PIT to BWI; or: an exercise in character-building

originally posted at ADV Rider on 19 September 2010

It's taken me a while to be able to process this past weekend enough for me to be able to write something coherent about it, and I'm still not sure I can do it properly, but it'll be a good exercise for me. It's going to be a wall of text because that's just how I am, but I promise there will be some visuals here and there to help your patience.

This trip report comes in three parts and includes mention of bees, scotch, and U-Hauls.


This is my second time taking a trip by motorcycle, and my first time doing it alone. 230 miles one way, most of it being winding roads through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge areas of the Appalachian Mountains. Pittsburgh to Baltimore, to visit a friend that I only get to see a couple times a year. I planned to take all small state routes, since I really loathe being on big highways with my tiny bike.

The weather forecast for the weekend claimed that it would rain all night at my destination and most of the morning after, but otherwise would be clear, slightly overcast, and a comfortable temperature. I packed a rain cover for my bike since my friend didn't have garage space for me, and decided not to bring my dSLR because I didn't have a good watertight way to carry it. The night before I left, I realized that not only would I be travelling on 9/11, but I would be riding right past the crash site of Flight 93 and that there was going to be a memorial dedication ceremony while I was passing by.

A lot of the thoughts I had riding out that morning were of a political nature, mostly mulling over conversations I had earlier in the week and thinking about 9/11 and the people I was passing on my way past the crash site. This isn't really the place to detail them so I'm not going to.

I work afternoons through evenings, so getting up around 8 to get ready to leave was early for me. I had my morning coffee hot for the first time since spring; I'd been icing it all summer but it was actually chilly when I got out of bed. My tank bag was packed the night before with a set of clean clothes, my netbook, and a coffee pot, so all I had to do was lash my rain cover to my luggage rack and go. Fluids were checked and topped off. Everything was pretty good.

[view from my porch while I was getting ready]

Traffic getting out of the city at 9am on a Saturday was fairly sedate; I spent a lot of time accidentally tagging along in 9/11 memorial rallies. A while ago, I decided that as long as my left hand was free, I'd give the little salute to every rider passing me from the other direction, regardless of who they are. This has let to inadvertent saluting of cops, scooters, and the occasional bicycle. I don't care if I don't get a return wave. The important thing to me about the salute is that it's an acknowledgement of someone else whose beliefs may not align with mine, but I accept that we are both experiencing the roads in a way that is different from people who don't ride motorcycles, and that we are more aware of the world we are passing through, which includes being more aware of other people. So I saluted everyone I passed, this solo rider in a bright red textile jacket and full-face helmet on a tiny raggedy-looking UJM giving acknowledgements to packs of 30-50 Harley riders in leather and bandanas flying USMC and IAFF banners. Give respect, get respect; they all always saluted back, including the state troopers stationed at the entrance to the memorial site to keep an eye on things. I considered pulling in to visit the memorial, but I was trying to keep a time schedule and had been slightly held back by traffic while passing the unavoidable 20 miles of strip malls getting out of the city.

[i was stopped next to this car full of really excited cars at one of my gas stops; the lady who owned them came out of the mini mart as i was putting my camera away. 'cute co-pilots,' i told her. she smiled and drove off with the dogs jumping all over her lap and drooling out the window at me]

Since I didn't want to ruin my nice camera, I stuffed my point and shoot into the front pocket of my jacket and told myself it was okay to pull over and snap photos if I happened to be overwhelmed by a view somewhere. The last few trips I took had a profound lack of photos, mostly because when I'm riding with someone else I don't like to have extraneous pull-overs, but also because I'm usually enjoying the ride too much to stop riding. I'm trying to incorporate taking photos as part of the ride, but I also have a hard time taking photos when I know that five thousand people before me were likely to have taken the same exact shot. So one of the things I was working on for this trip was to figure out a good balance between snapping photos and riding.

There's a wind farm in Somerset County that I've passed countless times coming through the PA Turnpike in a car; the route I took for this trip put me right through it. While I was still a good distance away, I could see the windmills popping up out of the trees and smiled at the familiar site. Then I realized I was going to be passing through it when the road straightened out and pointed up the side of the hill towards them. I was pretty excited to get to pass under them, until I got to the wind farm and remembered why it was placed there: excessive constant strong crosswind. I pulled over onto the shoulder to take some photos, but the wind hitting me was so bad that I nearly dropped my bike while I was fumbling through my pockets for my camera.

Then I started moving into some actual mountain riding. I was stuck behind a hay truck that had to do 20mph for most of this, so whenever I got fed up with picking bits of hay out of my visor, I'd pull over and grab some photos.

[this one really excited me]

[check out this elevation marker]

[corresponding views from that point]

The hay truck pulled over for gas after we passed most of the Alleghenies, just in time for the road to flatten out and open up a little. I spent some good time cruising at a comfortable 65. This was nice and pleasant---until I started feeling a strange buzzing in my helmet on the back of my head. For about twenty miles, I assumed that I was catching a weird pocket of air from my helmet vents that was vibrating my hair in a strange way; the change in my pockets was causing a similar 'bees in the pants' feeling. I've had a beetle get into my pants while riding before, so I'm usually pretty wary of buzzing in my clothes, but I figured between my nerves being a little shot from riding for four hours and the new turbulence pattern from riding at a higher speed, I was just imagining things.

And then I saw a wasp doing slow, cautious laps around the inside of my visor.

I have never been stung before, and I've always been wary of venomous stinging insects because I have no idea if I'm allergic to them. So there I was, enjoying a nice ride on a shoulderless state route winding down out of the mountains with the company of small delivery trucks and a wasp nuzzling up to my nose. Did I mention that my visor clips are broken? My visor clips are broken. If I want to open or close my visor, I have to pull over and disassemble some tiny pieces of plastic and reassemble them in the appropriate configuration. So I couldn't just open my visor and let the wind suck him out.

Somewhere ahead of me was a stoplight, out of nowhere, to control some weird state route intersection. There was a median separating the lanes, so I pulled up right next to it and cut my engine, hoping I wouldn't get hit from behind while carefully removing my helmet to free the wasp. Miraculously, I didn't get stung. Or rear-ended. I continued on my way.

Further up the road, I had to pass through Breezewood. If you're not familiar with the area, I will tell you that Breezewood has always been a sort of crossroads for travelers. It has evolved over time into a glorified giant truck stop sort of thing. I didn't take any pictures while I was there because I have passed through a million times by car and that town bores me to tears and is miserable to pass through. This photo from Wikipedia pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. I have to mention that intersection in this report, though, because I had an absolutely fascinating experience there. While I was stopped at that intersection, I noticed a swarm of wasps hanging out over the road. Someone must have disturbed a nest nearby or something. Having just recovered from a wasp encounter, I was in no mood to have another one, but I was boxed in at a long red light and didn't have much of a choice but sweat as dozens of wasps noticed this shiny warm bright red motorcycle jacket and helmet suddenly appearing under them.

Yes, they landed on me. I stayed perfectly still and willed each wasp to be calm and quiet and nice as they crawled over my fingers, arms, legs, shoulders, handlebars. By the time the light changed, I must have had at least two dozen sitting on various parts of my body; I hoped none of them were in a position to reach my unexposed neck or, god forbid, get into my helmet again. I gunned it out of the intersection and they were all blown off in the wind. I don't think any of them tagged along for the ride.

The rest of the ride was mildly uneventful; I passed through Chambersburg and Gettysburg, stopped for hot dogs at a mini mart, went south into Maryland.


Suburban Baltimore kind of sucks. I've never had much of a tolerance for 4-lane roads and strip malls, and when I was working out my route, my friends in Baltimore warned me that a couple of the roads I was riding on would be exactly that. After 200 miles of open roads in the sticks, I didn't have much patience for riding in a densely populated area again, but I handled weaving through traffic much better than I did in times before this ride. I've had my license for just about a year, the bike for slightly less than that, and this was coming up on 2000 miles under my belt. I learned quite a bit about how to play with the other cars, and the long stretch of rural riding gave me more confidence for higher speeds.

I knew that once I got off the highway and onto the local back roads, I only had about 20 miles to go before I was at my friend's house. And here was when I had my third awful insect encounter. Somewhere in Howard County, I ran into the stinger end of a bee. I thought I got hit with a rock; it actually felt like someone had shoved a hot spike into my neck. To my credit, I didn't change anything about my riding; I decided that since my throat wasn't closing up on me, I was probably not going into anaphylactic shock and might as well suck it up and keep riding since I was almost there. Somehow, the impact didn't kill the bee. I didn't realize this until I was about to pull over into a housing development where I could take a quick break for a map check, and noticed that the bee had gotten inside my helmet and was sitting right between my eyes. I quickly parked my bike and thought calm thoughts to the bee as I started unstrapping my helmet; the moment I put my hands on the sides of my helmet to pull it off, the bee found my left eye and started walking along my eyelid and cheek, planting his stinger whenever he stopped moving. I have no idea how many times I got stung before I got my helmet off; with my eyes closed, I couldn't even check to see if he flew out after I removed my helmet.

I sat on the curb for a while, waiting for the pain and swelling to subside a bit before riding some more. I think the bee lost most of his venom from the first impact, because the stings on my face faded after a few minutes. Once I recovered, I tore out all the lining in my helmet, took off my jacket turned it inside out, even dropped my pants to make sure the bee wasn't anywhere in my clothes. Between seven hours on a bike and having just been stung, I was twitchy all over and couldn't convince myself that I didn't have bees all over me. I got a lot of bad looks from the people driving by as I stripped down in the middle of their neighborhood, jumping up and down and shaking all of my clothing. Not one person stopped to see if I was okay.

The last ten miles were pretty uneventful. My friend offered to come out and get me when I told him I'd be held up for a bit to recover from getting assaulted by a bee, but I was so close already and didn't want to ditch my bike in some random dude's driveway. Once I got in, I had some water and a snack, played with some cats, and mostly felt like a human again. This was actually kind of surprising to me; the first time I went on a ride that was longer than a jaunt around town, I was completely exhausted when I got home and sore for most of the next day, and that was just a 100 mile round trip up the Ohio River and back. I guess those other 2000 miles of riding did something to build up my riding endurance.

I spent most of the night at a pool party in Fairfax, VA, with a bunch of people I've never met before, stuffing my face with food and booze. My friend drove us down there because his old co-workers were having a small gathering; the crowd was mostly people 10-20 years older than me with spouses, kids, mortgages, and relatively large sacks of money from being engineers in the technology industry. If you've ever read Cryptonomicon, it was a little like getting drunk with Epiphyte. For the first half of the night I was just playing with their ancient tumor-ridden nine year old greyhound, but after putting back approximately a six-pack I decided it was okay to associate with the grown-ups. The night moved into scotch-tasting; apparently I impressed most of them because despite the fact that I was about half the age and weight of everyone there, graduated with a BA in English, made slightly less money than the national poverty line for someone in my situation, and just rode across the state on a 30 year old motorcycle, I still managed to keep up with them drink for drink and was still appearing stone cold sober when everyone else couldn't form a complete sentence without stuttering. Apparently, no one expects a broke 23-year-old to appreciate single-malt, either. We destroyed the host's 18-year Glenmorangie and did pretty good damage to three other bottles. The host later reported having a miserable hangover; I went to bed at 1 and woke up at 9 to ride home and felt fine after coffee and a bagel sandwich.

[here's the dog:]

Writing all this up was tiring; stay tuned for two more installment if you're not bored silly yet.


This section is more words than pictures; I had such an awful time that I really didn't have much of a chance to step back for a moment and document anything.

It rained overnight, but since I tossed my bike cover on before I went to sleep, my bike stayed pretty dry. This is the first time I've used that cover as legitimate rain protection, and it worked pretty well. There was some condensation on the tank and mirrors, but otherwise it was pretty good, considering it had stayed outside in the rain overnight.

Of course, by the time I got the cover off and loaded up and was ready to go, I was pretty wet, and so was the seat of my bike. Oh well. Time to learn about rain-riding! Prior to this, the most riding in the rain I'd done was a couple of miles in a light drizzle, not the 30 miles of prolonged early-autumn rain I had ahead of me at that point. I went down the street to top off my tank and was on my way.

I was worried about being cold and having to go back down that bit of 4-lane highway near cars that I assumed would have little patience for a stupid little motorcycle clinging on for dear life, but it honestly wasn't that bad. The bike felt a little grumpier than usual, and I had almost no visibility and my feet were slipping off the pegs, but I felt like I could push through it until I cleared out of the coastal plain area and got some sun on me to dry off.

This is when things start getting hilarious. At one point, I was stuck at a light for somewhere between 8-15 cycles because I wasn't setting off the traffic sensor; I could feel my air-cooled old lady getting increasingly unhappy as I wiggled back and forth trying to trigger the light. I finally got fed up with waiting and just cut through traffic to pull a terrifying left turn on red; my bike almost stalled out under me in the process.

Five miles later down the road, I'm mostly free of stupid traffic control devices and have about half an hour of back roads to weave through and trying to enjoy the scenery that I missed on my way there because I was distracted by the bee stings. On the way up a particularly nice hill, my bike lost power all of a sudden. It was firing unevenly, and I dropped from 55mph to 30mph before I decided to pull over and see what was up. My right exhaust pipe was belching blue smoke, and the right cylinder was so hot that the rain was vaporizing around it without touching metal.

The other fun part about this is that my cell phone battery was just about to die because I didn't charge it before I left and didn't think to bring my charger. I really hate cell phones, so I'm always unconsciously causing myself to not have a working cell phone on me. I probably had enough juice left to make one and a half phone calls, so I called my friend whose house I just left and gave him the intersection I was at and told him I broke down, then hung up and sent him the phone numbers of my mechanic friend in Pittsburgh and my boss in case I had to call in and make arrangements to get my lab shift covered later that night.

While I waited to get picked up, I sat on the curb next to my bike and tried to figure out what to do. I gave my bike a few minutes to rest, then tried to start up again; it stalled out after a couple of moments. One car pulled over and stopped to ask me if I was alright; I told them I was fine and my bike broke down and I had a friend on his way to help. They were very nice to me and offered me a phone, water, hot chocolate at their house down the road, etc., so I asked them if they had a garage so I could at least pull my bike out of the rain. They didn't, so I asked them to spot the road for me while I rolled my bike onto a residential side road with less traffic.

[here's where my bike sat for about half an hour while i waited]

I thought I took a couple of pictures of the neighborhood I was stopped in, but I guess I didn't. I had somehow ended up in a pocket of wealthy faux-rural type suburban Baltimore residences. All the houses were brand new and extremely large with meticulous landscaping, and almost everyone had a small stable with horses. I couldn't see any horses, but I could hear them neighing once in a while. It was rather weird. I got passed by about one car every minute or two; all of them gave me strange looks for sitting around in the rain with a motorcycle at the side of the road. One other person asked me if I needed help; he was some teenager in a sports car who had been cruising up and down the street and decided to come say hi to me after passing me for the eighth time.

When my friend finally showed up, I had decided to find a U-Haul rental and get a truck so I could load up my bike and drag it back to Pittsburgh with me. I also decided I needed to get a car charger for my phone so I could use it on the drive back. I knocked on the door of the nearest millionaire house and asked the nice man if I could leave my bike in his driveway for a few hours; he was fine with it, so I rolled my bike over and parked it up next to his house. I wanted to throw the cover on it because I didn't know how long I'd be gone and didn't want it to get any wetter, but the cover would have melted and I figured I couldn't do that much more damage to it.

Getting a U-Haul and finding a phone charger in Baltimore on a Sunday during a Steelers-Ravens game was funny. And by funny, I mean it took several hours of going up and down strip malls while I learned how to drive a 14' moving van. Yes, that was the smallest thing I could get that had a loading ramp. The biggest thing I've driven before this was a Ford Ranger, and that was when I was 13 and messing around in the woods with my dad's pickup. I also picked up a set of two 6' tie-downs so I could secure my bike after loading it. By the way, my card got declined at the U-Haul office, so my friend had to spot me the $200 some dollars for the rental.

This is where my trip started getting more educational. I decided that my friend and I wouldn't be able to just push my bike up the ramp into the van because we have a height difference of at least a foot and he had never moved a motorcycle around before. I parked the van at the bottom of a hill and pulled out the ramp, figuring I'd have enough juice in my bike to get it rolling down the hill and pop up the ramp and hopefully be able to stop it before I slammed into the back of the cab.

Yeah, really.

This is what actually happened. My friend tells me that it looked really good and that he thought I had nailed it, until I didn't. As soon as my front wheel cleared the top of the ramp, the engine stuttered and the back wheel slipped. Despite how much I worked myself up to this, I panicked and tried to put my feet down. The ramp was only about two feet wide, so obviously there wasn't anywhere for me to put my feet. As soon as my brain caught up to what was going on, I knew there wasn't much I could do and I didn't want to be caught under my bike as it rolled sideways off the ramp, so I jumped as far to the right as I could while my bike crashed to the ground and ended up almost upside-down under the ramp.

You'll note from my photos that my bike has some pretty huge crash bars; that saved my bike. The handlebars, rear fender, and right footpeg got bent. There's a little dent in the muffler. That's about it. What surprised me the most about this was that the engine didn't even cut out; I had to fish myself out of the mud and dive for the kill switch while my bike was leaking gasoline all over the road.

My friend, who is much bigger and stronger than I am, started dragging the back half of the bike out from under the ramp. There was no chance that we'd have been able to get it up, though; the wheels were under the ramp. I got him to fold in the ramp while flailing at the bike some more; finally, we got it upright. I definitely wasn't gong to try that again. I had to pull the van forward about ten feet so we could put the loading ramp back down, then we carefully pushed the bike up the ramp like sane humans and it was totally fine.

As I was strapping my bike down, I realized that buying only two straps was a terrible idea. I got the front end strapped down pretty well, but that left the back end free to swing around wherever it pleased. My friend got in his car and went out to hunt down a hardware store; he returned with a set of four 14' straps and a set of four 6' straps. Seriously the best friend ever. I only really needed two more 6' straps, but here's how my bike looked all nice and cozy in the back of the van:

[as a bonus picture, because there aren't enough pictures in this post, here's a wad of hair i found next to the hitch on the u-haul]

Finally on my way. I put through a call to my boss to get my shift covered because I was going to miss it for sure, pointed my giant vehicle toward the PA Turnpike, and rode off into the sunset. Literally, because the skies cleared up and the roads were drying out as soon as I started moving.

The most eventful things about the drive back were that it cost me $80 in gas to move the damned truck 200 miles, and I didn't have enough cash on hand to pay the turnpike toll. My toll collector was a rather short-statured dwarf who had some trouble reaching up to interact with me in my giant cab. He took down my driver's license number and sent me off with a bill to mail in to Harrisburg.

Things I learned that day: how not to load a bike into a van, how to strap down a bike, how to drive a U-Haul, what happens when you try to cross a toll booth and don't have enough money.

Part three will involve some engine dissection and some pretty gross photos.


The thought of riding my bike anywhere again after this still turns my stomach a little. The last time I sat on my bike, I was in the process of chucking it off the loading ramp of a moving ran. The last time I heard it running, it was spluttering out because of severe overheating issues. And I was wet and cold. But after having a few days to sit on it, I'm actually really glad it happened. I could have broken down a hundred miles into the mountains and then I don't know what I would have done to get out. The worse option would be if I had skipped the trip altogether; I had a ride planned this weekend for 800 miles round trip to upstate New York and back. My bike would have died somewhere much further away from friends who could rescue me, and bringing it back would have been significantly more expensive.

I dumped my bike at my friend's garage when I got in on Sunday night, but I didn't get a chance to play with it until yesterday. As we started stripping it down, he asked me if I was sure it was getting hot because he didn't want to crack open the top half of the engine and find out that everything was okay. The first time I needed his help, my bike wasn't starting or running right and I claimed it was clogged carbs; the carbs did need a good cleaning, but the reason my bike wasn't running right was more likely because it was out of gas. He asked me if I was sure it wasn't out of gas about five times, until we started pulling things out.

Here are my spark plugs:

They aren't that new, but they were pretty good six months ago.

Every time we took out part of the engine, we released another pocket of smells of burnt motor oil. We found out right away that there was so much crap clogging the right cylinder head that oil wasn't getting into it at all; it was just rubbing dry, overheating, hurting itself. There were eight long bolts holding the top end together; six of them came out sticky with old oil, while the two on the far right came out bone-dry and covered in scarring from heat damage.

My header pipes have been old and rusty since I got the bike, but here they are for kicks:

The one on the right was attached to the overheating cylinder. It's significantly more damaged; this has been a problem with the bike for a while, and I just didn't know because I'm not that experienced with bikes yet.

Here's my friend inspecting and cleaning out some gross bits:

More shots of the inside of the engine:

Never seen my bike like this before. It's pretty weird to look at.

Kind of gives you an idea of the damage from the tumble we had:

We're going to do a top-end rebuild, give everything a good scrub, fix or replace everything I bent, and hope it's okay. It just passed 40k miles before this happened, and I have no idea if it's ever had a proper rebuild before.

Anyway, there you go, my first vaguely adventurous adventure. My hope is that I can get my bike in shape by mid-October, because I'm trying to plan to ride up to Toronto then.


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Imported on 10 October 2013 23:47

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