Here’s the thing about motorcycling: Even when you don’t get to your destination, the not getting there is a blast. Take this River Towns Ride fer example. I was headed to Kansas on a business matter. I need to see some old documents and photos in Coffeyville, KS, so my bud Mark Arsenault and I can wave a book proposal at publishers and see if anyone bites. Kansas in July — Yessuh! I knew it would be hot but figured I’d give it a whirl and see what happens.
My plan was to ride west along the river valleys. I especially wanted to see the Ohio River Scenic Byway, which runs for close to 950 miles from East Liverpool, Ohio to the Mississippi River.
On July 1, I headed west from Sweet Home Rhode Island, planning to cross into northern Pennsylvania at Matamoras and follow the Susquehanna to the northwest, duck off the river in Bradford County and continue west to Couldersport and the headwaters of the Allegheny.
I rode 328 miles on Day 1 and camped in Tuckhannock, PA. A rough place, very run down, but I met friendly people, as always. A guy who works on oil and gas rigs and lives in the campground full time offered me the use of his grill. I was already boiling lentils and rice on my little backpacking cooker. “That’s roughing it,” he said. That night I fell asleep to a whisper of turned-down country music radio coming from the oil man’s camp.
I don’t wear logos. I cut them off. But there was a glue strip underneath and it’ll be slightly tacky forever. In the Allegheny National Forest I saw one of the bride’s golden hairs on my jacket. It had been there for 450 miles. I put it in my wallet.
That was it for the Allegheny. I didn’t follow it right into Pittsburgh, lest I get jammed up in big-city, holiday-weekend traffic. I camped in Mercer, PA that night with 330 miles behind me for the day. Met a nice couple there, Laurie and Mark, from Erie, PA. Gold Wing riders, though they were on four wheels at the time.
Next morning I was on the Ohio, at East Liverpool, OH, the start of the Ohio River Scenic Byway. It’s anything but scenic in eastern Ohio, unless you count the smoke stacks. You hardly ever see the river. The Ohio is an industrial waterway in the state named after it. The sightseeing is sparse on the west and north sides all the way down to Huntington, West Virginia. An interesting ride, I thought, just not the kind that makes for a wish-you-were-here postcard. But I guess that depends on who you’d send it to.
Man, it was hot riding an air-cooled motor down along that valley. No shade on the road and little available off to the side. You can’t absorb water fast enough to replace what you’re losing. It sloshes around in the gut and soaks up slow. Meanwhile you’re bleeding out buckets. Ride on. What else?
I met a real character here and inexplicably failed to snap his photo for your entertainment. A sun-baked brain is a slow-thinking brain. He rode a Yamaha sport touring bike, 2005 FJR. Pulled up in a filthy Aerostich with crash damage, which he wore as a badge of honor. He was wearing a couple of layers of Bohn armor underneath, hard knee-and-shin gear, the works. You could drop him off a building and he wouldn’t get hurt. He had a white beard and was bald on top with long white hair around the sides. He took a look at my windshield, saw the flags of 47 states and said, “You’ve been everywhere. But I’ve been everywhere in Ohio.”
Dig it, he had rolled 218,000 miles on the FJR in six years without ever once crossing the Ohio state line. He killed a big buck whitetail with it in his first get-off. Oops. (“Not a drop of blood, I must have broken his neck.”) And then there was the collision with the German Shepherd that removed half the fairing and a saddlebag.
Live long and ride far, brother! Albeit in Ohio.
Day 3 on the river, another scorcher. I was feeling good at the end of it but the air up ahead was even hotter and muggier. I saw the bridge over to Huntington, WV and decided to take it, get out of the river valley and up into the mountains where the air would be cooler. Kansas could wait for the fall, and anyway, Johnny Danger, my bud from California would be there for bird hunting then, camped out at one of his brothers’ places, in Pleasanton or Emporia.
If I insisted on getting to Kansas now via the Ohio, I’d be in the broiler for five more days. I could duck off the river, go north, grab the interstate, give the iron piggy a good twist and get there at speed, but then I’d have a week of 100-plus in Kansas, then the ride back east… Nah. Not gonna do it.
I dodged left at the bridge and found a place to camp for the night in Milton, WV. I was 1,001 miles down the road and figured on making 500+ the next day to Philly, the old home town.
I was looking for a KOA because I needed to shower off the salt and the eau d’ road. The one in Milton was full up on account of the holiday weekend but the owners made room for me. As I motored in and unloaded my gear, a guy walked over and said, “Biker trash, you hungry?” He held out a plate of ribs, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes and a baked potato. His name was Scott and he was living at the campground with his girlfriend while working as an equipment operator at a superfund site. His Harley was in the shop and he was not happy. He had a tiny black lapdog he had trained to alert to “biker trash.” Whenever Scott said the words, the wiry little dog would hop up all excited and look around, head on a swivel, Where? Where!?
From another camp, with more grub, came David, a dozer operator like Scott, but at a coal mine. He works up top, on the surface, while his wife’s brother works below in the mine, bringing up the black rock. David’s whole family was there, including his father- and mother-in-law, Gold Wing trike riders. Really nice family. And they make good coffee.
It never fails. The media will sell you fear but the world is full of friendly people, always eager to take care of the lone rider far from home. And they often don’t have much themselves. One time in Baton Rouge I met a young couple from South Carolina living in a tent at a campground. She was disabled from a car wreck. They had traveled to Louisiana so he could try out for a month on a new job and see if he got the offer. Their car had barely made it. People in the campground had chipped in to get it running again. And after I rode in, these kids offered to feed me from what little they had for themselves.
How good it felt to hurtle through misty mountains at 75mph after broiling on the slow roads for three days.
I stopped for a glass of orange juice in Sutton, WV, a little town on the Holly River. I was standing out by the iron piggy drinking it when an old gent in a Navy cap walked up, opened his wallet and showed me a photo of himself on a Harley right after WWII. After witnessing much carnage while serving on a destroyer in the Pacific, he vowed to live! Orval Butcher rode motorcycles all over America, took Arthur Murray dance lessons, learned how to ski, and how to sail.
By the way, Rob Thomas, USMC, is stealthy. I got the jump on him when the pizza man came to the door. Then when I got home I found that Rob has slipped $40 into my Macbook case.
Okay, so I didn’t get to Kansas, but I hereby declare victory and depart the field. Was gone only briefly, 7 days. Rode 1,927 miles over five of those days. Will get to Kansas in September or October but I need to get somewhere else before then. Not sure where yet, but definitely north.
All rides are good rides but 1,927 miles don’t begin to scratch my itch. I have ya-yas to get out.
Cranston, RI, July 9, 2011