Sunday, July 2, 2017

Stealth Trip 2

There are forces at play in the world that want to mess with you.
They are unquestionably forces of evil intent on preventing you from doing what you like doing, yet remain unseen, in the shadows.
So sometimes you have to play their game and... go stealth.

This was the second edition of our stealth trip format, which by definition we do not advertise in advance; we just go and report back with photos and a few words.

As background, you may remember we had planned a trip to Corsica, which due to the aforementioned forces of evil we were unable to pursue.

Fortunately, after a very frank discussion over dinner at our favorite South-East Asian restaurant, Witold and I decided we still had time to re-write our plans and we did just that.

Sidenote: this trip coincided with the 60th continuous year of production for the Harley-Davidson Sportster, which I think is very, very impressive. Nice to pay tribute to that by riding a damn fine one.

We had already spent a long and bikeless winter, longing to get back on the road and as soon as the seasons started to turn I immediately started thinking about where we could go and found a destination that was new to us, lago di Fiastra. I first went there with a bunch of guys I knew from back when I used to hang out with a MC, used that outing to do some terrain-oriented reconnaissance and I thought it could be a good start to this particular trip, especially since Witold had been unable to come at the end of May.

DAY ONE - Return to Fiastrone

To get there, I had initially thought about a three-stage approach:
  • stage one, a quick and easy (i.e. not tiring) blast up the autostrada to get away from the city and reach the starting point of a nice road;
  • stage two, a grueling 80-kilometer run that begins at the Marmore waterfalls and goes all along the bottom of the Valnerina, a truly picturesque valley with fast, sweeping bends, ruins of castles and watchtowers all along the eastern flank, ending at the edge of the Monti Sibillini nature reserve, and the town of Visso; and finally,
  • stage three, 20 glorious kilometers of dirt road, serenely making its way up and over a mountain, with a breathtaking view over the (artificial) lake at Fiastra.
Unfortunately we had to re-route considerably and especially the last part was not to be, but the alternative turned out to be unexpectedly good.

We managed to set off at 10:00 after meeting up for a quick coffee and doing a last minute check on gas, luggage and assorted sundries.

I've been doing this for a long time, but I still get the jitters every time we're about to leave on the bikes. There is palpable anticipation in the air, everything has a tension to it, a readiness; even the motorcycles look somehow cooler than usual.

Getting out of the city feels like a chore and it's not until we're well on the way up the autostrada with the engines at optimal operating temperature and running smooth that I start to feel like we're actually on a road trip. We're riding comfortably and checking in with each other with the usual hand signals (all ok? need gas! you're about to lose your luggage you moron. And so on); then we exit at Valnerina, take a moment to get rid of the autostrada ennui and we begin stage two.

As we travel along the valley floor we are enveloped by the bubblegum-sweet scent of spartium, linden trees and gentianinae, a heady mixture that can be hard to shake off; usually it is precisely the sort of thing we look for during our spiritual pilgrimages to the mountains, as it can help to lull the conscious mind into a calmer state, and the third eye can more easily open allowing you to contemplate certain interactions between spaces otherwise unseen. But as with anything that can be intoxicating, you must be careful not to take too much in... Better sprint ahead.
The sheer beauty of this lush green region, gleaming in the sunlight, with its sharp and crystal clear air, is overwhelming.

Road closures meant we had to re-route considerably from what I had originally planned, so we followed the SS319 from Borgo Cerreto all the way to Colfiorito. We stopped for lunch along the way and had some very nice wild mushroom pasta.
Approaching the town of Visso from the North, I get the distinct feeling that we are funneling ourselves into the nature reserve. This is where I wanted to follow a very secondary road, find the yellow brick road dirt road that would have led us to the lake; unfortunately because of the recent earthquakes most of the area is off limits, so we had to take a longer route, no less pretty. I hope we can come back here in the future, it would mean this region is recovering, and it deserves that.

Actually, let me be clear and fair: the entire detour from Colfiorito to the lake was magnificent: it follows unmarked secondary roads that branch out through narrow valleys and run up the mountainsides, sometimes through woods that make it feel like a hidden path, sometimes throwing you, catapulting you with no warning whatsoever onto spectacular vistas, vast and vibrant, with snow-capped peaks in the distance and green valleys in between. This can have a vertigo-inducing effect at times.

At one point we found ourselves suddenly on a high plane and not just in terms of sensory perception; from a lush, forested area to an open mountain landscape where the sky feels somehow closer to your head. Very good vibes all 'round, far out.
It's hard to imagine that not even a year ago this region was hit by earthquakes and shook so violently, so many towns in the area destroyed, just gone, truly a terrible thing. I ponder this as we reach the town of Fiastra and continue along the lake, looking for our destination.
There is a campsite right on the edge of the water, tents only. It is a quiet, out-of-the-way sorta place, just how we like them; and the setting is very special.

I had been itching to get back on the Sportster for a proper ride and this was most certainly a proper ride. It turned out to be the perfect motorcycle for a trip like this, just wonderful. More than once I found myself thinking "seriously, why bother riding anything else?". Not many bikes can do that my friend, lemme tell ya.

1200S, the 'S' is for Sexy...
I found the 1200S to be absolutely engaging, strong and downright exhilarating at times. Sure, it has a very distinct personality, and if you expect to be able to ride this as if you would a state-of-the-art, hyper-performance motorcycle you will be disappointed.
BUT... this thing is a lot of fun, believe me. So long as you're not an idiot and expect to get away with lightning quick course corrections, or braking at the last possible millisecond, you will enjoy a more traditional riding style that favors the cool-headed thinking man.
You need to strategize your trajectories, look through the corners even when you can't see through them (too Zen?), and never be afraid to crack the throttle wide fucking open when circumstances demand such drastic action. You will then be rewarded with a very visceral, very powerful experience.

And you can see signs of that on the motorcycle (and on your clothes, often): with nothing but a small piece of foam to hold back the searing oil vapor, the two breathers are otherwise totally open to the atmosphere, spraying a hot mist of 20w50 (an eau de horsepower if you will) all down the side, over your knee, past the oil tank and beyond. Fantastic.

Same goes for the air filter, seeing as sometimes it'll spit back some of the fuel that's otherwise being poured into the heads and onto the hellfire of those four spark plugs. You may be able to see that an unlucky hymenopteran got sucked partly in and became a sort of grim figurehead for the remainder of the trip.
You have to remember, this is a big carburetter on a big engine. Everything that happens here happens on a pretty big scale, each of the four strokes means business.
Because the airflow is largely unrestricted, the intake noise under hard acceleration is a vortex that's really reminiscent of a jet engine's.
Compression? yeah, plenty of it. Sparks? twice as many as you'd need. Exhaust? baritone and angry. I love this thing.

Carrying luggage on a Sportster only gets tricky if you're thinking of a long-distance, long duration trip for two people, otherwise pretty much every other scenario is easy to handle.
Whereas with my previous Sportster I might have chosen to use the original Harley-Davidson "saddlebags" on a trip like this (luckily they weren't on the bike when it was stolen), they will not fit the 1200S because the shock absorbers' reservoir is in the way of the support bracket.

Then again, when I took that bike on the first Campotosto Mystic Trip I only had a big waterproof bag strapped on the seat, and that was way more than I needed to carry a weekend's worth of gear.
I realize that over the years I've whittled down the stuff I carry more and more, and I've done this subconsciously more than out of a concerted effort to be pragmatic. The end result is the same.
When I first started going on longish trips I used to carry everything. Loads of clothes, all sorts of camping tools, just way too much stuff. Nowadays I can fit what I need in a pretty compact volume, especially if we're just gone for one night.

I ended up taking the big yellow bag once again, only this time I rolled it up as tight and as compact as it would go and then tied it down on the seat with a couple of luggage straps; simple and neat.

We set up the tents close together, the campsite is fairly small and it was a bit crowded this time, but quite nice once you're all settled in.
We were in no rush and still had plenty of daylight left. After a while we took the bikes again and headed back towards Fiastra in search of a restaurant. Between the short ride, ideal temperature outside and quiet tranquil evening, it made for a very nice conclusion to the day.

DAY TWO - the climb

We packed up with little fanfare and set off skirting the eastern edge of the nature reserve, right down to where we intersected the Salaria between the towns of Mozzano and Taverna di Mezzo. We then found a little dirt road that runs near the Marche/Abruzzo border; we just saw a couple of old farmhouses, with their vegetable patches, plenty of green around, lots of fresh air and a positioned so as to have plenty of time to grab your shotgun when you notice someone approaching: who could ask for more!

When I say "a little dirt road" I am perhaps underselling the entity of the challenge it actually posed. This was not a smart move, but we went ahead on foot for a little while and decided it was doable. Barely.

Guys, the Sportster is not an off-roader, ok? It's fine, but... not great off road, I'm just saying.

There were two things that really made this a tough day: the heat and road closures. With temperatures in the mid-thirties (Celsius, you savages) everything became much less pleasant and when we came upon countless detours and plain dead ends the day had gone to hell.

I have to say the flatlands between Ascoli Piceno and Teramo are not the prettiest spots in the region, so we wanted to avoid them as much as possible and climb up towards the Costa del Prevosto and Montagna dei Fiori, but the road was closed off for some sort of sporting event.

At one point we made it almost all the way around the eastern side of the Gran Sasso complex, we would have continued, up and over, to reach the plateau where our friends host the yearly "Old Irons" rally, but instead we came to a grinding halt. A concrete barrier spanning the width of the road, and notices that left no room for interpretation, all made it clear that that was indeed the end of the road.

It was hugely disappointing and absolutely exhausting having to turn back and ride all the way back out (at least 20Km) until we found the autostrada and retreated towards our beloved Campotosto hermitage. At that point, and that late in the day it was a safe bet.

It also, instantly, made up for all the exertion and disappointment of the day. We had a lot of phenomenal food and a lot of wine, and all was right again.

After a good night sleep lulled by the sounds of a gentle breeze over the water, (although Witold was nearly taken by the inevitable nameless creature that often inhabits lakes like these), we woke up the next day refreshed by that clean mountain air, a real tonic to soak up all through the night and one that favors astral travels greatly.

DAY THREE - R&R (repairs and ruminations) 

Well, not much to report for this one! We slept, ate, drank over and over; not a bad way to spend a day.
Perhaps because of the inappropriate off-roading the day before, perhaps because it was already damaged (you can see clear signs of rust inside the metal) the instruments bracket broke and I ended up riding the rest of the way with an old T-shirt wadded under the cluster and tied it down with a couple of spare luggage straps (see why I always carry a couple extra ones?):

Another job for uncle Fester and his TIG welder? Maybe, let's see...

One thing I wanted to do with this trip was try new routes across the massive national parks (plural) that make Abruzzo such a special place.

This is sacred ground, it is a holy land that we don't just visit, we make pilgrimages here with the utmost reverence for these mountains, that have stood here since long before humans arrived on this planet from a distant star:

I don't know if and when all the closed roads will be reopened; the extent of the damage is staggering, and standing right in front of it like we did the following day... it dwarfs you.

So all I can do is hope real hard that one day we'll be able to ride all the way as intended, because it is a real facemelter of a road, nothing short of epic.

I can write the words, I can show you the photos... but it all falls short of the real experience. Wow, what a trip it would be.

Since our pilgrimage to the mountain lake happened sooner than planned, we decided to try to reach a new campsite the following day, that would have originally served as our base for a couple of days, and would have allowed us to tour the Majella park. Alas, that particular spot eludes us once more.

As the evening drew to a close I looked around this beautiful place and thought about how a group of famous storytellers once wrote (and sang) "my Shangri-la beneath the summer moon, I will return again."... how appropriate.

DAY FOUR - the other way 'round

Leaving Campotosto, we headed more or less south-east and found a very secluded little country lane; despite it being just a few miles long, the views and the scenery it traverses are absolutely stunning. We stopped under some trees to get out of the heat for a little while, and take in the rest of the landscape:

Reaching the Campo Imperatore plateau, you get the sense that things are getting serious; we ain't kidding around here guys:

When we got to the top, we took a moment to let the cool mountain wind clear our heads, then we went that way:

Riding to the pass at nearly 1,700 meters and then cutting the engines to coast to the bottom on the other side was a surreal experience; we came across just two cars, who despite the sign at the top, warning that the road was a long way to a dead end, had gone exploring as we did. It turns out that by the time we reached the bottom, nearly 10Km and 500 meters down below, we were actually just shy of a mile from where we had had to stop on the second day of our trip. That may not seem like much, but what lies between is the aftermath of a terrible avalanche that destroyed a hotel back in January and took many lives:

We scrambled over the logs to get a better view up the side of the mountain and that's where we really understood the enormity of what had happened here:

This is why I wonder if this road will ever be reopened at all.
We climbed back out of all that bad mojo, over the pass again and towards Rocca Calascio, where we found a new campsite for our last night.

Nice place, a little disorganized but ideal location for a tour of the Majella park... some day.
And that's about it folks, we have a couple more outings planned for the summer, a few repairs and bits of maintenance but don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, get out there and go ride!


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