Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series chronicling a trip Hall County resident Bill Rezak made across the eastern U.S. on a motorcycle.
This is the fifth year in a row that I have taken a cross-country motorcycle ride and written about the experience for the Times.
I’ve made trips to Las Vegas, Death Valley, New Zealand, the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore and the national parks of the Southwest. The ride this year was relatively short (just under 2,500 miles) and the rainiest yet. Still, it was a blast!
I think that those of us who tour on motorcycles are really in search of cattle drives and other wanderings of the Old West on horseback. Our steeds are iron, that’s all. Mine is a 2008 105th anniversary edition Harley Electra-Glide Ultra Classic. It’s metallic copper and black with lots of gold trim, Screamin’ Eagle dual exhaust (no crossover; it’s loud!) and lots of chrome eye-candy. The bike has just over 30,000 miles on it at this point.
I know that I’ve written before about Robert Pirsig author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Pirsig, perhaps better than anyone, captured the joy of motorcycle travel by pointing out that in a car, your view of the countryside is always framed in the window like a wall hanging. On a bike, you’re part of the picture. It’s true and there really is no comparison.
Girlfriend Diane had a total knee replacement in late February. We assumed that she would be good to go by the first of June — no such luck. Knees are a tough recovery we learned. So what does a good guy like me do upon discovering that she can’t yet make the trip? Why leave her alone and go myself, of course!
My original plan was to pick up U.S. 11 in east Tennessee and follow it all the way north to New York state. I set out on Tuesday morning, May 29, from Gainesville heading north on Ga. 365. Between Demorest and Clarkesville, this route morphs into U.S. 441/U.S. 23. I continued north on it through Clayton and Dillard.
Along the way, I passed the beautiful Tallulah Gorge State Park with its nearly 1,000-foot-deep ravine near where the movie "Deliverance" was filmed.
If you’re wondering what the young fella who played the banjo is doing now, you can find him at the Cookie Jar Cafe in Clayton. Billy Redden was 15 when he played the banjo boy (he didn’t actually play the banjo). He was selected from a casting call at his school in Clayton in 1972. He has had a few other acting stints over the years.
I stayed on U.S. 23 in Franklin, N.C., and headed north to Maggie Valley and the Wheels Through Time Museum — The Museum that Runs. This is a priceless collection of over 300 American-made motorcycles of all vintages and manufacturers. And, the really unique aspect is that they all actually run!
The museum also boasts a handful of 1930s automobiles. The motorcycle display venues recreate actual settings: repair shop, army installation, drive-in restaurant, etc. It’s a do-not-miss for motor heads.
I cruised north out of Maggie Valley to Interstate 40 (the only way to cross the Smokies outside the park) and headed west to Newport, Tenn., where I stopped for lunch at Lois’ Country Kitchen. I enjoyed Lois’ delicious buffet and visited a bit with the locals. Everybody’s interested in talking with you if you’re on a cross-country bike ride. I eat my main meal at midday on these excursions, with breakfast at the hotel in the morning and snacks in the evening.
I had a terrific ride north on U.S. 321 and Tenn. Highway 93 from Newport to Bristol. The Blue Ridge Mountains were on my right to the east as I crossed rolling farm land under a cloudless sky and 80 F temperatures.
As I mentioned, I planned to pick up U.S. 11 and ride it north to New York, where it passes through Syracuse (my hometown) on its way to Watertown and the Canadian border. I rode it for several miles and found it mostly commercial, heavily trafficked and covered with stop lights, paralleling I-81 as it does.
So much for that idea. I hopped on I-81 and cruised up to Wytheville, Va., where I stayed overnight. I traveled 320 miles on my first day out.
I studied the Virginia map that evening, looking for an interesting route to follow that would point me toward my ultimate destination without going too far out of my way. I decided to stay on I-81 to Roanoke and to try U.S. 220 north from there.
This turned out to be an excellent choice. It follows the Jackson River with the Blue Ridge on the east. The Jackson is a tributary to the James River in Virginia. It is reputed to be one of the state’s best fly fishing streams. I can attest to its beauty as I enjoyed the sweeping curves it forced upon U.S. 220.
I stopped in Monterrey, Va., for lunch at the Mountainview Homestead Restaurant. Have whatever their special is; it’s a good local hangout. More queries about my biking adventure!
Back on U.S. 220, I picked up the South Fork of the Potomac River in northern West "By God" Virginia, where I came upon Falling Stream Falls. I swept around a long curve to my left and on my left appeared a magnificent and very large waterfall just off the road. This was the type of discovery I just love while riding on a new (to me) road in a new place. The falls weren’t the only lovely scenery, either.
There was a small parking lot adjacent to the falls and a trail down to their base. Just returning from what I’m certain was a refreshing plunge in the pool below the falls were several 20-somethings, male and female. The females were clad in tiny bikinis. An old man like me doesn’t need such distractions, so I immediately began imagining how beautiful their grandmothers must be. Always good to keep things in perspective!
As you can see, the falls are gorgeous. I refrained from taking pictures of the young women!
From there, I cruised on up to Cumberland, Md., where I spent the night. I logged 310 miles this second day out.
I love to explore college campuses, so I rolled north on U.S. 220 to State College, Pa., home of Penn State University, otherwise known as "Linebacker U" since for years they have depended on rugged defense to win football games — though they may not win many for the next few years.
The university boasts 44,000 students and the nation’s second largest football arena, Beaver Stadium, where you can join 106,000 of your closest friends on Saturday afternoons. The largest? That’s The Big House at the University of Michigan, capacity 109,000.
I had a wonderful lunch at Kildare’s Irish Pub in State College, just off campus. There I enjoyed talking football with the bar staff. Of course, I pontificated upon the excellence of the Southeastern Conference in comparison with the Big Ten.
Oh, I almost forgot the wonderful gas station in Bedford, Pa., just to the south of State College. I pulled in there for fuel and sailed back to the future in 1955. ’Course, the gas was not 18 cents a gallon, but other than that, it was a real trip down memory lane. You have to admire a business person who respects history and can make a living at the same time.
As I rode north on U.S. 220 from State College, I began to encounter huge machinery moving up and down the road along with heavy traffic. I stopped in Tioga, Pa., for gas and visited with a local biker about the way north. He advised me that I was in "Frackin’ Country."
Hydraulic fracturing has brought jobs and money to the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania. This environmentally controversial process for extracting petroleum and natural gas is big business there. I was warned not to consider trying to find a hotel room in the area unless I was willing to pay $200-plus per night — they’re full of "frackers!"
I tooled on north toward Endicott City, N.Y., where Tom Watson developed IBM into a small computing firm. Just down the road is Elmira, home to "The Elmira Express," Ernie Davis who was Syracuse University’s Heisman Trophy winner in 1961 and the subject of the movie, "The Express." There, I spent the night after covering 280 miles.
The next day I treated myself to a wonderful Greek breakfast at the Acropolis in Endicott City. I had a Greek omelet with plenty of feta cheese, tomatoes, onions and green peppers, home fries (real ones), crisp bacon and toast — YUM!
Then, I cruised on up to Syracuse to visit my brother and extended family, all of whom live in the beautiful Central New York area. Well, beautiful from May through October. The rest of the year it consists of brown sticks and a white blanket, which is one of the major reasons why I live in Hall County, Ga.!
Bill Rezak lives in Hall County. His upcoming book, "The Arab and the Brit," will be available this fall.