Monday had arrived, my week of New Orleans was up and I couldn’t put off the decision any more. Do I keep going west to cross Texas and tool around the southwest in summer heat, or turn north, backtracking to mountains and tolerable temperatures? I’d discussed traveling with Davide before, who was heading to Bandcamp the next weekend in Toronto, OH – about 1,400 miles. I liked the idea; it would be something new to have a riding partner for so many miles, and I was ready to leave the swamp. But I had lurking concerns about how each of us would face the challenges of traveling closely with someone new.
My apprehension was quickly allayed. I knew everything would be okay when Davide showed up Monday morning outside my AirBnb like this…
Over the next five days, I’d learn that not only is Davide a great road companion, but we actually have a lot in common. And his bike is henceforth to be referred to as Partybike.
Changing gears to a tight schedule with many miles to cover, we charted a route, part Interstate part secondary, backtracking through Mississippi and into Alabama. I found a state park near Montgomery that would be our destination for the evening.
We rolled into camp past dark, but couldn’t find a ranger that evening or in the morning either. Oh well!
We worked out gas breaks for us roughly every 100 miles. Davide’s GS650 has a bigger tank, but a lot of it was reserve. Interestingly, because his bike was enjoying its mid range when mine was operating near full capacity, he actually came close to my gas mileage many times. Close, but never ahead, bwahaha.
The Barber Motorsports Museum was on my must-go list. Davide was game to follow, but enthusiasm immediately took off when we stepped inside. I’ll try not to clog the post with the million photos I took.
Somehow, we lost 3 hours in the museum, and were starving. On the way in, I’d noticed smoke from a restaurant and a sign with the promising letters B-B-Q on them, and alerted my omnivorous companion.
We booked it to our hostel for the evening, there would be a late check in fee of $10 after 9pm and I forgot about the time change. Still, we somehow managed to ride through Lookout Mountain (thanks for the suggestion, Win/klaviator!), which was utterly beautiful. I could not have been happier with that cool mountain air, but the day wasn’t over.
Davide had suggested Crashpad, where he had stayed on his ride to NOLA. When we arrived, silently whooping because we’d beat the 9pm cutoff by a good 20 minutes and had a fantastic ride in the mountains, we noticed the street had been blocked off. Undeterred by such pedestrian (or vehicular) obstacles, we rode around and parked the bikes…directly in the middle of a film shoot. I went to check in while Davide made sure we were okay.
Not only were we okay, they actually liked having the loaded bikes out front: they were shooting a commercial for the tourism board. And gave us $30 to leave them there.
I had a fancy tapas-style dinner and cocktail next door, at Flying Squirrel, with Davide.
Also, Crashpad is the ritziest, loveliest hostel I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. The bunks are sturdy and private, with outlets by each one for your devices. Showers are modern beauties. The entire building has a clean, custom-made high-end Ikea aesthetic. Breakfast included, and I made myself two fried eggs and toast with coffee (both local) early the next morning while mulling over staying an extra day and arriving at Bandcamp on Saturday. Davide would understand, he knew how great this spot was.
However, after my second cup of coffee, I knew I’d be better off packing up. We had a Dragon to slay that day.
Davide told me later that as we passed the line of motorcyclists waiting on the other side, they all turned and stared in unison. I’m picturing kitten gifs style.
Thunder clouds hovered ominously, but I was already committed. I’d been warned the Tail of the Dragon is practically Disneyland for motorcyclists now – commercialized, touristy, and overcrowded. “There are more fun rides, with less fuss,” was one person’s opinion. However, like going to Bourbon St on a weekend, I felt that as a rider I personally needed to do this at least once. The Dragon eluded me the first time I was passing through, because it was Memorial Day weekend and I didn’t want to end up another smear on route 129 from crowding. But today, I was going to be a moto-tourist, and slay the dragon. I was excited as we parked our bikes amongst the rows of fellow two-wheelers at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, and took photos.
Three turns into the fun part, this happened:
We ended up waiting about an hour at a turnoff with other stranded motorcyclists while an impressive thunderstorm passed – lightning, thunder, sheets of water falling from the sky. I knew my Vespa would be tricky on wet roads, so our fellow riders kindly offered their car as chase vehicle (mostly for my benefit). Absorbed into our new train but grateful to see dryer bikers coming from the other direction, we slayed the wettest, slowest dragon ever. But at least in my mind, I imagined the steam rising from the road to be steam from the gaping wounds of a freshly slaughtered mythical beast.
It was one of those highly localised squalls. After bumming around in the Harley Davidson store to let things dry out, we sucked in a last breath of air conditioning and emerged to a sunny, humid, clear day. And had a much better, proper, ride back to Robbinsville.
Like many motorcyclists with stuff just strapped onto their bike, I like sitting within eyesight of my scooter. We had this prime spot at the Mexican restaurant Killboy had recommended in town, and I realized there’s another bonus: as I inhaled nachos, I could watch people walking by slow down near the bikes, their eyes go to the plates, and mouths unmistakably form the words, “Rhode Island and Virginia.” It was like a game, Would The Passerbys Slow Down? If they did, it was invariably followed by some gesticulating to express curiosity or perhaps derision at this odd pair. My favorite moment was from a couple just leaving the restaurant, so I could still hear through the open door.
“Hey honey, look at that blue scooter. That’s cute, you could ride that.”
“We could get you one to ride the Dragon.”
“Pffhah! And I’d die!”
The door closed and with it I lost audio to my live show, but they paused by the bikes and I’d gotten pretty good at lip-reading, “Rhode Island.” If only they asked, I thought, I could explain. But the loaded down Vespa next to a ‘real bike’ companion that took pity on it were merely passing moments of oddity and amusement for them, to be pointed and stared at like a baby turtle illogically but heartwarmingly adopted by wolves. Or like a blue dingleberry on a monkey’s butt at the zoo. Hopefully more the former.
More importantly, we’d lost time to the storm, and the sun was quickly setting. We had another 100 or so miles to go on our original agenda, but damp and tired, we decided to spread the unfinished miles out over the next two days and look for a campground in Robbinsville. Both of us were on a budget, so the more resort-y motorcycle lodges were out. Yelp turned up Simple Life Campground with Cabins, and I called while waiting for food. Normally, they have a 2-night minimum, but as Davide put it, I sounded particularly pathetic on the phone, explaining the thunderstorm, our present location (the restaurant, “We’re staaarving.”), and desperate search for affordable accommodations for 2 people before the sun went down. I thanked the owner profusely for making an exception.
It turned out to be a wonderful, tucked away little spot for motorcyclists. Cabins weren’t on my radar as a solo traveler, but with a buddy to split the cost we could sleep a dry, AC-ed night.
Our cabin, the Duckling Nest, looked like a duck-themed yard sale had exploded inside. Davide and I would chuckle about this for days, but it was cozy and gave us a reason to laugh so it’s in good nature.
Emerging from a much-needed shower, I noticed the beckoning flicker of a campfire on a nearby deck. Feeling unusually gregarious, I armed myself with a freshly opened bottle of cider, waved, and approached the group, hoping to appear as un-creepy as possible. Putting myself out there was one of the best things I did that night. Davide joined us when he had cleaned up, and we ended up sharing drinks and conversation with the guys way past when I thought I’d be asleep. They rode down from Lake Geneva area on a few Harleys and a Triumph for a week of pleasure riding, and liked Davide and my respective stories (let’s face it, we both take some explaining). I love motorcycle campgrounds for this kind of thing.
Speaking of explaining, a quick backstory on my riding companion. I knew Davide from the Not Summit Point scooter rally in Gettysburg, PA last year, and for riding a Stella 400+ miles in a day to a rally. He’s from Italy (and will unabashedly play it up for the ladies!), but has been in Virginia doing a PhD for the past 5 years, 4 of them in the 7 Hills Scooter Club. Bandcamp was the last of three rallies in a row he planned to ride to – after East Coast Classic and Amerivespa. This is not to mention his club’s rally, the Dogwood Classic, which you may remember from an earlier post. Basically, he’s crazy, and at stop lights we both bike-dance to our respective in-helmet earphones. This is probably a metaphor for something.
Davide wanted to take the Blue Ridge Parkway back north and turn from Boone to ride the Snake, so we had a long day planned. I was happy for the cooler temps, and confident I’d made the right choice to turn north again. Emboldened by the break in the weather and recent Dragon slaying, we raced around the curves, passing cars and darting (perhaps obnoxiously) in front of slow trains. Davide would ride ahead and wait at scenic stops, his bike actually capable of handling uphills. I hit wide open throttle repeatedly, but enjoyed the heck out of it.
I waved Davide ahead again before we hit the curves of the Snake, since I’d done the ride before. This time though, with the tight turns, I was right on his butt… until I went to de-activate my Crampbuster and heard the TIK Tik tik of plastic on asphalt disappearing behind me. Oops. Snake ate my Crampbuster.
Personally, I like the Snake over the Dragon. I like the break in between at the general store, and how you can see more of the curves of the road sway ahead of you. Like, aha, a snake.
At the Shady Valley General Store, we kept checking radar, waiting, and hoping the storms on the second half of the Snake would clear. I actually took the chance to catch up on some drawing, and Davide rehydrated a hot meal. Every time it looked clear, we’d move the bikes to get ready to go, and the rain would start again.
The store closed around us. Nervous about keeping our hosts up late, we finally made the call, put on rain gear, and rolled out. Maybe a mile towards the mountains, I could see lightning illuminate dark clouds, and gray fuzz dead ahead that could only be rain. Thunder rolled in the distance.
I made another call and pulled over to talk to Davide, my spidey senses tingling at the thought of steeply banked, soon-to-be-dark mountain roads and my Vespa’s history with rain. New plan: cut east the long way around the cloud system, pick up the interstate, and shoot to Bastian, VA, as fast as possible. I gave him the out to meet me ahead if he wanted to complete the Snake, his bike being more able to stay upright in bad weather.
“No way, I’m going with you now. I’ve had enough twisties for today.” I’d forgotten, we’d raced along the Blue Ridge too.
We were a limp, sorry, but inexpressibly grateful pair when we arrived at the home of Don and Tracy (LadyDraco). Too tired to care about appearances and decide who gets the couch, we collapsed into the one queen-sized bed and passed out.
I’d really wanted to meet LadyDraco, who had reached out the first time I passed through, and Mike had stayed with before we met at Shady Valley. I felt terrible for arriving so late, though they took it with grace and understanding. Thankfully, around a massive table in their farm house, we had a chance to chat a bit in over breakfast. They’re longhorn ranchers, quietly rugged, youthfully energetic, and with that no-nonsense kind of vibe (she wore braids the reminded me of the pilot in Ghibli’s movie, Castle in the Sky). And they’ve ridden everywhere. I hoped it wasn’t rude to be taking notes as they talked. Did I mention they have an incredible garage? I’m so glad they shared their kindness with a stranger and stranger-in-tow.
Actually, it was especially rewarding chatting with another female rider – a phrase I usually cringe to I hear. I mentioned a story about Davide and I taking a break at a gas station store. The attendant, noting the full gear, asked, “What’re you riding?”
“The blue one is mine, and he’s on the BMW,” I said, pointing outside.
He looked confused for a second, and then admitted, “I thought you were on the back.” Ah, having traveled solo, I hadn’t encountered this before. It wasn’t the last time, either.
LadyDraco laughed, and had my favorite response ever, “Yeah, I just sit on the back while the invisible man in front of me drives.”
Just in case rider masculinity hadn’t been attacked yet, at another rest stop a couple tough-looking motorcyclists were looking over the bikes. “So, the question is, which one of you has the scooter?”
Laughing at the faint note of condescension, I piped up, “It’s mine.”
“How do you keep up?”
“I lead.” I do have the slower bike and like route planning more than Davide.
“So what you’re saying is,” addressing him now, “she has bigger balls than you.” The genital size war trope, an old favorite.
But Davide doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s why she needs the leg shield.”
We had such a good time exchanging stories in the morning, I didn’t take photos! Bah! I hope to see Tracy and Don again sometime on the road.
We were closing in on Bandcamp, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the week riding with Davide. In a world that feels more comfortable putting people in a boxes, neither of us fit easily. I think that’s part of why we get along; we both require explanation and can’t be bothered anymore with meeting or beating assumptions (I joked with him that the theme of this ride was, “All the fucks I give.”). Egos secure, personal abilities communicated for safety, we proceeded straight to putting rubber on the road – just two crazy people riding far from home.
It was great riding with Davide!
Remember that feather boa he showed up with? On long straight stretches when it was just us, he would take his hands off the bars and steer with his weight. And then he realized he could steer with the boa, and blasted past me flicking the feathers like reigns of a horse.
I, in turn, found I could elevate my swollen ankle by propping it on the leg shield. And soon realized I could prop both my legs on the shield, steering with my shins. I couldn’t take my hand off the throttle, but I’d shoot past him on an empty stretch, throwing a peace sign with the free hand.
In traffic, we held two-person slow races. I shared my snacks, he shared his dehydrated meals and beer space in his much roomier cooler (like I said, Partybike). We ran on coffee, and cursed camping. Moto-air guitar and dancing at stop lights was standard procedure. One time, after crawling through hours of rain, we pulled into a gas station only to have both credit machines refuse our cards.
It was great not to be the only person at the station creating a personal thunderstorm of language for what appeared to be a relatively minor offense.
True, I was swept up in his faster pace and was looking forward to going my speed again. And I wouldn’t miss explaining to people that we’re not a couple, goddammit. But I would miss riding with him immensely. So, this is why people like having a riding buddy for those long hauls. I get it now. For a week, he was the Charley to my Ewan.
1560 miles in 5 days blew by. And to top it off, we’re at Bandcamp!
I suppose it bears mentioning that even though I thought I’d gotten my kicks out at Dogwood, I did cave to the beckoning of the ramp just once. Note: Do not just point it straight. I’m sorry, Matt’s Stella, and the spilled beer of those sitting on the edge.
Going to Amerivespa and Bandcamp back to back… is an exercise in contrast. At Amerivespa, everything is under control. Rides are well organized, police escorts previously arranged, and the hotel catered. It’s the kind of event you can enjoy with hundreds of other scooters, and still go to bed at a reasonable hour. The attendance was mostly twist-n-go (modern scooters with CVT transmission), and the handful of vintage really stood out.
Bandcamp… well, the first thing I heard, besides the fireworks, was that there had already been one trip to the ER (7 Hills scooterist down, oh no!). Organized by the Pittsburg Vintage Scooter Club, it’s called Bandcamp for being held at a marching band practice ground in their off season. Scooterists camp in a circle around the central, football field sized lawn, and as long as that middle part doesn’t get torn up, anything goes. I can’t believe they get asked back (why are there buckets of ramen in the grass?), but nobody violates the cardinal rule, and this is their 15th year.