2015 Iron Butt Rally starting

It is usually quite entertaining and interesting to read the daily reports from this biennial long-distance motorcycle riding competition.

Motorcycle trip log

On our most recent trip to Wisconsin, instead of flying or driving, I decided to travel by motorcycle (Kay went by plane). I did this partly for the challenge, and partly for the opportunity to ride through parts of the country I’d never seen before. What follows are some notes and pictures from this trip.

Friday, September 7, 2007

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That’s me, leaving Austin, Texas for Wisconsin. The bike is a 1993 BMW K75S with about 47,000 miles on the odometer.

There is a book named “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. The author decides to hike the Appalachian Trail and fastidiously prepares and trains for the hike. He then invites his “gloriously out-of-shape” and unprepared buddy to hike the trail with him. At the start of this trip, I feel a little like his unprepared buddy. I had the bike disassembled for most of the past few weeks for the infamous “clutch spline lube” and that job took longer than I’d hoped, leaving me without the chance to make some practice trips and work out any problems. I’ve ridden it for only ten or fifteen miles since then, just enough to make sure it’s not obviously broken. I’m also wearing some new and untested riding gear. I was clearly in violation of long-distance riding rule #5: “Avoid adding accessories or doing maintenance immediately before a trip.”

I packed a fairly comprehensive tool kit, including a small air compressor, replacement bulbs, fuel line, schematic diagrams and wire, spark plugs, etc. This occupies the entire under-seat storage, most of one saddlebag, and the lower half the tank bag. The upper half of the tank bag holds a half dozen energy bars, trail mix, and a camera. Clothes are packed into the other saddlebag, and in the fairing are four bottles of water. With respect to what I’m carrying, I feel fairly well prepared. I’m most concerned about my own stamina and the possibility of mechanical failure.

The skies are partly cloudy and it looks like there may be rain on the horizon in a few spots. The forecast calls for a high temperature of 97 degrees (F).

I ride Highway 21 through the “Lost Pines” forest around Bastrop and up to Caldwell. The land is flatter here, but it’s still mostly grasses and small live oak trees like we have at home.

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From Caldwell I zig-zag up Highway 36 to Highway 79, which runs northeast across the eastern half of Texas. We had a very wet year in Austin, and it looks the same in this region – there are many pastures which are very green and full of freshly-baled hay. It’s very hot, and I’m wearing leather gloves, an armored jacket and pants, boots, and a helmet. But the traffic is light and the countryside is nice to look at, so I’m enjoying the ride.

Approaching Palestine the land turns more forested, with pine trees similar to Bastrop. Palestine itself is full of cars blasting loud, crappy music and I’m happy to leave it behind. After Palestine, the trees turn more deciduous, and they’re getting taller – almost midwest height. At Henderson I turn north on Highway 259. I’m going to stay on that road well into Oklahoma so I can see the Ouachita National Forest.

From Henderson to Longview there are some nice pine forests. There are some logging trucks carrying felled pines but I can’t see evidence of logging from the road. The heat is nearly unbearable. The scenery is very interesting, though. North of Longview, I ride through sparse and scrubby woods, forests of deciduous trees, swamps, then rolling pastures. In the pastures, there are cows and cowbirds; in the swamps, egrets and blooming lily pads.

At 6PM I finally cross the border into Oklahoma. I should have stopped for a water break before crossing the border, and the heat and vibration are starting to take a toll on me. For many miles, there is no shoulder on the highway and the intersecting roads are all gravel, so there’s nowhere to stop for a rest. Finally, I stop at a very nice little gas station and general store, have a cold drink, and chat with a curious customer about the trip I’m taking. I’m proud to have made it out of Texas in one day, so I took a picture. Please note, these are Oklahoma cows.

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The GPS tells me there are hotels up ahead in Idabel and Broken Bow, OK. I miss a turn and end up in downtown Idabel, which looks partly abandoned. Back on the south bypass, I’m surprised to see upscale houses and a country club. It seems odd that there would be “urban flight” in such a small town. I stop for the night at Broken Bow, across from a busy Choctaw casino.

There’s rain in the forecast for tomorrow, which worries me. I have a rain suit but was hoping not to need it.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

It’s dry when I wake up, but the radar shows that rain is moving in. I get on the road quickly to make some time while I can, but decide to ride the small loop (Highway 259A) to see Broken Bow Lake. This area is beautiful. I’d like to re-visit this park with Kay and our kayaks sometime.

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Continuing north into the Ouachita (“WASH-i-taw”) National Forest, it’s just as pretty and surprisingly empty. I ride for about thirty minutes through what may be the most beautiful scenery in the south-central US without seeing a single other vehicle.

I took another side trip onto Highway 1, the Talimena Scenic Drive. The road travels up and down the hills and has overlooks with views reminiscent of the Smoky Mountains.

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I still can’t believe how few people I saw in this park. It’s a beautiful, quiet place.

I put my rain gear on in the anticipation of rain (rule #18) and continue north on Highway 59. At Fort Smith, Arkansas, I call Kay and she tells me that the rain covers my planned route on Highway 71 north through Arkansas and Missouri. She suggests I detour west and then north in order to avoid the largest storms. There are smaller storms to the west, so there’s no avoiding the rain today. I ride west on Interstate 40 and the sky ahead is very dark, with a lot of cloud-to-ground lightning. I pull into a rest stop next to a pair of touring Harleys. There is a camaraderie among motorcyclists, particularly long-distance touring riders. These two are riding from Florida to South Dakota, and plan to ride straight west until they are clear of the storm system. I look at the radar in the lobby of the rest stop, and decide to go north on Highway 59 so I won’t be on the interstate when the rain hits. The leading edge of the storm arrives sooner than I expect, and the winds become very strong and unpredictable. I slow way down and make my way to a restaurant where I wait for the winds to subside.

Riding north on wet roads, there is a scene in northeastern Oklahoma which I’d like to photograph. There are fluffy white clouds hanging low in a forested valley, with the green hills rising up out of the clouds. Unfortunately, there’s a light rain falling and there just isn’t a safe place to stop.

Finally, the storm system passes, and I find myself under blue sky again. I stop for the night at Joplin, Missouri.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

After not making very good time yesterday, I decide to hit the interstates and get some miles done. Today starts out cloudy but dry, and the sun comes out around noon. I ride north from Joplin on Highway 71 and take I-35 from Kansas City, across Iowa, up to Albert Lea, Minnesota. The motels in Albert Lea are kind of expensive so I ride west on I-90 and overnight in Austin, Minnesota.
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There’s a strange symmetry in riding from Austin, Texas to Austin, Minnesota. Not only do they have the same name, but the Austin in Texas has the SPAMARAMA festival every year, and the Austin in Minnesota has the SPAM Museum (1-800-LUV-SPAM) featured prominently on their visitors guide.

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Even though these interstates don’t have a lot of traffic, the slabs are not in good condition and the riding is stressful. I found the interstates to be in much worse shape than the secondary highways, with a lot of pavement issues to watch. Interstate 90 in Minnesota is particularly bad, with a large unfilled gap between the lanes, significant differences in height between the onramps and the highway, and large bumps between the slabs that make the bike jump about once a second.

Today’s scenery consisted mainly of forests of deciduous trees in southern Missouri, and pastures and corn fields in northern Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota. There was some flooding in southern Missouri from the recent storms. When the sun started to set, the corn fields lit up a brilliant shade of gold. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees as I was riding north today.

Monday, September 10, 2007

It’s decidedly cooler here than in Texas, and there’s some light rain. My friends in Sparta, Wisconsin won’t be home until early this evening, so I let the rain pass at a nice covered picnic area.

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I spend Monday evening through Wednesday morning in Sparta with my friends who live there. They take me along when they check on their honeybees, which is really interesting – I’ve never seen a hive up close before. We also take their daughters geocaching and they really seem to enjoy it.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As I prepare to leave Sparta, it is about 35 degrees (F) outside. That’s a little cold for motorcycling without heated grips or a heated vest (a violation of rule 6), so I wait until the temperature hits 50 degrees, and use my rain suit as an extra layer for warmth.

I zig-zag from Sparta up to Merrill, alternating north and east: 27/12 north, 10 east, 73 north, 29 east, 13 north, 64 east. This is a very scenic area with rolling hills, forests, and fields. I stop at a veteran’s memorial named “High Grounds” to take some pictures. Despite the cool temperatures, it was a perfect day to be out riding.

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Kay flies in today and we spend a few days visiting with her mother, touring the two Harley-Davidson plants in Tomahawk, and watching the motorcycle parade at the Tomahawk Fall Ride (these activities are her mom’s idea – how cool is that?).

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

It’s a cool, sunny day as I ride west on Wisconsin Highway 64. Along the way I stop at a lake in Cornell, Wisconsin for some pictures.

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Today is a short riding day since I’m only riding as far as Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit some friends. I stop in New Richmond for a shorter visit and accidentally leave the headlight on, so my friend helps me push start the bike when it’s time to leave. Fortunately the bike starts and doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects.

Monday, September 17, 2007

This morning I hit the road at 7AM as my friends leave for work. I ride south along the Wisconsin side of the Upper Mississippi River, which includes Lake St. Croix and Lake Pepin. It’s cool and I’m again wearing my rain gear for warmth. There are many places to stop and take in the scenery along this route.

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South of Lake Pepin there are several wildlife refuges which encompass some of the wetlands.

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I cross over into Iowa at Prairie du Chien (pronounced “SHEEN”) and the road slowly climbs away from the river.

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I ride the rural highways south across the rolling hills of Iowa and overnight at the small town of Mt. Pleasant.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Riding south through Mexico, Missouri, there is an additional element of adventure in the form of brake fluid splattering against the gas tank. There is a leak somewhere around the fluid reservoir or the master cylinder on my right handlebar. The temperature is back in the 90’s and there doesn’t seem to be any shade around, so it’s pretty miserable standing in the hot sun studying the leak. Luckily there is an auto parts nearby where I can buy a quart of DOT 4 brake fluid. I fill the reservoir to the top and duct tape some shop rags around the handlebars to catch the leaking fluid. The brakes still feel fine, but I’m not sure how much worse this leak will get. One of the disadvantages to riding a BMW motorcycle is the availability of parts. Dealerships are few and far between, although the larger dealerships will be happy to FedEx you a part if they have it in stock. (Although, for seldom-replaced parts, you sometimes have to wait a few weeks for a part to arrive from Germany.) Riding on the empty rural highways now seems like a risky proposition, so I decide to take the interstate highways down to Texas. At least this way I’m likely to find a motel if I need to stop and make repairs. I’ll have to ride through the Ozarks some other time.

Fortunately the ride today is otherwise uneventful, and I overnight at the same hotel in Joplin, Missouri that I stayed in on the way north.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Today is another day of interstate riding, except that when I get to Ft. Worth, Texas, I head east on Highway 380 so I can ride south on Highway 281 instead of Interstate 35. I-35 in Texas is extremely congested, with nearly 75% of the US-Mexico truck traffic traveling on that road. It’s not a good place for a motorcycle. Unfortunately, neither is Highway 380. It’s an undivided two lane road with a posted speed limit of 70 MPH, and both directions are packed with fast-moving trucks hauling dirt and gravel for construction projects.

Even though I’m hoping to cover a lot of ground today, when I see this abandoned hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas, I have to make a U-turn and take some pictures. It looks very out-of-place, looming over this tiny town.

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I later find that it’s called the Baker Hotel and has quite a history.

I hope to ride around 600 miles today in order reach home tonight, so I’m doing my best impression of an Iron Butt Rally rider, taking brief stops and chowing down on energy bars and snacks from my tank bag instead of stopping at restaurants. Those riders average over 1,000 miles a day over the course of the 11 day event, but when night falls I’m in Burnet, Texas, about 90 minutes from home. My single headlight isn’t very bright, and I know there are deer here, so I reluctantly stop for the day at a tiny (but surprisingly nice) motel in Burnet. An Iron Butt rider, I am not, but at least I’m smart enough to know my limits (rule #1).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I’m home! The bike and I are a little worse for wear, but here we are 3,000 miles later.

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Despite the hardships – and it took about a week for the various aches to subside – I’m glad to have made this trip. That said, I’m not very anxious to do it again!

A big “thank you” goes to Kay for her support. Most spouses wouldn’t look too kindly on a crazy adventure like this. She helped a lot with weather updates and mid-trip supplies, but most importantly she was 100% behind the idea and that really means a lot to me.

Reassembled

My motorcycle started blowing fuses around Thanksgiving of last year. Most of the wires live underneath the gas tank, so I ended up removing the faring (windscreen) and gas tank to troubleshoot this problem. Of course, having the gas tank off makes it easier to change the air filter… and having the air box removed makes it possible to replace the 15 year old fuel lines… and while the faring is off, I might as well repack the steering head bearings, and so on. It didn’t take too long before the bike looked like this:

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It sat like that for a long time, sometimes waiting for parts to arrive from Germany, but mostly waiting for me to make time to reassemble it. This past weekend I finally found the pinched wire that was blowing fuses, and put everything back together:

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I was really worried that after six months I wouldn’t remember where all the pieces went. I won’t jinx it by saying I didn’t forget anything, but I rode about 20 miles to lunch today and it seemed to work. Phew!