A Ride Through the Rockies

In the morning we got an early start and headed 30 miles up I-25 to Fort Collins, where, after doing the obligatory freeway-to-town commute, we picked up US 14 west into the Rockies. This was a tremendous road, and it had none of the masses of traffic that US 34 does coming up further south. We wound along the Poudre River through rocks and canyons all the way up to 9000 feet. At which point the rocks fell away and we headed through dwindling pines, still steadily up but now in the open, air cooling down, all the way to Cameron pass at 10,276 feet. We stopped once to turn in the mixture screws on Päivi’s carburetors, giving her bike a bit more air, but aside from that the machines performed outstandingly. The Versys especially was really coming into its own now, nimble around the curves, pouring on the power when I needed it, the engine singing in its preferred range of 5,000-8,000 RPM.

After the pass we went down one or two thousand feet, then found ourselves in a broad, relatively flat area, one of the great tablelands between Rockies spines that are unique to Colorado even though the Rockies themselves continue for another thousand miles north. It was too dry for farming evidently, but there was abundant ranching going on, and we’d see mostly black cattle dotting the rolling country stretching many miles out to the mountains on either side. The vegetation was dry and brushy, and when we stopped we’d notice the air was permeated with the scent of sage.

We stopped for lunch in Walden, a ranching town that had a few concessions to tourists, including a rustic restaurant with log walls with a menu centering around hamburgers. Ah, that was good. Too bad we couldn’t have a beer though. OK, now back on the bikes through a wildlife refuge and then another pass, on down into Steamboat.

Steamboat Springs actually sits in a broad valley at only 6,700 feet of elevation, which means it was pretty hot when we got there around 3 in the afternoon. It’s surrounded by gently sloping mountains, which make for good skiing mountains. (Since most of the paying public is not necessarily into the hellbent half-avalanche sliding, half precipice jumping, 10-foot deep powder kind of stuff that you see in the Warren Miller movies.) We stopped for gas and found our gas station was attached to a liquor store which in turn was attached to a ski shop. Ah, we’ve found the right sort of town all right.

We headed on to our campground just west of town, then took a free shuttlebus in to the downtown where Päivi took me around and told me about how much things had changed. However, as I was having a local IPA in a casual pub we’d found, surrounded by thin, athletic people glowing with health, watching mountain bikes ride by outside, I told her I liked it just fine as it was now.

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198 miles.

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… and Back Down to the Valley

Today we were reversing our steps a little bit so we could meet an old friend of Päivi’s in the Denver area. P had been an au pair for a year in Steamboat Springs a number of years back, and had kept in touch with a few people she’d known from that time. The person we were meeting here, J., ran a construction company in the Denver area and came up to Steamboat for the occasional ski.

We got up, had a hike in the morning, then motored down the hill to Longmont, one of the so-called “Front Range” towns strung north of Denver. The mountain reference and the general image people have of Colorado suggests these might have had some form of charm and rusticness at one point, but now they were basically sprawling suburbs with massive surface streets going everywhere. Basically LA without the freeways or ethnic diversity. The lack of freeways is interesting, it makes me wonder whether generations of town councils just refused to see their towns as freeway-needy megapolis outskirts rather than pokey cowtowns, despite all the growth. Even the local interstate, I-25, is routed straight north of Denver some 10 miles west of any of these towns. Which means whenever anyone really wants to get anywhere the first have to do a 10-mile east-west commute across mostly blank space. The resulting non-highways are giant, buzzing thoroughfares where everyone zooms up to 65 MPH between stoplights, which mercifully get further apart as you get out of town.

Anyway, we came down to town and would meet J. there later, but the only motel with any spaces was unfortunately out next to the interstate, so we enjoyed the privilege of shuttling back and forth on the east-west commute 3 times.

Oh and while we’re at it I want to make sure to shoot down another false image that many people must have of Denver – that it’s somehow a mountain town. In fact it, along with these “Front Range” towns, are desert / scrub towns sitting in the plain below the Rockies. “Mile high”, yes, but that just happens to be the height of the Great Plains here on the edge of the mountain range.

All of this is to say we really enjoyed seeing J. (and Päivi reliving some old memories and catching up on the doings of some old friends) – especially since we met at a good microbrewery restaurant – but we were really looking forward to getting back up into the hills the next day.

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50 miles.

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Arrival in Colorado

We’d given ourselves an extra 20 miles today due to our early stop, but for once we managed to get on the road decently early and ride without stopping for long stretches. We made progress. We hit Colorado before noon, and stopped in the town of Ault for lunch and a library stop. I had been thinking this might have been where I stopped last time (coming from the east then, not the north), and indeed the sight of the library confirmed that it was. Thankfully it was only in the 80′s this time rather than pushing 100!

We turned west from here, picking up I-25 in Fort Collins. This time I wasn’t messing around with Denver’s suburban hell any more than we had to. We still caught a fair amount in Loveland trying to get the 34 up into the Rockies, but we made it eventually, and climbed from 5000 to 8000 feet along winding roads. I somehow missed the campground I’d stayed at last time (or it was no longer there), and we stopped at the Estes visitor center to get some info. We ultimately ended up staying at “Jellystone Park” campground, for various reasons, though it was a bit more kid- and family-oriented than was perhaps our style. But it wasn’t that bad – the staff were really nice, and there was some nice hiking up above the campground, which usually for me is all I need.

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208 miles.

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Rain, and Wyoming

We had one of those nights at the campground last night that we’ve heard stories about but always just laughed about and thought would never happen to us. The sky started growing dark in the west around 7 or 8 in the evening, and it looked ominous. So ominous that we rushed through our showers and got set up to have our dinner in the tent. Gradually, not rapidly, the storm came on. First there was the premature darkness. Then gusts of wind buffeted around, and distant thunder came to be heard, continuing for the better part of an hour. A few pitter-patters of rain hit the tent, but nothing sustained. We started to breathe more easily, thinking the main body of the storm must have passed to the north or the south, and got into our sleeping bags for bed. But this was not the case.

Barely after we got into the bags the rain started to hit the tent in earnest. First it was hitting on the foot end of the tent, which was most able to withstand weather forces. You’re supposed to pitch this tent with that end facing into the expected direction of the weather, which we had. But then things took a serious shift to the south. Soon we were being broadsided on the south wall by absolutely vicious, furious wind and rain. The tent started to dip, and I unzipped to door and grabbed onto the front pole, which had tilted precariously into the tent but was somehow still standing. Päivi held her hands on the wall, which by now was spraying in rain, whether through the seams or from underneath I’m not sure. We shifted some miscellaneous items from Päivi’s side of the tent to mine and I scooted my down sleeping bag over to her side to try to keep it dry. I was still thinking that maybe we could stick it out this way, if the intense part did not last for too long.

But in another couple of minutes a wave of water washed into the tent from the front. Apparently it was flooding outside, and at this point we quickly decided to abandon ship. We rushed outside into the rain, which was freezing, picked up the tent from either end, and made a run for it to the women’s bathroom, which was fortunately just across the road. We got the tent in, emptied out the water, and while Päivi started sorting out our soggy items, I made a dash back out to get my boots, which had been standing in the tent’s vestibule. I brought those in, poured out the water therein accumulated, and together we salvaged what we could of the situation. We ended up stretching our mats on the bathroom floor, and before we crawled miserably into our sleeping bags (which, mercifully, had remained relatively dry) I scared the daylights out of a couple of innocent women coming in to use the toilets.

Thankfully the morning dawned clear and sunny, and we were able to dry most of our items before heading out. The people in the RV next door even kindly had us over for coffee, explaining guiltily that they would have invited us for the night if there had been any room (which, admittedly, there wasn’t). The amazing thing was, despite the inches received the previous night, there was no standing water anywhere, even in low-lying areas. This is the nature of the Great Plains, where the earth is made of sandy soil and no rocks to stop the water from going down, down, down, ultimately replenishing the great Ogallala Aquifer.

We took a hike while our clothes dried, then resumed heading west. First through the green and sandy hills of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge region, then through the drier areas of southeastern Wyoming. The emptiness of both of these areas, but especially Wyoming, was something to marvel at. Just grassy hills out as far as the eye could see. Usually ranch fences – two or three strands of barbed wire strung between meter-high poles – stretching between these and the road, although we rarely saw any cattle.

At some point we turned south to follow US 85 down towards Colorado, and the land became emptier still, until finally we arrived in the town of Torrington which had some services. We had been running from rain clouds we’d seen looming in the west, but it seems they were moving south to some extent as well. We had planned to camp, but after our experience of the night before, we weren’t so sure. A check of the radar at the local library finished talking us out of it, and we got a motel in the run-down downtown area.

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145 miles.

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Nebraska, Nebraska!

In the morning I wanted to do a hike, but Päivi was itching to get on the road while traffic was low (she was not enjoying the 385 quite the way I was), and she won. The road actually started to get tamer than the section we had entered on, but it was still a beautiful run. The Black Hills are like a miniature version of the Rockies – the mountains are less high, the valleys and peaks are closer together, but the vegetation and general appearance is similar. The air was cool and freshly scented with pine, though many of the trees were falling prey to mountain pine beetles.

We made our first stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an incomplete mountain sculpture several times the scale of Mount Rushmore. Whatever you may think of the practice of carving mountains to human likeness, you can certainly choose your sides in the white man – Indian conflict here. Having become increasingly disillusioned with American political culture over the past decade, we visited Crazy Horse and left Rushmore for another time.

By the time of Crazy Horse, the mid 1800′s, the fate of the American Indian was becoming clear. Those tribes that still had the will and resources to fight, the Lakota, or Western Sioux foremost among them, were in their death throes. Crazy Horse led the Sioux in battle for some years, but ended up surrendering, but was apparently uneasy in captivity, and was killed, unarmed, possibly while resisting (accounts differ), at Fort Robinson in what is now Nebraska. The monument we were visiting was commissioned by surviving Lakota tribe leaders some decades after things were settled.

Päivi and I talked about what the monument meant while having lunch in the visitor center cafe. Many Americans, myself included, will speak with regret about how the Native Americans were treated, but we are here now, and it’s unclear what other outcomes were possible. And it seems to be a basic fact of human history that cultures overcome other cultures, whether physically, as in North America, or linguistically and socially, as in South America, or with the spread of Indo-European speech long ago in Europe. The reasons for victory are not always the same. The well-known book Guns, Germs, and Steel gives the named reasons, as well as availability of food crops and animals for domestication, for the spread of European cultures in the most recent half-millenium, and some propose that the Indo-European language, ancestor of nearly all the languages spoken from Europe to north India, spread with farming.

Although the process must be said to be a natural one in human development, the results are not always optimal. In recent times we’ve seen the Han Chinese spread to Tibet, creating the diaspora of a uniquely spiritual society, and we’ve seen Russia spreading across the Asian continent, and a large part of Europe as well. (And almost more of Europe, a subject rather sensitive to my Finnish wife.) And while it might not always be physical aggressivity at work, it seems there is often a certain “pushiness” in the cultures that do win out. We can wonder whether this is a unidirectional process, so that cultures get pushier and pushier over time, or if there is a kind of waxing and waning in which the pushy winner softens up after a while, eventually to be replaced by another no more pushy than it originally was. The example of the Roman Empire (and for that matter, the much shorter-lived Mongol one) seems to suggest this.

At any rate, we had to leave these topics and get back on our motorcycles. We headed down, next through Wind Cave National Park, which is actually not what you would expect. You might think it’s a place with rock formations carved and sculpted by the wind, including some cave-like portions. But actually it’s a traditional underground cave system formed by trickling water. Some 140 miles of passageways mapped so far, all found at multiple levels beneath just a square mile of surface. We did not grant ourselves the time to wait for and take a tour of the cave, because it would have taken up the whole afternoon and kept us from getting to Nebraska today. But we did stop and gawk at some of the buffalo herd that has been introduced to the national park lands.

Sometimes it’s unbelievable to imagine what American man in the 1800′s was able to accomplish. Not only was he cutting down vast tracts of forest in the east, but he was slaying millions of buffalo in the west. It’s hard to see what the populations of the time could possibly have done with all that wood, or understand why all these animals had to be killed.

We left Wind Cave and carried on down through the last bit of South Dakota into Nebraska, where we’d make our way over to Chadron and Chadron State Park. After all that we’d been seeing today it might seem that Nebraska would be pretty boring, but that was not the case. It was flatter than the prairie we’d been seeing lately, but also a little greener, and there was precious little to interrupt the view looking out from the road. It really felt like we had space; room to roam.

In the state park the hilliness returned, punctuated by rock outcroppings and scattered pine trees. Päivi went for a swim, and I headed out on a run up into the hills. The evening sun lost its glare and then set altogether, but the air remained warm, with brisk, cool breezes washing through up in the higher areas.

There was something intoxicating about the terrain here. Kind of like a rolling prairie with occasional rock outcroppings and occasional groves of trees. I felt like I could run forever through it, and somehow this mental energy translated to physical ability, since I ran far better than the shape I was in should have allowed me. As I mentioned before, a broad view on the prairie is a different matter from one on the ocean, or in the desert. In the ocean, you are tied to your boat, a big unwieldy contrivance (even something as big as a car is considered clumsy if it drives like a “boat”); without it you are dead. In the desert, you can go simply on foot unimpeded in any direction, but in most of those, again, you do not live long. The sense of freedom is not there.

And in fact the freedom you can feel in the prairie is related to the Buddhist state of enlightenment. One view or aspect of enlightenment is to be free of karma. This may sound strange. Karma as we have said is the result of cause and effect operating in the external world — how can one be free of that? But in Indian traditions, there is not necessarily an “external world”, and so more is under one’s own control than one may think.

How is there no external world? We have all heard the brain-in-the-vat thought experiment, or of Plato’s cave, in which all that we see, hear, and feel is just imagery projected on the wall of a cave, like a film. We sit immobile in the cave, thinking we move muscles and act in the world. But it is all the film, being adjusted to our every action and impulse. Or in modern terms, our brain is sitting in a vat in some superior scientist-being’s lab, and computer-generated electrical signals are fed in to the sensory nerves, while machines read the output of our motor nerves and adjust the computer’s signaling accordingly. Taken to an extreme, the entire universe that we can ever become aware of is contained within these signals. But if you remove the operator of the film projector, or controller of the nerve signaling machine, and put yourself in this place instead – identifying yourself with the divine – then you must accept that the universe is contained within our consciousness. This is sometimes called the microcosm-macrocosm identification.

So in the Buddhist view karma is not really a physical law, describing how bouncing billiard balls (people, atoms) interact, but a mental one, describing how past thoughts (or thoughts that become actions) affect future thoughts.

But let’s take a detour and think for a moment, of a leaf that has fallen into a stream. It is swept along by the current, bobbing up and down, flexing, stretching. Every such movement affects the internal structure of the leaf – perhaps a xylem or phloem passageway is broken or permanently warped, maybe a cell wall is ruptured. Or maybe even subtler changes take place, at the molecular level. Perhaps the orientation of a number of polymer bonds within some of the cellulose is reversed, for example. Any of these changes will affect how the leaf reacts when pushed by a microcurrent within the water immediately around it, which may then affect which way the leaf turns, or whether it dives below the surface at this particular moment, or stays on it. It may determine which larger current or eddy within the stream catches the leaf, and where it gets taken.

It might be said that our brain and therefore our mind is like the leaf, far more subtle since it receives sense impressions from so many more diverse sources, but essentially the same in the respect of past experience having its (complex, indirect) effect on future behavior. But when you combine this with the microcosm-macrocosm idea, you see this is karma.

And it is the Buddhist view that this is not a mandatory, required property of how the mind operates. It is something fungible, that can be overcome through a special kind of mental discipline. One can learn to act independently of past experience – or of worry over future fate – purely on the basis of the present situation. Of course us lower beings scarcely have a chance at that. We can only catch a scent of it, when finding ourselves in a situation with many options, whose consequences have little relation to our past or effect on our future. Like for example when finding oneself out in the middle of the prairie, with a pair of running shoes, on a clear day in the early evening.

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125 miles.

Posted in Colorado+ 2013, Motorcycle Trip, Philosophy | 1 Comment

Prairie to Mountains

One of the greatest things about doing a motorcycle trip out west, as opposed to, say, flying out and renting a bike, or trailering the bike behind your car, is that every day gets better than the last. It’s like the spring in Scandinavia or Alaska when you’re on one long rocketship ride up. In that case the daylight is getting longer – and your sensation of having free time growing greater – every day until you stop seeing darkness altogether. And on the trip west, each day the air gets fresher, the towns get fewer, the scenery gets more spectacular. You’re totally stoked each day, you can’t imagine anything topping what you’re experiencing, and then it still takes a step up.

Today was our first day back on the road after Päivi’s mishap, but we were optimistic because of how good the route looked. We’d start out by crossing the Missouri into the Mountain time zone, carry on through the increasingly dry and hilly prairie for a while, then dip south into the Badlands before swinging back north and west up into the Black Hills. Three major ecological zones in one day of riding – not bad at all.

The beginning went fairly well – we headed up into the grassy hills west of Pierre in optimistic spirits. Hay-making was apparently the thing here, as in many places we could see the rolled bales sitting in the fields, sometimes dotting out seemingly to the horizon in the case of some of the larger tracts of land. Every now and then we’d hit a field of sunflowers. Some of these were just spectacularly, gargantuanly large as well. Farming is just done on such a ridiculously large scale out here. It makes the valleys full of corn back home look like humble backyard gardens. Rolling hills of wheat. Sunflowers. Soybeans. It’s hard to believe humans can eat all of this. Here is the breadbasket of America.

Eventually things started to dry out a bit more, and occasional cattle began to make their appearance. The first hints of being out west were beginning to assert themselves. We stopped at a corner gas station to have our lunch, chatting with a small group of Harley riders returning from – you guessed it – Sturgis. While this was happening a guy got out of a pickup truck towing a horse trailer, wearing a cowboy hat. Yes, Virginia, they really do still wear those things out west.

We left and veered south for a while to hook through the badlands. The feature that gives this area its name consists of columns and mounds of what looks like rain-melted rock-dirt. All sorts of questions spring to mind. How did the rest get washed away? Why doesn’t the remaining part that we see wash away, since it seems like a few good rainstorms would finish it off? Why is all of this occurring only in this small area, while everything else around is just normal prairie? Unfortunately the National Park brochure had very little to say about any of this.

After the badlands we headed on a long, hot journey west across a pretty much uninhabited area. The road wasn’t much inhabited either, and we were really relying on our bikes to pull us through to another place of civilization. Though when they did we were only too glad to be heading out of it: Rapid City, SD. I guess we weren’t desperate enough for civilization yet to enjoy stop-and-go traffic on busy 4-lane roads.

However once we headed out of there (on Route 44 as we’d come in) things started to get interesting again. Right away we were climbing up and winding around: into the Black Hills. The Black Hills, treasured by the Sioux, coveted by the gold-seeking white man. It was another broken treaty in a long string of broken treaties when we took the Black Hills, and the battles over the Sioux homeland were one of the closing chapters of the American conquest of the west. This topic is for later, and for now I’ll say it was very refreshing to come up into the mountains after the hot, dry prairie. Here there were trees, water, and cool air. And the roads were pretty enjoyable too. Highway 385 especially was an amazing road, where we came upon it – a tortuously twisting tunnel through tree-lined slopes.

We camped at the Pactola reservoir in idyllic conditions.

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225 miles.

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Still South Dakota

Last night another guest was out in the parking lot at our motel checking out our bikes. Of course I wanted to check his out too, since it was a non-Harley :-) and did so while we talked. A Honda ST 1300 it was, a slick, fast sport tourer. Which reminded me that despite this being a motorcycle blog I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning what motorcycles we’re riding. Well for whatever it’s worth, I’m on a Kawasaki Versys and she’s on a Vulcan 500. We both love our bikes and they’re awesome, but this is a blog about motorcycling not motorcycles, so we’ll leave it at that. Anyway the ST 1300 rider was a pretty nice guy and had ridden up to Fargo, North Dakota to watch his local team in some kind of regional little leagure tournament. It’s summer and that’s the kind of thing you do if you’re a rider living out in this part of the country I guess. If you ask me, it doesn’t seem too bad.

Today for the first time we had a little adversity to deal with. To cut to the chase, someone took a spill on their bike. As is many times the case with accidents, a string of several instances of both poor judgment and bad luck were involved.

We woke up in the morning determined to get an early start. Also, I wanted to stop off at the park we would have camped at the night before, since I’d been there multiple times and felt some connection to the place. Unfortunately it was quite foggy, perhaps due to the rain evaporating off from the night before. And so we rode off at moderated speed for the conditions, eventually turning off the highway to take the local roads to the park itself. Here we moderated speed even further, but we had 10 miles to go and so didn’t drop it off perhaps as much as we should have. And so we were going along at one point when without any warning the paved road turned to a dirt one. My first thought was “Oh sh!t” and I let off the throttle to try to lose some speed before the bike would get thrown by some irregularity in the dirt/gravel and plow over. This worked out well, but then my second thought was also “Oh sh!t” and I looked into my rear view mirror to see how Päivi was handling the situation. And then my third thought was “Oh sh!t” again because she was already down.

OK, so the post-mortem. Poor judgment number one was wimping out of camping at the park last night because of a little wet grass. Bad luck number one was the poor weather that caused us to do this. Bad luck number two was the fog, and poor judgment number two leaving early in the morning anyway instead of waiting for it to lift. Bad luck number three was the unpaved road, which turned out to be only a 500 foot section that was for some bizarre reason left that way. And poor judgment number three was the carrying of excess speed along an unpredictable country road in the fog.

With all of this working against us it may have been more of a miracle if nothing had happened. Fortunately the injuries to both Päivi and her bike were minor enough that we could chalk it up as a learning experience and continue.

We made our way west to the next big town, Pierre, and there called a halt for the day to rest and lick our wounds. Probably not a bad thing overall to have some rest, and we made a point of getting a motel that had a pool and a hot tub. In the evening we had a stroll along the sandbar-filled Missouri river and I found my first IPA since Wisconsin.

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95 miles.

Posted in Colorado+ 2013, Motorcycle Trip | 2 Comments

South Dakota!

People probably think I’m crazy when I say South Dakota is one of my favorite states, but it is. It’s a state like California or New York that has more than a bit of everything. Today we rode on US 14 through the eastern half, which is mainly prairie. The views which had been growing steadily broader through Minnesota went out to infinity now; only the curvature of the earth prevented us from seeing further. Yes, you can see this on the sea, but that’s water: not our element. On land when you see to the horizon you feel it in your bones that you can GO to the horizon. The Great Plains are special.

We passed lots of motorcycles going in both directions. The reason, which we’d learned a day or two ago, went by the funny name of “Sturgis”. Every August there’s a large motorcycle rally out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, centered around a town by that name. This year it was August 5-11, and this weekend is the finish. So we’re seeing a lot of bikes heading back after spending most of the week there, and a lot of bikes heading out for the tail end. Our arms are getting tired from all the waving we were doing.

Most of the bikes were Harley-Davidsons of course. There are whole essays to be written here, but to put it simply, while riders of sport bikes are after speed, cruiser riders want to cruise, and adventure bikers like myself are after, well, adventure, Harley riders are in it for motorcycling itself. The whole experience is raised to an art form: the bike, the chrome, the sound, the seating position – it’s all about freedom, of a particularly American kind. No matter that they’re more expensive than Japanese, or even Italian or German bikes, no substitute will do: it must be an American motorcycle for an American dream. The engine and its sound must be physically felt, the seat should place one in an attitude of dignity, and the vehicle should be simple but perfect in its details. The open road is an important component of the experience slash lifestyle as well, but only a component, no more or less important than any other. It’s not just about the ride, it’s about independence.

And yet we humans need to idolize – we do not do well with the abstract, but want to make it concrete. How do we draw freedom? Supposing we experience it while motorcycling, do we draw a motorcycle? Do we have our paintings, our mirrors, and our t-shirts emblazoned with generic two-wheeled vehicles? No. We need clarity, we need specificity, we need personification. Freedom is depicted in black and orange, and it is spelled Harley-Davidson.

It’s always interesting when I meet Harley riders, and I imagine it’s the same for non-Harley and Harley riders everywhere. We don’t quite know what to make of each other, but there is still a foundation of respect nonetheless. Maybe it’s like a Muslim meeting a Christian. Both agree on the Old Testament, both are satisfied that there is one God, but then they lose it from there. Was Christ a prophet or the son of God? To one it’s merely a detail, to the other it makes all the difference. And just who was this Mohammed fellow anyway? Yes, we are both motorcycle riders, out there taking the same risks and making the same sacrifices, and we even do it for some of the same reasons. But we know deep down that there are fundamental differences.

For one it’s a hobby, for the other, a philosophy of life. One is interested in the ride, and one is interested in the ridING. We can try to ignore these things, sweep them under the rug, but it’s painfully obvious in everything from the bike down to the clothing and the choice of what helmet to wear, or whether to wear one at all. So we exchange some pleasantries, maybe even swap a story or two, but it usually dies off from there.

I’m never sure whether outsiders recognize these lines or not. From a distance, I’m sure we all just look like motorcyclists. And indeed, everyone we meet is asking us the same question: “So are you going TO Sturgis or coming back from Sturgis?” They see our bikes, they see us, but still they ask this! Sturgis, motorcycle rallies everywhere, are about and for motorcycling. But we are here for the ride.

Anyway, we carried on through South Dakota enjoying the endless vistas of corn, soybeans, or just plain grass (yes as I said, crazy), and gradually we saw an increasing dark grayness looming ahead of us in the west. It was thicker and heavier to the south, and we wondered whether we should try jogging our route north. But we haven’t reached that kind of mercurial attitude yet where we are willing to abandon our chosen route at the whims of the weather. That will come later. For now we are on the 14 and we feel bound to the 14. This or that city is coming up in such and such many miles, and we are expecting it and don’t want to be thrown off by it. Going north will be a waste when we want to go west and eventually south (to Colorado). It’ll mess up all our planned moves if we get off the 14 now. And so we ride until we feel the first drops, then stop to put our rain gear on before heading gamely like headless chickens into the teeth of it.

It turns out not to be that bad, but over the 20 miles we go until the next stop, the water still has time to work its way into various cracks that are not protected – my boots, Päivi’s gloves, both of our collars. Somehow we find this unpleasant, although it’s warm summer and the wetness can do no harm. So we wait it out in a library and then carry on after it stops, deciding to motel it again rather than camp in wet grass.

On the way into the town we’ll stay in we pass through a suburban section where we happen to notice a family out on their front lawn relaxing the evening away. Then out of the corner of my eye just as I pass I see a cream-colored blob moving close to the street. In my rear view mirror I watch in slow motion a poodle dash out into the road right in front of Päivi. I think for sure she’s going to hit it and go over, but miraculously it makes it past her – only to be plowed into by the minivan coming up in the lane to her left. A neighbor or friend sprints from the other side into the road where it happened, and the minivan pulls over to turn around and go back. We can see the family and the friend are mad at the car and worry a bit for the fate of the obviously good-hearted person going back to see what amends they can make in the situation. But there was nothing he or she could do. Clearly it was the time for this dog and it rushed forward to meet its fate with all speed and energy. And yet so surely we are all doing the same in one form or another.

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196 miles.

Posted in Colorado+ 2013, Motorcycle Trip | 3 Comments

Into the Prairie

We awoke early but had a leisurely morning, ultimately heading out at 9. Still a record by about an hour. Our first road, Minnesota 60 West, was an excellent one – delicious curves, good, smooth pavement, and no traffic. We ate it up, passing through a few small towns of the one-gas-station variety. It took us along the Zumbro River through a series of small hills and bluffs west of the Mississippi for a couple of hours, then the road started to straighten out.

The land began flattening out as well, and the distance we could see in an unobstructed view was increasing. We were coming to the Prairie. I’m not going to rewrite what I have before about it, but suffice it to say I find the prairie a cleansing, energizing place. I personally had never known it begins in Minnesota until riding out this way 6 years before. That time it was late afternoon after a day of hard riding when I started seeing signs telling me I was on the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway” as I was getting towards the western half of Minnesota. Some time after that I saw a sign for the “Sod House” and pulled off to check it out. This time now I did so again, with Päivi this time, a couple of hours earlier in the day.

Here you can actually see and walk around and in a couple of sod houses, built using the same techniques as the pioneers, wood-starved in a vast grassland, used. It’s on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, but they’ve allowed the grass to grow in the area around the sod houses, even going so far as to plant the varieties believed to have held sway when white settlers first arrived around 150 years ago. It’s hard to describe the effect this has, but it’s a completely different thing than visiting an old house in the middle of a city, or looking at furnishings in a museum. All you can hear and feel outside is the prairie wind, and you smell the grass, the flowers, and the farm. You ARE in the prairie of a hundred years ago.

We eventually had to leave here and continue on our way, at least another 10 miles into Lamberton. We decided to stop here since I had good memories of the place, despite it being where my motorcycle had its only breakdown on my previous trip. This time we stayed in a motel, mainly because we’d been two days without showers and you can only get away with much more of that if you’re traveling by yourself. You do get into a certain rhythm though after a while though. Ride motorcycle during day, stopping occasionally at gas stations for snacks and necessities. Get dinner in a town somewhere, then stop at campsite for night, put up the tent, collapse to sleep early. Get up early, have coffee and maybe some oatmeal, and do it all again. Shaving, shampooing, and other such things get forgotten in the simple routines of life on the road.

Anyway, Lamberton is truly an idyllic prairie town. Clean, well-kept streets, quiet with little traffic, and people leave their bikes unchained, leaning up against houses or parked outside the ice cream parlor. You can walk across the entire town, a grid of a few streets in each direction, in about 15 minutes, and when it comes to an end you stare across green fields to the blue horizon. It’s a place that appeals to the simple man in me, although I am sure that if I lived there all of my complications would follow me. As I said before, we make those for ourselves, and the only way to free yourself from them temporarily is to go on the road.

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Päivi adjusting her pack on a roadside stop. Going through this sort of thing last time was why I’d bought hard luggage for my bike. But you can’t get that setup for every motorcycle.

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You know you are getting west when most of the side roads off the highway are dirt roads leading to nowhere.

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Sod house, seen from the outside.

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Sod house, on the inside. Up until a few years ago, you could actually sleep here!

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One of the most beautiful aspects of the prairie are the flowers

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Church in a medium sized town along the way.

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Our motel in Lamberton. A humble place that was clearly having trouble getting sufficient numbers of guests, but it was cared for. And that makes all the difference.

176 miles.

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Across the Mississippi

In the morning the mosquitos were a little bit less bad, but still made their presence felt. I spent some time cleaning my bike anyway, as a lot of the oil from the chain had accumulated on my exhaust and was generating unpleasant burning odors noticeable whenever I stopped. Then we had some coffee, packed up, and headed off.

As I mentioned yesterday, Taliesin, the longtime residence of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was in the area, and we dropped by to see if we could see it. Unfortunately, you could only see it via tour, and the tours that didn’t involve us losing a day were sold out. We would have been curious to see Taliesin, but if we were that much Frank Lloyd Wright fans we would have made reservations in advance – as, apparently, most people did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright trash container.

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Taliesin

Undeterred, we headed on the the so-called “House on the Rock”, which was a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright acid dream. Built by an otherwise undistinguished man known as Alex Jordan during the early and mid 1900s, this place consisted of Japanese gardens surrounding a sprawling residence alternating between winding, cavelike spaces and broad panels of windows looking out on the verdant Wisconsin scenery. A combination of genius and madness if we ever saw one.

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Then after a McDonald’s / internet stop we got down to motorcycling. Along the Wisconsin river and then up the Mississippi to La Crosse, then over to the Minnesota side for further travel up until we reached (another) Highway 60 that would take us west across the state. Here however daylight was starting to fail us, and we stopped and camped in Kruger state recreation area. It was slightly less buggy than the night before.

Another thing we noticed was different was the smell of the night. The aroma of the evening air is surely one of the most distinctive features about a place. In the Finger Lakes where we live it is a kind of blend of woody and flowery scents, almost intoxicating on some summer nights. In northern New England the pines take over, while going west the smell remains woody with increasing hints of grass. Now here in the Minnesota evening it is nearly all grass, and that as much as anything is telling us of what is to come..

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206 miles.

Posted in Colorado+ 2013, Motorcycle Trip | 1 Comment