Looking Back, the Last Ride

 

Looking Back, the Last Ride

 

 

The day began like most of those wonderful mornings before a ride: with good coffee, black and strong. Bob had spent the night at my apartment in Hooksett, New Hampshire. He was on his way to Maine from the Peterborough area and had come over on his Norton the night before. We planned to spend the day in the north country of New Hampshire cruising the roads and passes of the White Mountains and then enjoy dinner together after the ride. Following dinner, Bob would motor east for Maine while I would head south and return to my apartment.

I put my gear together for the day: an extra sweater and some emergency rain clothing, gloves, and sundries such as aspirin and sunglasses. I packed these into a small canvas daypack. I wore jeans, black leather hiking boots, a t-shirt, and a long sleeved medium weight fleece sweater. Bob was dressed pretty much the same. We both had waist length brown leather jackets. After more coffee and a leisurely breakfast, we grabbed our packs and helmets and headed out the door.

Bob’s bike, a 1975 850cc Norton Commando, was black and sleek, and every bit as fast as it looked. I attached my pack to a small carrier behind my seat with two bungee cords and Bob secured his pack to the rear of the Norton’s seat. Bob gave me a knowing smirk as the Norton thundered to life with its distinctive British twin resonance. I hit my starter and the deep hum of my Yamaha four cylinder quickly followed. We donned our helmets and swung our legs up over the seats, after a quick nod, we left the parking lot and were soon motoring north on the highway.

It was late spring in 1986 and New Hampshire was on the verge of exploding into verdant green for the summer. The White Mountains would be much cooler and at least a month behind the march of the seasons down here in the southern part of the state. Today’s weather looked good as the forecast called for clear skies and warm temperatures. The mountains promised wonderful roads for cruising, along with the great White Mountain scenery.

In twenty minutes, we were past Concord and in another twenty, the land was looking more rural and less populated. We went past the exit for Laconia and the Lakes’ region and soon found ourselves in Plymouth, where we turned off the interstate and headed west on rte 25 to rte 118. After Wentworth, rte 118 became decidedly smaller and more adventurous as the tarmac began to snake its way north up into the White Mountains south of Mt Moosilauke. We alternated taking the lead while leaning through the turns enjoying the road and the scenery. It was almost noon and the sun warmed the day. Spring was now showing itself in the mountains, though far behind the greenery evident in the warmer flatlands down south. The rivers and streams were full, the air crisp and clean.

We came across a group of classic 2-seater Ford Thunderbirds parked in a line at a rest area on the side of the road. We pulled over to check them out and stretch our legs as well. We chatted with the owners, mostly older men who were on a rally through the mountains. Bob and I are doing the same thing as these guys, I thought, we are just in a different time of our lives. It was all about seizing the day, and relishing the camaraderie and joy of motion.

Eventually the road led us to rte 112, and we turned left and headed west up towards Kinsman Notch. At the height of land, the Appalachian Trail crossed the road and made its way from Mt Moosilauke over to the Kinsman Range. We continued down the other side of the Notch to rte 116, where we made a hard right turn and headed north towards the town of Franconia. We negotiated some tricky curves that fell off opposite to the way we leaned into them. The road soon straightened out and we were cruising along with the Kinsman Range on our right. I looked over at North and South Kinsman and remembered the times I had been on those summits, the trails I had used, and the people who had accompanied me. Each hike had been its own adventure with unique challenges and rewards. I remembered the many places in the White Mountains Bob and I had experienced together, the many adventures we had shared here. I looked over at Bob cruising on the Norton beside me on my left. He nodded and gave me the look that said he knew what I was thinking. We each had an affinity for the thoughts of the other, a special thing to have and to share.

At Franconia, we turned east and later south as we headed for Franconia Notch. We pulled over near Cannon Mountain to look at the profile of The Old Man of the Mountain and to take in the scenery. Across from Cannon stood the Franconia Ridge with its major summits of Lafayette and Lincoln standing over 5000 feet in elevation. Bob and I had traversed this ridge together more than once over the years, one of the best hikes in the White Mountains. I remembered the many adventures I had enjoyed in these mountains, and the important role they played in my life.

Almost reluctantly, we mounted up and headed down through the notch to Lincoln. We stopped at a café for a meal and a couple of Irish coffees. The mix of hot coffee and Irish whiskey always hits a good spot after a day on a motorcycle in the mountains. We relaxed and talked, and let the road weariness and vibration subside. After a hot sandwich and a last cup of coffee, we paid our bill and walked out to the parking lot.

We said our goodbyes standing by our bikes. Bob was off to Maine and I was heading south on I-93 back to Hooksett. It was late afternoon and the shadows were long and the air noticeably cooler. I envied Bob’s ride up over the Kancamaugus Highway to Conway, but not his ride down towards the coast of Maine in the gathering dark and cold. We fired up the bikes and, after one last nod, we headed out, each to his own destination. I pulled out of the parking lot and up on to the highway going quickly up through the gears to cruising speed. Taking a last look at Franconia Notch in my mirrors, I headed for home with the sun setting on my right.

What I did not realize until much later was our ride that day would be my last, the many trips and adventures I had enjoyed on two wheels over the decades with so many people had ended with my final ride on my last bike. On the way home, I blew something in the engine. A loud noise led to a blast of smoke and a great reduction of power, and I knew a major problem was at hand. I limped toward home at a reduced speed trailing smoke behind me. After reaching a friend’s house, I put the bike up on its work stand behind his garage and there it stayed for the summer as money issues prevented me from having the engine torn down and rebuilt. My financial situation was not good, no mechanic would open the engine for anything less than $250.00 up front, and that was just the cost to tell me what the damage was, parts and labor would add to the final total. With fall approaching and winter storage and prep costs looming I sold the bike “as is” to a mechanic with the resources to both store and work on it. When things get better, I thought, I‘ll take out a loan and get another bike, a bigger, stronger, and faster bike.

The future, however, held a different course for me. Back problems, maybe the result of my bike accident in 1980, led to a year off from work followed by major surgery in October of 1988. I was mired in debt and living on credit cards. In the spring of 1990, I took a job down in Massachusetts and commuted every day from my apartment in Hooksett to the office in Andover. I was barely keeping things together, physically and financially.

During this period, I realized my days of two-wheeling were over. I was getting older, and after surgery, my back could not take the strain of riding, let alone hitting the pavement again. I was tired of being in debt and using all my money just to service it. I had to have transportation, and I could rationalize having an installment loan for a car. This realization carried no real sadness. I had been through a lot during the past several years and I could not point to one particular day and call it a milestone. I gradually came to the realization that a particular period in my life was over. I learned that, sometimes, this is how things come to pass, not with a clash of cymbals, but with a personal and salient moment far removed from the event itself. I could let it go; I would find other things to make my life full.

But I have wonderful memories, memories of the people I have met and the places I have been, all along the way. I remember how the impact felt when a car hit me during an autumn ride in Massachusetts, only to realize later how incredibly lucky I had been. Although my friend Ed lost his life to a terrible crash, I cherish the times we rode together. I can close my eyes and see him astride his Harley smiling back at me, as we thunder up the highway to one of our adventures in the White Mountains, all high-speed noise and blast splitting through the summer sunshine with Franconia Notch rising up before us.

I often think of Bob, the consummate rider, the true aficionado of all things two-wheeled, and I remember all our shared experiences and I am grateful for them. I remember that knowing look, and his courage for the day and for the task at hand. As for Bob, who now lives in Colorado, he still rides the same Norton after all these years. He explores the mountain roads and passes of the western states, and the never-ending dream lives on in him.