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.

My current motorcycle is a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike is 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!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Some Good, Some Bad, Some Ugly

For the fourth time in less than a year, last minute changes in the weather caused me to cancel a long-planned West Virginia ride.  This time the Sunday forecast was 60% chance of afternoon thunderstorms, so I begged off.  But Saturday was supposed to be nice so I thought I'd do my first really long ride of the year, using one of my favorite routes that goes through the state forests of north central Pennsylvania, but adding a couple of new twists.

Spring and Autumn rides are always a challenge since there can be a large temperature variation from the beginning to the end.  This was no exception as it was mid 50s at the start and low 80s at the end, but I was able to peel off layers and stay reasonably comfortable.

I started with two of my favorite roads: Rt 74 out of Carlisle and Rt 235 north of McAlisterville, cutting west to Bellfonte, through Snow Shoe and Karthaus.  The plan was to swing north on Route 144 and back south on 44 to Lock Haven.  This would briefly put me into Pennsylvania elk country.  Then I wanted to hit the superb 477 south of Lock Haven, over to Mifflinburg, and south on 104, then 11, 850 and 34.


As it turns out the new roads were very nice.  They included Wykoff Run Road between 2004 and 120 (which someone told me about on Facebook) and 4001 north from 120 to 144.  This ran along Kettle Creek which is one of the better known trout streams in Pennsylvania (although I've never fished it).

All was well until I hit the northernmost part of the route and started back south on 44.  There were piles of gravel at random places in road.  I almost dumped the bike hitting one at high speed.  When I started sliding I instinctively reached for the brakes but luckily the experienced motorcyclist part of my brain vetoed that idea--hitting the brakes when you're sliding on ice or gravel is the exact wrong thing to do.  I assume that area had a very bad storm within the past 48 hours which washed all of that onto the pavement.  In any case, it caused me to ease along where I would usually rocket.

I had nice at an interesting honky tonk diner in Lock Haven.  As I parked and was taking my full panoply of protective gear off (full face helmet, leather jacket, elkskin gloves, protective overpants), a guy pulled up on a Harley and parked right next to me.  He had clearly spent tens of thousands of dollars on a intricate specialized paint job and after-market chrome.  The bike glowed--there was not a smudge on it. The paint glittered; I could see my reflection in the highly polished chrome. I'm sure guy rode it a few miles from his garage to the diner carefully avoiding anything that might mar it. I'd guess that he had an extra loud after-market muffler as well.  Of course he wore no  helmet, had regular faded jeans (which are worthless in a crash), and sported a Harley logo vest and boots.

My bike (and me for that matter) was bug encrusted and looked like it had just been ridden very fast over hundreds of miles of mountains.  Which it had. Anything aftermarket on my bike is there to improve comfort and safety, not for looks.  This was all emblematic: tt's a Harley versus BMW thing.


Then when I started back up, I noticed that the route was corrupted on my Garmin GPS.  This happens 100% of the time now and has across multiple Garmin units.  The utter incompetence of Garmin's software engineers continues to anger me.  After I designed the route using Base Camp, Garmin's bizarrely awful mapping software, it took four tries to get it to upload correctly without adding detours (which is normal).  When I previewed it on Friday it was fine but when I ran it on Saturday it decided to just draw straight lines between my waypoints regardless of whether there were actually roads.  I so wish there was some competition to Garmin.  (I have tech support request in to them but have never been successful at the dozen or so other times I've asked for help, so I'm not expecting much).

But in this case it didn't really matter since I knew the route.  Unfortunately, when I got to 477, the state had recently resurfaced it using what they call the "oil and chips" method.  This is a Third World technique where they put down tar, cover it with gravel chips, and depend on traffic to imbed the chips in the tar.  The surface becomes solid (but still bad) after a few days or weeks depending on how much traffic there is.  But in the interim, the road is very treacherous because it is a just a bed of loose gravel.  I was crawling along at 20 as the road twisted along a mountain stream, pulling off when I could to let cars get by (which is an exact reversal of how things normally work).


I finally bailed out on 477 because I knew there was a mountain crossing coming up and knew I couldn't do it safely (thank PENNDOT!).  I jumped in I-80 for about five miles, took the next exit, then following my hypothesis that at any location in central Pennsylvania, I can ride for 25 minutes in any direction and eventually know where I am.  As it turned out, I picked up my original route and followed it the rest of the way home.

Being out of riding shape, I was exhausted when I got home. even though I'd only ridden a bit over 380 miles  I still didn't see any elk but the ride sure beat whatever else I might have done for the day.

1 comment:

  1. A friend and I rode some of those same roads on Saturday, through Benezette and on to route 120, then down Wykoff Road and through Karthaus. Beautiful day to ride.

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