Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Skyline Drive: Experienced on a motorcycle

Several years ago (winter of 1999-2000 to be exact) I took a course in travel writing. All of the articles that I wrote were motorcycle related (big shocker there, huh?). Below is one of my favorite articles, written about a ride I took on Skyline Drive the summer before. It's a trek to get out there, but once there, the scenery is so beautiful. In fact, the first time I took my wife (then girlfriend) for a ride on a motorcycle, I took her out there. I'll have to write about that another time, if she doesn't tell me not to. (a few interesting things happened on the ride)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the write-up.

"Sorry folks, it’s going to be another hazy, hot and humid day." I rolled my eyes, the weatherman may be sorry, but he didn’t know just how bad it would be. After a long, hot week at work, I was itching to get out and ride my motorcycle. It gets warm enough on the bike without the help of the heat wave toasting the East Coast. His sympathy wouldn’t help to cool me off. If only there were some place cool to ride. That’s when I decided on a day trip to Virginia’s Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park is always a great road to ride. I often feel sorry for the people whose only encounter with the road is from the seats in their car. To truly feel the full effects of Skyline Drive, they need to experience it from a different perspective, two wheels instead of four.

The Front Royal entrance of Skyline Drive is just 50 miles west of the D.C. Beltway on I-66. This was the only stretch of the trip where I envied the people in their air-conditioned cars. However, I kept my patience, I knew the fun would soon begin. Once I reached Front Royal, I quickly found my way to the northern entrance of Skyline Drive. After paying my entrance fee, the festivities began.

Skyline Drive travels through the Shenandoah Mountains, part of the Appalachians. (In fact the famous Appalachian Trail follows Skyline Drive through the park) Therefore, as I started this leg of my trip, the road had to go up. Up is where it’s cooler, approximately four degrees cooler, Fahrenheit, for every 1,000 feet higher in elevation. More importantly, to go up, the road starts to take a series of switchbacks, right, then left, then right again.

This is what separates a motorcycle from a car. As a car turns back and forth, the driver simply turns the wheel in one direction, then the other. At most, the occupants feel some centrifugal force, pushing them in the opposite direction of the turn. But a motorcycle only has two wheels. To turn, I have to press on the handgrips, press left, press right. This action causes the motorcycle and me to lean, and thus turn. Lean to the right, lean to the left. I’m not just passively feeling the turns; I am a part of the turns.

I soon reached the Range View Overlook, 2,810 ft above sea level. Every one of these overlooks is breathtaking. It is said that years ago, before the modern day pollutants got into the atmosphere, on a very clear day one could see the Washington Monument from Skyline Drive. Unfortunately, all I could see in the distance was the haze that I had come to escape. But below me, above me, and around me, were the trees of the forest and the grass of the meadows. Neither was experiencing the heat wave, instead they displayed their brightest green. I knew I would have to come back again during the fall to see the trees when they change into their multi-colored autumn coats.

As I rode through the trees on the bike, I was not separated from them by a four-sided steel cage with windows. Instead I was a part of the environment, out there, feeling the wind, the change of temperature when I rode out of a shady area into the sun, able to smell the fresh mountain air. I raised the visor of my helmet to let more of the cooler air in, to cool my head. At times, when passing a section of road where both sides sloped downhill, it felt as if I was actually flying over the mountainside.

If you look at a map of Skyline Drive, you will see that as it weaves its way through the Shenandoahs, there is almost no stretch of the road that is straight. The constant curves are a siren call for us motorcyclists. As I rode the curves, all the tension of the long week of work started draining out. Now it was just my bike and me, working together as a team, leaning to the left, leaning to the right. Sometimes tilting so far, I felt I could reach down and touch the road, but I wisely decided not to test this.

As I came around a right hand sweeper, I looked ahead to a breathtaking view. Three deer grazing by the edge of the road. The animals here have learned that the traffic on Skyline Drive is mostly harmless, the deer were content to stay where they were, and only one interrupted her meal to look over and admire my motorcycle. Having seen the deer munching their meal, I decided to make a quick stop at the visitor center in Big Meadows and have a meal myself. Checking the time, I noticed it was starting to get late, so rather than head further south, I turned around, and started back north, to the Thornton Gap exit.

As I exited Skyline Drive, I picked up Rt. 211, a perfect road to end the day with. As 211 worked its way down from the mountaintops, it was extremely twisty, with several hairpin turns keeping me at full attention. I felt so good I had to let out a “YEE-HA!” while curving through back-to-back switchbacks. As I got closer to sea level, I could feel the surrounding air get slightly warmer, but since it was late in the day, it didn’t reach an uncomfortable level. As I pointed the motorcycle home, I realized how lucky I was to have a naturally air-conditioned, twisty, yet scenic road within reach to help me keep my cool on those hazy, hot, and humid days that mother nature kept throwing at me.

No comments: