Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Is it Airconditioned?

When your tired bones are accustomed to ninety degree heat, two hundred forty miles of gusty, rainy fifty degree air feels like a long, long ride.

I had planned to ride US97 north then beautiful WA20 from Winthrop across the Cascades to Sedro-Wooley. From there WA9 wanders up to the border, a perfect finish to a great ride. But it was forty degrees and raining with criminal intent on Washington Pass. No thanks.

So I took I90 from Ellensburg, struggling to stay out of the way of legions of semis and distracted Seattleites heading home from the long weekend, everyone weather-grumpy and jonesing for a cup of Starbucks adjectives.

Grace and I were a rolling speed bump again, even through the rough, rutted road construction just below Snoqualmie Pass, where the game seemed to be "let's tailgate the pilot car, maybe he'll go faster."

The Marysville McDonald's was a chance to warm up with a coffee but their airconditioning was malfunctioning so I drank my cup standing outside under the dripping eave, where it was warmer.

The northbound border lineup was over an hour and I had to cut across two lanes of traffic to park at US Customs to export the bike. One driver gave me the finger as I crept past his front bumper. Welcome home. The Export Office closes at 3:30. I got there at 3:20.

With Grace's title stamped, I edged my way to the front of the hour-long lineup. I tried puppy eyes on the closest driver but he was unmoved, probably a cat person. Two damp customs officers were directing traffic and the closest one stopped traffic and waved me right up to an open booth. As I passed him he called out "Nice bike!" Clearly, a rider.

I stood at the counter shivering and rubbing my cold, aching hands together (I'm spoiled by heated grips!) as the young CBSA officer processed my inbound paperwork. He looked irritated by the little puddle of runoff that had dripped onto the counter from my jacket.

He was young and muscly, with some dark, menacing tattoos running down his forearms, very, very serious. And he was serious when he asked me "Is it airconditioned?".

Right there in mid-shiver, mid-drip, I did the one thing you should never do when an armed customs officer asks you a question - I burst out laughing.

The essence of humor is surprise, the unexpected. He didn't expect me to laugh, he was definitely surprised but what ensued was a very un-funny, strained second or two with both of us just looking at each other. Awkward. Very awkward.

Before he had a chance to press the hidden button under the counter I got appropriately serious and explained "It's a motorcycle," adding "and today, it's very airconditioned." He laughed a relieved laugh, stamped the yellow import form and I was officially home.

It has taken me six days covering 2235 miles to wander half way across the country on a motorcycle older than most of the people I met along the way. It's been a wonderful journey, a mile a minute wander on narrow roads across a broad land and back through time. Thanks for keeping me company!

Don't be fooled by the "chilled road kill" look - it was an amazing odyssey!

Special thanks to: Christiana Czarnowski at Courage Center in Minneapolis (http://couragecenter.org/) for letting her husband Aric know about this bike, and to Aric for telling the rest of us. Thanks also to all the members of the Airhead Beemers Club and mailing list members who offered their expertise, time, tools, garages and couches along the road. To Oak, thanks for generously sharing your encyclopedic knowledge of /5 drivelines - without your help, I'd still be in a hot motel parking lot beating Grace with a fence post.

And my most heartfelt thanks to Tom Dickinson for taking such good care of Grace for the last thirty seven years. Tom, I promise I'll take good care of your "baby"!

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Mile a Minute

 I have a clear memory, from when I was about five, of driving with my Dad in our '49 Ford pickup. We turned off the gravel road onto the paved highway, probably headed into town from his old home place, and he gently let that old truck have some rein. The windows were down and the truck smelled like a sunny warm mixture of grain and grease and oil and tobacco and horsehair upholstery.

After a couple of minutes he pointed to the ivory face of the speedometer and said, almost reverently, "We're going 60 miles an hour. That's a mile a minute." I don't know why that moment has stayed with me so clearly. For him, there was something special about going that fast - a mile a minute - and so it became magic to me.

Years later when I flew for a living, a mile a minute became three, then four, then five miles a minute as I worked my way up the line into bigger, faster airplanes. But these were just variations on a theme I learned in that '49 Ford.

And so it's been again on this ride. A mile a minute is the perfect pace for my new friend "Grace". That's the name she's chosen for herself. A mile a minute: a smooth, easy, ticket-proof pace, just right for being awed by the scenery, just right for riding all those 40 mph curves with no need to brake or downshift or do anything to kill the mood.

A perfect match, too, for my love of old two-lane backroads. We did try (or rather, were forced to try because of geography) some time on I90. It was awful. Grace and I were a rolling speed bump as Montana ranchers blew past us in their 400 hp diesel pickups pulling four-horse slant trailers, adding a solid 15 mph to the posted 75 limit. Deer Lodge to Missoula was our limit and we turned south to Lolo to pick up the Lolo Highway, the original US 12 west to Lewiston, ID. 
Such a hardship.
US 12 runs about 300 curving, wildly scenic miles from Lolo, MT to Walla Walla, WA. The pavement is rough in places, bearing the scars of hard winters and rough maintenance but the road is well engineered. At a mile a minute, there's no need to slow for any but a handful of corners and all the time in the world to be awed by the Clearwater River as it carves its way to Lewiston and its confluence with the Snake River.

On the Washington side of the Snake River west of Lewiston ID / Clarkston WA the road wanders through the valleys of the Blue Mountain region of southeastern Washington. The hills flanking the road are soft, gentle, almost sensous in the warm twilight. Farmland has never looked so fine.

At a mile a minute, I had five hours to enjoy this organic old road as it wandered through an under-appreciated corner of the northwest. I savored every minute of it.

Our mile a minute pace took Grace and I from Deer Lodge, MT to Ellensburg, WA today, a bit shy of 600 miles. I have no idea where those miles went, or where they came from. But we did it, somehow, our shadow chasing us for hours, right up to the motel door, drawn first by the setting sun and then the rising near-full moon.

Home is a day away now, two hundred forty miles, two hundred forty minutes at a mile a minute.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Happy Canada Day!

Today is the day we Canadians celebrate our nation and reflect on what it means to be a Canuck. 

We're a different bunch, apologetically polite, fairly neat, conservative and quiet. We make good houseguests and great neighbors (you're welcome, USA!). 

I don't have a flag to wave today as I ride west from Deer Lodge but I'll sing a round  or two of Oh Canada (the original version) at the top of my lungs as I roll down I90. 

And I'm going to ask for Canadian bacon with my breakfast. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Personal Baggage

I was following a Harley rider down the switchbacks on the west side of the ridge on the Chief Joseph Highway earlier today. While the popping and banging from his too loud exhaust was annoying (I guess the dealer didn't explain he'd need to enrichen the mixture to compensate for the exhaust change), I felt sorry for him: the poor guy was having a hard time wrestling that bike around the 20 mph corners.

The seat/bar arrangement on that heavy black bike forced him to ride with his arms straight out, elbows locked, limiting his ability to steer. But compounding his cornering problems was the stack of big black duffels he had bungeed to what I assumed was a luggage rack behind the (empty) passenger seat. I was close enough to see that each time he flopped the hog into a corner, the duffels would shift, causing a bobble that forced him to correct, which caused them to shift again. There are probably 30 switchbacks on that road; thankfully, he waved me past after a half dozen or so. It was painful to watch and I was glad to be in front of him.

A surprisingly large percentage of riders that I see pack this way. They pack big, loose bags, tents, sleeping bags, coolers and gas containers in a precarious pile, way out behind the axle and up high, then hold it all together with a hopeful but doomed combination of bungee cords and cargo nets. These loads compromise the bikes' stability and safety and violate the three rules of packing: light, tight and low. And they make riding stressful, when it should be relaxing.

I ran into the Harley rider later on in Cooke City, Montana. He was repacking his bike, treacherously stretching those deadly bungees to their limits and cursing. Ironically, I had ended up in Cooke City instead of Red Lodge because of my personal baggage.

The Chief Joseph Highway (Wyoming 269) runs about 50 miles from a few miles north of Cody, WY up to US212 just west of Beartooth Pass. It climbs from about 4000' near Cody to nearly 8000' at the 212 junction and leads you through a breathtaking mix of high plains and mountain terrain, all on curvaceous, well engineered but slightly winter-beaten roads. Traffic was light today, compromised only by a truck convoy of firefighters rushing to assist with a blaze near the Yellowstone gates.

Looking SE toward Cody from the east ridge on the Chief Joe.
(click on the image for a bigger version)
I had originally planned to ride the Chief Joe (as it's known locally) up to 212 and then cross Beartooth Pass to Red Lodge, where I'd pick up Montana 75 for a backroads amble up to the inevitable purgatory of I90. When I got to the Chief Joe / 212 junction I stopped for some water and a few Sour Patch candies. I had been standing there a few minutes, stretching, drinking water and scenery when a big gust of tired swept over me. I realized in an instant that I was exhausted, it was time to turn for home.

My kidney disease had caught up with me. With declining kidney function, I tire easily because my kidneys can't filter metabolic byproducts out of my blood. The byproducts build up in my tissues and, over time, I build up a good stock of "tired". The problem is worse in the heat, when hydration is critical but hard to manage because my body's fluid management system is compromised. I'd worn myself out on this ride.

And so I road to Cooke City, voted "the coolest small town in America" for 2012. Cooke City is always busy with bikers stopping to relive the excitement of Beartooth Pass over a cold one or grabbing grub before the ride through Yellowstone. Today was no exception and I had a large audience for my parking demonstration.

In my defence, Cooke City streets are a tough place to park a motorcycle. There's a kind of a ditch about eight feet wide between the sidewalk and the streets' edge, probably designed for drainage but whose practical use is as an entertainment venue.

This bike is hard to park in tight spaces: I can't turn the bars very far without hitting the tank bag with either the horn button (wheezy beep) or the starter button (horrid grinding crunch). So it took lots of duck waddling in constipated little arcs to get the bike lined up for the narrow slot between $60,000 worth of glistening baggers. To complicate this, at 7650' elevation, the R75 won't idle. In spite of trying to hold the stiff throttle steady while I wrangled the bars, I stalled twice. Traffic on the town's only street was starting to back up.

The final indignity was my closing act. To park in the "ditch", you let your bike roll gently backwards down into the low spot, stop gracefully and dismount. What I did was demonstrate to all the bikers that a 40 year old twin leading shoe drum front brake has almost no stopping power going backwards. I rolled right through the low spot, up the back slope and stopped by bashing the elegant Calafia tail trunk inelegantly into the restaurant's deck railing.

As I dismounted I shot the crowd my "I meant to do that" look, something I learned from a cat I used to have who regularly misjudged his attempts to jump onto my desk and ended up sliding across the desk, off the other edge, and back onto the floor.

The Beartooth Cafe lived up to its reputation for great food and, feeling a little less wrecked, I rode west toward Yellowstone.

I try to avoid Yellowstone in the busy part of the summer because it can often be one long traffic jam. The Wyoming trooper who'd pulled me over earlier had said that traffic was down this year and he was right. Once through the gates, there were only a few other cars (and surprisingly few bikes) on the narrow road. For long stretches, I felt like I had the park to myself.

Roadside Attraction, Yellowstone style.
Yellowstone's grandeur is legendary. There is so much nature, so close, on such a large scale that it is simultaneously humbling and exhilarating and peaceful. It was a beautiful ride across the north road out to Gardiner, generous compensation for the sadness of turning reluctantly for home. 

The north park gate at Gardiner.
Yellowstone was established in 1872.
It is the oldest national park in the world.


Passing through Basin about an hour ago the old silver Beemer and I celebrated our milliversary: one thousand miles together. Basin was deserted so no one caught the celebratory, slightly wheezy horn honks that marked the occasion. ("install horn relay" added to list)

I thought of sharing the tidings with the state trooper who pulled me over a few miles later but we got so busy talking hockey (he's not impressed with the Canucks either) that I forgot to tell him and he forgot to write me up for riding with my headlight off. It was a fair trade. 

In Cody now for gas, coffee and free WiFi before tackling the Chief Joseph Highway and towering Beartooth Pass. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Loyal Subjects

Half way between Buffalo and the crest of the Powder River Pass the tachometer decided to start its second career as a metronome. I made a mental note to add "overhaul speedometer" to the growing list of things that need fixing, replacing, adjusting, tuning. cleaning and polishing on this bike. It's a long list.

But the list length has nothing to do with this particular bike's age (old) or its mileage (low). In fact, every bike I've ever owned has had a similarly long list, from the day I buy it to the day I sell it. On the few occasions when I've bought a brand new bike, the list starts forming spontaneously in my head as soon as I sit on it to ride it home.

Truly passionate riders are indentured slaves to our bikes, pledging fealty, tithing way more than the requisite 10%, ritually sacrificing precious spare hours on the altar of our passion for motorcycling. We all have different reasons; I do it for trips like this, for the chance to rescue a fine motorcycle and bring it back to Sunday-go-to-meeting spiff.

I visited Devil's Tower today, something I've always wanted to do. I left Sturgis at 2:30, a very late start (again) and backtracked to Newell, then west to Belle Fourche. As soon as SD34 became WY24, the bikers' deity said "Let there be Curves". And it was good.

Good in a challenging way: the /5 really showed its age on those first few bumpy sweepers. The forks have less oil than a baked potato and the springs, after shouldering that Vetter since October 15 1975 (I have the receipt), were just too tired to care. The age-hardened Metzelers were bamboozled by the melted, slippery tar snakes and the back shocks just closed their eyes and held on. 

A healthy crank or six on the steering damper corralled the rubber cow and a bit of trailing brake tamed the obscene front end dive on turn in. We figured it out, that old bike and me, and actually had some drunken, stumbling, toe-stubbing fun on the first curves we'd seen in 700 miles.

I could see Devil's Tower from miles away and it looked just like it does in all the pictures. I stopped and took a picture:

To tell the truth, I was underwhelmed. And I'm still wondering why. It's a spectacle, to be sure. But it's just one in a never-ending diorama of wonders that we experience on rides like this one. There is so much profound beauty that I think I prefer the unsung vistas, the places that aren't National Monuments or Parks.

US16 westbound from Buffalo is an unsung treasure, a near-perfect mix of riders' roads and scenery that runs the spectrum from sweeping high plains panoramas to narrow, ochre-tinged box canyons glowing like campfire embers with the last rays of the setting sun.

What a ride today, what untold riches, my reward for being a lifelong faithful servant to this fickle and demanding two-wheeled monarchy.

Sturgis to Worland, 340 miles.

Quiet as a Churchmouse

Serendipitously all the Harley guys left at the same time as I wandered back from breakfast, which was also when a useable patch of shade had melted into a BMW-sized puddle under the Super8's entryway.

The first job was to drop the float bowls and see what surprises might be in there. Both bowls were clean and had a measured fuel depth of 24 mm. Darn near perfect! For now, I'll assume the left carb is dripping because it needs a new float needle. I may replace them in Cody. I'm averaging 52 mpg so I don't think the carbs need much tending.

With two float bowls worth of gas in my Super8 coffee cup parts washer, I started on the clutch throw out bearing.

To my relief, everything looked as it should: good coating of oil on the bearing and bearing face of the thrust piston, healthy seal on the piston, no signs of overheating or unusual wear.

Super Lube Silcone Grease:
Don't leave home without it!
I cleaned and lubricated everything, reassembled it and adjusted the clutch (again!). I've no idea why I was getting a squeak every third or fourth clutch engagement but at least now I'm not going to worry about the throw out bearing.

I'm next door to the Sturgis BMW dealer where I'll mooch a squirt of grease for the clutch arm zerk and buy a new cotter pin.

After a quick lunch I'll head to Cody via Devil's Tower.