Motorcyclist feeds soul on solo rides
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The three shiny motorcycles in his garage don't gather dust. Framed maps trace all those cross-country trips. Nearly 600 refrigerator magnets commemorate places he stopped along the way. Plaques and certificates salute his achievements in grueling rides sponsored by the aptly named Iron Butt Association.
Retired architect Steve Branner bought his first motorcycle in 1995. Never mind that he couldn't ride. Something about that gleaming purple Harley stole his heart.
Looking back on his full and busy life, he talks enthusiastically about the buildings he designed, the years of sailing, the fun he had playing banjo in a bluegrass band.
But nothing has ever excited him more than a roaring motorcycle and the come-hither call of the open road.
At 68, he's always ready to ride.
"I grew up in South Charleston. I was 12 when my parents built a house here in Weberwood. My dad was a chemical engineer at Carbide. They came here in 1942 when he graduated from college. He grew up in Chicago and she was from Indianapolis. They both went to Purdue.
"I went to South Charleston High School and graduated in 1961. I thought I wanted to be an engineer like my father. Then I took a mechanical drawing course my senior year. Part of the course was drawing a house plan. I thought that was neat.
"I was accepted to three schools for engineering -- Purdue, University of Cincinnati and Ohio State. The only one with a decent architectural school was Cincinnati. I asked them to change my transcript. They had a co-op program where you go to school three months and work three months.
"After my sophomore year, I worked here at Zando Martin and Milstead. I worked there all my life. How many people do you know who worked in the same place for almost 50 years?
"In 1982, another gentleman and I bought the company. I was the president until 2008. I retired in 2010.
"Every project had its own interest. I was directly involved with the CASCI building and the new Sears store in Town Center. We probably did about 40 other Sears stores in the eastern U.S. They liked what we did. Your reputation is everything.
"We did the new Job Corps Center and the new Highland Hospital. I'm still involved somewhat with the new library building. We did a lot of work for Army National Guard.
"Dennis Difilippo, the owner the Harley Davidson shop in South Charleston, needed to expand his building and hired us to design the addition. I would go down and watch what was being done. You couldn't help but notice the motorcycles on the showroom floor.
"In August of '95, he got a bike in called a low rider. It was purple. It looked gorgeous. I couldn't ride a motorcycle, but I wanted it just to have it.
"I asked my wife, Nancy, what she would think if I bought a motorcycle. She said, 'Is your life insurance paid up?' My son Joe had had bikes. He went to the Harley shop and drove it home for me. He would ride it to the parking lot at the phone company and I would follow in my car, and he taught me how to ride it.
"When I first started riding from here, I was pretty nervous. It was a year before I got on the Interstate. I finally became proficient. The motorcycle became my therapy. Before that, I sailed a lot. I was big into sailing for 30 years, even traveled to regional regattas.
"I kept the boat at Cave Run Lake in Kentucky. To go sailing was a two-hour ride each way and I could only do it on weekends. When I discovered motorcycles, I could get on that bike after work and ride around the neighborhood for 15 or 20 minutes and I had my fix. So I sold the sailboat.
"I had that purple motorcycle three or four years. I've had a couple of BMWs. The Harley I have now is the fifth Harley I've owned.
"One day, I was reading a motorcycle magazine and there was an article about an organization called the Iron Butt Association. To belong, you had to ride 1,000 miles in 24 hours. When you do the math on it, it's not that difficult. It takes about 17 or 18 hours. The first ride I did, I rode to St. Louis. I left here about 4 in morning and got back at 9 or 10 at night.
"I remember pulling in the driveway and I felt so good, like, 'Look what I did!' You get a little certificate and a license plate. It's bragging rights more than anything else. I have 22 certificates.
"This isn't a sport for everybody. It's as much mental as physical. You've got to make sure your motorcycle is as comfortable as sitting on this couch, handlebars in the right place, seat right and feet in the right place. If you feel relaxed, you can go as far as you want.
"I got addicted. They have a number of certificate rides. One is the Saddle Sore 1,000. You ride 1,000 miles in 24 hours. They have the Bun Burner 1,500, riding 1,500 miles in 36 hours. In September of '99, I did that. I went by myself because didn't know anyone else crazy enough to do it.
"I rode from here to Tulsa, slept for seven or eight hours and rode on to Albuquerque. It took about 34 hours. And I felt pretty good.
"When you stop for gas, you eat a candy bar and drink a pop, but you don't want to hang around because you are on a mission.
"I've been to every state, all the Canadian provinces that border the U.S., Mexico and Hawaii. There was an Iron Butt ride in Hawaii I did with a group -- five times around the big island, about 22 miles around.
"The most interesting trip I took was the Iron Butt Rally, an 11-day event, a scavenger hunt on steroids they call it. You ride about 1,000 miles a day. There are checkpoints and places where you go, and have to take a picture to document your ride. On the first five days, I ended up in Nova Scotia and rode back to St. Louis. The next six days, I went out to California and back.
"Riding by yourself is relaxing. It enlarges the soul. I don't care to ride in a big group. Three or four is fine. A group of 20 is dangerous.
"I just finished the Four Corners Tour last year going from Maine to Key West to California to Washington State in a 21-day period. I did the Iron Butt National Parks Tour. I've won the Harley Davidson mileage contest a couple of years. I rode 37,000 miles in 2009. Last year I won it with 34,000 miles. I rode to Alaska last year.
"There was an ABCs of Touring thing that Harley has, and I came in third in the nation in 2009. You do counties from A to Z and you can pick any county you want. You have to take a picture with the county sign and your bike.
"I'm going to Montana in August for a bike rally. I'd really like to ride in New Zealand and in Europe in the Alps. That's on my bucket list.
"I'm going to ride as long as I feel safe, until it gets to the point where I've lost my balance or can't see or too weak to hold up the bike. If you had asked me 20 years ago if I would be riding a motorcycle approaching 70, I would have said you were nuts.
"Along with the motorcycle thing, I've got five banjos. At the University of Cincinnati, there were all these neighborhood bars with bands. Cincinnati was a bluegrass haven. I got to liking the music. A friend played the guitar and had a banjo he wanted to sell. This was 1965. I taught myself how to play.
"I knew Sam Houston at work. His father was Richmond Houston, a violinist with the Symphony. Sam and I would get together and try to play music. Steve Whisnand came to work for us and played guitar, and he was a decent singer. The three of us started playing and we ended up with six people and called ourselves the Back Porch String Band.
"During the Regatta in 1973, we just stood on the street and played. When it started raining, and played in an alcove near the old No. 8 Club. Ross Tuckwiller walked by. He ran No. 8. He asked if we'd like to play at No. 8. He said he couldn't pay us, but we could drink beer. We started playing there on Fridays. Capitol City Jamboree hired us. We played a lot at the Jamboree and at festivals and bars for about three years.
"Then we all were getting older and job responsibilities and children were tugging at our time, and the band broke up. Two or three times a year, we get together and pick and grin and talk over old times.
"I had a good career in architecture, but I enjoy retirement. I highly recommend it. Nancy and I have five children and six grandchildren. It's fun to hang out with them when we can."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.