Monday, May 24, 2010

Appalachian Trail (Part 2)

The sun woke me up before my alarm clock on Wednesday morning; the sky was cloudless and deceptively warm looking, making for a breathtaking surprise when I stepped outside. Asheville was under a freeze warning until mid-morning, which surely meant the Parkway would be treacherous until around noon. We had plenty of time for breakfast, so before Daphne left for work at the Sunny Point Cafe she suggested that we come by. It was a special morning at the Cafe: Good Morning America was filming there for their "Best Breakfast in America" feature, of which Sunny Point was one of the four finalists. When we swung the bikes into their lot at 9am, there was a long and enthusiastic line of diners, but we were seated and served surprisingly quickly. Both Brad and I tried the dish which earned Sunny Point the "Best Breakfast" nomination, Huevos Rancheros with black bean cakes, chorizo, and tortilla chips. It certainly got my vote. The film crew actually filmed Brad and I being served our plates, but when the segment aired on May 15 we were nowhere to be seen. Apparently two wild-haired, scruffy-bearded bikers straight off the road weren't quite what the producer was looking for!

After we said our goodbyes to Daphne and the crew at Sunny Point, we rode to a nearby auto parts store so Brad could change his oil. He didn't know when it had last been changed, as he had bought the bike specifically for the trip a few weeks prior in Nashville. This store didn't have an oil pan we could borrow, but a discarded windshield washer fluid bottle with the top cut off worked nicely and we were on the road a half hour later.

As soon as we got on the Parkway, it was obvious that we had made the right decision in stopping early the previous day. The downwind side of every exposed tree branch was coated with a half-inch of rime ice. We stopped at an overlook to take pictures when the wind began flaking the ice off the trees, creating the effect of snow despite the blue skies. Brad pointed out a group of Harleys with Minnesota plates, so I went over to talk to the riders. They asked where I was coming from, so I launched into the by-now familiar catalogue of places I'd been and roads I'd ridden over almost 11,000 miles. "Which way did you come?" I asked my fellow Minnesotans. They sheepishly admitted they had trailered their bikes the whole way and had ridden 25 miles so far.

The first forty miles of Parkway followed the ridge at between 4000 and 5000 feet elevation, and there was still ice in the shadows; we rode more carefully than we might have on the undulating sweepers. We had just started to descent to lower, warmer altitudes when we came across a "Road Closed Ahead" sign. The Minnesotan Harley riders were stopped at the closure, discussing their options for bypassing the areas of the Parkway closed by the prior day's rains. After talking to them, Brad and I decided on taking NC-80 to US-19E to NC-226, rejoining the Parkway to Linville Falls, and then bypassing it on US-221 until Linville. From here, the Parkway was open to its terminus at Waynesboro, Virginia.

North of Blowing Rock, the Parkway descended into rolling woodland, yet the still-curvy road was no less enjoyable for the scarcity of overlooks. We'd been exceeding the ridiculously low speed limit all day, but now our tempo crept steadily upward into freeway territory. Neither of us said anything about it at the time, but both of us were thinking the same thing: what if a deer jumps out? What if there's stopped traffic around one of these blind curves? In light of events later that day, we talked about this as we drifted off to sleep in our tents that night. It struck me that we, two airline pilots, were both thinking in terms of risk mitigation, yet neither of us was really inclined to slow down.

Along the North Carolina / Virginia border, we rode through at least twenty miles of heavily storm-damaged forest, and crossed at least two narrow swaths of utter destruction that were the unmistakable work of tornadoes. I asked about it at a gas station down the road in Meadows of Dan, VA, and the clerk said the storm came through nearly a year ago. The terrain continued to descend and the countryside became more populous as we approached Roanoke, which the Parkway skirts to the east. We stopped at an overlook around mile marker 105 to call the wives, eat a cereal bar, and decide how much further we wanted to go. At this point it was after 5pm and we had ridden nearly 300 miles since Asheville. I had hoped to reach the end of the Parkway that day but the late start meant we would come up about 50 miles short. I slowly rose off the soft grass where I'd been basking in the late-afternoon sun and climbed back on the bike for one last fifty-mile push.

Shortly after we got back on the Parkway, it climbed dramatically to nearly 4000 ft elevation and followed the top of the Blue Ridge for over twenty miles. The road meandered through strands of birch and poplar trees that occasionally gave way to open sections with vertiginous views of the countryside below. This stretch of Parkway was on par with the most spectacular sections we had seen just out of Asheville earlier in the day. Again our speed crept steadily upward in the absence of traffic or sharp curves. I was getting hungry and was eager to reach Buena Vista, our destination for the night. Twenty-five miles away, the road left the ridge top and started dropping down the eastern flank in its way to the James River crossing, the entire Parkway's lowest elevation. The blacktop became curvier as it followed the terrain, but the first few turns were sweepers and I barely slowed going into them, for most of nearly 350 miles that day had been spent riding the edges of my tires and I was feeling pretty confident. That was the final ingredient needed for what was about to take place.

Much of the descent took place along exposed cliffsides, some turns protected by guardrails and others not. Now we descended into woodland and the ridge's flanks became less vertical. I saw that the next curve was tighter than the rest, so I slowed a bit going into it. As I leaned over and looked into the turn, I realized that it was much tighter than I had anticipated, and I kept off the throttle. I leaned harder and harder, keeping my head turned and eyes out around the curve, and noticed with consternation that no matter how hard I leaned, I was drifting way outside. Suddenly I felt my wheels drop off the pavement and into the dirt, and they began slipping out from under me. My first reaction was panic, then disbelief. "Aw, $#@&!" I exclaimed as I stood the bike up to keep from low-siding and turned my eyes ahead to survey what I was about to crash into. There was a bit of a ditch alongside the road and then an earthen berm perhaps two feet tall; beyond that, the hill dropped away steeply with only hard tree trunks to stop one's progress. I plowed through the ditch and popped up onto the berm, getting airborne for a split second before slamming down, my rear wheel fishtailing about. "Ride it, ride it, ride it!" was the only thing going through my mind. I fully expected for this to end with me and the bike on the ground, but I hoped to at least be somewhat slowed by the time that happened. The berm was maybe a foot wide, and although it was quite bumpy along the top I was actually able to keep the heavy bike upright and pointed in the right direction. Before I realized it, I had slowed to a quite survivable speed, and then a perfect little ramp appeared off the edge of the berm. I rolled down the ramp and back onto the road, no worse for the wear. I slowed to a halt and looked over at Brad as he pulled up alongside, shaking his head. The backside of a blind curve is a bad place to stop, so Brad motioned for me to follow and headed down the hill, pulling over a mile later.

"I was getting bored with the Parkway so I thought I'd try a little off-roading!" I cracked as we turned off the bikes and flipped up our visors. Brad smiled at my weak attempt at humor, then shook his head in amazement. "Dude, I cannot believe you didn't go down right there. I've never seen anything like it! That was some good riding, but you also got really, really lucky." I knew exactly what he meant. That was the first curve in several miles where going off the road was even survivable, to say nothing of being rideable. I inspected my bike for damage; there was a little dirt in the tire treads but no other signs of my close scrape. Brad and I talked about what caused me to go off the road in the first place. Although the curve was tight, I'd gone around several equally tight turns throughout the day, scraping my pegs a few times; I couldn't lean over far enough to do so this time. Brad provided a big clue why: I'd been using my front brakes well into the turn. I didn't even realize I was doing it, but he was right behind me and clearly saw me doing so. I knew this was a big no-no, but didn't have a clear understanding of exactly why it's such a bad idea. Brad explained that using any front brake compresses the front tire, squaring it off and making it much, much harder to get on edge no matter how far you lean. I didn't know that, I thought that using brakes in a turn simply uses up available traction. He told me to do an experiment on the next tight curve we came across: enter it with front brakes applied, then release them smoothly and feel how much easier the bike is to lean over. The difference was astounding, and I'm a little ashamed to say I went 20,000 miles over the last three years before finally understanding why it is so critical to stay off the front brake once you enter a turn.

I tried to put the incident out of mind and concentrated on riding well the last twenty-five miles to Buena Vista, although I certainly backed off a bit from our previous pace. It was dusk by the time we made camp on the banks of the Maury River in Glen Maury Park. We rode back into town to an interesting-looking bar we had passed on the way to the campground. The Stone Grey Pub is located in a unique triangular brick building that was built by a retired ship captain in the late 1800s. When we entered the packed pub, it was obvious that this was the hot spot for nightlife in an otherwise slumbering town. A middle aged man in a plaid shirt and a ballcap was strumming an acoustic guitar and softly crooning into a microphone, accompanied by an old-timer deftly plucking an upright bass. We shared a table with a burly white-bearded man picking on a second acoustic guitar; later he took the microphone, and the original singer went to drink at the bar but would occasionally stand up from his beer, wander over to the microphone, and harmonize on a chorus. An emaciated-looking guy in a tattered t-shirt had an array of harmonicas in every key laid out on the table across from us, and every once in a while he'd pick one up and add a few haunting notes. As everyone seemed to know each other, we were obvious outsiders and an older woman behind us asked where we were coming from and where we were going. Before I knew it, she was taking our picture and writing in a notepad; she turned out to be a reporter for the local paper. She introduced us to her son, her best friend, and several of the other patrons. Brad got talking to Dave, the harmonica guy, who turned out to be a pretty interesting character. He is from central Pennsylvania but has been living a nomadic life in his camper van for some time now, traveling up and down the Blue Ridge doing odd jobs, playing music gigs, and hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail whenever he can. The conversation, the music, the Yuenglings and hot chicken dumpling soup (just like mom used to make!) all made for a very nice end to the day, and I felt immensely grateful to have made it through my close call unscathed.

After last call at 9:30pm (!), Brad and I rode back to the campground and settled into our tents for the cold night. I called Dawn and we talked for a few minutes about our respective days. Against my better judgement, I told her about my off-road adventure but left out the juiciest details, like how steep and wooded the hill beyond the berm was. She sounded surprisingly unconcerned but told me to ride carefully. After I hung up, Brad and I talked a little bit between our tents as we drifted off to sleep. Despite the near-disaster on the Parkway, it had been a very good day, one of the best of my trip so far. As for my screwup, I learned a valuable lesson at about as cheap of a cost as could be imagined. Usage of brakes in turns was part of it, but so was riding faster than prudence dictated on an unfamiliar road. Best to take that lesson and move on, for it has been my experience in flying and in life that dwelling too long on my mistakes leads to distraction and more serious mistakes.

To Be Continued....


Capt. Schmoe said...

The distance between disaster and the classroom can often be measured in millimeters.

Having said that, thanks for sharing this trip with us, although it makes me envious.

Bob said...

Thanks for sharing more of the adventure.

Rick Barlow said...

A sport bike is a curse.

A sport bike is a blessing.