Sunday, July 15, 2012

A gazillion shades of green

There are no words, no pictures, no way to possibly describe how beautiful the Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway are in the rain. 

We had spent the morning at MR Motorcycle getting the tire replaced.  The rain had poured down in sheets as we rode to the shop, and while they worked on the bike, Bill took off his boots and poured the water out.  He replaced them, and a few minutes later, had to do it again.  This time he wrung out his socks, which couldn't have been wetter if we'd gone swimming in a lake.  We were absolutely drenched.  We had stopped often on the trip, going into coffee shops and other places to get warm.  But in July in North Carolina, raining or not, everyone had on their air conditioning, so we were better off outside.

So we sat on the bench outside the shop, covered at least by the eaves of the building, and waited.  While we sat, though, we could see blue skies to the left, and it appeared the weather for the day would improve.  We excitedly planned our afternoon--the Pisgah National Forest and some of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and on to Maggie Valley Bikewear to thank them for their help yesterday and to eat at Chris-the-tow-truck-driver's parents' restaurant.  From there we were going to go to Cherokee before heading back to the inn. 

Soon enough, the sun came out fully, the parking lot dried up, and we were going to have a beautiful day.  I was getting a safe, new tire, the sun was shining, all was good.  Neil came out to say, "He's balancing up your tire now.  Shouldn't be too long and you'll be on your way."  And as we waited for those finishing touches, we watched the clouds roll in, the sky blacken, and the rain started again.  

By the time we pulled out of the shop parking lot, the rain came down steadily, and we pulled into Asheville traffic and headed off to the Parkway.  I was breaking in a new tire, and when they handed the bike back to me, there was a bright yellow piece of paper attached to the key that said, "We have installed a new tire.  Drive gently for 100 miles, taking extra care at turns and when stopping.  We recommend EXTREME CAUTION," with those last two words in a much larger font and all caps.  Hello, people, we're in Asheville.  It's all turning and stopping.

We swung on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I drove gingerly and gently around turns.  It's actually perfect, with the 45 mph limit, and on a Friday in the rain, there were hardly any other cars.  The motorcyclists, relatively few though there were, were very friendly, with enthusiastic waving and beeping as we drove past.  We made a wrong turn at one point and found ourselves on a much more challenging downhill, with tight tight curves, and lush greenery right up against the road.  The mists and the rain brought out the gazillion shades of green, and the wet wood made for a higher contrast in the browns, blacks, and grays of stems and trunks.  We stopped at a narrow waterfall where a stream fell through the thick vegetation and traveled under the road, flowing straight in spite of the essing turns of the pavement.  We looked up through the fog at enormous trees stretching tall and straight over head.  We marveled at the many shades of green, more than I could have believed.

I love to think of how people lived, how these roads and paths were originally cut on foot, and then eventually horseback.  How people before us might have first happened on these lands, seen the beautiful forest undisturbed.  The Witch in me feels the energy in the trees, the resonance in the rocks, the strength in the habitat.  It was beautiful and moving and spiritual and amazing.  The sound of the rain on every leaf, the stream's trickle, the pavement's tick as the rain bounced off...  There is no way to describe how beautiful it was. 

We realized our mistake (thank you iPhone maps app!!) and turned back up the hill.  For me, I am much more at ease traveling up hill, and I felt confident tilting the bike, swooshing around curves, pulling ourselves up the wrong-turn road and back onto the Parkway. 

We had a similar experience coming out of Cherokee many hours later when a wrong turn sent us through a wooded area with a large stream/nearly a river on our right.  The greens were an intense contrast against the brown and bubbling water, and the road bent and curved alongside the flow, with trees bent over, creating a tunnel of green.  Again, we rode on for some time before turning back into Cherokee to find the right road.

We had also been to Maggie Valley to thank the bikewear folks -- I introduced myself as "yesterday's damsel."  They were incredibly sweet, and we promised to return.  Please be sure to stop by and give them your business any time you find yourself in Maggie Valley. 

Cherokee was also fascinating, and we promised ourselves we would return when we had time to stay for several days to soak up all that the town had to offer.  This was the end of the relaxing part of our journey.  Our tomorrow would be an early rise, packing, checking out, and then many, many hours of riding back to Durham.  I knew we would be beat by the time we got back.  Rest was much needed, and we looked forward to a soak in the deep, claw-footed tub in our room.

Not the afternoon I had in mind

So after the amazing ride through Mill Creek Road and past Andrew's geyser, we had an afternoon ahead of us of Asheville, Waynesville, the Pisgah National Forest, and our ultimate destination, the Balsam Mountain Inn--a gorgeous wooden manor-style inn described as "creaking and cantankerous" on its own website.  

We stopped for lunch in Black Mountain, and a friendly patron warned us--stay away from Asheville--those drivers SUCK.  We figured we could handle it, but YOWZA.  The Asheville drivers were brutal, rude, and downright nasty.  Bill and I already hate Asheville for lots of reasons, but this sealed it for us.  We couldn't get through there fast enough!

But then we were traveling down flat, open-country roads, and things were starting to feel better.  We left-right-left-righted through Canton, and headed again down 110, which is flat and wide open.  I started to hear a strange sound like a low whistling.  It sounded like an air noise, not an engine noise, and I remembered I had loosened on of my saddle bag clips, so I reached down to see if it had moved oddly, but it appeared to be in the right place.  I felt my helmet, checking to see if some leaf or something was making the sound.  I wiggled my head, leaned in to the engine, checked around.  I still hadn't pinned down the sound when we pulled to a red light.  The sound stopped, and the bike shook a little as it stopped.  We were turning right, and as soon as we did, I felt the handlebars shimmy, and I realized what the sound was.  You can't see your tires when you're sitting on the bike.  Or at least, you can't see them and hold the handle bars too.  But I suspected a flat, and sure enough, I had to fight the bike across the tiny bridge next to the intersection, and I swung left into the parking lot of the Jukebox Junction.  Bill, with no way to know what was happening, rode on.  I inspected the completely flat rear tire, swung off the bike and removed my helmet as I headed the few feet back to the road.  It took only a minute or so to see Bill heading back to discover the problem.  He parked next to me, and we set about making a plan.

Thank the gods and Steve Jobs (again!) for the glory that is the hand-held, internet-surfing iPhone, and I googled "motorcycle shops Waynesville."  Our goal had been to ride through the Pisgah National Forest before calling it a night, but really, we were just about 30 minutes from the hotel, and it was Thursday, so things weren't looking too horribly bad.  We called several motorcycle shops but none answered, so I sent Bill off to find the one that appeared to be nearest.  I figured everything is easier to negotiate in person.  We didn't want to leave our valuables in the saddle bags on my bike, so I stayed with it.

As I sat for the next two hours on the large rock in the parking lot of the Jukebox Junction diner, I frequently checked in with myself.  I was safe, I was physically comfortable (as much as I had been at any point on this trip, given that I was wet, but I wasn't cold), I was happy and content.  Honestly, I wasn't even all that bummed about the flat, given that we were indeed close to our destination, we had a second bike to get us around, and things were going to work out.  And I wasn't even all that bored, since we had seen so much and done so much, the forced wait just felt like a break.

The bike shop Bill had set off for turned out to be a junkyard and no real help, but he found the Maggie Valley Bikewear shop, where the people were nice, where they had a phone book and a phone (Bill's had died by then).  They were delightfully nice, helped immensely, and about an hour after he'd left me, he called to say there was a tow truck on the way.  He had called every tire shop around, and the best bet for us was MR Motorcycle in Asheville, where they had a tire in stock, could change it today, and we'd be back on the road by 6.  They later called themselves "The Vacation Savers," and they were right.

Soon enough, Chris, the NICEST TOW TRUCK DRIVER EVER showed up to SAVE THE DAY.  He picked up the bike and me and delivered us both to the shop in Asheville, talking the whole time about the dangers of riding, how he used to have a bike but scraped too many of them off the side of the road to keep it.  We talked about the 24/7 nature of his job, his wife's support and flexibility, her love of riding and how sad she was he sold the bike.  He commented, "Can you imagine if that had happened while you were on the interstate?"  I told him I rarely ride the interstate, which is true.  It's just not that much fun, and it's much more risky.

He pulled the truck over before we got on I-40 and rechecked the straps tying the bike down.  We talked about accidental death insurance and how gorgeous that part of the country is.  I told him I was feeling great--the ride had been awesome, the flat was an inconvenience, but this was all good.  What a great day!

Bill and I had agreed he would check in to the inn and drop off his saddle bags in case the bike couldn't be ready tonight, and I would be able to attach my bags to his.  He would then meet me at the shop in Asheville.

Chris dropped me off 30 minutes before closing, and they agreed to get me back on the road, though it would be a bit after 6.  Bill eventually showed up (we had been out of phone contact), and we were happy to be reunited.  Soon enough the bike was ready to go, and we headed off, hoping for dinner and a hot bath at the beautiful inn.  Bill kept telling me how gorgeous it was, and I couldn't wait.

We talked at length about how to get there.  The only reasonable way was on the interstate.  Bill had just come through there and warned me it was brutal, but the alternative was a nearly two-hour trip all the way around everywhere, including back through Canton, and I just couldn't do it.  We headed off.

The speed limit on that section of I-40 is 60 mph, but no one, and I mean no one, drives slower than 75.  It was a steep mountain pass, truck drivers jockeying for position as they climbed aggressively up the hill so they could take best advantage of the coming downhill, and it was pouring down rain.

I was a tiny dot of a little red rear light in horrible visibility, out-racing the optimal speed of my engine, winding up a crazysteep hill, the wind whipping, water on my visor, squeezed between trucks, and feeling the rattle of every cross wind, every truck tail wind, trying to stay to the right, begging to slow down but knowing the trucks needed me to keep the pace.  We reached speeds of 80 at one point, with me cursing the craziness of all this, when I felt the front end wobble.  I hoped it was my imagination.  I kept on.  The front end wobbled again, and then didn't stop.  A slight shake at first got more intense as I kept going.  I slowed to 75, then 70, checking my mirrors to make sure the trucks saw me.  The handle bars shook violently, and I held tight, keeping the bike moving straight forward.  The trucks could see me, apparently, and moved past me on the left.  The handle bars were shaking violently in my hands, and I pulled to the right side of the rightmost lane, slowing to 60, avoiding the slick white paint line and the rumble strips.  At this point we were cresting the hill, and I'd seen signs for an exit coming up.  I kept checking my mirrors, and the trucks, realizing some sort of distress, were giving me clear space.  Bill, who had been far up ahead as I slowed, pulled back, offered me the thumbs-up sign.  I did not return it, holding tight to the shaking handlebars, focused only on making it to the exit as we careened crazyfast downhill, twisting to the right with the curve of the road.

Would the tire hold out?  At what point would the rubber shift under the rim, or rip out completely, bounce the rim into the asphalt and throw me from the bike?  How long could I go 60 on a flat tire?  How long would I remain in control?  Would I have warning?  Should I pull onto the shoulder in the rain on the edge of this pass, or will I make it to the exit, which I could now see? The bike was still under my control, and Bill, powerless to help and not knowing what was going on, kept trying to signal me.  I was afraid to even shake my head for fear of disrupting the balance of my rim on the now-thin sheet of rubber between me and I-40.  He pulled off on the shoulder, but I didn't think it would be safe there, so I continued to the exit.  He got back on and followed me then, and I was able to pull over, look down, and see the flattened rubber.

I'd made it.  I was safe.  Bill was safe.  "Rubber side down," as they say.

I burst into tears. 

Bill reassured me and I got off the bike.  We called Chris again, who laughed at our funny joke.  Oh, no joke, and within what seemed like three minutes, he was there again to save the day.  And this time had his wife with him.  The dealership now closed, Chris agreed to keep the bike on the flatbed over night and meet us at the shop in the morning.  He helped us get the saddle bags off my bike and onto Bill's, he led us to the Sagebrush steak house, and he congratulated me on staying safe.  He would then call us periodically through the weekend to make sure we were safe.  He is my new best friend.

Turns out they had replaced the inner tube, not the whole tire, assuming that was the only problem.  Unfortunately, the belts had separated inside the tire and chewed the first inner tube, and then the second.  The shop covered the cost of the second tow and redid their work for free, charging me only for the tire itself.  The bigger issue for me was that we had to get back to the shop the next morning.  The rain came in sheets, and again, the only reasonable way to get there was on I-40, through the horrific mountain pass, with the trucks, in torrents of rain. I clung tightly to Bill, who, poor guy, could barely breathe as I squeezed my whole body against him.  Because the best thing to do when riding in horrific conditions and you're terrified, is to suffocate the driver.

Andrew's Geyser

When you are afraid of everything, you have to make a decision about how you're going to live with fear in your life.  The easy thing might be to avoid the things that make you scared.  But if you're truly always afraid, then you won't be doing much. 

The alternative, of course, is to carry fear around with you, like an extra appendage.  Do the things you would normally do, with the weight of the fear getting in the way or getting cumbersome at times, but acknowledging that it's there and it's not going anywhere.

I'm lucky, I guess, that I became afraid at a very young age, so I never realized that extra appendage wasn't meant to be there.  Like a cat's relationship with its tail, it never occurred to me it should slow me down.

So when we were looking at google maps in preparation for this trip, and we saw Mill Creek Road that essed with insanely tight turns up the mountain, and when we zoomed the satellite view in and couldn't tell if it was paved, when we were looking that over, and I was thinking, "I don't know if I'm skilled enough to do this," what I said out loud was, "Even if it's not paved, let's give it a try.  Worst case--we turn around and find a different route." 

So Bill and I packed up our now-dry clothes Thursday morning, enjoyed the complimentary Marriott breakfast, and set off.  It was still raining, but we were warm enough, and traveled through Wilkesboro and Lenoir.  After a bit we stopped at a grocery store with a coffee shop and were able to get a mocha.  I texted friends, "Sweet weepin' Jesus, we found a Starbucks!"  We were wet (have I mentioned it was raining?) and tired.  But even through all that, I realized, I was also having a wonderful time.  If you know me, you know I'm a total wuss about weather, but this trip has taught me how magnificent things can be, even in the rain.

And soon, we arrived at the most challenging part of our journey.  Mill Creek Road, off State Road 1400, past Andrew's Geyser.  When we reached the turn-off, Bill pulled over on the side of the road and stretched his legs.  "This is it," he said.  "Get ready."  I got off as well, and we took off our helmets, scratched our heads, got the blood pumping throughout our numb and tingling extremities.  From where we sat we could see paved road.  We kept our fingers crossed.

After a few minutes' rest, we geared back up, swung our legs in the saddles, and headed off.  Here the forest creeps onto the road, with the underbrush coming right up to the road itself.  It's about a lane and a half wide, and within a hundred yards or so, we were on gravel.  Hard packed, but again, raining.  The gravel was muddy and slick.  Near the inside of turns, the gravel had been washed out by rain, creating that washboard effect.  We climbed slowly up the hill, twisting and turning, using the entire lane to maximize our traction on the wet gravel.  I remembered watching the Long Way Down when Ewan (hi Ewan, hottie!) and Charlie Boorman were slogging through ridiculously difficult conditions.  They would fall and just get up and keep going.  I tried to keep that in mind.  At these speeds, falling would be an inconvenience and could damage the bike, but I would not get hurt.  Thoughts of my own perfectionism had to be banished, and knowing when it was done, we would have accomplished it--that's what I focused on.  I also missed my Nighthawk and Bill's Vstrom, bikes that are designed for this kind of travel.  Our cruisers were truly tested by this, as the center of gravity is low and our feet stretched out in front of us prevent the maneuvering you really need to really do this right.  We had to muscle our handle bars to get around the turns, and at times the washboarding effect covered the entire road, creating a bumpy up and down as we went. 

The forest and underbrush were thick here, and the road narrowed.  We passed a sign that said, "Single lane ahead--sound your horn," and Bill started beeping.  We came upon a one-lane pass that was covered (like a tunnel) and curved.  There was no way to see what was coming, and we beeped furiously, slowly rounding the bend.  There were several of these covered turns along the way, each one more nerve-wracking than the last.  But we only saw two other vehicles on that road, one a pick-up truck that refused to yield and sprawled across most of the roadway.  At first I was angry that he took so much room, then I realized he was probably as afraid as we were, given the difficulty controlling tires on the slick, muddy gravel.

At one point the view opened up, and there was a large grassy field with an enormous water spout shooting straight up.  Andrew's Geyser, I presume.  We rode by, relieved for a moment by relatively easy passage, and then tucked into the dense forest patch again.  Soon enough we reached the top, victorious.  Neither had dropped the bike, and we'd made it.  "I'm so proud of us!" I shouted over to Bill, and we both made victory fist pumps above our heads. 

Now for the trip back down, with gravity pulling us and the slick gravel having as much decision-making power as our steering in terms of where our bikes went.  The curves wound tightly on one another, and the bikes performed beautifully, and soon enough, we were on pavement again.  Woohoo!!  We'd done it!!

Hot tub madness

When is a hot tub not the best thing in the world?  I mean, really. 

After lunching in Mount Airy (the real-life Mayberry), and swooshing through more country roads, Bill and I pulled in to the Fairfield Inn in Elkin, North Carolina. We had ridden all day in the rain, with a moment here and there of sunshine.  But mostly, rain.  Our socks were drenched, our pants were soaked, and although our upper bodies were kept dry by our gear, our hands, helmets, and lower bodies were drenched and cold.  We had been hugging our bikes through turns, squeezing clutch and brake, and our muscles were crying out.

One thing that I learned on this trip is the level of commitment.  Once you set off on a bike for four days of riding, there's really no turning back.  Oh, of course, you can literally turn back, but you're on the bike.  To do so means riding all that way again.  OMG.  We were so tired and sore.

The hotel staff couldn't have been nicer, and we checked in, donned our swimsuits, and hit the hot tub.  Holy canoli, the sensation of sinking into that hot water, feeling everything relax...  There's never a bad time for a hot tub, but wow.  This was great.

Once dressed again, we asked a nice staff-person where we could get a good steak dinner.  He started ticking places off on his fingers, "We don't have any of the big chains.  We don't have Appleby's, Chili's, Outback.  Now I love Appleby's but I really like Chili's.  Outback is a little high.  We don't have any of those places."  Bill perked up hopefully.  "Texas Roadhouse?"  "Nope.  I keep telling them, we need a big chain.  Like Outback.  'Course, Outback is a little high." 

Seriously, this went on for several minutes in the hallway, the guy naming all the places we couldn't go for dinner, until he finally mentioned the Dodge City Steakhouse.  "Now, it got some bad reviews a while back, but they have new owners, and I've been there four times since the new owners, and I've been happy every time." 

He gave us directions and then it took about eight more minutes to extricate ourselves from this conversation, and we went upstairs to discover it was raining--pouring--again.  Aye carrumba.  We debated, and I checked the internet to get excited about the restaurant.  Only to discover it's only open on weekends.  Oh dear.

Bill called the front desk and discovered that a local Italian place delivers to the hotel, straight to the room, so we called, ordered, and had salmon and a delicious creamy mushroom chicken delivered.  Guy knocked on the door, we let him in, and he says, "I'm guessing you're the guests came in on those bikes out front."  Yep, that's us.

After dinner we hit the hot tub again, this time highly entertained by staff drama.  Some argument had ensued prior, and the aftermath of dude on the patio staring silently off in the distance, crushing his soda can in his hands before stalking off dramatically, unfolded in front of us.  We heard other staff, also enjoying the hot tub, processing the experience, unconcerned that two guests were hearing every word of it.  The very young woman soothed the very young man at the heart of it all, and the other men (boys, really) weighed in.  Yack yack yack.

Along with the hot tub, cable, and BED, the hotel also had a CLOTHES DRYER.  All praise the Marriott chain!!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Life in a Ziplock bag

I'm a hardcore over-packer.  For the most part, my travel is by car, so I'm inclined to just load up everything I might need.  Clothes for every weather event and every occasion.  Shoes to match every outfit.  All my full-size toiletries, like shampoo and soap and such.  I pack coolers of food and sodas, bags of snacks, and everything you might want, ever, to eat at a picnic.  I mean, why not?  Where I'm going has sheets and pillows and towels?  Well, I can bring my own, just in case we are struck by some unexpected bedding and towel emergency.  After all, I can just pile it all in the car, and I don't even have to unpack it if I don't need it.  And forget luggage.  Paper bags, plastic bags, or even just random items in the back seat.  It all comes with me.

So when Bill suggested we take a motorcycle vacation, honestly, one of my biggest worries was how to pack four days of my life into two small saddlebags.  I had just watched "Long Way Down," where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel all through Africa on motorcycles, and I saw how they packed tents, clothes, and all their supplies on their bikes.  (And in three accompanying SUVs, but let's not focus on that.)  "I can do this!" I told myself with no conviction whatsoever.  And sure enough, I procrastinated like any anxious person doomed to failure does.  But Tuesday night came, and there was no turning back.  I took out four Ziplock freezer bags and told myself what didn't fit in them, didn't come.  Aye carrumba!!  But I managed to squeeze in seven days' worth of clothes (yes, for a four-day trip, I know, I KNOW), but I even included jammies and swimwear.  I squished the air out of the bags before I zipped them up, and lo and behold, I looked like a super-packer!!

So I proudly loaded the saddle bags up Tuesday night, squeezed in a few more empty ziplocks for wet clothes and dirty clothes, and went to bed excited for the trip the next day.  Yay motorcycles!  Yay Ewan McGregor!

Until about 3 a.m. when the sound of a horrific downpour woke me to find Bill checking the radar and weather report (modern technology is AMAZING) on his phone, and oopsy.  Rain ALL weekend ALL over our route.  We had originally told ourselves we would take the car if faced with bad weather, but come ON, I'd packed in Ziplock bags!  We couldn't turn back now!

So after an anxious and fitful night's sleep, we awoke to the rain still pouring down steadily, gathered up the animals for feeding time, showered, and slowly donned our gear and waterproofed ourselves.  I'm proud of us that we never for a second considered the car, although I whined about the rain gear. It's just so uncomfortable and ugly.  Not at all the motorcycle babe look I'm going for.

And off we went, stopping of course for coffee and by about 8:15, we were sitting in rush-hour traffic on 54 heading to Graham in the rain.  Wait.  What?  Oh right, it's Wednesday!!  So, yes, rush hour traffic, right past both our offices, and then off! on country roads to Graham, then to 87 north through Burlington, and by now we'd been on the road like an hour or more, our tummies rumblin, and jeans damply stuck to my legs.  The rain gear worked fine, but North Carolina this time of year is somewhat like the inside of a clothes dryer, and while rain gear keeps rain out, it also keeps sweat IN.  So, this is all to tell you that we stopped at the West Webb Curb Market, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall convenience store, but when you step inside is an enormous general store with a crotchety old lady who will scramble you up an egg, fry some bacon, and curmudgeoningly throw it on white toast for you.  The rest of the folks there were very sweet, keep their bathroom clean, and wished us safe journey on our way out.  The sun was making an occasional appearance by now, and one thing I realized was that even in the rain, I was having a great time.  I love love love the bike (you may have gleaned that from previous posts), and the roads of North Carolina are just exquisite.  Even in the rain.

We swooshed on for several more hours, and eventually the rain dissipated, and we rolled north to nearly-Virginia, and then cut west, south, west, north, and so on, following a route carefully construed to see as much as possible and end up in Mount Airy for lunch.  The green fields, the pines, the jungle-like stretches where huge and lush greenery encroaches on the shoulders and shades the pavement, the corn fields, the tobacco fields, and the endless supply of churches all glide past, the sound of the wind drowning out most thoughts, and the bike responding like it's part of you.  This, this could go on forever and be wonderful.

And then we made it to 89 North toward Mount Airy.  The curves on this road fold tightly in on one another, and the grading creates bowl-shaped loops all intertwining to give you the sense of being the ball in the old game Mousetrap, that slid and rolled and swooshed through the track.  The trees leaned over the road and we were basically in a jungle tunnel (well, the North Carolina jungle, if you can imagine), and since we mostly had the road to ourselves, we could slow as we needed, bend and twist, lean and tuck, scraping our pegs and floorboards along the way.  At one point there's a turn onto 66 that takes you about 350 degrees--no lie--to the right.  There's a stop sign first, so you're starting from stillness, but then you're on a road of even more intense curves, but this time we were following a logging truck who had obviously traveled here before because he was barreling down the road in front of us.  Nothing good could come from that, so I was glad when we eventually turned off, back on to 89, and eventually into Mount Airy.  In those moments I felt kinship with the adventurers of the world who set off on long journeys to simply explore the terrain.  Mine might only be four days, and it might be my home state, but I've got to start somewhere.  Today North Carolina, tomorrow, well North Carolina!