All on the Same Day (Part 1: Underwood, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: We suit up for rain that morning in Birmingham, Ala., knowing we’ll get wet this day, even though the mission navigator* has kept us away from Hurricane Irma. It’s already drizzling as I load the Vespa and Terra Nova.

We leave I-65 and head south on county roads toward Selma, Ala., a holy site of the American civil rights movement.

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It was there on March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, that Alabama state troopers prevented a group of voting rights protesters from marching from Selma to Montgomery by brutally attacking and beating them bloody.

That horrific assault, the savagery of which cannot be overstated — photos and videos of it are still difficult to see, even today – galvanized the American public and Lyndon Johnson ordered federal troops and National Guardsmen to protect the marchers in a subsequent attempt. They walked for five days and reached Montgomery on March 25.

The violence of that time tipped the balance of American opinion. Historians say it made it easier to pass the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

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The courage of those marchers, who knew the awful danger they faced, has never failed to move me. We plan on stopping in Selma and seeing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an iconic focal point of the marches.

The rain grows stronger, nearly torrential, as we head south on 261 and 17 past Helena, Brantleyville and other small towns. This is classic rural country, black asphalt roads, gently rolling hills, lots of trees and fields. Traffic is almost nonexistent. The rain forces me to keep the helmet visor cracked open a bit, up enough to prevent it fogging up, down enough to keep the rain from stinging my face.

In Underwood, Highway 17 ends at 22. We turn left, passing a small Citgo gas station, then a quick right to head south on County Road 15.

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Ahead of me, Linda makes the right onto 15 and I watch in shocked amazement as the Vespa slips out below her and she falls down hard on the asphalt.

The scooter slides across the road on its right side and she is underneath. I am so surprised I find myself thinking How did that happen? Is she moving?

I hit the brakes and roll ahead of her, thinking to myself, Be careful. Don’t make this worse.

I stop Terra Nova, hit the kill switch for an emergency shutdown, kick down the sidestand, and get off as quickly as I can. She’s still on the ground as I rush over.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I ask. The Vespa’s engine is still running and I hit its kill switch and start pulling at the scooter, trying to move it off her.

She says she’s all right. “I don’t know what happened,” she says, and starts wriggling out from underneath the Vespa.

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I start to defocus from crisis mode and realize — the perceptions arriving late, a second or two out of sync — that a couple of cars have already passed us without stopping. Some sort of white SUV glides past, barely slowing down.

Then there are two guys beside me, in the rain, and they help wrestle the Vespa upright. They’re Hispanic, two working guys, their truck says they’re landscapers. Linda gets up and we thank them profusely, in our crappy Spanish: gracias señors, muchas gracias.

They are the only ones who stop.

Linda walks back to the gas station, literally across the street, and I push the Vespa behind her. Rain is still falling. I park the scooter under the storefront awning, make sure she is all right, and fetch the Yamaha.

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We get drinks and Motrin from the gas station store, make sure we’re calmed down, and assess what happened. “What did I do wrong?” she says.

Not a damn thing. I had eyes on her the entire time she was making the turn and I assure her she did nothing wrong. She made a proper turn at a cautious speed. Her tires have good tread and were properly inflated. I had checked them myself.

Searching for a reason — we always need to know why — I walk back out in the rain, looking for oil or coolant on the road surface, something that would have thrown the Vespa. I find nothing.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The simplest explanation, the one I believe, is that something made her fall. She’s wearing good riding gear, which absorbed some of the impact, but still…

“What do you want to do?” I ask, knowing her answer will decide whether we abort the ride here and now. “Do you want to stop or keep going?”

“I’m okay,” she says. “I might be a little sore later. But let’s keep going.”

This is worthy of comment: As you may imagine, many people get spooked after falling off a motorcycle, even a low-speed get-off, especially not knowing exactly why it happened. Self-doubt arrives and towels get thrown in. It’s really easy to quit and go home.

We saddle up and head out. She makes the same turn on 15 without incident and I find myself thinking that’s a hell of a woman as we ride on toward Selma. The rain continues to fall.

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* — That would be Linda.

 

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But They Did Get Us Home

Oct. 1 | Six days later: We got back on Sept. 25, having traveled 2,896 miles in about 18 days – 17 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, to be exact. The bikes ran well, but not without complications.

On the return leg in Decaturville, Tenn., the Vespa’s speedometer and odometer died, the needle comatose at zero, making me suspect I had not tightened the speedometer cable while installing the new windscreen back home.

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I tore into the headlight nacelle – again – at Starbase Nashville, Linda’s parents’ home, only to discover the cable was attached but broken. The four closest shops told me the part would have to be special-ordered. I decided we could go without, promising to replace it once we got home.

Again underway, outside of Ashland, Ky., the Vespa began to hesitate a bit, a microsecond of indecision when Linda accelerated on long downhill runs. It was annoying but not particularly troublesome if it did not get worse.

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We made it home without further incident, arriving after dark, exhausted. I pulled everything off the bikes and put the shrouds on. I left them in the driveway like that for six days, as we went back to work, paid bills, and sorted through our gear.

With time to breathe, I walked the Vespa to its parking spot out back (making mental notes on what it needed) climbed aboard Terra Nova, turned the key, and hit the starter button.

The engine cranked, but did not fire. Wait, what?

I switched off, waited a bit, and tried again. Same thing. Well, that’s never happened before.

Just for chuckles, I tried the Vespa. It fired right up.

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I could not get upset — still can’t. The bikes had done what we’d asked on five consecutive longrides without so much as a cough. So I dare not complain when my motorcycle strands me in my own driveway at the end of a ride. Of all places to break down, that has to be the best.

And finally, as if to emphasize end of mission, I had to cut the lawn, which resembled a rain forest after three weeks of neglect. But the Briggs & Stratton needed gas, so I poured some of Terra Nova’s precious 93 octane reserve into the definitely-not-a-motorcycle lawnmower engine. It fired right up, too.


Addendum: I went to the online Yamaha Super Tenere forum and found Terra Nova probably has a problem with its ECU — engine control unit, the bike’s computer. I charged the battery and started the engine using a multi-step process of ignition key and kill switch manipulation. Later, it started normally when the weather warmed up. So she’s mobile, but there’s more to be done.

Four from the Quarter

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Sept. 12 | Day 6: We parked the motorcycles inside the hotel garage and spent four days in New Orleans, most of them prowling the French Quarter, which utterly fascinated me. I was seized by the energy and vibrancy of those streets, the architecture, the music on every corner, the people crowding the sidewalks. It awakened a long-dormant desire for street photography, to document every moment in Henri Cartier-Bresson style. These musicians were really good.

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Elaborate wrought-iron balconies and posts are everywhere. I liked the solitary figure of the postman against the dark door, the color of the walls, the overhead fans on the balcony.

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This couple was married in a public ceremony in Jackson Square and — in classic New Orleans tradition — celebrated all the way down Chartres Street to their reception, accompanied by the Jaywalkers, a second-line brass band.

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I was desperate to capture the intensity of the violinist’s face against the dark doorway behind her, but I didn’t get it. I distracted her, I think, violating the first rule of what not to do when photographing someone. I had only a wide-angle lens and was lying in the street, oblivious, shooting upward, searching for the best angle. Her nervous companion stood guard and prevented a delivery truck from running over me.

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We took a streetcar named St. Charles to the Garden District. The car itself was right out of the 1950s, with marvelous old woodwork and small brass eyelets for the cord you pulled to signal the driver to stop.

 

A Date at the Loveless

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It took me a while to punch through work and the other obligations that kept crowding in, but we finally have a mission profile that will take us to New Orleans and back.

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This year’s ride won’t be on a par with Long Way Round but it will offer some high points:

We may see an old friend of mine from high school – 40 years ago! – if our schedules allow.

We’ll ride the Natchez Trace again. We rode the Trace exactly once 15 years ago and we’re looking forward to seeing it.

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We’ll get to ride along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans and we’ll ride part of U.S. 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan in his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

We may get the chance to visit the African American Military History Museum, which has a special permanent exhibit for Jesse Leroy Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.

And on the way home, we’ll do a one-day layover in Nashville and have dinner at the Loveless Café, one of our favorite places. We’ve been there before, but never on the motorcycles.

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Note from the mission historian: The Loveless Cafe has no relation to The Loveless movie, a 1981 film noir by Kathryn Bigelow starring Willem Dafoe.

The restaurant began in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless sold fried chicken and biscuits out of their home to travelers on Highway 100. The food proved popular, they converted the house to a restaurant and later built a motel.

The motel eventually closed – small shops occupy the rooms these days – but the restaurant’s Southern culinary fare has become part of American mythos. You may have seen the Loveless Café on TV, on shows that venture out of big cities in search of country fare.

So Linda and I have made a date at the café. Being there on the motorcycles at the end of a ride will make the Loveless Café part of our folklore, too.

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And We’re Off to the Races

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Finally got around to cracking open the Vespa’s headlight nacelle to install brackets for the scooter’s new windscreen. It’s another Italian engineering nightmare.

Linda accidentally dropped her bike and broke the Givi windscreen last year, just before we were due to leave for Thunder Bay.  I pulled the screen and she rode 3,300 miles without it, in sunshine and in rain.

For the upcoming New Orleans ride, I ordered her a new screen — a Genuine Vespa Part! — from ScooterWest in San Diego. Now all I have to do is install it.

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Things went south quickly when I saw the Givi and Vespa mounting brackets were different.

Both use expanding sleeves that slip inside metal tubes in the Vespa’s headset. Once installed, the Givi brackets can be unbolted from the front with no fuss.

Ah, but the Genuine Vespa Part requires the headlight nacelle be taken apart every time the brackets need to be removed. Another Rube Goldberg triumph.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Back on Track

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“Yeah, I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

– Peter Fonda (as Wyatt), “Easy Rider”

After much procrastination, delay, and downright dithering, we’ve decided to forgo The Great River Road for now and head to New Orleans in September for this year’s motorcycle ride.

It’s never taken us this long to decide where the annual motorcycle ride will go and I can’t explain the delay. Time, age and work have been more of a distraction this year.

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We figure about 2,400 miles total, but we don’t have a real mission profile yet. There are some good possibilities, including Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee, then southwest to Mobile, Alabama, where we’ll pick up coastal roads to New Orleans.

Then maybe we’ll head northeast on the Natchez Trace, which we haven’t been on since 2002.

Linda’s been to New Orleans twice, the last time for an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar last year, but I’ve never been there.

Closest I got was I-10 north of Lake Pontchartrain in 2000 in my uncle’s car during a madcap dash from San Diego to Flagler Beach, Florida, to my grandmother’s funeral. Not much joy then.

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But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to arrive in New Orleans aboard a motorcycle. Perhaps that comes from reading too many Tennessee Williams plays, or being swept away by the romantic history of the French Quarter, or simply watching Easy Rider too many times. But at last, I’ll be there.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end like Easy Rider.

Mission Logistics Is On It

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I’ve taken to dragging along a fistful of maps wherever I go, including our once-a-week date-night dinner. We’re planning the next motorcycle ride.

Though the maps may puzzle a waitress – “Are you guys going somewhere?” – and look odd next to the bread and chianti, it’s a chance to mellow out and just think ahead to where Linda and I want to go and how we’ll get there.

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This year, we’re thinking about The Great River Road, a patchwork of scenic state roads that follow the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m a sucker for historic roads with names, but I hadn’t heard of this one until Ben Abramson, our Travel editor, mentioned it in a morning editorial meeting. Why am I not aware of this? I asked myself, and went to learn more.

It turns out The Great River Road is a 2,400-mile-long series of roads that runs through 10 states, from Minnesota to Louisiana. It’s been around since 1938. You can drive on either the western or eastern banks of the Mississippi.

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It looks fascinating and sounds perfect for us. The only problem is getting there.

Logically, we’d like to travel the road north to south. The problem is getting out there: Itasca State Park in Minnesota, where the road begins, is about 1,300 miles from us. New Orleans, close to where it ends, is 1,100 miles away.

That means we’re traveling 2,400 miles just to get to and from the road. Add in the road and it’s 4,800 miles, more than we’ve ever done on two separate bikes. The most we’ve ever done on our separate bikes is 3,300 miles in 19 days.

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We’re considering options:

  • Taking more time and doing the whole thing on two bikes;
  • Doing it two-up on one bike, probably Endurance, my BMW GS (which would also give us the opportunity to revisit the Natchez Trace on the way home);
  • Renting a U-Haul or somesuch and transporting the bikes to and from the start/endpoints ourselves.

Mission Logistics is working on it and will report back when they reach consensus. That’s us, of course. And a few waitresses, probably.

Motorcycle travel