Solo

by

Jeff Hughes

 

After refueling, I’m quickly back on the Parkway, glad for its coolness.  More stops.  More pictures.  But after awhile, as the afternoon progresses, I begin to have that pressed feeling.  Like I’m late.  I had planned on staying at Deals Gap tonight, in one of their cheap motel rooms since I need to dry out my gear before I can consider camping again.  I’m not sure what time they close, but I figure it’s at least another couple hours past Cherokee, the southern terminus of the Parkway.  I’d rather not ride all the way there only to find them closed.

My amped-up pace is ever so sweet.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is a mesmerizingly wonderful ride at almost any speed.  But ramped up, with the motorcycle pulling G’s through the corners and the suspension working and the tires gliding with a smooth suppleness across the twisted landscape, is the absolute best.  It’s the reason I come here. 

I do have one more stop I’d like to make:  The Cowee Mountains overlook.  And as I pull in I’m reminded that it is, indeed, a piece of work.  It has that classic postcard look of ridgeline-upon-ridgeline stretching far into the distance.  It’s where I got one of my favorite motorcycle pictures – the shot of Anton right at sunset, dressed in his Aerostich, looking off into the distance in the quickly fading light.

There is no sunset today – it’s only just 3:30pm.  I pull out my camera and while I get ready to fire off a few frames, amongst the several other people there at the overlook, I notice the single other motorcyclist is a girl.  Young and pretty, I look around for her companion, and then slowly realize that she’s alone.  Damn.  You don’t see that very often.

After taking a few shots I walk over and introduce myself.  She’s riding an old Harley Sportster and her tag says she’s from Michigan.  She’s not loaded all that heavily – but heavy enough to realize that this is no little day trip.  She’s actually on the road.  Really, damn.

It’s always been curious to me that out of the millions of guys who ride motorcycles, the number who ever take a serious trip – go someplace overnight – is comparatively small.  And of those that do, the number who ever do it alone, without the solace and security of one or more companions, is smaller still.  I’ve never known a woman to.

Her name is Jennifer.  She’s from Kalamazoo, Michigan.  And she’s a schoolteacher.  Which explains how she has the time to do what she’s doing.  But doesn’t go anywhere near towards explaining where she got the courage to do such a thing.  I’m impressed.  She’s got more balls – or whatever passes for such in a pretty young woman – than most men I’ve known.

While talking, I mention I’m staying at Deals Gap.  She brightens and says that’s where she’s headed as well.  She starts to get dressed as I do and I wonder if I should take that as a sign that she wants me to ride with her.  Looking at her rig I know she’ll be a lot slower than I am.  And I’m already late – maybe too late.  Mostly though, I don’t wish to intrude or appear like I’m hitting on her.  I’m figuring that any woman embarking on a trip such as hers might just prefer to be alone.  So after wrestling with that decision for a few moments, I wish her well and head on my way.

If I was in make-up-time mode on my way to the overlook, I’m really in it now.  There are 40-odd miles of the Parkway left – maybe my favorite section of all - and that devil that so often sits on my shoulder is nattering at me.  We make up time, blitzing by every vehicle we encounter. 

I get to the store at 6:02pm.  They’re still open – for another minute or two.  And, yes, they have a room.

Graham county is dry.  You have to go to Tennessee, through the Gap, and then back again, to get any beer.  What a shame.

After I unload my gear in my room, that’s what I do.  My first run through is pretty ragged, like it usually is.  The pavement is excellent.  The Tennessee Highway Department just finished re-paving the entire stretch through the Gap a few weeks ago.  And while doing that they slightly extended the aprons on the insides of some of the corners.  Except for the gravel – there’s a fair amount of that in spots – the road is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it.

Twenty-odd miles on the other side of the Gap is the closest place for beer.  I pick up a six-pack of Budweiser, and then head back.  Not far down the road there’s a little dive.  I had breakfast there a year ago with the two guys rooming next to me – who had brought 21 spare tires and a tire-changing machine with them.  Since I’m already pretty cooked, I decide to just go ahead and get something to eat there.

My run back through the Gap is better.  I remember that I prefer the Tennessee-to-North Carolina direction.  The road camber is better.

With my beer iced down, I spend an hour or so unpacking all my wet gear and hanging it to dry.  I set up my tent and leave that out in the grass.  My sleeping bag I hang from the top bunk of the two twin beds.  Clothes and bags I spread all around the room, hanging them wherever I can find a spot.

I’m fading, but glad to be done.  I help the guys next to me unload their bikes when they pull in.  Then we sit around for a few hours, the half-dozen or so of us staying at the campground/motel, watching racing videos and drinking beer.

I turn in sometime after 11pm.  There’s no sign of Jennifer.  I shouldn’t have left her.

 

When we think of taking a motorcycle trip, most of us automatically think of doing that with others.  Having riding buddies along with whom we can share the joys of the road is a pretty cool experience, after all.  The laughter and the camaraderie and the end-of-the-day recounting add immeasurably to the pleasure of a road trip.  Not to mention the security that comes from knowing that you’ve got help at hand should some mishap occur. 

And yet a solo trip – something that most motorcyclists never even consider - brings its own unique rewards.  The most immediate difference is the freedom that comes from not having to consider anyone else.  You can go where you want, when you want.  You can stop when you choose, cut the riding day short – or make it longer – all at your own whim.  You don’t have to periodically check your mirrors to make sure your buddy is still there.  You don’t have to calculate anyone else’s fuel range, because they’ve got a bigger or smaller tank than you.  And you can ride at whatever pace suits you, modifying it as you see fit during the course of the day.

A solo trip is also inevitably a more introspective experience.  When you talk to someone… it’s mostly to yourself.  It’s amazing what you can come up with, the problems you can solve, and the issues you can sort through, when on a road trip by yourself.  A few days alone on the road may just be the best salve there is for those thorny issues of life that touch us all.

A trip by yourself can also be interesting in ways that a group ride never is.  There’s something intriguing about a lone biker out on the road.  People are drawn to it.  It seems to speak to some distant, inner longing that most people have, but few ever actually act upon.  Whereas our interactions with strangers tends to be brief and superficial when we’re out with a bunch of buddies, it’s been my experience that people find a lone motorcyclist far more approachable.  The interactions are richer.  You stand a much better chance of actually meeting people when you’re by yourself.

Mostly, though, a road trip by yourself speaks to an increasingly rare quality in this day and age:  self-reliance.  It’s the flip side to having someone always there to lend a hand.  Instead, you get to deal with whatever may come, all by yourself.  That may sound a little frightening to some, but it also brings an intangible sense of adventure and accomplishment.  It imbues the trip with a special feeling that is hard to describe.  I’ll never forget standing at an overlook looking out over the Pacific Ocean, 3000 miles from home, and glancing in quiet amazement at the 2-wheel machine which had brought me alone all that distance.  There’s magic in that.

Alas, most riders seem afraid to embark upon such a trip.  Which is why I was so surprised and so impressed by Jennifer.  And, yes, she ended up being perfectly fine – showing up at Deals Gap the next day.  Like all good solo travelers, she had simply molded her itinerary to changing circumstances that first day, staying overnight near Cherokee.

Nothing will ever take the place of those multi-day trips with our buddies.  But a solo trip is special in its own unique way.

You should try it.

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes