Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Labor Day Adventure of Scale...

Labor Day weekend is regarded as the traditional end of the summer season, even though fall does not officially commence until September 24th. To me, Labor Day is the ebb tide of summer... And the tides goes out faster in some places than in others. The resort village of Lake Placid, NY is one of the most beautiful spots left in the United States. On the last day of the Labor Day weekend (some years ago), I stood on the dock in town and watched the mahogany Chris Craft speedboats (nearly all of them from the ‘20s and ‘30s) of the community’s old WASP money unload suitcases and passengers before being hoisted out of the water at the boatyard. (The nicest houses on the lake — and there are about 100 of them, costing millions apiece — are not connected by any road.) Eighty-six miles to the south, the crowds poured out of the honky-tonk town of Lake George, NY, as hundreds of fast food concessions, miniature golf courses, and souvenir shops closed their shutters for a 9-month seasonal respite. The same ritual, but vastly different parishioners.

The kid in me feels a little sadness when summer ends. Though Labor Day commemorates the achievements of the labor movement and the unions in the United States, the very name of the holiday sounds like a jail sentence.

I mark Labor Day weekend as the first warning that the sands of the “easy weather” motorcycle riding season are running out. “Easy weather” means temperate days when a rider can just hop on a bike and ride off someplace without a lot of preparation. “Easy weather days” are those when I can ride without regard for jacket liners, insulated gloves, electric gear, 3-pound alpaca socks, thermal underwear, water-proof boots, and rain gear with seams sealed by a Pharaoh's curse. “Easy weather” is a state of mind in which I am not concerned by gravel and sand on the road, piles of wet leaves mashed into the paste of death, nor the wafer-thin glaze of ice in the curves.

But “easy weather” does not mean riding in my shirt-sleeves nor in shorts. Having been hit by cars three times and attacked by a guardrail once, I will not ride without ballistic protection. And since that is my creed, there was damn little easy weather in this part of the country (southeastern Pennsylvania) this summer.

We have had countless clear skies accompanied by temperatures that rivaled the surface of the sun every day since mid-June — or else it rained like a son of a bitch. This was especially depressing as the spring season was marred by epic snowfalls, or dismally cold, damp days that made every joint in my body — except one — stiff. I used to think there was nothing as depressing as 22 inches of snow piled against the garage door during the last week of March... But watching a frog attempting to cross the paved driveway and bursting into flame on the third hop is just as bad.

I find it no fun riding in 90 degree (plus) heat.

Donning the body armor, the perforated gloves, and the full-face helmet in stifling humidity is like gearing up for an immolation derby. You can bullshit yourself into thinking “I’ll be cooler once I get moving,” but the air blowing through your mesh jacket will be like the exhaust from a jet engine. Cruising along at 60 and 70 mph in mesh gear sucks the moisture from one’s soul. I discovered that I could have five cups of coffee in the morning, followed by three cans of diet soda at lunch, plus a bottle of water on the road, and still not have to piss all day. In fact, attempting to piss merely resulted in releasing a cloud of sulphurous-yellow steam. (Holding the vent with varying degrees of pressure produces resonant musical notes. I once played “Dixie” for a waitress I met in the south.)

There were many days this summer when I wanted to ride but it was just too damn hot. (And I don’t want to hear from all you Harley-riding bastards in Texas, or that flake with the Triumph from Key West, about how the temperature there routinely hits 451º Fahrenheit before lunch.) I weigh as much as a neutron star (though that is changing) and I give off 15,000 BTUs just moving around in the air conditioned house. Even putting on my gear in the shade of the garage, in front of a huge ventilation fan (taken from a mine), does nothing to halt the sweat pouring out of me. And on the rare occasion when I did ride, there was nothing as depressing as stopping for lunch and then plopping my ass down on a seat that was as hot as a waffle iron.

There were just two days this summer when the mercury topped off at 79º, and I was horribly hung-over on both of them.

So it was with a heavy heart that I realized Labor Day was upon us, and I was starved for a real motorcycle adventure. The weather forecast for the weekend was interesting: a hurricane was supposed to ravage the east coast, with raging storm surges as far west as Omaha. But it was thought this deadly super-cell of a storm might lower temperatures from the 90s to the mid-70s. Drowning on my bike had a certain appeal as long as I wasn’t sweating. Plus, I love a good storm and thought I might head to the sea shore, either in New Jersey or Delaware, to watch it roar by. All I needed was a destination, and perhaps an invitation.

A call to one of my oldest boyhood chums — Ihor Jaroslav Sypko — revealed he and his significant other, Helen Connor, were going to her place in Cape May for the extended three-day holiday. I didn’t want to come right out and invite myself to their intimate weekend, so I told him I had been diagnosed with terminal clap, that I had five days to live, and that I had hoped to spend one of them drinking his Scotch and smoking his cigars — just like old times.

“Come over at once and stay for a couple of days,” said Ihor. “But don’t drink the Scotch out of the bottle this time.”

This most excellent plan called for a Saturday morning departure. It did not take into account that Leslie (my hot squeeze) and I would be out with Monica McDowell (and Billy Mac, her genial ball and chain) the night before. Monica is the kind of person who would let pigeons loose in a crowded bus. She’d put itching powder on the commodes in the executive washroom. She’d squeeze a whoopee cushion during the State of the Union Address. And she makes everything seem like a good idea at the time. My end-of-the-summer bucket list included one rousing good drunk, and so with Monica cheering me on, I had 172 drinks in three hours. (I had basically given up drinking 8 weeks ago, so I am no longer used to it.) I stood up at 6am on Saturday morning, took one step, and fell over stone drunk. I could barely feel the pain in my head, as that receptacle was far up my own ass, apparently.

The shape of my head would change throughout the day, according to the pain. At one point, it was a bell... Then a gong... And finally, an empty garbage can. A cat walking across the lawn made so much noise that I wanted to scream, and would have, except Leslie had jammed a rag in my mouth to lower the volume of my delirium tremens. (She is an authority on 18th century medical practices, and would have bled me, had I been unconscious and utterly defenseless.) I wasted the entire perfect, mid-seventies day in recovery.

Sunday dawned bright and cloudless. The hurricane of the century fizzled like a politician’s campaign promises. My hang-over left me during the night and there was every indication I would live. An artist friend of Leslie’s had arrived from Maryland and the two ladies were dying silk with flowers, plants, and baby birds gathered in the yard. (I may not have this correct.) In short, there was nothing to hold me back.

The 1995 BMW K75 started within two seconds of hitting the button, despite having been under a cloud lately. Dedicated Twisted Roads readers will recall that the bike crapped out on me the previous weekend, owing to a loose relay under the gas tank. (Riders from my club — the Mac Pac — had it running again in an hour.) Furthermore, there was doubt (on my part) that the cooling fan was operational and that overheating was a possibility. This sometimes happens when you ride a sophisticated 15-year-old motorcycle like it is brand new.

The doubt about the cooling system was not shared by my mechanic of record, Tom Cutter, of the Rubber Chicken Racing Garage. Cutter explained to me that the K75 has a big radiator, that when filled with fresh coolant and properly bled of air would require a great deal of torment before overheating. Furthermore, it was his position that the slightest of breezes moving over the radiator would preclude the cooling fan from coming on.

"Hmmmmmmmm," I agreed. Cutter emphasized his explanation by speaking slowly and clearly to me, using simple terms, like I was "Rain-Man." (There is an element among the Mac Pac that contends I am brain damaged.) I did download several pages of data regarding ways to test the components of the cooling system. The first of these advocated starting the engine and letting it idle for eight to ten minutes to trigger the cooling fan. I did this with no result. So I was convinced I may have had a broken wire or something, and my fear was that the overheat warning light wouldn't come on either. The cooling on the K75 is mechanical, with a water pump forcing coolant through the system, regardless of the fan. So I had no real fear of getting stuck someplace. (But the question of the cooling fan was eventually resolved on this trip.)

There are those who have expressed surprise that I would still venture out alone on a lengthy run, harboring these doubts. Bob Leong in Vancouver, Steve Williams in Pennsylvania, and Michael Beattie in Key West have all been rather glib in their predictions that this K75 would shortly leave me with my pants around my ankles. I attribute this attitude to misery liking company. Beattie’s Triumph oozed about as much oil this summer as a BP drilling rig, until the shop capped it with a 40¢ gasket. Steve Williams insists on riding a scooter, despite haviong conned a local dealer into letting him take 346 test rides on high-powered motorcycles. And Bob Leong is from Canada. (So we all have our crosses to bear.)

My route was less than scientific. I aimed for the corner where Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware come together and figured I’d ride until I hit open water. The choices are the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay or the western shore of Delaware Bay. Both are pretty, but the Delaware option was far more practical. So it should be no surprise to the gentle reader that I ended up in Maryland. My plan was to cap the ride by hopping on the 90-minute ferry from Lewes, De to Cape May, NJ, so all I had to do was ride south and eventually turn left. The Atlantic Ocean is a hard target to miss.

Above: This is the main entrance to the ferry terminal at Lewes, Delaware. It's a cross between a modern train station or a small airport. The vehicle parked on the sidewalk is a parade float used in local events by the ferry authority. Photo by the author.

On the map, Route 213 in Maryland is marked with the little dots that indicate it is “picturesque.” In truth, it is far from what passes for picturesque in Lancaster, Pa. The stretch from Elkton to Chesapeake City is liberally sprinkled with strip malls and traffic lights. Further south, you’re more inclined to pass by little farm fields as opposed to fishing villages. The road only crosses water three times in the first 40 miles, offering 10-second nautical views as you clatter over steel-grate bridges.

Above: Passengers without cars embark via these glass-enclosed, air conditioned ramps. Photo by the author.

I do not have the adventurous riding nature that is so commonly shared among the members of the Mac Pac, the chartered BMW club to which I belong. This is because my fucking arthritis turns every little adventure into a crucifixion. The pain makes me stop a lot and drains the life out of me. The guys are good about this and pretend not to care... But I suspect they are talking about me when they say, “Well this was fun, but I am going to sneak off when Fatty isn’t looking.” So I thought, “Not only will they be surprised that I rode off alone today, but I’ll amaze them further by taking a slightly longer, bolder route.”

This was really stupid on my part.

For one thing, you can’t make any time on Rt. 213 and I stopped a lot to put my feet down. (And for another, no one would believe I intentionally took the longer way around anyway.) There is a joint called “The Suicide Bridge Restaurant” on the Choptank River in Maryland. It was my thought to ride to this pleasantly named saloon (using it as a theme for the ride), have a snort, and then turn east, running almost straight into Lewes, De. Since I was riding alone, I stopped whenever the hell I felt like it, and the day started to get away from me from the very beginning.

Above: One of the ferries retrofitted in 1998, sports the distinctive "shark fin" stacks." Photo by the author.

I suddenly became conscious of the ferry schedule, and realized that if I didn’t hustle, I’d be getting into Cape May around 10pm. So I dropped the Suicide Bridge idea and headed east on Rt. 330, to Rt. 1 in Delaware around Dover. The state of Delaware is less than 20 miles wide for most of its length. (Dick Bregstein once claimed that if I stood in Georgetown, Delaware, about mid-state, six inches of my ass would overhang Maryland.) Despite cutting the ride short, I was still 40 miles from the damn ferry, with less than a hour to make the 6:15pm boat. Riding like a crazy person brought me to the city streets of Cape Henlopen and Lewes, where the posted speed limit is 25 mph. The long lines of creeping traffic dampened my enthusiasm a bit, and an elderly woman waiting for a bus jumped a foot when I clearly hissed the word, “Fuck,” in my helmet. (She may have felt I was offering one more joy ride on the way to the cemetery.)

I made the boat with ten minutes to spare.

The ferry terminal is a cross between an ultra-modern train station and a small airport. You are required to produce your driver’s license, as well $36 to cover the fare. Motorcycles are boarded first and off-loaded first. (Let the record show I fully endorse this level of preferential treatment. Bikers should be shown the same courtesy in restaurants, hotels, police line-ups, emergency rooms, and whorehouses.) The boarding process seemed too elementary to be true, and I found myself staring at the steel-grate ramp, which was hanging at a 50-degree angle. I figured if I hit it at 50 mph, I could jump the K75 to the third deck. I hate all steel-grate bridges and steel-grate ramps. In a light rain or a little mist, they become deadly motorcycle-rider graters.

Above: The superstructure of the M.V. Twin Capes towers over the vehicle deck. Photo by the author.

The ramp would be lowered to the deck of the ferry, which in theory, could be heaving a bit due to seas agitated by the fizzled hurricane, which had passed by two days before. I saw myself being catapulted off the bike and onto the ramp in front of a few hundred witnesses. This concern began to prey on my mind.

A guy pulled up next to me on a 2005 Harley-Davidson Electro-Magneto Ultra Glide Special Edition. His name was Mike. I told him I was new to this, and that I’d follow him.

“Nothing to it,” Mike replied. “Stick to the middle of the ramp. It’s a non-skid solid material.”

There really was nothing to it. The ramp dropped down and we were on board in a few seconds. A deckhand backed me up to a rail and dropped a wooden chock under my front wheel. “Leave it in gear and on the side stand,” he said, with that warm New Jersey intonation that always implies the last two unspoken words are “you asshole.”

That was it, and no one was more surprised than me.

The 90-minute cruise crosses the mouth of Delaware Bay, which doesn’t really describe the situation. At mid-point you are essentially nine miles off either shore, with Portugal being the first land mass to the east. I rather imagine the swells can be significant when the ocean has an attitude. High winds and high seas had led to the cancellation of ferry service only two days before. Yet my e-mail to the ferry company drew a response that no tie-downs are required, nor have they ever been, and no problems are ever encountered.

Above: The elaborate lashing methods of holding a motorcycle in place on the Cape May ferries is revealed in detail. I was delighted to find out I didn't have to carry tie-downs or worry about the paint. Note to Michael Beattie — there is no oil under this bike. "Eat your heart out." Photo and sentiment by the author.

The ferries were initially built in 1970 and 1974 to identical specifications, though several have had spectacular rebuilds. They are all 300 feet long and 68 feet wide, with a displacement of at least 2,100 tons, and a maximum draft of 7 feet. The boats are powered by two 4,000 horsepower diesel engines, with a top speed of 16 knots (18 mph). There are five ships in the fleet, and no two are exactly alike. I was on the M.V. Twin Capes, which had the most elaborate refitting — to the tune of $27 million — in 1996. Billed as a miniature cruise ship, it features an elevator, a sweeping interior staircase, interior areas on four different decks, an enlarged gift shop, a food court with a brick pizza oven, and four different bars, one in a two-deck-tall, glass-enclosed room.

Above: I found this picture interesting... Note the polarizing effect of the Parabellum "Scout" windshield on the sun. Dash set up of 15-year-old German K75 features clock, tach, powerlet outlet (all standard), switches for flashers, Motolights, PIAA HID lights, and heated seat. A voltmeter is under the speedo and a Garmin GPS is on the right. Photo by the author.

Regrettably, I didn’t see any of this. My arthritis was so bad that I didn’t explore the ship, choosing to sit on a stanchion at water level instead. (I didn’t realize the damn thing had an elevator, and the thought of pulling myself up three flights of stairs had little appeal after being in the saddle all day. But I didn’t feel cheated. The “cruise” was spectacular. A long blast on the horn indicated we were bound for open water and I stood by to steady the bike. My concern was unwarranted. The bike never moved.

Above: One of two lighthouses on the Delaware coast in proximity to the ferries. Photo by the author.

There are two lighthouses on the Delaware side and each is a unique structure suited for the bay. The brownish/red “Breakwater Light” sits on a stone jetty that was constructed in 1828, under the administration of John Quincy Adams, and which was the second longest structure of its type in the world at that time. Shorter, squatter than you’d expect, these lighthouses are reminders that the gentle Delaware River, barely deep enough to float a canoe 250 miles north of this point, surrenders to the mighty Atlantic at a point where storms routinely battered ships in winter and summer.

Above: A freighter, a containership, or a tanker is making its way out to the Atlantic as we head over to New Jersey. Note how empty this little pocket of the ocean looks.

The fury of the ferry’s twin 4,000 horsepower diesels could be felt through the throbbing of the deck, and the initial shuddering of the ship yielded to a constant surge as it got underway. The view from just above the waterline was mesmerizing. Clear of the shore, the horizon was both unbroken and seemingly endless. Our course took us across the bows of a huge ocean-going freighter and it was easy to imagine that we too were embarking on a longer voyage. I found myself given over to the kind of reverie I experience on long-distance bike rides. The whine of the K75 was replaced by something far more formidable, yet there was wind in my face and I didn’t need to wear my helmet. I could stand, and move about on my cane... But I still had to think about balance. The heat of the day could be felt in the wind, which itself was an invisible chowder of sea smells, spiced with salt. I sat in the breeze wearing only a short-sleeved tee shirt.

Sitting next to my bike, I switched on the GPS to see where it would position me. The little “motorcycle” icon appeared in a field of blue, tracing a line marked “Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

Above: This marker commemorates the location of the last "Ceeement" (a lá Helen Connor) Ship built during WWI. These concrete-hulled vessels did make a couple of transatlantic crossings, before being scrapped.

The Cape May skyline — a water tower, a lighthouse, and a WWII observation tower — came into view shortly after 7pm. But it was a necklace of a skyline, small enough for me to put around Leslie’s throat. It was full daylight at sea, though the sun was low in the sky, and I wondered if I’d get to my final destination before dark. I mounted the motorcycle ten minutes prior to docking. My hips and knees conspire against me in the mounting process, and I wanted to be ready to roll the instant we touched shore, providing no delay to off-loading the cars nor supplying any entertainment to onlookers.

Above: The wreckage of the "Atlantus," the last surviving remains of a concrete ship. Photo by the author.

Exiting the ferry was as challenging as pulling out of my driveway, but the sun had fled like a thief when I hit US-9 in New Jersey at 7:50. I only had four miles to go, yet it was cool to see how my lights (and I have a lot of them) lit up the road. This was the first time I used the GPS after dusk, and it was somewhat novel to be getting instructions from it’s darkened screen. This is an older unit and it waved the “checkered” flag at me 50 yards from my actual destination. I jazzed the engine a few times, and the voice of Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko came out of the dark:

“John, we’re over here.”

Ihor has known me for over 30 years, and remembers my other name from a former life. He can still fit into his high school dress pants, although his head has gotten considerably thicker. He is a gentleman in the classic sense of the word. We have fly-fished together, hunted pheasant together, dragged deer out of the woods together, sampled Scotch together, smoked cigars together, cross-country skied together, learned to shoot black-powder rifles together, and climbed Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondack Park together. We got the late Bill Matz puke-faced drunk the night before he was to leave for Duke University (depositing him in a pile at his mother’s doorstep) together. We are friends in the manner that Bertie Wooster and Tuppy Glossop are chummy as described by P.G. Wodehouse. I regard Ihor as an authority on many subjects, and he considers me to be an amiable half-wit, who wades through life’s quicksand grinning.

Above: Life-long friends Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko (Left) and Jack Riepe in a classic pose. The boys almost look like they are congratulating each other on a ship well sunk. Photo by Helen Connor.

My final destination was a charming shore residence, originally built in the ‘20s, I think, and restored to an understated elegance by Ihor and his significant other — Helen Connor. While the house reflects Ihor’s wood-working competence, it mirror’s Helen’s taste. This is not surprising, as it is her house. Soft pastel earth tones are prevalent on the walls, in the carpets, and the upholstery. A collector of antiques and objects d’art, each room is a pleasing presentation of things she has gathered on her world travels, or garnered in quaint shops in rural US towns. A statuesque redhead who has made a career as a purchasing agent for the US military, Helen is an engaging conversationalist with a wide range of interests spanning Washington’s Beltway to the latest best-seller. Ihor is an archaeologist for the Department of Transportation in New Jersey. The two of them are like those couples who do commercials for the Sunday New York Times.

“So what’s the best buy this week for the US military,” I asked Helen over dinner.

“Tank tracks,” she replied without missing a beat. “One size fits all. How many do you want?”

Dinner was linguine with a delicate lobster-mint sauce that was to die for, accompanied by a salad of garden-fresh, multi-colored cherry tomatoes.

“Here’s a variety of cherry tomato I have yet to come across,” I said, prodding a dark green orb with my fork.

Glancing over at my plate, Helen said, “That’s an olive, John. You simply have to get out more often.”

There are very few people who you can chat with for three hours non-stop — wishing the night didn’t have to end — and Helen and Ihor top the short list. Our conversation covered economics, politics, shore towns, restoration techniques for old houses, the odd but unbelievable chemistry of the lobster/mint sauce, and how I keep my motorcycle from getting stuck in my ass after a long day’s ride. But the night did draw to a close, as I found myself sinking into crisp muslin sheets on a bed that drew the pain from my joints. It was one of the first truly cool nights of the late summer, and I closed my eyes to a symphony of crickets.

Above: The site also commemorates the life of a Navy pilot lost on training mission. Photo by the author.

My hosts took me on a tour of Cape May the next morning — the last day of the holiday weekend. There was some concern that the return ferries might be fully booked, and I reserved a spot (by phone) on the 2:15 boat to Delaware. Cape May is one of the few places in New Jersey where every other building has great historical or architectural significance — and has been preserved. Many of these structures are old hotels, or mansion houses converted to B&Bs. (It is not uncommon to encounter room rates of $350 and up, per night, in some of these places.) A good number of these establishments front the ocean too.

Above: A restored and rennovated WWII observation tower, from which German submarines were clearly evident, is open to the public.

Ihor and Helen took me to see the remains of the “ceeement ship,” (a lá Helen), one of twelve experimental freighters built of concrete, that actually did make several transAtlantic voyages. We stopped at the lighthouse, and the WWII observation tower, which has been renovated and opened to the public. (Let the record show I climbed neither the endless circular stairs in the lighthouse nor the tower, but was content to view both from the ground.) My interest in churches led us past St. Peter’s By The Sea, an Episcopal Church with Key West-style shutters, and Our Lady Star of the Sea, a traditional stone Catholic edifice that touched my tortured soul.

Above: An optical illusion! The top of the Cape May lighthouse appears to be sticking out of this classic New Jersey shore home. Photo by the author.

We also looked at 40 or 50 Victorian-style shore homes that reeked of opulence and seasonal comfort from a bygone era. The only thing that marred this visit was the anxiety I started to feel for my departure. Though we were only four miles away from the dock, I wanted to give myself 20 minutes advance boarding time for the ferry... And it can easily take me 40 minutes to mount the bike. I started saddling-up at 1:15pm, and buzzed off 20 minutes later.

Above: The free-standing Cape May Lighthouse, lovingly preserved and maintained. Photo by the author.

The ferry business seemed a bit slow that afternoon. There were only 60 cars on line, and one other motorcycle — a couple from Lancaster, Pa on a Harley. I boarded without giving the process a second thought. Securing the bike, I felt good enough to climb the stairs to the second deck. The ferry, the M.V. New Jersey, is one of the oldest in the fleet, and more traditional in its profile. Rust stained welds give the vessel a “tired” look. (It is 40-years-old.) While I did go up to the second deck, I had no intention of strolling around, and made myself comfortable on a bench.

Above: St. Peter's By The Sea, Episcopal Church, with Key West-style shutters. This church was moved at least once as a result of hurricane damage. Photo by the author.

It was easy to imagine myself at sea with empty horizons on both port and starboard sides of the ship. Sizable sailboats plied the winds a mile or two astern, and I envisioned topless or naked women tanning themselves on the bow, while I manned the wheel with one hand, and a waved a martini in the other. Hundreds of seagulls followed the ferry, diving for fish that surfaced after tangling with the huge props. There were a handful of dollies on board, several with remarkable asses. I wished Leslie was with me. Not the me I am now, but the me that I was when everything I did was a source of fascination for her. There was a shadow on the deck of a couple kissing. They were on the deck above me. The sun was strong and the shadow projected the woman’s long hair blowing in the wind. I thought how nice it would be to have my arm around Leslie, and to taste a kiss as sweet as biting into a ripe peach in that summer breeze. My curiosity got the best of me and I walked to the rail and looked up. The woman was a beast and the guy looked like a science experiment. I laughed to myself, thinking, “One more time, reality bests the imagination.”

Above: Widow's walks, flags atop pinnacles, and traditional colors are part of the architectural history of Cape May. Photo by the author.

I again mounted the bike ten minutes before the boat docked. As I was sitting on the K75, a young guy, a stunning young beauty, and a little kid came up to me. The guy seemed about 20, and politely said, “I didn’t know BMW made motorcycles. This is a great-looking bike. She has a car the same color red.”

I looked at the brunette beauty and smiled, like the spider to the fly. She appeared to be about 19, was as skinny as a rail, and had tanned melon-like breasts, which melted into a halter top. The young boy was her son. She had a tattoo on the inside of her arm, a script-like word which I couldn’t easily read.

“I bet it’s fast,” I replied. They looked at me and laughed... The faces of youth against uncertainty. “That’s an interesting tattoo,” I added. “What does it say?”

She held up her arm to show me, innocently offering the most delightful profile I have seen in a long time. The curve of her face led to the shape of her breasts, which flowed into the line of her arm, which bore the latin word “Semper,” meaning always or forever. She reminded me of an art deco sculpture. I told her it was lovely, and I didn’t lie. And the only reason I got away with this was because I looked like a threatless vision of advanced age, a beardless, faded Santa on an old motorcycle, on my way to the La Brea tar pits, for the final plunge.

Above: The Victorian-era structures of Cape May are a national Treasure. Photo by the author

The ferry docked and I scrambled for Delaware Route 1. It was 3:45pm on Labor Day, and the ride home quickly became an ordeal. Some asshole kid driving a minivan pulled in front of me, with less than three feet between his back bumper and my front wheel. He never looked and never knew I was there. I hit the horn and he jumped in his seat, before waving to me in the mirror. Since I was doing the speed limit (or less) this was not an issue. Ten minutes later, Sue-Ellen Shitforbrains crossed the highway in a little sedan (from right to left), while she was chatting on the phone. The sun was quartering over my left shoulder, directly in her face. She was shielding her eyes with her cell phone, I think. I was cooking along at that point and clamped on the binders (shedding 40 miles per hour) in about 60 feet. I swerved around her, blaring the horn. She never saw me, but her 5-year-old in the back seat waved. Very friendly, these waving folks in Delaware.

Traffic was heavy and crawled along in a few places where Route 13 ran into Route 1. This meant stop and go (1st and 2nd gear) for about 5 miles. At Dover, Route 1 becomes a toll expressway, and there was no traffic to speak of. My arthritis was starting to bug me and the GPS showed my first right turn to be 58 miles, with my arrival in the driveway at 6:05. I began cruising between 65 and 75 miles per hour.

Traffic halted three miles after I passed the exit for the most reasonable alternative.

This was an easy mistake to make. The alternative is a beautiful ride I have done many times before. But the speed limits are 35 and 45 mph, and highly policed. My thought was "Why deviate from the fast route if I was hurting?" It was then 1st and 2nd gear for fucking 40 miles. I had to put my right foot down about 200 times. This started to hurt so badly, that I pulled over onto the shoulder — to put both feet down — about 10 times. The heat was bad, and I finished a full bottle of water before too long.

Above: "Fireballs" making the run back to NJ, again in the sole company of a Harley Davidson. There is really nothing to crossing between New Jersey and Delaware on the Cape May - Lewes Ferry. It's drive on and drive off. Yet it is the best cruise for the money I can think of.

The GPS now showed my arrival at 7:15pm. (I have no compunction about riding in the dark. Not with all these damn lights. But I have a dread fear of hitting a deer.) I also began to dread the interchange with Rt. 1 and I-95, which is choked with traffic on the best of days. Yet there was no traffic after the second toll on Rt. 1. I crossed the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and found myself doing some serious left-lane riding, leaning far into the curves. The bike began to serenade me with that throaty growl. Slowly, it drowned out the scream of my arthritis.

My original plan was to bail on Rt. 141, to pick up Rt. 52, and take little-traveled country byways into Chester County. But that changed as I was moving fast again. I felt a pang of indecisive regret as I blew past Rt. 141. Two minutes later, I was signaling to make the connection to I-95. The GPS indicated I was 22 miles from the front door. There was no traffic at the interchange, and I flew onto Interstate 95.

It was a pressure-cooker of a deathtrap.

Above: Picnic facilities and outdoor dining arebehind the ferry terminal in Cape May.

I got into one of the center lanes, doing about 75 miles per hour, and was immediately passed by a steady stream of traffic on both sides. A glance in the mirror revealed traffic breaking like a surge behind me. I felt the frost of fear glazing my balls. The sausage monster waved to me from the side of the road. And then I thought, "Just ride the fucking motorcycle." I opened it up and dove through a break in the steel trap. There was nothing in front me from the interchange to the US-202 Exit. Nothing was going as fast as I was. I was pain-free and 17-years old again. I leaned through the sweepers in Wilmington with that K-75's guttural growl in my ears... I was flying four feet off the ground, three feet from the crash barrier.

The US-202 Exit came up quick, and I hit it hot, dropping two gears in two seconds to keep the back wheel behind me. And like magic, every single traffic light for the next five miles was bright green! I was inside the city limits, however, and decided to be polite about it, adhering to the speed limit. But no good deed goes unpinished and I ran into a wall of red tail-lights less than 2 miles from the Pennsylvania state line. The glowing red ribbon stretched a mile, or more. I put my right leg down as I came to a halt, and the arthritis re-announced itself with a jolt that ran up my spine. The pain was somewhat relieved when I put both legs down, and there was no reason not to. No one was going anywhere. Traffic would inch up 5 feet at a time, and I would shift the bike into first with the back of my calf, as opposed to putting my leg up.

Mr. Toad's wild ride on I-95 had refreshed me. I had a nice chat with sweet young thing in a convertible on my right. Her feet were up on the dashboard. I told her I loved her sandals. She asked me what I liked about them. I replied, "They are attached to those legs." She laughed out loud. Her name was Crystal. And then I heard a sound that made my heart dance. It was the music of a K-75's cooling fan blowing like a trombone. The fan would go on ten more times before I had covered the next mile.

The delay was caused by a horrific traffic accident involving three vehicles. One had flipped and violently rolled a few times. The hard top was ripped off in places and the door posts were collapsed. The other two cars were likely totaled as well. After that last delay, the ride home was almost soothing. But I dismounted like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. I could barely straighten-up. The distance I had covered was a mere 120 miles, but it was now 7:45pm. I had been four hours in the saddle.

This had been a great weekend ride.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain — PS (With A Shrug)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bustin' Loose and Waving My Tool Around

Some things are the embodiment of summer.

Jersey tomatoes and sweet Jersey corn are prime examples of rare and incredibly delicious produce available only in July and August. The “Beefsteak” Tomato commonly reaches the weight of one pound apiece. They are juicy to the point where they crack and burst. Their pure tomato taste defies description. Once you eat one or two of these — nestled in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (where the bacon is the thick sliced, hickory-smoked variety and each tomato slice is nearly larger than the slice of bread — you will easily forego tomatoes throughout the rest of year. Largely because you will remember how these taste, and all others will taste like shit. (And this includes the bright red, fancy, virtually tasteless, still-on-the-vine, hot-house variety flown in from Holland and Israel.)

Jersey corn is a sweet culinary treat that surpasses the most elegant chocolate.

Dropped into pure boiling water — to which absolutely nothing has been added — and roiled in the bubbles for exactly 2 minutes, before being smeared with French-quality baking butter and sprinkled with a little sea salt, renders this farm staple the food of the Gods. While “Silver Queen” is the most common name attached to white corn sold at roadside stands, “Argent” and “White Magic” are now more commonly grown. (They are far sweeter varieties than Silver Queen.) Even more traditional New Jersey yellow corn is still at the zenith of the corn-grower’s art. But this corn is available only in late July and August, when the heat oppresses the Garden State like Congress aggravates the voting public. And with real estate in New Jersey sold by the teaspoon, a staggering number of farms have been converted into sterile real estate developments with names like, “Bird Shit Run At Pheasant Woods.” That means less corn and fewer Beefsteak tomatoes year after year.

Now the average Twisted Roads gentle reader will undoubtedly be puzzled, thinking, “Can Jack be writing pleasant things about New Jersey, the state where he grew up and fled as soon as he was able?” The answer is “Yes.” Credit must be given where credit is due. Nothing says “summer” like Jersey tomatoes and sweet corn. (And at some point in the future, I will write about New Jersey diners, pizza and hot dogs too. In no other state are these complex elements elevated to an art form as they are in New Jersey. And God bless the Garden Apartment State for these small but significant cultural wonders.)

It is hard to believe that the most densely populated state in the Union, where traffic routinely ties itself in endless knots, where the chemical industry, the oil industry, and others blot the landscape, where garbage dumps and landfills tower over roadways, produces the best tasting produce in the United States. (And I have eaten corn grown in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. I have tasted tomatoes in California, Mexico, and the south. New Jersey has them all beat.)

The third embodiment of summer is the steamed Maryland blue crab. Chesapeake Bay has been famous for these for generations, though they can be found in other places. “Crab Houses” are traditional shack-like restaurants where the Maryland Blue crab is dusted with Old Bay seasoning, and steamed to perfection. Low on amenities and big on taste, local crab house fortunes have been built on secret spice combinations and having the best-tasting, freshest, sweetest blue crabs to be had. Most also offer shrimp too.

Above: The Blue Claw crab is one of the most delightful culinary experiences of the summer. Illustration from the internet.

The blue crab is served without fanfare. The table is covered with brown paper — or even old newspaper — and the crabs, usually a dozen, bright red with seasoning and steaming hot, are either dumped loose or presented in a discarded cardboard box. Patrons are presented with nut crackers (for effect) and little wooden mallets (for effectiveness). Then the madness begins. Claws and legs are pulled off and sucked clean. A pull tab on the bottom of each shell (the apron) is yanked, which makes it easy to separate the top shell (discarded) from the bottom, which contains the sweetest white meat. In minutes, patron’s lips are coated with pungent Old Bay.

Above: The underside of the Blue Claw crab, clearly showing the "pull tab" that releases the shell halves. What other food comes with its own opener? Picture from the internet.

While there are a dozen “crab houses” within 100 miles of here (West Chester, Pa), the majority of them are bullshit, low-quality seafood restaurants, offering the ambiance of bus station dining, while skating on fading local fame. And some of the better ones are not on the water. My objective last Saturday was to put together a little ride, within a 70-mile radius, to a decent crab shack. With summer officially ending on September 23rd, I only had a few of these weekend rides left. I had wanted to do at least two a month in July and August, but the stagnant column of heat (well into the mid to high 90’s) towering over this part of the country took the fun out of riding with body armor.

Above: The Blue Claw crab is served with prolaterian elegance. Photo from the internet.

I was to meet four riders at the local Starbucks, for a 60-mile run down to the Tap Room at Chesapeake City. This is a charming little town on the Chesapeake Canal. The Tap Room was rumored to have great steamed crabs, though there were mixed reviews on other aspects of the menu. Crabs were priced at $56 a dozen (average). This run met my immediate criteria of being fairly close, offering very pretty scenery (though the salt marshes of Delaware), and ending in a neat little community with steamed crabs in a somewhat nautical setting. James Sterling, Gerry Cavanaugh, Matt Piechota, and Dick Brgstein were all seasoned riders with a taste for crab, and the best company anyone could ask for.

Above: The author digging into a dozen steamed crabs at Captain Bob's Crab Shack four years ago. I was much fatter then. The crabs were $62 a dozen. Photo by Dick Bregstein

My 1995 BMW K75 motorcycle fired up and went into gear as it has done countless times before. It’s reassuring whine rose and fell like a Gregorian chant, as its tires traced the familiar route down to Exton. Less than a mile from the house, however, my eyes were glued to a warning light glowing like a hot rivet. The only light of the five on this dash to ever have come on, other then during the computerized system self-test, was the gas light. And now the alternator failure light was as bright as neon.

I didn’t know what to think.

Nothing ever goes wrong on this machine. Even with a bad cooling fan modulator (relay), the bike never came close to overheating. I glanced over to the voltmeter: it was dark. No reading. And then the engine quit. Naturally, this happened on a curve, on a busy country thoroughfare (Boot Road), with no shoulder and uneven pavement ending on grassy lawns. My emergency training took over in a second.

“Fuck this,” I whispered into my helmet.

I waved traffic around me as the machine came to a halt. Less than 40 seconds had passed since the light came on, and there were now 270 cars behind me. The dashboard was as dead as Kelsey’s nuts. In a simple stall, the idiot lights would have come on. I pulled in the clutch and hit the starter. Nothing happened. Although I was less than a mile from home, it was all uphill. “How am I gonna push this bitch back to the garage,” I thought. “Especially with my arthritis.”

Above: On the way to a crab run with Dick Bregstein in 2006, the author is astride his beloved "Blueballs," a 1986 BMW K75 (with the rare Sprint Fairing). Photo by Dick Bregstein.

The sudden death of the engine, coupled with the scant warning of the alternator light told me the problem was electrical. This most likely meant something stupid... Like a fuse or a loose wire. I checked the “kill” switch. It was centered in the “run” position. I switched off the ignition, and let the poor dead bike sit a minute. Then I switched the ignition back on.

All systems came up normally."WTF," I thought gratefully.

I hit the little green button and the bike restarted instantly. The gear shift indicator showed I was in 4th. I got back down into first and pulled out into traffic. There was no question of the next step: I headed back to the garage. The best place to deal with an issue like this would be in the shade, close to a cooler full of cold drinks, where I had access to my tools.

Safe in the driveway, I called the boys.

Above: This shocking scene greated Dick Bregstein, Gerry Cavanaugh, Matt Piechota, and Jim Sterling when they arrived at the garage — the author has his tool out and was attempting to provide emergency service to his own bike. Note the author is still really fat and grotesque, but not like he was seven weeks ago. Twisted Roads reader Monica McDowell summed it by saying, "You can really see a difference. Your head is not quite as fat as it was." Photo by Matt Piechota, who may never be the same.

One is a former electrical engineer for Boeing. Another has a degree in electrical engineering. The third one has a K75, though he rides a GS. And Bregstein stayed in a Holiday Inn Express once, and felt qualified in many respects. To a man, they were coming. Now all of these guys know me well. They know my riding limitations and they are authorities on my mechanical inability. But with the issue as simple as a loose connection, I had to step up the plate and start running through the possibilities myself. When the troops arrived, I had the bike apart, the Clymer book in one hand, and my tool in the other.

Checking the battery connections is easy.

All you have to do is remove the seat lock mechanism and extract the Motronic brain. The later is the device that costs $23,000,000 and regulates the orbits of the planets (when it is not monitoring the ignition, the fuel pump, and the fuel injectors). Jim Sterling watched me remove a tiny little nut with a needle-nose pliers and said, “Step aside. You’re hurting that bike.”

Naturally, the battery connections were tight. So was the Motronic brain plug. (At least it was before I pulled it out to get to the battery.) So were the wires going into the dual fuse boxes. So were the connections on the alternator. No fuses were loose or popped. A multi-meter (carried by Gerry Cavanaugh on his GS) measured the battery output at 12.8 volts. Whenever something craps out on a motorcycle, some guy always asks, “Did you put a meter on it?” This question is usually posed when there are other guys standing around, looking at you, even though they already know the answer by the amount of sweat pooling on your forehead. And saying, “I don’t have a meter,” is like admitting you have a small dick. So when this episode was over, I went out and bought two cheap multi-meters at Radio Shack ($10 each). One will stay on the bike while the other is consigned to the garage tool chest (the red one on wheels, with 10 drawers of tools, like the kind favored by guys with big dicks).

The boys bestowed on me the kind of sympathetic expressions they would share with an unsuspecting dope, rich in the unspoken recognition that I might be dealing with a partially broken strand of copper hair in the 108-miles of buried K75 wiring.

Some ideas seem to be electric in themselves. Five guys were all looking at the same motorcycle, and all of us focused on the same thing, at the same time: the clock. "If the bike lost electrical power," asked Bregstein, "then why is the clock still reading the correct time?" Since the clock had't crapped out, that meant the problem was between the relays and the engine.

“I had a cooling fan module replaced last week,” I said, “But that wouldn’t have anything to do with the engine.” The engineers looked at me like shit was leaking from my head.

With the efficiency of assembly-line welding robots, they popped up the K75’s gas tank and exposed the closed relay box underneath. Every electrical circuit in the world works better with a relay. The brand new gray cooling fan module looked perfectly innocuous and sat as tightly as a cork in a champagne bottle. Then Jim Sterling, the electrical wizard lately from Boeing Helicopter, began probing the other 34 relays. (I wrote that to be funny. There really aren’t 34 relays on a BMW K75. There are 63.)

“Ooooh,” said Jim. “That one slid down down into the connector significantly.”

“Which one was it,” asked Gerry Cavanaugh. He had the Clymer book open to an illustration of the relay box. “Was it relay number 4 or relay number 32?”

“What’s the difference,” I asked.

“Relay number 4 controls the lights on the Christmas tree of the White House lawn, and number 32 is secret, carrying the seal of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said Cavanaugh.

We were an hour dicking around with my bike in the garage. The boys held a hurried conference, speaking in muffled tones.

“What’s the verdict,” I asked.

“We’re hungry and want to go eat, yet feel marginally badly about leaving you here,” said Matt Piechota. “But we’ll get over it.”

“Ride the bike,” intoned Sterling.

Once again, the K75 started flawlessly. The truth is that this machine may never have this problem again, because it could have been a loose connection in the relay box. Or, it could have been a loose wire on the keyed ignition... Or it could have been dirt or crap at work in the kill switch; in which case, the clock is ticking.

We decided not to head to Chesapeake City (65 miles distant), but to Crab Crazy, a little steaming Blue Claw shit house on RT. 662 (22 miles away). Dick Bregstein and I have had crabs here before, and will again. The crabs have been good, and so has the shrimp. Pretty girls occasionally wait tables there too. The place has all the appeal of an ice cream stand because it is that as well. The ride up was quick and hot, with temperatures in the low 90’s. The K75 ran fine. We met Ron Yee, the Mac Pac’s newest member and his “R” bike waiting for us in the parking lot.

Ron just bought this bike a couple of months ago. Riding it back from the guy he purchased it from, Yee discovered a mouse nest buried under the fairing. He discovered it when it burst into flames. His flawless “R 1200RT” now needs a new fairing, as the other one is toast. He laughs about this now in the best of humor. But replacing that fairing will be ten bucks more than the cost to the nation for the new healthcare program.

“Crab Krazy” will not make it into the steamed crab hall of fame.

For some reason, it took us an hour and 15 minutes to get served. (“Subpoenas are served faster than this,” said Bregstein.” ) The crabs were okay... Just okay. The shrimp was good, but our noses were already out of joint. Three of the guys ordered crab cake. Now crab cake is also a regional, Maryland thing. But even there, most places make it poorly. Crab cake should only be ordered from a restaurant where ten out of ten Supreme Court Justices swear each patty is less than 3 percent filler. That makes the average price of crab cake about $22 apiece. These crab cake sandwiches ran $8 each and were approximately 87 percent filler. The guys put a good face on it.

My ride home was feloniously fast, and the 15-year-old K75 ran flawlessly. Do the boys think it was that loose relay? Probably not. Would they tell me otherwise? Nope. They may have even staged a loose relay so I’d ride the machine with confidence. But as Brian Curry later told me, “There’s no way to tell what it was unless it happens again... And stays broke.”

I only thought writers stayed broke.


Five days before this event, I found myself cruising the Pennsylvania Turnpike, keeping up with traffic in the left lane. It had been raining earlier, and I simply wanted to get home. Keeping up with the traffic is another way of saying “I was going like the hammers of hell.” Daydreaming a bit, I did not see a huge bump in the road and took a jolt that damn-near loosened my fillings. The bike took it real hard and caught a little air. I thought I had bent the front rim. That’s how I think that relay module got loosened. I remembered thinking, “I wonder what that shook loose.” Now I know, sort of.

I still have that yearning for crab. (Steamed crab is eaten right out of the shell plain, unlike lobster, which gets immersed in melted butter, which I cannot have.) So I am planning to visit a friend in Cape May this weekend, and sample Jersey Shore Blue Claws. As it stands, this could be some high adventure. I want to take the 17-mile long cruise on the Cape May, NJ — Lewes, DE ferry, and in will be in the wake of a passing hurricane. Rough seas could lead to a interesting time ferrying a bike.

© Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain — PS (With A Shrug)