She is taking her first motorcycle ride. Turns out posthumously, but my Aunt Muriel is in on it, her ashes secretly tucked away in my top case.
Muriel was not a fan of motorcycles. She found them too fast and noisy and their riders too careless and selfish. For decades, she lived near the coast in South Florida, where a grid of congested, multi-lane streets put motorcycles right next to her. The ones she encountered, at least the fast and loud ones that stood out in her mind, didn’t give her much to like.
While she loved to hear stories of my long-haul adventures on motorcycles, she always said one thing very clearly: “You will never get me on a motorcycle!”
Now, as the miles pile up, a thought keeps bouncing around in my brain: Did Muriel find this route correct?
His attitude towards motorcycles and their riders evolved after he retired and moved to the mountains of western North Carolina, one of the best motorcycling regions in the world. When Muriel first moved to the town of Franklin, my wife, Sheila, and I drove in for a visit. Muriel drove us to lunch at a barbecue she liked in the town of Highlands.
As we drove south on State Route 28, the road got huge, with smooth tarmac and continuous, steep, steep turns. On one side of the road were jagged outcroppings and on the other a fast-flowing river in a rocky ravine. She parked her car in a rest area and drove us behind a waterfall.
Muriel was not what you would call an expert driver, but to her credit she stayed in her own lane on this intensely twisty road. Sheila was pregnant at the time and sat nervously in the back seat, clutching her baby bump and hoping our destination was near. In stark contrast, I was thinking how fantastic this route would be on a motorcycle. I spoke to Muriel about it, and she offered to come back and ride one. “Bring a friend,” she said. “More than one if you want.”
This invitation, I later learned, was in spite of a homeowners association rule that didn’t allow motorcycles in Muriel’s neighborhood. “I don’t have a motorbike,” she explained, “but if visitors come to see me and arrive on their bikes, there’s not much I can do about it, can there?” Muriel thought it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Over the next 15 years, I took every opportunity to visit him with one, two or three friends on a motorcycle. We would arrive on quiet Hondas and BMWs, drive slowly through his neighborhood and offer a friendly wave to everyone we met. Forgiveness was never demanded.
Muriel’s house was on top of a hill, offering an impressive view of the mountains where the roads we had come to take were waiting. His neighborhood emptied out onto Route 28 (aka Moonshiner 28), and gems like Wayah Road, the Cherohala Skyway, US Route 129 (Tail of the Dragon), and the Blue Ridge Parkway were there to be enjoyed. With each visit, we discovered new routes.
We would come back from a day’s walk excited and full of stories, then take Muriel to dinner. During these meals, she met an orthopedic surgeon, a military logistician, a power plant engineer, a metal fabricator, a warehouse manager and a driver. trucks – each a gentleman, a kind guest and a motorcyclist.
Once, Muriel casually asked if we could help her replace the storm windows with screens. “You’ll pull an old lady off a stepladder,” she explained. We installed these screens and on each subsequent visit we asked for her to-do list. Leaky taps, wonky towel racks and uncooperative wi-fi never stood a chance. Muriel understood that not all motorcycles were too fast and loud, nor all riders too careless and selfish. When she spoke with her friends from church, she called us her gentleman friends on motorcycles.
Now, on a hot Sunday in late summer, I leave my home in western Massachusetts and point to my BMW R 1200 RT south and west. Traveling through the Berkshire Hills in Connecticut, I look for places Muriel would have loved: Saville Dam in Barkhamsted, East River Road overlooking the Farmington River, and the historic Bull Covered Bridge over the Housatonic River. At the New York border, the road becomes Dogtail Corners Road… Muriel would have laughed at the name. She would have been less amused by the 10-mph hairpin turns on Dutchess County Route 22 east of Pleasant Ridge Road, but I lean in to savor them.
I meander through Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks to scenic northern New Jersey, where Steve Efthyvoulou joins the ride. Over the years, Steve has arrived at Muriel’s house on a motorcycle more often than anyone but me, and on this ride he helps me fulfill a request: Muriel had ordered that her ashes be “scattered in the mountains of Carolina North “. No specific location was listed, so I asked Steve to join me in completing this task. He accepted without hesitation.
The next morning, we drive at first light. Steve has mapped out a route to get us away from the main roads, so we pass through small towns in New Jersey, passing fields of corn ready to be harvested. We drive through Pennsylvania, and in Lancaster County, distinct Pennsylvania Dutch Country sights abound. Amish farmers with a team of four mules harvest the first row of corn, just off the road. A teacher dressed in a cap gives lessons outside while children dressed in homemade clothes sit attentively. Further on, a group of older boys are enjoying recess on a baseball diamond. I’ve been told that Monday is laundry day for Amish families, and countless clotheslines overflowing with union suits and long-legged boxers offer anecdotal evidence. At a crossroads, a young buggy driver struggles with her load. Steve points out that teenagers aren’t usually the best drivers, even when riding a horse.
On Pennsylvania Route 372, we pass through the massive Muddy Run hydroelectric project, which uses excess electricity from the grid to pump water from the Susquehanna River into a lake. During peaks in electricity demand, water flows from the lake through turbines which generate electricity. The lake, essentially, is a battery. It is also the center of an area operated as a park.
Noon finds us in Maryland, and what would a lunch break be in the Free State without crab cakes? Muriel would have dropped two claws. After a brief crossing of the state of West Virginia, we continue through West Virginia to Harrisonburg for the night.
In the morning, we hop on Skyline Drive to cross Shenandoah National Park. On a dreary weekday after Labor Day, the few vehicles we encounter are visibly disregarding the painfully slow 35 mph speed limit. After joining the Blue Ridge Parkway, the rain begins. Beyond Roanoke we pass on US Route 221, and the rain continues to fall hard and steadily, but as Steve reminds me, a good drive in the rain is still a good drive. In the town of Boone, NC, we call it a day. Warnings of torrential rain and flash flooding will continue for the next 36 hours, so we’re opting for a rest day in this mountain college town.
A day later, morning arrives with bright sunshine and temperatures in the 40s. With the heating equipment plugged in, we start early. Branches and limbs litter the roads as a testament to the violent storms that have swept through. Steve shares warnings of road hazards ahead, a great benefit of the bike-to-bike intercom. Especially in this region of Appalachia, the mountains form a wrinkled and crumpled landscape, and the roads built there twist and turn like roller coasters that you control. Rocky outcrops are common and some are fascinating, like the one on US 221 west of Blowing Rock, which looks like a face emerging from the mountain. Beyond North Cove, we turn right onto State Route 226 and left onto State Route 226A for another asphalt masterpiece.
Then, somewhere beyond Little Switzerland, a suitable spot in the mountains of North Carolina comes to light, and Muriel’s last request is granted.
Professionally, Muriel had been a town clerk, certifying elections, performing weddings and serving as president of the international association of town clerks. She has traveled extensively for work and in retirement. A simple church-going lady, she enjoyed conversation, expressed strong opinions, and was willing to disagree (pleasantly). One thing Muriel and I didn’t agree on was motorbikes, even though they somehow brought us closer. She knew how much motorcycles meant to me and that she lived in a special place to enjoy them, so of course I would have to come and visit friends.
On this trip, I had the satisfaction of seeing that Muriel’s wish to find rest in the mountains of North Carolina was granted, and in the process, Steve and I enjoyed some incredible roads. But there’s no escaping the irony that Muriel’s last ride was also her first motorcycle ride.