THE LOST COLUMNIST
Number 3: DC to Chattanooga
From a humidity standpoint, it’s hard to beat Washington, D.C. in the summer, although Houston, St. Louis and New Orleans are right up there as well. So, rolling out of DC late on a hot August afternoon and heading anywhere cooler was always a treat. Heading into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northern Virginia on a motorcycle was especially rewarding. There was no rain in the forecast, so we had hours of good riding ahead of us.
Both motorcycles were broken in, tuned up, shod with fresh rubber and running smoothly. The first day of the trip was underway at last, and we had a plan: We would camp that first night somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway, as far south as we could get before dark.
By the time we had ridden up and onto Skyline Drive the sun was already setting in the shadows, and the temperature was dropping quickly. Just before dark we found a level spot and pitched the tent, rolled out our sleeping bags and settled in for a good night’s rest. Not a bad first day, we thought – not a bad first day. We’d left DC behind, watched the sun set, talked about the day’s ride we’d just had, and planned for the one coming up when the sun rose. What more could we ask for? Well…
LESSON #1: In the mountains – at night – it’s always cold.
What we hadn’t thought much about is that the mountains are rarely warm once the sun sets, even in August. Elevation is elevation. Even if you’re in the desert, it still gets cold at night in the mountains.
Where we had begun our trip it was hot and miserably humid. But where we spent that first night was just plain cold. Our little waterproofed pup tent and 65 degree sleeping bags were no match for the mountains. Sleep was hard to come by, and the sunrise couldn’t come soon enough.
Early the next morning we broke camp and hit the road again, looking for somewhere to warm up, and get something hot to eat and drink. When you’re cold pretty almost everything hot tastes good. Especially pancakes. Blueberry pancakes. After leaving the Marines I swore off coffee – that morning I swore back on it. There’s nothing like hot coffee (and lots of it) when you’re cold. I still believe that to this day. Amen, brother. Thanks. I’ll take another cup.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a beautiful stretch of road and it goes on for nearly 500 miles. It’s scenic and well-maintained, but it’s not fast – and we were eager to put some miles behind us. It’s true that when going 45 mph you see more. But what we needed was to go more, not see more. Plus, we weren’t 45 mph riders – and we still aren’t. Staying on the Blue Ridge Parkway for too long could get expensive.
We were heading south before turning west and the roads we chose had to get us to roads we couldn’t normally ride to in a day. So somewhere in North Carolina we left the Blue Ridge Parkway and struck out for more distant lands, as they say.
Our goal that second night was Knoxville, TN, where my best friend at the time was finishing his degree in Industrial Engineering at the other UT, the University of Tennessee. We planned to surprise him and spend the night (or possibly the weekend) at his place. It was the perfect plan.
LESSON #2: Always call ahead.
When we knocked on his door in Knoxville, his roommate informed us that Tom and his girlfriend had taken off for New Orleans for the weekend. So we did, too, figuring we’d just go find him there. How hard could it be?
Ahh, the optimism of youth.
New Orleans was a day’s ride from Knoxville, and we were already at the end of a long day’s ride. So we looked at the map and thought, well, we’ve never been to Chattanooga! We should go there. And we did.
We saddled back up and took off. By the time we reached Chattanooga it was dark and we wanted something to eat and drink, plus somewhere indoors to sleep, even though it would cut into our budget.
How we found this motel, high on a bluff that overlooked Chattanooga and the Tennessee river below, I’ll never know. I’m sure I couldn’t find it again – even on a map – if I tried. But I’m willing to try if I’m ever back that way.
On that night, despite its deficiencies as a motel, it was great. It was nestled among trees that overlooked the river. The entrance and parking lot were pure Motor Court, a throwback now to what used to be the norm, but since has been replaced by chain motels that somehow worked the word ‘Inn’ into their names, if not into their properties.
The room had a window unit air-conditioner that howled, overstuffed furniture that might have come from a good garage sale, and beds that would massage you to sleep for a quarter, maybe two. In other words, it was perfect.
The day’s ride had been longer than expected. But good. And our night’s lodging, although outdated years before we arrived, was comfortable – and it was just what we needed. Tomorrow we were headed to New Orleans, but first we had to ride through Alabama, and we’d both seen Easy Rider. We could use a good night’s sleep tonight. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?
Inside the room we looked the maps over and plotted a route to get us to New Orleans. The odds were against finding my friend Tom and his girlfriend there, of course, but we were pretty sure the two of us could find New Orleans.
Every ride needs a destination, even if you never reach it.
The beauty of a motorcycle ride is that the adventure begins when you throw a leg over the seat and hit the starter button or kickstarter. From that point forward, until you turn the engine off, everything you do and every move you make has a purpose, or a consequence. And that’s really good to remember. If it’s hot and dry outside, you’re likely hot and dry. If it’s cold and wet, you’re likely cold and wet. Whatever the weather, you’re a part of it. You’re not an observer, you’re a participant. That’s why you ride.
Good night, Chattanooga. Choo-Choo to you! Alabama, here we come.
(To be continued. We promise.)