An Arthurian Brit in the court of Connecticut Yankees
Given that they’re as American as the World Series and mom’s apple pie, the obvious choice for a US trip would’ve been a Harley because you can pick one up just about anywhere and it will allow you to pass unnoticed among the natives. But I wasn’t looking to blend in with the locals; I was an Englishman abroad, visiting the former colonies to see how New England compared to the old one and perhaps even to find out what it was about our tea that upset the Bostonians so much.
Triumph has recently become the biggest selling European marque in the US (when this first appeared in November 2008 – Ed) – outselling BMW and all the Italians – so it seemed only appropriate that as a motorcycling ambassador from across the pond, I should choose one of their fine machines. Initially I asked for an America because… well you all know how much I enjoy a little wordplay, but, as if to contradict the impression over here that our transatlantic cousins don’t do irony, the man at the Triumph US press office informed me that they didn’t have one! He did offer me one of their gorgeous Speed Triples, but that was way beyond the limits of my knee bend so I settled for a Rocket III Touring instead. Well, I know they seem to be inordinately impressed by size stateside so I decided that the Rocket III with 2.3 litres hung between its wheels, would be the perfect tool for the tour – particularly as it would save me having to worry about the size of my Willie if I found myself surrounded by Hogs.
Actually I’m not totally unfamiliar with New England. I first visited Boston on July 4th 1973 and I’ve been back four times in the ensuing years; but it was the couple of months I’d spent on Boston’s south shore exactly thirty years ago that was the most memorable. On that occasion I’d hitch-hiked to the Canadian border at the tail end of September and having heard nothing about the ‘Fall Colors’, I’d been absolutely blown away when I suddenly found myself confronted by the dramatic display; and the groups of motorcyclists I’d seen riding the perfect ribbons of highway that wound their way through the spectacular landscapes of New Hampshire and Vermont, also created an enormous impression on me.
However, as I reflected back on that journey over the years, I increasingly suspected that I’d exaggerated the experience in my mind’s eye. So when my old friend Tom Gardiner sent me an invitation to his daughter’s posh wedding – complete with a reception at the ever so swish Boston Park Plaza – and I worked out that it was the weekend after issue 133 went to press, I decided it had to be kismet. Especially as, with a little bit of help from Triumph US, I’d be able to find out once and for all if the passage of time had blown my recollections of that episode three decades earlier out of all proportion.
I picked the bike up from Mark Zimmerman, a local journalist located in Danbury, Connecticut. Mark’s the technical editor of Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine, an ex-flat tracker with a whole shelf of trophies and an immaculate garage containing five bikes (including a beautiful original BSA A65 Lightning). He’s a biker to the core – the first of many I would meet over the following week. Rolling the Hinckley behemoth backwards down Mark’s drive, I tried to look blasé but I was acutely aware that I was being watched by an old pro and I’d look a right plonker if I dropped the 800+lbs of shiny Triumph. Once I was safely on the road outside, I knocked it into first, fed in the clutch and relaxed as the big three glided away majestically.
I followed Rte 7 to 202, which was the US equivalent of my usual domestic habit of sticking to A and B roads and having quickly established that the Rocket was remarkably easy to manage as soon as the engine was turning the wheels, I relaxed into the comfy riding position and soaked up the scenery as I headed up the back roads towards Vermont. I stopped to take pictures from the top of the Mohawk Mountain State Park, in front of a classic covered bridge in West Cornwall, and opposite an elegant red brick library in Falls Village. Then a few miles further up the road I spotted a tank outside a VFW Post (Veterans of Foreign Wars – the US equivalent of the British Legion) just south of North Canaan and I couldn’t resist lining the Rocket up in front of it for a ‘couple of tanks’ picture.
With the shot in the bag, I climbed back onto the Triumph and hit the start button. The big engine turned over powerfully, but failed to start. Try again, same thing. OK; I turned my headphones off and tried it yet again, more nothing. After a few more attempts it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t planning to co-operate. I decided that I must have flooded it so I sat down and let the midges eat me for half an hour before giving it another whirl, but it was still having none of it. Time to call my contact at Triumph in Georgia. Mac put me on to their technical man, who went through all the roadside options before deciding that they’d need to get one of their dealers out to pick us up. The closest one was a relatively local 45 miles away in East Hartford, but unfortunately their driver had knocked off for the evening so it would have to be in the morning. I reassured Mac that I’d been riding plenty long enough to accept that ‘shit happens’ sometimes, and I wasn’t about to start stamping my feet about it.
I stuck my head around the door of the VFW bar to ask if they knew where the nearest motel was and if they had a cab number. I was met by the broad, unsmiling face of John, who was as gruff, surly and taciturn as it was possible to be without being openly hostile. Fortunately Ward was as wide open, friendly and welcoming as his fellow veteran was forbidding. Ward bought me a beer and explained that if you needed a cab way out there in the sticks, you’d need to book it at least a fortnight in advance. He was able to give me the number for the Locust Tree B&B though, which was only a mile or so away. Unfortunately, given my limited mobility and the fact that I’d be carrying a heavy tote bag, that was still a hell of a trek. John said he’d drop me off, and although he did so without offering me any sort of smile, warmth or outward show of friendliness, he delivered me to the elegant verandaed B&B with a good grace that belied his general disposition, before dismissing my effusive thanks, wishing me luck and driving off. Which just goes to show that a winning smile isn’t everything.
Travis turned up just before eleven the following morning with the Gengras truck. After checking to ensure that the Rocket III hadn’t miraculously fixed itself overnight, he wheeled it into the box trailer and tied it down tight. We had a great drive; aside from all the usual biking banter that’s a given when two motorcyclists are thrown together, it was fascinating talking to a younger man (he was 28) and getting his view of the state of our nations – particularly when the subject of universal health care came up. Anyone in this country who complains about the NHS or questions its value, would do well to consider the situation that faces the 50 million plus Americans who have absolutely zero health insurance. Travis had real difficulty grasping the fact that after I mashed my leg, everything from the ambulance that picked me up, to the first rate treatment I received when they delivered me to the closest A&E and my later knee replacement, were entirely free at the point of delivery. He didn’t struggle because he was thick – far from it – it’s just that it was such an alien concept that he couldn’t get his head around the fact that throughout the whole process, nobody had asked to see an insurance policy or a credit card!
We dropped the Rocket off and left it in the capable hands of Josh while Travis and I headed out for lunch. By the time we got back he had the tank off and various parts spread out, and was in deep conversation with Triumph’s technical bod. They arrived at the conclusion that the problem lay with the fuel pump. The only trouble was neither Gengras nor Triumph US had one in stock. Fortunately Josh’s mechanical background wasn’t limited to European bikes and he thought that it looked remarkably similar to the item fitted to an old Ford Mustang. He rode off on his Honda VTR leaving me to check out the glittering array of Triumphs, Ducatis and BMWs in their showrooms (their Harley shop was a couple of blocks away) and to have yet another illuminating conversation with Forest, an Iraqi war veteran of about Travis’s age who assured me that selling European motorcycles was hell of a lot closer to his dream job.
It turned out that the fuel pump was actually the same as a ’98 Mitsubishi, which had required a lot more chasing around but soon enough a distant vee twin rumble signalled Josh’s return and a relatively short while after that, he was off again test riding the Rocket before topping it up with ‘gas’ and presenting it to me just before close of business. I’d mentioned to Travis in the truck earlier that it was my birthday the next day and he’d given me a little something in a greatly appreciated gesture and then just before I left, the lads in the workshop presented me with a Gengras Ducati t-shirt – gawd bless ‘em.
There were about 90 miles and an entire state (Massachusetts) between East Hartford and Brattleboro, Vermont, which had been my planned destination for the day before. So I scrubbed ‘round my normal practice and headed straight for Interstate 91, where I rolled on the throttle and marvelled at the way the big Triumph lunged forward and munched the miles. I pulled up at the junction of High Street and Main at exactly 7pm, and called Malcolm, my host for the night, to tell him I’d finally made it to Brattleboro; then I sat back and waited for him to join me and guide me to a restaurant then back to his place.
He pulled up about fifteen minutes later, shook hands and bunged my luggage in the ‘trunk’ of his Subaru. I hit the button on the bike and listened to the now familiar sound of the engine turning over impotently. I gave up after another couple of attempts – there was no point in flattening the battery to confirm what I already knew. I explained that I seemed to be back at square one and Malcolm said he’d take me to Stanley Lynde’s bike shop in the morning. A Harley had ridden past moments earlier while I was cranking the Rocket over, and – having pulled a U turn – the rider strolled over to ask what the trouble was, before advising me to take it to Stanley’s place.
I returned just before the parking meters came into force at 9am, only to find that I’d already been done for all night parking! However, when I examined the ticket I discovered it was for $10, which is just over six quid in real money and I thought that was so sweet that I almost paid it. I didn’t of course – I’d be back in London in a week and the bike was on Georgia plates, so it hardly seemed necessary – instead I wrote “THIS BIKE HAS BROKEN DOWN” on the reverse and tucked it back down the front of the seat.
Malcolm dropped me off at Lynde Motorsport, and just as he’d suggested, Stanley was indeed the friendliest, most helpful old-school biker you could possibly hope to meet. He told me that the ways things worked around those parts, a traveller with a breakdown is always bumped to the front of the line and although he knew nothing about the Rocket III, he was sure that he could find some info on the Internet. I explained that the bike belonged to Triumph US, so I’d need to check with them before I asked him to go ahead, but thanked him for the offer and said I’d keep him posted.
As it turned out the Triumph didn’t move under its own power at all on my 54th birthday (which was an interesting variation on the one I’d celebrated in the US thirty years earlier, when it was me that was rendered immobile by a lethal combination of hits on a bong and kamikaze shots!). Still, every cloud has a silver lining and the clouds above Brattleboro looked like they were lined with lead that day. Consequently I was pretty relieved that I was sitting in the library checking emails rather than riding when they emptied their contents for three solid hours in a manner that rendered words like ‘teeming’ and ‘torrential’ woefully inadequate. Mac was out of office all day, and although he struggled manfully to put me in contact with a colleague, problems between my mobile and the local phone service meant that it was mid-afternoon before we finally spoke. Once we did, Tia quickly located the closest Triumph dealer – Second Wind of Merrimack, which is in New Hampshire, 70 miles east of Brattleboro – and arranged for them to come and pick up the hapless machine. I thanked her, but pointed out that by the time they’d collected it, taken it back to Meerimack, worked on it, and then returned it to me, I’d have lost a third day and my trip would have to be truncated still further. Didn’t they have another bike – an America perhaps – that they could swap for the Rocket?
By the time Darryl pulled up in his box van the skies had cleared and the black America that he wheeled out with less than 400 miles on the clock, glittered furiously in the bright evening sun. I waved him off and started the comparatively diminutive twin and I couldn’t help grinning as I reflected that this was the bike I’d really wanted in the first place. OK I’d ‘lost’ a couple of days, but they hadn’t really been wasted because I’d met some really great people. So ultimately the Rocket’s problems were all part of the rich tapestry of my American adventure and I felt a warm glow of anticipation, as I looked forward to the next stage of what was turning out to be quite an eventful trip.
Setting off at 9am the following morning I was grateful that I’d taken Malcolm’s advice and parked the America in his garage because everything outside of it had a distinctly frosty fuzz. Although my only full day’s riding had finished less than a hundred miles south west of my starting point that morning, the change in temperature made it feel like I’d crossed at least ten degrees of latitude.
When I’d left Danbury beneath grey skies a few days before, the ambient temperature was high enough to ride in jeans, the outer windproof part of my Aerostitch jacket, and an Ace Cafe t-shirt; but heading out of Marlboro beneath a bright but weak mid October sun, I was wearing long Johns, jeans, over-trousers, a t-shirt, a cotton polo, another hi-tech layer, and my jacket with the liner firmly zipped in – and it still felt decidedly parky!
Any sat nav worth its salt would’ve told me that the best route to Montpelier was straight up Interstates 91 and 89 and that the 124 mile, largely motorway journey, could be done in a smidgen under 2 hours. However, I’d already decided I was going the back way along Rte. 100. A Garmin would’ve baulked at my convoluted choice, informing me that I would have to travel 153 miles to reach the same destination and it would take me almost 5 hours; but I’d already travelled that road three years earlier – albeit in a car – so I knew it offered a delightful backroads alternative. In fact it was the memory of that leg of that trip, which prompted me to arrange this one because all the time that I was driving along the meandering ‘A’ road, I was taking in my surroundings with the eyes and emotions of a motorcyclist, and kept thinking how brilliant it would be if I was mounted on a willing bike, rather than being contained and constrained within a hire car.
Actually the trip took six hours, but that was due to all the fantastic photo opportunities rather than a low average speed, because the Triumph was perfectly willing and generally the traffic was light so I was able to cover the ground at a consistently entertaining pace. My lunch stop slowed me down too, but given that I was aiming to soak up the atmosphere rather than racing from A to B, the ambience in the Pittsfield General Store was exactly what I was looking for.
Although its architecture is unmistakeably American, in many ways Montpelier has more in common with a small market town in Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales, or the Peak District than it shares with other US capitals – not least because it has the distinction of being the only one in the entire Union that doesn’t have a MacDonalds! I was up very late with my good friend Nat Frothingham (who publishes the local paper “The Bridge”), his friend Elizabeth and good old Dionysus, so the sun had almost reached the top of its arc by the time I got to the bike the next day, but because it was still sitting in the shade, the seat was covered with a thick white pelt.
Barely a week earlier I’d been in Boston basking in the golden glow of an Indian summer that was as warm as anything I’d experienced at home all year and I’d scoffed at the suggestion that I’d need to zip the liner into my jacket, let alone wire it up so I could utilise the heated option. Just how wussy are these Americans? The idea was so ridiculous I almost left the connection kit behind – I mean, how far could the temperature possibly drop in the space of a few days and a couple of hundred miles? Fortunately the kit was very compact so I bunged it in just for the hell of it! How glad was I? Wiring it directly to the battery took a matter of minutes and before I’d even reached the main road I was radiating complacently.
The next point on my vague itinerary was the Acadia National Park, which was way up on the Maine coast nearly 300 miles away. It was unlikely that I’d have done it in a single hit, even if I’d left at the crack of dawn, but by the time I’d enjoyed a leisurely lunch and set off on 302 east, the sun was already dipping into my mirrors. I’d been planning to take Route 2 all the way to Bangor but another motorcyclist I’d spoken to a few days earlier, had told me that I really should take the Kancamangus Highway.
It felt fantastic cutting through the cold crisp air with my jacket gently cooking me. There was very little traffic but there were enough signs warning of ‘”Moose Crossing” to make sure that I stayed alert. There was even one warning of “Bears for 3 miles”, which conjured up a scary image of a grizzly with the munchies snatching me off the bike like some sort of ursine meals on wheels, but I made it without any dramas. As the highway climbed higher and the sun sank lower, the temperature dropped like a stone. Although I was lovely and snug at my core, my pinkies were beginning to suffer and by the time I stopped at the parking/viewing area at the highest point of the pass, I had to warm them on the engine before I could take a photograph. Fortunately it was all downhill from there and the chill of the rapidly encroaching darkness was balanced by the fact I was riding at a lower altitude with every mile. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the T-junction at the end of the highway, I was ready to call it a day.
That’s when the lovely Rick Rapone spotted me at the traffic lights trying to read my map by my headlight and turned back to check that I was holding it the right way up. I was as it happens, but I was also about to head in completely the wrong direction to find a motel. He phoned a B&B in North Conway to reserve a room, then led me two or three miles to it in his truck. I grabbed some nosh locally then settled in the warm TV lounge to watch the Red Sox tie up the playoffs at 3-3. The next morning Rick turned up unexpected while I was finishing my breakfast to ask if I’d like to do a spot of sightseeing.
Like I say, I’ve never been one for strict schedules, so I was more than happy to take him up on his kind offer and we saw some spectacular scenery, as well as a brilliant reconstruction of the Abbey Road album complete with pumpkin mannequins. We then went to see Rick’s friend Richard Murray, a retired lift engineer with fantastic collection of bikes. On the domestic front there was a beautiful S&S engined custom, a Buell Firebolt, and the HD Sportster he’d bought in 1973. Then there was his stable of Ducatis – a Multistrada, an ST4, a 996 Desmoquattro and a 999R – all of them loaded with every conceivable extra from Tergmignonis and carbon fibre, to open racing clutch covers. Stunning!
It was a crisp clear day so Richard offered to ride to the coast with me on his ST4 and although I rarely ride in company, even at home, it made a pleasant change, particularly as Richard was a good rider in the IAM mould so it was an entertaining journey that never strayed into macho silliness. He turned back when we reached the edge of Portland leaving me with plenty of daylight to find a place to stay for the night. I’d already reconciled myself to the fact that I wouldn’t have time to head north, so I rode into the city in search of the ocean.
It was the first place of any size that I’d been near since I left Hartford four days earlier and frankly I wanted out of there as quickly as I could; but I wasn’t so desperate that I was tempted to take the Interstate. Instead I found my way onto Rte 1 and headed south, before hanging a left at the junction with 98 when I saw a sign saying “Beach”. A few minutes later I arrived in Old Orchard Beach and just as I rode past a deserted amusement park, my iPod switched to Springsteen’s 1973 seaside classic ”4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”, which I accepted as a sign that this was the place I’d been looking for.
The season was definitely over but I found a small motel whose neon “Vacancies” sign was lit. I paid for a room and asked the owner if she knew of anywhere that was open where I could get myself a lobster dinner. She pointed me at Wormwood’s, which was about three miles along the coast so I bunged my luggage in my room and had a short stroll along the beach to watch the sunset before hopping on the Triumph and heading off to eat. And I got exactly what I’d been looking for, a scrumptious bowl of creamy clam chowder, followed by a sweet succulent one and a half pound boiled lobster – superb!
There was a sharp frost in the air as I mounted the America and it was an eerie sensation riding back to the motel on a pitch-black empty road with mist swirling all around. I got back in plenty of time to watch the Sox blow the deciding game in the playoffs! Great, I realised that everyone would be thoroughly depressed when I returned to Boston and that’s what I was going to be doing the following morning.
I rejoined Rte 1 and headed south looking for somewhere suitable for breakfast and half an hour later I arrived at the Maine Diner. It was precisely what I’d been looking for ever since I started my travels; everything from the sign and the striped awnings outside, to the counter, booth and table seating inside, was classic Americana. Fortified I got back on 1 and continued on my way keeping the ocean on my left. I crossed the Maine/New Hampshire state line at Portsmouth and less than twenty miles later I crossed another line into Massachusetts. Heading south I passed Salisbury and Newbury, before turning off at Kent corner, and driving through Ipswich, Essex and Gloucester on the way to Rockport, which is at the far end of the headland to the north east of Boston.
Although Rockport is around 37 miles from the centre of Boston it’s obviously within the commuter belt because its train station is part of the city’s T system. If that hadn’t already given me a clue, the abrupt change in driving manners would have told me that I was close to a seriously large metropolis. I’d spent a whole week riding among drivers who were so laidback it seemed rude to hustle, but by the time I hit the traffic of Downtown Boston I was back in full London riding mode, fighting to defend my bit of tarmac.
The next day I needed to take the America back to Second Wind and swap it for the Rocket III. I stuck to my usual practice and enjoyed a great last waltz on the unladen Triumph as I rode the forty odd miles to Merrimack, NH along rte 3A. However, by the time I climbed onto the gargantuan triple to head south again, it was already raining steadily and rapidly darkening, so I took the advice I was given and followed the turnpike to I.95, where I headed east to I.93, which dumped me in the centre of Boston about 45 minutes later.
I woke up to a cold and drizzly Wednesday and realised that the weather forecasters the day before had been spot on, the climate in New England had turned from Indian summer to bitter autumn chill overnight. There were places in northern Vermont and New Hampshire that had been bathed in bright October sunshine when I’d ridden through them a few days earlier that were now being threatened with their first snowfalls of the year. It was a short, grim ride to Riverside Motorcycles in Sommerville, but owner Carlo Hansen made me very welcome, before dropping me at the T, half a dozen stops and a short walk from my friend Tom’s apartment on Commonwealth Avenue
So what did I find out about our American cousins? Basically they’re a hell of a lot friendlier than their government’s foreign policy. As for our tea… I’ve got no idea we did to piss them off, but it must have been something really serious, because every cup I was given while I was there was undrinkable.
Special thanks to Mac Benson at Triumph US and their New England dealer network for all the friendliness and support they offered me. Every motorcyclist knows that shit happens sometimes, the important thing is how people respond when it does, and all of them were absolute diamonds.
This feature first appeared in issues 134/5 in November and December 2008