East Coast Motorcycle Trip Further Unites Two “Sisters”
My best days are spent riding a 2001 Dyna Low Rider that I purchased new from a local Minnesota dealership at the same time Harley-Davidson unveiled the V-Rod. I remember saying to the salesperson, “If that machine is called a V-Rod, then this one is Rod Stewart.” The name stuck. Rod is my fourth Harley, and I’ll likely own him ’til he rides no more.
Road trips are my forte. I love them and live for them. Over the years Rod and I have covered a lot of miles. From the coral reefs of Key West to the mint green waters of British Columbia’s Lake Louise, we’ve toured much of this great continent.
In the spring of 2014, my good friend Lisa Hawks, whom I affectionately call Bird, decided (after receiving one too many of my travel postcards) that she would learn to ride. Bird obtained her endorsement and purchased a 2008-anniversary edition Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200. Since then, we’ve ridden together at every opportunity.
Once I saw the sparkle in my friend’s eye, the one that comes with falling in love with the sport, I tossed out the idea of a fall trek to Florida. My husband and I own a second home in the Sunshine State and because of the fabulous warm weather; riding there during the winter is divine. Bird jumped at the offer, and so the making of an October road trip was born.
Desiring to explore one of the top motorcycle destinations in the country, we chose to incorporate the Smoky Mountains into our trip.
We set out Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. In the first few days, we crossed Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. After lunch on day four, we arrived at the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, Virginia. We were eager to begin what we had hoped would be the most magnificent part of our journey. There were many cars ahead of us in line as we waited to pay our entrance fee. An electronic sign mounted above the guardhouse announced DENSE FOG AHEAD.
“It must not be too bad,” I thought to myself, “They wouldn’t be letting all these cars in if it was really thick.”
Once we had paid our fee, we rode into a light mist hanging from branches of autumn clad trees. The Skyline Drive, well known to motorcycle enthusiasts, covers 105 miles.
Following the winding, single-lane road upward, the vapor thickened, enveloping us in a blanket of white oblivion. On the opposite side of the road, impatient drivers racing to reach the northern exit of the park seemed to appear out of nowhere. They startled us as they often crossed the middle of the road into our path.
Near-zero visibility forced us to slow our pace. As we chugged up the steep grade, condensation clung to both sides of our windshields and rendered our rear view mirrors useless. Our fogged helmet visors had to be up in order to see.
Every so often, we’d enter a brief reprieve, where momentarily we cleared the fog. On either side stood spectacular mountain vistas resembling bowls holding low-lying, fluffy white cotton. I wish we’d been able to safely capture photos of these unusual sightings, but all too soon, we were once again engulfed in the dreamlike state of the gray haze.
We were not even halfway through the Skyline Drive when the ride became grueling. Pulling off every so often to stretch, Bird and I alternated taking the lead. At one stop, I checked the time on a watch I keep strapped to Rod’s handlebars.
“Bird,” I called out to my friend. “It’s 5 p.m.”
“Jean, it can’t be,” she argued. “We have an hour to go before we get to Waynesboro. It’ll be nightfall by then.”
Waynesboro, Va., marks the end of the Skyline Drive and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s where we would refuel, purchase groceries, and then ride another 27 miles to reach our lodging for the night. The Vesuvius Inn owners (the name of the inn has been changed) advised us to bring groceries. At this time of year, their dining room only served breakfast and they warned no other food would be available in the area.
Reaching Highway 250, dusk arrived as we pulled into the Sunoco station on East Main. After fueling our bikes, we continued to the Kroger on Arch Avenue.
There, we flung smoked salmon, peel-and-eat shrimp, salami, cheese, crackers, grapes, and tonic water into our cart. Exiting, we somberly walked into a quickly darkening night.
As we entered the Blue Ridge Parkway, my odometer trip mileage read 12. With 27 miles to travel, 39 now became the number I clung to.
An eeriness overtook us as we lumbered back into the silence of the consuming fog. Leading the two of us through the abyss, I was blind to whether a meadow or a mountainous drop lay at the shoulder. Fortunately, we had a bright centerline to follow with no other cars on the road.
At times, I considered turning around and heading back to Waynesboro. But, the idea of one of us going off the road while navigating a U-turn was more than I could fathom. The safest thing was to keep moving forward.
Spotting movement to the right, my headlights illuminated a doe and three fawns grazing roadside. In another place and time, this would have been a sweet sight, but at the moment, it presented a hazard. A deer jumping out in front of us could be deadly. I knew we would need our cell phones if we encountered trouble. Mine had died earlier in the day. At least Bird’s still worked, I hoped. Later we would learn even a fully-charged phone would be of no use.
Grateful for the vivid line running down the center of the road, my headlights lit up a warning sign for ROAD WORK AHEAD.
“Please God, not gravel,” I begged. Fear started to rise inside me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to think clearly if I allowed it to take over. I successfully pushed the fear away just as my front tire hit a bump and rolled onto newly laid asphalt. Small retro reflective squares ran down the middle of the jet-black road, marking the place where a new centerline would be painted. Autumn leaves littered the shiny surface like confetti; interfering with my ability to locate and follow the squares. Like Hansel and Gretel hunting a trail of breadcrumbs, our pace slowed even more.
Off to the left, a four-foot high, red brick wall ran alongside the road. Up ahead, I noticed a massive shape in the shadows of my headlights. Standing on his hind legs with front paws resting on top of the wall was a black bear. As he looked at me over his left shoulder, fear coursed through my veins, adrenalin kicked in. Where there was one small bear, there would surely be larger ones. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any bike trouble, especially with our aromatic meal, would put us in serious danger.
Imaginings of being dragged off and ripped apart by bears flowed through my pounding brain, and I wondered if this was to be my last day on earth. Reflections of my two beautiful boys and my sweet husband came to mind. I envisioned people reading the news shaking their heads and saying, “What were those two women thinking, traveling alone in the mountains at night?”
At long last, my odometer clicked to thirty. We had nine miles to go. Approaching thirty-seven, then thirty-eight, I could see no exit, only fog. Ticking over to thirty-nine, I came to a stop. Bird rolled up along side.
As I stood, straddling my bike, I searched through the shadowy murk and finally found our way out. Turning Rod’s handlebars left, his headlights lit our path.
Rolling down the exit ramp, the most welcoming signpost announced State Route VA-56, the road we needed. With a heavy sigh of relief, I turned left. To get to the Vesuvius Inn, we had to find the next right followed again with a left. Solid forest lined each side of the narrowing mountain lane as we headed into grim darkness. Seeing no turn offs, I had had it and panic overtook me. I pulled over, all the while feeling the unsettling presence of wild animals.
“Bird,” I called as I turned to face my friend, “I want you to get on your phone, call the inn and have someone drive out here so we can follow them back.”
“Let’s keep going,” she answered. “I saw a sign indicating there is a tavern two miles ahead. Besides,” she added, “it’s not safe here. The road is too narrow.”
“A tavern, how wonderful,” I thought to myself. There would be people, music, and life! We rode until we reached the abandoned tavern lot. Of course, at this time of the year it was closed. Parked in the wide-open space, Bird jumped off her bike and grabbed her phone.
“Damn,” I uttered under my breath. I couldn’t reason.
Car headlights soon entered the far end of the lot. Before I knew it, I was walking toward the vehicle waving my hands overhead.
“Yes?” questioned a masculine voice as he stepped from his black Jeep.
“Do you have a cell phone we can use?”
“There’s no service in the area,” he bellowed back.
I explained that we were having a hard time finding the Vesuvius Inn and needed to
call and see if someone could drive out to guide us there.
The man said he knew the resort and agreed to lead us in. The three of us returned
to our vehicles, and he drove off with Bird following.
I took off, this time traveling alone. Each curve showed me nothing but dark mist. At last, I spotted red taillights turning off the road. Greeted by gravel, chunks of broken pavement and hairpin turns, Rod and I descended several hundred feet down the vertical drop. My mind shrieked – it was too much, too steep, too dangerous yet I continued, rationalizing if Bird could do it so could I. As I came around a tight corner, I saw her bike laying on its side with lights a blaze.
As Bird hoofed her way up to me, I swore out into the night air in frustration. After I confirmed that she was okay, the two of us maneuvered my bike to the side of the road, then headed down the slope to hers. Headlights came toward us. It was our leader from the tavern. He had continued to the lodge and found a note that explained our cabin location.
Moving motorcycles became our next priority. All three of us worked together to get our bikes down the road and parked next to the cabin. As I lowered my kickstand, I asked our mystery man his first name.
“Terry,” he replied.
Bird thanked Terry and asked if she could give him a hug. I hugged him as well. Then he was off.
The chilliness of the damp air settled round us as we scrambled to unload our bikes. Feeling the glare of wild eyes coming from the adjacent woods, I voiced to my friend that we needed to move fast.
Lugging heavy packs up a steep wooden staircase to our quarters, we creaked open the back door. The cottage was musty and old. Shaking my head, I instantly thought of my conversation with our travel agent. She had made the lodging recommendation and assured me multiple times the road leading in was paved.
Suddenly, I remembered my husband. We had an agreement I would call each night to let him know we were okay.
“Bird,” I groaned, “I need to call Nick. Let’s walk up to the lodge and ask if they have a landline.”
“Okay,” she answered, adding, “Jean, we need to find a towing service. There’s no way I’m riding my bike up that road from hell tomorrow.”
Walking through the lodge yelling our hellos, the resort owner emerged to greet us. We made our introductions and I asked if he had a phone I could use.
After I completed the call, the three of us sat down and chatted. I told him about the challenging ride Bird and I had that day all the while fighting back tears of exhaustion.
I questioned if there was a towing service we could call, explaining that the resort road was beyond our ability and that we did not feel comfortable riding our bikes back up in the morning. The lodge owner told us he was an experienced rider and would ride our bikes up for us. We said good night and Bird and I returned to our cabin very relieved.
In the kitchen, the two of us were finally able to unwind. As we ate our meal, we recounted the terrifying day hour by hour. We shared our own version of the adventure, revealing our fears and scariest moments. I felt a closer bond to my friend than ever before. Thunder boomed in the distance as the skies opened and it began to pour.
The next morning, we donned rain jackets and trudged up the muddy, rutted road to the lodge. A sweet, warm aroma invited us in. As we settled into comfy dining chairs, the innkeeper’s wife lovingly served us breakfast. Afterward, the owners sat with us and explained the severity of the storm. Checking radar, we learned tornados, hail, and flood- inducing rain were traveling southwest to northeast across the entire region. They advised us to get off the mountain immediately and ride east as far as possible. To miss the storm, we would need to bunker down until it passed.
An hour-and-a-half later, our bikes were parked atop the treacherous trail. As we rode away from the mountain, our hearts were heavy with disappointment. Our entire vacation had been planned around visiting the Smoky Mountains and riding the Blue Ridge Parkway because of its reputation as a riders dream.
Sometimes life does not turn out the way one hopes or plans. Letting go of our trip expectations, I now saw what stood in its place. My friendship with Bird had forged a whole new dimension.
Our next two nights were spent in Raleigh, N.C., waiting for the storm to pass. From there, we continued riding to Daytona Beach where friends happily greeted us at Biketoberfest. Gathering around our bikes, we shared our harrowing tale.
From Daytona, we headed southwestward to Naples, our last stop on the trip. Traveling down I-75, I smiled as I realized how precious the woman was riding with me. United and bonded through a Smoky Mountain journey that crazy imaginings could never make up, Bird became my sister.