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.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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