Ultimate Motorcycling 20th Anniversary; Jess McKinley Reflects

My dad taught me about gratitude from a very early age. Whenever I was upset or unhappy about anything, he would always remind me to be grateful because “we had it made,” as he would say. It sounded strange, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. We didn’t have extra money lying around, and we surely didn’t have any of the fancy things those other folks had. But slowly, I began to understand what he was talking about.

Editor’s Note: This month, we are celebrating Ultimate Motorcycling‘s 20th anniversary. We will be publishing reflections from members of the Ultimate Motorcycling staff and team. Ultimate Motorcycling Associate Editor Jess McKinley looks back, starting at the beginning of his motorcycling career.

Ever since I was about six years old and could reach the passenger pegs on my dad’s 1972 Honda CB175, he and I would go for overnight motorcycle campouts. The CB175 is a tiny little bike by modern standards, but to my young self, it was the mightiest of machines. With a metallic blue paint job and two shiny chrome exhaust pipes, it made the little peach fuzz on my arms stand up just looking at it.

ultimate motorcycling 20th anniversary - Jess McKinley

We’d depart from our modest house in East Ventura, California, after dinner in the summertime, when it was plenty warm and the sun didn’t set until 8 p.m. My dad carefully bungee-corded my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun upright to the back of the sissy bar. He then strapped my best little stuffed animal doggie, Junior, to the top of the pad on the front side of the sissy bar, just above my head. I thought this arrangement was absolutely magnificent, and I’m sure my gapped-tooth grin was magnified by the clear bubble shield on my open-faced Bell helmet for all to see.

Bedrolls fastened fore and aft, the little CB175 trudged up the twisty Maricopa Highway through the town of Ojai, navigating the twists and turns until we came to Wheeler Gorge campground in the Los Padres National Forest.

We didn’t have a tent, cots, or air mattresses, and we never even thought of bringing any of that stuff. My dad slept on top of the picnic table in his bedroll, and I slept on the bench seat below in my G.I. Joe flannel sleeping bag. Using our rolled-up jeans as pillows, slumber always found us quickly.

Breakfast was little individual boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with water and powdered milk poured directly into the box—just the sustenance we needed before embarking on the long way home. We’d pull off the tarmac to check out an old, abandoned cabin in a shadowy hollow, or spend some time next to Matilija Creek so my dad could lubricate the chain with a can of Pennzoil. I’d use that time to cool down in the creek and try my best to shoot fish with my trusty BB gun. My dad would chuckle, knowing that the BB could barely break the surface of the water. Nonetheless, he encouraged me and never mentioned that part to Mom.

Heading home on the CB175, I was overcome with what I know now to be an immense feeling of gratitude. I had my best stuffed animal Junior watching over me, my good old dad solidly in front of me, and hypnotic asphalt blurring by beneath me. It was this moment of oneness, of peacefulness—I realized that my dad was right, and he had always been right. We did have it made.

Kawasaki KX125

Little did I know then, but that moment spawned a series of events that charted the course for the rest of my life. I saved my money, and by the time I was 14 years old, I finally got my first dirt bike—a lime green 1987 Kawasaki KX125 Works Replica. I was beaming with pride, and it didn’t matter that I could barely kick it over and was a newbie to a clutch and manual transmission. I was smitten, and I knew that two wheels were my ticket to ride, literally, and a wonderous journey lay in front of me.

Years of off-road and hard-enduro racing got me interested in observed trials as a way to hone my skills, and that’s where I met Ultimate Motorcycling Editor Don Williams. Don and I immediately hit it off. He mentored me into the moto-journalism world, demonstrating how to fairly evaluate performance, suss out utility and purpose, and refine my appreciation for the myriad of nuances among manufacturers, engineering ethos, and the history and pedigree behind the motorcycles of today.

Every time I throw a leg over a motorcycle, whether a lightweight motocross bike, a big-bore adventure bike, or a rumbling cruiser, I’m overcome with that same feeling, the one I felt riding on the back of my dad’s Honda CB175. I do, indeed, have it made, and for that, I am immensely grateful. Cheers to all of my friends and riding buddies at Ultimate Motorcycling, and here’s to another amazing 20 years. We may not be the biggest media empire, but we have it made.

Dedicated to Braden ‘Mac’ McKinley (1942-2021)