Austin to Laredo, the Final Frontier. (25th March to 1st April)

Long overdue update...Enjoy!

Austin was hard to leave. Having reached the end of my tether in NY after a 4 year stint, Austin was a breath of fresh air. It was nice waking up to the distant chirps of birds over the jackhammers and blaring sirens of 2nd Avenue. It was more than that though. A motorcycle-friendly city of cool, artsy, tattooed blow-ins(Nobody actually seemed to be from Austin). Coupled with great weather and a unique nightlife, I could finally understand what all the fuss was about this city.

It was great to finally rendezvous with Pat after his 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course(don’t ask) and catch up over Austin’s many Tex-Mex joints. Our stopover in Austin gave us time to pick up any remaining bits and pieces for the trip. I picked up an inexpensive solar charger and some new riding glasses/goggles which would proof to be very useful. I got some much needed downtime and we took in everything Austin had to offer. Big shout out to my cousin Lily for putting us up and letting us use her place to get sorted.

Pat, Lily and myself just before we hit the road.

Pat, Lily and myself just before we hit the road.

The plan was to ride to Medina, Texas where the famous Three Sisters route picked up. For many, this loop of ~100 miles is a motorcycle mecca, the top rated riding route in the US. The ride showcased what appeared to be the best scenery Texas had to offer. We cruised on perfect roads through massive ranches, rolling countryside hills and over trickling streams. At one point, we passed two stags, fighting/playing antler-locked at the roadside. We turned around to do a double take but they scurried off into the bush before we could get a closer look. It was an absolute pleasure to ride and we savored every minute of it.

Three Sisters route which we started from Medina, TX, then going south from Barksdale to Uvalde.

Three Sisters route which we started from Medina, TX, then going south from Barksdale to Uvalde.

Anticipating rain, we pulled in to what looked like a campsite/lodge to throw on our waterproofs. We noticed a crowd of cyclists just settling in for the night. Soon enough, we got talking to the organiser who explained they were cycling their way to Miami having left from San Diego over a couple of months! As the organizer, he rode the distance every year with a new group! No mean feat by any stretch and I had instant respect for the guy. It was great to meet other travellers in the midst of their journey. With a glance of the weather app on his phone, he assured us rain was not imminent and once again we were on our way.

Uvalde, Texas was to be the end of the line that day. It was memorable but for the wrong reasons. The motel we stayed in was by far the worst I’d ever experienced in the two weeks of motelling through the states. Bed bugs were a plenty and Pat found a massive dead cockroach the next morning. Cheers Americans Best Value Inn! They even tried to blame it on us after we complained claiming we probably brought them in with us with our gear, the cheek of it! The one good thing that came out of it was we finally got around checking our blood types with the blood type test kits we’d picked up on Amazon in Austin. While it may seem a bit drastic, we decided to err on the side of caution and find out out blood types with the hopes it would never be needed. From talking to family and friends, I found it funny that nobody really knew their blood type(me included). I guess it’s not really required and bares no thought until perhaps you’re hospitalized. It was was sort of liberating finding out something new about myself(B-negative :)).

Our last US stretch would lead us to Laredo, but not before a jaunt through Texan oil country albeit less than pleasant. Rainy weather, more head winds and lots of truck traffic had us covered in a layer of muck. On the plus side, we sufficiently dirtied up the bikes and gear, something we were eager to do to ward off any potential bike thieves South of the border. Our measure for this was that our license plates were no longer legible which would mask our US origin, that is, until when we have to take off our helmets to reveal our big(in my case small) gringo heads.

As we stopped for lunch at some roadside spot, we got chatting to a border security officer who wished us luck gave us some advice for crossing the border. There was also a particularly useless trucker who gave us the usual ‘Why are you going to Mexico...death by cartel etc’ malarchy. Nothing we hadn’t heard before. At this point in time I feel obliged to acknowledge that yes, we are well aware of the dangers in undertaking such a trip but it does get annoying hearing the same shite daily. Are we exposing ourselves to risk going into Mexico? Yes. Is it a possibility that we could stumble upon cartel carry-on and become another statistic? Sure, why not. Is it worthy of us denying Mexico our tourist dinero and experiencing the country’s amazing people, culture and beauty? Absolutely not. While the dangers are real and should not be taken lightly, I believe most people really do not know the situation, or the details and are merely parroting what they read/see in much of the overly-zealous US media from the safety of their ivory towers. As with pretty much anything, basic planning and a bit of cop-on go a long way.

Laredo, Texas may as well have been Mexico. It was the quintessial Mexico I had in mind: Spanish signage, congested roads and heavy heat. We were even forced to use our awful Spanish in restaurants. Odd considering we hadn’t yet crossed the border. I guess it should come as no surprise that the closer to a border one goes, the more it resembles the adjoining country. Camp Casa Blancas would be our accomodation of choice, after all, we wanted to try out our new Hennessy Hammocks we’d picked up in Austin. They were basically hammock beds with a build-in fly net and an attachable rain canopy.

Our campsite for the night in Casa Blancas, Laredo TX. Not ideal but did the job, sort of.

Our campsite for the night in Casa Blancas, Laredo TX. Not ideal but did the job, sort of.

We set up shop and wandered down to the lake for a swim. We threw a ball around until some kids hijacked our ball and went on to teach us some Spanish swear words. Useful no doubt.

As we saddled up to head back to our campsite, Pat’s bike wouldn’t start. We deduced he’d left the key in and the lights on which drained the battery over the 45 minutes we were swimming. I gave him a push start with the bike in 2nd gear as he held in the clutch. When I got him to a decent speed, he dropped the clutch which kicked the engine off and boom...we'd just had our first push start. Amazed at how quick we'd figured out the issue and how easy we got the bike going we couldn't help but feel we got off easy. ‘What other inevitable bike problems lay ahead for us?’ I couldn’t help think.

Whether it was the new hammocks or the feral dogs running around us in the early hours of the morning, a restless night it was. Bleary-eyed and underslept, the excitement and trepidation of our imminent departure into lands unknown was upon us nonetheless. We got on the road and hit a gas station for what would be our last fill up on US soil. Next stop...Mexico.



Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick (Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas)

With a mosaic of splattered bugs on my visor and the blinding sun in my eyes, I didn't care; I had made it to Texas. I was riding due West, deeper into the Lone Star State and that bit closer to our forward operating base of Austin.

It wasn't easy however. The last few days have been the most testing so far. I had wanted to make up the mileage for staying an extra day in Winston-Salem so was pretty aggressive in my routes from Ashville down to Livingston, Texas. 

It started grand. I left Ashville, got on the road early and was rewarded with some epic views of low hanging clouds/fog on the final stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway...until I descended right into the fog itself and couldn't see 20 yards in front of me. It was daunting yet exciting, to be enveloped by this visibility-killing condensation. I cleared it only to be greeted by rain for the rest of the day, the last thing I wanted snaking around 318 curves in 11 miles aka le Tail of the Dragon. I enquired in a souvenir shop if it was safe to ride wet only to be reassured it was as long as I went slow. (The souvenir shop guy, upon finding out I was Irish, tells me he was in Ireland when they were filming Braveheart...random enough.) I took my time, weaving through it hitting some serious hairpins. It was a rush and I could definitely see why the masses flock here, during better weather mind you. At the very least, I could chalk it off as my 4th of the big 10 motorcycle routes in the US. Not bad for a rookie rider with only 1400miles(at the time) under his belt.

After that, it was a lot of fairly uneventful road riding through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It gave me a chance to solidify my morning routine:

1) 8:30-Wake up and take full advantage of the free breakfasts being provided by the hotel/motel. (I have become very partial to their waffles and syrup...howiya diabetes!)

2) Check tire pressure (21psi for front and 28psi for back).

3) Check oil and gas levels.

4) Load up saddlebags, duffel, and tank bag (takes 20-30 mins but I'm getting faster daily). 

5) Eyeball the route for the day on Google Maps or connect the bluetooth set and have it read out directions through my helmet if I'm feeling lazy(which is most of the time).

The only memorable interaction I had was with a man at a gas station who was admiring my bike and said he'd always wanted one. He asked to take a picture of me and the bike and then I took one of him with the bike. It was a nice exchange of pleasantries...until he casually slipped me a church pamphlet and said if I ever needed the Lord Jesus Christ in my life to reach out. Was I that hopeless?? Cheers boss :p. 

Now of all the states I've been through, I've liked Mississippi the least. It's a state known to have its problems as well as an evidently suffering economy. The roads are obviously maintained state by state because as soon as I crossed the Mississippi state line, the roads turned to shite. The road I was on literally went from the nice new tarmac of Alabama to a crappy pothole-riddled ancient road. I had this funny image in my head of the Alabama road builders diligently stopping any excess tar spilling an inch onto the Mississippi side. It wasn't only the roads though. All the towns I went through were desolate with a host of failed businesses and shop fronts. Some were absolute shiteholes. Sad really. What did it for me was, while riding along this railway station ghost town, I spotted a man standing in the road. As I got closer I could see this disheveled, black lad muttering to himself, gazing off into the distance in a zombie-like stupor. I gave him plenty of space as I got closer to him but didn't he pick that moment to step further into the road scaring the life out of me in true zombie-like fashion. For me, he harrowingly symbolized Mississippi's social and economic disparities.

The last few days of heavy mileage were definitely starting to weigh on me. I ached all over and wanted to just take a day off but I was too close to Austin where I would rendezvous with my buddy Pat to rest, relax and regroup before breaking the border. Today was looking up though. I had left Mississippi and crossed through some nice Louisiana country roads and into Texas. The weather was fantastic today, clear enough and a nice 22 degrees celsius. It might have been the weather but after riding in the rain for the last two days, I was a new man today. I was happy to be sweating through my gear and to be lashing on suncream.

There was a sense of accomplishment also having made it this far. Texas was a significant milestone in the grand scheme of things. It marked the end of a solo journey, for tomorrow, this lone wolf would form his pack. 

Hotel Hermitting in Ashville, North Carolina (+some Go Pro footage)

Before setting off from Winston-Salem yesterday, my godmother cousin Clare had booked me in for a very welcomed massage which I enjoyed immensely! The ride from Winston-Salem to Ashville was enjoyable but fairly uneventful save for riding through what I believe was the hazy smoke of a forest fire of some sort(You can sort of see it in the viaduct go pro video below). The smoke seemed to hug the mountain road and everything smelt like a fireplace. It only last about 5 miles before it cleared up again but was a bit surreal to ride through.

The plan today was to shoot off early this morning early to finish off the Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee before hitting the Cherohola Skyway and/or the Tail of the Dragon as it's so ominously called:

tail.jpg

A quick draw of the curtains ended that plan fairly lively confirming rain for the rest of the day. After mulling over my options whilst grabbing the hotels' free hot brekkie buffet, I decided against riding today and to stay another night in Ashville. 

Not only is rain riding zero craic at all but it would turn these fun, twisty roads lethal and I'd rather not fall victim to this dragon. Today would be another chill day where I will undoubtedly arse about my room unpacking and repacking my gear trying to establish the perfect load equilibrium(I can never find it). I may try get stuck back into the iconic 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' which I haven't picked up in months(Really I want to just finish it and ditch it as it's extra weight I don't need :) )

Nothing much else to report other than I managed to upload some go pro footage which you can check out below. (Mum and Dad, I know it looks like I'm going really fast but the footage is deceiving :p)


Crossed this cool viaduct with some great views down into the valley of Ashville. Flipped on the Go Pro to try test it out:

Captured using GoPro Hero 4 and Side Helmet mount. Crossed a cool viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway on March 18th 2015.

Riding through tunnels are fun:

Go Pro Footage riding through a small tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Below was first time using the Go Pro, bit long running but captures me gearing up and doing my little jump to get onto the seat. Weather was nicer on March 17th when I took this compared to two above.

Blue Ridge Parkway-Winston Salem, North Carolina (249 miles)

Conveniently enough, the 10th best motorcycle route in the US, the Skyline Drive, joins the 3rd best, the Blue Ridge Parkway (http://www.motorcycleroads.com/75/616/Virginia/Blue-Ridge-Parkway.html). I wasn't quite sure how much better the Blue Ridge could be...until I rode it yesterday but it's hard to describe exactly why. Like the Skyline, there was barely any traffic save for the odd car and motorcyclist. However, the road felt more natural as there were less guard rails and lots of cool overhanging trees. There were lots of nice long windy curves which were a lot of fun cornering around. Not to get ahead of myself but I was really started to get the hang of the bike on these mountain roads. 

I've started to notice a lot more bikers on the road which is a welcome sight. Something I've come to learn lately is when you own/ride a motorcycle, you enter into a brotherhood since there are so few riders out there(cue Sons of Anarchy comment). One of the ways of which riders like to show solidarity to complete strangers is through 'the wave' (http://www.bikebandit.com/community/guides/when-not-to-do-the-motorcycle-wave). It's a simple acknowledgement or gesture that I've personally noticed is initiated/reciprocated by 90% of riders I've encountered. It's like being in a childish club where you know the secret handshake but I have to admit it's pretty cool and I get a rush out of doing it(hopefully not looking like an absolute noob).

These last few days have been great for building my bike skills and giving me that much needed experience before I break the border and head south. The Blue Ridge Parkway is 4 times as long as the Skyline at 469 miles so I would leave the beast, in order to finish slaying it another day. Since I had to peel off the parkway, I also wanted to avoid highways which took me through some pretty scenic parts of Virginia where farm lands seemed to stretch out in every direction from small, pokey villages. Lots of barns, even more tractors and a tangible sense of much simpler life. 

Next stop was Winston-Salem, North Carolina where I'd be staying with my cousin and godmother Clare. Bit of detour but worth it just to call somewhere home for a day or two and spend time with Clare, Brad and their adorable kids Calum(5) and Thea(3.5) who insisted on calling me uncle, not first cousins once-removed (confusing to me, nevermind a 5 year old!). It was great to recharge the batteries, repack all my luggage and plot the remainder of the route to Austin, Texas. ETA in Austin is now looking like next Tues/Weds so there'll be plenty more motel-ing to come.  I'm working on uploading some of my first Go Pro footage so watch this space :). Latest batch of pics below though...

Baltimore, Maryland to Waynesboro, Virginia via Skyline Drive(210miles)

It seems every day so far has started with a mishap. Sunday was no different. As I was leaving Baltimore, being pummelled by crosswinds, I felt something hit my leg only to look down and realize my phone had slid out of the tank bag holder and bounced along the highway. I was able to pull into the hard shoulder and run back to find the phone is miraculously unscathed and somehow not run over by a car. Brendan-1 The Road-2.

I was excited about today as I'd finally be getting off the highway and onto some scenic drives. The destination was Front Royal, Virginia where the Skyline Drive started. 109miles of elevated, exhilarating twisty mountain roads which runs through the Shenandoah National Park. It was by far the most enjoyable day of riding I've had yet. I knew it'd be a slog to get here but today alone made it worth it. Really felt like I was on a journey today.

Captured some epic, sweeping shots with my trusty Nikon D3300 DSLR. The ride wasn't without fauna; saw a couple of fawns scatter into the woods and a suicidal squirrel tempt fate. He couldn't decide which way to go when he saw me coming so frantically changed direction 3 times before scuttling off.

Today was the longest day of riding so far clocking in ~210miles. I was pretty wrecked when I pulled off into Waynesboro, Virginia. There's something about just pulling into a town with no reservation after a long day on the saddle. The end game today was to hit up a random motel, preferably in bumf*ck nowhere to get as full a cultural experience as possible and boy did this place fit the bill. It seems everyone in this part of Virginia drives a pick-up truck and has a muffin top spilling out over their waistband. I actually saw a middle-aged man wearing dungarees. Living in New York shelters you from so much of rural United States' problems and stereotypes and but there was no hiding it here, I was right in the thick of it. It was an eye-opener and I loved how these observations were unfolding before me as I rolled into each new state. "What next?!" I wondered, "Some hick proudly flying the confederate flag off his pick-up truck?"....oh wait no, that already happened.

Days 2-3-Philly to Baltimore (101 miles)

I was just cruising into Baltimore when out of nowhere the bike starting losing power and decelerating quickly. Something was wrong but since I was three lanes away from the hard shoulder, all I could do was indicate and then drift across the lanes as fast and as safely as possible. I was going at highway speed, as was the traffic behind but I managed to pull over avoiding them(just about!). A quick check of the tank confirmed gas gone again, this time I had the trip meter running which clocked at 200 km so at least I knew the range danger zone! This meant I was getting closer to 25 mpg than to the quoted 45 mpg in the bike manual! No bueno! Reserve tank to the rescue for the second time in two days. Since I was hitting about 530 miles on the bike it was coming up to it's first service mark. I made a note to mention the fuel efficiency issue to the garage when I dropped it in.

Made it through Baltimore without re-living any scenes from 'The Wire'. I was disappointed I didn't stumble upon the 12 O'Clock Boyz, the city's illegal dirt-bike gang who can be often seen tearing around streets popping wheelies so vertical they dutifully earn their name. Check out this article for more: http://www.vice.com/read/the-wheelying-dirt-bike-gangs-of-baltimore-twelve-o-clock-boyz-lofty-nathan. 

I found a spot called Pete's Cycles with good reviews who would take my bike in for the service on Saturday. A new bike's first service after 500/600 miles of breaking in is pretty important. For one, the oil filter and oil needs to be changed because it gets contaminated with metal filings from the engines first use. I dropped it in and they said the full service would take 3 hours. There was a cinema nearby so I thought it'd be a good way to kill time. Settled for 'Selma'(only cost me $3.50 as oppose to the $14 Manhattan prices I was used to!). There was a time in the movie where one of Martin Luther King's posse starts preaching some words of wisdom to Martin. I wouldn't have normally thought anything of it, or known what it was until I heard a cacophony of synchronised mumbles only to realize half the cinema were repeating what he was saying on screen...a passage from the bible. My first real taste of rural America I thought.

The garage weren't able to find anything obvious wrong with the bike that might have been causing the fuel consumption problem but I was hoping she would run a bit more efficiently after the service. I asked them to tighten the rear suspension as the default setting did not take into account a full load. They were also able to wire up a 12v cigarette charger adaptor so I could power up my phone charger and charge my other bits and pieces if needs be. Total cost was about $312 which was standard enough from what I'd researched. I'd be good to go without another maintenance until the 3000/4000 mile mark.

All in all I spent a bit longer than I'd planned in Baltimore(2 nights) but I did appreciate the home cooking and great company of my relatives who put me up(Thanks Deirdre, Paul and Lewis!).

My Baltimore hosts and family

My Baltimore hosts and family

How not to start your trip. Manhattan to Philly (95 miles)

The stage was set. I would ride in from Hoboken to meet a few friends in front of the Flatiron building, take a few snaps and set off. However, just after I paid my $14 Lincoln Tunnel toll, the bike died. I pulled in between the tollbooths to check it out. Nothing seemed untoward. I put the choke on for a few secs and everything was running fine again. Odd I thought as it was the first time it had it cut out like that. I rode off into the tunnel hoping I'd make it out the other side and not be a feature on the evening news. 

I got as far as 26th and 6th Ave, 2 blocks from where my buddies were waiting only to have it cut out again. This time there was no bringing her to life. "For f*ck sake!" I thought, "I've broken down and I haven't even made it fully into Manhattan yet!". I called Christian, a friend I made recently who has done a similar trip from Colombia to Argentina only last year on a KLR650 also, who was waiting nearby at Flatiron. He came by, checked a few things and asked me had I gas. Now before you write me off as a total idiot, I'll mention the KLR650 has a 5.8 gallon tank which boasts a range of about 250m/400km. I had rode about 150 miles the day before so was sure I'd enough juice to get me into the city and on the way. Apparently not. I checked the tank and it was bone-dry. Dumbfounded but mostly mortified, I flipped the reserve tank on, span around the corner and took the abuse from my mates on my first epic fail(of many no doubt). [Insert monkey of shame emoji here :/]. All jokes aside, the send off was a special moment and for the first time, I found myself missing New York.

One thing I'm quickly learning is that everything takes a bit longer than one would expect on a motorcycle. Riding at highway speeds being very exposed to the elements takes its toll a lot faster than riding in a car I've found so regular breaks to stretch and warm up with a cup of hot coffee are a godsend. With that in mind, I decided to limit myself to just Philly(originally Baltimore) for today's trip and take my time. 

It was more not-so-enjoyable highway riding so I'm able to make good time however the cross-winds are horrendous and I find myself gripping the handlebars tightly to stop the bike from being blown around the lane. It was pretty terrifying at first but like riding in the rain or the cold, not much I can do but grit my teeth and get on with it.   

A Delayed Departure

All systems are a go! After a bit of a scare from some far from ideal MRI results I got last Thursday, I have now got the all clear from the neurologist after a second set of follow-up MRIs. It threatened to jeopardize the trip so naturally I was over the moon to get the all clear. On Tuesday I rode the bike down from my relatives in Norfolk, CT to Hoboken, NJ. It was about a 130 mile trip which started very pleasantly in the rolling mountain roads of North West Connecticut and upstate New York. However, it quickly went to shit when I rode into rain coming into Westchester county. The splash-back from the wet roads were a nightmare. If it wasn’t for the visor I’d have been unable to see and would have had all sorts of muck and shite in my face. Even still I was constantly wiping the rain from my visor to see properly.

This was my first time (and probably not last time) riding in the rain so it was good at least to experience what it would be like and how the bike and gear would perform. The Wolfman luggage held up incredibly well. Splattered with muck and water but kept everything bone-dry inside. I was worried about the tank-bag as it was water-resistant as oppose to waterproof and it contained all my electronics(DSLR, tablet, Chromebook, GoPro accessories, all important vehicle documents and my passport!). I had the docs and Chromebook in ziploc bags just in case however the bag seemed to hold up fine!

The jacket, pants and boots did a great job at keeping the water out despite getting filthy and that worn in look which I was not against at all. Unfortunately I found out the hard way that my gloves are not waterproof. No issues handling the throttle/clutch however my hands were noticeably colder because of the wet and windchill. Thinking a pair of nitrile gloves underneath may be a quick fix the next time I run into a shower.

Yesterday was officially D-day and wasn't without it's drama. I'll do the story justice by giving it a separate post.