This is a 1976 BMW R90/6 in Havana Gold (70s Brown) with hand-painted gold pin striping. It’s traveled 23,000 miles since it left the factory in West Germany in 1975. In October of 2018, I went on a trip from Southeast PA across Vermont without using major highways and without a plan on where to go or where to stay at the Canadian border. All of this would happen on a bike without any records of maintenance from the past 43 years.
In my mind, I made up an imaginary list of things the bike needed. Among other things, I couldn’t set the timing and didn’t have the correct wrench to service the steering head bearings. This anxiety was built up by months of careful research, taking in all the information that could be found from people who really wanted to tell me how much they know about my motorcycle. Their advice was enough for me to never want to ride the thing. On the flip side, if you spend enough time riding your bike, you know that machine better than the most skilled mechanic. This is especially true with an old airhead like this.
With that naivety in mind, I decided to trust my gut. My bike was a complete joy to ride. I don't care what anyone says, my rear splines are just like the day they left the factory. A milk crate was strapped to the bike and I prepared myself mentally for the uncertainty that lies ahead.
Philadelphia to Albany
My first stop was a Wawa outside Quakertown. That’s where I met Bill. He made me remember why traveling solo is the way to go. He parked his bike right next to mine in the parking lot. At first, I didn’t want to talk to him because he seemed like a hardass, but after a slight effort was made to break the ice, we got to talking like friends. He told me of his travel stories, gave me his tattoo shop business card, and before heading out, he pointed towards a Red-Tailed Hawk flying above us. He said that stood for good luck. Never had I thought twice about a Red Tailed Hawk in Pennsylvania, but now I will. He mentioned that if I ever needed help, give him a call. Motorcyclists look out for each other, he said. Just goes to show, if you get your head out from under your bike and get going on that trip you’ve always wanted to go on… eventually something or someone unusual will happen and it will change your mood.
I continued up 209 and somehow got lost and had to turn around at Lake Wallenpaupack. I stopped at the side of the road to put on another sweater since it was October in the Poconos and I had no fairing or heated grips and several hundred miles of cold yet to go. A beautiful bald eagle flew-by overhead. As I was about to get back on my bike, another Harley dude slowed down to see if help was needed. I waved him on and he nodded and kept going. Bill was right. These dudes look out for each other. It’s the spirit of the American Road. It’s a hidden camaraderie. It’s not something you see everyday, but something you experience if you ever decide to get out there.
My first sign of doubt that I couldn't go further came in Delaware, NY. Not using major highways takes much longer than it looks on a map. Two hours from Albany, the sun was setting. Doubt kicked in about my ability to make it to Vermont that night. My surroundings all seemed so familiar still. Rolling Appalachia hills leading into farming valleys. I stopped for a coffee and a muffin and pushed through the yawning.
I made it to Albany and took Rt. 7 into Vermont. That’s when the darkness set in. It was getting cold and the fog was painful. Some dude at a gas station said my bike was cool and asked where I was going. “Green Mountain Park?” I said, not having an answer to his question. He asked, “Bennington?”. I said, “Yea!”. I hadn't a clue where Bennington was, but the air had dropped to a freezing temperature and I hadn't a place to stay yet, so there was no time for idle gas station chat.
Eventually I found a place to stay. The hotel in Bennington was a bit creepy and more expensive than expected. I met a few people drinking beers on the balcony. They were very nice, but something wasn’t right. Their faces were too young to be so wrinkled, their eyes focused on an imaginary face above mine as we tried to converse. They seemed focused more on my bike than a friendly Vermont conversation. I locked up my bike's front wheel and then locked that lock to a post outside my room and went to bed.
Bennington to the Border
I woke up for the free oatmeal and set course for Rt. 100. This road would take me to Canada. It was a beautiful day and I settled into the most perfect New England road. 55 mph on smooth tarmac with no traffic, hour after hour. An endless stream of small mountain villages and the purest of smells in the air assured me I was no longer in Philadelphia. It started raining in Rochester. I stopped for gas and left the bike outside as I took my not-so-waterproof duffel bag into a local restaurant. It was about 3pm. Just like Day 1, everything was going great, but under every great experience, there was still the anxiety of not know where to stay that night. Unlike a car, you can't sleep in a motorcycle.
I continued on through the wet roads, town after town, eventually making it to a waterfall where a couple from Lancaster recognized my 1980s milk-crate with Lebanon, PA lettering. I kept going and eventually made it to Killington, then Stowe, then Waterbury. At this point, I reached a threshold in my trip. This happens whenever I embark on any sort of adventure, whether it be a hike, a run, a road trip or whatever: I make it pretty far, suffer a little bit, and even though I’m not as far as the original planned called for, I could easily turn around, go home and still feel like something interesting was done. This is usually the major hurdle to get through, but I have to remind myself there’s plenty of suffering ahead. I need to push through this urge to be comfortable because if I keep going, I’ll see things and do things that could never have been imagined back home. I need to keep going.
I continued to the border at Jay, Vermont. The fog and the darkness was growing. A lonely border agent seemed surprised, yet trained for the encounter. He didn’t know any hotels, but told me to watch for deer. There were no towns anywhere and all the road signs were in French and kilometers. A few minutes after passing the border, I stopped at the side of the road, turned off the bike and took in the silence. It was overwhelming. I was so far from home and left to my own resources. The bike sat there, warm and ready for anything. It’s miraculous that such a small machine had gotten me so far. This moment of silence felt like freedom, pure and simple. I could have lived and died in that feeling of independence and uncertainty.
My cell phone had service and I managed to call several French hotels with no luck. No one had a vacancy. Nothing could be done, but keep riding until a town appeared. I stopped at a store in Masonville. The friendly clerk told me to keep going to Sherbrooke. That was about an hour away. At this point it was pitch black and in-between small towns there was no sign of life, but the many deer waiting to cross the road. What would I do if I went down with my bike, alone, 500 miles from home?
Gently racing through the dark Quebec roads, peripherals locked onto the black forests on either side, the road itself became a blur. Finally another gas station came into light. The clerk's English wasn’t great, but she was happy to see something different in the line of evening drug store customers. I made sure to get some cash out and kept going west towards Sherbrooke. After a few more miles of blurry yellow line, the Motel de la Pente Douce appeared.
Sherbrooke to Philadelphia
I got up intentionally late in the hopes the temperature would rise above 40 degrees, which never happened. The sky was beautifully clear. I figured this was a good time to set my sights for home. The goal of getting to the border without a plan has been achieved. I still had to get home within a few days since I had a job. The quickest way would be to head towards Montreal and then turn south back to Albany. Heading west on Rt. 10, the cold began to seriously hurt. I was able to push through it since it was so beautiful out and for some reason everyone up there was driving so courteously. Do I cruise along at 65 and take longer to get home, or push the airhead to 85 and save a few minutes. The world could use a courteous motorcyclist for once, so 65 it was.
The amount of time it would take to get home was the feeling that kept me from fully taking in the serenity of the Quebec landscape. It was gorgeous. Just as Montreal popped up on the horizon, I turned south towards 87. These border people were not nearly as pleasant as the border guy in Troy.
The ride from the border to Albany was uneventful. Every mile got hotter and hotter. On one side was the Adirondacks, on another was the mountain range I passed over the day prior. The air was dry, the sun was bright, the road was wide open. It was a good day so far. I stopped at Lake George. Baby boomers were just starting their fall vacations, or they were just leaving. Hard to tell. The town had a Sunday night emptiness feeling. A sort of freshly lost nostalgia that we get on Sunday nights before going to a horrible job the next day. There was a sense of ending at Lake George. I did not want to go home to my job in Philadelphia. I wanted to live those past few days again and again.
After Albany, the east coast congestion started to show its face. Drivers became less and less considerate. The aimless rushing came over everyone like a poisonous fog, filling driver's heads with the anxiety of needing to be anywhere but on that road. I was far from the moments of silence on the side of the road north of Troy. The cool crisp air disappeared and in its place, humidity and clouds. I stopped in a rest stop and stood in line at the only food available. Nobody cared about each other. We crammed into a dirty building waiting for our fast food that took 20 minutes to prepare. The staff was overwhelmed by the new touch screen ordering. How ironic. If Canada was heaven, New Jersey was surely hell. Why was I coming home? I don’t know, but I kept going because that’s what you do on a bike. That’s all you can do.
I got lost on a bunch of back roads in Jersey as I tried to make it to I-95. Eventually the Comcast tower reared its tasteless head on the empty horizon. Within steps of 676, I hit construction. 4 lanes of highway down to 1. Should I be turning the bike off if I’m sitting still? Is the bike overheating? How can you tell if an air-cooled engine is overheating? They're hot all the time. Hours go by sitting on the 4-lane highway.
At 12.26am Friday night I pulled up to my lock outside my apartment. 14 hours on the road. 500 miles traveled. At our final resting place in the dark alley, I lifted the bike onto its stand as center city salarymen wandered through their drunken nights under the aimless orange clouds. I covered up my bike, took my luggage inside, got naked and threw myself into bed.