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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Dodging storm clouds

I guess a lot of seasoned bikers are familiar this skill but I had to develop olit completely from scratch and it was up to necessity rather than fancying myself taking on a skill I might not use ever again.

During my few weeks biking in the US this June I got quite good at it.
What it basically is that as a motorcyclist you try avoiding getting wet by avoiding rainy clouds as they intercept your route. You do however have another choice which is to bd a fatalist and give in to nature and … well … get soaked. I preferred to stay nice and dry so I tried my best.
I basically learnt the hard way of what it felt like to drive through a cold front and come out the other side looking like something my mother would drag out if the washing machine after a good hours soak. I knew the storm was coming but really had no way to properly avoid it. I could either stay put in a nice warm and cosy (and pricey) hotel, I could try to outrun it or could try riding straight into it and shorten the suffering. I though at the time it was to panzy to stay in the hotel, I didn’t want to turn back and you really can’t outrun a cold front just to let you know. I have also already been to Wisconsin and I didn’t particularly want to go back.

So this is what it all looked like on my phone using a weather app showing the rainfall radar.

wpid-Screenshot_2013-06-09-08-17-59.pngThe red dot is where I was at the time so I could see that there wasn’t much weather on the other side of that wave of rain.

But I didn’t realize at the time that I was in for some good soaking that would last about half a day. I remember at one point stopping more out of desperation at this diner next to the interstate to get myself warm on a all-you-can-drink coffee and lots of yummy egg-soaked calories with some peanut butter on the side.
Seriously, I thought I was going to have to give up and find a hotel nearby and warm up for a week. But then it started to ease off the rain. Just a little at first. Far in the distance you could see the clouds getting brighter. Then half an hour later or so … a ray of sunshine here and there. After that it cleared up big time and once I arrived in Bismarck in North Dakota the skies were blue and the the air was hot.

Once I came close to the finish line of my trip I seemed to improve my wetness avoidance skills tremendously.
I was riding towards a small town west of Chicago and I had managed quite skilfully to avoid a few storm clouds in my path. At one point I had to leave the interstate I was on and to my surprise ended on the famous Route 66. A few friends asked me before I left on the trip whether I was going to do the ’66’, however this never in my plans. Well, did managed to get on it completely by chance.

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Avenue of the Giants

Redwood forest
Redwood forest (photo taken from the internet)

The name sounds like something from a children’s adventure book, perhaps depicting an overgrown legume, but this was an actually road-sign I saw in northern California that was inviting me to leave the route 101 and explore its mysteries.

This is actually the name of a byway, a road that runs close to the Route 101 but is much MUCH nicer. The roads twists and rolls round enormous Redwood trees, which are really sequoia trees. The oldest one there called “Immortal Tree” is about 950 years old which has survived logging, a direct lightning strike and attempts to cut it down by loggers.

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

My biking retrospective

End of the trip in Chicago, Illinois
End of the trip in Chicago, Illinois

Today marked the first week since I hit the road. It seems like ages since I departed Chicago and I must say the trip has given me the desired effect and changed my perspective on biking and bikers. Long I thought them to be criminal gang associated thugs. But the truth really is far faaar from that misconception. They are a really friendly bunch of people that will always help each-other in trouble. Even in the first week I have met loads and they are just normal people with a desire to explore the world. Just as an example I would mention the moment when I was riding on a road somewhere in Illinois and I noticed in my rear-view mirrors that my luggage was slipping to one side. I quickly pulled over after checking there was nobody behind me. But just as I got of my bike I car pulled up just in front of me and I was a little embarrassed when a driver checked that I was OK and if I needed any help. I was amazed.
One of the points of the trip was also to see if biking is really for me, am I really for it. To be honest after the escapade in Yellowstone and all the wet and cold weather I had to endure I realy realy miss my car, the fact that I push the button and warm air starts blowing in my face, the fact that even if it is cold outside my fingers don’t get frozen onto the steering wheel. If I would encounter a buffalo for example I would at least have some thin piece of metal between me and the hairy beast.

This was written upon my return to the UK…

After the second week most of the stuff I had to deal with was becoming a routine. I still had some issues with filling up as it seemed that every petrol station had a different way of doing things. The rest was not difficult at all. The biggest challenge was to decide where to go and where I am going to sleep but in truth the latter wasn’t actually that bad. Towards the end of the day, about 5pm I would start to think about this and I either tried to look for a campsite but that required more time as I had more work to set up the camp and tent. The quick(er) and easier but more expensive way was to find a hotel. A campsite usually cost about $20-$33 and a room would set me back from $70 to $110. I wanted to find good deals by using apps from Hotel.com or Trivago but for that you need a reliable mobile broadband which wasn’t always there to deliver. In fact the Hotels app would often tell me I need an internet connection and just wouldn’t do anything despite the fact I could browse the internet.

One thing that (sort of) felt worrying was a casual observation from a few people I met on the road who thought I was quite brave of travelling round a foreign country, on a motorcycle and on my own. However, I didn’t have a feeling at all that I was doing something brave (or ‘stupid’, which could be philosophically a different way of saying ‘brave’).

But as my general experience of the whole trip goes I really liked how the whole trip helped to detach myself from the day to day rubbish and problems of my life. Now I just had to stay on the bike (meaning not fall over) and not get the bike stopped (ie. run out of petrol). I managed to do both just fine. There was that little incident in Custer state park where I nearly fell over … what happened was that I had to stop for a warden to pay the entrance fee. The road was slightly on a decline and as I was sitting on the bike and kicked out the stand the bike rolled and the stand folded back nearly tipping the bike over. Got the warden to help me keep it upright but it taught me a valuable lesson about keeping the damn bike in gear when on a hill. For those who don’t know … these bloody things don’t have a handbrake. I also quickly learnt how to park the bike in carparks as a lot of them slope down towards the kerb. Not really noticeable when you park your car but damn noticeable when you almost give yourself a hernia trying to reverse the motorcycle. Also, and you have my word on this, this procedure does not look cool 😉

Illinois

On top of the John Hancock Center - looking towards the direction of my long 23-day biking trip. A fitting end to the trip really
On top of the John Hancock Center – looking towards the direction of my long 23-day biking trip. A fitting end to the trip really
In the KOA campsite in Bismarck, North Dakota
In the KOA campsite in Bismarck, North Dakota
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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

The end of the road

IllinoisDistance travelled: ~8,000 miles (just under 13,000 km)

The 17 states that I had a chance to see:

  1. Illinois
  2. Milwaukee (briefly)
  3. Minessota (briefly)
  4. North Dakota
  5. South Dakota
  6. Wyoming
  7. Montana
  8. Idaho (briefly)
  9. Washington
  10. Oregon
  11. California
  12. Nevada
  13. Arizona
  14. Utah
  15. Colorado (briefly)
  16. Nebraska (briefly)
  17. Iowa (briefly)

People met: loads

Technical issues with the motorcycle: almost none, substantial oil addition in Utah at about 6.125 miles into trip. When I wrote this article I seemed to have completely forgotten about my problem getting the bike started on Day 1, when I was still on the Eaglerider carpark in Chicago. The damn thing wouldn’t even go in 1st gear. The mechanic needed to change the battery. Coincidence? This is the second rental and both have had electrical problems relating to the battery.

Distances

This bit is a retrospective note and was not part of the original article. A few people have asked me what was the longest distance I rode in a day. Well considering that I stopped a lot at the beginning it would definitely be towards the latter part of my trip. From Grand Junction in Colorado to North Platte in Nebraska is just over 500 miles (800km). However the last BIG riding day by far was the day after that so from North Platte, NE to Davenport on the most eaters point of Iowa and that was a whopping 580 mile ride (933 km) !!!
Basically I could have done a round 1000 km as I was riding around the area to find a good and not to expensive motel. In fact I probably did do it. These distances are based on Google Maps calculations using a direct route. On the day the actual distance I travelled was a little longer.

Here you can see all my stops, where I slept (letters A, B, C…) and major stop-overs (pink dots) on the way.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1HJrzS2vKFh7q4ivbJ-JOjQA-D8c&usp=sharing

 

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Chicago

Chicago river from Lower North Lakeshore drive
Chicago river from Lower North Lakeshore drive

Drove from Morris, Illinois in the morning straight downtown. Although sometimes glitchy the built-in Android turn-by-turn satnav saved the day by giving me good verbal instructions to guide me to the Monaco hotel where I stayed until my flight on Tuesday. Left most of the luggage there and then drove to the Eaglerider shop at the Chicago, Countryside Harley-Davidson branch. Very thrilling ride but not that difficult. Unlike a lot of parts of the country Chicago is actually well sign posted.

Had a quick look round Chicago and ended up on not very impressive Navy Pier. On Sunday I went on a “Southside Gangster” bicycle tour. We covered the mafia bit of Chicago’s history and actually saw some real life mobsters.

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They still hang around in some neighborhoods in plain view and the guide could almost point them out to us. Some of them apparently knew what we were about and the tour we were on and even interacted with us … albeit very briefly and one of them used some sort of code.
For lunch we stopped at a restaurant near the Bridgeport area. The place is frequented by many people …. I including some of the mafia guys and even the police. Apparently they do very good pizza so food seems to be a good common ground. I tried their lasagna pizza and it actually was good. Multo bene 😉
The whole Bridgeport neighborhood area had a very old style Chicago feel to it – I was told, of course. Wouldn’t know that myself but it was definitely an experience. Would advise the tour to anyone. Except young kids. As its a mobster tour there are some PG details that are mentioned involving the activities of “the outfit”. And so of course I don’t mean they they were into their Lego-making.

Saw other very nice parts of the city but not all, by far. There are at least two good viewing platforms. One is the Skydeck, but its on a building quite south of downtown. The more recommended is to go to the Sears/Hancock building. Very central and gives you apparently better views of the city.

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

The quick run towards Chicago

After completing my wish of seeing the Grand Canyon I realized I need to start towards Chicago. The day before sort of already was a travel east but it was more south-east than northeast which it should have been. I started from the Colorado town of Grand Junction.
The previous day travel was not pleasant at all. More like excruciatingly hot. It felt like I was in a stove and the air just kept getting hotter and there was no way of getting out. The official temperature was 36°C but I think it was higher on that overheated tarmac. I was so hot I literally escaped to a little diner in Colorado where I indulged in ice cold lemonade. The heat was bad enough but the biking gear at that particular moment did not help much. The biking jeans are quite thick and lined with Kevlar. Then there are the biking boots. Can’t do much about either but to cook or stew, whichever your cooking preference. My feet and legs were also very very close to a very very hot engine and exhaust.
Anyway, the next day was hopefully going to be a bit better. First of all the air was cooler in the morning but also I was starting the ascend crossing the Rocky mountains. Some really lovely scenerey ran pass my bike and I also saw the location of the FIS ski events in Vail, Colorado. However after descending on the other side my hopes that the air was cooler on the eastern side were quickly dashed. It was again back to the oven. The heat finally eased the day after, about 100 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, when I drove into a severe storm system that lasted for a couple of hours. Managed to avoid one of the storms that was producing a tonne of lightning by going for lunch to Denny’s. The second storm I caught full on and I had to quickly escape off the motorway to hide under a tiny bit of roof of an abandoned shed. After that it was back to sunshine but this time without the oven-like ambience.

By the way, Nebraska not very impressive so anything was going to be an improvement and Iowa did not disappoint. Not that I have anything against Nebraska but most of the way there was a prevails long smell of pig feces that only got intermittently exchanged by the smell of cow feces.

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Grand Canyon

 

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And this was the penultimate final destination on my trip. Amaaaazing and truly awe inspiring. Those who have seen it probably know what I mean. Just the size of the whole landscape really gets you.

I was really on my way to Chicago but after sleeping on my thoughts when I was in St. George in Utah I decided to give it a go. I was going to go to the horseshoe but the local road was closed for roadworks. Plan B was to go to the northern rim and it was really really worth it.

Most of the photos are on my big camera and I truly hope the captured some of the awesomeness of the scenery.

Returned back to my route heading for Illinois. Had to tend to my bike’s mechanical needs. I apparently used it so much that I needed to re-fill the oil. Apparently it needs a special one and when I turned up at a petrol station in Kanab, Utah I got absolutely no help from the young and apparently not mechanically savvy staff. They could direct me to the part of the shop where they had engine oils and that was it. When I enquired about any motorcycle mechanics or shops they more or less just giggled. Even more astonishing when I tell you there was a mechanic shop about 100 metres down the road. Luckily they did carry it so my bike was happy again.

Another weird thing happened to me further down the road. I was at a remote part if the road going through a canyon. Now as a biker you do encounter a fair share of insects slamming into your helmet or windshield. But this time it was bigger. Much bigger. First time it happened it hit the windshield and made an almighty bang. But it happened again just a couple seconds later. And then again…. and again. At one point one ricochetted of my helmet and into my lap. It was a locust. I slowed down and had to duck low to avoid being hit in the face. This lasted for about half a kilometer. Then as quickly as it started … it finished. Didn’t happen since.

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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Death Valley, Las Vegas and the Hoover dam – 4 states in one day

 

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Decided to give it a go and hope it doesn’t bite me in the backside if I turn out to be late for my bike drop-off on Saturday I. Chicago.
I decided I really wanted to see at least some of Grand Canyon and I went for it. From Bishop in California I headed southeast towards Las Vegas by crossing the “infamous” Death Valley. In fact its not that scary and there is even a small basic petrol station and motel there.
But the scenery is again really gorgeous, but in a completely different way as the others I have mentioned before. When in Redwood, Glacier and Yellowstone the nature seemed soft and pleasant then here it seemed rugged and almost alien. Lots if beautiful geology and of course there is the heat. That is one thing about experiencing the countryside on a motorcycle. In a car you are much sheltered from the elements while on a bike you are basically exposed, whatever weather, temperatures, senses … you are completely immersed in them. And here you were immersed in the scorching heat. No shade to hide in, no air conditioning to cool you down. The best way to keep fresh is to continue moving. The problem is that the air can get so hot that driving at speed doesn’t really help much.

Now it turned out Death Valley wasn’t that bad heatwise. The next valley was much worse. As you rise out of the valley the air gets actually quite cool when you on the bike but boooy, did it get hot on the other side, where the ranger post is. It felt like I was immersing myself in a stove. It just kept getting hotter and hotter. There was a point when I got worried that I wasn’t going to be able to take it. But when I stopped to get the park pass it wasn’t that bad as there was quite a lot of wind moving the hot air around.
After this I left California and entered Nevada. Took the highway to Vegas and then with the help of the Google satnav maneuvered my way through the fast and dangerous Vegas highways towards Hoover dam. It was soooo hot there but worth the trip. First I took a walk on the memorial bridge that gives you stunning views of the dam. Then I took my bike and drove across it to the Arizona side (changed the timezone briefly), turned back an returned to the Nevada side.

Returned back to Vegas and worked my way again through the highway system and desperately trying to stay alive by dodging speeding cars and trucks. I headed towards Salt Lake City and briefly passed through Arizona before entering Utah.

There is a very spectacular part of the motorway where it passes through a canyon at Mt. Bangs. At first it looks like the motorway will just hit the mountain or perhaps that there is a tunnel there. But then the road starts to weave through this very narrow canyon, parts of it were visibly man made. Really spectacular.

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Hoover dam from the Arizona side
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View from the memorial bridge
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This was the state if the public toilets at a vista point above Death Valley. And yes. Those are bullet holes. Yiiihaaaaa
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Road towards Death Valley
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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

San Francisco and the Yosemite national park

Yosemite
Yosemite

I put these two together as I visited them on the same day. They are only about 4 hours drive from each other.
I started the day in Santa Rosa and headed down highway 101 that leads into San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge. The bridge always used to be a toll one as I recall but now they have a silly electronic system where your plate is scanned and then your account gets charged. Which is fine if you are a regular user. But what about the one-off user like myself. I have no idea what to do and the signs on the bridge are useless. There are no signs before the bridge telling you what to do.

I finally got to a computer so I could pay the damn toll on Tuesday. Such a hassle.
Got to drive round the city a bit which was thrilling. Ended crossing the Bay Bridge to Oakland and then onwards toward Yosemite national park.
This is another gem that I wished I could have spent more time at. Truly amazing and a different landscape from Yellowstone. Lots of hiking trails to explore the countryside. Also saw the almost compulsory bison but somehow didn’t get to see a bear. Well, perhaps next time.

Ended the day in a small town of Bishop where I saw the most amazing sunset over the mountains. Its unfortunately on my Canon so will have to publish it later.

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San Francisco from the Treasure Island
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Bike trip round the USA 2013 Motorcycling

Oregon

Not one of the very impressive days on my trip. The weather precipitation radar was showing quite a lot of scattered activity in the whole northwestern quarter of Oregon. I did have a little wish to see Mount St. Helens where that big eruption happened in 1980. This would actually take me northeast to my then position in Vancouver (yes, there is one in the state of Washington.
So this plan was scrapped. Then came my other wish … to see the painted hills in Oregon. Took the road of the interstate 5 and headed east only to endure shower after shower. I ended up turning around but then reconsidering after filling up my stomach in the Ivy Bear pizzeria. I was adamant that I shall see those damn hills. But the rain had other plans. It was quite pleasant in the area where I had lunch but the weather got nastier and nastier. It was probably adamantly telling me to turn around. After a proper soaking I relented and headed back – doubly disappointed as I not only had to give up on yet another item on my to do wish list (the first one being the Road to the Sun over Logan pass) but I also lost nearly half a day messing around that particular part of Oregon.
I was also getting a strong feeling that Oregon was a little weird. The biggest clue came when I filled up my tank – the first one I did in this state. A guy approached me who did not convincingly show that he was actually employed there. He said that I am not allowed to self-serve myself with petrol (even though the petrol had all the signs of it being self service). This happened again further south when I filled-up for the second time. Apparently I am breaking the law if I fill up my tank by myself. The first person told me its because they are trying to get more people employed … and weirdly they chose this way to do it!!??
The second person said its because of safety but wait for this. Both of them just inserted my credit card in the machine and pressed a few buttons but then handled me the petrol nozzle for me to do the ‘dirty work’. This must surely indicate that there is an amount of lunacy in the Oregon state legislature.

I decided to leave the busy and very wet interstate 5 at Eugene and head for the pacific coast. I took the highway 126 and the road literarily goes through a spectacular scenery. And the smells you get you can only appreciate if you are outside of a car. Truly mesmerising. However it was quite late by the time I hit the coastal road 101. Found this state campsite that looks like it was set in a prehistoric forrest. Pity it is so busy. Its only Thursday today. Looks like it will be fully booked tomorrow which sort of beggs the question … where am I going to sleep tomorrow and the day after.

I would still like to see some of those big Sequoia trees, park Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. But I still need to get back to Chicago to return the bike by noon on the 29th.

Day 2 in Oregon

The state has somewhat redeemed itself after I drove through some beautiful scenery. Although right by the sea I didn’t see much of it. The forrest is still very dense and there were also very tall sand dunes. Many parts were and probably still will be further down south tsunami danger areas.
Later in the morning the skies cleared and I had beautiful sunshine.

Don’t have any worthwhile photos on my phone so I could publish them here. Most of them are on my Canon.