Can’t you see the tears roll down the street.”
The skies cried August 27, 1990, the day Stevie Ray Vaughan died. The man with the magical fingers, a master of the Stratocaster, was a staple of the Austin music scene. On any given night he was known to pop in to the Broken Spoke or the Continental Club, Fender in hand, and would sit in with the band or mesmerize the crowd with his own music. There’s no shortage of material for a good blues song in Texas, and nobody channeled emotion through six strings better than SVR.
I moved to Austin that same summer, swept up into the whole 6th Street thing and Barton Springs, hanging out on The Drag and immersing myself wholeheartedly into the music scene. I couldn’t wait until the night I was hanging out at The Black Cat or the Saxon Pub and Stevie Ray came strolling in, guitar in hand, for an impromptu jam. But then the helicopter crashed, and so did my hopes of seeing him play in person.
But his spirit still shines around Austin. It’s in the walls of gritty old music halls. It’s painted on the side of the Continental Club. It stands ten-feet-tall in bronze along the banks of Town Lake, the iconic statue a place where fans visit religiously leaving flowers, beer cans, burnt roaches and guitar picks. No trip to Austin feels complete for me without at least one trip to the statue.
My plane touched down at Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport the day after Halloween. Wicked storms dumped more rain than the land could absorb the night before and flood waters were still receding, the remnants visible from overhead in temporary lakes formed virtually overnight. Victory has a 2014 Ness Cross Country waiting for me to ride down to Galveston to cover the Lone Star Rally. I’m grateful for the decision to come in the day after Halloween after seeing the consequences of the storm.
We hung out with Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray at the Continental Club during our recent Texas tour on the Ness-designed Cross Country LE.
The Ness family name has been associated with Victory Motorcycles since 2004, the year the Arlen Ness Victory Vegas debuted. Since then, it has become a family affair as Arlen, son Cory, and grandson Zach have all designed a special Victory model as part of the Ness Signature Series. Up to this point, the trio have chosen different models to put their custom spin on. Until this year. The 2014 Ness Cross Country LE is the first time they worked together on one bike instead of three. This translates to bold paint and fine trim, diamond-cut cylinder heads and slim, blacked-out windscreen, stylish like an Oscar de la Renta tux on the red carpet.
But a shiny red ride is worthless to me if it doesn’t function. I had miles to cover and would be living out of its saddlebags for the next five days. First thing I did is stuff those saddlebags, grateful they easily held clothes, cameras, laptop and backpack within its 21.3 gallons of storage. Lock up nice and tight, too, which gave me peace of mind when we parked to walk around the rally, sometimes stashing high dollar camera equipment in the bags.
Getting out of Austin was a mess. Traffic literally stretched to Bastrop before we broke free. My riding buddy Tony said it felt like “Little Houston” getting out of town. As we traveled, I could feel the newness of the bike, stiff levers and firm seat, gears still settling in the tranny and valves still breaking in. It feels good to finally get out of town and open up the Cross Country’s Freedom 106, its low-end surge sending us quickly to freeway speeds. Fifth-gear roll-ons leave big rigs and commuter cars in our wake, the only ones we couldn’t shake are ranchers in big dualies with high horsepower engines. We don’t mind sharing the road as the sun sets on our way to Galveston.
The Ness Cross Country makes the 200-mile ride a breeze. With music pumping through the speakers in the front fairing, a few hours feels more like one. The riding position leaves back and legs almost perpendicular, it’s a natural reach to the bars, and I like the way the long floorboards allow me to shift around. The boards are up enough to allow for plenty of lean, the Cross Country sure-footed in the twists and turns of Texas Hill Country.
The 2013 Lone Star Rally sees plenty of slow-speed cruises along the Seawall and down The Strand. The striking red and black Ness Cross Country fits right in with the slew of custom baggers in the crowd. I’d take the functionality of the Cross Country over a custom dresser decked out in a monster 26-inch front hoop any day. While its power and stability has
We hit up the Iron Works for the best beef ribs around while rumbling around Austin on the Ness Cross Country.
Now this is how they do lunch in Texas. The combo plate at the Iron Works features a Flintstone-size beef rib.
already earned our respect on the open road, the Victory bagger demonstrates it handles slow-speed maneuvering with poise as well thanks to a low center of gravity in a well-balanced bike that steers with little effort.
On the day of our ride back up to Austin we’re greeted by grey clouds and wind-whipped whitecaps in the Gulf of Mexico. Winds blow crossways against us as we parallel the coast before turning north to Austin. The horizon is painted in purples and greys and the roads are wet but the storm is always just ahead of us. By the time we hit I-10, we finally catch the squall and the temperature drops a good ten degrees. Unprepared for rain, I put my faith in my leather Icon 1000 gear, Bell Star Helmet, and faired bagger. The Ness Cross Country is heavy enough that it keeps constant contact with the road, the aerodynamic shape of the front fairing cutting a path through the rain. Air is rushing over the shorty windscreen if I sit straight up, but it’s high enough to tuck into to send most of the air over me. Under these conditions I’m grateful for its standard ABS. Fortunately, we never have to use it.
The air the following morning is crisp and clean thanks to the prior day’s storms. My friend Tony has a pad out by Bergstrom, so I practice the Austin tradition of crashing on a friend’s couch after a night of Mexican food and margaritas. I’ve got a half day to cruise around my old stomping grounds before I have to get the Ness Cross Country back to Kent Powersports in Kyle and head to the airport.
Thanks to innumerable construction projects around Austin, the roads are chewed up to hell. Texans love their old Ford trucks and classic automobiles, evident by the big oil puddles I see at almost every stop light. The suspension on the Ness Cross Country is eating just about everything up, the fork occasionally hitting the end of its travel on direct drops in potholes.
The area has changed so much since I lived there .The junction of I-35 and William Cannon wasn’t the spaghetti bowl it is now. The airport was still in the middle of town. A few less skyscapers graced the skyline as well.
But turning down Congress Avenue, the dome of the capitol building coming into view, the familiarity returns. The storefront facades of the buildings remain the same, kitschy stores and trendy eateries. A little further down the weathered yellow marquee and faded neon sign of the Continental Club greets me like an old friend. I park the Victory below a mural of Stevie Ray and Jimi Hendrix, check out the collection of flyers stapled to the board and listen for any hint of music spilling from its doors. If these walls could only talk. All I hear is the steady drone of traffic passing by.
I dodge and weave down Congress to take a cruise down 6th Street and beyond. Though the names on most of the marquees have changed, its vibe remains the same. I head down Guadalupe, take a ride down The Drag, the street
overflowing with UT students in between classes. The old outdoor marketplace my friend Tony used to sell his handmade jewelry is no longer around. I chuckle to see The Hole in the Wall bar is still open. I end up at my favorite BBQ joint, the Iron Works, to feast on a Texas-sized lunch out on the patio by the creek. Inside are blue and white checkerboard tables with rolls of paper towels ready for sauce-soaked fingers. You won’t find meatier smoked ribs anywhere.
Before heading out, I snap a shot of the Ness Cross Country with the complimentary shades of the red-tinned building of the BBQ joint in the background. It’s time to go see Stevie Ray, so I shoot back across Congress Avenue and head toward Auditorium Shores.
He stands above a steady stream of joggers passing by on the bike path, guitar in hand, hat on head, permanently captured in a stoic stance. I sit below his statue, see glimmers of sun reflecting off the buildings across the river, watch a rowing team paddle in perfect unison on the Colorado, listen to the pat-pat-pat of joggers feet on gravel paths passing by. Every person who sees me sitting with Stevie Ray offers a smile, his larger-than-life persona still possessing a magical effect. Sitting in a beautiful spot in a park beside the river, the heartbeat of the city pulsing around him, I think he’d be happy having this as the symbolic resting space of his spirit. I head back to the Ness Cross Country with a smile as I hum a bar of “Superstition.”