Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 1)

There is a strange but undeniable charm to riding a motorcycle through desolation.  Riding a motorcycle for long distances can be uncomfortable, and requires endurance and alertness.  But one is also much more intimately in touch with the environment and the road.  The texture of the air and the smells, the road surface, navigating the curves, the exposure to the wind and the sounds, ... It is perhaps this closer connection to the elements and being a more involved part of the ride that attracts the adventurous to this form of transport.

It is somewhat riskier than driving a car, but that doesn't hold anyone back.  In fact, cars have become too comfortable.  Heated seats, automatic everything, seat belts and silence, are comfortable, but also insulate the driver from the experience of the journey.  Motorcyclists in the US euphemistically call car drivers as "cagers" - people trapped in a metal cage looking out through their window - while the motorcyclist is "free".

My last long ride was in California.  From Orange county, I went through the deserts and the western Sierra mountains to the Devil's Postpile national monument, and on to Mammoth Lake.  It was a great ride.

After I moved to Virginia, winter set in and the motorcycle had to go into hibernation.  A few weeks into the spring, and I was longing for another long ride.  I asked around, and almost everybody, and every website, recommended a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park.  Interestingly, the road itself is the national park.  Hundreds of trails, scenic overlooks, historical places, cultural artifacts, mountains and lakes are scattered on both sides of the road.  The road starts near Cherokee, NC and meanders 469 miles before ending at the entrance of the Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro in Virginia.  The speed limit on the road is a leisurely 45mph.  It can be done in one day, but obviously that would make one miss out on pausing to enjoy the scenery and the side attractions.

I decided to take a Friday off, travel to the South end and then ride the parkway all the way to the North.  Many riders preferred the ride from South to North as the sun wouldn't be in one's eyes for most of the day.  And also, after finishing the ride, the long 500 mile ride back home on the busy high-speed freeways, with trucks and all, wouldn't be something to look forward to.  To do that (relatively humdrum) distance before the ride would be psychologically more canny.

For me, the parkway ride would therefore begin at milepost 469 (the south end) and end at milepost 0 (the north end).  From the north end, it is 120 miles to home.

The weather forecast showed scattered showers during the Saturday and Sunday in that region.  I decided to take a chance.  If it starting raining too heavily, I could always stop and wait.

I booked a night's stay in Maggie Valley, NC (about 19 miles from Cherokee), and another near Meadows of Dan, VA (milepost 180 or so).  I decided to go the whole way to Maggie Valley (almost 500 miles from Northern Virginia, where I live) on day 1.  Then cover almost 300 miles each during the next two days.  It proved to be a good plan.

There are no gas stations on the parkway.  Not even a stop sign or a traffic signal or a sign showing where to get gas.  So I had to plan the stops with my motorcycle's fuel range in mind.  Suzuki C50 has a gas tank capacity of 4.1 gallons, with each gallon contributing around 50 miles.  I chose the parkway junctions with other highways where I wouldn't have to go too far to get gas.

It was Thursday evening.  With the planning and bookings done, it was time to get physically and mentally ready.  I packed my backpack (to be attached to the bike using bungee cords), made sure to carry some warm layers of clothing, filled my water bottle and the travel-ready flask of Vodka, and went to sleep.  I planned to start early the next day.  It was going to be a long, long ride.

I started around 7am.  It was almost 65 degrees F, pleasant and not too warm.  I kept the warm layers packed, and after a quick breakfast, proceeded to ride to my first stop: to have coffee at Harrisonburg, 120 miles from home.

Earplugs in, jacket and helmet and visor and gloves on, all systems go!

It was an uneventful ride.  Continuing on the interstate 66 East, I soon came to its junction with the notorious (too may trucks!) but beautiful intestate 81 South.

At Harrisonburg, I stopped for gas and coffee.  I was so cold that I could not stay indoors in the air-conditioned cafe, but had to come out into the sun.  That told me I needed to wear some more layers.  As I was finishing my coffee, a man came to look at my motorcycle and remarked that he too was the owner of a C50.  We chit-chatted, and he wished me luck.  Interestingly, there was a "spa" right next to the gas station.  It looked shady.  Why would there be a "spa" near a truck stop?  I googled it and my guess proved right.  It was an establishment of "pleasure".  Hmm... I guess the truckers do need a good massage.

Continuing South, I tried to take the parallel, lower-speed US-11 for a more relaxed ride.  81-South has a speed limit of 70mph.  That means most traffic, including a LOT of 18-wheeler trucks, are hurtling down at 75mph or more.  It is fast, but also not too enjoyable.  It turned out that the side-road, US-11, had too many stop signs or stop lights.  From being relaxing and leisurely, it quickly became bothersome.  I decided to get back on 81-South.

The traffic wasn't too bad.  There were quite a few trucks, but I was cruising at 75mph in the right lane, and thankfully they kept their distance.

It was getting warmer and warmer.

Soon I was near Blacksburg, and it was lunchtime.  The Virginia Tech University was nearby, and I decided to try the country restaurant chain "Cracker Barrel".  I had never eaten there, and had heard good things about it.  First thing I ordered was a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.  It was heavenly.  And it came with endless refills.  So I had another!  I ordered a big sized burger with all kinds of country seasonings, and almost couldn't finish it.  There were easy chairs on a porch outside, and I lounged around for a while, while looking at retired folks (it was Friday, a working day) coming for their lunch.  All white people.  No Asians, Blacks or Hispanics.  No students.  And mostly couples.  It was quaint.  The Cracker Barrel restaurants have a country "store" next to their dining room.  They sell preserves, quilts and chairs, and other "country" stuff.  Oh well...

I had traveled almost 260 miles.  Only half-way done.

(to be continued)

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