Exploring the Appalachians on BMW’s new über bagger.
“Baby, I don’t know where you’re going,” says a buxom woman in an accent that is pure South. “But if you’re ridin’ that thing you can take me with you.”
I’m outside a barbecue restaurant in West Jefferson, North Carolina, trying to work out how to fit my helmet into one of the side cases of a BMW K 1600 B. BMW have let me loose with the bike and I’m riding it from Asheville, North Carolina, up to the company’s New Jersey headquarters – taking six days to cover the 700-something miles between. With that much extra time I’m putting in extra distance and will clock just shy of 1,500 miles before handing over the keys. Add that to the roughly 400 miles covered during the official press event and I'll be close to the average American rider's annual mileage on this bike in roughly a week.
At the aforementioned press event, Mike Peyton, VP of BMW Motorrad Region Americas, got stuck at dinner one night defending claims the bike’s panniers would hold a full-face helmet. They do not hold an Arai, said one mo-jo. A Shoei won’t fit either, said another. But Mike was adamant.
“You just have to angle it,” he explained.
I’m taking Mike’s word and have decided that if any helmet’s going to fit it will be my Schuberth C3 Pro. After all, you can cover this bike in as much badassitude as you like – it’s still a BMW. So, now I’m in a parking lot trying to think like whoever designed this thing. One of my best friends is an engineer with a PhD from MIT; he’s always coming up with “simple” solutions that don’t make a damned bit of sense. How would he have designed these panniers?
Large enough to hold a full-face helmet... after some effort.
“Baby, that ain’ goin’ fit,” the woman says. “Ha! That’s what she said!”
She cackles at her joke. It’s apparent she’s had some pre-dinner drinks. And why not? This evening is perfect. The heat of the day is dissipating into the gentle pink-orange of sunset. There’s a soft breeze. Cicadas drone in the distance. Across the parking lot country music is playing. Eventually I lay the helmet on its side, bottom facing inward, and the pannier’s lid closes.
I’ve put in 350 miles today, wandering on whatever roads strike me as interesting, then looping back to Asheville to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it north. I’ve never been to this part of the country and it’s gorgeous. There’s nothing overly majestic about the scenery – it’s not the Alps or the Rockies or anything – but it grabs me in a way that makes me want to never leave. One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, lives somewhere in this region, and now I understand why. If I had written a stack of successful novels and could call any place my own, I might also choose this particular swathe of the United States.
The jury’s still out on whether Carolinas barbecue can hold a candle to Texas style, but tonight I have no complaints about the brisket, catfish, hush puppies, cornbread, and barbecue beans that I wash down with big gulps of ice tea. This is small town America, so everyone knows I’m not from around here. They are able to connect the outsider with the unfamiliar motorcycle parked out front and just about every one of them stops for a friendly chat.
“I hear them BM-Dubyas go fast.” “She sure is a pretty thing.” “Got yourself a real nice piece of iron there.”
I allow my Texas accent to bubble to the surface and twang my words harder than it ever actually did when I was growing up in Houston. I feel stupidly happy. After dinner I ride around the small town until dark, my jacket open, never venturing above third gear.
The next morning I’m back on the Blue Ridge Parkway. To counter my natural tendency to just roll through a place without actually taking it in, I force myself to adhere to the speed limit, which on this particular roadway never exceeds 45 mph. To keep me honest, I lock in cruise control. Well, OK, I set it at 50 – still a good 30 mph slower than I’d be inclined to tackle these roads normally.
Intelligently, BMW has set the switch for cruise control on the left grip. It’s easily found with the thumb, and over the course of this trip I’ll rely on it often. The feature works well even in these hills, only varying by 2-3 mph. After about 30 minutes on the parkway, the part of my mind that fuels impatience gives up on wanting to pick up the pace. I focus instead on my surroundings. Trees thick with leaves occasionally give way to sweeping vistas. The whole thing feels Disney-esque.
I cross into Virginia and stop for lunch. Blackened catfish and ice tea. The parkway here runs straighter and flatter than in North Carolina, occasionally running out into pastures with quintessentially American farmhouses in the distance.
Trying and failing again to figure out how to connect my phone to the stereo via Bluetooth (It must be possible, but not obviously so; I will not figure it out at any point during my trip), I discover for the first time that the bike is equipped with Sirius XM satellite radio. I’m also surprised to discover that Sirius XM still exists. It strikes me as an old-man sort of thing. My brother had Sirius in his car in the early 2000s and it was a waste of money: reception that only really works when stationary and nothing worth listening to. To coin a phrase often heard on the Sirius XM “E Street Radio” channel, it’s 151 channels and nothin’ on. I return to my thoughts and roll slowly to Roanoke.
The K 1600 B's stereo is slightly awkward to use and its speakers are not loud enough.
I find a hotel and after a late afternoon run I take an Uber into downtown to find dinner. I end up grabbing a burger at one of those places that looks like a college bar but upon closer inspection is too finely crafted. Researching the place later I will discover it is a chain. Ten locations in Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee! The craft beer craze is out of control, y’all.
I have a burger, fries, and a pilsner. Everyone in this place is lit by the blue light of phone screens, so I decide to move on. Outside it’s another perfect evening. I wander the downtown a bit then decide to walk back to my hotel. On my way, I come across a 7-foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr. His arms are outstretched, delivering a sermon. Beside him are benches where you can sit and listen to his speeches being played on loop. The oratory has me feeling both choked up and frustrated; less than two weeks have passed since Charlottesville.
“Where are the Americans like this now?” I think. “We desperately need men and women like him.”
Goddamn it, we need them. Every day that need gets rubbed in our faces; it's exhausting being an American these days. But on this night the world feels OK. One can’t sit there listening to MLK and not feel at least some amount of hope. His voice mixes with the cicadas and crickets of Southern night, and eventually I walk on.
The next day I spend the morning catching up on some work in my hotel room, then return to the Blue Ridge Parkway to cover its final 120 or so miles. The weather isn't as hot as in the past few days and the parkway is particularly quiet. Things are relaxed. There are a few cars, and a few other motorcyclists (trike Honda Gold Wings and Can-Am Spyders are over represented), but mostly I have this road to myself.
At a scenic overlook I encounter a quartet of senior citizens with thick New Jersey accents who traveling in a car with Florida plates. They excitedly take pictures of themselves with the bike. I tell one of the guys he is welcome to take a picture of himself sitting on the bike and he responds with the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old being given the keys to a house made of candy.
“You’re wearing shorts, so just mind your leg when swinging it over,” I say. “The engine runs pretty hot and I don’t want you to burn yourself.”
It’s clear he has never before sat on a motorcycle. Reading the look on his face I realize he is so unfamiliar with them he can’t determine which parts of the gigantic BMW are engine and which are not. He doesn’t want to admit this, so he concedes when his wife shouts that he should just stand next to the bike.
Over the course of this trip the bike and I will be in dozens of family photos. One mother has me hold her two young daughters in my arms. Imagine being those girls when they grow up: “Mom, remember when you just handed us over to a strange man on a motorcycle? That’s why we’re in therapy now.”
At the press event, BMW had given moto-journalists two large commemorative cookies: one shaped like the United States and showing a blacked-out sun and the date of the solar eclipse, the other with a picture of the K 1600 B on it. I stop at a large picnic site to eat both. The site is a distance from the parkway and I’m the only person here; it is just me and the cicadas. Thanks to effective exhaust heat shields my bottle of water has stayed cool in its pannier, and drinking it feels life-affirming.
When I eventually arrive at the end – or start, depending on your perspective – of the Blue Ridge Parkway I feel a pang of sadness. I’ve ridden about 415 miles of the 469-mile road and wish that I could loop back and do it again. I still have three days before I need to return the bike, though, and Shenandoah National Park yet to explore.
I spend the night in the small town of Woodstock, Virginia, where I find a high school track a half mile from the hotel. I put in a five-mile run as dusk settles over the surrounding valley. As I run, more and more people are gathering at the high school across the street. Then a marching band strikes up. It’s Friday night in the South; there’s a football game – probably the first of the year – taking place in the stadium on the other side of the high school. I head over and stand by the fence. I can’t see much of the field but enjoy the cheers and band and echo of loudspeakers as players are announced. I sing along to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” then walk back to my hotel. That night I find a place serving chicken-fried steak for dinner.
The next morning I’m up early and after a big breakfast I’m on the road and heading to Shenandoah National Park. It is just barely cool enough for me to test the heated grips. They work well – as best I can tell. An interesting aspect of them is that if you kill the engine they will automatically come on again when you restart the bike. I can’t decide if that’s a useful feature. By mid-morning they are no longer needed. It’s a Saturday but Skyline Drive – the 105-mile road running the length of the national park – is relatively quiet. The speed limit here is even lower than on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gives me a chance to discover the bike’s cruise control works at 35 mph (well, OK, 40).
At a visitor center I run into a couple from Quebec who have ridden down on a brand new BMW R 1200 R. They both fall in love with the K 1600 B, the wife especially. When I show them how the bike’s reverse gear works she declares that they will be trading in their moto for this one. They have me take pictures of them on the bike. Then we spend some time making sure all the stuff that fits in their R 1200 R’s panniers will fit in the K 1600 B’s. I help them unpack, pack, unpack, and pack everything right there in the parking lot. Yes, it all fits.
I take my sweet time and stop frequently but manage to cover the length of Shenandoah National Park by early afternoon, so I head back to my hotel and go for another 5-mile run at the track. As I go around the track, I hear what I think is the loudspeaker from the nearby stadium. But when I go to see what’s going on, the field is empty. I follow the sound across town and eventually discover that the Shenandoah County Fair is this weekend and there’s a tractor pull taking place.
A tractor pull. I love the South.
I consider visiting the fair but the hotel clerk has clued me in to a good barbecue spot in a nearby town and I’m hungry. Plus this afternoon is perfect for riding. I roll down country roads until reaching the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Edinburg, Virginia. In fact, I do miss it. Or, at least, I miss the barbecue place. I roll past an abandoned-looking building twice before realizing it's the place I’m looking for.
That's always a good sign. The best barbecue comes from the worst-looking places. This place is basically a garage with a barbecue pit sitting out front. There are a few homemade picnic tables inside. I walk in and survey the menu above the counter.
“I’ll save ya some time, sir,” says the teenager behind the counter. “We’re outta everything but pulled pork.”
“OK. I guess I’ll have the pulled pork,” I say.
Take a look at that sign...
A few minutes later he presents me with a sandwich about the size of my head. I grab a bottle of barbecue sauce, along with two cans of Dr. Pepper to help wash it all down. Without doubt or question this is the best pulled pork I have ever tasted. As I eat the sandwich – its meat spilling onto the wrapper – I realize I will never order pulled pork from any other place on the planet. Nothing can match this. I have arrived at Pulled Pork Valhalla.
And good Lord, how incredible must the other food here be that this is what was left over?!
Caution: Dude jumping rainbows ahead.
With my belly full, I express my gratitude to the teenager – his response suggests he hears that sort of praise a lot – and waddle my way back to the bike. This part of America is the land of old Harleys. I pass any number of them as I ride around without direction. Most riders offer a wave in passing.
Eventually, almost accidentally, I arrive back in Woodstock and spot a frozen custard shack on the main street. My stomach is still full from dinner but the road to hell is paved with uneaten ice cream, so I stop and buy an Oreo Freeze.
“A Freeze is like a Blizzard, but we can’t call it a Blizzard,” the girl in the shack explains.
The next morning I’m up early. This is my last full day with the bike and will be my longest in the saddle. I’m aiming to spend the night in Mount Arlington, New Jersey – only 284 miles away by direct route, but I’m planning to get there as circuitously as possible.
BMW have blinged this particular bike to the gills, which means it’s equipped with the company’s Navigator VI GPS and info system. My feelings about the system are mixed. By and large it’s useful but I can’t figure out how to set it to avoid interstates and toll roads. Fortunately, it seems to automatically eschew the latter; I use my own sense of navigation to try to avoid the former.
Virginia soon becomes Maryland, which soon becomes Pennsylvania. I start daydreaming about not having to give the bike back. This fantasy is fueled by the relaxed way in which all motorcycle companies work. Even though I’m on my way to New Jersey to return the bike on Monday, I still don’t know – on Sunday – exactly where in New Jersey, nor at exactly what time.
I’ve sent a note to BMW pointing this out and cheerfully suggesting it could, you know, just let me keep the bike forever. I mean, hey, it’s a giant corporation, right? Surely it wouldn’t miss one little motorcycle. As I speed toward the Garden State I lose myself in the daydream of what I’d do if BMW were to actually take me up on my offer.
First thing I’d do is spin this thing around and head south – go visit family. Later I’ll realize this would have been a terrible idea. All my family – save my parents and brother – live in the Houston area, which at this moment is being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Because I don’t yet know how bad it will get I’m inclined to see Harvey as just another storm. Growing up, my family dealt with dozens of them. We moved house during Alica, for the love of Pete; my cousins go surfing when storms come in because the waves are good. So, if BMW were to let me have this bike I would steer it straight into that hellish mess, thinking it would make a good story. Thank God for unanswered prayers, I guess.
BMW’s fleet manager responds to my email by mid-afternoon. It serves as inspiration to squeeze out every last bit of motorcycling enjoyment I can, which is difficult because New Jersey’s roads are so poorly maintained. Nonetheless, I make due and don’t arrive at my hotel until after dark.
The night sky is clear. This evening is the perfect picture of late summer – just cool enough to wear a hoodie. After dinner, I go for a walk along a main street and watch dudes in T-shirts rumble by on old Sportsters. Muscle cars and pickups growl and roar past, sharing the drivers’ musical preferences with the world. I turn onto a quiet street and walk beyond the reach of street lights. I look up at the stars and take a deep breath. Cicadas and frogs sing into the American night. I'm thousands of miles from any place I've ever called home, but right now I'm exactly where I want to be.