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Mike Blank – Baker City

“Motorcycles have always been part of my life. I was visiting a friend and his wife came up and said, ‘I can’t believe your mother let you ride a motorcycle.’ I was 50 years old at the time and I said, ‘Well, she didn’t let me ride her motorcycle!’ So they’ve kind of always been around. And like many other things, it’s not the object that means all that much to me. It’s what you do with it.

What I do is travel. We just got back from 2500 mile trip. We were out in Wyoming and Montana and going to Indian War battlefields. And then just the other day I picked up a book where a woman had outlined the path of the Nez Perce diaspora. It’s a 1500 mile route that goes from Idaho, down through Montana and down into Wyoming and then back up through Montana to within 50 miles of the Canadian border. And we’re thinking about putting a trip together to follow that route because that way there’s some reading and some history that goes along with it. There’s some amazing scenery too, but it’s really the history that makes it more worthwhile than just hitting the highway. I’m a big fan of Ivan Doig, a writer from Seattle. He grew up and writes a lot about the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana – Roundup, Dupuyer, Browning, and all the way down to White Sulphur. We spent part of a day riding in this territory. There’s a whole series of books and they’re all about that area.

The advantage of traveling by yourself is that people engage with you. I’ve had conversations outside of cafes in the middle of Kansas and gotten the entire life story of people. Whereas if I’d walked out of the cafe and got in a car, none of that would have happened. One morning, south of Salmon, Idaho, I stopped at a gas station/convenience store and got gas and a snack. I pulled my motorcycle over by these picnic tables to eat my snack. This pickup comes in driven by a older woman. And in the pickup there are several young girls all in plaid shirts and jeans and boots, and they’re dusty because they’ve been working. They’re all really pretty and just painfully young. The older woman who’s driving and one of the girls go inside to buy snacks and they all sit down on a picnic table adjacent to me. And the young girl turns to the woman and says, ‘Aunt Mim, I think you need one of those,’ and she kind of points over. The woman says, ‘Oh, a motorcycle. Well, yeah, I’ve had a few of those. And you know they can be a hell of a lot of fun, but they’re kind of dangerous, you know, and if you’re not careful, you can get hurt pretty bad.’ The girl says, ‘No, Aunt Mim. The other thing,’ and she points to me. I’m kind of catching this out of the corner of my eye and trying not to look. The woman says, ‘Yeah, honey. Had a few of those too. They’re just like motorcycles!’ At that point, any illusion that I wasn’t eavesdropping on them just completely evaporated because I cracked up. It was all I could do to keep from falling off the table. But those are the kinds of things that sometimes happen and it gives you memories, and experiences that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

There’s a map on the wall behind me. All the black lines are where I’ve ridden on my motorcycle in the last ten years and the red lines are where I’ve been in a motorhome or car. The lines run as far east as New Hampshire, as far south as Alabama, and Texas and Arizona. And as far north as Dawson Creek in British Columbia.

I have no idea how many motorcycles I’ve had over the years. Maybe 30. Right now I have a Suzuki V Strom. It’s the black one over here that I tour on. It’s what they call an adventure bike which allows you to go on dirt roads and asphalt and whatnot. The red one I got about two years ago. It’s kind of the same class, but it’s a smaller and lighter, and it goes on the back of our motorhome. It’s really good for around town. The one sitting behind it is a dirt bike that somebody gave me. It’s a 1981 250 cc dirt bike. Free motorcycles are like free cats, they cost you a lot of money. There’s one particular engine part on that one that I am unable to find. I’ve got a lead on it now, but I’ve been looking for about a year. That bike would be to go out to Virtue Flats and just play around in the dirt. The gray one on the left is a 1973 BMW 750 cc. And I have that bike because I had one like it in 1973 and I sold it to help pay my college tuition. About 20 minutes after I sold it, I started kicking myself and I continued to kick myself for the next 40 years until I fixed up this one.

Motorcycles and reading have always been a part of my life. When I was around 12 years old, I started reading about the Second World War and Nazi atrocities and death camps. I had a real issue with this and the issue was my German uncles, Hans and Rudy. These were great guys, but they were a part of it. They weren’t concentration camp guards or anything like that, but they were certainly Nazis. At 12, I began to wonder, ‘How do I reconcile that this great guy, Rudy, who’s my uncle and I love and think is terrific, also served on U boats in the Second World War that torpedoed ships in the middle of the Atlantic?’ And so, the focus of my reading has been that whole era from about 1930 to 1950, with the Second World War as a big focus. I got my undergraduate degree in history and a postgraduate degree in economics.

I think studying history helped me reconcile my thoughts about my uncles, especially reading autobiographical accounts of war. I realized that people get caught up in their times. There are very few people who are drivers of things. Most people are just reacting to what’s happening. In most of the personal reminiscences of soldiers who went off to the front in the First or Second World War, they were just doing what they thought was the right thing to do. But when they got into it, they realized it was quite different than what they expected – more pointless, more brutal, and more violent. What I realized is that anyone is capable of almost anything, given the right circumstances. Two of my great uncles fought in Russia. One of them was at Stalingrad, where the Germans lost 600,000 people. They saw things and experienced things that they’ve never gotten over. I think my uncles are like young soldiers everywhere, going off and being put into situations that are just astounding. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about war and a lot of time worrying about it, but I don’t by any means consider myself an expert. And by no means do I have the depth of experience of the people who actually served. I read history because there are things we need to learn and know about war, things that we cannot afford, as thinking human beings, to forget.”