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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

40% Chance of Rain

The last couple weeks have defined the term "busy" while I packed up the apartment, gave away or sold off a whole bunch of crap (including a car), and moved into a storage unit. My aspirations to spend the whole time coding were quickly dashed when the enormity of the move became clear. Aaah well, such is life. I'm just glad the hours of my youth that I wasted spent playing Tetris came in handy.

Houston is finally in the rear view mirror and my multi-month roundabout journey takes me east through New Orleans. The original plan to tow the motorcycle up to Newport was scrapped when it displayed an alarming lean around corners due to the rake of the front end.

Sometimes having studied mechanical engineering can be a problem. I was never the least bit hesitant about flying until I took a flight class in college and realized what was actually going on around the wings. In this recent case, I was seeing force diagrams in my head and watching the bike lean made me too uncomfortable to allow those stresses to occur over 4000 miles of driving. I guess my trust in the magic of things has been shaken since high school physics (thank you, Dr. Watt). So, Plan B: I put a couple of huge boxes in the mail, hid the Jeep strategically in one of Houston's many housing complexes, and took off on the bike.

This morning's forecast was for a 40% chance of rain. A 10-20% chance is often at best an afternoon drizzle but with 40-50% you can bet there are real storms crawling around out there somewhere. Figuring that you can locate a highway exit in time to pull out your rain gear if necessary is a rosy assumption in Louisiana, where the exits often have 10-15 miles of bayou causeways between them and the storms move faster than you do.

It doesn't get much truer than the old adage, "Hope for the best but prepare for the worst." My soaking gear says it like this: "To take on a 40% chance of precipitation, you'd better be ready to get 100% wet."


Two Cylinders, Two Wheels and the Double Yellow Line

I think I caught my first whiff of the romance of travel during a family road trip through the Southwest from which I can remember little but the hot dusty smell of desert air and a sense of the vastness of the world beyond the comforting woods of New England. It was an early memory in a growing chain that would eventually stretch from the glowing volcanoes of Hawaii to the old world restaurants of Italy to the gentle midnight sun above Sweden's northern horizon. I got comfortable living small in a foreign land and it became a hunger that followed me as I came of age and began to travel on my own.

When I finished college, I celebrated by organizing a sailing trip through the Saronic Islands in Greece for myself and about a dozen others. A couple of my future roommates and I parlayed that into a three week Euro-trek where we managed to absorb a surprising amount of local culture in between run-ins with random acquaintances from back in the States.


The Journey Begins Again

The night before I left Newport, we had a real ripper of a thunderstorm pass through. By morning, all that was left to recall the violence of the previous evening were downed leaves and tree limbs beneath a gorgeous blue sky. It was the first sign of poor weather in almost a month - a fickle sort of omen before a long journey.

My first leg west included precious little of value"¦ Connecticut is a pass-through state whether you're taking 95 or not and you can't drive within 100 miles of New York City without suffering through the echoes of its crowding. It wasn't until I rolled into the Catskills that the pace of life seemed to settle a bit and the freedom of the road felt more real. The local accent is interesting and takes a minute to figure out; it sounds a bit like they've got a mouthful of bubblegum.


A Slight Hiccup

Wednesday morning's ride was the kind that makes it all worth it. I knew there was a chance of thunderstorms (in the 10-30% range) during the afternoon so I wanted to bite off as much as I could in the morning. The countryside didn't disappoint -- I can recall few places except Hill Country in Texas that are quite as idyllic as the gentle rolling hills dotted with farmsteads that I passed on my way south toward Gettysburg. In the early afternoon, though, it became apparent that the storms were coming and a quick radar check showed them strengthening in excess of previous forecasts. I could see the tendrils of the anvil-like cumulonimbus clouds reaching out from the West, piercing the valleys below with bursts of lightening.

The ride became a race. I thought that I could out-ride the storms to the south on the highways but they were scattered and stronger than expected. I gambled that I'd be able to make it on the farm roads -- there are few things so beautiful as rolling acres of farmland in the shadows before a storm. To the east, blue skies and sun kissed the landscape while the west was dark with rain. I punched south on I-74, chasing the gaps between storms and racing them to the hills, where the pressure changes seemed to cause the rain to cut out. The wind kicked up little swirls of leaves over the road, giving the air a charge and energy that only fueled the excitement of the ride. I remember tearing down the side of a steep hill, high on the thrill of at last reaching clean skies, and looking in the mirror to see nothing but dark sheets of rain behind me.


Midnight Mists

Riding is all about tactile sensations and smells. Those are two things that you just don't get the same any other way. You become far more conscious of the subtle changes in temperature and pressure as you move from hills to valleys, sun to clouds, or even one type of asphalt to another. You begin to understand the pattern in the eddies that swirl around trucks and the weight transfers necessary to navigate overpasses in strong winds.

They say that smells are the strongest triggers of memory and that's just another reason this is the best way to see the country. It makes you feel a lot more connected to the land than you would by breathing a bunch of recirculated air conditioning. I've already got some sort of inherent bias towards farmland but I can't keep a smile from my face as I roll past the smells of fresh cut hay, new fertilizer, and grazing livestock (not everyone's favorite). It's like a window to another life where I was clearly a farmer.


West Virginia White Water (Not Backwater)

West Virginia suffers from a bad reputation. Upon being informed of my choice to visit the "Wild and Wonderful" state, almost everyone had some form of snarky comment or cautionary advice to offer. It seems that folk have collectively forgotten that Deliverance (based on a fictional book, I might add) occurred in Georgia and that hillbillies with shotguns harass travelers with surprising irregularity. I guess it's just easy to write off a state without a major city as just an uncivilized country backwater.

My actual impression of the state was nowhere near to the stereotyping I'd endured for weeks before and I rank it as one of my favorites so far. To begin our experience there, my girlfriend and I woke up very early in the morning so we could drive 3 hours south from Morgantown to go white water rafting. The rainy AM drive through the Appalachian mountains was a rollercoaster of twists and turns that I longed to be able to ride (we took the car for safety and practicality reasons).


Kentucky Bluegrass to Battlefields

We spent Saturday evening about two hours west of Morgantown, WV in a little place called Ripley, WV. It was a sort of halfway point between my girlfriend's next destination and my own, so it made sense to spend the night there. The best part of it was just getting to do some riding on a clear evening; I'd almost forgotten what it's like to travel without oppressive clouds and rain hanging over my head.

We got the chance to check in and head out for an evening ride through the surrounding countryside. The scenery was nice, the light was good and the temperature was right in the comfort zone. Unfortunately, we were in The Country so of course all the critters were out too. The first time I saw a deer, it was almost a novelty as it munched nonchalantly at the foliage by the side of the road. By the fourth time, I was officially paranoid. There's really no two things about it: deer + motorcycle = dead rider(s). We cut it short and I made a mental note to avoid sunset rides in deep deer country like the plague.


Mammoth Cave and the Mayor

On Tuesday my uncle, cousin and I took a trip to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. One of my goals is to see the best national parks along the way and the largest cave in the world (390 miles discovered so far) would certainly meet that criteria. The drive out there passed through Cave City, one of those 1960's style kitschy tourist trap towns that has been holding on by a thread ever since. We passed the dilapidated remains of everything from bumper boats to redneck golf. And, of course, Dinosaur World. It was often hard to tell which attractions were still operational due to the general state of disrepair of all around.

At the park we took the History Tour, a 2 hour journey about 2 miles through the cave that focused on the usage and formation of the cave. We were led by one of the most picture perfect park rangers I've ever seen and he played the part to a T:



The day I left Glasgow, another chain of storms had begun tearing its way through the upper midwest. The weather forecast for Indianapolis showed trouble brewing in the afternoon so I headed out with the sun still low in the morning sky and only a gentle humid warmth hanging in the air. Louisville, KY is the most "city-like" place in Kentucky, and the ride north on I-65 through its surroundings was understandably less picturesque than the horse farms of Lexington had been.

Indiana continued that sorry trend. I passed the loose blend of farming, housing, and industry of lower Indiana, through the relatively uninspiring downtown of Indianapolis (that's not just because I'm a Patriots fan) and headed west past a lot of industrial areas to the racing mecca of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At this point the temperature approached triple digits and the clouds hung ominously in the sky but I figured that I couldn't pass through without seeing such a storied facility.


Toledo and Detroit

My ride to Toledo was unremarkable. The poor scenery of Indiana almost immediately improved upon crossing into Ohio, where it transitioned into a more generic sort of flat commercial farmland. I met my girlfriend at my grandparent's house in Toledo and we all caught up over some steaks while watching the Olympic opening ceremonies. Despite my fear of being completely disappointed after the extraordinary synchronized display at Beijing '08, London '12 did a pretty good job of keeping things on a personal level and I have to credit them for putting together a good followup production.

The highlight of Saturday (aside from pecan pancakes and Buckeye iced cream) was the visit to the Toledo Firefighter Museum. It's a tiny building on the outside but the inside is packed with a very well preserved collection of historical fire engines, artifacts, and memorabilia. We were toured by a retired firefighter who clearly loved the job and walked us through the growth of firefighting technology and the industry itself with a deeply personal touch.