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Episode 1: Alone on the road

Motorcycle diaries: From Gainesville to Las Vegas and back

POSTED: July 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Bill Rezak/For The Times

The bridge near New Hope, Tenn., spans the Tennessee River south of Nickajack Lake.

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Editor's note: Bill Rezak, a retired college president who lives in Gainesville, took a cross-country journey on his motorcycle during the month of May last year. The following, in four parts, is an account of his 5,200-mile journey alone and on "blue roads."

I'm not a fan of motorcycle rallies. I enjoy stopping when I want to stop, eating at local, nonchain restaurants frequented by the natives and staying at funky motels (as long as they're clean and safe).

Besides, it's much easier to meet new and interesting people when you're alone.

Let me ponder "alone" for a moment. I really dislike being alone, so I try to connect with people when I travel. When you pull into a gas station, restaurant or motel in New Mexico on a bike with a Georgia plate, everyone wants to talk to you.

The ride I'm describing was my first alone after losing my bride of 38 years, Paula, (P to me and her family and friends) to lung cancer six months before. P rode her own bike - a pearl-colored 2003 Harley Sportster 883 100th Anniversary Edition - which she dearly loved. She was, at 61, as good a riding chum as you could ask for. She could counter steer through the North Georgia mountain sweepers with the best of them.

She loved riding more than anything - well, almost anything. And, she never complained about cool or rainy weather or how her hair looked afterward.

I planned this 5,200-mile jaunt with trepidation. At 66, I wasn't certain that I'd be able to hold up under the rigors of day-in and day-out riding. I worried that I'd get bored or tired or homesick. What a pleasant surprise to discover that I grew stronger and more confident as I traveled. I resolved to travel on secondary roads whenever possible in order to better enjoy local color.

And we're off

I left Gainesville on a Tuesday - May 1, 2007.

I ride a 2001 Harley Road King Classic. I have a large rear luggage rack, and upon it was a 40-pound T-Bag crammed with too many clothes - I won't make that mistake again; almost every place I stayed had guest laundry facilities. On top of the T-Bag was a small duffle bag for spare shoes - I wore my heavy, steel toed, Gore-Tex-lined boots for safety, dryness and warmth.

On the passenger seat I took a small ice chest with milk, orange juice, beer (for the evenings - alcohol and motorcycling do not go together), cheese and raw carrots and celery. Atop the ice chest was another small duffle with road maps, granola bars, raisins, crackers, peanuts and the like. These were secured with super-sized bungee cords. In my saddle bags were rudimentary tools, my bike's operating, parts and service manuals, rain gear and a motorcycle cover. I also had a list of all the Harley dealers in the country, a cell phone and, of course, a camera.

I did not, repeat not, take a laptop!

On a bright sunny warm day, I picked up Ga. 60 in Gainesville going north out of town. Just north of our beautiful Lake Lanier, I swung northwest onto Ga. 136. This is a lovely route through the mountains of North Georgia.

To the uninitiated, I should explain that there is nothing quite like the feeling of riding curvy mountain roads on a motorcycle. In a car ("the cage," to bikers), the view is framed by the window out of which you are peering. On a bike, you're part of the picture postcard. It also takes a bit more skill and concentration to maneuver a motorcycle back and forth through a series of switchbacks. It's an exhilarating experience and a great feeling of accomplishment.

I stopped for lunch at The Cookery Restaurant at the Flying J in Resaca. My goal was to avoid chains, but I was hungry and this place looked good because of all the trucks parked there. I was not disappointed.

I sat at the counter where the truckers were discussing traffic north and south on Interstate 75. I advised them that I was on a bike ride and asked if anyone knew of a good ride going west and north that avoided the interstate. They all recommended that I swing by Cloudland Canyon. Then I was regaled with their own motorcycling experiences. There is immediate rapport amongst riders.

After lunch, I proceeded west to lovely Cloudland Canyon, which would be a grand place to spend the night. Check out the cabins for rent in this beautiful state park located in Northwest Georgia on the western edge of Lookout Mountain and formed by the Sitton Gulch Creek gorge.

But I had not yet made my pre-planned 250 miles for the day, so I continued on into northeastern Alabama, where I turned north into Tennessee and I swung west at lovely Nickajack Lake. I rode along the southern shore of the Tennessee River and parallel with railroad tracks for several miles until I crossed the river via a shapely steel span bridge at New Hope.

Through Tennessee

I traveled west through Sewanee, Tenn., home of the University of the South and its spectacular mountain-top campus. I love college campuses, having spent some 35 years hanging out on them, so I decided to take a run up the mountain and check out this one.

What a little jewel! I stopped to talk to some students strolling across the quad. I learned that they wear academic gowns to classes there. Wow, that's the way the old universities in Great Britain did business in the 18th Century. What a lovely setting.

I continued to Winchester, Tenn. A gas station attendant there told me Winchester is named for Gen. James Winchester of Revolutionary and Indian War renown. It is also the hometown of singer Dinah Shore. I love people who are proud of their community like we are in Gainesville.

I traveled west to Fayetteville, Tenn., where I spent the night. I took a spin off Fayeteville's downtown square to view some lovely historic homes.

In the morning, I crossed the western branch of the Tennessee River and, later, crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas. I was on my mileage schedule, but I should have selected a more interesting place to spend the night than Marion, Ark. The people there didn't even seem to like it. It was an agribusiness town without the pride we all have in the poultry industry here.

My third day out was overcast with scattered light rain. Traveling west, Arkansas is flat and uninteresting in this stretch - mostly rice paddies on both sides of the road. I stopped for a terrific lunch at Bill's Grill in Conway, Ark. - their meatloaf was superb. So was my server, who was about my age and attractive.

In this interaction, it was she who interviewed me. She seemed genuinely interested in my exploit, wanting to know my itinerary and why I chose to travel alone. We visited for a good while and she gave me directions out of town. Needless to say, she received a healthy tip.

From Conway, I continued to Russellville, Ark., where I swung south along the east end of Lake Dardanelle, another beautiful recreational wonderland. Just south of the lake, I turned west toward Fort Smith, after crossing the Arkansas River, which was about Ú-mile wide with sandy shores. It flows southeast from the Rocky Mountains 1,500 miles until it empties into the Mississippi.

I stayed in an upscale motel in Fort Smith and did some laundry. That evening, I learned that Fort Smith is home to the Army's Camp Chaffee, where Elvis enlisted and lost his pompadour and burns.

The wild West

The next morning I headed west. The weather was warm early on but quickly turned cool - but no rain. After crossing the Arkansas River again, I entered Oklahoma and experienced a terrific ride through cattle and horse country. I enjoyed the picturesque ranches with new-born fillies and colts frolicking with their mothers.

I stopped in Seminole, Okla., for lunch. This turned out to be a special place.

The main streets through Seminole are still cobblestone - an interesting ride on a bike. I had a grand Southwestern lunch at a funky local Latino restaurant named Polo's. The Mexican-Indian owners were a hoot. They were a young couple and their children had the run of this informal restaurant. I played with the kids and learned a bit about Oklahoma (that it is flat and windy) while I awaited my meal. Great little town.

Late in the day, I arrived in Hinton, Okla., where I found a good local motel. During the course of the evening I learned from the locals that Hinton was established after the "Sooners" gobbled up free land when the United States gave away 3« million acres previously belonging to Native Americans. It was obvious that I was in the real West, at last.

Bill Rezak retired in 2003 after 10 years as President of Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y. Prior to that, he was dean of the School of Technology at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. He and his wife Paula moved to Gainesville and Paula was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2004. She passed away in late 2006, but not without maximizing her time on her motorcycle.



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