Tuesday, April 20, 2010

South by Southeast

At the end of my last leg from Dallas to Miami, I parked my BMW at the Miami Airport in hopes that Dawn and I would be able to make a run to Key West within a few weeks. Alas, I was unable to get a weekend free and Dawn couldn't afford to take a few days off work, given our looming spring break trip. Having been to the northwesternmost and southwesternmost towns in the Lower 48, I also wanted to make it to the southernmost point, so I decided to go on a few weekdays when Dawn was busy.

I also had a mechanical difficulty to deal with before my next major leg. Ever since I left Minneapolis, I had occasional trouble starting the bike; once every thirty starts or so, the starter would turn but not engage the engine, emitting a high-pitched whirring sound. So long as it was an uncommon occurrence, it was little more than a nuisance easily solved by rocking the bike back and forth a few inches with the gears engaged. On the last leg to Miami, however, the behavior rapidly worsened until it happened one out of three starts and rocking the bike no longer worked every time. On the late-night search for lodging in Naples, I actually had to resort to push-starting the bike, which doesn't work when the bike is cold. On my return to Minneapolis, I consulted my favorite BMW motorcycle forum, which quickly revealed that this is a very common problem for early K-bikes; the sprag clutch which serves as a connection between starter and crankshaft is of an inadequate design that tends to either wear or foul with oil sludge. If the clutch was worn, it would be a huge project for which I had neither the tools nor the facilities in Florida to accomplish myself. On the other hand, sludge might by taken care of with a fresh oil and filter change using premium synthetic oil with a half-quart of oil detergent thrown in. This being the easier solution, it was obviously the first thing to try, and furnished a further reason to visit Florida for a few days.

Therefore my only riding in March was an overnight trip to Key West. Shortly after arriving in Miami, I took the BMW to John Long's amazing shop/junkyard/motorcycle racing museum, where he actually loaned me an oil pan so I could do the change myself. The ride down the Keys was heavenly, with the warmest temps I'd experienced in a very long time. Key West was heaving with spring breakers, but its charm was nevertheless apparent, which made me disappointed that I never did get to bring Dawn. I rode back to Miami the next day; my bike started flawlessly both days. Oil sludge was indeed the problem, so I'll be running Mobil One synthetic from now on.

Originally my idea was to ferry the BMW up to Atlanta in mid-April in preparation for the epic leg up the spine of the Appalachians planned for the end of the month. When our Vietnam trip fell apart in Moscow and we were forced to beat a retreat to the States, the ride from Miami to Atlanta - in a more adventerous, winding form - became Plan B. Dawn was actually quite excited for it, perhaps even more than she'd been for Vietnam, because she's only been able to ride with me on a fairly small portion of the trip so far. Our flight from Moscow touched down in New York on Friday afternoon (2 April), we landed in Minneapolis later that night, and after a hasty repacking we were on a plane to Miami first-thing Saturday morning.

My second ride down the Keys on Highway One was downright hot, made worse by torturous Saturday traffic. Nonetheless we arrived at our campground on Sugarloaf Key by 5pm, with enough time to make camp before riding the last twenty miles to Key West. We stopped at the southernmost point buoy before riding down teeming Duval Street for the obligatory sunset watching amid the circus of Mallory Square. A thickening high overcast made it seem as though the main event might be a dud, but under-lighting in the minutes before and after sunset made for a brilliant finale. After dark, we walked around the downtown area and had dinner before returning to the BMW. We were just about to leave when a bearded guy with a leather jacket came up to us and asked "Did you really ride this from Minnesota?" I've become used to such inquiries, which have led to meeting some really interesting people, so I took my helmet off and explained that yes, I rode it here from Minnesota via Seattle, Portland, LA, Dallas, and Miami, and I was continuing around the country counterclockwise. The guy got a huge grin on his face, introduced himself as Dan, and told me that he'd just come from LA on his Harley and was in the process of his own Round-the-USA trip. We compared notes and it turns out that Dan and I have very similar routes and have been on many of the same roads already, although he is making a practice of sticking as close to the perimeter of the country as he can. I wanted to make the twenty mile trip back to camp before the Saturday night crazies hit the road so I had to cut our conversation short, but Dan gave me the address of the blog in which he is chronicling his trip. Ride the Edge is a good read, well worth checking out.

After the best night of sleep I've had in a tent in a long, long time - temps above 50 help a lot! - we headed back to Key West on Sunday morning. We rode around the old town for a while, enjoying the lush, fragrant magnolias spilling out of picket-fenced gardens into the narrow back streets. We stopped for breakfast and stayed off the bike to walk around and take some photos; we recently acquired a Nikon D5000 digital SLR camera to replace our aging 35mm N65, and love it. By now the sun was high in the sky, so we headed down to Smathers Beach to soak in the rays. Mindful of Dawn's second-degree roasting in Malaysia two years ago, we slathered on the SPF30 at regular intervals.

Later in the afternoon we stopped at a shop for some Key Lime Pie and then headed over to the harbor to board Sebago's 60 foot Catamaran for a snorkeling trip out to Key West's reef. The wind was over 20 knots with moderate swells, making for a very spirited (wet!) sail on the speedy cat even with deeply reefed sails. The snorkeling was a bit of a letdown after our experiences in Thailand and Malaysia; the reef was underwhelming, with rather little marine life around, and poor water visibility didn't help. The sail back to Key West and around the harbor as we watched the sunset, however, was quite enjoyable. Of course, we neglected to reapply sunscreen after snorkeling - our exact mistake in Malaysia! - so the setting sun was roasting our faces even as we unknowingly basked in its warmth. I spent the rest of the trip with a somewhat disfigured face, but leaving my helmet on generally kept the local kids from fleeing in terror.

After we returned at sunset, Dawn and I rode the half-mile through sidestreets to the out-of-the-way but nonetheless deservedly popular El Siboney, a Cuban restaurant, for what was likely the best meal of the trip (although most motorcycle tourers have admittedly low standards). The next morning, we rode back to Miami on a blessedly traffic-free Highway 1, made a detour out to the Everglades so Dawn could see alligators along the Tamiami Trail, and then backtracked to Miami Beach, where Dawn convinced me to spring for an actual room for the night in lieu of camping with the homeless on South Beach; it was an interesting boutique hotel in an aging Art Deco building.

Up to this point we didn't have any particular itinerary set down, but now a plan for the remaining six days of Spring Break was shaping up in my mind. It would require a few fairly long days of riding, but would take us to several areas of the Southeast we've wanted to visit for a long time but have never found the right chance. To Be Continued....

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Wes D said...

That's great, glad you enjoyed the trip. Miami sure beats snowy Moscow for a spring break. I live about 6 hours from Key West and have never been. Your pics pushed me to plan a ride down there in my Corvette next week.

Tom B. (Norfolk) said...

Sam & Wife:
Just a word of advice on your planned route up the Appalachians and into New England (from a former Acadia National Park Park Ranger and Vermont native).. Full spring doesn't arrive in Vermont-NH-Maine until late May and that is typically the earliest time in which you can expect temperatures above 65 degrees and green leaves on the trees. I noticed you will be stopping in Bar Harbor and probably Acadia NP; I recommend you stay in one of the campgrounds inside the national park, NOT one of the commercial campgrounds (privately owned) outside of the park that are on the island. There are two NPS campgrounds inside the park; Blackwoods CG and Seawall CG. Blackwoods is reservation only and fills up VERY quickly during the summer months; it is about 5 miles outside of Bar Harbor and the closest campground to the main sites in the park and Bar Harbor itself. Recommend you make reservations online for that campground as soon as you are able. Your alternative is Seawall Campground, which is on the other side of the island. It is first come first serve and less congested but also smaller and also fills up quickly, plus it is about a 45 minute ride (during summer traffic) from there to the main attractions and Bar Harbor on the other side of the island.

When in Burlington, Vermont, be sure to go to the famous Church Street, which is in the center of the city and is an old street that is closed to traffic and only open to pedestrians. It has quite a few shops, museums and some fantastic restaurants with views of Lake Champlain. I also recommend you tour the Magic Hat Brewing Company brewery in South Burlington; they offer a great tour with samples and this is among the best of the New England breweries.

June is typically the best time of year to go to northern New England if at all possible (keep in mind - though geographically close together, northern and southern New England are VERY different in terms of weather, scenery and culture). If you go much before June it can still get quite cold and won't be very green; if you go late summer it will be very buggy and wet.

Have fun!

Sam said...

Tom B-

Thanks for the advice! Unfortunately I am under orders (from Dawn!) to get the bike back to MN as to not miss out on the short summer riding season there, so I can't wait for better weather before tackling New England. I'll just have to make the best of whatever is there. Right now the forecast is decent.

Wes D- That's one of the better compliments I've received lately! Thanks & hope you enjoy the trip!

Curt Sampson said...

"Ancient" Nikon N65? Sheesh, it can't even be a decade old. I'd always thought my Olympus OM4 was newish because it was made in the 80s.

But yes, the supposedly "low-end" Nikon DSLRs are pretty sweet; even the cheap kit lens on my, err, "ancient" D40 was not bad at all.

Glad to hear you managed to survive and even enjoy your Moscow trip, though clearly it wasn't quite what you'd planned. A spirit of adventure really helps, especially when your travelling companion has the same.