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Nothin’ Could be Fine-ah June 7, 2009

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Than to be in Carolina in …     Ribeyes Steakhouse

LRO and LCROSS are all set to launch out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 17th, and I am heading to Florida for the Flight Readiness Review on the 10th.  Instead of flying down, I took the opportunity to ride the Harley.  I broke the trip into three legs – the first stop in Lillington, NC.

Am sitting in Ribeyes Steakhouse, the same wonderful establishment from my Columbus Day ride.  I love this place.  The salad bar is a carnivores dream (or at least my ideal)  — it’s small but with everything I could want.  My “salad”: lettuce, shredded cheese, ham, real bacon, hard-boiled eggs, onions, sunflower seeds, croutons, french fried onions, and the creamiest ranch dressing.  Oh yeah!

Having had a significant stomach issues following a 32-oz cowboy cut ribeye a few weeks ago, I chose to me a little more parsimonious in my selection this time.  I debated between the 14 and 16 ounce, and finally went for the 16.  ‘Cept after telling the story of my Columbus Day ride (340-odd miles for a Ribeye’s ribeye) to the barmaid, and the guy at the end of the bar saying “Yeah – I remember that!”,  the chef upgraded me to an 18 ouncer….  I regret to inform you that I am kind of wimping out with half the slab of Pittsburgh-charred cow flesh still sitting there as I very unrealistically hope to get a second wind….

The ride down was generally pretty good.  Excellent weather: warm with sun, very little wind.  Shade was a bit chilly with a jacket, but completely tolerable.  I got on the road much, much later than I had hoped and was a little concerned about making it to Lillington by nightfall.  I pretty much stuck to I-95 hoping for a fast ride but ended up hitting major backups just south of DC and some slow-downs near Richmond, VA.  Looking at my unfinished steak I realize my stop south of Richmond at Hardee’s was a huge mistake.

I hopped off I-95 about 8 miles ahead of the North Carolina boarder onto US-301 to pick up my ABCs-09 picture at the same conveniently-placed North Carolina sign I used in 2008.  As a bonus I picked up my “N” and “G” counties in the same stop.

A few miles down the road I saw a biker waving his arms as he sat in the shade of a roadside tree.  I did a quick U-turn to see if he needed help.  He had stopped for a quick “bio-break” and found his bike unable to start.  Unfortunately, I was at a loss as to how to help.  I offered my cell phone but he already had one.  I hung with him for a while until he got a line on a towing service.  Despite my inability to provide much more than moral support, he thanked me profusely for my willingness to stop to try to help.  With tow truck en route, I got back on the road.

I hopped back onto I-95, near Weston, NC pleased to find beautifully new smooth asphalt with little traffic.  I raced down the interstate making excellent time as my shadow grew longer and longer to my left. 

Reaching Benson, I turned off onto the road to Lillington.  I was thinking the place looked quite pleasant, but smelled of a familiar stink I couldn’t quite remember.  What was it?  Oh, yeah — a chicken coop.  Hmmm, must be a poultry farm nearby… Nope.  It was a semi stacked 8 layers high with live chickens.  The two cars in front of me turned off leaving me following directly behind the cluck-truck  Now, I have followed garbage trucks on my commute into DC many times before, and have to say that the foul stench if a DC sanitation vehicle is truly rivaled by the fowl stench of a poultry wagon.  A few times I saw “something” leaking from the side of the truck.  “Gross!” I thought.  But that was topped by the sight of chickens projectile crapping, literally shooting excrement from their cages.  I tried to back off but was caught in the wake of chicken shit and feathers for several miles until the truck turned off.

Shortly thereafter I was in Lillington.  I pulled into the Mictotel lot, unpacked the bike, and checked in.  I dug thorough my poorly packed luggage to find a clean shirt, cleaned the chicken shit off my jeans, and walked over to Ribeyes….

Columbus Day Weekend – Day 3 January 26, 2009

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I awoke the next morning surprisingly well-rested.   I still didn’t have my Georgia ABCs photo and figured my new friends could use the sleep, so I headed over to the Post Office to get the shot, and gassed up on the way back.  Wishing seriously for a cup holder, I missed out on the gas station French Roast, and made do with the pale brown water the motel office was serving as coffee.  Heading back to my room I stopped by to roust my fellow riders, who were in the throes of their morning routines. 
ABC Clayton, GA

Getting my bike packed, I became increasingly aware of one of the obvious differences between riding alone and riding in a group… Getting an early start.  Several cups of Days Inn java later, we were ready to find breakfast; after a couple false starts we ended up at the Waffle House.  

As time passed, my objectives for the day became simpler: ride the Dragon’s Tail and make it as close to Maryland as I could by sundown.   I did add one 16-mile deviation to get an ABC’s photo of Union County, GA to replace my Union County, PA shot of questionable readability.  (I was due to collect exactly the number of points I needed to get all the free ABCs crap, and I didn’t want to chance missing it by one point for a bad photo.)  Fortunately my new friends were just looking to ride anywhere, so they were fine with the detour. 

We finally left Clayton at about 10:30, heading west on US 76W, and I again learned some things about riding in a group — namely that I ride a hell of a lot slower than these guys.  They ride together pretty casually, generally just trying to keep each others’ headlights and taillights in sight, but I was clearly the slowpoke. 

Wendy's wet and wild??

Interesting to see a new spin on Wendy's so far into the Bible Belt.

One of the guys, Tim, rode sweep behind me, so I still had some semblance of riding in a group.  They were right about the roads though:  good condition, beautiful scenery, nice wide curves.  We kept heading west;  US76W turned into US76 crossing Lake Burton.  Whereas most folks heading for the Tail would have probably taken SR17/515 out of Georgia, we stayed on US76 through Jacksonville, south of which I was able to get my Union County shot.   We kept on to Blairsville where we had a coffee exchange at a local gas station.   Advantage of riding in a group:  drinking coffee and warming up before the next leg isn’t as boring when you have cohorts to talk to.

From US76 we picked up US19 north on the west end of Blairsville.   About 4 miles into North Carolina, US19 met up with US64.  I think that was the location of a really cool set of markets:  woodcarvings, metalwork, furs, food… It was really busy with throngs of people walking about.  I tried to get my bearings so I could remember to come back.  Disadvantage of riding with a group:  it is tougher to stop and see stuff you didn’t know was there when you planned the route.   We continued up US19 to Topton where we picked up US129 heading north on to the Dragon. 

If you’ve not heard of the Tail of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, it is a stretch of US129 at the boarder between North Carolina and Tennessee.  What makes this road special is that it is a narrow two lane highway with 318 turns in 11-miles.  I have no idea why any civil engineer would build such a road, nor why traffic is completely unrestricted (imagine meeting a semi on a road that challenges the manueverability of a motorcycle… or, just check out the below video posted on youtube by Zenbeer). 

At the south end of the Tail is the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort.  We pulled in admidst a myriad of bikes from little rice burner sport bikes to V8 customs.  The resort consists of some long buildings of rooms that would generously be described as rustic.   They were more like “camping rooms” from the little I saw through open doors.  The remainder of the resort consists of a gift shop selling the “official” T-shirts, pins, stickers, and other Dragon crap and a large cafeteria.  There was also a guy set up across the road selling his own brand of Dragon memorabilia. 

Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort

The weather was warming quite a bit, becoming a PERFECT riding day.  Lagging the cold climate back home, the leaves here were just changing color and were still on the trees.  The sun was out and the air was mildly breezy.  It was actually getting almost too warm to just stand in the sun.  I packed in my chaps and heavy gloves and checked out the other bikes.   There were three V8 Boss Hogs there: strange gargantuan machines I hadn’t seen before.  I don’t know that the photo does justice to their girth — but I imagine being bow-legged would help ride. 

Boss Hog

One of three Boss Hogs.

 The remainder were a bit more “typical” of what you’d see on the street – except that nearly every type of bike seemed to be there — sport bikes, cruisers, dresser;  all makes and models.  The riders were as varied.  There were young men in full racing leathers on performance bikes who were quite obviously there to create the greatest possible challenge for themselves.  I guess the biggest problem with doing the Dragon’s Tail like a bat out of hell on a Ducati is that everyone else on the road isn’t.  I had been advised by my new friends to just try to ignore them.  While this advice is strangely similar to that my mother gave me about bullies in elementary school, it’s actually the right approach.  Just focus on the road, the ride, and not hitting anything as you come around the scores of  blind corners.   Most of the riders, though, were guys just out to test their mettle against the Tail as it is.  A lot brought their wives and/or girlfriends as passengers.

Tree of ShameThe remaining resort attraction, apart from the Tail itself is the Tree of Shame: a living memorial to the victims of the Dragon.  It is a large tree hung with fenders, mirrors, crutches, helmets, handle bars, steering wheels, pipes, and other remembrances of crashes.   I figured that no part of my bike would look good up there, so I decided I’d better not screw up…

After looking around and hitting the gift shop to pick up  T-shirts, stickers, and pins, we were ready to go.  I stowed my purchases; donned my jacket, skid lid, and favorite gloves; looked to my posse; and we started our engines.  Right about that time was a mini exodus of sportbikes; it was good to have them in front of us rather than behind.  We pulled onto the tail and got off to a slow start behind what looked to be a BMW.  I was amazed that anyone would be going slower than I.  In a tamer part of the beginning we passed him, to again be slowed by a sport bike with a passenger.   The rest of my group sped around them.  As we got into the tail, I’m guessing the rider ahead was getting his feel and started speeding up, keeping a pace that pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone to keep up — which was perfect.  Using him as my pace-car and his tail light as my corning alert, I sped through the Tail.  It was amazing.  The road is marked 30 mph, but of course it is virtually impossible to sustain that speed.  I did manage a few periods over 40 mph (per my GPS log), and more or less averaged 30, which don’t imagine is too bad for a noob.

Killboy.com shot of me on the Dragon.

Killboy.com shot of me on the Dragon.

The ride is a sustained adenaline rush.   Of the 11 mile length of the tail about 9 of which is to the overlook where we stopped.  An average speed of 30 mph means of 18 long, contiguous minutes of life-or-death concentration from the resort to the overlook.  I had about three “oh shit” moments, feeling some brief skids and general instability, but even in those situations, you are afforded only seconds to contemplate your error and what you narrowly avoided before your concentration is forced onto the hazards immediately ahead of you.  With each turn, a little more adrenaline pumps into your system, and which each close call… a lot more.  Stopping is not an option.  Any safe harbors come up and go by so fast that when you see someone actually parked you can’t help but think “How the hell did they see that in time to stop?”  and “How the hell are they going to get out of there without getting hit?”  No, in this way the Tail is like hell:  When you find yourself in the middle of it, keep on going…

deals-gap-overlook-pan1

3-shot Panoramic of the Little Tennessee River from the Overlook.

…Until you arrive at the summit.  The overlook at Deal’s Gap is beautiful, made even more so by the fact that you are hopped up on adenaline and not wrapped around a tree.  I can’t remember the last time in the last decade I was so viscerally stoked.  I felt the thrill of facing real danger and riding through it.  It didn’t (and doesn’t) matter how many others ride that road — that was my experience, my risk, my rush, my achievement.  It was incredible.  I was feeling top o’ the world. 

My friends had made it to the overlook not too much before me.  We walked to the south side of the road to relax on the short stone wall overlooking the Little Tennessee River just upstream of the Calderwood Dam.   The sun was bright and the wind a bit gusty.   It was a great place to let the adenaline subside, taking in the broad landscape.  We talked for a while, and said our good-byes.  They headed back down the Dragon to go ride the Cherohala Skyway, while I finished the last (easy) mile and a half of the Dragon heading north.  I pulled over along a wide part of the Little Tennessee to plan my route.  It was bit anticlimatic and solitary sitting in a gravel parking lot by the river thumbing through the Atlas.  I was still a little stoked about the Dragon and I would have preferred to ride the Cherohala and finish the day with a few beers in good company.  But exploring the country alone on my bike is how I ride, and I settled back into that reality.

topodrag

My plan was to get as close to home as I could manage before sundown, and at some point before leaving the state, get my ABC shot of Tennessee for my 66th and final point of 2008.  I figured I’d continue north on US129 to US411, and take that east until I could pick up US66/SR66 north to I-40.  I thought that would be my best nearly-direct route out of Tennessee and completely avoid Knoxville.  (Not that I had a problem with Knoxville; I needed to make good time and avoid city traffic.)  It was a good plan — until I decided to attempt a short cut taking SR338 to SR66 but instead took a wrong turn and ended up on US441 north, straight into Knoxville.  Going with the flow, I figured I could pick up I-40 about a third of the way into the city and still make good time… NOT.  The I-40 east bound ramp was closed and I was set on the most asinine detour, taking me straight through to the north side of Knoxville via I-275, then clockwise around the city on I-640 until meeting up with I-40 on the east end.  I was so pissed.  I was stuck in packed urban interstate traffic and losing daylight. 

knoxville-detour

A ridiculously frustrating error and detour lost me about an hour of daylight.

By the time I got moving on I-40, my shadow was getting long , the temperatures were falling and my tank was getting empty.   I continued on picking up I-81 near Dandridge pressing north.  I only made it to Bull Run (which was more of an exit ramp than a town) when I had hoped to be in Virginia.  And to make matters worse, I didn’t pass a single official sign denoting that I was in Tennessee:  not one ABC photo op.  I ended up staying in what I think was a Super 8 on the Bull Run exit.  I asked the clerk if there were any bars in the area.  He named a place a few miles west on US11E, but warned me that it was “a little rough”.  I told him “So am I” and headed out only to find that it was closed on Sundays.  But by the looks of the place and the mountain of cans in the dumpster, I’d say he was probably right. 

I headed back to the hotel and sought dining advice.  Of course on an exit ramp, the fare tends to run along the lines of chain-food.  But there was one promising sign — Tony’s Barbecue.  The hotel clerk said that the food “won’t kill ya”, which at this point was the best I could hope for.  I rode up the lane to find the place; only it was more than just a restaurant.  It was a combination restaurant, towing, and auto wrecking business.  Given my penchant for local flavor, I thought things were looking up. 

The place was a friendly little dive which seemed to only be accidentally frequented by the occassional weary traveller.  (I was one of two patrons.) I’d guess the service staff was Tony’s kids, and the cook was probably his wife.  I placed my order, opened my Atlas and contemplated yet again how bizarre and freeing it is on the road, and how fortunate I am to live a life that allows such experiences.  My waiter was sociable and keen to ask questions about my ride until my food was ready.  I had a pork barbecue sandwich with beans and sweet tea.  I admit, it was the best pork barbecue I had ever had in an auto wrecking yard, and true to the hotel clerk’s word — it didn’t kill me.

Columbus Day Weekend – Day 2 November 2, 2008

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I awoke the next morning in my tiny euro-styled Microtel room.  Rain gear and leathers were still draped about and all dried.  Flicking through the TV stations, I found a local weather report.  I and my upcoming ride were right on the sunny edge of a rainy front.  Today would be South Carolina and Georgia. (I had seriously toyed with the idea of pressing on to Alabama – but fortunately came to my senses.)  If I could make good time heading west, before dipping south into SC, I figured I should avoid any rain, and the temperatures should be reasonable.  I repacked my saddle bags, cold gear at the bottom, rain gear on top, and got the bike packed. 

Pulling out I glanced at the nearby Waffle House thinking a waffle and coffee would be a good warm start on the chilly morning, but I still was still kind of full from last night’s rib-eye.  I headed out in the wrong direction following the bad advice of the hotel clerk who sent me 5 miles out of my way looking for the road I was already on.  After getting my bearings, I headed back, passing the hotel and turning south on NC27 through Lilliington and then west on to Charlotte, NC.   The whole route was spent riding straight for the edge of the weather.  On my left, ominous grey clouds; on my right, perfect blue skies.  The ride was pleasant enough, though generally unremarkable.  I rode though a lot more depressed areas and more cotton fields.  In Charlotte, I picked up US29 which took my to I-85.  The scenery gradually improved as I headed west, with more hills and forests. 

I rode into South Carolina on I-85, stopping briefly to get my ABCs Touring picture, and soon left the interstate for more local roads.  Near Gaffney, I got off I-85 and onto SC11, the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, continuing west.  Definitely well-labeled as scenic, this road was a great ride, and I had made it sufficiently far west that the weather line was no longer much of a threat.   The temperatures were up and SC doesn’t have an helmet law (over age 21), so I stowed the jacket and helmet and had a wonderful ride though the South Carolina countryside with the wind in my hair.

Monument at Cowpens Nat'l Battlefield.

Monument at Cowpens Nat'l Battlefield

I stopped at Cowpens National Battle field, a Revolutionary War site where the South Continental Army defeated the British in 1781 in a battle that (according to the visitor’s center) turned the tide of the Revolutionary War causing the British to give up on attempting to take the south.  In the gift shop I bought a “Passport to [my] National Parks” – yet another “collection” activity in which one collects date-stamps from National Parks across the country.  As if I needed a reason to ride… I now have another.  I also bought a copy of George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, 110 little maxims of advice that are generally as true today as they were in 1746, when the 14-year-old Washington wrote them down from French translations.   The battlefield had a short loop ride which looked pretty much like the rest of the countryside.  The walking tours would have burned a little too much daylight, so I circled through on the bike and kept heading west on SC11. 

About 5 miles west of Chesnee I happened upon a large orchard and farmer’s market with such extravagant signage, I thought I had actually entered outskirts of the town of Strawberry Hill.  I pulled in for some fresh local produce and was greeted by a very friendly stout woman who was quite proud of their harvest.  She had me try the Asian pears – which besides apples and pumpkins appeared to be the only thing in season.  I had never seen or had one before.  They looked more like apples than pears.  They were very firm, but juicy and sweet with a subtle pear flavor.  She had me sold on them and I bought a bag, along with a pint each of strawberry and blackberry ciders (which I am just finishing up as I type.)  I shuffled things around in my bags to make room without bruising the pears too badly, or cooking them with my exhaust pipes, and kept riding west. 

Such happy, stylin', and patriotic fruit in S. Carolina.

Such happy, stylin', and patriotic fruit in S. Carolina.

The scenery just kept getting better and better; forests rising up into mountains, beautiful rock faces overlooking shaded lush valleys.  Riding the ribbon of asphalt through the beautiful fall countryside is what biking is all about, and I started thinking about tomorrow… There was no way I would even try for Alabama and comfortably be home in time for work on Tuesday.  Fortunately I was able to replan my route without focusing at all on Tuesday, only that I would be in my own bed on Monday, and that all the time from now until then would be spent however I pleased and wherever the bike took me.  I knew I’d make it to Georgia and head straight north to pick up my Tennessee point and head home.  I also knew that route would put me right on course for the ultimate ride in the southeast — the Dragon’s Tail.  It felt good to live the ride. 

At around Devil’s Fork State Park, SC11 turned south, bringing me to US76 which I took to keep moving west toward the northeast corner of Georgia.  Near Westminster, SC I stopped for a quick break and figure out where in Georgia to spend the night.  I tried asking the clerk whether Taccoa or Clayton would be the better place for a drink and dinner, but his dull stare and shrug wasn’t particularly helpful.  I saw a couple of older gentlemen and a younger man near the cafe counter and walked back to get their opinion.   At first they were about as helpful as the clerk – the two older men thinking neither place was a particularly great stop.  The younger man just sat staring with a cold non-emotive intensity, as one may imagine a young Charles Manson looked before he put the Manson Family together.  Well, if Manson were wearing a John Deere baseball cap that is.  Then the opinions started coming together, and I was advised that Clayton would be the better choice.  

It was getting a little chillier as the sun fell lower in the sky, and Georgia has a helmet law.  So I pulled out the leathers and skid lid, and headed up US76 to Clayton.  Crossing the Chatooga River into Georgia, the bridge had no safe place to pull over for my Georgia ABCs point picture, so I pressed on to Clayton.  I arrived pretty early in the evening with a good amount of light left and immediately found the Days Inn.  Again reticent to stay in a chain, but wanting to be close to food and drink, I circled around a bit before resigning myself to the Days.  I checked in, and was given a ground floor unit in the back, near a group of motorcycles. 

As I was getting unpacked, two other bikers were getting their bikes set for the night.  They were from Macon, up to ride the local area.  Apparently, the southern half of Georgia doesn’t offer a great riding experience, but up here there is “not a bad road anywhere”.  This was apparently their normal starting point for their weekend rides.  We talked for a while as I unloaded.  They gave a thumbs-up recommendation for the Mexican restaurant there in the same building as the motel.   We talked about rides – the Dragon, the Cherohala Skyway, my journey for steak and ABC points… I gave them a couple of my Asian pears, and headed out in search of a decent watering hole, figuring I may see them in the Mexican place later that night.

The bar I found was a gas station — literally.  It had been converted with minimal changes.  Most of the seating is in the repair bays.  The bar is where the counter would have been.  And the business-side of the bar is where the office and storage would have been.  The restrooms are the original station commodes, outside at the back of the building.   I ordered a beer and sat out front where an assortment of concrete benches and patio furniture populated the area where gas pumps had once been.  It was a pretty cool place — but I sensed the food would be less than “fulfilling”, and the Mexican place I heard about earlier was working its way into a craving.  The evening was just beginning to get dusky — cool but very pleasant.  I sat watching people and enjoying my beer, then headed back to the motel. 

Overexposed cell phone picture of the Station.

Upon my return, the bikers I spoke to before were just returning from a supply run at the local liquor store, and asked me if I’d like a drink.  I grabbed my emergency bottle of Jack Daniels from my saddle bags (you never know when you’ll be stuck in a dry county) and a coke from the vending machine and headed over.  There were three of them in their group.  We hung out in front of the rooms drinking and talking about bikes, rides, life, and work until the sun disappeared, then headed over to the Mexican restaurant.  I guess Georgia is not the best state for good Mexican food — but I was hungry, so it was good for me at that moment.  After filling up on two baskets of chips and salsa (which had to be doctored with their hottest hot sauce), some (way too mild) enchiladas, a couple of corona’s and a mediocre margarita – we headed back to our motel drinking positions for a few more drinks and conversations.  They offered to join me on the Dragon’s Tail the next morning, and I was happy to have guides.   We decided not to set a time, but whoever was first up would wake the others. 

Back in my room, I was so ready to go to sleep.   Stepping in I found the light was burned out, so I fumbled my way in the dark to the light near the bed.  Turning it on, I startled a cockroach on the wall who, quick as lightening, jumped onto the night stand, onto the alarm clock, and down into one of the buttons.  Hmmm…. Mental note: be wary of mediocre motels that share buildings with mediocre restaurants.  Knowing there is never just one, and realizing there was no reason to suspect any other room would be any better, I called the front desk and negotiated a discount.  Also thinking the worst thing would be for me to leave with roaches in my luggage, I took the pears out of my bag and moved them to the other end of the room.  

As I lay in bed, I wondered if my six-legged roomie was content to stay in his little clock radio house, but then my mind drifted to the ride.  I was kind of awed by trip:  that just two nights ago I was home in Maryland; that just last night I was gorging myself on steak in North Carolina; that I had roamed the countryside of South Carolina to be here in Georgia having drinks, dinner, and conversation with three new friends; and that tomorrow I would ride the infamous Dragons Tail.  Through it all my biggest concerns were the road in front of me, the weather over my head, and where I was going to rest.  Life is good on the road.

Columbus Day Weekend – Day 1 October 30, 2008

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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.