Posted By Gregg Lewis,
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015
The road offers endless opportunities—and hazards. It’s not unlike life in those ways. We each venture out in our own way to seek the former and minimize our risk of being undone by the latter. So much of what we find on our journey is a reflection of our attitude. This is certainly true as we watch the road surface and scenery slide by in concert with the rattle and hum of the machines we trust to take us safely forward.
My own trip this past July was long overdue. I had not given myself permission until recently to plan a solo trip of any kind. This one would be to see parts of North America I had never seen. For whatever reason, it took a painful divorce, the years of upheaval that preceded it, and the months of grieving that followed it to consider this journey and see it as one of healing. It was also in many ways an opportunity to look forward. I think in years past I had made the mistake of not seeing a trip like this as something that could re-charge and invigorate me in ways that would have made me a better spouse. Instead, I erroneously considered the idea of such a trip as a potential “taking-away” from the marriage. I mention this only as food for thought to those of you who thought like I did that feeding my spirit in this way would bring little or no value to the ones I love. I don’t think I could have been more wrong.
I have always loved riding. To me it is at once therapeutic, calming and exhilarating. I catch myself with a goofy smile on my face inside my helmet as the road curls beneath my tires and I feel the moment when motorcycle and rider seem to become one in the quest for the perfect curve. This has happened many times over the years and miles, but it still surprises me.
In the wake of the loss I felt in my personal life, I began to think a lot about the distinction between being alone and loneliness. I realized that in my 50 years I had never taken a solo journey of the kind I was considering: eight days of riding across the Northeastern United States and parts of Canada, camping along the way. To be frank, it scared me, but not to the point of avoiding the chance to take this journey. The courage was born in part from the loss and the idea of those days on my own suddenly felt less lonely. It may offend as many readers as it will encourage that I was looking at this as a spiritual journey. I needed the time to connect my spirit to the world around me in a way that the distractions of life had too often stymied. It became a large part of the experience for me.
Planning a trip like this can be an informal affair. Others of us will plan each mile with such care and precision as to extinguish any chance for an impromptu course correction or adjustment to one’s preconceived ideas about what is or should happen next. I took the middle ground mapping out what I thought was a highway-free, 4,000 mile journey that would take me across West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey before heading home to Southwest Virginia. I had specific destinations in mind and things I hoped to see.
As the idea for the trip began to gel, I came across a news article about the most beautiful spots in each of our 50 states. One of the spots mentioned for New York was Watkins Glen State Park and its gorges. I had traveled some in New York but had never heard of the park or its rock formations and was astonished at what I found as I looked into it. I had my itinerary’s first destination.
Roughly 500 miles from my home in Salem, Virginia, Watkins Glen State Park seemed a reasonable day’s ride and the roads I selected—I thought—would keep me off the limited access highways I hoped to avoid. Nevertheless, most of the ride along US 220 North was breathtaking. Much of it in Virginia north of Roanoke was the perfect start to get the juices flowing and allow me to begin making the connections I was seeking.
Fried food, soft serve ice cream and t-shirt shops reign supreme in the village of Watkins Glen like they do in virtually every other tourist town. But at the top of the hill sits one of the most spectacular examples of creation you can see in the eastern United States. Whoever or whatever you want to credit with this, it’s difficult not to appreciate the miracle in it as the water has sculpted the rocks along the gorge for millennia, leaving a canyon of striated rock and greenery that is worthy of much deeper exploration than I was able to give it on this trip.
I set up my hammock and bug net and called it a night, but not before an older fellow from the campsite next door came over for a visit. Turns out he had a beemer years and years ago and went on about how much he missed it, but his wife’s infirmity kept him from feeding this part of his soul. I could relate and didn’t push the notion that our personal sacrifices can have the opposite of the intended affect. He was a minister, and I asked him to keep me in his prayers as I set out.
The next morning dawned bright and cool. The perfect day to cross northern New England, and a spectacular day it was. I enjoyed the increasingly warm sunshine and mile after mile of twisty roads and breathtaking scenery. Through the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and into Maine, Kamele swayed and purred as we pushed north and east with the scent of pine and cool mountain air breezing past us.
As I crossed into Maine and the sun tilted low in the sky, preparing to say goodnight through my mirrors, the ubiquity of moose crossing signs became apparent. Now the chance of seeing a moose in the wild was a big part of this trip for me, and I thought heading to the part of Maine with the highest concentration of the large mammals would improve my chances of seeing one, but I certainly didn’t want to get so close that it ended my trip. In the waning daylight, lengthening shadows, and narrowing roads, every dark spot along the roadside began to look like it could be a moose. My pace slowed considerably as the moose warnings grew increasingly ominous: “high hit rate” and “hundreds of collisions” jumped out at me with flashing lights. I was down to about 30 miles per hour and hoping I would arrive safely at my campsite before complete darkness fell over Kokajo, Maine. I pulled into the campsite just as the owner was turning out the light in her office. After a curt Maine welcome tinged with admonition for this late hour, I set up my tent in darkness without having any idea of my surroundings.
At daybreak I set out for my potential moose sighting in earnest. The sunrise over the campground was truly magnificent and yet would only hint at the extraordinary day I had in store as I set out for Halifax, Nova Scotia. As it turned out the maps I printed out and stuffed into my tank bag weren’t particularly helpful that morning—or, alas, maybe they were. I accidentally ended up on a logging road that prohibited motorcycles and within the first hour of riding that morning I saw four moose. The first guy was slogging through a picturesque bog as I came to a stop. He looked up from his foraging and seemed to question my relevance. The moment seemed to freeze in time as we looked at one another from 200 feet away. He must have decided he should continue his breakfast because he broke his gaze and stuffed his head back down into the watery buffet.
Not long into Nova Scotia, the gray skies decided to offer up some of their moisture. I made a quick pit stop along a very narrow shoulder to put on my one piece, yellow BMW raingear. If you’ve ever tried to pull raingear on over a BMW Rallye 3 jacket you know the armor in the elbows will hang up the rain suit every time. This time was no exception. In my frustration I yanked the yellow plastic up only to feel a tear – not in the raingear, but in my shoulder. Ouch! What should have been a simple task brought me several sleepless nights and near constant pain over the days that followed and was the only real negative I would experience over the eight days on the road. I even went so far as to stop at several clinics to see if I could get a doctor to give me a cortisone shot. Note: if you are a US citizen travelling to Canada, get travel insurance or prepare to pay out of pocket for a doctor’s visit. I was told it would cost me $675 just to register at one of these facilities. I opted to go with the pain.
The next morning brought tired eyes which were all I really needed as it turned out. I had planned a southerly route along the Nova Scotia coast on my way to Cape Breton thinking I would enjoy spectacular scenery all morning. Mother Nature had other plans. The fog that had settled in overnight would not relent until I was up in Port Hawkesbury crossing the causeway to Cape Breton and points north. Riding in the fog always feels somewhat otherworldly—made all the more so by the hulking cadavers of old wooden fishing boats looking as if they too had had difficulty finding their way through the fog. Though haunting, the atmosphere was not an entirely unwelcome wrinkle in my ideal image for the morning’s ride.
Before hitting the campsite, I rode the short mile down the main street in St. Martins to the Sea Caves. This spectacular landscape shone brightly in the evening sun, and seeing it in the evening allowed me to avoid the possibility that morning fog would keep me from seeing it the next day. I had the place almost to myself and so avoided some embarrassment as I slipped and landed on my backside on the seaweed coated rocks at low tide. Thankfully this was the only time my gear—and my rear—hit the ground over the eight days.
Arriving at the campground I found the grassy site I was assigned and set the kickstand. The fully loaded bike promptly sank into the wet ground and toppled over. Righting 600 pounds with two good arms is challenge enough, but with my gimpy shoulder it wasn’t going to happen. I asked my neighbor for a hand, and we got the bike up and found a charred piece of firewood to prop the kickstand and avoid a repeat. Again I set my increasingly damp gear out to dry under a picnic shelter, then took my naproxen and acetomenaphine, rubbed my shoulder with the ointment the pharmacist in Halifax gave me, and was able to settle in for a reasonable night’s sleep.
Heading west along Route 9 toward Bangor, Maine unfurled, some of the best roads of the trip so far. A gorgeous, sun-drenched afternoon almost made me forget about my shoulder as Kamele and I danced our dance toward the New Hampshire border.
Route 2 westbound across the northern edge of the White Mountain National Forest would be the only road I would traverse a second time the entire trip. I cruised into the campground early enough to unload, head out for a sandwich, and still had a few hours of daylight left. I cruised along Route 16 and though it hadn’t occurred to me earlier, I realized the auto road up to Mount Washington might be a ride worth taking. I had seen the bumper stickers and always thought they were a bit tacky but when morning came I was first in line to make the ride up the mountain. In many ways this was the highlight of an incredible trip. Having the road to myself and passing through pine scented forests to the rocky ground above the tree line, the weather held just long enough to get a view across to the mountains and valleys beyond. Truly breathtaking—and they now make motorcycle-sized stickers that say “This bike climbed Mount Washington.” I put mine on as soon as I returned to the base of the mountain. Tackiness be damned.
The trip south from here would take me to a much needed visit with family and friends in Connecticut, and I was able to savor every minute of good company while I rested and pulled myself together for the trip back to Southwest Virginia. For the ride home I permitted myself a nine hour ride on the interstate, clad in raingear and anxious to see my kids.
The journey allowed me to enjoy so much of what the natural world around us has to offer and time to focus on what my own place is in it. The mysteries that surround us I think are better left to remain just that. With two wheels beneath me and the open road ahead, there remain endless opportunities to explore the worlds outside and inside, navigating the potential dangers and finding peace and joy in the journey.
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