Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beast Music

     I. If I had to pick the exact moment the day began to go off the rails, I have to say it was when I chose to stay in rather than head across the vast parking lot for some fast food. Instead, sometime later that afternoon, stomach grumbling, I opted for a stopgap plastic-wrapped “fish sandwich” ransomed from the vending machine and resuscitated with ninety seconds in the microwave.

That may have been the single most uninspiring lunch of my life.
Besides leaving me neither hungry nor sated, it set a dispiriting, dehumanizing tone that lingered with me like a stale fart until the next morning.
When the workday finally ground to an end, I suited up without any real sense of exhilaration at the prospect of five and a half days of free time to do nothing but ride. I suited up and shuffled out of my cubicle, only to arrive bikeside minus a glove. Sweat was already breaking out under the steamy sun as I carefully retraced my steps back across the parking lot, along the sidewalk, back through security into the building, all the way back to my desk.
Nada. Re-retracing my steps, I spied the errant glove hiding in the shadows within a pace of where I had been standing by the bike. Now completely drenched in sweat, I buttoned up and rolled into rush hour, lurching foot-by-foot the entire mile of the dusty strip to the nearest gas station for a quick top-off before hitting the road.
Forty-five minutes after I first started starting, I actually hit the interstate and found my little niche, tucked in amidst the screaming tractor trailers, in time to get ten minutes of riding before the storm hit. Like flipping a switch, the rain began and within seconds, water stood on the road and the blasting trucks filled the air with filthy spray. I got off the highway and watched the madness from the safety and comfort of a gas station awning while the storm sorted itself out and gradually moved on east.
Welcome to West Virginia. Elapsed time: One hour. Miles travelled: Sixteen. And I could still taste that fish sandwich.
For the next four hours, the storms played cat-and-mouse with me. As I rode northward, the sky would clear, the road would dry, it would be beautiful, and in just a few miles the clouds would regroup and the rain would resume. Twice it got bad enough for me to exit the highway and sit it out; I was not the least bit interested in proving anything on this ride.
Eventually, we reached a compromise—it would rain steadily, but not heavily. And so it did, for the last two hours of the first day of my long anticipated vacation. Which, it so happens, corresponded with the beginning of the real riding part—extricating myself from the superslab and entering the highway hugging the west shore of the Susquehanna.
Admittedly, the rain was gentle and erratic enough that I was able to enjoy the riding and the beautiful mix of mountains and river. But as the road wound on, it slowly began outrunning my riding stamina. I was worn from the workday and the hassles of getting this far; the light was fading, I was chilled from the earlier sweat mixed with the spots where the insistent rain had found its way in my suit, I was hungry, Beast was running low on gas, and I had no idea how far it was to my destination.
Did I mention I planned to camp tonight—tent, sleeping bag, the whole nine yards?
Maybe that goes farther to explain the “going off the rails” than a single fish sandwich from a vending machine. Because in pretty much every instance, ‘camping’ is synonymous with ‘outrunning my stamina,’ ‘chilled,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘low on gas,’ ‘tired,’ ‘getting dark,’ and ‘damp.’ That’s exactly what camping means, at least in our household.
Getting annoyed with myself, I started looking for a motel appropriate to my circumstances, meaning ‘cheap’ and ‘willing to shelter a bedraggled motorcyclist as long as he doesn’t do an oil change in the room and ruin our linens.’ Strangely, the little college town I was passing through seemed to have lots of places catering to parents well-enough off to send their kids to a fancy private college in the foothills of the Poconos and overlooking the confluence of the two branches of the Susquehanna, (read: pricey and fancy) but oddly, fairly few targeting my specific demographic. Hmm. Go figure.
No matter. I would bravely soldier on, trusting fate there would be something appropriate down the road somewhere.
But by now, the rain had abrogated our earlier agreement; it was raining both steadily and heavily. It was full-on dark, and both my visor and glasses were spattered with rain and fogged; oncoming headlights made it almost impossible for me to see the road ahead. I rode awkwardly and hesitantly into the darkness, fumbling my way down the highway until I finally recognized a road of the right aspect heading in the right direction. I followed it.
In short order, it took me to the route number I was looking for. Making a calculated guess between left and right, I turned onto the road and began looking eagerly for my destination—the campground.
Prior to this, I had been riding in daylight or in built-up areas; I was now in the country, and it was very, very dark. Except for the headlights of the onrushing cars, which were very, very bright. I really wasn’t liking this part very much at all. The low-gas warning light had been on for a really long time, and there wasn’t a gas station to be found. There wasn’t much of anything to be found, it seemed.
Then suddenly (…really suddenly, like I had to grab a fistful of brake because all of a sudden there it was, and thank FSM for ABS…) I was there. Oddly enough, at almost the exact instant, two Ducatistis arrived, making us the only folks there on eurobikes—everything else, without fail, was a V-Twin, American or otherwise.
A huge fire burned in a ginormous metal bowl near the entrance. I parked Beast, and slowly, creakily, made my way towards the light and warmth. Squishing my way along, I noted the campground was on the fertile flood plain of the Susquehanna (evidenced by the rich cornfields just beyond the road), which also meant the land was very, very flat, and all that rain that had been falling since I left Virginia four hours ago was sitting right where it fell, all two inches or so of it. Right where my tent was going.
Yeah, I was starting to think that perhaps camping was the weak link in my plan.
But angels can come in all shapes and sizes, and in this case my personal angel was a big, beefy, hirsute, tattooed dude riding a triked Suzuki through the gloom. He introduced himself and invited me to come hang out by the fire. Even more betterer, he actually had a tent available for my use; a great big tent. A great big dry tent. With a queen-sized airbed already set up in it.
Perhaps camping, per se, would not be the downfall of my trip after all.
I retrieved Beast, got her secured near the tent, and offloaded what I needed for the night. Once ensconced in my snug, relatively dry castle, I set out in search of dinner at the roadhouse that sat cheek-by-jowl with the campground, a roadhouse with a line of H-Ds filling the parking lot out front. What a beautiful place to find at the end of the road.
Dinner was a 12-ounce Budweiser longneck, downed in two swallows while standing at the bar. I slogged back through the fog and darkness to my beautiful, beautiful tent, stripped off my clammy riding gear (which had absolutely no chance in hell of doing any drying under the circumstances), climbed into my sleeping bag and fell immediately asleep. I dreamed spectacular dreams of broad rivers rushing, of trucks passing on the road, of trains rumbling by, of big V-Twins firing up and thundering into the night.
Then in the early grey light, I loaded up my gear, paid my respects to my angel as we stood by the smoldering remains of the night’s fire, and rode into the dawn of a new day—firmly on the rails, where I would remain for the duration of the trip.
     II. A Sunday Morning in August, 8:00, a Diner with An Undetermined Number of Calendars on the Kitchen Wall:
“God-damned motorcycles.”
The shoulder belonging to that sentiment wrapped around the door at about the level of my forehead. Oddly, its hidden owner had apparently not noticed me pull up.
Nevertheless, I responded with a hearty “Alleluia, Brother!” as I unzipped my riding jacket and sidled into a convenient booth. “Coffee, please.” The waitress hands me a menu, smiling brightly as the enormous speaker exits, muttering an unintelligible addendum as the door jangles shut behind him.
“Don’t mind him, hon. He wunt talkin’ a you.” A compact woman addresses me across a jumbled plate of home fries and toast crusts, coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other.
I smile back at her. “I probably agree with him, anyhow.”
“Naah. My nephew was just killed last week, riding his motorcycle.”
Suddenly this conversation seemed way too personal to be having so casually on a summer Sunday morning, and the diner seemed to shrink all around us.
“He was twenty-seven. Just back from his third tour in Afghanistan. Got out of the Army. Was getting ready to go back over there as a civilian—you know, as one a those contractors. Gonna make some real money for his trouble.”
The coffee comes. A tall, cobalt blue ceramic mug; two creamers. Too hot to drink right now.
“He left a wife behind. They had a service for him down in Charlottesville—that’s where he was living—and a bunch of his buddies gave him a ‘ride off.’”
“Charlottesville? That’s down near where I’m from.” I pause. “I might have seem him on the road…”
“Yeah.” She offers a brief description of him and of his ride. “Some of his buddies are bringing his ashes up here, his riding buddies.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” I find nothing else to say, and I cannot begin to unpack the onion of sorrow she has conveyed in such a brief conversation—not here, not now. Who was this man—what kind of man was he, that he survived a war in a distant land, made it back safely to his wife and family, just to die alone on the dark streets of his hometown? I think about it for a few moments, then, I can think no further.
“God-damned motorcycles,” I say quietly to myself as my eggs arrive.*
     III. Sometimes when you are riding, it seems like everyone you talk to has, had or wants a motorcycle. Without fail. And they want to share that with you.
Which is really nice.
     IV. Quaint Old Vermont Sayings: “Heavier Than A Dead Minister.” Discuss.**
     V. Route 17 is one of those roads, like Trinity Road in northern California, or U.S. 129 in North Carolina, that are notable less for what they connect than for what they are. The road is the destination; its endpoints are incidental.
I rode Rt. 17 on Campaigner when it was a relatively new bike and I was half my age. I am pretty sure it was the only place I ever ground a valve cover on that R80st while riding. Phil and I drove it (several times, as I remember) in a 5-speed Toyota a decade ago, when his license was fresh and driving was thrilling. Now me and Beast were warmed up on a beautiful summer morning, ready to attack the road west-to-east, Bristol to Waitsfield.
Rt. 17 is exactly the kind of road Beast was built for. Rising steeply from the valley floor, it winds its way up and over the Green Mountains at Appalachian Gap, then descends sharply into the valley to the east, gradually leveling out before reaching Waitsfield. The road itself is a motorcyclist’s dream, two sinuous lanes of frost-heaved asphalt looping, rising and falling from the deciduous forests of the lowlands to the sweetly scented firs and balsams of the summits. Curves build madly upon curves, piling up so rapidly you ride like a rotary phone being dialed.
I had been waiting for this moment for ages—for years. And when the moment came to finally address Rt. 17, I rode Beast like someone’s elderly grandmother. She might as well have had tennis balls stuck on the ends of her fork legs.
Grind the valve covers? Are you kidding me? I didn’t even remove the vinyl slipcovers from the sofa or rearrange the anti-macassars on the rocking chairs. If I had taken a full week to make some easy practice runs, I might have gotten to know the soul of the road well enough to really do it justice. But I didn’t have a week to learn it—I had one pass at it, and I approached it with great reserve, caution, and deference. I rode the rule I learned at the Dragon’s Tail: Your gear equals how many seconds ahead you can see. In some cases, that wasn’t very far ahead at all; I took an awful lot of turns in first or second gear. Nevertheless, I did have a few opportunities to wring Beast out and get to what I came for.
Beast Has A Happy
When we finally arrived at the gap, I pulled in to admire the view, and to get a picture or two. I caught Beast in profile, silhouetted against the western vista as she ticked away the accumulated heat. If she had been a greyhound, she would have been panting hard, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth, with a great big goofy smile plastered across her face.
In the end, it turns out I had a second crack at App Gap, returning in the early afternoon and swapping ascending side for descending side by going westbound. The little bit of practice in the morning let me ride the return much better. I took a much more fluid and graceful approach, and except for getting bottled up behind a gaggle of brake-burning flatlanders for much of the descent, I think I did pretty well.
By the time I reached the valley floor at Bristol, the sport bikers were appearing in buzzy packs of two and three, queueing up eagerly to make their pass over the mountain. In the brilliant primary colors of bikes and riders, they seemed childlike and unserious, expensive toys clad in expensive raiment, out for a moment’s romp in a grown-up’s mountain playground. 
I watch them go by me, and smile.

     VI. "Blue Highways" is a book written by William Least Heat Moon, also known as William Trogdon, describing his journey around the United States in a white van in a time of personal turmoil. He stuck to the "Blue Highways," his term for the lesser highways that Rand-McNally designated in blue in their highway atlases—in contrast to the interstate highway system. Blue Highways take you right up to the edge of people's front yards, with lemonade stands (really), yard sales, gardens & vegetable stands, ramshackle sheds and pristine cottages. You can smell their lunches and their laundry, hear their dogs bark at you, and project your own hopes, fears and wildest imaginations onto the screens of their lives as you flash by.

Interstate Highways, on the other hand—regardless of the scenery they traverse—are a long, slow, soul-sucking passage through the dark twisted colon of corporatist America***.
     VII. What is the World Coming to?
A classic Pennsylvania roadhouse, sitting beside a shady two-lane highway nestled deep in the recesses of anthracite country in northeastern Pennsylvania, and above the door, sticking out from the front of the building where passing traffic can’t miss it, is a beer sign. Actually, it is an Ale sign. For Chimay Ale.
I’m not sure what to make of that, actually.
* I'm pretty sure she was referring to Corey Guthrie.

**Bill Bryson actually discusses this at length in "I'm A Stranger Here Myself."

***I know that on close examination, that analogy falls apart. But I still like the sound of it.

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