Saturday, April 24, 2010

South by Southeast (Part 2)

Like all my plans for this continent-crossing odyssey, the leg from Dallas to Atlanta was originally supposed to be short and simple, but soon took on a life of its own. What was once intended to be a two-day, 800 mile repositioning leg on freeways mushroomed into three months and 3400 miles of wanderings about the south (actually, it's more if you include the day that I rode my friend Sylvia's glittery pink Ducati Monster 750 miles from Dallas to eastern Alabama, a story perhaps best left for another time). The reality is that once you've committed to something as massive as a ride completely around the country, you can't help but add a plethora of destinations and roads that each add "just a few more miles." Since I was passing through Alabama, I had to visit Sylv at Fort Rucker. It was only another 70 miles from there to Florida. As long as I was visiting the Sunshine State, why not enjoy a nice warm ride down to Miami? Once I was that far south, Key West became obligatory. And so on.

Before the Vietnam trip fell through, my April was shaping up to be very busy indeed. I had only two days open to ferry the Beemer from Miami to Atlanta, where I was planning to start the next leg with my friend Brad later in the month. There would be little sightseeing along the way. Even once we flew to Miami with nine days of spring break left, I was thinking something along the lines of a week spent exploring the Keys and then a day or two of hard riding to reposition to Atlanta. However, we ended up back in Miami within three days, and were riding hard to the north a day after that. It turns out that while the Keys are nice and all, a 100-mile highway that combines few curves, hordes of geriatric RVers, and scarce passing lanes turns out to be a fairly boring ride. That's not good when a limited budget makes riding your primary form of entertainment! There were still plenty of sights to be seen in the Keys, plenty of beaches to lounge on, but my brain can't help but think in terms of opportunity-cost: Sure, five days of sunbathing sounds nice, but how many curvy roads could I ride and new cities could I explore in that time? Neither Dawn nor I had spent much time in Georgia or the Carolinas outside of airports. She was eager to head north.

The relative lack of Floridian drivers outside the state of Florida was the deal-clincher for me. They'd been driving me absolutely bonkers from the moment I crossed into the state. Never in my life have I seen such a deadly mix of aggressive, dawdling, distracted, indecisive, lawbreaking, addled, apparently lost, reckless, and inattentive drivers, united only by mind-boggling stupidity. Californians can't hold a candle to the Floridians; I've seen some really silly stuff on SoCal freeways but at least everyone's fairly uniform in their aggressiveness and inattentiveness. In Florida all the competing modes of idiocy could bring a ten-lane rural freeway to a standstill at three in the morning. The motorcycling community has a derogatory term for automobile drivers who do reckless or inexplicably mindless things, particularly those who endanger motorcyclists in the process: cagers. I have decided to personally retire that term in favor of floridians (ie "Did you see that crazy floridian roll through the red light and almost hit me back there!?"). I met some nice and seemingly intelligent people in Florida but I have to assume that handing them the keys to a motor vehicle triggers some sort of Jekyll & Hyde-like transformation.

We planned our escape from Florida to the southern charms of Georgia and the Carolinas over drinks at our Miami Beach hotel on Monday night, and were hurtling northward on I-95 by 8am on Tuesday morning. I've tried to avoid freeways on this trip when the schedule allows and I'm not passing through, say, West Texas. Riding a motorcycle on the freeway isn't much more interesting than driving on one in a car, and a fair amount less comfortable. In this case, however, I-95 made for a handy detour past the congestion of the beach communities north of Miami. At Fort Pierce we exited onto the coast-hugging Florida A1A and rode that as far as Cape Canaveral, where we veered back across the Intercoastal Waterway to pick up US-1 north to Daytona Beach.

Throughout the day, I was stopping to call motorcycle shops in Daytona, Jacksonville, and Savannah in search of new tires for my bike. The current ones had almost 10,000 miles on them, having been replaced in Minnesota before starting the trip, and the rear tire in particular was getting alarmingly bald (motorcycle tires don't last nearly as long as car tires). I wasn't having any success; nobody stocked the tall, skinny tires used by 1980s-vintage BMWs and few bikes since. A friendly Honda dealer in Daytona checked around for us, eventually leading to a BMW dealership with a ridiculously overpriced Metzeler rear tire. I passed, and we returned to Route A1A to continue north toward Jacksonville.

It was late afternoon as we approached St Augustine; I reasoned that all the motorcycle shops in Jacksonville would be closed by the time we got there, so why not stop to enjoy an evening in North America's oldest city? Both Dawn and I had visited before, but never together. The only downside was spending my fifth night of camping at a KOA since arriving in Florida. I despise KOAs but Florida State Park campgrounds are booked solid by RVers for months in advance and few other campgrounds accept lowly tent campers. This particular KOA was essentially a dirt lot behind a strip mall. We pitched our tent and headed into town for dinner and a stroll, and within a half-mile I started spying perfectly charming little motor lodges advertising rates less than I paid for our cramped slice of dirt at the KOA. Sometimes my cheap streak is entirely counterproductive.

We had a very nice dinner and walked around the old Spanish Quarter, enjoying the beautiful evening, then rode back to camp and turned in for a solid night of sleep despite markedly cooler temperatures. In the morning, the rear wall of the strip mall didn't inspire us to stick around any longer than needed to break camp, and we soon headed out of St Augustine on an especially scenic stretch of Florida A1A. It initially hugged the shore, then dropped inland and was just starting to get interestingly curvy when we hit a slew of stoplights at the outskirts of Jacksonville. No matter, I needed to find some tires before we did too much knee-dragging. The first motorcycle dealer we tried didn't have my size of tires but was able to direct me to a small shop only a few blocks away. Not only did they have both front and rear tires in stock, they had them at a very reasonable price, and were able to mount them both immediately for a small fee. We ate breakfast at a Mexican bakery while we waited for the shop to finish, and then rode out of town on new shoes much earlier in the day than I had expected.

Our goal for the day, Savannah Georgia, was but 140 miles away via I-95. Instead we detoured east on Highway 105 once we crossed the Jacksonville River, and were rewarded with a beautiful ride around Talbot and Amelia Islands before rejoining the freeway at the Georgia state line. From this point the interstate was the easternmost route to Savannah, and the only somewhat direct route, thanks to countless tidal estuaries that render the Georgian coastline impassable. This was unfortunate, for we were obliged to ride through the longest construction zone I've ever experienced, complete with lengthy grooved surfaces that tested the design of my new tires (they did quite well). We still arrived at our destination by early afternoon.

I'd always heard of Savannah's charm and beauty but had no idea just how lovely it is until now. It is the most attractive city I've seen since leaving the Pacific Northwest. Even the more derelict, run-down part of town (which I rode through in search of a library for internet access) has a certain faded grace to it. I wish we'd had more time, for other than eating lunch at the City Market and walking around Ellis Square, we were resigned to seeing most of it from the saddle of the Beemer. Mind you, cruising through tunnels of Spanish moss and bouncing around the green squares on heaving streets of ancient pavers is in itself good entertainment. After checking into a cheap-but-cheerful motel west of town - I refused to camp another night at a KOA - we met up with my old friend Steph and her husband and baby girl for dinner at the excellent Moon River brewpub. After our abbreviated visit, I'm very glad that NewCo is starting Savannah overnights in May.

The next morning's crisp air was a bracing reminder of our increasing latitude as we accelerated onto I-95. Within a few minutes we entered South Carolina, and thirty miles after that exited the freeway on US-17 to Charleston. The road was officially under construction for most of its length despite an utter lack of men and heavy equipment, the only regular sign of its status being lowered speed limits and orange "speeding fines double" signs. I've noticed this phenomenon a lot this trip, and my conspirational side wonders if it isn't a fundraising mechanism for cash-strapped localities. It was a fine, cool morning to cruise slowly and enjoy the sights, so for once I made a poor target for the local constabulary.

Charleston was scenic and interesting but somehow much different than I expected. I suppose I thought it'd be similar to Savannah, but instead seemed an odd mixture of Boston and New Orleans. Our visit was very brief, basically a ride down the length of King Street and back up Bay Street to the Cooper River bridge with a short stop at the Battery to peer out at Fort Sumter (interestingly, the Battery features a prominent neoclassical statue pointedly dedicated "to the Confederate defenders of Charleston"). The surprise highlight was a stop for lunch across the river in Mount Pleasant. I was just getting hungry when I spied a barn-shaped building that obviously used to be a Dairy Queen, except that the red DQ sign out front was painted white and hand-lettered as the "Boulevard Diner." This was too amusing, too local-yokel, too southern to miss, so I pulled over immediately. Imagine my surprise at opening the menu to find entrees like "Cashew-crusted chicken with sauteed spinach and cranberry/sweet-pepper chutney." The packed parking lot should have tipped me off that this wasn't your usual greasy spoon. The food was delicious, but not too spendy; I love roadtrip finds like this.

We departed Charleston to the northwest shortly after noon, jumping off the interstate as soon as we were out of the bulk of suburbia. Instead we took US-176, the two-lane blacktop precursor to I-26 that runs parallel about ten miles to the northeast. It's an arrow-straight road, and the scenery between Charleston and Columbia isn't that interesting, but the little towns along the way broke up the trip and provided some local flavor. My bright-red 1980s vintage BMW with Minnesota plates seems to attract attention wherever I go, but particularly out in the sticks. This is one of the bigger differences between motorcycle and automobile roadtrips: being on a bike tends to open people up, make them curious about where you're from and where you're going. Nowhere was this truer than in the South, I was very impressed by the friendliness and openness of the people. I had several conversations with curious locals who rolled down their windows to talk to me at stoplights. People from the upper Midwest tend to be much more reserved; there is a reason "Minnesota Nice" is not called "Minnesota Friendly."

Highway 176 merged back onto I-26 until we were past Columbia's sprawl, then split off again and meandered into the hills to the north. By now the skies were covered with threatening, waterlogged clouds; a gas station clerk told me that a squall line was forecast to come through later. For now, though, the rain held off, and I enjoyed the curvy, rolling road through Sumter National Forest. By 5pm, we were approaching Spartanburg and decided to stop for the night, a choice that was borne out when it started raining immediately after we pulled into the campground at Croft State Park. I very nearly dumped the bike while riding down the hill to our lakefront campsite, for the road abruptly went from pavement to very loose, dry gravel about three inches thick. We pitched the tent and rode into town through increasingly heavy rain; it was pouring by the time we parked downtown and made a dash for one of the few open eateries. Shortly thereafter, sirens went off; a tornado had been spotted just south of town, headed directly for our campground. Fortunately, our tent was still standing when we returned, although the floor was a little soggy.

The squall line that went through was the leading edge of a cold front, and this turned out to be the coldest night of camping since Jackson, MS. The good news was that the next day featured crystal clear skies, and the bright sun took the edge off of a potentially very chilly ride. Highway 9 to Lake Lure looked more interesting than the standard route from Spartanburg to Asheville, and it turned out to be a delightful road with little traffic on a Friday morning. We couldn't help but notice that the road surface improved and the properties became more stately as soon as we hit the North Carolina state line. We stopped for breakfast at the amusingly named town of Bat Cave, then continued on US-74 up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Asheville. The layout of the city utterly confused me and I made a few loops through the outskirts before I found the way downtown, via a tunnel through a ridge. We didn't linger long in Asheville and were soon headed westward to the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.

My only goal for the day was to find some fun and scenic roads to ride on, while finishing the day within easy striking distance of Atlanta. In this, I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations, for every single road we took was utterly spectacular. US-19 from Lake Junaluska to Cherokee was by turns lazily pastoral and challengingly snarly, with light enough traffic to get myself in trouble if I failed to detect one of the road's personality shifts. US-441 through Great Smoky Mountain National Park was predictably congested and slow, but made up for it with spectacular views from Newfound Gap. Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend (TN) was a rollicking riot of endless hairpin turns following the improbably twisty, fast-flowing Little River. The Foothills Parkway, selected merely as a convenient means of conveyance from Point A to Point B, was an unexpected treat. Blessed with good asphalt, no development, few crossroads, little traffic, and no discernible police presence, this road made in motorcycle heaven follows a high ridgeline for 17 miles of fast sweeping turns and spectacular vistas across the valley to the Great Smoky Mountains. More than once I rounded a turn whooping at the top of my lungs for the pure joy of it, and only 1000cc's of howling German power kept Dawn from hearing and suspecting her husband had gone of the deep end. I was deeply saddened when the Parkway descended to its terminus at US-129.

I was planning on recrossing the mountains via the legendary Tail of the Dragon road at Deal's Gap, but it turned out to be closed due to a rockslide earlier in the year. I was forced to backtrack westbound on US-129, not quite sure where I should go until I stopped at a gas station and a friendly old-timer directed me to the Cherohala Skyway, which in his opinion was superior even to Deal's Gap. My route there via Highways 72 and 360 was enjoyably pastoral, but the Cherohala itself proved to be simply breathtaking from the very start. It was getting late in the day and we were racing the sunset so there was very little traffic as we climbed ever upward on the twisting road. The turns on the Tennessee side seemed to all have the same perfect, constant radius that could be taken at speed. Finally, at some 5400 feet elevation, the road flattened out to breathtaking views along several miles of ridgeline, then started the long trek downhill on the shady, North Carolina side of the ridge.

Here the road became snarly and unpredictable, with some nasty increasing-radius blind turns. Downhill turns are much more challenging on a motorcycle than uphill turns because proper entry speed is critical to avoid using your brakes during the turn, where they rob critical traction. My riding skills have improved considerably over the 14,000 miles I've owned this bike, but tight downhill turns still give me pause. Here I had a breakthrough, however: I realized that unconsciously flinching away from the bottom of the hill was causing me to not shift my weight or lean as much as I ought to be doing - exactly the thing that kept me from skiing steep hills for a long time. With this realization, I concentrated on the mechanics of my riding and it just clicked; I settled into a comfortable rhythm, no longer needing to think as I slung the bike from one tightly banked turn into the next. As the road flattened at the bottom of the ridge, I suddenly realized that Dawn had been shifting her weight and leaning aggressively right along with me. Good girl. I need to get my FZ600 fixed up so she has something to ride once she takes the MSF course this summer.

After the cold of the previous night, I had promised Dawn a nice warm hotel room in Robbinsville, our stopping point for the day. We shuttled between a few options before deciding on the cozy, quirky Phillips Motel. The similarities between its rooms and Grandma's house made sense once we met the proprietress, an authentic Grandma right down to the disapproving glare when we requested a queen bed (she became friendlier after I registered us as "Mr and Mrs Samuel W.). The BBQ plate at Carolina Kitchen just down the hill made for a delicious late dinner before turning in for the night after a 320 mile day of mostly challenging riding.

Our last day of riding dawned clear and cold, and I held off starting out for Atlanta until after 9am. By then, the sun was high enough to warm us as we wound our way south on US Highways 129, 74, and 19. This last road, in particular, was surprisingly good. I was expecting a fairly undramatic thoroughfare to Atlanta, but I hadn't counted on just how mountainous northern Georgia is. It was a Saturday morning, and hordes of motorcycles and sport cars passed us going the other way. I was having too much fun in my own blessedly traffic-free lane to wave back to many of them. The one thing that did make me slow down and stare was about twenty restored classic Ferraris racing each other up the mountain at incredible speed. Finally, we came out of the mountains, the road straightened and widened, and then it was the last hour into Atlanta through increasingly heavy traffic.

There we met an old friend, in fact the friend who introduced us ten years ago. We hadn't seen him in six years, so it was great to catch up as he showed us around town. He surprised us with the news that he is leaving his successful career with a software developer to return to his first love, aviation. I had no idea he was still even interested in flying, but as he said: "Every time I board an airliner, it kills me to turn right when I'd rather turn left." We got steaks and grilled on the his rooftop patio overlooking downtown Atlanta, drinking beers and talking flying late into the night. I could think of dozens of reasons why ditching a good job to pursue an airline career is a mistake these days, but in the face of my friend's enthusiasm all my logic melted away. Any great love is going to be at least a little irrational, and there will always be reasons not to do what you love. Heck, I could think of many good reasons not to do a 15,000 mile, eleven month trip through 32 states on a 25-year old motorcycle, but here I am, loving every mile of it. Wouldn't it be hypocritical of me to rain on others dreams when those close to me have been so supportive of mine?

Dawn and I flew back to Minneapolis on Sunday morning, concluding a very different spring break from the one we started out on when we boarded the A330 to Amsterdam. We flew over 14,000 miles and rode more than 1800. I am blessed with a wife who seems to be up for any adventure, "so long as we're together." Unfortunately, she won't be coming on the next stage of my motorcycle trip, but my very good friend Brad of Horizon Air will be. Last month, he bought an FZ1 in Tennessee for the sole purpose of doing the 2400 mile epic leg up the spine of the Appalachians to Maine and back down to Boston with me. We leave tomorrow.

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typingtalker said...

Re: Fear of turns. This probably came from Peter Egan quoting someone else ... "When in doubt, lean more."

IWishIWasFlying said...


If you wouldn't mind company, i'd ride with you when you're near the Albany, NY area.

Brian said...

As far as bad drivers go...

If you consider stopping off in any of the Northeast cities, it's only going to get worse. Plus you deal with unbelievable sprawl and never-ending traffic nightmares. Consider yourself warned.

That being said, if you need any help with Va., Md. and Pa., let me know. I live in the former and grew up in the latter.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Really makes me think about life and how some people get wrapped up in the everyday "tactical" stuff of life and forget to carry out their "strategic plan" for life. It's not about the things you use, it's how you use your things. Safe ride, I'll be on 126.7 when you come back.


chris said...

I really have enjoyed you're blog. It would be nice if you could split up the posts more. It freezes my laptop and takes forever to load at home. Thanks.

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