Kaaterskill Falls near Palenville, NY -- in the heart of New York's Catskill Mountains
(Photo courtesy of Wikipeda -- Click to enlarge)
Having spent all my money on the triple, my riding gear consisted of whatever clothes I had that seemed suited to the occasion. (Not that there was a big choice available in 1977.) In the fall, I rode around wearing an army fatigue coat. It was usually short sleeves or a very light jacket in the summer though. (All-The-Gear-All-The-Time was a concept many years into the future.) A leather jacket cost as much as two weeks of heavy drinking, and I was not inclined to make that kind of an investment. Gloves in the August heat were unthinkable. I had never experienced a cool day in August before, and would have scoffed at the notion. Yet here I was looking for a place to pull over, so I could add another tee shirt to the one I already had on.
One of my closest friends, Scott Volk, was gambling his life on the pillion. My parter in crime for years of long-distance bicycle rides and a few dozen backpacking trips in the Adirondacks, Scott never hesitated when I suggested we take the motorcycle to the far reaches of New York State to get a look at Niagara Falls -- which was the nearest thing we had to a natural wonder of the world. It could be argued, certainly by me, that the best addition to a pillion would have been a hot squeeze to make the evenings more interesting and the interludes somewhat spicier, but my girl was in Arizona attempting to please her family by dumping me and Scott was having relationship problems of his own.
I had blown through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan at 4a.m. that morning, to pick him up at an address off Bleeker Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It’s hard to think of New York City as “sleeping,” but it was certainly dozing when I hit it that day. It didn’t take me 10 minutes to cover the distance from the west side in Midtown to Washington Square. This could easily take an hour on a weekday afternoon. Scott was staying with his girlfriend dejour, Jolene, on the third floor of a walk-up. My instructions were to park out front and “blip” the engine.
You cannot blip the engine on a two-stroke Kawasaki Triple.
You can make it scream out in rage, like the Godzilla of lawnmowers, however. I did so and succeeded in startling a furtive figure, like a human roach, from the street-level hall of the address Scott gave me. This happened at exactly the same time that another individual was exiting the same building. New York was a different place in those days. The guy legitimately exiting the building asked the furtive human roach who he was looking for. I distinctly heard the guy say, Jolene Williams. That was Scott’s girl. The Rottiweiler in me woke up and took notice. The roach bolted and disappeared into another doorway.
Typical view of Bleeker Street In Greenwich Village, New York City
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
Scott came out with his gear bundled into a rucksack a few minutes later and we searched for a logical place to attach it to the growing pile of crap already bungeed to the sissy bar. It was during this process that I said to him in a low voice, “Some asshole was in the hallway when I pulled up looking for your girlfriend’s doorbell”
“What,” said Scott, blinking. He would never make a good spy.
I repeated my statement.
“How do you know that,” he asked.
“Somebody challenged him on it,” I replied.
Scott looked around the apparently deserted street, “Really?”
“The asshole is standing in the doorway right over there, attempting to look like Sam Spade,” I replied.
Scott stared at the darkened doorway and said, “He’s the day shift,” rather philosophically. “An old boyfriend of hers in from Kansas. He’s here to talk her out of New York City.”
He’d have to have been some talker in my opinion. My guess was he’d start with an impassioned plea aimed at selling some out-of-town salami . But Scott didn’t give a shit and it was none of my business. Jolene was a contemporary dancer and Scott went through these fairly often. I understood it to be an acquired taste. Then again, my preference that year was for equestrians (with jodhpurs).
My method of loading gear on the bike rivaled my scientific approach to riding gear. A tent, sleeping bags, and clothing were attached to the back in a more or less random fashion. Scott’s stuff made the bike look like a prop from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. With our shoulder-length hair, ripped jeans, and grubby shirts, we were the image of urban refugees. The concrete canyons of New York trapped air freshly baked the previous day and we were damp with sweat when I kicked the triple into life the second time that morning. We roared out through the Holland Tunnel and headed north through New Jersey at speed. Three hours later, we were freezing our asses off. But that’s the nature of half-assed adventure.
It could have been argued that riding the bike at 60 mph would have been somewhat warmer than riding it at 80 mph, but that would have defeated the whole purpose of owning a Kawasaki triple.
My ostensive reason for exiting the Thruway was a sign that read, “Howe Caverns, A Natural Wonder.” Considering “natural wonders” was the theme of this trip, and that we had no schedule (owing to the fact that we had no jobs), and that I was freezing my ass off, this seemed like a logical thing to explore. Scott and I had been boyhood pals, born and bred in Jersey City, NJ. We grew up in this ethnic greenhouse before “gentrification” was a reality, and when Jersey City was a series of intense little communities joined together by rotting docks, closing factories and main streets with no parking. The place was basically a shithouse of an urban pressure cooker. But we didn’t know that then. Neither one of us had ever seen a cavern before and this seemed like a good time to remedy that situation.
The sign to Howe Caverns was huge, and seemed to hint that the caves were directly behind it. This was a lie. We followed little back roads for nearly two hours. The terrain changed from dense forests and steep wooded mountains to rolling hills and farm country. Neither one of us had looked at a map and simply trusted to the signs. We’d been in the saddle about five hours when we got to this place. Had I planned this stop, there would have been a much more direct route. What had me fascinated about these caverns was a line on each billboard emphasizing the “underground waterfall.” I really wanted to see this. I wanted to feel like Tom Sawyer in the cave.
Howe Caverns was fairly interesting and lived up to 70 percent of my expectations. We stepped into an elevator and dropped some 156 feet. At the time, the rock formations were lit up by the equivalent of Christmas lights, and the lurking PR guy in me knew there was a better way to showcase the place even then. Our guide was a college kid, younger than us, who knew a partial swindle when he saw one.
“”This is Harvey, the Howe Caverns mud turtle,” he explained at one formation that seemed to squat in a subterranean creek bed. “If you use your imagination, it looks exactly like a mud turtle.”
Ten minutes later, he chanted a similar litany at another formation, once again telling us that if we used our imagination, the rock before us would look exactly like it’s name. And ten minutes after that, we heard the same advisory before a pile of swirled, semi-melted-looking stone drippings that was alleged to be the “Devil’s Pipe Organ.”
“This is the Devil’s Organ,” I said to Scott, indicating my crotch. “And there are a few women walking around thinking about it without having to use their imaginations.”
I said this just as we were entering the “whispering cave,” a collection of underground alleys that magnifies sound about 200 percent. Needless to say, my comment raised some eyebrows among the other 15 people in our group, three of which were college ladies who could have qualified for the equestrian team in my mind.
The plot definitely thickened when we boarded the boats for the underground waterfall. The river ride may have only been a few hundred yards long. At one point the boat stopped and the guide flicked off the lights so we could experience absolute darkness. (I would recognize darkness of this quality again years later, looking into the soul of a future former mother-in-law.) Underway in subdued light once again, we stopped at pile of rocks, where we were informed that we were at the top of the waterfall, and that it was truly spectacular somewhere in the darkness below us. That was the point where I realized if I had no other viable skills, I could still write billboard copy.
It was well into the afternoon when we pulled out of Howe Caverns. Once again, it never occurred to me to look at a map. There were two signs the size of index cards posted at the parking lot exit. One said, “Thurway West,” and the other said “Thruway South.” I didn’t think of it at the time, but these offered the kind of information one would expect from signs posted in the Judy Garland film classic “The Wizard of Oz.” I knew the route south ran for hours. I figured west was where we wanted to go anyway, and so I turned left. The key word here was “west.” We had been headed “north” on the Thruway before. This would be another investment of hours riding back roads. And that would have been okay, if there had been some reference to mileage. I simply assumed it wasn’t all that far away. The change in direction didn’t register with me either. But we were now headed north to go west, on little roads, with lots of turns, and speed ,limits of 35 and 45 miles per hour.
Ninety-minutes outside of Howe Caverns, we passed a sign that said, “Airplane Rides: $10.” I had only flown commercially twice at that stage in my life. Scott had never flown at all. And even though $20 was a vast sum of money to piss away on something that wouldn’t get you drunk or laid, we went for it anyway. The plane was a little four-place Cessna. It was four-place the same way the clown car in the circus accommodates 12 clowns. The pilot was old, about 30. The runway was a dirt strip. The trip lasted 15 minutes and was a lot more exciting than the underground boat ride. The pilot did a mild, clean stall for us, which would have been the equivalent of driving the Kawasaki off a church roof. Sitting up front, I was glad had taken a shit earlier in the day, as that would normally have been one of my first reactions to looking up at the sky, seeing the engine quit, and then looking straight down at the ground.
That makes twice in my life I was glad to hear an engine start. The first time came when I had just instructed a coed on the proper way to take a shower and the guy she was living with had just pulled up. On a warm day in good tune, the Kawasaki would fire up on half a kick and outrun a football player hands down.
It was nearly three hours later and who knows after how many miles on that Kawasaki Triple that I was convinced the Thruway was on rollers and that someone was pushing it away from us. The “triple” not only vibrated, but a had a seat designed by the North Korean secret police that converted miles ridden into a pounding sensation to the spine.
A passing rider on one of the new Honda 750’s gave me a very aggressive wave, which I returned with the raised fist salute, popular among bikers back in the 70’s. “Pretty friggin’ friendly around here,” I thought. Moments later, on a winding downhill “S” curve, I discovered a load of sand had been dropped on the road. Traffic had tracked it though both lanes for nearly 50 yards. My entire accounts receivable passed before my eyes while I swerved around the worst of it and slid through the rest.
The Thruway was at the bottom of the hill. I collected my ticket and went like hell on the slab. In addition to the make-believe riding gear I had on, my eye protection consisted of amber tinted ski goggles, equipped with little pop-up vents above the lens. At some point above 80 miles per hour, a yellow jacket wasp slammed into one of these vents, and dropped down into the eyepiece. The stunned, and highly pissed, insect started wandering around in the goggles. My reaction was pure instinct. I stated screaming, then pulled the goggles from my face, and let the slipstream carry them off.
On the pillion, Scott saw things differently -- largely because he was asleep. He woke up to find the bike hurtling like a meteor and me screaming while pulling at my helmet. He came to the conclusion that life was over and decided to take his chances by jumping. He stood up on the pegs just as I jettisoned the goggles. We became a circus act.
There is nothing like getting an eyeful of an 80-mile-per-hour breeze -- with nothing on your face except unshaven stubble. Attempting to see by turning my head from side to side, I slipped the triple into 4th gear, which was like driving it into a haystack. Scott sat back down to see how the last act would play out. I relieved him of the plastic face shield on the shoulder and he rode in sunglasses. We got off at the first exit, which offered a Holiday Inn. I was almost too beat to drink the pint of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey I had in my stuff.
Out the door at the crack of nine the next day, Scott and I silently devoured the best the House of Pancakes had to offer. I was thinking of devouring the waitress, but there wasn’t time. We turned right toward the “falls” in the shadow of Buffalo, New York. I simply followed the signs that indicated the greatest natural wonder that I would have seen in my life so far was just ahead. Nevertheless, I was confused as the road to the falls on the American side passes through an industrial area designed to look like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. Once again I was sure there could have been a better way to arrange this. Rust stained factories and darkened smokestacks reminded me that the American Industrial Revolution used to wipe its ass on natural splendor.
My first view of the falls was preceded by a glimpse of the spray that occasionally rises high above the tumbling water, and which can be seen a mile or so out. The falls on the American side are not the star attraction, but they are still impressive. The near deafening roar doesn’t quite shake the ground like a passing train, but creates a constant concussion that humbles attempts at speech. A park adjacent to the falls (Niagara Falls State Park) offers a series of walkways that brings one to the brink of the action. The Bridal Veil Falls is between the American Falls and the mighty Horseshoe Falls in Canada. Legend has it that some bride, fresh from the ceremony, apparently sobered up and got a look at he gargoyle she married. The lady then jumped over the rail without a second thought. Marriage has the same effect on me.
The American Falls at Niagara Falls -- The First Natural Wonder I Ever Saw
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
Other walkways lead to low bridges out to Goat Island and Luna Island, above the falls. What impressed me about the these ink spots of firmament was the view they offered acoss the broad, raging expanse of the Niagara River. Navigable by sport craft, I wondered how the authorities marked the point of no return, where no engine could be strong enough to fight the current. The water is tranquil enough around these islands however, with cute little signs that read, “Do not wade.” The water seemed crystal clear here and only about a foot and a half deep. Yet there was no doubt in which direction it was moving and its ultimate conclusion.
We decided to head into Niagara Falls, New York proper and size up the town. It was a real shocker. In 1976, the place was a genuine shit house and rivaled Jersey City for aesthetic scarcity. Some of you may remember a movie called “Canadian Bacon,” which is a solid parody of Us and Canadian lifestyles. It depicted Niagara Falls, New York as the kind of place where a depressed people let their dogs shit with both pride and reckless abandon. This was not an exaggeration the last time I was there. What I found particularly annoying was the confluence of four lane thoroughfares marked only by stop signs or blinking lights.
“Hey,” I said. “Want to go to a foreign country? Let’s ride into Canada!”
Ten minutes later we were waved through the US border with all the ceremony given to that bag of garbage the Indian used to get hit with in those anti-litter commercials. Canada wasn’t so sure though. They directed us into a checkpoint at the border and made me unload the bike. Apparently, my answer to their question, “What brings you to Canada and how long do you plan to stay,” didn’t impress them. As I recall, I replied, “Just long to enough to cruise around and score some maple-leaf trim.”
The Canadian side was like a Hollywood set. The streets were spotless and lined with a bazillion flowers. The hotels were new and inviting. The shops were full and the restaurants were doing a booming business. The main drags were choked with traffic and the tourist attractions were not marked by decaying factories.
A commanding view of Horseshoe Falls can be found in a number of places. We parked the bike with zero concern for the gear loosely tied to it in a public lot and went walking. At the head of Horseshoe Falls was a rusting barge wedged among the rocks. According to the story, this craft broke loose from a tug or something and was headed toward certain death for the crew aboard when it ran aground within feet of the edge. The local volunteer fire department of Niagara Falls, Ontario, (who all spoke English and not French), rolled up their sleeves, ran a few rope lines, and saved everybody.
The mighty Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side are what most
people think of when Niagara Falls is the topic of conversation.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
The barge was still there on a subsequent visit 10 years ago, but rusting through.
We took the tour to go under the falls and come up behind a window of roaring hell. This was on a par with the underground cavern waterfall, but at least you could actually see something. Lunch that day was French fries with schmutz on them and apple pie with cheddar cheese. We reentered the U.S. without inquiry. Today, we would be subject to the annal probe and be required to carry three forms of RFID documents (Radio Frequency Identification Chips), prior to standing in a Department of Homeland Security lineup.
The ride home was uneventful. We crashed in a campground that was sorry to see us come and even sorrier to see us go as I returned their kindness by beating the check. Such was life at 19.
But the important thing, which had slipped my mind until late, is that I became an international rider on this trip, and no one can take that away from me. Leslie, my squeeze, says I should be ashamed to even mention this to real international riders. What does she know?
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)