Saturday, July 1, 2017

05 Tour with a 500 Single

    I learned from the first three trips to Alaska that reaching Inuvik in the Northwest Territories can be a considerable challenge for any motorcycle in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Getting there and back took a lot of planning and preparation, a good dirt-riding ability and the right bike, which needed to be capable of handling well on all types of surfaces and comfortable enough to ride more than 10,000 miles to get there and back in all kinds of weather. The bikes I rode on my first three trips in 1977, 1981 and 1983 left a lot to be desired. Specialized adventure touring motorcycles didn't exist in 1977, and I felt like I was pioneering the new sport of adventure touring while using street motorcycles for a trip the bikes were simply not designed for. An adventure touring bike should be capable of carrying you comfortably for thousands of miles on all types of roads. It needed good suspension, good ergonomics, good weather protection and a carrying capacity to satisfy every need for all types of weather, and often camping gear due to a lack of accommodations. In 1980, BMW began to market the R80G/S, which eventually formalized adventure touring as a separate branch of motorcycling. It was basically a dirt bike with a huge carrying capacity.

   In 1982, BMW offered the R80ST, which was the street version of the R80G/S. The G/S was probably considered to be 50/50 between street and trail, while the ST was more like 70/30 in favor of street, which was much closer to my needs. I knew a dealer who had one, and I was able to get it at a very good price, so I bought it. The ergonomics and handling were the best I had ever known. I loved the bike, and I began to get the accessories I would need to make it into an excellent adventure touring motorcycle. I eventually rode it for almost 30,000, mostly on back roads in a 1000-mile radius of home. I loved it. But it had a problem that the dealer was unable to fix, and I eventually sold it to a collector without ever using it for long adventure tours.
  In 1985, when Honda offered some leftover 1982 500cc Ascots at a greatly-reduced price, I thought it might have promise for converting into a small adventure touring bike. It was a very plain, around-town, street single that wasn't designed to carry much luggage, nor to ride on trails, and the suspension wasn't designed for rough roads; but the price was right, so I bought one and proceeded to test it. The first 1,000 miles proved that its handling on loose surfaces was adequate, but far from good, and the engine was strong enough for highway riding. The real test would be if my body could tolerate the stiff ride for long distances. I knew it would never be up to a trip like Alaska in the mid 1980s, but it struck me as a fun bike for shorter adventures.

   As a shakedown, I planned a scenic 7,500-mile, two-lane-road tour on many of the byways of the US, which included highlights like Beartooth Highway in Montana and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I laid out a figure-8 loop around the US that would take me through some of the deep south, the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest. When I told my longtime friend Ralph Spencer about it, he liked the idea and went out and bought one of his own, paying $300 less in Arizona than I did in New York. We decided to meet halfway and ride 3,000 miles together, with Ruston, LA as our initial rendezvous point.

   After reaching Mt. Jewett, PA by way of several remote, scenic byways through NY and PA, I followed US 219 and a few other 2-lane roads south through West Virginia and Tennessee into the Great Smoky Mountains. On my third day, I turned west for a brief visit with an old biker friend in Ten Mile, Tennessee. The Ascot handled well, and it easily maintained the legal speed limits. I had always liked the sound and feel of a single-cylinder motorcycle and I was having a ball with it, in spite of the stiff ride.
Farm in Pennsylvania
Farm in West Virginia
Covered bridge in Southern West Virginia
Barn fire near Loudon, Tennessee
   As I approached Loudon, TN, I saw a plume of smoke coming from a barn that was close behind a two-story, wood-frame house. As I got closer and realized the barn was on fire and there was no one around, I stopped and ran around the house yelling as loud as I could but got no response. There was no sign of anyone, and there were no close neighbors. It was already too late to save the barn, but the house would certainly go next unless I could get some firefighting equipment there in a hurry. A pickup truck stopped, and I ran over and asked the driver if he had a way to contact the local fire department. He said the nearest one was in Loudon, but he doubted they would respond because it was at least two miles outside their jurisdiction. I noticed he had a CB in his truck, so I pleaded with him to try. He did, and a few seconds later I could hear a fire whistle from a long way off. By the time they arrived, several shingles on the outside of the house had already started to burn and the flames from the barn were almost 30 feet in the air. With only a single 1½-inch hose, and about 500 gallons of water on the truck, they managed to save the house with no more than a scorching, but the barn burned to the ground.

Small farm in Arkansas
   Ralph was already in Ruston when I arrived, and I found him easily. Actually, I spotted his bike at the first motel I saw. That night as we swapped stories of our experiences getting there, we agreed that the ride was very uncomfortable. On our first day together we shared an nice ride through some gently rolling hills in the Ozarks in central Arkansas. We reached Dodge City on our second day where the temperature was an even 100°.

   Ralph had been dropping back quite a bit during the afternoon. Once when we stopped for gas, I noticed that he was definitely not happy. He complained that his butt and the insides of his thighs were so raw that he was having trouble putting his feet down when he stopped. That night he said he would be heading home in the morning. I pleaded with him to stick with it, but his mind was made up. Even though he was more than 900 miles from Sun City, he said it was a lot shorter than the route I had planned via Montana. I learned a week later, when we met again in Sun City, that aside from the seat and the heat, he also had a slight fever from a spider bite, and he couldn't remember anything about his 900-mile ride home.

   When Ralph left Dodge the next morning for Sun City, I headed for Rocky Mountain National Park. I was uncomfortable too, but I was getting accustomed to it. I didn’t think it was much worse than I’ve had on a few other trips on the fourth or fifth day out. I had already concluded that as soon as I got home, I would resume the search for a more suitable small adventuring touring bike. It was in fact a very stiff ride, and I figured that a few thousand miles of rough dirt roads would certainly take a lot of the fun out of it for me too, although I was totally enjoying myself in spite of it.

   On my first day alone, I extended my daily ride to 12 hours and reached Estes Park, Colorado late that evening. While oiling and adjusting the chain at the motel, I noticed a nail in the rear tire. I pulled it out and the air began to hiss out, so I pushed it back in quickly and went in search of air. All of the gas stations were closed and I wasn't carrying a pump, so I rode around until I could find a coin-operated air machine where I plugged the leak in total darkness with my repair kit.

   The temperature in the morning was in the low 30s with frost glistening in the trees. The sky was sparkling clear as I started up the steep, gently winding road into Rocky Mountain National Park. It was early and I might have been the first person in the park that morning. It was like having the entire place to myself. It felt especially good leaning into the mountain curves and listening to the sound of the single-cylinder engine as it climbed effortlessly up the steepest inclines. The little single was running good and sounding great. The scenery was spectacular along the mountain roads in the park. I continued to follow US 34 to Grand Lake, CO. The park was one of the top scenic highlights of my trip. Riding up Trail Ridge Road and over Fall River Pass, at almost 12,000 feet, was truly exhilarating.

Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park
  Near Rock Springs, Wyoming, I ran through a violent thunder and lightning storm with heavy rain, strong winds and hail. Of all the weather conditions I’ve experienced on a bike, western storms are among the most fearful. The fierce, long streaks that originate at a very high altitude can be seen for many miles, and there is no place to take shelter as they stretch thousands of feet to the ground. They dance, shimmy and crackle loudly, until finally they break-up, followed by a powerful blast. A few times I actually thought of stopping and running for a deep ditch to hide from it.

   The traffic began to get very heavy north of Jackson Hole, WY, and near the Grand Teton National Park. The road was crowded with slow-moving campers heading into Yellowstone Park for the weekend. I also encountered a lot of road construction that morning. It got so bad that I pulled over and studied my map for an alternative. I really regretted missing Beartooth Highway and Beartooth Pass again, and also the Cody Museum, but it wasn't worth a hundred miles of this kind of heavy traffic. I knew there would be no accommodations in the park, especially without camping gear on the Fourth of July weekend. There was certainly no room to carry camping gear on the little bike. I originally planned on making it all the way to Cody by evening, but that was already impossible because of the many delays.

   I studied my map and spotted an unimproved secondary road running from near the south entrance of Yellowstone Park for about 50 miles into Ashton, Idaho. I asked the ranger at the park entrance for directions, and she referred to it as Grassy Lake Road but she advised me against it because it was not maintained as a through road. Campers used it on the eastern end, but the ranger didn't think anyone ever used it to go all the way through to Idaho. I located it a short while later and gassed up near there. I asked at the gas station about conditions, figuring they should know, and I got essentially the same answer - that it was intended for four-wheel drive vehicles, and it was not maintained as a through road. That was good enough for me. It sounded like my kind of road, and it was in line with my original objective. Otherwise, I didn’t have any gravel roads planned along my route. 

   It was in fact a rarely traveled rough dirt road with stones, ruts, mud, water splashes and a few fallen trees. I stopped for photos a few times, although the spectacular views of the Tetons, which I had seen on earlier trips, were not visible through the dense forest. After about 25 miles, the conditions improved as it widened and straightened, but I still had difficulty in a few spots. A little farther on, I figured I must have crossed over the state line into Idaho when the level of road maintenance changed. The trees became scarcer as patches of grassy fields came into view on both sides of the gravel road.

   Suddenly something moving in a secluded field caught my eye. With a quick glance, I spotted a sleek, red-and-white helicopter parked in the field with its prop spinning at idle. My first thought was, "What a nice picture!" I began to slow down, but after looking again, I saw someone carrying a big carton or box and moving quickly from the helicopter, almost running, to a waiting Chevy Suburban. I immediately decided it was not a good place for me to be. My first thought was illegal drugs. I turned the throttle up and leaned forward, hoping that if they saw me, they wouldn’t think that I saw them. What they were involved with might determine how much trouble I was in. I got out of there as quickly as I could with the rear wheel fishtailing on the loose gravel. I left a half-mile trail of dust behind. I glanced over my shoulder at least a few times to see if either the helicopter or the Suburban were following. I rode very fast for the next 20 miles into Ashton where I spotted a small restaurant. I parked behind the building before going inside for a late lunch.

   That same night, at a motel in Montpelier, Idaho, I heard a news report on TV about a bank robbery in Texas where the getaway was made with a helicopter. The report said that Texas police thought the helicopter might have headed into Oklahoma or southeastern Colorado. I looked at my maps and doubted that a helicopter could make it all the way from Texas to Idaho, which was more than a thousand miles. I didn’t think any more about it until two weeks later, while sitting in my living room at home when I heard a similar report of another bank robbery in southwestern Colorado where a helicopter was again used in the getaway. I called my local State Police barracks to ask how I might go about contacting Idaho State Police. He asked what it was all about, and I described what I had seen. Of course the first thing he asked was what I was doing in a place like that, alone on a motorcycle. I answered "It's my thing. That's what I do."

  I told him the helicopter was white with red trim, and that it had a sleek nose like an executive jet. He said he would check it out and get back to me. Twenty minutes later, he called to say that my description fit exactly with the bank robbers’ helicopter, and that they would call me if they needed any more information. He also made a few comments about my being lucky, and that it would be a lot safer sticking to paved roads. I didn’t take the time to try and explain adventure touring, or why I like that sort of thing. It was the last I heard about the incident.

   There was a lot of standing floodwater around Provo, Utah from the spring thaw and recent heavy rains. I saw quite a bit of devastation from the spring floods along Rte 89 in central Utah. I saw where the normally peaceful Sevier River took out roads, railroad beds, bridges and scores of homes as it tore a wide path through central Utah. I experienced the heaviest rain of my trip near Panguitch where I stopped for the night.

   South of Flagstaff, AZ, I visited Jerome, one of the largest ghost mining towns in the west, which had been revived in recent years and is now a thriving tourist attraction with artists, craft people and hippies selling their wares. Lillian would have loved it.

 Sevier River overflowed its banks, south of Provo, Utah 
   The road south out of Jerome was narrow and rarely traveled, with seemingly endless switchback curves through the mountains toward Phoenix and Sun City, where I planned to meet with Ralph again and see how he made out on his ride home from Dodge City. I spent a few days there servicing the bike, resting and visiting with Ralph and his wife before for home. The scenic highlight of my 2,500-mile homeward leg was between Farmington, NM and Chama, and then north into Antonito, Colorado via Rte 17, which is a lightly-traveled road through the San Juan Mountains that goes through some beautiful high meadows and over two 10,000-foot passes. I stopped briefly at Chama to visit the railroad museum. Later I visited Ft. Garland, CO where Kit Carson was once the commandant. I walked through a state museum there, which was partially based on Kit Carson's travels.

   While rounding a tight curve in southern Indiana, I met a guy half-limping and half-running toward me, waving both of his arms. I barely managed to stop without hitting him. He said he had just turned over his eighteen-wheel gravel truck around the next bend. It was resting on its side and sprawled across the road with the cab of the truck over one ditch and the end of the trailer over the other. A few of the wheels were still turning, and steam was still coming from the engine compartment. Luckily it was not loaded with gravel. I managed to get around it with some difficulty, and I located a small garage a mile down the road where I asked them to call for assistance.

   On the entire trip, I covered a total of approximately 7,400 miles, of which 98% was on two-lane byways. I took many beautiful photos after learning how to use my Pentax 1000. My daily average for the trip was around 425 miles. My longest single day was 610, which was the day I rode from Dodge City, KS into Estes Park, CO. My conclusion was that the stiff seat and rear suspension were unacceptable for a longer tour with thousands of miles of rough gravel. It was still a fun ride that whetted my appetite for more of the same. I vowed to someday take the entire summer to travel alone with a small or medium-sized single, using only remote scenic byways through only the smallest towns and villages. I even thought of having a special seat made for the little Honda, and get better suspension for it, but I was quite sure I would find a better one when the need arose. 

(See Index for about 90 photos of this trip under "Photos - Ascot 500 Tour of US")

The Next chapter is: 06 Backroads, USA

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