Thursday, September 16, 2010

Addendum: In England Everyone Has a Motorcycle

I actually got this before the trip, but forgot about it.
Here's one of the articles mentioned by Shepherd in the book, from the archives of the LA Times. I tried to find the article from the Kansas City Star as well, but their archives aren't online, and my visit there didn't allow for a trip to the newspaper.

There also a 1919 article from Motorcycling and Bicycling Magazine about him available from Google Books, a 1922 mention in the journal Engineering and Contracting, and a handful of other things. He seems to have been a member, while he was writing Across America, of the Birmingham Natural History and Philosophical Society.
Shepherd's name is also attached to the out-of-print book "Full Story of Capt. Hinkler's Death and Return," and the L.A. Times article mentions another, previous book, "Through England By Motorbike," which I would love to get my hands on.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Final Stretch

The next morning I continued along route 40, crossing the "Y bridge" at Zanesville, and finishing Ohio. West Virginia was by in a flash, as the road crossed the other great American mountain range into Pennsylvania.
Near Hagerstown, MD, with less than 100 miles to go, my check of the chain showed that the last of my chain clips was not gone, but broken, and it didn't look like it would last. I had used the last of my wire, and when I stopped at a garage, the best they could come up with were a handful of paper clips.
I rode to Twigg Cycles in Hagerstown, and told them what was going on. They were determined to help me out, and put the bike up on a lift while I waited.
They returned shortly with a diagnosis: the master link on the chain had been a bit wider than the rest, which wouldn't have been a problem, except my rear wheel hub had enough play in it that the chain was contacting something at highway speed, resulting in the disappearances of the many clips I had gone through in the past 2,000 miles. They replaced the link, cautioned me to take care of the hub before taking any more trips, and then refused to take any money for their services.
The uneven quality of the motorcycle shops I found on my trip made me appreciate a place like Twigg, or Dirt Cheap Offroad, or Ross's Blue Star in Kansas City, or my friends back home at Modern Classics. They were not just places that sold motorcycles, but knew them inside and out, and appreciated that I was far from home and in need of their help. There were a lot of others who didn't, but there are still places and people who are willing to go out of their way to help a stranded traveler, and I am grateful for that. It's something that didn't exist for Shepherd, and without them my trip might have taken as long as his. It's something I will remember on my next trip to Ely, Nevada, where I plan to either open an independent motorcycle shop, or throw a brick through the window of a motorcycle dealership, depending on the state of my finances at the time.
But I digress.
After Hagerstown, the scenery became familiar as I neared Charm City, and the miles seemed to stretch as I missed my planned arrival time. The road became more fraught with potential disaster as I contemplated making it this far only to fail in the last few miles. A truck crowding me through a construction zone became my mortal enemy as he rode too close to my rear wheel, until the single lane turned to two, and I was able to see the fire engine behind him, and we waved mutual apologies.
Finally, I reached my traditional final stop, pulled onto the sidewalk and went inside, where my friends were waiting to buy me dinner and a National Bohemian beer.
After 21 days, across 14 states and 7,300 miles, it tasted like home.

With Apologies to Columbus, Ohio.

Our disagreement probably wasn't entirely Columbus's fault. I take some of the blame. I'm sure there are some lovely parts of the city, I just didn't happen to be in any of them.
By the time I got there, the distant thunderstorm had been on top of me for a while. The streets were flooding, and visibility was down to next to nothing.
As Route 40 got to the city, the old motels and campgrounds had run out. I checked for a room at a hotel named for the road, but got a bad vibe from the place that was confirmed by a police officer at the next gas station, who told me it was a good place to buy drugs or get stabbed. Fifty dollars seemed a bit dear for either, so I kept going to a chain hotel further along.
It is tempting to say, as I did say to the hotel owner when I checked out an hour later and demanded a refund, that the reason I left Columbus in the middle of the night was because of the uncleanliness of the room, the general atmosphere of danger, or the tough-looking prostitutes and their pimp setting up shop in the room next to mine.
These things were all factual, and it is certainly possible that they would have become an issue, but really I left because I couldn't get a hamburger.
In the particular area of Columbus where I found myself that Sunday around midnight, the only places to eat were the drive-thru portions of several fast food places, which was fine, or would have been, but they steadfastly refused to sell me anything because I didn't have a car. After my third unsuccessful attempt, I decided I needed to get out of town.
The rain had stopped for the moment, but returned just as the lights of the city faded behind me. I was rocketing along I-70 in the dark, in the rain, unseen and unable to see, and even in my somewhat Columbus-addled state this course seemed suicidal. I pulled off after about 50 miles of that, got a sandwich at a truck stop and a room across the street.
After unloading my bike, I turned the heater on in my room, laid my riding gear across it, then woke up the next morning in my wet clothes.

The Old Roads

I got my first motorcycle, a 1974 Honda CB 360, relatively late, at the age of 24, and like all new motorcyclists, I had the idea that going faster is a sign of a superior rider. This is partly true-- the San Franciscans who led us along Highway 1 back in California had the skill to take the curves at a pace I couldn't keep up with, but it wasn't speed that made them good, it was the smoothness with which they negotiated the road.
It is certainly possible to go flat out during the straightaways, then brake to a reasonable speed for the corners, but I believe the better choice is to pick a speed that will allow you, with minor adjustment, to run the whole thing at a consistent pace. One of my friends calls it "slowing down to go faster," and while it is a lousy strategy for racing, it is perhaps a good one for everything else.
When I woke up in Missouri I had almost 1,000 miles left to go to get to Baltimore. The engine troubles and chain-checking stops had put my arrival at home back by a day. I resolved to take I-70 the rest of the way to make up time, but before noon I was exhausted, and in danger of falling asleep. One of my only complaints about the KLR was the effect wind had on it, which is exaggerated by its height and corresponding high center of gravity. Every semi sends it into a near death wobble, and every gust of wind leans it over as I fight to keep it going straight. Between that struggle and the amount of riding I had done over the preceeding weeks, I was just about finished, right when I wanted to be home the most.
Rather than continue on 70, stopping every hundred miles or so to wake myself up, I decided to cut over to U.S. 40, the "National Road," which was once, like so many of the roads we had traveled with Shepherd, a major route or commerce and tourism.
Back in Ohio, when Rod and I were headed west, we had faced a choice between 40 and 70 at a "National Road" tourist center. I had asked the elderly clerk whether 40 would slow us down much on the way to Indianapolis, and she had said that it would, but seemed disappointed by the question. As I had passed through the secondary roads that existed where Shepherd had gone-- the Santa Fe Trail, small bits of Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, I had reflected on her disappointment and even began to feel that I had failed in some way when I departed from Shepherd's path to save time. Thinking that the smaller road might be less tiring, I decided to slow down for a while, and rolled into Indiana, then Ohio, slowing at each town.
Shepherd followed the old roads before most of them were paved. They had yet to pass through their boom and eventual bust. Stretches of 40 near large cities have gone to seed-- rows of strip clubs and seedy motels. Elsewhere the motels have been turned into housing, and on some stretched the travelers' amenities still exist, as in a bubble, the way they did in Colby, Kansas.
I began to recognize the old signs of life along the once-proud route 40, where towns once welcomed tourists on their way to see America. Route 70 and its ilk were anathema to the idea of travel for the sake of it. They were simply a way to get from departure to destination with a minimum of discomfort that brought with it a minimum of change-- the ground-level equivalent of air travel-- where nothing is experienced of the local character that makes the journey worthwhile.
At one point I lost route 40 in a small city, but recognized it again a few blocks away, not because of any signs, but because I knew the buildings belonged to it, almost hidden under decades of changing tenants, but still there in the architecture, in the old brick buildings and the squat side-by-side hotels and former hotels. Between towns there was nothing, but fields and farms and houses, then a changing speed limit would indicate another town, sometimes just a gas station and a restaurant. The fatigue had left me and I began to anticipate the next town on the map and wonder what it would bring, and the miles went by.
The old road took an unexpected detour as it began to get dark, through a wooded area and across a series of dams near the Miami River. I stopped at the Taylorsville Dam to take a picture.
Nearby, a young family had also stopped.
The son was pointing across the river, saying "See, it's over there!" as he led his mother and father by the hand. I asked them what they were looking for, and the mother told me he believed there was a way to walk down to the river below.
The father-- younger than I am, with a full beard more neatly trimmed than the one I had grown over the trip, asked where I was headed, and the four of us talked for a while about the country and the places we had been, then they wished me luck on my trip and I wished them luck on their quest for the river.
I sat on the edge of the dam and smoked a cigarette, watching them negotiate the steep bank on the other side, calling to each other with the boy leading the way.
Far in the distance, I could see a gathering storm, and I decided to stop when it caught up with me, but in the fading light, as I rolled through Ohio, I felt like I could ride all night. Every town and farm was beautiful in the darkness, and when the rain finally came, it was close to midnight and I was somewhere on the edge of Columbus, Ohio, just a short day's ride from home.


From Colby, I had two options-- back to I-70 a few miles south, or continuing along route 24, passing through all the small towns, and their corresponding drops in speed limit. I decided to try the slower route. I could always drop back down to 70 if it looked like I wasn't going to make it through Kansas that day, which was my goal. Much as I would've like to stop again with Ross and Kelly in Kansas City, I wanted to make it farther than that.
One of the factors in the failure of my chain on Pikes Peak was my own failure to clean and lubricate it, so I was now performing that ritual every night or morning without fail. When I stopped for breakfast along route 24, I realized that I had forgotten it that morning, so I jacked the rear tire up on my makeshift stand. As I spun the wheel, I noticed that the clip holding the chain's master link together had gone missing. This was bad, and could have turned out to be catastrophic if the chain had let go somewhere in the 400 miles since I had last checked it.
I didn't have another clip, so I went to the small engine repair store next door, hoping that some lawn-mower or ATV used the same part. They were closed, so the best I could do was a piece of wire I found in the parking lot, which held up so well as I looked for a motorcycle shop that I left it on for the next 300 miles or so, when it broke. In the meantime I had found two replacement links at a shop, although I had failed in my attempts to get someone to rivet it properly.
I checked it at every stop, and often as not found that the clip was missing again, so I either replaced the link or used more of the precious bit of wire I had found, while I tried to figure out what was causing it.
Because of the uncertainty with the chain, I stuck to the smaller road. In my mind, the possibilities of chain failure ran to rear-wheel lockup and holing the engine case (perhaps because the latter was a common problem on early editions of my other bike, the Honda CB750. I am uncertain whether this is a danger with the KLR).
In case of the former, I would rather it happened on a sparsely-traveled country road than an interstate with semis bearing down on me.
I had made a joke to Rod, that the trip would've been longer without him there because I would be stopping at every "World's Largest Ball of String" in America, so when I actually came across it in Cawker City, Kansas, I had to stop and pay my respects.

The entire town of Cawker City seemed mainly devoted to the ball of twine. A banner announced the upcoming twine festival, and there was a gift shop across the street. The shop showed all the signs of being open-- a neon sign proclaimed it so, and the door was unlocked. There was no one inside, though. I left the cash for a Ball of Twine t-shirt on the counter with a note, and continued on.
I made it through Kansas and halfway across Missouri, losing and picking up new chain clips every few hundred miles, and rejoining I-70 somewhere around the border.
I stopped near Fulton, MO, mostly because of the promise of a place called "Panhead Billy's Smokehouse" and the idea that there would be campsites nearby. Outside Billy's, the parking lot was filled with chrome cruisers, and a young man was staring at my bike.
Traveling on a purposefully ugly motorcycle in a world of candy-colored dream machines elicits some odd reactions, from the guys outside the Hotel Nevada who wondered that it moved at all, to the young man in Kansas who took offense when I came out to remove my key-- he sniffed "You don't have to worry, mine's nicer anyway," then seemed to want to fight me in front of his pretty blond girlfriend, who looked somewhat embarrassed about the whole thing.
The kid outside Billy's Smokehouse, who apparently worked there, had a positive reaction: "That's great! I have a CB550 rat bike myself."
It was nice to be appreciated for a change, and I think my bike (which at this point I had taken to calling "Lizzie") liked the attention.
Billy's brisket was good, but my ideas about campgrounds turned out to be misguided, so Lizzie and I spent the night in a motel near the interstate.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

All Hail Kansas

After three days of rest in Colorado, Rod and I parted company. He went north and I began to head east toward home. My plan was to make it home as quickly as possible on I-70, a major highway which runs more or less straight from Denver to Baltimore, but my trip began to take a somewhat Sherpherd-ian turn at this point, beginning before I had even made it out of Colorado, in the part of that state which should rightfully belong to Kansas.
At highway speed, the bike began to die on me, as if it was running out of gas. I pulled off the highway, first at a gas station, then at one of the few places that afforded shade-- under an overpass-- where I unpacked and disassembled the motorcycle. I had settled on a handful of things to check, with the telephone assistance of my friend Mountain Eagle in Colorado, and I didn't want to do this twice, so I checked vacuum lines, gas lines, and the spark plug all in one go. Something seemed to work, and after a few hours by the side of the road I had everything back together again, and it ran fine.
When I got somewhere for lunch, I borrowed a wi-fi network and checked one of the KLR sites and found this under "known issues":
"Gas boiling in fuel line (if it's very hot out, generally over 100-105 deg F, and if side shroud vents are covered)."
Which sounds ridiculous to me, but it was around 110, and I believe my tank panniers were covering the vents before I stopped, but not when I re-packed the bike. I think that was probably what fixed the problem.
After lunch somewhere in Kansas, I took time to admire the cloud formations up ahead.

They turned out to be less attractive up close. As I continued, I was suddenly hit with a blast of wind and rain that blinded me completely and nearly forced me off the road. I made it to the shoulder, and the storm stopped as suddenly as it arrived while I put on my rain gear.
I caught it again a few miles later, and this time when it cleared, traffic had stopped for a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed and overturned across the road. I went around it, and the rain became more constant, so for the first time in my life I found an overpass to take shelter from a rain-storm.
There were already several cars there, and a few motorcyclists. As I removed my helmet I exchanged a sort of "Holy shit" glance with a nearby Harley rider, and we both laughed and shook our heads. It turned out that he was 30,000 miles into a "trip around the country," and we both wondered if we were about to witness a tornado. Then the hail started.
After about 20 minutes of cowering under an overpass, with weather threatening from the east, west and south, I decided to take a smaller road-- route 24, that headed north for a bit then paralleled I-70 for a long ways, said goodbye and headed out.
As sunset approached, the road passed through Colby, Kansas, and I found a cheap room in an old-style motor inn and a cold beer at the B Hive tavern, which I was told was owned by the mayor of Colby.
Colby looked just like the hundreds of small towns I had passed through, developed along the rail lines and later the highways. It occurred to me that the "See America" movement, of which Shepherd had unwillingly been a pioneer, had left its mark on these towns, in the small family motels and service stations that lined the roads, before they were abandoned in favor of the monstrous I-70s of the world, which promised faster travel and the homogeneous comforts of the giant strip mall that crosses America along its current major arteries. A few miles away, Holiday Inn promised travelers a night of comfort as uniform and standardized as a Budweiser and a Big Mac for $80 a night. I stayed at the Country Club Drive Motel for $30, and was glad of it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tornado country

Apologies to my reader (Hi Mom!) for the lack of recent updates.
Wifi and cell servce were difficult to come by in the mountains of Colorado.
I'll go back and fill in the gaps later, when I get near a computer. Right now there's a lot of country between me and home, and most of it's Kansas.

from the B Hive bar in Colby, KS, where the farm boys are starting to get rowdy.