Crash !

“There are only two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have crashed and those who are going to crash.” I have heard that cliche since I began riding at age 14, but I still don’t believe that pavement munching is inevitable. However, I have done my share, usually caused by my own errors but sometimes by the kind of random chance that fuels the cliches about our sport. Below are a few examples from my experiences on the road.

The first motorcycle crash I recall clearly was on Carter Avenue in Ashland, Ky when I was 14. A friend and I were headed downtown on my 50cc Puch moped, with him sitting precariously on the rear fender rack, the heels of his Converse tennies on the ends of the rear axle. A large brown dog darted from between two parked cars directly in front of my wheel. Contact was immediate and we, the three of us went down on the pavement in a tangle of 4 arms, 8 legs, one tail and a moped. When the short slide stopped he and I were laying spread eagled on the asphalt, watching as the dog, apparently no worse for the wear, got up, barked at us, and ran off, no doubt thinking that these humans were unreasonably dangerous. We, however, were scratched and abraded, even at the 20mph that was our usual top speed two up, since our ATGATT of the day was shorts, t-shirts and canvas tennis shoes and none of these things had held up well. We retrieved the moped, banged the handlebars into a reasonable semblance of straight, and remounted to continue our important errand, which probably was just to wander around downtown Ashland to bump into others we knew would be doing the same thing. The road rash on our elbows and knees was no big deal for young teen boys in the early 1960’s and we may even have been proud of it. I don’t recall my parents even remarking upon it.

On another occasion, about the same time frame, I was behind the elementary school that was across the street from my house, using the steep hill that served for sledding in winter for jump practice. I would wind up the moped as far as it would go in first, twist the grip to shift into second and attack the hill hoping to get a little air under the wheels. Another acquaintance showed up to ride around on the school grounds and in the woods behind them on his “hardware store” minibike. It was one of those with a pull-start engine in a hardtail frame and spindly looking forks that offered minimal undamped suspension to an 8 inch implement style wheel. I swapped machines with him, each of us wanting to see what the other’s ride offered. As I came up the hill this time, a bit faster, I cleared the top with a few feet of clearance….and watched as the front wheel, still attached to the bottom portion of the forks, parted company and fell to earth. As did I a second later. I rolled and tumbled, along with the minibike, coming to a stop relatively uninjured…which was just as well since the minibike’s owner was interested only in the health of his machine. He did tell me that this had happened to him before (“did you not think to mention it to me ?”) and this time, like then, the bike was fine. We stuck the tubes back in the holes and he rode off.

Much of my riding in the 70’s and 80’s was done off road and in Observed Trials competition, both venues for more get-offs than I can recall or anyone would want to read about.

In the late 80’s I had acquired a 1984 BMW R80GS, one of the many bikes I wish I’d never parted with, and enjoyed the nimbleness, the upright riding position and the compliant, long travel suspension. I was in a neighborhood near mine in Lexington, just riding around to unwind after a day at work, and as I came around a curve, leaned over a fair amount, there was a car stopped in the road. I braked, lost the front end and went down, sliding on my shoulder and left side. As I was doing that, I watched as the GS bounced off of its crash bars, back onto its wheels and meandered slowly across the street to a nearby yard where it came to a stop and laid over on its side in the grass, engine still idling for a few moments, to wait for me to get up and join it. I was reminded of this crash when I saw a video of BMW’s new self-driving motorcycle. If only my R80GS had been fitted with this technology, it could have just gone home and waited for me in the garage.

In the mid- 90’s, I was on my way to a Reg Pridmore CLASS session at Mid-Ohio race course, riding my 1993 R100GS/PD when I stopped in at the ATM in Eastland shopping center for some trip cash. As I was leaving the machine, focused on the exit of the lot, I made a quick turn and then I was on the ground, sliding. When I came to a stop and walked back to the PD, I could see that there was a small spill of coolant from a car on the asphalt lot, smeared by my front tire. Only about 4 inches square, it was at the exact point where I had made my turn and with essentially zero traction, the front had dropped out, putting me down. No damage, really (this is, after all, a PD) but a decent scrape on the underside of the valve cover. Later at the track school, young guys were circulating through the pits after the first session, checking out each other’s tires for comparisons of lean angle . Mine were scuffed out to the edges, not that difficult on an “adventure tire” of the era, but they were really captivated by the scrape on the valve cover which seemed to suggest that I had been touching down hard parts at extreme angles. I mostly let the macho youngsters think whatever they wanted, but if asked, I ‘fessed up that I wasn’t still on the bike when the scrape happened.

The worst one, in terms of injury, happened in 1999 at less than walking pace, in Virginia.

Brenda and I were on the black 98 R1100 GS, my first brush with modern technology, a bike that whispered seductive things in my ear to make me ride like I was a lot better at it than I was, but that’s not what got me. The fuel injection on that bike was problematic, BMW not yet having perfected their system. At constant speeds it would “hunt “, never being able to maintain a steady RPM and sometimes at low speeds, just transitioning from closed throttle to open, it would cough and die. I had taken a wrong turn up an incline and, as I was making the U turn to go back, the engine died. Suddenly without power, the bike lurched to the right and I tried to put down my foot to stop it. Unfortunately that leg was about 24 inches shorter than what was necessary on the slope and over we went. Brenda slid off the back, landing in a seated position unharmed. She described to me later that she watched as I was launched in an arc down the hill, landing on the single point of my right shoulder with a loud cracking sound. I recall the arc, having time to think that I had shoulder pads, then hearing the crack and knowing that things had just changed dramatically.

I got to my feet quickly and turned to check on Brenda who was standing up assuring me she was fine. But when I tried to reach out for the bike, my right arm wouldn’t raise..instead, the collarbone popped up like the Alien in that movie, trying to escape through the skin. Though it really hurt, I had to do it a couple of times just to see what was happening.

The 1100 was on its side, facing downhill. With Brenda’s help, I backed up to it and with my butt against the seat and my left hand on a frame rail, walked it upright onto the side stand. It started immediately (NOW the fuel system decides to work !) and after taking my left hand to raise my right arm onto the grip, found I could use the right hand for the brake and throttle as long as I didn’t have to lift it. I managed to get on and maneuver the machine into a position pointed downhill, Brenda climbed on the back and we set off for the nearest town with a hospital about 15 miles away. How Brenda had the nerve and trust to get on the bike, I don’t know. But there was no cell service, no sign of a dwelling near where we were and no traffic on the road, so it seemed like the only option at the time.

We pulled up to the Appalachian Regional Hospital that served the area, parked the bike and walked in. I suppose at that point I was still, against all evidence, hoping that some sort of splint could be fashioned to allow us to complete the trip. Brenda was not so convinced and as usual, she was right. In the ER, x-rays confirmed that I had a “comminuted fracture of the clavicle” meaning that I hadn’t just broken it, I had shattered it leaving jagged ends instead of a clean break. No surgery was required, but I wasn’t going to be riding anywhere for a while. The arm would be tied tightly to my chest in a sling. The ARC folks told us that, because they served a wide region, they had lodging rooms available to stay in for the night. Soon we were ensconced in what looked like a nice motel room, making arrangements for supper. The hospital cafeteria was closed, but there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that delivered. We learned that it had a minimum order for delivery and the staff here had just finished their meal break, so quickly the two of us were supplied with enough different dishes for a party of four, spread out on the bed in front of us. I called our son to make arrangements for him to come retrieve us and the bike-the first and only time I’ve ever had to do that. When he answered, I said, “we’ve had a little accident..” and he interrupted with, “Mom’s dead, isn’t she !”.. I assured him that she was alive, well and eating Mu Shu Pork at the moment and explained our predicament. He came the next day with my pickup truck and we started the return trip in a very different manner than I had planned 24 hours earlier.

On the Blue Ridge Parkway, just past Pisgah, route 276 heads downhill toward Cruso twisting and turning its way off the mountain. My brother in law Jay and I turned down the steep side road, him on his 1983 RT and me leading on my 93 R100PD, one spring day in, I think, the early 2,000’s. As we left the Parkway’s perfect pavement to head downhill, I thought “wow, this road’s in a lot worse shape” then there was the noise, BANG ! Skritttttttccccchh, of crash bars scraping along the pavement, the scene in front of me suddenly jerking up and down as my head bobbled, eyes wide open to a changed perspective as I was now a lot lower than seconds before,, watching my bike ahead of me sliding on its side in a long arc to a bumping stop, nose down in a ditch. I remember having my left hand outstretched, as if I could use the Force to bring the bike back to me. I heard Jay yelling “Don’t get up” but before I could process that information I was up and looking around to see if a car was coming as I headed toward the fallen BMW.

We had been going fairly slowly, no more than 25 or 30 mph, being careful. It was a steep downhill left turn, not particularly sharp. From my memory, I had just begun the process of a lean when there was the noise and the “does not compute ” sensation that what I intended to happen wasn’t and something quite unexpected was.

Reconstructing the scene, we learned that my front tire had hit a fine mix of sand and gravel from the deteriorating blacktop just exactly as I had tipped the bike easily into the turn, losing all traction and tucking the front tire under, putting the bike down immediately. Jay said it looked like someone had pulled on a cable, yanking the bike out from under me. The gravel/sand patch was composed of a fine mix of black pebbles in the shade from the direction we were going, so that it was in effect, invisible, though it could be seen from the other direction, in the bright sun disappearing into the shadow as we stood there looking up the hill. I was looking through the curve, ahead to the apex, and not down at the area right in front of my wheel, so the dark gravel in the shaded area hadn’t caught my attention. I know I’ve been through hundreds, if not thousands of sand and gravel patches on roads in all sorts of places, without more than a twitch at the bars. This one, however, was exactly at the point of turning, just the spot where the tire needed some traction and there was none to be had.

I went down so quickly that I didn’t put out a foot or a hand. Jay said I was still seated when the bike hit the ground and it slid away from me, with my body in the position of a man sliding into home base, head up and left hand outstretched. The design of the airhead BMW meant that the first thing that hit the ground was the crash bar, then the saddlebag, so my leg was not trapped underneath a sliding bike.

The bike needed no repair. I shredded a perfectly good ventilated Fieldsheer jacket and put a few small holes in my Aerostitch Darien overpants, got a small abrasion on my left boot, but that’s it. Not even a bruise, no scratches, nada, zip, zilch. I was a bit sore and stiff, but in advanced age, that’s the way I usually am, so I couldn’t really tell any difference. From that point in the trip forward, whenever I saw a rider and/or passenger dressed in tank top, shorts and flip-flops, I wanted to stop them and point to the torn places on my jacket and pants. If I hadn’t been wearing all the gear, all the time, I would have spent the rest of my vacation in the skin graft ward of a North Carolina hospital.

These aren’t the only times I’ve had an “incident” involving getting off a street bike unintentionally. But I wear good protective gear on every ride and so far the Virginia episode is the only one where I sustained any significant injury. Two thirds of the broken bones I have had in my long life have occurred while tripping over my own feet. But no one ever tells me I should give up walking. I am under no delusion about the possibilities for serious consequences from doing what I love to do, riding motorcycles, but like nearly everything in life, risks are inevitable and, with care, manageable.

There is a story which goes something like this. The racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio was quizzed by a reporter about the risks of driving racing cars. He asked the reporter, “do you expect that you will die in bed?” The reporter said he certainly hoped so, and Fangio replied, “then how do you have the courage to get in it each night ?”

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ADVENTURE. GO ON, HAVE ONE.

“For what is adventure, but inconvenience rightly considered?” (G.K. Chesterton, paraphrased, often attributed incorrectly to other writers.)

” An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered: an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered” G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908. (Often attributed to others, but it seems to be originally his)

Khalil Gibran wrote, “The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master”. It has long been one of my principles that a person has to get cold, wet and miserable sometimes so we can appreciate what comfortable feels like.

Everyone’s definition of an “adventure” is somewhat different, but most seem to have in common some aspect of pushing out of the comfort zone. I heard a speaker on the subject of “trust” talking about “a comfortable relationship with the unknown” and that seems equally applicable to the concept of “adventure”. For some, it can be extreme and most of us like reading the accounts of people who do extraordinary things in exotic places. But we know we won’t leave everything behind to follow those dreams. And that is a good thing, since if everyone did it, then it wouldn’t be extraordinary and those exotic places would get really crowded. Many of us never get far outside of our home area. We can embrace adventure travel, all of us, in some form between the extremes.

Recently I heard an advertisement recently for a “scheduled and scripted adventure”. It seemed to me to be an oxymoron

Stories about a trip where everything went well don’t sell books, so we hear about the mishaps and overcoming adversity, leading to a successful conclusion. And then too, stories don’t get written by the guy who quits in the first two weeks. (One American writer admitted that his round the world trip ended in the first few days after colliding with a bus in Mexico). In 1912, Carl Stearns Clancy and another rider began what probably was the first ever round the world motorcycle trip. Clancy’s companion wrecked his bike on the first day of the “round the world trip” and soon thereafter decided this adventure wasn’t for him and went home, leaving Clancy to finish it alone. Some want it more than others.

On the “Adventure Rider Radio” podcast, (https://adventureriderradio.com/listen) one can hear a wide variety of accounts, from the McGregor/Boorman no-expense-spared excursions to the Englishman who started out on a little coddiwomple and returned home 14 years later. He used no maps,(in South America, he said he “just kept the ocean on me right”) spoke no foreign languages, and “made do” with his skills and whatever came to hand, including meals made with roadkill. I particularly like the segments with Graham Field, a fellow who travels the world on an old KLR 650 and is brutally honest in his misgivings and, mistakes.

In my younger days, the later 1960’s and into the 70’s I would go out on my 250 (several different ones, at various times) and find a trail that meandered off into the woods in eastern Kentucky or West Virginia or Ohio and just take it to see where it went. In those times there weren’t many fences blocking roadside trails and the power lines and gas lines were wide open, unfenced and mostly unused. It was easy to go for miles across counties without ever touching pavement except to cross a road. I realize now that I was “trespassing” for the most part. But then, no one seemed to care as long as the rider left little evidence of his passing. ATV’s as we now know them didn’t yet exist, there were few people with 4WD vehicles used just for fun and not many motorcyclists of that time in my area cared to do what I was doing. There was no formal concept of “dual sport” motorcycles then, one just rode what one had, for whatever purpose seemed to be a good idea at the time. So the trails were not overused, the landowner was not confronted with hordes of machines tearing up the ground. One skinny teenager every now and then was not a great problem. When I did encounter a farmer or pipeline worker, the typical reaction was bemusement, wondering just how did this kid get way out here on that thing?

“Adventure” to me then meant seeing what was down a road or trail I didn’t yet know.

Now, after nearly 60 years in the saddle, I have motorcycled in all but two of the continental US states (not sure how I missed Nebraska and Louisiana) and in 16 foreign countries, eastern and western hemispheres, above and below the equator, often with my wife Brenda on the back or in a sidecar. We have had a lot of fun, a few mishaps (usually my own fault), but we have barely made a dent in the “places I’d like to go” list.

In the present, “adventure bikes” are a huge slice of the market these days, a segment that didn’t exist as a named category until the 80’s, when BMW came out with the GS series, bikes roundly criticized at the beginning as being too big for off road use and too tall and too slow for sporting use. The 800cc bikes, weighing a bit over 400 pounds, proved to be excellent for just going anywhere a rider wanted to go. Though the category is now one of the largest in motorcycle sales around the world, the genre has morphed and stretched into inclusion of anything with styling that reflects an idea of the originals, even if the resulting motorcycle is unhappy on anything more challenging than a well-graded gravel road. Many are now heavier and with more horsepower than what we used to consider as big road tourers.

In my experience-based opinion we, motorcyclists and the non-riding general public, place far too much emphasis on the size of the motorcycle in establishing its “legitimacy “ as a “real bike” for travel and adventure.

World traveler Austin Vince, who knows a thing or two about adventure, says “You’ll never wish you’d brought a bigger bike “. After picking it up for the fourth time in an hour on a remote trail or dirt road, lots of horsepower and the latest style doesn’t seem so important. Lois Pryce, as she has recounted in several excellent books, has been on the road for years, all over the world, with a Yamaha 225cc dual sport. (See her TED talk, “In Praise of Vulnerable Travel” here. https://youtu.be/QucYuQx7jnA)

Most of the world travelers and writers agree that over planning and over packing are the things to avoid. You don’t need most of what you think you need and if you really need it, chances are you can pick it up on the road. Most of what you think will go wrong, won’t, and when something does, you can handle it. You can. Trying to adhere to a rigid schedule and route means you miss a lot of what serendipity can offer.

I still adhere to the old notion that the best adventure bike is the one you have. No bike is “too small” to travel as far as you want to go. Get on it and go somewhere, out of your comfort zone. It will be fun. Just try not to hit anything big and you’ll do fine

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THERE HAS TO BE A FIRST ONE

Watching our dog Simon tonight exploring his world, following an agenda that he has in his mind but which is largely opaque to me without his keen senses, I think of how humans have been coexisting with dogs for millennia. (Some say 14,000 years ago, some put it back to 30,000 or more.) In the beginning , around the campfire, there must have been tension while the wolves pondered whether it would be easier to get some of the food the humans were eating or to kill and eat the humans. The humans viewed the wolves as a threat or even a potential food source if they could kill one without getting killed. Over the course of perhaps 1000 or more years they are developed a symbiotic relationship that eventually resulted in what we have today, where both species are different because of each other.

But there had to be a first one. There had to be the first proto-human who thought something different than the others about these predators that were prowling around the campfire. One who said/signed/grunted a different approach to the problem. It always has to be a first one who thinks something new.

I recall several years ago in South Africa standing on the edge of a rift valley and seeing the other edge, a steep cliff, far away on the other side. It is easy to see why things could develop differently on the two sides when traveling between them would’ve been extremely difficult. But I had a vision of a single protohuman, male or female I don’t know which, standing on that other edge and thinking to itself in whatever manner that happens before formal language, “I wonder what’s over there ?” Not because it needed a mate or a food source, since those things probably were available on its side, but rather just to know what was on the other side. I think that one led to us.

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MABDR

(On the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route)

“Seven, not three” I was saying in my helmet as we paddled knee deep across what turned out to be the last water crossing on the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route. The DVD we had viewed before leaving, obviously not made in June, said there were only three and showed riders happily splashing across what was no more than a wet spot in the trail, only a tiny spray from the tires visible for the camera. My boots were full of water.

This started on June 19th, 2018, as my brother in law Jay (68 years) and I (just shy of 70) left Winchester, Kentucky on our XT250’s for Damascus, Virginia where the first Backcountry Discovery Route (“BDR”) in the eastern US would begin. We had ordered the paper map, DVD, and the GPS tracks earlier in the year, though true to our usual “causal navigation” style, we hadn’t really studied them. On the morning of the 20th, we attached Jay’s BMW Garmin GPS to my handlebars and turned it on for the directions to the first leg of dirt roads and trail. “Acquiring satellites “ is all it told us for the next three hours. Using old school maps and dead reckoning, we found our way along the first bits of the trail high up into the mountains of Tennessee. At one point we stopped near a cabin where a woman was cleaning a deck. Seeing us poring over the map, she asked it we were “following that trail”. “We see you fellows up here all the time”, she said with a smile, confirming that we were on the route and pointing us to the next turn. Lots of wildlife up here, deer, rabbits, groundhogs and one black bear, curious about these strangely dressed critters invading their space, but we were worth only a moment of their time before they went back to the business of survival.

Late in the morning, the GPS awoke and reported for work, but only would give us directions back to our starting point at Damascus, no matter what exhortations and threats we threw its way. We carried on with maps, finding the Wyrick Trail, a rough gravel and dirt track that took us high onto a ridge overlooking a wide green valley. Though we could see from the maps that there were towns nearby, from the ridge top there was no sign out there that civilization ever had intruded on these woods.

Nearing the end of the day, we came out onto pavement and found a gas station near what the map showed as a turn back up into the woods. The numbers on the map and the road sign didn’t match, so we asked a local who was getting in his pickup about the discrepancy. He was perfect, as if Central Casting had received the order for “Old Farmer in Overalls, with Heavy Southern Accent” and supplied him for this scene where he encounters the lost protagonists.

He scratched his head through his feed cap, looked us over carefully, then opined that he couldn’t see why in the world we would want to go up that “road”, even though it did, he admitted, go to the destination we had inquired about. He stared at his shoes, shook his head, and then told us which turn to take, and slowly got into his truck from which he watched us wheel around and head for the trail. I’d like to hear what he told his buds down at the store about us.

After a few miles of standing on the pegs on the steadily rising path, we began to doubt our directions and as if on cue, there was a wooden board with hand painted wording proclaiming that the “Woods Hole B&B and Hostel” was up a side road. We detoured up to the hodgepodge collection of rough cabins on a hillside where an eclectic mix of what one might describe as aged hippies and societal misfits were gathered on a porch. They confirmed that we were on the right track, but if we couldn’t make it to our destination, they knew of a homeless shelter in Newport where we could stay for the night.

Sixteen dirt and gravel miles later the track ended at Rt. 100, where the map said it continued on the other side, straight across…..but on the other side of 100 was a high solid wall of rock, extending as far as we could see in either direction. We opted to spend the night in the BDR suggested lodging, the Mountain Lake Lodge in West Virginia a few miles away.

This lodge was the setting for the movie “Dirty Dancing” back in the 80’s and still has memorabilia displayed for the faithful who return to relive the experience of seeing the film. Since Jay and I are among the twelve people in the world who have not seen the movie (the dozen of us have a meeting every other year to share the experience of not seeing it), much of that was lost on us, but it was a pleasant place to stay. The desk clerk looked us over and gave us a cabin well away from the regular tourists in the main building, rustic but comfortable. The restaurant was excellent. Supper was trout with roasted Brussels sprouts and hash browns, washed down with a very good local porter, dark and smooth with just a hint of some coffee notes in the finish.

In the morning, we took the road from our cabin around the lake and straight on to the dirt path the BDR prescribed. The GPS, atoning for its recalcitrant behavior the previous day, was flawless, directing me turn by turn such that by the end of the day I had no idea where on the map I had been, knowing only that without the device, I never would have found the otherwise unmarked trail branches. I can say that nearly all of it was off pavement, with lots of trees forming a canopy over the trails. From yesterday’s rain and the frequent showers today, the surface was mostly mud, but so well mixed with rocks that traction was not much of a problem. Even on the downhill sections, we were able to keep up a second or third gear pace, while I wondered just what a rider on a 600 pound loaded 1200 adventure bike would be doing right about now. We have yet to see any other bikes on this route, but occasionally spot the telltale tread pattern of 90/10 “Adventure tires” in the dirt. There were several long uphill sections, steep, rocky, and a bit slippery that would have been challenging on anything much bigger than these bikes. I recall in my 50’s taking my then new R100GS/PD up a steep, rutted, (but dry) pipeline hill in eastern Kentucky and being impressed by how it handled the climb. Then I realized that I had to get the big beast back down. The bike and I made it unscathed, but I am sure it wasn’t pretty. Now, 20 years of advancing age make that seem like an impossibility.

Our second bear spotting came today, with the furry critter, probably a relatively new edition, running hard from the woods on one side of the trail to the other. From its speed, it is easy to see why they say you can’t outrun the bear.

We have encountered numerous turkeys, in flocks by the side of the trail and in one case, a large one who exploded from a tree right beside me, launching itself into the air in front of my face, struggling for enough altitude to avoid collision. We, the bird and I, were both grateful for its success. Several deer have wandered across our path, on two occasions accompanied by spotted fawns delicately picking their way exactly in their mother’s footsteps. Momma kept an eye on us, the fawns looked only at her.

The seventy nine miles of Section two were completed as the steady rain began by mid afternoon in Covington, Virginia. We took a late lunch at Cucci’s Italian restaurant where the thoughtful waitress put us in a distant booth so our sopping rain gear wouldn’t create a hazard for other diners.

Section three, the longest one at 193 miles, started just a few blocks away with a narrow blacktop road that quickly became dirt just a mile or two out of town, heading up into the mountains. I thought how nice it must be for an off road rider to live in a town such as this, where access is so close. The rain, which had politely paused while we ate lunch, returned and kept us and the trail dampened for the remainder of the day. We managed only a few miles before turning in for the night at the Warm Springs Inn at, no surprise, Warm Springs Virginia. The Inn is a former Colonial era courthouse, now converted to a lodging and restaurant with the bar in the former Clerk’s office, complete with the old vault that once held important records. They tell us that Thomas Jefferson frequented the hot mineral baths here to treat his rheumatism. If we had known what the next day would bring, we would have soaked in them ourselves.

There was more rain overnight, but we were able to start out in a brief period of dry weather. A short bit of pavement, then back on to the mud pathways leading high into the mountains. This is the kind of thing we came for, endless twisting trails with views of mountains and valleys at every summit, riding that was technical enough to hold one’s attention but still not too challenging for our old bodies to take.

Until we came to the water.

The trail ended, it seemed, rather unceremoniously as we came around a turn to face not mud but a rushing river, complete with whitecaps. It was about 60 feet wide and of a depth we couldn’t immediately discern. There were rocks, big rocks, on the approach, leading us to believe it wouldn’t be any more hospitable under the water. Still, on the DVD we had viewed, the crossings looked simple and surely it couldn’t be THAT deep even with all this rain, could it ? So I went in. The younger me, a lot younger, would have kept feet on the pegs, leaned back and gassed it to splash across. The now me is much, much more cognizant of what can go wrong and the consequences of old bones hitting rock. Abandoning any hint of style or ego, I put both feet down and went slowly into the current. Within a few feet, the water was well over the tops of my boots, filling them completely, and the engine was up to the bottom of the cylinder. No choice now but to keep on and soon I was on the other side, looking back at Jay who was contemplating which of us was the crazier…me for going in not knowing what I’d find or him for now going in knowing how bad it was. His bike stalled in the current, requiring the two of us to wade through the torrent to push and pull it out. It took only a minute or two to dry out the spark plug and get the bike going again and then another few for us to convince ourselves that this must be the worst one of the three that were predicted and going back wasn’t a good option. The next six crossings told us just how wrong we had been.

I don’t have pictures of the worst ones because I just didn’t think of it at the time. The “getting across this” took all of my limited attention span.

In between the “water features” there were the fallen trees (three of them in various places) across the trail, some of which required some branch removal to clear a space big enough for the the bikes to fit through, long uphills and descents that kept us up on the pegs in our soaked boots and provided plenty of moments to say bad words inside our helmets. It was late afternoon when we emerged from the woods to what the GPS told us was a numbered road that led to a town. We met a young man going in, riding a BMW 450X, and stopped him to warn of the fallen trees and water. He smiled and pointed to the SUV following him and said they were his support vehicle, complete with chainsaw and winch to remove such inconveniences as trees. We realized that we had utterly failed to consider including such vital things in our trip planning.

The GPS, no doubt in “protection mode” to keep two overmatched old geezers from committing further folly, refused at this point to give us any directions forward on the route, insisting now that we go back to our starting point. We put it in “time out” to consider its disloyalty and used the paper map to set off in the downpour to find lodging for the night. We were beyond tired, weary to the point of near incoherence, soaking wet inside and out. In Petersburg, VA we found an “interesting” motel with a vacancy and the amused proprietor of a nearby Chinese take out restaurant helped these dripping customers load an amazing amount of food onto two bikes for dinner in our room. Being sophisticated diners, we stopped into a gas station for a bottle of their finest red wine for accompaniment.

Things always look better in the morning and a bit of sunshine and blue sky gave us all the optimism we needed. After way too much breakfast in a local restaurant, we filled our tanks and set off on the next route. Section 4 is shaped like a carpenter’s square and is mostly tiny paved roads in the countryside, working its way perilously close to the Washington DC area. The squiggly black lines on the map were a welcome relief after the previous day’s travails (we still had our wet boots as a reminder) and the 250’s ate up the miles easily, swinging back and forth through the tree lined lanes. We were detoured a time or two as a result of flooding but managed to find our way back to the route eventually. The GPS again decided that it knew better what we needed and kept taking us to major roads near, but not on the BDR, so again we shut it down and went with the paper.

On this route is the Oldtown Low Water Bridge, one of the very few private toll bridges still operating in the US, requiring a 50 cent fee to cross the Potomac River from West Virginia into Maryland. The wooden structure, first erected in 1937, was not much above the fast moving water when we crossed, making our way to the tiny toll shack on the other side. A tin cup on a long handle comes out, the change clinks inside and a voice from the booth says “Thanks ! You’ve just made my day !”

By late afternoon we had finished the section in Shepardstown Maryland and stopped at a church to take advantage of their outdoor pavilion to spread out maps and figure our next move. Jay had a prior obligation that required him to be home in a few days and we could see that the next sections would take us high into Pennsylvania and would necessitate taking major roads on a forced march back to Kentucky. Since we were now only a few miles from Front Royal, the beginning of the Skyline Drive (and a motel we knew was across the street from a fine brewpub) we elected to shelve the BDR for later completion and head south. We will come back.

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In Tents Experiences

From the early days of my motorcycle travels, I camped. It was cheap and I liked the idea of being completely self contained on the bike. I enjoyed the experience of sleeping on the ground in a minimal fabric shelter that I could put up anywhere with a flat spot. I have motorcycle camped all over the US, in the east, in the north, in the south and in the west.

In my younger days I have started many a motorcycle trip without much of a destination. I have camped in a tiny worn out tent, the kind that lets water in but not out, with a million mosquitos inside. I used my flannel-lined Boy Scout sleeping bag well into my 30’s until a freezing night in the mountains above Flagstaff sent me into town for a modern replacement. I have turned up gravel or dirt roads in the dark and found a field to camp in, not knowing until morning where I was. I have lain in a tent in the mountains of southern New Mexico listening to the wind blowing, to the sound of things outside rustling in the leaves and awakened in the morning to find my tent collapsed on my face. I have shivered in my sleeping bag in the western desert and heard coyotes singing somewhere out there. I have camped at a BMW rally in Arizona next to a honeymooning couple who had gotten married there earlier that day and neither they nor I got much sleep. I have camped within a few feet of a lakeshore and on the sand by the ocean. I have ridden out of camps in the wee hours of the morning with only a thin white rim of sunrise on the horizon, not knowing exactly where I was heading except for a direction. I have often shaved with cold water using a motorcycle mirror wiped off with a sleeve for guidance. I have bedded down in my tent after a supper of salted peanuts from a cellophane packet and a swig of leftover red wine.

Gradually, as I aged and getting up from the ground became more difficult than enjoyable, I began to prefer motels with climate control and indoor bathrooms. One of my last motorcycle camps was in Colorado, in my 60’s, where the late-night getting up excursion had me peeing in a perfect lake, glass smooth with the reflection of the stars in the enormous western night sky spread out before me.

My final motorcycle camping experience was in a campground outside of Grand Teton national park, where I got the last available space as the late summer dark was closing in, the space near the office. For reasons I don’t know, cars kept pulling in and leaving all night, their headlights sweeping across my tent like the searchlights in 1950’s era prison break movies. The bath house in the morning should have been condemned by the EPA. I was 64.

Now I don’t camp.

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THE WOODPECKER

Often we get woodpeckers at our feeders in the yard. The little Downy Woodpeckers, black and white mostly, come frequently, visiting briefly and then gone. Once in a while, we see a Pileated Woodpecker, the behemoth of the genre, though more often we hear it drumming on a tree nearby. It sounds like a roofer has turned on his nail gun to “automatic” mode. Once I watched a Pileated attack an old fence post in our field, furiously banging away in a blur of red. When I went to see what he had left behind, I found a hole that looked as if a shotgun had been discharged at close range. Our most common visitor, though, is the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, whose belly is not actually red. While they sometimes go for the seed tubes, usually they are found upside down on the suet feeders put there mainly for their use. Other birds come to that feeder, including some that aren’t supposed to be able to feed hanging upside down (must not have read the book), but when the Red-Belly shows up, they all vacate to give room. Facing that beak must be like seeing the fastest gun in the west come into the saloon. While the other birds at the suet peck furiously in a seemingly random fashion for a few seconds and then drop and fly off, the Red has a more contemplative style. He or she hangs there, casually gripping the wire cage and contemplates for a moment or two, head cocking this way and that, then makes several very precise stabs, waits a bit, looks some more and then again the few carefully placed jabs of the sharp powerful beak. It makes me think of a sculptor finding the desired figure in an amorphous block of marble. After watching these birds for a while, I would not be too surprised to go out there and find a replica of Michelangelo’s David carved into the suet.

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HOT BIKE

I went to the community college in Ashland for my first two years, finding a job to support myself and pay for my schooling. This meant that often I had night classes, so I could work during the day. My principle transport was a well-worn Ducati Monza 250, (See previous post “Kind of a Drag” for some of its uses.) In those innocent, late 1960’s days, in such a small town, the few of us who rode motorcycles parked them on the lawn in front of the college building and left our excess books and jackets and helmets on the seat. Theft just wasn’t a consideration (perhaps because of those who would steal in a small town, books weren’t high on the list of desirables.) Bruce had a Ducati Mach 1 250, a race-replica bike I lusted after, but like many of us in those teen years, his maintenance of the machine was somewhat less than perfect. It had an oily film around the open bell-mouth carb, sans air filter, and wasn’t always easy to start with the awkward left side under-the-footpeg kick starter necessary to accommodate the rearset pegs. One late fall night as we left class, he put his books down and began the ritual of tickling the carb and swinging the short-throw lever to bring the single to life, as I did the same on mine. I looked over at him just as a tongue of flame shot out of the bell-mouth, setting fire to the oily residue. Bruce kept kicking away, oblivious to the fire developing under his leg . I yelled at him, but he was absorbed in his task, until the heat coming through his jeans finally got his attention. He leaped off the bike and began jumping around, screaming (in hindsight, he probably thought, with good reason, that his leg was on fire as well as his bike). I ran into the building and grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall. I pointed it at the burning machine and pulled the trigger, only to get a dribble of white liquid falling on the ground right in front of my shoes. Note to self: check fire extinguishers frequently. I ran back in and pulled the fire alarm for the building, which brought quick results, if probably overkill. By then however the poor Mach 1, object of my desire, was but a shell with melted bits of seat and tires dripping on the ground. I helped him push it through town the next day, back to his home, where he began the slow process of bringing it back to life. It eventually Phoenixed as a blue metalflaked café racer….but still oily and hard to start.

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FROZEN FOOLISHNESS

It was a day much like we have had recently this cold winter, but in the mid-1970’s when I was young enough to stand it. Three of us “observed trials” riders were getting some winter practice in January in the abandoned strip mines at Hanging Rock, Ohio. (See an earlier post “Bad Day at Hanging Rock” for further goings on there)

The strip mines offered an utterly ruined landscape, making the moon look like a country club golf course, with jumbled rocks, deep holes and large ponds where the mined pits had filled up. After roaming around in the rock tailings and frozen cascades on the hillsides for a while , we ventured down to the low spots where the ponds had frozen over. Having more sense of adventure than any of the common variety, we rode out onto the icy surface after careful examination of its potential safety (which consisted of a glance over and “Yeah, that looks OK”)

We skated around for a while, low pressure trials tires skittering, doing donuts on the thin skim of snow, and then, being young men, had to line up for a race.

Trials motorcycles are specialized machines, built to crawl over obstacles and make incredibly tight maneuvers in difficult terrain….not, in any way, to race on ice. Had YouTube, or even the internet, existed back then, our efforts at staying upright, much less gaining any speed advantage would have become an instant sensation in the “Stupid Human Tricks” category. I recall one episode where the three of us tried to enter the same turn simultaneously and ended up locked together sliding sideways, utterly without control until we hit the opposite bank of the pond, where we were laughing too hard to pick up the bikes or ourselves.

The “racing” went on until Tommy broke through the surface at one edge, ending up with both wheels up to the axles in slush.

We moved over to another pond, where we found an abandoned grocery cart partially stuck in the frozen mud near the edge. With some effort we freed the cart and set about figuring out what possibilities for mischief it might offer.

Quickly, one of us was dispatched to the bike trailer, returning with a couple of the long, sturdy nylon tie-down straps. We placed one hook in the mesh of the cart, linked two straps together, and hooked the other end to a rear frame loop on one of the bikes, giving us about a 15 foot “ski rope”between motorcycle and the basket. The cart was intact, with all four wheels, though if one of them was typically stuck, it wouldn’t matter on the ice. A volunteer climbed into the cart and the experiment in Darwinism began.

With some careful effort, the contraption could get moving and then pick up speed. The fun part came when a turn could be achieved causing the grocery conveyance to “Crack the Whip”, flinging the cart and its occupant flying across the ice and at the same time pulling the back wheel of the motorcycle out from under the rider, causing him to fight for control (almost always unsuccessfully) as the cart now became the tail wagging the dog. The usual end was a crash of all parties into the snow bank at the edge. All three of us took multiple turns as driver and as cart passenger/unguided missile.

They say that Providence favors drunks and fools, and we were entirely sober. Our attempts at self destruction went on until the sun got too low to provide even minimal heat and sufficient light, with nary a broken bone to show for it, though we would all be sore for days to come. We packed up our bikes, leaving the now somewhat battered cart for the next group of guys (it is, sadly, most often guys who engage in such semi-organized lunacy) to experiment with and headed for home. I think it was nearly two weeks before the checkerboard imprints from the cart’s wire mesh left my skin. To this day, when I pull a cart out of its rack at the grocery, I get a twinge in my hip.

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THE MOTORCYCLE SHOP

In my travels on motorcycles, I often stopped at motorcycle shops in small towns, sometimes because I needed something, or just to look around and talk with the owner and folks inside.

Shops in those days, the 1960’s and 70’s and on up into some of the 80’s, were typically single line, small affairs, with the smell of oil and grease and chain lube all mixed together.

The people who ran them were enthusiasts who were trying to make a living out of something they loved to do. I tried that myself with a small dealership for a couple of years in my early 20’s, but found I was too much an enthusiast and not enough of a business person to make it a go.

A rider could stop at one of these, even if it was a different brand from the one he or she was riding, and be welcomed (though sometimes with some good-natured ribbing about choices) and spend a pleasant hour or so. Often you could find the thing you needed in the glass case under the counter or hanging on the wall and sometimes end up with something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

There are few motorcycle shops left. We have “power sports centers” that have multiple lines and four-wheelers, ATV’s and jet skis, in huge buildings or even complexes of buildings around a parking lot. One can’t see the mechanic area and parts are seldom available “but we can order that for you”. I understand the reasons for much of this and a lot of it is our own fault, we motorcycle consumers. We buy things on line now, clothing and accessories and tires, etc, because it is nearly impossible for a small local business to compete with the volume of choices found at the internet suppliers. Dealers don’t make their day-to-day money on motorcycle sales, but rather on the peripherals and service. So the day of the small local shop isn’t going to come back.

That means today’s riders, the young ones, will never know the experience of parking a bike a few feet from the door in a gravel lot, walking up to the front of the shop past other bikes of various kinds parked in a row, some for sale, some just visitors, and going inside, inhaling the blended aromas of oil, gasoline, cosmoline, leather, an old dog and, in those days, stale tobacco smoke. Often in cold weather such a shop was heated by a wood stove or a coal burner, adding that to the mix. The walls are strewn with an array of clothing items, gloves, jackets, maybe hats and vests. There are parts and accessories, some brand specific, some not but of brands that don’t exist in their original form anymore. Langlitz and Bates leathers, Buco and Bell helmets, Full Bore two stroke oil, maybe a Vetter fairing hanging from the ceiling. And a very useful invention, the Snuf-R-Not. Some of those names are still there, but now the original company has been absorbed into a conglomerate somewhere else other than the US.

If you had a question, the parts guy, who may also have been the owner and the mechanic, knew what you were talking about and what you needed, even if you didn’t.

In my teen years, when I had a somewhat dilapidated Ducati 250 Monza, I could go to the shop above Huntington, West Va and the owner Leon would let me borrow his tools and disassemble the shifter cassette in his “showroom” so that he could again sell me the $1.00 return spring that had broken. Leon once took me for a ride on his deep red Norton, though he knew without doubt that I could not afford one and wasn’t a prospect for a sale.

In those years I often hung out at Jim Stewart’s Harley shop a few miles from Ashland, when it was a small cinderblock building off what was then a two-lane Rt. 60. Jim was the “real deal”, a man melded with motorcycling as an integral part of his life. He had raced flat-track with factory teams, wrestling the brakeless, no rear suspension motorcycles around dusty half mile ovals all over the country and rode the heavy bikes of the 40’s and 50’s everywhere they could be taken. Now he made his living from this shop, selling and repairing Harleys. Despite his gruff exterior, Jim was an avuncular figure to we teenagers who lurked his shop, like dogs at a Paleolithic campfire hoping to be thrown a scrap of motorcycle knowledge. We bought cans of evil-smelling Gunk, motor oil, and small things we could afford just to have an excuse to be there. There were stories told of adventures, legal and otherwise, that titillated for some of us our urge to wander and in others, a sense of fear of venturing outside the comfort of the familiar.

Jim’s shop dog, Topper, was a constant presence, an enormous German Shepard who mainly slept in the corner…or wherever he wanted…most of the day. He was a fierce protector of the shop and Jim. While he was calm as long as you kept your distance, we knew not to rile him. I recall once coming to the shop and finding it closed. I went to the window to peer inside and then heard the pounding of paws headed my way. I made it up on top of a parked car just in time to avoid being eaten on the spot. It took some talking before Topper would accept that I was someone he knew well enough to let me down.

Jim told the story of one night in the shop, working late with two other men and adding considerably to the pile of brown long-necked beer bottles out back. After a while, as men often do, the alcohol led to boasting and one of the guys showed off his strength by lifting a heavy engine off the floor. The other responded by hoisting something heavier and it went from there. Jim watched calmly and then said, “there’s something in here I can lift that both of you together cannot”. They protested their superiority until Jim strode over to the corner, picked up the sleeping Topper and deposited the big dog, blinking, onto the workbench. Jim then stood back and said, “your turn”.

I don’t think that sort of thing happens much at the Power Sports Center.

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CONCRETE

We recently had some concrete work done here at the house, fixing some broken areas and replacing my post-surgery wooden ramp with a more permanent one. Watching the crew of workmen preparing the site and pouring the mix brought back a lot of memories.

For much of my youth, from fifth or sixth grade up until my college years, my father, whose hobby was masonry of all sorts, had me mixing what seemed like endless wheelbarrows of cement for his various projects, wheeling the heavy wet mixture up ramps and down in hollows where he was constructing some surface or wall. Once he purchased the bricks from a large church that had been demolished and I spent a summer cleaning the old mortar off them with a hammer and chisel, then wheeling them to the sections of the retaining wall he built to expand the parking area and patio at our house.

This experience came in handy in my teen years when I would make gas money by riding my motorcycle out in the country, finding construction projects underway and earn a few bucks by wheeling the wet concrete for the workers. They, who were getting workman’s wages, were more than happy to pay the dumb kid a couple of dollars to save themselves hours of heavy work.

Now I watch these guys, using a “Georgia Buggy” tracked vehicle with a hopper, easily transport five times as much concrete as a wheelbarrow will hold, anywhere they want it in minutes with no more effort than pushing or pulling the steering handle. They are much more skilled at the finish work than I will ever be. They know exactly how much to pour for a given space, glopping it out into the middle in a pile, then smoothing it out with barely a trowel’s worth of excess.

I’ve driven past our old house a few times in the last couple of years. Dad’s walls and surfaces are still straight and strong, more that a half-century later, long after he departed this world. My own efforts in the past at construction and repair have been mediocre at best, leaving for me the best option of hiring someone who knows what they are doing. Like many things that a teenager finds boring or useless, I ignored what I should have paid more attention to when dad tried to teach me.

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