Take me home, El Capitan!
30,000 Miles On The Blue Ridge Parkway... Yet Another Pirate's Tale

While riding a high altitude ridge last week I got to thinking about all the time and miles I'd spent on the BRPW.  I did some quick Jethro Bodine cipherin' and realized that over the years I'd easily put in over 25,000  miles on this one road.. Probably closer to 30,000. Could this be true? This fact actually took me by surprise. Most of these miles I'd obviously put on in the last 8 years since Amber and I moved to Asheville as I ride the parkway almost every time I throw a leg over the seat, but even before that I'd been making regular trips since I bought my first motorcycle back in 1972.  Truth be told, my love affair with the BRPW goes back even further to a simpler time when gas was .29 cents a gallon, the "fab four" were just conquering America, and color TV was still a luxury.

I think .. no.. I know I got my love of traveling from my father. He took my mother, my younger sister, and I all over the country when I was a kid. Always by car. Never by plane, boat, or train. Our 4 wheel adventures took  us from coast to coast .. border to border .. and cheap motel to cheap motel. By the time I was 10 I'd seen dozens of national and state parks, beaches in almost every coastal state, both Disney parks, scenic water parks, not-so scenic water parks, cold wet caverns, bat infested caves, Indian reservations, and a myriad of low budget tourist attractions that would make Clark W. Griswold giddy. 

I got my first look at the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1965. While on a weekend trip from Nashville to Gatlinburg, Tennessee my dad  casually mentioned that we could return to Nashville via the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway if we were interested.  He was always the spur of the moment kinda guy. I inherited the trait along with his receding hairline and a total disregard for speed laws, but not much else. Anyway.. I must have been 9 or 10.  I'd never heard of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which wasn't even complete at the time, but I sure liked the sound of it. I remember my dad pulling out his trusty, nearly worn out ESSO map, laying it out on the hood of his robin's egg blue and white Chevy Impala, then letting me help plot our adventure together. I should say.. he allowed me to "think" I was helping when in reality I couldn't find my ass with both hands, a hand mirror, and a proctologist's cliff notes.  Unfortunately, my genetic makeup didn't include even one chromosome of my dad's Magellan-like navigational skills. I have no sense of direction.  It's been a curse my entire life and probably my greatest genetic failing, but I digress. According to the map, the southern entrance was only about 40 miles out.  Although, at this early age I had seen more of America's natural beauty than most Americans see in a lifetime, my life was about to change.

Once we were up on the parkway I was hooked. Over the course of this single, unforgettable day we were treated to sweeping curves, scenic overlooks, lush vistas, perfect asphalt,  distant waterfalls, and the ever present otherworldly bluish hue and low rolling clouds that gave birth to the names.. Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains. The Cherokee Indians used the word "shaconage" to describe these mountains. It  means "blue, like smoke."    In my prepubescent mind, this was heaven on earth.   I had never seen anything like this except  for maybe parts of Northern California. Mile after mile I sit and marvel at nature's grandiosity as a constant strobe of light, shadows, colors, and images clandestinely imprint future memories onto unsullied synapses. I would never forget this day.

See ya.. In My Mirrors..
I also remember feeling a little scared.  Setting the "way back" machine to as far as my pitiful memory's spindly little legs will carry me, I distinctly remember no other cars on the road. No gas stations. No signs of civilization. What would happen should we break down? There were no cell phones in those days and cars weren't as dependable. Getting stranded was a real possibility.  Deep down I knew my dad could handle any unpleasant situation that might occur, but this feeling of utter solitude and isolation was new to me. It was both exhilarating and scary and I loved it!

After the trip was over, whenever my dad asked us where we'd like to go next, I always asked to go back to the parkway and we did once or twice. Always as a family.  I'd  hoped that he'd take me on his motorcycle some day.. Just me and him, but for whatever reason that never happened and then, as I aged.. the opportunities were no more.  It's been 42 years since the last time my dad and I were on the parkway together, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Looking back on my life, I'd say that  that  spur of the moment trip into the blue hued mountains of Tennessee was one of those pivotal life changing events for me. Coincidentally, it was 24 years ago this week that he passed and I'm certain he never knew how much that scenic detour would affect his only son.
Spring on the Ducati 1098..
Today .. I'm living the motorcyclist's dream.. The Blue Ridge Parkway entrance is within 5 minutes of my door. It hasn't changed much since the first time I experienced it 46 years ago although I have somewhat. And while there are dozens of curvaceous ribbons of perfectly paved asphalt within a few minutes ride, many of them considered  some of the best the US has to offer, I still do about 95% of my riding on the BRPW.  It is my  younger self's dream realized. One might  assume by now that I'd be tired of running the same stretch of tarmac week after week.. year after year. decade after decade, but they'd be wrong  Every single time I ride the BRPW...(and this is no exaggeration).. it still takes my breath away.

Certain times of year, the beauty of the BRPW is so overwhelming that it's brought me to tears. Other times, the parkways' attributes are so subtle as to be almost hidden from view. While everyone appreciates the legendary bright colors of Autumn (and we have the hordes of seasonal leaf-peepers to prove it), most do NOT notice that there are just as many shades of greens and purples during the lush summer months. They seem to change colors as the day progresses. You just have to "see."  In the spring at certain altitudes there are wild flowers that smell like exotic perfumes which always triggers forgotten memories of past lovers.  When the morning sun hits the perpetually wet, red granite walls just north of Craggy Gardens, the entire rock face looks like a mirror reflecting over the valley below. I've found a couple of  hidden spots where thousands of  colorful butterflies gather and dance to some secret ritualistic tune.  They allow me to witness this end of life spectacle and I feel honored.
Summer on the K1200S

My favorite time of year on the parkway is late autumn. Specifically, there's a one week period just after the foliage has peaked and the strong winds begin their restless push through the area that the leaves reluctantly release their grip and float back to earth. From inside my helmet the light and color show of falling leaves interacting with sunlight is viscerally overwhelming. There's a word for this in the Japanese language.. Komorebi. The indescribable beauty signaling nature's seasonal finale and I'm lucky enough to have a front row seat.  Even in the deadest of winter when the leaves (and traffic) are long gone and the light is waning in preparation for winter's solstice, the parkway reveals an almost melancholy stoic beauty to those who are open to it. Few things can instantly send my mind back to our family gathering around a Christmas tree than coming around a corner at high altitude and getting hit with the cool, fresh scent of evergreens and wild poinsettia.  Zero to 50 years ago in 1 second.

As you may have extrapolated by this seasoned rider's feeble attempt at a verbally lyrical ode, the Blue Ridge Parkway is more than just a curvy road to me. It's a 469 mile long bridge that spans my life.  It has the power to transport my mind and body from my past to the present and ultimately into a hopeful future. It is the keeper of long forgotten moments and future memories. Ready to bestow them at any moment. Around any curve. Just on the other side of that  upcoming tunnel. As I'm closing in on the 500,000 career miles milestone and no stranger to all the wonderful sights and great riding this country has to offer, I can honestly say the Blue Ridge Parkway is hands down my favorite ride and probably always will be. Thanks, dad.

"In the end, it's not how many breaths you take, but how many moments take your breath away." Anonymous philosopher

Autumn on the Ducati ST3

Most Touching Moment: I had stopped up at Mt. Mitchell for a sandwich and Dew. It was late in the day and very few people were still in the parking area. I was getting ready to leave when I notice a car pulling up and parking about 30ft away. Immediately a rear door flies open and a mentally challenged boy of about 12 or 14 gets out and starts towards me before his parents even get their doors open. He has the gaited walk of someone who's impaired and his left arm is kinda twisted inward. This boy will never have a normal life. He comes up to me and immediately starts asking me questions about the bike.. He asks what kind it is? how fast is it? do I like riding it?.. His speech isn't perfect but I understand him just fine. About this time his parents are out and rushing to my aid to pull their son away from me, but I stop them by holding up my hand and I let the boy continue with his questions and I answer them honestly. I ask him if he wants to sit on it and he lights up with a huge smile. I help him up and ask his mother if she has a camera. She runs back to their car, returns with one. She takes the shot and then the boy asks her to take one of us together. I stand beside him and he pulls me over and puts his arm around me like we're best buds. She takes the shot . The boy says... "Some day I'm going to have a motorcycle just like this."  I try not to tear up. I shake his hand. The parents pull him away and they walk off.. A few minutes later I'm about to put my helmet on and the mother comes back and thanks me. She tells me most people are afraid to talk to him and that her son would remember this for a long, long time.

Most Spiritual Moment: While riding a peaked ridge in Virginia 4 years ago going North, I look off to my right and see an eagle flying about 50 feet away at exactly the same altitude as I am.. I see the bird.. he's looking at me. He's looking directly into my eyes and he sees me looking at him...He's matching my pace.. We are side by side for at least 200 yards.. For a moment we connect. Afterwards I kept thinking perhaps.. just perhaps the soul of some past motorcyclist was in this magnificent bird and for a  few seconds... the soul remembered a past life..

Yoko.. my 98 K1200RS

Most "You're Not Gonna Believe This" Moment: While on my way to one of I-BMW's rallies a few years ago, while passing through Virginia, I stopped at a grassy overlook to have a sip of Dew and a sandwich. The spot had a great view of  a sprawling valley. Visibility was at least 10 miles ..A perfectly clear day with nary a cloud in the sky.  I hadn't been there 2 minutes when I noticed 2 F-15's doing maneuvers. Acrobatic type stuff. I assumed I was close to a military base. Very cool. I watched the planes for about 10 minutes while eating and relaxing then I noticed something separate from one of the planes. Seconds later I heard the explosion which I assume was either the canopy ejecting or something in the multi-million dollar plane turning to toast. I saw the parachute and then the  plane rolled over and went straight down exploding behind some trees in a huge fireball. I'd guess this was about 3 miles away. As I didn't have a cell phone signal to call 911, I immediately got on my bike and raced down the parkway to notify someone. I found a park ranger about 2 miles down and informed him of what I saw.. I think he thought I was having a quadrazine hallucination as he had had no reports of a plane crash.  A few seconds later while I was still standing there, his radio went wild with the news.

Most Boneheaded Moment: I generally ride the parkway at 10-15mph over so passing is as common as breathing. When I'm in the zone, cars are no more to me than obstacles in my way with no more significance than a boulder in my lane. I rarely look at the occupants or the license plates. My eyes are always ahead of them. The car exists only in my peripheral vision. One day I was in the zone and passed a string of about 5 cars in a closely grouped bunch.. I didn't notice until after I got by them  (and the blue lights had fired up) that the one in the middle was a fully marked park ranger. DOH!.. Needless to say.. she pulled me over and gave me a ticket and verbal beating.

Late Summer on the MVF4..

"You Aren't Passing Me"  Dishonorable Moments: 1. On a particularly crowded day on the pky, I was behind a string of about 7 cars.. All tightly bunched except for the first two. I saw an opportunity to pass almost all of them at once and took it. As I was about 1/2 way past them I see a car approaching from the opposite direction so I know I must cut in just behind the first car or become somebody's hood ornament.  As I'm about to do that the Corvette which is #2 in line sees me (and I see him see me in his side mirror) then deliberately closes the gap with car # 1 so I can't get in. My God!.. Apparently, he wants to teach me a lesson. He wants me to learn that I must stay in line like him and the other cages even if it kills me. Thank God the K1200S has God-like power or I'd have never made it past the first car (by less than 10 feet) before the oncoming guy ruined my day..  Once past.. I turn around, point to the guy in the 'vette so he'll know it's for him and him alone and give him the digital salute.

Runner-Up: . Another day I was riding behind a out-of town mini-van packed with a family.  The parents up front and at least 5 kids in the back. The stretch of road was very curvy so I couldn't pass for  a mile or so. When I finally got a chance I went out to pass and the van swerves over to stop me from passing.. What the f#@%?! I can see the guy in his side mirror yelling at me.. I try again.. He swerves over again. Geezus... What a wonderful example  he's setting for his kids. I thought about pulling over and just letting this a-hole have his way, but that's not my nature. On a 3rd attempt I get beside him.. he swerves over  nearly touching my bike and actually sticks his left arm out of the window and tries to physically grab me to keep me from passing.. Unbelievable. I give him the middle digit salute then go on my way. In hindsight I probably should have called the police.

Most Seat Pinching Moment: Years ago before I learned to always hit my horn before entering a BRPW tunnel, I came around one of the common wide sweeping parkway curves into a tunnel. About 30ft in... before my eyes had adjusted... I hit something.. some mid-sized animal.. groundhog.. small bear... pre-pubescent bigfoot.. no idea, but it was hard enough strike that my bike went sideways.. in the dark.. My biggest fear is going down inside one of these dark tunnels and being run over.. Miraculously... I didn't go down.. nor did I stop to see if the offending critter was as fortunate.. I'll bet the pinch marks are still in that seat.

Getting High on the Ducati 1098
Most Incredulous Moment: I had stopped at the Devils Court House to clean my face shield. As I was standing by my bike getting ready to leave, a family which had been picnicking nearby approached as they were parked beside me. The car was a $70K Mercedes. The family was obviously well off and one would assume well educated. The husband who was around 40 years old and well dressed wearing a Lacoste polo shirt and chinos. Had to have gone to an Ivy league school. Looked like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company if I've ever seen one. He casually says to me.. "Is that a BMW?"... Yes it is...I say. He says... "That's the first I've ever seen? He seemed shocked!! "When did they start making motorcycles?" he said.. 1923.. I say. He said.. "No really"... I said.. Really..

1. Always hit your horn when entering a tunnel. There are lots of bicyclists on the BRPW at all times of the year.  Many Tour de France riders train on the BRPW as it's very close to European riding. Most wear safety colors and have flashing lights.. Many do not. In the 2 seconds it takes your eyes to adapt to the darkness of a tunnel, you could be all over a bicycle rider who's stupidly in the middle of the lane and/or not wearing reflective gear. In theory, hitting your horn will alert them you're coming and allow them the time to move over to the inside line and give you room to pass. Before I started hitting my horn I came close a' dozen times to taking out a poorly lit bicycle.

Never ever pass a car when approaching an overlook or rest area. More often than not the cage in front of you will make a last minute turn into the area with no warning. Some have been watching YOU on their ass in their rear view mirrors and  have just been waiting for a chance  and a place to let you pass.

Never speed on the few straight sections of the parkway. That's where the popo will have radar set up. Trust me on this. If they nail you while going through the curves.. DO NOT try to outrun them. There's usually never a place to get off when you need one.. or so I'm told. Just pull over and wait for them to show up.

Waiting Out the Rain!

4. If you get pulled over... BEFORE you whip out your license and registration, inform the trooper that you are or are not carrying a weapon. As of 2010, you can carry weapons on the parkway so the park rangers are a little skittish. By letting them know you aren't carrying.. they'll instantly A. appreciate the info and B. Possibly lighten up a bit and let you go, although that rarely happens with me.

5. The parkway eats tires. It's more abrasive than any road you'll ever see.  Most sections are paved with a glass derivative offering supreme grip. If you are planning a long trip on the parkway, start with good tires. Have had dozens of riders stop in here perplexed that their tires were toast after such a short period of time. This is something they don't tell you on the BRPW's official website.

In the fall when the leaves are peaking... unless you like riding a Harley or golf cart and are used to putting along at old lady speeds...stay off the parkway after 12 noon or any time of day on weekends...The best time to ride is early on week days. Expect tourists to actually stop in the middle of the road to take pictures or drive at 5-10 mph..

7. Never, ever ride the BRPW after dusk... that's when the zombies (aka.. deer) come out and they want to kill you.  They usually travel in small packs. They stand around in the middle of the road or leap out from the trees whispering in deer language.. "brains.. brains."  Be afraid of them. Always get off the parkway 1 hour before dark. Trust me on this or not.

8. There are lots of turkeys around the BRPW.. Most people don't realize that they can actually fly. Be careful if you pass one as when scared, sometimes they will fly up and when that 30lb bird smacks you in the chest.. it's not pleasant for either of you.

9. Always carry a drink and a snack as there are only a handful of places to buy such things on the parkway and you never know when you're gonna need a moon pie and Mt Dew. I also carry a book in case I see a nice spot to kick back and relax and a "travel-size" roll of toilet paper for er.. emergencies..

10. Always carry a map (or GPS) so you can find gas if needed. Unless I'm mistaken, there are only 2 spots actually on the parkway that sell fuel. Otherwise you have to get off and go looking for it. It's an environmental issue, I'm told.

11. Fog Banks: If you put in enough miles on  the BRPW sooner or later you're gonna run into a fog bank... They can range from barely annoying to "please God.. let me make it through this alive" scary. Immediately make sure your low beams and flashers are on. Generally these banks are less than 1/4 mile long, but I've seen them last 12-14 miles and be so thick that not only can you NOT see the road either in front of you or even the side, but so thick that you can't see your dash... IMHO.. these fog banks are the most dangerous aspect of riding the parkway.. More so than black ice. More so than zombies. More so than a ranger with an attitude. Generally.. If I run into one of these fog banks, If I'm NOT out of it within 1 mile.. I turn around and go back the way I came or get off if there's access. If you can't see the road.. cages on the parkway can't see you and will plow right over you unknowingly.. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

THick Fog.. Be Afraid!

1. It's safer than street riding. The peripherals that demand constant attention when street riding are limited on the parkway. Almost without exception there are no pot holes or gravel in the corners. The pavement is generally as good as your tax dollars can buy.  I'm not 100% sure but I don't recall more than a handful of decreasing radius curves. For the most part every curve is relatively predictable.

2. There are almost no side streets for people to pull out in front of you. Yes.. there are rest areas and overlooks where people are pulling in and out, but in all my years I've never seen an accident on the parkway related to one of the pull-offs.  Most are placed so there are no blind spots. The experienced parkway rider knows that you should always slow down at these pull offs just in case some tourist does something stupid.

3. When the temps skyrocket in Asheville... higher elevations and cool temps are less than 20 minutes away. God's own air-conditioning for the faithful. Mt Pisqua's temps generally run 10 degrees cooler  than Asheville while Mt Mitchell's run as much as 20 degrees cooler year round.

4. Speeding tickets are Federal.. Meaning.. they don't go on your driving record or against your insurance. Ever. You pay them and forget about it. Get a dozen in a year.. not a problem. For a ticket magnet like myself.. this alone is worth the price of admission.
Just try to keep your speed to 10 or so over.

Perfect Spot for Clive Cussler!

Lastly.. A special public thank you to the love of my life, Amber who not only allows me to pursue my two-wheeled adventures with nary an iota of marital guilt, but actually encourages it.

Off the BRPW 1973
Off the BRPW 2010
Your humble author and time traveler hanging out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.. 37 years between shots..

And that's all I've got to say about that... Pirate out...
Jerry D. Finley
Captain /
Pirates' Lair