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.


Anonymous said...

Glad you had a chance to stop in my hometown of Madison - I am now in Washington, DC, but get back there when I can. Too bad you couldn't have taken a more leisurely route up the shoreline. nice report.

Fred said...

What a tantalizing tale of travel, Sam. Well done, makes me want to get on a bike and travel!

Bill said...

My parents grew up in Hancock, NY. Lots of nice scenery there but and I hope you enjoyed the ride through.

Boracay hotel said...

I enjoyed reading about your travels and adventures. It sure is an exciting one.

Maybe adding more pictures next time will make the blog post more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Boracay hotel:
Funny you say that; another guy asked him not to add too many pictures because he was having difficulty loading the blog. I guess he can't please everyone. :-)

Javalí Rubio said...

What a fantastic blog for people who love aviation!!! Congratulations!!!
Please visit a portuguese blog which shows aerial pictures from Portugal taken during my flights:
Third Dimension - Aerial Photography from Portugal