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.