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!

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