Gold Hill, NC (August 11, 2016) - I can't believe it! I actually got away from the constant rains that had surrounded the Carolinas. An early Sunday morning departure put me slightly north of Wythville, Virginia, before I felt any rain. I figured I would ride wet for many miles, but the worst of it was just a slight sprinkle which helped cool me down.
Crossing the West Virginia border at Princeton was a treat. The rest area/welcome center now has a very nice VietNam honor roll remembering the fallen of several WV counties in the region. While there I got the opportunity to meet and get acquainted with Officer Brandon Schoonover of the Roanoke County, Virginia, PD. A veteran himself, he gave me a few clues to memorial in his area. This was just the first of a few good conversations I had during the next four days.
I took US-19 toward the New River Gorge area and then WV-16 toward Parkersburg. The roadway of WV-16 is in poor condition in many spots, lots of patches and tar snakes, but the route makes up for that in a big way. Consider it as over 100 miles of really fun motorcycle road full of curves, dips, hills, and really super scenery. I think this could be part of a very good weekend color tour for any rider.
Just short of 400 miles I arrived for a three day stay with shipmate Joe Cumblidge. The intent had been for him to ride with me at least part of the next couple of days, but he still hasn't fully regained mobility from a series of back surgeries. As a result the next two days of riding were again solo adventures. The heat index was running at 100 degrees and above, with actual temperatures above 97 degrees. Two days of that can sap any rider, especially an old fart like me. Still, I managed 465 miles on Monday and another 325 on Tuesday. Visited another large block of Ohio counties and saw some very nice memorial areas.
The forecast of rain all along my route through Kentucky toward North Carolina made planning Wednesday very tricky. i grabbed four more Ohio counties and then crossed the Ohio River and headed to Ashland. Stopped at Ashland Cycle to ask directions and was very pleased to find Rick Keelin, the general manager. Keelin not only gave me specific directions to the nearest memorial in Ashland, he was able to give me suggestions for others in the area.
Throughout the afternoon I watched as dark clouds were building just west of my route, down US-23 to Pikeville. I arrived in Pike County about 6 PM and at that point started to make some dumb decisions.
It looked like there might be a window of clear weather over the mountains beyond the next stop at Grundy, Virginia. Even though it was late, I was feeling good. I was experiencing some pain in my back, under the right shoulder, but that's nothing new. I estimated that I could be home by 11:30 if no rain got in the way. Forget looking for a campsite, LAUNCH for home!
Coming out of Pikeville I took US-460 eastbound. I had not expected it to be pegged as a 35 MPH speed zone for much of the way. Yes, I did violate the speed limit, sometimes excessively. For much of the next 65 miles I really couldn't make good time - but it didn't matter, I was really enjoying the ride.
Just before crossing the Virginia border I spotted a small memorial in Belcher, Kentucky. I have not found many roadside memorials of this type. It obviously isn't something put together by a veterans service organization, or community service group. I think this was funded completely by the survivors of the fallen and the younger generations still serving today. Regardless of who paid for the stones, the result is a sobering reminder that very small towns in America make very large sacrifices.
The sun was setting as I arrived at Grundy for the Buchanan County memorial. Luckily the courthouse building and monuments face west, allowing a good shot. A glance to the north allowed a decent shot of the mountains that surround this little town. Sunrise and sunset hours in the mountains are a different experience for a relative flat lander like me. One side of the road can be in bright sunshine while the opposite lies in a curious pool of darkness.
The Back of The Dragon
Part of my plan to be home before midnight was to not ride the major routes to Bluefield and thus to I-77 south. Nooooo. I'm SMART! I can save a hour by riding a couple of state highways and shave at least 45 miles from the distance. That's the kind of thinking that puts you on the "Back of The Dragon" at 10 PM on a very dark night with only a sliver of the moon in the sky.
A web site devoted to this part of Virginia Highway 16 states that it is "32 miles of the most exciting and technical road you will ever ride on." I wouldn't know about exciting, or technical. I can tell you on a scale of 10 the pucker factor at night is 15+. With the exception of two pick-up trucks and a sedan coming down the mountain, I had the road to myself. I can't relate what the elevation changes are, I never knew if I was climbing excessively or gliding down a steep part of the hill. It was DARK. I could not see anything outside of my headlight beams. For most of the 32 miles I was in second and third gear, using engine torque to protect me as I tried dilligently to keep myself and Mr. Burgess between the double yellow on the left and the white line on the right.
Ever try a climbing hairpin turn with NO clue as to the extent of the angle of climb? I dared not look right or left in any attempt to pick out a clue - that meant I would miss the frequent patches of gravel scattered along the road. Frequently I had to change my line in the corner to avoid those patches... no small feat when your headlights don't reach all the way through the apex of the turn. I guess you could say that WAS a clue. If the roadway disappeared away from the lights then I gripped my knees a little tighter to the tank and go ready to combine lean and throttle to make it safely, left or right.
What I had hoped would save 45 minutes actually added well over an hour to the trip. It was nearly midnight before I reached the North Carolina welcome center. Rather than run right in to the restroom and immediately remount, I took a 20 minute break. The odometer had clocked just over 600 miles when Mr. Burgess rolled into my driveway. A long day for sure, but rewarding in the sense that I found I had the skills to meet the demand of a treacherous mountain road at dark. This old man isn't totally useless yet, but he many be at the near edge of stupid.