Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wild Hog in West VA

The author prepared for his adventure

Wild Hog in West VA
By Quentin Smeltzer

Biker culture means different things to different people and its meaning has changed over the years.  What hasn't changed is the feeling of exhilaration I feel every time I get on two wheels.  Whether it was on my Suzuki 185 Enduro when I was a teenager, or the 2012 Street Glide I took possession of three weeks ago now at the very young age of 56, it doesn't matter.  It's still a thrill every time I swing a leg over. 

For years I resisted the siren call of Harley, buying instead a succession of second-hand Japanese and British bikes, each with their own particular charm.  There was the Suzuki Savage 650 that reconnected me to motorcycling after a twenty year hiatus.  The "Thumper" was a rat bike if ever there was one, especially by the time I was finished with it.  This was my Orange County Choppers phase and I cut and stripped and spray painted that thing until it looked like a flat black refugee from one of the Mad Max movies.  Good times!

I sold that bike for no more than it was worth and bought a second-hand Honda SuperHawk.  If the Suzuki was too slow, the Hawk was too fast.  I felt perfectly comfortable on the Honda doing 110 miles per hour, watching the cars zip by my shoulders and disappear into my rear view mirrors on the highway; and these were the cars traveling in my direction!  It finally occurred to me that one should not feel comfortable at 110 miles per hour passing cars like they were frozen in time.  So I sold the SuperHawk and bought a much more sensible Triumph America.  

The Triumph was comfortable and had that British cool thing going for it, but after a few long trips with my Harley buddies I noticed I had to wring the 790 cc motor's neck to get it to go and I had to absolutely stand on the brakes to get it to stop.  Plus it still wasn't "American iron."

Performance trumped patriotism however, when I spotted a gorgeous, cardinal red Suzuki SV650 at my local dealer.  It had low miles, a Yoshimura exhaust and a very friendly price tag.  When the dealer fired it up right there on the showroom and I heard that motor wind up with a snarl and then settle into a menacing purr, it was a done deal.  They got the Triumph and I got the SV, and a nice check to go with it.

Now I had a back roads carver, a bike that was an absolute blast to haul through Connecticut back roads, but again there was the matter of trips to Americade and Laconia with the Harley buddies.  They thought I was joking when I wanted to stop after each and every hour of travel and I wanted to cry after each and every fifty minutes or so of dealing with a bone hard seat and aching wrists.  Aftermarket remedies did not help. 

I thought a lot about Harley but the economy, family and jobs situation kept that out of reach.  Instead I found a good compromise: a 2007 Kawasaki VN1600 Mean Streak.  This bike was certainly the closest I had ever come to having it all: a measure of performance, comfort, and power.  The bike would go, it would stop, and you could hustle it down a back road, although it was certainly no SV650. 

I took the Meanie on a long trip to Tennessee to ride the Tail of Dragon with the Harley buddies and it was a pretty good tourer.  But still, the low fuel light came on at 110 miles and it was high drama by 150 miles.  At that distance, the Harley guys were just warming up.  And truth to tell, even on the Kawasaki, an hour of riding still had me wishing for a break. 

That was last year.  This year I got the word from the Harley buddies: we were all riding to a HOG rally in West Virginia.  That's HOG as in Harley Owners Group.  I was going, of course, but I really wasn't looking forward to being tied and sushi'd in the back woods of West VA.  Scenes from Deliverance haunted my dreams...

I started beefing up the Kawasaki with a trunk bolted to my luggage rack, highway bars and foot pegs for the bars.  Still, I couldn't help wandering into a local Harley dealership just to sort of, look around...  I noticed the Switchback looked small to me.  After ten minutes no one spoke to me, so I left. 

Now there were just a few weeks left before the West VA trip.  I was riding with one of the Harley buddies when we just happened to end up at Yankee Harley in Bristol, CT.  My buddy rides some kind of Ultra Heritage Chromeulous Classic or something like that that costs more than I've ever paid for a car.  I sat on a lot of bikes at the Harley dealership but none fit my hands or my eye like the Street Glide. Still, the price...  We are talking more than three times as much as I had ever paid for a bike in my life.  But wouldn't it be something to buy a new Street Glide?   I knew that it would. 

I left the dealership with the salesman trailing me calling out lower numbers.  Evidently these weren't the bad old Harley days when bikes sold more than list price.  These guys wanted to deal.  I thought about it.  I discussed it with my wife.  We both agreed it made no sense to take on what would amount to another car payment when I had a perfectly good bike in the garage, already paid for.  The Harley dealer continued to call and I continued to work the numbers in my head.  Maybe...

When they hit the number I had in mind for a brand new 2012 Glide in Vivid Black with cruise control, my resolve and common sense melted away.  I explained to my wife that there are many times when the heart overrules the head and this was one of them.  After all, if there weren't such moments, I probably wouldn't be married.  I am sure now that my heart had it right when I said "I do" and I am beginning to think my heart had it right this time too. 

The Street Glide has power, comfort, range, stopping power, cruise control, the bat wing fairing, the gauges, and that unmistakable rumble, even with the relatively muffled standard pipes.   Evidently you still get what you pay for.  Not to mention membership in the HOG club and a free tee shirt!  Buddy, I was so in!

There was one slight problem.  There was the issue about the guy I had invited to the HOG rally largely because he rides a Star and I wanted some metric companionship.  I would have to break the news to him gently that I had gone over to the orange and black side.  But he's a good buddy, comfortable in his own skin and, oh yeah, 72 years old!  He doesn't give a shiitake mushroom what anybody else is riding.

So the plan was set: Ultra Harley buddy Ralph, Star-riding 72-year-old Joe and brand new Harley tribe member I, would ride from CT to Western PA to spend a first Sunday night at Ralph's brother's house.  Simultaneously a couple of our Harley buds would start riding south from the Toronto area, while yet another contingent would start riding north from Naples, FL.   The following day, Monday, I would ride west to Ohio to see my 80 year old mom.  Ralph, brother John and Joe would tour West PA.  On Wednesday, all of us would rendezvous in Snowshoe, West VA for the rally. 

There are riding stories in the movies and in magazine articles and then there is riding in the real world.  In the movies everything goes wrong and the situation gets worse and worse until suddenly there is a happy ending.  In motorcycle magazine stories it seems nothing ever goes wrong.  The real world is somewhere in between...

Now, the good news is that Joe only ran out of gas once and crashed once that first day.  The running out of gas was interesting.  Before we left on our trip I asked Joe, yet again, to observe the "two second staggered formation" rule.  He assured me that he would.  I think Joe may need the rule re-explained to him at some point however, because instead of riding in left, right, left formation roughly two seconds behind one another, Joe seems to think the formation means he can drop half a mile back, and then run up on my tail and then pass me and then drop back another mile, all within the space of twenty minutes riding.  Me, you will find two or three seconds and half a lane staggered off Ralph's rear wheel.  That's just the way it is. 

So when Joe disappeared in my rear view mirrors after we passed some semi-truck traffic I was unconcerned.  You know about Joe and shiitakes and frankly, that attitude is contagious. 

A few more miles wound off the odometer and I was as happy as a clam, although why clam happiness is assumed is beyond me.  Even with 200 miles showing on my trip B odometer since our last fill up, I still had a third of tank of 91 octane left to burn!  Nice! 

We were coming up to a fork in the freeway and I was wondering how that might impact Joe when I saw his blazing three lights reappear and rapidly grow in my mirrors.  Suddenly he was next to me.  I looked over and found him wide eyed and slapping his gas tank, the sign we had all agreed would mean it was time to stop for gas. 

I gestured forward to Ralph as if to say to Joe, there's our leader right there, go up and signal your need to stop to him, but Joe fell back behind me instead.  Sigh.  I thought about waiting for Joe to figure this out but something about the look of alarm in his eyes changed my mind.  I pulled up next to Ralph, signaled we needed to stop, and then took the lead to make sure it happened.

The next exit had gas so I took us off the highway and then about a mile up a side road to a Sheetz filling station.  There, Joe told his story.  He began by looking at me and cracking, "You need to look in your rear view mirrors once in a while."

I said nothing. 

"I ran out of gas!" he continued. 

"You actually ran out?" I asked.

"Yes!  It started to sputter and then I couldn't find the reserve!  So I had to stop.  I got it on reserve and then of course, I didn't want to ride too fast to catch you guys because I was on reserve!"

So this was my fault.  Hmm...  That he didn't know how to turn on his own reserve, never rides in formation so I might have had a clue there was something wrong when he dropped out of it, or didn't think that maybe it was a good idea to catch us and lead us to a filling station once he found his reserve switch: all, clearly, signs of bad judgement on my part.  Ralph, meanwhile, was still not entirely sure why we had stopped.

"Oh well," Ralph said.  "Might as well gas up here.  My brother lives just another fifty miles from here."

"That's good," said Joe, "because I can't ride anymore."

I took mental note of this comment, but Joe got back on his bike, and, really, he didn't have a great deal of choice.  It was hot, we were baked and we'd already covered almost 400 miles, but the day was nearly over.   I figured we'd be ok. 

After another half hour on the interstate we pulled onto a secondary highway.  Then we began the process of finding John's place, meandering through the beautiful green hills of Western PA.  We rode through Latrobe, saw the Arnold Palmer Airport, a gorgeous, castle like monastery, and many other delightful, pastoral sights. 

Ralph missed a turn so we had to make a u-turn.  Joe makes very wide u-turns, but God bless him, he's still wrestling an 800 pound bike on a 400 mile day in his seventh decade.  I hope I have half that strength sixteen years from now.  Still, I can do a 720 in the time and space it takes him to do a 180, so I made my turn and tucked in behind Ralph once again.  We came upon a narrow intersection and Ralph made a right.  I did the same but I was surprised by how sharply I had to turn to keep from straying into the oncoming lane.  I had to pull the clutch and the brake, downshift twice to first, nearly stop the bike dead in its tracks and then power away smoothly.

As I drove off I checked my mirrors for Joe.  I saw his lights make the turn, but then they seemed to not advance.  I looked again.  Joe was clearly not advancing. 

I honked my horn several times to get Ralph's attention and saw him make eye contact with me in his mirror.  Then I turned my bike around in a driveway and hustled back to help Joe.

I've come to the "rescue" before so I knew the first instinct is to park your own bike anywhere and jump off to rush to your friend's aid.  With a loaded Street Glide easily weighing 850 pounds, this could be a big mistake.  It could easily result in a second bike drop, or worse.

I scanned the stopped cars, concerned bystanders and surrounding pavement to locate a path to a safe spot to drop my stand.  I carefully lowered the "Jiffy Stand" which consistently freaks me out. It always feels like it is giving way and never looks strong enough to support such a heavy machine.  With my bike safely parked, I hurried to Joe.

Joe was ok, standing, and a group of bystanders were helping him right his bike.  They got it up just as I reached them and I helped them steady the bike.  Joe inspected the highway lights where the bike hit the pavement.  There were a few minor scratches, nothing more.  Since his focus was on the bike, I didn't think to ask if he was ok.  He seemed to be.  There were two wet spots on the ground and I could smell gasoline. 

Joe tried to start the bike but it wouldn't go.  We were still standing in the middle of the street, stopping traffic in four directions.  Someone suggested we push the bike off the road and we agreed that was a good idea.  Someone who obviously was not a motorcyclist suggested pushing it to a spot I could see would be difficult for Joe to back out of, but I could see we did need to get out of the road.

We started pushing but the bike rocked back on us.  "I got it," said Joe, realizing the bike wouldn't start because it was in gear.  He sat on the seat, hit the starter and after turning over a few times the bike barked back into life. 

"You ok?" I asked Joe over the engine.

"Yah, I'm fine," he replied.  He put the bike in gear. 

"I'm sorry," said a woman bystander.  She must have been the one driving the car that forced Joe to make the tight turn to stay in his own lane.

"No, I'm sorry," said Joe, and he rode off slowly.

I got on my bike, swung around when the traffic allowed and followed.

About an eighth of a mile down the road we found Ralph pulled over, waiting for us.  Joe and I both pulled over to wait for Ralph to resume lead duties. 

"What happened?" said Ralph, but I was lip reading; I really couldn't hear him over the sound of our three motors.  I didn't feel like shouting "Joe fell down" or something to that effect over the noise, so I just gestured "Let's go" to Ralph instead.  

Ralph pulled out and we resumed our ride.  A short time later we reached John's house.  John is a Catholic priest with a four bedroom house and several refrigerators full of steaks and beer and a couple of humidors filled with cigars; what's not to like?  He's got a BMW touring motorcycle and a CVO Harley.  He's got a Beemer Z4 sports car and every other kind of gadget and improvement available.  He treated us to the aforementioned beer and stogies along with salad and fresh corn on the cob. And did I mention the beer?  Oh yeah, there was beer. John is so nice and lives so well the church should use him for recruitment.  Join the priesthood and you too can live the dream!  In truth John is the sweetest guy you could imagine and obviously his whole focus in life is on serving and taking care of others.  If he gets a few toys and some nice cuisine out of the deal, God bless.

After our 450 mile day on the highways under the blazing sun followed by steaks and beers and good cigars it was time to turn catatonic.  John's was the perfect place to collapse, which I did, blissfully and early.

In the morning I had to get up and get going.  My plan was to visit my mother who lives near my sister in Lancaster, Ohio.  As much as I like riding with a group it is equally a treat to ride alone.  There are moments when you wish your buds were there to see some amazing view or to share a surprise, or rarely, to help you out of a jam, but it is also nice to go where you want to go the way you want to get there, not to mention stopping when you want to stop without explanation or apology. 

I had suffered no ill effects from the first day's ride except a couple of stripes of sunburn on my upper biceps.  I had worn a wicking shirt and a Shift ballistic nylon jacket with the sleeves zipped off and stored in my saddlebags.  I had applied sunscreen up to the sleeves of my shirt, but I hadn't taken into account that the wind would blow them up revealing two more inches of unprotected skin.  For day two, before setting out, I stripped off my shirt and applied sunscreen from the back of my hands all the way to my forehead. 

I started out around 7:30 am but I was headed in the wrong direction.  I had to ride 50 miles east first to Zepka Harley Davidson in Johnstown, PA, to get my 1,000 mile service.  I had 1,050 on the odometer at the time and I would have 2,700 miles by the time I got home to CT.  I had picked Zepka out at random from an internet search and stuck with that choice even when I realized they were 50 miles out of my way.  I just had a good feeling about the place talking to the service manager, Ron, on the phone.  Zepka was great.  They did the work quickly, well and inexpensively.  They even gave me a free ride to a restaurant where I got a good breakfast and started writing this story over free coffee refills.  Then it was off to Ohio for real. 

Since the trip was almost entirely due west this would mean a lot more riding into the sun.  And it was hot.  And cloudless.  And almost 11:30 by now. 

My first instinct was to get on the interstate, which I did, but I grew tired of that pretty quickly.  Instead, I told my gps to avoid highways.  The device immediately took me off the highway and onto beautiful, narrow, winding, country lanes.  Maybe too winding.  The terrain was hilly and my gps was taking me southwest.  I'm not sure what it was thinking although it must have had something to do with finding a crossing over the Ohio River that wasn't the bridge on I-70 at Wheeling. 

The back roads were ridiculously narrow in places and they climbed and plunged, frequently with turns requiring 15 miles per hour or less.  The Street Glide is a big machine but it handles well and the engine pulls all day long like a locomotive.  Fortunately, too, I am an experience rider.  Not Ewan McGregor experienced, but I've ridden 10,000 miles on two wheels every year for the past twelve.  And that doesn't count the dirt biking I did as a kid.  That's enough saddle time to know what I'm doing. 

Still, when I saw the signs warning or "Fresh Chips and Oil" I was not pleased.  In case you are wondering, this wasn't announcing the availability of some tasty snack up ahead; this was informing me that the narrow, twisty, mountain road I was on was also, for the foreseeable future, covered in a fresh coating of wet tar oil and loose gravel.  Okay then...

Still, I soldiered on as I appeared to be in the proverbial middle of nowhere with not a lot of choice.  The hills were beautiful, as were the fields and the mountains when the vistas opened.  Little tar-paper shacks and half collapsed houses dotted the road from time to time.  Occasionally I would drive though a "town" consisting of three or four houses clustered together and perhaps an abandoned gas pump.  Did I mention the six gallon tank on the Street Glide and mileage approaching 50 per?  Wonderful!

But eventually the dust and the work effort grew to be too much, especially as I also did not seem to be making any real progress towards Lancaster.  I arrived at something looking like a real town and filled up with gasoline, Gatorade and 5-Hour Energy.  Then I told the gps, I surrender; do not avoid highways.  The gps immediately put me on I-79 North!  I rode twenty miles straight north only to find myself back on I-70 West, still very much in Pennsylvania and still riding under and into a broiling sun. 

Finally I came to the bridge that crosses the Ohio River and sailed across it, feeling pretty good about things all in all.  That feeling came to an abrupt halt when I saw the construction and the miles-long line of traffic ground to a halt in a single lane leading up the hill into Ohio. 

No problem; I was ready for a change, so I told my Garmin to avoid highways once again and immediately got off I-70.  The gps took me a few miles north and then through a small town with a lot of red lights.  I've heard Harley's can overheat but mine has the new feature where the engine drops to firing on just one cylinder when stopped to help cool the engine.  You can hear and feel it when it drops to one cylinder and the technology seems to work because I had no issues.  Soon enough I was climbing into the hills heading west again.

Now I was on 250 West in Ohio, a great motorcycle road, filled with sport bikes enjoying the high plateau sweepers.  It was pure joy to find this road.  On and on it went and I stopped only once or twice for hydration or an energy bar.  Then it turned into 22-West and the great times continued.  Eventually though, I encountered I-77.  The gps said to head south.  I was hoping this was the highway that would take me to Lancaster, but no such luck.  Soon I was back onto I-70 West for another grueling stint directly into the merciless sun.  Two-wheeled suffering at its best.  If you've done it, you know what I mean. 

Finally my gps relented and put me onto 13 South which soon turned into 188 West which took me to my mom's house.  It was a blast racing through farmland on a two lane country road.  But looking at a map now I see I could have stayed on 22 West and travelled southwest all the way to Lancaster!  Note to self: next time open up a map, buddy!  Gps will get you there, but you never know where you are or what you might be missing!

The visit with my mom was bitter sweet; she isn't doing very well.  But I was grateful that my bike and this trip afforded the opportunity to see her. 

Wednesday morning I got up, packed and left for West Virginia and my first ever HOG rally.  Visions of burnouts and wild women danced in my head, but, being fifty six, married, and knowing my friends as I do, going to bed at 10 pm after a beer and a cigar was far more likely to be in the cards. 

For this leg of the trip I actually had looked at a map the evening before.  I used Google Maps on my iPad.  From that study I knew I wanted 33 South to 50 East to 79 South.  The trip really needn't be more complicated than that.  There was, however, this intriguing bit of winding mountain road off of 50 down to West VA's 33 if I dared take it after my Oil and Chips adventures in Ohio.  I thought it said it was route 119 but that proved to be wrong.  It was 18 South. 

I set off enjoying the civilized roar of my stock Harley, the wind, the sun, and the largely empty freeways.  What was less enjoyable was the periodic kick in the kidneys some Ohio highways delivered.  I don't know if these were frost heaves, pavement joints or what, but note to Ohio and a few other states:  highways should not have speed bumps.  I'm just saying...

I made the turn from 33 South to 50 East and motored on.  The sun beat straight down.  50 was more of a freeway and less of a highway than I would have preferred.  I love cruise control in a car and found it every bit as valuable on my Street Glide.  I turned on the stereo and listened to Dwight Yoakum holler soulfully about being 1,000 miles from nowhere:

"I'm a thousand miles from nowhere
Time don't matter to me.
I'm a thousand miles from nowhere
And there's no place I'd rather be..."

Sweet.  50 East grew monotonous however and I looked with desire upon the rolling green hills to my right.  I knew that if I got off the highway too soon I could get tangled up in a morass of back-hills twisties that would consume my day without moving me closer to my destination.  And my tricky gps had already been known to insist I travel on a road that turned to dirt and then to deeply rutted and washed out dirt.  Wrestling an 820 pound Harley into a 180 on a rutted dirt road is a little too much drama for me, thanks just the same. 

I held out a while longer and then, just feeling that the time was right, I told the gps to avoid highways once again.  I felt good about the result immediately.  The gps said I should do another 20 miles on 50 before getting off.  Just as interesting, my expected arrival time had not appreciably changed.  Taking a backroads diagonal to Snowshoe instead of driving miles east on 50 and then miles more back southwest on 79 should have had that effect. 

The gps took me off on route 18 where I was hoping it would say 119, but that's only because I can't read a map properly.  18 was exactly the road I wanted.  Once again I was tooling and roaring through mountain roads adorned with gorgeous vistas and punctuated by rich farms and poor hovels. 

I ate at a Subway and arrived at Snowshoe at about 3:30 pm.  My room wasn't ready but they asked me to pay the balance on it, which I did.  I learned that to register for the rally I was to drive to the top of the mountain, seven miles up Snowshoe Drive, to the ski resort.  I spent my high school years in Utah driving cars on the roads to Alta and Snowbird, Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon, roads and peaks that would get your attention, so I was not a bit intimidated by this short, mountain ride. 

I was surprised by the cold however.  I shouldn't have been; the temperature always drops when you climb.  Still I wondered about the wisdom of having a Harley rally in such a cool environment.  I signed into the rally and returned down the mountain, using engine drag to handle most of the braking chores.  

The other guys had arrived by now.  There was Joe, John and Ralph, Barry and Steve from Florida and Lou and Larry from Canada.  The gang was all assembled. 

We ate dinner at a place down the road and I went for a two mile run followed by a dip in the hot tub.  Not bad.  And then I joined the guys for a beer and a cigar by the front doors of the inn. 

The next day was a 200 mile romp through the mountains led by our resident speed demon, Steve.  Steve was riding a gorgeous, new CVO Street Glide that would have been even more gorgeous if Barry hadn't ridden into the back of it on the way here.  Whoops!  Could happen to anybody.

I was feeling the need for speed myself, so, after the first leg of our trip, I negotiated my way into the number two spot behind our leader.  The big Harley is certainly no sport bike; you never feel like you're standing on your front wheel, steering with the throttle and the rear wheel, but the big girl can hustle. 

At the end of the day we rode back up the mountain to check out the rally, but frankly, there wasn't much going on.  We wandered around a bit but failed to find the bar that would honor our two free beer tickets.  In truth, we were tired from another day on the road; we didn't try very hard.

We rode back down off the mountain and set about finding a Thursday night dinner.  There was a little barbecue place in a trailer in the Inn's parking lot called Woodys Bar B Q Shack.   And we could buy cases of cold beer from a shop across the street.  Perfect.  Maybe it was the altitude or the fatigue, but the pulled pork sandwich, slaw and fries were some of the best I've ever eaten.  The dinner set me back all of $6 and I don't think I've ever had a better meal.  This was my idea of Wild Hog!

I did my nightly run and hot tub combo, and then met the guys for a few toasts over a couple of shots of cold Giro tequila. Good stuff.  And that was about it.  No burnouts, no wild women.  We didn't rob any liquor stores that I can remember.  Just a lot of great riding with some good friends.  There was still the matter of getting home, however.

Now, when I invited Joe to join me on this adventure, mostly because he is a good friend and part of the group, but partly so I wouldn't be the only metric guy at the rally, a couple of things had happened.  Joe had agreed to come but simultaneously he had invited himself to share my room in Snowshoe and then accompany him to Chantilly, Virginia, to spend a day visiting his son, Kip.  Like a dummy, without much thought, I had said yes. 

At some point I realized that instead of riding with Ralph and John back to John's comfortable house where I would have my own bedroom, and all that great food and drink, not to mention the Western PA riding which I had missed when I went to Ohio, I would be riding to the congested Washington DC area to sleep on some kid's floor.  This realization displeased me and I voiced my concerns to Joe.  Joe insisted that Kip had riding buddies who would take us on some great rides and implied that I would have a bed to sleep in.  So what the heck; off to Chantilly we rode Friday morning in a light, cool rain.

There was another problem, however.  While packing up my bike to leave West VA, somehow my rain pants had disappeared.  I looked everywhere to no avail.  The only conclusion I could draw was that I had dropped them and someone had decided to keep them. I checked with the front desk but no one had turned them in.  So I was dressed in my camping pants, which I usually wear on long trips instead of jeans.  The nylon material wicks moisture and they are much more comfortable on long rides.  They are also quite thin; good for hot days.  They would be totally useless if I ever hit the pavement but I figured jeans wouldn't be a lot better.  I also put on my electric vest--a total life saver--and my rain jacket, which I had managed to keep track of.  And off we went.

We climbed through the mountains in the steady drizzle.  Despite the electric vest keeping my core warm, my legs were soon freezing.  Finally I couldn't take it anymore and pulled to the side of the mountain road.  I changed my wet socks and put on my second pair of camping pants over the first pair.  I upgraded my gloves from summer gloves to my winters, clicked up the vest another notch, and off we went once again. 

We had taken 219 North to 250 West which would take us to Waynesboro and the base of the Skyline Drive.  The rain had stopped before Waynesboro once we had dropped out of the mountains and I was comfortable once again.  We stopped at a gas station/Subway sandwich shop combo and fueled up the bikes and ourselves.  Then we followed 250 through and out of Waynesboro until we found the entrance to the Skyline Drive. 

We paid our $10 to enter but Joe took a long time at the booth.  I figured he was arguing for a cheaper entrance price--you can have a real debate over who is cheaper, Joe or me.  But it turns out he was pumping the ranger for information. 

We drove the skyline which is majestic in its beauty.  Something about being on a road in the middle of all that mountain wilderness is stirring.  I had ridden the Skyline before but I had forgotten how hypnotic the drive is.  I feared it was putting me to sleep so I cranked up the tunes a bit on the stereo--sacrilegious in that wilderness, I know, but better than driving off the road. 

We finally pulled off at route 211 East, and made our way to the house where Kip rents a room in Chantilly.  There was a bit more gps controversy as I had avoid highways still switched on, and Joe was convinced we had gone the wrong way, but after some spirited riding through some gorgeous Virginia farm country, now mostly converted to country estates, we arrived safe and sound. 

After a day of chilling and checking out the amazingly large space shuttle at the Air and Space museum at Dulles Airport, but no promised riding, we set off for home on Sunday the 15th.  I don't think Kip understood why I let his 72 year old father sleep on the floor while I took the bed and Kip got the couch upstairs, but Joe insisted he was fine and, hey, an implied deal is still a kind of a deal...

There was rain in the forecast but low and behold I had found my rain pants in the bottom of one of my duffels.  Joe chided me for assuming theft, and really, I might need to upgrade my opinion of humanity just a notch.

We rode off in hot, humid weather with storm clouds on the horizon up ahead.  When the road shifted north it looked like we might avoid them but when it veered back east we were headed into their maw.  To avoid 95 we had decided to take 50 West to 15 North.  The plan was to ultimately get on 287 which would take us to 84 East across the Newburgh Bridge, avoiding much of the traffic around the New York City area. 

The ride up 15 was pleasant and we detoured into Gettysburg and saw some of the sights as we navigated to a McDonald's for a cup of coffee and a bio break.  Then we forged on.  The weather continued to threaten and the sky darkened and then I could smell the unmistakable smell of summer rain.  And then the rain hit. 

We pulled over at a truck stop and donned our rain gear.  Joe said maybe we wouldn't see any more rain since we'd gone to the trouble of struggling into our rain suits but no such luck.  It continued to rain.  And then it started raining hard.

I always say that riding in rain is fine as long as I'm not freezing and I can see.  I wasn't cold but visibility was becoming a problem.  I could barely make out Joe's taillight through the heavy downpour. The rain streamed down my face and into my jacket and my pants.   Traffic was heavy and cars and trucks passed us. 

Then a new problem reared its head.  My eyes began to sting.  The pain became intense.  I was literally growling in pain, squeezing my eyes closed and then opening them, hoping to blink away the maddening irritant.  I can only guess it was my sunscreen running into my eyes.  Whatever it was the pain was nearly unbearable.  It also meant that not only were we dealing with fifty feet of visibility, but half the time my eyes were closed!

Fortunately Joe pulled over at an overpass.  There were already four bikes there and a group of riders waiting out the rain.  Our bikes wouldn't fit under the bridge so we maneuvered them as best we could on the shoulder away from the traffic and got ourselves, at least, out of the rain. 

There I was able to clear my burning eyes. 

We talked bikes and our travels with the other riders while we waited out the rain.  Two of them were riding two-up on 2012 Street Glide exactly like mine except that it was Denim Black instead of Vivid Black.  For those of you who don't know, that meant it was flat black instead of gloss black.  I had preferred the Vivid Black at the showroom but that Denim Black Street Glide looked awfully good covered in rain drops...

The skies cleared a bit and we decided to push on.  There was the very scary business of rejoining the heavily trafficked highway from a standing stop on the shoulder on wet pavement but that went smoothly and we were both on our way once again.

The ride was uneventful until Joe's EZ Pass wouldn't register at the toll booth after the Newburgh Bridge and he had to fish $1.50 out of his wet riding clothes.  I was in another lane and mistakenly thought he was with another group of riders I saw up ahead so I took off to the catch them.  Only when I caught them, no Joe. 

I stopped at the rest area on the big hill on 84 just before Danbury and waited.  Sure enough, Joe came toodling along and I rejoined him.  I was happy I waited; I had promised Joe to have his back on this trip and really didn't want to explain to his wife that he had vanished just thirty miles short of home. 

We rode through Danbury as traffic predictably slowed on 84.  This was the only unavoidable traffic we had seen this entire trip.  The stop and go was tolerable, but only just so, on the Harley.  There were multiple accidents in the wet conditions on 84 and we could see the lights of many emergency vehicles on the highway up ahead.  I finally had had my fill and I ditched 84 at exit 9 and blissfully took 25 to the back roads that lead to my house. 

Joe made it too and I called him soon after.  He thanked me for a great trip and I thanked him.  He asked if still owed me for half of the room in West Virginia and I said, "Yep."

"Yep," he echoed, as if he was hoping for some other response. 

We had had a great time, we had made it home safely and we were still friends.  You can't do better than that.  Only, I'm still not sure which one of us is cheaper. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


by Quentin Smeltzer

My good, conservative friend recently sent me one of those emails detailing how Obama is destroying everything.  

When I wrote back, "Four more years" he posed this question:
"I guess this is all Bush's fault? and that you advocate a socialist state and declining economic opportunities for your son in the future?"
To which I replied, G_, I value our friendship far too highly and value email far too little to believe we have a wisp of a prayer of successfully debating this here.  But here are some views of mine:

1.  I consider myself a centrist.  Sometimes right of center, sometimes left of center, but a moderate centrist.  I respect and listen to opposing views.  I regularly find that I am wrong.

2.  Obama inherited an economy in a death spiral.  He has leveled off the plane and made it climb—with frustrating slowness—ever since.  So yes, I still blame Bush for any statistics that show the economy or poverty is worse than when Obama took office.  I consider this view to be factual.

3.  Obama is competent.

4.  He is tough on foreign policy and getting results.

5.  His personal life and the way he conducts himself are impeccable.

6.  I want low taxes but I think wealth disparity can be too great, especially if the rich are being taxed at historically low rates at the same time we are running huge deficits and live with decaying infrastructure.  I don’t want to hear about cutting Social Security--which I may need, by the way--while Bank of America execs pay themselves 20 million dollars a year and pay on average 18% in income taxes after deductions.  I don’t care if taxing the rich alone will not solve all of our problems: increasing their taxes is a step in the right direction.

7.  I define rich as rich.  It’s like porn:  you know it when you see it.

8.  I want an end to regulation and red tape, but at the same time I want industries that have shown a perfect willingness to blow up the entire economy in the pursuit of personal greed to be highly regulated.

9.  I do not want the Healthcare Reform Bill or Dodd Frank repealed.

10.  I don't worry much about Sharia law--not a big concern at this time.

11.  I don't want abortion outlawed and I think a true Republican should not care about one's sexual orientation.

12.  I am all for hard work and personal responsibility but I do not want to live in a Darwinian jungle.  I think people are better than that.

13.  This is about my son: the middle class has had no increase in wages for over ten years now.  We have less upward mobility now than twenty years ago and less than many other countries.  College costs are astronomical and growing.  Putting some checks on the wealthy and investing more in infrastructure and education is exactly what my son needs.

So that’s where I’m at.  Call me a raging liberal if you like; I think my views are healthy, centrist and grounded in fact.  I am perfectly happy to vote for a Republican with better solutions to these problems but I don’t see one now.  I am perfectly happy to call you my friend, listen to your arguments and adjust my opinions over time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Mission Trip to the Cheyenne River Lakota Indian Reservation

By Quentin Smeltzer

My church takes mission trips.  That is, a bunch of us who pay dues to the church (aka the members), pay some more money to go someplace rustic to help people and not proselytize to them; not even one itsy little bit.  I guess the idea is that if we go there and we are helpful and pleasant enough, some of the people we help might be sufficiently confused to look us up on the internet some day to figure out what that was all about. 

Which is the way I like it.  As I’ve written before, our church is basically a collection of whomever shows up and we believe whatever it is that we happen to believe.  We are Congregationalists, which as far as I can tell means we are earnest loiterers with mostly good intentions. 

This year’s mission trip was to the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation in La Plant, South Dakota.  Actually, “Sioux” is a word the Indians don’t much care for.  They are Lakota, which means the people who help each other.  Sioux is a French word that means snake in the grass or something along those lines.  It may be the least of the insults the Lakota endure. 

History runs deep on the reservation.  In the 1800’s white settlers and gold prospectors were advancing on Indian lands.  The gold prospectors were mostly white too, but that's besides the point.  The Indians resisted.  Battles were fought.  Treaties were formed and then broken.  White settlement continued.  The Lakota and other tribes would raid the settlements.  The raids would generate counter-attacks by the US Army.  Atrocities were committed on both sides.

After many battles, including the Battle of Little Bighorn, the US Army was strengthened to the tune of 2,500 men by an act of Congress.  The Lakota, the Arapaho and the Cheyenne were finally defeated in 1877 and the Indians were confined by treaty to reservations.  In the following years the Lakota were coerced into signing away more of their lands.  Treaty promises to feed and clothe the Lakota were ignored.  Low-level conflicts continued and in 1890, fearing rebellion, the Army rounded up and killed at least 150 mostly unarmed Lakota men, women and children with Hotchkiss machine guns in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.    

Despite this history, despite being forced into a dysfunctional welfare state, despite being a culture of hunters and warriors stripped of the ability to live their own identity, the Lakota are warm and welcoming, with a wonderful sense of humor.  Their spirituality revolves around their connection to the land, the sky and all of creation.  They celebrate bravery and honor: the bravery of their men and their women.  Even the bravery of their horses is honored in song and story and dance. 

On my previous mission trip to Orland, Maine I mostly tooled around in a pickup truck with my buddy, Bruce, shopping for electrical parts which I helped him install in the homes of the poor.  In the evenings we had showers and good meals.  One day we went hiking in Acadia National Park and then we had lobster for dinner.  Not a bad gig.  The reservation, on the other hand, was different… very, very different. 

First of all, there was no running water in the community center where we encamped.  And we slept on the floor.  There were no showers.  There were no bathrooms, just outhouses, three of which blew over when a microburst of wind raged across the open prairie without warning. 

The mosquitoes and other biting insects were voracious.  Bug spray had no effect.  And the ugliest dogs you’ve ever seen in your life milled about the camp more like matted homeless people than pets. 

We worked seven days straight, which was not smart.  Some people like to push themselves to extremes and then push themselves some more—you know, so it really hurts—and then there are the other six point seven billion of us who were not our leaders on this particular mission trip.  So that was some bad luck right there.  Especially for me, as I happen to be one of the six point seven billion who don’t consider heat exhaustion "fun."

In ninety degree heat under a relentless sun, we upgraded houses in the mornings.  Then we ran a day camp for the local children in the afternoon when the real heat kicked in. 

Before our first day-camp we were told that what the children need most is attention:  a hug, a piggyback ride, a game of catch.  Many of these kids live with grandparents; the parents are gone, taken by drugs, alcohol or poverty.  So we gave hugs and piggyback rides and played catch.  Some of the boys feigned initial toughness.  But that quickly melted away once they realized we spoke to them with no agenda.  Which was easy, because we don’t have one. 

Other boys seemed starved for attention—they would cling to my back and legs, wrap their arms tightly around me and refuse to let me go.  The girls were more likely to hang back, but they wanted piggyback rides too. 

At one point I untangled myself from the boys long enough to give one of the girls a piggyback ride.  She was maybe six or seven years old with beautiful, black hair and black eyes.  She climbed aboard but she didn’t cling to me like some of the boys had.  Instead, she told me to run.  When I did, she stood on my hands, stiffened her body and threw her arms skyward.  Then she did something that made the hair prickle up on the back of my neck:  she let out a warrior’s cry:   Wah hay!  Wah hay! 

Maybe it was the heat exhaustion, maybe I has hallucinating, but suddenly I was not some old guy giving a child a piggyback ride:  suddenly I was her adrenaline-amped horse charging across the high plains, carrying my precious young warrior headlong into battle.  It gave me chills.  It made me want to keep running with her forever.  It made me actually want to go into battle, which is worrying. 

So what did we learn here?  What did I learn?  One:  before you go on a mission trip, check the schedule and pencil in a day off when no one is looking.  And two: don’t worry.  Even if you are led by happy, committed masochists, experiences you could never have imagined might just make it all worthwhile. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Worst Place in the World

The Worst Place in the World
SmeltzerNation, 2/15/2011

First, I want to apologize for taking down yet another post.  While it was all good-natured sport making fun of my English colleagues, it turns out that they have this thing in England called “the internet” which allows people there to read what I write as easily as people here in my own little corner of my own little town.  Whoops! 

But don’t worry; I’ll put that bit back into my next book.  It will be safe there.  Because absolutely no one reads my books. 

Anyway, after making fun of the English I made a shocking and ironic discovery much closer to home.  It turns out that I live in possibly the only state in the entire United States of America that does not allow the most fun thing to do in the entire world:  quad bike riding.  In fact—and here is the deep irony—I was in England of all places when I discovered that quadding is the most fun thing a married man my age is allowed to do in the entire world.  Only to then come home and discover that this most fun and exciting of all things to do is not allowed in, yes... Connecticut.

Now, I want to make sure that you know what quad bikes are:  they are those four-wheeled, outdoors, ride-in-the-mud thingies with big tires.  They are different from off-road motorcycles in several significant ways.  First, when you ride a dirt bike into a mud hole, the front tire stops and you are flung over the handlebars like a rag doll.  The quad bike wallows through the mud and pulls you out the other side, producing an enormous grin on your face. 

When you go into a corner in the woods on a dirt bike, and you hit a rock or a root, the front tire goes one way and you go the other, flung over the handlebars like a rag doll.  When you go into a corner on a quad bike and you hit a rock or a root, the quad bike goes over the root or the rock and you keep going, producing an enormous grin on your face. 

Since I have reached the age when I prefer grinning to being flung over the handlebars like a rag doll, I greatly prefer the quad bike.  Only, they are not allowed.  Not in Connecticut.

According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection:

“Effective January 1, 2006, except where specifically allowed, riding an ATV on state or municipal property may result in charges of criminal trespass. (Public Act 05-234)
At the current time, Connecticut does not have any public areas open to quads.  Additionally, there are no State managed areas open to dirt bikes although the Army Corps of Engineers facility at Thomaston Dam is available for two wheeled trail bike riding.”

So, dirt bikes aren’t allowed at Thomaston but trail bikes are?  Hmm…  So what about quads?  Are they allowed at Thomaston or not?  According to the US Army Corp of Engineers:

Thomaston Dam has designated trails for two wheeled trailbikes, open May 1st through October 14th CONDITIONS PERMITTING. Three and four wheel vehicles are not permitted.

So they are not allowed in Connecticut, period, not even if CONDITIONS PERMIT.   Which leads me to wonder, why would I, or anyone else for that matter, live in Connecticut?  Our roads are jammed, our state is in debt, our taxes are rising and our schools are struggling.  We pay the highest amount per gallon of gasoline in the entire country.  And we aren't allowed to go quadding. 

I have heard it said that Connecticut has the most highly educated populace of any state in the union but really, if we knew anything, we would know that quadding is fun.  A lot of fun.  More fun, say, than spending two and half hours driving the thirty miles from Stamford to Fairfield on Interstate 95.  More fun than plugging our 3.7 billion dollar budget gap.  More fun than driving our SUVs into gigantic potholes, which would be fun if we were driving, say, quads.  And much more fun than being throw over the handlebars like a rag doll, which, however, is allowed at Thomaston Dam. 

Thanks, Connecticut.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Retreating Thoughts

Retreating Thoughts
By Quentin Smeltzer, www.SmeltzerNation.com, 1/8/11

Every year our church holds a men’s retreat where the men of the church don’t retreat so much as they venture forth to a simple lodge in the woods near a lake for two and a half days of camaraderie, prayer, discussion, a hike and an indoor golf tournament.  The accommodations are rustic.  The food is hearty but simple.  The thoughts shared are sometimes profound, sometimes prosaic.  I always laugh and I sometimes cry.  Let me amend that:  I always cry and usually at the oddest, most unexpected moments. 

They say men cry more at movies then do women, and we cry more at movies if we see them on airplanes.  I can also attest that we cry more in a cabin in the woods.  The words that pop out of our mouths and into our heads in new places with new people are new and unexpected as well.  Or maybe we’re just cry babies. 

This year I found myself well up when we were discussing transitions and I realized, maybe for the first time in my fifty four years, that I may well lose my father to old age in the not too distant future.  He is eighty one. 

My dad and I have reconciled after some turbulent times.  I love him and I know he loves me.  But there are so many regrets, so many things said and unsaid, so many things done and undone. 

Just ten years ago in my mid forties I believed I had no regrets and now my life is packed full of them.  How did this happen?

I have made many changes in my life and most of them have been for the better.  I gave up drugs and serious drink but somehow I recently decided to take up smoking.  Let me amend that as well.  If I said I took up smoking your children and mine might read that and start smoking.  And I would not want that.  If I said I took up smoking, my insurance company might raise my rates or deny my claim.  It’s a funny world we live in.  America may be the freest country in the world but we are far from free.  I am not free to tell you I have taken up smoking even one cigarette a day.

Thinking about a passage we read from bible on this retreat I finally realized how to see God.  God is us; people, and all creation.  So I understand that part now.   What I still don’t understand is why we live and die.  “Why do we die?” I asked Nick, who works for Pitney Bowes. 

“It’s all about the cycle of life,” he said.  “It’s a transition.”

“Ah,” I said, but I still don’t get it. 

If I did take up smoking it would not be because I want to die.  I want to live forever and in fact, I hope to get younger with each passing day.  Smoking may not improve my chances of attaining these two goals but, let’s face it: they are kind of a stretch anyway.

If I did recently take up smoking, say, just one cigarette a day, I might have smoked my one cigarette standing on the balcony outside my lodge room just now, listening to the snow melt from the trees in the dark of night.  I might have had this thought, that if I wasn't smoking I would just be standing there.  But because I was smoking—if I was smoking—I was doing something.  Something half stupid.  Something half mystical.  Something that isn't allowed at this lodge or almost anywhere in the world anymore, but something nevertheless.