Folks that know me know I’m not much on planning.
Some parts of life are better like jazz or a rocking jam band — improvisational — you know when to go big when the universe’s currents seem to be running your way.
When I woke up on Sunday morning in the Hampton Inn in Leeds, Alabama, one look out the window changed everything.
The previous two days had dawned grey and misty — allowing for a slow rise to awareness.
Today, the sun was starting out strong.
After two days of looking at and thinking and talking about all kinds of motorcycles, all I wanted was to feel the wheels gyroscopically spinning underneath me — the wind rushing around me.
It was time to stop looking at motorcycles.
It was time to ride motorcycles.
I had actually been hoping to swing by my Mom’s house for a surprise visit.
She lives just south of Charleston, South Carolina, and a visit would have done her good.
Nature, though, had sprung some unpleasant surprises, and those gifts had kept right on giving.
Most of South Carolina had experienced unprecidented rainfall the previous week when a tropical system had come onshore and remained in place for several days.
Columbia, the State Capital, located in the central part of the state was still mostly under water. There were two bridges on Interstate 20 in Western SC that were closed due to structural damage from the floods. And the single road that leads from Charleston to the shore islands south of town was still washed out in three or four places. With much of my potential route cut off, and one crucial bit of it with no detour possible, Mom was going to have to wait for another time.
I got my single saddlebag liner — an old Compaq computer freebee shoulderbag that just happens to fit the LTs cases like it was made for it — repacked and checked out of the Hampton. My local duty vintage-y riding gear — the Bell 500 open face, work boots and my denim jacket — went into the top case, along with the lightweight performance fleece I use for layering under my Roadcrafter, and my camera.
It felt good to be back in a pair of proper tall motorcycle boots, and my fully armored riding suit. The weather report showed sunny skies and a projected high somewhere in the lower to mid 70s along most of the route.
Like any pilot, I did my preflight inspection — checking tires, fasteners, and making sure we didn’t have signs of any new fluid leaks. This looked and felt like a day where the only limits were all internal.
I fastened the chinstrap on my Shoei, swung a leg over, and fingered the K12’s Flying Brick motor back to life.
There were lots of motorcycles coming the other way as I accelerated up the ramp onto I-20 west back towards Birmingham. Although it was still a little cool — in the high fifties — the air was crisp and dry, and it felt awfully good to take big handfuls of throttle again and let the Brick wind out in each gear and get some wind into those four long stroke lungs.
I turned north on I-459, the Birminham spur, and then north again on I-59, settling the LT in at a fairly immoderate 4000 rpm and and indicated 86 mph, gently stretching my legs, back, arms and shoulders to loosen my personal machinery up for the long run ahead.
There were more than a few well dressed folks on the road early that Sunday morning, no doubt headed for church.
I guess in my own way, so was I.
It was just so relaxed out there, with the sun pushing gentle warmth into my Roadcrafter, that I was back blasting through Gadsden, the previous nights stop, before the virtual blink of an eye. The deep green pine forests and roadside sandstone rockfalls were less spooky, downright pretty in the sunlight, and we were able to stay in the gas and well on the boil, comfortable at speed.
Coming back to Fort Payne, there was signage everywhere for the worship of some of Alabama’s favorite sons — the country band Alabama. There were signs for the Alabama Fan Club, Museum, Gift Store, Theme Park and Dee-votional Center. Ok, maybe I imgagined one or two of those, but it would have been an easy mistake to make.
On another day, or even later in this one, I might have been tempted to sing a little of that good old mountain music, but this morning’s theme was the easy roll, and roll and roll I did.
One of those things I’ve always noticed is that there is a often a clear visual indication of when one is moving from one state to another because there is a clear differerce between the one you’re in and the one you’re going to.
Far from being just lines on a map, surprisingly, different places are actually different places.
Western riders know this well — hit the border between Arizona and Utah, and the whole world changes colors. In that particular case, its kinda of a chroma slide from a whole bunch of reds through pinks to a whole different palette of creme and darks greys. Same sort of thing at the edges of West Texas and New Mexico, except the break is from sand-colored to things involving a lot more purple.
You get the idea.
A freaking long winding road of a way to introduce the notion that the same thing seemed to occur at the border of Alabama and Georgia. Might be a tad subtler than the Arizona-Utah segue, but its there nonetheless.
Running north from Birmingham, the forest lands are darkest green, marked by frequent outcrops of mostly crumbling shales, with an occasional sandstone incursion.
Hit the Georgia border just north of Hammondsville, Alabama, though, and its like somebody hit a light switch. Alabama’s hardwoods — Oaks and Maples and Bays and Polars and Elms — change over to Georgia Pine. And the roadside sedimentary shales and sandstones change to harder igneous rocks — what you might assume to be Granite but is actually a quartz monzonite. The harder stone means the land aquires more topography, more elevation — what had been little 40 and 50 foot roadside bluffs are now 400-600 foot igneous ridges.
Did I mention that my favorite teacher when I was in middle school taught Geology?
Travelling via Flying Brick does mandate taking a longer view. With a few hundred post breakfast miles already dispatched, I finally had some heat worked all the way through the powertrain, and Darkside smoothed out and indicated its willingness to head into higher speeds.
Dialing in a few more degrees of physical throttle opening — remember those? — I swept on across northwest Georgia. Interstate 59 runs in the bottom of a canyon between two of the aforementioned quartz monozonite bluffs, and with little wind and warm sun I was free to stay in the rapid transit zone and get into the meditative state where I spend my best travelling days.
Its hard to explain how something some completely immersive as motorcycling could somehow facilitate deep thought about life, the universe and everything, but for me it does. Its as if the portion of my mind that manages the complex physics and situational awareness of the ride somehow gets pushed to background — let’s call it virtualized — while higher cognitive functions find themselves operating in another level — a field now completely cleared of daily life’s distractions.
What are the things most important to you?
We each have a short list of the things that make us go, and on rides like this I can take all of those things and hold them before my perception and turn them over, take them apart and really get comfortable with them in my head.
Whether its just life, or love, or art or work, the ride helps me get to the bottom of things.
With my life running WFO — and multiple levels of consciousness humming along — its not to say that I don’t have enough cerebral capacity left to come up for long enough to consider that landscape the ride takes me through.
Looking at the massive stone domes rising above the roadway, I could see exactly why an artist might have seen the ghosts of the Confederacy living in the stone. These mountains had stood witness to more than one war — to our so-called Civil War, and the wars against the original Americans — and one could feel all of the souls in the stones.
With the revs up and the LT on big cruise, there’s almost not enough of Georgia to be worth talking about. Interstate 24, Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga are on you before you know it. The rather substantial Tennessee River spreads a whole buncha water off to your left as you curve yourself around the city. As I grabbed I-75 and shusssed northeast across Tennessee, the weather went back to that flat contrastless grey overcast that I’d seen mornings back in Birmingham. Coming out of Chattanooga’s extended metro area, I was somewhat struck by how developed the area was. There was a VW assembly plant, and plenty more accompanying industrial and commercial development. The road, was, on a Sunday noon, congested, and a made frequent use of my agility and acceleration in traffic. A few miles up 75 though, my nemesis, the bright yellow Gas Pump icon telltale came on, and managing reserve and range meant a stop for fuel in Athens, Tennessee.
I’ll admit I didn’t feel much like stopping, but Physics does impose some absolute limits, and taking on more liquid energy was a much better option than pushing an 800 pound motorcycle.
So a Shell station was found, and the ground stop ritual was repeated. 5.8 gallons of VPower. A trip to the comfort station, to see a man about a horse. 16-20 ounces of hydration — my fave, a diet Snapple Peach tea — and a few handfuls of nuts and raisins, and it was shields down, stands up and running back through the gearset, winding each gear out till I was back on the pipe in top gear running North again on I75.
Its at a time like these one can be forgiven for thinking — however briefly — that it was BMWs boxer that was the aberration, and that this Brick Engine, this Darkside, was truly their destiny. A Flying Brick K12 Motorcycle, in its powerband in top gear on good pavement, was as close as I’ll get to my own bespoke Space Program.
The thing is so long legged, so smooth quiet and comfortable at speed one could almost forget the raggedness of the concrete spinning by at closer than not to one one hundred miles an hour mere inches beneath my boots.
The traffic congestion slowly thinned out, but I spent much of this stretch passing and then being passed by folks for whom velocity management was just a theoretical concept.
I-75 intersected I-40, which heads East and runs through and around the City of Knoxville till it comes back to the base of the Mountains at White Pine and to I-81. From that point forward 81 does what it does for many hundreds of miles — running in a valley between the western and eastern arms of the Appalachian Mountains — following that rift from southwest towards the northeast.
Northeast towards Virginia, towards Maryland, and home.
There are a few places, at least on the southern end of the route, where 81 isn’t so bad, really.
Remember this, when we have contrasts available for your comparitive pleasure later.
The road is surrounded by scrub pine, and there’s enough topography and corners which are interesting at elevated speed to keep things interesting. The sun decided to break back out, and the temperature came up to the low 70s. I was able to open the closures on the neck of my riding suit, and with the LT’s windshield properly trimmed, run quietly and comfortably with the Shoei’s sheld racheted open.
This wasn’t half bad really.
It was starting to feel like a roll that could go on, well, for as long as I wanted it to.
It seemed like every exit was indicating ways over the mountain to Asheville.
I like Asheville.
There’s art, and good food, good music and fresh beer.
After the second offer I’ll admit I thought about it.
I mean I had no plan, and I wasn’t due back at work until midweek.
After brief consideration, I concluded I just wanted to be back with Sweet Doris, back in my own bed, wanted to get back home.
So my long legged smooth-aired top gear roll continued, threading between Kingsport and Johnson City, until my belly decided it had something to say.
As I rolled into Bristol — the city astride the Tennessee and Virginia borders — I was half way through the LT’s fuel range, and it was as good a time as any to fill my own tank. We’d have as much running time in the second half of the tank and we’d had in the first. It had the potential to be a very long day, and the LT wasn’t the only machine that needed to be kept running.
A billboard advised of a Subway sandwich shop — ‘Easy On, Easy Off’.
It was just as advertised, and I was able to steer straight of the bottom of the offramp and right into a parking space right outside the Subway’s front door.
It was the smallest Subway shop I’d ever seen, but heck, I only needed one turkey sandwich.
It’d do fine.
After 10 minutes of snarf, drainage and remount I was running right back up the ramp and enjoying the sensations of an entusiastic full power run through the LT’s gearbox. As I made the shift up to third, a tight group of four loaded travelling motorcycles swept past in the left lane, carrying what appeared to be lots of camping gear and significant speed.
By the time I got the LT into the the meaty part of top gear, that pack had put a fair amount of distance on me. Well, a mind with only six or eight concurrent things to do will seek opportunities for amusement, and reeling the rocketmen back in seemed like one way to do that.
So, on a bright sunny day with a well running bike, I lowered the windshield slightly, adoped a moderately leaned forward riding position, and started gently rolling into the throttle to see what it was going to take to stop these guys from just walking away from me.
At about 4100 rpm, the gap stopped growing.
On Darkside, that equates to about 90 mph.
Over the next 5 or so miles — miles that pass pretty quickly — I closed the gap to the point where I was allowed to take up a position at the rear of the column.
All my new friends, here, had New York tags. That destination would pack a minimum of 3 more hours further than I had to go, and depending on what part of New York, maybe a whole ot more.
Their riding appeared expert. They were running in a properly staggered column, with enough room between bikes to protect them from each other and close enough to at least attempt to keep other road users from cutting the column. They were all wearing proper all weather gear, and each bike looked to have full camping kit securely stowed aboard. The bikes — a few big GSs of modern enough build, and one guy with a Yam SuperTenere thrown in for spice.
To me, it seemed more than likely these four had started their day at Barber with me.
And so for a while 5 guys on fast motorcycles rolled together on a sunny day on Virginia Interstate.
And that was when it hit me.
All this dynamic rearraging of the time-space continuum was just too damn goal oriented.
The wanton destruction and disposal of mileage for the sole sake of re-writing velocity times elapsed time just freaking stuck in my craw.
A man without a plan is a man in search of a journey, and this was clearly a plan that was all about destination.
Besides, in Southwestern Virginia, where 20 over is a criminal offense, what kind of attention could five guys doing their best impression of a Blue Angels flyover reasonably expect?
After a brief Hollywood flash-forward that involved flashes of Helicopters, wreckers, Oceans of Blue lights, and a purple-faced Virginia Trooper callng me “Son”, I decided that it was time to embrace my inner Lone Wolf once again.
So with some small regret I rolled back out of the throttle, gave back about 7 miles an hour, and watched as the New York Boys, over the next several miles, opened that gap back up and sped out of sight.
Having decided to join up with the Anti-Destination League, I was looking for a way to demonstrate my allegiance.
Being an author of a sometime academic or conceptual bent, being arguably ‘the best part’, I wrote that first.
So sue me.
So having just completed sacremental and simultanously useless miles, I found myself on the other side of Roanaoke, looking for a tankful of Hi-Test, a light meal, and the highway north towards home.
I hadn’t really planned to cover the entire ground in a day, but I was feeling good — energized — and the pull of my own bed and waking up beside Doris started taking on a certain authority.
And at the very point when one might be most in a hurry, the Goddess of the Roads is most likly to liberally strew manifold adversity directly in your way.
And so she did.
And on a very dark rural interstate, somewhere between Harrisonburg and New Market, Virginia, things went horribly wrong.
And didn’t show any signs of getting better.
Cresting a rise on I-81, I was greeted with the sight of the entire downside of the grade and then across the valley and up the next grade totally filled with the redness of taillamps.
After more than 700 miles of riding — most of it at enhanced velocities — my boots were resting on the pavement.
The backup — an awful, hellish mass of tractor trailers, RVs and me — proved to be about 12 miles long, and — working stop and go on a 850 pound motorcycle, took close to two hours to clear. The surrealness of the situation was maddening — Sunday night at 11 o clock at night in a very rural section of interstate — essentially stopped with hundreds of thousands of other sufferers.
I’ve been known — in DC congestion — to lane split or run shoulders for short distances, but this was different. The lanes and shoulders were narrow, and the stress of other drivers was palpable. People were moving out onto the shoulders and then finding them impassable at the overpasses. Other road users were not sympathetic about their plights.
We were probably about 3 minutes from widespread gunfire the whole time.
So, as little as it suited me or my state of mind, I just resolved to slog through this — measuring reality in cycles of the LT’s cooling fans clicking on and off, and hoping for the survival and preservation of my clutch hand.
Never has a man been so simultanuously overjoyed and furious to see the control lights of a highway work crew. Joy, cause this shit was over. Fury, because this overpass renewal had caused the single biggest highway backup I’ve ever seen — on one of the busiest interstates in the United States, at the rush at the end of a weekend.
As I finally cleared the construction control zone, my soul came back to the light as the revs gently rose and I tiptoed the heat soaked machine back to cruising speed — pulling precious cool air through the fairing ducts and radiators. After a few minutes I fell back into the groove – standing on the pegs, stretching, and the settling back down onto he saddle and the quiet air inside the fairing’s pocket.
Every one of my long southern motorcycle trips ends the same way.
I finally leave I-81 at Stevens City, and then run US-340 right to my Jefferson front door.
Runs from Memphis, Georgia Mountain Rallies, and now coming home from Birmingham, 340 late at night takes on the quality of some Thompson-esque savage flashback — the same curves, the same hills in the late night mist, and same sense of unease in the falling temperatures — knowing full well that that the road’s familiarity, combined with some level of fatigue, was what made it most dangerous.
Berryville, Virginia is a quaint little country village. Its quaintness suffers a bit, though, when they decide that right before your visit is the best time to run a massive road removal machine through all 6 miles of town in preparation to repave the day following.
Roads that have had the scraper run across them to remove the macadam are particularly treacherous. The grain pattern made by the machine traps and steers a motorcycle’s front wheel. Debris left by the machine creates ramdom gravel patches. And its all invisible just after Midnight, in the dark.
The Highway Goddess — known to be sometimes grumpy — was just trying to make sure I was still on my game.
The last minutes are just a blur. Charlestown, West Virginia. Crossing the Shenandoah and the Potomac, and then the wide clear highway through Brunswick and back to Jefferson.
I rolled into my driveway, rolled up to the garage door, and just killswitched the bike and leaned it onto the sidestand. It was stopped. I could put it away tomorrow.
I did some quick math after a look at the odometer.
In more than 30 years in various saddles, it was my biggest single day ride.
Take I-81 out of it, and I can see over the horizon to how the 1000 mile guys do it.
Good to leave at least something on the table.
I’ve been to race meetings and rallies before.
But the Barber Vintage Festival is something else entirely.
The bikes are one thing, but its the spirit of the place that blew me away. The folks that come all share a love of the art and engineering and sensations of motorcycles — that grace at speed — from today stretching all the way back to the Roper.
That love encompasses knowledge, it encompasses craft, and it encompasses the skill to see things and make them metal that moves.
This crowd of people isn’t a faceless crowd — its a gathering of my tribe.
I waited a long time to come back to Birmingham.
I won’t wait so long again.