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[whitespace] Michael Beattie
Road Thrill: The author and his beloved Vespa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, May 1981.

A Roman's Holiday

Driving cross-country on a Vespa isn't quite as crazy as it seems

By Michael Beattie

THE SCOWL on the Arizona State Trooper's face was replaced by a look of incredulity as he studied the license plate on my Vespa. "You rode all the way from New York on that?" It was August 1981, and I had only been in the States three months, but I knew without doubt this was not a good time to explain to the fierce man in the hat that I had come from New York via Guadalajara, Mexico. By now I was used to whipping out the Vespa's registration and proving that this was indeed a real motorcycle, boasting 15 freeway-legal horsepower. I resumed my interrupted journey to Lake Havasu in the torrid summer heat.

One of the hardest things about making a cross-country trip on a Vespa was convincing people the trip wasn't a stunt, or a crazy idea. My mother, bless her expansive Italian heart, was responsible for planting the scooter bug in my soul. She bought me a bright orange Vespa moped when I was just 12 years old, at a time when Italian law allowed 14-year-olds to ride mopeds. I immediately put my illegal Vespa to good use, traveling all over the mountains around my home in Umbria, a region that in those days boasted fewer miles of paved highway than converted farmhouses owned by émigré American artists.

Then I read about a crazed Italian who rode a Vespa from Milan to Tokyo through Iran and Afghanistan, among other places. When I met him at a motorcycle show in Milan he highly recommended the Vespa as a touring machine. So it was that when I landed in America I went straight to the Vespa dealer in Brooklyn and plunked down $1,500 for a brand-new P200E. I rode down to Key West, via pouring rain in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit a car and went flying on the Overseas Highway, my penalty for getting distracted by the tropical waters around me. The leg shield and one side of the engine cover got scraped, but everything else, including me, was fine. I slept in the streets of Guadalajara to save money, and I rode to see the Pacific Ocean at Mazatlan.

"Do you know Vespas are made in Italy?" I was sitting in the early morning sun in Lee Vining admiring the view across the California desert when a beautiful stranger with an accent approached me. Because I was from Umbria and Giovanna was from neighboring Tuscany, she agreed to load her pack on top of mine and we rode off on my uncomplaining steed. Talk about a Vespa changing one's life.

After several years, my relationship with Giovanna ended in tears, but I happily kept my Vespa for a decade, commuting to Cabrillo College and later to work. When, in a moment of madness, I decided to move to Florida, I sold the scooter to a couple of kids for $150. When they rode my machine away, there were tears in my eyes. I still wish I could buy that Vespa back. Does anybody have a white 1981 P200E with a license plate holder from King's Motorcycles, Brooklyn? I miss my long-lost traveling companion.

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From the May 30-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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