Out of State – A First Motorcycle Road Trip

The content of my bag was entirely dictated by the destination, a visit to my parents. For the ride, my usual, jeans and boots and a jacket. Work clothes so I could be helpful around the yard and add a decent outfit since we enjoyed going out for pizza or for the Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, always a part of their Lancaster County retirement life. I’d made the trip many times over the last few years, lately under some stress since my Dad had his stroke. But this time I had all day – I wasn’t expected until suppertime. The weather, although not perfect, was passably cool, and I was happy to have the prospect of a few days off from my usual routine.

Road trips are what I had always wanted to do since buying a bike and the day had finally arrived, a real road trip. Never mind that it was only to the next state, it was still three hundred miles. The weather was acceptable, the bike was clean and running well, and I was happy to answer only to myself, if only for the few hours this day.

There was never any real question about the route. For a car, the interstate was clearly number one, but I was on my bike, I wasn’t in a hurry and I was not interested in just going straight. Besides, I had driven that slab too many times for my work; I certainly wasn’t going to use it for my first getaway trip. So, like any good traveler in those pre-GPS days, I exercised the pleasure of plotting out a course on a roadmap to route myself for a more picturesque voyage. I knew from afternoon trips that 55 mph was certainly fast enough to get there by sundown and still re-acquaint myself with some of the beautiful hills and valleys of Upstate NY and Northeast Pennsylvania.

I took special delight in packing; there was no throwing stuff in a duffel bag for this middle-aged former Scout leader. “Be Prepared” was still near the foundation of everything I believed. I sometimes paid a high price for my fussy insistence on planning. I couldn’t control the weather, but I could control how I outfitted the bike and myself. I rigged up a tank bag for my rain suit and maps and found a way to secure my internal frame pack to the sissy bar of my 1981 Honda CB 750. It didn’t look anything like the Gold Wing or BMW touring bike of my dreams, but as I looked over my handiwork, I had to admit, it was the best recreational money I had ever spent.

I took more than a little pleasure in the vintage bike. There was no glamour, only the beautiful chrome fenders, the classic upswept 4 into 4 exhausts, it was in pristine condition and was just the bike I’d envisioned for myself when my son and I set out to buy our first motorcycle. I still marveled that my then 21-year-old son had in the end yielded to my choice rather than the sportier Yamaha Seca that was also within our budget.

I wanted a motorcycle since I was a teenager skidding a friend’s late 40’s Harley “45” around in a muddy lumber yard in our Catskill hometown. I also learned the virtues of a light dual-purpose bike when I’d worked summers with a friend who owned a Yamaha trail bike.

But I had always put it off, initially because of (what I was sure was) the irrational fear of my mother-the-nurse, and later because of the demands of a career and raising a family.

I reminded myself to thank my son for being the impetus for the purchase – after all, he did need a way to get back and forth to work and the community college. I had my wife’s instincts to thank for the bike, too. I’d gone out with my wife and son to see the previous owner who had three older Hondas in his garage. I thought that we’d be interested in the middle bike, a shaft drive Honda twin (CX 650) that was somewhat smaller and lighter. But my wife surprised me when she pointed to the guy’s pride and joy, the larger and more powerful CB 750 and said, “Why don’t we get that one?”  My only regret was that we hadn’t bought all three bikes since my family had come to enjoy motorcycling so much and the previous owner had obviously been as fussy as I have become in maintaining the machines. The seller’s third bike was a small displacement Honda twin that was his “beater bike” that he rode to work.

I surprised myself by veering west from my usual Syracuse to Harrisburg I-81 corridor. I remember adding another layer for warmth once the thrill of being underway was replaced by wind-chill, misty morning coolness and the need for extra insulation. I added a zip-up supplex jacket under my gore-tex gear at a brief stop near Dryden, NY, but otherwise the goal was to keep pressing south and to avoid the rain, which threatened all day. I remember being delighted by a new set of hills I found south of the Owego, NY area, as I wove in and out of the lovely Susquehanna watershed. By late afternoon, I had crossed I-81 again with sprinkles of rain around me, and then I had to navigate closely since I was out of my beloved Catskills and readying myself to pass through Pennsylvania coal-mining country.

My ride was winding down, I passed over the final hill and headed down through the stunning farmlands of Lebanon, then Lancaster County. I had been trying out new routes in the past year. All was going according to schedule when I realized that I was unfamiliar with this part of the route. “Oh well,” I thought, “I must have missed a turn in that last little burg. No – here’s the state highway I was shooting for… must have gone too far East, but I’m back on track here if I head South.” I think the exhilaration of being “lost” for a few moments, then being back on a familiar route might have resulted in a little more throttle than I might normally use as I came into the little crossroads town.

As the relief of now knowing exactly where I was began to dawn on me, I saw a van turn right into the North-bound lane from the road coming into the square from the left. The highway I was heading south on had the right-of-way, no stop, but I didn’t have time to reflect on this as the next car came from behind the van and pulled directly out in front of me across the intersection. I reacted the way I would have as a twelve-year-old on a bicycle; I laid the bike over on its right side (better to slide than to broadside). And I slid the fifty feet or so until the bike came to a rest and stalled, in the middle of the intersection.

A flood of impressions swept over me as I took stock of myself and found to my surprise that I wasn’t injured badly. I didn’t even attempt to right the bike; I just left it lying in the road. As I hobbled out of the middle of the road, a couple of helpful local guys hustled out and helped to get the motorcycle.

Suddenly a lot of things started to happen at the same time. The local firemen began to arrive. I was aware of talking briefly to the 17-yr-old, who had pulled across/out in front of me, probably mumbling something about how lucky it was that the accident wasn’t worse. I never got angry, but I was aware after a while that the reason for the accident was the impatience of the young man who had failed to stop and look a second time after the van had pulled away and it was his turn at the intersection. Ironic that my life had been threatened by a kid in a hurry to get to the corner deli for a box of chicken wings.

Still soundly shaken but unhurt, thanks largely to the crash bars on the side of the engine, I waited as EMT’s checked me out; I had road rash and bruises for sure, but nothing broken, and the bike was still ride-able. (I have asked myself many times since then, if I could have better served the cause of motorcyclists if I had decided to press charges, but at the time, I was just grateful that I had gotten off relatively unharmed.)

Once I got the bike started, and I was sure that I was going to be able to ride the last twenty miles, I made the decision to press on without a call to my parents. They’d be upset enough when they got to see me, no sense giving them another half-hour of anxiety.

The last part of the trip passed with only one other reminder of how vulnerable I really was and how lucky I had been. Within 5 miles of the accident scene I had another vehicle pull out in front of me, this time it was a tractor pulling a farm wagon. But I had enough margin this time (and a little healthy anger as well), and certainly plenty of adrenaline to get past this threat and through to my destination.

I smiled to myself as I remembered the old saying about “two kinds of motorcyclists; those who have laid their bikes down and those who haven’t yet.” I had survived this brush with mortality. I thought that I was a defensive driver already, but my alertness and sense of anticipation soared in the days and weeks following the accident. Thank God my wife wasn’t with me that day.

Following the accident, I often found myself thinking about the lessons learned on my first road trip. I will always wonder, for example, if I could have braked and swerved enough to have kept the bike upright. Mostly I thought about how sharply this near miss has heightened my awareness of the danger but also the wonders of motorcycling.

G. Scott Ackerson

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