“Davey, c’mere til I tell ye about the day Frank Tompson decided to dry his mother’s hair with a motorbike.”
A dry and dusty wind whips the words away from my mouth, swirling around the cabin of a little car heading west, halfway through its journey. The story remains unheard, the man I knew would love it best is dead. But a dozen hours on the road can turn your head, so I tell Davey anyway, the way my father told me.
“Everyone knew Frank was a bit mad. His mother had just washed her hair, and he thought it would dry fastest in the slipstream – she must have been at least 70, but he put her on the back of the bike anyway. Well, they went haring down the lane in front of everyone, no helmets, turned around and were coming full throttle back when Frank found his front brake had failed. ‘Hold on mother,’ said he, ‘I’m going to ditch her.’
“So Frank put the bike into the low hedge on the corner. But there was a barbed wire fence buried in the hedge, and it stopped the bike dead. The mother went flying head over heels, did a full flip and landed on her feet. Instant legend in the village. People talked about it for years.”
I laugh to think how much he’d have loved that story, madmen and motorcycles and the sardonic humor of the people of Northern Ireland. The day my father told me that story was the day Davey G. Johnson went missing. Dad and I were on our own road trip that June, a couple of thousand miles there-and-back to the place my parents first lived after they came over from Belfast. My dad doesn’t talk much about his childhood – not all of it was happy – but on long journeys like these, some piece of the past bubbles to the surface. When we pulled in at the end of the day, I grabbed my phone to send Davey a message, and saw that someone had posted a picture of him in front of the Honda Gold Wing he loved.
URGENT it said. MISSING PERSON.
More than a year on, the loss still hurts. These are bizarre times, and you just know he’d be able to put his finger on the pulse of them with some half-daft piece, riding out to a lost corner of his beloved Northern California and taking us along for the journey.
At the beginning of the year, I’d sketched out a plan to travel down to where he went into the water, on the Mokelumne River. There, I’d meant to read a poem or two of Seamus Heaney’s, by way of tribute.
This was not the year to have plans. The border closed, and I stayed home, marking the anniversary silently. But then restrictions began to ease and a stupid idea came floating back to me.
A neighbor started talking about a Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 he’d found up near Williams Lake, in British Columbia. Brown in color. I immediately thought of Davey’s four-day trek to Houston in a brown 450SEL 6.9, battling heatstroke and dehydration and blasting Motörhead’s “Bomber.” It became his first feature article for Car and Driver. I did a little poking around on Google Maps, began sketching out a plan.
A dirty mile. A thousand miles, all in B.C. Half of them on gravel. Top down the whole time, away from others, alone into the empty. Why? Because Davey would go.
North of Pemberton, I rolled past a couple of big dual-sport BMW bikes, and knew that things were going to be OK. I don’t ride, but I get the appeal, and Davey and I had always bonded over our shared appreciation for the lunacy of the Isle of Man TT, and the blend of superhuman ability and quiet grace that was the late Joey Dunlop. Possibly motorcycling’s greatest hero, Dunlop spoke softly, letting his actions speak for him. In fact, perhaps Yer Maun wasn’t really interested anything other than the all-encompassing, mind-clearing experience of roadracing a motorcycle.
Joey hailed from the same part of the world as both my parents and Davey’s parents. It’s why I picked Seamus Heaney to read: Northern Ireland’s poet laureate. When we discovered our common ancestral origin, our discussions inevitably skewed towards expressions of Catch Yerself On, or the weirdness of going through military checkpoints on your childhood summer holidays, or making fun of the way people from Cork think every other place in the world is fine enough and perhaps OK but really not quite as good as Cork, boyo.
But I’d come to know Davey before this. In 2006, I was stuck in the proverbial rut, locked into a job that led nowhere and not sure what direction to strike out in next. I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Jalopnik, but I found there a growing community of like-minded idiots who were nuts about cars in all the right wrong ways.
DAF vs. FAF. We Jam Ekranoplan. Husker Dü t-shirts and 24 Hours of Lemons and Nice Price or Crack Pipe. Vying for Commenter Of The Day became something of an obsession. The site was like a clubhouse for people who’d huffed too many improperly burnt hydrocarbons.
A decade and a half later, a little red MX-5 hums along the Duffey Lake road, a place I was always trying to get Davey to come visit, and write something together. We’d pitched a few more-ridiculous ideas to magazines before. My favorite, perhaps, was to take a Viper and a Shelby around the Emerald Isle; driving the snakes from Ireland. No takers. Yet.
I hit gravel, potholed but still wonderful, a little west of Clinton. There’s a cycle-touring company here that uses a ‘74 Fiat Giardiniera as their chase car. The MX-5 picks its way among the divots, and starts gathering dust. It looks better dirty.
Whatever success I’ve had in this business began there, with Davey and that early crew at Jalopnik. They made me ask myself, “Why not?” I started publishing things here and there. I watched as the Jalopnik diaspora spread, writers becoming editors, doors opening, careers progressing. And for most, the car-silliness never really went away.
Peter Hughes wrote that Davey was a hub. No tribute rang truer. I remember wandering around Dublin with an Irish writer, whom Davey had introduced me to. I saw the city with new eyes. We still keep in touch, a faraway friend I might never have otherwise had.
And then of course, there was his writing. I’m not sure anyone else could have skewered the Rolls-Royce Phantom so accurately as “something that looks as if Sir Oswald Mosley had hired Albert Speer to design a 21st-century staff car for the British Union of Fascists.” Davey was the master of the obscure musical reference, and cared little for search engine optimization. But beyond the inside jokes, his stuff would always slip a blade under your guard, find a gap in your armor and pierce you to the soul.
Sometime that afternoon, I roll up to Farwell Canyon, a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ll camp tonight, make the rest of my journey in the morning. The air is bone-dry here. Distant, unseen pickup trucks leaving contrails that hang in the air for minutes. The MX-5 delights in sliding, its rear constantly squirming on some of the loosest surface gravel I’ve ever driven on.
“Well,” I mutter to myself with a grin, after a half-hour of hanging the Mazda’s tail out, standing on an overlook that shows the road endlessly looping out towards the horizon, “It’s pretty – but sure: it’s not Cahrk.”
The next day is spitting rain by the time I have the tent packed. But having come this far I’m committed to keeping the roof down, so I just drive faster. The road is back to tarmac again, lolloping past wind-ruffled lakes, the sky open but glowering in the distance.
I keep the stereo cranked most of the time. Motörhead. Stiff Little Fingers. Hüsker Dü. And just to be a stereotypical Canadian, Rush. I picture Davey raising an eyebrow at the first harmonics of “Red Barchetta.” A little too on the nose? Take off, you hoser.
Tires crunch over gravel again somewhere south of Merritt. I’ve come ‘round in a huge loop, sticking to the side roads, and the narrow, unmarked road has just run out of tarmac. It’s a third kind of surface, iron-rich and damp with fresh rain. More rain ahead too, looks like.
Davey was always so good at weaving a car into a story. He could pair a 911 Turbo with a dam disaster, or rip through Europe in a Mustang for 24 hours. As is so often the case with machines, it’s not what the thing is, but what you do with it. The machine gains humanity through use.
Two hundred miles to go, the MX-5’s mud-spattered flanks and bug-strewn nose tell a story. It’ll all wash off, of course, a clean slate for next week. But I’ll remember it like this, dirty, cheerful, parked beneath an RCAF T-33 jet just outside Princeton. The plane has me thinking of the time Davey took his Moto Guzzi Griso up to see the crash site of a U2, meditating on loss and risk and meaning.
“After trying out dirt-track and roadracing, I found my niche in long days in the saddle,” he wrote.
“Not to go back up again, or not to get back on the bike, would be completely understandable,” he added, “But to give up either thing would surely be a loss. My parents, Lemmy, Bowie, Prince, Merle, Gene Wilder: I’m quickly losing the adults I grew up with. I’m not going to lose the joy and peace that motorcycling brings, too.”
Half an hour further on the road home, traffic comes to a stop. People get out of their cars and wander down the line. I do the same to stretch my legs. Two young guys walking back from near the front had the news. A rolled semi-trailer. Two cars wrecked into it. A fatality. Some family’s life changed forever.
On the long backtrack loop, I’m in a somber mood. This, too, is part of the human condition. We lose our friends and family, and the when and how of it is not of our choosing. For Davey, I would have wished long years of riding yet, two-up with a new love riding pillion on a Honda Gold Wing. Miles yet to go. But his road has ended. We are lucky enough, I suppose, to have the echoes of his writing, but there’s a hole left behind.
Sometime in the early 1980s, bumper stickers started showing up all over Oahu. “Eddie would go,” they said, referencing Eddie Aikau, a legendary Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer. He was known for heading out into the water when no one else would, braving waves that dwarfed him. Eventually, the sea took him. I’d like to think that’s Davey’s legacy too, that you can look at some half-mad plan and think to yourself, well, Davey would go.
So go, if you can, when you can. A thousand miles or less or more. Away and alone. Car or bike or a mixture of both. If you can, go.
Up in the blustery mountain pass, homeward bound at last, my favorite fragment of Heaney comes to me. It is, fittingly, from the poem “Postscript.” The landscape washes out before me, vast and endless, no place to stop, no overlook to frame a photograph.
Useless, Heaney writes, to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer based in British Columbia, with bylines at Road & Track, Car and Driver, Hagerty, and the Globe and Mail.