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, September 19, 2011

More Adventure Than I Bargained For

We're getting an early whiff of fall here in the Northeast--the temperature was in the mid 40s during the early part of my Sunday ride. But I refuse, as a matter of principle, to hook up my electric gloves and jacket when it's technically still summer. With my Roadcrafter suit and Gatorskin shirt, I was OK.

The route was mostly one I've done a number of times: south through Maryland, across the Antietam battlefield, across the Potomac at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, pick up the very nice Route 9 at Martinsburg, stay on it through Berkely Springs, and eventually turn back north, picking up the outstanding route 26 to Everett, Pennsylvania and the nice section of Route 30 between Breezewood and Fort Loudon.

Everything was on track. I was able to work my way past the wallowing geezers in
pickups and vans--which is not easy on the very short passing areas on West Virginia roads--before hitting the twisty section of Rt 9 just east of Berkeley Springs. I merrily scraped my pegs in several of the turns. And then it all went downhill.

West of Berkeley Springs I came to a big sign across the road that just said, "Road Closed." No detour, just road closed. And this was on Route 9 which is a fairly major road in an area without many of them. After making a few comments on the intelligence and parentage of the West Virginia Highway Department, I noticed a small road off to the right at this point which my GPS indicated ran parallel to Route 9. I figured it would eventually cut back into 9 and give me a way around the closed section. So I took it. Mistake #1.

Once I was off of my planned route, the GPS asked me if I wanted to recalculate. I told it yes. Mistake #2.

The side road quickly became gravel and turned up the mountain instead of back toward 9. But that was the new route my GPS calculated, so I continued on. Riding a motorcycle not designed for offroad use on a twisting, climbing gravel road is no fun.  But I crawled onwards.

The road eventually became sort of paved. It was more of a single lane trail than a road. The paving must have been done decades ago and any potholes that emerged since then just had a crappy patch plugged on them. It was slow, tedious, tough going.

I then came into a development of sorts where about every 1/4 mile, there were summer houses or nice cabins back in the trees. They clearly weren't intended for year round use, but I figured the road into them would be decent. Wrong.

As I continued following my GPS route up the side of the mountain, I came to an electric gate across the road. I stopped the bike and got off. On the other side of the gate was a sign that said "No trespassing--residents only." "Sorry about that," I thought, since there was no warning sign on the dirt road I'd used to get into the development.

But now I was trapped. I certainly didn't want to backtrack down the mountain on the gravel road. So I tried to figure out how to get around the gate. I noticed that there was a small opening between the end of the gate and the metal fence beside it. I thought I might be able to slip the bike through there. But I knew it was risky. There was only about a 15 inch gravel shoulder there. And if I slipped into the ditch, I probably couldn't pick the bike up. If I did, I couldn't get it out. It could be hours or days before anyone came along. Even if I could get cell service up there (which I doubted), it would be hard to call for help since I had no idea where I was.

I took the side cases off my bike and hoped I could squeeze through the opening. I cranked it up and began power walking it up to the gap. Then the gate went up. I guess you need a card or transponder to get into the development, but not out. I scooted to the other side of the gate, put the side cases back on, and continued following the GPS.

As I continued up the side of the mountain, the road got worse. At that point I was totally in the woods--no houses or anything else. But retreat was not an option since I had no way to get back through the gate. So again, I pressed on very slowly.

Eventually the "road" came back down the mountain and intersected Route 9. So I was free! Funny thing was, at the time I estimated the detour through the woods and over the mountain had been 10-15 miles. When I got home and pulled up Google Maps, I saw that it was three miles at the most, maybe closer to two. But time passes slowly when your butt is on the line.

Soon after, I made another error. When I'd ridden that route before, I'd cut through Cumberland, Maryland. But this time I'd added a detour on a little country road. Based on my previous experience, I avoid small country roads in Pennsylvania or West Virginia because they're so poorly maintained and sometimes turn to dirt without warning. But I'd found Maryland country roads to be well maintained and very pleasant. I guess that only applies to country roads in the central part of Maryland. Western Maryland country roads are more like their West Virginia or Pennsylvania kind.

I should have known something was amiss when I noticed that the speed limit was 25 on the country road I'd taken. As it turned out, that was generous--I seldom hit 25. It was fifteen miles of bone jarring, rutted, pot holed road unpaved for decades and torn up by trucks and farm machinery. The ride made me need to pee but I couldn't stop because all the land along the road was posted and I didn't want to encounter an angry farmer with a shotgun.

But again, I pushed through and eventually hit the very nice Scenic Route 40 then cut back into Pennsylvania and picked up my old friend Route 26. At that point, I felt that I'd been beaten up, so I jumped on Route 30 back to Chambersburg and took Interstate 81 home. It was more adventure than I'd planned on but was still better than whatever else I could have been doing that day.

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