Bike Camping

One of the things I absolutely love about riding bikes is bike camping.

When you ride, reality is in your face in a visceral way you forget about if you go from your house to your car to your job. If you don’t ride a bike, drive a convertible, or take a long walk from where you park to where you work, you get so isolated from reality you don’t recognize it. Think about it. In your cage do you smell someone’s smoker or burning leaves? Feel the humidity on your face? Hear the sounds of someone running a circle saw in their garage? Do you smell fresh cut grass in the summer? Can you smell when it’s going to rain or feel the pressure changing? 100 years ago everyone could, now we just know when Game of Thrones is coming.

I love all the gadgets in my house, but like Edward Norton said in Fight Club, the things we own end up owning us. There’s so much shit to worry about you can’t sleep at night. But on the motorcycle, a lot of that falls away. As long as I have my key and my saddlebags are latched, I’m good. Not much else to worry about. Sunscreen during the summer because I burn superfuckingeasy.

So on the bike you are:

  • Unencumbered
  • Experiencing nature with your sight and ears and nose
  • Making vitamin D through your sunburned skin
  • Loving life

Now, add camping to that. If you don’t like camping, you probably won’t like motorcycle camping. Go somewhere else, this post is not for you. If you do like camping, imagine the joys of camping but with even more minimalism, and the camping starts before you even get to the campsite.

In the summer of 2015 my brother and I decided to experiment with camping gear. We both settled on variants of the military sleep system. It’s a rain proof bivy with two bags inside it. Properly configured you can sleep comfortably in 90 degree weather or -30. Because we’re middle aged and cranky we also brought a tarp in case of torrential downpour and a self-inflating air-pad each. No tents or anything like that.

We headed up to Lake Wazee, Black River Falls WI.

Now as I’ve mentioned before and I’m sure I’ll mention again: I like food. I like to eat. There is no situation in which I can’t overdo it on food. So campfire cooking is a fun challenge for me. I have made fucking awesome meals for 12+ people with two cast iron pans, a pair of tongs, and an open fire. Even with my generous saddle bags, though, space is at a premium when bike camping. I settled on one folding-handle Coleman skillet and just a few supplies:

  • A handful of charcoal to help our firewood
  • A handful of wood chips because: wood smoke baby
  • A simple tongs
  • 1 simple chef’s knife
  • tiny jar of olive oil
  • tiny saly & pepper containers
  • a few feet of aluminum foil, folded

We found a corner grocery store with steaks, mushrooms, and some broccoli. By making a smoke-collecting hood out of foil I was able to get some wood smoke on a couple of bone-in ribeyes and use a tiny amount of olive oil to cook up some mushrooms and broccoli. We sat in the dirt and ate like kings.

Now, we came to the campsite and dropped off some of our gear before going grocery shopping. This meant I had room for beer. You may notice that my Victory saddlebags are a touch more generous than your standard Harley bags, but I believe they are both water tight. I’ll just say that while saddlebags are not meant to be insulating, they hold enough ice to keep a lot of beer cold for a long time.

If one were to pack towels one could enjoy a lot of ice cold beer and safely haul their gear the next day. If you’re in Wazee, like we were, you should have a towel anyway because the swimming in the lake is fantastic.

We had a great time eating, drinking suds, warming by the fire, and talking while the stars wheeled overhead. The only downside was we underestimated the mosquitoes. The mozzies were all over the place like white on a rice-filled paper-plate in a snowstorm. While they didn’t bite me through the bivy, they could smell that I was there, and the flying around an inch from my face kept me awake. Despite having polished off a respectable-even-for-Wisconsin amount of beer the night before, we were up and out of there at 6am to escape the torture.

Still, my brother and I talk about this as one of the best times we’ve had. We were only 150 miles from home, it was only one night, and we didn’t go to some amazing destination like Pike’s Peak or the Dragon’s Tail. But we rode. We smelled the countryside. We ate a simple meal cooked over hot coals, drank cold beer, and talked about whatever men talk about under the stars until we fell asleep. There was no 4G LTE there. I couldn’t live blog this on Facebook as it was happening. Someone in a nearby campground asked if we had iPhone chargers and we just laughed. This was a perfect reboot for the brain.

Bike camping is the best.

 

Smokey Mountains-2015

Like many people, my father has a bucket list. On that list was a chance to see the synchronous fireflies in the Greater Smokey Mountains National Park. For a short while in June every year, photinus carolinus puts on quite a show. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photinus_carolinus

photinus_carolinus_fireflies

I had just started riding again after a too-long hiatus, traded my bobber in on a brand new bagger, and planned a trip.

Now in my circle of friends and family, I am the planner. I joke that if I weren’t setting up cookouts, movie nights, and bike trips, we’d never see each other. There can still be a lot of planning that goes into a week-long motorcycle trip. While at times it’s great to just pick a direction and ride that way, no one wants to be tired in the dark with no no place to sleep. I rented a cabin in Gatlinburg for a few days and gave us a very generous amount of time to get there. Myself, my brother, my father, and one friend set out from Milwaukee.

When you see motorcycle commercials on TV, you tend not to see the freeway system. You see two-lane roads, a couple of bikes, no civilization for miles around. You also don’t see people getting rained on. I’ll talk about both of these things in the future, but we got rained on a lot, and became very impatient with trying to avoid the freeway by the time we hit Indianapolis.

We stopped in Shelbyville, KY for no reason other than everyone is cheap and we found a coupon for a Ramada there in a Rest Stop magazine. Now this is a very clean place but they didn’t bat an eye when four dirty wet bikers roll in. In fact they had some kind of guest-welcome happy hour and handed us beers. The front desk staff didn’t even blink when I pulled out my griptilian to use as a Coupon Cutter on their desk.

griptillian

Now I like to tip a few beers back, but I’m very careful when riding. I really prefer finding a place where I can walk to get some suds once the bike is parked for the night. We lucked out with this place: it basically shares a parking lot with a movie theater, a Cattleman’s Steak House, and a liquor store well-stocked with Kentucky bourbon. If you’re ever on 64 through Kentucky, you could find a lot worse places to stay.
Map of Ramada Shelbyville/Louisville East

Also along 64 is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a place I plan to visit in the future. The next day we decided to get off the freeway again, and stumbled onto US 25 E somewhere in Tennessee, and completely by accident went through the Cumberland Gap Pass. If you’re on a trip towards the mountains, this is the kind of riding you were picturing. The scenery here starts to get extremely majestic.

cumberlandgaptunnel

We got to the cabin and I nearly dropped my bike on the crazy switchback getting up the mountain to it. But it was a great stay, we even had a hot tub on the deck. Not really roughing it but after days of riding through the rain it was great.

I pretty much always have to overdo it on food, even on the road. Above you can see the “smoker” I improvised with most of a roll of  heavy duty foil. Beer may have been involved. The park itself is stunning. Walking down any path, anywhere you look is worthy of a picture postcard. The fireflies were amazing, but my pictures didn’t turn out too well. You’ll have to go see them for yourself.

So did I find peace on the road? Yes. It turns out that the outdoors is pretty good for you. This may be a huge part of the experience, most of us probably just don’t get outside often enough. But this trip was a lot more than that. I rode on and off for nearly 20 years and never took a trip like this until 2015. I strengthened my bonds with my family, and formed a bond with this area of the country. I will go back as often as I can. Many people I met on the road or talked to back in Milwaukee say the same thing: there’s something truly special about this area of the country.

The story of synchronous fireflies in 2015 has a a bittersweet ending. When I came home, and I looked at the pictures of all of us on our bikes (taken with camera timer) I was really overcome by emotion.  I was so glad I got to do this with my father while he was still around and healthy that it was all I could talk about for a while. My wife also rides and so does her father. I told her she had to find time to do something like this with her dad, I recalled him talking about maybe riding out to the Badlands and Devil’s Tower. I actually said the words “Our parents aren’t going to live forever.”

Two months later, her father died.

I was asked to write and deliver the eulogy. I was proud of my words, but it was hard to get through.

A year later, a knee replacement caused my father to sell his beloved Heritage Soft-tail Classic. Work was extremely stressful at this time, several things almost caused this trip not to happen. We said fuck it and went anyway. It turns out this may be the greatest trip of all time because it was probably our last chance to ride with dad. Don’t wait. Get out there and ride while you still can.