This piece is a blast from the past. There may be some signs of an immature writing style, but its still clearly me talking. Folks will have to excuse the photos, but they were close to state of the art for Digital in at the time they were taken.
This story describes A Fly-and-Ride trip from 2002 when I bought the K1200LT motorcycle that I still ride for long-distance travels. While I might have been preoccupied by a few things — a brand new motorcycle that was replacing an nearly identical one that had died, Beale Street and all its attendant boozy, bluesy distractions — what’s important here is my first destination was downtown Birmingham and the original Barber museum, back when it was still located in a decommissioned dairy processing and bottling plant.
During that visit, I offered my services to the Docent on duty to work on completing a catalog for the museum’s collection.
All of their bikes were talking to me. Each of them had stories, and they needed to be told.
I’m sure that guy thought I was a nut.
That offer still stands.
I hadn’t planned on buying a new motorcycle anytime soon. And l certainly hadn’t planned to go to Memphis again, either.
But there I was, booming up US78, with John Hyatt puttin’ down “Memphis in the Meantime” on the box, 13 miles From Lamar boulevard and the city limits.
I laughed a healthy and hearty laugh in the plush privacy of my helmet.
Two intense experiences, not soon repeated.
But the wheel had gone round a few times, and here we were all over again. I’d be on Beale Street after a much needed shower in about an hour and a half, and balance had come back into the ways of the force – all I could do was smile at the thought.
Losing a good bike- a riding partner- a friend of the road – can be tough to explain to someone who doesn’t live in the wind. It has elements of the death of a beloved pet, or the loss of a lover.
“But it’s just a machine” and you can tell that you’re thought of as a bit daft.
But its the places you’ve been, the genuine people and the amazing things that you’ve seen, that pure high that you’ve shared on a perfect corner exit on a warm late spring day that forms a set of associations, a bond that’s real enough that one can feel real loss when its gone.
So I buried a good friend. But one has to move on.
I spent a lot of time on Walneck’s cycle trader online. I put together a list of bikes, their VIN numbers, their mileage, and where they were. And then I spent a lot of time on the phone.
Mitch was a guy that took good care of his equipment. Clean was the rule, and maintenance had been done exactly by the Berlin factory book. And really, at 7000 miles on a big K motor, it was way too soon to be properly broken in, much less broken or worn out. This was the right guy, who was selling the right bike, so a deal was cut. It would take a few days to transfer titles, and release liens, so a date was selected, and a plane ticket was bought.
Mitch picked me up at the airport, and we rode home in his SUV, telling bike stories all the way. Atlanta traffic was hellish, and it was pouring down rain. Great weather, I thought, to pick up a new bike.
After a 45 minute ride, we got to his house, rode right around back, and threw open the garage. The LT was under cover, which was promptly removed. The bike appeared to have a visible aura that lit up an area for about four feet around the machine.
When one buys a used vehicle, you have visions of a million ways in which things can be less than one had hoped. None of those were apparent here. Maintenance records were provided. Everything appeared to be absolutely optimum.
“I can’t say there isn’t a mark on it, cause there is one.”
Is it possible that Mitch had been winning his bracket on “run what you brung” night at Alpharetta dragway? Can you seriously damage a motorcycle by keeping it entirely too clean?
Both of these were risks I was willing to take, although I resolved right there to make sure to check that the wheel bearings hadn’t been degreased dry when the first tire service rolled around.
We got paperwork done and plates bolted on, and I thought I saw Mitch get a little misty-eyed as I latched the cases and pulled on my Shoei.
He got back into his monster Ford, and kindly led me across 20 miles or so of backroads to get me back to the interstate. The rain had lightened up considerably, but we were in rural, lush county, with trees overhanging both sides of the roadway, and lots of vegetation that the last storm through had put down on the pavement. Things looked steamy, and slippery, and treacherous and very, very dark.
I felt exceedingly small as I tiptoed up gently through the gears, as the big red truck and I started slicing into the mist.
A few corners in, I knew we were cool — the bike was a bit stiff shifting from having been sitting around, but as the temperature came up, everything fell in the groove. The whining sound, the smoothness of the access to power, it was all as it should be, and increasingly familiar. The ride had its weird moments — hairball steam clouds whiting out corner entrances, Mitch’s truck clipped a possum, and a bat, which one-hopped and I hit too.
We pulled into a connivance store right across from the on-ramp, and got out to say our goodbyes.
He looked at me funny.
“You got it dirty.”
“I feel bad about that, Mitch, I really do. But its gonna happen.”
The weather report I’d seen last called for up to four possible days with at a least a chance each day of some rain.
He didn’t look happy.
Regardless, he gave me directions to get around Atlanta — which of course proved to be spot-on perfect — We shook hands and he walked slowly into the store.
I began to shuffle the bike out of the parking space, accidentally dumped the clutch, and stalled her out.
“Tired. Tired. Get your shit together, boy.”
I turned left up the ramp, rowed up through the gears, and slid into I-475’s traffic stream spinning in the top of fourth gear.
The highway was wide, well lit and the surface was fine but for an odd rough joint or two.
In Atlanta, folks tend to drive fast.
I found an open spot in a more leftward lane, reached a really conservative speed compared to selected elements of the surrounding traffic, and tried to gain a detailed understanding of this new, technological motorcycle.
By just after ten o clock at night, Atlanta traffic had dialed back from total madness to merely light congestion.
The city’s spaceage skyline was coming back into view as lights in the mist left behind by the now-ended heavy rains. As we came up on the city’s beltway, Atlanteans were hissing through that mist at about 75, and I settled right in and tried to be uncharacteristically inconspicuous. I was having a tough time shaking my mental image of southern law enforcement — “You in whole heapah trouble now, boah.” — and decided that discretion was probably the better part of valor, at least for this evening.
Tonight’s plan was simple — get Atlanta in the rearview mirrors and start Friday off with nothing but clear highway ahead. I had seen Atlanta traffic during its rocking hours, and wanted to be nowhere near anything remotely like morning rush.
The big K arced through 2 or three hours worth on the clockface that was the beltway. Destination was Interstate 20, the road that cuts straight out of Atlanta to the west, towards Alabama, and towards the Mississippi. I wanted to make at least 50 miles outside the city, and the first hundred on this bike wouldn’t feel bad, either. Anyplace out by the Georgia-Alabama border would be fine, and wouldn’t get to be too much at the end of waaay too long a day.
Tomorrow morning would bring a short run after breakfast to get to Birmingham, and the Barber Vintage Motorsports museum. I didn’t get down this way very often, and with the best collection of rare and competition motorcycles in the world less than 200 miles from Atlanta, and with a new motorcycle to break in… well, how could you not?
I had spotted a town on the map 9 to 10 miles short of the border, and Mitch – who drove on business a lot – confirmed that there were motels, gas and food out there.
I swung the ramp onto I-20 west, and Atlanta did the “get real small in the rearview” thaang. The bike slipped a perfectly shaped envelope of quiet and dry around me in the noise of the wind and the light rain and mist that continued to drift across the roadbed. I kept the velocity down, but the new horse stretched those long legs anyway and hummed the mileage away just like that. It’s at these moments that one is really tempted to keep the groove going and put a few more hundred on, but it wouldn’t have been safe and it wouldn’t have been responsible. I’d been in motion for nearly seventeen hours, and some sleep was the right thing to do.
The anticipated town showed up at the anticipated time, turned out to be called Bremen, Georgia, and contained one waffle house, three motels, a Wendy’s and a gas station/convenience store. This would take care of most of our short-term needs, anyway. I swung down the ramp and into the Chevron.
You sort of forget, after six or so months on smaller motorcycles. How big one of these things can feel on a dark interchange, on wet gravel, after a long day. I tiptoed across the median and up to the pumps.
Going into the station after fueling, I say hi and acknowledge the customary slack-jawed look that comes on at K12 ground station stops. That look comes, I think, from the combination of my vintage NASA style — grey Aerostitch with black armor and an all white helmet — and from having your own rocketship parked out at the pumps.
“Maaaaan. I ain’t NEVER seen no motorcycle like that before.”
I know the feeling. It’s what keeps my spirits up while I’m writing monthly checks for the thing.
Anyway, I got a few things I needed. A one quart bud. This is NOT my style but I was thirsty and tired, and it was all they had. Budcoorslightbuschmiller. I took the Bud. Its hell going through this world as a beer snob.
I had also had forgotten to bring a keychain. They had one – blue metalflake plastic with a Georgia peach.
So be it.
I got a take-out salad and rode up the hill to the motel with the plastic carrier bag hanging off my forearm.
I checked into the motel, got parked, locked, into the room and then got my gear off. I was pretty hungry by 11:30 at night, so I downed some water, the whole salad and a first glass of the beer before I drew breath a second time. After these several minutes or so, the need to go look at my new bike again was inexplicably compelling, so I went back out into the parking lot.
Apparently I was not the only one that felt the compulsion, because I was far from alone when I got there.
There were four guys – obviously riders, with the right boots, jeans and dewrags – all with bottles of beer and some variety of stunned look on their faces. We got to talking and they told me they had ridden in from Little Rock that day – at a tick shy of 600 miles, it was no small piece of riding. I could see, down at the other end of the parking lot, four parked cruisers, all relatively new, all well customized and well maintained, all of which looked to be Hondas with maybe a Yamaha thrown in. They wanted to know about the K’s engine, which isn’t really clearly visible in this bike, so we did details.
Everybody had at least one tale to tell of a quirky friend with airhead R75’s or R90’s of one sort or another.
“Bike ran smooth, lasted near forever.”
I know that guy. Heck, I am that guy. Those bikes were what had gotten me to this bike and this road tonight.
We had all spent some time riding in the rain that day, so they all wanted to see the windshield adjuster and the air control wings in action. I talked about how well the lowers kept one out of the slop, and talked about ABS, radials, and confidence in the rain. We had a real good time talking bikes and then we all turned in. They were headed, it seems, to Myrtle Beach for the weekend, and were, like me, gonna need some sleep.
I wished, in retrospect, we hadn’t talked about the rain quite as much as we did.
When I’m out on the road, all I watch is The Weather Channel.
L’il Abner, the famous comic strip by Al Capp, had a unique character called Joe Btsfplk, I think. Joe’s visual symbolism had him walk around under his own personal thundercloud, which rained, just on him and him alone, all the time.
Each morning and evening, as I watched The Weather Channel, and in the many miles where I had room to think, I thought about those four guys from Little Rock, and about Joe Btsfplk. My route from east to west and then back to east again appeared to jive magically with the motions of the rain fronts – I might punch though one going the opposite direction, but any incursion was going to be brief.
The boys from Little Rock though, were going the other way. Heavy rains followed them from Bremen to Myrtle, where the weekend storms were bad enough to make the news headlines. When they left Sunday, they may not have hit sunshine until they hit western Alabama or eastern Mississippi. Those four guys were the Joe Btsfplks of the road, with their own personal deluge attached to them as if by Velcro.
I know it can’t have been any kind of beach weekend for my buds, and it sure can’t have been any kind of ride other than a real tough one. I felt as bad as one could feel for a bunch of guys one had only just met. I sure hope they got home safely and that they didn’t spend too much time thinking about fairings with lowers or radials and ABS, just to make things feel worse than they already did.
As I was loading up in the morning, the four guys from Little Rock rolled out past me, and waves were exchanged.
They were dry then. That would be a state they would not see again for quite some time.
I rolled down the hill to the Waffle House, and did their signature breakfast, with a pecan waffle, two sage sausage patties, and two scrambled eggs, grapefruit juice and coffee. I figured if I did this, I could skip, say, the next seven or so meal stops.
Time to ride.
I got onto the ramp to I-20 at the top of third gear, and upshifted and gassed it. The day was bright, and there was the smell of earth and pines that snapped me back to full consciousness better than the coffee could ever hope to. I just hooked back into the K whine, and with the sun out and the pavement dry, I just wicked it up.
I had noticed during my morning walkaround, that my oil level looked a tad high, and my coolant level looked a tad low. This could be the sort of thing that was insignificant, or it could have been reaaaal significant. I figured I’d go through a full heat cycle and just take the time to stop and make sure that they levels were not continuing to “lose” coolant and “find” oil, which would have been a more or less immediate call for the truck for the nearest shop, which was in Birmingham.
As I figured I’d run long enough, the exit sign read Talladega Superspeedway, and I decided to combine new bike paranoia with 2 minute tourism. Besides, this track had quite the aura surrounding it, and I’d just want to see if I could feel the raceday buzz hanging in the air. On a more practical level, any place that is designed to support the vehicles needed to bring in more than a quarter million fans on NASCAR weekends was likely to have a nicely paved, secure spot for me to do my inspection.
I zipped up the state highway that lead to the gate, and rolled into the scenic spot right under the monumental signage at the main gate. The scale of the place was huge, and you could feel the buzz as you took in the sweep of race flags and steel supports that literally filled the horizon. I got a picture of the new bike at the gate – SUPERSPEEDWAY! – and completed my diagnostics. Although the oil level was unchanged, the catch bottle of the cooling system was again lower – nothing critical, but something to keep an eye on to see if we had a coolant leak.
With Talladega receding in the rearviews, I did my best to groove on pine smell and keep the four on the boil.
The time/distance computation had me rolling milliseconds later right into the parking lot at the Barber Motorsports museum before I could even conceive of wanting to stop riding for any reason.
Note to self: Do not plan on morning runs on tour of less than 150 miles. With this bike it leads to profound feelings of ridus interruptus – like you’ve only had a half a candy bar or something – a eerie sense of something left maddeningly unfinished.
There were three more bikes in the lot – all BMWs. Another K1200lt, a R1150GS, and a R1150R. I guess BMW ownership somehow selects for owners clipping work on Fridays to ride long distance and hit bike museums.
The Barber is a former dairy processing plant in an industrial neighborhood just east of downtown Birmingham. They’ve used a sweet 30’s Ariel single for their signage, but the place truly looks utterly unassuming from without. One has almost no clue of the Biker Nirvana which sits just past the split door combination ticket window and leather jacket checkroom.
A nice fellow with a well managed white beard took my $5, and asked if he could take my helmet and Aerostich. I felt a little funny about having my riding gear checked – hatcheck girl style – and I was having real problems trying to imagine this burly rider as the hatcheck girl, too. There was a folding table in view with a few helmets sitting on it so I declined in as cheerful a manner as I could muster, and sat my stuff down over there with no help whatsoever, all by myself.
I rolled to my left and didn’t get any further than the first bike before my new diet of airborne bugs began. This time I did the slack-jawed idjit thing as I eyeballed one of Bubba Shobert’s competition RS750 Honda flattrackers. It wasn’t displayed in a case, or up on a pedestal. It was just sitting out in the open, on a pit stand on the linoleoum floor, just the first of about 25 or so race motorcycles that are lined up fairing to bar right inside the front door. A discrete sign asks that one resist the compulsion to stroke tanks, twist throttles, and bounce on the seats. With a large number of the bikes sitting where they could be touched or adversely affected by one’s dribble puddle, one does need to keep reminding oneself not to just reach out and lay hands on these unique and irreplaceable icons.
The next several hours are a blur of smiles of recognition, “OHMAHGAWD”s, and saying “ummm-ummm-ummm-ummmmm-ummmmmm” sounding just like BB King finishing a particularly spare and tasty solo. Too many motorcyclic holy grails can, frankly, give a guy a headache – and about two and a half hours of Barber had me seriously overstimulated. It makes a certain sort of sense – think of it as the gearhead-specific version of heat stroke. The cerebral oil gets hot and thin, the cooling system stops keeping up, the system temperature starts to spike, and then you’re on the mental crash truck, done for the day.
I can’t begin to tell of all the wonders in this place in anything less than a whole book of its own. But I can hit a few personal high spots just to give you a taste. If you’re ever anywhere in say, the entire southeastern quarter of the US, and don’t scorch wheels to get inside the doors, you have no-one to blame but yourself.
They have a running, unrestored FN that is stuffed in a gallery which is closed to the public, having so many bikes in it one could not safely walk, but is completely surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass so one can stare in at the wild stuff in the fishbowl.
They have a factory Bimota Tesi Hub Steerer, complete with what must have been display stands built for the Milan or Cologne shows. The frame fabrication work on that machine looks better than that of some sculptors I’ve seen.
There is a grouping of five Daytona winners, just stuck fairing to fairing in the middle of the floor, no ropes, no nothing.
There is MV Row – 5 MV Agusta Racing motorcycles representing 13 FIM World Championships between them. I stood with them and one could hear the howl of the DOHC Fours, feel the rush of acceleration and adrenaline, imagine the good weight of the trophy in your hands, taste the champagne. Talk about an out-of-body experience.
There is a small dual display of old enemies – matching Harley and Indian 8 valve board track racers from the earliest part of the last century. These were machines designed for all out speed with no thought for anything else – not steering, not stopping, not even living to race another day, if it meant losing. These machines have fixed carburetors – there is no throttle plate, no slide. The carb is designed to run WFO all the time. There are no brakes whatsoever – no fronts and no rears. What control there was was provided courtesy of an ignition kill switch similar to what was used in the radial rotary engines of the aircraft of the First World War. To modulate speed, one pressed on a piece of spring steel mounted on the handlebar. When the spring grounded on the handlebar, it turned the ignition circuit off, and the bike would slow. Take your finger off the spring and it was WFO again. Truly the earliest manifestation of the digital motorcycle – either on or off, everything or nothing, with nothing available in between.
Think about that for a while, then re-evaluate any tractability concerns you may have about your present motorcycle.
Of Course, those who could know tell me that the racers of the time never used that switch anyway. It’s not surprising that lots of people got killed, on a very regular basis, racing boardtrack.
Those bikes would be rude enough, if that was all there was, but that’s just the beginning. Neither bike has anything you’d really call an exhaust system. The Harley has the exhaust port in its cast iron cylinder head just dumping right into the atmosphere through an oval hole in the casting though which both exhaust valve stems can be seen with no exertion whatsoever. The Indian, always a more refined breed, has a set of slash cut pipes that are maybe 2 and a half inches long – just long enough to turn the flames downward the necessary 60 degrees to keep from setting one’s leathers on fire every second that the sucker was running.
Both bikes are hardtailed, with spring leather saddles like a racing bicycle’s. All of the valvegear – pushrods, rockers and valvestems – is outside the engine cases, and lubricated by a total loss oil pump that was operated by the rider with a plunger.
It’s no surprise that boardtrackers were in one big hurry to get to the checkered flag. Between having your hearing permanently shattered, being sprayed with hot oil, having a leather plank pounded up your ass, and having yellow and blue flames shooting right out the left side of the motor into your lap – getting to the line first was a matter not of competition, but of not wanting to spend one more second astride the beast than one had to, regardless of what anybody else on the track might have been doing at the time in question.
There are British bikes galore – ancient, rare and one-offs – Vincents, Nortons, Triumphs, Scotts, Norvins, Panthers, Brough Superiors, Sunbeams, Douglases, Ariels, Matchlesses and so it goes.
There is an entire room full of Yamaha race bikes, dozens of TZ250s and 350s, a handful of TZ750s, all stuffed into three display cases ten feet above the floor.
There are “Investment Biker” Jim Rogers’ around-the-world motorcycles – he’s a local boy. The bikes look completely spent and like if their wheels had gone round one more time they would fallen into their individual atoms.
There is a stunning complete and perfect condition collection of nearly every small displacement Ducati ever made. Of course the Barber has the Big Bore Ducs we all know, too. Tossed in for Italian spice are gem-like bikes made by Mazerati, several Moto Morinis, and the expected Motoguzzi Falcone and all of its later cousins with the twin that the company reused from a lightweight military 4 wheel drive contraption.
Beemers? Yeah, they got beemers. I suspect that the Barber and BMW NA have some sort of cozy relationship as a byproduct of the many unique bikes the museum supplied to BMW’s “The Art of the Motorcycle”. In addition to all of their classics – singles, sidecars, and many old twins – there are also two brand new bikes which exemplify the “beat of a different drummer” design theory the company now cleaves to – a checkerboard K12RS and a new R1150GS.
But enough, go visit the place. Or wait for me to write the book. But I keep raving on and on, I’ll never get my new K12 back to its garage.
The previously mentioned hirsute hat check girl was kind enough to take a picture of me with “my favorite bike”. When he asked me pick one, I had a sort of petit-mal seizure at the mere thought of having to select one from the hundreds there. I pulled my Aerostich on, and eventually got a portrait using MV Row for a backdrop.
When I got outside, I got a brief look at the rainstorm that was heading for its rendezvous with the guys from Little Rock. It looked genuinely threatening, but I just had the feeling if I could beat it out of town, it might be the last I’d see of it. With the sssshripp of a few strategic pieces of Velcro located on my suit and my gauntlets, I got back in the saddle, slammed through downtown Birmingham, and found US78 headed out across Northwestern Alabama and from there into Mississippi. I hit a few brief sprinkles while headed out of town, then broke clear into a unexpectedly and unseasonably cool and cloudy day. Birmingham quickly dissolved into seeming endless green rolling hills. I found a CD with some Allman Brothers Band on the changer, cued up Ramblin’ Man, and put that hammer down.
I ran till I ran out of gas – the tank I’d taken on with my peach keychain in Bremen, Georgia. The sign said Tupelo, Mississippi, and I coasted off the interchange and into a gas-and-convenience-store joint. I tanked up, and got my road usual.
That’s something which I guess bears some explaining, and along with that, the proper assignment of blame.
The first time I ever went traveling on a motorcycle, I took an R75/5 from Baltimore to Albuquerque. In the middle of day 2 of a three-day transcontinental blast, my riding partner and I stopped at a McDonalds in Okhahoma City, right across from tinker Air Force Base. Eating one’s lunch looking out the window at a B-52 that’s been mounted like a kid’s model airplane and looks like its coming right at you is not the sort of thing that says “whyncha relax and set a spell.” So we pounded fast food and boogied back for the bikes.
For lunch, I think I had something like two quarter-pounders with cheese.
And some fries.
And a Coke.
What happened next was extreme, and bike-life changing.
Riding across Oklahoma does not have to be a relaxing thing. In this particular case, headed West on I-40, with a constant 35 m.p.h. wind coming out of the southwest, it certainly was not. Our bikes were having to maintain a 25 degree list to maintain a straight heading against this quartering wind, and frankly, we were getting the living shit beaten out of us by this road, this day.
Exertion, massive amounts of ground beef, and caffeinated drinks are an optimally lousy combination. Although I know this now, I didn’t know it then. The amount of blood and energy that one ties up in the gut trying to digest a coupla these gut bombs is sufficient to starve off other important muscles and oh, also, your brain.
At the border between Oklahoma and Texas, there is a rest area that says that Interstate highway engineers know that this place was notable because of wind. The picnic tables had wind deflectors made of stone and corrugated steel. We rolled in, killed switched ’em, yanked our helmets and lay down on the benches behind the stone wall.
There have been very few times in my life where I have seriously considered suicide, but this was definitely one of them.
We didn’t take our own lives, and we didn’t die, either.
So after a long time without moving or speaking, listening to the shriek if the prairie wind, my riding partner and I slowly came back to ourselves, and the reality that our destination was still 400 or so miles to the west, and that those motorcycles were the only way to get there from the godforsaken here.
Once we got west of Tucumcari, the environment eased up on us, spirits raised a bit, but the lesson of those West Texas stones never left me.
Hence, “the road usual”.
When riding long distances, I never eat anything that I need to work to digest. A good breakfast in the a.m. just feeds into light snacks like nuts, cheese or jerky and lots of fluids – juices, iced tea – never Cokes. So “the road usual” is usually a small pouch of cashews, some cheese and crackers and one or two Snapple Peach Teas. Fill up the bike, eat a “road usual”, empty the rider, and ride another 250 miles.
It’s a system.
Anyway, there I was, in Tupelo, Mississippi, finishing off the “road usual”, and then throttling up and rolling the Big K back toward the highway.
On the shoulder opposite the gas station entrance was a state highway marker.
“Elvis Birthplace. 2.5 miles”
“Aw, heck,” I thought. “I’m on nobody else’s schedule, and to pass it by must be some sort of criminal act.”
So I rolled under the interstate, and through the village of Tupelo. After passing the two gas stations, the diner and a grocery, there was another State Highway Tablet pointing me left onto a side street. I slowed to a walking pace as the street led though a residential neighborhood to small, green park. In the middle of the park, among several weeping willow trees, was an absolutely tiny, stark white little building.
A front porch, an open door, a front room, a back room and you were out in the back yard again. When those who would tell the tale of Elvis’ life say humble – speaking of the house in which he was born – they do the house a favor it does not really deserve. I’ve spent a little time with travel trailers – we joke about being trailer trash – and trailer trash looks like a big step up from this little house. That from this beginning, this man could end up as a king in this world is a surreal story. And looking though the windshield at this tiny little house really drove the message home in a way that reading about it – even here – never can.
I sat there for a few minutes – drinking in the place, savoring the flavor. There’s a small bronze of an 8 year old Elvis with a first guitar – a sweet fantasy. I shook myself back awake from the reverie, and decided it was time to catch my mystery train.
Memphis was calling.
So we come right back to where we started.
We’ve done it right here. And we do it every time.
So I’m rolling up Lamar Boulevard with “Memphis in the Meantime” pumpin, the big river just ahead, and the end of the day’s ride in sight. I pulled into the Days Inn on the river where I had made my reservation. I pulled my bike under their porch, next to the end of a line of Harley Glides – Wide, Low and Cow.
“No worries, here. This will be the last bike stolen, if they start to go.”
A nice lady with full southern twang processed me in, gave me the scoop on the day’s “Memphis in May” activities, and told me how to hook up with the free shuttle that ran between the joint and the base of Beale Street.
Forty minutes or so later, I’d had a nice hot shower, a smoke, pulled the top level kinks out of my neck, and found a fresh polo shirt and a clean pair of jeans. I hopped the elevator downstairs, glid out the door into a waiting van, spent 40 seconds or so in reverse appreciation of Memphis pavement and the related happy thought of my $800 magnesium wheels parked safely elsewhere, and then alighted on the End of Beale Street its Bad Self.
I know what I like, and BB King’s Beale Street Blues Club is on the short list. The food is good, the bartenders know why you ordered your drink and pour accordingly, and the waitresses represent the frothy whipped crème skimmed from the top of Memphis’ Genie Bottle of Female Beauty. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I shudder to think about the hiring process for hostesses and waitresses at BB’s – it seems like everybody that works there is built to the same formula. These lovelies are tall, with long, long legs. Curvy – voluptuously so, wonderfully spherical everywhere it’s desirable. Long hair, smooth faces… These dark honey colored maidens are almost enough to keep your attention off the music, but not quite.
The music is always top notch, whether its local boys or national touring acts. The instrumentation is pretty consistent – there’s a big Hammond B-3 on the right side of the stage, and the vibrato chording is at the heart of my understanding of the Memphis sound. There’s horn guys – saxophones, trumpets, trombones — wailin’. One or two guitar players – having to share the space with many framed photos of the boss in his transports of the blues, and replicas and precursors of “Lucille” – BB’s guitar – hanging on the walls everywhere. And a constant parade of singers – Men, Women – all excellent, with the guts and the gravel that also are the Memphis hallmarks. I have never seen anybody in that club that didn’t give it everything they had and a little more besides, and that didn’t leave me wrung out, sweaty and breathless when it was over.
So it was another night in BB’s on Beale Street – I was seated in the corner window overlooking Beale to the right of the stage, and there was as much goin’ on outside the window as there was inside. The singer that night was wonderful, a woman that liked to swap outfits and musical genres with equal regularity and startling facility. She was dripping wet with exertion and spent a lot of time wading into the audience, dancing with and hugging the patrons and talking with folks on-mike in between numbers. After she had done this a half dozen times, and the average age was about 78, and the average home zip code worked out to just west of Oslo, Norway, I had something I like to think of as “an aversion experience”.
The aversion experience occurs when the essential incongruity or distastefulness of the situation looms larger than the situation itself. If the “AE” has a motto, it would be “Icky, Icky, Icky!”
BB King, the man, is someone that I admire and love in the same way that many look at folks like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa – he shows the obvious sign of the operation of the divine spirit in the material world.
But in BB’s that night, I ickyed.
“Oh my god,” I thought, “BB’s isn’t a blues club anymore… it’s become a theme park for strange old white people who speak Scandinavian. I gotta go.”
I paid off for my steak and crawfish and the few beers, and headed down Beale towards where the street performers were working an impromptu stage under the marquis of a movie theater. Two guys were getting’ gritty with a steel top guitar, a harmonica and some spoons. They sang a few numbers in a way that tolerated some help from me, and a I felt real good after dropping a few bucks in the guitar case and heading back towards the end of the street where I could catch a ride back to a bed that was starting to seem like a good idea to the body that had ridden 500 plus miles that day.
I spent a few minutes looking in the windows of “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” at a rockabilly band that brought the Ickies back in one big hurry. It was time to sleep, and be ready for the road in the morning.
Cheap hotels all do the same thing in the morning. There’s a table somewhere off the lobby with some coffee. Some Orange juice. A few boxed doughnuts. And if you’re lucky, maybe some yogurts, some cereal and some fruit. This one was cheap, this one was no exception, and two danishes and some juice and coffee later my bike was headed up the onramp again.
Today was a day for making tracks, and western Tennessee is good for that. I beat feet up US79, another sterling example of a 4 lane US limited access highway. Flat to rolling green country, very few and gentle curves – good for bringing the bike up on the pipe and running up top. The bike was now showing about 8,000 miles on the odo, and after one evening and one day of gentle running, it was time to really seat those rings. On acceleration onto the highway, fully warmed, I started shifting the bike at about 7,000 rpm, letting the big K show off the whole rush that it had available, and then settling in at a cruise RPM of around 4200 – good for about 95 indicated BMW miles per hour, or about 85 real miles per hour.
A bit more than an hour later, I came to the cut-off for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The skinny on this place is that the Army Corps of Engineers now runs a pair of Hydroelectric Dams on two formally parallel rivers that became two huge hydro lakes. When the lakes were created, they turned the land between them into an isolated wilderness, and the Federal Government paid to have the families there relocated because it had become too inaccessible. Their loss is our gain, as the wilderness area is now where the National Park Service has its mother herd of breeding bison for supporting the rest of the parks. So if you elect to take your bike there, just be aware that there are several corners towards the southern end of the park where you could conceivably pick ‘er up out of a corner to see a thundering herd of bison in view. SO keep your cool and hold your line, they are behind fences to keep you from having to tangle with the tonnage, but the sound and the dust are real.
The LBL road – there is only one and could really only be one – is about 40 miles of gently curving road that is a touring or sporting rider’s delight. It connects the historical areas – old farms, a church and graveyards – and the many camping and fishing locations that now make up the park. On my trip, I had the experience of coming up behind a huge double column of Harleys at the southernmost entrance to the area. The troop contained perhaps 60-80 riders, running nose to tail, side by side, and at maybe 45 miles per hour. I stalked them for 5 or 6 corners, and when a long straight came up, I shifted down to second gear and rolled her WFO. In less than a second, I had done almost half of them, and by the time the count of 3 came up, I had already swing the K back into my lane, shifted up to 4th and was trying to gradually scrub off speed while at the same time ensuring that a meaningful gap opened up between myself and my gleamingly chromed yet agonizingly slow riding brethren. I have no doubt that some of them gave me colorful new nicknames that day, and I understand how that might have happened, but had I not done the 80 hawg pass, I might be somewhere in Kentucky, still trying to get home.
As rolling thunder slowly disappeared from my rearview mirrors, I settled into a wonderfully relaxing rhythm of lefts and rights, punctuated by an occasionally tighter corner that would make me have to apply a little more English, obtain a little more lean, and the gas it, grin, and start again. Despite the mass of this motorcycle, I felt like the wing-footed God of so many motorbike magazine stories. All in all, I likely averaged higher than the 50 MPH speed limit that I remember, but it was safe, sane and plenty of fun. It was a little jewel that shone in the middle of this day, and it was not a happy sight when the dams appeared in the distance ahead.
Right outside the top of the Federal area, one picks up the Western Kentucky Parkway, which is a wonderfully maintained, scenic, fast and safe road. The goal was to make miles that day, and miles were made. I achieved that wonderful zen-like state with the “aooooooooummmmm” coming from the sound of the motor echoing back from the lands we were traveling through.
The Western Kentucky becomes the Blue Grass Parkway at one point but little else changes about the road. I remember coming out of warp long enough to do a short stretch of controlled access roadway coming through Lexington, and being sore amazed by the farms, buildings and lands owned by the breeders of thoroughbred horses. Round white and green painted barns, bright in the sunshine, standing out from the background of the bluegrass. The animals themselves – looking mythological with impossible mixtures of grace, speed, awareness and power. Brilliantly white painted rail fencing stretching out to the horizon.
I suspect this is an okay place to be a horse.
Back out of Lexington, it’s Interstate 64, and it’s a race to the Ohio River, to Huntington West Virginia, and to beat the sunset to the parking lot. As 64 beats east, the terrain gets more mountainous and technical – big sweepers start making their appearance. Its maybe a hundred and twenty miles up to Huntington, and coming after the first 500 miles of your day, its going to tell a lot about what kind of motorcycle this is, and what kind of rider I am. But I feel loose and relaxed in the saddle, the bike is handling with precision and agility in this fast curvy mountain terrain, and my constant time/distance mental math tells me we’ll beat the sun to the Ohio river by about half an hour, give or take.
The nice folks at the Huntington Holiday Inn are kind enough to let me pull the bike up on the sidewalk just outside their main entrance, where it is visible from the reception desk. I check the odometer — its 600 miles in round numbers for the day. The desk folk recommend a pub which is right across from the hotel. I grab a quick shower and cross the street.
I am no stranger to the town of Huntington, West Virginia. By one of those strange violations of the laws of probability and space/time, my high school roommate’s – a man from Huntington, West Virginia — best friend was the roommate of my best friend in College. So this guy, that I had heard tales about for 2 years, shows up coincidentally in my first dorm party in college. A small world moment. People from Baltimore take these small world moments in stride though, ‘cause in Baltimore — jokingly referred to for this reason as Smalltimore — the social threads are always coming back together in weird, unanticipated and sometimes distasteful, disquieting ways.
So I grabbed a booth in the aforementioned pub, which was a temple to the athletic prowess of hometown Marshall University. I had a small steak and a salad and Two Bass ales which I must admit felt real good going down. I went back to the room, phoned the girlfriend and the kids, and thought about getting home. There is a tiny bit of West Virginia less than ten miles from my house, but there was nearly 400 miles of West Virginia in between that point and this. John Denver was right about West Virginia, tomorrow’s ride would be heaven, and getting home was starting to sound pretty good. I slept the sleep of the righteous that night.
The next morning’s Weather Channel gab looked a little unsettled. It was going to be a question of luck and timing as to whether I’d get drowned wet this day. There was a strong set of storms along a front that was moving east to west, on a track that ran roughly from Myrtle Beach to Little Rock. Given what I’d seen this far from the Joe Bltsflks of the Road Motorcycle Club, it just figured.
I-64 East from Huntington to Charleston is just like I-64 west of Huntington, except that one is climbing back away from the river, instead of heading down towards it. Once one rounds Charleston, though, things change rather markedly, and this change is altogether positive, and frankly why we came home this way. Interstate 79 is a relatively recent addition to the Interstate Highway Inventory – only having been completed around 1980 or so. It is a high tech road design, and if someone didn’t know, one might think you were in Switzerland, with north and southbound roadbeds, in some places, built on opposite sides of mountain and stream valleys. There are marked grades, and wonderfully designed corners that, in the fat part of the K-bike’s top gear, are as close to a racetrack handling experience as any sane person should ever attempt on an 800+ pound motorcycle. The bike and I were achieving wondrous leans at speed, and it felt perfectly stable and perfectly rigid at these high levels of cornering load. After about 40 miles of this high intensity Interstate, I hit a rest area to admire the view and to check my equipment.
At the rate of speed I had been maintaining, my brand new front tire was getting absolutely shredded – there was a visible zone to the left and right sides of the tire where the cornering loads were just vaporizing the tire – folks that go to racetracks know exactly what this looks like, with rubber shedding off the tire like black lint at the tread edges. I resolved to adopt a bit mellower pace, on the grounds that conserving a new front tire was probably advisable. After backing off about 7 MPH, and checking again 20 miles up the road, the rapid erosion had stopped. Unknown to me, tire temperatures were about to completely stop being a problem.
At Weston, West Virginia, I left the interstate highway system for the rest of the trip, and got into what was the most pleasant and technical riding of the road so far. Mid-atlantic bikers all know about US33, and the wonderful roads that run off from it in the Monongahela National Forest. Now that I’ve told you, of course, I am going to have to kill you. The mountains here get as high as they ever do east of the Mississippi, and the old National Forest Roads with their motorcycle friendly bordering stone walls have grade after grade, switchback after switchback, and views that if you succumb to gazing at them, will surely result in you’re becoming part of them permanently and your immediate demise, in that order. These are assuredly not roads for the inexperienced or the timid, that is for sure. There were several times that after working through a sequence of several corners I’d end up set up for the 7th or 8th one in a way that just wasn’t going to work, and I’d end up mentally dope-slapping myself, jamming the brakes and a downshift, and rolling the throttle and trying to mentally clench myself back into the proper state of total focus.
A few miles before 33 runs out of steam at Seneca Rocks, it opens back up into a straight open road. As I boosted off the top of one hill, the sky above the next one went suddenly black, and the cars coming in the other direction went suddenly very wet. When the road entered a small town, there was 2-3 inches of water running in the streets, but the rain had already stopped. Coming in off the highway into town and hitting the standing water produced a bow wave and roostertail just like a water skiing tow boat, very scenic and unnecessarily exciting. And that’s how I spent the rest of my day…chasing rainstorms. The rains were localized, heavy, and whenever I got to one, it had already gone. After a while, it got downright spooky. I mean, one expects that in a day of scattered showers, you’re always going to do some serious getting rained on — it just is part of the deal. When it goes just the other way – I never did get rained on – it just seems unnatural, is all. So I spent a lot of time on wet or extremely wet roads that day, but never did get rained on.
The road, as it comes into Seneca Rocks, starts to really tighten up. The highway follows an old creek bed, and it winds and winds and hardly makes any headway in a specific direction. It sure is fun on motorcycles, but I suspect it isn’t much good for actually getting places, at least with any kind of efficiency.
When I got to Seneca Rocks, it was really time to stretch some, so the bike went on the sidestand in the parking lot that sits at the base of the rocks, I fished out a cheesy digital camera that a vendor at work had dropped off, and walked the trail, saw the rocks and took some shots. I think I even smoked a cigarette, which is something I hardly ever do, but stimulants seemed to be something that might prove increasingly necessary as the road took me towards home.
West Virginia 55 is a lovely little road that I also probably shouldn’t tell you about, but I’ve blown it now. It’s a tight, technical road that follows streams and canyons through Pendleton, Grant and Hardy Counties. For at least 60 miles, I never got into top gear, and was spending most of my time with the revs up in third. 55 hardly ever straightens out, and I did get into the zone, just enjoying the road, my lines, the fact that the sun had finally reappeared, and not wanting this run to ever end. Given that speeds were down, and that this little snake of a road probably takes 10 linear miles of switchbacks and sweepers to cover 4 crow-flies miles, for a while it seemed like it never would, too.
55 finally crosses over into Virginia at Middletown, near where Interstates 81 and 66 meet. I went up 81 for one or two exits to pick up US340, which leads though Frederick, Clark and Loudoun Counties straight to my front door, Every great bike trip I’ve ever had ends up on this road –I end up decompressing and playing back the road joy as home and my sweet girl come back into focus. That last hour on 340 – my first run to Memphis, my trips to the Georgia Mountain Rallies, the Skyline Drive rides, my day out with Glen and the sportbike crew – they’ve all ended here. I’ve done this run so many times I have pet names for individual bumps and bits of gravel. Now if you ride more than a little you know familiarity is not your friend – you’re more likely to get whacked someplace you feel comfortable and secure – so after 1700 miles of mountains, these straight runs through meadowlands were probably the most hazardous of the trip.
Then, the sidestand, the driveway and an amazing and total quiet after the kill switch. I walked around the bike, which after its pristine cleanliness at the beginning of this ride was hard to see in the road grime, mud and bugs of the last few days. Badges of honor, all, and surely signs of more to come. A large puddle of water formed under a vacuum line under the right saddlebag – a K-bike quirk that was a mystery to me at the time. The line pulls vacuum through the fuel evaporative emissions system canister. It’s a great idea in a car, where the inlet can be shielded from the weather somewhere. But on a BMW motorcycle – which inevitably involves a stupid BMW bike guy that doesn’t know enough to stop riding when it really starts to rain – its probably not such a great idea. Said Stupid BMW bike guys inevitably shitcan the entire system as soon as the bike comes out of warrantee. What has happened to mine subsequently is something we shall not discuss.
Anyway, having been running in standing water for at least 300 miles of the day, my new K bike had snuffled up quite the snorkleful of water, and looked like nothing more than a really big dog marking territory – “sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”.
“Geez,” I thought to myself, “I hope it doesn’t always do that.”
But that driveway was its territory, and the appropriateness of the gesture had a certain resonance and humor for me. Both me, and that bike, were home.
The big K, which I now jokingly refer to as “Darkside” is out there still, has been down 30,000 miles of road since that day, and is likely to be out there till hell has its own hockey team unless some misfortune befalls one or other of us, for it has turned into another trusted and faithful friend of the road.
And just in case you were wondering, you can keep a bike too clean – the front wheel bearing sets were degreased dry and had to be repacked at the first tire change.
Now that one story is written, another story needs to be ridden, to be lived. I’ve put in my time, tweaking wheels and brakes, changing fluids and making subtle adjustments. Tires are fresh, oil is clean, the tent checks out and the machine is as ready as I am for the road.
BB’s does make a mean fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, and one is starting to sound awful good right now. Is Colorado on the way to Memphis?