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AUTUMN HIGHWAYS:

first published in The Sunday Tribune newspaper circa 1992.

 

It’s not yet light, and Manhattan is still asleep.  In the East the sky is just beginning to metamorphose into that rich, ephemeral blue that will lighten into rampaging gold as the sun comes up.  It’s chilly as I turn up the choke on the motorbike and press the electric start.  It roars up, sounding almost offensive in the hush.  Closing the choke little by little until it’s running smoothly, the bike warms up as I pack it for this weekend’s trip.

On the back, a tent, sleeping bag, pillow and towel are secured within a bungee net.  In front, a tank bag holds all other essentials, and my road map rests secure under a clear plastic covering for consultation along the road.  A small tool kit rests under the seat, along with black plastic sacks in case of rain.  Tire pressure and oil level are checked,  helmet fastened.  Once seated, I go over my immediate route once mentally, then the green neutral light on the controls clicks off as I kick into first gear and away.

The surrealism of early morning Manhattan (no traffic) is left behind as I swing out over the George Washington Bridge.  In a few minutes I am in New Jersey, heading north on Route 9 West, stopping at dawn in a look-out lay-by on the Palisades cliffs, which line the Hudson all the way up to Bear Mountain.  From there I  watch the New York City skyline on the far bank manifest itself like a grubby little box of jewels, reticent to twinkle in the rude light of day.

This weekend is rather special.  Besides being probably the last good biking weather of the season, it’s also the last dance for me and my Kawasaki 400cc.  My first real bike, I bought the Kawasaki the night my friend Larry brought me to New Jersey to check it out: shiny blue, black, chrome and in reasonable condition.  For the last two years it has faithfully transported me five and a half thousand miles through seven East Coast States.  Since I’ve now outgrown the limitations of its relatively small engine, on Monday it will be handed over to a new owner:  a sad occasion, like parting with a travel companion.

This year has brought us an unexpected Indian summer, with October days of toasty sunshine and light breezes.  The leaves are just beginning to turn into a million hues of gold, flame and magenta, a perfect time for an Autumn sortie.  When I first started out, I traveled mostly alone, since none of my other friends owned bikes.  Then last summer I took off most weekends with that hearty East Coast crew, The Celtic Motorcycle Club.  This year, with a choppy schedule and less time, I’ve been riding alone again.  Not that you ever really ride alone.

At a gas station just before Harriman State Park, I join up with a ten-bike entourage who are talking a spin around the “Seven Lakes Drive”.  Usually a lone rider will be welcomed by a group (unless they are a hard-core cult outfit).  Sometimes you get to know people and swop numbers, otherwise you just split off again with a quick beep or wave.  The other bikes will beep in turn as they continue on their way.

Crossing the Bear Mountain bridge I twist around the cliffs on the other side until veering East on Route 6, which will bring you the round-about way to Rhode Island, if you have the time and the patience, and lead you onto even lesser-beaten paths.  Native American writer William Least Heat Moon called them “Blue Highways”, because the smaller, country routes were traditionally represented in light blue on the national maps.  These days they have metamorphosed into a pale slate color, but their charm remains.  Now they bring me North-East through the lovely picture-postcard realms of Upstate New York and Connecticut, along by neat, white fenced lawns, impossibly cute churches and scenes from Edward Hopper paintings – or a David Lynch movie, depending on your point of view.

In Ridgefield, Connecticut, I am stopped at a traffic light when I come under the puzzled scrutiny of a pretty four year old in the back of a jeep.  She rolls down her window carefully and inquires: “Are you a girl?

I laugh, as do her parents in the front seat.  Yes!  One of the increasing new breed of female motorcyclists that even Harley-Davidson are adapting their marketing strategies to attract. People almost inevitably do a double-take when they see a woman at the helm of a bike, as if in this day and age transportation should still be sexist.  You can see them pondering your angle:  lesbian biker terrorist or commoner garden nutcase.

But all that old “what a big bike for such a little girl” crap is a joke.  A six hundred pound motorbike is still six hundred pounds whether you’re a 120 pound female or a 160 pound male.  Neither can lift it up if it falls over.  It’s a question of handling and balance.  Granted, if you’re five foot two like me, you can’t ride lofty BMWs and rocket bikes made for longer limbs.  But there’s plenty of choice otherwise, and no reason why women shouldn’t ride.

I originally got the bug when I traveled cross country to California a few years ago on the back of a Honda Nighthawk, learning to ride on the open stretches of desert road across New Mexico and Arizona.   Later I took a three-day course with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to learn about traffic and road rules before buying my own.

There is no truly accurate way to explain why tearing along on two wheels at eighty miles an hour (or even forty), is a desirable pursuit.  It’s certainly not a sensible one, granted.  But once you approach it with a bit of respect (wear a helmet, don’t drive drunk), it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Living in the States, bikes are easily available and cheap to maintain.  I paid $65.00 to register my bike, and a total of $105.00 for insurance per year.  A set of new tires cost under $200, labour included.  Apart from the infamous trials-style terrain of New York City itself,  the roads on the East Coast are generally in good nick and a pleasure to ride.  The only disadvantage is that winter prohibits long distance travel.

Apart from your basic fun aspect, there’s a whole subculture that has evolved (especially in America) from the freedom-drenched romance of the lone traveler. The image has changed down the years from frontier cowboy-on-horse to Brando’s twentieth century rebel on wheels, but the need to break away fast and baggage-free is the basic draw.

And despite the cliché, there is a tremendous sense of freedom. As I head North onto the gorgeous, meandering Route 7, it will take me directly North into the golden-leaved beauty of the Berkshires in Massachusetts.  But theoretically, it could could take me to snowy Vermont, then across the border into Quebec, where I could even continue up to Alaska.  Or I could do a U-turn and head back across New York State, New Jersey, down into Virginia and through the Carolinas to wind up on the Florida Quays or across Texas into Mexico.  Of course, in reality the laundry has to be done and I have to take the cat to the vet Monday morning.  Not to mention the delivery of my poor little bike to its new boss.  But for the moment there nothing to worry about besides concentrating on the road ahead.

After some time on the bike at high speed, your sense of time and place becomes very intense.  You are alone, nobody bothers you with conversation, no radio blares ads, the steady roar of motion and mechanics drown out your mind’s interior chatter to focus you right into the present tense.  The broad sweep of grey that leads you on, bordered each side by a green filigree of trees or fields, and domed by a soaring, endless turquoise, places you in a perfect balance between the earth and the sky.  You are firmly in contact with the former, and outside of the Aer Lingus Christmas flight home, this is probably the nearest you’ll ever get to flying.

Taking my time, by late afternoon the engine’s sound reverberates under the Cornwall Bridge, a famous covered bridge in the classic New England style.   Continuing until just South of the Massachusetts state line, I pull into the “Lone Oak” camp site in Canaan.  It’s a family oriented place with grounds security – there are no longer any frontiers in New England.  Down by the Housatonic river, there are even a number of bikes nestling under some trees, always a good sign.

As I walk back out of the campground office, I see I have a spot down near the river.  Tomorrow, if the weather holds, I may make it up as far as Northern Massachusetts and follow the Mohawk Trail, an old Indian highway of exceptional beauty.  Then I’ll head down the back roads to coastal Connecticut and home.  This way my bike will have covered a total of four states on our last run together.

In the meantime, the early evening air has not yet been persuaded into the night’s full chill, and the last-dance foliage all around is practically sparkling with colour.  Underneath it, my bike glints with – I imagine – a touch of melancholy in the fading light.  But from a camp fire by the river, where the other bikes are parked, somebody waves as I approach.  I find myself brightening up again, wondering whether these people might have a nice 750cc bike for sale …

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