It’s about 50 degrees and the sun is setting. A perfect autumn ride: leaves peaking in the Northern United States, temperatures dipping in deference to the impending winter. We’re crossing a mountain ridge where we know the temperatures drop 15 or 20 degrees topside. My friend, Kevro, calls this stretch of road “nipple pass” as last time we went through in spring, we wore T-shirts and it went from 75 to 50 in half a mile. The few hundred miles behind us was a perfect ribbon of mountainous roadway with deer meandering roadside, nibbling the last sprouts before frost. The destination is Fernwood Lodge, with cold beer, big steaks, and a crackling fireplace. The leathers were donned an hour prior as the air chilled and nipped at exposed skin. We have thirty miles to go, and darkness is falling. Moon Dog signals to throttle up as we all give it the beans upward, onward. I look back at Tatonka on his big white Ultra and he signals a thumbs up, telling us all is well on board, despite a leaky primary. I trust he is smiling, though we can’t make out his face in the dusk. Four bikes, two abreast, chug effortlessly and skillfully up the pass as a heavy fog slithers over the road before us. The bikes run cool in autumn air and pull us along unrelentingly, as would horses in sight of their barn. The thick forest around us darkens and shadows disappear as the waning light fades from dark to pitch black.
A scene from “Sleepy Hollow” creeps into my mind and further chills the back of my neck. Somewhere just south of our location, the great American writer, Washington Irving (1783-1859), penned his tale of horror and mystery of a headless Hessian soldier riding horseback over hill and dale in these very mountain ranges. The tale’s setting is our location but the year it was to have occurred was 1790. The characters can be traced to history, but the headless horseman’s identity is left to conjecture. That nameless soldier is said to have lost his entire head from a stray American cannonball in a nameless battle of the revolutionary war. Despite his death, the story tells that he seeks that which is obvious: his head. This headless soldier is reputed to plunder souls in dark of night in mountain passes such as this, in order to replace his loss. His first victim was, as you may recall from childhood tales, Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky, and extremely superstitious local schoolmaster. He competes with one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy local farmer, Baltus Van Tassel. All of these folks have long since passed from this earth and are buried just south of our current position. As Crane leaves a party he attended at the rich farmer’s home on that cool autumn night (such as this), he is pursued by the headless horseman who “rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quests of his head.” Ichabod mysteriously disappears from town, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones. Crane is never seen again. The horseman seeks the head of a new victim each autumn about this time. This tale invades my imagination as we ride.
The local folklore was relayed to me often in childhood, mostly around a Boy Scout campfire. Its impressions are indelibly etched in my mind, reinforced with Irving’s written accounts, read by me later in life. I find myself hunching down below my windscreen, lest the horseman gallop up behind. I peer side to side into the darkness of the hemlock and spruce for hints of movement from the woods. Moon Dog riding to my right sits straight, neck extended and looking about, unaware of the danger lurking… at least in my imagination. Had a deer emerged to cross our path, I may have screamed like a schoolgirl and jumped from my saddle. Alas, this would not turn out to be the case. We navigate the pass with our heads firmly attached to our necks. We pull into the Inn and find the parking lot full of cars and trucks, even a few four wheelers. We are the sole bikes. Loud music emanates from the century old structure. We laugh as the place is perched on the side of a mountain, and thankfully rarely has more than 10 people inside.
Upon entry, I talk the doorman into waiving us by, the $10 cover annoys me. I tell him the owner and I were in the same Cub Scout pack 40 years ago, and he learned of Ichabod Crane’s fate at the same campfire as I. For now we are safe except from the locals, costumed in various silly outfits gyrating to the band. We’ve obviously stumbled upon a Halloween costume party and decide to join in the fun. “Nice biker costumes” a young woman exclaims as we shuffle through the crowd on the way to the bar. “Not a costume baby” Kevro exclaims with pride over the music. Tatonka grins widely as we belly to the bar, recognizing my niece as the bar maid. He holds up four fingers and say nothing and 4 Coors longnecks magically appear. We get a lot of “costume” comments, which somehow become less amusing as the night passes. “Booze and timing” is muttered by several in our group and I suspect it is that which hastens our exit. We leave long before the sunrise and I stop by the local cemetery. Kickstands down at a neatly groomed grave, not a word is spoken. “MURRIN” etched in black granite not easy to see, but we all know what it says. I stand at the bronze plaque on the ground “USMC – Korea 1950-53.” The place is spooky but the horseman dare not approach us here. The souls of the dead around us have strong medicine.
One more mile on dark dirt roads, to our beds. No streetlights in this country town. I hold my head up high and straight, breathing in the cool night air. Now, the horseman concerns me not. In Irving’s tale, the horseman does not walk nor drive a carriage. He rides as we do and in the end THAT makes all the difference.
Well, signing off for now. Ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home.