My riding season consists of several things: taking the 1st 70 degree day off work, taking in a bike show or two, a local charity ride or two, a bike night or two, riding to work, and one big trip. Having gone to the Smokey Mountains in ’15, ’16, ’17, and ’18 I wanted to do something different this year. My sister (a crazy person) moved to Idaho, and I had the beginnings of a plan.
I knew I wanted to avoid the “Sturgis Scene”, but the timing worked out to be hitting South Dakota as Sturgis was closing out. I talked to people who had been and I was assured that Sturgis was mostly over by this point and finding a place to sleep wouldn’t be a problem. With the beginnings of a route in mind, I put out the call for riders: the timing was bad, work was too busy, the distance was too far. Only one rider could make it work: good ole Wingnut Dave.
Since I had only recently moved over to a 2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, I was still in the process of outfitting the bike and trying some new gear myself. As I approached doing 5,000mi service on Black Sunshine, I added a few things:
- Kuryakyn Highway Pegs – need that alternate leg position
- Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – I was skeptical that the “Gunfighter” seat new to the 2019 Chieftain line would be good enough for touring and wanted a little softer seat. I turned out to be more than right…
- Indian Aftermarket ThunderTrunk – $1k for a trunk with Corbin Backrest vs. $4k for the oem trunk? Worth a try.
- Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I liked the idea of having clear glasses, flashlight, sunscreen etc. close at hand.
- Cardo PackTalk Bold – Wingnut Dave had long used a CB system on his ‘Wing, but I thought this would be an easier entry to road communication. This meant in addition to my usual half helmet I’d be bringing a modular helmet.
Day 1: Motorcycling is Mindfulness
My family, Wingnut Dave, and myself were all attending a conference at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells. I was speaking on my favorite topic: mindfulness meditation. As the conference wound down, the siren call of the road was too powerful to ignore, and we left with a first day goal of reaching Fairmont, MN. Heading West on I-90 is just as straight, flat, and boring as you can imagine. After reaching the hotel we picked up some of the necessary supplements for traveling together: microbrew, bourbon ( I had accidentally left my flask at home ) and some Fireball. Dinner that night was great at the Bean Town Grill.
Day 2: Fairmont to Keystone
The weather attempted to make it exciting by providing some of the worst headwinds I’ve ever ridden through: leaning at a 45 degree angle just to keep from being blown off the road at 80mph. We did see at least one bike down headed East. For the entire day we didn’t pass nor were we passed by a single bike headed West, but we did see hundreds of bikes going East presumably headed home after Sturgis.
If you’re heading out here, a National Parks annual pass might be worth it. It would turn out that I spent more money on park entrance fees than I did on beer this trip. As for Badlands National Park, I’ll let the video speak for the beauty.
Bed for the night was the excellent and biker-friendly Powder House Lodge.
The restaurant here was pretty good as well, serving me the first of many bison meals on this trip. I had a fantastic view, and once I went back to my room for the night I was completely overcome by gratitude. I was on an 8 day trip (with padding for weather), I was on a new bike with all the gear I could want, my wife was at home taking care of the kids, I was seeing one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I recall feeling so grateful I could just sit and stare.
Day 3: Taking It All In
Today was the day I got to see why people return to the Black Hills area again and again.
The motel was directly on the Iron Mountain Road so we were able to do most of this completely by accident as we made our way to various other attractions. First up was Mount Rushmore, which I had not seen in at least 30 years. I stared at the mountain, I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in America, and I don’t have anything new to say about Mount Rushmore.
Next up we went to the Needles Highway. This both contained some of the most technical switchbacks of the entire trip, and yet also failed to live up to the hype. It was a bit like the Tail of the Dragon: while technical the views are largely limited by trees and too many cars. We followed a truck hauling watercraft that I dubbed “Captain Canoe” for most of the road.
While I’d been obsessing over some parts of the trip for months, I went into the Crazy Horse Memorial knowing nothing about it other than a little about the historical figure, Crazy Horse. From the photos, it’s hard to get a feel for the scale, but all of Mount Rushmore would fit on his forehead. When finished, it will be the world’s largest sculpture and include a University for Native Americans. The story of the treatment of Native Americans by the US Government is… unflattering. For the second time on this trip I was completely overwhelmed. We took a bus down to the base of the mountain, and our guide suspects they might finish the sculpture in another 70 years. As of 2019, they were working on the knuckles of his hand. We had some ‘meh’ tatanka stew and an excellent microbrew and headed for deadwood.
I expected Sturgis proper to still be a complete shitshow, but since I’d recently been watching the HBO series I wanted to see Deadwood, SD. There are various plaques an callouts to the town’s history, but otherwise if you’ve seen one town overrun by bikers, you’ve seen them all. At a different time, on a different trip, I could see myself spending a couple of days here enjoying living music and people-watching, but the clouds rolled in and I’m not a big fan of treacherous mountain roads while they’re wet.
We did catch a bad lightning storm: it has to be pretty bad for me to wait one out at a gas station but this one did it. We got back to the Powder House Lodge cold and hungry and some Elk steak put me back into the right frame of mind.
Day 4: Boring and Amazing
Day 4 was going to put us within striking distance of what I was most excited about: Beartooth Pass. I’m sorry to say that Wyoming is … mostly terribly boring to drive through. The last time I had come out West, there was a point where I could no longer get 91 octane gas, yet somehow had good luck until I was nearly home. Getting closer to the end of the day we finally had some nice scenery at Big Horn Pass. I’ve only ridden in the Smokey Mountains before, which I now feel like “aren’t real mountains” compared to the Rockies. I was not ready for the 30 degree temperature swings as we went up and down in elevation. The views were spectacular though. At the top of BigHorn pass, we met some folks who had flown in from Australia and rented bikes to do the Black Hills area.
I guess getting through Wyoming was worth it.
We ended the day at the Bear Tooth Hideaway in Red Lodge, MT. In all my travels, by bike and otherwise, this was the first hotel hot tub that was actually hot. Nothing like heat & jets to soothe a biker’s ass after a thousand miles of travel on a new seat. At the recommendation of hotel staff, we ate at Foster and Logans pub and it was fantastic. In one of the awesome coincidences that happen on the road, two folks sat down next to us and we started talking. They were both from Wisconsin.
This was such a cool place, I can see coming back for the Beartooth Rally some day.
I got up the following morning and followed the sound of running water, literally 15ft across the street from the motel. This is what I saw:
This place will spoil you for views. Every little bit you see a scene worthy of a calendar or postcard. Why does anyone choose to live anyplace less beautiful? It’s complicated.
Day 5: The Big Event
I had been dreaming of going over Beartooth Pass on US 212.
It did not disappoint.
This is the best road in the mainland USA.
Beartooth pass is technically a good road: meaning there are technically difficult switchbacks, great sweeping turns, and tons of elevation changes. What really makes this the best road in the US are the views: majestic Rocky Mountain views around every corner. One second you’re focusing on leaning the bike and looking as far through the corner as you can to avoid a stray elk or errant cager, the next moment you’re confronted with a godlike vision of the landscape … and then you need to focus on negotiating that next turn. What good are guardrails if your bike stops and you keep going over the handlebars just in time for a 7,000 ft hill roll?
This repeating rote of joy –> life-or-death moment –> beauty –> life-or-death moment –> gratitude –> life-or-death moment is why we love motorcycling. What better way to appreciate the value of every heartbeat and every conscious thought of life than to risk it in a dangerous yet controlled experiment? What better assertion of your skill and confidence than to challenge the mountain to kill you and walk away with your life the victor?
In “The Life of David Gale”, Kevin Spacey’s character tells us we’re never happier than when we’re thinking about future happiness, and the Art of Manliness tells us that Anticipation is a powerful source of dopamine, but after months of anticipation I feel like I was perfectly happy in each moment climbing Beartooth Pass, and then I was happy in each moment descending since I got to experience the same level of scenery but also be warming up foot by foot.
The top is around 10,900 ft in elevation which was enough for me to have a little trouble breathing. I’ve been as high as Pike’s Peak (14k ft) and this isn’t that bad, but you notice.
As we went through Yellowstone, I was thrilled to see tons of buffalo, one of them 5ft away on the side of the road. Wingnut Dave got yet another earful of my incredible vocabulary through the intercom: “Holy fuck, fuck fuck fuck, a buffalo, right fucking there!”
Yellowstone might be the hardest part of the trip for me to describe. I have been here before, but it’s been a good 30 years. I felt a lot of gratitude rolling through Yellowstone, this time for my parents. My folks took us kids on a ton of epic road trips when we were younger, and I’m sure that’s a part of my wanderlust and my appreciation for these landscapes today. Yellowstone is just … so big. It’s not just mountains, it’s tremendous plains, far away are tremendous mountains. There are rivers, waterfalls, sulphur springs. The air is so clean you can see forever, it’s impossible to know if you could reach the mountains across the plains in a day, or two weeks.
Maybe you can get a little taste of Beartooth Highway and Yellowstone with these videos:
After we were a ways into Yellowstone it was time to separate from Wingnut Dave for a day and a half. I was going to see family in Idaho, and he was riding the Sawtooths and other awesome roads in Northern Idaho.
Day 6: Family and Rest
After Yellowstone, I road down into Central Idaho and spent some time with family in Pocatello. I did not get the adventure that Wingnut Dave got, but I can tell you for sure that Idaho is a well-kept secret. It has a little bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, and the alien landscape of its Southern neighbor Utah. It has more river frontage than any other state except Alaska. Idaho requires a lot more exploration.
I was mauled by nieces and nephews I seldom see, and I ran out exploring Pocatello for a while. The small city hosts at least two micro breweries and a lot of one way streets. I got lunch and a lot of samples at the Port Neuf Brewery in old Downtown. Arriving, I parked next to an ancient Kawasaki touring bike that turned out to belong to the owner or manager. He mentioned that some other bikers had been through recently: nice folks from Australia who went a long way towards drinking the place dry. Based on my description, and the unlikelihood of multiple Australian parties in the area, it had to be the same folks I met at the top of BigHorn.
We drank beers, and grilled stakes, and watched Aliens and did the things that families do. I stayed up too late, but still met Wingnut Dave on time the next morning.
Day 7: Back Roads into Steamboat Springs
The goal today was to make tracks for the small Skiing town of Steamboat Springs, CO. We could get there by avoiding the freeway which meant some more time in Wyoming, and to my pleasant surprise, Utah.
Wyoming is so sparsely populated, this was the only place I was legitimately worried about running out of gas. Up until this point we had remarked that we had pulled into whatever local joints looked good and not had a single bad meal. I won’t say we had a “bad” meal, but the food and service at the Badlands Lanes Saloon wasn’t great either.
I had recently done a family reunion in Southwestern Utah, and immediately realized I had to come back on the bike. The landscapes are amazing: red rock mountains, black volcanic rock, bizarre sunsets. Being in Utah makes you think you’re on Mars. We hadn’t planned it, but our 2-lane roads took us into Utah for a while, and I was not disappointed.
Despite having ridden thousands of miles with Wingnut Dave, I do not recall him having an obsessive bike-cleaning habit before now. My bike had collected so many insects, he was begging me to clean it, or even let him clean it. I let the bugs stay until the next time we hit rain.
Steamboat Springs is a typical Colorado Ski town: food, stores, and hotels that a town this size couldn’t support without the powdery slopes. Despite not being ski season, it was fairly busy. We stayed on the East end of town closest to the Rockies, and had some great barbeque and local microbrews at the Steamboat Smokehouse.
In yet another example of the great people you meet on the road, we met some folks in the hotel hot tub who do off-road riding in Utah.
If you’re in an area without too much light pollution, the night sky in Colorado is worth the trip. Another great day.
Day 8: Rocky Mountain National Park
The idea for day 8 was to conquer Rocky Mountain National Park, have lunch in Estes Park, CO, and part ways until next time.
Do you want to know the definition of being spoiled? Seeing this kind of scenery and thinking “Yea but Beartooth was better…” Rocky mountain national park is epic.
Of course there’s some video as well.
As we descended, I had to remind myself that the rest of the way home would be solo. I thought about the last time I had to say goodbye to Wingnut Dave, and it seems unreal that it’s really a year in between these big trips. We both had long, boring, high-miles trips across the plains to get home, but first one more local restaurant. This one just said “Restaurant” on the side, which is usually a sign you’re entering a greasy spoon that might make you wish you’d found a George Webbs instead. Once again, we got lucky, and the “Restaurant” was an excellent spot called Bird & Jim. It’s a reminder of how the Internet has spread things like “Food culture” to every corner of the world. Here we are in Estes Park, CO, and the first place we find has an eclectic menu including some gourmet hipster chili-cheese dogs with house made chili and 4 cheeses.
Yes, I ate them both.
After we parted ways, I had about 30 minutes of gorgeous mountain roads, then a couple of hours of getting through smaller cities north of Denver: 99 degrees and “it’s 2pm on a Thursday whythefuckisitsobusy?” traffic.
Helmets: I had been wearing a modular/full helmet up to this point to use the Cardo Packtalk. When we parted ways I switched back to my half helmet. I hate to admit how much I like having my ears & face uncovered: it’s far less fatiguing from a noise perspective, and your connection to everything around you is so much more real. I have to admit that wearing a half helmet is pretty damn close to not wearing a helmet.
As I rolled through Nebraska, I had the 2nd close call with gas this trip. I stopped in a true shithole gas station that only had 87 octane, and used my Octane Booster for the first and only time this trip. Obviously modern engines have anti-knock technology, but the last time I was in SD I put a few takes of 87 in my Victory and I felt like it “wasn’t quite right” until the next tune up, so I carry octane boost with me.
My target was to make it to Grand Island, NE this day. I had found a hotel that looked pretty close to the river, and had a local BBQ joint in the same parking lot. I barely beat a wicked looking lightning storm in, only to find a mixed bag of luck: the local BBQ joint had closed, the Arby’s in the gas station was still open, and the hot tub was open until 11pm. I swallowed my “no chain restaurants” pride and got a snack at Arby’s. I sat in the hotel hot tub with a can of The Banquet Beer and reflected on my trip so far. This hotel was the only one that would let me park under the front pavilion, so I finally got a picture to match my favorite shot of Red Sonya under the pavilion in Kentucky.
… and a good thing too! I had barely beat the storm, and it did pour that night. Not a big deal, but it does take some work to dry out my sheepskin butt pad.
Day 9: Freeways home
Every time I take a trip, it seems I leave myself with a 600-700mi last day and a grind getting through Chicago to get home. This Friday morning, the Indian Ride Command gps said 645mi to home and the weather showed a couple hours riding through rain right away in the morning. I hate wearing rain gear (I probably just have uncomfortable, shitty gear) so when I’m not in danger of getting too cold, I prefer to just roll through it and dry out on the road.
It was 10am in Nebraska, I had my half helmet on, my music on, and I was doing 80mph through the rain. Yes rain hurts your face at 80 but it wasn’t raining super hard. I was sad that my trip was nearly over, but excited to see my wife and kids. All of a sudden, I realized that this rain on the freeway was going to massively clean up all the bugs I’d accumulated on this trip, and how happy that would make Wingnut Dave. I started laughing uncontrollably, and my mood went through the roof. I was singing along with my music at the top of my lungs, passing cars, and loving life. I can only hope there were dinner table conversations that night “So this biker was getting rained on and absolutely plastered with road water by the big rigs but was smiling and singing, I’ll bet he was taking the drugs!” Every day above ground is a good day, something bikers understand better than most.
I stopped for dinner and didn’t get home until about 10pm. My great trip of 2019 over, it was good to be home safe.
3,400 miles, though I had planned just over 4,000. What a great road trip.
So how did all the new gear perform?
- Kuryakyn Highway Pegs – I should have just taken these off my previous bike before I traded it in. These pegs are great and adjustable enough to try different things. One wrench and some allen wrenches I’d be carrying anyway and they’re easy to adjust on the road.
- Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – This was a big help, since the stock seat sucks for touring (see below). I do feel like it lives up to the promise of helping keep you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool as the 30 degree mountain temperature swings proved. It does get wet and collect overnight dew easily, so be prepared with a cover or to have dry hotel towels to dry it off in the morning.
- Indian Aftermarket ThunderTrunk – I feel like it “bounces” a little bit during travel, but this was a great $1k spent, especially when you consider that an Indian brand sissy bar is $900, and this is a much nicer backrest + storage + luggage rack.
- Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I like this, it’s super convenient, and the exotic magnets stick this so firmly to the tank I have no worries of it ever falling off, yet also no worries of it scratching the tank. It’s about the right size to hold extra sunglasses, flashlight, iPass, sunscreen, etc. In addition it has a see-through top section that I could use for hand-written directions if I wanted. My only complaint is that it’s too tall with the stock handlebars: meaning if I’m backing the bike around a parking lot sharp turns will hit the hand controls: radio volume on the left side and electric windshield on the right side.
- Cardo PackTalk Bold – This took some getting used to. Installation is key: make sure when you install this that the speakers are RIGHT under where your ears are, even if your ears do not quite line up to the “ear holes” in your helmet – otherwise volume will be intolerably low. On balance, being able to call to each other to block a lane, “watch out for that pothole”, “Hey dude there’s no left arrow don’t go yet!”, was a net positive over the increased noise fatigue and loss of peripheral vision that came with wearing the full helmet. Road noise would indeed have made the system useless, so you do need a helmet that can shield the mic or a tall enough windshield that there’s not any actual wind in your face. We even discussed on a larger ride that it’d be useful just having 2 people with this system riding lead & sweep to block lanes, etc.
- Sedici Modular Helmet – Good helmet, versatile, but it made me really appreciate my half helmet after 2500 miles. I guess I should admit that my half helmet is very close to not wearing a helmet.
- GoPro – I was worried about not having enough storage, so recorded video in 1080p instead of 4k. This was a mistake, it could be the GoPro, or it could be YouTube, but even though I don’t have a 4k TV, the 4k video looks outrageously better. I need to keep working on a better GoPro mount, and always do 4k in the future.
What About the Bike?
What about the Indian Chieftain?
All in all, I’m still super happy with this bike. The infotainment is fantastic and the GPS is extremely helpful on a trip like this. The bike is torque-y, good-looking, and has awesome storage. It proved it’s handling chops a thousand times over on the mountain switchbacks. My complaints are few and all fixable:
- Indian has to fix the Ride Command app. It crashes 100% of the time when I load my 4,000mi route. Since I started planning my next ride I notice it also breaks terribly when planning routes that involve Canada. You can only adjust your route on a full desktop/laptop computer, not a phone, and no one is carrying a laptop on a roadtrip like this. Indian needs to keep investing in this app.
- The “gunfighter” seat standard on the 2019 Chieftain models seems woefully inadequate for touring. I dare say I have a narrower-than-average ass, and the seat is still too narrow to provide long-haul support. I can tell from my multiple-IronButt experience that I could ride basically forever on this bike with a better seat.
- The bike is a torque monster, but when trying to pass at highway speeds… the claimed 79HP stock is just not enough. I don’t want to ride a GoldWing, but I also don’t want to be embarrassed by a GoldWing in passing maneuvers. I’m going to spend some money (hopefully not as much $$$$ as the 116 kit) to see if I can get some more HP without sacrificing that delicious torque.
I got so many compliments on this bike. The adjustable windshield, the audio, the storage, the ground clearance – it was all so excellent on this 3500mi trip. I just need to do a little more to make it perfect.