Monday, May 29th, 2006 – Distance Travelled 312 miles
What seemed like about five seconds later, I was woken up by a gentle tug on my hair (I still had some in those days). It was my friend’s youngest daughter who wanted to play and who had obviously figured out that I was the best bet. Although not officially my “God-Daughter”, she sort of is and we have always had a weird bond. The story of her birth is a tale in itself and I can well remember being able to hold her in the palm of one hand. So, I found myself playing football or, as they like to call it in the former “colony”, soccer, with her at about half past six on a warm May morning. The little girl was actually very good and this has continued over the years. At the time of writing, she represents her college, has played for the State team of Virginia and, when in Prague, plays and trains for Slavia ladies, one of the Czech Republic’s best teams. In the middle distance, I could still hear the occasional V-Twin rumbling past on its way into Washington DC.
The rest of the family eventually joined us and I was treated to the kind of breakfast that you would give a starving person, not one who had eaten both fish and chips and a huge steak in the previous seventeen hours. That is of course, the “American Way” and no amount of feeble excuses about not leaving stuff in the fridge during the upcoming four day trip away could cut a lot of ice.
Before nine, with my friend’s wife perched behind me, I was chugging the short-distance into Washington DC and, by following large signs, we found our way into Waiting Area 3. There were a long line of these “holding areas”, each slated to hold around five thousand motorcycles, which meant that, three hours before the scheduled noon commencement of the parade, there were already over ten thousand bikes somewhere ahead of us.
Nobody seemed bothered that we were not current or ex-military and there were certainly some Harley guys there that were probably too young to vote ! I felt a bit naked of tattoos compared to everyone around us. My friend’s wife, who is a cute little thing, was very popular in the good natured, “come and sit on MY bike for a photo” atmosphere that pervaded our enclosure.
It was very hot and time dragged a bit. A little slight relief was provided by a guy with a Buell Harley and a flat battery. Lord alone knows what his compression ratio was, but it took six of us, in an intricately structured pushing arrangement, to bump start him.
Eventually, nearer to one thirty than to twelve, we moved off into a near endless line of motorcycles that made its way slowly through Washington DC along Constitution Avenue and around the Capitol Building. It was slow, stop/start going and the heat from the motor, combined with the heat from all the other Harleys and the bright the sun was incredible. We were being cooked alive. Periodically, someone would break down, or even run out of petrol (duh !) which only increased the overall slowness. Plus, of course, there was the noise and vibration. Upwards of 100,000 motorcycles, all in low gear and moving slowly …… I could almost feel the plates in my skull moving. You can perhaps imagine the almost painful sound. One of the other usages of the term “Rolling Thunder” was to allude to the forward progression of area bombing by B52s during the Vietnam War. I doubt that it would have been noisier on the ground in Hanoi in 1974 !
Finally, we completed our circuit and, with time starting to press, instead of going to listen to the speeches, we headed back to Falls Church. I have seldom been so relieved to be moving, even at thirty miles an hour, the breeze was quite blissfully cooling !
By the time we got back to Falls Church it was after four in the afternoon, which was way past the time for anyone prudent who was flying somewhere to have already gone to the airport. The car was all packed up, my friend and his daughters were waiting and, almost as soon as we got back, we were all leaving again. We all hugged in that typically American way before jumping into and onto our chosen modes of transport and heading out. At the end of the road, we all turned right but soon after, when I made a left to enjoy one final dalliance with the I-66, my friend and his family kept on going, straight ahead, towards Ronald Reagan airport.
My time on the I-66 was indeed brief and, almost before I knew it, I had changed once again to Route 267 and then to the northbound I-495. I made what I thought would be my final crossing of the Potomac before coming to a complete halt for almost half an hour due to a fairly spectacular accident that had completely blocked the Interstate. As I sat there, unmoving, in the still warm early evening sun, it suddenly hit me that, after almost a month in America, my time was running out fast and that “ending” words would become the order of the day. I was, initially, retracing my previous trip north and thus found myself, once again, on the I-270, as far as Frederick. As I was heading west, that was where I entered previously uncharted territory, or at least roadway, by taking the I-70. This neatly bisected places that I had been to, Sharpsburg to the south and Gettysburg to the north, before looping to the south of Hagerstown and taking me to Hancock where I joined the I-68 in order to keep heading west.
The sun that I was heading directly into was starting to think about setting and so it was a bit low in the sky. This meant I really had to concentrate hard and I began to feel more than a little bit tired. The countryside though, was majestically beautiful. Low, mountainous ridges ran away to the far distance in succeeding lines. The rays of the sun tipped the crests with gold and its low position rendered their tree covered eastern slopes so dark a shade of green that they looked almost black.
I felt very thirsty so, when petrol became a priority, I left the I-68 at the town of Cumberland, where I filled the tank with some lead-free and myself with some dark coffee to perk myself up. On the way back to the Interstate I got a tiny bit misdirected (which sounds a lot better than “totally lost”). Whilst trying to reorient myself, I sat down on a bench more or less outside of a white painted, log style, cabin. I noticed that a sign proudly proclaimed it to have been George Washington’s Headquarters in 1794 (38 Greene St, Cumberland, MD 21502). Amazing. A short distance away, a river was burbling, so to stretch my legs, I walked to the railings. Americans have an irrepressible urge to tell you stuff and I was informed, by a neat little sign, that this was the North Branch of the Potomac. There was a bridge, so what could I do but walk across it ? I did this for no other reason than to confound my previous assertion that I had already crossed that watercourse for the last time and that contrariness of nature led to yet another little “moment”. The immediate far bank was, as was still the town of Cumberland, in Maryland, But, only about fifty metres along the road, I walked into West Virginia. I could not help but chuckle when I thought about the trauma that attached to my initial attempt to deliberately enter that State and the number of times I had done it “accidentally” since. The convoluted and meandering borders of the original States contrast starkly with the endless straight lines of some of those further west.
Another interlude over, I recrossed the Potomac, found the Harley and the I-68 in that order and headed west again. The I-68 continued through some more lovely mountainous and heavily wooded countryside, the gathering dusk giving the scenery a totally limitless aspect. There was not much traffic going my way, but there was a more or less continuous stream heading towards me as people headed home after the holiday weekend. I was giving serious thought to calling it a day myself but nowhere suitable seemed to present itself in time for me to act and I was, as ever, loath to retrace my steps by even a mile. Finally, the I-68, having crossed somehow into West Virginia again (surely, those guys did have rulers !) brought me to Morganstown and the junction with the I-79. Just as I was at the point of succumbing to the charms of a Day’s inn, I noticed that the town of Washington was signposted as being about fifty miles away. Sadly, for my tired body, my brain thought this was too good to be true. So it was another forty-five minutes up the I-79 and over another State Line into Pennsylvania, to a Washington that was suffixed with PA as opposed to DC. I loved the symmetry !
I followed some big, blue signs and arrived at the Hampton Inn (119 Murtland Ave, Washington, PA 15301). I think it was something to do with the Hilton Group and was certainly nice and really quite cheap.
As was ever the case, there was a restaurant right next door. This one simply entitled Old Mexico (125 Murtland Ave, Washington, PA 15301). I checked in, then walked to the restaurant. I availed myself of a Hot and Spicy Burrito, which was certainly accurately named, two beers and an entire jug of water, as I was very, very thirsty. Back in the Inn I noticed that my arms had been well cooked by the sun in the other, now distant, Washington and I took a long cooling shower before collapsing onto the huge bed.