According to an ancient Chinese proverb (which may have been spawned on the city desk of a US newspaper in the 1920’s), “One picture is worth a thousand words.” This is one of those enduring bromides that just seems to drip wisdom and sense. The truth of the statement regarding the photograph depends on the subject of the picture, and who took it. A bad picture can be rescued by snappy text. But bad text can never be revived by a bad photo. And a good photo just makes bad text look even worse. That is why nervous writers like myself brush our teeth with gin in the morning as part of the creative editorial process that paints a series of pictures in the minds of dedicated readers.
I like to think I write the kind of stories that seduce the reader from paragraph to paragraph. But there are times when I am inclined to let the gentle reader relax between transitions by looking at a picture that is unique, odd, sexy, or just interesting. This is tough to do as all my photographs look like shit. My pictures suck so badly that they would stick to the surface of a waterfall... A really big waterfall... Like Niagara Falls. Many other motorcycle blog writers take great pictures. It is something they like to do. I am inspired by pain and aggravationto take shitty pictures. On most of my motorcycle rides, I arrive at our destination having chewed through the strap in my helmet, dripping sweat that kills the grass by the side of the road.
Above: The YouTube video at the end of this blog was taken using this tiny Apple iPod Nano. It has limitations, but it was a snap to edit on iMovie, barely taking longer than an hour. This is the screen-side. Photo by the author.
Competition from other riders for reader attention got hot for a bit with the advent of moto-video. Yet moto-video is very different from carefully composed still shots. It is generally taken from cameras mounted on a helmet or the handlebars, and which simply records mile after mile of a run. Now unless a rider is skirting the rim of the Grand Canyon, riding the Road of Death in Bolivia, or racing through the back alleys of the whore district (Reeperbahn) in Hamburg, Germany, there isn’t a lot to see. When it comes to straightaways, sweepers, and country roads, we all have a story tell — and that little video camera seldom gets the job done.
Above: The camera side of the Apple iPod Nano. US Quarter Dollar coin (now worth 6 cents) provided for scale. Photo by the author.
I have no interest in buying one of the current handlebar-mounted cameras. Then fate brought me to an Apple computer store one day last summer, and I got to play with an iPod Nano, which as the approximate size of a short stack of business cards (a stack of about 10). It was $175, held 400 songs, eight hours of prerecorded video (movies), and a few hours of movies you could take with the onboard camera. It had no options for zoom or anything else. According to the salesperson, a hot little cookie named Chrissy, this tiny device could take remarkable movies that would almost download themselves onto my MacBook, and through iMovie, would allow me to stabilize the video, adjust the lighting, dub in sound, and play with some surprising special effects. She then showed me sample video taken by the iPod Nano. It was astounding. (It was also taken by a team of experts, under ideal lighting conditions, and edited by a Hollywood studio.)
The $175 flew from my pocket.
I had an idea for a radical concept: Twisted Roads TV. This would be a monthly video program that would go far beyond the standard moto-video. It would be a chronicle of select destinations, with pertinent interviews (of some surprising figures in motorcycle circles), with related footage. In my initial concept, I thought to use one or two of these iPod Nanos to simplify the editing, to reduce costs, and get double the usage out of the camera/devices. I also intended to combined the video with a decent story lead-in. Today’s blog episode is my first initial experiment in this direction. The video is primitive... Shakey in places... And the limitations of the iPod Nanos (no longer offered by Apple in this configuration) became obvious in the shooting and in the editing. (The iPod Nano cannot be used by the rider on the road.) Yet from little acorns, mighty oaks might grow. (Another stupid bromide.)
Strasburg — By Twisted Roads
It was the kind of clear, summer day on which you were absolutely compelled to ride... But the conspiracy of heat and humidity would see to it that you wouldn’t ride far. A ride would seem cooling as long as you were moving, and unaware of the moisture being sucked from your body through your mesh gear. You have to stop sooner or later, and unless you are by a place where the lake is remote, the beer is cold, and the women undiscerning, then you will be compelled to retrace your steps, probably in worse heat regenerated by stalled traffic. Pennsylvania is one of those states that gives the impression that a good time for many is sticking their thumbs up their own ass, while tap dancing. It has no seashore. The mountains that are close are table-sized and crowded. The mountains that are far are home to more bear than deer, and your chances of running into a deer are much higher than finding a joint with great topless dancers.
Yet those of us who live in the southeast corner of the state are blessed with options. World-class beaches are only three or four hours away in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Better still are the tiny, dead-end roads that lead to shore communities famous for their three-stool bars and great seafood. And if one is determined to find a relative coolness under the trees, or the solace of open farmland drenched with tradition, the Amish fields of Lancaster are 40 minutes to the west. It was there I pointed the business end of my K75. My destination would be a familiar one — The Strasburg Rail Road — on Rt. 741, in Strasburg, Pa. It would be cool here in the sense that it is home to some of the greatest technical transportation marvels of the late 19th Century. Yet it is an atmosphere of sulfurous coal smoke, clouds of steam, and trickling streams of boiling water — located in the heart of Amish cornfields, that follow the contours on interconnecting valleys.
Above: The unique and picturesque switch tower overlooking the siding at the Strasburg Rail Road, in Strasburg, Pa. This photo, which does not suck, was taken by Leslie Marsh.
I had some company on this run. My riding partner Dick Bregstein was joined by a posse of John Clauss, Bobby LeBoutlier, and Jay Scales. (Clyde Jacobs would turn up later at our destination.) These guys are all better riders than I am, but each thought the idea of fooling around with making a video in and around these ancient, bellowing trains would be a pisser. Bregstein, LeBoutlier, and Scales are of the BMW “R” bike persuasion. Their machines each sport twin horizontal cylinders, whose basic design would predate by a year one of the locomotives we’d see today. The aroma of burning coal is like the scent of quim to these guys, who work the throttle with one hand and stoke the boiler of their bikes with the other.
Above: Two massive locomotves awaiting restoration at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, across the street from the Strasburg Rail Road. Photo by Leslie Marsh.
John Clauss rides a vintage BMW K100, which is a K75 with an extra cylinder. Clauss’s bike sports the OEM full fairing, which was the predecessor for the stock K75’s sense of homeliness. If Clauss’s bike were elected prom queen, the other kids in the class would dump pig’s blood on it. (Clauss knows this but refuses to throw in the towel.) On the other hand, Clyde Jacob’s 2004 BMW K1200GT is one of the most beautiful and impressive motorcycles ever to roll out of Bavaria. I will own one some day.
The ride to Strasburg was uneventful, and fast. It was the expressway (the US-30 bypass) most of the way. But this stretch of mini-slab is surrounded by cornfields, cattle, and barns with silos. Picking up Rt. 741 in the town of Gap, we were compelled to share the road with Amish buggies, tow-headed kids chasing hoops with sticks, and the occasional plow — crossing the road drawn by four of the biggest draft horses, or mules, you have ever seen.
I had a interesting experience on this road the week before. An Amish family was selling pulled pork, barbecued chicken, and potato salad by the side of the road (on trestle tables that had been carried in open wagons). I am partial to the local non-carbonated, home-brewed root beer peddled by these folks, and saw bottles of it on ice. I downshifted my K75 and managed a tight 380-foot U-turn over to their stand. Pulling right up the table, it was my intention to get a sandwich and a bottle of root beer without getting off the bike.
Then I saw her.
Amish women have the reputation of either being boney-assed, or for being no-fun Pennsylvania Dutch noodle-eating versions of American Gothic. The person standing in front of me was unquestionably one of the most beautiful ladies I have seen in my entire life. She was tall, willowy, tanned, and her body was accented by the stark lines of her dress and apron. I couldn’t see her hair for her starched bonnet, and she was wearing heavy-framed glasses. I had a suspicion that whatever she put on would only make her look better as it came off. And for the second time in my life, I lost my ability to speak with a woman.
“Can I get you something?” she asked with a smile.
I simply nodded and looked down at the trestle table.
“Can I make you a pulled pork sandwich? All of the ingredients are fresh from our farm.”
Watching her lips frame the words “pulled pork” nearly caused me to lose consciousness.
“Yes, pull thar pork like taffy,” I thought, though I simply nodded.
“It comes with potato salad.”
“I'm not surprised,” I replied, unable to take my eyes off her face.
“Can you carry a plate of potato salad while riding your bike?” she asked, tilting her head slightly.
It was then I realized how stupid I was about to look juggling a sandwich, a plate of potato salad, and a bottle of home-brewed root beer on the gas tank of my K75.
“I’ll park it and come back,” I said. I rolled it back to the road under power, slipping the clutch. It didn’t take me 3 minutes to get the stand down and waddle back.
“That’ll be $4.75,” said a man’s voice.
The woman was packing up stuff in the wagon. She was bent over a basket lined with a plaid cloth, but I swear she was smiling, and trying hard not to laugh.
This guy was smooth-shaven, as lean as a rail, and as blond as elm wood. I’m told that the Amish are pacifists and "Dutch." But he looked like he’d be perfectly comfortable in a Waffen SS uniform, and equally at home with the idea of kicking me in the balls. I suspected I was not the first guy on a bike to pull up for pulled pork.
The boys and I pulled into Strasburg Station without fanfare. We were early and the first train of the day had not yet been assembled. Nearly everyone has seen a traditional steam locomotive. Whether it is in the book, “The Little Locomotive That Could,” or an old black and white western on TV, or Frank Sinatra in “Von Ryan’s Express,” everyone has an idea of what one of these things should look like. Yet at least one of the guys in our posse had never been here before, and the look on his face was priceless when #90 rolled out of the maintenance shed. The tolling brass bell, the hissing of the valves, and the metallic shuffle of the drive rods is captivating (to a guy), who realizes that this machine, weighing 175 tons, can pull 40-50 freight cars at speeds over 50 miles per hour. It’s one thing to see something like this in a movie or in a documentary. It’s quite another to be standing 8 feet away when this rolling steel mill taps into a line of standing passenger cars. (At one time the Pennsylvania Rail Road owned 598 of this particular model.) This locomotive is a Decapod, one of two operating in the world today.
The Strasburg Rail Road is one of my favorite short (40-mile) warm up runs. But I think I’ll let my video tell the rest of the story.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011.