In the fall of 2011, against my better judgment and with no prior experience, I attempted to ride a motorcycle from a dairy farm in Upstate New York back to my home in Dallas, Texas. This is the long-winded account of that trip in easy-to-digest line segments. For earlier portions, go here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
For all of the previous day, I enjoyed the company of Lakes Erie and Ontario, whose oceanic scale is breathtaking in a way that almost restores integrity to the word. I have seen lakes and those are not lakes. They are planets. Like so many American utilities, their usefulness has dwindled over time. Before they were replaced by the rails that would be replaced by trucks, they were the ventricles to arterial canals, bearing up the materials of American livelihood. They still support commercial transport, if at a fraction of their former glory.
With Lake Erie in my rear view, I cut a sharp left toward rural Ohio and the meaty backbone of America. Before long, I was amidst verdant swatches of farmland; a speck of exhaust on a cubist painting. The goal of the trip, for both practical and experiential reasons, was to avoid major highways. This was my third day of riding and I still grimaced at 55 mph, so I stuck to the two-laners. I had, or thought I had, some general idea of the way I was taking, intending to drift toward Nashville on some hypothetical diagonal. I soon lost myself in a sea of randomly numbered farm roads. Ohio’s Cartesian road map had me navigating the heartland like an Etch A Sketch.
On my first two days of riding, I enjoyed perfect weather. But as I rode along latitudes and longitudes, burly clouds amassed in the distance. For a regular touring biker, rain is a nuisance. For an irrational novice rider, it is the foreshadow of a certain wreck. I have since learned that light showers, while deserving some caution, do not immediately turn the roadbed into a Slip ‘N Slide. Thinking as I was, I tried to outrun a thunderstorm while simultaneously being afraid to go fast enough to really outrun it.
The storm caught me. Light at first then heavier pelts on the thighs of my jeans. I thought of stopping to don the rain suit my dad sent me but decided to press ahead to Mansfield, wait for the rain to pass and re-plot my route. I found a coffee shop downtown and quickly ducked inside, abandoning my saddle bags to soak in the rain. I was the lone customer on a weekday afternoon. After an hour the clouds scattered and I continued on to Hillsboro. I had intended to camp that night, but was irked by the thought of doing so in damp clothes. So I checked into a motel and ate dinner in a bowling alley, munching fried walleye as I watched the lanes.
I left early, intending to make Kentucky before I stopped for breakfast. I met the river at Ripley and what had been thick plains suddenly unfurled to reveal the Ohio River. There are places in America renowned for their majesty, but there are pockets of majesty everywhere, including Southern Ohio. I skirted the river on the Ohio side until the first bridge at Aberdeen, passing over to Maysville, Kentucky, where I stopped for breakfast. Maysville is a stunning burg, all old brick walls and streets nuzzling the banks of the Ohio. The eggs were underdone, but the river in the sunrise looked brilliant.
I spent the rest of the morning in pursuit of Lexington. I was excited for this part of the trip because I had never really visited Kentucky, by which I mean I had yet to see one of its renowned bourbon distilleries. In the most retro act imaginable, I stopped at the downtown tourism office, no doubt a more relevant place before Rick Steves could live inside your pocket, on a phone.
The office was staffed by two older Kentucky women, every bit as cordial and decorous as their reputation. I told one of them that I wanted to see a distillery and she thought I might enjoy Woodford Reserve. “It’s right here near ver-sails. Don’t laugh,” she said before I could address the very un-French pronunciation of Versailles. “That’s how we say it here.”
She also touted the nearby Keeneland racetrack, which was, she assured me, superior to Churchill Downs for reasons of preservation and Seabiscuit. She was actually quite serious on this point. “Promise me you’ll see it before you leave Kentucky,” she said. I left Lexington for the Woodford Reserve distillery. Never one to break a promise, I stopped by Keeneland on the way. From the parking lot, I could just glimpse the enormous track, empty that day but as stately as advertised.
Woodford Reserve is well outside the city, abutting a horse breeding farm and miles of hills. I stopped inside the visitor’s center for a sandwich and to join a tour. The man showed us the huge vats of mash and the various distilling appurtenances before leading us to the aging room. Rows of barrels stacked 15 feet high were quietly sanctifying all around us and the sharp smell of the angel’s share filled our noses. Wringing alcohol out of nature is an ancient pursuit and people have done so on the Woodford site for close to the entire history of our nation. In that limestone room, the whiskey spends at least two years in growing pains. The least we could do, the guide implored us at the tour’s conclusion, is take the time to sip it and to do so sans Coca Cola.
When I returned to my bike, I discovered the keys still in the ignition and the headlight off. “Please,” I begged, “Please let the key be turned to off.” It was on. The bike is designed to have the headlight on whenever the bike runs. This means if you killed the bike, but forgot to turn the ignition off, that light burned until the battery expired, as mine was.
Woodford Reserve and, more importantly, its parking lot are at the top of a modest hill. I had one shot. Succeed and I’d be on my way to Nashville. Fail, and I’d be the blockhead on a dead bike at the bottom of a hill. I put the bike into second gear and pulled in the clutch, facing the front tire downhill. I pattered my feet Fred Flinstone style and started coasting down the driveway. Nearly at the bottom, I prayed and popped the clutch. The single cylinder suddenly rumbled with life. Now clearly invincible, I road off, promising to never leave the ignition on again.
I turned onto Bardstown Road to head southwest toward Nashville, where I was planning to spend the night. The road dives through some of Kentucky’s hidden, bucolic landscape. It also meanders like a slalom course. Turns were still difficult for me to execute well and I was dealing with one every few seconds. I took them slow, trying to accelerate through on a smooth lean. The result was clunky, but improving.
Once the road straightened, I pulled off to a liquor store. Oddly, there were people inside drinking next to the glass cases of beer and shelves of whiskey for sale. I still don’t know if that kind of bar/store combo is typical in Kentucky. The store was backwoods by most standards and I wondered if I was about to catch any grief from the local patronage. Instead, they politely inclined about where I was coming from and laughed when I brought up the twists and turns of the highway leading to the store. “I think the surveyor must’ve been drunk when he laid that one out,” one drinker said.
I bought a bottle of bourbon for my hosts that evening, a married couple my age with whom I’d lived during grad school. The happy Kentuckians bid me farewell and I continued on, through Glasgow, across Barren Lake and on into Tennessee.