She’s taking her first ride on a motorcycle. Posthumously, as it turns out, but my Aunt Muriel is along for the ride, her ashes securely stowed in my top case.
Muriel had not been a fan of motorcycles. She found them too fast and noisy and their riders too careless and selfish. For decades she lived near the coast in south Florida where a grid of congested, multi-lane streets put motorcycles right next to her. The ones she encountered, at least the fast and loud ones that stood out in her mind, didn’t give her much to like.
While she enjoyed hearing stories of my long-distance adventures on motorcycles, she always made one thing quite clear: “You will never get me on a motorcycle!”
Now, as the miles are adding up, a thought keeps bouncing through my brain: Would Muriel have found this ride okay?
Her attitude about motorcycles and their riders evolved after she retired and moved to the mountains of western North Carolina – one of the best motorcycling regions anywhere. When Muriel first took up residence in the town of Franklin, my wife, Sheila, and I drove down for a visit. Muriel drove us to lunch at a barbecue place she liked in the town of Highlands.
As we motored south on State Route 28, the road became tremendous, with baby’s-bottom-smooth tar and continuous tight turns, nicely banked. On one side of the road were jagged outcroppings, and on the other a fast-moving river in a rocky ravine. She pulled her car into a lay-by and drove us behind a waterfall.
Muriel was not what you’d call an expert driver, but to her credit, she stayed in her own lane on this intensely curvy road. Sheila was pregnant at the time and sat nervously in the back seat, clutching her rounded belly and hoping our destination was close. In stark contrast, I was thinking how fantastic this road would be on a motorcycle. I mentioned this to Muriel, and she suggested I come back riding one. “Bring a friend,” she said. “More than one if you like.”
This invitation, I later learned, was despite a homeowner association rule that did not allow motorcycles in Muriel’s neighborhood. “I don’t have a motorcycle,” she explained, “but if visitors come to see me and arrive on their cycles, there’s not much I can do about that, is there?” Muriel believed that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Over the next 15 years, I took every opportunity to visit her with one, two, or three friends on motorcycles. We would arrive on quiet Hondas and BMWs, ride slowly through her neighborhood, and offer a friendly wave to anyone we encountered. Forgiveness was never required.
Muriel’s home was on a hilltop, providing an impressive view of the mountains where those roads we came to ride lay waiting. Her neighborhood emptied onto Route 28 (aka Moonshiner 28), and gems like Wayah Road, the Cherohala Skyway, U.S. Route 129 (Tail of the Dragon), and the Blue Ridge Parkway were there to be enjoyed. On every visit we discovered new roads.
We’d return from a day’s ride excited and full of stories, then take Muriel out for dinner. Over these meals, she got to know an orthopedic surgeon, a military logistician, a powerplant engineer, a metal fabricator, a warehouse manager, and a truck driver – each a gentleman, a gracious guest, and a motorcyclist.
One time Muriel casually asked if we’d help her change out the storm windows for screens. “You’ll keep an old lady off a stepladder,” she explained. We installed those screens, and on every subsequent visit we asked for her honey-do list. Leaky faucets, wobbly towel bars, and uncooperative wi-fi never stood a chance. Muriel came to appreciate that not every motorcycle was too fast and noisy, nor every rider too careless and selfish. When talking with her church lady friends, she referred to us as her gentlemen friends on motorcycles.
Now, on a warm Sunday at summer’s end, I depart my home in western Massachusetts and point my BMW R 1200 RT south and west. Weaving through the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut, I seek out places Muriel would have liked: Saville Dam in Barkhamsted, East River Road overlooking the Farmington River, and historic covered Bull’s Bridge across the Housatonic River. At the New York border, the road becomes Dogtail Corners Road … Muriel would have chuckled at the name. She would have been less amused by the 10-mph hairpin turns on Dutchess County Route 22 east of Pleasant Ridge Road, but I lean in to savor them.
I curve through the Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks into scenic northern New Jersey, where Steve Efthyvoulou joins the ride. Over the years, Steve arrived at Muriel’s on a motorcycle more often than anyone except me, and on this ride, he is helping me to fulfill a request: Muriel had directed that her ashes be “scattered in the North Carolina mountains.” No specific location was indicated, so I asked Steve to join me in seeing this through appropriately. He agreed without hesitation.
The next morning, we are rolling at first light. Steve has plotted a route to keep us off main roads, so we’re riding through small New Jersey towns, past fields of corn ready for harvest. We cross into Pennsylvania, and in Lancaster County the distinct sights of Pennsylvania Dutch country abound. Amish farmers with a team of four mules are harvesting the first row of corn, right next to the road. A bonnet-clad teacher is holding class outside as children dressed in homespun clothes sit attentively. Farther on, an older group of boys enjoys recess on a baseball diamond. I’ve been told Monday is laundry day for Amish families, and countless clotheslines brimming with union suits and long-legged underpants offer anecdotal evidence. At an intersection, a young buggy operator struggles with her charge. Steve points out that teenagers aren’t typically the best drivers – even when driving a horse.
On Pennsylvania Route 372 we cross the expansive Muddy Run hydro power project, which uses excess power from the grid to pump water from the dammed Susquehanna River into a lake. During peak power demand, water flows down from the lake through turbines that generate electricity. The lake, essentially, is a battery. It’s also the center of an area operated as a park.
Midday finds us in Maryland, and what would a lunch stop in the Free State be without crab cakes? Muriel would have given two claws up. After a brief run through the state of West Virginia, we continue through western Virginia to Harrisonburg for the night.
In the morning we hop on Skyline Drive to curve through Shenandoah National Park. On a dreary weekday after Labor Day, the few vehicles we encounter are noticeably disregarding the painfully slow 35-mph speed limit. After we join the Blue Ridge Parkway, the rain begins. Beyond Roanoke we shift to U.S. Route 221, and the rain continues to fall hard and steady, but as Steve reminds me, a great road in the rain is still a great road. In the town of Boone, North Carolina, we call it a day. Torrential rain and flash flood warnings will continue through the next 36 hours, so we opt for a rest day in this happening college town in the mountains.
A day later, morning arrives with brilliant sun and temperatures in the low 40s. With heated gear plugged in, we make an early start. Branches and limbs litter the roads in a testament to the fierce storms that had rolled through. Steve shares warnings of road hazards ahead, a great benefit of bike-to-bike intercom. Especially in this region of Appalachia, the mountains form a creased and crumpled landscape, and the roads built into it twist and turn like a roller-coaster ride that you control. Rock outcroppings are common, and some are fascinating, such as one on U.S. 221, west of Blowing Rock, that looks like a face emerging from the mountain. Beyond North Cove we turn right on State Route 226 and left on State Route 226A to partake in another asphalt masterpiece.
Then, somewhere beyond Little Switzerland, an appropriate spot in the North Carolina mountains reveals itself and Muriel’s final request is fulfilled.
Professionally, Muriel had been a city clerk, certifying elections, officiating weddings, and serving as president of the municipal clerks’ international association. She traveled extensively for work and in retirement. A simple church-going lady, she loved conversation, voiced strongly held opinions, and agreed to disagree (agreeably). One thing Muriel and I disagreed about was motorcycles, though curiously they brought us closer together. She knew how much motorcycles matter to me and that she lived in a special place to enjoy them, so of course I should come visit with friends.
On this trip, I gained the satisfaction of ensuring that Muriel’s wish to find rest in the mountains of North Carolina was met, and in the process Steve and I enjoyed some amazing roads. But there’s no escaping the irony that Muriel’s final ride was also her first ride on a motorcycle.