Coddiwomple : English vernacular : “To travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination.”
I’m up and out of the house at 8 AM on a mid-July morning with the little red sidecar rig, for a trip with the thinnest of excuses, to carry a forgotten helmet back to Greenup. From there to points unknown.
I follow Rt. 60 to Morehead, for the mandatory pie stop at Rootabakers, the bakery that is a destination by itself, then to Olive Hill, where I point the nose north on Rt. 2. There are lots of curves on this road, but I’m not scrubbing off chicken strips with a two wheeler today, I’m going gently with the rig at about the pace a family car could do, if you didn’t want to shake up the passengers. A bit more cautious on the rights when I don’t want to do the hanging over the sidecar thing since that requires more physical effort than I care to take on as a habit. The road is still wet, and I’m running in and out of rain. It is nice to not worry much about traction on the front in the wet with comfort of having that third wheel out there on the side. I reach Greenup where I visit for a bit with my nephew at his workplace and accomplish my errand, returning his helmet. Without much of a plan from here, I meander on up to Ashland, where I grew up (to the extent that I did) with a detour through the little community of Flatwoods. My first purchased house is there, a tiny cracker box ranch, now modified almost beyond recognition, and the open field behind it, where I used to run with my dog, is now a forest. I take the back way from there to Ashland, where I found lunch at Fat Patty’s, a restaurant located in what was a store building back in my day. Most of the businesses I knew as a kid wandering around here are gone, storefronts closed or morphed into something I would not have predicted then. The big department store is now a museum and the bank is doing temporary duty as a church. There is no Bluegrass Drive In at the east end of town anymore, the burger shack whose parking lot was the backdrop to much of my teen years is now a vacant lot. In my teens I once did a high wheelie on a Ducati 250 leaving that then-crowded parking lot, for the edification of my friends and other onlookers, carried it through the underpass where the train tracks went over the road and on down Winchester Avenue where the police officer I passed with wheel still in the air found it more illegal than inspiring. That road has been rerouted now, taking out the underpass and straightening out the curve where my older brother rented an underground space for a real “Man Cave” before that was a thing. Over there is a grassy spot where once stood a three story house. When I was a rookie social worker, fresh out of college, I went to that house for a visit and observed a homemade chicken-wire pen with several undernourished looking puppies inside. While I was looking at them, a child from the family came out, picked up one of the pups and threw it down on the ground. I turned to the mom and said,”Put them all in my car, now.” She did, without questioning, and homes were later found for all but the “runt”, who became Casi, my dog for 14 more years.
I detoured off Winchester Avenue to go up 43rd Street to Gartrell Hill, headed toward my boyhood home. The rig and I slowly rounded the uphill left hand curve where I used to like to drag the Ducati’s long steel pegs at night to watch the sparks in the rear view mirror under my hand. In those teenage years, I could not have imagined my 68 year old self returning here on such a wonderful machine as I now pilot. At the top of the hill, Burchett’s Grocery is now an apartment building. In a matter of seconds I relive the hours after grade school spent in the crowded store picking out just the right thing to spend my quarter on.
Just down from Burchett’s, there are houses now, whole subdivisions where once were thick woods that seemed endless when I spent my days in them wandering on trails and following the creek to see what had changed each day, down to where it petered out and disappeared underground to make its way to the river.
My childhood home also is barely recognizable. It has been half a century since I left and I recall it being much larger, not the modest bungalow it seems to be now. I turn down Blackburn Avenue at the top of the hill, past where people I knew lived, the boy my parents didn’t want me to play with, the garage we jumped off of with our Superman capes made from towels, (no lasting injury, so perhaps the capes were more effective than we thought) and the yard where once, using a clawhammer as a digging implement, I managed to bury the tines in the back of my head. That may explain a lot. Blackburn is a long steep hill at this point, with a curve near the bottom. I once got in a friend’s little red wagon at the top and pushed off, with no forethought as to how one would steer, or more importantly, stop. It did not end well. At the bottom of the hill on the left is the cul de sac, though that’s too grand a word, more of a holler, really, where the creek ended. Near there lived a friend who got a 50cc bike, like me at the age of 14, and like me tried to tinker with it for no real reason other than that’s what boys do. He found inside the wheel assemblies something that looked dry and dusty, so he lubricated the bits liberally with axle grease. On his first foray with the newly maintained machine, he learned that brake shoes are not among the items that need lubrication.
On Rt. 23 again, I head up to Catlettsburg, the county seat, going under the underpass down to the road by the river and into town, now a cartoon of itself from the old days. I drive slowly past the Circuit Courthouse where once I did supposedly important things. There are others now on the sidewalks, in professional clothes carrying briefcases. I will leave it all to them and motor on.
I crossed into West Virginia at Kenova and immediately turned down Rt 1, Big Sandy Road, to connect to Rt 52. Back in the late 60’s, I used to make this trip in my wheezing, leaking 1958 MGA, or on a 250cc Ducati to travel into the wilds of deep West VA, starting out in the wee hours from Ashland. The Italian bike, running on magneto and the old British car, with its Lucas electrics, didn’t have much illumination, but my young eyes could function much better then in low light conditions. Much of the old twisty road is gone now, “improved” into blandness with anything that qualified as a curve straightened, widened and tamed.
At a water stop my phone tells me I have had a message from home, but now out here in the hinterlands of West Virginia, I have no phone service. I detour over to Kentucky, stopping periodically to see if service is available. Finally finding communication in Pikeville, and learning that there was no emergency, I opt to stay here as the sun begins to drop behind the mountains. I chose the Landmark Hotel since it met the requirements of being 1) near where I am when I decide to stop for the night, 2) parking in front of the outside entrance to a room, and 3) a restaurant that is non-smoking, a rarity in eastern Kentucky. Much of its clientele comes for the Pikeville Medical Center, the big regional hospital, next door, so there are lots of folks here who are killing time awaiting an appointment with a doc.
The next day I went out into the cool air and dim light of a mountain morning to where my rig sat waiting in the parking lot. Some of the other guests were lounging on the steps just down from my room, watching with idle curiosity to see what this strangely dressed man would do with this odd machine. They got more entertainment than they, or I expected. I loaded the dry bag onto the luggage rack, put on my gloves and mounted the bike and thumbed the switch. With no effective result. Not silence, but the quiet click click of a tired battery that just can’t quite muster the energy to turn the starter motor. But for once I was prepared. I took the Torx driver out of the tank bag and in a few moments had the center panel off the faux “gas tank “ to reveal the battery. From the tail bag I withdrew the palm-sized “micro-start” auxiliary battery pack, fitted up the alligator clips and in another second or two, the bike was running. I let it idle while I buttoned everything up and as I was doing so, one of the watchers came over. “What did you do?”, he wanted to know and when I showed him the little battery he stared at it much like a 19th Century denizen being shown an iPhone. I explained to him how it worked, but I could tell he wasn’t listening, as if I had lapsed into a foreign language. He had been expecting either total defeat or the typical hood-open, long cables and “now hit it” command from the world of pickup trucks. The tiny booster and the bike’s battery being where the gas tank should have been just didn’t compute.
I had loosely planned to go south and wander a bit on some squiggly lines I had spotted on the map, but now with a weak battery, I opted to stick with more mainstream roads for a bit. I rode on to Prestonsburg where I got gas and, fingers crossed, started the bike again. It fired right up, which gave me the confidence to take off on another thin black wiggle just up the road. Rt. 404, the Battlefield Highway, turns left off the Parkway just a few miles out of Prestonsburg. But as entertaining as that one was, it was 542 I was hunting. It is a wickedly curvy little ribbon of asphalt that quickly begins to deteriorate as it winds further back into the hills. Soon the surface is undulating where trucks exceeding the design limits have hollowed out great portions of blacktop, sinking here and rising there as if liquid rather than hard pavement. In other spots, the asphalt has just given up the fight and begun to return to its component parts or disappearing altogether leaving only dirt. The F650 sidecar rig is perfect for this sort of place, as if it was made with this in mind. I cross a “rails to trails” gravel track that is un-named and unoccupied by any of the hikers and bikers it was made for. I suspect it is because they don’t know it’s here or can’t find it, since there is no signage at this junction, or on any of the approaching roads I’ve traversed on this trip, indicating what it is. Around another corner I’m confronted by an Escalade-size bull standing in the middle of the road, calmly munching grass from the edge. He looks at me with only mild interest as I idle discreetly and respectfully by. He doesn’t know what this thing is, but he is confident that he is bigger and badder than I am and he is right.
The pavement gathers strength a bit later and becomes more consistent as I get nearer to civilization. But before I reach bright lights and brick buildings, I have to pass Quicksand Creek. When I was a pre-teen youngster, riding my 24 inch Huffy down to the Capitol Theater in Ashland on Saturday mornings to watch the latest installments of the black and white adventure serials, munching on popcorn and Jordan Almonds, it seemed that quicksand was a fairly regular feature of the wilderness, always lying in wait for the unsuspecting. Deadly it was, sucking the poor victim down in minutes, leaving only a hat floating on the surface (in some movies, heroes like Lash Larue always had a convenient branch above to wrap his whip around, saving himself from this fate.) Throwing caution to the winds, I parked the rig by the creek and walked down to the bank, knowing that this could be my last walk and I wasn’t even wearing a hat. Fortunately (OK, you’d guessed this since I’m still writing) I was spared the ignominy of that last struggle, wondering as the nose goes under, why didn’t I pay attention to those old movies !
Not long after Quicksand, 542 joins Rt. 30 which would take one either to Jackson or on up to West Liberty. I pondered the pie possibilities in Jackson vs those in Morehead, north of West Liberty and found the decision easy. Go north. I made it into Rootabakers after the usual lunch crowd, but there was a piece of butterscotch pie left in the case for me. From there it’s an easy jaunt back home on familiar roads. I park the rig in its usual spot, waiting for the next coddiwomple opportunity to arise.