On the Road Again – Travel on Two Wheels

Springtime in Texas can be ephemeral at best.  It seems like one week it’s winter, and a few weeks later summer has arrived.

It was with this environment in mind that I started planning my first long distance (for me) motorcycle trip in early 2013, setting a date that would hopefully coincide with our short-lived spring.

I’m not one to go in for endurance events of any kind.  Sure, there are achievement awards for endurance biking; for example the Iron Butt Associations certifies riders who complete a full 1,000 mile ride within 24 hours.  Then there is the 100k club for bikers who ride 100,000 miles in a single year.  Think about that.. that’s 275 miles EVERY SINGLE DAY for a full year!  If a rider gets sick, or the weather in untenable, then the following day would require a 550 mile distance to keep up!

No, my travel follows  the principle of:  “it’s the journey, not the destination”.  And, especially given that during my most recent bike ownership of less than 2 years I had taken no single ride of more than 50 miles duration until this planned trip!

That said, I began to lay out a route that I could comfortably cover in a week’s time, giving ample opportunity for stops and exploration.  My thought was that roughly 3 hours riding each day would be more than enough for me to develop my “long distance legs”.  The route I finally settled on was a circular one departing from Austin, utilizing non-freeway back roads as much as possible, with the furthest destination being Natchez, Mississippi, and then returning via a slightly more southern route.

map of route

The plan would be to have NO  predetermined destination for each evening, and to allow myself liberty to depart from this basic route if need or interest dictated.

Safety is always a factor on my mind, and I’m certainly no dare-devil.  There is no question that injuries and fatal accidents occur at a much higher rate for motorcyclists than automobile drivers.  However, statistics show that many of the causal factors of bike accidents can be mitigated by careful planning and avoidance of high-risk situations, such as:

  • ♦ The majority of the fatalities occur on a rural road, and victims’ with high blood alcohol levels are a major problem.
  • ♦ Failing to turn on a curve correctly causes up to half of all single vehicle/ motorcycle accident fatalities.
  • ♦ Speeding contributes to ⅔ of all single vehicle/motorcycle fatalities, and up to 60% of the fatalities occur during nighttime hours.
  • ♦ Close to 25% of single vehicle/motorcycle accidents occur over braking and maneuvering issues.
  • ♦ Wearing a helmet reduces fatalities by up to 50%.
  • ♦ Close to a third of all fatally injured motorcyclists do not possess the required operator licensing.

I had already determined that I would do no night riding, would wear protective clothing (including helmet), and keep my speed at or below posted limits.  Additionally, just prior to the trip I had equipped my bike with daytime headlight flashing circuitry to enhance my visibility to other motorists, and had installed new VERY LOUD dual tone horns.

I should mention a bit about my bike of choice, which I acquired in November of 2011 after a 20-something year hiatus from biking.

It is a 1978 BMW R100/7, known to aficionados  as an “airhead” model, due to its air cooled cylinders.  It sports a 1000cc engine developing 60+ horsepower, more than adequate to outrun most current “high performance” autos.

bike drawing

To the best of my knowledge, these older BMW’s are the only bikes around sporting a horizontally oppossed dual cylinder configuration,  with each cylinder protruding horizontally  from the bike in a “boxer” style.

I love this set up.. it puts the cylinders right out in the wind stream for optimum cooling, and provides outstanding protection for the rider’s legs and feet which fit right behind the cylinders.  This arrangement also lends itself well to the long-proven shaft drive on the BMW.  No messy and noisy chains or belts driving this baby.

boxer configuration drawing

Sure, I could have chosen any number of other bikes, including much newer BMW models for the same or lesser cost, but I’m always drawn to the clean and  simpler lines of these older classic bikes.  I don’t need a lot of fancy multi-colored fairings (sometimes Black is just the right color!), nor do I need fuel injection, ABS brakes, catalytic converters, and all the other “enhancement” items on newer bikes, which only contribute to complexity in case of breakdown,  and add unnecessary weight.  As an example, my bike weighs a bit under 475 lbs, while a brand new BMW R1200 weighs in at a whopping 580 lbs!

Several friends asked why I didn’t consider including a few riding partners along on my trip.  I consider myself a reasonably social guy, but there are times when you’d just like to do something on your own.  These days it is a rare freedom to be able to start and stop whenever/wherever you choose, and to modify your route or destination without negotiation with another person.  The solitude of solo biking provides ample opportunity for reflection and self-examination (more about that later).

There are those (representing a large percentage of the population) who see any sort of motorized vehicle as merely a way to get from point A to point B.  Then there are others who appreciate the symmetry of man and machine, and who derive pleasure merely from operating a finely crafted piece of machinery.  I’m of the latter persuasion.  To me a well-built motorized vehicle is akin to nature itself.  I don’t need a destination to enjoy being “at one”.  And a BMW bike, even a 30+ year old one, makes it easy to commune with the machine.  This fine German craftsmanship is hard to surpass;  it accelerates as fast as most of today’s so-called supercars, will run all day long at high rpms, never missing a beat, and never leaks a drop of oil.  It doesn’t need fancy, glitzy chrome plating or loud mufflers to represent itself.  Just quiet, technical excellence will do just fine thank you!

Frequently man learns that these simpler designs are really best after all, and that sometimes so-called “improvements” are just aberrations to the original design .  Consider the automobile:  Early cars had gear shifts mounted on the floor. Then some bright engineer decided the shifter should be on the steering column.  Then fashion/fad dictated shifters on the floor again, robbing precious interior space for the sake of style.  Now many newer cars have gravitated back to shift levers positioned on the steering column again.  Go figure?

I realized a number of revelations during this first-time extended bike trip.  For the first time, after just a few hundred miles, I began to feel that I really “got ” it.  Sure, I’ve owned bikes off and on since back in the early 70’s, but, embarrassedly, I’ve never fully appreciated the different between traveling (and operating) by bike rather than motorcar.  Riding a bike down the road is more of a mind-control pursuit, compared to the conscious control movements required of an automobilist.  It is only necessary to “think” right turn, and the bike just seems to magically comply in its solid, sure-footed manner.

Traveling by bike can be an incredibly meditative experience.  There is no radio to play, no fiddling with A/C or GPS; just the sound of the wind rushing by, accompanied by the glorious howl of that little boxer engine.  The mind is freed to ponder thoughts of a higher nature.  And the constant hand/foot/body coordination needed for smooth control gives one a sense of accomplishment and mastery over “the machine”.

Moreover, as a long time (but currently dormant) pilot, having flown everything from helicopters, gliders, single and multiengine aircraft, and seaplanes, I find more than a little similarity between the two activities (biking and flying).  Each requires a level of singular attention to the task at hand; both require “banking”  to negotiate a turn; and both offer similar auditory stimuli.  Best of all, a motorcycle’s fuel operating cost is about 1/20th that of a small aircraft, providing the best adventure-bang-for-the-buck!

I packed up the saddlebags with a few changes of clothes, some tools and spare parts, camera and miscellaneous electronic devices, and I was ready to hit the road.

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East Texas forms an imaginary boundary between that vast, arid, semi-desert region that spans all the way from the California coast to Central Texas, and becomes the beginning of verdant, forested scenery which continues from there to the Atlantic Ocean.  For a guy who has spent most of his life on the “other” (arid) side of the continent, it is always a welcome treat to make that transition into countryside which seems to be perpetually green.

It was into the “green zone” that my first day’s ride took me.  Just a short hour’s drive east from Austin puts a traveler into the edge of the Piney Woods region of Texas.   Roads are lined for miles and miles with beautiful trees, taller than anything an Austinite could imagine!

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Texas is known for its well-maintained country roads, and for the prolific exhibits of wildflowers along these roads.  Much of this was thanks to the beautification efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, a woman who is revered in central Texas (and who has sadly passed on).

My route was no exception, and my timing couldn’t have been more perfect to experience the colorful assault on the visual senses by all the roadside flora.  Bluebonnet, Indian Paintbrush, Verbena, Evening Primrose, Brown-eyed Susan, Mexican Hat, Winecup, Prickly Poppy, Sunflower, Coreopsis, Prickly Pear Cactus, Lantana and Texas Thistle are among the wildflowers offering up their colors alongside Texas roadways in April.

Sometimes it can be hard to understand why some of these Texas “Farm to Market” roads were ever developed, when traffic is encountered only every 5 or 10 minutes at best.  For miles and miles I began to feel that these roads traveled were MY roads, laid out purposefully just for my personal enjoyment!

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My first two days were accompanied by what has to be the most perfect motorcycling weather.  Skies so blue and bright they almost hurt the eyes, yet temperatures still in that crisp, pre-spring mode.. just cool enough to make wearing my protective leather jacket comfortable, yet warm enough to fully enjoy the Texas spring.

My first overnight was in Palestine, Texas, a once-thriving railroad hub, now given over to the logging industry, with a considerable smattering of oil and gas well production.  (a side bonus is I got to spend the evening with my special sister, Lee Ann, who gave me a personal tour of the town).

I have observed from visits to other “railroad” towns (Temple, Texas comes to mind) that the railroad industry “back in the day”, must have been incredibly lucrative.  These once-thriving little rail hubs still boast an incredible display of estate-sized homes and properties, in proliferation well out of proportion to the population.  I can only imagine what sort of small town High Society culture was (and is) built around possession and habitation of these beautiful mansions.

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The following day took me through Nacogodoches, Texas, which bills itself as the oldest town in Texas and is proud of many “firsts”, including: First Ceiling Fans In a downtown drugstore, fan blades turned by a mule drawn treadmill outside   Huh?

Nacogodoches is also the site of Stephen F, Austin College, which sports a beautiful on-campus arboretum.

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I continued on to Natchitoches, Louisiana (no relationship to the former town) for the evening, where I learned the proper pronunciation is “Nak-i-tosh”.  It’s an incredibly beautiful little town with brick streets, and a downtown laid out along the beautifully landscaped Cane River.

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 Natchitoches boasts of being the oldest city in Louisiana, as well as hosting the oldest state university.  Another “first” is the really cool hardware store, right on main street, and claimed to be the first in the state.

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One of its town specialties in the famous “meat pie”, so, of course, I had to sample this, along with an order of gigantic corn fritters, by moseying on down to “Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant”:

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This little town will definitely merit a repeat visit in the future!

A traveler passing along back roads and little southern towns and villages soon comes to the realization of just how similar many of these little communities are.  Visitors can expect to find a town square dominated by a court house almost always grossly out of proportion, in terms of size and grandeur, to the population of the town, and to the remaining surroundings.  Sadly, the rest of the town square will almost certainly consist of an inordinate number of abandoned or decaying structures (in my judgment, nail parlors and “Junque” shops at city central do also represent abandonment).

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The only sign of commercial success in any of these little towns is the certain existence of a Family Dollar store AND a Dollar General store, sometimes in close proximity to each other, each giving the appearance of prosperity.

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Furthermore, every little town has a generous supply of what I call the de facto Texas flag:  those flashing arrow signs with their inevitable missing letters from the marquee,  many of them long since abandoned but not forgotten.

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Add to this mixture a handful of dealers of those ubiquitous Texas metal carports ($695 delivered and installed).  Finally, of course, no southern town is complete without its disproportionate collection of churches.

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It’s not hard to understand how these little burgs sprung up in years past.  Back in the earlier part of the 20th century, the largely agrarian economy, relying on horse and buggy transportation, dictated the necessity of a village center within a half day’s ride of outlying rural farms and ranches.  Sadly, the automobile and the interstate highway system eliminated the need for population centers at such close intervals.  Yet these little villages hang on tenaciously against all odds for long-term survival in the future!


Natchez, Mississippi was my next, and easternmost destination.

On the route there, I took advantage of my loose schedule and explored some of the back water swamp areas of Eastern Louisiana:

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Natchez is a little community perched high on the eastern banks of the mighty Mississippi River.  It is a town of perfectly groomed lawns and roadways, whose obvious sole raison d’etre is to attract and serve tourists!

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I mentioned earlier that the weather conditions at the beginning of my trip were worthy of being called perfect.  Clear blue skies with just a hint of spring chill in the air made for perfect biking conditions.  That all changed on the 4th day.. I woke up to the sound of thunder accompanied by bolts of lightning and a roaring downpour of rain while in the city of Natchez, Mississippi.  Along with the precipitation came a significant drop in ambient temperature.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a fair weather rider.  With no specific destination nor timetable to adhere to, I saw no need to be out on the highway with rain in my face, so I just hunkered down in my motel room to wait out the storm.  Sure enough, shortly after noontime, as predicted by the newscasters, the thunderstorm moved on down the road, leaving only slightly wet roads and a very chilly day in its wake.

With reluctance I packed up my gear on the bike, and headed off down the road to the next waypoint on my route, Alexandria, Louisiana.  It wasn’t long before I was wishing I was back in that motel room.  Barrelling2 down the highway at 65-70 mph on a chilly overcast day with minimal foul weather gear can really make one appreciate the meaning of the term “wind chill factor”.  In short order, I had mentally revised my final destination plans for the day, deciding that Alexandria, a mere hour’s ride down the road, would be just fine as an overnight stop-over destination, thank you very much.

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Sure enough, just before I was suspecting frostbite may have been setting in, I found myself riding slowly through downtown Alexandria, reconnoitering for a suitable place to spend the night.  As I was cruising down a city street, a guy jumped off the sidewalk and began motioning for me to pull over.  Okay, what the hell, I’m good for any sort of human contact as this point.  I soon learned that Carney Robertson, the flagman, was a local resident and fellow BMW motorcycle owner.  In fact he had ridden his bike downtown that day and offered to buy me a cuppa Joe at a little sidewalk coffee shop.

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Well, one thing led to another, and next thing I know, Carney is inviting me to spend the night at his house and share dinner with he and his wife Becky.  Okay, now that’s southern hospitality!

Carney turned out to be the regular  chef du maison, and he whipped up a great meal of pasta and fresh gulf shrimp, which was shared by another “biker” couple, Marion (“call me Montana if you don’t want a fight”) and Sue.  We spent the evening sharing stories, with both Carney and Montana admiring my old vintage bike (they both ride more modern BMW steeds), and then followed it all up with an early morning next day breakfast in town to send me on my way.

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Carney admires my vintage BMW

My route from Alexandria was now taking me back to Dripping Springs and home.  I overnighted in Huntsville, a pretty little town and home of Sam Houston State University.  All was going well, and the weather was once again cooperating for what should have been a glorious and uneventful final day’s ride home.  Alas, such was not to be the case.

Along my route I had stopped at a motorcycle leather shop I spotted along the highway and bought a few foul weather clothing items in anticipation of my next trip.  Problem was, both my saddle bags were pretty full, so I really had to squeeze and push to get everything crammed into one of the bags.

A careful motorcyclist spends a lot of time looking in his rear view mirror.  I am no exception.  As I was riding along a country road just a few miles past the little burg of Shiro, Texas, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw some object sliding off the road behind me.  At first I thought nothing of it, took a quick look at the forward section of the bike.. everything seemed to be intact, and decided to press on.  But something told me to stop.  I pulled over to the side of the road, and then discovered that the bottom hinges on one of my saddle bags had given way (no doubt thanks to my over-stuffing).

The saddlebag had split open, and EVERYTHING inside had dropped out on the road!  Hastily I rode back the few hundred yards, and was able to retrieve a bag that contained maintenance tools, and, as well, my rolled up cover for the bike.  However, what was not on the road was a small red backpack that had been in that saddle bag.  This pack contained an expensive camera, my prescription sunglasses, my recently acquired Nexus 7 tablet, and a number of other items!  Frantically, I lashed the salvaged items to the bike and retraced my route, riding some 5 miles back, carefully searching along both sides of the road for that bike pack… Nothing!  You can imagine the black cloud hanging over my head as I realized all the fun parts of my trip had been immediately overshadowed by this loss.

Well, nothing more to be done.  I hung my head, got back on the BMW, and glumly made my way the final 3 hours back to my home.

There is a final, happy ending to this story!  When I got the Nexus 7 tablet, one of the first apps I installed was an anti-theft locator app.  As I recall, the app cost about $3, and promised to be able to locate a lost device via GPS.  Well, as soon as I got home, I sat down at my computer, pulled up the web interface for the locator app, and initiated an attempt to communicate with my Nexus.  The problem with a tablet such as mine, it can only communicate via internet when it is within range of a wireless WIFI network.  Assuming my backpack was still lying on the side of the road, I wasn’t hopeful that I would be able to communicate with the tablet.  Sure enough, I was right.  All I got from the interface was the message: “communication error with Nexus 7”.

The locator app (called ‘Cerberus’ for reference) has an emergency command you can issue which initiates continuous repetitive attempts to communicate with the lost device, at regular intervals (indefinitely, until you turn off the command).

Surprisingly, the following evening, I had been out and got back home around midnight.  I sat down at my computer to check emails, and was surprised to see that Cerberus HAD established communication with my tablet!  I quickly sent a command to the tablet to display a message on its screen giving my name and phone number, and offering a reward for return.  Then I requested the tablet to transmit its GPS location, which I did receive in the form of a map, right on my desktop.  I immediately saved the map, and then tried to send more commands to the tablet, only to be greeted with the old “communication error with Nexus 7″ message again.

Astounding!  It seems that I had miraculously hit a very short communication window with the tablet, just long enough to receive a location map, before permanently losing communication (perhaps due to a dying battery).  The map I received was incredibly detailed, and very clearly pinpointed an exact house, down a remote road (and not far from where I suspected I had lost the tablet).  I was able to expand and contract the map as necessary to mark the house where my tablet was located:

 just off county rd 229 and FM 2620

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Next morning, I called the sheriff’s department, which had a branch just a few miles down the road from the location of MY tablet.  I explained the situation to the helpful deputy, and then emailed him the detailed maps I had, which clearly showed the exact location of the house having my backpack, and he agreed to drive out and check it out.

Less than 2 hours later I get a call from the deputy informing me that he had my red backpack on the seat beside him!  When I asked him what the “perps” said when he came up, he said they claimed they had found it and were “just going to call the sheriff to turn it in!”.  He also mentioned that this was not the first time he had had occasion to visit this location on legal duty.

The following day when I finally regained possession of my backpack (with all contents intact, thankfully), I found that my tablet had been modified to show everything in Spanish rather than English, and that all my own personal apps had been removed.  It was very clear that the guys who found my equipment had no intention of ever returning it.  Wow!  Cerberus, I love you!  All our devices now have Cerberus installed.

Recovering my backpack contents was the final pleasant episode of the first of what I hope to be many future bike trips.

During my life I’ve tried just about every imaginable activity at one time or another:  snow skiing, water skiing, windsurfing, hang gliding, flying airplanes, gliders, helicopters and seaplanes, skydiving, scuba diving, zipline canopy rides, auto racing, motorcycle racing… you name it.  I have to say that being solo on a motorcycle is right near the top of the pleasure list!

You can view further random pictures of my trip on my Smugmug Gallery by clicking here  (Select the Slideshow option in Upper RH corner for best viewing).  See ya on the road!





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