Redskin Sundays


Jeff Hughes

As I turn down Piney Mountain, any pretense that the riding season has much left to it quickly goes away. The air has that cutting coolness that prompts in me a shiver. Partly from the temperature. Partly from the knowledge that winter will soon be upon us.

It’s not a surprise, of course. Summer wanes. Those long, lazy days full of light and warmth slowly disappear, the golden rays and that comforting heat gradually receding, like the tide. It’s not all bad. At first it’s just a little cool, not really cold. And with the falling humidity the air turns sharp and clear and wonderfully pleasant, just in time to enhance the colorful spectacle that the turning of the leaves provides. There are pumpkins and Halloween and the first fires at night in the woodstove. There’s a new football season and the World Series. But even amongst all those happy things you know it’s coming. And that knowing imparts a bittersweet tang to it all. And, soon, sure enough, there it is – a day you can no longer pretend it’s “just a little cool”. You stand out there on the train platform in the darkness of an early workday morning, seriously shivering, grousing at yourself for not wearing a jacket. The next day you do. And so it begins.

And then instead of leaving early on those weekend rides in order to beat the heat, you let the early morning hours slide away while you sit in a chair with your coffee and a book, waiting for it.

But it’s bright and sunny on this early afternoon and I push those thoughts away. As I sluice through the slalom down to the creek I can’t help but smile. The pavement is a little bumpy down through there but I know the line to take. The corners have that gilded feel that let’s you know you’re dialed-in. It’s going to be a good day.

Past the log cabin, onto the little hundred-yard straight under the canopy of trees, exuberance takes hold and the spooling engine on the Gixxer lofts the front end a few inches. My smile breaks into a laugh.

And then my boots are back on the pegs and my eyes narrow their focus to the road ahead and my hands are grasping the grips with that ever-so-light touch that means serious business. The sound of the wind spilling over the cockpit fairing is overwhelmed by the rising exhaust note emanating from beneath me. Something both primal and new.

And for a handful of miles it’s just the dance. The one that never grows old. The one that’s part chess, part ballet, and part sword fight. If you asked me later to describe the world I passed in those few minutes, I couldn’t. All I’d be able to conjure would be an image of aliveness along a spiraling roadway, threaded to a feeling of euphoric certainty. The old magic.

The stop sign at Orlean drops me back into the here and now. The dog at the corner doesn’t run out to greet me like he usually does, and I wonder for an idle moment where he is. Inside, I suppose, like it seems the rest of the world is. I click down into gear and wheel slowly down the hill. A few hundred feet along, the parking lot of the country store – usually host to a few bikes – is empty. I nod knowingly. I’ll have the mountain to myself.

Glancing at my watch, I note that the game started twenty minutes ago. I abide a moment’s wonder of what might be going on. If there is any score. But as much as I’d like to be watching the game, doing this – being out on the road – is far more important to me.

That puts me in a very distinct minority – Redskins fans are a notoriously passionate bunch. But even a love as deep as football pales in comparison to the special magic that two wheels brings. Something you can do and experience and feel, not just watch. And as much as I miss not seeing the games, my reward for forgoing them is roads which are, for a few hours, uncommonly free of traffic. It wasn’t just because of the temperature that I shifted my ride into the early afternoon.

For a dozen winding miles I don’t see another vehicle. As I approach the bottom of the mountain the lack of traffic prompts me to take a gamble. Two years ago they dropped the speed limit on the eastern flank of the mountain from 55 to 45; and then later to 35. That, along with an intense level of law enforcement attention and a mountain of reckless driving citations was successful in driving away the sport riders who once used to flock here. I’m betting that the dearth of traffic today means an equally light LEO presence.

It’s not a bet to take lightly. But a quick calculation tells me that I’ll only be hanging out on that limb for eight minutes or so.

Even though it seems like an eternity since I’ve ridden the mountain at speed, as soon as I click down into third at the entrance to the long left-hander all that time slides away, leaving a memory as fresh as if it were yesterday. Like going home after a long absence, only to find everything just exactly as you remembered it.

There’s the right-hand hitch, the decreasing-radius corner that was the scene of so many crashes back in the day, and then I’m into the main ascent, the bike flowing through the turns with an effortlessness so sublime that I’m convinced it must be preternatural. Like Zeus rising.

At double the speed limit the character of the road is different. It has a beckoning, come-hither quality, like the sharp knowing glance from a girl you once gave no thought to. You know instantly there’s something here both dangerous and divine.

The mistake the squids used to make, of course, was not holding an even pace; not understanding that the speed they added in the little straight sections couldn’t be sustained through the corners. They turned a road of wonders, with curves to be picked like so many beautiful petals, into a minefield they had to tip-toe through.

At the back of my mind there’s the nagging worry of encountering an oncoming trooper. But as I near the top something tells me this ride is blessed, and so I hold my pace over the summit. The left-hander with the Armco lying in wait to punish any miscue passes in a blur. And then the rest is a flying lap, with only a few minor tweaks to my line to accommodate a couple of diesel smears. Other than that it’s a classic run, one to add to the thousand or so before it.

As the road flattens out in the valley below I’m torn between the delicious remembrance of what a stellar section of road that is, what an incredible hit to the senses; yet the pained knowledge that it is now mostly lost to us.

That was a thousand-dollar bet I put on the table.

Two hours later, sitting on the bench outside in front of the tiny general store drinking my bottle of water, I glance at the Suzuki a few feet away. It sits framed by the creek and the small white church in the background a hundred yards away, with the Blue Ridge Mountains rising behind them. Though I can’t actually see it, in my mind’s eye I can see the snaking trail of the Blue Ridge Parkway, way up in the sky along those ridgelines. I’ve stopped at the overlook up there before, similarly peering down into this little foothills valley trying to see this store, this bench, and this little gem of a road. I’ve never been able to, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

The flat angle of the sun and the lengthening shadows remind me that we’re only six weeks away from the winter solstice. Next Saturday I’ll be loading my truck with my .270 single-shot and .30-06 bolt-action rifles, a pocketful of careful handloads, and the camping gear I’ll need for a week away hunting. And I know that as I still hunt those steep ridges west of our camp, rising to the very peak of the Appalachians, that I’ll frequently turn my gaze down along the vertiginous slopes and the hollows below defined by them, imagining the wonderful, crooked roads that run through them, and think of riding.

Standing, I tip the last of the water into my mouth, tossing the empty plastic bottle into the trash can beside the bench. The game should be just about over. Time to go home.


© 2008 Jeff Hughes