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Crossing the Country for Bike Week — At Age 71

Thomas P. Caldwell - June 10, 2013

John 'Grumpy' Lewis rides his motorcycle from California to be part of Laconia Bike Week.

John ‘Grumpy’ Lewis rides his motorcycle from California to be part of Laconia Bike Week.

John A. Lewis of Fontana CA made it clear that he will not be arriving in a motor home or towing his motorcycle in a trailer behind his truck when he comes to the Lakes Region to celebrate his 71st birthday. He plans to mark his birthday — and the 90th anniversary of Laconia Motorcycle Week — by riding his 1989 Harley-Davidson Softail Springer all the way from California, as he has on the five-year anniversaries of Bike Week for the past few decades.
“Those who put them on a trailer, they’re afraid to ride them,” Lewis said in a telephone interview prior to his departure. “How much fun is that? Might as well be staying in your dag-gum car.”
Lewis, who has been interested in motorcycles for as long as he can remember, said he enjoys riding across the country, taking the back roads when he can, and visiting friends along the way. When people question him about making such a trip, he has his answers ready.
“I’ve had people say, ‘What happens if your bike breaks down?’ I say, ‘The same thing if my truck breaks down: I call a tow truck. That’s why I have AAA.’”
When people ask how he can ride a bike on such a long trip, Lewis says, “How can you ride so long in a car when you’re on vacation? My bike is comfortable; I can ride it.”
Young people tell him they don’t think they could ride a bike for that long. “I do it,” he replies. “I enjoy it.”
He adds, however, that this may be his last long trip. “Laconia’s my favorite rally, but I figure this might be my last run, because I’ll be celebrating my 71st birthday.”
Age hasn’t reduced the excitement the trip holds for him. He was fully packed a week before leaving so “all I have to do is throw my pack on the bike and head out,” he said.
Lewis said it was seeing his cousin’s motorcycle, years ago, that got him hooked on bikes. “I just always wanted a Harley when I was a youngster,” he recalled.
His first motorcycle, however, was a Wizard which he bought in 1958. In 1961, he got his first Harley, a 1940 Knucklehead which had been a police bike. “I had it a couple of years, then I wrecked it,” he said, explaining that he hit a pothole in the road and flipped it.
He traded up to a Harley 165, with its two-stroke engine. “I’ve tried other bikes, but I always ended up going back to Harleys,” Lewis said.
When he was living in Ohio, he went to his first hillclimb. “I used to go down, just to watch them,” Lewis said, adding that he is a rider, not a racer.
He didn’t start making the tour of motorcycle rallies until accidentally learning about the event in Sturgis SD — “I think it was in ’73” — while riding through North Dakota. “I saw all the bikes that were heading to Sturgis, so the next year I decided to go.”
Lewis went to the rally in Daytona FL in 1978 but he didn’t feel welcome with the police hassling bikers who parked on the street, and he never went back. He has returned to Sturgis seven or eight times, he said, but he finds it too crowded. “Sturgis is all about running, pushing, and shoving. Laconia is not as crowded and the people seem to be a whole lot nicer.”
While he has stayed at several places and keeps a log of all his expenses, with notes about the lodging, food, and gas prices, he has settled on Sun Valley Cottages as the place to stay when in Laconia. “I’ll be booking my room this afternoon,” he said during the first of two telephone interviews he gave to The Laker.
Lewis usually travels with others but, this year, he couldn’t find people willing to travel that far, so he is making the trip alone. He says his bike provides a comfortable ride and he expects to spend five weeks traveling, “depending on whether my money holds out and whether I have any major repairs on my bike, which I hope I don’t.”
He said he bought his Softail Springer “brand-new in April of ’89” and “I’ve probably got 180,000 plus miles on it. One year I went to Sturgis without a speedometer, so I don’t really know how many miles are on it.”
Asked about any problems he has encountered on his journeys, Lewis recalled having a blowout on the freeway one time when he was traveling at 75 mph. “It was at the route 25 and 70 interchange in Colorado. I was in the fast lane, and everyone [else] was ahead of me, because I always ride at the back. The tire blew out and I crossed four lanes of freeway, then shot back across four lanes, and back again. The truckers stopped and let me go. I wasn’t hurt but I got the sh-t scared out of me, and me and the Lord got re-acquainted that day.”
He cited another time when a tire was losing air as he pulled into a small town and, when he came out of a restaurant, it was flat. Another time, a truck backed into his bike while it was parked out of the way in Wyoming.
As far as problems with people, Lewis could recall very few. He did note that, one time after he had stopped drinking and ordered a soft drink at a bar, a man there “started razzing me about not drinking” and wouldn’t accept his reply that he did not drink. The man was insisting on buying Lewis a drink until someone else told him to leave Lewis alone. After that, “We sat there and talked for a while” and they parted as friends.
Lewis said he usually sits and observes people before interacting with them. When he was at another bar where two men were arguing and one of them pulled out a gun, “I just moved over to the side and minded my own business.”
He added, “Most of the time, I’ve had good times with people. I just enjoy riding my bike and talking to people along the way. They’ve all been good.”
That congenial attitude is not what one would expect of someone known as “Grumpy”. Lewis said everyone knows him by that name — and the name “Grumpy” appears on some of his shirts and a jacket.
“I got that name 29 years ago,” Lewis recalls. I used to go to the Animal Crackers Restaurant in Lytle Creek [northwest of San Bernadino] and there were two waitresses who worked there who would switch off. One day one of them would cook and the other would waitress, and the next day they switched places. One day I went in there and neither one came out to wait on me, so I called out, ‘Is Tammy cooking?’ Tammy came out with a butcher knife in her hand and said, ‘Who’s complaining about my cooking?’ When she saw it was me, she said, ‘Oh, it’s you, Grumpy.’ And that’s how I got the name. When she went on to another restaurant, she told them my name was Grumpy, and now everybody around here calls me Grumpy, and the bikers know me by that name.”
When he plans a trip, Lewis said, he calls his friends across the country to let them know he might be stopping by. He planned to make stops with friends in Phoenix, St. Louis, and other places, including a three-day stay with his brother in Ohio.
He also likes to stop at bike museums and factories and he planned to stop by the Harley factory in Milwaukee and the Harley museum in York PA. On the way back, he wants to stop at the motorcycle museum in Idaho, which he has never seen. “I have friends in Cedar City UT, and I’ll be stopping there on my way back, too.”
Lewis plans to be in Laconia from June 9 through 11, then to be back in Ohio for the Bikers Blues and Bridges run. While in Laconia, he may sign up for one of the motorcycle tours taking place, although he said he usually just tours on his own to see the sights.
Before retirement, Lewis was a machinist. “I always told my boss wherever I worked, I want this time off for the bike rallies.” When one boss told him he couldn’t take that time off, Lewis threatened to quit, saying, “Have my pay ready on payday, and I’ll quit because I’ll be leaving Saturday morning.” When the time came and the boss saw Lewis was serious about quitting, he said, “Okay, you’ve got your vacation time,” and he gave Lewis four weeks off to travel to the rally.
“One place, I did quit, and, when I got back, my foreman called me up and told me to come back to work,” Lewis recalled.
“Now I’m retired, and I don’t have to worry about it,” Lewis added. “I take my sweet time, as long as my money holds out.
Lewis said that, one year, he took six weeks, going 8,200 miles with his friends, all the way to Wells, Maine, and back. “I was going to go into Canada,” he recalled, “but was told we’d be harassed at the border. And so, when it turned out to be cloudy one morning, we decided we weren’t going to go any further. We waded out into the ocean in Wells, and then I could say I’d been in the ocean on both coasts.”
Long-haired at one time, Lewis said his hair reached down his back until, when working on a car, his hair got caught under a tire while he was dropping a transmission. He had to let the transmission go and struggled to get free while getting covered in transmission fluid. When his wife finally freed him, he showered and then went out for a haircut, and he’s kept it short ever since.
That’s his tale, he said, “Other than picking up a few women here and there; that’s always a good experience, and you meet a lot of them.”
He elaborated, “First thing is they see my bike, and they see California on the plate. They ask if I rode all the way, and I say I don’t trailer it, I ride it all the way.”
That brings him back to the subject of comfort. “I don’t modify mine at all, except I always add crash bars and saddlepacks; otherwise I leave mine stock,” he said. “I look at custom bikes, but I don’t want one. I leave mine original because it’s more comfortable. I know [some of the custom bikes] are uncomfortable because I had one. I built mine the way I wanted it for comfort.”
Lewis concluded, “I enjoy the hell out of the ride, and I enjoy meeting new people and going different places. A lot of times I’ll take the side roads and see the small towns, and there are some beautiful rides in the New England states. I like to tour around the little towns.” 

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