Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Big Empty

Living in a college town means that several times a year one gets to experience the Big Empty. The ghost time feeling left in the wake of the departure of 40,000 souls. Sunday evening I had to run a few errands and took advantage of almost dry roads and mid 30s temperatures. Seeing steam escaping from a building vent was enough to have me pose the Vespa for a portrait with the lone person walking down Calder Alley. I've made many pictures in this alley over the years and I continue to be drawn to it.

Darkness descended when it was time to ride home and the temperature had dropped below freezing. Night always presents additional challenges for a rider and in freezing weather allowances always have to be made for stray water turned to ice. Old Main, the main administration building at Penn State, glowed in the distance as I got ready to go. One last loop through town before heading home.

The center of business life in State College is the stretch of Allen Street between College and Beaver Avenues. There are always cars here in the evening because of the bars and restaurants in this part of town.

Junior, now dubbed the Hammer of Sweetness by our youngest daughter Aleta, joined me in town the next morning for a walk and a bit of dog socialization. Belgian Sheepdogs are wary, alert and do not warm to strangers quickly. Junior and I have been working diligently to familiarize him with strangers and situations in town. He has made a dramatic shift from warning me of every individual on the planet to now he walks casually among people on the street without concern. He takes his cue from me and senses when things are ok. His breed does not warm to people quickly but with my ok he now allows people to greet him without shying away. And once he accepts the gesture he then wants to sit in their lap. He's a good dog.

After returning Junior home for breakfast I had to get back to town and meet my friend Paul at Saints Cafe. Another local place to which I am drawn over and over again. Paul wanted to go for a ride but snow was falling outside and I felt it better to wait for better weather. As I looked out the window at the street I realized I had ridden in far worse and I could have ridden into town if I desired. I didn't. Call me mature.

In an attempt to bring some riding energy to the table Paul showed me the brake drum he ordered for his 1964 Vespa GL. It had arrived from Italy and he was excited about the box. I was reminded (again) how little I care for all things mechanical. It's approaching a pathology.

Paul is a photographer and brought along a box of prints for me to look at. I am always impressed with the work he does. His attention has wandered in different directions in the past few years and he is not (pardon the pun) focused on photography like he once was. Still, his work is strong. He has a series of portraits made over many years of his daughter Allison. He used to shoot them with an 8x10 view camera but now more and more is done with a 35mm or digital camera. I would invoke the term progress but he still has that damn 1964 Vespa...


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Scooter In The Sticks (Steve):

I had veen checking your blog fairly frequently, looking for new stories, and sort of got out of practice during Christmas week. Your blog was my motivation to start one, and my silence simply represents a break in my usual routine.

I am amazed that you were out riding in the face of icy road potential... And then I remembered you have ridden in falling snow as well. Two-wheeled transportation loses something of it's shine for me when the chance of dropping the bike dramatically increases.

I loved the picture of your scooter in the steam venr. My first thought, before reading the text, was that the machine was shrouded in a cloud of exhaust and condensation when the engine first started.

The bit about your dog and photographer friend was interesting too.

Happy New Year,
Jaxk • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

irondad said...

I don't have much to say. Being the chatterbox that I am, however, that didn't stop me. :) You know what I'm talking about over on bolty's site.

At least I don't hang out in alleys. Yet.

Chuck Pefley said...

Steve, be careful what you say about 1964 Vespas -:) They are both lovely and fun ... mechanical issues not withstanding. Mostly reliable, too. Well, at least mine is with its new LML engine.

I must confess that I'm in your camp regarding the mechanical side of scooting, however. I'm very happy to let someone fix mine. Fortunately I have friends who both love to repair and share their expertise and knowledge for the fun of it. Failing that there is a wonderful service department at the local Vespa shop.

Happy New Year to you, and thanks for continuing to blog.


Gina Marie said...

I always look forward to The Big Empty. Love the photographs, Steve!

Conchscooter said...

Woman with cat. Very nice I'm sure but how about a picture of the brake drum? All the way from Pontedera no less? How can you be indifferent?
My childhood buddy Giovanni looked at an elderly Vespa Primavera last summer and said sadly how he couldn't understand why anyone gave a damn about those old annoying Vespas. The new ones go so much better and so much faster. Friendship can be tough sometimes but I did refrain from strangling him.
Happy old year New Vespa Rider.

Steve Williams said...

Mr. Riepe: Riding in the cold is mostly a mental challenge for me. Riding slow when it makes sense. Paying attention to the road for potential problems. And imagining the risk and taking the appropriate actions. I used to assume more risk as I challenged my limits. I know where they are now and don't feel much need to approach them anymore.

I had some other pictures of the Vespa in the alley but it really did look like exhaust smoke. Didn't want to imply that scooter as anything but clean running!

cpa3485 said...

Lawrence Kansas is the city where I attended college and your comments about the change in atmosphere when the students aren't there struck a chord with me. Lawrence was very much like a small town without the students. It has since then grown a lot in population and although still a very nice town, it just isn't quite the same as what I remember when I was there.
Your dog is looking great!

bobskoot said...


sorry for being so neglectful. I stop by often but haven't been commenting. I recently purchased two video cams and was muddling through the codecs to arrive at a suitable workflow to edit my videos which has taken considerable time as I wanted to take them on my trip to Kona. with my new laptop I am now able to edit AVCHD 720p video

I too have a favourite lane but it is in a seedy part of town . A few TV series have been produced here and have often used these lanes as a backdrop.

I love that photo of your GTS shrouded in condensation fog, then I noticed that guy by the telephone pole

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

Steve Williams said...

irondad: Alleys have a special ambience that many photographers find attractive. I wouldn't be surprised if that G11 doesn't draw you into a life of dirt and grime...

Chuck: I suppose the old Vespa's do have a certain charm and their simple mechanical nature is almost appealing. Almost. But I really like not shifting and pushing a button to start the scooter!

I guess that means neither you nor I are Luddites...

Steve Williams said...

Gina Marie: The empty town is a nice change of pace. Wouldn't want it this way all the time but for a few weeks at the end of the year it's nice.

Conchscooter: Paul made me look at the brake drum and forced me to notice the steel drum pressed into the aluminum housing. I don't think he saw my eyes roll back into my head.

So.... from your comments about old Vespas can I infere you wished you were riding a vintage Triumph instead of that reliable always starting hunk o' metal you have now???

Steve Williams said...

cpa3485: I can hardly type your username without thinking that I need to pay some taxes... That's a good thing I guess.

College towns are special. If you have never lived in one it is hard to really describe.

I have a story about the University of Kansas in Lawrence, one that happened to me shortly after I began working for the College of Agriculture back in 1979. I was at a Cattlemen's Association dinner and the keynote speaker was from the University of Kansas. He was droning on about society,responsibility and the decline of America. At one point he begins talking about the most despicable event in human history. A lot of historical events are passing through my head when he pounds his fist on the podium and nearly screams "It was Woodstock!".

Well, I look around the room and all these cattlemen are just looking at him with no reaction. I'm thinking about my beard and really long hair and wondering what the hell kind of job I have gotten myself into.

After the talk I start shooting candid pictures of the people milling about and I overhear one of the Cattlemen ask another what he thought of the speaker. This fellow doesn't miss a beat and says in a southern drawl, "Aww, he's full of shit.".

I felt better immediately and have never looked back at my choice to join the College of Ag.

I would have thought a guy from Lawrence would have put Quantrill's raiders ahead of Woodstock...

Steve Williams said...

bobskoot: Editing video can be a real chore on a laptop. I used to do a lot of it with Final Cut Pro on a Mac but always struggled to get things to work smoothly on a PC.

I have been thinking again of making some riding videos but then I realize I am too lazy for that. Video is work!

I'll keep an eye out for your videos.

Witewater said...

Hi Steve,
As a constant reader and an (very) occasional poster, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank your for eloquent blog. It hasn't gotten me to make the jump to two wheels yet, but the cogs are turning. Also, I appreciated the reference to Otto's Brewpub in one of your posts. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting destinations for Lager quests and with my Daughter starting at Lock Haven again in a month, I am within striking distance of capturing a nice Red Mo.

Thanks again for your outstanding blog and best wishes for the new Year.

bobskoot said...


nothing fancy but I've developed a workflow. You can find my stuff here


Have a very Happy New year

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

ewald said...

Hello Steve!

From Munich in Germany! My wife and me are Vespa users, too. When ever there is some time left and weather does allow it, we do little tours to our Bavarian mountains and lakes.

We love to ride outside even by low temperatures as well as you do.

Perhaps you want to drop by at my blog Vespamenschen at http://vespamenschen.blogspot.com

I am sorry, it is in the moment only in German language. VESPAMENSCHEN is a little bit like People on Vespas

Many greetings from Europe! Ewald

BlueSophia said...

Sometimes I wish I had not sold my Vespa to feed my BMW craving. Just think, I could be freezing my knuckles every day if I still had the Vespa, which ran well in cold weather even when the coolant had all leaked out (the R1100 which needs something fixed so it will start at all).

irondad said...

As he pays a "welfare check" visit and hears an echo inside the house in response to his knock, he asks:

Are you ok in there? Your friends hadn't heard from you in a while and were concerned.

Steve Williams said...

witewater: Thanks so much for your kinds words about Scooter in the Sticks. Please forgive my slow response. Still shaking the holidays out of my head and just want to remain lazy.

Good luck on your two-wheeled thinking. A lot different than canoeing but a more instantly available experience. Both are great ways to live.

bobskoot: Interesting collection of videos. What's up with PISS???

Steve Williams said...

ewald: Bavaria would be a wonderful place to ride a Vespa. My mother was from Germany and I spent a lot of time in Munchen and in the Alps as a kid. I miss those days.

I'll keep visiting your blog. Gives me a chance to practice my rusty German...

Steve Williams said...

irondad: All is well. Just busy. Have a big new job responsibility that is taking far more of my brain than I thought it would.

Still riding but not as much. Will post more soon.

Thanks for checking up on me!

Touring Motocycle Tires said...

"The Big Empty" Quite a heading! I really love your creativity when it comes to not only riding but also to writing and photography! I also like the way you are not afraid of trying out new routes! Keep up! you inspire me.