I was surprised when my phone dinged one Friday evening in late September, alerting me to an unexpected text from my friend Mark.
“You riding tomorrow?”
“I don’t have a plan… Whatchagot?”
“Nothing except looks to be an exceptional day to ride.”
Mark and I are both seasoned motorcyclists who appreciate how quickly the riding season can conclude as the fall season progresses toward winter. We texted back and forth a few times, sharing possibilities, and then decided to meet up near my home for a familiar run down old Route 66.
Technically, the Mother Road began at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Me, I’ve always picked it up from Joliet and turned around in Pontiac. It’s a nice little day ride for motorcyclists. I’ve written about various aspects of this little stretch of the Mother Road before and for the sake of not being redundant, I strive to share some different angles each time. Please, enjoy the ride…
After meeting up with Mark and part of his family near my home in Plainfield, we picked up old Route 66 in the city of Joliet, as part of modern day Illinois Highway 53. As we rode out of Joliet and south toward Elwood, I thought about my mother-and-father-in-law, who drove out to California via Route 66 on their honeymoon, back in the late 1940’s. While on their trip, Jack (my father-in-law) shot some footage using an 8mm move camera that he had. Some years ago, as a gift, my wife and I had the films transferred onto VHS tapes, the modern technology of the day. I enjoyed watching all that footage and listening to my in-laws tell stories about their trip. That experience is what sparked my genuine interest in the Mother Road. Prior to that, Route 66 was just the name of a TV show from the 1960’s when I was growing up.
The first time I ever ran this part of Route 66 was via motorcycle, following a gentleman named Jim, who had ridden the entirety of the Mother Road on an organized tour. Jim took great pleasure in sharing this local portion of Route 66, from Joliet to Pontiac. He frequently included a stop at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, to which he referred as his future home. We briefly rolled through the cemetery on this run, but did not stop and took no photographs. I will say it’s a solemn site to behold.
Where we did begin taking photos was in the town of Gardner, which is home to two structures of historic significance. One is a two-celled jailhouse that was built in 1906 and used until the 1930’s. The other is a streetcar-style diner that has been preserved and donated to the town. I had been to the jail once before but for some reason hadn’t walked over to look at the diner. Both structures are worth stopping to see.
We also stopped at a restored Standard Oil station outside of Odell. This is a must-see for anyone into historic filling station architecture. I should also point out that there is another significant gas station in Dwight. Although that one isn’t as architecturally interesting as this Standard station, it holds its own place as the last operating Texaco station on Route 66.
There is another interesting stretch during which you will see segments of an older road running parallel to the current two-lane blacktop. That’s the original Mother Road and there is at least one spot where you can legally pull onto a piece of it and take photos. There is an old barn off in the distance with a Meramec Caverns ad painted on the side of it. We didn’t stop this time but it’s there and you’ll see it.
I frequently conclude my excursions on this portion of the Mother Road at the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. It’s worth stopping for, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. With two floors of exhibits inside and a few goodies outside as well. Check out the VW bus as well as the hippie land yacht that once belonged to the late artist Bob Waldmire. Or the 1960’s radio station replica. Or the 1940’s home display. I just eat this stuff up every time I go there.
It’s not that there isn’t more to see further downstate — or across the rest of the USA to California, for that matter. I’ve seen other bits of historic Route 66, including an excellent museum down in Lebanon, MO. But the stretch of it that I’ve described here is my little bit of old Route 66.
Before heading back toward home, my friends and I walked over to the square in downtown Pontiac for a bite of lunch at the Acres Inn. Although the dining room was closed due to pandemic precautions, they did offer curbside ordering and outdoor seating. For a relatively small café and beer bar, Acres Inn offers a nice variety of items on their menu. I thoroughly enjoyed my smashed double cheeseburger, accompanied by house-made potato chips — I’m a sucker for homemade chips — and washed down with a lovely craft lager.
The sun was shining and there was much laughter in the air as we enjoyed our meal together. After that, we walked back to the bikes, rolled out toward Interstate 55, and headed for home. Before the rest of my group peeled off, a couple of exits before mine, I immersed myself in the sensations of riding the open road on a sunny and warm afternoon realizing that Mark had been right all along. It really had been an exceptional day to ride.
The last time I took a solo motorcycle trip of any consequence was in 2013. Things happened that caused me to stop doing solo runs. The magazine for which I wrote about my two-wheeled experiences folded. I had started riding with a pillion companion and since I’m not a particularly good “alone” person, I decided I liked two-up touring better. Sometimes time got tight, sometimes money got tight, and for whatever other reasons, I had stopped even thinking about going off on solo runs.
As the Italians say, i tempi cambiano, which literally translates to the times change. Sometime last fall, my pillion companion went away and within months, a global pandemic ensured that nobody of sound mind would be socializing much for a while. Fortunately for me, the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state of Illinois, so I never had to stop earning my living. Others have not been so fortunate. Still, socializing, on or off my motorcycle, wasn’t gonna happen. I even took up social drinking online. That took a little getting used to but then so does everything when it comes to change. Oh, things have loosened up some but still, every organized event that I usually attend during the spring and summer months, was cancelled this year. I had taken a few day rides, with my motorcyclist son and/or with friends, but that was the extent of it… until last week.
My son works for a Chicago-based design, fabrication, and print firm called Redbox Workshop, which produces exhibits and environments for a variety of applications across the United States and around the world. He is currently managing a build out in Kansas City and is living and working out there pretty much through the months of August and September. Before he left, we had toyed around with the idea of me riding out to visit him and once he was out there, I decided to have a go at it. After seven years, it was high time for me to get on my bike, alone, and just leave everything behind, if only for a few days.
I was looking at five days, every one of them with daytime temps reaching the upper 90’s and not a drop of rain in the forecast. What could go wrong? As long as I stayed hydrated on the inside and lathered up with sunscreen on the outside, neither of which I was known for doing, I should be fine. So on the bright and sunny morning of Friday, August 21, I set out on Miss Scarlett, my trusty American-made full dresser touring bike. From my home in Plainfield, I ran down Interstate 55, a thoroughly unremarkable (other than the fact that it replaced a portion of historic U.S. 66) stretch of four-and-six-lane divided highway adorned with potholes and deteriorated lane seams. When I got to Springfield, I hung a right onto Interstate 72 and headed toward my intended mid-point lunch break in Hannibal, MO.
Ah, Hannibal! When I was younger, I had a crazy, single aunt who used to throw my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us to all sorts of interesting places across most of the contiguous 48 United States and a good number of Canadian provinces, too. She introduced me to Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to most by his pen name Mark Twain. To be honest, my first visit to Hannibal was interesting enough but hadn’t meant much to me. As the years progressed, though, I came to recognize Sam Clemens as an influence on my own writing. I have visited Hannibal many times over the past few decades, plus Florida, Missouri, where Sam was born, Hartford, Connecticut, where Sam built quite a showplace of a home for him and his family to live, and Elmira, New York, where the Clemens family kept a summer home and where they are buried. So you see, stopping in Hannibal that Friday meant more to me than just a lunch stop.
After a quick walk around, I decided to stop at a pleasant-looking storefront diner downtown called Greater Days. I was looking for a nice place to grab a good burger and I wasn’t disappointed. Greater Days is not a fancy joint, not a bar, just a nice little diner run by two very nice people. The decor runs along the sort of thing one might find in any small town America gift shop. Okay, maybe a small town America Christian gift shop, but not overstated in any way, shape, or form. The owners are delightful, a “seasoned” couple originally from Illinois. I found this out because the chef and I compared notes when he stopped by my table to greet me. My lunch, a blue cheese bacon burger on a homemade bun with a side of seasoned, cubed potatoes, was freshly prepared and quite tasty. I was delighted and I said as much before heading out on my way back to my bike.
Right next door to Greater Days is a shop to which I have been two or three times before, Native American Trading Co. If you are into Native American arts, crafts, gifts and goods, you might enjoy stopping here. I always do. The people at this shop are very pleasant and they have an extensive selection of merchandise with something for almost every budget.
I did not linger in Hannibal, although I wanted to. Everybody I saw in town seemed to be enjoying the day and some of the street-side pub patios looked very inviting. Still, I had another 230 miles ahead of me before I could stop for the day and it wasn’t getting any cooler out. In hindsight, this would have been an awesome time to reapply sunblock.
As I rode across the state of Missouri on U.S. 36, I found myself wishing I’d had my pillion photographer with me. Between the wooded areas, ridges, bluffs, and rolling farmland, America was all around me. How I wish I had photos of all that to share with you! Every so often, the air would become filled with a new scent. Newly mown grass. Dense woods. A fresh breeze off a small lake. A naturally fertilized cow pasture. As I surveyed the countryside, mile after mile, I thought about the people I’d seen and spoken with so far that day. That’s when it really hit home for me: One cannot truly experience America by scrolling on their electronic devices.
I pulled into my hotel in Overland Park right around supper time, hot, sweaty, a bit sore, and more than a little fatigued, both mentally and physically. I wasn’t used to long runs anymore. Still, I was happy to be alive. Thanks to modern technology driven by a global pandemic, my check-in process was done completely without human contact. Using my Hilton Honors App, I was able to check in a day in advance, enable my phone as my room key, chat with the front desk and eventually, check out. The app was ultra simple and easy to use, and I understand why they developed all these contactless features, yet I have real concerns about the long-term implications for hospitality workers who make their living by interacting with travelers. In all candor, I appreciate that human touch more than I do whiz-bang technological functionality.
My son drove out to pick me up and take me into the city for supper. We went to a delightful Creole place called Jazz Kitchen, where John proceeded to ensure that I would be overfed almost to the point of being in pain. We started with hurricanes and voodoo crawfish tails, then moved on to our main dishes (I had a blackened chicken fettuccine alfredo that was so tasty, I simply could not stop eating it), and finished up with bread pudding plus a plate of beignets, compliments of Toffee, our awesome server who is also a fan of my son. I loved every minute of it.
On Saturday, my son came back and picked me up in time for lunch, along with his roommate and another co-worker. I had told him that I wanted a hamburger from someplace I couldn’t find by staying home. My son did not disappoint. Hayes Hamburgers and Chili is a small place with a big following. Open only for curbside pickup, due to the pandemic situation, they accept no credit cards. We phoned in our order ponied up cash for all the food, and then went across the street, through an apartment complex, and into a municipal park where we sat down outside of a small baseball field and ate out fill. A nice little taste of America — and it was delicious.
We spent all of Saturday afternoon at the National WWI Museum and Memorial following a recommendation from a very good friend of John and me. We were expecting a nice, little collection of exhibits and artifacts. Instead we were overwhelmed by what turned out to be the most comprehensive collection of WWI objects in the world. We viewed exhibits, spoke with volunteers, learned much, and appreciated all of it. We remained through five o’clock, closing time, and had to depart without visiting the gift shop. No worries, we were back the next morning to collect up our mementos and souvenirs. This museum and memorial is a must-see for any war history buff. It’s the sort of place one must experience in order to understand.
After dropping off John’s coworkers Saturday evening, he and I decided that we weren’t hungry enough to eat another full meal. So instead, we went to a place not far from my hotel called Louie’s Wine Dive and Kitchen, where we enjoyed a couple of “small plate” appetizers, drank a fair amount of red wine, and philosophized into the night. Louie’s is a nice enough place but the tab we ran up for one wine flight, one bottle of Zinfandel, and two appetizers was more than I have paid for some good dinners and drinks elsewhere. Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Sunday was my last day in the Kansas City area and my last day visiting with my son John. That morning, after John scooped me up in Overland Park and then joined up with three of his coworkers, we descended upon the WWI Museum store, as planned, before going over to the original Q39 Kansas City BBQ Restaurant in midtown. The food was extraordinarily good, with a very pleasant beer selection to pair with it. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed hanging with these young gentlemen for a while. By including me in their conversations about food, drink, work, people, music, and more, they made me feel younger again. You know, like one of them. That was very cool.
This may sound a little nuts but my wife Karen had urged John and me to go find Kansas City’s Central Library Parking Garage. Why? Because of the Community Bookshelf that adorns the south wall of said parking structure. It’s a thing to behold that looks like a giant bookshelf of popular titles. My photos don’t really do the place justice.
As we were looking for a place to park John’s truck in the Library District, we spotted a bronze likeness of Mark Twain sitting on a park bench. My son immediately suggested that given my affinity for the author, we should go capture a quick meetup between Sam Clemens and myself after first shooting the community bookshelf. And so we did.
Alas, by suppertime, we were still so full of barbecue, we opted to skip supper altogether. John dropped me off at my hotel and thus ended our weekend visit. He had to go to work in the morning and I needed to head on to my next stop. Still, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the familiar pangs of loneliness creeping in that Sunday evening.
By now you might be wondering why I chose to stay in Overland Park when my son and his compadres were being housed on the Missouri side of Kansas City proper and nearly all that we saw and did were on that side. Well, I’ll tell you. While I have ridden my motorcycle in the state of Missouri a number of times now, I had not previously ridden in the state of Kansas. Now I have. Besides, I knew Overland Park to be one of the nicer suburbs of the KC metro and on top of all that, I found an excellent value in the hotel in which I stayed.
I awoke on Monday morning as I often do, with a sense of purpose. The day had promised to be as hot and humid as ever and I was about to cross Missouri again, but not to go home, not just yet. I had a personal mission to fulfill, one that I had put off long enough. But first, I had to get out of the Kansas City metro. And before doing that, I had to have breakfast.
It was not lost on me that Missouri has something wonderful that Illinois utterly lacks: Waffle House locations. Don’t judge. I love Waffle House, at least in part because it’s something I don’t have at home. In fact, I hope they never come to (northern) Illinois because then they wouldn’t be special to me. Like so many others that have come to town from elsewhere, they might then become just another chain.
But there I was, in Waffle House country. There are fifteen Waffle House locations in and around Kansas City and I hit the jackpot at their Lee’s Summit location. Friendliest staff I could ask for, they all seemed to be having a grand old time greeting people, serving up breakfast after breakfast, and otherwise just working their butts off. I sat down at the counter, which had been marked off so that only every other stool was available, and ordered my usual — a pecan waffle, large bacon, and black coffee — along with a big old orange juice to help soothe my sinuses, which had been a little quirky lately. Through a minor mishap on the grill, the crew had ended up with one too many orders of sausage patties and after first offering them to an elderly farmer-type gentleman two stools to my left, my waitress called out to me from up the counter, “How about you, sir, would you like an order of sausage for free?” Now I ask you, what else could I say to such generosity?
“Sure!” And so there I was, chowing down on my usual, plus OJ, plus two nicely prepared sausage patties. But wait, there’s more! Upon finishing, I remasked myself and stepped over to the register to pay my tab. A young, equally masked lady stepped up to the register to assist me and motioning out the window with her head as she worked the register, she asked me, “Is that your motorcycle?”
“Wanna’ come back after work and give me a ride on it?” Who knows, maybe it was be kind to old guys day. I had to smile, even if nobody could see it through my respiratory barrier.
“I would love to, but I’ll be back in Illinois by then,” I replied.
“You riding that all the way?” She seemed incredulous but I had neither the heart nor the time to tell this sweet child just how far Miss Scarlett and I have roamed together, so I just nodded and laughed as I paid my tab. We were all wishing each other well as I left, quite happy and well-fed.
Man, it was hot out there! I spent most of that Monday running Interstate 70 toward St. Louis and no matter how hard I tried to stay sunblocked and hydrated, it felt like a losing battle. I drank water at every stop, but released most of it through my pores out on the open road. Reapplying sunblock actually stung my skin every time. But wait, there’s more! About halfway across the state, I became aware of an intense burning sensation on my calves, mainly the right one, which was closest to the engine’s exhaust. After a while, this escalated from annoying discomfort to searing pain.What could I do? I still had many miles to go. Repositioning my legs helped a little but a prior experience piloting Miss Scarlett across Wyoming in a severe crosswind told me that the damage had already been done. I rode on.
I circumvented St. Louis and once on the Illinois side, left the interstates behind for Illinois 3, a nice ribbon of mainly two-lane blacktop that took me farther and farther south. Eventually I came to Illinois 149, which would take me east to Murphysboro, where via highway 13, I continued on to Carbondale, where I would spend my final night on this road trip. These state roads were beautiful motorcycle roads, with easy sweeping curves and pleasant elevation changes, but I was too fatigued to fully appreciate them. Perhaps someday I will return.
I’ll spare you the graphic details but once settled in for the night, I confirmed that I had incurred a substantial second-degree burn to my right calf, a burn from which I am still slowly and painfully recovering as I write this, more than a week later. But let’s talk about Tuesday morning and the reason I’d taken this odd detour to southern Illinois from Kansas City.
I was eighteen year old when I first saw Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows perform. I was a college freshman and the band had been scheduled to play a Friday afternoon “Grill Concert” at Marquette University’s Brooks Memorial Union, which has long since been torn down. I was a regular at those free Friday afternoon concerts but had never heard of this band before. That quickly changed.
At the appointed time, the band came out on the stage and began to play. There was a guitarist, a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and a two-or-three-piece horns section (I would later discover that some parts of the band evolved over time). Their sound was decidedly R&B with a touch of jazz and this band was tight, very precise in their playing.
After the band’s instrumental opening set, the front man walked out. Big Twist had a certain presence that filled the room — and I’m not just talking about his physical stature. Admittedly, they didn’t call him big for nothing. This guy was tall and… large. He wore a light-colored fedora hat and a silky suit. When he began to sing, his baritone voice complemented that band in ways I will not even attempt to describe. That was Big Twist.
After the concert, deep into my cups but so taken with the music I’d heard, I walked a dozen or so blocks to Radio Doctors, the premier record store of the day in downtown Milwaukee. Sure enough, they had an LP record album by Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows, their first ever, on the independent Flying Fish label. I took the record back to my dorm and played it over and over.
A year later, Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows came to my school to perform again. This time I was expressly there to see them play. I got there early and while the crew was still setting up, Big Twist walked out onto the floor and stood near one corner in front of the stage. People began going up and talking to him. I asked a friend to watch my beer as I did likewise. When my turn came, I extended my hand up and out, saying, “I saw you here last year and I just wanna’ say, I really enjoy your music.”
Twist looked down at me and gave me a warm, sincere smile. Then reaching down and closing a big, meaty fist over my hand (which isn’t small), he said just one word: “Alright!” That made my entire afternoon.
Over the years that followed, I saw the band perform numerous times, up in Milwaukee and at clubs down by my Chicagoland home. I introduced a number of friends, both from school and back home, to the music of Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows by dragging them to the concerts. In my own small way, I had become an evangelist for the band and made a few converts in the process.
It was my mother who broke the news to me of Larry “Big Twist” Nolan’s passing on March 14, 1990. I was not quite 29 years old at the time; he was 52. Bear in mind, this was still a largely analog world. I had no internet access, no smart phone to provide the latest news in near-real time. My dear mother spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing delicious meals and listening to talk radio as she did. That’s why she was the first in our family to know. She told me and the Chicago Tribune confirmed it on March 15. As I understood it, Larry Nolan had died of heart failure, having endured kidney dialysis for over two years. And like many musicians of the day, obtaining health insurance coverage was difficult, even for the number one draw on the nightclub circuit. All I remember is that I felt empty inside. How foolish are we to be repeatedly duped into believing that there will always be a next time?
Once the information age had come around, sooner or later I began looking for more information about Big Twist and where he had been buried. There was none to be found but every so many years, I would try again. The gravesite super site, findagrave.com, had nothing, at least not at the time. I contacted his last recording label, Alligator Records. Somebody there thought he’d been buried where he’d been born, in Terre Haute, Indiana. At some point, I tried emailing Pete Special, the band’s co-founder, director, and guitarist. No reply. Only recently, I discovered that Pete had died in 2014 and it’s entirely possible that I sent the email after that. I even asked my eldest sister Maria, a career librarian, to see what she could find. She conducted a right and proper search but still found no information about where Twist might be buried.
I let the matter go for a while but never forgot. Then a few years ago, perhaps with the sharing of some resurfaced video on social media, I lamented my failed attempts to find that burial place. Lo and behold, a Facebook friend named Lori, who has sewn many patches onto my motorcycle vest, responded with a link to the information I had been seeking for years. As it turns out, she had dated the band’s trumpet player at one time. I was elated, to say the least, and vowed to visit that grave, located in the southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. Perhaps during a future run to Memphis.
More years passed and still I hadn’t made that trip. Then last month, while planning my solo run to Kansas City, it occurred to me that if on my way back, I veered southeast instead of east, I wouldn’t be that far from Murphysboro. And so I planned my detour.
I used Google Maps to survey the Tower Grove Cemetery. It was bigger than I’d hoped it would be, with no apparent directory or contact information available. How would I find this grave? I reached out to a total stranger named Paul Hoyt, who had put Larry Nolan’s grave on FindAGrave back in 2013. Perhaps he would recall the location.
Well, he did more than that. On a Sunday evening, this total stranger and his wife returned to Tower Grove, located the grave, took additional photos, and made them available to me, along with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Then, as an additional gesture of kindness, Paul transferred the FindAGrave record over to me because he sensed I had a stronger connection to Larry Nolan than did he as a cemetery photographer hobbyist. I will forever remember this act of kindness.
When I left Carbondale on Tuesday morning, the day promised to be as hot and humid as ever. I took the twenty-minute ride to the cemetery and had to smile as I passed the sign that reads, “Murphysboro, Ripe With Possibilties!” My personal mantra for decades was been, “Imagine the possibilities,” and I took that colorful sign as an indication that this one possibility, which I had envisioned for three decades, was about to come to fruition.
The Tower Grove Cemetery can be found on Murphysboro Lake Road, just north of Illinois Highway 149, one of the roads I had taken to get to Carbondale the night before. I was a little concerned about riding Miss Scarlett down into the cemetery, the drives of which appeared to consist of narrow two-track (it turned out to be badly deteriorated asphalt), so I parked around the corner at Mi Patio, a local Mexican restaurant, and walked into the cemetery.
I found the marker easily, thanks to the information Paul had provided. I sat by the grave for a short while, contemplating all that had transpired in order for me to be there. Sweat was pouring from my face as I shot a quick video for my Facebook friends. Then, after turning and thanking Larry “Big Twist” Nolan for all the joy he’d brought me, I walked back to my motorcycle, mounted up, and headed for home.
Seven or so hours later, I arrived at home, once again hot, sore, burnt, and spent yet in my mind, I was was already reviewing and preparing all that I would share with you here. In all, I’d run just over 1,200 miles and even though I’d been gone for five days, Miss Scarlett and I had covered those miles in three of them (I did no riding while visiting in Kansas City), so roughly 400 miles per day.
If you are still reading this, I am grateful to you for having come along all this way. You are the reason I wrote this. Thanks for hanging with me.
As I indicated I would do last week (see For the Love of Poopy’s), I met up with a couple of friends last Saturday morning and rode out to Poopy’s in Savanna, This post is going to be short on pictures and videos because (a) the only pillion photographer who matters was not on board to take the road shots, which I only wish I could share with you and (b) it never strikes me to take advantage of some photo ops when they arise. But in lieu of excellent visuals, I will share my story, if only because it seems to be worth telling.
The two gents I rode with are experienced riders whom I got to know from two different facets of my life on two wheels. “Johnny B” is a retired music teacher who lives in the next town over from mine but whom I met as a regular attendee of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which is held hundreds of miles from our respective homes. Still, I’m glad we met. John has a knack for knowing which roads to take and where the good food is to be had. this is something that comes from experience. He may not be one to smile and pose for the camera but John is an asset to any riding group and has helped me out on more than one occasion.
Mark and I go back, not only in terms of years but also in terms of our previous lives. He was a motorcycle mechanic — and a darned good one — at Fox Valley Cycles, the best Honda motorcycle dealership in west suburban Chicagoland and also the sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, of which I was once president. Mark and I have both moved on since then but have somehow managed to remain friends for the decade-plus that has since followed.
We met up at a gas station, where I introduced my two friends to each other, and then headed out on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, toward the Mississippi River and Savanna, home of Poopy’s Pub and Grub. Skies were sunny and the temperature was seventyish, with just the slightest cool breeze.
Folks, this was the first ride of any real distance I have taken this year. I could get into why but that would detract from the real story here. Just know that I went, that I needed to go, and that it was wonderful. There’s just something about being out on the road with friends. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly my day-to-day concerns faded away as I motored on, cool breeze in my face, iTunes blasting out on my sound system. As I am known to do, I greeted all the farm animals as I rode past..
“Hello, dairy cows!”
“Well hello there, beef cattle!”
There was this one point along US 30 where a group of turbines from an upcoming wind farm seemed to have been set up perfectly along our line of sight as we approached, the huge blades moving to some unheard symphony of flowing air mass. As much as I wish I could share photos or a video clip with you, I was equally glad nobody was there to hear me moments later when I’d caught my self singing along at the top of my lungs to whatever song had been blasting out on my stereo. I probably wasn’t singing in tune but what can I say, I’d been caught up in the moment.
In what seemed like no time at all, we’d run the 115 miles or so to arrive at “Illinois’ Biggest Biker destination.” Interestingly enough, Poopy’s wasn’t all that crowded when we pulled in, right around the 11:00 hour, which made it easy for our merry trio to claim some prime seating along the main outdoor bar. Perched upon our padded toilet seat bar stools, we ate, drank, traded stories and people watched. It just felt so great to be alive!
All the while, more and more bikes were pulling in, but the area never felt overcrowded, mainly because there is a lot of room outside (and even in) at Poopy’s. Nobody was wearing a mask but then again, nobody was in my face, either. I was okay with that.
As we sat there chatting and admiring the young, beautiful bartenders who were working harder and harder to take care of everybody, I spotted Andy Pesek, who had organized the “Poopy’s COVID Relief” event, enjoying what looked like a fine cigar while seated at a card table that had been set up by one of the big garage doors, all of which had been opened on such a pleasant, sunny day. I walked over and introduced myself before dropping my donation envelope into the bucket on the table.
That’s pretty much it as far as the “event” goes. There was no big, formal parade, no raucus anti-tyranny rally, no political ranting of any kind that me and my half-deaf ears could pick up. What I did hear was plenty of laughter. I think most people understood why we were there — to enjoy the day and enjoy life while supporting a unique business that we had come to love and appreciate.
One highpoint of my day occurred while I was walking across the premises and spotted a face that I had seen before, on the news as well as social media. He smiled as I look at him and so I felt compelled to ask, “Are you Poopy?”
His smile grew as he nodded at me, responding, “I’m Poopy.”
We chatted briefly and I thanked Mr. Promenschenkel for having shared my last blog post the week before. He seemed pleased to give me a moment of his time and came across as being quite genuine. Just as we were about to head our separate ways, I asked if we could get a quick photo. Poopy clapped an arm on my shoulder and exclaimed, “Sure, let’s do it!” The resulting selfie came out a little blurred but mere words can’t express how much I appreciated our chance meeting.
All the while, more and more bikes rolled in. We departed well before mid-afternoon. Part of me wanted to stay and check out the live music, maybe see if the bikini pool bar next to the stage area would liven up, but a larger part of me wanted to ride home sober. And that’s what we did.
My only regret? I did not reapply sunblock before making the return trip. My face, neck, and especially my arms got a little burned but not so bad. I think John, Mark and I had a nice day together. Things being as they are, I’m just not sure what the rest of this riding season holds for me but if I can get even a few more rides in like this one, I will be so grateful.
Located on Illinois Route 84 near the southern edge of the city of Savanna, Poopy’s bills itself as “Illinois’ Biggest Biker Destination” and for good reason. The place is huge. The place is fun. And the place has earned its reputation as a worthy venue for motorcyclists to visit for food, beverages, and a wide variety of entertainment. Its owner, Kevin Promenschenkel, earned the nickname “Poopy” at a young age when a wayward bird let him have it, twice, during a Little League baseball game. The name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well it seems history is being made again. Promenschenkel has been busy doing everything in his power to keep his business afloat during these trying times, including participating in a lawsuit against the state, asking his loyal customers to support him by ordering Poopy’s merchandise online, and most recently, opening the venue for Memorial Day weekend — a major weekend for his business, filled with events and entertainment. This was a violation of our governor’s current stay-at-home order, but with the support of county and local authorities, not to mention many loyal bikers who came from miles around, Poopy’s did indeed open. In addition to all this, a motorcycle fundraising run has been organized to provide direct relief to Poopy in this time of need. I intend to participate in that fundraiser, assuming Mother Nature cooperates and I have people willing to ride out to Savanna with me. I am doing this not because I have excess cash to give away but because I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Promenschenkel, am sympathetic to his situation, and feel compelled to help him out in this small way.
I’ve been stopping at Poopy’s since September of 2011. That’s the year my son went away to college in the Quad Cities area. A week or two after he left, I found myself missing the kid something awful and so decided to pay him a visit. My ride at the time was a silver metallic 2007 Honda ST1300, a sport touring rig that made short work of my 130-ish mile run out to the Mississippi River. After picking up my son, I asked if he had any interest in checking out this “Poopy’s” place that we’d heard others talk about. At the time, he wasn’t yet old enough to have anything stronger than a coke but the allure of visiting a real biker bar must have pressed his button that day. “Sure!” my son exclaimed and within minutes, he was onboard and we were headed north toward Savanna.
I should pause here and mention that Poopy’s is anything but a typical biker bar. Poopy’s is a destination, an experience unto itself. Sure, it has a bar — several, in fact — plus a restaurant featuring numerous namesake-themed items (e.g. “The Big Poop”), a gift shop, a parts counter, and more. They even had a tattoo parlor on the premises back when I first began going there. The outdoor portion of Poopy’s includes a sizable entertainment stage with overhead catwalk, a pool bar, even a campground. They host vehicle shows, combat sports events, and many, many concerts. As I said, Poopy’s is an experience unto itself and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for this venue — and the man who built it — from the first time I set foot on the premises.
My son and I had ourselves a grand old time that day. Using my phone, our waitress took a great photo of us while we waited for our lunch. We walked the premises, admired the unique decor and ambiance, bought a few souvenirs, including my lucky Poopy’s bottle opener, and vowed to return.
And so we have returned a number of times. Not nearly often enough, because I don’t live nearby, but whenever the opportunity presents itself — and always with friends. I’ve made lunch stops, brunch stops, and “you just gotta’ come and check this place out” stops. And Poopy’s never disappoints.
My last trip there was a few years ago. My most favorite pillion companion in the world and I had ridden out to Iowa over Labor Day weekend to meet up with some friends from a few different states. During a wonderful all-day ride that we took, the group had planned to visit Poopy’s for a mid-afternoon lunch. As we approached and entered the parking lot, my beloved friend rolled video, creating a very nice memento. We sat outside for quite some time, enjoying the live music, good food, and each other’s excellent company on that fine late-summer afternoon. Indeed, it’s been too long since I have enjoyed such a time at Poopy’s.
And so on Saturday, June 6, 2020, I hope to join whatever companions I can assemble and ride west for the day. My motives have been questioned on several counts by different individuals. Without naming names, here are their questions and my answers.
Aren’t you afraid of getting sick… or worse? No. As the result of having worked in an essential service industry, I never stopped working during this pandemic. I have taken reasonable precautions, both at work and at home. And yes, I wear a bandanna face covering every time I go to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. I will not likely go indoors on this trip and if I do, I’ll just don my bandanna. Also, as an avid motorcyclist, I am accustomed to tolerating a certain amount of risk. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t care whether I die. It’s that I dread not living during whatever time I have left on this earth.
But Poopy is a blatant Trump fan! Are you one, too??? Does it matter? This is a fundraiser event for Poopy’s, not a political rally. Okay, here’s the plain truth: As an admitted member of the exhausted majority, I despise both the Democrat and Republican parties with a passion and in all candor, my opinion of “45” is less than glowing right now. But I am a real Poopy’s fan and therefore a fan of the man who has put so much of himself into that institution. Although I have never met Poopy in person, I like him and I suspect that if we drank together long enough, we would depart as friends. In short, I respect Kevin Promenschenkel and given that I, too, would not have been prepared to go more than a few weeks without an income stream, I am inclined to help him.
You’re just a badass biker with no respect for authority. I hope you get sick! Good day to you, too, ma’am! Yes, I am a biker. No, I am not. Okay, it depends on whom you ask and how that person defines the term. I am an avid motorcyclist and I have ridden across the country. My current ride is a 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a big-inch “full dresser” American V-twin, and I am no more loyal to any one motorcycle brand than I am to any political party. So there we are. If you fault me for riding a motorcycle, for respecting other riders regardless of what they ride, or for advocating for motorcyclist rights in general, then I am guilty as charged and your opinion does not move me.
In the end, I think it would be a dirty shame if Poopy’s were to disappear as the result of this horrific pandemic event and the shut-down of our economy — indeed of our society as we know it. I’m sure many businesses will not return as the result, through no fault of the independent owners themselves. So if I can help out one of them, this one in particular, by riding with friends for a few hundred miles on a Saturday and dropping some money in the till, I will gladly do so.
Whether you agree with me or not, I respect you for having read this far. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.
Don’t ask me why, but I never posted anything about this back when it happened, during my last Labor Day weekend road trip. Never told the story or posted the video, not even on Facebook. In hindsight, the whole thing was rather comical. Nobody got hurt or even came close to getting hurt. It was just one of those things of which fond memories are made.
It was the evening of Saturday, August 31. My son John and his friend Marjorie, along with my friend Ann and me, had just finished dining at the General Store Pub in Stone City, following a full day of touring east-central Iowa by motorcycle (see While I Was Away) and the time had come to head back to our hotel. I was feeling a bit tired and asked my son if he would like to lead the ride back to Cedar Rapids.
“Sure!” John replied. “Would you mind if we take a scenic route?”
“Do you have one in mind?” John studied his phone for a minute or so before pointing up the side road on which the pub was located.
“Yes! That way!” The grin on his face gave me cause for concern, as did the quiet, lonely look of that road he had pointed toward.
“Are we taking paved roads?”
“They all look like major roads.”
I looked at Ann. I looked at Marjorie. I looked at John, who was still grinning. Then I shrugged and said, “Lead the way!”
Perhaps you can guess what happened. As soon as we got out of town, the road began to rise into the hills and the pavement grew ominously thin before disappearing altogether. “Did I not ask him,” I growled into my Bluetooth headset, “are they paved roads?” Ann did her best to console me as we continued our ascent over the dirt and stone roadway but I knew from previous experiences that she was not entirely comfortable traversing gravel roads on two wheels and that in and of itself concerned me.
Then it began to rain. More of a light drizzle, actually. Miss Scarlett, my trusty full dresser touring bike, was solid as a rock the whole time but I was not pleased. If it began to rain any harder, the dirt beneath our tires would turn to mud. I spoke calmly to Ann via my headset mic, “We’re good.” She never once complained. The road went on. In all, it was probably just a few miles but we were traveling in lower gears and in my mind, the journey seemed to take forever.
“John!” I called out after my son as I shook my fist in the air, knowing full well he couldn’t hear me. The big question remained, however: How much longer would it be until we reached solid pavement again? We rolled on.
The intermittent rain that had so concerned me earlier disappeared altogether as we ascended one last hill and came upon a most welcome sight — a beautifully paved road at the termination of our dirt and gravel ribbon. John came to a full stop at the crossroads. I drew up alongside of him, laughing too hard to sound very angry.
“Paved roads?! Paved roads?! I’m gonna kill ya!” We were all laughing. I nodded to John and Marjorie. They pulled away, turning onto the precious two-lane blacktop. Ann and I pulled forward and leaned Miss Scarlett over to follow them. The remainder of our ride back was uneventful.
Here is the footage Ann shot as all of this was unfolding. As I said, this was just one of those things of which fond memories are made. Indeed, I chuckled as I wrote this little anecdote and I hope that Ann, Marjorie, and especially John will also smile and laugh when they read it.
I have often looked upon motorcycling as a metaphor for life. So what are we to do when the pavement ends? Keep on rolling. Trust in your own abilities to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Do your best. And remember to laugh about it afterward.
Good heavens, beloved readers, an entire riding season has passed since I last posted here! It was never my intention to be so quiet for so long. Time just got the better of me. I won’t let that happen a second time. Here is a recap of things that have transpired since I last wrote to you.
The new job I started last fall with Diaz Group LLC has continued to expand and evolve. The people there, at all levels of the organization, are top shelf and having spent so many years in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I’m definitely in my element. Although my title has not yet changed, my role with the company has become increasingly strategic in scope. This has become a unique opportunity that almost makes me want to thank my last employer, whose name does not even deserve mention on my pages anymore, for having decided to part ways with me. Of course anything can happen, sometimes without warning, but for now I am exactly where I want to be.
With my shoulder replacement completely healed, I was able to resume riding again. Getting the rust off my riding skills took me longer than I expected, in part because the layoff had been so long, but also because something that has changed between my ears. Even though my severe shoulder injury occurred while walking, not riding, just getting hurt so badly has made me aware of my vulnerability. That’s something on which I must continue to work because the wrong kind of fear can be dangerous when riding.
As I do every year, I kicked off the riding season at the beginning of May by attending Motorcycle Sunday in Aurora. This year’s event was made extra special when my son came in from the Quad Cities to attend with me, meeting up with another dear friend to hang out together, and then my daughter and her boyfriend, non-riders, came over to hang with the three of us for a while.
From spring through fall, I did much grilling, both at home with family and with my dear friend Ann up in Wisconsin, who like my son shares my love for cooking and is a very skilled cook in her own right. I used my little smoker a few times as well. Some dishes were better than others but all were quite flavorful and there were no total failures.
The smoker is new for me and a welcome addition to my culinary arsenal. Smoking foods, however, is far from a foolproof endeavor. In short order, I have already learned a couple of fundamental lessons. First, that just like any other type of flavoring, woodsmoke can be overdone. The smoke flavor should complement all the other flavors in play. Overdo it and you may end up with an unwelcome bitterness that overpowers all the other flavors. The second lesson I learned in a hurry is that you can’t hurry. When you’re slow cooking with a smoker, time is your friend, your ally. For best results, don’t shortchange that friend.
Last June, for the first time in years, my son joined me for the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which benefits the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial. I was grateful to have my son along. I only wish the weather had been more favorable. Despite the Freedom Run being a rain-or-shine proposition, and with significant rain in the forecast, attendance for the 2019 event was a fraction of what I’ve witnessed in past years. Indeed, we were hampered by an extended torrential downpour at the starting point. Still, I would like to have seen a better turnout. This cause deserves a better turnout. That’s why I was there, as was my son. In fact, I have been trying to get Ann to come down for this event since we began riding together — about four years now — but she has always had a conflicting commitment during that weekend in June. As it turns out, this was one time I was glad she couldn’t come. Not because I didn’t want her along for the ride — I always want her along — but she would have been miserable in that rain and the turnout would not have impressed her at all. Maybe next year.
July brought about two fantastic road trips. The first was a very long day trip with my wife Karen. The only thing that kept it from being an overnighter was that we couldn’t get anyone to take care of the pets. Ah, but it was a fantastic little road trip! We went to the Quad Cities to see Holiday Inn performed at a dinner theater called Circa 21, where our son John had been working as the theater’s Technical Director. As such, John was able to get us good seats, ate dinner with us and sat with us for the show, introduced us to the theater’s Operations Manager as well as some of the cast and crew, and then after the performance, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. Karen and I returned home sometime during the overnight hours, tired but happy and more than a little bit proud, too.
As a venue, Circa 21 is a great theater. Actors come in from across town as well as across the United States to perform there. Dinner, served buffet style, is exceptionally well-prepared. We enjoyed a bottle of wine with our dinner and the bar also sells a variety of cocktails, including ice cream drinks. The show itself was excellent and was preceded by performances by the waitstaff. For the money, one would be hard-pressed to find any better theatrical entertainment value.
After missing the Midwest Motorcycle Rally last July due to my broken shoulder and subsequent replacement surgery (see My Summer Interrupted, Part II if you haven’t read the shoulder saga), I picked up Ann on a sunny Wednesday morning and we headed to Winona, Minnesota for a few days. What an awesome time we had exploring the area, on our own as well as with other rallygoers on the guided tours for which the MMR has become famous.
This year’s trip was particularly enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was my longest trip of any consequence since I’d had my surgery a year earlier. The recovery period for shoulder replacements is measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most people don’t know this but during the first two months of my recovery, during which my physical activity had been severely restricted, Ann would “take me with her” on her daily walks by sending me photographs from the nature trails, river walks, lake shore, marina, farmers market, and more. She did her darnedest to keep my spirits up during what were some pretty dark days for me.
Besides getting to visit the rally’s new venue in Winona, Ann and I had also gone Dutch on a pair of matching Bell helmets with Bluetooth® communication headsets. This allowed us to talk to each other in a near-normal tone of voice wherever we went on the bike. Fantastic! Our Bell helmets also cut down on the wind noise in our ears, reducing fatigue as well as possibly some hearing damage, which for a half-deaf gent like me is important.
Labor Day weekend brought about one more road trip, which may seem like something but was still well below average for me. I picked up Ann on Friday morning and we headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a stop in Rockford to see the Anderson Japanese Gardens. I had been there once before, years ago, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I felt compelled to share the experience with Ann. She loved it! From there we took Highway 2, a very pleasant motorcycle road, down to Dixon and then endured some endless road construction until we hit Interstate 80. Following a burger stop at Cerno’s Bar and Grill, a historic bar imported from Belgium and built by Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898, we continued on to Cedar Rapids, arriving at our hotel that evening. My son John departed from work later in the day and joined us at our hotel that same night.
Our Saturday was a full one. A delightful friend of John’s named Marjorie, who hails from elsewhere in Iowa, met us in the hotel parking lot for a day of two-up motorcycle touring. We began with a hearty family-style breakfast at the Ox Yoke Inn in historic Amana. After everyone had eaten their fill, we strolled through the town, visiting the shops, tasting wines, etc. before gearing up and riding northwest to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum and J&P Cycles retail store. We then went into nearby Stone City for supper at the General Store Pub. In hindsight, I guess we went pretty high on history that day.
On Sunday morning John, Ann, and I saddled up and rode into Illinois, stopping for a few hours in historic Galena, where we met up with another old friend of ours for a few hours before heading home. At that point, John and our friend Vern headed toward Chicago while Ann and I meandered back to her home in Wisconsin before I turned south and headed back home myself. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
A week later, Karen and I were making our annual excursion to the Sandwich Fair, which is hands down the best county fair for miles around. We tried to get the now-grown kids to join us, as they used to do when they had no choice in the matter, but getting four or more adults to rendezvous at the same place at the same time can be challenging. Still, Karen and I had our usual fun time. Can’t wait ’til next year.
In September, my son John and I met up after work and went to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for a night of fantastic reggae/ska/club music. The opening act was Steel Pulse, a UK-based band that was the first non-Jamaican group to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. They were astounding, to say the least. I walked in not knowing who they were and walked out a fan.
The next performer was Shaggy, a Jamaican-born musician of whom both my son and I are great fans. Exactly how this artist has bridged the generation gap between John and I is not exactly clear, but we were beeboppin’ into the night.
The headliner was UB40, a group whom I have adored since the 1980’s. As Ann has also appreciated a number of their songs, I had hoped to entice her down to Chicago for this event, but as the show occurred on a Wednesday night and a late one at that, it was not to be. Hey, I never expected to see UB40 in person myself and my son John never thought he’d ever see Shaggy live and in person. I submit that the possibilities are indeed possible, so who is to say that Ann and I won’t see UB40 in concert sometime in the future?
For the sake of time and space, I have omitted several other highlights, but suffice it to say it’s been an awesome year so far. Soon the snow will be falling, but I may still get another ride or two in. Time will tell.
I know, it’s been a long post. If you’ve continued reading this far, as always, thanks for hanging with me.
Some of you may recall that when I attended the International Motorcycle Show in Rosemont last February (see My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS), I had come away quite smitten with the 2018 Yamaha Star Venture and commented that I would need to ride the bike in order to understand what it really has to offer. Well, earlier today I did exactly that and now I’m here to tell you about it.
Despite having been planned months in advance, my demo ride very nearly didn’t happen. Rich’s Yamaha in Lockport, Illinois hosted the factory demo truck for three days, Friday through Sunday, from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and they’d been promoting the event on Facebook since last winter. I work all day Fridays and until noon Saturdays, so I pulled in at the demo location at 2:00 Saturday afternoon. The bikes were out on a demo run and there were only a few people hanging around, so I walked up assuming my chances of throwing a leg over a Star Venture that afternoon would be good. Well, no.
“Hi! Where do I sign up?”
“You can’t. We’re all booked up.”
“I said we’re all booked up. We open again at 8:30 tomorrow. First ride goes out at 9.”
“Can I sign up for tomorrow?”
“Nope. I can’t even access the sign-up screen until tomorrow morning.”
“Okay, well, I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.”
I gotta’ admit, I was a little sore about not being able to ride yesterday, mostly due to a lack of understanding on my part about how Yamaha USA structures their demo events. And I do mean structure. Up until now, the only demo truck events I’d been to were put on by Victory Motorcycles and their events were set up to accommodate as many riders as possible. There was no rigid schedule of excursions. Rather, the bikes went out for 15 minutes at a time, as many times as they could for the duration of the event. I would arrive at the event site, sign up, wait for the bikes to come in from a run, and place my helmet on whatever bike I wanted to ride. And riders could pretty much repeat this process as many times as they wanted.
By comparison, Yamaha has a set schedule of demo rides for any given day and riders are assigned to specific bikes by appointment, created on little digital touchscreens, for a given time slot and model. By setting everything up electronically, Yamaha USA collects my contact information, current bike brand, etc. and in return, I get a demo rider card that can be scanned at any Yamaha demo event for the rest of this year. It’s just a different way of doing things, but one of which I was not aware. Until today.
For fear of not getting a chance to ride a Venture this weekend, I arrived at the demo site a few minutes prior to opening this morning and managed to be first in line when registration opened. This is when and how I learned about their scheduling methodology. I even got a donut out of the deal.
I spent the next fifteen minutes looking over the bikes, especially the one I was going to ride, and chatting with a Yamaha USA rep who had been cleaning and polishing them. I do not recall the gentleman’s name, but he was exceptionally helpful. As soon as this rep had learned I would be taking the Venture out, he spent a fair amount of time with me, explaining some of the features—like the starting sequence for the keyless ignition and how to toggle between the “sport” and “touring” power modes. I was grateful for the one-on-one orientation session, believe me.
After a brief pre-ride talk, we mounted our assigned machines, started them up, and headed out. The first thing I noticed about the Venture was its low seat height, which is odd because at 27.4 inches, this seat should have been several inches higher than that of my Victory Vision, which boasts a nominal seat height of only 24.5 inches. But the lowest point of my Vision’s slanted seat is indeed a single point whereas the lowest part of the Venture’s scooped seat occurs over a much more prominent area. So you see, the Venture’s seat is nominally higher than mine but in practical application—that is, where the tush meets the cush—it is indeed lower.
What positively floored me was how effortlessly the Venture comes off its side stand and how weightless the bike feels almost as soon as it is underway. Why? Because again, the numbers indicate that it should have been otherwise. My 2012 Victory Vision Tour, not a minibike by any means, has a wheelbase of 65.7 inches and an estimated wet weight of 869 pounds. Imagine my expectations when I read that the Venture has a 67.3-inch wheelbase and, in its Transcontinental (premium) configuration, a wet weight of 963 pounds. But once again, the numbers do not tell the entire story.
Without getting into a physics lesson, which I am not qualified to give, we know that a bike’s center of gravity, rider placement, and steering geometry (aka rake and trail) each play a large part in its handling characteristics. All I know is that when I first acquired my Vision Tour, riding it at parking lot speeds felt a lot like piloting an ocean liner. By comparison, on my very first time out on the Yamaha Star Venture, I was leaning into slow corners with confidence. The bike feels extremely well-balanced at any speed and to the extent that a bike weighing almost half a ton can feel agile, this machine felt agile and very responsive to my rider inputs.
About mid-way through our demo run, the rain began to fall. While I could complain, I was actually glad for the opportunity to see how the Venture handles in wet surface conditions. She handles beautifully! Sure, I kept the bike in touring mode and went easier on the throttle during the downpour, but the fact is this bike felt downright planted to me from the time we left the parking lot until the time we returned.
Let me share a few final observations and opinions with you. First, this bike has a lot of features I did not try out, mainly because I didn’t know how. There are a lot of controls in that cockpit. At one point, I had inadvertently activated the satellite navigation system and while I did play the radio while underway, I did not try to learn the entertainment system while I was riding the bike. Just like my Vision, there are a lot of handlebar-mounted controls that are not intuitive to the uninitiated. Some quiet time with the operating manual would prove very helpful in that regard.
The trunk and side bags are quite generously sized and there are additional small storage compartments as well. One of the few complaints I’ve had about my Victory Vision is the relative lack of luggage capacity. Definitely not a problem with the Venture.
The 113 cubic inch (1854cc) V-twin engine moves the bike fine, but I wouldn’t race a sportbike (or even a Gold Wing) for papers. The vibration factor is just enough to let the rider know there’s a big V-twin at work, but it was never intrusive or annoying at any speed. The exhaust note is downright muted by American V-twin standards. Refined seems to be a good word to describe this powerplant.
The bike I rode lists for over $27K in its Transcontinental trim. Asking whether it has to be that expensive is a lot like asking whether it has to weigh over 900 pounds. It is what it is. Right?
Finally, I regret that my favorite pillion passenger/photographer Ann was not available to join me for this demo ride. Had she been there, you would be enjoying far better photos—and maybe a video or two—from this outing. Ann’s presence would also have enabled me to evaluate the Venture’s handling characteristics with a passenger on board. By the same token, Ann is not a fan of riding in the cold rain. So maybe next time. After all, I have a Yamaha demo rider card that’s good for the rest of the year.
When a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger of choice live over 100 miles apart in two different states, they tend not to take their outings for granted. Such is the case for my friend Ann and me. While we absolutely have gotten together on the spur of the moment, we usually put some thought into scheduling our rides based on mutual availability, weather outlook, etc. We had both been hoping to go riding together sometime over the 2017 Labor Day holiday weekend; we just weren’t sure which day it would be. After all, we went riding for three days during the 2016 Labor Day weekend. Surely we’d be able to get a simple day ride in this year, right? Well, it almost didn’t happen.
My current employment situation might have put any multi-day excursions on ice, had we planned any, but would not have stopped Ann and me from taking a day trip together. When my wife took an unplanned trip to the hospital the weekend prior, however, a visit that turned into an extended stay, everything else in my life became tentative—including my career search activities, scheduled meetings, and leisurely motorcycle excursions. Such has been my practice for decades, so no big surprise there. When I say family first, I mean family first.
Four days later, Karen was back at home with no physical restrictions, life was quickly returning to normal, and everything that had been put on hold was suddenly back in play. The very next day, I resumed job search activities, had an awesome meeting with a former colleague of mine, and with a favorable weather forecast in place, I reached out to Ann and made firm plans to take her out riding.
The morning of Sunday, September 3 was a cool one in central Wisconsin. Foggy, too. Ann set out some breakfast goodies and two mugs of fresh, hot coffee. We took our sweet time sipping coffee, looking at potential routes on Ann’s map app, and watching out the window as the fog gave way to a beautiful sunny morning. Once that happened, Ann added her gear to mine on the bike and we set out together for what would surely become our last ride of the summer.
It may have been just a simple day trip, but wow, what a ride! We opted to run north and do a simple loop through the Northern Unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. We ran north on Wisconsin 67 and then took a few county roads—A to T to G, which rejoins 67 and then departs again—to make a loop within the Northern Unit.
We made three relatively quick stops while touring the Northern Unit that day. Our first stop was at the Ice Age Visitor Center, which we had visited last fall (Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs, October 26). As we pulled into the parking area, Ann spotted a small bicycle rack positioned on the sidewalk leading to the Visitor Center. Leaning forward, she murmured into my left ear, “I dare you to pull Miss Scarlett up to that bike rack so I can get a picture of you there.” Naturally, I did what any other red-blooded Italian American man would have done after having received such a dare from a beautiful woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle. I sighed audibly, gunned the bike’s big V-twin engine for emphasis, and then rode in a sweeping circle around the parking lot and up to the bike rack, much to the delight of my conspiring passenger, who hopped off and took the photo as promised.
The purpose of this stop was not so much to reminisce as to finalize our route, set up Ann’s video equipment, and take advantage of the restrooms that we knew were available at the center. We did also venture onto the viewing deck out back and managed to take the selfie that appears at the very beginning of this article. While that photo does display the beautiful blue sky above, it really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful scenery that lay behind us, from the deck rail all the way out to the horizon. Such is the natural beauty of the Kettle Moraine.
Our next stop was a quick memory maker on our way back down a portion of WI 67 near the shores of Long Lake. On our way up, I had pointed out a place to Ann where a few years earlier—June 1, 2014, to be exact—my son and I had stopped on our way home from a weekend of watching AMA Superbike races at Road America to grab a selfie with the lake behind us. On our way back, as Long Lake came into view, Ann suggested stopping in the same spot to grab a quick photo that I could send to my son, who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, having recently completed his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Having enjoyed Ann’s last suggestion so much, I pulled into the exact same spot and paused while she hopped off the bike, snapped her photos, and hopped back on. This is one of many things I love about my friend Ann. While I am astounded that more than three years later, I was able to stop in nearly the exact same spot that selfie was taken in 2014, I am equally astounded that Ann saw the value in doing so. Plus she set up that shot in seconds and quite frankly, but for the ugly gent in the saddle, I think she took an excellent photo.
Our last stop was of sentimental value to me alone. There is this little State Forest Headquarters facility that I have stopped at from time to time on my way home from the bike races over the years. The first time was in 2005, traveling alone with my new 2005 Honda ST1300. I’m sure I stopped there with my silver 2007 ST1300 as well, but I have no photographic evidence. On more than one occasion, I have dragged my son to this nondescript place and he still wonders why I like to stop there. It’s hard to explain. There is nothing special about it, but this place is special to me. I wanted Ann to see it and while she understood John’s puzzlement about the place, she also understood how this rather nondescript parking lot in the middle of a state forest could hold meaning for me.
From there we stopped only once more. on our way back from the Northern Unit, we pulled up in front of the Don Ramon Mexican Restaurant in downtown Mayville. Ann had a build-your-own combination and I had tacos al pastor. Both were good and the service was not only warm and friendly, but also lightning fast.
From there we headed back to Ann’s place where, after an unscheduled (but apparently necessary) nap on her living room couch, I bid my dear friend and her son goodbye and headed home to Illinois. The holiday weekend traffic was understandably heavier than usual, especially south of the border, but it never really slowed down. Although I no longer had Ann sitting behind me, I had some terrific memories of our day together to keep me company during my journey home.
Our next trip will be the first of the autumn season. It may be another day trip or perhaps something more epic, depending on my employment situation, but wherever we end up going, I am pretty sure of two things: it will be awesome for us and you will likely be able to read about it here. Thanks for hanging with me.
You may recall from reading my Rendezvous Run posts last June (Days One, Two, Three, and Four) that while the decline and fall of my day job as I knew it was unfolding—indeeed, weeks before I’d gone frolicking with my friends at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally in La Crosse—my son John had journeyed from his current home in Portland to the Quad Cities of Illinois in order to take his first professional theater gig with the newly formed Mississippi Bend Players in Rock Island. On Friday, July 21, which turned out to be our collective day of termination for my now-former colleagues and me, I was scheduled to lead a small group of friends on an overnight motorcycle ride to see my son’s professional debut at the premiere of Wait Until Dark. And that’s exactly what I did.
By the close of business Thursday, July 20, I had dotted my i’s, crossed my t’s, bid my farewells, shed my tears, exchanged hugs, turned in my key, and walked away. Within hours, my friend Ann had come down from her Wisconsin home to prepare for the following day. On Friday morning, Ann and I packed up my bike and headed out to Yorkville, where we would rendezvous with two more friends, Eddie and Vern, who would be riding out with us on their respective Gold Wing touring bikes. My wife Karen, who does not ride, had gone to work that morning and would be meeting us in Moline later that day.
As long as it didn’t rain, our plan had been to meander, rather than travel via Interstate 80, the fastest, most direct route to our destination. It got plenty warm and humid, but it never rained during our ride, so we meandered. From Yorkville, we took Illinois 71 southwest through Ottawa, over the Illinois River and west along a brief but fun set of twisties past Starved Rock State Park. Just for fun, I took the group up Illinois 178 to North Utica, past the west entrance to Starved Rock, back over the river and east along Dee Bennett Road, along the north bank of the river, to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, overlooking the lock and dam directly across the river from Starved Rock. Everybody and their brother regularly goes to Satrved Rock, myself included. Far fewer check out the observation deck across the river. The Visitor Center provides some interesting information about the Illinois Waterway, past and present, and if you hang around long enough, you can observe commercial and recreational watercraft locking through.
Our next stop was in Princeton for lunch and a visit to an historic covered bridge just outside of town. We decided to take a chance on Rodeo Tacos and did okay there. It wasn’t anything fancy or over-the-top, but the place was clean, the food was freshly prepared, and the lady who took care of us was pleasant, if a bit laid back. While walking there from where we had parked the bikes, we came upon Myrtle’s Pie, formerly Myrtle’s Cafe & Pie. We would have had lunch there, but there was a notice on the door proclaiming that Myrtle’s no longer serves lunch, “unless you are having pie for lunch.” While eating our Mexican food up the street, we all agreed to save room for pie. What an awesome decision that turned out to be! Eddie and Vern split a slice of banana cream while Ann and I split a slice of strawberry rhubarb, warmed and served with a scoop of ice cream. It was all I could do to not lick the plate clean. I raved about Myrtle’s for the rest of the weekend, even though Ann thought our pie had been a litttle too sweet for strawberry rhubarb.
The red covered bridge is just off Illinois 26 north of town. Originally built in 1863 and rehabbed in 1973, this bridge is still in use today. We pulled off the road to walk around and take a few pictures. Only two or three vehicles passed through while we were there, which made it easier for us to take our time and look at everything. Before we left, Eddie decided to take his Gold Wing across the bridge and back, just for grins. Being the shutterbug that she is, Ann immediately positioned herself to capture the crossing on video, so I captured her doing so. This was just one of several fun moments our little group had enjoyed throughout the day.
The reminder of our journey was less than eventful. In fact, it was slightly miserable. By mid-afternoon, the temperature and humidity had both risen considerably. Because we were already north of Princeton, we opted to take Illinois 92 west to the Quad Cities. This turned out to be not the greatest idea I’d hatched that day. Highway 92 is extraordinarily straight, a characteristic that grows boring rather quickly when traveling by motorcycle. In effect I had condemned us to traveling on a road no more interesting than Interstate 80 would have been, only at a lower rate of speed with the hot sun beating down on us and our sweat glands working overtime. Under these conditions, it becomes all too easy to succumb to road hypnosis. We made it to the hotel alright, arriving almost immediatley after my wife had pulled in with her minivan, but we were all pretty beat and in dire need of freshening up.
Because foul weather had made its way into the forecast, we all opted to go over to the Brunner Theater Center together in the air conditioned comfort of Karen’s minivan. Once inside the center, we ran into Phil McKinley, the Broadway director and Augustana College graduate who played no small part in the founding of the Mississippi Bend Players (he was also a long-standing director the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Karen and I knew Mr. McKinley because he has directed our son John in a magnificent-yet-disturbing produciton of a play called A Green River, first in 2012 at Augustana College in Rock Island and again in 2013 at the historic Pabst Theater for the for the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region III in Milwaukee (see story here). We also got to reconnect with Jeff Coussens, who directed Wait Until Dark. A professor at Augustana, Mr Coussens also directed John in a number of collegiate theater performances.
What can I tell you about the experience of being able to witness my son’s first-ever professional theatrical performance? Everything else I’ve covered in this Ups and Downs sequence pales by comparison. That performance was the culmination of a process that had begun when the kid was in middle school. Then came the high school performances, followed by the college performances, each milestone dwarfing the last. A theater minor became a theater major—I could write a small book about that turning point alone. Then came his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory, over two thousand miles from home, a two-year program during which I was not able to see even one of his performances, each of which was surely heads above his already impresssive college performances. So there I sat, watching this thriller unfold with my son playing the nastiest villain in the story—and quite well, I might add. It was a proud moment.
After the show, we ran up the street to Legends Corner, a nice little bar and restaurant, for a late-night meal and drinks. John rode his motorcycle over to join us and was the center of attention, fielding everyones questions and savoring the glow. The boy made my night, though, when he announced that he would be free for a period of hours the following day, if we wanted to get together for a ride. I was all smiles at the very suggestion.
The next morning, Eddie and Vern took off early for home. Karen, Ann and I had breakfast, checked out, and waited for John to ride over to our hotel. Once he did, we headed for the river, to a small park I used to enjoy visiting while John was a student at Augie. Whenever I had time to kill by myself, I would end up there. It was cool to see it again because I hadn’t expected to. From there we headed west on U.S. Highway 6 for Geneseo and had lunch at Raelyn’s Pub & Eatery. It seemed like a popular place, the staff was very friendly and helpful, and the food was good as well as abundant. I had their Voodoo Burger and was very satisfied. My best advice is to go there hungry.
After lunch we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. John hopped on his Honda and headed back to Rock Island; Karen pointed her van east and took I-80 home the fast way; Ann and I meandered back aboard Miss Scarlett and were the last to arrive at our destination. In hindsight, that wasn’t the brightest idea, as Ann still had a long drive ahead of her to get back to her own home. Still, it had been an awesome weekend, a true high point among all the ups and downs.
So, I did it again the following weekend, only with a different group of motorcyclists. I didn’t even have to lead this time. My friend John took us south of the Illinois River and out to LaSalle for lunch at the Uptown Grill. It was a good pick for “polished casual American cuisine” with a somewhat upscale atmosphere, digital tablet menus, friendly (if a bit sparse) waitstaff, and nicely prepared food. On my recommendation, we saved room for dessert and took an indirect route to Princeton for—you guessed it—pie at Myrtle’s. This time I had the Dutch apple, served warm with a scoop of ice cream. I do not recall what everyone else had, but there was a lot of eating going on. I am reasonably sure that was not my last trip to Myrtle’s.
So as not to repeat my mistake of the prior weekend, we took U.S. 6 from Princeton all the way to our hotel this time. Highway 6 is simply a more pleasant road than IL 92, but it also didn’t hurt that the temps were cooler and the air less humid, too. We arrived at the hotel with plenty of time to freshen up before heading over to the Augustana campus. This time we went to Legends before going to the theater. It was nice to kick back with friends and enjoy a couple of drinks together. Meanwhile, my wife Karen drove in from Kenosha, where she had gone that morning to take her mom to a funeral. My eldest sister also came in with our nephew and his ladyfriend. Another friend of the family, who had attended Augie with John, had also driven in for the show. We all met in the lobby before going in. Yes, John had a pretty decent group of fans in the audience that night.
The play was even better the second time around. I enjoyed it thouroughly. Some of us stuck around for the “show after the show,” an extra bit of fun held in the black box theater upstairs that night. John did a little song and dance there, quite a departure from the dark character he had played in Wait Until Dark.
The only downside of that second weekend was that I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with my son as I had the first time around. But life is that way. Ups and downs.
The story doesn’t end here—John still has more tech work to complete before his gig is over, my search for the next big thing is still gaining momentum, and this magical summer is far from over—but this is where I choose to to conclude my three-part perspective on the recent ups and downs of my life. As I look back on these recent events, I realize two things about these figurative hills and valleys. First, despite outward appearances, these circumstances that have come to pass are not really ups and downs in and of themselves. Life, death, taxes, heat, cold, and so on are in essence neutral. We attach certain values that make otherwise flat terrain seem to ride and fall beneath our feet. That’s how ups and downs come into being.
The other, perhaps more important thing is that these ups and downs are neither detours nor detractions from the journey that is life. Rather, these ups and downs are the journey that is life. What a shame it would be to realize this only after we have drawn near the end of that wonderous journey.
Here’s to the ups and downs. To life! Thanks for hanging with me.
Literally and figuratively speaking, the past few weeks have been filled with ups and downs for me. Life is like that sometimes. Take July 12, for instance. It was a Wednesday, a work day for many, but for me it was the start of a five-day vacation weekend—a major up. I was out early and on my way to La Crosse, Wisconsin for the 10th Anniversary Midwest Motorcycle Rally, an extended weekend of two-wheel recreation with some of the nicest people I have ever met—many of whom I only see once a year. Along the way that morning, I was to pick up my pillion companion and long-time friend, Ann, and I was quite anxious to do so, but Mother Nature had other plans.
Having seen that I would likely encounter rain before I got as far as Milwaukee, I had donned my rain gear and a full-face modular helmet before I even left home. A little rain is no big thing to an avid touring rider. If you travel by motorcycle long and far enough, sooner or later you will encounter weather. After I had passed O’Hare International Airport, I did indeed encounter rain, which started out light and got progressively heavier as I continued toward Wisconsin. By the time I got to Lake County, the skies had become quite dark, the wind had picked up, and elaborate lighting displays had begun to crisscross the skies around me. I opted to take shelter at the Lake Forest Oasis.
All things considered, I had made the prudent choice. Torrential rains, accompanied by copious amounts of wind and lightning, continued for some time. When it seemed like the weather had lightened up a bit, I texted a meteorologist friend of mine, just to make sure it was safe to continue. The news was not good. A second line of storms had been intensifying and was about to sweep in right behind the first. I would not be going anyplace soon. I had been messaging Ann all along and she was very supportive of my staying put, but I was not too choked up about my 90-minute layover.
Of course the rain finally cleared, never to be seen again during that trip. About 90 minutes later, I picked up Ann and after packing up the bike, we meandered on to La Crosse. Once there, after checking into our respective rooms and freshening up, we went for a swim and then caught up with some other early arrivers. Four years ago, I began going to the rally a day early on the advice of an experienced rally-goer. It was good advice because getting there a day early means having all day to get there and no scheduled activities to worry about immediately upon arriving. That suits me well.
Before the rally officially got underway on Thursday, July 13, Ann and I did a little riding of our own, mainly to test a little video cam that Ann had acquired. This device is capable of capturing tons of raw footage, making it an excellent addition to Ann’s existing photography/videography arsenal. Between that little gadget and our mobile smart phones, we were pretty much ready to capture our rally experiences that weekend.
And what a rally it was! We got to see plenty of old friends and made new ones as well. A number of us paid our annual visit to Rudy’s Drive-In, a La Crosse institution since 1933. I always enjoy kibbutzing with Rudy’s third-generation grand poo-bah Gary Rudy because he is just a great person to be around, but also because he rides a Victory Vision motorcycle, as do I. Rudy’s is a classic drive-in with roller skating carhops, top-shelf root beer floats, the whole nine yards. It’s where I go when I’m in La Crosse at the right time of year.
After hanging out at Rudy’s, we went back to our hotel and waited for sundown, so that we could partake in another MMR tradition, the Bug Run, a local jaunt to the top of Grandad Bluff, which overlooks the entire city and surrounding area. It’s a breathtaking view, especially at night. But that left me wondering, what does Grandad Bluff look like during the day? I had only ever been up there during the annual Bug Run, in the dark. Hmmm…
It turns out I hadn’t needed to wonder long at all because the following day we were scheduled to do the “Sweet Temptations” ride with my friend Dave Keene, author of Cruisin’ The Back Roads, a guide book to some of the best rides to be found in west central and southwestern Wisconsin. Dave is a very capable ride guide and even if I had known nothing else about the day he had planned, I could still be confident that we were in for a great day of riding. We started out with a fantastic ride along some picturesque Wisconsin back roads that led to Sweet Temptations, a positively delightful cafe and bakery in Whitehall. Their baked goods are their centerpiece, of course, but their menu items are also noteworthy. The Reuben sandwich I enjoyed there has got to be among the best I’ve ever had. Ann and I hadn’t really saved room for dessert, but we had some anyway. The place is that good.
From there we rode on (and up) to the Mindoro Cut, the largest remaining hand-hewn cut in the US, which also happens to be located at the highest point in the state of Wisconsin. Until then, I’d never heard of the place. But now I’ve been there, along with Ann and all of our riding companions of the day, thanks to Dave.
We enjoyed one more stop before concluding the day’s journey. You guessed it, we ran up to the top of Grandad Bluff, in broad daylight. Yes, the features above and the scenery below were both very different. Dare I say it? Separated only by about 18 hours, our two visits to the bluff were as different as day and night. Ha!
Meanwhile back at the host hotel, folks were gearing up for the Biker Games, an annual tradition sponsored by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA, followed by Movie Night, another annual tradition involving motorcycle-related movies shown outside in a laid-back-but-festive BYOB atmosphere. For the second year in a row, Ann and I did movie night in style, with meats, cheeses, assorted other snacks, and red wine shared between us.
On Saturday, July 15, we embarked on our second day-long guided ride, aptly entitled “Twisted Sister,” which was captained by another seasoned biker friend of mine, Greg Carson from Minnesota. You should have seen the smile erupting on my face as we crossed over the Mississippi and into Minnesota for a day of hills, sweepers, and twisties. Ann and I opted out of a last-minute add-on to the ride and returned to the host hotel just minutes ahead of the group, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride Greg had put together.
Following the ride, we spent Saturday evening with other rally goers at or around the tiki bar at the AmericInn located across the road from our host hotel. We ate, drank, laughed, shared stories of our newly-made memories, and speculated on whether or not we were gathered at the future location of our beloved Midwest Motorcycle Rally. Time will tell.
And then it was over. That next Sunday morning—my first at the rally, I’d always left on Saturday until this year—was all about saying goodbye and going home. By the time I’d gotten myself up and over to the La Crosse Family Restaurant to have breakfast with Ann and some hometown friends of mine, many familiar bikes had already disappeared from the host hotel parking lot. When you spend as much time looking forward to an event like this as I do, no matter how magical the event turns out to be (as this one certainly was). the ending is always bittersweet.
That’s a bit of a downer, right? Well imagine my pleasant surprise when I looked up in response to my name being called out and seeing two rallygoers that I’d not seen in two years waving at me from the booth directly across from my table. Just seeing Dave and Maggie for those few moments washed away any trace of blues I might have been feeling up until that point.
And so Ann and I motored out of La Crosse together that morning, yet alone, free to discuss and savor all the memories we’d gathered over the past four days. We traveled east across the Wisconsin countryside on scenic two-lane blacktop, occasionally losing our intended route but never regretting it because as motorcyclists, we never really become lost; we simply discover alternate routes to wherever we are heading.
The only other down I experienced was after I had to drop Ann off at her home, say goodbye, and head on to my own home some two-plus hours further, alone. But even that wasn’t so bad because I knew we’d be riding together again soon.
As I said at the beginning, the past few weeks have been filled with ups and downs. For the most part, the ups and downs associated with this part of my story were of the geophysical sort. Over the course of four days, my friends and I toured some of the most attractive hills, bluffs, and ridges to be found in the areas we had been touring. Of course you know, there is more to this story. Thanks for hanging with me. Please stick around.