My First Leg Over

Heading West

On 9 October 2010 I arrived in Vancouver, Canada having driven over 3,000KM (2.100m) from Chicago. What an amazing journey in terms of spectacular scenery and a bike cruise that was easily the best I’ve ever driven in my life. And despite arriving in the city exhausted I was buzzing with a sense of achievement having accomplished the first leg of my trip. Where the medal worn is now being able to say I’ve crossed the Americas east to west coast on my motorbike. WHOHA!

When crossing two thirds of this continent, which would still be larger than the European Union, I encountered many different forms of landscape and numerous towns and cities with familiar names some of which included: Buffalo, Billings, Amsterdam, Gerryowen, Churchill, Surrey and Pierre. The latter town, population 14K, shared the same name with my last boss prior to this trip. There’s a postcard in the post to Pierre from Pierre – many thanks capo. The first day and a half was incredibly dull as I drove through the farmlands of Illinois and South Dakota. The only relief from the boredom came from driving fast where it was fun to clock three digits (mph) on the I-90.

The first sight of note on the road west was the famous pharmacy Wall Drug, which is in the city of Wall. In it’s day (70-80 years ago) it was a welcome mid point stop for coast to coast travellers as they restocked on whatever provisions needed including free ice which back then was quite unique. In addition, highway signs advertised Wall Drug and related stores more than 90 miles in advance of arrival. So naturally I thought there must be something to the place. However want a disappointment and waste of time. Whatever notoriety it once had has certainly evaporated and in it’s place tacky stores and diners. Don’t stop if you’re passing, keep on driving where the only good thing about seeing the town of Wall was the knowledge that Sturgis was only a couple of hours away. Which is where you begin to hit The Badlands.

And more importantly, the monotony of the previous day was quickly forgotten as nature revealed her eye candy, and did so for the remaining ride west. The Badlands National Park is an amazing reserve, which combines bare stone formations (used in the opening scene of Close Counters of the Third Kind), which leads into rolling prairies. These hills just went on and on and each crest topped revealed an equally beautiful horizon. Where the amber coloured scotch grass that covered the expansive hills rose and fell like young cheddar under a hot grill. This range seemed to naturally roll into the Black Hills National Forrest, which like its main town Deadwood had a name that didn’t do it justice.

The Black Hills are forest green but apparently look black from an aerial view. While the city does not resemble fatal timber but like the landscape is also picturesque. While there I met the Tim and Deb who own the local Harley Davidson store. I took the first of two rest days in Sturgis, a city that all bikers will be familiar with, owing to the annual convention where over 500K bikers meet in mid August. FYI – the State of South Dakota has a population of only 750K. Although I missed the gathering it’s great to have visited motorbike Mecca, which through motorbikes also provided a wonderful example of gender equality.

A group of nine bikers parked up next to me at the Comfort Inn where I noticed one of the more striking Harley Davidsons, then I noticed it was driven by a woman wearing a slender black velvet waistcoat, and then further I noticed the pillion passenger was an Asian guy. Who I later learned was her husband. Whatever of having more women in the boardroom this is a much more interesting emblem of female emancipation. I’m all for more of it. Good for you Lassie.

From Sturgis, I took the two-hour drive south to see both Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monuments. It was great to be standing in front of the four legendary Presidents’ whose personas have been immortalised on the side of a mountain. Where each was selected for their unique contribution to the country’s development: Washington for leading the fight for independence, Jefferson also for both his part in the revolution and statesmanship, Lincoln for his leadership during the Civil War and Roosevelt who’s accredited for bringing the USA to the world stage as a super power. The Crazy Horse monument pays tribute to the legendary Indian leader who along with Sitting Bull led the Sioux in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1877 only. The sculpture began in the 1940’s and won’t be finished in my lifetime, as the foundation is self-funding from visitor fees were the romantic notion of sculpture Ziolkowski refused government donations. Personally I think the foundation should take the USD10m to finish the thing faster. Even though it is a work in progress it was nonetheless good to see.

The subsequent days took me through Yellowstone National Park and the Rocky Mountain range. The size of this Park is hard to fathom but to help conceptualise it’s roughly 20% the size of Ireland. I took my second rest day in a small town called Bozeman that was a good base to undertake a day tour of the park. It was fantastic to see the famous geyser Old Faithful, hot springs, thermal waters and wildlife. I even saw a grizzly bear roaming the plains. The following two days I finished the park and drove through The Rockies. Again, extraordinary scenery where I climbed fantastic mountains some of which had snow on the summit but most were still clear. The trees had recently begun to take their seasonal complexion of rich autumnal reds, gold, amber and browns. It was great to see the tall trees hang over rivers and small brooks some of which glistened a petrol blue not because of pollution but rather showing off the quartz stone that lay on the river bed. As I reached the higher altitudes of the mountain range it was remarkable to see the clouds seemingly rest on the tree tops that I was driving alongside. Another 20-30 metres higher and I would have been totally in the clouds and not just my head! At this point I had to don my rain gear which doubles as a windbreaker as naturally the temperature cooled significantly. A small inconvenience for such an awesome experience. While these natural beauties made a deep impression so too did the motorbike ride itself.

Prior to this trip the bike ride which held the accolade for the most exhilarating was my 2001 trip through Italy, and especially the ride along the Amalfi coast from Sorrento to Almalfi itself. Man was this ride fun: climbing mountains, dipping over hills and weaving through s-shaped roads which was all fantastic and natures beauty only made it better. The ride back from the Crazy Horse monument to Bozeman was mostly after sun down. The first night time ride of the trip, as I prefer to do most of the travelling during daylight. This stretch of road is heavily illuminated with cats eyes, which provide a great view of road length and curves. In addition the satellite navigation also helps to indicate the depth of bends. With these as support on the pretty much-deserted road I was able to open up the bike. Speeds won’t be mentioned but there was a lot of hard breaking into corners, full acceleration on the way out while a constant view for animals was maintained as I did encounter three young deers crossing the road before I entered Sturgis. Wow, the adrenaline was pumping when I arrived back to the Inn.

I did temper the speeds when necessary and particularly in the Rockies where some bends were dangerously deep and I was fine with cars and an odd truck overtaking. I knew I’d get them on the straights. For the most part of the road west I stayed within speeds limits or indeed below simply to absorb the surrounds. I’ve also now figured out that if I wear a hooded top underneath my helmet I can listen to my IPOD while driving. For the benefit of non-bikers, its common to wear ear plugs while on long journeys as the noise caused by the wind resistance is very loud. It’d be louder than driving a car at 120kmph with all four windows open. So the experience of driving through the Rockies and Yellowstone Park was enhanced with great tracks from Arman van Burren and Bob Marley respectively and with respect. Although I did miss the steering wheel of my old car, which doubled as a percussion instrument as I beat along with the tunes. So instead of using my hands I had to settle for pumping my right foot against the rest and some occasional shouldering dipping action as I listened to great podcasts. BTW Sean – thanks again for the ITUNES download. There were a number of other smaller things, which struck me on the road trip.

On returning to a car park I noticed a large raven sitting on my passenger seat that not only had the audacity to do a large shit on my saddlebag but also pecked a hole in the backrest the size of a thumbnail. Naturally I shouted a number of expletives at the bird and was glad there where no families nearby. On the positive side another advantage to travelling this late in the season is the significant reduction in insects and bugs. Having said that, at the end of each day my helmet and leathers looked as if I was bulls-eye at a paintball range. Also, I encountered (and overtook) a huge number of motor homes. This was a regular sight in The Netherlands during July and August as the Dutchies drag their caravans (or Sleurhuts as they’re unaffectionately known) in convoy to France. In the States they don’t use the term caravans but trailers or recreational vehicles (RVs) instead. The former are similar to the European caravans but are slightly different as their clef-like front end creates space to be attached to a pickup truck. While it’s strange to see the RV’s often towing the family car; as intuitively it seems the wrong way around. I guess spotting all of these similarities; differences, intricacies and nuances are a great part of the learning, which this trip provides.

And actually, as I arrived in Vancouver I realised that each day of the past week was uniquely special and indeed different from the rest of the trip thus far. Sure I’ve had a great time up to that point but this was a slightly different feeling. I’d been to NYC and Chicago before and I could see a time in the normal course of my life that I could/would visit Canada. But never before did I think I’d ride my chopper through some of natures most astonishing sights on the planet, stand in front of Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, Old Faithful etc. It was practically a spiritual feeling.

What an awesome lifetime adventure this is, where I felt like quoting aloud (but didn’t) the great Fred Flintstone – YABADABADOO!

Al Dempsey

21 October 2010.