Wednesday 23 October 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part III - Southward Bound

Private race track.

Part III of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part I and Part II


I wake up at dawn the next day to clear skies and mild temperatures, a marked improvement from the previous day's conditions. It gave me the opportunity to wander the property in silence and take some better photos of the track and the estate. I adhered to the Lone Canuck stereotype, rising early and quietly taking in the beauty of the natural surroundings in the morning light while everyone else slept. Nobody needs to know that I was also checking my emails. I'll just let you imagine me silently gliding across a mist covered lake in a birch bark canoe, nobly surveying my surroundings.

Alan's property is situated on rolling hills surrounded by picturesque farmland and modest houses. While his buildings are far from ostentatious, his setup is a significant step above the nearby homes (even without the track). There certainly must have been a bit of jealousy involved when the local community took him to court to block his plans to build a race track, citing noise, safety, and zoning concerns. He eventually won after a lengthy legal battle, but the point was made that the neighbours were not impressed. The nearby Interstate makes far more racket than activity on the track ever would, so as far as I'm concerned the noise argument is a moot point. In any case they maintain a 7 pm curfew on track activity.
Property in Upstate New York.

Tempted though I was to try out the track, I abstained. I have no track experience and did not want to tempt fate at the outset of a long journey using my only mode of transportation. The track wasn't exactly a go-kart loop either - it's a highly complex course with blind corners, sharp transitions, tricky camber and elevation changes, and a narrow surface. Peter noted that despite a great deal of experience and the short length he still finds it a proper challenge. I took that as reason enough not to try my luck. "I am a Road Person", I thought to myself, paraphrasing Hunter S. Thompson in my head.
Property in Upstate New York.

I packed up my gear and prepared to set out. My next destination was a state park just past Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

My rough planning set out a goal of approximately 300-350 miles per day, about the upper limit of comfortable riding for me on the 916. Most Ducati Superbike owners would cringe at the idea of going more than 50 miles, but after riding the thing for seven years I've grown accustomed to the seating position and 200-300 mile days are easy. You must learn to hold your weight up with your core muscles and keep the pressure off your wrists - that's proper sport riding technique anyway. Keeping a limitless stock of ibuprofen is also a good idea. The last time I did a properly long trip on this bike I ran a couple of 600 mile days to make up time, and vowed never to make that mistake again. Coincidentally I took up smoking as a daily habit right around that time I rode to Cape Breton and back.

The motorcycle museum.

My routes were fairly direct, mostly interstate. Nothing exciting, as I had to be in Alabama in five days and I didn't have time to explore too many backroads. That being said I left a certain amount of leeway in my planning to allow for some exploring, alternate routes, or dealing with the unforeseen. Being the luddite that I am I relied on my tried-and-true method of navigation - printing routes off Google Maps and scribbling pace notes on scraps of paper to stuff into the top of my tankbag. I mapped out the entire journey well in advance, but without making any prior reservations so I could just do whatever the hell I wanted and not worry about being in East Blunderfudge County by 5pm for check-in at the Bates motel.

So it was that on Monday morning I looked at my map and said "fuckit" and redrew my route westward to avoid passing through southern New York and New Jersey.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the Interstate was going to take me close to New York City and that sounded like a recipe for horrific traffic. I scribbled a new western route on the map and hit the road around 8am with the sun shining and the temperature in the teens.

Upstate New York property.

I cut south along the Taconic State Parkway then west along I-84, with nothing much to note except a horrific car wreck being cleaned up by State Troopers. Soon I crossed into Pennsylvania, and things started getting interesting.

By this point the sky had clouded over and the temperature had started dropping noticeably. That pleasant fall morning was giving way to bleary grey day that is misery to ride through, particularly on dull Interstate routes. Just as I pulled into a sleepy off-highway community for gas it started raining. Damn. Time to squeeze into the rain suit and look like a dolt hopping around on the side of the road. Again.

I filled up and headed back for the freeway, sliding my front end across the thickly-painted centrelines. Sometimes I think my lack of reaction time makes me appear more skilled than I actually am. The best reaction to a squirrelly machine is usually no reaction, maintaining steady input and a relaxed grip on the controls. Before I have time to react the front regains traction and I continue on my merry way as if I had intended to slither sideways across the road -meanwhile I was secretly thanking whatever combination of luck, physics and chassis dynamics had managed to keep me from lowsiding in the middle of a small Pennsylvania town.

Rain in Pennsylvania

Things soon went from bad to worse. I quickly discovered that unlike many US states, Pennsylvania has utterly atrocious roads that rival Quebec for their sheer filling-rattling, suspension-bottoming, rim-mangling treacherousness. I ran into one stretch that had longitudinal crevices running for miles at a time, where the road had chipped away under the wheel ruts in the lanes. The first section I absent-mindedly rode straight into sent my steering into a full lock-to-lock tankslapper - something that has never occurred before on my Ducati. If the road is bad enough to send a 916 into a pants-wetting headshake, you know you are dealing with some seriously bad surfacing.

Then came the grooved pavement, which combined with the rain and steady traffic made the next 20 miles absolutely terrifying. The bike was weaving significantly on the deep grooves and I could feel that I had barely any traction across the slick graded surface. I kept my distance from cars and my inputs gentle as I skated across the pavement. Fun it was not.

The weather cleared briefly and I stopped in Scranton for lunch before heading south on I-81. When I left the restaurant a local fellow commented that I was about to get hit with some serious weather. I smiled and said "oh I know, I passed through it on the way here"

Problem was that wasn't the weather they were referring to, which I soon found out the hard way.

Leaving Scranton the rain started again, but this time it meant business. Within a few miles conditions went from shower to torrential deluge with strong winds. Visibility was down to less than a hundred feet. When I lost sight of the tailights of the car I was following, I had a pang of realization: if I can't see the car in front of me, the guy behind me sure as hell can't see my worthless Italian brake lights. I turned on my turn signals and desperately scanned for the nearest exit to get the hell off the Interstate until visibility improved.

Motorcycles waiting out the rain in Pennsylvania.

I spotted a couple of Harleys parked at the nearest underpass, and pulled up behind them. As I got off the bike one of the riders walked up to me and greeted me in French. A bit stunned to hear anything other than English in Pennsylvania, I glanced at their license plates: New Brunswick. My home province. I greeted them and told them I was from NB as well. They asked me where I was from, and holy small world it turned out we were all from Moncton. We exchanged pleasantries and sat down to wait out the rain.

After a few minutes I got tired of waiting and hit the road again, wishing my hometown compatriots well on their journey. They seemed a bit stunned to meet another Canadian on the road, particularly one riding an old Italian sport bike equipped with luggage, in the rain, claiming he was heading for New Orleans. That would become the most common reaction I would encounter when I met people along the way and informed them where I had come from and where I was heading. I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy the shock value of the trip and my poor choice of equipment.

The rain is steady but not as violent as before. Visibility is acceptable but now I'm properly soaked, as is the bike. I had the good sense to install waterproof liners in my luggage, which happened to look remarkably like the clear plastic trash bags they give out for recycling in Montreal. The fact that Nelson-Riggs charges an extra 20$ for optional rain covers is laughable.

Funny enough I've never had issues with riding my Duc in the rain and do it quite regularly - one of the first things I did when I bought it was clean and grease every single electrical connection, a good bet to avoid the breeding of eye-talian gremlins. That being said the temperature gauge stopped working, the first of several problems I would encounter along the way.

I pulled off at Minerstown, a tiny town that looks exactly like you would imagine - a simple but tough looking little community surrounded by hills and winding roads. I encountered a State Trooper parked at the side of the road with gumballs lit, and was so distracted by his presence that I nearly ran straight into the foot-deep pond in the middle of the road that he was trying to warn people about.

I stopped at the town's sole gas station to fill up and warm up with a coffee. Sitting under the awning watching the rain fall and the locals come and go, one of the clerks came out to empty the trash and started chatting me up. She asked where I was heading. "Harrisburg, then Virginia tomorrow". She cocked her head and looked at me intensely "Are you crazy? There is a tornado warning!" Whoops, guess the weather was worse than I thought. I duly noted the warning, finished my coffee and hit the Interstate again. If I'm going to get sucked up by a twister, I'd prefer it to happen on the road, not sitting at a rural gas station twiddling my thumbs.

Sure enough a few miles down the road I realized why there was a tornado warning in effect. Riding along I suddenly felt a significant change in temperature, at least 5 degrees within the span of a few seconds. I had passed right across the barrier between two temperature fronts. These are the sorts of details you will miss while driving in a car. Motorcycling is always an intense sensory experience in ways that are not necessarily apparent.

At this point I've cancelled the plans for camping in my mind - what I desperately want at that moment is a hot shower and a hearty meal. I stop in Carlisle and grab an offramp hotel room, which is exorbitantly priced considering the beautiful location right within earshot of the interstate - I've paid less for suites downtown in major cities. But I am in no mood to hunt down a better deal (which is likely the basis of their entire pricing strategy) and resign myself to paying too much money, vowing I wouldn't make the same mistake twice - continental breakfast be damned.

After laying out my gear to dry and having that magnificent shower I was so desperately craving, I wander off in search of food. I find a simple pizza joint in a strip mall about a mile away and enjoy a slice of delicious grease-slicked pepperoni the size of my face with a root beer for less than 3 bucks. Two things strike you as remarkably cheap in the US when you are from Canada - food, and gas. In rural areas I was filling up for under 3$ a gallon, the most expensive places were around 3.80$. Listening to the locals complain about the high price of gas was cute when you are used to paying 1.40$ a litre for regular, which works out to 5.30$ per US gallon. And you guys thought 4 bucks was the end of the world.    

The next day I wake up early and head down to raid the breakfast spread. I want to be damned sure I get my money's worth. Of course I don't, but I amuse myself making a rubbery waffle with a self-serve contraption, which is remarkably devoid of safety features considering how litigious American society supposedly is. I imagine a plaintiff appearing before the court, a crosshatch pattern branded into his forehead, his lawyer decrying the lack of warnings informing you not to stick you face into the waffle iron.

Ducati 916 leaving Pennsylvania.

I finish my mediocre breakfast and gear up for the day's ride. It's a cool, clear morning, looks like a good day of riding ahead after yesterday's awful weather. I load up my luggage and go to start the bike to let it warm up a bit before setting out. Key on, flick the fast idle button, stab the starter... Womp womp womp womp womp. No ignition. Cycle the key, listen for the fuel pump. Everything seems normal. Try again. Womp womp womp womp. Still nothing. I can smell fuel charge wafting out of the exhausts, which means I'm getting plenty of fuel - in fact I suspect it's getting too much, and it is probably flooded. This is a new problem. I generally don't ride in cold weather much and having the bike stored in a heated parking garage means I've never had to fire it up from dead cold after sitting outside overnight.

I am worried.

I pause and collect my thoughts, put on my helmet and adjust the saddlebags. After another minute I try again, this time the bike fires instantly and settles into its normal clattering idle. Definitely flooding the motor, once it had a chance to evaporate it started right up - but why is that? I let the bike warm up and hit the road, my mind turning over the problem that has now presented itself, many miles from home and still a long way from my destination.

Ducati 916 in Roanoke

The morning's ride is otherwise uneventful and takes me through Maryland, West Virginia, and into Virginia. The bike starts and appears to run fine once it is warmed up. Riding through Virginia my odometer clicks over to 34000 miles, exactly 1000 miles into my journey now. I notice a remarkable smell riding through the Shenandoah Valley - something like toasted vanilla with an undercurrent of honey that persisted for over 100 miles. It's subtle but unmistakable, and another example of those extra levels of resolution that riding a motorcycle reveals.

My next stop is Claytor Lake State Park, located off the Interstate just past Roanoke. After overpaying for my accommodations the previous night I'm quite determined to camp this time around.

Camping is one of those activities that I find immensely appealing in my mind, given sufficient time from the last instance of doing it. I need enough time to forget the miserable humid cold at night, the hard, rocky ground, and the bug-addled bathrooms (or shitting in the woods, depending on where you set up camp). Camping for me is a social activity better done with a group of friends and a case of beer (and a gallon of gasoline to keep the fire going). Solo camping is just an exercise in being cheap. I grew up in the country, so nature has a limited appeal for me given my familiarity with it. I enjoy it, I appreciate it, but I don't bow down to some imagined splendour and go camping to pay reverence to the magnificence of the Earth. Not after seeing some of the bugs that inhabit the forest floor. The only advantage to camping in my mind is entertaining your inner hillbilly by getting drunk, setting fires, and shooting guns (if circumstances allow). Unfortunately only one of these three options is available in a State Park, and I'm pretty sure they frown upon the high-test and old tire method of ignition.  

In any case it would be a shame to drag the extra weight of a tent and sleeping bag along with me and not use the damned things.

Ducati 916 in downtown Roanoke.

I stop in Roanoke to grab a snack and pick up something for supper. Driving along a double-nickle section of freeway I notice the bike is surging noticeably at steady throttle around 4000 rpm. Seems in line with my rich starting problem from the morning. Something is definitely amiss.

I head straight to the Claytor Lake after Roanoke and nab a camp site. The campground is well populated and not particularly woodsy. The surroundings are stunning, tall deciduous forests with hiking trails snaking through the leaf-blanketed landscape. But the campsites themselves look like off-highway RV parking lots, nothing more than gravel pits packed tight together in little clusters just off the main road. I was hoping for something a bit more... secluded, but I don't feel like exploring and looking for more remote sites.

Ducati 916 in Claytor Lake state park Virginia.

Once I've unpacked and erected the tent (a Eureka Solitaire, which gets high praise from me for being light, compact, and easy to setup) I get to work doing what every seasoned Ducati owner does best - troubleshooting issues on the side of the road (or campsite, as it were). I suspect that my rain riding might have caused some issues so I start going over the electrical connections, fuses and sensors to look for anything amiss. I discover a melted main fuse which was still functional despite looking like a piece of rock candy, and my coolant union had developed a crack along the mounting point which was cutting the ground to the temperature gauge. I tried to find a short that might explain the melted fuse but everything was clean and well greased. I replaced the cooked fuse and it would remain fine for the remainder of the trip. I suspect that one of the temperature sensors is causing my rich fueling issue, the coolant temperature switch being the most likely culprit as it has the greatest effect on the fuel mixture and has given me trouble in the past. But aside from cleaning the connector and checking the wiring there isn't much I can do at this point.

Ducati melted main fuse.

I notice a truck with Ontario plates parked in the lot next to mine, with a small trailer stowed nearby. An hour after I arrive I hear the distinctive rumble of a V-twin rolling into the camp, and I'm surprised to discover that my neighbour is arriving on a Suzuki SV650. I go up and introduce myself, telling him I wasn't expecting to meet another Canadian on two wheels out here. Turns out that he was on his way to Barber as well, but was being more sensible by driving the boring stretches with his bike in tow, then spending the afternoons exploring local backroads on the SV. Smart, but also a bit lacking in adventure if you ask me. As far as I am concerned a bike should only be carried on a trailer in two instances - when being delivered to a new owner, and when the engine internals have made a break for daylight.

The fellow turns out to be a veteran rider who has been on two wheels since the late 70s and has a great deal of experience in the sport. These are always fun guys to converse with, because they are always brimming with great stories from the road and have seen attitudes and perceptions shift over the decades. He helps me poke around the 916 a bit and lends me some tools, and offers a beer to help expedite the process. I finally give up troubleshooting for the evening and we sit down and start swapping stories.

Working on the Ducati.

Unfortunately, he exhibits the attitude I dread and try to avoid - the arrogant Canadian. This is the same attitude I encountered among my peers before setting out on the trip, which annoyed me to no end - judgmental attitudes towards Americans. This manifested itself when one of our lot neighbours came over to say hello. As he strode over to us, the fellow from Ontario muttered "oh shit, here comes the redneck" under his breath. The man greeted us and invited us to join his family for dinner and drinks. As he walked away my compatriot muttered "I don't want any fucking squirrel stew".

I was angry. This man had just opened his hearth to us and we could have gone over and made some new friends (not to mention gotten some good barbeque). But instead my fellow Canuck had let his prejudices come through, and it put a damper on the rest of the evening for me. Don't get me wrong, he was a great guy and was friendly and fascinating to talk to - with me, the other Canadian. But he clearly didn't want to associate with the locals, which left a bad taste in my mouth. Especially considering I come from an upbringing that would probably fit his "redneck" profile.

One thing I realized while travelling through the South was that it was remarkably familiar - it reminded me of the Maritimes, except with armadillos and funny accents. Simple, friendly, salt of the earth people. They may lack "sophistication" according to certain definitions but they aren't stupid or ignorant, and they certainly aren't threatening. I felt right at home, which is why the knee-jerk naivete of other Canadians before, during and after this journey seriously pissed me off. After spending two weeks down there I came away with a much higher opinion of the people and places in the South, and will never look at them the same way.

Besides, I'll bet squirrels are delicious.

Camping in Claytor Lake Virginia.


  1. Really enjoy reading my son's motor bike adventures. He has an unparalleled way with words!

  2. Great stuff, and yes he does have talent. I see a book in the future!?

  3. Fantastic writing, and a compelling adventure....but:

    Dude, not taking your 916 out on the private track???? WHAT????

    Owning a 916, and then claiming you are a "Road Person"?

    You're not making any sense man.

    What is the point of the 916? I'm not getting this.

    1. I don't have any interest in riding on a track. Pretty simple. I like fast bikes, but I'm not a wannabe racer and make no pretensions towards being one. I just ride.

    2. Hi Jason,

      I enjoy reading your articles, keep it up.

      Quick note regarding your view of taking the 916 to a race track: going round one doesn't mean you're going to race/ride outside your comfort zone. You just ride with no need whatsoever to "push" it above X% (you mark the limit) of your skills. Just take it easy and it will help you become a better rider ;)

      All the best,