2004 Star Days in Roanoke, VA

Being the resident photographer & webmaster here at MO, it's not too often that I find myself on a plane headed for parts unknown, with the idea that I would have the chance to spend a couple of glorious days with other motorcycle enthusiasts.

Yet there I was, hopping the plane in LA, on my way to Roanoke, VA and to the annual Yamaha STAR Days event.

Staged by the 33,000 member-strong STAR Touring and Riding Association and the friendly folks at Yamaha, the event is a gathering for enthusiasts of Yamaha's Star series of motorcycles and the aftermarket vendors that support them. STAR however, has also been a major contributor for the Feed the Children Organization, raising over $100,000 and delivering over 80,000 pounds of food for the charity, over the last two years. So, when asked by Yamaha's press liaison Brad Bannister if I wanted to meet the STAR family in Virginia and ride the '05 line up through some of the most beautiful country this side of anywhere, I leapt at the chance.

Of course, I knew that some of the fare would be standard issue motorcycle rally stuff; charity rides, bike cleaning and safety seminars, custom bike show, and vendor booths galore. So I thought about approaching the event with a more grounded sense of place and purpose. I intended to be a biker. Of course, I was there for the festivities, but I would soak up as much of Virginia as I could in the two, short days I would be there.

Long before motorcycles started rumbling down the serpentine mountain roads of Virginia, the Star icon had been a symbol of Roanoke itself. Native American tribes wandering the ridgebacks of the Appalachian Mountains had named their great valley, Shenandoah, or "daughter of the stars." Nestled within the valley, Roanoke thus became known as the Star City of the South. So you don't forget where you are, Star details festoon various municipal projects, from the street signs to the world's largest man-made star. At 100 feet tall, the neon star atop nearby Mill Mountain has all the luster of a Virginian's nose after a jug of moonshine.

Erected in 1949 as a symbol of the progressive spirit of Roanoke, the star sports nearly a half-mile of neon tubing and can be seen from 60 miles away. Aw-shucks, I even saw it from the plane, once a local directed me its way. The local radio station itself was called Star 97, and yes, it was the drippy twang of country and blue grass music that filtered out of the old transistor sets. "There's a tear, in my beer, 'cause I'm cryin' for you dear," Uh...sorry about that, seems Hank Williams tends to stick with you. Star symbolism aside, Yamaha couldn't have chosen a better place for the site of the 2004 STAR Days event.

With its proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway, bluegrass music in the air and the "star-studded" theme, Virginia was made for lovers... of motorcycles that is.

On my first day in Roanoke, I had the opportunity to ride the new Midnight Venture on a wild goose chase named The Poker Run sponsored by The Mid-Atlantic Region. Now for the uninitiated, a poker run is much like an Easter egg hunt, but instead of collecting the flowery, pastel ovoids of Cadbury fame, the point is to hunt for playing cards. At the end of the run, whoever comes up with the best Poker hand, wins. Packed into a timed and planned route with checkpoints in random, desolate places as well as prime commercial real estate, the Poker Run was a fun way to cruise around Roanoke with some semblance of purpose to the ride, while providing for some fine examples of local backroads and scenery.

With a stroke of beginners luck, the very first card I pulled was an Ace of Spades - very nice! Of course, being "the Fonz", a King of Hearts would have been more apropos, but we'll save that for another article. Unfortunately, my good fortunes were left behind at the gas station whence I plucked that Ace. Like a quickly souring game of Texas Hold 'em, I flipped on the flop and sunk in the river. After twenty miles of beautiful green hills and narrow, twisty, shoulderless roads, the next stop netted a seven of Clubs and a rapidly deflating sense of victory.

I entertained the thought that maybe I could still make something out of the hand, but I soon came to the realization that what I already had in my possession, beyond the parameters of a game, was what truly mattered; a 2005 Royal Star Midnight Venture under me, one of the finest roads in the country before me, and in the everlasting words of Robert Frost, '...miles to go before I sleep...' I flicked on the stereo and felt as sublime as Tom Petty running down his dream. Forget the paper chase. With cerulean blue skies as my canopy and classic rock as my companion, the open road was my range and the Midnight Venture my steed.

I stashed away any notions of playing the game and began feeling the romance of the open road. Hey, others can play and win their prizes, but for that slice of time that I cruised through the Shenandoah, that moment where pretense gave way to the serenity of the ride, became an experience fossilized in the amber of my mind as a perfect specimen of the unity between man, machine, and the environment of his chosen road.

Of course, such existential forays through wooded hillsides leave a man in need of things not so easily provided for by whimsy or cerebral masturbation, namely food and company. So making my way back into Roanoke, I rejoined the brethren of riders for some down home cooking and smiles aplenty. It was time for an old-fashioned barbeque, or in this case, the STAR-B-Q dinner. After four hours of riding, having to stand in line for 45 minutes seemed like something of an exercise in medieval torture, but the smoky billows of hickory and beef guided my growling stomach as a siren would a wayward sailor. Yamaha's Bob Star himself, packing "relief" in the form of a bottle of pepto slung on his hip, served the meal. Happily accepting a plate piled high with dead flesh smothered in sauce, I made my way amidst all the tearing eyes of corporate office workers turned cooks and found a comfortable seat from which to enjoy the rest of the evening's festivities.

What would ensue could only be described as a full fledged, RV park style, swing-your-partner, doesy-doe, hoedown (well minus the square dancing anyway). Chuck Berry and Elvis Pressley tunes from the mobile radio station provided the background for the shin-dig as STAR swag and coupons were handed out for local tourist attractions to the farthest traveled attendee, first to declare the full name for the STAR acronym, oldest member, youngest, smelliest, best Allen Cease (the founder of STAR) look-a-like, etc.... Throw in a three-legged race and you've got a barrel of laughs, a happy community, and good clean family fun all dipped in Yamaha motorcycles and leatherwear with conchos. As night descended and the party rolled along, my thoughts turned to the next day's adventures. With a belly full of food and a heart full of warmth lovingly instilled by the good folks of STAR, I went to my slumber wondering whether my dreams could match the beauty of my Virginia experience.

The following day had me easing on an 1100 Road Star for a solo blast on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Authorized in the 1930s as a Depression-era public works project, the BRP has become an American icon of recreation travel. Officially starting at Rockfish Gap in the north end with a zero-milepost marker, it stretches 469 miles along the eastern rampart of Appalachian ridge, winding its tortuous path against the foothills above the solemn Shenandoah in Virginia down to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina through the massive Black Mountains. Little ol' Roanoke lies some 120 miles from the north end of the Parkway, nestled in a valley as lush as the Blue Ridge is long.

Time and miles just melt away along the BRP. Almost as if you were sucked into a vacuum, where the clutter of modern life cease to exist. No commercial vehicles, no billboards and no stoplights. No Starbucks on every corner, no golden arches to use as landmarks. If not for the masses of star people piling up at every intersection, the BRP would be the motorcyclist's ultimate expression of riding nirvana. Hours will pass and unless you take note of changing foliage and habitat, you'll feel like you're in the same place you started. It all looks the same after a while. Sure, a sportbike-mounted rider would have a blast as curve leads to curve, but then you'd be missing the point. The point is majesty. There is no better way to enjoy the sheer scenic splendor of the BRP than the open air of a motorcycle, one not going so fast as to blur the view (::biting my tongue:: -Sean) The hypnotic beauty of the BRP's curves is a breathtaking yet dangerous lot. No stopping or thinking necessary, just keep an eyeball on the speedo (45 mph speed limit), it's a long road to enjoy.

As my ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway came to an end, so did my time in Virginia. Truth be told, I was loathe to leave. Virginia is a place of God and cemeteries, Dogwoods, tulips, and sassafras. It is also a place of fond memories, where the genuine warmth of the STAR association matched the gallantry of Virginia's gentry.

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