The scene at the Vanilla Bean



Fierce Long Motorcycle Ride to
the Vanilla Bean Cafe

By some miracle, I'm not working this weekend. The weekend's forecast is for gorgeous weather, sunny and high 70s. On Saturday we drove with our dog to the base of Mount Wachusett and then hiked to the top to cheer the Longsjo Classic bicycle race finishers. And today? Today we went on a motorcycle ride. Destination: The Vanilla Bean Cafe, Pomfret Connecticut.

We started by swinging by the house of a couple of friends to see if they might be interested in coming along. Ellen (my wife) said that she thought that Bob's ST1300 was out of commission, and so it proved. Before leaving I offer to help him get it going again, or at least get it to the shop. But Bob's high-tech company recently was bought by a California outfit and he rejected an offer to go with them. He was on call 24/7 for the last 10 years, made a pile of money he was too busy to spend, and has a generous termination agreement. He's not in a hurry to do anything, including get his ST1300 running. We waste as little time as possible with them; a long ride beckons.

Back on the road, the Garmin Etrex points the way to the Vanilla Bean, where we've been before. Now you have to realize what this means. In New England, roads are not straight, not even the superhighways, and I disdain the superhighways. So when you're on a road with the arrow to your destination pointing straight ahead, rejoice while you can. Within a couple of miles you'll come to a T intersection where you have a choice of going 90 degrees to the right of where you want to go or 90 degrees to the left of where you want to go. It will take us 45 miles on the road to do the 30.5 gps miles from our house to the cafe.

But I have a pretty good handle on the back roads to get to CT 197, a very pleasant road that'll take us most of the way to the cafe. My wife had an appendectomy last week and is still a little sore, so asks me to keep the speed (actually, the bounces on the rough pavement) down a bit. I sneer at this suggestion, reminding her that I am the veteran of a Lee Parks Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic, and that I therefore have Total Control. "You'd better," she responds menacingly. But in the event, she squeezes me approvingly every time I flawlessly execute a turn, so I conclude that I'm not jiggling her innards too badly. I should remember to tell Lee that another benefit of his class is affectionate squeezes from one's spouse.

There are lots of motorcyclists out on such a splendid day, and my oh-so-cool two-finger wave gets repetitive. I vary it with a little kid's wave which is not returned in kind, but they still wave, and nobody turns around to beat me up for unbecoming frivolity. The proportion of motorcyclists increases as we near Pomfret until probably 75% of the vehicles are two-wheeled, with the occasional Wing-based trike for variety. The little gravel parking lot at the Vanilla Bean is crowded with motorcycles, probably 30 of them, with more coming in than going out. True to national sales statistics, most of them are cruisers. I park my filthy Bandit among them, remove my faded Aerostich, and drape it over the windshield, making sure to leave the odometer visible. My wife watches my posturing and that of the chrome-and-tattoo crowd with equal amusement.

We order our sandwiches inside and sit outside. A group of 10 Harley people, middle-aged men driving and wives riding, comes in after us and pulls a couple of tables together. They courteously ask for our two empty chairs and of course we smile our assent. Conversation periodically halts as someone pulls away from the nearby 4-way stop, straight pipes shaking leaves off the trees. After one such I say to Ellen, not overtly loudly but loudly enough for the next table to hear, "Dang! If you didn't look up, you'd think he was going fast." The women laugh. The men don't want to, but can't help smiling.

Food arrives. It's good, and we watch the scene as we eat. Arriving from the north, the turn into the lot is a 180, onto gravel, and it's interesting to watch people handle it. Most ride through it effortlessly. A few paddle tentatively in the dirt. The lot is nearly full (they'd need 5 times as much room if we all came in cars) and there's a lot of waiting as people jockey into slots. Nobody guns engines as they wait. A considerable number of the women are riding their own; more are passengers. I see no men behind women.

On a previous visit I heard a tableful of people talking about how many times they stalled on the ride so far. One noticed me eavesdropping and smiled rather shamefacedly at me. I winked and smiled happily at her, happy to see new riders enjoying themselves, and am gratified when she saw that I was not being critical, and relaxed. I study each person carefully to see if I recognize any of my recent students, but am not surprised when I don't; it's a little out of my regular beat.

Defying the cruiser majority, an older man on a Burgman and his son on an SV650 drive in. I stroll over to ask his opinion of his Burgman. He says this is his 42nd bike and the best of them all. His son has a few scratches on the SV which he volunteers are the result of a tankslapper resulting in a crash at 70mph last week. He destroyed his full helmet but walked away, and now has a new appreciation for the importance of keeping the steering head bearings torqued to specifications.

I come to a decision about a matter that's been bothering me for the last week. I'm going to try my first Iron Butt Association ride, an SS1k, in a couple of days and have been wondering whether I should get the license plate should I succeed. "World's Toughest Riders"? Not me. Last fall, when I visited my mother in San Antonio, it took me nearly three weeks to do the 6000 miles. (6000 miles Boston to/from San Antonio? Yeah, I got a little disoriented.) But today I decided to get it. It's a nice conversation piece, and will impress the crowd here. One of the problems with all the new cruisers — and all the cruisers here are new — is that the odometer is an lcd screen, and so when the key's off you can't see the mileage. I do sneak a few peeks as riders arrive and depart. Some of the bikes have mileage into 4 figures. That's why I was so careful to leave my odometer visible. I have 93000 miles on the Bandit. It's a 5-digit odometer so it'll turn over to zero this year. I tell people that I intend to ride it another 5 or 10 thousand after that and then sell it as a low-mileage bike.

I can't tell one cruiser from another, but judging from the t-shirts of the riders, they're all HD. The damn chrome is so dazzling in the sunshine that I can't even read logos. I can't tell one sportbike or tourer from another either, but they're more subdued so I can read Ninja, a Kawasaki W650 that's very elegant, the occasional Triumph, some Wings. You put all the dirt on all the other bikes together and it wouldn't make a difference on mine. Sigh. I musta been hiding behind the door when the cleaning genes were handed out. My dishes are clean and I shower every day (when I'm not lost on my way to San Antonio) but my vehicles never get washed, and I don't get a haircut very often either.

I really like it here. Everyone is enjoying themselves and feeling comradely and tolerant of others whose interests don't match theirs except for the common ground of two wheels. I look down on the butt jewelry and they look down on my filthy Bandit but we smile and hold the door open and share chairs. I think back to the woman in my ERC last Friday who showed up in full leathers with back protector on a BMW K1200 something or other, who asked part way through the class "How many gears does my bike have?" She'd fit right in. Some would smile behind her back — I would — but someone would know how many and tell her, and answer her other questions too.

About half the riders in this no-helmet-law state wear helmets anyway. I'm not the only one wearing a full suit but bare arms outnumber covered ones by a large margin. Skinny cuss that I am, I actually find the 78-degree dry sunny weather to be cool at motorcycle speeds and keep the main zipper fully closed on my Aerostich. There's nobody here under 20, and few under 40. The squids have a different gathering place, evidently.

Last night I was reading a classic about gun shows and the people who inhabit them and it occurs to me that something very similar could be written about a gathering such as this one: There's Alan in scuffed leathers who holds forth under the tree about cornering techniques and hanging off and suspension adjustment. Turns out his bike is a Suzuki GN125 and he scuffed his leathers falling in the parking lot last week. Terry, the quiet guy listening without comment to Alan, was a three-time national champion in flat-track back in the 70s. Jack, with the fiercely-decorated Harley, describes his 7 trips to Sturgis with this bike, but the odometer reads 439 miles. Keith's on a rather plainly appointed cruiser but he built it himself. Rose, the woman on the K1200 who doesn't know how many gears it has, is the center of a group of admiring men. Their wives notice her cleavage as much as their husbands do, but their comments are different. Throg, the black labrador retriever, pees on one of the more garish bikes and wanders off, satisfied. The owner of the bike is aghast and immediately pulls to the side of the building where there's a hose. Throg's owner, if he's around, doesn't let on. Chuck, the 7-year-old, has his eyes bugged out with all this machinery and will grow up to be motogp champion in 15 years.

When we're done strolling and listening and talking to the Burgman rider we head back to the Bandit. It's surrounded by eye-hurting butt jewelry and I hope that they noted the odometer as they dismounted. (You will note that miles are my only claim to distinction in this crowd.) At least they didn't disdain the parking space near me. I turn the bike around before Ellen gets on because I don't ride two-up often, and footing is rather loose in the gravel. Nobody has dumped it that I saw and I don't intend to be the first.

On the way to the cafe I had a good idea of where I wanted to go to get some good curves in — as good as they get in this part of the state, anyway — but on the return I just follow the gps arrow for the first part of the ride. Ellen knows this trait and as I make a turn onto a completely-undistinguished road which happens to (temporarily) go in the direction of the arrow, I hear her say "The adventure begins." But I combine local knowledge with gps direction, and we get home with no head-scratching this time. Last time, when we came to one of those famous Ts where I wanted to go straight but had to decide whether to go 90 degrees left or 90 degrees right, Ellen leaned over and said "I know you're lost."

We pulled into the driveway with 89 miles on the clock, which we did in only 3 and a half hours. Jack, the Sturgis veteran, would be proud. I'm pretty pleased about it myself. And our dog certainly appears to think we've been gone practically forever. I believe I'm almost ready for that ss1k.