June 13 – July 10, 2008
The length of this trip, the weather conditions, and the clothes that I wore were all similar to the 2006 West Coast trip, but the effect this trip had on my body was another story. I faced several challenges this time that needed to be managed constantly. My age and overall physical condition was a big part of it, but the 2007 Suzuki 650 V-Strom that I rode was another. The BMW I rode in 2006 had much better suspension, better handling, a more comfortable seat and far superior ergonomics. The Dakar and I had become a single unit, and its handling was superb. The Suzuki's strong points on the other hand were its reliability and weather protection. I could never unify with it, and the suspension was nowhere near as good as the Dakar.
I didn’t ride the Suzuki much during the first winter. The seat height and position of the foot pegs didn’t fit my physical frame and long legs at all, which severely affected handling on loose surfaces. The suspension was much stiffer than my old body could tolerate for long tours, and the seat was too low and the foot pegs too high and too far forward, which put me in a cruiser position with my knees around the same level as my tailbone. The entire weight of my torso and part of the weight of my thighs rested on my tailbone, which eventually caused severe saddle sores. During the first few months I determined some of the changes that had to be made, but I decided to wait until after my annual Daytona Beach Bike Week 3500-mile trip for the final decisions.
I left home for Daytona at the end of February with a gel-filled “butt pad” on the seat which raised the sitting position slightly, making it a little easier on my tailbone. But after a few hours, the pad somehow cut the circulation to my privates and everything went numb before the end of the first day. Consequently I rode without the pad for the rest of the trip. The low, stiff seat definitely had to go. Fatigue became a factor on the third day from struggling with the handling while dicing with the huge semis along I-95 in Georgia at 75 and 80 mph. The random wind currents from the trucks would hit me from all angles. I made mental notes of everything that needed to be fixed, including an accessory touring seat, a different set of foot pegs mounted lower and farther back, handlebar risers to put the bars in a more comfortable position, and a taller California Scientific windshield for improved weather protection. The new accessory touring seat was still not comfortable for long-distances, but I decided not to invest in a much more expensive seat at that time. After making the changes, I felt I was ready to test it on this 7,000-mile trip. My plan was to meet my three West Coast friends in Albuquerque, NM for a five-day ride together in the Rocky Mountains between Chama, NM and Red Lodge, MT, and I laid out a four-day route through some of the nicer areas of the Rockies for the occasion.
I left home in a light rain that lasted for about an hour, after which I had wet roads and cloudy skies for another hour before it began to clear. I allowed 17 days to get to Albuquerque, so it’s clear I was taking my time and hoping to enjoy whatever I might find on the country roads along the way; and also for possible side trips, maintenance and resting. The sun began to break through around 10 AM and the temperature rose quickly into the 90s. I stopped for lunch at the same McDonald’s in Pine Grove, PA where I've stopped several times in the past, and I removed some outer clothes and the rain boots before going in for a quick lunch. For the rest of the day I rode with the full riding suit over a polyester T-shirt and undershorts, much like I did on the entire California trip. I felt exhausted then, but I didn’t understand why.
The nicest scenery of the morning was along Mountain Rd, west of Palmerton, PA, followed by a series of farm roads that I’ve ridden often that lead to and over a ridge through Hawk Mountain Bird Sanctuary. Later I used Rte 997, which meanders through picturesque corn fields in Amish country where I saw several well-manicured dairy farms and a few horse-drawn Amish buggies. My eyes got blurry around mid-afternoon and they started to hurt, which I thought might be at least partially due to the glare of the sun. By the time I reached a familiar Motel 6 in Hagerstown, MD, I had clocked only 312 miles, but I was totally exhausted.
I realized after checking in that my heart rhythm was very irregular and my pulse rate was almost double what it should be, which is an indication that my atrial fibrillation was acting up. In the past I would visit the emergency room whenever it’s gotten this bad, and they would correct it, mostly with drugs, although occasionally it would need electrocardioversion. The problem occurs for a number of reasons. I thought this time it might be from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration. I did a lot of soul-searching that evening whether I should go out and locate a local hospital to correct it, or continue for at least another day to my daughter’s home in Virginia. I assumed that as I got farther into the trip I would get even more exhausted and possibly have more problems with it; but I thought I might possibly be able to correct it on my own. Before turning in, and also in the morning, I doubled a few of my heart meds that have helped to bring it back in the past. I hoped for the best and got a good night sleep.
The second day began with a painful reminder that I should have taken the time before leaving to get a steroid injection in my spine to control the pain in my back. My spinal stenosis had gotten progressively worse in the past few years, mostly from continuing to ride. The sitting position on the Suzuki, along with sleeping on different mattresses every night continued to aggravate it to where the pain was intense at times; especially during the first hour in the morning. Each day it would take a little longer to get the bike loaded and get started on the road because of the pain.
The good news was that the rhythm was not as bad in the morning, and the pulse rate slowed somewhat. It was still higher than normal and the beat was still irregular, but the improvement was enough for me to decide to keep going, at least to my daughter’s home. But the irregular beat and faster pulse rate stayed with me for the entire trip, and I didn't know if it would become a greater problem. I learned later that my atrial fibrillation was now considered to be chronic, which affects my energy level. The highlight of my second day was a scenic ride along Virginia Rte 231 with its green rolling pastures and horse farms with the mountain range in the background.
I got to my daughter’s in Prince George, VA by 3 PM after an enjoyable 335-mile day. I felt fine and mentioned nothing about my heart problem, but I revised my plan slightly for the third day to make it easier. I started late, finished early, and planned only 250 miles that day, which was a scenic ride across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Christiansburg in the Shenandoah Valley. The highlights of the day were Rte 40 from Rocky Mount to Woolwine, followed by Rte 8 up and over the ridge. I checked into a Knights Inn around 2:00, which was the crummiest motel of the trip. The mattress didn’t do my back any good. The temperature rose into the high 90s by the time I got there. I enjoyed the ride though, and I felt a little better physically from having shortened the day.
I had been looking forward to riding a few sections of VA Rte 42 in a valley west of the Shenandoah in the heart of Appalachia. Rte 42 is named Old Bluegrass Road for most of its length and has been one of my favorites for years. I had difficulty finding a section of it near Newport, which I remember having ridden many years earlier, but nothing in the area looked familiar. I tried following a narrow twisty road off of US 460, thinking it might have been it, but it petered out to gravel after about 10 miles. I came back to US 460 and asked for directions from an older gent at a gas station. He said, “Oh, they did away with that section of Rte 42 when they brought this new highway through”. He said I could hook up with it about 25 miles south of there. His directions took me to near where Rte 42 goes through Bland, which is an area I remember well. I got to Saltville and looked for Allison Gap Road, which I’ve used before that continues in the general direction of Tennessee, passing through Poor Valley and near where country music great A.P. Carter was born. I spotted a guy alongside the road loading a pickup and asked for directions. He looked at me strangely and said, “Allison Gap Road? Where do you want to go?” I said, “No place in particular, I’m just passing through.” He said gruffly, “There’s nothing up in there.“ Not knowing quite what to say next to get the directions for the road, I said, “It heads out towards Mendota, right?” He shook his head and said emphatically, “That’s not the way to Mendota. For Mendota you take this road here, and you go…” He proceeded to tell me how to get there a totally different way. I said “Thanks, but I’d rather use Allison Gap Road.” By this time he seemed a little annoyed and asked gruffly, “Where are you coming from?” I said New York. He stared at me with an annoyed, quizzical look and went back to loading his truck. He was shaking his head in frustration while I was making a U-turn.
I soon found the road on my own, which led into the hills and though a series of twists and turns before reaching Poor Valley Road in a nicely-manicured area with several country homes and a few old farmhouses and barns that looked familiar. I was quite sure I was on course, which I figured should come out in Hiltons. I came upon a minivan in the middle of the road, and I stopped to ask, just to make sure. The driver, a middle-aged woman, was talking with a younger woman standing alongside the van. I directed my question at the older woman, “Could you please tell me where this road comes out?” She asked quickly “Where do you want to go?” I said, “No place in particular.” I was hoping to avoid a similar exchange like I had with the guy loading the pickup.
She then asked, “Where were you headed when you stopped?” I suppose I should have said Hiltons, but I said, “I was headed southwest. I can tell from my shadow that I’m going in the right direction, but I just wondered where this road comes out.” It seems as though no one wants to give information without getting some first. "Where are you coming from?” she persisted. I thought, well here we go again, so I answered, “Upstate New York.”
The two women looked at each other and laughed, and she said, “You mean you’re from upstate New York and you’re down here on this little country road in Virginia just taking a ride?” “Yes Ma’am. This is a beautiful part of the country. I've been through here often.” She then asked, “Do you have any destination in mind?” After a brief pause I decided to make it more interesting and I said, “Well yes! I promised some friends from California that I’d meet them in Albuquerque on the 30th, but I have more than two weeks to get there, so I’ve been enjoying the country along the way.”
“Albuquerque, New Mexico?” The older woman asked with her eyes wider and a puzzled look. She seemed to be finding the whole thing fascinating, so I decided to feed the flames. I had my helmet on when I said, “You haven’t heard the most unusual part.” She said, “And what is that?”
“I’m 83 years old.”
“Yes Ma’am, I'm 83.”
She said, “Take off your helmet. I have to get a picture”, and she reached for a professional-looking camera from the seat next to her and started snapping pictures. She took a notepad from her purse and began asking questions and jotting down notes. After a few questions, I said, “What do you plan to do with those notes?”
“I’m going to write a story about you”, she said.
I took out one of my cards with my name and "AMA Road Rider of the Year 2002" on it and it also advertises two of my books on the back. While handing her the card, I asked if she would please send me a copy of her story when she finishes. She seemed even more fascinated by my card, and she invited me to follow her to her home. She said she would, “mix up a batch of mint juleps or something, and we could continue the interview there.” I thought I was probably getting myself in deeper than ever anticipated, and I didn’t have the slightest idea where I might find a motel that night if I spent a few hours with this nice woman. I thought about the "Then Came Bronson" character and assumed that he would have gone with her in a heartbeat, but he wasn’t 83; and I did have other plans. (Then Came Bronson was a 1969-1970 TV series about a drifter with his Harley Sportster). We had already talked for several minutes when I noticed a car waiting to pass behind her. I said, “I should really move on so this guy can get through.”
She answered, “This is just a little country road, and he can wait.” But I put on my helmet, fired up the machine and got myself out of there with an apology, a smile and a wave. I never heard from the her again. Maybe another time, another place; but things were moving much too fast for this old man. I aborted what was one of the more interesting encounters of my trip. I had put more than a dozen of those cards in my wallet before I left home, and I had none when I returned. They all went to interesting people I met and chatted with along the way.
The road did come out in Hiltons where I crossed US 58 and continued southwest along several unfamiliar, un-numbered country roads toward the northeast corner of Tennessee. I got turned around again using the sun and shadows as my guide, which took considerable time. I thought I should probably be using my compass, especially for the cloudy days. I had one somewhere in my overnight case, but it would have been a hassle to dig for it. It made me wonder how Daniel Boone made out when he traveled alone through much of the same area of Cumberland Gap on foot 200 years earlier, long before there were roads. It is said that he never carried a compass in his lifetime. When he was once asked if he had ever gotten lost in the woods, he replied that he was never lost, but he was once "bewildered for three days".
Many of the roads I traveled that day had neither numbers nor names. At least I didn’t see any. I made several in-course changes and doubled back a few times for almost 100 miles more than I planned for the day. After reaching Tennessee on mostly narrow country roads, I used TN Rtes 33, 61 and 62 south of Cumberland Gap as I continued to head generally southwest. I was familiar with at least a few of the roads from other trips. I included them this time because they were excellent bike roads with no traffic. I covered a total of 470 miles in 11 hours. Considering the trouble I had with atrial fibrillation during the first few days, I considered it to be an excellent day, albeit a long one. I got to the motel in Cookeville as planned, but I had to skip a diuretic heart med because it was too late to take it when I got in at 5:30. I was exhausted, although I enjoyed every minute of the day.
I was plagued even more the next day with an inability to follow the route sheet. I eventually decided to “wing it” for most of the day on whatever numbered two-lane roads might be going in the right general direction. First I headed due north out of Cookeville to locate TN Rte 52, which I remembered from years past as a scenic two-lane country road near the Kentucky state line. After locating it, I followed it west for about an hour before trending southwest again on mostly numbered state and county roads. The northern swing was intended mainly to stay clear of Murfreesboro and Nashville, cities I had been through at least a few times before. I also thought it would be more scenic north of Nashville, although the roads I chose were not well marked. I was often unable to find any route markings at all, especially in the small towns where my main focus would be on traffic lights and stop signs.
I reached a T-intersection near the center of Holly Springs, MS where there were no route markings at all to show which way the numbered road goes through town. I asked at a nearby gas station and learned that the markings end at the east side of town and start over again at the west side from a different street, which might explain why I had problems in Tennessee where I kept losing the route almost every time I went through a town. I got to Holly Springs, my planned overnight stop, with a total mileage for the day close to what I planned in spite of the many changes during the day. I felt I had done well because I saw a lot of good scenery and relatively light traffic all day. The temperature was almost 100° by the time I located a motel around 3:30.
I crossed the Mississippi into Arkansas in the morning on an old steel truss bridge along US 49 not long after my usual quick stop at McDonald's. I saw a lot of rice paddies along the river, some of which were huge. I ran into difficulty with my route sheet again in Arkansas. I decided since I brought a road atlas and magnifying glass with me this time, I should use them every night to double-check the next day’s route.
I came close to running out of gas in eastern Arkansas while sightseeing in hundreds of square miles of cotton fields. When I saw an entry ramp for I-40, I got on to look for gas. I got off a few exits later when I saw a sign, and I managed to reconnect with my route about an hour later by feeling my way on many miles of back roads through a lot of cotton fields. I reached Conway and checked into a motel before noon. After lunch I got directions for Bigelow, about 15 miles west of town, for a brief visit with my nephew Paul and his family. I wasn’t carrying his phone number and I had only Internet directions on how to find his house. Unfortunately he lived on a rural road that has only a name displayed. The number I had for it is apparently only used on Internet and GPS maps, which is worthless to me. I found the general store in Bigelow where they happened to know Paul, and also coincidentally his phone number. The girl called him and he came out with his pickup to lead me back to his home where I spent the afternoon visiting with him and his family. The temperature rose to over 100° by the time I got back to the motel in Conway.
My original plan was to go east from there in the morning to Birmingham, AL to visit the Barber Motorcycle Museum, followed by a leisurely ride north on the Natchez Trace Parkway to ride some of the nicer Kentucky parkways before heading southwest again. The Weather Channel changed that plan when it reported Hurricane Edouard was due to hit the Birmingham area that same day. Temperatures in the entire southeast and as far west as Texas, were expected to be between 95 and 106 for at least the next week. I wasn’t sure that my already ailing body could handle the extreme heat for that long. I decided to abort the route sheet altogether, at least for a while, and plan my days based on the daily forecast that I got from the TV each night. The first major change was to head due north into the Ozarks, and keep going until I found cooler weather, even if it took me into Canada where the temperatures might be a little more tolerable.
I had an enjoyable ride the next day following AR Rte 9 through the heart of the Ozarks, and later Rte 19 in Missouri. I found both to be great bike roads with scenic two-lane blacktop and gently winding curves through mostly hill country. I stopped to chat with the indigenous mountain folk at every opportunity, and enjoyed every stop. One guy I met at a gas stop reminded me of Leroy Winters, an enduro champion from the 1960s who lived less than 100 miles west of there in Fort Smith. Bud Peck and I visited with him at his bike shop on an earlier trip.
Around midday I spotted a small roadside hamburger stand in one of the smaller towns. I made a quick U-turn and ordered a hamburger and fries with a big cup of freshly-made lemonade that came highly recommended from the friendly young girl at the window. She said she made it herself. I sat alone at a picnic table in the shade of a huge oak tree and enjoyed my lunch in the relative coolness of the spot. There was even a slight breeze. Most of the day I was able to maintain a steady 50 to 55 mph, which was an ideal speed to see the countryside and enjoy the ride. The temperature reached the high 90s before I located a Super 8 near Cuba, MO where I checked in at 1:30 after 325 miles in 7 hours. Part of my new strategy was to start earlier, finish earlier and ride for only 7 to 8 hours, which helped me to manage my meds better. I would take the diuretic after checking in, and it would run its course before I turned in for the night. I would also get into the motel before the hottest part of the day and before the thunderstorms moved in; and also before my eyes would start to hurt from the glare of the afternoon sun.
The forecast for the next several days was for more of the same – hot and humid with late afternoon thunderstorms. I didn’t get caught in a single storm or even a shower since I left New York. A few times I got sprinkled on at the outer fringes of a storm, but I never got wet on the entire trip. I stopped for gas and lunch at a Casey’s General Store in Mexico, MO. Casey’s is a chain of combination gas station and convenience stores in the Midwest. I stopped at several during the trip. The only trouble with Casey’s is there is no place to sit, inside or outside, so I would usually eat lunch standing outside in the sun. I chose chicken nuggets, which came hot in a huge insulated cup. They were very good, and must have weighed almost a pound. I thought about taking half with me for later, but I had no place to carry them. I was stuffed before I finished it all with a bottle of juice. I remembered Mexico from 1988 with Bud Peck as being the place where we contacted a BMW dealer at the guy’s home, and he came out and opened his shop on a Sunday evening to replace Bud's broken headlight lens.
I took a few long detours around recent flooding in Iowa. The detours are often more interesting than the main routes when I'm not in a hurry. I had an excellent ride wandering around America’s breadbasket. I stopped at the beautiful Mt. Ayr Inn that I spotted along Rte 2 in Mt. Ayr, Iowa after clocking 380 miles. At first I was reluctant to approach the place because I was concerned the rate would be at least $100. But a storm was closing in and it was the only place around. Surprisingly, it cost only $60 for the room, which I figured would be the norm for most lodging west of the Mississippi anyway. It was a beautiful place with a great bed, and included breakfast. I had dinner that night at Peggy Sue’s, a small place in town, decorated like something out of the 1950s, where they used the front-end of a 1957 Chevy as a marquee over the front entrance. I asked the middle-aged female desk clerk, “Where would an old guy on a motorcycle enjoy having dinner?” She recommended it without hesitation. The food was good, and I enjoyed the memorabilia and photos.
The daytime high temperature seemed to be easing a little each day. The TV forecast showed less afternoon storms west of there. I thought maybe I had gone far enough north, so I laid out a route that night that would take me west into Nebraska. I had always liked riding through the high plains and prairies in Nebraska and the weather was looking much better in that direction. My plan changed again in the morning after I woke and saw that it was still raining and windy. I checked the TV and learned that a deluge was raging just west of there with as much as six inches of rain having fallen overnight, and it was still coming down. I rechecked the maps and saw that US 34, a two-lane highway that runs through much of the west was less than 30 miles north of there; and according to the maps, it was just outside the heaviest rainfall and flooding. I decided to leave an hour later and head north.
I left around 7:30, just after the last drops had fallen. It was certainly a nice way to get through Iowa, and I remember thinking, as I often do, ‘so many beautiful roads – so little time.’ When I got near the state line where Rte 34 crosses the Missouri River, I saw a sign saying the bridge was out. Traffic was being detoured 30 miles back to Rte 2 to cross. Not long after entering Nebraska on Rte 2, I spotted a Motel 6 just short of Grand Island, so I called it a day at 1:45 after 330 miles. The choice of places to eat was slim, leaving only Grandma’s Truck Stop, located at a nearby truck terminal. Eating there rather than riding a few extra miles, turned out to be a disaster. I ordered the chopped beefsteak with brown gravy and caramelized onions, and I got a severe intestinal bug from it, with nausea and diarrhea that sapped all of my remaining strength.
In spite of feeling weak in the morning, I still managed to get on the road by 6:20. I skipped breakfast because I wasn’t about to eat at Grandma’s again. I didn’t find a place open until almost 20 miles out, where I stopped at a Casey’s look-alike that had inside seating. My need to sit that day was greater than ever. The ready-made sausage and egg sandwich was great, and it stayed down in spite of my being sick the night before. I was still very weak when I stopped a few hours later at another Casey’s look-alike for gas and lunch. After stopping the bike at the pump, I turned the key off and pushed the kickstand down. When I went to lean it over onto the stand, I realized too late that the stand wasn’t all the way down, and much of my weight was in that direction to get off. There was no way I had enough strength to keep it from going all the way to the ground with me still half on it. It threw me out onto the tarmac where I landed hard on my side. As I lay there feeling helpless and a little dumb, I said aloud, “I’m getting too old for this.” I managed to get myself up and thanked the two aging cowboys who rushed over to pick the bike up. Of course they noticed the New York plate and remarked on it. I thanked them and said, "I’m glad I didn’t drop it somewhere out on the prairie. I’d never be able to pick it up by myself." I added, “It probably doesn’t look like it to you fellows, but I’ve been at this thing for 62 years. Maybe one of these days I’ll get it right.” I ordered a chicken fajita sandwich with orange juice and sat at an inside table for a long while before heading back out.
When I came through that area 20 years earlier on a big Harley, I noticed that wheat was the predominant crop. This time it seemed to be all corn, and I wondered how much of it was being used for making ethanol. I rode a total of 345 miles before checking into the Super 8 in Chadron at 12:20 Mountain Time. I was able to use the extra time-zone hour to rest up. Chadron is a typical western town in the northwest corner of Nebraska. I learned from the desk clerk that my room was their last vacancy because of some kind of special event going on in town that weekend. I decided to rent it for two nights because I intended to go into South Dakota the next day, and I could return the same night.
My ride the next day into the Black Hills of South Dakota and through Custer State Park was great. I rode the Needles Highway that I remembered from the trip with Bud Peck, 20 years earlier in a thundershower when we were sandwiched between giant motor homes, which made it more of an ordeal than a pleasure. This time there was no traffic at all. I enjoyed the 14 miles of twisty road through the tall granite spires and low tunnels. The Needles Highway is within the 73,000-acre Custer State Park. The most beautiful scenery of the day was along Rte 87 inside the park. A thundershower passed through less than an hour before I got there, and many of the roads were still wet in spots. The roads I used to get to the Black Hills and return to Chadron were across 50 miles of dry, high plains both ways, with long, clear vistas in every direction and absolutely no traffic. I used different routes to get there and back. It was one of my most enjoyable riding days. From the time I got gas in Chadron that morning until I got back six hours later, I didn’t get off the bike once, and I covered 290 miles. I pulled into the same gas station in Chadron to refill the tank, which took 5.8 gallons.
During the return trip, I rode a section of Rte 71 that was under construction with loose gravel for about a mile. I noticed that the Suzuki doesn’t track nearly as well through loose dirt and gravel as the Dakar did on the Alaska trip four years earlier. Needless to say, I like the Dakar much more, in spite of many changes I made to improve the V-Strom. I still had a week to get to Albuquerque, and I toyed with the idea of continuing west into Wyoming, and from there maybe even to Glacier Park in northern Montana, or Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons; or possibly even as far west as Oregon. But in each of those cases I would have to use super highways to get to Albuquerque on time, so I dropped the idea. The weather forecast across Wyoming wasn’t the greatest either. I thought about heading for somewhere closer to Albuquerque, like maybe the Chester W. Nimitz museum in Fredericksburg, Texas if the weather was cooler there now. I had already been there and seen the museum during one of my many "On my way to Daytona" side trips; but as a WWII Navy veteran who served under Nimitz, I thought I might go again, like a pilgrimage. I could maybe retrace the Chisholm Trail along the way, which was the overland route for cattle drives that ran from what was once known as Red River Station, TX through Oklahoma to the railheads in Kansas. For starters, I put together a route that would take me across some scenic high plains for the first 375 miles to McCook, NE.
There was no traffic at all when I headed out, and traffic was still light after crossing the Platte River with the exception of a few minor construction delays. The temperature was well into the 90s when I got to McCook at 1:30. I was overheated and exhausted from the ride, which reminded me of the problems I had with my heart earlier on the trip. I had been running faster than usual with a dry headwind all day, which complicated my efforts to manage the hydration. My gas mileage also dropped drastically. Some of the terrain I went across was flat as a tabletop for as far as I could see, and some was gently rolling prairie. Most was still green in spite of the heat. Traffic was exceptionally light.
I checked the Weather Channel that night and learned that Dallas and other parts of Texas were still in for several 106° days that I really didn’t need. I took out the maps again and put together another route to take me into Fort Collins, CO in the foothills of the Rockies, even though the temperature in Denver had also been reported to be over 90° for 27 consecutive days. I figured I’d keep going into the Rockies where it should be cooler at the higher elevations. The temperature was 72° when I left McCook at first light. It rose quickly into the 90s on the prairie. I stopped for the day at 12:30 in Fort Collins where it had been predicted to be over 100° by mid-afternoon. Fort Collins is a relatively clean college town - the home of Colorado State University. After scouting around for a motel, I located a string of inexpensive places on College Ave at the north end of town. I checked in before heading for lunch at a Denny’s that I spotted on my way in.
During the previous week, I had been strapping my heavy jacket to the back of the bike no later than 11 AM, and I would ride with a lightweight, light-colored jacket for the rest of the day. I wore the bottoms of the riding-suit all day because they didn’t bother me nearly as much, but I thought I might still be dehydrating faster in the hot dry wind. After leaving the room for the last time in the morning, and locking the door-key inside, I realized I didn’t have my gloves. I thought maybe I left them in the room. It was before 6:00 and a sign at the office said it would open at 7:00. I looked for a Home Depot, but they too opened at 7:00, so I returned to the motel to wait. When I didn’t find the gloves in the room, I went back to Home Depot to buy a pair. Their largest size was barely big enough to get my hands into and certainly wouldn’t fit with liners; but they would have to do. I bought them and left. I got on the road around 7:15, losing a little over an hour to the glove problem. Later on the trip, Jim Bellach graciously gave me a practically new pair of gauntlet motorcycle gloves to replace the ones I lost. He insisted I take them. Now that’s a friend!
I started up through the Poudre Canyon into the high Rockies. As I leaned into one of the first turns, clocking about 55, I faced five Hereford steers standing in the middle of the road. I was halfway around the bend and it was impossible to stop or hit the brakes hard. I was still doing about 40 with my foot lightly on the brake as I weaved carefully through the herd. It was close. About 12 miles farther up the canyon, I came around another bend and there was a sports car lying upside-down in the middle of the road. It was still steaming, probably from water dripping on the exhaust headers. The roof was crushed to almost the level of the hood. I’m quite sure the occupants were still inside as it lay there upside-down. It was in front of a popular restaurant serving Sunday brunch, and there were at least a dozen people standing around. I assumed they were waiting for the rescue vehicle, so I didn’t stop.
I followed Rte 14 up through the canyon for about 40 miles as it wound its way along the river toward the Continental Divide. Much of the ride was spectacular, especially where the river had been carving its way through the rocks for a million years. Being Sunday morning with very few cars on the road contributed to the excellence of the ride. Cars were parked in a few places along the highway where people apparently came for activities along the river. I went over Cameron Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass before reaching Steamboat Springs on the west side of the divide. The town was packed with vacationers and weekenders.
The heat returned as I continued west along US 40 through some hilly desert-like terrain for another 160 miles. I stopped for gas in Dinosaur where I paid the highest price per gallon of anywhere on the trip. The gas prices had been coming down during the trip. The lowest price I paid was in Ohio on my way home. I went as far as Vernal, UT, 350 miles from Fort Collins and checked into a huge new Motel 6. I’ve heard that a French company took over the chain in recent years, and that they’re now building a totally different class of motel. I was originally quoted $83 for a single, which is a lot for a Motel 6, but my AARP discount brought it down to around $66. It was one of the nicest rooms of my trip with an excellent new mattress and a first-class bathroom. I walked next-door for dinner at a Golden Corral.
No matter where I chose to go next, it seemed I would either be a day early or a day late in Albuquerque. I opted for the early side and figured I could always take short side trips to fill in the gaps. If I was still early, I could get the rest I needed. I headed east for a while over the same road I came to Vernal on, and turned south on Rte 64 in Dinosaur toward Rangeley where I chose Rte 139 toward Grand Junction. It was a beautiful ride for the next 75 miles. It went over Douglas Pass with several spectacular panoramas of the Colorado National Monument, the Colorado River and the La Sal Mountains in Utah. I stopped at a few of the lookout points.
When I got to Montrose, CO, I decided to stop for a motel. I thought I'd put together a side trip for an afternoon ride into the mountains. I remembered that the motels in Montrose are far less expensive than in Durango. I found a beautiful first-class room in a privately-owned place for $65 and checked in. I would have paid double in Durango for a similar room. I quickly put together a 140-mile loop for the afternoon to Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, followed by a ride along the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The ride turned out to be spectacular. I had never been that way, and I regretted not knowing about it early enough to plan it into the ride that I put together for the guys. I learned that the Gunnison River drops an average of 43 feet per mile throughout its length, making it one of the steepest mountain descents of any river in North America. Black Canyon is so named for the height and steepness of its walls, which make it difficult for sunlight to reach far down into the canyon. As a result, the craggy, vertical walls are almost always in shadow, causing them to appear black. The canyon is only 40 feet wide at the river level. The road I was on skirts very close to the edge in a few places. I got back to the room at 2:30 with a total mileage for the day of 350. On the way into Montrose I spotted a Suzuki dealer at the edge of town and stopped to pick up a spare can of chain lube. After a brief rest at the motel, I had dinner at a nearby Denny’s.
Day 16 started with the temperature at a mild 61°. It was the first time on the trip that I slept past 5:00, which I attributed to the mattress. It was almost 6:00 when I finally woke up. I managed to pack, attend to everything, eat at a nearby McDonald’s, and be out of town in an hour flat. The temperature dropped at least 15° by the time I passed Ouray on my way into the mountains. US Rte 550 between Ouray and Silverton is still one of the most spectacular rides in the country. I used it in 1977, during my first trip to Alaska. It goes over Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 ft into Silverton. It is often referred to as the “Million Dollar Highway.” The direction I was traveling put me on the outside of most of the turns where the cliff drops abruptly from the edge of the traffic lane as much as several hundred feet in a few places. Many of the drops actually start within a few inches of the white line marking the outer edge of the lane, and there are no guardrails. Needless to say I didn’t ride close to the edge. After passing Silverton, US 550 continues south toward Durango.
I was rolling easily into Durango, traveling about 55 on a fairly straight stretch of road when a railroad-crossing signal began to flash red, and a big striped bar dropped across the traffic lanes. I didn’t see the bar soon enough. I hit both brakes as hard as I dared, trying to keep from going sideways. The tires screeched but it was already too late to fit under the bar without hitting it. I released the brakes enough to make an in-course correction and miss the end of the bar, and then I hit the brakes hard again to keep from going onto the tracks. The end of the bar brushed my arm on the way by. When the bike finally stopped, the front wheel was only inches from the rails.
I began to backpedal as fast as I could to give the train enough room to get by without hitting my front wheel. I glanced to my left to see how close it was and saw that it wasn't a train at all, but a guy on something that looked like an oversized golf cart, riding the rails. He stared straight ahead, poker-faced and motored on by, like he never saw me. I thought of "flipping him the bird", but I didn't. I gassed up in Durango and kept following Rte 550 toward Albuquerque. I don’t remember ever having been on that section of US 550, but I might have on one of my cross-country trips. I thought if I came across something that looked halfway interesting, I’d take a side trip. I still had plenty of time to spare. Meanwhile the temperature had begun to rise and it was getting hot again. I stopped for lunch at an Arby’s that I spotted in one of the towns and got a Philly beef and Swiss with an orange juice. The place was packed. The terrain in the area was the high-plains type. The ground was dry and the flora was desert-like. The road crossed the Continental Divide but I never saw a sign for it. Much of that part of Rte 550 is above the 7,000-foot level for the final 150 miles to US 285 in New Mexico. I arrived in Albuquerque at 2:15 on the 29th, a day earlier than planned. I traveled 340 miles on the last day. My odometer showed a total mileage from home of 5,500 miles. I could have almost gone across the country and back in that distance. My daily average figured out to be a little less than 350. The chain didn’t need an adjustment since I left home and the engine didn’t need oil. I took the time each afternoon to lube the chain and check the oil level. The bike was essentially maintenance-free.
I waited an hour for a room to be cleaned at the La Quinta where we had reservations for three first-floor rooms beginning the following night. I rode around in the heat while waiting for the room. The temperature reached the mid 90s. I was not impressed with the city. Fred Lederer and his wife Elizabeth stopped by in a car for a brief visit. John had told him I’d probably be there a day early, and I had never met Fred. I learned that he would be riding with us for the first day and that he was once a motorcycle cop in Suffolk County, NY. It wasn’t surprising to learn that we had a mutual friend, Gene Baron, long-time owner of the Suffolk County Harley Davidson dealership. I first met Gene in 1947 when he worked as a mechanic at Jack Tracey’s Harley Davidson dealership in Yonkers where I bought and quickly crashed my first motorcycle in front of the store. I think Gene was the one who worked on my bike after I crashed it. He was an avid enduro rider in the early days with sidecars as well as solo bikes. In later years he rode vintage board track races into his 70s at Davenport, Iowa. I also learned that Fred rides a Harley Road King and Elizabeth rides a Harley 880 Sportster. He confirmed that John Dey and Alan Cheever would be arriving the following day in a rental truck carrying three bikes: John’s Kawasaki 650 Versys, Alan’s Kawasaki 1000 Concours and a Honda 650XL that John planned to give to his brother Tom who was arriving by air from Joplin, MO that same afternoon. Jim Bellach was riding alone from Fresno, and would meet us in Chama during the first day.
After breakfast in the lobby, I took a ride to see some of the city. I also went a short distance into the desert. My first impression was I wouldn't want to live there. It’s very different from the Northeast, and seemed quite foreign to me. John and Alan arrived with the rental truck around 1:00 and unloaded the bikes. Fred came soon afterward to accompany John to the rental agency to return the truck and pick up brother Tom at the airport. Meanwhile, Alan, after having driven most of the night, went to his room for a nap. Unfortunately, Tom’s plane was four hours late, so John called at 7:00 to suggest that Alan and I go to dinner without them. After trying unsuccessfully to wake him, I walked to Denny’s next door to eat alone, after which I came back and went to bed.
I was packed, loaded and ready to leave for breakfast when John appeared saying he didn’t sleep well but he’s ready to go. He suggested we have the complementary breakfast rather than wasting time at a sit-down breakfast. After everyone was packed and loaded and had a quick breakfast in the lobby, we were on the road by 7:15. We topped off the gas a few blocks away and skipped a section of Old Rte 66 that I planned to start with after hearing about road construction and detours. We headed directly for Tres Piedras on US 285. When we arrived, there were no gas stations, and Tom’s XL650 was about to run out because of its small tank, even after using the spare gallon he carried on the back. I cut the pace to conserve on his gas and we got to Chama just before noon.
We had lunch at one of the town’s biggest and most conspicuous saloons on the main drag with the bikes parked out front so when Jim arrived at 2:00, he could see us. He arrived on time, loaded down with a full complement of camping gear. After parking, Jim ordered a hamburger and drink, and we watched him eat at a table on the porch. From there we headed toward Antonito, CO along Rte 17. It was cooler when we reached the higher elevations, but being an exceptionally hot day, it didn’t cool down much. We got to our overnight stopover in Alamosa, CO by 3:30, after 275 scenic miles. We chose an old, inexpensive travel motel where we could park and sit directly outside the rooms. We inspected the place before checking in because it looked so rundown. I chose to occupy a room alone to facilitate managing my meds and my biological idiosyncrasies, one of which was that I definitely need a full-night rest, and I expected late-night fun and games. I think it was Alan, Fred and Tom who walked next-door to a KFC around 6:00 for a huge bucket of fried chicken with all the trimmings. We ate our fill and there was plenty left, which we talked about possibly having for breakfast the next morning.
I turned in around nine while the others were getting warmed up with after-dinner brandies, beer and loud discussions about world politics, etcetera, for at least another hour before Jim hit the showers, literally. He came away with a bruised elbow from the fall. He took the shower curtain and rod with him when he went down. I heard all about it in the morning. Suffice it to say, there were a few hangovers and I’m not sure we’d be invited back to the grubby motel anytime soon. I was glad that I chose a room alone, and that I turned in early. We didn’t eat the leftover chicken for breakfast after all. Fred took it with him and we all had breakfast together at a nearby McDonald’s around 6:30.
Fred and Tom, who planned to be with us for only the first day, headed home in different directions – Fred toward Albuquerque on his Harley, and Tom east across the prairie on his newly-acquired XL650 toward eastern Kansas. The remaining four of us headed north into the mountains around 7:30, which was early under the circumstances. Jim got his half-ton of gear together and loaded it onto the bike in record time. We headed northwest from Alamosa on US 285, and then north toward Slumgullion Pass on Rte 149 where the scenery was outstanding along the twisty ride up through the valley. The hillsides looked like huge blankets of gray-green velvet. We went through Wagon Wheel Gap and the town of Creede as we continued to climb toward the pass at 11,361 ft. I was one of the highest points we reached on our trip.
Jim and John spotted several Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep not far off the road. I couldn’t see them in spite of our stopping for a better look. Jim said there were seven, less than 150 yards from the road. He said they trotted off together, looking like a Dodge truck commercial. Before reaching the pass, we went by the headwaters of the Rio Grande River where many of the mountain streams come together to form the famous river that flows almost 2,000 miles from there to the Gulf of Mexico, much of it marking the border between Texas and Mexico.
We stopped for gas at a small station in Lake City that wasn’t set up for credit cards at the pump, but it was okay to pump the gas first and then pay. The four of us used two pumps. I was alone at one, while the other three guys used a single pump on the other island. Alan first tried to use the high-test pump, but it wasn’t turned on, so he used the same pump as Jim and John. They didn’t reset the meter between fill-ups, making the total cost for the three of them around $30. Meanwhile I finished and went in to pay my $9.50, after which John paid the combined total from their pump. After we left the gas station, the girl attendant apparently thought one or more of us didn't pay, so she called the state police.
By heading north, we could only possibly be headed for US Rte 50, about 45 miles from there, so they waited for us at the intersection. As soon as we pulled into a small scenic turnout area just before the intersection, the Colorado state highway patrolman in a police cruiser, and an NPS park cop in an SUV, came rushing over toward us with their red lights spinning. We were detained for at least 45 minutes while the trooper checked out our papers and tried to resolve the problem with the girl in Lake City by telephone.
I think it was John who finally broke the logjam when he suggested to the trooper that he should do the simple math, which is that we’re traveling together, and if one bike takes $9.50 to fill, wouldn’t the other three together take roughly three times that amount, like around $30. The trooper understood, but apparently the girl on the other end of the phone was having difficulty with it. She eventually backed down. During most of this time I chatted with the friendly NPS guy and gave him one of my cards. We were finally on our way, but I don’t remember ever getting an apology.
We stopped in Gunnison for lunch. After not seeing a Burger King, Wendy’s or McDonald’s, we settled for a Sonic Burger, which everyone agreed later was a dud. Jim was charged 30 cents for a cup of tap water, which didn’t set well with him, and the burgers and buns weren't that great. After lunch we rode over Monarch Pass (11,312 ft) where Jim and John pushed the limit along the four-lane, steep climb to the pass. At Poncha Springs we turned north on Rte 285 and rode along the headwaters of the Arkansas River towards Leadville where we saw white-water rafting and several 14,000-foot peaks. We got to Leadville around 2:30. There was a celebration of some sort going on there with a parade, probably for Independence Day. We had already covered 300 miles and we were still 30 miles away from our planned stopover in Dillon. I was exhausted. I think the altitude was probably affecting my congestive heart failure because I was very short of breath. I was anxious to get to Dillon, take some meds, and call it a day. I thought Jim also looked like he needed a rest. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jim spotted one of his favorite-type Latino "roach coaches" parked in the pull-off area. We stopped for a short riders’ meeting there and agreed since we only had 30 miles to go, we should tough it out and keep going, which I think was to Jim’s dismay when we didn't stop to eat. He said later the guy had the complete menu of tongue tacos, brain tacos, tripas (intestines), goat and you name it, and we missed out on the whole thing.
After reaching the Super 8 in Dillon, we learned there were no vacancies due to a special event going on nearby, which had all of the motels and hotels in the entire area fully booked. I assumed it was associated with the parade in Leadville. The desk clerk suggested that the closest rooms might be in Denver, 70 miles east. I was in no condition to ride another hour-plus to the other side of the divide, and it would mess up our ride big-time, because our best was yet to come. In addition to being exhausted, my eyes had gotten so blurry I could barely see, and I thought Jim also looked exhausted. After calling around town from the desk phone, Jim was able to locate three rooms at a nearby Quality Inn. When we got there, we learned that their special-event weekend rates start at $165 for a single. We agreed that we were fortunate to find any rooms at all. John and I each took singles, while Jim and Alan shared a double. It was the most expensive night of my trip, and probably theirs as well. But I figured if I were to spread the cost of the room over the entire trip, it would only raise my daily average motel expense by a few dollars.
Our third day together, and the 20th of my trip, was short on miles but great otherwise. The highlights were Loveland Pass (11,990 ft), another of the highest points of our ride, and US Rte 34 through Rocky Mountain National Park and over Fall River Pass at 12,183 feet, the highest point we reached on our ride. When we entered the west end of the park, I whipped out my 25-year old “Golden Age Passport” for the young attendant at the tollgate. He inspected it slowly, front and back. Then he smiled and said, “Wow, I’ve never seen one like this!” It was a thin wallet card that had gotten dog-eared and faded, and most of the print was worn off, including a portion of the “Golden Age” logo. He said, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Would you like a new card?”
I answered reluctantly, “If it doesn’t take too long.” He said, “It’ll take about 30 seconds”. I now have a heavy plastic card that says “Senior Pass” on it, rather than "Golden Age". I can personally attest to the fact that the years are not all golden. He kept my old card, which Jim suggested I should have kept as a keepsake. After a spectacular ride through Rocky Mountain National Park, we exited and rode through the town of Estes Park and continued to descend into the town of Loveland, where the temperatures were in the high 90s. After a quick lunch, we got directions on how to bypass Fort Collins to reach US Rte 287 north of town. I felt several huge raindrops from a shower that we skirted while on the bypass. The temperature also dropped sharply, but we stayed dry.
As soon as the three guys reached US 287, they were gone. It was a smooth, slightly curvy, 2-lane freshly paved blacktop, which was a great place to get out their frustrations after riding at low speeds for so long. We had also agreed earlier that there would be times when “I ride my ride; you ride yours”, which helps to keep peace in the group. The next time I saw them, Alan and John were talking with a biker gal who was apparently taking a rest from her Ninja. Jim was nowhere in sight. I made a quick assessment of the situation and chose to pull in a few hundred feet up the road and wait. John told a story later that he and Alan popped open refreshments while waiting for Jim, and that they didn't share any with the girl – something about her being underage. Jim appeared a minute or two later and they told him a different story. The highway traffic had dwindled to almost nothing after we left Fort Collins for Wyoming. We called it a day at the Gaslight Motel on the north side of Laramie, which was a nice place with cowboy memorabilia and other fancy decorations in the lobby. We ordered a large pizza to be delivered, and sat outside for a long while with that and a few beers.
It was cool when we got back onto the high plains in the morning. The first town we saw came to Medicine Bow where the TV series The Virginian and at least a few western movies were filmed. It's a quiet town with next to nothing going on, almost like a ghost town. Just before lunchtime, we stopped at a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Casper for a second breakfast. Soon after leaving Medicine Bow, WY on one of the longer and straighter stretches of road, John gave a signal that he wanted to test the acceleration of his new Kawasaki Versys against my Suzuki V-Strom. Both are fairly new 650cc twins. We both spun the throttles open in 6th gear while traveling at 75 mph. It wasn’t surprising that the Versys easily out-accelerated the V-Strom, which topped out at 100. John’s speed rose to at least 105 before he cut back. Then Jim humbled us both when he flew by with his 1000cc V-Strom at 115. We learned later that the road is heavily patrolled. If all things had been equal, the acceleration between the two bikes might have been closer, but I was pushing a lot more wind with the huge windshield, and I was carrying more body weight and much more luggage, although Motorcyclist Magazine had just named the Versys the "Motorcycle of the Year".
The scenic highlight of the day was between Shoshone and Thermopolis through Wind River Canyon, near the confluence of the Wind and Big Horn rivers. We saw people rafting on the Wind River. Jim spotted antelope, golden eagles and even a badger. We stopped at one point where Jim tried to get closer to a badger by chasing it through some high grass. He said they can be mean if they're cornered. We checked into a motel in Thermopolis early after a 230-mile day. After dinner we sat for a while on the Big Horn riverbank before heading back to the motel where we sat outside the rooms and talked until it was time to turn in.
On our fifth and last day together, we passed the famous mineral hot springs in Thermopolis, and later stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s in Cody before turning onto Rte 120 for the long climb into the mountains toward Beartooth Pass. After about fifteen miles, we turned onto the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway that continues to climb northwest toward Dead Indian Pass at the 8,048-foot level. We pulled over into the parking area for the beautiful panorama and we read the plaques, one of which explained that the ridge was the last significant barrier for more than 600 Nez Perce Indians and their 2,000 horses as they fled from the pursuing U.S. Calvary during the Nez Perce War of 1877, which was soon after the Battle of the Big Hole, where both sides suffered heavy casualties.
Our sardine and brandy communion at Beartooth Pass
We turned northeast on US 212 and continued to climb toward Beartooth Pass at the 10,947 ft level, which was the highlight of our 5-day ride together. I had been over it a few times before, but it was the first for the rest of the group. We passed a few beautiful alpine meadows and spectacular panoramas with snowcapped peaks everywhere. Beartooth Pass is said to be one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states with 20 peaks reaching 12,000 feet or more. Charles Kuralt, in his book On the Road, called the Beartooth Highway “the most beautiful drive in America”. After parking the bikes, we shared a tin of sardines in what Jim proclaimed to be a ritual in commemoration of my many motorcycle tours throughout North America and of our fellowship. I brought a fork from McDonald’s for the occasion and Jim carried his flask for it. We celebrated the event with a nip of brandy and tin of sardines that Jim referred to as our communion and a sign of our camaraderie.
The ride down Beartooth Highway on the north side is equally spectacular. The road drops sharply as it clings to the edge and winds downhill for 69 miles into Red Lodge, MT with dozens of switchbacks, much of it well above the timberline. In May 2005, melting snow and heavy rains sent mud and rocks sliding across several of the switchbacks, causing the highway to be closed five months for repairs. We stopped a few times for photos on our way to Red Lodge where we stopped to eat our last meal of the trip together at the Rockin’ J Restaurant. The place looks from the outside like a Subway Restaurant and turns out great sandwiches.
We said our goodbyes after lunch. I headed northeast toward Billings while the others headed west for Columbus, MT. I checked into a Motel 6 in Billings and had dinner alone at a nearby Cracker Barrel, where I ate and pondered my route home. I originally thought of stopping at the annual bike rally in Sturgis, but since it didn't interest me that much, I decided to make an end-run, going as far north as possible without entering Canada.
I left the motel before six and before anything was open. I took Rte 87 onto a huge expanse of high plains toward Williston, ND, which was relatively straight for hundreds of miles. I stopped at a small general store in Roundup for gas and breakfast. I found a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich in the cooler, which I heated in their microwave and ate at a table with several old-timers having their morning coffee. We chatted while I ate and soaked up some heat after a cool 60-mile ride before breakfast. I located Rte 200 just beyond Roundup and followed it for 200 miles toward Williston. I recall following it on an earlier trip for almost two days across Montana, North Dakota and most of Minnesota.
The gap between the smallest towns in Montana is often 75 miles or more. The farmers at breakfast warned me to be on the lookout for deer, which they said are plentiful in that direction and would probably be crossing or standing in the road. I stopped for lunch in Sidney around 3:00. When I got to Williston, there wasn’t a vacant room in town. I think it had to do with the Bakken oil shale formation that was getting a lot of activity. The desk clerk said the next town with a possible vacancy was Minot, ND, 150 miles farther east. It was 6:00 before I finally checked into a Super 8 in Minot after a long, 12-hour, 535-mile day. I was totally beat, and I had skipped my heart medication. My eyes weren’t nearly as bad as they usually got by late afternoon, which was probably because the sun was behind me for the last 150 miles. I called home and said I’d probably be in by the weekend. I said it might be Saturday night, but don't count on it. After hanging up and checking the maps, I could see there was no way I would make it by Saturday night, especially if I went south toward the Missouri River as I had thought about doing to give a wide berth to the entire Chicago area. I plotted a course toward Iowa instead on two-lane country roads, and I’d see how the day goes.
It was in the low 50s with huge black clouds everywhere when I started the 24th day. It looked especially dark in the east. I headed southeast from Minot on US 52, keeping an eye on the blackness for the next 2½ hours without a sprinkle. I was able to skirt the weather all day while enjoying the ride through several small North Dakota towns in a vast expanse of farmland. My gas went on reserve after I hadn’t seen a gas station for at least an hour. When I spotted I-94, and there was no gas at the intersection, so I got on I-94 eastbound to look for gas. There was none at the first exit or the second. I was very concerned about running out when I spotted a small gas-pump icon at the third exit. I got off and saw a similar icon on a narrow, unnumbered country road that I took south, figuring it couldn’t be far. After riding at least 15 miles across barren farmland, I came to another T-intersection with no follow-up sign for gas. I thought maybe I had missed it.
I was getting very concerned because the reserve light had been on for more than 30 miles. I sat at the intersection wondering what to do next when I saw a mailman stuffing letters into a mailbox. I asked him if he knew where I could get gas. He pointed to a road a few hundred feet away and said there was a gas station a little way down on the right. I turned onto the road and rode for 15 miles to yet another T-intersection without seeing it. I suspected it was in a side road that had I passed, and it was probably too far in for my eyesight. I was getting even more concerned that there wasn't enough gas left to go back for a second look. I was far out in the open farm farmland by then. I turned right, but the road petered out to gravel in less than a mile. My heart dropped. I stopped to look around, feeling somewhat helpless, and trying to decide what to do next when I spotted a farmhouse on a large farm with a boy in his early teens cutting grass. He had earphones in his ears and was making circles on the lawn with the ride-on mower. I pulled in and stopped. When he saw me, he turned the mower off and pulled the earphones out. I said, “Could you please tell me where I might find a gas station?” He looked puzzled and answered that he didn’t know but his dad or mom probably would. I asked if they were home.
He said, “My mom’s home." I said, “Would you mind getting her please?” He got off the mower and disappeared into the house. Moments later an attractive young woman appeared, wearing shorts, a halter-top and sandals. I repeated the question. She answered with a big smile, “We have a gas station right here.”
“Really? Could I possibly buy some? I’m about to run out.”
She said, “Yes, of course. Follow me”. She led me across the yard to a small pump that was probably used for the filling farm vehicles. I asked if it had a gauge, and she said it probably does but the glass is much too cloudy to read. I said I needed around five gallons and I asked if that would be OK. She handed me the hose and turned on the power for the pump. Gas began to flow into my tank as soon as I squeezed the handle, but seconds later she noticed the hose was spewing gas at the other end, and she said, “Oh my goodness, we’re getting more on the ground than in the tank”, and she turned the pump off. I looked into my tank and could see that I had already gotten almost a half-tank. I said it would probably be plenty to get me to a gas station. I reached for my wallet and handed her a $20 bill. She said, “I don’t know what to charge. I don’t know how much gas is going for nowadays or how much we pay for it.” I answered that if the $20 isn’t enough, I’d be happy to pay more. “Oh no”, she said, “I meant that I don’t know how much change to give you.” I said, “Please don’t be concerned about change. I’m very happy to get the gas, and I would like for you to accept it.” I had no idea how much had spilled on the ground, or if it might cause trouble with her husband for using the gas pump with a broken hose. She took the money and offered her hand to shake hands. She said, “My name is Ann.”
I said, “Hi Ann. My name is Piet. I’m very happy to meet you.”
She saw my license plate and asked, “What in the world are you doing in this little farmyard in North Dakota.” I told her a little about my trip and we chatted for several minutes. Needless to say, it was the nicest encounter I had on the trip. I thought after leaving that maybe I should keep wandering around this beautiful country, meeting nice people like that along the way. The thought crossed my mind, "Do I really need to go home?"
Ironically that encounter was probably one of the greatest influences in my decision to stay on I-94 and do exactly that – go home! To continue would take much more time than I was prepared to devote to it; and anything short of that would be anticlimactic to the great times I had up to that point. I followed her directions on getting back to I-94, and I stayed with it to St. Cloud, MN rather than follow two-lane country roads south into Iowa. I guess I'm a lot like the old plow-horse when he turns for the barn, in that he moves faster than he moved all day. I noticed after reaching the highway that there was a town with plenty of gas available just a few miles from where I exited. It became another long day of 540 miles, which was even longer than the previous day. I held my speed at 80 on the interstate for hours while keeping a close eye on the gas gauge because the mileage drops a lot with this bike at those speeds. I checked into a Super 8 in St. Cloud around 4:30.
After spending a few hours at the AMA in Ohio the next day, I headed north on I-71 and stopped along I-76 near Kent for a room at an old Econolodge. I rode a total of 480 miles that day, bringing the distance for my final day down to a relatively easy 450 miles of mostly interstate highways. After unloading and doing the usual servicing and checking the bike over for the last time on this trip, I looked up and down the road for a place to eat on my last night out. Seeing nothing, I settled for a nearby McDonald’s for my dinner meal.
I turned in early and was sound asleep when a loud piercing sound jolted me awake around 2 AM. At first I thought it was the alarm clock, but after pulling the plug on it, and the sound didn’t stop, I thought maybe the air conditioner was overheating and setting off the smoke alarm. I fumbled half-asleep with the cover on the alarm to pull the batteries out when I realized the alarm was hard-wired to the house wiring. I finally put on some clothes and shoes and figured I’d go to the office and report it. As soon as I got outside, I saw many people in the parking lot, and I realized it was in every room of the motel. The desk clerk didn’t know any more than I did. The fire department and several police cars were there. I stuck around the lobby until one of the firemen finally located the right switch on the panel that stopped the racket; and I went back to bed. There was a different desk clerk on in the morning who said they’re still not sure what happened, but it was probably someone in one of the rooms who set off the alarm.
I got home around 2 PM and made several calls to family and friends to let them know the old man was back in one piece. I was totally exhausted and I hurt all over. The fatigue and extra pain stayed with me for almost two weeks. My eyesight, which had been in poor shape for years, was never worse than it was on this trip. For anyone who might ask, “Why do you do it?” - the answer that comes to mind is Winston Churchill’s famous quote during World War II at the height of the Battle for Britain when he said, "Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never..." Herb Gunnison wasn't quite as eloquent in his book "Seventy Years on a Motorcycle" where he wrote, “Don’t ever let the bastards take it away from you.”
I feel much the same about my roaming the country roads. Giving up something that I’ve loved doing for most of my life is like surrendering to life itself, which I have no intention of doing if I can help it. I intend to continue wandering alone on the byways of this beautiful country for as long as I can get my leg over the machine.
The Next Chapter is: 18 Las Vegas in December