Hell yes! That is the only plausible answer when friends invite you to join them on an eight-day motorcycle ride through the mountains of Montana (including the legendary Beartooth Pass), Wyoming, Idaho, and Alberta, Canada.
We start our ride in Billings, Montana, on a pair of Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classics rented from EagleRider, and head south to Laurel, where we pick up U.S. Route 212. We continue south to Red Lodge, where the road becomes Beartooth Highway and crosses into Wyoming on its way up to Beartooth Pass (10,947 ft). This is one of the best motorcycling roads in America, and it is easy to see why, even in the rain.
West of the pass, we turn south on Wyoming Route 296, which is also known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. The byway has great sweepers as well as picturesque views of the Absaroka Mountains as it climbs up and over Dead Indian Pass (8,071 ft).
We arrive in Cody in time to tour the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a superb display of life in the Old West. The center has five museums: the Buffalo Bill Museum, which is about his life and times; the Plains Indian Museum, which showcases art and heritage; the Draper Natural History Museum, highlighting the ecosystems of Yellowstone; the Whitney Western Art Museum; and the Cody Firearms Museum.
We awake to a light rain that lingers until we head into the mountains west of Cody, and then the heavens open up with what my granddad used to refer to as “a real frog-strangler.” Looking over and around the windshield, I am barely able to make out the taillight of the bike in front of me, and I have no idea how he manages to follow the road on our way back to Beartooth Highway. The clouds part as we ride into Cooke City, Montana, a Wild West town where motorcycles have replaced horses at the hitching posts.
Our adventurous ride through Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park includes a wide variety of wildlife; a large RV that decides to stop, unannounced, in the middle of the road to take some pictures; and a herd of bison that crosses the highway one or two at a time, backing up traffic for a mile. When our turn comes to run the bison gauntlet, an exceptionally large bull gets ready to cross the road. We are directly behind a pickup truck, so I suggest to our riding partners that when the truck starts to move, we should stay close to its rear bumper so it looks like we’re being towed.
After spending the night in Jackson, Wyoming, we ride west on State Route 22 over Teton Pass (8,432 ft) and into Idaho. The winding roads, the views of the Tetons to the east, and crossing rivers with trout fisherman in waders fly casting made for a fun, scenic ride. We continue north on a stretch of U.S. Route 20 known as Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.
We cross back into Montana and end our day in Butte, once a wealthy copper mining town and more recently home to the late Evel Knievel, the legendary motorcycle daredevil. In the morning, we ride through downtown to view the mansions that signify a bygone era, and then head west through mining country. It’s Saturday morning and we are getting low on gas, so we stop in the tiny town of Phillipsburg to fill up. The gas station also serves as a general store, a casino, and a bar, all of which have numerous customers.
We turn north from Missoula in 100-degree temperatures, finally gaining some relief along the shady roads on the eastern shores of Flathead Lake. Heading back west across the top of the lake, we encounter the largest flock of eagles we have ever seen.
We spend the night at the Hidden Moose Lodge in Whitefish, an exquisite place that serves a gourmet breakfast every morning. With full bellies, the bike feels noticeably heavier as we climb Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park, one of the few roads that can give Beartooth Highway a run for its money. We venture across into Alberta, Canada, and visit Waterton Lakes National Park, which is the northern part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Being from the flatlands of Florida, we’re overwhelmed by the endless peaks and scenery of the Rocky Mountains. We stay at the quaint Kilmorey Lodge, overlooking the Emerald Bay of Waterton Lakes. Relaxing by the gazebo with a refreshing beverage, we’re joined by countless white-tailed deer that consume any vegetation not covered in chicken wire.
Heading south the next morning takes us back across the border through the towns of St. Mary and Browning in northern Montana. A sign on the outskirts of Browning warns of strong crosswinds, but there’s nothing more than a gentle breeze. Ten miles farther south on U.S. Route 89, the breeze becomes a 60-mph crosswind that we battle with for the better part of 40 miles.
The town of Dupuyer, Montana, has a population of 93 and no general store or gas station, but it does have two bars. We opt for the Ranch House of Dupuyer for lunch and are pleasantly surprised when the owner/bartender/chef cooks up a superb pulled pork dish. It’s served by his children, ages four and seven, who provide better service than waiters at many fancy restaurants.
After riding through the haze of wildfire smoke, we stay overnight in Great Falls. The final leg of our journey takes us across the flatlands to the small town of Ryegate, where we are disappointed to discover we’ve missed the annual Testicle Festival.
We arrive back in Billings and return the Harleys to EagleRider. Over eight days and 1,500+ miles, I can say that there was not a single road that I would not ride again in a heartbeat. Great roads, beautiful country.
The WisconsinHighways.org website’s State Trunk Highways section says: “One of the noticeable idiosyncrasies is the meandering nature of some of Wisconsin’s state highways. Just pick one of the state’s longer routes, and more than likely you will find many extended stretches concurrently designated with other highways and some meandering behavior.” I like highways that meander. My favorite ride includes State Highways 32, 47, 52, and 55. It’s not the Smoky Mountains, but it has some of the best motorcycle roads in Wisconsin.
This route is a figure-8, and I prefer to start at the top in Laona. The Shell station there has ethanol-free 91-octane gas and Trig’s beef sticks. Fuel for both the bike and me is a good way to begin the ride, and several stops for both are available along the route.
I head west on U.S. Route 8 toward Crandon. It’s a sunny, pleasant day, but with haze in the air. The faint smell of smoke rolls over the windshield. News reports say it’s from large wildfires in Ontario. It occurs to me that I have not been to Canada in 10 years, and that’s way too long. Hopefully someday soon crossing the border will be easy, Covid will be under control, and the fires will be out.
These are some of the straightest highways of the trip, and I turn up the wick on my old Twin Cam to get to the curves. I have owned a variety of bikes over the years and toured on all of them – a Honda Gold Wing, a Suzuki V-Strom, a Yamaha FJR1300 – but I always seem to have a Harley around. It’s a Wisconsin thing.
Outside of town, I enter green hardwood forests. Many are part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which limits development and provides opportunities for nature viewing with minimal human intrusion. I am approaching the Forest County Potawatomi Community, enjoying the rolling hills and views from the tops of those hills. This section of U.S. 8 lies about a mile from Sugarbush Hill, the third highest point in Wisconsin.
The small city of Crandon provides another opportunity for food, fuel, and lodging, but I’m in a hurry. I roll through town and pick up Highway 55 south and cruise toward Mole Lake. The pavement is in nice shape with wide shoulders and a few gentle curves, but this is an agricultural and residential area that keeps the road relatively straight. The highway continues through the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, which has a casino and anything else a traveler might need.
I’m on a mission, because when I clear Mole Lake, I’ll enter Langlade County. The road changes. I can feel the curves and elevation changes. The forest closes around the road with a lot of nice 40-50 mph sweepers. This continues toward the town of Pickerel, where the road opens back up into an agricultural area and we see the Wolf River for the first time. The back-and-forth change of scenery continues for miles as we pass through the small town of Lily, the middle junction of the figure-8.
The smell of fresh-cut hay pushes out the smell of wildfire haze. The V-Twin continues to thump along at a nice cadence. I gradually slow coming into Langlade, and get a closer look at the Wolf River, which parallels Highway 55 all the way to Keshena. The number of curves increases as the road follows the path of the river.
Crossing the Menominee County line, the road changes dramatically for the better. The Menominee tribe has been managing their land for sustainable timber for around 150 years. The mature trees are allowed to grow right up to the shoulder of the highway and canopy over in some places. The mix of curves, the views of the Wolf River, and the feeling of riding right through the forest are the best parts of this ride. This is what I’ve been waiting for, and I enjoy leaning the old Ultra back and forth all the way to Keshena Falls, which is the bottom of the figure-8.
Taking a right onto Highway 47, I ride in a northwesterly direction. The curves aren’t as spectacular, but I’m still enjoying the area’s scenery. I run through a few more areas of shaded canopy and bend around the backwaters of the Neopit Mill Pond. Returning to Langlade County is like riding out of a forest tunnel and into the neatly organized fields of traditional Wisconsin dairy farms.
The road opens as I sail up through Phlox into Antigo, the largest city on the route with plenty of opportunities to stop. I like to take old Highway 52 past the hospital and city parks and into the large orderly fields of the Antigo Flats. This is the home of Antigo Silt Loam, the official state soil of Wisconsin. Highway 52 has 90-degree curves along the boundaries of dairy and potato farms. The highway climbs out of the flats into the Kettlebowl area, which has a volunteer-run ski hill and the only “Caution Steep Grade” signs of the ride. The climb up the south side of the Kettlebowl is rough, but the pavement coming down is new and smooth.
The broad curves continue into the town of Lily, where we cross the center of the figure-8 again and turn north onto Highway 52. The path is wonderful, but the pavement in this area is a decade or two beyond its service life, so I keep speeds mellow for safety. The road follows 90-degree curves for a few miles through the community of Freeman. Folks are still farming here, but with much smaller operations than in Antigo. Highway 52 terminates at Highway 32 just west of Wabeno, and the ride is almost over. I aim north and relax a little on the wider, straight highway on the return to Laona.
I experienced great roads, sights, and smells, as well as diverse settings, bends, curves, hills, and even a little bit of sunburn. It’s hard to beat a day spent meandering on a motorcycle.
“You’re riding your motorcycle to find graveyards – on purpose?” The conversation with a young police officer on a road construction detail in western Massachusetts was brief, but it motivated me to share why old graveyards are fascinating places to explore.
Rewind to the 1970s. My dad was a college professor whose academic interests included early New England graveyards. On weekends and summer vacations, he dragged my sisters and me along to find them. Long before GPS, such trips often became a quest since Dad’s approach to navigating involved dead reckoning. “I wonder where that road goes?” he’d say. “One way to find out.” It’s fair to say that Dad informed my interest in exploring on motorcycles.
Since Massachusetts has some of America’s oldest communities settled by Europeans, it has some of the country’s oldest graveyards. Three of Dad’s favorites were in the towns of Longmeadow, Deerfield, and Wilbraham, all in the Connecticut River Valley of western Mass. I decide to revisit these graveyards with the benefit of an adult perspective. Since they’re not even 40 miles apart, I extend the ride a couple hundred miles using Dad’s “I wonder where that road goes” approach, and along the way I find other old graveyards to explore.
The ride begins in Longmeadow. Along Williams Street, behind historic First Church, is the Olde Burying Ground, c. 1718, a small section within Longmeadow Cemetery. In old graveyards like this, carvings in stone offer insights into family life, social status, occupations, religious beliefs, sickness, tragedy, and the ways people conceived of death.
The stone of Ebenezer Bliss concludes with this stark epitaph: “Death is a Debt To Nature Due Which I have Pay’d And so must You.” The nature of one’s death is often explained, such as from smallpox, childbirth, or drowning, although Adjt. Jonathan Burt’s stone leaves us wondering, because he “departed this life in a sudden and surprising manner.”
From Longmeadow, I point my BMW F 750 GS north on U.S. Route 5 across the Connecticut River, then west on State Route 57. To avoid built-up sections of Agawam, I cut through Rising Corner and rejoin 57 past the Southwick fire station. The curves beyond Granville Gorge entice me to quicken the pace, though as I enter the village of Granville a flashing speed limit sign convinces me to roll off.
Up the hill beyond the town hall, I come upon Center Cemetery, c. 1753. As with many old graveyards that are no longer “active” (accepting new burials), one cannot drive into this graveyard, so I park just off the road. Also like many old graveyards, it isn’t next to a church. Some early settlers of New England, notably Puritans, located their dead away from the everyday lives of the living.
The headstone of Lt. Samuel Bancraft, Granville’s first settler, includes a slight variation of the epitaph I saw earlier in Longmeadow: “Death is a debt, to nature due. I have paid it, and so must you.”
Continuing west, I enjoy several miles of new tar, but on the steep downhill curves to New Boston I am cursing the inventor of tar snakes. Beyond the village, I notice unpaved Beech Plain Road, and a right turn takes me along stands of trees dressed in vibrant yellow fall foliage. There’s not a tar snake in sight.
In Otis, I merge onto State Route 8 north and then lean west onto State Route 23, an entertaining two-lane that hugs the contours of the Berkshire Hills. Past the village of Monterey, I see a sign for River Road. Dad explained that roads of that name are usually curvy and rarely dead end. Right on both counts!
Following a bridge-out detour, I arrive in Sheffield. On the other side of U.S. Route 7 there’s a sign for Bow Wow Road, and being a dog lover, I need to see where it goes. A ways after it turns to dirt, I find Pine Grove Cemetery, c. 1758. I see family plots for Olds and Curtiss and wonder if these graves include ancestors of the automobile and aviation pioneers of those names.
I continue on North Undermountain Road and Pumpkin Hollow Road. At the village of Alford, Center Cemetery, c. 1780, warrants investigation. Among the finds is this pithy epitaph: “Gone not lost.”
Leaving the town center, West Road gets the nod over East Road, and after a couple turns I’m on State Route 41 riding north through Richmond to Hancock. History buffs can visit Hancock Shaker Village. Shakers were a religious community known for their elegantly functional barns and furniture, and for their devotion to celibacy. (The latter may account for their current lack of numbers.)
Heading west on U.S. Route 20 takes me over the New York border to State Route 22 north and Stephentown. A right on State Route 43 returns me to Massachusetts, having sidestepped Pittsfield’s population center. Another right on Brodie Mountain Road leads to U.S. 7 north. At the five-corners intersection, I turn right onto State Route 43 and follow the Green River to Williamstown, a quintessential New England college town. At the junction of State Route 2, a left leads to lively Spring Street and multiple options for eats and coffee.
Refreshed and re-caffeinated, I head west toward North Adams and know exactly where to go: up the Mount Greylock Scenic Byway. This technical twist-fest leads to the highest point in Massachusetts (3,491 ft). Rockwell Road winds me down the other side of the mountain, and at the Mount Greylock Visitor’s Center, I turn around to ride the route in reverse. This 30-mile round trip is too much fun to pass by.
East of North Adams, the scenic Mohawk Trail (Route 2) rises through the famous Hairpin Turn, on to the town of Florida, then back down through Mohawk Trail State Forest. Exciting curves and elevation changes are enhanced by the clear autumn day. At Charlemont, I go north on State Route 8A, another twisting gem, to Branch Road, which tracks the west branch of North River east to State Route 112. This two-lane path curves quick and easy south to Ashfield where a left on State Route 116 puts me on a favorite twisty two-lane. But first, I stop at Elmer’s, an eatery popular with locals as well as motorcyclists passing through.
While jawing with some old-timers, I learn there’s a “really old” graveyard I should see on Norton Hill Road. As I pull up to Hill Cemetery, I can tell from the styles of gravestones that it’s no older than mid-19th century, but a war memorial right next to the road rewards the stop. Erected in 1867, it includes this wording: “TO THE EVER LIVING MEMORY OF THE SONS OF ASHFIELD WHO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY IN THE WAR OF NATIONALITY 1861-1865.” It’s the only place I have seen the U.S. Civil War described using this term.
At Creamery Road, I turn left toward South Ashfield then savor those curves on 116 to South Deerfield. It’s easy to bypass busy U.S. 5 via Lee Road and Mill Village Road to reach the Old Deerfield historic district. There, at the end of Albany Road, is another of Dad’s favorite graveyards, the Old Deerfield Burying Ground, c. 1690s (aka Old Albany Cemetery).
More than a dozen stones date back to the 1600s, the oldest one for Mary Blanchard, who had 10 children with her first husband, John Waite, and nine more with her second husband, John Blanchard. Notably, this graveyard includes a monument to 47 settlers killed during a raid on the town by native residents and their French military allies on February 29, 1704.
Walking the rows of stones, it’s intriguing to note how the styles have evolved over time. Early carvings with skulls gave way to skulls with wings, then winged angels, and then urns with weeping willows. Few parents still give their newborns names like these: Eleazer, Flavia, Zenas, Temperence, Dorcas, Ithamser, Arrethusa, and Thankfull Experience. Also here is a gravestone for a young woman whose name is hard to read without chuckling: Fanny Forward.
Leaving Deerfield, a short stretch north on U.S. 5 connects to another River Road, this one following the Connecticut River south to Mount Sugarloaf. Beyond the bridge, a right onto State Route 47 south follows the river’s other bank where harvested tobacco fields and the Mount Holyoke Range provide scenery.
Keeping to roads less traveled, I make my way through South Hadley, Belchertown, Ludlow, and Wilbraham, to Adams Cemetery, c. 1740. Gravestones here include dozens with epitaphs that speak to the difficulty of life and inevitability of death. Consider two:
“Friends and Physicians could not save, My mortal body from the grave.”
“Youth blooming learn your mortal state, How frail your life, how short the date.”
It’s fitting that Dad is buried here in one of the graveyards that so intrigued him – particularly one that is actively preserved and celebrated as a historical resource. Even if the graveyards in your neck of the woods aren’t as old, it’s likely they’re peaceful, beautiful, and interesting places to explore. When you’re enjoying a ride, take the opportunity to experience history in outdoor museums along the way. Explore old graveyards – on purpose.
My obsession with the White Mountains and Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire began nearly a year before I rode the famous route. I’d been testing BMW’s K 1600 B on a late-season ride on Vermont Route 100, just tootling along with all the Subarus, when I saw a guy on the side of the road standing atop an aged custom Harley, waving.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I swung the bagger around to meet Eric, a local mechanic, who said he was standing on his bike to get people to stop and make a donation for a friend and his wife who were in a motorcycle accident.
This would turn out to be Stanley Lynde and his wife, Laura, owners of Lynde Motorsports in Brattleboro, Vermont. There was an official GoFundMe webpage at the time, but Eric “didn’t do the internet.”
And his method seemed to work, with several people stopping by as we chatted, offering donations and well wishes. Eric, a veteran motorcyclist and builder who can no longer get out for big rides, was very emotional about the situation. When I asked him if there was something I could do beyond a donation, he promptly said yes, I could ride. Specifically, he requested I head up into the White Mountains and ride his favorite road, the Kancamagus Highway, in honor of the Lyndes.
And I tried. With all my heart. But a major storm blew in the next day, the only free day I had before returning the bike and flying home. Eric, his friends, and the road with the odd-sounding name were on my mind all winter long.
A COMMUNITY, NOT A CLUB
Late the next summer I was finally able to return to the Northeast, this time for a high-mileage test of BMW’s R 1200 RT. The Kancamagus, aka The Kanc (technically NH Route 112), topped my list of roads to explore.
I enlisted the help of Ed Conde, route master for New England Riders (NER, newenglandriders.org), an impressively large group (14,000+ strong on Facebook) that identifies as “a community of motorcyclists that self-organize to ride and have fun with other riders,” rather than a club, in which there would be things like dues and rules and officers.
Now, I’m a solo rider by nature, but after getting to know Ed and his wife, Debbie, online, I was excited to meet up with them and a small crew of NER riders to follow Ed’s “Best of the White Mountains” tracks, a 202-mile double loop that launches from Gorham, New Hampshire.
It was a Friday morning in September when I throttled out of Gorham with seven strangers, tracing the Androscoggin River eastward on U.S. Route 2, then crossing into Maine to head south on State Route 113. This rural highway is where the party started, with the road beginning to curve and roll as it swept its way up into the White Mountain National Forest.
Right away, it was clear this group could ride. On the way to the meeting point, I’d been thinking, “Okay, be patient, this could be a long day, be on your guard…” – all the things one should remember when joining an unknown group of riders. When we stopped at Evans Notch overlook for a breather, I learned these NER members are skilled because most had invested in training and trackdays, many under the tutelage of Ken Condon, author of Riding in the Zone.
THE MASTER PLANNER
The White Mountains, a roughly 90-mile segment of the much larger Appalachian Range, was created by western movement of the North American Plate more than 100 million years ago, long before the glaciers of the Ice Age covered them, then receded, smoothing sharp edges into the rounded notches and dished valleys we see today.
Our group was too early for the region’s famous fall colors, which suited these passionate riders just fine since it meant light traffic as we flowed down State Route 113. At Fryeburg, we followed Ed on a few quick turns to reach Hurricane Mountain Road, a narrow goat path of a backroad that constantly rises and dives, splashing through the densely forested hills, twisting just enough to heighten the senses.
I swear I didn’t tell Ed that I’m obsessed with road-trip pancakes; it just happened this group feels the same. Polly’s potential for addiction is real, and I’m happy I live thousands of miles away. Most of us went with pancake “samplers,” where you order three short stacks (yes, per person!), mixing and matching different batters and mix-ins.
It’s at this point I realize Ed Conde is more than just a nice guy with some ideas about good roads. Ed is a purveyor of truly fine roads, the kind of gems you simply wouldn’t find and connect on your own. And as I’ll learn over time, his skills aren’t limited to cataloging premium strands of tarmac; Ed sews in all the best views, bathroom stops, and restaurants, too.
It’s the secret stash a local rider might know, but Ed’s not a local here in New Hampshire. He and Debbie live near Boston, and it’s become their shared passion to travel on bikes – he on a Honda ST1300 and she on a Suzuki V-Strom 650 – exploring new states and creating a database of the best motorcycle roads, many of them stitched into day rides. Ed shares these elaborate ride plans and GPX tracks, which span from Nova Scotia all the way down to Alabama and Georgia, on the NER website.
It’s their way of giving back to the community, he says, for all the joy and treasured memories motorcycling has brought to their lives.
TIES THAT BIND
After conquering Hurricane Mountain Road, we traveled west on U.S. Route 302, taking time for a photo stop at the beautiful Cathedral Ledge viewpoint in Echo Lake State Park, before continuing to Bear Notch Road, another curvy delight with three worthy overlooks.
Then finally, up ahead, the road sign I’d been envisioning for almost a year: State Route 112, the famous Kancamagus.
While no one I was with that day knew the reason behind my request to ride this particular highway, I was sure they would feel equally compelled by Eric standing on his old Harley, feeling helpless about his friend’s fate.
Since that chance meeting, I’d learned Laura had survived her injuries, but sadly, Stanley had not. I carried his family in my heart as I rolled onto the Kanc.
PANCAKES FOR LUNCH
Just as Eric promised, the views from Route 112 were glorious. The highway is well-kept and curvaceous, chasing after the Swift River like a blackbird mobbing a hawk.
When we stopped at the Pemigewasset Overlook, everyone was in great spirits, laughing and telling stories. I didn’t even stop to wonder how it was these strangers I’d met only hours before now felt like old friends. We’ve all felt it, that current of shared experience that so instantly connects riders when and wherever we meet.
Unexpectedly, the ride only continued to get better as the day rolled on. Departing the Kanc, we reunited with Route 302 and headed east to Bath, where you’ll find The Brick Store, America’s oldest continuously run general store. The market is flanked by a popular ice cream shop, but we were headed for Polly’s Pancake Parlor on Route 117 for an afternoon feast of hotcakes and bacon.
From Polly’s we headed east to Franconia and followed U.S. Routes 3 and 302 to link together alpine lakes and waterfalls, crossing over our westbound route around Bartlett. There’s plenty to see and do on this section, but we kept an eager clip so we could start up the Mount Washington Auto Road, the capper of Ed’s “Best of the White Mountains” ride, well before the toll road’s cutoff entry time of 5 p.m.
A SLICE OF HEAVEN
Mount Washington (6,288 ft) is the most prominent peak west of the Mississippi and the highest mountain in the Northeast, but what’s really neat about it is the road that takes you to the summit. It’s just 7.6 miles long, but man, the views are forever. The drop-offs are too, which can rattle some, even though the mountain is well controlled by low speed limits and heavy traffic.
We arrived at the summit with just enough time to check out the museum and observation areas. This windy peak was also where I said goodbye to my new friends, since we’d head in different directions at the mountain’s base.
After snapping an action shot or two of the group halfway down the now heavily shaded northeastern slope of the mountain, park trucks pulled up, urging stragglers like me toward the gates. On a whim I asked if I could ride back up – “super quick” – to get a photo of the empty road.
I was floored when the guys said sure, I could have the 20 minutes or so it would take them to usher the remaining tourists from the lower lookout points.
And so began one of the most striking experiences of my 36 years of riding. I had the top half of Mount Washington to myself. Its Auto Road, which had been clogged an hour before, was now empty.
And I’m proud to say I didn’t rip up and down the famous toll road as I would’ve in the past. Instead, I focused every bit of energy on soaking up a scene that looked and felt like a literal slice of heaven.
By this point, my White Mountains ride had become way more than a report about a day trip in New England. It reminded me that I’m part of a huge, ever-present family. Showed me that true friends can be old, or new, or only in your heart.
No matter how far we wander, there will be other riders to make us feel at home.
A few years ago, Rider published my article about riding Vermont Route 100 from south to north, ending at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the U.S./Canada border. Someone wrote a letter to the editor asking how I got back. U.S. Route 5 runs along the east side of Vermont, and it happens to be another one of my favorite rides. It has all the elements of a great motorcycle road: beautiful scenery, fine curves, light traffic, and nice places to stop along the way. For this ride, I am again starting at the Massachusetts border and heading north, but it can also be run in reverse.
I cross from Massachusetts into Vermont just south of Guilford, and the road almost immediately plunges into the woods, curling back and forth around the trees, a preview of what’s to come. First, I pass through Brattleboro. With 12,000 residents, it’s the largest town I’ll encounter today. Downtown consists of about three blocks of century-old brick buildings. It’s a little congested, but as soon as I clear the roundabout at the junction with State Route 9, everything eases up and I’m into rural Vermont in search of coffee.
Putney General Store bills itself as Vermont’s oldest general store. It has creaky floors, good food, and – most importantly – good coffee. Properly caffeinated, I’m on my way, and U.S. 5 reveals its true character: rising, falling, and curving through the landscape. I lose myself in its rhythm.
In Bellows Falls, the falls don’t bellow anymore. The river was dammed in 1802 to aid with upstream navigation. Down near the river, a mysterious row of faces is carved into the rocks. The petroglyphs are believed to have been carved by the Abenaki hundreds of years ago. Curiously, a couple of the faces appear to have antennae. Evidence of an extraterrestrial visit? I ponder the question as I head out of town.
U.S. 5 resumes its swooping, twisting, and turning as it tunnels through the trees. Nothing is too tight or unexpected, just a wonderful ride, and I drink it all in. There is a zig and a zag in Springfield before the enjoyment continues to the American Precision Museum in Windsor. It’s housed in the Robbins and Lawrence Armory, where they developed the concept of interchangeable parts in the 1840s. One display in the museum is a belt-driven machine that turns gunstocks. As the blank for the stock spins, the cutters gracefully move in and out. The accompanying video is mesmerizing. In addition to many machine tools, they also have Bridgeport milling machine serial number 001 – if you’re a gearhead, you’ll understand its significance.
Past Windsor, the road resumes its rhythm as it carves up around a golf course. All along the way, I pass small farms with their quintessential red barns. Some have stands selling fresh veggies, and I pick up some tomatoes and sweet corn.
White River Junction, where the White River joins the Connecticut, has long been a transportation hub. The arrival of the railroad in the 19th century cemented its status. Today, it’s at the junction of Interstates 89 and 91 as well as U.S. Routes 4 and 5. All the amenities are near the highway interchange, and it’s easy to miss downtown, but with several restaurants to choose from, it’s a great spot for lunch.
A sign in the window at Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich declares, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!” Whether you are looking for an alarm clock or beer pong supplies, they have it. The paint department? It’s in a room behind the deli. Keep going and you’ll find a huge hardware section. The variety of stuff crammed into the space is remarkable, and it’s easy to get lost among the hams and hammers and hammocks.
Leaving Norwich, there is a change. The hurry is gone, and I glide effortlessly around the curves, passing by narrow valley farms and through the villages of Thetford, Fairlee, Bradford, Newbury, and Wells River. In Barnet, there is another perceptible change as U.S. 5 parts ways with the Connecticut River and starts following the smaller Passumpsic River. The curves are tighter, the hills are closer, and at one point, U.S. 5 slips between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-91 for a bit.
In St. Johnsbury, State Route 5A splits off as it passes the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium. Both 19th-century edifices were built by the Fairbanks family. Their Fairbanks Scales Company changed how commerce was done, and the family spent much of their fortune locally. Fine Victorian architecture lines both sides of the road here.
After Lyndonville, U.S. 5 cuts through the landscape to West Burke, where I follow State Route 5A toward Lake Willoughby. The lake is the crown jewel of this ride. Nestled between Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, it resembles a Norwegian fjord. The road runs up the east side, perched precariously between lake and ledge.
Past Lake Willoughby, there is a “North Country” feel. The rivers flow north toward the St. Lawrence River, the landscape is more open, and the trees seem shorter. Route 5A reconnects with U.S. 5 in Derby Center and heads for the Canadian border at Derby Line. There, within sight of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, not far from the border, is a sign that declares “End 5.” Just beyond is Quebec and a large sign that says “Bonjour.” It’s time to head back. Maybe I’ll take Route 100.
I arrive in Duluth, Minnesota, in the middle of the night, welcomed by a cleansing wind blowing off Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The West had been ablaze for weeks when I’d departed California two days before, and smoke from those massive fires had gathered, unasked, across the Plains to form a thick, murky blanket. My eyes and throat are still burning as I hobble, ass whipped, from my BMW R 1200 GS to my waiting hotel room.
I’ve just started on a 6-week ride and my first official stop is a visit to the Aerostich factory to catch up with my old friend, Andy Goldfine. Andy and I go back to the mid-80s when we were starting in the motorcycle industry, him as the founder of Aerostich and me as an associate editor at Rider. I zipped up my first Roadcrafter the day we met and have since appreciated no gear – or friendship in the business – more.
Duluth has always charmed me with its terraced streets and historic port town vibe. Spending a day off the bike here is a joy. I’m able to hang out at Aerostich and watch as suits are cut and stitched. Some would call this a factory, but it’s much more like a workshop where skilled technicians craft riding apparel.
After enjoying a classic biker breakfast the next morning at the Duluth Grill with Andy and his “most curmudgeonly riding friend” John Grinsel, an 80-something-year-old character who rides up to 20,000 miles each year with a pipe in his mouth and a tiny pup named Moose poking out of his top box, I’m back in the saddle of the GS heading north around the edge of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
The Greatest Lake
Behaving more like an inland sea than a lake, Superior is massive, holding 10% of the world’s fresh surface water. It and the other Great Lakes to the east are so dynamic they create their own weather patterns. Today, I’m riding through a Scotch mist I’m not sure I can blame on the lake, and it’s giving my finger squeegee a workout.
I’m riding a loaner R 1200 GS Rallye edition I’ve had for seven months. I’ll never get enough of the GS bikes, and over three decades I’ve used them to explore five continents. Having been one of BMW’s flagship models for four decades, the “big” GS was legitimately the first travel bike to be truly versatile, but what I find most endearing is the way the chatty boxer Twin feels like an old friend every time I fire one up. It’s a pleasant bike to ride anywhere, including roads like Minnesota’s super scenic State Route 61 along the North Shore.
By the time I reach Grand Marais, it’s clearly storming hard to the north, and I retreat back down the highway, ducking into the famous Betty’s Pies for a slice and a coffee. I love this place, and if I weren’t on a bike, in the rain, I’d take an entire 5 Layer Chocolate Cream Pie to go.
Early the next morning, the sun is out and I’m in Wisconsin exploring the bottom edge of Superior. While I’d traveled to the top of the lake a few years back, the southern section was a mystery. I throttle the GS up Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Scenic Byway, State Route 13, connecting fishing villages to waterfalls to sandy beaches and orchards.
The Road to Pictured Rocks
I want to shoot up Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula to Copper Harbor on U.S. Route 41, and not just because the road looks amazing on the map. I’ve heard there are monks who bake delicious treats and sell preserves they make from local fruit at The Jampot bakery. But I’m short on time and even shorter on tires. The Continental TKC80s I opted for seven months back now have more than 6,500 miles on them and my replacements are waiting at a dealership 700 miles away, which means limiting side trips.
So, I head from Ashland, Wisconsin, straight for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the recommendation to ride County Road H-58. And wow, what a sweet road. I hear it was even more fun to ride before it was fully paved in 2010, but today the 69 miles of smooth shaded corners and flowing undulations ride like a song. And for the other senses? The beautiful lake up here is edged by colorful sandstone cliffs and unspoiled sandy coves.
When you’re on an adventure bike, another thing to love about Michigan is its more than 3,100 miles of off-road vehicle trails, proudly documented and promoted on the state government’s website, and on Pure Michigan, a site sponsored by Michigan’s lead economic development agency. How civilized for these Midwestern states to celebrate their off-roading opportunities instead of quashing them.
But you hardly need a map to find a tempting two-track here, which is the reason I’m not making good time on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but finally I’m at the famous Mackinac Bridge, gearing up to ride its five swaying miles to the Lower Peninsula. Yup, Big Mac is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world and it’s built to swing (apparently, up to 35 feet at its center span), and on a windy day, you can feel it, as I did when I crossed it years back on a Harley Ultra Glide Classic.
Especially in Michigan
But today it’s only breezy, and purring across the impressive bridge on the GS is a joy. I don’t have time to stop in touristy Mackinaw City because I want to ride some small roads I’d missed on my last trip, starting with M-119 from Cross Village to Harbor Springs, aka the Tunnel of Trees.
I approach from the north, stopping at the historic Polish-themed Legs Inn in Cross Village where you can spend hours taking in all the details of wood and stonework, or if you’re hungry, enjoy some kielbasa and pierogi. The famous 20-mile section of M-119 that kicks off from here is narrow, curvy, and truly a tunnel of foliage, and I’m sure its beauty is staggering in the fall, but it loses points as a premium motorcycle road for its 35-mph speed limit and profusion of deer and driveways. Still, those 137 corners are a lovely way to spend time.
After an overnight in Petoskey, I head for Traverse City and M-22. If there’s one thing that’s undeniable about these Midwestern states, especially their more rural areas, it’s how genuinely nice the people are. Everywhere you go. The M-22 is recommended to me by a new friend, and I take my time exploring Suttons Bay, Northport, and the Leelanau Peninsula’s pretty lakes, all miniatures next to a hulking Lake Michigan.
In Glen Arbor, I indulge in house-made cherry ice cream at the original Cherry Republic and slip a jar of cherry salsa in a saddlebag for later. I do not partake in the pit spitting at the establishment’s Olympic-size cherry spitting pit (the world record is 93 feet, 6.5 inches).
In addition to gorgeous views of the lake and rolling farmland, this part of Michigan has local wines to taste, dunes to explore, and apples to pick. The longer I spend on M-22, the more I realize it’s not just a road to the people in this area, M-22 represents a lifestyle. In fact, the M-22 highway signs have been stolen so often – 90 signs in three years – the Michigan DOT dropped the M on some replacements so they show only the number 22. If you missed your chance to nab a sign, there are plenty of places along the highway where you can buy a fake, as well as upscale M-22 apparel and souvenir tchotchkes.
And I get it. There’s something about this area (the people? the chill vibe? the scenery?) that just makes you want to stick around and explore every corner. Sadly, I don’t have time or tread for further exploration, and chug east from Manistee to Bay City, overnighting in some basic chain motel and wishing I was back in my tent on the lakeshore. In the morning, I scoot down I-75 to get the GS serviced and shod at BMW Motorcycles of Southeast Michigan. Again, the nicest people.
Over the next five weeks I’ll ride through another 13 states, many of them bucket-list destinations for motorcyclists. And yet I’ll keep thinking about this Great Lakes area and its empty roads, slow pace, and big-hearted locals. If you’ve ridden there, you know. If you haven’t, go. I’ll be right behind you.
Whoever said a straight line was the best way to get from Point A to Point B didn’t ride a motorcycle. Is there anyone among us who uses a freeway rather than backroads as their main source for motorcycling entertainment? Not many, I dare guess.
When President Eisenhower came up with the notion that the United States needed an Interstate Highway System, was there anyone on his staff who insisted that a few bends in the road might be a good idea? If that conversation ever took place, can there be any doubt that the person rode a motorcycle? The unnamed guy who liked the Point A to Point B straight line seems to have gotten the final word.
Back during the advent of the motorcycle and the automobile, the earth set the agenda for where roads were constructed. Pick any of the older highways, and there’s every probability that it wound around a hill or paralleled a river. Over time, with more potent explosives and bigger and better earth-moving equipment, the scales were altered, and it became easier to make the good earth bend to every highway engineer’s wishes.
Over millennia, glaciers and the earth’s upheaval created the glorious hills and majestic mountains we all enjoy. Over a few decades, the big Ukes (that’s what we called the Euclid earthmovers when I was a kid) scraped up tons of hillside to fill in deep valleys, creating what the highway people knew we needed – a quicker way to get from here to there. Okay, I admit, some of it worked.
When you step down a rung or two from the freeways and turnpikes to the more basic highways, you quickly find where they have been remade for a more effortless trip to get us to grandma’s house or church in the next city. Filter down even further to where the true old highways are, to where there’s a rawer feel, more of the essence of when the old roads were created, many have an ebb and flow where what’s around the next turn is still a mystery to be enjoyed. That’s where I aim my motorcycle, where there is still an unknown, where those bends in the highway invite me back again and again.
Certainly, there are exceptions. Straight-as-an-arrow U.S. Route 2 across the northern U.S. is an exceptional ride, so much so that I once saw it on a Top 10 Highways list. Even so, it was better 40 years ago when it was only two lanes. There are stretches of I-70 in Colorado and Utah where it’s a wonderful ride, a rarity when one considers how interstate highways are traditionally perceived.
Given a choice, we all know where to aim our motorcycles – somewhere in the spirit that William Least Heat-Moon wrote of in Blue Highways and Jack Kerouac in his epic On the Road, where the roadway has a soul, a vibrancy, a purpose beyond being a simple means to get to somewhere distant.
The original National Road, U.S. Route 40, called the Main Street of America, still has a romantic ring to it, at least to me. That highway actually is Main Street in my hometown of Zanesville, Ohio, home of the famous (at least to those of us who know it well) Y-Bridge, a part of that highway’s mystique.
But that title – Main Street of America – is also claimed by U.S. Route 66, the almost mythical highway known by other famous names, such as the Will Rogers Highway and the Mother Road. To those of a generation long ago, Route 66 represented a way to leave behind pain and despair, the highway itself a lifeline to a place where life would have purpose. At its inception in1926, it was called the Great Diagonal Way, but that same year the U.S. set forth the numbering system for federal highways that’s still used today.
From that original numerical foundation there have been other designations for our well-known and lesser-known highways. U.S. Route 6, which stretches from Massachusetts to California, is called the Grand Army of the Republic Highway; part of U.S. 20 through Nebraska is known as the Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway; U.S. 12 across Montana is the Lewis and Clark Highway. The Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway is in Wyoming, the Schoodic National Scenic Byway is a part of U.S. 1 in Maine, and the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway is in New York State.
U.S. Route 23 in Kentucky is called the Country Music Highway, claiming to be the home of many country music icons, including Loretta Lynn, The Judds, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dwight Yoakam, and Tom T. Hall. A six-mile stretch of U.S. 129 near Robbinsville, North Carolina, is known for its favorite son – the Ronnie Milsap Highway.
The list goes on and on. At the time of this writing, there are 184 nationally designated scenic byways. If you travel almost anywhere, you’ll find our nation’s history in the names assigned to our highways.
Then there are other highways offering a different experience: the highway itself. When the letters PCH come up, is there any doubt what they refer to? For those of us who travel on motorcycles, there are blacktopped magnets we are attracted to. We’re drawn to special places by what the pavement has come to represent. The Tail of the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway, both winding through the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. The Million Dollar Highway in the Colorado Rockies. The Great River Road along the Mississippi River. The old Lincoln Highway, where some stretches can still be found. And for many, the Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge Parkway. Or maybe not. Sorry, beautiful or not, a 45-mph speed limit is not for me.
Other state highways take on a more specific meaning. Twenty memorials mark the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March Byway, the route taken by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, chronicling their march and its results. For those who pursue history of another era, the 180-mile Journey Through Hallowed Ground Byway, spanning Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, is said to contain more historic sites than any other in America. Then there is the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. It’s named for the late conservationist and philanthropist who was so disturbed by the condition of the highway, he paid to have it brought up to the standards of the day.
For those with a need to know or who are curious, as of 2019 there were 4.2 million miles of roadway in America, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. There were approximately 48,482 miles of interstate highways; although such highways account for just 1.2% of roadway miles, they account for nearly a quarter of all vehicular traffic. Of the 4.2 million miles of roadway in this country, 2.9 million miles are rural roadways and 1.2 million miles are unpaved. No matter how you crunch the numbers, there are lots of roads to explore.
Every state does its best to help, identifying scenic routes with signs and official designations, with every road map marking them in a special way so they’re easy to recognize. They are generally where I aim my motorcycle. Let me trust the state to point me to a highway it considers special, the smaller its fame, the better.
The photographs on these pages represent some of the special places I’ve found. They are a part of my nearly six-decade personal history of riding motorcycles, chronicling the changes in my life, both in terms of the motorcycles I’ve ridden and in how I perceive the wonderful places along my many miles of riding.
Most appeared out of nowhere, a stunning place before me, something that I needed to record for myself, and now share with you. In all but a few places they were surprises, riding around a turn in the highway or over a hilltop and there it was, a special stretch I’d never seen before. Sometimes, in that instant, it was only me; other times unknown people on their motorcycles happened by. I hope some who are in this collection, should they ever see these images, find themselves being transported back to the time our paths crossed.
Some are from so long ago I have only a general idea of where they were found. But, thinking back, their location isn’t what was important. It’s what that stretch of highway represented to me at the time and where it still lingers in my mind. What I knew, then as I do now, is that there is another great memory, another beautiful stretch of highway soon to be enjoyed. Now to go out and find it.
It’s not until we exit Interstate 81, run through some gears on U.S. Route 48, and catch a whiff of dew-covered fields that I feel like we’ve arrived. Craig, a friend from college who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, has a pass for the weekend, so he came down for a ride with me to Seneca Rocks through “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia. He’s on his 2000 Harley Road King and I’m on my 2011 Triumph Sprint GT.
Once off the interstate, everything changes. Time – and our speed – slows down, giving us the opportunity to notice our surroundings. Simple houses have cinder-block foundations and detached garages. Folks out here don’t walk behind wimpy electric mowers, and they don’t put grass clippings in bags. Out here they proudly ride large gas-powered mowers, with clippings flung far and wide across expansive yards. We take in that unmistakable smell of freshly cut grass – it smells like summertime.
U.S. 48 is two-lane road with farmland on both sides for about five miles before ascending through the forest and over the ridgeline that serves as the border between Virginia and West Virginia. It’s a quick descent on a 9% grade to Wardensville, where 48 gets a major makeover and becomes a four-lane divided highway. Before the superhighway starts, we divert to Old Route 55 (McCauley Road) and wind our way through the shaded Lost River valley.
We hop back on 48 just before Baker and make our way to Moorefield, where we head south on Main Street (U.S. Route 220). The road flattens out through more farmland, but mountains on all sides feed our anticipation of future switchbacks. At Petersburg, we continue west on State Route 28 and follow the North Fork South Branch Potomac River, which carved one of the many gaps through the mountains.
Heading south, we catch glimpses of Champe Rocks, a pair of vertical crags that emerge from the Champe Knobs in the Allegheny Mountains. Roughly 230 million years ago, rock that was once at the bottom of the sea was pushed up until it became vertical. Softer rock eventually eroded, but the quartzite that makes up the fin-looking outcroppings is much harder and still stands today. The rocks are within the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in the Monongahela National Forest. Cabin rental advertisements along the road speak to the great fishing, canoeing, hiking, and camping to be found nearby.
Before long, the Seneca Rocks formation – a well-known scenic destination in the Mountain State – emerges from the dense forest of the River Knobs range. The rock walls are popular among climbers, but after our 150-mile morning ride, Craig and I are more interested in eating. We kick out our stands at Yokum’s Vacationland, at the junction of Route 28 and U.S. Route 33. In business since 1923, Yokum’s has a general store, a deli, a motel, cabins, and a campground.
The short-order grill is in the back of the store, so Craig and I walk past all manner of local goods (Traffic Jam catches my eye) and order lunch. Being from Philadelphia, Craig surprises me by ordering a Philly cheesesteak, but the result looks even better than my cheeseburger, which hits the spot. After our meal, we ride a couple hundred yards down the road, park the bikes in a lot along Roy Gap Road, and walk to the river, our eyes focused on the climbers high above on the rocks. We agree that Yokum’s would make a great hub for riding some of the more adventurous routes through the eastern part of the state.
A curvy 35-mile ride west through the Alleghenies on U.S. 33 brings us to Elkins, a classic American town with restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops. In the center of town is the West Virginia Railroad Museum and a historic train depot that’s one of the stops on the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, a tourist train that travels through rugged mountain scenery.
After returning to Seneca Rocks, we continue south on U.S. 33, which makes a sharp turn to the east at Judy Gap. On the ascending turns I’m tempted to open up the throttle, but I check my urge so as not to miss Germany Valley overlook – a great view of the valley and the River Knobs range just before the crest of North Fork Mountain. Thirty miles later we crest High Knob and cross back into Virginia. On the descent, where the road is straight and the old growth creates a canopy a hundred feet above, it feels like riding through a cathedral.
We brave the stoplights and traffic of Harrisonburg before again ascending to Swift Run Gap, where Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive intersects with U.S. 33. Two monuments give a bit of history of the pass, where in 1716 Lieutenant Governor Spotswood and a group of rangers, Native Americans, and government officials set out to prove that an easy path over the Blue Ridge Mountains existed.
At Stanardsville, we take Business Route 33 through the historic district. We turn north on State Route 230, which eventually ends at U.S. Route 29, where we again turn north. Less than half a mile later we stop at a brightly colored Tastee-Freez to escape the summer heat and wolf down hot fudge sundaes. A local informs us it’s the oldest continuously operated, privately owned Tastee-Freez in America.
The mountains fade from our mirrors as we continue northeast toward our starting point. We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover in West Virginia, and we’re eager to return.
Charleston, South Carolina, is a true Southern belle. She turns 352 years old this year and has quite a past. In America’s early days, her importance rivaled New York and Boston. Shipping, as well as rice and cotton production, created extreme wealth. Hurricanes, wars, and bondage brought great despair. Like Scarlet O’Hara, Charleston has persevered, and today she wins “Best City” awards for her food, culture, and history.
One of the best ways to experience Charleston is from the seat of a motorcycle, flying over her many bridges. Charleston’s bridges link more than land and water. They link past and present, problems and answers, people and places. These days, twisting the throttle over Charleston’s bridges provides reflection and hope.
Since Charleston is located an hour off the I-95 superslab, many riders miss her charms. That’s a shame, as Charleston hits the redline on the motorcycle smile-to-mile dial. For you Northern bikers on a Florida run, this is a fantastic stop-over spot. I’ll bet you a flounder sandwich it will be a highlight of your journey. Lodging is plentiful at all price levels, and the local cuisine is world renowned, bringing together farm, ocean, Southern, and soul.
This ride can be done any time of year, but beware: Charleston is in the Deep South. Summers can be stifling and rainstorms can be intense. Wearing mesh apparel, keeping raingear handy, and avoiding afternoon traffic are highly recommended during summer months.
From I-95, head southeast on I-26 for an hour. Take the ramp for I-526 East to Mount Pleasant. Cruising high above the salty marsh, in the first 15 minutes you’ll glide over two major bridges – the Don N. Holt over the Cooper River, and the James B. Edwards over the Wando River. You’re riding over the Lowcountry, a sprawling coastal region that’s just above sea level. With the tides shifting four times a day, much of the marshy terrain spends half its time under water.
Take the exit for Hungry Neck Boulevard, then turn right onto the Isle of Palms Connector (State Route 517). Cruising over the estuary, flip up your visor and enjoy the salty air and coastal views. At low tide, you’ll see mounds of “rocks” in the marsh, which are actually wild oysters. Raw, roasted, or in a Bloody Mary shot, they’re delicious.
You’ll cross two more bridges before reaching Isle of Palms. When the Connector ends, keep going straight to Front Beach. Biker law says you can’t get this close and not get in the ocean, so this is a great place to kick off your boots and get your toes wet.
Continue southwest on Palm Boulevard (State Route 703). Ride with the breeze along the Intracoastal Waterway until you cross Breach Inlet on the H.L. Hunley Bridge, named after the first submarine to sink a ship in battle. In 1864, the hand-cranked Hunley sank a Yankee ship but then disappeared off the coast of Sullivan’s Island, along with its crew of eight men. It wasn’t found until 1995. Stop at Thomson Park to enjoy the views and learn more about this historic location.
From the park, hang a left on Middle Street. You’re now riding through “shabby chic” Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina’s wealthiest zip code, and you’ll see bars and restaurants. All are good, but the crispy/spicy Bangin’ Shrimp tacos at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina are my go-to. Salt in the air, beach on your boots, shrimp tacos in your hand, and your faithful steed parked under a palmetto tree. Life is good!
Continuing southwest on Middle Street takes you to Fort Moultrie National Historical Park. This high ground has a long history as a military post, going as far back as the Revolutionary War. The self-guided tour and harbor views are interesting, inspiring, and a great way to stretch your legs.
Backtrack to where Route 703 turns north and becomes Ben Sawyer Boulevard, a causeway that cuts back across the marsh. Take in the scent of salt, oysters, and tidal “pluff” mud. The Ben Sawyer Bridge is a swing bridge that rotates to allow tall boats to pass through. First opened to traffic in 1945, it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. When the islands evacuated, the tender left the bridge unlocked. When hurricane-force winds hit the bridge, it spun like a top, and one end plunged into the water.
Crossing the Ben Sawyer takes you into Mount Pleasant. Traffic increases through this vibrant area, with plenty of good restaurants and bars attracting the hungry and thirsty. Another bridge on Route 703 crosses over Shem Creek, with boats, kayaks, and bars below jammed with folks having a good time. Fresh local seafood is sold right on the docks. For a closer look, make a left and visit Shem Creek Park.
Continuing west on Route 703 (Coleman Boulevard), the road merges with U.S. Route 17 before crossing Charleston’s most prominent span, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River. Riding over the Ravenel, you’re at the highest point in the Lowcountry, with inspiring views of Charleston Harbor and the USS Yorktown, a WW2-era aircraft carrier anchored near Patriots Point. The Yorktown is now part of the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, and military buffs can easily spend a full day touring the ship, imagining or remembering the challenging days of our Greatest Generation.
After crossing the Ravenel, follow signs for U.S. 17 South to Savannah and take the King Street exit. Turn right onto King Street for a fun, sweeping ride through history, from modern hipster hotels to perfectly preserved colonial-era homes. It’s a great time to reflect on our nation’s past, present, and potential.
Take King Street until it ends at Oyster Point overlooking the harbor. The views are spectacular, but Charleston is more than just her pretty petticoat and parasol. She’s beautiful and strong, old and new, happy and sad. Like America, she’s not perfect, but she’s authentic and awesome. This ride makes me proud, and hopeful for what’s over the next bridge.
At a time when American riders were fighting the Harley and Indian wars, Gene Townsend and Floyd “Washie” Washabaugh were unflinchingly Indian men. It was rumored their blood flowed a bit more maroon than the rest of us, having the distinct deep shade of the brand’s signature Indian Red color.
Over the years, the two men defended the Indian brand on dirt tracks across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Gene, my grandfather, born in 1908, spent most of his racing years on an Indian 101 Scout sporting the #9 plate. He was a top regional amateur racer from the mid-1920s on into the war years, only to retire when a brush with a #6 bike sent them both through a fence.
The radio announcer covering the event mistook the upside down #6 machine as the #9 and mistakenly reported that Gene Townsend had been rushed to the hospital with serious injuries. My grandmother and her young daughter (my mother) were beside themselves when they heard the broadcast. Gene promised to never worry them again and quit racing on the spot. Washie, five years his junior, competed successfully on Indian Sport Scouts through the mid-1950s, and even had a short stint as a professional racer with Gene’s backing.
By 1948, Gene had owned his southwestern Pennsylvania Indian agency (what dealerships were called back then) for about 20 years. He had built his reputation as an exceptional rider and racer as well as an expert tuner. If Indian riders wanted the hot setup, Gene was the guy to see. Washie was granddad’s close friend, a fellow racer, and a fixture at the old shop. They shared a passion for three things: Indian motorcycles, racing, and storytelling.
I only knew Washie as an older man who rode his flashy old Indian Chief to my granddad’s shop. But I envisioned him and Gene as the vibrant and courageous young dirt-track racers in the old, dog-eared photographs taken in their racing days. The deep connection I developed with these older men was something I thought only my brother and I knew. Then I heard about Washie’s grandson, Ron.
We may have met at some point at the shop when we were kids, but Ron Washabaugh and I didn’t know each other. About three years ago, we met while attending the American Flat Track races at Williams Grove near Harrisburg. We immediately hit it off and began swapping stories of that magical old motorcycle shop and the deep appreciation and fondness we had for our grandfathers.
The most powerful memories for Ron and me were the racing tales told so passionately by old Gene and Washie. Through their words they painted vivid pictures of handlebar-to-handlebar racing adventures aboard their Indians on myriad local dirt tracks, as well as more distant venues such as Cumberland, Maryland, and Winchester, Virginia. They would either stuff a bike into the back of a sedan or ride their Indian Scouts to a track, remove the headlights and fenders to race, and then reassemble everything for the ride back home afterward. If they weren’t racing, they were organizing rides to watch others compete, like legendary AMA Hall of Famer “Iron Man” Ed Kretz at the Langhorne, Pennsylvania, track where he dominated the mile oval.
Ron and I decided to retrace Gene and Washie’s path to one of the legendary tracks they rode to back in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Ron and his son, Steven, and me and my son, Parker, conspired to chase Gene and Washie into the past on a journey to the old Winchester Speedway. As grandsons and great-grandsons, we would emulate the experience the two elders had back in the day. We would ride the National Road (U.S. Route 40) and other two-lane roads, stop where they might have stopped, eat at family-owned diners along the way, and find classic roadside motor lodges where they might have stayed. At every opportunity, we would celebrate their story and, at the same time, get to know each other and forge another generation of bonding around a common passion for motorcycles.
Ron and I both have vintage Indians, but for this excursion Ron was aboard his modern Indian Roadmaster, and I piloted my Indian FTR 1200 S Race Replica. Stephen rode his new FTR 1200 as well, complete with a number plate bearing his great-grandfather’s racing number, #64U. Parker rode a 2018 Harley, just for a little tension in the spirit of that old brand rivalry. (The H-D Heritage 114 is mine, and so is the kid; both are terrific, and any ribbing was in good-spirited fun.)
Last October, the Washabaugh boys met my son and me at a diner not far from the old shop. We ordered breakfast and gobbled up the vintage photo albums Ron brought with him. Although the food and conversation were delicious, we needed to get our planned adventure rolling. There would be more time to talk along the road, so we paid the tab and headed to the old Townsend cycle shop. The unexceptional building still stands (barely) just off the National Road, three miles east of Brownsville, Pennsylvania.
The modest shop was a hub of activity in its day, a gathering place where riders regularly came and went. Some visited to see what new machines and accessories had arrived. Others stopped by for a set of points, a condenser, and maybe a pair of spark plugs on their way through town. Most wheeled in for the conversation and the stories.
It was also the headquarters and ride origination point for members of Gene’s Scouts Motorcycle Club, an AMA-sanctioned club that served as the local riders’ social group and the sponsoring organization for motorcycle competitions. Washie raced as an AMA pro for one year under the Gene’s Scouts M.C. banner. Unfortunately, after just one season, the cost proved to be too steep, and he returned to amateur racing. Some things never change for aspiring racers.
Soon, the engines of our Indians (and Harley) fired to life in front of the old shop, echoing the hundreds of Indians that had gone before from that same spot.
We rolled out of the parking lot and onto Route 40. The first planned stop was just up the road at LaFayette Memorial Park, where we paid our respects at Gene’s and Washie’s family plots. We thanked them for the tremendous influence they had on our lives, saluted their adventures, and invited them to ride along with us inspirit as we retraced the path they took seven decades earlier.
Back on the road and heading east on the National Road, we approached Uniontown. I thought of the story Gene told me about a board-track motordrome speedway that was built there for motorcycle racing in the late teens of the last century. As a boy, he would climb a tall tree outside the grounds just to catch a glimpse of the racers flying by on the large, steeply banked wood-plank track.
Although the multilane highway now bypasses the towns, we took the old route that Gene and Washie would have followed through downtown Uniontown and Hopwood. We rejoined the highway on the other side where the pavement abruptly angled skyward, ascending Summit Mountain. Back in the day, this was a narrow two-lane ribbon that wound tightly up the steep hill – a rider’s dream. This stretch was the subject of many of the old timers’ stories as they recounted how they raced each other up the steep, twisting curves to the crest of the hill. They heeled their Scouts and Chiefs over so far into these corners that the frames would drag, levering the rear wheels off the ground momentarily. The trick, they said, was to hold the throttle open and let the bike reestablish traction without upsetting the chassis. Easier said than done!
Today, the road is a four-lane divided highway tracing the original circuitous path. Ron, me, and our boys turned up the wick on our machines as we ascended the hill. It was a hoot to drop down a gear and put ourselves, at least mentally, alongside our grandfathers and great-grandfathers on a spirited sprint up the mountain.
As we approached the summit, I signaled and the four of us wheeled off I-40 into the lookout at the peak of Summit Mountain. This was a spot where Gene, Washie, and the rest of their crowd regrouped countless times over the years. Summit Mountain was not just a road they took on the way to somewhere else, it was their local destination for sport riding. It’s where the guys tested their latest tuning and hop-up tricks. It’s where local Indian and Harley riders found out whose machine had the “soup” to capture the king-of-the-hill title for that week.
Ron and I used this pull-off to tell our sons stories we’d heard about this road and their great-grandfathers’ motorcycling adventures. We took turns contributing our own recollections, helping each other connect the dots where there had been gaps in our individual knowledge. Parker and Stephen stood by, soaking it all in.
Back on the road, we imagined the roadside stops the men might have made along their way. We proposed where they may have paused to stretch their legs, consult a map, check chain tension, or maybe add a quart of oil. Then we’d stop too. We took advantage of those roadside breaks to look through collections of old racing photos, racing publications, and pictures our grandfathers and their pals had taken along the road to different racing venues.
On occasion, we saw a turnoff to Old Route 40, most often a short spur of narrow two-lane that soon rejoined the newer main road. It was fun to ride a few of these old sections to capture the ride experience Gene and Washie had, but it was impractical to take each little detour. Other times we saw sections of Old Route 40 that were no longer accessible, including an area where an old stone arched bridge was once the path of the old National Pike. Gene and Washie probably traveled that same old stone bridge on their way to Winchester. We could only view it from the main road.
We paused at the old Clarysville Motel that looked like it might have been there when our grandfathers rode through. As it turns out, the place has been serving travelers for nearly 100 years. Other than the modern vehicles in the parking lot, it would be hard to distinguish 2021 from 1948 or earlier. Certainly, Gene and Washie rode by here many times, and may have even stayed on occasion when daylight expired.
In Maryland, the old highway began to rise, fall, and twist dramatically. This was the kind of road on which the boys surely had the old Indians dancing. They would have been intimately familiar with this fun section of road, knowing what lay ahead and anticipating it well in advance. After navigating a particularly enjoyable stretch, we crested a hill to discover the historic Town Hill Inn and overlook. This was a likely rest stop for Gene and Washie along their ride. It was a natural place to take a breather, check over the bikes, and enjoy the spectacular view across the wide valley below.
In Hancock, Maryland, we picked up Route 522 south and rode through quaint, historic Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and on south into Virginia to our destination of Winchester.
Once in downtown Winchester, Ron led us to an iconic spot for a hot dog. Whether Gene and Washie ever stopped at this historic stand for a dog when they were in town, we’ll never know. But just in case, we thought we’d better have one since we were trying to capture the experience.
Since the Winchester Speedway is sometimes referred to as the old airport speedway, we meandered through the town following directional signs for the airport. After working our way along narrow roads that wound around the airport property, we came to the end of the road and were unexpectedly at the back side of the racetrack. No big sign. No grand entrance. As a lot of these rural speedways were, it was simply a venue where people gathered. The raceway was probably not much different than it was when Gene and Washie were last here together, except now the old wooden grandstands are gone, replaced with concrete and metal.
The beauty of these local facilities is how approachable the track personnel can be. We arrived midweek in the middle of the day and told our story. Hoping to have a picture taken outside the track at the speedway sign, our plan was thwarted when we realized there was no such sign and no suitable backdrop. Fortunately, the track folks invited us to bring the bikes onto the track and position them in front of the wall on the back straight where “Winchester Speedway” was painted in bold lettering. It was perfect. Ron couldn’t resist the temptation to ride around the dirt track just to run tires on the same clay that his grandfather once tore up on the #64U Indian Sport Scout.
We were all having a great time and didn’t want the adventure to end, but the autumn sun was already sinking low in the sky. With our mission completed and an abundance of pictures taken to commemorate our expedition, it was time to say our goodbyes. Ron and Stephen had about a two-hour ride east to get back home. Parker and I needed a bit longer for our westward trek on modern interstate highways back toward Pittsburgh.
On the way home through the darkness, I replayed the ride over again. In my mind, I overlayed images of Gene and Washie from 70 years ago on today’s images of Ron, Stephen, Parker, and me riding the same roads to Winchester. It felt good to ride with other descendants. It felt even better to be together, chasing Gene and Washie.
As much as the Indian boys would love to hear that the Harley broke down so often that we were forced to abandon our plans (or abandon Parker), the Heritage 114 did just fine. While it’s fun for us to see the old Harley and Indian wars heating up once again in this modern era (we can hear Gene and Washie piping in from the great beyond), the real benefit of that rivalry has been the development of better motorcycles from both brands. A little competition is a good thing, though Gene and Washie would still give Indian a slight edge. After all, it’s in their blood.