The King of Every Kingdom
Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Leaving New York I’d have to glue my tank up again – more than once – but I scored a Marine Corps sticker from a newfound friend and I met the pilot of Air Force One.
With the bike locked to a light pole, I went out for another night on the town. Once again, there were no dire consequences in the morning because the American beer is simply too mild to cause hangovers and I only had a few bourbons.
That morning saw me stuck on the freeway within minutes of leaving the hostel. There had been a downpour, and half the road was under water – the half going my way, of course. Finally, on the way out to upper New York State, the buildings gave way to greenery. All of New England turned out to be surprisingly lush, which was still new to me at this stage. New York State looked rather as I’d imagined Louisiana.
I made my way north to Old Forge in the next few days. In Kingston, in the obligatory aluminium diner (run here by a Vietnamese family), I encountered ‘Doc’, the head of the town emergency services. This includes ambulance, fire brigade and rescue. He was an ex-Marine Colonel, and insisted on giving me an enormous Marines badge sticker, a small American flag and a free breakfast. The hostel in Old Forge was equipped with a large group of bicycling Canadian nymphets, who entertained me splendidly during my stay. They even fed me.
My petrol tank, once broken in Malaysia and often repaired, had been cracked again during the flight. I had to glue it up once again after I had noticed petrol running down over the hot engine. I turned east then, to head for Vermont and later the coast. By now I was learning to navigate by route numbers and had no trouble finding my way about.
I picked up a bit of sunburn buzzing around the little lakes and extensive forests of New England, and didn’t mind one bit. It was beautiful and serene country, bathed in sunlight – with just the occasional thunderstorm and downpour to keep it interesting.
Concord didn’t impress me so much. The home of one of my very few heroes (actually, even then I was beginning to have second thoughts about him), Henry David Thoreau, it was far from the small town surrounded by forest that he described last century.
Now, it was a particularly nasty urban sprawl, reminding me of nothing quite so much as the Latrobe Valley in southern Victoria, one of my least favourite places. But then Concord hadn’t been Concord even in Thoreau’s day, and he had cheated on that stay in the woods anyway…
That night, after tightening the chain on the bike for the third time, I finally discovered a reasonably drinkable beer. It was called Molson’s, came from Canada and at least had some flavour. Still no strength, though.
This was turning out to be a relaxed, lazy sort of swing through pretty countryside, rather different from the America I’d been led to expect. Even Boston, my first big city outside New York, seemed a laid-back place to me. I drifted through on the main roads, stopped for a cup of coffee at the Transportation Museum, and then carried on towards Cape Cod.
A group of three Canadian bikers passed me and then stopped to have a look at the XL. In honour of America, I had dubbed it ‘Hardly Davidson’, and these blokes thought that was very funny. Mind you, they were on a Z750, a GS850 and a Z1000. They could afford to laugh.
It was misty all the way out to Cape Cod, so I couldn’t admire much scenery, but there was enough to admire by the side of the road, anyway. Everybody was having a garage sale – some of the stuff people were unloading really tempted me. There were a couple of Buddy Holly albums, for example, in near-perfect condition, for only $2 each. Two bucks!
Once at the Orleans, Massachusetts, hostel, I took the tank off the bike, scraped off the liquid gasket with which I’d tried to stop the leak, and re-glued it with acrylic glue, which seemed to do the trick.
Crossing the high bridge at Newport, Rhode Island, brought to mind the grace of the yachts during the Americas Cup, and the film ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’, made here during one of the real Newport Jazz Festivals. It’s weird; we see so much of America on TV and in the movies that it’s quite possible to feel nostalgic entering a town you’ve never been to.
On my way up to the hills of Connecticut I stopped off for some of the dreadful, gummy American bread. When I came out of the supermarket, the bike was leaking petrol once again. This time it came from the carburettor breather pipe. I whipped the float bowl off, bent the float down and reassembled the carburettor. No more leak. Some time later, I looked down to find that the tank had split again, and petrol was dribbling onto the engine once more.
I stopped at a hardware store and bought a two-phase adhesive called Liquid Steel that contained, according to the box, ‘real steel’. I wasn’t going to have any more backchat from this bike! I glued up the tank and the tap, which was weeping very slightly, and gave the bike as complete an overhaul as I, with my severely limited mechanical ability, could; I didn’t discover any further problems.
It was back to NY then to check for mail and amble around a little more. In the footsteps of Walt Whitman, I took the Staten Island ferry and was impressed by the Manhattan skyline from the water. Then I rang Road Rider magazine in California for the dates of the Aspencade Motorcycle Convention, a ‘do’ I had hoped to get to for years, and planned my trip across the USA. Very vaguely, I might add. I just knew I wanted to be in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on 1 October. That gave me some eight weeks.
Up and away then. Out through the Holland Tunnel the next morning, the bike was running rather rough. I had visions of breaking down in the tunnel – there’s nowhere to park – and being fined vast sums of money. But the bike kept running, and as soon as I was out of the tunnel and switched off the headlight, the engine smoothed out. Aha!
Middle-aged XL Disease, I thought. One of the symptoms is lack of electricity being generated, and the bike can’t even run its pitiful headlight. Mechanical menopause approaching here. Then on down the ribbon of car yards, cheap motels and gas stations that is Highway One until I got hopelessly lost in roadworks in Baltimore looking for fuel.
A thoroughly depressing city, it sticks out in my mind for the obvious poverty and overwhelming friendliness of its mostly black population. I mean, think about it – here’s a white boy on a motorsickle, stopping to ask directions from the bros deep in the ‘hood, and they say “What you doin’ here? You best git your gas and you git gone, my man!”
Washington provided the Smithsonian Institution, where I admired Buzz Aldrin’s toothbrush and touched a piece of the moon; the Star Wars subway, very efficient and pretty; and drinks at Matt Kane’s bar. This last proved to be the most interesting, as I had a few drinks with the pilot of Air Force One, the presidential jet, and listened to his Washington gossip.
It’s true, he gave me a book of Air Force One matches! I’ve still got them here somewhere. Other than that Washington was not pleasant. For a national capital it’s remarkably run down. Brothels and sex shops flourish within a couple of blocks of the White House, and there’s an atmosphere of menace.
It was much better when I got out of town. I rode up the Potomac, and then followed the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. This is now a national park and is maintained for walkers, canoeists and bicyclists. It seemed as though there were thousands of butterflies, all keen to commit suicide on my windscreen or legs.
That night was my first camp. I’d finally run out of Youth Hostels. So of course I had a thunderstorm and nearly an inch of rain in three hours. Huddled in my little tent (I’d bought it for $10 from some Swiss blokes in the Gol-e-Sahra campsite in Tehran), I consoled myself with the thought that the enormous caravans and mobile homes parked all around would be far more likely to draw the lightning than my little XL.
I finally fell asleep while the thunder was still muttering to itself over the Shenandoah Hills. Over breakfast, I got an explanation of the mysterious term ‘scrapple’ that had started to appear on menus. “Wal,” said the chef, “yo biles up various parts of th’ insahde o’ th’ hawg, let it cool and then slahce an’ frah it…” Um. I stuck to bacon and eggs, over easy.
Next week I tackle the Blue Ridge Parkway and get a taste of the amazing American hospitality.