My Last Trip
I didn’t think this would be my last motorcycle trip when I planned it. It almost killed me. If it had, I wouldn’t be telling you this story—Ian would.
Starting my junior year of high school, each summer Ian and I took a motorcycle trip someplace for a week. Our rule was we couldn’t pay for a place to sleep. We would find somewhere out in the woods, in some field, anywhere we could set up camp for the night for free. It was a carefree time, and I looked forward to the trip each summer.
For some reason, our summer adventure in Kennebunkport, Maine, comes to mind. It was August 1975, when I was 18 years old. I was riding my Kawasaki S3 400, Ian was on his Norton 850 Commando. We were on our first trip to New England. I beeped my horn and motioned for Ian to pull over. We stopped on the side of the road, and Ian walked over to me. “What’s up?” he asked.
“It’s getting late. We have to find a place to stay for the night.”
“You’re right. I saw a large field a few miles back. Let’s check it out.” Ian said.
We got on our bikes and returned to the field; it had waist-high grass and a grove of trees about 50 yards away. Ian started to ride toward the trees. This trip wasn’t our first rodeo, and we’d learned a few things from our past adventures. Once, we had a bad experience setting up camp without first getting permission. Which is why I beeped my horn and, when Ian turned around, I said. “We should ask permission first. Remember what happened in Franklin?”
He nodded his head. “You’re right.” He returned to the road, and we rode down a long driveway to a farmhouse on the right side of the field.
A man was standing in a trailer he’d hooked up to a tractor. We turned off our bikes and dismounted. The man jumped down from the trailer and walked over to us. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. My name is Dan, and this is my friend Ian. We’re on a trip from the Philadelphia area. We’re wondering if we could camp for the night over there in your field.”
The man sized us up, looking back and forth at us and our bikes loaded with camping gear. “Philadelphia is a long way off. Do you do this often?”
“Yes. We go someplace every summer,” Ian said.
The man smiled, “Okay, you look like clean-cut young men. You can camp over there in the corner of the field.”
We thanked him, got on our bikes, rode down a gravel driveway that cut across the top of the field, and found a spot to camp. “Let’s go find a bar,” Ian said.
* * *
We ended up at a place called Jack’s. The gravel parking lot was packed. If we’d been driving cars, we wouldn’t have found a place to park. We left our bikes on either side of the front door and walked in. Johnny Cash was blasting, and the room was full of smoke.
Ian pointed to the bar where two stools were open. “Over there.”
We sat down, and I put a ten on the bar. “I’ll get us started,” I said. In those days, we could drink most of the night for ten bucks.
The bartender walked up. He was wearing a T-shirt that exposed his muscular arms and tattoos. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“A shot of Jack Daniels and a Miller, we’d like a menu too,” I said.
The bartender returned with the drinks and a menu.
We both ordered cheeseburgers and fries. I held up my shot of Jack. Ian raised his and clinked my glass, and we downed the shots. It burned my throat as it went down. We smiled at each other.
Soon the bartender returned with the burgers.
“Another round,” I said.
We stumbled out of Jack’s after last call, at about two in the morning. We were shit-faced, two sheets to the wind. We rode carefully back to the field and stopped along the road. The lights were off in the farmhouse. I suggested we ride directly through the field to our campsite, so we didn’t wake anyone up, and Ian agreed. He took the lead through the field, and I followed closely behind. I stood on my bike’s footpegs, bending my knees, so it was easier to ride through the high grass. The fact that I was drunk off my ass didn’t help.
Then Ian disappeared! His red taillight was in front of me one second; then, he was gone. I slammed on my brakes and stopped. I dismounted and slowly walked through the waist-high grass. There he was, in a ditch. A diagonal drainage ditch cut across the field, a ditch we hadn’t noticed earlier because of the high grass.
“Are you okay!?”
He twisted the throttle. The rear wheel spun, and mud flew everywhere. “Get behind me, and help push me out.”
“No fuckin’ way, I’m going to push. I’ll ride, you push.”
We switched positions. I twisted the throttle and, as before, mud flew everywhere. Ian grunted as he pushed the bike. Eventually, we wrestled it out of the ditch.
My headlight shined on Ian, covered in mud head to toe. “I can’t climb into my sleeping bag like this. We have to go back to the beach so I can rinse off in the ocean,” Ian said.
We had visited the beach earlier in the day. “I think the beach closes at sunset,” I said.
“Well, no goddamn way I can go to bed like this.”
We rode back to the Kennebunkport beach. Sure enough, an eight-foot gate blocked the entrance. On it hung a sign “Closed at Sunset—No Trespassing.”
“See? Closed,” I said.
I turned to walk back to my bike and heard a rattling sound. I whirled around and saw Ian on the other side of the gate.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” He ran toward the ocean about 20 yards away. I could see the white waves breaking in the moonlight.
A car pulled up to where I stood next to our motorcycles—a police car. The officer turned on his red lights, got out of his car, and walked over to me.
“What’s going on here, young man?” the cop asked.
I told him the story of our campsite, how we got permission to stay there, and how Ian got covered in mud. I left out the part about spending all night at Jack’s.
Ian was soaked to the skin when he returned from the ocean with his hair slicked down. He had his best sheepish grin on his face.
“That’s quite a story. Well, you’re staying at Sam Jamson’s farm. It’s good you asked permission. He’s a good guy. Go back to your campsite.” Looking at Ian, he said, “Let me open that gate first. I don’t want you climbing over the fence again.”
The cop opened the gate, and Ian walked over to our bikes. The cop turned off his flashing lights and drove away.
I looked at Ian and said, “Let’s get back to our campsite. We have a long ride tomorrow.”
* * *
It had been two years since my last trip with Ian. He moved to Greensboro, NC, and I was living in West Chester, PA. We planned a trip to Seneca Rocks, WV, since it was halfway between our homes. We agreed to meet at a campground near Franklin, WV, that I visited while on a Geography field trip from my college days.
I invited Bill, a friend of mine I met at my job as a computer programmer. It would be his first long-distance trip. I told Bill to be at my house at 7:00 a.m., packed up, and ready to go.
Bill showed up right on time. He turned off his bike, got off, and said, “I’m ready.”
“We need to do something about the sleeping bag and backpack,” I said. “Part of it’s hanging down near the chain.” I took an extra bungee cord and rearranged things properly.
It was a perfect August day. It felt good to be on the road again. Because it weighs much less, a motorcycle’s performance is better than even the most advanced sports car. It has better acceleration and stopping ability. Because you can lean into curves, you can go much faster.
Of course, you are exposed to all the elements when riding a motorcycle. There is no enclosure around you like in a car; you are aware of everything. We were riding through a valley between two mountain ranges and fields of corn. I could smell flowers and, sometimes, the pungent aroma of manure from a local farmer’s fields. I looked at my rearview mirror from time to time to be sure Bill was still behind me. We came to a halt at a stop sign, and I heard birds chirping above my engine’s idle. Looking over at Bill, I said, “You okay?” He gave me a thumbs up with a broad smile.
Besides having nothing between you and the landscape and weather, you are entirely alone on a motorcycle. There is no radio to listen to or anyone available for a conversation. All you have is the drone of the engine and your mind. I find the sound of the engine like a path to a meditative state. I thought about the trip ahead and what it will be like to see Ian again. This trip would be different than all the others. I was married now and had a good job and a career ahead of me. The days of stumbling out of a bar drunk and riding back to our campsite were over. I sure as hell didn’t intend to end up just another DUI death statistic.
We left the valley and climbed up a mountain to a scenic overlook. I pulled in turned off my bike and waited for Bill. After about 10 minutes, he pulled in. He got off his bike and walked over to me. “These roads are amazing.”
“Yep, quite a view too.”
“My ass really hurts,” Bill said.
I chuckled. “Three more hours, and we’ll be there.”
* * *
We turned down the road to the campground and into the parking area. The campground was inside a small canyon. Six small, ramshackle cabins with faded gray siding and a site for tents sat in front of a roaring stream.
I spotted a motorcycle and Ian sitting at a picnic table facing the stream and smoking a cigar. He had unpacked his bike and set up his tent. When he heard us, he stood up and walked over, grinning. “You made it!”
We both turned off our bikes and dismounted. “Ian! It’s great to see you!” I said as I shook my friend’s hand and hugged him. “This is Bill.”
Ian and Bill shook hands. “It’s good to meet you. Ready for an adventure?” Ian asked.
“Sure am, and good to meet you too. I’ve heard so much about your past trips. This should be fun.”
The canyon walls rose 200 feet around us. It was late afternoon, and long shadows covered the canyon floor. I turned to Bill and said, “It’s starting to get chilly. Let’s unpack and set up camp.”
I pitched the tent next to Ian’s and unpacked my tank bag.
As Bill unpacked his stuff, I walked over to Ian, sitting at the picnic table, and sat down next to him. The roar of the stream made a pleasing sound. Ian handed me a cigar and said, “How’s Bill doing? He looks a bit uncomfortable?”
“Thanks a lot,” I said as I lit my cigar. “He’ll be fine.”
Bill walked over to us and sat down. Ian handed him a cigar. “No, thanks,” Bill said with a weak smile.
After a bit, I turned to Bill and said, “What do you think?”
Looking up at the canyon walls, Bill said, “This place is fantastic. You found out about this at college, right?”
“Yep. We have a lot of cool places to visit.” I said.
“I’m hungry and ready for a drink. We can go across the road, then we don’t have to worry about riding after we’ve been drinking,” Ian said.
The place wasn’t much larger than a typical ranch house and had the word BAR painted on the roof. We arrived around 6 p.m., opened the door, and walked in. The bar could seat about 30 people and was half occupied and was very smokey. We each ordered a Budweiser.
With an athletic build, handsome face, and a captivating smile, Ian could always attract the ladies. These good looks and his ability to carry on small talk resulted in him seldom leaving a bar alone. I was awkward and uncomfortable interacting with women, self-conscious about my weight, and truly terrible at small talk.
Around midnight, a beautiful young woman caught Ian’s eye. “Look at her,” he whispered.
I turned to Bill and said, “It was only a matter of time. Ian will be busy for a while. I’m gonna head back to the campsite.” I motioned for the bartender. He walked over, and I said, “A six-pack to go, please.”
I zipped up my leather jacket as Bill and I walked outside.
Bill said, “It’s good to breathe in clean air again.”
We could see our shadows because of the clear sky and full moon that hung just above one of the canyon walls. We walked over to the picnic table, and I yanked a beer from the six-pack. “Want one?”
Bill nodded, and I put two beers on the table, then took the remaining four and climbed down the bank to the icy stream. I nestled the beers into a group of rocks, careful to keep them out of the strong current. I returned to the table and sat down next to Bill.
“Does that happen often?” Bill asked.
“You mean with the girls? Yep, that’s Ian. He has a way with the ladies; I always envied how he did it.” I looked up at the moon that was just setting behind the canyon wall. I emptied my beer with a long slug and said, “Let’s call it a night.” Bill nodded, and we climbed into our tent.
* * *
When I woke up, my head was pounding. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent, and emerged into the morning air. Ian was sitting at the table. “Hey, how did you make out last night?” I asked him.
His broad smile told the entire story. “I feel like shit. I could use a beer, hair of the dog,” he said.
“There’s four beers in the stream.”
“You’re a lifesaver.” Ian disappeared down the bank of the river.
Bill climbed out of the tent. “Ohhhh, my head.”
Ian emerged from the stream. He popped open the beer and smiled at Bill. “Good morning!” he said in a voice that was much too cheery.
“Finish that beer, and let’s go get breakfast. There’s a diner in Franklin. I’ll show you guys the day’s route while we eat,” I said.
I noticed a few bikes parked in front of the Franklin Diner as we pulled in. One of them was a bright red Laverda. We got off of our bikes and walked up to the red beauty.
Most street bikes’ design focuses on the comfort of the rider, who sits in an upright position. The handlebars are in easy reach, and the footpegs are directly under the gas tank. Racing bikes consider wind drag and center of gravity in their design. The rider is in a prone position out of the wind and lying on the gas tank. The handlebars are much lower, and the footpegs are near the rear wheel.
We walked into the diner. There were two guys eating breakfast, both dressed in full leathers. “Hey, there. Whose Laverda is that?” Ian asked.
One guy said, “It’s Jim’s. Here he comes now from the bathroom.”
Jim walked toward us with a noticeable limp.
“I hear that’s your Laverda. It’s a beauty,” I said.
“Do you ride here much?” I asked.
“This is the first time since my accident about a year ago. A car pulled out in front of me, and I hit it broadside. I went flying 20 feet, ass over tin cup.”
“Wow. It’s good you’re okay,” Bill said.
“‘Well, I messed up my leg so bad they had to fuse it to my ankle, so I can’t bend my foot, makes it hard to shift.”
“So, how do you ride?” I asked.
Smiling, he said, “I lock my foot under the shifter and move my entire leg.”
As I pondered that statement and turned to walk toward our booth, I said, “Well, best of luck to you.”
The waitress seated us and gave us menus. “I can’t believe he still rides. I don’t think I would after an accident like that.” I said.
“I know I wouldn’t,” Bill said.
We placed our order with the waitress as I spread the map out on the table. We decided our first excursion would be to Seneca Rocks. The waitress came with our food, and we wolfed it down in no time. When we walked out into the parking lot, we noticed our friends with the racing bikes were gone.
We started our ride to Seneca Rocks. Ian led, and I followed with Bill taking up the rear. Ian was a much better rider than I. The measure of this is pretty simple: who gets there first. No matter how hard I tried, I could never keep up with him. He leaned into the bends better than me and always had a faster motorcycle. I settled into the ride, enjoying the smooth, winding canyon roads.
We arrived at the Seneca Rocks Visitor Center and parked our bikes in a row. We spent the rest of the day hiking to the top of the cliff. It was a long, challenging hike, but the views were spectacular.
We cooked steaks for dinner at our campsite instead of spending the evening in the smoky bar. None of us wanted to wake up with another hangover in the morning before a long, taxing day of riding.
* * *
The next day we went to Dolly Sods, a high-altitude plateau, 4000 feet above sea level. It has a climate like Canada’s. I told everyone to bring an extra layer of clothing.
It was a hot day, so I was wearing a T-shirt, but I knew it would be chilly once we got to the top of the plateau so I brought sweatshirt and attached it to the back of my seat with a bungee cord. The multiple switchbacks on the road to the top of the plateau made it a blast to ride. We all stopped when we reached the top and admired the view.
It was thirty degrees cooler at the top of the plateau, so I unpacked my sweatshirt and put it on. The roads were all dirt, and Ian’s bike threw up lots of dust. I slowed down and gave him much more of a lead, so I wasn’t eating his dirt.
We’d been riding for a few hours and arrived at another scenic spot. I had been choking on Ian’s dust the whole time and riding on bumpy dirt roads long enough. I was ready to return to smooth pavement.
“I think this road takes us off the plateau. I’m ready to go if you guys are,” I said.
“Sounds good to me. I’m ready for some smooth, dust-free roads,” Bill said.
I took the lead back down to the canyon roads. At the bottom, I noticed a stream. I parked and took off my helmet as the other two guys pulled up. I pulled off my sweatshirt and laid it across the seat of my bike, then climbed down the bank to dunk my head into the rushing water. It felt glorious.
By the time I’d climbed back up the bank, I had the urge to get back on a smooth, winding road again. I put on my helmet and roared off, leaving Ian and Bill behind. Cruising at about 60 miles per hour, I came upon a tight curve. The smooth road felt wonderful after hours on the rough and dusty dirt roads. I downshifted into the turn.
I felt a harsh jolt, and the bike slid sideways. The rear wheel had locked up, and I skidded across the road. I attempted to steer into the skid, so I turned the handlebars to the left as far as they would go, then right, left again, and came to a screeching stop. I was still upright. My heart was pounding as a rush of adrenaline washed through my system. I turned to look behind me and saw a long, winding black skid mark on the road.
I was in the middle of the road, just beyond the curve, where I almost crashed. I was shaking but got off my bike so that I could push it off the road. Because the rear wheel had locked, the bike did not budge. I felt panic set in. I’d survived this—only to be run over by some truck as it came around the bend. I pushed the bike to the side of the road with all my might, dragging the locked rear wheel.
This entire event took under 30 seconds. I was shaking so much; I couldn’t stand. I sat down on the roadside in front of my bike with my head in my hands.
Ian zoomed past me, then Bill. I saw both of their red brake lights as they quickly stopped. They turned around to meet me.
Ian approached and knelt down. “What the hell happened?”
I looked up at him.
“Just as I leaned into that bend, my rear wheel locked up. I turned the handlebars lock to lock three times.”
“Holy shit. Are you okay?”
“Well, I’m alive.”
Bill walked up. “What happened?”
“His rear wheel locked up just as he entered that turn,” Ian said.
“Wow, is that skid mark yours?”
“Yep,” I said
We walked over to my bike. “Your sweatshirt did it,” Ian said.
I had forgotten all about my sweatshirt and left it loose on my seat. The sleeve had gotten caught in the chain and pulled it into the aluminum engine case with such force the case bulged out. Ian took his hunting knife out of the sheath on his leg. “Let me see if I can chop this out.”
After a few minutes, he sat on the ground and said, “No good. It’s like a rock. I can’t believe a whole sweatshirt sleeve compacted into an area so small.”
My only choice was to remove the engine case that was attached with 10mm. bolts. We all searched our tool kits, and none of us had the proper wrench.
“You guys will have to look for help. See if you can find a mechanic. The only way I’m going to get this bike moving again is to remove this engine case.”
“No one will have metric tools way out here,” Bill said.
Ian smiled at me. “Don’t worry; we’ll find help. Come on, Bill. Let’s go.”
I sat down on the side of the road, hoping someone would drive past me, but after an hour, not a soul had appeared. Then I noticed two motorcycle headlights approaching, followed by a pickup truck—an ancient pickup truck.
Ian walked up to me, smiling. “This is the best we could do.”
I approached the truck, which had a sign on the side that said Duke’s Garage; an old hound dog looked at me from the rusty bed.
A portly man wearing overalls on top of a dirty white T-shirt walked over. He held out his hand and said, “I’m Duke. Your friends said you needed some help.” The dog jumped out of the truck and barked his hello. “This is Sam. Don’t mind him.”
I shook Duke’s hand and explained what happened. “I need a 10 mm. wrench.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, young man. As for the wrench? I don’t work on cars that need metric tools, but you can have a look in my toolbox.”
Duke brought over his toolbox, and I opened it. There was dirt in the bottom and one metric wrench—a 10 mm.
“Yes! I found it!” I said.
Ian and I knelt by my bike, and I removed the engine case. With the case removed, I was able to use the knife to chip out the fabric.
“That looks good. I think all you’ll have to do is put the chain back on the sprockets and adjust it,” Ian said.
He was right. I adjusted the chain and replaced the engine case. The bike was as good as new and ready to go. I wasn’t sure I was.
I walked over to Duke. “Thanks so much. You’re a lifesaver. What do I owe you?”
“I didn’t do much. Five bucks?”
I gave him ten.
“Thanks a lot,” Duke said. He and Sam walked back to the truck and drove away.
* * *
My career took off, and I became a successful information technology consultant. My wife and I adopted a beautiful daughter from China, and we moved into a big new house. Everything was going great. Ian and I no longer talked regularly. He still had a motorcycle, and I did not.
I missed the open road and our annual trips. Some years later, in 2010, I bought a Mazda Miata, a sleek, two-seater convertible sports car known for its nimble handling. It is about as close as you can get to a motorcycle in a car. I resumed my summer trips with the Miata instead of my bike, and my companion was now my daughter, Corinne. We did not plan out the details; we looked for a place to stay each day as it got dark. We stayed in motels instead of camping as my back could no longer tolerate sleeping on the hard ground.
These excursions captured much of the excitement of my motorcycle trips of old. We visited many amazing places and continued to meet unique people. I also had those destinations to return to from my past. On one trip, my daughter and I were driving in my new Miata with the top down. It was a hot August day, and, once again, I found myself in West Virginia.
“Dad, it will be dark soon. We need to find a place to sleep,” Corinne said.
“You’re right. I was planning on staying in Franklin.”
“Mom would never do this without planning where to stay before the trip.”
I smiled. “This is more fun, don’t you think? It makes it more of an adventure.”
Corinne had an arm out the window, moving it up and down with the wind. “Definitely.”
“I want to stop at the campground I told you about first.”
We pulled into the campground that was such a part of my past. The six cabins had new white siding. A large white tent with windows was in the middle of the parking area. People in tuxedos and formal gowns were standing together in a group. We pulled over away from the people and parked, then got out of the car.
“Dad, we can’t stop here.”
“I want to talk to the guy over there. I think he owns the place,” I walked over and said, “Excuse me.”
He turned to me. “Yes?”
“Do you own this place?”
“Well, I was here over 30 years ago. I came here when I was in college and on multiple motorcycle trips.”
“That’s long before my time. I bought this place about five years ago and refurbished it. I still rent out the cabins for camping, but I also do weddings like this one.”
“Well, it looks much better now,” I said. “Hey, I have another question. Whatever happened to the little bar across the street? I used to visit it every time I camped here.”
A solemn look appeared on his face. “The entire family who ran that place died of lung cancer. None of them smoked, but everyone who went there did.”
That news shook me. I said my goodbyes and returned to my car. “Well, let’s go find our room,” I said to Corinne.
On the drive to Franklin, Corinne said, “Dad, I love doing this each year. Where are we going next year?”
“I don’t know. How about Kennebunkport? It’s in Maine.”
Scott Ocamb is a freelance author specializing in agile and lean software delivery. He also tells unusual stories about growing up in a small town, the great outdoors, hiking, camping, and motorcycles. He is working on a memoir about how motorcycle trips helped him learn that forgiveness does more for the forgiver than the one being forgiven. Please see https://www.scottocamb.com/ for details.