John Ray found his tonic in high school and never let go. He bought his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle in 1953. Now, his 23 acres off Zion Road in Pontotoc County are home to “20-something” Harleys in various states of repair.
“I get all out of sorts if I don’t get to ride,” he said. “I can have all kinds of aches and pains and get to riding and forget about them all. Time disappears. Yeah, yeah it does.”
Lately, he’s been riding a Heritage Softail and a Fat Boy because they’re the ones with insurance.
“My insurance has never been cheaper,” he said with smile.
The 1995 Fat Boy is a prize in the Harley community, he said. He’s got about 15 riding buddies, and they hit the road to different gatherings.
“That one gets more attention than any bike in my riding bunch,” he said. “They just walk up and check it out.”
He cranked it up and adjusted it to a low rumble: Bump-ba-da-dump, bump-ba-da-dump. “That thing makes music, doesn’t it?” he said. He lives where he keeps his bikes.
About 15 years ago, his home caught fire, so he moved into the neighboring building where he ran Ray’s Cycle Shop.
The blaze took all of his kids’ Christmas presents, as well as a Jeep, a Harley-Davidson and a Model A Ford with 13,000 miles on it.
It also destroyed nine books written and signed by Barry Hannah, the late bard of Oxford.
“He was a friend until he died. He spent a week with me one time. I saved his life,” Ray said. “He was going to ride out to California and do a story on the Hell’s Angels. Me and my girlfriend kept him here, and I worked on his bike and talked him out of going, so I saved his life.
You know they would’ve killed him. Hell’s Angels, man.”
Ray shut down the business a while back, but there are rows and rows of bike supplies, along with clothes, cases of oil, portraits of family members, old fans and much more.
An earthquake would cause a sure disaster. “You ain’t kidding,” he said.
Bikes are everywhere.
Some are buried or covered up, so an untrained visitor would likely miss many of them.
See where that dog’s curled up? Under a motorcycle chassis.
And those old cassette tapes? Piled on top of another bike.
It’s hard to tell by looking at it, but the “American Pickers” on The History Channel have helped Ray straighten up his property.
“They cleaned me out of every old Indian (motorcycle) I had,” he said.
Several decades ago, Ray and some friends were riding back from Tennessee when they saw a shed on fire next to a house. They turned around and put out the fire.
“We got a Corvette out of there and a Harley,” he said, “and we stopped it from burning down this lady’s house.”
She wrote a letter to her son who was serving in Vietnam. It was his Corvette and Harley. He wrote back and told her to give Ray the remains of an Indian that also had been `saved from the flames.
Ray took it, and it sat around on his property for years until “American Pickers” visited.
“The pickers bought that thing. They gave me $3,800 for the rolling chassis. They probably got $10,000 for it,” he said, then added. “I don’t know how much they got for it, really.”
Not that he’d mind if they’d made a profit. That’s the great cycle of buying and trading in action. Ray once bought two Indian wheels with the original Firestone tires for $75 from a guy who’d found them in a Dumpster.
“The pickers gave me $950 for them,” he said with a shrug. Others have come to walk among the decaying trucks, cars and motorcycles in his yard, and they’ve searched through his three buildings filled with both shiny and rusty treasures.
“A whole bunch of them since the pickers were here,” he said. “I really got to where I wouldn’t let them in. So many of them were rip-offs. It’s fun if they’re not trying to put things in their pockets.”
He knows he could go on the Internet and convert his vast, eclectic holdings into cash, but the idea holds no appeal.
In the back of his barn, there’s a motorcycle that a friend used to race. He’ll probably let his friend have it someday, but that day hasn’t come yet.
In the same barn, he found an old flywheel from a Harley on the ground. He held it, brushed it off, enjoyed it, then left it near a faded Pepsi machine that might still have money and broken drink bottles inside.
A busted toy gun on the ground just outside the barn door reminded him of his five boys. He carried the gun and played with it in his hands before putting it down one place or another.
One of his sons lives with Ray in the shop turned homeplace. The 23-year-old has a seizure disorder, so Ray doesn’t like to get too far away from him.
There was a time when he’d hop on a Harley and ride to the West Coast or up to Canada, but he’s content to stick to the back roads in Northeast Mississippi.
“I like to travel around here. I like to get on a different road every day I ride. I’ve found roads not even 12 miles from here that I’ve never been on,” he said. “I was the first one to get on that new road they built for Toyota. Before
it opened, that Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was on it.”
He goes alone or with his riding friends. It’s a point of pride not to let his 75 years show when he’s out with his buddies.
“Nearly all the boys I ride with have back rests on their bikes. I’m the oldest one, and I don’t have a back rest,” Ray said. “They’ll stop and I’ll say, ‘Why did you stop?’ “ ‘To let you rest.’
"Shoot, I can ride farther than any of them.”