What is it about a scooter that makes people smile?
Maybe it’s the colors many come in — hues of yellow, red, turquoise and pink. Or maybe it’s the “toot-toot” of a scooter horn or the way riders seem to zip effortlessly around town.
Either way, with a built-in “cool” factor and with the price of gas on the rise, more Napa residents are discovering this low-cost and high-fun means of transportation.
One group of Napans has bonded over a shared scooter passion — the members of the Napa Valley Scooter Club. Established in 2003, the club meets monthly for group rides and socializing.
On Aug. 18, the group hosted a scooter “rally,” inviting scooter lovers from all over the Bay Area to meet in Napa for the 2012 “Twisted Vine Scooter Stomp,” a 70-mile excursion through wine country.
“It’s our way of giving back the scooter community,” said John Curnutt, one of the founders of the club who happens to own three scooters. “Everyone wants to ride in Napa Valley.”
“Buying two Vespas is better than marriage counseling,” Napa scooter club member Thea Witsil half-joked. Witsil and her husband, Bruce Wilson, just bought a pair of the Italian-made scooters in October — one in bronze and one in red.
“I’ve always wanted one,” Witsil explained. “I call her my ‘little red hot tamale,’” she said.
Riding a scooter “puts gas in my tank,” said Witsil, 55. “It’s put new pep into the marriage.” Also, “this crowd is a hootenanny and a half,” she said.
The first thing a visitor might notice about scooter devotees is that there’s no one “type” of rider, scooterists say. A wide range of ages, from 20-somethings to those who looked to be in their 70s, met at a city parking lot on Third Street for the aforementioned day-long Scooter Stomp.
“You get this big fat smile on your face” when riding on a scooter, said scooterist Midori Morgan of Napa. Morgan rides a navy Vespa scooter with a personalized license plate that read “VESBUG.” An unusual cup holder dangles from the handlebars — a single cowboy boot that matches her fringed leather riding gloves. The boot comes in handy for holding a water bottle while out riding, she said.
Morgan said she’s been riding her Vespa since September 2009. While she still has a truck for her work with horses, “I sold my car and got a scooter” as her other mode of transportation, she said.
“I had friends telling me that was really a stupid idea, that I would regret not having the car, but I have never regretted it. I just love my scoot,” she said.
With his twisted handlebar mustache, cheerful greetings in Italian and a silver and maroon Piaggio scooter, Michael Cáceres of Napa certainly looks the part of the Italian scooter aficionado.
“I like the openness of riding,” the Napan said. “I prefer riding my scooter than driving my car.”
Cáceres talked of feeling the wind rushing around him and the near panoramic view from his scooter. “It’s that whole freedom thing.”
“Never before did I hang out with so many people with tattoos,” said Suellen Darblay with a laugh. Darblay, 60, is a home health occupational therapist. The Napa resident said she rides her red Vespa to work.
For the Scooter Stomp, Darblay wore silver scooter earrings and a commemorative T-shirt from a rally she attended in June in Wisconsin. Darblay said she rode more than 4,000 miles to join the multi-day event.
“It’s just so much fun,” she said. “I love the scooter culture and people.”
Joyclin Whelply met the Napa Valley Scooter Club after arriving on her yellow 250cc Vespa from Stockton.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Whelply, who has been riding scooters for 11 years.
Why yellow? “It’s the fastest color,” she smiled.
Whelply said the camaraderie of scooterists is one thing she especially likes about the two-wheelers. “I’ve met so many people” from all over the country, she said.
A bunch of Bastards — officially called the “Royal Bastards” — from Sonoma County rolled into town for the mid-morning ride. Riders had adopted nicknames such as “Commie Bastard” and “Blushing Bastard.”
The group wore black leather vests with colorful scooter-themed patches, pins, and a “Bastards” coat of arms that features a wasp-like scooter rider, flames and a bird with wings spread. The word “Vespa” means “wasp” in Italian.
Ray Landis, also known as “Boisterous Bastard,” said he used to ride motorcycles. But after back pain, he switched to scooters, which he said were more comfortable.
Landis rides a Suzuki Burgman 650, which to a scooter novice may actually look like more of a motorcycle. He says the scooter world is less “cliquey” than some motorcycle clubs. “I’ve met people from every economic background,” he said. “We all have one thing in common — we love to ride scooters.”
Wearing a “scooter skirt,” Lauren Harp from the San Francisco Scooter Girls left the city early that morning to meet up in Napa. Her skirt was like a wide apron made of quilted fabric that she wore belted around her waist. It keeps her from getting too cold while driving, she said. Harp said she enjoys meeting up for rallies.
“It almost feels like a parade” when a large group of riders gets together, she said.
Harp was joined by fellow Scooter Girl Rhonda Price, also of San Francisco, who said she has been riding scooters since 2005.
“It’s the most fun ever,” she said. “I get to be in a scooter scene with lots of friends.”
Price had ridden to Napa on her Vespa 250 in “aviator gray.” At her garage in San Francisco, she also has a 1972 Vespa in white and a 2012 Genuine Buddy scooter, also in white, Price said.
“A lot of the rallies are vintage only,” she said, explaining her need for the older scooter.
Bill Johnson of Stockton said there’s “too much testosterone” with some motorcycle clubs. “Scooter people are so much friendlier than motorcycle people,” he said. “With Harley guys it’s about being macho and manly and tough. At scooter rallies we just want to have fun.”
There were no motorcycle people in hearing range when Johnson said this.
A scooter can cost from $1,000 to $15,000 for a restored vintage bike, said Teresa Howell of the Napa Valley Scooter Club. The vehicles are extremely fuel-efficient, leading some scooter riders to use license plate frames that read “70 mpg, how about you?”
After waiting for a few latecomers from the East Bay, the ride began at about 30 mph through downtown. Most riders rode solo, but several doubled up or rode “cupcake,” as scooterists call it. With 46 scooters, the group certainly attracted its fair share of attention from other motorists and pedestrians.
“Wow,” said one cyclist, who had pulled over to gape at the river of scooters flowing out of downtown. Others took photos or just stopped and stared at the scooter spectacle.
A pack of almost 50 scooters takes up its fair share of the road. Riding staggered or side by side, the group made its way up California Boulevard, and then onto Solano Avenue, hitting speeds close to 45 mph.
Approaching Yountville, the rally passed down Washington Street, generating more stares and photos from pedestrians.
Heading out of town, they headed for Lake Hennessey on their way toward Pope Valley. At one intersection, a media company looked to be in the middle of a photo shoot of a vintage Airstream trailer with two red leather chairs. Both parties waved to each other as they passed.
At certain intersections, two or three riders acted as escorts, temporarily stopping in the middle of the road so as to let drivers know the rally was approaching.
At another intersection, they passed a man on a Harley-Davidson. He declined to wave or even look at the group.
Some motorcyclists pretend the riders don’t exist, said one scooter rider.
A cool morning gave way to waves of heat as the group approached Angwin. The rally thinned out into a longer stream of scooters on the twisty country roads, riders leaning left or right into each curve. Passing through an almost-deserted main drag in Angwin, they descended down into the valley, headed toward St. Helena and lunch.
It was a great day for a scooter ride.