Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Big Trip: A partial success.

I've completed The Big Mid-West Trip.

A little backstory first:

This was a dual-purpose trip. Initially, it was just a trip to Illinois to see an important 8th grade graduation. From there, it evolved into an entire 8-9 day vacation, involving visits to friends, and my brother in Bloomington, Indiana. Further on, it became personal time as well. I couldn't let that many vacation days go by without at least claiming a few for myself.

So, I had a vague idea of where I was going at the start - I needed to get to Illinois quickly, but after that, I had a pretty flexible itinerary. (Itineraries and I don't generally mix).

Part 1: The Way Out

I left Frederick on Saturday morning at about 7AM. I'd been watching impending storms in the West, tracking along the exact interstate route I had mapped out. I chose to take I-70 to I-68, then I-64 North back to I-70 across the flat states all the way to Indianapolis. Of course, severe thunderstorms had picked this exact course, just in reverse order. Nonetheless, I couldn't delay. I fully intended on being in the Chicago area that evening. Typically, this trip would take me about 11 hours in a car (via the I-80 toll road). This route was a 12 hour ride per my maps. So no time to delay If I wished to be in Chicago before sundown.

I had the new V-Strom packed and ready in short order. For the past month, it's been put to the test, and shown itself to be a formidable machine. 500 miles each week commuting, and 2 successful longer West Virgina day-trips had given me much confidence in this new bike. I wasn't able to outfit as completely as I'd hoped (no Caribou cases), but I packed light and it seemed to work -

Small tent
Wolfman tankbag
Crappy Tailbag
Average-sized backpack

The morning Interstate was nearly deserted, which made for easy travel. As I rode West on I-68, the sky became progressively darker. ("Who in their right mind rides directly into severe thunderstorms? And who makes it a habit?" was going through my mind. Lately, I couldn't seem to miss one). I jumped off the road in Cumberland to get the rain-gear out as the first drops began to plink on my visor.

Just in time. No sooner did I get back on the highway than did the heavens drastically darken. I am not afraid of rain or whathaveyou, but the color of the sky did give me a little *gulp*. Can't stop, gotta be somewhere.

Over the next rise, the storm and I met head on. I could see it a half-mile in front of me before the actual interface. The trees at the near-horizon were in motion and blurry. It and I connected like two battling armies on the big screen during a Mel Gibson epic. My speedometer went from 70 to 30 without even closing the throttle. I actually felt an impact.

Visibility near zero now, I pushed on at 45 MPH. Gotta be somewhere. I tried recalling the radar maps I'd seen before leaving. How far across was this storm? Was there more than one? These answered turned out to be "Too far", and "Yes", of course. I found the other side eventually, and shook off the water as I found my way back to interstate speeds - I'd simply shaken my fist at the heavens and cut my way through the storms. I was Ahab. I was George Clooney. And of course, I was mistaken.

Around the next mountain, (which was named, humorously or tragically, Negro Mountain), was yet another storm. How something so large can conceal itself is a mystery to me. This next storm was a bigger, slightly meaner brother to the first. I actually had to leave the big road at an exit to hide amongst the trees of a gravel track to wait it out, thus adding 30 minutes to my voyage. Once it did subside, I was back on the slab.

This cycle repeated itself a total of 6 times. 6 individual storms, each with their own personality traits. I pulled off in Morgantown, WV to take stock and get coffee. Here, I discovered that nothing, nothing I have ever found, is waterproof. I had things in Ziploc bags inside of other plastic bags, but water found it's way there. When I leaned the V-Strom to the left on the side-stand, water poured out of every nook like a waterfall.

After calling in to the wife to check in (a must, particularly in crappy weather), I pressed north towards Pittsburgh and the return to I-70. At Wheeling, WV, and the Ohio River Valley, the sun finally showed again, the clouds separated and whitened, and the day became wonderful.

West now. Across Ohio, my nemesis-state. Miles of boring, wasted day. Add to that the winds following the low-pressure system, and Ohio becomes even more miserable. I took few photos from this point all the way to Illinois. No matter how many one takes, they would all look the same anyway.

Because it's so boring, all I had to concentrate on was the wind and my butt. When the road presents challenges, one can forget about being saddle-sore. But when the ride doesn't demand much discipline, the arse-pain can tend to become one's sole focus, which it did for me. I stopped for a chicken sandwich at a truck-stop just east of Columbus, and while there, found this handy truck-seat pad. I believe now that this $15 purchase was the difference between completing this 800 mile leg of my trip in one day, and camping in Indiana.

Even now, only 9(ish) hours into my full-week trip, I was getting concerned about my time-usage. I gotta be somewhere would not leave my head. This mantra is with every day in my life, and on vacation, I hope to leave it behind. It never seems to leave, however. I have yet to develop the skills I need to just give The World the bird, and get on my own schedule. I hoped this trip would be a good start, but already I found myself in the same routine. I rationalized and told myself that once I'd fulfilled my obligations in the next 48 hours, I could step back and enjoy my time.

At Indianapolis, I stopped at a gas station to relax for a few over a big can of Monster and conversation with a middle-aged couple on a brand-new Kawasaki Concours, wearing matching Aerostich Darien gear. We discussed the benefits of each bike, during which time I decided that while my V-Strom was a very good machine, a heavy tourer would sure be nice on my rear-end right now. And the wind! The crosswinds blowing West-to-East across I-65 were absolutely brutal on me. The V-Strom pitched around like a toy boat . I spend my time at 10 degrees left, grunting out loud (as if that's unusual) from the effort of keeping us in a lane. (The Concourse Couple, with their immense relative weight and aerodynamics, didn't have the same gripe).

Racing The Sun now. It was getting late. I wanted to be in Chicago by this time, but still had 3 hours to go. Throttle open wider, I made it to Gary, Indiana by around 7PM. I still had to get to Carpentersville, Illinois, but the end was in sight. I battled the everlasting construction traffic on I-80 to I294, then to I-290 via the Hillside Strangler. From here to I-90 West was smooth sailing, but the dark was coming, and this is deer country as much as anywhere else. I don't like riding at night much. Luckily, I rolled into the driveway of my friend (and host for the night) Shawn as the last bits of red light were disappearing below the horizon. 803 miles total for the day, 14 hours of seat-time (due mostly to storms). I averaged only 41 MPG for this leg of the trip, as it was 90% expressway speeds and high RPM. A big contrast to the usual 55MPG. Shawn and I sat in the garage on plastic chairs, drinking bottles of Guinness that he'd thoughtfully had chilled and at the ready for my arrival. It was nice to catch up. We had a burger at a local bar-and-grill (a fabulous one, at that) before my fatigue from the day caught up to me. I slept like the dead that night on the Tempurpedic bed of Shawns very recently deceased father, who's funeral I could not attend as I was just too far away. I thought of this as I fell asleep, and hoped that Mr. D wasn't too offended at my audacity.

The next 72 hours were spent visiting. The graduation, my parents for dinner and catching up. I toured around all of my old stomping grounds, and found myself depressed. I thought I would be hit with nostalgia, but no. Nothing here for me. My family is still there, but that alone wasn't enough for me to feel any pangs of homesickness. Just a depressing place, nothing more. I stayed two nights with my friend Kendra in here new house in Carpentersville as well. (My friends both had new homes, and I think wanted me to test out their respective guest rooms). I had missed meeting up with her on two previous trips, so it was really nice to hang out and talk (while watching DVD episodes of Deadwood, for some reason. Now I have to see the whole thing. Dammit). I've know Kendra for (consecutively) longer than any other friend - since her mid-teens and my early 20's. We don't always stay in close-touch, but usually pick up where we left off. A couple years ago, my friend Kendra was diagnosed with MS. Before 30 no less, I believe. I have yet to figure out how to feel about this, but I take my cues from how she feels about it. My "estranged" mother has this disease, and while I don't like her, I don't wish it upon anyone - let alone one of my best friends in the world. I thought of boosting the level of communication we have, but she's not stupid, and would probably call me names for "guilt calling". It was good to see her.

All of the visiting done, I washed the machine (the bugs!) and reloaded to head South, back through Indianapolis to Bloomington, Indiana - where my younger brother was preparing to defend his dissertation at IU, and become Dr. Bryan, PhD.

Back down I-65, the weather held, but the wind never left. At least this time I got to lean the other direction. The trip down to IU is only about 4.5 hours. From here on out, I wouldn't be taking any more extremely long hauls. It takes too much enjoyment out of the ride, and I was starting to lighten up now. I planned for dinner with Bryan and Celia (wife), and to depart yet again in the AM. Indiana is flat and arduous until you pass Indy going South. There, it becomes, pleasant. Forests and light hills make for more to look at, and it's no longer the soul-sucking expanse of absolute nothing that the Northern half of the state is. I arrived at Indiana University at around 1PM, and had to call for directions to my brother's home. (I hadn't been there in a long while, and he'd moved). Once located, the bike was stowed in the garage that they shared with the other resident of the 19th century home they live in, the gear was off and I had a nice cooling-off lunch at a local tavern over appetizers and beers. Bryan has been in school for a long, long, long time, and this was a big milestone for him. He'd recently accepted a teaching position at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Ca., as well. A time of big change for everyone, and I could sense the tensions and worries that were hidden underneath his usual demeanor. I know this feeling well, but have no helpful hints other than "If not you, then who? If not now, then when?" It's worked for me so far. But I understand fear of the unknown.

Bryan and Celia, excellent cooks, made a dinner of pork chops and potatoes that was nothing short of fantastic. Afterward, we played a Zombie-related board game (Aptly named "Zombies!!!") before turning in for the night. More storms came, severe ones at that. This was tornado alley, you know. This is how it goes there. In the morning, I had fresh coffee from a press, repacked, and reloaded. It was getting hot already, but I was fully geared. ATGATT is the best way, but not the most comfortable. (I found myself secretly envious of the Indiana morons riding 90MPH, shirtless, in shorts -only briefly though).

Part 2: The Roundabout Way Back.

South from Bloomington, I took Rt. 37 to another secondary highway, and then to Louisville, Kentucky. I'd never been to Kentucky before, and wasn't sure exactly what I would need to see. So I stuck to the big roads due to lack of knowledge.

I saw Louisville, and the stretch of interstate from there to Lexington. I was probably more surprised than I should have been at the expansive thoroughbred farms that lined the highway. Kentucky - go figure. I was called "Pretty-boy" by a waitress at a Waffle-House near Lexington. This is probably the only place in the world that I might be considered pretty, and probably the only time I will be called such. Funny.

As I found my way East, Kentucky began to look like West Virginia. Slightly different in geology (limestone, maybe?) but similar in geography. I stopped before WV to get my bearings and make route decisions. I felt that most of my riding previous to now had been wasted, so I wanted to make sure that I had good rides coming up.

I decided to get past Huntington, WV and into the center of the state as a jumping-off point for the next day. Tired again, I pushed through to Flatwoods along I-79, toward the truck-stop I'd stayed at with Robin on a previous ride. I remembered good breakfast, and wanted to check the weather. Plus, I could wash my clothes in the coin-op laundry machines. I was starting to smell a bit "outdoorsy". En route the truck-stop, I got lost briefly (with a map!) and found a dam somehow.

I found my way to the truck-stop, had dinner, showered, did laundry, drank a cheap beer, and watched the weather. Hot forecast. Good thing the next day would be spent in the hills and trees. I turned, in, excited about the next day's ride.

In the morning, I refit the V-Strom and gave it a once-over. It had been performing flawlessly (other than gobbling up my fuel at high speeds - my fault, not the bike), and I wanted to be sure it didn't leave me high and dry in the mountains on a day that was slated for 100 degrees. All looked well, aside from a full coat of bugs of every species. The cicadas were out, and my fairing found quite a few. Like getting hit with golf balls sometimes.

I left via secondary roads. No more slab for me. I was reclaiming my lost holiday today.

I wormed my way to Rt. 33, through the heart of the state. The riding here is first rate against anywhere. My goal was Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. Not that heights impress me much (my background in aerial construction killed that), but I figured it to be a good place to navigate to. Just to say I did.

I found my turn-off to Spruce Knob. The map said that it was unpaved for the majority of the way, and it was right. 20+ miles of gravel road were to follow, keeping my travel speed down. No matter. This was my day. No hurry. If it took too long, I would just stay another day. Along the way I found nice little towns hidden in the hills. There are the kind of places that I want to live one day.

I found Spruce Knob through Monongahela National Forest. I didn't see another person for quite some time out here, but I did find a lot of great camping and hiking for future reference. The V-Strom carried me and my gear up the mountain like a sherpa. It's performance off the asphalt was admirable, aside from the fact that it didn't like some of the harder bumps and water-holes I came across.

At the top, I stopped for photos and fresh air. This was the apex of my trip, of sorts. Everything else was downhill, in many ways.

Mountain conquered, it was time to go. I guessed I could make it back to Maryland before dark, so down the hill I went. It was a fun trip down. A different route, I found serious twists and hairpins. Many were a bit perilous due to debris from earlier storms, but a good time regardless.

I even found this little guy. He was a little longer than my arm, and pretty surly about my presence. I pulled up to him and bothered him until he left the road. I'd seen quite enough dead animals on this trip. This guy should should have a fighting chance.

My scaly friend safe in the bushes, I mad my way East to Winchester, Va., then North to Maryland. I was happy to see it. My butt was killing me even with the extra cushion. I was hungry and hot. And now, I had 2 days before having to return to work, which was great relaxation time.

I arrived home in the early evening, happy to see my wife (and the air-conditioner), and ready for the weekend, so to speak. The past week had taken me nearly 2000 miles, through 7 states, many beds, and many storms. I enjoyed it for the most part, and consider this trip to be practice for future long hauls that will take me to new places, and practice for letting obligations go and staying on my own schedule. I was about 50/50 this time, so there's room for improvement, but I will get there.

The Wee-Strom did it's job. The ups: versatility and durability. These categories are the most important to me, so I'm please that both are in the "ups" department. The downs: The lighter weight bike is at the mercy of nature. It doesn't like the heavier winds. The screen gives a lot of buffeting at speed. All of these things can be addressed in some way, so I have no real complaints. The black Suzuki proved it's worth and it's endurance. It surely outlasted me at times. And, it is the best moto-money I've spent in my riding lifetime, for sure.


BadTux said...

If you have to fight your bike in a crosswind, either a) your bike is set up wrong, or b) you don't know the technique. The deal is that a bike has a couple of whirling gyroscopes under it and thus wants to go straight -- even in a crosswind. The deal is, YOU GOTTA LET IT GO. Those of us who started riding dirt know about this -- when the bike starts squirming under us, the correct thing to do is let it do its thing, with only those inputs necessary to change direction. I've ridden a taller/smaller bike (KLR650) in swirling crosswinds through mountain passes with two fingers on the handlebar lightly holding the throttle open. The bike went bob, bob, bob, whipping from side to side under me, but a slight nudge from time to time was enough to correct for the very slow lane drift that happens because of the crown of the road.

So far I'm liking my V-Strom. One thing I like about it is that its handling is quite stable and neutral. Thus far it has behaved in the wind pretty much like a slightly more stable KLR, though I admit the first thing I did was get the Madstad brackets to get rid of the turbulence from the windshield. I've had a Concours before and ridden it through the rain, and frankly, when it's raining cats and dogs the full fairing didn't do much better at keeping me dry than a handlebar-mounted windshield on my KLR. My visor kept fogging over because it cut off the flow of air to my helmet, and the back of my neck kept getting wet because a big fairing like that causes the air to swirl over you to then come at you from *behind*. And while I must admit it didn't whip from side to side in crosswinds as much as the KLR (or V-Strom), that's mostly because it's lower and heavier so it takes more wind force to make it lean into the wind.

So anyhow, as someone who went from a big touring bike to the V-Strom, I just want to say, don't over-estimate the big touring bike or under-estimate the V-Strom. The big bike has more power, has more load carrying capacity (so it can carry pillion plus luggage), and yes, the fairing gives better weather protection. But in the end, it's still a motorcycle, and you'll still need good rain gear in the rain and you'll still have the bike bobbing under you in the wind.

Scott said...

Awesome feedback. Thank you!