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
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.
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.
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.
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.