West and Back Again


Part 1 of 5
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This is a blog on my motorcycle trip west from upstate New York to southern Colorado -- and back -- in June-July 2007. It starts out with a bit of introduction, then goes to a day-to-day format. (Click photos for larger.)


Background

Sometimes, when you become conscious of a decision, it's already been made. There's no sense in weighing factors or adding things up, because that's never going to change anything -- all the accounting has been carried out in the subconscious, and now all that remains is for you to explain it. Not always an easy job.

So it was with my decision to buy a motorcycle.

I'd never considered anything of the sort before -- in fact I thought it rather a foolhardy and dangerous proposition. One look at a guy speeding along exposed at 70 MPH on the highway with all the maniacs surrounding him in hurtling metal elephants was enough to make me shudder. And yet...

In 2005 I was speaking with my father over Thanksgiving about a Kawasaki Police 1000 he wanted to buy, same as one he'd owned many years before in Florida. Two weeks later I found myself in the Harlem DMV office taking the test for a motorcycle learner's permit, and I'd been scouring the classified ads for bikes for sale. Two months later I'd bought one, and three months after that with the new spring I found myself, as described here, "on the back of a motorcycle speeding down a rural highway in southern Wisconsin." Athena had sprung fully-formed from my brow, and all I could do now was look for clues to where she had come from.

I eventually rooted some up -- my dirtbiking and scooter experiences growing up in Florida, my rental of a motorbike on the Greek island of Corfu to tour its olive groves, stuccoed villages, and spectacular cliffs, my feeling cooped-up in New York City without a car. But these had to stack up against the problems. I lived in Manhattan, where I'd have to either park the bike on the street, move it twice a week, and possibly get it stolen, or pay $100+ a month for a garage. Any sort of riding in the city was guaranteed to be super-dangerous. The avenues in Manhattan are playgrounds for darting and diving taxi drivers and buses. The highways are narrow, rough, and heavily trafficked. Even just getting out of the city for a ride promised be a high risk affair.

The reactions of my friends and family focused on the danger aspect as well. "A motorcycle? Try not to die!" one said. "You know, 'donorcycle' and all that," another admonished. My wife, firmly in the live and let live camp normally, advised me rather firmly against the idea, and when I went ahead anyway asked whether my life insurance was up to date.

The answer the motorcyclist has to this line of thinking is, by riding intelligently you can reduce the risk level to close to that of driving in a car. You maintain safe, vigilant habits, behave conservatively, and wear protective clothing. Leather isn't worn to look tough (though it can have that effect), but because it's about the best thing you can have between your skin and the road if you go down. The value of a helmet goes without saying. You assume other drivers won't see you and will cut you off, and maintain position and readiness accordingly.

Riding becomes a mental challenge, both to prepare yourself and your machine to the utmost, and to ride aware. You don't go out if emotions are running high, or you're so preoccupied you risk losing focus on the road. You must tune to the present, remain ready to react in a controlled manner, at speed, to any situation.

This brings up another antecedent of my interest in a motorcycle: surfing. In both of these activities you assume a perceptive, reactive state of mind and body, a zen-like state in some ways, that lets you execute smoothly in a changing environment.

At the same time your bike itself must be in proper condition. A problem with the brakes, suspension, steering, or drive chain could lead directly to a crash. Problems with the engine or transmission cause distraction which could also result in woe. Some riders trust these matters to hired mechanics, but to me that seems like a risky proposition. Far better is to learn how to do things right yourself, and make sure they are done that way. Again, more mental effort, and physical skill.

Broader awareness, sharper focus, better execution, greater knowledge. In the end, riding a motorcycle forces you to become a better human. That's not all it's about, but it's not a bad part of it.


Lead-up

Three days to go. I've been on edge, alternately apprehensive and antsy, for the past week. Apprehensive because the bike has still been giving me problems; I'm not sure it's 100% ready. I've put a lot of work into overhauling all of the systems and components that wear and degrade: tires, ignition, carburetors, etc.. Over the past year there's hardly a part of the bike I haven't worked on or replaced. Finally it seems to be coming together -- hopefully it'll stay this way at least until I can get headed off. Once on the road I trust it to hold up to one extent or another, just as it always has.

Antsy because I'm itching to ride. I've been on some long trips before -- 3 days, 5 days, and 2 weeks -- and know there's nothing like the feeling of hitting the road with everything you need on the back of your bike, self-sufficient and unattached. The stress of tying up loose ends before leaving adds to this sense of release.

And then there's that mysterious attractive force that makes you want to keep riding once you've started. You get off the bike, as I have numerous times the past several days, and almost immediately restlessness starts setting in. Soon it takes an effort to concentrate for any length of time. Eyes dart this way and that, craving movement. Nothing interesting is found, only things waiting to be left behind. At last you succumb to the urges, find a reason to hop back on the bike, and all is well.


One Day Left

All of the above said, sometimes I wonder just why the heck I'm doing this. I've moved upstate and here at my house I'm living in paradise -- fresh, peaceful country air, the gurgling stream running through my yard, mild 70 degree temperatures. If I want to go for a hike I walk up the hill across the road. If I want a motorcycle ride I get on and speed (or dawdle) down open country roads. And I can get my work done and not worry about the effects of a long vacation on my immediate career goals.

At the same time I'm trying to stuff everything from running shoes to laptop computer in with my hiking gear into such bags as will fit on my motorcycle. Each day over the next month I will put these on and pull them off, going through a long tedious ritual of unpacking, pitching tent, taking it down, repacking, poking, prodding, jamming. I'll sweat and bake in humid heat, get soaked in the showers I'm certain not to avoid, probably even be cold starting out in the mornings. I'll take wrong turns, get lost, deal with mechanical problems, maybe even run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

Sometimes it all comes back to those old Star Treks, when Captain Kirk and company would happen upon some utopian planet where everybody was happy and healthy and living long, peaceful lives. They'd try to entice the members of the good ship Enterprise into their society -- often motivated by some beautiful lady falling in love with Kirk -- but they would have nothing to do with it. "Man is not meant to live in this way," Kirk would rail, "We NEED discomfort, we NEED to fail as well as succeed, we NEED to strive against adversity, need sadness, need pain, and even the threat of death -- or else we cannot, will not reach for more. Without all of these things, we would no . longer . be . human!"

And there you have it, I suppose.


Sunday, June 24: Take-off

"There's nobody home," she called out.

"What?" I asked dumbly, walking towards her.

The woman shook her long, brown curly hair and stopped backing her SUV out into the road.

"There's NObody home," she repeated.

"Nobody home," I echoed softly. I looked at the wooden house set back amidst the trees, the assortment of old furniture set outside it closer to the road, as if displayed for sale. It was a peaceful, reasonably-maintained place, not too manicured, not too shabby. The furniture, whatever its purpose being out front, was the same -- not of bad quality, worn enough to show its age, but nothing you'd be ashamed of with guests over. It was a country place.

Then I turned to look at my bike back behind me, leaned over on its side stand about 20 feet away. Two beagles who'd been barking and carousing around the SUV came over to me and nuzzled my legs. Absent-mindedly I reached down and let them smell my hand. I thought for a minute.

Ninety miles from home, I couldn't have picked a prettier spot to run out of gas. I'd even managed to limp/coast up to the top of a hill with my last remaining momentum. The view was nice. But there were no other houses around except for this one.

I looked at the woman. She was a bit older than me, or maybe just more worn by cares. She was plain, but had a spirited, undefeated aspect about her. The kind of person who didn't laugh easily but when she did would be so genuine and open you'd give anything to be able to make her do it again. A country woman.

She was growing restless. Fortunately I managed to think on my feet for once and say something useful and to the point.

"You wouldn't happen to know anywhere around here I could get some gas ... ?"

"I've got some," she said, with no hesitation. "Though I'm gonna need it soon myself since I'm gettin' late."

I didn't dally too much trying to understand her last sentence since to my great surprise she twisted around and pulled up a blue gas container out of the back. Another dog in the car nosed in and was shooed away. Her shirt lifted up exposing her suntanned midriff as she turned.

"Keep your mind on the business at hand," I told myself...

"Here you go, take what you need." Unabashed.

I thanked her and fairly trotted over to the bike with the container. I sloshed it around. Not much more than a gallon in there, I thought. My gas cap was still open. I popped off the top and started pouring it in. Suddenly, looking at the blue jug, I had the ridiculous idea that it was actually water, she had wanted to trick me for some reason. Aren't all gas containers red? The liquid looked clear as well, not the pale amber of gasoline. Water going straight down into my carbs -- boy would THIS be a problem!

I stopped pouring and sniffed the spout. I wondered what the woman thought I was doing.

Gas, all right. Phew!

I poured some more, trying to guess how far away a gas station might be, but not wanting to finish off her supply. I carried it back.

"Thank you; thank you so much."

"No problem. There's a gas station down, maybe about five miles that way, Alexander City."

This was the way my bike was pointing and I was heading. Thinking of how expensive gas is these days I asked her if I could give her a couple of bucks, but she would have none of it. She pulled out and sped away.

Thank you, lady.

I got the bike fired up again and continued heading west. There sure seemed to be nothing out here! I was none too confident of actually finding any gas, her advice notwithstanding. Sure enough, five miles came and went, and a bit later going up a hill the engine started to sputter again.

I coaxed it up and back on the level it seemed to find some more fuel to slurp. I passed a couple of highway intersections, wondering whether my odds were better here or there. I stayed with the road I was on though, trusting the woman. Finally, after ten miles and I was sure it was going to give up the ghost before the next hill, a Sunoco and diner popped up on the left.

I pumped 4.2 gallons into the tank on the sidestand -- it was supposed to hold 4.4 when not tilted over. Then I got some lunch.

* * *

The first part of the trip had been beautiful, through the rolling hills of northwestern New York. The spot I'd run out of gas was about the best as well. But the rest of the day consisted mainly of "slabbing it" -- i.e. grinding it out on the interstate. I had way too much distance to make today to do it all on small roads, and besides, I didn't want to stop in Canada. The land in the finger of Ontario interposing itself between Niagara Falls and Detroit was unremarkable -- mostly flat and in no wise picturesque. I hunched over and zoomed through it. At one point I pulled off the highway and flung myself to the grass, reviving my kinked-up legs and exhausted energy. One other time I stopped for gas (now barely more expensive in Canada than the U.S.), that was it.

Finally, Michigan, and a campground on Lake Huron. A broad sandy beach, and clear, warmish water, but I had no strength left to get in. I took a shower and left it at that.

First casualty of my poor memory / organizational skills: the cable for connecting my camera and laptop. There will be no pictures in this blog until my return.

* * *

395 miles (including some back-and-forths in Buffalo and Hamilton)


Monday, June 25: Lake to Lake

I wrote earlier that there's nothing like heading out on the road at the start of a long trip, and that's true. But even better is heading out on the road the next morning. On that second day out, you've woken up on the road already, body and soul both know now that things are different. A connection has been severed. There's no longer a schedule to meet, your only alarm has been the birds in the campground chirping in the dawn light. You pack up the bike at an unhurried pace, pausing to savor the cool morning air.

Involuntarily, you treat the machine with newfound reverence. It has carried you a long way without complaint. Your life and livelihood as a traveler now depend on it and it has delivered..

As well it has taken a long draught of its native element, the open road, and feels the better for it. When, finally, the last strap is tightened, the jacket donned, and the time has come to fire it up, it proves more willing than it ever does at home. At the first touch of the button it roars to life, shattering the morning silence into 1,500 pieces per second. You let it warm up, still leisurely, then slowly cruise out of the campground, ease onto the highway, and accelerate into the morning light.

* * *

"Nice day for a ride." It was a uniformed girl toweling off the tables. I'd stopped at McDonald's for a quick mcmuffin. She looked about 18. Must have seen my bike out the window. I was the only guy wearing leather in the restaurant.

I told her it wasn't too bad. Twinkling brown eyes the color of almond skins stared unabashedly into mine. She seemed too perky to be working at McDonald's.

"Where're you headed?"

"Colorado."

"That's a long way!"

"I don't expect I'll make it there today," I assured her. "Just Lake Michigan."

I added, "Probably about a month there and back."

"Wow, I hope you have a nice time out there while WE'RE in here serving YOU," she said. Smiling, but sarcasm only going so far.

"We all serve each other," I said.

"I don't know about that." Doubtfully.

It was too early for deep conversations with 18-year-olds; I changed the subject. "Anyway, the only thing I'm worried about is the heat."

"I wouldn't think that'd be so bad, when you're moving."

"Well, the sun --" I began, looking down at my black leather jacket and black pants.

She said, "Although I guess if you're wearing black..."

I felt like an idiot.

Fortunately my food came and she got back to work.

* * *

Out on the road again, I made the turn in from the way up the Huron coast and started heading across the state on U.S. Highway 46. There was almost no one on this two-lane road, which coursed straight but undulating up and down through fields and barns. Time to open it up.

6,000 RPM, 7,000. As I sped up the bike accelerated faster, approaching peak horsepower at 8,500 RPM. 100 MPH was hit around 8,000. The engine screamed at fever pitch as I hunched down against the tank, peering ahead. Soon I saw some oncoming traffic in the distance and let it off, slowing gradually back down to cruising speed.

Kafka, 100 years ago and long before motorcycles were even imagined, wrote:

"If only one were a red Indian -- instantly alert and on horseback, galloping across the plains. Shedding the reins, for there needed no reins. Shedding the spurs, for there needed no spurs. And barely noticing the ground below was closely-shorn heath, when the horse's legs are already gone."

The only thing I could add to this is that the motorcycle is not a horse, though the similarities are many. It's more like riding a tiger.

* * *

At the end of a much shorter day than yesterday (4 hours shorter, to be exact), I rolled into Charles Mead state park on Lake Michigan. This lake, as I remembered, put Huron to shame. Clear water, white sand, sawgrass and dunes. The air was cool and dry, the sun warm, and the water about 70 degrees. I went in twice.

The place was also a city of RV's. Young, old, people of all ages wanted to drive or tow gigantic vehicles around so they'd have all the luxuries of home wherever they went. I don't know about needing all those luxuries, but I couldn't blame them for coming here, or for staying for weeks on end rather than drive the things (and pay for their gas) any further. It really was a paradise here.

* * *

270 miles, plus 5 running.


Tuesday, June 26: Across to Wisconsin

But it was not for me to linger. I was on the road by 6:30 this morning, heading up to catch the boat across the lake to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There I'd head down the opposite coast to meet my friend Rick in Milwaukee. Rick had sold me this very bike the year before, and I'd told him at the time I might head west on a long ride at some point and would try to stop by for some KZ riding. Amazingly, I was managing it.

The ferry crew threw all of the bikers together on one side of the entrance ramp so we could load separately. There were: a Canadian couple on a GoldWing (huge touring motorcycle) towing a hefty trailer, six Wisconsinites on a tour around Lake Michigan, and a beefy, grey-mustached Harley rider with all manner of hard luggage hanging off every part of his bike. (Despite all this storage he managed to drop a sleeping bag while running up onto the boat, which I picked up and handed to him.) Plus myself, itinerant backpacker on a vintage rice burner. A typical random group of motorcyclists I suppose.

I thought I'd be the long distance man out of the group, but surprisingly I was trumped by the Canadian couple, who were heading out to Vancouver, and back, by way of South Dakota and Alberta. These folks were retired, so they had the time, but I was impressed with their endurance. Assisted by luxury though they were -- their trailer popped up and expanded outward to become a palatial tent, complete with interior and patio areas. They showed me a picture from the marketing literature.

Al, one of the touring six, was a charter fishing boat operator. He rode a chromed BMW, an R100C, the 'C' standing for "Cruiser". I'd had no idea such things existed. I guess once Porsche broke down and started making SUV's anything was possible.

Al himself was big, blonde, burly, and mild-mannered, unassuming. He told me things about the lake. Although I'd swum in 70 degree water last night, this was just by the shore. Out in the lake proper it was more like 52. The fish liked this temperature better than 70, so he'd take his boat some distance out during the summer, unless there'd been a long period of onshore wind bringing the cold water in.

Despite what one might think, Al insisted you could see land at all times crossing Lake Michigan. It was about 70 miles across, making 35 miles you needed to see at the halfway point. Not a problem on clear days, he insisted, although right now he figured we had about 3-4 miles max. This was because it was hot in Wisconsin, and the warm air blew out over the lake and evaporated the water. It didn't bode well for our rides on the other side.

I practiced saying "Manitowoc" the Wisconsin way, which was something like "MAN-I-tuh-WOK", or even "Man-i-twoc". My native "Man-i-taw-wok" was going to mark me as an easterner straight off. It was a four hour crossing, so we entertained ourselves in any way we could. Particularly once they started serving beer at 10am.

When we were approaching Manitwoc, Al showed me a WW II American submarine docked there. This was because, he told me, they'd made them here. There was some confusion over how they'd got them out afterwards, but it was eventually decided they'd floated them down the Mississippi, reached via the Chicago River. Why here, I wondered? Al seemed to think the place had been chosen as safe from the Germans. I thought that seemed a little paranoid, but then again I remembered seeing anti-ship batteries in far northern ports of Canada, camps in the desert where they'd imprisoned Japanese Americans, and hearing of other follies. All of our paranoia about "weapons of mass destruction" today is not so unique. Americans have long been a flighty and easily frightened bunch.

* * *

Off the boat, I called up Rick and headed down. As I moved south and the noon heightened, temperatures rose. Eventually I found myself cooking on the freeways of Milwaukee, both the motorcycle and I wishing we were someplace else. But once I finally made it there, I found a welcoming oasis of comfort and relaxation. Bags pulled off the resting bike, a seat on the veranda, raspberry iced tea. Rick and his friend Judy welcomed me warmly, and I regaled my hosts with tales of the road.

Later, after sufficient recovery, Rick and I went out for a short spin down to the lake. There was a string of parks, and we buzzed through them, Jap bike terror at large, then headed out on an overlook to photograph the two vintage machines. Mine, 1978, a 650cc, his, 1979, 1000cc.

We switched and I rode the 1000 for a bit. Just as I'd feared my 650 felt a bit wimpy afterwards. Fortunately this feeling faded, and I found myself raring to race Rick at stoplights. I couldn't get a rise out of his mild midwestern sentiments however, so I settled for zooming ahead on my own.

Meanwhile he got a bee down his shirt while we were riding back. One good reason to wear a jacket when riding, we decided.

Later on we looked at some pictures of his old KZ650 from the 1980's. Something about the lighting, and of course the bike itself, brought on a really nostalgic air. In addition in the background of a couple were two-tone tan and brown cars and pickup trucks. Why was it that these tans and browns were so popular in the 60's and 70's, yet I'm sure you couldn't even BUY a car in that color today? Next time you're feeling smart, try coming up with a good explanation for that one.

* * *

140 (hot) miles.


Wednesday, June 27: To the Mississippi

A lazy, luxurious morning. Sleeping in a bed for the first time in a few days was an experience I remembered very little of. We had breakfast and then waited around for a storm front to pass over. Rick worked "second shift" and didn't have to go to work until 3. It dumped heavily on us but brought with it a drop in temperature from near 90 to a hair under 80. Further northwest it was even better. Time to get moving.

For the second time in a little over a year I fired the bike up outside Rick's garage to begin a long journey. We got a couple of pictures and I headed off.

I'd only been stopped for about 24 hours, and it was a welcome stop at that, but it was nice to be back out on the road. I was eager to put more distance between myself and the East. As I'd told Rick, I felt like my trip would only really start once I hit South Dakota. To me this was the beginning of the West and its wide open spaces. Territory I'd sniffed once before on a car journey from San Diego to Michigan, and would have a long draught of now.

Once I'd gotten out northwest a ways from Milwaukee, I suddenly found myself as usual running out of gas at the start of what looked like a long open stretch of no civilization. This time I decided to turn around and go back 5 miles or so to a cluster of buildings I'd seen earlier. I was just doing so when a guy holding a map standing outside his pickup truck flagged me down. Turns out he thought he was southeast of Milwaukee, about 40 or 50 miles from where he really was. He had a hard time believing me when I broke it to him. "No way. I'm over here," he repeated a couple of times, state of denial lending a note of near-aggression to his voice. But eventually he had to capitulate since the intersection he was seeing here made no sense where he was, which of course was why he'd stopped.

I verified with him that there were some gas stations back where I'd come from and left him to his own devices. He sure was going to be late for whatever appointment he had.

I gassed up and moved on. The country was finally starting to open up and I was at last on 2-lane road again. A couple of hours later I stopped for dinner. I'd decided to push on all the way to the Wisconsin-Minnesota border at the Mississippi River. Not that I had anything against spending more time in Wisconsin, but after camping on two Great Lakes it seemed I had to do something to follow that up.

More importantly it was feeling really good just being on the bike. I had no desire to stop. I was now out away from things to the point where I'd go for long stretches without seeing a car, in front or behind.

* * *

At 9:30 I arrived at my campground, Perrot State Park, on the Mississippi. The office was closed, and I rode as quietly as I could into the campground hoping to snarf a site under the radar, avoiding the $20+ fees I'd been paying lately. I seemed to be successful at this, finding a good site and getting started setting up, when an earnest young ranger pulled up in the dark. I squinted up into his flashlight shining in my eyes.

He squinted back through thick, round spectacles. With his buzz-cut blond hair, he seemed about 18. Perhaps a summer job before college? He seemed to take it very seriously.

"Good evening, how are you doing sir?" he asked, a bit tremulously.

"Fine." I decided to play it gruff.

A bit of a pause, then, "Were you planning on spending the night?"

Rather obvious, I thought, but I refrained from telling him so. He seemed a bit intimidated dealing with a possibly mean motorcyclist in the evening darkness.

"I'm afraid there's a fee for use here... Are you carrying any cash with you?" The "with" was spoken in a high, reedy pitch. It seemed almost as if he thought it might actually be possible that I wasn't carrying any cash, that I'd decided to travel across the country with nothing but the shirt on my back. And that he'd let me off the camping fee if I said no.

I'm an honest man, however, and I told him I had some. He apologetically asked me for $10, and since this was a lot less than $20 I gave it to him without protest. He said he wasn't sure how much it would be but he'd come back asking if it was more, or bringing me change if less.

I carried on setting up and was about to retire to the tent, the mosquitos being rather fierce, when he returned.

"I'm sorry sir, I'm afraid I was wrong, the fee is $12, not $10." Pause. "Would you happen to have another $2?"

I hesitated, and gave serious consideration to letting him have a piece of mind. I'd come in late and was planning to leave early the next morning. I hadn't even found any showers. $10 seemed more than adequate recompense for a patch of ground in the dark.

But how could these things compare with the earnestness of this young man and his dedication to his job? I pulled out my wallet. Just one one, and some big bills that he didn't have change for.

"I'm afraid this is all I've got," I told him. A dollar short.

"Well, OK, I guess we can just take the loss," he said ruefully.

Less of a loss than if I hadn't shown up at all, I thought! He drove off and left me in peace.

* * *

250 miles.



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