By Scott A. Williams
A classic American riddle asks, “Why is the state of Ohio different?” The traditional answer is, “Because it’s HI in the middle and round on both ends (o-HI-o).” But there is another, equally valid response: “Because it’s a Midwestern state with roads that curve like crazy.” At least that’s the case in southeastern Ohio.
I got my first taste of southeastern Ohio roads while riding west to Illinois for the Moonshine Lunch Run. We were ahead of schedule, so Steve dipped south of Interstate 70 and led us along State Roads 147, 313 and 146 to our planned stop in Zanesville. Unlike Midwestern roads I am familiar with, these roads curve and bend and roll constantly. The pavement is good. Traffic ranges from light to nonexistent. I needed more.
Two months later, I returned to explore other roads in the region. In this portion of Appalachia, the landscape forms an irregular network of rocky hollows and hills, and where blacktop has been laid down there is mile after mile of entertainment for motorcyclists.
South of Wheeling, coal plants and barges clog the scenery, but views of the river and surrounding hills eventually improve. By the time I reached Fly, SR 7 had earned its designation as the Ohio River Byway. I stopped for the night in New Matamoras and met Gary, routemeister for a long weekend of riding Buckeye State back roads.
I found few spots in southeastern Ohio where my supposedly “smart” phone had network access, but I had five bars in New Matamoras and my weather app placed us in the crosshairs of a severe thunderstorm. Taking advantage of the overhang in front of our motel room, I pulled my Honda ST1300 largely out of harm’s way. Gary laughed quietly, choosing to leave his venerable Honda GL1200 where it was parked, confident it would take whatever Mother Nature had in store. The storm might even wash off some bugs.
In the morning over eggs and coffee, we reviewed plans for the day. Though I am typically eager to leave at first light, we lingered over breakfast; Gary recommended allowing the few morning motorists to find their way to work. When we left the Ohio River shoreline and headed into the hills, the roads were effectively ours.
After a short run north on 7, a left at Sardis put us on SR 255, which Gary described as one of the nastiest roads he knows in Ohio. If the long ride on interstates from New England wore flat spots into my new Michelins, they were beginning to round off. There are switchbacks, blind curves, off-camber curves and sudden elevation changes, all within the first few miles. Incredibly, some of the steep hills along the road are active farms. I tip my helmet to farmers who can navigate a tractor at such angles.
We turned right on SR 800 and again on SR 78. At SR 536 we found another of Gary’s nasty favorites. It occured to me that I hadn’t turned on my MP3 player, but it was just as well. The curves are unforgiving. With scattered wet spots and tree debris from the previous night’s storm, plus the ever-present possibility of Amish buggies on the road, these roads demand focus.
SR 260 carves west through Wayne National Forest and at SR 26 we turned left and rode parallel to the Little Muskingum River. This section of 26 is the Covered Bridge Scenic Byway. One picturesque bridge, at the junction of Washington County Road 406, is closed to motorized traffic so you can examine its design and construction up close. (If you see a black Labrador wandering about there, he’d sure appreciate a snack.)
By midday we were riding a ridge north of Marietta. It’s one of few places we found to safely pull over for a photo op, and as I set up I could feel tension in the atmosphere. Looking into the wind, I saw black clouds flashing from within. I’m enough of a weather nerd to know that this was not a spring shower coming our way. Gary agreed to change course and soon we were under the canopy of a gas station—not the best shelter, but good enough for the moment. We parked our bikes right down the middle, leaving room for cars to pull up to the pumps. The storm hit hard and the sound of rainfall was amplified by the metal roof overhead.
Two young men on motorcycles were also taking shelter. They were on their first long-distance motor - cycle trip, riding to North Carolina to visit a buddy in the Marine Corps. The Suzuki GSX-R rider asked if my GPS is waterproof. It is. Apparently an earlier rain shower confirmed that his GPS is not. I punched in his destination, wrote down directions turn-by-turn, and handed him the page from my notebook. Gary pulled out his atlas and showed them the route on paper. It felt good to help newbie tourers, and they were happy to have a solid plan.
As the sky began to lighten, a man came outside and identified himself as the owner. “Don’t park there,” he admonished us. We explained why were parked in the middle and that cars had been filling up without issue, but he insisted that we move anyway. “It’s bad for business,” he said. Turns out he was right, as we left without buying gas or lunch. Instead, Gary suggested a quick detour to West Virginia and one of his favorite lunch spots, known to locals as “Spoons.” I haven’t eaten a Sloppy Joe in decades, but the one I ordered was precisely as I remember from my elementary school cafeteria.
Back in Ohio, we twisted west on 676 and south on 555, then turned back north along 144 and 329 to Glouster. The roads curved ceaselessly. A few miles north on 78 we pulled into Burr Oak State Park and our home base for the weekend. Facilities were excellent, with accommodations including campsites, cottages and a lodge. The park is popular with groups of motorcyclists who venture in to ride the region’s roads, just like us. A group of Honda V4 Sabre and Magna enthusiasts had rented cottages on the cul-de-sac down from ours.
Pat and Annette were hosting two dozen Honda ST riders that weekend, and they offered good food and friendship to all. Annette’s 91-year-old grandmother had come along, and after most riders had turned in for the night, Grandma talked with me about Notre Dame football and the Cincinnati Reds.
Come morning, the aroma of Annette’s hot biscuits and sausage gravy wafted about the cottages and we began to file in for breakfast. After the riders’ meeting, I joined Ray, Jeff and Shuey and headed out for the day. Following another of Gary’s routes, we retraced the ride south and east to Coolville, then headed west to discover new roads. The scenery was pastoral, with rolling hills and small farms that reminded me more of New England than the Midwest. It was late spring and the pastures were populated with foals, nuzzling their mothers or galloping for the joy of it.
SR 681 wound us west to Albany. We cut left on U.S. 50 and at SR 278 pointed north into Zaleski State Forest. The baby’s bottom tar still gave off a just-paved odor. The yellow and white paint was so fresh that overspray was visible and the temporary NO EDGE LINES signs were still up. Around here they’re called edge lines for a reason: when the white paint ends the soft shoulder begins, and it drops off abruptly. My plans included photo - graphing prime stretches of this serpentine road, but opportunities to pull over safely and set up a shot were lacking.
Our midday feeding found us at Etta’s Lunch-box Café and Museum. Located in New Plymouth on County Road 56 near the junction of SR 328, Etta’s offers good food, much of it grown in organic gardens out back, and a museum displaying better than 800 lunchboxes. The exhibit spans decades of popular culture and is well worth a look. I didn’t see an example of my childhood favorite—Roadrunner and Coyote—but I learned from Tim, the fantastically colorful general manager, that today it’d be worth about $350. (Note to self...ask Mom if she saved my lunchbox from second grade.)
After lunch, we turned south. On a rare stretch of straightaway, Shuey extended his left leg to warn of road kill ahead. As he passed the brown blob, a groundhog—very much alive—exploded into motion and loped into my line. I leaned left, looked beyond the rodent hazard, and successfully avoided a run-in with Marmota monax.
As we rolled into Pomeroy, GPS guidance revealed a limitation. A loop into West Virginia suddenly registered as already complete as we reached the intersection where the loop began and ended. We decided to forego the gentle curves along the river in favor of more tight turns in the hills. State Roads 143 and 356 answered the call, snaking north and west. Beyond Mineral we turned on State Routes 56, 682, 13 and 78 to arrive at Burr Oak in time for supper, which included apple or cherry cobbler baked over charcoal. Grand ma stayed up later than most of the riders again that night, but was disappointed that she couldn’t find the Reds game on her radio.
After two full days in southeastern Ohio, I concluded that back roads here are like guns, knives and electricity: approach them with respect or you may quickly be in over your head. The next morning presented another example. Just north of camp, we turned right onto SR 555. Many consider Ohio’s “Triple Nickel” the best motorcycle road in the state. Comparisons are made to North Carolina’s “Tail of the Dragon” (U.S. 129). Having ridden both, I consider each a great and distinct experience. One advantage I give to SR 555 is that the good parts last more than 11 miles, but one problem with both is that their status as “must ride” roads can attract more traffic than I prefer. Fortunately in this part of Ohio, there are many alternatives at least as good and arguably better.
Farther along our route, another stretch of 260 is a case in point. Consider the challenge of a blind rise dropping into a steep descent with a decreasing radius left curve, then a quick right flop at the nadir leading to an off-camber uphill right curve topping out at another blind rise— all in the space of one Scurve! I don’t know whether the civil engineers cannot bank these curves or simply don’t bother. Traction isn’t always working with you and sight distances are short at best, but the roads are smooth and the curves go on and on. Acknowledge the limitations of your machine and yourself, focus on the task at hand, and these roads deliver thrills.
At a gas stop in Woodsfield, a lady waiting her turn complimented our rides and asked where we were from. “Massachusetts, Florida and Ontario, ma’am.” As we chatted, I learned that she and her husband are Honda riders from way back. She’s also a local, and since it was lunch time I asked her for restaurant options. Her recommendation was Jerry Lee’s, where we all selected “broast” chicken and cleaned our plates.
We had come as far east as today’s ride went, and the route back to Burr Oak retraced what Gary and I had done a couple of days before. With more severe weather on its way to coincide with my ride home the next day, I decided to bug out after lunch. Heading east through the hills of West Virginia and the Maryland panhandle I remained south of bad weather and by nightfall was 300 miles closer to home. At daybreak the storms had caught up, but using the concentration of roads in the Northeast to my advantage, I zigged and zagged to stay dry and lightning-free all the way to my home and family.
This trip highlighted one of the best asphalt playgrounds I’ve ever experienced. From now on when I think of Ohio, I’ll think HI in the middle, round on both ends—and curvy in the southeast.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Rider Magazine ®