Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ride Report: Almost Heaven, West Virginia May 29 - June 1, 2008

For some, the adventure begins when the starter button is pressed. For others, the adventure arrives with the first stretch of new road. For me, the adventure starts with locking the side bags onto the K75, and the realization that all of the trip planning and speculation is about to gel into reality. And adventure has a way of disguising itself as contingency. Less than a week before this ride to West Virginia hit the road, my riding partner -- Dick Bregstein -- hit a boulder alongside the road and launched himself into the side of a house.

Dick is recovering nicely with 6 broken ribs. He is now undergoing therapy to help him distinguish the difference between a curve and a rock. While the details of the crash are still a bit of a mystery, the cognoscenti of our riding club (the Mac-Pac) are of a common mind that Dick was fiddling with his GPS at the moment of impact. The GPS is to Dick what a ball of yarn is to a cat, and about as useful. Rumor has it that Dick is using the same GPS that Amelia Earhart had on board her last flight. I know for a fact it is a miniature “Etch-A-Sketch.”

Yet at the last minute, Clyde Jacobs accepted my invitation to join us on this ride, and provided welcome company for me on the 300-plus mile run to Cabins, West Virginia. It is no secret that my arthritis is worse and dropping the bike in a simple mishap could have been a real problem. Clyde is a respected member of the community, skilled with tools, and kind of on the quiet side -- like Gary Cooper. Quite frankly, he is my total opposite.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 dawned cool and clear. But it was evident to me that armored mesh was going to be the order of the day. I would be hotter than hell in less than an hour. In the interest of saving a little time, Clyde and I took the Pennsylvania Turnpike to I-81, picking up local Route 55 in Strasburg, Virginia. Strasburg holds a warm spot in my heart as it is where a nice lady ran me over last year (about this same time) with her mini-van. She was not around on this particular day and I got through town without a hitch.
On the solo portion of his trip, Pete Buchheit stopped at a local store to dosome early Christmas shopping. 
Picture courtesy of Pete Buchheit (who lives for photo credits)
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

The slab ride was uneventful, with little traffic on the Pa Turnpike. Interstate 81 was another matter altogether. The truck traffic was especially heavy. We were about three miles outside of Hagerstown, Maryland when Clyde signaled he needed gas. Just as he gestured, my own gas light winked on. A huge sign displayed a gas pump and a plate accompanied by a fork and knife. The legend underneath read, “USE Exit 7A.”

Please be advised that there is no gas and nothing to eat at Exit 7A in fucking Hagerstown. That exit leads you to a rabbit warren of streets in the downtown area, devoid of fuel and convenience stops. We lost 30 minutes driving in circles, before heading south on US-11. We found gas on the outskirts of town and picked up I-81 within a mile or two... But we lost the opportunity to meet Pete Buchheit -- the third member in this group -- for lunch at the Hotel Strasburg.

Looking back, Clyde may have saved my life in Hagerstown. The pain in my knees was screaming by the time we found gas. Sweat was pouring out of my mesh jacket. After filling up, I called Pete on the cell phone and opened the conversation with, “I can’t believe we drove around looking for gas in this dog shit town for a half hour.”

It was at that point I looked up and noticed that we were surrounded by a number of folks who were apt to receive my remarks in less than good humor. One was drinking out of a hollow skull. Another was picking his teeth with a hunting knife. Two others were crawling around looking for a chromosome.

Clyde smiled at these boys and said, “He meant some other dog shit town like this one.” We hit the ground running.

Route 55 out of Strasburg is a pleasant two-lane bit of country with nice changes in elevation and delightful curves. Virginia is a member of the 20th Century Anti-Gravel League and the curves are free of death-defying debris. You hit West Virginia about 18 miles up the road and not much changes. Than you roll onto the great “Pork Boulevard.” This is a stretch of Route 55 that is laid out like the expressway to heaven. It is a beautiful road surface with sweeping curves and dramatic hills, bordered by enchanting vistas. And the best part is that you won’t see ten vehicles on the whole length of this stretch.

There is a tendency to twist on the gas here. In fact, you can be tempted to really have a good time. Be advised that this is an expressway occasionally punctuated by intersections governed by stop signs to entering traffic. The intersections are ‘through,” so you could encounter a vehicle cutting across four lanes of traffic. This was my fourth time on this road and I haven’t encountered it yet. But it is possible to meet someone when you are going like hell.

Route 55 reverts to a two-lane run from Moorefield to Petersburg. You will cross the Lost River a few times, see fields under cultivation, and always find yourself ringed by distant mountains. It is rural with odd breaks of heavy industry. In the middle of farmland, you will find a truck depot or an energy transfer point -- neither of which is very obtrusive, just unexpected.

I was ready to get off the bike by the time we rolled into Cabins, West Virginia. Cabins is the home of Smoke Hole Caverns, which is billed as the area’s, the country’s or the world’s largest caverns. I forget which. But the place is very inviting, and I’d have loved to see it if my legs were better. At any rate, there are three or four cabin resort communities around the caverns and I was ready to check into any one of them. But we had reservations for Harmon’s North Fork Cottages, which is unquestionably the nicest of all of them. It also the least obvious, and I had no idea where it was as we booked the place online. Clyde and I were on the far outskirts of Cabins -- and moving like jolly hell -- when I saw the saw Harmon’s sign. I hit the binders right smartly, about the same time I noticed the sides of the road were picturesque gravel. This caused me to linger on the pavement, which was a real eye-opener for a heavy truck coming from behind. I got a round of applause from its jake brake.

“So where the hell are the cabins,” asked Clyde, in the same tone of voice a kid asks the magician what happened to the rabbit.

“Damned if I know,” was my reply. But the conversation didn’t actually follow these smooth lines. Clyde’s Shuberth helmet was jammed down over his earplugs so I heard, “Munph a ell arra cabunz?”

When I responded, he replied “Ut?” This exchange went on for some minutes without either side scoring a goal.

Finally, Clyde lifted up his face shield and said, “I think the cabin is down this road over here.”

“What makes you think so?”

“There’s a guy standing over there wearing a red Aerostitch and waving a martini at us,” said Clyde. And thus was Clyde introduced to Pete Buchheit.

I have known Pete Buchheit for at least 20 years from the business travel industry. He once served on the board of directors for a trade association that held my soul in professional obeisance. Pete had arrived a bit earlier, got the air conditioning running, and the bar open. The man is the definition of consideration. He has been meeting me at destinations with a smile and a martini for the least few years. It is one of life’s few pleasant guarantees.
Pete Buchheit in the Aerostitch uniform de jour.
Photo by the author

The cabin was a pleasant surprise. It was spotless, nicely appointed, and well-situated. Clyde and I had our own rooms and shared a bath, though not at the same time. Pete had a loft complete within his own bath and Jacuzzi. The South Branch of the Potomac ran about 50 feet from our porch. The water pooled in a reflecting bend before dissolving into riffles. The other side of the river was an abrupt cliff at least 12 stories tall. The trees were a mix of hardwoods, conifers, and willows.
Home Sweet Home for the next three days.
Photo courtesy of Pete Buchheit (and you know how he feels about the recognition part of it)
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

Within minutes, the bags were off the bikes and opened to reveal Sigg bottles of Jamesons and Baccardi, plus a couple of six packs. The first day’s ride ended in cocktails, cigar smoke, and pleasant conversation. We began the evening with a toast to Dick Bregstein, and ended it with steaks done on the grill. Night brought on a symphony of frogs, peepers, and night birds, competing with the whisper of the willows. I fell into the sleep of the innocent.
The all Beemer line-up in the driveway
Photo Courtesy of Pete Buchheit
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

If nothing else, the Mac-Pac is devoted to riding and eating. You’ve read in my reports that there is nothing quite like a southern breakfast, especially if calories, cholesterol, and heart attacks are no issue. There was a breakfast joint about 7 miles down the road. I experimented with chicken fried steak, two eggs sunnyside up, and pancakes. Clyde regarded the chicken fried steak -- beef coated in flour, fried, and covered with white gravy -- with pure horror.

“Do you have any idea what that stuff is doing to you,” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “Pass the salt.”

Our plan was to ride about 180 miles through the countryside, taking in various points of local color. I had a keen interest in touring the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. This is the last place in the world you can see an operating Shay’s locomotive, capable of pulling a lumber train up a 9% grade. (This is not a cog railway.) There are excursion rail rides through various and national forests running about 11 miles. The boys were agreeable and we added this destination to the day’s loop.

Yet Pete thought we should also add a stop to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, in Pocahontas County. “A little science and education might be a pleasant diversion on one of these rides,” he said.

It is hard to keep your eyes on the road as you approach Seneca Rocks. The main formation is at the junction of Routes 55 and 28, but the ridgeline on the left and other jagged rock structures are simply breathtaking. It is frustrating that there is no easy place to park along the side of the road to take pictures. The shoulders are all of 18-inches wide and gravel. Traffic is light enough that you could probably stop, put your flashers on, and take a picture without actually dismounting or taking more than a foot at the edge of the pavement, but who wants to take the chance. Virtually everyone pulls up looking at the rocks and not the road.
The majesty and scale of Seneca Rocks is almost impossible to capture in a photograph.
It is like looking at a cathedral cast in stone and flung on the shoulder of a mountain.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs.
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

It was here that my gas light came on again, and a general store run by the Yokum sisters (I’m not kidding) has three gas pumps from the 60’s outside. It is the closest thing to drawing the gas out of a well with a bucket. But I was glad to get the gas and we all refueled. It only took 20 minutes. We headed out south on Rt. 28, where we passed four modern gas stations in the next 15 miles.

Route 28 was a pleasing ride following valleys and the occasional rise. It is more agrarian than anything else. But seven miles outside of Green Bank you see the most amazing structure -- the hugest white dish you have ever seen. And you see it in glimpses. This is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. It is the world’s largest full steerable radio telescope. It’s dimensions are roughly 330 ft by 300 ft, with a weight of 7300 metric tons. It’s wheel and track design allows the telescope to view the entire sky above 5 degrees elevation. The track, 64 m (210 ft) in diameter, is level to within a few thousandths of an inch in order to provide precise pointing of the structure. Unlike conventional radio telescopes, which have a series of supports in the middle of the surface, the GBT's aperture is unblocked so that incoming radiation meets the surface directly. This increases the useful area of the telescope and eliminates reflection and diffraction that ordinarily complicate a telescope's pattern of response.
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

I cannot tell you the satisfaction I got out of explaining this to Pete and Clyde.

The Cass Mountain State Railroad Park was six miles down the road. It was here, on Rt. 66 that we started to experience hairpin curves lines with reassuring gravel. I got to share the thrill with an RV coming the other way on the second turn. I expected the Cass Mountain Railroad to be more like the Strasburg Railroad (Pa), with antique rolling stock on sidings. It was a painstakingly restored depot, complete with company houses, but devoid of trains. There was a special program going on that day and the trains were all busy doing stuff. An occasional whistle would drift down a valley to taunt me, but neither steam nor smoke was visible.
This was the view we returned to each day. It started at the end of our deck.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

Not ones to be easily disappointed, we retreated to the Bear Creek Lodge, an authentic outfitters and general store across the tracks. From this shaded, cool vantage point, we munched on bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, while waiting for something to happen. And something did... It got hotter. Pete waited until spit would evaporate in midair before announcing it was time to head to Elkins.
Bear Creek Lodge offered a cool respite from the sun while we waited for a little action.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

Just before we got clean away, however, a guy pulled up on a Harley. He sported a helmet, a 60-year-old ponytail, and a battered ballistic jacket. Though he was a West Virginia resident now, he originally hailed from New Jersey. And through this strange kinship, he shared with us his favorite ride. This entailed following Rt. 66 out the far side of Cass, and turning left onto “Back Mountain Road.”
"There is one in every group." Pete Buchheit slips a little fuel additive into Clyde's tank.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

Back Mountain Road runs through some of the most charming and remote little settlements in West Virginia. The rider will experience deep forest glades, horse farms, a wide open vista across a valley, bridges that span mysterious creeks and little rivers, valleys that fall away from the edge of the road, and plowed fields that remind one of the movie “Shanendoah.” An added plus is exquisite architecture, like the old train station in Clover Lick. The tracks are long gone but this building has classic country station lines that harken back to a far more gracious age. And there is virtually no traffic.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Back Mountain Road is not quite eight feet wide and is straight for approximately 8 yards. It is liberally sprinkled with 7300 metric tons of loose gravel. Speed is controlled by the judicious lack of guard rails and there are numerous places where pulling off the road means falling about 80 feet. Our friend at the the Bear Creek Lodge led us to believe that Back Mountain Road was a brief interlude leading out to Rt. 219.

It was 22 miles long.

By mile ten, the sweat from my quivering balls had glued my pants to the Sergeant seat. I was beginning to gnaw through the chin bar on my Nolan helmet. One switchback was so tight, I ended up face to face with Clyde, who was still 20 feet behind me. We ran into traffic on two occasions. Both drivers pulled to the side and waited for us to pass. One was a UPS truck. The driver opened the door on the passenger’s side of the package van and let us drive through the vehicle, exiting out the rear. This was one of the few times I was able to shift into third, driving through the long stretch of the van’s interior.
The view approaching the cabin was soothing and inspiring as well. 
At the end of each day, it was like having a cocktail in a painting.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

The first bridge we crossed was in the shade of trees that arched over the road. It was covered in gravel except for a four inch-wide stretch that ran for 60 feet. The second bridge was all gravel. For the finale, Back Mountain Road ended in a construction site, where I was directed to ride over a pile of rubble. I heard one road worker say to another, “Did you see that big fat poofy guy? He was blubbering like a baby walrus.”

We broke out onto US-219 and found Rt. 55 east again. We paused at Sharp’s Country Store, where we examined a rare 1941 Bantam, parked under the marquee. The Bantam was the American version of the Austin, and had a distinct late ‘30s look it, but was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Yet the most astounding adventures occurred on Saturday, when we did the least amount of riding. The day dawned murky with periods of light rain. The Mordor-like sky suggested that things could easily become otherwise, however. We made our breakfast run, and decided to grab a few other things in town (rum and beer) in the event we found ourselves under siege. We cruised for chicks and Pete chatted up a local beauty but couldn’t figure out how to get her walker on the back of his bike. Rolling thunder and clouds in the shape of sledge hammers forced us to take shelter -- in an American Legion Hall.

This was essentially a bar with 1970’s prices. And it was a rather nice bar besides. It became positively chummy when the rain hit the door like a tsunami. It was a glass door and it was possible to view 9 species of native fish swimming by while the storm raged.
The storm raged over our bikes, while I regaled the bartender -- Darlene -- 
with stories of my old motorcycle racing days.
Photo courtesy of You-Know-Who
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

The bartender was a cute little tomato named Darlene. She had the kind of endearing smile that makes lesser men wish they had clever things to say. I know this because the two lesser men that I was with stuttered like old outboard motors.
Darlene and Jack Riepe discuss the merits of Ovaltine.
Another wide-angle shot courtesy of Pete Buchheit
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

I looked into her eyes and said, “Didn’t we meet on a summer cruise?”
When Darlene replied she didn’t think so, I said, “Quelle damage.”

Considering we planned to ride again when the storm passed, Pete and Clyde ordered glasses of spring water with lemon -- not realizing the signals this beverage selection would send. I threw caution to the wind, and asked for a cup of Ovaltine. Darlene turned, looked at me, and bit her lip. I was sending out a few signals of my own.

A few minutes later, she asked me if I wanted to take a chance. My eyes said, “Yes.” She handed me a stack of raffle tickets and explained each one was a buck. I handed her a tenner. Clyde and Pete were a lot more cautious. Clyde wanted to know what he could win and did he have to be there to win it. Pete wanted to know the particulars of the award notification process, and if the prize were piglets, could he sell them right there.
Three cabelleros: Clyde Jacobs, Pete Buchheit and Jack Riepe
Highly unflattering photo of Jack Riepe courtesy of Pete Buchheit, who did not win any money.
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

I won $25 on my third ticket. An hour later, I won $100 on my last one. The look on Pete and Clyde’s respective faces was priceless. When the shock passed, Clyde demanded a recount and Pete insisted that I had gotten his tickets by mistake.

This bar had an interesting custom. Patrons who were barred from entering were posted on the wall. Several were barred for life. We were amazed at the number of alleged miscreants who were women!
The bar publicly posted the names of those who had been shown the door --
Some for life!
Photo courtesy of Pete Buchheit
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

The ride back to the cabin was brief and damp, and I even experimented with a little dirt road riding.
The savage beauty of West Virginia is overwhelming -- even on the rainy days.
Clyde Jacobs and Jack Riepe at a impasse on a wooden bridge.
Photo courtesy of Pete Buchheit
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

We were out the door by 8:15am the next day and took a leisurely pace on our way home. Rather than take the slab all the way from Strasburg, we decided to ride together across Virginia into Maryland. But first we stopped at a breakfast place called, “Family Traditions.” On a scale of 10, the waitress was a 9.5. Once again, the other guys stumbled through an adolescent litany of double entendre. I simply asked if she did her eye make-up herself.

I learned through the ensuing conversation that her name was Tina, and that she was a six-time beauty pageant winner. She kindly consented to have her picture taken on my bike.
Six-time beauty pageant winner "Tina" graciously poses with me on "Fire Balls"
Photo courtesy of Clyde Jacobs
©Copyright Clyde Jacobs 2008

The guys graciously stopped often on the way back so I could stretch my legs and alleviate my arthritis pain. Sometimes they even did this within eyeshot so I could stop with them. Once though, they pulled up next to a quicksand pit and sat there smiling. The ride home was uneventful, but a trifle depressing. I’d waited so long to make this ride, and now it was coming to an end. Pete peeled off Interstate 70 just before Baltimore. He waved and melted into the exit. I remembered thinking there should be more to it. A bow. A flourish. A puff of smoke. His entrance three days earlier had been a welcome gesture with a cocktail -- accompanied by a laugh. The goodbye part is always a letdown, as everybody generally has their hands full dodging traffic at the time.
Clyde Jacobs on Red Molly makes a formidable figure.
Photo courtesy of Pete Buchheit.
©Copyright Pete Buchheit 2008

Clyde and I took the Baltimore Beltway to I-95. I cannot describe the hellish conditions of these roads. The expression “Grindhouse” doesn’t come close. In most cases, Clyde was one or two lanes away from me. This was no bother. Even at 85 miles per hour, I could have stepped across a dozen car hoods and spoke to him personally. We exited I-95 before crossing the Susquehanna River, picked up US-1, and rode the last 40 miles or so in relative peace. I say relative as we drove into a storm five minutes after leaving the slab. I was soaked in seconds -- and it felt great.

There was some sort of Harley event going on out that way and we passed hundreds of the chrome brethren in a few short miles. The majority of these guys were wearing tee shirts. They looked like drowned cats. But their girlfriends looked great in their tee shirts.

I pulled over for the last time at the Mason-Dixon line on the MD/Pa border. It was a simple gesture, but I wanted to thank Clyde for his patience and shake his hand. Clyde thought I was going to ask him to lend me five and stopped 15 feet away. “Ut,” he asked, through his closed helmet.

Clyde had been a lot of fun on this run and I hope to have the pleasure of riding with him again.

The last 40 minutes on the road were spent reliving the past four days in the few remaining curves and open straight stretches of pavement. It was shortly after 3pm when I buzzed into the driveway. I was far too tired to unpack upon arrival... But I did take the map and the rum into the house. I had another idea for a ride.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Delphi)
AKA The Chamberlain -- Perdition’s Socks (with a shrug)