Michigan to New York on a 1982 Yamaha Virago 920

Eastern promises

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My 1982 Virago 920, on her way to Warren.

Photo by Andrew Wheat

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In general, I would describe my prospective journey simply: I would ready my 26-year-old Yamaha Virago 920 on a 750-mile trip from central Michigan out east to New York to visit friends and relatives. I also hoped to find what lays behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of granite that line US 80. In the past, I simply blew by them in my car, wondering how the houses and towns were laid out on this steeply sloping, mountainous landscape. I had been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, which likens the proper maintenance of a machine to the quest for ultimate truth and understanding. Like the main character of the book, I hoped to discover the true nature of the land I would be passing through.

Much-needed maintenance
The story begins with my motorcycle’s over-the-winter overhaul, which included a list of small but irritating things that had eluded my wrench for the past two seasons. I had purchased some new engine cover bolts to replace some bunged up ones, but had failed to install them, nor had I installed the new crankshaft end cover, which I’d cracked two years prior by over tightening. I began with what I thought would be the easiest task: replacing the engine cover bolts. Three ruined fasteners, a new set of drill taps and an E-Z out later, the bolts were finally in place. This fastener fastening experience provided considerable posterior pain. In order to avoid another kind of rear discomfort, I also knew I would need something other than the smooshed foam padding of my vintage Japanese seat. I purchased a large gel seat pad for about a hundred bucks from a Competition Accessories catalog. I knew without it, my butt would become gravy in about 120 miles. The last step in the overhaul was to address the turn signal dilemma. The front left and rear right turn signals both left service after I broke them off one night in a display of utter stupidity. Some scavenged wire, solder and a torch were all that were needed to rectify the wrecked directors. Phaedrus would have said that my romantic rush to ride had necessitated a more classical understanding of the damage I had caused; i.e., haste makes waste. After changing the engine oil and adjusting tire pressure, I took her out for a shakedown cruise. She performed flawlessly, turn signals and all. For now, anyway.

The journey begins
The weather was sunny and warm as I set out down US 23 that first day. I joined the Ohio Turnpike, and headed east. After paying my $6.75 toll, I exited the turnpike, and found 80 East, and took it into Pennsylvania to 79 North. After some twists and turns, I eventually found Route 6, a winding two-way mountain passage. I took it east, attempting to find Warren, Pa., and a welcoming camp sight to stop, eat, and rest my aching backside.

My neck had also begun to cramp, so I decided to stop at the top of a small hill and get a photo of the scenery. Top-heavy with all the gear, I had to reposition the front end to stabilize her; then I snuck away to attempt a quick shot. I turned around just in time to see the Virago keel to the right, and fall over smacking the jagged edge of the pavement. Horrified but numb from all the miles I’d killed, the accident didn’t even phase me at first. She had stalled, so I put the camera down and tried to lift her. But she was canted down at the edge of the shoulder, and her extreme angle and gravity conspired to keep her sideways. I stepped back to scratch my head, and pant, just as a white sedan pulled off the road a few feet behind us, and a bedraggled looking young man, with calloused, tarry hands got out and ambled up to me and the flattened cruiser. With his help, we righted the bike, and after a quick check I thanked the man, who told me his name was Mike. I shook his hand as he asked, “You sure she’s O.K.? Got a Harley myself. Want me to stick around to be sure she’s working O.K.?” I assured him that we’d be alright, thanked him again, and rode off feeling embarrassed on some two lane road that promised to take me away from the site of the accident, and the encroaching construction, and back to Route 6. As we picked up speed, I marveled at the helpfulness of this man and the friendliness of the area in general. The bike seemed to ride O.K., despite some popping and backfiring from an apparently lean condition brought on by the fall. I made a mental note to check her out when better lighting allowed in the morning. Her pipes were also scraped up pretty good; battle scars.

After a long trek south to avoid some more construction, I discovered 62 North, and turned onto this, hoping to find Warren. A twinge of worry set in, as daylight began to fade. I cruised along gently, at around 55, passing farms built on plateaus or in valleys, and small towns tucked away here and there, around sweeping curves. At speed, the bike thumped along happily, and all elements - the warm air, the countryside, and the curvy road - assembled at once into a feeling of riding bliss. Then I realized it was this exact confluence of events, including getting lost, dumping my ride, and the confused quest for the nebulous Warren, that led me to this graceful state.

Warren was an aptly named village, for it was as well hidden as that of its long-eared, marsupial counterpart. At last, near dark, I stumbled upon East Route 6 again, and a few yards down I discovered the first motel I’d seen in 60 miles. I decided that setting up camp in the dark, wherever that camp might be, was an uninviting idea, and to stay at the Budget Lodge was a much better one. Ground versus Bed. Mosquitos versus cable TV. At $49.95, with a fridge for my Spam and fruit cocktail, a microwave and shower, it was no-brainer. Which was good, because I had no brain left. And to top it all off, I discovered from the phonebook that this welcomed refuge was indeed in Warren. After several coffees and rums, I was feeling MUCH better. My bottom had almost forgiven me for our course, and the Silver Ghost, out there in the parking lot with just an enshrouded KTM to keep her company, seemed to have forgiven me, too.

Smooth sailing
In fact, her pops and back spits had disappeared by the start of the next day’s beautiful cruise through the Eastern Allegheny Mountains. The tragedies and trials of the previous day melted away with the bright morning sun, streaking across vermillion valleys, and dappling each hillside along the way. As promised in the literature I had found in the Budget Lodge the night before, the Allegheny National Forest and surrounding area was a motorcyclist’s dream. With only an occasional logging truck to impede my nirvana, the mountain’s twists and curves could be devoured and digested at leisure, or in haste. I did a little of both. I rode fast, then I slowed down to watch the woods and wonders whizzing by. So friendly are the natives, one log truck driver even pulled over to let me pass at the onset of a twisting downhill byway. I wore my full faced helmet for practicality’s sake, but there were times I’d wished I’d worn my half helmet, because the scented breezes were inspiring to inhale. The bike, for her part, had after 400 miles not so much as hiccupped a complaint.

Between hills, and curves in the two lane trail, were hidden small towns. Vales with an architecture and a simple hospitality that have not changed since the 1950s. Places like Townsville, Meadville, Venango, and Kane, where the mid 1800s buildings come out to within a scant few feet of the road, as during a time when a tenth the traffic saw this route, and at half the speed. The area definitely sports a rustic country chic, studded with art galleries which display the wares of the area’s many artists, lunch shops, and boutique wineries. I passed many a fellow two-wheeled traveler on my journey, and all of them gave a friendly wave. One attractive young woman even told me “what a sweet hook up you have,” referring to the bike, I think. I never expected the villas behind the granite to be so reticent yet quaint, and so inviting. In short, I enjoyed the heck out of Day Two of my tour through Pennsylvania, and was a bit sad to see the US 80 signs looming just over the next hill. But it was time to make some time and US 80 led to my friends’ house and a place to stay for the night.

Destination reached
I had an enjoyable cruise down 80, digging the feeling of speed and the wind in my leathers. The weather was beautiful, and my nose itch, which usually seemed to set in around 70mph, had subsided. I arrived in Randolph, N.J., at about 8:00pm, and found my friends Erik and Leslie and their kids having dinner; but cheers and hugs were exchanged. A little while later, after the kids went to bed, Erik and I set out for some Johnny Walker and beer. The three of us stayed up late laughing and reminiscing and glad to be in each other’s company. After a fifth of scotch I barely felt the effects, as I climbed the stairs for my room, and sleep.

I awoke to the smells of cappuccino (Erik makes a mean cup), and fresh bread (yes, he makes bread, too), and we compared hangovers as we feasted and planned the day. We took the New Jersey Transit trains from Morris Plains to Hoboken, then took the PATH trains into Manhattan. From there, we plotted our subway route. It is cheap and easy to take advantage of the mass transit system in New York and New Jersey. After a good look at a subway map, and a short prayer that none of the lines are under construction, you’re on your way underground, free of traffic to almost any destination in the city. Ours was Chinatown. It was great to see the trains once again come into the old site of the World Trade Center. The ability to interchange at WTC is kind of like having part of the soul of Manhattan restored in some way. It makes me proud to see so many concerned workers and soldiers on the site, rebuilding, directing, and maintaining our safety.

I love Chinatown. It is both fascinating and mysterious. Crowded in between ancient storefronts that house anything from herbal shops with dried deer privates to grocery stores and antique dealers, one can find some truly sublime culinary experiences. We discovered a wonderful noodle shop and had a delicious lunch of roast, sliced duck on noodles and crispy, pan-fried noodles with sautéed beef and fresh greens. We sipped tea and absorbed the rhythm of the café, and of the Chinese language being spoken. Then we set off for the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) on 53rd and 7th Avenue. I spent more time in the city over the next two days. It was hard to take it all in; the food, the stores, the art, the girls - so much beauty in such a small place. But dark thoughts lurked in the back of my mind, and I began to remember that my vacation was nearing an end. For the first time in a week I began to think about going back to my life in Michigan. It had been a great trip, and though I felt slightly excited about the tremendous ride home, I also felt sorrow about leaving my friends, and New York, behind.

On my last day east I took the PATH trains into Newark, N.J., the home of my uncle Frank, my mother’s brother. He is the only Chinese left in his neighborhood, which is only a few hundred feet away from the brand new Prudential Center, where the New Jersey Devils hockey team plays. His area used to be a thriving Chinese community; now they are buying out the surrounding neighborhoods and leveling all the buildings to make parking space. Homes, factories, coffee shops - which have existed for a hundred years or more - will be razed. I take video of the area, so I’ll remember all of the summer days I spent in this magical metropolis as a kid. I packed up my things that night and fell asleep quickly, exhausted.

The trip home was surprisingly uneventful. I made the whole 750 miles at once, stopping only for food and fuel. It is amazing how much of life goes by unnoticed on the Interstate. I think again about the foothills of the Alleghenies, the friendly people and the quaint towns set into the granite hillsides. I would have never guessed that any of that existed had it not been for getting lost on the way to Warren. It is best to be flexible when traveling by vintage motorcycle, I noted. I arrived in Fenton, Mich., at about 8:30pm after 12 hours in the saddle. That $100 gel seat pad was the best accessory I have ever bought for my bike. My rear barely felt fatigued. The rest of me was a different story. I was ready for a shower, and bed.

One odd thing has happened since my return. Now that I have this trip behind me, the bike has become very comfortable to me; like we have bonded. I understand her shudders and her noises, and she feels more now like a part of me than ever before. More like a horse than a motorcycle. Perhaps I had stumbled upon some Zen in this old machine after all. This new familiarity was an unexpected but welcomed reward, as were the unforgettable memories of my vintage trip east.