The Unexpected

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Road Star in the Rocky Mountains. Though it was late May, I had to stop periodically to warm my hands up.

A few years back when I returned home from a three-day motorcycle trek into Arizona and Utah my wife Lisa asked me, “What is it that you like about the long rides so much?” I knew the background for the question, of course. Although we used my motorcycle to take us to a slightly upscale restaurant on our first official date in 1981, she doesn’t enjoy riding much. She rides with me perhaps once a year and only about 30 miles round-trip. When that happens, I reconfigure the rear of the bike, removing the fender rack and rear luggage rack, then mounting the pillion and sissybar/backrest.

I thought about the question for a few seconds before answering, “Well, I like riding motorcycles long distances.” I said. “But beyond that, I guess it is the adventure. It is always an adventure, because I never know what is going to happen, what I’m going to see.” The adventure is largely the unexpected. Even riding a route that I have traveled many times before is never the same twice.

The photographs in this post are all from a multi-day ride I took from southern California to the Black Hills of South Dakota and back in late Spring of 2008. May seemed a good bet for weather. It was likely that the deserts would not be horribly hot and the mountain ranges I would cross would not be unduly cold. Or so it seemed.

The first photo shows my motorcycle parked at the roadside in the Vail Pass in the Rocky mountains in Colorado. The bike was parked because I had to stop for a few minutes and let my hands thaw out before continuing, even though it was the end of May. I had grip warmers installed on the bike, but they were not keeping up with the cold, so I was stopping every twenty miles or so.

While the bike idled, I removed my gloves, and wrapped my hands around the grips to warm my fingers up. Again, again. Grip warmers are fine when it is not really cold, but because there is a layer or two of gloves between the grip and one’s hands, a lot of the generated warmth is lost in the wind and never gets to the hands.

By the height of the luggage on the rear of the bike, you can see that I was packing heavier than usual on that trip. The additional equipment was a sleeping bag, ground insulation pad, and tent. Hidden inside one of the bags was a aluminum coffee percolator and a single burner camp stove. To cut the cost of motels I was camping every other night or so. The ground insulation pad was a bit too thin. It hadn’t softened the extremely stony ground of the campsite at the Grand Canyon to any great degree. An air mattress would have been considerably more comfortable.

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A “Camping Cabin” near Sturgis, South Dakota.

Riding down into the Denver area from the Rockies, the ride gradually became warmer. Quite pleasant by comparison, though it was necessary to be very alert passing through the heavy traffic of the metropolitan area. I rode up I-25 into Wyoming, took Route 20 east through the town of Lusk in the northwest corner of Nebraska, turned north on Route 385, then continued on Route 16T in South Dakota to Rapid City. On Route 385 in the high plains, I began to make out the Black Hills in the distance. As I rode farther north, I realized how they were named. From many miles away the trees on the hills looked black.

I pulled into a campground just outside of Sturgis in the late afternoon. I’d slept and showered in a motel in the Rockies the night before, so I’d camp for at least a night. Though the campground was not open because the owner was doing maintenance in anticipation of opening for the season a few weeks later, he rented a “camping cabin” to me for two nights, since there was nothing that needed to be done to it. $20 a night was a good price. Exactly what I needed, and the camp showers were working. I didn’t have to pitch a tent, could throw the sleeping bag on the mattress in the cabin and had water for coffee and bathing. I was the only person using the camp. I hadn’t expected that the campgrounds would be closed, and felt that I lucked out getting one of the few cabins and the campground to myself. 

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Downtown Sturgis.

I hauled my luggage into the cabin, phoned Lisa, then hit the rack for the night. The next day I left the majority of my luggage in the cabin, rode into Sturgis to explore the town and buy a couple t-shirts, then spent the remainder of the day riding the Black Hills. 

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Into the Black Hills of South Dakota.

On the return to the camp in the late afternoon, I ran into construction a quarter mile from the entrance to the camp. I should say HEAVY CONSTRUCTION. It was no mere pothole-filling operation. There was heavy equipment everywhere and the asphalt top of the road was gone. The rough gravel roadbed was being graded and prepared for a new asphalt top. I took a good, long look at the gravel surface. It didn’t appear to be promising. It wouldn’t be an easy ride, so I’d have to be careful. The tires on the Road Star were definitely not made for traveling any distance on dirt and the last thing I wanted to do was dump the bike 1,700 miles from home and possibly injure myself in the process. l took the gravel very slowly, coaxing the bike forward at a bit above walking speed in first gear and holding my feet just off the dirt in case the gravel rutted and made the bike suddenly buck in some undesirable direction.

By the time I reached the campground entrance I was sweating heavily despite an air temperature in the low 60s F. A young flag woman was stationed at the mouth of the driveway. I stopped and talked briefly with her when she smiled and complimented my bike.

“Is this normal? Taking the whole road surface off?”, I asked.

She nodded. “We replace the surface on a lot of local roads every spring.” She answered. “Have to, because of the winters. How long are you staying here?”

“Just tonight, then back on the road tomorrow.”

“Well, when you leave in the morning, you’ll be better off going in the other direction. You’ll be back on asphalt sooner.” She pointed down the road.

“Thanks.”, I said. “Anything to shorten that experience.”

“Are you going into town tonight?

“No. I think I’ll skip the motocross experience and just stay in camp.”

“Oh.”, She said, looking vaguely disappointed. “Well, have a good ride tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” I eased the clutch out and rode slowly toward the camp.

I took the flag woman’s advice early the next morning, riding very carefully on a couple hundred yards of topless road, then took I-90 for 50 miles into Sundance, Wyoming, where I stopped to top off the gas tank. I intended to continue west across Wyoming, then ride through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons on the way home. I’d never visited either National Park and if I routed myself correctly, I could leave I-90 at Buffalo and ride through the southern end of the Bighorn National Forest on Route 16.

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Longhorn Sheep grazing at the roadside in the Black Hills.

After filling the tank, I pushed the bike from the gas pump to the side of the filling station. I’d check my road maps, and drink some of the coffee in the thermos before getting back on the road. I still didn’t have a firm grip on brewing with the percolator, but I’d produced something close to a coffee-like liquid that morning. I drank coffee and traced my intended route on the map, then folded the map and put it back into the saddlebag. Sipping the last of the brown coffee-like liquid, I glanced at the western sky. It had changed without my notice. A high black bank of ominous cloud stretched across the west from south to north.

I called Lisa on the mobile phone.

“Can you look at the weather satellite for this area?”, I asked.

“Where are you?”

“In Sundance, Wyoming. I just stopped for gas.”

“Give me a second.”, She said. I could hear the clicking of her computer’s keyboard. “Oh. It doesn’t look good.”

“What?”

“There’s a big rainstorm west of you. Looks like it is heading your way.”

“I was going to go west to Yellowstone. Maybe I should head some other way. What does it look like down toward Denver?”

“Its clear down that way……Wait. It is supposed to get windy, though.”

“Well, that’s better than rain, I guess. I’ll head that way. Maybe come back home on I-40 through Flagstaff.”

“Well, be careful.”

“I will. If it gets bad, I’ll hole up in a motel somewhere. I’ll call you later when I stop for the night.”

I got off the phone and looked at the black wall. There goes Yellowstone, I thought.

A woman came out of the station and walked to the pickup truck parked beside the bike. Opening the door, she turned to me and said, “I hope you have good rain gear.”

“Why? What do you know?”

“I work for a construction company, so I watch the weather all of the time.”, She said. “I just heard on the radio that a big rainstorm should hit us in about an hour and a half. It’s supposed to last for several days.”

“Thanks.”, I said, pointing to the black cloud wall in the west. “I was about to run south.”

She look to the west and nodded. “Good idea.”

Running south on Route 85 to Cheyenne, I kept the bike’s speed up, though it was a secondary road. I had to make good time to get away from the storm. I only stopped periodically for a couple minutes to stretch my muscles and made a very brief pit stop in the town of Lusk to fill the gas tank.

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Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Stopping for gasoline in Cheyenne, I phoned Lisa again and asked where the storm was. According to the weather satellite, the storm had hit northeast Wyoming some time before and was brewing up across the west, but there was a clear north-south corridor running down though eastern Colorado toward New Mexico.

Continuing south on I-25, side winds from the west grew increasingly strong until I guessed that the gusting was as high as 35 to 40 mph by the time I was passing through the Fort Collins area. I found that if I kept my speed up around 75 mph, the motorcycle didn’t get blown around as much as at lower speeds. The large, stock windshield on the Road Star was acting like a sail in the wind, and controlling it was tiring, but at the same time it was shielding me from all of the buffeting. Luckily, the traffic was flowing in the seventies, so it was relatively easy to maintain speed. The freight haulers, tractor-trailer rigs, seemed to be having a hard time with the gusting, so I kept my distance from them or passed them quickly. I didn’t want to be anywhere near one if it got pushed over onto it’s side.

By late afternoon I was in the northern approach to Pueblo, well south of Denver. The bright clear sky of the morning was long gone, replaced by a medium gray overcast, but the wind had died down somewhat. With 550 miles on the trip meter, I decided that I’d had enough for the day and took a room at a Motel 6 when I reached the city.

After dinner at a local burger joint and a shower I lay back in bed, channel surfing between the Weather Channel and  bad programming on the major networks. I learned that I had been slightly ahead of the storm all day. North of Denver, tractor-trailer rigs on the I-25 had been blown over an hour behind me, when the cross wind apparently got worse than what I rode through. Judging by the satellite pictures, there would be a clear path in the morning that ran down to the southeast corner of New Mexico, then west through southern Arizona, but turning west on I-40 was out of the question.

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Shadow self-portrait. New Mexico.

The weather was forcing me to ride down into New Mexico, then west. It was a fortunate turn of meteorological events, as far as I was concerned, since my brother Tom lived in Hobbs, New Mexico and I hadn’t seen him in over two years. I stayed in southeast New Mexico for a day and was able to spend a little time with my brother. I also was able to see my niece, who was in diapers the last time I saw her.

The remainder of the ride home was relatively uneventful. I rode secondary roads in New Mexico down to the badly potholed stretch of I-10 in Texas, then continued on 10 through Arizona and the Colorado Desert in southeastern California, arriving home a couple days later.

It had been a good ride. It hadn’t gone as I planned it, but the unexpected events were the roots of the adventure, and visiting with my brother and niece was better than spending time in Yellowstone, as I later found out…

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