Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Final Drive: Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Trip

Apologies to readers, as I haven't posted in while. This is part one in a three part series.

Snake River
This article isn't about Zen Buddhism in particular, but it is about a motorcycle trip. A motorcycle trip I had hoped would help clear my mind and be a sort of private Chautauqua in order to give myself a little direction, a little relief and some hope. On Friday, August 19, Ross Chess and I took off on a trip to Crescent City California as I discussed in my last column entitled Anticipation. The day was a nice clear day without threat of storm or other foul weather and we took of from the Kum and Go off exit 117 on I 80 at 7:25 AM. Ross rides a 2010 Goldwing, which is a natural for long distance tours. Our destination for the day was Rawlins Wyoming. Rawlins is a small rural town of 8500 people nestled at 6800 feet above sea level in Carbon County Wyoming, which I call Tom Horn country after the tracker, scout and stock detective. The town of Rawlins itself was named after Union General John Amos Rawlins just because he camped there. If I knew it was that easy, I would have tried that long ago.

Anong's Thai Cuisine
Still, for the short time we were there, it was time well spent. We met with old friends Joel Schneekloth, AKA Waterman, Bob Wittman, AKA Landman and Noel Burke, AKA Badger, who were on their way to the Rally in the Redwoods as we were. We had dinner at a Thai restaurant, Anong's Thai Cuisine on 5th Street. I had the yellow curried chicken with an egg roll and satay for appetizers. It was good, but the curry dish was on the bland side. No pain at all, even though it was listed as a spicy dish. Almost all was well after a night at the local Econolodge, but the RT was a little slow cranking in the morning and required a slight twist of the throttle to get it started. This it turned out, was a remnant from a battery issue I had a couple weeks previous. One night after a terribly hot day, I tried to start my bike and it would not start. I expected some remediation from the dealer I bought the bike from, but did not receive it and that is another story for another column. Anyway, we set off that morning for Twin Falls, Idaho by way of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, while our friends departed on a different route, riding I 80 most of the way and getting off at Winnemucca Nevada. This part of the ride introduced me to a whole new level of what BFE means. Wyoming is not the place you want to screw up by yourself as depending on where you are, no one would find you again. The roads were in decent shape, so as long as we went according to plan, I didn't foresee any problems.

Jeffrey City
Riding through such towns as Jeffrey City, Muddy Gap, Sweetwater Station, Lamont and Bairoil also brought a sense of the poverty and hopelessness I have seen in other areas of the southwest where Native Americans live. I can't believe anyone would want to live like that in the 21st century in America. Jeffrey City is a boom to bust uranium mining town whose population was 106 in 2000, but 40 to 50 years ago it had a population of several thousand. With the collapse of the Uranium market in the 1970's, the population has since dwindled down to the point that Jeffrey City is for the most part a ghost town.

Going towards Lander on WY 287
As we moved northwest though, the fortunes seemed to change with the landscape. Our route took us on Route 287 to Route 26, which goes through Lander, Dubois and eventually Jackson Hole, which is a very trendy place, reminding me of a western version of the Hamptons. Coming up route 287 to Lander through Kotey Place, the scenery improves with color and terrain and although not as colorful as Sedona Arizona, the light neutral pastels and rock formations offer a welcome change from the sagebush and open range.

The Grand Tetons
As you can see from the photo, there must be some money in that part of Wyoming. The Tetons were stunning, absolutely stunning, showing their granite prominences with patches of snow that give the effect that they thrust through the earth's surface in effort to say "I am".  After an arduous trip the day before, the landscape this day was a reward for the boring prairie of Nebraska and the high plains of southern Wyoming. We were approaching the part of Wyoming that would have been Absaroka, the state that never was with a sense of urgency and determination to get over the Tetons. We had a lot of miles to cover in a short amount of time.

The Purina Check a Mix elevator
in Lander WY.
Upon arriving in Lander, I took the picture at the left to send to my friend Rob Larsen, who grew up in Lander and I took the photo to see if he would recognize it after all these years. At this point we are nearly halfway through our trip out to Crescent City with almost 1000 miles under our belts.

This trip also follows to some degree the excursion my ancestors took over 140 years ago when they left Missouri and Iowa after the Civil War, looking for a new life in north-east Oregon. Their trip was much longer than mine, fraught with a lot more danger, more hardships and more interaction with native peoples than mine. I can't imagine doing this in a covered wagon, especially with children in tow.

Getting over the Tetons was interesting. The road over the Teton Pass was under construction and a lot of it was just dirt and gravel. Not a difficult thing with four wheels or a dual purpose motorcycle, but a little worrisome with a sport tourer. Non-the-less, we pushed on, which would be a central theme for my trip. Patience is not only a virtue, but more so is perseverance. After the Teton pass, we continued on Route 22 into Idaho where it becomes Route 33. At Victor, we changed direction, heading south-west on Route 31 or Pine Creek Road on to Swan Valley, the home of the Rainey Creek Country Store, home of the square ice cream cone. My ancestors never had it this good although a square cone seemed kind of odd at first. Hey, whatever works.

After Swan Valley, we headed west on Route 26 to Idaho Falls where we picked up I 15. We were still 164 miles from our destination for the evening, which was Twin Falls Idaho. Once down I 15 a ways, we picked up I 84 west to Twin Falls. I was hoping that Ross would want to stop in and see fellow KawaNOW member Bud that lives in Pocatello as my sore ass was getting to me and I could use a break. Such was not the case.  Ross has an ass of stainless steel, so instead we pushed on to our destination, still over a 100 miles distant, outrunning more than one storm in the journey. As lightning struck in the mountains to the south, I prayed that we would make our destination safely. You see, 12 years ago I was closing the windows to the Florida room in my house during a storm and lightning struck in the back yard giving me a shock as if I had touched a 240 volt circuit. My wife said that it looked as if an aura was around my body. Since then I have been scared senseless when lightning strikes within visual and audible distance. Call it irrational, but I'd rather be on the safe side.

Snake River Canyon west side
We arrived in Twin Falls with very little fanfare and very tired bodies. I have to say some parts of Idaho remind me of Iowa, but with mountains. It is a drier climate though and we are back in sagebrush country again. Tonight we would stay in an AmercINN, which was a huge improvement over the Econolodge of the night before. After registering and settling in, Ross and I decided to visit the Golden Corral for dinner. It was already past 8 PM, I was bushed and the Golden Corral was only 100 yards away. Note to self: Don't eat from the salad bar at the Golden Corral. Considering our proximity to the Snake River Canyon, lets say I got Evel Knievel's revenge. This was the start of some physical woes. At this point, my forearms and wrists started bothering me and it wouldn't get better.

Evel Kneivel, Snake River Canyon
After a restful night's sleep, we headed over to the free breakfast and planned the day. We would ride 180 miles to Ontario Oregon and peel off to US Route 20. In case you didn't know, US Route 20 is a coast to coast route that traverses 3,365 miles from Boston Massachusetts to Newport Oregon, a mile from the Pacific Ocean. It also is the longest road in America. We gassed up and hit the interstate, hoping to make time, but our hopes were short lived. A tractor trailer carry large diameter steel pipe had crashed through the guardrail and left its load all over the highway. We had to wait as traffic was rerouted through the off and on ramp on the westbound I 84 exit in Jerome. We had no idea if anyone was hurt, but it was a reminder that bad things happen on the road and to remain vigilant when riding. It is all too easy to fall into a false sense of security, thereby throwing situational awareness to the wind.

The Sagebrush Saloon
By the time we reached Ontario, I was starting to think about lunch. US Route 20 is not the interstate and a rider cannot make time on this road like he or she can in the interstate, as I found out. About 20 miles west of Ontario Oregon, we stopped in Vale Oregon for lunch. Vale Oregon was the first stop in Oregon on the Oregon Trail. I am sure my ancestors stopped here and if it was good enough for them, it should work for me. Being Sunday, there weren't many businesses open in this neck of the woods. We happened upon the Sagebrush Saloon, which is on East A Street, which runs parallel to Route 20. I ordered a western bacon burger, which is a bacon cheese burger with BBQ sauce, red onion and cole slaw with a side of fries. All I can say is that it was one tasty burger. In fact the best burger I had in a long time. If you are out that way, it's worth the stop.

From there, we proceeded on our way to Bend, which was our destination for the day. This would leave about 275 miles for the final leg to Crescent City. Route 20 is a two lane road and I found out a couple things about this part of Route 20 that I didn't know before. Unlike Route 20 in Iowa, which is straighter than the shortest distance between two points, Route 20 in Oregon has some twisty sections that run along the Malheur River, which was a taste of things to come. Another difference is that Route 20 is 2 lanes at best, a lot like Route 169 in Iowa. It was also a very hot day with temps between 100-103. In fact I learned something else from riding through this area, which is something called Virga. Virga is the evaporation of rainfall such that it never makes it to the ground. With the heat we were riding through, we could have used some precipitation.

As the day wore on, my wrists and forearms continued to fatigue and hurt. During the trip I made sure I drank both water and drinks containing electrolytes. The problem as I have been able to understand it is that the ergonomics of someone of my height, torso length and arm length create an ergonomic problem where I am leaning forward a bit. This gets exacerbated on downhill grades where I put more weight on the grips. It doesn't normally affect me in Iowa because we don't have any real grades that would magnify this issue and riding for days with grades doesn't help at all. By the time I got to Crescent City, my forearms were so over-trained in effect, that I had trouble cutting with a knife at dinner or holding a fork correctly. My thumb dexterity and strength was shot and I was getting persistent numbness in my forefingers. Understand that I have no problem with 100lb grippers and if I work out, using 140lb gripper is easy. But doing resistance training involves rest periods and limited duration of the exercise. The bottom line is that ergonomic considerations that won't show up if a rider is a commuter or short tripper will rear its ugly head on long distance rides. In my case, I was taking a trip where I would average over 450 miles a day for 9 days with a day off. I had no idea I would have this issue. The result was what I started calling "goofy hands", which would affect my ability and confidence in riding.

Kathy's Oasis
Continuing on Route 20, both Ross and I found the heat exhausting and decided to stop in Juntura, which is x miles from Vale and still x miles from Bend. We stopped at the Oasis Cafe, which was surrounded by trees and was a cool 95 in the shade. Believe or not, it felt refreshingly cool. We decided to try the lemonade, which was fantastic. It was worth the stop. May be I was just that thirsty, but it was welcome none-the-less. To see better pictures of Kathy's Oasis, go to this blog and scroll down. We met Scott too, although we didn't have the biscuits and gravy or any other solid victuals. It could have been our loss. From there we scooted across eastern Oregon, heading for Bend for our final night on the road for our trip out to Crescent City. So far, the RT has performed flawlessly on the road, even running on fuel below the recommended octane with no ill effects other than less power. BMW's motorcycles use a real closed loop management system that adjusts for octane level. BMW recommends 89 or higher and suggests 93-94 to get the best performance, but I had to put 87 octane in and it worked without consequence. As a rule, I run the highest octane available at the pump, which usually is 91 octane. This is amazing considering that the RT has a compression ratio of 12:1, but it does run better on the higher octane gas. I'd love to find some 94 octane Sonoco Ultra.

Upon arriving in Bend, we decided to try the first motel we saw, the Sleep Inn, which is on the east side of town off Route 20 and NE 27th Street. At this point I was looking forward to getting off the bike and laying down for awhile. Upon hearing the price of the room, which, if I recall was well over $100, Ross thought better of it (it was a little rich) and we headed to the other side of town to the Days Inn on the Dalles-California Highway and NE Irving. I don't think we went out to dinner that night and hit the hay early. Unfortunately someone had a small child that was screaming all night. Having five children, I fully understand, but at this point I was ready to launch someone. Luckily, I was able to fall asleep, but I was awakened by a screaming child the next morning. All I can say is that it was worse for the parents than it was for me. After a quick breakfast it was down Route 97 for a 101 mile ride to Crater Lake.

Crater Lake
The ride to Crater Lake, for the most part, was one of the most pleasant rides of the trip. With morning temps starting out in the 50's, with crisp dry air and the smell of pine, it reminded me of Jackman Maine, where I had spent many summers as a youth. Central Oregon is beautiful that is for sure. We stopped in the La Pine mini mart for fuel and drink and headed down Route 97 and made a right to head west on Route 138 to Crater Lake's north entrance. Going west on Route 138 and into the park, we continued to climb in altitude and while the bike handled it fine, I could feel the temperatures drop, which was confirmed by the thermometer on the RT's computer. Upon reaching the overlook where the Rim Drive begins, you can see above what is called Llao Bay. Crater Lake was formed from a volcano, not a meteor as some believe. Some 7700 years ago, what was Mount Mazama erupted in a cataclysmic event that would have made Mt St. Helens look like a kids science project. Several cubic miles of ejecta were blown into the atmosphere and deposits can be found as far as Canada. All I can say is that must have been some sight. 

Behind Crater Lake
Along Rim Drive are patches of snow off the road, hard pack leftover from the winter, even though it was August, and while the temperature in Medford would be 100, it was in the low 50's up there.  While riding along Rim Drive the brake failure light came on and while the brakes seemed to work, it brought some concern. This motorcycle is a lot different from the Nomad I had in that it relies on computers for its functioning and a brake failure light could mean a few things at the least. This, coupled with goofy hands, made for an interesting ride. On top of this, I experienced something I never experienced before. Normally when I ride very twisty roads or roads I consider twisty for Iowa, I usually concentrate on the coming corner ahead of me as far as I can see into the corner. I found myself looking past the corner, out into the distance over the edge as it were and I have to admit it unnerved me, which didn't get better on this trip. I still don't completely understand why I had these issues with my hands/arms, tight curves  and overlooks at altitude, but may be someone reading this can give me some clue. I never experienced anything quite like this before. When I was younger, none of this would or did bother me, so it's a little bit of a mystery. I should mention that the brake failure light went off when we left Crater Lake and I didn't give it much more thought as the brakes were working.

Cascade Mountain
Anyway, heading out of the park, we headed down Route 62 towards Medford. As the altitude dropped, the temps went up and we were on our way to our destination. I was amazed at the speed of the motorcycles that passed Ross and me on Route 62. One squid on a liter sportbike had to be going well over 100 mph in a 45 mph zone. We were doing 50-55 mph, which is a comfortable pace that while above the speed limit, isn't crazy. Right after the squid came a K1300GT doing what I would estimate between 90-100 mph. Not as fast as the squid, but definitely getting someplace rather quickly.

We decided to stop in Medford for a much needed break at the Burger King to have it our way. At this point, I was looking forward to arriving in Crescent City and taking the next day off to give my hands/forearms a rest. Crescent City is only 112 miles from Medford, so we were really on the last leg of our trip to the rally. So we proceeded on I 5 to Route over Grant's Pass to Route 199 and as we descended towards Crescent City through towns like Cave Junction, Illinois Valley and O'Brien, so did the temps. I was glad to be where we going to be where we were supposed to be. 

To be continued...


JMGant said...

Very nice post and pictures! I look forward to reading about the rest of the trip.


Ken said...

Nice trip! I didn't know about US 20...now I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the info.

Jim L said...

That's only 1/3 of the trip in a sense. I will be writing up the Crescent City say and the ride home, separately.
Soon enough. :)