Nuts About Bikes

Mason Dixon Meanderings 2009

This year's spring fling found the Beach Bums (Steve, Jersey Joe and me) and the Coal Crackers (Keith, Todd and Surfrider Joe) meandering around the Mason-Dixon line – the border between southern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland.

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Day 1: Millville, N.J. to Gettysburg, Pa.
(or – getting there is a PIA)

Getting across NJ via NJ49 was uneventful – with some nice water scenery between Salem and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where marshes, creeks and other estuaries of the Delaware River played a significant role in highway design.

There’s no easy way to get to the good stuff, once you get into Delaware from southern New Jersey. You can either dodge semis on I-95 or nearly fall asleep at the handlebars, waiting for countless stoplights on US40 through Elkton, Md. We chose the stoplights option, shaking cobwebs at each intersection as the sun baked us in our ride gear. (We took I-95 on the way back, which to put it mildly is quite a sobering experience on two wheels. Thankfully you only have to deal with it for 12 miles or so. But every yard stinks out loud. Navigator Joe says next time the Commodore Barry/US322 might be a better option, avoiding the whole under-construction mess around Wilmington, Del.)

Worth the effort

Every time I drive Harford County, Md. in the cage, I think – this would be so much better on two wheels. There are some terrific motorcycle roads in northern Maryland and the Peach Bottom/Conowingo area of southern Pennsylvania. Spring is particularly scenic, with rolling farm fields and lush green meadows, interrupted by bright yellow sprays of buttercups and streams of wintercress, following the low contours of the landscape where water collects.

Trivia: how can you cross the Susquehanna River on a motorcycle without a bridge or a boat? The Conowingo Dam, of course. This WPA-era hydroelectric plant carries Rt. 1 over the river, just upstream of the Chesapeake Bay. When completed in 1928, it flooded both the village of Conowingo and the Conowingo Bridge. Before the reservoir filled, the bridge was demolished and the village was relocated about a mile west, to higher ground.

I was surprised to see the volume of trash floating around the reservoir side of the dam. Huge trees, barrels, hundreds of milk jugs, you name it. Not a pretty sight. And apparently it’s a problem for boaters and others concerned with the condition of the river and bay. It’s unfortunate there’s no money to clean the stuff up before it ends up in the bay, when the dam's floodgates are opened.

West of the river, we picked up MD136 and pit-stopped in Dublin, Md., a rural, salt-of-the-earth kind of community with lots of pickup trucks, gun racks and camouflage. Riding into a town like this can be nerve-racking from the seat of a Japanese bike. You’re not sure what kind of xenophobic sentiment you are likely to encounter. My fears were unfounded, however. The locals were as friendly as could be and a few even went out of their way to compliment the Kawi. I was relieved to see more than a few Toyota trucks around! No trouble in this part of the Old Line State. (The western panhandle would tell a different story, we’d learn. More later.)

Attack of the killer stop signs

The bulk of our ride was on PA851 to PA216, back north of the Mason-Dixon. Steve and I enjoyed it, but Jersey Joe was less enthusiastic. It’s a real nice bike route – with a lot of elevation changes, sweepers and a twisty or two. But 851 includes some very technical stop signs, placed at the crest of hills. Not a big deal for me – with a relatively small bike. The uphill stops were more of a challenge for the heavier tour bikes – but for all, a chance to practice the footbrake/clutch technique, getting underway from a dead stop on a steep hill.

There also seems to be a large quantity of “STOP, except for right turn” intersections in this part of the world, which tend to make motorcyclists unfamiliar with the local traffic quirks a little squirrely.

I liked this route a lot. It winds through a bunch of quaint little Pennsylvania towns, built by coal barons or railroad barons or some other economies of the industrial revolution and forgotten by time. Each is a gem, history preserved in red brick. I always wonder who settled there and why – and what the locals are up to now that the age of coal and steam is long gone. My favorite on this leg of the journey may have been Railroad, Pa., a borough of 300 that I doubt gets many visitors. Who knew there was a town called “Railroad, Pennsylvania?” For a bit of linguistic fun, I hoped it was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

PA216 took us through Hanover, Pa., which looked like a hip little city to explore, but scads of afternoon traffic made for pretty slow going so we pressed on to Gettysburg. We arrived in time for dinner, road weary and more than ready for a rest, which we enjoyed from our hotel room as we waited for the Coal Crackers to rendezvous.

Once the Scranton boys arrived and unpacked, we shared some down time and refreshment courtesy of Mr. Yuengling before summoning the services of Gettysburg’s one and only cab company for a ride into town. The Farnsworth House Inn has become one of our favorite spots, complete with its bullet-ridden wall. A sniper was perched in the garret window during the famous battle and the .50 caliber musket balls flying in his direction made a lasting impression on the red bricks. We enjoyed a brew or two here before heading to one of Gettysburg’s few Colonial buildings, the Dobbin House for dinner, where appetites were sufficiently satisfied.

Day Two – twisting through Blue Mountain

It was one of those days where, each time you think the road can’t get any better, it does.

We started with a wrong turn on PA15 which was an outstanding mistake, putting us through the heart of the National Park battlefield in soft morning light on freshly laid, glass-smooth asphalt. When we realized our mistake, we got to do it again – as much a treat the second time around. Back in town, we found the right road, PA116, which led the group to some of Pennsylvania’s most spectacular motorcycle roads.

View photo albumThis route has enough sweepers, twisties, hairpins and dips to make any rider happy, alternating through rolling pastures, shady wooded tunnels and cuts through Blue Mountain/Appalachian rock. We took PA116 to Cold Springs Rd. to South Mountain Rd. leading to the village of South Mountain, where we picked up PA233 north through the Michaux State Forest and Caledonia State Park. Some truly spectacular riding, made better by dry roads, sunshine and mild temperatures. We took a water break and did a little exploring at the park, the site of an old iron forge and one of the dozens of waterfalls that dot the landscape in this part of the Keystone State.

Continuing on PA233 on the north side of the park, the road surface offered a challenge in many areas of fresh repair with oiled gravel. No problems on the straightaways – and the curves were OK with moderated speed. What an amazing road – almost always paralleling swiftly flowing water. The road crosses over the creek regularly and sometimes the volume swells to a small waterfall – in one case, right in somebody’s front yard. Stunning.

PA233 continued to Pine Grove Furnace – another park surrounding an old iron furnace – then under the slabs of I-81 and the Turnpike, through Landisburg to to PA274 to PA75 and PA641 to Shade Gap, where we stopped for lunch at the town diner. Some fantastic switchbacks, up and down the mountains – incredible riding. The bonus: we had almost all the roads practically to ourselves.

View photo albumAt Shade Gap we picked up 522 to Orbisonia, where we paid a visit to the East Broad Top Railroad, a historic narrow-gauge steam railroad that operates tourist excursions, shop tours and a trolley museum in summertime. We were a few weeks too early for the official season, but got to chat with employees and see some of the unique rolling stock, including one of their lovingly restored two-stroke speeder cars. It makes a one-of-a-kind sound as it putt-putts up and down the track in the yard.

From the rail yard we picked up PA475 south to PA655. We had planned to take 655 back to Maryland but drying fuel tanks forced a detour to McConnellsburg, where we hightailed on US30 to the nearest fuel before continuing south on US522.

We ended an amazing day of riding with a water break at the historic Chesapeake and Ohio canal on the north bank of the Potomac, raging past, swollen from heavy spring rain.

Into the dungeon

Our original destination was Cumberland, Md., but thickening thunder clouds and addled brains left us searching for a more expedient choice. The ‘burg we chose will remain nameless, to keep from roiling the local Chamber of Commerce.

Suffice to say, we picked a real winner. A craphole of a Loserville, populated by unhappy, obese, angry, hostile punks. Fortunately their bark was worse than their bite – we sustained more dagger looks than I’ve ever experienced in one geographic location.

At the local watering hole, the welcome committee consisted of a local wife-beater-clad pea-brained dolt, drunk and probably smashed on methamphetamine, who proceeded to try to pick a fight with six big guys in black leather. In his tiny mind, stunted by a shallow gene pool and years of substance abuse, we weren’t “real” bikers, since most of us had ridden into town on Softtails. “The hardtail’s the hard way, the hardtail’s the hard way,” he spouted from his dank corner barstool, like a bad broken record. His intellectually enlightened girlfriend tried to calm him down, even as she hurled her own brand of insults in our direction, having something to do with choice of beer.

We’re all old enough and smart enough to know that harmless village idiots like these are best ignored. Sure enough, when we turned our backs on them, they went away. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Two “hotels” in town. We picked the Waldorf-on-the-Potomac. In the shadow of a burned out house, it had bugs, rusty windows, dirty towels and – by the looks of Surfrider Joe’s commode – a housekeeper obviously tapping the same drug supply as the rocket scientists at the bar next door. We didn’t care. It also offered a great view of the dense trees lining the river, cheap rates and was walking distance to both the beer store and the local diner. The other hotel was surely nicer, but we’d later learn it was in the middle of nowhere, without any food or drink for miles. We’d made the right choice, as it turns out. And it will be a source of stories and comedy for years to come.

Day three: Palookaville to York, Pa.

We met all of three nice people in this town: the bartender, the dinner waitress and the teenager behind the counter at the local convenience store. Everybody else we encountered was indifferent at best and malevolent at worse. Suffice to say we were not exactly sorry to bid them farewell. As Bugs Bunny once said: “Don’t think it hasn’t been a little slice of heaven. Because it hasn’t.” And after our encounters with the natives, we began referring to our little motorcycle gang as “The Softtails.”

View photo albumI was up at six (as usual) but my comrades slept late. So I rolled the bike down the hill to warm it up away from their windows and made an impromptu jaunt across the river into West Virginia. This way I could say I did one more state then the rest! As with other paths we’d crossed on this trip, the roads and vistas were spectacular, even in just an hour of wandering. Even Craphole, USA got a lot nicer on the other side of town. Nothing but scenery, though – especially on the south bank of the river. The only thing I saw moving was a flock of chickens scratching at the floor of their front-yard coop.

Back at the Roach Motel, we packed and walked back to the diner for breakfast, where the morning shift waitress was as rude as her coworker had been nice at dinner the night before. The eggs were OK but the coffee was downright awful, forcing me to buy a roll of Tums several hours later in Chambersburg, Pa.

We escaped Yahootown unscathed, save indigestion, and worked our way back towards Gettysburg. East of Chambersburg, I spied a sign for Scotland, Pa., which reminded me of the quirky little black comedy. It’s a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starring Maura Tierney as Lady Mac and Christopher Walken as the local police chief on the trail of the murderers.

Back at Caledonia, we bid farewell to those in the group who needed to get home early. The rest revisited some of the mountain roads we’d carved on day two, getting briefly lost around Mt. Alto. Back at the Gettysburg battlefield for water and a snack, we realized some were pretty tired and for safety’s sake, we decided to head to York early for rest and recharging.

Seeking to avoid the traffic jam at Hanover, we took the boring route via US30, but discovered some nifty little towns along the way, like New Oxford – definitely pegged for future exploration.

In York, at least the locals were nice to us. But we found we were landlocked in our hotel, walking distance to only fast food and a grocery store. The beer team took the bikes out to find some six packs and we decided to order a pizza. I think we called seven places before finding one that would deliver to our hotel, as if we were in the worst neighborhood in town. We weren’t. Bizarre.

After pizza and beer the weary went down for a nap and those with wanderlust took a walk to see the neighborhood. Once we escaped the chaos of Rt. 30, we found ourselves in an interesting little working-class neighborhood with small bars, manicured lawns, big churches and old factories. We stumbled on Prospect Hill Cemetery, where a small American flag flies for every American soldier killed in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001. Quite the sobering, thought-provoking sight. We also learned about Philip Livingson, a founding father who signed the Declaration of Independence. He was working on forging the nation’s Constitution in York, where he died unexpectedly and was buried in 1778. The fight for freedom continues. A lot of history in this part of the world.

Back at the hotel, our dysfunctional food day continued as we tried to summon a cab to take us to a local restaurant. A confused game of telephone tag led to no cab, so we wandered on foot to settle for the least offensive fast food we could find, popped the basketball game on TV and hit the rack. We were going for an early start tomorrow.

Day four: York, Pa. to home

Monday dawned with dark clouds and a damp chill in the air. The original plan was to visit the Harley Davidson factory tour early and hit the road by lunchtime. But we had mostly all done the tour before and were antsy to beat the rain, so we said our farewells to the Coal Crackers and headed southeast as they turned north to Harrisburg and Scranton.

After a Sunday with little riding, I was anxious to get some quality saddle time in on Monday and was not disappointed. I knew we’d have a good ride through Lancaster County, as we had planned a route home that included PA896, one of my very favorite roads in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The bonus came when we chose PA74 to get us east of York, as an alternative to US30, which is bad in York and pure evil in Lancaster. This ride was unexpectedly pleasant.

The Scranton boys did not want to get breakfast, so we hit the road early figuring we’d get some miles in before chow. PA74 is also S. Queen St. in York, but we took the shortcut, a few short miles of slab southbound on I-83, exiting onto PA74 south of York. It becomes Main Street in more post-industrial Pennsy towns like Red Lion and Dallastown, where Jersey Joe spied a burgundy Kawi W650 in the bed of a parked pickup truck. (I missed it.)

Out of Red Lion, PA74 becomes another pretty farm road, as picture-postcard dairy farms roll past. We saw a horse-drawn buggy or two as we got deeper into Amish territory. We picked up PA372, which crosses the Susquehanna into Lancaster County over the Norman Wood Bridge.

The bridge is nearly a mile long, nothing unusual from the white concrete surface. But the view is magnificent. The bridge crosses a particularly dramatic spot on the river. Upstream is the Holtwood hydroelectric dam. Downstream is dotted with a necklace of islands, massive boulders and stone outcrops – I wondered if they were once part of the riverbed before dam dropped the water level. The sheer mass of the landscape was breathtaking. Fortunately the wind was calm – I imagined this bridge would be quite a different experience on a wind-whipped day. This area has become a haven for bald eagles, but we spotted none on our brief Susquehanna crossing.

The morning was colder than we imagined. Chilled, starving and dying for hot coffee, we stopped to top off the gas tanks and layer up. A friendly clerk at the gas station directed us to C.R. Lapp’s Family Restaurant in Quarryville, where we hit breakfast paydirt.

If you want to visit a restaurant that’s doing everything right, put C.R. Lapp’s on your list. The staff was friendly, the coffee was excellent, the place is so clean it looked like it was built yesterday – and the food was sublime. We ordered simple eggs, sausage, toast and potatoes, but everything was fresh and cooked to textbook perfection. In a world of careless people, many faking it and phoning it in, it’s a breath of fresh air to come across a place owned and operated by thoughtful people passionate about good food. I’d love to have that restaurant closer to home.

Just east of Quarryville, PA372 dead-ends at PA896, a true journey through time in the heart of Amish country. On a Sunday, it can be challenge dodging all the horse-drawn buggies (and their droppings) heading to and from church. But on a Monday, we encountered only a handful of carts and buggies on the road and instead got to see the beasts of burden doing their weekday work, out in the fields.

There’s something comforting and mysterious about seeing an Amish farmer driving a team of horses or mules, plowing, mowing, raking. One team was pulling a gasoline powered hay rig, which brought the strange oxymoron of Amish law into sharp focus. They can’t use gasoline for transportation, so no cars, trucks or tractors. But they use gasoline for just about everything else – mowing, trimming, even laundry. It’s an odd sight to see an Amish woman in her pinned black dress and bonnet, swinging a two-cycle weed whacker at the roadside. They don’t use electricity, but can if it’s from a battery. They don’t use the telephone, but can if it’s cellular. They have bicycles, but the bikes can’t have pedals. Theirs is a strange world I’ll always respect, but never understand.

PA896 rolls through curves and over hills, each with a photo-worthy view at the crest. And as suddenly as the time machine switches on when you get on PA896, it switches off when you hit the suburban development outside Newark, Del. Though still 90 minutes from home, Newark was where our odyssey officially ended. After Newark, it’s less about the ride and more about getting the bikes in the stable.

We’d had a terrific trip of mostly ups and only a few downs, all funny. Once home, I garaged a filthy, ever-reliable machine happy to have been put to such good use on the curvy Mason-Dixon macadam. I was exhausted and exhilarated – and I can’t wait until the group gets together again.

-Sal, Editor
Spring 2009