America Or Bust: Connecticut To Tennessee

A motorcycle trip to the from New England to the Honda Hoot recalls a ride of four decades ago on another Triumph Bonneville. From the October 2005 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Mark Zimmerman.

**Memorial Day Weekend, 1970: **It's a rainy Friday morning. My well-used motorcycle, a 1965 Triumph Bonneville, is parked on a quiet side street in Narberth, Pennsylvania; I'm fiddling with the recalcitrant Lucas ignition system, trying to get the damn thing started. My buddies, both mounted on disgustingly reliable Honda Dreams, roll their eyes every time I heave on the kickstarter and get nothing but a backfire for my troubles. Eventually I dry the points, the bike lights up, and we head out of the Philadelphia suburbs toward the seaside resort of Wildwood, New Jersey, for what we all hope will be a weekend of utter debauchery. Outside of my $14.95 Pep Boys helmet, I own no dedicated riding gear and my denim jacket does little to ward off the rain, so I'm soaked to the skin and near frozen before we clear the city limits. When we stop for a hot cup of coffee, I discover the Boy Scout knapsack I've lashed to the sissy bar has come adrift. The rear tire has worn a large gash in its side, so now my spare clothes aren't just soaking wet, they're filthy, with a mix of road grime and chain spray as well.

The weekend soon goes from bad to worse. As I pull away from the cheap rooming house we're staying in, the left rear shock collapses, causing the fender to bottom on the tire. Fortunately, the local Triumph dealer takes pity and sells me a pair of decent used ones for a fin. As I'm installing them in the parking lot of the Wildwood Triumph dealership, I can't help but notice the brand-new TR6 in the showroom window. It's got a Tricor Accessory windshield and leather saddlebags. I'm envious, but my part-time gofer job at a downtown Philly Suzuki dealership only pays $1.50 an hour, so a new bike is simply out of the question.

Things continue to deteriorate. On the homeward leg of the trip the ignition switch disintegrates, and I have to hot-wire the bike to get back on the road. A few miles from home, the bike starts handling oddly, but I'm too tired and frustrated to worry about it. The next morning as I head to school, the rear-wheel bearings crumble, leaving me stranded. I ditch school, blowing off an important journalism test. Regrettably, my instructor then gives me an incomplete for the semester, an event that to some degree causes me to eventually bag school altogether and concentrate on fixing motorcycles. To add insult to injury, I've got to shell out $20 for the new wheel bearings. The whole sordid experience leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

June 22, 2005

Dj vu, only this time I'm sitting on a freshly minted '05 Triumph Bonneville America. I'm about to head off to the Honda Hoot, where I'll meet up with Jamie Elvidge and Andy Cherney for some quality riding, serious chowing-down and the chance to meet and greet some of Motorcycle Cruiser's readers. The round trip is roughly 2500 miles, small beer for a serious touring rider, perhaps, but one that should put the America to the test, and is intended in some weird way to make up for that long past dismal weekend.

Why did I choose a Triumph Bonneville America "mere" 800cc motorcycle for this trip? Certainly nostalgia plays into it, though if I'd really wanted to return to my youth, I'd have picked something a little less reliable.

More importantly, because I wanted to remind people who read this that you don't need a dreadnought of a motorcycle to go touring. Some preliminary break-in rides indicate I've made a good choice; the 800cc mill churns out plenty of usable power, the handling is solid and the brakes do their job without drama. The ergonomics work well for me, and lastly, it has a decent-sized 4.4-gallon fuel tank; good for roughly 150 miles between fill-ups, which is as far as I want to ride without a break in any case.

My plan for my ride to the Hoot is to run interstates where I have to, jumping over to state or local roads when I can. As I head east from Connecticut into New York, dark clouds start to form. I pull over, put on my rain gear, and, by the time I pull up the zipper, the rain is coming down in sheets. Five minutes later it stops completely. It's now so humid I need to strip off the one-piece rainsuit, whereupon it immediately begins raining again. This cycle will repeat itself every 20 minutes for the rest of the day. After a few hours of dancing in and out of my raingear, I stow the ensemble away. I'm so hot that the cooling rain is a relief, and the showers only last a minute or two anyway.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, I pick up I-81, one of my least favorite roads, but I need to make time, and this is one way to do it. Since I'm not a Cracker Barrel type of guy, the proliferation of chain stores and malls that line vast sections of the road really turns me off, but it does make it easy to gas up, down a quick Gatorade and get back on the road. As the miles pile up the Triumph really starts to hum. The motor's breaking in nicely and the relaxed steering head angle, coupled with the longish wheelbase, make for a stable, comfortable ride. The weak link is the rear shocks, which don't deal well with sharp hits. I'd be cruising the aftermarket for a set that was a bit more compliant were this my bike.

Near Hagerstown, Maryland, I've had enough of dodging thrown recaps while playing bumper tag with Billy Big Rig and his Kenworth, so I decide to take Route 40 west awhile before heading south into West Virginia.

It's a good move; the road is smooth and passes through rolling farmland, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, I'm so enthralled with the roads and the federalist architecture of the small towns I pass through that I manage to veer onto a local farm road. It takes me a while to realize I've got absolutely no clue where I am. The roads are getting narrower, the skies darker, and I'm becoming just a wee bit concerned.

Finally, the single-lane farm road I'm riding along spits me out in front of a small church rising out of a farmer's field. It's a real Children of the Corn moment. I figure the hot tip is to backtrack the way I came until I can regain my bearings. I eventually find my way to Farmington, Pennsylvania; it's farther west than I'd planned to head, but not as far off course as I feared. It's now 6:00 p.m. I plot a route that'll take me into Charleston, West Virginia for the night.

You've Got A Friend In West Virginia

Picking up I-79, I head south. Riding in the Mountain State is a delight, at least on a bike. Judging from the odor of burning brake hanging on the downhill side of some of the mountains, I gather that pushing a big rig through the swooping cuts can be a little dicey. The long climbs really put the Triumph's engine to the test. Solo, the power is acceptable, especially when you consider the load the America has to bear, though passing on the uphill side is something best planned in advance. If I were carrying a passenger, I'd want a little more oomph, but that's why they make the Rocket III, isn't it? Still, it's some of the best riding I've experienced in a long time. The roads and the scenery are exquisite and go a long way toward explaining why they call it "West by God Virginia."

There is easy access to local services, and the people I meet are unfailingly friendly. When I stop in the hamlet of Big Otter for fuel, the attendant at the general store/gas station takes great pride in pointing out the mounted trophy buck his boss's young son took last season. We discuss hunting and fishing for a few minutes, and I feel like I've made a new friend. Later, when I try to purchase a local map in an Elkview store, the owner tells me they're a little on the expensive side, so if I'd rather just read it here and take notes, go right ahead.

Of course, not everyone I met along the trail struck the right chord. Earlier at a rest stop in Maryland, a nicely dressed, typically suburban middle-aged woman and her fashionably goth daughter paused to admire the Triumph's clean lines. In a positively surreal moment, Ms. typically suburban mentioned that she and her husband had taken their honeymoon on a '79 Bonneville, but that "he got drunk and killed himself on it one night, which was a shame, 'cause I really liked that bike." Indeed.

Onward to the Hoot

After catching a few z's in Charleston, I take a flyer back to I-81 and head toward Knoxville. As far as riding goes, the southern portion of 81 is better than the northern, but only just. In its defense, it does get you there, wherever there might be, as quickly as possible, and the scenery isn't all bad, especially if you're a NASCAR fan. The Morgan-McClure race shop, located in Abingdon, Virginia, is just a stone's throw from the highway, with the Bristol racetrack only a few miles down the road on the Tennessee border.

After a few hours I notice that the leading edge of the passenger seat is digging into my back. It's annoying, but something the aftermarket will no doubt remedy in good time. As you'd expect, I blow the offramp and circle around the city streets until I can locate our digs at the fashionable Knoxville Marriott. Two Coronas later, no lime please, and I'm napping soundly in air-conditioned splendor while the America cools in the parking lot.

Here Comes The Weekend

Friday and Saturday are filled with all the fun things you get to do at the Honda Hoot. Suffice to say they included lots of riding, benchracing and food, the capper being our Motorcycle Cruiser Readers' Ride and Best Dam Fish Fry at the Norris Dam. Sunday I was back on the road. Since I didn't want to retrace my exact steps, I formed a half-baked notion to run north toward the Cumberland Gap National Park, then sneak up the back way to West Virginia, spending the night somewhere north of Charleston. Monday I'd head home and get back to work.

Typically, once I got under way, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to head north, south, east or west. However, after wandering aimlessly for an hour or two, I serendipitously chanced upon the Crockett Tavern, the starting point for many a settler who migrated through the Gap on their journey west. The die was cast, fate had spoken, it was the Cumberland Gap or bust.

I headed north via 11E and 25E/11W, which is a very nice route indeed, particularly the climb toward the scenic overlook at Bean Station. It was here that I ran into the Maynard clan, Charles and his stepson Jonathan Fish, brother Eugene, and father Eugene Sr., who were returning from the Hoot. We made small talk for a few minutes, and when Eugene mentioned he recognized me from my picture in the magazine, I promised to meet them all at next year's Fish Fry. So you see, flattery will get you into all the best places.

From the Cumberland Gap National Park, as breathtakingly beautiful a spot as you'll ever see, it was north and east on the 119, parts of which are absolutely awesome, with steep, sharp switchback turns that twist like a dervish on crack. If the Kentucky DOT owns an E-ticket ride, this is it.

By 10:30 Sunday night I was checked into a motel close to the I-81. All that was left was to get a good night's sleep and set sail for home.

There's Always Something

Naturally, few things go as planned. The last leg of my trip was intended to be somewhat boring, and for the most part it was. For nearly 500 miles I churned along taking in the scenery, getting stuck in construction-induced traffic jams. Maybe an hour from my home in Connecticut, the bike sputtered a time or two and then died. I reached down to turn the petcock to reserve and nearly had a coronary. After the last gas stop I'd forgotten to move the tap back to the On position from Reserve. The tank was bone dry, and it was a two-mile uphill shove to the next exit.

I'd just started pushing and cursing my stupidity when a truck and trailer convoy pulled over. Randy and Ann Humphries, Bob and Martha Lefebvre and Armand and Sharon Beaupre were returning from the Hoot to their homes in Massachusetts. Armand quickly popped the fuel line off his immaculate 1970 Honda chopper and drained me off a gallon of gas. The sextet of saviors took off before I could properly thank them. So here it is: Thanks, guys, I owe you big time.

Ninety minutes later my exit was in sight, which by rights should be the end of this story. But as I pulled off the ramp, the sky opened up one last time, and I rolled into my driveway a sodden mess. As I sat on the bike savoring the last moments of a most excellent trip, it dawned on me that the whole deal, including the rain, getting lost and running out of gas, had brought me full circle. I couldn't have asked for more than that.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Outfitted with a selection of Triumph accessories, the 2005 Bonneville was a good balance of responsive handling and comfort, as well as a connection to a fateful motorcycle of 40 years prior.
ACCESSORIZING THE AMERICA Summer Screen Windshield, No. A9748031, $300
Pros: * Easy to mount * Surprisingly good protection * Excellent bug-catcher for amateur entomologists
Cons: * May cause buffeting * Excellent bug-catcher for amateur entomologists Light Bar/Light Kit Chrome, No. A9738030, $295
Pros: * Solid mounts * Independent switching * Throws a ton of light out there
Cons: * The right one burned out at 10 p.m. between Big Otter and Elkview, West Virginia Rectangular Leather Panniers, No. A9528012, $355
Pros: * Well made and well thought-out with a neat internal storage pouch and external map case
Cons: * They're not really waterproof * Slightly on the small side Short Sissy Bar, No. A9738025, $230
Pros: * My wife likes it * Gives you someplace to tie your duffel bag Available at www.triumph.co.uk/usa/