Monday, June 15, 2009

Of There and Back Again...

I have allowed myself the luxury of using the title: Of There and Back Again, from J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit'. This first book of his which then led to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, depicts the episodic quest of one Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of some reknown who inhabited Bag's End in The Shire.

To begin, I must offer a summation of this, my latest road trip: It was quite simply the best, most satisfying road trip I have ever taken. And when I say "satisfying", I mean so in a sense where I know this will have been but the first of many such trips to this destination. This journey could best be compared to gulping the first few mouthfulls of chilled water, when working outside on a sweltering day, only to find out you must re-cap the bottle and return to work. Yes... I will definitely be going back for more.

I managed to travel the entirety of the Skyline Drive (105 miles, speed limit of 35mph) and about half of the Blue Ridge Parkway (230 of a possible 469 miles, speed limit of 45mph), which follows it. Don't let the speed limits fool you though. These are very few straight parts to these roadways. You will find yourself hard-pressed to trundle along at the 'maximum speed'. They soar skywards or plunge downwards, twisting and turning like snakes held over an open fire. There are more decreasing-radius turns here than I have ever seen anywhere in my life. For those of you who are not acquainted with these animals, a decreasing radius turn is one where the arc of the curve does not remain nice and smooth as you wheel your way through it. Rather the turn tightens progressively as you wind your way through, forcing you to alter both your speed and lean angle continuously. It's a real treat and guaranteed to keep you alert and on your toes.

I made it to Mile Marker 230 of the BRP. The entire trip to There And Back Again, covered 3,308km. I discovered on the way back that with some hard riding, it is possible to make it from Front Royal, VA to Orleans, ON in one 12 hour stretch. Hence, the reverse must also be true... assuming a departure time of 0730hrs and an arrival time of 2045hrs. This would allow a 15 minute stop for each gas-up and an extended lunch period of some 30 minutes. The remainder of the time is spent on the Interstate, cruising at between 70 and 80mph. Hydration, sun block and adequate protective gear are the order of the day here.

So in theory, I am only ever one day away from being able to enjoy the Skyline Drive and Virginia's Shenandoah National Park all over again. Is such an experience worth 2 days of hard riding? You bet your sweet ass it is... There is a $10.00 (US) admission fee to the park. It is arguably the best $10.00 in any currency, that I have ever spent. It's kinda like paying $10.00 to access an all-you-can-eat buffet for your soul.

I'm not gonna lie and tell you that: "I even enjoyed the Interstate part...". I hate riding on interstates. I'd rather poke sharp sticks into my eyes. For a variety of reasons. The main one is trucks. 18-wheelers to be precise. They block your vision. They spit out rocks and bolts. They litter the highways with large, death-dealing strips of rubber... remnants of exploded retreads. Their very presence can be enough to ruin your day. If you're traveling behind one, the buffeting can drive you crazy and it makes steering a straight line all that much harder. It doesn't take too long before you can sense fatigue setting in. Your only option? Pass him. So you go hurtling past him, canting your bike alternately away from the side of the trailer so you won't get sucked under, then towards to cab as you pass the front, to counter the wall of wind that is trying to blow you into the weeds. So you pass him, only to find an endless line of semi trailers stretching as far as you can see. Aaaaaarrrrrrggghhhh!!!!!!

Time constraints are the only reason most of us will even consider riding on an Interstate. Time permitting, find me a parallel secondary road, even a two-lane blacktop affair headed in the same direction and I'll be happy enough to just toodle along at an assinine 80-90kmh. No hand cramps, no bunched up shoulder muscles, nice and relaxing like it oughtta be... You get to see more of the local countryside as well. It's a lot easier to stop more often, if you're not going that fast to begin with. You miss less, discover more... Chances the are the wildlife you'll see will be... well... wildlife and not road kill.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the Northbound I-81 heading through Pennsylvania, is the carnage it wreaks on the deer population. I had not noticed it so much while heading Southwards, but coming back it reminded me of the fate which awaited Hussein's troops, who had been caught with their loot on the only road heading out of Kuwait. The very aptly named Highway of Death. Where Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland had been rich in the wonderful aromas of wildflowers, trees and plants, Pennsylvania will be best remembered for the ever-present odour of rotting deer carcasses.

Over the next few days, I will attempt to jot down some thoughts on this journey and transcripts from my travel journal, which I faithfully kept while underway. I had a lot of time to myself to think on this trip. To absorb and interpret what I was seeing, experiencing. Rendering it back in the form of a disjointed narrative, in a way which might do it justice, will be a tall order. The wait for this trip to finally take place, has only made it's realisation that much sweeter. In so many of life's instances, our longings and aspirations often lead to disappointment, when finally we get to fulfill them. This has definitely not been such a case. In this instance, the reality of doing has far outstripped every expectation I might have held.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. True, much of that travel was done while under an alcoholic haze, but nonetheless... I do have some very endearing and enduring memories of these trips. This last one however, has topped every journey I have made so far. Including my solo ride from Dartmouth, NS to Daytona Beach, FL in September of 1996. And that... is saying a mouthful.

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