Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Twin Mountain

It's been two months since Madeline and I did our traditional ride to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. What was once an event held every four years is now a quadrennial tradition. We really need to do it annually, but have consistently been "overtaken by events" at that key transition.

Well, of course, one of the events we were overtaken by was our memory of just how fricking uncomfortable the last ride was. Campaigner has a saddle like two cinder blocks covered with roll roofing, and with two long-legged folks on board, there's about one option for where to sit. Strike that; there's about one-and-a-half options but they're divided between the two of you, so that's really three quarters of an option per person.

By the time we reached our apogee, we were both miserable and the most salient memory we both have of the return is coaxing Campaigner to hyperlegal speeds and watching the mileposts tick past as we headed home. I don't think I was ever so happy to get off a bike...okay, there was another time...but that'll be another post.

One of the main attractions for blasting out to the mountains that time of year is grabbing the last of the local peaches before Labor Day draws down the curtain on peach season. We stopped at one of the ancient dusty stands lining the old road, so left behind by the superslab and by people's changing tastes, a lonesome avatar of another era when traveling meant something.

The stand is scabbed together from salvaged lumber and tarpaper, string of bare-bulb droplights casting shadows across the wooden baskets of produce, yellowjackets inspecting and sampling the wares with insouciant impugnity. Prices are tacked up on misspelled signs written on paper bags with magic marker. Full names are rarely used; instead, you can buy cukes and lopes, zukes and maters. We bought a sack of softball-sized peaches: sweet, soft, fragrant and covered in downy fuzz. We each ate one on the spot, drenching ourselves in sticky golden juice, then packed the rest in Campaigner's tankbag.

Of course, a hundred miles rattling around on top of a motorcycle's gas tank is not the best place for a sack of peaches. By the time we unfolded our aching selves at home, the peaches had turned to mush, a soggy, sticky mess melded with fuzz and the pulp of the paper bag, plastered all over the inside of the tankbag. We picked through the ruins and hosed the balance out.

This year's ride was similar in many respects: early blue-plate special breakfast at our favorite diner; chilly to start out but warming up rapidly as the day goes on. But we rode right past the fruit stand we had frequented without realizing it was closed and gone forever. We doubled back just to make sure, and realized how many places that we took for granted were gone, not just in the last four years but in the last few months.

I should also mention this time we were on Beast instead of Campaigner, which makes a whole world of difference. More power, better handling, but mainly a whole lot more comfortable and...more fun. We crossed the Blue Ridge in a serpentine fury, and rolled through the broad valley amid a herd of S2000 enthusiasts. It seemed like we all spoke the same language for a few miles, though in different dialects; at least we were all having similar kinds of fun on the open divided highway with its hundred-mile vistas.

But the highway has limited appeal to accompany its limited access. We slowed abruptly, and leaned into the sharp turn taking us off the beaten path. The backroad northward leaves the upland valley and descends to follow the course of the river for a few miles; then it rises again to skirt the east flank of the mountain, before cutting west, rising gently at first then bolting in a straight line to the ridge with nothing but rocks on the left and air on the right.

This stretch of road, with its unimpeded sightline dead ahead and limited chance of the unexpected inspires me to stand up on the pegs, stretch my legs and open the throttle as wide as I can bear (at least when I don't have a passenger on board). Winding my way up the mountain with the wind surrounding me and flowing over me, I imagine I am as close to flying as I will ever get. The view eastward is spectacular, but the ride itself is the payoff.

We stop briefly at the summit to take in the view, then descend west to the next valley, racing steeply downward and noting the other road deep in the woods directly below us—parallel to the road we are on, but oddly dropping away in the opposite direction. It takes a moment to realize it is our road; where we are and where we are going connected by an unforgiving and nerve-wracking 5-mile-an-hour hairpin turn, strewn with gravel and debris from shoulder to shoulder.

We turn north again on the two-lane road that snakes through this valley. As we lose elevation, the air becomes oppressively hot and still, even as we cleave it at seventy miles an hour. We are ready for a break, and stop briefly for lemonade and conversation at the lone country store on the road. As we continue northward, the broad valley closes in until we have steep wooded hillsides rising up on both sides, and the rocky creek is directly beside the roadway. We round a bend and enter a deep shady grove of hemlocks; the hillsides beneath these trees are rock-strewn talus, with no undergrowth to speak of. It is a dramatic change from the farm fields and deciduous forests we have been riding through up to now.

The cool shade is welcoming. I park Beast on the narrow shoulder, leaving our helmets perched on either mirror. We pick our way from the roadside down the banks of the creek, so evidently scarred by flooding—detritus clinging to tree branches above our heads, ground scoured and fresh trash wedged in unlikely spots.

The creek moves with languor through the smoothed rocks; it is not the pristine crystalline waters of melting snowpack, but the clear tea-colored waters of eastern forests, stained by its passage through leaf litter. The rocks constrict its passage into a deep pool just downstream of where we stand, like a faucet into a bath. The choice is obvious.

Madeline and I both take off our heavy riding gear and pile it on the rocks. Trusting the creek, I wade barefoot over slick polished rocks, and sink into the flowing waters, a self-baptism into a momentary state of grace. The creek supports me, and begins to ever so slowly carry me towards the sea. But I am blocked by the rocky barrier at the outfall of this pool, and remain motionless in place except for the gentle rippling of the water—staring up through the interlaced hemlocks at the cloudless sky framed by the mountains.

We linger in the cool waters until warm sounds good again. Then, dripping wet, we suit up for the return trip. The dampness beneath our riding suits keeps us comfortable for the ride home, and in what seemed like no time, we are back in the world again. The return trip was enough to supplant our recollection of the previous painful sprint homeward, though in all honesty, it's always kind of nice to get out of the saddle after a couple of hundred miles.

We need to not wait four years to do this again—things change too fast. Same time next year?


maggie kelly said...

You are the best. This story made me smile all the way through.

Anonymous said...

hell yeah, same time next year :D

andrew said...

I hope you didn't waste those mashed peaches -- throw 'em in the cider barrel!!