North Carolina state road 28, also known as Moonshiner 28, is one of the best twisty mountain roads anywhere. (Shhhh…don’t tell anyone.) My Aunt Muriel’s neighborhood conveniently empties onto it, and whether you turn south toward Georgia or north toward Tennessee, there are curves and switchbacks aplenty.
Muriel is a septuagenarian, a seasoned world traveler, and what people in her part of the world call a “half-back.” That’s because she grew up in New Jersey, then moved south to Florida where she spent most of her adult life, then moved back north (half-back, anyway) to North Carolina. She’s also the kind of relative who lives some place you like to visit and always has out her welcome mat. Whether it’s my family who’s paying a visit, or me with some motorcycle buddies eager to partake of the riding Nirvana that surrounds her hilltop headquarters, Muriel’s always glad to see us all.
One thing I’ve learned to admire about Muriel is her ability to combine strong principles with an open mind, an “agree to disagree, agreeably” approach to getting along with folks. One time we were parked at a roadside rest stop in these North Carolina hills. My wife was with us and we were in a car together enjoying a ride, but it was no secret that the winding ribbons of asphalt had me longing for two-wheeled transportation. At the overlook I struck up a conversation with a guy riding some variation of Harley FLH. His license plate was from Florida and I mentioned that my aunt had lived there for many years. I told him the town. “Oh yeah?” he said, suddenly interested in conversation. “I know right where that is. They’ve got a topless donut place there.”
Looking at my aunt he inquired, “Is it still there?” It’s a safe bet that senior ladies are not often asked by roadside strangers about the status of establishments where the waitresses are half naked, but Muriel didn’t skip a beat. She not only knew of the place, she mentioned how it was a popular spot for the snowbird gents at her condo development when they wanted to flee their wives for a while. “They used to say they were going to get a cup of coffee,” she smiled, “but it was no secret where they were going.”
Some years ago Muriel told me that residents of the North Carolina neighborhood where she now lives aren’t allowed to have motorcycles, “but if visitors come to see me and arrive on their cycles, well there’s not much I can do about that, is there?” Assuring me that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, Muriel put out her welcome mat and I’ve taken every opportunity to visit her with one, two and sometimes three buddies on motorcycles. She gets a chuckle telling her church lady friends that she’s looking forward to having a few overnight guests – gentlemen friends on their motorcycles.
Our tradition involves escaping the Northeast in early April and making our way south along back roads through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee to Muriel’s digs in the mountains. We plan routes that wind over, around and sometimes through the Appalachian Mountains as spring is just arriving. In a few weeks many of these great roads will be clogged with RVs, but this early in the season we get to enjoy them with little traffic. Jack Frost frequently lingers at higher altitudes, and Muriel understands that when we arrive can be a function of the weather. More than once we’ve encountered snow that slowed our progress. One time the road turned to glare ice beyond 4,000 feet, turning us around and back down the mountain.
When we do arrive at Muriel’s, we take it upon ourselves to do whatever “honey-do” projects a 70-something widow might need done around the house, and she’ll point out that beers are waiting for us in the fridge. Those beers always taste extra good because they’re typically the only ones she buys all year, and she buys them for us. When suppertime rolls around, we shoehorn ourselves into Muriel’s car and take her out for ribs or steaks or catfish. It’s the least we can do, and she gets to spend some quality time over a meal with those gentlemen that came to visit.
It’s worth noting that Muriel has essentially no interest in motorcycles. She doesn’t really care to know about Harleys or Hondas or BMWs, V-twins or V-fours or straight sixes, pipes or accessories or electronics – and she definitely doesn’t want to go for a ride. Video taken from a helmet-mounted camera got her attention (“Goodness, look at you boys go!”) but it probably made her less interested than ever in getting on a motorcycle.
In a week I’m off to Muriel’s again and already I’m feeling the anticipation. Steve from New Jersey, Bob from Rhode Island and Chris from Ontario are joining me this year. Muriel will be able to tell her church lady friends that she’s having overnight guests – three from out of state and one from abroad. Gentlemen friends, on motorcycles.