In the Beginning

Driving a car, your relationship with the road is like that with a friend. Bumps are softened. On a motorcycle, the relationship is much more intimate, like that with a lover. You feel every small bump and dip.

Me, November 2011

This is the unfolding story of motorcycling and me. While I'd toyed with the idea of riding for several years, I'd never thrown a leg over a motorcycle until I was 51. Then the time seemed right. My youngest kid had finished high school so I considered myself expendable. I'd just spent two years with every waking moment was consumed writing a book. With it completed, I again owned my life and was looking for a new obsession.

My driving force in life has always been pushing myself, taking on new challenges and mastering new skills. I thrive on exploring new places and always prefer to be outside with the wind on me as much as possible. So I gravitated to riding.

As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was that riding a motorcycle would save money given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was that royalties from the book would pay for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed that having put in thousands of miles on road racing and mountain bicycles, and manual transmission cars for years, I'd pick up motorcycle riding easily.

These assumptions all turned out to be wrong. What I spent on motorcycling far exceeded any savings from higher gas mileage. I didn't sell enough books to cover the costs. And learning to ride was much, much more difficult than I expected. But it was also much more fulfilling. In life, I've always wanted to be where I'm not. And I'm rushing to get there.

In the few years since I began riding, I've fallen passionately in love with it. The average American motorcyclist rides 1800 miles per year. I did 16,000 my first year, 18,000 the second, and over 20,000 in the third. I've continued to average 15,000 to 16,000 miles per year even when I began writing a weekly column that eats up much of my Sundays. At night I often dream of squiggly lines on a map. Seriously.

When everything is clicking--I'm alone on a winding country road, I've got my "A" game, the music is in a groove--I sometimes forget the motorcycle is there and feel like I'm simply flying. If you don't want to take my word for it, trust Alton Brown.

Luckily, I live close to some fine riding, with twisty roads over mountain ridges, large state forests, miles of farmland (which often requires dodging Amish buggies), charming little towns (each different from all the others), and lots of historic sites. There's always somewhere new to see. (Here's a map of my favorite routes and road food). I particularly like combining riding with photography--one of my other passions.

When I began this blog I was riding a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike was a "hexhead" (named because the engine cylinder covers are hexagonal). So these are the "Hexhead Diaries." I'll update them regularly with stories and pictures. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 19, 2011

Toward the end of the week, temperatures in Carlisle hit the 60s and then upper 70s. But on Saturday, nature elected to remind us that it is, after all, still winter. As I headed west, it was in the low 40s and overcast.

I had designed a route to incorporate some new roads that I hadn't ridden before. I began with one of my favorite stretches: Route 11 to Chambersburg then Route 30 West. This is fairly boring until the tiny town of Fort Loudon, but then there is a magnificent stretch of 30, with a three nice mountain crossings and some beautiful vistas. The only problem is that 30 has a fairly high volume of traffic so about half the time, I get behind someone slow and can't push the envelope through the twisties.

When riding in the cold, I categorize it as either "comfortable," "uncomfortable," "miserable," or "dangerous." (I've only experienced "dangerous" once and that was when I was crossing the mountains in West Virginia last Labor Day. I had expected temperatures in the high 50s and it got into the low 40s, and I only had a leather jacket and a tee shirt).

While I was wearing my brand new Aerostich Roadcrafter suit with a merino wool base layer and a fleece, I was definitely uncomfortable. After a couple of hours, this really becomes annoying. So I stopped at a Wal Mart and bought another shirt. Problem solved. Of course as soon as I did that, it began warming up.

Just west of Beford, PA, I hit the part of my route that was new to me. Since I just pick roads off of Google maps, I never know how they're going to be until I ride them. This time I hit a home run. Many of the sections were outstanding or at least will be once the winter gravel washes off of the isolated mountain sections.

Particularly good were the little road through Blue Knob State Park, Route 164, and Route 994. From Orbisonia, the road is very nice but I've ridden or driven it dozens of times since it's the way to Huntingdon, PA where my daughter attends college.

While there were some beautiful sections, I opted to not take any photographs and instead wait a month or two when there is some green in the landscape.

I stopped for a Red Bull in the town of Roaring Springs. Motorcycle are still coming out of hibernation so there are always a few at every convenience store. The vast majority are Harleys or metric cruisers. As I was standing in line this time, an older guy in a motorcycle jacket and boots came in. We nodded at each other and he passed me. But just based on his looks, I knew it was "one of my own kind" (another BMW rider). When I went outside, there was his R1200RT next to mine. He was from State College so we talked for a while and said we might run into each other at the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America Rally in Bloomsburg, PA next summer.

Let me make a couple of comments on the Roadcrafter riding suit that I was breaking in on this ride. I've wanted one of those for a long time. Aerostich is a small

Minnesota company that makes their suits themselves. There were three reasons I wanted one: it would offer better crash protection than a jeans/jacket combo; the one piece design is great for commuting--I can just pull it on over my suit when beating a hasty exit from a Washington meeting; and, it's Gore-Tex and waterproof so I don't have to carry an extra rain suit and find a dry place to put it on if I hit a shower.

The suit was very expensive but I decided to get it when a surprise consulting job fell into my lap. Based on what people say about it online, I should easily get ten years or more of use out of it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12, 2011

The Northeast has experienced torrential rains over the past week, so much so that I'd begun gathering the animals two-by-two (I'm still short one wombat). When it finally stopped, I was aching for a ride.

Because the mountain roads to the north of me still have so much gravel spread by the Highway Department during the winter snows, I decided to head south.

View March 12 in a larger map

It was nice to be out but the first couple of hours were overcast and cold. The streams were over their banks and there was water in the road in low lying areas. The mountain passages had both gravel and mud washed in by the rains.

It got better once I hit Maryland and I wove in a few stretches I hadn't ridden before.  Boonsboro Mountain Road was especially nice.

Once I got to the little town of Sharpsburg--scene of the Antietam Battle during the Civil War--the sun broke through.  Temperatures hit the 50s and then the 60s. I began shedding layers of clothes, stowing my fleece overpants and jacket in my side bags.

Sharpsburg is a cute little town and I stopped just long enough to snap a couple of pictures.

I then scooted across the Potomac and stopped for lunch at a nice bistro in Shepherdstown.  (I normally eat German at the Bavarian Inn when in Shepherdstown, but wanted something different).

I then took West Virginia Route 9 to Berkeley Springs. This is a fun road with some nice twisty sections. But I kept getting stuck behind "fun thieves" in trucks and minivans waddling 15 or 20 miles below the speed limit. When I did hit the twisties full bore, I was quickly reminded that I'm not in mid-season form. It will take a few rides to get my mojo back.  I nearly scraped a peg on a tight climbing turn, but didn't quite make it.

During many winter rides, I'd be the only motorcycle on the road.  But with things warming up, they were coming out of hibernation.  I saw one masochist on a Harley wearing only a tee shirt when the temperature was still 45 (yow!).  Another Harley rider with straight pipes cranked his bike up next to me at a convenience store.  It was loud enough to cause physical pain even though I was wearing ear plugs.  Then I passed a couple of future organ doners riding over 100 MPH in tight formation on sports bikes.  They're probably not long for this world.

After Berkeley Springs I crossed the the Potomac at Hancock, Maryland and slid back into Pennsylvania. I spent some time on routes 655 and 30. Both are great roads, but I again hit gravel and fun thieves.

My last pit stop was in McConnellsburg, one of the hundreds of cute little historic towns in Pennsylvania. As I was entering the burg, I noticed a hand-painted sign that simply said, "Watch Glenn Beck" so I was afraid I'd ridden all the way to The Land That Sanity Forgot.  I quickly guzzled a Red Bull and moved on.

Cutting back through Perry County, Pennsylvania on routes 75, 274, and 850 I passed the location where a house fire killed seven Mennonite kids a few days earlier. There was a huge crowd for a chicken barbeque to raise funds for the family. The house itself, which was right off of my route, had already been demolished.

I then turned south back toward home on the wonderful Route 74, but again was robbed by a fun thief crossing the mountains. It ended up being a very pleasant ride though, of about 240 miles.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thinking Back

I was thinking back on those first few treacherous weeks of learning to ride. One moment in particular suggested to me that I might, in fact, be a motorcyclist.

I was tooling down a road. As cars passed me going the other direction, the thought flickered through my mind that if, in that instance, I moved my hands a few inches to the left, I would almost certainly die. But rather than frightening me, I found the idea exhilarating.

At first this feeling surprised me. Then it began to make sense: in this era of the "nanny state," there are very few times in life when one has their fate in their own hands, when only one's skill stands between life and death. But in motorcycle riding, there is. It was, for me, a life-reinforcing thought.

People vary in their tolerance of risk, from those who avoid it whenever possible to adrenaline junkies who become mountain climbers, pilots, and entertainers. They have a "need for speed." While I might not go that far, I'm more on the risk tolerant end of the scale than risk averse. I feel most alive when reminded of how fleeting life is. (Oh my! I feel a melancholy Japanese poem coming on.)