Monday, June 20, 2011

Another adventure, another bike (or two)

Back home in Honolulu in August 2010, I took stock of my two-wheeled adventures: down the Appalachians from Maine to Louisiana and back up the eastern seaboard in 2009, and from Maine to California and back in 2010. Of 50 states, I had visited 40 and my map of states traveled by motorcycle looked like this:

My 2009 and 2010 adventures had taken me through 40 states.

Clearly, any new trip should go through those blank, untraveled states along the northern border: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. I could save Alaska for another day -- it would be a big enough adventure on its own. Meanwhile, I was kicking myself. Why I hadn't made it to Florida when I ridden all the way to Savannah, Ga.? It was only a couple hundred miles from there to Jacksonville.

After my transcontinental journey, I returned to a Vespa GT200. The scooter was perfect urban transportation but couldn't fill my recreational void. I hankered for something with the acceleration and handling I'd grown used to on the KLR. I scanned Craigslist for used bikes that could fill the bill. My friend Daniel, who has a garage full of scooters and motorcycles, set a bad example.

Eventually, I found a 2007 Triumph Bonneville that a Pearl Harbor sailor was selling. It wasn't a long-distance touring bike, but Oahu isn't the place for touring. It's almost impossible to ride 100 miles on the island without finding yourself someplace you've already just been.

The Bonneville on the beach; it's retro, bold, black and beautiful.

One day, my friend David asked if he could drive the Bonnie. He'd once owned a little Honda 175 but hadn't ridden in decades. As a pilot and a sailor, he's handled challenging machines and, what's more, he'd already taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course and gotten the motorcycle endorsement on his driver's license. So, I figured, why not?

Shortly after that ride, David said, after following this blog since it started, he was thinking about buying a motorcycle on the mainland and maybe tagging along on my next trip. He'd crossed the Pacific under sail from Hawaii to California once and was in the crew on a second similar voyage that ended when a sperm whale rammed and sank the yacht. Now, he'd decided he was ready for something different, long-distance motorcycling.

Last fall, David started scanning eBay and Craigslist looking for an adventure touring bike. While visiting his stepdaughter Jennifer in Johnson City, Tenn. last winter, he found a Suzuki V-Strom 650 near Asheville, N.C., bought it and trailered it to Jennifer's house, where he stored it while he came home, got it registered and started researching motorcycle and camping equipment to join me on my northern ride.

Meanwhile, I considered the prospect of another long trip on my thumper. The KLR had served me well and never broken anything I couldn't fix, but it was time for a change. It vibrated painfully, the weak headlight made riding after dark a nightmare and, although it was a delight on twisty, two-lane and dirt roads, it strained to cruise at 70 mph on highways.

As luck would have it, I found a used yellow V-Strom almost identical to David's blue one in Jonesborough, Tenn. -- just five miles from Johnson City. I bought it and it joined David's i Jennifer's garage.

Here's the photo I found on Craigslist of my new mount.

The V-Strom's engine has the same displacement as the KLR's, 650cc, but it has two cylinders, fuel injection, a six-speed transmission, better wind protection, much better headlights, a better seat, easily plugged tubeless tires, more power and less vibration. Where the KLR is a dirt bike that can handle the highway, the V-Strom is a road bike that can manage dirt roads.

In March, David and I flew to Tennessee to get our bikes ready and do some riding. Johnson City is close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs down the spine of the Appalachians from Virginia to Great Smokey Mountain National Park in North Carolina. Shortly after we arrived, in spite of mostly cold, wet weather, we rode to Asheville, N.C. on the Interstate, returning on the BRP and stopping in Spruce Pine for a photo.

Spruce Pine, N.C. is a little railroad town just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

New bikes take getting used to, especially if one hasn't done a lot of riding. Once a motorcycle is at speed, it's easy to manage, but stopping, starting and low-speed turns can be full of surprises, especially on slopes, shoulders and steep driveways. Just mounting and dismounting a tall, top-heavy, loaded-up dual-sport takes practice -- especially for us "mature" riders. Having dropped the KLR a few times in campgrounds and parking lots, I wasn't surprised when David had a few adventures with the V-Strom and was happy to be there to watch him pick his bike up a few times.

David got Logan's motorcycle charged up so she could zip around the garage crashing into things while we worked on the V-Stroms.

Jennifer's house in Johnson City was a perfect base for our preparations with two, two-car garages -- one of which she put at our disposal. Grand-daughter Logan visited us frequently and there were hardware stores and motorcycle shops nearby for tools and parts. Except for the weather, which remained cold and wet despite the blooming dogwoods and daffodils, we had a pleasant time wrenching, installing new gear and sorting out what to pack.

My new ride in downtown Morristown, Tenn.

After about a week, I left Jennifer's to visit our niece Paige, who lives in Morristown, Tenn., about an hour's ride from Johnson City. Paige had spent a summer with Mary and me in Honolulu after she graduated from high school. Since then, she'd earned a degree from the University of Nebraska and moved with her partner Drew, an engineer, first to Kansas City and then to Morristown, which was near a power plant project where Drew worked.

Niece Paige at the Morristown jewelry store where she works.

I put together a monthly electronic newsletter for Hawaii nonprofit organizations and needed a quiet spot with a good Internet connection to write and edit the April edition. Paige and Drew's house in Morristown was perfect. Drew was working nights and Paige was at her jewelry store all day, so I could buckle down and get my monthly chore done, accompanied only by Jersey, their Doberman Pinscher.

My buddy Jersey kept me company while I was in Morristown.

My first night at Paige's, she and Drew took me to dinner and then went out to a 10:30 movie. After my chilly ride from Johnson City, I decided to skip the show and go to bed in their comfortable guest room. I quickly dozed off, only to awake when they came home to find the 100-pound Jersey had crawled into bed without waking me, her heavy head on my stomach. Paige chased her off, but we'd become good friends.

I spent three days in Morristown, doing the newsletter. One evening, Paige took me to visit Gatlinburg, Tenn. -- a sort of hillbilly Waikiki about 50 miles south of Morristown on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park -- where we had dinner at an Irish pub and watched tourists enjoying the attractions on the main drag while snow flurries added a festive atmosphere. Gatlinburg is home to Dollywood, the resort developed by Dolly Parton, who is to Gatlinburg what Don Ho is to Waikiki.

Paige took me to Flanagan's in Gatlinburg, where I felt I fit in.

After bidding aloha to Paige, Drew and Jersey, I briefly rejoined David in Johnson City before starting north to Maine on Friday morning, April 1, to visit Mom, get our lake cottage open for the season and put the KLR up for sale. It's 1,100 miles from Johnson City to Ellsworth -- a good chance to get acquainted with the V-Strom. I opted to take a direct route. It was too cold to dawdle.

From Johnson City (A), I rode to Ellsworth, Me. (E), stopping at Charlottesville, Va. (B), Edison, N.J. (C) and Portsmouth, N.H. (D).

The ride north took me first to Charlottesville, Va., where Mary Jean, my oldest sister, lives. The ride was a cold one, with occasional snow flurries. Spring was late this year, but the V-Strom's windshield protected me well and I put the first 300 miles behind me easily, wearing just about all the clothes I had with me.

On Saturday morning, I said goodby to Jeannie and her husband Donald and headed up US 29 toward Washington, D.C. The sun came out and the day was warmer as I sped past the Capitol on I-66, connected with I-95 and soon was negotiating the tunnel under Baltimore Harbor. Construction and a toll gate at the Delaware state line slowed things down to a crawl, creating a mile or more of bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go backup. Eventually, I was over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and scampering up the New Jersey Turnpike.

At a rest stop, I picked up a motel coupon book and decided to spend the night at a Howard Johnson Motor Inn in Edison, south of the incredible congestion that extends from Elizabeth through Newark and the Bronx all the way to the Connecticut line. When I pulled up at the motel, I saw a Fudrucker's restaurant next door and figured I'd pop over there for dinner before turning in.

Unfortunately, the restaurant never opened -- it had gone out of business apprarently. Too tired to find an alternative, I found a bag of popcorn and a bottle of wine at a nearby convenience store and settled in back at the motel to watch the NCAA Final Four championship game on TV. Before UConn won the game, I'd dropped off.

I came to at about 4:30 on Sunday morning, got up to pee and, feeling wide awake, decided to head for the George Washington Bridge before New York City woke up. It was a good plan. I enjoyed that morning's sunrise with an Egg McMuffin and a Sunday Times at a McDonald's in Stamford, Conn., having left all that mess behind me in the dark.

At Storrs, I got off the Interstate to visit the UConn campus. It was still Sunday morning and the victorious Huskies weren't stirring, however. So, it was back on the slab or the short ride up to Worcester, Mass. From there, I set the GPS to avoid highways and took back roads up to Portsmouth, N.H., where I stopped to spend the night at sister Betsy's before continuing north to Ellsworth, a hot supper and a warm bed at sister Jane's.

I spent the next month out at the lake, where several projects were waiting for me: putting out the hose and priming the pump to draw water from the lake, replacing the storm door that had blown off its hinges and replacing an ancient water heater and a couple of leaky valves. Last year's mild weather -- the snow was totally gone by April 7, when the thermometer hit 90 in Boston -- was a fond memory. In 2011, spring wouldn't arrive until May.

First, I had to charge the KLR's battery and shovel the snow keeping the doors shut so I could get it out of Jane's shed. The old, green machine was better suited than the V-Strom for trips back and forth to the lake on the muddy, potholed, snow covered, gravel road. I thought it looked particularly good with a chain saw bungeed to the cargo rack.

The KLR, with chain saw farkle, is totally at home in the woods. Yes, the lake in the background is still covered with ice in mid-April.

My nephew Joey, a junior at the University of Maine, was Jonesing for a sport bike. I tried to talk him into something more practical, but he's 21 -- not an age when practicality outweighs sex appeal -- and he'd decided that a sport bike was way sexier than a bagger.

He did the work: sold his old KTM dirt bike, took the safety course and got his motorcycle license permit. So, I gave him a ride on the back of the V-Strom up US-2 to Medway, Me., the "Gateway to Millinocket," far enough north that the towns mostly have numbers instead of names. Joey had found a 1999 Honda CBR600F with only 5,000 miles on it -- practically new. It was in Medway for a tune up at a shop that sells bikes for three months and snowmobiles for the rest of the year.

Joey takes possession of his CBR600F. Except for the V-Strom, the rest of the vehicles in the lot are snowmobiles.

Flanman and Joey at Mount Cadillac's summit in Acadia National Park.

As my stay in Maine was wrapping up, Joey was taking his final exams. So, we didn't get to do much riding together. However, we did have one fine outing to Acadia National Park and another out Newbury Neck along Union Bay. The CBR and the avuncular V-Strom look good together, don't they?

I put the KLR up for sale on Craigslist and Uncle Henry's, Maine's answer to eBay. Unfortunately, there have been no nibbles, but Joey said he'll try to sell it for me.

As April rolled into May, the ice went out of the lake, the huge snow pile in the Walmart parking lot melted into a slurry of loose gravel and I ground out another newsletter. Then, before flying home on May 7, I took a three-day bike trip south to visit family in Portsmouth, N.H. and Portland and Harpswell, Me.

The Penobscot Narrows Bridge from chilly Bucksport. I learned the stock seat is more comfortable without the sheepskin.

A lobsterman in Harpswell lined up his freshly painted lobster trap buoys in the front yard.

As usual, I put on a few pounds in my month up north. The haddock chowder, lobster and fried clams took their toll. Spending Easter with family was a treat, but by early May, it was time to get home to Honolulu to wait until July's heat melted the snow pack in the passes and made crossing the northern Rockies a possibility.

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