Loon Mountain, NH

campThis is what I’ve been waiting for. When I took up riding, I knew I wasn’t interested in getting a sport bike and hanging it out in the twisties, or a Harley and hanging it out at the bar. I was looking for adventure—the chance to escape and explore, live in the moment, and go wherever my heart desired. The last time I had experienced that feeling was in my early 20s when I went to Europe with an International Hostel membership and a Eurorail pass. I remember looking at a map, choosing a spot, and wondering what it is like there. Then hopping on a train and finding out.

The destination for my first tour was Loon Mountain, New Hampshire, for the NH Highland Games. My old band competed there a few years ago and it was so beautiful in the fall my wife and I returned the following year for our anniversary. There is a road that cuts through the White Mountains, and I remember pulling over to let a biker pass, knowing I was holding him up. A thought flashed through my mind: wouldn’t it be nice.

Three years later and I was packed up and ready to go. I’d cut things a little close. My waterproof duffle bag arrived in the mail two days before leaving; I got the very last campsite at Lafayette Campground in Franconia Notch State Park. (I was suspicious: is it next to the crapper? Turns out it wasn’t and I was just lucky, I guess.)

I did a trial pack on the Wednesday when my bag arrived and found, much to my surprise, I had room to spare. One pannier for cooking gear, one for food. In the 70L duffle bag on top I put my sleeping bag, the tent I borrowed from my son, my Thermarest, and personal items, pillow-case style. Some Rok-straps ensured the whole thing stayed put, and my day bag went on the tank.

I’d recently heard an interview on Adventure Rider Radio with Bret Tkacs, in which he talks about manoeuvring the bike while not riding, including simply getting on and off the bike when it’s fully loaded, so I thought I’d try some of his suggestions. One was to use the foot-peg to get on the bike, instead of dragging a dirty boot across your seat. You can get on at either side but I was nervous about tipping the bike if I climbed on stand-side, so during my first day I got used to getting on the high side. It’s also a little unnerving as the bike leans away from the stand slightly as you climb on or off, but after the weekend, this was my preferred side.

After the usual delays, I was on my way. I wanted to stick to secondary highways as much as possible so took the Mercier Bridge, picked up the 132, and took the 104 all the way into the Eastern Townships, discovering towns along the way I promised I’d return to when I had to time to stop; Knowlton is picturesque. How have I lived in this province for 26 years and never discovered Knowlton? Some sections of the ride were so incredibly beautiful I was compelled to turn around and take a picture.

townships

I crossed the border at Highwater, my oranges confiscated for being honest. “No citrus fruits, sir.” (I was compensated later in Lincoln, NH, when a nice gentleman stocking the fruits section at Price Chopper introduced me to pluot, which he said he was careful not to say too quickly to Quebecers because it was rude. If someone can fill me in on this joke, please do.)

oldschool

Once over the border, I had to navigate old-school style to avoid roaming charges. I picked up a couple of maps at a gas station, where I snapped this shot of a Victory from the future. It’s even more impressive from the back.

victory

The last time I was at Lafayette Campground, my wife and I were visited by a thieving black bear, so I was sure to ask if there had been any sitings. The attendant assured me that the normal cycle of young bears being trapped and escorted off the premises and older bears being shot had run its cycle and things were settling down for the hibernation season. My site turned out to be furtherest from the crapper as you can get, and I set up for two nights.

The next day were the Highland Games, and I know the Scots don’t like to do anything important before noon, so I had a chance to get most of my weekend work done at the site before going to the grounds. I was nervous about leaving my bike unattended at the parking, but used my Zena lock (which emits a 120 db scream if jostled) and padlocked my helmet to the pannier cage. Still, I’d have to carry my day bag around all day and wear my leather jacket—the price you pay, I guess, for not having a trunk. This was a learning experience for me.

massedbands

Massed bands, New Hampshire Highland Games; Loon Mountain, NH.

The games actually turned out to be a side-note to the ride. There aren’t any grade 1 or 2 bands at these games, and after you can hear the difference, grade 4 and 5 bands just don’t cut it. Still, I got my haggis and thumps, a sticker for my pannier, and inspiration to become a better drummer. By the time I got back to my bike I was itching for that ride across the mountains, so headed off east on the 112 at dusk—I know, not the best time to be riding (a theme I will return to). The ride was magnificent, and worth every minute of the wait over the preceding years, especially the hairpin turn that had a suggested speed of 20 mph. I rode as far as I dare until the light faded, turned around at a lookout, then did it all again to get back to my site, where I paid the price of making dinner in darkness.

The next day I had planned to make it to the coast, specifically Hampton Beach, where my wife and I had visited before. I packed up and loaded the bike, fired it up, went to do my turn but was caught off guard by the added weight and dropped the bike. Shit! Fortunately I was so late getting off that there was no one around to fuel my embarrassment but a staff member who was raking the sites. He looked up briefly but wasn’t inclined to come over and help me lift the bike. We had learned how to lift the bike in my course, positioning your back to the bike and lifting with your legs, but the wheels were higher than than the handlebars because of a slight grade in the site (no doubt what threw me) and I couldn’t lift it. Fortunately, I had seen a video about another method that uses the handlebars as leverage and was able to get the bike up using that technique. Thanks Clinton Smout for that tip! Thankfully, the pannier and crash guard took the brunt of the fall and the bike was unscathed. The lesson learned? Don’t pack your bike however it’s positioned and then attempt to make a sharp turn before your head’s in it. Position the bike and then pack it.

Hampton Beach was further than I remembered and it took me three hours on a toll interstate to get there, but I was thinking of the fresh fish and chips available there from roadside restaurants and the ride up the 1a, which has ocean on one side and Gatsbyesque mansions on the other. I arrived late for lunch but early for dinner, and was anxious about the miles I had to cover to get home.

hamptonbeach

Hampton Beach, NH

I stopped at Petey’s, where I was able to get a table overlooking my bike. This is another aspect of riding of which I’m unfamiliar. Do you leave your gear and helmet on the bike and hope no one steals it? It’s like leaving your dog outside a shop while you browse inside. How can you relax? peteysI found that people are generally respectful, even reverent, about the bike, and I was approached several times by folks who said “Bonjour” when they noticed the plate. I seemed to be living the life they never had, and one guy, who clearly had mobility issues, said he’d always wanted to ride. I said “It’s never too late” (thinking of my late start), to which he responded, quickly and sadly, “I think it is.”

Fully fed and with close to 500 km. ahead of me, I decided I had to put some road behind me. I wanted to head up the 1A that follows the coast but soon realized it wanders away from the coast and into small towns that would slow me down, so I picked up the 95N to Portland, where it turns into the 26 which turns into Highway 2 that would take me east right across Maine, New Hampshire, and into Vermont, where I planned to cross at Rouses Point. This ride took me right through the countryside of Robert Frost and John Irving, and I could see why they’d be inspired by the rolling hills and classic range fencing, small towns with businesses named after the owner’s first name, like Gary’s Auto Body and Bert’s Garage. By the time I caught the 2 it was dusk: a perfectly paved winding road with wisps of fog hanging on the surrounding countryside. There was no traffic, and I got into a rhythm through the curves, slowing only through small towns with restaurants strung with lighting. If a moose had walked out into the road and struck me dead in that instant I surely would not have gone to a prettier place!

But dusk soon turns to night, and the atmosphere quickly changed. Even if John Milton had not been blind, he could have written his ode to light that begins Book III of Paradise Lost. If you spend any time camping or exposed to the elements you learn quickly just how precious light is. Once it’s gone, you are vulnerable. It faded on me somewhere in north New Hampshire as I was crossing the White Mountains. The rest would have to be done in the dark.

I abandoned my plan of taking the 2 all the way to Rouses Point and picked up the 93 which led to the 91. It would be interstate freeway all the way from here. I figured at least the major highways are better lit than the secondary ones. My biggest concern was wildlife. I’d seen signs all through New Hampshire warning of moose crossing, and even a dignitary at the Games had joked that, despite all the warnings, he hadn’t seen a single damn moose! I thankfully did finally see one in Portland, NH.

moose

Soon after I picked up the 93, I hit road kill. I had entered a construction zone. The speed dropped from 65 mph to 55, then suddenly to 45. I glanced down at my speedometer and when I looked up it was maybe 6 feet in front of me, too late to do anything about it. It was a racoon, I think, and I clipped it as I passed. My front tire made a  sound, I’m not sure if it was the squelch of rubber or something else, and I’m still not sure what happened. I felt the handlebars move and I was passed, my heart racing.

I don’t know if hitting road kill is fairly common for motorcyclists, but it was a first for me and it scared the shit out of me. You generally don’t want to hit anything on the road at highway speed, but I just didn’t see it. The lesson on this one? I shouldn’t have been out there at night, not on the secondary highways, not on the interstate. I should have Googlemapped my planned ride before and seen it was too ambitious. I came up from the border on the 10 and there were no motorcyclists on the highway and for good reason! I gambled with my life and was lucky! I pulled into my driveway at midnight.

So now I sit, a day later, with four beers in my belly and reflect on what was and what could have been. I learnt a lot on that first solo ride and know what I would do differently. It certainly was an adventure, but they don’t call it adventure riding for nothing!

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