Here are some highlights from our motorcycle ride through ten states in only half as many days...kind of a tear-drop round-about...including parts of the Natchez Trace and the Blue Ridge Parkway. We started out from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Although we only spent three days out of eight there, the main objective of our trip was to visit with my sister in Decatur, Alabama. This trip, from the outset, was intended to be a pretty big deal, for us anyway. (Some of you, I have heard, range this far from home all the time...) But it turned out rather more adventurous than we would have willingly planned.
Even before starting out we ran into mechanical difficulty. Late last summer our 97 Yamaha, Royal Star Tourdeluxe began to exhibit a rare but vexing intermittent little glitch. At first I mistook it for vapor lock, perhaps associated with the new anti-pollution gasoline formulae. It exhibited most of the classic symptoms you get with vapor lock: (1) Cold star-up, no problem. (2) Re-start while hot, not usually much of a problem. (3) But drive anywhere from one half to two miles after a hot re-start and I stood a middling chance of the engine giving a cough and suddenly dying, quite as if it had run out of gas; or more frequently it might only give a little cough and then keep on going. (5) After that it would run fine for two hours...until it came time to re-fuel. (6) Then if I shut it off for any longish period and then re-started...it might possibly be okay...or more likely it might cough-and-run again...or it might cough-and-die again...almost always just when I started to really accelerate.
This annoyance seemed to show itself only rarely. It first occurred immediately after filling up at a certain Amoco station in Detroit. And then it went away again (and stayed away for over a month) after Id drained and refilled the tank. Now I know that to have been a coincidence. Id asked the dealer check it out. Told their mechanic to look for fuel delivery troubles: plugged breather in the fuel tank; sticky anti-roll-over valve; clogged fuel filter...all that sort of thing. They found nothing.
The problem continued to recur, but only rarely, and never when a mechanic was watching. This uncertain state of affairs dragged on unabated right up until the week of my long-planned vacation together together with my wife, Karen. Wed ride the Royal Star to Alabama via two-lane, back highways.
The vapor lock glitch had never yet been that big a problem. Just an off and on kind of thing, one Id so far been able to deal with simply by being a little patient. After no more than a few minutes wait, always the motor would restart. After that it would run fine. So I had explained to Karen, just before we both jumped on and took off for our eight day adventure on the Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge parkways.
But of course, once well away from home, the further we rode the worse and more frequent the problem became. In the least case it caused ever longer start-up delays after refueling. I responded by not shutting it off to refuel. Then the engine began to die while sitting at idle while I refueled. Later on it might even sometimes die in mid-ride for no apparent reason whatever...perhaps every couple hours or so. It still seemed almost like vapor lock, except for one important clue which did not occur to me until later. In the worst case, it stalled abruptly on top of a mountain.
On our way south we see a number of novel sights. Once there was a herd of beefalo: that strange cross between cattle and buffalo which restaurants hail as having less fat and cholesterol. These look either like some kind of steer on steroids, or else a very nerdy kind of buffalo. Then later, in Indiana just north of Scottsburg, where US 31 runs very close to Interstate 65 Karen suggests that it might be time to call it an evening. Its still light out, but Karen is tired of sitting down and would like to enjoy what little remains of the day in some other fashion.
Not expecting to find much selection by way of motels on two-lane US 31, I suggest switching over to the Interstate. We are running parallel, so that will prove simple enough. So we just hang a left at the next major crossroad. We are just a bit east (and downhill) of I 65, which we encounter in no time at all. Cresting the top what do we find but a hot air balloon hanging very low in the air directly before us. We could almost have heaved our helmets into the basket! Sure enough it is coming in to land...just over there...in that field.
And look! Theres another one just upwind. And others more behind that. Looks to be seven or eight of them. Theyre all coming down! Deliberately we overshoot the Interstate and cruise on by the field a ways, make a U-turn and cruise on back. We park, get off and watch events unfold. Remembering the Sony Mavica packed away in my saddle bag, I fish it out and snap a few pics: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Before very long, all the balloons are down and some even laid out flat on the ground to be folded and ported away by the chase vehicles. Now you must know that this landing has been a special treat for both Karen and I since over the years we had gone to several scheduled multiple balloon ascensions, all of which had been canceled on account of wind. We suffer a twinge of sympathy for the people whos field this. They arent home and have missed out. We ride away wondering what they will think, coming home to find the traditional bottles of champagne (one from each pilot) on their doorstep.
Taking back highways has its disadvantages. We get bogged down in in traffic sometimes, especially in some of the mid-sized cities. We even get semi-lost deep into two of the major ones: Louisville and Nashville. Its a less-than-safe idea to try and read a map while cruising along in city traffic. So I default to my preferred navigation technique: dead reckoning. Karen, however, holds this method in poor regard; its another one of those Mars/Venus differences of opinion. Yes, I do have a road atlas; and yes I did look at it, something over an hour ago. I know where I am generally (north of where I want to be) but this declaration fails to inspire the hoped for degree of confidence when transmitted to my wife through the helmet-to-helmet intercom.
In both cities her Venusian poor esteem for my Martian sense of direction is proven to be incorrect...at least by half. In the middle of neither city can I state, Karen, we are exactly here, on a proper city street map. I am lacking for one of these in any case. The Rand McNallys big city insets do not resolve to the requisite detail. But not to worry! Should I become truly confounded, I can always purchase a local street map at the nearest filling station. But this is not needed since I manage to thread our way through to each citys further side. One thing that hasnt been helping matters much is that no few of the junction signs are obscured by fully leafed out, low hanging tree branches.
Approaching the Ohio River to cross over from Indiana into Louisville, Kentucky I find that we are not in the proper lane to make the off ramp I had wished. Not safely anyway. No sooner do I turn my glance aside and think, That was my exit... than we ramp up onto the wrong bridge further east. I explain things to Karen via the intercom. No problem, says I, Over theres our bridge to the right. See where it ramps back down. Not so far... Well just take the next off ramp and pick it up from the other end. And that we do. Map or no map, there can be no mistaking a major river and the westernmost of several giant steel bridges.
I recall a scientific study which purported that the Venusian direction finding technique calls for precise metrics: a clear plan bench-marked by regular visible landmarks. This in contrast to the Martian guidance system employing more ephemeral tools: an innate mental compass meshed with intuitive guess-timations for relative distances and time. This was from a program on NPR. The researchers claimed to have performed a detailed study. Between male and female such was almost always the case. They theorized that in ancient society, where men were the far-ranging hunters and women the nearer-to-home gatherers, such would naturally be the case. Hunters could be expected to follow prey into places they knew not where. Having run the prey to ground they must bring it home before it could spoil, that is by the most direct of routes as opposed to backtracking the course of their hunt. A vague sense of here and there would serve them well. Gatherers, on the other hand, would need to maintain a constantly updated mental data base of just exactly where things are: some kind of visualized matrix to locate immobile resources on known terrain.
So went the theory, which I suppose makes as much sense as any. However the two systems may have evolved, the fact remains that they are distinct, and function pretty much as described. A disparity does indeed exist as any husband or wife can attest on a long journey with their spouse.
We thread our way over to the proper bridge, in the process passing by a ten story Louisville Slugger baseball bat leaning against a downtown building. I find the bridge easily enough. So now Im looking for one of two distinct southbound forks branching from US 31. The signs are clear enough a first. But after the first inner city detour, the US 31E signs all come to an abrupt end. Okay, so I must have missed a turn. No big deal... We double back to pick them up again and, for a lark, twice re-cross the Ohio River on the bridge we had first intended. The view from high bridges always presents a fine panorama. This is amusing but sheds no light on our situation. The last available marker for US 31E is the one at the tail of the bridge: an arrow pointing west, the same as we had followed before. We find no others. I make an arbitrary decision (the correct Martian thing to do) and end up exiting the city via US 31E (the western southbound fork) instead.
Would have been better had I stopped and bought that map. Id been specifically recommended to the eastern fork on account of its prettier scenery. This was doubtless a valid remark, since the western fork has very little indeed to look at. Not unless you truly enjoy an endless panorama of strip malls. I do jog over to US 31E eventually, but not until we have had to halt for no small number of traffic lights.
In Nashville I fail to locate Rand McNallys promised exit to the beltway and plow again through the center of town instead. No sooner do I resign myself to the humiliation of asking directions and/or buying a map than I blunder straight upon what must be the innermost finger of the very southbound highway that I had planned to exit from had I succeeded in finding the beltway. From here on out I have highway numbers for the route to the Natchez Trace firmly committed to memory.
Actually, the cities themselves cause us only small delay. The very most downtown parts themselves are entirely well worth seeing. If not for those mind-numbing commercial stretches of stop-and-go suburbia which surround, the cities punctuate our journey nicely. So Im thinking that maybe a more careful study of the map might prove rewarding after all: to wander in awe amid the sculptures, parks and glass towers without diluting its memory in their sprawling outskirts. But only if we can time it for a near-zero-traffic Sunday afternoon like today. I make a note for next year. Exiting Nashville, Karen and I thread our way toward the Trace.
There is only one further, slight moment of confusion when the junction marker for highway 100 seems to hint at the nearer (and very minor looking) crossroad. Karen chides me for not looking further ahead down the road. I call her attention to the construction baracades here and the fact that the traffic near to hand poses a compelling distraction. I am slightly more intent upon not crashing the motorcycle right here than I am about the fork up there a full eighth of a mile down the road. This is how I often do when out by myself. I might fail to properly read a giant sign fifteen feet in the air; but I dare not fail to notice that trifling little skiff of sand or even a stick the size of a pencil on a sharp turn. Very especially I dare not fail to notice that the driver on the right is paying us no attention whatever in his left hand rear view mirror.
Karen, I humbly suggest, You have all the opportunity in the world to look wherever it is that you want: near, far, up, down, to the sides, even backward if you want to. Eighty percent of my focus is concentrated within the immediate few hundred feet straight ahead, and largely upon the pavement itself, with the remaining twenty percent scanning traffic in my peripheral vision. Karen, unreasonably, still doesnt want to get lost again. Go figure...
Just a few miles further along and I know were getting close. I stop to gas up and ask the clerk about the Parkway. Just a mile further up this same road, came the reply. We hop back on and locate the entrance easily. Its very clearly identified.
Spectacular is a mild word indeed to describe the northern end of the Trace. One of the very first things we encounter is a very high, narrow bridge across a pretty deep gorge. Being from Michigan, I take this in like the Grand Canyon. Karen likes it well enough, even though she has actually been to the Grand Canyon. Im soaking the scenery up as we pass by. Some of the things that I pass by are scenic outlooks beyond the bridge-spanned expanse of the gorge. And here is the font for yet another Mars/Venus type breakdown of communication. Karen would like me to stop at these outlooks. She neglects to verbalize this desire...since the requirement is obvious.
It isnt obvious to me. I ride, I see, I keep riding on. For really fine sights like this, I slow down considerably. Seldom only do I ever stop to gawk from a static position. Moving panoramas are the very finest! This, to me, is what would seem most obvious. Weve been together fifteen years and I still cannot get my wife to tell me outright when it is that she wants something. Likewise, she cant get me to intuit automatically when it is that she wants something. Nor does she complain of it until much later, if at all.
Then again are the times when she does verbalize a request but it comes out in Venusian. Key action words are missing. So to my Martian ears, these translate initially as indirect, tangental remarks. Translation requires some moments of time. And during this brief interval, at 65 mph, the window of opportunity will often pass. Then, belatedly, Shall we go back? I ask. No... Its not important. she replies. It is a quandary.
Often before, Ive tried to suggest, Theres really no need to preface every small request with an argument in its favor. Please Karen, just tell me what you want. Sometimes she does. But I fear that this trip will turn out to not be one of those times. Not until the Blue Ridge Parkway do we come to a clear and precise arrangement: I will slow down when approaching each new overlook; Karen may then look it over to decide if we should stop; then she will tell me and I will stop. I explain my theory of the road trip inertia principal: a change of condition requires some directive input. Sans input, existing conditions will not be altered. Thus, if she says nothing, circumstances will not be altered; the bike will remain in motion.
This arrangement, once we finally settle upon it, ends up working out pretty well. I am relieved of a certain tension, needing no longer to futilely strain my feeble telepathic powers. Karen is assured of my stopping whenever she likes. And I am free to merge my being fully into that unique mutual dissolution of man, machine and open road which my friend, Dr. Frank Jameson, PhD rightly refers to as motorcycle meditation. It is a special quality of awareness quite free from all distracting dilemmas of if or else or other. A thing uniquely spiritual. All Buddhists strive to cultivate this outlook. In Tibet they call this being fully in the present moment. In Japan (and much of the Western world) folks call it Zen.
Ive been involved in Buddhism for all the years that Karen and I have been together. But Ive never been well able to communicate to her of this ideal. Neither is this present moment any exception. Certainly, its not a Mars/Venus thing, since most other Buddhists I happen to know happen also to be women. Clearly, though, there exists an East/West dichotomy which is fully as opaque. Distinct form our twin planetary differences, here is a gulf which each of us has pretty much given up trying to bridge. It is futile to explain. Effective words do not exist; and silence also fails to suffice. We both let it go and ride on.
We ride on nearly unto dusk, finding ourselves somewhere in northern Alabama. I now ask Karen if she might like to stop. And the Mars/Venus thing comes up again. I had somehow densely failed to intuit her desire for me to stop an hour ago. I shrug and take the very next exit. At the stop sign I hang a left toward the nearest town. The town is not really much of a town. So we stop and pull out the atlas. We quickly locate a much bigger town, Florence, just half an hour south. I take us there.
I stop for gas and ask where to find the nearest flock of big name hotels. The clerk lays out easy directions. Returning outside I find my wife in conversation with a girl refueling her car on the next island over. They are talking about the bike. She asks if ours is a Harley Davidson. Karen explains that, no its a Royal Star, Yamahas top of the line. The girl nods, taking note longingly of the twin Mustang saddles and remarking that both appear equally comfortable. Her boyfriends Harley affords only a fraction of the surface area to her as to him. She finds it uncomfortable even on the shortest of rides. Karen informs her that weve just ridden all the way down from Michigan and that she still feels fine. These become recurrent themes with any ladies we chance to meet: What kind of bike is that? If only our Harley had a nice back seat like that...
We encounter several motels just where the Texaco clerk said theyd be. I price a room at the first: a bit steep. We ride to the second. Karen, recalling from the map that we are now just two hours distant from my sisters is worried that I will try to argue in that direction. A room at the second is two dollars even more expensive that the first. I surprise her by taking it anyway.
Karen is so relieved she offers to buy our dinner someplace nice. But now it is pretty late, quite dark really. Her watch reports the time as being just after ten. We spy a nice steak house just a short hike from our hotel. Rather than hopping back on the Star, especially since the engine is hot and very recently turned off, we decide to hoof it instead. Upon arrival, Karen notes the lettering on the front door: open only until ten. So what else offers? Nothing much but a Taco Bell across the five lane state highway before us. Not much traffic though; so we hoof it there also.
Taco Bell has closed its indoor dining room. But the drive thru stays open much later. We stand at the speaker but no one will answer our call. Must be that the car detector fails to sense us. Just then a truck pulls up. He places an order and quick as a flash I jump over to the speaker and attempt the same. It ignores me totally. Okay, be that way... Karen and I now walk around to the drive thrus pick-up window so as to place our order in person. The girl at the window disparages this unprecedented breach of protocol. She informs us, Im sorry but we just cant take orders from people who walk in off the street.
Hows that? we want to know, Just what is it that you do here all day long? The girl only shrugs, thinking hard. I chance to notice the wall clock behind her, which shows only 9:14. We are still on Michigan time. The Taco Bell girl flashes upon a stroke of brilliance. They will open the front door for us, that we may place our request through authorized channels. We just say, Never mind, and trot back whence we came toward the much nicer restaurant we had first passed by, there to enjoy very nice dinner at Karens expense. Then its back to our pricey hotel to digest while we slumber.
In the morning I arise early and take the Star a mile down the road to a coin operated car wash. An hour later I ride her back relieved of her five-state bug collection. Karen is sitting by the pool. We take advantage of the hotels continental breakfast offerings, hop back on the Star and return to the mile post from which we had left the Natchez Trace. We follow the Trace southward only as far as highway seventy-two, stopping to re-cross the Tennessee River twice. Karen and I both like bridges. We pause in between the second and third crossings to snap a picture of the bridge. Then we hightail it for my sisters just west of Decatur in Somerville, where we visit for the next three days. My son, Skajler (say Sky-ler), is there before us. We have flown him ahead on a plane. My sister will fly him back on a plane after we return safely home another week hence.
After lounging around a bit the last morning of our three-day visit with my sister and her family, we roll out mid-morning on Friday. Karen is not quite so much of a morning person as am I. Thus it is that we dont hit the road until around ten. Id hoped for earlier, so this is somewhat behind my schedule. I fear we might not be able to finish out the Parkway before having to head back home. (Just as we had nowheres near finished the Trace.)
Northern Alabama and southern Tennessee along US 72 and Interstate 24 east of Huntsville are uniformly uninspiring. Entirely too much of civilization on either side. Curiously, at one point our route makes a little dip into Georgia, adding another state to our list, even if only nominally so. But as we draw nearer to North Carolina the scenery on both flanks improves by an order of magnitude. On US 64/74 we come to the Ocoee Dam, clearly one of the TVAs older facilities, and according to the plaque, originally a grist mill. Here again we start heading back up into mountains. Standing there and looking about we cant help but notice that there seems to be quite a number of tour busses hauling large rubber rafts and smaller cars with kayaks on their roof racks.
We have arrived at a unique week in the yearly calendar. A ways along we come to the Nantahala National Forest, where theres some kind of pre-olympic white water kayak competition going on. All the way up one mountain and down part of another there are small to mid-sized rivers, just within view of the road, first to one flank, then to the other. The road itself is twisty and steep so that, in places, I may give these sights only fleeting scrutiny. Fortunately, though, traffic is holding a reasoned pace, so that not a great deal escapes me. And Karen narates a good description of those few vistas which I fail to notice. In in these rivers are kayak race courses: lines strung from tree to tree across the water, with brightly colored foam markers dangling down. Elsewhere we twist through more mountains, past little rushing streams, one or two more dams, and yes, even bridges! We both found this part of our cruise every bit as envigorating as what we later saw of the parkway. There was indeed quite a lot to see with neither clouds, nor fog, nor rain to obstruct our full enjoyment of it. You who ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, do not fail to also take in US 19, US 19/74 and US 19/129! You may well even like these better.
Once we have penetrated well into North Carolina I am somewhat over-eager to lay claim to at least a few spare miles on the Parkway before calling it a full-days ride and rooting around for a hotel. As weve not arrived at the start if it until the middle-to-late evening, I told myself that it might be nice if Karen and I could catch the sunset from somewhere high up on the parkway. The Parks Department pamphlet had said nothing adverse about driving the parkway at night except to watch out for deer and perhaps (rarely) a bear. So on through the reservation and up into the mountains we went. Id hoped to maybe even make it as far as Asheville, or at least Mt. Pisgah, undoubtedly sometime after dark. But, alas, this plan was far too ambitious...
Night falls more abruptly there, or so it now seems to me. Just as it was turning dark, and just as an unexpected (to me) out-and-out pea-soup fog blanket rolled up and over us suddenly from down below (we actually saw it do that!) the Royal Stars engine chooses that moment to again suddenly cough and die! And not only that, but it wont restart, even after a much longer than average wait!
So there we are...on quite the wrong side of the peak to catch any glimpse of sunset even had there been no fog. And now it is getting rather dark very quickly. No other traffic comes along. Nor can we hear sound of any from however far away. Perhaps this was not such a very good idea after all. Still, there is nothing to do but wait. So with growing impatience we wait, foolishly on top of a mountain, in the dark, watching as this cloud bank rolls up ever thicker. This is simply too much adventure for the likes of we two: a middle-aged lab technician and his bank consultant wife. What could be worse than this? What else can possibly go wrong? We had to ask... The answer comes: how about a thunder storm coursing swiftly in to dance occasional lightning strikes all across our side of the next mountain over?
Okay, enough already...start! START! Please start! plead I to all the gods, or even any lesser spirits (why discriminate arbitrarily?), that might be around to proffer aid. I turn the key repeatedly. The starter turns over easily; but the ignition will not fire up... I look over at Karen. Shes just an outline now in the gloom; but something about her posture tells me that she is not pleased at all by this present turn of events.
Okay, I say to my wife. So much for patience. Lets just get ourselves out of here. She is similarly inclined. But I glance about and now discover that the fog has thickened to such a degree that my headlight sets the heavy mist aglow quite as if it were indeed, pea soup. Almost opaque it is, with any kind of light on. This is worse than no illumination at all. I cant properly make out the boundaries of the road. The luminal numbus is far too bright, even with a tracery of rainbow hues arching through it. Adventure... This? Mis-adventure is more like it... I shudder in remembrance of several near-vertical drop-offs wed ridden by on the way up. No way am I heading back down again in that direction! Were at the top; so both ways lead us equally down... Will the road ahead be better...or worse? It hardly matters if I cannot see at all.
Now comes an inkling of an idea... Im thinking that those fog lights mounted on the engine guards of Honda Gold Wings dont look any too much of a luxury now. Something like that would serve very well indeed... I first turn off the passing lamps. Then I make shift by fishing out a Phillips head from the tool kit under the seat and re-aim our center headlight just as far down as its two alignment screws will allow. Now the cone of the low beam casts a mere three-foot diameter circle onto the ground just a bare five or six feet ahead. Good, just what I wanted. A least I can see (dimly) the dividing line. With that as my only guide, Karen and I coast down the mountain on battery power.
The way is long, narrow and twisty! Its also quite eerie, riding silent. Were not very far along the parkway; still pretty much at the southern end. On far too many of the switchbacks the side glow from my short, narrow cone of illumination dimly reveals yet another near-vertical cliff edge. In such places just about all that we can see is cloud vapor in dense streamers (just like smoke!) curling up from somewhere very far below to whistle softly around and past the uncomfortably low guard rails. Its an odd, wavery, far-away sound, almost like a human moan.
Of other auditory sources we detect none whatever. In a way this seems almost like good news. At least there are no motor noises headed our way. We neednt fear coasting headlong into some oncoming car. Now into my awareness creeps the thought of other potential obstacles. The Parks Department web site made some passing mention of deer, and sometimes bears or maybe even a mountain lion. (No tigers? Oh, my!) We dont encounter any of these but even the possibility is still a discomforting sensation. We coast on in silence. And in due course, after a number of anxious switchbacks, we run out of down-slope very nearly at the bottom.
It is now level enough so that there is no further chance of coasting. From here on well either have to abandon the bike or else push it. On the way down Id begun to have a care for the battery. But the headlight seems to still be holding out as bright as ever. At least weve gotten out of the clouds, which from here at the bottom, obscure the whole upper half of the mountain. And here we enjoy a bit of light reflecting back down from their undersides. And that thunder-boomer from just next door has migrated beyond line of sight. We can still hear it, but distantly, and see only dim flashes of orange in the ever receding distance. No bolts had come even near to striking toward our mountain. Perhaps we had gotten worked up over not so much of anything. Perhaps...
So now what? Push the Star? Hardly likely... At just short of eight hundred pounds, its about all I can manage to back this monster out of a just barely unlevel parking spot. And no way do I care to leave it. So lets try the key yet again. And, of course, now the ignition lights off without a hitch. Just like that: no cough, no sputter, no sign of trouble at all. I seem to recall that vapor lock is aggravated by altitude. Must be getting into my dotage to forget something important like that. Even so, there is still something about that theory which doesnt mesh... But I cant put my finger directly on it.
Well, anyway, problem solved, at least the moment. Now we ride along quite nicely straight out through the nearest exit to civilization, which in this case is Best Westerns Smokey Mountian Inn at Waynesville. Not trusting to shut off the motor, Karen waits while I run inside. Yes, they have rooms. The price is lofty, but hardly do I care at this moment. I slide my Visa across the counter, sign here, initial there and gesture a thumbs up to my wife through the lobby window.
Nothing offers by way of dinner at the hotel. So we get ourselves back on the Star in search of food. The rain is falling more heavily now. Our helmets evoke amused grins at the first place we walk into, the one recommended to us by a hotel staffer whos daughter works there. But, as luck would have it, they are closing. Again the Star fires up as of old. We ride back toward another place wed observed very much nearer to the motel: Hobart House or some such name, a small but tidy 24 hour establishment. Our waitress is friendly and we take advantage of her suggestions. Then its back to our room. We chalk the whole experience up to the spirit of Adventure and call it a night. Karen doesnt get on my case about it at all, for which I am extremely grateful.
That was the worst and most hair raising plague of vapor lock we were to suffer. Second worst entailed no actual (or even apparent) physical danger, only mortal embarrassment. Afternoon of the following day Karen and I pull off the parkway to take advantage of one of the many spectacular overlooks. Arrived there before us are a certain two gents, middle aged (like us) but riding Harleys (not like us) and all decked out like Hells Angels (even more unlike us) albeit sans the club colors. Not to worry, though, as it seems only to be a fashion statement. Weekend one-per centers... Just what Id most like to avoid. As a ten-years reformed ex-HOG-lodite myself, no longer have I much in common with any such pair as these: low riders all the time getting on their high horse about the mythical virtues of American Iron. I cling to the hope that they shall leave before I need put my own beloved metric machines temporary handicap on display. What are the chances?
Long years ago we might have had more to talk about. Bike number six for me was a Harley. I loved that machine; but alas it hated me. I cannot imagine ever again buying another. Shear patriotism no longer motivates me toward the useless propagation of a myth. To them Im guilty of desertion. Well, what of that? I am for a fact, and entirely proud of myself... I reflect, yes, more is better: four cylinders, four carbs, two overdrives, DOHC, water cooling, a five-year unlimited mileage warrantee. All of that and thousands less expensive, to boot!
Thus do I pump up my ego to survey them all the more objectively, much like an ex-smoker enjoys regarding those still hooked. Poor unfortunates... Seventh and eighth place runners up in the Sonny Barger dress-alike contest; passed over on account of incongruously brand new leathers and barely legal (but still new-looking) half-helmets and neatly trimmed beards of hardly than a two weeks growth. And Im thinking its almost like, Our wives only let us grow these out while were away on vacation by ourselves. (Riding season and hunting season have something in common!) The only things missing are stick-on Live to Ride tattoos and mail-order, nazi-esqe leather Nelson caps. Umpteen long years ago, I half-subscribed to pretty much this same mystique. Now it just grows tiresome. Sidelong they watch us ride in.
Their bikes, I am forced to admit, are really pretty. Factory paint jobs, but more than compensated for by whole acres of extra chrome. For comfort, I amuse myself silently at their expense with an idle speculation: in contradiction to their obvious fashion statement, which, I wonder, is the junior tax attorney and which owns a McDonalds franchise? Or maybe theyre both full time programmers for Nintendo! Distracted by this most amusing contemplation I fail to notice something important. The vista from this altitude is most engrossing. One is not inclined at all to observe the ground at ones feet. Here is one of those places where what is level looks a bit off and what is off looks okay. Consumed by my musings regarding this pairs true occupations I absent-mindedly flip out the kick-stand, and slide my corpus gallantly forward in the saddle so as to better allow my wife off first as/per our usual modus operandi. Playing it cool for the benefit of the Sonny Barger clones I succeed only in disgracing myself all the more well and truly...
Had I noticed the lay of the land, I would have done several things differently: planted both feet more firmly, squeezed tightly on the front brake, nudged the front tire up to the curb, or better yet, followed the lead of the Sonny Bargers and backed into the parking spot. Holding the bike steady is my primary function now, but I am woefully inattentive. Preparing herself to get off, Karen jostles the machine just right so that it jogs forward slightly. Here this is all that it takes for something to happen that never has happened to me before. The kickstand retracts itself! And I scramble for lost balance...right in front of the Sonny Bargers!
No, the bike does not tip completely over onto its side. Yamaha has preempted this catastrophe with an excellent design: the left floor board pivots up so that it is in no way damaged; and a steel bracket just below makes like the third leg of a tripod and prevents any chrome from scraping the pavement. Even in my now ergonomically disadvantaged posture, I am still easily able to hold it from tipping over any further. But this fact is not evident to the casual observer. It looks just awful. And one of the Sonny Bargers rushes over to lend me a hand.
The tough hombre illusion is shattered by the expression of genuine concern on his face. Here is the social nadir of my whole existence as a convert to the metric community! Karen carefully slips herself the rest of the way from off the back and I say, Thank you. to the kindly gent while wrestling my Royal Star back again into a dignified attitude. Belatedly I attend to some of the necessary precautions listed above. A few moments later the helpful gent and his friend start their machines and aim them toward the direction from which we had just arrived. I didnt get a chance to catch their real names.
Another couple rides up just about then. These two roll in on yet another Harley, but not with quite such an ear-splitting roar as the first two are just now taking off amid. Here we have an ordinary husband and wife team, entirely genuine. Just being themselves. I am relieved. We strike up a very pleasant conversation with them. They are from Philadelphia. Their bike too is as pretty as any. The pair take notice of Karens and my Dry Rider, Press On Regardless, one-piece rain suits. (Damn! I could at least have warned the departing Sonny Bargers of rain on nearly every second mountain southward.) I told the lady where they might order a similar pair of rain suits for themselves. He wonders whether the nylon/PVC material might burn through on the right leg from his pipes; and his wife assures that she can figure something out to prevent this. They are intimately familiar with this road. He informs us that the sunshine we now stand in is atypical. On-again off-again rain is the norm.
I notice that the husband has outfitted their bike with a stylish, custom seat: one of those slim, oh-so-sleek, low-slung saddles...another of the single-piece kind with only a smallish pad for his wife. I myself rather prefer the looks of those, even though I knew them to be totally impractical for riding two-up for very long. The wife had been forced to modify it with some additional foam padding. This makes it softer, but not any wider. She hints in her husbands direction about our own choice of custom Mustang seats. She next volunteers to us an all too startling aside: customarily she must impose touring limitations of just 150 miles in a given day. Increasing discomfort because of that saddle is the key factor. She makes their carefully spaced-out hotel reservations well in advance.
One hundred fifty miles? I glance back at our twin saddles, then again at their saddle. Mentally I do a rough calculation: wife-tush versus saddle surface area ratios normalized against a constant of one hundred fifty miles... Mustang comes out far ahead in this formula! On the instant Im overjoyed for not having opted for the Corbin seat on my machine! Ive now no regrets at all for my decision the other way. None whatever. Sage advice... Are you in the market for a custom saddle? Do you hope to ride a very long ways two-up? Very well... Be thou not a slave to fashion!
Karen and I explain about the vapor lock. They commiserate while we wait. Then at long last, the Tourdeluxe allows that I may start her up. We all say polite good-byes and trade e-mail addresses. Then Karen and I head on toward the north while our new friends turn their attention to the spectacular scenic view.
The Royal Star does pretty well for most of the rest of that whole day. In fact it doesnt act up too very badly until the return leg home. Then it starts kicking out again worse than ever. And, in long overdue course, finally it dawns on me that this cannot be vapor lock. I think back: yeah, sure...on that old rust-bucket winter-beater which a neighbor of mine once drove, vapor lock did work just like so: cough and die all of a sudden. But that old car had only the single carburetor, not four individual carbs like my Tourdeluxe.
So now it doesnt make any sense. With four carbs, the motor should not die all of a sudden. The carburetor bowls will not all run dry together in the same exact instant. The motor should instead sputter: first on three cylinders, then on two, then on one! This cough-and-die symptom is uniformly instantaneous. Never any trace of sputter. Just cough and die. So, aha! It must be an electrical problem! Even though my lights work, and the horn, and the start button...all that stuff. Electrical, nevertheless...
Has to be the ignition circuit. And in fact I do locate it. Its the ignition switch. Somewhere inside the key switch is a loose contact: one having only to do with the ignition circuit. The degree of looseness is somehow greater when it is hot. The ignition switch generates no internal heat. But its exposed to radiant heat while at idle and while turned off. At those times air flowing by is minimal. So the ignition switch warms up mostly at those times, hence the vapor lock mimicry.
Thus do I hypothesize: one supposes that when first I first switch the key from off to on in a cold condition it makes good contact. But then if I take her up to any kind of speed, the little, orange plastic tag that hangs off my key ring starts to flutter in the wind. If this should happen while the switch is warm enough...and if the key gets jiggled in just the wrong way, it somehow cuts out the ignition circuit...and only the ignition circuit. The theory seems viable... After this revelation things go better. Say Im cruising along when the engine coughs and dies: Im on the highway, going seventy in fifth gear. Way up in second overdrive (a zero-point-six ratio), what with well over eight hundred pounds of combined mass, the Tourdeluxe cannot shudder to a dead halt no matter what the compression ratio. Even with the clutch engaged it must coast down gradual like. Thus I shed only minimal MPH every few seconds. No great problem now. In less than two seconds I can reach down with my left hand and twist slightly on the key. Now with a little cough and back-fire the engine will start right up again. And, chances are, Ill be okay for another hour or two. Once I got that little, orange tag and key ring off from the key it coughed and died far less often due to reduced flutter factor.
There ends only a part of the story. And Ive gotten ahead of myself. Let me here append another mechanical aside to our journey. Quite as important as any of the moving parts in my machine is a particular comfort factor already mentioned. I am moved to here insert a lengthy plug for that oh-so-very-wonderful Mustang saddle. It may not be quite so stylish as the Corbin. But that hardly matters when it comes to riding two-up. I rather believe that our Mustang seats saved our marriage! Perhaps a small exaggeration...but heres what transpired come Saturday night...when Karen takes it upon herself to study more closely our Rand McNally road atlas. Id left it open to the page for Virginia. She flips over to the national map and looks suddenly up aghast... Hmm...Roanoke? Huh? What!!! Were all the way over here in Virginia! Karen exclaims.
Yes..., says I, Dont you remember how we laughed ourselves silly when we crossed the state line (an actual white line painted across the parkway with North Carolina stenciled on one side and Virginia on the other)? In retrospect, giving voice to this little quip was rather poor diplomacy...
Karen truly is not at all pleased. Maybe even starting to get fairly miffed. So now she says It took us two and a half days just to get from Kalamazoo to Alabama. And look here! Now we are even further away!
And I respond, Thats true. But back when I was a kid my dad used to drive us all to Virginia every summer. And we always got there in just one day. Once I even drove to Florida in just one day
A day! One day! What exactly is a day to you...24 hours?
To Florida it may have taken me something like that. But not merely from Kalamazoo to Marion, Virginia. I dont remember quite exactly. I was just a kid. But it wasnt anywhere near to 24 hours. Sixty miles per hour is one mile every minute. In twenty-four hours you could get all the way to Wyoming, if not further, except for having to refuel.
Very well, show me then just how you expect to do it. she requires.
I pull the map closer to me. First we head south to catch Interstate 77 North via Interstate 81 South... and Im immediately interrupted.
South? South! Thats going away from where we want to be.
Yes, but it should still be faster. My dad always chose that route, I remember very well. This time were not going to taking any of the pretty back roads. Well spend zero time sitting in traffic. It will be kind of a long haul, sans opportunity to view much nifty architecture. But its entirely possible. Trust me, okay? I ask.
Karen, lacking a contradictory childhood experience of her own, appears to elect a wait-and-see tactic. I had been waiting for this moment, somewhat anxiously, none to sure of how strongly shed react. No, I hadnt planned it this way. I had, however, procrastinated leaving the Parkway to such an extent that the effect was entirely the same. With each passing exit to the Parkway a small dread had grown within me. Now is the time of reckoning. How shall it go?...
She was still somewhat put off, but quietly so, and only for a little while. Here was my best-case predictive scenario. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. Im starting to hope that this adventure thing might begin to sit well with her.
So come 7:00 a.m. the next morning, belatedly, we roll on out of Roanoke on Interstate 81 South. (We were slug-a-beds. Id watched a quartet of Gold Wing machines cruise out of that same hotel a full half-hour ahead of us.) After that, we stop only for gas right up until Ohio. (Which is where I get my electrical inspiration.) We take a short lunch and some hours later, a longer dinner (still in Ohio). Then we get off the Indiana Turnpike and make the transition into Michigan at Sturgis with still enough time for one last scenic side trip...to catch a really beautiful sunset over the St. Joseph river while exiting the historic, covered bridge north of Centerville.
Up until now Ive been risking some fairly hefty speeding tickets...all the way since Virginia. Some umpteen hours, all told. I figure the jig must soon be up this close to home, so I let off on the throttle to dawdle along at three miles under. Im almost home after all; theres no time to be saved now! Id been averaging ten to twenty-five over the limit for most of the last whole day. Enough is enough. And besides, my brain is tired from maintaining constant vigil against the forces of order and propriety. I dont own a radar detector... (Seldom do I ever need one.)
So here I was, putzing along on northbound U.S. 131...for just about ten minutes or so. And this car whizzes past me. Must be doing twenty-five over. And five seconds after that...still another one comes whizzing up from behind. I see it in the rear view: a familiar outline. And I catch the logo on the door: State Police! And just then the flashers on top light up. Alas...whizzer number one must pull over. I dawdle on by just as the lady cop is stepping out. She gives me and Karen a wave of the fingers real friendly like. I wave back.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, just as it is getting dark, I pull in home. Karen hops off (very tired, but only just a little stiff) and rolls up the garage door for me and the Yamaha Royal Star Tourdeluxe. Yes! We have arrived home in time...if only barely! Karen is cheerful. I have delivered her home safe...on time...and even in pretty good shape for work in the morning. All kudos go rightly and properly to the folks at Mustang Seat! (No piddly, preplanned, 150-mile hotel-to-hotel hops for us! And were maybe five years senior to that nice couple from Philadelphia...)
All in all, ten states (In order: MI, IN, KY, TN, AL, TN, GA, TN, NC, VA, WV, OH, IN and MI again) in just five days of traveling time. And for all but the last day at 65 mph and under. Nothing like what some of you folks out there crank up. But this was my first long trip in something over twenty years. And my wifes first long motorcycle trip anywhere ever. Even after all of that Karen seems mildly receptive to the topic of next years adventure. Me? Im grinning from ear to ear.