Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Real Freedom in Riding a Motorcycle

the real freedom in riding a motorcycleFreedom is a big word. We express it everyday, and here specifically in the United States, we mention the word a lot.

Motorcyclists use the word "freedom" to describe the feeling they get when they ride, associating it with the open road, the wind in their hair, escaping into the grandeur of the mountains and canyons.

Freedom is of course relative to another man's freedom. Where I might consider myself free, another man claims I'm limited and bound. It's dependent on natural conditions like stopping a ride to answer the call of Nature. There are social conditions as well; if my thoughts and opinions were influenced by the society I grew up in, am I truly making choices all my own?

As I sit here this morning trying to decide on where I plan to ride my motorcycle, I can choose from a wide variety of roads to take. But as banal as it seems, I can only choose the roads I know about. The roads I know about are those I've ridden before, or that which I can see on a map.

And that bring us to the ultimate expression of freedom: motivation.

If I wasn't motivated to investigate all the roads around Southern California, and if I wasn't motivated to study a map, then I would have limited myself to just the handful of roads I know of in my immediate area. That limits my freedom.

When we elect presidents, we start out feeling hopeful that we made the right choice, and then a year later feel disappointed. How many of us were motivated to learn enough about a candidate to know the consequences of electing that person?

Not knowing the consequences of our actions and inactions is perhaps the opposite of freedom. Apathy is when you're satisfied to remain bound.

Here in California, I can choose to ride a motorcycle without a helmet even though there is a law requiring me to wear one. I can ride well above the speed limit, and make my exhaust pipes as loud as I want. But all of that comes at the risk of punishment. Yet within the confines of the law, it is still within my abilities to do them if I feel so motivated.

Dissidents in China are perhaps some of the freest people on Earth, choosing to stand up to their government despite the risk of imprisonment or death, doing and saying what they please to the point of mockery.

True freedom is not just being without constraints, but being motivated to shed those constraints despite the risks.

You might feel free riding your motorcycle, but what is more free, riding a motorcycle when your wife said it was OK, or riding a motorcycle when she said it was not OK?

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

What We Need is a Better Odometer

motorcycle odometerLooking back through this blog I found that there are 205 articles published, and 161 articles in draft. The ones in draft are articles that I wrote, but decided I didn't want to publish.

Even the articles I've published went through a process of editing and rewriting. Some of my closest riding buddies know that when I write an article, I actually don't publish it right away, opting to put myself into a "cooling down" period, and rereading it to make sure I really want to say that.

If I were to jump on my motorcycle and go for a ride, and no one was able to read about it, then did the ride ever happen?

Our journeys are always recorded in the odometer, though without any detail. The court system makes a small paper trail of your ride if you get cited by a cop. If you used your credit card to buy gas or food, another tiny paper trail is made. Or you may have documented your ride with some digital photos.

This blog has documented many rides I've taken, and it was only after going back through it did I remember some rides I had all but forgotten about.

When I write about a ride I try not to go through a dry recap of where I rode to...
"We left the gas station at 10:00am, then we headed down Hwy 79, and when we got to Hwy 78, we turned right and headed to Julian. We had lunch at Rongbranch Saloon. I had a cheeseburger."

Instead, I try to find something else in the ride that lets me share my feelings, opinions, or go into something philosophical.

But over so many rides, sometimes I can't think of what to say. Sometimes I just didn't take any photos. I even paid for my lunch with cash. Maybe just the gas was charged to my credit card, yet I don't keep my credit card receipts. And because of that there are many rides I'll never remember.

Only the odometer is keeping track, and yet even that won't show me each ride I did.

I guess it's about time someone designed an odometer with more features.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Safe Riding Versus Unsafe Riding

riding safe versus riding unsafeWhen I left on my motorcycle ride to Alaska a month ago, my wife uttered the same words she says to me every time I take off for a ride, "Be safe!", and to which I always reply, "Yeah, ok."

Even I have found myself mentioning those same words to fellow riders. It's not that I think they're likely to get themselves killed, but just that I want them to think about safety. And their response to me is always, "Yeah, ok."

The fact is that we all try to ride safe. Or perhaps more correctly, we never intend to get ourselves killed. We all know that riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, and therefore we tend to ride at a level where we feel comfortable and in control.

So if we never intend to hurt ourselves, why must we ask each other to "ride safe"?

Well it's because we all know that we're human and can make mistakes, or have lapses in judgement. We hope that by muttering those words, we did all we can do short of imposing our will on someone.

Not even the Motorcycle Safety Foundation says anything in its materials that it will teach someone how to ride safely. If we're all prone to making mistakes and having lapses in judgement, then the MSF suggesting it will teach you how to ride safely would expose them to litigation.

Safe riding is not anything that can be defined, except for simply that if you return home without incident, then you obviously rode safely.

If you somehow managed to ride your motorcycle down the freeway at 100mph, weaving in and out of cars, and returned home without an incident, then you could point that you rode within your means and was in full control. Yet it just seems logical that if you ride with the flow of traffic, and always use your turn signals, then you're "riding safely".

But obviously we know that isn't true. We know that even the most safety-minded rider can still make a mistake, or will still wake up with wild hair up his ass and give that throttle a good crank. Lapses in judgement is part of what makes us human.

Yet isn't it true we have a tendency to judge people based on that one mistake they made? We never pay attention to the hundreds of times someone made the right decisions and kept their minds focused. We only take notice when they take a fall, and then go on to question their abilities.

I continue to shake my head in bewilderment over the phrase, "Never ride faster than your angel can fly". I'm still not really sure what that means, aside from the obvious that one should ride safely. But specifically, how fast is too fast? If an accident can happen at any speed, and if we can err at any moment, what exactly are we supposed to do?

As it turns out, safety, as well as the lack of, can be found in any activity whether it's shooting a gun, chopping wood, or walking down a flight of stairs. Any of these things can result in serious injury.

Perhaps because of the attention that motorcycling gets as a dangerous activity, it might actually be one of the most safest, if you consider the lengths we go through to ensure our safety. I'd venture to say that more people are killed by heart attacks than by motorcycle accidents. Yet do we ever require someone to obtain an endorsement before ordering a three-piece meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken?

The bottom line is that you can't differentiate unsafe riding from safe riding. All you can do is compare the number of times you returned home safely with the number of times you've been hurt, and then decide if you need to make changes.

So when you mention the words "ride safe", what exactly is someone supposed to do?

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Riding Your Motorcycle to Alaska

Clement Lake, Stewart, BC
Riding a motorcycle to Alaska from the Lower 48 is often described as a "trip of a lifetime", at least that's what some people have told me. And sure enough I'll probably remember it forever.

Here's some observations of mine...

  • Give yourself lots of time. Canada and Alaska are huge. There's actually quite a bit to see. We only allotted 30 days, with "only" being the key word. That's roughly two weeks to ride up to Fairbanks. What you find is that we had to spend some days riding 500-750 miles. You get really tired, and you end up passing up a lot of great places to visit. Try 60 days, ride for about 200-300 miles in a day, and see stuff.

  • It's going to take longer than you planned. You might have plotted out the route and figured out the time, but you'll find the scenery so stunning that you have to pull over and get photos. You'll find moose, bears, bison, along the side of the road, and you'll want to stop to photograph them. You'll meet other motorcycle riders doing the same ride as you, and you'll end up chatting with them for awhile. Before you know it, it's 7:00pm and you're not going to make your destination in time.

  • Expect lots of rain. Even if you ride during the summer months, just know that this time of year is the wettest season for Alaska and the northern areas of Canada. Definitely bring rain gear, you're going to wish you had it. I brought my Frog Togs. You can also use a leather jacket, it'll keep you dry and keep the air from penetrating.

  • Bring heated gear. When it rains all day long, which you will experience, you'll get very cold. And there's no way to ride to Alaska without having to ride up into higher elevations where temperatures drops into the 30s. I brought my Gerbings heated gloves and jacket liner, and was so glad I brought them.

  • Hyder Road near the Alaska/Canada Border
  • Dirt roads. There is simply no way to ride to Alaska without having to ride on dirt and gravel roads. The Alaska Highway is the main highway into Alaska, and at the Alaska/Yukon border is a 5-mile stretch of gravel road that they simply don't pave. Also, all along the Alaska Highway they're constantly doing repairs due to the frost damage. When they repair it, they pull out the asphalt in five kilometer, or three mile sections. You'll encounter at least four to five of these sections. Prepare to ride on a minimum of 40 miles of dirt road, round trip.

    Most of this stuff is easy to ride on; the dirt and gravel is well packed, and even in the rain there's good traction. But some of it gets hairy. When raining, I found some dirt sections quite slick and felt the back end sliding. I also rode over some loosely packed gravel and felt the front end trying to wobble out of control. Yet still, I managed to keep the bike up.

  • Metal and wooden bridges. There are several bridges in Canada where they use metal grates instead of pavement. Every time I rode over one it was dry. But in raining conditions, I imagine these get pretty slippery. There are also several bridges where you ride over wooden planks. But these too were always dry when I rode over them. I don't know what it's like to ride over them when wet.

  • Bring Deet. British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska are chock full of mosquitoes. If you have to stop your bike along the shoulder for any reason, the mosquitoes zero in on you and are relentless. I also brought all the deet-free mosquito repellents, including the bracelet, the incense, and a couple of others, and they only worked partially at best. But deet always worked well for me. I bought a can of 40% deet.

    If you don't want to spray it on your skin, then wear a hooded sweatshirt, and spray it all over that. Spray the arms, the hood, the front and back. It'll keep the mosquitoes about 12 inches away from you. You'll still see them flying all around you, but they won't land.

  • Salmon Glacier, British Columbia
  • Waterproof boots. I bought a brand new pair of boots for this trip, and got a pair of Wolverines, waterproof. Mike didn't have waterproof boots, and when it rained his feet were soaking wet the whole day.

  • Brand new tires. Buy a brand new set of tires for your bike before you leave. Even if you have a tire with only a couple thousand miles on it, replace it anyways. You can still keep your old tires in the garage. Paul wore out a front tire by the time we headed north to Fairbanks, and had to buy a new one at the Honda dealer.

  • Full face helmet. Definitely bring it. On those times I needed to pull over for something, maybe to get a good photo, or put on my heated gloves, I was attacked by mosquitoes. I found I could keep my full face helmet on, with the faceshield down, and those little suckers couldn't get me. It'll also keep your face dry when it's raining all day long.

  • Wear sun protection. Consider that if you're riding for 30 or more days, that's lot of outdoor time, plus the sun never sets up there, and you can get really sunburnt. If you don't like to put on sun block, always wear long sleeves and gloves.

  • Big I Pub & Lounge, Fairbanks, AK
  • Cash and credit cards. Many gas stations in British Columbia and Yukon don't accept American Express, and hardly any accept Discover. But they all take Master Card and VISA. They all seem to accept US dollars, on the other hand. You don't really have to exchange your cash into Canadian. But if you use US dollars, they're going to give you change in Canadian.

    I found you can pretty much get by with just credit cards, but you'll definitely want cash. You need cash to pay the park attendants at Jasper and Banff National Parks. If you're camping, you need cash for the self-pay kiosks (assuming you're honest), and fast food restaurants in Canada seem to only take cash.

    Interestingly, while I was up in Alaska, someone told me a story that a guy was not allowed to enter Canada because he didn't have enough cash. He had only brought like $40.00, and the rest in credit cards. I had $800.00 in cash with me. And when I entered Canada through Abbotsford, BC, the customs agent asked me how much cash I had with me. I'm wondering if Canada doesn't want you in their country if you don't plan to spend any money.

    And by the way, I still came home with about $250.00 in cash.

    Oh, and don't worry about trying to spend all your Canadian currency before returning to the USA. I found that most American businesses in the bordering states take Canadian money.

  • 87 Octane Gasoline. A lot of the gas stations in the tiny towns throughout Canada only offer 87 octane gas. Honda says to use exclusively 91 octane or higher in the ST, but I found 87 octane worked just fine, with no knocking, no pinging, and I think I actually got better mileage.

  • Muskox Stroganoff in Whitehorse, Yukon
  • Gasoline is lot more expensive in Canada. They sell gas by the liter and priced in Canadian dollars. One liter is equivalent to roughly 1/4 of a gallon. As of this writing, British Columbia has gas going for about $1.10 per liter, so consider that about $4.40 per gallon. Alberta has the cheapest at about $0.90 per liter, Yukon is more expensive around $1.30 per liter. Right now, the US dollar is valued the same as Canadian dollars.

  • Fuel up as often as you can. In many places along the Alaska Highway we'd go a hundred miles before seeing another gas station, and some of those gas stations looked like they were not doing business. I saw one gas station that was open in Kitwanga, BC, but didn't have any gas. There were RVs stopped there waiting for the next delivery.

  • Not all gas stations are open 24 hours. In the small towns, they have old pumps where you pump first and pay later. These require employees on hand to collect money. So when the day ends, they simply close up the station. It can become tricky because up in Yukon and Alaska during the summer months, it never gets dark. At 10:00pm at night, the sun is still up and skies are bright blue, and you think that you can still keep riding, yet everything is closed at that time.

  • Gas canisters. I didn't bring a gas canister or jug, but Mike and Paul each did. And they needed it too since they rode up to Deadhorse and back. But even riding back home through Montana, Paul ended up running out of gas. That wasn't because there are no gas stations in Montana (there are plenty), it's just that over a 30 day period of riding across North America, it's easy to make a misjudgement on your gas situation.

    Even though I was able to get 340 miles on a tank with my Honda ST, all that does is make me ride for longer periods of time. I still pass by several gas stations thinking I have plenty of gas. There were a couple of moments when I milked it down to just a few more miles left in the tank, but was constantly recalculating my range and knew where the next towns were.

  • Start of the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek, BC
  • Everything is metric in Canada. Distance signs are measured in kilometers. A kilometer is roughly 2/3 of a mile. If something says "300 kilometers to Whitehorse", then convert it to miles by cutting it into one-third (100) and then doubling it (200). 200 miles is what it converts to.

  • 30kph speed rule. We didn't encounter any problems with cops in Canada, and hardly saw any. But Mike learned from one of the locals that if your speed is 30kph over the posted limit, they take that as a very serious offense. As it turns out, speed limits in most places in Canada are a little bit lower than what you find in the USA.

  • Bring camping gear. I know a lot of riders don't like to camp, and I'm not necessarily an avid camper either. But I found that it's difficult to predict where you're going to end up at the end of the day. It's good to know that I had my tent and sleeping bag with me. Yukon provides a lot of campgrounds located right off the highway, specifically for tired travelers.

    Also, the motel rooms in Canada and Alaska are expensive. The Motel 6 in Anchorage charged $140.00 a night, and then tacks on 12% room tax. Some of the most run down motels in Canada are still charging $100.00 a night. You're going to go broke if you think you can motel the entire trip.

    There were a few nights where I looked for rooms in the town I ended up at but could not find any vacancies. I had to pitch my tent, and was glad I had that option.

    I probably camped half the nights, and roomed the other half. I think Mike got a room on six or seven of the nights, while Paul camped the entire time, going so far as to find free camp spots. At one night, he asked if he could pitch his tent behind a gas station.

  • Kootenay National Park, BC
  • Bring only what you absolutely must have. The more you bring with you, the more you weigh yourself down, and the more work it's going to take unpacking and repacking all your stuff. Certain things you can always pick up at gas stations and stores along the way, like food, maps, toiletries, medicine, bug repellent, batteries, etc.

  • Shoot photos while you ride. There's going to be so many things you'll want to photograph, you'll be wanting to stop every 10 minutes. So what I did was put my camera on a chain and hang it around my neck. I could photograph stuff riding down the road, and if I needed to put my hands on the grips immediately, I could drop the camera and know it's still hanging there.

    Mike put his camera a long leash and kept it in his pants pocket. He has riding pants with wide pockets and made it easy to pull out. Between the two of us, we shot about 4,000 photos.

  • Passport. Canada will ask you for it when you enter their country, and the USA will require it to get back into the country. If you don't already have one now, go to a post office, they usually have the forms to get one. Expect anywhere from 3 to 4 weeks to get your passport, though they say it can take up to 8 weeks.

    Get the passport card in addition to the passport booklet. The card costs extra but is a lot more easier to manage.

  • Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park, AB
  • The ranger stations are your friends. I stopped at a few of these places on the way back through Canada and the USA. They give you free provincial and state maps. They'll tell you about the road conditions and construction work. They'll tell you about the best places to camp, and if you want to find free camping, they'll tell you where to find it.

    In Montana, some bikers told me that the Beartooth Highway was closed. So I stopped at the next ranger station, and the ranger there called the station in that area, and found that it was closed the day before, but is now open. In the Yukon, under the pouring rain, I stopped at one and the people there offered me free coffee, and told me about the closest places for camping or motels.

  • Bring tools and learn as much about taking your bike apart as possible. I was fortunate my Honda ST never had a problem, and no flat tires. But if I had a flat out in the middle of Yukon or Alaska, more than likely I'd have to remove the wheel, and take it someplace with a tire changer. So, at least bring the tools to remove a front or rear wheel, and know how to do it.

    Paul discovered his front brake pads wore down unusually quick, and by the time he reached Whitehorse on the way back home, they were just metal against metal. He found a Honda dealer in Whitehorse and installed new pads himself. He actually had several new pads at home, but just didn't think about bringing extra brake pads with him. You just don't know what's going to happen.

  • Howling Dog Saloon, Fox, AK
  • Don't eat the same chains you find back at home. Take the time to experience the stuff unique to the area you're visiting. I found a restaurant in Whitehorse that served Muskox, and I wouldn't have experienced that if I opted for something familiar. This is why you ride to Alaska, to find out what the world is like way the Hell up there.

  • Talk to the locals. Go into the bars and cafes, talk to the servers, and chat with the other customers. You get to learn so much from them. I bought beers for some of them and had a great time hanging out with them. They told me the best places to visit, where to get the best chow, and learning about the area adds another dimension to your experience.

About my trip to Alaska

At first I thought spending a month on this trip was going to be a lot of time, but going to up Alaska and back, it's actually not enough time. There's so much ground to cover, that we were riding 300 to 750 miles a day. It would have been best to cover 300 miles at the most, and spend more time visiting places.

But when you ride with other people, you find yourself having to compromise. As it turned out, each of us took opportunities to split off on our own ways at various points, and then reconnect at other points. It gave us more freedom.

So if you want to read about my trip, here are the day-to-day ride reports...

Burger Barn, Dunsmuir, CA
  • Monday, June 14, 2010 - Menifee, CA to Siskiyou Lake, CA. All slab up through the San Joaquin Valley, with a burger stop in Dunsmuir.

  • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - Siskiyou Lake, CA to Bellingham, WA. All slab up through California, Oregon, and Washington. Picked up Paul in Tacoma.

  • Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - Bellingham, WA to McLeese Lake, BC. Entered Canada through Abbotsford, rode the Trans-Canada Highway, explored Highway 8, dined at 70 Mile House.

  • Thursday, June 17, 2010 - Lake McLeese, BC to Hyder, AK. Lunch at Houston, BC, jumped on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, saw Bear Glacier, camped overnight in Hyder, AK.

  • Friday, June 18, 2010 - All day in Hyder, AK and Stewart, BC. Lunch at the Seafood Express in Hyder. Visited Bear Glacier. Explored back roads around Stewart. Rode 40 miles of dirt up and down from Salmon Glacier. Partied with the locals at Sealaska Inn.

  • Hyder Rd, 20 miles north of Hyder, AK
  • Saturday, June 19, 2010 - Hyder, AK to Big Creek Campground, YT. Rode the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Lots of great scenery. Wildlife along the road. Chatted with other riders on their way to and from Alaska.

  • Sunday, June 20, 2010 - Big Creek Campground, YT to Tok, AK. Riding the Alaska Highway (AlCan), bison burger at Kluane Lake, rough road through the border, raining in Alaska.

  • Monday, June 21, 2010 - Tok, AK to Anchorage, AK - More rain, some decent twisties into Anchorage. Beer at the Peanut Farm and Moose's Tooth.

  • Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - Anchorage, AK to Seward, AK - Boat cruise of Resurrection Bay, beer at Seward Alehouse, Summit Lake Lodge, pizza at Uncle Joe's, Glacier Brewing.

  • Reindeer scramble, Snow City Cafe, Anchorage, AK
  • Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - Anchorage, AK to Willow, AK - Snow City Cafe for breakfast, Chilkoot Charlie's, Iditarod National Headquarters in Wasilla, Willow Creek Trading Post.

  • Thursday, June 24, 2010 - Willow, AK to Fairbanks, AK - Wal-Mike's, Petersville Road, Denali National Park, Paul heads for Deadhorse, dinner at Pike's Landing.

  • Friday, June 25, 2010 - All day in Fairbanks, AK - Pioneer Park, downtown Fairbanks, oil change at the Harley dealer, Alaskan Pipeline, Howling Dog Saloon, Silver Gulch Brewing.

  • Saturday, June 26, 2010 - Fairbanks, AK to Chena Hot Springs, AK - Mike takes off for Deadhorse, hiking around Chena Hot Springs, relaxing in the hot springs, beer at the bar.

  • Sunday, June 27, 2010 - Chena Hot Springs, AK to Congdon Creek Campground, YT. Rode the Richardson Highway, raining all night on the Alaska Highway, killed my camera, brief respite at the Koidern information center.

  • Camping at Congdon Creek, Yukon.
  • Monday, June 28, 2010 - Congdon Creek Campground, YT to Whitehorse, YT - spending all day and night in Whitehorse, YT.

  • Tuesday, June 29, 2010 - Whitehorse, YT to Skagway, AK - Visited Yukon Brewing Company, met Harley riders from Colombia, rode the Klondike Highway, Skagway Brewing Co, Red Onion Saloon, camping in Skagway.

  • Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - Skagway, AK to Whitehorse, YT - Spent all day in Skagway, rode back to Whitehorse.

  • Thursday, July 1, 2010 - Whitehorse, YT to Takhini Hot Springs, YT - Bean North Coffee roasters, Yukon Wildlife Preserve, relaxing in the hot springs.

  • Friday, July 2, 2010 - Takhini Hot Springs, YT to Fort Nelson, BC - Raining most of the day on the Alaska Highway, northern Canadian Rockies.

  • Sola's Bar & Grill, Dawson Creek, BC
  • Saturday, July 3, 2010 - Fort Nelson, BC to Dawson Creek, BC - Reached the end (or start) of the Alaska Highway, expensive rooms in Dawson Creek.

  • Sunday, July 4, 2010 - Dawson Creek, BC to Jasper, AB - Can't handle the high price of everything in Canada, entered Jasper National Park, Maligne Lake, bar hopping in Jasper.

  • Monday, July 5, 2010 - Jasper, AB to Banff, AB - Rode the Icefields Parkway, Lake Louise, Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon, bar hopping in Banff, Mike heads for home.

  • Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - Banff, AB to Browning, MT - Kootenay National Park, entered Montana, Glacier National Park, dinner in Browning, MT.

  • Wednesday, July 7, 2010 - Browning, MT to Red Lodge, MT - Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Harvest Moon Brewing Co., Lewis & Clark National Forest.

  • Beartooth Highway, MT
  • Thursday, July 8, 2010 - Red Lodge, MT to Victor, ID - Rode the Beartooth Highway, visited Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks, sampled beer at Grand Teton Brewing, Paul heads for home.

  • Friday, July 9, 2010 - Victor, ID to Salt Lake City, UT - rode Teton Scenic Byway, toured through Idaho Falls, visited the Potato Museum, slabbed to Salt Lake City, beers at Red Rock Brewing and Squatters Pub Brewing.

  • Saturday, July 10, 2010 - Salt Lake City, UT to Las Vegas, NV - Visited Bonneville Salt Flats, Wendover, UT, rode Great Basin Highway, visited Cave Lake, Cathedral Gorge, Lages Station.

  • Sunday, July 11, 2010 - Las Vegas, NV to Menifee, CA - Rode I-15 south, Hwy 247 into Big Bear Mountain. World's Largest Thermometer and Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker. Big Bear Mountain Brewing. Finally back home!

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Alaska Ride, Day 28

Home is such a difficult word to define. It doesn't really describe a place, but rather a feeling. You could live in a place where you just don't feel like you belong, and then visit another place where the folks welcome you in, buy you a beer, invite you into a game of pool, and then put their arm around you and tell you jokes.

And so I left Las Vegas at 10:30am this morning and headed for home.

In a way, Las Vegas is like a home-away-from-home for me in that I've visited this town countless times. In years past, I've ridden my motorcycle through all the popular roads, Mt Charleston, Red Rock Canyon, Hoover Dam, and the 95 down to Laughlin.

This time I had it in my mind to take Hwy 161 from Jean to Goodsprings and on to Sandy Valley. This road actually loops back to the I-15 inside California at the Cima Road crossing. I had ridden the 161 about 5 years ago, but only as far as Goodsprings. I never took it all the way to Cima Road.

This sign is all that remains of Nevada Landing Casino, Jean, NV

But the heat, even at 10:30am, was already breaking above 100 degrees F. By the time I rode the I-15 to Jean, I thought about following through with my plan to Goodsprings and Sandy Valley, but the heat has an uncanny way of changing your mind.

So I stuck with the I-15.

The town of Jean, NV is not really a town, but an intersection where the I-15 and Hwy 161 cross. There used to be two casinos here, but the Nevada Landing closed up due to lack of business. The Gold Strike casino is still operating, but hardly anyone goes there. When Southern Californians visit Las Vegas they want to see The Strip, and Jean doesn't have it. So the Gold Strike casino lowered their prices way, way down on rooms and food to better compete. But as a result, it only attracted the dregs of Las Vegas which only shooed away everyone.

What would Las Vegas be without the I-15? It's the only road that connects it to Southern California, and Southern Californians flock to Las Vegas in droves. Today was a Sunday, and the day when they all go back to California. Except today the temperatures running through the Mojave Desert reached as high as 111 degrees just south of Baker, according to the gauge on my Honda ST.

I saw dozens of cars, vans, and buses pulled over to the shoulder with their hoods raised and blinkers on. There's actually a company that runs assistance trucks up and down the I-15 providing on-the-spot minor repairs, extra gas and coolant, and plenty of drinking water. I saw them out there working in full force.

The Welcome-Water-Tower at Baker, CA

And Baker, CA is another town completely dependent on the I-15. Probably only a few hundred people live there, but on blistering hot weekends like this, the addition of travelers swells the population to a few thousand. Baker sits about half-way between the metropolitan Southern California and Las Vegas. It offers restaurants and shops with copious amounts of ice cold air.

Baker, CA is also known for the "World's Tallest Thermometer". In the old days, it was associated with the Bun Boy, a family restaurant. Since then, Bun Boy closed up, and Bob's Big Boy moved in. Ask any Southern Californian about the World's Tallest Thermometer, and they'll say, "Oh yeah, the Bun Boy." "Bun Boy", "Big Boy", I guess it's about the same.

You'll also want to check out the Alien Fresh Jerky store. It's built around a concept that any intelligent beings smart enough to travel across the Universe must also be talented enough to make the best beef jerky. The whole store is filled with outer space alien exhibits, and some funny flavors of beef jerky. They also have a large collection of hot sauces with some of the most hilarious brand names.

The World's Tallest Thermometer, Baker, CA

I only took the I-15 as far south as Barstow, CA. From there I hopped on Hwy 247 and headed south for Big Bear Mountain.

The 247 connects Barstow in the north to Yucca Valley in the south. From Barstow it runs through Stoddard Valley, takes you up and over Ord Mountain Pass, and then drops you down into Johnson Valley on the other side. Both valleys are popular places for off-road recreation. I had ridden the 247 through Johnson Valley dozens of times, but never through Stoddard Valley, so this was new riding for me.

I rode past Slash X Ranch Cafe, which apparently is a popular biker hangout considering the number of bikes I saw parked outside. I normally like to investigate these places, but I already had it my mind I would escape the heat by heading up Big Bear Mountain. So I pressed on.

Highway 247, looking down at Stoddard Valley

From this angle, you go up Big Bear via Hwy 18, which offers some tight turns and switchbacks, though many of them in very bumpy pavement. But it definitely cooled down as I headed up, mainly because of the storm clouds overhead. It started raining on me.

Temperatures went from 100+ degrees to the mid-60s pretty quickly. It felt good.

Once in the town of Big Bear Lake, I stopped at Big Bear Mountain Brewing. I called up a guy named Jeff, who lives up here and recently launched a beef jerky company. We had e-mailed each other but never met. He came over and we talked jerky for a couple of hours. If you don't know already, I publish a blog on beef jerky and assembled a sizeable list of readers all of whom buy lots of jerky online.

Jeff introduced me to a new recipe he's working on, and brought several bags of jerky for me to try out. But as he laid out the bags of jerky on the bar counter, the proprietor of Big Bear Mountain Brewing was curious and asked about it. It seems he's been wanting to sell some beef jerky from his bar. So, Jeff and the proprietor hooked up. I guess it was a productive visit for Jeff, and so he paid for my burger and beers.

Big Bear Mountain Brewery, Big Bear Lake, CA

And then I just rode home from there.

Looking at my town, it's almost like I had never left. I can't quite believe I had been to Fairbanks, Alaska and back over 28 days. When I was up in Fairbanks I had thought of home, and how far away I was.

My Honda ST took me there and didn't give me any trouble, no strange noises, no flat tires. The entire time I never lost sight on how dependent I was on this machine for getting me back home. And yet it was absolutely reliable.

Arriving home, my wife grabs hold of me and hugs my body tightly and she's so happy to see me. Her voice cracks with emotion, but it's a familiar sound to me that I can't ignore, like a mother hearing its child cry. I know I'm back home again.

And now I'm back at my desk in my home office, feeling like I had never left home. The only difference is that I have these pictures in my head. I can still envision Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory with the Alaska Highway running along its banks. I can still see the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, the Icefields Parkway, the Beartooth Highway.

I wonder what Meriwether Lewis did when he returned home from his historic expedition. Did he chop up some firewood, milk the cows, and repair another section of damaged fence? Did he slip back into his usual routine with all those pictures in his head?

Each morning I awoke expecting to spend the day riding and exploring, and after 28 days of that stuff my brain adjusted itself to that way of living. And now each day's destination is my home office typing on this computer.

Back home again

Feels good to be back in the land of fruits and nuts.

Alien Fresh Jerky store in Baker, CA

I've had this jerky, it's EXTREMELY hot, not good if you're a trucker.

Check out the collection of hot sauces at Alien Fresh Jerky, Baker, CA

If there was an alphabetical list of roads, Zzyzx Rd would be the last entry.

Cloudscapes over Pisgah Crater

Hwy 18 heading up Big Bear Mountain

Grizzly Bear Doppel Bock, Big Bear Mountain Brewery

Didn't know Harley-Davidson used to sell their own brand of wine coolers.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Alaska Ride, Day 27

After 27 days of riding during this trip, my back has never ached so much than today, and as of this writing, it's still aching.

The pain feels like it's muscular, just below the shoulder blades, not in the spine itself. No matter how I twist and turn I can't seem to make it feel better. The only thing that seems to work is sleep.

I did 550 miles of riding today, from Salt Lake City, UT to Las Vegas, NV, by way of the Bonneville Salt Flats and Hwy 93 south through Ely, NV.

Bonneville is only a 100+ miles from Salt Lake City along the I-80, and since I'm this close, why not go visit it?

My bike out in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats

Funny, I kept expecting to see some structures there, like a building, or a grand stand, or something to indicate that there's a track there. But there's nothing. Absolutely nothing. There's not even anyone there to stop you from riding out on to the salt flats. The whole area is BLM land, and that means you're free to ride your vehicle on to the salt flats and go willy nilly.

There are however, signs warning you that in many places the salt is merely a thin crust over mud or loose dirt. And looking around, I could see other peoples' tire tracks that broke the crust and kicked up mud and dirt everywhere. Nonetheless, I rode my bike on to the salt and took her up to speed. However, I wussed out and only did 50mph at the fastest.

It seems the salt is quite bumpy, and quite soft in places. Where it's freshly caked up, it's quite soft and loamy. When your tires hit these spots it's like hitting a patch of soft sand on a gravel road; your front end jerks to one side or the other. And well, I just didn't want to chance it.

I'm guessing when they actually do these speed runs, they must flatten down a strip for several miles and make it more smooth, or something.

The salt crust in this area was only a 1/4 inch thick.

I rode into the town of Wendover, UT, just a couple miles away. Wendover sits right on the border with Nevada, and in fact on the Nevada side is "West Wendover". Wendover is chock full of hotels, restaurants, and stores, while West Wendover is chock full of casinos.

I kept looking for some kind of Bonneville Salt Flats museum, but I found nothing. In those towns, they don't really mention Bonneville all that much. Going through there you'd never know that Bonneville ever existed.

I headed south down ALT 93, which is a auxiliary highway to Highway 93. This connects Wendover to the 93.

ALT 93 is actually a pretty lonely highway. It's long stretches of straight road going through the northern Nevada desert. You could park your motorcycle in the middle of the road and sip a cup of tea before hearing a faint rumble in the distance.

ALT 93 south of West Wendover, NV

It finally connects to the main Hwy 93 at Lages Station, NV. Here, there's nothing but a gas station. In fact, the gas station is also a cafe, a bar, a motel, and an RV park all in one. "Stage Stop" is the name of this place.

I asked the proprietor for a beer at the bar, but he said the bar doesn't open until 7:00pm. So, I asked if I could buy a beer from the fridge, and drink it there. He said that would be fine, but he only sold them in six packs, and I would have to buy a six pack. So I opted to buy a root beer instead, and drank it there.

Highway 93 is known as the "Great Basin Highway", named after the fact that this entire area is located in the "Great Basin" of Nevada. But before it was named that, this stretch of road was once part of the "Lincoln Highway", the first coast-to-coast highway ever built in the USA. It once connected New York City to San Francisco. As you ride down Highway 93, you see plaques and memorials erected in various places describing the history of the Lincoln Highway.

When I pulled into Ely, NV, I had to make a decision on which direction to go. Should I go west along US50 over to Reno? Or should I keep going south on Hwy 93 to Las Vegas. I look up at the skies in the west, and I saw thunderheads. I grabbed my netbook and walked into the Hotel Nevada Casino and got online. I looked up the weather forecast along the US50 and it showed thunderstorms. Meanwhile, the forecast for Hwy 93 south to Las Vegas showed scattered showers and then 100 degree temperatures into Las Vegas.

And then my back aches seem to be getting worse with each day.

So, I opted to head to Las Vegas.

The Hotel Nevada Casino, Ely NV, is a big biker hangout

I still got rained on going south, but it was just on and off stuff. It actually cooled down the air, and in fact temps remained in the upper 80s pretty much until I got into Caliente, NV, and then the heat turned up from there.

Highway 93 is largely straight roads, but it has its moments where it gets into sweeping curves which you can still do at 70mph. Some of the scenery is just vast expanses of desert, while in other areas, the roads winds through gorges and canyons.

At one point, I got drowsy and my eyelids were doing their best to close. I kept shaking my head to wake myself up. I finally found a rest stop, and it happened to have picnic benches. One of them was placed under shady tree, and so I laid down on it and closed my eyes for 15 minutes. It definitely helped.

Some colorful scenery along Highway 93

I wanted to lay there longer than 15 minutes, my back was starting to feel better the longer I remained lying down. But I knew at this point I wouldn't make Las Vegas until 7:00pm, and so I needed to keep pushing on.

And the heat! As I made my way into Las Vegas, the temp gauge on my Honda ST read 109 degrees, at 7:22pm.

The aching back, the sweltering heat, the tired body, I just wanted off this bike in a hurry. I'm guessing after 27 days of riding, the back pains just build up intensity. Even though the pain subsides after a night of rest, there's still some pain that lingers and over the course of several days, it becomes more painful. I need several days of continuous rest, that what it is.

I checked into a room, took a shower, and then got me a salad and a couple of frozen margaritas. Then I headed back into the room to write this.

109 degrees F, at 7:22pm in Las Vegas, NV

The Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake Marina, UT

Along the I-80 heading towards Bonneville Salt Flats

I-80 heading towards Bonneville Salt Flats is long boring riding,
I rode for about 30 miles without hands, trying to keep my mind focused.

I tasted this stuff, and yes it's REALLY salty.

"Wendover Will" greets you into West Wendover, NV

Drinking a root beer inside the Stage Stop, Lages Station, NV

Cave Lake is located a few miles off of Highway 93,
Offers, fishing, hiking, camping, and dirt road trails

Cathedral Gorge State Park, lies a few miles off of Highway 93, Nevada.
The park offers several of these earthen mounds filled with crags.

The crags run several hundred feet into these earthen mounds.
They get quite dark the deeper you go, and temperatures drop by 20 degrees.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Alaska Ride, Day 26

After visiting Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and one of my favorite brewing companies, I was left without an itinerary, and studying maps to decide what else I should see.

Mike and Paul already left for home early, well ahead of schedule. Should I depart for home too, or should I take this opportunity to see more?

As it stands now, I'm expected home around July 14, which is one month after I left on June 14. Technically, I had six more days of riding left, but I was having trouble deciding where to ride to.

Upon leaving my campground in the Targhee National Forest this morning, I saw a billboard providing information about the "Teton Scenic Byway". It actually runs further north from where I stood, but only ran about 68 miles to the town of Ashton, ID. It sounded interesting, and it was something to do.

The Teton Scenic Byway is officially Idaho state routes 33 and 32. It's hardly scenic, however. It's all flat land and straight road, with little else to see but homes and buildings. As it turns out, it's an historic trail first blazed by fur trappers, which ultimately created many of the towns along this road. I think it was dubbed a scenic byway for the many historical markers and museums along this road. I didn't stop for anything, however.

The Teton Scenic Byway is a lot of flat scenery

Once at Ashton, I looked for a Wi-Fi coffee shop so that I could get some trip reports posted on this blog. But there were none to be found in Ashton. I headed south along US20 to Idaho Falls, which is a medium-sized town, and I rode all over Idaho Falls, and still couldn't find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi. I probably wasted an hour there.

I rode a little further south to Pocatello. There, I had a decision to make. Either I could take I-15 south to Salt Lake City and then decide what else to do there, or I could take US30 to Twin Falls, and then drop down into Northern Nevada. I opted for Salt Lake City.

The reasoning is that I wanted to find Internet access and I knew for certain I could find it in Salt Lake City. But also because if I still wanted to go into Northern Nevada, I could still get to there easily via Bonneville.

Of course I visited the Potato Museum in Blackfoot, ID

And in fact, I'm contemplating riding out to see the Bonneville Salt Flats, even with the hot temperatures there. From there I might jump on US50, and ride what is known as "The Loneliest Highway in the USA", basically a road that no one travels along.

And if I went through Nevada that way, it would set me up for a ride over the Sierra Nevadas, home to some of the best riding in California.

The other thing is that as it stands right now, if I were to take the I-15 straight home tomorrow, I'd get home with about 9,000 miles on this trip. I would like to boost it up to 10,000 miles, just because it's a nice number, and technically I still have some more days left until I'm supposed to be home.

This sign was one of the more interesting things to see along the I-15

Of course, my wife has been on the phone with me throughout the entire trip, and texting me as well. And I've been calling her too, and I do miss her much and would love to hold her right now. And she basically wants me to come home right now. But if I leave for home now, who knows if I'll ever do something like this again.

Well after making my decision to go into Salt Lake City via the I-15, the ride was unremarkable. Boring riding, boring scenery. In Salt Lake City, I picked out a room, and then found a couple breweries within walking distance, "Red Rock Brewery" and "Squatter's Pub Brewery". I visited both, and both are very similar in their decor and ambiance. Squatter's Pub seemed to have the better beer however.

So right now, I'm leaning heavily towards Bonneville tomorrow.

Red Rock Brewery, Salt Lake City, UT

Squatter's Pub Brewery, Salt Lake City, UT

Potato sack sewing machine, Potato Museum, Blackfoot, ID

Beer taps, Squatters Pub Brewery, Salt Lake City, UT

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About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)