Sound Affects

In the wide-open spaces of the west, riding solo for hours at a time, your mind can wander.

Tunes long forgotten will suddenly appear and you’ll find yourself singing some hit from decades past.  You can drift into fantasies of amazing complexity and clarity, all invoked by the drone of the engine, the whistle of the wind and the endless flow of scenery around your helmet.

Today, for me, it was steak.  Fat, prime, tender steak, dripping with juices and surrounded by golden French fries and onions.  What better place to partake of this guilty pleasure than here, in Montana, the homeland of beef?

I had to have a steak.

I stopped the Honda at a park ranger station near Red Lodge and went inside, brimming with steak questions.  As it turned out, the answer to all my questions was the same: “The Grizzly Bar Steak House”.  Five of the rangers concurred.  This was the place.

I set out in search of Roscoe, Montana and what the park rangers had unanimously described as “the best steak in America”.  My stomach growled with anticipation as I aimed the Honda westward from Red Lodge across the grasslands.

At the faded wooden “Roscoe” sign, I left the highway.  A narrow dirt road led downhill, across a wooden bridge and through a hayfield.  The track seemed to lead nowhere, but my directions were clear.  I continued on, increasingly doubting my navigation until barely half a mile from the highway, I emerged from a thicket of pines into a parking lot jammed with pickup trucks.  I knew in that instant that the rangers had bestowed upon me a special gift.  The Grizzly Bar, invisible to highway travelers, was a well-kept local secret, one that was about to make my day-long fantasy a reality.

Grizzly Bar.jpg

A family restaurant, the Grizzly Bar is at least thirty miles from any town.  It attracts its clients solely from the surrounding ranchlands; a good recommendation for a steak house if ever there was one.  I sat down, ordered a Samuel Adams and contemplated the menu.

Now, sticker shock is an illness most often found in car lots, not steak houses, but here in Montana, restaurant sticker shock is serious.  The cheapest steak on the menu was more expensive than anything I’d seen in other restaurants, but having ridden this far, I wasn’t about to order the cheapest thing I could see.  I settled on a rib-eye whose tariff exceeded the cost of several tanks of gas and opened my novel to await developments.

After a few minutes, about halfway through my salad, a distant rumbling interrupted the quiet hum of the restaurant.  Kids ran to the windows to investigate.  Wives looked to their husbands for reassurance.  Males exchanged knowing looks.  I rolled my eyes.  Harleys were arriving.

Four of them.  Two couples, each riding solo and each with pipes as open as the Montana sky.  Loud.  The four exhausts cracked and rumbled as they toured the parking lot, ripping the air.  Finally, one by one, the Harleys fell silent.  They were joining us for dinner.  Their arrival had stirred the restaurant from its quiet torpor and a buzz of excitement greeted them.  Just what they’d hoped for, I imagined.

Maybe it’s a result of aging, or maybe it’s a result of fifty years of urban life, but whatever the cause, I’ve come to despise excessive noise from any device.  Computers, fridges, leaf blowers even two-year-olds have all raised my ire on occasion, but none bring me to thoughts of mayhem so quickly or so regularly as the arrogant, self-centered intentional noise pollution emitted from the modified exhaust systems of motor vehicles.  I suspect I’m not alone.  The sticker I once saw on a Honda GoldWing said it all: “Big Noise, Small Dick”.

Once their leathers were hung on chair backs, the riders disappeared into the crowd, anonymous.  By their appearance, the two middle aged couples could have arrived in a Lexus.  They were just ordinary people, how could they be so… what? Wrong? I decided that I wouldn’t let them ruin my fifty-dollar dinner and proceeded to forget about them.

To say that I finished my steak would be a lie.  The truth is that the steak finished me.  Long ago, I learned never to order anything edible sized as “large” in the USA.  Tonight’s steak was no exception.  Even though I’d ordered a “small” rib-eye, when I was done, two-thirds of  the massive slab of cow remained on my plate.  That’s not because it wasn’t delicious.  It was spectacular.  I just couldn’t begin to consume it all.  And worse, I had no room for the apple cobbler.  Coffee finished, I stashed the remains of my steak in my tank bag.  The foil-wrapped remains would make two meals the following day.

Mindful to teach the both the Harley riders and the restaurant customers a lesson in proper motorcycle deportment, I exited the parking lot with barely a whisper from the Honda. I thumbed the starter and idled away in stealth mode.  I figured that if nobody noticed I’d left, I’d won.

Twenty minutes later, I stopped along the roadside to take a few photos and enjoy the last few moments of the day.  The sun was just minutes from setting and the prairie winds at last had calmed.  For a few minutes, only the chirping of crickets and the ticking of the Honda’s cooling exhaust system broke nature’s nearly perfect silence.

As I wandered along the roadside, I became aware of a familiar rumble. Faint at first, disappearing for a few seconds, then re-emerging, louder, clearer.  The deep, grumbling roar brought to mind dinosaurs, wandering the prairie. It was the Harleys.  I guessed that they’d finished their suppers and were, like me, returning to Red Lodge.

As they approached, I became aware of a peculiar throbbing, a subsonic othernoise not apparent at first.  It came and went, sometimes clear, sometimes nonexistent, always ephemeral, changing.  It was somehow a part of the motor sounds, yet separate.  As they came closer, I realized what was happening.

Heterodyning, the engineers call it.  The sound was of “beat frequencies”, which arise from the combination of different sound waves.  Since they all rode the same type of machine and they all rode in the same gear, as the riders applied throttle or coasted, their exhaust notes were almost, or sometimes perfectly in sync.  As the individual exhaust notes slipped in an out of sync with each other, the heterodyning difference frequency rose and fell in sympathy with the exhaust notes.

It was wonderful.

The Honda and the Harleys Crop.jpg

No longer an urban scourge, the open pipes of the four V-twin exhaust notes blended into a musical performance of exquisite sound.  As they roared past, I waved.  As an ensemble, they throttled up for the hill ahead and the exhaust notes, individual and collective, rang pure music.  I drank in the sound and listened carefully until minutes later, they disappeared over the horizon.  Their song lingered in the still Montana air and I reconsidered.

Somehow, out here on the open prairie, it worked. I forgave them their intrusion into my supper and finally, if only briefly, I understood.

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