VJMC National Rally and Ride to Points North
According to my usual ritual for long rides, I would be getting up at four o'clock in the morning to head north on my Bonneville, en route to the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club's National Rally at Spring Mill State Park, near Mitchell, Indiana. I would attend to cover the event for the club's Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Magazine, of which I am editor.
The Bonnie Fully Loaded for the Trip
I planned to take the shortest and quickest route out of the state. That wasn't because I think Florida roads are all “straight and flat” and, therefore, uninteresting; because I knew that was a lie, and I've found that there is plenty of interesting riding in Florida; but it was because I'd ridden this section so many times that I was thoroughly familiar with the territory and no longer felt like a trip was truly underway until the Georgia State line rolled under my wheels. By leaving at four in the morning, I could ride the usually crowded US 27 in almost zero traffic, jump across on the Florida Turnpike to I-75, and would be getting close to the Georgia line by the time the sun was lightening the eastern sky.
Earlier, I was worried I would not be able to afford to go on this trip. My business for the last few months had been abysmal. Although things had picked up recently, I would not see any income from those sales until about September. But it was important for me to go because our once a year face-to-face board meeting for the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club was held each year at the national rally and we board members were expected to be there unless absolutely impossible. Luckily, because of this requirement, the club would pay mileage for those who attended and at least some of the lodging at the hotel at the event. On the other hand, these funds were normally applied for after the event and, so, would not be in the bank until well after the trip was over. I was in a pickle, but a few emails to board members procured an advance on part of the funds, and in the end that saved the day, although I would have to scrimp on the trip to make it all work. I worked out the math and optimistically left my wife with a couple hundred dollars from the mileage advance to keep her solvent while I was on the road and nervously left with four hundred dollar bills in my pocket. That would have to do for gas, food, and accommodations for more than a week.
My target for the first day was a little town in northwest Georgia named Lafayette, where a fellow ADVRider forum “inmate” lived and had offered space for me to pitch my tent for the night. ADVRider is a community of adventure riders, some of whom wander the globe, while others glide back and forth in regions closer to their homes, with an occasional road, or off-road, trip thrown in once in a while. In the “Trip Planning” section of the forum at ADVRider.com was a thread that went on for hundreds of entries where any member could offer whatever they wanted to, be it backyard tent pitching space, a couch or a spare bedroom, food and beer, motorcycle rescue, and mechanical tools and expertise for the passing moto-wanderer. All the places offered were pin-pointed on a map of the world. You could click the pins to get the original offer in the forum and the details of what the fellow member offered. I'd hosted riders before and had used the list myself when I was in the Ozarks. It never failed to be anything but a great experience and a chance to make new friends who had an interest in motorcycle traveling, too. This arrangement would help a lot in me keeping the trip costs down, saving me at least the cost of one night's accommodation.
I headed out on my fully laden Triumph, on time for once, having packed the bike completely with all my riding clothes laid out the night before so that all I had to do was hop out of bed, throw on the clothes, and head out of the door. There had been talk recently between some riding friends and myself about a possible ride to Alaska next summer, and I had been steadily “ADV”ing my Bonnie, in case I could work it out to go the 10,000 miles. So, not only did the bike have my usual assortment of traveling luggage, I had added a Roto-Pax one gallon tank that sat under my tail bag and had two MSR liter bottles, one on each side mounted on the passenger peg brackets, holding another almost half gallon between them. This ride would give me a chance to test out the arrangement.
The now slightly heavier Triumph purred north on US 27 in the darkness until reaching the Florida Turnpike that cut diagonally northwest across the state joining I-75 at its terminus. I-75 would be my path all the rest of the way to the Georgia line. Being late June, the night was cool, but not frigid, as it had been on so many other northern treks I had taken out of state.
Two hundred and fifty or so miles after leaving I left the Interstate at Exit 1,8 in Valdosta, and headed northwest on GA 133. Many times on my way back and forth I had stopped here at my friend's house, but this time I just waved as I passed her neighborhood on the south side of the highway and kept rolling towards Moultrie, then Albany, as the day warmed and the pecan groves flew by. I turned north and continued past tobacco and cotton farms on US 19 and the ever present corn crop.
At Americus, I switched to GA 30 and then GA 41 north towards Warm Springs. This route kept me far away from the mayhem of Atlanta traffic and let me enjoy the Georgia farm country while watching the GPS's altimeter creep slowly upward. The predominance of pecan groves faded as the route headed every northward on US27 out of Warm Springs. That highway would take me to LaFayette and my stop for the night. I passed through Rome, where years before I had stopped with the group of riders on the First Kickstart Classic Ride that had left out of Maggie Valley miles to the north and east and from Rome had headed on to the Barber Vintage Festival in Leeds, Alabama. I thought I might spot Panhead City, but I passed through without a hint of where it was and continued to LaFayette.
After a quick stop to make a phone call to my evening's host and to get final instructions for finding his place, I found the side road leading down to LaFayette City Reservoir, got lost, then found my way again, then finally rolled to a stop at Brent's place. I had avoided rain all day, but now that I had stopped the skies were darkening and threatening to pour. Brent said that rather than pitch my tent in the back yard as I had proposed, with the rain coming I should use his man cave above the garage/shop, where I would have a couch to sleep on and my own bathroom and I could keep my bike below in the garage out of the weather. While I took him up on his offer and rolled the Bonnie into the garage, Brent got the grill going where he just finished hamburgers before the rain came down in earnest. I hurried into the house behind him and the platter of steaming burgers, and once inside we both commenced the formidable task of making a dent in the burgers and the food, including desert, overflowing the kitchen island. As we munched, we talked about bikes, riding, and woodworking, a hobby we both participate in. It turned out Brent often comes down to fish in the area around Lake Wales, and we chatted about fishing in the area around home. I invited him to drop by or to stay with us when he came back down. After 580 miles and now with a full stomach my lids started to droop; I said good night and thanks to Brent and his wife (they would be gone for work in the morning by the time I got up), and toddled off to the garage, climbed the stairs to the man cave, and hit the sack.
I had ridden almost 600 miles and only paid for gas three times at just over eleven dollars per fill up and had survived on an Egg McMuffin and a coffee until I arrived at Brent's. Brent didn't want anything for the dinner. While I didn't want to take advantage, this was good for my tiny budget, and I didn't resist much, knowing how far I had yet to go.
In the quiet of the next morning I repacked the bike. Brent had kindly offered me the use of the extra gas he had stored by the garage door to top up, so I filled the tank to the rim which would allow me 140-150 miles before I would have to refill again—another budget bonus!
One reason I had planned my stop here was that nearby is Cloudland Canyon State Park, a place I had been wanting to see ever since I was tipped off about it by another ADV inmate, Jeff (kurtinpa). I was wandering around on the Triumph in the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains just over a year ago and had chanced to stop for the night at Vogel State Park, on US 129, just south of Blairsville, Georgia. Jeff was the camp host. It was after hours when I got in so I stopped to ask Jeff what the procedure was, when he invited me to share his site and dinner with him. We hit it off and around a campfire we had talked into the night, when Jeff had mentioned Cloudland Canyon. He said some people called it the “Little Grand Canyon” and, although that was perhaps a little grandiose a name, it was a truly impressive sight and something you would not expect to see in north Georgia.
Leaving Brent's I headed northwest on GA 136, intent on a visit to Cloudland Canyon, just a few miles away, even if it was only for a quick stop. Now the mountains started in earnest and I wound my way to the state park, where I paid a small fee for the privilege of viewing this work of nature.
When I parked up near the overlook and walked to the edge I beheld a truly awesome sight. Off to the left and right, directly below me, the gorge extended for miles. The stream at its bottom was only occasionally visible behind the tress and undergrowth that grew wherever the rock faces were not too steep to allow them to take hold. It was still early, and the morning mist hung light in the air, softening any sounds. With only a couple vehicles in the parking lot, I had the park virtually to myself.
Cloudland Canyon in Northwest Georgia
After I had soaked in the scene from the overlook, I thought a quick hike was in order. I chose a trail to my left that meandered into the woods and along the north rim of the canyon. The greens of a mixed forest enveloped me in silence as I walked along sassafras, oak, hemlock, and hickory, eventually crossing a small brook on a little wooden bridge. I turned around and decided on a side trip when I spotted a sign to Hemlock Falls. I took the switch-backing path down a steep grade and to a huge overhanging rock, under which the trail passed. Beyond the boulder, the path dropped down wooden stairs for hundreds of yards. At the first level stopping place and with still no falls in sight, I decided my time was running out. I turned around to climb the steep stairs I had just come down, passed under the cave-like opening under the hanging boulder, climbed some more then turned back to my left along the rim trail to the parking lot, where the Bonnie was waiting. The day was now well underway, and I still had hundreds of miles to go before I would arrive at the rally in Indiana. I had seen enough to know that one day I would return to spend more time in this peaceful place.
Clearing the gates of the park, I continued on GA 136 away form Cloudland Canyon then onto GA 301 and towards the Alabama border. Beyond the state line the road became CR 90. I turned north on AL 73 and continued into Tennessee and onto TN 156. I was still trying to avoid busier highways so I stayed on 156 west, then north through Franklin State Forest and to the junction with TN 56, just west of Monteagle.
I hopped onto I-24 for a quick run up to US 231 where I would be getting off before I got into the Nashville traffic. Once across the Cumberland River, I hooked west on TN 25 to US 31W, that runs beside I-65 into Kentucky. I connected to the William H. Natcher Parkway and rode it north to my exit at KY 69. From here all I had to do was stay on 69 until I reached US 60, which ran along south of the Ohio River, take a left, then a right again to cross the wide Ohio River from Hawesville on the south side to Cannelton on the north.
Once on the Indiana side IN 237 continues straight on from the bridge, connecting to IN 37. I could have taken 37 on directly into Mitchel and Spring Mill State Park, but now the riding was going to get good, and I wanted to avoid busy main roads until the last possible moment.
Almost as soon as I hopped onto 37 I turned off again on IN 145 into the hills on twisting tarmac through southern Indiana. I rolled and curved through the hills of the Hoosier National Forest. The National Forest is in two sections, the southern one, which I was passing through, stretched from the banks of the Ohio to just west of Mitchell. Here the twisties had their own particular flavor, with quick climbs over hills restricting views of the road ahead only to reveal as you passed the crests the need to turn, and turn quickly, into the next curve. I was used to the horizontally blind curves that I've encountered in the Blue Ridge and Smokies, where a cliff side climbing up on the inside of a curve hides the curve beyond, but this vertical blind corner was a bit unnerving at first. You would climb and hit the crest with your stomach still in the air, only to see a hard left or right teasing you and testing your braking and cornering skills.
In other words, it was a blast!
Eventually, the roller coaster ride settled down into more mild rolling farming countryside, and I emerged at French Lick where I jumped over to IN 37 on IN 56. Mitchell is at the intersection of 37 and IN 60, where I made a right on 60 for the final couple miles to the Spring Mill State Park entrance, just east of town.
Vintage Bikes in front of the Sprimg Mill Inn, Rally Headquarters
As I drove down the wooded park drive, familiar sensations flowed through me. As a child, growing up just 250 miles north of here, my family would camp in this park on summer weekends. I have vivid memories of camping in our old canvas tent here, poking around the Pioneer Village and grist mill, and exploring the caves in the park. The rally would give me the opportunity to relive some of my fond memories in between what my duties as editor of the club magazine required. I parked up on the inn's circular drive and found the event team already on hand prepping for the upcoming rally activities. I stepped off the bike, said my hellos, and headed inside to check in. I had ridden around four hundred miles and had only stopped for gas and a quick coffee, so the budget was still under control. I would face my next monetary challenge when I went in to eat with my fellow members at the inn's restaurant.
I had paid the fee for the event a long time before and the evening meals would be covered by it, but I was here before the official start of the rally and this evening's dinner, breakfasts, and lunches would be on my dime. It would be rude to ride out of the park to eat by myself at some cheap fast food joint while all the other members were gathering at the inn and sharing stories and laughs. I would just have to be cautious. I sat down to dinner with my fellow club members and this night blew the budget on the buffet, but this would be the last splurge. I would pace myself the rest of the time.
I rose early and once more joined my friends at the restaurant at the inn. I ordered coffee, then I perused the menu in search of something a bit less expensive that the full-blown breakfast buffet that sat tempting me with scrambled eggs, bacon, and hotcakes just a few feet away. For a measly couple of bucks I could have biscuits and gravy. I ordered up and drank enough coffee to justify its price. It was great seeing old friends and making new ones and chatting about the club and old bikes.
Breakfast over, it was time for me to play photographer. I would write the article on the rally after I got back to Florida, but now I had to concentrate on getting shots of just about everything, and especially concentrating on getting some killer portrait-oriented shots. The story on the national rally would be the cover story for the next issue, and we would need a good choice of portrait photos to choose from for the cover image. I wandered around the grounds photographing the bikes that had already arrived and trying to get good images of the bikes with Spring Mill Inn in the background.
As I was shooting, a ride group formed up in the circular drive in front of the inn that was to be our meeting place, our bike show venue, and our general parking area throughout the weekend. I ran up to the room to grab the camera and GoPro, came back down, and mounted it to the mirror stalk on the Bonnie. I rode to the end of the line in hopes of getting some video of the group in the countryside from which I might pull some decent stills for the article. It turned out this was the “Long Ride” for the day and would not return for six hours. There was to be a lunch stop, so I crossed my fingers that we would make our stop at a modestly priced diner.
The dozen or so vintage Japanese bikes; with me, ironically, following on my modern British motor bike; headed out of the park and zig-zagged through the southern Indiana cornfields over roads with hopeful repairs lumped over the many frost heaves left by last winter's unusually severe weather. We passed through the northern part of the Hoosier National Forest, crossing Monroe Lake, and parked up eventually in Nashville, in Brown County, famous for its fall colors that attract tens of thousands of visitors in the autumn to the area. The dominating color, however, was green at this time of year, but no less beautiful. Lunch was in a simple diner named Hob Nob Corner. I was in luck, as the burger option was not too expensive and really was delicious. With a couple more pounds on each bike after lunch, we headed back for the state park and inn, where we parked up on the circle again.
More attendees had arrived by the time we returned. I ran up to the room to get out of the hot Kevlar-lined riding pants and my boots, and returned in more comfortable street clothes. I resumed my photography duties and walked around the bikes and among my fellow members and shot until it was time for dinner. My wallet would get a reprieve at tonight's dinner and all dinners for the rest of the time, as the6 had been paid for a long time ago when I had pre-registered. All I had to pay for tonight was pre-dinner beers if I wanted them. This meal was the “Ice Breaker” for all the newly arrived members to get to know each other and start forming new friendships and renewing old ones. The buffet was extensive and, with no financial holds barred, I charged it as if I hadn't eaten for days. After dinner there was time for more conversation with friends as most of us drifted off onto the patio above the steep hill, below which flowed the creek fed by Donaldson Cave. Offers of beer were frequent and no one was there waiting for payment and a tip.
By Friday morning, many more bikes had shown up and they would continue coming in all day. While the members unloaded bikes, registered, and started up conversations with each other, we board members gathered in a room off the inn's main dining room. We shared a breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and coffee, and soon turned to club business. A lot had been going on with the club and new challenges had to be managed. With more and more events popping up which were gathering increasingly larger crowds we had our work cut out for us organizing and planning. It was almost noon before we all emerged. I got back to my photography and soon I had enough photos for the time being, the rest could wait until the full contingent of vintage motorcycles had arrived.
The “Tiddler Parade” was just about to take off on a romp around the park before returning and lining up for the “Tiddler Bike Show,” that I was to officiate. This was for all bikes under 200cc. The entries began at 50cc tiny Hondas all the way up to the limit at 200cc. Ballots went out and came back, and I went inside to tally the votes, the winners to be announced the next evening along with the main bike show winners. I ran inside to see what I might be able to manage for lunch and found a table with a couple friends already eating and decided a chef salad would be the easiest item on my wallet.
After lunch was my chance to get away for a bit and try to relive some of those childhood memories I had gathered here when so long ago. I remounted the Bonnie, but, instead of heading out of the park, I went further in, stopping at a trail parking area with a sign pointing to Donaldson Cave. It was pleasant to be alone for a bit in the quiet of the woods, no 865cc motor beating out its tune underneath me. Instead, all I could hear was the subtle crunch of my tread as I wandered into the woods along a small and gentle stream. The only sounds I heard to remind me of the rally were the voices above me on the patio at the inn, but soon they faded to nothingness. As I walked further, all I heard was the trickling water on my right and the quiet sounds of small forest creatures moving about, while the overhanging foliage filtered the light, leaving only small dancing patches of light here and there in the relatively dark forest. As I walked, the path started a gentle climb while the stream increased its volume, and the air took on a feeling of welcome coolness. As I walked, I tried to remember how it felt as a child to walk this same path, and attempted to put myself back in the shoes of that young boy. For a little while, fifty years didn't seem so long ago. Then a wall of rock stood before me with the water issuing forth from a massive entryway. I climbed on slippery rocks into the mouth of the cave as far as I could, feeling the air pumping out of the rock like a giant's cool breath, while mist rose from the surface of the escaping water. As a kid, we could enter these caves, but an outbreak of white nose disease, a bat malady, forced the park to close entry to the caves to prevent its spread, and so I was faced with the only option of turning around and walking back to the bike.
The Wooded Approach to Donaldson Cave
It was getting late in the afternoon, but I wanted to make a quick dash to the restored Pioneer Village to see if I remembered it accurately and whether anything had changed. I walked among the almost two century old log cabins, imagining how different it must have been here back in 1816 when this wasn't Indiana, but the Northwest Territory.
The Grist Mill
I wanted to get back before anything important happened back at the rally, so I walked hurriedly snapping photos as I went, but I couldn't resist heading up the trail that led to Hamer Cave. A short hike found me standing in front of another rock cliff with water gushing out, creating a stream. This, in turn, fed the wooden aqueduct that ran to the grist mill and spun the large wooden water wheel the drove the grinding stones.
My time was up, but I was refreshed and rested. I scurried back to my duties at the rally. The circle was full now and bikes overflowed into the parking garage. I resumed my photography and, between shots, sat and shared stories with friends. Soon it was time for the buffet again and more camaraderie on the patio.
I rose early the next morning and, once again, ordered coffee and gravy and biscuits, then walked out side to continue my photography duties. By then the circle drive was buzzing with activity.
Another ride was queued up in the circle. This would be a shorter ride with a stop at a covered bridge. I asked if they would wait for me to grab my gear, thinking this would be a good opportunity to grab a nice group shot at the bridge. I ran to the room, threw on my gear, grabbed my camera, and hurried down to the waiting line of vintage motorcycles, now idling in anticipation. The line snaked its way out of the park and back onto the country roads through the endless fields of corn. I hadn't looked at the route on a map, but just followed along behind that buzzing line of motorcycles past iconic hundred year old farmsteads and through shady forests. We stopped for lunch at a very small country diner; hardly big enough to contain just our group. We ducked in just in time as our bikes were pelted by rain, while we ate in dry and cozy diner. Throughout the downpour the sun had never given up completely and by the time we exited, the bikes were already drying in the sunshine. My budget lucked out again here and my chef salad cost me little. We remounted and took off in the direction of the much anticipated covered bridge. There we had a look at the old wooden structure and gathered for our group photo before heading back to the rally.
Williams Covered Bridge Photo Op
By the time we had arrived back at the inn, the rain had returned, and the show bikes were not spared a drenching. Some quicker thinking entrants had hurriedly thrown covers over their bikes, but most sat in the rain, with little beads all over the paint work reflecting the returning sunlight. The rain didn't last long, and out came the towels, while owners hurried to clean and dry their entries. Everything had almost completely dried by the time voting began. I took a ballot and wandered around making my choices for the several categories. After a few more photographs, I took the opportunity before dinner to go explore the park again and to get more photos of the Pioneer Village area for use in the article to give an idea of the setting for this event.
Corn was the Ever Present Crop No Matter Where I Was. This is in southern Indiana.
The grist mill had been locked when I was here the day, before but now I could enter. I took a look at displays on pioneer life and the wooden gearing that transferred power from the water wheel to the grind stones. Riding back though the park I had noticed the day before a sign for Twin Caves, and so I next rode over to take a look. This is the one cave in Spring Mill State Park that you can still enter. There is a large opening in a rock face on the left and a smaller one on the right. Water streams from the left and back under the hillside into the one on the right. Here, rangers manned two small aluminum “boats,” which looked rather more like floating bathtubs, and rowed visitors 500 feet into the larger cave. The fee was an insignificant three dollars, but the tours were filled up for the day. Spelunking by refrigerator would have to wait for next time. I fired up the Bonnie and rolled back to the inn along the park road in the cool shade of the full June foliage.
I arrived in time for the Saturday evening meal, once again covered by my pre-registration fee. This was the big event of the rally. The buffet was huge, and, after all were full, awards were given out for the bike shows and to members who had been great assets to the club. Afterward, it was back to the patio and more free beer. Most stayed late, knowing that in the morning everyone would be leaving for their respective homes scattered across the country, and it would be a long time before many of us would see each other again. I stayed long enough to not be rude, but I had to cross the state on a motorcycle the next morning and doing so with a hangover and bleary eyes would not do me any good on the trip, so I returned to my room relatively early.
Having enjoyed the rally, but also a being bit exhausted by all the activity, I looked forward to today and being back on the road again on the Bonnie. I was to meet high school friends in Buchanan, Michigan, a little town just west of Niles, where I had attended school from the first grade to graduation from high school at Brandywine Senior High. Initially, I considered riding straight to Wheatberry's on Red Bud Trail, but with only a little over two hundred miles to run today, I reconsidered and decided to head for South Bend, Indiana, just over the state line from Niles, where my best friend from high school, Joe, now lived. Because of the short distance there was no need to hurry, so I avoided the straight and quickest route over to Indianapolis and on via US 31. Instead, I opted to head north from Mitchell and enjoy the ride through the farmland of western Indiana, where I had never traveled before, even though it was barely a stone's throw from my old home.
I headed north after a quick gas stop on IN 37, which would trend toward the big city of Indy. I turned off onto IN 39, before I got too close to the metropolis and swept west of the city, through the fields of corn and soybeans rooted in the rich, dark Midwestern soil. As I passed farm after farm, almost invariably of the classic type, with two-story white farmhouse, red barn, and tall columnar silo next to it, I began to notice I was passing old Japanese motorcycles on the roadside fairly regularly, each with a “For Sale” sign tacked to the headlight. I started to realize I had been seeing these occasionally all way from Tennessee, but now the frequency surprised me. I started dreaming of traveling through the back roads of the Midwest with a pocket full of cash and a trailer behind a truck. I have no doubt filling the trailer with great old '70s motorcycles would be easy to do in just a matter of a few days. I would continue to see these old bikes for sale most of the way back through Ohio, and all the way back into Tennessee.
At Delphi, I caught IN 25 for a short run northeast to Rochester, where I intercepted US 31, which ran north into South Bend. I was soon winding my way through the streets of the south side of the city toward Joe's place. It had been years since I last rode those streets, but I found myself recognizing turn after turn. I made my final turn into Twyckenham Hills and onto Woodmont where I spotted Joe in his driveway.
We went inside, had a bite and a couple beers, and got busy catching up. I was reintroduced to Sara, Joe's daughter, who was visiting from college. She was every bit grown up and I found myself envious of Joe with all his kids on their own and his freedom to go as he pleased. Yet, in spite of his seeming freedom, I was the one riding a motorcycle halfway across the country and that moderated my envy.
Joe and I headed out to catch up with our friends at Wheatberry's, with me following on the bike. One of my pals had said he was planning to ride his panhead up, so I thought I ought to ride mine so we could compare motorcycling notes, so I followed instead of riding with Joe in his car.
We made a stop at Joe's childhood house, or, rather, lot, as the old house had burned to the ground recently. His sister, Lisa, had been living in the house when something went awry in the attic, leaving nothing of the structure except the foundation. Lisa was rebuilding a new house on the same footprint of the old, and Joe gave me the tour. We also inspected the shed Joe's son had been living in and converting into a kind of Thoreau's cabin, while he started work to try to save the log cabin on Brandywine Creek below the bluff behind the new house that Joe had started his life in, but which now was in tumbling down disrepair.
My panhead riding friend didn't show, but the other five us had a great time and a great meal at Wheatberry's. Here started the strange phenomenon of my money not being any good. From tonight until I left the area two days later, I didn't leave more than a tip at any of the places I ate. I made an effort to pay my own way wherever I was, but every time I was turned down, but, honestly, this windfall probably saved the remainder of the trip.
On the way back to Joe's, where I was staying the night in the vacant bed of one of his absent daughters, the night air felt good after days of riding in the sun and heat. We had the bonus of watching a deer cross ahead of us, safely far enough away to not require a sudden stop. That was the first wildlife I had encountered on the entire road trip north, which surprised me greatly, as I had expected fairly frequent encounters on the back roads I had taken.
Joe was working the next morning so I walked out into the kitchen to greet his wife, Jan,who graciously French-pressed us a couple rounds of coffee. Skipping breakfast I thanked her and said good bye to Jan and Sara. Rolling the bike out of the garage, I carefully worked tit backwards down the sloping drive and into the street.
I had called my uncle, Max, from Joe's and arranged to meet him and his new wife. On the way to his place I had a couple extra hours and decided to head towards Michigan and the old neighborhood. I headed north in a meandering track, choosing roads at almost random.
Eventually I made it to Redfield Road and the house and fields where I had grown up. Now the pasture where we kept two horse was a part of the forest it used to front. The black walnut trees I remembered still lined the road front and the house looked the same. I thought about knocking on the door and seeing if I could take a walk behind the house to see if I could find the old trails, probably long gone, that I used to roam, but that would take time I did not have. Instead, I continued on toward the old high school, trying to see if I could recognize the route I used to take. I went astray a bit, but it was not long before I found the school and parked up in front to take a long look and jot down some notes so I would not forget what was going through my mind.
Time was running out and I would be late for the mid-morning meeting with my mother's brother. I headed back toward the east end of Mishawaka and found his place only a little later than planned. My aunt had died years ago, and my uncle had remarried only to have his second wife die. He had recently remarried for the third time, so this would be my chance to meet her for the first time. She was very pleasant, and I was glad my uncle had found someone nice with whom to share his remaining years.
After a short chat, my uncle suggested we go see my mother's sister's husband, Uncle Dick, who was in a nearby rehabilitation center. When I had called Uncle Max, I had also considered calling my aunt to see about visiting Uncle Dick, but had hesitated making the call as I knew he had been in bad shape with an Alzheimer-like malady for quite a while. I settled for calling my cousin instead and asking about his dad's condition. I wasn't sure of the appropriateness of me just dropping in on my aunt and uncle under the circumstances, so I felt much more comfortable doing so in the company of Uncle Max. I turned out we had the bonus of seeing my cousin, Sue, who was there to help her mom with her dad. Although it was hard to see my uncle in a state that barely allowed him to talk or feed himself, Uncle Max said as we left that he was very surprised and happy how well Uncle Dick was doing, and that during the last couple of his visits Uncle Dick just slept, completely unaware of his presence. While we visited Uncle Dick was in a wheelchair and in the dining room, and even managed to feed himself a bit and respond verbally to us. I left hoping the trend continued and that he improved enough for him to go back home.
On the way back to my Uncle Max's, we dropped into a little neighborhood diner, where, once again, my money was no good. Navy bean soup, a entree I had completely forgotten about and which I never see back home in the South, and a patty melt with fries completed our lunch.
I headed to Granger next to see a friend of my dad, who is also into vintage motorcycles and has a good sized collection ranging from an Ariel Square-Four, to a couple of BSAs, Whizzers in different varieties, old Harleys in their own particular flavors of pan and flathead, to a couple little Honda Trail 70s, among others. A neighbor's Trail 70 was probably the first real motorcycle I ever rode, back when they were new models, and Hank had two in that Candy Gold I remember so well.
Two of Hank's Many Vintage Motorcycles
At Hanks, after catching up over a couple cold beers I was given the tour. Then Hank and his wife, Joanne, suggested getting dinner out. We loaded up in Hank's truck and headed up IN 23 into Michigan, where its name changed to MI 62, to Edwardsburg, for a bite. Tacos were on special and sounded lie just the ticket. After three each and a beer, we headed back into Indiana the way we had come. Not long after we returned I got a call from my cousin, Denny, Uncle Dick's son, who had to deliver something from his work to the area. He was going to drop by. He had known Hank for years, too. We all talked well into the evening. Denny left and we turned in. During my good night call home it was revealed that Andrea had pneumonia—not good news and a reason to not dilly dally getting home. I went to bed anxious to start home.
Rain and gusts to a hundred miles an hour were forecast for the evening, and soon the rain began, and the promised wind arrived as the night wore on. I was glad to have the Bonnie safely tucked inside beside Hanks row of rare bikes and to be in a bed, instead of on the ground somewhere watching my tent billow around me while waiting for it to become airborne, me an unwilling passenger inside it.
By morning, the winds and rain had abated. I woke first and took a walk outside. Large limbs were down across the street but Hank's trees were relatively unscathed with just a few small branches scattered around the yard. I found a burn pile in the back yard and piled up the debris on it I had picked up during my stroll, while the world came awake. Hank and Joanne insisted on taking me to breakfast, their treat, of course. My budget looked ten dollars better. The diner was only around the corner and my hosts, of course, were well-known there. When I travel, and am not on such a tight budget, one of my favorite things is breakfast out. I prefer small neighborhood diners, where the local people like to gather, and this place was right up my alley. The food was good and our coffee cups never stayed empty for long. Hank and Joanne admitted to me they were trying to hold me up, at least enough so that I would not running into the backside of last night's storm as I proceeded east.
I was itching to leave, but to defer me a bit longer, they dropped by their daughter's natural foods store on the way back. The selection was top notch and ambiance was nice, with even a wine room with non-sulfited wines to choose from. Sometimes living in a metropolitan area has its advantages, and I wished we had something like this in Lake Wales, where “health foods” consisted of light beer and barbecue.
I really had delayed my departure too long, so amongst invitations to stay a couple more days, I rolled the Bonnie out of the bike barn, across the lawn, and waved goodbye as I rode onto the street. I pointed the bike northeast on 23 toward Michigan, once more.
Once across the state line, in Edwardsburg, I caught US 12 and headed east. I went north to go east because along this stretch of highway there is a little town named Sturgis. I'd had a silly idea for a while to get a picture of my bike in front of the Sturgis sign as a kind of lame joke about having ridden to Sturgis, while all my biker friends back home would instantly think Sturgis, South Dakota, the location of the famous motorcycle rally. It was a bit of a lark, but not far out of the way, and I had to ride east anyway. I found a suitable Sturgis sign, snapped the photo, and headed out, bound for southern Ohio.
I turned south at Sturgis onto MI 66, which becomes IN 9 at the state line. At the intersection at Howe, I turned left onto IN 120. As I passed out of town I searched the roadside for the house of a girl I once dated in this little town, possibly the first girl I had thought I'd “loved”—Gloria, but that was all of her name I remembered and I fared worse in my attempt to identify her house, seeing nothing I recognized as familiar at all.
I followed 120 parallel to the state line, and as I moved along I could see massive trees down along the roadside, obviously just removed from the road—a result of last night's wind. When the Michigan state line made its southward bump, just past Clear Lake, I rode briefly through Michigan again, until I caught MI 99 south into Ohio, where it was renamed OH 15. Continuing south until Bryan, 15 made an abrupt change of direction to the southeast. All this time I was watching the sky ahead of me. Surely, I could not catch up with that storm from last night, but the sky to the east was cloudy and seemed to be getting darker. A few sprinkles fell on my visor, but at OH 65 the road and I turned south and the clouds sped east without me, the sun eventually brightening the sky and slowly heating the Ohio countryside and drying the roads. I began to swelter, and the rain proof liner in my mesh jacket went into storage.
As I buzzed along the country roads of Ohio, I caught sight of an Amish buggy, a sight I recall seeing often when I was a kid in the northern Indiana countryside. I hadn't thought about it as I was passing through Indiana, but wondered now how I had missed seeing buggies there, in what I thought was a more likely location. Now that I was seeing them in Ohio, I determined to get some video to show the kids when I got home. That would be something so strange and foreign to them, having never been exposed to such a contrast of cultures before. I mounted the GoPro in preparation for the next sighting. I rode on and on and thought I had missed my chance when I sighted another one. I pushed the on button on the fob around my neck, but nothing happened. I had put the GoPro in the tank bag to charge, but hadn't thought of the batteries in the remote. By the time I had fumbled around trying to start the camera manually, I had missed my chance and the buggy had disappeared into the countryside.
I made my way to Lima, where I got confused and took the wrong road. It seemed major enough and was going east, the direction I wanted to go in, too, so I stayed on it, passing a large reservoir and then farm after farm until I finally decided I had to be running parallel to the road I had meant to take. I took the next major crossroads south, and, within a couple miles, I was back on track, eastbound. Crossing OH 696 I turned south and soon was on OH 117, heading into Bellefontaine.
My brother had moved to Bellfontaine years ago, after marrying a seemingly nice girl from there. When he got to Ohio, the truth came out about her, and I cringed to think of the misery Bob had suffered here and the stuff he had left behind when he bailed and ran for his life back to Florida. Passing though gave me a funny feeling, but soon I was out the other side and on US 33, heading for Columbus.
I approached Marysville on fumes and pulled off the highway to refuel. Relieved to have a full tank, I moved out again passing the huge Honda plant and soon was at the Columbus by-pass. I entered southbound and was soon bound up in bumper to bumper traffic moving a hundred feet at a time at 5 miles per hour, then stopping, then repeating the whole dance time and again. It took over an hour to get past the city, but then the traffic eased, and I was moving south on US 23, bound for the Ohio River and the Shawnee State Park. The landscape starts to roll, and, by Cillicothe, I am in mountains strikingly similar to the Ozarks.
The late start and the delay around Columbus put me way behind where I wanted to be as the afternoon faded and evening came on. I began to worry that the state park would be locked up by the time I arrived. At Portsmouth I got a quick look at the Ohio River. The park was not far to the west, along the river, and I wanted to get gas and something to eat for dinner before getting there. I wandered around town looking for a grocery where I could pick up a cheap sub and a beer to bring with me to the park, but the town seemed devoid of anything resembling a grocery. I gave up and backtracked up US 23, pulling into a gas station to fill up. I went inside to buy an overpriced and lower quality sandwich than I had hoped to find. The day was waning fast, and I headed out of Portsmouth with my fingers crossed that I could still get in the park, even if I had to enter after hours and settle the fee in the morning.
I followed US 52 west, mirroring the curves of the big river on my left, and found OH 125 and the entrance to the state park. I was in luck. It was still open and the light had not disappeared completely. I was able to ride the campground circuit, pick my spot, go back and pay the eighteen dollar fee, and set up before darkness. As I was pitching the tent, I realized my mistake of having chosen the site while riding the bike. Now that the Bonnie was quiet, the whir of a generator nearby could be heard clearly. Still, it was not obnoxiously loud, so I decided to live with my choice.
I tried to call home, my usual evening ritual to let everyone know I was stopped for the day and out of certain danger, as envisioned by my worrisome family. No signal. Nothing. I had never been anywhere where the phone didn't even attempt to ring out; but here it simply said “No Service” and threw up its hands. I would be in hot water if I failed to report in, so I went back to the ranger's post and asked about calling out. “You can try riding up to the lodge; I can usually get out there.” I asked how to get there and rode back out of the camp and further up the mountain until I saw the sign for the inn. Following a short but steep driveway I arrived in a large parking lot in front of the inn. “If I can get out at all, I ought to be able to here. It is higher than all the surrounding hills,” I thought. Still astride the Bonnie, I punched in the numbers. Nothing. “No Service.” I was about to give up and just take my licks the next day when I should be able to contact home when my phone rang. It was Mom. I don't know why that one signal got through, and at the very moment I was in the only place it probably would have had a chance to come through. The signal was shaky, but I managed to let her know I could not call out but was safe and sound for the night, and asked if she would call Andrea and let her know. I also got an update on Andrea. The diagnosis had changed from pneumonia to acute bronchitis, and the kids were with my parents.
Back at camp I devoured my sandwich, which in spite of its gas station origins, was pretty good. Not having eaten anything since breakfast clearly contributed to its flavor and it was gone in an instant. I cracked the quart can of beer I had bought along with the sub, took a sip, then looked around camp for twigs and small pieces of wood for a camp fire. The pickings were slim, but I didn't need a fire for long, just until total darkness fell, when I would crawl into my tent to sleep.
I unlatched one of my MSR bottles of gas from the bike, removed the cap, and poured what I thought was a little fuel on the dry twigs. I pulled out the only lighter I had, one of the short cigarette types that has to be held close to whatever you are going to light. I held the safety and flicked the wheel—POOF! I had fire...and singed hair on my hands, but no burns. I settled onto my little three legged stool by the crackling fire and finished my quart of beer next to the fire ring. Once the can was empty and the fire had died to almost nothing, there was not much more to do but hit the hay. I crawled into the tent and listened to lightning far off in the distance. Surely, that was the tail end of the storm from last night and it was moving away from me to the east. I should be OK. I drifted off to sleep.
I woke to heavier thunder and rain pattering down on the tent. Soon it was pouring, and drips started finding their way through the fly, which I had noticed had started peeling its seem tape the last time I had pitched it. Luckily, I was on my sleeping pad and would not be laying in any water that might make its way in, unless it really came down hard and for a long time. I climbed out of the bag and, instead, laid under it, using it to intercept the drips before they got to me. Soon the rain diminished, and I managed to fall back asleep. I didn't wake until early morning and was only slightly damp. I crawled out in the semi-darkness and packed the bike. With the rain hopefully behind me, I was looking forward to a great day of riding, if the mountains I could see on the other side of the Ohio were any indication of what I had in store for the new day.
I crossed the Ohio back in Portsmouth, crossed into Kentucky, and continued on US 23. The highway followed the south shore of the Ohio River to the east and then south, passing through the industrial town of Ashland, where coal was loaded on barges bound for downstream ports on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and soon I had the Big Sandy River as my new companion, with West Virginia on the far side of the river.
I followed the river until Louisa, where the highway veered inland into the mountains, and eventually crossed Pound Gap and entered Virginia. US 23 continued south then southwest, following the southern contour of the Jefferson National Forest. The road eventually takes an eastern turn toward Kingsport, just over the Tennessee line. I opted to go west on US 58/421 before I reached that point, in order to catch an alternate, wiggly route south on VA 70 into Tennessee. Almost as soon as I got on 58, I regretted it, when I caught up with a line of vehicles jammed behind a loaded truck that was trying to negotiate the increasingly extreme grades. Luckily, it was only a few miles before the truck turned off and I had unfettered riding into the western Virginia mountains. US 58/421 eventually winds its way to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, but about halfway there I spotted my turn off at VA 70 and headed for the state line, where the road's name would change to TN 70. I would be on this roller coaster ride of a road all the way into North Carolina and just north of Asheville.
As I was enjoying the winding road, I rounded a sharp curve, almost a switchback, to the right, with a stream on my right and hillside climbing up on my left. After negotiating the apex of the turn I straightened up and squeezed progressively harder on my brake lever as I watched a black bear walking nonchalantly across the road thirty feet in front of me, on its way from the creek up the hill. I paused a while longer, considering my good fortune and with the idea in mind , given this was a fairly small bear, that if there was a mother following it, I would not want to get between the two. The Bonnie sat idling in the middle of the road while I watched the wild creature saunter off. A minute later, I eased out the clutch, released the brake, and moved on.
I twisted and turned, climbing and descending my way through Tennessee when at a particularly tight hairpin realized I was a bit out of practice. As I made the tight right, I felt my right foot peg digging in and found myself crossing the yellow line. Luckily, I had a clear view ahead and nothing was barreling down on me, so I did not fight it but casually completed the turn and got back in my lane, while considering what I had done to make it come out wrong and telling myself to keep my head in the game from now on.
I came to an intersection where a road came in on the right. I continued on straight, but something didn't feel right, so I U-turned and headed back to the intersection. There, a man with a stringer full of trout was climbing up from a creek to his pickup that was parked in a small gravel pull off. I asked him about the turn and he told me, yes, I needed to turn right, confirming my instincts were correct. I thanked him tore off south toward North Carolina.
The plan was to make it to my brother's in Inman, just over the state line in South Carolina, for the night. I knew he would have a houseful for the night, with an old Navy pal of his with his entire family visiting for the week of the Fourth of July, but all I needed was a small spot on his backyard grass for my tent and I would be set. With that in mind I decided to take the Interstate from Asheville. Tim's exit was just off I-26, fifteen miles inside South Carolina, so it made sense to just jump on and make some time toward his place, so I would have some time to visit before pitching camp. I knew his friend, too, from a time long ago when I had sailed my boat up to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to stay with Tim for a while after a long jaunt in the Bahamas. It would be nice to see Steve again and share a beer or two with him and Tim.
It was about sixty miles from my entrance onto I-26 to my exit at Inman. I gathered speed and tore down the highway with the rest of the crowd and soon was out of North Carolina, crossing Lake Bowen, and exiting at Inman. Almost as soon as I exited the Interstate, I made a hard left and negotiated the now familiar back roads to Tim's. I found his gravel path, climbed over the railroad tracks, putted along though the woods, and then entered the clearing where Tim's place was nestled just above the creek in a little cove defined by the treeline at the back side.
Tim's friend, Steve, had not arrived yet, and Tim and I sat on the back porch, having cold beers, and watching the wooded background fringing the edge of the backyard. I had been here many times, and it was a home away from home of sorts and a comfortable spot to relax. Soon, Steve and his family arrived, and more beer followed. We all walked down to the creek and got reacquainted, and I got to know Steve's family members for the first time, as I had not met them before. Everyone got on great. We walked back up to the house, pizza was ordered, somehow the delivery person found the hideaway, and we all dug in while the beer and conversation flowed into the night. Knowing I had to get up early and hit the road, I eventually said my good nights and left the rest for my little tent pitched on the back lawn.
The continuing revelry on the porch didn't affect my attempts to go to sleep at all after the long ride I had that day, and soon I was fast asleep.
I woke up early and was glad to have cut myself short on the booze the night before. I felt good and started gathering my things while the rest still slept. By the time I got things packed, Steve's wife had gotten up, and we chatted a bit before I got on the bike to go. Just as I was about to roll up the drive, Tim showed up, and I was able to say goodbye and thank him for the hospitality he is always ready to show.
I jumped back on the Interstate and headed south through the quiet morning. Soon I was past the bottleneck of I-26 and I-85 between Spartanburg and Greenville, but at this hour I barely noticed any congestion, and kept barreling towards my exit at Clinton, where I would exit the Interstate and start my trek back home on back roads. I stopped at a Hardees at my exit and had coffee and a cinnamon roll. This was the first food I had paid for since Kentucky. The budget was looking good.
I aimed south for Augusta, the only large city I would be passing through all the way south until home. I first rode SC 56 then veered right onto SC 39 which took me into Saluda. I turned on to SC 121 and about halfway to Augusta joined US 25.
I was in familiar territory now, having ridden this route several times before, so there was no need for stops to map check or ask directions, and I made good time on the mostly empty country roads. I like this route. If you draw a line from Lake Wales to Inman it comes very close to that straight line. Others usually take I-26 to I-95 to I-4 to US 27 home. Perhaps, they can get there is less time, but I-95 veers to the northeast along the coast before intersecting with I-26 making a huge elbow that juts out of the way, so going the way I do actually saves miles and forfeits only a little extra time. The biggest advantage of my route is the chance to see beautiful farm country drift by at a more relaxed pace and a chance to pass through small towns that are mirrors of the past.
At Augusta, I hopped on the I-520 loop, once again catching US 25 on the south side, inside Georgia. From here, I followed 25 south into the land of pecan trees and yellow pines. Those familiar Georgia smells returned as I rode on. At Jesup, I chose US 301, leaving 25 to wander off into the southeast and to the coast without me. 301 shot straight for Florida. I rolled onward on quiet roads in the hot Georgia summer sun, crossing into Florida just past Folkston at the incursion Florida makes into Georgia's territory north of Jacksonville.
I had gone a week without any more rain than the single sunshower during my ride with the vintage motorcycles during the rally, so it was about time my luck ran out. Looking ahead to gathering clouds, the future looked darker and darker. Not far before my planned turn off 301 to jump over to FL 21 a virtual night was falling, although it was midday. I could see lightning searching out the ground on both sides of the highway, dead ahead as the rain came on. I had seen the sheet of rain coming a while back and had stopped to don my rain pants and slip the rain liner into mesh jacket. When the rain hit, it was a monsoon, and I struggled to see ahead.
Soon, bolts of lightning were on both sides of me and the Bonnie, and flashes overhead coincided instantaneously with their loud booms of thunder. The lightning was directly overhead. I wondered what the chances were of a bike and rider being struck. In a car, with its metal shield, if lightning hit the current would run on only the outside of the metal, protecting the passengers inside, but I felt like a sitting duck with nothing but the top of my helmet between me and any mischievous bolts. There was nothing else to do but keep rolling. I've lived in Florida for a long time and knew that these storms, while intense, often are not wide, and, eventually, I would pop out on the other side. I kept heading south as the trickles of water began their relentless pursuit of every chink in my “waterproof” layers. I could feel the water wick into my boots, and soon my feet were sloshing inside both of them.
About the time I exited the storm I was soaking inside my outer clothing. I hoped the wind would start the drying process, although I knew my feet would be wet from then until I get home. I made it to 21 and then switched to FL 315, that took me to the north end of the Ocala National Forest. I reached the Cross Florida Barge Canal, an alternate route to the Okeechobee Waterway, that never was quite completed and fell just miles short of its intended connecting waterway of the Saint Johns River. Here I turned east on FL 310, headed for US 19, which cuts from north to south through the heart of the National Forest. At 19 I turned right and ran south as the clouds gathered in front of me again. By midway I was, once again, in a virtual nighttime of rain and accompanying lightning. Vehicles in front of me slowed to a crawl as their flashers went on. I could see their tail lights and the white edge strip on the road, otherwise I might as well have been blind. But this storm was short lived and I left it behind me as I exited the forest.
At Eustis, it was relatively clear and I continued on. I slipped onto CR 56,1 towards Astatula, one of my favorite back roads in central Florida, and hoped I could get through before dark. The light faded as I chased a couple slow cars through this section, where they robbed me of the fun of taking some great curves at more spirited speeds. I reemerged at US 27 before light was gone and turned south.
I was then just one county away from home, and I sailed down the familiar stretch of highway, passing though Minneola, then Clermont. The pace picked up as the speed limit rose to sixty at Lake Louisa and I flew south in light traffic. As I approached Four Corners, where Orange, Lake, Osceola, and Polk Counties all meet, the traffic increased and continued, as I passed west of Orlando and over I-4, the main corridor into the city Disney built.
At Davenport I normally bail off 27 and take FL17, but I recalled that south of Haines City the highway was torn up for construction, so I stayed on 27 all the way to Dundee, south of the construction zone and then finished my ride into Lake Wales on 17.
It was about eight o'clock when I pulled into Fuzzy's for my traditional celebratory beer. I wondered if anyone will notice the five days' growth of beard that had developed over my features. I got the usual “Howdy Ozzy!” welcome and sipped the beer slowly, savoring the first thing I had put to my lips since breakfast. The budget was sufficient, barely, and I had less than a ten when I left Fuzzy's for the two mile ride home.
I drug the bike into the garage and removed the bags to haul into the house with me, for unpacking in the morning. I walked into the house to find Andrea asleep. It would be another two weeks before Andrea would be out of that bed for good. I dumped my baggage and soon joined her for a solid night's sleep, comfortable at last in my own bed. I would now leave my traveling self for the role of caregiver.
I had traveled over 2,900 miles and covered eleven states. In spite of the encumbrances of family, I managed to stay on the road for eight days. I reconsidered my envy of my friend's freedom that a childless house offered him, and realized that being free means being willing to embrace adventure when the opportunities come along, even if that means shouldering responsibilities at the same time.
"Ride Your Own Ride"