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.
So, here I am. The tail end of a pandemic (or so we hope). The Mrs. and I both in healthcare IT, working from home, surviving the ‘rona lockdown just fine. Things start getting back to normal and things start getting better and better.
I had a trip planned to Virginia to ride the Back of the Dragon between Marion and Tazewell. I had taken care of enough other money things that I planned to do this on a new Indian Challenger. The problem was the ‘rona had still fucked supply chains to the point where getting a bike or parts was anyone’s guess. Weeks went by, and my trusty dealer kept pushing the ship date back one week, every week. It’s not their fault, but as things started getting close to the departure date I started looking around. A new 2021 Challenger Dark Horse in Thunder Black Smoke was sitting on the floor at two local dealers. Now listen, I am a creature of loyalty – I value relationships and that includes relationships with people who have things to sell me. If you get into a hard-to-diagnose electronic issue or something you’ll be glad that you’ve always treated your dealer & service department with respect. But this is the end of a pandemic, which world wide supply chain issues, and me with several trips planned on a newer motorcycle. I had to consider grabbing one of these bikes.
One dealer didn’t call me back. The other called me back and asked for pictures of my bike. I rode down and traded that day. The Crow replaced Black Sunshine in my garage.
The owner of Indian of Metro Milwaukee, who obviously would have sold me another bike if he could have, actually called to apologize. As if he hadn’t already done what he could! These guys are legit.
I wanted a Freedom Shields windshield, highway bars, soft lowers, lower LED headlights, a rider backrest, and a color matched trunk on this bike. The ‘rona supply chain made it clear I would likely have none of it. At least I was able to install highway bars, lowers, and a new set of the trusty ole Kuryakyn highway pegs before I rode for Virginia.
I got the 500mi break in service on The Crow but mounting brackets for trunks and back rests were still hard to come by. Since I knew I was also taking an off the grid canoe trip soon, I just bought a dry bag to serve as my trunk for this trip.
So, who could come to Virginia with me in Mid May? Harley Mark met me on Hwy 41 and rode for Kentucky with me on Day 1.
As I’ve said before, it’s shocking to me how lucky we’ve gotten over time when it comes to finding local food & drink. We opted for a Chill’s somewhere in Indiana for lunch but the host said “We only have 1 server, can you wait?”. Here we are seeing the dis-incentive to work in food service in the latter days of the Covid world. Shit. Luckily the Harley GPS is firing on all cylinders (more on this later) and we see something called “Rick’s Boatyard” on the same exist just 3 miles down the road. We roll, and we’re not disappointed.
Not a bad view for lunch when you’re on a motorcycle trip:
Since I am The Political Biker, I can’t avoid talking about this part. Rick’s has a full staff: all the servers and cooks and bartenders they could want. Chili’s could barely stay open. I have to think that if I were in the service industry in North West Indiana I would obviously make more money and be treated better at Rick’s. Let this be a lesson: there is no labor shortage, there’s only a shortage for labor that will work for shit money and get shit on by assholes.
The rest of the ride is a song as old as time, at least if you’ve been reading Two Wheeled Thoughts. Getting through Indiana is hot and sucks. The second you cross into Kentucky things improve immensely. I will say in all fairness that this was the easiest “No crashes or random road closures” trip through Indiana I can recall for at least the last 8 trips.
Day 1 was to end in Pikeville, Kentucky. Once we got off the freeway East of Lexington onto “mountain parkway” the riding was fantastic. Well maintained roads, lots of sweeping curves and altitude changes through the mountains, the last 150mi of a 700mi day were fantastic.We met up with frequent co-conspirator Wingnut Dave here, who had a shorter drive up from Georgia.
I had assumed Pikeville, KY was a “normal” town due to the fact that we booked a Hilton. However there were some oddities. Despite being a Friday night, the town basically rolled up the sidewalk pretty early. Due to the ‘rona, pools & hot tubs were closed. And this was a mountain town you could just as easily have found in Colorado, or Seattle, or California: so there was no actual hotel parking lot. We found BBQ down the road a bit, parked on the street, and finished the day strong.
I built a small self-contained machine (Raspberry PI) with dozens of my favorite movies on it. Takes up no space but is awesome to be able to pull up The Easy Rider on demand in a random hotel room.
The next day was pretty awesome.
My main goal for this whole trip was to ride the Back of the Dragon from Tazewell to Marion in Virginia. But as I already knew from planning this trip in Rever, the 90 miles just getting to Tazewell was going to be an awesome mountain curve fest already. We rolled into Tazewell and found that the town had very much leaned in to this attraction:
A big shop, a big parking lot, food trucks. Yea, they like the two wheeled tourism in Tazwell.
The Back of the Dragon was excellent. I would rate this much higher than the Tail of the Dragon if for no other reason than there’s a lot MORE of it and you can reach some higher speeds. Like everywhere else in Appalachia, the views don’t disappoint.
Now, I had routes planned, but I made it clear to my co-conspirators that The Back of the Dragon was what I really cared about. We did some re-planning and decided to take on The Snake instead. The re-planning sucked. It was here that I learned what a big step backwards the 2021 Ride Command is on Indian motorcycles. It’s not super clear why. It appears that basic things like “Take me to Mountain City, TN” won’t work without a strong wireless internet connection. Send a route from my phone to my bike? Nope! Worked on the 2019 but only works using iPhone on the 2021 as of the time of this writing. This was pretty embarrassing: after me bragging about how this tech was eating Harley’s lunch for a few years, we had to rely on the Street Glide to get us to The Snake.
The Snake is actually 3 forks of TN 421 near Mountain City, TN. Very fun curvy roads, but nothing in particular stuck out to me as amazing/memorable. Maybe I’m getting spoiled? You should for sure ride The Snake. There’s a country store at the nexus of The Snake, and as another sweet whiff of normality, there was a cover band playing there and lots of bikes in the parking lot.
From here, we decided to stay in Johnson City, TN. We found a Brazilian steakhouse a short walk from the hotel that was far better than it had any right being.
Day 3 was to involve several wacky roads in Kentucky that I found via MotorcycleRoads.com. Beware: just because something is highly rated doesn’t mean it’s safe or well maintained. We encountered a few issues.
Bathrooms: I think it must be difficult to maintain a bathroom in the South. Either there’s an epidemic of septic tank killing microbes, or people just randomly close their bathrooms to strangers. Or, maybe there are other issues
One Lane, 10mph roads: A couple of times, the amazing roads turned out to be super sketchy 1-lane roads where you were likely to meet a dude pulling his pontoon boat and need to squeeze close to the ravine to let him by. For me, this wasn’t fun. Tons of gravel, no reaction time, no ability to get any speed. Plan your routes carefully.
Lack of Road: One thing about the “t-shirt roads” is that they tend to be well maintained, and if they are not you’ll know about it. Here’s a story: on a certain “highly rated” road in Kentucky, I came around several corners to see the asphalt completely washed out in the opposite lane: I kept thinking “Wow, glad I’m going this way and not that way”… until I was going that way. Hitting a seriously huge wash out and catching air on a 1000lb touring bike and landing with enough force to bottom out the suspension and feel some “Oh, that’s going to fuck up my neck for weeks” level of crunch is just not fun. I heard “Oh fuck I thought Mark was dead” in my headset, and hilariously only the guy on a Dualsport with suspension that could have handled this 40mph ramp actually had time to react.
We rode lots of other curvy and narrow roads around Kentucky. One of the final legs of curvy roads of the day was blocked with an orange “road closed” sign. I was about done, and so we turned and headed for Shelbyville, KY.
The Ramada on Brighton Circle is sort of a goofy story. It’s the kind of story that I assume everyone who does real roadtrips has. We found <place> due to <wacky circumstance> but yet had <great experience> so now it’s a part of our routine. In my case it was an amazing 2015 road trip and my dad being cheap and finding a coupon for this hotel at a Rest Area. Cheap, clean hotel. Steak restaurant in the parking lot. Kentucky bourbon liquor store in the parking lot. The right place to be 1 good scoot from WI. I’ve stayed at this place so much now I should have a plaque in there, and it’s become a sacred place due to good memories with Dad and my brother Bart. It’s also one of the few places that has never given me shit about parking my bike under the pavillion:
As long as there’s awesome riding in the Smokies and Appalachia, I imagine I’ll keep staying in Shelbyville from time to time.
The next day, well, you know:
Go new places for the first time is awesome, and of course no two trips to the same locations is ever quite the same, but in this case we said “Let’s not mess with a bad thing”.
The new Challenger performed admirably, though I did miss my trunk and rider backrest and I’m still getting used to the schizophrenic throttle response on this bike. A rider backrest and some larger grips would have made the 600+ mi days a breeze on this bike.
Just a four day weekend packed with a ton of fun. As of the time I write this, I have a whole other two-wheeled road trip to write up. Come back soon!
I’m sitting here with a wood wick candle going, one of my sources of hygge during the shitty Wisconsin winters.
I’m avoiding writing about two adventures from 2020. First was a great trip to Georgia, and second was a weekend trip through North-Central Wisconsin. I think I’m avoiding writing these things up because there’s an uncomfortable note of finality that’s unique to this winter. The US COVID-19 cases are spiking up like crazy: far more dead, hospitalizations, and active cases than when we shut down the country earlier in 2020. I don’t know what 2021 is going to look like.
The mindful nature of motorcycling is such that you are less likely to ruminate because the motorcycle demands constant attention. This is only part of the benefit of traveling by motorcycle. You also find yourself in beautiful country with very little between you and the world.
Humans have only lived in cities for a few hundred years. I’m talking about our huge/crowded/unnatural/modern cities, so don’t put something about the Mayan civilization or Gobekli Tepe in the comments. We still seek connections with nature. We feel at peace in nature. We are so used to light pollution that regular kids who grew up in the city think they’re the subject of some elaborate prank when they see a starry night for the first time. This separate, but adjacent, idea is something I’m going to be digging into a lot more in 2021.
So, I’m going to spend some more time outside, way out away from concrete and drywall. I’ve been walking the dog wearing a 40lb weight vest to get myself ready for real backpacking. There’s tons of state & federal land around where I can do dispersed camping: I’m going to walk out into the woods with a tent on my back carrying some basic survival gear and see what’s what.
I’ve also been thinking about the state of political & social polarization in the USA. The chance that I can do anything about that is hilariously small, but I’ve been thinking about a “Political Biker” essay channel of some kind.
And, of course, I’m going to do a lot of riding in 2021: pandemic or no. I’m going to hopefully be getting an Indian Challenger early in the spring. I’m going to take said Challenger down to Kentucky for a break-in weekend. I’m going to ride from Milwaukee to Key West, and I’m going to do a lot of motorcycle camping.
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.
There are things you can buy that are more or less tried and true, steady and dependable you might even say: is a Leatherman pocket tool really going to be that much different from year to year? Is one year’s Mustang going to be so radically different from the next year’s Mustang that you hesitate to buy before the next model year comes out? Is refrigerator technology going to radically advance such that you’ll wish you’d waited?
But some things are not “tried and true”, some things are advancing so quickly you are always at risk of buying old news … and Fear Of Missing Out keeps you on the sidelines. You risk fear of feeling like a stooge for taking the discount on the current model year as they make room for something different and better and amazing. Cell phones come to mind, maybe gaming consoles, mayve TVs. Motorcycles? Naw…
As I mentioned in A Tale of Two Test Rides, I rode a fixed fairing Road Glide on the same day I decided to take my Chieftain Dark Horse Home.
Six months later, Indian unveils this:
Obviously, there’s a lot of real-world miles ridden on fixed fairing bikes: this is a good configuration for long haul touring. That’s why I was interested in a Road Glide! (I also hate the lines of the ‘batwing’ Harley fairing.) You also get a little bit of extra storage in the fairing. I have been privately suspecting for a couple of years that European emissions standards were going to basically force liquid cooling into more motorcycle models before too much longer – it can be very expensive to have radically different platforms on each continent for global manufacturers, and the world is on high alert after the BMW diesel emissions cheating scandals. Even someone like myself, with a somewhat poor level of V-Twin of engine knowledge, though, knows that air-cooled engines require looser tolerances. Metal expands as it heats up: pistons rub against the block, tiny metal shavings wind up in the oil, break in services are required at 500 miles vs. 5,000 miles or “never” on liquid cooled engines. This need for a little fudge factor impacts engine design in fundamental ways such as what compression ratios are safe.
This new PowerPlus 108 also makes more HP. A lot more HP. The stock ThunderStroke 111 makes 79hp. Keep in mind, I love this engine, but as I learned earlier this year, HP does matter even when you have a torque-monster bike that can shred tires at every stop sign. Passing HP and fun on the highway and sweeping turns needs that higher RPM power. 125 HP and 128 ft/lb of torque? That’s an amazing stock engine even if the bike does way 800lb dry.
In addition to the extremely appealing new engine and the fixed fairing, there are some tech upgrades:
Lean sensitive traction control.
Those red line tires…
New Ride Command with weather and traffic overlays – this is a big deal. People who have ridden with me know I’ll happily ride optimistically into the storm of the century because we can “just roll through it”.
This motorcycle is a big jump, and I’m not just talking about the War Bonnet on the front fender lighting up or the puddle lights. This motorcycle is a bridge.
My father, and his boomer generation pals, grew up lusting for a Harley long before most of them could afford one. In the ’90s and early ’00s, many of them finally got them, and set up a bubble and a generational gap that has landed Harley where it is today. There are enough people like me who want an American V-twin but not enamoured enough of Harley to pay the premium for a bike that isn’t all that premium to give Victory and Indian enough sales to cause a ruckus in the marketplace. The Challenger is a bridge product: those who have some nostalgia, and US home-bias, and want an American V-Twin but not enough to go get an air cooled machine. They also want performance and technology, but not enough to go get a BMW or a GoldWing. They want reliability, not the promise that “If you break down there’s Harley dealers everywhere!”
This motorcycle is a bridge for all those who want technology and dial-tone reliability, gas mileage and turn by turn directions, but who also have to admit that an American muscle machine is just plain cooler than a GoldWing. People who appreciate the engineering of a turbocharged Subaru but who might buy a Dodge Challenger or a Mustang instead for the exhaust sound and the body style.
As I was typing this, Harley unveiled the new Revolution Max engine on it’s 2021 Pan America.
60 degree V-twin. Liquid cooled. High horsepower. An engine that may not appeal to those for whom an air-cooled pushrod motor is the One True Way. This engine did not come out overnight in response to the Power Plus – Harley is looking in the same crystal ball as Indian and trying to be ready for the future. I think they’re both doing the right things, and I think competition is good for everyone.
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 had the joy of traveling for work recently: Milwaukee, WI to San Jose, CA. It had been a while, and I forgot how much I hated air travel.
It’s not that flying bothers me: it’s amazing to travel thousands of miles in a few hours. It’s not that packing bothers me: indeed I rather like planning and compressing my needs for a week down into what I can carry. Rather, I hate the ceremony and the complete loss of control that comes with modern air travel.
“The Ceremony” is simple: if you fly in America today you have a taste of what it’s like to live in a police state. You need various identifiers and identification; if your name does not appear exactly on your driver’s license as you booked your flight, you may not get to fly. The US Government can put you on a “no fly list” without telling you, and without giving you any due process of law that would allow you to see why you are on the do-not-fly list, and without a clear legal path to getting off of it. Furthermore, in the United States you will soon need a “Real ID”, much closer to- or equivalent-to a Passport in order to fly.
All this to fly domestically. In the “land of the free”.
So you need “your papers” in order to fly: something the average middle-class traveler in Soviet Russia would certainly understand. But wait, that’s not where your privacy violations end. You are going to get SCANNED.
Consider first the “millimeter wave” scanners deployed at almost every US airport now. Depending on which article you read, this may or may not present TSA officers with a high resolution contour of exactly what you look like naked. The thing that people forget about TSA officers is that they are just like all other officers: they are just people. That means they are no better or worse than the average American. Some of them will be ethical and honest, with their mission in the forefront of their minds as they do their jobs. Others will behave as though they were a 14 year old boy who suddenly had X-ray vision into the girls’ locker room.
The TSA can also simply embarrass you. Suppose you, like my father, have various iron and titanium pins in your legs due to severe injuries from motorcycle accidents. The metal detectors are going to alarm as you walk through. You’re going to have to explain yourself at the very least. Maybe you’ll get “extra screening”.
Finally, the TSA can search your luggage at any time and for any reason. If you have a diver’s computer, a special piece of hardware for work, or maybe a particularly flashy pack of condoms in your luggage: someone with close to zero training is going to be flagged that they should look through your luggage. Did you bring a pair of fuzzy handcuffs on your vacation with your wife, or did you bring something to clean your CPAP, or are you traveling with a few things to spice of the bedroom while you vacation in the Caribbean? The TSA can poke, prod, and confiscate any of that.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a certain age, a doctor is going to poke around your most private parts and ask you uncomfortable questions. This is a part of getting older: we get pap smears, testicular cancer checks, breast cancer scans, prostate checks, and so on. But being a doctor is not easy: when you drop your pants for a doctor you are doing so for someone who has gone through 8-12+ years of school and has seen it all before and has everything to lose from being accused of sticking their finger in the wrong place. A TSA agent is different from a doctor in all the wrong ways.
Once you are physically on your flight, you lose even more freedom. You must obey a US Air Marshal or any random Southwest employee or face felony charges. Sure, nearly every flight goes well, but how do you feel about the idea of being beholden to someone who didn’t like the political message on your jacket? Remember, people are just people…
If, by Odin’s grace, you don’t make your flight, you are likely fucked. Did you get trip insurance, or did you get the kind of tickets that will not be refunded? You see, Americans have decided over the past 25+ years that all they care about is the cost of a flight. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting literally on top of someone who is hand-pumping their colostomy bag out into their neighbor’s coffee, if they can get to Vegas for $50 less they’ll deal with it. They will not remember this experience and vote with their dollars to have a more dignified flight next time. So, you are likely missing a day or more of your vacation if you miss that flight. Does it matter that it’s Spring Break and Airline X didn’t staff their counters enough? Nope, go back home loser.
Maybe you get bumped from an overbooked flight. Maybe you have to hand over a prized pocketknife you had in your jeans out of pure habit. Maybe the counter was too busy and they leave without you…
But the Road Won’t Leave Without You
Now, suppose you are instead packing for a motorcycle trip. Assuming that everything you’re packing is legal, you have nearly zero concern for anyone looking at it. The chances of you getting pulled over and searched are, anyway, incredibly small.
Suppose it’s spring break for some local schools and you start out a little late?
Oh well, you sit in traffic a little bit. You don’t miss your flight, you don’t lose a whole day of your vacation.
Suppose a tornado tears across the road a few miles in front of you? OK, you wait, and you move on when it’s safe.
Suppose the thunderstorm of the century tears across the state you’re riding through and you find yourself stuck in a rest area in Knoxville?
Fine, that’s great. Survive. There is no large insurance company who will not let your bike take off without considering a billion variables: you can leave whenever you feel like you can ride. If you take off and discover that the roads are really terrible, you can pull off on the side of the road and sleep anywhere you’re equipped to sleep. Sure you shouldn’t build campfires on someone’s private property but you can judge for yourself. You are in control. Maybe you do pull off the highway and park your bike in a ditch and throw your bivy over yourself. Rain pours, lightning strikes. Thunder follows. A man who is shurely Clint Eastwood reincarnated rides a horse near the tree you’re camped under and politely but firmly asks what the hell you’re doing on his property. Flustered, you explain how you’re on a motorcycle trip and you pulled over to escape the storm and you meant no disrespect to his property rights…
There was a time when he might have said at best “Why don’t y’all come up to our cabin” and at worst “Y’all take care, feel free to camp on my land, but ride up and tell me if you’re staying past tomorrow.” The way we treat each other today, that’s a topic for another day…
You see, the Road won’t leave without you, and the Earth won’t refuse to let you sleep there. When you are traveling on your own steed, you have so much more freedom. An airplane cannot decide to camp underneath an overpass. An airplane cannot ask the bar owner if you can pitch a tent out back. Your saddlebags know that anything packed in there is not for anyone else to know about. You can pull over to the side of the road and wait out traffic if that’s what makes sense. If not, you roll on by in your rain gear.
If you make a mistake, you leave a little late. If the road is unsafe, you choose another road. You decide how much risk to take, you decide how long the “layover” is. You travel with your rights and dignity intact. You can even carry a bottle of water if that suits you.
The airlines will leave without you, they’ve already got your money and quite frankly you dropping dead in the check in line or not is all the same to them. Out on the road, though, you’re in control. There may be challenges and decisions to make, but the road won’t leave without you.
In A Tale of Two Test Rides, I talked about riding two 2019 baggers back to back and riding one home. What I didn’t mention is that my buddy Spaz (formerly known as Corvus) came with me because he had never ridden an Indian before and was curious. I’ll let him tell his whole story when he gets his act together and gets his own blog, but to cut to the chase he bought a bronze 2019 Chieftain Dark Horse a few days later. I asked him if he’d submit to a brief interview here.
You rode Harleys for a lot of years. How did you land on Harley? Did you start there or did you ride other bikes first? Did you grow up in a Harley household?
I landed on Harley primarily due to my father. He rode Harley’s when I was young and before he married my mother. He rode a lot with the Hell’s Angels when he lived in California as well. After hearing story after story over the years I think it just set me in a place where I had to eventually land on a Harley. The first bike I owned though was a Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Cruiser. Close to a Harley look wise but not what I wanted to land on. It also was the first bike I dumped. I didn’t even make it 24 hours and I crashed the bike.
How important is “Made in America” for you when it comes to motorcycles? How important has it been to you that Harley is a big employer and local icon in the Milwaukee area?
Being a Military Veteran I want to continue to fuel American jobs as best I can. This of course is becoming harder and harder today as more and more manufacturing goes over seas. Being from Wisconsin Harley is sort of part of our culture too so I sort of felt I had to support the home team. I feel the same about Indian which is also manufactured in the US. I do have to say though as of late I am looking more broadly at other manufactures as well.
Talk a little bit about your riding style. Mostly 1up or 2up? Poker runs and bar hopping? Camping? Commuting? Cross-country touring?
I am a bit of a mixed bag as far as riding styles. I used to do a lot of 2up riding until my wife got her license. After that it is mostly 1up unless I put a kid or one of my wife’s friends on the back of the bike. I’ve done a bunch of Poker runs as well as bar hopping. I’ve only really camped once from the motorcycle although I’m yearning to do this a lot more now. I commute as much as I can depending on the weather in Wisconsin. As for Cross Country touring I’ve made several 1000+ trips on my dressers over the years. Primarily only to the East Coast and the South. I’m looking forward to a West Coast trip in the future.
I’ve noticed you do a lot of performance tuning work, what’s the allure of fast cruisers for you? Do you have a similar obsession with fast custom cars?
I am an adrenaline junky in general. I’ve had tuner cars and performance vehicles a lot throughout my life. Once I got into bikes I started messing with them from intake to exhaust to now engine work. My ideal world is to have a bagger that can blow the doors off most crotch rockets. It will take time to get the right setup. Not sure if I’m going super charger or turbo yet :).
Comparing an Indian Chieftain to your batwing-style fairing Harley is a much better comparison than the Road Glide I rode. What differences stood out to you right away between the Chieftain you rode and your Ultra classic when it comes to the ride, handling, power, Infotainment, and engine/exhaust sound?
My first impressions of the Chieftain was that is was more agile right out of the gate. In my stable at home we have not only my Ultra Limited but my wife’s Street Glide as well. We actually swapped bikes a week or so ago so she could try mine. The big difference to me is the leg space and agility. Stock the Indian sounds better than any of the Milwaukee Eight bikes I’ve heard. My wife’s comment when she heard it was “do you even need to put exhaust on it.” My answer of course is yes though… Handling wise as I said earlier the Indian is more agile out of the box. On the Harley navigating a round a bout at speed I tend to scrape my foot boards. I have yet to hit them on the Indian and I take a much faster and tighter turn. On the power front the Indian is not much behind the 114ci motor I have in the Ultra limited. I am about to get my bike back from the 116 upgrade so we will have to see what I think after that. As for the infotainment side the fact that bluetooth works out of the box including when you introduce a bluetooth helmet to the mix is awesome. My Harley you have to spend $300 on a WHIM Module and then buy a HD stamped Sena helmet or headset as you will not get stereo without it. I just found that out and the more I get into this chapter of my riding life the more the HD logo is starting to wear off from me.
You’re jumping right in to customizing your Dark Horse. How has your experience so far been with Indian aftermarket vs. Harley aftermarket.
Right now my primary upgrades I’m doing to the Dark Horse have been Indian certified components. As I’ve started to look for more aftermarket parts it is evident that industry isn’t supplying much still. I hope that changes over time but I can understand why vendors may be reluctant still. Harley Davidson on the other hand has a very large aftermarket industry. There are just so many things you can do to your Harley without needing to by Harley direct parts. I am hoping that the market changes though as I do love this new bike.
What on earth possessed you to add a Chieftain Dark Horse to your garage?
I’m a bit of a spontaneous person. There was something about the feel of the Dark Horse that called to me. The other problem was I couldn’t get the dang Bronze color out of my head. I then thought I could convince myself not to get it by bringing my wife to the dealer to see it. Her comment after seeing the bike was “Well it does look like you…”. That sold it for me. It wasn’t just me but my wife also saw something about that bike. At that point it was just how much stuff can I buy. I do have to give credit to Metro Milwaukee Indian for putting up with me. I came near close and they stuck around to finish off financing and answer all of my questions. I’ve been very pleased with their service so far.
What are your motorcycling plans for the future?
My wife and I are now talking about our new house and how we need a larger stable. We are actually talking about a real stable now so each bike gets it’s own stall. Motorcycles are part of our family. My oldest daughter is now looking to get something soon as well. The big things for me is my boys are big enough to ride on the back so we will be setting out to do some riding and camping with them this summer. I plan to make my first trip to Sturgis as well this year. I’m looking for more adventures and different styles of riding to look into so we will see how that goes.