Familiar Places on an Unfamiliar Vehicle

Published Tuesday, June 13, 2023 by Bryan


"Heh. Just about," I replied to the kid who had stared at me, wide-eyed after rounding the corner in the hotel hallway.1

"Dad, he just about went to space!" the kid yelled, as they ran to catch up with their family. I continued on my way outside, to move the motorcycle to a better parking space. Still giggling, I couldn't resist a quick selfie to capture the moment.

A man in bulky textile motorcycle gear, holding a large white helmet, standing next to a large silver motorcycle. The perspective is from the ground, looking up, with clear blue sky behind the subjects.
The road-grimed astronaut, next to his ship.

It wasn't the last time these two “road-grimed astronauts” were asked that question on our recent three-week, 3750 mile road trip. I can't imagine it ever getting old, seeing how much joy it brings children to meet motorcyclists. From excited questions to enthusiastic waves, their sense that something fun is going on is infectious.

That particular interaction was on the second night of our trip. On the first day, we had crossed the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That was mostly a pleasant ride through national forest, along the top of Lake Michigan. The only thing to watch out for was deer and clouds of midges. We successfully missed the deer, but dodging insects proved impossible.

Up close view of the front of a motorcycle. The headlights and radiator are covered with tiny dead bugs.
It's insect season in the Northwoods!

It would have been lovely, and more direct, to head into Canada from the east end of the UP. But, my renewed passport didn't arrive in time. So instead, we turned south and braved the crosswinds on the Mackinaw Bridge. We lucked into a great day for it. The crosswinds were present, but we've ridden in worse. We didn't even have to bother with the metal grate roadway, since the right lane is paved over now.

A view of a suspension bridge from one of the lanes of traffic crossing it.
Southbound over the Mackinaw.

Once in lower Michigan, the ride turned to mostly interstate. We took a brief detour in Ohio, riding US-6 along the south shore of Lake Erie, but otherwise the goal was to get to Massachusetts quickly. We were headed there for Amanda's college reunion, and we wanted a couple of days before that to see other friends in the area. I-90, while less "fun", had its advantages (e.g. generally nicer bathrooms).

A neat thing that happened during this sprint to the east coast, is that we crossed paths with some of our earliest motorcycling trips. Technically, we have now ridden a motorcycle from coast to coast. Maybe the indefinite article is incorrect, since it was three different motorcycles:

  1. We rode a Triump Bonneville up the Maine coast and over to the east side of Lake Michigan.
  2. We rode a Suzuki V-Strom up and down the California coast, and then across the Rockies and Great Plains to Wisconsin.
  3. And now we have connected the two ends aboard a BMW R1150GS Adventure.
A woman in motorcycle gear stands behind a BMW R1150GS Adventure.
Amanda approves of the new ride.

The BMW is new … to me. I'll save most of the details and comparisons for another post, but last fall, a friend of a friend offered me a great deal on it, and I couldn't resist a taste of the Long Way Round fantasy.

Perhaps the more pertinent note for this story is that unlike Ewan and Charlie, I was unable to get professional coaching or even spend several weeks learning the ins and outs of this motorcycle. It arrived in the middle of winter. We had ice and snow on the roads through most of April, and even briefly in May. I got out as often as the roads would let me, but had still only managed a handful of days and a few hundred miles of practice. But, after a quick overnight trip to feel out the luggage, we felt comfortable setting off anyway.2

Two aluminum panniers with lids standing open reveal their contents - dry bags and shoes, mainly.
Top-loading, square-ish luggage is so much easier to pack. Yes, that is a V60 pour-over coffee funnel. There's a small water kettle underneath it.

When we got to Boston, we set about immediately seeing friends. Former neighbors. Former work colleagues. There are so many more that we should have seen, but circumstances were what they were. Hopefully with practice, we'll get better at letting people know we're around, and being more spontaneous with meetups.

A funny thing I noticed, riding around the area, is how the "map" came back to me. I haven't ridden any of those roads since we moved away almost ten years ago. As we set off from place to place, I often found myself remembering pieces of the path, but not exactly how they connected. Yet, as we traveled, the turns felt almost as if they came from muscle memory. We flowed down my old test-ride and commute routes like I had never left them.

We spent Memorial Day weekend at Wellesley College. Amanda's reunion was the primary driver for the trip, and it was excellent. We caught up with more old friends, and also made new ones. The weather was a touch on the warm side, but it had the campus looking lovely. We had stressed a bit about attending an event like this. Lots of people, from all over the world, in a conference-like setting, felt like a recipe for exposing ourselves to COVID again. But, it seems like the requirements (vaccination!) and suggestions (indoor masking!) the college put together kept everyone safe. The result, seeing so many people excited to be together to celebrate, was truly uplifting.

A group of people holding yellow umbrellas walking down a street, with a blue banner over them reading, 'Wellesley Alumnae Association, WELCOME ALUMNAE'
Amanda's class passes under the welcome banner at Sunday's parade.

Side note: since Amanda's graduation, where parking enforcement was both stupid and ineffective, we have shaken our heads at the rules for driving to reunion, often just parking in the farthest lot to get it over with. However, it turns out that if you can fit your vehicle into a corner of the half-space next to a dumpster, campus police doesn't care where you park. No need to haul luggage halfway to Natick for us.

Immediately after reunion, we climbed back aboard the motorcycle and rode north. About halfway between Lake Winnipesaukee and Mount Washington, friends of ours own a farmhouse. When we visited them two years ago, we found Peter putting a roof on a new tool shed, and I joined in to help. This time we stayed more than a day, and got into all sorts of projects. We swapped all sorts of implements on and off tractors, dug stones out of the hillside with a backhoe, pulled down a collapsing treehouse, built a fence around the compost pile, fixed a barn door, and cleared tree limbs from the driveway. Speaking of the driveway, we were excited to have many more inches of clearance on the motorcycle than we did with our little hatchback car last time:

A dirt/gravel driveway winding uphill through the trees.
You should see the alternate way up.

I consider all that work to be play anyway, but we also made time for pure recreation. One day we rode up Mt. Washington. We're still not sure whether or not it was lucky that the wind speed at the top was only 9 mph. It made the riding less treacherous, but it allowed the flies to swarm.

A gravel parking lot filled 50/50 with cars and motorcycles. In front of the parking lot is a rocky hillside. Beyond the lot is an open vista of mountains and valleys below a lightly clouded blue sky.
Ours was not the only motorcycle to climb Mt. Washington that day.

I also spent one late afternoon riding the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. This was the first well-known motorcycling road I ever visited, back on that first long trip through Maine and New Hampshire. Right near the annual Laconia Bike Week gathering, it's known for great curves and one tight hairpin. Twelve additional years of riding experience, six of which were in the twisties of California, combined with a motorcycle featuring much better suspension, meant that the road felt plain fun, and not at all daunting this time.

Bryan poses with his motorcycle in front of a sign reading 'AMERICA'S BYWAYS, KANCAMAGUS HIGHWAY'
Fun twisties!

Eventually it became time to start back home. The heatwave broke with scattered showers that we ran in and out of as we crossed ridges between different valleys in Vermont. The showers cleared for the second day, as we rode toward the lakes region of upstate New York. I can strongly recommend two roads from these first two days: VT-100, a gorgeous north-south ride through the middle of the state, and NY-30 around the Pepactin reservoir, a super curvy joy of a ride.

On our way again! (Thanks, Becky for one of very few videos I have of us riding!)

On the third day, instead of moving on in the morning, we spent a few hours touring the Corning Museum of Glass. I had said before our trip that it felt like forever since I had been to a museum. This was a great choice to end that drought. The hours flew by as we wandered through the exhibits. We hear they have a far larger collection than they are able to display, so the art turns over regularly. This may be a place to revisit on another trip through the area.

A multi-piece, ornate mirror, backed with black instead of the usual silver. Reflected in the central viewing area are two people, one of whom is holding a phone.
Black-backed multi-faceted mirror. My only good photo from the museum, because the reflection is the point. Artist info: I Saw Othello's Visage In His Mind, by Fred Wilson

Before leaving Corning, we stopped at AutoZone. The bike was running fine, but I wanted it to continue running fine, and that meant topping up the engine oil. We had lost 300-400ml over the 2500 miles we had traveled. That's well within spec,3 but I've been careful with oil since the Triumph ate its oil pump many years ago. Checking the level is known to be a bit fiddly on this model, but adding more is easy - a benefit of those cylinders sticking out the sides. I didn't even need a funnel!

Our path through Pennsylvania took us primarily along US-6 to US-62. But US-6 makes a southern detour to avoid the Allegheny Reservoir. We chose to connect the shoulders of that detour via PA-59 to shave off a few miles. Little did we know that PA-59 would be the nicest road of the day. Don't get me wrong, US-62 following the banks of the Allegheny River was also gorgeous, but PA-59 was a surprise stunner. It runs though the national forest, which I've learned is a near guarantee of nice roads, and past the Kinzua Dam holding back the reservoir. Very enjoyable, if you find yourself in the area.

A view down a road. On either side of the road is a reservoir. The hills across the reservoir are quite hazy.
It may look like a foggy Scottish loch, but it's a smoky Pennsylvania reservoir.
A view down a road. To the right of the road is a river. Trees and hills on the other side of the river look hazier as they get farther away. The sun is a red dot in a grey sky.
The red sun brought us back to escaping the California wildfires in 2020.

Day four of the return brought us into Ohio. Having never ridden in Ohio before the start of this trip, this is where I spent the most time researching roads. One website suggested OH-164. I can't disagree. The trip up Mt. Washington may have technically been more elevation and tighter corners, but Ohio lets you roll at twice the speed. Paying attention to yellow signs was key, because the fast uphill-downhill changes meant that many corners were invisible until you were right on top of them. The same website also suggested OH-39. There I disagree strongly. It's a trucking and tourist route and was the heaviest traffic we saw between Boston and Chicago.

We dawdled a bit on day five. We had too far to go to be able to spend the time we wanted at Indiana Dunes National Park, but not really far enough to make a full day of it. The map showed nothing but flatland grid from western Ohio through Indiana as well, so riding wouldn't be super engaging either. We picked a spot on the western edge of the state, turned music on in our helmets, and set off anyway. Surprisingly, the change from technical twisties to wide open farm land was refreshing anyway - maybe in part due to the reduced traffic levels. We got to the next hotel an hour early, because we forgot that we would cross a timezone, but they let us check in anyway.

We started day six with a quick ride to Indiana Dunes National Park. This is a very different park, if you're used to thinking of the western mountainous parks. It's small, on the shores of Lake Michigan, and is distinguished by its accessibility by public transit from Chicago. We had a nice hike, learned a little about dunes ecology, and ate delicious tacos from a food truck in the parking lot.

Scrub-covered sandy hills with a wooden walkway leading to a large lake at the horizon.
Some of the 260 steps from the parking lot to the beach.

After the park, it was time to head into Chicago to visit Amanda's aunt. City riding had been something I was worried about with this new bike, before the trip. It's taller and heavier than the V-Strom, so I have to be a little more careful stopping and starting with it. We had made a quick overnight test trip to Minneapolis before starting this journey, primarily for supplies, but also to test the ride. Traffic management had gone just fine. Then we rode into Cambridge while out east, and I had actually become comfortable managing heavy traffic in tight streets. In Chicago, my San Francisco Bay Area traffic management skills came back, as I fully exploited the smaller size of my vehicle to manage gaps to make the lane changes that Siri yelled in my ear. The only danger we eventually encountered was the slow, single lane, stoplight-to-stoplight final leg, when the bike nearly overheated! It's primarily an air-cooled engine, with a tiny oil cooler tucked in the front fairing. Without movement, no air circulates, and the engine temp climbs. Luckily, we pulled up in front of our destination just as the gauge was kissing the bottom of the red zone.

The Chicago skyline, as seen from the road entering the city.
The beautiful Chicago skyline, right before traffic backed up.

We cut the trip a day short after that, and headed home almost directly from Chicago. We had been hoping to meet with the friend that sold me the bike, and finally get to do some riding together - something four years in the making. But, he was out of town, so we'll extend the rain check once more. We checked off just one Rustic Road along the way instead, and pulled a 350 mile day to sleep in our own bed.

The trip was absolutely fantastic. The bike did great. We tossed every kind of riding at it - 70+mph freeway, 45mph curvy backroads, 5mph stop & go, nearly off-road - and it handled it wonderfully. It's comfortable. The luggage feels huge - we packed a pour-over coffee-making setup! This is the bike we'll be doing future two-up travel on, for sure.

This was also the most open-eneded we have ever left a travel schedule. After the strict time commitment of Wellesley Reunion, we were free spirits deciding when and where to leave and go. We had five-ish days of clothes with us, and just did laundry when we had gone through it all. It's different, and I think we were only just getting the hang of it. We've made notes of things that would improve that mode next time.

We arrived home to find knee-high grass, fully leaf'd-in trees, and neighbors returned for the summer. The house was just as we had left it, which is a salve we needed after years in an apartment that routinely fell apart while we were away. Amanda says she needs to be around home for a few commitments over the next couple months, but who knows what we'll get up to this fall.

A map of the Upper Midwest and New England, with a blue line tracing a figure-eight path from Wisconsin to New Hampshire and back.
3,752 miles


1 JPL says Hubble is 332 miles up, and we had ridden farther than that each of the previous two days.

2 Extra props to Amanda on this note. I was pretty sure I could manage the machine, but climbing on the back with 3,000 miles to find out, demonstrates a high level of trust.

3 The spec is conveniently close to the amount of oil between the low and high marks (500ml), per the distance you can drive on one full tank (300mi). At that rate, we would have consumed over 4l - more than ten times what we observed! (And more than the bike holds in total!)

Categories: Motorcycle Travel