Three Rides Separated by a Continent

Scott A. Sabol, PE

Each year, Scott Sabol, course developer and co-instructor for CE 528 (Classical & Matrix Methods and Structural Dynamics), takes a trip on his motorcycle and chronicles it for the Norwich University Master of Civil Engineering program.  Below is his travelogue from 2010.


In the account of the Gallic wars, Caesar starts, with variations of the wording depending on the version one reads, “Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est” (all of Gaul is divided into three parts).  Well, this tale is divided into three parts as well.  However, no people were conquered in the making of this story.

Part 1 – California on a Harley-Davidson

The 2010 annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Highway Subcommittee on Bridges and Structures was held in Sacramento, California.  This is a meeting that I had attended every year since 1993, usually by riding to and from on my ’98 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer motorcycle.  However, the distance and timing this year precluded that, and so I chose the alternative of flying to the West Coast and picking up a rental Harley.

I opted to fly in to San Francisco (for reasons to become evident in Part 2), and I picked up my rental at Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson, which is on the south end of San Francisco, not far from the airport.  My ride was a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic, which is what I like to rent on such trips because of the convenience of storage capacity and the opportunity to have a sound system.  As I picked up the bike, the local dealer informed me that “lane sharing is legal in California.”  For those of you who do not ride, lane sharing (also called lane splitting) means that if there is a line of stopped or slowed traffic, a motorcyclist can ride between the lines of cars to advance forward.  I was shocked to find this practice legal, because as an automobile driver, I find it to be annoying and apparently unsafe.  I was not into my ride northbound for more than a few miles before I saw how commonplace it is in California.  However, I simply could not force myself to do it, instead simply waiting my turn in long lines of stopped cars, while brother bikers weaved their way forward.

My trek started with me working my way northward through downtown San Francisco.  I was pleased to find the directional signage reasonably clear, although the road conditions rough.  The Grateful Deadhead in me wanted to take a side trip to the Haight-Ashbury area, but I had been there before and I decided it was simply an invitation to getting lost in the city.

For those of you who know San Francisco, the icon of the city is at its north end: the Golden Gate Bridge.  (The Transamerica building does run a close second in icon status.)  The bridge is a spectacular structure, appreciated even more when on a bike.  I knew for sure that I would have to stop on the far side and get a photo.

Figure 1 - The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Marin County

The view of the bridge and the city from this visitor area is quite good.  One is also accorded a view of Alcatraz.  On my Harley rides, I seem to have a penchant for finding prisons.  As I wondered aloud what it must have been like to be a prisoner at “The Rock” in the 1960s, an old man next to me said, “It wasn’t too bad, but it was good to leave.”  We struck up a nice conversation – I believe he said his name was Frank Morris.

Figure 2 - Alcatraz Island – home to prisoners, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, and Nicholas Cage

My destination for this first day of the ride was not going to be far away – I only wanted to make it to San Rafael.  I had two reasons to stop in San Rafael.  First, it would not be too far away from my friend Holly, whom I wanted to visit, who lives in Ross.  Second, I wanted to visit the post office box that was known to so many of us Deadheads in the 1980s and 1990s – the place where we mailed in our ticket requests for concerts (and then sat back to wait for weeks to see if we scored a ticket or got our money order returned because the show had sold out).

Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful locating the post office.  However, serendipity had placed me in a hotel that was very near another important structure in my world: the headquarters of Autodesk (the company responsible for AutoCAD, one of the world’s largest computer aided drafting software programs).  I decided to ride by the Autodesk campus.  I commandeered a parking space for my bike (I justified the choice by knowing  there was electricity in the bike’s circuits somewhere) and considered the juxtaposition of the supposedly environmentally friendly electric vehicle accommodations with a headquarters building with a façade comprising so much glazing that I cannot believe it could be energy efficient under the hot California sunshine.

Figure 3 - I was unable to find a receptacle on the bike in which to plug

After freshening up at the hotel, I worked my way back south just a little to the town of Ross to visit my friend Holly.  Holly (known as STRHOLJ to me for reasons I will not explain here, and as Dr. Holly Strausbaugh to the rest of the world), is a neuroscientist with whom I attended grade school for the three years I lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  We had stayed in touch during our undergraduate and graduate school days, and I had visited her a few times over the years.  Holly and her husband Greg (that’s Dr. Greg Hjelmstad, also a neuroscientist) and their two small children have a cute home in Ross.  When I arrived, only Holly was home, and we had a chance to catch up on old times and mutual friends.  Then her children arrived: a delightful well-spoken daughter and a son whose internal batteries are clearly charged by an out-of-control nuclear reactor.  As I saw Holly rush around to keep up with her son, and as he drew me into his little high energy games, I felt empathy for my friend for whom the words “peace” and “quiet” no longer have meaning.

I was treated to a fabulous meal, and we discussed the worlds of academia and research, of wine and fajitas, of the Grateful Dead (imagine my excitement to find out that Phil Lesh lived in Ross) and of the overwhelming superiority of Duke basketball (they are both grads; note to self: remember to buy the son and daughter some Chapel Hill blue outfits for Christmas just to tick off mommy and daddy).  And when I described my planned travels for the next week or so, I received excellent guidance on the “here’s how you get to…” and “something you should not miss seeing is…” aspects of northern California.  When it came time for me to head back to the hotel at a very late hour, it was essential to snap the obligatory “children on the big black motorcycle” photo.

Figure 4 - The Hjelmstad/Strausbaugh clan

The next day would be my day to cruise to Sacramento.  However, Holly had told me how to find Phil Lesh’s house, and I just had to make the quick run back to Ross with the hopes of catching a glimpse. (I had missed out on a chance to meet Jerry and Bob years ago in Washington, DC, and I thought this might be my only chance to talk to a band member in person).  I found the address and parked my motorcycle and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  When there was absolutely no sign of stirring on the property, I abandoned my plan and headed east.

Figure 5 - The Lesh household with stalker's bike parked out front

The ride to Sacramento was a nice one.  After arriving at the conference hotel, I arranged to meet up with an old colleague.  Dr. Kurt Ohlinger and I both had taught in the Norwich University Master of Civil Engineering online degree program.  He had been a course developer and instructor in the environmental engineering track (he is a water resources expert), and I was in the structural engineering track (teaching structural dynamics).  We had only ever met in person at the one-week residency program for Norwich program graduates each year, but Kurt had offered to be my Sacramento guide if I ever made it to the California capital.

Figure 6 - Dr. Kurt Ohlinger, water resources guru and local tour guide

We started with a little beer and a little food, and then we took a long walking tour of the city, with Kurt showing me how to carefully step over the homeless who apparently like to stretch out for a nap on the sidewalks.  We burned a few miles of shoe leather as Kurt told me about everything from the “Old Town” portion of the city to life under Governor Schwarzenegger.  We finished with Kurt giving me tips on some of the best routes to ride my Harley the next day as I explored the region around Sacramento.

Figure 7 - The capital building (if you listen carefully, you can hear the people inside plummeting the state into more debt)

The next day, Sunday, was a chance to tour the nearby region on the motorbike.  The temperatures were a little chilly, and snow was forecast for Lake Tahoe, so I restricted my ride to heading about an hour east and riding along the foothills of gold country.  It turns out the Folsom was along my route, and as both a fan of Johnny Cash and prisons, I knew I had to stop.  The challenge came in finding the prison.  After several unsuccessful efforts, I decided to stop and ask for directions at a local McDonald’s.  When I asked the cashier, he did not know.  But then something surprising happened in the world of today’s customer service – the cashier took it upon himself to find the directions.  He worked his way through every other employee until he found someone who knew.

Maybe that level of service is not surprising after all, when one considers that a six-foot tall biker, dressed in black t-shirt and blue jeans, comes rumbling in and asks for directions to the local penitentiary…perhaps the smartest thing to do is to find an answer.

In any case, I was on my way and now quickly found the prison.  I wanted to either take a tour or at least see the gift shop, so I waited in line.  I was kind of surprised to see such a long line on a Sunday morning, and based on the pace of the line, I was bummed that I would be burning so much time not riding.  As I got close to the front of the line, I saw a large board with a list of restrictions, including one that stated that no one wearing blue jeans or blue-colored pants could enter.  I was wearing blue jeans.  It was then that I realized I was not standing in line for a tour or the gift shop – I was standing in the line where visitors were waiting to see their incarcerated loved ones! (All the inmates wear blue, so they do not want to mix up prisoners for visitors.) Not knowing any of the inmates (because my friends never get caught), I opted to leave the line and search for the gift shop, which I did find (it was a combination shop and museum).  A prison with a gift shop; I know it sounds hokey, but given the history of Folsom, it is understandable.  After 30 minutes spent in the little hole in the wall gift shop and museum, I hopped back on my bike and headed west.

Figure 8 - What you see as a prison in the background, I see as a possible retirement home

The next portion of my ride was through some beautiful California mountains.  The terrain meant many sharp turns at low speeds, but it also meant gorgeous views and fantastic bridges.

Figure 9 - Such a beautiful truss, spanning such a great distance yet not taking away from the natural scenery

A real highlight of the ride was when I came into an area that was clearly historic, with buildings maintained as they had been over 100 years ago.  This was where gold was discovered and really sparked a gold rush.  I thought of the many fortunes made and lost in the quest for gold.  As for me, I think the easiest way to find gold is at the jewelry store or watching hip-hop videos on MTV.


Figure 10 - What appeared to be a nugget of gold in the parking lot turned out to be the gold foil wrapper off a candy bar

As I left the mountains and looped back east toward Sacramento, I found myself passing pool after pool of water.  They were all the same size and shape, and they all seemed to have no more than one foot of water.  I thought to myself, “Surely to God this is not where Californians come to bring their children to wading pools.”  I would later find out that these are rice paddies that had recently been (intentionally) flooded as part of the growing process.  I also learned that this region provides an enormous percentage of the world’s rice, most of which is exported.  Rice…in otherwise arid Sacramento…who would have thought?

Figure 11- The next time you chew on a rice cake, think of Sacramento

The Harley trip was then interrupted by the real purpose of this trip: the bridge engineers’ meeting.  It was good, as always, to catch up both on the newest advances in bridge technology and with my colleagues.  An annual highlight of this conference is the FOK (Friends of Kulicki) dinner, and this year was no exception.  A spectacular meal and good conversation allowed us to enjoy the present and reminisce about the past.  There is typically a core group of us, with the occasional newcomer or special visitor whom we just happen to meet up with.  This year’s newcomer was Greg Perfetti, the state bridge engineer for North Carolina, whom I had first met on a project in the early 1990s.

Figure 12 - FOK Dinner 2010 (clockwise from lower left: Greg Perfetti, Dr. Joey Hartmann, Dr. John Kulicki, Ian Friedland, Diane Long, Dr. Dennis Mertz, Dr. Wagdy Wassef, and some Harley-riding bum whom they let join them every year)

After a few days at the conference, it was time for this portion of the story to end.  I packed up my gear, hopped on my Harley, and headed west to San Francisco.

Part 2 – California in a Convertible

When I returned to San Francisco, I dropped off the Harley and picked up a Ford Mustang convertible and a girl.  All in all, I think it was a pretty good swap.

My friend Roberta and I had decided to head to California wine country.  While I had been on the Harley, she had been visiting San Diego, where she was born.  Now we met up to head north to the Napa Valley.  Of course, the first stop when heading north always has to be at the Golden Gate Bridge.  I took another photo.

Figure 13 - Roberta and the Golden Gate Bridge

We worked our way northeast to the Napa Valley, settling in at a bed and breakfast in Calistoga.  For any of you who may someday venture here, I strongly recommend a stay at the Aurora Park Cottages.  The setting is beautiful, the cottages are roomy and laid out nicely, the morning breakfast treats are scrumptious, and the sleeping conditions include simply the most comfortable bed and bed linens I have ever experienced. (We were clearly not the only ones to think that, because they actually sell their bed sheets to some customers.)

The next day was wine-tasting day.  The weather was stormy, but when you are drinking wine, who cares?  We visited several vineyards, paying between zero and twenty dollars at each place for the privilege.  As wine tasters will know, there is a small bucket provided for you to spit out your wine, lest you taste too much and become inebriated. At twenty dollars, there was no way any of my wine was ending up in a bucket.  (Heck, it was all I could do to keep myself from grabbing other people’s buckets to keep theirs from going to waste!)  This simply meant that we had to pace ourselves and take care to not make too many winery stops, because wine tasting and a Ford Mustang is not a safe combination.

Figure 14 - Roberta at the Mondavi vineyards

At the conclusion of the day, we headed back to Calistoga.  Just outside of town is a combination petting zoo and geyser, which caught my attention.  The “fainting goats” were interesting, but the regular performance of the geyser made the nominal entrance fee worthwhile.

Figure 15 - Behold the power of the Geyser Goddess!

After the Napa Valley, we decided to head to the coast for a few days.  This allowed us to take some very scenic roads, and I was excited to be able to tour the Petrified Forest.  We also got to stop in for lunch at a great little town where there was an interesting placard above several store entrances.  The stores were in masonry buildings, and the placard read something like, “Please be advised that this building may be unsafe during an earthquake.”  I assume that must be some state requirement, because it sure is not a way to draw in customers. “Hey, come on in and increase your chances of dying!”

Figure 16 - For a petrified forest, the trees really did not look all that scared to me

We stopped at a park along the ocean and watched the sea lions play in the surf.  Although I love living in Vermont, I must admit that California does have an enticing spectrum of scenery, from mountain to desert to sea coast.  Our lodging at a hotel where our room overlooked the Pacific Ocean was simply fabulous.

Figure 17 - Self-portrait at the beach (notice how I'm pushing Green Mountain Coffee even way out here!)

Figure 18 - The girl and the car that replaced the Harley for this portion of the trip

It eventually came time for the trip to end and for us to return to San Francisco to catch flights back to our respective homes.  The ride along Highway 1 is a white-knuckler for sure, but the sure-footedness of the Mustang helped.  We wended our way back, stopping in the city to spend some hours roaming around.  Lots of interesting people and sights in this city, that’s for sure.

Figure 19 - The sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco - here's one spot where being big and fat has its privileges

Part 3 – The East Coast on a Harley THAT’S on a Ferry

In most years, my travelogue restricts itself to one trip.  However, this year’s trip tales end with my second major trip of the year; an expedition from Vermont to South Carolina and back to get in a little riding time with my best friend.

The ride this time would be on my own Harley, departing Northfield on June 23 in a rainstorm.  I was thankful when the rain turned to sunshine as I entered Massachusetts.  I usually avoid interstate highways, but I knew I had to make my way past the metropolitan New York City area as simply as possible, so I opted onto I-91 and then I-95 for a portion of this trip.  It was unbearably hot (90s) and humid, and although I was going counter to rush hour traffic, I was caught in stop-n-go traffic for hours (at this point perhaps I would actually have engaged in some California lane sharing if I knew whether it was legal in Connecticut and New York).  By late in the evening, I found myself in familiar territory in northern Delaware (I previously lived in Newark, Delaware while working for the University of Delaware).  I decided to stop at a motel for the night.  I pulled into a Super 8, and much to my surprise and delight, across the street was a Hooter’s restaurant where it was “bike night.”  The parking lot was full of motorcycles, so I decided to wander over for beer and to look at all of the gorgeous chassis.


The bikes were pretty nice looking too.

The next morning was already a scorcher when I hit the road shortly after sun-up.  I rode Route 1 through Delaware, stopping to take a photo of the state’s signature cable-stayed bridge.  The roadways in Delaware are excellent for riding; good road surfaces and not a lot of traffic.  Temperatures again soared into the 90s with high humidity, necessitating several water stops along the Delmarva Peninsula.  It also required me to ride most of the day in a long-sleeve shirt to avoid sunburn – the summer in Vermont had not been sunny enough for me to develop a protective tan yet.

Figure 20 - For those of you who know Delaware and the location of the cable-stayed bridge shown here, I am temporarily facing northbound in this photo despite my trip being southbound

By mid-afternoon, I was ready to meet up with my buddy Doug, whom we all call “Mint” (a nickname based on his last name, much as I am called “Sabes” based on mine).  He had ridden east from his home in Cary, North Carolina on his Harley-Davidson Road King.  Surprise, surprise, we met up at a Hooter’s in Virginia Beach.

We decided to have a beer (okay, maybe two) and make a plan.  The original plan was to continue driving south more that day, with the ultimate goal of Myrtle Beach.  However, it had been so hot that we decided to just stay in Virginia Beach.  We headed along the waterfront, found a hotel with a pool, took a swim, and then went out for some beers and a good meal.  Mint and I never miss the chance to eat well on our riding adventures.

Figure 21 - Remember, if you are nice to the wait staff, they will be nice to you (as evidenced by my newfound friend Kaci)

The next day found us on our way south along the coast.  Unfortunately, one wrong turn took us a good 45 minutes out of our way and required a retracing of our steps.  However, we eventually made our way to the Outer Banks, which despite the continuing oppressive heat and sunshine provided some excellent riding.  It also required us to take two ferry rides – a first for us with the bikes.  No chocks, no supports, so when the seas get rough, one just stands by the bike to steady it.  One of the ferry rides takes a few hours, but the time passed quickly when one of the car travelers turned out to be in the same business as Mint (Doug manages construction for a company that builds sports facilities, and he ended up talking with a supplier of stone).  We encountered some extremely stormy weather, but nothing that wobbled the bikes too badly.

Figure 22 - Proof of payment for the ferry ride


Figure 23 - Doing some impromptu business while riding the ferry along the Outer Banks of North Carolina

After docking, we decided to continue our way southward as far as we could, despite the light rain that was falling.  It was getting dark, and somewhere around Morehead City, while riding on a multi-lane divided roadway, a car came up on my left and the passenger yelled out, “Hey, do you know that your tail light is out?”  After getting confirmation from Mint, it became clear that my tail and brake lights needed fixing.  Because I had been riding mostly in daylight, they may have been not working for days.  Well, when one rides a Harley, one learns to cope and to be prepared to do a little wrenching.  We pulled off into the first place that looked like it might have some auto parts, and I removed the light covers to get to the bulbs.  Sure enough - burned out.

Figure 24 - Those are Allen wrenches on the ground behind the bike at the conclusion of the repair

Unfortunately, the store did not sell vehicle bulbs, but they told us that an AutoZone was just down the road a piece.  The best thing about riding with a buddy is that it makes these situations easier; Mint rode his bike to the store with my bad bulb in hand.  When he did not return quickly, I feared the worst.  It turns out that there was not a perfect match for my bulb, so he and the AutoZone clerk had narrowed down the choices, and Mint brought me what they thought was the right match.  Luckily, it worked, but we had lost an hour by the roadside, and it was now getting dark and looked like it might rain again.  Therefore, we decided to search for a motel and stop for the night.  We did, and after we cleaned ourselves up, we decided to head out for a beer and a bite to eat.  Wouldn’t you know where we ended up?  Another Hooter’s.  For me, that made three in three days.

I go there for the quality of the food and beer, of course.

The next day found us riding in hot sunshine and high humidity into Myrtle Beach.  Mint knew the perfect hotel; it was right next to a Margaritaville bar.  We were off the bikes and thus did not have to restrict our alcohol intake, and we proceeded to have an enormous number of some type of drink whose name I cannot remember (could there be a connection?).

June 27 found us hung over and ready to head to Doug’s house in Cary. Sunshine, temperatures in the high 90s, and sauna-like humidity levels can really test one’s ability to handle a motorcycle while hung over. Again I found myself wearing a long-sleeve shirt simply to escape the sunshine.  We eventually made our way to his house, which I was seeing for the first time.  A gorgeous place in a nice neighborhood.  His girlfriend Kara, Mint, and I then headed out for some dinner. 

After a good night’s sleep, it was time for me to start my trip back home.  My first leg was from Cary to Manassas, Virginia, where I stayed at Roberta’s overnight.  My plan was to take two more days to get home.  I left Manassas ultra-early to avoid any traffic, and I stayed to the west of the metropolitan Washington, DC area as best I could.  Once I entered Pennsylvania, I decided to stop off in Gettysburg to see my old stomping grounds of 1975-1977.  I did not want to spend too much time, so I made a quick tour of the town, seeing that my old elementary school had been converted to another use, that the battlefield is still as beautiful and awe-inspiring as ever, and that my friend Holly’s family business (called “Strausbaugh’s Fruit Bowl” when I lived there, and now simply “Strausbaugh’s Market”) was still there.  I stopped and saw an older man walking about – it was none other than Mr. Strausbaugh, and I let him know that I had visited his daughter just a month earlier.  It was this connection of east coast ride to west coast ride that let me know I had to include both in a single travelogue this year.

Figure 25 - The Gettysburg Battlefield - it is mind-boggling that such a beautiful setting had been so bathed in blood during the battle.  Could Johnny Reb be hiding behind the fence line?


Figure 26 - The former elementary school where Holly and I played poker in the 4th grade and probably learned how to read and write a little…but definitely played poker


Figure 27 - Holly's dad's business - still going strong 30+ years later

My route continued northward, and I decided to make some better time by getting onto I-81.  Just south of Binghamton, I took a break at a rest area.  I decided to call my buddy Mint.  Imagine my surprise to hear that he was less than an hour south of me, heading north in a company truck to Syracuse for work!  At this point, being less than five hours from home, I decided not to wait around to see him again, but instead continued on.  Washington, DC to Northfield, Vermont is about 600 miles, which is a pretty big day’s ride.  But the weather was good (sunny but cool for the first time in over a week) and I pushed myself to the limit.  I pulled into my driveway around 11 PM after 14 hours on the road.  And although I knew I would have the occasional day trips during the summer, I decided that Caesar did not conquer all of his territories in a single year, and so neither would I.  More adventures would remain for 2011 and beyond.

Figure 28 - Ride Summary 2010