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Columbus Day Weekend – Day 1 October 30, 2008

Posted by dakotabiker in Rides.
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I had planned a vacation – sort of – to see the space shuttle launch for the Hubble repair mission.  A very resourceful co-worker in the knowmanaged (more or less) to snag me an invitation to the launch.  It would have been a very cool thing to see on many levels.  To see two shuttles on their launch pads at the same time – cool.  The mission was to maintain the Hubble Space telescope which is planning to image the LCROSS lunar impact (my current assignment as a NASA program executive) – very cool.  And to see a shuttle night launch – very very cool.  However, as luck would have it (for both good and bad) the Hubble itself developed a telemetry framing problem a few weeks prior.  Good news, since it happened when it did, the mission could be modified to send up replacement hardware for the new problem.  Bad news in that it kicked the launch down the road into early next year – scrubbing my vacation. 

By riding down on the Harley, that vacation would also be my best opportunity to pick up my last four ABCs of Touring points for the year before the weather got, well, more challenging.  I had planned to take a leisurely week and a half to keep a comfortable pace and enjoy the back roads, making the launch seem like “just another adventure-filled stop” in the middle of the trip.  I was especially looking forward to the first stop — Ribeyes Steakhouse in Lillington, NC.  The menu on the internet was pretty basic:  14 oz, 16 oz, 18 oz, or 20 oz.  I had never been there nor heard of the place before, but with a menu like that…. well, given my passion the charred-medium-rare ribeyes, that destination was nearly as important as the launch.   With the launch delay, I had a tough time trying to self-justify taking all that time off, but my urge for meat kissed by fire, and my 4-point paucity, inspired a great 4-day ride from Friday through Columbus Day.

The Day 1 objective was clear – an ABC point for North Carolina followed by a 20-oz ribeye.  After freezing my tail off camping in Ohio the week or so prior, I decided I wasn’t even going to bring the tent for this one.  It would be cheap motels.  I packed my standard assortment of riding outwear to meet expected weather and as many pairs of socks and underwear as days I expected to be gone, and I headed out. 

As per usual, I was most eager to get out of my immediate region before hitting the slower, more enjoyable ride.  I took I-95 south to the DC beltway, circling around the east side.  I continued down I-95 into Virginia.  Leaving on a mid-day Friday before a Monday holiday, the traffic was quite manageable and I made pretty good time.  The scenery and ambiance was nice enough, but typical of interstate travel.  About 17 miles shy of the North Carolina boarder I hopped off I-95 and took US-301.  Of course I immediately lost speed, but was finally getting more local flavor.  About this time, the clouds starting getting a little ominous…

Reaching the NC border I stopped for my ABCs point and gave my butt a rest. It started getting a bit chilly and the little dive of a border cafe nearby looked very inviting, but the weather was looking more threatening, and I really wanted to be in Lillington by day’s end, so I pressed on.

North Carolina definitely had its own flavor.  It definitely felt like the economy was seeing hard times.  I passed small, run-down homesteads admist small cotton fields.  The landscape was littered with half demolished out-buildings and heaps of rusted vehicles and scrap.  I had hoped to find cheap local-flavor motels, as I am wont to do, and oh did I…  There were plenty; but of course none were open.  Motel after motel was abandoned and dilapidated.  Several had been burglarized or vandalized, and many in such bad shape you could see right through them.  There were so many, one would think that at one time there must have been something in the area to draw a lot of tourist traffic, but that was clearly not the case any longer.   Gasoline was becoming a problem too.  Quite a few stations were simply out of gas, even more were out of high-octane fuel, which of course the Harley needs.  I had heard that Georgia was having fuel supply problems, but didn’t know it extended so far.  I very quickly learned to fill up at half tank or sooner. 

The weather went from chilly and gray to cold and rainy.  Given that I only had the clothes on my back — I pulled off in Enfield to pull off the leathers and put on the rain gear.  The next 40-50 miles were as fun as any cold rain — drops feeling like bee-stings on my face on the highway — my goggles fogging to advanced cataract clarity at in-town speeds.  In Wilson I took a break getting some gas and coffee.  The rain had let up a bit, so I ditched the rain gear and planned my remaining route to Lillington.  I had a lot of comments from the locals about my “nice bike” and several well-intentioned offers of directions and barbeque recommendations.  I finished my coffee, looked across the road at yet another abandoned motel and figured I’d better get going if I was going to make it to Lillington. 

The weather more or less cooperated from that point on.  The occasional drizzle and road spray was interspersed with periods of cool wind– just mild enough to be wearing jeans, toggling between wet & cold and less-wet & colder. 

The atlas was a bit deceptive in giving the illusion I was close to Lillington.  The last 30 miles felt like 60.  I stayed on US301 to Benson then headed west on NC27.  I really wanted to get to Lillington while there was some light to help me find Ribeyes and a place to sleep.  I was ecstatic that when I got to Lillingtion one of the first things I saw was Ribeyes.  It didn’t look like I imagined — a newer building, almost chain-like in appearance.  Right next to it was a Microtel Suites – not my first choice (Only because it is a chain.  I actually really like the cozy European design of the tiny rooms.  They remind me of my brief stays in France and Germany.) but at least I was assured of lodging. 

It appeared that Lillington was little more than a crossroads where NC27 intersected with NC210 (along with a weird co-labeling of US 421 and US401), and I came in on the arm that had Ribeyes.  I rode a little way up each arm looking for more Lillington, and didn’t see any more of it.  (Turns out the town was actually a mile south on the arm of the cross-roads that was NC27, NC210, US401, and US421 all at the same time).  But the sun was going down, I had found Ribeyes, and I was hungry and tired. 

I checked into the Microtel and was glad to hear that Ribeyes had a bar – and with adjoining parking lots with the hotel, a very short walk.  I got the bike unpacked, draped my rain gear and chaps to dry, and headed for the steakhouse.

I was greeted by a young hostess who (presumably seeing the jacket and wind burn) asked if I was a biker.  She was curious and mildly impressed that I rode 375 miles to have one of their steaks, and I quickly became “that biker guy who rode all day for a steak” among the staff.  I saddled up to the bar – did a quick check of the menu to confirm the largest one was in fact a 20-ouncer and placed my order.  The barmaid politely let me know that they would cut larger ones if I wished – but I was content with the 20.  I specified charred-medium-rare, speaking very slowly.  I have had far too many waiters and waitresses hear only the “charred” part or the “medium-rare” part, or put far to much confidence in a not-so-hot grill or an inept chef, resulting in a less than fully enjoyable dining experience.  But she didn’t bat an eye, prompting me to repeat my order, and actually ask if they could do that.  “Of course” she replied, as though I was daft to think the order was unusual.  I knew I was in the right place when she asked me if I wanted steak sauce, with her head moving side to side silently but firmly saying “No, you do NOT want steak sauce.”  I am a meat+fire purist; if you see me using steak sauce, there is something horribly wrong.  I hit the salad bar to find all the ingredients for my kind of salad – cheese, ham, creamy ranch, eggs — all the stuff that makes a salad unhealthily delicious.  My steak took a while, showing up in the middle of my second Newcastle – and it was a site to behold.  Thick, well charred, and dripping in medium-rarity (actually it was a bit on the moo-side of medium rare, but on a cut that thick, I couldn’t begrudge the chef).  Absolutely delicious, and worth every mile. 

Bad cell phone picture of a great 20 ounce ribeye.

Bad cell phone picture of a great 20 ounce ribeye.

I hung out in the bar for a while, drinking ale and watching/reading the Ghost Whisperer in closed captions on the TV.  I never saw it before – but the plot of that episode was suspiciously the same as I Know What You Did Last Summer starring the same actress.  The music seemed like someones mix tape containing several excellent Beatles remakes from the movie Across the Universe, which I had just seen a couple weeks earlier.  The miles and the pints gradually caught up with me.  So I bid the barkeep goodnight and meandered back to the Microtel (thankful it was not a tent in the frigid night air) with “…nothing’s gonna change my world…” gently echoing in my mind.

O-hi-o October 23, 2008

Posted by dakotabiker in Rides.
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I really didn’t have any big riding vacations this year, like the Sturgis trip last year. So getting my ABC points involved a lot of weekend reaches into neighboring states. One such ride was to Ohio and the Indiana border earlier this month.

It had been one of those weeks.  One that was completely draining.  I had just come bad from a two day meeting in Cocoa Beach which had me run ragged.  (For which my Twitter peeps had NO sympathy.  No, I didn’t have time for margaritas and conch fritters on the beach… It was fly, work, meet, sleep, work, meet, fly.  OK, maybe there was a beer and some coconut shrimp in there, too.  But it was still a tough trip.)  I decided to take Friday off, ride west, and reach the ever elusive X-city of Xenia, OH, which would pick up two points for me since I hadn’t ridden to Ohio yet this year.  And looking at the map, figured I’d pick up Indiana (since I would be so far west already) and head north to Union County, OH for a fourth point and last attainable county, on the way back.  (There are no X counties, and only three Z counties in SD and TX)

My first stop only about 1:15 into the trip was the Dogpatch Tavern on US-40 about 3 miles west of MD-17.  It is a great biker watering hole that is usually my first and/or last stop on my west-bound rides.  Of course being there mid-day on a Friday it was a little dead.  I guess, like yours truly, most bikers do in fact work for a living.  So I had a beer and rode into my Ohio Adventure…

When heading out of state, I am usually in a hurry to get on a road that I haven’t ridden, so I take the Interstate (in this case I-70W and I-68W) until I get a decent distance from home, then settle into a more local-friendly road.  So I left I-68 in Cumberland for US-220S stopping briefly in Keyser, WV to make a note to myself to return to check it out for possible propery investment, or at least a good watering hole.  I kept riding south to pick up US-50W which is a good local access road that crosses back in and out of MD.  I rode a lot of nice miles until it starting getting darker and cooler about the time I hit Bridgeport, WV.

I have ridden enough, particulary in mountain valley areas to know that when it is already in a chilly time of year, it gets pretty cool, and pretty dark, pretty fast as the sun sets.  And while I CAN and DO ride in the cold and dark, I don’t LIKE to when the option is getting comfortably settled and fed while there is a little light.  So pulling into Bridgeport I saw a lounge, tavern, and motel all within a short distance and stopped for the night at the Townhouse Motel…

Let’s chat a minute about my lodging priorities when on the bike – I either camp in a tent, or stay in cheap locally owned motels.  No hotels nor economy chain motels if I can avoid it.  I like real local flavor: a little Mom & Pop establishment or something out of No Country for Old Men.  I prefer motels because I can pull the bike right up to the door to unload.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, comfortable, clean hotel with valet parking, busmen, and big suites with plush king-size beds for “normal” travel – but when I am on the road I prefer the Bates.

So I check in to my room to find the floor caving in.  The room slopes away from the door reaching a low point about 6 inches deep at the foot of the bed, sloping back up to the far wall.  A big chuck of mismatched carpeting had obviously been pulled out of use from some other well trodden floor and “installed” over the depression with a contour line where the carpet padding had been hacked away.  The “bathroom” had its own little cave-in with the toilet sitting at kind of an angle on the collapsed floor that was pulled way from the base moulding by about four inches. 

I unpacked the bike and headed back up the street to the Highlife Lounge.  It looked like a little hole in the wall place that seemed as if it would be biker-friendly, though not a lot of cars out in front and no bikes.  I pulled on the door – locked.  Then I noticed a sign to ring the bell to get in… hmm.  So I ring and get buzzed in.  Turns out the Highlife is a slots bar, dark and nearly vacant but for a couple of locals plugging quarters into the machines.  The barmaid was quite happy to see someone come in, and seemed disappointed when I turned tail and left for the tavern.  Of course, luck being what it was, the tavern was no longer a tavern, but a restaurant that was closing.  So I went back to the motel made myself a Jack & Coke, propped one of my two sorry “pillows” on the downhill side of the bed, and tried to sleep without rolling off.

Got up early the next morning (wasn’t sleeping anyway), made my way to the office for a cup of joe and packed up the bike.  I rode out of town heading west on US-50, when I saw another motel.  I started thinking “Aw crap, I should have just rode a little further last night.” until I saw the name: Townhouse West.

I crossed into Ohio near Parkersburg, WV, crossing the Ohio River.  Of course the “Welcome to Ohio” sign I needed for the ABCs point was in the middle of the bridge with no hope of safely getting a picture so, I kept riding.

I continued on US-50 to Chillicothe (Ohio’s first capital – who knew?) where I picked up US-35 heading northwest.  I got gas and made a mental note to check the place out if I am ever back again. 

Finally, about 6 miles this side of Dayton, the holy grail of the ABCs of touring:  Xenia, OH next four exits… Woot!  I chose US-68 (Home Avenue) for my approach, and was relieved to find an accessible sign to get the picture.  As long as I was there, I kept going up the road looking for a friendly watering hole – and I found it at the Round Table just a little farther north on US-68.  A very local hole in the wall with about 4-5 regulars sitting at the bar, puffing away on Marlboros under the big “no smoking by state ordinance” signs.  Gotta love it.  I made myself comfortable with my beer and my atlas, figuring out the best way for me to get to the Indiana border and get some decent mileage back while passing through Union County.  Eventually the inevitable question “You on a bike?” was uttered and I was in with the locals.  After a short while it came out that I worked for NASA and we talked about our return to the moon and the LRO and LCROSS missions.  Of course LCROSS got all the interest; after-all throwing a 2-ton rocket casing into a crater to kick up 35 tons of dust into a plume big enough to be seen from earth to find lunar water is pretty cool. 

So I finished my beer, said goodbye to my new bar-buddies, got back on US-35 and headed to Indiana via the middle of Dayton.  I have a professional friend I had known for some years who lives there.  I had really wanted to look him up, but needed to make time and mileage so kept riding to the border.  US-35 merged with I-70 just east of there which left me with nice wide shoulders to get both my Ohio and Indiana pictures and start heading back east on I-70.

I was making good time on the interstate and needed to be home by Sunday evening, so I stuck with it a while.  I got off near Enon Station, OH picking up US-68N to Urbana, cutting east on US-36 putting me on course for my 4th ABC point of the day, Union County.

I continued on to Milford Center where I stopped for gas, gatorade, a corn dog (oddly limited selection of food at the gas station), and some good road advice from a passing biker.  I took CR-57 to Plain City and on to the Columbus Beltway to pick up I-70E again.

As my shadow got progressively longer ahead of me, I hopped off I-70 at CR-52.  After asking around about campsites I back-tracked on US-22 to a camp ground in Zanesville, OH (no ABC point – already had Zullinger, PA).  This place appeared to have been a KOA at some point in the past but was now quite the little dump.  There was a “lake” – no, a “pond” – no, a slough, with a uniform coat of green scum floating at the top.  It all kind of made sense when I saw the RV septic dumping station sign right next to it.  The playground was stark with a rusted swing set and merry-go-round, but the “NO PETS” sign was prominently displayed and in great condition.  Which had me wondering why they thought dog crap was their biggest problem.  The proprietor was a very kindly older woman.  We chatted a little bit as I looked around her shop for something to eat.  She pretty much gave me my choice of lot, given that I was the only tent among three campers.  I couldn’t find a flat piece of ground that didn’t have tree roots sticking up from it to save my life.  So I picked a spot near the bathrooms (which were actually very nice – clean, heated, showers).  I set up the tent, covered the bike, and tried to sleep.  Didn’t do well with that and ended up lying outside in the cold bundled in my sleeping bag up staring at the stars.  (I really dislike my new tent. In my old one I had a shot at seeing the stars while I was still INSIDE.)  Eventually, I crawled back into my tent and more or less fell asleep. 

Morning came early as it often does when you sleep outside.  Very cold. Very wet. Breaking camp and getting the bike packed was a very slow process.  And of course there was no coffee.  I got back on I-70, but was REALLY freezing with a 70 mph windchill.  I didn’t make it too far, only about 17 miles to Cambridge, OH before I had to stop for coffee and warmth.  Fortunately, as the sun came up it warmed up pretty quickly.  I rebundled up and kept heading east on I-70 toward Wheeling, WV.

Approaching Wheeling, I hopped off I-70 for I-470 to SR-88, which I took south to pick up US-250, and that is when the best part of the ride started.  US-250 from Wheeling to Hundred, WV is a GREAT ride.  Lots of great twisties and beautiful scenery.  Took a long time, hard to get any speed on those roads, and took way more gas than I estimated (a lot of up-hill).  I was getting a little nervous with my gas guage on “E” and stopped in Hundred to check my atlas for the next chance at hitting a road that would have a gas station.  A very stereotypical family of “Appalacian-Americans” squeezed into the front of a rusted pickup very kindly informed me that there was a gas station just past the bend of the road I was on and that my bike was “real purdy”.  I thanked them and pulled in for gas – where like so few pockets of Americana that are left, you actually pump THEN pay.  When I came out of the store, a woman was circling my bike admiring it while her husband was pulling his four-by-four into a washing bay there at the station.  They had just been “ridge-running” and needed to clean ‘er up.  So I chatted with the woman for a while, commenting about the beauty of the countryside and how I’d like to buy land there some day.  She told me how she and her husband lived there then moved to Michigan for a while leaving their house here in WV vacant.  They missed WV though, and came back to find their daughter had moved into their old house while they were gone.  So they left her there and bought another house, and have been happy ever since.

With a full tank, I continued down US-250.  The road changed almost immediately.  Still a great ride and in many ways better, less intense.  The curves were still prolific but they were wider, sweeping turns that you can glide through at speed.  I followed this into Fairmont, WV, where I had been once before many years ago teaching a spacecraft power systems desing course at the NASA center there (yes, there is a NASA center in WV).  I got into downtown and really wanted to stop at the local diner – I can’t remember the name but it looked authentically local.   I was famished.  But being Sunday noon, the place was PACKED.  I couldn’t even find a parking spot for my motorcycle.  So I punted and ended up at some non-memorable fast-food place. 

Leaving Fairmont, I took I-79 north to pick up I-68 east back into Maryland.  Passing where I originally branched off two days earlier I rode on to I-70 and on to the Dogpatch.  This time the lot was occupied by about 8-10 bikes, which is pretty normal for a Sunday afternoon.  I sat out on the patio and listened to an old biker tell me about buying his first Harley back in 1957, and about how his softail can lift the front wheel off the groung in third gear, and about how when he rode with his wife he’d have to pull a trailer behind his bike to carry all her stuff, and about how that trailer sits in the garage under a tarp now she is gone.

The ABCs… October 22, 2008

Posted by dakotabiker in Introductions, Rides.
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…of touring that is. 

Those of you who ride Harleys (and who belong to the Harley Owners Group – HOG) may be familiar with the ABC’s of Touring.  It is an annual activity wherein participants “collect” destinations over the year: Towns from A to Z, Counties from A to Z, States & Provinces, Countries, Rallies, National Parks, etc…  The collection is in the form of photos of an “official” destination sign, your bike, and a current-year copy of Hog Tales Magazine (or Rider Enthusiast).  Riders collect these points and send them in for free crap (pins, patches, atlases, etc.)   In a sense it has all the appeal of collecting stuff, which you either go for or you don’t.  But in another sense it is a good framework to create some interesting rides (as if we needed extra inspiration.)  So Harley or not, it can be a great time… or an obsession.

Like any good addiction, the first few points are the easiest.  The local post office will give you three points right off the bat:  your town, your state, and your country all wrapped up in one official sign.  You head out to a few surrounding towns, cross a few county lines, maybe cross the nearest state line and you’ve got a dozen.  Then you start thinking “Hey this is pretty easy and I’m out riding anyway, why not go for the the pin at 26 points? I’m like half way there already…” 

So you pull out the old McNally-Rand (or log into Google Maps) and start searching for those missing letters… 
Riding farther and farther as you realize all the towns close to you start with letters you already have…
Incredulous that your state doesn’t have a county that begins with “J”… 
Pretty soon you’ve got the pin at 26, the patch at 36, and your almost to the cap at 46 (last year it was an atlas).  You look at your list and see you’re only missing handful of town letters and need as many county letters to complete two alphabets.  So you pull out the atlas looking for “I”, “Z”, “Q” and the ever so elusive “X”…  And you keep going.

One of only two "X" cities in the country.

One of only two "X" cities in the country.

By now you’re doing multi-state loops over the weekends; the miles-per-point ratio getting higher and higher.  You pass by 56 points, adding a collapsible Harley cooler to your pile of free crap — but the “limited edition optical glass cube featuring floating ABCs logo” along with publication of your name in Hog Tales as an ABCs addict seems within your grasp at 66 points.  So you keep going, creating a four-day weekend here and there until you hit the magical 66. 

My 66th point for 2008.

My 66th point for 2008.

Last year I had 58 points, after figuring I would go for the pin (or the patch, tops) – but the addiction was further enabled by a ride to the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota (from Maryland).  I got my pin, patch, atlas, and LED flashlight (last year’s 56 pointer), and was surprised and a little bummed that the magazine listing was for 66 points and above.  Admittedly, I certainly didn’t need the ABCs of Touring to inspire a 4,186 round trip ride to Sturgis.  (Though I do credit the ABCs for my side trip to Montana.)  The ride was great as was the rally and the people.  The ABCs are just an added bonus, a little extra push, and pretty good biker bar conversation with new friends and riding partners.

A national park point from the Sturgis trip 2007.

A national park point from 2007 - just rode though the Badlands in a lightning storm for that one.

For more information on the ABC’s of Touring you can go to the US HOG site, but if you are not a hog member, you just learned more about it here than you would there.   Or, as funny as it may seem, you can download last years British ABCs form which focuses on the same US objectives from the UK HOG site without being a member. Of course you won’t win the prizes, but that’s not really what it’s about anyway…

The First One October 21, 2008

Posted by dakotabiker in Introductions.
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It all started with a Twitter… Well, more or less. 

Having enjoyed the opportunity to share my thoughts and actions, I have begun to have the urge to share at more than 140 characters a pop.  Ah, but what to share…

I had loosely “maintained” a website for several years, which has become incredibly outdated and static.  The content varied as my interests waxed and waned.  I had pages on woodworking, travel, backyard wildlife, spacecraft power systems (i.e. former work), witticism collections… I will have to go back as see what is worth salvaging. 

Since that time I made a few more transitions and now pretty much work (NASA HQ) and ride (2006 Harley Dyna Wideglide).  So I’m pretty sure this blog will revolve around those areas, but I respectfully request your indulgence as I “find myself” in this medium. 

When I maintained the old site, and every one of a dozen times I have started a journal, I have faced the same set of questions.  Why am I doing this?  Is this to be “therapeutic”? Instructional? Informative?  About what should I write?  For whom should I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? Is this for me? For posterity? For evidence files? <g>  Just how candid or personal can I, or should I, be? 

Twitter has somewhat helped calibrate a few of those answers.  Somewhat…

So this will most likely be a blog about Harley Riding and Space Exploration (mostly riding) – in general.  But could as easily end up being 300-word twitters – which of course is not really RSS-worthy fodder.  So please be tolerant of the growing pains…  And let me know what you think…  I will try to find my theme sooner than later, and will attempt to keep career-limiting rants and non-sequitor ramblings to a minimum.