Monday, March 24, 2008

March 13-23 2008 – Road Trip – Part Three – North Carolina

The last destination of our road trip to the mountains was Western North Carolina. Our intent was to camp in one or two state parks in the mountains and ride more mountain roadways before making our way to my sister's home in Hendersonville for the Easter weekend with family. This plan was stumped when it turned out that western North Carolina doesn't have many state parks for RV camping and what parks they do have don't open until April 1! On top of that the weather turned cold and drear (apparently why the parks aren't yet open!), so we ended up making my sister's lovely home our home base for the week.

Once again, the management of Champion Hills found us an undeveloped cul-de-sac to stash the RV during our stay. Each time we have done this (this being the third time in three years), it has been a different cul-de-sac, but we speculate that this will be our last time to enjoy this very considerate courtesy since the development is almost fully built. In view of that future, Don and I spent one of our rainy days in the truck scouting out regular RV parks in the vicinity. None measure up to the beauty of a state park, but at least we have located a few convenient options, and at least they are open year round .

Our rolling home may be snug, but it is hard to match a cushy couch, a flickering fireplace, and a good book when the weather gets inclement. We'd hardly settled in when my brother-in-law Bob passed on a must-read book called Three Cups of Tea: One's Man Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg Mortensen & David Oliver Relin. Talk about a three-way culture shock. In the mountains of North Carolina, I put down Paul Theroux's Pacific island travelogue The Happy Isles of Oceania; Paddling the Pacific, and found myself transported to and immersed in a saga of cultural bridge-building in Pakistan. This true account of Greg Mortensen's ongoing life work kept me spell-bound for several days, and Don is currently in its grip. Anyone who needs an antidote to our current administration's warmongering should read this book NOW.

Monday morning finally brought a sunny, if chilly, morning. The temps were forecast to climb eventually into the sixties, so Don and I layered back up and got the Harley out of the garage where we'd stashed it during all the rain. We rode west over the mountain to Brevard and from there up into the Pisgah State Forest, winding our way up steep switchbacks to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs a total of 496 miles from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. When I was a child in the '50s, my parents used to drive this road south from Washington, DC to drop me off at summer camp in Brevard while they escaped the summer heat at a painting camp called Seecelo in Burnsville. Much of the Blue Ridge roadway runs along the spine of this Appalachian mountain chain affording unparalleled vistas on either side. Like the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, the Blue Ridge is, at least where we rode, mostly a two-lane, limited-speed roadway designed for sight-seeing. Despite breath-catching drop-offs, guardrails were few and far between, which loosed the butterflies in MY stomach, while for Don, wearing sunglasses and a smoked visor, it was the intermittent tunnels that were unsettling. Fortunately, the road's twists and turns were augmented by many pull-offs for scenic overlooks.

We came down from the Parkway just this side of Asheville, and after a warming lunch in a roadside diner, made another long loop on Rte 176 to Saluda and Tryon, picturesque mountain areas to the south and east of Hendersonville along the South Carolina Border. Unfortunately, the morning's weather did not hold and the afternoon temperatures began to drop again long before reaching even the mid-fifties. Under increasingly gray skies, we grew too chilled to enjoy ourselves, and we cut back onto the Interstate the better to scurry back to the fireplace.

Somewhere along the way, Don had discovered that the coach had a leak in the left rear dual axle seal. While I'd been wandering around in the mountains and villages of Baltistan (in the book), Don had been glued to the phone not just ordering the last of the boat parts we need to take back to Fiji, but also tracking down a service center that would honor our extended warranty on the RV. The appointment he made for us at Tom Johnson Camping Center in Marion, NC, even though it was about a two hour drive away, couldn't have been better timed as the weather turned crappy again. Wouldn't want to waste any fine weather on a service run!

Lying east of Asheville, Marion turned out to be nestled in more gorgeous country near Black Mountain. The service center, which we kind of thought might be some hick camper dealer, turned out to be a beautifully conceived high-end dealer with five lines of motorhomes, a slew of campers and pop-ups, and a rally campground equipped to handle about 350! The trim repair facility alone had 35 service bays plus its own 66 camping spots plus a nice lounge with snack bar, fireplace and Wifi! Wow! We spent Tuesday night there in order to make our 8am appointment, and then amused ourselves while the tech guys diagnosed our problems looking at new RVs…always a diverting pastime. When parts had to be ordered, we left the motorhome behind until Friday and drove back to Hendersonville in the truck.

Thursday finally brought gorgeous weather, and we hopped on the bike keen to get another ride in. This time we explored south from Brevard over Rte 178 to Rte 11 in South Carolina. It seems steep and twisty Rte 178 is a popular ride with the local crotch-rockets, especially on the South Carolina down-slope. Made us feel very sedate as these guys in their jumpsuits caromed past us on the tight turns, especially since we'd seen so few other motorcyclists the whole month! Seems these guys just ride up and down the mountain like a ski slope! It's also popular with the serious cyclists, and we passed several ambitious pairs doing what we do on their own pedal power. My nephew John and his wife Gay are part of this peculiar breed, and though we respect them, we can't even imagine doing it ourselves! At the base of the mountain we buzzed off east on Rte 11 and then climbed back over the mountain on Rte 276, a twin to 178, with more bikers of all ilk as well as hikers on several State park trails, everyone out enjoying the beautiful day. It was a grand ride through terrain we will have to give a serious second look on our next visit!

Friday morning we were up early to make the round trip to Marion to pick up the coach and still have enough time for another ride before my nephew Gregg and his daughter Jackie arrived from New England in the late afternoon. Their arrival inaugurated the beginning of a packed family weekend. It had been three years since we'd last seen Gregg or Jackie, and, while Gregg is as handsome as ever, Jackie has grown into a tall swan of an eleven-year old! My other nephew John and his family, with whom we spent last Thanksgiving, arrived by car on Saturday. Speaking of bikes, John and Gay had their light-weight wonders in the back of their Honda Odyssey, and they took off on the very same 25-mile circuit we'd squeezed in before Gregg's arrival Friday. They did it in two hours.

As family weekends are wont to have, there was plenty of fine eating, music (Tom and Karen on the piano, Karen on her flute, and Tom and Greg on their guitars), walking and loving on Cecily's Shih Tzu Tikka (both girls are dog lovers), and rides on the Harley! Cecily herself kicked this off by swapping shoes and jackets with me after we'd followed the others out to lunch, and the line-up after that never stopped. The girls were both pretty cute enveloped in my leather jacket and helmet on the back behind Don. They both dubbed it "awesome," and the rides definitely coaxed some smiles out of oh-so-cool Tom.

The weekend wrapped up with a huge Easter Buffet at the Hendersonville Country Club. Sometimes having to get dressed up can take the fun out of these events, but there is something about taking off the winter duds and donning an Easter outfit that everybody is willing to do. It was a mighty fine looking table of ten over which Bob presided, and he observed to Cecily at the far end that he could never have imagined such a moment during his days at the Coast Guard Academy fifty-some years ago!

We are currently southbound on I95 heading for home in Crystal River, and while we will both admit to being ready for a little "spring break" Florida warmth, I don't think anyone can know how much we enjoyed this road trip in the mountains: the great Harley riding, the solitary camping, the time with friends and family. Thanks to all of you who made it possible.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

March 9-13 2008 – Road Trip – Part Two – North Georgia Mountains

In our Harley Road Atlas, the page on Georgia’s northern mountains is strewn with symbols for scenic motorcycle rides. And by God, they aren’t kidding! We spent a glorious week tackling those rides from two different bases: Unicoi State park, just north of Helen and the driveway of our friends’ new home in Toccoa.

We had been to the area once before, back in March 2005, as part of our drive to Florida from California and Phoenix right after buying the RV. Back then our friends, Bob and Kathy of sv Briana, had been looking for property in Toccoa where Bob had spent most of his medical career. They had taken us on a tour to Helen, a touristy town that has imported a Bavarian alpine motif. We had also picked up a brochure on ownership RV parks in the area from the Tampa RV show that had piqued our curiosity. Things are frequently not what they seem.

But sometimes they are even better. When none of the ownership RV parks were available for nightly rentals, we went instead to the Unicoi State Park. What an elegant set up! Tucked into the folds of the mountains, the park has several forested camping areas and a nice hotel. Again we had the campground almost to ourselves, and we spent every evening around a roaring campfire with hot chocolate as well as other warming libations.

But it was the rides that were grand. The first afternoon we unloaded the bike, bundled up and made our first circuit, up, up, up a winding road alongside horse farms and high mountain lakes with quaint boat houses, to Rte 76, an east-west highway linking the towns on the top of the ridge. The sky was crisp blue and the sun bright. As the afternoon waned quicker than we thought, we cut our loop in half and came down, down, down the tight serpentine curves of Rte 75. This is as far from Florida riding as you can possibly imagine. Don was definitely working overtime, shifting and leaning right, then left, then immediately right and so on. It was a jump from novice to advanced, and he did a great job! It was everything we’d imagined mountain riding to be: beautiful, challenging, rewarding.

And cold!

Our second day we went the other way to catch the second half of the main loop. The highlight would have to be a stop at the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center, perched in Neels Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses US19/129 high on Blood Mountain. The stone building was built by the CCC in the 1930s and operated as an inn until the 60s. Its future was uncertain until it was leased from the state and turned into Mountain Crossings, a store and hostel for hikers passing through. The view is stupendous, but as we enjoyed our hot chocolate on the stone terrace, we felt a bit silly in our layers and leathers as the hikers passed us in shorts.

Also on this route we found ourselves passing several of the RV parks named in the brochure. We stopped twice before we blew it off. Not a one came close to our imagining, nor to our home base at Nature Coast Landings. And frankly, this kind of RV park wouldn’t be what we’d want in these parts anyway.

What we would want would be something almost exactly like what our friends Bob and Kathy have built for themselves on 4.5 acres of woods in Toccoa. Part of the rules for this trip was not planning further ahead than a day or two, so it was simply our great good luck that when we called them they had just arrived back from the boat in Thailand. We moved to their driveway on a cold and drizzly day, and spent the afternoon around their roaring fireplace getting our cruising enthusiasm pepped up by all the tales of their adventures in Australia and Indonesia. Then, when the weather cleared again, we rode more mountain loops from their place up into Highlands and Cashiers, NC, a highlight of which for me was the warming new age lunch we stumbled over at the Wild Thyme Bakery and Café in Cashiers. (The new owner may be changing the name, though!)

I can’t tell you how much we appreciated the hospitality of parking in Bob and Kathy’s beautiful woods-shrouded driveway and then sharing breakfasts, dinners and nightly fires in their inspiring new home. Sure, just when we have ourselves persuaded that the full-time gypsy life really suits us, they have to go and throw at us such a perfect counter argument. The only negative we could see about it is that our kids are a long way away.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 6-8 2008 – Road Trip – Part Two – Atlanta & Lake Allatoona

Looking at the map, I determined that Rte 278E looked like a good and attractive way to cross Alabama to the Atlanta area, and the choice was corroborated by the host of the Allegro Park in Red Bay. Our two GPS nav systems, however, wanted nothing to do with it. Both – the Streets & Trips program on the computer and the Garmin Nuvi -- wanted to route us out of our way north or south to a proper Interstate. We ignored both ladies (to their mutual frustration) and took 278, which proved to be a fine divided highway most of the way.

We came into Georgia northwest of Atlanta in the Cartersville area in order to camp in the only Army Corps of Engineers campground (of nine) open on Lake Allatoona. McKinney Campground is on the eastern shore of the Lake, just south of Red Top Mountain State Park. It has several sections, and though not all sections are open all year round, they had just opened the whole park up before our arrival. This was not in response to any evident demand, as, having walked the whole 155-site park, we counted fewer than ten other campers in the place. The lady that checked us in gave us what she said was the most sought after spot in the park which turned out to be a site all alone, 100' feet or so out on a peninsula with a 30-40' drop to the water on all sides. Even with the lake's water level down some ten feet thanks the region's severe drought, it was a spectacular spot with a helluva sunset view.

Not that any spot in this park wouldn't be special. By far the majority of the park's campsites are arranged along the water to maximize both privacy and view. Fortunately, the evening we arrived was still balmy enough to sit outside in shorts with cocktails. It was a gorgeous sunset, although the moment the sun got low, the temperature began to drop fast. Fortunately, this close to Atlanta, we had great TV reception for LOST on the batwing antenna. We slept well and woke with all out window shades open to the view.

Unfortunately, Saturday dawned gray and chill. Just as we had with our arrival in Red Bay, we had a forecast of another nasty weather front approaching, this time with strong winds and possible snow! The night's heavy rain had filled the bed of the truck, parked nose down on the slope, with about three inches of water. Given the forecast, we had left the Harley loaded, so to dump the water we took the truck and Harley for a spin up to Cartersville Harley dealer to get Don some heavier riding gloves.

In the evening we'd invited our friend Adam Royse, who sailed with us on several legs in the Caribbean and who now lives in Atlanta to join us for dinner in time for the sunset view. Batching it for the weekend while his bride made a 10K race in St. Augustine, Adam was game for the adventure, but got sufficiently lost in trying to find McKinney park (only 15 minutes from his house!) that he practically missed daylight altogether. It was little matter because Don has grilled in the dark before! At about 8:45pm headlights blazed in the windows and a knock on the door followed. It was the park host come to advise us that there were tornado warnings! Yikes. We were in a hellluva spot for a tornado. We turned on the local TV station for an update, and were relieved to find the tornado warning expired. Fortunately, we left Adam's car outside the park gates which close at 9pm because the three captains ended up eating, drinking and reminiscing until midnight! When Don drove Adam back to his car there was a herd of five deer grazing alongside the road who were nonplussed by his going or his coming back!

By God it got cold that night, and sure enough when we peeked out from under our down comforter in the morning there were bits of white stuff flying in the wind. It was also an hour later thanks to what feels like a somewhat premature daylight savings switch. We did NOT walk. Instead we tried to stay warm until it was late enough to drive to Adam's house for lunch.

Last we saw Adam on the pages of this website, he and his father were running a sailing school/charter/boat sales business in St. Augustine, FL. With the wisdom of recent marriage upon him, Adam was casting about for something more economically secure than the marine biz, and in the course of climbing the rungs of pilot's licenses, stumbled into a fabulous job opportunity – claims adjuster for a national aviation underwriter. This brought the move to Atlanta. With hindsight, it was a timely opportunity to sell off their tiny Florida house before the subsequent collapse of the Florida real estate market. Their new house is a pleasant two-story home with a charmingly wooded and private back yard. We are sorry we missed seeing Ilinke, but we met the two Yorkie puppies Marmot and Potcake, and Adam fixed us a mighty nice lunch.

On the way back to the campground, we hit no fewer than six big stores – from Target to Lowe's – hoping to buy a ceramic heater to bring some extra heat into the coach, especially at the front where I sit and work on the computer. I had just seen stacks of these things in Florida, but evidently Atlanta retailers had their eye on spring. Finally, in our second Walmart I ignored the head-shakes of the salesclerks, and canvassed the likely department, and scored! The rest of the afternoon and following night we gave that little sucker quite the workout.

Sunday morning dawned substantially warmer again. We had thought we might try a stop at one of the camps on Lake Lanier for some motorcycle riding there, but a check by phone revealed none of those campgrounds were open until next month. Instead, we hooked up and headed out bound for the mountains of North Georgia

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 1-5 2008 – Road Trip – Part One

Life can be grand! But it can take a bit of doing.

Don survived his training in loading the motorcycle into the truck. It was not quite the piece of cake his mentor made it out to be, but neither was it quite the terrifying endeavor that Don had feared. The system uses three folding ramps, laid onto the tailgate, with a ratchet to the hitch securing the ramp against the truck. In the bed of the truck is a big plywood board with a wheel chock at the front for the front wheel of the bike and an aluminum channel at the back for the rear wheel. The objective is to ride the motorcycle up the ramp into the chock in the truck bed and then secure the bike with ratcheted straps to the four corners of the truck bed. Coming out is a little more problematic as Harleys don't have reverse, so the rider must back the bike down using the clutch to brake it since rolling backwards at speed on a motorcycle is NOT GOOD!

Anyway, after experimenting with several loading and unloading sites, Don was much more confident that the procedure would work for us, and Saturday afternoon, with great gratitude to our neighbor Mike for the loan of all the gear, we loaded the Harley in the truck for real for our departure Sunday morning.

Sunday was a gorgeous day. Highway 19 Northbound was all but empty of traffic so even I took a turn at the wheel…(only my second time driving the coach at speed, and I must say it went MUCH better than the hair-raising first experience on the I75 last year!) We followed pretty much the same route to start that we took a year and a half ago up to Indiana, up 19 to I10 to 231 through Dothan and stopping overnight at the same little campground in Ozark. The next morning we finally charted some new territory when in Birmingham we bore off to the NW on Interstate so new that neither Microsoft Streets & Trips nor our Garmin Nuvi knew anything about it. This was very frustrating to both ladies as from their point of view we had set off overland!

Just past Hamilton, Alabama, darn near to the Mississippi border, we turned north on a small county road leading to the town of Red Bay. The weather, which had started out as gorgeous as the previous day, had begun clouding up from Birmingham on. Forecasters had been warning of a strong storm front due to sweep across the south since before we'd left Florida, with much talk of thunderstorms and tornadoes. We were very keen to get parked at Red Bay as soon as possible.

Home of Tiffin

Why Red Bay, Alabama? Well, Red Bay is the home base of Tiffin Motor Homes. This company, started in 1972 by Bob Tiffin, is essentially a family owned and operated business which is renowned for its personal customer service and for building a coach that gives more than typical value for the dollar. They currently manufacture two gas coaches – the Allegro and the Allegro Bay – and three diesel coaches – the Phaeton, the Allegro Bus and the Zephyr. The Phaeton in particular is a helluva a coach. There have probably been a dozen of them in our park this year, and every owner speaks happily of the coach and Tiffin's service. One of our neighbors told us about the Tiffin factory tour and how great an experience it was, so for no better reason than it gave us a destination to shoot for, we made Red Bay our first major stop. It didn't hurt that just over the border in Mississippi ran the Natchez Trace Parkway, an historic National Park I've long had an itch to see that just happens also to be a "featured" Harley motorcycle route.

We reached Tiffin's Allegro Park with twenty minutes to spare for the afternoon plant tour, so we dropped the coach with two other SOBs ("some other brands"). Three other couples were assembled for the tour. Our tour guide was 81-year-old Floyd "Red" Davis, who qualified himself repeatedly as "never having worked a day in the plant himself"! That may be, but he was very knowledgeable. Red was very soft-spoken, but that was no matter as Tiffin provides receivers and headset as you might find in a fine museum. He led us up and down the gas and diesel production lines which snake side by side through the main plant, starting with bare chassis and ending – 27 days later -- with finished coaches. Several major steps – like welding, wiring and painting – take place in other buildings, some, like the paint, as much as 15 minutes away, so you quite often see unpainted coaches on the roads around Red Bay. They also pre-fabricate things like cabinetry and shower stalls and window dressings off the line and bring in the pieces as needed. Tiffin does not build a coach until it is sold, so the two assembly lines have different sizes and models all mixed in sequence. Whoever is in charge of stocking the line is a person to be respected.

We have looked at Tiffins at RV shows, and honestly never quite been sold on one. They have stuck with what I think of as a traditional layout with a pass-through bath where the toilet cubicle is on one side and the shower and sink on the other, although it turns out (reading the history) that Tiffin actually pioneered that plan. However they have just introduced a computer/dinette option which incorporates a laptop and printer station in the buffet cabinet alongside the dining table. Hard to describe, it is an ingenious improvement, providing practical space for computer work without taking any other furniture out. (Typically RV manufacturers have offered a computer desk that replaces a couch!) We had to work hard to find a unit with this new option, but Tiffin not only lets you come back and wander through the plant, but you can go into any of the finished coaches you can catch. I say "catch, because they move them out very fast. Currently Tiffin completes 13 motorhomes a day!

Anyway, we came out of our Tiffin experience with a good idea that a 40' Phaeton with the "QTH" layout with a computer/dinette would suit us just fine…..when we win the lottery.

We stayed in the Allegro

Riding the Natchez Trace Parkway

Park three nights. The nasty weather moved through without any tornadoes nearby, nor even much in the way of thunderstorms. After the big buildup, it was a huge relief. However, behind the front did come a mass of very cold air. It was not looking good for the second objective of our stopover here. On Tuesday afternoon, Don and I drove the truck (with the Harley still in the back) through the chill drizzle over to the Natchez Trace and drove a short section of it, just so we could say we'd seen it. Although I was surprised that the parkway was only two lanes (one in each direction), it was as beautiful as I thought it might be. We also took the opportunity to get a look at the huge lock at the bottom of Bay Springs Lake and the head of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, an important canal connection in the 485-mile-long Tombigbee Waterway, one of America's popular inland cruising routes.

The Natchez Trace – stretching from Natchez, Mississippi (on the Mississippi river down near the Gulf) to Nashville, Tennessee --was originally a footpath used by the many Indian tribes of the region. When the white man came, they turned it into a trade route, building inns along the way. The parkway, running alongside the old Trace pathway, was begun in the 1930s. . I first learned about the Parkway from the novels of Nevada Barr, who is/was actually a park ranger on the Trace. The Park provides a great map of the roadway with dozens of historical sites, self-guided hikes, overlooks and picnic spots annotated along the entire route.

Luckily for us, Wednesday dawned bright and clear, so despite the brisk temperatures we unloaded the motorcycle and, bundled up, went for a ride that lasted the whole day. First we went south to Tupelo, stopping at the Pharr Indian Burial Mounds along the way. In Tupelo we took a ranger's recommendation and stopped for salads at a Sweet Chili's restaurant. Afterwards we headed north on the east side of the Tombigbee on a delightful back road we found while hunting up the Army Corp of Engineers park there. Back at the Lock, we got back on the Trace and rode it north back into Alabama almost to Tennessee, before finding our way back to Red Bay via the GPS .

This day was everything we'd imagined traveling with the Harley the might be. Seeing the countryside from a motorcycle is hard to match. The crisp blue sky backing the towering pines and bare hickories as you take the curves and the hills as a unit lifts the soul! Florida riding is fun (and warmer!), but this new terrain was exhilarating! My only regret of the day was looking back over the map and realizing that my mother's birthplace in Aberdeen was only about twenty-five miles beyond Tupelo!