My father, Bart, and wife were PADI certified a long time ago. Give that I already had plenty of expensive hobbies that also require vacation time and weekends, and that I didn’t “feel called” to dive I left it alone for a good 12+ years.
As time went on, and I realized how many divers I knew, and I wondered how many x-country motorcycle trips I’d really be able to get Mrs. Roadrunner on, I decided to get my Open Water certification this summer. After all, The Ocean is Nature and I’m pretty much always up for new experiences. “Blue spaces” appear to be as good for your mental health as “green spaces” and connections with like-minded people are important.
Jamaica is a great place to learn to dive.
Not everyone can dive: you need to be able to equalize your ears every few feet and not panic if something goes wrong underwater. The latter is particularly important: there are several nothing-burger occurrences that could ruin your day if you panic. You must breathe deeply and slowly through your mouth at all time. You must regularly check your remaining air and depth, and you should safely ascend in a controlled fashion including a 3minute stop at 15′ if you’ve been down for a while.
Diving is Mindfulness. The attention to the current moment and the need to be Skillful puts diving right next to meditation and motorcycling. The feeling of weightlessness and the visceral motion through space belongs next to sailing, riding a motorcycle, and flying – these experiences are first cousins.
The community is similar too. Just as I can walk into a bar with my vest on and have strangers ask me about my patches, where I’m riding from and to, on the way to and on the dive boat everyone is a kindred spirit. You make assumptions about people carrying their own dive gear or wearing rented gear just as you might think about someone with out of state plates on their touring bike – everyone as at a different spot on this journey.
There’s no politics on the dive boat.
And now, I look forward and realize that just as I must have one Big and several smaller motorcycle trips every year, I also need to get underwater here & there.
You get underwater, you are forced to be alone with your own thoughts. You are in a situation that is not particularly dangerous as long as your are skillful, but this is an activity that isn’t for everyone. You must be appropriately equipped. You get to see & feel things that can only really be understood by the people who share this skill. Yea, diving is mindfulness in a way that should make perfect sense to bikers.
For two years, the ‘rona fucked over a dream trip to a cabin on an island in Alaska for dad and I. It seems like it would have worked out in 2021, but at the time we had to make a decision it was still sketchy. Shake hands with the wrong person and all the sudden I’m stuck in Alaska for a couple weeks of quarantine while my wife has to deal with the kids without me: no thanks. A canoe trip through a truly off the grid wilderness in Missouri was our consolation prize.
Meanwhile, I got the trunk & backrest on The Crow:
Due to the cost of an OEM color-matched trunk, I resisted this for YEARS. The ThunderTrunk was pretty good for $900, but of course you do get what you paid for. I finally bit the bullet here and I couldn’t be happier: the storage and the look and the quality of the OEM trunk is really fantastic.
And then I loaded it up for fishing!
If you’ve read anything else I’ve ever written, you know how much I appreciate The Ritual of Packing. Going over your gear. What’s needed, what’s not. What are your companions bringing? Is everything still usable or does something need to be replaced? Living in a house surrounded by crap and being forced to make your whole world fit in a few cubic feet is an instructional exercise.
My only “splurge” was making some bacon-wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms and freezing them solid for the trip down: this will become important later. I got a small tacklebox, picked my smallest fishing pole, and all the gear I’d need for off the grid camping on a gravel bar. My new drybag was for the fire starting gear and the metal tools I didn’t want to get wet in the case of a turnover, and the sleeping gear went in a garbage bag.
Day 1: Doniphan
My parents are from a tiny town near the boot heel of Missouri called Doniphan. We actually all lived there for a few years way back when, when we bought some land on the Current River and built a log cabin there. That’s a whole other story. Anyhoo, this area will always be “home” for Dad and there is some damned nice wilderness around.
I had not done a test run with my new trunk fully loaded up, my drybag tied in with Rock Straps, and my fishing pole on the bike, but everything shook out OK. I got up somewhat early on a Monday morning and set my GPS for a combination for highway and two-lane riding, winding up in small town MO 600mi away at the end of the day. Several times on I-39 and I-55 I saw unreal freeway backups going north & east due to construction. Little did I know how much this was going to hurt on the way home…
I rolled into the Motel known as the Rocky River Inn and met up with dad.
Motel is short for “Motor Hotel” , a hotel for people traveling by motorized vehicles, where they have direct access to their rooms from their vehicles. A lost word discarded after the golden age of American Freedom via road trip.
My favorite Mark Twain quote of all time:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
So I’m sitting at the bar in this pool hall next to the Motel and the bartender lights a cigarette inside. I used to love smoking in bars, but just to give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about, a carton of Camels cost like $12.00 when I quit – a pack was currently $6.85 there they informed me.
I plan to write more about this in the future, with more profound examples, but this simple thing was a reminder that people in different corners of America have different rules & expectations. Despite my crisscrossing the USA from Georgia to The Carolinas to Michigan to Idaho, it had been a long damn time before I was somewhere you could smoke in a bar; I think Arkansas in 2008 or so.
Day 2: The Eleven Point River
We had chosen a lesser known destination for this trip: the Eleven Point river. While the Black River, Buffalo River, and Current River are all well known in this area they’re also … well known. They have homes & businesses and boat ramps and tourists in inner tubes and cattle.
The Eleven Point River, on the other hand, is a National Scenic Riverway inside the Mark Twain National Forrest. Not a goddamned building or billboard did we see. Tons of stretches of the river do not allow motors. Nor live bait, nor certain kids of plastic lures. There are real rapids. Surely, this would be a place where we were fishing in a barrel. So while I brought oil and batter to fry up a rock bass or southern pike or smallmouth for dinner, I brought cliff bars and my frozen chicken kabobs just in case.
We put a 17′ canoe in at Greer with the plan being to camp wherever looked good on night 1 and float the rest of the way down to Riverton, MO on day 2. We had beer in the cooler and plenty of sunscreen and the kind of smile on your face you can only have when life is good and there’s no one around to bother you.
Only two small fish were caught the 1st day. When the weather is great, you’re not seeing other humans, and in you’re in a remote and protected wilderness you just sort of assume you’re going to catch fish. Furthermore, we realized only after we were WAY downstream that dad’s gallon-o-snacks was left in the truck. This meant just my small assortment of snacks and the “hope we won’t need it” chicken was all we had for two hard days.
Lots of tremendous bluffs you don’t see on the bigger, more popular rivers.
We went WAY over half our intended float on Day 1, finally settling on a nice gravel bar: flat ground and plenty of deadfall to build a fire with. We were practically glamping: we had a tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, fold-up chairs, all my survival gear, and lots of beer and bacon wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms. Between my folding saw and hand chainsaw we had a hell of a fire.
As we went about cutting wood and starting the fire, some deer came down across the river to eat watercress.
This, truly, is what it’s all about for me. No light pollution. No sound of other humans. Having to work a little bit to have a warm supper. Only the food that I carried in or caught along the way. Somewhere, miles away, my motorcycle waiting to carry me home. Cold brews, good company, talking about old memories while we’re making new ones.
I finally spoke aloud the words I’d been thinking all day: I wish Jason (Bart) was here. This was Tuesday, June 22nd, and in a different setting I’d be gearing up to write a letter to Bart. This is the letter this year.
Day 2: Back to Riverton
Bad luck fishing persisted today, and this unimpressive 14″ or so southern pike caught by me on a beetle spin was the crowning achievement of angling skills this trip:
We had some challenges, and found some reasons to come back and do this again.
Years ago, before this was a national scenic riverway, there were a couple of towns on this section of river. When the gov’t came in and said “Sell us your land cuz eminent domain”, some things were left behind including a couple of mills powered by the springs that feed into the river. We’ll have to come back for that. The challenges were the rapids. There were a couple of times were we both said “Welp, guess we’re going down” and somehow pulled it out. It was pretty challenging to do the amount of paddling we did without so much as a cracker on day 2. But we did it, and by 2pm that day we were back in town eating cheeseburgers.
Day 3: Wrapping up
After an early retirement at the Motor Hotel, we had some family to visit and one special trip the next day. We got one of my uncles to run us down the river to take some footage of the log cabin we’d built and lived in more than 30 years ago. It’s still there. It’s hard to see, but this is still something that animates my imagination.
Then, we did what people do in small towns: drank some beer, shot some pool, packed up to go home.
And then I headed home. 600mi, not my longest solo trip but long enough when waiting out tornado warnings south of St. Louis and all the construction on I-55 and I-39 through Missouri and Illinois. The Ozarks are beautiful, but don’t tell anyone about the Eleven Point River, that’s between us.
So, here I am. The tail end of a pandemic (or so we hope). The Mrs. and I both in healthcare IT, working from home, surviving the ‘rona lockdown just fine. Things start getting back to normal and things start getting better and better.
I had a trip planned to Virginia to ride the Back of the Dragon between Marion and Tazewell. I had taken care of enough other money things that I planned to do this on a new Indian Challenger. The problem was the ‘rona had still fucked supply chains to the point where getting a bike or parts was anyone’s guess. Weeks went by, and my trusty dealer kept pushing the ship date back one week, every week. It’s not their fault, but as things started getting close to the departure date I started looking around. A new 2021 Challenger Dark Horse in Thunder Black Smoke was sitting on the floor at two local dealers. Now listen, I am a creature of loyalty – I value relationships and that includes relationships with people who have things to sell me. If you get into a hard-to-diagnose electronic issue or something you’ll be glad that you’ve always treated your dealer & service department with respect. But this is the end of a pandemic, which world wide supply chain issues, and me with several trips planned on a newer motorcycle. I had to consider grabbing one of these bikes.
One dealer didn’t call me back. The other called me back and asked for pictures of my bike. I rode down and traded that day. The Crow replaced Black Sunshine in my garage.
The owner of Indian of Metro Milwaukee, who obviously would have sold me another bike if he could have, actually called to apologize. As if he hadn’t already done what he could! These guys are legit.
I wanted a Freedom Shields windshield, highway bars, soft lowers, lower LED headlights, a rider backrest, and a color matched trunk on this bike. The ‘rona supply chain made it clear I would likely have none of it. At least I was able to install highway bars, lowers, and a new set of the trusty ole Kuryakyn highway pegs before I rode for Virginia.
I got the 500mi break in service on The Crow but mounting brackets for trunks and back rests were still hard to come by. Since I knew I was also taking an off the grid canoe trip soon, I just bought a dry bag to serve as my trunk for this trip.
So, who could come to Virginia with me in Mid May? Harley Mark met me on Hwy 41 and rode for Kentucky with me on Day 1.
As I’ve said before, it’s shocking to me how lucky we’ve gotten over time when it comes to finding local food & drink. We opted for a Chill’s somewhere in Indiana for lunch but the host said “We only have 1 server, can you wait?”. Here we are seeing the dis-incentive to work in food service in the latter days of the Covid world. Shit. Luckily the Harley GPS is firing on all cylinders (more on this later) and we see something called “Rick’s Boatyard” on the same exist just 3 miles down the road. We roll, and we’re not disappointed.
Not a bad view for lunch when you’re on a motorcycle trip:
Since I am The Political Biker, I can’t avoid talking about this part. Rick’s has a full staff: all the servers and cooks and bartenders they could want. Chili’s could barely stay open. I have to think that if I were in the service industry in North West Indiana I would obviously make more money and be treated better at Rick’s. Let this be a lesson: there is no labor shortage, there’s only a shortage for labor that will work for shit money and get shit on by assholes.
The rest of the ride is a song as old as time, at least if you’ve been reading Two Wheeled Thoughts. Getting through Indiana is hot and sucks. The second you cross into Kentucky things improve immensely. I will say in all fairness that this was the easiest “No crashes or random road closures” trip through Indiana I can recall for at least the last 8 trips.
Day 1 was to end in Pikeville, Kentucky. Once we got off the freeway East of Lexington onto “mountain parkway” the riding was fantastic. Well maintained roads, lots of sweeping curves and altitude changes through the mountains, the last 150mi of a 700mi day were fantastic.We met up with frequent co-conspirator Wingnut Dave here, who had a shorter drive up from Georgia.
I had assumed Pikeville, KY was a “normal” town due to the fact that we booked a Hilton. However there were some oddities. Despite being a Friday night, the town basically rolled up the sidewalk pretty early. Due to the ‘rona, pools & hot tubs were closed. And this was a mountain town you could just as easily have found in Colorado, or Seattle, or California: so there was no actual hotel parking lot. We found BBQ down the road a bit, parked on the street, and finished the day strong.
I built a small self-contained machine (Raspberry PI) with dozens of my favorite movies on it. Takes up no space but is awesome to be able to pull up The Easy Rider on demand in a random hotel room.
The next day was pretty awesome.
My main goal for this whole trip was to ride the Back of the Dragon from Tazewell to Marion in Virginia. But as I already knew from planning this trip in Rever, the 90 miles just getting to Tazewell was going to be an awesome mountain curve fest already. We rolled into Tazewell and found that the town had very much leaned in to this attraction:
A big shop, a big parking lot, food trucks. Yea, they like the two wheeled tourism in Tazwell.
The Back of the Dragon was excellent. I would rate this much higher than the Tail of the Dragon if for no other reason than there’s a lot MORE of it and you can reach some higher speeds. Like everywhere else in Appalachia, the views don’t disappoint.
Now, I had routes planned, but I made it clear to my co-conspirators that The Back of the Dragon was what I really cared about. We did some re-planning and decided to take on The Snake instead. The re-planning sucked. It was here that I learned what a big step backwards the 2021 Ride Command is on Indian motorcycles. It’s not super clear why. It appears that basic things like “Take me to Mountain City, TN” won’t work without a strong wireless internet connection. Send a route from my phone to my bike? Nope! Worked on the 2019 but only works using iPhone on the 2021 as of the time of this writing. This was pretty embarrassing: after me bragging about how this tech was eating Harley’s lunch for a few years, we had to rely on the Street Glide to get us to The Snake.
The Snake is actually 3 forks of TN 421 near Mountain City, TN. Very fun curvy roads, but nothing in particular stuck out to me as amazing/memorable. Maybe I’m getting spoiled? You should for sure ride The Snake. There’s a country store at the nexus of The Snake, and as another sweet whiff of normality, there was a cover band playing there and lots of bikes in the parking lot.
From here, we decided to stay in Johnson City, TN. We found a Brazilian steakhouse a short walk from the hotel that was far better than it had any right being.
Day 3 was to involve several wacky roads in Kentucky that I found via MotorcycleRoads.com. Beware: just because something is highly rated doesn’t mean it’s safe or well maintained. We encountered a few issues.
Bathrooms: I think it must be difficult to maintain a bathroom in the South. Either there’s an epidemic of septic tank killing microbes, or people just randomly close their bathrooms to strangers. Or, maybe there are other issues
One Lane, 10mph roads: A couple of times, the amazing roads turned out to be super sketchy 1-lane roads where you were likely to meet a dude pulling his pontoon boat and need to squeeze close to the ravine to let him by. For me, this wasn’t fun. Tons of gravel, no reaction time, no ability to get any speed. Plan your routes carefully.
Lack of Road: One thing about the “t-shirt roads” is that they tend to be well maintained, and if they are not you’ll know about it. Here’s a story: on a certain “highly rated” road in Kentucky, I came around several corners to see the asphalt completely washed out in the opposite lane: I kept thinking “Wow, glad I’m going this way and not that way”… until I was going that way. Hitting a seriously huge wash out and catching air on a 1000lb touring bike and landing with enough force to bottom out the suspension and feel some “Oh, that’s going to fuck up my neck for weeks” level of crunch is just not fun. I heard “Oh fuck I thought Mark was dead” in my headset, and hilariously only the guy on a Dualsport with suspension that could have handled this 40mph ramp actually had time to react.
We rode lots of other curvy and narrow roads around Kentucky. One of the final legs of curvy roads of the day was blocked with an orange “road closed” sign. I was about done, and so we turned and headed for Shelbyville, KY.
The Ramada on Brighton Circle is sort of a goofy story. It’s the kind of story that I assume everyone who does real roadtrips has. We found <place> due to <wacky circumstance> but yet had <great experience> so now it’s a part of our routine. In my case it was an amazing 2015 road trip and my dad being cheap and finding a coupon for this hotel at a Rest Area. Cheap, clean hotel. Steak restaurant in the parking lot. Kentucky bourbon liquor store in the parking lot. The right place to be 1 good scoot from WI. I’ve stayed at this place so much now I should have a plaque in there, and it’s become a sacred place due to good memories with Dad and my brother Bart. It’s also one of the few places that has never given me shit about parking my bike under the pavillion:
As long as there’s awesome riding in the Smokies and Appalachia, I imagine I’ll keep staying in Shelbyville from time to time.
The next day, well, you know:
Go new places for the first time is awesome, and of course no two trips to the same locations is ever quite the same, but in this case we said “Let’s not mess with a bad thing”.
The new Challenger performed admirably, though I did miss my trunk and rider backrest and I’m still getting used to the schizophrenic throttle response on this bike. A rider backrest and some larger grips would have made the 600+ mi days a breeze on this bike.
Just a four day weekend packed with a ton of fun. As of the time I write this, I have a whole other two-wheeled road trip to write up. Come back soon!
I’m in the process of buying the Indian Challenger I’ve been lusting for since they announced them – in fact I thought I’d have it next week but I guess COVID is still fucking our supply chains so we’ll see. I’m also giving up on writing up & video editing the Georgia trip from last summer I think. This will just be the lost trip in the Lost Year.
However, while I begin my evil plans for two-wheeled travel and activism in 2021, you should check out this interview with Erik Buell. I never followed his story really because I wasn’t a Harley guy nor a racing guy, but while they fail to stay entirely out of is tenure at Harley, this podcast is really about the future of motorcycling.
Spoiler: Eric thinks it’s a good 20 years before electric is practical for motorcycle touring, and that’s fine with me.