PERU, Mass. — Doug Haskins is hooked on his hog.
Almost every day, rain or shine, he rides his rumbling, chrome-laden Harley-Davidson from home to his job as a mechanic a few towns away.
On weekends, he can easily ride 250 miles in a day just for fun, his wife jumping on the back.
"We just get on and go," he says.
The call of the road is loud and clear not just for Haskins, but for a lot of his neighbors as well. The small town of Peru where he lives in the Berkshire Hills in western Massachusetts, and a scattering of towns nearby, have the highest rates of motorcycle ownership in the state. Nearly 7% of the vehicles registered here are motorcycles, compared with some towns in the more affluent, densely populated eastern part of the state, where motorcycles can account for 1% or less of the vehicles.
Local motorcycle owners say the statistics ring true. They find western Massachusetts an excellent place to ride, with picturesque scenery, hills and twisting routes that challenge bikers to maneuver their machines -- without the frustrations of traffic.
As an added bonus, riders can also easily cruise from western Massachusetts into rural areas of neighboring New York, Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Along with Peru, a town with only two flashing yellow lights to its name, the tiny communities of Tolland, Florida, Windsor, Washington and Savoy have the highest rates of motorcycle ownership in the state.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the posh Boston suburbs of Wellesley and Dover, motorcycles accounted for 1% or less of the vehicles owned, according to an Associated Press review of Registry of Motor Vehicles data.
"Western Massachusetts has some of the most beautiful roads in the country," says Dana Rivers, one of Haskins' neighbors and an assistant director of the Berkshire Hills Harley Owners Group.
To Rivers, riding a motorcycle gives a feeling of freedom and a unique sensory experience.
"When you ride anywhere in the United States, you actually get to feel, smell and kind of taste the areas that you're going through. It's not like a car. You can smell the flowers. You can smell the apple blossoms," he says.
Rivers also believes there may be something slightly anti-establishment about people who are attracted to the area -- which is rural, yet just two hours from Boston or New York -- that makes them more likely to own motorcycles.
"It's people that don't really like to conform to everyday living," he says.
Glen Burdick, highway superintendent in the town of Florida, says that while taking it slow on the back roads, he has smelled people's cooking and seen wildlife, including moose, bear, turkeys and deer.
"It's just really nice to buzz around up here," he says.
Fifty-four-year-old Ed Stadlen, of Millis, who runs the New England Riders Internet forum, says western Massachusetts is well-known among motorcycling enthusiasts in his group, which includes more than 200 people from all over New England and beyond.
Stadlen says the Mohawk Trail, or Route 2, in northwestern Massachusetts, is a particular favorite among his group.
"It winds nicely through some hills, and it has what motorcyclists call 'twisties' on it," he says. "A twisty is a nice, winding, usually back road with not a lot of traffic so you can enjoy yourself, see the scenery and have a nice time at the same time."
Incomes are generally lower in western Massachusetts than in the eastern part of the state, and motorcycles can be a less-expensive means of transportation. But because they can't be driven year-round, they are usually "secondary transportation," says Mike Flynn, director for the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
"This is more of a lifestyle choice to a certain extent," he says. "The open road is the attraction."
Haskins, a selectman in Peru, has been riding since he was about 12 and has two motorcycles.
Wearing his wraparound sunglasses as he pilots his bike up Route 143 in Peru, he cuts a slightly menacing figure. In person, though, he breaks into a warm smile as he talks about his hobby.
"When I am on this, all my work is out of my mind. I don't think of nothing else.... I like the freedom of just being out there and having the wind in your face and enjoying every minute of it," he says.