Thursday, December 15, 2016

Becoming a Winter Biker

I haven't owned a car since February of 2015, when I sold my Audi A4 and started sharing my boyfriend's Saturn wagon. That arrangement worked well until we broke up in June of 2016, and I took my odd stable of motorcycles and went on my way.

My intention was to buy a cheap shitbox of a car when the weather got too cold to ride. Then Rogue and I decided to leave town, and the purchase of a car became an unnecessary burden, especially once I moved in with Rogue and started sharing her car. That was short-lived, ending the night the car left me in the middle of no-cell-ville New Hampshire and I hitch-hiked to my office and borrowed a work truck to get home. Gypsy, the itsy-bitsy blue convertible, came back to life just long enough for the mechanic to tell us she worked (and was clearly possessed), then promptly stranded Rogue in downtown Northampton. Thus we became a no-car household in November in Massachusetts, hearing predictions for a particularly cold and snowy winter.

The business of being a winter biker has been a one-day-at-a-time lifestyle, culling unnecessary commitments from our schedules and accepting that our plans will change with the weather. All of my plans now have a snow clause: if it snows, the plans are cancelled.

I hate the cold, which is a large part of the reason I'm heading south for the winter, but I've surprised myself with my ability to withstand it so far. I have a heated vest, a TourMaster Synergy 2.0 that I purchased used on eBay, with a matching set of heated glove liners that work when they feel like it. (I heard a rumor I'm getting heat grips for Christmas...stay tuned.)

My layering system has stratified by temperature.
70° and up Cotton leggings, tank top, Scorpion armored suit, boots, light gloves, helmet
60°-70° Add the wind liners to the armored suit, replace the leggings with jeans
50°-60° Add a light-weight wool sweater or zip-up hoodie under the jacket
40°-50° Add fleece-lined leggings under the jeans, a vest over the sweater, and get out the heavy gloves
30°-40° Add the heated vest, wool ski socks, and a scarf, face fleece, or balaclava
15°-30° Add the rain suit on top of the above, and the heated glove liners if I'm going more than 20 miles
15° and down Find a cage or cancel plans.

What's the coldest weather you're willing to ride in? Have you ever gotten caught in something too cool for school? What are your favorite tricks for staying warm?

Friday, December 9, 2016

These Boots Were Made for Failing

My old faithful boots that I bought from my mom's housemate last year are finally starting to give in. The padding in the ankle has fallen out in chunks, and the top and bottom of the sole are peeling away from each other. They don't even pretend to be waterproof anymore, no matter how recently I've oiled them. I love them to death and they're the comfiest pair of boots I've ever owned, but I think it's time.

So I did some research and bought a pair of O'Neal Rider motocross boots. The reviews said they run a little small, so buy a size up; I bought a men's 8, since I should be a men's 7, and they fit perfectly. The reviews also said they were a little stiff at first but would loosen up fast.

I don't care how fast they loosen up; I can't use them. Made suspicious by how hard it was to walk in them, I went and sat on the bike before actually going for a ride and just tried to operate the shifter and foot brake. I couldn't. It was completely impossible to even touch either lever. I opened a return order for these this morning. They look good, but damn, they're useless.

What are your favorite riding boots? Have you ever had a pair that just didn't do what you needed them to?

Friday, December 2, 2016

On Biking and Back Pain

My back problems began when I was 18 and working in a kitchen, spending long shifts on my feet. One day I reached into the trunk of my car for something and then couldn't stand up again for the excruciating pain in my lumbar spine. After a few days it mysteriously disappeared, and that pattern has continued for the 10+ years since. A few times a year my back will suddenly decide that it hates me, and I'll spend five to ten days bent over and only semi-mobile, and then things return to normal.

In March of 2016 I experienced an episode that was markedly worse than all the others, lasting nearly two weeks and with the pain spreading down my right leg. Concerned, I got an MRI referral, and learned that I have a herniated disc at L5-S1. I started physical therapy, and though the acute pain disappeared, a new problem cropped up: constant spasms in my erector spinae muscles, particularly on the right side.

In July, which was two or three months into PT, I went on the road with Cider, destination Colorado. Kim, my PTA, raised an eyebrow when I told her my plan and said, "Well, that'll be a test of your back." I knew it was probably going to hurt, but I went anyway. Kim gave me some stretches to do at red lights and gas stops, and I did them religiously. They helped. In fact, when I returned home, I felt better than ever.

Then I returned Cider's bike and got back on my old cruiser, and the pain immediately reappeared. Guess I found the problem. The slightly hunched-over position caused by riding with my feet out in front of me was enough to severely irritate my back. I had no car and no plans to buy one, so I bought a new bike and lent the cruiser to Rogue.

After another month or so, the doctor overseeing my treatment told me that if PT hadn't helped by then, it wasn't going to, and set me free. We did seem to have reached a plateau of effectiveness, so I took my irritating spinal spasms and went on my way (meaning, of course, I went on the road).

I also bought a book called Treat Your Own Back, by Robin MacKenzie. I no longer remember who recommended it to me, but they were adament that it was pure gold in paper form, so I spent the $12 and hoped for the best.

I'll say now that it may be the best $12 I ever spent. The muscular spasms are still a mystery, but when I tweaked my back walking Bee out of a garage the day before Thanksgiving and the disc pain reappeared, I immediately starting doing the things recommended by the book, and it worked. The movements were like the ones Kim had given me, but the book included a more thorough explanation of the reasons for the stretches, and also specified movements that I should NOT do, something I'd never been told.

I spent Thanksgiving on my feet in the kitchen, alternating with stretching on the floor, and being very cautious with the types of movements I made. The pain hovered at a tolerable level, threatening but never blooming into the awful dysfunction that had me confined to the couch and taking percocet for two weeks last spring. By the next morning, I was convinced that I could keep it at bay indefinitely. That was mind-blowing.

Two days after that I started a new job, working overnights in a warehouse where my entire job was to lift and move boxes and occasionally push carts. At the end of the first shift, my back hurt, but it didn't hurt any more than my feet or my knees. Two days later, the mysterious end-of-pain arrived, and I was fine. I'd gotten through the acute phase and maintained my ability to do all my daily tasks, and I hadn't taken so much as an ibuprofen.

In future I'll make a post with some photos and examples of the exercises and an analysis of my riding position and how the muscle spasms affect my turns.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Video: My Motorcycle Is Home

This is a glimpse of what's on our minds as we pack and prepare, as illustrated by others who live on their bikes. I've talked about this video enough lately that I figured I should share it publicly.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Roller Derby Rebels

Rogue and I met in 2012 through roller derby. We've been best friends, teammates, and gym buddies for nearly five years now. Some of you may recognize the phrase "derby wives" as well.

The hardest thing about leaving home for me is having to leave our team. We play for the Furies and the Nyads of Western Mass Roller Derby, a league that both of us helped to build beginning in 2013. I've not only fallen hard for derby (many times literally) but also discovered a love of coaching in my five seasons of giving my blood, sweat, and tears to this sport. The only moments I've wavered in my determination to go through with this crazy travel plan have centered around my league and how much I don't want to leave them.

So instead of viewing it as a departure, I'm looking at it this way: we're going on a derby adventure. We're going to bring our skates and visit the practices and hopefully scrimmages of as many other leagues as possible while we're wandering the world.

Would you like to have us at your practice? Know a league we should visit? Email me: criminal wrecker at the google mail dot com. Info below for those leagues who may be kind enough to host us!

Player name: Criminal Wrecker, #9
Years rostered: 5
Last rostered team: Western Mass Furies
Positions played: jammer, pivot, blocker
Insurance: WFTDA (message us for number)

Player name: Rogue, #0
Years rostered: 5
Last rostered team: Western Mass Furies
Positions played: enjoys all, most experienced at blocking
Insurance: WFTDA (message us for number)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Announcement: The Big One

"I got something to tell you," I said to Rogue. "I'm leaving."

It was August, and we were chowing down on tacos at Pedraza's Mexican restaurant in Keene. I was having a bad week and had let a friend push me into a final decision on something I'd been muttering about for months - packing up the bike and fucking off to nowhere.

"Nashville?" Rogue asked, looking sad.

"No. Maybe. Among other places." I explained the skeletal concept, that I would put most of my belongings in storage, cram the essentials on the bike, and live homelessly - in campgrounds, on couches, and in the occasional motel bed.

I'd expected her to cry. I hadn't expected her to say, "Can I come?"

"Hell yes," I said without hesitation. "I'd love company."

"When are you leaving?"

"Our last game is at the end of October," I answered. "So sometime after that."

"My job really needs me through the holidays," Rogue said.

"I'd love to spend the holidays with my mom," I said. "Let's get through that, then we can take off in January and not have to spend the whole miserable winter up here."

"I'm in."

And thus it was decided that we would uproot our lives - the apartments, the jobs, our places on the Furies - and go live like hobos.

A remarkably small number of people have told me I'm crazy; either I pick my friends carefully, or a lot of other people want to do something similar. I think it's the latter. I've heard a few questions repeatedly, which is entirely reasonable, because who dafuq decides to be homeless when they don't have to be?

What will you do for money?

Whatever we can! We're going to leave with a stash of cash, and when it runs out, we'll search Craiglist for job opportunities in whatever area we've fetched up.

Where will you stay?

Campgrounds, backwoods camping areas, friends' couches, hostels, CouchSurfs, and the occasional motel. Wherever we can. We'll have a two-person tent and some sleeping bags and a tarp.

Why leave in January? Won't you be cold?

See the comment about jobs and holidays for the initial reasoning. Yes, the first week will be pretty miserable, but we're going to head directly south along the East Coast and hide out in Florida for a while. From there, we'll make a brief jaunt north again for Battle of the All-Stars in Philadelphia, and then return to warmer climes and explore Texas, Arizona, and southern California for the winter. As for that initial run down the coast, we'll be wearing heated gear, riding short days, and staying in hotels. And if it snows, we don't ride.

How long will you be gone?

As long as it takes. We want to see the country, the parks, the mountains, the coasts, the forests, our friends and family, and infinite things we'll discover along the way. We'll definitely head for Canada and Alaska before we're done. Someday we'll probably head for South America, and eventually other continents that are farther away, but those adventures are far enough in the future to be unplanned as yet.

I'll be posting here regularly, so bookmark for updates. This trip will be hashtagged #teamharloki, which I'll explain later. If you want a visit from us, make a post and we'll make it happen!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review: Scorpion Exo Pants & Jacket

I bought the Scorpion Exo Savannah II riding pants in July and the matching Nip Tuck jacket about a month later. They're out of production, but as of this writing there are still quite a few for sale from various eBay sellers. Retail on the jacket is $189.95 and the pants are $179.95, but they can be found for significantly less. They come in three colors: all black, black and white with purple details and a pink hibiscus design, and black and white with gold details. I found my size in gold first, and it matches my bike...done deal.


Comfort and Fit
The pants run a bit big. I ordered a small and I can pull the waistband away from my back or my belly by a couple of inches. I have to hike them up before I get on the bike or they pull oddly across the crotch. They're not at risk of falling down, though, and I like that I can fit any pair of pants I care to wear underneath them.

The jacket is also a small and it fits like a dream. It doesn't bind and it doesn't billow. The sleeves are narrow from the elbow to the wrist, so a very fat sweatshirt would be limiting, but I can wear several shirts and a thin sweater with no problem. If I need more warmth I add a vest-style hoodie underneath to keep my core insulated without turning my forearms into stuffed sausages.

The zip-out liners are great. They're wind-proof and water resistant. I do have to wear an under layer of some sort while the liners are in, because if they sit against my skin they get sticky and then I have that changing-out-of-a-wet-bathing-suit experience, except it's a head to toe ordeal instead of just the personal bits. But if the weather calls for liners, you should be wearing clothing anyway.

Speaking of weather, this suit covers a wide range of temperatures. Without liners, I'm happy in the jacket up to about 90F on the highway (I open the arm zippers and leave the wrist velcro closed), and I never take the pants off. With liners and some reasonable clothing (i.e. fleece leggings and a hoodie) underneath, I'll be okay down to maybe 55F before I want to add a rain suit on top. The only place that has severe air leakage is the neck of the jacket, since it's open down to the hollow of my throat.

The jacket has a tab in the back that can be secured through the rearmost belt loop on the pants to keep it from riding up. It doesn't hinder movement at all, as the jacket is pretty long, and it keeps the unfriendly wind gusts away from my lower back.

I haven't gone down while wearing it so I can't say anything about how it reacts to a sudden encounter with pavement. I hope it doesn't happen, but if it does, I'll post the results.

The pants have now gone about 10,000 miles and the jacket has done at least 7,000. There was one small issue with the pants after the first couple thousand miles - some thread in the crotch seam of the white panel gave way and opened a hole in the right place to insert dirty comments. But I took some quilting thread and sewed it back up, which took about three minutes, and they haven't had any further issues.

White is a downside of course, because it shows all the bug splats and road dirt, but a trip through the washing machine made it look like almost new again.

The main zippers - front of jacket, sleeves of jacket, pants fly, and ankle panels - are great. The little zippers that secure the inner liners are less so. They're inclined to get stuck on the fabric if you're not very diligent about keeping it away from the zipper's line of travel, and I had one of them tear open while I was trying to zip it closed. No damage was done and I put it back together successfully. They just require a little patience.

The liners are also secured by fabric tabs with snaps, two in each ankle, two in each wrist, and one in each side of the jacket. They're color-coded in black and yellow, so as long as you can tell a bumblebee's ass from its face, you can't get them wrong. That kind of attention to usability wins big points with me.

There are stiff foam armor panels in the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and spine. They zip out quite easily for washing and go back in without requiring hours of name-calling. The only oddity I found there is a lack of zipper pull on the access to the spinal armor. It makes sense, leaving no sharp metal bits to poke the wearer in the back, but you need a fingernail or something to get it started. I definitely can't put the pants on while wearing boots; I got my foot stuck in the knee armor when I tried.

Amazing! I'm in love with the cut, the colors, and the details. The pants are loose enough to allow me some layers underneath but tight enough to look damn good. I've wandered into restaurants and had people compliment them without even knowing they were riding pants; they look that nice. The sides of the jacket and the lateral edges of the thighs are laced with tubular elastic (in yellow on the gold version) for an adjustable fit. The appearance is reminiscent of corset lacing, but it says "race me" rather than "fuck me."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Last Few Miles

We decided to stay off the highway for the remainder of our journey home. A crash on business 11 stuck us in traffic for quite a few minutes, but when we finally found highway 11, it was clear and beautiful. The wind was whipping hard, though. After getting blown into the passing lane a couple of times, I started preemptively ducking down against my tank every time we approached a bridge.

After sixty miles I was chilly, and I imagined that Rogue, wearing less gear and thinner gloves, must be miserable. I parked at Apple Valley restaurant in Milford, Pennsylvania. I was looking forward to a mug of hot cider and some mac 'n' cheese, but first there was a biker store to visit.

The clown on a chopper got our attention first, followed by the adorably chunky dog of some other visitors to the shop. We got to talking to the lady rider who worked there, and she advised us to get back on 84 in spite of the brake problems to shorten our drive, avoid traffic lights, and stay near large towns in case we needed a hotel. Rogue bought a fuzzy purple Turtle Fur to improve her ride.

At Apple Valley, we were seated quickly and then ignored for so long that I nearly walked out. The interior decoration was cute and cozy, but the staff clearly couldn't keep up with the number of guests coming through the door, and the food was unnecessarily expensive. We shared a pot pie, which was tasty but not the most spectacular food I've ever had, and went on our way.

Interstate 84 brought us to the Taconic Parkway. I love the Taconic; it's hilly and interesting and surrounded by tight walls of forest. We had hit the high point of a particularly spectacular autumn, and the trees glowed gold, orange, and red. The sun edged lower in the sky as we wheeled our way north and was sinking below the trees when we hit 90. There we stopped for gas and hot coffee, and we snacked and drank by the cash register to avoid going back out in the cold.

A beautiful sunset with a flaming sky saw us through our last 80 miles. It was fully dark and we were thoroughly freezing when we hit 91. Rogue turned north with a wave, and I turned south, fantasizing about a cup of tea and a big pile of blankets in my own bed.

System Failure, Back Brakes

It took me a few minutes to realize that the restless swishing noise outside wasn't rain, but wind. I was okay with that; I'd rather have a windy ride than a wet one. I made our last road breakfast while Rogue packed up the tent for the last time. Then she helped me upright Bee, who was leaning so far over on the gravel slope that I was almost afraid to throw a leg over.

The drive out was more difficult than the drive in, as gravity was fighting me while I dealt with the washouts. Bee did her thing, though, and we reached the exit unscathed. I was concerned about Rogue and Hades, but they made it out too.

I headed for Clark's Summit so we could gas up. The extra miles driven while getting lost in Dalton had reached the bottom of Hades' tank. I told Rogue if she ran out we'd just use the white gas I'd been carrying since day 1, and I'd been glad to be rid of it.

"You won't be rid of it, though," she pointed out.

"Why not?" I asked.

"What are you going to do with the container? Leave it on the side of the road?"

I made a face and told her to leave me to my happy fantasy.

In Clark's summit, I started to doubt my own ability to dowse for gas stations and stopped to ask the GPS. There was one located 1.2 miles away, and I pulled out of the parking lot where I'd turned around and rolled down the road to a stop light. By the time Rogue caught up, I'd been sitting at the light for a while. Lights with magnetic sensors often don't recognize the presence of motorcycles, so I took a careful look around for traffic and then ran it.

A quarter mile later, I noticed a cop car following Rogue. The road curved and I couldn't see her anymore. I slowed, then stopped on the shoulder to wait. When several moments passed and she still didn't appear, I realized she had either run out of gas or been pulled over. I turned around and went back.

Sure enough, she was sitting on the side of the road, the cruiser behind her with its lights flashing. I pulled Bee in ahead of her and dismounted.

The officer was very kind. I explained why I'd run the light, and he said he was a biker too and understood, and just wanted to make sure we were being safe. Then Rogue told me she had no brakes.

"Again?" I asked.

"Back brakes," she said. "I tried to wave at you at the light but you didn't see me."

It was true; I'd checked for her presence but not bothered to look for any hand signals. That much time spent looking backward raises my chances of running into something in the forward direction.

"Something cracked," she said. "I felt it go when I stepped on the pedal."

You don't need back brakes, I wanted to say, but Rogue looked shaken and the cop probably wouldn't agree with me. I took a look at the rear caliper and realized there was brake fluid everywhere. The officer asked what we were going to do, and I said we were going to ride to the nearest gas station and fix the problem.

"You have to understand," he said, "If something happens to you, if you go to the bottom of the hill and can't stop and get hit by an 18-wheeler, it'll be my fault for letting you go."

I promised him we'd be as safe as possible. Then we proceeded down the hill, Rogue inching at about 15 miles an hour and the cop inching behind her. At the first gas station, we parked and stripped the T-bag, the seats, and the saddlebags off Hades.

The wrenches in the toolkit bit into the castle nuts and chunked the aluminum when we tried to use them, so I rode up the street to the auto parts store and bought a socket set. I already owned one, but I hadn't brought it along. Now I own two.

The caliper came off without a fight, and we were both shocked at what we saw. It had frozen shut and the rotor wore through not only the brake pad and the mounting clip but the entire head of the piston. One side, piston and brake pad, were fine; the other side was a hollow cylinder, edged in shredded metal and dripping fluid from its gaping wound.

"That's not getting fixed today," Rogue said, and I shook my head.

We went over our options: find a bike shop or drive home without rear brakes. It was Sunday, and the following day was Columbus Day; we couldn't stay in town long enough for the bike shop option to be viable.

"I'd rather you drive without rear brakes than front ones," I told Rogue. Oddly, she looked much more intimidated than she had the day before when the front brakes went out. "Remember, the front end is 70% of your braking power. And that bike won't pull a stoppie no matter what you do."

I wanted to offer to ride Hades for her, because I was confident in my ability to drive without the broken part, but she had never ridden Bee, and when the bike was loaded with luggage wasn't the time to learn. She'd be better off staying on old, familiar, slightly broken Hades.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Lost in Dalton

From a Cracker Barrel in York, Pennsylvania, I called our next campsite because the website said reservations were recommended. A man told me the office would be closed when we arrived, but if I called him at that number, he'd come check us in. I felt bad that we'd be disturbing his personal evening, so we rolled on it for the rest of the afternoon to get there as early as possible.

I was hoping for 7:30, and at 7:28 we rolled up a dark street in Dalton and stopped. The GPS said we had arrived, but we were in a thickly settled downtown area with no room for a campground. Confused, I parked at Newsies Pizza, the only place with any sign of a life. Inside, I asked after the Highland Campground.

"I dunno," said the guy making the pizza, "But everyone asks me that. Everyone's GPS leads them to the fire station. I think they're in Lake Winola."

I thought perhaps he should look up the location of the campground in the name of customer service if so many people really wanted to know, but I kept that to myself and went back outside. I telephoned the man at the campground and told him where we were, and he confirmed that the address I was using was correct and gave me no further help.

(Author's note: while Googling this problem from home, I discovered that the campground's actual address is 351 Old Mill Road in Dalton. The address on their website, 105 Whispering Winds Lane, leads to the fire station. If you look up the fire station, it resides at 109 South Turnpike Road. I can't fathom how this clusterfuck came to be, and I'm not impressed with the campground host for not knowing about it.)

A look at Highland's website showed directions from the highway, off an exit we had bypassed to the south. I spent a few minutes muttering the directions and tracing the map with my finger, estimating distances and trying to find unmarked roads.

"We need to find 11 south," I told Rogue. She pointed to a sign on the other side of the crossroads that said 11 South with a right-pointing arrow. I stared at it, then back at my map, then back at the sign, and shook my head.

"That can't be right," I said. "According to the map, if we're here, 11 south is that way." I pointed over my shoulder, opposite the sign. Rogue shrugged.

Official road signage generally knows what it's talking about, and I'd never been to Dalton before, so I decided to trust the words on the pole. We turned right.

A few miles later, the road narrowed and began to feel distinctly unlike a state route. I hadn't seen any more signs, and our surroundings in general did not feel promising. I brought up the map again, and sure enough, it showed us going north. We turned around.

Dirt road at night. Photo credit Jeremy Grasz,
Photo credit Jeremy Grasz

Back through Dalton, past the fire station, we took the road I wanted to take ten minutes earlier and it was the right one. I managed to fumble my way through the memorized directions, down a long dirt road, and at last found the campground. I called the man again, and he came up to the check-in cabin.

"I forgot you guys were on motorcycles," he said. "I'm giving you the flattest spot we have, but you're the only ones tenting tonight, so if you see another spot you like better, take it." He pointed out the shower house, took our cash, and gave me a free tube of lip balm when I inquired about the price of the thing.

We bounced our way down a steep gravel road rutted by water, through a couple of tight corners, and up a hill. I knew we were in a circle of tent sites and had passed a line of them at the bottom, but for the life of me I could only see one in the dark. We parked at a precarious angle and started unpacking.

We'd found some dry-ish miles around Scranton, but close to Dalton the weather had worsened again. Gusts of rain swished through the trees, and we popped up the tent and threw on the fly as quickly as possible. Rogue was grumpy.

"I just wanted a few minutes," she said, "To set up and get in the damn tent without rain. That's all I wanted. But no. Is that really too much to ask for?"

I was warm and dry and chipper, but tried not to rub it in. Before we ever left, I'd known she was going to learn a hard lesson about rain gear somewhere along the way. An "I told you so" wouldn't help.

At the shower house, I was out of most of my layers and trying to convince myself that the shower wasn't creepy when I remembered that I was warm, dry, and not particularly dirty. I put my shirt back on and brushed my teeth while Rogue showered. Back at the tent, I explained that the shower house was in my "nope" category, and had I been really miserably cold it would've overbalanced that scale, but I didn't need the shower enough to tough it out.

From a logical perspective I'd give the campground a decent rating on their bathhouse. There were several toilets and several showers, and it was well-lit and pretty clean. The water was hot, the showers all had changing spaces, and the mirrors were clear. Four out of five shower curtains were actually hanging in a useful fashion, and four out of five toilets weren't full of shit.

But the shower was small and the floor was cracked, and the plumbing had seen better days a few hundred days earlier. I'm picky about showers, and the thought of stepping into one of those felt like making a bad life choice. There were also a whole lot of spiders, although they bother Rogue more than they bother me.

When we exited the shower house, I stopped. Rogue looked at me oddly, and I spread my hands to the sky.

"It's not too much to ask for," I said to the dry air.

"Well how 'bout that," she said, smiling once again.

Monday, October 24, 2016

System Failure, Front Brakes

When we went to sleep, the outdoors was dry. By dawn, the rain had caught us again. Since we were supposed to still be camping, I decided to make our usual camp breakfast on the front walk of the motel. I poured the last of the steel-cut oats into the pan with water, then caught the handle on my sleeve and poured it all on the ground.

Skipper operating the camp stove on the walkway of the Scottish Inns

Fortunately I had backup in the form of instant apple-cinnamon oat packets. I messed with them too much and they came out slimy, but it was better than nothing, which in turn would have been better than wasting time and money going out to breakfast. At least the coffee came out fine and didn't get poured in the carpet.

Camp stove, mess kit, and a puddle of oats on the sidewalk

The doppler app Rogue had in her phone told us that the storm cells were headed west. It appeared that running east on 66 toward Washington and Baltimore would get us out of the nasty weather, and we set out with high hopes and a dry tent. It wasn't to be, though. Not only did the rain continue but the traffic was horrendous. I'd hoped that using the 495 and 695 ring roads around the large cities would keep us away from the worst of it. No dice.

"Don't ever let me make navigational decisions again," Rogue said.

I shrugged. We had agreed on the new plan and I considered us each to be 50% at fault for the poor decision-making. Stuck with the consequences of our brilliant idea, we re-entered the highway.

Just as it seemed things were moving again, someone five cars up in our lane slammed on the brakes. The next four stopped just as abruptly, I veered into the breakdown lane and stopped even with the bumper of the car ahead, and Rogue swerved around me and came to a stop another ten feet beyond me. There was nothing I could do about Hades' oily tire situation, so I took a moment to be grateful that she'd handled it well and kept pushing ahead.

At the next stop, we went indoors for coffee.

"How you doing?" I asked.

"Okay," Rogue answered. "I don't really have any front brakes, though."

"Can you be a little more specific about no front brakes?" I asked, alarmed. "As in, does the handle come all the way back to the grip?"

"Yeah, basically."

"Uh. Dude. That's important." I was shocked by the nonchalance with which she had stated the problem. No front brakes is an issue worthy of an immediate stop.

"It's gonna be a fun ride home," Rogue said with a grin.

"No," I said. "You're not riding home without front brakes."

Skipper turning a wrench on Hades' master cylinder

I bought a cup of donut holes for moral support and brought my snack out to the parking lot. Sure enough, the front brake lever was almost completely depressurized. I removed the luggage from Bee, pulled out the toolkit, and started removing parts from Hades.

Fortunately I'd noticed a small leak in the front master cylinder before I turned over Hades to Rogue the first time, and I'd asked Abel for the cylinder from the parts bike. We took it along with us just in case, and it was a good damn thing we did.

Madura master cylinder assembly lying in the grass

I removed the mirror, opened the headlight, detached the brake sensor wires, unscrewed the hydraulic line, and dismounted the cylinder and reservoir. The new-old set took its place without too much trouble. It was still raining, of course, so I draped a bandanna over the reservoir to try to keep the fluid dry while I peered under the lid and pumped the lever. It took a few minutes to bleed the air out, but eventually things were back to normal. Rogue took a test ride and reported all systems go.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I81 Is Even Better in the Rain

Rogue took a ride around the campground to test Hades' rear tire, and said she seemed okay. Once she was parked again, however, the root of the problem became clear as a slick of oil emerged from underneath the bike and decorated the pavement with rainbows.

"You're oiling your own tire," I said. "That explains a lot."

Rogue checked the drain plug and found it to be satisfactorily tight. The level of hazard the bike now presented was something we didn't want to play with on the twisty, hilly parkway. We decided to jump the mountains again, get back on I81, and run for it.

Oil slick on pavement around Hades

I backed Bee carefully around the puddles of engine barf, Rogue guiding me, and we took off. Routes 221 and 194 allowed us to admire some quaint mountain towns such as Minneapolis, and by the time 19E landed us back on 81, the air was dry again. I folded up my rain suit and we headed for a Bo Jangles.

I'm not usually a fan of fast food. The big M and other such places don't have anything I consider "food," although I've been known to wolf down an occasional carton of fries. Bo Jangles, however, won my tastebuds over with their crispy, juicy fried chicken. The closest Bo to home is nearly 450 miles, so I wanted a fix while it was practical.

By the time we were finished eating, the rain had found us again. Riding 81 north toward Strasburg, Virginia, we encountered a traffic jam and hopped in the breakdown lane. Eleven miles later it cleared up at the spot where a car carrier had gone off the road. Rain or no rain, I was glad to be on a bike; the cars parked on the highway would probably be there for hours yet.

At a small gas station I pulled out a package of crackers to snack on and promptly spilled them all over the ground. Hungry and unwilling to waste food, I picked them up off the pavement and stuffed them in my face.

"You must be cold," I said to Rogue, who wasn't wearing rain gear. I'd given her my old suit but it didn't fit her well, and she had opted to ride without it.

"A bit," she acknowledged.

"You sure you still want to camp tonight?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Getting a hotel feels like cheating."

"It's not cheating," I said, "It's smart. You weren't prepared for this weather and I don't want you to freeze." My own rain suit, purchased recently after the spectacular failure of my last one in Nebraska, was keeping me snug and cozy, but I was all too familiar with the bone-chilling cold that comes from a long ride in the rain. Had it been me without the suit, I would've said screw camping.

Tent fly with rainwater droplets

"Okay," Rogue relented, and I started Googling lodging.

We rode well past dark and ended up at a Scottish Inns in Front Royal. Fifty dollars got us a hell of a lot more in Louisiana than it did in Virginia. Our door unlocked with a physical key, and it opened onto a poorly-lit room straight out of 1970. The walls had been patched with metal plating, where they had been patched at all, and the bathroom countertop listed to one side like a frat boy on Friday night.

There was no laundry, so we hung our clothes on the air conditioner, the TV, and the doorknob. Rogue unpacked the soaking-wet tent and hung it in the shower, where it dropped a forest's worth of leaves and dirt.

While she warmed up in bed, I walked across the street to Osteria 510, a beautifully appointed Italian restaurant and bar. I was the only customer, so I ordered a glass of wine and chatted with the owner while I waited for my takeout. Once upon a time he had owned a restaurant in Washington, but the late nights got to be too much, so he moved his business to Front Royal. He explained that most residents of Front Royal are Washington commuters, so they eat dinner early and then go home, allowing him to close at 10.

Owner of Osteria 510 behind bar
Owner of Osteria; photo credit unknown.

I'd told Rogue I was going to the gas station to find food, which was my plan until I saw the restaurant. When I returned to the room with a plastic bag smelling of fresh tomato sauce, she sat up straight.

"What'd you get?" she asked excitedly.

The butternut ravioli and tiramisu were a hit with both of us, the perfect finish to a nasty, wet day. I'd happily pause my next trip to go back to Osteria.

Linville Falls

We stopped for gas in Linville Falls, North Carolina, and discussed our evening plans. There was camping in the immediate vicinity, and though it was earlier than we would usually stop, the atlas made the next campground appear quite far away.

"We can check out the town and actually do some sight-seeing," I suggested.

"We can make camp and then go sight-seeing," Rogue replied, and that sounded good to me. Our tent went up at Linville Falls Campground, an adorable place right off the parkway. A river ran behind it, and we jumped down the wooded bank to go admire the water.

The river at Linville Falls Campground

On our way back up, we heard a bike pull in. I nearly jumped up and down when I saw a lone rider park a red ST1000 and set up a tent. He gave us a nod and a wave and rode away again, leaving his tent near the river, and we went off to explore the town.

Our time at the Linville Falls Winery was limited to five minutes, as we showed up right before closing time. I sampled the blackberry and "cherry bounce" wines and wished I had room in the luggage to take some home.

The next stop was Linville Falls, which was actually on the same road as the campground. It required a little hiking, but the cool air invited a walk even in armored pants and leather boots.

Skipper walking the pathway to Linville Falls

I was tired and not as up for adventure as usual. When we arrived, though, the falls were worth the effort. There were two viewing points, one at the top of the fall itself, and another several hundred feet above the first, with an aerial view of the entire fall from top to bottom. Another hiker was there with us, photographing the falls from a tripod. Rogue commented on how nice her camera was.

Linville Falls under a cloudy sky in early autumn

Dusk was descending as we returned to the parking lot. There were some traffic cones sprinkled seemingly at random on one side of the central median, and I treated them like an obstacle course, making zigs and zags and wiggling my way back and forth while I waited for Rogue to gear up. I exited my impromptu skills test in the direction I'd come and Rogue, not realizing I had just been goofing around, turned around awkwardly and followed me instead of proceeding straight to the exit. I laughed at us both as we rode away.

Downtown Linville Falls consisted of a couple of cute country-flavored motels, two pubs, a post office, and a general store. We wandered through the store, amused at the wide variety of things they carried. There were hunting knives and wall art, canned beans and wire owls, fresh pizza and vehicle fuses and coffee mugs. We were about to leave when the woman behind the counter offered us the last two slices of pizza.

"Please don't judge us by this," she said. "It's been out a while, but you can have it if you want it."

It was warm, and we weren't about to turn down free food. She told us about the phenomenon of the Brown Mountain Lights, which shine in a nearby valley from no apparent source, and we put them on our list of things to come back for. Then we bought a bundle of firewood and headed back to camp.

The population of Linville Falls Campground was what I'd hoped to find in more places. We made friends with Josh, the biker, and Marlen, the photographer we'd seen at the falls, as well as a couple in a small camper. Rather than building our own fire, we brought our firewood to Josh's fire ring. Marlen brought s'mores, and we spent the evening telling travel stories.

Water swirling among rocks at Linville Falls

Marlen was a German girl from California, temporarily stationed in Asheville for work. She also had a motorcycle, but it was back home in Los Angeles. Josh was on vacation; he had ridden the Blue Ridge before but never camped on a motorcycle. The couple with the camper were from Florida, coincidentally escaping the hurricane that was tearing apart their home state while we sat around the fire eating marshmallows.

When the rain started, we called it a night and bundled ourselves into the tent. By morning we were still dry but the rest of the world was soaked, and the weather showed no sign of letting up. We'd been overtaken by the outer edge of Hurricane Matthew.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Blue Ridge Parkway

The "short hop" over the mountains on 441 was scenic but irritating, as we got stuck in a long line of slow drivers. I tried to enjoy the misty golden sunlight filtering through endless trees and hoped that when we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway itself the traffic would clear.

Unfortunately that was not the case. In fact, the cars got even slower, until I experienced the joy that Cider had found in riding Pike's Peak: cars moving so slowly that following them actually becomes a struggle, because a bike needs a certain amount of speed to lean over without falling down. Frustrated, I zigged back and forth, dragged my feet on the pavement, and generally made an ass of myself while we crawled along like heroin-addled snails.

If the entire Parkway is like this, I'm going to survive about 5 miles before I stab someone.

Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway on a sunny day

Fortunately the worst of the offenders in cages turned off at scenic stops and we were able to pick up the pace a bit. I skipped the first few turnoffs and eventually exited the parkway to get gas in Maggie Valley.

"You are such a tease!" Rogue complained. "Stopping at that pull-off and then leaving again."

"I was just waiting for you," I said. "So you could follow me to gas."

"The scenery!" she said. "The mountains, oh my god! I want to take pictures!"

Reflection of mountains in Hades' side mirror

"That's nothing," I said, with a deliberately obnoxious been-there-done-that inflection. "You just wait. Don't waste your battery here; it gets better."

She stared at me doubtfully, but said she would trust my word.

Back on the parkway, I skipped a few more pull-outs and then stopped at one of the broadest views we'd seen yet. I enjoyed the scenery and cleaned my sunglasses while Rogue dug out her camera and did her photographer thing.

Bumblebee, Skipper, and Hades in silhouette, forest in the background

Among other reasons I was glad to have my derby wife along was her photography. A writer and a photographer are pretty perfect companions, and while I get some decent pictures, she has a trained eye that I don't. Many of the photos I'm posting from this trip are her work, and I'm grateful to have them.

We passed most of our day passing - cars, motorhomes, and the occasional bicyclist. I rode ahead, winding up the engine to get around slow vehicles in small spaces, enjoying the few wide-open miles I found but spending a huge amount of my day frustratedly stuck. The parkway was busier than it had been in August, and I didn't like the changed conditions.

One roadside stop promised a waterfall, but once we had parked, the sign said it was over a mile hike away. We unpacked our meatloaf sandwiches and ate them in the seats of a small amphitheatre. The air had a chill, but not a threatening one, and both walking and riding were pleasant. The sandwiches, the only home-made food we'd had while traveling, were delicious.

Skipper enjoying Lorre's meatloaf sandwich

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Mystery of Pigeon Forge

Frank had slept curled up like a cat at the food of his own bed, and when he got up, I realized he'd been nesting in a pile of popcorn.

"Hope that was comfy," I teased. Rogue and I were packed and ready to go, and Lorre had made us meatloaf sandwiches for the road. I stowed them carefully under the cargo net so they wouldn't become meatloaf pancakes, and we were off.

It was 3pm by the time we hit the road, but the lazy morning had done us good. The air was warm and the sun friendly as we headed east. I40 is really nice riding for a highway; it has gentle, pleasant curves and some very pretty and leafy scenery. Fifty or sixty miles along, I started to smell smoke. I didn't think much of it until the air got hazy and the rays of sun seemed to be making a great effort to reach us through the thick air. The haze and the campfire smell went on for nearly thirty miles. The flames never became visible, but there was clearly a sizable wildfire in progress.

Brick building with writing on the wall that says "RANCH DRESSING"
Nashville has odd graffiti.

We had planned to stay in Cherokee, North Carolina that night, but I didn't want our first mountain road experience to be in the dark, so we aimed for Pigeon Forge instead. I figured we could make the hop over the mountains to Cherokee in the morning.

Driving through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the dark was a strange experience. They're not towns so much as they're huge carnivals, particularly Pigeon. Everything was lit up in flashing neon; it felt like driving down a giant midway. I half expected a short man with a handlebar mustache to insist that I shoot the metal horses to win the stuffed animal.

I'd chosen Alpine Hideaway because they specifically allowed tent camping, while most of the many other campgrounds were unclear on the level of hospitality they'd show to someone without a wheeled camper. When we drove up, the registration cabin was closed. I parked at the gate to search for information, and as I removed my helmet, a woman came out of a camper on the other side of the gate. She didn't greet me, just stood on her steps and stared.

"Hello," I called. She continued to stare. "We're looking for a place to tent."

"What?" she demanded.

"A place to tent for tonight," I repeated.

"We're closed," she barked.

"Do you know of another place we can go?"

She sighed. "Down the road. One of the other places."

"Okay. Thanks."

A man came out behind her and walked up to the gate. I thought for a moment he might open it or at least ask me for more details, but he just stood and watched as I replaced my helmet and started my engine. I imagined she had told him, Make sure them hooligans leave.

Annoyed, I walked through a multi-point turn, waited for Rogue to do the same, and headed back down the hill toward the brightly-lit chaos. At Riveredge, I asked after campsites, and though the young man behind the counter was refreshingly friendly, he told us they only accepted RVs.

"Try Riverslanding," he suggested. "They allow tents."

I thanked him and we moved on again. Riverslanding was easy to locate, but after driving through the camping loop three times, I couldn't find the office, only a general store that was closed. I exited over a curb and turned back the way we had come into town, headed for the option I'd been trying to avoid: the KOA.

People talk up KOA like they're the bee's knees, and while they've certainly got every amenity in the book and friendly staff to boot, you get what you pay for. I'd rather pay $7 for access to a water spigot and a bathroom than $40 for an in-ground heated pool. The other downside is that because they're so damn popular, you'd better hope to get good neighbors, because there will be a lot of them, and they'll be close.

The office was closed when we arrived, but while I was trying to figure out the oddly complicated after-hours check-in system, someone opened the door and invited us in. They asked whether we'd like a site with water and electricity, and since there was no price difference among any of the tent sites, we voted for utilities. The man behind the counter gave me a map and drew out the route for us to find our temporary home.

It wasn't hard to find, but when we got there, there was no place to park. The tent sites were located along the side of the river, on a steeply sloped grassy bank that did not invite motorcycles. I looped around again, hoping I'd missed a parking lot, and found nothing. Having passed the sites by, I looped a third time, then put my stand down in the middle of the road and walked back to Rogue.

"You think you can drive down that?" I asked. Bee could handle it if I was careful, although leaving in the morning might pose a bigger challenge.

"No," she said. "I'll drive right into the river."

I pulled out the map and was trying to figure out how to get to the non-utility sites when a man on a tiny golf cart drove up and asked if we needed help. When I explained our predicament, he said he would lead us to the other sites.

The road was made of enormous chunks of gravel, and I did my best to hang loose and just let Bee do what she wanted to do without interference. My front tire danced back and forth, but the biggest problem was the man in the golf cart, who was doing about 3 miles an hour. I stopped to let him get ahead, and he stopped too, perhaps afraid I wouldn't catch up again. I detoured onto the grass and rode along beside him instead.

Bumblebee, Hades, the tent, and a picnic table by the edge of the river at KOA

The primitive sites were much better set up for our purposes. The slope was gentle, and we were able to park both bikes without incident and still have a large flat spot left for the tent. In the center of the gravel loop road, there was a city of tents, at least twenty of them. A lone man wandered among them.

"This is exciting," I said as we made camp. "Tent friends!"

Rogue agreed. That one location doubled the number of tents we'd seen in ten days on the road, and it was a welcome sight. We showered and turned in for the night, thinking maybe the KOA wasn't so bad after all.

The morning was chilly, and I spent quite a few minutes whining and refusing to leave my sleeping bag while Rogue laughed at me. Just before sunrise we stepped outside, and as I stood up and looked over Bee, I was greeted with a strange sight: an empty field. The city of tents was gone without a trace. The look on Rogue's face told me she was as mystified as I was.

The Joy of Nashville

As soon as I opened the door to my second home in Nashville, I heard Lorre's excited voice. We hugged and introductions were made, and within three minutes Rogue was whispering to me, "Oh my god she's so awesome!"

"Told you," I said, grinning as we unpacked the bikes. I had parked two inches too close to the V-Star and jammed my luggage shut against Frank's luggage, so I held Bee upright while Rogue extricated my bag of clothing.

We left our boots and bags in the basement, then returned to the living room and chattered with Lorre while she finished making dinner.

"I made meatloaf," she told us, "And I bought a whole chicken, so you'll have plenty to eat. How long are you staying?"

"Just tonight," I said, feeling bad about the obvious miscommunication.

"Oh no!" she said. "I was hoping you'd be here for the whole week!"

"I wish," I said fervently. "I promise we'll stay longer next time."

Hard Rock Cafe guitar-shaped sign

After dinner with Lorre and Ross we showered and then walked up the street to Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. I visited in August and fell in love; I've never seen so many amazingly creative ice cream flavors. This time around I had Wildberry Lavender and Thai Pumpkin Curry, both of which were wonderful. I also sampled the Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, which was like cheesecake, only colder. As much as I wish we had a Jeni's equivalent in the northeast, it's probably a damn good thing for my wallet and my waistline that we don't.

(Author's note: I've just discovered that Jeni's ships to anywhere. I'm sorry and you're welcome.)

From there we walked to the end of 12 South and admired all the pretty restaurants and behatted hipsters. Then we turned north and walked toward The Gulch and Broadway. We didn't make it all the way there - it's a pretty lengthy walk - but it was a warm and inviting night to just ramble.

Eventually the ice cream settled enough for us to go back to the house, write a few postcards, and then fall asleep on Frank's bed.

When he came home at 3am, I heard his boots on the floor over my head and poked Rogue awake. He walked quietly into the room without turning on the light.

"Hi," I said, sitting up.

"Oh hey," he said. "I didn't think you'd be awake."

I made introductions, and Frank flopped sideways across the end of the bed. Polite chatter quickly became silly jokes, and not long after that we were all in sober drunken hysterics. Eric calls this "phone book o'clock," when you're so high on exhaustion that you could read the phone book and find it hilarious. Then I wandered upstairs and returned with popcorn, which was put to use as both snacks and projectiles. For the record, Frank started the popcorn fight; Rogue and I both hasten to point out that we are not the kind of guests who start a food fight in someone else's bed.

At nearly 8:30am, we finally fell asleep. I was up again two hours later. I knew immediately upon seeing the time that we wouldn't be leaving town at noon as planned, but I didn't care. We only had 200 miles to do that day, and it was important to me that Rogue see some of Nashville.

Old guitar, guitar case with Johnny Cash sticker, and skull in window display

We began with breakfast at the Frothy Monkey. I already knew the food and the coffee were amazing, and it's about a three-minute walk from the house. I wish I knew how to make lavender lattes at home, because they're incredible.

Around noon we got back on the bikes, and I managed to navigate to downtown without using GPS or getting lost. We parked in a strangely awkward and narrow garage across from the library, then walked into the library garage and up the stairs with the idea of taking the Rennaissance Hotel's skywalk across the street. One flight up, there was a sudden shower of welding sparks from overhead, and we dove out of the way barely in time to avoid getting burned.

"Leave it to us to get set on fire trying to see a city," Rogue said. We raced back down the stairs and into the garage proper, then headed for a side door. Halfway there, I heard a man's voice behind us.

Man sitting on giant hot dog. Caption: "How ya like yur wiener?"

"Hey," it said. "Stop."

Unsure if the voice was addressing us, I turned around. A portly cop was walking toward us, gesturing. I stopped.

"Did you not see the sign?" he demanded. "The stairs are closed."

"I'm sorry," I said. "We're from out of town. We were trying to get to the hotel."

"English is still English," he drawled, glaring at me.


"When y'all come back, you go through the entrance at the other side." He pointed.

"We will."

He seemed to be working up another sentence. I turned and walked away, Rogue following.

"Next time I keep walking," I said.

Chocolate-covered apples decorated to look like cat faces

Down on Broadway, we took a wander through the candy shop, where a very enthusiastic candy maker gave us samples of praline. Then he pulled up his sleeve with a big smile and showed me his ICP tattoo. I grinned awkwardly and gave him a thumbs-up, uncertain why the juggalo colors were being flown in my direction.

We walked down to the river, which Frank fondly calls the Scumberland, and looked out over the swirling, muddy water. There was a single shoe lying on an inaccessible concrete platform, and I wondered if the owner was angry with the thrower, or if perhaps the wearer and the pitcher were one in the same. Maybe there had been a drunken overenthusiastic shoe-flinging striptease.

We stopped into Broadway Boots, where I'd met Frank, and then into the Tequila Cowboy. We stayed for a song and then I told Rogue she should really remove me or we'd be staying a hell of a lot longer.

"I get it," she said. "This town has a great vibe. I wish we could spend more time here."

There was no greater joy for me on our entire trip than that moment.

Skipper standing in front of a piece of art that says "I BELIEVE IN NASHVILLE"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

ReTracing My Steps

The two of us scooted out early as planned and hit the Trace for real. We'd done a few miles on it while finding the campground, but hadn't been able to enjoy the scenery in the dark. Riding over the Barnett reservoir on the 43 bridge just after sunrise was peaceful and serene. A hint of mist hung over the water, and traffic was light.

Skipper packs gear onto Bee at a campground

We passed a whole lot of cars and a few bikes, and got stuck in some brief construction traffic. When a sign warned of bridge work ahead and to expect delays up to half an hour, we hit a pull-out so we could get a snack before potentially getting irritatingly stuck. There was only one vehicle in the parking lot: a KLR 650 in black and lime green.

Its owner, an older gentleman with white hair, was sitting on a picnic table. He watched as we parked, geared down, and dug through our bags. I got fouled up in the cargo net and poured a can of potato strings all over my luggage and the ground, then started laughing so hard I couldn't put them back and Rogue had to help me.

When I had gotten my poop in a group, at least for the current moment, we joined the man at the picnic table. We talked bikes and trail riding and he advised us on the location of the nearest gas station. Then a pickup truck with a couple of large antennas on it pulled in and I got distracted talking to the driver, who was a ham operator and also a Harley rider.

He stayed for five minutes or so and then moved on, and the rider of the KLR said, "I didn't want to say anything while he was here, but I'm really not a fan of Harleys."

Field of cotton on the Natchez Trace

The Trace has probably hundreds of stops, each with a name and a bit of historical signage. Some of them are hiking trails, some are picnic areas, some are Indian mounds, and at least one is a tobacco barn. Two of them are waterfalls, and I put away my desire to make miles long enough for a short climb down Fall Hollow. I'd stopped in that spot the previous year and wished I could've taken Rogue with me; now that I actually had her along, there was no excuse to pass it by.

Underneath the waterfall at Fall Hollow

Nearing the north end of the Trace, we were detoured onto state roads to avoid some construction. I'd been looking forward to riding the northernmost ten miles, which are the most twisty, but it became evident that we'd reach town faster by not returning to the parkway.

Somewhere along the way my phone ran out of data. I tried to buy more, but the device insisted that I must be connected to WiFi to perform that action. Whichever programmer thought that was a good way to write an app was not on my list of favorite people that day. I would hope that the one action it could still perform when out of data would be to buy more data.

Skipper poses in the middle of a cotton field, wearing full motorcycle gear

At our last gas stop of the afternoon, I was channeling Grumpy Cat. Between the time of day (later than I'd hoped), the useless cellular device, and finding out that Frank had to work overnight on the only night we'd be in town, I was about ready to bite someone's head off. Fortunately I realized that lack of food was part of the problem and got myself a snack before I did anything regrettable. Rogue had the clever idea of tethering her phone into a hotspot so I could use the "WiFi" to get more data, and it worked.

With some coffee and crackers down my gullet and my GPS awake again, I navigated without incident to 12 South. I backed Bee in to the right of Frank's V-Star, and Rogue backed Hades in on the left; the three days since our arrival at Crockett Street had apparently made a difference for her.

"It's so little," Rogue said with a giggle, nodding at the V-Star. It did look rather hemmed in by its new companions.

Bumblebee, Black Betty, and Hades lined up at the curb

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mississippi Stays Weird

Interstate 20 is pretty decent riding, and we sailed out of Texas and into Shreveport in good time. My GPS pointed me south, but when it told me to continue that way for 116 miles, I had to question its motives. I pulled off a glove and poked around until I had a wide-view map, then got my arm tangled in my audio cord and nearly lost my amplifier. At that point I did what I should've done in the first place and took an exit.

In my initial planning I'd failed to notice, probably because I hadn't actually mapped it all out, that Natchez, Mississippi is significantly south of Dallas, Texas. A glance at the map told me that I20 would take us straight to Jackson, and my memory contained the information that the Trace also runs through the capital city. I made an executive decision, knowing Rogue wouldn't object, and got back on 45 going north. We rejoined 20 east and continued across Louisiana.

At the next gas stop, I explained that we'd be cutting off about 100 miles of the Trace and shortening our drive to Nashville significantly. I assured Rogue that the southern 100 don't contain anything unique to the northern 344, and she said a shorter drive sounded like a great plan.

There were huge numbers of things on the road that both of us wanted to see. Rogue was learning the lesson I learned last year, that making miles negates your ability to see much of anything interesting. I felt bad for both of us that we had to skip so many cool sights, but I'd promised her that we could stop at the Mississippi River.

Our timing couldn't have been better. We hit the bridge at sunset and rolled along over the water in a cloudy pink haze. At the far shore, I took the exit and went bombing into the visitor center's parking lot. We dropped stands and jogged up the stairs to the pedestrian overpass, arriving just in time to see a glowing orange sun sink into a sea of pink and gold lava.

Sunset over the Mississippi River

We arrived in Jackson well after dark, and then I experienced an odd delayed triumph when we made camp for the night in a campground that I'd failed to find on my own the previous year. We drove by the parking lot where I'd given up and turned around, and less than a mile later turned down the road for the campground.

The place was big, and full. After doing a very long loop over steep gravelly roads, I found one unoccupied site.

"I keep waiting for someone to come tell us to leave," Rogue said as she rolled out the tent. "That stupid place in Baton Rouge has me all paranoid."

No one seemed to be awake, though. A sign above the sink in the bathhouse read, "ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION AND DISORDERLY CONDUCT." A couple of words printed in red ink had long since faded into illegibility.

"I can follow instructions," I said, but in fact I couldn't, because I had no alcohol. The excessively-numbered spiders under the sink didn't offer me any; maybe they were worried about being caught by the video camera over the front door. Another sign over the toilet threatened that the bathroom would be "locked and not re-opened" if the non-flushing incidents continued. Rogue and I agreed to vacate the area before the office opened in the morning. Videotape my rear end.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thousand (Creepy) Trails

The ride out to Thousand Trails campground south of Dallas was nice. We got to leave I35, which is a terrible riding road, and go tearing through the countryside on Farm to Market Road 933. Somehow I didn't remember ever running into that naming convention before; it's abbreviated FM933, but Robot Lady in the GPS announces the entire thing, as though she expects we're pulling a trailer full of cattle.

We found Thousand Trails campground at sunset. I picked a site, dismounted, and realized there wasn't much place to put a tent. I picked another site and went to put the bike there, but on the way, found a third site that was the best yet. We parked, unpacked, set up home, and made dinner. Rogue took a few pictures, in one of which my face mysteriously disappeared.

Bikes parked at a woodsy campsite, Skipper kneeling beside Hades, her face blended into the trees behind

We got very lost walking to the bathhouse, but when we eventually found it, it was air-conditioned and spotlessly clean. Our site was actually close to it; we had walked the wrong way around the circle and made the journey longer than necessary. The air was warm, and there were coyotes howling around us as we turned in for the night. It was nice to hear wildlife, but I made sure my mace was handy just in case.

Around 2am, I was dreaming that Rogue and I were listening to someone talk and she started laughing inappropriately. I was puzzled by her response until I woke up in the tent and realized she was actually not laughing at all but caught in a nightmare. I woke her, and then we lay there for two hours unable to go back to sleep.

There was a light in the road that shone directly at the tent, making the walls glow slightly. The light blinked out as a shadow moved over the tent, then reappeared. Our conversation paused for a moment as we waited for further activity, but nothing happened.

"Huh," I finally said.

"You saw that too?" Rogue said. "Good. Okay. Well I'm done sleeping for tonight." Then, "If it weren't 2am, I'd suggest we just pack up and go."

Tent set up next to picnic table in woods at dusk

"And I'd go," I said, "If we weren't vising Randy in the morning. Dropping in on him at 4am might be kinda rude. Hey, wake up, it's breakfast time!"

Eventually we drifted off to sleep again and woke at daylight. After the usual packing scurries, we were back on I35 toward Dallas. We were actually lined up to be early, until I stopped at a gas station because my shield was so bug-spattered I couldn't see. Then Rogue said her luggage was slipping, and when I checked the straps I found that one of the D-rings had broken. I finagled a new solution and we rolled out of the parking lot and up to a stop sign. When I looked in my mirror 15 seconds later, Rogue wasn't there.

I pulled over and waited, but after a couple of minutes, she still hadn't appeared. I was in the middle of the on-ramp to I35, but turning around there would be less dangerous than doing it on the highway, so I walked Bee through a three-pointer and headed back. I found Rogue and Hades parked on the side of the road.

"The bag slipped when I pulled out," she explained. "I almost dropped the bike."

I parked Bee in the entrance to a restaurant and went to take another look. I was kneeling at the back wheel when a tractor trailer rolled by with inches to spare.

"Can you back her up?" I asked. "Into this parking lot."

We got the bikes situated a little more safely and then did a thorough retooling of all the straps on the luggage. The cinch strap got tightened and the two straps with parachute clips were crossed for greater security. When I'd done what I could, I ear-boxed the luggage a few times to make sure it stayed.

That seemed to do the job. An hour later we had dropped our stands in Dallas, and Randy was bringing us to an adorable diner.

Rogue and Randy got along like a house on fire. I cuddled my coffee while they chattered, and enjoyed the satisfaction that comes from helping form a new friendship. Back at his house, Randy invited us to stay for a while, but we had to be getting on. Our day's goal as written was to make the southern end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, but I was actually hoping to get some of it done before making camp in the interest of shortening up our drive the following day.