As we enter the very cold months

I just went out and started up Red Sonya. It’s 18 degrees outside but she fired up, so I have hope that on a day where there’s not snow on the ground I can still get out and get some miles.

As we enter the cold Northern months, I reflect on the year. At the beginning of the year, I set some goals for rides. I did 4 out of 6 of those rides, not bad. I still fell 4,000 miles short of my riding goal for various reasons not the least of which is being injured for a good chunk of the prime riding weather. I went to the Slimy Crud Run, Momma Tried, the Brewtown Rumble, and lots of other small events. I went on several small day trips with the Lost Motorcycle Riders of Milwaukee.

I rode with a local MC on a Fallen Brother ride and I took my longest trip to the Moonshiner 28 and camped at the Tomahawk Fall Rally, a fantastic trip. There’s really nothing like motorcycle camping for a getaway.

Over the warmer months, I collect a lot of random thoughts that I intend to circle back around to write about. I do this to keep myself busy and fight off the cabin fever. Keep reading, and we’ll welcome the spring together.

Motorcycling is Mindfulness

“An hour on the bike is better than an hour with a therapist.”

-Unknown

A lot of us have heard or repeated this quote, but what does it mean? How many of us have actually experienced both the therapist and the knees in the breeze and can talk about the differences? I have, and it took me more than 20 years to figure it out. I’m a slow learner.

An hour on the bike is better, that’s true, but why is it true? We do our thinking on the motorcycle, we feel at peace afterwards, we crave this peace at the first sign of trouble. We miss this peace all winter.

We all kind of know what that quote means. It resonates with us. The simple pleasures of sunshine and the visceral experience of watching the asphalt go by are amazing, the feeling of wind on your body letting you know that time (and miles) have gone by. The feeling of rolling down a street you might have been down a thousand times in your cage, but it’s so much more real and immediate without anything between you and it. The smell of fresh cut grass that you wouldn’t have gotten with the windows rolled up. The sound of people talking on the sidewalk. A feeling of being in the world and not simply going through it.

For some of this, science is starting to come up with “the why”. Humans were meant to see green and blue and brown and thrive in an environment that looks nothing like the cubicles or assembly lines many of us work in; even our houses most likely clash with nature. Why do you think log cabins remain popular? Think about the difference between a primitive shelter or a tepee or a log cabin and your house: when you look around do you see a lot of wood grain and natural colors or a lot of linoleum and carpet and drywall? Why do you think hardwood floors and ceramic tile are so expensive and sought after? Why do you think a log cabin is so romanticized and sought after? We want to be comfortable, but we also want to see the colors and textures and feel the sensations that our ancestors did.

So, no matter what else happens or whatever we figure out about our grey matter, outside-y things are good for us. Still, being on two wheels is unlike anything else and there must be a reason for it.

The reason is that motorcycling is mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mull that over. Can you drift off into inattention the way you can in a car? No. Are you alone with your own thoughts? Yes. Do you continually feel the wind on your face, the sun on your skin, your knees in the breeze? Yes. Do you notice sensations like smell and sound in ways you would not in a car? Yes. Thoughts and sensations are the contents of consciousness. The simplest action, such as stopping at a stop sign, takes on a significance that’s missing from many of our experiences. You don’t just press the stop button, you coordinate your front and rear brakes, downshift, allow the weight of the bike to lean ever so slightly to the left as your right foot remains on the brake, your left hand pulls the clutch, your left foot holds you up. You are present, moment by moment. The felt presence of immediate experience. Existing “now” in simple actions and the thoughts that gave life to those actions is surprising pleasing.

So why does that basic shit matter? Because it’s your life going by moment by moment, and that used to matter. So many of our experiences in the digitally-assisted world remove us from one, two, or all of the steps and experiences that used to keep us anchored to the moment, to our life. When you ask Alexa to add eggs to your shopping list, your are robbing yourself of context and experience. You perform an action without seeing what else is on your list, without thinking of the meals you’ll make with your family.

In addition to proper mindfulness, this is why the excitement and challenge of packing for a long trip has always made me feel happy and at peace.

When you have to pack your saddlebags and back pack for a 4 day trip, you are forced to remember that Amazon Prime won’t help you on the side of the road if you have to take shelter from a storm.

When you throw some beef jerky in your jacket, you are forced to remember that the things necessary for human life don’t magically appear when needed, and humans took over the planet because of our ability to think ahead and change our environment to suit us. Yet, we did it without a moment-to-moment anxiety storm that rendered us unable to act.

When you have to put on sunscreen at every gas stop, you are reminded that “the Earth” doesn’t give a shit if you live or die and keeping breathing only happens if you are ever vigilant.

When you carry a fix-a-flat kit because you know you’re buddy’s back tire is about to go, you are reminded that humans only took over the planet because we were more powerful in communities.

I have, at various points in my life, been prescribed pharmaceuticals or self-medicated with chemicals. That means: things my doctor prescribed me and over-the-counter drugs like “enough bourbon to not have to feel any emotions tonight”. I have sat with a PhD psychologist who tried to help me figure out my issues. You know what? I will never touch psycho-cocktails again, and I consume in moderation in favor of the only thing that’s actually maintainable and works. There’s a place for the head-shrinkers as we used to call it, but I’ve busted my ass getting to a place where I can look within and find answers on my own.

I meditate every day. Right now I’m on a 420-something day streak. I leave reminders for myself at work in subtle ways. The reminders say “Stop and breathe”. You have to learn the difference between things you think are relaxing and great because they are better than work/chores/screaming kids and the things that are therapeutic because they are allowing you to be mindful.

Mindfulness is Good for You

The health effects of mindfulness are hard to overstate. This is not hippie bullshit, this is what the hard sciences have to say:

  • Reduced rumination ( affects depression and generally stewing on things)
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosts working memory
  • Boosts Focus
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Many other bonuses…

Head on over to a page maintained by the American Psychological Association to read more about the specifics of these benefits. Take a look through that list again. How many people are living on chemical cocktails with the hope of getting some of those benefits?

We all like to read things that we already agree with. Many of us have made the argument to an impatient wife or girlfriend that we had to ride to work through something or quiet our mind to the point where the stress of the work week is no longer haunting us.

This is Two Wheeled Thoughts

Once you understand mindfulness, and how motorcycling is mindfulness, it makes all of your time on two wheels even more valuable. Adding some simple breathing, reflection, visualizations, or resting awareness into a ride amplifies the effects.

You’ll notice that there are experiences that naturally compliment this two-wheeled mindfulness. Experiences like camping, sitting down on a vista and appreciating nature, enjoying primitive cooking. Talking to people all night without iPads or Netflix in sight. Having great moments that you don’t instantly put on social media because you understand breaking out of that flow to get “internet attention” would defile the experience. Simply understanding that a great experience can be cheapened in the rush to instagram it is a huge leap forward.

This is Two Wheeled Thoughts. I rode for 20 years on and off before I began to understand the why of it all. This is what this site is all about. I don’t just throw this shit in people’s faces: a Saturday poker run is not the place to get on a soap box about examining the contents of consciousness and changing our relationship with anxiety or grief.  I am slowly doing the work though, I have a small circle of disciples and like-minded leaders that expands a little bit each year. If you come on a cross country trip or go motorcycle camping with me, you’ll wind up in front of a fire and we’ll be talking about things, getting real. You’ll wind up eating food I cooked over an open fire and taking a hit off my bourbon flask. Every year there’s a couple more people I convince to give me a few days of their time, and afterwards they get it. I hope they go on to show others. I am no guru, just a fellow traveler, and I try to show others that there’s something worth exploring here.

Motorcycling is not a “sport”, or a means of transportation, it’s a brotherhood and a way of life.

– David “Chubby” Charlebois, Executive Director ABATE of Wisconsin

You’ll find yourself at work, months after the trip you took with me, and find that you heart hurts horribly with the need for an experience like this. You’ll look at a calendar, the snow on the ground, and despair at how much calendar-space stands between you and the next chance to taste reality in a different way. To get you through it, practice mindfulness formally.

Motorcycling is mindfulness. You know what to do: go get healthy.

October Leaves in the Kettle Moraine

Wow, it’s been a very crazy month for The RoadRunner, and although I’ve been riding I’ve needed that riding for mental health and have not been writing about it. Don’t worry, I have a lot of words coming as weather cools off in Wisconsin.

As I wrote previously when riding to the Tomahawk Fall Rally, I’ve been appreciating the natural beauty of Wisconsin. Since Mrs. RoadRunner got me a GoPro Hero6 Black for my birthday last month, I’ve been experimenting with mounts and video modes, and I thought the fall leaves in the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin would be a great place to take some footage. Make sure you pick the highest video resolution, and watch this:

For a mount, I got the official GoPro suction mount. I hate the way the helmet mounts look (I reserve the right to still use one later) and with a fairing on a bagger handlebar mounts aren’t going to work easily. Once you put this mount on, you realize it’s not going anywhere. I may have… broken the speed limit a bit taking this video and the camera was super secure: rated for up to 155mph.

This was a short video but I hope to do more like this in the future. Enjoy and keep the shiny side up.

Tomahawk Fall Ride 2018

On the morning of Saturday, September 15th, 2018 my buddy Corvus and I headed to the Tomahawk Fall Veterans Ride & Rally in Northern Wisconsin.

This event is well known in Wisconsin, but I had avoided this event for years. Firstly: big rallys are not precisely my thing. I ride to be mindful, to think, to smell the world anew with no metal cage in between. To be quiet, to see stars. 4,000 bikers descending on a town that’s home to 3,000 permanent residents is not my usual thing. I had also avoided the event because my Wisconsinites consider the event to mark the end of the riding season. This seems pretty lazy to me: warm weather is brief and precious in Wisconsin, but I also have leather chaps, heated gear, and a touring bike with a fairing. I don’t put the bike away until there’s salt and ice on the roads.

I needed to get away, and to see if there was any chance I’d enjoy the bigger rallies like Sturgis or Daytona Bike Week. So I gave Tomahawk a try and the most popular way to do it seemed to be camping at Bubba’s Big Party.

We Rode Up

Many states suffer from being identified primarily based on a small number of well known areas. New York state is known for New York City, yet get out into the country away from Manhattan and you are in a different universe. So it is with Wisconsin: I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and I think of this state as Milwaukee and Madison and maybe Port Washington. Riding through the North Woods in September, though, I am reminded that less than 200 miles from home lies a world of pine forests, hundreds of lakes, and close-knit tiny towns. Were you to parachute blindfolded into the woods surrounding Tomahawk you’d be forgiven if you guessed you were in Northern Canada, Iowa, or really any remote area.

As we ride North away from Lake Michigan where it’s just slightly cooler during the day (and much cooler at night) the trees have just started turning. Every shoreline is a postcard, or at least a Leinenkugel’s commercial. When I think about buying land to wait out the Zombie Apocalypse (which is totally going to happen), I always think about something a little warmer like Kentucky or North Carolina. Maybe I need to give WI a chance.

Bubba’s Big Party

We arrived at Bubba’s campground and it was an unseasonably warm 90 degrees. Once we found out where to buy wristbands for the party and camping it only took us a few minutes to set up camp. Bubba’s campground is 180 acres and we went to the very outskirts of what was already populated. It may look like we’re camping in the middle of nowhere, but over my shoulder is at least 80 acres of tents and campers of all sizes.

I have slightly augmented my camping gear since I last went motorcycle camping. I have added a Thermacell setup and a heavy tarp. The 20mil 6’x8′ tarp is meant to both cover my tent & sleeping back on the bike but also serve as extra protection above or below in a real rain storm. The thermacell setup is a butane + neurotoxin setup that keeps mosquitoes away from you in a 15′ sphere but is not food safe since it’s blasting chemicals into the air. A 20mil tarp is pretty thick and does not fold easily but after a couple of tries I got my tent and sleeping bag neatly wrapped up in it. Add some Rock Straps to that and my bagger became a camper no problem.

TarpRockStraps
I can’t say enough good about Rock Straps, and man am I spoiled by the amount of bag storage in my Victory Cross Country.

CampSite

Riding Around

Anyone who’s ever ridden with me knows I’m likely to get us lost. I ride to lose myself which is both a good and a bad thing. Good: sometimes we accidentally find cool shit. Bad: I space out, I miss turns, and with no visual GPS I generally make a mess of things. I had a chance to consider the performance of Corvus’ new 2019 Ultra Limited with the new 114ci Milwaukee Eight in it. Damn, I need to ride one. We sat down at a bar half an hour away in some random direction (West?) and after hanging out a while decided it was time for food.

LaRosas
A bar… somewhere…

We sat down at The Thirsty Giraffe because we’d passed it before and “Ribs, broasted chicken, and prime rib” sounded really good. You can also tell from the road that it’s on a little lake and there was seating out back. Northern Wisconsin in September can really be amazing.

ThirstyGiraffeFront

BackofThirstyGiraffe
The view from the back deck of The Thirsty Giraffe.

We had a great meal here, especially the broasted chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. After a meal we checked out the vendors on site at Bubba’s, but I wanted a patch and they were out, so we headed downtown…

Downtown

Having mostly done research online and word of mouth, I thought Bubbas party was the Tomahawk rally. Uhm, no. There are plenty of private parties during this event, and by all accounts the private parties are the way to stay, but the rally proper is downtown. If you’ve seen one Midwest Rally I suppose you’ve seen them all, but I never get tired of rows of bikes and live music. You can’t beat Northern Wisconsin prices either. Where else can you get get two cans of beer for $5 ?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know I try to collect a patch from every trip away from home. It took looking at quite a few vendors to find a Tomahawk 2018 patch and luckily they were also sewing them on there, so I didn’t need to do a drunken sewing job. Corvis decided he was going to start sewing memories on his vest that night. Despite being a life-long biker, he threaded his first mementos on that night.

Back to Bubba’s

We parked the bikes at the campground and headed to Bubba’s big tent. My music tastes are all over the place but I love live music so I had pre-determined I was going to have a good time at this party despite not being familiar with the bands (or so I thought).

The highlight of the night was a group called Little Texas. They were tearing it up, putting on a great old school country/rock show. When the lead singer said “Ok, now we’re going to play this song that was one of our first hits…” they rolled into something I somehow recognized. Sure enough, “What Might Have Been” is a song I grew up with. Wow! Just like you sometimes stumble onto a great watering hole when you get lost on the bike, I went to Tomahawk and stumbled onto a childhood memory from growing up in the South and absorbing my parents’ country music radio station. There was actually another band after Little Texas, and not that they weren’t good performers, but man it had to suck following this act.

I don’t put my bike away after the Tomahawk Fall Ride as many Wisconsinites do, but I’ll make this weekend every year I can swing it.

Heading Home

Since there were bikes coming and going at all hours of the night and I had a dozen cheap/watery beers I naturally didn’t sleep for shit since I was either woken up by baffles or pissing in the woods all night. We packed up fairly early and rode the 200-odd miles home. I came away with a new appreciation for the state I live in, and I got very nostalgic looking at the back of my vest at the Tomahawk 2018 patch I’d had sewed on the night before. I started riding in the late 90’s but I’ve only been collecting patches for a few years; I look at this vest and realize “Holy shit, that’s a lot of fun.” Each patch is a memory that helps me through the cold Wisconsin winters. I’ve got it good, and if things keep going on as they have been I’ll be able to look back and not be ashamed that my life lacked adventure. Get out there and get after it.

VestTomahawk2018

An Interview with a First time Road Tripper

As I mentioned in the last article, one of the folks I just traveled with had never done a multi-day bike trip. I thought it might be fun to ask a few questions. The responses were lightly edited for grammar.

Q: What did you first think when I approached you with the idea of this trip?  A: Honestly I didn’t give it much thought as it wasn’t likely my wife would give me a pass. Once she did I was excited for the most part, but things didn’t sit in until a week prior. With my job change this trip was a need to have so getting to go was wonderful timing.

Q: How did your family react when you told them you were taking a 5 day motorcycle trip?  A: My wife has many trips a year for her own personal reasons. When asked she immediately said go for it you need it. My mother in-law said I deserve it!

Q: What gear did you buy for this trip that you hadn’t previously thought of?
A: I bought a cell phone external power source, a towel, a jacket, rain gear, highway pegs, & sunscreen

Q: Was any of the new gear surprising for you?  A:I hadn’t thought of the power source, my bike has outlets, but it’s still a good idea if your not near your bike or power and need it.

Q: Do you wish you’d gotten anything else, and was anything you got a waste of money?A: I really wish I would have bought a proper mount for my phone and water bottle, they are both now in pieces at the side of the road or in the garbage.

Q: Were you nervous about turns, speed, mileage, expense, anything?
A: Most certainly turns and speed were the largest frustration of this trip. While the boys I was with have 10’s of thousands of miles on two wheels I have had more miles on a bicycle than a motorcycle. I was constantly cursing to myself: “Why do we need to go 20-25 mph over the speed limit in a work zone?”, along with white knuckling the turns trying to keep up. So much so my fitness watch said I’d completely my daily workout by 10am (heart rate and what not).

Mileage wise I discovered my comfort point is 100 miles at a time before I need to stretch my legs and move about off the bike to feel fresh for the next leg. There were 1 or two times we did 130 or so and I was in rough shape after those.

In the beginning of the trip I was worried about the biker stigma of “you’re not tough” or “your a pansy” but the guys kept telling me to “Ride my own ride”… If I really did that they’d be waiting an extra hour at the destination for me to catch up lol.

Q: You lost a saddlebag north of Indianapolis, what was going through your mind those first few minutes, what about the next day after you’d had some time to think about it ?A:The first few minute were “flight” feelings and “I just want to go home”… After realizing we were safe, and especially after finding my ID, and credit cards, I had started joking about it as if it was meant to happen. Overall I’m just pissed HD wont do anything to help in the matter.

Q: Thursday you went through the tail of the dragon, the moonshiner 28, Oscar Blues brewery, and we ended the day at a B&B, in front of a bonfire, telling stories. with beer, bourbon, and fireball. Can you share what some of your thoughts and feelings were at that time?  A: The Tail of the Dragon was honestly, well, disappointing. I grew up in some of the most beautiful parts of this country in New England. We have quite a few twisty and turny roads similar. Maybe not as dangerous, or consecutive, but anyway. Mostly I felt like I was in my back yard with a bunch of idiots going too fast for their britches, surrounded by photographers to make sure they caught you being an idiot to post for public shaming. I’d still like to go back and do it a few hundred times just so I get to know it and gain more confidence in my skills, but it’s a bit overplayed if you ask me.
Moonshiner 28 on the other hand, this is a hidden gem for Motorcyclists. This 103 mile stretch is wonderful. It is calm, technical, and not overplayed. This was by far the height of the trip for me.
As for the stories and brotherhood, this reminded my of many nights with my fraternity brothers back in the day or a camp-out with good friends. I enjoyed not worrying about the next day’s plans or really any worries that night.

Q: As a husband, friend, and father: what did you learn about yourself from this trip? What surprised you most?  A: It has been a while since I’ve been able to hang out with complete strangers. I miss being able to do that as if we’ve been friends for decades. In terms of learning most certainly I’ve learned I need to work on my technical skills and confidence in riding prior to taking another one of these trips. From a family standpoint I’m glad to have such a loving family at home willing to let go for a few days so I can relax.

Q: What advice would you give to veteran riders, during trip planning and during a trip, to make a newer rider feel welcome?  A: Pick a small technical part of the ride and let the newer riders lead to get an idea of their speed and comfort. Perhaps not to ruin that part of the ride for the veterans, just to give an idea.
Get an idea of comfort over breaking the law with speed limits in and out of work zones.

Q: What advice would you give newer riders when contemplating a 5 day trip?
A: I don’t think the 5 days is an issue, it’s 12 hours on and off a bike for 5 days. A newer rider should do at-least one of these prior (100+ miles 8+ hours.)

Q: What are your plans for future multi-day trips now that you’ve had this experience?
A: It’ll be a while just due to work and family commitments, but I’m looking forward to what ever is next!

Q: Anything else you want to say?
A: Thank you to the boys that pushed me and gave me a great experience!

Moonshiner 28 and Tail of the Dragon 2018

On Tuesday, July 17th, 2018, an adventure began. Two men left Milwaukee, WI after work and saying goodbye to their families. One of them was a veteran roadtripper and Iron Butt rider, the other had never gone 300 miles in a day. Before they returned home, they would join two other riders, survive mechanical failures, rain, tornadoes, and buffalo.

Day 1

Day 1 began simply. I had convinced a former co-worker, Wyatt, that it was in his best interest to accompany me to the Tail of the Dragon and Moonshiner 28 for a 5 day trip. Wyatt was in the middle of changing jobs, so I didn’t give it much of a chance that he’d come. I had three veteran rider friends whom I thought would certainly come drop out due to work and health issues. As I mention in Planning Group Rides, the circle-back is key – keep pestering people to see who’s coming.

I met Wyatt in South Milwaukee and we rode to Lisle, IL to meet up with Harley Mark. You may remember him from my last trip to the dragon’s tail. We did this to get around Chicago and try to make the next day an easier trip miles-wise. I’ve never had rider friends not get along, but just in case, we went to a nearby watering hole to get this new friendship started.

Maybe it’s bikers, or maybe it’s just decent people, but despite not having seen Harley Mark for two years, it was no big deal.

Day 2

We set out with the goal of Maryville, TN – within striking distance of the tail of the dragon, some 577 miles. “Today is the day we earn it“, I told everyone. Someone forgot their new Harley gloves at the gas station and immediately started joking about being “that guy”. We started working on nicknames for the new rider involving gloves and u-turns. Our second mishap involved me fat-fingering google maps and heading to Kankakee, IL instead. I always think of Willie Nelson’s “City of New Orleans” song when I go by. Anyway, we went a little out of our way and this should serve as reminder that letting google think for you comes with hazards. We got back on track and headed towards Indianapolis.

When leading, I (obviously) check my mirrors constantly for the state of traffic and my riding crew. I also gawk, though, and sing along to music. Imagine my surprise when Wyatt comes cruising up to tell us to pull over. He pointed down and his bike was… missing something. His right saddlebag had come off on I-65. Shit.

When it comes to vacation, I’m an optimist. I figured we’ll recover the bag, ride back to the Harley dealer we’d seen 10mi back or so, and have lunch while they fixed it. Not so. Keep in mind, at 75mph by the time something happens, and then you get your group’s attention, more than a mile may have gone by and it was a busy day. As I made a freeway loop from +1 exit to -1 exit from the accident, I found not a Whiskey Amber saddlebag but debris from what had once been a bag. So we road back to see if there was any salvage.

Miraculously, we recovered: a phone bent in half, his ID, his cash, his credit cards, and rain gear. All would come in handy in the future.

As we talked Wyatt into continuing on the trip, we noticed that his left saddlebag was also in danger of falling! We fixed the pins and set out in search of food. I secretly began thinking of nicknames involving lost saddlebags and gloves…

BentPhone
iPhones do not stand up well to semi trucks

We had all agreed to completely wing it on this trip in terms of food and sleep. One of the great joys of road trips is the random discoveries you make. Looking at a list of nearby restaurants and craving Mexican food, I led to us to “LA Cafe”. It wasn’t Mexican. I peeked in and the hostess saw me and asked “Are you looking for the cycle shop around the corner?” Huh? Looking around, I saw my mistake:

LACafeInterior

It was a biker bar. Not “The Cafe”, but “The LA Cycle Cafe“. Nice random find for bikers on the road! Good food too!

LACafeExterior
Note the missing right saddlebag on the middle hog…

We found a Verizon store and got Wyatt a new phone. We hit the road. Indiana is, honestly, my least favorite state to ride through. It’s just as boring as Illinoise, but with the addition of (in my opinion) some of the worst drivers east of the rockies and the worst roads. I-65 was, naturally, completely closed north of the city (as it has been on and off for years) which made the I-465 a hot stop-and-go mess. Still better than a day at work.

As I mentioned, the goal was a 577 mile day ending in or around Maryville, TN. By the time we got just around Lexington, KY Wyatt was showing signs of serious fatigue. This was a pretty eventful first roadtrip day for anyone, so we got rooms and crashed right away. There was a “bourbon bar and grill” on the grounds, and a classic car show going on in the parking lot. We did all right.

Day 3

We were miles from the dragon, but got up early and ready to rock. I had previously arranged to meet Wingnut Dave right at the mouth of the dragon. Wingnut Dave would be riding up from his new place in Georgia, and you may remember him from my Bun Burner Gold trip. Maybe it’s bikers, or maybe it’s just decent people, but despite not having seen Wingnut Dave for a year, it was no big deal. We picked up where we left off.

While waiting in the parking lot at 129 Harley near the West end of the tail of the dragon, I had the first of several fortuitous meetings. I saw two Harleys with 3 digit stickers on their saddlebags. Loaded for camping. Paper directions clipped to their bars. Holy shit! The Hoka Hey is going on right now and did they make this part of the route? Sure enough, I asked and they were two patch holding brothers from an Arizona MC on the Hoka Hey. I didn’t take pics of them or their bikes out of respect, but it was amazing to see a small part of something I’ve been reading about for so long out in the world. The fact that I happened to be wearing my Hoka Hey tanktop that day made me me smile.

We got through the tail of the dragon and regrouped on the other side. I had planned to ride US 129 West to East and East to West, but they were mowing the entire 11 miles and blowing grass all over the road. In my experience riding on grass is like riding on slick snot, so we instead headed to the Moonshiner 28. Not before I met two more Hoka Hey riders, though. One of them saw my shirt and said “Yo! Yo! Yo!” and I enjoyed the hell out of that. See my future article: “Some Day, Hoka Hey!” Again, I didn’t ask for pics out of respect for their time and the vision quest they were on.

3riders.jpg

We started South Carolina 28 right at the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. While I don’t think there’s a single turn as difficult as the switchbacks in the dragon, it’s 103 miles and still very technical. There are parts that are a straight 55mph road, and parts where the road narrows viciously and you’re likely to meet camper trailers in the worst turns. This was the most important part of the trip for me, since I got rained out last year. It did not disappoint. Not only was the riding amazing, but it’s right through an incredible national park with glorious scenery and waterfalls throughout. This is a magical place worth visiting via any transportation.

Park0

Waterfall0Waterfall1Waterfall2

SC 28 ends in Walhalla. From there, my plan was to see an Oscar Blue’s brewery outpost there, and find a place to stay. Oscar Blue’s did not offer tours, but otherwise was close to what I expected. Tons of taps, a band playing, a custom food truck and of course beers to go.

I found beds that night by randomly looking at a map and picking a place that didn’t sound like a chain. I called the Pines Country Inn and asked what they had. The answer? Mountain views, a bonfire, and a country breakfast cooked by the proprietor’s mother. Inexpensive, local, charming, and awesome: this is the kind of find you hope for when traveling without firm plans.

While they gave us wood, it was wet and starting a fire would be up to us. I was glad I carry a hand axe, a tactical flashlight, emergency fire starting materials, and thermacell with me when I travel. My “just in case we get stranded sleeping at a rest area” kit came in handy.

Campfire Talk

Finally, on day 3, we had gotten some sleep the night before and there was enough distance from The Saddlebag Incident that everyone was ready to open up and talk in good spirits. Wyatt was named “Lefty” for having only his left saddlebag and I think that’s going to stick.

It’s an important thing for men to be able to talk with other men. We live in a world where men of a certain age still think , or at least were raised to think, that honesty and vulnerability are signs of weakness. This is not to say that any friendly rider wouldn’t be welcome on a trip with me. Sometimes it just takes hundreds of miles and a little adversity to feel comfortable with people. The bond shared by band members, sports teams, or any other group “on the road with a mission” must be similar.

We talked. We talked about our second lucky find in this B&B, about my hilarious packing list that included a packing list and a tactical flashlight.We talked about Wyatt’s newfound understanding of the freedom of the open road. Other stuff. We stayed up too late and drank too much. It was perfect.

Day 4

My goal for the next day was to start working slowly towards home. A couple of the guys had not seen the Cumberland Gap Tunnel on TN 25E, so I wanted to hit that and then do the Buffalo Trace Distillery tour before stopping at my usual haunt in Shelbyville. We knew there were big storms coming but figured we could beat them. We were wrong.

As we reached Southern Lexington, it was clear that the horizon had turned into a hot mess of weather. Wingnut Dave pulled me over to talk some sense into me. Harley Mark pointed out that he’d seen a Hooters sign a few miles back and the radar seemed to say we could wait it out. We headed back and barely got inside before the sky unleashed hell. Buffalo Trace would have to wait. We spent hours at the restaurant as the weather winded down, and the parade of emergency vehicles ran around afterwards. We bought bourbon nearby. We made hotel reservations nearby.

As we rode towards the hotel, I noticed something. Light pollution is so jarringly ever-present in our cities today that you notice it when every house and street lamp is dark. I knew before we got there the hotel would not have power. I was right. We “had rooms” reserved online that they could not let us in to until they at least had power. We settled in, opened a deck of cards, I started sewing on my Moonshiner 28 patch (the shittiest stitching I’ve ever done), and opened the day’s haul of bourbon. It wasn’t long before I pointed out “Guys, even if power never comes back we can’t possibly ride out of here…”; a bottle of Buffalo Trace was already looking badly used. We were committed. Not long after power came back we had another surprise: a tornado had been spotted a mile away and the hotel manager was herding everyone into the stairwells. So here we are, four drunk bikers passing around bourbon along with crying children and all kinds of families. Eventually the coast was clear, we took a dip in the pool, and then settled into the hotel lobby for cards and more bourbon. We talked again. We stayed up too late. We drank too much. It was perfect.

Day 5

The morning of Day 5 we parted ways with Wingnut Dave, heading to Buffalo Trace for the early tour. Dave was on the way to the Devil’s Triangle and we had to get home. These partings pain me, since I can only take so much time for motorcycle trips and I don’t know when I’ll see people again. We made it to Buffalo Trade and had a great tour.

I couldn’t help but think (maybe I planned it this way?) that this was a fitting end to the trip, but also a sharp contrast to last year where Four Roses was my consolation prize for missing the Moonshiner 28.

We got absolutely shit on by weather on the way home, but luckily we had saved Lefty’s rain gear from the lost saddlebag. There’s not much else to say. I came home, I hugged my family, and I sat down peaceful and content.

With that, “Moonshiner 28” moves from the “Some day” to “Been there” column on the Rides page. What’s my next adventure? Stay tuned…

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Hearing the Call

Sitting on my back porch, I can hear my neighbor’s air conditioner and not much else. It’s a fairly quiet neighborhood. Still, we are just the right distance from a fairly busy two-lane road where I can hear traffic on it. Sitting on my back porch like this, when I hear an American V-Twin accelerate, my heart wakes up. There’s a part of me that instantly asks “Why aren’t you out riding too?” as if there is nothing else to do in life.

I have even talked to some people who called this the true definition of being a biker: that soul-stirring sound when you’re not riding, you hear an engine, and it takes everything you’ve got not to run out and join them. I save extra money with the dream of retiring early. I dream and wonder what life would be like if I had no job to go to, and my wife and I could just do whatever we want all day, every day, as long as there are days. I wonder, in such a world, if I could ever be content with any amount of riding? Will there ever be a time in the future where I could be sitting on my back porch and hear that engine and feel as though I did not have to join them because I had ridden recently enough. I question if such a state exists, and if so such a feeling must be short-lived. Either way, I hope to reach a place in life where putting this to the test is possible.

Back to the Dragon in 2018

In about two weeks, myself and between 2 and 5 other folks will be heading out of Milwaukee towards the Smoky Mountains. This route has become a sacred journey for me.

Last year, I set out from the Wisconsin Dells with the intent of making yet another trip to ride the 129 and the Moonshiner 28. This was the trip that I made instead of going to Devi’s Tower with Bart.

Tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico pushed enough rain up into the Southeastern US that I got stranded in Knoxville, TN. I’m not a fair weather rider, rain is a part of life on two wheels. I pack rain pants and I don’t bitch about wet boots. But… There’s a difference between “I got wet” and “I can’t see my front wheel let alone the cars in front of me…”. I finally pulled over to the side of  75 north of Knoxville, I scooted Red Sonya in front of half a dozen cars that were already on the side of the road with their flashers on because it’d be less likely that I got mauled by a semi who didn’t see my bike. When I put down the kickstand, the water on the side of the road was running hard and up to my calves. This is what happens on a road trip, and the good and bad of having no plans and no reservations: I clearly wasn’t going to make it as far as I’d hoped but I’m fine sleeping on a picnic table in a rest stop or riding overnight on a decent road. I waited until I was feeling bored and checked out the radar: when it looked like I could scoot out in between thunderstorms I got ahead of the rain and stopped in northern Knoxville.

This was an important night. I found a motel and a restaurant. I came back to the room and I started thinking about how different life would be if Bart was still alive, the toll it had taken on me in just two months. I started thinking about the right and wrong ways to deal with losing a brother. I thought back to some Psych 101 level techniques and realized that writing letters to the dead would be perfect for this situation. The headspace of two months and 1200 miles finally let me fill in some gaps in my thinking. I sat on the balcony in my underwear, swilling 32 oz cans of local brew while local couples got into fist fights over who took the last cigarette and tried to imagine a future where I could take trips like this and not miss my brother; where I could heal by writing letters that living people would perhaps read, but the primary recipient was beyond reach.

The next day, it was clear that a 300mi wide storm was going to keep me from getting through the Moonshiner 28. Maybe if I’d gotten up an hour earlier, but it was still dicey. I did not have my tent and my MSS with me, so the idea of being stuck somewhere between Deal’s Gap and Walhalla, SC on roads that are treaturous in the best weather was not appealing. Maybe I should have tried: what’s better than a story of camping on your bike in the middle of nowhere? Still, I was not in a “level” frame of mind, and I knew I had friends in Nashville I could see. I turned West, and still had treacherous rain storms all the way to the music city. I had lunch with a good friend, stayed the night in Shelbyville, KY and toured the Four Roses distillery the next morning. I had nearly 2000mi of solo time and I am better off for it.

But I need to get back.

The weather in Robbinsville, NC shows thunderstorms every day for the next 14 days. I have to hope these are “spotty”. I’m coming back and I don’t intend to be defeated. I want to buy land in Western NC some day and I need to start scouting. Less than two weeks, I’m coming back.

Visiting and Riding for a Fallen Brother

Many people, in many different situations, wind up visiting the final resting place of a fallen brother.  I do not mean a brother of the road, an MC, or an armed forces brother. This is my flesh and blood, my biological brother that I grew up with. He was also my riding buddy for sure though: life on two wheels figured heavily in our lives and our relationship. The one person I could count on for any number of miles in any weather, whether there was a bed at the end of the road or not.  I cope as best I can: writing letters to someone who can’t hear me. Words for the dead is salve for the living. Name it to tame it, feel it to heal it.

Dear Bart,

It has been one year since I found you dead in your home. I have promised myself and others I would say no more than that.

It took me a long time to visit your grave. I put you in the ground with our sister, but I had not been back. We visited on Memorial Day, and I feel as though you would have appreciated the flags. I had not cried in quite a while, and I didn’t think I would cry today; when I saw your name on the ground, though, I broke down. I often observe how well my wife has handled the loss of her father by comparison: he was the deepest most meaningful relationship in her life but she is mostly OK. We walked by Tom’s grave to get to you, I feel like being close to Tom is something you’d like.

I have made a few gestures to you. I have an “RIP Jason ‘Bart’ Payne” patch on my vest. I feel like the bike rides had become so important to you that this would be the only way you’d want to be remembered. I have also ordered a couple of rings that I think you’d like: black tungsten with green Celtic designs in the center band; I don’t know if it’s possible yet but I’m trying to get them engraved for Lani and I to wear in your memory.  I’ve also written you a couple of letters. You’ll find them here on this site.

Just now on June 23rd, the exact one year anniversary of your exit, I rode and partied with the Brothers in Chains MC out of Janesville, WI. They are good people who put on a good safe ride. Of all the rides going on, I felt called to do that one. Somewhere, on a wall in an MC clubhouse, is a hand written record that Damon “RR” Payne was riding for you that day.

Not everything is great, of course. Marc dropped your bike on his way to sell it, he hit his head and didn’t know who he was for a while: he blamed himself for forgetting about the new rear tire and fishtailing in the rain. I blamed you. He never should have been on your bike. Adam, I think, is also missing the discipline of his dad. He’s still doing super well in school but he’s not respecting people the way he used to. His mom says he walks around the house with his helmet on, I know I need to take him riding. Soon. For various reasons it has to be me, and that’s OK. I’ll be there for him.

I think about riding in your car and listening to the Dropkick Murphy’s “The Green Fields of France“. The sadness of that song, looking down at a grave, wondering what kind of life the man would have had. I know what that’s like now. It’s not fair that I’m planning these rides without you. It’s terrible the burden of guilt that you’ve placed on Mom. I think about how you’d react to me training for the Hoka Hey or saving to buy land for a cabin. This too shall pass. Talk to you in a year.

Respect.