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Nothing Could Be Finer

 By Phil Hawksley (1996)

Than To Be In Carolina..... goes the song. And it's perfectly true. I can't imagine anything finer than to be at a BMW Rally in North Carolina in July along with 6,000 friendly and hospitable American BMW riders. To be precise, the 1996 BMWMOA 24th International Rally at Morganton, North Carolina.

It really began around ten years ago when George Saunders was flying a group of BMW riders over to the States for the MOA International. I couldn't afford it but the idea appealed - it stuck there hidden away for the future - it was one of those things that I would do ONE day. Along with many other things - you know, those things that we'd all love to do but know damn well that we'll never get around to for one reason or another. The cost of flying bikes out to the States these days is prohibitive and it seemed unlikely that this idea would ever go anywhere until last year at the FIM Rally in Norway I met Frank, an American touring Europe by BMW. Later during his tour of Britain, he arrived for a visit and quite naturally, the subject of riding in the States came up. The next thing I know, Frank is saying why don't you come over to Florida and borrow a bike? Well, what can I say - I don't think I fished for the invitation but I certainly wasn't going to turn it down, was I?

As spring arrived, I found myself with more and more questions which needed answering. Such as where do I get bike insurance from - what about medical insurance - and what are the rules of the road? I won't bore you all with details but you can imagine the million and one things I wanted to know. Some questions Frank could answer and for the rest I must thank Roger Yetton (Ass. Sec. for America) and Tony Woods of Trans-Atlantic Bike Share, who, incidentally is a good person to talk to if you like the idea of borrowing a BMW across the Pond - contact him on 0116 2432951. Looking back, it was all much easier than I'd anticipated and I hope to do it again next year.

BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo

If like most of us, your budget is limited, it pays to shop around for cheap flights. Don't just assume that the first place you enquire is the cheapest. I was flying out a week before the Olympic Games and couldn't get a flight into Tampa for love nor money and my local and usually efficient 'Going Places' wanted 530 for a two week return flight to Orlando, so I walked 100 yards along the road into another travel agent and 15 minutes later stood outside the shop having paid 279 for the same trip plus 32 for a days car hire at either end of the holiday - a rental car is the easiest and cheapest way to get around as there is a lack of public transport.

A 7.00 am departure from Luton meant a booking in time of 4.00 am. Arriving on time, I was greeted by hordes of people being ushered from the terminal accompanied by the sound of the fire alarm - the first half hour of the holiday was spent standing in the airport car park! Not a good start and I just hoped that this wasn't a sign of things to come. The next thing I knew I was standing by my very own left hand drive rental car with the sweat running down my face - I'm not sure whether the sweat was a result of the 90 plus degrees or the thought of driving a left hand drive car 150 miles across America. I arrived at Franks place in the heaviest rain I have ever seen in my life, very different rain - still wet but very, very warm - stepping from the cab was like stepping into the shower with your clothes on.

What a lovely place to live! Three floors, with the first being all garage/workshop space, the inland waterway running past the back door and the beautiful white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico a ten minute walk away. Frank was out of the State for a few weeks although I was to meet up with him later in Georgia and it was at this point that it really struck me just how generous and trusting Frank was being to a fellow motorcyclist who he had only met twice - he had posted me the key to his house and was lending me an R100GS PD plus all the camping gear I needed with the only request being that I left everything as I found it. What more could I want! In fact, this type of friendliness I found everywhere I went - I saw no prejudice against motorcycles such as exists here and the English accent was loved by all although many thought I was from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Since my return home, I have received a letter from another American that I met also offering me the loan of a bike - to quote " I seem to have plenty to go around, so bring a friend". This type of attitude appears to be typical of the renowned 'Southern Hospitality' and reflects well on the American people. Like most of you, I've seen and met what we consider to be the typical American tourist type ( gee, Elmer, lets get back on the coach ) and not been impressed, but this stereotype certainly wasn't apparent amongst those that I met on my travels, in fact, the only unfriendliness I saw was from the Harley riders who would ride past with noses in the air. Nothing changes!

BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo

My first day was a lazy one, checking the bike over briefly and then a gentle potter along the coast road in order to acclimatise myself with bike, traffic and the hot , humid weather of tropical Florida - somehow it didn't seem real! Here I was, 4,000 miles from home, riding someone else's bike in 95F, watching the palm trees gently waving in the breeze and with pelicans flying overhead - unbelievable! The dreamlike quality was reinforced when I filled the PD's gas tank - I got change from $10 - filling the same tank at home usually costs around 16-17!

The large distances in the US leave you little choice but to use the Interstate system if you want to cover any miles, so a late start next morning saw me heading north along I75 through Florida and well into Georgia before an overnight stop at a motel offering "Free continental breakfast". I had to smile at the thought of our continental cousins sitting down to a breakfast of coffee, juice and a jam doughnut! Next day I headed across country to a Motorcycle Only campsite around 50 miles north of Atlanta where I was to meet with Frank and other riders heading for the rally - Stan with his top box riding puppy and 'Mountain Man' who looked just as the name suggests. Mountain Man was a reformed ex-gang biker as well as being a born again Christian - it's characters like this that make motorcycling the fun that it is. He promised not to preach but couldn't quite resist a lengthy discussion while we all sipped my Scotch whisky and ate his home made jerky (very tasty but I didn't like to ask what the meat was). Next day saw Frank leading me on a brisk ride along mountain roads through Georgia and into the Carolina's - what a surprise - not only beautiful scenery but lovely bendy motorcycling roads ( they aren't all straight, after all). It took a while to gain confidence on these mountain curves - similar roads back home will catch out the unwary as they tighten up part way through but once you realise that these curves are just that, constant radius curves, it inspires the confidence for some fairly spirited riding. These mountain roads all have their own colourful names with 'Wolf Pen Gap Road' and 'Deals Gap' being amongst the best known - described on the T-shirts as "Twelve miles of Smiles" and "318 Mountain Curves in 11 Miles" respectively - truly great riding!

BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo

Leaving the campsite next day, I headed north to the Georgia/Tennessee State line and across Deals Gap into Tennessee, then doubling back south, headed across the Smokey Mountain National Park. High in the mountains the view was breathtaking with the tree covered mountains stretching as far as the eye could see and it was here that I embarrassed myself - pulling into a lay-by for a photo stop, I came to a gentle halt on the slope and casually fell over (sorry, Frank - no damage). A couple on a BM rushed over to help this idiot foreigner pick up his bike and no sooner was it upright than... crash... their KLT fell off it's stand wrecking fairing, pannier and crash helmet ( it had been there for ten minutes ). We concluded that the slope was very deceptive and pride, if not KLT was restored. I wished I had more time to explore this vast wilderness but as time was pressing with the Rally starting next day, I headed for a campsite on the Cherokee Reservation on the edge of the park. What a disappointment - surrounded by all that beauty and the tent pitches were patches of bare earth! Close to Cherokee is the start of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway - a lovely scenic route travelling along the mountain ridges for around 500 miles almost as far as Washington DC. What a ride, the 35 mph speed limits don't make it quick but there is so much to see that it really doesn't matter. I rode about 60 miles of the Parkway before time dictated that I head for the rally site at Morganton and to be honest, 60 miles was enough to enjoy - much further would have become a chore.

Next stop the Rally! First impressions were not great as I, along with hundreds of other BMW's spent the best part of an hour riding around Morganton before finding any sign of the Rally site - I don't think there was one single sign anywhere either for the Rally or for the Fairground. The sight on arrival was staggering - tents, bikes and people everywhere. Entrance cost was $25 (16) and almost 6,000 people attended the rally - that works out at around 22% of the 27,000 strong club with the long distance awards going at nearly 2,700 miles. This makes our attendances of 4-5% look rather pathetic and I wonder if maybe there are some lessons that our club could learn? There was so much going on with seminars of various sorts, vintage displays, parts vendors, food vendors and entertainment that it would have been easy to stay on the site the whole time although my priority was to see the countryside so I rode into the Smokey Mountains one day and took a trip to the Cherokee Indian museum another. The museum was interesting and one thought provoking remark in particular remains with me, "We were here for 25,000 years and left not a mark". If only we could say as much! The Rally was great with the overall impression of being with one big, happy family. Although I arrived on my own, I was never short of company and made many new friends amongst this happy throng and can't wait to go to another MOA National. One or two tried to persuade me to extend my holiday and travel with them up to the BMW Riders Association Rally in Quebec the next weekend - a lovely idea and a great way to see another 1,000 miles of country in the company of other riders but with work booked for the next week I had to decline - a great shame.

BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo BMW MOA National Rally Trip photo

The end of the rally was sad, as it always is, with goodbyes being said and the chore of squeezing all the extra goodies, including a plaque for second place Longest Distance European Rider, onto the bike. Still, all good things... etc. From the rally, I again headed south, finding all the small back roads ( small is a relative term, with most being equivalent to our A roads but virtually traffic free ) down into South Carolina and to another M/C only campsite run by a couple of the vendors I'd met at the Rally. I stayed here for two nights and have to say that their hospitality knew no bounds - I ate with them on both evenings and had a traditional Southern breakfast too, biscuits with sausage gravy - interesting! I was warned to keep the tent doors zipped as there was a possibility of Black Widow spiders and rattlesnakes - not something that you'd want to find settled inside the sleeping bag. Mosquitoes were the worst pest - as usual we got on well together with them enjoying every bite whilst I swelled enough to alarm my hosts - one day I'll remember to take the antihistamines with me! A lovely peaceful site, in the middle of nowhere. Peaceful that is until early afternoon when the Cicadas begin doing whatever Cicadas do - as they are one stage of the locust, I'd guess it's rubbing their back legs together. I know little about them but they live in the trees in their millions and the volume is incredible - it becomes no more than a background noise once you become accustomed but in my tent under the trees, I doubt I could have held a conversation. From here I had a ride out to the city of York and a reconstructed plantation complete with slave quarters etc. unfortunately they were closed when I arrived but it looked well worth a return visit sometime. All too soon it was time to head back to Frank's in Florida, collect the hire car and return to the airport for the flight home.

I'm now a member of the Air Heads club and before any wise-guy asks, it's a club exclusively for the air cooled Boxers and not, as someone suggested, a reference to receding hairlines. With the main motto of the club being "Simple by choice", it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. In two weeks I saw a little of a very small corner of the US and from what I saw, I can understand why the early settlers fell in love with this land - I know I did! This has to rate as one of the best holidays I can remember and I can't wait to return, perhaps to next years National in Texas which would be a chance to see some very different country. Never having been to the US before, I'd been a little dubious about travelling alone but not once did I feel anything but welcome. The roads are good, far better than ours, with much less traffic and distances are far easier to cover than they are here. If you have a long way to go, then I'd guess 500 - 600 miles a day is a realistic mileage to plan on - the mileage I rode to the rally was roughly equivalent to an End to End run here. The spaciousness is perhaps the thing that hits you most along with the low cost of living - everything is so much cheaper than it is here that you'll find it can be a much less expensive holiday than you thought, especially if you can find someone willing to loan a bike. Try it and you'll have the time of your life!


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