Eighteen days and 5,000 mile, to Seattle, Washington and back, sandwiched by a myriad of sights, sounds, smells, and adventure, and all on my 1998 Honda Magna. If I were in school, it would be one of those classic “Here’s-what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation” essays. It will be a summer trip I’ll treasure for a long time.
On the morning of July 8, Bill Brown, instructor for the motorcycle maintenance class at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kansas, Darren Marshall, who is a student in the class and also works in the computer technical support department at JCCC, and I, left the confines of Kansas City about 10 a.m. Destination? Spokane, Washington and the National BMW Motorcycle Rally.
Well, eventually. The rally was scheduled for July 15-17, so we had some days to fill.
Bill and Darren both ride BMWs. My purpose for tagging along was two-fold: 1) It was my first ever extended trip on a motorcycle, and 2) I knew I would be riding solo the second half of the trip, and needed to prove to myself, or maybe to my wife Terri, that taking part in next year’s 18th Annual Rolling Thunder during Memorial Day Weekend in Washington, D.C., would be a doable adventure.
My main concern was what I packed: Did I pack too much? Not enough? How would my motorcycle handle the extra load?
For this trip, I purchased three waterproof bags:
- A Lewis Creek large Watershed Duffel bag, 34x24x15 inches for $120. It has a zip seal, and is a bag used by the Navy Seals. For me, it would carry my tent, sleeping bag, small folding chair, mattress, and other items such as bug spray, hammer and batteries.
- A North Face Water Duffel bag for $80. It is 24x15x12 inches. In it I packed my clothes (four T-shirts, one collared shirt, two pairs of jeans, tennis shoes, personal care items, leather chaps, sweatshirt, a long sleeved shirt, underwear and socks).
- A waterproof boat bag, 14x10x8 inches, purchased at a local sporting goods store for $14. In it I packed my First Gear textile coat and overpants used for cool weather and rain, gloves and headbands.
In my saddlebags were tools, rags, chain lube, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, Rain-X, and cleaning products for leather, chrome, and the tank and fenders. Why the peroxide? Try it, you’ll be amazed at how easy it removes bugs from the windshield. Follow that up with the Rain-X, and you’ll have a clean, clear windshield.
In my tank bag, I packed my sunglasses, reading glasses, pens, and tire gauge.
In my windshield pouch, I packed two reporters notebooks in a sealed plastic bag to keep track of expenses and mileage, and to take notes during the trip. Also in a plastic bag, I kept trip receipts.
In my tool pouch, a plastic bag held items like Advil, vitamins, eye-cleaning solution, helmet shield defogger, lotion and sunscreen. There was also an extra doo rag and my regular glasses.
In my sissybar bag, which was attached to the North Face bag, were 10 CDs, Altoids, and toothpicks.
My daily riding gear consisted of T-shirt, Gericke mesh pants, Gericke mesh jacket, and Diadora Hurricane boots purchased from MotorcycleCloseouts.com.
I was extremely pleased with the boots and the mesh riding wear. The boots kept my feet dry in wet weather and warm during the cool temperatures, and there were some cool temperatures. The mesh gear was extremely comfortable, and when the temperatures plunged, switching the mesh jacket for the textile, and putting the overpants on over the mesh pants, kept me warm.
I used everything I had packed. The first nine days, we camped at KOA Campgrounds, and the final nine days, four nights were spent with my kids, and the other four nights in motels.
Four days into the trip, I settled on a procedure to load the gear onto my Magna, and used four six foot tie-downs, and four bungy chords to hold everything into place. The ultimate compliment came in Spokane during the BMW rally when, after I had broken camp and put everything in my bags, a man stopped by. He looked at the bags, looked at my bike, looked back at the bags and said, “All that going to fit on that motorcycle?”
“Yep,” I said. “It’s been fitting on there since Kansas City.”
“Well,” he said, and then scratched his chin, “You’re a better packer than me!”
And, aside from having to get a new chain three days into the trip, the Magna performed well, getting between 50 and 53 mpg despite the extra load. It was steady on the road; tightly handled mountain climbs, descents, and curves, and was steady in the wind.
Bill, Darren, and I had a basic plan for the trip:
Day 1 to Mitchell, S.D., and Corn Palace;
Day 2 to Rapid City by way of the Badlands and Wall;
Day 3 to Buffalo, Wy., by way of Mount Rushmore, Sturgis and Devil’s Tower;
Day 4 to Bozeman, Mont., by way of Yellowstone National Park;
Day 5 to Spokane, Wash., via some sight-seeing along the way;
Day 6 to Seattle and then on to Victoria, British Columbia;
Day 7 back to Spokane;
Day 8-9-10 at the national BMW rally;
Day 11 was to be when Bill and Darren would go on to Oregon and California, and I would break off through Idaho and Utah and head to Colorado.
So much for the best laid plans. I quickly learned you have to roll with the situations the trip deals you.
As we rolled off the highway exit to the Badlands, I heard my chain making a strange noise. That night in Rapid City, Bill noticed two bad links. At 9 a.m. the next morning, which was Saturday, while Darren rode to Mount Rushmore, Bill and I were at Rice Honda where I was hoping they had a new chain and could get it on quickly to get us back on the road.
The folks there were top notch and extremely professional. D.J. Lewellen got me in quickly and Pete Snyder had my old chain off and the new one on in just under an hour. My hat (or doo rag) is off to these guys. Although it caused me to miss riding through the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, I can’t complain about having to get a new chain. After all, I got 28,500 miles out of that old chain.
Heading out, we stopped in Sturgis and the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. It was worth the small admission fee to see this phenomenal display of motorcycles dating back to the earliest of years. The next scheduled stop was Devil’s Tower. We stopped in Sundance, Wyoming, to eat. In the café were two bikers. “We just came from there,” one of them said. “It was raining, the wind was blowing about 60 miles per hour, and it was lightning.” By the time we finished eating, the rain and wind were in Sundance, and that same biker was on the phone talking to friends still at Devil’s Tower. “Now it’s hailing there,” he told us.
We got back on the highway and headed towards Buffalo where we spent the night. There, we decided to skip Yellowstone and go to Bozeman to give us plenty of time to make it to Victoria, British Columbia and back to Spokane for the rally. But after breaking camp in Bozeman, Darren’s bike was lagging when he pushed down the throttle. At a gas station, he pulled the plugs and found one was cross-threaded. Bill went to a Checker’s auto store for a tool and was able to rethread the head. Then Darren found that a jet had come loose in his carburetor. Once that was fixed, the bike seemed to run much better, but Bill said the valves should be checked when we reached our next KOA in Spokane.
That night he adjusted the valves and it appeared Victoria was a go. The next morning, though, Bill’s odometer cable broke, and by the time he got a new cable and put it on, we were late getting on the road, causing us to scratch Victoria. But that was OK, because there was plenty of country to see, and plenty of things to do.
Throughout the 18-day trip, we saw some beautiful country, met and talked to a lot of people, and visited some interesting places. In Mitchell, South Dakota, the famed Corn Palace is made from every part of corn you can think of: the husk, the silk, the corn, and stalk. It’s all used to make mosaic pictures and designs on the exterior of the town’s small arena. It’s interesting to see, but I would rate it maybe two categories ahead of Kansas’ World’s Largest Prairie Dog near Colby.
The Badlands in South Dakota are amazing, and it wasn’t until we reached them that it felt as though we were finally out of Kansas. While in South Dakota, we had to stop in Sturgis. Even though we were too early for the town’s annual bike week, it was nice to stop and see where all the action takes place without the hassle of all the people and traffic jams. While there, we took in the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. It’s interesting to see how motorcycles have progressed over the years.
From Sturgis into Spokane, we traveled through all kinds of country: mountains, desserts, rich farmland, and lots of open range land for livestock. The temperatures varied from extreme heat to suddenly cooler temperatures, from pleasant nights, to downright cold nights (thank goodness I brought long johns!).
Traveling from Bozeman to Spokane, it reminded me of traveling along I-70 through Colorado, only without the traffic. It’s beautiful country, and we pulled off the road often to take pictures.
After Bill fixed his odometer cable in Spokane two days before the BMW rally, we headed towards the KOA at Ellensburg, which would be our home for the next two nights.
Don’t let anyone tell you that Washington State is all mountains. It’s not. Washington has just about every kind of climate possible: mountains, dessert, plains, rich farmland, and ocean beaches. It is one of the most diverse states I’ve been to over the years. From Ellensburg, we took a day trip north to a town called Leavenworth. Every building in the town is constructed in Bavarian style. There’s even a town coo-coo clock. In the city park, there’s a large May Pole, and many of the stores seem to be big into nutcrackers. There are big ones, little ones, and they depict hundreds of images, from a Wizard of Oz set to sports figures. Leavenworth even has a Nutcracker Museum, but it was closed the day we were there.
From Leavenworth, we went west to Seattle. What a beautiful ride through the mountains. In Seattle, we rode a Duck (the large vehicles that travel on land and in water, made famous in Branson, Missouri). The Ducks are next to the Seattle Space Needle. Seattle, our Duck driver told us, is doing its best to become a city known for its art. All the major businesses are into the art craze. A government building has a set of stairs on the outside of the building that go to nowhere as its art contribution. There’s a large troll keeping watch under one of the city’s road overpass. I was skeptical of riding the Duck, but have to admit it was informative. I was able to see a lot of the city, and the driver was extremely funny and entertaining. Riding the Duck is something I would recommend.
We didn’t have much time in Seattle, and were able to see just enough to make us want to go back. None of us enjoy riding in the dark, but the sun set on us halfway between Seattle and Ellensburg. It was good to get back to camp, and the sleeping bag felt pretty good.
The next morning was July 15, the start of the bike rally. It was mid-afternoon when we pulled back into Seattle and the Interstate Fairgrounds. By then, tenters had taken all the shaded areas. It was hot, humid, and after our camp had been set up, it was time to head to the vendors building and the air conditioning.
Over the two and a half days, I walked through the sea of tents, looked at thousands of motorcycles, bought a few things from the vendors, enjoyed the antique motorcycle show, and talked to a lot of people, including Carmine Mowbray and her two daughters, who had ridden to the rally from Polson, Montana.
One afternoon, we rode to downtown Spokane where we walked through Riverfront Park, which has an IMAX, a carrousel, miniature golf, lots of scenic walking paths and plenty of art objects.
By Saturday morning, I had seen and done just about everything I wanted to do at the rally, so I decided to break off from Bill and Darren and head south to see my two kids and granddaughter in Colorado. After an early morning ride to Mount Spokane (it’s a scenic ride to the top of a mountain, which is a ski area), I headed down Highway 195 that ran parallel to the Idaho border until I reached Lewiston. There I jumped on Highway 95 and arrived in Grangeville, Idaho where I decided to spend the night — in a motel. The hot shower and bed felt pretty good.
The next day, I took 95 to New Meadows, where I crossed the 45th Parallel (the halfway point between the North Pole and the Equator), and took Highway 55 to Boise and I-84 east through Twin Falls and Utah, stopping along the way for some sightseeing and food.
I stayed in Tremonton, Utah, and found out the Golden Spike National Historic Site was just 27 miles to the west. That’s the place where a golden spike was driven to connect the East and West coasts of the United States by rail. The place is near the town of Promontory, which is in the middle of nowhere. They wanted $7 to get in, but the gal only charged me $4 since I didn’t want to see the replica trains, which are on the site every day except Mondays, which is the day I was there. It was interesting to see where the event took place. There is a museum with many artifacts, but there’s only a replica of the golden spike. If you want to see the real one, you have to go to Utah State University where it is on display. It was an OK place to visit, but I’m not planning on ever going back.
I stopped in Salt Lake City and walked around Temple Square, where the Mormon Church and Tabernacle are located. There’s a lot of traffic and parking is a premium. Temple Square is the headquarters for the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and it is exquisitely maintained.
If you’re not a member of the Mormon Church, you’re not allowed inside the church, but visitors are allowed into the Tabernacle. After about an hour, I was ready to leave, and broke off of I-15 at Spanish Fork, taking Highway 6 south through Price and down to I-70. The ride was exceptionally, until about 20 miles north of I-70, where. I ran into winds gusting up to 50 and 60 mph all the way to the interstate. I was glad the road was somewhat desolate because I was being blown around pretty good.
Once I reached I-70 and headed east, and the wind was behind my back. At that point, life was good. It was short-lived, though, when I turned south on Highway 191 for Moab. For the first 10 miles I was being battered around by the wind, but once I reached the shelter of the large rock formations that surround Moab, the ride returned to normal.
Arches National Park is just north of Moab. I was up early the next morning and in the park by 6:30 a.m. It was a great time to ride through there. The sunrise brilliantly illuminated the many rock formations and there were few people in the park. It made for some great photos.
I came back, packed my bike and showered (yes, I stayed in a motel again) and headed towards I-70 via Highway 128, which follows the Colorado River. I highly recommend this road. Riders won’t be disappointed.
Five or so hours later, I was in Basalt, Colorade, visiting my son Rob, his wife Kerry, and my granddaughter Alexandra, who is four. I stayed two nights, told her some stories, read her some books, watched her take swim lessons, and then joined in and had a short, but great visit with my son and his family. Alexandra is now my “biker chick.”
On Thursday morning, July 22, it was time to head for my daughter Sherri’s home in Windsor, Colorado. I traveled Highway 82 through Aspen, up Independence Pass (there are some narrow curves that will make your heart beat fast, especially if you meet oncoming traffic) through Twin Lakes and into the historic mining town of Leadville.
Out of Leadville I took Highway 91 to I-70, east to Highway 40, and north to Granby and Highway 34. There was scattered rain along the way, but nothing serious. On Highway 34 past Grand Lake and heading into Rocky Mountain National Park, I noticed some pretty dark clouds in the mountains. I asked the park ranger if Trailridge Pass was OK. “Well,” he said, “we had to call out the snowplows about an hour ago to get the hail off the road, but I think you should be OK now. Just take it slow and you’ll be fine.” Famous last words!
The way up was cool, but at least sunny. However, as I reached the final curve to the summit, fog was coming over the highway. When I went around the curve, I was hit with heavy, wet fog. Visibility was maybe, 15 feet, and I was forced to raise my helmet shield about eye level. What felt like sleet pelted my face. All I could do was watch the yellow line in the middle of the road to see where I was going, and hope vehicles from both ways were being just as careful. About that time, a car with California license plates passed me and nearly hit a car head on.
I was cold, I was tense, I was focused, and I kept thinking two things: 1) I wished I had gone up the east side of the mountain range, and 2) I would be glad to get down and back into the sunshine. The sunshine never came. The fog and rain stayed with me all the way into Estes Park where I stopped to get some hot chocolate, get warm, and to buy a sweatshirt to help keep me warm. I called my daughter Sherri and asked her if it was raining at her house in Windsor.
“Nope,” she said. I sighed with relief.
“At least not yet,” she said.
I looked up and yelled, “Give me a break!”
It was two days before I saw the sun again. A freak cold from Canada had moved in with Artic air, creating an updraft in the Eastern Plains of Colorado, and blowing up the mountains. I enjoyed my stay with Sherri, her husband Ceri, who is from Wales, and his brother and family, Geraint, Carol, and their daughters Eva and Becca. We spent, Friday in Denver at an aquarium called Oceans Journey.
On Saturday morning, I was on the road, under cloudy skies, through fog, rain, gusty winds and temperatures in the mid-50s. If someone would have told me I would be wearing weather clothing through Kansas during the heart of the summer, I would have bet the farm against that happening. I’m glad I’m not a betting man.
When I left my daughter, my plan was to reach Wakeeney, but despite the strange traveling conditions, I made good time. So good, my plan changed and my goal became Salina. Just before Russell, I went through another bout with fog, rain and wind, and at that point, staying the night in Russell seemed like a great idea. After getting my room, I walked across the street to Meridy’s Restaurant. I was waiting at the counter to put my name on the waiting list when, “Chuck Kurtz! What are you doing in Russell, Kansas?” I looked up and it was Gene Michaelis, a former head football coach at Gardner-Edgerton High School. I had met him years earlier when I was the sports editor for The Olathe Daily News. I told him about my trip. He was there for an all-school reunion. What a small world!
The next morning, the sun finally broke through, but the temperature remained in the mid-50s. I rolled out of Russell about 8:30 a.m. and four hours later, pulled into my driveway in Olathe, Kansas.
“How was the trip?” my wife Terri asked.
“Great,” I said.
“Did you get this out of your system?” she asked.
I laughed. “I’m ready to go again,” I said.
I’m counting down the days to next year’s Rolling Thunder ride to Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day Weekend. I have the machine, I have the confidence, and I can do it.
If anyone wants to join me, send me an e-mail.
Story and photos by Chuck Kurtz