Archive for the ‘Motorcycling’ Category

BMW day 3: Saguenay to Baie Comeau, QC

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Despite the loudness of the birds in the forest, it was a good first night in the tent.  I realized that even though the tent was less comfortable than a hotel room, I liked it better overall.  I like being camped in my own little space, with my lamp and sleeping bag and a good book on the Kindle.  The birds finally got quiet at some point late in the night, and it was very peaceful when we all emerged from the tents around 6 a.m.

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Being that it was still fairly buggy, the trick after my Clif bar breakfast was to take a shower at the bathhouse and get back in motorcycle gear before the black flies descended.  I didn’t want to oil up with DEET again right after washing all that stinky stuff off.   I managed this feat and we had everything packed up and ready to hit the road by 8 a.m.  As we passed out the campground gate (which was still locked) we found the office hadn’t yet opened, so we made a note to call later to pay for our night’s stay.  It really was off-season here.

Our location was alongside the river and near the highway, but not near any restaurants at all.  Unless we backtracked to Saguenay, the nearest meal would be in Tadoussac, 72 miles along the “Route Fjord” (Rt 172).  It was a chilly but clear morning and I didn’t mind the winding ride past the big rocky outcrops at all, covering miles until we could stop for a real breakfast.
Tadoussac QC

This turned out to be at a cute Victorian house converted into “Cafe Boheme,” as seen above.  The breakfast was massive and good.  I sent a photo of it to Eleanor and she wrote back, “I won’t worry about your meals anymore.”  (But little did we know that the quality of meals was destined to go generally downward after this.)  We met some visitors from Montreal who told us about an upcoming music festival in Tadoussac, which explained why trucks were unloading pallets of beer at the church across the street.

In his constant quest to find dirt to ride on, Steve led us through a few side trips around the town, including some sand dunes overlooking the St Lawrence.  I had never ridden in sand before, and found it was pretty much like you’d expect: tricky. I was pleased that I managed to keep the bike upright through this little adventure, but also humbled because I knew it was probably just the beginning of the tough riding we’d do—and last night’s bike drop was still fresh in my mind.  We were, as Steve would point out, only “72 miles from where Rich dropped the bike.”

day3 map

The weather wasn’t warming up after Tadoussac, so we stopped off to add some layers by a waterfall that we discovered while paralleling the north shore of the St. Lawrence.  Clothing layering is the key to comfortable riding, so we all packed a very flexible arrangement of clothes to meet all the weather we might encounter.  For the coldest possible situation I had many layers: a full set of polypropylene long underwear, heavy socks, long sleeve shirt, a lightweight Primaloft jacket, wind/dust/rain liner, armored motorcycle jacket and pants, neck warmer, gloves, and a full BMW rain suit in bright yellow.   Today I was fine without the long underwear but I definitely needed the Primaloft jacket and wind liner under my motorcycle jacket, as a cool breeze blew down from the north.

Weather was on our minds this day.  There wasn’t much to distract us between Tadoussac and Baie Comeau, and the reports I was getting on the phone told us that the nice weather would disappear by Friday, just when we planned to be touring Gaspé.


Since there were few detours, we covered the distance to Baie Comeau by 3:00 pm.  The rest of the afternoon was blown wandering around town trying to find the ferry dock (which we missed initially because of a road construction detour), and the campground.  Steve thought he had all the key points pegged in his GPS but the coordinates stored there brought us to a Hyundai dealership.  We tried Google Maps and it sent us on another wild goose chase.  A paper map also had the campground in the wrong place. Finally we just followed a road sign and got there with no problem, which just shows that low tech is sometimes best.

Before heading to the campground, we dropped in on the ferry dock to reserve a ride across the Seaway to Matane, QC for the next day.  The choice was either the 2:00 pm ferry from Godbout, a tiny outpost 60 km further northeast, or an 8:00 pm ferry from Baie Comeau.  We had to weigh this carefully, since Steve’s plan for the next day was a huge ride up to Manic 5 and back. We booked the 8:00 ferry for the next day, and headed to the campground to set up for the night.

Manic 5 is an enormous hydroelectric dam on the Manicouagan River, which is a sought-after destination by many adventure riders.  The trip is 221 km each way (136 miles from our campground), and the average speed is about 40 MPH. At the dam’s location we would find a little motel, a restaurant, a gas station, and not much else—and then we’d have to run around and come all the way back to Baie Comeau. That’s a total of seven hours of riding time round-trip.

We had already over 700 miles in three days, and I was tired and not particularly psyched to face seven hours of riding in one day to see a dam.  Once again I was envisioning a fairly flat and uninteresting ride through Quebec wilderness—based on the dull ride up to Baie Comeau.  I had been willing to do the long ride in order to take a tour of the interior of the dam, but it turned out that dam tours didn’t start until June 24 (that “off season” thing had bit us again), and this took a lot of the incentive out for me.

Steve didn’t care about the tour, and in fact didn’t even know there was one.  He just wanted the ride.  It seemed early in the trip for a rebellion, but I was really tired at that point and said I would rather just wait in Baie Comeau for them to come back.  We debated it for a while, and finally that evening over dinner at some forgettable restaurant in town Steve “took one for the team” and said we could skip it.  But he was bummed out about it.


Back at the camp we were not entirely happy either.  The campground wouldn’t let us pitch three tents on one site, and charged us CDN$66 for two sites, which was nearly what we would have paid for a hotel room in town.  It was one of those places kind of like a KOA: a bit self-important, pricey, a curious mixture of “camping” and Motel 6, staffed gate with electronic keycards, and lock-down at 9 p.m.  The tent sites were strange too, comprised of little clearings in a forest with recent grass sod. The black flies were fairly friendly, so it was another DEET night for all of us.

The electricity in the tent camping loop was turned off so I couldn’t recharge my stuff, but I got a quick charge during dinner (I learned to look for booths with obvious power outlets nearby), and later discovered that the campground bathroom had power too.  So I plugged the iPhone and helmet intercom in while I showered, and hoped that after a good night’s sleep I’d have a better perspective on the day ahead.

BMW day 2: Beaupre to Saguenay, QC

Monday, June 9th, 2014

When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the tips we got was to ride along the north shore of the St Lawrence River, heading east from Quebec City, so that’s how our first day went.  The tip was good: this quickly became much more scenic riding than we had seen before, starting through the villages in the Beaupre area, and then up and down mountains along the St Lawrence.  These mountains are not very tall, peaking out around 780 meters, but I was surprised that they were there at all.  I had expected a flat river valley, and instead we were getting views and many 8-9% grades, with a few reach 12-15%.

We’d roll up the mountains and back down to river level, then up again.  At the higher points we got clear views of the St Lawrence and already it was obvious how the river had widened into the St Lawrence Seaway.  It was as wide as Lake Champlain in no time, so I began to understand why there are no bridges crossing the water north of Quebec City.

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This choice to follow the north side of the river had other repercussions.  Mainly, we’d have to find another way to cross the river again eventually to get to Gaspé.  But also, it opened up the possibility of some side trips further into northern Quebec, which added to the temptation to make the trip very long. Those choices would come later; for now, we had open road along the river and all the scenery we could handle.

We had left the condo without breakfast, so after an hour or two of riding we stopped in Baie St Paul to find something. I should explain at this point that my brother’s views on food and my own don’t align very well.  He is perfectly happy skipping breakfast, eating a egg-muffin-sausage things at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s when he can, subsisting entirely on chicken wings for weeks at a time, etc.  Having been ruined by Eleanor’s cooking and culinary tastes, I like variety and my mood is somewhat affected by what I eat.  Plus, I’m allergic to certain food additives, so when eating out I tend to lean toward vegetarian cuisine, which can be hard to find in remote areas.

This is not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I knew what to expect and figured that the best way to get along would be to supplement my bag with a few snacks.  I packed 14 Clif bars to fill in the gaps between meals, because I like them and they are incredibly durable even after being stuffed in a pack for days.  I also brought a dozen or so flavored drink mix packets and a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, so I’d always have something to drink even if the local water tasted like moldy frogs.  I hate getting out on the road without breakfast, so this bit of gear saved my day quite a few times, including this day, because we ended up at McDonald’s in Baie St Paul.

Baie St Paul, QC 2

In the parking lot Steve adjusted the drive chain on his bike again, to remove some tightness. He had thought it was too loose that morning before we started, but it turned out he was fooled somewhat by the fact that the bike had no weight on it.  He also was a little worried about the chain lube, which didn’t seem to be holding up.  This would turn out to be an issue for most of the trip.

day2 map

Turning northwest at the small town of St Simeon we picked up Rt 170 toward Saguenay.  This side trip was the first of several that I didn’t expect much from, but again I was surprised at the beauty of the terrain.  The Saguenay River sits not in a valley but rather in a mountainous area with lakes, lofty crags of rock and gorgeous forested hills.

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It even has a fjord, “The Fjord of Saguenay” at Petit-Saguenay, which we motored to (a small 3 km detour off the main route). I was becoming more impressed by this area of Quebec by the hour.

I was also surprised by the fact that there was cell service everywhere, when I had expected to be completely out of touch.  This was a bit disappointing, since it made the areas seem less “remote” than I would have liked to pretend, and also because my phone was filling up with emails that I didn’t want to see.  So I ignored the emails and took advantage of the cell coverage to send Eleanor a few pictures from the area.  You really can’t capture the Fjord of Saguenay in a single photo, even a panorama, so it’s one of those experiences best had in person, but I tried to convey it to Eleanor anyway.

BMW Canada-11-2

At this point we were all starting to feel like we were on vacation, at last.  No worries, no hurries, let’s just find a nice lunch spot in  L’Anse-Saint-Jean by the harbor and try a lox sandwich with gigantic bowls of coffee.  Then rode over to check out a covered bridge, and then down a dirt road to get a better view of some waterfalls (“chutes”) near the border of the Parc national du Saguenay.

Further down the road we tried the main entrance to the national park and discovered that camping wasn’t scheduled to open until next week!  Things start late up here in northern Quebec, and the camping/tourist season kicks off in late June.  We were definitely in the “off season,” a fact we were destined to re-discover numerous times.  Fortunately, the very kind agent at the gate helped us by calling ahead and verifying we could go to a commercial campground (Parc Aventures Cap Jeseux), even after hours.  This took a lengthy phone call in French, so we were grateful for her help.  This was also a scene to be repeated several times: clueless Americans with pathetic command of French, saved by patient local bi-linguals.

At this point it was getting late in the day.  We had to stop and throw on another layer as dinnertime approached.  In Saguenay we finally reached the first bridge crossing the river, so we grabbed a little dinner to go, and headed southeast on Rt 172 toward St Fulgence to the campground our friendly gate agent had located for us.

This turned out to be the biggest adventure of the day. The entrance road was dirt, long and wavy like a Möbius strip. At the end of a long day, with dusk approaching it was a small challenge for me to navigate through the loose rocks and steep grades (easily 20% in some places), but it was also great fun.  The gate at the campground was locked, which we expected since we’d been told the campground office would be closed when we arrived, but we just rode around it and headed to the rustic (“camping sauvage”) area to settle in.

Not so easy, as it turned out.  First we couldn’t find the “sauvage” area in the maze of narrow roads and trails in this immense forested area.  Then, we discovered that the black flies in this area were absolutely nightmarish.  The campsites were just small clearings in the forest for tents, and to reach them we would have to run the gauntlet of black flies to get to them and set up our tents.  The clouds of bugs were so bad that we had to keep our helmets on for protection, while stopped to have a conference about what to do.

We tried wandering around a little to find a less buggy area, and in the process of making a U-turn on a slight grade, I lost my footing and dropped the bike.

Rich's first drop

Let me explain “dropping the bike” for those of you who haven’t ridden motorcycles.  First of all, you don’t want to do this, but it happens, especially to dirt riders.  The Dakar is a little tall for me, so when stopped I can only touch the ground with the balls of my feet, and consequently I have to be careful about maneuvering from a stop.  When the ground is uneven, or when turning around using my feet on a slope, it’s easy to lose grip and then 600 pounds of top-heavy motorcycle start to lean.  When that happens, you’re done.  It’s going down.

A minor drop on dirt like this doesn’t hurt the bike, but my Nikon and iPad were in the pannier on the bottom side.  The iPad sustained a nice dent on the keyboard case but otherwise everything survived fine.  The Nikon is tough as nails … as you’ll see in later blog entries.  I also was uninjured because it’s easy and instinctive to get out of the way as the bike is headed down.

With the luggage on the rack, we can’t lift the bikes solo, so every time we had a drop, it took at least two people to get the bike back up. Being solo we’d have to unload all the luggage and then lift it using a special technique that you can see me demonstrating here.

This began a small tradition where Steve referred to all places as “XX feet from where Rich dropped the bike.”  We eventually found the RV camping area (dirt sites with occasional water spigots and 15 amp power outlets) and it was much less buggy, so we picked a spot (all the sites were empty), slapped on a coating of DEET, and set up camp.

Dinner with the bugs was uneventful.  The DEET worked pretty well, so our only real problem was an aggressive squirrel that I had to shoo away a few times.  My dinner got smashed when the bike fell, but even smashed pasta tastes fine. Steve had his first poutine of the trip.  (Poutine: French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, beloved by Quebecers)  The usual nightly routine began (checking maps, charging devices, etc.) and we briefly discussed the possibility of a campfire, but instead we took a walk to find some strange alternate accommodations available in the campground, the “Dome” and the “Spheres” and the “Tree Houses.”

The Spheres

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That evening I brought up the point that we’d already traveled 500 miles and we were only two days out.  Turns out that Steve planned for two weeks but never really concerned himself with the total mileage.  At this point I estimated we might exceed 2,000 miles on the trip, which was sort of off-putting because I’d just spent 40 hours driving 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center, OH, and another 600 or so miles after that to Vermont.  And that’s a lot of miles to sit on the slightly uncomfortable seats of a BMW F650GS.

But hey, we were committed, so there wasn’t any point in griping about it.  We were all ready to accept whatever was coming. It was the spirit of the trip.

That night the forest came alive with birds calling, so many and so loudly that it felt like we were sleeping in a bird aviary for the first few hours.  I actually had to put in my earplugs to get past their chatter and screech … and then got a few hours of sleep before dawn hit the tent fabric at 4:00 a.m.

BMW day 1: Vermont to Beaupre, QC

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

It takes a while to “get into” a trip like this.  First you’ve got to adjust to the sensations of riding on the motorcycle for long distances.  On a motorcycle you aren’t just passing through the countryside—you feel and smell everything in a way that is impossible in a car.  If it’s cold, you stop to put on a layer.  When there are bugs, they smack on the visor right in your field of view.  If there’s a skunk, you can’t hit “recirc” on the climate control to avoid it.  If the road is potholed, you count on the agility of the bike to swerve around the holes, or take your lumps.

Fortunately, we smelled more lilacs blooming than skunks or manure, and the roads were fine, and the weather was sunny.

Last trip before departure

The other adjustment is more mental.  We had two weeks blocked out, and no fixed agenda.  We had to shift our own minds to the mode of exploration without deadlines or major expectations.  Undoubtedly in the coming days we would have mechanical problems, bad weather, changes of heart, uncomfortable situations, language barriers, etc.  But also we’d find adventures of unexpected kinds, and there would be no rush at any time, so the important thing was to just mentally slow down and (literally) smell the lilacs.

Entering Canada

Our first day was one of our longest, at nearly 300 miles from Shelburne, VT to Beaupre, QC (Canada).  Steve led us on long and winding detours through backroads of Vermont that I’ve never seen before (and I grew up here).  That is part of the point of motorcycling the countryside, of course, so we didn’t mind but we did decide that future days should be shorter.  It took us three hours just to reach the tiny border crossing at Richford, VT, which I suppose we could have done in half the time if we had tried a more direct route.  The border crossing was uneventful, and there wasn’t much going on in the countryside south of Quebec City (an area referred to as the Eastern Townships) so we planned to move through with few stops. We just wanted to get past Quebec City in the first day, because until then it wasn’t going to feel like a trip to us.

One key piece of technology we used was a headset intercom on each helmet. These used Bluetooth wireless to connect to each other, and to our cell phones, and (in Steve’s case) a motorcycle GPS.  Just by tapping on a button on the side of my helmet I could call up either Steve or Eric and have a conversation while riding. This proved to be very useful, although the headsets weren’t entirely reliable.

The really neat bit about this was that the headset connected to my iPhone, so I could listen to music as we rode, take phone calls, or even send and receive text messages.  I was able to hear the announcement chime when I had a text message, and say “Siri, read my messages”.  Listening to the phone reading my text messages to me while riding through the northern Vermont countryside, it felt like the future that I had always expected as a kid had finally arrived. All that was missing was some way to make the motorcycle fly.

When we planned the trip, staying in touch with the outside world was not a high priority for us.  I went to considerable lengths to get everyone I work with to understand that I would NOT be reachable, and fully expected that somewhere in northern Quebec I would enter massive dead zones of phone coverage.  This turned out not to be true, as Bell Mobility has excellent coverage all the way around the Gaspé peninsula, better in fact than I got in Maine and New Hampshire.

For this possibility I had purchased a Canadian calling plan from Verizon Wireless  ($15 for 1,000 minutes & unlimited texting, plus $25 per 100 megabytes of data), and it turned out to be extraordinarily useful.  We used my phone daily to check weather, share pictures with family, and book hotels. Steve and Eric didn’t buy a Canadian phone plan, so they only used their phones on free wifi at hotels and restaurants, which also worked well because wifi was available just about everywhere.

Quebec City cafe

Toward the end of the first day we made a brief stop in Quebec City’s old town.  Our trip plan called for cruising along the north side of the St Lawrence River, and Quebec City was the obvious place to cross.  After that (going northeast), there are no bridges crossing the river. We parked on the street in town and grabbed a couple of cold smoothies at a sidewalk cafe.  I got stuck with paying for them and was shocked to find they were $7 apiece with tax.  OK, never again. This was to be our only stop in a large city for the entire trip, and we were fine with that.  We took a quick cruise through the historic Chateau Frontenac for Eric’s benefit, and headed out of town to Beaupre.

Steve’s wife, Carolyn, is from Quebec City, so she did some quick scouting online and booked our first night’s hotel: a ski condo that “sleeps 4″ for only $85.  Seemed like a bargain until we found out that the only way it could sleep four would be if two people would share a double bed and the other two would share a small pull-out couch, AND that Carolyn booked it for the wrong weekend. Fortunately nobody was renting ski condos in June, so we had no problem re-booking for the same unit on the correct night.

Bedtime at hotel

That night we worked out a routine. We’d take turns breaking out a sleeping pad and bag, and sleep on the floor for the night.  Steve was the first “floor man.”  We also brought earplugs because snoring was definitely going to be a problem.  (The photo above is from the nicest motel we booked on the entire trip, the Baie Bleu in Carleton-sur-Mer.  Most places weren’t so pleasant.  That’s me on the floor, reading a book on Kindle using my iPhone.)

Chain adjustment #1

Everything came off the bikes and got carted into the condo, then we started re-charging stuff (helmet intercoms, phones, iPad).  Since we had to unpack almost everything every night, the room quickly filled up with our stuff, and we just got used to it.  Each one of us would stake out a little sector and spread the stuff out.  Then we’d think about where to get dinner, do any bike maintenance (Steve adjusted and lubed his chain almost daily), wash the bugs off the helmet visors, shower, do a little laundry in the sink if we had a motel room, plan the next day, and I’d type up notes on the iPad.

Quebec condo rental

There wasn’t really a lot of spare time with all this going on, so our evenings were generally quiet and we didn’t have time for campfires or nighttime explorations. This evening, for example, we just walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered whatever they had, using our anemic French.  After that, it was time to collapse into bed and try to get rested for whatever lay ahead.  The trip was finally happening.


Hey dude, where’s my Airstream?

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

As long-time readers of this blog know, I do occasionally travel without the Airstream in tow.  It’s never as comfortable or as easy, but there are places you can’t go with an Airstream and things you can’t do.  (It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s true.)

For the past year or so, my older brother Steve has been talking about a big tour on his BMW motorcycles.  We took an initial 500-mile trip on these bikes back in June 2012, with Colin Hyde and our friend Eric, through the Adirondacks. That was a big success, so the next year Steve & I took off to Quebec for a couple of days, and ever since we’ve been talking about a truly awesome adventure around Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula that would take a couple of weeks.

A ride like that isn’t as simple to plan as an Airstream trip.  Packing for two weeks on a motorcycle is nearly impossible if you try to anticipate everything. The major trick is to be ready for a wide range of weather conditions.  Even in summer, Gaspé’s weather can run anywhere from 50 to 80 degrees, with plenty of rain and wind.  We also planned to camp every other night or so, to up the “adventure” quotient and hold down the cost, which means a tent, sleeping bag, foam pad, etc.

Being an adventure-loving nut, my brother plotted numerous side trips up into the mountains where we would be out of reach of cellular service, roadside assistance, restaurants, and virtually all other services. So being reasonably self-sufficient was important, too.  We had to carry some food, lots of tools, spare parts, and first aid kit.  I also was responsible for trip documentation, so I brought my Nikon D90 with 18-200mm zoom lens, an iPad, and an iPad keyboard.

All of this meant a large load for the BMWs and careful strapping of the gear into waterproof bags.  It felt a little like carrying a passenger.  I wondered if by the end of the trip we might jettison some gear just to lighten the load, but there was really not one thing in any of our bags that we didn’t absolutely need.

Steve's bike loaded

This trip was a sort of tribute to my father, who died this year.  In his final years he didn’t have a lot of things he could enjoy, but he did like to live vicariously through us, watching Steve and Eric work on the BMWs, tracking our progress on trips via his computer, and hearing about our plans.  He said he really wanted Steve to do this trip, and to be sure to bring Eric (who was like a son to him) and me along.  So while none of us needed much pushing to join the adventure, it was nice to know that we could fulfill one of Dad’s last wishes by doing it.

A  note on the motorcycles:  We are riding two kinds of bikes, the BMW F650GS and the F650 “Dakar”.  These bikes are virtually the same except that the Dakar (which I’m riding) has a little more ground clearance, a larger front wheel, and some suspension changes. It’s set up more for off-road than the other two bikes, but all three of them are capable of traveling on dirt and rough roads, as you’ll see in later blog entries.  The point of these bikes is not to have a comfortable ride like a big highway cruiser, nor are they true dirt bikes.  They are designed to go anywhere.  As Steve says, “They aren’t the best at anything, but they are the best at everything.”

If you aren’t familiar with motorcycles, you might be surprised to learn that they have one-cylinder engines.  These are called “thumpers” for the vibration they produce.  The advantage is that they are simple (which helps with roadside repairs) and fuel efficient.  We get 69 MPG with these, which helps quite a bit in Quebec, where gasoline cost about US $5.50 per gallon (CAN$1.42 per liter) this summer.

The next few blog entries will document this trip as it happened.  I’m going to pre-date all the entries to the days they actually occurred, all 13 days of the trip, and release them one per day.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as we did!

I break for motorcycling

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

There wasn’t much time to catch up on life after we returned from Europe, and the frequent rain in Vermont didn’t help.  You might think that having a few rain days would help office productivity, since the distraction of a sunny day at the lake wasn’t tempting me away from the laptop, but really I wasn’t in the mood to get back to heavy desk work and the rain just made me want to stay in bed in the Airstream.

This has been one of those cold Junes, with lots of thunderstorms and humidity.  Among other things, it put a serious damper on my plans to go motorcycle touring, but then over the weekend we had a little break.  Saturday morning we had a few hours of decent weather, and so the local “gang” got together, four of us (three BMWs and a Honda).  Not willing to risk a long ride lest the weather change again, we rode down to Vergennes (the smallest city in Vermont, one mile square) and got breakfast at the local cafe.

Sunday was the only really good weather day, and coincidentally the day of a charity ride to benefit an animal shelter.  We joined up with a few dozen other avid Vermont motorcyclists (a category which implies people of strong character since motorcycling in Vermont’s climate requires patience and resilience) at Cycleworks in New Haven VT and went on a really nice tour of about 95 miles through Addison County.

IMG_2418Now, I grew up in this area and have spent part of almost every year of my life around here, and still this tour brought me on some roads that I’ve hardly ever seen.  It reminded me of the beauty of the Vermont countryside–the roads that don’t go conveniently in a straight line, bringing you past the old farmhouse architecture, the rolling green hills and fields, and much more if you will only take the time to drive them.  If it weren’t for this charity ride I probably wouldn’t have gotten out to see all of that.


At this point I had my eye on my impending trip to Tucson.  Whatever I needed to do in Vermont had to get done quickly (and while the rain was paused).  In the afternoon following the ride, I got up on the roof of the Airstream to clean off all the organic debris that had covered it in the past four weeks.

There was a lot, even more than we usually get, thanks to some tree that flowered extensively and dropped thousands of buds on the roof.  In the weeks of June rain, all of those flowers decayed to brown mulch, mixed with sticks from the locust tree, and it was really a mess up on the Airstream’s roof.

IMG_2422Usually this job gets done at the end of the summer, just before we leave, but this year I’ll be doing it twice.  It’s really not comfortable getting up on the roof when it is wet and covered with decaying plant matter.  I take some precautions to avoid slipping off, but still it feels dangerous with all the slippery gunk.  At the Airstream factory they have a neat harness rig from the ceiling that keeps service center workers from falling off roofs.  I wish I had a Willy Wonka skyhook here.

Lately we’ve had a strange problem with the water pump in the Airstream.  It will sometimes refuse to shut off after we’ve run the water.  Rather than stopping automatically when the pipes are pressurized it continues to run at its lowest level, making a sort of perpetual moaning noise.  We thought at first that the pump’s shutoff switch was going bad, but after a while I traced the problem to air trapped in the water pipes.  The pump can’t get the water pressure up if there is air in the line (because air is very compressible), so it keeps trying forever.

Running the pump briefly with all faucets open (including the shower, outside shower, and toilet sprayer) lets the air out and cures the issue for a while but after a few days it recurs. At this point I’m thinking the problem is in one of the fixtures, perhaps the shower valve, letting air in and somehow trapping it, but I haven’t managed to narrow down which one is the culprit yet.  In any case, the pump itself seems to be fine.  I checked it for leaks last week.

That’s about as exciting as it got this week.  I took care of a few other small things, packed my bag, and headed to the airport on Tuesday.  Vermont is east of me now, along with E&E, and the next phase of summer begins with the new blog post.  Temporary Bachelor Man is coming up!

A trip to Americade

Monday, June 10th, 2013

With all the rainy weather up here in Vermont I had pretty much written off the possibility of taking a motorcycle trip before it was time to leave here. It’s always a rainy week when the Floridians ship their leftover hurricane or tropical storm remnants up the coast. We wish they would stop doing that.

But things cleared up just enough on Saturday that Steve and I were able to slip out this morning on the two BMWs. With temps in the upper 50s we had to layer up but I was actually glad of that. In September we hope to make a long trip up into Quebec, and the weather will probably be similar to today’s, so this day made a good test.

Traveling without Airstream? Yes, I like explorations and vehicles of almost every imaginable type, and once in a while it’s nice to do something a little different. Today’s trip was a quick run down to Lake George Village, NY, the epicenter of a week-long motorcycle gathering called Americade. It’s sort of an upstate NY version of Sturgis, with a big trade expo and lots of tours through the Adirondack region.

20130608-174514.jpgUltimately it was really about the ride, not the event.  Crowds and shopping aren’t my favorite things.  We just wanted to get out on the bikes for a tour, even in misty cold weather (about 57-62 degrees during the day).  Yes, the lure of the Adirondack roads, gently twisting through tall pine forests, is that strong.  Or maybe I was just getting a little cabin fever after a few days of rain.

In the photo above you can see me taking a highly important phone call from Headquarters just after arriving in Lake George Village.  Eleanor was telling me about her excursions and I was telling her about mine.  Hopefully you can see past the fluorescent jacket that I wear when riding bikes.

20130608-174521.jpgEvery small town in the Adirondacks for miles around was flooded with motorcyclists.  Most of them were big heavy cruisers and touring bikes. Lightweight dual-sport bikes like the BMWs we were riding were pretty rare.

I was thinking about our Airstream events while touring around Americade, and wondering if we could take a few ideas from this to spice up our Aluma-events.  The major draw seemed to be touring.  Airstreamers like to tour, too, but they generally do it without the Airstreams in tow.  We did a couple of short driving tours at Alumafiesta last February and they were very popular, so I think we’ll try to work up some more for future events.  You see?  I’m always researching to make things more fun for you.  And no, I didn’t keep receipts to write this off as a business trip.

I learned a lot from this 180-mile roundtrip.  First, my motorcycling apparel is pretty well suited to a trip up the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec this September.  Second, my butt is less enamored of the idea.  The BMW F650GS is a great bike for all kinds of roads, but it’s no cruiser.  Third, riding on a cold misty day has made me appreciate the interior of my car.  If you are getting bored towing your Airstream with the cruise control set, music playing on the iPod, the digital climate control set just where you like it, and a cold drink in the cupholder, try this instead.

The Black Flies climb a mountain

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Our Adirondack motorcycle tour entered its final day when we awoke at the borrowed camp at Loon Lake.  Our plan for the day was really no plan at all, just a vague sense that we’d wander around the northeast and eventually end up back at Essex NY to take the ferry back to Vermont.  Naturally Steve and I were eager to find some more backcountry dirt roads where nobody else would be found, and Colin’s low-slung Harley and vulnerable crankcase would have to tough it out.  Our first shot was an old railroad grade that was great fun but after a couple of miles of slewing around on loose gravel, we took pity on the old hog and turned back.

Not, however, before I captured this shot with my helmet-mounted video camera.  Colin commented that it was the toughest road so far for his bike, perfectly graded but the loose gravel atop hardpack made it “like driving on marbles.”

It wasn’t long before we found another dirt road, the Thatcherville Road that becomes Buck Pond Campsite Road.  This one was more comfortable for the Harley and a few miles down we stopped at an idyllic overview of the horribly misnamed “Mud Pond.”  It looked crystal clear and absolutely unspoiled from where we were standing.

One great aspect of the Adirondacks is the numerous lakes and navigable rivers.  You can’t go 10 miles without bumping into another beautiful and uncrowded northern lake.  Along this road we discovered into the little-known Lake Kushaqua and several ponds, each one a paradise for canoes and kayaks.  Eventually we came out at Rt 3, stopped in Bloomingdale NY for breakfast at a diner, and then decided to take the scenic drive up to the summit of Whiteface Mountain.

The road to the summit of Whiteface Mtn serves no purpose other than as a monument.   It was built during the Depression as a public works project to honor military dead.  The road to the top costs $10 and is a fantastic drive, with spectacular views at the top if the day is clear, as it was for us.  I shot video all the way up and all the way down, which is included in the YouTube video here.  It was well worth the ten bucks, especially for the opportunity to do it on a motorcycle.

Of course, going up meant Colin’s cell phone would start ringing again, but it was a small price to pay for the 360-degree views with eighty mile visibility.  We were hovering over Lake Placid just west of us, and off to the east Lake Champlain was easily spotted.

At this point in the ride we had long since gotten over the need to ride as a pack, so I went down the mountain first, and we re-grouped at a gas station down below in Wilmington.  We still had no real plan, but Steve led the way from there, through the town of Jay and down Rt 9N.  There we found one last glorious winding paved road that had us all grinning:  Hurricane Road.  I hadn’t expected it, but it was definitely the best set of twisties we hit on the entire three days.  From there, it was anticlimactic  wandering through fields all the way back to Essex.

We parted company with Colin there and hopped the ferry back to Vermont, reflecting on the success of the trip. We had no breakdowns (although plenty of Ural-tweaks).  We had no arguments, or even tense moments.  No crashes (Steve later said he had expected I’d wipe out at some point.)

We didn’t get lost, although we tried.  The weather was uniformly spectacular, and it seemed like every road had something to offer.  Even the worst road food we ate wasn’t really that bad.  We had covered 450 miles in three days with two German bikes, one American hog, and a Russian artifact and had a great time doing it.  It seemed a shame to be going home so soon.  Now I was feeling some regret that I had rejected our longer trip plan: a ride around Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.

Still, I won’t be buying my own motorcycle anytime soon.  It’s not the same down in southern Arizona.  This tour was special because it was in the northeast, where the rural roads seem endless.  I have a feeling we’ll be doing it again sometime, the next time I’m in town.  This may be something that, for me, can only happen up in the northeast.  So my jacket and helmet will stay up there, waiting for the next chance to hit the road.

This wrapped up my visit to Vermont.  Work and other obligations were calling, so on Sunday Eleanor hauled me to the airport and I flew back to Tucson.  (You’ll notice that I’m flying the Temporary Bachelor Man flag again.)  I will be here, in the heat, getting some intense work done, for the next two weeks.  Then I’ll return to Vermont to gather up the family and the Airstream and begin the long journey back west.  If you’re only interested in Airstream adventures then tune in after July 4 (and incidentally, why did you read this far?)  If you are curious what TBM is up to in Tucson, I suspect there will be further updates coming soon…

Motorcycling the Adirondacks, Day Two

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The nice thing about traveling with a group of guys is that there’s not much delay between waking up and hitting the road.  In fact, there’s a small element of competition, since nobody wants to be the one who took too long in the bathroom or got labeled “high maintenance” by the other guys.  No dilly-dallying admiring the lake, no makeup, not even much chatting.  Grab your gear and load up, because the road awaits!  So less than an hour after waking, we were ready to go and the camp was cleaned up.  Steve even mowed the lawn for the owners.

Since we weren’t cooking on this trip (traveling light), we had to ride to breakfast.  I had a stock of breakfast bars in my bag to tide me over.  I ate a couple of those and then we saddled up and rode 14 chilly morning miles or so to the nearest town with a breakfast place, which was Long Lake, same town where we had dinner.  Even with the cool morning temperatures it was a nice ride, with continued sunshine and wide green views all around us.  The restaurant in Long Lake had a sign left out from last week’s Americade, saying something like “Welcome bikers!” and we weren’t the only ones there.

Our plans were a little in flux at this point.  Steve had a route in mind but we didn’t want to overwhelm Colin’s bike with too many rough dirt roads.  I spotted a nice long backcountry road on the map that probably would have rivaled the previous day’s 30-miler, but we skipped that in favor of a more sedate tour up Route 30.  We took a lengthy detour to Little Tupper Lake, where the state has acquired 15,000 acres of land and a lake (great fishing, they say), then back to Route 30 up to Tupper.

I had left a crucial bag of supplies at home by accident, so Tupper was my only chance of the day to find a proper pharmacy and pick up a few replacement items.  While I was in the store, Eric’s Ural attracted another admirer, so we ended up spending half an hour there.  Nobody took notice of our cool BMWs as long as the Ural as in sight.  A few miles north we encountered a Border Patrol roadblock, and they stopped us.  The officer said, “It’s OK, I just stopped you so I could check out the Ural!” Steve replied, “That’s what everyone says!” and the officer replied, “Oh, your bike is nice too.”  So we got pity from the Border Patrol.

The Ural definitely got attention but most of it was from Eric.  Every day he had to make another adjustment to it.  The day before we left it was the brakes, and today it was the carburetors.  The original Russian carbs were replaced with Japanese ones, but still Eric ended up taking them partially apart and tweaking again, trying to eliminate a small “miss” in the engine at certain RPMs.  He never did manage to get it quite perfect (despite being a professional mechanic for many years) but the bike ran fine anyway.

Before we left Eleanor said her major safety concern was the idiot texting on their phone and not seeing me.  That’s no problem in the Adirondacks, since cell phones rarely work.  When we did pass through a town with cell service, Eric would whip his iPhone out and update his Facebook page or something, Colin’s Jurassic-era phone would ring with a question about axles, and Steve & I would reply to a few emails.  It was really horribly geeky but fortunately the phones didn’t work about 80% of the time and thus we were left alone by the majority of the world.  To keep the phones charged, Steve and I had installed waterproof mounts that plugged into the BMW accessory sockets.  This also allowed us to use the phones as GPS/moving maps while riding.

We continued to wander up Rt 30, eventually past Meacham Lake and east on Rt 26, then along a county road to the tiny village of Mountain View.  I’m not sure why we were there, but predictably Colin’s Harley needed gas again, and there was exactly one place in town to get it, at the price of $4.39 per gallon.  It felt like a remote spot in Alaska.

It turned out also that the same place was the only restaurant for at least 20 miles, so we stuck around.  As with almost every place we’d been in the past two days, we were practically the only customers.  I liked that.

From there we headed east to Loon Lake, on the absolute worst (meaning best in adventure terms) so-called-paved road of the entire trip, namely “Old Route 99″ or the “Port Kent-Hopkinton Turnpike.”  Calling it a turnpike was certainly glamorizing it.  The road twisted and rolled, with wash-outs and potholes everywhere.  We didn’t see a single car the entire distance.  The BMWs loved it, and I think the other guys found it pretty fun too.

In Long Lake we had scored another free camp belonging to a fellow Airstreamer and friend of Colin’s, so it was the same procedure: divvy up the bedrooms, take a walk, hang out, listen to other guys snoring all night, and then in the morning mow the lawn and watch Eric do another service on the Ural (this time, tightening the steering head bearings).  But that was part of Day Three, which I’ll document tomorrow.


The Black Flies ride

Monday, June 18th, 2012

For quite a while I’ve been anticipating an unusual event as part of this year’s Airstream trip to the northeast.  My brother spent the winter acquiring and refurbishing a pair of BMW motorcycles, which we planned to take on a tour.  I just got back from that trip a few days ago, and finally have a chance to write it up.  I’ll post blogs about the trip over the next three days, starting with today.

Motorcycling was never something I had planned to return to.  My last bike was a Yamaha 550, sold in 1989 after I realized that it just wasn’t fitting into my life anymore.  It was fun, but I never looked back, until Steve started sending me links to stories of “adventure” riders who have ridden their BMW motorcycles on long and treacherous roads in remote parts of the world.  At this point in my life, a motorcycle still didn’t fit and I had even more reasons not to get back into it, but eventually I softened on the issue and began buying the necessary gear.

I’ve already described my first ride in the previous blog entry.  We had planned to take a three-day tour through New York’s Adirondack region starting Tuesday (see map below), but the weather got iffy and none of us were eager to ride in the rain.  So on Tuesday we used the clear morning hours to take a local tour through Vermont, up to Rt 100 and back, which (with various zig-zags on dirt roads past numerous farms) gave me another 80 miles of touring practice before the rain arrived.

This also gave us time to prepare. Eric’s Ural needed a little more tweaking of the drum brakes, which are weak at the best of times, and Emma was still at work painting up some black Airstream Life t-shirts for our gang.  We named ourselves “The Black Flies”:  Steve, Rich, Eric, and Colin.  Each of us adopted a gang name.  Mine was “Wally”, Steve was “Pusher,” Eric with his Russian-made Ural & sidecar was “Putin,” and Colin was “Axel” (deliberately misspelled).  We pledged to wear the shirts all three days no matter how stinky they got, and almost managed it.

On Wednesday the weather was clear again.  Steve, Eric, and I rolled out of the driveway and a few miles to the Charlotte-Essex ferry that crosses Lake Champlain.  In the hamlet of Essex NY, we met up with Colin and his thunderous 1980s-era Harley FLHT “shovelhead.”  It looked like a black limousine with four inches of ground clearance, a typical Harley of the era, with plenty of added chrome, huge saddlebags, and a “King Of The Highway” emblem.

As Colin noted, the Harley was basically the equivalent of two BMWs, since it had twice the number of cylinder (two to our one), twice the engine displacement (1350 cc versus our 650 cc engines) and weighed nearly twice as much.  These characteristics proved to be highly relevant later, especially the fuel economy.  The BMWs got a steady 69 MPG, while the Harley and the Ural were running more like 29 MPG, with the same size fuel tank.  As a result, we stopped for fuel a lot but Steve and I only filled up every other stop.

From the very beginning the ride was spectacular.  After all the practice the bike was beginning to feel like a part of my body, which is exactly what you want, and the sun was shining, and the roads were sensuously curvy.  We browsed through the towns of Essex, Port Henry, Mineville, and Schroon, taking every off-beat twisty road we could find.  I leaned into the corners with a feeling of absolute freedom, remembering why motorcyclists love to ride.

It wasn’t long, however, before Steve’s route plan began to challenge Colin’s Harley.  That thing was built for straight-line highway cruising, and Colin wasn’t sure at first how much he wanted to lean it.  He came up to speed fast, especially when we went off-road a little to explore a defunct amusement park in the woods.

A few hours later, we hit the first long dirt road of the trip, and had to pause for a conference before proceeding.  Could Colin’s bike make it?  The road was 30 miles long of single-lane former logging road that was only marginally improved.  Every inch of it was either a pothole or a FBR (Big Rock) embedded in the road, and with the road dappled by sun filtering through the trees overhead it was difficult to see what was coming.  If you took your eyes off the road for a split-second, it was virtually guaranteed that another FBR would arise directly in front of you.

Colin and the Harley’s low-slung crankcase miraculously survived this treatment, with good humor to boot.  Riding the BMWs, Steve and I were in paradise. This road was like a game for our deeply-suspended bikes, and I soon found myself dodging and weaving around the obstacles at 30 MPH with pleasure.  This sort of road (or worse) is exactly what these bikes were made for.  The 30 miles disappeared far too quickly for me.

We eventually found ourselves in the village of Old Forge, and from there rode a relatively boring stretch of highway all the way to the Adirondack Inn at Long Lake, where we stopped for dinner.  After dinner the air had dropped into the 50s and it took every stitch of warm layers I had to survive the 15 mile ride at dusk to our cabin at Blue Mountain Lake.  The other problem with riding at dusk is that the bugs and animals come out, so by the end I was tired of watching for deer and my visor was coated with smashed insects.  We had been out for 11 hours.

The cabin was borrowed for the night.  We were under orders to return it in immaculate condition, and that was a bit of pressure for four guys but we managed.  The hot water was off, which prevented the glorious pre-bedtime shower I would have liked, but Eric got the hot water going for the morning.  We divvied up the beds, wiped the bugs off the visors, split a half-gallon of ice cream, and crashed by 11 p.m.  It had been an awesome day, and we were all looking forward to more…

Sunday cruise

Monday, June 11th, 2012

When we drive through New York’s Adirondack Mountains in June, heading to Vermont, it seems we always encounter a little light rainshower.  This year held to the rule, and I was noting that despite the dampness there were a lot of motorcyclists heading south in large groups.  It was the last day of Americade, a big annual gathering of bikers in upstate New York.

Further north the weather was gorgeously clear, fantastic conditions for a ride, and there were even more bikers to be seen.  Watching them sweep through the curves of the sinuous roads made me think forward to the ride that we’ve got planned this week, which will also be in the Adirondacks.  It has been over two decades since I rode a motorcycle, and frankly I’ve been very thoughtful and a bit nervous about the prospect.

On Saturday after we had parked the Airstream and set up, I finally had a chance to inspect my ride.  It’s a BMW F650 GS “Dakar”.  It’s categorized as a “dual sport” bike, meaning that it rides tall almost like a dirt bike but is equally comfortable on pavement.  The bike was renovated by my brother over the winter, along with his identical ride, supervised by my father the aircraft mechanic, so I had confidence that all of the systems were in good order.  I sat on the BMW and manipulated the controls, wondering if I really remembered how it all worked or if I was just kidding myself.

Sunday morning was my first chance to actually take it out.  We were joined by Eric, who brought his 1996 Russian-made Ural motorcycle with sidecar.  The Ural is no hot rod, but it gets plenty of attention on the road.  It has two distinct benefits:  (1) it isn’t really geared for highway speeds, so we have a good excuse to go slowly; (2) the sidecar provides a great place for us to store extra gear and the tools & spare parts that a Ural inevitably needs when on a roadtrip.  The Ural marks its territory wherever it parks (meaning, it leaks).  It also gets poorer fuel economy than our Honda Fit.  Eric thinks it gets something like 15 rubles to the hectare, or something like that.  It’s hard to say since the speedometer isn’t accurate and all the gauges are in Russian.

(The photo is of me and friend Kathy posing on the Ural.  We weren’t going anywhere.  My normal riding gear includes an armored high-visibility jacket, helmet, gloves, and steel-toed boots.)

The BMW turned out to be an excellent bike.  It fired up smoothly and clunked into first gear exactly like my old Yamaha 550.  I cautiously ran it up the driveway about 35 feet just to see if I could.  I didn’t fall off and I didn’t stall, but that was probably because of the silky-smooth clutch that made shifting easy, and the comfortable riding position. But the big test was ahead.  I wasn’t worried about the motorcycle, I was concerned about myself.

We set off. At first I had to get re-acquainted with the sensations I’d forgotten: the pressure of wind on your chest, the feel of the suspension on the bumps, the thumping of the one-cylinder engine.  Then I started thinking about smoothness.  Despite the forgiving clutch, I had a few shifts that were embarrassingly clunky, and I had to remind myself, just flick the throttle. Don’t over-analyze it.  The less I thought about the shifting, the smoother it became, which is the sign that your muscle memory is ahead of your conscious brain.  When that happens, it’s time to relax and put your cerebrum onto another task.

Before we’d gone a few miles down the road I knew my neighbor Frank was right when he told me that you never forget how.  I stopped worrying about whether I’d remember which pedal was the brake, and started focusing on situational awareness.  My use of the controls needed a few hours of polishing, but I knew that the key to a successful ride was going to be my ability to anticipate what was coming and know what my responses would be.  In other words, don’t doze along and then react hurriedly when something “unexpected” happens, be ready.  It’s the same thing I do when towing the Airstream.

We took the long way through the towns of Charlotte and Shelburne VT on this absolutely perfect day.  Numerous bikers were on the road, along with cyclists participating in a road race.  Our goal was simply to explore some varying roads and shake out any problems with the bikes or the drivers.  After about 30 minutes we stopped at a friend’s house, then went on to breakfast at the Dutch Mill, and then to the big-box stores to pick up a few last-minute items.

I attached a GoPro Hero2 video camera to the top of my helmet, and shot a little video along the way just to see how it worked.  33 minutes of video have been edited down to two and a half minutes, so if you want to waste a couple of minutes of your day you can watch it here.

We had an interesting episode on the ferry across Lake Champlain, from New York to Vermont, on Saturday.  I was directed to pull the Airstream straight on to the ferry, which would put the streetside next to the center wall.  As always, I pulled up carefully, eyeing the trailer in the mirror.  The crew member who was directing us forward looked confused, then said loudly,”You can’t see that trailer, can you?”  Well, of course I can see my own trailer.  It’s the big shiny thing in the mirror.

I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up through the windshield to reassure him, but for some reason he really was convinced that the Airstream was invisible to me.  Maybe it was because I was inching the Airstream closer to the wall (I figured they’d want me to be tight to it, as ferries are usually short on space for large vehicles).  He might have thought I wasn’t aware that the trailer was within 6 inches of the wall by the time I finishing pulling in, and that I was going to hit the wall.  Then he yelled, “You need towing mirrors!”  Hm. I don’t have anything against towing mirrors, but in the space I had, they would have needed to be folded in anyway, so they’d be useless in this situation.

I get variations on this a lot.  It’s a rare stop when somebody doesn’t come up and question our choice of tow vehicle, or “help” us park, or even (and this really happened) suggest that we unhitch on a hill so that he can tow us up instead.  I’m all for learning new things, but in most cases the people who are trying to help us with towing issues don’t know what they are talking about.  We just smile and then get the job done.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine