, something straight out of Cuba, but hey, it worked.
We'd like to thank Rick for sitting down with us, telling stories and sharing his passion for these old bikes. He's still working old airheads so if you want to get in contact with him, hit us up and we'll connect the dots.
Photos by Lindy Truter
Light and shadow. Form and shape. Color and texture. Those principles are in every thing that we see and touch all around us. So why is it that a vintage Porsche or Harley Davidson can evoke such visceral emotions? Aren’t they simply objects made of some combination of all those things, just like everything else? Certain things have an intangible quality that brings out strong emotions within us. Some call it a soul.
Capturing the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface can be a tough task but when it’s done well, it’s special. Claudia Liebenberg puts brush to paper and with her watercolors, captures more than just a motorcycle’s lines, shapes, forms or a boot’s texture and color, she captures its very soul. The subtle nuances of the way the colors and paper interact give her pieces life and the imperfections of the brush strokes gives them character. Meet Claudia. She’s passionate. She’s creative. She’s an artist. And she’s damn good at it.
Alright, give us the lowdown on Claudia. Where are you located, how did you end up here, what’s your blood type and what is your mother’s maiden name?
Hahaha! This was funny. Ok, so my name is Claudia Liebenberg. I’m a South African lady, born and raised. As the US is split up into 50 States, SA is spilt into 9 provinces. I was born in a tiny town in the Free State, and now find my home in the Western Cape. I moved here when I got into Stellenbosch University to study a Science degree. I really had no clue how things were going to pan out when I started, even the word “campus” was abstract till about the end of my first year…haha, such a small town girl.
Art as a career didn’t get it’s kick from a tertiary education. Many folks are surprised about that fact when I answer that. Truth is, I have never been in an art class ever. I have loved expressing myself with captured shapes and forms since I saw my mom scribble her signature on cheques and I so badly wanted to move the pen and for it to make sense.
I ruined too many of their books by literally drawing “words” on the pages. My Grade 1 teacher picked up on my artiness (don’t think that’s a word) and encouraged me to keep at it. Só funny to look back and remember how annoyed I got when kids copied my drawings and didn't draw their own, haha! I painted as a downtime hobby, and only the people close to me knew I wasn’t too useless with a pencil and paint. I kept it to myself although I always found myself working it into the most mundane of tasks. Fast forward a couple of years where I sat down one middle of October (2014) & just went for it. I really didn't have another option at the time, so there was a very strong “nothing to lose” situation going on there. March 2015 I hosted my first expo in the historic town of Stellenbosch, after which I was invited to a series of local expo’s around the Cape Town area, as well as one in Durban (Kwazulu-Natal).
The reception of the work has been nothing short of mind-blowing and am continuously humbled at the journey. At the core it’s very simple: God-given talent, hard work and stay true to who you are. The rest follows and my goodness have I had the privilege to work with and meet some incredible brands and people so far!
2016 is a very different year, even in atmosphere. So looking forward to what this year holds!
Tell us a little known fact about yourself that people are surprised to hear once you’ve told them.
Well, apart from motorcycles, I love many other quality made things, i.e. well made clothes. Classic style. Same goes for my taste in music, Rock and Blues.
Then, I have a very deep love for leather. I worked at a local design studio as an apprentice leather craftsman making their hunting accessories (this is where people need a moment), very simply because I love leather, wanted to continue learning this old world craft.
Here’s one very few know about me unless you knew me back then; I did horse riding as a sport and captained the South African Saddle Seat Equestrian World Cup team, many moons ago. I loved the elegance and grit combined in one. The discipline & the fun. Full three-piece suits are mandatory, and after 6pm tuxedo’s and top hats are compulsory…Glory Days, as Bruce Springsteen sings :)
Do you have a lifelong dream or goal? Maybe fame and glory are what you seek or maybe it’s quiet cabin in the woods?
Yes, a few. I’d love to see the world, travel with my art and attend various expo’s internationally. I’d love to go see various other crafts, old motorcycle and car museums, galleries etc to expose my thinking and approach to different ones.
I cant wait to have an old Airhead.
I wouldn't necessarily say fame and glory are a goal. I think it may be a part of the journey, but are to be used as a tool in a relevant way. James Hetfield from Metallica said it well, “if you want to keep what you have, you gotta give it away”, so use what you have and work towards giving back. I’d love to help others grow in their skill and ability some day, have a facility that can be a safe space to grow others in various areas.
Also, that cabin in the woods doesn't sound too bad :)
What are you doing when you’re not making art?
Spending quality time with quality humans, exploring the never ending Cape Town area, the beach and resting up to make art again.
Who are the people and things that inspire you? Are there artists and creative’s who you looked to growing up or that you look to now?
Wow. So many.
For starters, the open road. I absolutely love driving, or being on the road with some of those quality people I mentioned. Music keeps me going, especially when the midnight oil needs to be burned. I draw most of my inspiration from where I come from (i.e. heritage), my current environment and the future challenges I’d like to conquer. My parents are a huge influence in my work, as is any honest, hard working craftsmen. To single out that word, “honesty”, that I think will always play a role. Honest food, honest music, honest people. Nothing is more encouraging than spending time with genuine people and finding out what makes them tick.
Along the lines of honesty, I never had an artist whom I looked up to. It was a dream career, one for another life if I could start over. I do now have a few solid individuals who’ve been in the creative industry longer than I’ve had a will, and many of them I call friends, whom I can ask all sorts of difficult questions & get new ideas from just by spending time over a cup of coffee. Meeting them and others in related industries have really been one of the highlights of this journey so far. Many of them such stylish women who wear many hats (from motherhood to businesswoman) and do so with such grace and unique quirk.
I love photography too, and certain colour pallets have me stop dead in my tracks when my eye registers a good shot. I really enjoy Christian Watson’s “1924us”, especially his literary output. The right combination of words can be so on point to start a concept. Another artist is a local lady Lorraine Loots. Stunningly detailed work.
Minimalist furniture, WWII heritage, a good Whiskey, guitar riffs from some of the legends, my worn Bible and die hard devotion to a Moleskine journal. My goodness, too many. I’ll stop now.
A lot of your work that we’ve been seeing recently has been watercolor. Has that always been your weapon of choice? And are there other mediums you’re looking to try?
Yes. I’ve always loved watercolour’s feminine and playful way. It’s very unpredictable and the simple joy I get from watching it “park” within the boundaries I set out in an evolving way till it comes to a stand still is so rewarding. I never took it very seriously, and always thought others thought it a kiddi-art medium. But it’s the one I understood, it’s like we speak the same language when I try get a feeling across. When I used it in the making of my portfolio as an independent artist, I used it because I “got” it, we’ve kept each other company for so many years. Some of the greatest reviews I’ve heard of my Moto Art work, is “elegant and raw, gritty and graceful” spot on, and those words truly bless me as I completely identify with that. What I didn't realise until someone pointed it out, was the very intense contrast the work offered; the vague and delicately feminine medium used to portray the very hard and masculine lines of machines. This brought me so much delight to read and discover that description to my work. I really just painted, and still do, what I love.
I want to sharpen my digital skills the moment I have time, and definitely continue growing in my love for photography as well.
How would you say your work has evolved over the years?
Well, the work has always followed my interests & environment. Botanical scenes were the very start and still love doing those. All of the work has become a lot more focussed as you become more comfortable in your own skin, yet also not afraid to take on subjects that are just outside your reference and grow towards that too.
Where do you see your work going?
Collector’s pieces. I value exclusivity and quality, the handmade touch of old world craft and skill. Collaboration with other artists/ designers/ makers on relevant products/projects.
Is there anything you have up your sleeve that has you really excited, be it a piece of art or other type of project?
I have a few collaborations and potential international expo’s coming up. Really excited to see how those pan out. I’d love to start working on some products, like some well designed shirts for starters. But that needs a bit of planning, and won’t rush into that just yet. I have wanted to build out specific ranges for some time, and really hoping I can get to them this year. Not going to slip too much detail on that yet, let me surprise ya’ll when the time comes.
Thank you Chhun & East Fork Supply Co for having me!
A heart felt thanks goes out to Claudia for participating in our interview series all the way from South Africa!
In an overwhelming world of social media, visual media and digital noise, her work stands out. She continues to hone her craft and work on new projects. Her work has been featured both online and print through various publications including Iron & Air, Ninety Nine Co. and Silodrome to name a few. Follow her on her website or through social and contact her to commission a piece, although you may have to get in line.
Photos by Steve Howe and Chhun Tang
STEVE HOWE - PART 2
In what ways has technology improved as well as degraded the wilderness experience for you?
Technology doesn't really degrade my wilderness experience that much. Back when I was a working photojournalist, I had to deal with photography, gear testing, note-taking, trip details, and even satellite phone podcasts. Working with film crews, it's all two-way radios, LCD screens, and monster cam rigs. All that definitely degrades a wilderness experience, but for most of us, no one makes us play with those toys.
It can be irritating if some clueless tool breaks out his cell phone atop Half Dome and starts shouting into it, but that's easy to move away from. The key is to use technology; don't let it use you. If it's in the way of your experience, turn it off.
Then there's the plus side. High-tech clothing and camping gear make adverse weather far more survivable, even pleasant, and I've got no problem with comfort in the woods. Navigation-wise, GPS receivers and desktop mapping programs are fantastic scouting tools that revolutionize routefinding in landmark-scarce environments. If you know how to use a GPS (locational) in concert with traditional maps (representational) and compass (directional), it becomes very hard to get lost.
I also think radios, emergency satellite beacons, and two-way satellite text messengers, are awesomely useful tools, especially for outdoor professionals. I've used satellite texters to change resupply points, and send out OK messages to prevent friends from initiating premature rescues. Whenever you send a message, these beacons tag your geolocation coordinates and hyperlink them to a Google map. They take the 'search' out of search and rescue.
So I carry emergency communications, whether a cell phone or satellite beacon, on all my serious trips and whenever I go Jeeping, biking, hiking, or trail running around Torrey, especially in off-season. Traditionalists often act like old timey outdoorsmen just sucked it up and crawled out of the woods injured, but that's a crock. They died alone and painfully.
Do you have any advice for the younger generation?
Well, first off, forget about a career as a professional adventurer or sponsored athlete. That era is largely over, and it was never worth it. The truly talented can make some money for a couple years, until they get sick, or injured, or just relax for a couple months. Then you're off the back of the wagon. I know a dozen broken-down, once-famous adventurers who are living hand to mouth while gritting their teeth from chronic injuries. So get a real job. Get health insurance, or at least accident insurance. Wear a helmet. Avoid injury, because every one of those broken bones will be back to haunt you in 30 years.
And be very wary of GoPro/Youtube courage. The whole XGames/RedBull 'extreme' sports phenomenon has a huge body count, and most of those deaths, hospitalizations, or disablements never make the Facebook feeds.
Mortality is real, so do extreme stuff, but always do every single test, move, and trick the safest way possible. A few extra minutes for a rope - or a safety check, or a quick review of worst case scenarios - is cheap insurance.
Steve rappelling down while leading a small group on a canyoneering trip through Capitol Reef.
Steve showing the proper technique of how to wind up rope after a rappel.
If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be?
My dream destination changes regularly, but right now it's ski season, so I'd love to tour the Swiss, French, Austrian, and Italian Alps…with enough money. I also want to do a long, committing off-trail journey through the Himalaya. Topography and rhododendron jungles dictate that would probably be in the northwest end of the range, like the Himachal Pradesh of India.
My brother in law is also an open ocean sailor, and he keeps talking about sailing from Baja to Galapagos, then to Rapa Nui/Easter Island, then west to Australia. That'd be a minimum of about 9 weeks on the water plus island time. I'm not sure I actually want to do it, but I'd never forgive myself for not going. Moth to the flame, I guess.
What books or resources would you recommend for someone to learn more about the outdoors and outdoor activities?
Joining clubs, and hooking up with experienced friends are both excellent ways to begin an outdoor career, but be aware that you're still responsible for your own safety, and that being a beginner is no excuse for being passive. Show up ready. Be contributory, not needy. Ask questions. Pay attention to the answers. And enjoy the lessons.
The internet is great for isolated tip columns on specific techniques and situations. Backpacker.com, and Climbing.com, both have a ton of instructional articles and videos. Lots of freelance outdoor gurus have Youtube channels that can offer valuable advice, but beware of the more dramatic presenters, because there's a lot of macho 'prepper' crazy out there, and most of the useful advice is straightforward, not catchy.
If you're really serious about becoming an outdoor person, the best single print reference is Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers. This is a well-illustrated 300-page encyclopedia that covers everything from gear and beginner camping to weather, geology, safety, ropework, group leadership, First Aid, ice climbing, et al.
College outdoor programs can be great for younger people looking to begin adventures like backpacking, canoeing, climbing or canyoneering. Keep in mind that the level of club and program leadership is wildly variable. But mostly, you need to choose an adventure, prepare for it, and then go.
What is your favorite tool/instrument/gear?
My current fave is skis. My most valuable instrument is a helmet. My most oft-used tools are boots and shoes. And the sexiest gear item out there is undoubtedly an ice axe.
What are the essential pieces of equipment you carry with you every time you go out?
Outdoor outlets often talk about the 10 Essentials (map, compass, sunglasses/sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first aid, firestarter, matches, knife, extra food. It's a good list, but more than many day adventures really need. But I always have a Bic lighter, a headlamp, spare clothes, and probably some emergency communication like a beacon - or a cell phone in places where I'm sure of signal strength. You really do need enough to get you through an unplanned wilderness overnight.
One other thing I always carry isn't an object, it's an attitude: Flexibility. Pay attention and be ready to turn around if things aren't right, you're off-route, or running late. Plans change. Let conditions change 'em. Don't get stubborn.
Do you have any set of rules that you observe whenever you go into the wild?
Nothing too formal. It's basically: Arrive prepared. Don't do stupid stuff. Always do everything the safest way possible. And when you're doing risky stuff, avoid distraction, pay attention to every move. If you're watching after other people, as in a guiding situation or hiking with a spouse, don't forget to switch gears when it's your turn, and watch out for yourself.
Tim Musso, Steve Howe and April Larivee taking a lunch break during a day hike through Capitol Reef just before a rain storm
When did you start Redrock Adventure Guides?
I began guiding again in 2008, when the recession took hold. Most of the outdoor writers I knew lost their job, or went into copywriting and company PR. But I'd been in media a long time by that point, and I knew that it would never be the same. Internet pay rates and deadlines mean you're tied to a keyboard all day, every day. I had a superb 30- plus-year run, but it was time to move on.
How and why did you transition over to be a guide, leading your own groups?
Even way back as a ski bum, I was often the ringleader for our stupid adventures. I'd also been a mountaineering guide in the late 1970s, and I was always organizing the logistics for my own expedition assignments, many of them solo. So I'd always been leading trips from an organizational, navigational, and safe standpoint. It was a straightforward transition.
Steve prepares equipment for the descent and instructs Tim Musso on his first rappel.
Steve providing instruction and gear tips to April on her first rappel.
What kind of adventures do you lead?
The Redrock Adventure Guides tag line "Custom Adventures, Real Wilderness" describes it succinctly. We lead private, custom trips, usually rugged off-trail hikes, backpacking treks from overnight to 10 days, canyoneering journeys, and well-scouted photo tours for serious enthusiasts. In the U.S., most outfitters are geared toward a volume business model, leading larger 'canned' tours that take all sign-ups. We operate more along the lines of guiding services in Europe, Canada, or New Zealand, where qualified guides lead individuals, families, and groups of friends.
We're very fortunate to operate across 2.4 million acres of Capitol Reef National Park, and the neighboring Robber's Roost/Dirty Devil Wilderness, which extends from Capitol Reef, east to Canyonlands, and south to Lake Powell. It's the core of America's largest remaining blank spot, and a truly spectacular landscape where wilderness adventure and authentic solitude are everywhere.
Historic rains flooded Boulder, Colorado and much of the Four Corners area in early autumn of 2013...and it all hit Capitol Reef during a three-day canyoneering trip for military/tactical journalists, sponsored by Arc'teryx clothing.
Photographing the otherworldly Navajo sandstone domes of Capitol Reef's Waterpocket Fold, during a guided series of rugged off-trail hikes in summer of 2014.
Have you ever wanted to smack someone for not listening to your directions?
Hah! Most professional guides prefer electroshock and drug therapy because they're more effective and don't leave bruises. But virtually all the guests I've ever guided are perfectly attentive, pleasant, and have interesting stories of their own. It's an exchange, not just a teacher/lecturer thing. On the other hand, I have had two or three pre-teen boys act out in situations where that was dangerous to everyone. In response, we've raised our minimum age limits to better match childhood development rates.
What are the most satisfying, and frustrating, parts of guiding?
The satisfying part of guiding is most of it, but it's really gratifying to see people's lives get changed, their horizons expanded, their view of the world's possibilities suddenly get bigger in response to a beautiful vista or a challenge overcome. This can be really remarkable in people from completely different cultures, like a woman from Hong Kong who's never tried outdoor activities and doesn't even know anyone who ever has, finishing a climb she was scared to death of. Or an overweight grocery wholesaler from Ohio who makes it through some tough canyon, and within a couple weeks you're getting Facebook updates about his Crossfit progress or upcoming through-hike. That stuff is unbelievably cool.
The only frustrating part is advance reservations and scheduling. Many of our guests lead busy professional lives and frantic schedule shifts are normal for them, but shuffling date changes and sudden cancellations can get chaotic, especially when you're getting simultaneous requests from a half dozen international time zones. All that vanishes once the trip actually begins.
What does the future hold, what do you have in store for Red Rock Adventure Guides?
For us, it's more of the same, which is a very good thing: More and deeper canyons, more remote wilderness treks, and more enjoyable guests. We are getting to the point where myself, my wife and partner Jennifer, and our assistant guide Tim Pote can't easily handle the traffic. So one of our biggest upcoming challenges is finding a half-handful of reliable, articulate, professional guides. Most aspirants are young dudes who just want a way to fund the climber bro lifestyle - and I get that. But you can be an adventure bum, or an adventure professional, and there's a big difference between the two.
A huge thank you goes out to Steve Howe for participating in our Word of Mouth interview series. Tales of his adventures have us wanting to get out and explore the world more. Hopefully his words and photos have inspired you as well. We’re not going to end this with esoteric fluff about adventure, finding your inner self, or quotes by John Muir; instead, we encourage you to spend less time on the couch, and live the life that stands open before you. And if you want to explore the Capitol Reef area, and need a guide, contact Steve, because he kicks ass and he’s one of the best persons we’ve ever met.
Photos by Steve Howe unless otherwise noted
STEVE HOWE - PART 1
A kid in a candy store, bright eyed and filled with content, that was one of the first things that we noticed hiking and canyoneering with Steve Howe. We could see how excited he was to be outside and it was so striking because he retained his childlike enthusiasm even after having spent the better part of 40 years exploring the world. Now at age 60, he’s seen and done many things we’ve dreamed of but never actually do, and a great many other things that we aren’t even aware of including two months solo in the ultra remote Colville River area of northern Alaska, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro when he was only 16, and surviving six avalanches.
For years he has shared his life’s story and experiences as a photographer, videographer, and Field Editor for Backpacker Magazine. Now he's returned to one of his earlier careers, outdoor guiding, where he can more rewardingly share a wide-eyed, warm-hearted love of the outdoors.
Despite being a childhood asthmatic, outdoor adventures began early for Steve and his siblings, including this family bouldering session during a Colorado vacation around 1962. Steve on the left, younger sister Martha in the middle, twin brother Mike on the right.
Who are you? In other words, how would you define yourself at this point in your life.
Well, I'm a media refugee, a long-time outdoor photojournalist, writer, and videographer who has rediscovered wilderness guiding. So now, I guess I'm a guide, and loving it. But at rock bottom level, I'm an outdoor person. I've been hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing since age 10, and I guess I've never grown out of that phase. Eventually it became a job qualification. Writing and photography came from the outdoors, not the other way round.
Where did your passion for the outdoors come from? And what keeps that fire inside you lit?
For much of my childhood I was a sickly kid stuck in Iowa, which ranks dead last among the 50 states for wildland acreage. From age 8 to 16, I spent much of my time confined to hospital steam tents and filtered rooms, to avoid pollen-triggered attacks. Once puberty hit and hormones kicked in, the asthma vanished, so I turned into a full-on exercise junkie and gym rat. I'd been sent to summer camps in the northern woods and Rocky Mountains to escape mid-summer grasslands, so I naturally gravitated to those more beautiful and interesting environments. It's easy to keep up my enthusiasm because I'm truly enchanted by big wilderness, and the experiences you can find there.
How has that passion changed over the years?
When I was younger, it was all about adrenalin and recognition, becoming notable for some climb or ski descent. I was always pushing it, and often not enjoying the experience that much. Now, whenever I'm in the wilderness, I just feel a deep contentment. I'm too goal-oriented to just sit on a log and bliss out, but I don't need trophy accomplishments, and it no longer matters to me whether anyone notices. What does get me stoked now is seeing that wilderness light take hold in other people's eyes. It is quite cool showing interested, excited, outdoor novices just what they're capable of.
How did you become a field editor for Backpacker Magazine?
That's a career I'm just finishing after 25 excellent years. Like most adventures, I stumbled into it. It was the late 1980s. I'd been working in outdoor shops and doing ski expeditions, writing and photographing those trips. Because of the writing I ended up editing a monthly outdoor magazine based in Salt Lake City. After six years and 72 issues of the best real-world journalism education I could ever have, I got a phone call from a production company that was starting a PBS outdoor television series called Trailside.
They were looking for a snowshoe and winter camping expert to be an on-camera guest. I ended up taking that gig, and spent a week in Glacier National Park with the host, John Viehman, who was Executive Editor for Backpacker Magazine. At the end of the week, he hired me as one of four Field Editors - basically a staff writer, photographer, videographer, scout, and editorial consultant. I spent the next two and a half decades chasing assignments all over North America and the Western Hemisphere.
(Left) Howe at 11,000-foot camp during his first, solo, ascent of Denali in 2003. (Right - Photo by Jeff Scher) Rigging Point-of-View cameras was a lot more hassle back in the days before GoPro.
View from the bush plane while flying into the remote Bagley Icefield of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, for a 12-day backpacking traverse.
What other jobs have you had before you began guiding?
The usual high school/ college stuff, like house painter, delivery truck driver, and then I began a 13-year career as a ski/bike shop mechanic, salesperson, buyer, and guide. For nearly 30 years after that, it was all magazine and television work.
Where have you lived?
Originally I was an Iowa kid, and lived with other families seasonally in Ely, Minnesota and Estes Park, Colorado. After fleeing the Midwest I lived in Aspen, Colorado, then relocated to Salt Lake City, where I lived for 16 years. But I've never moved around that much. I've always felt that adventurers need to have a base of operations, an office to organize your life, a place to set out from and return to. Now that's Torrey, southern Utah, where I've lived for the last 25 years. It's home.
Why did you settle down in Torrey?
I'd been living in Salt Lake City, but the urban traffic and air pollution were worsening rapidly. The internet was now good enough for telecommuting, and I wanted to relocate somewhere I could be close to photo settings, equipment testing terrain, and real wilderness. I checked out Moab, outside Arches and Canyonlands, and Springdale, which is the gateway for Zion. But I wanted a place that wouldn't be overrun, ski town style, within 15 or 20 years. In retrospect I made a very lucky decision. Torrey was, and remains, a beautiful hamlet of 250 people, just outside Capitol Reef National Park, on the edge of about 10 million acres of designated and de facto wilderness.
Who are some of the people who have influenced you?
Well, my mom taught me compassion, and my dad taught me responsibility and honor. When I was a 16-year-old on Kilimanjaro, I met a young Air Force Colonel, Gil Harder, who took me under his wing for the trip, but he died the next year, in an avalanche on Annapurna. I've been influenced by the future dystopian writings of William K. Gibson, and I've admired some of Aldo Leopold's essays, most notably Wildlife and Conservation Aesthetic. But for the most part I'm not a role model kinda guy. I think we should all find our motivations, and our role models, by looking in the mirror and asking how we might improve that person, rather than imitating someone else.
Who are some of the people you admire most?
I don't have a lot of idols, and although there are many admirable people in politics, literature, an environmental circles, the ones that stick in my mind are adventurers. I certainly admire Reinhold Messner. He not only climbed all the world's 8,000-meter-high peaks, then climbed Everest without oxygen, and later soloed it without oxygen, he also retired, alive. That's no small feat.
And since it's winter, I admire Lindsey Vonn for her grit in coming back from knee surgery to break ski racing win records, and Austrian racer Marcel Hirscher for his unbelievable ability, and Austrian Anna Fenninger, who is the best technical skier of either gender in World Cup racing.
Oh yeah, and Neil DeGrassi Tyson, because he's a matchless natural history interpreter and total chick magnet.
What are some of the accomplishments you hold closest to your heart? It may not be summiting Mt. Everest, just some things you’ve done that are very meaningful to you.
I don't know that I've done much that I'm, like, proud of. But some of the deep wilderness journeys I've done, they still resonate strong in my memories, even decades later.
I hiked up Kilimanjaro in 1971 as an asthmatic teen, and that was my first-ever athletic success. I frost-nipped my feet waiting for dawn at the crater rim, and ran down half the route to get help for one of our party who had a massive heart attack on descent. All this as a 16-year-old.
In 1990 I spent two months solo on the ultra-remote Colville River of northern Alaska, photographing caribou, nesting peregrines, and oil exploration impacts. I was as deep as you could go, in a 40-million-acre wildland. I didn't see a soul for six weeks. Peregrines and rough-legged hawks dove on me as I paddled past. Bears, wolf packs, wolverines and caribou herds walked right by me because they had no idea what a human was. I'm not the same person who started that journey.
But the most enjoyable expedition was closer to home; Hiking the Sierra High Route, an off-trail trek that runs 220 miles between Kings Canyon and Twin Lakes, in California's Sierra Nevada. That was challenging, remote, fun, and absolutely gorgeous. It's too bad American travelers often overlook our own wild places, enroute to exotic travel destinations.
At camp during a solo, assignment through-hike of California's Sierra High Route, an off-trail backpack route Howe still calls "one of the finest wilderness journeys I've ever taken."
From personal experience, we know you’ve done hiking, backpacking and canyoneering, but tell us, what other adventure activities have you pursued?
I've got quite a few passions, but skiing, whitewater kayaking, and photography rank high on the list. I'm a total ski junkie from December through March, and extreme ski descents were a focus of mine for many years.
Name the top 5 places you’ve been in order, with 1 being your favorite.
I get asked this a ton, and the list and rankings aren't firm at all, but it runs kinda like this: 1. The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. 2. The Swiss/Italian alps - in off-season, at least. 3. The provincial mountain parks of interior British Columbia, like Valhalla, Glacier/Rogers Pass, and Woodbury. 4. The Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash mountain ranges of north-central Peru. 5. Some parts of the Alaska Range, but only in good weather.
I also loved parts of Wales, New Zealand, and Iceland, but I've tired of long-distance international travel. I've never been to the Himalaya, India, or SE Asia. Maybe some day.
A scenic overlook at -20 Fahrenheit. Here a female mountain guide enjoys the 2am twilight colors from atop a cliff just outside Denali's 17,200-foot high camp. Mt. Foraker and the Kahiltna Glacier in the background.
In 2008, Howe climbed Alaska' Denali (20,320 ft) with Sibusiso Vilane, a game ranger, Swazi tribesman, and global adventurer from South Africa. Here, Sibu climbs around the long grade above Kahiltna Pass, heading for the 11,000-foot Camp II. Mt. Foraker in the background.
Sibusiso Vilane on the summit of Denali, the last peak in his Seven Summits quest. At the time of this climb, Sibu was already the first black man to climb Everest, the first black man to sled to the South Pole, and recipient of the Order of Mpumalanga, basically a Swaziland knighthood. Now he was the first black man to finish the Seven Summits.
Guide David Lussier, Valhalla Traverse, B.C.
What are some of the hairiest situations you’ve ever been in? Like getting caught in an avalanche or something. And how did you get out of them?
I once made a list of all the times that I had nearly died. I'm just some B minus adventure athlete, but I came up with over a dozen incidents where the rockfall just missed, the lightning only shocked me, or the rapids washed me into a calm spot.
I've been in six avalanches, but never buried or injured. I've had a climbing helmet shattered off my head by rockfall, and walked away. I once took a 500-vertical-foot extreme ski fall that put 40 stitches in my head - and walked away. In retrospect though, the hairiest situation was probably being held up at knifepoint in a Nairobi alleyway, back when I was a naïve 16-year-old.
How do you get out of stuff like this? Luck, plain and simple. Sure, you can keep from making a situation worse, but a lot of people do everything right, survival-skills-wise, and they still don't make it once that accident triggers. To improve your odds, carry emergency gear even if you don't want to, realize that most 'sudden' outdoor accidents are not sudden, avoid being stupid or careless, and if disaster strikes, keep a tight hold on your mind, make rational decisions, and never give up. Stay positive. Don't let angst and discouragement win.
Where do you think the biggest risk factor comes in?
A lot of 'survival' comes down to avoiding mayhem in the first place. A particularly relevant part of that, in these impatient times, is to never undertake a big adventure that requires skills you haven't practiced in controlled settings.
Adrenalin is a drug like many others, and you can see the same addict 'chase the dragon' behavior leading right up to a fatal error. The progression might go like: Skiing, then extreme descents, then climbing, then soloing, then bungee, then base jumping, then squirrel suits, then funerals and fund raisers.
This lemming behavior has gotten more pronounced in the social media era, where status update hunger pushes people to do stupid stuff. It's the same whether you're canyoneering or riding a bullet bike up some windy canyon. Don't get sucked into foolish behavior by the media gloss.
Have you ever been in a situation where you thought to yourself, “this is it, I’m going to die.”?
Yeah, quite a few times, actually. Once was swimming at the bottom of a huge, violent 'reversal' hydraulic on the Yampa River's Cross Mountain Canyon section. Luckily my maneuver worked and I got spit out, instead of swimming three miles of Class V whitewater. Once was getting swept down Snowmass Creek by spring snowmelt after falling off a log on a backpack crossing. And I once took a 500-foot ski fall, and those suck because long ski falls give you way too much time to think. I've even got a tape of myself saying goodbye to family and loved ones, while holding my expedition tent up against microburst thunderstorm winds on Alaska's North Slope. That 30 days out on a two-month solo, and I thought I'd be blown into the Beaufort Sea.
Editors and testers climb through hurricane winds and clearing storm, enroute to the north face of Mt. Hood during a winter gear testing trip for Backpacker Magazine.
Howe's party descends an unnamed glacier deep in Alaska's Revelation Mountains during a 2007 10-day backpacking/packrafting trip into the remote upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River.
Mike Howe above Columbine Lake, Needle Range, Colorado
We appreciate Steve taking away from his time outside to answer a bunch of our questions. Part 2 of the interview will be coming soon. In the meantime, here are a few ways to find out more about him or to get in touch for his guiding services and group trips.
Bates Leathers is an icon of motorcycling. First started in 1939 by motorcyclist and saddle seat craftsman Bob Bates. It has since evolved and changed ownership a few times. While technology and trends change, they’ve continued to be sought after at the highest levels of motorcycling for the simple reason that they are dedicated to impeccable quality and craftsmanship. For Bates, quality is not a trend.
Behind the company is the Grindle family. Amongst them, they share different roles within the company. While Lance and Lori are more behind the scenes contributors, many people at shows and events will recognize Dawn, while others interact with the person behind the day to day operations at the factory, Dana.
Bates was a motorcycle accessories company that made all sorts of things like foot pegs, wind screens and headlights among other things. Their focus in recent years has been custom jackets and suits for motorcycle racers, or people who just want a great performing custom fit jacket. But that’s about to change.
EF: What were you doing before Bates?
DG: I was doing upholstery out of my garage. I was making old car parts, like Chevy armrests for Bel Airs, restaurant booths and stuff like that. I had 3 year old twins at the time so I didn’t want to go to work and get a job. It was all about my children, I wanted to work at home, as well as be with them.
Tell us a little bit about how you and your family became the owners of Bates, the hows and whys.
That was me. Both the son of Charles Rudolph, who had owned the company for more than 30 years, and the Grindle family, shared the same financial advisor. Our father had just passed and our financial advisor came to me and said, “I’ve got something that’s right up your alley. These folks want to sell this company, and you’re going to need something to do for the next 30 years. So I got my brother, asked what he thought about it and he said, “Hey, I know that company”, I said, “So do I, let’s buy it!” We dragged Dawn into it, she agreed. Then we got Lori, put our money together, and bought it.
Bates seems to be known for its performance and race gear and not as much casual lifestyle, would you consider it a racing brand? Or how would you describe it?
Bates is about high quality as well as performance. That’s who we are and that’s the reason behind us making such awesome leathers. We have been making leathers since the late 50’s so I guess you could say it is lifestyle as well as a racing brand since we make it all. Jackets, pants, motocross, race suits for every kind of racing, including all types of skateboarding.
Bates has been around since 1939, what is it about the brand that has given it this kind of longevity?
The quality. Quality is everything. Made in the USA is very important to us. We have a team of people that truly care about the product.
When Bates started making hard parts, they were coming out with some pretty cool stuff. The seats were made of 14 gauge metal. I mean, who makes seats out of 14 gauge metal? Bates does. We offer seats handmade (and we mean handmade! ) out of 14 gauge steel as well as 16 gauge. We can credit everything to Bob Bates and his sons. They were the ones who made the parts perfectly and all we do now is live up to their legacy. They worked hard and got ahead on the aftermarket parts, designing parts for motorcycles and scooters because the OEM’s were making them naked. They dropped everything and focused on parts like windshields, headlights, brackets and side bags.
Bates used to make all those hard parts and not so much leathers, how did it evolve to become known for leathers?
The hard parts were starting to phase out, the OEM bikes started coming with accessories already on them. So that pushed all the hard parts out of it and leathers were coming into play. Other companies were making them too but they were just making them all black. Bates was the first company to come out with colors. David Aldana’s suit made it really take hold. That was the biggest upset, in 1971 at the Houston Astrodome, when he showed up with in a suit with a skeleton on it. They almost didn’t let him race.
It’s a tremendous amount of work owning and running a niche company like Bates. What motivates or inspires you to continue building up the company and to keep doing what you’re doing?
This industry needs people like us that knows hard work pays off. If there’s a task that needs to be fulfilled, we all jump in to get it completed. We don’t stand around and point our finger. Dawn and I work just as hard as our team. So what inspires us to work this hard? The industry needs companies like us to make safe suits, safe jackets and just good high quality products. Yes we’re a little pricey, so, If you have a $10 head, get a $10 helmet!
How have you seen racing suits evolve since you started doing this?
There are lots of different add-ons available these days, stretch Kevlar, puck placement and speed humps. On our road race, and drag race suits we’ll add stretch Kevlar for flexibility. We use it for mobility and breathability.
What’s the process of making a custom piece like a suit or jacket from the beginning to how you pick materials?
First we want to know what they’re doing. We want to know how fast they are going. Are they going to use it for street riding or track days? Are they going to race, drag race or use it on a dirt track? It’s important for us to know how the customer is going to use the product. That way we know how to build the product for them. We help the customer decide on the type of suit he or she will need for the type of riding they are going to be doing.
We will go through safety, leather selection, designs (custom or catalog), and accessories like hard or soft armor, pockets, vents, etc. Finally the measurements, if the customer resides locally, we want them to come back in for a fabric fitting. It’s us making a suit or jacket out of fabric and having the customer do a pre-fit in case they make changes, such as, gaining or losing weight. It’s a rough draft. It’s especially important with new riders or someone who’s never had leathers. It is a very precise process and welcomed by our clients.
Who are some of the most prominent people who have worn Bates, both past and present?
Harley Davidson’s Andrew Hines, Eddie Kraweic, Matt Hines, Terry Vance, Dave Shultz, Kenny Roberts, Mert Lawwill, David Aldana, Giacomo Augustini, FLO(progressive insurance commercials), Nicolas Cage, Jesse James, Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger just to name a few.
Do you have a favorite jacket or suit you’ve produced?
Arnold, the jackets that we made for him. He’s my favorite.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned throughout this whole process since taking over Bates?
Patience. Be silent. I am bold enough.
What are some highlights for you so far in the 18 years since you’ve come to own Bates?
Dawn and I have had the pleasure of making some really nice products for some very important people. As a whole, I think I can speak for both of us when we hear of a customer having a get off and surviving the crash, and more so getting up and walking away from that crash. That to us means they can race or ride again. That is the ultimate fulfillment of owning this company.
Any new products or news coming in the near future?
We are re-introducing our solo seats and pillion pads at Born Free 6. We’re doing 8”, 10”, 12” and 14” and also some different styles. These are all HAND MADE in our factory. You will also see samples of tuck n roll, as well as smooth. We will offer all colors as well as entertaining custom orders. We have been reupholstering the seats for years but I think we did not realize how big the demand was for new seats and p-pads. I think what pressured us most to make seats again is when I was browsing on ebay and I watched a solo seat reach 3k and sell. That was it for me. Everyone should be able to buy an original Bates seat for a reasonable price if they want to. Hence, we are now making seats again.
Where do you want to take Bates?
Dawn and I would like to see Bates continue the way it is, making classic leathers, boots, seats, p-pads, and just maintaining the highest of quality in whatever we do.
Thank you to Dana for spending a Sunday morning chatting with us and showing us around the shop. You’ll be able to get the first batch of Bates seats at Born Free 6 and will be available for order at and after the show. And of course you can always visit the shop in the Long Beach area to order up some custom leathers or to pickup other stuff like boots.
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