About to Cross the Mississippi into Arakansas
Morning couldn't break too early. It was time again for my annual pilgrimage to Barber Vintage Festival. The antique bike festival was held yearly at the Barber Motorsports Park, nestled in the hills east of Birmingham, Alabama, just outside the little village of Leeds. This would be my third year attending.
It was early October and I needed a break after a summer of being alone in the house with our two kids, who had been out of school since June and had only returned in late August. I am a bit of a rolling stone and being stuck at the house to be the daycare provider for two children for three months with the constant whining and tantrums had worn on me. A road trip promised to be a welcome break from the kids' incessant bickering, constant struggles to get them to do homework now that they were back in school, and an escape from the wreck of what used to be our nice home, now littered with toys, discarded wrappers, dirty clothes, and scattered dishes.
I'll admit it; although a feel a twinge of guilt to say it; I have no illusions that I am the greatest dad. My patience had left me years ago and readjustment to having children later in life and the requisite forbearance required had not been easy with my temperament. I often prefer to be alone—a condition usually denied to a father of young children. And I know, and have been told numerous times by well-meaning people, that “…they are only little once, spend as much time with them as you can. Soon they will be grown,” but I find it hard to deny following that urge to get out, and get out alone. As much as I admire the parents who do everything with their kids and who seem to enjoy, no, live for that experience, I just feel something tugging me away.
I have had an internal conflict with how to balance the time I need to spend with my kids and wife and the time I need for myself. One one side, the kids needed a dad around and Andrea needed support, too. On the other side, this wanderlust seemed to be an innate part of me. Would I do my kids service by example, showing them to deny their dreams by staying home when their dreams called? There must be a healthy balance, but I've struggled to find it.
Ever since I left my parents' home I had been on my own seeking adventure and new experiences, first moving to the Great Plains to work after a stint in college; after that a tour of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize; from there it was a move from Michigan to Florida; next sailing a small boat, mostly solo around the Bahamas, the US east coast and the Caribbean; with other jaunts thrown in here and there, finally ending with riding motorcycles. I blame my parents for this. They used to pack us in our 1964 Volkswagen Beetle or various other vehicles and haul us Mid-Western kids to strange and exotic places like Colorado, or Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, or Florida, or the caves in Kentucky. Those trips generally took us not to major tourist attractions, but to small town America, often on back roads and usually camping in a musty old canvas tent. I don't know if it was the places or the people, like the beautiful young West Virginia coal camp girl I fell in love with for the first time on one of those trips, but those trips and experiences stuck with me and gave me an appetite for more. I find it strange that my mother has always hated the idea of me out traipsing about, whether it was on a boat or a bike, yet part of why I do it is because of the traipsing we did as a family when we were young.
In spite of all that I had tried to be responsible and do all the fatherly stuff—I held my temper, doled out what I thought to be judicious rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, took them to their appointments, and endured their continual raids on my office and all it contained. I know I am supposed to say how much I was going to miss the little ones when school started again but really, by that time school could not start soon enough for me. I would still have them after school until their mom came home from her “real job” in an office, but during school I could enjoy the quiet of the house inhabited only by me and our house cats and settle back into my work routine uninterrupted.
Now that the kids had settled into their school routines, I could think about relieving a little of that wanderlust that always is floating around in the back of my head. Because of Andrea's flexible work schedule, she could come home when the kids got out of school and work from home for the rest of the day as needed. That set the stage for the opportunity for me to make my escape, while I would have to shove the guilt I felt for leaving her alone with the kids for a week to the back of my mind. Besides, we had a clever plan that we hoped would make the time alone with the kids easier for Andrea. She had decided to go to the beach with the kids and a friend of hers, who adored the children, and spend the weekend playing in the waves and sand. The kids can't get enough of the beach and the promise of them getting to go would hopefully curb their tendencies to misbehave before the weekend and the constant physical play the weekend would provide them might keep them easier to keep in hand. That at least would ease the burden of child care at least for two and a half days.
Beside the joyful release of fulfilling some of my lust for wandering, the trip also would provide benefits for my business, publishing, and promoting, books on motorcycling. Books were shipped ahead for me to sell at the festival's swap meet area, but the really important advantage of going was the opportunity to network it provided. I could talk face to face with magazine representatives about future advertising and marketing plans and offer review copies to people in the position to review and promote the books. I also figured in a stop on the return trip to visit my website host and discuss some issues that had developed with the websites.
As I looked over maps preparing for the trip, I was struck by how close to Arkansas was Birmingham. Heck, I would already be two-thirds of the way to a place I had read about riding in, but had never been. As long as I am that close, I figured I might as well add a couple days and ride some new mountains. Besides, one of my best friends from high school lived just outside of Little Rock and I had not seen her in over thirty-five years. I owed her a visit.
Usually, I rode from home in Lake Wales to Pinetta, Florida, just across the Georgia line from Valdosta, where I joined friends from H-E-L USA, Luis and Debbie, riding the rest of the way up with a small group of four or five bikes. This year, however, I would be riding up with a partner. Roger and I had ridden up to the second Motorcycle Kickstart Classic ride in the Blue Ridge Mountains the may before, and had found a nice balance between us on the road, so I knew riding with him on this trip would add the camaraderie riding with a fellow biker contributes without the the hazards of possible catastrophes that riding with an unknown rider can bestow on a ride.
The day before we were to leave I had loaded enough gear and clothing to last me a week, more or less, and provide something for both hot and cold weather, both of which I could expect at that time of year, leaning more toward the cool side for the Ozarks part of the ride. The tail bag was expanded to its maximum and contained all manner of electronic gizmos I might need on the road—my netbook, Kindle Fire tablet, camera, and a waterproof box with my air card and all of the gadgets I would need to keep them all that stuff charged. I had installed a double USB mount on the handlebars, next to the GPS holder mount and so could run the GPS while charging my phone or other electronics while stowed in the tank bag. The tank bag sucked itself down onto the tank with it magnets mounted underneath and I added extra security by clipping a tether from it around the handlebars. Soft saddlebags were thrown over the rear portion of the saddle with a convenient top bag made to clip to the saddlebags underneath. The whole thing then clipped to the frame. On the little shelf formed between the left side of the top bag and above the left saddlebag I strapped my tent. On top of all this I bungeed a large dry bag filled with sleeping bag and mat. The whole mess was reminiscent of a camel with an abnormally rear-shifted hump.
The Bonnie Loaded and Ready to Go
It was a chilly morning for early October in central Florida as I made last minute adjustments to all the bags and camping gear strapped on the back of my Bonneville T100. Roger arrived minutes before the departure time we had agreed on. We agreed on a back roads route to the north and rolled out of the drive about 8 am and headed north on FL 17 to Haines City and our first fuel stop before continuing west into the Green Swamp to Deen Still Road and FL 33. At Groveland and we headed west and north to Bushnell and then Floral City where we picked up US 41. Once north of Dunellon we had the highway mostly to ourselves all the way to US 27 at Williston. At Chiefland we turned north on US 129 north to US 90, then west to Madison where CR 145 took us on into Pinetta, a quiet little village with nothing to denote its presence but a scattering of house and a blinking yellow light.
Although as time passed the air warmed, the chill that had started the day stayed with it in a small way all day. It grew warmer; into one of those days where you are warm when standing and chilly when moving at highway speeds on the bike—perfect riding weather. There was just the smallest hint, almost a ghost, of the chill in the air all day. I started with my jacket liner in and it stayed in all day, but I was able to remove the sweatshirt I had underneath my jacket and had never quite needed to change form my vented gloves to the heavy winter ones stowed handily in the outside of the left saddlebag.
Luis, Debbie, and their daughter Elizabeth met us at Luis's closed shop soon after we called them. We followed them east on county roads and down their enormously long dirt-road driveway. At their house was a new, a gigantic, motorhome they had just procured for stationing at their newly purchased north Georgia mountain land. Although I had come prepared to tent camp each night of the trip, there was no need to unload the bike here with the motorhome hooked up to power and the air conditioning cranking. Roger and I unloaded what little we needed considering the luxurious accommodations and “made camp” in the RV while pizza was ordered for everyone, provided by our hosts. The rest of our time in Pinetta was spent helping Luis load bike frames and parts into their trailer for sale at the festival swap meet and chatting about bikes over beers.
I made a call home before turning in and found out things were not going well on the home front. Jacob had been promised the beach weekend with the provision he got his book report done and handed in. That day he had lost it, a very common problem with my son, and was beside himself with the thought he might be left at home with the grandparents while Mom and his sister, Tess, trotted off to the beach. Now when I say Jacob “was beside himself” I mean he was making life a living hell for Andrea. I was already 280 miles away and in too deep to head back. Andrea would have to deal with it, and then I would have to deal with her ire when I got back. I hoped for the best.
Bedtime was early, soon after sundown, and it was not long before we were asleep in our comfortable accommodations.
Morning dawned cool and foggy. We hastily drank coffee in anticipation of an early start, hoping the fog would not be an impediment. Trailer loaded we followed it and Debbie and Elizabeth in the van out and back to the shop where a few more things were loaded while we waited for the other two riders to join us.
Soon Kevin's silver Dyna rolled in, and we got acquainted while waiting for Chuck, our final rider to arrive. We did not wait long before we could hear Chuck approaching on his Honda Valkyrie long before he appeared into view, with his exhaust howling like a banshee in heat or a Ferrari under a green flag.
Once all together we roared out of town following the van and trailer, Harley Ultra Classics playing lead, followed by the Dyna, then my Bonneville, and Roger's Shadow Phantom, with the screamer tagging behind and sparing our eardrums, along usually quiet country back roads and to our breakfast stop in Thomasville, Georgia. We all were fairly experienced riders and in this small of a group we rode well together considering our relaxed pace with a minimum of sling-shotting. As we rolled along, in spite of the fading fog and increasing sun, there was still a chill in the air. I was outfitted the same as the day before, in t-shirt and sweatshirt under my jacket with thermal liner installed and my perforated leather gloves covering my hands. Whizzing through the countryside brought alternating chill and warmth as we passed through sections of shaded road, then sunny patches. I began to consider whether I should have dressed more warmly, and was eagerly anticipating our breakfast stop. After a hot breakfast and more coffee and back on the bikes thoughts of cold faded as the day warmed and soon I was comfortably moving through the south Georgia landscape along with my four riding brethren.
Soon we were past Camilla and on GA 37 to GA 41 to GA 520 riding towards Fort Benning and Columbus, where we crossed into Alabama on US 280. On the way, we took a break next to a shady pecan grove and snacked on fresh raw pecan meat that was almost as sweet as candy.
I made a quick call home to Andrea to see how she was faring. She and her friend, Leah, were leaving work early and picking the kids up from school to get to the beach as early as possible. Luckily, by the time I called Jacob had regained his composure and buckled down and redid his report and handed it in on time after all. He would get to go to the beach. I breathed a sigh of relief and hung up feeler better and a bit less guilty for having left her to be a single mom for the week.
The hills began to grow as US 280 rolled further northwest into the Alabama heartland. We were finally entering the margins of the tail of the Appalachians. Not far past Talladega National Forest we stopped for lunch at the AL 25 turn-off that would take us towards what could finally be called mountains.
I had ridden AL 25 before. Also known as Dunavant Road, it was also sometimes called “Mini Tail of the Dragon.” While in all honesty Dunnavant Road couldn't hold a candle to the famous road in eastern Tennessee, it did have welcome twists and turns and was a tree-lined mountain pathway to Leeds with a hairpin curve thrown in to keep us on our toes. On this curve the year before on my vintage CB350 I had worn leather off the toe of my riding boots and had an abrupt and disconcerting experience when the kickstand on my heavily-laden CB had touched down before my pegs. It was a fitting entrance into Leeds, Barbers, and the surrounding mountainous countryside we had finally reached after the flat fields of cotton and grove after grove of pecan trees we had sailed by.
25 came to an abrupt halt at US 78, which would take us west to Rex Lake Road . A final right turn off Rex Lake, less than a mile from where we had turned onto it, took us into the heart of Barber Motorsports Park and the Eighth Annual Barber Vintage Festival.
Once in side the park, we headed for the swap meet area, where Luis and Deb would be selling their wares. Luis had gotten a bunch of Norton frames in various shades of condition . One in particular that he called a “fastback,” which was a factory cafe-style bike with gold rear cowl and tank was for a tidy sum before the trailer was parked. The other Norton frame, a Honda Dream 250 complete except for side covers, and most of the parts were sold by the end of the weekend.
My Swap Meet Camp
I unpacked the Triumph as the rest went off in search of their hotel rooms or camping spots. I was going to camp in the middle of the swap meet and thereby provide a guard dog presence, just in case anyone got more than curious in the contents of the trailer after hours. These were rather luxurious accommodations as far as I was concerned. The grass at Barbers is like a soft carpet or putting green and sleeping on it would be a dream compared to my usual sleep-on-the-rocks routine, especially this year because I had finally broken down and bought a self-inflating sleeping pad to go under my bag. Now these are not cheap, which explains my long reluctance to buy one, and mine never really “self-inflated” as promised, but it took me perhaps six breaths to have it tight and ready for duty and the comfort it provided was worth every bit of the $70 I had paid for it. I won't camp again without one.
The tent was pitched at the back of one of our three lots and after running out for a bite in Leeds and to pickup an evening beer, the rest of the evening was spent getting to know our neighbors directly behind us.
Tony and Nathan had come down from Tennessee to try and sell a pisr of X500s that together might almost make one whole bike. They also had a variety of parts and pieces they hoped to send to better homes. They had brought a portable fire pit and we sat around the fire talking bikes. It was their first time to the festival and they were suitably impressed, and the real show had not even begun. Having a fire completed the experience and now I felt like it was really “camping.” But it had been a long day, and it did not take long for us one by one to wander off from the fire to our sleeping places. The night air moved in, perfect sleeping weather in the low 50s I guess, and soon I was asleep.
I woke to the sounds of scores of vendors untarping and setting up their display areas. The first order of business was, of course, a quest for black coffee. I had spied the day before an official looking trailer promising food and went to see if they offered coffee, too. They weren't open but would soon so I ambled back to camp to watch the early shoppers strolling by and stopping to pick up this or that rusty piece of invaluable metal. My neighbors were awake, too, and we chatted about the coming day. I noticed some passersby holding coffee cups so I turned my steps back to the trailer and was greeted by an open window. Coffee costs two dollars a “large” cup, but I wasn't going to argue. I am used to my morning pot and knew I was not really going to be awake until some of the hot goodness had settled in my stomach. Eventually, the rest of our group straggled in and I set out to walk at least half of the swap meet area.
The Vintage Festival at Barber's is something every motorcyclist owes themselves to attend at least once. There is continual activity for three days with racing of all classes of vintage AHRMA bikes all day long on the GP track. For those who grew up on dirt bikes or simply have a passion for that kind of riding, the festival offers dirt, trials and scrambles races where you can get up close and personal to the racers and their bikes, which makes for great action photography.
Trials at Barbers
Of course, there is the swamp meet, but this is not an average weekend swap meet; it occupies a large area on the southwest corner of the track with row after row of vendors. Not only can you find aftermarket and original parts for your Evo Harley, but also rare and exotic hard-to-find parts for makes such as Montessa, BSA, and Norton. Vintage bikes from the 60s and 70s such as Triumph, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, you name it are there along with every part and old bike wrencher might need to finish an authentic restoration. For those who love old bikes, but don't have the time, experience, or inclination to rebuild a bike, there are finished restorations for sale, ready for the street or the dirt. If you are really on the hunt then you must leave yourself most of one day just to rummage through what's offered in the swap meet.
Swap Meet Entrance
Swap Meet Bikes
While wandering the grounds I strolled to the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club's are just inside the entrance gate. As the owner of a 1968 Honda CB350 who has succumbed to the charms of this old metal I am a member of the club and had to take a look at row after row of meticulously restored Japanese bikes. I am a rider of these bikes, fixing and riding and doing the minimal of cosmetic work in order to enjoy the experience of riding bikes that in my youth I was denied the pleasure of owning. So I am always amazed at the care and attention to detail put into these bikes, down to original, period-correct screws and small fittings. I had been in on the planning of the first state-wide Florida Rally of the group and stopping here gave me a chance to check in with other people involved in the rally. I also was able to finally meet face-to-face Bill Silver, also known as “MrHonda,” who I had been helping with a book he had written on the Honda Scramblers, but whom I had only known online.