Saturday, July 22, 2017

Trip West - Day 6

I crossed over the Missouri River and stopped at the rest stop, where there was a monument of Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark on their journey to map the Louisiana Purchase. As a teacher, I covered this period of history with my high school students, so it was a warm reminder of that time, and that I was traveling on historic grounds.

The overlook was beautiful...

...but not without its perils.

I also liked the metal relief they had erected.

As I rode on, the scenery continued to be spectacular.

Wisconsin: My God, it's full of clouds!

I stopped into the Third Ward in Milwaukee, and threw on a proper shirt, so as not to frighten the locals.I have been to Milwaukee a couple of times, and I love this town: friendly people, clean city, and good food. I am not a drinker, but a proper beer would have been hitting for the cycle.

I found a sweet little tapas place, and tucked myself in for a fantastic meal.

Milwaukee was a nice to be off the bike, so I took a little stroll around the area.

Then I rode on, through Chicago, which was the worst riding I have ever done. Aggressive drivers, stupid and poorly marked toll roads and toll booths, and just an all out crappy experience. It was even worse because I was coming off so many wide-open spaces, and to enter into this crowded idiocy was just awful.

I got lost, turned around, and made a point to pull off and find a hotel as soon as I was past Chicago. I was knackered. I took a quick shower, crawled into bed, and fell asleep as a chorus of bullfrogs sang me sweetly to sleep.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Trip West - Day 5

I started heading back home, first by turning toward Fort Collins, Colorado. I thought if I could get the bike repaired there relatively easily, I could still tool around the west for a bit. And, Colorado would most certainly NOT be a bad place to do it.

Quick - think of the weirdest place you have been. If you didn't say Thermopolis, Wyoming, there's a good chance it's because you have not been to Thermopolis. In a 2 minute span, I saw about half a dozen rock/crystal stores, the crazy cat lady to conquer all cat ladies (I counted 24 cats in her back yard), and this guy, just rolling through town, and happy to be alive.

I wondered if I stayed in this town, would it get increasingly stranger, or would it seem less so by degrees, over the time I spent there. Stay weird, Thermopolis. Stay. Weird.

Coming out of Thermopolis, I dove straight into the most beautiful ride of this entire adventure. The Wind River Canyon twists and turns, the road following the cuts made in the gorge by the river. Nature's skyscrapers lifted to the heights on both sides of me, and when I paused, the river roared her lullaby to me. My photos do it no justice.

Somewhere in this canyon, I hit a pterodactyl. At least, judging from the wingspan, that's what I think it was. The insect was so large, it actually scarred my shield. I am really glad I had it snapped down at the time, because I don't think eating that much protein in one sitting would be good for anyone.

I reached Casper, Wyoming and pulled over into a gas station to call the Ducati dealer in Fort Collins. After explaining my issue, he came to the conclusion that it was something between the slave and master cylinders, as I suspected. It would take him 4-7 days to get the parts in, and he assured me I was doing no harm riding the bike as it was. He advised me to figure out where I would be in that 4 to 7 days, then call ahead and have them order parts at that dealership.

I was glad I was going to be home, honestly. I broke east from Casper, my westward progression halted. I could have been angry, or disappointed, but I reflected on all that I had already seen, and began looking forward to all I would see. My trip was not over, it was half over, and I was not going to spend the second half sulking. I went in to pay for my gas and get a cup of coffee.
I brought the coffee to the counter, and the woman behind the register asked me, "Didn't you just fill up?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said. I don't know why, but I have a tendency to use ma'am and sir when I leave the northeast. It's always been that way.
"Well, the coffee's free if you gas up, here. It's Miss Jenny's way of saying thank you."
"Tell Miss Jenny I said, 'Thank you'. It's the nicest thing that's happened to me this morning."
She smiled and wished me well.

I passed through a lot of small towns, none of them particularly remarkable in any way.

Wyoming, into Nebraska (where one of the local hobbies seems to be blasting road signs with shotguns. I did notice how Nebraska built their signs to withstand these percussives).  

And the coal kept rolling...

...and the hay got baled...

...until I reached Mitchell, South Dakota. I checked into a cheap hotel, where the Chinese girl, who spoke no English, and I tried to work out room rates and wifi passwords. It was comical conversation, and we got it worked out by pantomiming and pointing until we were both understood. She was a student, and trying to learn English by doing the late shift at the hotel; I hope she does well.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Trip West - Day 4

We started out having breakfast at Helen's in Chadron, Nebraska. Wherever I go, I try to make new friends. Chadron, Nebraska was no exception.

We were not in Nebraska long before we crossed into South Dakota. I found that I had some trouble shifting gears the day before, and made a mental not of it, but the early riding did not have a hint of trouble. That said, when I downshifted to pull over and take this photo, I noticed it again. It was like the clutch was not fully engaging on the bike.

One of the things that happens when you are on a longer trip is that you really get to know the feelings and sounds of the bike. She was telling me, "I'm fine" but I knew she wasn't. It was just a minor thing, but I would keep my antennae up for it.

Shortly after entering South Dakota, I saw the Black Hills It's funny, though - I smelled them before I saw them. In the west, the air is so clean there is a noticeable lack of scent in the air. So, when something did have a scent, I noticed it much sooner. The Black Hills are covered with pine trees, and that evergreen smell surrounds them. It's beautiful.

We hit the winding hills with alacrity, but not too much, figuring the local constabulary might have an eye and an ear out for squids (those guys on crotch rockets that dodge between your cars on the highways at unreasonable rates of speed).

And then, rounding a hill, slightly off to the side of the road, I saw them: Bison! Living ones! They lumbered along, roughly the size of a small SUV. They tussled with each other, playfully rubbing their heads together. They stopped and looked at our motorcycles, but kept a distance from they sound of the engines. This was a good thing, because there are warnings to give them distance. Given their size, that seemed prudent.
When I was a kid, one of the first albums I bought on my own was Kansas Leftoverture. On it was the hauntingly beautiful Cheyenne Anthem, which tells the story of the people who used to roam this part of the world.
From the mountains to the sun, life has only just begun
We wed this land and pledge our souls to meet its end
Life has only just begun
Here my people roam the earth, in the kingdom of our birth
Where the dust of all our horses hides the sun
We are mighty on the earth, on the earth
Looking at these rolling hills, it was easy to see the Cheyenne on their horses, looking for the buffalo that would provide clothing, blankets, tipi covers, moccasins, needles and thread, knives, glue,  shields, quivers, toys, and everything required for an entire way of life. 
We had the option of visiting Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse Memorial. I chose Crazy Horse. It's a huge monument, currently under construction. It is, of course, a pay to get in place, and then you can pay more to get to the bottom of the site. We opted in for the first and out for the second.

There is a nice viewing area in the (omnipresent) gift shop, and I found this rendering of what it should look like when it is done, with it's current state in the background. You guys better get chiseling!

My bike continued to act up, so I was pleased when we pulled into Deadwood, South Dakota.

I was pleased because there was an Indian restoration garage, and I thought, "Surely these people can help me." I had done some quick online research and found that, because my bike has a hydraulic clutch, there was a possibility that air in the hydraulic line was causing the problem, and that a "simple" bleed of the line might alleviate the problem. I put "simple" in quotes because it's simple if you 1) have a the tools and 2) know your way around a motorcycle. Surely, an Indian restorer hit both of those categories!

But, it turns out the guy couldn't help me. Or, wouldn't help me. I suppose I will never know because he didn't even come out of the shop. The woman at the front desk called back, after explaining to me they "don't work on plastic bikes" and told the mechanic about my issue. Then she hung up the phone and said he wouldn't take a look at yet it. I have heard people talk about how stuck up Harley-Davidson owners can be, and I have heard the same said of BMW owners. I have not met one of either of those brand owners that were. Brad and I decided to vacate the premises, before I went Abe Froman (the Sausage King of Chicago) and decided to get snooty. I shook the dust off my sandals and we moved on.

We went to a specialty shop, but the guy "only works on Harley's" so he couldn't help me either, but pointed to shop nearby that might. We found Outdoor Motor Sports in Spearfish, North Dakota a Yamaha/Honda (you meet the nicest people on a Honda) shop, and when I explained what was going on, they asked me to pull the bike into the shop. I did, and the guy bled the line right there for me. The difference was dramatic and immediate. The question was whether or not it would be lasting. If there was air in the line, there should be no problem, but if there was a leak in the assembly (master cylinder, slave cylinder, etc.) I would be haunted again, like some westward riding Ebenezer Scrooge, trying to outrun ghosts bent on revisiting him, and with nothing better to do. We rode onward, into Wyoming.

If you are of a certain age, you cannot think about Devil's Tower and NOT see it in a plate of mashed potatoes. For my money, I always preferred the scaled diorama Richard Dreyfus built in the basement in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Seeing America's first National Monument, which was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt, in person was a highlight of the trip. The Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow, and Kiowa all held the mountain as special, and most of the names they had for it center around a variation of "The Bear's Home". In hindsight, I really wish we had driven down closer to the site; it's one of the few regrets I have about his trip.

We pulled over quite often to stretch our legs and keep our heads on straight. It felt like we stopped in the middle of nowhere, but obviously, we stopped at Dry Creek Road. I was grateful for the stops - my clutch problem had returned, and I had time to look things up online, then ride and consider what they meant, formulate more questions, then, when we stopped the next time, search for those answers.

 Nd, then we had reached the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. It's the first real mountains I had seen. We could see their snow-capped peaks for miles before we got there. It's a strange thing to be riding in 95 degree heat and looking at snow. 

We began our ascent of the mountains. Fortunately, there were guard rails and pull offs. I have a (I am told) strange affinity for guard rails. To me, they are perfect for two things. The first is pondering. The height of guard rails always seems to be perfect to just sit down and think about things. Think about what? things. It doesn't matter, but the longer I sit, the better I think. 

The second thing is just to get a little perspective. Like the proverbial bear going over the mountain, I like to jump up on the rails and see what's on the other side...

I am rarely disappointed...

We went over Powder River Pass in the Bighorn Mountains. It was the best road we had been on so far. Lots of twists and turns, very few cars, and gorgeous scenery. It was the West at her best.

We came down the other side to streams swollen by mountain snow runoff, entering into nearly deserted towns.

And finally arrived at Cody, Wyoming, at the foot of the Grand Tetons, just in time for dinner and a sunset.

My motorcycle was in trouble. The clutch problem was not getting better, and it was difficult to shift gears. Up until now, this had not been a pollen, because I found my way too the highest gear and just drove casually, like Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon. But, now, we were approaching twisty roads, where constant shifting was going to be the norm. I saw I had several options:

  1. Keep going and hope it got better. I remember the CEO of our company saying, "Hope is not a strategy" so I ruled that one out. 
  2. Keep heading west and visit the Ducati shop in Washington state when I got there. But, if they need to order parts, that could take a long time, and I had to get home, eventually. A delay of even several days would be immediately problematic. So, that was a no. 
  3. Head home immediately. That was a possibility, but I didn't think I was harming the bike by riding it. 
  4. Ride to Fort Collins, Colorado, and visit the Ducati dealership there. It was 6 1/2 hours south and east of my location, so if I could get the bike fixed right away, then that would be great, and if not, I would be that much closer to home. I decided on this as my course of action, and to call them from the road, as soon as the opened.  
I was disappointed to be leaving Brad to the ride, alone. I was even more disappointed that the most technical and beautiful riding still lay ahead of us. But, at a certain point in our lives, we have to acknowledge there is a more prudent path and, occasionally, against all of our baser instincts, take it. 

I went to bed and, for the first time on our journey, slept poorly. 

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Trip West - Day 3

I am an early riser by nature. It wasn't always that way, certainly not in my teenage years, but somewhere along the line I discovered that I actually enjoy getting up early. I like the quiet of the house, and how the rising of the sun warms it's bones as it does mine, the expanding from the heat creating sounds that remind you a house is a home, living and breathing.

I woke up early outside Omaha, Nebraska. It was a little disconcerting at first because I could not remember where I was. The scene outside my window, sun rising over a cornfield with the horizon stretched out forever and eternity, made no sense from any frame of reference I had. Then, I remembered where I was, and went outside to greet the day, and see if sunrise in Omaha, Nebraska was different than sunrise in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
I walked outside, stepping onto the cold, dry stone of the walkway. I walked toward the back of the house, and stepped into the grass. The dew of early morning kissed my toes, a delicious eye opener. The day before we arrived, there was a terrible storm, the kind of which Nebraska and the Plains states are notorious. One-hundred-twenty mile-per-hour winds had toppled trees, turned over equipment and even destroyed buildings. One building we saw, on the ride into town, looked like a Marvel movie set, and the command had simply been, "Hulk. SMASH!" Half of it was still standing, the rest lay in splinters, a semi-circular hole where the remainder once stood. Yet, on this morning, all was at peace.

I noticed Ella sitting on the picnic table, enjoying the morning as I was. I made a point of not disturbing her, but it was not necessary; she called me over. Morning people are an interesting group. In my experience, they are just as comfortable being gregarious in the morning as they are with quiet, often playing off the vibrations of the people around them. We talked easily about life in Nebraska and the storm (the likes of which comes every 50 years or so. I thought, "I could live with that, for a little more of this" looking at the beauty around me).

Still, it was time to go, and after consulting with Dwight about some of the wonders of the Cornhusker state, we altered our planned path a little. I was a little sad to be leaving the Lynch's, but that is part of the gig for which I had signed up - you don't stay anywhere long, but the connections you make in the short time you are with people can last forever. I felt the same way the day before when we left Dan and his wife, the heaviness of donning the motorcycle gear mirroring some of my own.

There is a cure for any kind of melancholy that occurs on a road trip like this, and that panacea is action. The road drifted below me, the miles opening the distance between any ill feelings I might have harbored and my current location. Those big skies helped, even more.

The BNSF Railroad crisis-crosses the west, striping her back east-to-west and north-to-south, running right next to the road, her bright orange engines hauling coal, coal, and more coal for the titans of industry to power America. Those engines have a magnificent, elegant brawn about them. I thought of my dad and how much he loves trains, every time I saw one.

We stopped to eat in Broken Bow, Nebraska and I ordered some cabbage and steak salad, which was unremarkable, at best. The only reason I mention it at all is because I also had a choice of side order, and I chose cornbread, because I thought it might be good in Nebraska. When it came, with whipped butter, I split it with Brad, and took a bite. I always liked cornbread, and somewhere in the dim recesses of childhood memory, there are recollections of my mother, who was a very talented cook and baker, making cornbread for us. But, there is nothing in my memory that could have prepared me for this. If the Gods of Cornbread were in the back of that kitchen baking, it would not have surprised me one iota. It's a rare thing when you can say you have had the best _____ in your life. That day, I had the best cornbread of my life.

We also visited the town historical society. Brad found the town gun archives, and I discovered an ancient cash register. I wondered about all of those hands, ringing up all of those purchases, and now just dust in the wind or dust in the ground.

In many ways, Nebraska is exactly what you would picture. Fields. Farm equipment. Big sky. Wide-open spaces. Hard-working people.

Like John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, there were certain things I wanted to see when I went to the west. At the top of that list was buffalo/bison. Mission: accomplished!

I loved Nebraska for her wide-open spaces and her ROADS. I was, if I am being honest, not expecting much from the state in the way of exciting roads. But I was wrong. Nebraska has loooooong sweepers and graceful hills, and they are just FUN to ride. Couple that with seeing a car every 5-7 minutes and huge passing lanes, and it's just about everything this motorcyclist could want.

I was thinking the only thing that could make this part of the trip better was a bizarre roadside attraction designed to defy explanation and sucker in tourists. Enter: Carhenge, a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of cars. America is weird, for sure. Bonus: we visited it on the Summer Solstice.

We made our way to Chadron, Nebraska and had our first restaurant dinner, from the Chinese buffet in town. It's a tradition with Brad and I, that we visit at least one Chinese buffet on our trip. This was one of the least spectacular I have ever visited, but I checked it off with joy, because I was so hungry. It was also the first hotel we stayed in, and The Bunkhouse did not disappoint - rustic digs for cheap.