Tooling along astride the blue-hot working parts of a well-oiled motorcycle is a way of taking Indian summer to the mountains with you. Shannon, 11, alternately leaned against the backrest or hugged my back when cool crosswinds swept over the Northern Virginia hill country en route to the Skyline Drive. Even at the peak of the tourist season, the road was nearly empty -- a biker's paradise.
Mountains were made for motorcycles -- or vice versa, depending on how you look at it. Even at the low 35-mph speed limit on the Skyline Drive (45 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway), a motorcycle gets to do all its tricks in the space of any ten miles. Hard hairpins, upgrade surges, dramatic passes on short stretches of broken centerline. This is hard-over handling -- sometimes footpeg-scraping -- at its best. Mountain-riding is what motorcycling, finally, is all about.
The beauty of the Skyline -- only an hour's drive from Washington -- is that you can ride with nary a stop and hardly a slow-down for its entire 107 curving, turning, dipping and climbing (to 4,000 feet) miles. Gasoline and Sitzfleisch permitting. Combine this with a breathtaking autumn vista every thirty seconds or so and you've got, well, motorcycling heaven.
Now I know those people in the rolling boxes -- campers, cars, Cadillacs and monstrous motor homes -- were enjoying the scenery, too: the meandering Shenandoah misty below us to west and Northern Virginia falling off in bluish rolling humps to the east. But as Robert Persig rightly explained in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, they "don't realize that through that car window, everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame."
It's hard for some people -- motorists, bicyclists and backpackers in particular -- to understand, but motorcyclists love nature. We feel every change in air temperature, we smell the rain before it comes, we're just an unobstructed arm's reach away from the bluebells and blackberries when we sink into a curve 4,100 feet up in the Great Smokies.
No wonder we saw so many motorcycles on this one-week, 1,300-mile trip down the Appalachian hump to western North Carolina and back. Both Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway were mercifully free of motor traffic, but the bikes were in amazing abundance, almost all rigged for touring, many with a son or lady friend as a passenger, some traveling in small groups linked by their CB radios. The only place I can imagine better motorcycling on the earth is in our Rockies or Europe's Alps. But there the roads are not the uninterrupted, controlled-access, superbly engineered driveways that you find in these Eastern National Parks.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, for instance, runs 469 smooth, curvy miles without a single traffic light or stop sign. (It is broken for nine miles under construction near Linvlle, North Carolina.)
Of course, with an eleven-year-old along, you've got to do something more than just ride the motorcycle -- the landlubber's equivalent of sailing a fast, single-handed racing boat -- and make camp at night. Our diversions included a ride-and-walk to the foggy, chilly, windswept summit of Mountain Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest peak in the East; the full tour of Biltmore, the extravagant European-style summer palace the Vanderbilts erected in 1895 outside Asheville, North Carolina; and of "Old Kentucky Home," the rambling clapboard affair in downtown Asheville that Thomas Wolfe's mother ran as a boarding house that became the locus for Look Homeward, Angel. Alas, I also had to stop at virtually every miniature golf course between Washington and Highlands, N.C., where son systematically humiliated father. Score: Kid 5, Dad 1.
The key difference (other than fuel costs: My Suzuki 750 averaged 44 miles per gallon) between taking this trip by car and by bikes lay in the traveling itself. You're not just trying to get somewhere, any more than a point-to-point sailor views his boat as mere transportation. That's what a car is, simple conveyance. Riding the bike is an end in itself, a sport to practice, a game you play while on the way. It makes it a lot easier, sore derrieres notwithstanding, to put in a 500-mile run on the last day.
That was the day I did a U-turn when the sweet scent of roasting chicken crossed our path and we found the volunteer fire department's annual barbecue in tiny Fairfield, Virginia. They cooked 8,000 chickens that day and we ate two -- for $5. I wouldn't have smelled their call to table in an air-conditioned car. Such are the joys of motorcycling.