Hey dude, where’s my Airstream?

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

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

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

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.