Friday, December 26, 2008

The Day I Became An International Rider

There is nothing like the dog days of summer for heat in metropolitan New York City, and they really get to barking in the first few weeks of August. But you wouldn’t have known that on this August day, when I decided to become an international motorcycle rider. It was barely three hours past dawn as I banked the bike -- a Kawasaki triple -- into a turn off the New York State Thruway and cut into the Sullivan County Catskills. I was one step away from shivering and my hands were just about blue, on that August morning 31 years ago.

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)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sidebar Without Pictures

I apologize that so many of you read the previous post before I got the pictures up. I was tired and started to run out of steam after only two were posted. Likewise, there were more typos and missing words per square foot in that initial text than anything I have ever posted before. I’d like to thank long-time friend and reader Ihor Sypko for sending me the corrections. For his efforts, Ihor will be presented with a “Twisted Roads” tee shirt.

I wanted to write a fairly serious ride report about the Blue Ridge Parkway for the longest time. The preceding post on this blog was intended to fulfill that objective. For some reason, it took a long time for me to figure out what it was I wanted to say. Then I realized the work would only appeal to new or intermediate riders, who had never experienced the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was surprised to hear from so many experienced BRP ride veterans, who either related to the things I felt, or wanted to share different perspectives of their own.

“Serious” for me is a relative term. Considering so much of what I write is pure nonsense, my meaning of the word “serious” is “true.” While I have written about this particular trip on the BRP before, previous references have focused on the pure fun side of the trip. Dick Bregstein and Pete Buchheit are fun magnets in that they attract hysterical situations worthy of comment.

For example, Pete Buchheit was heading north on the BRP that same weekend, when a passing bird targeted his face shield with a huge dump.

“If I hadn’t known that ostriches and emus can’t fly, I would have sworn that this was the signature work of either species,” said Buchheit. “It had the consistency and volume of a large milkshake from hell.” There was the initial splat and then it spread out across the face shield, leaving him a small peephole through which to see the road. Naturally, this happened at about 50 miles per hour.

Now this could have been very dangerous... But Pete has extensive experience handling shit. He immediately switched into bird shit reception and evaluation mode. Since there were no bad consequences, all other riders can do laugh like hell. Especially when I point out that the bombardment effect splatted this avian greeting on his Aerostitch and the inside of his windshield -- before seeping into the helmet.

In the previous story (Hubris and Friend Green Tomatoes On the BRP), I described our relaxing lunch at the National Park Service concession at the Peaks of Otter. If you glance back at this piece, you will see that my exit from this restaurant involved extricating my bike from a beautiful Honda Shadow cruiser (painted in a great forest green and buff color scheme) as part of the typical motorcycle parking puzzle. You will also see that I mentioned a hot-looking woman appeared to be approaching this bike with purpose. This is what happened next.

Pete and Dick took off as soon as we got on the road again. I told the boys that I was going to do my own ride. Their ride was squeezing the most out of the curves. Mine was just doing the Parkway and taking it all in. They’d wait for me at some point up ahead. That point could easily have been 50 ot 70 miles off. So what? This was a bikers’ weekend with thousands of machines on this road. If I got into trouble, two dozen people would stop in a pinch. Besides, what biker rides with his buddies in anticipation of trouble?

An hour passed in which I covered about 40-45 miles, where the terrain seemed to be more wooded and agricultural (on slight hills) as opposed to the dramatic cliff and mountain stuff. My knees were starting to throb and I pulled over by a mill stream that offered a nice little stone wall to sit on. I took a bottle of water that was cold some 60 minutes before out of the top case and noted it was now room temperature. I considered cooling it off in the stream, but that was room temperature too.

I wasn’t there ten minutes when the green and buff Honda pulled in behind me. The rider shut it down and pulled off her helmet, releasing a cascade of brunette hair over her shoulders. She bent down to hang the helmet on one of the passenger pegs and I studied her ass like it was a winning lottery ticket.

She came over and introduced herself as “Angie.”

“I saw you looking at my bike at the restaurant back there, and you pulled out before I could tell you that I had been admiring yours. What kind of fairing is that,” she asked.

“It’s a Sprint Fairing,” I said truthfully. “There were only two made and the other one is owned by a descendant of the Kaiser.” I looked into the greenest eyes I have ever seen to see if the greatest falsehood I have ever told had been detected. “Basically, it is a design more typical of a Triumph.”

I told her that the Honda had one of the most appealing paint schemes that I had ever seen on a bike and asked her if it was custom. (It wasn’t.)

I directed the conversation toward the BRP, riding in general, and the fact that I was a writer and almost as exotic in nature as the fairing on my bike. I offered her my other bottle of water, which she accepted, and spread out a clean bandana on the stone as a kind of tablecloth. This earned me a smile and twin emerald sparkles out of the tops of those eyes.

I learned that she was 44, divorced, and a resident of Maryland. She had treated herself to the Honda as a marriage escape reward. I was just about to warm up the “Battered Baby Seal” look when I heard the familiar whine of an F800S coming up the road.

It was Dick Bregstein... The same Dick Bregstein of the Buchheit and Bregstein “Every-Man-For-Himself” school of riding. For the first time in 20,000 miles of riding together, he was coming back to see if the turkey vultures were picking at my broad dead ass.

Dick swung into the rest area, popped up his face shield, and yelled, “Are you all right,” over the buzz of his Rotax engine.

“We’re fine,” I yelled back.

Dick looked at me, then at Angie, then at the two bottles of water on the bandana. “I got it,” he replied, before pulling out and heading back in the direction he had come.

“What was that all about,” asked Angie.

“The National Park Service has volunteers riding up and down the Parkway this weekend, making sure riders aren’t struck. Apparently, that was one of them.”

“But that was an odd thing to say,” said Angie.

“They probably don't train them well. Besides, I heard there’s an ax murderer on the loose. His name is Buchheit.”

Angie rode with me until we reached the North Carolina state line. It was here, at the driveway to the Blue Ridge Parkway Motel and Camp Ground, that the volunteer and the ax murderer were waiting for me. I pulled in, Angie rode on. This is the story of my life.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hubris and Fried Green Tomatoes On The Blue Ridge Parkway

Everyone should know their limitations. On the day I was born, an ancient gypsy fortune teller stood over my crib and made some odd incantations. She determined that while I would have extraordinary sexual prowess, I would never be more than a mediocre motorcycle rider. Her assessment was dead on.

I have to accept challenges that are closely aligned with my limitations. Choosing other mediocre riders to join me, I plan my rides to appear to be the kind of life-threatening trips that would daunt a Viking, when they are actually as tame as a circus lama. Years of public relations training have really paid off in this endeavor.

The conflict I experience comes from a genuinely adventurous streak that compels me to ride to relatively far off places for a rider of my limited abilities. For example, I was fascinated by the Blue Ridge Parkway from the first moment I heard about it. Everything suggested it would be perfect for the mediocre reentry rider looking for a little adventure, over a fairly long distance through semi-wild surroundings. It sounded like motorcycle heaven, while having all the characteristics of a real wimp ride.

According to the data, The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469-miles long, two lanes wide, offers an occasional vista, has some rest areas and points of interest along the way, and posts a 45-mile per hour speed limit. The only fly in the ointment appeared to be the lack of gas on this roadway. It would be necessary to get off every now and again to tank up.

I developed a kind of hubris about this ride. To my self-glorifying way of thinking, I could almost complete this entire stretch in ten hours if I simply kept to the speed limit. How hard could this be? Getting off periodically would seem like a reprieve from the tight constraints of that speed limit. Even in my limited mediocre-rider capacity, I knew I was going to do 60 mph most of the time anyway.

The trouble with adventure, however, is that it seldom adheres to one’s initial expectations.

“Why is the threshold of adventure always soaked in sweat,” I asked myself, fumbling to get the side bags onto the K75. Then I muttered “fuck” a few times for luck. I am a large man and the heat of July always gets to me, even if it is 7 am in the morning, on a day the locals describe as “cool.” We were saddling up in the parking lot of a chain hotel on the outskirts of Waynesboro, Virginia -- a few miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

BMW side bags follow a unique trademarked design that allows them to double as fashionable luggage in better hotels. They look just like standard trapezoidal black suitcases with rounded corners and a bizarre latch on the front, complete with a red reflector and roundel on one side. Ten minutes earlier, I had stepped into the elevator with my bags on a cart, only to have a very attractive southern woman say, “I didn’t know that BMW made suitcases.” But she said this with an accent that really meant, “Wouldn’t you like to trace my tan lines with your New Jersey ethics?”

I was about to answer this second question when I was reminded I had a raging hangover, so I simply smiled to minimize the pain.

There are two types of side bags that go on a BMW K75. The tight ones, that come on and off with a prerequisite of swearing... And the loose ones, that occasionally come off if you hit a really hard bump or something. The tight ones are better. That’s what I have. They go on effortlessly, if they are empty. But adding 30 pounds to each one of them makes the “little to the left, now little to the right, and up a little towards the end” mounting maneuvering a trifle tedious.

I was straining to hear the barely audible “click” of the bags locking in. The tight variety will adhere to the side of the motorcycle with greater tenacity than a politician to a funding bill. I managed to get that click from each of my bags, but not before both were spotted by sweat dripping from my face.

“Are you almost ready,” asked Dick Bregstein, who constituted one third of the riders in our party. Dick is my riding buddy and constant foil. He wasn’t ready either, but he felt compelled to ask me in a manner of encouragement.

Still bent over the bike with my back toward Dick, I closed my eyes and through my hangover envisioned his new F800S sticking out of his ass. It was small of me, and I wouldn’t have thought it if I weren’t hot and in pain.  Minutes later, Dick and I followed Pete Buchheit (the third member of this ride) to the entrance of the blue Ridge Parkway -- at mile marker “0.” Thus was the stage set for one of the most remarkable rides I have ever enjoyed.

While I mention Dick a lot, Pete is a relative newcomer to my stories. He has the honest appeal of Henry Fonda and the compassion of W.C. Fields. Our stay in the hotel the previous night was a pisser. We hurt from laughing. There was a carnival atmosphere about the place as it was filled with German bikes headed to the BMW Riders’ Association Rally in Asheville, North Carolina. By coincidence, this was our destination too!

Getting on the parkway is like driving through a looking glass into a parallel universe. The pavement is the best conceivable quality. There was a pastoral view to the left within the first two miles, enhanced by an easy-access parking area. We took in that view for ten minutes, during which no traffic passed on the road -- in either direction. (This was a Tuesday, during the second week in July.) The first few miles were very pleasant. Glancing down to look at my speedo as we passed the first 45 mph speed limit sign, I laughed in my helmet to see it read 62 mph. As far as I was concern, this ride was toast.

Looking like a lake in the skies, this is a valley below the BRP roadway filled with dense fog.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Please click to enlarge and see the detail of the fog)

There was curve every 60 yards for the next hour. Most of these occurred at changes in elevation; qualified as “blind” turns; and many had pull-offs for motorists to enjoy yet another incredible view. This meant that in addition to being on the alert for any obstruction in the turn, I was constantly shifting up and down to stay on the power curve, and watching for cars or other bikes pulling out of these vistas. Dick still managed to get past me and the faint taste of hubris appeared on my lips.

One of the many valleys that border the Blue Ridge Parkway. 
You'd be stopping every ten minutes if you wanted to see them all.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)

My bike for this ride was a 1986 BMW K75. It was a year older than I was when I got my first bike -- 20. I weigh as much as a neutron star. There aren’t many 20-year-old bikes you could take on a 1200 -mile ride and push to the limit every day with my weight. While there was an absence of traffic and lots of beautiful road, this adventure was becoming my version of a technical ride. The only way to take these turns comfortably, or at any degree of speed, was to do it by the numbers. I began to realize there were more curves than straight stretches.
Now Pete and Dick like taking tight turns at speed. The gap between us began to widen but would narrow substantially when they pulled into an overlook to wait for my arrival. They would be giggling like schoolgirls on a picnic when I arrived, some ten or 15 minutes later. This euphoria reached a point where I suspected the two of them might start singing showtunes. Each of these guys had bikes that would lean 46 degrees out of perpendicular, and they were often within a few clicks of scraping the pegs. These guys are good sports and they'll always pull over and wait for me when overcome by guilt.

The Mabrey Mill is probably one of the most photographed scenes in the US
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)

We must have passed a dozen overlooks where each view was more spectacular than the one before. On the BRP, these things occur every few minutes. You wouldn’t make any time at all if you stopped at a third of them. And while the surface of the BRP is as close to perfect as you could imagine, there is enough gravel on the ground in these rest areas to provide suspense. (Let the gentle reader take note that the combination of my shapeless mass and arthritis make me very leery of gravel and uneven surfaces that could cause me to drop the bike.)

Now it may seem that I am complaining somewhat. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was first class adventure. The air in the mountains was laden with the scent of wildflowers and conifers, chilled by the breeze at elevation. The cool air and the breeze seemed to keep the bugs at bay too. In some of these mountain glades, it was positively cold for July.

The sound of the engine rising and falling with every shift is like having a woman whispering exciting things to you. And even though we are talking about ultra-quiet BMWs here, the slingshot twang of the motor bleeding off speed in a tight curve, then coming back up toward the redline inspires bad thoughts about pushing the envelope just a tad farther.

The view of Mount Mitchell from the BRP.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)

On the rare occasions when Pete and Dick were in sight, I would match their movements on the sweeping downhills, letting the dynamic braking action of the machine do the work (as opposed to clamping on the binders). This was like getting flying lessons from Kamikazi pilots. Flirting with gravity and centrifugal force provides a sense of weightlessness, an accomplishment for me, and the reward for getting everything right.

Who among you doesn’t recall the first time that the God of physics manifested his presence with a miracle? That miracle is usually the revelation that you are running out of road in curve with a rock wall on one side and a drop of two thousand feet on the other, and that salvation lies in giving the bike a burst of gas and leaning it over even tighter!

They explain this in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, but it is impossible to adequately demonstrate this principle in a parking lot decorated with cones. The lesson becomes a bit more imperative with certain death as your riding coach.

I will never forget the cold feeling of panic reaching down and chilling my balls as it became apparent that there was neither the arc to take a turn at my current angle, nor the acreage to effect a stop with a pleasant ending. It was the hardest thing in my life to look away from my likely point of impact to concentrate on where I wanted the bike to go, and to press down on the handlebar in that direction. It was even harder to shift my jaw out over the handlebar on that side, the one closest to the pavement, to sort of insist.

But nothing compares with the high of having the bike lean over to the point where the ground fills your peripheral vision on that side; shooting through the turn like the machine is bolted onto a track; and coming nowhere near what you thought you were going to hit. And when you’ve done it once, you’ll do it a thousand more times. The Blue Ridge Parkway is pleased to oblige. (Remember the taste of hubris, however. A handful of gravel in the curve, the grease smudge of a dead animal, or a spot of antifreeze dropped by a car changes the equation considerably.)

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to exist in a predominately motorcycle society? In four hours of riding, I didn’t count 20 cars. But we must have passed two hundred bikes. And most of them fell into two categories: Harley’s and Beemers. In addition to the Beemer RA rally in Asheville, there was a huge Harley music festival in that same general direction. On this one occasion, on this incredible road, these two marquees were evenly matched in number. That almost never happens.

My friend Scott Royer at the Graybeard Mountain lookout
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)

I was trying to catch up to Bregstein on one of the few straight sections of the BRP, when I noticed a long line of shimmering lights in my rearview mirrors. I judged them to be a mile way. They were a line of some 20 Beemers going like the hammers of hell when they passed me -- 15 seconds later. I pulled as far right as I dared, considering there is no shoulder, no guardrail, and no fog line, waving the group on. (It doesn’t hurt to be generous if it really isn’t costing you anything.)

These riders were straight out of a eugenics handbook. Each was wearing the official Aerostitch leathers, weighed approximately 180 pounds, and apparently worked out 20 hours a week. Their bikes whizzed by, nearly soundlessly, at about 80 mph. Uniformly spaced in single file, these boys executed a perfect ballet of flawless maneuvering, each a copy of the rider before him. For the briefest moment, I felt like a cartoon of a BMW rider. And then I realized that the guys who passed me were as full of shit as anybody else. I felt instantly better.

The author on the late "Blue Balls" at Gray Beard Mountain lookout.
(Photo courtesy of Dick Bregstein -- Clink to enlarge)

There was an equally long line of Harleys feeding out on the BRP at one of the road's few intersections. I gave them a wave and even tootled my dual Fiam screamers. They waved back. Buchheit and Bregstein were so far ahead of me at this point, I realized they were probably skipping in circles and scattering rose petals in jubilation. So I was taking it easy, when again my mirrors were filled with the lights of bikes coming up from behind. The headlights were framed with Hollywood riding lights this time, indicating I was about to be overtaken by the Milwaukee Iron crowd.

“Screw this,” I thought. It was a thoroughly irrational emotion, but I’d rather have been dipped in shit and died in a classic fireball than get passed by all that chrome. I put the spurs to “Blue Balls” and started riding with renewed ambition. Trees on each side of the road became blurred. I widened the gap and felt like a Saturn 5 rocket. Looking at my speedo, I couldn’t believe it only read 50 mph. What the hell was happening to me?

The Blues Brothers -- Three Blue BMW's loaded for adventure at Boston Knob Overlook
(Photo Courtesy of Pete Buchheit who lives for photo credits in my ride reports
Click to enlarge)

The first half of the day was over, and we pulled into a classic National Park Service concession overlooking a lake at the Peaks of Otter. There were about 40,000 motorcycles in the parking lot. Perhaps a few more. There was every conceivable kind of Harley. All 5 BMW models were represented in profusion. The bikes were parked in interlocking segments of a vast puzzle. One extra wide spot was open about 200 yards from the restaurant. I parked dead center in it, getting raised eyebrows from a couple of tattooed bros who obviously thought I was taking up 15 spots.

View of the Irish Creek Valley -- typical of many BRP overlooks
(Photo by Pete Buchheit -- Click to enlarge)

The wait for a table was about three days. But with the southern efficiency in evidence, they promised we’d have one in five. Bregstein trotted off to find us cold drinks, which was a nice gesture as we had an hour to enjoy them. The hostess got us a cozy table between a dozen veterans from the Battle of Bull Run and two young parents with children they were undoubtedly trying to sell for medical experiments.

After another wait of some 40 minutes, the hostess returned to take our order as the waitress had been replaced by a statue representing righteous indignation. I didn’t care about the wait. I didn’t give a shit that they didn’t have any rum either. And I couldn’t have cared less that the mens room was on another floor, reachable by a steam -powered elevator that had to be stoked by the passengers. The first item on the menu was “Fried Green Tomatoes!”

I have always wanted to try fried green tomatoes. If any dish could embody the spirit of the south, it would have to be fried green tomatoes. I closed my eyes and imagined tomatoes as green as new dollars, being picked by blonde Georgia peaches, and fried in herbs and lard according to a recipe handed down by four generations of southern colonels.

“I’d like to start with the fried green tomatoes,” I said. Then addressing my two companions, I added, “Boys, can I treat you to another order of fried green tomatoes, as I am disinclined to share the one I have coming.” Bregstein refused with a look of skepticism that was spawned in Brooklyn and honed to an edge in New Jersey. Pete followed suit with a smirk that passes for communication among aluminum siding salesman.

“To hell with the two of you, I thought.”

Four slices of fried green tomatoes arrived twenty minutes later looking like breaded bar coasters. I cut into the first one with fanfare. By itself, the green tomato is tasteless, and draws its personality from the lard and the breading, apparently. These in turn rely heavily on an unwashed skillet for character. By way of improvement, I ordered a fried green cheeseburger with a slice of raw onion and three strips of bacon. Then I carefully laid two slices of fried green tomato on each side of these collective elements, giving birth to the Jersey City fried green tomato cheeseburger -- patent pending. Under these circumstances, the fried green tomato reigns supreme.

When it came time to leave, I discovered enough motorcycles had parked around my bike to make its extraction a challenge for Houdini. Yet I was in no hurry to just pull out, especially after a brief three-hour lunch. The bike threaded through mine was a Honda Shadow, painted in a beautiful deep green and tan. It was one of the most striking cruisers I had seen all day. Fortunately, a couple of Teutonic purists came along and removed their machines enabling me to straddle mine. I pulled away with one last look at the Honda, and at the woman who was approaching it with purpose.

I gave up all pretense of keeping up with Dick and Pete after lunch. They disappeared over the horizon -- as far as the next curve, 40 feet away -- with a wave. In fact, I surrendered all of my competitive instincts to just enjoying the rest of this day as a leisurely ride. The Blue Ridge Parkway offers the most varied terrain of any road I have had the pleasure to ride. In parts, you ride though densely forested sections, which suddenly open up to reveal endless valleys on either side of the road. In one section, the ridge top carrying the road is barely much wider than the road itself. Finding a sweeping valley on both sides of the pavement at once imparts a peculiar sensation of flight.

Yet the best way to enjoy these sweeping landscapes in the clouds is to stop and get off the motorcycle. At 45 miles per hour, the nature of this route is such that you have 1.3 seconds to see anything that is not directly in front of the bike. As all of you are aware, the bike will go in the direction in which you are looking. Peering over a cliff can bring the ride to a surprise ending.

Shortly after crossing into North Carolina, the road runs along the face of a cliff, plunging in elevation (on a curve, of course), before soaring up over the precipice's lip. The view and the effect is the most dramatic of the entire ride. There is a small rock wall to correct any irregularities in your turning technique, and a drop straight to hell just beyond. I desperately wanted to stop and take pictures. The truth is one breathtaking view starts to look exactly like another when you see a few hundred of them in a row. But then you come to a truly great one -- and there will be absolutely no place to pull over without causing an accident. 

The BRP runs through a patchwork of small Virginia farms. They are beautiful and make you think you are in New England. Just before the exit for Asheville, NC, you sweep through high mountain tunnels that are a real pisser, and find yourself on a stretch overlooking a huge lake far below. Every view has the quality of being a Hollywood set.

Riding alone, without the distraction of maintaining my place in formation, generally frees up my mind to think about stories I want to write, debates I should have won, and romances I should never have lost. Not on this road. Every mile brings the potential for something entirely new. There are curves on this road that go on forever, and double back on themselves like a bizarre fishhook on the end on an “s” with a fat bottom. There are yellow road signs that indicate the pavement ahead is not only twisted, but tied in knots..

There is nothing about the BRP that is mediocre. It is far from a technical ride through the Himalayas, but it is a mistake to call it a cake walk for beginners too. Consider this road the friendly python, with teeth.

©copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA The Vindak8r Motorcycle Views
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)