The Battlefield Boys

Burnside Bridge Road — which runs alongside the Antietam National Battlefield — is one of my favorite motorcycling roads anywhere.

Burnside Bridge is technical, tricky. Much of the time you are in the dark shade of dense forest — shade which camoflages the next apex and the one beyond that. The road is tight — too tight for a modern supersport — and unforgiving, with crumbling rock faces on one side of the road and a quick drop into Antietam Creek on the other side.

Getting it right is all about rhythm and all about restraint. Too much throttle on one corner entry will screw your next five.

Its a road that I have almost always ridden alone.

Those alone roads, though, are starting to see me running in formation, rather than as a lone wolf. My youngest son Finn — as he builds riding skills and experience — accompanies me more and more often, and so begins to learn the many secrets of the the rider’s roads.

Last Sunday was the first time in many weekends where we had run out of renovation projects in my daughter’s newly bought home. Sweet Doris from Baltimore had been called away to Remote Western Maryland for a memorial service for an aged great aunt. This left me with some time to go after some terroristic vegitation that had been threatening to eat my house entire.

A good hour or two with some Lithium Ion powered clippers left me feeling like I could check off the ‘accomplishment’ box for the day, and I showered up and then stuck my head down the stairway to the basement where Finn and his monster computer spend a lot of quality time.

“Hey Snorky! Whacha doin?”

“Studying for tomorrows physics test.”

“Feel like taking a break? Wanna go for a ride?”

“Yeah, man.”

“We won’t be long. Besides, you can consider this a lesson in applied physics”.

“Cool.”

So we geared up, gassed up, and turned Finn’s Buell and my R90S towards some tasty roads.

 

***

 

Finn has been riding that Blast pretty much every chance he gets. The weather hereabouts has been inexplicably mild and inexplicably dry, which, if you’re a motorcyclist, seems strangely like some sort of personal favor that the diety of your choice has phoned in just for you.

With Finn enrolled in summer college classes, about half of my days start with a 500 cc single alarm clock, as he rolls his bike into the driveway and heads for his early morning class.

As academic motivation goes, this is something I can wrap my head around, anyway.

He’s also started ‘getting an ice cream’ in the evenings, too. Some of these ice creams, I suspect, may be obtained in, say, Denver.

Like Father, like Son.

 

***

 

So with his growing confidence also goes my declining sense of anxiety about his road skills.

Now, the rates of change may not be fully synced — I suspect his confidence is growing faster than I’m able to relax about it — but never mind that.

At most stop signs and at the end of most rides I’ll ask for a debrief and specifically ask if there was any element of the last ride that has caused any discomfort or concern.

I know in my first six months in the saddle — most of them on my departed CB750/4 — I spiked my adrenaline more than a few times.

If Finn has scared himeself on the road, he has yet to answer my question in the affirmative.

So this ride, I resolved to push a little more backroad challenge in his direction than I had perhaps done previously, so that his growth as a rider can continue.

 

***

 

So we swept together down Broad Run Road — out towards our old home in the Valley, out towards Burkittsville, and the roads around the Antietam Battlefield.

Broad Run is a barn-burner of a road — with longer sightlines, huge grades, and higer speed open corners.

I’ll cop to winding a few gears out to get some heat into the R90, and then having to chill out so that Finn could tighten back up.

The road changes to Gapland Road, and we continued smooth carvng and dropped into Burkittsville.

At the stop sign in town, I talked through the next couple of moves.

“We’ll run up Gapland Road to Gathland State Park. There are always spacy tourists up there so we’ll back it waaaay down. Just over the top of the ridge I’ll make a tricky right into Townsend Road. Towsend is crazy tight, bumpy and stuck between hedgerows. Leave lots of following distance, stay right on the entries and ride your own game.”

Finn gave me the Thumbs Up.

The run up Gapland is a lovely road — two switchbacks allow us to climb up the ridgeline that separates the Middletown Valley from the valley where Antietam sits. Challenging climbs with good visibility uphill corners — motorcycle heaven.

We cleared the park and cut right on Townsend and headed down into the green.

I did my job as road captain and pointed toes at areas of washed out gravel that had come down from the hillside during the last heavy rains.

I spent just enough time watching Finn in my mirrors to not compromise my own spatial awareness. He looked comfortable and confident out there — managing his entries and exits with the throttle and using virtually no brake at all.

At the blindest spot in the road the requisite Escalade appeared right on cue — both Finn and I had enough room to the right to keep it from becoming in any way dramatic.

After a brief dogleg up MD 67 we turned up Trego Road together and headed for the battlefield.

 

***

 

The advice provided … leave space, ride your own game … Finn followed both and kept following.

My lines on Burnside Bridge are pretty aggressive… I like to enter late and turn harder. It uses more of my tires and makes me feel like I’m riding, even if I’m not carrying speed.

Finn is a tad more practical — earlier entries and ending up further away from the centerline. I havn’t seen him end up wider in a corner than he intended to, although, truthfully, Finn’s Blast is so agile a handler I’ve never been able to do anything — even when trying — that made it feel like I was using even 10% of the bike’s cornering potential. The combination of low mass, 16 inch rims, a set of Pirelli Diablos, and a fairly wide handlebar means the Buell changes direction instantly and authoritatively.

But in the tighest most technical stuff Finn was rolling off for entries and powering back out.

The boy just looked…. comfortable out there.

 

***

 

It is at this peaceful juncture that I feel I should share with you my newfound, irrational and all encompassing, all consuming total fear of kayaks.

Kayaks? What the eff is Greg on about, here?

Saturday the entire extended family had been in chaotic, frenzied motion. The day had started with most of the family in transit to my buddy Jimmy’s, to make an appearence at his daughter’s high school graduation shindig before heading over later to see an outdoor Violent Femmes concert at Flying Dog Brewery.

It was shaping up to be a very good day.

And because the Universe abhors lack of balance, it decided to throw in something perfectly awful right out of the gate so on a whole the day would kinda balance out.

Heading up US 340 toward Frederick, Saturday afternoon traffic in both lanes came to a screeching halt.

It took very little imagination to see what had happened.

In the middle of the left lane of the divided highway was a bright yellow kayak.

Just beyond that was a guy dressed in black who was hobbling around in circles. Past him was a gory series of skidmarks and scrapes in the pavement that ended at a puddle of oil and moderately newly customized early 2000s purple and white Triumph Bonneville.

I positioned my station wagon to protect him and got out to make sure he had whatever help he needed.

He’d been riding in a proper moto jacket, jeans and sneakers. The jacket had expired saving its occupant. Everything below that hadn’t done quite as well.

“Effing thing came out of a truck. Had no time. They took off, the fuckers. Didn’t even stop.”

He was understandably torqued, and maybe a little concussed, too.

I saw his helmet sitting in the grass. It had a nice long crack visible in the top and back of the shell.

Maybe more than a little concussed.

We got the bike out of the roadbed and then checked in with a lady who, upon reflection, was wearing a set of hospital duty scrubs. A Pro, who had been frantically making phonecalls.

“Look Man, do you want my wife to run you up to the Hospital? We have a truck if you need it to get the bike taken care of….”

“Nope,” said the Pro, “EMTs and the Ambulance are en route. Sherriff is inbound. His friends are on the way with their truck. Thank you, but we’re good.”

The Pro got Triumph Boy a seat in the tailgate of her Blazer, and we found a hole in traffic and headed off towards Jimmy’s.

We did have a fair amount of fun later, but the image of that Bonneville taking air on the other side of that kayak and coming down and tumbling kept coming back.

It was an image that was hard to shake.

 

***

 

Burnside Bridge Road runs for much of its length alongside Antietam Creek.

In the summertime Antietam Creek is a water recreation wonderland. The creek draws waders, tubers, canoists, and tons of kayakers.

Kayaks.

As we got to the landing beside the creek entry and the Bridge, we came up on a pickup with four plastic kayaks in the bed.

If Peter Parker has Spider Sense, and Luke Skywalker has the force, I have MotoSight.

I can’t really explain it, but on a back road with cross traffic, for example, if a vehicle is coming to one of the cross roads, I somehow know it before I see it.

I don’t question it. It has kept me and those that ride with me safe.

Now in the case of one truck four kayaks my MotoSight was just messing with me.

“These kayaks are not going to kill you. But you know they could.”

Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Fortunately, Four Kayaks took the pullout to get down to the creek, leaving Finn and I to roll into Sharpsburg.

“How’d it feel out there, Finn?”

“Great road. Except for the kayaks.”

 

***

 

We rolled Maryland 34 back to Boonesboro — more Kayaks! — and then picked up US 40 Alt to head back toward Middletown, and home.

I described the run over the mountain to Finn as we sat at the light.

40 Alt is an old, old road, with crazy decreasing radius banked switchbacks on the descent on the other side.

Its great fun once one figures it out, but finding a good line through takes either observation or a little luck.

In truth, bikes have much easier time negotiating such corners than a car ever would, but it just looks a little intimidating.

We gassed it up over the mountain, working the throttles and the edges of the tires, and sliced through the switchbacks and then through the hills and sweepers down in to Middletown, through the tight stuff on Picnic Woods road and before we knew it we were home.

As Finn killswitched it and popped off his helmet, he was beaming.

“Great ride, Pop.”

 

***

 

Right or wrong, it is true that men don’t have a lot to say.

Even when, if the situation demands it, that a lot maybe needs to be said.

Now I’d like maybe to talk with my son, and share with him whatever what passes for wisdom I’ve managed to find.

To talk about how short and precious life is, and the meaning of love, of music, of art and of poetry.

But, if being men, we can’t manage it, at least with a sunny day and some motorcycles, we can speak to each other without saying a word.

 

 

 

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