Day 25 – 26 Meeting New Friends

Santa Fe, NM – Holbrook, AZ

310 miles

I’m taking a rest day in Santa Fe before making my way over towards Santa Barbara to meet one of my closest friends, Jonathan. It’s such a pleasure to walk around the streets of Santa Fe, touristy as they are, and see the jewelry shops, the Indian markets, and the art galleries. Of course, what Santa Fe also has are chiles. Lots and lots of wonderful green, red, hatch, and poblano chiles. As I said before, this might be my favorite city in America to eat, and I haven’t been doing much eating over the last few days.

20110625-054205.jpg

As many of friends know, one of the banes of my existence is breakfast. I generally don’t like American breakfasts. I don’t much care for eggs.  Pancakes feel like a dessert.  And cereal with milk leaves me feeling not-so-fresh feeling. I much prefer Vietnamese pho (clear beef noodle soup) to start the day, or a Japanese breakfast of sticky rice, poached salmon and pickled vegetables. However, when you add green and red chile to the mix, a Southwestern breakfast might be the best thing a guy like me can find in the States. Did I mention how much I love eating in Santa Fe?

20110625-054239.jpg

I did my first breakfast at Café Pasqual’s on Don Gaspar Avenue and my second at Tia Sophia’s, a local joint on San Francisco Street. One of the nice treats at breakfast are fresh sopoppias, which are puffy Native American fry bread usually served with fresh honey. So tasty with good chicory coffee.

20110625-054254.jpg

For dinner, I went to Coyote Café for what might be my best formal meal of the trip. I sat at the counter in front of the stoves and ovens and got to rap a bit with the chefs. They steered me in the right direction. I had this amazing crab and seared tuna salad to start, followed by grilled shrimp with sweet corn polenta and creamy poblano sauce. Ridiculously amazing.

20110625-054226.jpg

20110625-054443.jpg

20110625-054218.jpg

I took off the next morning heading towards Albuquerque. The going was a little tougher as my windshield now completely collapsed at 30 mph forcing me to hold on a little tighter as the bike gets up to speed. One of the nice things about being off the trail is meeting people again. As I headed towards Arizona, I stopped at a Shell Station to do some long awaited maintenance. As I topped the bike off with fuel and oil, a young man named Robert approached me and asked if he could polish my windshield for a little spare change. I said yes without thinking too much about it, and soon he was asking me about my trip and the places I’d been. We started conversing and he explained that he and his wife were trying to get back up to Patterson in the northern part of the state. Their car broke down and they had used the last of their funds getting it fixed. Now, he was washing windows to make gas money.

I really don’t know why, but there was something about him that touched me. He was a young kid, down on his luck. We talked a little bit more about my life, and he admitted that he wished he made some better choices in his own life. I gave him some small career advice and also wrote down some websites that he might look at to gain some better employment opportunities. Finally, I decided to give him $20 which I think got him most of the gas he needed (before you jump on me, I watched him fill his car up – the $20 wasn’t used for meth) and he was so grateful that he washed the rest of my bike for me. He seemed so appreciative for the little bit of help I gave him. But most importantly, I felt like he really just wanted to be heard. We all need to be heard once in a while.

I pushed on from Albuquerque crossing the Arizona border at about 5pm in the evening (I thought it was 6pm but I crossed into PST) and started looking for shelter. I found a KOA Campsite right off the main highway at Holbrook which looked perfect to me. Being sand and moth free, I was eager to get camping again.

20110625-054328.jpg

Dinner that night…

20110625-054335.jpg
A little less gourmet, but no less good!

The best part was I met Jean-Jacque and his charming wife Eve who were camping two sites down from me. They were both French citizens who were driving historic Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago in a rented minvan. What a cool trip!

20110625-054356.jpg

Jean-Jacque first approached me to ask about my motorcycle. It turns out that he owns a BMW R1200GS of his own and loves his bike the same way I love mine. He and his wife really wanted to tour the US on motorcycle but the rental fees for motorcycles in the states are astronomical. We ended up having breakfast together where he explained that he worked for Paribas Bank in their offshore division and is currently stationed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. We talked for a while about the joys of motorcycling and how it forces you to see the places you travel in three dimensions, as opposed to being behind the two dimensional windshield of an automobile. After several rounds of pancakes and my insisting on them eating at Gibson’s Steakhouse in Chicago, they generously invited me to come down to Guadeloupe stay with him in December.

As Bill Murray said in Caddyshack, “so now I have that going for me”.

Day 17 – 18 – Back on the Road

Houston, TX – Fredricksberg, TX
213 miles

Today I left Houston and continued my westward journey heading towards California.  The quickest way out of Houston is the big I-10 Interstate which runs East-West from Houston to El Paso (and beyond).  I left Randall’s house and drove on the highway for about three hours.  During that time, all I could think was that I had nothing to write about today.  Nada.  Just riding a big suburban interstate with the same 40 or so chain restaurants and hotels being advertised beside each exit.

That being said, this guy looks likes he’s going to have some fun somewhere.

20110614-102633.jpg

However, one thing kept nagging at me.  Every 30 or so miles this giant bucktoothed chipmunk, apparently named Buc-ee, kept showing up on billboards and extolling the virtues of his clean bathrooms, cold drinks, free beef jerky and all-around family fun.  My father once had his finger bit by a chipmunk so I generally regard the rodent species with a high degree of suspicion.  But the repetition of his message finally wore me down and I pulled over to see the famous Buc-ee’s and understand what this pushy chipmunk was talking about.

20110614-102622.jpg

The first thing I learned is that Buc-ee’s is a large chain of roadside gas and general merchandise stores.  However, the one I was visiting was one of their three largest.  The first third of the store was dedicated to clothing depicting the cheeky chipmunk that drew me in.  Think about that.  Imagine walking into your local Stop N Shop, Food Lion or Wegman’s and seeing the first third of the store dedicated to T-shirts with an A&P logo.

But what really blew me away was the next third of the store which was dedicated to food (no surprises here).  Most kwik-ee marts might offer a few gross hot dog roasting since the beginning of the Regan era or some cold sandwiches in a depressing refrigerator.  But Buc-ee’s had a massive selection of fresh Southern delicacies, a giant sandwich bar, and a touch pad system for ordering hot entrees.

20110614-102644.jpg

But what caught my eye was the huge selection of beef jerky.  Jalapeno, teriyaki, mild, spicy, elk, buffalo, turkey jerky were all sold by weight.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a selection that large in person, but I finally settled on a ¼ pound of buffalo jerky (after sampling 8 others of course).

20110614-102652.jpg

Randall had given me an idea for a detour from 1-10 which involved entering the Texas Hill Country and finding a road called The Devil’s Backbone.  How could I resist?  I pulled off at the Luling exit and remembered an article I read that claimed the town was home to some of the best BBQ in all of Texas.

They were wrong.

Luling, Texas is home to the best BBQ on the entire planet.  It is quite simply the best BBQ I have ever had in my life.

20110614-102701.jpg

Right off Main Street lies City Market BBQ, home to a temple of slow roasted meat since 1968.

20110614-102708.jpg

You walk in and quickly see a separate hermetically sealed chamber in the back where you enter to place your order for BBQ.  It was like going inside the humidor room at the Davidoff Cigar Showroom.  Inside, the pit crew takes your order and serves it up on some butcher paper with pickles and bread on the side.  I went with a half-pound of brisket and a half-pound of ribs.  No plates.  No forks.  No knives (not that you would ever need a knife – so tender).

20110614-102717.jpg

You leave the pit chamber and go to a separate counter to order your drinks (for me, sweet tea is the only libation to accompany BBQ of this caliber).  I sat down in a secluded booth to enjoy my feast much like my dog Piper goes into a quiet room with her bone.  The meat was so succulent of full of smoke and richness.

20110614-102724.jpg

A dash of their secret BBQ sauce added just the right notes of sweetness and vinegar to the luscious beef.  Just a hit of firmness would give way to the luxurious softness that everyone associates with BBQ.  Again, it was the best I ever had.

After finishing, I took the opportunity to walk around Luling and saw signs everywhere for the annual Watermelon Thump that would be happening in the next few weeks.  Apparently, this famous festival brings people from all over the area including live bands, eating contests, and amusement rides.  A local waitress was telling me how Main Street was wall-to-wall people during the Watermelon Thump.

But what interested me the most were the signs all over the streets and establishments of Luling soliciting votes for teenage girls to be elected ‘Thump Queen’ of the Festival.

20110614-102746.jpg

20110614-102754.jpg
20110614-102804.jpg
20110614-102814.jpg

Now, I’ll be honest.  I’ve done a lot of thumping in my time.  But I’ve never heard of a town rallying behind, celebrating even, a girl who thumps the best.  Perhaps more towns should, given the value of the girl’s contribution to small town life.  The reality is, I sadly can’t stick around Luling long enough to evaluate for myself so I pushed on to Fredricksberg, Texas where I’d be staying for the night.

20110614-102825.jpg

Along the way, I found The Devil’s Backbone which coasted gently along the scenic ridge of Texas Hill Country.  The speed limit was 70mph and I didn’t push it much further than that.  It felt refreshing to get a little bit of altitude after the monotonous flat roads of Alabama and Mississippi.  But this was no Blue Ridge Parkway so I took a few photos and pushed on.

20110614-102834.jpg

Fredricksberg was founded by German immigrants over 150 years ago.  Their influence can be seen in the beer gardens, and German restaurants that still populate the town.  Everyone that knows me understands how much I love German food.  But after eating BBQ earlier in the day, I really wanted to indulge in a bit of lighter fare.

I spent the night at a Howard Johnson’s (the temperature at 102 degrees ruled out camping) and asked the lady at the front desk where one could get the best salad in Fredricksberg.

“Um…I don’t really eat a lot of salad.  I guess that’s really bad.” She admitted sheepishly.

“No,” I said reassuringly. “That’s not bad at all.”

But I did manage to stumble on one of the coolest restaurants I’ve discovered on my trip.  I drove 10 miles north out of town to the Hilltop Café.  This small roadhouse with neon highlights outside, camouflaged a fully gourmet menu and wine list.  Old jazz from Count Basie and Fats Domino played on the jukebox and old tin placards adorned the walls.  I had a salad along with red snapper ceviche served with homemade chips.   For an entrée, I enjoyed southern fried shrimp with a jalapeno grits mash (I know – this is light eating for Christof).  Everything was delicious, and soon I was back on the bike with a full belly riding back to the hotel.

Interestingly, this was the first time I had ridden on my bike in the evening.  Within one mile, I saw two families of deer cross the road.   I quickly slowed back down to 40 mph for the remainder of my ride and activated my auxiliary lights and my PIAA lights.  I was really grateful that I installed the extra lighting system because I could see the entire road like it was daylight.  And because I was wearing shorts and flip flops, having an accident would have been….severe.

I have to say there is something special about Texas.  The trip definitely no longer feels like the South, but rather, distinctively western.  Signs for ranches litter the roads as well as other reminders that I’ve crossed the half way mark to the West Coast.

20110614-102918.jpg

Tomorrow, I’ll try to make it to El Paso!

Day 13 – End of the First Stage

Sea Rim State Park, TX – Houston, TX

144 miles

Today I’m heading to Houston! Once I arrive, I’ll be leaving my bike there for a few days while I fly to Greenville, South Carolina to attend a two-day BMW Off-Road Riding clinic that is held at their factory. I’m incredibly excited to attend the clinic, and hope to gain off road riding skills specific to my BMW model that will help me as I explore remote areas of New Mexico and Colorado as well as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Of course, the obvious question is why the hell didn’t I attend the school when I was driving by South Carolina. The truth is that I made the reservation for this clinic back in December before I had even formulated my cross-country trip. I didn’t want to delay my departure date any further so I just figured I’ll fly there and back to keep my journey on schedule. Every trip has detours. This is one of mine.

So, waking up on the beach is a pretty great feeling. A constant breeze coming in from the Gulf kept the tent cool, but I was pretty parched as I had run through the last of my water. I packed up my gear, said goodbye to the imaginary alligators and went in search of a decent breakfast.

Now here’s one thing that’s been driving me crazy in the South – I can’t find any damn diners for breakfast (or any meal for that matter). Nothing! I really try to avoid franchises and chains. Eating healthy on the road is obviously a challenge (I’m open to suggestions) and I don’t want to start off my day at Mickey D’s, Starbucks, or Jack In The Box. I keep seeking some mythical diner where a sweet matronly waitress calls me ‘hon’ and tells me I look like I could use a cup of coffee. She smiles kindly at me and asks me where I’m headed. If it’s lunch, she says she has one last piece of pecan pie she’s saving in the back for me. But I’m looking for a fresh breakfast somewhere. Or at the very least, a place where I could maybe get fresh egg whites, perhaps even some granola.

20110613-095415.jpg

So instead, I went to Waffle House. Bear in mind, I was raised in the Northeast so my experience with Waffle House is regrettably limited. I enter and quickly realize my hopes of an egg white omelet with spinach, heirloom tomato aioli, and a gentle crumbling of Greek feta are substantially diminished. Instead I order an All-Star breakfast with consists of 2 fried eggs, bacon, crispy fried potato mush, and of course a waffle (with fresh corn syrup on the side).

Waitress: “Anything to drink with your Grand Slam Breakfast?”

Me: “I’d love an ice coffee.”

Waitress: “Coffee?”

Me: “No. I like some ice coffee.”

Pregnant pause.

Waitress: “We don’t have that.”

Me: “You don’t have ice coffee?”

Waitress: “I mean, I could bring you a coffee and a cup of ice.”

Me: “I’m pretty sure that would do it.”

We finished the conversation both confused about the other person’s motives, but at least it resulted in a bit of enlightenment for both of us.

After ingesting a soulless glass of ice coffee and enough breakfast calories to sustain a West African pygmy tribe through the monsoon season, I blasted towards Houston to store my motorcycle and see my good friend Randall.

But as soon as I breached the Houston city limits, the first order of business was to get the bike serviced at Gulf Sports BMW in Pasadena. I’ve already put 1500 miles on the trip, and I had that little overheating snafu on my first day so I figured it was a good idea to let the doctor check over the patient and at least get the oil changed. After all, if the bike dies – the trip dies (as well as a little piece of my heart).

20110613-093403.jpg

Patty and her staff at Gulf Sports BMW were so incredibly kind and asked lots of questions about the trip. They fit me on short notice and gave the bike a minor overhaul. She also explained that I should be using different motor oil considering the heat that I’m riding in. They changed my oil, checked the fluids, and pronounced my beautiful bumblebee of a bike to be healthy.

20110613-093435.jpg

From there, I took off to see Randall, one of my closest friends for more than a decade. He lives in Houston and was kind enough to let me store my bike with him while I attend the Off-Road Riding School over the weekend. It was terrific to see him and his wonderful children (who have tripled in size since I had seen them last).

20110613-093414.jpg

Everyone wanted to check out the bike and hear about the trip. Most importantly, I was kindly offered a shower of which I was in desperate need having gone a few days without, while driving in 100+ heat. After I was made somewhat fit for human company again, we had a great steak dinner at a new restaurant that apparently also doubled as a cougar support group for the local women of a certain age. Lastly, Randall was kind enough to drive me to the airport at 4 a.m. to catch my flight. Just an awesome, awesome guy.

Off to BMW school! So psyched!! 2 days of crazy riding on GS Adventures (my bike model). Next post will be when I get back from school!

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: Heavier motor oil is better in warmer weather. Also, cougars are very demanding of the personal hygiene of their partners.

Day 10 – The Big Easy

New Orleans

0 Miles

Woo Hoo!! New Orleans!

20110606-113550.jpg

New Orleans has long been one of my favorite cities in America specifically because it has always retained such a distinct culture of its own. Yes, the French Quarter is a tourist hell filled with young women exposing themselves for $.05 worth of beads (which would normally cost a gentlemen at least dinner and two hours of meaningful conversation), but the city’s architecture, food and soul set it apart from from other American cities .

So far, I’ve talked a lot about food in this blog, and God knows New Orleans has some serious eats. But New Orleans also has an incredible diverse, vibrant music scene.

20110606-113626.jpg

Saturday night on Bourbon Street is expectedly crowded but one of the great perks of the French Quarter is a “to-go cup” where bartenders will pour your beer in a plastic cup and allow you to walk outside with it, even walk into other bars. On weekend nights, most of the French Quarter bars have live music that you can hear all over the street. What ends up happening is that you can walk in and out of each venue sampling the live bands playing different kinds of music. It’s really like an acoustic buffet ranging from hard rock cover bands, to classic jazz, to jubilant zydeco music. And to be honest, I’m not even that huge a fan of live music but each venue is so intimate that you always feel like you’re getting a personal concert. So awesome.

My favorite has to be zydeco (which for my European friends is traditional Cajun music featuring accordion and washboard instruments) because it’s so rare that I can listen to, let alone see, this form of music. It’s such inherently happy, fast paced music that always seems to beckon at least few people to the dance floor. The washboard (which is played by scratching two metal forks against the metal washboard worn across the chest) may seem like a primitive instrument but seeing it played live makes my tone deaf toes start tapping. I swear, these Cajuns could elicit Beethoven’s 5th Symphony out of those forks if they felt like it.

During the day on Sunday, I walked through the deeper parts of the French Quarter and got to spend time listening to the street musicians who have a sizable following. Some of the performers really treat each performance like a live set in a club and perform as professionals, not panhandlers. It’s so great that New Orleans fosters this sort of environment. And the sheer quality of the countless musicians in the city keeps the caliber of the street performers high.

20110606-113734.jpg

I spent a fair bit of time listening to two women on Front Street named Tanya and Dorsie, that completely blew me away. They rocked the coolest sound with a cool mix of classical violin with deep blues guitar. Go check out their MySpace page. I stood listening for about 20 minutes and was so pissed I didn’t have my camera. I bought one of their CDs in which they perform a rendition of Pacabel’s Canon in D which is a deeply personal piece for me and it almost brought me to tears. It’s so hard to discover cool new music, but even more rare to discover it in person. Check them out!

Of course, no visit to New Orleans would be complete without indulging in the most Creole of foods. Crawfish!! These really are one of my favorite foods to eat. Yes, there is a technique to it and the exercise is certainly a messy one. But there is something deliciously primitive about the process of extracting the meat while sitting at a big newspaper covered table with others all doing the same while the fragrant heat brings a small sweat to your forehead. The spicy / salty seasoning of Zataran’s was cut by a cold Dixie lager which was the perfect foil to the “mudbugs”.

20110606-113717.jpg

20110606-113708.jpg

And I really thought my trip to New Orleans couldn’t get any better. But then in my random wanderings I discovered that this weekend was the New Orleans Oyster Festival!! What God did I please? Oh man, oysters prepared every which way, the Abita truck pulling beer, and a live music concert in the bright hot sun made this the PERFECT afternoon. Rockin’ Doopsie Jr was on stage howling, yelping and doing James Brown splits.

20110606-113648.jpg

20110606-113637.jpg

One of the biggest lines was for the Dargo’s Roasted Oysters similar to what I had the night before at Wintzell’s in Mobile so I thought I’d include some photos of that.

20110606-113605.jpg

20110606-113611.jpg

Mmm..Crawfish pie! I’ve only had this at Jazz Fest. SO psyched to find it here.

20110606-113659.jpg

Not exactly sure where I’ll go tomorrow. Part of me wants to explore the Gulf Coast but the other part is curious to see some of the State Parks in the middle of Louisiana.

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: You never know what’s around the bend (in this case, an oyster festival). That, and Tanya & Dorsie. Lastly, wash hands before AND after you pee when eating crawfish. Just trust me.

Day 9 – Good Voodoo

Mobile, AL – New Orleans, LA

189 miles

I’m headed to New Orleans today. I could take I-10 as a straight shot and save some time, but I’ve always wanted to explore the Gulf region, especially after the devastation of Katrina and the oil spill.

Mostly I rode on Rt. 90 West which ran about 2 miles in from the coast. But I kept veering south on smaller roads to find some mythical beach road that might hug the coast. What I did find was a lot of frustrating dead ends, but at one point I did finally find a road to the beach which made me feel somewhat triumphant.

20110606-112730.jpg

Soon I crossed into Mississippi and found a road that ran along the beaches near Biloxi. I have to say that I was surprised both how nice the beaches were, but also how deserted. Now for all I know, there were hypodermic needles all over the place or maybe some Cajun sea monster had been recently reported, but very few people were on the beach.

20110606-112703.jpg
I was also amazed to see so much beachfront real estate laying vacant, abandoned or for sale. It was a little sad, despite being scenic and getting to ride along the beach.

20110606-112714.jpg

Things changed when I crossed over into Louisiana. There was an instant sense of being in the bayou, and shrimping boats could be seen from the road departing through the tributaries. Being surrounded by nature was a lot more comforting than the urban decline in Mississippi. There were some really beautiful stretches coming into New Orleans.

20110606-112841.jpg
20110606-112852.jpg
20110606-112927.jpg

20110606-112909.jpg

I ended my day by hunting for Mosca’s Restaurant. This was another place in New York Magazine’s 50 State Dinners and was located on a particularly deserted stretch of industrial highway 30 minutes outside New Orleans.

20110606-112821.jpg

I pulled in, removed my helmet and tank bag and started to walk to the entrance. There was already an awkward crowd that had congregated outside the door.

“Do you have a reservation?” one of the men gruffly asked me.

“Ummm…No.”

“Well, they’re only letting people in with a reservation.”

“But I drove my motorcycle all the way from New York to try this place.”

“Yeah, well…so did we.”

I wasn’t going to be deterred by a group of sarcastic disgruntled suburbanites that didn’t understand the epic nature of my journey, and how hungry I was. Just as I walked in, the waitress was carrying a sign to post on the door saying there were ONLY taking people in with reservations.

20110606-112807.jpg

I proceeded to beg the waitress to let me sit at the bar, sit in the bathroom, sit anywhere that I could have dinner at their lovely restaurant that I had heard so much about and travelled so far to see. Maybe it was the vaguely pathetic look on my red, overheated face. Maybe it was fact that I was literally dripping sweat in her foyer, but she finally relented.

“I can’t let you eat at the bar, but…”

“I’ll take anything.”

“I could make you like a makeshift table, but it would be really crappy.”

“I’ll take crappy!”

“Okayyyy.”

The kind waitress then proceeded to take the table that was being used to hold napkins and silverware, threw a tablecloth over it, and stuck it against the wall. “Perfect!” I said. That being said, the table looked like something the Lollypop Gang might use for Thankgiving Dinner. The undersized dimensions make me look like I’m an overgrown fat giant feasting in the Land of the Little People. But giants can’t be choosers.

20110606-112751.jpg

Mosca’s is a blend of Italian & Cajun food. Their speciality is a pan roasted oyster stew topped with homemade bread crumbs, garlic and spices with a secret sauce (there’s always a secret sauce). They serve it with a small side of pasta to dip in and pair with the oysters. Let me say this: it works. So glad I got to eat there. I feel like this is the New Orleans equivalent of Rao’s and I was a fortunate to get a peek inside.

20110606-112758.jpg

Heading off to the French Quarter for two nights in a proper hotel. Yessssss!

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: This trip has good voodoo. People seem to want to help. Trust the trip. And, I shouldn’t eat so much garlic.  Ungh.

Day 8 – It’s All About The Eating…

Calhoun, GA – Mobile, AL

421 miles

Today was by far the best eating day on the trip. I woke up in my KOA Campsite (which we’ve established as the Mandarin Oriental of camping facilities) desperately craving ice coffee. I’ve been sleeping pretty well as the 100+ heat I’ve been experiencing during the day has been giving way to lower temperatures at night. But because I was now at a lower altitude than North Carolina, the Georgia day was heating up fast.

20110606-112301.jpg

I turned to my trusted Coffee Finder app on my iPhone which promptly sent me into an abandoned wheat field somewhere in between Buttfuck & Nowhere (I’m not exaggerating. It was literally a wheat field). All I wanted was some Starbucks love so I figured my best shot was to head closer to the main freeway where one usually finds all the major culinary franchises.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a dilapidated sign for Owen’s Biscuits beside a bordered up house.

20110606-111930.jpg

I’ll be honest – I drove past it. I went a solid ½ mile before I jammed on the brakes and pulled off to the side. This is what the trip is about.

Exploring. Finding. Surprises.

I find that I really have to work hard to correct my innate nature to want to rush from one point to another. I’m always thinking, “you don’t have time for that”, when in reality time is exactly what I have. It’s a tiny bit hard to adjust to a trip without a defined schedule and to slow down whenever you feel like it.

I spun around and discovered that coming from the other direction I could see 8 or 9 cars backed up behind Owen’s Biscuits queuing behind a hidden takeout window. Gold!! I wandered in and quickly realized I had found the local equivalent of Russ & Daughters in Georgia, and these biscuits were like Southern bagels. I asked the woman behind the counter what sort of biscuit a neophyte like me should order. There was a sizable selection of egg, ham, honey and butter biscuits. I settled on a plain butter biscuit as well as some sort of ham concoction which resembled the Georgia version of a David Chang pork bun. It was literally a 2-inch cube of slow roasted ham between a buttered pillow of biscuit. As you imagine this delicious gut bomb, remember that all I really wanted was an ice coffee.

20110606-111940.jpg

But I was richly rewarded for turning around because these biscuits were truly out of this world. The outside of the biscuit maintained a pie crust flakiness while still holding some of the heat from the oven while the inside was pillow soft and slightly salty, perfect to play against a small drizzle of honey. Just fantastic.

But the real point of the day was to make it to Montevallo, AL to go to YaYa’s BBQ joint. And by joint, I mean a food truck that has gained a fair bit of local (and now national) renown.

20110606-112315.jpg

20110606-112037.jpg

I found YaYa’s though an article in New York Magazine profiling 50 Unique “State Dinners” where they identified one unique eatery in each state in America. What especially drew me to YaYa’s was their southern fried pies which as far as I could tell sounded like a deep fried apple turnover. YaYa’s has a Facebook Page and I posted that I was driving my motorcycle down from New York City and was really excited to try some of their pies.

Well, here I am pulling into YaYa’s a few days later. The owner, Tracy Hale, saw me pull up on my bike (with NY plates) and immediately said, “Are you Christof?!”. When I said I was, a wide grin broke out on his face. “I thought you were full of shit when you said you were coming down here on a motorcycle!” I reassured him that it was a common misconception, especially among my close friends. But I really was here, and I really wanted to eat some BBQ and pie.

He immediately introduced me to his wife Dale who worked the inside of YaYa’s while Tracy worked the BBQ grill outside. She excitedly shook my hand and quickly started bringing me plates full of southern love. Not only did they treat me like an honored guest, but they refused to take my money and provided me with a tremendous feast. They could not have been kinder hosts.

The smorgasbord started with a Q-Dog which was an all beef frankfurter smothered with BBQ pulled pork and Special Yaya Sauce. This was accompanied by French fries, cole slaw and slow baked beans. Several large glasses of sweet tea with lemon washed it down before I was presented with a Peach fried pie and a side of vanilla ice cream.

20110606-112347.jpg

It was sincerely delicious and the BBQ & hot dog combo (while seemingly over the top) actually paired up fantastically. YaYa’s has only been around for 2 years now, but its clear Tracy and Dale are doing something very special and original. We ended by taking lots of photos and they promised to put me on their wall. Such kind people.

I really wasn’t prepared for how excited and warmly they treated me. I mean, I was the one driving down to see them. But I guess after eating some of their food, I could taste their passion and their soul in their cuisine. This awesome little place is their dream, and I guess I underestimated how much it means when someone else gets so excited about your dream that they would drive down from New York to experience it. Meeting Tracy and Dale has been the highlight of my trip so far.

20110606-112423.jpg

20110606-112335.jpg

I sat with Tracy for bit discussing my trip and which routes I should take. Everyone loves asking questions about the trip.

“Wow, that’s a big bike.”
Yes. I eat a lot of BBQ and take All-You-Can-Eat as a personal challenge, hence the bike.

“Do you get uncomfortable riding for such long distances?”
Sometimes. I switch positions a lot by actually sitting up high on the passenger seat to avoid building pressure spots. I also stop every two hours or so to drink some water.

“Aren’t you hot in your riding suit?”
Yes, I am. I tried riding without it for a little while but found myself getting too sunburnt. I’ve gone down on a motorcycle before and my leathers saved my life so I think it’s worth the discomfort.

“Do you get lonely?”
Hard to say because I haven’t been gone that long yet. But I wake up each morning feeling very, very fortunate to be able to do this trip so I don’t have any regrets. But cell phone service is a wonderful thing and I can usually talk to my wife in the evening which is great.

Tracy and I talked for a bit longer but soon I had to hit the road. I waddled back to my bike and started on the long slog to Mobile, AL through temperatures reaching 106 while I’m dressed in full leathers and rocking a full belly of BBQ. Yeah. It sucked.

Tracy gave me some great directions that kept me on local roads for another 100 miles before hooking up with I-65 to shoot straight south. The good news is that the speed limit was 70, but almost everyone was doing 90. By sucking in my stomach to be more aerodynamic, I rolled into Mobile around 7:30pm.

20110606-112409.jpg

Now clearly, a better man would have looked down at his BBQ gut and considered this a day well fed and gone to bed. But this was my first time in Mobile and I wanted some way to commune with the heartbeat of the city. And apparently the home of that heart was at Wintzell’s Oyster House on Dauphin Street – the original location where oysters are offered “fried, stewed or nude”. I knew I had hit paydirt when upon walking in, I saw photos of braver men than I that had set the oyster eating records at Winztell’s. Any restaurant that hosts their own eating contest automatically gets 4-stars in my book, just for embracing that Viking dietary ethos that more is always better.

I started with a dozen Gulf oysters on the half shell that were shucked fresh in front of me and placed on an unadorned tin tray. Now, I’m a huge oyster eater (as you’ll see later in this blog) and I’m used to getting 2-3 duds out of each dozen oysters that I typically order. I was amazed to find that every single oyster I ate was creamy, fresh and very clean tasting. They were so mild that I found myself dousing a little homemade green hot sauce on a few just to give them more zing. But also on the menu were roasted oysters which I had never had. Once shucked, the oysters are left in their shells and placed on the grill to cook in their own juices. The chef then sprinkles some spices and parmageian cheese on top and then places them on your tray still bubbling. Again so delicious along with an Abita amber beer to wash it down. The earthiness of the spices played well with the natural brine of the oysters which through cooking had a nice toothsome firmness.

Great meal. Outstanding day. I made some new friends, discovered some new foods and travelled 421 miles in the Gulf heat. Time for bed at the Holiday Inn.

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: Never underestimate the impact that you can have on others. The world is a good place. Also, roasted oysters rock!

Day 6 – The Biltmore Estate (and why I need to become a billionaire)

Boone, NC – Ashville, NC

126 miles

It was sad to say goodbye to Bubba but it was time to push on. I made my way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, again enjoying the magic of the early hours when the air is cool and the riding is solitary. So beautiful and peaceful.

20110605-085801.jpg

20110605-085907.jpg

20110605-085826.jpg

20110605-085813.jpg

I skipped breakfast again which inevitably led me to start fantasizing about lunch. I knew I would stop in Asheville for lunch and I had a pretty good idea that I’d be able to find some proper southern fried chicken there. Using Yelp, I decided upon Tupelo Honey Café where I ordered a glorious southern feast.

20110605-085922.jpg

20110605-085849.jpg

I had planned to get back on the Parkway and ride it to the end but a nagging voice in my head reminded me that my Aunt Cindy (arguably my coolest and youngest Aunt) had told me at the wedding that I MUST visit the Biltmore Estate.

Embarrassingly, I didn’t even really understand what it was – some museum perhaps. But for those of you who don’t know, the Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned home in America. It was built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt as a “country home”. Spanning over 175,000 feet and containing over 250 rooms, it was one of the most impressive constructions of America’s Gilded Age. Vanderbilt commissioned Fredrick Law Olmsted, who was the architect behind New York’s Central Park, to design the grounds which spanned hundreds of thousands of acres.

20110605-090106.jpg

20110605-090051.jpg

It’s simply fascinating to see how Americans lived in that era. One of my favorite tidbits was the indoor bathrooms (so rare at the time and the Biltmore had close to 30) which had bathtubs and toilets, but all lacked sinks. It was assumed that if one wanted to wash their face that a servant would bring a washbasin of warm water. Just wild!

20110605-090115.jpg

Today, the estate is open to the public and is still run by the Vanderbilt family as a working farm. There is a winery, behind the scene tours, farm-to-table expos, horseback riding, clay shooting, fishing, and an enormous hotel. The tour is incredibly impressive and by all accounts, George Vanderbilt seemed like a swell guy who loved to travel, loved to entertain, and most of all loved his wife. By the time I finished the tour, it was close to 6pm and I was feeling a bit bushed.

With the hope of doing some clay shooting in the morning, I checked into my first hotel room of the trip. I figured George Vanderbilt would approve of the motorcycle trip so it seemed a good place to settle in for the evening.

I’m really not a big museum guy, but if you’re ever in the area, you should see the Biltmore Estate. Very cool.

20110605-090029.jpg

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: Some of America’s “tourist” attractions are worth stopping at. There are popular for a reason. Also, I really need to build a 250-room estate in North Carolina at some point.

Day 5 – Detours

Rocky Knob, VA – Boone, NC

98 miles

20110605-085431.jpg

What a wonderful morning. Hitting the Parkway early is just incredible. It’s quickly become my favorite time of day to ride. The temperature hovers in the high sixties before giving way to the sweltering heat of the day. My visor is cracked open about three inches letting most of the cool air rush in. All of the moisture from the past evening brings out these luscious scents of green grass and fading campfires that I can catch for a second as I speed by. The sun is still low so the shadows are long on the parkway so I don’t have to squint like at midday. It’s just a magical time to ride. Again, it makes me feel very lucky.

20110605-085513.jpg

However, I’ve been eating on the lighter side (which for me is typically a one ox per day quota) so I decided to pull over for a proper breakfast at one of the Parkway restaurants. I stopped at Merrill House where I treated myself to some pancakes….excuse me, hotcakes.

20110605-085536.jpg

And clearly I’ve led a sheltered life. Through the wine tasting regions of California, I’ve learned the art of wine blending. But on the Blue Ridge Parkway you can have a hotcake medley (a meritage, if you will). At Merrill House, you’ll get a stack of cornmeal, buttermilk and sweet potato hotcakes, one on top of each other, butter in between, with a glorious serving of maple syrup. It was hard to stop at one order.

But eventually I shoved off and wanted to get some miles under my belt. The driving through the Parkway was continually mesmerizing and it felt like everyone I saw on the road was smiling. But soon around Mile 232, tragedy hit when I saw that part of the Blue Ridge Parkway was down for repairs and I was led on a detour running through Sparta, NC.

20110605-085545.jpg

It felt so weird being in normal traffic after existing in the fairyland bubble of the Smoky Mountains for the past two days. Pedestrian traffic, honking horns and 90 degree turns had been absent from my mindset and riding. You see, that’s the glorious part of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

20110605-085646.jpg

No billboards.

No signs.

No commercial activity.

No stoplights.

Just beautiful black road and lush green, flowering trees with a view to stop hearts every ½ mile.

And that’s all it is. A road designed exclusively for driving pleasure.

20110605-085633.jpg

As I’m sure you can understand, stepping back into civilization was difficult. To calm my agitated nerves, I visited my first North Carolina winery. Along the detour I saw signs for Thistle Meadow Winery and decided to pay a visit.

North Carolina winery, you say?!! Yeah, I sort of thought the same thing. But this is a trip about discovery and adventure and clearly the Motorcycle Gods had designs on this afternoon and it would clearly involve wine.

20110605-085601.jpg

I pulled in and immediately an elder gentlemen sitting on the porch in overalls began apologizing for the cold spell we’d been having (sarcastically). He welcomed me in and started setting up a tasting flight. He told me they made close to 50 different wines on the estate. I humbly mentioned that I failed to see any vineyards on the property and he explained that most of their grapes were shipped to them in concentrate form. His main business, he explained, was selling Make-Your-Own-Wine kits.

20110605-085617.jpg

Folks, I’ve made my own beer before and while you can taste my enthusiasm, you probably can’t taste much else. This winery was sort of the same way. I tasted 6 wines and I actually really enjoyed the sauvignon blanc. Some of the others may have needed a bit more time in the bottle (to put it charitably), but all were drinkable and you could see the passion for this emerging wine region.

The day ended with my pulling into Boone, NC – home of Appalachian State University. I first starting coming to Boone several years ago to go paragliding at Tater Hill, a small launch site owned by Bubba Goodman. Bubba and I became good friends but I haven’t made it down in a while and was excited to see him and catch up. We spent the evening talking about life and chasing down the best slice of pie in town. It was a great end to the day and I vowed not to go so long between visits.

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: North Carolina actually has vineyards and wineries and they’re not half bad (but let’s not push it).

Day 4 – Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway

Front Royal, VA – Rocky Knob, VA

284 miles

20110604-075858.jpg

Nirvana. Today was utter motorcycling nirvana. I have never ridden on roads so perfect, spellbinding and totally intoxicating. I swear, I started giggling for the first ten minutes. Skyline Drive is that good. Everything about it is simply perfect. You feel like you are racing on a surface of black glass with the most gorgeous lush scenery as the backdrop. Everything smells alive and fresh. Car or motorcycle, it doesn’t matter. You have to go and see it. Seriously.

20110604-075633.jpg

Despite the best laid plans, it took me more than 45 minutes to pack up my tent at Gooney Creek (I still can’t type that with a straight face) and saddle up on the bike. I’m still catching my groove regarding my gear and it took me a bit longer to pack up than I anticipated. I skipped breakfast and rushed to get to Skyline Drive to salvage my plan to hit the park early with a minimum of traffic to enjoy the pristine roads.

20110604-075708.jpg

And the plan worked. I started on Skyline Drive at the top of Shenandoah State Park at 7:45am. For the next ninety minutes, I had the entire Parkway to myself. I felt like the luckiest person on Earth.

20110604-080107.jpg

Not. Another. Soul.

It was, without question, the most incredible experience I’ve ever had riding a motorcycle in my entire life. The road was like a dream. What makes the Parkway so special is that it feels more like a long driveway into a gorgeous manicured estate than a public road.

20110604-075754.jpg

But it’s not an estate. It’s a National Park. And National Parks have lots of critters that live in the woods. Within the first two hours, here’s what crossed the road in front of me.

Wild Turkey

Deer

Turtle

Countless squirrels

Snake

Hedgehog or Badger (they all look alike – I’m not being racist).

Guess what I hit? The turtle. Unbelievable. I felt miserable about it.

20110604-080154.jpg

Once I shook off the Turtle Incident, I continued being spellbound again and again by each crest and curve of Skyline Drive. The perfectly black sticky asphalt hugged my tires and inspired confidence in each turn. The lush green trees would bend on both sides of the road to create a shadowy canopy that would suddenly open again to stunning vistas of the Smoky Mountains that ran parallel to the road. Most of the time there were no settlements or man-made buildings visible from the countless overlooks. Simply rolling green hills and mountain peaks as far as you could see. It was simply breathtaking.

20110604-075733.jpg

Every mile or so, you can see a sign for an overlook area. You see, the biggest danger of this road is that the views are so captivating that it’s easy to stare off into the far away mist of the Smoky Mountains while a hairpin curve wanders up and smacks you in the head. Luckily, the wise designers of this road understood the power of the Park’s natural beauty so they set up countless rest stops and overlooks. In fact, there are so many pulloffs that one typically has each overlook to oneself. The vistas and the solitude combine to create very powerful memories.

20110604-080133.jpg

At one rest stop, I met John who was riding his red Ducati Multistrada north from Florida to Maine. We had a good chat like motorcyclists do talking about roads, routes and near accidents we survived. I think he was eying my GS’s superior load capability. But I was admiring his hot red fast Italian bike.

20110604-101654.jpg

The nice thing I’ve discovered about my trip cross country is that everyone smiles when they hear about the adventure. If you tell someone you’re going to Hawaii for two weeks, you’re a schmuck. Perhaps a lucky shmuck, but still the same sentiment remains. A long bike trip seems to bring the best out in folks.  People wish they were going with you, and shake your hand when they leave.

20110604-080034.jpg

I finished Skyline Drive by around 1pm and entered the first part of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline Drive is a $10 toll road but amazingly the Blue Ridge is free is equally stunning. I’m just amazed that this beautiful resource is here for the taking.

20110604-080011.jpg

Despite the beauty and seductive roads of the Parkway, I still hadn’t eaten since camping the night before. Using my GPS, I found lunch at the Blue Mountain Brewery. I grabed a German Pale Ale and a veggie pizza before hitting the road again.

20110604-075955.jpg It was a pretty neat brewery. They grow a good portion of their hops onsite and the brick oven makes a damn fine thin crust. I’d go back there.

20110604-075943.jpg

Camping again tonight. I was going to camp near Roanoke but one of the park rangers recommended that I push on to Rocky Knob. He said the campgrounds in Roanoke were located in a gully that soaks up all the sun while offering little shade. After spending the day riding in 90 + heat, I followed his advice. Tomorrow it’s on to Boone, NC to see my old paragliding friend Bubba.

20110604-080227.jpgWHAT DID I LEARN / DISCOVER TODAY: How amazing our National and State Parks are. I plan on visiting a whole lot more after this experience today.