Backmarker: “Dharma Bum” Locke McCorkle

February 7, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Locke McCorkle at home in Palo Alto  as photographed by Stephen Kennedy . When I finally grow up and hit my 80s  I hope to have an S1000RR in the garage  too.
Locke McCorkle at home in Palo Alto, as photographed by Stephen Kennedy ( When I finally grow up and hit my 80s, I hope to have an S1000RR in the garage, too.

A long time coming…

Pardon me if I ramble a bit. I’ve been thinking about Jack Kerouac a little more than usual, and a few looping connections to motorcycling.

Walter Salles (director of the Che Guevara bio-pic ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’) finally released a film based on Kerouac’s 1957 novel ‘On The Road’ last spring.

It was surprising that it took over 50 years for the story to make it to the screen, considering its iconic status in American literature. Kerouac himself wrote a letter to Marlon Brando (who, four years earlier, had starred in ‘The Wild One’) begging him to buy the film rights. Brando didn’t take him up on the offer; Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights in 1980, for about $90,000.

All of which is apropos of nothing, except that a few days ago, the photographer Stephen Kennedy sent me a link to a photo gallery of portraits he’d shot – on a ’50 over 50’ assignment, part of an upcoming advertising project – of an 82 year-old Palo Alto sportbike rider named Locke McCorkle.

Locke has the rare distinction of being a character in one of Kerouac’s later novels, ‘The Dharma Bums’. Note that it’s ‘Dharma’, meaning the teachings of the Buddha, and not ‘Darmah’ as in Ducati Darmah. The motorcycle was named after the tiger in a popular Italian children’s book.

I warned you that I was going to ramble.

Locke was a spiritual guy. That came in handy because, in his 20s, he rode a 500cc AJS Single.

“Sometimes, I got on my knees and prayed that it would start,” he once told me, as he recalled the perils of its kickstart mechanism. Those prayers often went unanswered. He added, “That thing would kick me clear off the bike.”

“I tried the Methodists,” Locke told me. “The Catholics had the most magic and ritual, and mass was said in Latin. I loved that hocus-pocus, but they told me, ‘You have to believe’.” Then, in 1952, while he was in grad school (UC Berkeley, English Lit) Locke heard the Buddhist theologian Alan Watts.

“Twenty minutes into Alan Watts, I thought, I didn’t know this was on the menu,” Locke recalls. “Where does this guy teach? I found him at the American Institute of Asian Studies. I was like a kid in a candy store, with a bag of nickels.” One of his fellow students there was the poet Gary Snyder.

Locke was portrayed  as the character Sean Monahan. In Jack Kerouacs 1958 novel The Dharma Bums.
Locke was portrayed, as the character Sean Monahan. In Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel ‘The Dharma Bums’.

Most of Kerouac’s novels feature characters based on his real-life friends, and Kerouac admitted that ‘Sean Monahan’, in the Dharma Bums, is actually Locke McCorkle. Locke was one of the first Buddhists that Kerouac met and he played an important role in introducing the famous novelist to the spiritual themes he tried (unsuccessfully) to tie together with his derelict lifestyle in ‘Bums’. In fact, Kerouac wrote most of the book sitting in the kitchen of a little house that Snyder rented from Locke up in Marin County.

Locke had planned to teach literature, not create it, but perhaps exposure to the beat writers inspired him to write something of his own. Most writers, like Kerouac (or even me) keep their subject matter close to home, especially for their first book.

You might think, I know where Mark’s going with this; Locke’s book was about motorcycles. But you’d be wrong. Locke wrote a sex manual. That was another subject he was familiar with.

“Oh yes,” his fifth wife told me archly, “Locke was always popular with the ladies.”

The writing manuals all suggested that a budding author get out of familiar surroundings. That had worked for Kerouac. So Locke moved to Mallorca, off the coast of Spain where he wrote, “How to Make Love: The Spiritual Nature of Sex.” It was published by Grove Press, which was a respected literary publisher.

A few years ago, when I first interviewed Locke, he sent me an inscribed copy of the book, which is long out of print. I took it to bed and started reading it. Mary couldn’t resist reading along, over my shoulder. It didn’t take her long to pass judgement.

“That would work,” she told me. I kept reading.

By then, Locke’s second wife had ordered him to stop riding motorcycles, so he sold the AJS to the first wife’s new husband.

If that was the end of the motorcycle part of Locke’s story, it wouldn’t justify a column here on Motorcycle-USA. But a funny thing happened on the way to Locke’s eighties, and it was the 1980s; the most important decade in the history of sport riding.

Sex  Locke literally wrote the book on it.
Sex? Locke literally wrote the book on it.

By then, Locke was living in Newport Beach during the week, and commuting ‘home’ to Marin on the weekends. He bought a first-gen Honda VFR750R Interceptor, a model that for all its flaws, helped define the whole future of sportbikes.

“I had no business on that thing,” Locke told me, of the VFR. “The front would tuck, the cams burned out, and I almost gave up motorcycling.” Instead, he traded it for a Honda Hurricane 600, which he eventually replaced with a Yamaha FZR600.

At the age of 59, Locke had another experience like his discovery of Zen. He joined the AFM and started riding at Sears Point. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry, you can race in the over-40 class’,” he told me. “I said, over-40? What about over-60? But the fast guys didn’t mind me, because I held my lines.”

He endurance-raced for a couple of years, at Willow Springs, Road Atlanta, and Grattan amongst other places. He let his race licence lapse, but he continued to ride at track days through his sixties. And seventies. And he’s still doing track days now, in his eighties.

“Yoga, Zen, motorcycles… I see spirit in all of them,” Locke told me. “If yoga was just physical, you might as well work out in a gym. Yoga is designed to unite you with the universe. The best rides are when you and the motorcycle are all together.” When he’s going out onto the track, he recites his Buddhist mantra, “Namo omi taba”.

Lance Keigwin told me, “I think riding keeps Locke young.” Locke himself credits his longevity to that daily yoga practice, and good genes, but I’m with Keigwin. In the video below, Locke is the rider in the yellow helmet on the S1000RR. Watch it carefully, and ask yourself, honestly, will you be that fast when you’re 82?

Now, go ride. Find your bliss.