I ride through Brigham City, UT and feel like I'm in a John Steinbeck novel. Sycamore trees and white picket fences line Main Street with gentle rolling mountains in the distance. This is what California must have been like in the fifties.
On my way to Wyoming, I dip into southeastern Idaho on Highway 89 and ride through small country towns with populations of 100 or less. I reach Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons are impressive because there are no foothills leading up to them. The mountains simply appear right out of a plateau. I decide to visit Jenny Lake since I have heard good things about it. When I arrive at the lake, something very interesting happens. For the first time on my trip, I don't feel the need to act like a tourist by snapping a picture and moving on as if checking something off my list. I just want to sit and experience the stillness and solitude.
Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
I have done three interviews today, the most in one day so far on my trip. Let me explain. There is a tendency when riding on a solo motorcycle trip for people to walk up to you and ask questions. I don't think this happens as often when you ride in a group because it can be intimidating to approach a group of bikers and disturb their social clique. But when you are riding alone, the social barrier is reduced, and that makes you more approachable (it helps when you ride a motorcycle with out of state license plates loaded with lots of camping gear). People come up and start asking you questions. I call this process "doing interviews". Some riders don't like this ritual, but I enjoy it. It allows you to be a representative to riders and non-riders alike. Sometimes the interviewer is a fellow rider, and you share weather reports or fun routes. When the interviewer is a non-rider, the questions usually pertain to your bike or the equipment. Here is a list of some of the more memorable interview questions I have been asked on my trip:
"Aren't you a little over-dressed?"
"Is there enough room for you
on that motorcycle?"
"I've never seen a Beemer without cylinders sticking out of the sides."
"Are those side bags insulated?"
"Are you comfortable on that thing?"
"You're from the States? I thought you were from another country."
"Going to Sturgis early this year?"
It's getting late, so I camp at Flagg Ranch outside of Yellowstone. The nighttime temperature is 30F, but my sleeping bag is rated for 30F, so I am nice and warm. I sleep well.
I spend the next day in Yellowstone. I wanted to do a figure-8 through the park, but the northeastern quadrant is closed for road construction. I hit the highlights including Old Faithful and the Yellowstone River. I see lots of wildlife including mule deer, bison, and Canadian geese.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Entering Montana from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
I depart Yellowstone via the north entrance and enter Montana. Highway 89 runs through a beautiful plateau. I decide to stay at a hotel in Bozeman, MT for the evening. I exit Interstate 90 where all the hotels are, and I turn right. I soon discover, however, that I am going the wrong direction and that the hotels are on the other side of the Interstate. I turn into a small strip mall in order to turn around. As I'm circling around, I notice in the corner of the strip mall is the "American Computer Museum."
Those of you who know me know that I have, shall we say, a passing interest in computer technology. I've been to the Computer Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, so there's no way this place in a rinky dink strip mall is going to impress me. The outside glass has pictures of some of the exhibits including old Apple I and Apple ][ computers, near and dear to my heart. The sign on the door says, "Open". I look at the clock. It's Thursday at 6:55pm. The hours posted on the door say that Thursday is the only day of the week they have extended hours until 8pm. I decide this is an omen for me to visit this museum.
I go in, pay my $4, and am practically forced into a small room to watch a twelve minute introductory video explaining the exhibits. I'm so tired from riding all day that I could probably watch twelve minutes of white noise or a cricket match telecast in Japanese. I laugh out loud because I'm sitting alone in the dark on a folding chair in full motorcycle textile regalia watching a guy who resembles Jim Henson explain the American Computer Museum to me. Just show me the Apple stuff, and I'll be on my way.
After the video is over, I begin the tour. And it totally blows my mind! Believe me, it would take no effort whatsoever to amass a bunch of 128K Macintoshes and an Atari 2600 from garage sales, put them under a glass case, and call it your "computer museum". That is not what this museum is about. The museum is really about the history of computation instead of computer technology. The exhibits trace a timeline from Sumerian tablets, number systems, information theory, electronics, automation, and of course, hardware from the 1940s onward. There are even copies of Newton's Principia Mathematica
, two pivotal works in the history of mathematics and astronomy, respectively. By the time the Apple display comes around at the end, it is almost anti-climactic. I am enthralled. I am the last visitor to leave the building. It is on par with an episode of James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed
. And it is located in a nondescript strip mall in Bozeman, MT next to a beauty salon, a chiropractor, and a locksmith. I'm not saying you should go to Bozeman, MT just to see the American Computer Museum, but if you're ever in Bozeman, check it out.
American Computer Museum, Bozeman, Montana.
As I'm checking into the hotel, the receptionist asks, "What brings you to Bozeman?"
"I'm headed up to Glacier," I say.
She gives no response. Not even, "That's nice" or, "It's impassable" or anything like that. This is not a good sign.
I check the weather report for Glacier and see that it's five straight days of rain with winter snow advisories above 5000 feet. Going-to-the-Sun Road is not yet completely plowed. Bummer. I would have liked to have seen Glacier National Park and reached the Canadian border as a milestone, but snow and potentially freezing rain do not sound like a good idea. I decide to turn back.
I depart Bozeman, MT after briefly riding past the university as an homage to Robert Pirsig. It's starting to sprinkle, but I leave the thunderclouds behind as I head east. I take 78 from Columbus, MT to 212 and then the Beartooth pass. It's overcast, so I don't think I get the full effect. I stop at the summit at the scenic overlook and laugh because there are ten spotless sport touring motorcycles parked here, and then there's my Filthy McNasty Rat Bike with three weeks of grime all over it. A helpful rider from Billings, MT educates me about the two passes I will cross next. It's overcast and very cold crossing the two passes, but I enjoy the scenic descent on 296 into Cody, WY.
The next morning, I am excited to see Devil's Tower, the site of Steven Spielberg's 1978 documentary. I don my Thinsulate cold weather gear, start up the bike, and run through my pre-flight checklist. That's funny, my Hiperlights are not flashing.
I discover that my front brake switch is malfunctioning. The rear brake light is constantly on even when I release the brake lever. This is not good since someone behind me won't know when I'm stopping. I have a Zen moment as I listen to the early morning birds chirping and proceed to take the brake switch apart carefully with my Leatherman. The switch is working fine mechanically, so the problem is not the switch, it's with the actuator of the switch. I squirt some WD40 into the actuator and clean it off with a rag, and when I reassemble everything, it's working again. This is the second time this problem has occurred since I've owned the bike. It seems every now and then, you have to unscrew the front brake switch, clean everything, and reconnect it.
While the ascent into the Bighorn Mountains is fun, the descent is through thick fog! I am going 25 miles per hour with about 30 feet of visibility. I make up for lost time by grinding out the rest of the day on the Interstate. It's not so bad because there are rolling hills to look at. With the brake switch malfunction and the fog, I don't make it to Devil's Tower until the next day.
Devil's Tower, Wyoming.
5ft long bull snake at Devil's Tower. Harmless to humans, it is a non-venomous constrictor that eats rodents.
As I cross into South Dakota, I see Confederate flags and lots of chrome, and nobody is returning my waves. My next stop is Mount Rushmore. I ride to the summit of 244 and see the parking garage for the monument, but I don't see the monument. I make a U turn and that's when I see Mount Rushmore. It is tiny, which is why I completely missed it as I rode by. All of the pictures you have seen of it were taken from a helicopter with a telephoto lens in good light. It is very underwhelming.
I camp in Rapid City, SD as a major thunderstorm rolls through. I deliberately leave my bike uncovered so the rain will wash some of the gunk off. I sleep right through the storm. The next morning, the rain has made a 1% improvement in the amount of grime covering my bike.
I ride east on Interstate 90 towards Badlands National Park. I see a sign for the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. It's Memorial Day, so I decide it's the perfect opportunity to go. I end up spending the whole morning there. I take a bus onto the base and tour a Minuteman II training silo. The Minuteman II missiles are all decommissioned now, but their successors still sleep under these vast prairies.
B-1 Bomber, South Dakota Air and Space Museum, taken on Memorial Day. The nose art says, "Let's Roll!"
I depart the museum and head east. Along the way, there are billboards along the Interstate advertising this amazing place called "Wall Drug". Each one of these small billboards has a factoid about the place ending in "... at Wall Drug." "See the giant T-Rex... at Wall Drug." "Giant Jackalope... at Wall Drug." "Free ice water... at Wall Drug." In one hour's time there must be one hundred of these billboards along the road. When you reach the city of Wall, the very last billboard admonishes you, "Last chance to see Wall Drug." I decide to check this place out. My mental prediction is a Cracker Barrel restaurant on acid. I am correct.
Jackalope (Jakealope?) at Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota.
I ride through Badlands National Park. The rock formations remind me of giant sandcastles that could melt at any moment. As I'm riding on a dirt road, I come across a herd of bison grazing, including a few standing right in the middle of the road. Bison scare me. Last time I checked, Firstgear does not make protection for a 2000 pound set of horns coming at you at 30 miles per hour. If one of those bulls thinks I'm threatening the herd, I'm history. So I sit and wait to see if they wander off. After five minutes of waiting, a car in the opposite direction plods along, and some of the bison scatter. I see this as my opportunity, so I gently nudge forward. The driver of the car rolls down his window and jokingly asks me, "Do you have enough padding?" "I hope so," I reply. Thankfully, the bison run off as I approach.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
Sage Creek Rim Road, Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
Bison trotting away from me in Badlands National Park. Picture taken with handlebar mount as I rode by them.
Graffiti in Custer State Park, South Dakota. No, it's not my handwriting. I don't hate Harleys, I just think it's funny.
I ride the ridiculously fun Route 16A and then through Custer State Park, SD. You could easily spend all day in Custer State Park. I visit Wind Cave National Park and tour its visitor center. I don't go into the cave (I'm still a little burned out on geology), but the visitor center has a very informative history of the ecosystem the park is preserving. It explains how 20 million bison were slaughtered almost to extinction around the year 1900 and how there are currently 200,000. I can now appreciate the lack of smiles I experienced in northeastern Arizona.
I turn south. The realization hits me that my adventure is nearing an end. Every mile under my tires brings me closer to where I started. I ride through the rolling prairies of western Nebraska. I head toward Agate ("ag-it") Fossil Beds National Monument. I want to visit this place because it's on the way, and it's kind of remote, so I think it will be rather unique. A thunderstorm is blowing in. It's cold and windy, but it hasn't started raining yet. A windmill to my right is spinning furiously trying to keep up with the wind. I look up and see a hawk above me flapping its wings, but it's not moving, it's just flapping and staying in one place. I ride quickly to the museum and learn about the fossils from the Miocene era (much later than the dinosaurs).
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument visitor's center, western Nebraska.
I leave the museum and route around the thunderstorm. I cross over into Wyoming, and on a whim take Highway 270. It turns out to be a fantastic ride through rolling hills. I also enjoy Highway 210. I've never been to Scotland, but this is what I imagine it to be: light grey mist enveloping rocky hills. What a great ride.
On my ride to breakfast the next day I immediately notice that something doesn't feel right. It feels like my shock has failed. When I look under the bike, there is oil all over the suspension linkage. I see road gunk caked on the cylinder of the shock, and I'm sure the seal has failed. That sucks.
I have 1500 more miles to go, and now I'll be doing it without suspension. After I get the shock rebuilt, I'll have to construct a flap to protect it like the F650GS guys do.
Later that day as I cross into northern Colorado, I look down and see my right windshield bolt is dangling precariously and about to fall out. Sure enough, when I downshift to pull off to the side of the road, it falls out. I walk back to pick it up and then pull off to a safe place to re-insert it. The windshield bolts of the carbureted F650 are fastened with wellnuts made out of chocolate. If I had not looked down at the exact instant I did, the bolt would have been lost. I examine the other fairing bolts and find that all of my fairing bolts are little loose, so I take the opportunity to tighten them all. When I go on another long distance trip, I'll need to set aside a day each week to tighten everything down.
I ride through Rocky Mountain National Park, and there are a lot of tourists and crass commercialism surrounding the park. There are many other amazing mountain passes you can experience in Colorado without snarled traffic.
I ride through Colorado's San Luis Valley and forgo tourist stops such as the alligator zoo and UFO observation platform on my way to Great Sands National Park nestled up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Great Sands is the last national park I will visit on my trip. There isn't much you can do with a large pile of sand, but there are nice exhibits for the kiddos.
I grind out a ten hour day of 529 miles between Raton, NM and Abilene, TX. The Texas panhandle is fairly boring except for two beautiful canyons on Highway 207 near the city of Canyon. Ten hours is about all my posterior can take. It's getting dark, and riding through the Texas hill country at dusk isn't a good idea. I'll have an easy ride home tomorrow.
Highway 207, Texas panhandle. It feels good to be back.
Today is the last day of my trip. It's an easy 3 hour ride from Abilene to Austin. I make an effort to stay focused and not let my mind wander. Flashbacks to the end of Easy Rider come to mind. It's a good thing, too: I see a truck in the opposing direction experience a blowout with a billow of smoke behind its rear tire for hundreds of feet.
As I approach Austin, I look forward to riding on 1431, a popular roller coaster ride through the Texas hill country. Then I realize there is a huge biker rally
in Austin this weekend. The hill country is clogged with chrome. I am unwittingly absorbed into a slow formation of Harleys on what is normally an isolated country road near my house. Surrounded by do-rags and wifebeater undershirts, I stand out like a radioactive circus clown. I start to hear the opening brass section to the Village People's "YMCA" in my head. Then I realize that this sort of escort into Austin is totally appropriate. Just as in Long Way Round, I ride to my final city with a cruiser escort! I stand on my foot pegs while I ride down my street. I'm home.
This experience was amazing. I learned a lot in the process. The timing was good, too. The weather was not too hot and not too cold (with the exception of northern Montana). There was a little rain, but not much. I wanted to time it so that I could see the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Had I left earlier, I would have encountered a locked gate, and if I had left later, it would have been too hot in the desert. The summer vacation season had not yet started, so attractions were not totally clogged with tourists. My National Parks Pass easily paid for itself. The only bummer was not being able to see Glacier National Park in Montana.
I see my F650 in a different light now. This trip highlighted its weaknesses. It has nothing to do with the mechanical hurdles I encountered on my trip. Those are to be expected on any long distance trip on any motorcycle. No, it wasn't that. I yearn for more fairing for wind protection, fuel injection for better mileage, ABS for increased safety, and a big engine for the highway. Don't get me wrong: the F650 is a great starter bike, and it's perfect for tootin' around Texas on weekend rides and short trips. And if I wanted to do an around-the-world trip over every kind of terrain imaginable, I would definitely choose the F650. But for long distance tarmac riding in Western Civilization with the occasional dirt road -- the kind of riding I like to do -- a boxer is the right tool for the job.
What worked well: lightweight bike cover and neoprene faceshield bag from Aerostich; spare levers; Wolfman Explorer Lite tank bag; all my Firstgear textile clothing.
What didn't work well: digital tire gauges. They don't last long. My $8 Harbor Freight model failed prior to the trip, and my $20 Aerostich model failed during the trip. I bought a nice $10 analog model from Brookstone while I was in Salt Lake City. It's built like a tank, and it allows you to adjust pressure and take a measurement at the same time. Analog tire gauges take up a little more room, but they are definitely worth it.
states visited: 10
national parks and monuments visited: 15
cost of fuel: $545
gallons of fuel used: 185
average miles per gallon: 37.8 (it's time for a carburetor rebuild)
mechanical hurdles: broken clutch lever, slashed front tire, disintegrated lower chain roller, lost footrest cover, flaky front brake switch, almost lost windshield bolt, failed rear shock.