From almost the first days that I rode my BMW /5 motorcycle, it was clear that it was nearly as capable in the dirt as it was on pavement.
Now we’re not talking Travis Pastrana backflip dirt, or Erzberg Rodeo dirt, but simple, straightforward feet up enduro riding dirt. On fire roads or reasonably sane trails in the woods, the boxer-engined Wunderbike was surprisingly competent when ridden rationally and within certain fairly sensible limits.
The fact that I know about those limits begs more than a few tales.
The first limit involves the limits of the tires fitted to the bike. Over 35 years of riding it, my tire choices have slowly evolved from the ubiquitous Continental SuperTwins street tires of the early eighties, through a series of mild dual sport skins like Avon Distanzias, to the set of Heidenau Scouts that I’m getting ready to fit. What one can do with this motorcycle in the loose stuff involves how much stick one’s skins can provide.
The second limit involves mass management. The great drive and good torque make tractoring up incredible grades — tire grip permitting — almost trivial. Working down the same grade on 450 plus pounds of motorcycle is … less trivial. I never recall experiencing unplanned vehicle rider separation going up hills. I did, however, get fairly skilled in learning to pick up and recover the motorcycle when facing down grades. Sadly, what goes up must eventually come down, but some planning is your friend here.
Water crossings are also well within the boxer’s capabilities… the older bikes, with their air intakes up on the frame backbones, are good swimmers… as long as the water level is under the roundels, you’re good!
As a youthful boxer affectionado, I sought out every trail and offroad opportunity I could find. The Baltimore City watershed, starting from Loch Raven park, had multiple trails that were built to support water lines, power lines, and other infrastructure, and the /5’s near-silent stock exhaust allowed me to explore without disturbing other park users or attracting the wrong kind of attention. Activities which would have brought the long arm of the law down swiftly and hard on my two-stroke riding contemporaries never resulted in any awkward conversations with the constable. Being street legal meant coming out near a public road at the end of trail just meant throttling up and disappearing into the normal flow of traffic.
The Pretty Boy reservoir system and the Papapsco State Park System … which was within a 10 minute ride of my early work location at the Social Security Administration’s Woodlawn Datacenter also provided hours of exploring and honing my dirt rider’s skills. I might not yet know everything that BMW’s Factory ISDT riders knew about boxering the dirt, but the gap was slowly narrowing.
Which brings me to my most exciting dirt adventure.
Sometime in the mid 1980’s I headed west out of my then-home of Baltimore to my first BMW Rally — the Baltimore and Metropolitan Washington BMW riders (BMWBMW) Square Route Rally — based out of the American Legion’s Camp West-Mar outside of Thurmont Maryland. 30 plus years later, I live in Frederick County, but to young Rally Pup, the green mountainsides, twisting roads and deep forest were like another planet.
On Saturday afternoon of the Rally, after field events had wrapped and way before dinner, a natural lull presented me with what sure seemed like an opportunity to explore. The old American Legion Camp is laid out like any military installation, with a ring of barracks arranged around a Mess Hall. On the far edge of the Camp, two barracks are separated by a slightly larger gap, and that gap contained a dual track that disappeared into a green tunnel into the woods.
The temptation was more than I could possibly bear.
I pulled on my gloves and helmet, kicked the bike — which still had its original 4-speed then — to life, and quietly motored into the green.
For a guy whose home was in the brick rows of the BelAir/Edison neighborhood of Baltimore city, it was absolutely heaven. The trail was a grass and mossy dual track, with a heavy tree canopy that allowed the sun to filter through in places. Speed wasn’t important. Just maintaining headway and reading the trail was completely immersive. I was focused, calm, centered.
As I exited a corner in that trail, though, I heard an unfamiliar sound.
I pulled the clutch in and coasted to a stop. I knew every noise that motorcycle made, and I was fairly confident this wasn’t any of them.
I was having a full-on ‘Mr. Jones Moment’ again — I knew something was happening, I just didn’t know what it was, yet.
I peered ahead into the forest, squinted a little, and as I did, the unexpected sight of a squad of fully armed United States Marines in tactical gear slowly came into focus out of the camouflaged position where they’d been invisible mere seconds before.
My /5, known for a slight noisy top end, hadn’t hung a valve. The “CHAKA-CHAKA” had been the sounds of 16 M-16 safeties coming off.
The Squad Leader addressed me in that subtle and gentle manner for which the United States Marines are renowned.
“THIS IS A RESTRICTED AREA!”
I took about three-quarters of a second to absorb this, and then about another three-quarters of a second waiting for my heart to restart.
“Am I free to go?”
I gently dropped the clutch, did about the smoothest in place O-turn I’ve done before or since, and gently headed back towards Camp West-Mar along the same vector from which I’d come.
Now, folks that have spent their entire lives in Thurmont Maryland are well aware that Camp West-Mar isn’t the only installation back in them there woods. Seems that there’s also a little place called Camp David, and the two camps, as I now fully understand, share an extended property line.
Seems The Boss Was In Town that weekend, along with his heavily armed little friends, I was the only dimwit that wasn’t fully aware of same.
You do your Adventure Riding, and I’ll Do Mine.
With a change of underwear, and a cold beer (or two), I’d be just fine.