Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Arrival in Sour Lake

We found Amber's house without trouble, at the end of a short dirt road. We parked on the concrete skirt of the garage, behind a stable of Harleys, and she and her partner Rock came out to greet us. He prefers to be known as "that asshole biker," but "Rock" is shorter, so I'm going with that.

Amber's daughter Sofia showed us to the cabin in the back yard, an adorable gamer cave that was occupied by Amber's oldest when he was home from school. With a private bathroom, air conditioning, a mini kitchen, a sofa, and a comfy bed, it was heaven to crash in after so many nights in the tent. Her younger son Eli came over as we were getting our laundry together and introduced himself too.

When we had gotten comfy - which for me meant exchanging my riding boots for flip-flops - we joined them in the kitchen of the main house. Rock was making chicken schnitzel, which Amber told us was his specialty. I asked if we could be of any help. Amber said absolutely not, and Rock said his bike needed a wash.

Dinner was wonderful. I stuffed myself until I had regrets, and then we sat around a large fire on the back porch and toasted marshmallows and drank wine. Four bikers who all ride a lot and like to talk will do so for hours. There were stories of rain and snow, good roads and bad roads, breakdowns and strange encounters and late-night rides. It was easily midnight before it occurred to any of us to go to bed.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Riding Photography

Rogue takes really cool photos. These were on route 76 in Indiantown, Florida.

Travel Doubts

It was over that lovely Cajun food in the Blind Tiger that we looked at each other and went, "What the hell are we doing?" We were six weeks in and neither of us had an answer.

Travel is hard. It's exhilarating, it's exciting, it's educational and fun and exhausting. You meet great people who become friends for life, and you meet assholes who make you want to stop meeting people. There are riding roads and there are roads that just go places. I've been thrilled to ride on a gorgeous day, I've been disturbed by a semi-deserted town that was full of bad juju, I've looked forward to the next town, and I've wanted to quit and go home - all in one day.

If you asked me why I took this trip, I'd say something vague about "getting away." I can't tell you what I want to get out of it, because I don't know. Rogue wants to go back to Massachusetts when it's all done; I don't.

All the towns look the same after a while. Setting up the tent and starting a fire have become automatic and somehow vaguely irritating. This again? Didn't we just do this last night? For the first time I understand why Dad hated camping; he had done it too many times in the Marines and probably felt that he had earned a real bed, damn it.

In a moment of trying to convince myself to push forward and not turn around, I messaged Jon, another biker who's doing long-term road travel around the US. We met in a Tiger group on Facebook, although his touring bike is a Honda (that actually looks remarkably like Bumblebee).

He told me that 4-6 weeks is when the honeymoon phase of travel ends. He'd been on the road for 13 weeks when I messaged him and was taking a break with family back in England, which he admitted was a welcome recharge from the mental toll the road takes. His goal is to hit all 50 US states and his blog (On Your Bike Tours) gives him an "obligation" to visit interesting places. Reading through the blog, a difference in our travel styles caught my attention: he seeks out locals and asks for things to do, using the internet only as a last resort. This is the opposite of the way I've been doing things, and the next time we land in a new town I think I'm going to try it that way. It may be a little different for us girls, but we can certainly take care of ourselves, so I'm willing to give it a go. Obviously something isn't working as is.

Rogue asked what I would do if she left. I said I'd be surprised.

"Really? Why?"

"What are you going to do - ride back to Massachusetts and live on your motorcycle in the snow?"

Quitting now would be pointless at least for me, because if "gave up," I'd still want to visit my friends in Texas and ride around before going home, which is exactly what I'm going to do in the context of the trip, so giving up means nothing at all. It would be more difficult right now to ride the 1,800 miles into the cold and try to find a job and a home than it is to stay here and keep doing what we're doing.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Northern Louisiana

After a couple of very welcome showers, we saddled up and wandered into Minden to explore. It was a strange town. The main street was paved in brick, and large banks and expensive-looking dress shops rubbed shoulders with stained car repair garages and empty buildings with broken windows. When it seemed that we had seen everything that was open - and it wasn't much - we went into Habacu's Mexican restaurant for lunch.

The bar was decorated with Marvel superheroes. Deadpool, Captain America, and Iron Man stared out from between the Johnny Walker Blue and the giant jars of flavored margaritas. The salsa was excellent and so were the tacos de calle - soft corn tortillas filled with spicy pork and pineapple.

The afternoon saw us walking through the woods to the boat ramp, where we stretched out on the dock with our sketchbooks and enjoyed the sunlight. It was windy, and when we returned to camp we found our mess kits, towels, and other various things blown all over the place. Despite the wind, we tried again to start a fire, and this time it worked. The wind riled it up and blew the smoke into our faces and luggage, so that two days later we were still discovering things that smelled like campfire that normally don't, like the inside of Rogue's helmet.

If you know where to look, you can see our tent in the trees.

When we were in Beaumont, Texas back in September for the Lace, Grace, and Gears rally, Rogue befriended the woman running the snow cone truck, whose name is Amber. She's in charge of entertainment for the upcoming rally, and they began talking recently about Rogue and I doing a fire show there. When she learned we were traveling the South, she invited us to come visit.

Between Minden and Sour Lake, Texas, where Amber lives, there was Shreveport. Trip Advisor recommended the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, which was free and had great reviews. We showed up and were welcomed into the circular building, which was filled with really amazing dioramas depicting scenes of crop farming, harvesting, and oil drilling. There was a large array of taxidermied animals, including foxes, otters, a raccoon, an owl, an armadillo, a bobcat, and a whole pond full of ducks.

We were determined to get real cajun food before leaving Louisiana, so I Googled "best cajun food in Louisiana." That search led me to the Blind Tiger.

The "Cajun sampler" got us a selection of gumbo, crawfish etouffee, meat pies, fried corn, blackened catfish, fried crawfish tails, and dirty rice. We mowed through that, a side of cornbread, and a dish of bread pudding, then considered the mertis taking a nap instead of riding to Texas.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Into Louisiana

The breakfast at the Best Value was one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had. The biscuits and gravy, sausage, scrambled eggs, grits, and muffins were all hot and fresh, and I stuffed myself. I probably would have filled my pockets with biscuits too had the clerk not been standing in the doorway gossipping with a friend.

The more hotels I stay in, the less sense their ratings and prices make to me. At the Marriott in Phildelphia, we were paying $100/night, and there was no breakfast at all, not even cereal. There was a Starbucks in the lobby that charged $10 for a plate of eggs, so we walked to the Wawa across the street.

At the Holiday Inn Express, supposedly a step down from the Marriott, breakfast is pretty good. And at the Best Value, which was theoretically shoddy (and I admit their laundry facilities left a certain lingering stink in my clothing), the breakfast was downright excellent.

It was pouring down rain again as we packed up. We waited out the worst of the monsoon but couldn't sit around all day, so our journey began in the rain. The worst of it was fortunately over by the time Rogue fell suddenly far behind on the highway. She caught up again, then fell behind, then rode up very close to me. I gave her an inquisitive thumbs-up, which she did not return. We pulled onto the shoulder and I watched as she fidgeted with her handlebars, poked at this and that, revved her engine, and finally shook her head vehemently and stepped off Zee.

"What's up?" I asked.

"My grip is loose," she said. "It's spinning."

"Can you make it to the next exit? It's a mile." She nodded and led the way to the nearest gas station.

They didn't sell super glue, but the dollar store down the street did. I retrieved some and we had a short break while it dried.

In Vicksburg we took a short detour, looking for a lunch we didn't actually find. I rode into town a little ways and pondered how much I dislike ghost towns. We've found a remarkable number of places that seem to contain fewer people than they should, hanging onto the memories of closed businesses and watching through torn holes in faded curtains. Somehow I'm always waiting for someone to demand that I explain my presence there, like a kid caught spying on the neighbors.

The rain stayed away, and eventually we fetched up on the shores of Caney Lake in Kisatchie National Forest in Minden, Louisiana. The Turtle Slide campground was closed, but the one adjacent to it was open, and had water and electrical hookups and showers. We were unable to start a fire with all the wet branches and more rain was predicted overnight. Our tent has been pretty good, but I'll always opt for more weatherproofing when possible, so we used the lantern hook to suspend the tarp over the tent.

My Kindle was gone, of course, but Rogue had put some episodes of a podcast called Welcome to Nightvale on her MP3 player and I had a speaker. We lay in the tent in the dark and let Cecil lull us to sleep with odd stories from a strange desert town.

Bienville: Closed for the Season

Difficult though it would have been in the dark, I ended up wishing we had made the effort to find a dedicated campsite. Two cars came by during the night, one of which contained screaming passengers and did a burnout in the parking lot before leaving. Early the next morning there were fisherman dropping boats in the water. It would have been a shame to miss the barge, but I would have slept a lot better.

Rogue does the dishes

The morning was sunny but cold and windy. I used the tarp to build a windbreak for the stove so I could cook breakfast, and while we were packing up, the tent suddenly made a break for it and rolled down the hill toward the water.

"Wait!" Rogue yelled, running after it. "No no, come back!" Then, "Help!"

I ran after her and the rolling ball of nylon, and we caught it just at the edge of the river and dragged it back uphill. It was two more days before I realized that my Kindle and pocketknife had been inside, and now they probably have a home with some lucky person fishing on Blue Creek that day.

In Meridian, Mississippi, we stopped at a hardware store so Rogue could replace a nut that had fallen off of Zee and left her clutch handle loose.

My favorite free camping website showed me many options in the Bienville National Forest, stating they were open year-round. That made sense in the South, so I didn't question it.

That turned out to be a mistake. Several closed gates, a lot of dirt roads, and fifty-ish miles of U-turns and frustration later, we were at a gas station in Forest. The sun was down and I was cold and grumpy. We couldn't even sneak into any of the closed campsites, as the gates extended at the edges into thick forest.

"What do you want to do?" I asked Rogue.

"What are the options?" she asked. "We keep going and maybe find camping eventually?"

"Pretty much," I said. She looked as defeated as I felt. We made a reservation at America's Best Value Inn.

Blue Creek, Alabama

The rest of the morning was free of unexpected dirt encounters. We sailed through mile after mile of Monongahela, passing by a science center where an enormous radio telescope rose up through the trees. I would've stopped, but we were trying to outrun predicted storms.

In the middle of the day our path returned us to the interstate. We ran along 64 to 77 to 81 to 26 and finally pulled off in eastern Tennessee. The website of Woodsmoke Campground implied that they were open. The woman who came huffing up to us in a bright pink sweatshirt, looking put out, informed us otherwise.

"I checked your website," I told her. "It didn't say you were closed."

"We don't put that up there," she told me testily. I kept my opinion to myself in exchange for directions to a campground that was open.

A few minutes later we were checking in to River Park Campground. It had been long enough since our last shower that we were willing to pay for space to pitch the tent, and this place was worth it. It was $20 for the night, and there was a lovely shower and bathhouse, a river view, and even a diner. A caboose had been made into a pair of adorable cabins around which the other camping was centered.

Our neighbors invited us to hang out around their fire, but by the time we had set up our tent and showered, everyone had gone inside. Some of the campers had clearly been there a long time, and the place closed up early like a small town. Before it was even dark everyone had disappeared.

The wind howled overnight, crashing down the mountain and landing on our tent before continuing into the river basin. The tent bowed so low it touched our faces, and I wore my riding earplugs so I could sleep, but we stayed dry. The next morning saw us waiting out the pouring rain over fried eggs in the diner. When it cleared, we turned west and south and rode into Alabama.

Most of the day was interstate riding. It doesn't lead to the most interesting exploring, but it does get the miles done when you're chasing warmer weather. At sunset we were hungry, and we parked our butts at the bar in an Applebee's and befriended a couple of local riders who showed up shortly thereafter. Then we rode into the darkness.

The road into Blue Creek was lovely and twisty the next morning, but in the darkness it was a bit of a challenge. Some of the curves were gentle and some were hairpin, and there was no light save what our headlights were throwing. It was impossible to locate any of the actual campsites in the dark, so we rode all the way through to the parking lot at the end and popped up our tent by the river.

We were lying in the dark reading when a strange light shone on the wall of the tent. It flashed once, twice, three times, and then was gone. I sat up, listening for footsteps or a car engine, and heard nothing. After a long moment I unzipped the door and poked my head out. It took me a second to process what I saw, but after a moment my brain assembled an enormous barge making its stately way up the river. The light was its headlight, now cutting a path into the darkness far beyond us.

"A barge!" I said, poking Rogue, who had disappeared into her sleeping bag to hide from the cold. "Holy shit, look at this!" We sat in the door of the tent and stared in wonder until it passed, the water churning in bright swirls in its wake.

A Surprise in Monongahela

Rogue set up camp in Monongahela while I started a fire. At least, I tried. Nothing would catch. Eventually Rogue joined me, and still the two of us together couldn't get anything to light. A few things in the bottom of the fire pit created a bunch of smoke, but flames were in short supply. There was plenty of dead wood, but everything in the area was wet.

"Pick one or the other, you smoldery sack of crap," Rogue said to the pile of sticks, and I nearly fell over laughing.

Foraging in the woods near the creek turned up some large dead azalea branches under some even larger live azaleas, and they turned out to be the one thing that would burn in the Unburnable Woods. Even the pine branches were having none of it, and when the azaleas were gone, so was the fire. We turned in early.

The next morning was disgustingly wet. It hadn't rained, but the dew was some of the worst I've seen anywhere. A small rainstorm would have left the tent fly drier. We packed up, shivering in the chilly morning, and hit the road.

Upon entering the forest, the road had been dirt and gravel, the big chunky gravel that turns bikes into brain-shakers. My first sign that something had changed overnight was the enormous tire tracks left where there had been a large yellow piece of machinery. We came around a bend and suddenly the road was a series of piles of loose dirt, mounded a foot high along the centerline. The road grader was working its way slowly toward us in reverse.

I stopped and waited, uncertain whether I should pass or whether the road crew had any idea we were there. The grader lumbered a few more yards and then came to a stop as well. When everything had been quiet for a few seconds, I started forward.

The dirt was freshly turned, soft and shifty like a cornfield, and there was a hill between me and the grader-free left lane. I don't ride dirt, so I just attacked the hill and hoped for the best. My angle was bad and we swam through it with almost no control, and for a couple of very long seconds I was sure we were going down.

Somehow we made it through, and on the other side of the grader a couple of men in safety vests were standing at the side of the road, grinning broadly. They waved with enthusiasm as I passed by and waited for Rogue, who also survived the dirt with two wheels down. We found pavement again as I contemplated the weird things that happen on the road. In all the scenarios I might have imagined, getting graded into our campsite was not one of them.

Strasburg to Monongahela

We met up again in Strasburg and took an afternoon to explore the town. It was a short afternoon, and probably half of it was spent conversing with the owner of Tippy's, an adorable bakery in a slightly-renovated house downtown. While we ate our peach pie and strawberry poundcake, she told us the town was fighting a decline as parts of it were deserted and turned into a ghost town.

If the rest of the places were like the tax advisory, I could see why. Their hand-lettered signs asked, "Are taxes making you loose [sic] your mind?!" One had been corrected with a cross-out, and another had one of its letters backward. I looked for some indication that it was a joke, but found none.

The next morning I attempted to lead us into Shenandoah National Forest but must have missed a turn somewhere. It was still a lovely ride through rolling farm country under a sunny sky. I guessed at a couple of turns and eventually found my way. We stopped at a bookstore for coffee and parked next to a trio of bikes: a Ducati Multistrada, a Triumph Tiger 800XC, and a smaller, sportier Ducati.

We had finished our coffee and were trying to decide where to go next when the riders appeared. I asked the Tiger owner about his ride; it was my first time meeting another Tiger in the wild. He suggested we take 42 south.

It sounded like a good idea and then I missed the turn for 42. Half my travel decisions are made by accident. We continued westward into the mountains and found some nice twisties in our path. In Brandywine we stopped for gas, and another rider pulled in behind us - on a Tiger 800XC. The bike was the same color as the one I'd seen two hours earlier but it was a different bike with a different rider.

We chatted with Rich for a little while, who had moved to West Virginia from Florida, if I'm remembering correctly. He got rid of his cruiser so he could commute year-round on his Tiger, tackling the snowy mountain passes every day on two wheels. And I thought winter in Massachusetts was a bad place for a motorcycle.

We had left the Blue Ridge because Mike told me all the campgrounds were closed for the season. The gas station clerk assured us that the Brandywine campground was also closed. Rich told us there might be camping in Seneca Rocks, but after thirty more mountain miles we found a closed gate.

Thinking we could find a place to renegade camp in all those lovely woods, I took a random left and went tearing up a dirt road. There was a stream on the left and a steep hill on the right, and it continued that way for miles...up a steep hill, into some gravelly switchbacks, over the crest, through some farmland...

Forty minutes later we found pavement again, and still there was no place to camp. I followed a sign for Spruce Lake down a particularly gravelly road, and fewer than two miles later was rewarded with a sign: Monongahela Dispersed Camping Area. I stopped at the first pull-off, bouncing up and down with glee. I'd stumbled on exactly what I was looking for by complete chance.