Sunday, April 19, 2009

Third IBA National Park Tour is Complete!

Never did I imagine, when I stamped my first National Park stamp (Wright Brothers museum, Kill Devil Hills, NC, June 2005), that this activity would shape and define my motorcycle riding experience from that point forward.

That first National Park Tour (NPT) was started when I rode to Laconia NH to see the racing and hill-climbing events in Loudon in conjunction with Laconia Motorcycle Week in NH ( and That seems so long ago: 160,000 miles ago, in fact.

While some of the first stamps fell off the back end of that very first IBA NPT, I did manage to finish it, submitting that first set of paperwork to Mike Kneebone and the IBA in August of 2006.

Then just two months later I started my second National Park Tour. I would be retiring in November 2006 and the world was going to be my oyster in 2007! So why not go for another? My ride calendar was rapidly filling up with events and rides that would take me to all four corners of the US: An all-women motorcycling get-together in Williams AZ; an MTF event in Lolo MT; a ride to Rockland ME to meet my son's ship at a lobster festival; a BMW rally in Asheville NC; several motorcycle events in FL. Plus I was signed up for an AMA Grand Tour: the "I've Been Everywhere" tour which would have me chasing after bonuses all over the country.

I submitted that IBA NPT paperwork for certification - this one a NPT Silver - in August, 2007. At that point I was confident I would never do another one. I had ridden over 40,000 miles that year, chasing after national park stamps literally all over the country and - more importantly, for the Silver certificate - in the four corner states (WA, CA, FL, ME) as I attended various rallies and MTF events that year. And quite honestly, I was a bit road-weary. It was my first year of retirement and I confess I went a little overboard on "letting loose" after being freed from the shackles of regular office hours.

I really needed to recover, mentally and financially. I had added insanely high miles to a perfectly good BMW in that second endeavor, and a year later ended up selling a 3-year old bike with 90,000 miles on her, not because she was totally used up, but because I ride alone and didn't want to chance being broken down along the side of some desolate road somewhere.

So for the next 6 months I took a hiatus, didn't even look at a brown national park sign as I traveled the country putting non-stamping miles on my bikes. I was sorely tempted a few times, though.

Then, early 2008, I decided to do the MTF-sponsored 50CC ride-in, in early March, from San Diego to Jacksonville and the IBA party. Hmmmm....there are some parks between here and there, including CA. I didn't want to pass up an opportunity - should stars and ride plans align correctly - to have a good start at another NPT Silver Certificate. So I stamped my way out to San Diego, picking up stamps in AZ and CA along the way.

I had signed up to do the Cape Fear Mini-Rally, held in Wilmington NC every April. Looking at routes to get there, I could see numerous national parks along the way. And afterward I'd be visiting my son and his family and my mom, who live in Norfolk VA and Salisbury MD, respectively. This was too good an opportunity to miss, so I made the commitment to proceed with a 3rd NPT. Whether it became a Silver Certificate was as unknown as was my riding calendar for that summer, but it made no difference to me. So I routed myself past national parks in several states along the way to Wilmington, NC and another stamping adventure began.

Things were going well....stamping on the way to the 50CC, stamping on the way to Cape Fear, stamping on the way to the BMW RA rally in Hougton MI and BMW MOA rally in Gillette WY, even picking up a NM stamp in early March while in Van Horn getting ready to do a SS2000 to this year's IBA party in Jacksonville. Until I found myself 11 months later but still shy 6 states. A silver certificate would not be in the cards this time, but finishing the tour was definitely still within reach.

I had so much invested in this third NPT that I hated to let it all slide. Weather prohibited me from getting out beyond the states I'd already stamped. It was February, after all. I had a tentative route that would take me through MS, TN, KY, and MO but winter just wasn't letting go in those states. I had to wait through all of February and then all of March, waiting for a break in the weather. Now the AZ and CA stamps were going to fall off the back end since they were now more than 12 months old.

Looking ahead, I had already registered for the Cape Fear rally again in 2009 and the trip out there would allow me to pick up a couple more states - NC and WV - along the way and not lose any more states due to old dating. If I went beyond the April 16 date, I would then lose several more states and the whole endeavor would be lost. But what to do about the other needed 4 states? Watching the weather carefully, I saw a window of opportunity in late March-Early April where I could take that planned route up through MS, KY, TN, and MO and get those 4 states.

So heading east on I-10 I rode through LA (Jean Lafitte Prairie Acadian stamp), MS (Natchez MS, Natchez Trace, Brices Crossroads, Tupelo), TN (Shiloh, Fort Donelson), KY (Land Between the Lakes NRA), MO (Wilsons Creek), and AR (Buffalo River, Central High School-Little Rock) before heading home. A perfectly good weather forecast changed rapidly to severe storm alerts (tornados, hail, lightning, strong winds) as I rode through TN, but all in all it was a fruitful trip (2000 miles in 4 days and 17 stamps) and I knew I'd be able to finish this third NPT before the April 16 "witching" date. Getting WV and NC enroute to Wilmington NC finished this third NPT with no time to spare. First valid stamp: Apr 17, 2008 Last stamp: Apr 16, 2009.

Here I sit today, making my plans to attend the Moab UT get-together with other MTF friends and I see a bucket-load of national parks between here and there and within easy day-rides of our headquarters motel in Moab....this just never ends, does it?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cape Fear Rally Day!

Yesterday was spent in Wilmington NC mostly off the bike. I did get the BMW over to the Yamaha dealer, where they were very friendly, helpful, courteous and got my bike on its center stand, the front wheel off and into the shop within minutes. A spin balance confirmed that it was out of balance by about 1 ounce. They corrected that problem and had me on my way in less than 30 minutes, hardly enough time to drink the cup of coffee and eat the pastry that they offered me.

I stopped across the street at a gas station to top off the tank before the rally and buy a six-pack of coke - my first bonus points of the rally: bring a cold 6-pack of your favorite beverage to the rider meeting.

Back at the hotel, I got comfortable in my room and got busy working on my route. I had my curtain and door open, and I could see riders starting to arrive. But I couldn't let that distract me. I called it quits at lunchtime, and went to get something to eat and then socialized the rest of the day with the other riders.

So this morning my alarm went off at 5:15 and I jumped out of bed, splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth, and got outside to start prepping the bike. I had what I thought was a pretty good route planned...not a winning route, but hopefully one that would put me in the top ten this year. Last year I finished 11th and didn't feel like I'd done as well as I could have, losing one bonus location at the scoring table, not bagging one location because I couldn't find it, and not going for a big bonus in the center of Wilmington because I didn't want to deal with the traffic.

I was signed out at 6:02 AM and was on the road heading north toward New Bern and my first bonus location. This would be a log house in the historic district and I didn't know what to expect. Certainly not what I found, which was a two-story white colonial home sitting on a street amid other equally gorgeous old homes! I took the photo then headed back out to the main street and turned right. I traveled a few blocks then turned right at the waterfront and immediately saw a problem. The drawbridge that would take me back to 17 was closed. A new fixed bridge was being built and the detour sign directed me to turn right, but after that I was on my own. No more detour signs. So I found myself back on George St admiring those same beautiful homes and had no choice but to back track a few miles to 17 and losing about 15 minutes.

Next bonus stop would be the fossil museum in the tiny town of Aurora. I was struggling to find a way to affix my rally flag to a pole to get the required photo when someone drove up, got out of his car and headed toward one of the buildings. He kindly agreed to take my photo and, after a few lessons on how to use a camera, he got a good photo of me. I thanked him profusely and was on my way. He's probably still scratching his head over what exactly I was up to.

My next two rally stops would be bonus locations I'd gotten in last year's rally. They happened to be on my route and I knew where they were so it was easier to get them this year. The first of these two was in Washington - the Estuarium. Only problem was there seemed to be some sort of bicycling event and there were just hundreds of bicycles running along the waterfront road. I had no choice but to fall in among them, keeping the same 5 mph speed that they were. At the Estuarium I pulled up and double-parked alongside an SUV, jumped off the bike and ran over to get the required photo with rally flag. Now I had to get back into the steady stream of bicyclists to work my way back out onto the highway that would take me toward Bath.

The bicyclists were apparently going to Bath because I came up behind many large groups running down the middle of the eastbound lane. I patiently waited for breaks in oncoming traffic to pass them. But I was definitely losing time. At Bath, I got the Bonner House photo and about that time I saw my first fellow rally rider, who pulled up behind my bike just as I was finishing up entering the data on my rider log. I got back on the road toward Swan Quarter and it was about halfway there that the bicyclists turned off, so I now had an unobstructed road the rest of the way.

About 10 miles out of Swan Quarter that same rally rider caught up with and passed me. When I got to Swan he was at the little old-timey gas station getting gas and I parked and walked over to get the required receipt from this town. This town hasn't much of anything except the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke. And the gas station hadn't much of anything to buy to get a receipt, either. I finally settled on a hose clamp and the fellow hand-wrote the receipt using one of those really old-fashioned receipt pads with the carbon sheet slipped between two sheets. Did I mention this was an old-timey gas station?!

Now I could backtrack west and make some good time, as I rode to Farmville for my next bonus, the Rabbit Duck brewery. This was to be my gas/bathroom/snack break, as well. It was a small gas station, no c-store, no pay-at-pump, key-from-the-attendant drill to use the bathroom, so a lot of time was lost at this stop. Yikes! I kept checking the arrival time on my GPS and watching it rapidly march toward penalty points territory. I took a swig of water and ate a couple of mini donuts, then jumped on the bike and boogied.

The next bonus location wasn't too far away, in Lucama, and I knew exactly where that was, having gotten this bonus location last year. I also knew how to route myself the most efficiently off the state highway, as well, and grabbed this one really quickly. It was satisfying to watch the arrival time start to improve again as I rode these 5 or 6 miles toward this bonus location. A woman and her two small children happened to be there taking pictures so I handed her my camera and asked her to take mine, as well. Fortunately she knew how to use a camera and even took two photos, just in case.

Now, just one more bonus location left, the Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield. My route put me onto I-95 where I knew I'd be able to make good time to Smithfield. The museum was just 1.5 miles off the interstate and I could park right in front, get the photo, do a u-turn, and then get back onto I-95 to a state highway that would cut diagonally down to I-40.

Well, so I thought. Big orange detour signs spelled major trouble. The road was closed for construction and traffic was being routed down some very local roads for several miles and I watched my arrival time immediately jump into penalty point territory as the GPS recalculated the route. Ack!! It now said arrival time 3:48 PM!

I was sweating bullets as our long line of cars and trucks ever-so-slowly negotiated the detour route with all its stop signs and turns. I was starting to get hot with all the gear on, too. I was desperate to find a safe place to pull over, remove some layers, and get a drink of water.

We were finally routed back to the state highway and got up to posted speeds again, and I was relieved to see the arrival time rapidly drop back down to 3:32 PM. Then....Finally! I got to the I-40 on-ramp, so I pulled over under the overpass in the shade and got off the bike. I had to take my helmet off to remove the neck buff and get a drink of water. I removed my Gerbing jacket liner, too. Ah!! It felt so good! But now that added minutes to the estimated arrival time. I went ahead and attached my pirate flag to the bike and affixed the Cape Fear decal to the back of my sidecase.

Once up on I-40, the time started improving again. I had 84 miles to cover and over the course of that distance I gained 5 or 6 minutes and was now within reach of being an on-time finisher, provided nothing happened that delayed me again.

I was so happy to see the exit for 17 in Wilmington. Only 1 mile to the hotel, and 5 minutes to spare. Whew!

I finished! Finish time was 3:26 PM! To the rally room to get checked in and get a score sheet then to my room to organize my rally paperwork and then go back to get scored. I was very pleased with my results, lost no points at the scoring table and rode my route with no alterations.

Good rally!

This year the Rally Master did something totally different:  The winner would have the lowest score!  Special bonuses had negative point values, and goof-ups added positive points to the score. 

At the banquet that evening, the rally master had a few excellent stories from other rallier's adventures to share with us, and then he began announcing the top ten riders and winners in each category. The Mini Rally results were announced last and I held my breath as I waited for him to announce tenth place names and their scores. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized my score was going to put me in the top ten, but where in the top ten remained to be seen. As he moved up through 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th, my score was still lower. Then he announced a tie for 5th and I thought surely this would be me. But those scores were still higher than mine. Then, inexplicably, the rally master started announcing 3rd place, and that score was lower than mine. Oh no! My heart began to race and I start to worry that somehow I'd been disqualified. He finished announcing the top three and awarded them their plaques and I was so disappointed! I raised my hand to get the rally master's attention and when he acknowledged me I asked him where my name was on that list. He realized, then, that he'd skipped my name! I was 4th on that list. I'll take that! I was thrilled!

Well, after all awards were given and all door prizes given out, we all stood up to leave and one of the Rally Krewe came over to me and to the gal who came in 3rd and said there'd been a change in the scoring and that she and I were now 2nd and 3rd. Third place!!! Wow! Nearly half the mini rally field had DNF'd or incurred huge late penalties. My route was ambitious, really pushing the mileage envelope, and probably wasn't as efficient as other routes would have been, but I was very pleased with my execution of that route.

3rd place!!

Tomorrow: heading north to MD to visit my mom.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Heading for Cape Fear - Day 3

Last night I was in Princeton WV and today I head further north into WV toward Beckley to find the Coal Heritage office for a stamp and then head on to New River Gorge. My original plans were to get both the Sandstone and Canyon Rim visitor center stamps but since I had to make a stop at Staples to get my Cape Fear Rally packet printed, I opted to skip the Canyon Rim. I'll just need to come back another time.

Those of us doing the Cape Fear Rally received our rally packets by email last night, which was a different procedure than last year. This meant I not only needed to be sure I had internet connection last night to download it, but that I needed to find a place to get it printed. Fortunately there was a Staples in Beckley and it took only a few minutes and $1.80 to get the 20 page document printed. Remember way back, when copies cost $1.00 a page?

So, rally packet safely tucked in a large ziploc bag and locked in my topcase, I got back on the bike and let the GPS lead me to the Coal Heritage administrative offices somewhere in Beckley. I was directed back out onto highway 16, backtracking for about a mile, when my GPS "Jill" told me to turn left. I looked left. I saw a road that pitched upward at about a 45-degree angle, did a 90-degree right, continued at that death-defying pitch for 100 yards or so, then did a 90-degree left and disappeared behind houses that were perched precariously on the side of this mountain. Oh, Lord! Please let me negotiate this safely and in one piece!

Once I got to the top of this mountain the land plateau'd and the road was relatively flat again. Within 1/4 mile "Jill" told me to turn left, but I could see no road there, only what looked like driveways to the houses that lined the street. I slowed way down and eventually saw the green "Mason Street" road sign on the left, and a tiny, one-car wide street that ducked off to the left and up a hill. I turned in, praying no car wanted to fight me for the small space, and then saw a parking lot behind a small yellow house. The GPS was telling me that I'd arrived, so I turned into the driveway which took me around to a small totally off-camber parking lot behind the building. It reminded me very much of that really ugly pull-out in Tucson where two of us dropped our bikes for lack of level ground. The lot was nearly empty, so I pulled across two parking spots, the only angle that would permit me to safely put my sidestand down. Gawd, but I really hate this being short thing!

I walked around to the front of the house, went inside to find....desks but no people. Hello??? Is any one here??? Eventually a woman came partway down the stairs and peered and me over the banister. I take it they don't get many visitors here and I even wondered if the Noodles List was correct about there being a stamp here. But there was, and the very pleasant woman asked me all the usual questions about where I was coming from and where I was going. With that stamp in the book, I got back on the bike and let the GPS take me out of here and onto a road that would get me to the Sandstone Visitor Center off of I-64.

"Jill" told me to turn right out of the parking lot and continue to the end of Mason Street and then take a right. This street was even smaller than Mason if that is at all possible. It was just short of being an alley. But I was in no position to question the routing since I had no idea where I was, and the roads here seem to have no orderly rhyme or reason. So I turned right. A little ways down this road and it looked like it disappeared. Next thing I knew, my BMW and I were nearly standing on our heads as we went down a hill that was so steep that it had me sliding forward onto my gas tank, something that never happens on the BMW. The FZ...yes...but never the BMW. Oh Sh*t! To make matters worse, I could see that there was no break at the stop sign at the end of this hill. You know...that little section of road that flattens out at the top or bottom of normal hills. No. This hill ended abruptly against the stop sign. Then to make matters much worse, the GPS was telling me to turn left, but I can see the one-way sign telling me that I can only turn right.

Now, I've just ridden down possibly the steepest hill I've ever been on in a car or on a motorcycle and since I couldn't turn left, I had to turn right, guess what? I must now ride back up to the top of that hill, where I encounter a red light without that little level area to come to a stop on. So now I'm balancing the bike on one toe, trying to keep from sliding back on the seat, and holding the bike on the hill with my right foot on the brake pedal. And the light took FOREVER to turn green. With absolutely no traffic coming on the cross street. Maddening!

The GPS was going hysterical trying to recalculate, since the one-way street threw "Jill" for a loop. Finally, I found a level parking lot in front of a CVS drugstore, where I could put the bike in neutral, put the sidestand down, and browse the GPS map to figure out where the heck I was and how the heck to get to I-64. I ended up going back to Staples and the state highway, which took me to I-64.

Now it was a lovely ride to the Sandstone Visitor Center where an extremely cheerful and enthusiastic park ranger told me all about the area, this new visitor center, and anything else I wanted to know. The floor of the visitor center was unbelievable and it prompted me to walk back out to the bike to get my camera. You be the judge.

I had two more stops to make this day, before arriving in Wilmington NC. The first was Forsyth Motorsports near Winston-Salem. An MTF member is parts manager here and I wanted to meet him in person. He and his son are both avid riders, and I know his son from the FZ6 forum. We had a great visit, and they called ahead to the Yamaha dealer in Wilmington NC and talked to the service manager there. I had new tires put on the BMW before leaving for this trip, but it felt like the front tire was not balanced properly. The Wilmington shop agreed to take a look at it for me the next morning.

It was now 3:30 PM and I knew I needed to get going if I was going to make it to Guilford Court House National Park for my very last stamp, the one I needed to get my 25th state and finish my 3rd national park tour. My first stamp of this 3rd tour is dated April 17, 2008, so today is the very last day. If I don't get this stamp, I will lose 3 states and will never get caught up again.

Guilford is on the north side of Greensboro and there was just no good way to get there, and lots of traffic and red lights along the way. I arrived at 4:30, just 30 minutes before the visitor center closes. Talk about cutting it close! Finally! It's done! Stamp is in the book, the 3rd NPT is complete!

I'm still 160 miles away from Wilmington, so just headed the nose of the bike in that direction and pushed. I arrived at the hotel around 8:00 PM, got checked in, unpacked, changed out of riding gear, and walked to a seafood restaurant nearby. I will now have this evening and tomorrow morning to start working on my mini-rally route. It's not much time, but I'm hoping I can put a halfway decent route together that won't humiliate myself.

Tomorrow: A quick trip to the Yamaha dealer to get the front tire dealt with, then back to the hotel for some serious routing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Heading for Cape Fear - Day 2

Tax Day! Fortunately I've already filed and gotten that out of the way! Phew!

This morning found me in Tuscaloosa AL where I stopped for the night after a straightforward ride up interstates from Houston. Not very interesting but there it is! When ya gotta cover ground, ya got no choice!

I managed to get on the road by 7:30 which was a miracle, since I didn't sleep very well the night before. But I have lots of road to cover again today and some national park stamp stops as well. A couple of these stops may be jettisoned off the intinerary depending on time. Working against me is the fact that, while it was 7:30 AM when I got on the road, I would very soon be riding into the eastern time zone and instantly lose an hour of travel time.

My first stop would be the Little River Canyon visitor center in Fort Payne, AL. I tried to find this place a couple of years ago, and just couldn't, so this year, with the help of Google Maps and the NPS map service, I had a better "fix" on its location. Quite an unassuming building tucked back against the railroad tracks, so I can see how I missed it. The park ranger told me that they were awaiting approval to build a new center at Little River Canyon.

There was nothing here but administrative offices, so I was quickly stamped and on my way, but I stopped for gas before getting back onto the interstate. There, parked at the gas station, was a ridiculously overladen Kawasaki Vulcan and I could see its rider standing just inside the store, sipping a cup of coffee. It was damned cold and damp and if he didn't have electric gear, which I doubted, he would be one cold biker! I gassed up and then headed toward the door when he stepped outside and greeted me. He was headed toward Smoky Mountains National Parks area for some camping (brrrr!) and asked me where I was from and were I was headed. He was astounded to hear that I was from Houston TX and even more incredulous that I was headed to Wilmington NC by way of Beckley WV. I could see him trying to compute that distance and then asked me how long I'd been on the road so far. "One day," I replied. "I spent the first night near Birmingham AL." Now he's nearly speechless with amazement. He began asking me a bunch of questions about my motorcycle, questions about comfort (he didn't think it looked very comfortable), how far I could ride without stopping (did he mean for the night? Or did he mean for gas? Or did he mean in one trip?), and so forth. I really needed to get inside and use the bathroom and get going, so I politely begged off and stepped into the doorway.

All through Alabama and Tennessee, the redbud and dogwood were in fabulous bloom! I could see large stands of forsythia getting very close to blooming as I got further north into TN. Forsythia is one of the many plants I really miss, living in Texas. Large cascading mounds of bright yellow forsythia were always the earliest harbingers of spring up north, and gave me hope for warmer weather

As I passed through Chattanooga, I decided to strike Lookout Mountain off my list of stamping stops, as I was beginning to fall behind. So I continued up through Knoxville and on the north side of Knoxville, where the road passes through the Hiawasee River area, what the he**! All of a sudden everyone slowed down dramatically. Now, the posted speed limit through here is 70 mph and they have occasional LED-lit reminders of this speed. I was running in the right lane, pretty much doing the speed limit, as indicated by the GPS, but there were many 18-wheelers and they started really slowing down. I moved over to the left lane, but then found myself boxed in. We were now crunched into a dense pack. I found a little gap and got past two or three 18-wheelers so that I could return to an open space with some breathing room in the right lane. Just about the time I moved to the right, I saw a low-flying plane ahead of me do a 180 turn and then start heading back toward us. My immediate thought was speed trap. My next immediate visual was a pole-mounted camera array in the right shoulder. Then another. Then another, several of them spaced about 100 yards or so apart. About the time I hit that first camera I was going about 75-76, the speed I'd attained temporarily to get past those 18-wheelers. Every since my first and only life-time speeding ticket two years ago in Kansas, I've really ridden conservatively. This trip would be no exception. If I got bagged for going 5-6 over the speed limit (a temporary burst to get out of a dangerous situation), I will be majorly pi**ed!

It really gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach for the rest of the day.

Well, there is nothing I can do but wait to see if a citation shows up in my mailbox. So I continued on. I had put a few AMA Grand Tour stops into my GPS, and the first several of these would be coming up as I neared my exit for Greeneville TN and the Andrew Johnson NP. But I bypassed them in the interest of saving time, since I had made tentative plans to meet someone at the Appalachian Fairgrounds to scout the location of this year's BMW MOA rally. I now realized that the change in time zone has really hurt me and knew I'd be getting there much later than originally planned. When I stopped for gas before Greeneville I called him to let him know I was way behind schedule. We both agreed that he had the info he needed from his visit there earlier today so there was no need for me to rush my plans to get there. Now I had the pressure of that stop off my shoulders.

I continued on to Greeneville to discover a really neat, old colonial-era town with great old buildings and narrow, winding little streets. I wound my way up and down hills to find the visitor center and parking lot and headed inside to get my stamp. The movie had just started, and I didn't want to wait for the next showing, so departed. I definitely need to get back here! The site includes a couple of buildings and the town itself is worthy of a stroll.

The stops for this day are complete and all I need to do is head toward Princeton WV where I have a room booked for the night. I would be getting onto I-77, and highway I've never ridden before and one that looks interesting on the map. Too bad it was now raining, and my view of the mountains was limited but I can see how beautiful this area is, as the road took me through the Jefferson National Forest. This interstate twists its way through the mountains and into WV where it ducks into two really neat, long tunnels. One tunnel goes under Big Walker Mountain, the other under East River Mountain. I always judge the coolness factor of a tunnel by how long it takes to see daylight at the other end. These two definitely rank high on my "coolness" scale!

Princeton WV was the perfect spot to end my day's ride. The Sleep Inn was new, there was a Chili's within easy walking distance, and a large new gas station with convenience store.

Tomorrow: Ride to Beckley for Coal National Heritage, find a Staples to print my Cape Fear Rally bonus packet, and then on to the New River Gorge visitor center at Sandstone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Heading for Cape Fear - Day 1

An intentioned 7:00 AM start never got going this morning, as I was waylaid by an email and attempted phone call from an MTF friend Stephen. I stayed near the phone, waiting for his call until I had to get on the road, and then did so reluctantly, knowing why Stephen was calling me. My friend Mike had called me the night before, since Stephen works with his son, to give me the 3rd hand news. Not good news and you can read about it at his post on the MTF forum

So, by 8:00 AM I was finally on the road, heading east into the rising sun. It was a glorious day today...temps were in the mid 40's at the start, robin's egg blue skies with not a cloud in sight. It would be a little windy coming across parts of I-10, where the wind is unobstructed by nothing but rice fields and cattle range.

I was having a hard time keeping the wheels moving on this day, and I'm not sure why I couldn't keep the gas and bathroom breaks in synch. But, actually, I stopped caring by lunch time and had a nice sit-down meal and Wendy's, somewhere an hour north of Hammond.

It doesn't matter what other people think, I happen to think that Mississippi is a beautiful state. Her highways are in impeccable condition and it's so green and lush and wooded. I passed a field full of contented cows, up to their knees in thick green grass. The further north I got, the more heavily wooded it became going up I-55 towards I-20.

I always look forward to an opportunity to ride on I-20. Truck traffic isn't nearly so heavy. Eastbound it passes through a big portion of Bienville National Forest. Near Meridien, the terrain becomes a little more rugged. And I get a big kick out of the name, Chunky River. There has to be a story here! It's a small-to-medium sized river under the I-20 bridge, and its banks are sandy and covered in vegetation.

At Meridien, the highway takes a decided jog northward toward Tuscaloosa and suddenly I started to feel chilled. Riding through Meridien the temperature was 64 degrees - pretty much the high for my day - but the sudden drop in temperature was noticeable! About 15-20 miles into Alabama, I checked the temperature and it was now 54 degrees. Yikes! That was a big drop! By the time I got to Tuscaloosa, it was 46 degrees. Definitely time to get to the hotel! I stopped at my favorite Sleep Inn, which is next door to a Pilot gas station with a Subway shop inside. Everything I need!

There were no stops along the way, just gas and food. Just a utilitarian day to get 640 miles up the road Tomorrow will be different, though.

Tomorrow: A second try at finding the Little River Canyon headquarters in Fort Payne, and then on into TN for more stamping, a visit to the MOA rally grounds, and then into WV for the night.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Last Day of the Stamping Trip

It would be another sunny day for my final leg of the trip, with temps in the low 40's to start. Yesterday I rode from Grand Rivers KY to just north of Springfield MO with Steve from the MTF. I had a very enjoyable and relaxed evening with him and his wife and now this morning ate homemade pancakes at Steve's house and made final preparations to get on the road to head south.

With Wilson Creek National Battlefield Park programmed in my GPS I waved goodbye and rode out of Steve's driveway and south to my next stamping destination. I was at this national park two years ago and had the whole park to myself. This time the parking lot was filled nearly to capacity at 9:15 in the morning. A large group was standing outside the visitor center listening to a ranger speak, as I walked up. They were high school students preparing to walk the trails within the park.

As much as I didn't want to, this would have to be a "stamp and run" visit. I would need to cover over 700 miles today, with 2 more national parks to visit along the way. So it was a quick visit and then back onto US 60 east to US 65 south toward Arkansas.

US 65 runs down to Branson and into Arkansas and, even though a state highway designation, provides plenty of good, twisty riding. I would pass through Harrison, AR then south through Searcy County, where the road gets nicely crooked through the Ozarks. Along this route, near Silver Hill, is the Tyler Bend Visitor Center in the Buffalo National River, our nation's first designated National River. It is so beautiful through here! The road into the preserve winds through hardwoods just starting to bud. I can only imagine how beautiful this will be in the summer when the trees are in full leaf, or in the fall when the trees are changing color.

The drive gradually works its way down toward a bluff over the river. As I pulled into the circular drive around the front of the visitor center building, a roadrunner scurried across right in front of me. She was heading for a large cedar near the front entrance. Since I was going very slowly anyway, neither she nor I was in danger of collision and I could get a really good look at her in the sunlight. What a beautiful bird! Her feathers were intricately ticked in shades of brown, tan, and white, and she had a long elegant tail and a beautiful dark crest on the top of her head. While I've seen then along side roadways in the Southwest, never have I gotten such an up-close and lingering view of one before.

I spent a little time at the visitor center looking at and reading the exhibits and talking to the ranger. He seemed really interested in my NPT quest. I asked him about the bird and he knew immediately what I was referring to, saying that she frequents that area and that she may be building a nest or already nesting under that cedar tree.

I finished my visit at Tyler Bend and got back onto US 65 to continue south toward Little Rock. My next stop would be Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock. So many of my park visits have served to reconstruct the fight for equal protection of the laws. One of the most moving displays was at the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail visitor center, east of Selma. I also visited the Brown vs. Board of Education NHS in Topeka, KS. The entire school building is a designated national park and classrooms appear exactly as they did in 1954. The exibits and bookstore are excellent and the park rangers very knowledgeable.

My exposure to segregation in the '50's came when we moved from California, where I'd lived all my life to that point, to Pensacola FL. I was 11 years old and we went to the local department store to shop for warmer weather clothes. A refrigerated drinking fountain sat next to a non-refrigerated drinking fountain next to the escalator. Signs attached to these fountains read "white" and "colored." I turned the faucet on the non-refrigerated fountain, expecting to see red or blue or maybe green water come bubbling out. Disappointed that the water looked no different, I had to ask my mom what the signs meant.

The displays in the Central High School visitor center were powerful and telling, describing very well the rising crisis in Little Rock. The high school is still a functioning school, so is not open for tours during the school year, but it is a gorgeous, large art deco building set in what was no doubt a beautiful neighborhood at the time.

The visitor center is brand new, just opened in 2007. It used to be housed in the little Mobil gas station across the street. The historical significance of the gas station is that it was occupied by the media during the protests that surrounded the first integration of that school. Today the gas station is beautifully restored to it's early 1950's appearance.

I walked down toward the high school to take some photos, then hopped on the bike and headed toward the freeway which would take me to I-30 south toward Texas. It was about 3:30 PM and I still had 450 miles remaining in my trip toward home this day.

As I rode home to Houston, I used the time to process the results of this trip and to reflect on the wide variety of experiences I'd encountered along the 2,000 miles I'd just ridden. My trip started with a visit to the Acadian Prairie visitor center, where I read about and saw some artifacts of the lifestyles of the forceably displaced Acadian settlers to the area. In Natchez I learned about the lifestyles of a slave-owning plantation owner and of a freedman who became his own boss and a successful business owner. In Vicksburg, at Shiloh, at Wilsons Creek, and at Ft. Donelson I crossed the battle lines that separated blue and gray, as fellow countrymen were divided against each other over the rights of states to rule their own people. I witnessed natural beauty along the Natchez Trace, in the Land Between the Lakes and along the Buffalo National River. And I learned more about the drama and of the bravery exhibited during the earliest days of integration in the South.

It's been a good trip.

2,017 miles, 4 days.

Friday, April 3, 2009

RTE in Grand Rivers KY

This is my third day on the road and I awoke to a tap on the door of my room, telling me it was time to get up. Yesterday I rode in torrential rains to get from Shiloh TN to Paris TN and the safe haven of Bill's house. Bill came and rescued me from the gas station in town, leading me to his house where I could get dry and warm up. My FZ was tucked under not one, but two bike covers outside, to keep her from getting any wetter, if that's even possible.

Two other MTF folks were also trying to make it to Bill's house last night, but they threw in the towel and stopped at a hotel for the night. As I was loading up my motorcycle this morning, they arrived, Phred on a GoldWing, Jimmie in his spiffy red convertible. It was cold this morning, in the mid-40's and the skies were a leaden gray color. Before we departed, I wanted to lube the chain, especially after riding in that heavy rain yesterday. I was only able to do about half the chain when the can ran dry. I promised my little Fuzzy FZ that I'd give her chain a good soaking when I got home. Loaded and ready to go, our little caravan headed northeast toward Fort Donelson, where we watched the 15 minute movie and I got my national parks passport stamped.

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Bill set a spirited pace riding up the Trace through Land Between the Lakes (LBL). About halfway, 20 miles or so, is the visitor center, where we stopped so that I could get my KY state stamp. Along the Trace the invisible line marking the start of ice damage was remarkable. Many trees were lost to heavy ice in this past winter's ice storm which had hundreds of thousands of folks without power for up to 6 weeks. The damage to trees was every bit as devastating as the damage done by Ike in September in the Galveston-Houston area.

We arrived to a parking lot filled with motorcycles! Nearly every one had arrived well before 11:00 and we pulled in at just about straight up 11:00 AM. A couple of others arrived just minutes later and we moved the party inside the restaurant...Patti's....where the owners have gone one step beyond overboard on the Easter decorations!

Our group filled the large table they'd set for us, plus two more tables...maybe 14 or 15 of us all together. What a great turnout! And the food was excellent. I had stuffed potato soup. the name says it all. I couldn't finish the bowl. And I ordered a pot of bread with strawberry butter to go with it.

Brandy, our waitress, took excellent care of us, getting the drink orders filled, the food to the table quickly, and even gave an outstanding performance telling us about the 30 different home-made pies to choose from for dessert. The list was so extensive and the descriptions so detailed, that by the time she got to about the 6th or 7th choice, I'd already forgotten what the first few were. If I had hoped to order one of the earlier described choices, well... there just was no hope. Here's my slice of coconut cream merigue pie. I barely made a dent in it:

Here's the tray laden with a few of the other MTF'ers' desserts:

Joyce came! She and I sat together and we had a chance to get caught up. Love ya, girl! We need to get together more often! I also sat with Buck, who I'll be seeing along with his wife in a couple of weeks at Cape Fear, and with Steve, who I'd seen in Jacksonville and who completed an incredible back-to-back 2X100CCC ride on his way to the IBA party in Jacksonville. When I asked him where he lived, I discovered we'd both be heading the same direction after lunch, so I asked if I could ride with him.

On our way out of the restaurant, Joyce showed me something in what used to be the ladies room. She said it scared the you-know-what out of her the first time she went in there.

I'd been trying to get Bill to take my FZ for a spin, so before we all left, he took me up on that offer. Hmmm....if he doesn't come back, did he leave the keys in his GoldWing and, furthermore, could I touch the ground enough to ride it? Good thing Bill came back.

We were the last ones to leave, and I realized that Steve was sitting there on his bike, waiting for me....I couldn't believe I would get to ride with him for the next few hours! When we stopped for gas about 50 miles outside our destination, he informed me that he'd called his wife and that they'd like me to come to their home to spend the night, rather than a hotel. How generous of them! I was thrilled at the offer.

I was leading until that point, but Steve took over and led the way the last 50 or so miles to where he lives. He took me on a really beautiful county road, and we passed a few Amish folks in their horse-drawn buggies and a few adults and children on foot. The whole scene, with the low late afternoon sun, the freshly greening pastures was like a beautiful painting.

We had a nice quiet evening watching his wife Gloria finish up a sewing project and Steve telling some great riding stories. He even programmed my GPS to get me to the Wilson Creek National Battlefield the next morning and would even move my bike out of the garage and get it pointed in the right direction the next morning (us short-legged folk are so disadvantaged!).

Tomorrow: ride over to Wilson Creek National Park to get the stamp, then head south toward Little Rock AR for more stamping.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Second Day of National Park Stamping

I spent the night last night in Vicksburg MS, after riding from Houston and making some national park stops along the way. I'd arrived in Vicksburg in time to get the stamp at the visitor center and to ride on through the park to the U.S.S. Cairo display and get that stamp as well. It's a good thing I'd been able to do that, because the weather forecasts for today were looking very grim.

My route would take me up through north central MS to catch the stamps at the Natchez Trace Visitor Center in Tupelo and to proceed north to Corinth MS and to Shiloh National Battlefield in TN. This area of MS and TN will be under severe weather alerts from about 1:00 PM onward. They are predicting possible large hail, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms. With this in mind, I did not sleep well at all! Because of that, I was up early the next morning, whether I wanted to be or not!

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It was very foggy in Vicksburg this morning at 7:00 AM, a heavy, misty fog that settles on everything it touches, including my faceshield. I headed east on I-20 to I-220 around the west side of Jackson, then north on I-55 until I reached US-82 near Winona. This would be the last I would see of any interstates for a couple of days. Much of this trip is routed on secondary and smaller roads. 40 miles down the road I picked up the Natchez Trace near Mathiston. I would be facing 60 slow miles north toward Tupelo, obeying the posted 50 mph speeds, more or less.

Because of the heavy cloud cover, the flowering trees and wildflowers were particularly brilliant, standing out against the dark backdrop of wet bark and green underbrush. The hardwoods were just starting to show their spring green and the grasses were bright green. The dogwoods along this stretch of the trace were in beautiful blooming form, their characteristic white flowers seeming to float in the air unsupported. I began to see red bud as I got a little further north and their bright magenta blooms grew richer and deeper the further north I got.

There were many wildflowers in bloom; whole fields of mustard-yellow flowers, road shoulders lined with little deep-red button flowers, clusters of pale blue doubt there would be many more varieties blooming in the next few weeks. I noticed many butterflies, too, and hoped that none committed suicide on my front fairing.

Yesterday, while riding through Vicksburg National Park, I saw some rustling just off the roadway and a wild turkey burst out of the underbrush and began flying right toward me. She immediately saw her folly and, in a very ungraceful flapping of wings, she narrowly averted disaster for both of us and plunged back into the bushes. Today I saw another female turkey, a beautiful specimen, sitting up on a slight rise about 30-40 yards off the roadway. She was like a statue, standing perfectly still, her neck and head gracefully extended, and looking quite regal.

The heavy overcast skies stayed dry, thankfully, as I neared the Visitor Center on the Trace. However, I was also watching the clock and calculating how far I'd get before the rains began. The magic hour was 1:00 PM...that was when the storms were expected to move into the area. I got off of the Trace just north of Tupelo, got gas, and picked up US 45 north to Baldwyn for the Brices Crossroads Visitor Center.

I had planned to stop at Corinth to get a stamp at the Interpretive Center but decided to skip that stop in the interests of making sure I was off the roads by 3:00 PM or so, when the severe weather alerts were supposed to begin. So I got onto TN 22 and headed north to Shiloh National Military Park. Last time I was here, was 3 years ago, late in the day, too late to take the drive. This time I took the time to do that drive before stopping at the visitor center to get my stamp.

I sat on a bench and tried to call an MTF friend who lives in Paris TN and who offered me a place to stay for the night. While I waited for my cellphone to "boot up" I ate a Hostess cupcake (road food!), washed it down with water, and called it lunch.

No cell phone signal! Crap! By now it had started to sprinkle, so I quickly got my gear back on, got on the bike, and headed out of the park. The further up the road I got, the heavier the rain became. By the time I reached I-40 it was coming down in a deluge and I could see lightning bolts hitting the ground around me and see white flashes overhead. With all the wind and rain noise in my helmet I couldn't hear the thunder but it no doubt sounded like a war out there!

My GPS was routing me onto a narrow little two lane road - TN 77 - that rocked and rolled over the countryside, following every little nuance of earth, and took numerous random 90 degree turns around imaginary obstacles. This was not fun in the pouring, blowing rain! The severe weather advisories were popping up on the screen of my GPS; no sooner would one clear and another would appear. When I would touch the icon, a long list of locations would appear and the map showed me right in the thick of it.

I did finally reach the outskirts of Paris and found a badly needed gas station where I could fill up and then go inside and try to call Bill again. Success! He answered the phone! I told him where I was, and grabbed a napkin and borrowed a pen from the counter clerk so that I could write down the directions to his house. A left turn, then a couple of lights, then a right turn, then another right I'm running out of room on the napkin. And the wet cuff of my jacket is getting the napkin wet, and the moisture was starting to wick up to where I had written the directions down, threatening to obliterate them. It was a few too many turns to keep in straight in my head without written directions so, when Bill offered to just come and get me, I gratefully said, "Please!"

Since there was no sense in both of us getting wet, I went back out to my bike, got my helmet and gloves back on and pulled away from the gas pump, vacating it for the next customer, and pulled around to the entrance to the gas station to wait for Bill. I was so glad to see him and to follow him back to his house, where we got my bike parked and covered, and got me inside and out of my wet riding gear.

It was a nice visit with Bill, his wife Susan, and his daughter Ellen who came over later with her cute puppy Sam for a sort visit. On the way to dinner, Bill showed me his beautiful new offices and Susan joined us for dinner at the Olive Pit.

Tomorrow: We meet with Phred and Jimmie and head out for Ft. Donelson, Land Between the Lakes, on our way to Grand Rivers for lunch with the MTF Lunch Bunch.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the Road - National Park Stamping

It always feels warmer standing in the driveway than it does underway on a motorcycle...on a whim, I put my Gerbing jacket on, just didn't plug it in. Once I got moving I was thankful I'd done that. But it did remind me I'd not packed longjohns for the more northern climes, so did a u-turn and went back the one or two blocks to the house.

It was overcast much of the day and I like riding in those conditions...especially when headed into the sun - no glare!

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My first stamping stop would be the Jean Lafitte Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice LA. It's a cute little town and the Center occupies a very nice old brick building on a corner of the main street in town. There's a really nice little museum inside, with information about the Acadian settlers. I loved how the sign headers were in French! That little touch really added to the feel of the exhibits!

Continuing north on LA 13 toward Mamou, I passed many rice fields, newly planted. There were dozens and dozens of what might be Glossy Ibis working the flooded fields. As I rode past, they all took off in flight. Definitely Ibis, from the long, downward curved bill, but dark color, not the white ones we see in Texas. Very cool!

Continuing on through Mamou I was watching a dust cropper plane running along side me to my left. As he got ahead of me he banked around and started heading back my way...right down the middle of the highway...flying very low....!! How cool was that?! I waved and he lifted up just as he got to me and banked right back over the fields. That was really neat...a little disconcerting at first, but very neat! He clearly was playing with me.

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The traffic was very light and I was making very good time toward Natchez and my next national park stamping stop. How many times have I ridden right past this Natchez visitor center, not even realizing there was a small National Parks counter in one little corner of the gift shop? I parked and walked inside and worked my way through the labyrinth of tours schedules and counters to the gift shop in the back. There I found three stamps: Natchez National Historical Park -Melrose (which is a couple blocks away from this tourist center), Natchez Trace Parkway (with AL, MS, TN in bottom rocker), and Natchez National Historical Park - William Johnson House. Eager to make it to Vicksburg before 5:00 when the Visitor Center closes, I did not stay long in Natchez.

The route to Vicksburg was clear sailing and I made it to the Vicksburg National Battlefield visitor center at 4:30, with plenty of time to get into the visitor center, get a stamp, then proceed onto the park road. The USS Cairo museum would be open until 6:00, and the park until 7:00 PM.

I love this park! This is my third time back, and none of these visits were stamp-and-runs. I like riding the park, taking my time. Several years ago I read extensively about the battles held here and, with the information fresh in my memory, came to the park on motorcycle and took more than half a day to visit the park, stopping frequently, reading the plaques, reconstructing the battles based on what I'd studied and what the lay of the land presented.

So this trip through was equally as enjoyable as the first...I took my time, made a few stops, pulled over when a car came up behind me.

I love the Ulysses Grant statue and the loop the goes around it. The USS Cairo exhibit is so incredible! To be able to view the planks, the metal spikes all more than 150 years old, handled and crafted by men who lived more than 150 years ago. Enough of the bow of the ship is still intact to see how the ship was constructed.

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Tonight I'm in a nearly new Comfort Suites, almost walking distance to the National Park. It's amazing how many brand new motels have been built in this area just in the last two years: La Quinta, Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn, Marriott Courtyard. Last time here, I stayed in a very dumpy Comfort Inn that is now an EconoLodge. I walked next door to get dinner and when I returned, a young couple were looking at my bike. I walked over to them and thanked them for admiring my bike which, of course, broke the ice, and we chatted quite a bit. The young woman said that they graduate in 36 days (!) and she wants to buy a bike...a Harley. I wished her congratulations on nearly finishing school and best of luck on the motorcycle thing. I also learned that there's a nursing student convention here this week, which would explain all the young adult females who were checking in about the same time I was.
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I'm watching the weather closely and trying to work out timing so that I'm not out there on the road tomorrow when the strong weather front pushes through. The weather forecast says strong possibility of large hail and tornados and it will be passing west to east right across my route of travel sometime in the afternoon on Thursday. Timing will be everything, so if I can get out of here early tomorrow morning, maybe skip a couple of planned stops in MS, and continue on into TN, I'll be of the road when it passes through. Here's hoping!
Tomorrow: (Weather permitting) Natchez Trace, Brices Crossroads, Corinth, Shiloh, then Jackson TN for the night.