Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Return to Jersey City — Again

A motorcycle can make up for a lot of things. It can make up for adolescence crushed by middle age. It can make up for a bad week in the office. It can even make up for a weekend romance gone sour. But it cannot make up an hour of lost time. Even the really fast bikes. I know this. I was on the New Jersey Turnpike headed north, letting the 71 horses of my 1995 BMW K75 run wild; but the clock on the bike’s spartan dash was always a little faster.

Dawn arrived sullenly on January 13, 2008. It sulked into the garage with a grayness left over from a seasonal temperature drop the day before. It had been 46º and sunny on the previous Saturday. But now it was 29º, overcast, and murky. Even the pale green lawn had a grayish tint to it, which I realized was a mantle of frost. I had planned to do this ride on the day before, but had been struck down by a hangover that made a concussion seem mild in comparison.

Now I was paying a double price. I’d lost the opportunity of riding in spring-like temperatures on the first half of the weekend, and was bucking a stiff crosswind on the New Jersey Turnpike at 85 miles per hour. Occasional gusts would hit the handlebar-mounted Parabellum Scout Fairing, sending a slight tremor through the machine. Yet the bike continued to track true and ran like a thoroughbred. I’d lost an hour waiting for the temperature to rise enough to thaw a few icy spots on the road, and I wasn’t gaining a minute of it back.

My destination was Exchange Place in Jersey City, 104 miles distant from the driveway in West Chester, Pa. There was no magic to this run. It was all straight slab on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes, right to the heart of the second largest city in New Jersey. It was cold, but I’d been out in colder weather. I do not yet own a set of electrics. My riding gear consisted of a Joe Rocket Meteor 5 ballistic jacket, a long sleeve club shirt, thermal silk long underwear and jeans. The fairing does a great job of keeping the wind and cheeseburgers off my upper body.

This was my second trip to Jersey City in a week. As a reentry rider in my fourth season, this kind of run is a radical departure from my usual jaunts. My preference is for sedate secondary roads through the country, with easy changes in elevation and curves that stimulate my limited skills without defying death. If I must have traffic, then I prefer the Amish kind that drops quaint road apples that must be swerved around to avoid being fully appreciated.

The previous ride to Jersey City brought me to the threshold of motorcycle-riding hell. Coming up through the oil refineries in Linden, NJ on I-95, buzzing past Newark Airport, and looking down at the world from the Pulaski Skyway provides one with the same vision Tolkien had when he wrote about Mordor in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. What appeared to be smoke hanging over the landscape was actually dense clouds of vampire bats. Yet the view must be taken in snatches as the traffic in these parts can best be described as maniacal.

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike routinely surges to 80 mph, regardless of the lane you are in. And the space between vehicles can be as much as seven feet. Most New Jersey drivers do not give these speeds nor close separation distances a second thought as they are usually chatting on the their cell phones. High-speed, congested traffic and narrow Jersey City streets were the challenge for my first ride to this locale. Both proved manageable as did the two-hour ride home in the dark. More than manageable, I had fun.

But two questions hung in my mind, “Suppose the first ride was a fluke? Suppose I actually was a chicken shit who just got lucky?” So I decided to do it again under slightly different circumstances.

Adventure is where you find it, and sometimes it must be taken in scale. I ride with the Mac-Pac, a Pennsylvania-based BMW group that sneers at miles. Many of these guys have ridden coast to coast. Several routinely ride to Texas and back, or Colorado and back, in a few days. One member, Doug Raymond, rode to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Circle (Alaska) and back in 14 days. Another member, Edde Mendes, rode his bike (a 1994 K75 without modification) from Morocco through sub-Sahara Africa, and up through Turkey, Russia, China and Korea, on a 12- month 29,000 mile run.

For me, it is enough to challenge the traffic in one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the United States. Why Jersey City? Because I am from there. Because I learned to ride a motorcycle there, in rush hour traffic, straight out of the dealer’s, after 25-minutes of instruction. Because I haven’t ridden a motorcycle there in 30 years. And because salmon, condors and Siamese fighting roaches always return to the place of their birth.

My hands were out in the breeze on the ride up but didn’t get cold once. I was wearing a new pair of Lee Parks insulated deerskin/elkskin gauntlets. These are the warmest riding gloves I have ever worn. At $179, they weren’t cheap either. They are a trifle bulky on my hands, and while fine for the slab, I switched to a thinner pair of winter gloves for more sensitive clutch control in city traffic.

I crossed Newark Bay on the NJ Turnpike Bridge, angling for Exit 14C, the Holland Tunnel, the last exit in Jersey City. Traffic advisories warned of construction just before this last exit. I didn’t see the construction but saw a snaking line of cars at a dead stop a mile from the exit.

“Screw this,” I thought, taking Exit 14b someplace around the old Ferris High School. My memory of this place told me I was headed East on the former Railroad Avenue. There used to be elevated tracks here when I was a kid. The street is now named something else and no longer looks like anything in my memory. It was a mile of green lights and I pulled into Exchange Place three minutes later.

Exchange Place was the site of a rundown trolley car diner, a bus turnaround, the old Colgate Palmolive factory, and the PATH station (subway), which had the atmosphere (sulphur-ish smell) of an old bomb shelter. These things were clustered around a decaying ferry slip, which provided a great place for my friends and I to smoke pot during lunch in high school. This was in 1972.

Exchange Place is now the financial institution showplace of the Jersey City waterfront. Known as Wall Street West, it offers first class hotels, neighborhood pubs and restaurants, soaring office buildings, a fishing pier, a promenade and an unparalleled view of New York City. It also offered an unparalleled view of Mack Harrell, my riding partner on this trip, who was sitting next to a “No parking” sign on his 2005 BMW R1200GS. Mack concluded that the 40-mile per hour breeze coming off the river was the same thing as riding at that speed, and was idling his bike’s boxer engine to power up his electric riding gear. Mack is writing a book called 150 Ways To Kill The Battery In a BMW R1200GS.

Mack Harrell's BMW GS Adventure looks positively predatory next to
the author's aesthetically perfect 1995 BMW K75 in Exchange Place, Jersey City.

The BMW R1200GS looks like an armored two-wheeler set up for riding across vast inhospitable expanses. It looks like that because it is. Mack Harrell looks like a grizzled old biker who’s dragged his ancient ass through a thousand curves. That’s because he is too.

“Mmmmpurgh phak mraghrd,” said Mack as I pulled up. There is no translation. This is how he sounds attempting to speak through his full faced helmet. He hears about as well too.

The focal point of Exchange Place is an open plaza with a statue commemorating those killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre; in which more than 15,000 Polish prisoners were murdered in cold blood by their Stalinist Russian captors. The statue is of a Polish cavalry officer being bayonetted in the back. I was once married to a Russian lady and know the feeling well. The pointblank view of the river was blocked by construction.
Katyn -- Symbolizing a Russian pat on the back for captured Polish cavalry officers

Essentially, the view I rode like a madman to see was closed.

Mack and I have been occasionally riding together for three years now. Oddly enough, we both downed bikes this past season. I took a head-on whack from a woman making an illegal left turn in a mini van, and Mack dropped the GS while stopped at an intersection. (He turned to gape at a fine- looking ass in cyclist Spandex, lost his balance, and fell over on the bike, breaking his collarbone. The punch line is the “fine looking ass” turned out to be attached to a guy. Mack needs to get out more often.)

We cut through Jersey City, by-passing Hoboken (the traffic congestion capital of the world) and headed north along the Hudson River. We zipped through Weehawken, Guttenburg, North Bergen, and Edgewater, all the way up to Fort Lee. I was looking for a great spot to get pictures right on the river, and passed one where we did not stop. Traffic was thick and despite the fact that I used to live here, I couldn’t figure out where the hell I was.

My thought was to enter Palisades Interstate Park below the George Washington Bridge, and ride on that beautiful forested road -- The Henry Hudson Drive -- that runs along the base of the cliffs, but which is still 100 feet or so above the Hudson river. There is a huge open area directly on the river just beyond the base of the bridge. Pictures taken there would be stunning. The park entrance is a sharply angled turn to the right. I swung into it -- stopping just short of the rusted chain stretched across the entrance.

The beautiful road at the base of the cliffs was closed.

“What the hell is going on?” I thought. I later discovered that the Henry Hudson Drive is only open from mid-April to mid-November.

Getting out of this little pocket was a handful for me. It was an uphill turn to the right, on a stretch of River Road, under construction, with fast moving traffic coming around a curve to the left. This little bit of heaven was covered with sand and trickling water. It was here I uttered my famous biker’s prayer. “Oh Lord, please don’t let me drop this bike in front the worthless sinner Mack Harrell, who will go among the tents bearing the tale of my humiliation.”

We picked up the Palisades Interstate Parkway at Alpine, NJ, and rode along the top of the cliffs to the Alpine overlook, before heading north another seven miles to the Stateline Lookout. Each of these overlooks has considerable romantic significance to me. It was here, 37 years ago, that I became proficient at removing the brassieres of young women. I discovered this is easy to do with one hand, provided that hand is holding wire cutters.

There's a little restaurant and bookstore at the Stateline Lookout, housed in a wood and glass structure dating back to 1937. It was constructed using native stone and chestnut wood, as a project of the Works Progress Administration. The end of the building is round, to accommodate a half-round stone counter inside. Tables are arranged on the perimeter. One of the most amazing and welcome aspects of this place is a fireplace that had a nice blaze going in it. The scent and warmth of this little surprise was a very nice touch. The damp cold breeze off the river in Jersey City, now some 15 miles to the south, had become a cool, lower 40's clear day. Stepping up to the fireplace was like finding yourself in the embrace of a beautiful woman, who smelled like burning oak.
Mack Harrell causes a woman to hide in a bush at Stateline Lookout.

I was surprised that Mack took a seat facing away from the view, choosing instead a tight perspective of the narrow aisle along the curving counter. During the course of lunch, no less than 13 hot-looking babes (one riding pillion) squeezed by with their butts at Mack’s eye-level.

“I can’t believe you chose this table to look at women’s asses,” I hissed at him.

“Wanna change seats,” he asked.

“Okay.”

“Kiss my ancient ass,” said Mack, with a smile. “This is a harmless pastime that doesn’t bother anybody. Just don’t tell my wife.” No problem, Mack. What happens at the Stateline Lookout stays at the Stateline Lookout.

I had one of the best cheeseburgers in my life at this place. It was charbroiled, juicy, and dripping with flavor. Mack Harrell had a turkey sandwich. We hit this place around 1:10pm. There were four small groups of people there, hogging all of the tables around the fireplace. Twenty minutes later, the joint was packed.
The pleasant restaurant from 1937 at the Stateline Lookout.

You wouldn't expect to find a little bookstore here. It spans half of the counter inside and offers about 50 titles covering the history of the park, the region, or the revolution. Parts of the park were hotly contested during a few brief days in the American Revolution. At one point, Mack and I were parked at the spot where British troops landed and ascended the cliffs in the taking of Fort Lee on the Palisades. The original modest building, the Kearny House, which was tavern once and served as a headquarters for General Cornwallis during the troop movement, is still there. (I regret to report it is not a functioning tavern now.)

For those who feel like a little hike, there is a broad road running directly along the tops of the cliffs (Palisades) at the Stateline Lookout. This is the old Rt. 9W that heads up to Bear Mountain and West Point. It has since been bypassed and this little loop goes nowhere. The lookout is at 535 feet above the Hudson, the highest point on the Palisades in New Jersey, equal in height to a 50-story building.

Mack and I headed out onto the Palisades Interstate Parkway again for a couple of miles, turning south onto Rt. 9W after crossing into New York State. We were in New York a total of three seconds. Our last stop in the park was a spiraling downhill ride at the Alpine Boat Basin. The park was filled with hikers and cyclists, that popped out of the scenery at the most unlikely places. The switchbacks down to the river had a good share of cinders on them, and we also passed heaps of snow in the shadows.

The connection between the Palisades Interstate Parkway (South), Rt. 4, and I-95 is a mish-mosh of highways involving right and left turns identified by ambiguous signs at the last minute. Interest is kept high by cars and trucks vying for the same space at 60 miles per hour.

Mack and I exchanged waves where I-78 pulls away from I-95 at Newark Airport and I settled in for the two-hour ride home. At one point, I was passed by an SUV from which someone tossed the remains of a fully dressed cheeseburger. This splattered and bounced right off my fairing. I have been hit by cigarettes, cigars, and glemmies. This is the first time I took a hit from a cheeseburger.

I found myself in the left lane on the NJ Turnpike somewhere around New Brunswick. Traffic was packed across three lanes moving at well over 75 miles per hour. A handful of smart asses in cages were switching from lane to lane, barely gaining inches for each move. I suddenly saw each lane as a horizontal column of shifting steel, hammering forward in a rhythmic crushing movement, slamming shut momentarily open spaces between vehicles. It was the mill of death and I was reminded of The Song Of The Sausage Creature, by Hunter S. Thompson. For a moment I saw my fate in the mill... And I laughed like hell inside my eggshell of a helmet. Life is a series of experiences, challenges, opportunities and setbacks woven into twisted roads. I was determined not to meet the sausage creature on this one.

When the opportunity presented itself, I twisted on the power, danced through the mill, and left it behind me. It was a clear, cold twisted road home. I rolled into the garage with 284 miles under my belt for the day. The rain started less than an hour after I was home.

Epilogue: I went back to garage to take a few things out of my topcase. A delightful, familiar scent rose when I opened the lid. I carry a 4-ounce flask of Irish whiskey for emergencies. The top had vibrated off and the contents had seeped into the case. Every ride has a punch line.

# # #

This month’s free quote:
“Every ride has a punch line.”
Jack Riepe
January 15, 2008

18 comments:

DougBob said...

Jack,

Congratulations on a first rate blog! Also, congrats for keeping your bike upright for almost 300 miles in heavy traffic!

We'll all look forward to many, many more miles and entrys detailing your many bike-related exploits - some of them true!!

See you down the road,

DougBob
Mac-Pac "South"
'01 1150 GS

jclauss said...

Jack, Welcome to the world of blogging. I will look forward to every post knowing that the diet Coke can must stay away from my lips whilst reading.

neversink said...

Jack,

Now that's I blog! Tell us the Centralia story. Good luck,

Rich

mule said...

Jack,

Good luck on your adventures.
You really know how to entertain a group.

Looking forward to more of this new Blog.

Bobby M

ADK said...

Oh Jesus!

Ausable River Valley Bikers Cooperative.

Dick said...

Reading about your rides has always been more fun that riding with you. Yet, I'm sorry I missed this trip - especially the Hamburger stop.
The video of you and Mack Harrell demonstrating one-handed bra removal was great. I knew it was Mack because of the pipe. You were harder to identify, because you were younger and occupied less space on the planet when the video was shot.
Great story. I'm glad you've started this blog, so more people can be exposed to your talent.

jaycraft said...

Dear Sir,

Only you can make riding in New Jersey seem interesting. I have ridden in New Jersey a number of times (there, I admitted it in public) none were memorable enough to write about. In fact, until today I never even told any of my riding buddies about it.

I also appreciated the monument of the Polish soldier being stabbed in the back. I will be extra vigilant when I ride with you again.

eb said...

Jack - HOORAY!!!!!!!!!!

Thank goodness for Boone's laptop - otherwise David would be arm wrestling with me for blogging privileges...

which could create serious marital problems...

I'm going to have to read this post a few times...

BEing new to the "bad boy bikers with blogs" who DREAM while driving two wheeled PLAYthings fan club... luckily - I don't wear a bra...

blowing you pink kisses from over here...

xox - eb.

Douglas said...

Jack,
Thanks for the first of many great ride reports on your excellent new blog. You bring NJ to life as a riding destination.

No one ever threw a cheeseburger at me, maybe I don't look as hungry as you do on a bike.

Doug R.

mtlcowgirl said...

Jack,

Classic Riepe. Bravo! The pics of my Stud Muffin are eye candy too.

Karen Kennedy Harrell

Dave said...

Jack,

Great ride report. I look forward to following your blog. :)

Thanks,
Dave M
MacPac MI

motonomad said...

Jack,

Your Jersey City ride report demonstrates your unique ability to create interesting and humorous stories out of what others would see as nondescript daily events.
Looking forward to your next installment.

MackBeemer said...

At long last I can add a comment here. It was a real pleasure to ride with you, Jack. I had no idea this was a re-invasion for you. I have but one question: how did I miss the ladies in spandex?

Oh yeah. I forgot my age.

Dan Kusnetzky said...

I've enjoyed your posts!

Dan K in SRQ

EZ Ryder said...

Jack, thanks so much for another entertaining read. I felt as if I had participated on this ride with you and Mac.
Keep up the great posts.

Regards,
EZ Ryder

blaze said...

Jack, loved the story...BTW my daughter lives in the building behind you buddy Harrell's helmet in the photo taken in Jersey City.

Sojourner rides said...

Great ride report! Heavy traffic--can you say, "Chicago!" Each season it gets worst. As a solo rider, I must say, you make riding with someone sound fun--one of these days I'm gonna try that!

bobskoot said...

Jack:

on the 3rd anniversary of your original blog post (January 16, 2008), are you going to duplicate this run for 2011 ?

can't wait . . .

bob
Wet Coast Scootin