Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Long Road Home

Minnesota enjoyed a much warmer, dryer, and earlier spring than normal this year, and by early April motorcycles were emerging in hordes from the garages of their winter dormancy. Every time I saw them out cruising around the lakes on a beautiful evening, I'd feel a little pang of envy. Minnesota's riding season is too short to spend without a bike. It was time to bring the Beemer home.

Two weekends after I left the BMW in a Chelsea storage unit, Dawn and I arrived in Boston during a torrential late-night downpour. Fortunately the hotel van was waiting and we were only minimally soaked in the mad dash across the street. I hoped the cold front would depart as speedily as it came, for we had three days to ride and nearly 1100 miles to cover. Alone, I have dashed out 500-mile-plus days in bitter cold, suffocating heat, and torrential rain - occasionally all in the same day! However, being blessed with the rare gift of a wife who willingly spends her free time on the back of a bouncing, shaking motorcycle and actually enjoys the experience, prudence dictates that I keep her discomfort to a minimum when she accompanies me. That means riding in good weather, taking frequent breaks, and quitting at a reasonable hour.

To my relief, Saturday 15 May dawned with baby-blue skies, light breezes, and rapidly warming temperatures. I walked over to the storage unit alone, got my faithful steed out of hock, and rode back to the hotel. We had but 275 miles to go that day, so we took our time packing and preparing for the ride. However, I failed to look at a local map to find an onramp to US-1 North. Our first twenty minutes of riding were spent going in loops around Chelsea's confusing tangle of one-way streets, dead ends, odd angles, and utter lack of signage. In frustration, I found a side street running fairly north, took it a few miles until the congestion eased, and turned west on the first major cross street I came to. The trick worked; there was a clearly posted onramp to US-1 North. That small victory achieved, I concentrated hard on surviving the ride out of town. The section of US-1 northward out of Boston is too narrow, twisting, and potholed to be considered a true freeway, but everyone drives as though it is. It was a relief to reach the straight, wide-open expanse of I-95.

Forty miles north, we stopped in Portsmouth NH to look for a replacement for my left-hand mirror glass, which had been lost back near Harrisburg PA a few weeks prior. Happily, the local BMW motorcycle dealership had the glass in stock, and we were back on the road in short order. Upon entering Maine, I-95 became a turnpike. I've grown to detest toll roads on this trip - not because of the tolls themselves, but because I've nearly dropped the bike several times after losing my footing on heavily oil-slicked tarmac at toll booths. Having Dawn on the back helps, since she can get the change ready as I ride up to the booth.

Shortly after Portland, we exited I-95 onto US-1 and stopped for lunch at the tiny Brunswick Diner, which appears to have been converted from a rail car in the mid-1940s. The food was excellent. Finding little hole-in-the-wall places like this all around the country has been one of the highlights of this trip. After lunch, we continued northeastwards on US-1. Before this trip, Maine was one of two states I'd never been to (Alaska being the other); I found it very pretty on my first visit, although less wild or remote than I'd imagined. We rejoined the coast at Penobscot Bay, which provided beautiful scenery and picturesque towns to make the time go by quickly. In Rockport, we passed a red K100RS identical to mine going the other way, its rider waving enthusiastically with a huge grin.

We arrived in Bar Harbor shortly after 3PM. On the recommendation of a reader who was once a ranger at Acadia National Park, we continued past town to Blackwoods Campground. In the summer you need reservations well in advance to camp here, but in mid-May it was half-empty despite having beautiful camping weather for the weekend. After making camp and chatting with another rider who stopped by to admire the Beemer, we headed out to ride the ring road around the park. Here, I found the Maine I'd been imagining: wild, craggy coastlines ringed by thick, dark forests. It was beautiful. We only saw a few other people along the way, adding to the desolate feel. I suspected that there was a lot more country like this further up the coast (or "down east" in Maine-speak). New Brunswick was only a few hours away, and from there we could ride to Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island and even Newfoundland were within reach via ferry. I wished I had more time. I've found in the course of my travels that visiting new places seldom sates my wanderlust but only piques my interest in other places I'd hitherto only thought about in passing. Alas, Bar Harbor would have to be the northeastern terminus of this particular adventure.

After a quiet evening enjoying fresh seafood, local brews, and a walk around the already-shuttered town of Bar Harbor, we turned in early for the night and woke at 6am feeling very refreshed. We wasted no time breaking camp and getting out of town, for we had a long day of riding ahead. Once off Mount Desert Island, we headed north on US-1A to Bangor. I saw signs warning of "Road Reconstruction Next 18 Miles," but wasn't horribly concerned until the pavement abruptly ended and deep, loose gravel began. "Reconstruction" meant exactly that, they tore up the entire road in preparation for resurfacing. After a few miles of slow riding through the rough, pavement would begin again and I'd breath a sigh of relief - only to spy another long stretch of torn-up road around the next bend! It was a long 18 miles.

We bypassed Bangor on I-395 and I-95, but exited the freeway onto US-2 a few miles later. The first hundred miles or so wound through mostly flat farmland, with small towns spaced every few miles. It was nice riding despite the frequently reduced speed limits. At Dixfield the road joined the Androscoggin River and followed it upstream through several paper mill towns into increasingly hilly terrain. At the New Hampshire border the mountains began in earnest, and we soon spied Mount Washington looming to the southwest. At Gorham, we turned south on NH-16, a beautiful road with lovely vistas unfolding around every fast sweeper. We ate a late lunch in Jackson and continued down to Conway, the start of the famed Kancamugus Highway. I'd been wanting to drive the Kancamugus for some time, and went a little out of my way to include it on the route for this trip. It was a bit of a letdown. It was a nice enough road, but not as breathtaking as its reputation would suggest; it's mostly a forest road that crosses one minor pass with relatively few views. I have little room to complain, though, as I've certainly not been wanting for truly spectacular roads throughout this trip.

We continued on NH-112 west of US-93, a road I actually did drive several years ago while in initial training up in Montreal. This road was narrower, snarlier, and wilder than I remembered, with heaving turns and crumbling blacktop making for some wide-awake riding! At the Vermont border, we joined US-302 to Montpelier, another road I'd been on in 2007. It was surprisingly traffic-free for a Sunday afternoon, with one little black Saturn breaking trail for us at a perfectly constant 65 mph around 40 mph-rated turns. Cagers are very useful as cop-bait and deer-catchers so long as they keep up a comfortable pace!

At Montpelier we hopped onto I-89 and hurled westward towards Burlington. It was now late afternoon, and there was a 5PM ferry across Lake Champlain I wanted to catch so we could reach Lake Placid at a reasonable hour. South of Burlington, we seemed to hit every stoplight on US-7. Finally we turned right onto Ferry Road at 4:56PM and scurried down to the landing, hoping the ferry wouldn't be too punctual today. Luckily, it was running about ten minutes late. The ferry crossing itself was a lovely break from our hurried pace. Cloudless skies, mid 70s temps, light breeze, the western sun silhouetting the Adirondacks and glinting off the was a perfect day to be out on Lake Champlain. We were thoroughly relaxed by the time we landed in New York, our fourth state of the day, and rode the final scenic hour through the mountains to Lake Placid. In all, we rode about 450 miles on Sunday.

I initially missed our turnoff a few miles before Lake Placid, and realized I went too far upon spying the foreboding ski jump complex just south of town. There are surprisingly few campgrounds near Lake Placid; however, the Adirondack Club allows public camping at their Adirondack Loj on Heart Lake. I found the correct road on my second pass. A half-mile south of the highway, the road rapidly deteriorated into a heaving, potholed, gravel-strewn mess. The further we went, the worst it got. It occurred to me that unless there was food available at the Loj, I would be riding this road at least three more times, at least once in the dark. When it seemed like the road could get no worse short of ending outright, we came upon the historic Loj complex. We checked in and set up camp a few feet from beautiful Heart Lake, and it was such a lovely, peaceful spot that it pained me that we couldn't stay longer.

Sure enough, no food at the Loj, so we rode back into Lake Placid as the day's last light turned the High Peaks golden. We rode the length of the town twice, taking in views of Mirror Lake and the town's namesake lake to the north. It was getting dark when we pulled into the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery. It was a shame we weren't staying within walking distance, because I wouldn't have minded a few more pints of their delicious Ubu Ale. With a dark ride down the treacherous road in mind, I cut myself off early. As it turned out, the road wasn't so bad at night, mainly because I couldn't see all the cracks and potholes and gravel. I simply rode over it all at speed and responded to the occasional unexpected jerk, swerve, and slide.

The night in the mountains was chilly and I slept fitfully through the early morning hours. As soon as the sun was up, we were packing to go. We had fewer miles to ride today - about 350 - but had a flight to catch out of Buffalo at 5PM, and I was hoping to even make the earlier 2:30PM flight. We decided to ride for a few hours before stopping for breakfast. We took NY-86 west to Saranac Lake, NY-3 to Tupper Lake, and then NY-30 and NY-28 south towards Utica. The riding was excellent, with smooth roads, sweeping curves, and plenty of lake and mountain views. At the western end of Seventh Lake, we stopped for breakfast at a small tavern called Drake's Inn. The food was fine, but we mostly lingered to eavesdrop on a colorful assembly of wise-cracking local old-timers straight from central casting.

Back on the road, we soon left Adirondack Park and headed south to join I-90 to Buffalo. We needed gas but couldn't find any filling stations at the intersection of NY-8 and the freeway, so we headed into Utica to find one. It took a bit of searching before we found a station, but our wandering in the meantime cemented Utica in my mind as one of the bleakest, most depressing smaller cities I've seen lately. Once the Beemer's 4.4 gallon tank was full, I wasted no time in getting on the Interstate.

I wouldn't have minded taking my time through Erie Canal country, and particularly the Finger Lakes region, but we had a plane to catch so we blasted westward on I-90, only stopping when our rear ends could take no more time in the saddle. Within a few hours, we were exiting at NY-78 and riding the last mile to the Buffalo Airport. Up until now, I've always managed to score free parking for the Beemer between legs, but in Buffalo my luck ran out. We parked in the economy lot, scurried to the terminal, checked in, hurried through security - and arrived at the gate just in time to see the 2:30PM flight to Detroit push back. It wouldn't have mattered, as the flight went out full, and the gate agent informed us that the 5PM and 7PM flights looked equally bleak. Our connecting flights from Detroit to Minneapolis had also filled up in the three days since I'd last checked flight loads. I didn't have to be back to work until Wednesday, but Dawn was supposed to teach the next day and she'd already taken a personal day to be able to do the 3-day weekend with me.

Some creative scanning of the departures board and excellent last-minute cooperation by WidgetCo and United gate agents got us ZED passes onto a 4:30PM flight to Chicago, where we caught a NewCo flight to MSP. I was relieved we made it back but wished I had enough time off to do the entire Boston-Minneapolis leg in one go. Instead, the Beemer would sit outside in Buffalo for a few weeks, and then we'd try to run the nonrev gauntlet back to BUF for the last leg home over Memorial Day Weekend.

To Be Continued....

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