Old Rockets and Motorbikes

Today finds us in Alabama, after traversing the corner of Florida containing Pensacola.  We’re right on the Gulf Coast about 8 miles west of the Florida-Alabama line, at Gulf State Park.  I’m sitting in our campsite, which has a small stagnant stream along the backside.  I’m in the shade of the trees growing alongside, and there is a little sign beside me.  It reads “Please be aware that alligators and snakes like to spend time in this creek and along the shoreline.  For your safety, do not feed the alligators and always watch your step.”  The guy in the site next to us says that there is a 4-footer that hangs out along this stretch and has come up into his site when it sees him eating.  Jalene and I moved our picnic table well back from the stream, hopefully out of gator eyeshot.  For now, I’m just keeping an eye on the water in hopes of a sighting, so I can get the feel of what this dude is like.

We’ve been in Alabama about a week now.  I can tell you right away it’s not what I expected.  For a kid from the northwest, far away from here, Alabama was a place you heard about when there was bad news.  George Wallace, segregation, separate-but-equal, Selma, and all that.  But this is a remarkable state, with some amazing resources and achievements, and beautiful countryside.  Moving south out of Tennessee, the hills lose their sharpness and the roads straighten out. 

But before we left the state, we had to remedy a problem.  We had purchased Big Agnes Q-Core sleeping pads to go with our bags, even though we’d read the poor reviews about their durability.  Sure enough, I spent the night on the ground with a leaky pad, and so we headed to REI in Nashville and bought the Ex-Ped pads that we should have in the first place.  We decided that a layover day was in order, and next day took a shuttle bus into downtown to see the sights of Music City.  Broadway is lined with bars, and each one has live music playing, with the bands performing for tips.  Plenty to sample, we heard some good country and bluegrass tunes.  Of course we had to head down into Coyote Ugly, just to see the long, long bar famous for ladies dancing on it.  I don’t know how it happened, but we found ourselves with beers in hand, and then Jalene was up on the bar dancing.  Being the little organizer, she was pulling the other ladies up there with her.  Soon it was lemon moonshine shots and then we had to get out of there.  But for awhile I sure was enjoying the scene from my barstool.  We headed back to our campsite at the Yogi Bear campground about a mile from the Grand Ol’ Opry and laughed about the day.

Shortly after crossing the line down into Alabama, we pulled into Huntsville, where the big military and NASA rockets were developed at the Redstone facility.  I wanted to see the National Rocket and Space Museum there, so we found a campground just outside of town in a lovely setting in tall hardwood trees.

Next day we went down to the museum, which impresses even before you get there.  From the highway still a mile or so away, you can see a Saturn-1B and a Saturn-5 moon rocket sticking way up above the trees and buildings.  The amount on display there is incredible.  There is every kind of rocket under the sun, from very early small military rockets to the most modern stuff of today.  There are also models of some of the Russian rockets to compare, and both American and Russian space art on display.  Nice touch.  As a kid that grew up watching the Gemini and Apollo missions on TV as they happened, it brought back amazing memories.  Now here was all the actual stuff, from the first Mercury missions all the way through to the Shuttle, one of which is parked fully assembled for launch right outside.  The scale of the rockets is what surprised me, from the smallness of the Mercury Redstone rocket (it’s little!) to the immense height of the Saturn-5 Apollo nearby.  Inside, they have that Apollo laying on its side, broken into sections, and you can see everything.  Seven and a half million horsepower – that’s what I need in a truck.  They also do Space Camp, where kids come for extended periods to get a taste of astronaut training, and some of the real astronauts are alumni of this.  Jalene and I tried the Space Shot ride, which simulates launch forces.  They strap you in and load up a compressed-air booster, then pull the trigger.  It sends you straight up about 150 feet in maybe one second and lets you continue up in free-fall, up, up until you top out and start falling again, then you just bounce on that compressed air for awhile until they let you come back to the ground.  Neat, but beware if you get seasick.  Jalene did it twice, me just once.  Free old-school NASA stickers for the bikes to prove we’d been there.

After a full day of rocketry and science, we relaxed back in camp for the evening, then got up early and headed down the little backs roads to Wendy’s house.  Wendy is the daughter of some of Jalene’s parent’s closest friends, and she had extended the welcome mat for us.  We wandered down through roads off the beaten track, and found great BBQ again on the way down.  At this point I should mention our changing lunch habits.  Although sometimes we stop for a “treat” lunch like this day, most of the time we have been getting lunch at the deli counters in supermarkets with varying success.  But over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been having lunch at Subway more often, as we can have a decent and reasonably healthy lunch there for about the same price, or maybe 2 dollars more at most.  Jay likes a salad and I get a 6” meal and we share the chips.  We still get our dinner fixin’s at the store and do one-pot dinners at camp, and that works great for us.  Last night it was some kind of crawfish and rice sausage thing cooked up with taters and onions and mushrooms and peppers.  Wash it down with a beer and it’s sleepy time again.

Anyway, we made it down to Wetumpka, which is just on the north side of Montgomery, and Wendy welcomed us in.  This was a wonderful break for us, and we got busy with laundry, and I changed the oil in both bikes, since we’d travelled 5,800 miles at this point.  I also took some slack out of Jalene’s chain, which is growing tired and will be replaced in Dallas along with new sprockets.  I also noted that my bike has coolant showing at the little tell-tale weep hole, while Jalene’s is showing a little oil coming out the same place.  What this means is that it’s time for a water-pump rebuild for both of them, for which I now have all the parts for and I’ll do that in Dallas as well.  New tires for both bikes there will complete the refreshing.  Wendy has a hair salon at the house, and so Jalene got a cut-and-color, while I just got a cut and trim.  So with both bikes and riders cleaned up and serviced, we could relax and have a little fun.

The next morning, while Jay stayed behind and spent time with Wendy, I rode north again up to Birmingham to see the Barber Motorsports Museum.  This is a world-class motorcycle history museum, with examples stretching back to the 1860’s all the way up to today, both restored and unrestored.  All of the bikes were in running condition, save for a very few replicas of the earliest examples of steam-powered two wheelers.  Some were unrestored “barn finds” where you could see the original paint and machining marks.  Before cable controls for brake, clutch, and throttle were invented, it was pushrods, levers, and bellcranks, all wonderfully glowing in nickel plate or brass.  The museum was showing about 700 of the 1350 motorcycles in the collection, and I was able to see many memories of bikes in my past or those friends of mine had ridden.  I think the high point was suddenly spotting a lovely Triumph Trophy Trail 500, seemingly fresh from the factory.  I had owned one of these in Alaska, but a previous owner had stripped the paint from the aluminum tank, and fit an aftermarket exhaust of cheap quality.  I had always wondered what it would look like stock, and now I knew.  The aluminum tank had a beautiful crescent of bright red paint on the forward half, but the exhaust was a rather ugly black steel squarish unit showing little esthetic thought from the designer.  I looked at it for a long time, thinking about the great rides I’d had on it exploring the island I lived on 1979-83 (Unalaska in the Aleutians – Dutch Harbor).

There is also the world’s largest collection of Lotus racecars there, as well as the Ferrari that John Surtees drove to the 1964 F1 championship.  Surtees was the only person ever to win both the 500 GP motorcycling and Formula One automobile World Championships, the premier classes in each sport.  The museum itself is a remarkable design, all glass on the outside, with the back wall facing the 2.4-mile road-course track.  I watched 8 or 10 Porsche cars come through the horseshoe 180 right turn in a line (I think it was a driving school class that day) and get on the gas as they squirted up the short straight and squeezed on the brakes for the next left-hander.  This track was built with bikes topmost in mind, and it smoothly flows left and right, up and down through a lovely green area, and to top it off, features wonderful sculptures at various sites around it.  Mr. Barber owns a family dairy business, the success of which has enabled his collection of motorcycles and the museum and track through which he shares them.  I wish I could come back two weeks from now for the Vintage Festival Races where all this iron gets fired up and run on the track for everyone to enjoy.  Tons of stuff in the gift shop, to be sure, but I only wanted a $1 sticker for the bike, then headed for a late lunch of rib sandwiches in town as recommended by the staff.  Check out to see more.

On the way back to Wendy’s, I adhered to the old mantra of Never pass a fellow biker parked by the side of the road.  I’d seen this guy at Barber, and then he’d passed me a few miles back going about 15 over, lucky that the cop had someone else pulled over.  Well, Peter from Pennsylvania (really nice fellow) had some fuel gauge problems.  Though it showed he had gas, the gauge hadn’t moved in a while and then the engine went all silent.  I found a gas station about 5 miles further on and came back with a plastic gallon can of gas and it fired right up.  Whew!  Not needing to, Peter still pushed $20 to me and now I have an empty plastic gas can for the next forlorn waysider. 

After leaving the incredible hospitality that Wendy afforded us, we again found the little roads leading southward, this time headed for Pensacola.  On the way, we started to run into cotton fields and peanut farms.  Neither of us had ever seen how cotton was grown, only what we read in history books and Uncle Remus tales.  We walked out into a field to see for ourselves, and I can’t imagine the back-breaking work it must have been to pick that stuff by hand, in that heat.  But it’s an interesting crop, to be sure, and I’m glad to have seen it for myself now.  Fortunately machines have taken over.  And you can really smell the peanut plants as they dry and brown in the field, a unique but immediately recognizable earthy peanut-shell scent to confirm what we saw beside us.

We made it as far as Open Pond campground in the Comecuh National Forest in southern Alabama, just above Florida.  It’s got to be the most civilized forest lake I’ve ever seen, with the trees cut back about 50 yards from shore all the way around and an intervening lawn mowed, ringing the water in an apron of green.  Our site was just above the green belt, and had a lovely breeze to help cool us a bit.  No need for sleeping bags here, we slept on our mats with just silk bag liners over us.  A morning shower and we were off.

Pensacola greeted us with sun and heat.  We first stopped at Adventure Motorsports, a local BMW and Indian dealership that had kindly ordered in and held the waterpump parts I needed.  These guys were superb, and Jay, the parts guy, had made sure the right parts were on hand in time for our visit.  We spent time talking with him at the parts counter, and with Tod, the general manager.  Great people and fun stories all around, we really enjoyed spending an hour swapping tales.  They also steered us to a nice lunch spot, the Flora-bama Oyster Bar, half of which is in Florida and the other half in Alabama, or at least that’s how the story goes.  We had battered shrimp and veggies and fries, all tasty and fresh.  As we were gearing up to leave, four women asked about our Oregon plates and travel plans, and were suitably impressed with our adventure that they hauled me back inside and bought us a Flora-bama sticker.  We cut it in half, Jalene took Flora and I took Bama.  Then they signed both stickers for posterity.  When we park the bikes butt-to-butt, the sticker is complete again.  See the gallery, I guess.  Anyway, Flo Kay, Stacy, Chrystie, and Lisa, it was a hoot meeting you, and I hope you had as much fun with us as we did with you!

We’re all setup in camp now, and it’s time for us to go forage for dinner.  The sun is getting low and the air is cooling a bit.  We’ll hop on the bikes and go see what we can find, then come back here for a cold beer and a camp chair.  Tomorrow we either take a break day here or continue west.

I’ll let you know what we find.


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