Monday, July 16, 2012

A Mountain Bonneville

I have been feeling trapped at the bottom of Flatistan this summer. After last year's bad boat season the skiff is in the shop trying to get made whole for August boating, while on line I have been reading about assorted riding adventures on the ADVrider forum.

Here I am with a perfectly capable motorcycle, 62,000 happy miles on it and several easy long distance rides successfully completed with it. I had the bike, I had the will, and I found I could make the time. Time to ride that by way of experiment off I went.

Travel with Cheyenne requires a car and my wife suggested that might be the way to go but what I was seeking with the experiment was solitude and adventure, by way of my motorcycle.

When I was a youngster I rode my motorcycle most of the time and even though my rides of the mid to late 70s might look inadequate today in a world of huge heavy bikes fully equipped with all electronic gadgets, I rode the length and breadth of Europe and North Africa as a young adult and enjoyed it all with a canvas tent and Michelin road maps as guides.

My machinery rarely let me down and occasional mechanical problems were attributable to operator error (dropping the bike for example!) or modifications to the factory specs that created unintended consequences that led to wear and tear. As a result I love to keep my bike as factory standard as possible. Those engineers work long hours to create the machine in the first place and I restrict myself to spending money to keep it in best condition.

The Bonneville left home with an oil seep from the valve cover, a common problem if the gaskets and washers aren't replaced every valve check, every 12,000 miles. The oil seep is negligible but annoying and I chose to ignore it. It gave me no trouble during the 2500 mile jaunt. I have an appointment for a tune up and that will be fixed by my main man Jiri.

I read with some astonishment how modern riders prepare for their summer trips, vast expenditures on electronics and spares and tools and quantities of luggage that make the motorcycle an RV and less a riding tool, the magic carpet that is so much fun to ride daily. I appreciate that many "motorcyclists" are engineers and dabblers, shoppers and "consumers" who take pleasure from wires and electrons and catalogues. For me the magic I was seeking in this trip was the ride untrammeled.

I carried a handful of simple tools to tighten nuts and bolts and perhaps adjust the chain which proved necessary 500 miles from home, a ten minute job. While for camping I had a tarp and a light blanket as I planned to sleep rough with the option of a motel as often as necessary. I had some clothes and my daily courier bag with my iPad camera and maps. In the spirit of the trip I had no GPS and I managed to accidentally leave behind a map of Tennessee where I proposed to ride the most. I had my new Kermit chair for roadside rests and thoroughly enjoyed it. I got lost, had no cell phone reception and it was all just perfect.

For some time I have marveled at the youngsters I work with at the Key West Police Department, equipped with well paid jobs and ample time off yet not many of them take the time to explore the world beyond the narrow confines of "The Rock" as we call Key West when are tired of it's constrictions. I felt some trepidation at leaving my comfortable home for a few days alone on the road but that didn't last. My wife and dog kicked me out without a second thought.

It is thrilling in a very visceral way to be out of touch and beyond reach in this modern world of ours. The phone was turned off in my courier bag inside the top case, and completely inaccessible. I failed to make up my lack of a map by using a large scale fold off the North Carolina map to cover my wanderings through the great Smoky Mountains.I felt the exhilaration of youth as I pointed the Bonneville down the winding roads footloose and fancy free, I was privileged.

I poked my nose on gravel roads and sought out unmarked or invisible back trails. The incredible heatwave that produced temperatures well above a hundred degrees in the valley below were mitigated at these altitudes. I found myself absorbed by the experience of riding the bike, chasing the curves, and practicing riding a motorcycle in three dimensions as it should be ridden. I was a long way from the repetitive flat roads of Florida.

My first day I left home after lunch and spent the next 26 hours riding which was when I discovered my almost five year old original seat had lost it's spring. My ass hurt and continued to hurt for most of the five days. I have plans to sort that issue out.

The 16 hour ride home on tedious Interstates was tough, stopping to relieve the ache, standing on the foot pegs to relieve the ache, sliding back on the seat to...relieve...stretching my legs to...the...ache. But riding the mountain roads I forgot the ache.

Deal's Gap was enormous fun and I thoroughly enjoyed the rise and fall of the twisting tarmac for all that I was tired and hot and my backside was on fire. The Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville was open after years of repairs and it was, in my estimation the most spectacular stretch of the famous road. The curves were superb, the views tremendous and the rocky cliff faces lining the road were awesome. The Parkway was a Depression Era Government project that put Americans to work and has left a legacy that everyone loves. Even as they hate their Government. I can't imagine Halliburton or Bechtel corporations giving the American people a road like this, beautifully maintained with no advertising allowed and no commercial vehicle access. Public, open, free and for the people. Hate that Government!

Riding alone and with my thoughts I had too much time on my hands to imagine that this is the best we can do, tearing each other down to advance singularly. We all do better when we all do better. With the history of these mountains a mixture of exploitation and conservation, poverty endemic and gentrification well underway it is amazing to me that there are still huge swathes of wooded hillsides given over to nature.

My sister in law, who lives under the shadow of Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the Eastern US, looked across the hills on a morning walk and remarked that even after forty years of residence she is amazed she gets to live here full time and not on vacation. Riding these empty roads on a weekday afternoon you can see her point.

Years ago I had thought about pedaling coast-to-coast, but gave that up as a bad idea. It is embarrassing to admit I suppose, but I love internal combustion. Climate change is real as much as we may wish to ignore it. Life is paradox.

I love the versatility of my Bonneville, a roadster built in the style of an earlier era when one bike did it all. I love the modern reliability and ease of use. Modern motorcyclists criticize it for being heavy underpowered and not at all like the "super bike” that the name Bonneville represented in the 1960s. The fact that the performance has remained the same in the modern Bonneville as the T120 of old is just a reflection of the pursuit of power and speed that has dominated motorcycling these past 50 years.

Whether on gravel or on smooth pavement the modern Bonneville is entirely capable and reliable and easy to ride. Touring by motorcycle involves much more than speed and performance. Versatility means it's easy to handle at slow speeds, easy to park and manhandle, and easy on wear and tear of tires and chains and gas. I ran out of gas on the Florida Turnpike, a mile short of the service area at eleven at night. I leaned the lightly loaded bike to the left hoping to transfer a little fuel from the right side of the tank to the left. If my ruse had failed I could have pushed the 500 pound bike a mile without killing myself but as it was the engine roared back to life and I arrived at the fuel pumps in style and laughing.

From the sea level of the Florida Keys to the highest point in the mountains the Bonneville showed me I have a tool that will help me to feel less isolated during the summer months of riding.

I don't get to see wild turkey in the Keys but they were everywhere on the Parkway in the morning. I even stopped to let a brood of chicks cross the road - shades of Key West's wild chickens.

I am going back, of this I am as sure as life. I want to ride some more and make some memories for the long warm winter months when frost and ice keep me trapped in the toe of Florida's flat subtropical peninsula.

The idyllic mountain roads may be 12 hours away but that is no obstacle to a determined rider with a Bonneville and a desire to ride some real motorcycle roads.

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