Thirty-five degrees and a cold drizzle greeted me that November morning. There was nothing unusual about the weather given the time of year. I simply needed to decide: Do I wear heated gear under my riding jacket or not?
My riding buddies, Don, Richard, and I craved one more riding adventure before the close of 2017. Titusville, FL, with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, was our ultimate destination with interesting stops along the way. We figured seven days and 2000 miles should get us there and back.
The first stop on our “history and culture” excursion was Guilford Courthouse National Military Park just north of Greensboro, NC. During March 1781, a most significant battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at this small back-country hamlet. Major General Nathaniel Greene with American militia and Continentals attempted to defend the village but was tactically defeated by Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British army. Greene’s retreat preserved the strength of his army, but Cornwallis lost 25% of his. Cornwallis moved on to Yorktown where he would surrender to American forces under General George Washington, effectively ending the War.
I felt good as we departed Greensboro; it was 50 degrees and the sun was pushing through the last vestiges of a dark, reluctant, drizzling veil. Earlier, two hours into our ride from Virginia, my instrument panel was still showing 37 degrees. I was staying dry despite the drizzle, but I was cold. I questioned my buddies over our helmet intercoms:
“Are you guys staying warm?” I asked, feigning concern for their well-being.
“Warm and cozy,” Richard replied.
“My heated vest is doing the trick, as always,” Don said.
I didn’t admit to my buddies that I miss-judged the temperature starting out. I had left my heated jacket behind. Either they didn’t notice or were too kind to ask why I was shaking when I got off my bike.
Guilford Courthouse was the first of several national parks we visited on this ride. The National Park Service does a wonderful job curating and interpreting our natural and cultural history, so these visits are educational, enjoyable and an end in themselves. However, I had an ulterior motive: A few more visits in several more states would make me eligible for a National Parks Tour Award given by the Iron Butt Association.
“Who was Charles Pinckney?” I had no idea, and unless you are a Constitutional scholar, I’ll bet you don’t know either. Yeah, he was one of the signatories. In fact, he was one of the principal authors of the Constitution as well as 37th Governor of SC and a U. S. Senator and member of the House of Representatives. A remnant of Charles’ coastal plantation in Mount Pleasant near Charleston, S. C., is preserved to tell the story of this forgotten founder. Charles inherited the original 715-acre plantation from his father in 1754 and continued to grow rice and indigo using an enslaved workforce. Congress established Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in 1988 to preserve the site and to interpret his life.
Ten minutes ride from the Pinckney site on Sullivan’s Island at the northern opening to Charleston Harbor is Fort Moultrie, built just in time to protect the city of Charleston from an attack on June 28, 1776, by the British Royal Navy. The fort served in various capacities until its weaponry became obsolete during WWII. Its restoration portrays the major periods of its history and its structures offer great views of Charleston Bay.
Fort Moultrie’s sister fort, Fort Sumter, on an island at the opening of the Bay, is more famous because it was the site of the opening battle of the Civil War. The Visitor’s Center is in the city of Charleston on the opposite side of the Bay from Moultrie. We crossed the wide Cooper River on the beautiful Arthur Ravenel Bridge and headed toward downtown. The Visitor and Education Center is part of a waterfront park from which one can pick a bench, open a bag lunch and watch sailboats and big freighters steam into the harbor.
When South Carolina seceded from the Union the Federal garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the stronger Fort Sumter, but on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops shelled it into submission and seized it. By 1865 when the losing Confederate army finally evacuated the city, Sumter was a pile of rubble after an 18-month bombardment by Federal batteries. It, too, has been restored and a visit via a boat ride will tell the story of that infamous battle that opened a most debilitating American war.
Distracted by all the great historic displays, I neglected to get my Passport book stamped until Richard reminded me. The Passport book is a guide to the national treasures of America—the national parks. It contains maps, information, and a listing of all the parks in the country. When you visit a park you can stamp your Passport “canceled” with a dated ink stamp recording the park’s name and location. With four cancellation stamps after only two days on the road (Guilford Courthouse, Pinckney, Moultrie, and Sumter), I was well on my way toward the remaining eight I needed for the Iron Butt Award.
The sights and sounds along East Bay Street in downtown Charleston were familiar. I had visited this remarkable city a number of times; its charms were enticing as we drove toward the Ashley River bridges to depart. We should have planned to remain in Charleston for a while, but we motored on in order to reach our day’s destination, the Waterfront Inn in Darien, GA, before nightfall. A scrumptious seafood dinner accompanied by a cold Stella Artois draft (although one of us drinks Bud-Lite!) awaited us at Skipper’s Fish Camp across the parking lot from the Inn.
Cumberland Island National Seashore was our target for early morning, but wait—sad story: Richard had a mishap that caught his ankle between his K1200 and a hard place. Our collective best judgment suggested he bail out, ”limp” to his son’s place near Atlanta and rest his bruised ankle and ego for a few days before returning home. Don and I motored on to St. Marys, GA, to find the boat docks to the Seashore closed due to damage from hurricane Irma. The ferry rides to the island were canceled, but the mainland visitor center, bookstore, and submarine museum were open. St. Marys is a pretty little village; we explored it, got our passports stamped, and headed for the top of Route A1A along Florida’s east coast.
The view from A1A alternates from garish, gaudy beach abodes, high-rise hotels, to pristine natural seashore. We enjoyed the latter as we crossed the Nassau River Bridge and found our way via a few miles of dusty, sand roads to Kingsley Plantation in the Middle of Timucuan Ecological Preserve on Fort George Island. Zephaniah Kingsley arrived in Spanish Florida in 1803 and began acquiring land by grant and purchase; he eventually owned over 32,000 acres. The Fort George Island plantation was home for him and his African wife Jai whom he had purchased as a slave. They and their four children lived there until the 1830’s. Their house, built by slaves in 1798, is the oldest plantation house in Florida. Encompassing thousands of acres of coastal land the Timucuan Preserve protects pristine wetlands as well as some of Florida’s most significant historic sites, including Kingsley’s house.
A ten-minute ride on our now dusty motorcycles took us to the Mayport Ferry crossing the St John’s River east of Jacksonville. The east Florida coast has a rich history of nations battling for land that many thought “was not worth fighting for.” After submission of several Native American tribes, Florida was under colonial rule by Spain, France, and Great Britain before becoming a territory of the U. S. in 1821. This history is told at Forts Caroline, Castillio de San Marcos, and Fort Matanzas. We visited them all before arriving at our southern-most destination, Titusville, FL, across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral.
If you haven’t been, you owe to yourself, your children, and your elderly parents a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Launch operations for the Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs were carried out from here. The Center features exhibits and displays, historic spacecraft, shows, two IMAX theaters, and a range of bus tours. Arriving when the gates opened and departing when they closed at the end of the day provided us a great sketch of the space program from the first flights in the early 1960s to the missions to Mars.
“So, where do you intend to strap down a big pizza box ?” I asked Don as he mounted his bike. “And remember, Heineken for me, not Bud-Lite!”
After returning to the hotel from the Space Center, we were bushed from being on our feet all day. Having take-out pizza at the hotel seemed like a great idea. Don volunteered to fetch it from a pizzeria we saw a few miles back. The “large” pizza turned out to be extra-large by anyone’s standards (the box was nearly 3 ft. by 3 ft.) and fit nowhere on his bike.
“No worries, Jim,” Don said as he pulled up to the hotel. “I just laid it on my lap and across my arms and handlebars and kept my speed below 50 mph.” The pizza was good and there was enough to sustain us most of the way home. Cold pizza can be mighty tasty under the right circumstances.
Away from the east and west coasts, much of central Florida is remote and quite beautiful. After getting our Passports stamped at the Canaveral National Seashore administration offices, we rode northwest across the bottom end of Ocala National Forest and into horse country on the Central Florida Ridge. An overnight in Albany, GA, (pronounced “All-banny” by the locals) and a ride through some cotton fields put us within reach of three more National Park sites the following day: Jimmy Carter NHS, Andersonville NHS, and Ocmulgee NM.
In many respects, Carter’s home place, a few miles from the town of Plains, reminded me of the farm on which I grew up. Primitive, but self-sufficient; dawn to dusk labor intensive; and tight family associations. Jimmy’s old school building in Plains, GA, serves as the Carter National Parks Visitor Center. President Carter has written several books about growing up in Plains. I bought a copy of one entitled An Hour Before Daylight. It’s fascinating how this boy, growing up in a “backwoods,” isolated environment in the Jim Crow segregationist south, could become President of the United States and the foremost example of a charitable, compassionate, human being.
I had a nice chat with the attendant at the Visitor’s Center desk about Carter’s many activities given his age of 92 years; then she said: “Did you know Jimmy, that is, President Carter, is teaching Sunday school class down the street at the Baptist Church day after tomorrow? You should stay and attend.” “I would love to,” I replied, “He is one of my favorite Presidents for many reasons including his devotion to his faith.”
Continuing north on the back roads of South Georgia we stopped at Andersonville Prison National Historic Site. It is the site of a notorious Confederate Civil War Prison where over 13,000 inmates died and were buried. The site also houses the National Prisoner of War Museum and Andersonville National Cemetery. I visited the site a year ago and posted some observations HERE.
Just east of downtown Macon, GA, is Ocmulgee National Monument, a prehistoric American Indian site boasting evidence of “17,000 years of continuous human habitation” from the Paleo-Indian period hunting Ice Age mammals to the Woodland period of recent history. The degree of social sophistication held by these ancient Americans is stunning. Visit and be amazed by the chronology of human habitation in this part of the country.
We had such a good time at these three Georgia National Park sites that we were badly behind schedule for a preferred, daylight arrival in Franklin, NC. Riding for an hour and a half after dark brought us to our hotel by 8:30 pm with just time enough for a walk to Willy’s Bar-B-Que Smokehouse for a “saucy BBQ plate.”
Departing Blacksburg 7 days earlier, the fall leaf color was well beyond peak. However, from Franklin and up past Asheville, NC, and into eastern Tennessee the waning yet dazzling colors across the mountains became the highlight of this last day on the road.
Cruising north on I-81 an hour from home I began reflecting on our trip and wondered: “Did I visit the requisite number of National Parks to qualify for the Iron Butt Award?” So, what’s up with that crazy award anyway? And what is an “Iron Butt?”
In a nutshell, the Iron Butt Association is a motorcycling organization dedicated to safe, long distance, endurance motorcycle riding whose members tout themselves the “World’s Toughest Riders.” Membership requires completion and certification of one of several defined rides. Examples include the “Bun Burner,” 1,500 miles in less than 36 hours; the “Coast to Coast” in less than 50 hours; “48 States” in 10 days; and “Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay Alaska” in 30 days. I’m too old for any of that craziness so I chose the “National Parks Tour,” ride to and visit a minimum of 50 National Parks in a minimum of 25 states or Canadian provinces within a year—nothing crazy about that.
My one-year window began November 5, 2016, with a solo round trip to New Orleans visiting parks in six states. My buddies Richard, Jeff, and I visited parks in thirteen states and three Canadian provinces in July and September, and Don, Richard, and I visited parks in four states during this current trip that ended November 4, 2017, for a total of 51 National Park Service sites in 26 states.
So, what will my big prize be after the IBA certifies my ride? Not even a pat on the back—just a patch and a license plate frame for BOXXER claiming to be one of the “World’s Toughest Riders.” How do I know? Because this is the second time I’ve done this ride (72 parks in 38 states in 2015). So why do it again? Because the “real prizes” for this experience are the camaraderie and friendship shared with my riding buddies; the educational experiences gleaned from interactions with dedicated National Park Service employees; the sights, sounds, and smells of all God’s creation along the way; and the thrill of feeling alive on an open, two-wheeled machine careening through space. You all come along for the next ride. You, too, can become (and beget) an Iron Butt.
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