Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Finally starting to earn that ADV badge

I was itching to make miles after leaving the Bonnaroo site; being in the same location for a couple of weeks never sits too well with me.  I'd spent too long too close to civilization; I couldn't wait to get out of the USA, and into the desolation of northern Canada.  Many, many miles stood between me and the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail, so after leaving Manchester I slabbed it for half a day and started looking for someplace to camp just outside of Knoxville.

I was REALLY tempted to try and make this work; it looked like a service/access road for the power lines that had been very freshly cut. I might have been able to wiggle my way around the cable blocking access, or even used my channel locks to take the cable off if I'd been desperate, but getting over the initial ditch would have been difficult.  I decided to keep looking for other opportunities, as much as I wanted the challenge of that fresh path.

Another mile down the road gave something that looked much more practical, even though it was quite steep.  A service road for a cell tower headed up to the top of the hill.

Getting up was tricky, the gravel was loose and liked to try and fall apart under me, but plenty of throttle got me up there.  Set up and went to sleep with quite a view.

And hopefully not cancer

I took half of the next day off in Knoxville to run some errands and do some work on the bike; I'd not changed the oil since leaving Chicago two months and 8,000 miles ago. 

Annoyingly, this bash plate doesn't have a drain hole it it, so you have to drop it off to change the oil.
I think autozone parking lot oil changes are one of my favorite things about adventure-motorcycle touring.  The look on the cashier's faces as you walk back in and hand them a plastic bag full of used oil is always good for a laugh, and I enjoy the plain give-no-shits attitude of working on your bike wherever you feel like it.

Five bags nestled into each other give plenty of leak protection.
With fresh oil and a new filter, I headed off, pushing north on the slab for a couple of hours to get away from Knoxville.  Somewhere an hour or two south of Roanoke I decided I'd had enough of the interstate for a while, and went off to poke around in the farm country and mountains for a while.

Pavement is stupid

Some of these roads I found were twisty to the point of hilarity; I'd wager some were more gnarled than the famous "Tail of the Dragon", although they weren't in as good of shape.

Many of the switchbacks were so sharp on the inside of the corner that it was almost a wall.  There were plenty of scrapes and gouges on them from various vehicles bottoming out.

Camping this night wasn't hard; even from a fairly major road, I spotted this trail off in the distance that looked promising.

The instinct to find someplace good to camp for the night never really goes away; even when I'm not on my bike, or in the middle of the day when I'm still hundreds of miles from where I want to spend the night, I find myself glancing down little side paths, wondering where they go and if I could spend a night there without being bothered.

Hooray for a mud puddle!  I think the ADV logo looks much better dirty, anyway.

I'm not sure what the point of this little path was; it lead about half a mile into the forest before ending unceremoniously in a little clearing.  But it was the perfect place to spend the night, although at some point someone on a DR650 rode by and looked at me oddly before puttering off.

The next day dawned cool, and humid.  The clouds seemed stuck in the treetops, maintaining a solid line about 20 feet above the ground.

I headed back out to the slabs, but soon turned off them again to continue exploring the side roads.

The whole area was covered in low-lying clouds, and the sun hadn't yet gotten a chance to burn them away.  It was cool, and beautiful.

Motorcycle touring; if you have to ask "Why?", you're not going to understand the answer.

I kept pushing deeper into the hills; the pavement ran out very quickly, leaving me on decently-graded hard packed dirt.

But even this was still too civilized for my tastes; I wanted something more challenging, something rougher.  A few wrong turns later and I found what I was looking for; some un-named little path that was barely on the map.

And again, the bike was brilliant.  Either I'm getting better as a rider, or spending a couple thousand dollars on your heavy bike's suspension really does make a world of difference.  The rear was so communicative and predictable that I found myself starting to gas it through corners a little more than I needed to, just to feel the back end start to wiggle and slide. 

My bike was still quite muddy from some puddles yesterday, and all the mud from the Bonnaroo site, and there hadn't yet been a nice rain storm to clean it off.  But I found that there's another acceptable way to wash your adventure bike; water crossings!

Bridges?  We don't need no stinkin' bridges!
Some of these were large and deep enough that they did make me pause and re-consider this path; dropping it and drawing water into the engine isn't something I felt like doing.  But I walked all of the deeper/longer crossings a few times, found the shallower areas with good solid grip under them, and went for it.  Plenty of gas got me thought them without too many problems; when in doubt, throttle out.  90% of the times that I've seen people drop their bike (or dropped my own bike) in sketchy situations is because people let off the gas; the throttle is your friend, and speed is good.

Besides, if I chickened out at something like this, I'd have to take the ADV sticker off my bike just out of shame.
Weeeeeeeeee! *splash splash splash*

After 6-7 of these sorts of things, the bike was looking much cleaner!

I spent the rest of the day alternating between more dirt/gravel, and some paved twisties.  There's good roads everywhere in George Washington National Forest; plenty of twists and no traffic or cop to speak of.

And I still stuck to my duty of moving silly turtles off the road.

Little d00d, if you keep hanging out here you're going to get mushed!

See, now isn't that much better?

And today . . . today was when I dropped the bike for the very first time on this trip.  And it wasn't even in some sort of big, bad-ass, gravel road water crossing!  Nope; I was pulling a U-turn and ran a little wide, and thought there would be more grip on the shoulder than there was.  The rear tire slid off into the ditch, and the saddlebag dug into the mud to bring me to a gentle, if pretty abrupt stop.

Getting it out . . . didn't go exactly as planned.  The rear tire wouldn't get grip on the wet muddy grass, and after sliding along for a few feet . . . I derped.

In retrospect, perhaps the road name should have given me some warning.  I always know I'm going to fall off this damn road at least a few times.

It's a Mario Kart/video game joke.  Don't worry if you don't get why this is funny.
At some point I did have to stop into a Wal-Mart to get some supplies, and they had this up by the checkouts.  How could I POSSIBLY resist?

All the gear, all the time!
I headed back into the forest to camp for the night, making my way down some nearly-overgrown double track pretty late in the evening.

You know you're doin' it right when you have to clean branches and leaves out of your fairing after you make it through.

Quite a view on the way up there.

The next day found me heading into an environment that was COMPLETELY ill suited to the sort of riding I like doing; a city.  And not just any city; I spent the night in New York City, with an old friend from the internet.

Riding in dense urban areas is both something that I'm awesome at, and something that I'm completely terrible at.  I'm terrible at it because so much time on the bike has made me stop paying attention to most traffic laws; I'm awesome at it because I can fit this bulky, heaving bike through all sorts of little slots and cut through all but the worst of traffic jams.  What the GPS said would take me two hours (due to congestion) took me about 40 minutes; and I . . . might have skipped out on paying a few tolls along the way.  Maybe.  Hey, if they didn't want me going around the gates, they should have made the arms longer.

After getting through the traffic and into the city, I dropped off my bike at my friends place, parking it next to some good company.

Ever since the financial crisis and recession demolished sport-bike sales (600cc and 1000cc crotch-rocket sales tanked over 70% in 2009), most manufactures have re-focused their efforts to producing inexpensive, practical motorcycles for every day use, and this is one of the best examples.  The Honda NC700X is designed to be light, cheap, easy to ride and infinitely useful for every day commuting.  It's engine is literally half of the 1.4L I-4 engine from a Honda Fit, and even at 700cc it still returns nearly 70mpg in real-world use.  It's one of the best beginner adventure bikes on the market, and it's really cool to see one in the wild for the first time.

Anyway.  I linked up with my friend at his friends house; they were having a party that evening, which I tagged along to.  In addition to the usual festivities, someone had brought an entire pig. 

And it was!
I made use of their shower and couch for the night, and the next day headed out again, north of the city and into Massachusetts and Vermont.

Much nicer, cities don't really suit me.  Not enough green things around.
I spent that night in some little service pull-off for some kind of antenna tower.  It wasn't far from the road, but it was a pretty low-traffic area I was hidden enough that I wasn't worried about getting bothered.

I headed up to a little town north of Brattleboro, where I linked up with a friend of mine from the ice.  In addition to letting me use his spare bedroom for the night, he gave me a hand doing some more extensive work on the bike.

One of the dirty secrets about motorcycles is that they're quite a lot higher maintenance than cars; in addition to having many more consumables that have to be replace more frequently (tires, chains, sprockets, etc), they also usually need the engine valve clearances checked more frequently.  Car engines don't have to worry about this, as they can be much larger and heavier with more complicated valve systems that don't need adjustments.  But on bikes, size and weight are critical, so on most engines you have to check the clearances every 15,000 miles.  Some bikes need them checked as frequently as 6,000 miles.

Some bikes are easy to adjust, but on this particular engine you have to take out the camshafts and swap out shims of different thicknesses to compensate for wear on the valve seats. Thankfully, everything was within spec, and it took us just a few hours to get both cylinders checked out, and button it all back up.

I also swapped out my riding gear; when I was in the south, I'd been wearing some heavily ventilated gear to deal with the heat.  But now I'm heading up into the Northeast; I'm going to want something more waterproof, and warmer.

And yellower!
So that's where I'm at now; typing this from my friend's place in Vermont, getting ready to head up into Maine and after that, Canada.  I'll have much less connectivity there; my cell plan doesn't offer data coverage so I'll be limited to whatever wi-fi I can find.

Trans-Lab highway, here I come!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


For the people who haven't heard of it (of which I'm one of, because I'd never heard of it before this job opportunity came up), Bonnaroo is a four-day-long music festival held every year in Manchester, Tennessee.  Over 80,000 patrons will show up and camp on a 700 acre former farm, at an average ticket price of $300 for general admission and FAR more for the various VIP access levels.

Over 100 musical groups, artists and acts will play over 15 different stages ranging in size from the headliner's stage, hosting acts like Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, all the way down to stages not much larger than you might find at your local bar.

The secondary stage.
Any event this size is going to need a very large crew to make everything happen (just under 11,000 staffers this year), and that's where I came in.  I'd been on site a couple weeks ago doing some pre-setup setup, and now I arrived back a few days before the event proper to finish final implementation and run the show.

But all that rain that I'd dealt with riding down from DC had a nasty effect on the festival grounds; two days of it had turned most of the roadways and parking lots into slop.  I helped to push/pull out more stuck golf carts than I can count on my first day there.

Not me, that was actually my boss.  I made him push while I took pictures.
Old sheets of plywood were laid in more commonly trafficked areas to prevent the heavy equipment from getting bogged down.
In addition to my daily wage and free hotel, the company also provided catering on-site for three meals a day.  The food was decent, far better than on Kwajalein, not quite as nice as on the ice.  But very workable, and there was a good selection of juices and fancy milk substitutes for those so inclined (I guess they figured on employing a bunch of hippies)

Actual grapefruit juice that tastes like grapefruit!

I dated a vegan for over four years, and an appreciating for this stuff is the long-term result.

Meals were in a mess-hall tent with a plywood floor laid down, folding chairs and large tables.  It was functional, and seemed easy to hose down when it got filthy.  Given how many of us walked in completely disgusting, covered in mud and sweat and grime, having it mostly outdoors was a good plan.

Dessert usually wasn't half bad either.

The real danger of this place was the cooler by the entrance; stocked all day long with ice cream, it was the bane of my existence.  I AM NOT A GROWN UP.  I SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED ACCESS TO ALL THE ICE CREAM I CAN EAT.

I had at least 2-3 of these each day.  And I'm not ashamed of it.
Feeding us like this was almost a requirement, because the work was brutal.  Aside from the first day there where it drizzled a bit in the morning before clearing up, it was sunny and hot the whole week.  Most days touched 90 degrees, and the humidity was about the same.  This job had me outside all day, every day, running more cables and digging more trenches, mounting wireless bridges and access points, installing switches and doing anything else that needed to be done.  We were providing internet access and network services to over 90,000 people with a crew of just 6; none of us worked less than 14 hours a day for the few days before the gates opened.

Most of the time we worked more than that; there were a couple days where I showed up at 8am, worked non-stop until 3am, slept for four hours before waking up to be back on site at 8am. Because come Thursday evening, the gates WERE going to open to a flood of hippies whether we were ready or not.

When you're doing installations this quickly that don't need to last for very long, you can be a lot more lax about your installation quality than you might be in a more permenant setup.  And everyone is so stressed that people are pretty understanding when your warning signs start to get a little bit more terse than the usual "Please do not touch".

Peace and love, in addition to the murdering of anyone who's messing with my stuff.
 You're so busy running around and trying to get everything done that you almost lose site of exactly what's going on.  Occasionally you're snapped back to reality by a reminder that a bunch of semi-famous people are going to be around very shortly.

Access control to the compound and the various different sections is handled via RFID wrist bands; different colors and codes denote where you can go and if you can escort people with you.  I was handed a blue band with green tag; the "Unlimited Access to all areas" clearance.  It got me everywhere, at any time, for any reason.

That "Roll like a Rock Star" pass is something new this year, previously it was called "Super VIP", it's a level of access for those with more money than sense.  For $60,000 (or more, I heard different rumors on pricing), you and seven of your friends get your own super-luxury tour bus in a dedicated secluded rich-people-only area, catered food/drink, free golf cart taxi service, and nearly unlimited back-area access to the whole facility.  Only a blue/green wrist band such as mine, or the Mister T "Infinity" pass has more access, and that's mostly just to the boring areas (like the admin/office trailer compound).

Sure beats camping in a field.
There's a few places that it won't get you, and places that even my wrist band won't usually let me go.  And one of those places is the Headliner Compound, where the A-list musicians spend time when they're on site.

 I can't go in there at any time, but if I have legit work to do there, my boss (with an Infinity Pass) could let me in.  And there were some things we needed to do in there, specifically in the dressing room of Paul McCartney.  And here . . . here is where one of the dumbest things I've ever said fell out of my mouth.

We (the IT crew) were in our trailer in the admin compound, when my boss called me into his office saying "I need you to go into Paul McCartney's dressing room right now.  Take these in there (he gave me some papers and some Direct TV equipment) and get it set up.  Take off your shoes before you enter, and don't sit on the furniture."

"No problem," I replied.  "But . . . okay, this might get me in trouble, but who's Paul McCartney?"


"Well . . . I mean . . .obviously he's a musician or something, right?  I mean, he must be pretty famous . . . ?" I stammered, acutely aware of my boss looking at my incredulously.  He stuck his head of of the office and exclaimed to the rest of the crew "Guys, he just asked me who Paul McCartney is!"

"NO!  HEY, NO!" one of the other techs, himself a musician, exclaimed as he stormed over and grabbed all the equipment out of my hands. "NO!  You do NOT get to go into Paul's dressing room if you don't even know who he is!!!  You DO NOT GET THAT HONOR!  I'm taking this over there myself!!!"

It was then explained to me, through peals of laughter and astonishment from everyone in the trailer, that Paul McCartney was a former Beetle, one of the most famous musicians in the world, and all-in-all a big fucking deal.   Hey, so I'm a little out of touch with pop culture, give me a break.  I can be pretty sure that no one at that whole event knows who Valentino Rossi is.

(I did eventually go in there, very briefly, later in the day to move some cables.  At least I can say that I've been there, I suppose).

For those of us who aren't Paul McCartney, and can't stomach spending $60,000 on a four-day weekend, general admission is relegated to camping over the immense spread of open fields.  It doesn't look like much fun; there's no shade and everyone is packed together like sardines.  Not my idea of an enjoyable camping trip.

The gates to the camping areas opened a day before the gates to the festival grounds themselves did, giving us one last chance to get everything wired.  This was a 3am day, as I was crawling around the main stage and related areas getting the last few wireless bridges and access points mounted.

Backstage on the main stage
Being here, and working this event was incredibly surreal.  Much of it brought me back to when I was working stage crews many years ago, although this was on an unimaginably larger scale.

Looking at the main stage from the spotlight/sound mix tower
For all the working-to-exhaustion that the days before the festival were, the actual event itself was mostly stress-free for me.  We did have a few technical problems, but they were high-level issues mostly regarding a vendor who insisted on blasting out their own wi-fi at power levels enough to cook a turkey, and stomping all over our long-range bridge links with the radio noise.  Aside from pulling a few random cables here and there, I didn't have much to do for Friday and Saturday.  I even happened to be at the right place at the right time when his Knighthood Himself arrived (wouldn't it have been easier to just helicopter in, rather than shutting down half the backstage roads with a giant motorcade?)

And while I was mostly free to wander around and see whatever shows I felt like, I didn't have any interest in most of it.  I don't follow music, and the only act that I might have had some vague interest in seeing was Weird Al Yankovich, and he wasn't playing until 2:30am.  I poked my head into the main stage area when McCartney was doing his thing, but didn't feel light trying to fight through that whole crowd to get any closer.  Even the VIP areas were packed solid, and my wristband wouldn't have been any good.

Aside from the music shows, there was also a circus-style Comedy Tent, and that did have an act I wanted to see; Bob Saget, of 90s fame from the TV show "Full House".  I wasn't the only one interested, and the line was GIGANTIC.  It wrapped around the paddock area a couple of times, far more people in line than could have ever fit into the tent.

That's the tent in the background, the line starting in front of it, heading to the right, then snaking back to the left.  All those people sitting down in a row are in line.
But . . . well, blue/green wristband.  Wander up to the tent entrance, flash it, and I'm in.  :D 

Bob Saget seems to be compensating for his squeaky-clean Full House days by having the lewdest and filthiest act possible.  At one point someone from the first few rows was heckling him, so he told him to take a roofie and a viagra so he could go fuck himself.
Yet another perk of the wristband was getting into the Artist Compound, with it's open bar (for all the good that does me) and Arists Catering, where all the famous people eat.  Not that I would have recogized anyone there; I might have had lunch next to someone famous, and had no clue who they were.

Anyone notice anyone famous in here?
 I ate there a few times, and it was pretty decent, but not too much better than the staff catering.  Mostly it was that the furniture and decor was nicer, and they had someone there making fresh fruit smoothies for everyone.

And before it felt like it had even started, Sunday evening came around and it was all over.  The last act to play on the Main Stage was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, so as strains of "Last dance with Mary Jane" wafted over the vendor area, we started clearing everything out and ripping it all down.  The crowds left behind a sea of garbage, and we wasted no time in breaking out the heavy equipment and starting to strike everything as soon as possible. 

I thought hippies were all about saving the planet?

I was there again 'til 3am; we had to take advantage of the weather while we had it, because we knew what was coming the next day.  :(

Perfect weather for all four days of the festivle itself, but at about 6am Monday morning the first line of storms rolled through, and they didn't stop for the next two days.

The rain turned the entire venue into a swap; vehicles were getting stuck everywhere, and entire areas were completely impassable.

It was impressive just how quickly the main stage got stripped of almost all the gear

Working in these conditions flat-out sucks; the only saving grace was that it was still relatively warm (compared to the other places that I've worked).  But we couldn't avoid any of it; we had gear EVERYWHERE around the venue, and it all had to come back down as soon as possible.  It's not cheap equipment, and there's been plenty of instances of it vanishing when another crew (or patrons) get to it before we do.

Over the next two days, all the equipment was taken down, and we got to the task of sorting and cleaning it the best we could.

In just this last week, we deployed over 26,000 feet of CAT-5 cable, and now it all had to come out again.  Some recycler is going to be happy to get this pile of spaghetti.

Thankfully the rain stopped later in the day on Tuesday, and the sun came back out (which just served to turn the place into a sauna).  This gave us a chance to get up the fire town and take our transmitter gear down, and take a gander at the whole area from the tallest structure around.

Amusingly, Bonnaroo tries to bill itself as a "green" event, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  The staggering number of diesel generators couldn't have used less than a bazillion gallons of fuel, and almost every large tent had huge air conditioner units running in them 24/7.  The volume of trash generated was immense; cleanup crews will be on site for the next two weeks cleaning up millions of beer and water bottles.

The final casualty was the shoes I'd bought before I started working so that I didn't have to walk around in my riding boots all day; they were a lost cause after the two days of muddy cleanup.  I left them in a dumpster somewhere; maybe some hobo will make use of them, but I doubt it.  The were completely soaked through with that very unique stench of Tennessee mud; I wanted nothing more to do with them ever.

But it's all over now.  I'm back on the road, typing this from Knoxville.  From here out, I have no plan, no schedual.  I'm up into the Northeast now, up into Canada and to the start of the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail.  Just a few more days to get me out of the USA, and the REAL adventure can begin!