Saturday, August 23, 2014
On your way home to your usual exit, the exit that actually wound up beginning and ending the day, you see the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile next to you, and don't find it the least bit unusual. Big city living, and all that. You honk and yell at a woman in her oversized SUV who drifts over into your lane while playing on her portable electronic device. A freeway, for crying out loud!
You eat donuts with your kids, get back on the bike and head to the northwest side of town to go have lunch with your Gypsy brothers for a couple of hours. Good times with good friends.
You leave to go back down to the medical center to go spend time with a family whose son is on life support. You wish you had just the right words, but you also know that the most important part of the visit is just showing up. Just be present. Show love.
You leave there and ride down to Galveston to meet your family and your family friends who drove down for the weekend. Ride through a little patch of rain in crazy traffic with everyone wanting to go down to the beach. Hold on to that one last bit of summer. It rains on you for a few minutes, just enough to cool you off while rolling down pavement hotter than a cast iron toilet seat in West Texas.
It is a hot day mixed with clouds, and the salty air coming off the Gulf of Mexico is growing more apparent as you get closer. You can almost hear the sound of the waves over the sound of the motor.
On the highway you do a little over the speed limit at a couple of points to get out of the packs of cars that seem to cluster around 18-wheelers like the fish that swim beside Great White Sharks, and then once past, ease back for a nice ride. No hurry. Ease your mind.
You get to the beach, shed your clothes and gear in exchange for your swimsuit, and then sit on the beach for a couple of hours. Ease your mind a little more.
Back on the bike to a good restaurant on the seawall with your family and friends. Fried shrimp and all that good stuff.
On the bike one more time for the ride back up into the city. The sky is blue. Everyone with the same goal. Home. Take the proper roads as the sun continues to slide down the dome of the sky toward the horizon.
And before you know it, you are back at the same exit where you started the morning. No wienermobile, no one texting while driving, and the lane opens up for you at just the right time. Same exit, but the world has changed just a little bit.
Just another day in paradise.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
It's like the thought of not riding my bike to work. You know you're a biker when getting in a car makes you frustrated. And I don't use that word "biker" loosely, I assure you. It's a description of daily activity, not a title you win and then decide to get a tattoo.
I have a brother down south who owns an independent motorcycle shop who goes on rides you measure by thousands of miles. He went to Utah earlier this year, and as a like-minded biker, starts dreaming about the next journey while still on the ride home.
This is not something you can purchase at a store.
Another brother who works at NASA opens his garage in the morning and rides to work as a second-nature reflex; it's not even a choice most of the time. You just do it. That's biker.
Up in South Dakota and Wyoming earlier this month, the place was littered with motorcycle owners who had no business going through the mountains in the rain. I apologize to you, O faithful reader, if that sounds a tad judgmental. Because I don't want it to sound a tad judgmental; I want it to sound very judgmental.
You got a Harley last week? Cool. Put it on a trailer and cart it up to Sturgis. Then break it in doing technical riding in the rain. Sheesh. Not good. Although we had a great time, many in the crew I ride with agreed that if we ever go back, it will be at times other than the rally. Those roads are meant to be ridden in peace.
At the risk of this essay sounding self-congratulatory, the main point is inviting others who identify with this impulse to simply say, "Yeah, that describes me."
Because I know plenty who will. And I know plenty who won't. And that's okay. (I guess?) At least it floods the market with barely-ridden Harleys.
Now I'm craving homemade cake, a freshly-ground cup of coffee, and a ride out to Big Bend. All three are good. And not everybody likes such things. And that's okay, too. As my brother, Goldfinger, is fond of quoting his grandfather, "If everyone liked the same thing, they'd all be after your grandmother."
Friday, August 15, 2014
My wife was on the bike with me. We felt the rumble strips just to the right of the painted line, placed there evenly to wake up sleeping drivers. Didn't work.
The bike is still running. This won't take long.
My lady raises her voice. She's not yelling, but her voice carries a frantic sense of urgency.
"What are you doing?"
I don't respond.
"I know," I reply calmly and matter-of-fact. This was not a piece of information I lacked.
"Hey! You're peeing."
I don't get it. Why am I being coached on this?
And then I realized that I was not on the road, but standing by the window on my wife's side of the bed right there in our bedroom. Not in South Dakota. But back in the good old United States of Texas.
But wait. I'm on the side of the road.
No, I'm not. I'm peeing on the bedroom floor.
This is what 4,129 miles in two weeks does to the brain. You keep trying to come home from Oz saying, "There's no place like home." And there's not. But there's also no place like the road. The body is back, but the mind is still out there somewhere.
Thursday, August 14, 2014
This morning as I rode to work, I passed the usual smells of garlic, seafood, and onions wafting out of the dining establishments on my route. The yellow brick road has morphed back into daily asphalt and people in their cages rushing to work ten minutes late. It is a far cry from a path called "7" in Colorado.
A little over two weeks ago I had just finished my Iron Butt in Castle Rock, Colorado, but still had a couple of hundred miles to go into Estes Park where the first leg of my vacation began. I stood there in the gas station parking lot drinking a much needed bottle of water, but actually looking forward to getting back on the bike. Some of us just cannot get enough.
I pushed my way through Denver, just another busy road in another busy city. As much as I love Colorado, a city is a city. But after breaking through to the other side, with the mountains in the west calling me to come play, I stopped for a quick lunch in Frederick near the Harley dealership. Because after all, when you have been on the road for 1200 miles in 27 hours, the first thing that comes to mind is to go look at motorcycles. It's a quirk I have just learned to embrace.
Back onto I-25 for a few minutes, but now for the western cut-across to Lyons on 66.
Mountains staring you in the face. Cloudy day. Air beginning to cool. A little private lake at the base of the mountain you're about to climb, a harbinger of beauty to come.
My original intent was to wind my way up 36 straight into Estes Park. But with the severe flooding last year, 36 was closed. Great. Now what?
The friendly sign read, "Detour 7." Good enough. Let's go get lost and see what we can see.
When Dorothy's house landed on the water-susceptible witch's sister at the entry to the yellow brick road, little did she know that her detour would become the most memorable road of her life. And while your faithful author will gladly admit that his comparison to Dorothy is both overstated and ridiculous, there is at least a hint of truth when I tell you that the detour up 7 became one of my favorite rides ever. (I told you I would say that a lot in these post-journey essays.)
A thin, two-lane, twisty road beside a white river flowing down through the canyon. A motorcycle that I swear I sensed was smiling as we went against the current on our way up. A couple of stops for pictures.
You get a little lost going through town, stop at the visitor's center just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, get your bearings, and head to the house where the family will stay for the week.
And you know that home is waiting somewhere back where there are cows to milk and porches to sweep. You know it will be a "There and Back Again" journey. They all are. Just depends on how willing you are to be gone, and then come back to the place you know is like no other place.
So we create. And we know that many days are filled with routines, like riding to work through clouds of garlic, and cagers who won't put down their phones no matter how much we beg and plead.
But the detours through Oz remind us how wonderful moments like this can be. Sitting in an office grateful for the day. Images of your bike up on the mountain. And images of your bike in its everyday parking space just outside your window.
One is greater than the other.
Monday, August 11, 2014
I hit the button marked "TRIP" at my left thumb while we were riding out of South Dakota into Wyoming on a beautiful little road outside Belle Fourche where John Wayne once drove fictional cattle. ("Belle Fourche" means "beautiful fork." Deep meaning, indeed.) My trip meter read "5007." Halfway to 10,000. There has to be a truth in there somewhere.
I had already spent the previous two days exploring Wyoming, but not this particular road. Plus, I was riding beside my brother, Goldfinger, along with a host of other Gypsys going out to what would be one of our farthest points from home. (Yes, in our MC that's the proper plural of "Gypsy.")
Devil's Tower is about 1,500 miles from my house, although it was much longer according to the backroads that landed me there gawking at something that truly deserves to be called a "natural wonder." But the number that got my attention was 5007.
This monstrosity of rock that you begin to see from miles away stands where many different lands converge. From Devil's Tower in Wyoming, you are not far from Montana or either of the Dakotas. It feels like a place where things come together, which was certainly true for this adventurer. But little did I know when I began this 10,000 mile project that the halfway point would wind up being an "out-and-back" journey.
It's what Bilbo Baggins experienced on his "there and back again" quest. (The book, by the way; not the awful movie.) And it's what Dorothy experienced when she reached her farthest point in Oz. The simple truth that when you take out on an epic journey, you reach a point when you long for home.
As I rode handlebar-to-handlebar with Goldfinger at the back of the pack out to Devil's Tower, it suddenly occurred to me that I had taken a piece of home with me. Most of us who converged on Sturgis all live within an hour of one another. But there we were on the there-and-back-again journey far from where any of us call home.
That's when everything came together for me. Everything converged. I had reached the farthest point, and now it was time to start making my way back. And when we all finally got home, it was with different eyes.
"Home" means many things. For many of us wayward children, it does not mean the place where you grew up. That's actually the last place I would ever want to return. No, "home" is where you feel safest and most secure.
In some ways, every time I get on Rocinante and start the motor, I'm home. But I also know deep down that the stable where she sleeps most nights is the place where my family also sleeps, where my chair that I'm sitting in now on my typical Monday day off is always waiting, where my grumpy tomcat sleeps by the window when he's not hollering for food. It's where a cup of ice water is readily available. And it's where I can bask in the memory of an epic journey that still has a few more miles to go.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Earlier that morning I left Estes Park, Colorado. It was 48 degrees, so I bundled up in everything with long sleeves I had with me, only to shed layers as I booked it up I-25 into Wyoming.
Once I made my way up the entrance ramp onto I-25, a group of 12 motorcycles flew before my eyes at what appeared to be breakneck speed. But since the speed limits vary between 75 and 80, I caught up to them sooner than I thought.
This will be the ride to Sturgis. Fast. Lots of bikes. Not really, come to find out. But that's what I pictured.
Going through traffic was easier for a while with the group of bikes. Much respect to the Castle Pines Motorcycle Club for inviting me to ride with them for a while.
Once we went our separate ways, it took hours to get to Casper, Wyoming on the highway. Wyoming is a big state with no shortage of wide-open spaces. This would turn out to be an all-day ride, but it had a few surprises that left me exhilarated and exhausted.
When I arrived in Shoshoni, I stopped for gas and a bottle of water, what would become a routine combination for the remainder of my trip. I had no idea when I headed north from Shoshoni what I was about to see.
A canyon runs for about ten miles, but it was some of the coolest riding I have ever done. (I will say that a lot in articles to come, by the way.) This canyon that popped up out of nowhere is cut by a fast-running river. And alongside the river is a set of railroad tracks. Just a stunning view.
I have learned my lesson. Stop in a pulloff, put on your rain gear. Done. Get back on, and ride through Thermopolis, Wyoming in a pouring summer shower. Hot rain that makes you sweat and shiver. And then when it stops, you ride back into the sunshine where the world's biggest sauna steams you like overcooked rice.
Stop again. Peel the rainsuit. Get back on. Ride up to Greybull.
Check in to the hotel-cabins. Walk to the grocery store for some Fig Newtons. Walk to the A&W, which brings us full circle to this particular story.
Returning home last night after an epic 4000+ mile journey over two weeks, I could still feel my body moving as my head hit the pillow. Over 1,600 of those miles got covered over my three-day leg all the way across South Dakota, down the length of Iowa and Missouri, across Route 66 through Oklahoma, and then all the way down Texas. Plenty more to write about, but this is enough for the moment. Much more to come.
I woke up this morning still a little buzzed from all that time on the road. But I will admit that one of the first things I thought when I finished making coffee was, "I wonder how far it is to Key West?"
Monday, August 4, 2014
Saturday, August 2, 2014
I could not get over how big the Wyoming sky is. Rode 475 miles from Estes Park, Colorado to Greybull, Wyoming today. It is obvious that the State of Wyoming knows that thousands of motorcyclists are coming through their state on the way to Sturgis. All the electronic signs on the highway said the same thing:
Motorcycles Are Everywhere
Save A Life
From this one biker, thank you. I loved your rolling plains. I loved the plateaus, hills, and especially the magnificent canyon just north of Shoshoni. Your state is awesome, and I loved spending the day riding through it.
Friday, August 1, 2014
This rather uninteresting picture was taken at Mile 1,012 at a gas station in Castle Rock, CO at the end of my Iron Butt attempt. Let's just say that not everything went according to plan.
It is about a thousand miles from Houston, Texas to Castle Rock, Colorado. My goal was to ride it in 24 hours. After it was over, a friend emailed me and asked me what temperatures I ran into. I offered him a simple reply.
“All of them.”
Just passed the halfway point, the plan was to stop in Amarillo, Texas where my family would be waiting to spend the night. The Iron Butt was actually just an excuse to get to Colorado for our family vacation as fast as possible. But if I had to ride that far, I might as well try. Even though some people said I should try it under different circumstances, all at once, and so forth, I was going to make the attempt whether I completed it in time or not.
The Iron Butt Association—(a real thing, seriously)—awards riders who document a 1,000 mile ride in less than 24 hours. They have very strict rules about documenting your stops with receipts from your gas stops and a detailed map of your route. I planned through all such things prior to the trip, but the trip had other plans.
Not quite two hours into the ride, I stopped for a moment in Centerville, Texas for a bottle of water for me, and a fresh drink of premium gasoline for Rocinante. Pull her up to the modern, computerized stable of our day, insert the credit card, and treat her to an expensive drink.
We get back on Interstate 45, which is a miserable ride no matter how philosophically willing you are to see the beauty in the world. It’s just not that much fun.
I crested a hill—(Texas-speak for a slight rise in the road)—to see the car-train just ahead of me all light up their red taillights at once.
By then, I was a little more than two hours into the journey when the highway not only came to stop, but was completely shut down.
Since I was pretty far back, I decided to scoot along the shoulder to see firsthand what I was up against. As I rounded a slight bend in the road, I saw the giant plume of smoke rising into the sky. As I got closer to the scene where the cop car was pulled diagonally across both lanes blocking all traffic, I could see that this was not good.
It was some sort of wreck. I could not see it, but the smoke and huge fire up ahead said this was going to take a while. The grass between the highway and shoulder was too thick to ride across. Plus, the shoulder was completely shut down as well.
Turn off the bike, throw the kickstand, take off my helmet.
Stand there in the 100-degree sun.
Not a good start.
I called my wife to give her the bad news that I was going to be late to Amarillo, at best. Wait, and then wait some more. Stand around looking at the people getting out of their cars. A congregation of frustrated, overheated travelers.
Finally, the cars up ahead began to move. I put on my helmet quickly, started up, and slowly creeped onto the access road with the other travelers. Up the access road for a mile where we all made the procession beside a flatbed 18-wheeler loaded down with tons of smoldering hay.
A little more up the access road. Back onto the highway.
I looked at the clock. An hour had passed. Not good.
Getting through Fort Worth was a chore. Riding up to Wichita Falls was about as entertaining as watching an old episode of “My Mother the Car.” Never heard of it? Then you get the point.
I detailed the hot ride from Wichita Falls to Childress earlier about the swimming pool fantasy filled with cold watermelon, so we will move on to Amarillo where I met the family at a cheap hotel. Not much to report other than the fact that I arrived an hour later than planned.
Spent that day from 11:46 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. with Rocinante. Just a little over 600 miles.
Take a shower. Get in bed. And don’t sleep much.
After falling asleep for maybe a good two hours, the alarm interrupted my dream at 4:40 a.m. In order to allow myself the one-hour cushion for the 24-hour deadline, I needed to leave Amarillo at 5:00 a.m. That would give me just under seven hours to put down 400 miles.
And here's where the trip got interesting.
It was bone dry as I loaded my bike, but the radar on my trusty wayback machine showed a huge storm just up the road. I put on my full rainsuit, boot covers, and helmet, started the bike, and off we went.
Before I made it to the north side of Amarillo, the rain started falling. Not gently with a kind introduction. No. What my grandmother used to call a “gully-washer.”
The streetlights of northern Amarillo slowly disappeared in my rearview mirrors, and nothing but dark roads lay ahead. Then, he darkness was pierced by fierce lightning lighting up the sky in front of me, first high in the sky, and soon giant bolts that looked as though they were aiming straight for the highway.
The rain fell hard. The lightning fell harder. But I just pushed forward. The next town was over thirty miles ahead, so I hoped for the best.
Have you ever had the experience where the lightning in front of you becomes the lightning beside you becomes the lightning behind you? And just when you breathe a sigh of relief, a huge bolt crashes down just a few miles in front of you. That happened twice before I rolled into the next town.
Dumas, Texas is a collection of motels and gas stations. Nothing much to it. It’s main claim to fame for those of us who travel from Texas to Colorado is that it is the place you turn left to Dalhart.
So that’s what I did.
Turn left onto a tiny two-lane road that connects Dumas and Dalhart right on the northern edge of Texas that smells like wet cattle.
The rain continues.
I was doing about five miles per hour over the speed limit, in the dark, in the rain. I know it sounds foolish, but when riding in conditions like that, all you can think about is punching through to the other side of the storm. But when the car approaching you meets you, and you see the car’s brake lights come on in your mirrors and then turn around, the only thing you think is, “I’m about to get pulled over.”
He turned around, approached me, followed me for five miles, and then turned back around and headed in his earlier direction back toward Dumas. In my mind, here is how I played out the scenario.
“Hey, Joe, do you want to pull this guy over?”
“We’re going to have to stand out in the rain.”
“Yeah, let’s just let him go.”
That’s what happened. At least that’s my version of the story.
I pulled into a Chevron/McDonald’s in Dalhart, Texas. I was cold, but not horribly so. The rainsuit and boot covers were doing their jobs. But I needed to layer a little more, and get some coffee.
I was pretty upset when I looked at the clock and realized it had taken me two hours to travel 90 miles. In order to finish the Iron Butt on time, I would have to do a little over 300 miles in four-and-a-half hours.
Average 66 mph for four-and-a-half hours, and you get your Iron Butt.
This is not going to be easy.
Let's go. That bike's not going to ride itself.
As I crossed the border from Texline, Texas into “Absolutely Nothing, New Mexico,” I read the sign that welcomed me:
“Welcome to New Mexico, Land of Enchantment”
But what they do not share with you on the sign is that New Mexico Highway 87 is a straight shot that basically gets you to Colorado. And from Texline, Texas to Raton, New Mexico, the ride was “enchanting” in a most interesting way.
As soon as I crossed into the Land of Enchantment, I immediately renamed it, “Land of Fog.” I was relieved that the rain stopped, but the air grew colder. I ducked down behind my detachable windshield, and screwed the throttle to 80 mph. Just get across.
The rolling fog was the most interesting scenery on this bare corner of land. No billboards. No animals. Only one small town. But mostly a whole lot of nothing. Nothing. Since it was first thing in the morning, I had New Mexico all to myself. Seriously. I never passed a single car for two hours, and none passed me. I met a few vehicles obviously hightailing it back to Texas, but only a few. But going my way? Nobody.
As I got closer to Raton that shoves you up into Colorado, the mountains started to stand up tall out of the flat ground. As I climbed in elevation, at one point I noticed that I was riding above the clouds ahead of me. Maybe that’s what they mean by “Land of Enchantment.” Because to a man who lives at sea level on the Texas Gulf Coast, let’s just say this was a new experience.
Over the pass into Trinidad, Colorado. Stop for gas, and look at the clock. I am making good time, but maybe not good enough. I had just ridden 148 miles in about two-and-a-half hours. Good, but there was more road ahead. Everything would have to fall right into place. Right at 160 more miles, but only another two-and-a-half more hours before the deadline. It should be fine. I made great time blazing across New Mexico. If I can hammer down at 80 with no interruptions, I can make it.
So I thought.
As soon as I left Trinidad, the winding roads down the mountains slowed me down a bit more than I anticipated. The road finally straightened, the speed limit went back up to 75, and on I rode. But when I made it to Pueblo, Colorado, the moron who designed the Interstate right through town, twisting and weaving at 50-55 mph, obviously had no regard whatsoever for my own little Cannonball Run against the clock.
After finally making it through that armpit of I-25, I put the hammer back down at 80 and leaned forward like when Superman decides to speed up.
Every few miles I’m checking the clock, checking the trip meter. I think I’m going to make it. A countdown against miles, a countdown against time.
Hills and mountains fly by on my left, prairies fly by on my right. Things are going fast, just as I need them to go.
But then Colorado Springs.
Just as I thought I was through Colorado Springs, I looked down at my trip meter. It told me I was at 985 miles. Hit the button a couple of times and read the clock. Just 45 minutes to go before the deadline passes. That’s when all the taillights in front of me light up, and traffic comes to a dead standstill.
This cannot be happening.
Highway workers have cones set up taking three lanes down to two… then to one. I have a decision to make. Lane split or just go with the flow. Since lane splitting was going to have to include an uneven lane with grooved pavement on one side and two inches of raised asphalt on the other, I knew that I really had no options.
Push forward. Just push.
Ten minutes later the traffic opened up. I leaned over all the way to the fast lane and twisted the throttle as far as it would go.
Come on, Rocinante.
I left my trip meter on the display and watched the countdown.
Time was running out, but I think I can make it.
Twenty-five minutes to the deadline. I start scanning the exits.
Where’s an exit?!
Nowhere to stop for gas.
Edge of Castle Rock.
Exit ahead. Gas and food.
19 minutes until the deadline.
I pull up to the intersection. No gas station.
“Where’s the gas station?!” I shout out loud.
I look left under the overpass. Nothing.
I look right. Fast food places. Shopping centers. But no gas station.
Just go. Turn right.
Go about a quarter mile. And there it is. The gas station.
I pull in. Don’t even take off my helmet. Pump a tiny amount of gas to get the evidence on the printed receipt.
Put the nozzle back in place.
“Do you want a receipt?” the Hal 9000 asks me.
“YES!” I shout as I push the button.
The receipt spits out, and I look at the time.
10:30 a.m. (11:30 a.m. back at my starting point.)
Sixteen minutes to spare.
I did it!
But then... it almost all fell apart. At least that’s how it felt.
The Iron Butt Association requires you to have an eyewitness who signs a document saying they saw you in said place where your 1000-mile-plus journey finishes. They also require the eyewitness to give his or her name, address, and phone number. And if you have ever walked up to a stranger at a gas station while you are wearing full motorcycle gear and MC colors asking for their personal information… well… let’s just say that the good Iron Butt administrators really didn’t think that one through.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began. “I just finished a thousand mile ride from Houston.”
“The motorcycling community gives an award if you can document the ride. Will you please sign this document saying you saw me here in Castle Rock, Colorado, and give them your name and contact information.”
“I really don’t like giving that out.”
“I understand. But I promise this is not a scam.”
But he wouldn’t budge.
Now mind you, I probably would be just as reticent. In these days of identity theft, lack of trust, and indifference in helping your fellow man, giving your phone number to a road-weary stranger is not an easy pill to swallow.
But since I was on a deadline, I had no sympathy for the devil. I ran inside, waited behind a customer in front of me in the convenience store line, and then walked forward to the young clerk there at the counter.
“I just finished a thousand mile ride from Houston, Texas, and--”
Before I could continue, he responded, “Wow, man, that’s awesome.”
“I need you to verify that I was here at this specific time. Will you please write down the address here at this gas station, give the phone number here, and sign your name?”
"Of course! Glad to help!"
And that's it.
* Going around Rocky Mountain National Park for four-out-of-five days is better on a motorcycle.
* My daughter rode with me, making all kinds of observations, including today when she said that the Aspen trees reminded her of all the bikers as we waved at each other: We're all different, but have the same roots. (I thought that was pretty cool.)
* My son rode with me most of this last day today in the park, and started talking about how he wants his own bike when he gets older. His mother told him that would be okay, as long as he took the time to learn like his dad.
* My sister-in-law asked to go with me up to Bear Lake this morning where we met the rest of the family. I was a little surprised, but Rocinante and I were happy to oblige. I think she had a great time.
* My wife and I rode all the way across Rocky Mountain National Park to have an anniversary lunch in Grand Lake. It was a great way to spend the day.
* And finally... Spending all week riding around this part of our country made me even prouder to be an American. When people from other countries come see the beauty of "This Land is Our Land," I am proud to be a part of it. It seems like so many people in the U.S.A. these days complain about all sorts of things having to do with our country. But when you ride a motorcycle out into the Rockies, it helps put into perspective one of the main things that makes our country so great. Namely, it just looks so good.