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Grand Tour And Other Stories

by Robert W.

Completing the Grand Tour tells part of the story of my first two long distance trips since learning to ride last fall. My first trip was inspired, in part, by the Sandollar article “The Low Road Tour 2003” to Natchez Trace, Ms and Louisiana, and a desire to visit some friends along the way. True to the Sandie philosophy of avoiding the Interstate slabs, I followed US 98 to Hattiesburg, MS where I branched off on secondary roads to historic Vicksburg.

Mississippi River at Vicksburg I knew little about Mississippi, and was surprised by the beautiful, rolling countryside and rich farmlands as I traveled northwest of Hattiesburg. After some sightseeing and a good dinner, I ended a perfect day by planning the next day’s route to Alexandria, LA …..then, discovered that I had left my Louisiana map at home……not a problem I thought as I entered way points into my GPS.
I awoke to another sunny spring day and, after breakfast, was headed to Natchez Trace for a pleasant trip into Natchez, Ms. Since I didn’t have a map, I decided to continue south on US 61 into Louisiana and a welcome center where I could get one. After an hour or so, I changed screens on the GPS to an ADF mode and was surprised that Alexandria was northwest of my current position….don’t understand…that’s not possible….so I pressed on. Just over the state line, I stopped at the Louisiana center where I met a very nice lady who had lived in Destin for many years. The wall map told me that Alexandria is about 60 miles southwest of Natchez, MS and I had now gone some 70 miles south and, unlike the Sandies, I did not want to make a U-turn. My immediate problem was crossing the Mississippi River. My new Destin friend convinced me that my navigation error was a good thing. Natchez
She explained that there was a ferry in St. Francisvlle, some 20 miles further south, which would take me across the river to LA Route 1, one of the oldest and most scenic roads in the state, leading to Alexandria.I was excited by this information and continued south. Visitors to St. Francisville are greeted at the city limit sign by a very aggressive police force. Flashing blue lights and two automobiles pulled over to the side of the road grabbed my immediate attention. As I turned on to the main street, I picked up my own police escort to the ferry landing. He lost interest and turned off as I rode up to a handwritten sign that read “Ferry Closed.” My map showed that continuing south to Baton Rouge and taking US 190 to US 71 into Alexandria was my best alternative. When I reached US 71, I found it to be a raised, well maintained road cutting through some very steamy swamps…an isolated area with little traffic. About 25 or 30 miles later, the road changed to concrete with very pronounced expansion strips. St Francisville
Lebeau The rough ride was driving me crazy, when I pulled over to drink some water and to photograph the town sign in Lebeau, LA. The shoulder was narrow and off camber leaving the parked bike standing straight up. I noticed that the vibration from the rough road had loosened the attachment pin for my left hard bag…just lift the bag up a little, reinsert and turn the pin. When I lifted the bag, I felt the bike begin to tilt to the right. I learned then that one couldn’t lean across a bike and prevent 700 pounds from falling. I was lucky that it rolled over into the grass without damage. I tried not to look passersby in the eye as I picked up the bike and took my picture. On to Alexandria. Had an enjoyable evening with an old Eglin friend who now works with the Bureau of Prisons at the Federal Prison in Alexandria. My lingering memory of Alexandria is one of multi-lane roundabouts and very aggressive drivers.

Late the following morning I made the relatively short run to Lafayette, LA, and discovered some very good food in the nearby town of Breaux Bridge. The next morning, Saturday, other friends were coming into town and we were meeting at the home of their friend, who happened to be the new Harley dealer in Alexandria, LA. Our plan was to spend a nice evening together and return to Ft. Walton following Sunday’s breakfast. Good food, loud music and too much to drink with too little sleep changed my plan. After a mid-day lunch, the auto drivers departed for FWB. I mentioned to my host that I didn’t think that I could ride around the block without falling off the bike, He understood and I spent another day in Lafayette. Monday morning I took US 90 south through Morgan City and Houma into New Orleans. Of course, the city is congested on a workday and road construction provided another frustration in winding my way through the heavy traffic. Continuing on US 90, I rode the Gulf Coast through Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. In the afternoon, I rejoined US 98 in Foley, AL and, amid the school busses and local traffic, worked my way to Pensacola and on to FWB. Ten hours on a motorcycle seat is a long day for me.

This trip was a confidence builder and good learning experience in preparing for my trip to the Washington, D.C. area a few weeks later in mid-May. I left Okaloosa Island shortly after 7:00 AM on May 17, and got as far as Sandestin before pulling over to answer my cell phone. Problem resolved and phone turned off. Rode to US 331 to FL 20 to US 231 into Dothan, AL. There, I picked up AL 52 to Blakely, GA and US 27. My day on US 27 took me through farm country and small towns interrupted only by Columbas, GA before reaching my destination of Rome, GA. I decided during the planning phase to make motel reservations through Orbitz.com, and was looking forward to arriving at “The Country Hearth Inn “ and a hot shower. As I neared the address, I noticed that it was not the best neighborhood. Finally, I saw the painted cloth sign covering the former motel name and announcing “The Country Hearth Inn.” After my shower, I took a short nap before dinner. As I was leaving the room, a little voice told me to secure the bike with a cable and padlock in addition to locking the forks. A young couple was parked beside the bike and watched my preparations. The husband said that I had better lock it well if I was staying the night. He went on to say that they had stayed the night before, but was now moving to another motel. He indicated that, when the sun went down, the motel was a marketing center for cocaine, crack, crank and prostitution. It was too late and I was too tired to find another place….that is why I pay for insurance. I awoke and checked the bike several times during the night. By the way, I did get a call on my room phone asking my name and wanting to know if I was lonely. No sale.

I headed out early the next morning on GA 53 to pick up US 411 into Tennessee. The rolling hills became larger and I entered the Chattahoochee National Forest.. Shortly after entering Tennessee, I turned on to US 64/74 and the hills were becoming mountains in the Cherokee National Forest., a very scenic area with deep green forests and whitewater streams. Followed US 74 into my next destination, Ashville, N.C. Very nice motel…thank you Orbitz . While checking out after breakfast, a helpful young clerk informed me of extensive road repair and detours along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Virginia line. I was disappointed, but decided to continue my planned ride along the BRP. (Jumping ahead…there was no construction or detour only grass mowing in several locations.). This was my first time in the twisties and the speed limit of 45 MPH seemed fine with me as I entered some of the steeper turns.

I think I learned more about riding and my bike’s performance in 120 miles than I had learned to that date. From my readings, I knew that you braked before the turn, leaned, accelerated, and looked through the turn. Now, it was just a matter of making these elements work for me. I found that I was looking through the turn with my eyes, but glancing at the fog line along the edge of the road. I made the hair on the back of my neck stand up several times., before forcing myself to actually turn my head as I looked through the turn. My turns and confidence improved rapidly, and I began to really enjoy the experience. I don’t think that I am ready to take on the dragon at Deal’s Gap, but I do think that I am now a better, safer rider. While enjoying the ride in the afternoon, the engine became silent and I coasted to an overlook. Switched to reserve and pulled out the map. I decided to drive a few miles and exit into Laurel Springs for gas. Pulling off the BRP,I had to drive about 5 miles into town. I passed two buildings as I entered the town and suddenly found myself in the wilds again. With my Sandie U-turn, I stopped at the two buildings (neither a gas station)
and noticed a hand painted sign “Laurel Springs - This Is It - There Aint No More.” At the next exit I left the well-maintained BRP for a poorly kept secondary road with a steep grade and sharp turns highlighted by loose gravel. I descended very carefully past the shacks and old singlewide trailers surrounded by two or three junk automobiles into metropolitan Deliverance, N.C. (Actually, Whitehead, N.C.). Turned out that the owner of the general store/gas station was a friendly gent and we talked for some time. I left the BRP at Mt. Airy, N.C. to connect with US 221 into my next destination, Roanoke, VA.

Appomottox Roanoke lies in a valley, and I departed the city on US 460 East riding between fog shrouded mountains heading to Appomattox, VA and the site where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant.
Appomottox Court House While some of the houses and out buildings in the park are original, the courthouse and other houses were rebuilt due to a major fire in the 1890s.. I worked my way north on US 15 past Culpeper, VA., and then turned on to US 28 to Manassas VA and my daughter’s home. I chose not to ride in the Washington area due to the heavy traffic, road construction and poor road maintenance, especially on the bridges. Even driving a car there is an unpleasant experience.

I decided to return on June 1st, and ,after a final cup of coffee with my daughter, left her driveway at 7:45 AM. With a full tank of gas, I began heading for US 28 and more rush hour traffic than I could have imagined. One hour and fifteen minutes to clear Manassas city limits. My plan was to follow US 1/301 form Fredericksburg, VA to the North Carolina line knowing that I would be traveling through the center of Richmond and a number of small towns. Moving through Richmond went well until I made a wrong turn which lead me over several brick and cobblestone streets before I could get turned around
and back on course. Leaving Richmond toward Colonial Heights, I began to see familiar bridges and older buildings that trigger memories of my childhood and family trips. I stopped in Colonial Heights and enjoyed lunch in a shady park where my elementary school once stood. I look around at the streets and homes and remembered them as they appeared to a 6 year old. Across the Appomattox River, the city of Petersburg appears to have sunk to the bottom of the economic pit. My depressed senses were heightened as I rode on a city street covered with a thin layer of sand and then discovered that I was in the middle of a diesel oil spill. I rode very carefully for several miles until I was sure that my tires were free of contamination. Before reaching the North Carolina line on US 1, I stopped to take a break, and noticed that I was traveling on a beautiful divided four lane highway and that there was not another vehicle in sight in either direction. Everyone rushes to the interstate highways to get there a little faster, but pays in terms of stress and piece of mind. It’s a shame. The traffic through Raleigh was very heavy, and I looked to connect with US 401 to Fort Bragg. I did not make motel reservations for my return since I had no schedule to keep. I entered the reservation and rode to Pope AFB for the night. Regrettably there were no rooms available, but they said that Fort Bragg still had space available. Tired and hungry I registered for my room and was informed that it was $82.50 per night.. I politely informed them that $82.50 for a single room was outrageous, and slowly mounted my bike to leave Fayetteville. I found a room at a reasonable price a few miles down the road in Raeford, NC. Ended up the day with 12 hours on the bike.

The next morning I left for South Carolina on US 14/401 and found myself trapped behind a cattle truck in traffic on a two-lane road.. I kept telling myself that I was very lucky that it wasn’t a load of pigs. Continued on to Sumter where I rejoined US 301/601 through Orangeburg and into Georgia. I was charmed by the city of Statesboro and rode through the town with the strains of the Allman Brothers playing in my mind. As I approached Waycross, GA the weather was building quickly to the west convincing me that this was the place to spend the night..Another 12 hour riding day. I stayed at the Holiday Inn and was surprised by a very good steak dinner special for $9.95, mixed drink coupons and a free breakfast buffet the next moring. All for much less that the Army wanted for their miserable room.

I awoke early on my last day on the road eager to get home, but saddened that my trip was ending. The trip through Valdosta and Tallahassee was unremarkable, but I could again see the storm clouds building to the west. Once on FL 20, I could see that some folks in the Panama City area were getting deluged and the storm cell was not moving. I had been very, very lucky over the previous six days missing numerous showers and storms. As I approached FL 77, my luck ran out and the storm caught me before.I could put on my rainsuit. Soaked, I slowly approached the intersection and found that FL 20 was closed and a detour routed traffic through Panama City. What was an additional 40 minutes or so?

My overall memory is the beauty, diversity, productivity and wealth of our great country.

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Last revised: June 16, 2004
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