With the days getting longer, I start to plan the upcoming summer’s trips. I collect last year’s shirt pocket notes outlining interesting destinations and lay them on my desk. These notes provide events and places that caught my fancy and might make the cut as a worthwhile destination.
When do the WWII airplanes arrive in Geneseo, N.Y.? Do I want to ride to Jack Kehoe’s Hibernian House, the Irish Pub in Girardville, Pa., which was the meeting place of the Molly McQuires, a group of Irish miners who plotted against the hard-coal mine owners and made their plans in this hotel. Their story is told in a movie of the same name starring Sean Connery as Mr. Kehoe. Do I ride north to Watkins Glen to live through the NASCAR extravaganza or wait until the perfectly relaxed September celebration that is Vintage at the Glen?
Two-lanes are my preferred motorcycle adventure roads. I consider the interstates as the city escape route to the back roads of my trip. William Least Heat Moon kept to these back roads in his wonderful 1978 autobiographical book Blue Highways. This five-year journey was prompted by life changing events, as Least Heat decided to get over his divorce and badly timed job loss to travel America on the back country roads that were the blue lines in the older road atlases. His Ford Econoline van served him well and his journeys made for a great book.
When I have finally decided on the summer’s destinations, I turn to my travel library to finish the job. My resources are books I have acquired over the years. Some were published in the 1930s while the others are relatively new entries into the atlas world.
Gazetteers: State map atlases are broken down into highly detailed maps that includes the smaller roads that are omitted in either the standard road atlases or state maps. These gazette pages show the lay of the land with topographical maps and the minor roads that provide shortcuts between the blue highways. I have these wonderful gazetteers for my home state of Pennsylvania, along with the surrounding states of New York, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia, and Virginia to North Carolina, as they are great destinations with perfectly wonderful Appalachian Mountain roads in these states south of my western Pennsylvania home.
The American Guide Series: These books were published by the Work Progress Administration’s writer’s project. The volumes were penned by out of work writers who researched the towns, landmarks, industry and people in these state-specific books. The writers also outlined tours using the late ‘30s main roads, which are now today’s farm to market roads or Least Heat’s blue highways. These WPA guidebooks can be found on Internet auction sites by searching for “The American Guide Series” under books.
Secondarily I refer to various computer-mapping programs, which allow for the easy checking of the miles between towns, overnight reservations and local attractions that give purpose to the ride.
Finally, after my roads, destinations and interesting stops are outlined on yellow pads. I break the trip into reasonable sections as I transfer my planned routes and cities, with a black marker, onto 6 x 8 note cards, which can readily be seen in my map holder, the plastic case on my gas tank. I developed this route note habit when I pushed McLean Trucking Company 18-wheelers up and down the pre-GPS East Coast with my routes penciled on a piece of paper held buy a metal clip on the side of the dash.
I have many friends who rely on GPSes to direct their travels. Theses riders look at my note cards with obvious disdain as they ride with a disembodied Bluetooth voice directing their every turn. This is fine in a rental car, while rushing to get to an appointment on time; but when I am on a motorcycle journey I prefer note cards and the random possibility of getting lost. I find that being aimlessly lost is the best way to discover the serendipitous happenings of the highway
Missing a note card turn has caused me to stumble onto the most memorable places, sites and people, while wandering lost, depending on the sun to show east and west.
I found a haunted hotel in Germania, Pa., which was upgraded from a pocket note to a perfect overnight stop the next year. This hotel/general store was discussed as the main stop in my “Wooden Hotel Weekend” MOA article.
During one layover, in an unknown settlement somewhere in the mountainous netherworld between West Virginia and Virginia, an old fellow came up to us and started talking about his old Indian motorcycle with a youthful glint in his eye. After a 45-minute discussion, he ended up pointing up toward the road out of town with a, “Be careful, you can’t swing a cat round the bends up and over that mountain.”
While lost in Virginia’s western tail I walked into what appeared to be a busy furniture store, but in reality it was a hangout for its semi-retired owner and eight of his old friends relaxing in their chairs, semi circled, facing the window. I opened the front door and said, “This looks like the place that I can get an answer to my question.” One of the old men replied, as he directed me to their coffee maker, “Sit down, big fellow, we are going to answer all of you questions.” I spent over an hour discussing the downturn of their town of Saltville and the concurring decline of the gypsum mines, gun control, religion and politics. It was time well spent and would not have happened on a GPS-directed tour.
These places and people found in a lost wander make the trip worthwhile. I choose to ride an older Airhead BMW motorcycle on my journeys, as these Airheads are “simple by choice” and lack the computers and electric controls of the new motorcycles. This “simple by choice” idea extends to my travels. I do not need a machine telling me where to turn, which way to go.
In a machine-outlined trip I would never see the world through the eyes of retired miners or share the young years of an old fellow’s two-wheeled Indian youth. These meetings give a depth to a trip and make travel rewarding. When I plan my summer trips, I remember the glint in the old rider’s eyes as he shared the adventures of his youth.
He was right. The curves were great and the memory of the old man describing the upcoming curves with a cat is even better.