TBM stalled?

There are two reasons that I came back to Tucson for two weeks, while the rest of the Airstream’s crew is up in Vermont.  Reason #1:  I had a dentist appointment that just couldn’t wait, and couldn’t be done up in Vermont.  Reason #2:  I had an enormous backlog of work as a result of being on the road for a few weeks and being at Alumapalooza.

Now, I can get the work done fairly efficiently up in Vermont because we have friends who will lend me their home offices with fast Internet.  (It’s still not as efficient as being here, because if I’m home alone I’ll work longer hours.)  But the big requirement was the dental appointment; I just couldn’t skip that.

See, these days I’ve got braces on my teeth.  Yes, at age forty-something I went to the orthodontist to finally have my crazy bite and radically misaligned teeth straightened.  They were driving me bonkers whenever I tried to eat. Now both Emma and I have braces, a moment of shared father-daughter experience.  I can’t say that it has been especially bonding, but Emma has been helpful with tips, like how to eat popcorn.

I thought I was pretty old to get braces until I ran in our good friend Petey at Alumapalooza.  She said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing that!  I was very happy that I had braces.”  Her teeth looked perfect.  I asked her, “When did you get braces?” and she replied, “When I was 70.”  So that put me in my place, and now I don’t feel particularly old to have tinsel teeth.

And I’ve been amazed that the things really work as well as advertised (see pics, I apologize to those of you who really didn’t want to see a closeup of my mouth).  Two months into it I’m already seeing quite an improvement.  22 months to go …

Having two members of the family in braces at the same time has been detrimental to our Airstreaming.  This is the first time in several years that E&E haven’t spent eight to twelve weeks in Vermont.  With our mutual dental appointments we just can’t stay away from home base for long, so I will be flying back up to Vermont on Monday and next week we will hitch up the Airstream and haul our traveling circus back the 2,700 miles to Tucson.  We’ll be here for the rest of the season, riding out the heat until it’s time to go to Colorado for Alumafandango.

The trip back from east coast to (nearly) west coast is a mammoth one.  When we were full-timing we would take about a month to go this far, but this time we have a mere twelve days.  That’s 225 miles per day on average, although realistically we’ll do a lot of 400-500 mile days and then stop for a couple to catch our breath.  I would really like to see a few things along the way.  It’s torture to just keep driving past interesting stops, and I’m not crazy about spending $750 in fuel just to see Interstate concrete roll by for 44 hours.  In the end our trip will probably come in at more like 3,000 miles because straight lines and Interstates are boring — and even that represents a serious effort at avoiding distractions.

I’ve discovered that two weeks as TBM doesn’t give me enough time to get into trouble, which is unfortunate.  The backlog of work was so massive that I’ve been locked to the laptop.  So my plans to do a follow-up Sonoran Hot Dog test, go tent camping, and take a roadtrip have all failed.  Instead, I’ve been working on Alumafandango (which is coming together nicely now), next year’s Alumapalooza, and of course that “other job” of publishing a magazine.  (The Fall 2012 issue is now in layout and will be distributed in early August.)

Plus, I’ve been working on two other projects.  One of them is a caravan, and the other is a third Aluma-event.  Brett & I have talked extensively about this and we know we can really only afford the time to do one or the other, and right now it’s not clear which we will pull off.  We are both approaching total saturation and after this we are either going to have to stop launching new projects, or get some help.  (I mean staff help, not psychiatric help, although we may need both.)

We’ll figure that out soon.  In the meantime, Alumafandango is occupying both our minds.  This summer’s heat meant that everyone is anxious about baking while they are in Denver, so we managed to work up twenty “30-amp” campsites (which allow you to run your air conditioner).  We announced them to the current registrants with an upgrade price of $125 and POOF! they were gone in 48 hours.  We now have a waiting list of people who are hoping we can get more, and that’s definitely something we are going to try to do.  So if you were staying away from Alumafandango because we didn’t have 30-amp, now you can go ahead and register and get on the wait list for delicious coolness.

TBM has been stalled this time by tedious practicalities, but I’ve got one weekend left before the TBM flag comes down.  I’ll ponder a few ideas for this weekend and try to get into something that will make you proud.

The Black Flies climb a mountain

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

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

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

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.