That question was posed to me by the late Mack Harrell, who was strapping the last of his camping gear to the back of a bright yellow BMW GS.
“Not as far as you’re accustomed to going,” I replied, with a grimace.
I’d been home less than 24 hours from a week on the road — via the BuRP Rally in Maggie Valley, NC — and had made a horrible discovery: my arthritis was no longer resetting to “zero” after a decent night’s sleep and a hot shower. Here it was, at the beginning of a run to Montreal for Mack and Lake Placid, NY for me, and my knees would barely bend. I struggled to get my side cases out to the bike and mounted to the frame. (According to the manual, each case could hold a maximum of 25 pounds. Mine were certainly heavier than that, but I knew the system was up to it.) Yet a loud creaking and popping sound accompanied the maneuvering to get each pannier on the frame. (There is a trick to mounting the bags, and knowing it guarantees the panniers will attach in two seconds or less, and stay attached throughout a nuclear attack. Not knowing it will cause the rider to say, “Fuck,” no less than 7,000 times, as nothing will get the bags on the frame.)
“Are your side bags creaking like that?” asked Mack.
“No,” I replied honestly. “That noise is coming from my knees.”
Later, when I started the engine, Mack cocked his head in amazement as the legendary whine from the K75 filled the air. “Is that sound coming from your engine?”
“No... My dick,” I lied, for variation.
Our ultimate destination was the BMW Rally in Burlington, VT (2006). But Mack had a romantic liaison planned for Montreal and I had always wanted to ride a motorcycle in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. His bike, the Trojan workhorse of the BMW line, was set up for a week of camping. It looked like he was out to discover the source of a strange river. My machine was a 1986 BMW K75 (with the rare Sprint fairing), carefully loaded to get the most out of a first class hotel with superb room service. The plan was to head north a few days before the rally, enabling each of us to pursue our own objectives, before meeting at the rally in Burlington.
Lake Placid was about 400 miles from the driveway and Montreal was another 90 minutes north of that. Most BMW riders would cover that distance before lunch, and Mack had made the run to Montreal, Canada from Essex County, NJ in one shot many times. But my longest day’s run (as a middle-aged male destined for the La Brea Tar Pits) was just around 300 miles, and it nearly killed me. (That ride was on a scalding hot day, and between the heat and my arthritis, riding buddy Wayne Whitlock suggested replacing my helmet with a plastic bag.)
It’s not that I don’t like riding long distances. But the pain in my knees gets to the point where I start grinding my teeth, and that’s after taking the really strong medication. I would try to make the most of a day’s run by choosing a mixture of direct side roads and picturesque slabs, thereby squeezing 60 to 80 miles out of each hour. Hence my love of the interstates. I have been driving to the Adirondacks for over 35 years and knew the fastest routing — which ran through New Jersey. But Mack had just come from there, so I chose a scenic route up to I-84, that would bring us into New York without having to pass through the Garden State again.
Under the circumstances, that was probably the stupidest thing I could have done.
We took PA Route 100 up to US-22, and grabbed the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Northeast Extension) at Allentown. We followed that to Scranton, and got on I-84 (which misses New Jersey by about 8 feet), which we then traced to the New York State Thruway.
Except it wasn’t quite that smooth nor automatic.
The demons in my knees started hammering before I left the driveway. Pennsylvania Route 100 (heading north) has stretches that delight the eye and refresh the soul. I found myself chewing through my lower lip with every imperfection in the pavement. There are traffic lights, little farm communities, and the occasional tractor pulling a load of shit. We were delayed by all of them, as the temperature steadily climbed into the mid-90s. While the routing I chose seemed to offer an abundance of high-speed slabs, it wasn’t the most direct route by far. Three hours into the ride brought us to a rest area on I-84 (in New York State), which wasn’t even the introduction to the ride that lay ahead.
We were both wearing mesh ballistic gear that enabled the hellish breeze to evaporate the moisture from our bodies. I was so dehydrated that I didn’t have to take a piss in 8 hours. (I tried, only to release a puff of steam and a whistling sound from “Thor’s Hammer.”.)
“How are you doing?” asked Mack.
“I’m having the time of my life, but don’t really know how far I can get today,” I replied. “I might have to call a halt in Albany.” Albany is the State Capital of New York and was only a little more than halfway. But the truth was that I was starting to think of one of the cheap, run-down hotel properties that one can find for $60 or $70 off the toll road in the vicinity of the Catskills, fifty or sixty miles before Albany.
“Whatever you want to do,” said Mack. The stink of defeat was in the air.
We pulled through the tollbooth of the New York State Thruway 20 minutes later, and moved out into traffic. That was when the real demon made his presence known.
I have always love to see things by car, and the New York State Thruway has been my gateway to freedom since I was 17-years-old. It was the fastest way to get a dramatic change in scenery for a kid who was raised in a city of flat roofs, broken glass, and dog shit. You can’t really see the Hudson Valley to the right, but the foothills of the Catskills open on the left, and all this open, wooded, uncrowded space boggled my adolescent mind. Once again, I found myself lost in reverie on this road.
Now, at age 52 (astride this near vintage Beemer), I stated thinking of the thousands of times I had driven this road in both directions. Twice with new brides... Eight times with new lovers... Dozens of times with hunting and fishing buddies... Hundreds of times on visitation weekends with my daughter (starting at age five)... And many more times by myself (as I owned a business in New Jersey yet lived in Lake Placid, a scant 7 hours distant). Yet this was only the second time I’d traversed this road by motorcycle. (The first was in 1976, when I rode a Kawasaki H2 to Niagara Falls, turning west at Albany.)
Despite the fact that only 11 years separated the issue date of that Kawasaki H2 (1975) and that BMW K75 (1986), there was no comparison between the two machines. The Kawi was primitive, rough riding, and buzzy in the extreme, complete with an odd engine sound. The Beemer was as smooth as 20-year-old single malt, far more responsive on the lower end, immeasurably better in the curves, a lot more reliable on the brakes, and marginally better sounding. What a difference a decade makes!
Then I thought of the comparison between the riders... With more than 34 years difference, the Kawasaki rider had the knees of a varsity fencer, the reticence of a Kamikaze pilot, the commitment of a serial killer and the sense of a doorknob. That rider’s throttle knew two positions: “balls to the wall” and “guilty as charged.” The H2 rider got a erection once in 1975, and that lasted from April 3rd to December 22nd.
The BMW rider was a shadow of that kid. Rotten knees and an outlook stained by two failed marriages, a mad compulsion to eventually write down every thought and inflict it on unsuspecting readers, and a desire to cling to the one link that forever kept him 19-years-old (at least in his mind), conspired to keep him in the saddle, always waiting for the other boot to drop.
The demon began to seep into my hand through the throttle, and I felt a tingling in my fingers. Looking down at the speedo, I realized I was clipping along at 93 miles per hour, with Mack in hot pursuit. (Some things never change.) I opted not to slow down, but pulled into the first fuel stop to tank up.
“You seem to be feeling a bit better,” noted Mack. “How’s it going?”
It was going worse than I wanted him to know. It hurt taking my left left off the peg almost as much as it hurt to get it up there... And the pain was gravitating toward my hip.
“These rest areas are spaced about every 20 or 30 miles all the way to Albany,” I said. “Would you mind if I pulled into each one just to drop my legs?”
Mack didn’t mind at all, suspecting that we’d have another 40 miles to go before I got off the bike for the day. But the demon had begun to possess me now... And he was feeding on the pain. We covered the distance between rest areas like errant bullets, running speed traps twice. The Catskill Mountains reared up on the left, where we could see a thunderstorm loose among the peaks, with lightning arcing from crown to crown. The temperature dropped a bit, which was reflected by another jump on my tach. We ripped past the exits for the cheap hotels, hurtling beyond a picturesque valley housing a maximum security prison.
I carried my own prison in my knees.
There are three beautiful streams crossed by the Thruway and I have always wondered what it would be like to hike along them, casting a fly here and there... But not that day. Hiking and fishing are for the damned when you can be riding a motorcycle. I clung to the far right lane crossing these bridges, so I could see over the side, knowing that they’d be behind me in a second or two. I pointed out waterfalls, mountains, rivers and landmarks to Mack. One of these was the first covered bridge I ever saw in my life, though they would be common enough where I would come to live in Pennsylvania. Mack was a technical rider, who was all business. He never took his eyes from the road and would later confess he had no idea why I was gesturing and waving.
I pulled into every rest area, and got another hour’s leeway in the saddle for every twenty minutes I stretched my legs (without getting off the bike). We were burning up daylight, but covering the miles too. Albany, the center of government in New York State, is but the heart of a metropolis formed by the sister cities of Troy and Schnectady. It is here that the New York State Thruway heads west, and we continued up the Hudson, carving through the interchange that put us on the Adirondack Northway. Imagine what this road first looked like to me when I was 17, a guttersnipe from Jersey City, encountering my first highway signs in another language: French! This is to accommodate the hoards of French-speaking Canadians headed north. (The second time I’d see highway signs in French, I’d be driving a Citroen SM from Geneva to Chamonix in the French Alps, in the company of a sizzling brunette. I’d be 35. I used to get away with fucking murder when I was alive.)
Passing through Albany, Mack Harrell got his first surprise... “Let’s go as far as Glens Falls,” I said, “about 45 miles further north.”
The Northway crosses the Erie Canal, which is about as wide as most waterways in states that do not support a legendary river (like the Mississippi). Then just before Glens Falls, it crosses the mighty Hudson. At this point, the Hudson is not as wide as one of the cruise ships it floats 140 miles to the south. It has a lake-like quality as it disappears into mist and mystery, en route to the Blue Ledges. (Again when I was 17, I’d hiked to the headwaters of the Hudson — Lake Tear Of The Clouds – and stood with one foot on each bank.)
I informed Mack that we wouldn’t be stopping at Glens Falls nor Lake George, but going straight through to Lake Placid, another 86 miles to the north... And he could see the madness in my eyes. The pain was coursing throughout my body by this time, but it was a different kind of pain. It was the pain that accompanies the desire to accomplish one more ride — just like I was 19- or 20-years-old again. My soul thirsted for the wonder and the thrill of yet “another” first time feeling on a motorcycle.
We crossed the imaginary “blue line” of the Adirondack Park, one of the most amazing reserves anywhere in the world, in the honky-tonk resort of Lake George. There should be a “blue line” painted across the road, but there’s just a sign. I blew my horn like I always do, and did a swerve of celebration. The Adirondack Park is the largest state park of its kind anyplace in the United States. With 1200 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers, it spans 7 million acres, and is larger than any three national parks combined (in the “Lower 48”). I couldn’t help thinking of all the circumstances under which I’d driven this road before. The best of these adventures were spent in a red GMC Suburban, with a 5-year-old marvel on the bench seat next to me. My daughter and I played every game, sang every song, made up every kind of story, and ate lots of ice cream and Chinese food in that truck. And we did it every other weekend for the next 7 years. (I put 50,000 miles on a new Suburban in the first year I owned it.)
But something different was happening now. There was electricity flowing from the throttle into my hand and the effect on me was amazing. The interstate (I-87) is sweeping turns, marshes, dense forests, and views of open water north of Lake George, which itself is 44 miles long, and I would have run it wide open, had I not been sure I’d have been arrested. I pointed at every landmark I knew, laughing like an idiot, knowing that Mack Harrell had no idea what was running through my mind. The Beemer (Blueballs) was 20 years old that summer, and I rode it like it was new. Sparing neither the horses nor the emotion, I routinely pushed that machine to the red line, only to discover that it used no oil after cruising at sustained speeds in excess of 85 and 90 mph. It barely burned 3 ounces that whole summer.
Our exit was a hundred miles north of Albany, and I pulled over on the shoulder of US-9 (the same US-9 that runs through Jersey City), to catch my breath. Dusk was settling in and the sky was scarlet, against “honest-to-God” purple mountain’s majesty. With the bikes switched off, we could hear a stream tumbling into a ravine, scented with the fragrance of a million balsams.
“How much farther?” asked Mack, amazed that we were pulled over in a place where there was nothing but solitude.
“Another 50 miles, or so.”
“What the fuck got into you today?”
“A sense of who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to feel like,” I replied.
“Well who do you feel like now?”
“I felt like Charles Lindbergh earlier. Now I feel like the Lindbergh baby,” I replied, thumbing the starter for the final time that day.
Have you ever noticed how the last light of the day disappears in the blink of an eye? We weren’t stopped 10 minutes when the shadows matured into a tangible darkness. Pulling in, our headlights had been a suggestion in the gathering dusk. Now they punched a hole in the night, fifty feet ahead of the motorcycles. And while it was night on the pavement, the last vestiges of daylight bled through the openings in the trees above us, and in the wide expanse of Keene Valley, through which the AuSable River flows.
The road gracefully climbed past Chapel Pond, with the granite cliff rising straight out of the water, before plunging into Keene Valley. Mack only saw the pavement of Route 73, framed in the headlights. I saw the road in my mind, as I have seen it a thousand times. I found myself carving into one “S” curve after another, feeling each turn as I remembered it — but in a truck. I was leaning into them for the first time after all these years. And there was something ethereal about doing it in the dark. All of you have experienced the thrill of riding into a cold pocket, where cooler temperatures envelop bike and rider like a specter. We rode through a dozen of them, as the river pooled alongside the road in unseen recesses, home to trout and wild mink.
The Hobbit-town lights of Saint Huberts, Keene Valley and Keene, winked before we started the final ascent, through the Cascade Lakes, into Lake Placid. The solitary beam of a motorcycle headlamp is like looking through a keyhole in reality... The bike is cradled by the same invisible forces that hold it at an angle to the ground during the day, but they are positively cult-like in the dark.
The Cascade Lakes are a ribbon of water that span different elevations parallel to the road on the final climb into Lake Placid. Route 73 is gentle in this stretch, but twisty and steep leading in and out of it. I flicked on the MotoLights, mounted to the K75’s brake calipers, and the front of the bike was wrapped in a basket of light. The bike glowed like an ember, rising upward. I knew this entire stepped valley was walled by granite, softened by millions of Aspens, all deep green this weekend... But my world was the golden ring of light, and in that moment, it was all the world any rider could ask.
Two stunning vistas lay before us, but we flashed by them in the dark. (It is unlikely Mack would have seen them in broad daylight.) These were the cluster of high peaks visible at the open field (where Adirondack Loj Road joins Route 73), with the Olympic ski jumps just beyond. Minutes later, we entered the soft, elegant light that is the resort of Lake Placid, home to two Winter Olympic Games; neither of which succeeded in compromising the charm of this exquisite village.
We pulled up under the marquee of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, one of the nicest places to stay in town. I put my feet down with an audible sigh, and switched off the bike.
“You must be hurting,” said Mack.
I was... But it was the kind of hurt that accompanies the realization one cannot hurtle through space forever. There reaches a point where the ride is over. Hopefully, the bar is open at that point.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012
All rights reserved
Shango Rider At Americade!
June 5th to June 9th, 2012
Lake George, NY
$ Million Dollar Beach • By Gate "D"
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