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Common Tread

The long way to Austin on a Triumph Street Twin

May 27, 2016

Just 24 hours after picking up the Triumph Street Twin in Atlanta, I found myself sitting in Pascagoula, Miss., sipping a watered-down drink served by a lethargic barkeep in sweatpants at a place called The Downtown Jazz Club. It wasn't what I had in mind.

I had strayed off course in search of The Stateline Bar, which Jimmy Buffett sings about in “The Pascagoula Run.” According to Buffett, it was a hopping place packed with “men with knives and scars” and questionable women. I suppose a lot has changed since the 1980s, as no such bar still exists and the Downtown Jazz Club featured a rather lackluster crowd.

Spurgeon Dunbar Pascagoula Downtown Jazz Club
The Jazz Club was a bit of a letdown compared to the scene Buffett had described. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

There are only three people in the world who would understand why I would make a point to search for a bar in Pascagoula. Two are my brothers, the third is our pops. Growing up, Dad would constantly play a worn out cassette of Buffett’s “Off to See the Lizard” in our minivan on family vacations. No one at The Downtown Jazz Club seemed to notice as I made it my selection on the jukebox. 

This current adventure started with a phone call from Triumph Motorcycles offering RevZilla a new Street Twin to ride and review. The question became how to get the bike from their press fleet in Atlanta to us in Philadelphia.

I was already planning to attend MotoGP in Austin, Texas, the following weekend. I suggested I fly to Atlanta, pick up the bike, spend three days riding it to Austin, and then back up to Philly, where we would shoot the review. I couldn't have been more surprised when my director and riding buddy, Brett Walling, actually agreed.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
Stopping at the Alabama state line to change the music to something more fitting. RevZilla photo.

Westbound and loaded down

I picked up the Triumph late on a Tuesday and loaded it with my simple luggage setup. My well-worn textile Cortech saddlebags, a new Dowco Fastrax Tankbag for my camera, and my trusty Kriega US-20 to hold my electronics. The next morning I was up with the sun, heading west on Interstate 20. I exited around Villa Rica, Ga., in search of a slower pace and found it on Route 78. The 55 mph speed limit dropped to 35 mph as it passed through southern towns, which seemed stuck in another time and place.

Spurgeon Dunbar Vintage Cars
400 horsepower on flat tires. I feel like there is a country song here somewhere. RevZilla photo.

If people in rural Georgia and Alabama make money in ways other than fixing and reselling cars, I would have never guessed it. I’ve never seen more mechanics in one location than the stretch of road leading to Talladega National Forest.

While I have ridden through Alabama before, this is the first time I found the curves. Route 281, otherwise known as the Skyway Motorway, snakes its way south from Route 78 until it turns to gravel shortly past Cheaha State Park. With no intention of dual-sporting a fully loaded Street Twin through rural Alabama, I turned around, stopping to stretch my legs at the country store located at the entrance for Cheaha State Park.

As soon as the kickstand hit the gravel, a weathered man with a thick European accent approached the bike. He immediately started asking questions and reliving tales of the Triumphs he had in his youth. He had just turned 80 and these days he says he finds his Harley V-Rod better suited for his needs, but he liked the looks of this new Street Twin.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
There was always someone to chat with about motorcycles on this trip. RevZilla photo.

If you have ever ridden a Modern Classic Triumph, there is no doubt in my mind that you have a similar tale to tell. I have 74,000 miles on a 2005 Bonneville T-100 sitting in my garage at home and you quickly become accustomed to strangers approaching you at every gas stop to inquire about your bike. Their questions are usually followed with a story about the one that got away from them in their youth. It’s good to see the new Street Twin still has the same effect.

After a quick snack of cheese and peanut butter crackers, I was back on the bike, heading south. In my opinion, this is the perfect way to take a motorcycle trip. Instead of thinking about the final destination, keep your eyes peeled for your next one. I knew I had to be in Austin by Friday for a meeting, but other than that, I hadn’t planned any particular route. The road was my guide. I would check the map at each impromptu stop in search of a place 60 to 80 miles in the distance that would serve as another interesting place to rest. This is how I ended up eating oyster po’boys in Montgomery while reading about Martin Luther King Jr. and the small town of Selma.

Spurgeon Dunbar Montgomery Alabama
A mural of the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. RevZilla photo.

Alabama was a hotbed for the Civil Rights movement, and in the early 1960s a series of poll taxes were levied that basically excluded a large portion of the African-American community, as well as poor whites, from being able to vote. A protest march was planned from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to speak with Governor George Wallace. Wallace declared the march a threat to safety and ordered it stopped at all costs. The result was a televised attack on civil rights protesters on the Selma Bridge. These protests directly contributed to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As a history major, I’ve read these facts in books, but sitting in the heat and humidity of an Alabama afternoon, it all felt much more real.

Munching on fried oysters, I looked around at the diverse clientele patronizing Wintzell’s Oyster House. The menu advertised they have been in business for 75 years and I wondered what this place looked like in 1965. As a country, we are far from perfect and some could argue that the current political climate is as divided as ever. But as I sat watching folks laughing together with plates piled high with fried seafood, I couldn’t help but think about how far we have come. This rowdy lunchtime scene is a perfect example of what most of us are looking for in life: good food, good drink, and the company of good people. Throw in a fine new motorbike and I can’t think of a better way to live.

Spurgeon Dunbar Oyster Po'Boy
Oyster po'boys. A must have if you are ever passing through. RevZilla photo.

Inspired by the rich history of Montgomery, I cranked up Drive By Truckers and listened to Patterson Hood sing about his take on Alabama while splitting my time exploring Route 31 and cruising Interstate 65. Weaving my way deep into the Gulf Coastal Plain, I watched the scenery change before my eyes. The grassy fields of the northern part of the state gave way to swamps and marshes that extended from the Mobile River delta. Entering Mobile, Ala., on I-65, there is a portion of the highway that is nothing more than a series of bridges extending over varying bodies of water.

Bypassing Mobile, I headed straight for Dauphin Island. Having never seen the Gulf of Mexico before, this looked like the perfect location to introduce myself. I arrived just in time to sit on the sandy shoreline and watch the sun sink below the horizon.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
Sitting in silence. These are my favorite moments on these trips. Note the pole running power lines across the water. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The original campsite I had picked was over 150 miles away on the outskirts of New Orleans. After my detour through Pascagoula, I realized I needed a change of plans and I settled for an “affordable” hotel just across the river from the gambling town of Biloxi.

I was surprised with the overall cleanliness and condition of the room as I got ready for bed. Just as I was beginning to think that a cheap motel room in the South might be a bit different from one up north, the room began to shake and a piercing shriek of a train whistle split the silence of the night. As it turns out, a set of train tracks ran about 20 feet from my head on the other side of my bedroom wall. "Sleep tight," I thought to myself.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
Passing through the old riverboat town of Biloxi, Miss. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Bonnevilles, beignets and boats

The heat and humidity of the morning hit me like a brick to the face as I left my air-conditioned room. Walking to my bike, I found an elderly man sitting on the Triumph, smoking a cigarette. He acknowledged my presence with a sideways glance and introduced himself as Joe. You get one guess as to the type of motorcycle Joe had in his youth.

As it turned out, Joe was a local who was spending some time at the hotel. When I asked him why, he simply replied that he was “locked out of his house for a few days” and left me to speculate the reasons why. With that, he laughed and stepped aside while I loaded up the bike. I saw him waving as I rode off. 

My plan for breakfast was coffee and beignets in the French quarter of New Orleans, and as I exited the highway I was surprised to see the streets already packed with people. As it turns out, I had shown up just in time for the start of French Quarter Fest and was heading for the heart of it, Café Du Monde on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin Cafe Du Monde
I had the best seat in the house while I ate breakfast and watched passersby in the heart of the French Quarter. RevZilla photo.

Luckily, I was on a motorcycle and I made a parking spot for the Triumph right in front of the historic café. The wait for an actual table was over an hour, so I ordered a café au lait and beignets to go and sat on the curb eating my bag of fried dough and watching passersby while a street musician played “Amazing Grace” on his trumpet. If you’re not familiar with beignets, try to picture a square cube of funnel cake with a little less nutritional value. Delicious? Yes. Nutritious? Not so much.

Having never been to New Orleans, I made a silent vow to return when I had more time to properly explore the city. Firing up Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Greatest Hits,” I continued my journey west. John Fogerty kept me company while I rolled through the bayous of Louisiana toward the Texas border.

If used car sales are keeping the economy alive in the upper parts of these southern states, than used boat sales and repairs were doing the same for the lower parts. The road seemed to run on top of the vast swamps south of the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. Here, a boat makes much more sense than a bored-out Chevy.

Spurgeon Dunbar New Orleans
I loved all of the different marinas and boat repair shops with bait shops and restaurants all connected. RevZilla photo.

Deciding to make up time across Texas, I throttled down the Interstate and began to tick off miles. While the new Street Twin handled highway duties admirably well, I would have paid handsomely for a clip-on windscreen to deflect some of the pressure off of my chest and neck.

As I closed in on Austin I made plans to stop and explore La Grange, Texas, the town made famous by Billy Gibbons growling out his bluesy tale of whorehouses in a bygone era. With “Tres Hombres” cued up and ready to go, I pulled out of a truck stop off of Route 71.

Immediately, I knew something was wrong. The bike was sluggish to accelerate and almost fell over when I tried turning out of the lot. Pulling over, I discovered the rear tire was completely flat. My first thought was that I was ecstatic I was on the smaller, mag-wheeled Street Twin as opposed to one of its bigger, spoke-wheeled brothers. My second thought was a pang of regret for listening to Lemmy and not including a tire repair kit in my saddlebag on this trip.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
I was thankful for the tubeless mag wheels which made temporarily repairing the flat much easier. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Over the years, Lem would pick on me for being over prepared on road trips and insisted I would be fine without packing an entire tire changing machine along for every trek I took. The one time I listened to him I found myself scouring the back shelf of a Texas truck stop for a tire plug kit 100 miles from nowhere.

While I was able to find a plug kit, the air machine was malfunctioning and I was only able to eke out about five pounds of pressure. Out of options, I set off down the shoulder of the road at a commanding 10 mph with my four-way flashers blazing and traffic blowing by me at about 70 mph. At the next exit, I found a properly functioning air machine, filled the rear tire, and continued on my way. La Grange would have to wait for another trip. I pulled into Austin shortly after 10 p.m., just in time to join some friends at the hotel bar for fish tacos and local cocktails.

The Street Twin proved to be the perfect little mount for this type of trip. Low-mileage days where the focus is on discovering new places instead of covering big distances. I got to explore parts of the country I had previously only seen on TV or read about in books. Riding around Austin, the Triumph garnered looks at the Handbuilt Show and when I showed up at COTA for MotoGP, it got me a free premium spot. In fairness, any motorcycle will get you a free premium spot, but you get the idea. 

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville Street Twin
With a simple setup, I was able to turn the Street Twin into a tiny touring machine. Note the absence of a windshield. RevZilla photo.

With deadlines looming, I had to get back to Philly. My return trip from Austin to Philadelphia was not as relaxed, as I ended up covering a little over 1,700 miles in 48 hours. The little Triumph was not as kind for this final leg of the journey. But that's another story.