Monday, April 7, 2008

Chapter Three -- The BuRP Rally -- The Ride That Changed My Life

Front Royal is a pleasant enough place and its primary claim to fame is that its the northern terminus of Skyline Drive, the 105-mile stretch that runs through Shenandoah National Park. There are ten hotels in town ranging in price and decor from cheap to chain. We stayed at the “Cool Harbor,” which was clean, modestly priced, and fully booked. I know this because another rider pulled in behind me on a pimped out BMW LT, thinking to just grab a room. There were none.

I love older, dated motels when I am traveling by motorcycle. These places generally offer a parking spot directly outside your room door. This makes unloading the bike a smooth, effortless organized operation. It also allows you the opportunity to look out the window occasionally, to see who’s stealing stuff off the bike.

Pulling up to the “Cool Harbor,” I was slightly dismayed to see an inviting covered porch, tastefully decorated with a profusion of plants, twelve steps above the front parking lot. (My arthritis was screaming and I had no desire to climb stairs.) Luck was with me, however, and I was assigned nice accommodations out back, where I could have ridden my K75 right into the room. The saddle bags on nearly all dated Beemers have the look and feel of suitcases. They detach from the bike with the turn of a lock and bringing my stuff inside barely took a few seconds. The place looked safe enough to leave the locked topcase on the back of the machine.
The panniers on the older BMW's are designed to look and work like suitcases. 
They detach from the bike with the twist of a lock.

As it turned out, it was probably the safest place in town as it happened to be crawling with federal agents. Three large, nondescript vans in the parking lot discharged 18 of the most clean-cut, physically fit individuals that I have ever seen, all wearing identical suits and sunglasses. These were undoubtedly representatives of the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, the Treasury, or the Department of Stick It Up Your Ass. Two smiled and said “good morning” to me in a way that hinted of a future interrogation with rubber hoses.

The person checking into the adjacent room was a performance artist enroute to a conference for exotic dancers. I watched her carry in a long, peculiar-looking suitcase and decided it was either a portable pole for her dance rehearsals or a container for a large snake.

Wayne, Lucy, and I ate dinner in a restaurant called the Royal Oak. This was a great surprise. A raspberry-sauced filet mignon was on the menu that night and it was superb. Amazingly enough, a friend of mine from the business travel industry -- airline analyst/economist Daryl Jenkins and his wife Arlene -- heard I was passing through and thought they might run into me there. They hosted our dinner. I introduced them to the Whitklocks, who were amazed that half the travel crap I write about is actually true. Daryl is one of the authors who endorsed my book, “Politically Correct Cigar Smoking for Social Terrorists” on the back cover.
My book: 30 chapters on how to maintain a delicate male presence during these difficult times.

The sun rose the next morning with a promise to make things hotter than hell by 8am. Wayne announced he wanted to check a few things on his Harley, like the tire pressure and the oil level. “I’m going to look for a gas station with an air pump,” he said.

“There is no need for that,” I relied. Flipping up the K75’s seat, I whipped out an Airman Sparrow pump. I also handed him an analog air pressure gauge, with a flex hose attached to it, to facilitate inflating a tire crowded by spokes and exposed brake rotors.
E-Z Air Tire Pressure Gauge -- $25 from Whitehorse Gear -- has a handy flex hose for better access to  the valve. 
Air pump hooks up directly to pressure gauge on right.

“I haven’t got a place to plug this in,” said Wayne, looking doubtfully at the odd connector on the pump.”

“No problem,” I added with a smile. I plugged the pump into the outlet provided on the left side-cover of the 19-year-old Beemer.

“I still have to get some oil,” said Wayne.

“Got that too,” I cracked, handing him a fresh quart.

Wayne stared at me in frank amazement. I am used to this. Having the shapeless physique of a loaf of damp Wonder Bread, I am an unlikely candidate to be riding a motorcycle at all. And most folks feel I am even more unlikely to have the right tools or anything useful for general maintenance. Once, on another trip with some beemer boys, I resolved a dicey situation by producing motorcycle jumper cables and the correct procedure for hooking them up to a bike with concealed battery posts. The guys looked at me like I was a talking horse. Or more correctly, a talking horse’s ass that started to make sense.

Wayne introduced me to a new concept: riding 60 miles before breakfast. We followed US-340 out of town, heading south, in the general direction of Waynesboro. We had opted not to take Skyline Drive for two reasons. The first was the wildlife. I had been advised that deer pop out of the ground like spontaneous combustion on this road, and that your chances of seeing something more impressive than deer are pretty good. The second reason was the 35 mph speed limit. We opted for a faster secondary road, getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Waynesboro.

There is nothing like a two-lane secondary road through rural valleys early in the morning. Traffic was nonexistent as the road meandered through small towns and pastoral countryside. There were almost none of the blind intersections that dog Pennsylvania farm roads. We were treated to occasional glimpses of creeks and streams, little railroad bridges, and horses standing in the fields. Very minor changes in elevation with moderate curves gave this stretch the feel of a good motorcycle road.

The only fly in the ointment was the throbbing that had already begun in my knees.

Nothing beats a great southern breakfast. Biscuits in sausage gravy, ham slices with redeye gravy (active ingredient is coffee), grits, eggs, and buckwheat flap jacks constituted the “sampler” at the joint we found. I stopped eating when I realized they’d need the jaws of life to get the chair out of my ass.

We tanked up and headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This is how adventure arrives in my life... By gradual stages. I’d been riding on roads I had never seen before for the past two days, and it finally dawned on me that I was doing a real ride. I’d been reading about the Blue Ridge Parkway for two years. By all accounts it is judged to be heaven for motorcycles. Devoid of commercial traffic, the road dances over mountain ridge lines in gentle curves, full of sweeping vistas, at a reasonable 45 mile per hour. In theory, a relaxing 10-hour drive would cover the full 450-mile length of this paradise.

I pulled into the very first vista to take in a view of a valley that seemed to stretch forever. Switching off the bikes activated a silence mode that made me feel as if I was standing in church. It was a perfectly clear day with a slight breeze. In the distance, there was enough of a summer haze to give credence to the reputation of the Smokey Mountains. The sweat I carried up from Waynesboro began to evaporate in a welcome chill. It had to be 15 degrees cooler than on the valley floor.
Scenic views like this pop up every couple of miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway
This photograph was taken by my friend Scott Royer. 
©Copyright Scott Royer 2008

Wayne smiled at me and said, “Lovely, isn’t it? Okay Fatass, get back on the bike. We got some riding to do.”

The word “parkway” has a special meaning for anyone coming from New Jersey. At the South Amboy toll plaza (the first place where you can smell the “big water”), the Garden State Parkway is 16 lanes wide.

As a reentry rider, I had envisioned the Blue Ridge Parkway as a kind of boulevard, running through trees and clouds at the top of two states. And it is that. But the boulevard holds a number of surprises for the uninitiated. From Waynesboro, the road is tame enough. The forty-five mile-per-hour speed limit even seems a trifle slow. Dilettantes (myself included) are inclined to twist on the gas.

The first twenty-six curves are a delight and have an amusement park ride appeal as they are spaced about six feet apart. Then come the switch backs. I found myself reciting the motorcycle safety course litany going through each curve, and than chanting it like an auctioneer as the curves became a primer for a beginner’s technical ride.

The most exciting views flashed up like targets in a shooting gallery. You have exactly two seconds to enjoy each one because the road generally jumps off a cliff or hides in a hole immediately thereafter. The cliffs are impressive, with many positioned on blind curves to test the holding power of your kidneys. Vistas are plentiful if you want to stop, though many are tastefully lined with fine gravel to spice up the adventure factor.

On two occasions, I made left turns that lasted about 40 minutes each. The road may have been straight when paved, but the engineers borrowed the center line from a barber pole, which may have bent it into the current corkscrew design. It was coming out of one of these curves that I got the opportunity to study the local wildlife. Wayne and Lucy were in the lead, with some other bike ahead of them. I watched a fox dart out in front of the stranger’s machine. Then a couple of fox kits ran out behind Wayne’s Harley. I looked to see if anything else lurked in the bushes.

A friggin’ turkey vulture the size of a Cessna clawed its way into the air and leveled off about four feet from the ground. It was flying parallel to my helmet, about two inches away from my right shoulder. The damn thing started to edge closer as the road sloped into a curve.
The turkey vulture is disgusting and has breath like a politician 
from eating the same sort of things.

“I’m gonna get knocked off this bike by a stupid bird,” I thought, feeling a growing sense of panic. The turkey vulture got close enough so I could smell its breath before veering off to the right.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a delight for the lack of commercial traffic, the spectacular views, and the condition of the pavement (which is perfect), but it is not a simple ride in the park. For a rider with my skill set (at the time), it became a technical ride. And attempting to move from side to side on the saddle was grinding the joints in mt hips and knees. We’d gone about 33 miles before pulling over at a ranger station, where I downed a couple of Alieve.

It was here that we met some nice folks on Harleys. One was a rather attractive woman on a Dyna-Glide, who wanted to show us the pictures she took with her digital camera. These had been taken much earlier that same day, on Skyline Drive, and were of a mother bear with a cub -- standing in the road. The rider explained she took the picture from 40 feet away!

The pain in my knees was so bad that I asked Wayne if there was a road that paralleled the BRP, where we could pick up the pace a little bit. We had to cover two hundred miles that day and I didn’t feel like doing it at 45mph. My thought was I rather hurt for three hours as opposed to five.

“There is another road, but it’s likely to be a bit busier than this one,” said Wayne. He remembered my preference for avoiding heavier traffic, and told me that he couldn’t remember the name of the road, just that it was close.

Twenty-five minutes later, I followed him onto Interstate - 81, a sausage grinder of a road famous for truck traffic that either lumbers in herds or slams past at high speed.

Wayne led at a moderately good clip, to make sure I was fine with this new arrangement. Shortly thereafter, I blew past him edging 85mph. “I think Jack’s got the hang of this,” he said to Lucy.

There’s was nothing more intimidating about the traffic on I-81 than anyplace else. My knees were still screaming but the odometer was chalking up the miles. We pulled into the Days Inn at Fancy Gap, Va (a mile or two above the North Carolina stateline) around 4pm. This had been my longest riding day in 30 years -- 203 miles.
The Days Inn at Fancy Gap, VA.
This is the second best place to stay at Fancy Gap.
I didn't discover the first best until the following year!

We checked into the hotel, and Wayne’s Harley broke down. It made an odd popping sound, and wouldn’t turn over.

Wayne is one of those guys who should always be in charge of things like nuclear reactors. Nothing phases him. He simply looked at the bike and said, “Ain’t that a mystery.” (It was 98ยบ on a Sunday afternoon, in rural Virginia. I would have said, “Fuck,” 700 times.) He was looking the machine over outside his motel room door, when another Harley rider checked in. This guy was straight out of a Harley Davidson magazine ad, with a hot-looking motorcycle mama on the pillion behind him. Tall, lean, with tanned leather for skin, he introduced himself as a H-D mechanic! He and his girlfriend were enroute to Alaska from Florida.

This guy produced a full set of tools and had the problem sorted out in 20 minutes. Wayne’s bike had blown a 2,000 amp starter fuse. Not many machines use a 2,000 amp fuse. Aircraft carriers and huge amusement park roller coasters have them. But that’s about it. For some reason, Wayne had a spare.
2000 Amp fuse being tested by lightening strike 
before being installed in Wayne's Harley Davidson.

I emptied my side cases of clothing and filled them with beer at a local gas station. Wayne, the mechanic, and myself partied out in the parking lot until 1am, when the hotel manager came out to tell us other guests were complaining.

It had been a very satisfying day.

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


Anonymous said...

Jack, you are a hoot! I am enjoying this somewhat embellished story. Brings back fond (except the fuse part) memories. Looking forward to more reading and when we get the chance another ride.
Have a marvelous day, Wayne

MackBeemer said...

I sure did miss something, didn't I?!

I don't want to miss the next one!

John said...

Nice Jack. When I lived in Manassas (about 30 miles East of Front Royal) I would purchase a year pass for the Skyline Drive. My wife and I (before daughter) would ride out early on a Sunday morning and get breakfast before dawn, when the park opens. Then we would ride the skyline drive. Getting on when it first opens means you are the lead vehicle, and not behind a Winnebago. After doing this several times in the span of a couple of months the rangers get to know you and the speed limit is not as strictly enforced. Talking to them at stations helps as well. while you can not approach hyperspeed, you can pick up the pace a bit without worry of tickets. I have seen bear, fox, bobcats, llamas and even a few wildebeasts on the side of the road. Oh and Turkeys in mating season when they do not care about getting out of the road because they are concentrating on getting laid!

Sojourner's Moto Tales said...

Jack, this has both excited me beyond description and terrified me at the same time. My solo trip to NC will now have your tales swimming around in my brain. The description of the roads had me on the edge of my seat. I'm looking forward to my own adventure. I think??

Jack Riepe said...


You have to bear in mind that I was new to twisties and can still pretty much take or leave them. You can always take the curves slower than 45 mph (which I recommend if you cannot see around them). I came close to whacking a deer once and a basset hound once on the BRP, but not on this trip.

There is always the threat that you will come around a curve and find a car stopped in the middle of the road, with two jerks offering a sandwich to a rare whitetail deer. (Whitetail deer are generally regarded as rats on stilts. They are as rare and as fascinating as zits.) Then again, I flew out of a tunnel on the BRP to find two assholes on bicycles, riding side-by-side, on a blind curve.

Twin screaming Fiamm horns are made for these tender moments.

The BRP is genuinely nicer that the twisting country roads that run parallel to it. Know why? There are no tractor trailers dancing over the yellow line on the BRP.

I have no doubt you'll do much better than I did.