The plan had been pretty late in coming together, if, at this point, it actually was a plan and it had really come together at all.
But no matter.
I genuinely believe that detailed plans are an anathema to the wise motorcycle traveler.
It’s OK to work at preparation — Know what your route looks like on a low-earth orbit level of detail — cities, states, maybe which Interstates connect them.
Know where you want to end up, but once the key is turned, turn off all electronics, stow the paper maps, and do your best to let the road come to you.
Plans are for the weak.
As soon as the deal was done and the bike came off the sidestand I’d beat feet for Birmingham.
The collection was then housed in a decommissioned Barber Dairies Industrial Space inside the city of Birmingham, proper. Hard as it may be to believe the subtraction of their current grand surroundings did absolutely nothing to diminish the quality and significance of the motorcycles that I found there, then.
That visit completely rearranged my thinking about motorcycles and made an indelible impression.
When, a short time later, the Museum announced its plans for a more appropriate home, with an accompanying racetrack, I had no doubt that it would be a unique and special place.
When in the Fall of 2003, the new Park finally opened, pictures and the tales of others confirmed that indeed it was.
I resolved to go back to Birmingham, to experience and appreciate the full realization of the vision that had been so clearly on display that day in The Dairy.
So we had a clear objective.
But not a timetable.
‘Cause that would make it a plan.
And I don’t do plans.
When the time was right to return to Birmingham, it would be obvious, inexorable and inevitable.
That road would, in other words, come to us.
It’s just how we roll.
This entire summer has behaved consistently with the No Plan Mantra.
A contemplated family camping trip to the Western National Parks had gotten eaten by the need to visit some colleges with youngest offspring Finn. So we rerouted to some Eastern parks whose pollen profiles turned Sweet Doris into a large inflamed phegmy thing that would die if not promptly returned to a filtered air supply.
So an improvisational objective oriented family vacation kinda evaporated more the harder you looked at it.
At a certain point, Sweet Doris took one of her patented looks at me that reveal all, and after a delay of approximately three seconds, said, “You need to take a bike trip.”
Unsurprisingly, she was right.
The List of Possible Destinations (TLPD) was pretty short.
So I began laying the groundwork.
I confirmed with Sweet Doris that the ‘you should take a bike trip’ wasn’t some form of willful hallucination on my part or complex strategic woman trick on her part.
Negative on both counts.
I approached my boss at work — who is a singularly stellar fellow — telling him I needed to stretch a weekend in early October.
“No problem. Get it in the calendar”
Approved immediately in writing.
I went back though my maintenance logs on the big K Bike and filled in the blanks. We had fresh motor oil, gearbox oil, tires, brake and clutch bleeds, and a new battery to replace a no-name AGM that been in there doing great for 6 years.
Check, check and check.
Houston, we were ready for launch.
Or almost ready for launch.
At this point, with all of the checklist cleared, I went to buy a ticket for the Festival. My normal MO is to include a backpacker’s tent, air bed and small compressor in the camping kit, and camp out in Tiny Sybaritic Splendour.
The “GANK!” error sound effect my PC made indicated that something was amiss.
What that thing was was that camping for the Festival was already sold out.
With no place to stay, this launch had the potential to get scrubbed.
I did what I have prettymuch always done when excrement takes a turn toward the equator. I sought the collective wisdom and generosity of the Internet BMW Riders Listserv.
The outcome was not in doubt.
The modality of its deliverance, maybe, but not the outcome.
In maybe eight minutes after the post describing my predicament, Two Fellow Presidents proposed divergent solutions.
I’d started with the premise that at least one BMW rider was going to be camping at the Festival, and I was just looking for the 4×8 footprint of my tent.
I got exactly that from an Oklahoma President that I’d never met before.
Folk willing to pay it forward are always the greatest kind of lift.
Especially if it turns out there are more than one of them.
‘Cause a few minutes later another President — who has helped to administer The List for longer than it is Gentlemanly of me to Enumerate — offered up a Hotel Room in the Hampton Inn across the street from The Park.
I have never done a Hotel Rally.
Looked like I’d be doing one now.
The road was indeed coming to us.
Leeds, Alabama is 721 Google Map miles from Jefferson, Maryland.
I can’t remember having completed that kind of single day mileage more than a handful of times.
Which allows for the possibility, I guess, that I’ve completed that kind of mileage but can’t remember it.
But never mind that.
The Mantra of No Plan means it’s great when you get there. Whenever that is.
One doesn’t push your luck if conditions start working against you. Bad weather, bad bike performance, bad alertness or even a bad fish sandwich can all turn a good ride bad. Heck, when you ask a slightly more chronologically gifted body for ten or twelve or sixteen hours of peak performance in the saddle, sometimes your tank can just come up empty.
And knowing when that is and living to fight another day is a critical riding skill.
I’ll admit to even having an unusual case of pre-ride anxiety.
I kept having flashes of bad outcomes.
Idiots with Smarter-than-them-Phones. Delaminating tires. Rocket Powered Homicidal Armadillos. Space Junk.
Fear is, by its definition, irrational.
And I never gave it a second thought.
Until this time.
When it got a second, and a third, and maybe a few more thoughts.
I had some objectives that could have kept me out on the road for more than few thousand miles and more than six days. In that much road anything can happen. Pretending it can’t is delusional.
I’ve surfed a combination of good skills, good awareness, good equipment and more than a little good luck to keep my bikes mostly upright and my bones mostly unbroke for more than 30 years.
I look around me and I like the life I see. I’m not anywhere ready to leave that yet.
I guess I was reaching deep for the focus and mindfulness to make sure that tank wasn’t going to go empty here.
So why does a guy take an almost modern motorcycle to a vintage motorcycle rally?
When that guy is a guy whose vintage bikes have required two previous truck rides home from vintage rallies, that’s why.
No motorcycle is 100% Bulletproof, but some might offer a slightly higher level of slug resistance. My K1200LT is far from perfect, but it does provide the best tool available if the goal is to go a really long way and ride back in on the same motorcycle you left on.
So even though I found myself being discriminated against for my choices later — “Hey, you can’t bring that thing in here — it’s too modern…” — it was a chance I was undertook with full knowledge and acceptance.
So Thursday, October 8th finally came.
Hurricane Joaquin had done what hurricanes always do, which is to behave in unpredictable ways designed to make meteorologists look like complete doofuses. Other than turning the State of South Carolina into an Aquarium, which was only of secondary concern, to me anyway, my entire riding route had been left unscathed.
So after as much of a relaxing night’s sleep as is possible the night before such an adventure, I rose at my normal time, came downstairs, ate a slightly more complex carbohydrate laden breakfast than is my wont, enjoyed a cup of coffee, gave Sweet Doris a kiss, zipped on my Aerostich suit and elkskin gauntlets, and then rolled The Big Girl, who had been packed and checked the night before, out of the garage.
Unlike all of the ripping travel yarns you’ve likely read before, it wasn’t in the darkness before dawn, it wasn’t exactly warm, and truthfully, I wasn’t even exactly fully awake. What I was was relaxed, and ready to receive any messages the road had for me.
Rolling out 340 West away from Jefferson, it was just the slightest bit cool, but not cool enough that I’d needed a fleece or jersey under my ‘Stich. The aforementioned weather professionals had estimated a daytime high of about 75 on the Jefferson end, with about 10 more degrees forecast for the Alabama end.
I mentally tuned in to the messages coming from my motorcycle, which really takes about 150 miles to reach full operating temperature to the point where all of the driveline’s fluids are fully warmed, and the intake tracts and associated control plumbing are warmed all the way through. Both throttle response and fuel economy don’t peak until this has occurred, so on a long ride, there’s a two hour plus mechanical prologue where the big train slowly tiptoes up to the point where it tells you its ready to open up and run hard.
I picked up Interstate 81 outside Winchester, Virginia. 81 can be an awful slog of a ride — a two lane interstate that carries far more tractor-trailer traffic than it was ever intended to. I’ve run 81 on so many other Southern Swings — Georgia Mountain Rallies, trips to Memphis, Charlotte NC for business trips — but this time it was different.
Once we’d cleared the Greater DC metro area, the rolling tractor-trailer roadblock that normally characterizes 81 was nowhere in evidence. I could pick a speed and maintain it, and instead of getting endlessly pummelled by truck wakes, it was clean air and smooth sailing.
Somewhere around Lexington, the change began to occur. The Brick finished warming, and assumed its patented glass-smooth-at-3900-rpm-indicated supercruise. Wind, temperature, traffic were all optimum, and my body and mind both went into that relaxed but aware state where anything is possible.
Before being aware of it — in Christansburg, VA — the reserve light lit yellow and I needed to find the Big Girl some High Test. There was a Shell right at the off-ramp and we found a pump and filled to the top. I powered up and checked my phone to see a message from my manager at work concerning a hand-off on an open piece of business. I called him and provided him an information nugget he’d been missing.
I made one more call.
My arrangements at the Hampton Inn outside the park were for three nights. While I felt good and was going well, a little math had me arriving long after dark, and I felt no need to push harder than I needed to. We could ride, relax, and I could choose to stop any time I felt like it.
Really, any place south of Chattanooga would be fine, and then we’d have a nice ride to the Park in the morning.
So I called them and cancelled my reservation for the night.
That small change — removing a fixed objective — made sure that we no longer were operating according to some plan.
And that’s how we like it.
Thursday afternoon was probably the nicest ride though the State of Virginia that I can recall. With a range of just under 300 miles and perfect conditions I just rolled into greener and greener landscape. With both man and machine in that big humming groove, I found myself in that deep meditative state where the mind is free to roam faster than the fast motorcycle that got us there.
Roanoke, Blacksburg, Wytheville, Bristol, then across the line into Tennessee. Past Kingsport and Johnson City until the working world intruded on my rider’s reverie again.
As I came to Interstate 40 on the outskirts of Knoxville, I saw 5:00 on my dash clock, and folks that rushed onto the roads to make their way home from work.
Lots of them.
Great, whopping lots of them.
The previous two lane mountainous interstate that I had more or less to myself at 72 degrees was now 6 and 7 lanes of 1st gear stop and go bumper to bumper cluthwork at less comfortable 85.
Can heaven on a motorcycle evaporate without warning in a New York Second?
It had just happened and you missed it, buddy.
I’d run entirely through my fuel load, and now seemed like as good a time to take a break off the road as any other. I’d threaded my way through Knoxville and was west of the city looking for the cut southward to Chattanooga when another Shell station presented itself.
We got another 5 plus gallons of the good stuff, and went inside to pay.
I have a very short list of compelling vices, and Snapple Diet Peach Tea is Top 3.
If you see me on the road we can discuss the other two, but this is a family show.
I asked the cashier how close the I 75 cutoff was, and he said it was less than a mile up the road.
I went back out to the bike and pulled a bag of cashews and raisins out of the topcase. I was hot and having been making few stops, a bit behind the hydration power curve. Both bottles of Snapple were promptly dispatched and I felt a great deal better.
75 South wasn’t a mile up the road, but 5 was close enough.
5 more miles out of Knoxville, we were on open highway, back on the gas and cruising.
A sweet running Flying Brick is a Zen Buddhist Motorcycle — it’s four shifts and a twist of the wrist straight to the heart of the meditative Ommmmmmmmmmmm…
Tennessee is a green wonderful place to be on that path.
The experience is not only spiritual, but relativistic, as well.
Time itself becomes fluid, and just like 5 minutes can seem to last a lifetime, whole hours can blur and disappear, with time both expanding and contracting.
In a blink of the mind’s eye we were in and out of Chattanooga and southbound into Georgia.
I’d admit I’ve listened to more than my share of Allman Brothers Band music.
Funny thing about being on a bike with a stereo, is that the tunes inside one’s head can be better.
In 2000 miles I never turned the stereo on.
The Stone Mountain of Georgia — with their light-colored stone rising up above the road — are an absolutely beautiful place.
Unfortunately it was getting dark.
Summer was really over — we were running out of day.
I crossed the line into Alabama, and the surrounding land went from light stone to greenest pine. With the sun finally beneath the horizon it got dark.
In the Northeastern U.S. we got dark.
But our dark has lots of earthshine — reflected light from cities and suburban commercial development.
In Baltimore, Dark is really orange, but in the Alabama Woods, Dark is really freaking dark.
Cooling conditions started producing misty conditions, with windshields and visors lightly fogging. It was also clear that Alabama hadn’t yet had Maryland’s cold snap — conditions that had decimated all the bugs. In Alabama, the bugs were perfectly fine, thank you, with the possible exception of the coupla hundred I smashed.
In the cool misty buggy darkness, even though riding a pretty substantial motorcycle, I started to feel like I was more than passing small.
My mental picture of the Alabama map had two major dots short of Birmingham — Fort Payne, that I was currently entering, and Gadsden, about 40 miles up. I decided to roll for Gadsden, backing my speed down and feeling increasingly smaller the further I went.
When the Gadsden off-ramp came up, I rolled up to the light and surveyed the scene. There were 5 hotels that shared driveways and parking lots, and I selected the one that looked the least sleazy, and aimed for their lot. I rolled up to the door, killswitched it and placed the bike over on the sidestand.
According to the odo, we were just under 700 miles for the day.
On the other side of the entrance portico was a Harley Rider with a well optioned Electra Glide Ultra — a brand new Rushmore bike with water cooled heads and the lower fairings that come with that. He was clearly accustomed to making some miles — he looked as road encrusted as me, and his bike had a lot of custom aero bits around the cockpit — aftermarket shield with ducts and deflectors.
“Hey, bud, you headed to Barber?”
“Naw, man, I’m headed to Daytona for Biketoberfest.”
“Could save a lot of miles — the party’s here this weekend.”
“Yeah, did The Festival one year. It was a lot of fun.”
“Cool. Ride Safe.”
I checked in than went back to the parking lot for my gear. I moved my bike to a well-lit corner of the parking lot where I could see it clearly from my room.
I got some bad food and, more distressingly, bad beer and went back to the room to crash.
On the last visual check of the parking lot, I was surprised to see my motorcycle, in its pool of light, surrounded by a half-dozen black windowless vans, with Governmental looking seals that read “CERT”. Each van had disgorged about a half-dozen guys each wearing black BDUs and carrying a military style duffel bag.
I felt pretty confident no one was going to mess with my bike in that spot.
Tomorrow morning I’d have a pretty nice ride of about an hour to get to Leeds.
I could hardly wait, although, unlike lot of nights in hotels, I did sleep pretty soundly that night.