Pennsylvania's historic Oil Heritage Region and its border on lovely Lake Erie beckon us northward from central Ohio for a three-day motorcycle tour.
Running late, we fly up Interstate 71 toward Cleveland, then head northeast on I-90 toward the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and I'm wondering whether the price of gasoline was as high back in the early days as it is now. But having no way to research it at the moment, and being a believer in the motorcycling adage that 'sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas before you can think straight,' I don't ponder the question long. I'm just thankful my vintage Moto Guzzi V50II gets 50 miles to the gallon.
Dan Pauley, ace motorcycle mechanic, accompanies me on this tour on his 2004 Suzuki DL-1000 V-Strom, nicely set up for touring with Givi hard bags and a CB radio. And since my bike is 25 years old, it's good to be in the company of a guy who could probably find enough objects in a deserted parking lot to rebuild a busted carburetor.
Day One: Islands and Yellow Dogs
Christine Pennsy of the Erie Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and Mark Aleks of Aleks Powersports join us for our Friday morning breakfast in the city of Erie, Pennsylvania's fourth largest. Mark is riding a beautiful 1964 Yamaha YD3.
Getting to know each other, I ask Christine, 'If visitors only have time to see one attraction in Erie, what should it be?' She answers without hesitation, 'Presque Isle! It's Erie's crown jewel.' She also clues us in to a local factoid: Pennsylvania is a state, yes indeed, but residents refer to it as 'the commonwealth.'
We want to see Erie's bayfront before lunch and so we follow the city streets downtown, although I-90 to I-79 to the Bayfront Parkway would have gotten us there faster. Still, I prefer to err on the side of local color, and there's plenty of that around: a portly fellow in a Krispy Kreme cap and baker's apron, an old mural on an old brewery, crowds waiting for city buses…
I can smell Lake Erie as we approach the bay. Its tangy scent triggers memories of annual family visits to the lake when I was a kid in the 1960s. But we had to stop going when the beaches were covered with rotting fish and the lake was dying. That Lake Erie lives again is an environmental miracle, and all weekend the fresh smell of the clean lake water I remember makes me smile.
The bayfront sits at the end of State Street, where Dobbins Landing supports the 187-foot Bicentennial Tower, built to celebrate Erie's 200th birthday in 1995. Climbing to the top offers an eagle's eye view of the town and Presque Isle Bay. The nearby Erie Maritime Museum is the home port of a reconstructed version of the U.S. brig Niagara, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship at the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. (Thereafter, immortalized in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Perry is known for having said, 'Don't give up the ship' and 'We have met the enemy and they are ours.')
We pause for lunch at Quaker Steak & Lube, the restaurant chain renowned for wings (chicken) and wheels (all kinds). The original eatery is in Sharon, southwest of Erie, in an old Quaker State gas station that was rescued in 1974 from the wrecking ball, along with all of its automotive contents, by two motorheads with a great idea for a restaurant theme.
The decor is certainly entertaining, with something fascinating to gaze upon in every nook. Old motorcycles, cars, even a speedboat hang from the walls and ceiling. Gas pumps have been turned into televisions and your onion rings are served stacked on a car antenna. We even try the deep-fried pickles and to our surprise we like them. The many sauces available are rated according to Scoville Heat Units, the number of units of water needed to make a unit of chili pepper lose all traces of heat. For example, a serving of Atomic Wings, at 150,000 SHU, will require your signature on a release form.