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 2, 2012

My Worst Vacation Ever


I often tell people that my stories have a short version and a long version.  This one has no short version.

I hadn't been able to take a summer vacation for several years so planned a three day motorcycle ride for the end of June.  I had worked out the details for months, designing and re-designing the routes, carefully putting together exactly the right gear, and getting the bike in tip top condition.  I'd anxiously watched the weather forecast beginning about ten days out.  While it shifted daily as it often does during the summer, as the time approached the forecast was very hot but with a fairly small chance of scattered thunder storms, so the trip was a "go."

As events conspired, it turned into a disaster.  Like a Clark-Griswold-in-the-Wagon-Queen-Family-Truckster disaster.  But without Christie Brinkley in the swimming pool.

The plan was to take ride the 110 miles to Front Royal Virginia on Interstate 81 following work on Friday.  The first day, I was going to ride the full length of Skyline Drive then most of the Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, spending the night in Galax.  Both of these are stunning national parks twisting along the ridge of the mountains.

The second day I was going to pick up Route 16.  I'd heard that the section between Marion and Tazewell Virginia was one of the best motorcycle roads in the country.  I planned to stay on 18 to northern West Virginia, skirting about 35 miles from my ancestral homeland near Charleston, and overnighting in Weston.  The third day would be a fairly short ride back to Carlisle on some of my favorite Pennsylvania roads.  At least that was the plan.

The Friday afternoon ride to Front Royal was OK.  I hit triple digit temperatures once I crossed the Potomac, getting readings as high as 106 in the motorcycle's ambient temperature gauge.  But a new Rev'it mesh jacket I'd ordered the previous day had arrived, so I wasn't unbearably miserable.  I checked into the Front Royal Quality Inn--which was crawling with motorcyclists--walked a couple of blocks, had a nice dinner and a couple of excellent IPAs, and stumbled into a free concert in the park by a folk trio named Chatham Street.  All in all, it was a good start.

As I was falling asleep I got a text message telling me of a tornado warning in my area, but I didn't know if that meant Carlisle or Front Royal.  I heard a thunderstorm outside but at that point had had four beers and sleeping pill, so I slept the sleep of the dead.

The hotel served breakfast at 6 so I'd set my alarm for 5:30.  But by 5:00 I was completely awake so I grabbed a Red Bull and a pickled sausage at a convenience store next to the Quality Inn and headed for Skyline Drive.  I could see that it had rained the previous night, but it didn't look too bad.  The only strange thing was that the stuff sack to my bike cover, which I'd left on the seat UNDER the cover, had blown about 50 yards to the other side of the parking lot.  But the cover stayed on the bike, so I didn't think much of it.

The Skyline Drive entrance was only about a mile away.  No one was at the ranger fee booths at the park entrance but there was a sign saying that if no one was there, you could pay when you left, so I dodged my first deer of the day and headed up the mountain. The sun hadn't come up at this point but it was light enough to see. 

I hadn't gotten 500 yards when there was large tree down across the road.  I stopped, took off my helmet, and tried to figure out if I could move it or get around.  A couple of guys on Harleys pulled up and they did the same.  The three of us decided there was no way to get past the tree.  Luckily I had bought a Virginia road map when I filled up with gas the previous evening.  So I found the next entrance to Skyline Drive which was about 25 miles south near Luray.  I got on Route 340 and headed that way.

By then the sun was coming up and I began to see the effects of the storm.  It was immense. Trees were down and branches blown around everywhere.  From Luray, it was a short jump on Route 211 up the mountain to Skyline Drive.

Heading south on Skyline, things were looking good.  There was very little traffic and it was nicely cool.  The only problem was that the road was covered with wet leaves and debris from the storm, so I had to ease through the curves.  When I stopped for a photo at one of the overlooks, the same two guys on Harleys pulled up.  I asked how they'd gotten on Skyline and turned out they came the same way I did, but were a bit behind me.


About another 15 or 20 miles down the road I was getting hungry so decided to stop at one of the store/restaurants that the Park Service runs on Skyline Drive.  The sign on the place said it opened at 8.  It was 7:40 at this point so I decided to wait.  I went to the restrooms which opened on the outside of the building.  The light didn't work which seemed a bit strange.  About this point the two Harley guys showed up again and also decided to wait for the restaurant to open.  Turns out they were from Indiana and were meeting their families for a vacation at Myrtle Beach, so we talked about that for a while.

At 8:00 the staff opened the door to the restaurant but told us they had no electricity, so couldn't serve anything.  So I mounted back up and headed south.  That had made me hungry enough that I decided to jump off of Skyline and find food.  The next exit was Route 33 and I could see from my map that the town of Elkton was about 6 miles away.  So, dodging deer as is normal for Skyline Drive, I twisted my way down off the mountains and went to a McDonald's in Elkton.

The place was jammed.  As I listened to people while I was standing in line, most were saying they had no electricity and thus no way to fix food at home.  A woman in front of me said the pump on her well was electric, so she had no water either.  And the afternoon temperatures were heading for triple digits.

It was strange that Elkton had power and surrounding areas didn't, but I figured it was just a local thing. Having not seen or read the news, I had no idea that this effected the whole mid-Atlantic region and Midwest.

I ate then backtracked up the mountain to get back on Skyline Drive. By now  there was a ranger at the entrance.  When I tried to pay him, he was saying something.  I had my earphones in and the music going, so had to take all that off to hear him.  He told me Skyline was closed and impassable to the south.  I decided to go back down the mountain to Elkton, again pick up Route 340 and head south to Waynesboro.   There I could pick up Interstate 64 and get on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  That was annoying since it meant I would miss the best section of Skyline Drive, but I didn't know what else to do.

On Route 340, I tried to top off my gas.  But every station I pulled into had no electricity and was closed.  Riding through Waynesboro was weird--there clearly was no electricity in the whole town.  Even the traffic lights weren't working. That reminded me, in miniature. of driving through Basra in May of 2003.

I hopped on I-64 and hit the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The northernmost eight miles or so of it aren't great but then I began getting into the more entertaining sections. The wet leaves had dried and blown off at that point, so I was able to lean through the curves. Things were looking up.

By then I was down to about 60 miles of fuel at that point so decided to go looking for some. My Garmin Zumo told me there was a Sunoco eight miles away in Raphine, so I headed that way. 

Getting down from the mountain was a challenge.  Route 56 is tiny and very twisty, and was covered with wet debris.  When I got to Raphine which is right off I-81, people were pulling up to the pumps at the Sunoco.  But when it was my turn, I saw that the pumps were off and the store had no electricity.  By then my fuel was reaching the critical level so I decided to get on Route 11, which parallels I-81, and ride south until I found gasoline.

Just north of Lexington there was an Exxon with long lines of cars waiting to fuel up.  By this point the temperature was in the upper 90s and even a mesh jacket didn't help when I was sitting still.  But I waited it out and gassed up.  I did want to kick the butt of one geezer from New York who was in front of me--with the line of cars 20 deep, he left his parked at the pump while he went inside and used the restroom.

But anyhow, I checked the map and saw that the closest way to get back on Skyline Drive at this point was to take Route 60 through Buena Vista.   It was  fun ride back up the mountain and I was starting to get my mojo at this point, leaning hard enough to scrape a peg in the tight turns. 

When I got to Skyline, a Park Service lady had a truck across the entrance and said the road was closed until south of Roanoke.  That was at least 100 miles.  I was getting annoyed at this point.

I once again reversed course, back down the mountain, back through Buena Vista, and back on to I-81.  At this point it was over 100 degrees and there was a lot of traffic, so riding was no fun.  I was growing grumpier by the minute.

I went past Roanoke and told my GPS to get me back on the Parkway.  It sent me through Salem,  This is a sprawling developed area with malls and traffic lights every block.  I was broiling in the triple digit temperatures.  By pure happenstance, I rode past Frontline Eurosports, a new BMW/Triumph motorcycle dealership, so decided to stop in.  It is a gorgeous store and I spent a very nice half an hour in the air conditioning looking around and talking motorcycles with the owner.  If it was closer, I'd be a regular.

After that, I continued to wander around Salem and Cave Springs, looking for the Parkway and sweating like a pig.  When I finally got there, it was closed with a gate across the entrance.

I decided to get on Route 221 which parallels the Parkway and just shoot into Galax.  There was one very short but very nice section of high speed twisties that allowed me a few peg scrapes but other than that, the road was no great shakes.  Certainly not worth coming all that way for. 

Then I reached a point where there was another entrance to the Parkway right off Route 221.  I figured it was worth checking out.  Amazingly, the road was open.

So then I was having a little fun even though the southern Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is not nearly as nice as the parts north of Roanoke or in North Carolina.  At least it was bit cooler on it and there was limited traffic given all the closures. 

Continuing the theme of the day--which apparently was Annoy Steve As Much as Possible--it began raining.  I pulled off in the deluge, wrestled into my rain suit, got back on the bike and, as I should have expected, it then stopped raining.  After a few steamy miles, I stopped again and took the rain gear off.

As it came time to get off the Parkway, my Zumo told me to take the next right.  But there was no next right.  Then it told me to do a U turn.  As it turns out, Garmin's data base was screwed up--Route 97, which I was supposed to take, crosses the Parkway as an underpass but does not intersect it.

I backtracked a bit, got off on a little country road, and let the GPS get me on to Route 97.  From there is was only about 10 miles into Galax.

I checked into my hotel which was quite a bit newer and nicer than the previous night's one and rode back into town to the Galax Smokehouse.  I got a nice barbeque platter and listened to an excellent bluegrass trio playing in the restaurant.

Back at the hotel I was looking forward to a a few beers I had left from a six pack I'd bought in Front Royal which I had chilling in the little refrigerator.  I could hear my cell phone ringing in my jacket pocket during the ride.  By the time I got to the room, I had a couple of voice mails.  One was from Jayne but the other was from the hotel in Weston, WV where I was to spend the next night.  It said they had no electricity and no idea when they would get it, so they couldn't honor my reservation (although I found out when I got home that they did charge my credit card for it).

Now I was in a pickle. If that hotel had no electricity, none of the others in the region would either, so I couldn't ride the route I'd planned for the next day.  But I hated the idea of just getting on I 81 and returning home at that point.  Not only would it be a boring day, but the whole trip would be shot since at that point I'd had maybe one hour of decent twisties. And I'd miss the crown jewel of the whole trip--the section of Route 16 I'd heard so much about.

So I decided to split the difference.  I'd ride Route 16 through the Virginia section and in West Virginia until Beckley.  Then I'd pick up Interstate 64 to 81, shoot through the Shenandoah Valley, and come home a day early.  It would make for a long ride but I thought I could do it.  Little did I know then that the previous day would eventually look easy by comparison.

The Virginia section of Route 16 between Marion and Tazewell was all that it was cracked up to be.  It was a stunning series of tight twisties, ascents, and descents.  The only down side was some gravel in the tight turns washed in by the storm, so I had to carefully scan them before leaning.





There were some pretty nice sections in West Virginia as well but I was traversing McDowell County which is read hard-core, rural poverty coal country.  The whole place smelled of cigarettes and despair.

At  Welch I hit rain again so had to suit up for about an hour.  The further north I rode, the more storm damage I saw.  It was truly amazing with trees down all over the place, many of which had fallen across the road and been removed.  At one point a power pole with the wires attached had been blown down onto the road.  The transformer had smashed on the pavement.  But I was able to work around it.

I talked briefly to an old man when I stopped for gas and he indicated that electricity was just spotty.  Some spots and towns had it, but others didn't. 

Eventually I got on Interstate 64 east of Beckley.  As far as interstates go, this one is very scenic and at times is stunning such as when it crosses the New River Gorge.  I-64 is the West Virginia Turnpike but was quite a bit different than when I was last on it in the 1960s. 

At this point my fuel was getting a bit low so I pulled off to gas up.  The line at the gas station was 8 or 10 cars deep so I decided to get back on the interstate and keep going.  Bad mistake.  Bad bad.

By the time I got to Lewisburg I was down to around 60 miles of gas left so I again when looking for fuel.  I pulled into a Sunoco station which, like so many others, had no electricity.  A guy sitting in front told me one station about a mile away was functioning, but the line was two hours long.

I went over there and he was right.  The line went from the station on to the main road and then wound down a side road.  It was at least a quarter if not a half mile long.  But I went to the back and got in line.  After 15 minutes, I hadn't moved.  But the guy behind me came up to admire my bike.  He told me that he'd heard there was a station working in Clifton Forge which was about 25 miles further along on I-64.

So I headed that way.  The interstate was almost deserted at that point.  But there also was no highway patrol around, so it was like being on the German autobahn.

By the time I got to Clifton Forge I was down to 15-20 miles of fuel.  A Shell station right off the Interstate did, in fact, have electricity.  But it was out of gasoline.  A local told me that on Saturday, that had been the only place with gas for 100 miles so people were lined up for hours there with the police directing traffic.

I was at a loss.  I heard there was gasoline and electricity in Roanoke but I didn't have enough fuel to get there.  And it was south of where I was and I needed to head north.  The next town on I-64 was Lexington.  I didn't know if there was gas there but it was irrelevant because I didn't think I could make it.

I called Jayne and instructed her to buy several 5 gallon gas cans, fill them up, and be prepared to drive down to get me (which would have been four hours each way).  But then one of the clerks at the Shell station said that a fuel truck was on the way from Roanoke, but it would be two hours before it arrived.

Since I was out of options I parked my bike by one of the pumps and decided to wait it out.  At least the convenience store at the station had water and a restroom.  I was mentally preparing myself to spend the night beside the bike on the pavement.

I spent the time chatting, reading, and just sitting around.  People would occasionally pull in and get in line at the pumps.  I'd walk over and tell them it was going to be hours and most of the time they'd leave.  But out of anticipation of gas being available, dozens of cars converged around the station, spewing out of the parking lot and into the roads.  At least one person had run out of gas as he pulled up to the pump. The temperatures were back to the upper 90s at this point.  So I had a small hint of what it's like to live in a post conflict or collapsed society.  I wanted someone in a position of authority to take charge of this mess, but there was no one to.

Eventually the truck showed up.  I suspect it's the first time that driver was cheered as he delivered gasoline.  He fought his way through the massive crowd of vehicles and after 15 minutes or so, filled up the station's tanks.  I'm sure that supply of gas only lasted an hour or so but since I was parked at the pump, I had dibs.  And I exercised them.

My bike takes premium fuel and all the truck brought was regular, but I sure wasn't going to quibble  I filled up and was back on the road in minutes. 

I knew that tankful wouldn't get me home and was a bit concerned about that because I'd heard a rumor that everything was down all through Virginia and into Maryland.  I figured that if Jayne had to bring me gas to somewhere in Maryland, that would be better than coming all the way to Clifton Forge. 

Once I got to I-81 it was the normal summer traffic.  The road was jammed, it was in the upper 90s, and I was pretty tired at that point.  I was grumpy enough that I showed no mercy to people lolling in the left lane.  South of Winchester I pulled off to see if I could find anything open where I could get some fluids back into my system.  To my surprise, everything had power, so I ate a couple of hotdogs with a Gatorade, topped off my gasoline, and continued north.

With a couple of more Gatorade stops, I was moving along.  I was surprised that I felt OK considering the temperature, what I'd been through during the day, and the fact that it was turning into my first ever 500 mile day on a motorcycle (540 actually).  As one more little poke in my eye by the fates, there was a wreck on I-81 around Winchester but I was able to get off on Route 11, skirt around it, and get back on at the next exit.  By the time I got to Pennsylvania, the sun was going down and it was cooling off.  I could have ridden another 50 or 100 miles if I'd needed to.

I remember seeing a flatbed truck with a military vehicle beside the road near Chambersburg and thinking, "Wow--that was sitting in the same place when I left on the trip."  Then I remembered that it had only been about 50 hours.  So much had happened that it seemed like weeks.

I eventually stumbled into the house, drank the only beer around, soaked in a tub, and fell into bed.

OK, maybe it wasn't the worst vacation ever in an objective sense.  But a quirk of my personality is that a lack of control bothers more more than pain, discomfort, or other challenges.  That, and the fact that I had so anticipated this ride, made it "my" worst.  And I realize that it was a very, very fortunate chain of events that led me to be standing at the only gas station functioning for miles around at the very time that the clerk announced that a fuel truck was inbound.  I could easily have spent the night by the side of the road out of gas.

The good news is that my bike and all my gear performed well.  After exactly two years, I have about 38,000 trouble free miles on the motorcycle.  Now I know that I could, if necessary, ride 500 miles a day or more, at least as long as I was stoked with Gatorade and energy shots.  And, more importantly, the routes I'd designed were great.  So now I'm thinking maybe I'll try and do this same ride again in September.  Maybe this time I can avoid Armageddon.   Or at least get Christie Brinkley in a swimming pool.


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