Thursday, April 8, 2010

Zipping through New England and getting a charge out of Albany

Inside my helmet I was singing Sweet Baby James as I rolled through the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts:

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go ...

I was happy there was no frosting today. It was chilly when I left Portsmouth, but the color of the day wasn't white. It was yellow. Bright yellow daffodils and forsythia brightened the otherwise gray landscape and the thermometer hit balmy summer numbers by afternoon.

Bright yellow forsythia bushes are in bloom everywhere

Sticking to two-lane blacktop wherever I could, I cruised down US 202 to the village where I grew up, Belchertown. When it was founded back in 1733, it was named Cold Spring but was renamed for a favorite son politician sometime in the nineteenth century. Bad move.

Beautiful town, but an ugly name.

The town common looks much like it did when I was growing up here in the 1950s. The white steeple of the Congregational church still dominates the skyline and looks down on the Civil War memorial.

Belchertown's landmarks decorate the common.

After grinding through the traffic in Holyoke and Westfield, I escaped into the twisting roads of the Berkshires, stopping for a break and a snack at Papa's Healthy Food and Grill in Otis, where the kid at the cash register said the town's winter population is about 900, but come summer it surges to more than 10,000.

Papa's sells beer coozies -- the foam sleeves to keep your brew cold -- decorated with the sentiment: "I still miss my ex, but my aim is getting better."

I cruised by Great Barrington's green ski slopes and out of West Stockbridge, where I reached the New York state line.

Technically, this is where New England ends.

I stopped at the line and called my friend Judy, who was going to meet me in Stockbridge -- except she'll be there in May, not April. Judy's from the area, so I snapped a picture with my cell phone and sent it to her.

My goal for the day was to get to Port Jervis, N.Y. Riding off the Interstates through the New York City-to-Philadelphia metroplex is no fun. My strategy, therefore, was to cross the Hudson well north of Manhattan and circle around the urban congestion through Delaware Water Gap and the Pocono Mountains.

Unfortunately, there was a large city in the way of my plan. Albany. I haven't been in Albany since the 1960s and it has grown. The capital city has a breathtaking skyline, but it also has endless avenues of unsynchronized traffic lights that lack left-turn lanes. Traffic in this city gives stop-and-go a deeper and uglier meaning.

As I struggled out Western Avenue toward the freedom of the open road, my GPS, plugged into a cigaret-lighter outlet I added to the bike last year, kept going on and off. Each time it lost power it would beep, and beep again when the power was restored. After about four excruciating miles of crawling from red light to red light with the GPS beeping, I pulled into a Sunoco station to see if I could tighten up the connection.

I shut down the engine and found a rubber band to secure the plug in the outlet. Then I turned the key. There was no nuetral light. I fiddled with the gear shift but couldn't seem to find neutral. Hmmmm.

I squeezed the clutch and tried the starter. Nada.

With the key on, the headlight should be lit. It wasn't.

The KLR was dead. Something wrong with the battery?

Where is the battery on this thing? Could it be the ignition switch? A blown fuse? I'm at a loss.

Then I remember a sailing trip I took with my brother and two friends - both named David -- to Molokai about ten years ago. We unplugged the shore power at about 8 p.m. at the Ala Wai dock and the engine started right up. We shut the motor down outside the harbor, put up the sails and headed for Kaunakakai. Our wives would fly over in the morning and meet us.

The upwind sail was uneventful until we hit the lee of Molokai and the wind died. The plan was to start the engine at that point and motor up the coast to the harbor. I turned the ignition key and heard a click, but no starter. The batteries, which seemed just fine back in Honolulu, were dead and we were still 15 miles from our destination.

It took us until 4 the next afternoon beating into the eye of the wind before we docked at Kaunakakai and met our spouses, who had spent the day waiting for us and enjoying the town's visitor attractions, which number between few and none, depending on how much you like t-shirts with pictures of fish on them.

But back to Albany. I remembered my AAA card, pulled it out and dialed the 800 number. A nice lady back in Honolulu answered. She couldn't help, but did connect me with AAA in New York. The AAA guy asked for my membership number. Turns out I don't have an RV and Motorcycle membership, so they couldn't solve the problem. However, the agent gave me the number for Pep Boys in Albany.

The Pep boy who answered wasn't sure if they sold motorcycle batteries. Maybe I could get a cab and bring my old battery to the store and they could see if they had one that size?

Were there any other auto parts stores that might carry motorcycle batteries? Well, Advance Autoparts was just across the street. Got their number. No.

I called 411 and got the number for Advance. A gruff voice answered, said his name was Mike and could I hold? After three minutes on hold I hung up and dialed again. This time Mike said he had a customer and would be with me in just a minute. When he came back on the line I explained my problem. He had a battery, Mike said, but it wasn't charged. It would need to go on a charger overnight. Could we put it in the cycle tonight and start the bike with jumper cables? No, Mike said, that wouldn't work -- "Wait, I'll call you right back."

I paced the parking lot. A motorcyclist drove by avoiding eye contact. Another guy on a Harley rode in and filled up without giving me a glance.

The phone rang. It was Mike. "Look, I found a gel battery that comes fully charged at one of our other stores. Call them and tell them exactly where you are and they'll deliver it."

About 15 minutes later, a truck pulled up with my new battery. I'd already unbolted the seat and side panels and pulled the old one. The new one went right in and the engine started right up.

The guy who brought the battery said if I had a chance I ought to stop by the store and chat with Mike. "He said he had some tips on good roads you might want to try."

My guardian angel, Mike Jahn of Advance Auto Parts.

I buttoned up and reloaded the bike, keyed the store's address into the GPS and headed off to thank Mike. On the way there, the sun went down and I noticed the headlight wasn't working. I parked at the Advance store and met Mike. I thanked him for all his help and said, unfortunately the lights aren't all working. He offered to lend me tools if I needed any and said I could bring the bike into the store to work on it.

I didn't take him up on that offer right away. I could see well enough to get the seat and side panels off. I wiggled the wires and connectors and the headlight came on. Success?

I put the seat and panels back on, thanked Mike again and started the bike. No headlight.

This time I took Mike up on his offer and rolled the KLR into the store. Pulled the seat, checked the fuses again, wiggled the connections. The headlight came on, went off, flickered. But one of the wires connected to the fuses was hot and getting hotter while I held it. Mike came over and I showed him.

"I used to install car stereos for a living," Mike said. He said he had tools in his car and wires, connectors, fuses, eveything I'd need, in the store. We cut out the old wire and installed one with heavier gauge and a new fuse holder. Wrapped it with heavy duty electrician's tape.

Headlight works. GPS works. It's all good. Mike tells me he rides a 1300cc V-Star cruiser and has been down the Blue Ridge to North Carolina, rode the Tail of the Dragon and other roads I travelled last summer. He said he was stranded once with a flat tire and a couple of guys on BMWs stopped, plugged the tire and blew it up with a portable inflator. "I know how it feels to be stranded on your bike," he said.

There's a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
But singing works just fine for me


  1. THANK YOU Mike at Advance Auto Parts!!! Pep Boys vs Advance....I think I know which I will choose from now on!!!! Stay safe! Betsy

  2. Sounds like a great adventure. You know the rolling hills of Missouri would welcome you here and you could stay over as well.