Monday, August 31, 2009

Delving into the depths of the South

OK, you're right. It's been too long since I posted an update and I've got a lot of catching up to do. I'm writing this in Murfreesboro, at brother Chris' house, where I returned Friday night, Aug. 28, after a 1,500-mile jaunt down the Natchez Trace from Tennessee, to Natchez, Miss., Vidalia, La., Vicksburg, Miss., and back to Murfreesboro.

This spectacular bridge is at the north end of the Natchez Trace near Nashville

I can't take credit for the picture above. Somebody else took it and I'm borrowing it and the rest of the photos in this post from the Web. Somewhere between the Alabama-Mississippi border and the Meriweather Lewis State Park, between Napier and Gordonsburg, Tenn., my wonderful Lumix camera dismounted, never to be found. I fared better than Lewis, who was shot in the head and died at that spot -- I only discovered my camera was lost. It's obviously a place of misfortune.

But the trip down the Trace was mostly delightful. We headed west on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 26, and picked up the Parkway south of Nashville near Franklin, Tenn. The weather was warm and sunny and the smooth, two-lane road was mostly empty. In fact, we stopped for a rest after an hour or so at one of the historical markers. Chris napped and I counted cars. During 12 minutes, four cars and one motorcycle passed by.

Riding the Trace is like eating vanilla ice cream

This is not a complaint, but after the Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Tail of the Dragon, the Natchez Trace Parkway seemed a little boring: no hairpin turns, mile-high ridges, bears, flying squirrel launch pads or Trees of Shame. Driving the Trace is like eating vanilla ice cream -- sweet but a little bland. Make that a LOT of vanilla ice cream -- 444 miles of it to be exact.

The Trace began as a trail used by animals and humans connecting the Mississippi River at Natchez with the Cumberland River in Nashville. Before steamboats and railroads, folks would ride flatboats down the Cumberland or the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi and then walk or ride back up the Trace.

We stopped for the night at a campground south of Tupelo, Miss., set up camp, went to the nearest small town and bought beer, Spam, eggs and Cheetos -- your basic four food groups. Next morning, we headed toward Jackson, stopping a few miles north of that capital city at a picnic ground where we met two local motorcyclists -- good ol' boys out for a spin.

We asked their advice on where to go and what to see. They strongly recommended Natchez but said to forget stopping in Jackson, "unless you want to look at a lot of black people." They smiled when they said it, but it was a shock to hear that kind of thing. It's not surprising that antique racial attitudes persist but that people are comfortable saying such things to complete strangers -- particularly a stranger with a Maine license plate.

It wasn't the first such comment I'd heard on the trip. At a motorcycle shop near Deal's Gap, I overheard a biker crack that "the new White House physician ought to be Dr. Kervorkian."

Anyway, they recommended we stop at the Magnolia Restaurant in Natchez' riverfront Underhill neighborhood and not miss the Vicksburg Battlefield Park on the way back.

"The Confederates had their cannons up on the high ground," the cracker told us. "There were just too many Yankees, though. If we'd had more guns we would've whipped your ass." This from a man with a Stars and Stripes flag flying from the rear fender of his Harley.

It's interesting, coming from Hawaii where there's a strong separatist sentiment, how much the South has embraced being American. Visible signs of support for the troops, the war and the Bible are all around.

We took their advice and headed down to Natchez, stopping at the Magnolia for lunch. From there we had a nice view of the Mighty Mississippi, the bridge to Louisiana and a steamboat tied up at the wharf.

We crossed the Mississippi at Natchez on this bridge

Sipping a watery Diet Coke, I had some misgivings about the Magnolia, but in the end it lived up to its billing. We had the gumbo, which was incredible -- fresh okra, chicken, shrimp, rice and a zesty broth -- followed by a shrimp po' boy for Chris and a blue cheeseburger for me.

One look at that bridge and Chris said we had to go to Louisiana, having come so far. It was really hot, though. So, we detoured to a Honda motorcycle dealer's where Chris considered buying a shorty helmet to replace the full-face model he was wearing to keep the sun off his sun-blistered face. "That thing is like wearing a bucket on your head," he said. I wore the same make and model and thought it was fine -- certainly quieter and drier than an open-face.

We enjoyed the air conditioning at the dealership for an hour or so; Chris bought a Cramp Buster lever for his throttle on my recommendation; we admired the new Goldwings; and finally we set off across the river to Vidalia, La., famous for its sweet onions. We didn't see much else that was sweet about Vidalia and were happy to be out of there on the road to Tallulah, La., and Vicksburg.

You might lump Mississippi and Louisiana together until you've been there. The geography is entirely different, although they are equally hot in August. Mississippi is all rolling hills with bluffs along the big river and lots of trees. Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. Cotton fields so big you can't see where they end. Hot, dry, dusty. I am not partial to the chiggers that got inside my clothes in Mississippi, however.

Louisiana cotton fields stretch out to the horizon

The road to Tallulah was flat and straight. We watched crop dusters strafing the cotton with chemicals, dodged a hound dog who froze crossing the highway and watched the GPS tote dusty mile after dusty mile.

The bridges at Vicksburg -- old one at right

I-20 crosses the Mississipi to Vicksburg on a new bridge, which parallel's an old one that used to carry both cars and trains, but now only handles the railroad. We found our way down to the downtown riverfront past glorious old houses, some with columned facades, some with fancy wrought iron porches. On the river we found a new looking towboat set up on dry land as a museum and the historic Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Station.

The lovely Yazoo & Mississippi Valley RR station is in need of restoration

We sat in the shade on the steps of the station and cooled off before riding to the battlefield, a Civil War scene that's clearly different from those at Gettysburg and Antietam.

Vickburg was an artillery battle where 33,000 Confederates were beseiged by Union batteries, 77,000 men from the Midwest led by General Ullyses S. Grant looking to seize the key city linking river commerce with rail. Memorials to units from Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio dot the hills facing the Confederate lines, just a few hundred yards away.

The Union line at Vicksburg National Military Park

The seige lasted 40 days. 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded. In the end, 29,495 rebels surrendered on July 4, 1863, the day after Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the Civil War; as a result of the siege and surrender, Vicksburg would not celebrate Independence Day for the next eighty years.

We finished our battlefield visit at about 7 p.m. I figured we could still do another two hours on the road and then camp. Chris said that sounded like about 120 miles -- where could we stay? I looked at my GPS. The campground we left that morning was almost exactly 120 miles away, so we headed back there.

We started out on the Interstate, but switched to two-lane roads. As daylight waned, we reached the Trace and headed northeast toward Murfreesboro. Near Jackson, we reached the banks of the Ross Barnett Reservoir and ran into a huge, thick cloud of recently hatched flying insects that plastered the bikes, windshields and our visors and clothes. They flew up inside the helmet and got in my eyes and nose. We kept going until the cloud thinned out and then stopped and washed the bodies off with water from a canteen and as bandana. Yuck.

We stopped before reaching the campground and bought some beer and more Spam for breakfast -- we still had left-over eggs and Cheetos. As they say, the West was not won by salad eaters.

Come morning, we started out up the Trace again, figuring to reach Murfreesboro by afternoon. Chris said he'd decided the Trace wasn't so bad after all -- as long as you drove it fast. The speed limit is 50 mph, but we were bopping along at about 60. "It's basically a motorcycle road that they let cars drive on," he said.

We made good time up to the Alabama border, where I took a picture of the state line sign with Chris pushing his Harley across it. Then, it was over the Tennessee River -- a huge body of water as impressive as the Mississippi. We stopped for lunch in Collinwood, Tenn.

On the way south we'd stopped in Collinwood, too, to get a map at the visitor center, which turned out to also be the de facto senior center. That's where we met J.D. Buford Hollis, a 90-year-old character.

Mr. Hollis showed us a photo of himslf painting the roof of the old courthouse back in the 30s -- "It's burned down now," he said. Then he pulled out a certificate commending him for his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He and four other older folks followed us from the welcome center to the gas station/deli where we all had lunch.

Knowing that Collinwood was close to the Trace and offered gasoline and food, on the way north we stopped again to fill up on both. The Meriweather Lewis State Park was another 30 miles up the road. That's where I discovered my camera had gone missing.

When I reached for my camera to take this same picture I discovered it had gotten off the bike

I knew I had it at the Alabama state line, which was 70 miles back down the road. I'd pulled off on the grass near the sign to take that picture of Chris and figured I might have dropped the camera there on the side of the road. The other possibility was that it fell out of the tank bag when I took it to the side of the tank to fill up in Collinwood.

I decided it was worth a few hours and a couple of gallons of gas to go back and try to find it. I said good-bye to Chris, who needed to get back to Murfreesboro on schedule, and headed south.

"I clocked you at 73 miles per hour," the Tennessee state trooper said a few minutes later. I was upset about losing the camera and in a hurry to get back to Collinwood before somebody walked off with it.

I told the trooper my miserable story and he actually listened sympathetically. "OK," he said, "I'm not going to write you a ticket. I'm sorry you lost your camera, but you've got to slow down. There are mowers out here on the road and there's grass and sticks and debris all over the road. Get a stick between your spokes and you could have an accident. I'll just run your license and you can go."


So, 140 miles and three hours later I was back at the Meriweather Lewis State Park. A thunderstorm and the threat of encountering a less kindly trooper slowed me down. Heading northeast, I couldn't shake the storm, which was headed in the same direction.

It was about 9:30 p.m. when I got to Chris' house in Murfreesboro. I was damp, tired and a little creaky -- especially around the shoulders. I now know what a 500-mile day feels like. I'm not interested in doing another one, but it's nice knowing it's doable -- even on a KLR.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Avoiding the 'Tree of Shame'

In the morning, we rode out through the rising mist

Saturday, Aug. 22 -- They call the 11 miles of US 129 at Deal's Gap, N.C., "The Tail of the Dragon." There are 318 curves in that short space. On a motorcycle, riding the Tail is like skiing a slalom course. To do it well, requires a lot of gear shifting, both to slow the bike down entering each turn and to accelerate crisply coming out of it.

On a pleasant summer day hundreds of riders, dozens of sports cars and a few misguided tourists in SUVs and sedans ride the Tail. There was even one guy in a Lincoln Town Car whom I passed on a short straight. Chris said when he saw him the Lincoln was actually parked on the edge of the road on the inside of a hairpin turn while the driver was walking around -- a contender for a Darwin Award.

This huge butterfly shared our camp

We'd camped overnight at the Horse Cove Campground in the Nantahala National Forest near Robbinsville, N. C., where a huge monarch butterfly with a six-inch wingspan shared our riverside campsite. A thunderstorm rolled in just after we turned in. My tent held up well (thank you, Heidi for insisting I seal the seams) but it was quite an experience watching the lightning flash, hearing the thunder claps, the rain beating on the tent and the river rushing by just a few yards away.

Chris' tent slowed the water down, but didn't keep it out. I heard a lot of noise coming from his direction in the night, which turned out to be him turning his air mattress over. One side was flocked with a velour-like material and held the water, while the other was smooth plastic that he could wipe off. Eventually, the rain stopped and we were relieved to awake to glimpses of blue sky through the mist.

We left our gear in camp and rode out on the Cherohala Skyway toward Tennessee. The Skyway winds for 15 miles over 5,400 foot mountains in North Carolina and another 21 miles in Tennessee. Opened in 1996, it has a history not unlike Hawaii's H-3 highway. It took 34 years to complete at a cost of $100 million, making it North Carolina's most expensive highway.

The view of the Smokies from the mile-high Skyway was spectacular

This pole is a launch ramp for endangered North Carolina flying squirrels to glide across the Cherohala Skyway

From the Skyway we found US 129 and the excitement built as we saw highway department signs warning truckers not to use the road and advising other motorists to consider an alternate route. At the "Head of the Dragon" we stopped at a store catering to motorcyclists, checked out the gear and souvenirs. I bought some wrap-around sunglasses designed for riding and some US 129 stickers for the bikes. Then we were off down the Tail.

US 129 stickers are popular souvenirs for Tail riders

We didn't go all that fast, but the KLR and I didn't get passed either -- not that there was much traffic at the time. Chris' lowered Harley Fat Boy wasn't in its element, however. He said he dragged his floorboards on almost every curve.

The scene at Deal's Gap Resort

Wave after wave of riders came and went

At the end of the Tail we pulled into the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort. The parking lot, striped to accommodate hundreds of motorcycles but no cars, was almost full when we arrived. The resort includes a motel, dining room, store and gas station, but the highlight is the "Tree of Shame."

Bikers with more enthusiasm than skill who crash on the Tail, are required by custom to hang a piece of their motorcycle on the tree. It's well-decorated but, given the thousands of riders who do the Tail every year, not too gaudy.

We avoided adding any motorcycle parts to the Tree of Shame

Several companies post photographers at choice curves along the road to take pictures of the bikes on the road. Here are a couple of us:

Flanman and the KLR didn't get passed

Chris' Harley dragging its floorboards

After we had our fill of the Deal's Gap scene, we headed back to our camp, packed up and set the GPS for Murfreesboro, Tenn., Chris' home base. We left Robbinsville about 5 p.m. and arrived at about 9:30.

It was time to rest and catch up on my blog.

The blogger at work

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nailed in Asheville

Thursday, Aug. 20, dawned bright and sunny. Unfortunately, it didn't end that way.

Heading to Bristol on our way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway to ride south into North Carolina, Chris stopped at a Walgreens to buy sun block and emerged with a folding camp chair to tie to the back of his Harley along with the rest of his gear. "You ought to get one, too," he said.

Chris was in a good mood, despite a noisy night in camp

We said goodbye to Bristol and its gathering mob of NASCAR fans and started climbing back up into the pristine heights of the Blue Ridge, only coming down for lunch and gasoline before we reached Asheville, N. Car.

Flanman waves NASCAR fans goodbye

The folding chair somehow stayed aboard Chris' bike ...

... and proved to be handy curing "monkey butt"

A few miles from Asheville, we stopped at an overlook to stretch and rest our backsides and I noticed something strange about my rear tire, which turned out to be the head of a nail. I started to wiggle it, and Chris said, "Stop! It's still holding air, but it won't if you pull that thing out."

I let it be and decided to take care of it as soon as we could find a tire repair shop. Meanwhile, the afternoon thunder clouds rolled in, visibility shrank to about 50 yards and we worked our way slowly southwest along the ridgetop in our rain gear.

Suddenly, Chris pointed at the cliff above the road. I looked and didn't see what attracted his attention. "Bear," he said. "It was just a little one, but it was a bear for sure."

As we descended into Asheville's late afternoon rush hour traffic, the weather cleared. The GPS had been put away out of the weather, so we headed in a general westerly direction, looking to get off the divided highways into a business district that might have a tire repair shop. That worked, and we found ourselves at Jerry Rawls' place. Jerry said he'd been in business for 26 years and it appeared he'd never thrown out a tire in all that time. They were stacked everywhere, indoors and out, with tools and equipment scattered among the black rubber piles.

"I don't do motorcycle tires and anyways I'm about to close," Jerry said. We pleaded with him to take a look anyways.

"What time do you close?" we asked. He said 5 p.m. It was 4:45.

The tire had "Tubeless" printed on the sidewall in big letters and Chris said maybe Jerry could just pull the nail and put in a plug. "I don't do motorcycles," Jerry repeated.

We looked sad. Jerry asked, "Where you boys from?" We told him. He relented and pulled out the nail with a pair of wire cutters. It was a roofing nail -- about an inch and a half long. The tire immediately went flat.

Rawls got a tubeless tire plug, poked it into the hole left by the nail and pumped the tire up to 35 pounds. Things were looking good.

I got some money out of my wallet to pay Jerry and Chris asked him to put some air in the Harley's tires, too, while he was at it. A thought crossed my mind.

"I wouldn't think you could put tubeless tires on wire wheels," I said. "Wouldn't the air come out the holes for the spokes?" There was a crash. The KLR had fallen off its sidestand all by itself. The back tire was flat.

You can put tubeless tires on a spoked wheel, but only if you use an inner tube. It was suddenly clear that we had to pull the wheel, dismount the tire from the wheel, remove the tube, patch it, remount the tire on the wheel and the wheel on the bike.

Our saviour, Jerry, in his office

A ten minute job turned into a 90 minute one in 90 percent humidity. Jerry had tools designed for cars and trucks, not motorcycles, but he hung in there and we got the wheel off without a hitch. Getting the tire off the rim was a tougher task and I pitched in to hold the wheel down while he used screw drivers and giant tire irons to pry the bead off. Chris sat in his camp chair and observed.

I pitched in to help patch the rear tire

The KLR looked pretty sad ... and then it started raining, hard

Just as we got the tube, tire and wheel back together, the skies opened. The KLR was parked outside in the deluge waiting for us to reassemble it. We waited for the storm to blow over. It rained harder. We waited some more. It came down even harder.

"I've got a big ol' umbrella," Jerry said.

It was a yellow and white beach umbrella, six feet in diameter and leaky. Chris held it while Jerry and I wrestled with the chain and axle. After some gentle persuasion with a rubber mallet, all the pieces came back together. Jerry even disappeared into the gloom of his shop -- where rain was coming through more than a dozen holes in the roof into a variety of buckets, cans and bins. He emerged with a torque wrench to apply the correct 52 foot-pounds to the hub nut.

I collected my sodden possessions, repacked the bike, gave Jerry more money, thanked him repeatedly and got directions to a nearby Days Inn, where we spent the night.

The forecast for Friday was more rain.

Down the Blue Ridge to meet Chris

Tuesday, Aug. 18, my last evening in Charlottesville, my sister Jeannie took me to a fabulous restaurant up in Madison, Va., the Graves Mountain Lodge, which serves family-style meals in a long, rustic dining hall overlooking a lush valley. A family from Columbus, Ohio sat at our table. The mom said they found it in a AAA guide more than a decade ago and have been coming back every year since for the specialties, such as yellow squash casserole, which wasn't my favorite, but the fresh corn on the cob and roast pork were tops.

Graves Mountain Lodge's rustic dining room

My sister Jeannie at the lodge in Madison, Va.

In the morning, I took the KLR to a car wash and removed a few thousand miles of oil and dirt. Then, I packed up, said goodbye and headed to Wayne's Cycles in Waynesboro, Va., to have the new fork seals and gaiters installed. I spent a long afternoon in Wayne's showroom fondling the new bikes while a mechanic became available to do the work. They were finished by 5 p.m., luckily. I'm afraid if I'd stayed longer, I might have ridden out of there on a new Kawasaki Concours 14. I admit I was doing monthly payment calculations in my head.

The KLR's shiny new fork boots

Waynesboro is at the south end of the Skyline Drive and the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The inevitable afternoon thunderstorm came through during my wait, but the weather cleared just as I was leaving and I had a beautiful ride down about 80 miles of the parkway to the campground and lodge at Peaks of Otter, pitched my tent and rode to the lodge for an incredible $11 turkey dinner that I couldn't finish even though I missed lunch. The lodge overlooks a quiet pond where a great blue heron was at work and meadow where deer were grazing in the dusk.

Sunset at Peaks of Otter

The Lodge at Peaks of Otter -- a great place for dinner

After northern New England's moose and Pennsylvania's elk warnings, I shouldn't have been surprised by Virginia's bear alerts -- but I was. There has been no shortage of prime wildlife habitat on my journey in the reforested eastern mountains and nature is taking advantage of it.

Bears? In Virginia? Yes.

In the morning I was off to Kingsport, Tenn., to meet Chris, leaving the BRP at Roanoke and heading back in time, twisting through the farms of the western Virginia hills.

Motorcycling bliss: 40 mile-per-hour S-bends

Unfortunately, Wednesday's weather wasn't as cooperative as Tuesday's and three different storms washed over me -- the first right at the West Virginia border, the second when I was back in Virginia and the last as I rolled into Bristol, Tenn. This last storm was a real gully-washer, flooding the streets. Under one railroad underpass, the water was at least a foot deep.

The mist rises from the hollows below the Blue Ridge

I put my GPS into the tank bag to stay dry and stopped at a cycle shop to ask directions. The shopkeeper said to head out past the Bristol Motor Speedway and take a right for Kingsport. "Of course it's raining," he said. "It's race week and it always rains during race week so all those guys in RVs can get stuck in the mud."

The Speedway was an impressive sight -- right up there with the stadium I drove by at Penn State, which is now the biggest football stadium in the country, seating 107,282. In fact, Bristol seats 165,000 around its half-mile oval!

It was race week at Bristol Motor Speedway

"This is Joe. He followed me home. Can I keep him?" Chris asked, pulling up next to me on his Harley at the Warrior Path State Park campground in Kingsport.

Joe DiSalvatori is a big, suntanned New Yorker from Staten Island who rides a full-dress Kawasaki. He and Chris met for the first time that morning at the Waffle House in Murfreesboro where they were both having breakfast. Joe was on his way home from San Antonio, Texas, and planning to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway north. Naturally, they joined up and rode east to Kingsport together, pacing themselves to stay in the dry space between two thunderstorms, while I rode west.

Chris and I set up our tents and the three of us went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, then stopped at a Chilli's for a beer before Joe took off to ride overnight straight through to Staten Island, despite Chris' urging him to come with us.

We didn't notice the railroad crossing near the campground entrance until the coal trains started coming through around 11 p.m., an almost hourly event all night long. Each train, of course, had to blow two longs, one short, one long on its whistle while the crossing lights flashed, bells rang and the bar came down to block the road. The racket from the trains was punctuated by raccoons' knocking over the trash cans. Meanwhile, a gentle rain guaranteed our bikes and tents were well-soaked by morning.

Motorcycle camping isn't for wimps.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rocking in the cradle of the Civil War

It was Thursday afternoon, Aug. 13. Malcolm Moran and I discussed the NFL fortunes of Colt Brennan, former record-breaking University of Hawaii quarterback, now with the Washington Redskins.

"According to an article Mary sent me, people are saying he's the Redskins' best quarterback," I said.

"Yeah," Malcolm said, "but that's like saying he's the smartest Spice Girl."

Malcolm used to cover sports for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, but now he's teaching sports journalism at Penn State in State College.

I'd dropped in almost unannounced after sending emails and trying to leave voicemails at out-of-date addresses. We talked about my trip.

"I think it would make a great Saturday Night Live skit to have a GPS giving turn-by-turn directions with a Bronx accent and an attitude," Malcolm said. "You know, 'Hey, you blockhead, I said turn right already. Wassah matter, you deaf?'"

We called our friend Deb Reichman, whom I planned to visit next. Deb works for the Associated Press, just got back from a brief stint in Bagdad and plans to take on a new assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan. Malcolm tried to talk her out of it.

"Deb, you can come up here to State College for Thanksgiving. The following Monday, is a state holiday -- opening day of deer season. We can sit out on the deck, have a drink and you'll hear all the gunfire you could ever want."

Speaking of gunfire, Gettysburg was my next stop after State College. To get there involved crossing two mountain ridges -- lots of hairpin turns. I stayed overnight Thursday at a commercial campground. The best feature was the kiln-dried firewood they sold -- instant campfire.

I bought a few apples at a grocery store -- new eastern crop. Wow -- were they great! Gettysburg is a big apple-growing area with miles and miles of orchards -- they know their apples. Too bad we don't get crisp Delicious and McIntosh apples in Hawaii.

Friday morning I toured the Gettysburg battlefield, which is a sobering experience. On July 1 through 3 in 1863, some 158,300 soldiers clashed. There were 51,000 casualties. Bronze plaques mark the position of each unit and describe the part it played and the number of dead and wounded.

Much of the Gettysburg battlefield looks today as it did in 1863

Then, I was off to Deb's house in Hagerstown, Md., which was in the thick of the action during the Civil War. I also toured the nearby Antietam battlefield, where 23,100 men were killed or wounded on Sept. 16 to 18, 1862.

The Antietam Battlefield war memorial

Antietam's battlefield museum is much like that at Gettysburg

Deb's excited about her new career as a war correspondent. She spent seven years in the pressure cooker of covering the White House and is ready for something new and different.

She was entertaining her son Brian, his wife Anna and their new baby Dimitri who had moved to San Francisco after their wedding and were back in Hagerstown to host a party to visit friends. We had a great dinner and teamed up Friday evening to get food ready for the party.

Saturday morning I entered Shenandoah National Park at Front Royal, Va., about an hour from Hagerstown, passing briefly through West Virginia. What followed was about three hours of motorcycle bliss, winding along the ridgeline on Skyline Drive for 105 miles. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, which I observed faithfully (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) but there are observation areas every mile or two and the slower vehicles tend to pull over.

Skyline Drive looks down on the beautiful Shenandoah Valley

Emerging at the south end of the drive, I headed to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson. Having covered more than 1,000 miles in the last week, I mused about how large the world remains in spite of today's technology and infrastructure and about the incredible vision of men like Jefferson who accomplished so much without computers, cell phones, GPS, high-tech camping gear, paved highways or internal-combustion engines.

What John looks like after 1,000 miles of twisty roads

I'll spend a few days in Charlottesville, catch up on this blog and get ready for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Goodbye moose; hello elk

Thursday, Aug. 13 -- When I got up Thursday morning, all my gear was soaked with dew. Wednesday evening, I'd checked into the campground on the honor system at the state park office, which was almost a mile from the campground itself. As a senior camper in a tent, my fee was $16.50 for a campsite without electricity. I didn't have change, so I put a $20 bill in the registration envelope, stuffed it in the slot and headed to the campground.

When I got there, I found the tent sites were all soggy from a thunderstorm. I was going to abandon my $20 and go look for a motel, but another camper suggested I take a look at one of the RV sites on higher ground. I did and, since there were plenty of empty sites, I pitched my tent -- after all, I'd paid extra and I'd just recharge my laptop, not run an air conditioner all night.

In the morning I had stuff spread out drying on the picnic tables on three adjacent campsites when a rider on a BMW R1100GS zoomed into the campground to use the restroom. On his way out, he spotted my bike and stopped to chat.

Turned out, he had a cabin nearby and visited every year. He asked where I was headed next and I asked him to recommend a route. "You've gotta go down Route 155, the Elk Trail," he said. "You'll really enjoy that -- and you might even see an elk."

Was there a good place to stop for breakfast? "The Buttonwood Hotel, right down the road here in Emporium. Order the hash-brown omelet -- it's the best."

I was just buckling my helmet, when an SUV with Department of Natural Resources stickers on the doors pulled up at my campsite and a uniformed ranger climbed out. I thought I was going to be busted for camping in the wrong site.

"Mr. Flanagan?" the ranger asked.


"Glad I caught you," he said. "Here's your change." He handed me $3.50.

The waitress at the Buttonwood agreed the hash-brown omelet was the house specialty. It arrived hanging off both sides of the plate, filled with ham, hash browns, onions and peppers. I thought it would take an effort to finish. I was wrong.

It turned out, the route recommendation was also spot-on.

No more moose to worry about -- now I faced the prospect of colliding with an elk

You can get there from here in the Alleghenies, but there are no straight lines from A to B

It was a beautiful day to meander through the hollows

It doesn't get much better than this -- approaching State College, Pa.

Over the Falls in a KLR

Eventually, as I arrived in beautiful Niagara Falls, N.Y., the morning overcast burned off and the sun beat down on a very crowded scene, with hawkers waving orange flags to lure vacationers into $10 parking spots, t-shirt vendors, refreshments stands and lots of harried-looking parents herding their kids down to the river's edge.

You could buy two t-shirts for the price of a parking place

Somehow, in spite of growing up only a few hundred miles away on the other end of the New York State Throughway, I managed to avoid ever visiting one of the continent's oldest attractions. Being able to walk up and almost touch so much raw power, it's easy to understand why people have been visiting the Falls for centuries.

What you see as you enter the park at American Falls

Niagara Falls, Canada's skyline is more impressive than the U.S. side's

Riding the Maid of the Mist looked like it'd be fun, if you were a sardine

The boats go right under Horseshoe Falls -- wet and wild

After checking out the state park out on Goat Island, which affords an upclose view of the impressive Horseshoe Falls, I decided I'd had enough of the tourist scene, got on the bike and headed south, planning to stop in State College, Pa., where a friend teaches at Penn State.

I set the Blackberry's GPS to avoid highways and toll roads and it took me to NY 78, called "Transit Road," a miserable hot ride lined by strip malls and frequently interrupted by traffic lights. After an hour or so of that, I escaped the Buffalo urban area and slid into the Allegheny mountains.

In late afternoon, thunderstorms swept through the area I was riding into. In Franklinvlle, N.Y. the front yards of homes along the road south were flooded, the pavement was wet and approaching cars had their wipers on. In Ischua, the rain caught me and I stopped under the roof at a gas station/mini mart where a couple of muddy ATV riders who were waiting out the storm drinking sodas and eating slices of pizza.

That seemed like a good idea, so I bought a couple of slices of pepperoni and a Diet Pepsi and joined them. After about a half hour, the rain stopped, the ATVers buzzed off on their muddy four-wheelers and I headed past Olean, N.Y., crossing into Pennsylvania at Bullis Mills and gliding through the hollows down to Sizerville, where I spotted the tents and trailers of a state park campground.

The rain had stopped and the forecast was good, so I pulled in to spend the night.