The Packer’s Roost (Day 15: Yellowstone to Glacier, Montana [Daily miles – 458; Total miles – 4955])

September 22, 2012 – View my route for the day: Day 15 Track

So cold.  Can’t move.  Don’t want to get out of the sleeping bag.  Can’t feel feet.

Unzip bag.  Pile on layers of clothes.  Brush teeth. Cold sink water hits hand.  Cringe.  See fire next door.  Want to jump in fire.

That was my early morning sequence of events.  The fire next door belonged to the burly Canadian man from last night.  He saw me coming back and walked over to introduce himself.

“Hey man, how’s it going?  I’m Marty and this is my wife, Courtney.  We’ve got lots of extra food.  Could we interest you in a portabella and egg sandwich for breakfast?”

“I was going to ask you guys if I could spend 5 minutes warming up by your fire, but I think a portabella sandwich trumps that.  I’d love to join you guys, thanks so much!”

I’ve found that when you’re traveling alone, people tend to be extra generous towards you.  This was certainly the case this morning.  Turns out Marty and Courtney were from Calgary and had never been to the US before.  They were taking a 3-week vacation to celebrate both Marty’s 30th birthday (which happened to be today) and their two-year wedding anniversary.

Marty works for the Alberta Healthcare System doing cancer research to attempt to find out the causes of certain types of cancer – be it genetic or from exposure to certain elements – and understand who might be more susceptible.  Courtney works for Earl’s Restaurant as a chef (that’s how they met – he had worked there previously but found they treated the employees very poorly).

We got to talking and I was surprised to hear their take on how cheap everything is in America.  To me, things seem expensive.  You can get today for $5 what was $1 when I was growing up (“back in my day…”).    But to them, it’s like an all you can eat buffet.  They went to the store to get provisions and thought they were just giving things away to people.

Courtney brewed up some hot coffee that I enjoyed more for its hand-warming abilities than anything else.  They then fried up the eggs and bacon, grilled the portabellas, heated some hamburger buns, cut up some avocado, and finally garnished the sandwich with sprouts.  The first bite was a smorgasbord of flavor: the hot egg yolk ran out into my mouth like a lava flow from St. Helens and immediately warmed me up inside.  The portabella was soft and smooth and the sprouts gave the whole thing a little extra crunch.  In the second bite, I bit into the chewy fat center of the Canadian Bacon, giving a strong kick to the pallet.  In the third bite, well… There wasn’t a third bite.  I was so hungry it was gone after the second.  But I was more than thankful.  Not only had it served to give me a much-needed boost of energy, but the conversation and warmth fired me up and got me ready to go for the day – off to Montana!

Or so I thought…

In my last two posts, I wrote about how there were some issues with starting the bike.  Possibly a dead battery (I’m an optimist, hopefully that’s all it is…).  Well, this morning proved to be a bit of a challenge.  It took me 15 minutes to get the bike started.  I guess this was to be expected, since it was a completely cold start, though I was naïve enough to think that maybe the long rest of the night would allow the battery to come back to life.  Stupidly, I had forgotten to pull out the choke during the first 10 minutes of trying.  It’s nearly impossible to get the bike started when it’s actually working without the choke after a cold night like last night, so trying to do so without a working starter was not such a smart idea.  When I figured this out, things went somewhat smoother.  After just about using up all of my portabella energy, she finally decided to cooperate and I got the engine to roar to life.

Until it stalled on me all of 20 seconds later.

After 4 or 5 more tries and some whispering of sweet nothings to her, we were in business.  I was now really headed for the North Entrance of the park and then to Montana and hopefully Glacier National Park, if I could manage to get that far.  I didn’t realize how far north it was when my friend, Yagr, told me I should go there the other day (he had called me during one of my pit stops).  It’s all the way up at the Canadian border.  But I’ll see how far I get and will try to find somewhere to camp once it starts getting dark.

One thing I am starting to feel more and more is that my bike has truly become my home.  I feel much more comfortable on the road when I’m free to go wherever I want than I do when I’m at any particular place.   When I’m stopped for the day, it’s good to be able to talk to people and sit down and relax, but I’m constantly thinking about where I’m going next and when I’m getting back on the road.  I think it’s just the mentality you get when you’re traveling so far for two weeks and you’ve seen all these amazing things, you want to keep going and see more and more and more.  I think that’s why I haven’t been taking any rest days.  I was going to take a second day in Yellowstone, but I just want to keep going.  I want to see what else is out there.

I don’t mean to sound negative because it is beautiful here in Yellowstone; it’s just as incredible as I would have thought, and I love the national parks in general.  With that said, it feels a little touristy.  It’s touristy for a national park, at least.  They have walkways around the geysers you have to stay on.  They have roads that take you everywhere.  Now, I didn’t get to go out and explore as much as I would have liked.  I was only in the park for 15 hours or so.  One day I would love to come back and spend a week backpacking through the park and see the remote areas not accessible to the RVs and buses and other mechanical beasts that litter the main areas.

By the time I made it to Montana, I needed a little bit of a break.  I stopped in Livingston for some roadside burgers and fries.  When trying to get the bike started again, I knew I was in trouble.  Not only would it not start, but there was absolutely no hill in sight to roll it down to get some speed.  This was starting to become a good workout.  Eventually, an ambulance coming the other way slowed down and asked if I needed any help.  When they said they didn’t have any jumper cables, I asked them if they would mind giving me a push.  “Not at all.  Let’s go, Buck,” the driver yelled to the passenger.  They hopped out of the truck and gave me a solid push down the road to get me going again.  At this point, I knew this was going to be a common theme.  I also knew I should stop and have it looked at, but I was so close to being in Seattle and just wanted to hold out until then to get everything looked at all at once.  So bump starting it was on the agenda for the next couple of days.

At the next gas stop, I finally got smart, or so I thought – though it might end up biting me in the butt down the line.  I checked my oil, and it was below the Low line.  Essentially, I had none.  I knew I needed oil but I didn’t know what I needed, so I called a nearby Harley Davidson dealership and they told me that I needed to use 20w-50.  The gas station had some, luckily, but there were two problems: (1) It wasn’t Harley brand, which I’m sure doesn’t matter; and (2) I think the guy I bought the bike from had used synthetic oil.  Therefore, I’m now mixing non-synthetic in with synthetic, which I’m pretty sure is not the best thing to do.  Regardless, I did it, I now had oil, and I figured that having the wrong oil is better than having no oil at all.

I then stopped at the next town, Townsend, MT to fill up just because stations are so few and far between out here that I didn’t know when the next town would be where I could fill up.  Well, what do you know, I couldn’t get the bike started.  I saw a high school football team getting on a bus and asked a few of them to help push me.  They were happy to.  But then something new happened.  I got going, but the bike didn’t quite get going.  The bike started turning on and off, on and off, on and off, repeatedly.  It was like there was a short in the battery or something and it was cutting the power every few seconds.  This resulted in my gauges flopping back and forth and lots and lots of jerking due to the constant start and stop of the flow of gas to the engine.  My thoughts turned to horror stories and I started thinking that it wasn’t the battery that was the problem.  Maybe it’s because of the oil?  Maybe a lose connection or something?  Maybe there are bigger electronic problems? I really didn’t know, but I certainly couldn’t get anywhere like this.  The dials were flashing, it wasn’t registering speed or RPM; it just wasn’t working.

I was going to just stay there the night and have someone look at it in the morning, but tomorrow is Sunday and Sunday nobody would be open, so I’d have to wait until Monday.  Even more, when they did open I didn’t know if they could help me at all.  Just like the last two places I broke down at, nobody seems to know how to fix bikes around these parts.  There was a NAPA Autoparts store nearby, but I had no confidence in them after the last encounter in Wyoming.

A gas station I pulled into told me there was a Ford dealership that might still be open down the road and that maybe they could still help me out tonight (it was already after 5 on a Saturday).  I thanked them and figured I’d try starting the bike once more to get it to the Ford dealership.  I got it going and it seemed to be acting all right, so I kept driving past the dealership and decided to ride on to Helena, which was 30 miles away.  At least in Helena I could stay somewhere if need be and I’d likely be able to find a body shop.  But of course, I didn’t want to stop.  Once I got to Helena, here’s what my actual thought process was at the time, as recorded by my helmet microphone:

“I just got through Helena and I stopped again and got it started, so I’m gonna just try to keep going to Glacier National Park in the middle of nowhere.  Literally, in the middle of nowhere.  There are no towns on the map that I can even see!  So I’m going with a bike that’s breaking down more and more every mile I ride into uncharted wilderness.  If I was smart, I’d stop in Helena for the night, I’d stay somewhere and tomorrow take a look at the bike.  But I have to get to Seattle.  I have an appointment to take the bike in.  Once I get to Seattle I’m good; I’m so close yet so far.  I’m just trying to eek this thing out to get me there.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have a name yet for my bike yet.  I don’t have any thoughts on a name, I really don’t know.  I have no idea what name she should be.  You know, it’s bad luck not to have a name on a boat; maybe it’s the same on a motorcycle?  Maybe that’s why this is starting to happen to me?  Or maybe it’s because I don’t know anything about bikes, I’ve already ridden 6000 miles, and I’m now just pushing my luck.  I’m in the deep water with no floatation device when I should have swimmies on and be in the shallow end.  Oops, I was supposed to turn right.  Fuck.  Bye.”

By 6:30 I started to get a little nervous.  I felt like Forest Gump when he was running through the desert.  I hadn’t passed a car in 20 minutes and I was going 90 miles and hour.  I hadn’t passed a house in 20 minutes and I was going 90 miles an hour.  All I could see were pastures, cows, mountains, and a red orange sun glistening on the horizon, threatening to go to sleep at any moment and take away the only thing that was continuing to keep me feeling safe and sane.

“When the sun goes down, I’m all on my own.  All bets are off,” I said to myself.  “Just hope my baby can get me to where I’m going safely and soundly.”  I’m OK with something going wrong and having to camp on the side of the road if it comes to it just as long as it’s not the end of the trip due to the bike giving out completely and just as long as nothing happens that ends up scarring me for the rest of my life.  I’m open to new experiences, I’m open to challenges with open arms, I just have no idea what kind of people I would come across if I ended up camping on the side of the road in Midwest Montana.

For about 30 minutes, I drove only 15-20 miles away from a wildfire burning up in the mountains to the east of me.  I stopped at a Sinclaire gas station and met someone else filling up their tank.  His name was Bill and I asked him how long the fire had been burning.  I was expecting him to either say, “What?! What fire?!  Let’s call 911,” or “Oh, that started yesterday from some stupid kids playing with matches.  You should be careful riding through here.”  But no, that’s not what he said at all.  “It’s been burning since July 28.  They brought in reinforcements to fight it yesterday – you may have seen those heavy-duty choppers down the road a bit.  They expect to have it out by mid-October, but we’ll see.”  I guess that’s just how the year has gone.  I don’t quite understand it.  It’s been burning for 2 months, but I guess it’s slow moving and difficult to put out.

Wildfires in Montana

By 9:30pm, I saw a local bar about 5 miles away from West Glacier Park and I figured why not slide on in, get something to eat, and then head to Glacier for the night to camp.  I entered Packers Roost to find two guys fighting at the bar, one throwing the other ones cell phone across the room.  An interesting start to the night…

I didn’t know what the fight was about, so I casually leaned towards a girl who was sitting near me, Sharron, and asked her if she knew what was going on.  She didn’t seem to have all her wits about her, and she never really answered the question, but apparently she took it as an invitation to come over and sit next to me.   The next thing I knew it was 11pm, she had eaten all of my french fries out of my chicken fingers meal, and she was still talking to me.  Around that time, more people started to show up and some kids from the area came in and challenged me to some pool.  I ended up winning $5 off one guy named Jason.  He was a real good player, so I’m not sure how I beat him.  I think he may have been trying to hustle me and I just didn’t take the bait.

When that was done, I went back to my seat at the bar and found Sharron still sitting there.  Thankfully, another somewhat older woman, Janelle, came over and started talking to Sharron.  They were surprised because they both lived in the area for many years and for such a small town had never run into each other before.  Secretly listening to their conversation, I heard Janelle mention that she was going to go out back to sit by the bonfire.  I didn’t realize there was a fire out there.  It seemed a little careless seeing as there were wildfires roaring through the countryside, but nonetheless I figured I would check it out later.

At around 12am Sharron said to me for the 5th time, “Well, I think I’m going to head home and get a good night sleep.”  This was after she went on for an hour telling me about all of her recent sexual conquests since breaking up with her previous boyfriend.  I really enjoyed hearing about that, let me tell you.  I guess she finally took the hint that I wasn’t interested and eventually sauntered out the door.

At this time, I was getting ready to pack up and asked the bar tender if she knew of a good place to camp at the park.

Bar Tender: “Sure I do, you can camp right here in the backyard.”

I was flabbergasted.

Me: “What do you mean?  Like right here behind the bar?”

BT: “Well sure, roll your bike around back, set up your tent.  We’ve got the bonfire going back there.  You’ll be nice and warm.”

Me: “Wait, wait, let me just see if I heard this right.  You want me to bring my bike around back and sleep there for the night?”

BT: “Yeah, sure, why not?”

Me: “Good point. OK, let’s do it!”

I figured that if I was staying there, I might as well get a few more drinks.  Around this time, Janelle came back in and I challenged her to a game of darts.  She wasn’t half bad, but of course I won.  It’s just my game.

The bar closed at 2am.  Last call for alcohol.  Coincidentally enough, George Thorogood’s One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer was playing on the jukebox in the background.  I considered ordering exactly that to commemorate the occasion, but I decided I’d take it somewhat easy and just order one beer before wheeling my bike around back.  The bar tender gave me a beer, I pulled my stuff around back, and the bar tender closed and locked the gate behind me and left me to my own devices.  Then I noticed Janelle standing by the fire.

Turned out she had just lost her stepmother and had gone to the funeral earlier in the day.  Although she claimed not to have liked her stepmother very much, it obviously wasn’t a very good day for her.  An interesting conversation came up where she said she was talking to a 24 year old about it earlier in the night and told him that she had gone to a funeral.  Supposedly, he didn’t know what that word meant.  I don’t know how true this is, but apparently at least around these parts they stopped using the word “funeral” and instead refer to it as a “celebration of life.”  When she told him she had gone to a celebration of life, he understood what she meant.

Anyway, as we continued talking, I thought she had some interesting perspectives on life, many of which I share myself.  We ended up staying up until about 4am running theories by each other and arguing over life, death, religion, global warming – you name it.  I think she’s a minority out here, as it sounds to me like they’re still living pretty far in the past.  Her father has ostracized her because she went to school and got an education.  I guess around here women aren’t meant for that.  They’re meant for staying at home and raising the kids.

The night was extremely cold, so a big thank you to Janelle for the beautiful afghan she had knitted that was in her car that she gave to me.  A little memento from Montana that helped to keep me nice and warm for the night.  Well, kind of.  At least it kept me warmer than it would have been without it, but the northern Montana air definitely had a strong chill to it.  And with that, the day ended as it had begun:

So cold.  Can’t move.  Don’t want to get out of the sleeping bag.  Can’t feel feet.

At least I had my afghan this time…

Random Riding Realizations (and Thoughts) of the Day:

  • 10:22am – Ouch!  I just got hit in the eye by a fly.  I guess this is why you’re supposed to wear your shield down.
  • 11:13am – I saw a buffalo.  Just a single buffalo.  Off the side of the road in the woods, it was standing there and rubbing its horns against a pine tree.  The buffalo was huge.  I can only imagine what the settlers would have felt like to have seen millions of those out roaming the plains.  Must have been a fantastic, spectacular sight.
  • 11:38am – There was a 10-minute rubber necking situation getting out of the park because there was supposedly a family of bears playing around on the rocks by a lake.  It turns out it was people playing a prank and wearing bear suits.  This goes back to my statement yesterday about the bears.  People can take advantage of the curiosity of others since things that used to be commonplace are now so rare.
  • 11:56am – Just passed by the real-life Agrocrag

    Yellowstone vs Nickelodeon Aggro Crag

  • 2:47pm – I just passed a car and heard what sounded like someone banging a metal spoon on a pot.  I turned my head to the right, and it was a Rottweiler barking at me and practically jumping out the window.  Scared me almost enough to fall off the bike.  Love you and miss you, Rocky!
  • 3:11pm – When I’m in 5th gear, between 50 and 65 is really smooth.  I can’t put it into 5th until I’m going at least 50 (when the RPMs get above 2000).  From 65 to 75 it shakes, vibrates, and buckles constantly as I accelerate through that range.  After 70mph (3000-3250 RPM) it’s smooth as silk.  So my theory is this: The H-D manufacturers either want you to go the speed limit or ride the hell out of it.  It doesn’t want you to be going just a couple miles an hour over the limit.
  • 5:41pm – Sorry Montana.  I didn’t give you quite the fair shot.  I haven’t been paying much attention to you.  I’ve been so worried about what’s going on with my bike all day long and I just want to get out of here to be honest.  Just get to Seattle.  It’s all I can think about.  I want to get out of here.  But I do need to blame some of the blame on you because my whole life I had been told there were no speed limits in you.  Yet, that’s not the case.  It’s 70mph everywhere it seems.  Now, I don’t know if the police care much, but still there are speed limits.  Anyway, I do need to apologize to you, Montana.  I’m not giving you your fair share of “oohs and ahhs” and enjoying your scenery as much as I should be.  I’ll try to put my bike woes in the back of my mind and see how it goes, though it’s kind of difficult to do.  You are a gorgeous part of the country, I’ll give you that.
  • 6:23pm – No matter where I am, I love passing another motorcycle.  If I’m on the freeway, it makes me feel like “Oh, OK, at least I’m not the only one that’s cheaping out and going on the interstate.”  If I’m on a road like I am right now, where there’s no cars for 20 minutes, I just passed a motorcycle and it makes me feel good because it means I’m not the only idiot out here on a bike in the middle of nowhere as it’s getting dark.
  • 6:31pm – So right now, I am doing everything I have done in the last 2 weeks all at once.  In the last two weeks, I have driven along coast lines, I’ve driven in the mountains, driven along lakes and rivers.  I’ve driven on extremely curvy, windy, serpentine roads, I’ve driven across the Great Plains and through immense farms. I’ve driven over a hundred miles an hour.  Well, put all of that together and at this very moment I’m doing it.  I’m currently going 94mph around twisty, turny roads through a river valley in the middle of the mountains with the giant plains stretching out as far as they can go to the mountains on the other sides, with lakes popping up here and there.  There is nothing in sight other than me and the open right and America and its finest.  I’m speechless. I’m utterly and completely speechless right now.  “Ugh. Ugh.”  That’s the only word I can produce.  I don’t know how to write that word out, but it’s a guttural sound of astonishment and awe.
  • 6:45pm – As I’m driving, I realize that every gas station, restaurant, motel, rest stop – everything – has a casino in it.

    “The interesting spots are the desperate pleas for any sort of attention in town. For example: Lucky Lil’s Casino, Tavern, Carwash and McDonald’s. But no right turn”
    Photo and caption courtesy of http://www.k7bwh.com/?paged=5

  • 7:37pm – It is amazing how social of a creature we are.  I’m currently riding on Montana Route 209 heading north towards Glacier National Park.  I’m riding through Flathead National Forest right now along Lake Alva and I’ve been following a Toyota Highlander for the last 30 miles.  It makes me feel warm inside because I’ve got a friend.  I feel like we’ve connected and formed a strong bond.  They’re going kind of slow, I could pass them, but I don’t want to.  I feel like we’ve formed this friendship and who knows, they might be going all the way to Glacier as well.  Wouldn’t that be nice to join them all the way there.  Ahh, friendships.  And family.  In the end, I guess that’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it?  It’s like they say in the song The Story: “Cause this story won’t mean anything if you got no one to tell it to.  It’s true…”

    (Link to The Story on YouTube)

    Without friends and family to share it with, sure it stays with you, but that’s about the end of it.  You need to allow other people to experience it with you as well.  This is why I’m so thrilled with Join the Ride.  So thank you for joining me, on the ride, so I can share it with you, my friends and family.

Advertisements

Progress summary – October 16

I’ll continue with the 40 page “daily” write-ups shortly, but here’s a summary of the rest of the trip so far:

20121016-120028.jpg

– I hit over 11,000 miles yesterday (pic above is missing on day’s ride of 350 miles)
– I’ve officially made it to all 4 corner states of the US and am currently back on the Atlantic coast in Florida.
– I will be riding to key west tomorrow and then beginning the journey up the eastern coast starting on Friday
– I’ve crossed 31 states and have been on the road for 37 days

Feel free to ask any questions. I’ll hopefully cover most things once I get around to actually posting about each day, but I can comment on things here as we’ll if you’re interested

Hey, Boo-Boo! (Day 14: Saratoga, WY to Yellowstone [Daily miles – 348; Total miles – 4497])

September 21, 2012 – View my route for the day: Day 14 Track

I woke up this morning to frost on the ground and had to poop really badly. I took the bike back over to the cemetery and went to “my outhouse.” (I neglected to write yesterday that there was no running water at the Zinn cabin. While visiting my great uncle/aunt gravestones, I saw an outhouse in the distance and seemed to be a fitting place to do my business. I’m sure you’re glad I shared that…). I also had the chance to wash the bike again after riding on those dirt roads yesterday looking for the elusive peak.

Yesterday, I shared with some of the people that I met what my plans were for today, which was to head to Yellowstone. “Be careful! Watch out!” They warned me. I was confused. Were there serial killers lurking about in that area or something? “Oh, why, because of the wildfires?” I asked them. “No, no – there’s just lots of deer and wildlife on the road to Yellowstone. So be careful. It’s mostly open range out there. You don’t want to hit a buffalo, especially on a motorcycle.”

I’m from “upstate” new york and am used to deer, so I kind of shrugged this off. Well, I was going 100mph at one point, looked to my right, and saw a herd of antelope running beside me. I thought it was pretty cool and felt safe enough that they weren’t going to turn in my direction and stampede me. Just then, all of a sudden a family of 8 deer ran from behind some bush on the side of the road and directly in front of me. Lucky, I’m riding a Sportster 1200R. The “R” version came with duel front disk brakes, meaning I can stop almost twice as fast as other models. This probably saved my life. This also snapped me out of my hubris, especially since I knew the closer to Yellowstone I got, the more wildlife there would be.

I may have learned that lesson, but after 4500 miles, one true break down and countless other close calls, I still hadn’t learned how to keep from running out of gas. I saw a sign for Jeffersontown that told me it was 30 miles away. I had only clocked 50 miles since my last fill-up and figured Jeffersontown would be a good place to stop to make sure I was safe for a while. Unfortunately, when I got to Jeffersontown I quickly saw it for what it was — a ghost town. There was an old Texaco station that probably hadn’t been used in 20 years, a motel that was all boarded up, and a liquor store with neons in the window that hadn’t been visited by the resident drunk in at least 5 years. I had no choice but to keep going, and unfortunately the next town, Laredo, was 59 miles away, meaning I would be at least at 140 miles with no gas – and I knew that would be really pushing it. At 118, I ran out of gas and threw on the reserve. I had never gone more than 130 miles on a single fill up, so instead of traveling at 90 miles an hour I started going 50 to save on gas. I was worried Laredo would be another ghost town, which would have absolutely left me stranded, so one way or another Laredo would have to come through for me. When I finally saw the sign for Laredo, it said the population was over 7,000 and that was a signal that I would definitely find some gas. And sure enough I did, thankfully before I ran out yet again.

Well, that was all well and good, but I guess gas was the least of my problems. At the next gas stop, about 40 miles from Yellowstone, I found myself stranded. Not for lack of gas, but for lack of power. Yesterday I had some issues with the bike starting back up, but the battery miraculously kicked back on and I had no more issues for the rest of the day. Today I wasn’t so lucky. I again waited a good 30 minutes to see if I would hear the battery come back to life, and occasionally it would, but each time I would try to start the engine I would get a “clank, clank, claaaank, capoot” sound and would kill it again.

I rolled it over to a garage next door and the technician there was the complete opposite of the NAPA guys. He was more than happy to help, but didn’t know anything about bikes. He called a friend of his who built motorcycles, and the friend told him it was probably a dead battery. The manual says never to use jumper cables unless absolutely necessary. I felt in this instance it was absolutely necessary. We hooked the cables up and sure enough, “vroooom,” the H-D roared back to life. My only hope was that the ride to Yellowstone would charge it enough to get it to start again. If not, hopefully someone had some jumper cables where I broke down next.

I entered the Grand Tetons and found them to be absolutely incredible. It was also all open range, and I happened to pass a cow standing on the shoulder of the road. A little scary. But this place out there was, wow. There’s no other word for it. I began ascending into the mountains and the more I went, the nicer the roads got, the windier they got, and the cooler the ride became. This was something I had never seen before and am happy I got a chance to live and breath it.

Me riding through the Grand Teton Mountains, a few miles before entering the Grand Teton National Park

As I continued to ride, the beauty of the landscape put me into a trance of sorts. It got me thinking. I looked around at all the trees around me – the giant spruce trees (I think). I looked at these trees and realized that from the moment they were born and sprouted, they have stayed in that same spot and will remain there until the day they die. They are never going to move. Ever. Now us, we’re lucky. We can choose what we want to do. We can explore. We’re not just born into our place in life; we’re not stuck with whatever we were born into; we can change. We can move. Even when we do settle down and “sink our roots into the ground,” that’s not necessarily forever. You can have a family. You can have a house. To use another metaphor, you can build a foundation but you can always choose to go somewhere else. You don’t have to be in the same place your entire life. Now, does it make sense to? Would it be nice to? I don’t know. I guess if you enjoy where you are then why not? But maybe, because of our ability to wander, maybe we’re not meant to be in the same place our entire lives. Maybe we’re supposed to continue to explore, continue to search and find different places to keep us on our toes. To keep us from being too comfortable. To keep the soil new and fresh and raw.

I was snapped out of my trance when I finally crossed into Yellowstone National Park. There was a little town near the campground (Grant Village) with a gas station. I figured it would be easier to fill up then rather than waiting for the morning, so I stopped the bike, filled up, crossed my fingers, and… Nothing. It wouldn’t start. There was a pick-up truck of guys at the pump behind me, so I asked them if they had any jumper cables on them. They apologized because the truck was only a rental, so they had nothing on them.

The service station was open, but they wouldn’t help me without charging me $40, even just for a jump. Ridiculous. I went back out, not sure exactly what to do, when the guys in the truck pulled up along side me and asked me if I had ever “bump started” the bike before. I had heard of this, but wasn’t sure if it was really something people could do. I sure had no idea how it would be done, but was happy to learn. I took them up on their offer to help, and the three of them got beside me and explained the fundamentals.

“OK, when we start pushing, you drop it into neutral. We’ll give you a running start, then you need to jump onto it – hard — putting as much weight on the bike as you can to keep the rear tire from slipping. Kkick it up into second gear, then throw out the clutch as fast as you can while also slamming on the throttle.”

Sounded easy enough…

On the count of three we pushed and pushed and pushed, went faster and faster. I jumped onto the seat, put it in 2nd, let out the clutch, and bingo, we were in business! I turned around, gave them a thumbs up, and drove off into the wilderness (aka the campground).

After setting up the camp, I decided I would go in search of Old Faithful. I had no idea what to expect and thought that it erupted every 10 minutes or so. Turns out, that’s not the case at all. Apparently, it goes off every 90 minutes (give or take 10 minutes). I ended up showing up at quarter to 6 and saw that the next eruption was at 6. I didn’t think anything of it and casually strolled on down to the geyser figuring that if I missed it I would just catch the next one. Nope! But thankfully I have some good “Dan Luck” on my side (as Jason would say) and caught it right at the right time.

For the 10 minutes leading up to the top of the hour, people were noticeably antsy. There were small eruptions and everyone would hold their breath before letting out a big sigh when nothing more happened. At 6 on the dot a jet of water shot into the air and everyone thought that was it — the mythical Old Fathful eruption. People were noticeably disappointed, some saying how anti-climactic it was. I heard others in the distance making fun of it for having a “premature eruption.” As the minutes ticked away, some people even started to leave. Then, at 7 after 6, the steam grew thicker and the super-heated water exploded into the sky, 100 feet above the ground. It lasted for about a minute before settling down and slowly suffocating itself back down to a whimper. For someone who really knew nothing about what to expect, it definitely surpassed my expectations!

After buying some supplies for the night and rolling the bike down a hill to get it started, I began the 17-mile journey back to the campground. 10 miles in, I noticed about 50 cars pulled over on the side of the road and asked a nearby park ranger what was going on. Turns out, there was a black bear in the woods nearby. I would have been one of the ones to stop as well if I wasn’t afraid of looking like a fool to get the bike started back up. But the concept kind of hit me and made me pretty sad. If people get that excited over a little black bear (that was deep in the woods and hardly visible), what does that mean for what is left out there in our country these days? It’s kind of like being at the zoo. You’re excited to see the animals until you realize how terrible of an existence they have, cooped up in little cages their entire lives for your amusement. This is like a giant version of that. Sure, it’s an amazing park that is beautiful beyond belief, so don’t get me wrong, but it does seem a little sad that we need places like this to begin with. Without the protection of parks around the country, we likely couldn’t see most wildlife in their “natural” habitat at all.

The sun set quickly in the park and with the dark came the cold. To keep warm, I attempted to build a fire. In the camp next to me was a newly married couple from Canada out enjoying their anniversary (I briefly overheard their conversation). The girl was cooking up some soup over a propane stove while the guy was collecting wood to start a fire. Prior to checking out Old Faithful, I had gone to the general store and bought a bundle of wood and kindling. So picture this: A burly, Canadian man wielding an axe and smashing it down over 12-inch thick tree trunks right next to an American guy kneeling over a fire pit and breaking pre-made twigs with his hands. Quite the juxtaposition, huh? Now take it one step further: The Canadian burly man shattering the tree trunks he had gathered into manageable logs with no more than a few grunts, spits, and muscles flexing in the cold September air while the American guy snapping twigs next to him cries out in pain and anguish as one of the twigs splinters and cuts a deep gash in his right fore-finger. Made me feel quite manly, I gotta tell ya!

After cleaning and bandaging the wound, I rounded up a long branch and whittled it to a fine point. I stuck some of the hot dogs I had purchased at the general store earlier in the day onto the end and roasted them in the fire. For dessert, I thought it would be a good idea to roast some gummy worms as well. Turned out to be not so bad!

The next thing I knew, the guys across the way came by to talk. I’m pretty sure they just wanted to see if I had any pot (I didn’t. I don’t smoke), but it was nice to talk to them anyway. They were taking a vacation from their work in the gold industry. They came from Alaska, mined for gold for 3 months of the year and spent the remaining time traveling the world. After they went to bed, I stood by the fire for an hour to get warm until finally curling up in my sleeping bag in the tent, shivering uncontrollably from the cold.

Random Riding Realizations (and Thoughts) of the Day:

12:32am – It’s kind of a shame. You can’t see much of the beauty out here. I guess probably the reason why Denver was so cloudy too. The fires. You can see the smoke everywhere. And you can smell it. You can smell the burning. Unless that’s my bike. I do need an oil change very bad… But no, you can see, smell, and taste the fires and the smoke is ruining the air. It reminds me of China. Hopefully they are able to put them out soon and this will all clear up a bit.

2:36pm – My windshield is #$%^ing dirty! It is painted white, yellow, and red from bug goo.

The Wild, Wild West (Day 13: Denver to Saratoga, WY [Daily miles – 209; Total miles – 4149])

September 20, 2012 – View my route for the day: Day 13 Track

Woke up to my cousin, Adir, making breakfast (some nice scrambled eggs and turkey bacon).  Both he and his roommate, Eli, had to get to work early, so I left with them.  Since I was going to be going over the mountains I threw on my cold weather gear and hit the road.

I began by riding route 70 West for about 40 miles until it split off into route 40 through the mountains.  Route 40 was a major but beautiful road.  It eventually met up with Route 125 North, and 125 started to become much less densely populated.  At this point I realized that the long journey through “no man’s land” was about to begin.  “From this point all the way to Seattle,” I thought, “if I see a gas station, I should stop.  There may not be one for quite some time.”

By the time I hit 125 I was a bit confused. I didn’t think I had hit the Rockies, even though on the map it looked like it went directly through them.  It was gorgeous, had phenominal views, and my total ascent for the day was over 9,700 feet (I also descended over 8,300 feet throughout the course of the day), so you know I was in some serious mountain country.  But still, they weren’t as magnificent as I remembered them from when I came through the area about 17 years ago.  I think I rode through the foothills but never quite made it west enough to get to the real Rockies.

After the mountains ended and the plains opened up, it became pretty freaky.  Here’s my commentary on the situation:

“There is absolutely nothing around.  It’s just open range, no houses, very few cars, and me.  I have about 50 miles to empty, so hopefully within the next 50 miles we’ll find something.  I’m going 90 miles an hour right now, definitely not the best use of gas, but I just want to get out of here to find some gas and feel comfortable again.  It is really freaky.  There are mountains surrounding me on all sides about 40 miles away, but I’m just riding through the plains.  Through the open range.”

I finally found a gas station about 20 miles south of the Wyoming border.  To fill up with gas, as everyone knows, you need to stop the engine.  So I stopped, filled up with some gas, and ate a Cliff Bar for some much needed sustenance.  When I was ready to go, I turned the ignition switch to on, flipped the run button back to on, compressed the clutch and hit the start button like I had done 1000 times before.  The engine didn’t seem to want to comply.  “Crank crank crank.  Crack crank crank. Craaaaaaank, splat.” Then nothing.  The power went out, wouldn’t even turn on.   Luckily, there was a NAPA Autoparts store across the street, so I threw the bike into neutral and rolled it over there.

I expected it to be a blown fuse or maybe a bad battery, and I figured a technician at the shop could help me diagnose the problem.  I went around back, found some mechanics in the garage, and asked if they could help.  They instructed me to go to the counter inside the store to talk to the guy there.  “Oh, he’ll help you out for sure.”  OK.  So I left my bike in the back, walked around front, and entered the store.  Two guys stopped and stared at me as if to say, “what the @#$% do you want?”  As politely as I could, I explained to them my situation: that I was riding around the country, had all my stuff with me, and the bike broke down as I stopped to fill it up with gas.  They had no pity for me.

NAPA guy: “Lunch break is over in an hour.  Try back then.”

Me: “Yes, I understand it’s lunch time.  Unfortunately, I really don’t have an hour to wait.  Is there nothing anyone can do in the meantime?  Just take a quick look at it?”

NAPA guy: “Nobody here knows anything about bikes, and we’re on lunch.  Come back in an hour.”

Me: “OK, I guess I have no choice, I’ll come back.  I think I may have blown a fuse, so I’ll try to check that myself.  Do you have any fuses in here I could buy if that is the case?”

NAPA guy: “I don’t know. Come back in an hour, I’ll look then.”

Me: “OK, dude.  Go @#$% yourself.” (No, I didn’t actually say this, but I sure waned to)

Well that went nowhere.  But when I went out and checked back on the bike, I suddenly heard some sounds as if the battery had magically kicked back on.  I tried the start button once again and, voila, just like that she started!  My baby had come back to me from the dead!

With that, I secretly gave NAPA the finger and continued on my way, nervous for the next time I would have to stop the bike for gas.  Mark my words – I will never give NAPA my business after this.

The last time I was in Saratoga, Wyoming I was 9 years old and on a 2 week trip through CO and WY with my brother and grandparents.  My great uncle (for lack of a better term – he was my grandpa’s brother), Uncle Joey, lived there with his wife, Sarah, on the shore of the North Platte River.  I remembered it as a one horse town with a twist – it had a natural mineral hot springs.  I could have sworn that just outside of the hot springs there was a river where half of it flowed with hot water and half flowed with cold, but I could not for the life of me figure out how that was possible.

With this as my motivation, I wanted to get there as quick as I could.  Seeing nothing but 5 miles of straight road ahead of me, I figured I would make the trip go a little quicker and see what my baby could do (I still have not come up with a name for her – my 2004 H-D Sportster 1200R.  Anyone have suggestions?). I ended up reaching 110mph before it wouldn’t go any faster.  A perfect metaphor for this trip: Scary and insane, but wow, what a thrill!

I finally reached Saratoga and immediately was struck by how little it had changed in the past 17 years.  The town really hadn’t changed much at all.  I stopped into the police station to pick up the keys to the old Zinn log cabin (Uncle Joey’s son, Bob, now owns the house but has not been there for 2 years.  I’ll be visiting him when I make it to New Orleans), and then went on a search for it.  Although I recognized the area, I had a bit of trouble finding the actual house.  I ran into someone on the street and asked her if she knew where the Zinn place was.  She looked at me strange and I could read their mind: “That house is empty, who could this kid be visiting there??”.  Thankfully, she didn’t ask questions and pointed me next door.  It was hidden by some other houses and trailers, but as soon as I saw it the memories rushed back.  The RV in the yard (that I was too scared to sleep in), the Steve Urkel car parked under a shed (that was now falling into disrepair), and the river on the western edge of the property gleaming in the sunlight.

Zinn cabin (view from the river facing east)

Steve Urkel car parked in a shed on the property

Now, my uncle passed away in 2000 and my aunt in 2004, and as I stated before, Bob had not been there in over 2 years.  Needless to say, the yard was unkempt and needed a good mowing, but the place looked to be fine from the outside.  I fumbled with the keys and had some difficulty with the lock, but once the door cracked open and I made my way through cobwebs blanketing the interior, I saw flashes of myself as a child.  I could see myself learning how to play Jumble on the kitchen table, Uncle Joey throwing countless cowboy hats onto my head, the bull horns adorning the walls scaring the life out of me, and staring out at the river from behind the floor to ceiling windows in the sliding glass door that led out to the back porch.

After reminiscing a while, I got myself unpacked and went for a tour of the town.  I stopped into an old west store that I vaguely remembered from the last time and saw the Stentson hats hanging on the wall.  Well, after becoming a cowboy in Kansas two days ago and now having come to a real Old West town, I figured I needed to look the part.  The store owner came by and helped fit me to one.  The price tag said $129.  I offered $80.  She said $100.  I said $85.  She said $92 – it will come out to just under $100 with tax.  “Deal,” I said, shaking her hand.  The one thing I hadn’t thought about was how I was to carry this around with me for the next 2 months, but I knew I’d figure that out as I went along (spoiler alert: I’m writing this on 10/4 from San Diego and still have not figured it out.  In fact, I think I may have completely destroyed it.  Very sad).

I decided I would try to find people that new my Uncle Joey and Aunt Sarah.  So I stopped by the hot springs and found someone that looked to be of “their generation.”  To my surprise and excitement, she absolutely knew them and even told me where they were buried.  I made her a promise I would go visit and send a picture back to my grandparents.  I did just that, then went back to the hot springs for a nice soak.

Most of the people there were not from Saratoga but had traveled from 100 miles away or so to enjoy it.  They discussed how happy they were that in today’s day and age you could still find something as remarkable as the hot springs and be able to enjoy it for free.  I couldn’t agree more, and I was thrilled to see that other than some maintenance work and a new changing room, it hadn’t changed at all.  The main springs was around 108 degrees.  It burned as you moved through it, but once getting in down to your shoulders your body quickly adjusted to the heat.  The source of the springs, separated by some heavy-duty rocks, spewed 135 degree water out of it.  I remembered seeing Jason put his butt in when we were little, so I figured I had to try it out.  I put my foot in and immediately regretted the decision.  The bottom of the pool was so hot that my flesh turned bright pink after only a few seconds of exposure.  But I was determined to go in.  I carefully balanced my body on my hands and feet as if I was about to do the crab walk and lowered my butt and back into the surface of the water.  Yes, it burned, but it felt oddly nice.  After about 15 seconds I figured I had done enough to say I had done it, so out I got and back into the measly 108 degree pool.

As I mentioned earlier, the water drains into a nearby river.  I was dying to find out if my memory was somehow right about the hot/cold river, so I headed down to the shore.  Amazingly, it was exactly how I thought it to be.  I literally was able to lay down on one side of the water and found it to be boiling hot.  I rolled my body one full rotation and the next thing I knew the temperature had dropped by 60 degrees.  There was nothing separating it, but somehow the currents managed to create this natural wonder.

I then went back to the main pool and spoke to some others who were from around the area.  They recommended I check out “the peak” about 20 miles away for some great views that could stretch as far as Colorado.  I remembered this peak from when I was little.  Although it was the middle of the summer, Jason and I had a snowball fight at the summit (The mountains in the area are called the Snowy Mountains.  I wonder why?!).  It was already 5:30pm and the sun was starting to set pretty low in the sky, but they told me it was only 20-30 miles away and I could easily get there before dark (That may have been true, but there was no way I was getting back).  I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going, but after driving about 25 miles on remote – but paved – roads I saw a sign for Kennaday Peak Fire Lookout.  I assumed that must be it, though later found out that I should have been looking for Medicine Bow Peak instead, and I soon found out why.

The road turned into a windy, slow going, yet passable dirt road.  The sign said 12 miles to the peak.  “OK, going 20 miles an hour, I’ll get there in 45 minutes, not so bad.” Well, that road turned into a narrower dirt road until finally I found a sign leading me down yet another dirt road.  6 more miles to the top, it said.  I had already gone 6 miles, it had taken me half an hour, the sun was going down, but I had already made it this far and I wanted to get to the top.  This road turned into a 20 degree incline that forced me to dodge boulders and rocks embedded in the road.  After about ½ a mile further, I decided the road had beaten me and that there was no way my bike, or I, was making it up there.  I couldn’t chance it.  If I had lived in the area and was just out for some fun, I would have tried.  But the fact that I still had another 9,000 miles to ride I figured it wouldn’t be worth it to have the trip cut short just because I was stubborn and wanted to ride the 6 miles to the top.

The sun set as I got back onto the paved road, so I was thankful for my decision, and I made it into town just in time for dinner.

View of the sun setting over the North Platte River in Saratoga, WY

While at dinner, I asked the waitress where a good place to go to find someone that might have known my uncle/aunt.  They told me to “try to ‘The Rustic’ bar.  It’s been here as long as the town has been here.”  So I did.  I mosied on in, took a seat at the far corner, and staked out the crowd.  After talking to the bar tender, I came to learn that the owners of the bar were just a few stools down the way from me, so I walked up to them and introduced myself.  “Dan Zinn!” they proclaimed.  “Oh sure, we knew your uncle.  Though he would never have come in here.  He wasn’t one to take to the bottle.”  Turned out the bar tended had even taken dance classes with my Aunt Sarah.

It had been a long day and I had been waiting for this moment for so long that I figured I had to try out the hot springs one more time.  I settled into the warm water and starred for as long as I could at the twinkling stars overhead.  It was exactly what I wanted to be doing at that moment, and nothing could have been better.  It took all of my strength, but I eventually pried myself out of the water, headed back to the cabin, and drifted off to sleep with thoughts of Yellowstone in my head.

Hopefully it won’t be another 17 years before I go back (what a thought, I’ll be 43 by then!).

Random Riding Realizations (and Thoughts) of the Day:

11:21am – Between mile 127 and 128 on Colorado route 125 I passed the Google StreetView car (they were headed South).  As of now, it looks like the images from that area are from September 2007, but check back at some point and I bet you will see me!

EDIT (12/11/12): It was actually between miles 27 and 28 and Google maps is now updated.  You can see me clearly! http://bit.ly/TNDYLD and http://bit.ly/YWXoFh

Zoom in on the front facing view and you can even see me waving at the camera!
Streetview3

12:36am – I am now officially “home home on the range.”  I just saw deer and the antelope playing.  I haven’t seen the buffalo roam yet, but I have a feeling I will at some point on this trip, if not until Yellowstone then, well, in Yellowstone.  But it’s a pretty cool sight here.  I believe I am riding through the Sandhills of northern Colorado.  I don’t know if video quite does it justice, but it’s a pretty amazing place.  It’s just great plains sandwiched by the mountains and the antelope running through it all.  Pretty cool sights

12: 56pm – My coolest riding by far has to be today.  Going through the mountains on those hairpins turns, going down into the Sandhills and 100mph straightaways .  You can just do whatever you want.  Speaking of which, I’m going to do it right now (The following is a direct transcription from audio recorded while on the road):

We’re going 95, 100…, 100 miles per hour, 105… holy shit… 110.  Wooooooo yeah!!  Wow, wow, wow!

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” (Day 12: Kansas to Denver, CO [Daily miles – 532; Total miles – 3940])

September 19, 2012 — View my route for the day: Day 12 Track

This morning was kind of special.  Bill took me out to a graveyard about 2 miles away from his house to see where his family was buried.  Both he and Grace grew up in Clay County, so everyone in their family had been buried at the graveyard.

After, we made our way back to the house, took a picture in front of the bike, said our goodbyes, and off I went – on the road again  (Bill/Grace, if you have that picture, please send it to me!).  Bill and Grace’s last words to me were to be careful.  They thought my parents would appreciate that.

Before I left, they gave me directions to get to route 24.  “Take a left out of the driveway, turn left at the stop sign, go through Clay Center, take that until you get to 24.”  Sounded easy enough.  What they didn’t tell me was that it was nearly 10 miles to get to 24 and all of it was on dirt/sand roads.  Not easy on a motorcycle!  And not clean either.  The entire bike was caked in dust.

It was tough, but I survived the dirt road gauntlet and made it onto the tarmac of route 24 west.  I had a big day of sightseeing planned.  When I first decided I would go to Kansas on this trip, I had no idea what I would do there.  I joked to myself that I would go see the world’s largest ball of string (Don’t ask me why I knew that was in Kansas).  Well, it just so happens that the world’s largest ball of string (actually twine) is located just 60 miles west of Bill and Grace’s house on route 24 in Cawker City, Kansas.  Perfect!

Further west, another significant landmark lay just off my path, and I felt I would be missing something if I didn’t stop to have a look.  Four days ago when I decided to take a very large detour towards Kansas, my hope was to see and get an understanding for the heartland of America and what it’s all about.  I think I accomplished that, but if I came to the heartland then this landmark was the actual heart.  I can now say that I have stood on the exact center of the United States of America (the geographic center of the contiguous USA, that is) in Lebanon, Kansas.

Finally, as you will remember, I decided that I need to have a destination in each new state that I go to in order for me to count myself as having been there.  Well, I wanted to ride through Nebraska since I had never been there before.  So, after perusing the maps and websites, I found a monument in southwest Nebraska that was near to my route.  My plan at the time was to take Route 24 to Route 36, take Route 36 to Route 34, Take Route 34 to where it intersects with Route 6, and then find my way from there to Saratoga, Wyoming.  About 4 miles past the intersection of Route 34 and Route 6 lay the Massacre Canyon Monument, which is a memorial to the last battle of Native Americans in the region between the Pawnee and Sioux.

My plan was to go the extra 4 miles, turn around, and then head up Route 34 towards Wyoming.  However, on my way I got an email from my cousin, Adir, who lives in Denver.  He had no idea where in the country I was, but coincidentally enough he happened to reach out to me to tell me that if I was in the area and needed a place to stay I was more than welcome.

Well, It turns out that Route 6 continues on almost to Denver (drops you off about 80 miles north of Denver on I-75/I-25).  After giving him a call, it sounded like a good idea and meant I could ride through the Rocky’s tomorrow, so I headed to Denver to see my cousin and say hello.

Coming out of Kansas they had some construction going on.  I was stopped by one of the guys holding the stop/slow sign, and he told me I had about 6 minutes to wait so if I wanted to get up and stretch it would make sense.  I got off the bike and started talking to him about what he was doing and where he was from.  Turns out he’s from about an hour away.   He took up construction about a month ago and has been working on this one project the whole time.  He works long hours but the pay is pretty good.  I asked him what exactly they were doing, and he said they were widening the road to make the shoulder safer and now they are at the point of paving it.  “Oh, great.”  I said with feigned enthusiasm.  “So how many miles have you completed so far?”  At this he perked up and proudly responded, “We’ve been doing great.  In 2 months we’ve done 13 miles!”  I guess this is good, but I thought to myself that 13 miles just doesn’t seem like much for 2 months of work.  But what do I know?

Driving through western Kansas and further north in Nebraska really gives you a feeling for the magnitude of the drought this country experienced this summer.  Everything is completely burnt out.  There is no green whatsoever – you feel like you’re in a desert.  It’s all dead.  The riverbeds are dried up.  The corn looks to be 2 feet tall.  There’s just nothing out there.  It’s an eerie feeling.

While driving through Nebraska and looking for the Massacre Canyon monument, I suddenly got a sharp pain in my right shoulder that almost made me lose my balance on the bike.  “What was that?” I thought to myself.  Before I had time to analyze the situation, I was hit with a second attack to the same shoulder.  I threw the bike into neutral, swerved off to the side of the road, and tried desperately to unzip my jacket.  “Get it out, get it out!” I yelled to the imaginary onlookers.  I had no idea what was in there, but something must have flown into my sleeve and was now trying to get out by stinging through my arm.  By the time I had gotten the jacket off and had calmed down, yet another sting was sustained, this time a little lower down on the bicep.  I still have no idea what it was that was in there (my jacket kind of makes me look like a bumble bee.  Maybe they thought I was their mother?), but I had three large stings to show as my war wounds.  Thankfully I wasn’t allergic to whatever it was.  Also, out of sheer coincidence I happened to pull over just 100 yards from the monument.  Not such a bad result!

Ouch! One of the stings on my arm from the unknown beast

Massacre Canyon monument

While at the monument, I took some time to grab a sandwich (that Grace had packed for me) and catch up with a few friends on the phone.  I called a friend from home and found myself saying, “So, I was herding cattle in Kansas yesterday…”  I then wondered how many times I would be able to say that my your life!

Before reaching the interstate north of Denver in Colorado, I decided I wanted to do some time-lapse video.  To do that, I used a suction-cup mount for my GoPro camera and stuck it to the gas tank.  Going about 70 miles an hour down the road, all of a sudden the suction came undone and I looked in the rear-view mirror to see the camera bouncing along the highway behind me.   I guess the layer of soot that covered the bike from the dirt roads in the morning didn’t lend itself to a proper suction.  I went back and found the camera still taking pictures.  I took this accident as a sign to put the camera away, but I was too lazy to put the suction cup mount away and instead suctioned it right back to the tank.  Later in the day, while I was on the interstate it again flew off the bike never to be seen again.

When I finally made it to Denver and to Adir’s (my cousin) apartment, he was still at work.  I parked in the street and began catching up on a few things on my phone (words with friends, scramble, etc.  You know, the important things).  I was sitting on the curb next to the bike when all of a sudden I saw a shadow moving closer to me.  As I looked up, I saw my bike starting to topple over, right on top of me.  Turns out I had parked it on a side hill and there was not enough weight on the kickstand to keep it upright.  It came down on top of my leg, but I managed to right the bike quickly and did not sustain any significant injuries.

When Adir came home, Adir, Eli (his roommate), and I went out to a great pizza place on the other side of town.  We then got gelatos and headed back to the apartment.  Adir and I played ping pong (I won, of course) then watched TV and talked a bit.  I was so exhausted that the next thing I knew it was 4am and I was still fully clothed and asleep on the couch.  Apparently I fell asleep mid sentence and was unable to be woken when asked if I wanted a blanket.  Oh well, the trials and tribulations of being on the road!

Random Riding Realizations (and Thoughts) of the Day:

  •  9:43am: I just turned off 24 west to 181 North up to Route 36 west.  When I made the turn, I turned onto North 181, and this is the first time I’ve been going north since I headed from Detroit to Lake Superior.  It also marks the last time I headed south until I reach Seattle and begin the journey towards San Diego
  • 9:47am: My beard is starting to get very uncomfortable under my helmet.  Strangely, it doesn’t itch when the helmet is off, but it scrapes against the side of the helmet when it is on and creates quite a bit of unpleasantness
  • 9:48am: some interesting things I forgot to write about yesterday
  1. Every few years, most farmers will trade equipment.  A new combine can cost $350,000+++.  Each year, the technology gets so much better that it makes sense to upgrade in order to improve your productivity and efficiency.  They go to the dealership, “trade” the old piece of equipment for the new one, and pay the difference.  This then goes down the line.  More mechanically inclined farmers may trade their machine in, purchase the second hand equipment, and fix it up.  Farmers with even less means will do the same for the third-hand.  Others will buy the fourth hand, and so forth and so forth down the line.  Finally, you get to the subsistence farmers and they probably end up paying only $20,000 or so for the one they get.   I wondered if it went further than that and was told (jokingly) by one of the farmers in Kansas that those are the ones that end up in Mexico.
  2. If you own land, you build a house on that land (obvious, I guess).  In many cases, though, children will grow up, get married, have children, and build their own house on the same plot of land.  They will simply clear some of the fields and make their own home.  There may be 3 or 4 houses on one family’s piece of property.
  3. Kansas is a very republican state, and it likely comes from the mentality that the forefathers of the state had.  They were pioneers and settled the land themselves.  They did everything themselves.  They weren’t used to the government stepping in and helping.  If something needed to get done, they would do it.  If someone needed help, they would take it upon themselves to help them out.  As such, the sentiment towards things like welfare is one of distaste, to say the least.  Again, it goes back to how the state was founded.  The thought is that if you don’t have enough to get by, then get off your butt and do something about it.  Work for what you need.
  4. I didn’t want to tell them, but while I was spraying yesterday the ground was extremely rocky and we were bumping up and down all over the place.  I felt somewhat seasick, but held it in as best as I could.  I didn’t want anyone to know.  I thought I was starting to show that Rookie could handle the lifestyle!
  5. Crazy story: A guy was driving a semi in Nebraska on a highway and never made it home to his wife.  The cops found the truck on its side in a ditch on the edge of the road.  Other than the side of the truck that it had rolled over on, there didn’t seem to be any major damage to the front of the truck.  The truck had a 2 piece windshield where one piece covered the passenger side, there was a metal brace in the middle, and another pane on the driver’s side.  The only noticeable thing was a big hole dead center in the driver’s windshield.  Inside the cab, they found the driver, dead.  The initial thought was that he must have fallen asleep.  But then they noticed that behind the man there was giant dent in the back of a cab and a deer carcass stuck inside the dent.  So this changed the prognosis and they assumed he had hit a deer.  The only thing that didn’t add up was that there was no damage to the front of the truck.  So unless the deer managed to jump into the windshield, they couldn’t figure out how it got into the cab.  It turns out that on the same night, at the same place, at the same time, another driver had reported that he had hit a deer and then careened into a ditch on the opposite side of the road.  The driver was so shaken up that he just wanted to get home as soon as possible, so he managed to get the car to start back up and drove it back to his house.  Turns out that the driver of the car ended up hitting the deer, popped it up into the air, and it happened to land straight in the driver’s side window of the truck cab.  When something like that happens, you just have to say that it was his time to go.
  • 1:20pm – All day long, I have been riding with this incredible wind hitting me from the north.  Similar to what it was like the other day while going through Missouri, though thankfully with no sleet mixed in as well.  I have found that I actually have to lean to the right in order to keep the bike going straight.  If I were to stay straight/flat, the wind would push me off to the left side of the road.  When I have a left turn to make, I straighten out the bike and that’s exactly what happens.  The wind does the turn for me.  If it’s a right turn, I have to get into what feels like a 90 degree lean just to make it through.
  • 1:52pm – The wind is so incredible and tiring that I’m starting to feel very ready to get out of the Great Plains.  It’s been “great” at times and “plain” at times, but I’m ready to see the Rockies.  I think I’m still a couple of hours away from being able to see them, but I’m looking forward to that.  Each little ridge I come to I hope to see the mountains in the distance.
  • 4:04pm – I am 15 miles from Denver and I still don’t see these mountains that I hear so much about.  “Lloyd, I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this…”  The wildfires have created havoc on the scenery out here.

Rookie’s first day (Day 11: Kansas [Daily miles – 0; Total miles – 3,408])

First and foremost, Bill and Grace – Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warmth, your kindness, and your hospitality (and thank you also to Kay for putting me in touch with Bill and Grace).  More than anything, though, thank you for showing me that our food doesn’t just come from the grocery store and that it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get it there.

Bill, I know you’re going to be mad if you see this post because you want everyone to think that Kansas is just a place filled with “rednecks and hicks” so that nobody comes in and ruins your slice of heaven, but don’t worry.  Barely anyone reads this blog anyway, so the secret’s still pretty much safe with us 🙂

Honestly, I just have to say that I don’t know how anyone can say that Kansas is a fly-over or pass-over state.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  It’s also a diverse place.  There are the farmers and ranchers throughout, the immigrant Mexicans and Philippinos in the southeast running the meat houses and equipment.  There is the Kansas City urban population, the liberal college towns, those from the extreme right, and everything in between.  The Wikipedia article is actually a pretty interesting to read if you’re in the mood for some history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansas

In Clay County specifically, there are approximately 6000 people.  Of that, there are likely 500 millionaires, though you would never know it.  This fact surprised and amazed me.  That’s a huge percentage.  Many have inherited land (“dirt”) that is now worth millions.  The Ethanol movement has also helped to make the corn growers rich, but the sentiment is that this is a misunderstood thing.  The Green Movement loves it, but it takes water, diesel, etc. to grow the corn, harvest it, and produce the ethanol – almost as much fuel to create it as it makes.

Anyway, onto the day…

I woke up later than I should have due to the blackout curtains drowning out all of the natural light from the room I was sleeping in.  When I finally made it downstairs at around 8:30, I entered the kitchen to a warm “Good morning, New York,” from Bill.  Grace had already started cooking breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast – and it smelled almost as good as the view from outside the windows looked as the sun started to rise over the horizon – absolutely incredible.

I had no idea what was in store for the day.  I knew Grace had some errands to run and that Bill was planning to take me out and teach me some things about life in the fields and plains of Kansas.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured bring it on – after all, what was the worst that could happen?

“Let’s go, City Slicker.  We’re wasting good sunlight,” Bill mocked as I sat on the couch trying to decide whether to wear sneakers or my hiking boots for the day’s chores.

The first stop was supposed to be to see a friend of Bill’s, Roy, who owns a hog farm.  Now, it’s an interesting thing because it’s not a farm meant to raise hogs for their meat.  Instead, it’s called a “high-health facility” and it serves a similar function to that of a prized racehorse breeding facility.  They raise prized hogs and sell the “best” sperm all over the world to breed the best pigs they can.  On the farm, they hold about 20,000 heads and because of health concerns you have to shower in and shower out before handling the pigs.

On the way over there, we happened to see Roy, his son Mark, and a friend – Bruce, bringing some cattle in from the pasture.  Now, when you picture a cowboy, you picture someone riding a horse behind the herd of cattle, shepparding them through the plains to get them to where the cowboy wants them to go.  Well, it is very much like this in real life, with one exception.  There are no horses.  It’s all pickups and 4×4’s.  In the lead was even a tractor, manned by Roy, who was holding up a bale of hay to act like a “carrot” and lure the cows into the pen.

In true cowboy fashion, we drove our pickup into the field and took up a position along the left side of the herd helping to corral them into the pens at the end of the field.

Once we got them into the cages, I got out, started talking to the guys, and learned that they were about to separate the calves from the cows.  Until this point, the calves were still feeding from their moms, but today was the day that was being cut off and they were to be weaned off their mothers.

“You may want to stand back, Rookie,” Bill said over his shoulder at me.  “It’s not as easy as it looks”

“Maybe the best spot for Rookie would be outside of the pen,” Mark chimed in.

I ignored their taunts and eventually figured out that my real job was to go in there and help them separate the cows from the calves.  So I went into the pen and watched Bill and the 3 other guys weed out the two from each other.  Basically, the process is to scare the cows out by walking behind them and scare the calves in by walking in front of them.  After about 30 minutes or so, all of the cows had successfully been moved out of the pen with the exception of one: “a first-calf heifer” that was extremely protective over its calve.  Suddenly, one of the herding sticks was placed in my hand, and this Rookie was sent to finish the job and get the last remaining cow out of the pen.

Now, for you animal rights activists out there, let me take a moment to clarify one thing.  The “herding stick” I mentioned above is used for prodding cattle, but it is absolutely not what I’m sure you conjure up in your mind when someone says “cattle prod.”  It’s not electrified, so there is no shocking the cow.  It’s simply a long stick that helps to get them to go where you want and to allow you to stay at a safe distance.

Cows can kick if you aren’t careful and if you don’t know what you’re doing.  I certainly didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know cows could kick, so I went right in there and went directly for the remaining cow.  I tried everything: sweet talking to her, hitting her on the butt (softly), yelling and cursing at her, etc., but nothing seemed to work.  After about 3 minutes of watching me chase her around the pen, the guys were cracking up at me and told me that I should go try one of the other cows in another pen that were a bit more tame.  “No, no, I have to get this one!” It took another 2 minutes, but I finally managed to get her out of the pen.  As I did so, I waved my cattle stick in the air out of joy.  I was now a true, real-life cowboy.

Success!!

Next, we drove off to go into town.  On the way, we saw another one of Bill’s friends working on his farm and decided to stop off and see what he was up to.

Quick side note: When you think about farmers, you typically think about them doing what’s called “working the land.”  Tilling the soil, breaking it up, and getting it ready to be planted.  Some farmers still do this, but for the past 10-15 years a new kind of farming known as “no-till” planting has taken hold.  Rather than unearthing the soil and then planting on that, under the no-till system a machine cuts an extremely fine slit in the ground, puts a seed in the slit, and barely disturbs anything around it.  This was impossible to do before the advent of GPS because you couldn’t tell where you had already planted.  This helps with erosion by keeping the soil compact, and also allows for microorganisms to grow in the fields which didn’t happen in the old system, and that keeps the ground much more healthy.

Before getting into that, let me give some context: There’s a thing called the CRP program (Conservation Reserve Program) that was put into place about 10 years ago when the price of corn was suffering badly.  There was so much supply that the price was so low, so the government was looking for a way of limiting the supply of corn and therefore increasing the price. Of course, it was meant for other things as well.  Here’s a blurb from the USDA website on it:

“CRP protects millions of acres of American topsoil from erosion and is designed to safeguard the Nation’s natural resources. By reducing water runoff and sedimentation, CRP protects groundwater and helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams.”

Anyway, the CRP program essentially gave farmers a certain amount of money per acre for the farmer to return farm land to pasture land.  On one piece of the farm we were now on, the 10 year contract was up, so they had just begun to turn the field back into farmland.  In order to do this, they wanted to get rid of the weeds that had been growing, and so today they had planned on spraying it with Roundup.

Roundup is interesting because it works by only attacking the plants.  Once it hits the soil, it becomes inert.  So it’s a very safe chemical to use and have it only kill the weeds and not harm humans (it doesn’t kill the crops because they have been genetically modified to be Roundup resistant).

Bill dropped me off and I went out to help with the spraying.  The first thing we had to do was fill the 1000 gallon tank on the gigantic machine used for spraying the fields with a mixture that was a certain percentage of water, roundup, and a salt solution (I believe).  I was then invited to sit in the jumper seat on the giant spraying machine, which had 100-foot wide booms on either side ,and we then took it out to the field.

Farming is not what most people picture it to be.  It’s arguably one fo the most sophisticated, technologically advanced things we do.  The most amazing thing about this machine and the technology used  was the way we were able to get the work done.  It’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing.  GPS was used originally for the no-tilling planters, but since then it has exploded and is used for everything on the farm.  All we had to do was drive the perimeter of the field to show the system where the boundaries were.  After that, the system took over and drove the machine by itself in perfect formation as accurate as an inch from where it had sprayed before (in other words, it only would need to overlap about an inch).  Now, the system also knew where it had already sprayed.  Farms are not entirely rectangular, so it would know where it had already sprayed and shut down any spray jets that overlapped with an area that had already been sprayed.

Bill picked me up after an hour of spraying.  At this point, the eggs and bacon had worn off and we were pretty hungry so we decided to head into town for some lunch.  Bill’s a contractor and has built many of the buildings around town.  They are a very “mixed bag” construction company and have built everything from power plants to runways to convenience stores to office buildings.  So he took me on a rolling tour of the town and pointed out some of the things he had worked on.

For lunch, we stopped at a place called Tasty Pastry – which I was told was “to die for” the night before.  It lived up to the hype.  The turkey sandwich was nothing special, but the doughnuts and pastries were definitely Tasty.  The doughnut was more like a cinnamon bun cross-bred with a doughnut.  It really was fantastic.

Following lunch, we got back into the pickup and went to Bill’s office.  There, I met his secretary, who happened to be the wife of a farmer in the area.  She let us know that her husband was “picking” corn today.  The word “picking” intrigued me.  Did they believe in the old fashioned way or something?  Did they actually go out and pick each corncob off the stalk individually? No.  For whatever reason, they call it picking, but it’s certainly not the old fashioned way and not being done by hand.  More on this in a bit…

This was great news, and I knew Bill was excited to be able to take me over there to show me how corn was harvested.  I was thrilled too – on the way to Kansas I tried to get some good video of the huge harvesting machines (what I have since learned to be called “combines”) chopping the corn.  It turned out to be more difficult footage to find than I thought.  But forget about watching it happen from a distance — was I now going to be able to sit in one while it “picked” the corn?

Before finding out, we decided to make one additional stop.  Bill’s company was in the middle of a project to build a warehouse/workshop/office building for a friend/farming family (I told you it’s a very mixed bag construction company).  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when we got there I thought we had arrived at a Boeing 747 hangar  The building was enormous.  We found the owner of the farm (another Bill – let’s call him Bill 2), Bill 2’s father, and Bill 2’s son (Josh).  It was the stereotypical 3 generation farming family.  The farm had been in the family for many years and will likely stay like that for many years into the future.

The building that was being worked on was having the roof bolted down.  The next few days would prove to be the hardest as Bill and the team had to figure out how to put the gigantic door into place – an 18’ high x 48’ long single piece “garage” door.

The family was extremely mechanically inclined, and that lent itself to some good farming history lessons for me (and now for you) due to the type of equipment they were using:

Lesson 1: Excuse me, can I look between your legs?

On a hill high above the new warehouse sat what is called a grain leg.  Trucks are meant to pull up and drop their load between the leg and the grain silos (that’s what she said…).  The grain then goes underground into the base of the leg.  The leg stands about 250 feet in the air and has pipes running from it to the grain silos at fairly sharp angles.  The grain gets picked up by large scoops (not dissimilar to how a waterwheel looks) on a conveyor belt that hoists the grain to the top.  Once at the top, gravity works to send the grain down a pipe and into the correct silo for storage.  This whole process can then be reversed when ready to take the grain to market.  (side fact – farmers have extremely different go-to-market strategies.  Some play the futures markets on the prices and hedge their own crops against that, some employ a mix of strategies, and others take the “Farmer Brown” approach and store their grain until the price is favorable and/or when they need the money, take it to town, and sell it.

Lesson 2: Mine’s 30 inches, what’s yours?

On the corn side of things, I learned that there are many different philosophies on how to plant in order to get the best yield (the one thing that is agreed to among all farmers is that you plant and harvest in straight lines).  The standard way to plant corn is to position each row 30” apart and have the individual columns of corn be 8” apart within each row.  This is meant to maximize the light each stalk receives from the sun.

As I mentioned, the owners of this farm were very mechanically inclined, so they decided to modify their equipment (i.e. the header on the combine) and go off the standard.  Instead, they believed they got a better yield by planting in 20” rows.  They have the same amount of seeds per acre, but rather than being 8” apart in each column they do 10” (or something like that – you get the point).

There’s also a new school of thought that has recently come out where some farmers plant double rows of corn.  This needs to be so precise that it’s kind of mind-boggling, but the technology is certainly there if you have the money.  How this works is that a farmer would still plant 30” apart from the center of a row to the center of the next row, but the center row actually has two rows 4” apart from each other, so the rows end up being 22” apart in actuality (30-4-4=22).  To ensure the correct sunlight, the seeds in each double row are staggered (somewhat like tacking in a sailboat – they are arranged in a staggered, side to side pattern).

Popcorn!

So after these lessons, we hopped back in the pickup and went over to meet Mike and Mitch on the combine to pick some corn.  Mike and Mitch are brothers and the two of them, plus their 25 year old son, work the entire farm by themselves – all 3,000 acres of it.  The first guy I met there was Mike, who drove the combine.  I climbed into it and sat in the jump seat.  While riding, I observed that the machine sucks in the corn stalks through tiny holes in the header attachment.  This acts to peel the cob off the stalk, and then the combine feeds the cob through a series of tools until finally depositing only the kernels into the rear of the combine (it looked like a giant popcorn machine).

Following along side the combine is a grain cart, and as we were moving, the grain cart would pull up alongside the combine, we would spray the kernels into it to empty the combine’s holding tank, thereby allowing us to never stop and increase our productivity.  The grain cart would run over to a semi that was ready and waiting, empty its load, and then head back into the field to pick up the next batch of kernels from the combine.

When the corn was picked, Bill decided that I had earned my keep for the day and took me back to the house for a much needed adult beverage.  We waited for Grace to come home and then cooked an amazing steak dinner.  While waiting for it to finish, Bill decided that Rookie needed to accomplish one more thing while down in Kansas, so we went out to the garage and rummaged around in the seats of his old ’67 Chevy pickup, found some clay pigeons, grabbed his shotgun, and went out to the field behind the house to do some skeet shooting.  This was the first time I had ever shot a shotgun, and I was petrified beyond belief that I would blow my shoulder off from the recoil.  Bill asked if I was ready.  Um, I think so?!

“OK, on the count of 3.  1, 2…”

BOOM!

I lined up the sights on the pigeon, shut my eyes, and pulled the trigger.  To both my and Bill’s absolute astonishment, it was a direct hit.  My first skeet-shooting experience and I had shattered the clay pigeon into a million pieces.  Wow that felt good.  We then went on to shoot 11 more, and I hit 10/12.  Not bad for a Rookie, huh?

We ended the day with dinner, followed by a gorgeous sunset over the plains, some wine, and some apple pie a la mode.

What a day – certainly something I will never forget.  Who ever said you can take the man out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the man?  I think I proved a city-slicker like me can become a cowboy – it just takes the right kind of people to show you the ropes.  And for that, let me thank Bill, Grace, and everyone I met in Kansas once more for showing me such a tremendous time.