Archive for May, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorscooter Travel

Saturday, 16th May 2009; 8:04 am - Location:

zenWhen I was in 12th grade, my Lit teacher Richard Holm assigned our class to read a rather new book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It’s about – among other things – a man on a long-distance motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son. At the time, my friend Adam Pinsky and I were already planning a long-distance bicycle trip, so it had some additional relevance to us. In addition to the philosophical insights the book offers, one practical insight we gained – later made crystal clear to us on some of our more physically demanding days in the saddle – was that a motorcycle would be a pretty good way to travel: most of the benefits of bicycling, but with many of the benefits of driving a car.

When you travel across the country by airplane, you don’t actually see the country. When you travel through it by car, you see the country but you’re still separated from it; (as Pirsig pointed out to me) it’s a bit like watching a widescreen movie of the trip in the frame of your windshield. At the other extreme, traveling on foot makes you part of the place, but it also takes a damn long time to go anywhere. A bicycle greatly expands your range while still keeping you in the environment, but if you’re straining to pedal up a hill you probably aren’t enjoying the view, and if you’re too exhausted when you get there to explore the ruins at Glastonbury, what’s the point? A motorbike is a good compromise, a mix of immersion and range.

So it’s no surprise that motorcycle travel is a fairly popular activity. There are motorcycles and equipment specifically designed for touring, and a thriving culture of runs and rallies. Motorcyclists still have the stereotype of biker gangs, but there’s lots of just regular folk out there cruising the highways on their Harleys and Hondas. Which is great for them, but I don’t want to ride a bike with an engine nearly as big as the one in my car, that gets gas mileage only a little better.

Traveling by scooter is much less common. It seems from my limited research that most of it’s being done on scooters that are legally classified as “motorcycles” due to their engine size: still much smaller than my car’s, but powerful enough to take hills at full speed and fast enough for the expressways. Which from my perspective is a mark against them, not for. First, there’s the issue of safety: I don’t want to be on a bike going 65mph. Yeah, you don’t have to go 65mph on a 150cc scooter, but if you can, you eventually will. (e.g. It looks like it’s about to rain, and you’re 5 miles from home.) I don’t feel that’s safe. But more importantly for this topic, if you’re riding on an expressway or even on a smaller highway at those speeds, everything close to you is a blur. You’re pretty near traveling by car… a convertible with two wheels.

I ride a 50cc scoot with a top speed (as shipped) of 30mph. With a fairly simple operation, they can be retuned to reach 40mph at full throttle. That means I’m not allowed on expressways, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. I’ll have to take what other people call “alternate routes”… which in many cases means “the routes that people took before the interstate went in”. The roads less traveled. If I may refer to a work with less profundity than Zen or the poetry of Frost, it’s what the movie Cars was about.

At a casual cruising speed of 25-30mph I can cover 100 miles in less than four hours, assuming I don’t stop. But I will.

I’ll encounter stop lights and stop signs. I may notice something interesting by the road, hit the kill switch and the kickstand, and go look. I might even be lucky enough to find some kids selling lemonade. I’m not just going to see places, I’m going to be places. (Isn’t that a Zen kinda thing?) A 50cc scooter is exactly the right vehicle for that.

Shakedown cruise

Wednesday, 13th May 2009; 12:56 pm - Location: ,

Before my first visit to Isle Royale several years ago, which was going to be my first backpacking excursion in… an undisclosed number of years, I decided to go on a “shakedown cruise”. I went for a 3-day weekend on North Manitou Island, which was a bit closer, easier terrain, and small enough that – in case it all went horribly wrong – even at the farthest point I could just dump my pack and walk to the ranger station in a few hours. This gave me a chance to try out my new gear, make sure the old gear still worked, and remind myself of forgotten survival lessons from long ago… all before I struck out on a week-long expedition in a wilderness where there would be no easy escape/rescue. It was also something to do while I was waiting to go on the big trip.

I need a shakedown cruise for this trip. I’ve never ridden a scooter for more than 15 miles at a time, I’ve never tried packing for a trip on one, etc.

I don’t want to make this just an abbreviated version of the “real” trip, so I’m thinking of instead heading south. There are a couple state parks on the lakeshore to the south of here. One of them – Warren Dunes – is just north of the Indiana border, and about 100 miles from here, which is roughly how far I plan to go each day on the larger ride. The fact that it’s so close to Indiana also offers a bit of poetic closure: If I combine this ride with the later one, I’ll be taking in the entire Michigan/Lake Michigan shoreline, from Indiana to Wisconsin (allowing for the fact that I’ll be detouring inland in places).

The main question is when to go. It’ll be a two-day expedition, so I can do it in a weekend, without the need to take time off from the job. I could do it this weekend; most people don’t start camping before Memorial Day, so I can get into the park without any trouble. On the other hand, there’s a reason people don’t go camping in May: it’s still a bit cold. I did my North Manitou shakedown the weekend before Memorial Day, and had to contend with sub-freezing temperatures overnight. It’s a bit warmer than that this year, plus being on the mainland helps. But still. There’s also the issue that I don’t quite have all of my gear yet.

Memorial Day weekend itself is out; the park is already fully reserved. Maybe the weekend after or the one after that. But the later I do it, the nicer the weather, so the more likely I’ll have to make reservations, which adds to the cost… especially since the state inexplicably requires two-night reservations on weekends, even if you don’t plan to stay that long.


Photo gear

Friday, 8th May 2009; 1:42 pm - Location:

I’ve been a shutterbug since I was a kid, and bought my own 35mm camera gear even before I started shaving. I spent a large portion of high school and college with my fingertips smelling of Dektol, stop bath, and fixer. So you can be sure that photography is going to be a substantial focus of this journey. The question is what gear to bring.

I have a long history with 35mm film, and I’ve assembled a nice kit of photo gear built around my beloved 1980s-vintage Pentax ME super, with a lean but functional set of optics: 24/2.8, 50/1.7, 70-150/4, 500/8 mirror. It has just enough automation to be helpful, and like any classic SLR responds quickly and effortlessly. But there’s no question that the future is digital. Several years ago I picked up the small Olympus D-460, with a 3x optical zoom and 1.3 megapixel sensor when the price of those got down to around $300. It’s no substitute for a 35mm. I can’t really afford a digital SLR, but a few years ago I found the Olympus SP-500UZ, with a permanent 10x optical zoom. It’s still an autofocus, and the only way to zoom is by pushing buttons, which makes it sluggish to use, but it has enough manual override (e.g. manual focus and aperture/shutter selection… again, by pushing buttons) to give me the control that a standard 35mm SLR always has.

On my first trip to Isle Royale in 2002 (my first real expedition in a while), I brought the 35mm kit simply because that was the only camera up to my standards. I brought the D-460 along as a way of getting some photos in digital format without having to scan them, and as an emergency backup. But the 35mm gear (including film) was a lot to carry, and on my most recent Isle Royale adventure in 2006, I went all digital: the new SP-500UZ, with the D-460 as backup and to take places I didn’t want to risk the new one (e.g. canoeing).

So the question is now what to bring on this trip. Weight isn’t so much of an issue, so I could carry the 35mm gear without any discomfort. That equipment includes a real wide angle (not the 38mm-equivalent of the SP-500UZ), it has the speed and flexibility of manual focus and zoom, and (something I’ve always loved about the ME super) it’ll even work if the battery dies. But space is still a consideration, and there’s no denying the convenience of the self-contained SP-500UZ.

No matter what, I’ll also have something new to me on this trip: the camera in my iPhone. It’s nothing I’d rely on for taking serious images (it’s only 2Mpixels, and the less said about the fixed-focus optics the better), but it’ll be with me at all times, and has the added benefit of letting me instantly add photos to this blog using the WordPress app… like this:

One disadvantage is that it’s actually less convenient to use than a “real” camera: push a button, swipe a finger across the screen, type my security code, get to the right screen of apps, and tap Camera. Then I can point and shoot. It might be worth bringing along the D-460 (open, wait a second, point, shoot) as a (relatively) quick-draw cam.

Taking pictures on a scooter trip is going to be both less and more convenient than taking pictures while backpacking. Forty pounds of gear on your back kinda limits your mobility in getting the right angle, so it’ll be nice that I won’t have to lumber around or shed the pack. But you can snap pictures in an instant when you’re walking, while it’s really not safe to do that while scooting. (It’d be nice to get some “action shots” – maybe even video – but I don’t have the gear to do that. Maybe I could rent or borrow that.) The helmet and gloves can get in the way too. But compared to driving, I’ll have much more opportunity stop and photograph things I come across.


Sunday, 3rd May 2009; 8:23 am - Location: ,

Here’s an interesting wrinkle. I was pretty sure my scooter would be allowed on the Mighty Mack, but just to be certain, I e-mailed the Mackinac Bridge Authority… and the answer was no.

The problem, I’ve discovered, is that the Mackinac Bridge isn’t just a bridge; it’s also a section of I-75. That means the same access rules are in effect as for any interstate: no pedestrians, no bicycles, and no vehicles with engines under 125cc.

The thing is… the Bridge is one of the few places where that 125cc rule isn’t really necessary. The rule is intended to keep the riders of otherwise-street-legal bikes like mine – ones that simply cannot keep up with regular expressway traffic – from endangering themselves and other motorists. But the speed limit on the Bridge is only 45mph, and my scoot can keep up with that well enough. Heck, trucks are only allowed to go 20mph, and I can do that even uphill in a headwind (which admittedly, I might actually face in this case). There are two lanes in each direction, so I’d just stay to the right lane and let the speed demons pass. Granted, because I’m a little nervous about heights I have some concerns about that several-minute ride across, but in fact I’d be as safe as any other random motorcyclist on the Mack.

So I’m going anyway. There’s an on-ramp to I-75 only 4 blocks before it goes over the water, which is where I’d already planned to join it, and the toll booth is on the north end of the Bridge (with an immediate exit from the interstate available), so if they inspect my scoot and discover that it wasn’t supposed to be on the bridge, it’ll be “too late” and I’ll already be where I need to be. If it comes to this, I’ll just take my citation and promise not to cross it again on the return trip… because there won’t be one.

Feasibility test

Saturday, 2nd May 2009; 8:06 pm - Location:

I did a little experiment this afternoon, to determine how reasonable my packing plans are. I recently saw a blog by a guy who’s scooting from Miami to LA, and to be honest, he did a lousy job of packing for the trip, which seems to be spoiling it for him. He’s wearing a hiking backpack (bigger than the one I used to carry all my food and gear for 10 days in the wilderness) and those things just aren’t designed to be worn sitting down. So I wanted to confirm that the list of things I’ve been planning to bring along was reasonable.

One nice thing about traveling through civilised parts is that I don’t need to pack food. For the first time in ages, I’m vacationing somewhere that when you want food… you just stop some place and buy something to eat! That should make it much easier to find room for everything else.

So this afternoon I got out a few shirts, briefs, socks, my tent, my sleeping bag, a toiletries bag stuffed with items to simulate the space that it’ll probably take when I put everything together, etc. I strapped the tent/pad/bag combo to the “back seat” (the section of the Buddy’s ample seat where a passenger could sit and get very friendly with the driver), stuffed the clothes into the pet carrier*, and laid out the rest of the items so I could visualize the space they’d take.

Well, it won’t all fit with the scoot equipped like it is, but that’s what I expected. The pet carrier isn’t that big, and I’m not that efficient at packing. I ordered the Buddy with a rear rack installed, but there’s nothing mounted on it yet, and that’s where the rest of the stuff will go. I haven’t picked out a trunk yet, but from what I’ve seen today, I don’t need to get an especially large one to fit the rest of my gear.

The camping stuff on the back seat fits nicely, even when I’m sitting on the seat. I’ll need to figure out a good way to strap that stuff into place, but one that’ll allow it to be unlashed easily for access to the gas tank, which is underneath the seat. I may yet have to cut an item or two from the list I’ve made so far, or I may have to add a small daypack to stuff a few items into, but at least I know I’m in the ballpark.

*This is a tongue-in-cheek term among scooterists for the under-seat storage found on most scoots. Apparently a scooter manufacturer’s legal department put a little sticker under the seat showing a cat with the universal “NO” symbol over it, and ever since, it’s been a running joke to call that the “pet carrier”.