Wisconsin Rustic Roads

I can’t help being a little competitive. When I got back into motorcycling, I started thinking about the patches people wear on their vests and jackets. I don’t run with folks in MCs so I’m not talking about an MC patch with a bottom rocker. I’m talking about the patches you see when you’re around other bikers at casual events. You’ll see a lot of HOG rally patches and pins. You’ll see “I support the 2nd Amendment” and “Don’t Tread on Me” and such quite a bit. I respect those patches and pins, truly, but I don’t ask people about them. A lot of those stand purely for group affiliation or political ideology. Good patches are like a  good tattoo: it’s a personal emblem, but it’s also the start of a story. “Hey what does that mean?” “Oh hey I rode the dragon’s tail last  year too!”

So, if you’re a goofy looking guy riding a Victory in the heart of Harley country near Milwaukee, you might feel the evil eye on you a little bit when you’re parking your bike, and that goes double if you’re flying some “Victory owner” patches. I started collecting patches about where I’d been and what I’d done. The first one I earned (other than by buying a motorcycle) was the Wisconsin Rustic Roads tour.

If you’re near Badgerland, check it out: http://wisconsindot.gov/Pages/travel/road/rustic-roads/default.aspx

Now if you’re under the age of 40 you are likely familiar with the notion of Achievements in video games. Achievements award you for doing something that’s already fun: playing the game. But you get 50 headshots in a row, and you get a special badge. Depending on where you live and your age, again, you may be familiar with the notion of BoyScout/GirlScout patches. I built a fire, I get the fire patch. I caught a fish, I get the fish patch. Well, I took pictures of my bike in front of rustic road signs in Wisconsin until I got the rust roads patch. Riding motorcycles is obviously already fun, but if I do these certain things I’ll also get a badge/patch/cheevo. My favorite photo from the rustic roads tour is my muscle bobber (a Victory Gunner) in front of the sign right across the street from the Potosi Brewery in Western Wisconsin, right across the river from Debuque.

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By the way, this fun little bobber started my mind on the topic of: What is the correct number and kind of motorcycles to own? More on that in the future.

At any rate, I got a patch, and I earned it. I proudly sewed it on to the front of my vest in a random place because I’m not an artist and I’m a pretty shitty seamstress.

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Still, while no one has really struck up a conversation with me about this particular patch, my other patches have started a lot of conversations. It’s primal, this is one of the oldest ways of interacting with other humans. Your clothes, jewelry, scars, or tattoos say something. You mark yourself. People ask you about your markings. You make allies with people who understand your stories. I like marking myself as a biker with certain patches and tattoos. I may work in Corporate America, but I am proud of my tribal scars.

Tail of the Dragon 2016

There are biker destinations that are popular because of the location, because there’s a party there at a specific time, or both. The Tail of the Dragon is always worth visiting as long as there’s not snow on the ground.

I know plenty of folks who consider themselves bikers, probably look a lot more like a biker than I do, and yet have never ridden far enough they couldn’t make it back home the same day. They’ve never camped, they don’t carry rain gear because they don’t ride in the rain, and they don’t put on a lot of miles. Hell, my wife and I met a couple in Jamaica who couldn’t believe I did 1,000 miles in one day because they put about 1,200 miles a year on their Ultra.

I respect everyone on two wheels, but to me there’s a serious division there. This is why I ride. No matter how big your saddlebags are, and if your bike also has a trunk, and how much you can strap onto your luggage rack, when you are going far from home for multiple days you have to turn your brain and your normal routine sideways. If you wear contacts you have to pack them. If you need a phone you have to charge it. Do you know how to do coin laundry? Can you find a way to sleep if it’s late and there’s no room at the inn? I love every second of this. I love taking my huge bloated life and forcing it to fit into a few cubic feet for a while. This feeling of cutting out everything that’s not completely necessary, being forced to choose which possessions to keep, being forced to think about disasters because you don’t know what will happen in the middle of nowhere. Is it worth packing flashlights? Fire starting gear? An axe? A second helmet? Bourbon?

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OK, back to the Dragon’s Tail. It’s a section of US 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina. There’s a great site where you can read all about it. It’s 11 miles of road with 318 curves. Bikers and sports car drivers love it. Cops and photographers patrol it with maximum predatory instinct.

I keep a list of all the rides I want to hit, and this summer the Dragon’s Tail went to the top. I put out the call and two men answered. My brother Der Bart and an old buddy Mark I hadn’t seen in years since he went to work for Harley. I’m always jealous when I see big groups on the road: how the hell do they coordinate a dozen or more family and work schedules when I can barely scare up a trio? The Road Runner still has a lot to learn I guess.

We made plans, but no reservations. Everyone was cool with just winging it. Myself and Bart left from Wisconsin and swung down to Chicagoland to pick up Mark. We happened to meet at Mark’s on 66 and naturally everyone had to compare bikes. Me and Bart were on big touring bikes but Mark had a sweet Harley Black Line, a soft tail they only made 1 year. He got a lot of questions and compliments on the old school paint flecks on this trip.

Somewhere in Indiana we needed some food. If you think billboards don’t work, you don’t know any bikers. You’re rolling through, wondering what to eat, and then you see a unique sign. We hit a place that had been on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives and had some burgers.

I had picked Corbin, KY as the first night’s stop. As I’ve said before, on longer bike trips I like to find a place to sleep with food and a bar within walking distance so I picked a hotel with a BBQ joint across the street. We got there at right before “9 pm” and had a couple surprises. I didn’t think about time zone changes so as we checked in I was told it was actually nearly 10pm Eastern. No problem, I says, they’ll throw some BBQ and a few beers at some tired bikers who tip well. They don’t serve beer, I’m told. Holy shit, welcome to the bible belt.Out come the phones and we start searching for food. You can live on beef jerky an water on the road, but why if you don’t have to. We find a “Micro brew gastropub” (whateverthefuckthatmeans) in downtown Corbin that’s open until 11 open time. I’m skeptical but we ride out.

We roll through a downtown that could be any place in Small Town America. An old school main street, local department stores, brick and cream brick buildings, local bars with neon signs. This is what riding is all about: rollin’ through, sampling some local flavor everywhere we go. So we arrive at The Wrigley Taproom and it’s completely fucking awesome. They’ve got great food, way better than your average bar food, and like 30 beers on tap. This was great by any standard, and better than water in the desert when you were just about to settle for dinner at the gas station and maybe a can of Coors light if you’re lucky. We have a great dinner and a couple beers, and ride back 5mins away to crash at the hotel.

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The next day we get up with nothing but slaying dragons on the brain.

Obviously this area cashes in on all the biker tourism, but it doesn’t make the spectacle any less cool to me. There are metal sculptures, signs, billboards, a Harley dealer, and whatever on both side of the Dragon’s Tail. As for the ride itself, it starts in the best way: just a normal US DOT sign that says “Curves the next 11 miles”.

Curves means 318 curves, lots of bikers trying to do it quickly, and you’d better pull over if a more skilled (or reckless) rider rolls in behind you.

I’m OK with saying the riding is challenging. Every year you see pictures posted of people riding 1-up and 2-up misjudging a turn and crashing. We road through West to East and gassed up at the General Store/Dragon’s Tail resort on the other side. Pretty decent food and of course I bought a 129 patch. There are a ton of bikes, every day must be like a huge bike rally here. I loved the variety, I parked Red Sonya in between a Heritage Softail and a Can Am.

As you lean into the curves, you’ll notice photographers everywhere. Shops like 129photos and Killboys are set up to take pictures of every bike that rolls by. They catalog them on their websites later and you can order un-watermarked photos from them later. It’s distracting at first but honestly much easier and safer than trying to have your friends catch you while you’re posing on a switchback turn.

We rode back East to West to the Harley store that’s on the West side. There’s a geezer there with a patch shop, and I paid him a few bucks to sew the 129 patch onto my vest. This dude has a gigantic old school Singer sewing machine that’s operated with a foot pedal and looks like it could survive a bunker bomb. We thought about riding a few more times, but hey we’ve got jobs, and I know of a place towards home where we could have a chill night if we headed back, so we said goodbye. The following Sunday was Father’s Day, and while I don’t like to claim special treatment, my kids like to see their dad and that’s precious to me. We are totally coming back to revisit the dragon, the Moonshiner 28 and all the other awesome riding around here.

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We stopped back at our familiar haunt in Shelbyville, Ky and bought some bourbon and had dinner at the steakhouse again. Naturally, the bourbon and local micro brew had to be sampled before and after dinner. We got back to the hotel and did what guys do: we talked about family and bikes and engines all night until the beer was gone and the bourbon was seriously compromised.

Here’s the thing about nights like this. Objectively, you’re just drinking too much in a hotel room in some random town. Yet every time I recollect times like this with the guys I was with, it was one of the best parts of the trip, why? Why is this so important, and why can’t you just re-create this in your living-room whenever you’re feeling stressed about life? Well, I’ve been writing a lot about the head-clearing effects of long rides. You’re sunburned, you’re drunk, your head is empty of stress because you’ve just been grinning for a few days. The booze is nice, but you mostly don’t want to stop because this is real. This is conversation like you don’t have every day. You can’t recreate this on a random week night because you have to be prepared for honesty, and the road prepares you. Most of us under a certain age grew up in a time when certain things were expected of men. You are tough, you are not vulnerable, you are practical, logical, the decision maker of the family, and sure as fuck not contemplative. When the wind strips all that armor away you are in a temporary reprieve where it’s permitted to be contemplative and vulnerable and still a manly man. How can you not be a man? We just rode a thousand miles, defied death on the Dragon’s Tail, ate steak and drank Kentucky Bourbon. But we need to air out, too. We need this, and I wish more of us could admit it more openly.

I actually think this will get better. Social norms are changing, and they’re going in a direction such that my son may grow up a little more sane than I did, a little more comfortable in his own skin. I also love seeing more women riding, maybe the next time I have an experience like this it’ll be in mixed company and we can all ride away wondering why the rat race back in Reality make it so hard to just be humans. My wife rides, and while she hasn’t done a long trip like this yet, she’s so fucking awesome I hope that changes soon. Would you trade your masculine superiority for a partner who can do everything you can do, and sit at that bourbon bar with you and your road brothers and figure out the answers to all life’s problems?  I don’t need to be better than anyone, that’s not what makes me tick. I hope we see more and more people of all possible backgrounds, choices, and proclivities interested in motorcycling

The next day, shockingly not hungover, we all made it home, splitting off from Mark in Chicagoland and me and Bart just a few miles from each other. This was my second trip to the Smokies’s area in two years, and there is something so magical about this place that I’d really like to make it a yearly journey if I can.

 

 

 

2016 Bun Burner Gold

On Saturday, October 8th 2016 three men set out from a Kwik Trip in Waukesha WI with the goal of riding at least 1500 miles in less than 24 hours. If you’re not familiar with IBA certified rides, check out when I previewed this ride a few days ago. Riding were myself, my little brother, and my friend Wingnut Dave.

Our planned route had us taking highways 90/94 to Wall, SD and back. We knew there was some construction and the potential for serious cold but we wanted to hit ‘gold’ and didn’t really have a backup plan.

Some planning always has to go into a ride like this, but it’s also October in the North Central US, which means weather can be an issue. Wingnut Dave had just done a 2-up trip to Seattle and back, so he was good. My little brother rides a VTX 1800. With no heated gear, fairing, cruise control or hard lowers, the IBA might call this a hopeless class ride for him. Not that it couldn’t be done, but, damn. He went and rented a 2016 Road Glide Ultra, which also happens to be the bike he’s been lusting for. For my part, I got the rest of the heated gear I started putting together last year.

I tend to get excited before a trip like this. A long ride is great for clearing my head, but my head’s not clear yet so my mind messes with me. “Hey buddy, really important that we get sleep for this ride right? Ok cool, I’m just going to run non-stop with random stuff until about 2:30am…” To combat this, I employ a variety of sleep aids. This particular evening my sleep aid of choice was a healthy Glencairn glass of Knob Creek small batch. Not the tastiest bourbon, but my mom always told me to try new things.

It was in the low 40s as we set out West. As we got near LaCross, WI it plunged down to 33 degrees. At 75mph, that’s cold. During the first gas stop we all added extra layers, glove liners, etc.  There’s also a reality check: Are we really going to be able to do this? Put a few dudes together and the testosterone goes up exponentially. Of course we’re doing this.

I have driven up to Minnesota before, but it must have always been at night. As we crossed the Missouri river as saw Lake Francis Case I was already regretting the fact that we had zero time for sight seeing. If I do any more endurance rides, maybe I can justify it to myself as a way of finding places to go back and spend some time.

I had not been through South Dakota since I was a kid. My parents were serious road-trippers, and originally gave me the name Road Runner as a CB handle when we would talk to truckers on long trips. In my head I was thinking “We are going to Sturgis”, but heading out to Wall, SD in October isn’t like that at all. There’s a lot of the typical tourist road-side attractions like you would find all over the American West, and you get just enough glimpse of the beauty of the landscape from I-90 to make you want to come back. Be aware that actual Premium fuel is hard to find out there. I know modern engines have knock sensors, but my gas mileage went to hell until I had run a tank of 93 through the bike.

But, again, this was a timed endurance ride. Stops were gas, piss, kickstands up as much as possible. I was a little jealous of Wingnut Dave’s cup holder, he was sipping hot coffee. For me, though, a big part of being on the bike is Doing Without all the Stuff. Sometimes a fully loaded Gold Wing starts to edge a little close to being a two-wheeled car for me.

Other than the cold, the only issue we encountered was stench. Part of SD, all of MN, and again part of WI were bathed in a non-stop stench that defied explanation and was a marvel in it’s continuity. I’ve ridden through tons of farmland, so I know what pig shit smells like. I know what pesticide and non-shit fertilizer smells like. I know what skunk smells like. This was all of it, and it was constant and bad enough I started worrying about blowing chunks into my balaclava.  Most of the last 500 miles smelled like a diaper full of rotten Thai food that had been made with raccoon vomit. Or maybe there is a “baseball bat open season” on skunks I haven’t heard of, or maybe it’s an inside North Woods joke that deer hunters shoot skunks and then throw them on I-90? I don’t know but all of us on this trip have logged a lot of miles and agreed this was a singular phenomenon. We were getting damn close to the end point before I could breathe again and I pity the poor souls who live in those areas.

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Obviously, being alert is a constant concern on a ride like this. We didn’t do ourselves any favors with the time of year we chose. The cold takes a lot out of you. Even though we’re on a trip “for fun”, safety has to be a constant concern. I realize I’m talking to myself a lot “Be alert. Get home safe, you have a family to take care of.”

Other than these thoughts, though, I got exactly what I needed out of this ride: a brain reboot. I generally have a lot of trouble telling my brain to shut the fuck up and give itself some peace. I’m also a natural introvert and people like me can really recharge from alone time. Sure I had two guys with me, but you’re alone with your music and your thoughts 99% of the time.

Being mentally chill is so rare, that every single time it happens after a ride it still shocks me. When I was finally back on my brother’s couch having a bedtime (5am) sip of bourbon and talking about the ride, my ears ringing, it hit me again. My head is empty. I tried for a second to worry about my house or my job and it just wasn’t there. Do this right now: sit down and think about what you were thinking about yesterday. Can you do it?

The Aftermath

I don’t feel old most days. I use a bead rider seat, my fairing and shield keep most of the wind off of me, and generally never have much to complain bout after a ride other than sunburn. Holy shit was I sore today though. The cold and the miles took a toll I didn’t realize until I’d slept and tried to move. There are people who can do 1,000 mile days for a week. Kudos to you, you’re in a lot better shape than I am.

My little brother (by nearly 2 years) is a big boy, but I still can’t believe he did this without heated gear. Just some layers and a leather jacket. I suspect that the power of his epic beard may behind it, and so for now I’m giving him the road name “Der Bart”, the German word for “beard”.

I haven’t submitted to the IBA yet but obviously I know the GPS and the paperwork is in order, so I am looking forward to adding a couple patches to my vest. You can see the full route here.

Upcoming Bun Burner

All right friends, this weekend, October 8th 2016, myself and two others are attempting a BunBurner Gold. This is nearly exactly one year after my last Iron Butt ride. We plan on starting out at roughly 4:30 AM CST this Saturday October 8th. If you want to hit the refresh button on your browser, you can watch us here in 15 minute increments as we go. If you hit the link early, there will be no starting point so you’ll just see a world map.

The average speed necessary to complete 1500 miles in 24 hours ( 1500/24 = 62.5mph) earns this ride the Xtreme! callout on the IBA Rides list. If we don’t make it, I’ll still be OK with the 1500/36 patch on my vest. Only a mechanical failure, snow, illness, or injury will keep us from hitting that. The plan is to head to the Badlands of South Dakota, turn around, and head back to the Milwaukee area as quickly as possible. I’ve got Heated Gear and a special-for-winter gigantic wind shield. Wish us luck, and of course words and pictures to be shared when we get back.

 

Holy shit that’s a big shield!

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The Lake Michigan 1000

On October 9th, 2015 at 3:00am, three men set out early in the morning with the goal of riding counter-clockwise around Lake Michigan in less than 24 hours.Prior to this trip I had never done more than 650 miles in a day. What the hell was I doing?

I don’t remember how I stumbled on to the Iron Butt Association, but I was immediately hooked. Not only was this going to fill up my vest with patches, but the next time one of my “Harley is the only bike” friends said something I could just point to proof of my awesome endurance (both man and machine) to shut them up. Bragging rights. I liked the idea of belonging to a group calling themselves “The World’s Toughest Riders”.

I encourage you to go read about them on their site, but essentially you have to follow their rules and document your ride.The documenting mostly consists of:

  • Getting a start and end witness to sign a form saying they saw you there at that time
  • Keeping gas receipts and a log of your stops and odometer reading
  • Ideally, having a GPS record of the trip. I use Bubbler GPS on my phone and have a free Spotwalla account.
  • Some of the more extreme rides have additional witness requirements.

Spotwalla is also a great way to let your family keep tabs on you. My kids like to look at it to see where Dad is at, and I have a feeling my wife would want a lot more calls/TXTs without the map.

I didn’t have heated gear at the time and I knew it would be cold.Two pairs of socks, two pairs of thermal underwear, three long sleeve shirts, a leather jacket I almost never wear, and a full face helmet I almost never wear (I’m a half helmet guy), rain proof gloves, and a balaclava.

I was riding with two other guys: a Harley guy I ride with from time to time and a Wingnut. Word of advice to the Wingnuts: the Iron Butt website calls out the Goldwing specifically for not having accurate odometers. Plan ahead and don’t rely on it to make sure you’ve got enough miles.

With Lake Michigan right next door, Milwaukeeans don’t have a lot of options to get places that don’t involve a brush with Chicago. Chicago traffic is  nearly always a shitshow. If you ride through Chicago more than once a year it’s worth getting an iPass – no stopping and dicking around with money for tolls. While many of us enjoy country rides on two-lane roads, the freeway offers the best way maintain enough average speed to successfully complete a timed ride like this.

The sun came up as we started heading North. Around 10am as we left Grand Rapids, MI in the rear view, I couldn’t believe how beautiful Michigan can be in the fall. I’ve lived next door for 20 years and have never gone to Michigan on purpose. The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. We stopped in Mackinaw City for some food before going across. I was cold and tired: I hand’t slept much the night before because I was excited for this trip. A little food is what I needed and we crossed into the U.P. for what was to be the best part of the trip. Highway 2 is a great stretch of road: tree tunnels and glimpses of Lake Michigan on your left, what a sunset. I really wish I would have taken pictures, but at the time I hadn’t thought of writing about it.

Late at night in the U.P., it got colder. At one point my bike thermometer showed 40 degrees. I wound up throwing on my rain gear since it’s not permeable and would be a little more wind protection. We told so many “assless chaps” jokes back in the day I’ll probably never be able to own a pair of chaps.

So there I was with 4 pairs of pants on basically, riding South towards home and on the lookout for deer. South of Fond du Lac we started peeling off for our respective homes. My wife witnessed my return to the same gas station where I started, and I went home and had a beer.

Anyway, here’s the GPS record of the trip. Since the GPS drains the phone battery, I have taken to traveling with this extra battery to keep my phone charged. This is far from the fastest route, so if you just want to get it done, veer further East into Michigan and stay on the freeway.

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Bike Camping

One of the things I absolutely love about riding bikes is bike camping.

When you ride, reality is in your face in a visceral way you forget about if you go from your house to your car to your job. If you don’t ride a bike, drive a convertible, or take a long walk from where you park to where you work, you get so isolated from reality you don’t recognize it. Think about it. In your cage do you smell someone’s smoker or burning leaves? Feel the humidity on your face? Hear the sounds of someone running a circle saw in their garage? Do you smell fresh cut grass in the summer? Can you smell when it’s going to rain or feel the pressure changing? 100 years ago everyone could, now we just know when Game of Thrones is coming.

I love all the gadgets in my house, but like Edward Norton said in Fight Club, the things we own end up owning us. There’s so much shit to worry about you can’t sleep at night. But on the motorcycle, a lot of that falls away. As long as I have my key and my saddlebags are latched, I’m good. Not much else to worry about. Sunscreen during the summer because I burn superfuckingeasy.

So on the bike you are:

  • Unencumbered
  • Experiencing nature with your sight and ears and nose
  • Making vitamin D through your sunburned skin
  • Loving life

Now, add camping to that. If you don’t like camping, you probably won’t like motorcycle camping. Go somewhere else, this post is not for you. If you do like camping, imagine the joys of camping but with even more minimalism, and the camping starts before you even get to the campsite.

In the summer of 2015 my brother and I decided to experiment with camping gear. We both settled on variants of the military sleep system. It’s a rain proof bivy with two bags inside it. Properly configured you can sleep comfortably in 90 degree weather or -30. Because we’re middle aged and cranky we also brought a tarp in case of torrential downpour and a self-inflating air-pad each. No tents or anything like that.

We headed up to Lake Wazee, Black River Falls WI.

Now as I’ve mentioned before and I’m sure I’ll mention again: I like food. I like to eat. There is no situation in which I can’t overdo it on food. So campfire cooking is a fun challenge for me. I have made fucking awesome meals for 12+ people with two cast iron pans, a pair of tongs, and an open fire. Even with my generous saddle bags, though, space is at a premium when bike camping. I settled on one folding-handle Coleman skillet and just a few supplies:

  • A handful of charcoal to help our firewood
  • A handful of wood chips because: wood smoke baby
  • A simple tongs
  • 1 simple chef’s knife
  • tiny jar of olive oil
  • tiny saly & pepper containers
  • a few feet of aluminum foil, folded

We found a corner grocery store with steaks, mushrooms, and some broccoli. By making a smoke-collecting hood out of foil I was able to get some wood smoke on a couple of bone-in ribeyes and use a tiny amount of olive oil to cook up some mushrooms and broccoli. We sat in the dirt and ate like kings.

Now, we came to the campsite and dropped off some of our gear before going grocery shopping. This meant I had room for beer. You may notice that my Victory saddlebags are a touch more generous than your standard Harley bags, but I believe they are both water tight. I’ll just say that while saddlebags are not meant to be insulating, they hold enough ice to keep a lot of beer cold for a long time.

If one were to pack towels one could enjoy a lot of ice cold beer and safely haul their gear the next day. If you’re in Wazee, like we were, you should have a towel anyway because the swimming in the lake is fantastic.

We had a great time eating, drinking suds, warming by the fire, and talking while the stars wheeled overhead. The only downside was we underestimated the mosquitoes. The mozzies were all over the place like white on a rice-filled paper-plate in a snowstorm. While they didn’t bite me through the bivy, they could smell that I was there, and the flying around an inch from my face kept me awake. Despite having polished off a respectable-even-for-Wisconsin amount of beer the night before, we were up and out of there at 6am to escape the torture.

Still, my brother and I talk about this as one of the best times we’ve had. We were only 150 miles from home, it was only one night, and we didn’t go to some amazing destination like Pike’s Peak or the Dragon’s Tail. But we rode. We smelled the countryside. We ate a simple meal cooked over hot coals, drank cold beer, and talked about whatever men talk about under the stars until we fell asleep. There was no 4G LTE there. I couldn’t live blog this on Facebook as it was happening. Someone in a nearby campground asked if we had iPhone chargers and we just laughed. This was a perfect reboot for the brain.

Bike camping is the best.