Thursday, June 17, 2010

Long Day

Louisville, 1:06 AM. I am lying back in a chair in my cheerfully nondescript hotel room, feeling the adrenaline seep out of my limbs. I've been running at one hundred and ten percent for hours now, and it's almost impossible to go straight from that to sleepfulness, so I sit here trying to decompress. A drink helps. The crew and I were planning on having a nightcap - our show time isn't until late tomorrow - but the hotel bar was closed by the time we finally arrived, and there's nothing else open nearby. Instead, I pour myself a short glass of scotch from my own flask. The ice crackles and tinkles softly, accentuating the silence of my room. I take a sip and think back on the long day.

I woke up at 6:30am and set about the familiar routine of preparing for a morning show: showering, grooming, ironing, dressing, making my lunches, packing my overnight bag - always in the same order, lest I forget something. Alas, I did forget my cell phone charger, so I will be raiding the hotel's lost and found tomorrow. Dawn gave me a ride to the airport before her 9am doctor's appointment, so I arrived quite early for my 9:20 show. This was my first time back to work since NewCo switched to a completely new, electronic system for weight & balance and takeoff & landing performance calculations to replace our tried-and-true manual method using paper, long addition, and a whiz wheel. I intended to use the extra time to get to the airplane early and see if the system really worked the way our training materials said it would, but I ran into some old friends in the crew room, talked for longer than I realized, and ended up having to hustle to make it to the plane by our scheduled show time. I chatted with the gate agent a little, checked the radar and upper air charts on his computer, collected our paperwork, and walked down the jet bridge to meet my crew. The only one I'd flown with before was Linda, a retired schoolteacher whose former profession obviously endowed her with the patience that makes her an exceptional flight attendant. Our other flight attendant, Trisha, is brand new, having just come off of OE. Our FO, Kevin, is a middle-aged family man who spent ten years at Air Wisconsin and finally made the jump to United two years ago, only to be furloughed a day before completing his initial training. Rounding out our quintet for this leg was Steve, a friendly United captain I last gave a ride to O'Hare only a few weeks ago. The flight was full, and he would again be sitting in the flight deck jumpseat.

Our day got off to a late start thanks to cleaners who neglected to show up for the first hour of a 90-minute turn, subsequent late boarding, passenger-counting difficulties, and some grappling with the new W&B system on my and Kevin's part. We pushed ten minutes late, then got a last-minute taxi change to the far runway. Within a few minutes, though, we were whistling down 30R, rearing into the air at 141 knots, and turning southeastward towards Chicago shortly thereafter.

While Chicago-Midway was one of our very first destinations, my company only began flying to O'Hare a few months ago. It has quickly become one of the mainstays of our trips. I originally approached O'Hare with some trepidation, given its reputation for heavy traffic, a complex layout, and no-nonsense controllers. I quickly discovered that O'Hare, like all big, busy airports, has a well-developed, predictable flow to its operations, and is actually pretty easy to fly out of once you learn the logic. The one thing I haven't figured out yet is how they assign departure runways; there are occasionally up to five in use, and which one you are assigned seems to have little relationship to your position on the airport or your direction of flight. Even this lack of predictability is handled easily enough: you brief all the possible runways and taxi routes, get takeoff performance for every possibility, and taxi out on both engines. That leaves less to do when you are inevitably switched to an inexplicable runway choice. Nothing seems to please O'Hare controllers more than a crew that's ready to roll at a moment's notice.

The one thing we did today that I hadn't yet experienced was landing on the "new" runway, 27R. It is a good two miles north of the main complex, making for a long, circuitous taxi to the terminals. Fortunately, it's only used during peak periods, which today at 11 AM definitely was. The taxi instructions to our gate were a little bewildering: "Charlie One, Charlie, Uniform, Echo, Zulu, hold short of Tango, monitor ground one three two point seven" then "Tango, Whiskey, hold short 4 Left", then "Cross 4 Left, Echo, Bravo, Alpha Ten to the gate". Go ahead, try to trace it on the airport diagram. Now try to figure it out while taxiing a plane and stealing only occasional glances at the chart (the cardinal rule of ORD is "Don't Ever Stop"). Having a sharp, experienced FO who was once based at O'Hare helps a lot!

Our ops people turned the full plane surprisingly quickly, Kevin and I again flubbed the weight and balance calculation on our first try, and we again pushed around ten minutes late. For once, I correctly guessed our taxi route and departure runway: A, A7, T, 32R at T10. We nibbled at a United Airbus' wake turbulence on takeoff - they weren't even off the runway when tower cleared us to roll - but quickly got upwind of it as we turned snappily to our assigned 360 heading. Soon we were arcing out over Lake Michigan, weaving around afternoon buildups before picking up the Muskegon transition to Detroit's Polar Three Arrival.

I really enjoy flying into Detroit. It's a fairly busy airport, but a well-laid out one, and operations generally flow freely and predictably. The McNamara Terminal still gleams and echoes with the songs of birds who have flitted inside, and the sight of a 747 behind the dancing water fountain has already become an iconic image of aviation. The only downside, for me, is that the airport's taxiways look and feel more bombed out than Beirut circa 1982. Fortunately, the airport has undergone a steady program of resurfacing over the last few years. This time, taxiway Foxtrot just north of NewCo's northeast gates was ripped up. To provide an alternate route to our gates, A75 through A77 have been taken out of service so aircraft can use the ramp to transition from Uniform to Uniform Eight. The system seems to be working pretty well.

We had a three hour "productivity break" in Detroit, even after our late arrival. NewCo has a crew base there, but Minneapolis crews can't normally access the crew room as it is located in an area accessible only to holders of Detroit SIDA badges. Fortunately for us, Kevin had been based in Detroit for a month and had exactly such a badge so he could escort us to the crew room. I spent my break trying to figure out a way to get my little brother Steve and his girlfriend Torrie home from Hawaii. They'd flown to Honolulu on my buddy passes over Memorial Day weekend, lured by the promise of wide-open flights coming and going, only to find themselves on the bottom of an 80+ person standby list for every flight they tried to take out. After talking to a family of five that had been trying to get out of Honolulu on buddy passes for nearly two weeks, Steve decided to bite the bullet and buy positive-space tickets back to Minneapolis. The price was surprisingly cheap for a same-day one-way ticket: $585. Once again, Honolulu confirms that its reputation as a non-rev black hole is well-deserved.

Our plane arrived only 25 minutes before our departure to Charlotte, so our third consecutive leg blocked out about ten minutes late. Every seat was once again full, and we were also carrying quite a bit of extra fuel in anticipation of possible thunderstorms developing near Charlotte. The northern portion of the route featured typical late-afternoon buildups that were still well below our cruise altitude, but as we crossed into Tennessee we started spying 45,000 foot giants further ahead. I pulled up the ATIS at Charlotte: "3/4SM +TSRA". We wouldn't be landing in that. I texted our dispatcher to inquire about what she was seeing on radar, and she promptly replied that the thunderstorm was relatively small, but parked directly over the airport with very little movement. She also changed our alternate from Raleigh-Durham to Knoxville due to another thunderstorm developing just west of RDU. I love getting one of the good dispatchers.

Shortly thereafter, Atlanta Center changed our transition for the JOHNS2 arrival and cleared us to hold at BURLS. No surprise here. I entered the hold in the FMS, verified it with Kevin, and activated it. Kevin started slowing early to save some gas, and I began calculating our bingo fuel. Generally, I compute two "Bingo" numbers when holding for thunderstorms at the destination. The first number is traditional bingo fuel, meaning that required to proceed from the hold to the airport, shoot an approach, go missed, proceed to the alternate airport, and have a 45 minute reserve remaining. If the airport is still questionable when we leave the hold, I won't proceed with less than this traditional bingo number. On the other hand, the weather may clear very quickly after the passage of a storm. If the weather is good and there is no question of being able to land, I am willing to proceed from the hold with less fuel than the traditional bingo number so long as I will land with a conservative reserve. In no case, however, will I hold beyond the time at which I have enough fuel to proceed from the hold straight to the alternate and still have a reasonable reserve on landing. I call this my "drop dead bingo" - once the fuel tanks indicate this number, I'm headed for my alternate no matter how quickly ATC says they'll be getting me out of the hold. The spread between the two numbers can be significant, particularly when holding at a point between my destination and alternate airports. This was now the case.

I texted our holding point, altitude, expect further clearance time (EFC), and fuel on board to our dispatcher. Her reply a few minutes later included a bingo fuel number very close to what I had computed for my traditional bingo. We had approximately 45 minutes of holding fuel above that number. If further holding was necessary, my "drop dead bingo" number was over 1500 lbs less, and our proximity to Knoxville would allow me to either coordinate our diversion in a leisurely fashion or arrange for the deletion of our alternate if the weather in Charlotte had improved sufficiently. As we entered the hold over BLISS, I composed a short PA in my mind and then pressed the "transmit" button to deliver the bad news to our passengers.

As it turned out, the news wasn't all bad. Thirty minutes after we entered the hold, Charlotte began accepting arrivals again. We had initially held at FL330 but had been descended as aircraft below us diverted to their alternates. Only ten minutes after Charlotte reopened, we were cleared out of the hold and back on the arrival; a last minute clearance to cross SHINE at 11000' required a steep, nearly full-spoiler descent. As nice as the JungleBus' Vertical Navigation (VNAV) capability is, it can bite you on such late descent clearances. By the time you actually get your crossing limit set up in the box, you may be too high to make it. For this reason, I apply the tried-and-true "3-to-1" litmus test to any crossing clearance before anyone messes around with VNAV. This is a simple method of computing a 3 degree descent: You take the altitude to be lost in tens of thousands of feet, and multiply it by three to get the distance required in nautical miles. If you need to lose 10,000 feet, you need 30 miles for a 3 degree descent. If my quick-and-dirty computation shows a 3 degree or steeper angle required, I will establish the aircraft in a 2500 foot-per-minute descent (or direct the pilot flying to do so) before setting up VNAV. Technology can make life on the line easier, but Rule One is still and always will be: "Fly the Airplane!"

Lightning crackled just to the east over downtown Charlotte as we landed on Runway 18R. This would have been a full, eventful day even if we were done in Charlotte, but we still had two legs left and were now a full hour behind schedule. At least we were keeping the airplane to Atlanta, making for an easy quick turn - or so I thought! When I followed the last of our passengers up the jet bridge to retrieve our paperwork, I found the gate in a state of bedlam, with a long line of harried travelers querying a lone, distressed gate agent. The board behind him advertised a delayed Minneapolis flight, with a departure time well in the past. "Umm, isn't this airplane going to Atlanta?" I asked.

"I don't know anything about that!" the gate agent exclaimed. "Nothing's going to Atlanta. This airplane is going to Minneapolis, but the crew already timed out. Can't you fly it?" Immediately, a half-dozen passengers surrounded me, imploring me to fly them to Minneapolis. "Hold on a sec, folks, I'm going to call our dispatch office and see if that's what they want us to do." I very much doubted that dispatch wanted us to fly to Minneapolis, or our phones would've been ringing off the proverbial hook already; I mostly wanted to know what in tarnation was going on. I walked down the concourse - out of earshot of the passengers - and called dispatch. No answer. I tried a few other desks. Same results. A glance at a national radar display on one of the flight information boards suggested why: a bright red blob was sitting squarely over Atlanta. It's always toughest to get ahold of SOC during Irregular Operations. I just might have to get answers for myself. I walked up to another WidgetCo gate, this one advertising a seriously overdue departure to Atlanta. "Where is 5750 to Atlanta going out of?" I asked. The gate agent pulled up the flight; "It's going out of A7, and the plane is actually already here. It landed almost a half-hour ago!" I chuckled at that. "Well, that's our plane, and you might want to get the agent down at A7 on the same page, because he thinks he's keeping that plane for Minneapolis!"

The change had been announced by the time I walked back over to A7. Now the Minneapolis passengers were upset at their lack of an airplane as well as a crew, newly arrived Atlanta passengers were utterly confused that the gate was still advertising Minneapolis, and that poor lone gate agent tried mightily to be polite in the face of an onslaught of questions and accusations even as he struggled to switch the computer system from the MSP flight to ours. I stood by the gate and fielded as many questions as I could. Many simply wanted to know if Atlanta was open yet, a very good question I was wondering about myself. I still couldn't raise dispatch on the phone. Again, taking the self-sufficient tack seemed best. I retreated down the jetbridge to fill in my bewildered crew on developments thus far, and to call Clearance Delivery regarding our flow time to Atlanta. Clearance confirmed that Atlanta was opening, but our EDCT time was approximately 70 minutes hence and subject to further change. This was better than I was expecting. I headed back up the jetbridge to tell the gate agent that we could start boarding in 20 minutes; I usually plan on getting out to the runway about 15 minutes before any EDCT time so that unforeseen delays don't cause us to miss our slot.

Our EDCT ended up changing three times before we got out. First it was moved back by 90 minutes, then to only twenty-two minutes from the time I got the change. This might have been doable if we had the passengers on board, but a recent arbitrary and capricious rule change by unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Transportation has made us all a little gun-shy about early boarding. This is a lengthy subject meriting its own post, but suffice it to say that nobody wants to be the Captain who keeps his passengers on board for more than three hours between boarding and takeoff and accidentally subjects his airline to a draconian fine (over $2 million in the case of a full JungleBus, or more than one of our engines costs!). Obviously, twenty-two minutes wasn't enough time to board 76 passengers, run our numbers, and taxi out to the runway. Fortunately our final EDCT change was for only fifteen minutes later. A last-minute runway change resulted in taxiing the long way around a dark, unfamiliar ramp while Kevin grappled with the new takeoff performance system. We completed the Before Takeoff Checklist just as Charlotte Tower cleared us for takeoff on 18L, and I taxied onto the runway very slowly so we could take a moment to compose ourselves and double-check our work before hurtling down a darkened, rain-slicked runway at 160 mph.

Soon after we turned right onto the departure, lightning began flickering off to the east. I knew the thunderstorms that closed Atlanta were moving northeast, or roughly onto our arrival route. I have a certain fascination with thunderstorms, but prefer to observe from the ground; this is doubly true at night. Of course we have radar, but the best means of avoidance is the 'ole "Mark 2 Eyeball," and it doesn't work so well on dark nights when lightning appears to fill the sky and you can't see developing buildups. I turned the instrument lights down low and sat forward on my haunches, peering out into the blackness. South of Spartanburg at FL300, we stumbled upon a towering behemoth that materialized out of the ether like an iceburg in the foggy North Atlantic. We turned thirty degrees right without waiting for Atlanta Center's belated approval. There was no lightning and no precipitation to register on our radar, but I don't doubt this pubescent thunderstorm would have given us a ride to remember had we blundered into it. Further along the arrival, the giant cell that closed Atlanta for hours slid by twenty miles to our right, spitting out lightning menacingly the whole time. I wondered what our passengers thought about it.

We were vectored onto the final for Runway 26R surprisingly quickly and I took advantage of the wet runway to make an admirably soft touchdown. Our seventy-six passengers scampered off the airplane in record time in hopes of making their connecting flights. I stifled a yawn as I collected our paperwork at the gate and checked the radar. I'd now been awake for over sixteen hours and on duty for thirteen. Legally, I could be on duty for another three hours! Over a year after the FAA promised to have new duty and rest time regulations in place and the industry publicly promised to support changes in an effort to contain the media fallout from Colgan 3407, the airlines have been successful in fighting a rear-guard delaying action at the Office of Management and Budget. In the meantime, those of us at the pointy end of things do what we've always done (with varying degrees of effectiveness): decide whether we're safe to fly at the time when we're rendered least capable to make an objective judgment. This time I felt fairly alert - but was it just the fatigue talking?

We quickly loaded up, pushed back, and taxied down to 26L for our fifth takeoff of the day. The lights of the terminals flashing by my window seemed to put me in a momentary trance; a gentle prompt from Kevin snapped me back to reality, and I belatedly commanded "Positive Rate, Gear Up." Perhaps I was a little less alert than I previously believed. The route up to Louisville was blessedly clear of thunderstorms; however, that left less to do, and several times I found myself jerking my head up with a start after nodding off into a micro-sleep. Not good. One of my least favorite memories as a pilot is waking up at the controls of a Navajo on a half-mile final to Burbank and not being able to remember the previous half-hour. Having a First Officer on board makes that scenario potentially less dangerous to life and limb but even more hazardous to career and reputation. I put on the oxygen mask on in the descent to get a few puffs of 100% O2, then turned the autopilot off early. I was expecting a straight in approach at Louisville, but I had forgot that our late arrival would put us squarely in the middle of the UPS rush. It was the busiest I've ever seen Louisville. Approach Control made us fly all the way to IIU VOR, then south for twenty miles before turning in to a twenty-five mile final. At long last, we touched down on Runway 35R and made the short taxi to the gate. The passengers seemed to take forever to file sleepily off the airplane. We were hard on their heels.

After all that, one would think I should be able to go to sleep quickly and soundly. Yet the day somehow feels incomplete. Delivering nearly 400 souls safely to their destinations over five legs and 2000 miles through some of the world's busiest airspace and around its wildest weather feels like a real accomplishment, even if it's done on a thoroughly routine basis. I still occasionally feel myself in complete awe that man can fly at all, much less do so with a high degree of comfort, safety, and reliability in a pressurized aluminum tube hurtling through the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Whatever my opinions on the state of my industry and profession, I still feel extraordinarily privileged to be part of the brotherhood of the air, never more so than after a long, tiring day of duty performed well. I permit myself the small celebration of my glass of single-malt, and then turn in for the night.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Appalachian Trail (Part 3)

Our first night of camping was relatively warm (ie 35 degrees) compared to what I endured on my way across the southern states this winter, and I had finally brought along a mummy bag. Brad had a lighter bag but stayed warm by discovering a new motorcycle camping technique: sleeping with his helmet on. We broke camp in record time - I didn't know Brad could move that fast in the morning! - and rode to a nearby Burger King to warm up with coffee, charge our bluetooth intercom systems, and talk about our route. This was our fourth day of riding, and we weren't even done with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Brad needed to get home to Portland by Sunday night, preferably sooner, and the flights out of Boston were full on Sunday. There was an open direct flight on Saturday afternoon, however, and he voiced a hope of making that flight. There was little chance we could complete the original route through northern New England and still make it to Boston in time. We agreed to see how far into northeastern Pennsylvania we could ride today and then decide on our arrival date in Boston and the route to take there. I was hoping that if we got far enough, we might yet be able to put in two long days of riding through New England for a late Saturday arrival.

The sun was warming the morning considerably as we rode the winding road to the Parkway up the Blue Ridge. Upon pulling onto the Parkway, Brad couldn't resist the urge to pass me up and let the beast loose, pulling up into a screaming wheelie right past a couple of park rangers. I meekly followed at 45 mph, avoiding the rangers' steely looks. The last fifty miles of the Parkway were exceptionally pleasant, winding along the top of the ridge for most of the duration, and we reached the end all too soon. We rode directly onto Skyline Drive, a 105 mile ride which is very similar to the BRP except that it lies within Shenandoah National Park, so you pay $10 to enter and the road is posted at 35 mph for its entirety. I can't say we were entirely observant of the speed limit, but we did back off considerably from our Parkway pace in light of the many deer we saw along Skyline Drive. Our northern progress was now noticeable, for many of the trees at higher elevations were still bare. The last five miles of the road from the ridge top to Front Royal were like a time-lapse video of the progression of the season as we descended precipitously through increasingly lush foliage.

The vast majority of our miles since Chattanooga had been through sparsely populated areas, or skirting around cities on the BRP. Riding out of Front Royal on US-340 toward Frederick, the reappearance of heavy traffic and roadside congestion was a little jarring. We passed through the West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania borders in quick succession, and Brad pulled over to take photos at each "Welcome to..." sign, as is his custom. The steady train of 18-wheelers screaming by without budging from their position in the right lane made me more than a little uneasy. I had selected this route over Interstate 81 mainly because I had expected it to be a quiet, rural stretch of highway; this was our first encounter with Northeastern "suburban sprawl."

We reached Gettysburg by 3pm. Brad and I had agreed before the start of the trip that a stop at the Gettysburg battlefield was mandatory, and my visit to Chickamauga had further stirred my interest. Now, with five hours of light remaining and again falling well short of the mileage I'd hoped to ride today, I considered skipping it. The reality, though, was that there wasn't much chance of getting to northern New England on this leg no matter what I did, so we might as well make the most of the places we did ride to. We spent about two hours riding around the battlefield and stopping at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, site of Lincoln's famous address. The battlefield was recreated in the 1880s and 90s by veterans of the battle, and has since been painstakingly preserved by the National Park Service; it retains many of the original buildings, most of the original network of roads, fields, and fences, and a similar layout of forested areas as in 1863. Looking out across the open fields, it is easy to understand why this was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War: there was simply nothing out there to stop cannon and rifle fire but the bodies of the desperately charging men.

We were back on the road around 5pm, and initially made good time northbound on US-15, a four-lane divided highway. A strong westerly wind had come up, and we were now riding permanently leaned over, weaving occasionally in the gusts. Twenty miles down the road, I hit a small bump and my left mirror glass came out of its housing and tumbled to the roadway. I looked back in time to see it shattering; no point to stopping now. This was the second time it happened on this trip; the mirror is a poor design with the glass held in by friction, and it occasionally vibrates loose on bumpy roads. My aggravation over the loss of the mirror was increased by heavy congestion into Harrisburg, and then construction and clueless drivers on the roads bypassing it. Finally the traffic on I-81 eased and we were able to knock off a final 80 mile run in an hour. It was very clear to me by now that we'd come up well short of the mileage needed to consider making a go at the New England route, so I figured we may as well stop with an hour or so of light left so we could find a nice spot to camp.

We pulled off the Interstate at Hazleton and I used my Palm to search for campgrounds. The only one nearby was the private Sandy Valley Campground fifteen miles away, just outside the run-down hamlet of Freeland. A sign at the city limits declared Freeland to be the "highest borough in Pennsylvania" - just our luck, we'd been hoping for a warmer night! The campground was pretty interesting - from the road, it appeared as though somebody had simply created a campground from five acres in their backyard. We turned out to be the only ones staying the night, although most of the campsites had RVs semi-permanently parked in them for the summer. The rough, loose gravel-covered roads down the hill to our campsite were a challenge to negotiate on the bikes, particularly later that night. The lakeside campsite itself was very nice, with soft flat ground to pitch our tents on.

After making camp, we road back into Freeland to find a place to eat and have a few brews. We selected "The Other Side," the diveyest-looking bar in a divey-looking town. It was packed. We found two open stools, ordered some wings and beer, and talked over our plans for the next day. Brad was pretty set on making the Saturday afternoon flight; he was needed on the home front. Once we got to Boston, Brad was hoping to sell his bike, and if that didn't happen we needed to at least wash them and find some storage on Saturday morning, meaning we should ride to Boston on Friday, the very next day. I had accepted the fact that we wouldn't be able to do New England on this leg; I would simply go back to my original plan of doing it on the last leg from Boston to Minneapolis. In this case, however, we could go through the Catskills on our way to Boston tomorrow, cross the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, wind our way through Connecticut to New Haven, and pick our way up the coast from there for a little over 400 miles of riding. Armed with a plan for the next day, we rode back to the campground and built a campfire to sit around for a few hours, talking and drinking the last of our beer.

The next morning was chilly but we started riding quite early nonetheless. We hopped onto I-81 for forty miles to Scranton - yes, "The Office" theme song was playing in my head - and stopped to fuel up. I reached for wallet and was surprised to find my debit card missing. I thought back and realized that I had given it to the bartender at The Other Side to start a tab, but had then paid in cash without remembering to ask for my card back. I called my bank to cancel the card, and used my remaining cash and backup credit card for the rest of the trip.

The ride through the Pennsylvania countryside northeast of Scranton was a pleasant surprise. Up until now most of our riding in Pennsylvania had been on the Interstate, the rocky hills were starkly nude as the trees were still budding, and the few towns we saw all appeared to be severely down at the heels, brutally industrial, or both. It hadn't left the most positive impression on me. In the northeastern corner of the state, however, we took minor state highways for sixty miles and were rewarded with great roads, beautifully rolling landscapes, and a steady parade of stately picket-fenced farmhouses, picturesque red barns, fieldstone fences, and whitewashed old churches. Crossing the Delaware River at Hancock, NY, the rolling Pocanos gave way to the rockier Catskills. A few miles down the road, we turned northeast on NY-30, which follows the East Branch of the Delaware river, and then southeast on NY-28 to Kingston. This is a beautiful stretch to cruise on a motorcycle, not least for the 55 mph speed limit through many tight sweepers. The only downer was the swarms of insects we rode through. A few were big enough to render me temporarily blinded by loud, messy, green and yellow explosions on my face shield; wiping it off with my glove allowed for occasional glimpses of the road through the smeared bug juice. After the ride through the Catskills, the Beemer was in desperate need of a wash.

From Kingston, we rode along the Hudson River for a short stretch of US-9W. I can certainly see why the Hudson is nicknamed "America's Rhine River," for its resemblance to the section of the Rhine between Mainz and Köln is uncanny. We crossed the river at Poughkeepsie and stopped for lunch at a pizza parlor shortly thereafter. The proprietor took a keen interest in our trip, and talked rather wistfully about how he used to jump on his bike and ride cross-country for days on a whim. Back on NY-55 eastbound, we kept waiting for the congestion around Poughkeepsie to ease, but it never really did. I'd expected the area along the Connecticut border to be rather rural, but it was unrelentingly suburban and the going was slow on NY-55 and NY-22. We jumped on I-84 and raced across the state line, thrilled to be going faster than 40 mph and with no stoplights. Twenty miles later we exited onto CT-34, which on the map looked like a fun road along the Housatonic River but was in fact choked with heavy traffic through endless development. Now I recalled flying from Memphis to Boston at night and seeing the bright river of light of the BosWash corridor; why had I expected Connecticut to be anything other than one big suburb?

It was late in the afternoon when Brad and I finally spied the Atlantic Ocean from I-95 through New Haven. We had been planning on jumping off the freeway to ride along the coastline, but it was now clear that these miles would be long and frustrating, with a late-night arrival to Boston inevitable. No, best to stick to the interstate, we agreed when we stopped to fill up for gas in Madison Center. Despite being rush hour, I-95 was moving freely and we were able to make one final, speedy push of 135 miles through Rhode Island and into Boston as the sun sank into the western horizon. It was nearly 8pm by the time we pulled into the parking lot of NewCo's crew hotel. We had made it, 5 days and 1600 miles since setting out from Atlanta.

The next morning we slept in rather late, had a leisurely breakfast, then took the bikes to a self-service car wash and scrubbed the dirt and bugs off of them. The Beemer hadn't gleamed this brightly since setting out from Minneapolis last July. Brad had a few people reply to the craigslist ad he'd posted a few days earlier, but nobody came to see the FZ-1 on Saturday afternoon; he ended up flying back to sell it for a tidy profit two weekends later. We found a self-storage place a few blocks from the crew hotel with a "first month free" promotion, which was perfect since we'd only need it for two or three weeks. After putting the bikes to bed we caught the hotel van to the airport, went through security, had one last celebratory brew at the Harpoon Tap Room, and parted ways as Brad boarded his flight to Portland. Any lingering disappointment over cutting the trip short was overshadowed by gratefulness that we had finally been able to do a big ride together, we had a great time, and we made it to the end safely. As I boarded the Airbus to Minneapolis, I knew I'd be returning within a few weeks for the spectacular ride through New England and into the Great Lakes states. Better yet, next time I'd be accompanied by my very favorite riding partner.