Common Tread

When your dad rides off the side of a mountain... revisited

Jan 12, 2018

On November 4, 2016, my dad rode his Suzuki V-Strom 1000 off U.S. 33 in West Virginia. In addition to totaling the bike, Pops ended up with a broken ankle and collarbone. What was supposed to be the beginning of a multiple-day trip ended up being the first day and the last.

In the months that followed, bones began to heal, insurance checks showed up, but the psychological damage remained buried beneath the surface. Shortly after the accident, my brother and his wife had a baby, making dad a grandfather for the first time. Then came Spurgeon Senior’s 62nd birthday. I silently watched as my dad struggled with his own mortality and whether or not a return to motorcycling was in the cards for him.

What happens when your Dad rides off a mountain
The bikes of choice: Our Kawasaki Z900 long-term loaner and my trusty old Triumph Bonneville. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The road back to two wheels

In an effort to help ease the burden of having to commit to a new bike, I decided to offer my road-worn 2005 Triumph Bonneville T-100 for him to use. It was a motorcycle he was extremely familiar with and, as I had other bikes in my garage, he was actually doing me a favor by throwing some regular miles down on the Bonnie.

In an effort to make the bike more Senior-friendly, I replaced the knobby rubber with a set of Michelin Pilot Activ tires. I pulled off the straight tracker bar and replaced it with a relaxed handlebar that my dad found more comfortable. I then swapped out the Thruxton gel seat for an old touring king/queen seat that was collecting dust in my garage. I rode it up to their house from Philly, handed over the keys, and slowly but surely, Pops began riding again.

As I spent most of the spring and summer traveling for work, Dad and I weren’t able to sneak in more than a handful of day trips together. However, the more we rode, the more confident he became in his ability to continue riding. By the time we were closing in on the one-year anniversary of last year’s trip, I felt comfortable suggesting a journey to celebrate his return to two wheels.

When your dad rides off the side of a mountain revisited Spurgeon Dunbar
Sticking to familiar ground with this year's trip. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The ride

With Dad riding my old Bonneville, I decided to test the versatility of our Kawasaki Z900 long-term loaner. I ordered up a Puig touring windscreen, some SW-Motech saddlebags, and installed a Yoshimura exhaust to give my right heel some extra room (I have very large flipper-like feet). Coupled with a Dowco tankbag, and some ROK straps for my camera’s tripod, I was able to convert the Z900 into a very capable little sport-touring machine.

We headed out early in the afternoon on a Friday in November and rode south from my folks' place in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Front Royal, Virginia. The idea was to keep it simple and familiar.

The first trip Dad and I ever took together was down Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, 11 years ago. On that trip, I rode the same, but much cleaner, Triumph Bonneville that Dad was piloting on this trip. Prior to kids, Senior would bring my mom here on the back of his 1978 Yamaha XS750 and they would camp with friends. It was a route familiar to both of us, so it made sense that he felt comfortable riding these roads.

When your dad rides off the side of a mountain Spurgeon S. Dunbar
Conversations over beers sure beats those had in hospital waiting rooms where drinking beer is frowned upon. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The northern-most entrance for Skyline Drive is located in Front Royal. This sleepy southern town sits about 75 miles northeast of Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the previous year we spent our Friday night in the hospital Emergency Room. Unlike the cocktail of prescription drugs Dad enjoyed on that trip, this year we opted for cold beers, margaritas, and tacos at the Mexican restaurant adjacent to our hotel. As we were already off to a better start, we decided to hedge our bets and call it an early night.

We woke early to gray skies and temperatures hovering in the mid-40s. The saving grace of the weak hotel coffee was that it was also burnt, which helped to fool the palate into thinking it was stronger than it actually was. While the bikes were warming up (more of a necessity for the carbureted Bonnie than the fuel-injected Z900) we decided our first stop should be for better coffee.

Skyline Drive passes through the Shenandoah National Park, 200,000 acres of land in northern Virginia consisting of the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. The idea for the highway was suggested in tandem with the proposal for the creation of the park itself. While there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and camping, it was clear that Skyline Drive, which provides breathtaking views of the Virginia countryside below, would be the park's most prominent attraction.

We paid our entry for the park ($20 per motorcycle had me feeling old; I think I uttered something along the lines of “When I was a kid this only cost seven bucks….”) and started our ascent to the top of the mountain. The abundance of wildlife and the dropping temperatures kept our pace modest as we moseyed on down to Skyland Lodge, 45 miles south of Front Royal.

By the time we reached the historic lodge and restaurant, I was frozen solid. The temperature had dropped to the low 30s and my perforated leather jacket was proving to be the wrong choice for this trip (it was in the low 70s when we left Allentown the day before). My father, wise beyond my years, had recently bought a heated jacket liner and was nice and toasty. He added insult to injury by asking if I wanted to borrow one of his liners as he was starting to overheat. The “gloves” scene from Dumb and Dumber crept into my mind.

What happens when your dad rides off the side of a mountain revisited
Warming up over coffee at Skyland Lodge. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

As breakfast came to an end, I lingered in the warmth of the lodge, sipping on a cup of coffee that I never seemed to be able to completely drain as a waitress with a watchful eye hastily refilled it. Pops, ever optimistic, commented that at least it wasn’t raining.

Why not just go ahead and shake your fist at the heavens and dare it to rain, Dad, I thought to myself. We made it about another 45 miles into our trip before the sky opened up. I glared at Senior through the raindrops on my face shield. He didn’t seem to notice.

What happens when your dad rides off the side of the mountain revisited
And then came the rain. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We pulled into a gas station where he donned his rain gear and I cursed silently to myself at the thought of my rain suit sitting at home on the kitchen counter.

“For a guy who works for a motorcycle gear company, you sure don’t seem to be prepared for this trip,” Senior commented with a big goofy smile.

Spurgeon S. Dunbar When your dad rides off the side of a mountain revisited
Dad had no problem teasing me for my improper gear selections. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In my defense, the rain wasn’t supposed to cross over the border of West Virginia and temperatures were supposed be in the mid-60s. Dad asked if I wanted him to go inside and see if they had any trashbags that I could wear. I gave it serious consideration before declining his offer. At that point I resolved to just tough it out.

This was a damn near identical replay to our first trip together in these same mountains all those years ago. Dad had giant yellow rain gear; I was too cool to be bothered. I got wet while he stayed dry. And here I thought that by 34 I was smarter than I was at 23. The more things change, the more boys will be boys — stubborn, stupid, boys.

Lessons learned

After a wet afternoon of riding, we slowly worked our way back to Front Royal a bit earlier than expected. I took a long, hot shower to shake off the cold while Dad napped comfortably on the bed. I let my mind drift as I reflected over all the trips ol’ Senior and I have shared together.

When I ride with Papa Bear, it’s never about covering the most miles or obtaining a personal best at the track. We’re almost never on fancy new motorcycles and the most off-roading we’ve ever done together was the one time we turned around on a huge grassy median strip on the highway just outside of Adamsville, Tennessee. Fun fact, Adamsville is best known as being the hometown of Buford Pusser (If you don’t know who I’m talking about check out The Drive-by-Truckers: “The Buford Stick”.)

Spurgeon J. Dunbar and Spurgeon S. Dunbar
Another successful memory together. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

But when we’re out on the road together we fall into a groove. We aren’t father and son as much as we’re just two guys who like bikes sharing stories about their favorite trips while waiting out the rain. If I am being honest, I think what scared me the most about his accident last year was the thought of not being able to share these moments together anymore. I know it’s selfish of me, but the thought of losing those times was hard to swallow. I imagine it’s even worse for him.

But luckily, what we both learned on this trip is that we’re not there yet. By the end of the ride, Dad was piloting the Bonneville like he had never been away from the bike. If you ask him, he’d probably tell you I was acting like a mother hen for the first half of the trip, constantly asking if he was OK. By the end, however, he was checking on me and making sure I didn’t need to stop every 15 minutes to warm up.

So maybe the real lesson here is to make sure to pack the rain gear even when there are clear skies on the horizon. Even a 34-year-old can still learn a thing or two from his old man.