• Simon Weir

Into the Woods

Updated: Jul 13, 2019


My Kawasaki Z1000SX once the external crate had been removed

Well, I made it to America. After the bike was freighted into Canada (less red tape than going direct into the US) I had to unbox it myself, with a bit of help from an excellent chap called John Collins – you can read about that on MotorCycle News, as I’ll be doing some bits for them as well. I’ll make sure there’s not too much overlap if you read both.


Once I’d got the bike unpacked, I set off for the nearest petrol station. The tank is mostly drained for flying (damn, it was almost full) and some air is let out of the tyres. But testing them in the cargo terminal the front was on 32psi and the rear 38psi – only 4psi off the recommended settings… which is about what I normally run anyway. Still, I would have put a bit more in (to run my preferred 33/40) but the airline was broken.


I was a bit worried about the fuel,,, 85, 87 or 91 Octane. Well, I only feed my bike the finest super-unleaded – 97 or 98RON; higher if I can find it. I was worried about that and joked about it on Facebook – only to be informed that Canadians and Americans count their octanes differently to us Europeans, so 91 was roughly equivalent to 97 or 98RON super. Sigh of relief and on we go.

My first night was in Niagara – the American side, rather than the Canadian one. Pretty but commercialised. Still, definitely worth it as the falls are genuinely amazing. You probably get a better view from the Canadian side, but there’s not much in it.


Today I set off from Niagara heading south to Buffalo. On a toll motorway: electronic tags, or they’ll take a pic and bill you. There’s a number to call. Well, aiming to be law-abiding, I stopped and called it: it didn’t work… I guess because you need to be calling from an American phone. When I filled up, I asked the gas-station clerk (look at me, speaking the lingo…) if he knew what I could do. “You’re on out-of-country plates?” he laughed. “Forget about it…”


I’m not entirely sure I like that idea: I have visions of arriving in California, pursued by a column of black-and-whites like the Blues Brothers, with policemen from a dozen states pursuing unpaid tolls. I asked the man at the next garage I filled up in. His advice: “Forget about it…”


Once I was past Buffalo, it was time to ditch the dull highway and start doing some real riding. I’d asked for recommendations on social media and the excellent Andrew Freeman, who runs the UK MotoGymkhana event, came up trumps. Admittedly, most of his suggestions were a bit further east but one was highway 62, south from Buffalo – and it was ace. The perfect introduction to riding in the US.


The 62 was smooth, quiet, rolling… but most notable for passing through a countryside that was eerily familiar: rural Anywhere USA, as seen on TV. Wooden houses with pick-up trucks outside, fields of wheat and farms where tall silos stand beside gambrel-roofed barns, shady woods. It was all brand-new yet somehow unnervingly familiar. After a few miles, it stopped feeling odd and instead I just felt right at home.


I spent ages at these lights. Note drizzly sky...

Well, apart from the heat. It was atrociously muggy and before too long the rain began. I stopped outside a white clapper-board church, putting my waterproofs on and packing the camera away off the bike. Naturally, as soon as I set off again, I passed three horse-drawn carts carrying some of the local Amish – and now I didn’t have the camera ready to get a picture. And of course, within about 15 minutes the drizzle packed up, so I stopped to take the waterproofs off. By the time I was leaving New York State for Pennsylvania, I’d done that dance twice…


I’ve already noticed that America has a lot more speed limits than we do in the UK – and mostly lower. Most roads are 45 or 55mph. But you hardly see anyone bothering to stick to them. Even the trucks – and when you’re used to European HGVs being limited to 56mph, having an American big-rig looming in your mirrors at 70mph is quite unnerving. Better give it some beans, now I know the engine’s on decent fuel…


I took another short burst of interstate to get to the state border, turning off the i86 onto route 280 beside the Allegany reservoir: a great road with some questionable surface repairs. I was just getting into the swing of it when I saw a white-tail deer standing in the middle of my lane. I was hard on the brakes as it skipped into the bushes a hundred meters ahead, all skinny legs like Bambi and a flash of that white tail. Still, I kept things steady as I picked up the 346 through the Allegheny National Forest – sweet, flowing tarmac with not much traffic.


Great grub at the Custer City Drive-In

I stopped for lunch in Custer City (I thought, there won’t be much of a charge) at an old-school drive-in. No seats – just take your food from the serving hatch. But there were picnic benches behind it. Great food and sensible portions. So far I haven’t seen any of the fabled enormous American servings.


From there, the riding just got better and better. The 219, the 120 and, the highlight of the day, the 144 to Snow Shoe. Most of that had a 35mph limit and, though it was a seriously twisty road, that seemed a bit excessive. Though if the woods weren’t enough of a hint, the “Elk Scenic Drive” title indicated what the biggest hazard here would be… or so I thought until I came round one turn to find wild turkeys everywhere (birds, not empty bourbon bottles). They scattered, but I was glad I was within arm’s reach of the speed limit, not testing my limits…


Trees. Lots of trees. So that's where the "Sylania" bit comes from...

The day was supposed to end not much further, at a campsite. But a set of roadworks turned the approach on the Route 322 into a bad-tempered, sweaty crawl. As they finished, I joined the cars flying past slow-moving trucks… and flew past the campsite, accessible only from this side of the dual carriageway. I couldn’t face the thought of going back and fighting my way through the road works again, so convinced myself it was fate. I’d probably put too many miles into the day for camping anyway, as it was almost 6pm.


So now I’m in my first budget motel of the trip. I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it’s fine: there’s a bed, a bathroom, power and internet – and a Burger King next door for dinner. And to use the free Wi-Fi to upload this update. I’m living the American Dream, my friends…

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SIMON WEIR
The Riding Guide