Saturday, July 31, 2010

An Epic Journey

I have not taken a real vacation in quite some time. Yes, I have been to some (and some new) places in just the past year, but none of those excursions could be called, in a primary sense, a vacation, though secondarily vacation-like characteristics were present. But a vacation is more than just going some place or sightseeing or experiencing historical, natural and other wonders; a vacation is an escape and if there is an ulterior motive other than the journey itself, the entire experience is compromised. In this respect, I have not taken a vacation in a very long time. Earlier this summer, Stephen Gamboa, a friend who has a passion for motorcycles similar to my own, floated the idea of an extended ride across several western states over the period of a week to ten days. Originally there were more than a handful of friends who signed on, but for various reasons (money, time and other conflicts), all dropped out but Steve and me. On Monday morning, July 19, 2010, we hit the road not knowing what to expect or even exactly which route we would take to get there.

We had a destination, sort of. The first half of our journey was to culminate in Butte, Mont. Steve’s cousin, Doug, and his cousin’s wife, Diane, live in Butte; they extended an invitation to us to stay for the weekend - to see the sights, ride their horses and generally recoup after riding for four or five days. Neither of us has had any experience with riding that far, riding horses (a couple of times for each of us, but not really), with Butte, with Montana or with most of the roads that would take us there. As an added bonus, the 9th annual Evel Knievel Days festival was also taking place in Butte that weekend, an event that turned out to be far more fun than I imagined it would be. Butte is not exactly a tourist town, but like any old city it has a colorful and rich history. Our resident tour guides showed us Butte like only a local can. In many respects, Butte’s founding on copper mining is not unlike Sacramento’s history based in the California gold rush. And Montana’s geographic beauty is equaled only by its expansiveness – indeed, the view from Doug and Diane’s deck is enough to earn the state’s unofficial nickname – “Big Sky Country.”

But getting to and from Montana was where the true magic of this vacation took place. Because it was just the two of us, we were free to make route decisions on the fly – and we did so regularly. The plan was to stay off of the major interstates and freeways as much as possible, but as far as plans go, this one was seriously open-ended. We left Sacramento going east to Truckee, Calif. on SR 49, SR 20 and old US 40, hopping on Interstate 80 occasionally before heading North on SR 89 towards and through Lassen Volcanic National Park, finally arriving in Klamath Falls, Ore. via US 97. We were delayed by road construction at various points throughout our 11-day odyssey and this initial leg was no exception. After getting some much needed overnight rest in Klamath Falls (our initial day was a 400-plus mile ride), we headed north on US 97 to Bend, Ore. before turning east along US 26 though numerous small towns scattered in and around the Ochoco and Malheur National Forests. This route took us through largely empty roads, long sweeping turns and magnificent scenery. Our second day took us nearly 500 miles and into Boise, Idaho for the night.

We left Boise the next morning with the intent of riding through the Sawtooth National Forest along SR 21, but our original plan changed several times along the way, taking us to what turned out to be some of the most exciting riding, challenging roads and breathtaking natural landscapes so far. We missed the portion of SR 21 that would take us north and altered our northward byway to SR 55 and then east to Banks-Lowman Rd., which took us through the Boise National Forest. Our missed turn turned out to be one of the greatest surprises as this little road offered not only some of the most challenging twists, but also some contact with other motorcyclists and their emphatic suggestions to take a mountain pass that lay a little out of our way. The same suggestion came from one of my Facebook friends and the decision was made to alter our route to access Beartooth Pass – but that would not take place until two days later on our way (and a little out of our way) to Butte. As we approached Idaho Falls, the weather towards the east was threatening and we saw lightning strike in the mountains we had yet to cross to get to our next destination, Jackson Hole, Wyo. We managed to miss the bulk of the thunderstorm, but still hit a little rain and very wet roads as we descended SR 33/22 into Jackson Hole where, just prior to our arrival, the city received ¾ of and inch of rain. We had light rain as we crested the summit, but the view of the dusk sky and clearing storm clouds over Jackson Hole was worth every ultra-cautious mile on the rain slicked road.

Day three came in at more than 400 miles. We were ready to find lodging and rest our weary bodies and minds after a day that ended in extremely dangerous riding conditions. Descending into Jackson Hole was slow and painstaking and at this point our plan (that was not a plan) revealed a major drawback: There were no rooms to be found in Jackson Hole during the mid-summer tourist season. Fortunately we found a lone vacancy, it was pricey, but so is everything else in this tourist mecca. The next day we headed north through Grand Teton National Park before entering the south entrance of Yellowstone Nation Park. At less than 200 miles, this would be our shortest riding day. We did not plan to camp anywhere along the way, but brought sleeping bags and a tent with us just in case. Somewhere between Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, we decided that camping in the park was an opportunity that should not be missed. Our intentional lack of planning again presented an issue in that the campgrounds were all full, but a ranger suggested that we check with the people who run the reserved campgrounds for a cancellation and one came in moments before I arrived at the head of the line. We pitched our tent and rode around the park for the remainder of the day.

In both Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, congestion – the kind of congestion we were trying to escape – was present everywhere. It was not until we left early the next morning, before most of the sightseers hit the road, that we escaped it and headed for the northeast gate of Yellowstone towards Beartooth Pass on US 212. We gassed up in Cooke City, Mont. and started our climb up to the summit of almost 11,000 feet. Although the ride up Beartooth Highway was everything we heard it was, we did not fully understand why so many so strongly recommended it until the descent towards Red Lodge, Mont. The grade, the switchbacks and the desolation were beyond description; the terrain surrounding the road was surpassed in grandeur only by the road itself. At one point, the road (which is closed in the winter due to snow) passed the top of a ski chair lift. We were literally on top of the world. Once we arrived in Red Lodge, we mapped a route to Butte that would take us on more empty and easy riding roads, many that went for miles without a single turn... or another vehicle. Montana is somewhat liberal when it comes to speed limits – you can fill in the rest. Day five was another 400-plus mile day.

After two days of R&R in Butte, we decided to completely alter our plan (again, that wasn’t a plan) and go back north, west and south rather than south and west through Utah and the Nevada desert. Although we wanted to ride back through Utah, we were not at all looking forward to riding through an entire Nevada wasteland to round out our ride. We headed north to access US 83 through the Rocky Mountains to Kalispell, Mont. and then east along US 2 to the Idaho panhandle before turning south onto US 2/95, just 13 miles from the Canadian border. Our goal was to reach the Harley Davidson dealership in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and then spend the night in Spokane, Wash., but just prior to an eastern detour into the city, a phone call revealed that the dealership was closed on Monday, so we just went straight to Spokane for the night. Crossing the Washington state line, we reversed a small celebration we enjoyed so many days earlier when we crossed the Snake River from Oregon into Idaho – we put out helmets back on. Every state we rode in except Washington, Oregon and California does not require adults to wear a helmet – a form of respect for personal liberty that the nanny’s in these Pacific states don’t recognize. Our eighth day away and fifth day of riding yielded more than 500 miles.

From Spokane we went north on US 395 into the Cascades. We spent the bulk of our day on SR 20 riding again on some extremely challenging roads with nicely banked and well-marked turns. At many points on this journey I had felt as though I was one with the bike, a Zen-like state where everything falls perfectly into a naturally balanced rhythm in which the mind goes quiet and the senses are tuned to the road and nothing else; on this particular leg, that experience was at its most profound and seemed to never end. I rode my Harley Davidson Road King - sometimes in front of Steve and his Heritage Deluxe, sometimes behind - like it has never been ridden before. Some of these series of linked turns on this magical day reminded me of my younger days on my (much smaller) Kawasaki GPz 550. More than an individual oneness between us and our machines, the two of us were in tune with each other such that our coordinated attack of the road resembled a intricately choreographed dance… beauty in both form and function. We finished the day by crossing the Deception Bridge to Whidbey Island on Puget Sound and crossed the sound by ferry to stay in Port Townsend, Wash. for the night. At just more than 400 miles, it felt like much, much more.

We got a slow start the next morning – by this time we had been gone for nine days and ridden hard for seven of them. We still had more than 1,000 miles to go and planned to reach Coos Bay, Ore., by nightfall. Part of what slowed us down was the number of other vehicles occupying the road with us down the Washington and Oregon coast. We also made a small detour to Tacoma, Wash., for a short visit to Steve’s mother and graciously accepted a homemade lunch from her and her husband. Although this detour did not cost us many miles, it did eat up about two hours of daylight. In addition to the congestion, the temperature along the coast was just south of tolerable – we had to stop in Tillamook, Ore., not for the cheese, but for some long johns to keep our legs operational. We fell about 100 miles short of Coos Bay, stopping for the night in Newport, Ore. Our room was cheap, but nice, and it was within walking distance of the waterfront and world-famous Mo’s seafood. It was one of many fabulous meals (along with too many consisting of fast food), but this one was at least as good as those that cost twice as much. Despite the slow start and the less than comfortable temperatures, we still managed to cover more than 400 miles on what turned out to be the second to last day.

But for the last day to be the last day, it would mean our longest riding day of the entire journey. From Newport, the only reasonable route was to continue south along the coast on US 101. Our plan for the day was to continue down the coast along US 101 to California SR 1 and turn east at Fort Bragg on SR 20, but by the time we arrived in Crescent City, Calif., we had had enough of the cold and, furthermore, we decided that we would finish the ride that day. We had to change our route to accomplish two goals: Get inland where it was warmer and cut miles (and time) off our last leg. That opportunity came in Eureka where SR 299 cut east to Redding; we would finish the final 150 or so miles on Interstate 5. Darkness would fall before we arrived home, but this route did not present any danger from deer or other wildlife intersecting our path after dark (bugs do not count as wildlife…).

One of the things that struck us during the many miles we rode the inland states was the fact that the roads were generally in excellent condition, extremely empty and went on for not just a few miles of uninterrupted serenity, but, in some cases, for hundreds of miles. We couldn’t help but notice that in California, where these quintessential motorcycle roads exist, they are either crowded, in sad shape or short. Though I realize this is a generalization and that there are exceptions, it is also true that those roads in the other states were not some kind of hidden gem - they were everywhere. Imagine our surprise when we found SR 299 to be long, in excellent condition, largely empty and as challenging as anything we had ridden up until that point. And what better way to finish off this journey than to ride like the wind on a road in our very own home state. That Zen-like state found me once again. By the time we reached Redding, the temperature was beginning to cool from a high of around 90 degrees making for perfect t-shirt riding weather all the way back to Sacramento. The final day of riding was by far the longest, coming in at a little more than 630 miles and a total of 13 hours on the road.

When Steve approached me with this ride, I was apprehensive, skeptical and not sure if it was something I really wanted to do. As time wore on and the others who said they were in dropped out, my mind was reeling through numerous excuses why I could not go. None were valid, but the uncertainty on many levels had me questioning the wisdom of taking on such a long ride. Steve shared that he was experiencing some similar sentiments, but he and I share something else besides a passion for riding: we both have sons fighting for our country in Afghanistan. Steve explained it this way: If our sons are brave enough to go to war and be shot at, we can walk through any apprehension we might have about this ride. Besides, I made a commitment and I surmised that if I didn’t do this now, I might never ever do it – and it has been a dream of mine for some time.

As little as 10 years ago, both Steve and I were not only not in a position to attempt anything like this, we probably were not even able to dream it. I know it was out of any realm of possibility for me. In the ensuing years, we have both found that elusive purpose and value in life that makes dreams like this a reality. This was a lifetime experience that, if not for some major life decisions I made about six years ago, could not have happened – and Steve’s story is similar. I think I can speak for Steve… we are definitely doing this again.

Maybe Alaska next year?

Don’t bet against us.


Anonymous said...

Mike your post has it all. It could be nestled between the covers of any of the motorcycle / travel magazines I love to read. I went with the two of you ever mile of the way. From the congested roads to the open highway. Cold temps to the "zen like state" of riding I so love to find myself. Thanks so much for the fantastic pics and narrative.

Rocky Road said...

loved reading about a REAL road trip. (so just how sore were your arms and butt?)

Jennifer said...

I have kept this open in my browser ever since you posted it last night and have read and re-read it over and over again. It's the kind of trip that I just dream about taking. I've been to quite a few places you vehicle. Beartooth Pass is just glorious. I would love to see the country as you did...feeling the sunshine, the air, the heat and the coolness. I'm quite frankly envious...but I am delighted that you had the chance to experience it...the trip of a lifetime to many people. Thank you for sharing it in words and pictures so that we could ALMOST feel that we were there with you.

Kathleen Jennette said...

I don't know why it took me so long to check your ride out... ugghhg. It sure was an epic one! Knowing I took mine just a couple of weeks after you, this was one of my guides as you posted on FB and let us all follow you. Reading your journey just makes me want to start planning my next ride. This time, skipping Sturgis and going for your northern route of Oregon and Washington. That sounds wonderful! Your trip was one of my inspirations! Can't wait to hear whats up for next year!

Miss Kodiak said...

Wow Mike, Thank you so so much for sharing your journey with me & everyone. You made me feel like I was there with you both. Your narration made I too feel like I was one with your bike as well. What an awesome experience it must of been for you both. I was jealous then and more so now. Love you Mikey