Day One -- Philadelphia, Pa. to Lebanon, Tn
Rain, Cold, and 18-Wheelers
The Interstate is never so awful that it can't get worse.
And sometimes that's a good thing.
My journey began the day before I left my house when I rode down to Cape May Point, New Jersey to get a picture at my East Coast starting point. The next morning I started out from my home in suburban Philadelphia before light, maybe around 5am. It was around 40 degrees, but with my new Gerbing heated gloves my hands were, if anything, a little hot.
My original plan was to go down Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, but after talking with my sister on the phone I decided to hurry out to Tucson to see my mother, who was recovering from back surgery. I took I-95 south, negotiated the spaghetti bowl in the Baltimore/Washington area and made my way to I-40. This is all very standard interstate driving -- avoid trucks and assholes on cell phones, signal, pull out, pass slower vehicle, signal, pull back into right lane. If you don't have a throttle lock or cruise control, your right wrist starts to ache. The countryside resembles the background in a cheap cartoon: The same sights over and over. Trees, Rest Area, Exxon station, McDonald's. Trees, Exxon station, Rest Area, McDonald's. This is why you should avoid the Interstate as much as possible.
Story Number One
The next time I got gas I went in to get something to drink, and when I came out there was a guy standing next to the bike, waiting for me. This meant that I was going to hear his story.
His smile betrayed a missing front tooth. He was skinny -- muscle, bones and gristle wrapped in tanned skin dry and wrinkled beyond his age, the mark of a lifetime of hard work outdoors.
“I had a ’72 Triumph, made it into a chopper. You should have seen that thing run! Where you headed?"
"Los Angeles, I'm on a coast to coast," I said.
He looked at me, then at my Bonneville. "On this bike? Shoot. Good luck."
I smiled. "It's not bad. I'm lucky, the factory seat fits my ass pretty good."
He laughed at that. We talked for about 30 minutes, during which time, among other things, I heard the details of several trips to Carlisle, Pa. for motorcycle shows, the pros and cons of using a car tire on a Honda VTX 1800 on a trip to Florida, and the best way to find cheap hotel rooms late at night without a reservation. When it came to an end, we shook hands and wished each other well.
And this is where the south beats the north hands down. When we shook hands, the man looked me in the eye and smiled, and meant it. He saw the handshake as a way of demonstrating his character, that he knew the right thing to do. What a pleasure to meet someone who a. would sit and talk with a stranger, and b. give a genuine handshake with eye contact. Good luck getting that anywhere northeast of Virginia.
A Very Intense Video Game
I figured I would land somewhere in Tennessee. You don't think of Tennessee as a big state, do you? Try riding across it sometime. Roughly 400 miles east to west. I was shooting for Memphis, which would be an even 1,000 miles from home. I have done 1,000 miles in a day before, so I knew I was up to the task. Night fell a bit before Nashville. Now, one of the rules is don't ride alone at night. You could pop yourself into a ditch and no one would see you before first light, and maybe not even then. I was feeling pretty good though, so I decided to see how far I could get.
Then it started to rain.
Riding alone at night is a level of stupid lots of people are comfortable with. It can be laughed off or explained away. Riding alone at night on the Interstate in the rain surrounded by 18 wheelers going 70 miles per hour with your face shield covered with bugs and tire spray rises to a level of idiocy that words cannot describe. Nothing short of preventing global thermonuclear war can justify taking this kind of chance. But I do have a confession to make.
Sunset Beach, Cape May Point, New Jersey. That's the SS Atlantus sticking up out of the water. It was made of concrete and transported soldiers across the Atlantic during World War I.
I kinda liked it.
It makes me think of something Bill Murray's character said in Groundhog Day: "It's the same thing your whole life: "Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine, ever." Oh yeah: "Don't drive on the railroad track."
This was my driving on the railroad tracks. The rain is going to compound any mistake I make. Brake too much? Boom. Swerve too much or too little to avoid something in the road? Boom. Does that truck see me? Boom. This is a very intense video game. Oh, except it's real, and you only have one life. You can't pause it to ponder your next move, or turn it off and go get a burger. The only way out is to finish what you started. I soldiered on. My hands had blisters from the new gloves. I was getting wet and cold. Turning my head sideways to clear my face shield only worked occasionally. Even at the best moments I felt like I didn't have enough information to make good riding decisions. It was great.
But it was only great for about 25 minutes. This is not what you want to deal with on a motorcycle, never mind at the end of 10 or 12 hours on the road. If you want foul weather practice, take it earlier in the day. If you find yourself in this position, do what I did, sooner than I did -- pack it in and get a room at the first opportunity, which for me was Lebanon, Tennessee.
Once I checked in at the Comfort Inn, or something like that, I rode through now-heavy rain to the Waffle House. The importance of the Waffle House cannot be overstated. One, it is cheap and the food is good. Two, it is where the locals often hang out. In nearly every Waffle House I end up talking either with other customers or with the waitress. This is not going to happen at your average fast food place. Try and have a conversation with a McDonald's worker, and they'll think you're out on a day pass from the local funny farm. It's best to sit at the counter -- it's easier to start a conversation. And you want to talk to the locals.
And yet, this is hard for me. I'm not by nature a chatty person. I spent much of my childhood as a new kid, jumping from town to town, and that kind of burns you out on being an outsider. But once I get talking, I am glad I did it. Not every conversation is a sparkling cascade of bon mots, but going back to your room and watching a COPS marathon kind of defeats the purpose of the trip.
They Want to Tell Stories. Let Them.
The fact that you're on a long-distance motorcycle journey is a conversation starter in a way that driving cross-country is not. People have questions, or they want to tell the story of their own long distance motorcycle trip. Sometimes people are excited by your trip and talking to you gives them a sense of participation. Or they used to own a bike just like yours. People want to tell their stories. Let them. They've been waiting for someone to tell their story to, and you never know where that story is going to go. Sometimes they tell the story of a friend who was killed on a motorcycle. This is not my favorite, but once I realized that maybe this is part of their dealing with the loss, they became easier to listen to.
I broke my own rules and didn't talk much at the Lebanon Waffle House, but as I left, the guys smoking outside waiting for their steaks peppered me with questions. One guy had a Triumph story, and the rest just wanted to hear about where I'd been and where I was going. I was tired and forgot to ask them very many questions, & so did not collect much information. It was fun though, to hear a little about their lives and see how different their American experience was from my own. I rode off into the rain and back to the hotel, where I took a hot shower and hit the hay, my belly full of Waffle House hash browns and my mind full of what I was going to do in the next few weeks.