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Old 12-17-2015, 06:30 PM   #1
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Riding Across the Country on a BMW S1000XR

I’m not sure this is your typical bucket-list motorcycle trip. It lacks exotic destinations, eschews exotic culinary delights, and pushes few mechanical or biological boundaries. But this ride was something I wanted to do for a long time: a solo trip from one end of our beautiful country to the other. And while I didn’t know it at the time, the 3,400-mile journey served to unlock me from what had become an almost unconscious ritual of timing and schedules and daily demands.

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A rare chance to wick it up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the 45-mph speed limit usually keeps you in check.

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The BRP starts in Virginia and ends in North Carolina.

It started this spring at a BMW launch in a casual conversation about the upcoming S1000XR debut (see S1000XR First Ride review here). To do something different, BMW chose a venue at Muskoka Lakes, about two hours north of Toronto. “Sounds great,” I told the events person. “Maybe I’ll ride it home from there.” She didn’t immediately say no, and that kicked off a cascade of logistics that would ultimately see me flying from Toronto to New Jersey to be near BMW’s sprawling campus in Montvale. A day to get the bikes back into the US via truck—the main reason I wasn’t able to just ride away from Muskoka Lakes—gave me the chance to visit friends in Rhode Island. Leaving the laptop in the hotel, I was beginning to disconnect from the daily grind.

My plans were fluid. Indeed, the day before the XR was ready I’d already changed them at least once. It was the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and my daughter was back at college in western Massachusetts to start a summer internship. I cleared the calendar for the following week and reset the few hotels I’d booked, all to extend the trip and go the wrong way from New Jersey to California by way of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. The ticking clock of the trip was overruled by my desire to spend time with my daughter—even if it put me days behind the original schedule and 150 miles in the opposite direction. It was the first of many good decisions during this trip.

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A selfie from the road.

With no particular place to go, she and I knocked around, visited Historic Deerfield, and generally acted like it was summer break. Eventually, though, I had to start back. The plan, such as it was, put me on a trajectory to run the famed Blue Ridge Parkway end to end in one day, followed by a sprint up The Dragon at Deals Gap, then a loop through the Ozarks that would eventually leave me at the Arkansas/Oklahoma border for a two-day blitz into Albuquerque. I was to meet my wife there and then slow the pace, taking three days to get home to Southern California.

It’s 550 miles the most direct way from Williamsburg to Fishersville, Virginia, a landing spot just a few minutes from the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway suggested to me by one of my riding friends now living in North Carolina.

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Bucolic fields line the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It didn’t take long to bond with the XR. With a tightened version of the R1200GS’s riding position and prodigious power, the XR kept me comfortable and entertained down the green Pioneer Valley, through Hartford, Connecticut, and then west and south along Interstate 84 to Fishersville for an early dinner. Only absurdly low speed limits in the northeast in general and road construction in Pennsylvania slowed me down. The BMW, for its part, whirred on, making an easy 160 miles between fuel stops, averaging 41 mpg. As I rolled through Maryland and West Virginia, I began to wonder about the thin sport saddle and began to tire of the vibration in the XR’s handlebars—the vibes peak at 5,000 rpm, about 70 mph. But I felt surprisingly fresh and ready for more. In time, I came to trust the Beemer’s range display, which turned out to be very accurate. Cruise control, I say, is a transformative technology.

For a few moments the next morning, I questioned the need to come so far south—would it be worth the time? But almost as soon as I started down the BRP, I knew the answer. True, you can get cranky about the 45-mph speed limit in the park, and you might have heard about overzealous speed enforcement by the park rangers, but on this sunny, drying morning in early July, I had the place to myself. And it was magical.

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Mist rises from a small lake along the BRP.

The BRP is unique in the way it makes you feel like you’re so far away from civilization, especially at the north end. You’re riding a strip of well-maintained blacktop with not a single decreasing-radius turn and few guardrails, gamboling through the trees and past grassland that could have been put there for a movie. Sunlight filters through. Random drops of water fall from the leaves, remnants of last night’s rain. For much of this journey, you’re unaware that there are major highways and towns just out of sight. From the BRP, you convince yourself that you’re hundreds of miles from civilization. Such is the delicious fiction of the Parkway.

The BRP is punctuated by a number of “gaps” that allow you to hop off and grab fuel or food. I tumbled into a small deli at Fancy Gap and treated myself to a transcendent Reuben and something called Hummingbird Cake. This fueled me to Asheville, North Carolina, which is about 390 miles along the 470-mile BRP. Here I made a fateful decision looking for fuel, jumping off the Parkway to find that an accident had badly snarled traffic on the nearest return route. I found a station, topped off the XR’s 5.3-gallon tank, and consulted my GPS Navigator V for an alternate route back to the BRP. There would be quite a detour, as far as I could tell. And yet it was still early enough that I was convinced I could make it to Robbinsville, North Carolina, near the base of Highway 129, the famous Tail of the Dragon. The idea of doing most of the BRP and a lap of the Dragon on the same day overtook me, so I pointed the BMW southwest.

I was relieved to see little traffic and so gave the BMW a little rope. A machine that’s happy to canter along at 55 mph and also lunge forward once the tach needle sweeps past 6,000 rpm is an amazing thing. An hour before sunset, I found myself at the Deals Gap Resort for a quick rest but too enticed by the sounds of motorcycles up Highway 129 to stay put. So up the Dragon we went, the BMW finding its stride quickly with the Dynamic Pro ride mode engaged. On a tight, technical road, the XR’s light steering is a blessing, especially at the end of a long day. You can place the bike anywhere you want, with pinpoint accuracy, which makes strafing the Dragon almost too easy. The hitch in my knees and knots in my shoulders from the day’s ride vanished in a few minutes of concentration. And joy. Such therapy.

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Storms in the desert southwest promise a bit of excitement.

I hadn’t decided where I was going to stay that night, so when the idea of continuing to western Knoxville to get a head start on the next day entered my mind, I followed it. I knew that getting from eastern Tennessee to Albuquerque in two days was going to be a slog, so the chance to shorten these days was too good to pass up. I splurged on a room-service salad and a pair of local IPAs to celebrate a long, thoroughly enjoyable day in the saddle. The total: 589 miles.

Plans change and it’s not always our doing. Sometimes nature has a say, which is why the next day was almost all I-40. A loop through the Ozarks starting in Russellville, Arkansas, to end near Fort Smith was programmed into the GPS, but the summer storms had other ideas. By the time I got to Russellville, it was raining hard and the weather-radar app on my phone showed nothing but red and orange along Highway 16. Reluctantly, I stayed on the interstate and made Fort Smith, with a trickle of water running down my neck and gloves soaked through. For the first time—and, as it turned out, the last—I wished for the weather coverage of a full-dress touring bike. Call it 675 miles.

Next day, more of the same, watching the land change from rolling hills and tall, green trees to endless prairie. Here, the BMW was less happy, at least until reaching the western states with higher speed limits. At an indicated 80 mph, the XR’s engine becomes smooth again, though I continued to rely on the superb cruise control and amused myself by sitting on the passenger seat, standing on the pegs, and even a little sidesaddle. To keep the seat low, BMW scooped out the XR’s foam and left two front-to-back ridges in the bucket, there simply to cause burn as far as I can tell. To be fair, the 725 miles between Fort Smith and Albuquerque would challenge most sporty bikes.

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A weather-demanded stop in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Weather continued to mock me. I’d planned a breakfast on the road at the first fuel stop but landed short in Henryetta, Oklahoma, as the rain began to fall. An $8 cowboy’s meal—served by a waitress who called me “hon”—allowed me the strength to plow through an hour of serious rainfall that aside from poor visibility was almost an anticlimax. The XR is simply that composed, all the time. At the end of the day, same thing; I watched the rain shaft from a monsoonal thunderstorm edge ever closer to I-40 as I neared Albuquerque. While the rain was heavy enough to come down the backside of my helmet visor, the BMW plowed through it, unfazed. Dinner that night at Artichoke with my wife, Martha, and a dear friend was hard earned.

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One of the radio telescopes at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico.

I wanted three days to get back, but delays earlier in the trip caused me to consider doing it in two, 400-ish-mile chunks. Martha was game. So we departed Albuquerque southbound, turned right at Socorro, New Mexico, and headed west on Highway 60. We’d wanted to stop at the Very Large Array radio telescope and did, only to watch a line of thunderstorms loom from the south. We changed our plans yet again and headed farther west. Sedona was the goal, and we would get there via Flagstaff and I-40 rather than the “scenic” way to the south. After a stop for blueberry pie in, of course, Pie Town, we rolled through the high-desert pines, taking in the amazing scent of the desert after a rainstorm, and pushed to Flagstaff.

Our last day on the road, we headed west out of Sedona, up to the old mining town of Jerome—where the Flatiron served me one of the best breakfast burritos ever—across to Prescott on 89A and then down to the valley on the magnificent Highway 89. Dropping down to Congress from Yarnell signified the last interesting bit of scenery until we reached home, but the drone along I-10 gave me time to reflect on the past week.

Our country is huge, much bigger than it seems from a 737. Incredibly varied. Whatever reservations I had about tackling the trip on something less than a full touring bike were without merit. Martha described passenger comfort as “fine,” excepting the footpegs vibrating nastily at the same engine speed that the handgrips went wild. Aero was excellent, the BMW’s hard luggage fantastic, and the bike’s range neatly matched my own. I have a tendency to push through, pile on the miles, but the XR’s somewhat limited range forced me to stop more often and enjoy the road as therapy. Seeing the country, escaping your own small world, and disconnecting from emails and texts for most of the day are just some good reasons for doing crazy stuff like this.

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