I have to accept challenges that are closely aligned with my limitations. Choosing other mediocre riders to join me, I plan my rides to appear to be the kind of life-threatening trips that would daunt a Viking, when they are actually as tame as a circus lama. Years of public relations training have really paid off in this endeavor.
The conflict I experience comes from a genuinely adventurous streak that compels me to ride to relatively far off places for a rider of my limited abilities. For example, I was fascinated by the Blue Ridge Parkway from the first moment I heard about it. Everything suggested it would be perfect for the mediocre reentry rider looking for a little adventure, over a fairly long distance through semi-wild surroundings. It sounded like motorcycle heaven, while having all the characteristics of a real wimp ride.
According to the data, The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469-miles long, two lanes wide, offers an occasional vista, has some rest areas and points of interest along the way, and posts a 45-mile per hour speed limit. The only fly in the ointment appeared to be the lack of gas on this roadway. It would be necessary to get off every now and again to tank up.
I developed a kind of hubris about this ride. To my self-glorifying way of thinking, I could almost complete this entire stretch in ten hours if I simply kept to the speed limit. How hard could this be? Getting off periodically would seem like a reprieve from the tight constraints of that speed limit. Even in my limited mediocre-rider capacity, I knew I was going to do 60 mph most of the time anyway.
The trouble with adventure, however, is that it seldom adheres to one’s initial expectations.
“Why is the threshold of adventure always soaked in sweat,” I asked myself, fumbling to get the side bags onto the K75. Then I muttered “fuck” a few times for luck. I am a large man and the heat of July always gets to me, even if it is 7 am in the morning, on a day the locals describe as “cool.” We were saddling up in the parking lot of a chain hotel on the outskirts of Waynesboro, Virginia -- a few miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
BMW side bags follow a unique trademarked design that allows them to double as fashionable luggage in better hotels. They look just like standard trapezoidal black suitcases with rounded corners and a bizarre latch on the front, complete with a red reflector and roundel on one side. Ten minutes earlier, I had stepped into the elevator with my bags on a cart, only to have a very attractive southern woman say, “I didn’t know that BMW made suitcases.” But she said this with an accent that really meant, “Wouldn’t you like to trace my tan lines with your New Jersey ethics?”
I was about to answer this second question when I was reminded I had a raging hangover, so I simply smiled to minimize the pain.
There are two types of side bags that go on a BMW K75. The tight ones, that come on and off with a prerequisite of swearing... And the loose ones, that occasionally come off if you hit a really hard bump or something. The tight ones are better. That’s what I have. They go on effortlessly, if they are empty. But adding 30 pounds to each one of them makes the “little to the left, now little to the right, and up a little towards the end” mounting maneuvering a trifle tedious.
I was straining to hear the barely audible “click” of the bags locking in. The tight variety will adhere to the side of the motorcycle with greater tenacity than a politician to a funding bill. I managed to get that click from each of my bags, but not before both were spotted by sweat dripping from my face.
“Are you almost ready,” asked Dick Bregstein, who constituted one third of the riders in our party. Dick is my riding buddy and constant foil. He wasn’t ready either, but he felt compelled to ask me in a manner of encouragement.
Still bent over the bike with my back toward Dick, I closed my eyes and through my hangover envisioned his new F800S sticking out of his ass. It was small of me, and I wouldn’t have thought it if I weren’t hot and in pain. Minutes later, Dick and I followed Pete Buchheit (the third member of this ride) to the entrance of the blue Ridge Parkway -- at mile marker “0.” Thus was the stage set for one of the most remarkable rides I have ever enjoyed.
While I mention Dick a lot, Pete is a relative newcomer to my stories. He has the honest appeal of Henry Fonda and the compassion of W.C. Fields. Our stay in the hotel the previous night was a pisser. We hurt from laughing. There was a carnival atmosphere about the place as it was filled with German bikes headed to the BMW Riders’ Association Rally in Asheville, North Carolina. By coincidence, this was our destination too!
Getting on the parkway is like driving through a looking glass into a parallel universe. The pavement is the best conceivable quality. There was a pastoral view to the left within the first two miles, enhanced by an easy-access parking area. We took in that view for ten minutes, during which no traffic passed on the road -- in either direction. (This was a Tuesday, during the second week in July.) The first few miles were very pleasant. Glancing down to look at my speedo as we passed the first 45 mph speed limit sign, I laughed in my helmet to see it read 62 mph. As far as I was concern, this ride was toast.
Looking like a lake in the skies, this is a valley below the BRP roadway filled with dense fog.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Please click to enlarge and see the detail of the fog)
There was curve every 60 yards for the next hour. Most of these occurred at changes in elevation; qualified as “blind” turns; and many had pull-offs for motorists to enjoy yet another incredible view. This meant that in addition to being on the alert for any obstruction in the turn, I was constantly shifting up and down to stay on the power curve, and watching for cars or other bikes pulling out of these vistas. Dick still managed to get past me and the faint taste of hubris appeared on my lips.
One of the many valleys that border the Blue Ridge Parkway.
You'd be stopping every ten minutes if you wanted to see them all.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)
My bike for this ride was a 1986 BMW K75. It was a year older than I was when I got my first bike -- 20. I weigh as much as a neutron star. There aren’t many 20-year-old bikes you could take on a 1200 -mile ride and push to the limit every day with my weight. While there was an absence of traffic and lots of beautiful road, this adventure was becoming my version of a technical ride. The only way to take these turns comfortably, or at any degree of speed, was to do it by the numbers. I began to realize there were more curves than straight stretches.
Now Pete and Dick like taking tight turns at speed. The gap between us began to widen but would narrow substantially when they pulled into an overlook to wait for my arrival. They would be giggling like schoolgirls on a picnic when I arrived, some ten or 15 minutes later. This euphoria reached a point where I suspected the two of them might start singing showtunes. Each of these guys had bikes that would lean 46 degrees out of perpendicular, and they were often within a few clicks of scraping the pegs. These guys are good sports and they'll always pull over and wait for me when overcome by guilt.
The Mabrey Mill is probably one of the most photographed scenes in the US
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)
We must have passed a dozen overlooks where each view was more spectacular than the one before. On the BRP, these things occur every few minutes. You wouldn’t make any time at all if you stopped at a third of them. And while the surface of the BRP is as close to perfect as you could imagine, there is enough gravel on the ground in these rest areas to provide suspense. (Let the gentle reader take note that the combination of my shapeless mass and arthritis make me very leery of gravel and uneven surfaces that could cause me to drop the bike.)
Now it may seem that I am complaining somewhat. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was first class adventure. The air in the mountains was laden with the scent of wildflowers and conifers, chilled by the breeze at elevation. The cool air and the breeze seemed to keep the bugs at bay too. In some of these mountain glades, it was positively cold for July.
The sound of the engine rising and falling with every shift is like having a woman whispering exciting things to you. And even though we are talking about ultra-quiet BMWs here, the slingshot twang of the motor bleeding off speed in a tight curve, then coming back up toward the redline inspires bad thoughts about pushing the envelope just a tad farther.
The view of Mount Mitchell from the BRP.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)
On the rare occasions when Pete and Dick were in sight, I would match their movements on the sweeping downhills, letting the dynamic braking action of the machine do the work (as opposed to clamping on the binders). This was like getting flying lessons from Kamikazi pilots. Flirting with gravity and centrifugal force provides a sense of weightlessness, an accomplishment for me, and the reward for getting everything right.
Who among you doesn’t recall the first time that the God of physics manifested his presence with a miracle? That miracle is usually the revelation that you are running out of road in curve with a rock wall on one side and a drop of two thousand feet on the other, and that salvation lies in giving the bike a burst of gas and leaning it over even tighter!
They explain this in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, but it is impossible to adequately demonstrate this principle in a parking lot decorated with cones. The lesson becomes a bit more imperative with certain death as your riding coach.
I will never forget the cold feeling of panic reaching down and chilling my balls as it became apparent that there was neither the arc to take a turn at my current angle, nor the acreage to effect a stop with a pleasant ending. It was the hardest thing in my life to look away from my likely point of impact to concentrate on where I wanted the bike to go, and to press down on the handlebar in that direction. It was even harder to shift my jaw out over the handlebar on that side, the one closest to the pavement, to sort of insist.
But nothing compares with the high of having the bike lean over to the point where the ground fills your peripheral vision on that side; shooting through the turn like the machine is bolted onto a track; and coming nowhere near what you thought you were going to hit. And when you’ve done it once, you’ll do it a thousand more times. The Blue Ridge Parkway is pleased to oblige. (Remember the taste of hubris, however. A handful of gravel in the curve, the grease smudge of a dead animal, or a spot of antifreeze dropped by a car changes the equation considerably.)
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to exist in a predominately motorcycle society? In four hours of riding, I didn’t count 20 cars. But we must have passed two hundred bikes. And most of them fell into two categories: Harley’s and Beemers. In addition to the Beemer RA rally in Asheville, there was a huge Harley music festival in that same general direction. On this one occasion, on this incredible road, these two marquees were evenly matched in number. That almost never happens.
My friend Scott Royer at the Graybeard Mountain lookout
(Photo courtesy of Scott Royer -- Click to enlarge)
I was trying to catch up to Bregstein on one of the few straight sections of the BRP, when I noticed a long line of shimmering lights in my rearview mirrors. I judged them to be a mile way. They were a line of some 20 Beemers going like the hammers of hell when they passed me -- 15 seconds later. I pulled as far right as I dared, considering there is no shoulder, no guardrail, and no fog line, waving the group on. (It doesn’t hurt to be generous if it really isn’t costing you anything.)
These riders were straight out of a eugenics handbook. Each was wearing the official Aerostitch leathers, weighed approximately 180 pounds, and apparently worked out 20 hours a week. Their bikes whizzed by, nearly soundlessly, at about 80 mph. Uniformly spaced in single file, these boys executed a perfect ballet of flawless maneuvering, each a copy of the rider before him. For the briefest moment, I felt like a cartoon of a BMW rider. And then I realized that the guys who passed me were as full of shit as anybody else. I felt instantly better.
The author on the late "Blue Balls" at Gray Beard Mountain lookout.
(Photo courtesy of Dick Bregstein -- Clink to enlarge)
There was an equally long line of Harleys feeding out on the BRP at one of the road's few intersections. I gave them a wave and even tootled my dual Fiam screamers. They waved back. Buchheit and Bregstein were so far ahead of me at this point, I realized they were probably skipping in circles and scattering rose petals in jubilation. So I was taking it easy, when again my mirrors were filled with the lights of bikes coming up from behind. The headlights were framed with Hollywood riding lights this time, indicating I was about to be overtaken by the Milwaukee Iron crowd.
“Screw this,” I thought. It was a thoroughly irrational emotion, but I’d rather have been dipped in shit and died in a classic fireball than get passed by all that chrome. I put the spurs to “Blue Balls” and started riding with renewed ambition. Trees on each side of the road became blurred. I widened the gap and felt like a Saturn 5 rocket. Looking at my speedo, I couldn’t believe it only read 50 mph. What the hell was happening to me?
The Blues Brothers -- Three Blue BMW's loaded for adventure at Boston Knob Overlook
(Photo Courtesy of Pete Buchheit who lives for photo credits in my ride reports
Click to enlarge)
The first half of the day was over, and we pulled into a classic National Park Service concession overlooking a lake at the Peaks of Otter. There were about 40,000 motorcycles in the parking lot. Perhaps a few more. There was every conceivable kind of Harley. All 5 BMW models were represented in profusion. The bikes were parked in interlocking segments of a vast puzzle. One extra wide spot was open about 200 yards from the restaurant. I parked dead center in it, getting raised eyebrows from a couple of tattooed bros who obviously thought I was taking up 15 spots.
View of the Irish Creek Valley -- typical of many BRP overlooks
(Photo by Pete Buchheit -- Click to enlarge)
The wait for a table was about three days. But with the southern efficiency in evidence, they promised we’d have one in five. Bregstein trotted off to find us cold drinks, which was a nice gesture as we had an hour to enjoy them. The hostess got us a cozy table between a dozen veterans from the Battle of Bull Run and two young parents with children they were undoubtedly trying to sell for medical experiments.
After another wait of some 40 minutes, the hostess returned to take our order as the waitress had been replaced by a statue representing righteous indignation. I didn’t care about the wait. I didn’t give a shit that they didn’t have any rum either. And I couldn’t have cared less that the mens room was on another floor, reachable by a steam -powered elevator that had to be stoked by the passengers. The first item on the menu was “Fried Green Tomatoes!”
I have always wanted to try fried green tomatoes. If any dish could embody the spirit of the south, it would have to be fried green tomatoes. I closed my eyes and imagined tomatoes as green as new dollars, being picked by blonde Georgia peaches, and fried in herbs and lard according to a recipe handed down by four generations of southern colonels.
“I’d like to start with the fried green tomatoes,” I said. Then addressing my two companions, I added, “Boys, can I treat you to another order of fried green tomatoes, as I am disinclined to share the one I have coming.” Bregstein refused with a look of skepticism that was spawned in Brooklyn and honed to an edge in New Jersey. Pete followed suit with a smirk that passes for communication among aluminum siding salesman.
“To hell with the two of you, I thought.”
Four slices of fried green tomatoes arrived twenty minutes later looking like breaded bar coasters. I cut into the first one with fanfare. By itself, the green tomato is tasteless, and draws its personality from the lard and the breading, apparently. These in turn rely heavily on an unwashed skillet for character. By way of improvement, I ordered a fried green cheeseburger with a slice of raw onion and three strips of bacon. Then I carefully laid two slices of fried green tomato on each side of these collective elements, giving birth to the Jersey City fried green tomato cheeseburger -- patent pending. Under these circumstances, the fried green tomato reigns supreme.
When it came time to leave, I discovered enough motorcycles had parked around my bike to make its extraction a challenge for Houdini. Yet I was in no hurry to just pull out, especially after a brief three-hour lunch. The bike threaded through mine was a Honda Shadow, painted in a beautiful deep green and tan. It was one of the most striking cruisers I had seen all day. Fortunately, a couple of Teutonic purists came along and removed their machines enabling me to straddle mine. I pulled away with one last look at the Honda, and at the woman who was approaching it with purpose.
I gave up all pretense of keeping up with Dick and Pete after lunch. They disappeared over the horizon -- as far as the next curve, 40 feet away -- with a wave. In fact, I surrendered all of my competitive instincts to just enjoying the rest of this day as a leisurely ride. The Blue Ridge Parkway offers the most varied terrain of any road I have had the pleasure to ride. In parts, you ride though densely forested sections, which suddenly open up to reveal endless valleys on either side of the road. In one section, the ridge top carrying the road is barely much wider than the road itself. Finding a sweeping valley on both sides of the pavement at once imparts a peculiar sensation of flight.
Yet the best way to enjoy these sweeping landscapes in the clouds is to stop and get off the motorcycle. At 45 miles per hour, the nature of this route is such that you have 1.3 seconds to see anything that is not directly in front of the bike. As all of you are aware, the bike will go in the direction in which you are looking. Peering over a cliff can bring the ride to a surprise ending.
Shortly after crossing into North Carolina, the road runs along the face of a cliff, plunging in elevation (on a curve, of course), before soaring up over the precipice's lip. The view and the effect is the most dramatic of the entire ride. There is a small rock wall to correct any irregularities in your turning technique, and a drop straight to hell just beyond. I desperately wanted to stop and take pictures. The truth is one breathtaking view starts to look exactly like another when you see a few hundred of them in a row. But then you come to a truly great one -- and there will be absolutely no place to pull over without causing an accident.
The BRP runs through a patchwork of small Virginia farms. They are beautiful and make you think you are in New England. Just before the exit for Asheville, NC, you sweep through high mountain tunnels that are a real pisser, and find yourself on a stretch overlooking a huge lake far below. Every view has the quality of being a Hollywood set.
Riding alone, without the distraction of maintaining my place in formation, generally frees up my mind to think about stories I want to write, debates I should have won, and romances I should never have lost. Not on this road. Every mile brings the potential for something entirely new. There are curves on this road that go on forever, and double back on themselves like a bizarre fishhook on the end on an “s” with a fat bottom. There are yellow road signs that indicate the pavement ahead is not only twisted, but tied in knots..
There is nothing about the BRP that is mediocre. It is far from a technical ride through the Himalayas, but it is a mistake to call it a cake walk for beginners too. Consider this road the friendly python, with teeth.
©copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA The Vindak8r Motorcycle Views
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)