SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
August 23, 1971
By any name, Steve McQueen gets all revved up over dirt bikes. Slamming one across the California desert is now his Great Escape
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August 23, 1971

Harvey On The Lam

By any name, Steve McQueen gets all revved up over dirt bikes. Slamming one across the California desert is now his Great Escape

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"I've tried to raise him as a real kid," Steve explains. "He likes to ride in the desert and he bought his own bike, a Yamaha 60-cc Mini Enduro, out of his own pocket money. But his schoolwork has to be good if he's going to ride. I grounded him for eight weeks earlier this year when his grades got sloppy. He's shaped up nice since then. Christ, riding has got to be good for a kid. I was stealing cars at his age."

It is egg-frying hot around the pool. Even the water temperature is an incredible 92� thanks to the searing sun, and no one but Chad wants to ride until the shadow of Mount San Jacinto gets a bit taller. McQueen's other guests are content to lie lizardlike in the sun until then. Roger Riddell is a lean, longhaired dirt rider from L.A. who has taken time off from the two-wheel wars to beat the promotional drums for Bruce Brown's motorcycle movie. Morris Langbord is dark and hawk-beaked, an "environmental lighting specialist" when he is not racing through the desert. One can only suppose that "environmental lighting" is a euphemism for comedy: Langbord certainly brightens his surroundings with a ready, quippy wit. Just now, in response to a jocular put-down by Riddell, he has dumped a glass of ice cubes on Roger's chest with an admonishment to "cool it." Dirt-rider tough, Riddell scarcely flinches. The thirsty sun evaporates the ice in two minutes flat.

The talk touches, desultorily, upon the topics important to motorcycle men: famous spills and fractures; the relative worth of various shock absorbers, gearboxes and tread-shaping techniques. "Hey, Morris," says McQueen. "The next time you go by Bud Ekins' shop I want you to do something for me. You know that 1924 Indian Chief I restored—the one with the side hack? Well, Bud clipped the wheels off of it from me—the original wheels. Every time I come over, he hides them and I can't steal them back. Maybe if you...."

"No way," says Morris. "Do your own salvage jobs. My picture's up in too many post offices already." Yaketyyak, but their eyes keep watching the sun as it slopes toward the mountain. Finally the angle is just about right. "O.K.," says McQueen, hitching up his Levi's like an old gunfighter. "Time for a ride. Let's get it on."

The closing scene: four bikes in the desert. The interplay of the riders as they weave and leap their machines, like stampeding impala. It is a series of interlocking races, or fragments of races, with each rider picking up, without an exchange of words, on the challenge of the next patch of ground. Roger spots a tricky wash with an approach route made even trickier by a staggered stand of manzanita, and as he swerves his bike toward it Steve and Morris take up the chase. There is only one route over the lip of the wash, and each man tries to reach it first, with Chad in vain but straining pursuit. Collision seems imminent, but Roger gets there just a wheel on top, and the others slip grudgingly into line for the jump. On the next extemporaneous heat McQueen wins the sprint into a sandy corner, and Roger, having come in too deep and now unable to pass, lays his bike on its side and slides clear of the corner in a swirl of spokes and dirt. As he gets to his feet, the alert concern of his companions gives way abruptly to raucous, chivying laughter. "Hey, man, you blew it, man, you road-hog, that'll learn ya!" Roger flips them the bird, restarts the bike and the chase is on once more. At one point Chad loses a plug over his gearbox and is sprayed with oil. "Yuccchh!" he screams, shuddering as he tries to wipe the oil off. "I can't stand it!" It is a strange moment, embarrassing to the men. Chad is, after all, still a little boy, with a kid's sudden incomprehensible hang-ups. Steve reassures him that oil doesn't hurt and tells him that if he's going to own a bike, he's got to make sure that everything on it is buttoned up tight before he rides it. They stuff a chunk of cloth into the hole and roar off once again.

The desert is covered with animal signs. Jackrabbits and ground squirrels have been this way, and there are the tracks of a long-loping coyote. As the day cools, the hawks come out, broad-winged buteos with undersides as pale as the desert sky, swinging in search of dinner. Coveys of Gambel's quail call from the cool spots. "There used to be antelope around here," says Riddell during one of the breaks, "but the railroad finished them in one year. They were afraid to cross the tracks, so the herd split up and finally died out. It sounds ominously like a metaphor—but meaning what?" McQueen looks serious during the exchange, perhaps recalling that long-ago run he had made in hopes of conquering the desert, but then he flashes the happy, movie-star grin. "What'll we do for dinner tonight? How's about Mexican food? Margaritas, frijoles refritos, enchiladas, peppers...." "Yeah," says Morris, "and after that a 50-gallon drum of Maalox."

The long shot that follows puts it all together: four bikes in silhouette, running toward the scattered golden lights of Palm Springs. No music, just the fading, up-and-down cacophony of the engines. Harvey Mushman rides again. And again and again.

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