Sunday, September 13, 2009

To the tip of the world and back

Friday, Sept. 11 -- My sister Betsy and her husband Ed installed a steam shower a few years ago at their house in Portsmouth, N.H., and I sat in it for a half hour of deep appreciation on the afternoon I arrived thoroughly chilled on the last leg of my eastern circuit, down the Appalachian Mountains and back up the coast.

I'd decided that morning to breakfast in Provincetown, Mass., on the outermost tip of Cape Cod. That was the day's first destination. A sprinkle of rain on the tent at about 6:15 got me up and packing to leave before something wetter arrived. The road wound out from my state park campsite in Brewster through Truro. Then, the big sand dunes appeared. The first sign of Provincetown itself was the Pilgrim Memorial, a granite tower on the horizon topped with gargoyles set on a hill above the harbor.

The Cape Cod dunes with the Pilgrim Monument on the horizon

I found a cramped little restaurant in Provincetown where grumpy old waitresses ("I've been working here for 30 years.") served breakfast to tourists in Travelsmith and LL Bean outfits -- cotton sweaters, crushable hats and cargo pants with legs that zip off. The food hit the spot and, after filling up, I got back on the bike and rode out to the Cape Cod National Seashore. Despite the lack of sun and a cold wind that drove beach goers away, a sign there warned that nudity was prohibited -- as if the gray-green waves crashing on the beach encouraged that possibility.

The temperature was 58 degrees, but this sign still warned beach goers to behave

Summer was over and the flag at the Seashore headquarters building was at half staff. My travels had left me out of touch and I thought it was in honor of Teddy Kennedy's death -- after all, I'd passed Hyannis yesterday. Only later did Betsy remind me of 9/11.


I cluelessly thought the flag at Cape Cod National Seashore flew at half mast for Senator Edward Kennedy

Provincetown attracts visitors from Boston who come by ferry, avoiding a long, crowded and not particularly scenic drive out US 6. Many were huddled on the pier that morning waiting to board for their return trip. The harbor waters were cold and gray. For me, the only real highlight of my ride from Newport, R.I., on Thursday afternoon was the bridge over the Cape Cod Canal -- a high steel arch that lifted me high enough to enjoy the view north to the Bay and south toward Hyannis.

The cold, gray waters of the Provincetown, Mass., harbor

From the Cape, I stayed on the main highways all the way north through Boston's Big Dig tunnels and over the snazzy Lenny Zakim Bridge to I-90, I-95 and US 1 all the way to Portsmouth and that hot shower.

As I rode that last leg, I added up the numbers in my head: 6,000 miles, five weeks, 40 stops for gasoline, four ferry crossings, two oil changes, and 20 states: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Caroline, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

I'd seen both ends of the Appalachian Trail and ridden the length of the Outer Banks, the Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace and the Tail of the Dragon. I'd filled in some blanks -- places I'd never visited but always thought I should: Moosehead Lake, Niagara Falls, Vicksburg and Cape Cod. Threatened by moose, elk, bears and beset by chiggers and mosquitoes, I still spent more nights in a tent than in motels.

Riding a motorcycle seems to involve even more sitting and less exercise than sailing. Twenty years after the 29-day passage Mary and I made from Seattle to Honolulu in a 37-foot ketch, my five-weeks on two wheels proved to have similarly positive results physically.

I ate barbecue, biscuits, lobster, gumbo, mashed potatoes and waffles but didn't gain weight. No colds, flu or allergy attacks slowed me down and I developed an iron butt that, with the help of half a sheepskin donated by my brother, could endure a 400-mile day on a single-cylinder thumper.

Would I do it again?

Can't wait.

Getting down to the last leg

Thursday, Sept. 10 -- The toll taker at the high bridge over Narragansett Bay into Newport, R.I., said, "You guys really get screwed" when I handed him $4 -- the same toll passenger cars pay. Still, the ride was worth it on a sunny Thursday morning after a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast and an uneventful ride from Hammonasset Beach.

I'd visited Newport's fantastic mansions and harbor years ago, so passing through was mostly a way to get off the Interstate and see some of the countryside before heading out to Cape Cod. While most East Coast vacation spots were sparsely attended after Labor Day, however, Newport was jammed.

The high bridge over Newport Harbor provided a breath-taking view

Police had set up multiple detours for some unknown reason and getting to the downtown waterfront down a tangle of narrow streets was a challenge. Once there -- the GPS again took me right to City Hall -- I found a spot to park the bike next to another motorcycle, buttoned things up a bit and went looking for lunch.

Newport's harbor restaurants proved to be tailored for visiting yachtsmen and a bit rich for my taste. Since "local cuisine" seemed to be lobster and New York strip steaks washed down with a piquant French vintage, I walked around for a bit and settled for a Subway sandwich.

I had a bit of a scare when I saw I'd left the key in the ignition and the headlight on when I'd parked more than an hour ago -- something I'm frequently guilty of. Happily, no one was observant enough to drive away on the unlocked bike, the battery still held a charge and the engine started right up.

Leaving Newport, it wasn't long before I was out of Rhode Island and making my way through the fat elbow of Cape Cod which, like Niagara Falls, is a place other people I grew up with went in the summer, but our family didn't.

By late afternoon, I was ready to camp, find some groceries and have a light dinner. I could still taste the five-dollar-foot-long I had for lunch, so a little bread, cheese and a fresh-picked apple washed down with a little airplane bottle or two of Sutter Home Cabernet would do the job.

I found Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass., which is about 30 miles short of my target, the tip of the Cape, and made camp. The camp store sold plastic-wrapped bundles of "kiln dried" fire wood for $5 plus tax and I indulged.

Sitting on a log by the fire, I contemplated nearing the end of my trek. On Sunday, Mary was flying into Manchester, N.H., from her visit to Nebraska. It was getting cold and the forecast was for cloudy skies. I could make it to Portsmouth by Friday evening, a day ahead of schedule.

Ground Zero and beyond

Flanman asked a passer-by to take his picture at the Brooklyn Bridge

Wednesday, Sept. 9 -- When I'd arrived at the North Wildwood motel at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the office was closed. I asked some folks who were sitting on their balconies over the tiny pool enjoying a few beers if they knew where the staff were. "Oh, they left this afternoon," one woman said. "Things are pretty slow around here."

How could I get into a room? I had an email confirmation of a reservation, but no key. "If you got an email, there should be a number to call, right?" she suggested. That worked. A young man with an eastern European accent showed up about 20 minutes later, asked about my trip, let me into a pool-side room and showed me where I could park the bike off the street and out of sight.

"I always want to take trip like that," he said.

Wildwood has none of the glitz, newness or polish of Myrtle Beach. It's a gritty old sea-side town populated by low-budget tourists and recent immigrants. A Spanish-language show blared from the TV at the laundromat where I dried my clothes while a skinny, hammered-looking guy in a straight-brimmed baseball cap and calf-length basketball shorts mopped the floor and two young Hispanic women chatted while they folded a load of clothes. A blonde in shorts showed up to move her laundry to a dryer only to find the washer never started.

"You gotta slam it," the guy with the mop said, unapologetic, and demonstrated the technique. The blonde sighed and sat down with a paperback to wait.

Next morning, the forecast wasn't great for South Jersey, but things looked to be better further north. To avoid spending the day on the Garden State Parkway, I set the GPS to avoid toll roads and set off, stopping for breakfast at the airport in Ocean City, just south of Atlantic City, which consisted of a parking lot, a runway and a building housing both the aviation operation and a cafe, staffed by a cheerful waitress and a competent short-order cook.

From there, I passed through the grim streets of Atlantic City, where urban blight is tenuously held at bay by Trump's casinos, which are beginning to show their age. The newer gambling palaces, like Harrah's, have abandoned the old Boardwalk and sit on the previously undeveloped, muddy bay shore. What do gamblers care about ocean views anyway?

Harrah's Casino in Atlantic City

It rained briefly as I passed through the Pine Barrens on my way north to Newark, so I stopped to put on my rain gear. An hour further north, I took off the jacket and gaiters, but kept the pants on just in case all the way to Manhattan, which I reached weaving through a maze of construction projects to the Lincoln Tunnel. Stopping under elevated highways leading into the city, I saw enough rusted steel and rotting concrete to wonder how long this transportation system can last before disaster strikes.

From Midtown, the GPS led me to New York's City Hall -- if you don't specify an address, that's where a Garmin will always take you. The sun came out and I found a space at the curb to dismount, take off my rain pants and shoot a picture.

The GPS led me directly to City Hall in New York City

From there, I headed south toward Battery Park, thinking I could take some pictures of the harbor. As I passed through the Village and got closer to Ground Zero, however, security checkpoints had traffic at a standstill and I detoured to South Street Seaport, then up the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge, where I stopped for some photos.

The photogenic Brooklyn Bridge still rivals the shiny new spans

I ended up at South Street Seaport after hitting the pre-9/11 snarl of checkpoints near Ground Zero

Transportation options create a maze of iron, steel and concrete on the Lower East Side

The FDR Expressway up the East Side, probably the most exciting and dangerous piece of road I encountered in the entire trip, took me up to Harlem before I found a bridge to the Bronx, where I saw a sign for Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, I never saw another stadium sign -- I would have liked to take a picture of the new arena -- and ended up on old US 1 heading through New Rochelle to Larchmont.

Eileen, my dad's older sister, lived in Larchmont when I was a kid growing up in Western Massachusetts and we used to drive down to visit her family. Barry, her husband, worked at a museum in the city, commuting by train, and, although my cousins had cool English bicycles, took violin lessons and lived in a big house that even had servants' quarters, the family didn't own an automobile and I felt sorry for them. My brief visit to affluent Larchmont proved that my pity was misplaced.

North of Larchmont, homeward-bound traffic on US 1 became irksome and I got on I-95. As I reached Stamford, one of the screws holding the windshield and fairing together vibrated loose and got off the bike. With the windshield flapping up and down, I got off the highway and used the GPS to find a Home Depot, where I figured I could find a replacement.

With things back together, I used the Blackberry to Google state parks with camping, got back on I-95 and headed to Hammonasset State Park, on the Long Island Sound, which was staffed by volunteers happy to put me up for the night in a tent site in the, Algonquin Section, which proved to be hard to find until a pleasant Canadian man with a French accent took pity on the guy on the motorcycle with the map flapping in the breeze and told me I was on the wrong road.

The nice volunteer recommended a nearby seafood restaurant for dinner and a Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast. She was right about breakfast, but the watery chowder I had at the fish place had me missing the food in Maine.

It wouldn't be long before I could have some real chowder.

Another day, four more states

Tuesday, Sept. 8 -- For a minute or two, the sun came out and I saw my shadow as I headed toward Norfolk, Va., from Kill Devil Hills. A thought crossed my mind: Could this mean six more weeks of rain?

By the time I got to Norfolk, the sky had opened. The streets were partially flooded and there was a real danger someone in front of me would stop shirt to avoid a puddle and get rear-ended. Several times cars coming toward me hit massive puddles and send waves of water over the median. Luckily, there was enough traffic I could see them coming and avoid getting hit by solid water.

As I reached the toll booth for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel both the traffic and the rain thinned. I would only have to deal with 23 miles of crosswind as I crossed the mouth of the bay.

I stopped for a break on the north end of the Bridge-Tunnel

There are two tunnels and a high bridge in addition to miles and miles of low bridge. Quite an experience -- at least there was very little traffic.

On the other side, I rode through Easter Shore Virginia, which is basically farm country, to Maryland and took the road to Ocean City, Md., where the rain started to really come down again. When I reached the Delaware state line it cleared up a bit and I had a good time checking out Bethany Beach and Rehoboth -- my old stomping grounds back in the early 1970s. Compared to Myrtle Beach and Ocean City, the Delaware towns have done a great job of controlling development.

I drove up to Lewes, Del., just north of Rehoboth, and checked when the next ferry was to leave for New Jersey. Then I sat on a bench in "downtown" Lewes and found a $45 motel room in the Cape May, N.J., area on

I stopped for pizza and then boarded the big boat for New Jersey. It does the same distance -- 25 miles -- as the one to Okracoke Island, but in less than half the time -- of course the fare is three times as big.

The Lewes, Del., waterfront from the ferry to Cape May, N.J.

The gulls were plentiful, but hard to photograph with an auto-focus camera

There were five bikes on the ferry; the big Goldwing tipped over mid-crossing

I arrived in Cape May without having my bike capsize. Another guy on a motorcycle wasn't as lucky. He rode aboard towing a trailer on a huge Honda Goldwing, which fell over as soon as the ferry got outside the breakwater and started to roll a bit. I helped him get it back upright and move it to a better angle so it wouldn't be sideways to the roll.

In Wildwood, I took my wet clothes to a laundromat and dried them. The weather
forecast for the next day was bleak -- heavy rain on the Jersey coast
starting at noon.

When the weather worsens, the adventure begins

Monday, Sept. 7 -- When the sound of raindrops hitting the tent woke me just before 7 a.m. the other day, I was having a revelation: Dealing with weather is the common denominator of adventure.

Sailing around the world, launching a rocket into space, flying solo across an ocean, dog sledding in the Iditarod, winning a British Open golf tournament, climbing Everest -- in every case, weather is the challenge.

Automobiles make weather irrelevant. Only a blizzard, tornado or major flood can crack the waterproof, soundproof, aerodynamic, air-conditioned oyster of a modern car or truck. A typical automobile road trip is no more adventurous than an afternoon in church.

My motorcycle trip, on the other hand, continued to be more adventurous than planned -- so adventurous, in fact, that on my ride from Morehead City to Kill Devil Hills, N.C., my replacement camera remained in its case, inside a dry sack, packed in the tank bag, encased in a rain cover held down by bungee cords and I have no pictures of that day's leg.

It's too bad, too. It included two ferry rides, swamped highways, towns named Atlantic, Sealevel, Whalebone, Nags Head and Salvo, light houses and drifting sand dunes. With thunderstorms and five to six inches of rain predicted, the local weather was the lead national story on the Weather Channel. The radar showed a big blob of adventure being pushed ashore by light easterly winds.

I almost chickened out. The forecast for inland Raleigh was better -- partly cloudy with showers beginning in the afternoon. The online NOAA forecast, however, was winds of no more than 15 miles per hour at the Outer Banks. That much wind wouldn't spoil a day of golf in Hawaii. I went for it.

It's 25 miles from where the road ends northeast of Morehead City to Okracoke Island

My route took me from Cedar Isle, which was awash, 25 miles across Pamlico Sound to Okracoke Island, the southernmost point of North Carolina's Outer Banks. I drove to the north end of Okracoke and took a second ferry to Hatteras Island. From there, I rode up the narrow strip of barrier-island sand to Kitty Hawk, made famous by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

I found a motel in Kill Devil Hills and brought my gear inside. The duffel bag with my clothes had wicked water up from the underside and most of my clothes were soaked, but otherwise everything was OK. I went looking for a laundromat to dry my clothes, but found a Mexican restaurant instead and warmed up with a burrito splashed with salsa and washed down with a cold beer.

It wasn't until I was leaving the next morning that I noticed the motel had a laundry room with a clothes dryer. Oh, well; changing into clean, dry clothes would just have to wait.

Myrtle Beach could use more charm, less concrete

Sunday, Sept. 6 -- OK, I'm jaded, but to me Hawaii is simply a much more inviting place for a sun and surf vacation than Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Besides having more than 100 area golf courses, Myrtle Beach is the acknowledged vacation mecca for much of the East Coast. Souvenir shops, hotels and condos flank the eastern side of the road, walling off the ocean for miles, while the inland side is lined with outlandish miniature golf courses, water parks and more shops.

Determined Labor Day vacationers throng a chilly Myrtle Beach

On the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, the weather wasn't the best, but that didn't deter hundreds of beach goers anxious to enjoy a few hours on the sand before the weather got even worse.

Holiday beach goers bask under overcast skies

The weather appeared to be better suited for an outing on the Cherry Grove fishing pier. It was definitely the kind of day in Hawaii where we'd rather forgo the beach.

Myrtle Beach condos and resorts wall off the ocean for miles

A lovely way to spend a vacation

From Myrtle Beach, US 17 continues up the coast, crossing into North Carolina after a few miles and eventually crossing the Cape Fear River into Wilmington, N.C., a city of about 100,000 population close enough to Wrightsville Beach, N.C., to avoid the kind of beach-resort over-development to which Myrtle Beach has succumbed.

The battleship North Carolina invites Wilmington visitors

The birthplace of Michael Jordan and David Brinkley, Wilmington has a mile-long river walk with restaurants, shops and the battleship North Carolina, distinguished from Hawaii's battleship Missouri by its camouflage paint job.

The city was founded in 1739 and was a base for Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War. It wasn't captured by Union troops until February 1865 and many of its gracious antebellum homes in its 300-block historic district survived the war relatively undamaged.

A kayaker paddles toward the drawbridge over the Cape Fear River

Wilmington's riverfront is a great place for a leisurely lunch

I stopped for lunch at the waterfront restaurant pictured above and enjoyed fish and chips and a salad and chatted with a fellow motorcyclist, a CEO of a bio-tech firm based in the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle. We enjoyed a glass of wine and swapped stories. Turned out, we had a lot in common. He'd studied chemistry at the University of Delaware about the same time that I was starting my newspaper career in Wilmington, Del. He'd also lived in Northern California, where I'd spent a few years in the mid-1980s before moving to Hawaii. In fact, he'd even lived on Maui for a few months.

Wilmington's waterfront is cozy but still sports a steamboat

After my pleasant lunch in Wilmington, I continued up the coast while the rain clouds gathered. While I considered exploring the small coastal towns, I figured I was better off staying on US 17 and stopping for the night at a motel in Morehead City. Camping in the rain held no appeal.

Chewing up the scenery in Charleston

Saturday, Sept. 5 -- Charleston, S.C., is where the Civil War began and the city isn't going to let folks forget it. Bombarded and seized in April 1861, the Confederacy held the fort and the harbor for the duration of the war, only returning it to Union forces on April 14, 1865 -- exactly four years after its surrender and five days after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Unfortunately, there was no place to leave the motorcycle with all the gear strapped on it. I stopped at the old Market, where grass weavers sell baskets, horse-drawn carriages ply the streets and Labor Day weekend tourists thronged the shops.

The historic Market in Charleston is a tourist magnet

This visitor found a fountain in Charleston's Market most interesting

I did stop on the Bay Street waterfront and took a few pictures where visitors strolled the seawall and a local entrepreneur sold bottles of water out of a cooler.

A tiny crowd gathered around the KLR. One young man asked how many miles it had on it and how it was running. "I just bought one and I'm wondering how it holds up," he said.

I said it was running fine for a thumper, a single-cylinder bike that shakes pretty good, except at a few favorite speeds. I told him to watch the oil level and he shouldn't have any troubles.

A second man said he rode a KLR through Mexico a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. He asked about my trip, which was a month old by now.

The Bay Street waterfront looks out on the harbor and Fort Sumpter, seized by Confederate forces on April 13, 1861, beginning the Civil War

Mortars like these sealed the fate of Fort Sumpter in 1861

The Battery Park, also known as White Point Gardens, at the foot of Bay Street includes monuments to the Confederacy in addition to huge siege mortars like the ones used to lob explosives into Fort Sumpter. The Fort was built to defend against naval forces and was at a disadvantage when it came to fending off attack from the shore it was designed to protect.

The park was also the site used for the city gallows and a number of pirates were hung there in the early 1700s. Now, it's the scene of many weddings.

Charleston's beautiful mansions are squeezed into choice neighborhoods

Charleston has beautiful neighborhoods with well-preserved or restored colonial mansions and cottages on narrow, shady streets. My friend Merrily Dunn said both Charleston and Savannah are captivating, but many folks prefer to visit Charleston because it has more variety. On this holiday weekend, I could see why that would be the case. Still, despite Charleston's many virtues, I was captivated by Savannah's old-world charm.

Charleston's spectacular Arthur Ravenel Bridge opened in 2005

Leaving Charleston, I crossed the Ravenal Bridge, one of many new suspension bridges along the Atlantic coast, and took the coast road on Sullivan's Island at first. When I'd had enough of the two-lane traffic, I crossed back to US 17 and after a few miles spotted a roadside cafe.

There were four or five dozen Harley Davidson's parked out front, which to some people means trouble. To me it means cold beer, hot cheeseburgers and sometimes interesting conversation. I was right. Besides a tasty meal, I got to see the Best Bike contest, which was won by a chopper with a Honda 750 four engine. Go figure.

Fortified, I continued north, determined to make it to Myrtle Beach and camp for the night. As darkness closed in, I was still a few miles south of the city when I stumbled on Lakewood Camping Resort which calls itself "the best resort value in Myrtle Beach." At $50 for a tiny tent site within earshot of a late-night country music concert, I find that claim arguable, but without an easy alternative I paid up.

Then, the receptionist said I couldn't drive the motorcycle into the campground -- which was packed with hundreds of RVs -- but I could take a campsite right by the entrance and park next to it. The good news: The weather remained dry and pleasant and I got a good night's sleep.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The damp of Savannah

Friday, Sept. 4 -- After a lovely dinner, a walk along the Savannah River, a good night's sleep and doing a spot of laundry, I bid aloha to Augusta, Ga., and our friend Claudia and headed down the road toward historic Savannah, next to Natchez my southernmost stop. Along the way, I stopped for some barbecue and captured some of the rural scenery.

Cows cool off the old-fashioned way as the cooling towers of the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant loom on the horizon

For just $5, you can keep it "crunk all night long" in Rincon, Ga.

One could become a connoisseur of barbecue in the South

After what seemed like hours getting down the last stretch of straight, flat, four-lane GA 21 through Effingham, I finally arrived in Savannah's shady downtown. Since it was a sunny day, I continued on across the Moon River -- which truly is "wider than a mile" if you count the grassy shallows -- to Skidway Island State Park, about ten miles from the city, and looked for a dry spot to pitch my tent. Despite the sunshine, the humidity had kept things marshy.

Johnny Mercer's song is named after this river outside Savannah

Having made camp in the jungle near Savannah, I was ready to cook dinner

Saturday morning dawned clear, but everything was soaked with dew. I left it all to dry out and let the GPS take me to town. If you don't specify an address, the machine always takes you to city hall, so that's where I parked that Saturday morning. Two well-dressed ladies pulled up in front of me and, seeing me studying the parking meter, one called "you don't need to feed the meter on Saturdays!"

The gilded dome of City Hall rises along the Savannah river

They were curious about my motorcycle and we chatted for a few minutes. It turned out they were both city councilwomen come to town to meet with dignitaries visiting from Germany and proud and delighted that someone from Hawaii had decided to visit their city.

Savannah city councilwomen welcomed me to the "City of Trees"

Savannah's riverfront -- home to steamboats, artists and revelers -- with the Talmadge Memorial Bridge in the background

Trees offer cool shade and a unique downtown atmosphere

These cobblestone waterfront streets date from the 1700s

The historic district of Savannah has 21 squares, most named for historical persons or events, many with monuments or statues

Savannah's memorials seem to dwell more on the Revolutionary War and less on the War Between the States than other Southern cities. For example, next to City Hall are a brace of cannon captured from Cornwallis at Yorktown, a gift to the city from George Washington in gratitude for contributions to the war effort by Savannah's Chatham Artillery. During the Civil War, the cannon were buried and only unearthed in 1872 after the federal occupation force departed.

After breakfast and a walk through the historic district, I departed, too, returning to Skidway Island, collecting my gear and heading north over the Talmadge Bridge toward Charleston.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Land of the Free

We poke fun at Honolulu's Outdoor Circle when its needle strays off the charts and it tries to ban the Oscar Myer Weinermobile, for example, but arriving in Georgia's Chatahootchee National Forest at the southern end of the Blue Ridge, one appreciates what the Circle has accomplished in holding unbridled commerce at bay.

First, realize that Georgia's mountain scenery is as gorgeous as any along the Appalachians:

The mountains near the Georgia end of the Appalachian Trail

Bass fishing near Clayton, Ga.

But, Georgians as a rule don't believe in stuff like government interference, zoning or public interference in the rights of a citizen to choose a doctor or erect a sign, preferably one bigger, brighter and -- some would say -- more annoying than one's neighbor's:

Route 441 outside Commerce, Ga.

Combine the local preference for franchises over entrepreneurship, and touring Georgia is often like a dip into a sea of product placement as brand names shout for attention.

Southern commerce is in transition. Some towns have redeveloped main streets -- like the one in Ellijay, Ga. -- hung with flower baskets and packed with antique shops, brew pubs and gift shops to lure the tourist trade. Others have been virtually wiped out. The main drag is now a dusty row of empty storefronts punctuated by the gas station/pizza parlor/deli/convenience store/newsstand/restaurant that has sucked up all the commercial vitality leaving the empty husk of what was a bustling little Mayberry.

My friend Claudia Schmidt -- a University of Hawaii MBA and longtime Hawaii marketing expert, now living in Augusta, Ga. -- says this is all the result of the dominant Southern political philosophy: small government, big individual freedom. She's on the homeowners' association board of her lovely little subdivision -- one of the few in the area not named after Bobby Jones -- and said one family pulled up stakes and moved out when they found out the association had a few community rules.

Our friend Claudia has settled down in Evans, Ga., just outside Augusta.

Eat your hearts out, Hawaii friends -- Claudia tells me beautiful new homes like hers, with four bedrooms, three baths and 2,600 square feet, sell for about $260,000

I suppose Hawaii is at the other extreme with our fondness for paternalistic rules and regulations and tendency to legislate everything from hanging laundry outside to dry to leaving cars parked in one spot for more than 72 hours.

Crossing the Georgia state line via the back roads

I arrived in Georgia on Wednesday evening, having left Murfreesboro at the crack of noon. I'd avoided the main route and headed east first to the redundantly named Falls Creek Falls State Park -- which the owner of a UPS store, where I'd stopped to ship some excess baggage back to Maine to sort out at the end of this trip, recommended. He vacations on rented Harleys -- a strategy I might investigate for future trips.

The Falls Falls route delivered some lovely scenery and twisty, two-lane asphalt as promised and dropped me into northwestern Georgia where I started looking for a campsite and happened on the Woodring Branch Campground, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dam that created Carters Lake in Oakman, Ga.

Corps of Engineers campsites are posh

These are some of the finest campsites you can imagine, with asphalt driveways, concrete parking pads, a manicured tent pads, 30 amp electrical service, their own water spigots, barbecues, fire pits, double lantern stands and 10-foot picnic tables, overlooking a lovely lake. Corps of Engineers Recreation Areas are like National Parks, but they employ senior citizen couples to run them instead of Park Rangers.

The folks who checked me in were a hoot. She'd made sausage balls that morning and pressed a couple on me. They were not bad, but kind of mealy. I asked what was in them besides sausage: "Cheese and some Bisquick. You just mash it together, make your balls and pop them in the oven at 350 degrees until they're brown. They're great for breakfast on the go."

You don't get that kind of thing from your average Park Ranger.

Once the tent was up, I rode into Ellijay, had dinner at a pub and watched the Cowboys play the Forty Niners. Then it was back to Woodring Branch, where the weather overnight was perfect. I awoke in a dry tent, took a hot shower and caught up on email while my batteries recharged. By 11 a.m., I was packed and on the road to Athens, Ga., home of our good friend Professor Merrily Dunn of the University of Georgia.

Sanford Stadium, where the Georgia Bulldogs play "between the hedges" in front of 92,746 fans

As Merrily puts it, Athens is an island of Blue in the sea of Georgian Red -- a liberal enclave where Democrats are tolerated but losing football teams are not. We toured the campus and had a great dinner at The Last Resort, Merrily's favorite restaurant in downtown Athens before heading back to her beautiful home and lovable King Charles Spaniel, Libby.

Merrily and her girls, Hannah and Claire, at the University of Georgia's Arch where legend has it undergrads who presume to walk through the arch will never graduate

This bell on the campus was rung after Georgia beat Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and after every other Bulldog victory

Athens streets are decorated with large, fancifully painted bulldogs

Next morning, Merrily and her girls were all off to school and I hit the road to Augusta, stopping first at City Hall to photograph the Athens double-barrel cannon.

The double-barrel cannon -- a military Edsel

This unique experimental piece of artillery was designed by John Gilleland, a member of the "Mitchell Thunderbolts" who served as a home guard during the Civil War. It was supposed to fire two cannon balls connected by a chain and, when fired, was expected to mow down Union troops.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your allegiance -- it proved to be impossible to fire both barrels simultaneously, the chain snapped and the projectiles went off in unpredictable and erratic directions. The failure was donated to the City of Athens, which subsequently used it to fire blanks to celebrate political victories.

Every Southern house needs a front porch and rocking chairs

Merrily's house in Athens is one of the few without a front porch -- but she's originally from Nebraska

In Hawaii we have our lanai, and in the South they have their front porches -- preferably with at least four columns holding up the roof, rocking chairs, porch swings and gliders. You see them on double-wide mobile homes, antebellum mansions and everything in between. Claudia says you sit outside in the fall when the temperature is ideal, watch the neighbors walk their dogs, wave and say howdy.

It's a way of life.