Danger: Motorcycling in the Coal Country of Virginia at Age 70

Young couple on a bike

Young couple on a bike

The road was sharply crowned, narrow and steep, and suddenly the Gold Wing starting misfiring, the light panel on the dashboard flashed wildly and then the engine just quit. The motorcycle stopped in the middle of the lane, and I was stuck, really stuck. The bike weighs about 1,000 pounds, and at 70 years old, I could not push it around to get it headed downhill.

Big Red, my Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, and I were about 300 miles from home heading up VA160, a narrow, twisty state highway that crosses the Cumberland Mountains from Appalachia, VA to Lynch, KY. I wanted to see the fall colors and tour Portal 31, a coal mine where tourists can take tours deep into a recently active underground mine.

A map of the ordeal

A map of the ordeal

Coasting Off The Mountain

But all the pleasures of biking vanished as soon as the engine quit. Alone on a rugged, isolated, mountain highway, I couldn’t even turn the bike around. There were two choice: let the bike roll backward into the ditch, or stay put until someone came along.

About 10 minutes later a fellow in a pickup came along and stopped. He helped me push Big Red over the crown of the road and get it facing downhill. I thanked him and he wished me luck. I mounted, folded up the side stand and coasted downhill about three miles until the road leveled out and the bike slowly rolled to a stop. Then I dismounted, walked along side and pushed. The bike still weighed about 1,000 pounds.

There was a trucking company ahead—Stanley Trucking—with a large parking lot, and I hoped to get that far. A police prowler happened along with Ms. Ison driving. We talked about my emergency, and she pulled up behind with flashing lights to protect me from traffic.

Once in the parking lot, I told her I had no idea what to do. She recommended a towing company,  and she said the men at Stanley Trucking were “good people.” But their garage was closed and no one was there. I called Lou, my motorcycle mechanic in South Carolina, and talked things over with him. Meanwhile the men who owned Stanley Trucking drove up. Again more talk. I called Barbara, my wife, and asked if she could help.

Big Red—my Gold Wing

Big Red—my Gold Wing


Eventually a plan developed: Adam and Randy Stanley would let me store Big Red in their garage as long as needed, and they offered to drive me to a Comfort Inn in Big Stone Gap, about five miles away. The next day, Wednesday, Barbara would drive to get me and take me home. Then I could return with my truck and trailer, pick up Big Red and drive it to Lou’s in South Carolina where he would repair the bike.

I got to know Adam Stanley through all this. A young man in his thirties, he, along with his dad and brother, started the trucking company a few years ago after they lost their jobs in coal mines that closed. Now they trucked coal from still-operating deep mines to coal cleaning plants that readied the coal for rail shipment. They had four tractor-trailer rigs, and they tried to keep two or three running most of the time. Besides hauling coal, they maintained and repaired their trucks.

The manager at the Comfort Inn offered a late checkout and some ideas for finding more local help if I needed. My room was excellent.

The plan worked well. Barbara picked me up on Wednesday at about 2 p.m. and we drove home. On Thursday I took my truck and trailer to get the trailer’s hubs greased and one tire replaced, and the truck’s oil changed. By noon I was heading up the Interstate toward Appalachia Virginia, window down, arm out, listening to country music on the radio.

The Truck

One big worry: my truck had been leaking oil. The cause was a loose oil filter, but with 215,000 miles on it, I wondered if there were other leaks as well. One mechanic had said there were, but Gary, my principal auto mechanic said he thought it was just a loose oil filter, which he tightened. At the Rapid Lube where I was getting the oil changed for this trip, I asked the fellow to make sure the filter was tight.

Crossing over the mountains on I26 west of Asheville, NC, I stopped to check the oil. The highway was steep and the truck had been working hard. Looking under the engine, I saw a large splash of oil about two feet in diameter. One front tire had oil on it, and the trailer frame had a coating as well. I got scared, really scared.

Yet even parked on a hill, the oil level was less than a quart low. When I moved the truck to a level place, the oil was almost full. I called Gary and we talked through some possibilities. He recommended going on, saying the extra weight of the motorcycle would not affect the oil pressure. Just keep an eye on the oil level, buy some extra and replace it as needed.

I made it to Stanley Trucking near dark. Adam, his brother Andy and another friend were there to  help me push Big Red up on the trailer. I strapped him down, thanked everyone, checked the oil again (it was still full), and headed for another night at the Comfort Inn. I was too worried to sleep much. Friday morning I checked the oil again—still full and there was none under the truck. With the bike and trailer in tow, I headed out at daylight, full of gas, oil and worry.

I drove slowly and stopped often to check the oil, and I made it home without a hitch. Lou took the motorcycle and diagnosed a failed alternator. Gary looked the truck over and said he saw no oil leaks.

We decided that when I had the oil changed, the Rapid Lube mechanic left dirty oil in a guard pan under the engine. When I drove up the mountains and stopped on that hill, oil in that guard pan must have dumped out, a little at first, some of which blew back under the truck and onto the trailer, then a big splash when I stopped. Since the engine hadn’t lost oil, there was no other accounting for the large splash under the engine on I26.

I arrived home about 5:30 p.m. on Friday night, shared my whole story with Barbara, had dinner and went to bed about 9:30 p.m.


Someone once said that you know you’re having an adventure when you’re facing danger, your senses are fully alert, adrenaline is nearly or actually pumping, and you wish with all your powers of wishing that you were someplace else. Young people seem to think that after 70 we’re in a recliner in front of the TV with no real adventures left. I can tell you that’s wrong, dead wrong.

I slept eleven hours and woke grateful. Gary and Lou, two excellent mechanics, helped. Barbara drove six hours to rescue me. But the people I met in Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, a lone pickup driver, Ms. Ison with the local police, and Adam, Andy and Randy Stanley, all of whom were strangers, saved my bacon, and they did so with a simple matter-of-factness that reflects the generosity and dignity of rural Americans everywhere.

Looking toward Kentucky from Big Stone Gap

Looking toward Kentucky from Big Stone Gap