The riding heats up in the Buckeye State
Story and Photos by Jeff Davison
Light-headed and nauseous, I sank onto the seat in the air-conditioned burger shop and held the ice-cold drink to my temples. I had come to explore the forested hills of southeastern Ohio, but the thick humidity and exceptionally high temperatures had pushed me – I later discovered – into the first stages of heat exhaustion. Responsibly, I was riding “ATGATT” (All the Gear at Tremendous Temperature), but clearly I had some things to learn about travelling during a heat advisory.
Days earlier, I had ridden my V-Strom DL 650 from the east, crossing over the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. I was impressed that even the interstates are photogenic here as they twist and turn, rising and falling, through the densely treed Appalachian Mountains. Highway 7
followed the bank of the river to Hannibal, Ohio, and I was reminded of the other Hannibal in Missouri, home of Huckleberry Finn, and of his slave Jim’s escape to freedom up this same Ohio River. As the border with West Virginia was a major division between slave and free states before the U.S. Civil War, the flight of African-Americans was a theme I would encounter many times in the days to come. The river is still a major thoroughfare as it’s lined with coal-burning and nuclear energy plants, and giant barges shuttle loads of coal to markets abroad. The tired houses speak of hard times.
The Other Dragon
Turning west into a more pastoral setting, I scouted Hwy 536, which locals call the “Ohio Tail of the Dragon,” 16 km of continuous tight turns and switchbacks, ups and downs through some of the steepest farmland ever to feel a tractor’s tread. I found myself wanting to stand up, not for balance or traction, but simply to see where the road fell away beyond the crest of each next hill. Perhaps never as race-worthy as the Dragon itself, with its nicely cambered corners, this one of late has suffered abuse from oil fracking trucks, and the surface was often broken and patched.
As evening fell, I encountered numerous deer in the fields and along the roadside. That was my cue to be off the bike, and I found a secluded hayfield along Six Points Road to camp for the night. Because of the heat, I didn’t even unroll my sleeping bag; I lay on top of my cot, enjoying the faintest breeze and the song of crickets as the full moon cast shadows all around.
Ohio’s Dragon was only the beginning. The terrain was so pitched and varied that you would be hard-pressed to find a straight road anywhere in this quarter of the state. Even Route 800, which appeared more or less straight on the map, turned out to be a beautiful series of alluring curves. It didn’t take long for both Garmin and me to become wholly lost in the web of back roads, a mishap that brought the pleasure of discovering trails, barns and covered bridges in various states of repair. I emerged on Route 26, a National Forest Scenic Byway offering 50 km of wonderful twisties in rapid succession, the excellent paved surface allowing me to use all of the tire in the corners. The countryside was dotted with white churches that, along with Biblical place names like Sardis, Antioch and Pisgah, were a reminder of the area’s fundamental religious revivals of the mid-1800s. I passed signs for Moss Run Road, Hog Run Road and, to my amusement, Beer Run Road. “I bet that’s a popular detour,” I said in my helmet. But a second glance corrected my mistake: it said “Bear Run Road,” and in fine print (I swear), “Take a break before dehydration takes over completely.”
Riding into Athens the next morning, I stopped at the Visitors Bureau, where I was greeted with enthusiasm, maps, and stickers for “Ohio’s Windy 9,” a series of half-day loops totalling nearly 1,600 km through national forests and historic villages. On the map, they resembled an orchid, with my approach the ornately winding stem. I set out on routes 78 and 216, following the loop they had called the “Hocking Hills Nipper.” This Scenic Byway is a fantastic rolling and winding road with perfect pavement. I wove through Wayne State Forest for 30 minutes before coming into New Straitsville, “Home of the Moonshine Festival,” and site of a larger-than-life set of stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. It seemed appropriate to the life of a vintage coal-mining town to find virtue and vice so closely thriving. Nearby, I discovered Robinson’s Cave, where disgruntled miners had met to discuss the formation of what would become the United Mine Workers of America. In 1884, during a bitter strike, the miners loaded kerosene-soaked timber into coal cars, set them on fire, then rolled them back into the mines. This resulted in a persistent underground fire that has consumed untold deposits of coal. In the 1920s, the fire threatened the town as it broke through the surface and caused yards and basements to cave in. And as recently as the 1970s, the fire neared the surface along Route 216, where people could be seen frying eggs on the highway. A historical marker even shows a Mrs. Clara Wells making coffee from the boiling water she had just drawn from her well. To this day, a small remnant of the fire still burns underground to the southeast of town.
I continued on 595 and 33 to Logan, home of Paul Johnson’s quirky Pencil Sharpener Museum. Although displaying thousands of items, the diminutive building, not more than four metres square, is more than adequate. Beautiful Route 664 led me to Hocking Hills State Park, where I stopped to explore “Old Man’s Cave.” It’s named for “old man” Richard Rowe, a recluse who, seeing the unfolding of the War of 1812, decided to inhabit a cave in the gorge. It was easily accessible via stone stairs, bridges and short tunnels. I enjoyed the relief of cool shade below the rim of the gorge, and marvelled at the rich colours of every stone, fern and tree.
To the east I followed 278, which wound through Zaleski State Forest and around to Albany, once a major stop on the Underground Railroad and educational centre for African-Americans in the late 1800s. Nearby I noticed a small white Quaker church that was still in use. A historical plaque told how the “inner circle of old and reliable Friends (Quakers)” had played a major role in conducting slaves to freedom. And I just had to stop just north of Pomeroy at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch and Psylodelic Gallery. The name alone was enough to draw me in. Kaukonen, I learned, was one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane in 1965. And I discovered a guitar player’s paradise, complete with cabins, a dining room, workshops and classes, a concert hall and an art gallery devoted to bygone psychedelic days.
Another intensely hot day gave way only slightly to an oppressively warm night, and I wild camped again without shelter atop my camp cot. At dawn, temperatures were already stifling, and I couldn’t bring myself to pull on all that hot gear. I rode out wearing none of it, not even my helmet. It was a decision I would learn was the wrong one, and not for the most obvious of reasons.
Under the bright sun, I followed Route 50 out of Athens to 689 and 160, both of which were in good condition as they snaked their way through more sloping farm country. At Vinton, I took a detour to Rio Grande, the site of the original Bob Evans’ Farm and Homestead. Of course, I had to order a second breakfast before taking the short tour of the homestead-turned-museum. Highway 7 from Gallipolis to Pomeroy bore signage calling it the “Ohio River Scenic Byway,” which to me seemed a misnomer. However, following the river on 124 through Racine, Portland and Reedsville, I got a look at both the beautiful Appalachian Mountains and the intrusive smoke stacks and barges, as well as regal homes and littered shacks. In fact, I began to conclude, the entire region was a study in contrasts: poverty and wealth, vice and virtue, filth and beauty. That is to say, it was a microcosm of the complicated realities of modern life.
By noon, the harsh sun was beginning to burn my forehead, and I once again donned my helmet. I stopped at Buffington Island State Memorial, the site of a decisive Civil War battle that would determine the fate of millions of African-Americans. The Ohio-West Virginia border was hotly contested, and the outcome was by no means certain. To consider the cost in young lives is quite sobering. Route 124 brought me back along the Hocking River to Athens feeling nauseous and weak. And the fast-food cup of cold Cola felt like a gift from the gods as I held it to my throbbing head.
Later, as evening approached and the heat began to subside, I set out for what would be, hands down, the best ride of the day: Ohio’s Windy #1 – “Rim of the World.” I rode along winding ridges overlooking forests and gullies, rivers and villages, carving Hwy 337 north of Athens, then 266 to Stockport on the banks of the Muskingum River. Stockport was another of several important stations for the Underground Railway, and is the location of the last hand-controlled marine lock in the United States. I stood and talked with the muscled operator, who said he had handled 16 boats that day, and in this heat, that was enough. After continuing along the breath-taking number 78 all the way to Nelsonville, I found a bunk in a rustic hostel for $15. It wasn’t fancy, but it offered the two things my body craved: a cold shower and air conditioning. And ice water. I drank and I drank. It was then that I realized I must be on the brink of heat exhaustion and dehydration. From then on, I forced myself to drink lots of water at every stop, whether I felt thirsty or not. And I determined, when I got home, to research the science behind safely riding in hot weather.
Another day of exploring led me to Columbus, where I spent midday touring the inspiring (and climate controlled) AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. And then it was south to Little Hocking on the banks of the Ohio River, where I was positioning myself for a ride home the next day on Hwy 555. The locally famous “Triple Nickel” is a long and curvaceous ribbon with no attractions or lunch stops. It would be just the road and me. As I found a place to camp for the night, I began to reflect on my discoveries. I could feel the weight of recent history, and a growing admiration for the courageous men and women of this rugged hill-country, living by their consciences and risking themselves for the rights of others. The first cool breeze in days came to me across the dark water, and together with our forebears I breathed deeply – the fresh air of freedom on the banks of the Ohio River…