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LD Ride Day 2: Commute in Camouflage September 4, 2009

Posted by dakotabiker in Rants, Rides.
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Content Warning:  The forte of this posting is heavily (and at times passionately) motivated by traffic; so much so that I created the “Rants” category to apply to this entry.  Despite my moniker, I live, ride, and drive in Maryland, and as such, have some pretty pointed opinions about drivers in my locale.  So, if you are offended by the tone of a mild rant or you feel strongly representative of the automobile operators of the mid-Atlantic on a personal level, you may not wish to read this post.   And, while I am at it…  Any opinions expressed in this posting, or any other on this weblog site, are solely my own, and do not in any way represent NASA or the federal government.

Waking up in the nondescript Danbury hotel room, I lacked the patience for the in-room coffee machine and headed to the lobby for a cup of the “house blend”.  As I stood in the parking lot sampling the morning air, I thought about my business trips to Connecticut many years ago.  Early in my career, I was the battery engineer for a Ballistic Missile Defense Organization spacecraft called the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX).  The battery consisted of nickel-hydrogen battery cells made by Yardney Technical Products in Pawcatuck, CT.  I had taken many trips there during the fabrication and test of those cells, and there is one quality of the locale that very strangely stands out in my memory: Excellent Drivers.  Normally, good traffic is like good children, unnoticeable at best, but the Connecticut drivers were noticeably good.  I wondered if they still were, or if my memory was an illusion.

Back in the room I was getting organized for the ride when realized I didn’t have my passport, so Quebec was now off the list.  I re-planned my route, drank coffee, watched the morning news & weather, and caught up on email & Twitter; despite an early reveille, I was running late (again).   I checked out and packed the bike, but paused for one more cup of coffee and a map check.  Even with the loss of Quebec, I needed some miles today.  I really wanted to be clear of major population centers before the evening rush hour while  still securing the ABC points for RI and MA.   I rode east on US202 until I was able to jump onto I-84.  Admittedly the volume of traffic was a bit less than yesterday morning around Baltimore, but it was noticeably smoother and well-behaved.  Everyone was moving along about 10-15 mph above speed, and there were no erratic speed demons nor oblivious slow-pokes, both of which manage keep Maryland highways bollixed.  But the most impressive thing is that Connecticut drivers understand and adhere to proper lane use

Get this:  They drive in the driving lane, and they pass in the passing lane! 

And most importantly:  They don’t drive in the passing lane. 

If they are in the far left lane, then they are in the act of passing a car in the driving lane.  And when they complete that pass, they return to the driving lane!  I don’t know if it is that the Connecticut driver has some superior ability or training, or because the state posts signs that label the lanes.  Maryland posts signs too, but theirs only say “Slower traffic keep right”, which everyone ignores because no one on the road considers themselves to be “slow”, much less “slow-er” than anyone else.  Traffic piles up in the “fast lane” stuck behind one idiot who is matching speed with the “slow lane” to his right.  But not in Connecticut!  They know how to use the lanes, and traffic hums along. 

The morning ride, despite being on an interstate was actually a joy, with two exceptions.  One was a car pulling a U-haul attempting to “pass” going up-hill without the horsepower.  I figured he wasn’t a local, or wasn’t accustomed to pulling a trailer, or both.  The second was a dark blue Chevy Cobalt.  He started off harmless enough, driving just over the limit in the traffic lane.  I attempted to pass, but he started to accelerate to match my speed:  70 mph, 75 mph, 80 mph.  He stayed in my blind spot just off my right saddle bag, until somewhere over 85 mph I broke free of him and returned to the driving lane.  Putting some distance between us before slowing down, I settled into 70-75 mph thinking that was the end of it.

A short while later I was approaching a slower moving car ahead of me in the driving lane.  “No problem,” I thought.  “I’ll just hop in the passing lane and pass him, because in Connecticut they keep the passing lanes clear for passing.”  Checking to see if the passing lane was clear, I saw a pair of cars coming up at a pretty good clip.  I waited briefly as the first car passed me and the car in front of me, before merging safely back into the traffic lane and pulling away.  The second car that was racing up the passing lane was the dark blue Cobalt, but his maneuver was not as savvy.  As soon as the passing lane in front of him cleared, he decelerated to match the speed of the slower moving car I was trying to pass, blocking off the passing lane.  The plates on the Cobalt?  Maryland.

Traffic piled up behind the rolling roadblock until a truck lane opened on the right.  The slow driver ahead merged into the truck lane, allowing the backlog of traffic to get past the Cobalt who was still clogging the passing lane.  Eventually, I was able to get enough distance and my good mood returned. 

While my druthers would have been to stay on I-84 to keep well west of Boston as I headed north, I needed to pick up Rhode Island for the ABC point.  I left the interstate near Tolland, picking up SR74 east to pick up US44 east.  I worried about losing a passing lane in the process, but was relieved to find that traffic was moving 10-15 mph above speed (despite the short line of traffic following a fully-loaded car-carrier).   US44 was a delight to ride, mostly sylvan with ample shade.  There were small patches of construction, including a one-lane bridge setup I had never seen before: a stop at either end with a sign saying “3 at a time”.  I questioned to myself the feasibility of that system with the more “self-entitled” drivers of my home state who insist on using the shoulder to get those few extra car-lengths when merging into a busy highway or who have not mastered the courteous practice of “alternating right of way”; but here the self-policing system worked just fine. 

I stopped for gas and a Red Bull before crossing into Rhode Island picking up my ABC point.  I got off US44 in Chepachat in an attempt to pick up a very poorly-marked SR98 in the confluence of SR98, SR100, SR101.  Fortunately, my intended route ran through Harrisville, a town that shared the name of a co-worker, making it both memorable and navigable in the absence of a numbered sign. 

I followed SR98 north through wooded roads with virtually no shoulder, keeping an eye open for the Massachusetts border sign, only to be dismayed by the lack of one as I suddenly found myself in Uxbridge.  Rhode Island SR98 had continued as Massachusetts SR98, which terminated unexpectedly at SR146A (with no signs).  My intent was to have gotten on SR146.  I guessed at a direction (correctly) but doubled back to stop at the Li’l Texas Restaurante’ there in Uxbridge.  With two Harleys parked out front I figured this would be a decent lunch option.

Massachusetts lunch?

Massachusetts lunch?

I had a very hot and tasty cup of chili and a beer, while I looked at my maps and listened to the conversation of the biker ladies at the table next to me.  They were talking about the local fairs and organizing upcoming scenic rides with their husbands and friends.  We chatted for a while about where there may be a “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign, and what would be the best way to get around Boston.  It turns out there really isn’t one without backtracking and heading west before cutting north.  I had already figured on a difficult ride, but Phyllis gave me a look like I was delusional when I shared my plan to pick up I-495 to sweep around Boston in a wide arc.  On the map the route looked like a fair margin from the metropolis,and at interstate speed, should take an hour.  Phyllis figured it would be longer, closer to two hours, to Haverhill (pronounced HAY-vril). 

Lady Bikers Carol and Phyllis

Lady Bikers Carol and Phyllis

I found I-495 off of SR18, without much trouble and I made great time going about 3/4 the distance in 45 minutes, riding along quite pleased with myself with my 1-hour estimate.  Traffic wasn’t great by Connecticut standards and was more typical of the Washington-Baltimore area on a good day, until it slowed to a crawl.  Never quite coming to a dead stop, the flow had that parade progression that leaves your left hand in a permanent arthritic claw on the clutch and your right thigh searing over the pipes.  My ride (and my mood) quickly degenerated into a bad commute.

After the 2 hours Phyllis told me it would be, I finally got off at the Haverhill exit to pick up SR97 toward Methuen, MA and into New Hampshire.  Watching carefully for a NH or MA sign as I approached the ubiquitous border-outlets for Lotto and cigarettes.  I saw the sign for Salem, NH and I circled back in and out and in of what should have been the MA border — no sign.  I stopped at a repair shop, to learn that the closest post office would be back in Haverhill, but that my best option would be to enter MA on the interstate.  So I picked up my NH point with the Salem sign and continued along SR97 until picking up I-93 to come back into Massachusetts.

With traffic screaming uncomfortably close, I managed to secure my Massachusetts ABC picture and merge back into the flow.  I took the next exit which had some numberless, meaningless name like “connecting loop”, which I left for SR28 heading northwest back into New Hampshire.  It was now almost 5:00 on the Friday before Labor Day and traffic was really bad and getting worse.  I thought to myself that I was glad that I made notes of enjoying the morning ride, else it would have gotten lost in the memory of metropolitan motor misery of the afternoon. 

SR28 was not a bad road per se, but the traffic was crawling behind a tiny 70’s-style RV swaying side-to-side, top-heavy on weak shocks, as it chugged along.  I couldn’t really blame the guy.  He was clearly just heading out to enjoy the long weekend in his tiny camper, as he probably had for decades.  Maybe with the grandkids.  Maybe to be alone with the New England landscape.  On most any other ride I’d have been fine, backing off and leaving a gap to enjoy the scenery as I cruised along behind; but not this time.  I felt the active frustration of a bad urban commute and had little patience.  I was tired, irritable, and felt I hadn’t gone nearly far enough for the day. 

I kept riding up SR28 picking up SR101 in Manchester, which I took to SR125 north.  Though I hoped for the Maine border for my ABC point by nightfall, the dearth of motels along my route had me thinking I would stop at the first motel near something “interesting”. 

On SR125, traffic started slowing again, but this time I could at least see why as I passed a drag strip whose parking lot was filling up with cars.  I rode by, very tempted to stop.  But I was determined to locate lodging first and then perhaps come back.  I was not about to go to the races all night, then set out in the dark in hopes of finding a bed.  Just past the track I passed a nudist camp, and shortly thereafter a very cool-looking local burger place called Wild Willie’s Hamburgers.  I pulled into the latter to change goggles for the on-coming night and put on an extra shirt for the on-coming chill.  I was hoping for a motel right around the corner, so I could come back for a burger at Wild Willie’s and maybe hit the races.  I continued on.

I rode into Rochester on SR125 approaching what looked to be the center of town, but I saw no motels nor bars nor restaurants of interest.  I took a right onto SR108, and again saw nothing compelling but a Dunkin’ Donuts with a conspicuous group of Harleys out front.  I pulled in, and walked up to a small group of some seriously hardcore-looking bikers.  I asked where I could find a cheap motel that was close to a bar worth going to.  They told me I was… out of luck.  Then they asked where I was headed, and how far I’d be willing to ride.  They gave me directions to a popular biker bar with an attached hotel — a real roadhouse called Bentley’s about an hour’s ride away in Maine on US1. 

It was now almost 7:00 and I decided to press on in search of Bentley’s.  I didn’t bother to check the map before leaving since I didn’t want to waste sunlight and the directions seemed pretty clear — but it wasn’t long before I started second guessing myself and the directions.  I followed SR125 to easily pick up US202 east.  I knew I was supposed to stay on US202 until there was a split, and I was supposed to proceed straight on “111” which would cross over I-95 and intersect with US1.  However, I didn’t know what 111 was… US route, state route, county road?  Nor did I know how far this split was supposed to be.  But I was fine… until I noticed that US202 was also SR11 and started second guessing what I heard.  I got further confused by intersections with SR11A.

It got dark and temperatures were dropping pretty quickly as I rode into the forested night.  Keeping my concentration piqued for deer and moose, I was surprised and awed by the emerging full moon low on the horizon as rounded a bend.  While pleasantly distracting for a while, I became further concerned that I had missed some key 11-something or something-11 turn-off and was headed into the wilderness.  Finally in the glow of a lone liquor store beside the road, I pulled over to check the map a mere 1600 feet from the elusive 111-turnoff.  I took the opportunity of the stop to invest in my evening’s back-up plan:  a 24 oz can of Bud and a bag of Cheetos.

With renewed vigor I took SR111 east toward the next verbal memory challenge, to “take a right” once I “hit” US 1.  I made a snap decision that the lane sign departing SR111 going “To US1 South” did not constitute “hitting US1” and I continued on until I did.  Heading south on US1 I took note of my odometer with each motel I passed.  I guessed that Bentley’s, a biker bar near the coast with an attached motel, would be a popular destination on the Friday of Labor Day weekend .  I was right; they were booked solid.  Fortunately, my predicament was not unfamiliar to them and they had the numbers of the motels I passed on my way at the ready.  I called the closest one and booked a room for the night, and settled in to enjoy the bar. 

At a little after 8pm, my arrival was pretty early by bar standards.  The band had started playing, but they hadn’t started charging cover and there were still a few seats at the bar.  Like many “attraction” biker bars, Bentley’s was a pretty good size.  The main area housed the band at on end and had open-air windows to the parking lot.  The main bar was on the end opposite the band and serviced not only the band crowd on one side, but a large outdoor “beer garden” with picnic tables on the other.  Across the beer garden are a gift shop/office and a grill with a small but appropriate menu of flame-kissed meaty bar fare.

Bentley's

Bentley's

I had a great cheeseburger and a couple of beers as I listened to the band play the standard selection of classic rock and road songs, and watched as the crowd get larger, denser, and rowdier.  While I am sure a night at Bentley’s is a really great time, my solo-riding fatigue level for the day was not a good match for the energy of the bar.  I walked a couple of circuits about the bar finishing my beer, and headed back up the road to Biddeford. 

I checked in at the Biddeford Motel.  It was clean… and red.  It didn’t look bad from the outside.  I’ve stayed at worse, but not for this much scratch: $98 for an uncomfortable, unyeilding, lumpy bed with two small, flat pillows; a selectively staticky TV with a non-functioning remote; no screens on the windows that had to be open to combat the poor ventilation; tiny, scratchy towels; and no soap.  But I was tired, they already had my credit card number from the reservation, and there was wifi.  I unpacked the bike discovering my contingency beer and Cheetos.  I cracked open the tepid beer and thought about the day.  Not a great ride overall… too much Interstate, too much traffic, too much like a commute that lasted all afternoon.  The day’s objective was getting past the urban area, and I accomplished that.  But unfortunately, the good parts of the ride were a bit overshadowed by frustration and fatigue, and the languor of my lodgings weren’t helping.   Tomorrow would be another day.

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LD Ride Day 1: “Whiz with” September 3, 2009

Posted by dakotabiker in Rides.
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The coast to coast trip (with the Florida loop for the LRO/LCROSS launch) had garnered 35 states:  pretty much everything west and south of me but ND, NE, LA, and MS.  (Why I missed ND and NE, I will never know.) It is funny that in my three years of riding, I have never turned to the northeast.   Feeling “on a roll” for 2009, I took a couple of extra days off to make a 5-day Labor Day weekend to take on New England (and hopefully Quebec).  Today is Day 1.

As is often the case, I got a late start, but made it out of my driveway a bit before 10am.  My loosely formed plan was to head up I-95 toward Rhode Island.  I really don’t enjoy interstate travel and relish urban interstate even less, but just getting to RI in a reasonably direct route kind of forces such a route.  I figured to ride through the populated corridor of Baltimore, Philly, New York, etc ahead of the Labor Day weekend traffic, and then leisurely head inland for ME, NH, VT, QC and head home via central PA when weekend traffic would be higher along the populous concrete ribbon I take today.

I-95 on this post-rush-hour morning was moving pretty quickly.  The traffic was right in that awkward danger zone:  clear enough to get some decent speed, but with just enough traffic to force the speed demons to zig-zag erratically.  The morning was also a bit windy which added a couple of difficulty points to the high-speed idiot avoidance.   Clearing Baltimore, I hit rough diverted roads that are characteristic of interminable construction.

But it was good to be on the road.  Interstate or not, the month of August was spent missing the road I had ridden for the month of July.  As the miles clicked by, I was surprised (despite living in Maryland the last 20-odd years) just how close Philadelphia and New York really are.  My late start worked out well, not only missing Baltimore’s hour, but putting me in proximity of Philly around lunch time.  I decided that having a realPhilly Cheesesteak was in order.

Taking the I-495 by-pass past Wilmington, I pulled off for gas on US-13.  I stood in the parking lot of the Sunoco station memorizing the Philadelphia inset of my atlas as two girls in a beat up sedan met up with a particularly seedy looking character for some seemingly illicit purpose.  As the three of them pulled away, I went into the store and queried the turbin-clad clerk where the “famous cheesesteak place” in Philly would be.  After establishing the fact that I was indeed aware I was not in Philadelphia, I learned that needed to go to South Street — somewhere near 4th and 5th.  I left the store and finished my Red Bull in time to see the girls return, dropping off their seedy passenger who ambled back across the street.  I saddled up, and headed toward Philly. 

I had only been to Philly once before, and then at night when someone else was driving, so I didn’t really have a feel for the navigability of the town.  It turns out to be surprisingly accessible.  From I-95 northbound: Exit 17, up Broad Street, and you are right in the middle of the action.  I hadn’t appreciated just how cool Philadelphia is.  The whole route of Broad street is “city neighborhood”… curious shops, restaurants, and local flavor for block after block.  It was a continuous route of the kind of quirky old-city ambiance that other cities only offer in small niches.  Finding South Street was a snap, and the ambiance became even more ecclectic and more concentrated.  The street was narrow and crowded, but traffic moved reasonably well this mid-Friday and finding a parking spot for the motorcycle was easy. 

I was parked right across from Jim’s Steaks but I was thinking the name of the place I was looking for was Geno’s — and I didn’t see it as I rode in, so I continued on foot a few blocks further and doubled-back as far.  Finally I asked a guy on the street where the “famous Philly Cheesesteak place” was.  “That depends.” he said, “It’s a matter of preference.”  I queried him about Geno’s.  It turns out Geno’s is the place that is popular with the ladies.  It has “all the lights”, and a gold star where Sylvester Stallone stood in the filming of Rocky.  He figured that the girls were the only reason a guy would go there.  But his favorite was Jim’s – which was right across from my bike.  I headed back and Twitpic’d the place before going in.  After spending a few minutes fiddling with my cell phone, I walked in to find myself in line right behind my man-on-the-street cheesesteak advisor, Mark.  It turns out my query made him hungry for a Jim’s Steak. 

Mark - Philly Steak Consultant

Mark - Philly Steak Consultant

We sat down at a table upstairs to enjoy our steaks, and I got the low down on the cheesesteak scene of Philly.  Geno’s, as you may gather, has the reputation, but the best places appear to be Jim’s and Pat’s (which is right across from Geno’s), and there seems to be quite the heated rivalry.  The citizen’s of Philadelphia are quite passionate about their steaks.  Mark indicated that had he been there with his buddies, they’d be actively arguing the Jim versus Pat merits as they ate.  I also learned the proper city-wide protocol for ordering a Philly steak. 

"Whiz-with"

"Whiz-with"

There are two basic options… the cheese (which is classically Cheez Whiz)and the  fried onions.  So the “proper” order is a simple two word phrase denoting your cheese selection (Whiz, American, or whatever) and whether you want onions (with or without).  So mine was “Whiz with” – no other words needed.  Apparently, there is a place that publishes the rules on the ceiling (I think Pat’s) and they request that you go to the back of the line until you can figure that out, in true Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” style.

I had seen surprisingly few bikes on the road on my way up, but as fate would have it, Mark was a biker as well.  Though riding a sportbike today, he had (has?) a Harley police bike that his father received in his retirement from the force.  We talked for a while about bikes, cheesesteaks, and the glitterati that frequent Jim’s (most of which have signed photos decking the walls)

Bidding my new friend good-bye, I headed out.  Heading north on 5th street, finding I-95 north was not too problematic, and I was on my way.  The area northeast of Philly was rather industrial and did not make for a very scenic ride.  While the wind had let up, the road construction got worse and the cagers were fast and erratic, but that improved a bit as I crossed into New Jersey.  Of course, that transition was a bridge with a completely inaccessible ABC sign as I entered the state.

The plan had been to plow through I-95 until Rhode Island , but I encountered a rather disconcerting sign saying: “End I-95”  (What the ___? ) I pulled off at US-206 to check the map.  From that point on, through New York City, the map showed a complete cluster of concrete.  I opted instead to head north on US-206, hoping for a saner, more enjoyable ride and hopefully an easy access to a post office to secure my NJ ABC point.

Heading up US-206 was surprisingly pleasant.  My perception of New Jersey had been heavily based upon the Joe Piscapo Saturday Night Light character and countless movies portraying NJ as a big chemical plant.  So the sylvan sub-suburbia of US-206 between Trenton and Princeton was a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, traffic slowed to a crawl behind a semi travelling 10 to 20 mph under speed right after Princeton, and the suburbia kind of lost its quaint ambiance.  I did manage to find a post office for my NJ point.  Eventually I hit I-278 and was actually glad to be back on the interstate to make some time.  The traffic was again fast and erratic, but eventually gave way to a well-behaved flow. 

I loosely figured to stay on I-278 until it crested to the north, then pick up the New State Thruway, but at last minute I opted for the exit prior and I took a break at a Starbucks on US-202.  While enjoying an iced cafe mocha, I noticed that US-202 would take me all the way to Danbury, CT avoiding both interstate and New York City. 

Heading up US-202 proved to be a great choice.  Lots of great sweeps, a fair amount of twisties, smaller towns with a lot of character, and some beautiful scenery both over and through the Hudson River Valley. 

Hudson River Valley

Hudson River Valley

Peekskill was an interesting town to ride through — part “Old Town” and part “distributed community” with the occasional business sited wihout neighbors along the forested route .  I kept thinking something really cool would materialize that would compel me to stop… but oddly it never did. 

As I rode past homes tucked away in the trees, I occasionally caught the smell of charcoal lighter fluid, which became the intermittent scent of hot grills, followed by the sporadic whiffs of burgers, steaks, and BBQ chicken.  I stopped at the Connecticut border for my ABC point and decided Danbury would be my next stop for dinner. 

I found Molly Darcy’s a short while later.  Not a lot of ambiance from the outside, but a comfortable Irish bar on the inside.  I found an open seat at the back bar and reviewed my atlas to plan the rest of the evening’s ride hoping to at lease make some progress across Connecticut before stopping for the night. 

The bartender, Alan, was an Ireland native and a rider.  But his work schedule and kids’ visitation schedule prohibits him from many long rides.  I ordered a shepherd’s pie and Guinness, and we talked about rides and rallies while I waited for dinner. 

The meal was good, but it made me tired.  I originally planned to be in Rhode Island by now.  But I was logy and the bar had wifi, so I called in a reservation at the Comfort Suites I had passed on the way in, ordered another Guinness, and retired to the front patio with my laptop to blog and people-watch. 

Struck with writer’s block, I wrote, erased, drank, wrote, erased… most of the evening until my battery finally died, at which point I went back into the bar to commune with the locals.  I talked with Allen for a while longer, and met up with an interesting couple out on a business/social evening who enjoyed people-watching (with social commentary).  I sat and talked with them observing the bar dynamics until it grew much later than I planned.  Saying my good-byes, I rode back up the street to check into the hotel and get some sleep.