Monday, April 30, 2018

Jamestown, VA and Williamsburg Part II

Next on the list of not-to-be-missed local wonders: the Jamestown Settlement.

Jamestown was settled in 1607, but it wasn't easy.  Famine, disease, and war with the local natives picked off the settlers by the dozens.  Still they persevered.

Jamestown's is the best historical museum I've ever seen. Unfortunately, they don't allow pictures of the inside of the building so let me just summarize - truly awesome. Our ticket purchase allowed us to come back a second day and so we did.

Pocahantas was the favored daughter of the leader of the local natives.  As tribe emissary she spent significant time with the Jamestown settlers, eventually marrying a young tobacco farmer. This alliance brought some peace to the settlement for a while.

A team of glass-blowers work just steps from the site of the original kiln from 1607. Glass was the first manufactured product exported to England from the New World.

Glass is over 1000 degrees while it's being worked on. The team of two worked seamlessly together.

We decided to take another crack at Williamsburg, we were hoping Sunday afternoon would be a better window to try a tavern dinner (after our last post family and friends insisted they were not to be missed); it worked out perfectly. There were a few families and some tourists, but not the crazy mobs we had endured before.

Sunday's pace was much calmer, with a few families playing on the lawn

We arrived just in time for a shooting of the big cannon (the whole Earth rumbled) and a parade complete with drums, hoping to literally "drum up" some attention for the pending revolution.

Our tavern of choice for dinner

Our dinner was simple period-appropriate tavern fare, complete with locally-made ale. The restaurant usually has a bard to sing and spread stories, but ours was out sick so we amused ourselves with the wooden board game on the table.

The Preservation Society is hard at work refurbishing this home from the 1600s

I'm so glad we went back and tried again, our second visit to Williamsburg was relaxing and fun, definitely a better experience the second time around without the crowd.

The rural area around Jamestown and Williamsburg is laced with bicycle paths and historical markers. Beautiful. We will definitely be back, next time we'll plan to stay longer.

Bicycle path just outside the Jamestown Settlement

Friday, April 27, 2018

Colonial Williamsburg, VA

We were very excited about seeing Colonial Williamsburg.  Family has been there and they rave about it, and so when we finally got a break from the rain we scurried right down there.

They advertise that the dog is welcome, so we brought her.
When we got there we found that she was welcome to walk outside on the street, but not welcome inside in the paid demonstrations. So we walked the street and decided to give it a moment before deciding what to do.

The town was PACKED.  Parking was difficult, and there were school kids in matching t-shirts EVERYWHERE, pushing and shoving and being loud and running crazy - just generally being kids grateful to escape school on a beautiful spring day.  I overheard some staff saying that they were expecting 1600 kids that day. The little town is only a few blocks long.

Tulips in Williamsburg

Bell jars help seeds get started in Spring

Here's the deets: Williamsburg is a town that was founded in 1638, a 400-year old American city (yeah, my Californian brain struggled with that one for a while).

They have carefully preserved the downtown, which abuts William & Mary College, and it's all just breathtakingly beautiful in a very orderly square grid, brick, perfectly manicured way.

Anyone can walk around outside down the street and around the gardens and grounds, and wander through the real retail shops for free.  Here and there inside the buildings are "exhibits" which are folks dressed in Revolutionary-era costumes doing period-appropriate things and if you have buy the pass you can get into those and learn.  They remain totally in character and talk you through whatever they're doing and it's like you're right there with them in revolutionary times - it feels so genuinely real you might forget about that computer/phone in your pocket.

Lance waiting his turn to get in and watch the woodworker doing his thing. This week he was working on a project commissioned for the retiring president of William & Mary College.

We had about decided to take turns holding Chloe outside, and buy a pass so we could get the full experience (they're $40 each) when we overheard staff telling another non-matching-tee-shirt-wearing visitor like us that the schoolkids were doing the next few exhibit tours and they would have to wait an hour (exhibits take 20 minutes each) for the next available one. Since it was already afternoon and we already had our fill of rude children, we decided to save our money, see what we could see from the outside, have some lunch and call it a day.

If you are planning a trip to Williamsburg - here are our tips: avoid it in April and May, apparently that's prime school field trip time. Bring food, the food is very expensive and fairly terrible (Lance said his lunch tasted like sadness, mine was simply served on a moldy bun, we ate at the outdoor grill because of Chloe; I've heard the experience is significantly better in the taverns - bring your big wallet either way). Stay nearby and ride your bicycle or take the shuttle in to avoid the parking hassles.

We may come back on the weekend and try again if the weather cooperates. We'll leave the dog at home and bring a lunch. I still want to see some of those exhibits and maybe it will be less crowded on the weekend.

We picked a quiet parallel street for our long stroll back to the car

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

VR, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Tail of the Dragon survivor 
Some of you may know that part of my "get rich very slowly" plan was to record VR (360 degree) video of the great motorcycle rides of North America, put them on YouTube, and watch the money roll in. 'Cause who wouldn't watch that, right? For this I'm using a Nikon Keymission 360. It shoots 4k video at 24fps, and generally looks pretty badass on my computer. The first indication I had that things weren't going to be easy was when it froze while I was updating the firmware in Texas. I should have been a little bit suspicious when I got zero flack from Nikon about the return. Luckily the weather wasn't conducive for motorcycle riding, in the meantime we moved on to the Keys. Long straight roads in Florida were not much fun to ride (or watch) especially after Irma was done. We spent the next couple of months in Florida and Southeast Georgia, flat country. Finally we had room in our schedule and a tiny weather window to ride the Tail of the Dragon. 

Hard lessons learned so far:

  • Don't mount the camera to your windshield, even with vibration reduction turned on in the camera, the footage is unwatchable. 
  • If it's working DON'T UPDATE THE FIRMWARE. 
  • Don't trust the camera control app. 

Finally we're ready to ride, battery charged, check, mounted to my helmet, check, look like a total dork, check. Off we go. 

One of the interesting things about a VR camera is, there is no room for a display, so to make sure it wasn't pointed at the trees or the ground I had to use "THE APP" (see lessons learned above). So I open the app, it connects to the camera, I adjust the angle of the mount, start recording, and away we go. Our plan was to run the Dragon in both directions, the first time with Shawna in front and the return trip I would gap the traffic as much as I could and haul ass. The first trip went great, verified the video was good and clean. Restarted the app, hit record, waited for the road to clear a bit in front of me and pinned it, I dragged pegs over every inch of that road. Valentino Rossi would have eaten my dust (in my head). Seriously a good run for a fat guy on a 600 pound bike. Wanna guess what happened to that Spielburgesque video? Butkis, zilch, nuthin. Recorded about two minutes of me going about 20 miles an hour gapping the traffic and shuts off. Plenty of battery, plenty of memory, no good reason at all. To paraphrase Stephen King "if Lucy really wanted to fuck up Charlie Brown she'd let him kick the ball once in a while." 

Well I can still do something with the video I've got. The usable video when edited was about 30 minutes and about 8GB. The park we stayed at in North Carolina had a very slow but stable internet connection. I decided to use this instead of our faster hotspots to allow Shawna to work unimpeded. I started downloading at 10am Monday morning, the download failed 4pm Tuesday afternoon (too large a file). Decided to re-download at 1280X640 10Mbps, the file downloaded successfully, but it was unwatchable due to macroblocking and every other kind of compression artifact. Undaunted I re-edited and got the video down from 32 minutes to 19 minutes. Started downloading at 9pm Tuesday evening at 2560X1280/30p 40Mbps and it failed sometime during the night (lost the internet connection). Restarted the download, got to 80% and failed, once again during the night. As a last desperate act I broke the video into two parts. I had been avoiding this option because I like the immersive nature of VR, and having to stop and load another clip would spoil the flow. With two 9-minute clips at least I could use the largest file size.  I was able to upload the first half (it only failed once) and the second half is pending (waiting on a faster internet connection). So for me at least VR has been a tough nut to crack. I'll keep plugging away at it, hopefully soon we'll have something fun to watch.

Fat guy under a tree

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The First Flight and the Lost Colony

We're in Bellhaven, North Carolina, and yesterday we set out for Kitty Hawk.  On our way across the island of Roanoke we stumbled across some signage about the Lost Colony.  Long story short: these were settlers in 1585 who completely disappeared and it's still a mystery what happened to them. It's an interesting Wikipedia read.  Subsequent investigations, up to and including DNA tracing as recent as 2007 remain inconclusive. Native populations almost certainly had something to do with their disappearance; but I also wonder with all the bugs, heat, cold, and constant dampness around here if weather, hunger and diseases their bodies weren't equipped to handle had something to do with their final fate, too.

Well, it seemed unlikely we were going to solve this mystery right then, so on to Kitty Hawk.  Lance brought his drone and we had this grand idea of shooting flying film in the exact same path that the Wright Brothers first flew.  Well, as it turns out there is a small airport runway just a couple hundred of yards off from the original flight path, with active planes all day, so no drone flying for us. Sorry, folks.

The takeaway is this: these were two brothers that were determined to fly, and they persevered until they did it.  They schlepped their gliders again and again up a significant sand dune (it is doubtful this part could have been done without the help of volunteers from the lifesaving squad of nearby Nags Head beach). Repeatedly they glided off the sand dune to crash, tweak their design, carry it all up to the top, crash and tweak and do it all over again. Day after day, month after month.  Eventually they developed a design that worked and on December 17, 1903 on an extremely cold day, they managed to fly an engine-pushed "flyer" from flat ground for 12 whole seconds just a few feet off the deck, then a little further and then a little further.

The 4th marker barely visible on the horizon marks Wilber's 852-foot long 4th flight, almost a minute of airtime

Fortunately for us, Orville Wright was an avid photographer.  So all the aspects of their journey are well-recorded. Using these photographs, the National Park was able to reconstruct their living space, work quarters and the exact location of the original flights, and a sculptor was able to recreate the exact moment of the first flight, in full-size metal on the backside of the memorial hill.

Stephen H. Smith's sculpture of the first flight

First Flight is a significant point in American history and the Wright Brothers National Memorial atop the historical sand dune (now covered in grasses to preserve the hill and support the monument) was definitely worth the hike to the top.  I'm so glad they graced it with a sidewalk so we didn't have to struggle up the sand to the top, and the only thing we had to carry up there was the camera.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Victors Tell the Tales

This week started off rather rough. On Sunday we discovered an electrical gremlin that was preventing proper operation of the jacks and generator. We didn't have time to chase it down because we had an appointment to get an oil and transmission fluid change for Loretta on Monday morning and a lot of ground to cover first.  As it turned out this basic service required some hard-to-find parts which caused a 3-day delay on our way to the pre-paid campsite in Savannah.  Lance may tell that story of woe in gory detail later, for now let me just tell you that it involved a lot of cursing, an unwelcome hotel bill, boarding the cats in a facility across town, and some small amount of tears of frustration.

By Wednesday we were back on track and settled in to Fort McAllister as originally planned, just South and East of Savannah, and trying to make the most of our shortened time window without generator, slides or jacks.

Police Horses at 22 Square in Savannah

First on the agenda: a redirect from the frustration of the preceding days - starting off with a tasting tour of downtown old Savannah. We met our tour guide downtown at 22 Square.  What followed was 6 food tastings and a more solid understanding of the history of the city. From here on out we will do foodie tours first thing when we arrive to a city, as there were many tastes we wanted to follow up on and not enough time left to explore them all.

Shawna at 22 Square, first stop on the foodie tour

Foodie tour group on the move

Here's a fun fact we learned about Savannah that day:  The people here will tell you right up front that if it can't be explained by Science, the obvious answer is Ghosts; there is no third answer. The city was originally settled to stop the Spanish from colonizing it on their way North from Florida. The Revolutionary War General they settled with this task hated the weather and often said so, on two separate occasions he was reported to complain in particular about the moss hanging on everything. He died from heat stroke in his garden and his body is buried under a garden square in the middle of the city. It is still the only place around where the moss doesn't grow on the trees and there is no known scientific reason for it. So... ghost. Obviously.

Our tour took us right past Paula Deen's place

A local chef's grandmother refers to the Civil War as The War of Northern Aggression. Further confirmation of what we all know to be true already; the victors tell the tales and write the history books their own way.

Fort McAllister is the site of several important Civil War battles. Ultimately Sherman took the fort in 1864 but it wasn't an easy win.

The waterway at the fort, once the site of iron-clad battleships at war, so peaceful today.

Cannons are now silent at Fort McAllister

Under this mound they heated cannon balls to try to set fire to incoming warships

On Friday, with calmer spirits and a clear head, Lance laid out some tools and a flashlight, crawled under the bus, chased down and conquered the electrical gremlins (there turned out to be two of them). With a fully functioning home everything looks a little brighter.

So, since this is my tale, the part I'll focus on is is Lance shimmying under the bus, saving us thousands of dollars in repair and hotel bills, and emerging victorious with greasy elbows, sand all over his back, and a grin from ear to ear.

Without a doubt there is no substitute for a handy man!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Murphy, NC in the Smoky Mountains

Red Bud in bloom on the Murphy walking path

 Murphy NC was a beautiful surprise.  We picked it because it was convenient to the Tail of the Dragon and so many other great motorcycle roads, what wasn't part of the plan was problems with Lance's bike and cold, cold rain. Kismet, otherwise we wouldn't have stopped riding long enough to really explore the town.

On Wednesday, in advance of some anticipated big storms, we stowed the bikes in the trailer.  Shortly thereafter, some friends we met in Mexico Beach FL last January rolled up, tired but grinning nonetheless. They had been migrating home to Michigan when they saw an ice storm was headed that way too, so they decided to linger a little longer in the South and wait it out. They pulled out a map, realized we weren't far out of the way, and surprise - they showed up at our RV resort. Hooray.

Methodist Church in Downtown Murphy.
The hills in the background show you why they are called the Smoky Mountains

Murphy's adorable downtown has granite and brick everywhere.  In fact, our RV park had a 250'-deep pond which was full of granite at one time, long ago quarried and still adorning local buildings.  There's a walking path along the river from the park downtown where the kids' softball leagues practiced in the rain, past the fishermen fishing for bass, ("trout ain't legal yet"), on past the old railroad depot, with lovingly restored cast iron and rock.

The granite that adorns the Cherokee County Courthouse is made from locally-dug granite

The stonework on this building that is the centerpiece of downtown is stunning

 One morning we even got to indulge in one of my favorite touring pasttimes, sipping a fancy cup of coffee at a downtown coffee shop and people-watching.  There was a funeral happening a block away later that day, and the grey-headed Veterans looked smart in their uniforms, all pressed and orderly, nodding subtly to one another.  I've noticed that all the older men around here seem to have full heads of hair still, and I casually wondered while sipping my coffee if they've been blessed with great genes here in North Carolina or if it's more about the clean air and a more comfortable pace of life.

There are a great many motorcycle roads unexplored still on the Smoky Mountains, and this town has lots more to offer than we were able to fit into just one week.  We'll be back.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Tail of the Dragon

We settled into Murphy, NC and prepared for a long week of riding.

First on the To Do list: Tail of the Dragon which boasts 318 curves in 11 miles.

Shawna at the Tail of the Dragon store

The downside to riding my own bike instead of riding pillion behind Lance is that I get no in-motion photos.

The upside... wow. Just wow.

It's good that we tackled it on a Monday morning as I expect it's full of lunatics of one variety or another on weekends.  Mostly we were the only lunatics we could see in any direction.  The few cars and one small delivery van we encountered all promptly pulled out of the way.

When we got to the bottom I was pretty out of breath. Time to turn around and do it the other way, of course.

The Tree of Shame, thankfully we added nothing to it

We worked part of Moonshiner 28 onto our route as well, it was a tasty little section of road with some real surprises. In days gone by it was a path taken by moonshiners on their way down the mountain, sometimes pursued by police at high speed. The surprises on Moonshiner 28 came in the form of sudden and unannounced stop signs at Ys in the road, none of which were visible on Rever (the GPS version of Butler Maps).  So we'd be zipping along, strategizing each corner, fully engaged in the moment, and SURPRISE stop sign RIGHT now.  I got to practice my quick stops and am learning to let up on the rear brake just when the tire starts to lose grip, and throw my weight onto the front of the bike with a big handful of front brake.  It's still not comfortable but it's becoming less unnatural.

Lunch at Tapoco Lodge on the river

On Day 2 we did the Cherohala Skyway.  The curves just go on and on and on for this ridgetop route.  At one point we were in Tennessee, and we finally found some altitude, reaching from our starting elevation of 1500' to over 5000'.  I typically ride in front of Lance because he worries about me, but I lost him somewhere on the mountaintop which is odd. I waited for him at the bottom, thinking he was just leaving a little space so he could zoom down and catch up with me, but when he didn't show I pulled up Google Maps (we share locations) so I could see where I lost him.  He was still on the mountaintop and his blinking face was not moving around on the map so I turned around to go back for him. On the way back all the scary things went through my head... where he stopped - isn't that about where those two 15mph curves were - maybe he didn't see the gravel at their apexes?  By the time I arrived I was so relieved to see him in one piece, with bike upright. Turns out his Super Tenare died, I arrived just as he got it running again, and we limped home.  Subsequent investigation points to an electrical issue - beyond our scope - and the local shops are backed up for weeks. So we'll load it up and find a repair shop somewhere down the road.

Lance has film to work on - the learning curve has been steep (early attempts with camera mounts produced shaky and unusable video, spoiling all the Utah footage) but we finally have some VR footage he considers presentable. Somehow it's fitting that the first VR film we release will be the Tail of the Dragon. He'll be posting it on YouTube shortly.

We'll circle back to this region for sure, and next time we'll plan to stay longer. There are still so many roads of the Great Smoky Mountains left unexplored.