There was a time, back at the dawn of it all, when dirt was all there was.
When Daimler created Einspur, there was only dirt to ride it on.
As soon as the products of Oscar Hedstrom and William S. Harley could tension leather belts and power white rubber wheels, motorcycles were sliding through corners, flinging dirt from what then was passing for roads.
If it weren’t for Hoosier Carl G. Fisher — a man who was a roller if there ever was one — it might be that way still.
Carl wanted to go faster– first on bicycles, then in cars, and eventually even as a racer. And going faster and rutted mud and gravel do not naturally mix.
So Carl — enlisting some 1912 Social Networking buzz, in the form of guys like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison — conveived of The Lincoln Highway — the Transcontinental Railroad Golden Spike Moment of the Internal Combustion Universe.
A single strip of pavement that went from New York to San Francisco. That made us one nation under a dotted white highway line.
Since then, in America. We’ve been paving over pretty much every-damn-thing in sight ever since.
Which makes it seem funny to me that we seem to have collectively forgotten that a motorcycle started out as a better way to get down a rutted gravel road.
Look at most of the motorcycles made in the last, say 50 years, and a dirt road is clearly the furthest thing from their minds. The UJMs that made up most of the 70s and 80s. Racetrack replicas. Anything Harley Davidson. The mission was pavement, Holmes, and getting some of the aformentioned rides sliding was a recipe for quick, sharp pain.
Adventure Riders with their Farkeled-out Battlewagons have begun to pull our attention back, but close to 600 lbs of blaster is not your friend if things start to get physical in the dirt.
When making the case for the longevity and popularity of their GS line, BMW claimed that one of the reasons that riders ensured that the company would survive was because the boxers were so capable when conditions turned to crap. In making the GS, they said, they were only really recognizing how their customers used their motorcycles already.
And while my Born-in-Brooklyn Marketing BS Detector keeps spinning the blue lights and sounding that Klaxon, part of me has to admit it’s kinda true.
Right after I got the Toaster I used to run the power lines north of Baltimore’s Loch Raven with it.
It tractored right up any hill, although down was not exactly its thing.
I camped off of it — doing miles of stone roads heavily loaded in eastern parklands and out in New Mexico.
And its why when I moved out of the city, and had more modern bikes with many less miles, that it got a set of lightweight dual sport tires, and was scrambling about a decade before a Scrambler was, like, a thing.
I know now that my next set of Toaster tires need more substantial knobs.
My home in Frederick County Maryland is a landscape in change. It is an historically agricultural county being sligshotted into being a bedroom suburb of distant Washington and Baltimore, and a place wondering if in that process it will lose things that cannot be replaced.
One of those things are our dirt roads — rolled pea gravel roads that run alongside creekbeds and run though farm fields, that leapfrog through forest from creek to ridgeline and back along creekbeds again. Roads with stream fords, and with one lane cast iron bridges that look no different to me than they did to an aviator-googled leather helmeted guy piloting his brand new Pope, hoping to stay in the frame with his bud’s Excelsior.
There are others who feel the way I do. I am not the only one who goes to the dirt to feel something out of time, to get in touch with the world our Grandfathers, Great Grandfathers and Great Great Grandfathers knew.
Due to one of those sustained periods of overstimulation at work, combined with the fact that I was still spending most of my free moments splicing wiring and control parts on my R90S after its little mishap with big electricity, more than a few days had gone by without the opportunity for a ride.
I ended up having some business to attend to in Frederick, and the day seemed perfect for enjoyment of a naked, elemental motorcycle. Suitably geared up in my Vanson mesh and some canvas work pants, I rolled the Toaster out of the garage and threw a leg over. Since the recent replacement of the starter switch and battery, starting has been a determanistic, zero-drama event.
Business was swiftly dispatched, and with it my focus turned to a wander on the way home.
Running through the woods and along the creek on Roy Schaefer Road, I felt the inexorable need to leave the pavement behind.
At the intersection of Bennies Hill Road, I made the right, and promptly headed back in time.
I’ve never had a set of aviator goggles, but these little trips into the dirt and through the fabric of time seem to demand them, even if only for sci-fi nerd hero style.
Bennies Hill is a gravel single track that follows the path of a creek called the Cone Branch. It runs under a dense canopy of trees – made all the greener and denser by the sustained heavy rains that started our summer here. The straight stretches are all oddly off camber, and the corners that separate them are all fairly tight, providing mutiple opportunities to play with a little flat track style sliding.
The early season deluge has given way to a recent dry spell, so the surface was dry and dusty, leading to my front end seemeing a tad more skatey and wandery than usual, despite having reduced my tire pressures slightly with the dirt in mind. Dual-sport tires like these Distanzias are more about pose than actual traction — that contemplated set of Heidenau Scouts may be closer in my future than I’d been thinking.
After one tight corner, Bennie Hill has a concrete ramp bridge, something I suspect may be unique to these parts. These bridges are placed where a steam crossing used to be, and are just a strip of concrete to keep one out of the water. These bridges are designed to just submerge when flooding conditions occur, and then pop back up when the creek goes back down. I know of at least 5 of these things within 5 miles of my house.
Riding across one of these bridges feels odd — they dont have any guardrails, curbs, visible structure or obvious support. You have water on both sides of you, but your feet stay dry.
The road passes past a home its owners call Heron Hill. This was a no-brainer for them, as I’ve never ridden past the place when there wasn’t at least one Great Blue visible somewhere on the property, and today was no exception.
At the left hander coming past the Heron, I dialed in just the right amound of gas for an entertaining slide.
For a kid that never could manage to talk my Dad into a dirtbike, I now pronounce myself fully caught up.
Bennies Hill Road then comes to what I’ve always assumed was Bennies Hill. There are no packs of buxom beauties inexplicably rushing about, and the sound of Yakety Sax is fortunately nowhere in evidence. The road actually narrows, and works its way steeply down the side of a stone face. At the bottom is a 90 degree left, and the Bennies Hill Road Bridge.
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places — it is a single lane Iron Bowstring Arch bridge — and I beleive its one of of only two remaining that are still in service where they were built — this one in 1889.
Coming off the bridge, the road straightens out and provides one of the few places where one can get any revs up in third gear. A short chute brings me to the intersection of Harley Road.
I have never seen any Harleys on Harley Road. Given the larger gravel surface and tight, seriously rutted corners that likly result from the heavy farm tractor traffic the road carries, I don’t imagine I ever will, either.
Now if you’re a gal or guy with a Sportster, or better still an XR, with a dirty bent, you could have some fun proving me wrong. But if you have a Softail or some sort of Ultra, this is not your road.
Harley Road is fun, with long straights, a few TT-style whoops, and the aforementioned tight switchbacks. As long as one has the presence of mind to stand up and to loosen one’s grip on the bars and let the front end do what it would like, its a fun time. On the other hand, tighten up into the so -called death grip, and you may gain some experience harvesting summer corn.
Harley Road ends with a long downhill straight, where you’re treated to a vista of the cropfields the road rolls through.
A quick dogleg at MD 383 puts you on Poffenberger Road.
The big white house attached to a country store building on the corner of Poffenberger is The Shamieh’s old house. It was a charming foresquare — built out of recycled lumber and building materials in 1911. The main beams of the house had obviously been reclaimed from a colonial era timber-framed barn — there were adze marks on them and a few places where there were hand forged nails that could no more be removed than the sword in the stone. I had to drop a hole in one of them once for an electrical update, and I burned up three electrician’s hole bits before I was able to declare success. 300 year old oak might as well be granite. During storms that house did-not-move, unlike my modern house which practically sways in every breeze.
When our son Finn was born 18 years ago that house was a $100,000 house that needed $200,000 worth of renovations in order to accomodate our growing family.
I did the math and resignedly bought a new house in the development on the top of the next hill for substantially less than that. I don’t miss wrenching on the bones of that old house, but I do miss my neighbors, who were social and understood the meaning of community. We shared meals, watched each others children, and if you were in a jam with something involving tools helping hands had a tendency to appear unbidden. My nice house in the development is a place where people walk about with their heads down and act as if other people don’t exist.
I’ve ridden Poffenberger road so many times it becomes almost hypnotic. After blasting away from my old house, the road makes a few nice carvable sweeping corners, then drops down a big hill that turns back to dirt at the bottom. If one has been overenjoying oneself, and is carrying enthusiastic levels of speed, the unannounced swap back to all gravel can create a few moments of noticeable stimulation.
The road snakes through the woods, with tight corners providing more opportunities for sliding throttle play, dodges a few mud puddles, and comes down to Catoctin Creek and another of our Historic Bridges.
The Poffenberger Road bridge is a Truss Bridge built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton Ohio. We think it was built in the late 1870s. The Poffenberger Bridge is a more substantial bridge, built by Ohioans that took great pride in their work. All of the reinforcing filets where the beams join have floral patterns cut into them. 150 years old, still doing the work it was designed for, and looking good doing it. That you and I should be so blessed.
Where the bridge crosses Catoctin Creek, the Creek is wide, clear and moving fast. I usually tarry, enjoying the clear view from the bridge’s wooden deck to the rounded stones on the creekbottom.
Coming off the bridge, Poffenberger Road follows Catoctin Creek. The road opens right up running straight alongside the creek, and its possible to put down some serious throttle and run up — throwing gravel and dust into the air behind you — smartly through the gears.
There’s a left hand sweeper at the end of the straight, and if Nixon rides with you today, you can set the bike on the left side of the tire and slide stylishly out of it.
A micro-straight leads you back to a major whoop and then a short stretch of pavement in front of a Heritage Farm that has been in that spot since the 1700s. Then we’re right back in the gravel and running another long stright along the creek that takes you to the Lewis Mill.
The Lewis Mill is a still functional gristmill, waterwheel and all, currently inhabited by a Potter friend of my Painter wife. The mill has been in that spot since the late 1780s, and inhabits the entire plain in a bend in the Creek. A more magical place I almost cannot imagine. Sitting out by the creek, listening to the water roll by and making company with farm geese, it is exactly the same now as it was two and a half centuries before.
Poffenberger Road very nearly takes one right in the front door of the mill, sitting as it does sandwiched between the Creek and the steep hill that rises to the left. The steepness of the hill and the sharpness of the corner provides opportunities for getting bent out of shape if your enthusiasm exceeds one’s available traction.
After the short, steep rise, the road breaks sharply to the left, working its way around a bluff before dropping back down to the creek. In the dirt, we laugh at the very thought of guardrails, and off the right side of the road is a dizzying view of the roughly 60 foot uninterrupted drop back to the stones of the creekbed. Slide off the right side of the road here and it will be the last riding mistake you ever make.
Poffenberger drops sharply down the other side of the bluff and one finds oneself running hard and straight beside the creek again.
At the end of the stright there is a right onto Corun Road, and a steep narrow climb up a goatpath in the woods marked by utterly blind corners. Bursting back into the sun I emerge onto MD State Highway Route 383, sitting at a stopsign and staring across a pasture right at the front of my house.
Sitting back in my driveway in the current century the Toaster wears laurels of the grey white dust of crushed limestone. There are seeps of oil on the oil pan, and smudges of gear oil mixed with rock dust on the rear rim and final drive.
These little trips in the dirt focus the mind — everything slows down and getting to the end with no broken bones, air still in the tires and the motor still turning with miles of crushed rock road stretching out behind still seems as much a technological miracle as it must have seemed in 1912. Travelling alone in the silence of the woods — feeling every bump and rut, throwing dirt and wrestling with traction — no other cars or trucks around — seems like such a necessary antidote to the oversubscription, overcrowding and underattention of the rest of the paved world.
Riding the dirt is an express ticket to a simpler past, to being self sufficient, self reliant, and being willing to take a shot.
With the signs all alround us that The World is Running Down, once dirt was all there was, and it could soon be so again.
Slide On, Brother, Slide On.