That was a year of transition, 1994. I’d become both jobless and girlfriend-less. My motorcycle riding pal Bill was also changing jobs and had negotiated a few weeks off in between, and we had the idea to ride south for a week and do the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We quickly made our preparations, Bill had his 500 Shadow and I had the venerable 450 Nighthawk. Bill suggested that two others come along with us; Mark and Chris had both just graduated from law school, they already had motorcycles and time. I’d met Mark previously, and Chris had just completed a motorcycle trip to the East Coast so they were at least qualified.
On our departure date we met up at Bill’s parents’ house in Sarnia, both Mark and Chris arrived on 750cc cruisers:
Mark’s Honda V45 Magna seemed to me like a good choice for the trip: shaft drive, 80hp V-4 engine. Even with the purple paint I found it a handsome machine.
Chris’ 750 LTD had a similar spec, four cylinder cruiser with 74 hp. But it struck me the opposite way: I found the individual pieces ugly (compare the cast front wheels for instance) and the overall look seemed disjointed and wonky. Ah well, maybe I was just being a Honda snob.
Crossing the Blue Water bridge into Michigan, things went well until we reached I-94 through Detroit. Bill rode through a pothole so big his rear tire made contact with the license plate, tearing it off. After getting stopped at the side of the highway Bill and Mark walked back to look for it. I was a little nervous sitting there, in a bad part of Detroit when a rusty Cadillac peeled off from traffic and backed up towards us. A big guy got out and I was thinking “Well, here we go. Gonna get robbed or worse” when he said “Hey can I help you at all?” So much for my preconceptions, and Bill soon returned with his plate; it had been lying white side up on the white line and was hard to spot.
Bill and I had travelled together a lot, and had a good hotel routine worked out for motorcycle trips. Whoever was better dressed walked in alone without motorcycle gear, put a credit card down on the counter, smiled, and said “I’d like a room please“. I went in to our first hotel somewhere in Ohio, and was surprised to see Mark and Chris follow me in with leather jackets and helmets. They helped themselves to the complimentary coffee while I talked to the clerk who said “We are full for the night.” We went back into the half empty parking lot, then implemented our regular routine at the hotel next door which proved successful.
I’d never been on a trip with four motorcycles before, and that was a big adjustment, three times as many other bikes to be aware of. And keep up with, my little 44 hp Nighthawk had a significant power deficit compared to the other bikes.
The only other noteworthy thing that happened on the way down was the approach of a big black raincloud near Cincinnati. We stopped to put on our rain gear, shortly afterward the cloud departed and we found ourselves crawling in Interstate construction traffic as the hot sun beat down on our non breathable rainwear from above while the engine heat baked us from below.
I honestly thought I was going to pass out from the heat, finally the Jersey barrier ended and we shed our gear and flaked out under the first tree we saw.
So if you’re still reading, you can tell that the trip isn’t going perfectly. However it wasn’t all bad because near the end of day 2 we pulled onto the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Cherokee, North Carolina! Finally, here we go, although we didn’t get too far before stopping to camp at Mount Pisgah Campground at milepost 408.
Well, here I am well into this story and I haven’t said much about the subject motorcycle. As you may recall from other motorcycle CCs there was a huge boom in motorcycle sales in the early 1980’s, and one significant feature of this boom was splintering of the Japanese street motorcycles from the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) into sportbikes, cruisers and touring bikes.
Here’s a 1970’s Kawasaki 750 Z2. UJM styling cues include the flat seat, upright riding position and medium height handlebars. Compare this to the lead photo, it’s quite mechanically similar but when Kawasaki needed a cruiser model they put a big step into the seat, higher pull-back handlebars and lengthened forks. Instant cruiser, in the “baroque semi-chopper” style of the day. By the way Honda did exactly the same thing to produce their CB750 Custom.
Doing it this way allowed Kawasaki to produce several different models for various market segments on a limited budget, but it made for some goofy details. Look at the way the signal light is just clamped onto the bar, the droopy, cheap looking mirror and the bend in the brake lever to match the handlebar curve.
I don’t think it was just me that did not appreciate the styling, sales of this model were weak and there seems precious little information online about them today, unlike the more sporting KZ models, or classic Honda V-4’s such as Mark’s Magna.
Back to our story, where we were preparing to camp at Mount Pisgah.
Yes, camp. Since none of us were working we had resolved to be as cheap as possible. Pulling up to the site Bill’s Shadow picked that moment to fall off the side stand and knocked the Nighthawk and I to the ground. The only damage was a broken clutch lever, but I could still get two fingers on it so not a huge problem. Bill and I shared a tent but I don’t recall having a mattress pad or a pillow, or a good night’s sleep for that matter.
Rising early we followed the BRP into Asheville NC for a bacon and egg breakfast while the motorcycles got oil changes at a local bike shop. Retrieving the bikes we were told they were all in good condition, but Chris’ bike had really needed the oil changed and his rear tire was installed backwards.
Chris declined to have it reinstalled correctly, Bill and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
This day we would fully experience the Blue Ridge Parkway. I assume most of you are aware of the BRP, for motorcycle trip nirvana there really is nothing else like it. 469 miles of curves, scenery and elevation with no billboards or cross traffic.
One curve follows another, and another until the road folds you into its own rhythm. Since it was late spring traffic was light, and we could maintain a brisk pace. To maintain the pace I rode the Nighthawk hard, exiting corners in third and winding it right out before shifting into fourth on the longer straights.
What a joyful afternoon, blasting along as fast as I dared, shooting quick glances at the incredible scenery as we swooped through curves. We occasionally stopped at roadside outlooks, and dropped down from the mountains a couple of times to get fuel and food in small towns before climbing back to the BRP.
By the end of the day I was beat. The lawyers wanted to camp again, but with glazed eyes I said “Look, I just want to eat real food and sleep in a real bed tonight” which is how we wound up at a motel in Galax, VA.
After dinner we were having a beer outside our room when a couple pulled in on a big touring Harley. The fellow came over and chatted with us while his rather attractive passenger wiped the bike down with towels.
He asked us if we’d been to Deal’s Gap but we’d never heard of it. He was quite disappointed that we hadn’t been there prior to starting the BRP, and stressed that the next time we did this trip we HAD TO go. By this point the woman had finished with cleaning the motorcycle so they walked off together to find dinner leaving us surveying our own dusty machines and thinking “Wow, where do we sign up for that?”
In the morning it was apparent that the lawyers had gotten further into the beer than the engineers had. The weather certainly wasn’t helping anyone’s fuzzy head, it was cool with low drizzling clouds and not expected to improve all day.
It wasn’t just cold and wet, it was slippery too. On the way back up to the BRP Chris locked up the front brake on the LTD and spilled over at a stop sign. He quickly righted the bike and continued which I found odd, when I’d fallen over in the campground I was quite rattled and had to sit down for a while.
Back on the BRP we fell back into our usual riding order. Mark went first, then Chris. As the slowest rider on the least powerful bike I went third, then Bill went last in case I fell behind. Riding the parkway in the wet was dreadful, despite the conditions the lawyers weren’t slowing down much and I locked my eyes onto the 750 LTD as I followed it in and out of the fog.
After a while I began to hate that bike with it’s stupid crooked mirrors and flapping vinyl saddlebags. The mental effort of keeping up was exhausting me, and I was starting to get scared – really scared – in some of the corners. Our plan was to finish the BRP that day, but at lunch I told the guys that I was going to slow down. If I met them at the end that was great, but if I didn’t that was okay too and I’d find my own way home.
Bill decided to continue riding with me and in the afternoon we continued at a reduced pace, bumbling through some of the corners without anyone to follow. I was wet and cold and miserable, but we were almost done the parkway. When we passed an ambulance stopped on the outside of a curve it didn’t even register and I rode numbly by. In my mirror I saw Bill stop and sprint from his motorcycle.
I circled back and did the same. Bill was down in the ditch with the paramedics, cutting Chris’ leather jacket off and hollering at him. Chris’ arms and legs were all horribly broken and he was not conscious. The 750 LTD was lying close to the trees with its headlight still on so I went over and switched off the ignition. Then I noticed the Ford Crown Victoria ahead of the ambulance. The distraught driver told me they had met in the curve and there was no time to react when the motorcycle slid out. By a fluke the ambulance had arrived immediately after the crash, and it took Chris away to be airlifted to Charlottesville.
The police and a tow truck arrived, we gave our statements while the 750 LTD was winched screeching on it’s side up the flatbed. When we were free to go we continued down the BRP and found Mark, who had waited for Chris, then been stopped by the police when he tried to go back.
The three of us finished the last 8 miles of the parkway, and rode to the hospital in Charlottesville. Chris died shortly after we got there, the hospital chaplain called his parents but I’ve always felt that Mark should have done that.
The next morning we regrouped in a hotel restaurant, we were all good with not riding the motorcycles home and called around to try and find a truck or van to rent one way back to Canada. We couldn’t find one, so rode all the way home in one long day.
The trip home was grim. That morning I had thought I’d never ride a motorcycle again, but somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania the sun came out, a little of the joy returned and I knew that when I got home I would continue to ride. I arrived home at 10pm and hugged my parents, it was over.
But not quite over, because we had to go to Chris’ funeral the next week. Some funerals are celebrations, but there was nothing celebratory about this one. The look on his mother’s face was unforgettable, and I had no words of comfort for her. In fact I felt both sorrow and a little anger sitting there. What if he hadn’t pushed so hard in the rain? What if he hadn’t been drinking the night before? What if he had put his tire on correctly?
I’ve ridden the BRP several times since and hope to again.
When Bill and I first went back to the Blue Ridge in 2000 we found the corner where Chris crashed and rode it several times in both directions. It is notably tighter than other curves in the area. I still hate the 750 LTD, the only time I’ve seen one since I recoiled remembering that day.
Almost twenty five years on I still feel sad about this, because I have more perspective on what Chris lost. A career, marriage, children, so many good things have happened since and you miss so much when you needlessly die in your 20’s. The point of having an adventure is being able to return and tell your story, and Chris didn’t get to do that.