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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)

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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 . . .

{gallery slider=boxplus.transition animation=5000}/journals/NewRiverGorge/{/gallery} 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.

{gallery slider=boxplus.transition animation=5000}/journals/KanawaFalls/{/gallery} 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

{gallery slider=boxplus.transition animation=5000}/journals/Gallatin/{/gallery} 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.

 

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.

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.

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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 ! 

 

Heber Springs, Arkansas (May 5, 2008) - We've been steadily picking off five to seven counties a day for the past three days. In fact, it's put me a bit behind in sorting out the photos and formatting up the memorial display pages.

The ride out of Tennessee was pretty uneventful. US-70 and TN-100 for most of the trip. TN-100 is a super road, but a bit boring. It's miles and miles of nice hills, but straight as an arrow till in connects with US-70 outside of Memphis. If you want to make time in southwest Tennessee and don't want to put up with the traffic on the Interstate then 100 is a great alternative.

Hohenwald, TN (05/03/2008) - That big wide grin seems endless for the two of us. We left Cherokee in very chilly temps, heading up toward Sevier County, Tennessee and the road just didn't disappoint us. Everything seemed to be doing well, except that when Art hit the starter button on his Pacific Coast at the county courthouse - yup, it failed to turn over. My thoughts flashed back to four weeks ago and a very expensive few days we had with his Shadow.

I pushed him off and we found an Advance Auto Parts store just three blocks away. The battery was completely drained and a quick check of the electrical system pointed toward the regulator/rectifier. Damn! We grabbed a local phone book and started calling motorcycle shops. Luckily we found one on the third call that had the part, and it was just a 30 minute ride away via ST1300. By 2:30 PM we were back on the road, heading toward US-70 to catch several more memorials before daylight left us.

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Ozone Falls, TN

US-70 is one of the longer two lane routes left from the old US Highway route system. It meanders from Wilmington, North Carolina all the way out to Globe, Arizona. In many places it is a four lane road and pretty tame, but mostly it is a 45 and 50 mph road clear of heavy trucks and not much traffic at all. We've seen some really pretty spots, one of them was a treat worth a half day visit - which we managed to squeeze into just an hour.

Find Ozone, Tennessee on your maps. There is a 110 foot high waterfall there only 200 yards from highway, we found out later that it was used as a backdrop location for filming of "The Jungle Book, Part 2."

Art pulled out the video camera and we did a little video segment from the top of the falls and then turned down another trail and trekked to the bottom of the falls. Down there we found spectacular views of the falling water and got a good appreciation of the stratified rock that makes up the geological history of central Tennessee. The water is cold, and it would be possible to swim in the pool, but don't try this without a large group present. The trail is treacherous and getting a litter bound accident patient up the hill is obviously going to take a long time, that is if they find you in time to help. Beautiful areas can be dangerous.

After a night of camping near Crossville we set out again on Friday and rain was the keyword all day long. We were watching the back side of a line of storms that had torn up Arkansas on Thursday night. At Franklin we patiently waited out thunderstorm cell at the local Sonic drive-in. When it moved off we found a westbound state highway and the plan was to move toward a state park near Dickson, Tennessee. Then one of those distractions came across our path that I didn't really plan for.

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Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway is almost 500 miles of two lane highway leading from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville. It's like the Blue Ridge Parkway in concept, but without the really tall mountains. No commercial trucks, very little traffic and lots of long sweeping curves that are guaranteed to keep the rear tire of any motorcycle from squaring up. There was rain ahead, rain to the north, and the skies toward the route of the parkway was looked best. We turned left at the double arch bridge and took the southbound route.

That big grin gets bigger in a hurry here. We went FIVE miles before seeing any other traffic. It was as if the day, and the road, was made just for us. The roadway generally follows the old Natchez Trace, a wagon track through the wilderness, it was the superhighway of the 19th century that helped open the south to the pioneers of the era. All along the road there are scenic turnouts that allow visitors to glimpse what conditions travelers of two centuries ago endured. Frankly, I'd rather put up with the inconvenience of a dead battery than push and prod an ox pulling an old wagon down a path that is shared with bears, coyotes, snakes, and other denizens of the deep forest.

As dusk approached we found ourselves at mile marker 385 and the Meriwether Lewis burial place. The National Park campground there is small, only 32 spots. And, it's free. We seriously wanted to stay the night here and save a few dollars. But, as we rode into the campground area to select a spot for our little tent we took a good look at the skies. Both of us felt it might be a good idea to make the seven mile trip into Hohenwald first. We could get something for dinner and find a place to check weather before committing to a night in the woods without decent shelter. It turned out to be a great decision. The sprinkles that began to fall as we reached town quickly turned into a full fledged downpour, complete with high winds, thunder and lightning. But by that time we were checked into the only motel in town. The video on The Weather Channel confirm our good fortune. We had been lucky to avoid the worst weather all day long...and the storms through the night didn't bother us at all as were were tucked into nice dry beds.

Yes, the wide grins are still evident. Now we wander west into Arkansas for a couple of days. I will post photos of tornado damage by Tuesday.

-LW

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