Harp Hill and Harmony

I don’t know about you, but I am just not feeling it these days.

I can’t remember a time when my spirit has been under so many concurrent manifestations of psychic and emotional assault.

I have never really been into all black motorcycles, but all of a sudden I know where those riders are coming from.

‘Cause black is how it feels, man.

 

***

 

Last week the firm for which I work had the end of their fiscal year. Instead of the usual celebration it was a funeral.

And funerals sort of require that at least someone is departed.

So a fair number of my fellow workers involuntarily departed to satisfy that requirement.

Don’t let people tell you that it feels better to have been kept on, cause its different for everyone.

Did I mention this the third time this year?

 

***

 

For the entire summer, this part of Maryland has been lacking for rain.

In the last six days, we caught up.

More accurately caught up, did the slingshot pass coming out of the slipstream and then won going away.

Six days of gutter rattling, gully washing, roof pounding, pissing off Booosy my cat constant rain.

Is the sun ever going to come out?

 

***

 

Have you turned on your television news lately?

If you have not, please take my well-intentioned advice, and under no circumstances should you do that.

You will thank me, of that I am certain.

I was educated in a tradition which required that those with the skills should serve the greater good.

That those with the skills to lead, for example, should seek that opportunity.

Apparently, that memo was not widely circulated.

Of this dark thing, we shall speak no more.

 

***

 

I got a series of texts, pictures, and a phone call from one very cold, very wet Finn who had just discovered just how insistent gravity can be when you and everything around you are soaking wet and slippery.

Freaketh out not, Finn’s Manifold Adoptive Uncles and Aunties, as this Physics Lesson was learned at 0 miles per hour, and resulted in no injuries except perhaps to pride. Regardless of how it happened the net result was a Buell Blast lying down on its left side to take a brief nap in the parking garage of Finn’s apartment.

Twice.

It would figure when the poor kid was trying to get in a rhythm living away at school that Nature and Physics would conspire to provide a another minor bummer.

And after a brief conversation about how he was likely not the first person to whom this had happened, I pointed out there was a very good reason his old man had put that slip joint pliers into the tool kit that Buell hadn’t provided.

To wit: Anything that can be bent, can, within limits and with a little luck, be unbent.

And that this was a skill that, once developed, was likely to be used more than just this time.

So Finn set to unbending, and I set to renewing my friendship with my local Harley-Davidson Parts Counterman, to seek a more permanent solution.

Hey, if the whole economy goes loose in the rear end, I can now put One Half A Harley-Davidson Mechanic as a skill on my resume.

One never knows what the difference might be between making it and not, eh?

 

***

 

Maybe the difference might be just a slice of one sunny day.

Sunday saw Sweet Doris From Baltimore (SDFB?) headed off to one of the cluster of wedding and baby showers that seem to be happening now.

After some puttering around, and having an egg, I pulled on some armoured mesh riding pants over my cargos, grabbed my Vanson and headed for the garage.

The whole point was trying to blast out the funk I was in, so I made sure to get out of any riding rut I might be in, too.

Having not been that way for a while, I headed for the mountains of the North County.

 

***

 

Just past Middletown, Harmony Road breaks East towards the Catoctins.

Harmony is a little dance of road, starting with a series of gentle esses, then a series of lovely 90s. With some heat in the Boxer, the noise riding the throttle between 4 and 6 K, rolling off on entries and picking the bike up with revs on the exit, was just racetrack electric.

An observation: Human beings respond negatively to six days of rain. Gnats and mosquitos, in contrast, do not.

I have been routinely bugsplatted.

This, on the otherhand, was something else — insect carnage on an unprecidented level.

Harmony Road crosses US40 — The National Pike — and works its way, one sweeper at a time, up the back side of the Catoctin Mountains. With the S running 4th gear with the revs just below the engine’s best power it was an exercise in road reading — leaning over and back smoothly and just straightening out the road’s gentle curves.

Harmony drops one off in a little village that sits by Catoctin Creek. It has a name that I’ve forgotten and that Google doesn’t know. The intersection ranks as one of the screwiest and most dangerous ones that I can think of, at least from the perspective of a Motorcyclist. Harmony Ts into Maryland Route 17, which immediately — IMMEDIATELY! — breaks 45 degrees left to go across the bridge over Catoctin Creek. Upon exiting the short bridge one encounters another T — with Harp Hill Road breaking off gently up the hill to one’s left, while 17 comes in from a Sucker-punch invisible 110 degrees over ones right shoulder — and the view of the highway is blocked from the bridge by its Jersey barrier sides.

Attention should indeed be paid — a mistake here would be ugly.

But assuming you survive the intersection, Harp Hill is just a treat — it clings to the right side of a mountain stream Valley with amazing green views of the Valley’s farms stretching off to the right below you. One rides curves of the rising land on the way up — negotiates a kind of ‘reverse carousel’ with a crazy uphill grade on the exit — and then crests the ridgeline and rides the curves of the falling land on the way back down to where the road enters the Town of Wolfsville.

From Wolfsville one takes Stottlemyer Road, which continues to wind its way North down a gentle ridgeback, with the road taking you though forest shade and open farmland. Stottlemyer runs into Maryland 77, about two miles down the road from the American Legion Camp where the local BMW Club has always held its rallies.

I’m not going that way today, though, and I cut eastward down the face of the Mountain towards Thurmont. There are a few spectacular corners that run through the massive boulders — souvenirs, no doubt of some long-gone glacier — that fill the forest here. There are also too many tourists here to see the Catoctin National and Cunningham Falls State Parks, so I quickly jump back off 77 onto Catoctin Hollow Road, heading for the deepest of our deep woods.

Once clear of the Cunningham Falls State Park Lake Area, Catoctin Hollow quickly turns rough, with limited sightlines, as it runs though small farms that have probably sat on that mountain since the late 1700s. There are a lot of very large trees very close to the road. It’s the sort of road one rides with one’s weight on one’s legs, staying light in the saddle to clear bumps and to steer by selectively weighting the pegs.

I remember right then, my favorite navigational accident, and make the right onto Old Mink Farm Road. Old Mink Farm looks like nothing — a one laner that looks like it could be a glorified farm driveway — the type of road that you head down and end up having to come back. Mink Farm Road, though, takes one to Tower Road, the Frederick Watershed, and Gambrill State Park — a more or less straight shot down the mountainous backbone of the county, though its deepest forests, through Bear County, and straight back towards home.

In the deepest part of the Forest, the road goes into Wilderness preservation areas, and where there is an ‘Ecology Retreat Center’ and a Quaker Church Camp, the road goes back to being unpaved. These ancient Maryland mountain roads are a mixture of clay and crushed limestone, which after six straight days of deluge, are now an interesting riding surface. About 95 percent slick wet clay mud and 5 percent F-150 swallowing water filled chuckholes. It’s a road that keeps one’s throttle hand honest and demands ones’ full directional attention. Another road that dictates some form of horsemanlike riding standing knees bent. That road also likely explains why almost no-one come up here, so I have to be glad for that.

After about 4 miles of traction school, Mink Farm Road comes back to pavement where it changes to Tower Road, and then the fun really begins. Tower Road is uneven in a way that shakes out one’s suspension — short bumpy straights separated by serial switchbacks and then the whole thing repeats. For about 15 miles of Forest one can imagine oneself in the old public road Raceways of Europe. Just one’s bike and the road and all the hazards yours alone to manage. The S is in its intended habitat here — wheels at both ends moving/working — with the aeromotor bark and drone of the motor echoing back from forest around me.

It it really so far from here to the Nordschleife?

 

***

 

Like all time this time also goes by too fast, and I find myself back in my own South Middletown Valley — I’m cutting up Broad Run Road towards my town and my home — winding fourth gear out to 6000 before ringing the shift into top and running WFO towards the last sweeping curve before town. The S shows what it has pulling hard as 90 and 95 sweep past. The old thoroughbred touches the ton before I have to give throttle back to set for the turn.

Through town we gently troll — cooling off and shutting petcocks to drain the fuel from carburetor bowls. I roll up to the garage entry, shift into neutral and roll the throttle once — then twice. The carbs seem well balanced — response is even and swift.

Is there a bit more top end noise than perfect? Perhaps.

But when I’m as old as this motorcycle is in motorcycle years, I hope a little top end noise is all I have to worry about.

As long as this motorcycle and I both keep starting well every morning, and get to take rides like this one every once in a while, then maybe there’s just no room for the blues.

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Road Narrows

Sometimes you just gotta go slow.

I don’t know about you, but I do anyway.

My oldest offspring, Devin, is a ‘different drummer’ dude.

That’s cool.

Anyway, Devin showed up one day with a green rubber turtle on the dashboard of his Corolla.

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“What’s up with the turtle?” I asked.

“People got all kinds of bad attitudes out on the highway, man.

I want to BE the turtle. I’m not in a hurry, man.”

My boy may live a long life or a short one, but I know he won’t go by hitting somebody else with his car.

So now every time I reach for the throttle or punch a pedal in what might be anger, I try to BE the turtle.

The turtle has changed my life.

 

***

 

Its been unspeakably hot and unbearably humid the last little while, in that wonderful way for which the Baltimore-DC area is justifiably famous.

Walk to the mailbox come back soaking wet, what the hell is this New Orleans or somethin’ stinking hot.

Its been spooky quiet too, ’cause every other citizen of Maryland ‘cept me is is in Ocean City on vacation spooky.

Saturday, I mowed half my lawn, cause it was too damn hot to mow it all.

After getting myself thoroughly heated up, there’s one way to cool down that works better than anything else.

Air moving all over my body dries me out much better than heading inside an air conditioned room.

So I powered up my boxer motor powered ventilation pal, and headed for the coolest, shadiest place I know.

 

***

 

My old Toaster Tank /5 is my only naked, unfaired motorcycle. For hot weather duty its really the only choice.

It also has the original 750 cc small valve heads, grafted on to the top of a 900 cc bottom end, so it has remarkable — winning rally slow races riding two up tractoring along with my hand off the throttle — low speed manners.

Perfect.

So I rolled down Harley Road, then headed for Bennies Hill.

In BEING the turtle, I somehow felt inspired to be IN my environment, instead of trying to sonic boom shatter my way through it.

My field of vision widened. I was seeing things I usually would not see.

I suspect that lots of folks that cover distance offroad get into this meditative space — seeing all of the path ahead stretched to a full 360 view.

The universe presented me with a sign.

 

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I found this funny. In my wider view the road was indeed narrowing.

Then the universe had another sign.

 

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The turtle found the 5 mph warning even funnier. Maybe the turtle was a little loopy from dehydration.

How many of you have 5 mph warnings on the roads you ride?

I telescoped my view back out to the wide angle, drinking in the warning in the middle of that beautiful ridgeline.

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I dropped across the bridge and down onto the unpaved section that runs along the creek.

I came upon three road bicyclists — which was kinda unusual because drop bar and slick tire pedaling types would usually avoid this kind of surface — who all passed by on the single laner close enough to exchange pleasantries.

I announced myself, sticking to the same courtesy I try to promote when I’m on the C&O Canal towpath on my bicycle.

“Passing Left!”

“Oh, hi!”

“Thanks for announcing yourself — didn’t hear your bike…”

“Nice ride!”

I pulled off from the wheelpersons, and got zoned out in the sticky greenness of it all. I turtled back to Siegler Road, where I tractored down into the stream and out the other side, enjoying the breezy slowness of it all.

As I rolled back on to good pavement I stayed down a gear and down a lot of throttle from my normal approach to these secondary highways. I was just really cooling off from my exertion and so resolved to take the long way home — turning down towards the Potomac instead of back the draw towards Jefferson.

I couldn’t get over the post-apocalyptic emptiness of the roads. In rush hour these rural roads are sometimes congested, but today I was by myself, which was another reason to slow down and be here now.

The hills leading down to the Potomac are thankfully still forested.

The view of the dark shaded ribbon of double yellow-striped tar macadam dropping down the deep green forested hillside was mesmerizing.

My turtlevision went full widescreen. Time slowed to a stop.

And that’s probably why I saw the bear.

Black bears hereabouts are not unknown.

But this was the first time I seen one in Maryland while I was on the road.

He was a rangy teen-ager — all legs flailing and skinny — and he appeared running through the woods well off to my left.

Seeing no cars ahead of me and no cars behind me, I just rolled off the throttle and enjoyed the unexpected show.

Bear boy had a destination in mind. His uneven lope carried him down the hill through the woods — if he’d been an engine, he’d have been a triple — across the road in front of me — paying me no heed whatsoever — and back up the hill on the other side, through the trees and right out of sight.

I gave a LooneyTunes cartoon shake of amazement — with appropriate mental sound effects — of my helmeted head.

“A bear.”

I turned the toaster for home. For a hot slow afternoon, I’d have a story to tell.

Great Blue

People keep telling me it will be summer before you know it.

So, unsurprisingly, while I was out for a short lunchtime ride yesterday, summer began at 12:39 p.m. exactly with no advance notice whatsoever.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

***

My daughter Wallis — 21 and just out of college — just opted out of the ‘living-in-Mom’s-basement-millenial-brigade’ by puchasing a condo.

Wallis looks to be a real go-getter.

What this means to motorcycling people, though, is that for the last two months or so she’s been going all ‘American Pickers’ and adopting any piece of furniture out of barns and off curbsides that looked like it could be rendered functional and/or attractive through liberal application of power sanders and pigment.

These bits of potential-furniture have — of necessity — been parked in my garage.

This is a garage — in the way of restatement — where in normal times two airhead BMWs, one full dress K-bike, a Buell Blast and a home- built teardrop camper all cohabitate in a tighly choreographed storage ballet.

The system is designed to all allow all vehicles to exit the garage with a minimum — if any — rearrangement.

Throw a couple of kitchen tables, benches, chairs and sawhorses used for refinishing in there, though, and that system goes straight to hell.

Net/net is that my Slash 5 — which normally occupies the rearmost position in the garage, has been trapped in place by said extended furniture refinishing project for more than several weeks.

***

Last Thursday, right in front of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, was Condo Settlement day.

Sometime over Memorial Day weekend — in the midst of an extended frenzy of condo cleaning, painting, rewiring and rebuilding — the various bits of refinished furniture began migrating between my garage and the offspring’s new abode.

So I stand there in the garage door on Tuesday morning, with the sun coming in over my shoulder, and I see a flash off the chrome at the rear of the garage. There, under some dust — there’d been a fair amount of sanding — was the Toaster, the original alloy girlfriend, looking like a woman that really needed some attention.

A aluminum woman with a newfound route out the door, son.

***

Fast forward through a morning of meetings.

I donned my armored, ventilated Vanson jacket,got my Shoei on and cinched the straps on my favorite elkskin gauntlets.

With two strides I rolled the Toaster forward and back out into the light.

I threw a leg over and settled into the saddle.

Two Petcocks Open Set Choke.

Ignition Pin Down Lights On.

The Slash 5’s starter — a component not characterized by any kind of lightness at all — slammed to action with all the subtlety of a bank vault lock. Heavy pieces of metal moving and hitting each other hard.

I’ve been very happy with the Deka AGV battery that I put in this motorcycle last season — there’s always lots of starting amperage and lots of reserve.

This motorcycle — with it’s early, tall geared starter, and hot rod 900 cc top end — is not an easy motorcycle to start.

After 6 or 7 deep, audible gasps from the R90S style ventilated airbox, the Toaster fired, stumbled a few times, cleared its throat and revved.

I am less than impressed with modern motor fuel.

At least with modern motor fuels in less than modern motor vehicles, anyway.

I rolled the bike down the driveway, swung the chokes off, toed down into first while rolling, and gassed it toward the dirt.

***

People say that the Inuit have 50 different words for snow.

It seems like motorcyclists should have at least that many for dirt.

I know the track maintenance teams at the flat track races I attendĀ  devote a great deal of thought and a very great deal of work to making sure that their dirt contains just the right amount of moisture and has just the correct texture to provide the perfect combination of traction and slide.

As good as those guys are, heading down Poffenberger Road this morning, Mother Nature was better.

We’d had some pretty extensive rainfall over the last dozen days, followed by a cold front, dropping temperatures, strong breezes and low humidity. The ruts and mud puddles I’d half expected to see were gone, and the normal, dry, dusty crushed limestone surface — normally grey — was a greyish brown – clearly indicating a higher moisture content.

If you’re a linguist that would like to take a shot at extending the ‘Biker’ language to propose a new word for ‘crushed stone which is moist but not too moist’, this is your chance.

The Slash 5 loves this road, and today that love was on full display. The front tire had just the right amount of bite — the usual hunting behavior on throttle was nowhere in evidence — and the rear could be kept hooked up or slid depending on my attitude and level of excess enthusiasm.

Catcoctin Creek – which runs alongside the road – is really more of a river than a creek, but I wasn’t there when somebody pulled the naming trigger, so we’ll just have to let that one ride. The Creek is about 60 feet wide, and maybe 18 inches deep. Today — given the rains — it was running fast and absolutely clean. I could see individual river rocks on the bottom, along with the occasional silver darting fish.

Its moments like this that completely encapsulate everthing that keeps me riding. Fresh air. Solitude. The sonic and tactile symphony of the Toaster’s Zeppelin mufflered exhaust note echoing back from the vertical cliff on the other side of the creek — the forks and swingarm working hard and as designed to track the dirt’s irregular surface as I carried about 3700 rpms worth of third gear and just under 50 mph down toward the creek crossing at the iron truss bridge.

It was then that I saw it.

Lately I’ve been enjoying DVR technology’s capability to let me sleep late on Sundays and enjoy the MotoGP broadcasts later when I’m in a more appropriate — awake! — state of mind.

The MotoGP team makes use of the most extraordinary high speed cameras I’ve ever seen. When the broadcast cuts to the high speed, its like the hand of God himself come down and turned off time — it produces this weird reverse time telescoping feeling — wheels that you know are going 205 miles an hour take seven full seconds to rotate. You can see individual spokes — chain links flying — optical illusion makes the brake rotors appear to contra-rotate.

Everything in the frame gets psychedelically vivid.

Time just damn stops.

This was kinda like that.

Standing in the stream — frozen, unmoving, refusing to have its hunt interupted by some scooting putting thing — was a Great Blue Heron.

The heron’s freeze seemed to take me over as well and it was if my motorcycle had abrubtly stopped — somebody had slapped the big red slo-mo button, and time just telescoped to a halt.

I’ve seen plenty of herons before.

This one was different.

Wikipedia or Audubon will tell you this bird doesn’t get bigger than four and half feet tall.

Since time had stopped I could visualize stepping off my stopped motorcycle, wading down into the stream, and having The Blue — seemingly haloed — at least looking five foot eight inch me right in the eye, if not looking down at me.

This bird was variegated blue – bright blue across its substantial chest and wings, and and nearly inky blue-black at its shoulders and the trailing edges of its long, wide wings. Our Blue here was showing — white plumed chest inflated to the full, neck extended to its maximum, its black stripe across its head and orange beak indicating its view towards the horizon and what’s coming.

Whether this warrior bird was of this world, or of another is something I’ll need to think upon some more before I’m able to decide.

You’re free to decide for yourself.

Then somebody slapped that big red button a second time and my motorcycle and I reappeared, moving, where the Blue had been looking, crossed the creek on the truss bridge, and motored on up the hill.

It is now the time of year when we migrate, riding sisters and brothers — the time of year when we spread great wide wings and we fly.

Dirt

There was a time, back at the dawn of it all, when dirt was all there was.

When Daimler created Einspur, there was only dirt to ride it on.

As soon as the products of Oscar Hedstrom and William S. Harley could tension leather belts and power white rubber wheels, motorcycles were sliding through corners, flinging dirt from what then was passing for roads.

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***

If it weren’t for Hoosier Carl G. Fisher — a man who was a roller if there ever was one — it might be that way still.

Carl wanted to go faster– first on bicycles, then in cars, and eventually even as a racer. And going faster and rutted mud and gravel do not naturally mix.

So Carl — enlisting some 1912 Social Networking buzz, in the form of guys like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison — conveived of The Lincoln Highway — the Transcontinental Railroad Golden Spike Moment of the Internal Combustion Universe.

A single strip of pavement that went from New York to San Francisco. That made us one nation under a dotted white highway line.

Since then, in America. We’ve been paving over pretty much every-damn-thing in sight ever since.

***

Which makes it seem funny to me that we seem to have collectively forgotten that a motorcycle started out as a better way to get down a rutted gravel road.

Look at most of the motorcycles made in the last, say 50 years, and a dirt road is clearly the furthest thing from their minds. The UJMs that made up most of the 70s and 80s. Racetrack replicas. Anything Harley Davidson. The mission was pavement, Holmes, and getting some of the aformentioned rides sliding was a recipe for quick, sharp pain.

Adventure Riders with their Farkeled-out Battlewagons have begun to pull our attention back, but close to 600 lbs of blaster is not your friend if things start to get physical in the dirt.

When making the case for the longevity and popularity of their GS line, BMW claimed that one of the reasons that riders ensured that the company would survive was because the boxers were so capable when conditions turned to crap. In making the GS, they said, they were only really recognizing how their customers used their motorcycles already.

And while my Born-in-Brooklyn Marketing BS Detector keeps spinning the blue lights and sounding that Klaxon, part of me has to admit it’s kinda true.

Right after I got the Toaster I used to run the power lines north of Baltimore’s Loch Raven with it.

It tractored right up any hill, although down was not exactly its thing.

I camped off of it — doing miles of stone roads heavily loaded in eastern parklands and out in New Mexico.

And its why when I moved out of the city, and had more modern bikes with many less miles, that it got a set of lightweight dual sport tires, and was scrambling about a decade before a Scrambler was, like, a thing.

I know now that my next set of Toaster tires need more substantial knobs.

***

My home in Frederick County Maryland is a landscape in change. It is an historically agricultural county being sligshotted into being a bedroom suburb of distant Washington and Baltimore, and a place wondering if in that process it will lose things that cannot be replaced.

One of those things are our dirt roads — rolled pea gravel roads that run alongside creekbeds and run though farm fields, that leapfrog through forest from creek to ridgeline and back along creekbeds again. Roads with stream fords, and with one lane cast iron bridges that look no different to me than they did to an aviator-googled leather helmeted guy piloting his brand new Pope, hoping to stay in the frame with his bud’s Excelsior.

There are others who feel the way I do. I am not the only one who goes to the dirt to feel something out of time, to get in touch with the world our Grandfathers, Great Grandfathers and Great Great Grandfathers knew.

***

Due to one of those sustained periods of overstimulation at work, combined with the fact that I was still spending most of my free moments splicing wiring and control parts on my R90S after its little mishap with big electricity, more than a few days had gone by without the opportunity for a ride.

I ended up having some business to attend to in Frederick, and the day seemed perfect for enjoyment of a naked, elemental motorcycle. Suitably geared up in my Vanson mesh and some canvas work pants, I rolled the Toaster out of the garage and threw a leg over. Since the recent replacement of the starter switch and battery, starting has been a determanistic, zero-drama event.

Business was swiftly dispatched, and with it my focus turned to a wander on the way home.

Running through the woods and along the creek on Roy Schaefer Road, I felt the inexorable need to leave the pavement behind.

At the intersection of Bennies Hill Road, I made the right, and promptly headed back in time.

I’ve never had a set of aviator goggles, but these little trips into the dirt and through the fabric of time seem to demand them, even if only for sci-fi nerd hero style.

bennies hill

Bennies Hill is a gravel single track that follows the path of a creek called the Cone Branch. It runs under a dense canopy of trees – made all the greener and denser by the sustained heavy rains that started our summer here. The straight stretches are all oddly off camber, and the corners that separate them are all fairly tight, providing mutiple opportunities to play with a little flat track style sliding.

The early season deluge has given way to a recent dry spell, so the surface was dry and dusty, leading to my front end seemeing a tad more skatey and wandery than usual, despite having reduced my tire pressures slightly with the dirt in mind. Dual-sport tires like these Distanzias are more about pose than actual traction — that contemplated set of Heidenau Scouts may be closer in my future than I’d been thinking.

After one tight corner, Bennie Hill has a concrete ramp bridge, something I suspect may be unique to these parts. These bridges are placed where a steam crossing used to be, and are just a strip of concrete to keep one out of the water. These bridges are designed to just submerge when flooding conditions occur, and then pop back up when the creek goes back down. I know of at least 5 of these things within 5 miles of my house.

Riding across one of these bridges feels odd — they dont have any guardrails, curbs, visible structure or obvious support. You have water on both sides of you, but your feet stay dry.

The road passes past a home its owners call Heron Hill. This was a no-brainer for them, as I’ve never ridden past the place when there wasn’t at least one Great Blue visible somewhere on the property, and today was no exception.

At the left hander coming past the Heron, I dialed in just the right amound of gas for an entertaining slide.

For a kid that never could manage to talk my Dad into a dirtbike, I now pronounce myself fully caught up.

Bennies Hill Road then comes to what I’ve always assumed was Bennies Hill. There are no packs of buxom beauties inexplicably rushing about, and the sound of Yakety Sax is fortunately nowhere in evidence. The road actually narrows, and works its way steeply down the side of a stone face. At the bottom is a 90 degree left, and the Bennies Hill Road Bridge.

The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places — it is a single lane Iron Bowstring Arch bridge — and I beleive its one of of only two remaining that are still in service where they were built — this one in 1889.

bennies hill bridge

Coming off the bridge, the road straightens out and provides one of the few places where one can get any revs up in third gear. A short chute brings me to the intersection of Harley Road.

I have never seen any Harleys on Harley Road. Given the larger gravel surface and tight, seriously rutted corners that likly result from the heavy farm tractor traffic the road carries, I don’t imagine I ever will, either.

Now if you’re a gal or guy with a Sportster, or better still an XR, with a dirty bent, you could have some fun proving me wrong. But if you have a Softail or some sort of Ultra, this is not your road.

Harley Road is fun, with long straights, a few TT-style whoops, and the aforementioned tight switchbacks. As long as one has the presence of mind to stand up and to loosen one’s grip on the bars and let the front end do what it would like, its a fun time. On the other hand, tighten up into the so -called death grip, and you may gain some experience harvesting summer corn.

Harley Road ends with a long downhill straight, where you’re treated to a vista of the cropfields the road rolls through.

***

A quick dogleg at MD 383 puts you on Poffenberger Road.

The big white house attached to a country store building on the corner of Poffenberger is The Shamieh’s old house. It was a charming foresquare — built out of recycled lumber and building materials in 1911. The main beams of the house had obviously been reclaimed from a colonial era timber-framed barn — there were adze marks on them and a few places where there were hand forged nails that could no more be removed than the sword in the stone. I had to drop a hole in one of them once for an electrical update, and I burned up three electrician’s hole bits before I was able to declare success. 300 year old oak might as well be granite. During storms that house did-not-move, unlike my modern house which practically sways in every breeze.

When our son Finn was born 18 years ago that house was a $100,000 house that needed $200,000 worth of renovations in order to accomodate our growing family.

I did the math and resignedly bought a new house in the development on the top of the next hill for substantially less than that. I don’t miss wrenching on the bones of that old house, but I do miss my neighbors, who were social and understood the meaning of community. We shared meals, watched each others children, and if you were in a jam with something involving tools helping hands had a tendency to appear unbidden. My nice house in the development is a place where people walk about with their heads down and act as if other people don’t exist.

I’ve ridden Poffenberger road so many times it becomes almost hypnotic. After blasting away from my old house, the road makes a few nice carvable sweeping corners, then drops down a big hill that turns back to dirt at the bottom. If one has been overenjoying oneself, and is carrying enthusiastic levels of speed, the unannounced swap back to all gravel can create a few moments of noticeable stimulation.

The road snakes through the woods, with tight corners providing more opportunities for sliding throttle play, dodges a few mud puddles, and comes down to Catoctin Creek and another of our Historic Bridges.

The Poffenberger Road bridge is a Truss Bridge built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton Ohio. We think it was built in the late 1870s. The Poffenberger Bridge is a more substantial bridge, built by Ohioans that took great pride in their work. All of the reinforcing filets where the beams join have floral patterns cut into them. 150 years old, still doing the work it was designed for, and looking good doing it. That you and I should be so blessed.

Poffenberger_Road_Bridge

Where the bridge crosses Catoctin Creek, the Creek is wide, clear and moving fast. I usually tarry, enjoying the clear view from the bridge’s wooden deck to the rounded stones on the creekbottom.

Coming off the bridge, Poffenberger Road follows Catoctin Creek. The road opens right up running straight alongside the creek, and its possible to put down some serious throttle and run up — throwing gravel and dust into the air behind you — smartly through the gears.

There’s a left hand sweeper at the end of the straight, and if Nixon rides with you today, you can set the bike on the left side of the tire and slide stylishly out of it.

A micro-straight leads you back to a major whoop and then a short stretch of pavement in front of a Heritage Farm that has been in that spot since the 1700s. Then we’re right back in the gravel and running another long stright along the creek that takes you to the Lewis Mill.

The Lewis Mill is a still functional gristmill, waterwheel and all, currently inhabited by a Potter friend of my Painter wife. The mill has been in that spot since the late 1780s, and inhabits the entire plain in a bend in the Creek. A more magical place I almost cannot imagine. Sitting out by the creek, listening to the water roll by and making company with farm geese, it is exactly the same now as it was two and a half centuries before.

Poffenberger Road very nearly takes one right in the front door of the mill, sitting as it does sandwiched between the Creek and the steep hill that rises to the left. The steepness of the hill and the sharpness of the corner provides opportunities for getting bent out of shape if your enthusiasm exceeds one’s available traction.

After the short, steep rise, the road breaks sharply to the left, working its way around a bluff before dropping back down to the creek. In the dirt, we laugh at the very thought of guardrails, and off the right side of the road is a dizzying view of the roughly 60 foot uninterrupted drop back to the stones of the creekbed. Slide off the right side of the road here and it will be the last riding mistake you ever make.

Poffenberger drops sharply down the other side of the bluff and one finds oneself running hard and straight beside the creek again.

At the end of the stright there is a right onto Corun Road, and a steep narrow climb up a goatpath in the woods marked by utterly blind corners. Bursting back into the sun I emerge onto MD State Highway Route 383, sitting at a stopsign and staring across a pasture right at the front of my house.

***

Sitting back in my driveway in the current century the Toaster wears laurels of the grey white dust of crushed limestone. There are seeps of oil on the oil pan, and smudges of gear oil mixed with rock dust on the rear rim and final drive.

These little trips in the dirt focus the mind — everything slows down and getting to the end with no broken bones, air still in the tires and the motor still turning with miles of crushed rock road stretching out behind still seems as much a technological miracle as it must have seemed in 1912. Travelling alone in the silence of the woods — feeling every bump and rut, throwing dirt and wrestling with traction — no other cars or trucks around — seems like such a necessary antidote to the oversubscription, overcrowding and underattention of the rest of the paved world.

Riding the dirt is an express ticket to a simpler past, to being self sufficient, self reliant, and being willing to take a shot.

With the signs all alround us that The World is Running Down, once dirt was all there was, and it could soon be so again.

Slide On, Brother, Slide On.

 

I Could Tell You, But Then I Would Have to KIll You

There are some stories that perhaps shouldn’t be shared.

50 Shades of Gray, as one purely hypothetical example.

That’s not the kind of story I’m talking about, though.

After I published a recent story which sang the praises of an obscure, meadering road in the woods, a friend of mine sent me a note.

“WHY, in God’s name, would you tell anyone about that? This time next week we’ll be up to our asses in squids being medivaced out of there, their fractured sportbikes littering the streambed, and the local constabulatory will be digging bunkers into the rock trying to find a place large enough for a cruiser to hide. WHY, I ask you, WHY would you tell anyone this?”

And upon reflection, he may have a point.

And although he may do me the complement of vastly overestimating my readership, there are some pieces of information that shouldn’t be bantered about, and left lying around for any idjit-with-a-Google to stumble upon.

Like the Heisenberg principle — where the observing of a thing can fundamentally change the thing — this is, because of the cirumstances, a story that hangs on a concern about operational security.

If I were just to tell the tale with all cards on the table face up, that I would thereby destroy this thing which is so rare and wonderful.

***

There is this road that no-one knows about.

It’s amazing because it exists somewhere where no one would expect it. But also because it provides a total-opt out of the grostesquely oversubscribed modern, overdeveloped and undeplanned and now collapsing transporation infrastructure that completely surrounds it.

Its like a fistfight between the 18th century, and the 21st, and the 21st gets freaking clobbered.

But if everybody knows about it, it gets destroyed in a New York Minute.

So It Is The Road Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken.

***

Living in the Washington DC Metro Area is to understand that speed and acceleration are very seldom the answer to getting from here to there, especially during the day Monday through Friday. Agility, lightness, narrowness and maybe — under extreme stress — the ability to operate gracefully offroad are likely all more important.

Its why I have found my full dress tourer to be less than perfect for the daily transpotation role, except in cases of really awful weather.

Its why my R90S was mechanically refreshed — aaahhh! — so that it could reliably survive the required floggings.

And its why on this day, I found myself outside a certain County Seat in a Northern Virginia county, sitting on that same R90S. Sitting on that R90S, on a 90 degree day. Sitting on that R90S, on a 90 degree day, wearing ventilated leathers, and ….not….. going…… anywhere.

At all.

***

The District of Columbia has to tow behind it a heaping load of history. Starting with the decision to build a Capital city in a swamp at the end of great river across which it would prove very, very difficult to build bridges.

So that now well over 200 years later, that river and the very few ways to cross it continue to wreak havoc on those of us who are simultaneously lucky and cursed to live here.

And the bridges that cross that river, and the highways that lead to them, reflect the transportation needs and patterns of 50 to 100 years ago. The roads have not changed, the three bridges haven’t changed, but there are hundreds of thousands more of us than there used to be, and we make our livings differently than we used to, and we need to go to different places than we used to to do that.

Two lane and four lane rural highways with traffic lights were never meant to carry Interstate Highway System style volume. But the growth of the entire Capital region has forced them to do just that, and local goverments continue to do rural development to put more and more people on those same roads. Those roads with no transportation plan or upgrades even contemplated. So if you live in Maryland, and must go to Virginia to work, you can’t, really. And if you live in Virginia, and must go the other way, your odds don’t look any better.

I have worked, off and on, in Northern Virginia for 25 years. Where my current employers’ office is located was a pleasant 30 minute ride in the country in 1988. Now that same ride is an hour 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on one’s choices and one’s luck.

***

So, on a stinking hot day wearing vented Vansons on a vintage performace tuned motorcycle — a motorcycle for which a real cool carburator idle circuit wasn’t way up on the list of design requirements — with my jacket heating up, and being airheaded, my feet heating up, one can emphathize that the supply of patience available to me was not infinite, and the level gauge on my dashboard indicating same was swinging visibly leftward.

The street leading out of the County Seat to the highway was not moving. No one was entering the highway. Hence the highway was not moving. Situation Critical.

Klaxons.

I noticed a park off to my right — an Historic Home of an Early Virginia Governor.

I read the sign, recognized the name, and realized I had never been there.

I had a shot down the gravel shoulder to the side street that lead into the park, so I took it. I figured any movement was preferable to no movement, and that as long as I kept the sun off my left shoulder, I’d be headed generally towards home.

I cruised around past the park driveway and the street curved around the boundary of the old estate. When I got to the back of the property, the road headed towards a dense treeline, turned to hardpacked dirt and pea gravel, and dove into the woods.

Remember that we’re maintaining Operational Security, so any names here will provided for the sake of Dramatic Progress, and will be fictionalized.

There was a county road sign where the road went into the woods — “Old Brigadoon Road”.

“Brigadoon? The Imaginary Scots Village that one exists for one night every hundred years?” No. There was a small country village, completely preserved in its rural setting, called Brigadoon. It was completely across on the west side of the county.

“Damn,” I thought, “If this road goes all the way to Brigadoon, You Can Call The Queen Me Auntie”

But to Brigadoon it went.

It was a lovely rural road. Surface was generally loose but it was thankfully free of any serious ruts or soft stuff. About half the time we were in the trees, where the shade was about 15 degrees cooler than we had been back in Town. The remainder of the time it scooted past a good many horse farms — animals in the fields, checking out the bike — with lots of tight corners at the end of short straights, which were great fun to do a little controlled slide out of on the slippery surface.

Fun — just add throttle.

In the next 7 to 10 miles, I think I saw 3 three other vehicles — all pickup trucks coming the other way.

After a few miles of this I was no doubt wearing a helmet cracking grin. I was unbearably smug, and stayed that way for the better part of 2 days.

I’d gone from total, hopeless gridlock to a nice ride by meself in the woods in about 3 minutes time.

With a turn of luck like this, maybe I would disappear with Brigadoon into time for the next hundred years.

***

When the road emerged into the Village, there were a few cars coming through. On the other side of the Village — less than a quarter mile — the road became nicely paved and a sign indicated a chage of name for the road.

“Miller’s Road?”

I knew I’d seen the sign…that I knew where it came out…but I couldn’t place it, and I was sure I hadn’t ridden it.

I was following a Subaru coming out of town, when the stripes indicated a legal passing zone. I rolled the throttle open, moved smartly by, and that was the last car I saw.

This, too was a lovely road — more farmlands with lots of new round-baled haywheels — and good sweeping corners with great sightlines.

And I did know where it came out — at the end of the mainstreet of the town on the Virginia side of the Potomac River Bridge that leads back into my neighboring town of Brunswick.

More or less a beeline home.

***

I looked at the dashboard clock as I pulled the bike onto its mainstand in the driveway. My elapsed time home, taking the ATM stop into account, was in line with my best recent point-to-point time.

The two main highways that lead out of the County Seat would have been completely stopped or crawling at this time any day, but lost in the woods between them is a dirt road and a country lane from Colonial Times that development and the present have forgotten.

Maybe I did imagine it — I have this vision of going back to the park and having that tunnel into the woods not be there.

I need to go back soon just to reassure myself.

Its been since a 2008 adventure on the TransCanada Highway that I’ve had the LT out playing in the dirt. I wonder how the Big Girl would do out by Brigadoon?