Spring’s bearing down on us. I could feel it when Eli and I took the dogs for a hike to Window Falls at Hanging Rock.
Twenty-plus years ago, I rode a motorcycle. I used it to commute, have fun and occasionally travel. The bike itself was a ’79 BMW R100/7, which was a combination project, time machine for many people I encountered (I remember when…), and semi-reliable way to get around. I sold it a few years after moving to North Carolina.
The pandemic got me thinking about riding again, as a means of getting out of the house for a few hours and visiting sites around the Piedmont I’ve been wanting to see and photograph. I’m old enough to know that riding a motorcycle is a perishable skill so I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider class again. Finding a class nearby that wasn’t fully booked was a challenge, so I used that as an excuse to take the class at the BMW Rider Academy in Greer, SC. If you’re thinking about taking the MSF class and are anywhere near Greer, I can recommend it.
I rode a nearly new BMW G 310 R instead of the clapped out Honda from my first class. It’s a light, agile bike with a single cylinder engine, six-speed transmission, TFT instrument display, inverted forks, rear mono shock and ABS. It’s not ideal for a person six-plus feet tall, but it wasn’t uncomfortable to ride.
I mentioned that motorcycling skills are perishable? Mine were. The class starts with very basic skills – finding the clutch friction zone, balancing and manipulating the throttle before moving on to actual riding. Most of the exercises happen at relatively low speeds (under 30 mph), so spills (and a few classmates had them) aren’t serious. U-turns, figure-8s in a confined box, braking (and panic braking) in different situations, swerving and other fundamentals kept us busy for most of two days.
Another thing in favor of taking the MSF class at BMW: Fantastic food for lunch. I had baked cod the first day and pork chops the second. And no, the class isn’t any more expensive than taking it at a community college. Plus, BMW offers some financial perks for those who choose to follow up by purchasing a new BMW motorcycle.
The conclusion of day two is the skills test. Those who lack a motorcycle endorsement on their license can pass this in place of some states’ skills tests. We quickly went through five tests to assess our ability to control our motorcycles. Drop the bike, stall more than three times, or rack up 16 penalty points and you fail. I’m happy to say I didn’t stall or fall, and had plenty of points to spare.
What’s next? I need more practice, but I need a bike first. And I kind of miss having a BMW boxer, which was a lot of fun and easy to ride. Maybe I’ll look for something like this R nineT.
The family and I have been traveling to Chincoteague Island, on Virginia’s eastern shore, for several years. It takes us about seven hours to drive there but it’s convenient for Beth’s sister, who typically joins us. We picked it as our pandemic vacation retreat for a few reasons:
- Socially distanced beachgoing isn’t too difficult. The beaches – an island away on Assateague – don’t see the kind of crowds we get on the NC and SC coasts. Plus, because the beach at Assateague Island is a National Seashore, there aren’t any condos and houses crowding the waterfront.
- Fresh seafood is bountiful and good. There’s no reason to go out.
- It’s cheap. House rentals can be surprisingly affordable.
- The eastern shore has good places to explore.
A few highlights and lowlights from our week on Chincoteague Island. I’m going to rate each of the businesses mentioned from one star (lousy) to three (good job!) based on how well people were behaving themselves, distance and mask-wise.
It was hellishly hot. Too hot to go to the beach hot. Too hot to go running before dawn or after dusk hot. Yeah, that hot. Only one day did the temperature dip to the point where we were tempted to go back to the beach, following a brief trip early in the week after which we returned worn out and savaged by sand flies. We gave into temptation and had a great time – temps were in the low 80s and the ocean felt nice and cool. We swam and swam some more. It was glorious.
Janes Island State Park is a jewel. It sits on the Tangier Bay side of Maryland and has one of the most beautiful campgrounds I’ve seen in a state park. Yeah, it’s seven hours away but I’ll drive seven hours to camp there, do some fishing, and go kayaking on the canals and bay.
We explored a small park on the Atlantic side of the eastern shore, as well as Deal’s Island, which answers the question, Who’s ready to sell their house due to rising water? (Answer: Every other person, it seemed) Rising seas at Tangier Bay threaten local communities, including Tangier Island, and on Deal’s Island this was on full display.
Eat & Drink on Chincoteague Island
I mentioned seafood, right? Gary Howard Seafood*** and Ricky’s** were our go-to places to get fresh seafood. We had tuna steaks, shrimp and scallops from the former, and a giant pile of local oysters from the latter. We tried to shop at SeaBest Seafood*** but the owner got wound up and shouty when I said the word “ceviche” while scoping out some fish. We got the hell out of there.
There’s a small market*** on Maddox Avenue (the main drag). I didn’t get the name, but if you look on Google Maps for the Banana Hammock you’ll find the location. Apparently, frozen bananas are less appealing than a great selection of seafood, meat, and produce. I bought some pork chops and the ingredients for killer gazpacho. We shopped there several times and the owners treated us right.
Chincoteague Island has a newish brewery and it’s good. Black Narrows*** brews some tasty beers. I’ll vouch for their Sit a Spell IPA and Salts tart oyster wheat (that’s right). They offer crowlers to go, as well as indoor and outdoor seating. I didn’t take advantage of this, but they deliver.
Beach vacations demand ice cream and Mr. Whippy*** is my place. Chocolate, vanilla or a swirl are the only choices and that’s the way it should be. The family likes Island Creamery*** and it’s good, too, if you prefer your ice cream fancy.
Amarin Coffee*** serves, you guessed it, coffee. The beans are from Vietnam and you can order a perfect Vietnamese coffee. The only thing bad about them is that they don’t have an outpost in Greensboro.
Lilly’s Little Mexico*** is in a food truck park on Maddox. If you are in a hurry you might want to go elsewhere. If you are patient and like good food, it’s a great option. And if you’re with someone who loves BBQ and COVID-19, you can send them across the way to Woody’s*, where the owner’s not a fan of masks. Plenty of people were waiting a half-hour plus to get their orders from Lilly’s, while I saw two customers at Woody’s.
SeaStar*** is a reliable take-out sandwich shop. I’ve eaten many sandwiches there and have never had a bad one.
I don’t know how we missed this place during previous trips, but Beach Road Roundup*** has a hell of a breakfast. They have great food, and funny and cheerful service.
There is an outdoor tiki bar* in Chincoteague. We checked it out. I won’t name it but it’s the only tiki bar on the island and trust me, you can skip it unless you like mediocre, watered-down drinks.
Books read: 1
Movies watched: 0
Heat index: 108
Delmarva fox squirrel sightings: 0
Times I went running: In that heat? Are you kidding?
I developed a roll of Kodak TriX that had been in my Minox 35GT for several years. This was taken in 2015 along Lake Champlain during a two-day bike ride from Burlington, VT to Alburgh, VT and back.
Day one was a straight shot up the greenway out of Burlington, across the bike ferry to South Hero Island, then along the lake to the Ransom Bay Inn in Alburgh.
Day two included a lovely detour onto Isle la Motte. I rolled back into Burlington just as heavy rain began falling.
Sunday Beth and I went north, where we found almost no one. Just as we hoped.
Beth and I got out of the house yesterday and drove southeast from Greensboro. We didn’t have a destination in mind, but eventually found our way to Cedarock Park in Alamance County. Crowds of people hadn’t been watching the news, I guess, or are weirdly optimistic about their immunity to the virus that’s rampaging across the world. We avoided them, drove to the end of the park where there were few people, and walked down to the river to take a look.
Afterward, we meandered toward and over Bass Mountain, with an obligatory stop at the Original Hollywood Horror Show.
We were in the Snow Camp area, and Beth wanted to see the old Cane Creek Meeting House. We found it, next to the Snow Camp Outdoor Theater (closed tight for the last couple of years) and the remains of Ye Old Country Kitchen. We’ve never eaten there, and I guess we’ll never have the chance.
There’s one place we’ve traveled where Beth and I don’t see eye-to-eye: London. She’s #teamlondon, and sees something romantic in marginal weather, royals, and obscene concentrations of wealth. I, on the other hand, crank up The Sex Pistols and turn my cynicism to 11.
We landed in London for an overnight stay on the way home from Portugal. A cabbie greeted us by plundering our wallet for the trip from Heathrow to our hotel in Kensington, where we checked into a room about twice the size of our dog’s crate. He gave me his card in case I needed to shed cash at any point during our stay.
True story: The last time we were in London (2010) we stayed in a room so small that at one point Beth found our son reading on the roof, where the walls weren’t inches away.
I stowed my cynicism and put our itinerary, minus dinner, in Beth’s hands. She wanted to see the Portobello Road Market and The Famous Door (wait for it….). So off we went.
I’ll give it this: The people watching at the market was excellent. Beth checked out street vendors and I shot photos. It was a win-win. Eventually we got tired of being elbow to elbow with half the Americans in London and retired to The Castle, which answered the question, What would it be like to drink a pint of beer while surrounded by noise like ’50s-era jets taking off?
Did I mention “The Door?” This would be the purple door where Hugh Grant emerged during whatever movie it was that propelled Portobello Road into the consumer consciousness. We saw it (the door, that is). An angry man elbowed me in the ribs while I took a picture.
After Portobello we took refuge in The Beachcomber, a tiki bar where we drank from a glass skull. This was only two or three days after the final Brexit vote, and if I were British I would still probably be there with no plans to #leave. By the way, I had no idea tiki bars are a thing in London, but knowing this elevates my opinion of the city.
Dinner: We went to Hereford Road, which is the name of both a road and a restaurant. It’s where a butcher shop once stood and they serve all kinds of meaty goodness, while completely lacking any pretentiousness. I had the lamb chops and loved them. I would go back in a second.
It was raining hard when we left Hereford Road, so we Uber’d back to the hotel where I picked up an umbrella and walked to a gelato/coffee shop for an espresso. While I waited in line, a kid who was about five made a game of stealing my umbrella and bringing it back. His mom was horrified. I was entertained. The espresso wasn’t bad, and unfortunately I can’t recall the name of the place.
We flew home the next morning. Truth be told, I’ll miss that tiki bar.
Jason Kottke is a fabulous writer, and this observation from his recent article about traveling in Asia reflects my own experience:
America is a rich country that feels like a poor country. If you look at the investment in and the care put into infrastructure, common areas, and the experience of being in public in places like Singapore, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin and compare it to American cities, the difference is quite stark. Individual wealth in America is valued over collective wealth and it shows.
It’s a terrific article with excellent photography.
Brilliant marketing. It makes me want to visit the Isle of Man.