“Okay, it will warm up eventually” I told myself as I mentally prepared to exit the comfort of a warm garage to venture out into the 20 degree weather outside. “It’s only one day and the faster you get started, the sooner it’ll be done.”
That was day 2 of my “one day” ride from Philadelphia down to Florida. I suppose it’s important to set the stage for what i’m actually doing here. See, this was the first year my parents moved to their semi-permanent residence south of Ocala, Florida – a little place you may have heard of called The Villages. Regardless of what your opinion is on this or other retirement communities, all I really cared about was that my Tiger 800 would have a warm garage to stay in for the winter months; this took the form of a small space in my parents garage between the golf cart and workshop. Because of work, my time was constrained to riding on the weekend, accomplishing the task of getting my motorcycle the 972 miles down I-95 in a mere day (or possibly two) so that I could fly back and not miss a day of work.
The proposition was met with quite a wide range of emotions from family and friends – mostly of the “that doesn’t sound like a great idea” variety. But often in motorcycling, we find that we love a challenge, especially when others think you’re crazy – at some point doing it just because someone told you you shouldn’t. The bigger issue above the length of the ride was the weather. I had waited until mid-January to undertake this ride when temperatures can be either a balmy 50 degrees, or a dismal 10 degrees. But putting that thought aside, I prepared to figure out exactly how I would get this done.
The ride would be simple in principle. Drive about 50% of the USAs largest main street, I-95 and then down the center of the sunshine state. I would basically break the trip up a tiny bit, opting to drive about 10% the night before down to Arlington, VA and the remaining gauntlet the following day. Overall, the trip would take about 15 hours to complete assuming no major hiccups.
For the riding season I keep my motorcycle in the driveway of my grandparents place, about 35 minutes north; our house in the big bad city has no place to park the bike. And though it’s a good place to keep it in general (and lowers insurance a bit!), it does create a geographic constraint on using the bike. To better position the bike for riding, I drove the Tiger down the night before to our place and parked it in the little walkway leading up to our house – a good temporary solution. This allowed me to fully charge the battery, pack the side cases, update the GPS and fit the bike for cruising. The general plan was to 1) drive down Friday night after work to Arlington, VA where my parents have an apartment with garage, 2) make the remaining journey down to FL Saturday, and 3) fly back Monday morning (my Dad had a birthday on Sunday) and go straight to work from the airport.
Overall, I basically packed as if I were cruising for the day – minimal clothing and food restricted to the side cases. To be honest, I was more concerned with making sure I had all the comforts for the flight back (headphones, computer, etc.). There is this urge I think we all have to overpack for things, bringing along so many unnecessary items that we think we need. But I vowed that in addition to clothes and energy bars, I would only bring my portable battery jumper (I was a little wary of the battery being good) and my “tool-box” to do any quick fixes, tube replacements, or lights burnouts, etc. Also, lots and lots of socks. I have ridden in the cold before, much colder than the lowest temps for this ride. And my bike has heated grips, bark buster hand guards, high windscreen, and fairing to reduce excessive exposure. But with the expected temps+windchill below 20 degrees anyones toes will eventually turn blue and fingers numb. So I made sure to pack extras so that if they got wet, they could be replaced before the cold began to set in; which is difficult to recover from.
After getting home from work, I quickly reinstalled the battery, lugged the side cases onto the bike, set the GPS, enabled find my friends, turned the key and……nothing. All lights were good, battery high on juice but for some reason I have found that occasionally the bike refuses to start for no obvious reason that I can tell and have tried with no avail to replicate it. So, I turned the bike off, let it sit for an agonizing 5 minutes to reset itself. I began to sweat because of all the clothing I had on and tried to remain as still as possible. All the time thinking about how the roads were filling up with traffic and the inevitable slow progress toward Virginia. After my second attempt, the bike turned over quickly, pretending as if nothing happened and I was off.
Ever since my cross-country/Canadian loop, I had vowed to avoid riding at night, especially along the traffic-dense I-95 northeast corridor. But here I was, breaking that rule. I am happy to say that the ride was uneventful in that respect and I had no near misses or blind-spot problems. The roads were dry and for the first hour I even had a bit of sunlight. After the sun went down, the cold really begins to set in even though the ambient temperature doesn’t change. Overall, I wasn’t cold except for my feet. The boots I had brought along were always extremely sweaty in the summer, so I had assumed they would be great for this ride. But unfortunately, even with thicker socks on, my toes quickly went numb and stayed that way for the second part of the ride; this was despite 2 changes of socks (which helped briefly, but only temporarily).
I arrived to my Dad waiting for me, ready to chauffeur my stead and I to a parking spot for the night. I quickly rubbed warmth back into my toes, wrapped myself in blankets, and loaded up on pizza like a runner carbo-loading the night before a big race. I would set off after sunrise the next morning around 7 am. Even though this would put me in FL at dark, at least the temps would be milder down there and I would avoid the teeth rattling cold of a pre-morning ride.
Riding On Down
One thing I had forgot to mention was that my Dad was flying down to FL the same day I would driving down (like I said, semi-retired), so he had already left for his early flight the following morning before I woke up. Obviously I would never be able to beat him, but crossing a comparable distance in one day with what basically amounted to an engine with two wheels was somewhat poetic. I suited up, did some jumping jacks to get warmed up and started the engine, this time with no hiccups and was out of the garage and into the cool, brisk air around 7:20am.
My basic recipe for success was to stop every 2 hours or so for a break. This generally coincided with a fuel stop – the low/reserve fuel light comes on around 150 miles with the tiger when cruising at highway speed with full gear and side cases. I didn’t do the math in my head, but figured this had worked in the past so why mess with success. Google maps said that the overall time enroute would be 12:27 with a distance of 827 miles. Now it would be near impossible to accomplish that distance in that time unless you didn’t stop at all or drove at uncomfortable speeds, neither of which I wanted to do. But if I was purposeful with my breaks and managed my timing right, I would be able to get there in about 14 hours. I would also save longer breaks for the end, keeping the first few fuel stops under 5-10 minutes, remaining on the bike while fueling. I’m a skinny guy, with very little rear-end padding so my butt gets sore relatively quickly and I may invest in the upgraded seat for the tiger at some point in the future.
The air was…crisp, with the temperature starting around 25 degrees from the outset. Coupling that with a “wind chill” of 70 mph brought the temperature down quite a bit. Further, since you sit still like a hunter in the woods while you ride, there isn’t much heat being generated while you ride further exacerbating the chill.
Every major ride I take, I bring along my Garmin Zumo 590 which can integrate into my Sena headset and iPhone, combining to provide a relatively seamless experience 90% of the time. Though some might say that I should be using paper maps, asking for directions at gas stations, not wearing a helmet, and smoking a cigarette all while riding both ways up hill, I have found that technology, used correctly can make riding much safer. For instance, knowing where fuel stops are, rest areas, and traffic and slow downs. Also, having reliable directions will make sure you don’t end up at a dead end or have to make a dangerous u-turn. There are also things that are just nice to have outside of the basic music and navigation. For instance, the unit has weather integration and can tell you what the weather will be along your route. So for instance if the weather in Savannah, GA is 25 degrees right now, when I get there in 5 hours it will be 45 degrees. This helped motivate me to keep pushing, saying things like “well if I can just go another hour, it’ll be 5 degrees warmer.” Technology isn’t for everyone, but not everyone has the same riding desires and needs. For me, riding 500 miles in a day isn’t uncommon so having the GPS can be extremely helpful (especially in Canada/Quebec). It also allows me to keep my phone safe in the event of bad weather or a crash. Is an $800 GPS necessary? Probably not, since there are ones that can be had for much less. But compared to using a phone on a mount, I believe the investment is worth it for my riding needs and after literally 1000s of miles with it, i’d still buy some form of GPS.
Towards noon, I was starting to warm up and finally getting the feeling back in my toes and fingers. The trip was progressing as smoothly as any trip I’ve been on, and was happy to be riding again. As planned, I was averaging about 70 mph on the highway, consuming about a 3.5 gallons every 2 hours or so. The GPS lists upcoming rest areas, which I found to be extremely good places to take a quick break. Like libraries, highway rest areas are becoming one of the last places that expect nothing of their patrons to provide a service. You never feel rushed, nobody looks at you weird for standing around, there are bathrooms, and snacks! Also, it’s outside so when I take of my sweaty socks to change them, I don’t get dagger stairs from people. I have a general routine of getting off the bike, going to the bathroom, eating a quick snack, and hydrating; not unlike an athlete. Staying hydrated and putting some fuel in the furnace (stomach) helps to keep you alert, awake, and warm. I-95 has a good amount of rest areas that are well maintained and pretty well spaced. The rest area at the FL border also has free orange juice! They are also great places to meet other bikers, though there weren’t too many on this trip because of the weather; more on that later.
Even though riding this trip wasn’t ideal, I still would rather be out on the road riding and seeing what this country is like from the seat of a motorcycle. It’s extraordinarily cliche to say it, but riding a motorcycle is an experience that one has to try it to understand it. Passing south through the leafless trees of Virginia, to the deciduous forests of north and south Carolina, to the swamps and wetlands of Georgia and Florida, with each passing hour the surroundings changed. What is more amazing is that you can ride for hours on one road and see so many different things. I don’t think there are many single countries out there where this can be accomplished. There are also a ton of fun, kitschy rest areas and attractions along the way, which speak to where this country used to be a few decades ago, when driving long distances on highways started to become popular. Things like South of the Border and the countless peach orchards just off the highway all add to the experience. Each place vying for your attention with catchy billboards.
In line with talking about taking breaks, this is also an area where people will generally come up and talk to you. I would say that 9/10, if the weather is good and I’m milling around my bike, someone will come up and ask the same question, “so how do you like the tiger? I’ve got an xyz.” It never fails. Although this can sometimes be a bit burdensome (like this trip, when I was in the middle of peeing and had my earplugs in, basically shouting at this man about how I loved my bike), at the end of the day, I enjoy the fact that people are so friendly and I have gotten good insights by folks sharing their experiences.
Rests can also be a bit sketchy, and this trip was no exception. I go through my mental checklist every time I leave the bike. Do I have my keys, wallet, and phone and are my bags locked, etc. While at a break at a rest area in South Carolina, a man approaching me asking for money. To me, this is no different than the daily panhandling in Philadelphia, often by tweeked out junkies so I’m used to the questions. But it just reminds you that things can go wrong faster than you realize and you can come back to a picked through bag or ransacked tank bag. An extra minute of due diligence can save you an hour of picking up the pieces.
This trip, I had a bigger scare towards the end of the trip when I was taking my last break just outside Ocala, FL – a place I had never been before at night with no real idea of my surroundings. I was in full rest mode at a relatively well lit gas station, bags were open, phone out, in the most vulnerable position you could be in. All at once, a car pulls up quicker than I could process and a younger guy jumps out of his car and approaches me. His line was “I was just robbed and they took my wallet and phone, can I use your phone to call my Mom?” At that moment, I was completely frozen and caught off guard by the question and unable to properly form a response. After taking a second, I said that I’d dial the number and put him on speaker phone. Clutching my phone a few feet back, several rings with no answer. Just as quickly as he arrived, he sad thanks and immediately peeled out of the parking lot. Whether his intentions were legitimate or nefarious, I would never know but the lesson was learned. When you are caught off guard without a preplanned course of action, you are frozen. Things could have gone so much more wrong and I was lucky to come out the other end unscathed. Later contemplation and discussion with others led me to the conclusion that the best course of action would have been to offer to call the police instead of the requested phone number.
The fact that I even have an inclination to write about this particular “incident” and the uncertainty of this persons intentions gives me pause. Am I just a generally distrustful person? Would the majority of people done more or less than me in that situation? Was I right to automatically assume this person was pulling a scam? Overall, I think I was right to be hesitant since I was alone, on a motorcycle, in an unfamiliar place. Now, I have an experience that I can share with others and am better equipped mentally to deal with the same situation should it happen in the future.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I arrived around 9:30 pm. A respectable time overall with a total time of about 14 hours and a moving time of about 12:30. I spent the next 2 days recovering, although if i’m honest I could have gotten on the bike the next day and ridden another 1000 miles if the weather didn’t turn south the next morning of my arrival. At least I was able to remove panels, clean the bike, and look over what maintenance and parts needed to be replaced. Tuesday morning, I hopped on an early flight back to Philly, and in about 3 hours was back exactly where I started. I can’t wait to get back down there to ride back north in the spring! My Dad wants to accompany me this time so we can tackle the Iron Butt challenge, and ride 1000 miles in 24 hours. A seemingly easy thing to tackle consider this ride.