Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wheels Through Time, Cherohala Skyway, Foothills Parkway, Deals Gap, Smoky Mountain National Park

I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and make one more trip up to the Deals Gap area before old man winter really kicks in. I left on Monday morning and took mostly interstate to get to Maggie Valley, where I visited the Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum. It was definitely worth the visit, though it's quite a different place than Barber's museum in Birmingham. Barber's museum is immaculate and the bikes are in stellar shape and organized very neatly, whereas WTT's bikes are in various states from piles of rusted iron to fairly well maintained/restored, running bikes. Their display method is pretty cool in that there are many sub-displays depicting old shops and garages, so you're really taken back in time. The place smelled oily and greasy like a shop, which is great if you like that, as I do. I bought a T-shirt that I later realized smells like the place.

After spending a couple of hours there I proceeded to Robbinsville, where I stayed at Phillips Motel for the evening. I was very happy with this place and highly recommend it if you don't have super-high standards. My total with tax was $38.50, and the room was very cozy and had everything I needed. It's within walking distance of the stretch of US129 with restaurants and stores, such as Ingles Grocery, McDonald's, Wendys, and El Pacifico Mexican Restaurant. I walked over to McDonald's for a cup of coffee that I took back to my room and enjoyed while thumbing through a couple of magazines I'd brought and watching a bit of TV. Around 7:00 I walked over to the Mexican restaurant, which is the same one that Tom, James, Lauren, and I visited on our March 2006 Deals Gap trip; I highly recommend this place; the food is superb, the salsa is incredible, the prices are fair, and the staff is very friendly and prompt. I enjoyed the rest of the evening reading, doing Sudoku puzzles, and then watching Heroes and CSI:Miami.

Along Highway 28 en route to Robbinsville

Gas station in Robbinsville

Tuesday morning following breakfast at McDonald's, while checking out I visited with a fellow from St. Louis riding an FJR1300 who had ridden in the Iron Butt Rally; he was en route to the Atlanta area to visit his daughter and install cruise control systems on a couple of FJR's. I was on the road by about 8:30, and I first rode the Cherohala Skyway. The weather was fine until I got to about 5000' elevation, where I encountered very dense fog; I estimated my visibility at about 100'. I turned on my flashers and poked along at about 30mph for a few miles until I got back below 5000', when again everything was peachy.

About 5 miles before Tellico Plains was a sign for Bald River Falls, so I took the road, which was nice and curvy as it followed the river. It's certainly not a road for riding aggressively, though, as there is no room for error - no shoulder, and nearly a 90-degree drop into the river below. After about 6 miles I came to the falls, which were quite majestic and worth the detour.

From there I went through Tellico Plains, up 360 to Vonore, then 411 and 72 to 129, which leads to Deals Gap. I rode the Dragon twice each way, with no stops at the ends (1272 curves in 44 miles in an hour), because there was no one to visit. The store is closed for the season and no one was there, nor was anyone at the overlook. I wasn't totally alone out there; about five other riders were enjoying the rare opportunity to really enjoy the road. It was dry, clean, and empty, and the temperature was around 70 degrees! Couldn't have been finer!

I then rode the Foothills Parkway, which I absolutely love, up to Townsend, where I had a quick lunch, and then I took Little River Road into the Smoky Mountain National Park and got on 441 South. All was well for the first ten miles or so, and then it started getting foggy and drizzling. Right at the top of the mountain, just shy of Clingman's Dome Road, I heard a very loud bang. Since there were road construction signs in the vicinity, I first thought it was a dynamite blast, but then my rear end got squirrelly on me, and I knew my rear tire had blown out. Fortunately I was within site of a pulloff, so I rode up into it and checked out my tire, and it had a two-inch gash in it. Egad! I checked my tires that morning, and they were in good shape and properly inflated, so my best guess is that I ran over something sharp that sliced it. I had no cell phone service, but fortunately I was pretty close to the Newfound Gap parking lot, so I walked to it and there was one car with four middle-aged folks loading up after having been out hiking. I approached them and told them what had happened, so one gentleman first let me try his phone, but it, too, had no service, so they invited me to ride back down the mountain to the visitor center. I grabbed my luggage and loaded it in the back, and off we went. They were all very pleasant; I'm very fortunate to have encountered them.

The park rangers at the visitor center were also very friendly and gave me a place to stash my gear and a phone to use, so I got Motorcycle Towing Services, a AAA-type company for motorcycles that I am a member of, on the line. After a few phone calls back and forth, they finally recommended a towing place that I'd have to call myself and pay up front, and then be reimbursed. That was fine, so I called them, and they first informed me that the only payment they'd accept is cash, so I told them that as long as we could find an ATM somewhere we'd be OK. Then the fellow finally understood that though I was at the visitor center, my bike was 15 miles up the mountain, upon which he said sorry, can't do it. Great. It was then just a couple minutes shy of 5:00, when the visitor center closed, and the rangers said the bike had to come down and couldn't stay up there overnight. They knew of a towing company (Carr's in Pigeon Forge) and called them for me. What I'd spent over an hour on the phone with MTS trying unsuccessfully to do was accomplished by the NPS in just a couple of minutes. So I hauled my stuff out and waited for the wrecker to show up, and in the interim I was entertained by an Asian family who set their car alarm off and had trouble getting it to stop, all the while they were all running around yelling in their native language. I've got to say that I'm not all that impressed with MTS and will look into the HSTA towing service now that I'm a member of that organization.

The wrecker driver, Jeff, showed up in about 15 minutes, so up the mountain we headed. By then it was getting pretty dark, and I quickly realized the headlights were getting dimmer and dimmer. I finally mentioned something to the driver, and he reluctantly agreed that we were in bad shape. At the next pulloff we turned around and started heading back down the mountain with pretty much no headlights by then, and then the motor died from lack of fuel, since the fuel pump is electrical. So, we coasted down for a while until it was just too dark to safely continue and took the next pulloff we found. Fortunately we were far enough down to have cell service, so he called headquarters and informed them of the situation; they had to call in a driver on his off day to round up a pair of batteries to bring us to finish the mission. We waited probably close to a couple of hours for him (fortunately it wasn't too cold nor raining), but Jeff and I got along well and had a nice couple of hours of conversation. Clayton finally showed up with batteries, and we started up the mountain yet again. Within a couple of miles of my bike we hit dense fog like I'd hit earlier in the day, so we crept up the final bit at a snail's pace, but safely made it, got my bike loaded, and got back down the mountain safely. Since it was well past closing time of dealerships, they kept my bike overnight and dropped me off at a good, cheap hotel. This was about seven hours after the incident, and I was flat exhausted. Didn't even bother with supper.

The next morning I called around to local dealerships in search of a tire. MTS recommended Smoky Mountain Motorsports in Kodak, which is on I-40 east of Knoxville, and they turned out to be a good dealership and the only one that I called that had a 16" rear tire in stock. Unfortunately it was the crappy Dunlop K630 that comes stock on the Ninja 250, but it was either that or wait three days for something else to come in, so I took it. Clayton picked me up at the hotel with my bike loaded, and off to Kodak we went. The shop had my tire put on in about an hour and had me on my way.

After going up and down the mountain three times, I really didn't feel like doing it again, and I wasn't keen on riding back through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, so I just took the interstate home, though I did take the eastern Foothills Parkway (I had taken the western one on Tuesday), which is shorter and not nearly as scenic as the western one, but it was still nice and gave me some curves for the day.

Western Foothills Parkway

My poor bike

Eastern Foothills Parkway

It was a fantastic trip, even with the tire issue. I was fortunate in many regards: the folks who drove me to the visitor center, the little bit of help I got from MTS, the helpful NPS park rangers, the great towing company, and the good dealership who had a tire in stock. The museum was great and the pre-blowout ride on Tuesday was superb. Four runs of the Dragon with it dry and clean and hardly anyone on it. The Cherohala and the waterfall detour. The Foothills Parkway. Wow! I'm really glad I made this ride. All my photos from this trip.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Installed heated grips on my VFR

I recently installed a set of heated grip on my Ninja and absolutely love them, so I installed a set on my VFR this weekend. I took my time to choose optimum wire routing paths so that it's barely noticeable and looks stock. I installed a relay near the battery and trigger it with the license plate light so they can't be left on accidentally with the bike off and deplete the battery. In looking for a good spot to mount the switch, so that it looks good, is visible in riding position, and is easy to get to, I found the perfect spot in the steering head, which is hollow on the VFR. I've been wanting to plug it with something anyway, as the stock plastic plug was missing when I bought the bike, and out of principle I didn't wish to spend $12 for a stock Honda plug. This fit the bill perfectly! The wires run through the steering head and out the bottom, so they're well hidden, and it makes for a very good wire run. I took it for a test ride, and they're toasty! While I was at it, I replaced the stock grips with some ProGrips that offer a bit more cushioning than the stock ones. $30 for the heated grips and $10 for the ProGrips.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ride through rural western South Carolina

Today I rode a 200 mile loop through Batesburg-Leesville, Johnston, Edgefield, Augusta and Aiken. I didn't have a route in mind; it was one of those days of following the front wheel, which often leads to some great rides. It was truly a beautiful day for riding, and I encountered very little traffic on the back roads I rode. In Ward I found a neat old Methodist church with some neat old grave markers in the cemetery.

I then travelled through Edgefield, where I passed Strom Thurmond's birthplace.
I then explored a few small towns, including Trenton and Eureka, on my way to Augusta, where I enjoyed a catfish dinner at a favorite restaurant of mine, Beamie's on the River, before heading homeward.

Friday, November 10, 2006

HSTA Rally in Kerrville, Texas

I finally did two things that I've been meaning to do for some time - I joined the HSTA (Honda Sport Touring Association), and I rode an Iron Butt Saddle Sore 1000 (a documented ride of 1000 miles or more in 24 hours or less), plus I rode in two states that I had not previously ridden in: Arkansas and Texas. The rally was held in Kerrville, TX, just outside of San Antonio. I left home at 4:30am on Thursday and met my friend Daryl in Nashville (my halfway mark) at noon. When I left home it was a comfortable 61 degrees, but as I got into the mountainous region between Asheville and Knoxville, the temperature quickly dropped into the 30s, and it began raining. I stopped and put on my electric vest and winter gloves, and all was once again peachy. After meeting Daryl, we proceeded to ride through Memphis and Little Rock on our way to our day's destination of Atlanta, TX, just outside of Texarcana. It was a great day of riding, with just a bit of traffic congestion in Memphis. We arrived in Atlanta around 10:30, with my final numbers being 1036 miles in 18 hours. I was still comfortable and in good spirits and felt as if I could have kept going for a few more hours.

Friday morning we departed around 7:00 in 28 degree weather bound for Kerrville and stopped for lunch at Louie Mueller's Barbecue in Taylor. What a fantastic BBQ joint this was! It had tons of character, and the food was incredible. Their idea of BBQ is much different than what I'm accustomed to; rather than pork shoulder, it's beef brisket, and sauce isn't a big deal. It was different, but quite tasty, as were the baked beans, cole slaw, and chipotle sausage.

Louie Mueller's Barbecue:

We left there pleasantly full and had a great ride to Kerrville. I like how the Texans drive on two-lane highways - the speed limit is often 65 or 70, and when you're approaching a car from behind, they'll pull over onto the shoulder and maintain speed (the shoulders are wide and of good quality), so you can pass them without crossing the yellow line. This happened time and time again, which is so contrary to what I'm accustomed to; usually folks get offended when passed, but the Texans invite you to do so. Superb! We could all learn from them. We made it to Kerrville around 6:00 and got checked in and registered and enjoyed an evening of drinking Guinness and meeting other riders.

The lobby of our hotel, the Y.O. Ranch and Resort:

Saturday morning we arose and headed over to a nearby dealership that hosts a breakfast for this rally every year, where we enjoyed some really good breakfast burritos, donuts, and coffee, while checking out their bikes and gear and visiting with fellow riders. There was a suggested route that most everyone took, but not all as one group; folks broke up into small groups based upon riding style and such. Daryl and I rode alone for a good portion of the route - we occasionally would catch up with some folks and ride with them for a bit, but our throttle hands quickly got itchy, so we'd zoom past them. :-) It drizzled most of the day, which required us to keep the pace down a bit, and it also impacted viewing of the scenery, but it was still a spectacular day of riding. Great curvy roads and beautiful scenery. We rode three roads that are collectively known as "Three Twisted Sisters," and though they're not as technically challenging as some of the roads in the NC/TN/GA mountains, they were still a lot of fun to ride. We encountered some deer and cows in the road, so that always had to be kept in mind. We encountered a lot of cattle guards as well, which were fine while going straight, but we sometimes encountered them in the curves, so we had to slow way down and stand the bikes upright before crossing them (slick in the dry, really slick in the rain.) We'd been warned of animals in the road; a couple weeks prior a fellow had hit a porcupine and ended up crashing pretty hard and breaking lots of bones; fortunately, we didn't see any of those. There were three riders who went down during the course of the day; two were simple low-sides on the slick roads, and the riders and bikes weren't hurt too badly. The third, however, was pretty nasty; a fellow went off the road in a curve into a river. He and the bike got pretty banged up, and his initial problem was shock from the cold, but other riders with them got him out and covered him with riding jackets until EMS arrived. Daryl and I happened upon this crash as the authorities were wrapping things up and hauling him off in the ambulance. I don't think he had any major injuries, but possibly had some broken bones and such.

The dealership we visited:

Stonehenge II not too far outside Kerrville:

Stopped for a break in Leakey, TX:

Saturday night we had a great banquet with a meal of chicken parmesan, beef stroganoff, and various tasty sides and desserts. It was a really good meal, and we ate at a table with a good group of folks, one of them a woman who'd lived many years in New Orleans and had travelled to my hometown just across the state line to ride horses. Lots of door prizes were awarded, but unfortunately Daryl and I left empty-handed. Maybe next year.

Sunday morning we arose early and headed away from Kerrville; we rode to around Shreveport, LA, where we had an excellent lunch at a little diner. Our waitress sounded like she had a four-pack-a-day habit, but she was certainly nice, helpful, and funny. She assured me that the food I ordered would be filling and said, "If you leave here unhappy, it's your own damned fault!" :-) Following lunch Daryl and I parted ways, with him heading to Memphis for the evening, and me heading down to southern Mississippi, where I spent a couple of days with my family.

On Wednesday I had a pretty uneventful ride back home via the slab. Left at noon and got in around 10pm. I covered about 3,300 miles over the course of the trip, and had a blast! I'm stoked to have done the Iron Butt ride and to finally be an HSTA member, and it was awesome to ride in Texas. I plan to do this trip again in the future. Here is an album of all my photos.

Mileage Per Day:
Thu 1036
Fri 475
Sat 250
Sun 800
Mon 15
Tue 25
Wed 650

Update - I finally received my certificate!