And The Biker Riff-Raff that Greeted Me!
(Humor and Personal Obsservation - Four Stars ****)
The Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the history of the world. And they used to be among the tallest too, but you’d have to predate the dinosaurs by about four million years (rough approximation) to have personal knowledge of this. How did they get worn down to their present height of 4,500 to 5,500 feet? Some say it was the inevitable erosion of time... Others claim it was the economy... And some believe that an ancient civilization of women warriors, poets, and cooks bitched them down to size. Depending on the kind of day I am having, I can easily believe any one of the three.
This past weekend found me in the company of boyhood chum Ihor Sypko, who has a cabin in the Adirondack High Peaks region, not far from where I myself lived for nearly two decades. The drive into this place can seem interminable, nearly 8 hours of fast highway driving (75 mph+) from where we started. We began in Hopewell, NJ, that for all its proximity to Trenton, is one of the most beautiful communities I have ever seen. Our starting point was a 38-acre farm carrying an estimated real estate value of $3 million (USD - actual). The run up I-287 (through Morristown) was almost anti-climatic, but I felt my heart swell when I crossed the border between New Jersey and New York. It was here that Ihor and I had fished the Ramapo River dozens of times in our late 20’s; and it was here that I rode a Kawasaki H2 into the night an equal number of times (camping in Harriman Park with women in my college years); and it was through here that I drove like hell to beat the dawn to spend some of the best days of my life with a woman who no longer feels that way.
“Fuck it,” I thought, stepping down on the accelerator of the shiny, red Ford 150 4x4, the rig that has replaced my Suburban. “Most people have nothing to remember... And I’m just getting warmed up.” The rock classic “Layla” was pouring out of the radio and I crossed into the Empire State imagining I was astride my BMW motorcycle, with the tach needle dancing on the red line. I’d have that daydream often as there were still six hours left to go.
Ihor’s cabin is a historic structure that was saved and transported from land that had jumped from private ownership to a conservancy trust. He has lovingly restored it, and then made a number of artistic and creative improvements to it. These include indoor plumbing, a nuclear reactor of a soapstone wood-burning stove, and a kitchen that encourages men to sit around the table — drinking scotch and smoking cigars.
Above: Three friends on one of their first visits to the Adirondacks in 1971. From left — Ihor Sypko, Jack Riepe (middle), and the late Bill Matz, posing on the Marcy Dam. Bill passed away in his early 30's, the victim of a massive stroke. The Marcy Dam washed away this summer in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Photo by a stranger. The author makes no apology for the patch-pocket pants.
The other two guys sitting around that table were Chris Wolfe and Michael Cantwell. The gentle Twisted Roads reader will recognize those two names from any number of past blog episodes. Chris and Mike are two of my oldest friends in the Adirondacks. Both have accompanied me to BMW rallies. Both have been the catalysts of some incredible rides. And both are savagely dangerous men in that either one is capable of saying, “Hold my beer and watch this.”
Poor Ihor was outgunned and outclassed.
The riding stories came fast and furious, and nearly all were hysterically funny, considering there were no fatalities. It was decided by majority vote that Ihor needed to be exposed to a ride on a BMW “R” bike, the motorcycle having most in common with his personality. (Not only does Ihor not ride, but he has never been on the back of a motorcycle.) Chris thought Ihor would be most at home on a Brough Superior, which was the preferred motorcycle of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Ihor then agreed to try it if he could ride Lawrence’s actual bike. (Chris claims to know a guy whose got it in his basement, though it has been disguised as an aging Triumph to discourage theft.)
Above: Ihor Sypko today, after brutally dragging this poor trout out of the AuSable River and clubbing it like it was a baby harp seal (right after he kissed it on the lips as the best fish he's caught in 25 years). Photo by Dave Zmoda.
Ihor Sypko is a professional archeologist (employed in this trade about 25 years) whose entire life is dedicated to the preservation of history, or at least the bits of it that are worth saving. He will hunt and fish (where permissible) in period clothing and has a handlebar mustache that goes two-thirds of the distance around his head. We have been friends for 39 years, having met in a Jesuit prep school, and have taken trout, pheasant, grouse, and deer together in every kind of weather and circumstance.
Above: Chris Wolfe, in what has to be the best photograph ever taken of him, standing next to his piss yellow Honda VFR Interceptor, on the ferry to Shelbourne Vermont. Photo by Mike Cantwell, who must have been on drugs.
Chris Wolfe is a transplant from Britain, whose clipped accent (which I describe as Cockney) has gotten him laid in the U.S. more often than any man deserves. A medical professional and a pillar of the community (I cringe to write those words), he has made any number of house calls to my previous Adirondack address to diagnose various plagues as alcohol poisoning. (Chris once used the power of his accent — and 6 words — to snatch a woman away from me, before marrying her to make the arrangement permanent. He said, “Missy, step back. Jack has clap.”) Chris rides a piss-yellow Honda VFR Interceptor... And he does ride it like T.E. Lawrence.
Above) Michael Cantwell and the pristine K75 known as "Connie." Photo by the author.
Michael Cantwell is a professional environmental specialist (also employed in his trade) and an authority on a thousand aspects of nature. He once introduced me to a variety of gigantic fucking spider that jumps around in its web, causing lesser men to scream like little girls. Mike also took me turkey hunting, where we discovered the rare “Lord Of The Rings” Adirondack Wild Turkey. This is a turkey about the size of a parade float that slips on a ring and becomes invisible (even in an empty field) when a shotgun is raised to ones shoulder. Cantwell rides a pristine BMW K75 and has the most even tempered personality of any individual I have ever met. If lava began to flow out of his septic system, Mike would warm his hands over it and say, “Isn’t this hot shit?”
As Cantwell was heading over for the evening, he said to his wife, Jennifer, “Frodo and Bilbo have invited me over for drinks and cigars tonight.”
And thus was the plot for the evening cast.
The conversation turned to Adirondack camping in the good old days, and we wore a hole in the scotch bottle rehashing battles fought with reluctant SVEA stoves, primitive cross-country skis (bindings), and tents whose waterproofing lasted until the height of the storm. We have all climbed Mount Marcy (an 8-hour uphill jaunt), canoed the backwaters, and camped in snow that was three feet deep. And three of us have leaned through sweeping turns in triple digits — together.
When the cigar smoke cleared, I found myself lying in bed watching silver moonlight working over the tops of distant mountains. My first thought was, “You wouldn’t see those mountains if the leaves were still on the trees.” And then I wondered about the windows themselves. The wavy nature of the 19th century glass panes (reclaimed by Ihor in the original sashes) bent the flight of clouds into an exaggerated line of curves. I wondered about generations of hunters, guides, and their woman guests who looked out at the night through those windows. As if on cue, coyotes began to howl in a dialogue that has haunted these mountains since those in moccasined feet were first here to listen.
I got out of bed, moving through the darkened cabin by the light of the stove’s glowing embers, and opened the front door. The subtle heat of the stove collided with an even more subtle ghost of warm air drifting down from Whiteface Mountain. It was the warmest November on record for these parts, and I sat on the cabin’s steps wrapped in a blanket. The coyotes were moving through the trees along the riverbed... Their howls first sounding nearer, then more distant, as they followed the bends in the AuSable River.
Nothing is spared the stark contrast of moonlight in a bare Adirondack forest. There are two colors: silver and black. The silver serves to punctuate the conspiracy of darkness under the conifers, and it is an unbroken blackness that can extend for miles. And yet, it would have softened to a tapestry of grays, had I wandered into it. The moon mocked me with her light. There is no warmth in moon light, other than the kind you generate with a perfumed nakedness next to you. And then I wondered, “Why am I always alone when I notice moons like this one?” The answer is simple: You don’t give a shit about the moon when you are wrapped in the arms of a perfumed nakedness.
I recalled a viciously cold February evening more than 20 years ago, when I built a raging fire in the wood stove of my own cabin, and took a woman to the bedroom directly upstairs. It was 88º (F) in that bedroom, with a 95º differential in the temperature outside. There was no wind that night, and I opened the bedroom windows wide. The aroma of balsams and woodsmoke drifted in on the penetrating scent of the bitter cold. The woman was amazed and became silly putty under a down comforter. There was a full moon that night too... And I never invited it to the party.
The howling of the coyotes evaporated in the dawn, and I awoke (back in bed) to the unbelievable whine of a K75. Cantwell was outside, revving his beautiful blue “Connie” into operating temperature. After coffee and Advil, Mike tossed me the keys and told me to take it for a run. My fall jacket, Nolan helmet, and gloves were in the truck. I am leery about riding other folks’ motorcycles, as a rule. No matter how identical the same models may appear, riding someone else’s bike is like brushing you teeth with somebody else’s toothbrush... Or a toilet brush, in some cases. Mike’s bike ran flawlessly... Shifted with the same butter-smooth, blacksmith-shop clunk as my bike... And had the same even temperament as “Fire Balls...” But it has a stiffer suspension and the stock seat, which is like sitting on a splitting maul. And if I was going to go careening around the Adirondacks, then I wanted to do it on my machine.
Chris Wolfe dropped by later that afternoon too. He brought a 1970’s vintage Honda dirt bike in the 350cc category, with the intent of giving me the opportunity to run it around the fire roads and the power line right of ways. This was out of the question. At half the K75’s displacement, this electric shaver of a bike would have crumbled under the weight of my ass, despite what I’ve lost.
But Chris had an interesting proposition: He wanted to take this rig on a “seasonal” road running through the Sentinel Range. For “seasonal,” read “primitive” maintenance under the best of circumstances; and none between the middle of November and April. This was a dirt and partially gravel trail, interrupted with occasional washouts, deep ruts, and marshes caught behind beaver dams. He wanted to hot dog this 18-mile stretch and thought I might like to follow in my 4x4 pickup.
It was easy to follow his skinny, weaselly ass — in the beginning. The cracked stone and jutting rocks of the lower road was no challenge for the tough, ballsy suspension of this truck. But the road got narrow, twisty, and less substantive. One of the things I like about this truck is that everything is as tight as a drum, including the brakes and the steering. I am not anxious to start loosening things up, so I slowed to a crawl about five miles after the power lines ran out. The road quickly devolved into a track, and one covered with standing water in more than a few places. I reached a place where a beaver dam made a marsh into an interesting little pond, and decided to cut the engine.
Above: This beaver pond crested the track, and set one of the more dramatic scenes along the "seasonal" road. Not every serene spot has to be a vista. I sat here for over an hour, and felt like I was in church. Photo by the author, taken on a "Droid" Incredible.
The day was as clear as crystal and as warm as hour-old toast. I was very likely the only person in a ten-mile radius and the desolation quietly insinuated itself. At first, it seems as if there was no sound at all, and then there was the wind. The wind starts as a rumor and then becomes a whisper of something you wanted to remember. The trees are small as the earth is shallow and the elements are harsh. Martin, fisher, mink and other vicious rodents haunt the boggy clearings, and bear wander through here with indifference. I’m told the deer have returned, though I’ve seen exactly one in five years. There wasn’t a single bird on a tree limb nor in the sky.
The colors were all wrong for this place at this time of year.
The second week of November should be the beginning of the month-long gray season in the Adirondacks, where the sky, the ground, the forests, the woodsmoke, and the moods all blend together in a suicidal miasma that would delight Ingmar Bergman. There was snow on the ground here just the day before. But now the sky was blue (mostly) and diluted the pond where it leached in the water. The marsh weeds and the undergrowth were complimentary bands of dark green and brown. Though I had crossed a dozen little creeks and forded a few streams, there was no aroma to the water and the air had that clean smell that comes from untainted oxygen at the source. I felt as it the season had halted to give me one more shot at getting in here, before the road became impassable.
Sometimes, I make the mistake of thinking life is best viewed through two sets of eyes, and I had forgotten how savagely beautiful this place is on it’s own.
The sound of the dirt bike began as a gnat-like buzzing in the air. It was so quiet here that I heard the engine a full ten minutes before the bike skirted into view. Chris brought the Honda to a halt and dismounted with the elegance of a rodeo clown. It is missing the kickstand, so he leaned it against a tree.
“I was in a place similar to this one,” he explained, “when I stopped and tried to put the sidestand down. There was a loud ‘twang’ and it flew off into a beaver pond. Just like that.”
I showed my sympathy for the lost 35-year-old sidestand by looking appropriately appalled. “So,” I asked, “there is a beaver lodge someplace around here leaning on a Honda sidestand?”
“You are such a total prick,” Chris observed.
I was sitting on the tailgate, wishing I’d thought to stash a thermos of coffee in the cab, and watched as Chris lit a cigarette. That would have put me off if anyone else had done it, but there isn’t much he, Cantwell, nor Ihor could do that would raise my hackles. I watched as the cigarette smoke spiraled into the scenery. Neither one of us spoke for the next twenty minutes. There was nothing to say.
“Is it supposed to rain or snow tonight,” I finally said.
“I saw a flat spot behind the trees back there. I was thinking of going back for my sleeping bag, stove, and light. I thought it might be cool to ease the truck in there, and spend the night out in the open, on the load bed.”
Anyone else would have asked, “Why the load bed?” Chris knew the answer: because it was dry.
“Nothing’s flat and clear up here. You could sink in up to the axels. And if that happens, snowmobilers could be pissing off the tailgate of this truck through April.”
“It was just a thought,” I added.
“Here’s another,” Chris ventured. “Let’s go to a country bar and get half pissed.”
“I’ll follow you.”
The tavern was a cheery spot of North Country hospitality overlooking a valley ringed by sawtooth mountains. Everybody knew Chris, and they pretended they were glad to see me too. The very first drink I ever shared with Chris, back in 1984, was a Negroni. This is equal parts of gin, Compari , and sweet Vermouth. Now seated at this bar, 27 years later, I opted to order another — and to stick him with the tab. In fact, I had four of them, and stuck him like I was the picador at a bullfight.
Three hours later, Ihor’s cabin glowed like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
“Have a good day out in the woods?” asked Ihor, playing a flashlight over the mud-covered running boards on the truck.
“We did everything but donate an organ.”
“Next time,” said Ihor, with a laugh. We returned to New Jersey the next morning.
The next riding episode of Twisted Roads will appear on Friday, November 25th, 2011, delayed by the Thanksgiving Holiday in the United States. It is an endearing story about my first foray into Cape May Café Society, and why the first really pretty woman I had the temerity to talk to felt compelled to spit in my coffee. Two interim pieces will appear on this site between now and then.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011