Leaving the Airport Cafe in Hampton, NH left me few good options when it comes to combining scenic roads with making decent time. This was yet another major difference in the two sides of the United States. With so much open space in the Western US (especially in the desert) you can normally combine the two, making good time on some straight stretch of road, then enjoying the moments when it winds its way through a canyon pass. I can’t possibly count the times I was on some road that went dead-straight for 20-miles. As you hit the peak of a valley you got an amazing panorama, then went down into the valley, then up a long rise to the next.
The Eastern Seaboard though is well occupied and was laid out back when people walked or used a horse-drawn carriage to get from place to place. And of course with the thicker population density, the roads are generally full, whether a winding backroad or an interstate. I spent most of the day watching the rain clouds move around me but only catching the edges of each squall. Honestly, what I was really doing was staring at the back of a car going 5mph under the speed limit.
Life on the interstate. The backroads of the east coast aren’t much better honestly.
With very few passing opportunities due to clusters of houses, I tried to settle in, but I learned to drive in Los Angeles and Orange counties, which have a bit more of the Mad Max: Fury Road vibe of, “I live, I die, I live again!” I set the GPS to look for twisty roads, a feature that doesn’t automatically find the best roads, just the ones with the most curves. While it felt better plodding along at 35mph on a backroad in traffic, I was probably better off going 35mph on an interstate with traffic, as there are no spotlights and your average speed is better.
I happened to be vaguely near Walden Pond at one point, so I decided to make a stop. The story Thoreau told in his book “Walden” is of course long gone: that’s why we write things down. Walden pond is still there, as is a parking lot charging $30, interpretive sites and recreations, and the pond itself (not sure what qualifies it as a pond and not a lake). I by all means refused to pay the $30 parking fee in the near-empty lot, caught a few photos, and generally reflected on Henry D. Thoreau’s musings. People these days love to chastise him for living on his parents property while doing his experiment, failing to actually read the book and see he doesn’t hide it.
Replica of Thoreau’s cabin.
He still had to figure out how to make his own bread, create a farm out of a wild field, fight off woodchucks with a shovel, and deal with the loneliness. He was still an hour’s walk from his parents’ house and nearly the same distance to the nearest town where he could resupply. There was no Postmates back then to drop off flour and butter: you humped it on your back…if it was even available.
Walden Pond. Meh.
But as I said, nothing resembling the world Thoreau was writing about could be found here now, so I carried on. The woods were not the same, the cities were not the same, and so I punched my way through traffic until the rain finally started properly. I donned my rainsuit and plowed on through the outskirts of Providence. Clearly Rhode Island is not a state you should try to explore solely by motor vehicle. It did give me pause to reflect on why California has so much car culture though.
Things by and large are not in walking distance in 95% of California. Also, the ability to actually get out of the city and into proper nature– or at least into vast tracts of open farmland– means having a vehicle was a huge boon. On the east coast this is much less true; human development essentially connects Providence to Boston and Boston to NYC. As the population grows I’m sure California’s car culture will eventually become something for TV documentaries to reminisce about, but the last bits of that world still live on. I can talk to motorcyclists who are 20-30 years my senior and they’ll tell of a time when the roadside eatery we are at was a rough-and-tumble place for bikers and rednecks to get into fistfights. Now the parking lot is full of expensive motorcycles and they’re selling a $10 bagel and lox and craft beer to the dentists and tech professionals on their weekend ride.
They’ll tell of the road having so few houses on it you could run the entire length of the road flat-out, passing perhaps a few cars at most. Now it is choked with lycra-clad bicyclists, commercial trucks, scads of motorcycles, and driveways jutting out of blind curves. That world is closing off, and I wonder how many of the teenagers of today will even be able to find a gas station if they want to take a motorcycle out for a weekend ride, let alone find an empty road to enjoy? Knowing an era is ending and will never come back is a bit sad, but it also makes you able to truly enjoy it before it’s gone and you’re looking back wondering what happened. And perhaps by then the Hells Angels will be a bunch of 20-somethings on electric motorcycles tearing around thee urban landscape, and pieces of motorcycle culture will live on in a different form?
Southern Vermont became quite more picturesque than Rhode Island, but I think it had more to do with being away from a major city and closer to the coast. Things were still crowded, but there were things to look at besides the ass end of a car going far too slow.
The combination of the weather and monotony of the road had me spending an extra night at a Motel 6. I was getting a fair amount of work (and my laundry) done so there wasn’t much reason to be out in the heavy rains that were falling. Eventually I was back on the road and made a run through heavy traffic, trying my best to skirt the sprawl of New York City’s suburbs, and ended the day at Moyers Lake, Pennsylvania. The place was dumpy and when someone came out to check on me I found out why. The family running it was taking care of the elderly owner, and there simply wasn’t enough attention to keep up with both.
On the plus side it was across from a very old church with a massive graveyard filled almost entirely with people from the 1700’s to mid-1800’s. It continued across the road and over a hillside, still full of graves from about 1850-1950. There is such an odd beauty about such old places. Although they are full of markers of death, these are more accurately the markers of lives lived. It’s a bit hard to conjure up sadness for someone who lived 90-years and has been dead for over a century. Instead you think about the life and times they experienced, wondering where their great-grandkids might live now, and what wisdom they’d impart if you’d talk to them now.
In the morning I was back on the road, happy that Pennsylvania remained so open-feeling, with its meandering roads and classic buildings. Even newer homes maintained the look of an old homestead, but with vinyl instead of wood. I passed a few post offices that were actually old homes, one even having the upstairs still occupied. I wonder what it’s like living on top of a post office in a town of only a few hundred people?
The next day I did a major slog but kept mostly to backroads just the same. Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia all passed by, leaving memories of beautiful small towns that I wouldn’t have the time to explore. I got into Virginia and was planning to camp, but the cold was coming in even in the mid-afternoon, so I looked for a motel in Harrisburg. There must have been an event, because everything seemed booked up and way overpriced. I ended up with a beat up “suite” at a Days Inn, paying over $100 for it. I should have just dealt with the cold.
In the morning I tried the Interstate but it was too much. Traffic was moving at the speed limit but there was so much of it, and without functioning lights on the trailer I wasn’t comfortable sharing the road with so many people. Hwy 11 kind of paralleled the freeway, so I continued that way, finally getting back to my favorite refuge: The Blue Ridge Parkway. In Buchanan, NC I found lunch at the North Star Cafe, where a burger and fries was only $5.75. Hell, the omelettes were only $3.75-$5.75. Mind you it wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was a sit-down restaurant with friendly people.
When I think of the many places I stopped for food in Baja I’m reminded of the same concept. The owners may not have much, but they make it as nice and clean as they can. The staff may not make much, but they’re friendly because that’s how they were raised. The food is good and made with care. I’d much rather eat a meal on a folding table with cheap vinyl tablecloths than sit in a Michelin Star restaurant and hear a prepared speech about how some tiny piece of veal was prepared.
The ride south on the Parkway is different than traveling north. The woods mean you will see buildings farms and neighborhoods you totally missed on the ride up. Also, coming from the south you ride through far more mountainous terrain, whereas Virginia’s part of the Parkway is running through mountains, but they are not as steep and have huge valleys to either side that were once Indian trails, then trails used by white trappers and traders, then the military, and are now filled with small town.
I stopped short for the day though because I wanted to visit my friend Spike. I actually met him due to an assignment; I wrote an article about his efforts to stop discrimination of motorcyclists as well as his time in the world of outlaw bikers. He had recently settled just off the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and I just had to stop in and see how he was getting along. He had bought the house as a fixer-upper and done a ton of work. Spike’s day job is as an architect specializing in historic building restoration and preservation.
That of course doesn’t automatically mean you know how to lay tile and hang doors, but it meant Spike had an uncanny eye for the aesthetics of the place, and it was gorgeous. His wife Lori was a super-star of that old-school variety you don’t see too often: a proper mama-bear when she needed to be but her natural disposition was to be accommodating, conversational, and both a good listener and story-teller in her own right. The particular house was in a development, as are most placed built in mountain areas (if there’s enough room you build as many houses as you can with the precious flat spaces), but since it was an older development it didn’t have the stuffy attitude an HOA (Home Owners Association) tend to bring.
Spike took me around the area to show me some of the views and historical home and any neighbor you spotted outside meant an obligatory 10-20min chat to catch up. It might be about who is hosting a party at which house, wild animal sightings, if the corner house sold yet, or a chat about the Native Americans who once lived in the area and if you’d found any arrowheads recently. The laid back attitude was very much something I remembered from times being stationed in the military, or spending extended periods with friends who live in rural areas. Small communities actually need to be in each other’s business, because when people need help you don’t go to the county office, you get together as a community and help the person.
The next day though I had to be off, but I was genuinely thinking about finding a home along the BRP. Since I was pressed for time though, I stopped only a few times to look at things while trying to make good time without riding too fast. The BRP never has a speed limit above 45mph, and the constant turn-outs and scenic views mean you can’t really go bombing around corners at high speed. The road was designed for leisure: you aren’t supposed to make good time, you’re supposed to have a good time.
The BRP’s southern terminus is in Cherokee, NC, right by the reservation for the Eastern Cherokee people (not all Cherokee were marched on the Trail of Tears, so the Cherokee are spread out in more than one reservation). I grabbed a motel room at a wonderful little independent motel and even found a decent sushi restaurant for dinner. In the morning I was up and over Hwy 441, catching the fall colors as I rode through falling leaves and canyons of trees turning yellows, browns, and reds.
Memorial to Cherokee who served the US military.
There was also traffic, with tourists coming up in droves to see the fall colors. I was lucky that most were coming from Tennessee, so I watched the lines of cars climbing as I rode down into the valley. It also meant I was finally leaving the cold for weather in the 80’s, as most of the central US was having quite a burst of heat as the end of summer gave its last hurrah. Such is the month of October though: it can be bipolar in the extreme.
And while I was out of the mountains, this also marked the moment the interstate took over. I’d spend a day in Knoxville getting the trailer lights sorted out at Electrical Connection (which ended up being a rad detour). After that however, there wasn’t enough time to play around and still hit my rendezvous in Baja for pet-sitting. But a promise is a promise, and my friends already had tickets bought so I needed to make it down there to watch over things, and that meant me and I-40 would get acquainted again…
2 thoughts on “Westward, Ho…but first…”
I enjoyed this John. Well done. Took me a while to finish because I kept stopping and remembering stuff.
The first time I read Walden, and a few essays. I was working as a machinist on an extended swing shift with another young guy. We were both former saxophone players, he rode a BMW R60/5 with a big tank and low bars. Back in the days of open faced helmets and stadium goggles.
I had just discovered motorcycles and we would meet for a breakfast and ride several day a week. We were both exploring photography, with the only recently released generally available 35mm SLR’s.
We found “On Walden Pond” at a small cafe where we had stopped for lunch. After reading only few pages we headed first to drop off our film canisters for proof sheet development, $.50 for Pan-X, or $1.50 for push processed Tri-X. Then on to a small book store where we bought two copies of Walden.
Over the course of the next few weeks we read and discussed the book and themes and ideas.
Sort of a college without college.
Good times. Thanks for the walk back through time.
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Thanks. Yeah I was in a more reflective mood. This post was supposed to wrap up my entire run back to Las Vegas where I dropped the trailer and popped down to Mexico, but even this post skims over the ride from NH back to PA, and my run down the BRP is only a few sentences.
The book is being written in a different style but with some of the same elements. When I reflect on things it gets much more abstract because there is room to spend 3-4 pages exploring ideas and really explore the concept of being alive and trying to feel comfortable on this planet…but not too comfortable. Missing the challenges the world offers us is downright sinful, but complacency and comfort are so similar we sometimes can’t tell them apart until they’ve coiled around us like a warm blanket. Warm blankets are great, but we gotta get out into the cold and wind sometimes because that’s where life turns to being alive.
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