Earlier this year, having just gotten back from riding to Missouri, I was planning on riding to Key West, FL. It looked like we’d defeated COVID and things were generally looking up. After a rough 2020, I was going to put 10,000mi on the new Challenger in 2021.
Then I got a promotion at work, and the Delta Variant looked to be likely to shut Key West down again, so I was looking for a consolation prize ride. I talked to the usual suspects to see if they were available, and was actually planning a ride to the UP of Michigan again. Harley Mark had never been to the Tomahawk rally, though, and everyone agreed that camping 1 night and some North Woods riding would be great. Me, Harley Mark, and Lefty started making plans.
Of course, we share a chat room with Wingnut Dave, and Wingnut Dave does not have kids and is crazy to boot. Wingnut Dave (in Georgia) says to save him a spot because he’ll be at my door by 3pm Friday. Adding an unnamed friend of Harley Mark, and five dudes crashed in the Fox Valley Friday night before a fantastic Saturday of riding in late September.
Most of the gear I’m wearing is quite a few years old, but I seem to keep picking new things up here & there. Having watched way too much DanDanTheFireMan lately, I decided to make a small sacrifice to safety, and got a new Skull Riderz armored flannel.
Harley Mark’s to Bubba’s
I’ve been user Revr to plan rides since the ride to West Virginia earlier this year. Revr is great for finding roads, but shit for copying the route to a different GPS. Until we get Revr integration directly into the infotainment of the major motorcycle brands, be prepared to add a dozen unnecessary way-points to hit the roads you planned on riding.
We stopped by Doc’s Harley Davidson in Shawano, which is a truly nutty place you have to see if you’re ever up here. Live alligators, a pirate ship, and a vintage car museum? Yea, you have to see it.
Highway 55 northwest through Wisconsin is a fantastic road, and very well maintained. In general it was a fantastic day of riding up to Bubba’s Campground to set up camp.
If you are going to go to Tomahawk and have time to ride, hit HWY 107 down to Merrill:
Once we’d ridden to Merrill and back, it was time to eat. If you’ve ever seen my previous camping excursions, you know I basically just have to overdo it. I had packed my soft-side Bison cooler with some fantastic ribeye steaks, some mushrooms, and onions.
Bubba’s Big Party
With our stomachs full, we decided to mosey over to Bubba’s Big Party. I don’t really have pics of this because the bands were cover bands I hadn’t heard of this year, unlike the amazing Little Texas in 2018.
A New Tradition
When we were getting close to Tomahawk, it turned out that Lefty knew some people who had a toy hauler and had a big ole campground marked off. Turns out everywhere we go Lefty knows someone, often to great advantage like the Hank Jr. concert we caught at WI State Fair. We had a big ole fire, all the ice we needed, and company.
In Wisconsin, this rally is often treated as the end of the riding season. Of course, I’m too stubborn for that and me and my fleece-lined Duluth fire hose pants and heated gear keep rolling until it snows. But I have grown to appreciate the beaty of the North Woods and this perfectly fits into a weekend.
I think the Tomahawk fall rally is going to turn into a tradition for us.
For two years, the ‘rona fucked over a dream trip to a cabin on an island in Alaska for dad and I. It seems like it would have worked out in 2021, but at the time we had to make a decision it was still sketchy. Shake hands with the wrong person and all the sudden I’m stuck in Alaska for a couple weeks of quarantine while my wife has to deal with the kids without me: no thanks. A canoe trip through a truly off the grid wilderness in Missouri was our consolation prize.
Meanwhile, I got the trunk & backrest on The Crow:
Due to the cost of an OEM color-matched trunk, I resisted this for YEARS. The ThunderTrunk was pretty good for $900, but of course you do get what you paid for. I finally bit the bullet here and I couldn’t be happier: the storage and the look and the quality of the OEM trunk is really fantastic.
And then I loaded it up for fishing!
If you’ve read anything else I’ve ever written, you know how much I appreciate The Ritual of Packing. Going over your gear. What’s needed, what’s not. What are your companions bringing? Is everything still usable or does something need to be replaced? Living in a house surrounded by crap and being forced to make your whole world fit in a few cubic feet is an instructional exercise.
My only “splurge” was making some bacon-wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms and freezing them solid for the trip down: this will become important later. I got a small tacklebox, picked my smallest fishing pole, and all the gear I’d need for off the grid camping on a gravel bar. My new drybag was for the fire starting gear and the metal tools I didn’t want to get wet in the case of a turnover, and the sleeping gear went in a garbage bag.
Day 1: Doniphan
My parents are from a tiny town near the boot heel of Missouri called Doniphan. We actually all lived there for a few years way back when, when we bought some land on the Current River and built a log cabin there. That’s a whole other story. Anyhoo, this area will always be “home” for Dad and there is some damned nice wilderness around.
I had not done a test run with my new trunk fully loaded up, my drybag tied in with Rock Straps, and my fishing pole on the bike, but everything shook out OK. I got up somewhat early on a Monday morning and set my GPS for a combination for highway and two-lane riding, winding up in small town MO 600mi away at the end of the day. Several times on I-39 and I-55 I saw unreal freeway backups going north & east due to construction. Little did I know how much this was going to hurt on the way home…
I rolled into the Motel known as the Rocky River Inn and met up with dad.
Motel is short for “Motor Hotel” , a hotel for people traveling by motorized vehicles, where they have direct access to their rooms from their vehicles. A lost word discarded after the golden age of American Freedom via road trip.
My favorite Mark Twain quote of all time:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
So I’m sitting at the bar in this pool hall next to the Motel and the bartender lights a cigarette inside. I used to love smoking in bars, but just to give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about, a carton of Camels cost like $12.00 when I quit – a pack was currently $6.85 there they informed me.
I plan to write more about this in the future, with more profound examples, but this simple thing was a reminder that people in different corners of America have different rules & expectations. Despite my crisscrossing the USA from Georgia to The Carolinas to Michigan to Idaho, it had been a long damn time before I was somewhere you could smoke in a bar; I think Arkansas in 2008 or so.
Day 2: The Eleven Point River
We had chosen a lesser known destination for this trip: the Eleven Point river. While the Black River, Buffalo River, and Current River are all well known in this area they’re also … well known. They have homes & businesses and boat ramps and tourists in inner tubes and cattle.
The Eleven Point River, on the other hand, is a National Scenic Riverway inside the Mark Twain National Forrest. Not a goddamned building or billboard did we see. Tons of stretches of the river do not allow motors. Nor live bait, nor certain kids of plastic lures. There are real rapids. Surely, this would be a place where we were fishing in a barrel. So while I brought oil and batter to fry up a rock bass or southern pike or smallmouth for dinner, I brought cliff bars and my frozen chicken kabobs just in case.
We put a 17′ canoe in at Greer with the plan being to camp wherever looked good on night 1 and float the rest of the way down to Riverton, MO on day 2. We had beer in the cooler and plenty of sunscreen and the kind of smile on your face you can only have when life is good and there’s no one around to bother you.
Only two small fish were caught the 1st day. When the weather is great, you’re not seeing other humans, and in you’re in a remote and protected wilderness you just sort of assume you’re going to catch fish. Furthermore, we realized only after we were WAY downstream that dad’s gallon-o-snacks was left in the truck. This meant just my small assortment of snacks and the “hope we won’t need it” chicken was all we had for two hard days.
Lots of tremendous bluffs you don’t see on the bigger, more popular rivers.
We went WAY over half our intended float on Day 1, finally settling on a nice gravel bar: flat ground and plenty of deadfall to build a fire with. We were practically glamping: we had a tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, fold-up chairs, all my survival gear, and lots of beer and bacon wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms. Between my folding saw and hand chainsaw we had a hell of a fire.
As we went about cutting wood and starting the fire, some deer came down across the river to eat watercress.
This, truly, is what it’s all about for me. No light pollution. No sound of other humans. Having to work a little bit to have a warm supper. Only the food that I carried in or caught along the way. Somewhere, miles away, my motorcycle waiting to carry me home. Cold brews, good company, talking about old memories while we’re making new ones.
I finally spoke aloud the words I’d been thinking all day: I wish Jason (Bart) was here. This was Tuesday, June 22nd, and in a different setting I’d be gearing up to write a letter to Bart. This is the letter this year.
Day 2: Back to Riverton
Bad luck fishing persisted today, and this unimpressive 14″ or so southern pike caught by me on a beetle spin was the crowning achievement of angling skills this trip:
We had some challenges, and found some reasons to come back and do this again.
Years ago, before this was a national scenic riverway, there were a couple of towns on this section of river. When the gov’t came in and said “Sell us your land cuz eminent domain”, some things were left behind including a couple of mills powered by the springs that feed into the river. We’ll have to come back for that. The challenges were the rapids. There were a couple of times were we both said “Welp, guess we’re going down” and somehow pulled it out. It was pretty challenging to do the amount of paddling we did without so much as a cracker on day 2. But we did it, and by 2pm that day we were back in town eating cheeseburgers.
Day 3: Wrapping up
After an early retirement at the Motor Hotel, we had some family to visit and one special trip the next day. We got one of my uncles to run us down the river to take some footage of the log cabin we’d built and lived in more than 30 years ago. It’s still there. It’s hard to see, but this is still something that animates my imagination.
Then, we did what people do in small towns: drank some beer, shot some pool, packed up to go home.
And then I headed home. 600mi, not my longest solo trip but long enough when waiting out tornado warnings south of St. Louis and all the construction on I-55 and I-39 through Missouri and Illinois. The Ozarks are beautiful, but don’t tell anyone about the Eleven Point River, that’s between us.
Sheltering at home as so many businesses have been closed or only partially open, I make time to ride here & there. I didn’t feel like I was riding less than a normal year. Sure, I had to postpone the usual week-long trip since it looks like New England is closing down again and I don’t want to be turned back at a state border.
A big ole chunk of my riding every year is going to work.
Bikers commute to work. Bikers take the bike on normal errands. Bikers take their bikes to the grocery store up to the limit of their storage. Many people who ride view their cars as a necessary evil specialized for hauling large things or carrying more than two people or getting around in the snow.
I haven’t been riding to work. Wow, there goes a few thousand miles this year. I don’t ride to work every day, a little rain or whatever is fine but I work in an office and sitting at a desk dripping wet sucks. I ride when it’s cold, but not when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve ridden my bike to other states when work required it and I had the time: rolling down the highway getting sunburned with a suit jacket in the saddlebags makes me laugh.
Sure, I can make time to ride several times a week just as a break, but losing the commute to work is a bummer.
I’ve been “sheltering at home” with my family for over two months now. This is not a real hardship. This is not a generation that sent their sons to war, or endured the dust bowl, or the possibility of a nuclear attack on US soil. Still though, for a loner like me this has been surprisingly difficult. Ordinarily I’d have a commute to work, or a lunch out to get some me time. Not with COVID19 – they’re always there.
I figured motorcycle camping would be a great way to “social distance” while getting away – buy groceries at home, ride, pay at the pump, camp, eat over a fire, talk to no one. It seems like I got a different answer every time I talked to someone at a state or county park though. Yes we’re open. We’re open but not for camping. We’re open for camping but only if you already had a reservation in February. I’m down for adventure but I’m not going to risk showing up to park to be turned away, and then a campfire on random land in Northern WI.
Luckily ABATE of Wisconsin owns 80-100 acres in Greenwood. I was told there would be wood there and otherwise didn’t know what to expect since I’d never been to “Abate Acres”. This is private land I couldn’t be turned away from. Despite the prediction of severe storms all over the state, I packed a ribeye and all my camping gear and hit the road.
My plan was to visit Sturgeon Bay in the “thumb” of Wisconsin, but I had packed for warm weather and it was wicked foggy and cold in Two Rivers which is still quite a ways south. After checking the radar again I decided flexibility would be key and cut off the thumb to head for Abate Acres.
Despite severe storms all over the state, I was pretty lucky with sunny weather in the 80s until after lunch. Keeping with my social distancing theme, I’d packed couple PB&J along with my prized ribeye for dinner by a campfire.
Oddly enough one of the brackets for my windshield had rattled out, yet not fallen on the ground somewhere on the road, so I got very lucky and was able to make a field repair at a gas station. Thread lock and torque wrenches are your friends, folks.
I stopped and had lunch in a rest area in some tiny central-WI town I’ll never remember the name of and then proceeded to get rained on like crazy. I’ve been caught in the rain dozens of times, and it seems I’ll never get used to it. If there’s rain gear that’s not a huge pain to put on and wear I have yet to find it.
Arriving and Camping
There’s maybe 1/2 mile of gravel to get to Abate Acres. Wow. The land is 80-100 acres, and because I only had a cell phone and GoPro with me I wasn’t able to take a picture that really shows it off. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, I miraculously had a cell signal and a little bit of data so I could keep an eye on the weather. I had the whole place to myself.
There was wood, as I was promised, but it was all insanely wet. Part of my camping kit includes a hand axe (I own several) and a 13″ knife along with my pocket knife. My secret ingredient for fire is dryer lint. I carry a bag with a couple of handfuls in it to help with fire. I also have hand sanitizer and Gorilla Tape (burns like crazy) but I’ve never had to move beyond dryer lint.
I also had a good length of aluminum foil to try to preserve some fire when it started pouring.
I post a lot of food pics on Instagram, but very few steaks as my family just doesn’t like steak all that much. My go-to campfire meal is a ribeye and mushrooms. This was as good or better as nearly anything I’ve ever made at home.
Just as my steak was nearing medium rare, the sky OPENED UP. I’ve been caught out on the bike in storms, and I’ve camped in the rain, but I was totally surprised that my rain fly actually kept my tent dry inside: this was some green & black movie storm shit.
Thanks to the power of my aforementioned cheats, I was able to get a fire going again after that storm passed. I was able to sit by the fire, have a couple of cold beers, and enjoy hours of solo mindful time. Mercifully the bugs mostly respected my fire smoke and my Cutter insect spray.
Cold beers? Yes, I added a Bison cooler to my gear. It’s great, but it takes up a ton of space. I continue to tweak my load-out.
It stormed again at 1am and 3am, and I was warm & dry.
Mother nature woke me up at 5am with sunlight, which in addition to being woken up super early by The World’s Most Mistreated Dog the day before left me in rough shape for the ride home. It looked like the Great River Road was going to be partially flooded again due to the storms, so I went home sooner than I thought and only did 400mi the second day.
It’s not clear what the rest of the 2020 riding season holds, but this was some much needed solo time. Luckily all ABATE of WI members have a place to hide in Greenwood.
Here in April of 2020, we are on a government mandated “Safer at Home” order. Riding a bike is a great way of “socially distancing”, and we have many county parks nearby that are still open, so I’ve been able to pack a lunch and sit by myself during what little good weather we’ve had.
I have a trip booked with my father and other close family for a fishing trip in Alaska. A log cabin lodge For both my father and I, this would be the 50th state we’ve visited (though not ridden in, of course). If we don’t get some good news soon, that’s getting kicked to 2021.
The Power of Anticipation
You may not appreciate the power of anticipating trips like that until you’re suddenly unable to. The planning, the packing, buying gear, making sure your gear is in top operating condition. Telling people about the trip and promising to bring back pictures and stories.
My wife and I are both, thankfully, able to keep working right now as unemployment skyrockets across the country. There’s still still food in the stores and I still have money to buy it. I’m an introvert anyway so I’m doing OK – but I don’t have those big bright spots that help me get through the day. Am I getting away with my wife? Am I really going to be able to ride to Maine in July like I’d planned? I don’t know, so I’m doing the next best thing – I’m doing tons of research and planning trips, and more than just trips.
Another Kind of Riding
Many people who love two wheels grew up riding in the dirt. I really didn’t. Like many people, I was given my first real look at adventure riding when I watched The Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor. Yes, these are rich famous guys with a support vehicle, but it was everything I love about motorcycling write large: off the gird, but more. Isolated with just a friend or two, but more. Camping, making your own food, but more. Strange lands, but more. I thought of the many State & National parks I’ve ridden through and wonder what it would be like to just point the bike and go thatttawayoff into the dirt & woods.
I told my self that if I could swing the time & money that some day I’d be an adventure rider. Not the way Ewan and Charlie do it, to be sure, but there’s a lifetime of adventure in North America. I want to sleep on BDR land in the middle of nowhere, I want to ride the Dalton Highway all the way to Prudhoe Bay, and to ride the Trans American Trail. In The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing, Melissa Pierson describes long distance riding as the purest form of the activity, but I wonder if it’s really this on & off road blend with a healthy mix of dispersed camping thrown in.
I don’t know when I’ll have room (or money) for a BWM or KTM adventure bike in my garage (or a Harley Pan America?), or time for yet another calling that takes me far from home for days at a time. This is something I can fantasize about, when COVID19 is in the rear view.
Why two wheels? Because motorcycle riding may be one of the best ways to get to a healthy mind.
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may have come across the idea that Motorcycling is Mindfulness, and if you haven’t you might as well start there. Harley claims that riding a motorcycle improves focus and reduces stress. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that riding a motorcycle is a multi-faceted path to more general mental health. I’m going to use this particular page as a place to bookmark all of my best arguments and observations so that when someone asks “Why make that trip on a bike instead of a car?”, I have one place to send them. Some of these are ready to read now, some are teasers to be filled in as I have a chance to do more writing.
Motorcycling is Mindfulness: Mindfulness is having a moment in the sun right now, but being briefly popular doesn’t change the core benefits.
Lost Connections and the Cost of Belonging: It’s probably no surprise that many people’s social interactions are, well, fucked up. Why do so many people have depression and anxiety and what can we do about it? Thoughts on motorcycling as it relates to Hari’s work on addiction and depression as well as other works.
Riding Fast and Slow: Thoughts on long solitary rides as it relates to Kahneman’s work on human cognition.
The mind needs nature: it’s no coincidence that the most popular rides are set against amazing natural scenery. Much of our mental wiring evolved to find food, mates, and avoid danger. Nature is complicated, and the complex texture of nature is something that makes our brains happy. Thoughts on motorcycle travel involving research I was first exposed to by Levitin.
All of these things might be attainable in other ways, but stick with me as I fill in the blanks as to why riding might be one of the best mental health bang for your buck things you can spend your time on.
My friend Harley Mark is often in a rough spot: Harley tends to unveil new stuff at the end of August. I’m planning big trips right around the time he’s working on top secret stuff for The Motor Company, so he’s stuck at work looking at my pics on Facebook. He missed the trip to Idaho.
Luckily Mr.s Roadrunner can be bribed, so for the cost of a 1 hour massage I got a 3 day weekend. I’ve been wanting to do the famous Hurricane Highway and the Tunnel of Trees in Michigan for a while. The last time I came through here it was an Iron Butt ride and there wasn’t time for anything but getting miles. The planned route looked like this:
The fun you have when planning bike trips: since we had to leave after work on Friday, I want to stop in Escanaba, MI. There was a logging convention in Escanaba and every hotel within a wide radius was booked. We wound up finding an AirBnB in Garden, MI.
Like a lot of people, we have a “no chain restaurant” rule on bike trips. I’m seriously wondering if we can do a “no chain hotels” rule as well. I’ll miss the occasional hot tub but haven’t had bad luck yet with a small family-run B&B.
I was thinking that a Lake Michigan town on a Friday night would be jumpin’.
We got to our AirBnB, which at night looked like you could just as easily film a horror movie there as have a good sleep. The hosts were incredibly kind and helpful, but informed us that most things around were closed – we had crossed into Eastern time and the season was winding down. We did find a fantastic place that said they could still make us “anything fried”, so I had the first great night with Michigan microbrews and Walleye at Sherry’s Port Bar in Garden. People warned us about deer. Yes, we said, we’re bikers and we know to watch for deer. They insisted there were lots of deer. Yes, we said, we’re basically experts at bike touring.
We saw 16 deer on the 9 mile ride to dinner. We were extremely careful.
We got up and had breakfast pasties and great conversation with the owners and then prepared for a day with a lot of miles. We backtracked just a few miles and took a recently paved forrest road straight through Hiawatha National Forest, basically riding all the way north across the UP from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior.
Seeing the area around Garden during the day, I began to appreciate just how sparsely populated and wild the UP of Michigan is. I also immediately fell in love with how the land looks, feels, and smells. This was like a quadruple dose of what I experienced riding to Tomahawk last year – the UP is wilder and more beautiful than Northern Wisconsin.
Doomsday prepping feels like it could be a fun hobby to me. While I’m not really worried about alien attack, the collapse of society, or a Zombie Apocalypse, having an off the grid cabin in the north woods sure seems like a lot of fun. Remote, and close to 20% of the world’s fresh water, you could do a lot worse than the UP.
Michigan H-58 “the hurricane highway” has been on my list to hit for a long time. It runs between Munising and Grand Marais along Lake Superior and it boasts some 300 curves depending on who you ask. It was a slow start, but by after a while I was repeatedly leaning the bike low at 55+ mph and I couldn’t stop smiling. Lake Superior is a great view as well.
After leaving Grand Marais, we needed to head South and East and make it across Mackinac bridge into Michigan proper to get to the famous tunnel of trees road on the Western side of Michigan. As we headed East and looked for lunch, I found myself completely falling in love with Michigan. This place is wild and beautiful, and barely a day’s ride from home. I began… making plans…
Lunch was a fantastic local diner on the shore of Lake Michigan, and I caved in and had Walleye again, it was so damn good.
We stopped briefly after crossing the bridge at Mackinac in order to take pics in front of Lake Huron: our 3rd Great Lake of the day.
Whatever I was expecting, the tunnel of trees was not it.
It’s a two-lane road and much narrower than I thought, barely wide enough for a car and a motorcycle. The road is curvy and has enough dips and potholes that I found the speed limit (35-45) to be a bit laughable: especially given how little reaction time you’d have if meeting a car around a curve. Other than that, it was truly beautiful: a nearly closed canopy of leaves overhead, rustic homes, homes displaying outrageous wealth, and views of lake Michigan over my right shoulder as we headed South.
Getting through the tunnel of trees, I had planned to follow the coast all the way south to Ludington, which was the bed for the night. Given how far we had to go, and how late the bourbon had fueled the conversation the night before, we cut off part of the coast and headed for Ludington.
My goal was to take the ferry across the lake, partly for fun and partly to avoid Chicago. Ludington seemed to be a busy town as far as Michigan goes, and this time I wasn’t disappointed. We stayed at a hotel with an excellent hot tub: I can’t say enough about the healing powers of a hot tub on my middle-aged ass after a 700 mile day. We had dinner at the excellent Jamesport Brewing company, and they even sent us home with some tallboys to drink in the hottub back at the hotel.
The SS Badger is an old, huge, coal-fired boat that runs between Ludington, MI and Manitowoc, WI just about every day until the lake starts freezing. It was a new experience waiting in a long line of cars waiting to get on the boat. The cars are valet parked by a crew, but bikes are ridden up into the boat by the riders. You ratchet-strap your bike to a grate on the lower deck, and then find stuff to do for the 4 hour trip. There’s bingo and movies and whatever on the boat, but we found entertainment in some bloody mary’s and microbrews and talking about rides past and future.
When you’re on the shores of the Great Lakes, or out on a boat, your body and mind realize that this might as well be the Pacific Ocean. It’s a little crazy that so many of us that live so close to the Great Lakes really don’t take advantage of them much.
Being on a riding trip just puts you in a certain frame of mind. Harley Mark and I talked about our buddy Lefty, who wasn’t able to come on this trip at the last second due to a serious injury in his family. We talked about bikes, and our families, and trips we’d like to take in the coming years. When it was time to roll off the SS Badger, I was awash in the temporary peace that always comes from riding like this.
I’ve always wanted some land to have In The Family: I dream of an off-grid cabin with solar power, an outhouse, and a cast iron stove to cook on. I’ve looked in North Carolina, I’ve looked in Idaho. Given that family keeps me in Wisconsin and I’m not rich, the UP of Michigan makes a lot more sense. The wild, gorgeous, remote North Woods have really got me thinking.
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:
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…
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.
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.
Look at this doofus blocking the sign!
Stations like this would become the norm out here.
My driveway for 2 days.
Bison prime rib!
I found Black Sunshine an Indian pal to park next to.
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.
There are many pictures of Rushmore, but this one is mine.
No drones, denied!
This guy again…
The closest viewing area was under construction.
This individual is why people are skeptical of meditation…
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.
This “Sturgis Edition” Chieftain was being raffled off.
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.
Was this someone’s sense of humor, irony, or just going their own way? It made me laugh, anyway.
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.
Finally saw a buffalo!
Sinclair dinosaurs remembered from the roadtrips of my youth.
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.
I try to avoid “sorry for not posting” stuff, but for the few of you out there I wanted to give some updates.
I recently got back from an epic motorcycle trip: WI, MN, SD, WY, MT, ID, UT, CO, NE, IA, IL, and home. The article and pictures are all edited, but I have a lot of GoPro footage to get through and video editing is not my strong suit. As it cools off here in the North Woods, these will be some great (and mostly warm) memories.
I’m also going to be on a smaller 2-wheeled adventure in a few days, which means I won’t be getting any video edited this weekend either. The coming content will be worth the wait.
My friend Spaz, formerly known as Corvus to some, is now blogging/vlogging at Spaz on Wheels. This guy rides a lot, does a lot of bike customization, and should have a lot of interesting stuff to say. He’s got a Harley Ultra Limited and an Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, both heavily customized. Go check him out.