Friday 25 October 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part IV - Wheeling Through Time

Ducati 916 Morning Fog

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

North Carolina

My sleep in Claytor Lake State Park is fitful and uncomfortable. The gravel base of the campsite pokes through my thin sleeping bag, so I resort to wearing my armored gear to pad me against the sharp underlay. I wake up an hour before dawn to a foggy, humid cold, the sort I dread whenever I go camping. It reminded me of camping in the Bay of Fundy one May when it would reach 25 degrees during the day and fall to low single digits at night - a despicable contrast that lures you into comfort during the day before cruelly taking it away every night. It's the kind of wet cold that chills you far more than the actual temperature would suggest, and leaves a thick coating of ice-cold condensation on everything left in the open. That included my boots, which I had put outside the tent to avoid fumigating my tiny quarters with my pungent road foot odour. I had thought that by the time I passed Pennsylvania I would have encountered warmer temperatures, but neglected to note that at night it still gets damned cold in the mountains along the Appalachian Trail.

Fog in Claytor Lake State Park

I quietly pack up my tent and gear by flashlight, waiting for the first light of dawn before I set out. I am the only one awake in the campground, aside from the annoying dog in the lot to my left who would start barking viciously anytime a twig snapped. Once the light begins filtering through the trees I am greeted by the eerie sight of a dense, grey fog blanketing the forest and obscuring the treetops. It is beautiful. But that doesn't mitigate my hatred of that damnable wet cold.

Morning fog

The bike seems to share my sentiments, and is particularly unwilling to start on this morning. That was when I realized I had a problem. If temperatures kept dropping I'd have a hell of a time getting this thing running each morning, so I had to figure out what the issue was and fix it before heading home. I spend several minutes playing with the starter, pausing for 30 second intervals between each attempt. Slowly it would begin coughing and lighting a few times before stalling. After about 5 minutes of finagling it finally bursts into life and settles into a 2000 rpm fast idle, just like the day before in Pennsylvania - once the stars were aligned and the cylinders sufficiently primed but not overly flooded one stab of the starter button would start it instantly and it would run as if there was no problem at all.
Fog in the treetops

This, of course, started rousing the neighbours. I didn't wait long before slipping away, lest I raise the ire of the other campers who got a basso profundo Italian wake-up call at 6 in the morning. Incidentally Sil Moto makes a dandy set of slip-ons. Time to go.

Heading back towards the Interstate to continue my journey I get caught in that thick fog that was descending from the treetops. My visibility was cut to almost nil. Top tip: I was using anti-fog lens cleaning solution to wipe the bugs off my visor and it turned out to be very effective in cold weather, more than any combination of breath guards and anti-fog visors I have used in the past. Still didn't change the fact I couldn't see shit and I was freezing my ass off, but I continued on.
Leaving Claytor Lake

Rather than keep going along I-81 I take a gamble and follow the signs to North Carolina along I-77. Once my hands are properly frozen I pull of at a rural truck stop near the state line to verify my route and grab a cup of coffee. The clerk seemed puzzled by someone asking for directions, apparently this isn't common in the modern era of GPS and smartphones, neither of which I use. She spends a minute rooting around behind the counter before pulling out a dusty road atlas. It clearly had been used a lot in the past, the pages well worn and the binding separated into several parts. But it must have been years since it was last referred to. We map out a route to my next destination, the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, located just past Waynesville near the Tennessee border. Satisfied that I was not lost and now had some semblance of knowing where I was going, I grab a coffee and wait for the fog to dissipate.

As I step out of the station I discover a local man intently examining my bike. He is a lanky fellow wearing black, dusty coveralls, standing next to a clapped-out GMC Sonoma loaded with logs and junk. He quizzes me about the bike - who makes it, where is it from, where are you from, where are you heading, never seen one of those before. I fire it up for him and rev it a few times, always a good way to surprise people unfamiliar with Ducatis - when most people see a sleek, beautiful Italian sport bike they don't expect it to sound like the illegitimate love child of a hyperactive Harley and a concrete mixer full of pennies. 

He is indeed a local, hailing from Floyd VA, which he describes as a "one stoplight town". Despite his backwoodsy appearance he is clearly very intelligent and well spoken. We chat for a few minutes about various topics while he tops off the oil in his truck. He is a perfect example of the sort of simple living but clever person that most city folk would immediately dismiss as an ignorant redneck. He is a character I am very familiar with, having grown up in rural New Brunswick. You don't need a university education to be smart, and I have met plenty of people who were bag-of-bricks dumb but still managed to quote-unquote "earn" a diploma. Having gotten my education and learned how truly worthless an arts degree can be firsthand I have a particular respect for honest labour and genuine intelligence that transcends book learnin'. He wishes me well and drives off. Once again the judgmental naysayers I encountered before setting out are proven wrong. The people down here are great, I'd even say far friendlier than the average Quebecker (perhaps that isn't saying much).

Ducati at rest stop in North Carolina

I head for Statesville and transfer onto the I-40, which begins a slow climb high into the Appalachians. The fog has cleared and the sun is shining, and the temperature is finally starting to become mild and comfortable. Heading towards Asheville the road twists and snakes steadily higher, each break in the treeline revealing a more spectacular vista than the last. It may be a major divided highway, but holy hell is it beautiful. I wish there were some opportunities to pull off and take in the views, but once you start climbing there are no rest stops or overlooks - only ominous runaway truck ramps, some of which appear to have been recently used. It's a sobering thought as I cruise along, passing heavily laden semis chugging up and down the steep grades, hazard lights flashing. The truck traffic along US highways is quite remarkable. Of course we have lots of semis on the road in Canada, but not nearly this much. The roads in the US are clogged with them, many barreling along at 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit. They have no hesitation in cutting across traffic to pass slower vehicles, myself included. That's not mentioning the retreads ("road alligators" as one man I met eloquently put it) that litter the highways - I had four retreads come off in front of me over the course of the journey, along with one violent blowout that rained shards of rubber and steel belt over the highway. It's good practice for your evasive counter-steering technique when you have to weave through the remains of a 200 pound truck tire at 70 miles a hour while surrounded by traffic.

Rest stop in North Carolina

The road becomes tighter and tighter as the elevation increases, prompting a few "whoa shit" moments when I misjudge the radius of some turns and begin drifting wide. Take away the traffic and this make a fun hillclimb event, the high-speed Interstate equivalent of Pikes Peak.

It's mid-afternoon when I arrive in Maggie Valley, a town that is definitely deserving of its name. A single street flanked by houses, campgrounds, gas stations, motels and restaurants cuts straight through two tall ridges that rise steeply on either side. I stop for a late lunch at a little Italian restaurant off the main road (where else would it be?) before heading to the Wheels Through Time to meet the owner, Dale Walksler.

Camping in front of the Wheels Through Time Museum

The museum is in the heart of Maggie Valley, separated from the road by a babbling brook spanned by a wooden bridge. There are two driveways leading into the front gate, whose purpose I immediately understand as I miss the first one and brake hard to veer into the second. It is Wednesday so the museum is closed to the public, but Dale had graciously promised me space to setup my tent and had assured me that someone would be around to let me in. I hang around the metal gate for a few minutes, wondering what the procedure for entry is - I notice a few bikes gathered in front of the museum, which looks like a large, nondescript warehouse. One couple leaves on a Harley and I slip through the gate after they depart. A middle-aged gentleman is sitting on the porch of a small house next to the entry gate, talking intensely on his cell phone. I presume this must be Dale. I park my bike behind the group of machines lined up on the front lawn and patiently wait for him to finish his conversation. I ask one of the riders present what is going on, and it turns out they are part of a RoadRUNNER touring event, and have riders from all over the US meeting in Maggie Valley to explore the nearby Blue Ridge routes.

I have a sudden lightbulb moment. The Blue Ridge Parkway. Supposedly some of the best riding roads in Eastern North America. My father had been talking about riding the Parkway for years, and I had ridden right into the middle of it without even realizing it. I made a mental note to plan a detour onto the sideroads on my way home - I was running a tight schedule on my way south, but I would have time to explore a bit on the way back. It would be a shame to ride straight through and not take the time to see what the fuss was about. In fact it would be downright idiotic not to check it out.  

Dale finishes his conversation and I introduce myself. He welcomes me into the museum and gives me free run of the place while he continues his business. He is clearly a man much in demand, his phone ringing steadily while the people around him vie for his attention in the brief moments between calls. He exudes energy and confidence. My first impression of Dale is of a classic American salesman, a charming and smooth talking gentleman who always knows the right thing to say and always has a quotable colloquial saying at the ready for every situation. He is almost like a movie or television character made real, his dialogue perfectly crafted. It's no surprise he has his own TV show on Velocity called "What's in the Barn?". But he is much more than that, and to not see past the fast-talking facade would be to do him injustice. He is a limitless fount of knowledge, a man who can describe the story behind any machine or widget in his collection with such passion that you know he genuinely appreciates the item and the story behind it. He is one of the best curators of American automotive and motorcycling lore and history in the country. He is honest, direct, and likable - the genuine article.

Wheels Through Time Harley Davidsons

I walk into the museum, a huge open space that is utterly overwhelming. Bikes are lined up bar end to bar end, walls and cabinets packed to capacity with memorabilia, curiosities, literature, spare parts, toys, engines - anything and everything Americana is here, and it is staggering. You simply can't take it all in, your senses are totally overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in front of you. And it isn't a pile of junk amassed by a well-heeled hoarder - it is well organized and easy to navigate, and you could see everything given sufficient time and concentration. There are carefully constructed recreations of old shops and vignettes that frame the machines and give them context. There is a nice mix of perfectly restored and completely original machines, Dale's specialty being finding untouched bike and sympathetically repairing them while maintaining their patina. The rich smell of dust, oil, and gasoline permeates the air. Walking into the main hall for the first time I was flooded by memories of the Triumph shop I worked for - that old-workshop smell is distinctive and unforgettable, and it was the first time I had encountered it since I quit my mechanic's gig in 2007.

More Harleys at Wheels Through Time

There is good reason that smell is present - Wheels Through Time's motto is "The Museum That Runs". Nearly every machine in the collection is kept in ready-to-ride condition, and Dale is proud to wander the hall and start up bikes for visitors - if he doesn't take something out for a spin around the property. He's also been known to give hair-raising sidecar rides. That distinctive smell can only be the result of living machines, not static ones. A drip pan accompanies each bike, suggesting vital fluids reside within. The first few minutes I'm there Dale nonchalantly fires up a Henderson four in front of me with one smooth kick. He has probably run that bike hundreds of times, but I've never seen one in person, let alone heard it chug along and inhaled the acrid exhaust fumes produced by a nearly century-old machine. It leaves a deep impression on me, and I realize what Dale is doing here in Maggie Valley is truly special, and a worthy pilgrimage for any rider who wants to smell and hear motorcycle history rather than just look at it.

Harley Davidson 1924 JDCA

I wander around, trying to take in all the detail that surrounds me. I take hundreds of photos, not only to document the experience but also to have a reference I can return to to better examine the nuances I might have missed. Here, standing in the museum, it simply is too much for me to process. I need time to digest what I am seeing, and pore over the photos with a clear mind so that I can eventually write an article that does justice to what Dale has created up here in the mountains.

Crocker Motorcycles at Wheels Through Time

Eventually Dale and I have time to chat, and he introduces me to his son Matt and the staff and friends of the museum. A white haired, bearded man walks in and asks loudly "who is the guy with the Ducati 916 with Canadian plates, luggage, and 34000 miles on the odometer?". I meet Joe, who has come here from Michigan to prepare for a friendly rivalry that will take place at Barber Motorsports Park on the weekend when he, Dale and Matt will go head to head on the track in the Century Race - only machines that are 100 years old or older are eligible. Joe informs me that he owned a 1996 916 Strada, a 955 SPA, and still owns a 1997 SPS, among several dozen other highly desirable machines. He is a skilled machinist and mechanic and participates in the legendary Motorcycle Cannonball Run, where pre-1930 machines run a 4150 mile route from Daytona Beach, Florida to Tacoma, Washington - it is the ultimate test of endurance and mechanical aptitude. Joe is just the man you would picture excelling at such challenges. He is quiet and reserved, but very observant and extremely knowledgeable. He has a calm, unhurried demeanor that is an interesting contrast to Dale's electric vibrancy.

Competition Harley Davidson Wheels Through Time

Joe and I talk shop while Dale continues to field and endless stream of calls between shooting spots for his TV show. I mention my dilemma with cold starting and rich running, and Joe comes up with some names to call for troubleshooting and parts. I call a few numbers and speak to a few people but am ultimately unable to obtain the coolant sensor - it is apparently one of those "things that never breaks" so most shops have never had one in stock. I find that funny, considering that this would be the second time I've had to replace mine. The consensus is that I'm on the right track, but finding a new sensor within a few days will be virtually impossible.

Harley Davidson Peashooters at Wheels Through Time

I meet the film and editing crew from Velocity and witness some behind the scenes action as they shoot material for the second season of "What's in the Barn?". If you've never watched the show, I highly recommend it. It's essentially Dale and Matt running around the USA investigating old bikes, cars, parts hordes, and generally being mechanical archaeologists digging up rare machines in barns and garages around the country. There is nothing else like it on TV, and it is far from the overwrought and melodramatic "reality" shows that hog the limelight - it's genuine, interesting, and fun, and each episode has some of Dale's interesting historical tidbits to share.

Indian-powered light airplane at Wheels Through Time

I set up camp in the front yard of the museum. Dale offers to pay for a hotel room, but I decline - he has been generous enough by offering me the space to camp and welcoming me into the museum after hours. Besides, the weather is nice, the locale is interesting, and I don't want to look like too much of a wuss. I do accept his offer for dinner though - he sends me, Joe and the film crew out for food and drink at his favourite local restaurant - Hurley's, located just down the road from the museum. I fail miserably at finishing a massive pork tenderloin while enjoying a fantastic micro-brewed porter.

Military motorcycles at Wheels Through Time Museum

We return to the museum and Cindy, who lives on the property, is kind enough to lend me some blankets to cope with the cool mountain air. Joe fetches a foam mat from his truck and I'm just about ready to build a fire and turn in for the night when I get word that the guys have invited me over to the workshop. I head around the back of the museum and walk into the real heart of the operation - the restoration shop. Here is where Dale and Matt tinker, service, repair and restore their machines, and it is a mecca for anyone interested in vintage American iron. Harley and Indian parts are piled high on the workbenches, and several interesting machines are in various states of disassembly on the lifts. There are two centrepieces before me - Joe's 1913 Harley Davidson V-twin, and Matt's... 1913 Harley Davidson V-twin. They are sister machines, identical aside from the level of patina. Matt's is well aged and retains an oily rag finish, while Joe's is clean and well preserved with mostly intact ghost-grey paint and white tires. Matt is setting up his ride and making last minute adjustments before the weekend's race, which has long been dominated by Dale and his various Indian entries - this year he will be using the same 1912 he won the 2012 event with. It is a classic American rivalry, one that the Velocity team was keen to exploit for the episode they are currently working on.

American board trackers Wheels Through Time Museum

I am happy to be a fly on the wall for the proceedings, examining the mechanicals and asking a few questions but otherwise staying out of their way while they try to sort out a fuel starvation issue. Dale hops up onto the lift and declares he is going to get it running. I hurriedly dig out my camera and proceed to videotape my first encounter with a living, breathing antique Harley.

It is a furious, sputtering, clattering symphony of mechanical racket that is new to me but also familiar. It's a bit eerie to stand there, watching Dale furiously pedal the thing to life, seeing the pushrods chattering away, oil spitting off the exposed valve gear, and hear a sound that is unmistakably "Harley" despite being a century old. That characteristic offbeat rhythm of a 45 degree twin is unmistakable, and persists in the Motor Company's modern machines. I could go on, but I don't want to sound like some HD purist who draws a straight line of heritage across the decades to the current lineup without a hint of irony. I respect their history and the success of their past models on the road and the track, but I will never use that history to excuse stagnant design. I don't want a modern throwback to the good ol' days of glories past (passed?), I'd rather have the real deal: the fire-spitting oil-flinging bicycle with a motor attached I have chugging away in front of me. This is a genuine Harley Davidson, not the product of a marketing department cooked up in a boardroom meeting. I suspect Dale, Matt and Joe have the same idea.

Antique motorcycles Wheels Through Time

The guys encounter a fuel starvation issue and fiddle with the machine for some time before retiring for the night. Everyone heads to bed and I settle into my cozy tent on the front lawn, my clothes retaining the scent of burnt oil and exhaust fumes. It is time to get a good night's rest. Tomorrow I ride to Birmingham.

Antique motorcycles Wheels Through Time Museum


  1. Awesome post. Thanks for introducing Dale's show. I'll check it out.

  2. Came across your article in the (UK Moto Guzzi Club) magazine Gambalunga, which lead to my seeking out your blog. Far more entertaining than I was expecting, providing hours of enjoyable reading. Looking forward to the next installment of this trip. Incidentally a local museum to me, Brooklands, also has a team that attempt to keep each and every vintage road and race track alive by maintaining and riding their small fleet of fifty or so bikes once a week.