Better late and imperfect, than never ... finally I've taken some time to write ....
"I'd like to go and see these places you've talked so much about." she said. So with that one statement a plan was set in motion. Audrey and I would ride two up on the Beloved Blue Oil Burner down the Blue Ridge Parkway and through Deal's Gap. Yun had initially planned to join us on his R1100S but a scheduling snafu prevented that from happening. Since I had promised to ride with him this summer, I told him, "Well, it's not like I'm doing anything constructive with my life at the moment. We can go in July." Three Smokey Mountain trips in one year. Why not?
Riding with passengers used to be so hard on me. With rare exceptions, my shoulders would cramp and my neck would lock up after just a few dozen miles and it would leave me spent. In the past few years, I've taken a few courses which fundamentally changed how I ride. This, in turn, has changed how I ride with passengers and things have gotten so much easier.
Unlike a passenger in a car, a passenger on a motorcycle is a critically active participant. In order to go, stop and especially negotiate corners, both pilot and passenger must move together fluidly so as to not upset the machine. This involves a great deal of communication and trust which takes more time to develop than most people will give it. "Hey, want to go for a ride on my bike? Here, jump on." is the sum total instruction most passengers get. Then pilots wonder why things go poorly and it's so taxing.
Riding with a passenger is an up close, personal, and intimate activity, much like a dance. Both have to trust the other implicitly and move in sync to the rythm of the road. When surprises happen and things get momentarily scary, being in sync and fluid can often mean the difference between a non-issue and a crash. If there is no trust, tension results. I haven't figured out how, but I can feel when a passenger is tense or scared or apprehensive and this negatively affects my ability to ride. In the worst case, this tension can lead to Bad Things.
"I'll scare her so she'll grab on tight." is a common thing you hear people say. Do not do this. All it'll do is scare her and she won't want to ride again or if she does she won't trust and will be tense.
I've always been a super polite pilot. When I take a passenger for a ride, I have for years said that I ride for them. I want them to be comfortable and most importantly not be afraid. I want them to trust. That trust is built slowly on communication and consistentcy. When you can predict what someone else will do, it is easier to trust them. Act in a predictable manner consistently each and every time and then trust follows.
Building that trust starts at the very beginning. I never take a passenger, regardless of how experienced a rider they are, without first establishing a baseline for how the two of us will make this happen together. This includes at the minimum a few minutes covering:
The next thing that I do when taking a passenger is to establish a baseline of expectations. I do this by being exceptionally consistent especially early on. If you ride with me and we get underway once, you will know exactly what it feels like to get underway from then on. Once we've done the first stop sign, you know what each stop will feel like afterwards. To build trust, make your passenger comforable and keep them at ease requires consistency. They need to know what to expect.
If they've never been on a bike before, I go through a few start, stop and turn maneuvers in a parking lot at very slow speed. Then once out on the road, if at all possible, I take them through situations of gradually increasing difficulty until I've set up a baseline that represents the majority of the more common situations one finds out there. I try very hard never to do anything abruptly. As we ride together, I stop regularly and talk with them about what they are experiencing. With each passenger, like it is with each student, different things come up and get worked through. Most passengers are afraid of leaning. Throwing them into hard leans just amplifies that fear. So we do it slowly and gradually. I give it time. With most passengers I don't lean the bike over much at all because I, as the pilot, must also have trust in the passenger. If I go into a corner hard and lean the bike way over and they decide to lean in the opposite direction because they are afraid, bad things are likely to happen. The baseline introduction and the extra time is as much for me as it is for the passenger. On a motorcycle with a passenger you do everything together including learning the skill to rider together.
Passengering on a motorcycle takes skill.
I started riding with Audrey a year or so ago and as I do with all passengers, I followed what I outlined above. I remember early on on a hot day we hit a tar snake and the front wheel skipped a little bit. She got unsettled and tensed up and I, in response, did as well. We stopped and talked about it for a moment. It was just a momentary blip. I explained what happened and why to put it into context. It's strange but now we can hit a tar snake together and have the bike skip and there's no drama at all. Trust.
On the last Deal's Gap trip I took Duncan, Bruce and Joel through the Gap. I found myself wondering what it would be like if I could get Audrey down there. We've done enough riding together that I thought we could probably do the Gap pretty well together and learn something in the process. I was a little concerned how she'd react. The Gap is hard and not for the feint of heart. But I had the sense that she'd probably enjoy it.
So the time came for us to leave. There are always things to learn. I am known for being able to pack a bike well. Riders are endlessly asking me how I manage to fit everything I carry with me without having to strap stuff all over the bike. (Well, with the exception of Joel who would ask "What's in the bag?")
So I've been guilty of priding myself on my ability to pack. The photo above clearly shows my Beloved Blue as I had it packed for the previous trip to the Gap where I was the only one on the bike. I would like to point out the large tank bag and the silver tail bag. There are also the saddle bags. I know how to pack a motorcycle.
Well, I thought I did until Audrey got involved in the act. This is what the bike looks like packed with all the gear /two/ people need for a week. I should also point out that because it was June and not May, I was not wearing the Transit Suit meaning I needed to pack an extra bulky rain suit. This is just amazing to me that everything fit. During the entire week we wanted for nothing.
We got underway despite an epic storm being forecast. "There is always a reason not to do a thing." We had contemplated postponing the trip for a day to let the storm pass but I'm glad we didn't. The first day was spent in rainsuits, but it wasn't too bad. She got to do the time honored Monkey Dance under a bridge.
We made really good time despite the rain and were at the Blue Ridge Parkway at roughly the time we would normally stop for lunch.
What's particularly nice about the run from Washington DC to Deals Gap along the Blue Ridge Parkway is that it increases in difficulty gradually. The Parkway starts out with nice rolling corners and vistas and almost imperceptibly it becomes twistier and more challenging. This is a great way to gradually become comfortable cornering. By the time 469 miles of the Parkway have been clicked off one will have done thousands of corners. Audrey asked, as we had clicked off the first five miles of the Parkway, "Is this what the Gap is like, only twistier?". All I did was laugh.
(For an interactive version of this map, click in the image above. It includes points of interest and photos along the route. This is what I've been working on building for so long.)
In many ways, this was a trip down the Parkway like many others. There were vistas.
But in some ways it was very different. It seemed that every place we arrived the storm had just rolled through missing us. There was a tremendous amount of debris in the road and many downed trees.
Somehow it seemed like there was more time. We managed to get off the beaten path and find places that served surprisingly good food. A "Harley Bar" we came upon had really good burgers and salads.
"It's at least an hour, maybe two, to Yun's rock but it's so worth it." I had told her repeatedly. Last year, when Yun and I went to the Gap we did the same route and stopped at Linn Cove Viaduct. It was tremendously hot and we hiked for what I thought was hours until we came upon a huge rock. We climbed onto it and found an incredible vista which Yun then used as the cover shot for his book.
This time around the weather was perfect. It was cool and the sun was shining thanks to the storm having passed through. We walked for 15 minutes and came upon the rock.
"It was hours, I tell you! Hours! They must've moved the rock." I exclaimed. My inability to count things would prove to be a recuring theme. It truly is a beautiful spot. It's not so easy to get to but the view is spectacular.
The further South you go on the Parkway the twistier it gets. It really is one of the nations most beautiful roads.
"I seem to remember three tunnels." I told her. "Tunnels!" she exclaimed. 15 to 20 tunnels later, I told her "Clearly, they've added a bunch of tunnels since the last time I was here. Oh look, here's another one."
We stopped at Mount Mitchell to take in the view and have dinner. On the way back down we came across one of the most unhurried birds I have ever encountered. It turned out to be some kind of grouse.
Audrey and I ended up riding later into the day than we usually do and were able to catch these incredible sunsets up on the ridge.
There were a distressing number of box turtles dead in the road. I've never seen so many slaughtered before. We came across one that was trying to make it's way across so we stopped and saved it.
There was another one we couldn't save because of following traffic in a corner. He was making a run for it, but I'm still troubled that he probably didn't make it. (Yea, I know. He's so sensitive.)
The roads escalated and after the last section of the Blue Ridge it couldn't get any twistier until, of course, it did. Route 28 coming into Fontana Village gets to be really run and is itself an escalation. "The Gap is much twistier than this." I told her. I don't think she believed me.
We dropped things off at the hotel and then headed to the Gap.
We paused. We drank coffee. We watched the mayhem in the parking lot. We talked about the 318 corners ahead. "I'm a bit nervous." Audrey said. As with every new experience, start out slowly. Take your time. Patience.
We suited up and slowly rolled onto US129 and did our first run through the Gap. Audrey is a fantastic passenger.
We ran the Gap a few times improving each time. Riding with a passenger that trusts you and is actively involved is a true joy.
As is the case with trips of many days, there are so many stories, so many thoughts to share than there is space and time to share them. There were the crazy "fiddy" races.
There were incredible water falls.
There were wonderfully twisty roads.
We ran the Gap back and forth. Each time, she said, "Let's do that again!".
So we did. Trust built up over time in motion ...
The trip back home involved unbelievable rain. When we got back to College Park, Yun asked "So after we go to the Gap in July I want to head cross country. I want you to go with me ... "