Back in my college dorm days, my friends and I were all at the mercy of the Madison Metro bus system, our bicycles, or our legs. If you knew a guy who knew a guy who had a car, you were king of the hill. Of course, once you get out of the dorms in your sophomore year on up, a few of your friends bring their cars from home to store at their new places (if they want to pay the often-ludicrous prices of parking), and once we all graduated and started slowly dispersing either out of Madison altogether or at least to off-campus locations, a car just became part of normal adult life.

Of course, as my dear readers already know, some of us tried desperately to escape from adult life and the responsibilities therein by becoming fugitives in foreign countries on the other side of the world. By the time this particular escapee returned in 2010, the transformation was almost wholly complete: everyone in Madison that he knew had cars, and he didn’t. It was like high school all over again, except I lived in a city with an employer-paid unlimited bus pass and dozens of bike routes. Getting a car was never high on my priority list.

However, that’s not to say that I didn’t sometimes long for more readily available transportation. There’s only so many times a guy can get a lift from his girlfriend, or his little brother, or his buddies, before feeling somewhat emasculated. As far as I knew, my buddy David and I were the only folks left in Madison that didn’t have cars.

Ironically enough, it was on a trip to the Wisconsin State 4-H Fair in early August with David that the hands of fate conspired to end my lack of motorized vehicle ownership. I had borrowed Josh’s car to go to the fair, something I like to do every year on the Showcase Singer’s alumni day – I was a chaperone for them, after all – and afterwards David and I were wandering about the Expo Center, killing time and gazing with glassy eyes at various tawdry sales pitches. Suddenly, we happened upon a display of Chinese mopeds, sold by a local distributor – Propel Imports. A large sign hanging over the largest of the mopeds stating that one of them could even go at 60 miles per hour.

Although I’d never given mopeds a second glance before – why would I need to, when I have a bicycle? – this gave me pause. I didn’t know that mopeds could even travel that fast, and this one was being sold for around a grand and a half. I envisioned myself mopeding serenely to Brodhead, or to Florida. “She gets about 110 miles to the gallon, and about 110 miles on a tank of gas,” I’d say to the awe-stricken onlookers as they admired my shiny plastic vehicle. I’ve always prided myself on thrift, and a vehicle that could go 60 mph, get ~100 miles on a gallon gas would solidify my thrifty credits. I got the name of the Madison branch for Propel, and dreamt that night of my glorious new mode of transportation.

State Street Scooters was very helpful, and highly recommended. You have to hand it to the owner of a small store when he’s willing to talk himself out of a $1,500 sale and give an excited, enthusiastic buyer like myself the bottom line – the Daytona 150cc scooter is not what I wanted. In fact, he didn’t carry anything that I wanted. “Sure, you can go at 60 mph for a few minutes,” he told me. “But it sounds like you want to travel long distances on this thing, and at highway speeds, I’d worry that you might damage the engine. It just wasn’t meant to run that fast for that long. You might be fine on it, of course – but I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.”

I will admit to being crestfallen, and I probably looked that way too. The owner said to me, “Have you ever considered a motorcycle instead?” I told him that I had never thought about it; being from the land of Harley-Davidson, I’d always assumed that it was standard procedure for a motorcycle to cost as much as an automobile, on the order of 10-20 thousand. He laughed in disbelief. “No way, man! Check out Englehart’s or online; geez, you can get perfectly good used cycles for 2-6 thousand. If you were ready to drop $1,500 on the Daytona, you should look into going all the way.”

The downside, of course, is that a motorcycle required a motorcycle license. But here it was, the middle of August, Christine out of town in Pennsylvania for another few weeks and me with some time to kill and the fire of youth and recklessness burning in my belly. So I did what any red-blooded American man amped up on biker thoughts would do: called my uncle Jim to get his advice.

“A motorcycle? You?” I could hear his surprise easily through the receiver. “Are you even sure you’d like it?” I admitted that the last time I’d ridden a motorcycle had been as a passenger, 3 years ago. Jim proceeded to inform me that the local Madison Area Technical College offered a motorcycle training class every few weeks – for a couple hundred dollars, I could get a week-long skills and safety class, ride some actual 200cc bikes, and if I passed the written and road tests, I’d get a voucher to get a motorcycle driver’s license without taking any further DMV tests. It sounded too good to be true, so I signed up that very day before I changed my mind. I didn’t tell anyone else but Jim – I figured, if I was bad at it or didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to let anyone know that I’d ever even tried.

My classroom instructor was a friendly, stereotypical “motorcycle guy” – he had his BMW bike parked in the MATC garage when we arrived, and my classmates and I marveled at it. He loved biking and greatly preferred it to driving, and seemed like just the sort of person you’d want teaching a class to newbs like us. “Us” was 12 students ranging in age from 18 to 50, although the class definitely trended to the younger side of those numbers. Some people already had DMV-issued “temp permits,” some of us had never ridden before. One fellow from India had been riding for years and was perfectly competent at it, but he needed to get an American license. We all had different reasons for being there – but we all liked the story of the guy who was taking the course to surprise his fiancee, who was a biker and whose father had promised him a Suzuki if he could get his license before his wedding.

I shan’t bore you with the details of my week as a motorcycle student – it went about as you’d expect for me. I excelled at the classroom portion, acing all of the book exams, and had a bit of a rougher start on the bikes themselves. Being used to true bikes – bicycles – I was a little stymied at first by the layout of the controls. One brake on the hand, one on the foot? Madness! Manual transmission shifting? Good lord – I can’t even drive a manual transmission car! I must have stalled a few dozen times on the first day on training lot. Thankfully I never flooded the thing. I did manage to dump my first bike right on its clutch, which broke it off entirely. Not something I’m proud of, but the instructors assured me that it happened to at least one person per class. As I said when my lung collapsed – “everyone’s got to be the statistic for something.”

By the end of the week though, I found that I was thrilled to get up to 30 mph in that little rectangular lot, and I dreamed about rounding corners while smoothly accelerating. We all passed the final road exam and received our little slips of paper that entitled us to the “M” class certification on our driver’s licenses. I was only one step away from being legally able to drive a motorcycle on any public road in the country. Did I want to, though? I thought back to what Jim said – did I actually like it? Yes, I told myself.

The Yahama sport bike that I used to pass the road test. Yes, I’m wearing a knit cap under the school-supplied helmet – who knows what prior heads it’s been on!

I spent the last few weeks of August poring over motorcycle sales websites, craigslist, and visiting some local dealerships with Jim. I finally found a used 2007 Honda Shadow online for only 3.5k, and was pretty sure I was ready to take the next step – meeting the cycle and hoping it was love at first drive. But fate conspired against – or with – me: how did a man with no motorized transport reach a Dane County town outside of the bus range when all of his friends with cars were busy? The irony wasn’t lost on me. For the first time, I tried calling my parents and asking for a ride out to the seller’s house.

It went a little worse than I had hoped. My parents were somewhat opposed to me getting a motorcycle, regardless of the fact that I had already gotten the new license from the DMV last week and I had passed a safety test. “It’s not your skill I’m worried about,” my mother said darkly – “it’s all the other idiots on the road these days. Things have changed since Jim was a biker in the 70’s – now you have teenagers texting, people listening to music with headphones, and so many more driver distractions.”  Some poor motorcyclist had just gotten killed by a semi truck in front of her office in the past few months. With that on my mind, I probably would have argued against my son getting a two-wheeled death trap, too. I had to admit she had a point, but I was still irritated when she offered to help me pay for a car, instead. If I had wanted a car, I would have gotten a car, and I argued that my propensity for bicycles led naturally to mopeds and motorcycles; two wheels were two wheels, with or without an engine. But I eventually grudgingly accepted her generous offer – perhaps a car would be a better first vehicle, instead of a motorcycle.

So now what? My previous weeks of motorcycle shopping had been for naught. I closed the dozens of open tabs of various motorcycles I’d opened, and replaced them with cars. A Toyota Prius was of course the first vehicle I searched for – I wanted to be economical and good for the environment, after all. There weren’t many used ones around Madison, and none were under $16 thousand, even for the oldest models. This was exactly what I was trying to avoid with a motorcycle – I’ve always hated loans and debt, and I was excited by the thought of buying that Honda with my own money, no banks required.

Jim and I had just left Smart Motors in disappointment, after a salesman had tried to pawn off a ridiculously dented and scratched 2001 Kia for around $7 grand. Jim pointed out that this car couldn’t be worth more than a 1-2 thousand, and the salesman pointed out to me (he knew who the actual buyer was, after all) that “a lot of work had been put into the car after it was sold to us” to justify that cost. The car looked pretty bad, even so – it looked like it had been waxed with sandpaper.

We drove to Madison’s other south-side major dealer, Zimbrick, to see if they had any Toyotas to sell. It was their Buick/GMC location, so we didn’t have high expectations, but Jim and I were going to hypothetically offer to sell my “current” car, a 2001 Kia, to the dealer to see what sort of price he would offer us. We were chuckling about that as we cruised slowly through the used inventory, when an orange gleam caught the corner of my eye. Of course, it had to be orange – it was a low, wide, sleek car with a strange bar running through the middle of the roof (I had never seen a T-Top before, and had to ask Jim what it was). I thought it was a Corvette at first, and although I peered at it wistfully for a moment, turned back to looking at the amusingly stereotypical 2003 Ford Tempo with low miles that was selling for $5 grand – the dealer informed us that it actually had been owned by a “little old lady” who barely ever drove it.” No Priuses, unfortunately – not much in the way of Toyotas in general, at the time – but I wandered back over to that orange car.

It was actually a Camaro – a V6 automatic coupe with under a hundred thousand miles on it. I walked around it a few times, admiring the lean curves on it. I could hear my father’s voice in my head saying “but what sort of gas mileage does it get, dear boy?” I looked at the sticker again – 20 city, 30 highway. Of course, my dear reader, you already may recognize the symptoms I was suffering – for lack of a better or official name, unless there is one I didn’t bother to look up – I had already begun suffering from car lust. I knew a Prius might get me 55 miles to a gallon. But, I reasoned, most of my driving would be highway. 30 wasn’t so bad. And then there was the price – it was less than $8 thousand. Plus it was an automatic V6 – better gas mileage than a V8.

I called my dad to ask for his advice. Jim, bless him, was truly stoic in the face of the dealer, who I’m sure was doing mental cartwheels – he could probably see right through my attempt at a poker face. We left, and I immediately started calculating how much money a Prius would really save me. After calculating mileage for a long trip once or twice a year, trips to the grocery store, and back home to my parents’, I came back with around 5 thousand miles a year. At that rate, according to the absolutely wonderful website, it would take me about 20 years to make up the difference in initial cost on the sturdy, efficient little Prius versus the beautiful orange inefficient Camaro.

Well, I bought the car a few days later. We took it for a couple test drives, of course – one with my father, and one with Jim. Both of them agreed it was a nice car, and that the previous owner had kept the car in California and Texas meant that the undercarriage was completely free of corrosion and rust (I know, I can’t imagine a decade-old car without undercarriage corrosion either. Lucky tropical people.) I talked the dealer down a thousand dollars and opted out of the warranty, and the keys were in my hand the next day. The dealer, Steve, was a nice guy – he knew I didn’t own a car, so he picked me up from work and drove me back to the dealership the next day to sign the final papers (and the check).

I hadn’t told Christine that I was even considering a “sporty” car – the last she had heard of it was two weeks ago when I’d made her suffer through test driving Priuses at Jon Lancaster. When I called her up and asked if she wanted to go for a drive, she immediately knew I’d bought a car – but she didn’t know what I’d ended up with until I pulled up in her driveway, with the T-tops off and the cool air whipping around my head. If I wasn’t getting a motorcycle, at least I could get an ostentatious vehicle!

The Camaro sits in my driveway, a mere hour after being driven off the lot. Probably the most polished she’s been since 2002!

Hard to believe that it’s been two months since that day (almost exactly). She definitely has her flaws, which maybe weren’t apparently to a novice buyer like myself – for example, she jolts a bit when she automatically shifts into a higher gear, and the power window motors on both sides are a little weak and worn out, and perhaps they don’t seal quite perfectly anymore – there were a couple small drips on the edges when we went through a power wash after a trip up to Northern Wisconsin the week after I bought her. The front speakers on the door crackle a bit, especially with heavy bass, and the hydraulics supporting the heavy tailgate are a little weak, which means that it doesn’t “spring” open at all when opened remotely; you need to be pulling upward as you unlock it otherwise it just relocks itself. It also has the tendency to slowly descend onto your head if you’re not paying attention!

All and all though, I think I was lucky to make not only a good, but a stylish first-car purchase. Who knows – it’s getting a bit cold now, but next spring or summer I might try some air intake mods that might increase the MPG’s a bit. I already modded the radio with some aftermarket parts that added an auxiliary jack that I can plug my Android into, but hopefully that’s just the beginning (although I nearly melted my crescent wrench when it arced the battery during that project!).

In future news, Christine and I are heading to Malaysia to visit Farahnush. We’ll hopefully get to see Singapore, too, before flying up to Thailand for a week! So that will hopefully something worth writing about. This blog barely sees any updates anymore, but that’s only because my current life can’t possibly compare in excitement to my old one – I’m only really alive when I’m traveling.