Goodbye Eldorado

Story by MJ Burrows// Photos by MJ Burrows
May 1 2009

Elmer stepped back to let me into his house. The first thing I saw was myself in his full-length mirror. The glass, like the rest of the house, was brand-new clean. No streaks, no lingering smell of blue ammonia, just spotlessly clean, bird-killing glass. Not a speck of dust.

He asked me if I had a hard time finding his place as I followed him into the living room and sat down on the modern, semi-circle sofa. The living room was round and felt like the centre of a large wheel. I was there to listen to a lost and found story about his 1972 Moto Guzzi Eldorado.

The word Eldorado attracted me from the start. It’s the imaginary city of great wealth that the Conquistadors were looking for when they first landed in South America. They never found it. Now it has become a metaphorical holy grail; an ancient myth that still has purchase as the melodrama of striving for success, and straining for acquisition is performed every day in a million different ways. Like the American Dream, it’s an unconscious part of our everyday life.

Elmer’s place was easy to find and worth the drive. A ten-minute ride in the country led me to his prairie oasis secluded behind a towering guard of whispering spruce trees. His home was sunset warm with tidy brick and stucco. It had a red tile roof, which felt almost exclusive in the landscape of shingle and tin. I was welcomed into the yard by a burbling fountain that seemed more Italy than Alberta.

Inside, in that circular living room, the calm centre of a frantic world, I checked my recording equipment and untangled my microphone cord. Elmer peered at me with small eyes, like he was trying to spot a coyote in a pasture. His face was fieldstone round and told me he knew how to smile and how to keep secrets. When I was ready, Elmer started his story from the beginning and told it like he was describing a passing train—from engine to caboose.

He was a twenty-something man, fresh from his teacher training, when he decided to buy a motorcycle. He asked his brother, who had been riding for several years, what kind of bike he should buy.

“Don’t buy a Harley Davidson,” his brother said. “You’ll be on the road, you’ll be fixing it, and you’ll be cursing. Don’t buy anything with a chain. Too much work. Don’t buy a BMW. It’s awkward to drive. Go for the Guzzi. That’s the bike for you.”

And Elmer did. He made a deal for his first Moto Guzzi and picked it up still in a crate. He assembled it himself and rode it long and far before replacing it with a bigger machine. He wanted a fifth gear for easier highway cruising. Once he had his second bike; the Eldorado, that was it. He had no thought of buying anything else.

His 850 Eldorado was (and still is) a beautiful machine. It looks like an early 70’s Japanese motorcycle with its long flat saddle and compact wheelbase. It carries a European look that reminds of an old twin Triumph. But, unlike a lean and serious Brit-bike, the Guzzi has a hearty, muscular presence like the Italian body-builder neighbour you call for help when you need to move heavy furniture. Its most distinctive feature is the high-torque V-Twin engine that sends a massive cylinder out each side of the bike like diving eagle wings. And the sound–it rumbles like a Harley that was raised on Pavarotti and Domingo–there’s no bike like a Guzzi.

And Elmer loved his Eldorado. When he was young and single, he spent some serious time rolling out the highways of North America. His longest trip was 11,000 miles from Alberta to Newfoundland and back. He called this trip his Timex Torture Test, recalling an advertising campaign from the 1950’s where Timex demonstrated the toughness of their watches by putting one on a cliff diver who then jumped from a dizzying height, torpedoed into the water, and then climbed out to show that the watch was still working. Elmer started that trip with a few guys, another on a Guzzi and a couple more on Japanese machines. Only the Moto Guzzi riders were tough enough to survive the entire journey. Like the Timex, they took a licking and kept on ticking.

Forty-seven days on the road is relatively easy today. It can be Lazy-Boy all the way with heated, custom-shaped seats, bus-sized fairings with enough lights to illuminate a baseball game, GPS shepherding that tells you where you are and where you’ve been, and linked anti-lock brakes that create the illusion your motorcycle is as safe as a SUV. But in the early 70’s, riding a motorcycle was much more elemental. Elmer’s Guzzi had a foam brick for a seat, stop-in-200-feet drum brakes, a 65 hp engine that pulled like a tractor, and not much else.

“The world’s not made for soft people,” Elmer says when he describes the necessary constitution for a 1970’s motorcycle trip to Newfoundland. Born to hearty immigrant stock, he envisioned himself as a rugged individualist, a quiet man with depth. Piloting an Italian cruiser was his way of expressing his independence. His career as a schoolteacher was about committees, curriculums, and doing what the superintendent or principal told him to do. His roaring Guzzi was an antidote to this restriction and gave him control over his own destiny.

On his bike, he could make his own decisions, express his sense of adventure, and blow off the doors of any car on the road.

Even though Elmer was building a freewheeling tough-guy image, he didn’t want anyone to mistake him for “a biker.” He calculated that riding a machine common to police forces around the world and wearing a white helmet would make him look respectful. He didn’t want anyone to lump him in with the cliché of bikers as bar-fighting, drug-dealing pimps.

Elmer rode through the years. He worked. He developed his reputation as a solid teacher. He bought acreage with an old house on it and started dreaming of what he would do with it. And his friend introduced him to Margo.

Not long after Elmer and Margo met, he invited her to join him as a chaperon for a school trip to Europe. When they returned to Canada, she had plans to continue travelling with a friend and away she went.

The chemistry between them must have been potent, because Margo left Elmer in an unsettled state. He had a decision to make. “OK, she’s gone,” he reminisced from the curving sofa at the centre of his country home, “and she might not come back. It was a lonely feeling. Here I am, I’m in debt trying to build this place. I got this motorcycle. I live on a gravel road.

I thought about it: if I sold my motorcycle, I could buy an engagement ring. So, I pondered that. It wasn’t a tough decision, yet it was. It was a fork in the road. Which way do I go?”

Elmer did the only thing he could do. He said goodbye to his beloved Eldorado and bought a wedding ring. It didn’t trouble him to live without his Guzzi in the years that followed. He thought about motorcycling from time to time, remembering his youthful days on his Guzzi as “kind of a spiritual thing.” He stares at an invisible horizon when he tells me this. “You spend all those hours on a bike and you get mesmerized by the front wheel humming along at 70 miles an hour in the wind. Something about that and the freedom that comes with it is so uplifting.” Elmer could have easily purchased another bike, but he didn’t. “What’s the point of having a motorcycle sitting in the garage, getting dusty? They’re made for riding.”

Ironically, Elmer’s Guzzi did gather dust as it languished in the care of the man who ended up buying it. In the years that followed, Elmer and Margo built a home and raised a family. While they lived their life together, the Guzzi rested. Its odometer only rolled over a few thousand miles in all that time.

Elmer sat up taller when he told me this part of the story. “This is the amazing part,” he said. A little more than a year ago, he was at a funeral and he ran into the man who bought his Guzzi. That was 30 years ago. Elmer must have had a look of longing in his eyes, because it didn’t take long for the man to ask him if he wanted to buy his old bike back. What a perfect way to take measure of your life! Open up a time machine and roll out something you loved from your youth.

He bought the bike for a little more than he sold it for and bore it home to his acreage oasis. Then he spent three months working on it; taking it apart, cleaning it, enjoying it, putting it back together, and reminiscing about the days when his bike helped him discover who he was.

When he had it all polished and tuned, he took a long road trip through the mountains and discovered that his old Eldorado didn’t feel like it used to. The clutch was slipping and it didn’t have the same feeling of power. He didn’t enjoy it as much as he thought he would. Something had changed.

He was ready to sell it, but his son had picked up his own motorcycle and wanted to go on a trip with his old man. This seemed like a great idea, so Elmer found a Moto Guzzi mechanic and left the bike for an extended stay to get some major engine and drive-train work done.

While it was away, he thought about what the bike had to teach him. He tried to understand what had changed in the years he didn’t have the motorcycle. It was either the bike or it was him. He wasn’t sure. The only way to answer the question was to get the Guzzi back to original condition and see if he could recover the experience of its torquey acceleration, the way it leaned into curves, and the growly roar that erupted from its chrome pea shooter pipes as he rolled on the throttle to pass a slow moving car.

He had all winter to contemplate this and the following spring, when he finally rode his 1972 Moto Guzzi Eldorado home from the shop, he knew right away that the bike hadn’t changed. He had. He changed and the world around him changed. The traffic that he used to race past on the highway was now thundering by him, blowing up rock chips in his face and pushing him around like a Smartcar in a hurricane. He had to rinse the taste of salty dust out of his mouth when he finally made it home.

Again, he was ready to staple a FOR SALE CHEAP flyer on the local bulletin board, but he had promised that two-wheel trip with his son. He would keep this symbol of his youth for one more summer and then let it go.

“Others seem to be happier with every new material addition in their lives,” he says, “Motor homes, cars, trucks, quads, whatever, but for me having something to look at is not enough. Experience has taught me that when it comes to material possessions, nothing is forever. This motorcycle gave me confidence, courage, freedom, and it taught me humility. Family, career, home, are enough,” he says, “I can only handle so much. And that’s OK.”

The summer of 2008 has passed and Elmer is ready to sell his Guzzi. He and his son put about 4,000 miles on their motorcycles riding into the heart of the British Columbia sunbelt. Everywhere they stopped, the Guzzi gathered attention and admiration and when they returned to Alberta, Elmer handed the crescent wrench joy of motorcycling to his son. It was time to say a final goodbye to his Eldorado.



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