The photograph that accompanies this column was taken by my friend Bob on a ride a year or so ago. We had planned a three-day trip to a BMW rally in Wellsboro, PA, near the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania (Pine Creek Gorge). It’s a beautiful area a few hundred miles from my home. We planned a route to include lunch at Big Mike’s in the Forksville General Store & Restaurant, a gathering spot for motorcyclists near Worlds End State Park.
The next day, bored with the rally and having seen all the bikes there were to see, we decided to follow a route on a ride map we were given at the event. It wasn’t long—maybe 130 miles—and it was scenic and fun, at least until we stopped for gas and noticed the last 15 miles back to town were all highway. “This won’t do. Who planned this route?” I asked. “Wanna improvise?” Bob’s smiling response, of course, was, “Lead on.”
So, under a darkening sky we set off in the general direction of Wellsboro, mindful only of finding interesting roads. It’s my favorite way to ride, and as I pointed out in a column titled “A Little Bit of Everything,” the way my friend Ken Meyers and I always ride. GPS is fine for getting there quickly, and maps are useful, but there is no substitute for the excitement of winging it, exploring, and dealing with what you find. So that’s what we did.
As it happened, we found ourselves on a seemingly normal country road. A few miles later, though, the pavement turned to gravel, and a few miles after that, the gravel became dirt. That’s when the rain began.
You may be thinking none of this is of any consequence, and it wasn’t to Bob on his beloved BMW R 1200 GS. But I was astride a Triumph Street Triple R with a 17-inch front wheel on Michelin Pilot Road 3 tires, none of which had any business on gravel, much less dirt. My 34-inch inseam coupled with the bike’s geometry also made standing a dangerous and awkward impracticality. Bob kept asking (when he wasn’t sarcastically reminding me of the superior capabilities of his GS) if I wanted to turn around, to which I always responded: “Hell no. Let’s see where this goes” (knowing full well I’d never have heard the end of it later over a beer at The Roost had I opted to turn back).
I remember the ride for the sheer excitement of not knowing what was around the next bend; for the opportunity of seeing if I had the skill and nerve to maneuver a sportbike over 10 miles or so of questionable terrain; and mostly for sharing all of it with my friend and riding partner. Of the thousands of miles Bob and I rode together, this particular stretch of gravel and dirt stand out in my mind. The leaves on the trees were startlingly green, the road undulating, winding, and continually narrowing, rain misting, laughter ever present in my helmet. There were no houses, no other vehicles, just two friends out exploring a forest road not knowing if it would end and we would have to turn around and ride it all again.
Quite often the concerns of the day hold sway over our ability to get lost for a while, to have fun, to wander the way we did when we were kids. The motorcycle is a miracle machine unlike any other that can bring people into our lives we would otherwise never have met, take away our pain, and encourage us to wander and to rediscover the carefree feelings of youth we so seldom allow ourselves the luxury of experiencing.
I lost my friend last summer, but I will always hold on to the visceral and immersive feeling of this seemingly simple experience, and ride out with a heart open to re-creating it. We can lose people we never expect to in an awful instant. I’ve experienced that enough to believe it’s always, always worth wandering with someone who’s built a house in your heart. The next 10 minutes or the next 10 miles might be 10 you’ll never forget.
Every ride, to me, is special, but I’m especially grateful for the memory of this one, when I took the wrong bike down the wrong road with the right person.
Photo by Bob Walden