In October of 2004, three former crew mates of the Submarine Permit SSN 594 decided to begin riding together (See Cycle Connections Veteran Riders 2/1/2007, and H.D. Enthusiast, Winter 2007, pp 8). Since then we have expanded our group somewhat to include riders that served in other branches of the service, but all happen to be veterans of Viet Nam. This June, six of us, the original three submarine sailors; Danny Smith from Buckner Arkansas, John Nisbet from League City Texas, and Tom Berry from Parkville Missouri, were joined by Jim Farris, former Army Special Forces, Bob Burdiss, former 1st Air Calvary, both from Parkville Missouri, and Mike Power, a former Marine from Loveland, Colorado.
The ride began after Danny and John made the trip to Parkville from their homes in Arkansas and Texas. We left Friday, June 15th about 0800 and rode 630 miles to Torrington, Wyoming where we met Mike. Mike and John had worked together in the ‘70s after getting out of the service. During the ride to Torrington we had excellent weather, the motorcycles performed well, and we had no problems. Mike had gotten there first and secured rooms at the Maverick Motel, a very basic, motorcycle friendly place; just what we were looking for. After a good meal at a local beanery, we retired to chairs on the porch of the motel, good company, good conversation, and good beverages; setting the precedent for how most of our evenings on this trip would be spent.
Saturday the 16th, after having breakfast, we set out through Wyoming. Our route took us through the Wind River Canyon along side the Wind River. This was a beautiful ride through high desert and low mountains with a stop at the Wolf Creek store for a beer, some pictures, and a closer look at the Wind River. It never ceases to amaze us how people journeyed through country like this during the early years of our nation. After the Wind River Canyon we encountered some cloud rain as we went higher into the mountains. We kept thinking we were about to ride out of it and so pressed on without stopping to put on rain gear. By this time we were wet and so we just kept going until we were out of it. We made a short stop to dry out and got back on the road to Cody, arriving there late afternoon. There seemed to be no rooms available there so Danny got on the phone and secured three cabins at the KOA Campground in Greybull about 50 miles East of Cody. Dinner was at a restaurant at the KOA Campground and was quite good. After dinner during our sit, talk and have a drink session Danny suggested that we had been making good time so far and since we were close to Yellowstone it would be a shame not to ride through the park. Everyone agreed and the plan for tomorrow was on.
Sunday the 17th, Fathers Day, was one I will not soon forget. Breakfast at the KOA Campground was good. Four of us reorganized our gear a little and just hung out while Jim and Bob went to Mass. We met them at a gas station across from the church and after fueling the bikes headed out towards Cody and northwest into Yellowstone. The route took us across US 14 and the Grand Loop Road along side of Lake Yellowstone where we saw steam rising from fissures along the lake shore and bubbling from mud in low areas. The country was amazing and beautiful, and the weather was deteriorating rapidly. Before exiting the park we rode in rain, sleet, hail, and snow. The scenery combined with the harsh weather and the reality of actually being in it, not just looking at it, made Yellowstone an unforgettable experience. We left Yellowstone on US 212 / WY 296 and headed for Cody via the Chief Joseph Highway, another unforgettable experience.
The Chief Joseph Highway is about a forty-six mile ride that goes to 8000 ft. at Dead Indian Summit. The weather moderated a little and the precipitation stopped, although it remained pretty cool and damp. After a stop at Dead Indian Summit we headed down the switch backs toward Cody. The weather got warmer and the winds increased in the afternoon as we went on toward Cody. A few miles from Cody there is a three to four mile straight flat stretch of road where we encountered what we would learn later were fifty to sixty mile per hour winds. Bob was riding next to last and he and his Road King were blown off the road and the windshield was blown off his bike. He went into the ditch but did not go down, although it looked to John, riding behind him that he was down. John radioed the incident to those in front. Jim and I slowed to turn around and go back. While turning around the wind blew both of our motorcycles over. Mike got stopped but it was all he could do to keep it upright, even with it leaning on the kick stand. Danny came upon this scene and thought we must have somehow run into each other. We told him that we were ok, no damage done as the bikes had only gone onto the crash bars and highway pegs at no speed, and to go check on Bob. When Danny tried to turn around the wind blew his bike over also. Bob got back up onto the road with John’s help and the help of a very good Samaritan with a flat bed truck. They had used the truck as a wind block to get the bikes up and going and he drove along side the motorcycles until we got enough speed up to proceed. We used this same method with each of the motorcycles in turn and were able to ride about a mile into a more protected area where the road ran in a different direction. The guy with the flat bed pick-up followed us into Cody to the Sun Set Motel. Shamefully, I never did learn his name. We offered to take him to dinner and all manners of things for the invaluable assistance he had offered, but he refused. All I know about him is that he runs the local co-op there and is also a volunteer fireman. With few exceptions, his friendly manner was typical of all of the people we met in that area. After dinner at Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel we settled in about 10:30 PM. The incident in the high wind now caused a slight change in plans. Danny had broken a clutch lever when his bike was blown over and a brake lever getting it back up so we decided to head for Beartooth Harley Davidson in Billings, Montana next; it was not far out of the way. It was quite a day!
Monday, the18th, we set out back tracking over the beautiful Chief Joseph Highway in much improved weather through the Shoshone and Custer national forests and headed for US 212 and Beartooth Pass. The ride across Beartooth was great. It is listed in the ten top scenic rides in the United States. Our weather was pretty good, partly cloudy with steadily falling temperatures all the way to the 11,000 ft summit, far above the tree line. By the time we reached the East Summit the temperature was 35 degrees and there were patches of snow and ice still on the road. When we stopped for pictures on the road at the East Summit everyone expressed a little concern about the road conditions, but we decided we would just press on. By the time we stopped at the overlook at the West Summit the road conditions had improved and as we descended toward Red Lodge Montana, the temperature began to rise. One of the cool things about this whole trip was how fast you needed to go from tee shirts to leathers and back again in so many different places. In Red Lodge we ate great breakfast at a local café on Broadway. The topic of discussion was the rear brakes on Danny’s Ultra. On the way down from Beartooth, his rear break pedal had gone to the floorboard. We carefully inspected it and could find no leakage or anything apparently wrong. A visit to a motorcycle shop was definitely in order. At Bone Daddy’s Custom Cycles, just up the street from the café, we learned from a very accommodating mechanic named Dan that we had just encountered a problem common to low land motorcycle riders. If you have a very small amount of air in your brake system at elevations like the ones where we live, the brakes may function ok, although not at their best, but when you get to the altitudes we had been riding in, the problem is very much exaggerated. The brakes were quickly bled and we were once again on our way. We headed out for Beartooth Harley in Billings for parts, and for Great Falls, Montana riding through beautiful country heading North on Montana 3 and US 87 to Great Falls, arriving there about 6:00 PM. We secured rooms at the local Super 8, had dinner, and discussed the days ride as had become the custom.
On Tuesday morning, the19th, after having breakfast at JB’s Café we returned to the motel to pack the bikes. Bob noticed that his new rear tire had no tread left on it. A closer inspection revealed that when he had new tires installed the front was put on the back and the back on the front. Fortunately there was a Harley Dealer in Great Falls. That, coupled with a phone call to the dealer who had made the mistake mounting the first set of tires, solved the problem but held us up for about four hours. Before we left on the trip we set some goals. They were: the Chief Joseph Highway, Beartooth Pass, and the big one was The Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park. Phone calls to the recorded message regarding road conditions in Glacier told us that the Logan Pass area of the Going to the Sun Highway was still closed from avalanches in November of 2006 but that the road was open sixteen miles in from the East side and twenty-nine miles in from the West side. Our necessary stop in Billings put us in a better position to head in from the East side first so we pointed the bikes north toward Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet reservation and very close to Glacier National Park. The Going to the Sun highway was now within reach, but we did not think that we would reach it that day. A good ride through more beautiful scenery put us into Browning in time to get something to eat at the local casino and get rooms at The Western Motel, a very Harley friendly place. When we inquired about rates for double rooms we were told that they were normally $100.00, if you were riding a Honda they were $125.00, but if you were on a Harley they were $70.00. We went for it. That done, it appeared that we had enough daylight left to go on to the Going to the Sun Highway and return to the motel before dark. Once again we were on the road. The Going to the Sun Highway was now in reach and turned out to be one of the most, if not the most, beautifully scenic roads that I have ever seen in my life. Grandeur is the only word that comes to mind at the moment. When we returned to Browning, the little Blackfeet Indian Reservation town had rolled up the sidewalks and there was no place open to eat. The problem was solved with a trip to the grocery store. Ham and cheese sandwiches on the front porch of the Western Motel were just the thing we needed. That was good because we had a chance to share with each other our feelings about what we had just seen. The exceptional ride, scenery, and good weather put all six of us in great spirits. The motel owner told us that the West side was even more beautiful than the East. We decided then and there that no matter what we had to cut out of the rest of the trip, we would leave early the next morning and head for the West entrance to the Road to the Sun.
Wednesday morning, the 20th, we fueled up early and set out on US 2 around the South end of Glacier National Park. We stopped in East Glacier for another of what we now call Montana breakfasts. All of the restaurants and cafes we stopped at seemed bent on overfeeding us. I don’t think we had a meal we could complain about on the entire trip. After encountering some road construction, which included some un paved sections, on US 2 we rode through West Glacier and onto the twenty-nine open miles on the West side of the Going to the Sun Highway. Last night’s decision had been a good one. We rode beside Lake McDonald, the fast running rivers and creeks that feed it, and the waterfalls that feed them. At one point, we passed a waterfall down a shear rock face that was the side of the road. We could not help getting wet. We rode up marking places to stop for pictures on the way back down. Those places were numerous. After all of the photos and just plain sight seeing stops on the way down, we stopped in West Glacier for lunch, to talk over what we had just seen, and to decide on a how to get back to our original route. We went south on Montana 83 and Montana 200 to I-90 near Missoula and headed for the Black Hills and the Spearfish / Sturgis area. At Drummond, Danny’s shift linkage came loose and we pulled off of the interstate into the tiny town of Drummond to deal with that. The sky turned black and we could see storms all around so while we tightened up the linkage, a couple of the guys went across the street to a little motel and got rooms for all of us. Once again it was ham and cheese sandwiches at the motel.
Thursday, the 21st, it was the Bull’s End Café for another good breakfast. We planned on riding to Spearfish, South Dakota and staying there but John said that he had never been to Sturgis, and even though it wasn’t rally time, he wanted to stay there. The weather was good and I-90 was a fairly scenic interstate highway so we rode on to near Hardin, Montana where we stopped for lunch, and where Mike left us to go explore the Little Big Horn battle site on his own. After that, it was on to Sturgis for the night and to ride through town and marvel at what a normal small town it is when the rally is not going on.
Friday, the 22nd, we headed back up I-90 to Spearfish where we took SD 14a South through Spearfish Canyon and around to Lead for gas, then to Deadwood where we stopped for lunch, and to explore the town a little more than previous visits had allowed. After leaving Deadwood, it was south on US 385 through the Black Hills National Forest into Nebraska and to Alliance for the night. Once again we found a good inexpensive motel, the West Way Motel, to be very biker friendly. We found a good local restaurant just down the street for dinner and the evening was completed with the now familiar routine of sitting around the motel and discussing the trip over a drink.
Saturday, the 23rd, was a long day as we rode the rest of the way back to Parkville. The ride east across NE 2, Nebraska’s scenic highway was a sharp contrast to the high mountains we had been riding in, but the rolling Nebraska sand hills are also quite pretty. If you have not ridden NE 2 before and plan to do so, you need to plan your gas stops carefully. West of the Lincoln area, gas stations can be few and far between. Weather was good for our last day on the trip, traffic was light, and we just sat back and cruised. We made the last gas stop at Nebraska City before turning South on I-29. I think that everyone was a little sorry that the adventure was coming to a close. From my house in Parkville, we rode a little over 3800 miles in a great deal of the most beautiful country that can be imagined.
Sunday, the 24th, Danny, and then John, set out their separate ways for their homes in Arkansas and Texas. By the time they completed their rides home, they rode close to 5500 miles. If there is a better way for friends to become close friends than going together on a trip like our ride to the Road to the Sun I do not know what it would be.
By Tom Berry