I grew up in the middle of Connecticut and spent my first 22 years bouncing around New England and upstate New York. But when college ran out and I came face to face with working for a living, I had something few journalism majors could claim at the time an actual job offer. I had scored an invitation to write for a real motorcycle rag. But that magazine lived on the other side of the continent. So I filled my $25 Chevrolet van with my few possessions, rolled out of Boston and headed resolutely west. That was in 1976.
20 Rosewood Drive, Simsbury, Connecticut. December 1971
I've been back for Christmases, weddings and an occasional motorcycle tour. But there's always been something to do, some place to be or somebody to take care of something that kept me from just being back there, soaking up the place that used to be my home.
Rule number one: There are no rules
The idea was to put myself on a good bike, set off on the roads I traveled 30 years before, and feel how it would feel. I resolved to fight the Type-A temptation to have a real destination--wherever I found myself at the end of a day, that's where I would be. In a perfect world, I'd make this return journey on my first bike.
Higgins Bay, New York. 1929
There were two problems. I'd have to locate a mint-condition, lime-green, '71 Suzuki TS250 Savage somewhere on the East Coast. And then I'd have to ride it. Sanity, laziness and a hard-won appreciation for comfort prevailed. I borrowed a thoroughly modern, thoroughly upper-crust BMW R1150RT. You should only take this back-to-your-roots thing so far.
I found myself loping up the Garden State Parkway behind the big boxer's indulgent, electrically adjustable windscreen, zipping through the leafy glow and rolling hills of northern New Jersey. I quickly passed into southern New York state, through waves of August-in-the-Northeast heat and humidity; and I headed east on the 287, and roared across the long, tall Tappan Zee Bridge.
Sherman's Point. Higgins Bay, Piseco Lake, New York. September 2001
Crimes Against Machinery
The 287 gave way to the 684, heading north along the Connecticut border. I came out onto a long straight, with clumps of oak and maple punctuating the wide median. I recognized one clump as the scene of one of my first big mistakes on a motorcycle--a list that seems to grow longer with each passing day.
My first serious girlfriend lived in Rye, New York, up from the big city on the shore of Long Island Sound. And this was the road I would take to see her, every chance I got, that amorous summer of '72. I'd vibrate down that highway, flannel shirt flapping, on that TS250 Suzuki, too young and dumb to wear earplugs, a leather jacket or much else in the way of actual riding gear.
Simsbury High School football field. Simsbury, Connecticut. August 2001
One Sunday, on the way back to Connecticut, I ran the Suzuki out of two-stroke oil. It seized gently, leaving me in the middle of nowhere, red-faced and guilty, shamed by the knowledge that a perfectly good motorcycle had trusted me to give it the barest minimum of care, and I had let it down. I pushed the ticking TS, smelling of overheated aluminum, into that thicket, hid it with branches and hitchhiked away, looking for a phone booth. When Dale, my girlfriend, drove me back to the scene hours later, the bike was actually still there. Cooled down and anointed with Pennzoil 30wt, it forgave me of my carelessness, started up after a couple kicks and ran, best as I could tell, as well as before.
Piseco Lake Road, Piseco, New York. September 2001.
The More Things Change
I was amazed that this highway had changed so little in 29 years. Living in California, I have grown accustomed to everything changing, all the time. But as I was to discover, the East has been kinder to itself--almost everything I remembered was still there, more or less, when I came back, poised to poke hibernating memories into life around every turn.
The malls, Wal-Marts and McDonalds, the things that don't really matter, had grown, swapped places and evolved into progressively larger, if not higher, forms. There were new houses in places that used to be oak forests, saw mills and overgrown fields. But my town, my high school and my old neighborhood were almost exactly the way I had left them. If they seemed different, it seemed that I had changed, not the other way around.
Wright Brothers, Schmight Brothers
The blue BMW carries me down onto Bushy Hill Road, past the rich-girls' private school to the big overgrown field behind St. Alban's church, where I learned the meaning of the term "highside."
Higgins Bay Road, Piseco, New York. September 2001
I had been chasing my tail on the TS, trying to slide like Roger DeCoster. The traction was annoyingly good, though, and I had to work hard to get the tail out. I hit a shady section where the grass was still wet, and the tail snapped sideways. I panicked and snapped the throttle shut, just as I slid back into the traction zone. The TS tripped over itself, launching me like a diseased cow from a trebuchet. I flew, arms out in front, Superman-style--I remember looking down at the grass blurring underneath me. The landing was gratefully painless. My heels were coming over my head by then, and their momentum carried me into a perfect somersault in the modified pike position.
Kris and George Stecker were there with me, messing around with their own Honda Mini-Trail. Using the marks left in the grass, we paced off my flight. The distance from where I had left the bike to where I first touched down was more than 100 feet--about as far as the Wright brothers' first flight.
The Dating Game
All this reliving my misspent youth was making me hungry. I burbled my way downtown to the One-Way Fare, a bar and grill that inhabits the old train station. While I was waiting on the wooden deck for my fish and chips, I found myself musing about old friends I might run into. One of them was Joann Burk, who used to sit next to me in Mr. Cararini's social studies class. And then, who should walk out of the restaurant but Joann Burk herself, looking about six years older than she had in '69.
She remembered me as the first boy who ever asked her out. I can't remember where I asked her to go, on that proposed date, but I do remember being scared silly. And that she had turned me down. She still felt bad about it. "I was only 15," she said, over a tall Seabreeze. "My father wouldn't let me go--he said I was too young to be going out with boys." Rain started to pelt down, and everybody on the deck ran inside for cover. Joann and I wound up getting a table.
She had married, and still lived in Simsbury. Her kids were already heading off to college. We huddled in the old train station, telling each other how our lives had unfolded. We laughed a lot. And as the evening wound down, we realized that we had finally had our date, just 32 years behind schedule.
The Road to Boston
My parents still have a place three towns over, in Collinsville. I spent the night rattling around in their empty condo, on the banks of the Farmington River. In the morning, Mr. BMW took charge, pulling me over the hemlock ridge of Talcott Mountain, through Hartford, and on east toward Boston.
I gassed up on the Mass Pike, trying to postpone sinking into the heat and confusion of the rush-hour city. I called a friend from the old neighborhood, Mark Webber, who had been living on the shore south of Boston for the last 25 years or so. Mark's son Kyle was packing to go off to college the next day. But he found a way to slip free for the evening.
We had a long, Sam Adams-soaked dinner, overlooking Scituate Harbor, watching the fishing boats come in. I slept on the couch downstairs in Mark's living room, just like the last time I came this way, more than a decade before. When I last saw Kyle he had been a quiet, fun-loving seven-year-old kid. He was still a little quiet, like Mark, but now a good inch taller than his dad.
I've always been overjoyed that my four-year-old, T.J., is very much a girl. But watching Mark and Kyle, father and son, mess around with each other on their front lawn that morning when Kyle shipped off to college, made me realize that there might be something here that I was going to miss.
Jeffrey Alan Ashley. Hancock, Vermont. September 2001
Leaving Boston Behind
I took the coast up toward the city, watching the Boston skyline rise up out of the tidal flats. But when it came time to lower ourselves into that tangle of horns and taxis, we still couldn't do it. I had spent three years in college there, and there were still friends, houses I'd lived in, and a cranky ex-ex-girlfriend lurking somewhere down there. But the elevated highway that floats above Boston seemed to stretch out ahead, cool and welcoming, all the way across New Hampshire.
Where is Everybody?
As I headed northwest, wilds were pretty much all I could see. It amazed me that I could ride for more than an hour, right through the geographical center of New England, without seeing one house, or a single person, except the ones trapped in the few cars around me.
The blue BMW was whining to be fed, so we found an exit that promised gas. We coasted down a hill, past a school, into the hamlet of Contoocook. This was not the kind of perfect New England town that you find on postcards--this was a real one, a New England town that was not prissy enough to be called secluded, so neglected would have to do. I caught myself wondering how much a nice old house, with a big front porch and a barn out back, would cost here. And then wondered what Kathy, the kids and I would do the third day we were there. The same things we do in California, I expect.
But my family is growing up in Manhattan Beach, not Contoocook and they'd all go nuts without Disneyland, Ralph's, Chuck E. Cheese's and Burger King. But I can dream, can't I?
Lynne Kathryn Schulze. June 1971.
Looking For Lynne Schulze
I could tell you that I didn't know where we were going, that angling toward the upper left of Vermont was just random chance. It wouldn't be true. There was one person I really wanted to see again. We peeled off at Bethel, Vermont, headed west on 107, and turned north on Route 100, the winding two-lane that seems to connect every ski mountain in the state. It was getting to be early evening, and the road was all but deserted. We may have trespassed against a motor-vehicle code section or two. The BMW was a more than willing co-conspirator: It's one of those bikes that feels happiest when it's tilted way over, and I found myself happy to oblige.
I stopped for dinner at a roadside burger stand in Hancock. I was the last customer of the night, and when my burger was ready, the cook came out of his hot trailer and sat with me at one of the picnic tables. Larry Jakes told me he had fought in Korea, and when he came back he settled here, in this valley in the shadow of the Green Mountains. Over the years, he had done about everything he wanted, except one--he had never been to Paris. And this last year, he had done that, too. I thanked Larry, finished my fries, closed my jacket tight, and headed up over the hill toward Middlebury.
I was part of a gang in high school, a group of friends who, we thought, ought to stay connected. Curt Sweet. Susie Randall. Bruce Williams. Joyce Prescott. Mark Webber. Bobbie Brooks. Bill Perrault. Louise Osterman. Carol Gamble. Steve Hunter. And Lynne Schulze. We would stay up all night together, piled into a deserted cabin in the woods near Lynne's house. Throw wild parties at my place when my parents were careless enough to leave town. Smoke together. Drink together. Jump naked, from a rope swing, into Westridge Reservoir together. Mess around together. When our high-school punch cards ran out, most of us shuffled off to our assigned Liberal Arts Colleges, like the good little yuppies we were supposed to be. But I really missed those friends and that fall of '71.
Some of us did get together one weekend that fall, for a Leon Russell concert in New Hampshire. After the concert, the music still ringing in our ears, we all piled into Bruce's dorm room. Lynne and I wound up in the upper bunk, and we talked all the way into the morning. I told her about a fantasy I had--of faking my own death and starting over, somewhere else, all by myself. I felt that the person I was had little to do with me--and a whole lot to do with my hometown, my parents and their expectations. I didn't feel like a person, I felt like a product, I said. Lynne understood all about my fantasy. She said she'd been feeling that way herself.
I never really intended to follow through with my goofball plan. The truth is, it was only talk. We were just two scared, lonely kids talking their way through the night. Or so I thought.
Back at my own school, I didn't get much less scared, or lonely, as that first semester wound down. So I was looking forward to seeing Lynne, and the rest of our gaggle, back in Connecticut over Christmas.
But on December 11, '71, Lynne Schulze left her dorm at Middlebury College and headed off to class. She left her ID, her money and all her stuff in her room, as if she would be back in an hour. Then she disappeared from the face of the earth.
I hadn't been to Middlebury in the 30 years since, but it all came back when I rolled onto the campus. I found Lynne's old dorm, where I had once dropped in to see her that fall. This-year's freshmen girls were just starting to arrive, their moms and dads schlepping boxes and lamps into the rooms. Just the way Lynne's mom and dad had helped her. Both are gone now--they both died without knowing what happened to their tanned, smart, stubborn, bright-eyed girl.
Lynne's disappearance has been the subject of conflicting stories over the years. Some said she had last been seen at the local bus station. Others said she had been spotted hitchhiking south, toward Connecticut. I wanted to go to that last place. But where was it? I found the Middlebury Police Department and talked to the dispatcher. "Lynne Schulze?" he said. "Yes, I remember. The case is still open," he said. "Every time someone, that is, a body is found, we get a description over the wire. We know what jewelry she was wearing, that kind of thing. If she's ever found, we'll know about it," he said. I rode to the public library, to see if I could find any newspaper accounts. But by the time I had figured out the microfilm system and loaded the '71 reel onto the sprockets, it was past closing time, and the young woman at the desk had to ask me to leave. I found myself exiled to the street, in the sodium glow of the quiet college town. I rode south, along Route 7: the road she would have been on if she had been hitching. Stopped at the outskirts of town, where the lights faded into the hanging mist of sleeping dairy farms. And said "Goodbye, Lynne."
The sun had long since set, but it was still lighting the bottom of the high clouds. We dropped west, straight toward Lake Champlain, the difference between Vermont and New York. On the other side I could see the Adirondacks, humped-up indigo against the tobacco sky. And a couple hour's ride away, in the middle of those mountains, waited Higgins Bay.
20 Rosewood Drive, Simsbury, Connecticut. August 2001
We turned onto the Crown Point Bridge, sweeping up and over Lake Champlain, The water shone in the moonlight, as Paul Simon would say, like a National guitar. The RT loped through the night, the blue-white headlight cutting through the mist. I had cold-weather gear, but it was easier to crank the heated handgrips to broil and let good German technology warm my bloodstream. Cautionary deer, rearing like Ferrari horses on yellow signs, reminded me to keep my antenna up and my speed down. I once hit a deer while riding, on a cold night like this one, and once is enough. They don't just wander into your path, they blindside you, at full speed, like demented, four-legged linebackers. And they're a lot harder than they look.
Sometime around 1911, my mom's parents snuggled through their honeymoon in a tent on Piseco Lake. When my mom was a kid, the family that honeymoon started used to camp in a big tent on Higgins Bay, a couple miles north on the same lake. When Dad married Mom, he was grudgingly allowed to enter the Bay--his family had a cabin on Morehouse Lake, a good 12 miles down the road, and were naturally regarded with some suspicion. When I was a kid, my mom and dad would rent a cabin, with a kerosene heater hissing in the kitchen, from Margaret Higgins. Eventually Dad bought the place, but not before Margaret took a vote around the Bay, to see if we would be acceptable. Our family had only been coming there for 50 years, at the time, so we were still on thin ice.
A mile north of the Bay, the Oxbow Inn forced me to the side of the road and dragged me in. The Oxbow is one of those rare and wonderful places that has made the transition from bar to institution. The men's bathroom, for instance, opens out onto the barroom, right near the entrance. There's no lock on the men's room door. If you're dumb enough to let somebody open the door while you've got your pants down, well, that's how dumb you are.
So imagine my surprise when I shuffle into the bathroom, close the door--and find a shiny new hook and eyelet screwed into the door frame. Is there no limit to the creeping cancer of progress, of political correctness? Is nothing sacred? The owner, Kevin Dorr, is trading beers with his dad, Bill, down at the end of the bar. A little shaken, I ask him about the new lock.
"A lock? Can't be. There's never been a lock on that door," he says.
"Well, there is now," I reply. "Just came out of there."
"I'm sorry," Kevin says, perplexed. "Ahhh. It must've been that wife of mine." A hush falls over the bar.
"But don't worry," he says, trying to reassure me, his dad and the concerned clients gathering around us. "I'll have it out of there by morning."
Lynne Kathryn Schulze was last seen in Middlebury, Vermont, on December 11, 1971. If you have information concerning her whereabouts, please contact Dexter Ford, c/o Motorcyclist magazine.
Please, somebody stop me
This is the first new-generation boxer I've straddled, and right off the bat I like it for most of the reasons I liked the old two-valve boxers: soft, long-travel suspension, good brakes, a wide spread of power and a reasonable riding position. It still feels a little weird, as BMWs always have--so I guess it would be weird if it wasn't weird. With the Telelever swinging out on its slightly odd arc, the Paralever rear end busily compensating for shaft effect, the twisting crankshaft torque rolling the bike around and the bizarro turn signals, it's like riding a bike from a not-quite parallel universe. But the oddness wears off after a few (hundred) miles, and you're left with a machine that sucks up distance the way Boehm downloads pizza. The main improvements over the dear departed R1100RT, BMW tells me, are the added displacement (now 95 horsepower), a sixth speed in the Getrag gearbox, and the resculpted fairing, with new HID headlights and a trick, electrically adjustable windscreen.
The new motor pumps out plenty of power, all over the rev band, along with the characteristic rocking-couple thump when the butterflies open and the air flows free. But this particular RT had an annoying habit of surging at small throttle settings. I often wound up shifting up early, just to open the throttle farther at a given speed. And at cruise, even in the new overdrive sixth gear, the engine never seemed happy. It would always buck and shudder slightly, just enough to rattle my mental cage. Not a big problem--just an annoying flaw in a $16,000 machine.
This RT was also tricked out with the optional high-tech Integral ABS III braking system. The RT uses the "touring" version of the Integral ABS, which means that either right-side control operates all the brakes. In other words, when the semi lurches out of the Safeway, you just squash every brake control you can find.
The system is servo-powered, giving you faster response and extra braking force with less effort, and it automatically apportions braking between the front and rear wheels depending on load, weight transfer and traction. In short (and I do mean short), the system puts a tiny little Valentino Rossi into each and every Integral ABS-equipped bike, just waiting to bounce your eyeballs off the insides of your Oliver Peoples.
BMW can get away with making its brakes so powerful because the new ABS system works so well. The tiny computer-controlled, electromagnetic servo valves in the ABS unit can reduce hydraulic pressure to get either wheel spinning again in less than 80 milliseconds on dry pavement--and in as little as 50 milliseconds on nubbly stuff such as slime-covered cobblestones. According to the Hurt Report of motorcycle accidents, a sad percentage of riders do nothing when something gets in their way--they freeze up and auger in. Another big percentage stomps on the rear brake and leaves the front alone, leading to a lot of noise, but not much stopping power. And in the car world, Mercedes-Benz has discovered many drivers fail to hit the brakes hard enough in an emergency to get maximum deceleration--in other words, the car could stop in time, but the driver never gets around to asking it to. Mercedes' answer is called Brake Assist, a computer/servo-assist system that senses a panic stop and applies max braking until the car stops, or the driver actively releases pedal pressure.
The BMW Integral ABS system is as close to this as come so far in motorcycles. It doesn't add extra braking force in a panic situation, but it does give you added braking power, all the time, and the ABS-inspired chutzpah to use it. For most, if not all, riders, I suspect it will make riding safer--and certainly more confidence-inspiring.
In day-to-day schlepping, though, there are a few caveats. As with any linked system, touching the foot pedal actuates the front brakes, sometimes making the nose dive right when you don't want it to. If you're maneuvering in a parking lot or making a tight U-turn, this makes the bike want to flop over. At best, this makes you look like a lurching geek when you dab to save it. At worst, it makes you poorer--or, for the wife-equipped, more divorced--if you dab too softly, or too late.
The servo-assist is great when an elk prances into your headlight beam. But later, when you turn off the motor, you also turn off the servos. Which means if you stop on a hill, kill the motor and then try to maneuver the RT into a parking spot, you're suddenly dealing with a small fraction of the braking power you had just a few seconds ago. Yes, the brakes still work, after a fashion. But like trying to drive a power-brake-equipped car with the engine off, it takes a surprising amount of effort. And again, just when you're trying to look smooth and studly, you find yourself wrestling with a big, tall, heavy bike whose brakes have suddenly gone AWOL.
My RT had another quirk, which may or may not be representative. The foot pedal seemed to give little response with the first inch of travel and the first big oomph of pressure. Beyond that threshold, it would start acting like a real brake, which just added one more odd variable to the whole "What are the brakes going to do now?" conundrum.
Since my time on the RT, I have logged more than a few miles on the K1200RS, which has the "sporting" version of the Integral ABS. This system lets "more sporting" riders use the rear brake independently--the foot pedal operates the rear brake only, and the front lever activates both the front and the rear. This system eliminates the problems at low speed, and allows you to work the rear brake against the throttle, letting you slow slightly in a corner without chopping the throttle and dropping the nose. For an old dog like me, whose neural system is irrevocably trained to use the brakes independently, it's a far better system. In an emergency stop, where you should just mash all the brakes anyway, there's no practical difference. And day-in, day-out, the "sporting" system, available on the R1150R, the R1150GS and the K1200RS, feels far superior. It would be a logistics headache, but if I were BMW, I'd find a way to give riders their choice of systems, rather than arbitrarily deciding that R1150RT riders don't know what they're doing, brakewise, and that K1200RS riders do.
Did the vagaries of the braking system queer me on the essential worthiness of the R1150RT? Not a chance. OK, the adjustable seat was not quite adjustable enough--even at the high setting, I could have used an inch or two more of leg room, and I'm just a millimeter on the Burnsian side of six feet. And the two-holer seat tended to keep me locked in place, which gets a little old after the 161st kilometer. But overall, the RT was an agreeably upbeat partner as I trolled the Northeast, snuffling for the emotional truffles of my tragically underachieving younger days.
This may be the only time a journalist compares the R1150RT with the 1986 GSX-R750, but the big blue BMW reminded me of the scrappy old Suzuki in one happy way: Both bikes seem most at peace when they are leaned a long way over. The RT is cool, calm and collected at 120 mph, whistling through the night on a deserted Adirondack back road--and just as pleased with itself cranked over on a decreasing-radius New Jersey off-ramp. Throw in world-class creature comforts, top-rank build quality and a healthy dose of personality, and you wind up with a real-world sport-touring bike I'd be glad to take almost anywhere. --D.F.