Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Day Thirteen

Start: Osceola AR (22138)
End: Elk City OK (22725)
587 miles

Early morning in Arkansas, and thank goodness the mosquitos are gone. I could not BELIEVE the size and number of them last night, when I went out to get a little bite to eat. Ick. I am at a Mobil station, doing my pre-ride check for the day, when I spot a woman in the gas station across the street eyeballing me. Sure enough, she finishes filling up her car, then drives across the road and pulls up next to me. Leaning out the window, she smiles and asks, "Where ya headin'?" I reply, "West, I'm on my way to Los Angeles," which elicits a "wow, cool" from her. Her name is Rhonda (oh, great, now 'Help Me, Rhonda' is going to be stuck in my head all day, LOL) and she rides too, with a local Women On Wheels chapter that's fairly active in this part of Arkansas. She went to the annual WOW ride-in held in West Virginia earlier this year, and asks me if I was there. No, alas, only one cross-country trip per summer for me! I explain that I was at a different event, the Amazon Gathering, and I tell her that I was on Interstate 40 yesterday and found it so completely sucky that I detoured looking for a better route. She grins and starts telling me about local roads. "Well, headin' wey-est, you can take 140 for a ways hey-ah, that's a good road. Not a lotta traffic, and no cops." She squints, considering. "That'll take you to Newport. Then you can take 67 back down to the intahstate, past Little Rock. It's not as bad past they-ah." Perfect! We chat for a little while longer, she wishes me safe riding, and I take off for the day.

It is absolutely FABULOUS riding the back highways here. The land is agricultural, still mostly fields of rice crisscrossed with ditches, interspersed with small bayous. Some of the bayous have water that looks dark as strong tea, some are covered with nasty green scum. Y'know, I've never actually seen a bayou before. Some day I'll get myself to Mississippi or Louisiana and see some of the REALLY big bayous, these are probably dinky in comparison. I don't know the names of the trees, but they look completely different from the trees to which I am accustomed. Hey, was that an armadillo squished on the road there? Sure looked like one, but I thought armadillos were desert critters. Geeze, it's humid, but other than that a tremendously beautiful day. The highways pass through a number of small towns, their namesigns announcing the population of maybe a few dozen or maybe a few hundred. I slow to posted 25- or 35-mph speed limits going through, and a couple of times there are children to wave at (kids always wave back to passing motorcyclists) and the rest of the time, I have clear sailing on open two-lane highway. Wonderful, wonderful. Oh, that roadkill was DEFINITELY an armadillo, his four little legs sticking stiffly toward the sky. So I guess 'dillos are more swamp critters than desert critters. Learn something new every day.

I work my way back to I-40 and it is indeed a little better in the west half of the state. Not great, but I can live with it. I make good miles and cross over into Oklahoma mid-day. I'm out of the lowlands and back into rolling hills now. I pass through some of the large Indian nations; reservations make up big chunks of this state. It's pretty, back to scrub forest in the undeveloped parts, grain crops (wheat? barley? and some more corn) in the farmland areas. I see horses, and more and more cattle the farther west I go. At a gas stop outside of Oklahoma City, I get in a conversation with a fellow biker. He immediately puts me in mind of Sam - a small Native American guy, wirey, the same kind of jovial bullshitter - my goodness, it would be the spitting image of her if Sam were an Oklahoma biker dude. Heh. He's wearing patches, and he must assume I am an indie, but I tell him that I ride with the Amazons but don't yet have the colors on my vest. We talk for a while, just shootin' the bull. He keeps calling me "baby girl." Normally I would be a little annoyed and find that condescending, but today it just makes me laugh ... I am about a half-foot taller than he, and must outweigh him by a hundred pounds; "baby girl?" LOL! Eventually, it's time for me to hit the road again. "You be safe, baby girl," he calls out, waving. Heh.

Route 66 scenery, somewhere in Oklahoma (I forget where)I had wanted to make it as far as Oklahoma City today, but I reach it and there's still lots of daylight left. Might as well keep riding. Day fades to dusk (and such a pretty sunset) and I've reached Elk City OK. I pull off and, tired of paying too much for hotels, find a cheapo no-name place to stay for the night. My goodness, I've managed to cross just about all of Arkansas and Oklahoma in a single day. I am less than an hour from the Texas border here. Making good time on my return trip.

Next: Day Fourteen

Monday, August 30, 2004

Day Twelve

Start: Bristol VA (21575)
End: Osceola AR (22138)
563 miles

Up early, I get my gear stowed away, grab a little breakfast in the miniature lobby downstairs (Lord, I am tired of these "complimentary breakfasts" with nothing but stale cereal, rock-hard bagels and instant coffee) and walk outside to check out my poor bike. Tire fairies have not magically repaired the flat overnight; however, I see the Honda dealership's service bay door across the street is open, a half-hour early! I stroll over to check it out.

Atlas Honda, in Bristol VA - HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. The guys were helpful, friendly and eager to get me back on the road as soon as possible. They quote me prices (reasonable, not excessively cheap, I can live with that) for fixing the flat, and for fixing the flat and replacing the back tire, which doesn't have that much tread left on it. I decide to go for the replacement. I'd need to get it replaced before I get halfway across country anyway. Then I settle in to wait for the work to get done. The morning is gloomy and it rains intermittently. A couple of nice young men fetch my bike from across the street, saving me the trouble of doing so, and the wee beastie disappears into the work bay. An older gentleman pulls up on a Goldwing and hands it over to the service guys for whatever work he's having done. He wanders over in my general direction, and starts up the let's-kill-a-little-time conversation. He opens with "Looks like we're going to get a little rain," and again with the accents, I smile at the thick South in his voice, and reply, "Yeah, it does look a wee bit gloomy." Now it's his turn - his eyes goggle with surprise, and he says, "Where are you from?" "Los Angeles," I answer. "I've been on vacation up in the Shenandoah Valley, and now I'm on my way home." He laughs, "I didn't think you sounded like you were from East Tennessee!" What follows is one of the most fascinating conversations-with-a-stranger that I've ever been in. The fellow, name of John, is a retired police officer who travels with his wife on the Wing. They've been riding for years & he tells me lots of stories about places he's been. He, in turn, is amazed at my tales. He can't believe that I'm traveling cross-country solo (he thinks it's great, but worries that I don't carry a gun) and is tickled when he finds out that I am a former professional football player. Apparently, he's never met anyone like me. LOL, I get that a lot. We gab and gab, the time passes quickly, and before I know it my bike is ready to go. I load up, wish John safe travels, and hit the road once more.

Tennessee is lovely. I ride the length of the state, passing through the Smoky Mountains. It's uneventful riding, just making miles down the interstate. It rains off and on, but August rain is warm, and I never bother to put on my rainsuit. I get lost in Nashville. The freeways through downtown are under construction (apparently this is a perpetual condition for them) and all the signs are down. I find myself in the wrong lane to stay on I-40 westbound without a prayer of getting over in time, and end up getting dumped off the freeway and detouring into what I think was a pretty bad section of town. I figure as long as I keep heading west, I'll find the interstate again eventually. I pass through a nicer-looking part of town, the houses are neat and charming, and they all look old to me (of course, an "old" house in L.A. is one that's built before the 70's - an "old" house in other parts of the country is one that's built in the 1800's.) I pick up a state highway and keep heading west, and sure enough, it leads me back to I-40 and my main route.

By late afternoon, the rain is behind me and I am heading into Memphis. One of the main reasons I've chosen this return route is that I want to see the Mississippi here. One time, I flew into Memphis (I was changing planes there) and was amazed at the sight of the river from the air. Now, I need to see it from the ground, and cross it on two wheels. I really don't know why this is important to me, but I don't question it, just go with my feeling. I hit traffic going through the city, and there is a terrible-looking four-car pileup in the opposite direction which slows everyone to a crawl with all the damn rubbernecking. Once I get through that, it's pretty easy sailing, and the mile markers tell me how far I have to go until I reach the river and the state line ... nine miles, five miles, three, two, one ...

I do not see the river until I am just about upon it. The road rises up just a bit and suddenly I am crossing over a little bluff which is the east riverbank, and flying out onto the bridge that spans the water. It is really quite breathtaking. The river is impossibly wide here, much wider than where I crossed east at St Louis, and I thought THAT was huge. Mud Island stands north of the bridge, to my right. The river flows brown and slow beneath me. It's wonderful, just wonderful, to be traveling this way, I feel so free and alive and thankful to be able to see a sight like the mightiest of America's rivers like this, without a care in the world. I laugh with sheer happiness, and grin my way into the West.

Jeanne warned me about the road here in Arkansas. It's as lousy as she said. I-40 is lumpy and bumpy and patched every twenty yards or so, and it's annoying as hell. The thump, thump, thump of my wheels on the road surface is hard on my shoulders and butt. I start looking for a detour, and eventually head northbound on I-55. I have no idea where I'm going, but the road is better. The land is as featureless as anything I have seen so far, nothing but flat as far as the eye can see. Rice grows here. Looking at the terrain, I suddenly understand the importance of the levee systems here, on a visceral level. When the river floods, it spreads across these lowlands for miles and miles, with nothing to stop it. I think maybe I could detour north back to St Louis, then take the Ozarks road back to the west ... oh, forget it, the highway sign there just said it's 275 miles to St Loo. Sun's going down. I start looking for a place to stop for the night. Not a whole lot out here in east Arkansas, that's for sure. I find a hotel outside of Osceola. I check in for the night and drag out my maps, looking for a decent alternative route for tomorrow.

Next: Day Thirteen

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Day Eleven

Start: Luray VA (21273)
End: Bristol VA (21575)
302 miles

Getaway day. There is a wee amount of general grumpiness at having to get up early and hit the road. I am looking forward to my return trip, but sad at having to leave Virginia and my Amazon sisters. The weather looks fine for now, but promises to become threatening. It looks like a chain of hurricanes and tropical storms are setting up for hit after hit on the East Coast this year ... by the end of summer, this turns out to be more true than anyone imagined! ... and right now, the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston are moving through the Carolinas, may reach Virginia by late day. This will affect the Sisters who are going home to Florida, and may affect me a little bit, because I have decided to take I-81 south to Knoxville, and pick up I-40 west across the country. We all get our gear packed up, check and triple-check the cabin so we don't leave anything behind, and finally there is nothing left to do but exchange our goodbyes. Warm hugs and well-wishes, safe travels to you my sister, I will see you again.

I am on my own once more. I am a little slow getting back into my solo roadtime headspace, but it's not a problem. I sort of meander south in a pokey way. The morning is fine, warm and a little humid, and the sun is shining. The Blue Ridge Mountains are to my left, I follow along their base. Green surrounds me. Descending into a wide river valley - hey, it's the James River! Placenames out of American history. The water is wide and placid-looking where I cross. I smile. Where I come from, we don't have rivers, we have storm channels paved over with concrete. Real rivers are always a strange and wonderful treat to me. Even here, miles from where the James widens and flows into the Atlantic, it looks unimaginably huge to my desert-accustomed eyes. I continue, climbing through forested hills, enjoying the Virginia countryside.

For lunchtime, I decide on that quintessential Southern experience, and stop at a Waffle House. Have to do it at least once, ya know, since I've come all this way. I make the mistake of filling my tank before eating. Basic science: gasoline expands dramatically in volume as it gets warmer. This is a property of all volatile liquids, is it not? So, gas keeps cool in underground storage tanks at the station, but warms up and expands quickly in my little 2.9-gallon tank, and oofdah, I have gas absolutely POURING out of the top of my tank in the time it takes to order and eat lunch. D'oh! I suppose everyone has to learn this the hard way sooner or later. I guess it's never happened to me before because, even though I waaay overfill my tank every single time, because I always fill up and keep riding, so the gas doesn't have time to expand before it starts getting consumed.

A few hours later, I am farting around in the southwest part of Virginia, and for no particularly good reason have gotten off the interstate and am cruising around in a little town about ten miles from the Tennessee border. I'm looking for a c-store, actually, but get off track and have to hang a u-turn. Something feels wrong, the rear tire suddenly feels mushy and loose as I flip around. Whaaa? Need to stop and check, this isn't right. I find myself a gas station, find my tire pressure gauge, and sure enough the rear tire is extremely low. I fill it back up to pressure. Seems to be holding, but maybe it's a slow leak. Gotta watch that. I head back down the interstate, towards Knoxville, and stop again in Bristol VA, the last town before crossing the state line. In the amount of time it takes me to go in a market, buy stuff, and come back out, the rear tire is flat as a pancake. A helpful guy tries to put a can of fix-a-flat in, but it's a pretty worthless exercise ... foamy green goo comes pouring out of the rim, it's obviously not working. Looks like when the tire went, it went completely. I brave the street, riding a block and a half to get to a gas station & air pump, in the vain hope of seeing if I can get any air to stay in there at all, and I discover it's almost impossible to ride a motorcycle with a flat. Hee. I am learning so much on this trip. The tire, she is dead. Sigh. Time to call for a tow truck again. What is it with slow tow trucks? This time I wait almost TWO HOURS for one to come. This guy, however, knows how to tie down a motorcycle on the flatbed, so that's good news. The bad news is it's Sunday, and late afternoon, and no one is open who can fix the thing. Tow Truck Guy takes me to the nearest Honda dealership. Yay, my luck is holding! There is a Comfort Inn directly across the street, with vacancies! There had been a big NASCAR event in Bristol earlier in the morning. Had I broken down there yesterday, I wouldn't have been able to find a hotel room anywhere; now, the event is over, the race fans are on their way home, and all the hotels are empty.

Well, I wanted to make four hundred or so miles today, but I've only made three hundred before getting stuck with the flat. Things could be worse, so I'm not worried. I check in, get settled, order Chinese. Clouds come in, thicken and turn dark, and rain starts to fall after the sun goes down. The Honda shop opens at 8 am tomorrow. Hopefully they'll get me on the road again quickly, and I'll be able to make up some miles.

BamBam says I just like riding around in tow trucks :P Them's fightin' words, girl!

Next: Day Twelve

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Day Ten

Out And About in Virginia, and Initiation

I slept a little better last night; I found a not-too-terrible foldout bed on the other side of the cabin which is a definite improvement over the wretched bunk bed. So I feel perkier this morning, and decide that yes, I will indulge my inner history-buff nerd and do the Shenandoah Valley Civil War crawl today. Sure enough, I'm on my own for the day, no one else is interested; the other gals are going to head into Luray and do the town thing, a little shopping and whatnot. We'll meet up again later and do a nice dinner out to celebrate our last day of the Gather.

To start, I head down to New Market. There's a very good battle site there, and a nice museum with lots and lots of old uniforms and equipment, stuff I like to look at. The Battle of New Market was fought in May of 1864, the opening of the final campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. A silly little film shown hourly at the museum makes much of the Virginia Military Institute's participation in the battle (the museum is part of the VMI's Hall Of Honor, so it makes sense) and the cadets' charge across a muddy plowed field, now remembered as "The Battle Of Lost Shoes". As part of the larger picture, New Market was an example of the Federal leadership's continuing ineptitude in the Valley. Maj Gen Breckenridge (CSA) pretty much got the drop on Gen Sigel (US) who had been blundering around with his forces for a number of days, in bad weather. It was Sigel's last big engagement before being relieved of duty, I think. That's the stuff you read in the books. Walking around on the battlefield, retracing the steps of the soldiers themselves, I am much more aware of history from the view of some unnamed, unimportant individual. Here is where the company charged. Here is the stone wall, behind which they took cover and returned fire for half an hour. The battery stood there, up on that hill to the left, firing canister into the Union line. The Federals retreated, through what is now a cornfield. Wow. I walk the battle site, communing with ghosts I do not know. I have no idea why this stuff fascinates me so much. It just does.

After I look around New Market for a while, I head north. Tom's Brook is the site of a cavalry engagement: two divisions of Federal horsemen clashed with two divisions of rebel cavalry in October of 1864, the very end of fighting in the Valley - Gen Sheridan (US) had mostly completed his burning and destruction of the Shenandoah, depriving the Confederacy of resources that allowed them to continue the war. There's not a lot marking the site, or if there is, I never found it. I do manage to find "the back road" west of the turnpike, which is the site of Brig Gen Custer's (US) advance against Maj Gen Rosser (CSA), his former West Point roommate.

Nearby is Cedar Creek. At the same time the cavalry was fighting at Tom's Brook, infantry engaged in a major battle at Cedar Creek and around the Belle Grove plantation. There is a good visitor's center there now, rather small but staffed by friendly talkative folks who love to yak about history, the best sort of people to find at a visitor's center :) Cedar Creek is the site of one of Sheridan's greatest victories, as he is credited with stemming the rout of Union forces in the morning of the battle, rallying the troops with his own personal charisma and bravery, and leading them back to the field for a counterattack and to victory. Also, the Union victory here is one of the things that directly led to Lincoln's re-election. The battle site is too big for much walking around. Many, many divisions were engaged here, covering several miles. The folks working at Cedar Creek Visitor's Center today are preparing for a major re-enactment in a few weeks. It will be the 140th anniversary of the battle. They are building entrenchments, split-rail fences, and clearing areas that will be encamped. I look around for a while and talk to various people, then head out again to the north.

The site of the First and Second Kernstown battles, a few miles south of Winchester, is now privately owned. I was hoping to find something around here but there's not much. Kernstown is the site of a rare thing indeed, a tactical defeat of Gen Stonewall Jackson (CSA) in the Shenandoah Valley. His aggressive fighting, however, prevented the Union from removing troops from the Valley and sending them to reinforce Gen McClellan (US) in his drive on Richmond. Jackson's campaign in the Valley in 1862 is seen as a strategic masterwork.

By the time I get to Winchester, the sky is looking pretty threatening and I am worrying about the weather. Winchester is the foot of the Shenandoah Valley and there are lots of things to see here - battle sites, museums, Jackson's Headquarters. I get a little lost on the freeways (hey, I'm not lost, I'm touring.) I turn myself around and stopped at a rest area, which is also the Virginia Welcome Center. I start chatting with a fellow traveler (a tourist down from PA) and he asks me if I got caught in the rain. "What rain?" I ask. The skies are certainly darkening. He's come from the north and says it's coming down in buckets, and the front is fifteen minutes away. Well, that's enough info for me, I'm outta here, cutting short my Winchester look-see.

I take off to the southeast towards Front Royal, watching the skies but still stopping at a few roadside Civil War markers. (These are usually gravesites, or "So-and-So's House was burned to the ground here in 1863," that sort of thing.) Rain catches me before I get to Front Royal and it does indeed come down in buckets! I am drenched before I can even entertain the notion of pulling over and donning my raingear. At least it's still warm so I'm not uncomfortable. Once you get soaked, it's silly to put on your gear unless you like saunas ... the rainsuit will hold the water and heat in, and it can be downright steamy. I decide to just keep riding wet. After a five-minute downpour, the rain slacks off. Not bad. I visit the courthouse in downtown Front Royal, lots of plaques in a pretty courtyard, but not a whole lot else to look at. I have a feeling I'm missing good stuff with my haphazard route, but who cares, I'm having fun. It's midafternoon by now, time to meander back home. Might as well take Skyline Drive back through the Shenandoah NP back to Luray, it was such a pretty ride yesterday. I enter the park and start into those lovely twisties, and not a mile up the road, the rain starts coming down heavy again. Oh poo, what a killjoy. I am super-cautious going through the corners, I still don't trust my wet-weather riding, but after a little while I start to feel a bit more comfortable. I guess it's just a practice thing, like everything else. The heavy rain lasts about fifteen minutes this time, tapers off to a drizzle, and eventually stops and the sun breaks out. I am almost dry by the time I reach home.

The ladies have scouted a good restaurant for us in Luray. I have time to clean up and rest a little bit before we all pile in the car and troop down to town. It's a funky little place with a good menu. They even have some nice vegetarian selections for Raven, so she's not stuck ordering the one veg thing on the menu (which happens all too frequently, I remember from my non-meateating days.) We order a couple of bottles of nice local wine, which enhances the conviviality of the evening. Everyone is in a fine, happy mood. It's been a great Gathering, and we're celebrating tonight, not even letting the tinge of sadness at having to part ways tomorrow intrude on our festivities. We laugh, tell stories, and toast each other and the Amazons who could not make it to Virginia. I have a bit of a good buzz on, and make a little speech thanking these women for being so welcoming to someone they had never met before. There are big smiles all around, and something more. Wild1 in particular looks like a cat who swallowed the canary. She turns to me and asks, "Well, now that you've ridden all the way across the country and met us, did we skeer you off?" I laugh, "Of course not!" She presses, "Well then, now that you've met us, are you still interested in joining the Amazons?" I wonder, what is she driving at? "Of course I am," I reply. "I have no intention of withdrawing my status as Prospect." (This is the alcohol talking, LOL, sometimes it makes me give these little formal-sounding speeches.) I add that I am only three months in and have another three months to go in my prospect period. Now she's positively smirking. "Nah, not necessarily," she says. "We had to check, but since you still want to be one of us, we have a little thing planned special for tonight."

I look around the table: everyone is grinning at me. "You mean ... ?" I stutter. Geeze, my shyness is kicking in something fierce all of a sudden. They confirm that yes, tonight I will be initiated into the Amazon Sisterhood, with T as my High Priestess. It's already been put to a vote. It's already arranged. The only thing left had been to confirm my willingness to take the final step to become a Sister. They are probably laughing at the wide-eyed look on my face, because I am completely bowled over. I am sure I look like a stunned duck, anyway. They explain the by-laws to me when I voice a small concern over the legality of shortening the prospect period ... yes, it's all legit. Raven adds gently, "Besides, we thought that you riding solo across country to be here says more than another three months on a message board ever could."

And finally, it sinks in. Tonight, I shall become an Amazon.

And so it is. I cannot speak of the Initiation itself, except to say that it is my honor that it is conducted under the open sky, next to a bonfire, beneath the face of the Moon our sister. Pretty cool ;)

We stay up late in the evening afterwards, talking about anything and everything, unwilling to head off to bed. Tomorrow early we will pack up and head our separate ways. But tonight, we sit as Sisters around the fire and are glad of each other's company. I love these women.

Next: Day Eleven

Friday, August 27, 2004

Day Nine

Skyline Drive/Shenandoah National Park

I sleep badly again last night, the particular bed I've chosen is quite subpar. It's the bottom bunk ... lumpy as hell ... and now Raven is sleeping in the top bunk, which was the last remaining non-foldout bed. I'm afraid I keep the poor dear awake all night with my tossing and turning, she's a very light sleeper. And I wake up dreaming about that woman again, in which she and I were talking to each other like perfectly normal people. I sit up suddenly (almost bumping my head) saying "Dammit!" Raven says, "What?" It's hard to explain to her in a couple of sentences, but I try. "Well, I was having this dream where my ex was being nice to me." "That's a good thing, isn't it?" she says. "Not really," I say, "because that's not how it is in real life, we don't speak to each other because of massive weirdness a while ago. So it's me dreaming about something I want but can't have." The conversation eventually veers back to normalcy as I shake out the cobwebs & get going with my day. Hate it when stuff like that comes up first thing in the morning. Makes me feel out of balance. I decide I'll relocate and try one of the foldout beds tonight. I've had too many nights in a row of not-really-good sleep and it's wearing on me a bit.

Today, the Amazons ride.

T, BamBam, Raven and I will ride together (amusingly, we all have purple bikes) while Wild1 and Thumper will follow in the cage. We'll take Skyline Drive from north to south today. We pack up a nice picnic lunch, stowing the cooler in the car, and gear up and head north to Front Royal. Another lovely day and another lovely ride through Virginia countryside. I am absolutely loving riding through country that looks and feels so very different from my native California. It's all green, farmland, fields dotted with cylindrical haybales. Mountains rise to our left and our right. The weather is perfect.

I am merely a Prospect for the Amazons so I have no patch on my jacket ... everyone else wears one. It's pretty cool to see all those Amazon patches together. I guess someone who isn't part of a motorcycle club wouldn't understand the feeling of pride at seeing the colors, but there it is. I have only been a Prospect for three months, half of my six-month eligibility period, and then my potential membership into the Full & True Sisterhood will be put to a vote by the members. Nonetheless, these women have welcomed me to the Gather with open arms. I am honored by their inclusion, and by the opportunity to ride with them today. Sounds corny, but it's true. :P

I am starting to get used to toll booths. (That's me in the yellow jacket.)We pay our fees at the Front Royal Entrance Station which is located at the far north end of Shenandoah NP. From here, Skyline Drive will take us 105 miles through the park. We head up into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the road sometimes covered by arching canopies of hickory & oak forest, sometimes open to expansive views of the valley below us. T takes the lead, she's our road captain for the day. I had been riding in the third spot behind BamBam, but we switch up once inside the park because I tend to go a little faster than she does on the twisties, and this road is ALL twisties. Heavenly. Raven takes the tailgunner position. I have to say this is one of the most perfect roads I've ever ridden. It is exquisitely maintained, no rough spots, it has lots and lots of pulloffs with beautiful vistas, and it is extravagently signed. Most of this road was created during the New Deal era, one of many CCC work projects run by the Federal government during the Depression, and you can see the 1930's characterist stonework on embankments, water sluices for drainage, etc. Unlike many CCC projects, this hasn't fallen into disrepair. The park's proximity to Washington D.C. ensures not only fairly heavy use, but decent funding as well.

We take our time heading south on the Drive, stopping at several overlooks to admire the view. T sets the pace according to the 35 mph speed limit in the park, which by all accounts is VERY strictly enforced. Makes sense, too. There lots of curves with blind corners, which is bad enough, but there are lots and lots of critters who tend to wander on the road here. I've already spotted a couple of deer lurking in tall trees and shadows, about a mile into the park. Not everyone in the group sees them. Deer have a bad habit of hiding themselves perfectly until they decide in their little pea brains that they need to run right in front of your motorcycle, at which point it's way too late for you to do anything about it, and you crash and hopefully don't die. Slowing down is the best way you can protect yourself.

We stop for gas and a little rest break at one of the park concession areas. The price for gas is not even that badly inflated, a surprise. I am amused by the sight of our four purple bikes parked together. They have four different state license plates - New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania and Florida - none of which are particularly close to where we are. I wish I still had my camera. Raven is chatting with a guy on a sportsbike, and he says he saw a bear on the road a number of miles back. Oooh. There's something I am not anxious to experience for myself. We saddle up and take off again, and not that far down the road we see a deer doing ... something ... something weird. I have no idea what is wrong with that deer. It is kicking and tossing its head and leaping around. To me it looks like a bucking bronco. Rodeo deer? The huge problem with deer is they will do unpredictable things, a strange-behaving deer even more so. T slows us to a crawl, and we all get past the animal safely, but it is quite bizarre. We ride on for a while, and find a nice lunch spot. Of course the first thing everyone says after we stop is, "Did you SEE that deer?" and we all speculate what could have possibly caused it. T's theory is the best, IMO. "Maybe it was getting stung by bees." Hey, that would make me jump around in a bizarre fashion, too, so I would believe it. We set up lunch at a nice little spot next to the Appalachian Trail, we can see the white blazes on a couple of trees. A plague of little black gnats descends whenever you sit still for approximately half a second. I revise my theory on what was making the deer crazy. The damn gnats are certainly driving ME nuts, at least.

After lunch, Wild1 and Thumper will head back to the cabin while we continue south. Wild's ankle is still bothering her a wee bit, and it's better for her to rest up in the cabin, instead of driving around. In case she forgets this, she has five women to remind her of it, and then she can call us a bunch o' nags and tell us she's fine, and then we'll threaten to tie her to the chair if she doesn't stop walking around and for gawds sake prop that foot up, and then she'll grumble for a while and let someone get her another beer. LOL. Anyway. The rest of the ride is uneventful and lovely, no strange deer, no bears, just fine, fine road. Skyline Drive opens up a little bit in the bottom half of the park, you can see further through the curves, and we start to push the speed limit a bit more. T gets a little ahead of us, she rides the heck out of that Harley. She eventually throttles back a bit. I have to say I was having fun trying to keep up with her, but I couldn't quite do it. The group winds its way down to the south end of the park, eventually coming out at Rockfish Gap on I-64. We'll take the highway back to I-81, then back up to Luray and home. Well, halfway there, I-81 gets buggered with traffic, and Raven needs to get gas anyway, so we hop off the freeway and pull into a gas station. It's one of those huge stations with about thirty pumps - Raven and I end up on opposite sides of one island, T and BamBam are all the way on the other side of the station in some other zipcode. A local boy starts hitting on Raven. I guess he figured the way to a woman's heart is to inquire whether or not she has the ability to fuel her own vehicle. "Know how to get gas?" he mumbles. (Sounds more like "nohahtahgitgaz?") Raven looks at him and says, "What?" "Nohahtahgitgaz?" he repeats. He is asking her this as she is ACTUALLY PUTTING GAS IN HER MOTORCYCLE. So she just stares at him and says, "Uh, YEAH." I am cracking up, stifling laughter on the other side of the pumps. He wanders off, properly chastized or maybe just clueless. I lean across, and mumble to Raven, "nohahtahgitgaz?" and we bust out in peals of laughter. Geez, some guys.

We find an alternate route back to Luray, Hwy 11, which is a much nicer road anyway. No traffic, and secondary highways are usually much more interesting that the superslab. Home again, home again. Raven makes us a wonderful dinner, and we try to figure out what we're going to do tomorrow, our last full day in Virginia. I may end up doing some Civil War sightseeing by myself, no one else is particularly interested in it, and I'm not that interesting in doing the go-to-town souvenir-shopping they're talking about. Well, we'll play it all by ear, it's been working for us so far.

Next: Day Ten

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Day Eight

Luray VA

It's a pleasant morning in Virginia, but I did not sleep too well because I found my bed fairly uncomfortable. Mattress springs that poke you whenever you turn over will do that. Everyone wakes and gathers downstairs in what has become our main sitting-area, one of the kitchens. (The alternate kitchen will go completely unused during the course of our stay, except we use the coffeepot there.) This morning, we'll go get my repaired bike, which I am assuming is finished by now, but I haven't been able to call to find out for sure. No one's cel phone works in the cabin, we're far enough outside of civilization that none of the carriers have any coverage, and there's no way to use the land line that comes with the cabin without paying exorbitant rates. We finally get our collective asses in gear by mid-morning; Wild1 and Thumper will once again take me to the Honda place and BamBam saddles up and rides with us if I'm remembering correctly. T saddles up to go out for a little riding. We'll all hook up again later.

Back down to Harrisonburg and Blue Ridge Power Sports. The work is indeed complete; in fact, they finished yesterday but I missed the phone call telling me I could come pick it up because of the non-working cel phone issue. The fuel pump problem? Turns out not to be fuel-related at all. It was a bad electrical connection. The screw on the negative battery terminal had vibrated completely loose, apparently not an unusual occurrence after three thousand or so miles. No juice from the battery = engine doesn't run. This explains a lot. Since the negative lead wasn't really attached, just sort of flopping around in the neighborhood of the terminal, there was a connection most of the time. At higher speeds, there were more vibrations and the lead would jiggle on and off more, thus the engine cutting in and out got worse. Lower temps meant the brass had expanded less, so more likelihood of staying connected, which is why it ran fine early in the day and after sundown. The upshot? No repair required besides tightening one single damn screw. Boy howdy, I wish I had known this earlier! (When Wild called up Tee, another Amazon sister in NYC, and we told her this, she said, ya dumbass! Don't you know the connections are the first thing you check after you travel long distance? I laughed and told her if it happens a second time, THEN she can call me a dumbass. I'm giving myself a pass on this first occurrence, and chalking it up to a learning experience. LOL.) I'm damn happy not to have to pay for any expensive parts. The dealership, however, has the nerve to charge me forty-nine dollars to tighten the stoopid screw. I rationalize this as a minimum labor charge for diagnosing and correcting the problem, but I still think it's excessive. However, they've also done the 20,000 mile service - oil change, spark plugs, air cleaner, yadda yadda - for so much cheaper than what I'd pay at home, I feel like I've come out ahead in the long run. It feels good to have a well-running machine once more. I saddle up and we head back to the cabin.

For the first time, these Amazon sisters get to see me ride. This makes me unexpectedly nervous. I want them to think I'm a decent rider. I suppose that the mere fact that I have come out from California would be evidence enough, but I concentrate on taking a good line on the curves, head and eyes, keeping my speed, good lean. I am very, very, VERY nervous about the dirt road and gravel driveway to the cabin. I have a horror of gravel. A passionate horror of gravel. (My go-down last October was in gravel. Well, actually it was a dumbass move in gravel that led to my go-down. This was back when I was a brand-new newbie rider, one month fresh from my MSF course, and tried to do something that's fine in a car but not so good on a motorcycle - I tried to pull off a paved road onto a gravel/loose dirt shoulder. I slowed, but not even remotely close to enough. Carrying too much speed, I transitioned off the pavement, the front wheel grabbed and stuck in the loose stuff, turned full lock right, and suddenly I was taking a short quick flying lesson. Anyway.) We reach the turnoff to the cabin, and I steel my jangling nerves, telling myself to take the road carefully and I will be just fine, just fine. Shifting all the way down to first gear, I start poking my way down the dirt road. It goes like this: the road starts out as packed dirt with loose gravel on top, not too much, and dips downhill but not too steeply. I repeat to myself, no front brake no front brake no front brake, and feather the rear brake to keep my speed down to that of an anemic snail. Curve to the right, just a hint of ruts that collect a bit of extra gravel, I stay out of the tracks as best I can, though they are a little hard to spot with the dappled sunshine coming through the trees. Less and less steep through here. A curve to the left, and the road practically levels out, even rises just a tad, and then curves again to the right. Immediately there's a narrow little bridge that crosses a rivulet, I momentarily panic for no good reason, but remember not to hit my front brake. Another tenth of a mile down there's an intersection with another NP access road. Left turn in slightly heavier gravel. Maybe fifty feet down, the driveway is on the right. It's all gravel, no dirt, and has a nasty little dip where it meets the road, enough to panic a gravel novice like me anyway. Swing wide to cross the dip at ninety degrees, up a little bitty hill, take the left arm of the Y intersection, and now a straight shot down a hundred yards of firm gravel to get to the cabin, tires feeling just the slightest bit mushy and loose. There. I did it. I did it! I park and pull off my helmet, breathing a sigh of relief, and think, that was not NEARLY as bad as I had built up in my mind.

We hang around the cabin that afternoon, waiting for T to come back. Maybe the five of us will head out and do something once she gets back. T doesn't show, and as the afternoon wears on, we start to get a little worried. The conversation goes along these lines: When did we all leave in the morning? Ten or ten-thirty or something like that? Well, what exactly did she say? She said she was going out for a ride and would be back in a little while. Oh, c'mon, she's fine, she's just out having fun. Would she get lost? Nah. Should we call her? It would be long-distance from here, cost a bunch. Besides, she can't answer it if she's riding. What time did she say she'd be back? She didn't say anything. Should we go look for her? How? Does anyone know what direction she was heading? Oh, quit yer worryin'. She's a grown woman. Does she have the number for the cabin here? You know, to call us if she broke down or anything? I dunno.

Enough time passes (several hours) to where we pretty much agree that yes, we're officially worried about T, she hasn't returned and we haven't heard from her. We decide to take a jaunt down the road, just in case she's broken down on the shoulder or something. We'll also try calling once we get down in cel phone range again. Thump will stay at the cabin in case she shows up there, Wild and BamBam will take the car, and I'll take my bike. I'm thinking that if we get all the way down to Lee Hwy and want to keep searching, that way one vehicle can go north and the other south (but mostly it's an excuse to ride a little.) We don't get nearly that far. Once we get down to Luray and Wild's phone wakes up, she picks up a voicemail that T left in the late morning, saying something to the effect of she's going to be out riding for a while & not to worry about her. Ah, well. We call off the search party and head back to the cabin. She's gotta be coming home soon, there's only an hour or two of light left. I successfully navigate the dirt and gravel again. A mental thing, it seems a whole bunch worse coming down than going up. Now that I'm in for the night, I can sit and drink beers and watch a little TV (Olympics, mostly, on satellite dish.) We keep looking out the window, watching the driveway for T to put in an appearance. Occasionally, we hear something that sounds like a motorcycle. It's probably a loud truck on the main road (which is not that far away), or an airplane, or something, but we never see a bike coming up the drive.

Suddenly, we hear loud knocking on the front door. Everyone looks at each other like, the hell?? (I think it must be the owners, who live in the first cabin on the property. They know how big the place is & that they would need to knock that loud. But I hadn't seen them walking up, and would have, since I was sitting right next to the window. So I'm thinking, the hell??, also.) Thump and BamBam go to see what's up. Joyful noises at the entryway! "OH MY GOD! What are you doing here? I didn't know you were coming! When did you get here?" etc etc. Thumper comes back in to the living room, saying "Guess who's here?" followed by a beaming Raven. Everyone's talking at once, wanting to know how Raven has managed to show up unannounced to the Gather, and when exactly did she decide to come, and how was her trip, and a million other things. Happy and excited chatter. Raven says she pretty much decided last-minute to come up from Florida, at Dan's urging, and it took her three days to travel, she stayed with Crazyhorse in NC one night, and she had a great trip and didn't get too much rain.

I woulda sworn I heard a motorcycle ... We wander outside ... new arrival means new bike to check out ... and we figure out how Raven got to the front door without being spotted. She'd taken the right leg of the Y intersection of the driveway, which loops around the back of the property, behind the third cabin and a screen of trees. So yeah, we'd definitely heard a motorcycle at one point while watching for T, but had dismissed it for lack of visual evidence. Raven tells us that she waited outside for a while, expecting us to come outside and check out who had just pulled up, until she gave up on our cluelessness and that's when she went up and knocked on the door. Hee. It's somewhere around when we're hanging out in the front yard that T comes rumbling up the driveway, and we're all happy to see her and all "where have you been?" She was surprised to hear that we were worried about her, not figuring that we wouldn't get her message until five in the afternoon. Her mission for the day had actually been to find Raven and ride in with her, but they'd missed each other on the road too. Not a problem, Raven found her way in just fine and T's back safe and sound too. All's well that ends well. Now we are six, and a happy little crowd. Dinner and talk is the order of the evening, and everyone's in a good mood and ... it's time to break out the ice cream!

Next: Day Nine

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Day Seven

Luray VA

No riding today. After six straight days on the bike, I am FINE with the break. As I was falling asleep last night, I figured out where my phone was ... the memory just popped to the surface of my mind clear as day, as sometimes happens. T and BamBam, with whom I was sharing a room, were lucky that I didn't leap up shouting "Eureka!" Yesterday, riding in the cab of the tow truck, I was juggling my gloves and my cel phone and my helmet. I remembered trying to call the dealership on my phone, got no answer because they were closed, and stuck the phone along with my gloves inside my helmet, using it like a bucket to carry all my junk. Fast forward to arriving at the dealership. Talking to the guy there, I set my helmet down on an ATV parked in the work bay. Of course, I forget and set it down facing right-side-up. The gloves stay in, the phone falls out. I can even hear the little 'clunk' of it falling, which did not register as meaningful at the time. With any luck, it'll still be right there.

Once we're all up and around, there's a little milling about before we get our gear stowed, a little coffee in the coffeedrinkers, and then we head out in the general direction of the Shenandoah NP. The cabin where we will be staying is privately owned but within the national park borders. I'm still hitching a ride in the car with Wild1 and Thumper, of course. It's not far before we make a little right on a well-packed dirt and gravel road, travel a little ways down through the forest, and come upon a driveway which leads to a clearing which features three cabins neat as a pin. This is SO COOL. The cabin in the northeast corner of the clearing is ours. T has the keys, so she opens it up and we all troop in to check it out. It's wood and high ceilings and unfinished beams and rustic-cutsie and we all think it's wonderful. Exploration commences. I get completely confused by the layout ... three separate staircases lead to entirely disconnected portions of the cabin. (It will take me a day before I stop taking the wrong stairs, ending up in the solarium instead of my bedroom. Also, I am not the only one who is confused and repeatedly does this. Heh.) We select our sleeping arrangements, giving Wild1 the one downstairs bedroom so she won't have to climb stairs on her bum ankle, and schlep our bags inside. A little more milling about and settling in, we figure out all the things we have to do today. The major shopping trip will be this afternoon. First, though, we need to head back to the Honda dealership and get whatever's wrong with my bike fixed.

Enough farting around! Eventually I pile in the car with Thumper and Wild1 and we're on our way back to Harrisonburg. It takes a little time to get there, but it gives me a chance to admire the rolling Virginia countryside. This part of the Shenandoah is mostly farmland, dotted with small towns. It all looks incredibly charming to me. We arrive at Blue Ridge Power Sports, find the service manager, and I explain the trouble I was having. Also, I want them to do the regular 20,000 mile service. The price he quotes me for that is incredibly cheap - about half what they'd charge in Los Angeles. Good deal. I ask if anyone's found a lost cel phone. Nope, no luck. So I ask about the ATV that had been sitting in the service bay. I am told it's gone back to Fairfield VA this morning. Oh, crap! Borrowing Wild1's phone, I call my own number; it rings four times and then goes to voicemail. Wild seems to think this means it's still alive, and that it wouldn't do that if it had fallen on the road and been smashed to bits by a truck. I am not convinced, but hey, hope is always a good thing. The service manager gives us the phone number of the owner of the ATV. A bit embarrassed, I call him, and say I know this sounds really strange but I think I dropped my phone on your ATV and have you seen it? Amazingly, he says yes I have it right here. A miracle! We arrange to drive down to meet & pick up the phone at the McDonalds in Fairfield. It takes us about an hour to get down there. I really appreciate Wild and Thump running around with me to get the darn thing back. Now, I'm back in touch with the world again. We joke that my phone went on an adventure without me, that it wasn't yet tired of traveling even though I was. :)

Our big event of the afternoon is grocery shopping for our stay in Virginia. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: Five biker chicks walk into Walmart ... We hit the local WallyWorldSuperStore and all grab carts, piling up the food and beverage essentials. We are now very well-covered on the beer front. We go amazingly light on the junk food. Damn, these girls eat healthy ;)

In the evening, T makes an incredibly delicious macaroni & cheese dinner. I'm not talking mac and cheese out of a box ... this is the homemade good stuff, baked until it gets that lovely brown top over yummy chewy middle. Damn, I need that recipe! We stay up late, talking the night away, until everyone eventually wanders off to bed. I've found a good book to read - "A Walk In The Woods" by Bill Bryson (appropriate for the location!) It's the kind of quick read that sucks me in, and I finish a third of it before I snap off the light and go to sleep.

Next: Day Eight

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Day Six

Start: Huntington WV (20518)
End: Harrisonburg/Luray VA (20847)
329 miles

Worry, worry, worry. Yesterday's mechanical troubles have thrown a BIG curveball my way. What should I do? I pack my bag and gear up, give the bike a thorough pre-ride check and think good thoughts. I have the information about Gypsy's mechanics handy in my breast pocket. The bike fires right up and runs just fine. I decide to take the risk and try to ride as long as I can. If I have to, I'll limp it into Beckley and get service there.

At first, I choose to keep my questionable bike off the interstate and ride sideroads to Beckley. On the map, Hwy 10 looks like a good road to cut across and over to the southeast. After a few miles, I find myself winding through awesome twisties in the middle of nowhere. Normally, this would be heaven. With a bike that might die, forget it. I could get myself stuck far from help, without a phone, and then I'd be in a world of hurt. Or, even if the bike doesn't crap out, it'll take me hours and hours to go 100 miles. Better rethink this plan. I find a turnaround and head back to the interstate. I'll take it easy in the slow lane of I-64, and hope for the best.

The morning is cool and the scenery is just fabulous. I keep my speed around 60 mph, and so far, so good. I am traveling through coalmining country. I see long freight trains on tracks that wind next to the road, hauling boxcar after boxcar brimming with black rock. I pass through Charleston, stopping at a toll booth along there, which involves a little amusing juggling of gloves while I try to dig change out of my jeans pocket, and gives me a chance for a short chat with the guy in the booth. There's a second tollbooth a little further down the road. More digging, more chatting. I love to listen to the accents. Now, Beckley is coming up, and the bike hasn't so much as hiccuped once today. What the hell. I ride on.

Somewhere past Beckley, with everything going alright, worry lifts from me. I am back in happy road mode, singing to myself and smiling in the sunshine. I am still easing down the road, admiring the spectacular mountains surrounding me. I cross over into Virginia, entering the Washington Nat'l Forest. Virginia! I've made it to Virginia! I grin like an absolute fool. I-64 takes me all the way to the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley and I-81, at Lexington. Entering the valley from the west, the view is breathtaking. Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute nestle in gorgeous rolling hills. I pick up Interstate 81, heading northbound. I'm getting close now. I want to make it to Harrisonburg VA. This is the closest Honda dealership to my final destination, Luray, and I was planning to take the bike in for an oil change & regular service there anyway. They will be able to fix the apparent fuel problem and set me right. Well, I've gone slow all day and no troubles. Now I roll up on the throttle. We'll see if it happens again at full speed.

About five miles short of Harrisonburg, I get my answer: yes. The bike starts sputtering again, the engine cutting out intermittently. Damn, damn. I slow again and nurse it along in the slow lane. C'mon, baby, don't fail me now. I take the first Harrisonburg exit, and make a right turn, into town. I have only an address for Blue Ridge Power Sports, but no clue how to find the place. It looks like I'm in the right area, though; I pass auto dealerships, a Suzuki dealership, but no Honda sign appears. Before I know it, I'm out of VehicleLand and into academia ... James Madison University, which has a lovely-looking campus but not what I want to see! Yikes! The bike stutters worse and worse. Somehow I have ended up on a downtown street without one SINGLE place I can stop and ask directions! Ah, there's the local Chamber of Commerce on the right. I'll ask them. The nice blue-haired lady behind the desk oohs and ahhs that I have ridden all the way from Los Angeles. She directs me to the north end of town, drawing on a badly Xeroxed map for me. As I head up there, the bike starts flat-out quitting on me. When it happens in traffic, all I can do is sit there and keep pressing the start button. Thank goodness, it catches. Once I get on the north side of town, it's obvious I've been sent to the wrong place. I pass a Menonite old folk's home, then one last gas station, then I am out in the country again. I make a u-turn, the bike barely running now, cruise back a little ways looking for the road I must have missed, make another u-turn, can't find it. The bike dies for good, and I coast over to the shoulder. Well, now. Nothing left but to call for a tow, and call the Amazon sisters.

Honda Roadside Assistance promises to send out a tow truck with all possible speed. Thumper and Wild1 haven't yet arrived in Luray, but T and BamBam have, and they've already checked into the hotel. I get BamBam on the phone, and explain my predicament. Sure, they'll come to pick me up, no problem. She hands the phone over to T, and I try to give her the best directions I can. I'm pulled over on Hwy 42, about a mile north of the Harrisonburg city limits. Come south on I-81, take the first Harrisonburg exit and head west, and when you see 42, turn right and I'll be down the road a bit. Then, I settle in to wait. And wait. And wait. T and BamBam are coming from about 20 miles away, and it'll take them some time to gear up, and to find me. Who knows what's taking the tow truck so long. One driver stops to see if I need assistance. A very nice gentleman, turns out he's president of a local riding club. When I reassure him that help is on the way for me and I'm fine, he scribbles his home number down and tells me to call if I need anything. Riders look after each other that way. On the other hand, I only get suspicious eyeballs and no offers of assistance from the people whose house I have broken down in front of. I see the mother in particular peering out the screendoor and from behind curtains, keeping an eye on the biker scum next to the driveway. Heh. Me, biker scum. ;)

With joy in my heart, I spot two riders come over the crest of the hill and come toward me - perhaps this is them! Yes, T and BamBam pull up, and by the Goddess I am happy to see them. I've spoken to both on the phone, but this is the first time I've actually met either. Somehow it's fitting that our introductions are conducted on the roadside in a state where none of us live. Welcome to Virginia, and the company of Amazons. Big hugs. We talk for a bit, then settle in to figure out the problem of how to redistibute my gear. We eventually tie down my bags on T's Harley; I will ride two-up behind BamBam. The tow truck driver (who gets lost and keeps calling ME for directions, despite the fact that I repeatedly tell him I am visiting from California and don't have a clue) FINALLY shows up. He's kind of a dumbass, and gets the bike tied down on the flatbed in a half-assed barely safe kinda way, and then we're off to find the Honda dealership. He asks people for directions THREE times, this in a trip of under ten miles. Sheesh, if I were that geographically challenged, I wouldn't be a tow-truck driver. We eventually reach the Honda place, the bike miraculously not falling over or off the flatbed. It is completely on the other side of town, near where I originally got off the interstate ... Blue-Haired Lady gave me a wicked bum steer. They are closed but a guy is waiting for us (actually he's out riding but spots us on the road, and pulls in as we arrive) and shows us where to unload and park the wee beastie. Well, that's taken care of, a mechanic will look at it in the morning. Tonight, the Amazons will be staying in a hotel, and we will check into our cabin for the Gathering tomorrow.

I climb on behind BamBam, and discover that I am the world's worst passenger. I haven't ridden pillion since I was about twenty years old. Then, I was fearless. Now, I don't have the nerve for it. I absolutely hate not being in control of the bike, and sit practically rigid with terror. BamBam is a fine solo rider but is unaccustomed to having a passenger. She discovers the hard way that my big butt in the back seat vastly increases the stopping distance for her bike. A few miles, and she grows more accustomed to the new weight and balance. I try to relax, and try to remember to look around and enjoy the ride. I am not terribly successful at it. We have a close encounter with a deer, who thankfully does not run into the roadway but watches us pass from the side, waaay too close for comfort. We safely reach our destination, a Days Inn at Luray VA. Thank you, Bammers, for getting us here. Thumper and Wild1 have arrived from Florida and checked in, so all of our little group is now together. I am curious to meet everyone and get to know them a bit, and I suppose they feel the same about me. Hanging out, drinking a couple of beers, conversation. Later, we all pile into the car and head out for dinner at a local steakhouse. I am tired, pretty wiped out actually, and happy to have safely arrived. Tomorrow I'll deal with the motorcycle repairs, and we'll check out our digs for the next four days.

... HEY! Where the HELL is my phone? I can't find it anywhere. Lost cel phone = lost ALL my contact numbers. I check and recheck and re-recheck all my pockets and bags, but it is NOWHERE to be found. Uh oh.

Next: Day Seven

Monday, August 23, 2004

Day Five

Start: St Louis MO (20024)
End: Huntington WV (20518)
494 miles

Maybe it was eating all that barbeque last night. (The XTreme! Atkins! Diet!) Maybe it was drinking water from a strange water supply, with microbes that are not necessarily harmful but just different from what my body is used to. Or maybe it's just that traveling can be upsetting to the body and it will catch up with you sooner or later. I don't know exactly what caused it, but I was up in the middle of the night with, er, a nasty case of intestinal difficulties, and that's about as graphic as I'd like to get about it, thankyouverymuch. Around five in the morning, I am wide awake and have been so for a few hours and I don't feel like I'm gonna get back to sleep, so I get dressed and wait for everyone else to wake up. I read for a little while. I listen for movement, but Blue and her fella certainly aren't up and around yet, it's still way too early. I get my gear all packed up, ready to go. Finally, I take my boots off and stretch out on the bed fully clothed, thinking I'll just close my eyes and try to relax, maybe I can sleep for just a few more minutes ...

Wham! I open my eyes to bright sunshine streaming in the window, and noises out in the driveway. Thank goodness, I did manage to fall asleep again, for about two and a half hours, and Blue has kindly let me sleep in. I feel MUCH better. Air will be arriving soon. I pull my boots back on and tromp downstairs. Blue has the bikes out and has given them all a good cleaning, including mine. What a sweetheart! The VLX had been an absolute filthy mess ever since getting caught in the rain in Colorado, but now she's bright and shiny and looks eager to run down the road.

Air pulls up with her loud, loud pipes. We plan the day. From St Louis, my route is eastbound on I-64, which will take me all the way into Virginia. We decide to get a little breakfast at Mickey D's (which has a gas station conveniently next door) and then the ladies will accompany me across Illinois and all the way into Indiana. Blue will lead us through St Louis and the tangle of freeways, then once we cross the Mississippi and get out of the city, she'll signal me to take the lead and set the pace. Air will ride drag. Rain is predicted for later in the day; a storm front will be moving into St Louis from the west around mid to late afternoon. The weather in the Midwest can change its mind in a nanosecond, though ... we all make sure we have our raingear handy. A little food, a tank of gas, and we're off.

Blue and Air (Lord, we have some funny nicknames, don't we) are both excellent riders. We still hit morning traffic going through St Louis proper but it seems very non-aggressive to me, or maybe we just lucked out and didn't come across any I'm-in-a-goddamned-hurry-so-get-out-of-my-way lane-changing cagers. Before I know it, the mighty Mississippi lies before me, and the highway bridge stretches over that placid-looking water making its journey from Minnesota to the Gulf, and now my wheels hum across the pavement and over the slow-moving shipping traffic below, and I feel a little thrill. I am crossing the American Rubicon and leaving the West behind me. Father of Waters. I smile.

Past East St Louis, I pull into the lead position and concentrate on setting a steady pace, because I know both these ladies have cruise control throttlelocks on their bikes. Hey, speed-up-slow-down drivers make me nuts, and it's even worse on two wheels, LOL. The three of us have settled well into riding formation, which makes for a very nice small group ride. Air is absolutely superb at the tailgunner position, one of the best I have ever seen. Riding 'drag' or 'tailgunner' - last person in line - is a position with some special responsibilities. Even though we have never ridden together before, she is perfect in her anticipation of when I will change lanes. She secures position for the group, 'closes the door' and keeps traffic a proper and safe distance behind us, and generally does an excellent job back there. I tell her so at a gas stop, and she looks a little surprised. "Well, that's what I do," she says, like it's no thing at all. "You're very good at it," I reply. I want her to know that I noticed. ;)

Southern Illinois is the flat, flat land that I expected to see in Kansas. Here, the terrain does not "roll" in any way, shape or form, and the only thing you might legitimately call a "hill" would be the embankment of the freeway overpass. Heh. Corn, fields of corn everywhere. The sky is starting to look not so friendly, the clouds are lowering and grey. We ride on, and cross over into Indiana. Bleh, we get caught in one of those construction zones where they've coned off one lane, leaving only a single lane for travel, and we're stuck behind slow traffic. This goes on for miles. Bo-o-oring, and now I am looking for the next gas station, having gone over to reserve about ten miles ago. I spot one, and pull off at the first Evansville IN exit. Bad choice, but that's what happens when you have the person who doesn't know the road in the lead spot, ya know? Had I been patient and gone one or two more exits, we would have had lunch options; here there is only the gas station and c-store. We take a little rest break, figuring out what to do, and eventually decide that no one's really that hungry yet so we'll just ride on from here. I'll keep heading east while Blue and Air will turn around. They are deciding which route they will take back when one of them, I forget which, gets a cel phone call. Ack, it's pouring down rain already back in St Louis, the storm front has arrived a bit early. Personally I dread riding in the rain, having little practice at it, but they don't seem too put out by it.Outside of Evansville, Indiana We take a few pictures and make our goodbyes, glad to have met, and I am so very thankful for their hospitality. Rock on, Rumble Sisters. (Later, I found out that they got caught in an EXTREMELY heavy downpour on the way back. So heavy, the cars were pulling off the side of the road. Can't ride in that sh*t! They took refuge under an overpass, waited it out, and made it home safely later in the day.)

East on I-64, across southern Indiana, and I'm the lucky one who is still staying ahead of the rain. I'm not really sure when the land changed into something a little more wooded, a little less featureless. Somehow, hills and trees crept back into my vision and I didn't really notice until they were just there. This is very rural country. I stop for gas again, this time about an hour from the Kentucky border, and the little blue sign tells me I have to go about a quarter-mile off the interstate to get to the gas station. I follow the arrow, and then I think that I have stepped back in time. I pull up to a little one-room general store, a single gas pump out front. It's the type of pump I haven't seen since the 70's, where gallons and dollars click off on analog counters. I pump first, then pay. Heh. That always feels strange to a big-city grrl like me. I am standing outside, taking a little stretch break before riding off again, when a man comes out of the store, complete with sqeeeek-BANG of the screen door, and nods hello to me. He then does a double-take at my California license plate and drawls out, "Yew shure are a long way from home, ain't ya, darlin'?" The thick accent makes me smile. My Western ear can't tell a drawl from a twang but I would swear by listening to him that somehow I've gotten off course and ended up in deep Georgia. "Yes, I am," I smile at him. "I'm all the way out from Los Angeles. On my way to Virginia." His eyes widen, probably at MY strange accent as much as the information itself. "Mah goodness! Well, yew be careful they-uh!"

I cross the Kentucky state line and immediately hit LOTS of traffic in Louisville. Who knows why. It's afternoon, and rush hour there just flat-out sucks, I guess, because I never do see an accident or any construction zones. I sure am glad to get past what turns out to be the worst traffic jam of the entire trip.

Farming Kentucky gives way to Horse Kentucky gives way to Tobacco Kentucky gives way to Coal Mining Kentucky. Flatlands are behind me now, and there are more and more trees the farther east I go. I pass through Frankfurt and Lexington, but besides these towns, it's all very rural. Occasionally, I spot little towns below the interstate, tucked into steep-walled valleys while the road sails high above. Ah, this is what they mean by a "hollow" (or "holler," which is what it sounds like to me when said with a Kentucky accent.) I think of Amy, and how her accent gets dramatically stronger whenever she talks of home, and how we tease her about it. Crossing the hollows, sometimes I smell woodsmoke. Lovely, lovely country. The hills have turned into bona-fide mountains, and I am traveling through heavily forested land.

It's getting later, the sun is starting to get low in the sky, but I need to press on since I'm pretty much in the middle of nowhere, not close to any large cities when I look at the map. Just about the worst possible thing starts to happen. My engine sputters, coughs, resumes running, coughs, dies for a second, resumes, coughs some more. Ice in my gut ... OH F***. What the hell is going on? I've been running at high speeds all day, doing 70 or 75 mph, passing trucks with impunity, before this trouble struck. Oh, sweet Goddess, please don't let my bike die out here, keep me safe, I pray with fervor. I back off the throttle. This helps, but does not eliminate the problem. The bike starts cutting in and out, more when I am trying to accelerate or go uphill, less when I am going slower. Pretty soon I am poking along the interstate, and it is one heck of a scary thing to be going 45 mph when logging trucks are passing you at 70. Please, please, please, just let me get to the next town. It seems like forever before I spot an exit with a blue services sign. Thank you, thank you.

I get the bike into a safe spot in a gas station parking lot, and just sit off to the side for a while, staring at the beast, a little bit shaken. What should I do? I think that it's probably a fuel problem, the fuel pump is dying, maybe? Wouldn't that cause the engine to cut in and out like that, if fuel is getting to the carbs intermittently? Oy. I am in Morehead KY, a college town, so I can get a room here. But it still looks like a very small town. Will they have someone who can fix the bike? Will I get ripped off? I wish I still had my tools, and more importantly, I wish I had the skill to diagnose and fix it myself. I check everything I know how to check, T-CLOCK. (Well, OK, I didn't check the tire pressure.) Chain is fine. Lights are fine. Oil is fine. Chassis is fine, nothing has vibrated loose. Kickstand kill switch is fine. Well, does she fire up? Indeed she does. Engine idles without problem. I blip the throttle. Runs fine. I kill it, wait another five minutes, repeat. Same thing. Whatever was happening seems to not be happening any more. Somewhere along the way here, I make what in hindsight was probably a pretty stupid decision. I decide to keep going to the next decently large town. Hope and prayer will be my wings - just please, Goddess, keep me safe and get me there.

Temperatures are dropping and there's an hour or less of light left. I bundle up and ease gingerly down the road. The wee beastie hiccups occasionally, which always causes me to slow WAY down, but she keeps on going, mostly. I am still several miles from the West Virginia border when the sun sets behind the mountains. Haven't hit any towns for a while, but the green signs tell me that Huntington WV is coming up. Hey, Marshall University is here, go Thundering Herd! Must be my day for college towns. This is sounding promising, as long as I can get there. Finally, I reach town and pull off the first likely-looking exit. There's a Ramada and a Comfort Suites (I try the latter), but I am shocked at the price. I must be close enough to the university where they've jacked up their rates. The front desk woman tells me that there's a Days Inn at the next exit, and they're about twenty dollars cheaper. Oh, thank you. I need to save pennies now, I don't know if I'm going to have to shell out some bucks for repair. I talk to the bike, tell her we're almost done for the day, coax her down the road. Thank goodness, she makes it, and I check in to a room for the night.

Well, this is a fine turn of events. I call Gypsy from the Rumble Sisters (this is a different Gypsy than the Amazons; is it a requirement that all women's biker clubs have a Gypsy? LOL) She lives in West By God Virginia, as she always calls it, and also rides a VLX. I ask her, do you have a good mechanic? If I bring it in, will they rip me off? How far are you from Huntington? Etc, etc. She's very helpful, and gives me all the information on her guys. Unfortunately they're in Beckley WV, not in Charleston like I assumed. Charleston is 60 miles away. Beckley is 100. Well, nothing I can do tonight. I'll have to wait to see what the morning holds for me. (And by the way, I should have spent the extra twenty-some bucks for the Comfort Suites. The beds at Days Inn COMPLETELY suck.)

Next: Day Six

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Day Four

Start: Junction City KS (19598)
End: St Louis MO (20024)
426 miles

Another fine day. The Weather Channel (essential programming for traveling motorcyclists) shows that I'm still between two major storm fronts and will stay there today. There's heavy rain a day in front of me and a day behind me, but I've lucked out and hit the sweet spot for my eastbound journey. :)

Jeanne and I gear up and head out early. She is going back to Wichita, although she wavers a bit when I tell her she should just come on out to Virginia with me. (Me: "Oh, c'mon, just do it. It'll be fun." Her: "I didn't pack anything." Me: "I bet we could find someplace between here and Virginia that could sell you a toothbrush.") She coulda ... between jobs at the moment, nothing crucial to prevent her from just taking off for a few days ... but she's supposed to go pick up her truck and/or trailer from somewhere today, and finally decides not to blow it off. Ah well. Next time, kiddo! We say our goodbyes, and I thank her profusely for coming up and riding with me for a bit. I have very much enjoyed our meetup, and look forward to seeing her again.

Back to road time. Kansas is greening up imperceptibly as I head east. I pass through capital Topeka, Lawrence, and cross the state line at Kansas City, where the Kansas River flows into the broad Missouri. Rivers that big always trip me out, I'm not used to them, LOL. Kansas City MO is the first truly major Midwest town I've seen, and the largest since Denver. Skyscrapers cluster downtown, looking important, the interstate shoehorning its way between. Royals and Chiefs Stadiums catch my eye on the right-hand side, but I can't spend more than a microsecond looking at them, because the road is lousy with morning traffic and lots and lots of construction. They are widening the freeway all the way past the town of Independence, and the lane shifts are numerous and nasty. Keeps me on my toes!

The urban cluster of western Missouri finally dies out and I am back to riding wide-open road. My goodness, Missouri is really quite lovely. It's more rolling-hills than Kansas, and it all looks lush and green. The land is checkerboarded with planted crops, fallow fields, and what looks like wild grasslands. Stands of trees mark the watercourses, which I cross with more frequency now. I am enjoying myself immensely. I guess I had no idea what to expect from the prairie states, but I certainly hadn't thought I would see land this charming. My sister and her family recently visited here, and were so taken by it that they're looking for property and planning to move out of California. Now I see why. At the next stop for gas, I call my sister. "Hey, was it Warrensburg or Warrenton where you were looking to move?" "Warrensburg," she answers. "Well, guess where I am." I've managed to pull off into a BP on the Warrensburg exit ... we get a pretty good chuckle out of that.

Ride, gas, ride some more. More miles. More scenery. I see lots and lots of billboards advertising roadside-attraction caves, and wineries. Makes sense, if you think about it. This part of the country is all limestone, part of an ancient seabed before the continents took their current shape. Perfect soil for vineyards. Perfect conditions for cave formation. The hills roll on, the road cutting across their fertile contours. I smile, and sing to myself, happily flying along.

Another gas stop, and I strike up a conversation with an older fellow riding a 70's-era Kawasaki. His bike is all packed up and he's obviously traveling long-distance too. He tells me he's been to Portland OR, then down to Las Vegas, and now he is returning to New York. Ah, that explains the Yankee cap! His Kawa is obviously well-loved, it looks spotless and meticulously maintained in spite of being twenty-some years old. I always think those long banana seats look uncomfortable, though. We wish each other safe riding. I will see him several times again this day along the road, and we will wave greetings to each other.

Late afternoon, and I have made good time across Missouri. St Louis is, I believe, the biggest Midwest city besides Chicago, and it certainly has plenty of urban sprawl. I am used to riding in this sort of traffic, but I can see where it would be awfully intimidating to someone who learned to ride in the countryside. I pass through suburb after suburb, their names meaningless to me, seeing strip malls and housing developments and all the familiar-seeming features of cities. I have the directions to Blue's house zipped up in my left breast pocket, but of course I can't pull out and check my little scribbled piece of paper while I am riding. Predictably, I miss my offramp. I eventually figure out that I need to turn around, get a little sidetracked on one of the loop highways, manage to point myself in the right direction, and find my way to the St George suburb of St Louis. I pull into Blue's driveway around 5:00 pm.

Blue is an absolute sweetheart; she welcomes me into her home and it's sooo nice to have some creature comforts after several days of hotel stays. We gab for a while (and let me tell you, for those of you that haven't met Blue ... she's quite a talker! I do manage to get some words in edgewise, though. LOL) and then I head off to take a shower, put on clean non-riding clothes, and generally feel civilized again. Air comes over later. They're going to show me the town. Somehow it feels strange to sit in a car again. Hee. We go out for dinner ... I figure, when in St Louis, oughtta do barbeque ... and it is QUITE the feed, we scarf down piles of ribs and brisket and chicken. Air cracks me up. She's one of those people whose wit is so dry it's positively desiccated. (Me: "Wow, we pigged out." Air: "I think we got a pig in.") After dinner, we do the tourist thang, go see the Arch and walk around the plaza for a little while, then do a little driving tour of some of the historic neighborhoods around St Louis. We don't stay out too late, since the two of them will ride with me a ways tomorrow. Off to bed, and sweet dreams!

Next: Day Five

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Day Three

Start: Wheat Ridge CO (19119)
End: Junction City KS (19598)
479 miles

I wake feeling rested and ready to ride. Yay! I want to make good time into Kansas. I'm meeting up with Jeanne today, and I'm up fairly early without an alarm clock, so I am humming happily to myself as I gear up, pack my bag, and stroll into the beautiful brilliant morning sunshine ... and stop dead in my tracks in a horrid little 'oh sh*t' moment. My saddlebags are hanging open and I know I for sure didn't leave 'em that way. A$$wipe thieves have struck in the night, getting away with my camera, my tools, and my chaps. Dammit! The camera, that's the expensive item, a nice $600 unit. The tools, well, you think I brought them because they might come in handy? And the chaps ... what am I going to do if I hit cold weather? I feel a little ill, actually, and anyone who's ever had anything significant stolen knows what I mean. A little panicked and my buzz massively killed, I troop back in to the front desk and tell them I am the victim of a theft. The woman at the desk is hugely apologetic, saying "I'm sorry" about a half-million times. Apparently I wasn't the only one to lose stuff last night; a family from Oregon had their rental van broken into and their bicycles stolen as well. I think the parking lot security at Comfort Inn Wheat Ridge needs a wee bit of improvement, don't you? But it's a nasty truth in life ... don't leave stuff where it's too easy for thieves to get it. I shoulda never left anything on the bike, but I was tired and wet and cold last night and didn't take the time to carry my things up to my room. My saddlebags were locked, yes, but with little luggage locks looped through the leather straps. I am thankful that the thieves only cut the straps and didn't slit the bags themselves.

The front desk person phones the police department, and I settle down to waste an hour waiting for someone to come and take the report. I spend the time calling my Amazon sisters to let them know what happened, but I only get voicemail. I leave a few messages. As I'm waiting, I start to think that I haven't lost anything essential. Nothing prevents me from continuing, as long as the weather doesn't turn chilly, and I probably passed through the coldest part of the ride going through the high Rockies yesterday. I still have my raingear and both my jackets. The panic fades and I start thinking things aren't as bad as all that, I've got a good motorcycle and a fine day's ride in front of me, and my happy mood creeps back. The officer, when she finally shows up, is likely surprised by my "oh well, sh*t happens, life is good anyway" attitude when she takes my report. (The police officer, by the way, was a buxom ponytailed blonde named Heather. A few of you reading this will be amused by this fact. Aieee! Sometimes my luck is so bad, it's funny.)

The city of Denver, needless to say, is now not very high on my nifty favorite places list, so I'm happy when I finally mount up and ride out. I had not realized that Denver is mostly on flat ground. The Rockies rise sharply just to the west, but the Mile-High City is sitting on a mile-high plateau nestled up against the mountains. Interstate 70 leads me eastbound, taking me through Denver proper, past the airport, and finally into open farmlands and wide-open spaces once again. The land has changed. Now I am surrounded by mostly featureless rolling plains, no large stands of trees, no rivers or canyons, all agriculture, nothing wild. More crops, less cattle. I see corn, soy, and other fields planted with stuff I don't recognize. The day is warm, very pleasant.

This is my third day on the road and I've fallen into my traveling rhythm. I stop for gas in some forgotten rural eastern Colorado town, and notice that my cel phone is out of range, no signal. I cross over into Kansas an hour later, still riding through unpopulated seas of corn. I stop for more gas. I stop for lunch. (Subway sandwiches have been my lunchtime staple; they are quick and reasonably healthy and easy on my stomach, which sometimes complains about food from strange places.) I keep on riding, making good miles. This land is strangely lovely in its own way. I know Kansas is supposed to be flat, but it's not, really. It remains featureless, no dramatic scenery like Utah yesterday, but the terrain undulates gently as far as I can see, looking pleasant and productive. I see the occasional barn, windmill, farmhouse, outbuilding. Small clusters of buildings dot the interstate every dozen or so miles; gas stations, general stores, and the like. My phone hasn't yet woken back up. I am shooting for Salina KS, right in the middle of the state, where Jeanne and I are supposed to meet, and I told her I'd call her when I was getting close. About 60 miles away, I stop and look for a pay phone, and finally get a hold of Jeanne. She's already in Salina, waiting for me, and I am disappointed that I was delayed an hour this morning ... if that hadn't happened, I would be arriving about now. Oh well - if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, etc. Jeanne gives me an exit number, and I hustle to finish the last miles and get to the meeting spot.

Pulling into the truck stop parking lot, I spot a single bike parked off to the right. Looks promising, so I pull up alongside. I am pulling off my gear, shaking out my extraordinarily bad helmet hair, and stretching my legs a bit when Jeanne comes strolling out of the building with a huge grin on her face. She and I hit it off immediately and we fall to talking like we've known each other forever. Tell me about Kansas, I ask her. Is it all like this? What will I see as I go east? She is frankly surprised that I think it's pretty. I guess she never thought of Kansas as anything other than boring. I try to explain to her that I've never traveled these roads before, so the newness makes it all a big adventure to me. And yes, it is pretty, in a nice-and-neat sort of way. I am liking America's heartland. Jeanne gives me loads and loads of good information. She used to drive long-haul trucks, and knows which interstates are good traveling, and which are generally in poor condition or under constant construction.

After eating, we decide to head down the road a ways and stop when we feel like it. Jeanne rides a sweet Intruder. Kansas is a no-helmet-requirements state and I think she appreciates that I don't give her any attitude when she doesn't wear one. Hey, my opinion on the subject is this: I wear a full-face by choice, not just because California requires me to, and I wear it even when I don't legally have to. But I respect a rider's ability to make her own choice on the matter ... who am I to tell anyone what equipment she should wear on her noggin? It's called 'informed consent,' people. (End of rant.) Anyway, the two of us fly down the road, heading east, sun slowly sinking behind our shoulders. I know I have that stupid happy smile under my helmet, it just feels so fine to be on the road. A tow-headed little boy stares at us from the backseat of a passing Corolla. His comically wide eyes follow us from the side window to the back as he cranes around to watch. That's the call of the road, son. Yes, it is THAT much cooler than being stuck in a metal cage. I'd wager he'll be on two wheels when he gets a little older. :)

Near sunset, we've reached Junction City KS, and we pull off the highway and check in to a likely motel for the night. (Ack, a Comfort Inn again. Well, I have nothing left to steal! LOL) Jeanne and I decide that getting a few beers and staying in and watching the Olympics on TV sounds like a good evening ... I'm glad she was there, too, because Kansas has some weird-ass rules about where you can buy regular beer. Apparently, c-stores are only allowed to sell the low-alcohol kind. Heh, at least we aren't in a dry county! She skillfully navigates the local Budweiser regulations. Softball, diving and gymnastics are on the schedule for NBC tonight. Good sports to watch! My phone is finally getting a signal again, and just about every one of my Amazon sisters has called me and left messages. They all say pretty much the same thing: Whatever you need, we will get for you. It is quite the outpouring of support from my sisters, and I feel a little abashed that I had left all those messages when I was still a bit panicked and pissed-off in the morning. I call everyone back and tell them I'm fine, yes it sucks that my camera is gone but I don't need anything, I'm still on schedule heading for Virginia, and see ya soon. Jeanne is rather moved by all that support, and says so. The rest of the night is filled with giggling, commentary on which of the athletes on TV look particularly hot, and generally shooting the bull. It's been a great day and I am sooo happy to have met Jeanne, my first Amazon sister along the way. Tomorrow, on to St Louis.

Next: Day Four

Friday, August 20, 2004

Day Two

Start: Beaver UT (18581)
End: Wheat Ridge CO (19119)
538 miles

I get a kinda late start this morning too. I had been too keyed up to sleep last night and didn't put in a wake-up call. By the time I wake, get geared up and am ready to ride, the sun is well up in the sky. I think I am at some altitude here in Utah since it's still a little on the chilly side. It rained more overnight; I clean off the bike and get everything dry that needs to be. Hmm, bike is low on oil. Gotta watch that.

The pavement is still wet in places. I take off in the direction of Salt Lake City, but only twenty miles down the road is the junction for I-70, the road that will take me east. Now I ride squinting into the morning sun, crossing low mountains on the wide-open highway. The road is good. It's just me and the long-haul truckers and cars with tourists heading to some other destination. No one lives out here. Every offramp is signed "Ranch Exit." There are many miles between each one.

This is country where you really have to watch your gas. You do NOT want to get stranded by an empty tank out here! First tank of the day is near Richfield UT (had I known what was coming, I would have waited.) Ten miles father down the road, many signs announce that this is the Last Chance For Gas for 110 miles. Oofdah. That's going to be cutting it a little bit close. I can go 120 miles on a full tank in good conditions, no problem at all, but if I run at 80 mph or get a headwind or have to climb any significant upgrades, I go over to reserve at 100 miles or earlier. Quick mental calculation tells me I'll make it, but I decide to take it easy over this next stretch. Won't hurt to back off the throttle and enjoy the day, anyway.

After bypassing the Last Chance For Gas (which is Salina UT, by the way) I pass out of the mountains and into some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Stark, austere, completely gorgeous, I travel through the empty red rock mesalands of middle Utah, awed by the magnificence and hugeness of every vista. In spite of my gas worries, I stop and take lots of pictures. I have happy travel conversations with someone at each stop. There's the older couple, on their way to visit their daughter's family in Colorado Springs. "You're from Los Angeles?" they ask. "What part? We live in Glendora." I laugh, "No kidding! I'm from Sherman Oaks." Later, at another stop, there's a college-aged couple, he's taking pictures & she's perusing the blanket-on-a-sidewalk wares of someone selling cheap crap jewelry. He shyly says "Nice bike," and is perhaps surprised when I turn out NOT to be a badass biker & happily pose for him so he can take a picture of The American Traveler. He is from Peru, she is from Austria. This is the first time they've both been in the United States, and they are on their way to Arches NP, then Las Vegas, and eventually Los Angeles and Disneyland. (Of course.) We chat for a while; neither of them have great English but I don't speak more than a few words of Spanish or German, so we manage. Nice folks. I move on, wondering how they met, and what they will think of the neon excesses of Vegas after seeing this wondrous isolation in Utah.

I do make the next gas stop without any problems, in Green River UT. In fact, I only put in two and a half gallons, so I wasn't even close to running on fumes. Talk to a couple riding on a Gold Wing with a sweet trailer setup. They ask me if I got caught in the hail earlier. Apparently, golf-ball size stuff was falling south of us. I've been lucky so far with the weather. I press on, storm clouds chasing me through eastern Utah. At one point, there are massive black clouds on both sides of me, and I see lightning to both my left and right, but I am riding in a slot of sunshine, fighting the rising winds, praying that I won't get caught in the bad weather surrounding me. I swear I hear music. I decide that I might as well enjoy the audio hallucination and the music resolves itself into a perfectly clear violin piece, fast and tense, which I name "Chasing Thunderclouds." I have no skill as a musician but I wish I did, so I could write this music down. Strange things happen in your head on the road sometimes.

I cross over into Colorado and have lunch in Fruita. I park next to a church-group van with California plates, and I notice the license plate frame says "Glendale STAR." Heh, that's where I get my car serviced. The church group turns out to be a bunch of Asian teenagers. I ask one of them, "You guys up from Los Angeles?" He smiles and asks, "How did you know that?" I told him the license frame tipped me off, and that I work for Nestlé in Glendale.

Heading eastbound in Colorado, there's no line of demarcation that tells you when you've passed out of tablelands and into the Rockies. The hills become steeper, gradually, until you suddenly notice you are surrounded by some serious mountains. The signs for each city in Colorado proudly announce the elevation of the town in letters as large as the name of the town itself. I am traveling at 6,000 feet ... 7,000 feet ... 8,000 feet. The bike is still running OK. I was expecting the carburetor to give me a little trouble at high elevations, but so far, so good.

Rain finally catches me outside of Eagle CO. For the first time, I engage in that old motorcyclist's ritual of putting on the rain suit underneath the freeway overpass. (I am sure I looked like a complete spaz doing it, too. I should have practiced earlier! Heh.) It's not a heavy rain yet, but it is c-o-l-d. Oh, hell. Should I keep going, or stop early for the day? Miles are important to me at this point, so I tell myself to press on, but stop if conditions worsen or if I feel unsafe. I am now entering the highest part of the Rockies. Even though it's an interstate, the road is pretty steep and twisty in parts. There's a lot of road construction, too, which just makes everything worse. My goodness, conditions like that will sure focus one's attention on the road! One bad spot in particular, a few miles before the Eisenhower Tunnel, challenges me. There's a sweeping right curve marked with a big yellow sign saying 45 (right arrow) where the top layer of pavement has been stripped off by that pavement-chewing machine, leaving the surface bumpy and rutted and holding the rain like raingrooves on steroids. All I can do is grit my teeth and ride through it, chanting to myself, "Do it right ... head and eyes ... slow look lean roll." A little dicey, but I make it. Actually, high Colorado is charming, I pass through many small towns folded between high mountain peaks, the scenery reminds me of Switzerland. The rain is heavier in places, then lets up, then comes down harder again. I start dropping down out of the highest parts of the route, and begin looking for a likely hotel. The first one I stop at is full for the night, so I keep going. There's a very steep drop and many large yellow signs warning truckers of the steep grade as you come into the Denver metro area. I am fighting traffic as well now, and the rain is really coming down. I wipe my face shield with my gloved hand every few seconds, and ride in the slow lane, looking, looking. The sun has gone down and I am chilled to the bone and I just want to be off the road. I spot a Comfort Inn just off the highway in Wheat Ridge CO, and that's the spot for the night! I feel like the Michelin Man, waddling to my room in my raingear. I am happy to shuck it all off, set out everything to dry overnight, take a hot shower and settle in for the night.

Tomorrow I'll meet Jeanne in Kansas, looking forward to that.

Next: Day Three