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Finishing West Virginia

Beckley, WV  (July 8, 2011) - I set out on a five day swing through West Virginia and Virginia this morning at 6:30 AM. The goal for this leg is to finish the remaining counties of West Virginia outbound and grab the western tier of counties of Virgina on the return to Gold Hill. The run will be over 1,300 miles and a good indication if my decision to turn to the 'Darkside' was right or not.

The first segment from Gold Hill to Marion, VA, was a 170 mile stretch over rural roads to US-21 and then NC-16 and VA-16. Early morning traffic seems to be expanding further and further out from Charlotte, even in the Mooresville area at 7:30 AM it was busy. I'm making a mental note that from now on if I want to travel US-21 north I'll just go through Salisbury to pick up US-601 to Mocksville and jog over to Harmony. It's much more pleasant with less traffic and most of the road has recently been resurfaced.

The original plan of Ride Around America was to complete the project in really large loops around the USA, being out for up to 10 weeks at a time. Obviously my health issues have interferred with than scenario and I've had to be content with shorter, close in loops, from the Piedmont of North Carolina. The result is that I've now forced to travel some roads many times over in order to get to new areas. That's the case for much of this day, but I'm content to accept it and try to find the silver lining.

Passing through Sparta, NC, I noticed a pair of riders from Ontario just ahead of me. When they stopped to reorient themselves to the map I pulled in behind them for a short chat and a photo. The couple were heading for the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of hills, twists, and vistas not available to them at home. I was able to give a few suggestions and they happily went rode south as I turned north. Folks, I'm sorry, but I neglected to write down your names and have forgotten the details - send me an email and I'll correct that here.

NC-16 and VA-16 into Marion and Tazewell are probably not on the list of most known routes for riders, but I found the segment reasonable; decent roadway condition, very little traffic, and some nice views of the Blue Ridge mountains. At Tazewell the route continues as WV-16 just outside of Bishop, VA, but somehow I missed the turn (What's new about that) and ended up running US-460 into Bluefield. It's good road, but four lanes with a median doesn't keep my heart pumping like a good two lane mountain road. And it certainly wasn't any challenge to the Hankook tire that now had just about 200 miles on it.

Before heading out from Gold Hill I'd had a nice coversation with Gene Holler, another ST1300 owner, about mounting and running the Hankook on the rear. I'd started out with 38 pounds of pressure and he thought that was a big high for a brand new tire. He hinted I might find the sidewall a bit sensitive. He was right, for the first 500 miles I was getting lots of feedback from the tread and sidewall. It wasn't a big negative, but it was certainly different from what I'd been feeling with the Dunlop RoadSmart on the rear.

As I got further and further into the mountains it was obvious the wide tread had advantages and disadvantges. The tire demands an aggresive use of throttle to keep the bike from 'standing up' at slow speeds. I found it easy to move around in tight spaces only if I used generous amounts of lean before the bike even moved. On gravel surfaces, which we find a lot here in the mountains, I was fearful of dropping the heavy ST. As I got more comfortable with the proceedure I actually found that I was turning into a more effective rider in parking lots - that's a bonus!

At Bluefield I turned westbound on US-52, one of my favorite routes through West Virgina. It's always busy with coal trucks, but the road is just a hoot to ride. It winds up and down through villages and small towns that are the epitome of coal country. It has a gritty look and feel. The locals are friendly but it's obvious that any joy they find in life is what they make for themselves. These are self reliant people that naturally look upon themselves as their most important resource.

If you happen to be riding through this area and you are a flatlander, or even if you have experience with lots of hills, don't go off the main road to the infrequent side streets unless you know you can handle very sharp, slow speed, turns with slope rates that can easily meet 45 degrees. These hillside streets are little more than one lane pathways terraced one over the other, sometimes 150 feet or more above US-52. There's nothing up there but homes, so unless you are off to meet somebody - stay down on the floor of the gap.

Enroute to Welch the road passes through the tiny town of Kimball. It's the home of the World War One Memorial Building, which is dedicated to the history of the African American soldier. Erected shortly after the first World War it had fallen into disrepair, likely destined to be torn down if a champion were not found to protect it. That champion seems to be Jessee McPeake, who is Executive Director of the McDowell County Visitor & Veterans Center. Yes, it's an odd combination, but it works very well thanks to a group of dedicated veterans and willing volunteers.

McPeake is the most decorated West Virginia soldier of the VietNam era. He served four full tours, a total of nearly six years 'in country.' Several years ago he teamed up with the family of the late Manuel Horeluck, Sr., a soldier in the Korean Conflict. Together they established the VFW Lodge 8413 into a flooded out building they refurbished with lots of hard work and community support. The result has been an outreach center that provides daily DAV transport van service to the Veterans Affairs hospital, a veterans food bank, and a community hall and park.

Events held here promote the heritage and value of military service to this coal community. Many veterans here came home, put up their uniforms, put on their dungarees and helmets, and went back into the mines. As a result it's difficult to separate the military pride from that of the miner's pride. On every wall, in every corner of the building you find a remembrance of those who served the nation and lived here amidst the grit and dust that is coal country. I wish all American towns had this fervor to honor and serve our veterans.

I continued to Welch under threatening skies, rain drops frequently splattering upon my visor and the windscreen. Once in the county seat I found the courthouse but didn't immediately see a memorial area. I asked a few people but got the usual blank stares and "I don't know" responses. Obviously there's not Jesse McPeake living here in Welch - although a couple of the volunteer DAV drivers do. When the rain showers turned to a downpour I decided that the War Memorial Building at Kimball would have to serve as my one documented monument for McDowell County and I turned back toward Mercer County and Princeton.

Another note to the flatlanders reading this. NEVER assume it's safe to ride ANY mountain road when it begins to rain in any volume. Rocks begin to shed from the hillsides almost immediately. Even on US Routes you can encounter large rocks and even boulders as the fall. It's an exciting experience, but not a pleasant one.

The trip to Princeton was a do over. I had visited the memorial and museum there in 2008 but for some reason I can't find the images. Unfortunately for me the second trip didn't get me as many images as the first...the building is being refurbished and the museum won't be open till this fall. After a quick couple of exterior shots and a short chat with one of the museum staff I quickly headed north, away from the line of thunderstorms that would surely overwhelm me if I dawdled at all.

Too late!

Between Princeton and Beckley, around Ghent, it started pouring again. Temperatures all day had been in the 90's and this was a typical line of summer cool down showers with embedded lightning. I found shelter at a convience store for nearly 45 minutes and started back out as soon as it slacked to light rain.

At this point it's well beyond 7 PM and the prospect of finding a safe place to tent this evening is gone. I'm again pushed into finding a cheap motel room for safety reason, and in Beckley there just aren't any. I was able to talk the Days Inn down to something less than completly unreasonable, but the unexpected motel just cut another two days of fuel from the budget of this leg of the tour.

After talking with a foursome of riders from Pennsylvania, I got my assorted baggage carried up to the second floor and checked my email, then flopped onto the really firm mattress ... next thing I knew it was 7:30 AM Saturday morning and time to start another day of my Ride Around America.

 

 

Riding The Pipeline

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.

WV-16 Scenery
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.

 

WV-16 SceneryOnly Old Guys Ride ST's?

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. 

 

WV-16 SceneryDille, WV - Post Office IS the town

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.

Oscar 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.

 

I'm Gonna Make It Rain!

Proctor, WV (July 11, 2008) - One of my favorite lines from the movies was uttered by Burt Lancaster, "I’m gonna make it rain!" Lancaster’s character was a huckster, making his living as a ‘rainmaker’ in drought stricken areas of the USA in the early 20th century. He would travel around with lots of equipment and give his pitch about his talents to every rube possible that had a wilting crop in the fields. Ultimately he would either be run out of town for being the huckster or feted as a hero for bringing the needed water from the dry skies.

I have the Lancaster character beaten. All I have to do to get a downpour in the forecast is to make plans to be in the area. Frankly, this is getting very old. I started out on a loop through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey on Monday morning. The overcast skies guaranteed I would get wet, but the forecast was that it would be scattered so there was some possibility any precipitation would miss me.

I spent Monday night at the Pipestem State Park campground in West Virginia. Thunder and lightning threatened all night long and at 7 AM Tuesday the clouds opened in one of the heaviest downpours I’ve encountered in the last three months. Packing the tent was a chore and everything that could get wet was. Even the liner of my helmet was soaked. For the next three hours the bike and I were stuffed into a snack vending machine shelter trying to escape the storm. The day was nearly half over when the rain lightened to the point I felt it was okay to ride.

The hills had become saturated with water and large rocks, even boulders, were falling into the road. After dodging a few of these I easily convinced myself that being macho about the rain and continuing to ride was dangerous. I stopped at the little town of Hinton on the New River and waited another hour for the rain to pass. During the last few weeks I’ve learned that mountain roads are tricky when dry and downright dangerous when wet and littered with storm debris.

Rain continued to pound the area in lines and I was forced to rent a motel room Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning I knew I had to do something about the waterlogged tent or the stitching in the seams would rot and leave me without reliable shelter. The solution? Well, the bathroom was equipped with a small Conair hair dryer. . .

It took over an hour but I managed to completely dry out the tent by soaking up the pooled water with a hand towel and completing the process of drying with the small Conair. I’m not sure the owner of the motel would have been happy to know what I had done, but that’s an issue I’ll deal with another day. At least I was able to repack the bike without a life jacket wrapped around my body.

 

Is The ENTIRE USA Populated By The Clueless (US-52)

I stopped at Mt Airy, NC, to snap a few photos of the local memorial in their uptown area. This was another situation where I dropped into the local visitors bureau and asked directions. A map was shoved into my hands with a barrage of directions; turn left, left again, and two miles town the road. Okay! Then I mounted up and went down the street to the first turn. As I waited for the light to go green I glanced half a block away and there is a beautiful memorial. What gives?

I’m amazed at the percentage of people in our society that have NO clue about their surroundings. They go blissfully through life ignoring Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations. That fact that a few dozen people in legion hats gathered at a particular spot in town and left floral arrangements doesn’t give them any hint about the significance of the location. These are the people that give me directions to the American Legion ball field. Or they tell me there is no memorial in town. In order to avoid the misdirection I’ve begun to ask for directions to the county courthouse if they don’t know about the veterans memorial. Everybody knows where the courthouse is, "Go across the bridge, take the fork to the left, turn right when the road tees and go down about three blocks. You can’t miss it, it has a big cannon in the yard." Hello, first clue might be the cannon.

 

Lunatic Asylum B & B? (US-119)

The second largest hand cut sandstone brick structure in the world is at Weston, West Virginia. It began construction in 1858 as the West Virginia State Hospital, an insane asylum. It is nearly 300,000 square feet and four stories of residential wards, treatment rooms, faculty offices, and chambers of who knows what. Several years ago it ceased operation. The building and grounds are now in private hands and operating as a tourist attraction. For $10 visitors can take a guided tour of the building. The guide is full of stories about the place, the people, and the spirits that still inhabit the old hospital.

The new owners have re-named the place as the ‘Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum' TALA for short. Their intent is to repair enough of the old facility to make it habitable as a bed and breakfast, or even a true resort hotel. Who in their right might would want to stay in an old mental hospital? That question may have its own answer. The producers of the cable TV show ‘Ghost Hunters’ have figured out how to get 200 people at a time to pay up to $265 each for a two night stay. The guests spend their nights searching for inexplicable electro-magnetic fields, strange noises, and cold spots that indicate ‘ghosts.’ If you are in the area I recommend the $10 tour as one of those oddball experiences that makes for a great motorcycle trip story. If you elect to pay for a ghostly night's tour you are nuts - in which case your visit is completely appropriate.

 

Water, Water Everywhere. . .(US-19, WV-16, US-60)

Did you know that Fayetteville, West Virginia, touts itself as ‘The Coolest Small Town in America’ ? I asked at the Mayor’s office, "Why?" The answer I got came from one of the local restaurateurs. "We are a four season resort area," says Wendy of the Church Café, "we have white water rafting, ATV riding, hard rock climbing, hunting - we never run out of cool things to do!" Well, I will admit that there are some neat sights to be enjoyed here. And, thanks to Wendy and her willingness to call around - I got directions to three very nice memorials I would have otherwise missed! Maybe it really is the coolest small town . . .

Aside for many really fun roads here, there is the New River gorge bridge. It’s the largest of it’s type and over 800 feet from the bridge deck to the river below. It’s impressive. The visitor center is usually very busy and there is a wooden stairway to an observation platform about 200 feet below the level of the bridge. If you have any fear of heights this might be uncomfortable - the lower deck actually reaches out from a large rock outcropping and the impression is that you are standing just over the forest canopy.

The available views of the bridge and the river below, with all of the kayaks and rafts, is really something. Motorcycle riders should be aware that it’s possible to ride UNDER the bridge just by taking Fayette Station Road - turn right as you leave the visitor center parking lot. Really cool ride down to the riverside.

More rain, but unless it’s very heavy, with high winds and lightning, I generally press on. This results sometimes in some good photos. This particular stop was at a place called Gauley Bridge. For the moment I’m dry, but a look out toward the hills ahead shows yet another band of showers with an embedded thunderstorm.

The next stop just for fun was a mile marker 93 on ‘The Midland Trail’, as US-60 is otherwise known in West Virginia. Little Kanawha falls looks to be a drop of 20 feet and the volume of water is immense. One portion of the river here holds a very old hydroelectric station. Just below the falls is a large public park area dedicated to fishing. It’s a great place for riders to rest. There are no picnic tables, so you are left to your own in that regard. The area is low and prone to flooding, be care in very heavy rains.

 

The Founding Fathers Lived Well

As a veteran Coast Guardsman I’m always interested in the background stories of those that had anything to do with the Revenue Cutter Service, US Lighthouse Service, and US Lifesaving Service. Secretary Albert Gallatin was President Washington’s first Treasury Secretary and held positions in many of the next administrations. He oversaw the creation of the US Customs Service and Revenue Cutter Service. He negotiated the end of the War of 1812 with the Treaty of Ghent. Most importantly, it was Gallatin who figured out how to finance the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed the Republic to grow from a collection of eastern colonies into a great nation. Gallatin wasn’t extremely wealthy, but he did okay for himself.

His country estate in southern Pennsylvania was called Friendship Hill. The 600 acre farm is adjacent to the Monongahela River and is now a National Historic Park, open to the public at no fee. It doesn’t appear that the place is crowded at any time. Sure, I’d bet there are days when hundreds of people flow through the visitor center and into the beautiful old home, but when I went there on a Thursday afternoon it was hard to even find the Park Service Rangers.

Guests may wander about the three main parts of the house and peer into the furnished rooms. Much of the furniture is on loan from the Arlington House while that structure is being renovated. Every time I have the opportunity to look at the typical household effects of the wealthy from the 19th century I’m amazed. Yes, they did have to endure a house without running water. There was no electricity to illuminate a dark room and summers were hot and winters were cold and drafty. But the furnishings were extremely comfortable, even by 21st century standards.

But, even with the extremely high level of comfort available to the wealthy of the era I am brought back to reality when I see a simple device like the chamber pot in one of the bedroom. Sure, a servant would take care of the offal, but if the urge arrived in the middle of the night it was probably going to make its’ presence known for at least a couple of hours as a disturbing odor. Maybe that’s why most of these homes had large second floor balconies . . . If it got too much for the occupant they could always step outside for a breath of fresh air.

 

Octogenarians On The Prowl

Bryan, OH (06/16/2008) - By now I’m getting used to the questions from curious local residents;

   "What you doing, Mister?"
   "I’m taking pictures of this memorial."
   "Why?"
   "Because I’ve come 16,000 miles to visit it."
   "What for?"

Today the exchange went a little differently. An old lady came toddling up to me and asked, "Are there any warnings posted?" What? "Weather warnings," she said, "that sky is pretty dark and with you on the motorcycle I think you probably keep up with the weather." Well, that’s a pretty good assumption from a lady that probably has other things to do rather than chat with a two wheel itinerant. But, I figure I should be respectful and I inform her there is nothing to worry over, the offensive looking clouds are only a narrow band of showers and will move off soon.

   "Well, what are you taking pictures of?"

Now we are on familiar ground and I launch into my spiel. "Wow! You have a few minutes to spare? Follow me. . ."

Moments later I’m strolling beside this complete stranger down an unfamiliar street and into the local Cadillac dealership. As we walk toward the waiting area I spot another elderly woman patiently reading a magazine.

"Look, Esther", says my guide, "I found us a date!" Oh, oh! I’ve been picked up by Octogenarians on the prowl! How do I explain this to my wife?

Fortunately the ladies were really interested in the Ride Around America project and both had plenty of cogent questions about how I planned the route, what I did with the photos, and what I did to keep fresh and interested in the task at hand. We talked about places we had all been and enjoyed – when you are beyond 80 years it’s very likely there have been several opportunities to see America and the world beyond. Esther and LouElla were no exception.

Esther asked if I had plans to ride to Juneau, Alaska. I explained that wasn’t possible because there was no direct road. That sparked some strong disagreement between the ladies. Esther’s considered opinion was that a road DID exist and LouElla defended me with the admonishment, "Esther, I know he’s probably researched it fully – I think he’s probably right." It seems Esther has visited Alaska several times and just never considered that she had always flown there, never attempting to take the trip by automobile.

I excused myself after a few minutes and the ladies wished me luck. I hoofed back down the street to grab the monument photos . When I came back to my bike I found the ladies parked beside me. "Follow us to Lester’s Diner for lunch," LouElla shouts out, "my treat!" I have the feeling this really is going to turn into that date . . . but I’m hungry and I was going to Lester’s anyway.

For the next 45 minutes I dined on Alaska whitefish with the two sweet old widows. The pair had been friends over 70 years and delighted in telling me how they met as schoolgirls in another state. Each had married a boy from the same nearby town and somehow, though life had drawn them away from home, they never lived far from one another. Esther raised six children and LouElla five. Both taught school and their husbands were both successful upon their return from war; one as a banker and the other as a high school athletics coach.

LouElla especially had great stories of her adventures while living in Occupied Japan during the Korean War era. Both of the women understood the goals of Ride Around America – for each had been service wives during wartime. I guess that bond across generations never diminishes. They both worry about our current generation of service families and how they cope.

Soon it was time for me to leave. I grabbed a quick photo of the friends and then thanked LouElla for the lunch and Esther for the company. In the parking lot I suited up and rolled out to the road as the old friends waved from inside the diner. Yes, Ride Around America started out to salute our veterans, but today it gave me an opportunity to spend some time with a pair of genuinely gracious ladies from an era that is fading fast.

Only a few hundred miles more and I’ll be home for ten days.

A Few Minutes in Hell

Hell, MI June 5, 2008 - I had wondered for years what it was like. I had heard all of the stories; tales of raucous days in summer heat and waves of humanity rolling down the highway to perdition in search of a good time. Most of all I remembered that many of those that had found themselves in Hell had actually intended on going there - at the very first opportunity and the best possible speed.

I nearly missed it.

Hell, despite all of the publicity to the contrary, isn't very big at all. There might be 100 people there, probably less. And there isn't even an official highway sign to welcome you - you just come around the curve and suddenly you are there. I always hoped there would be a warning before crossing the boundary line into Hell. At the very least I expected a church, a pastor, maybe a friendly priest to wave me down and tell me about what lay ahead if I kept to my current path.

I found a small store, a tavern, and a few tourist photo cut-outs - that's all. No writhing souls, no demons gleefully tormenting the residents, no sheets of flame - not even a Bic lighter flickering in the parking lot.

I walked into Hell's Country Store - it was like a thousand other small town convenience stores. Beer coolers in the corner, bread on the shelves next to snacks, and a big pizza oven. Obviously, the only thing getting hot around here was some pies being cooked for the late lunch crowd . . . which didn't seem to be evident, maybe these were orders for pick up.

"Is this all there is to Hell?", I asked to nobody in particular. "I really expected more. . ."

A cheerful voice behind the pizza counter responded, "Wow, that's the first time I've heard it put that way!" At that point the store owner and I began a polite 20 minute conversation about the merits of living in small towns and the particular problems encountered by her neighbors that call Hell home. "The county gave up on keeping a town limit sign here years ago", she said, "they were always stolen almost before the road crew was finished installing a new one!"

Soon it was time for me to move along, Hell was only a stopover on my life's big adventure and I had other places to be. I bade my farewell and walked out to take a photo or two before starting up the Honda and riding away. I left Hell as I found it, a small place known to many but appreciated by so few. Small towns are like that, they often gain a reputation that is undeserved. You know a place like Hell, I'm sure. But for the residents of this town I bet they like saying, "Well, I gotta run, there's some friends waiting for me in Hell!"

Post Script:  A few days later I visited Paradise, Michigan. After the trip was over I calculated the round trip distance from Hell to Paradise . . . 666 miles ! 

 

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