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!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rally Ho

I spent last Friday and Saturday at the long-awaited BMW Owners of America national rally in the cute little town of Bloomsburg, PA.  The rally moves to a different location every year, so it could be years before it's this close again, so I wanted to take advantage. It was a peculiar experience.

The East Coast was in the midst of a nasty heat wave which kept attendance at the rally much lower than expected.  I set off early Friday to head up, hoping to beat some of the heat.  I took a nice route using PA route 443, Goldmine Road, and 125.

In riding, like anything physical, some days you have your "A" game and some days you don't.  On that ride, I didn't even have my "B" or "C" games.  I blew more curves and shifts in an hour than I normally do in a month.

It began to get interesting coming down off the mountain on Goldmine Road.  Without warning, I hit a stretch of loose gravel where the highway department had resurfaced the road with an abomination they call "oil and chips."  They put down tar, cover it with gravel, and let the traffic beat it down.  After a few days or weeks (depending on how much traffic the road gets), it does become passable.  But it's treacherous until then.  I was going about 50 MPH but luckily it was a straight away.  If I'd hit that loose gravel in a curve, I would have wrecked.  Other than peeing my pants, I got through by just pulling the clutch and coasting.

Then half an hour later, I sucked a yellow jacket up my sleeve.  That's happened before--I've actually gotten them inside my helmet and under my tee shirt.  But this was the first time I was stung.  The dang thing was swollen and itchy for days.

But I finally made it to the rally.  It was interesting.  I enjoyed the display of vintage BMWs going all the way back to the first one made in 1923.  And I checked out all the vendors.  Normally I can ride all day and see at most a handful of BMWs, often none at all, so it was strange seeing 5,000 in one spot.  But it was so blasted hot that I left after a couple of hours and headed home.  I did really sympathize with the thousands of people who were camping at the rally site.

Then it got really interesting.  I was on one of my favorite stretches of road--Route 235 in the Bald Eagle State Park.  I was moving at about mach 2 but scanning for deer as I always do through there.  My head swiveled right then left, then I did a double take: there was a full grown bear standing on the right side of the road.  I checked my mirrors to be sure no one was behind me and came to stop since I wasn't sure if it would run out in front of me.  I was maybe 50-75 feet from it.  We had a stare down for about 20 seconds while I tried to decide whether to get off the bike and grab for my camera.  At that point, it ran back into the woods, and I continued on.  The temperature gauge on my bike never got out of triple digits, and topped out at 104.

I was ambivalent about going back to the rally the next day but you had to be present to win one of the door prizes.  And there were some great ones, from a European guided motorcycle tour to some $1500 riding suits.

I took a roundabout way back to the north, with lunch at one of my favorite places--the Forksville General Store right outside the beautiful World''s End State Park.  I first discovered these places last fall during the gorgeous peak leaf season.  This time there must have been 50 motorcycles in the parking lot.  As I continued riding toward Bloomsburg after lunch and then cut through town, the roads were thick with BMWs.  It was much cooler than the previous day, so the ride was fun.

For reasons I don't understand, my riding skills seemed to have returned that day.  Going over the beautiful and twisty northern mountain crossing on Route 74, I noticed another BMW had pulled in behind me.  Since we were on my home turf, I considered that a manhood test.  I flew over the mountain, taking curves with recommended speeds of 10 and 15 MPH at 35-40, leaning so hard that my boot scraped the pavement.

When I got to the rally, I found out that they didn't draw for the door prizes until the end of the closing ceremony, which began at 6.   It was a pretty miserable experience--5,000 people packed into a stadium with the temperature by then in the mid 90s.  It went on and on and on as the organizers thanked and recognized everyone involved with the rally.  When they finally began the drawing, most of the people pulled had already left, so they just kept drawing until they hit someone who was there.  Of course I didn't win.

At that point it was so late that I took the most direct way back--Route 11 and Interstate 81.  Since it was dark for about half the ride, I figured that those wide roads minimized my chances of a deer encounter.  But since Route 11 runs along the Susquehanna River and it was hot and windless, the insects were intense.  It sounded like popcorn from them hitting me.  This was my helmet when I got back:

It made me laugh to think of how many bugs the people riding along side me on Harleys without a helmet must have swallowed.  They certainly had a four course meal after a short ride.

All in all, I'm glad I went to a rally but since I didn't go with anyone else or know anyone there, I was glad I didn't ride a long distance to get to it.  Next year the rally is in Missouri, so I'm sure I'll pass on it.   I'm just not a rally or group ride guy, but more of a lone wolf.  So I'll stick to plotting my five day September ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I'm extremely excited about that, and already have my daily routes planned and motel reservations made.  I've even picked out restaurants for each night.

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