Surfing Asphalt


Jeff Hughes


Leaving is always bittersweet.  After a few days on the road you always want to get home and see your family.  But there’s also that twinge of regret that the trip is over.

But I push those thoughts aside as we walk outside the diner.  With a good breakfast under our belts, we have the better part of a day’s ride still in front of us.  There remains much to look forward to.

Glancing at the sky, I make note of the broken cloud cover.  The soft overcast is welcome.  That will temper the heat later in the day.  More importantly, it will provide good visibility into the turns.

“How’s your tire doing?” I ask Rasmus.

“Fine,” he replies.  “Still holding at thirty-nine pounds.”

I nod in satisfaction.  We had pulled the roofing nail yesterday morning and the plug had held all through the long day of riding.  He’ll get home just fine.

Suiting up, I glance around the small West Virginia town one last time.  It’ll be three months before we’ll be back.  Turning back to Kevin and Clyde and Rasmus, we shake hands.

“Have a safe ride back.”

They’ll be turning off a handful of miles down the road, heading south to their homes in North Carolina while I continue on east, alone, into Virginia.

Rolling, I fall in behind them.  Our pace is relaxed and for ten minutes my mind wanders, as our southeast route tracks through this country that I love.   Thinking about the few days of riding that we just enjoyed.  Thinking about home.  Thinking about work tomorrow.  Mostly, thinking about the mountain that lies ahead. 

At the turnoff Kevin looks back and salutes.  I point at him. 

The descent begins right after that.  I accelerate into the first hard turn, only to have to slow as I come upon a slow moving pickup truck.  I abide that inconvenience until halfway down the mountain, when the short straight exiting the 10-mph horseshoe gives me the opportunity for a double-yellow pass.

At the bottom I pass the tiny general store, the church, the firehouse, and the dozen-odd homes comprising the picturesque little village of Valley Grove.  The two faded gas pumps at the store remind me of the late summer afternoon I drifted in there on fumes many years ago.  It’s funny how, over time, we lay little bits of memory here and there across the landscape, like Easter eggs.

Running along the creek, my mind begins to bear down, my focus narrowing.  The mountain I’ve idly been considering since we left breakfast is just ahead.  It’s one of the best mountain passes in Virginia.  Thinking about it prompts that old anticipatory tickle in my gut.  It’s where things get serious.

With expectation hanging in the air, the throttle spools under my hand – an almost involuntary response - as my boots slide back on the pegs.

Passing the turnoff down into the draft – just a handful of miles from the camp where I hunt – I do a quick calculus of the likelihood of encountering deer.  It’s higher than I like.  I toy with that thought for a brief second before putting it aside.  I’m not going to not do this.

Over the bridge and across the creek and the ascent begins.  The road tracks at a flat, upward angle for the first two hundred feet, then breaks hard left into the esses which climb the mountain. 

My blood up, I hold steady on the throttle.

Like a downhill-rolling snowball slowly gathering strength, I can sense the increasing flow of energy around me.  The first corner is a moderate-speed turn - 30mph is painted on the yellow caution sign.  It comes like a softly lobbed toss from a lazy pitcher.  The line is obvious and the bike hews to it with precision.   I feel the same odd thrill I always get when first hitting a string of corners at speed.

The next handful of corners are similar.  Easy, with steady radii that make for classic lines from entrance to exit.  They act as a prologue, giving the bike and I a bit of time to get wired together, to be ready for the harder stuff just ahead.

I no sooner think that thought when the 15mph caution sign signals that I’m there.  The hard right-hander tightens halfway through the turn.  “Easy,” I whisper to myself, tempering the urge to throttle up too soon.  I let the tires drift out to the middle of the tarmac – the very edge of what passes for my half of the road.  Then I’m throttling up into the left-hander which immediately follows.

The road is very different now.  It moves in undulating, misshapen coils, as if the builders of the original wagon track here two centuries ago had begun, sober, at the bottom, only to take a pull on the bottle with every increment of elevation gained.  And then, halfway up, suitably sauced, had abandoned any sense of engineering decorum.

However it came to be, it makes for a fine, highly technical motorcycle road.  It forces one to think.  To divine what is here.

Pressing hard, I search for every advantage I can find.  My line is dictated as much by the subtle lifts and fall of camber as by the direction of the road itself.  The bike feels alive, responsive.  As I hold myself light in the seat, it molds itself to the road, as if it were a living part of the earth. 

Camber is a wonderful thing.  It introduces a third dimension to our riding.  Usually subtle, it forces us to see nuances in the pavement if we are to make use of it.  In that sense it is a gift to experienced riders – as neophytes usually don’t even notice it’s there. 

Here, nearing the summit, with the bike alive beneath me, I can only smile.  The descent is a several-mile downhill slalom – tight, harsh, and abrupt – but sufficiently open that I can carry just enough speed to smoothly connect the transitions.  I’m covered with that afterglow of a good-road-run-well when I finally cross the river at the bottom.

Things mellow after that.  I relax down into the seat as the road unkinks itself into the meandering, relaxed curves that define the valley landscape here.

A few miles further along my GPS surprises me, pointing left down a road I’ve never been on before.  I debate for a couple of seconds whether to take its cue – my normal turnoff is a few miles ahead and leads to Cherokee Draft, one of my favorite little roads.  I’m loathe to lose the opportunity to run it.  But after an instant’s pause, the mystery of an unknown road wins out.

It’s a tiny, tortured little road hardly more than a single lane wide and I’m soon smiling to myself.  One of those little jewels that is devoid of traffic and is unknown to anyone except the odd farmer or two who live along it.  Once again I nod an appreciative thank-you to Mr. Zumo.

At McDowell things get serious once again.  Rt. 250 climbs two mountains as it heads eastward into Virginia’s Piedmont.  As I approach the stop sign turning onto it I have the same urgency I always have here – the impulse to quickly jump ahead of any eastbound traffic.  The road is tight enough that passing opportunities are few and far between.

I’m in luck today.  A glance back shows the road to be clear. 

As an hour before, there is a pregnant sense of expectation as I begin the first ascent.  And like that one, it quickly amps into a barely contained rush of energy up the mountain.

This is a bigger road than that other, but every bit as serious.  And whereas the road camber in that one was subtle, this one is anything but.  The road engineers, trying to moderate the severe turns, made it obvious.

Like a pitcher in the seventh inning gazing out at the scoreboard and suddenly realizing there are no hits displayed there, I finish the descent of the first mountain with the realization that I have just enjoyed a perfectly clean run.  How many years has it been since that happened?

Hoping to maintain that string, I press hard into the second mountain.  This one is tighter, edgier.  Glancing at the GPS shows the purple line curling back on itself, like two fingers held together.  That hairpin leads into the very tight upper section, the one so coil-bound and where you lean the bike so far over that you swear it surely must fall over.

It doesn’t, of course.  Instead, the bike thrums beneath my feet, alive, like a surfboard upon the water.

As I leave the second mountain behind I have yet to come upon another vehicle.  I shake my head in wonder.

Some days are a gift.


© 2009 Jeff Hughes