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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Going North Part II (Flying Squirrel Touring)

(We left our wandering innocents on the Badger ferry, steaming its way across Lake Michigan, still not knowing where they were going after that.)

  Soon we were out of sight of land, ensconced  at an outside table on the top deck, sipping a beer (it was, after all, going to be 4 hours) and watching our fellow passengers applying sun tan oil.  We could learn to live like this.  A Guzzi rider from Wisconsin struck up a conversation and enthralled us with tales of cross-country travels by motorcycle, places we hadn’t been but vowed we would see. At the end of the ferry ride, in Luddington Michigan, he helped us pick up Jay’s Harley which had fallen over in the hold, and we helped him push-start the Guzzi down the ramp.  It seemed that the starter had quit some long time before, but he’d never really bothered getting it fixed. Real men don’t use buttons to start motorcycles.

It was late afternoon when we rolled through the streets of the little port town, wondering where we might stay for the night. We wanted to camp, for budgets sake, but there didn’t seem to be a surplus of campgrounds around.  Finally, as the sun was beginning to disappear, we just turned up a dirt road and followed it to a clearing where we put up our shelter (actually my son’s backyard tent, borrowed for the trip) for the night.  Then, as the darkness deepened, we learned about Michigan Mosquitos.  There were, by a conservative estimate, two and a half billion of them in the tent with us.  Although it was about 85 degrees, our only refuge was to crawl deep into our respective sleeping bags, fold the ends over to close them off, then try to kill the million or so of the little bloodsuckers that had come in there with us. It was the longest night of my life, but like all such experiences, valuable in its own way.  If I’m ever captured by foreign agents, or even worse, the IRS, I can now laugh at whatever torture they threaten.  I’ve been through worse.

Then it began to rain.

Our tent was of K-Mart issue, with the special fabric that lets water in, but not out.  We broke camp in the morning, rolling our wet tent and sleeping bags into a sodden mass that we bungied on our bikes.  Jay had actually acquired a rainsuit, the yellow plastic kind, which immediately self-destructed one leg on the Harley’s exhaust pipe.  I donned my Army-surplus poncho, a device specifically designed to funnel water into one’s crotch. At speed–any speed– it ballooned out on the sides giving an accurate impression of a 180 pound flying squirrel on a motorcycle.

The dirt road we’d followed to this sylvan glade was now a muddy mess.  What the heck, I’m an old dirt rider, right?

  Not on a Suzuki 500 with street tires, I’m not.  I made it about 200 overconfident yards before sliding the twin onto its side, much to Jay’s amusement.  Let’s try this a bit slower.

We rode on into the grey Michigan morning, rain pelting down, plastic flapping, to the first available restaurant for breakfast and some parking-lot surgery on the Suzuki’s shifter, bent in the fall.  The rain slacked off a bit after breakfast, the sun came through the clouds and it was again a wonderful road trip.  It’s amazing how quickly the aggravation fades when the good parts show up again. Even now, that return of optimism, so reliable, continues to  fuel my addiction to bike traveling. 

By late afternoon we were on the “thumb” of the mitt that is the state’s outline.  It was cool now with a stiff wind blowing at us from the bay, but as we went around the tip of the digit, the character changed completely, so dramatically that Jay and I just looked at each other with disbelief as if the other would confirm that we were hallucinating.  Suddenly, with that one turn, the wind stopped, the sun seemed warmer and the look of the shoreline was so different that we could have been on opposite coasts of the country, not just a small peninsula.  We decided this was sufficient omen to warrant stopping for the night. We chose a very small, very cheap, shoreline motel with tiny individual cabins dotting the water’s edge. We spread out our wet stuff to dry and then walked down to the shore where we both quickly fell asleep in the sun.  Not bad.  I think I like this touring bit. That night we went to a local restaurant just down the road where we learned it was an “all you can eat” buffet–and good food besides, a combination not often found together.  We were still young then and our easy gluttony of that night continues to impress me now. We waddled back to our “cabin” for the night.

The next day we entered Canada through Sarnia and took route 7 up  to Stratford, Kitchener and Guelph (always fun to pronounce) headed for Toronto–we didn’t know why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  We motored along carefully, minding the metric speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) fearing the imposition of an international ticket.  Then as we got closer to Toronto, we noticed that the traffic kept getting faster.  Finally, on the four lane leading into town, I realized that the little two-stroke was running at an indicated  85 or 90, straining its little heart out and we were still being passed!  So much for strict speed limits.

Toronto was a beautiful cosmopolitan city, filled with ethnic enclaves of every description making a rich mix of the crowds and the shops on the streets. Everywhere, the skyline was dominated by the CN Tower, then the highest free-standing structure in the world, jutting into the sky.  We motored around the town, just taking in the sights, sounds and smells, till we finally stopped for the night at a little motel near what we were told was the German part of the city.

  As luck would have it, the proprietor was a British immigrant who looked enviously at our bikes and travel paraphernalia, then told us stories of traveling his country after the War on an old BSA Bantam. He directed us to a good German restaurant where we took a table in a high alcove. surrounded by heavy, ornately carved wood, overlooking the rest of the diners.  I still recall the Black Forest cake–in fact, I believe I’ve gained weight just remembering it.

We breakfasted the next day in the restaurant about 3/4 of the way up on the CN Tower. One can eat well while watching the city slowly change places below. At one point the airport out in the lake is in view and the planes coming in for landing are far below the restaurant. It’s spectacular, if one isn’t bothered by heights.

From Toronto we went south around the edge of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls (“a bride’s second biggest disappointment”)–after all, we were tourists.  Niagara had a special significance for me in relation to motorcycles.  I’d been there on vacation with my parents when I was 14 years old, a bike-crazed teenager filled with advertising and Cycle World magazine information but extremely limited in experience.  I was walking across the parking lot, when I heard a sound that I now know was the hissing of tires on wet pavement.  I turned to see a BMW R 69S coming slowly up behind me, cruising the lot for a parking place. The shiny black Beemer had bags and a leatherclad rider–both bike and pilot looked as if they’d been places and seen things.  I was hugely impressed by the fact that I’d heard the tires before I was conscious of the sound of the quiet engine.  BMW’s ads from that era always featured some world traveler, pictured on top of Gibraltar, out in the Sahara or in some Alpine pass.  I’d dreamed over these ads and the adventure they promised, but I’d never actually seen one of the beasts in the flesh.  Somehow it made the promise seem more real, something attainable.  I got my first bike, a Puch moped, that fall.

No such epiphany on this trip, however.  The falls still fell, the gift shops were, well, gift shops and we were soon on our way.  Our destination became Buffalo, New York where Jay had some old friends from our hometown. We found them, somehow, and spent the evening telling “do you remember when we…” stories and drinking some sort of local beer while our laundry swirled in their machine.  We slept on the floor of their rec room, then left early the next morning, cleaner but still without real direction. We had come to really like it that way, and this free-form mode would mark our trips from then til now.

By this time the Harley had developed a habit of shedding its exhaust pipes at fairly regular intervals. We’d be riding along, minding our own business, when the Sportster would, like a petulant child ridding itself of a pacifier, spit one or both pipes (there weren’t any mufflers, remember?) onto the pavement.  I’d dodge them if I was following or I’d notice –as if one couldn’t–the sound of the pipeless monster behind.  We’d go back and pick them up, wait for things to cool a bit, then bolt them back on and proceed anew till the next time. This slowed us down only a little more than the constant search for the correct 2-stroke oil for the Suzuki.  I’d started the trip running the thing on the same premium synthetic that I used in my trials competition bikes, but had, to put it mildly, some difficulty in finding it on the road.  I decided that the Suzy could go on a more plebeian cuisine and started putting in the universally available outboard motor oil.  I learned that it didn’t matter. I believe that bike would’ve run forever on kerosene and hair oil. 

We located a Harley shop in southern Pennsylvania and discovered that a factory kit was available to eliminate exactly this kind of antisocial acting out on the part of Sportsters. Jay purchased one and while we were installing it in the parking lot, the shop guys regaled us with tales (illustrated with examples of crunched machinery there in the lot) of bikes and riders felled by nocturnal collisions with area deer and other wildlife.  By the time we left, we were determined to find lodging before dark. We made good progress now–the pipes only fell off half as often as before.

Johnstown, the sight of the famous flood, was fairly near and became our home for the night.  We found another cheap motel ( our penchant for camping had been dulled somewhat, and besides, I don’t think our sleeping bags dried out till that winter) with a restaurant nearby.  The talkative waitress –we were the only customers–told us her entire family history, complete with life-threatening illnesses in relatives, heart-warming success stories, children in medical school etc,etc.  I think Lassie saved a town in there somewhere and I’m sure there was a kindly old grandmother, a prison, a train and a pickup truck. It was near midnight when we made it back to the room.

The next day the weather began to deteriorate with storms bringing rain and high winds, followed by episodic sunshine.  We followed back roads, some too small to be on our maps or have numbers, just heading generally west.  We knew it was the downhill leg of the trip and we wanted it to last as long as possible. At one point we stopped to get out of the rain and have lunch at a little restaurant somewhere near the West Virginia border.  As we walked in, dripping on the floor, our arrival was punctuated by huge thunderclaps, lightning and then the lights went out.  Quite an entrance.

  We found a corner table, peeled off our wet stuff down to remaining decent and waited for some return of power–it was too nasty to go outside, but without electricity, the restaurant couldn’t do anything for us inside either.  We  and all the other customers just sat there.  The storm worsened, getting so black that  for about ten minutes, the interior of the eatery was completely dark. There was nervous laughter and some slightly apprehensive comments made from within the darkness as we waited to see what would happen next.  I thought of the pilgrims in ” The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” the travelers who all died in the collapse of the bridge and the monk who traced their respective paths to that place.  How had all of us happened to arrive at this out of the way greasy spoon that was about to be smithereened by some natural tantrum?  Then, announced by the sudden resurgence of the jukebox, the power returned, the lights came on and a collective exhalation marked the release of tension.  I. guess we won’t be in the book after all.

We left in a light drizzle with that curious summer mix of sunshine and rain, headed down into West Virginia. Just as we crossed into the Monongohela National Forest, we found fresh blacktop on a perfect curving road, deserted except for us, and the rain stopped.  Someone up there decided we’d been hassled enough and deserved some respite.  It was wonderful.  We swooped into the curves–well, sort of, considering our mounts and our talents–as if on our own private course, breathing the moist pine-scented air and just enjoying the freedom. It couldn’t last (because if it could, none of us would ever work for a living) and it didn’t. As if the Forest were truly enchanted, upon leaving it the storm began again.

This time was no ten minute nuisance. The sky was dark, the winds high and the rain ever increasing.  We were just pottering along the mountain curves, me in front flapping my squirrel wings and Jay behind, trying to decide whether the danger we were in was bad enough to overcome the ridiculousness of the sight in front of him.

It was getting colder and wetter.  Traffic was dwindling even though we were getting closer to Charleston. Other people had better sense than we were demonstrating as we slithered around in the wind and wet, barely able to see.  As we descended one mountain, a truck coming up from below began frantically flashing its lights.  I rounded the next bend to find a huge fallen pine tree completely blocking my lane and most of the other one.This was getting serious.  By 8:30pm or so, we were in the outskirts of Charleston, looking for a room.  It was pitch dark, emphasized by the total absence of any street lights or even traffic  signals. There were signs toppled over and debris everywhere in the streets. At the first motel we tried, the clerk told us that a tornado had just come through about 15 minutes before. From his description, we’d been following it into town. There was no power in the city and no room at the inn.

Exhausted, we pressed on to South Charleston where we finally located a motel that was cheap, dry, lighted and vacant–everything we wanted.  We unloaded our still-wet gear and went to look for something to eat. The streets were quiet, though we could see emergency lights flashing in the distance on the other side of the river.  Not much was open, so when we found a Steak n’ Ale, we pulled in.  The greeter looked askance at my soaked jeans (the wettest portion, thanks to the poncho’s directive characteristics, was rather embarrassing) and directed us to a small separated room off the main dining area and away from the “normal” customers.  Jay, somewhat dryer (except for his right leg), pretended not to know me and walked  a few paces apart until we were seated.

I still remember that evening as one of the finest meals of my life, though I have no idea what we ate.  It was the overall sensation of relief from fear, fatigue and hunger, combined with the knowledge that this was the last night of something that had become very important. We sat there near the fireplace, talked over where we’d been and what we’d seen ( and how wet we’d become in the process) and just let the experience soak in like the rainwater in our clothes.  I’ve completed many trips since then  and been to places I couldn’t even dream of on that first excursion, but I still remember that damp evening in Charleston.

The next morning dawned clear and bright with that just-washed look to everything that comes after a good storm–and this had been a GOOD one–for our final run back to the old routine.  We meandered through some of West Virginia, coming back into Kentucky at Louisa, then across the Daniel Boone National Forest and on to our homes.  We knew that we’d do this again.

I went out the next day and bought a rainsuit.

Forty years later I’ve motorcycled in almost all the US states and in sixteen different countries on a variety of machines, camped in the rain in a tent that doesn’t leak, and stayed in tiny B&B’s, and “five crown” European hotels, eaten in diners, “holes in the wall” where I had to just point to things on a handwritten bill of fare in a foreign language and in “white linen” restaurants with portions fashionably small enough to starve a hamster. The bikes we have now would’ve been beyond my comprehension and imagination back then, as would the camping and other equipment now available. I wouldn’t go back to those former ways, anymore than I would go back through my teenage years again–but I recognize that with all I’ve gained, I cannot equal, cannot replace, can never recapture, except in memory, that feeling of the first real trip.

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