Sunday, November 28, 2010

West Virginia Road Trip - Day 4 - Saturday

After we woke up Saturday, Anna's sister Tonya took me, Anna, Ricky and Little Jimmy out for breakfast at Suzi's, which Tonya insisted had better biscuits and gravy than Tudor's. Suzi's looked like a fast food restaurant, although it is not a chain. After tasting Suzi's gravy, Anna and I agreed we liked Tudor's gravy better, although Suzi's biscuits didn't crumble as easily as Tudors. But then again, having been born and raised in New England, I'm not really qualified to be a critic of southern cooking.

Suzi's drew a brisk business, and a wide variety of customers, including some guys in camoflague jackets. "Look, there's a Skoal ring!" Anna said, pointing to the back of some dude waiting in line, where she could see the outline of a can of tobacco worn into the back pocket of his jeans.

On the way back to her house, Tonya accomodated my request for some Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and we got some hot from the oven. These light, airy and sticky-sweet treats practically melt in your mouth! Although Krispy Kremes are all throughout the south, you cannot find one in Rhode Island (and, vice versa, you will not find a Dunkin Donuts in Charleston, W. Va.).

Like many houses in the area, Tonya's house, which is in South Charleston, sits atop a hill overlooking the Kanawha valley. The street to get to her house is extremely steep on one end (it seemed like a 45-degree incline, but it was probably not quite that much). Then, once you park on the street, you have to walk up a steep set of concrete steps to get to the house. A gutted deer hung in the nextdoor neighbor's carport.

Anna and I decided to go home on Saturday, after hearing that highway traffic would be much worse on Sunday. We left at 3 p.m., while we still had some daylight left. Along Interstate 79 in West Virginia, one can see groups of three crosses in the mountains along the highway every so often. They were placed by a West Virginian, Bernard Coffindaffer, who became a Christian at the age of 42 and began putting up the groups of crosses in 1984 (see Since there were no leaves on the trees, we could also see where people lived on the sides or tops of the mountains. Some were rundown trailers with winding dirt roads leading up to them; others were luxury houses. But many of these houses were alone, with not a neighbor in sight. I also saw at least three dead deer on the side of the highway.
I don't think there is any significant straightaway on Interstate 79 in West Virginia. I was constantly driving long, sweeping curves either to the left or right. Then, when we got on Interstate 68 and rode into Maryland, we contended with steep grades. The temperature was cold, and there was some snow on the side of the highway. My tires felt skittish, so I slowed my speeds considerably; at a rest stop, I confirmed the road was definitely slick, so I kept my speeds to 45-50 mph. Going down a steep grade is worse than going up - I felt like I was descending into an abyss, and doing it on an icy road only intensified the white-knuckle experience. (Later, I noticed that my black car had the telltale white residue of road salt.)

Fortunately, though, the roads dried up after about 20 minutes of driving, so I could relax a bit. Once near Hagerstown, Md., the highway flattens out, and it was smooth sailing through the rest of the states. We stopped at the same highway service area off Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania where we had stopped on the way up. At the McDonald's there, three members of the Hell's Angels from South Carolina saw the writing on Anna's hooded sweatshirt that said Federal Hill, Providence, R.I., and told her they had just been in Providence to pay their respects to a brother who had passed away.

After a quick dinner and gassing up the car, we were back on the road. Traffic was relatively light. We went back the same way we came, but it seemed like we were in New Jersey forever, so I had to pull over for a map check. I was on course alright. After crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, we were soon in Connecticut. After we stopped at a highway service area in Fairfield, Conn., I let Anna drive the rest of the way home. We arrived home an hour or two before daybreak.

I'd like to visit West Virginia again, preferably in the summer, but definitely not in the winter - the roads are difficult enough in dry weather. Anna can't see me living in West Virginia. "My baby don't like the mountains," she teases me.

Friday, November 26, 2010

West Virginia Road Trip - Day 3 - Friday

Anna wanted to do several things during our trip to Charleston, West Virginia, where she had not lived since 15 years ago. Tops on her list was getting biscuits and gravy - a quintessential southern meal - at Tudor's Biscuit World. Her sister, Tonya, said Suzi's had better biscuits, but Anna persisted, so Tonya, Anna, Ricky and I ate breakfast at Tudor's on Friday. I ordered one biscuit with apples, and one with ham, and dipped my biscuits into the white gravy with chunks of sausage. At the end, I was more full than any traditional bacon, egg, homefries and toast breakfast I've ever had.

After breakfast, Tonya's car became a virtual time machine, taking us to places from Anna's past. We began with a stop at the site of a house on MacCorkle Avenue, next to the Kanawha River, where Anna lived as a young girl (the house was demolished years ago, and another building was in its place). Next we drove over the Dunbar Bridge, headed for Tyler Mountain, where Anna grew up. We saw where her grandfather ("paw paw") used to live. That house is also gone, although some concrete steps and metal handrail that used to lead up the steep hill to his house still remain, partially covered by brush.

We stopped at a convenience store called the Cold Spot, where Anna used to buy candy and soda as a kid, and, when she was a teenager, "hang out." She even got to see Bill, who is still the owner.

Then we drove by the site of a house where Anna lived from her late teens to early 20s. The ramshackle house, which had been owned by Anna's mother, was a "party house" where friends often crashed. "Everyone stayed there at one point or another, even my paw paw," Anna recalled. "It was kind of an 'in between' house for people." Eventually, the house was sold and demolished, and a bus shelter now sits where the house used to be - that's how close it was to the road.

Continuing on Tyler Mountain, we drove up Slaughter's Drive, a steep road that led to a group of houses and trailers clustered on the side of a mountain. Anna lived there with her mother (who is now deceased) from about ages 9 to 17. A house was built over the trailer they used to live in, but the shed she used to play in still stood. Anna stopped at the house next door to her old house, "just to see who was living there," and was pleasantly surprised to see the mother of her childhood best friend, Tammy, who was living in the next house over.

Anna went to the house next door and saw Jack - Tammy's father - cooking eggs. Tammy was sleeping after hitting the early-morning after Thanksgiving sales, but woke up, excited to see Anna, as the two hugged. Tammy said she had tried to find Anna on Facebook, but now they could catch up in person on 20 years of lost time. Anna was equally happy to see Jack, who she calls Jackie. "He was like a father figure to me," Anna said. "He would always say to me, 'If you ever see me on a plane, don't say "Hi Jack!"

Jack teased Anna for losing some of her West Virginia accent. "You sound like you're from New York," he teased Anna. "Don't forget your roots, girl!"

Next, we stopped at a bar called the Wagon Wheel, where Anna's mother, uncle and grandfather used to frequent. Anna said the bar, which has been around for decades, is virtually unchanged from how she remembers it. I actually have a Wagon Wheel tee shirt that Anna's sister sent us (since mine is getting faded, we asked if they had more, but they didn't).

Then we stopped at the 7 Eleven in where Anna used to work (7 Eleven and Go Mart are the two predominant convenience stores in the Charleston area), and rode around an upscale neighborhood in Cross Lanes.

Lastly, even though we were still somewhat full on Tudor's biscuits, we stopped at a local institution, Skeenies Hot Dogs, located in a small shack close to Sissonville Road. Skeenies serves West Virginia-style hot dogs, with steamed buns, spicy chili and finely-chopped cole slaw. In my opinion, they put the New York system weiners, which are prevalent in Rhode Island, to shame. Anna and Tonya were laughing at me because I was going "Mmmmm!" after every bite of my Skeenies hot dogs (I didn't even realize I was doing it, I was so busy savoring those dogs). What was even more cool was that the original owner, a woman in her 80s (sorry, I can't recall her name), served us.

Tonya took us back to her house, but had to leave us because her husband Jimmy had to go to the hospital. He had difficulty swallowing at Thanksgiving dinner and the problem had not gotten better since then. She stayed with him at the hospital until late that night as doctors ran a diagnostic test and found he had a swollen esophagus.

Meanwhile, Anna and I had another situation to deal with at the homefront. Someone clogged the only toilet in the house and I, a master plumber, could not unclog it with the funky-looking contraption with plastic bellows that was there. So, Anna and I had to take a drive to buy a real plunger at K-Mart, which did the job.

Later, Anna, Ricky and I had to drive Anna's daughter (who was also staying at Tonya's house, but rode there separately) and the father of her daughter, to a relative's house in nearby Nitro, W. Va. There, we somehow got talked into taking a sixth person into my car, which only fits five people, so Ricky had to sit on his sister's lap, which degenerated into a major shouting and wrestling match. Fortunately, it was only a short ride to where we had to drop off three passengers, so Anna, Ricky and I could return to Tonya's house for the night.

This blog would not be complete without a bit more about Gawnjie, the 120-lb. Bouvier, who resembled either a black bear or a poodle on steroids. The Belgian dogs are bred to herd cattle, but Tonya had to constantly herd this dog around the house, shooing it out of the way or off of the couch. The breed is known for being smelly to begin with, but this dog was also in heat, which made the odors worse. "Gawnjie, you stink!" was a constant refrain of Tonya, as she followed the dog with air freshener spray.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

West Virginia Road Trip - Day 2 - Thanksgiving Day

Today, I got to meet Anna's sister Tonya's family: her husband, Jimmy; her 3-year-old son, little Jimmy (also known as Bub-Bub), who wears his hair in a mullet; and the family dog, Gawnjie, a 120-lb. Bouvier that resembled a black bear.

Jimmy is a big, soft-spoken man who is into Harley-Davidsons and racing cars. Anna got him the perfect gift: a Harley tee shirt from our local Harley dealer, Ocean State Harley-Davidson, that read, "I'm wearing this tee shirt until they come out with a darker color than black." Anna brought her sister, who recently re-dedicated her life to Jesus Christ, a personalized Bible.

Before Thanksgiving dinner, Tonya and Jimmy drove us to downtown Charleston to see the capitol building and governor's mansion, which is right near the Kanawha River. The capitol's crowning feature is it's 293-foot gold dome, plated in real gold leaf. To my surprise, the doors to the capitol were open, and it was staffed by a capitol police officer, who was on duty until the early evening.

After the capitol, we drove to see Jimmy's mother, Minnie, who had prepared Thankgiving dinner for us and Jimmy's sisters. Getting to Minnie's house at the top of Spring Hill Mountain meant driving up a steep, narrow curvy road, with only a metal guardrail separating the road from a steep drop-off into the woods. Minnie's street was also very steep, and neighboring houses were not only surrounded by steep hills, but all of the houses were on hilly lots themselves. But that is typical of much of West Virginia. If you are not on a hill, then you are surrounded by them.

Minnie was a gracious host and wonderful cook, and after dinner, I was too full to do anything much more strenuous than make conversation. Anna's 11-year-old son Ricky, however, was full of energy and wanted to ride a four-wheel ATV, which he flipped over, ripping his jeans in the process (he only suffered minor cuts and bruises). "Now I'm officially a redneck," Ricky joked. At one point, Little Jimmy raided a tool shed in the yard, using a golf club as a shovel, and opening a gas can. I feared he might drink gasoline, but, as Big Jimmy ran toward him, Little Jimmy said in a southern drawl, "Don't worry, it's empty!"

Before the trip, Anna had hoped to find someone in West Virginia who would let us borrow a motorcycle so we could go riding. She had pinned her hopes on one Jimmy's friends, Slick, but he did not hook us up with a loaner bike. Too bad, because it was actually quite warm on Thanksgiving Day, around 65 degrees. "He (Slick) is the president of a motorcycle club, and he still couldn't come through," Anna joked.

After dinner, we went back to Tonya and Jimmy's house. Anna, Ricky and I were alone because Tonya had to work that night, and Jimmy, who wasn't feeling well, stayed at his mother's house. Being tired from my long drive, I wanted to just chill at the house, but Anna was itching to go out. "I have to get off this mountain, baby," Anna said. "I feel like I'm trapped." Besides being tired, I was also afraid of getting lost, since I didn't have a GPS, and Anna was not entirely confident how to get around, because it had been many years since she lived in Charleston. But she persisted and I gave in. We stopped at the hotel, where Tonya was working the front desk, to find her relaxing on the couch with her shoes off, which drives Anna crazy.

"Sister, people who come here and see you with no shoes will think we're a bunch of hillbillies," Anna scolded her.

Tonya replied, "I feel like I'm at home."

As the two sisters went back and forth, a woman came through the door to check in, and Tonya did not put her shoes on as she got off the couch and walked barefoot past the woman to go behind the front desk. "I don't care if you don't wear any shoes," the woman told Tonya, ending the debate.

After hanging out with Tonya (and enjoying free coffee), Anna Ricky and I went to 7-Eleven to get some snacks. Ricky, who is not shy about approaching strangers, walked up to a customer and said, "Dude, I like your accent!" That was enough to start a 10-minute conversation; people in general, even strangers, are quite friendly in West Virginia. Armed with snacks and Slurpees, we headed back to Tonya's house. It was so warm that I took my shirt off, sipped my Slurpee and sat outdoors on the front steps, watching the sea of lights from the chemical plants in the valley below. Train whistles blew. Crickets chirped. This must have been what country singer Glenn Campbell had in mind when he wrote the song, "Southern Nights."

Several minutes later, after I went back inside, Anna came and got me. I stepped outdoors to find that the weather had changed completely. The calm, clear sky had been replaced by an overcast drizzle, driven by a strong, continuous wind (as opposed to gusts of wind). It felt like I was in a wind tunnel. "Welcome to the mountains, baby," Anna said.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

West Viriginia Road Trip - Day 1 - Wednesday

This past summer, Anna and I considered riding a motorcycle 700 miles to see her sister in West Virginia, but scrapped the idea since we only had four days available. We decided we didn't have enough experience to ride that many miles in one day.

With Thanksgiving approaching, both of us had four days off again, and really wanted to go to West Virginia. This time, we did - the difference was we were on four wheels instead of two. We found out that travelling some 750 miles continuously is challenging, even in a car.

Anna and I had to work Wednesday, so by the time we left Rhode Island, it was 5:30 p.m. My car is a 17-year-old Nissan with 142,000 miles and a non-functional radio, so I brought my iPod for Anna's son, Ricky, and loaded up on snacks. A guy I work with also let me borrow his Dewalt battery-operated jobsite radio so we could have music in the car.

I had wanted to buy a GPS, but Anna said I shouldn't waste my money, since she printed directions on Mapquest (I'm not too keen on Mapquest, but, okay). Traffic on Interstate 95 was heavy, but flowed well, even when we reached New Haven, Conn. Anna said she usually goes over the George Washington Bridge to get past New York, but Mapquest put us over the Tappan Zee Bridge instead. We took Interstate 287 into New Jersey, and then got on Interstate 78 west, crossing into Pennsylvania. We stopped for gas and food at a highway service area in Shartlesville, Penn. around 10:30 p.m., continuing on 78 west until it joined Interstate 81 west, which is a lonely stretch of road through the wilderness. About the only traffic in the early-morning hours was the occasional 18-wheeler.

It was around this point that the driving became more challenging, because it began to rain and the terrain became very hilly. We were continuously climbing or descending long grades. Anna had wanted to give me a No-Doz pill to help keep me alert, but I was not feeling tired at this point (I had been relying on caffiene). The driving was, however, very stressful because of poor visibility: unlike most of Rhode Island, the highway here was unlit, and the paint on the lines in the road was very faded. Also, the rain made it harder to see. I had meant to replace my wiper blades before the trip, but I kept putting it off, so I relied on the reflectors just to stay in my lane. I had to keep my speeds between 45-50 mph. To say the miles dragged by slowly was an understatement. After crossing the West Virginia state line, we stopped at a welcome center before we tackled the longest leg of our trip, about 150 miles on Interstate 79. Like I-68, that highway is also hilly (and constantly curvy). Some hills are so steep that there is a "runaway truck" lane.

By now, I was becoming too tired to drive safely, so at the next rest area, I let Anna drive for about 50 miles. That was enough of a break for me to revive a bit, so I drove the last 50 miles or so into Charleston, the capitol city of West Virgina, as day began to break. We arrived in South Charleston, W. Va. around 7:30 a.m. and met Anna's sister, Tonya, at the hotel where she had just finished working the overnight shift. Then we followed Tonya back to her house, where we we got a few hours of sleep before we had to get ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

"Try doing that on a Harley," said Andy Beaulieu, our friend and member of the Romans 8 Riders chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

The trip up took us about 13 hours, not counting bathroom, gas and food stops. It can be done in 10-12 hours, Anna said, but between the poor visibility from the rain and the anemic hill-climbing power of my four cylinder Nissan (gettting it to go faster than 60 or 65 mph on some of the steeper hills was impossible), I was thankful we got there safely instead of quickly.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Caught By Surprise

Sad as it is, for all intents and purposes, the group riding season is over. There are still a few individual riders here and there, holding out as long as they can, as morning temperatures have dipped into the 30s the past couple weeks.

For the most part, I've been fairly busy with work over the past several weeks, so I did not log much riding time as the riding season dwindled. My riding was mostly limited to once a week, usually on a Sunday. The last time I rode was Oct. 31, and that was about as late into the season as Anna could stand (at least without a full-face helmet); her lips and face were chapped. She's done for the year as far as riding is concerned, but I wasn't ready to call it quits yet.

This week, I had no work planned, so my goal was to get some riding in on one or two weekdays, and change the oil on my bike before I put it up for the winter. But this morning, I was caught by surprise when I looked outside and saw snow on the ground! Argh!! It's probably occurred at some time within my lifetime, but I'll be darned if I can remember it snowing this early in November. Anna says it's the start of what she believes will be a long, difficult winter .... sort of Mother Nature's payback for a near-perfect summer. Only one or two rides were rained out, and it never got excessively hot.

It's only an inch or two of slushy snow, so it will likely be gone in a day or two; I'm more concerned about the possibility of salt on the roads, although temperatures are not expected to be below freezing. In any case, I'll be keeping a watchful eye for the telltale white residue. If crews did not put sand or salt on the roads, I may still have hope of riding this week, since the forecast calls for sun with mid-50s temperatures by Thursday and Friday. If they did apply salt, though, I would have to wait for a good rainfall to wash the salt off the road. The end results of salt on chrome ain't pretty ....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Leader of the Pack

Once a year in the fall, my Romans 8 Riders chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association holds elections for chapter officers: president, vice president, road captain, secretary, treasurer and chaplain. Chapter members nominate candidates, who have a chance to decline, before the secret ballot voting.

Last month, I learned that I had been among a list of people nominated for the position of road captain (it was decided that there would be co-road captains). But, most of the half-dozen or so people nominated for road captain declined the nomination, so my chapter president, Spike, said the position was mine if I wanted it. I was a bit hesitant, since I have only two seasons of riding experience, but Spike said he felt I was up to the job. Besides, I would be sharing road captain duties with Richard "Pappy" Desjarlais, who is a veteran rider.

The road captain leads the chapter during group rides, riding in the left front position, next to the chapter president. Besides being responsible for the safety of the group on the road, the road captain will do a 'dry run' of the ride's route prior to the day of the ride, checking for anything that would affect the ride, such as road construction, detours or road hazards, and check for fuel, rest and food stops. Road captains also give a report during our monthly chapter meetings.

It was decided to have two road captain positions so there would always be a backup in case one person could not attend a ride, Spike said. If both road captains attend a ride, one could lead and the other could ride sweep.

I assured Anna she would still be able to ride on the back of my bike when I am road captain. "My baby's the leader of the pack," she said, referring to the oldies song "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las.

My term starts in January.