To Helen, Georgia, and the VJMC National Rally
Old Faithful in the North Georgia Countryside.
1,365 more miles have now passed beneath Old Faithful, my venerable 1968 Honda CB350. I had just finished putting the scattered bike pieces back together after a year of disassembly following the discovery of a cracked frame. The bike was finally started and running correctly just three days before leaving for the 2013 Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club's National Rally at Helen, Georgia
The Ride North
The computer calculated that the rally was 553 miles north from my home in Central Florida. What the computer doesn't know is what it is like to sit on one of these motorcycles for over twelves hours and that mortals need a break from sitting on the hard metal seat pan, covered by the thinnest of foam every couple hours at least. Not only that, but the buzzing and whirring of those 325ccs of sheer power at 6,500 rpm on the Interstate is not conducive to an enjoyable ride. So, I recalculated with this information in mind. The route only stretched to 568 miles in length, but running this new route would stretch the ride from about 12 hours to 14 hours with all the passages through small towns along the way.
I had planned on heading out at about four in the morning on Thursday, the 20th, in order to get past the traffic and interminable stoplights in the stretch of US 27 between Leesburg and Ocala that cause this area to be like a long thin parking lot at any time between sunrise and sunset. The night before my departure, I wisked the kids off to their grandparents, who would watch them until my wife came home from her business trip, went home and packed up the bike, set my cell phone alarm for four, and went to bed. I slept fitfully and woke before two, unable to get back to sleep. With the kids gone and everything sitting on the bike ready to roll, I decided that two was as good a time as four to leave, so I threw on my riding clothes, all laid out and ready the night before, opened the garage and rolled “Old Faithful” out into the drive in the dim light, climbed on board, and, just for kicks, jumped on the kickstarter and fired her up.
I rode north past sleeping houses and honked when I passed Fuzzy's, my local biker bar, as they were closing up. In spite of the ninety-five degree afternoons we had been having already, the night air was cool, and I was glad I had zipped in my liner in my mesh riding jacket for the ride north. I turned north on US 27 and flew along the all but deserted . Before I knew it I had passed Interstate 4, then Clermont and Mineola, and then Ocala. With Ocala behind me the road passed increasingly through blackened countryside.
US 27 veered west and I veered north on US 41 at High Springs. I passed under 1-75 and rolled toward Valdosta as the sun was making its way over the horizon. US 41 and US 129 had been sharing the road since just south of Jasper, Florida, and at Jasper again parted ways with me buzzing into Georgia as the eastern sky lightened. As morning progressed I approached Macon, and by clever use of US 129 Alt I bypassed the city and rejoined US 129 north of Macon and I-16. I could have followed 129 almost all the rest of the way, but that would mean a transit of Athens on the Interstate-like bypass. So, at Gray, I split off to the north and west on GA 11 aiming to miss Athens and its traffic completely, joining back up with US 129 at almost I-85 north of the city.
High clouds had kept me pretty cool while I passed dormant cotton fields and bright green pecan groves, but on 11, Georgia did what Georgia does in the summer—got hot—and I removed my jacket liner, letting the air flow through the jacket and across my T-shirt. In the mid-afternoon I passed under the last of six Interstates and rolled into Cleveland, Georgia. Here 129 went on without me, and I turned right on GA 11 for the final nine or so miles into Helen on GA 17.
It was schorching at four when I entered the parking lot at the Helendorf Inn where I would be glad to step off the 350, strip off the jacket, and have my butt anywhere but on the saddle of that bike.
The Helendorf Inn on the River
In the parking lot, I found a parking spot amid the hundreds of both vintage and modern motorcycles, many parked, and many buzzing here and there like excited bees. I climbed off the Honda and looked around to find Peter, my friend and organizer of this big event, who could tell me check-in procedures. I was keen to rid myself of these hot riding clothes and get into shorts and a T-shirt and out of my boots. I found Peter quickly—with his larger than life presence he stands out in a crowd—and after answering in the affirmative the many “Did you ride up on that thing!?” queries, I got my instructions and walked off to check-in, returning to the bike, key in hand. I found a shaded spot, nearer the entrance to the hotel and moved the CB there.
Unloading the bike, I once again was glad I had shelled out the money for the Cortech soft sport saddlebag and top bag system. These bags are held to the bike with simple frame-attached straps with quick disconnects, and getting them offloaded took mere seconds and carrying them to the room was easy thanks to the built in carrying handles. My old First Gear magnetic tankbag was even easier and I wandered up to the third floor taking all my kit at one time, opening my door to the most welcome 73 degree air-conditioned room.
I laid my bags out on the low bench just inside the room and started digging for cooler clothes to wear, then jumped in the shower for a refreshing cleanse.
Back outside, I now could enjoy wandering around the many bikes, taking photographs of the crowd and the amazing examples of like-new classic bikes, while bumping into old acquaintances and making new ones. This was one of the main reasons for me being here, to get acquainted with the many members I will soon be working with as a new member of the board and editor of the club's magazine, Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Magazine. The sudden departure of the former editor had left the club in the lurch, and with my experience with designing and publishing books I had been asked to fill his shoes.
Being a loner and social wallflower, I took my time wandering and made an effort to start meeting other members, while taking in the festive atmosphere. The first night's club dinner was not until six o'clock, so I had a couple hours to take it easy, look at the bikes and ease myself into this social situation. I wandered from bike to bike, saying hi to those I already knew and making small talk about bikes with those I did not. I eventually made my way to the back side of the inn and watched the many tubers float by on the river that was situated just outside the shaded hotel patio.
Once I had taken in most of the sights at the inn I realized parts of me were still buzzing from the road, so I decided to walk around the corner into town and find a cool corner where I could enjoy a cold beer and relax while my body and mind made the transition from the road to the sedentary life off the bike. Literally around the corner, I found a spot at a Mexican restaurant. I sat in the cool air conditioning watching the parade and ordered a beer: “Dos Equis, por favor!” and was asked, “Large or small?” “Large, of course!” To my surprise, large was thirty-six ounces. I thought, “I would make a great first impression at the dinner if I showed up drunk!” so I sipped on the first twenty-four or so ounces, snacked on tortilla chips and just enough spicy salsa, then headed back to the hotel and dinner, leaving a full beer in my glass to be wastefully poured into some sink.
When I arrived at the meeting hall below the hotel and adjacent to the river view patio, people were already in line for their food, the line starting, apparently, a few minutes early. Attendance had exceeded expectations and the room was full of members and their friends and spouses. The large hall was filled with over 160 people, and I was told attendance broke all records for the club's national rally, not to mention any of the regional ones.
I sat with Peter and, between mouthfuls of bratwurst, talked to him and the other table mates and got the lay of the land and the schedule. After dinner, over cold beers and conversation and tales of one restoration after another, I continued to get to know my vintage motorcycle peers while my eyelids slowly dropped lower and lower. When the talk started coming through in little snippets of “...the carburetor wasn't the problem...” and “...the camshaft was out by three one-thousandanths...” without the accompanying context to make sense of it all, I told everyone I had to call it a night. I left them to their verbal wanderings while I drug myself upstairs to my awaiting bed. I stripped out of my clothes and crawled into the clean cool sheets. I had forgotten that I had been up since two in the morning racing though the darkness on my way up to Helen, but my body hadn't forgotten and took quick advantage of my prone position to send me to a solid unconsciousness, unbroken until my cell phone alarm roused me the next morning.
The board meeting was planned for early this morning. I was to meet fellow members for a ride to a local restaurant for breakfast followed by a half-day board meeting, I bypassed the snooze button and hopped out of bed, threw a coffee packet in the machine, dashed into and out of the shower, wolfed the coffee down, and made my way downstairs to the waiting group of vehicles. I climbed in Tom's and made the ride over an exercise in getting know another member. The ride was short and at the restaurant, sitting around a acre-worth of tabletop, while devouring eggs and drinking hot coffee, I got a better chance to learn names and roles and find out how the organization worked. Before the abruptness of the appointment to the editorship and resultant board member standing, I had not fully understood the organizational management and how it all worked together, and now I was in the middle of it. For getting a start on understanding the organization of the club of which I was now a managing member, the meeting was very helpful. As a result I finally had a fundamental working flowchart of the club management, which would be crucial as work with my new duties got underway.
The meeting ended just after noon. Returning to the inn, we were on our own for lunch. I opted for a quick salad at Wendys directly across from the inn. I wanted to get back to the staging area to join in a ride planned for the afternoon, following twisting and windy roads to Suches and back. There had been four different routes planned for the rally, each one catering to different people's skills and riding preferences. I had chosen one that as more technical in nature, with more twists and turns, and which required more advanced skills to ride it safely. I got back just in time to roll my CB350 up to join the four other riders—a nice size group for the more challenging ride we had in store. I had been in the area a few weeks before on my Bonneville and rode roughly in the same area we were heading to, so I knew the route would be my favorite kind of riding. I wasn't disappointed.
As we rode along, me trailing a fellow member on a CB450 and being tailed by a Honda NX650, I started recognizing the route from my ride here not long before. There was a double curve that gave me a fright before, while riding on wet pavement, when I found myself in a bit too hot. I had trail braked through the very short straight between the initial right and second left turn, and my rear wheel started to step out. Gentle easing of the rear brake as I entered the second curve kept me upright that time. This time it caught me again, although not so bad as before, but enough to startle me. While my entry speed was fine for the first curve, the second was much tighter, turning ninety degrees left across a bridge, with not enough straight between the two to slow sufficiently and I found myself flying through the second, leaning for all I was worth, and thankfully not dragging hard parts as I went. I was smart enough this time, however, to ease off the brake well before entering the second curve and had no rear end slide. I made a mental note for the future to not only calculate speed into each curve but also to take into consideration what might happen after that curve. What doesn't kill you makes you smarter, right?
The View from the Overlook on GA 348
After a mid-ride break we continued on and back toward Helen, taking GA 348 southeast and up one of the steepest grades I think I have ever ridden, requiring wide open throttle in fourth gear on the little CB350 to climb it at a modest, but ever diminishing speed. We stopped for a quick photograph of the group three-quarters up the grade at an overlook, and upon leaving I opted for the higher revs in third gear, which made the rest of the climb more manageable.
My Fellow Riders and Their Bikes on the Suches Ride
Back at the inn, there was time for taking more photos, hoping to get something useful for the upcoming and my first, magazine issue, which I had been told must have an article on the national rally in it. Soon, Friday's group dinner was ready and well all started filing back towards the meeting hall on the river. At the board meeting we were asked to sit at tables where there were others not on the board and who we didn't know and try to encourage talk about the members' impressions of the rally, to act as receptive ears to suggestions that might improve event in the future, and to generally get to know more of our members. For me, doing the new editorial work posed its own challenges, but making myself into a social and outgoing person was going to be the hardest part of my new role. I found the way to get myself over my shyness was just to throw myself into the new scene, so I did just that, sitting down at a table filled with unfamiliar faces and throwing out immediately a “How do you like the rally, what would you change, and what would you like to see in the magazine?” question to the group. The group I was with responded positively and offered ideas toward improvement and I was glad I had found the courage to jump right in.
After dinner, we sat back nibbling on leftovers and sipping drinks and listened to a talk about the history of Yamaha motorcycles fromn Guy Reyonolds, who had been with Yamaha for 32 years. He started with the early '60s and by the end of the evening finished up in the '90s, illustrating his talk with projected images of just about every model Yamaha had dreamed up during those years.
Guy Reynolds Fills Us in on Yamaha History
As the crowd cleared out some of my fellow board members and several other club members found ourselves once again, sitting in the hall and shooting the breeze about this or that old bike and the differences between this year's model and the next, while downing ice cold beers. Eventually, a new friend, Jack, suggested we go out and have a couple beers somewhere in town, so we made our exit and headed onto the main street, searching for a place to sit back, chill, and talk.
The first place we found had a cover charge and we, feeling not disposed to pay for the privilege of getting in just to pay again for drinks, went on to the next place where music could be heard floating out onto the street from a balcony. We shouted up to a few people gathered on the balcony and asked if there was a cover charge. “No, no cover charge here!” So, we made our way up the stairs to the awaiting bouncer, who then asked us for the cover charge. Rats; we were here now, what the hell, and we paid the charge and went into the noisy bar. Inside was a scene I recalled from when I was young and single, with darkened space punctuated with flashes of intense light and booming, modern “disco” music, for lack of a better term, while young girls lined up on a miniscule dance floor in their miniscule dresses to shake their nubile bodies to the boom-boom-boom. Not that I was adverse to watching those young girls dance, but it was the kind of place I had assumed, in my long absence, would be as extinct as a pterodactyl. We decided the way to have any chance of having any kind of conversation was to step out on the balcony with our beers. Out there we could still get a look at an occasional hottie while still being able to hear each other and return home with some hearing left. The night air was pleasant and we talked about the club, about money and women, and what I took to get by or ahead in this world, while the forthcoming beers lubricated the conversation. After adequate lubrication, and with more in store for tomorrow, we both returned to the hotel and hit the hay. I was surprised at myself with having exceeded the midnight hour, considering at home I am often snoring by ten o'clock. I made a point of drinking a couple large glasses of water before retiring, in hopes of staving off the effects of dehydration my beer drinking may have brought on.
The water did its trick and I woke up and rolled out of bed after only a couple bumps of the snooze on the alarm, feeling no worse for wear. Jack and I had made plans to get together for breakfast, but after the appointed hour had come and gone and a half hour had expired, Jack was not to be found. No harm done, I figured, Jack was a big boy and either we got our times mixed up or he simply decided to sleep in. I bumped into another friend and went to breakfast with him at a Huddle House a couple buildings away, filling up on coffee, eggs, bacon, and sausage gravy.
With a full belly I grabbed my camera and headed over to where the bike show would be held this afternoon to take a look at the gathering crowd of contenders and to take more photos for the magazine. There were classes for Yamahas, Hondas, Suzukis, cafe racers, competition bikes, and “modern classics.” Many bikes would be entered, among them a collection of pristine Honda six-cylinder CBXes, old Honda Dreams, two-stroke dirt bikes, a rare rotary-powered bike, a collapsible motorcycle not bigger than a suitcase, CB450s, CB and CL350s, a Kawasaki W650, and many more.
A Lineup of Rare Honda CBXes
My photo duties accomplished, I decided to try and fit in a quick, solo ride somewhere. While I enjoy the dynamics of a group ride I wanted the freedom to choose my own route and speed, while I had the opportunity in these Blue Ridge Mountains. I headed out of Helen by way of GA 75 north. Brasstown Bald was not far and it has the distinction of being the highest point in Georgia at 4784 feet—as good a destination as any other. At GA 180, I pointed the little CB northwest and started climbing. Soon I was at 180 Alt, the entrance to the park entrance, where I discovered the climb had only just begun and a grade that challenged 348 for steepness. Shifting down into second gear now, I started my ascent, twisting and turning my way to the parking lot at the base of the bald, paid the modest fee while chatting with the attendant about how his first bike was a CB350, parked Old Faithful, and climbed off the quiet, panting bike. The little Honda had developed an oil leak, probably originating under the tach cover, and although it was minor, not even requiring me to add oil on the trip up and back from Florida, it did make a bit of a mess. Getting off her now at Brasstown Bald, the beads of oil on the engine, I imagined, were the motor's imitation of sweat, a result of her exertions getting up here. With an appreciative pat on the tank I turned and walked up the hill to the area where people waited for the tram to the top, leaving Old Faithful to rest. I glanced toward a trail on my right and noticed a sign that said .6 miles to the summit. “Heck! I walk about that same distance every day back home to pick up my daughter at the school crossing to walk her home. How hard can it be?”
At the Top of the Trail to Brasstown Bald
The Tower on Brasstown Bald
The View from the Brasstown Bald Observation Deck
My confidence resulted in a quick pace and I thought I would soon be on the mountaintop looking down on the surrounding countryside. That initial pace did not last long as I realized what the climb I was in for was going to be like. I quit passing other hikers and found it necessary to rest every once in a while on the way up the difficult grade. Not willing to be defeated, however, I finally found the top and climbed the flights of stairs to the observation deck, atop the visitors' center. My breath slowly returning, I walked the perimeter of the circular deck, trying to see if I could identify what I was seeing in the distance haze with a town here, a lake over there, while the blue ridges of the mountains rolled away like ocean waves to the horizon all around.
I took more photos and looked at my watch. I was running out of time before lunch and a meeting I had set up with an author who lived in the area near Helen, who I was hiring to write a teacher's guide to a new English textbook I was republishing. At this rate I was going to be a minimum of half an hour late for our meeting. Should I take the tram back down or the path? The tram would have to be quicker, but after what seemed like a very long time with no tram in sight, I headed back down the trail. As I was hoofing it through the tree-lined walkway, my phone rang with a text message. Cathy had arrived early. I texted her back and told her I was on my way but running behind. Luckily, she had some shopping to do and would wait to hear from me when I got back. Being mindful of the sever grade I had come up I took it easy on the way down in a lower gear, not wanting to wear the brakes out keeping my speed in check. At the bottom, I turned onto GA 180 west. I knew this road connected to GA 348 and its challenging grade that would lead me back to Helen. I managed the mountain climb much better this time, in third gear.
Over a half hour after our originally scheduled time, I found Cathy sipping a drink and snacking on chips at the Mexican restaurant where had ordered the big beer on my first night in town that we had chosen as our meeting place. No harm done, Cathy assured me, and we ordered lunch while we discussed the guide and I handed her the textbook manuscript and the original teacher's manual that I had brought with me in a saddlebag. I wolfed down my meal, while we made sure we both understood each other and what needed to be done with this project. I was already late for the start of the bike show and so we said our good-byes and went our separate way—Cathy back to Murphy, North Carolina, and me back to the hotel and bike show.
The bike show area was now filled with more than 70 motorcycles. I once again took photos for use in the magazine and for the club's website. Once I had gotten what I thought were sufficient numbers and varieties of shots, I checked the rally schedule again and decided I could get one more ride in before tonight's banquet and bike show awards ceremony.
A Lineup of Vintage Hondas
A Honda CB350 Four Cylinder in front of my CB350 Twin
1964 Honda Dream with Beautiful Panniers
Best of Show, a Rare 1983 CBX550
KZ900 and Other Vintage Kawasakis
A Honda CB750 Supersport
I pulled out my Georgia map once again and studied it for possibly interesting routes. This ride would have to be a shorter one, so I chose GA 356 north and east to GA 196 and toward Lake Duncan. I had planned to explore some smaller roads south of the lake, but blew past the turn and continued on north without realizing what I had done. Finally coming to US 76 I could see that it would take me east across the north side of the lake to Clayton, where I could head back south on US 441 and take the same roads back west across south side of the lake that I had intended to take east, completing a loop back to 196. From there back to Helen I would return the way I had come. Once off 441 with all its traffic, the ride back was a pleasant run along gently winding roads along green countryside, with lake houses punctuating the roadside.
Arriving back in Helen, I was ensnarled in the bumper-to-bumper weekend tourist traffic and it took me almost as much time to get three blocks across town as it did to get to the lake. The day had become hot and I was broiling in my jacket sitting still in the sun in the traffic and was relieved when I finally turned into the hotel parking lot. A shower was required by now, so I headed up to the room to cool down and clean up before the banquet.
Dinner was just beginning to be served when I entered the hall from the river entrance, camera hanging from my neck. That night it was important to get good pictures, especially of each bike show award winner, along with general images that were representative of event.
Banquet Food Line
I lined up, picking up plate and utensils and loaded up on a little bit of everything, ending up with a heaping plate. I decided to once again join a table of members I had not had much interaction with so far, and we all made small talk and bike talk throughout the meal. It turns out I had chosen a seat with the crew from Atlanta Motorcycle Works, who were the generous donors of the show trophies and who were dedicated to making a living bringing all sort of vintage bikes back to life, either as restorations or customizations. We all decided the desert was too good to pass up, even already being stuffed by the evenings victuals, and hot black coffee sealed the deal.
Donor of the Bike Show Trophies—Atlanta Motorcycle Works