Fellowsville, WV (July 9, 2011) - One of the things that surprises me is that many other motorcycle riders consider me a long distance rider. I guess the confusion lies in how long distance is defined. I think an LD rider is one that routinely rides a thousand miles each day and just lives to wear rubber from the tires of the bike. My average touring day is three hundred miles, give or take one hundred fifty miles. The variations are usually dependent upon three things; weather, darkness, and distractions along the way.
Yesterday I had planned about four hundred miles with an early start, loading the bike just past dawn and actually underway between 6:30 and 7:00 AM. Weather, in the form of strong thunderstorms, simply ate up most of the advantage of the early start and shortened my travel distance to about three hundred twenty five miles. I hit the bed exhausted and compounded yesterday's deficit with a late start this morning. Right there I fell out of the definition of a long distance rider, because those folks have the discipline to set an alarm clock and get out of bed, even if they are tired.
Frankly, I thought I'd have this project done a couple of years ago, but life happens and another daily variation is becoming a part of the project, age. Older riders just can't easily endure continuous strings of long days in the saddle. Minor muscle aches lead to incorrect posture and that leads to cramps and the need for longer rest periods. It is likely I will be forced to alter my route planning to accomodate an average distance of only two hundred miles per day, plus or minus fifty miles.
Two hundred miles a day would mean more time each evening to write my travel notes, and that's a good thing. But, overall, it means the remaining 130,000 miles of this project will take that much longer to complete. The scary thought is that I'll likely be 70 at the end of the journey and have reached the point where motorcycle riding is no longer a viable activity. I'm already considering that it might be safer and more expedient to swap my great little Honda for an old Triumph Spitfire and finish my tour with four wheels on the road and a real trunk in which to stuff all of my gear. I keep reminding myself that Ride Around America is truly about the monuments, and the men and women they represent, not about my secondary desire to establish some sort of personal achievement standard for old guys on motorcycles.
But, if I did finish the trip in a car rather tham riding the bike I would miss so many thrilling moments like the ones I had today. I was on the first segment after leaving the Days Inn, heading for Clay, WV, on State Road 16. It's a beautiful two lane highway that parallels US-19 for a long distance north from Beckley. Just below the New River Gorge bridge WV-16 moves to the west of US-19 and becomes this tree shrouded path through the forested hillsides of the Appalachian Mountains.
I came around one curve, following a nice stream, and spied a picture perfect scene - what looked like an old dam and grist mill, long ago abandoned to its fate of disuse and disrepair. Luckily there was also an old abandoned country store right in front of the dam and I was able to find a halfway level spot wide enough for me to pull safely off the road for a photo or two.
Finding a safe spot to put out the kickstand is a problem when riding mountain roads. Lots of folks in cars will simply pull over to the side of the road, leaving half the car on the roadway for others to navigate around. But we riders can't just leave the bike on the road, it will be run over. And the shoulder frequently isn't stable enough to hold up a heavy machines laden with all of our gear. Many mountain scenes, as beautiful as they are, just don't get recorded.
Later in the day I was talking with two riders further north, one of them an owner of an ST1300 like mine. They asked how close I was to 'The Dragon' and I then gave my explanation of why I have never ridden that particular stretch of curvy highway even though I live just 90 miles from it. The Dragon is simply overcrowded with inept riders. The number of serious accidents is unacceptable. And WHY would any rider with half a brain want to put up with that when there are so many other roads like WV-16 to enjoy?
I further explained to my new friends about one particular spot on WV-16. The roadway is narrow, one side is bounded by a river and the other by a sheer rock face. The rock wall is so close it seems you could almost touch it by riding at the very edge of the pavement and just putting out your hand - very sobering if you contemplate a potential accident. There are several spots in which a northbounder can get into a really long right hand sweeper at 50 MPH and experience a special sensation.
Imagine being in a very comfortable lean with that rock face just inches away and a blur of dark brown. Overhead is a canopy of green, the trees branches extend well over the center line of the highway and they are also a blur. Well to the left is the river, running down over rocks that create splashes of light as droplets of water scatter to the sun . . . Suddenly you are no longer riding a motorcycle - you are guiding a 750 pound surfboard through a 'pipeline' of earth tone colors. The sensation is fleeting, but it's real and can be shared with others. These moments make me ignore the discomforts of being an older motorcycle rider. I can't imagine a car being anything but a method of transport, so the thought of driving a Triumph Spitfire, or old Chevy S-10 pickup, fades quickly.
Just beyond Clay I need to turn back east and catch US-19 for a small back track to Summerville and the Nicholas County memorial. The option was to continue on WV-16, up to I-79, or to run 26 miles of un-numbered county roads. This trip is about bravery and adventure so, of course, I took the back way toward Widen and Dille. The turn to the east really isn't marked, as I ran north from Clay there was a nice bridge over the river and the road seemed to be going the proper way ...
Oh, what a treat! The road wandered through a quiet forest of woodchucks, ducks in ponds, and loads of deer just munching on grass and calmly watching me pass slowly by them. In the 26 miles I think I saw just four cars and trucks total, and two of them went by at the the intersection that defines Dille. I wish every rider would take the time to seek out these roads when making their 'trip of a lifetime' rides. They enhance the idea that our motorcycles take us to places that others shun. Yes, I'm relaxed and enjoying the ride, even as I am forced to push up to 70 mph on US-19 into Summerville.
I shoot the monument photos, munch an apple for lunch, and refuel. It's time to work eastward to Marlinton on WV-55 via a short section of WV-41. It's an easy two lane road, well populated, and nothing to rave about. I'm trying desperately to stay cool, the temperature has reached 90 degrees. My heavy riding jacket doesn't have enough vents to overcome the humidity and sweat is streaming neck to waist from every pore. A trick I've learned is to loosen the left wrist strap of the jacket and rest my left hand upon my knee. I can scoop lots of air in through the arm to inflate the jacket, which evaporates the sweat and keep the liner of the jacket from turning into a slimy, sweat soaked and uncomfortable, mess. Scooping air is not really that effective in this extreme heat, but it's my only option aside from dumping a quart of cold water down my back and it is also much easier.
I'm tooling along, just pondering how I will describe the last memorial visited when there's a slight tickle in my arm pit. Well, I showered this morning, so I doubt that my arm pit hairs have formed into a fur ball - could a bug have been sucked up by my makeshift cooling system? OH HELL! CALL THE TSA! A TERRORIST HAS INVADED MY JACKET!
Yes, a bug was in my arm pit! And I was quickly learning it was a bee and he wasn't happy to be sharing the space inside my sweaty jacket. OOOWWWWWWWWW! Little prick stung me!!! OOOOWWWWWWW again - is there more than one in there?
It isn't easy while in pain on an unfamiliar two lane road to quickly find a safe place to stop. My mind is distracted by that urgent desire to pull the right hand from the throttle and grab the little monster that's invaded my personal spaces. I glanced into the mirror and saw a pickup truck behind me - I put my four way flashers on and immediately began to slow, diving into the driveway of a commercial property. DAMN! It's all loose gravel and I've GOT to pay strict attention to how and where I'm going to stop. If I dump this heavy machine and I will never be able to get it up alone in the heavy gravel. OUCH! OUCH! How many times can that little bomber get me?
Somehow I got stopped, the kickstand out, and I was pulling the jacket and my sweaty T-shirt off even as I rolled off the seat of my Honda. I don't know if anybody was watching, but I'm sure any onlookers were amazed at how quickly this old fart could strip to the waist!
My arm pit was smarting as if an evil tattooist had gone mad while making me his ultimate creation of exotic art.
I've got a small first aid kit in my bag, but I don't have anything for bee stings. I couldn't find the miscreant's dead body anywhere in my clothing or on the ground, so I assume he popped out in an airworthy condition as soon as I got the tail of my shirt over my head. Not seeing his corpse gave me no satisfaction and only increased my level of hatred for him. I pulled out a water bottle and doused my head and the inside of the jacket. As I remounted I tightened the wrist strap, and for the next 40 minutes rode without benefit of an inflated jacket with eddies of cools spots. All I had was the worry that the swelling in my arm pit would later cause unforeseen problems. It didn't, but I couldn't know that at first and I had to endure the discomfort.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful as I ran US-250, US-219, US-119, and US-50 through another four or five counties. As usual I was flabbergasted at the number of people that DON'T know where the local veterans memorial is, even when there is a cannon in the yard of the courthouse.
I passed through Marlinton after the bee sting and the town was in the midst of a late Indepdence Day celebration. I stopped to ask a spectator where the veterans memorial was and got this reply, "Uh, I don't think we HAVE any veterans in this town." Geez, Mister, get a clue - that's a VFW unit leading the parade you're watching!
In another town, one that I won't name because it would embarrass those involved, I stopped at the local VFW hall to ask where the local memorials were. Honestly, it took over ten minutes to learn that none of the six members in the hall knew where one was. I'm always amazed at how indifferent our society is to these markers of our service and sacrifice, even among veterans. As I turned to walk from the hall one of the guests of the group called me over. He explained to me how to get to a memorial just a mile away - and he wasn't even a veteran.
As dusk began to develop I was in the southwestern portion of Preston County at a little town named Fellowsville. I pulled over at an intersection to ask directions of a bearded guy wearing a Harley-Davidson shirt. A quick explanation of what I was doing led to an invitation to camp in the back yard. Seems a birthday party about to begin and another guest would just add to the merriment.
My hosts were Oscar and his friend Cheryl. She was the birthday lady. I was graciously invited to share a burger or two as I pitched the tent. We then began talking about veterans and my project - Oscar is a 53 year old veteran of both the regular Army and the Navy Reserve, and two other guys attending were recent Army veterans.
Each veteran had his own story of leaving these hills to serve in places far from the warmth of their homes. Each also had a story to tell about the difficulties of obtaining their earned benefits once they were discharged. The public always seems willing to acknowledge service personnel while in uniform, as they should. But once the uniform is taken off and stored in the closet it becomes a different matter. They never realize that when veterans turn to the Dept of Veterans Affairs for help they truly need it.
Oscar's story is doubly disturbing. Last year his wife of 22 years passed away, leaving him a widower caring for a daughter severely disabled by birth defects. He is struggling with immense pain from an on the job back injury and the emotional conflicts of trying to care for his daughter that he loves and adores. He gets some help from the State, but I doubt that it's enough to fully cover all of the needs.
So, another of my new friends I've met on my journey is struggling with the obstacles of life. This one, a fellow veteran, may have some options available. But the lack of a generously funded VA is making it difficult for him to fit his circumstance into the agency budget. The decisions he must make every day are immense. The choices for any veteran in this situation should never be limited by budget. If you have a Veterans Council in your town or county, please, ring them up and ask how you might be able to help a veteran in need. The solutions don't always need money, sometimes they just need a friendly ear that will listen or a pair of hands that will help with a small household chore.
There are men and women in your community that stood for you when the nation asked for help. Shouldn't you consider standing with them when they ask?
Tomorrow, the last few stops in West Virginia.