- Category: Motorcycling
Author's note: The following is more a personal diary, a memoir, than it is a piece for public enjoyment. As such, it may seem long-winded and trivial. It was important for me to record my thoughts while they were fresh in my mind, and here they are.
Day 1 was June 21, 2006. We covered over 4400 miles in eight of ten days, riding on 2002 and 2004 Suzuki GSF Bandit 1200S motorcycles.
For some reason, probably ego, I allowed my riding partner Shane to talk me into doing 1000 miles the first day. The idea was to earn our Iron Butt Association SaddleSore 1000 certification and to get the rather mundane ride across western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota behind us quickly. I was anxious about the plan. We'd ridden several 600 mile days without much trouble, and at least one of them was in high heat and included extensive delays over freshly laid asphalt. It wasn't pleasant, so I had concerns about how tough this day would be. I planned meticulously, even purchasing a Camelbak for my tankbag. I'd take no chances with dehydration. I rebuilt my Bandit's seat with memory foam (actually laminate flooring underlayment, but it seemed to work) and strapped on a cut-down beaded seat cover. I figured for 8 bucks I could throw it away if it didn't work.
I have few photos from that day - there was little time to spare. We left at 4 a.m., rode as far as we could before buttburn set in, stopped for gas, and took off again. I had packed two pop-top tubs of Chef Boyardee for quick nourishment and ate one cold at 9 a.m. My new GPS unit, a Garmin Quest 2, kept me informed in brilliant color of our progress. I started noting the 100-mile increments... under 900... under 800... and so on. One step at a time, and keep shifting the weight on my rear.
By late afternoon the day already seemed long. We still had hundreds of miles to go. My body wanted me to find a soft booth at a restaurant and stare at the wall for a while. My mind was pestering me with the knowlege that the longer we stop the later we'll arrive. We couldn't be late because all our reservations for the next 10 days depended on keeping this schedule.
So we rode, and we kept our stops to a minimum length. At a rest stop in Wyoming we watched a thunderstorm skirt our route to the northeast. Cool downdrafts and a few oversized raindrops gave me a nervous feeling. Riding in windy, wet conditions would only make the day more trying. We switched our mesh jackets for our waterproof ones and hit the road. Within minutes it was sunny and warm again. The threat had passed, but now I was overdressed and getting sweaty.
We pulled into Billings, Montana as the last of the daylight faded and more thunderstorms formed around us. We took the time to eat a restaurant meal, or as close as the 50's-themed diner could offer. We had about 70 miles to go yet, so we pulled on our rain gear before we left. The first few miles were wet, but the rain soon ended and we pulled into Red Lodge just after 11 p.m. local time.
20 hours and 1029 miles. We'd done it. We drearily slogged our luggage into the condo that a friend of a friend coincidentally had access to and crashed. It was quite an accomplishment, but it was only the beginning of our ride. The first day of ten.
The next morning was sunny and warm and we saw out the windows the mountains we'd be riding over that day. The ride up the Beartooth Highway was as I'd remembered from a previous trip, though this time we went at it the opposite way, heading west from Red Lodge and toward Yellowstone Park.
The view is shocking on the way up, and the summit is positively breathtaking. It was cool, almost cold with the wind, and there was more snow this year than normal. Drifts appeared often and some of the mountains were still mostly covered. Downhill skiers often use this area into June, and this year they'd likely have snow all summer. We spoke for a bit with a gentleman on a Yamaha FJR who had left his party behind in Colorado to ride the Beartooth.
We stopped for lunch and a break in Cooke City, one of the snowiest places in the country with an average of 500 inches. It's at 7700 feet and nestled between several high mountains. We were told by our restaurant server that the area had gotten over twice the average snowfall the past winter. That explained the drifts up top. The pace is slower there, as it is throughout much of Montana. We needed to be in Helena at a reaonable hour, so we got rolling right away. The entrance to Yellowstone is just a few miles west.
Once in the park, we quickly discovered that tourist traffic would be a problem. We had planned on taking the southern route and seeing Yellowstone Lake, but we had left late that morning and were behind schedule.
The Gallatin Canyon, west of Yellowstone and south of Bozeman, is one of those places that holds significance from my childhood. I grew up in Bozeman, and my family spent many days camping, hiking, hunting and logging there. Every time I travel highway 191 I feel like I'm home, somehow. The ride northward in the early evening was peaceful and serene, with the sunny midday giving way to a cool, dim evening behind the mountains. I stoped at the Greek Creek campground because I always do and spent a moment gazing up the mountainside to where I hunted elk so many autumns ago.
We broke out into the Gallatin Valley as sunset neared and headed up I90 toward Helena, leaving the big "M" on the Bridger range behind us. We took highway 69 north as dusk came and a young mule deer bounded across the road, reminding us to keep a sharp eye on the ditches. The silhouttes of mountain ranges lingered against the sky long after dark. We arrived in Helena after 11 p.m. local time, spent an hour catching up with my family there, and crashed.
I spent Day 3 with my Aunt Teresa, Uncle Tom and their four children while Shane rode on to Kalispell to visit some of his family. He rode through Glacier National Park on the way.
The following morning we said so-long to our respective hosts and made our way to a rendezvous in Missoula, where we fueled the Bandits and headed southwest toward Lolo Pass, reknowned by motorcyclists as a premier riding experience. It was. For some 70 miles, highway 12 in Idaho follows the Selway river as it collects tributaries and grows to a wide, green kayakers haven, winding endlessly in thirty to sixty mph sweepers and 200 degree hairpins. We stopped several times to let our brains breathe. It takes constant concentration to ride Lolo vigorously, any lapse in focus risking a ride into a guardrail or worse. The road was clean and smooth, though, and we had a grand time, stopping for lunch at a local diner whose specialty was huckleberry pie.
Once out of the pass we took a heavily switchbacked ride upward from the river and into Grangeville on 13, where the terrain opened up into a wide, flat grassland between mountain ranges. We bumped into a solo rider on a Triumph 955i who was headed back the way we had come, a brave soul to whom I suggested that if he missed a turn up there no one would know for a good long time. He promised to be careful.
Once we crossed the farmland we encountered one of the most bizarre and intriguing features of the trip. After climbing a low mountain pass, we suddenly could see an impossibly long, winding terrace cut into the bare mountain ahead of us. It was the descent into Hell's Canyon, and it was truly startling. With grades of seven and eight percent, sweeping curves and high speed limits, it was almost intimidating to ride. Periodic runaway truck ramps reminded us how treacherous this stretch could be. Stopping at a scenic overlook for photos, I noticed how much longer it took to brake on this steep road. The semi-trucks roaring by gave me a chill up my spine. One wrong move here....
Hell's Canyon was hot. And dry. Even with my mesh jacket I was baking in the sun. After climbing and decending so many passes over the previous days, I found myself having trouble judging the pitch of the road. Hell's Canyon created an illusion that instilled vertigo; while I was sure I was still decending into it, the river on my right was flowing toward me. This went on for miles, and I kept looking at my GPS to verify that we were, in fact, ascending. The pressure on my seat and wrists had me believing I was leaning downhill, yet the water flowed rearward. It was almost unsettling. The canyon got tighter and tigher until the curves in the road required a good bit of lean. Great riding, but the heat and the scenery fought for my attention, too.
The rest of Day 4 had us crossing vast plains between mountain ranges in central Idaho. I kept thinking of Napoleon Dynamite and his pre-dance jog across no-man's land. It was almost comical to see the sleepy towns that had attempted to appear so warm and friendly with floral decorations and fancy lightposts, yet their only residents were the local ranchers and a few shopkeepers, probably counting on folks like us to make a sale.
We arrived that evening at our first campsite of the trip, the KOA in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was less of a campsite than a trailer park. In fact, it abutted a trailer park and was within roadkill-splatter distance of the interstate. Not what I'd call camping, anyway, but it was after dark and we just wanted sleep. We set up the tent by headlight (not our first time doing that, by the way), and tried to fall asleep with the noise of the traffic alongside. On that note, this particular KOA gets the following ratings: Location - 0 stars (out of 5); quietness - 0 stars; scenery - 0 stars. It was a cheap place to sleep and nothing more, and we might have preferred one of the grassy fields we'd seen earlier.
As we approached Elko, Nevada, we saw what looked like a mountain rain shower ahead. Soon it was apparent that this wasn't rain. Nevada had been suffering a drought for some time, and there were wildfires all over the state. The smoke from the fire near Elko completely engulfed the town at one point, with flecks of ash falling like light snow. We saw many such smoky areas over the next day's ride.
More sage valleys and mountain passes. The tight canyons in the Duck Valley Reservation were fantastic riding. At one point, red cricket-like insects (chicadas?) were flocking to the road surface. They were apparently cannibalistic, and wherever a number of them were flattened by traffic, more collected. The tire tracks in the road were rusty red from the massacre. As Shane rode ahead of me he parted his own Red Sea, with the chunky bugs leaping outward in waves away from his passing tires, only a foot or so. I laughed in my helmet.
Onward across the folded surface of the Earth we rode, until the last mild mountain pass before our destination. As we crested the hill just before West Wendover, Nevada, what we saw dropped both our jaws.
Spread out ahead of us, and as far as the hazy air allowed us to see, was a perfectly flat, starkly white plain - the remains of the prehistoric salt lake. Again I laughed in my helmet. I'd expected to see some amazing things on this ride, but this one blew my mind. I simply had no idea it was coming.
The second campground on this trip, another KOA at West Wendover, was a big improvement. While it was still within earshot of the interstate, it at least had a good view of the salt flat and the strange buttes and peaks jutting from it. This is a desert region, so there's no grass for the tent sites. Instead, they provide an area of sand bordered by railroad ties. Crude, but effective. We just hoped the wind didn't pick up overnight and pull our tentstakes from their soft moorings.
For the first time on this trip we arrived at our destination well before dark, so we hung our hammocks on the dividers between the sites and relaxed. Later we walked up to the local Pizza Hut. We ate too much and I had a beer or two, neither of which helped my dehydration problem. Oh, well. Can't go on this huge of a journey without enjoying a cold one at least once.
Day 6 began somewhat as the previous had ended, but the sage gave way to roasted brown grass and the mountains began to change. As we approached the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, the limestone abruptly turned red. The hills were suddenly worn away into deep, horizontal striations of varying stone density. Tall structures stood over pyramids of rubble and sand. The road took us under a stone archway and alongside a clear, green river. It was beautiful and I stopped repeatedly to take photos, finding myself passing the same tour buses and guide vans several times.
We arrived at our hotel before dark and had a meal at Ruby's, a local tourist complex not unlike countless others across the country bearing different founders' names. We relaxed a bit at the hotel and pondered the next day's ride. It was supposed to be a loop down to the Grand Canyon, but the North Rim was closed due to wildfire. Zion Park's status was in question for the same reason. We decided that we'd ride the 18 miles into Bryce Canyon and spend the day hiking the area. After 3000 miles, a day of using our leg muscles sounded inviting.
Bryce is incredible. It's not as big, or tall, or exhilerating as some of the other sights around the world, but for someone who appreciates change on a geologic timescale, it's astounding. The sculpting of the limestone by flowing streams and hundreds of thousands of rainshowers is just spectacular, and the rusty red from the high iron content adds to the mystique.
On the morning of Day 7 we rode to the head of the canyon, read the tourist informational displays and walked a short loop around the area. That done, and with plenty of day left, we decided to walk the 3.2 mile loop down to a springside campsite in the bottom of the canyon. I'd say it was Shane's idea, but I'll admit that I was enthusiastic too.
At the bottom we took a short snack break, and then headed back up. Shane was still confident that this would be an easy stroll, but when I next encountered him he was dripping sweat and quite red in the face. Seems the combined altitude and heat were more than he expected. Still, he good-naturedly churned on and the two of us huffed back out to the top. We'd covered about 8 miles in just a few hours. Not bad for a pair of flabby Minnesotans.
In the parking lot at the summit and on the park turnouts were a number of touring bikes, mostly in pairs; some BMWs and KTMs and a few mismatched combinations of STs, Katanas, a Ninja 250, and several V-stroms. It was a departure from the hordes of Harleys and other cruisers we'd seen in South Dakota and Montana on the interstates. This was area offering a different type of riding for a different type of rider. I found myself wishing I was on a bike with some dirt capability, but there wasn't time this year anyway.
Riding down the canyon we encountered some cool rain showers - the kind that frequent areas with dramatic elevation change. Soon we were below them and the sun vaporized the moisture into the steamy air.
Back at the hotel, we cranked up the air conditioning and turned on some old movie or another. A few minutes later, I noticed a guy eyeing up the Bandits, which I'd made a point to park right out our window. I walked out the door and asked whether he rode. He said he did, and that he owned a Blackbird which he'd sorely missed on the road in that morning. He was on vacation with his family... in a minivan. We struck up chatting about bikes and the roads in the area. He asked me whether I ever visited Sport-Touring.net. I told him sure I did! Turns out he's "Jetpilot5" of July, 2006 STN calendar fame! He'd also recognized my handle from Maximum-Suzuki. He mentioned that he'd considered a Bandit as a more ergonomically accommodating alternative to his Honda, which he found to be a bit cramped at times. I offered a ride, which he accepted, though I get the impression he's after a bit more sophistication in a machine. We ended up talking on several occasions, and he introduced me to his lovely wife. Both are fun people and I'm thrilled to have met a forum aquaintence on the road.
Day 8 began with some phenomenal riding and phenomenal scenery on 12 and 24 in southern Utah, through the Grand Staircase National Monument area. This day later proved to be the ride of my recent dreams. I've thought for several years that I'd like to see the desert canyons of the southwest, and here I was.
The rock formations were more solid here and as though the river cleaned away the debris as it carved. It looked like you could ride a skateboard all over, though I'm not a 'boarder, so what do I know?
It was hard to keep my eyes on the road. At one point we were riding a ridge where the mountainside sloped off sharply to both sides. It was a hair-raising moment and I didn't mind being stuck behind the tour bus.
Before long we were into Colorado and the desert heat. One long stretch through a sparsely metropolitan area was especially miserable. We stopped several times to cool off, me wetting my shirt before putting my jacket back on. Just when I thought the day would end that way, we discovered green, pine-covered mountains again. We found ourselves at astounding altitudes while still on the interstate. The Johnson tunnel took us through the top of a mountain at over 10,000 feet, in heavy traffic. Down the other side we faced an absurdly steep decent, with semi trucks downshifting on the right and everyone else trying to get around on the left. Where to go? I didn't really like the thought of hitting 80 going down that steep of a hill. It would take forever to stop if I had to!
The day's ride was among the best on our trip, and it culminated at Buena Vista, Colorado, a small town nestled (like so many are) between mountain ranges and flanked by grassy meadows. It was dusk as we made our way down the long gravel drive into the local KOA, and we instantly knew that this night's accomodations would be worthy of our voyage and of the term 'campground'. Set into the foothills above the town, Buena Vista KOA is a place I'd bring my family. Operated by a man who truly understands his mission, it was both serene and immaculate, with plenty of tent sites in great locations and an entertainment cabin featuring modern amenities. In stark contrast to the Mountain Home, Idaho KOA, this idylic spot gets the following rating: Location - 5 stars (out of 5); quietness - 5 stars; scenery - 5 stars. It was fantastic. The air was cool and calm. The sky was starry and dark. The town below was silent. We couldn't have asked for a better place to sleep, which was well suited to our exhausted states. I called Jolene on my mobile phone to wish her a good night and I certainly would've liked to have her share this place with me.
Rocky Mountain National Park is like nothing I knew existed. That's where we found ourselves on Day 9 . Anyone in an RV can drive to the bottom of the sky and peer out over creation from 12,000 feet without breaking a sweat. Previously I had assumed you could only find places like this through some degree of effort, or at least on a dangling gondola of some sort. While that was disappointing, the sheer marvel of the area was quite fulfilling. To look down the steep, craggly meadows and see high-altitude game animals like bull elk and moutain goats is truly an experience. It instantly took me back to my childhood days in Montana, where I almost took this for granted. Almost twenty years in Minnesota has opened my eyes to the grandeur of it all.
As I mentioned, anyone can drive to this place, and they all do. Descending the mountain, we were feeling anxious about the distance we had yet to cover before nightfall. The speed limits in the park are quite low, and the type of traffic found there along with the terrain make it nearly impossible to pass. The trek down the backside was maddeningly slow. By the time we reached the park exit we were quite late and probably riding beyond a safe pace. We were probably taking risks we otherwise wouldn't have. Nonetheless, we had no indicent that day, nor any day on this trip.
Out of the park we came into what should've been one of the hallmark canyon rides of the trip - yet another winding river valley with a smooth, wide roadway. Alas, leading a pack of about 8 cars and with us following, was a driver seemingly unable to comprehend the message posted at frequent intervals along the way: 'Slower vehicles use turnouts'. Again and again this person ignored the opportunity to let the group pass, and so the ride was ruined. We were so late that stopping to let the group get ahead of us wasn't an option. We had to press on. My fury at the situation was only surpassed by the glorious mountain scenery. It's hard to be unhappy while in a place like that.
We were above 11,000 feet three times that day, once on the interstate. Before we got out of our saddles we had left the high peaks behind for the lower mountains of Wyoming and South Dakota. We rolled into our campsite late, somber in knowing that it was our last night of this trip, and in exhaustion. We set up the tent by headlight, showered and slept.
Morning on Day 10 revealed a pleasant campground partially obscured by pines. The breeze had created a soft noise that muffled all sound but the passing of trucks on the highway. KOA in Hot Springs, South Dakota proved to be quite pleasant and met our needs well. Shane had attempted to sleep outside in his hammock since the breeze kept the biting insects away, but raindrops on the tent woke me at some point and I suggested he move inside. The threat proved empty and little rain fell.
We mounted our faithful Bandits and headed out on the last leg of our ride. We both missed our families, and we knew that the day would be long, having seen so much greater riding than this day's interstate jaunt would be. We rode toward home. Crossing the border into Minnesota I was stricken by how green the state was. Just like that, the parched landscape of South Dakota transformed into the lush fields of my home state. The fragrance of clover and corn silk told me I was close. Just a few more hours.