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10 September 2005 @ 07:58 pm
2005: The Biker Babes Cruise the Mid-Atlantic, Part One  

2005: The Biker Babes Cruise the Mid-Atlantic

 

This year, Mom and Terry rode the bike out from Milwaukee, WI to pick me up in Reston, VA, and we went on from there to play tourist in the mid-Atlantic region. After catching some sights in the vicinity of Washington, DC, we took the wonderfully scenic run down Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC; rode the twisty Tail of the Dragon; toured the Biltmore Estate; ran across to the Virginia coast and toured the Hampton Roads area; crossed to the Eastern Shore to visit Chincoteague and Assateague; and stopped in Jamestown Settlement for a history lesson on our way back to Reston. Then Mom and Terry rolled back to Milwaukee, and our 2005 trip was over.

 

But enough of the short version – on to the details!

 

2-3 September 2005: Milwaukee, WI to Reston, VA

 

I can’t say much about this bit since I wasn’t along, but Mom and Terry pulled out of Milwaukee on Friday, 9/2/05, overnighted just past Columbus, OH, and reached Reston without incident on Saturday, 9/3/05. We ate an early dinner at a favorite place of mine called Coastal Flats, in Fairfax. It’s dolled up to look like a beach place, even though there’s no beach remotely close, and serves the absolute best lump crab cakes that I’ve ever had. These things are the size of your fist, and are solid-packed crab. Terry also discovered the joys of cauliflower mash. This place serves absolutely delicious food. Fortunately for me, it’s close to the newest set of movie theaters in my area, and I sometimes stop for lunch/dinner before or after a matinee show.

Sunday, 4 September 2005: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

This was the one day we let the motorcycle rest. Instead, we took my new convertible – a 2004 Chrysler Sebring Touring that I call Skywise, which I bought back in February when my Olds died – and went to the National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located out at Dulles airport. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a marvelous place, a giant hangar into which you could drop the entire Air & Space Museum from the Mall without touching the walls. It was dedicated on 11 December 2003, so it’s quite young. It’s home to such aircraft as a Concorde, the B-29 Enola Gay, the original Boeing 707 Dash, the bright yellow Northrop Flying Wing, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and the SR-71 Blackbird that still holds the air speed record for crossing the US from sea to shining sea (under 68 minutes!). Aircraft stand on the floor and are suspended at two levels above ground, allowing for inspection from multiple angles. Aircraft suspended in midair are in configurations appropriate to the specific machine, so the little aerobatic Pitts Special Lil Stinker is flying upside-down and Leo Laudenslager’s Beautiful Obsession is hanging from her prop, while the F4U Corsair is crabbing for a carrier landing, with arresting hook deployed. Between the floor and the observation ramps, it’s a great place to get your walking in! It’s less than half-stocked so far, not that you’d notice the gaps. One delightful feature is that computer monitors are scattered around, stocked with 360-degree photos from inside the aircraft, allowing you to see the cockpits and other key internal features of the ships. The museum has an IMAX theater, and so-far-exclusive rights to the IMAX film Fighter Pilot, which does indeed put you in the cockpit of fighter planes. Another feature not to be missed is the Engen Tower, a seven-story structure topped by a 360-degree glass observation floor. Since the museum is located between the two major runways of Dulles airport, that means you’re located in the midst of traffic to and from the airport, almost all of which is flying right past the tower either on its way in or on its way out. The floor immediately below the observation level includes a nifty display on air traffic control.

 

Two cautions, if you plan to visit. The museum, like the rest of the Smithsonian, has free admission, but the ground it sits on doesn’t come free, so – there’s a $12.00 charge for parking. A cute trick that the locals know, and something that can save money if you have several days across which to spread your visit, is that parking is free after 16:00. Since the museum doesn’t close until 17:30, you can digest it without charge in one-and-a-half-hour bite-sized segments, or just go there at the end of the day when you’re looking for a nice way to wind down. There’s also a shuttle service that runs between the Udvar-Hazy Center and the Museum on the Mall for a round-trip fare that’s about the same as the parking cost, so if you’re starting from town with no transport of your own, you can still get there. The other thing is that the food concession at the museum went to McDonalds, alas, and there’s absolutely nothing else in the way of eateries anywhere close. Once you leave the museum, you’re not far as the roads roll from multiple restaurants, so if you’re starving when you’re finally ready to leave, succor is near.

 

Monday, 5 September 2005: Washington, DC

 

We took the bike into DC for Labor Day, and parked it in the garage at my office. That prompted some fun because of security at my Federal building. I’d warned Mom and Terry that they’d need photo IDs handy, and I had my work one, which is coded to admit me to the garage without charge (I carpool to work, so we pay a monthly fee) – but the guards couldn’t see enough of our faces through the helmet visors to be satisfied that we matched our ID photos, so we had to take off our helmets before they’d let us in. Then Terry had to drive us down the curving ramp while I balanced my helmet on my thigh and Mom juggled two in her lap! Fortunately, there was plenty of parking available right on the first level, so we locked up our gear and went to play tourist.

 

This was the first time any of my immediate family had been out east since EPA moved in November 2001 from its hideous old offices down at Waterside Mall in Southwest DC to our beautifully  renovated quarters right on Constitution Avenue in the heart of scenic Washington, so the first stop wasn’t on any of the usual tour agendas: I played host to a quick look inside EPA East, the former Interstate Commerce Commission building, one of the classic, elegant federal buildings from the 1930’s that line the National Mall. It also made for a convenient place for a pit stop before serious touristing ...

There were two things new since Mom and Terry last came to town that I wanted to show them: the World War II Memorial, which is on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and just opened this past Spring; and the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum, at the other end of the Mall between the Air & Space Museum and the Capitol building, which opened in September 2004, while we were on the California ride.

 

The World War II Memorial is an easy stroll from my office, just past the Washington Monument. They finally completed construction on security measures for the Monument itself this past Spring, and I’m happy to say that they are unobtrusive ones. The major bit is a walkway around the Memorial that’s set into the slope of the hill, and bordered upslope by a stone wall just the right height for weary walkers to sit on for a bit of a rest while taking in the view. It’s no accident that the lovely wall is also too high for vehicles to jump. Welcome to the post-9/11 security mindset in Washington, DC.

 

The World War II Memorial is an expanse of brilliant white stone walls, pillars, and arches around a fountain. Bronze sculptures and bas reliefs in the walls bring scenes from the wartime years to life, and there’s a solemnity to the place that feels right. The only drawback to it is that, being out in the open, it offers no shade, so it’s a hot place to visit in summertime Washington.

 

In contrast, the American Indian Museum, a good long walk away, was built to evoke the natural environment. The building is all brown curves and surrounded by gardens of native plants, including a marsh and a cascading waterfall. The central area where you enter is intended for ceremonial use, and can host dancing and storytelling. We took in only a few of the galleries, which are organized to display all of the individual native cultures with both historical and contemporary materials. If you visit, don’t miss the introductory film, which is presented using holography in a unique theater that surrounds and involves you.

 

The American Indian Museum is also the best place on the Mall to catch lunch. The Mitsitam café serves food from the different cultures represented, and you can browse through the café taking bits and snippets from every area, or simply focus on one. We opted for items from the Pacific Northwest, and had cedar-planked juniper salmon sandwiches with sides of watercress salad, honey-baked golden beets, or green beans with wild mushrooms. Delicious! I will definitely have to go back and try dishes from the Plains, the Southwest, and South America.

 

Tuesday, 6 September 2005: Reston to Waynesboro, Skyline Drive

We started our trip by going back into DC. I’d gotten permission and security clearance from the General Services Administration, which manages our building, to park the bike down in the loading dock courtyard for EPA East, so my co-workers could come down to see the bike and meet Mom and Terry. I’d gotten permission – but the gate guards hadn’t quite gotten the word, so I had to do some fast talking and pull out the copy of the permission email that I had, with some good foresight, printed out and tucked into my jacket pocket. The sweet talk and the email copy worked, though, and we were able to park out of the way under an arch while non-stop deliveries kept coming in to the loading dock. We spent about an hour there and had a blast with all the folk who came by to visit. Terry – bemoaning the various lacks in my kitchen – had baked chocolate chip cookies for the guards, so they were not terribly disturbed at all the human traffic heading down through the loading dock doors. A few of my mates even got their pictures taken sitting on the bike, much to their amusement. A merry time was had by all, and we didn’t hit the road until nearly 10:30.

 

We ran 66 down to Front Royal, where Skyline Drive begins. A funny on that drive: we passed a car that had a small dog in it, and that dog went absolutely nuts at sight and sound of us, leaping up and trying to get through the back window of the car! Fortunately for a dog with more spirit than brains, the car window, although open a bit, wasn’t open quite enough to let him through, but he just wasn’t going to stop trying. We leapfrogged with that car a few times, and the dog never stopped trying to get at us, barking his head off all the way. We laughed about him for miles afterward.

 

We entered the Drive after catching lunch at the China House Buffet in Front Royal, and spent the rest of the day cruising gently down to Waynesboro, stopping at every scenic pull-out to oooh and aaah and take pictures.

 

What a beautiful drive! We stopped at the ranger station at Dickey Ridge to pick up our map, buy Sean some presents (you’ll just have to wonder about them until you see them!), see the little Park Service movie, and marvel at the view and take our first photos. Lovely! The weather was perfect, and the park nearly empty. We encountered very little traffic moving in either direction. The rangers remarked that we could see farther than usual for the season, because the humidity had dropped and it was extraordinarily clear, lacking the usual haze of summer.

 

We took our fun “we were here” establishing photos at Mary’s Rock Tunnel, 32 miles into the drive. But we hit our high point even before that, when we encountered a young black bear! The bear was ambling across the road ahead of us, and stopped in the other lane to stare at us as we approached. Terry slowed, but then kept up a steady pace, and the bear just watched us come. We were less than 30 feet away, wondering what we should do, when the bear finally decided that maybe we were scary and not just strange, and took off loping into the trees with a sudden burst of speed. Wow!

 

Some time later, we passed a deer grazing at the side of the road. The deer never even raised its head to look at us, despite us being in the near lane. We laughed about the deer being less spooked than the bear! Terry saw another deer later on in the day, equally calm about our presence.

 

We also saw red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soaring over the hills, and saw a big bird on the ground – a pheasant or turkey, maybe? – hopping off one of the CCC-built stone walls that line stretches of the road. It was glorious! And did I mention the views from all those scenic turn-outs?

Given our very slow pace – the speed limit was 35, and stopping at every view added to that – we didn’t reach our Hampton Inn room until 19:30. Bit late for us, but it was a spectacular day! We caught dinner at a Cracker Barrel, where we ran into two young men who were so impressed with our Mount Rushmore flag shirts that they took a photo with us. More pictures of us roaming the wide world ...

 

Wednesday, 7 September 2005: Waynesboro, VA to Mt Airy, NC

 

Today we rode the first half of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and found it to be very different from Skyline Drive. Civilization and private property are much closer to the Parkway than to the Drive: for much of the southern half of today’s run, we saw farms to either side of the road. The first half of the run was still quite mountainous and wild, but that changed – although not before we saw three deer and a groundhog, to add to our wildlife lists. The first deer was running away from us very early in our ride; the other two, an hour or so further in, were still young enough to have spots! The two young ones were right by the side of the road, and were less spooked than the big adult who fled from us.

 

At the beginning of the run, we stopped and walked around the frontier farm at Humpback Rocks. That was a nice little break from riding. Mom pointed out tools she remembered growing up with as a child, back on the farm. We woke up the chickens in the weasel-proof coop; we were the first visitors of the day, even though we’d waited to start until most of the morning fog had burned off. When we first approached the coop and the cackling suddenly burst out, we thought we’d tripped a recording on some proximity sensor, but shifting shadows inside the structure eventually told us that those chickens were real and just protesting the wake-up call!

 

Yesterday, we pulled off into every overlook and marveled. Today, we started skipping them as the day wore on. We often saw better views from the road, because in many spots, the trees had grown so large since the Parkway was built that they actually blocked the view from the overlooks! Also, few of the overlooks had much descriptive information – a clear difference from the fee-based Skyline Drive, which had more interpretive signs. In addition, we felt how the slow pace – the speed limit on the Parkway is 45 – was affecting the length of our day, and we chose to arrive in Mt Airy earlier than we had reached Waynesboro.

 

That’s not to say that there weren’t things to see along the way. The mountains were still cooperating with great views, although we could see a little more haze in the air than we’d had for the Skyline Drive run. We took more establishing pictures at mile 169, Rocky Knob. We also saw Puckett’s cabin, which had belonged to a woman who lived to 102 and worked as a midwife delivering babies from age 50 right up to her death. Wow! Ironically, since she reputedly never lost a mother or child to any fault of her care, none of her own 24 children survived infancy.

 

Thrown off schedule by the slow pace, we left the Parkway at Roanoke in search of a late (14:00!) lunch, and lucked into the Cornerstone Grill, where Mom had a chicken quesadilla and Terry and I had veggie burritos with no peppers. Yummy!

We arrived at our Hampton in Mt Airy at 18:00. The pool was outdoors and pretty cool, but we went swimming anyway, and then walked next door to dinner at a Chinese buffet. I wasn’t hungry, but Mom and Terry grazed the abundant buffet. Tomorrow, we’ll finish the Parkway and pull into Asheville. Don’t think we’ll pause at many overlooks, though.

 

Thursday, 8 September 2005: Mt Airy to Asheville, NC

 

We had another gorgeous day for traveling, once the morning fog burned off. We pulled out of Mt Airy a bit after 8:00 and got back on the Parkway for the next 200 miles. Wildlife today included a couple of small flocks of wild turkeys (and Ruthie, we saw these, so we know they’re real!).

 

Along the way, we took the run up to Mount Mitchell, at 6681 feet the highest point east of the Mississippi. What a view! I took the graveled pathway up to the lookout tower, and the little hike was worth it. While the skies weren’t as clear as they would have been many years past, the conditions were nearly optimal for viewing. I only hope that the photos do it justice.

 

Before taking the climb, we got off the Parkway at Blowing Rock for lunch, and had a delicious meal at a charming Italian place called Pssghetti’s (yes, like “spaghetti” mangled by a little kid). We each had a bowl of soup, and split a single yummy entree serving of veggie lasagna.

 

We saw one spectacular sight along the way that I wasn’t able to capture with the camera: the Linn Cove Viaduct on Grandfather Mountain. This is best seen coming down from the north, as we did the route: that way, you get an incredible view from below of this ribbon of concrete wrapped around the side of the mountain, hanging suspended in the air. They built the viaduct, supported on piers, in order to avoid the environmental harm and structural difficulties of blasting a roadway on the mountain itself. Instead, they built a facility to cast the concrete road sections on-site, and then started laying sections, building the bridge by using the bridge. It’s a jaw-dropping feat of civil engineering!

 

Oh – a little note. In the wake of Katrina, gas prices have been all over the map. Perhaps the surest sign of how far off the modern beaten track we are is that many of the gas stations we’ve stopped at have old pumps that can’t be set for a price higher than $1.99 per gallon (which must have seemed positively forever out of reach in the 1950’s!), so they’re labeled with hand-written signs that the prices shown are per half-gallon. And since these same pumps are also so old that they can’t accept credit cards at the pump, the stations require payment in advance.

 

Friday, 9 September 2005: The Tail of the Dragon

It was seriously foggy when we left the hotel this morning, bound 120 miles away into the Great Smoky Mountains to ride the Tail of the Dragon, Highway 129, crossing between North Carolina and Tennessee. The Smokies lived up to their name, heavy and roiling with smoke-grey fog, but the highway was easy to travel and by the time we reached the beginning (or end) of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, the fog had lifted and it was bright and sunny.

 

The Dragon is an 11-mile stretch of two-lane road with 318 curves. Technically, we did it backwards: most folk run it in the other direction, in order to stop and celebrate at the biker resort at Deal’s Gap. When we passed the resort on our way in, the place was crowded with bikers evidently preparing to make the run, and we realized that there were two Harley rallies underway in the vicinity, near enough to tempt riders to take the additional trip to do the Dragon.

 

We ran it alone, happily. There was one biker who came up fast behind us and passed us, but apart from that one idiot, we ran it at our own pace. Dumb bikers try to see how fast they can do it; intelligent ones know that accuracy and precision are the true tokens of a tamer of the Dragon. One guy on a crotch rocket learned that the hard way: taking the ride in the opposite direction from us, he was going too fast and lost his line through a curve, coming into our lane as we were going up. Terry stopped us fast and smooth. Since we’d just exited a right-hand turn, she was already on the clutch and brake, and she was riding with an eye out for fools, having been warned by John at the House of Harley to beware of oncoming traffic. The other guy braked hard and managed to skid to a stop just barely in front of us, still vertical. Behind his visor, he was definitely a lighter shade of pale. He gave us a very embarrassed apologetic nod, got back into his own lane, and we both continued on our way. I’m betting he paid a lot more attention to his cornering line for the rest of the ride.

 

Apart from our close encounter of the biker kind, I don’t have many clear images of the ride. Of course, I spent at least half of it sideways, since I was doing the leaning thing on every right-hand twist!

 

We finished the Dragon without any other event, and stopped at the bottom for lunch at the Home Place café. What an overlooked gem! This little place seemed to be missed entirely by the biker crowd, but they served the best cheeseburgers I’ve had in a long time. Then we stopped at a little souvenir shop, and Terry came out with our commemorative shirts for the trip: ones depicting on the back the map of the Tail of the Dragon. We did it!

 

There’s a photographer who makes his living by selling photos of bikers doing the Dragon’s Tail, but unfortunately for us, he either wasn’t quite fully set up or was taking a break when we came through. Terry said she spotted him, but he wasn’t at his camera, and there weren’t any photos of us up on his website afterward to prove that we made the run. Sigh. Too bad. There definitely wasn’t any way I could have taken any pictures!

We took the scenic route back home to our hotel in Asheville, curving up through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. More gorgeous views! To get into the park, we went through the tourist trap of Pigeon Forge, TN, only to find that the town was also playing host to a massive auto rally. There were antique vehicles and roadsters aplenty, all parked on display on either side of the main drag for at least a good mile. Judging from all the camp chairs set up on the curb, the cars were going to form up in a parade at some point, but when we went by, they were just parked on display in every lot adjacent to the street, many with hoods up and doors open to invite inspection. I have NEVER seen so many old cars so brilliantly restored and shown off. Apart from the car rally, Pigeon Forge seemed very much like Branson, MO: a rolling madhouse of tourist attractions laid end to end for a couple of miles.

 

We went through two other tourist traps along the route as well, on our way out of the Park: tackily picturesque Gatlinburg, and Cherokee, part of the Indian nation. We didn’t stop, though, and rolled right past the grounds of the Harley rally at Cherokee.

 

We needed a Harley dealer by then, because about the time we entered the Park, we lost the speedometer and odometer when a cable connection at the front wheel broke. Not wanting to pay a $35 entry fee for the rally, we went on by to the nearest Harley dealer in Waynesville, hoping that the other drivers were doing something approximately close to the speed limit, since they were all we had to go by. After a few false starts and delays, the dealer managed to fix us up and sent us on our way again at 18:00. We learned from the guy at the Harley front desk that the auto rally at Pigeon Forge happens a couple of times a year, and goes by the name of Rolling Rods or Rocking Rods, or something similar. Car nuts of the world, take note!

 

We had veggie wraps at the local Waffle House, and got back to the hotel too late for the laundry I had planned. We did hand wash instead, and decided to wear our new Tail of the Dragon t-shirts for the tour of the Biltmore Estate tomorrow.

 

Saturday, 10 September 2005: Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC

 

We spent the day at the Biltmore. Wow! The mansion, built in six years by George Vanderbilt from the 1889 ground-breaking until the opening party on Christmas Eve1895, defies description, but what really got us is that the estate isn’t just for show: it’s a working farm and a working winery. The restaurants serve produce from the gardens and meats smoked on site.

The house itself – all four indoor acres of it – is magnificent, and paying the extra six bucks for the audio tour is well worth it. The audio has a lot that isn’t in the little guidebook, and it does very well at evoking the flavor of a time and place. In most of the rooms, beyond the main narration are additional sidebar recordings that you can choose to listen to, if you have time. Some of these explore the music and entertainment of the period, some detail the original artwork that hangs on the walls (Renoir, anyone?), others describe from letters what visits at the mansion were like, and more explain details of life either above stairs or below stairs that would never occur to people like us who hadn’t been born yet when the house was in its heyday. Some recount amusing anecdotes about the renovation of the house, such as the story about the gold and purple silk and velvet bed covers and chair cushions in Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. The original fabrics had worn and frayed with time, and of course, identical replacement fabrics couldn’t be found. The restorers, looking at the books and records for the house, found the name of the textile mill in France that had produced the fabric originally, and learned that the company was still in operation. When they approached and rather diffidently asked if it might be possible to get more of this fabric, the mill informed them, rather haughtily, that of course it would be possible; they had done it the first time, hadn’t they? The mill still had the loom on which the original had been woven, and produced the identical pattern for the restoration. About the only thing that the recording didn’t tell you was how much it cost ...

 

The whole time I was in the house, I kept having flashbacks to the Robert Altman film Gosford Park – except that the Vanderbilts were more generous to their servants (even the servants’ rooms had windows, and the servants had sitting rooms as well). If you haven’t seen the film, you should: it’s a murder mystery that isn’t about the murder at all, but rather dissects British society at the beginning of the twentieth century, with all its class distinctions and societal expectations. But all the business exposed during the Biltmore tour about running a house at the turn of the century, including the separation of the sexes among guests as well as servants (you couldn’t have a female servant entering a gentleman’s bedchamber to attend to the gentleman’s wife, so of course the wife needed her own room!), and the absolute essentials of dressing properly for each separate activity of the day, making it necessary to travel with multiple steamer trunks of clothing even for a weekend visit, took me right back into that Gosford Park world. Seeing the laundry and valeting rooms for real, after seeing them in the film, was enlightening.

 

The basement of the mansion – which includes a bowling alley, a gym, and an indoor swimming pool with underwater electric lighting and individual changing rooms (you couldn’t walk through the house in a bathing or exercise costume or robe, what a scandalous thought!) – houses a display on how the estate was designed and built. It is amazing to consider that the mature forests on the grounds didn’t exist before the house was built, but were planted in order to perfect the setting. The house was designed to be as fireproof as possible, with no wooden beams and with a complex fire detection and alert system that divided the house into sections, something very advanced for the time. From the very beginning, the house was wired for electricity, and included both lighting and refrigeration systems. The grand main staircase is built out of stone, and is cantilevered. The sheer immensity of the project boggles the mind, and putting it into the context of the time makes it all the more astonishing.

 

The extensive gardens in the 250 landscaped acres surrounding the house are beautiful as well. Even this late in the season, the rose garden was magnificent (with 2,300 roses, it should be!), and the conservatory was blooming with growing things of every type and description. We didn’t see all the gardens because we didn’t have time, and some of them – like the Spring Garden – simply weren’t in their best season. During spring and early summer, the grounds must be a riot of color. Each of the gardens has its own different character, from excessively mannered Italian and French designs through more casual collections of flowers and shrubs. Words can’t do the gardens any more justice than they can the house.

 

We saw the winery, which didn’t even exist until 1970, proving that the estate is a living entity that changes with the times. The building that now houses the winery used to house the Biltmore dairy. Given its location, this winery is the most-toured one in the country, even beating out Napa Valley wineries in California, but at this time of the year, most of the equipment is idle. It still makes for a fascinating tour, and provides a lot of information on the process of wine making.

 

We all decided that you can easily spend more than a single day at the Biltmore, because you can’t possibly see everything in one day: the place is too huge. I will definitely come down in Skywise during convertible weather sometime in the not-too-distant future, and maybe I’ll even stay at the luxurious Inn on the premises, so I can really sample the wine before I buy it and take it home!

 

We went to church today, since tomorrow is our one big long haul highway driving day, from Asheville, NC to the Hampton Inn between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, VA. But we’ll arrive clean: it’s laundry night tonight.


Read Part Two