Motorcycle Sunday Stories

Sunken Garden AMFThe 16th annual Motorcycle Sunday took place at Phillips Park in Aurora last Sunday. I’ve been going to this event since roughly 2007—I’m no longer certain of the exact year. I do know that I had thought about attending this event for a couple of years before I actually went. I just wasn’t sure if it would be right for me. This seems ridiculous in hindsight, but at the time, I wasn’t sure if a Honda-riding Catholic boy would be welcome there. So I stayed away. But then a friend of mine told me the event was great, that I would indeed be welcome there, and that Fox Valley Cycles, my favorite Honda dealer and sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders (aka my local Honda Riders Club of America chapter), was a regular exhibitor at the event. So I went, I loved it, and I and haven’t missed one since.

I’ve gone on bright, sunny days. I’ve gone in nonstop torrential rains. I’ve gone in the steel gray miserable chill that can sometimes grip Chicagoland at this time of year. I enjoy going. Sometimes I drag friends along and I see a number of friends, old and new, at Motorcycle Sunday every year. I’ve collected some pretty cool stories along the way, too. Let me tell you a few.

In 2010, probably feeling like an idiot about my unfounded former fears, I sent a Facebook Message to the event founder, Pastor Randy Schoof of Warehouse Church.

Hi Randy, I felt compelled to share this with you. I only began attending Motorcycle Sunday a couple or three years ago, mainly because I ride a Honda and wasn’t sure if that would be okay. But also because I’m Catholic and I wasn’t sure of that was okay, either. Came to discover all denominations are welcome, in more ways than one. Now I wouldn’t miss Motorcycle Sunday for the world.

The only thing that could keep me away would be if my dad’s health takes a turn for the worse. He is 88 years old and has been in failing health for some time. Otherwise, see you there!

Best regards,
Michael G. D’Aversa

Randy n Me older MGD

Pastor Randy replied…

Michael, thanks so much for writing…. it’s so cool that you are now a MCS regular! I ride a
Honda too – a VTX 1300 Retro… And it’s cool that you’re a brother in Christ. God’s family is big… and we’re committed to making it even bigger.

I’ll be praying for your dad too!

Blessings in Jesus,
Randy

Randy never said a word about our differences, nor has he done so in any of the six years that have followed. Rather, he pointed to our common ground, and in so doing, he earned my respect and struck up a friendship. We are brothers in Christ as well as biker bros, brethren of the open road.

I love telling that story. Here’s another…

My friend and fellow past president of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, Eddie Cullins, loves to tell this story. As sometimes happens, we found ourselves at a cool, damp, rainy Motorcycle Sunday one year. It seemed as though the rain would never let up.

Attendance was better than one might have expected for such a rainy day, but then Motorcycle Sunday has its diehard fans. I should know; I’m one of them. Hours went by. Phillips Park was quickly turning into a mud field. Then came time for the centerpiece of Motorcycle Sunday, the bike blessing.

We all meandered, stumbled and trudged over to the parking lot and stood by our bikes. A number of area pastors were on hand to assist with the blessing and pray with attendees. Randy Schoof took to the music stage, grabbed the main microphone and began to pray.

Now you have to understand, Pastor Randy is very good at what he does. When he prays over people, as he does every Motorcycle Sunday, Randy doesn’t recite words; he pours his entire self into it, with feeling. It’s a very positive experience in general, but more so on this occasion. As Eddie likes to tell it…

It was pouring rain when Randy started prayin’, but as he went on, the rain just got lighter and lighter. By the time he finished his blessing, the rain had stopped, the sun came out, the temperature rose, and everything (and everybody) began to dry out. And it never rained again that day.

That story gets told every year and it makes people smile every time. Nobody brings down a blessing like Pastor Randy.

Ann n Me MGDLast Sunday I added a new story to my collection. My dear friend and riding companion Ann had driven down from Wisconsin so that she could experience firsthand this Motorcycle Sunday of which I speak so highly. I had so badly wanted Ann’s first experience with Motorcycle Sunday to be one of the sunny, warm variety, but it didn’t quite go that way for us. It had poured rain all day Saturday, but I had it on good authority that Sunday would be dry, if a bit cool.

MGD + VFS by AMFTemps were in the low-to-mid 40’s when Ann and I left Plainfield, and it never got past the low 50’s all day. We were dressed for the weather, so we stayed relatively comfortable for the most part. Once on site at Phillips Park, we did our best to stay warm by moving a lot.

We walked the vendor booths, listened to some live music, ate a little, drank hot coffee, and otherwise managed to enjoy ourselves, Plenty of friends were on hand and I enjoyed introducing them to Ann. Most of them said the same thing, “Well, at least it isn’t raining!” Ann and I soon discovered that any time we stood still for very long, we got chilled. What to do?

Gator MGDIn addition to providing a pleasant park setting for all visitors, Phillips Park also offers a zoo, a water park, and a golf course. We opted to check out the zoo, something I had not yet done, despite the years that I had been attending this event.

What a blast! The zoo turned out to be a nice place to visit and features primarily American wild animals. One of our favorite zoo stops was the reptile house. It was quite warm inside and many of the animals were quite active. They also had a couple of alligators in there, one of which was really, really large.

Private Blessing AMFNot long after Ann and I walked back to the Motorcycle Sunday celebration, it was time for the bike blessing. As we walked out toward the parked bikes, one of the ministers on hand to assist Randy offered to bless our bike. And so it came to pass that on that day, Miss Scarlett, Ann and I were blessed at least twice—first by this gracious minister who prayed over us directly, and then by Pastor Randy, who did his usual stellar job.

Ann n Me AMFDuring the 1:00 PM hour, a 60-mile ride through the countryside was conducted and Ann and I were there for it. Somebody had put together a nice route through the surrounding countryside. With the heated seats and grips on, the windshield up slightly, and my tunes playing, Ann and I remained relatively comfy aboard Miss Scarlett. We peeled off from the group during a gas stop in Newark, though, so that we could get back to Plainfield in time for Ann to head home—a 2.5 hour drive—in a timely fashion.

Despite the cold temps and relative lack of sun, Ann and I had a great time! We laughed a lot and shared some really fun moments. It was also great introducing her to some of my biker friends. Call me an optimist, but I think she’ll be back for Motorcycle Sunday 2017. Time will tell.

 All photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa

Ann & Me: Kenosha to Delavan 4/17/16

RoadIt was destined to be a bad hair day, first by virtue of helmet hair and then by the wind-in-the hair effect. But I knew this day would be magical just the same. My friend (and favorite pillion) Ann and I had been talking about going riding again ever since our last time out on the bike together, which was last November. Even a relatively mild winter in the Midwest doesn’t hold a lot of riding opportunities for two people who live 150 mile apart. So we bided our time, even getting together a few times to attend non-riding events, cook some awesome dishes together, watching the winter crawl by and talking about places we might visit when riding season came around again. On Sunday, April 17, the day we’d been waiting for came.

TrolleyWe met that morning in Pleasant Prairie, on the Wisconsin/Illinois state line, sort of a halfway point for both of us. From there we secured Ann’s car and took the bike over to Kenosha’s Simmons Island Park (http://www.visitkenosha.com/attractions/parks-nature/simmons-island-beach) on the shore of Lake Michigan. As we got closer to the lake, the air got downright crisp, but not uncomfortably so, because we had geared up in anticipation of riding in a fairly broad temperature range that day. When you travel by motorcycle, by virtue of being on the outside of the vehicle, you experience whatever is going on around you firsthand. Wind, rain, beating sun, odors, steep temperature gradients, you name it, you’re not just passing through—you’re in it.

BoardwalkBack when I was a boater, I used to “put in” at Kenosha Harbor, right behind Simmons Island, which was home to the Simmons Mattress factory long before it was repurposed as a recreation area, but that was years ago. Much of it still looked the same, but there’s a nice boardwalk along the beach now. Ann and I strolled the boardwalk in order to get to the Kenosha North Pier Lighthouse, also known as Kenosha Light. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but the Coast Guard auctioned off Kenosha Light as “excess property” in 2011 and it is now under private ownership (see http://kenoshalighthousestudio.com/).

Ann at K LightWe walked out to the end of the pier. A rather historic-looking electric trolley was trundling along the opposite side of the harbor channel at the time. We also saw a number of people fishing off the southern side of the harbor mouth. The pier itself was almost deserted, save for one or two people who came and went as we looked out across Lake Michigan. Despite it still being April, we saw a couple of boats out there, too. One was a cabin cruiser, passing just beyond breakwater. The other was a twin screw sport boat, its hull barely touching the glass-like lake surface as it flew by. Gulls flew overhead. Ann and I just stood there, breathing the crisp air and taking it all in, occasionally offering a few words about some aspect or another of the area that we respectively recalled.

Old LightBefore heading back to the bike, we walked farther south, to the historic Kenosha “Southport” Lighthouse, which stands in remarkably good condition, thanks no doubt to some benefactors who cared enough to want it kept that way. It’s a well-preserved bit of this city’s history that deserves a visit, if you are ever in that area. For a glimpse at the history of Kenosha’s lighthouses, check out http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=240.

Fat TuesdayOnce we got back to my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett, it was time to head toward Delavan, home of Fat Tuesdays Kitchen (http://fattuesdayskitchen.com/), a delightful little Cajun/barbecue/soul food restaurant that I had fallen in love with when I stopped there last July. My biker friends and I must have made a Foodpositive impression, because the people there—good people, I might add—still remember me. What a great little place to visit, especially if you are hungry. Ann enjoyed the red beans and rice. I tried their signature Fat Tuesday’s Sandwich, an awesome combination of sweet and spicy that still makes my mouth smile when I think of it. When in Delavan, please stop in for a bite and tell them “MGD” or “that biker Mike” sent you. You will not be sorry, believe me.

We bade our goodbyes and got back on the road, this time hopping Interstate 43 to Highways 11 and 142, respectively, which brought us to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/richardbong/), where we paid our $11 out-of-state entry fee and went walking. Technically we were 50/50 (Ann is a Wisconsin native; I’m the flatlander), but the nice girl at the guard hut went by the vehicle on which we were mounted, which is registered in Illinois. Ah, well…

In contrast to thAnn at Bonge cool air along the lakefront, it was quite warm out near Brighton, at the Bong SRA, a 4,515-acre parcel that was once designated to become an air base, but was abandoned before it was built. There is plenty to do here for the outdoor enthusiast, including hiking trails, horse trails, fishing, hunting, dirt bike and OHV trails, camping and even a small beach. Ann and I had no horse. It was too cold to swim and besides, we had no swimsuits. We had neither fishing tackle nor camping gear. It was not hunting season. And believe me, Miss Scarlett is not a dirt bike by any definition. So we checked out a trail map and went for a short hike.

There is a fair amount of wetland to be found here, so we did encounter a few muddy parts along the course of our walk together. But it was nice to just walk for a while. And despite the beating sun and somewhat humid conditions, we enjoyed ourselves out there. We also saw some wildlife, including ducks, geese, a beaver, a crane (I think) and two small, rambunctious kids (under adult supervision) on the sandy beach. Again we often just stopped to breathe, enjoying each others company as we took it all in.

PetrifyingWe had just a little bit of time left together, but what to do with it? We headed for Petrifying Springs Park (http://www.visitkenosha.com/attractions/parks-nature/petrifying-springs-park), a lovely area just off Green Bay Road in Kenosha County, just north of the city of Kenosha. But alas, I had forgotten the park was on Green Bay Road and headed for Sheridan Road, by the lake, again. Woah! We both commented on the steep drop in temperature, which was substantial, as we rumbled into town on 142.  Ann had a good chuckle when we realized that I had put us on the wrong road—but she remains my favorite pillion and besides, you’re never really lost when you’re on a motorcycle.

Bad HairPetrifying Springs Park, or “Pets” for short, turned out to be a real find. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, but we soon found ourselves wishing we had come here earlier. Relative to the other places we had visited that day, there were a lot of people here, and for good reason. This place is beautiful and many area families obviously enjoy going there. Ann and I strolled along the flowing waterway, presumably fed by the artesian well for which this park is named. Several foot bridges cross the stream as trails continue on either side. We had no time to follow the trails, but we couldn’t help but stop for a quick selfie on one of the bridges. It was at that moment that Ann and I both realized how unkempt our hair had become after a day of walking and riding. We may not have looked all that well-groomed at the moment, but the shared laughter sure felt good.

Ann n MGD 04172016The time to part ways and head for home had come all too soon. Ann and I said our goodbyes and exchanged hugs, both quite happy to have shared some time together and pretty darned sure there would be a next time. Roughly 90 minutes later, we were 150 miles apart again, but I have no doubt we were both still grinning ear to ear. Good friendships are like that.

Until next time…

 

Photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa

There Was Once This Beautiful Place That Kept Trying to Kill Me…

Holding KidsJust a few miles south of the somewhat better-known High Cliff State Park lies this lovely place called Calumet County Park, at the end of County Trunk EE on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. For the better part of ten years, from 1991 through 2000, I took my then-young family there, along with our boat and about a month’s worth of camping provisions, for a few days of rest, relaxation, and the occasional near brush with death.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved going to Calumet County Park during those years, despite the outward indications that somebody or something didn’t want us there. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, situated on the Niagara Escarpment—which means level (or soft) ground can be a little hard to come by across its 200+ acres. And Lake Winnebago, the largest inland lake in the state, was ideally suited to the Sweet 17, my Bayliner runabout that I had won in 1990 by looking in the bottom of a pop can at just the right time. This park had a small harbor with launch ramps as well as some decent camp sites, very close to the water. What’s not to love? We would soon find out the answer to that one!

Karen and I first arrived at the end of County Trunk EE on a Friday in 1991, which we affectionately referred to as 1 Year B.C. (Before Children). We pulled into the park with the Sweet 17, trailered behind our trustworthy (ha!) 1980 AMC Eagle 4WD sedan. Ah, those were the days! You could say we lived on love, mainly because it was the only thing we could afford back then. It was getting late on the day as we arrived—I no longer recall why we arrived so late at a destination that was only four hours from home—and immediately fell in love with our new surroundings, at least until we discovered the spider population (Karen has always been deathly afraid of spiders, especially big ones). The sun was shining (for the last time until the end of that weekend) as we set up camp. We dined on hot dogs and beans, spent hours sitting by our campfire, made the most of our private tent accommodations, and fell asleep.

DinnerBy Saturday morning, a steady rain had set up over the region. There would be no boating that day, no frolicking in the lake, either. Instead we talked, read books, and otherwise amused ourselves within the cozy confines of our tent. Sometime during that afternoon, our dear friends the Tabors arrived to check in on us (remember this was before the days when everybody had cell phones). They had known in advance where we would be staying and, having camped with us once before—when we ended an area-wide drought by bringing down torrential rainstorms and at least one confirmed tornado—they also knew it would be raining. After they arrived, we laughed about the weather conditions for a bit and then sought out the confines of the Fish Tale Inn, a bar and supper club (then) located on EE, just outside of the park.

I still remember the four of us hanging out at the Fish Tale that afternoon, having no place better to go, sipping beers and solving the problems of the world. There was a huge sturgeon mounted over the inside of the doorway. It was a monster, easily twice as long as the doorway was wide. Beneath it was a placard, providing details of the sturgeon’s prehistoric origins. My eyes were drawn to that until I noticed two raccoons, very much alive, peering into the Fish Tale from two ground-level windows that were at or above eye level inside the place, which had been built into a hillside. They were just walking along the hillside, like nobody’s business, and stopped to check out the humans on display inside the bar. Apparently I was the only one who noticed them, as everybody else in the establishment seemed oblivious to our furry observers. Sadly the Fish Tale is no more, but it was a rather interesting place in which to hang out on a rainy Saturday afternoon, at least for those two young couples, back in the day.

Eventually our friends departed and we were left to fend for ourselves. The firewood we had purchased had become quite damp, but this did not deter me. While Karen retired into our tent for a nap, I set about figuring out how to get a fire going. I arranged some soggy wood into our sunken fire ring and then set about looking for something dry to help get the fire started. The Kleenex went quickly. The few pieces of dry news paper and advertisements went almost as fast. Still no fire. I looked around for something else that would burn. Just before giving up hope, I smiled faintly as my eyes settled on a nearly full can of Coleman cooking fuel.

I doused the wet firewood soundly with the white gas, oblivious to the heavier-than-air vapors that were filling the fire pit the whole time. Fortunately for me, I struck a match from a yard or two away and tossed it into the fire pit. I never saw that match land. Instead, I saw this blue flash erupt and spread horizontally across the top of the fire pit.

FOOM!

I felt a wave of energy pass through the ground beneath my feet as the atmosphere compressed my head to a point where I could feel the insides of my ears touching each other. Then… silence. If there had been birds singing and squirrels chattering before then, they weren’t doing so any more. A meek voice called out from within our tent, “Hun…? Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I stammered, “I’m fine.” I vaguely felt around my lower forehead to see if I still had any eyebrows left, then added, “I got the fire going.” And that much was true. The fire raged on for hours and we enjoyed another simple campfire meal, undisturbed by mosquitoes or wildlife of any kind.

Karen w RopeThe following day, on our last day at camp, the sun rose and there was no more rain. For the first time during that trip—for the first time ever—we launched the Sweet 17 and took her out of the harbor and out onto Lake Winnebago. The water was like glass and there was little or no other marine traffic on the lake that morning. It was glorious. It was also bait, set to convince us to come back. And we did, with our children, foolish mortals that we were.

Harbor LaunchThe years that followed were a combination of the best and worst vacation moments of our lives.

One of my fondest memories involves Nat King Cole and pancakes. I had this portable radio that I always took along when we went camping and there was only one station that I could get clearly from Cal County Park. It was an oldies station that played the likes of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, etc. On one amazingly calm, sunny morning, I was frying bacon over hot coals and flipping pancakes on the camp stove, while Nat King Cole sang Unforgettable. I can still recall every bit of what that morning was like. My view of the lake, the smell of the forest intermingling with the aromas of my food cooking, the sound of that song playing on an otherwise quiet morning, everything. It was awesome.

We did not come back in 1992, the year our Teresa was born, or 1993, when John was born, but we made up for lost time in 1994, when we returned to Cal County Park with our new family. This was the year I sliced open my right-hand pinky with a brand new (and very sharp) Swiss Army Knife, while setting up camp. This was also the year we were treated to record cold temperatures. Karen checked on our son in the middle of the night and began heaping all of our bath and beach towels into his portable crib, because she had discovered the boy was turning blue.

The following year brought record high temperatures, when Karen sought urgent relief for our kids by tossing them into Lake Winnebago. It was then that we discovered how much water a standard disposable diaper is capable of holding. This is also the year that our young son potty-trained himself, having decided, after having had his epiphany in Lake Winnebago, that he no longer wished to wear diapers. And true to his word, he never had to again. As we drove toward Appleton on Saturday afternoon, seeking relief from the extreme heat, a news report came on over the radio detailing local livestock losses due to the extreme heat. Our Teresa became very upset at the news of cows dying from heat exhaustion. We eventually tried to interject humor into the issue by adding wisecracks about chickens exploding. For some reason this seemed funny at the time. But we were punished for our mirth by picking a Burger King at which to have lunch, only to discover that their air conditioning had broken down.
Kids eating

You would think this next experience might have scared us off for good, but no. Another set of friends of ours, the Shermans, and some friends of theirs, joined us at Cal County Park, and believe me, we all had the time of our lives. Things went well enough by day. We frolicked in the sun, we cooked over our open fire. We fished from the shores of lake Winnebago, where I caught a fairly impressive (and very angry) walleye. Then the storms rolled in.

We had settled in for the night, but the storm continued to build. Sometime during that night, I was awakened from a sound sleep by my loving wife, who had grown concerned because the once-vertical walls of our tent were being bent horizontally by winds of extraordinary magnitude.

“Michael…”

“Hmmm…”

“Michael!”

“Huh… what?”

“Look!” By this time the walls of our tent were bending horizontally toward my face and our entire world was being lit up by continuous lightning in strobe-like fashion. We were literally in the storm.

“Should we stay put or get out?”

“Let’s get in the car,” I reasoned. I didn’t think the tent would hold out much longer. We gathered everything together and woke the kids up.

Teresa woke up in a flash and then helped her brother wake up by screaming into his face, “John, get up now! We’re gonna’ die!!!!” I guess she didn’t want him to miss it. My son played his part perfectly, first opening his eyes and then screaming for all he was worth.

After a moment of frantically searching for our car keys, only to discover they were already in my hand, we lined up and prepared to exit. As soon as I unzipped our tent, the storm took it. As we drove toward the main (read: the only) park building, the storm sheared our tent pegs clean off at ground level and flattened our tent, our battery-powered lantern still glowing from within.

We arrived at the park office, we saw the maintenance garage doors were open. Turns out they had been opened for us. We parked facing the lake, gathered our kids in a handful of beach towels and headed up toward the building. From somewhere behind me, lightning struck the lake with a blinding flash followed by an immediate explosion of thunder. With my daughter wrapped in my arms, I ran for all I was worth. Even more amazing,Karen was right behind me, with John bundled into her arms.

The following Sunday morning, as we prepared to head for home, I discovered some tee shirts at the camp store proclaiming, “Experience nature’s peace.” Laughing hysterically, I bought two of them, one for Karen and one for myself. Amazingly enough, those who were friends of ours upon arrival, remained friends of ours, even after this experience.

You would think that would be it, but we are slow learners. We cae back, one more time. The year was 2000, Teresa was eight years old, John was six, the weather was uncharacteristically perfect, and we had been caught well off of our guard. Sometime that Saturday afternoon, Karen and the kids had decided to go down to the lake. I was doing something at the campsite, intending to join them shortly, but I never got the chance.

I remember Karen running toward me, cradling Teresa, who had been screaming in pain. She had slipped on a moss-covered rock and smashed her front teeth onto the same rock. I took John with me and got supplies out of our first aid kit for the girls. Long story short, one of my daughter’s adult teeth had been damaged in the fall. We called our family dentist, packed everything up and headed back to Illinois, never to return.

There is more to the story. Calumet County Park is more than just a campground, situated on the Niagara Escarpment. The land also includes a number of effigy mounds, Indian burial grounds, up on the escarpment. Does that play into this story? I don’t know.

I haven’t gone back since summer of 2000. I have often thought about taking a motorcycle trip back to the park. But dare I do so? I welcome your thoughts.

Until next time…

Of Love and Motorcycles

Every year around the second weekend in February, three things have been happening for some time now—Valentine’s Day, my wife’s birthday, and the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago. One of these things is not like the other, but sometimes it’s difficult for me to tell which one. This year’s trio of festivities was one of those times.

Of these three traditions, Valentine’s Day would be the oldest. Some people call it a corporate holiday, but that’s not at all accurate. The earliest known written Valentine dates back to the year 1415, and the origins of this holiday concern a Christian martyr who lived, and consequently died, in the third century. We don’t know that Saint Valentine was born or killed in February. The placement of his feast day may have more to do with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which fell on February 15. All of this is the stuff of mystery and legend, so who knows, really, but Google it if you want to learn more.

Beer KarenNext in the chronological order of things would be the birth of my wife. I can’t get into those particulars without getting into trouble. To put things into perspective, let me just say that we were married over 30 years ago and leave it at that. I do need to tell you some things about Karen, though, things that are highly relevant to this story.

For openers, Karen is not a motorcycle fanatic. Due at least in part to certain physical ailments and constraints, her total saddle time with me over the years amounts to less than four hours. If not for my own obsession with the hobby, I’m reasonably certain Karen wouldn’t have any interest in it at all. Yet nobody has ever been more supportive and encouraging of my own participation than she. On those rare occasions where pleasant weather and my free time converge, Karen is usually the first one to suggest that I go for a ride. Shortly after I had my first and, so far, only motorcycle accident, I briefly entertained the idea of taking the insurance money for my totalled bike and not buying another one. Karen let that idea take voice for all of 20 seconds before choking the life out of it with the words, “I guess you could, but you’d be doing it for all the wrong reasons.” This is the woman who more than once now, when it would have made more financial sense to keep the money, advised me to buy the bike. This is also the woman who, knowing that she would not enjoy riding pillion with me for very long, actually encourages me to let other beautiful women go riding with me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the other Saint Karen.

DucatiRelatively young in the grand scheme of things, the origins of the International Motorcycle Shows only go back as far as the 1982 model year. I began going in 2003, the winter before I got my first bike. I was a late bloomer, learned to ride and got my license when I was in my early 40’s. At that point, I just wanted to get the “M” added to my license classification and never intended to actually get a bike. Or so I thought. But once bitten, once I had that M, well you know. So even though motorcycle ownership seemed to be out of the question financially, I wanted to go see bikes. So I dragged my wife and then-young kids to the big cycle show. A few months later, I had a bike of my own, a story unto itself, which we will get to. And I haven’t missed the IMS once since having gone that first time.

This year was destined to be different from the get-go. Both of my kids, now adults, have M’s on their drivers licenses and both have enjoyed going to the IMS with Karen and me over the years. But while my daughter has a healthy appreciation for motorcycles, my son was always more of a fanatic, like me. The two of us would spend more time looking at the bikes, sitting on bikes, engaging vendor representatives in conversation, etc., and then talking about the whole affair for weeks afterward. But this year, for the first time since 2003, my son wasn’t here to go with us. He’s attending an actors conservatory in Oregon for two years, so it’s understandable, but that didn’t make it any easier on me.
Perhaps that’s why Karen requested that we make a special weekend of it, as part of her birthday/Valentine’s Day celebration. She had never done so over the course of the previous twelve years, but in hindsight, it seems to make sense. Sure, it was still bittersweet, but to a much lesser extent because my wife, having had the foresight to know how I would likely fixate on my son’s absence, chose to displace all that with a night and day filled with love and motorcycles.

We arrived at our hotel in separate cars, after work on Friday. Like all the hotels surrounding the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, the Hilton Rosemont is quite nice, if a bit pricey. Parking in the hotel parking lot was $25 per car. The breakfast buffet was nice, but was almost as expensive as parking the cars. They have a small sundry shop, where everything costs about triple what you would pay for the same thing at a gas station convenience store. Fortunately, I always carry my own wine and nibblies for occasions like this. To be honest, I’m amazed there wasn’t a meter of some sort on the toilet’s flush handle. But it was nice. Our room was spacious and clean, the king bed quite comfortable. As romantic getaways go, you could do worse.

OompahFor her birthday supper, Karen had requested the Hofbräuhaus Chicago, which is very close to the hotel. Had it not been the coldest night of this winter season, we might have tried walking there. But it was bitter cold out, so we took my Chevy, which was still warm. What should have taken a minute or two ended up taking a quarter hour filled with wrong turns, dead ends and a stop in the wrong parking lot, where we were given directions to our destination. Bear in mind, this was only a half mile from our hotel, a mere ten minutes away on foot. But we valet parked, laughed it off and walked inside.

Beer Vat HBHI wouldn’t call the Hofbräuhaus romantic, but it is a fun place. The food is great, the beer is quite good, and they have live entertainment. It can be a bit loud, especially if your table is close to the stage, but it’s a good time. I would definitely go back. Try the warm pretzel for openers. Imported from Germany the thing is about as big as a dinner plate and comes with a cheese spread and two different types of mustard. Goes very well with a stein of beer.

PretzelFriday night was all about celebration and romance, but Saturday was fun, too—just in a different way. We got up uncharacteristically early for a Saturday, enjoyed a very nice breakfast buffet at the hotel’s restaurant, checked out of our room, and then took the heated sky bridge from the hotel directly into the convention center. The show had just opened and since I had already bought our tickets, we were able to walk right in without having to stand in line.

Fast MeThe best time to attend the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago is on Friday. The show opens in the afternoon, while many people are at work, and runs until 8:00 PM. There are fewer people, and the manufacturer and vendor reps are fresh. Since 2003, I’ve been able to do that once, and only because I was unemployed at the time. But for those who can go on Friday, I recommend it. The second best day to go is on Sunday. It’s way more crowded than on Friday, but still isn’t too bad during the early hours. The key to doing the IMS on Saturday, probably the busiest day of the three, is to get there when it opens, move as best you can, and try to be done by early afternoon. That’s exactly what we did and by the time we left, around 1:00 PM, the line to get in was intimidating.

Custom NessKaren and I have always viewed the IMS as having two essential two parts, the bike manufacturers and the merchandise vendors. There are other categories, namely the brand-oriented owners clubs, organizations and charities, motorcycle events and tourism, custom bike displays and contests, seminars and demonstrations, some sort of stunt show, and the motorcycle dealership exhibitors. All are nice, but we have always been about the bikes themselves and the product vendors.

We spent hours walking the show. We always spend some time with our favorite tee shirt vendors, an older couple out of New York who have watched our kids grow up, know our faces if not our names, and always greet us with sincere hugs. They sell an awesome selection of tee shirts, too.

Fast KawAs for the bikes, I always like to see what’s new, and because I try to keep up with developments from the major manufacturers, I often arrive looking for specific models. But my perspective has changed entirely since I began attending this show. In 2003 I had never owned a motorcycle and wasn’t entirely sure I ever would. I went to the show wide-eyed and salivating, but left knowing that a purchase wasn’t imminent. Or so I thought.

I wanted to get a bike. I didn’t see how that was possible, for a variety of reasons, but I could imagine the possibility. And so I never stopped thinking about it. Inside of three months, I had a Honda 750 Shadow A.C.E. in my garage. The bike was barely a year old and had something like 3,600 miles on it.

The next year I went to the show as a bike owner, a bona fide motorcyclist. I still salivated, because there were many bikes I thought I might enjoy more than the one I owned. But again I left feeling fairly certain that a purchase wasn’t imminent. One year later, same thing. But two months after that, I bought my first new bike, a 2005 Honda ST1300 sport touring rig.

From that point forward, the number of “bikes I’d rather have” dwindled. In 2007, I suffered my first and (so far) only crash and my insurance company bought me another bike. I chose the same model.

Six more years passed before I bought another bike, not because I didn’t want one, but because the only bikes I wanted more than the one I had were out of my reach. But I continued to follow industry trends and developments, attended demo ride events, religiously continued to attend the IMS, and never closed my mind to the possibilities of getting that next bike. In 2013 I took possession of a gently used 2012 Victory Vision Tour an American made, full-on touring bike powered by a 106 cubic inch v-twin engine. This changed everything.

Custom RatFrom a North American touring standpoint, my current ride is near the top of the food chain. There are other “full dresser” touring bikes, each with its own set of pluses and minuses, and I look at every one of them each year. But for the last two years now, I leave the show without wishing I could afford a different bike than the one I own. I may dream of a new accessory or two, but that’s the extent of it. I’m in a good place.

By early afternoon, Karen and I had seen everything we wanted to see and were ready to head for home. The show had become quite crowded by then and we couldn’t help but notice the depth and breadth of humanity that was outside buying tickets and waiting to get into the show. We had picked a good time to leave.

Beer MeI am grateful to Karen for having thought up this getaway weekend, which provided some much-needed “us” time and helped me not to dwell on the first-time absence of my son. Such is the power of love and motorcycles. As far as I know, our son will miss the show next year, too. Will we do the same thing again? You’re asking the wrong person.

Until next time…

Enjoying the Bounty of Starved Rock State Park

I’ve known this place since I was a young lad of five or six, maybe even before then. When I took up the motorcycle hobby, some 35 years later, I discovered that Starved Rock State Park was a favorite stop for bikers, especially those who live along the Interstate 80 corridor in Illinois. And so it seems as though everybody knows about Starved Rock—so why write about it—yet even today I know motorcyclists who have never been there. So for the benefit of those alleged few, let’s take a ride.

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I rode there last fall—Sunday, November 1, to be exact. It had been a particularly mild day, the kind where a leather vest and hoodie still provided sufficient warmth, so I suited up accordingly and headed out for my afternoon ride. At that point, I hadn’t even been certain where I was going, but before long I was making my way toward Utica, Illinois.

From my home base in Plainfield, there are three common ways to get to Starved Rock: fast, scenic, and somewhere in-between. The fastest route is via Interstate highways—in my case I-55 down to I-80, where the speed limit is 70, and then straight west to the Highway 178/Utica exit. You miss a lot of cool stuff by going that route, but if time is of the essence, it’s nice to have this option.

The in-between route will keep you off the Interstates, and give you some scenery, but it’s still a rather straight shot. From my neck of the woods, the objective is to get to Yorkville. From the intersection of Illinois Highways 47 and 71, head southwest on 71 toward Ottawa. Enjoy the scenery and be mindful of the few small towns you will encounter along the way, some of which are known to be speed traps. Once you get to Ottawa, you have two options—stay on 71 through Ottawa and beyond, enjoying a few twisties along the way and entering Starved Rock State Park from the south, or turn west onto Highway 6 and take that until you reach Illinois 178 and turn left, toward Utica, eventually entering the state park from the north.

The scenic route, my personal favorite, is to take Illinois Highway 6 west until it intersects Highway 71 in Ottawa. Illinois Highway 6, from roughly Morris to Ottawa, is relatively scenic and includes several pleasant, sweeping curves along the way. Once you reach Ottawa, you have the same two choices that I mentioned earlier, stay on 6 or take 71.

Me, I say why should I have to choose? Therefore I tend to take one route going into the park and the other coming out. The order I choose usually depends on the time of day, but we should talk about the differences. If you take 71 heading west toward the park, you will travel through downtown Ottawa, which is not exactly a booming metropolis, but is still much larger than a small town. Once past Ottawa, you will encounter a stretch of technical riding, something rather rare in northern Illinois. Expect a few tight, blind curves and elevation changes. They’ll be over before you know it, but give this road the respect it deserves. I have encountered deer, wild turkeys, incompetent drivers and large trucks along this road. Trust me, I know.

I had an interesting experience along that curvy stretch of 71 about ten or twelve years ago, when I was leading a group of ten bikes home from a run out to Bishop Hill. As I leaned into the first curve, I felt this sharp, stinging sensation on the upper right corner of my forehead, followed by another, and another, and another. Apparently that corner of my open-face helmet had snagged a wasp, which was making its displeasure known by attempting to perforate that corner of my forehead. So there I was, trying to remain calm as I navigated those twisties with my right hand and slapped with my left until I got rid of my unwelcome hitchhiker. My maneuvers may not have looked too graceful, but I managed to stay on the road and get rid of the wasp, so I think I did okay.

If you take 6, you’ll encounter a few sweeping curves and a fair amount of farm fields. You will also find an excellent Cajun restaurant called Ron’s Cajun Connection, right before you reach Utica. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but if it’s open, there will likely be a line to get in. It’s that good.

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Let’s talk a little bit about the park itself. This is one of the most popular state parks in the area, if not the most popular, so the odds of ever finding it deserted on any day of the week, at least during riding season, are slim indeed. But it is well-attended for a reason. This place is beautiful! Situated along the south bank of the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park offers an assortment of hiking trails, a variety of camping accommodations, a nice hotel/lodge, a pretty cool visitor’s center, gift shop, etc. As state parks go, the restaurant at the lodge is pretty good. Check out their Sunday brunch offering.

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The centerpiece of this park, in my opinion, is its namesake, Starved Rock. It’s the stuff of Native American legend, which describes a tribe of Illiniwek who were engaged in battle and trapped upon the butte until they starved to death. Whether that story is true or not, Starved Rock is a beautiful place, offering scenic views of the Illinois River and the surrounding countryside. The ascent to Starved Rock now involves a series of wooden staircases. Back in the 1960’s, when I first went there, we climbed steps carved into the stone itself. And if you look through the current wooden staircase in certain places, you can still see what’s left of those stone steps… childhood memories for me.

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Hungry? In Utica, besides Cajun Connection, check out Duffy’s Tavern, offering friendly faces and good sandwiches, or Canalport, a bit of a step up, offering the best homemade bar chips in the area, I think. There are other options, but these are the ones I know personally.

On the Ottawa side, check out Hank’s Farm, a restaurant and gift shop outside of town on Illinois 71. During riding season, check out the free-roaming chickens, peacocks, etc. on the grounds. They also do a decent Sunday brunch.

For whatever it’s worth, my current leather vest came from Stonehead Leather and I got my leather jacket from Mix’s Trading Post. Both of these Utica business establishments are well-respected by the biker community and both have earned my endorsement as well.

Surely there is more to be seen in this neck of the woods. What I offer you here is but a taste.

Until next time…

Chillin’ in December at Kankakee River State Park

22921273863_4abedfc596_oIt was supposed to have been warmer. The original forecast for December 5, 2015 had included a high temperature at or near 50 degrees, not bad for any December day in Northern Illinois, but the morning fog and cloud cover had hung around much longer than expected. Before I had learned of all this – before I had even gotten out of bed, in fact – I had decided that I would go for at least a short motorcycle ride. Imagine my surprise when I glanced down at my dashboard readouts during a particularly chilly stretch of road and saw 38° F as the ambient temperature.

23252590810_625f47470f_oToward the end of this past riding season, which in these parts frequently happens in November, if not October, I had begun taking rides to some of my favorite local nature spots. Once there I would snap a few photos to show a friend of mine, who has yet to visit these destinations. On a warm November 1, I rode out to Starved Rock State Park and ascended to the namesake bluff. On another unseasonably warm day in November, I rode to Silver Springs State Park and walked around Loon Lake. But where to go on this day, on an allegedly unseasonably warm day in December, one with salt-free roads, no less?

23439829282_bd280b257f_oI knew just the right place, another favorite spot of mine. Kankakee River State Park, which straddles both sides of the Kankakee River for about 11 miles, just west of Bourbonnais. I like this particular park for two reasons – three if you count the fact that it’s only 35 miles from my home. First and foremost is the destination, a predominantly forested area that offers walking/hiking trails (many of them paved) and scenic views of the river. But besides the park itself, I really enjoy riding the roads that lead to and from this destination.

23522265556_3942bc42cb_oFrom my home in Plainfield, the quickest way to the fun part is via Interstate 55. I should have known something was up when I could feel colder-than-expected air being forced into my leather jacket through the closed zipper vents. On a motorcycle, you create your own wind chill factors. On a motorcycle going 70 MPH, well, you catch my drift.

Taking the exit for North River Road, I headed toward Wilmington, which is situated on a stretch of Illinois Highway 53 that is also known to be a portion of historic U.S. Route 66. But rather than following the Mother Road, which can occupy me for hours, if not days or weeks, I turned left onto Illinois Highway 102. Once out of Wilmington, 102 gets interesting, with a few nice, sweeping curves and a couple of forested stretches, one of which was the first place I found temperatures were still in the 30’s.

23465904081_aef582a78e_oNow I should point out that I ride a fairly well-protected bike. My Victory Vision, affectionately referred to as Miss Scarlett, pretty much falls into the “full dresser” category. She is fully faired and features, among other accouterments, heated hand grips and dual zone heated seats. So I was not nearly as chilled as I might have been on a less protected machine. But I gotta’ tell you, I was cold.

The entrance into the main portion of Kankakee River State Park is on this road, but there are several other entrances as well, on both side of the river. Some are campground entrances. Others lead to parking lots for fishing and/or hunting areas. Indeed, while I was walking on the more family-oriented portion of the park, I would occasionally hear gunfire erupting from the just across the river.

23439802522_7a169dab83_oIt’s not like it was any warmer at the park than it had been on my way there, but at the average human walking pace of 3 to 4 miles per hour, I was adding no wind chill. With that as my advantage, I spent some time walking along one of the trails, allowing myself to warm up a bit as I took in nature’s beauty all around me. There were other people there, though not many. I don’t consider myself a very good “alone” person, but I do enjoy coming to places like this from time to time, by myself, just to recalibrate my mind a little. In all candor, I would rather have a friend along ten times out of ten, but that’s not always feasible, so why not take advantage of the solitude every once in a while?

22920083404_15b6aefd0b_oThe biker in me prefers not to take the same road out as I took in. Just as Illinois 102 provides a pleasant riding experience along the north banks of the Kankakee, so too does Illinois 113 provide some fun for the ride back along the south banks, leading to the community of Braidwood. There are some nice sweepers on that road, too – and there is nothing quite like the sound of putting a big, honking V-twin motorcycle through the paces on a road like that – but the hunting areas are all on that side of the river, too. The gunfire from those parts, just across the river from me, had been somewhat regular. And I was wearing black.

23252603240_57f9f9900c_oBut my biker side won out and I did cross the river to make my westerly run that afternoon. Where 113 intersects 53 in Braidwood, there is this cool little drive in called the Polk-A-Dot. This is a Route 66 original and I can give testimony that they have good ice cream and also offer a pretty decent little bacon double cheeseburger. I love stopping there, but I did not stop this time, because the sun was already getting ominously low in the sky. So I skedaddled back up the Mother Road and out to I-55 for my quick run home.

By the time I got home, I felt a bit chilled, but I regret nothing. I had gone for a nice little ride in December. I got to visit another favorite haunt of mine before my riding season closes for real. I captured a few good photos, which I sent to a certain friend in order to tempt her to do more rides with me next year. I ran my bike, I cleared my mind, I topped off my tank… I am content.

Until next time…

A Matter of Life, Death, and Motorcycles: A Brief Glimpse into How I Got This Way

StevenHis grave is tucked away in a far corner of St. Benedict Cemetery in Crestwood, Illinois, not far from Blue Island, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t easy to find, but from all appearances, it hasn’t been neglected, either. Several youth-oriented Christmas decorations were left near his headstone the last time I stopped there, presumably by his mother (his father’s grave is now beside his) or perhaps his siblings. Regardless, the love and affection for this boy has withstood the decades.

His name was Steven and he died in 1975, exactly one month before his 14th birthday. Also just a few months before he and I were to graduate from the eighth grade. Steven and I had pretty much come through grade school together. I remember one time, when we were in sixth grade, he came from out of nowhere when some other kid had thrown a wild punch at me for no apparent reason – he was showing off his kung fu prowess or some stupid thing like that – and Steven basically came between us, asked the kid what he thought he was doing, and then proceeded to stare him down until he slunk back into the woodwork. Why had he done that? I don’t know for sure. I think I might have gotten him out of trouble once and he was repaying the favor. In any case, I appreciated what Steven did and still remember his gesture of friendship to this day.

My classmate died from what we refer to today as a pediatric brain tumor. A brain tumor diagnosis in 1975 may as well have been a death sentence. I do not recall all of the details, but I know that Steven’s troubles seemed to have come from out of nowhere, very quickly. I know that surgery was performed and I know my classmate did not survive. I’m not sure I believed the news at first, but was soon to be convinced.

His was the first wake I had ever attended, the first dead body I had ever seen in person. There Steven lay, a classmate the same age as me, whom I had known for about eight years and who by all rights should have still had an entire lifetime ahead of him. The top of his head was wrapped in a flesh-colored bandage, where his long, straight, black hair should have been. His skin had this unnatural pink hue to it, instead of the usual brown. He was dressed in his altar boy garments. None of this had a calming effect on me in the least. That kid showed up in my dreams for weeks afterward.

That was an ending, a rather unpleasant one, too. Forty years have gone by since then, but I have never forgotten about Steven. Through the decades, especially during some of the lower points in my life, I have found myself wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age and why I was left to continue on. The answer to that question has not yet been fully revealed to me.

Now there is no simple way for me to transition smoothly from what I’ve just told you to what comes next, but if you’ll just be patient and walk with me a bit, I promise you will see the connection. For the record, I went on to high school, then college; I graduated, got a job, got married, started a family, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, I took a fancy to writing. All of this is well and good, but there is a different beginning you need to know about, and this also originated in Blue Island.

Once when I was about four years old, my family had gone visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins, all older and cooler than me. Like many Italians at the time, they lived “below the hill” on the east side of town. The two families visited each other very often, but this time stands out in my mind because it turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. One of my teenage cousins had bought a motorcycle and was showing it to everybody. At some point he and several others present asked if I would like to go for a ride. I must have nodded or something, because I was suddenly lifted off the ground, placed in front of my cousin – more or less on the gas tank – and shown where to hold the sides of the handlebars. Then we turned around in my uncle’s driveway and headed off, among shouts of “Hold on tight!” and “Be careful!”

I can still recall the sound of that one-cylinder engine and the vibration through the handlebars as the engine rose and fell, going between first and second gears. At one point, we came to a stop and my cousin asked me which way I wanted to go. I pointed and off we went, cruising through the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A few minutes later, we pulled back into the driveway. People were asking me what I thought as somebody lifted me from the bike and set me back on terra firma. I turned around, pointed to that motorcycle and exclaimed, “I want one of those!” My mother began yelling something in Italian and I don’t think she stopped for another fourteen years.

In the years that followed, I went for many more rides with my cousins, as they acquired bigger and faster bikes. Every so often I would be foolish enough to utter the word “motorcycle” in my mom’s presence and she would begin hollering again. It was great fun. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, had kids… It seems I had neither the time nor the money to get that motorcycle. I’m sure my mother was very happy, at least for a while.

The year was 2002 and I had turned 41 years old. Chalk it up to middle age crisis – why not, my wife did – but somehow that long-dormant desire had reawakened and I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford a bike of my own, but I reasoned that it would be satisfying enough just to see that “M” classification added to my drivers license. So I did it… and I failed. That’s right. I had gotten a perfect score on the written exam, but lost my nerve on the riding range and gave up too many points to pass.

I was crushed. Didn’t these people know I was destined to become a motorcyclist? Apparently not, except for one particular instructor who had seen that gleam in my eye and understood how much it meant to me. On our way out, she pulled me aside and advised me to come back in August, because although all the MSF classes are booked solid by March, the end-of season classes end up with vacancies and I could likely just walk in and register.

I spent the rest of that summer mentally repeating the range exercises over and over again, until I was executing every maneuver flawlessly. When August came, I walked into one of the scheduled classes and was able to register, just as that instructor had said. I took the entire course over again, asking more questions and getting much more out of it than I had the first time. The range exercises were less intimidating, because I had performed then all hundreds of times in my head. When testing day came, I went first and came within one point of a perfect score. At last I was a motorcyclist!

Turns out I had been sorely wrong about one thing: Getting that “M” on my license wasn’t enough. The motorcycling bug had bitten me hard. Less than a year later, I had acquired a gently used two-tone Honda Shadow A.C.E. Like most new riders, I started out by riding through my neighborhood, gradually going farther and farther. But I was riding alone, and I am not a good alone person. Because none of my friends at the time were motorcycle riders, I began seeking out opportunities to ride with other people. After doing a little research, I came across a local event called the Chicagoland Ride for Kids®, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Pediatric brain tumor? Steven!

Back in ’75, when a tearful teacher told her classroom full of stunned kids what had caused Steven’s death, she hadn’t used the word “pediatric”, so it might have taken a second for me to understand what I had found – an organization formed to fight what had killed my classmate. I knew I had to do this. So despite having not one minute of group riding experience, I showed up at the Allstate Insurance corporate facility on July 14, 2003, for my first escorted charity ride. There we were, just me, my then-11-year-old daughter and roughly 3,000 casual acquaintances.

RFK_CHI2012Was I nervous? Not at all. I was scared. But we did it! And together with all the other motorcyclists, we raised $325,092 for pediatric brain tumor research that day. Thus began a new tradition for Teresa and me. My daughter and I have been raising money for pediatric brain tumor research by actively participating in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids every year since 2003.

Now a funny thing happened in 2005, when my son, then age 12, began expressing an interest in our efforts. A motorcyclist companion of mine learned of his interest and offered to carry my son on his bike at the ’05 event. I graciously accepted and in so doing, incurred the ire of my daughter, who had come to think of the ride as “our event.” Oh, the shame of it all!

Of necessity, for the sake of keeping peace in the family, our tradition then expanded and I began participating in two Ride for Kids events per year. Each July, my daughter and I would ride in the Chicagoland event and in August, my son would ride with me in the Wisconsin Ride for Kids, which was held in Middleton. Both of my kids were happy with that arrangement, an accomplishment in itself.

Last year, for the first time, the Chicagoland and Wisconsin Ride for Kids events were held concurrently, out of Lake Geneva. Lucky for me my son, now in his twenties, has a motorcycle of his own and his sister no longer sees it as a supreme insult for him to participate in the same event as us. Even my wife, who does not ride, showed up at last year’s event, making our endeavor a true family affair.

RFK 2015 Group ShotAnd so it continues, year after year. Me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And now you know why. Thanks for listening.

If you would like to support our efforts with a small donation, please visit my fundraising page at http://pbtf.convio.net/goto/daversa. We would be grateful. I even have a No Shave November promotion going on, where the amount of my beard that gets shaved off will be determined by the donations made via my page this month.

Find Your Happy Place

What a fantastic day! So far Ann and I had toured the beautiful and historic Wollersheim Winery, stopped for lunch at the Blue Spoon Cafe in downtown Prairie du Sac, and taken a detour to visit what was once The Old School House, an out-of-the way eating place of which I had been quite fond. Now we were once again aboard Miss Scarlett, heading north on 113/DL, enjoying the sights and smells of a crisp autumn day. My touring rig’s big-inch V-twin beat out a deep, pleasant rhythm as my favorite pillion and I reveled in every hill and curve that the rolling countryside presented to us. Our day together was already half over, but my focus remained solely on the simple pleasures that remained ahead.

Surrounded by Fall Color

Surrounded by Fall Color

We were on our way to Devil’s Lake State Park, interestingly enough the first stop to which my somewhat local passenger had been to before. Ah, but I was betting she had never been there via the route I intended to take – and I was right.

Located to the south of Baraboo, this 9,217 acre state park is the largest in Wisconsin. There are two primary entrances to the park, one at the south end and the other at the north. We were riding up from the south, but I purposely rode right past the turn for the south entrance, following County DL up and around the park’s perimeter, to the northeast corner, where the somewhat poorly marked north entrance is to be found. That particular stretch of DL is a motorcyclist’s delight, featuring a series of gentle hills and curves, each decorated with brilliant fall colors to either side of us.

Approaching from the east as we did, the turn from DL into that north entrance is sharper than 90 degrees, requiring a safe, slow approach followed by a somewhat deep lean, which we executed nicely. And by “we” I mean Miss Scarlett, Ann and I. Each of the three plays a key role in every maneuver while underway, and our respective roles as rider, passenger and machine have become increasingly well-integrated, but that’s a topic for another time. In mid-turn, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an ominous-looking temporary sign at the mouth of the park entrance that said something about full parking lots, but I wasn’t overly concerned. In general it is easier to find a spot for a bike, even a big one, than for an automobile.

Like Entering A Grand Cathedral

Like Entering A Grand Cathedral

Riding into Devil’s Lake State Park via the north entrance felt a little bit like entering a grand cathedral. We made our way slowly, beneath a towering canopy of trees, surrounded by fall color everywhere but on the road directly beneath us. All along the long, winding, narrow drive, we passed parked cars and people out of their cars. Some held cameras. Some were posing. Everybody seemed to be trying to capture the essence of the beauty around us. In reverence to the moment, and so as not to attract stares, I turned off the stereo and kept my engine’s RPM’s at idle speed. Behind me, Ann was taking photos – something that she does very well, even when armed only with a smart phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she also captured a brief video from our journey in. This intuitive ability of hers, to capture memorable moments in this fashion, even while we are underway, is amazing to me, because I don’t have that ability. I could go on describing the qualities that make a given individual ones pillion of choice, but I digress.

What A View!

What A View!

After paying our entry fee, we motored into a large parking lot within view of the lake itself. And what a view! According to Wikipedia, Devil’s Lake, for which the state park is named, was part of the Wisconsin River prior to the last ice age, but now has no visible inlet or outlet. It sits in a chasm between the moraines, and the resulting scene as a whole exudes a raw, natural beauty that is unique to this place.

Occasionally we would stop... and attempt to take it all in.

Occasionally we would stop… and attempt to take it all in.

Ann and I walked a portion of the lake’s perimeter together, sometimes talking, but many times not saying a thing. Occasionally we would stop for a period of time and just stand there, or sit, and attempt to take it all in. There were people all around – individuals, couples, families and groups, many with children and dogs of all sizes – yet there was no feeling of crowdedness. And the further out we walked from the boat house, gift shop, concessions, etc., the quieter things became, this despite that there was still a somewhat steady stream of people and dogs walking the same path as us, in both directions. In fact we were sitting out on a boulder, watching people go by, looking at the scenic beauty around us, when we realized that the sounds we heard – or couldn’t hear – did not match up to the population or the activity that we had been observing. The lake, rocky hills, and trees somehow came together to dampen whatever noise was being made by all that humanity.

Genuine Smiles

Genuine Smiles

Eventually we were forced to acknowledge the passage of time, which was not in our favor. We had a bit of a ride ahead of us in order to get Ann home, followed by another two-to-three hours to get myself back to from whence I came. Still smiling genuine smiles, we headed back to the motorcycle. We had found a happy place here. Perhaps we already sensed that we would return? I don’t know. But there was more satisfaction than sadness in our departure.

The sun was still high enough for neither Ann nor me to feel any sense of rush to get back. We took 113 south to Merrimac, where we caught the free ferry across the Wisconsin River.

Although this river crossing was not a destination in itself, it was planned. I had made this crossing before, on two wheels as well as four, but had never realized that motorcycles are to proceed to the front of the line prior to boarding. This is because, when in small enough number, the bikes get parked between the rows of cars. Thanks to the advice of a fellow biker, who happened to be in a truck that day, we eventually proceeded to the front, where we got priority boarding on the next available ferry.

While waiting for the next boat, I took the liberty of calling my wife, to fill her in on the events of the day. Though not an avid rider or passenger herself, Karen has always been completely supportive of my own immersion in the hobby, which began roughly 17 years into our marriage (again a topic for another time). In similar fashion, Karen had blessed this planned outing with our friend Ann, along with the few that came before and the many that have not yet occurred. She was overjoyed to hear that the trip had gone so well so far and wished both of us safe travels home.

It Was Beautiful

It Was Beautiful

Maybe it was the time of day. Maybe it was the charm of the Merrimac Ferry. Maybe it was the experience of sharing such things with a dear friend. Whatever it was, Ann and I both agreed that it was beautiful. We had traveled some miles from Devil’s Lake, yet we we still found ourselves in a happy place.

Priority Boarding

Priority Boarding

Before long, we were back on the bike and rolling down the ramp off the ferry. We still had a fair number of miles to go together – and for that I felt grateful, because all the sightseeing we had planned for the day had now been completed. And so we rode, first on two-lane, then onto the Interstate, back to civilization. The bike’s stereo was back on, blasting out an iTunes playlist that I had created called “Rides with Ann,” more or less a compilation of music that I thought she would like, sans a lot of material that she might not, mixed in with some of my own less objectionable favorites – roughly six hours worth of music in all, easily three times what was needed. But that’s my nature.

We pulled into Ann’s place and made sure that we each had our proper belongings. When we embraced and exchanged our goodbyes, there were more smiles than tears, from both of us, and this was significant, given my tendency to feel post-departure/event letdown in a major way, no matter the circumstances. I knew this would likely be our last ride together, of any consequence, until the 2016 season. That’s merely a factor of the 150 miles that lie between our respective homes – obviously not a barrier, but still a valid consideration. But no great letdown set in as I rolled out and headed for my home. Why? Again, perhaps just the certainty that there will be a next time.

And so it ends here, sort of, the third installment of a trilogy that encompasses a single day’s ride with my dear friend and favorite pillion. Not bad for a cool, sunny day at the end of October. A few more degrees of warmth would have been welcome, ditto another hour or two of daylight. But then there would have been no challenge, and as many people know, a worthwhile goal should be realistic yet challenging.

If you’ve been following along through all three parts of this one, thank you. I has been my privilege to have you along. Will there be more stories like this on my blog? Oh, yes, I certainly hope so. Because after all, we don’t call this MGD Time for nothing. Ha!

– MGD

All photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa
Video by Ann M. Fischler

Fruit of the Vine – Wining in the Heartland

CrispThe air was sweet and crisp on the morning of October 25, as Ann and I made our way toward Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin beneath a big blue sky. On board Miss Scarlett, my fully-faired touring bike, we ran the Interstate west and north, through the Madison metro, before exiting onto Highway 60 toward Lodi and points beyond. The sights and smells of autumn were all around us as we left the more urban environs behind.

Cows. I could definitely smell cows.

The village of Prairie du Sac lies on the banks of the Wisconsin River in picturesque Sauk County. While the town itself lies immediately west of the river, our first destination of the day, Wollersheim Winery, is found immediately east of the river on Wisconsin Highway 188. I’ve traveled to this winery enough times between 1986 and now to be able to get there without the aid of maps or signs. Until this day, however, my friend Ann had never been there. As a longtime fan of Wollersheim, I took great pleasure in making this introduction.

VineyardWe followed the gentle, sweeping curves of WI 188 only a short while before parts of the vineyard came into view. Less than half a mile farther, we were leaning into the winery’s main drive. There were other vehicles in the parking lot, but ours was the only motorcycle thus far. After dismounting, we locked up our helmets, gathered our phones and other necessities, and began making our way uphill toward the main building.

My wife Karen and I used to go weekending in these parts in the mid-to-late 1980’s, before our kids came along. At that time, the winery essentially consisted of an old stone building on a hill and a cave hewn into a hillside further up. The facility has grown and developed considerably since then. Additions have been built onto the original building, which is still recognizable, especially from the inside, and the grounds, once quite utilitarian in appearance, are now beautifully landscaped. Most recently a distillery has been added, where brandy is made.

Although Bob Wollersheim is no longer with us (he passed away in 2005), Philippe Coquard, the winemaker that Bob brought on in 1984 from the Beaujolais region of France, is still quite active in the day-to-day operations. Philippe is also an avid motorcyclist. I have never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but have seen him tending to his craft during past visits.

Wine2This being Ann’s first time at Wollersheim, I made sure we took the tour, which takes about an hour. The tour includes stops at points like the fermentation and aging areas, incorporating informative videos along the way, and concludes with a guided tasting session. I grew up in a household where my father made wine, as did others in our extended family, so I am somewhat familiar with the processes, sights, and especially the smells of wine making. I caught my first whiff of fermenting grapes before Ann and I even entered the building. When we entered the fermentation room, despite being behind the glass windows of an observation area, my nose was immersed in the familiar, heady aroma. I’m reasonably sure I was smiling the whole time.

Wine1At the conclusion of our tour, Ann and I tasted a number of reds and whites, ranging from dry to semi-sweet, and concluded with a white port. Port wines are usually ruby or tawny in color, quite sweet, and fortified with brandy, making them ideal as an after-meal treat. The white port we sampled fit all aspects of this description, except for the color.

AnnWollersheim Winery also has a large shop, where visitors can purchase wines by the bottle or case, as well as all manner of wine-related utensils, vessels and apparel. Since this was our first stop of the day, with many more hours planned, we opted not to load the bike with 750 ml bottles. Perhaps next time. Instead we strolled the grounds together, making a point of stopping in to see the historic cave, where wine was once stored, before heading back down to the motorcycle and continuing our day together.

Will we be back? Given my track record so far, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But to anybody who is into touring rural Wisconsin and visiting wineries, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Wollersheim.

Ann n Me in ShadowsI already talked about our next stop in my inaugural post, made earlier this week. So next time I’ll tell you about our final, perhaps most magical destination of the day. Until then…

– MGD

All photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa

Once Beautiful: The Old Schoolhouse Revisited and Remembered

It sits silently on a hill at the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road...

It sits silently on a hill at the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road…

They say you can never go back. Had it been a mistake to try? I didn’t think so at the time, nor do I now, but I would be lying to say that it didn’t hurt a little to see what had become of The Old Schoolhouse, a favorite eating establishment of mine that has now stood silent for about a decade.

It was just last Sunday that my friend Ann and I had gone out on Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, for one last ride together this season. We live 150 miles apart, so these excursions take a little bit of planning. We had selected a few key destinations for our day trip, Mother Nature cooperated with a fair-albeit-cool weather day, my wife Karen gave our endeavor her blessing, and off we went.

Stopping to see what had once been The Old Schoolhouse was an afterthought at best, a last-minute decision made while en route to Devil’s Lake State Park (more on that in another post). This entire area, north and west of Madison, Wisconsin, had been a favorite weekending destination for Karen and me in the years 1 to 7 BC (before children). Often on the spur of the moment, we would pack a bag, jump in the car and head north for an overnighter. We would stop at Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac and then tour the countryside for the afternoon. I had learned about The Old Schoolhouse, as well as the winery, in a locally published book, now long lost, called (I think) My Wisconsin and the purpose of our first weekend trip out thataway had been to find these two places.

This place I’m telling you about was then a sandwich shop housed in an old one-room schoolhouse located just outside the entrance to Devil’s Head Ski Resort. A jailhouse and chapel had also been added on, but were not yet being used when we had first discovered this establishment, and there was an old train caboose parked outside. The place was decorated with many antique toys and school implements and positively exuded charm. A sign outside proclaimed, “If the colonel had our chicken recipe, he’d have been a general!” The food was great, too. I used to get something called the Super Club, which was too big to bite vertically, but oh so delicious. Karen’s favorite was a French Dip on a homemade roll that refused to release the au jus once dipped.

In the years that followed, The Old Schoolhouse grew into a supper club, utilizing all three buildings. Karen and I ate supper there with friends once, on our way back from someplace else. I remember white tablecloths, cloth napkins and nice flatware. The food was still excellent, but the original coziness of my favorite lunch stop had given way to something else, I think. That turned out to be our last time there.

In the years that followed, kids came, life got quite a bit busier and things like discretionary income and romantic spur-of-the-moment getaways became a thing of the past. At one point, in 2003, I took up motorcycling, which soon evolved into motorcycle touring, something that remains a passion of mine to this day. From the very start, Karen has wholeheartedly supported my involvement in the hobby, but does not partake in it herself, for a variety of reasons. One day, five or more years ago, I found myself leading a group of about ten bikes down County DL and pulled up in front of The Old Schoolhouse – possibly intending for my group to have lunch there. It was closed. It was for sale. I stopped to tell everybody about the place. Then we rode on, but I still recall the heavy feeling in my heart.

I made inquiries. The owner, up in years, retired and had been trying to sell the place since 1999. As far as I can tell, it was still operating as late as 2005. Then things get sketchy. An attempt to sell it at auction was made in 2013, apparently unsuccessful. At the time, I briefly fantasized about buying the place myself but was saved by an utter lack of funds. In reality, I didn’t want to run the place; I just wanted to be able to go there again and enjoy The Old Schoolhouse as it once was.

...in a state of long-term disuse.

…in a state of long-term disuse.

Fast forward to last Sunday. I knew we would be going near the location on our way to our intended stops for the day. I told Ann a little bit about the place beforehand and I remember her asking me, “Is it haunted?”

To which I replied, “It haunts me.”

“I want to see it.”

Still the final decision wasn’t made until we were cruising north on Sunday afternoon.

I leaned back and asked, “Do you still want to see The Old Schoolhouse? It might not be pretty.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know.” That was the truth, to be sure. I still remembered what it had felt like the last time. But Ann is a long-time friend and I so wanted to share things like this with her. Besides, maybe we would discover that somebody was doing something with the place again. But I still wasn’t sure.

“It’s up to you.” Great. I said nothing more as we continued plying the simply beautiful roads that are Wisconsin Highways 78 and 113. Fall colors abounded in every direction.

The junction sign for County DL (as in Devil’s Lake) appeared and in an instant, all doubt about what I was going to do immediately fell away.

I leaned back into my passenger’s space once more to declare,“I’m gonna’ take a little detour.”

“Okay.”

We leaned right and turned east onto DL, temporarily moving away from the state park and toward a place I absolutely knew I had to see again. At the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road, I saw the place and what it had become. If it is possible for ones heart to simultaneously leap and fall, that’s exactly what happened to me then and there. We pulled in, dismounted and walked around the property together. I beheld a decade of silence in the form of peeling paint, rotting wood, and faded memories. Could anybody bring it back from this sorry state? It would take one hell of an investment and very solid business plan to even try. But all I wanted to do at that point was tell Ann of my happy memories of what this place once was.

And I think she understood what I was trying to convey, yet at the same time she was mesmerized by what she saw in the sheer beauty of the wilderness that surrounded us. A daughter of the American Revolution by definition, Ann’s ancestors came here before this country became a country. Gazing out at the forested hills, she offered, “This is pretty much the same way it was back then.” She was right, of course, and it was so beautiful. In that moment of exchange, she and I stood there, each appreciating what the other was seeing.

All photos in this post courtesy of Ann Fischler.

All photos in this post courtesy of Ann Fischler.

I had seen enough. After one last longing glance around, we climbed aboard Miss Scarlett and were soon back on our way to our next destination. Unless something changes, I doubt that I will ever feel such a strong desire to go back there again. We came, we saw, we understood. And for now at least, that’s enough.