Tag Archives: Vespa travel

And So It Ended (Part 1)

The guy at Home Depot said: “Are you sure you’ve got enough straps?”

“And so it ended, except in my mind, which changed the events more deeply into what they were, into what they meant to me alone.”

– James Dickey, “Deliverance”

Saturday, Nov. 7 | Seven Days Later: After too many days and too many miles in the back of a rental truck, we got the Vespa from the mechanical medics at Scoot Richmond and rode it home.

We’d left it there Oct. 291 on the way back from St. Pete. The diagnosis is: (1) We overfilled the gas tank on Day 2 in Wallace, South Carolina, and temporarily fubared the EVAP system2, and (2) The engine may have a pre-existing problem from the factory which requires a top-end overhaul3.

Oy vey. In the days since returning home, post-mission analysis confirms the overfill was our fault, but probability is high we could have continued riding after the fuel had evaporated from the EVAP system’s charcoal canister. That would have taken some time, perhaps overnight.

Retrieval of the Vespa on Nov. 7.

The oil loss, however, is a different matter. There was no leak but the scooter simply should not have been be using that much oil in that short amount of time. Some other Vespas with the HPE4 have been reported with similar oil consumption problems.

So Scoot Richmond will take a look, under warranty. Per their instructions, we took the Vespa home, put 500 miles on it, and will return it to them on Saturday for their inspection.

Sorting things out after getting Terra Nova home. Friend, neighbor and riding buddy Bob Hamilton was a great help this day.

All this is a boring and anticlimatic ending to a disappointing ride, motorcycle-wise, but I was grateful anyway. We’d emerged from the cloud of uncertainty that overshadowed the entire trip, with a few sleepless nights for me worrying how I was going to get the bikes in and out of the rental truck.

At about 370 pounds, the Vespa didn’t worry me. The Yamaha, at 575, did.

Part of it was YouTube disaster videos of guys riding their motorcycles up ramps and falling off. Here, this will give you an idea; go full-frame for the best effect.

In Wallace, there was no one around to lend a hand. The truck ramp was 10 feet long and about 26 inches wide. The cargo deck was 33 inches from the ground. I found a place where the ground sloped upward that reduced the ramp angle.

That was better, but it took me longer than I’d like to admit5 to work up the nerve to ride Terra Nova up that damned ramp and into the truck.

That got us over the peak, as they say. Linda and I push-pulled the Vespa up the ramp and we were able to use Home Depot tie-downs6 to secure both bikes upright in the truck. I checked them every time we stopped.

The ramp.

After that, it was a matter of just driving home.

Driving home. Usually I’d be brooding over the loss of a motorcycle trip, but the relief after loading the Yamaha stayed with me on the highways into Virginia.

It was kinda like the successful failure of Apollo 13, I reasoned; Linda and I may have lost the ride, but we still had each other, and we were safe, and the bikes were secure, and we’d had a good time in St. Pete, and the Vespa would be fixed to ride another day. And we will ride another day.

***

1 – The official end of the mission, I reckon.

2 – EVAP is shorthand for Evaporative Emission Control System, which closes the vehicle’s fuel system to prevent gasoline vapors from the tank and fuel system from escaping into the atmosphere. Overfilling the tank can cause fuel to enter the EVAP’s charcoal canister which, on the Vespa, causes a stalling/starting problem until the fuel is cleared from the canister.

3 – A top-end overhaul involves taking the engine apart and replacing a number of parts, which could include piston rings, the piston itself (Vespas are single-cylinder engines) and valves. As you might guess, that’s a lot of work.

4 – High Peformance Engine.

5 – It really did. No one likes to admit he’s a wuss, but I was genuinely scared silly that I’d fudge it up somehow and take a tumble.

6 – Four tie-downs on each bike, which may have been overkill, but I had more to make sure they wouldn’t fall over. In addition to those stupid YouTube videos, I was haunted by the experience a relative had while taking his bikes back home to California from Florida in 2003; the bikes weren’t properly secured and ended up falling over inside the truck. I didn’t want that to happen to us.

We May Laugh About This Someday, But Probably Not Today (Part 2)

Safe and under cover.

Thursday, Oct. 15 | Day 2: With a Vespa we can’t fix in a lonely, remote gas station parking lot, we consider our options, like JFK’s EXCOMM during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis1.

(Part 1 is here.)

We can’t run the scooter because it may screw up the engine even more and maroon us in an even more inhospitable place.

A towing service isn’t available – I ask the gas station clerks and they say there’s one tow truck driver in town and he stops working at night2.

The Vespa will have to stay here tonight. Linda finds a room three miles away at the Baymont Inn in Cheraw, South Carolina. She stays with the scooter while I take Terra Nova to Cheraw to secure the room and drop off our bags.

From the mission linguist: Cheraw is pronounced Shuh-RAH, with accent on the second syllable, not Chair-Rah. (We were mystified, too.)

I return to fetch her and we put the black Dow cover over the Vespa, making it less of a theft target. We go back to our room and end up walking over to a convenience store for a late-night dinner3 – two small cans of Beefaroni for me.

The Baymont Inn, with super-nice folks.

We try and decide what to do. We’ve paid for 10 days at a condo in St. Pete Beach and won’t be refunded for days we’re not there. So we need to get going.

We could ride two-up on the Yamaha but it’ll be overloaded and really uncomfortable and we have lots of miles to go.

We could get a rental truck and take both bikes to St. Pete and drop off the Vespa at a dealer for repair. But I don’t have faith the Vespa can be fixed in time for us to go home, especially if some exotic parts have to be ordered from Italy or someplace. Or if the engine needs major work.

In the rainy morning, after an uneasy sleep, I suggest this: We store both bikes here and rent a car to drive to St. Pete. On the way back, we’ll get a rental truck and take both bikes home, dropping off the Vespa at Scoot Richmond for repair.

That way, we only have to travel to Richmond, 100 miles from home, instead of mounting some super-expedition to retrieve the Vespa from Florida or Savannah.

Linda agrees this makes sense so I start calling for towing and storage and she looks for a car to rent. Her first discovery is that the Enterprise rental in Cheraw is closed permanently because of the coronavirus. She starts searching elsewhere.

The first storage place I call says they’re full up.

The second place has space but doesn’t accept motorcycles or vehicles. “We really discourage them,” the guy says. “Oil could leak, gas could be a fire hazard…”

The third place has space and will take bikes. I reserve a space, though we’re not quite clear on its location. Google Maps is vague.

Then I call the we-don’t-tow-at-night towing service and speak with a woman who says they can help. She calls back 10 minutes later.

“I talked with our driver and he doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid the bike will get damaged.”

I say we’ve done this before4 and tell her I’ll secure the scooter myself and absolve them of responsibility.

“No, we can’t do that,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

Well, is there another towing service?

“No, not really,” she says and I grit my teeth and say thank-you and good-bye and refrain from throwing my phone across the motel parking lot. I’ll push the damn thing there myself is what I’m thinking.

But then we start getting some breaks.

Fortunately, it wasn’t far at all.

The Baymont Inn folks very kindly allow us to pile all our baggage in the vacant lobby while we take the Yamaha to look for the storage space and rent a car.

We check on the Vespa and find it unmolested at the Shell station.

Then we cruise down South Carolina 9, past the Dollar General, looking for the storage place. I’m thinking I’ll have to push the Vespa a half-mile, maybe more.

But we can’t find it. I turn around at the elementary school and head back to Shell station, and suddenly we see the place near the Shell station. It’s within easy walking distance, maybe a football field’s length away.

The nice woman behind the counter – unlike a few others we’ve encountered that morning – makes it so easy. We pay for the space, get a lock, and I push the Vespa over and secure it inside a 10×12 locker.

We ride 20 miles north to Rockingham, North Carolina, to get the rental car Linda has found, a white Hyundai. We go back, park the Yamaha beside the Vespa and lock the door. Then we fetch our bags, profusely thank the nice woman at the Baymont Inn and finally, finally, leave around 4 p.m.

We did get to where we wanted to be.

The vacation is still on, but our problems are not over. I reserve a rental truck for the bikes but I’m not yet sure how to get them up the ramp – it’s kinda steep5. I’ll have to be careful while strapping them down inside.

But I look at all our motorcycle gear suddenly turned useless and unnecessary, the helmets, jackets, boots, gloves, rain gear and I feel another loss, like last year. Maybe we’ll try again next year. And check the oil more often.

***

1 – That may be a bit of a reach, but I love reading history and Kennedy’s Executive Committee advisers didn’t want to make a decision that made things worse. That’s what I was thinking: Let’s not make this worse.

2 ­– Perhaps he engages in towing as an occasional hobby.

3 – Food options were limited at that point.

4 – It’s true. It was in Zephyrhills, Florida, in 2003, when my uncle’s 1976 Honda Goldwing refused to run. A guy with a flatbed tow truck came out and transported it to a repair shop that ended up not repairing it. Both his motorcycle and my aunt’s went back to San Diego in the back of a U-Haul truck, our Inskip Odyssey aborted, one of the great sorrows of my life.

5 – I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of guys messing up and having their motorcycles fall off ramps while riding them up into trucks. I’ll have to be careful.

Pass the Mountain Dew, or: Our Dinner at Chez Sheetz in Orange

No tablecloth required at Chez Sheetz.

Wednesday, Oct. 14 | Day 1: As usual, we start much later than anticipated and as usual it was my fault and I don’t know why, except I took too much time trying to design an interior support for the three – yes, three – laptops1 we were hauling inside a 1520 Pelican case.

We both have an irritating yet enduring problem with packing light, perhaps a lack of mission resolve, as the British would say. I take too many tools and probably too many clothes, though I did trim back the number of books this year2.

But we finally roll away a little before 5 p.m. and crazy stuff starts happening about an hour later.

Linda unexpectedly stops her Vespa on the left shoulder of a divided four-lane state highway in rural Virginia, forcing me to overshoot and stop ahead of her, parking Terra Nova literally inches from cars racing past.

Sidestand down, I jog back and ask what the hell is going on.

It’s a dog that was trying to cross the road and was hit by a semi. It happened literally in front of Linda, and the truck kept going without hesitation. The poor dog is on its side in the tall grass of the median.

Some other guy appears, a nearby resident, I think. He has a cellphone in his hand and looks on as I kneel beside the dog, a white pit-bull-type terrier, young, about 25 lbs. He is unmarked, but most assuredly dead. He has a chain collar but I can’t find a name tag.

Another guy in a pickup truck stops, asks if we’re okay, and we try to explain what happened. There doesn’t seem to be much concern for the dog on their part. The pickup truck guy leaves and we ask the cellphone resident if he can call someone to get the dog, but he appears to not quite understand what we’re saying.

Fueling up before reaching Raleigh, North Carolina.

There isn’t much else we can do and it’s getting even later and we’re both tired with miles to go. So we leave, figuring we can call the sheriff’s office or someone after reaching the hotel.

The dog, of course, follows us for the rest of the night. We have three dogs of our own3, one of them literally rescued by us on I-95 two years ago, so the terrier’s death haunts us, especially Linda.

We stop for gas at about 8 p.m. at a Sheetz station in Orange, Virginia, both of us tired and hungry. With the coronavirus still raging across the country, we’d decided to stay away from indoor restaurants and end up getting sandwiches and such at the station.

The outdoor seating is vacant and fenced off, so the base of a lamp post becomes an impromptu table. We eat standing up in the parking lot.

And we press on after that, through an empty Gordonsville, Virginia, on U.S. 15, deserted at this late hour but wonderfully lit up with white lights hung in Main Street sidewalk trees, a marvelous, warming effect.

It’s colder than we expected so we add extra layers4 and move along a series of dark county roads, wisps of Halloween fog rising and passing around us. The new light bar on Linda’s Vespa really brightens up the back of her scooter; watching it ahead, I’m glad I installed it.

The gas pumps were open, but everything else was emphatically closed.

After fueling at one of most locked-up Exxon stations I’ve ever seen – more like Attica than a rural gas station – we shut down the bikes a little after 1 a.m. at the hotel outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.

We’re now really tired and beat. We take the bags upstairs, put the covers on the motorcycles, and, about 280 miles and too many hours from home, go to bed.

***

1 – We usually each carry a work computer in case news breaks (I put in a few hours when George H.W. Bush died in 2018) and she needed a second computer for her online Hungarian class.

2 – One paperback, “Rice and Dirt,” about a couple riding through Africa on a Vespa, and my usual 8×5 Moleskine notebook.

3 – They are: Cody, an 11-year-old Shetland sheepdog; Remy, a 7-year-old border collie; and Skipper, a 5-year-old treeing Walker coonhound, the one we found along the highway.

4 – I used the same Harley rain jacket I bought in 2016.

All on the Same Day (Part 2: Selma, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: The waterproof mapcase resigns without notice somewhere between Underwood and Selma, turning my AAA Alabama issue into rain-soaked mush. We’re playing hit-and-run with Hurricane Irma’s skirts today and we soldier on, getting irreparably drenched.

We reach Selma and stop on a side street before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge so I can switch on the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. A long stoplight separates Linda and me, so I cross the Alabama River alone.

That bridge, a symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, opened in May 1940 and was named — doesn’t this just figure — after Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate general and KKK leader in Alabama. He died in 1907 and is buried about a mile from it.

Coretta Scott King,John Lewis,

The span was designated a national landmark in 2013. Today, it’s quiet with meager traffic moving through the rain. Weather-wise, it’s a miserable day.

We park the bikes at the bridge’s southern end and look around. A group of tourists, students maybe, files off the bridge and crowds into a tour bus, but otherwise it’s quiet.

We walk across the bridge ourselves, both ways. It’s a solid, massive structure. I try, but can’t begin to imagine, what those brave marchers felt in 1965, knowing that baton- and tear-gas-wielding state troopers were waiting for them.

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There’s a small park dedicated to Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement, but it’s deserted and lonely in the rain. Nearby shops appear rundown; some are boarded up.

Selma is located in Dallas County, which has a high unemployment rate: 7.7% in August, compared to the national average of 4.4%. An Auburn University report sets the county’s poverty rate at nearly 37%. We see ample evidence of this as we ride through Selma.

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This isn’t white guy discovers Southern poverty — Southern poverty is not new, economic stats for other Southern counties are shockingly higher, and it’s been this way for generations. But this is the first I’m seeing with my own eyes.

And history waits patiently everywhere.

We’re wet, tired, and hungry, and Linda finds a Church’s Chicken outlet about a mile from the bridge. We park the bikes and peel off wet rainsuits with difficulty.

Behind the restaurant, we can’t help but notice an abandoned four-story brick building, its windows broken, grass growing wild. “Good Samaritan Center” is across the front.

I’ll think it’s some sort of housing unit until later, when I discover it’s the Good Samaritan Hospital.

Jimmie_Lee_Jackson

The Good Samaritan Hospital. Oh my God. This is where Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, a Baptist church deacon and civil rights activist from Marion, Ala., died on Feb. 25, 1965. He was shot by an Alabama state trooper following a peaceful protest for a jailed civil rights worker. Jackson, unarmed, was shielding his mother from police assault.

Jackson’s death was the catalyst for the Bloody Sunday march weeks later. The people injured during Bloody Sunday were treated at this same hospital1.

But I’m unaware I’m standing in front of a historic place as we turn away and enter the restaurant.

hospital1

There are two or three other customers. We grab a table, pile the dripping rainsuits in a corner (they’ll create a puddle roughly the size of Lake Superior, which I’ll mop up later) and order chicken.

As we eat and fuss with maps, other customers begin to drift in and soon the place is half-filled. As it happens, we’re the only whites there. A couple folks, seeing the helmets, ask about our ride and Linda entertains them with stories about the Vespa. They wish us well.

One guy in a Minnesota Vikings shirt engages us in lengthy conversation, telling us about himself and asking where we’re from. He asks, as politely as possible, if I have any money and I give him two or three dollars I find in a jacket pocket.

churchs1

Seeing this, a friend of his, a younger guy in a baseball cap, inserts himself amiably into our conversation and they exchange few friendly barbs. It’s plain they know one another. (Linda will later say she thought he was a counselor of some sort — he had that vibe.) As I pick up the rainsuits, preparing to leave, the baseball cap guy asks:

“Say, how much, how much did you give that guy?”

“Oh, not much,” I say. “A dollar or two, I think. Not much.”

“Listen, I know that guy,” Baseball Cap says. “He’s just gonna drink it up. You don’t have to give him something.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Here,” Baseball Cap says, pulling something out of his jeans pocket. “Y’all are traveling. I want you to be safe, to travel safe. Here, take this.” And he presses some crumpled bills in my hand.

I’m astonished. Even a non-motorcycle person can see Linda and I are not in need. We’re wearing pricey, armored riding suits (mine with patches from the places we’ve traveled — Slovakia, Hungary, Quebec and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and carrying Arai helmets, one with a GoPro video camera attached.

“Sir, this is really, really nice of you, but, really, we’re okay,” I say. “Please, I really can’t take this.”

“No, no, you keep it,” he says. “Y’all are on the road. You keep it, okay?”

And this is where I fail miserably. In the milliseconds that follow, I struggle to think coherently but I can’t find a way to gracefully decline. Baseball Cap is totally sincere.

“All right. Okay.” I say. “Thank you, sir. This is very kind of you, thank you.” And we shake hands.

“Y’all be good,” he says, as we leave.

I take the crumpled bills and shove them securely into an empty pants pocket, where they’ll stay for the next 130 miles as I wonder, in the solitude of my helmet, why a stranger in one of the poorest counties in America should give us a couple of bucks.

Everything is soaked, including that helmet. At fuel stops, it’s like sticking my head in a bucket of cold water when I put it on.

oakhill01

We press south through steady rain. The Vespa runs low on fuel and the Oak Hill Grocery on Alabama 21 has only 87 octane (the bikes prefer 91) and an awning that doesn’t provide much cover. I pour our 1-gallon reserve into Linda’s tank and top it off with 87 as she tries to stop the rain from falling in.

Finally, we arrive at Atmore, Ala., our destination for the night.

“All I need is a guest laundry and some old towels and I’ll be happy,” I tell Linda as we shut down the bikes. It’s after dark and the rain has let up at last.

She reports the hotel doesn’t have any rags. “They say they threw out everything a week ago.”

I won’t be deterred. We need rags to stuff inside our sopping helmets, boots and gloves, to dry them out. We end up taking Terra Nova to a Walmart five miles away, where we find they’ve just had a power outage and are waiting for their computers to recover. Holding a couple stacks of towels, we make friends in the delayed checkout line.

Our long wet day is winding down at last. Inside our room, the gear is spread out to dry. Bath towels are stuffed inside our boots and in both helmets. Washcloths are inserted into our gloves. I’m using the guest laundry machines to wash and dry everything I can. We’re good.

Until I clear out my riding suit and find the crumpled bills given me by the baseball cap guy in Selma. I thought he’d given me two dollars.

He didn’t. There were two five-dollar bills in that pocket. Ten bucks. Ten bucks from a guy who thought I needed it more than he did.

“Look at this,” I say to Linda, and we talk about what to do with it, how to pay it forward2.

It’s only much later that night, when everything is dry and folded and put away, when the room is dark and silent and I’m awake and staring at the ceiling, that I think about how I didn’t even ask his name. Or those of the two landscapers in Underwood who stopped to lift the Vespa.

Or how folks who have little can be more willing to offer help than those with a lot.

And how all this — all of this — happened on the same day.

sign1


1 — Good Samaritan was built in 1944 and closed in 1983. In 2016, city and county officials proposed reopening the hospital as a specialized clinic; funding did not materialize and the plans remain in limbo.
2 — We later donated to the Selma Food Bank.

.

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 navigator1 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.

selma1

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, slow down, 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 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 on the road surface 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 mission 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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1 — That would be Linda.

 

A Couple of Souvenirs

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: So this guy comes striding at me across the floor of a Tim Hortons, fixing me with his eyes and moving with such purpose I think he’s either going to shake my hand or punch me in the face.

Fortunately he shakes hands, vigorously, saying, “Welcome to Ontario. Where you from?” Ah, he’s noticed the Virginia plates on our motorcycles.

Linda and I had stopped for lunch in Harriston, Ontario, on our way to Niagara Falls after leaving Kincardine and Boiler Beach that morning. As usual, we grabbed a table with a good view of the parking lot.

The gentleman and his wife had come in on a yellow Honda Gold Wing, parked a few spaces away from Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa. Linda’s at the counter for more tea.

He’s a bit older than I am, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, and I give him a brief mission recap. He’s impressed with the distance we’ve traveled.

“Listen, I have to go,” he says, “but I’m going to put a couple of souvenirs on your bike, okay?”

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“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” I say, envisioning some religious tracts folded carefully under the Yamaha’s windscreen. Even so, that’ll be fine with me. We shake hands again and he wishes us safe travel.

He turns to go and I see BLUE KNIGHTS across the back of his T-shirt. So he’s a Canadian police officer, most likely retired.

Linda and I finish eating and walk out to the bikes. I start looking for a piece of paper but instead see something rolled and wedged in the handle of Terra Nova’s tankbag.

“Hey, look at this,” I say to Linda. It’s two shoulder patches from the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police. One for each of us.

I put them in a plastic bag and into an inside pocket of the tankbag and carry them home.

Weeks later, I’m still not sure what to do with them but I think I’ll have them framed so I can hang them on a wall at home. They’re more than souvenirs — they’re echoes of a brief conversation and a good memory from the road.

Why Harley Bikers in Leather are Sexy and Long-Distance Riders Look Like Grubby Astronauts

Day 6: Thursday, Sept. 8: Last night’s road to Tawas City, Michigan, was a nightmare of heavy rain in the dark, a constant downpour that soaked through my rain jacket and into my riding suit, helmet and boots. When I woke up still soggy the next day, my only thought was I don’t care what it costs, I’m getting a rainsuit today, dammit!

Nearly all motorcyclists hate riding in rain. You get wet and cold and squishy and clammy, and your visibility is reduced, making you even more vulnerable to inattentive motorists. And your own attention to the road is diverted to water streaming across your faceshield and down your back.

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So you have to be smart and suit up for the weather, which is why they say Harley riders are more attractive to the opposite sex – it’s not just the cool bikes, it’s the leather. The rest of us, I’m afraid, look like helmeted vagabonds. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is why you seldom see rain in motorcycle movies. It’s just not sexy.

But this morning in Tawas City, I feel like an absolute doofus. For all my focus on ride preparation, I’d given little thought to a rainsuit, probably because we’d been pretty lucky in avoiding rain. But now we’re hitting it like seldom before – not just small cloudbursts, but hours of pummeling by firehoses.

Linda was using a North Face rain jacket and pants that worked fine for her. My North Face jacket didn’t quite do the job and I’d mailed home the NF pants three days before in a fit of pique while trying to reduce Terra Nova’s cargo. Ah, I probably won’t need it, I thought, while stuffing it into the box. Another pound gone.

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Au contraire, as our friend Ivo would say. So I ‘fessed up to Linda and we started looking for motorcycle shops. Found a Harley-Davidson on our planned route to St. Ignace, Michigan. Perfect!

Besides leather, Harley makes well-crafted, if overpriced, motorcycling gear. But we roll up to the Harley place in Mackinaw City, Michigan, and discover it’s a yuppie-looking boutique without motorcycles sandwiched in between a wine store and a Starbucks. This won’t work, I think, all they’re gonna have is T-shirts and shot glasses with Harley logos on them.

But miraculously they have rainsuits, and I find one – well-fitting with good conspicuity.

“We just got these in,” the guy at the counter tells me. “It’s been raining a lot and we begged the main office to send them over.”

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It’s sunny as we ride away to cross the Mackinac Bridge, but I’ll end up wearing the Harley rainsuit over my BMW jacket and Rev-It pants nearly every day for the rest of the ride.

I’ll find it seals out the rain quite nicely and provides an extra layer of insulation across the northern shore of Lake Superior. So I’m much less miserable, even though I look like a grubby astronaut.

Point of Departure

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Day 2: Sunday, Sept. 4: The jumping-off point for Thunder Bay – a sort of final shakedown to see how well we prepared – was my parents’ house near Cleveland.

It’s always good to see my folks, of course, and I get special pleasure in showing Dad the modifications I’ve made to the bikes.

He’s helped on past projects; we installed highway pegs on Endurance’s crash bars and he added small washers to stop the bike’s PIAA 510 covers from rattling. Later, he had the perfect hardware for mounting Touratech brackets to Terra Nova’s sidecases so I could carry extra fuel. So his work has become part of our rides.

We arrive late Sunday afternoon and take them to dinner at Balaton Restaurant, a fine Hungarian place we’ve discovered in Shaker Heights (the beef goulash is to die for). The next day, in Dad’s garage, I start fussing with the bikes.

I’ve ridiculously overpacked Terra Nova as usual, and I really want to get the weight off, so I jettison things we won’t need: a set of tie-downs, a fleece pullover, the copy of At Dawn We Slept I was reading as research for an ambitious Pearl Harbor graphic for USAT and some other items. I FedEx a 12-lb. box home.

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We also discover problems with our riding gear: There’s a hole in the right pants pocket of my Rev-It pants, just large enough to make every coin I put into it disappear, and Linda’s Olympia jacket loses its main zipper pulltab. My parents leap into action.

“Want me to fix that?” Mom says, and she expertly sews up the hole in the Rev-It pocket as she did when repairing my jeans when I was five.

Dad finds an inch-and-a-half-wide fender washer, drills a tiny hold into it – “Here, try this,” he says – and we wire it to the slider body of the zipper, which lets Linda work the zipper while wearing thick motorcycle gloves.

Carrying these blessed talismans, Linda and I putt away Tuesday morning for points west to really start our ride.

But I’ll quietly think of my parents for the rest of the mission, through Michigan and Minnesota and across the Trans-Canada and beyond, every time I feel the secure stitching in that pocket or look at Linda’s jacket at every gas station stop.

As the miles fly by beneath our wheels, I’ll draw a parallel between my childhood home as a launch point for our ride and the start of my own journey to adulthood. The years are flowing as fast as the miles and I realize how grateful I am, for my parents, for this life, for this ride.

It Really, Really Depends on How You Say It

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Day 8, Saturday, Sept. 10: Intrigued by a billboard on Route 28, Linda suggests we stop at a local bakery in Wakefield, Michigan. She wants to try a pastie.

(Interjection from the mission linguist: The pasties we’re talking about are pronounced past-tees. We are not talking about the items pronounced paste-tees. You’ll understand the distinction later.)

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These.

We park in a side gravel lot and clomp into Randall Bakery, a homey place with scuffed tables and old cafeteria chairs that’s instantly familiar and inviting. Big glass cases hold scads of baked goods, the real thing, not the boxed Entenmann’s stuff at the Safeway.

Pasties are hamburger-sized meat-and-potato pies with origins in Ireland and Cornwall, Great Britain. Immigration brought them to Michigan, where they remain popular, a part of state lore.

I’ve never had one, but I remember Bill Bryson writing about them in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Bryson, who lived in England for years, finds a pastie seller in Michigan and eagerly buys one. He hasn’t had one since moving back to America and can’t wait to try it; he takes one bite and sadly puts it back in the bag and throws it out. He never tells the hopeful seller, though.

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I scrawl in my notebook as Linda looks over the rolls, turnovers, cookies and other items. She talks to the woman behind the counter, who’s originally from Poland, lived in Chicago for a while, and owns some rental property by the lake.

The pasties look good when they arrive, but I’m aghast to see they have onions, which I’ve hated since forever. I’m more disappointed than Bill Bryson. But it’s really good once I extract the offending vegetable, through intensive mining operations.

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Not these.

So we finish our pasties and suit up and by this time Randall’s is starting to fill with locals coming in for a late lunch. We wheel away toward Duluth, but I sorta get stuck on the dichotomy of pasties, the food, and pasties, the adhesive nipple coverings required for strippers in gentlemen’s clubs.

That’s where precise pronunciation comes in. I suppose it would be possible to order a “paste-tee” from a bakery in the risqué part of town and the waitress would say, “well, okay,” and start to unbutton her shirt. At least it wouldn’t come with onions.

Boiler Beach

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: I spend most of the morning hustling around Kincardine, Ontario, fueling up the bikes and looking for a tire pump at nearby gas stations. The Vespa and Terra Nova have lost a pound or two in both tires.

It’s a brief comedy of errors: I find the Petro-Canada station serves only trucks, and the Esso station’s tire pump isn’t working. I feel lucky to get gasoline into both motorcycles.

I hate leaving things unfinished, especially bike maintenance. But Nancy, at the Marriott TownePlace Suite’s front desk, sees I’m carrying a helmet and asks about our ride. When I say we’re heading for Niagara Falls, she says, “Oh, you should stop and see Boiler Beach before you go.”

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“Boiler Beach? What’s that?” I say, imagining some sort of Yellowstone-like thermal spring in Lake Ontario.

“There’s a ship that blew up in the 1800s not far from shore,” she says, instantly warming to the story. “The only thing that’s left is the boiler and you can see it from the beach. That’s why they call it Boiler Beach. It’s a couple of miles away.”

Her enthusiasm and my interest in shipwrecks convince us to go. Linda gets directions and we set off with me promising myself to attend to the tires later.

We locate the correct road but can’t find the beach. After Linda queries a woman walking her dogs, we cruise on and catch a glimpse of something through a break in the trees. We park the bikes and walk down to the shore.

And there it is, the rusting hulk of a ship’s boiler, in a few feet of water about 20 yards from shore. We later learn it’s from the Erie Belle, a 112-ft. steam-powered tow tug that exploded and sank Nov. 21, 1883.

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The Belle was struggling to free the J.N. Carter, a schooner that ran aground during a storm. Why the Belle blew up is a matter of conjecture, but they say a pressure valve on the boiler had been wired shut to build up more steam power.

The boiler exploded and the tug sank. Four of the 12 crewmen died and the stranded schooner rescued the rest.

Afterwards, the Belle was pulled closer to shore and taken apart for salvage. Later, others used a winch to drag the boiler inland, intending to cut it up for scrap, according to the Kincardine News. They were stopped by police.

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So the beach became known as Boiler Beach, and its namesake has been quietly rusting away. People have been coming to see it for decades, apparently.

Our photos don’t do it justice, I think. My only wish is that my good friend Don Lee, an authority on all things with Great Lakes shipping, could see it, too. It’s kind of a quiet, sad place, as is the site of any shipwreck, I suppose. We stay a bit, lost in the memory of this tragic sinking, then go on our way.

 

 

The 180-Mile Divert

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“By the Lord God I promise to take the fleet out, and through the grace of God, bring it safely home again.”

– James Clavell, “Shogun”

Day 5: Wednesday, Sept. 7: It was the last thing we wanted to see on a long-distance ride: The equivalent of a “check engine” light on the Vespa’s dashboard.

It’s the fuel injector warning light, a cheery little orange disc on the left side of the dash. It flashes once as Linda is struggling to back the scooter out of a deep gravel driveway in Swanton, Ohio.

We were attempting to find the house of Don Lee, a good friend and colleague of mine from Sandusky Register days. The Garmin Nuvi GPS told us we were close, but I overshot and we ended up using the driveway to turn around.

Linda tells me about it at Don’s house, but says she only saw it once. The light is connected to the scooter’s fuel injection system that delivers fuel to the engine. If the system fails, the engine shuts down.

“Keep an eye on it and let me know if you see it again,” I say.

We roll north into Michigan on U.S. 23 enroute to Frankenmuth when the Orange Signal of Death flashes again, just once, outside of Ann Arbor. I’m flying wingman behind her, as usual, so I follow to the breakdown lane when she pulls over. It’s afternoon rush hour and cars are rocketing by as I try to figure out what’s wrong.

I can’t, so we agree to get off the highway to someplace safer. We find a BP station and fuel up. After some discussion, we agree to continue to Frankenmuth, where I’ll hunt for the nearest Vespa dealer.

The nearest Vespa dealer. Vespas are exotic Italian machines and I have no idea where we’ll find one. It’s the same problem I feared while running Endurance, my BMW GS; the support network can be mighty thin.

But we get to Frankenmuth and once online I’m relieved to learn Michigan has more than a half-dozen Vespa shops. This allows me to sleep.

Next day, I start making phone calls early. The first is to our Vespa mechanic at Modern Classics on V Street N.E. back in Washington. I describe the problem.

“Oh, that is not good,” the guy says. He gives me a few scenarios, suggests I find a Vespa dealer with a diagnostic computer, and says, “You really should get that checked out.”

I call Traverse City. “Well, I guess you could bring it here, I could try and fit you in,” the guy says hesitantly. “I may not have the parts you need, though.”

I call Grand Rapids. “I’d say bring it in, but my computer’s not working,” the guy says.

I call Dearborn. “We have a Vespa mechanic, but he only works Tuesdays and Thursdays,” the woman says. Today is Wednesday.

I call Lansing. “Sure, bring it in,” says the guy. “We’ll see what he can do.” He says his name is Brendan, and I tell him he’s my new best friend.

Our mission navigator estimates it’s 90 miles from Frankenmuth to Lansing. We have reservations in northern Michigan that can’t be broken without losing fees, so Frankenmuth to Lansing to tonight’s destination of Tawas City will mean a long 260-mile day for us, plus whatever time we have to spend in Lansing.

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I insist the Vespa be checked. We’re riding north into Ontario, Canada, and we plan to arc around the northern shore of Lake Superior. While it’s not the Dalton Highway in Alaska, it’s still fairly remote, and we won’t find any Vespa dealers on the Trans-Canada. It’s irresponsible to do otherwise.

So we ride to Lansing and find Full Throttle Motorsports, and Brendan, a young, optimistic, competent guy, soon has Linda’s scooter hooked up to his computer. In less than an hour, he has a verdict.

“It really doesn’t look too serious,” he tells me. “It looks like the fuel injector is getting a slightly higher charge from the voltage regulator – not all the time, just once in a while.

“I can’t tell if it’s the injector or the regulator. Could also be two wires are crossed and affecting the voltage sometimes.

“But you should be okay.”

I tell him where we’re going and emphasize the remoteness. “Will we get another 2,000 miles out of it?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, “Easy.”

I thank him profusely and ask how much I owe. “No charge,” he says, “You’re on the road. Glad to help.”

I collect Linda from the showroom floor and we prepare to leave, but I go back to the Service desk and give Brendan a $20 bill. “Dude, you saved our ride,” I say. “At least buy yourself some beers on me. Please.” He laughs and says thank you. And we ride away.

For the next 13 days I will think about his diagnosis and he proves to be right because the Orange Light of Doom never reappears, not once, for the rest of the ride. I will marvel at this every day as the mission progresses.

Late that night it begins pouring rain as we approach Tawas City. We and everything on the bikes get soaked. We pull all our stuff off the cycles and spread it out to dry, an explosion of wet gear across the damp motel room floor.

Overheard at Breakfast

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Day 12: Wednesday, Sept. 14: We stumbled down late to eat that morning at the Sault Ste. Marie hotel after arriving past dark the night before. Linda always finds hotels that offer breakfast and we loiter over paper plates and plastic cutlery to map out the day’s route. I scribble notes from yesterday’s ride.

Seating is limited, so we’re in the middle in a row of closely-packed tables, tiny affairs less than two feet square. We’re between two women to my right and an Asian family on my left.

I study the map as Linda goes for food. Conversations are rippling back and forth across the room, but the woman next to me begins talking to her companion across their table. I don’t mean to listen, but it’s impossible not to; the woman is seated so close I can almost reach out and put my arm around her.

“I have this friend, J__,” she says to her companion. “We’ve been friends for years but I haven’t seen her in quite a while. But she always sends me letters at Christmas, and she always puts glitter – you know, that shiny holiday stuff – in them. It always falls out the envelope when I open it.

“I got a letter from her last Christmas and I was a little surprised, because when I opened it, expecting the glitter, you know, nothing came out. So I pulled out the letter and I thought to myself, maybe this will tell me why there’s no glitter.

“So I started reading and by the end I was bawling. She started by saying, ‘I’m living a mother’s worst nightmare. My son was killed in a drunk driving accident.’

“She’s a single mom and since then she’s had a real tough time of it. A few months ago she started dating some guy she met and sent me a picture, and I swear the guy looks a lot like her son. I mean, a lot. I wasn’t going to say anything, but she and I talked on the phone a while ago and she mentioned the resemblance, and I said, yes, I think so, too.”

“No glitter,” her companion says, softly.

This Year’s Ride

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It’s never really a question if our annual motorcycle ride will take place, just a matter of where we’ll go, as long as it’s some place we haven’t been before. This year, after some dithering, we’ve decided to circumnavigate Lake Superior, with Thunder Bay, Ontario, as mission objective. It’ll be about 3,000 miles in 18 days, all told.

This will be our third consecutive ride in Canada; last year was Quebec and the Route Des Navigateurs and the year before was Halifax and the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. Both of those were great rides, and we really fell in love with Quebec.

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We talked about Newfoundland but decided we didn’t have enough time to do it properly. Then we thought about Key West and taking a few days to explore the Keys before using the Amtrak Auto Train to come home, but the traffic and heat dissuaded us. So we looked north again.

Circumnavigating the Great Lakes was out, again because of time. But the northern sweep of the Trans-Canada Highway around Superior appealed to me – beautiful country, remote yet accessible. It looked perfect.

It’s a clockwise journey. We’ll see family on the outbound leg, take ferries across Lake Erie, challenge the Mackinac Bridge, ride some beautiful roads between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and see Toronto and Niagara Falls before heading home.

Linda will ride her 300cc Vespa scooter and I’ll be on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. Both bikes have been serviced – new tires on both! – and are ready. I’ll carry extra fuel for the Vespa just in case.

As usual, I wonder what we’ll find out there.

Talking About the Vespa

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At every gas station from here to the shores of Cape Breton Island, someone wanted to talk about the Vespa.

On our rides, we’ve learned that motorcycles almost always attract attention. The bold people charge right up and start asking questions while the hesitant folks eye the machines from a distance and sidle over and study the license plates. They glance at the Yamaha, but they really want to know about the Vespa.

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A simple “morning” or “howdy” breaks through their shyness and they start with questions like, “Where you-all from? and “You ride that thing all the way here?”

“Oh, yes,” Linda says, and they want to know what’s it like to ride the scooter, how fast does it go, how comfortable is it, how many miles to the gallon? Can you take it on the freeway? Doesn’t it shake?

Linda talks with them – hey, it’s her bike! – and answers their questions as I silently marvel at it all. We plug into everyone electronically and avoid face-to-face contact with strangers. Few people start conversations at gas pumps, but bring in a motorcycle or scooter and they get a little bolder.

We find genuine inquisitiveness drives most of the encounters, but there’s submerged desire in the eyes of a few who talk to us. Perhaps it’s the gas pump anonymity that lets it surface, that lets them tell us, “I always wanted to try that.”

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We heard that sentiment a few times. As we load the bikes at the Willow Bend Motel in Truro, N.S., a woman from two rooms down tells Linda she’d like to ride a scooter but now she’s married and a mother, so…

Without proselytizing, Linda tells her about motorcycle safety classes and the challenges and fun of riding. You can tell our fellow lodger is thinking about it as she’s leaving.

Those are the hesitant ones. The ones who start talking without preamble are usually riders themselves and they want to know immediately where we’re from and how far we’re going, like the young guy at the truck stop in Southington, Conn., who walked over and told us the history of his Harley. It’s common to compare bikes and offer stories of past rides.

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A guy dressed in black and wearing an earring, driving a pickup truck, tells me at a Petro-Canada station in Moncton that he’s got a BMW K1600 (a really nice touring motorcycle) and his wife has a 150cc Piaggio scooter. Instead of them riding two-up on his BMW, she’s been taking her Piaggio on the road with him.

But their rides have been too short, he says.

“I been trying to get her to ride more. Can I take a picture? I gotta show this to her.” He uses his cellphone to photograph the Vespa.

The Vespa has a 2.4-gallon gas tank, which required us to stop every 90 to 100 miles to fill up. That’s a lot of refueling. And a lot of conversation.

And sometimes, they just talk amongst themselves.
And sometimes, they just talk amongst themselves.