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Two guys named Paul ride two BMW F800GSs, down to sniff out unmaintained oil well access roads in Pennsylvania. There will be tents, steaks, Canadian beer on ice taken in the panniers and loads of excellent mud.
I'd ridden with Paul a few times before and had come to see him as the solid older brother I never had (though he's eight years younger). A humble and decent man, he's also reliable, down-to-earth, funny and not an accountant. No, he's a richer subspecies of stable: Paul is a commercial airline pilot, flyer of long-haul passenger routes. Exactly where he needs to be mechanically in order to ride the rougher terrain, he, unlike me, carries every tool necessary to strip the F800GS down to latex. He keeps an iPhone, SPOT and GPS mounted, rides with ability and caution, favouring speed limits, rarely pinning it for pleasure, generally showing long experience and a proper brain.
And then there's me
An impulsive, twitchy-wristed, competent enough rider for my age, though there have been long gaps, I am a breed removed from Paul. As a certified Class D mechanic, I don't understand things like fuel mapping, but can change my oil and bolt on new farkles, occasionally without breaking them or stripping threads. I solo ride trails in the woods, and if anything mechanical or accidental happens I will be emerging on foot, or not at all. I have no GPS and prefer being lost to having travel plans. Dualsport riding and mountain biking enable me to shape the explosive charges of energy I have into semi- productive uses, or to calm it for work or sleep. I seldom act my age - because I am immensely older than I feel - except when speaking to people employed at hospital emergency wards, the police or the tax authorities.
So Paul and I, we are the yin and yang of parallel twindom. He's the sense, I'm the incense, going anywhere the general drift carries me. He's the prepared Boy Scout, I'm the one who gets us de-navigated and in deep so we can tap our combined skills and gadgets to save us. My plan will be 'south', his will involve detailed waypoint entries on his GPS and constant references to the infernal machine en route.
The road giveth
After meeting and fast coffees at dawn in some Tim Hortons in Mississauga - a nightmare combo to begin with, but this one's jammed with what look to my sleepy eyes like Komodo dragons, malodorous zombies, blood-flecked vultures and shit-smeared swine - we ride. An hour-and-change puts us to Fort Erie. We punch through an ice-cold fog cottoning-in the bridge to the USA. Customs are in a good mood and, now shivering, we're through to the warming nation. Still, we add layers while talking with other riders doing the same. They're headed to Virginia. I get into a brief sulk over the much longer ride I know I won't soon be taking. Then I look around at these citizens of the biking alliance, busting off for adventure, all in a great mood, and I think, what a lucky and smart tribe are we.
Just as I left it
The fog eases, we angle toward Hwy 219, northern funnel to the Appalachians, exiting at a tributary for fuel in North Boston, NY. Then to 240, a macadam twister of such sudden and shocking beauty I raise double fists to the triumph of being here once again (it's been nearly a year). The road sluices though valleyed farms, lengthy knolls shaped like shallow grave mounds, in and out of gullies and into forests of tall hardwood. I pull us over at a river lookout in a shaded gulch. It's still early, maybe 7:30. No cars pass, birds are all hellos, the clear river charms its way over rocks and crooked timbers warn smooth. The sun is all effort, but a high fog persists. We get aromas of a sweetgrass that Ontario detrimentally lacks. Paul is liking it here, which is good. To convince him to join me, I'd promised much and asked plenty of him, living well east of Toronto as he does.
Hungry, and knowing The Store is moments south, I savour a big dose of anticipation. I am well chilled, and my gluteus is about maximized from the stock seat that I haven't quite got around to changing. It has a way of focusing the mass of the universe on my tailbone, causing it to constantly search out alternate positions - none of which ever seem assuage the ache.
Breakfast of cardiac champions
The Store - it's that and a restaurant - is owned by Doc, who lives and hangs there. He rides a Triumph, knows the area, and is friendly. He pulls up a chair with a coffee to talk on this, my seventh or eighth visit to his refuge. We order breakfast from an extremely chipper and efficacious waitress. Paul and he are hitting it off on political tangents. I weigh in occasionally, but the French toast is too thick and buttery and the sausages and bacon too syrupy and spicy to get me speaking much.
We wipe our mouths and settle up. Outside, it's become hot, the blueness like we just walked out into Montana.
A state monument to superior asphalt
"Shall I get us lost?" I say to Paul. But before he can answer, I change my mind. I want him to sample the finer tars of Allegany State Park, in the middle of which Pennsylvania starts. We angle onto 242 westbound to Ellicottville, back on 219 southbound to Salamanca. The Park starts just below town and of course we own it, ride every inch and see perhaps three cars. The road surface is sublime here, due to lack of traffic, trucks and winter salt, and you can fully trust it as you ease your pegs over for a scratch. The Park morphs into the Allegany State Forest and we drop out its southern end, not exactly sure where. I'm supposed to be navigator, so I scope out our first oil well access road. It shouldn't take long, with much of the state floating on a cushion of Pennsylvania crude and shale gas. I look for rough roads that have neither mailboxes or "Posted: No Trespassing"-type signage. People here tend to make clear what's private property. If it ain't marked, it's generally fair passage. Though, believe me, this is something you don't want to get wrong.
At play with the pump jacks
I see a road... Jackpot. The people who made and worked this oil field are nowhere to be seen. But the horse-head pumps are everywhere. None is switched on, despite record oil prices. Yet they're clearly not abandoned - many have shiny new gear bolted on. Bit of a mystery, but who cares when it's all steeps and deep woods with busted logs and road-size puddles? We pull out our GoPro HD cameras and try for a little footage, but it's too hot now and we can't be bothered to stop and fuss. We ride around in there for a couple of hours, all skids and burnouts, doing an okay job of pretending our 540lb dualsports are 125s.
I suggest continuing on south and finding a place deserted like this, but near a river where we can raise tents, open beers and eat great slabs of well-aged bull flesh. It's easy to get good at finding and riding Pennsylvania's best backroads. Standing on pegs for much of it eases the rear-end pains and keeps it exciting - and what's better than the singing virginal wind in your face unbuffeted by motorcycle frontage? Paul had given me a video on riding large dualsport bikes off-road last fall. It's mostly done standing up, the video advises. This was news to me at the time. At first I thought it was odd, but I've since realized that peg-standing through all makes the whole exercise into an art. I'll add that it's not that easy to perfectly control the F800GS, with its snatchy throttle and top-heavy influences.
As we roll further southward, the sun grows fiercer, and we acquire mud, helmet-dwelling bugs and deepening body warmth. I'm ATGATTed to the point of heatstroke, and have crappily-attached luggage on my seat that slides forward under its bungees and gets sat on. I put up with Paul and his GPS but it's such an annoying little device that I consider snatching it and running it over. I remind him that I can keep us nicely lost while pointing us mainly southbound just fine - mostly what ends up happening.
The deeper country is fine and rugged, with little manicuring in evidence where the lesser-heeled dwell. America's long recession has plainly welcomed Pennsylvania - which assumes boom times were ever here to disappear in the first place. Truth told, it doesn't look like there's been anything resembling prosperity in any number of decades.
What these bikes are made of
We stop for gas. Folks are friendly and curious, cracking jokes about the mud that our bikes and their operators have begun to wear. Appalachian accents are apparent. A few people ask about tech and capabilities, and we sing out like we own the BMW corporation. If you're unfamiliar with the creature, the F800GS was designed for people who wish to ride almost anything they encounter without doubt entering the equation. The only thing one needs to do by way of preparation before going off-road is to stop a few seconds and switch off the ABS - a gimmicky feature I paid too much for. It goes on mostly when not needed, and seldom when it's supposed to be saving my life. Brake while hitting a section of bumps or potholes - which happens with unfailing frequency in my town - and there are no fucking brakes, you must wait for smooth pavement to get them back again. This is a suspiciously un-Germanic engineering blunder. (Maybe they reckon they owe us for something.) ABS aside, we are both supremely impressed with our machines and what they have seen us through.
It's wild down here, the trees taller and the woods darker than Ontario's. Roads are sparsely populated with everything but deer, and those are a worry. I keep a lookout for them when I remember to, but the mind wanders. Because this is righteously, and riotously, America. Town folk stake up home-made political placards on their oversize lawns blaming Obama for everything George W left him. Properties have their own junkyards laden with cars and leaning barns and old dogs that look like they will bite. Sweet, flowery smells dangling in wait cause me to swear to myself in disbelief. Sublime bridges and creeks pull and charm, and I always slow down to look them over, maybe take a picture. The American way is fierce, alive and as off the rails here as anywhere.
We carve through the tertiary country of the Quaker state - lost, found, up, down, standing and sitting, now far from home, tired and growly of stomach. No new oil roads have appeared for some time, so at around five o'clock., Paul pulls us over and puts his GPS to use, locating us a campground. Its owner's a saint, and sends us to the deserted tenting area alongside a dangerously swollen river. We pitch the tents on highest ground and crack beers. We have no food though. And soon we re-suit for the ride to a town, Coudersport, if I recall, some 10 km along the agreeably bended road. The supermarket sells us a pair of fine looking steaks, plus some pasta and other goodies. For mental health, we secure additional beers.
Steak at last
I do the steaks on Paul's camping grill contraption, which doubles as a saw. Odd, I think at first sight of it, but then after hours of fanning green firewood to coals, and 10 minutes' cooking time, I'm treated to my best steak, quite honestly, ever. Tender, spiced with chili and washed back with beer upon beer, we can't believe how good the damn things taste. I eat slowly.
With a section of rope tied to a tree and a loop to hang onto I take a bath, afraid to swim the audible currents that sweep past like summonses to easy death. It's ice cold, pure restoration. Paul's content with sipping and playing with his toys and gizmos, which to my amazement include a chair, beer cooler, fancy mattress, lantern, and so on, and he beds himself early. I sit up awhile with the stars, deciding I will do this far more often.
We're up at dawn, fantastically well-rested, and it's raining. Lightly but steadily. We take a different set of gravel and third-class roads north toward Buffalo, stopping only for an hyper-caloric meal (is there any other kind in the USA?), then a late afternoon beer at a deserted state forest, somewhere in upper NY. The rain, in the end, is light, but stays with us all the way to the border. The crossing is painless and we close-haul it back home along the bad old QEW.
As it always does - and never in the same way twice - Pennsylvania has achieved in barely two days what smaller destinations would take a week to set right in me. I am calmed and ready to get back into whatever's headed my way.
champers will go by that name until further notice in order to prevent his beloved parents from hearing about his motorcycle exploits and never sleeping again.