5,000 miles in 16 days

I just returned from a solo 5,000 mile trip around ten western states that took 16 days to complete. I left Oregon, went south to California, then across Nevada, Utah, and northern Arizona into Colorado. I then turned north into Wyoming and spent a night in South Dakota before turning west back across Wyoming, into southern Montana, across Idaho and back into Oregon.

The trip ranged from sea level (the Oregon coast) to 14,115 feet (Pikes Peak) and saw temperature extremes from the upper 30’s (Beartooth Pass, Montana) to 120 degrees (Zion National Park). The farthest south was Kaibito, Arizona, the farthest east was Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota, and the farthest north was Missoula, Montana.

From a gear standpoint, my bike — a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 — ran without complaint. In the 5,000 mile journey it used up about 3/4 of quart of oil (which is pretty normal for modern bikes). The odometer rolled over 50,000 miles during the trip. My Garmin Zumo 450 GPS half-died about 1,000 miles into the journey. It’s 5 years old so that’s a pretty good lifespan for an electronic gadget that gets exposed to the elements. The standout gear of the ride, however, were my ExOfficio convertible pants. I wore them under my Firstgear Kathmandu riding pants and made the trip a lot more comfortable, especially when riding in high desert heat. They retain zero odor, and I could wash them in my motel sink, ring them out (roll them up in a towel and step on it) and they’d be dry in a few hours. Plus they are super light and pack really small, which is a huge bonus when traveling by motorcycle.

The standout scenery was Beartooth Pass in southern Montana, just northeast of Yellowstone Park. The low point in terms of interest was probably Laramie, Wyoming. The town has the character of day-old dry toast.

I met some really cool people (Jeff in Fortuna, CA; Pam in Deadwood, SD; and Myles and John in Greybull, WY) and saw some shameful racism in many rural areas toward our President.

The trip went without a hitch, basically. There were no pucker moments or involuntary get-offs and no run-ins with law enforcement. It barely even rained — a few drops while visiting Mt. Rushmore.

Speaking of Mt. Rushmore, it was probably the biggest disappointment of all the big-name places I visited. It’s much smaller in person than I thought it was from all the pictures and video I’ve seen of it on TV. In fact, the rock formations surrounding the monument are far more interesting. Devil’s Tower in northeastern Wyoming was kind of a ‘meh’ moment, too, not because it isn’t cool — it is — but because it’s exactly like I’ve seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a kind of “Been there, done that” sort of moment.

I hadn’t planned to visit Zion National Park but had to detour that way because of a road closure. Wow, what a place! I realize it’s cliche to say so but pictures can’t begin to do it justice. It’s as if Mother Nature consulted some big-name Hollywood filmmakers when designing it.

One thing that kept crossing my mind was the viewpoint that several fundamentalist Christians hold concerning the age of the earth. I’m all for the freedom to hold personal religious beliefs, but anyone that thinks the planet is only 7,000 years old is exhibiting a willful denial of reality bordering on malignant ignorance. Just travel around the west and look at the mountains that were built up, eroded away, and built up again and see if that kind of geological activity could happen in a few thousand years … or even in a few million. Wake up. It’s okay if the planet is 4 billion years old. Really. It won’t make you any farther from God to acknowledge what is obvious. If it makes you feel any better, remember what an old friend of mine used to say when asked about his view on dinosaur fossils vs. the Bible, “I don’t know how it happened, I just believe God was involved.”

When I go on these trips, I am often admonished by friends and family to takes lots of pictures. I took some, and I even took some video. In my tank bag was a GoPro HD camera and while riding I would often take it out and hold it with my left hand, filming various angles of the action. I’ve reviewed some of the footage and it worked pretty well. I plan to turn my photos and live footage into a produced video, with distribution to select individuals. Some photos will be posted here, but don’t expect too much. Philosophically, I have been taking the attitude that these places aren’t going anywhere; if you want to see them, go there yourself. I put in a lot of time, money, and sweat riding there and I feel somewhat reluctant to let others vicariously enjoy the benefits of that journey without paying some dues for the privilege. Sorry, but that’s just how I feel.

Meanwhile, my bike is filthy and needs an oil change. My chain is also in dire need of replacement and my Aerostich Darien jacket looks like it’s been to the moon and back (I love that jacket!) I also have 7 GB worth of video to edit. I’ll report back when I have something to report.

Lee Parks Total Control clinic

I enrolled in the Lee Parks Total Control riding clinic and attended the session in Olympia, Washington on Saturday, May 14th. Because it was an all-day class — 9 AM to 7 PM — I decided to make a weekend trip out of it.

I took Friday off of work and rode across the Portland metro area to Scappoose on Highway 30 before heading away from the Columbia River and into the hills of Northwest Oregon. The road is a nice bend of tight curves and broad sweepers but the surface is somewhat rough in spots and blind corners demand a lot of attention. Once in Mist I continued north on Highway 47 to Clatskanie. This section is very technical and you really have to be on the ball to survive it. The road surface is very rough, the corners are tight and rapid-fire, and there are log trucks patrolling the area ready to pounce on slacking motorcyclists.

The route from Pittsburg to Mist and then north to Clatskanie is heaven if you’re a big fan of clear cuts. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a way to harvest timber by mimicking the bombed out fields of eastern France during World War I. Everything gets cut down and removed, leaving the landscape scarred and defeated, right down to the road’s edge. It’s truly an ugly sight.

Once in Clatskanie (pronounced ‘clat-skuh-nigh‘) I turned west and followed Highway 30 to the hamlet of Westport where I veered north onto a narrow paved road to the terminal of the Westport Ferry. This river crossing is the only ferry remaining on the lower Columbia River. For $3 a motorcycle gets portage to Puget Island, which has a bridge across the north stem of the Columbia back onto mainland Washington.

Waiting at the ferry terminal was a short, gray-haired and bearded man in black leather, sitting on the guard rail next to his 2001 deep blue Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail. Walt and I chatted as we crossed the Columbia, the only passengers on the small ferry. The ride was very smooth thanks to a lack of wind, and within a few minutes we were docked on Puget Island and rolling back onto terra firma.

As per Walt’s suggestion, I stopped at the Riverview in Cathlamet for lunch. The club sandwich and side salad were adequate and soon I was back on the road, heading west on SR 4 to connect with Highway 101 north. This section of the coastal highway offers rare glimpses of Willapa Bay, home of famous oysters, before going inland at Raymond for another stretch north to Aberdeen. There were numerous state and county law enforcement officers cruising the area, nabbing speeding motorists. Fortunately they left me alone.

Once across the Chehalis River in Aberdeen I turned west onto Highway 12 to begin my way inland toward Olympia. I stopped just east of town and fueled up, both my bike and myself. It was a four-lane divided highway all the way to Olympia and the miles passed quickly. My destination was the Super 8 in Lacey, and although my GPS told me right where it was, it was visually difficult to spot and I missed the entrance. A quick loop onto the I-5 freeway brought me back around for another pass. The manager said I could park my bike in front of the lobby so they could keep an eye on it for me. It’s always a great experience when businesses are motorcycle-friendly.

After getting settled I walked a few blocks away to O’Blarneys for some bangers and mash and a beer to end the day.

Saturday began dry, contrary to the forecast of increasing chance of showers. I made it to the classroom location about 10 minutes early and already a half dozen bikes were parked outside. Several riders were grouped around Ian’s Kawasaki Versys, watching and assisting as he fixed a flat tire. By 9:10 everyone was present and class began.

The course is 40% classroom lecture and 60% range exercises. The lectures were informative but tended to be long-winded and sometimes tangential. Our instructors, Pete and Jeff, were very knowledgeable, engaging and definitely likable. After introductions were made, we talked about the theory of cornering as well as the mental attitudes needed to ride effectively. Eventually we headed out to the range, a large parking lot behind a nearby mall about 5 blocks away.

The range exercises were the most useful part of the clinic. Anyone that took the MSF Basic Riders Course would find the format and approach very similar. We had a large area to work in, roughly the size of two football fields side-by-side, with circles and routes painted on the asphalt. Pete and Jeff set up several circles and lines using small orange and green cones, then gave us instructions for our first exercise.

To start, we practiced straight-line throttle and brake control exercises, learning to smoothly adjust our speed using a combination of both. Then, after riding around the range to scrub (warm up) our tires, we began some simple turning exercises.

We didn’t break for lunch until 1:10 PM and only had 15 minutes to grab something and meet back at the classroom. We continued with another lecture while everyone wolfed down their food. This time the lecture was far more focused and less tangential. We talked about specific cornering techniques with an emphasis on body position. The group moved out onto the parking lot outside for a series of exercises.

One exercise taught us to visualize a corner’s turn-in point ahead of time, and then recognizing its position in our mind when we reach it. Then we moved onto a pair of exercises that involved leaning to the side into the arms of two other riders, followed by sitting on our bikes and leaning off with our bodies while other riders held our bike. After that, we suited up and headed back to the range.

The remaining series of range exercises taught us how to locate our turn-in point and how to use our head and direction of sight to ensure smooth cornering. Looking through the curve is probably the most influential part of navigating a corner smoothly. I scraped my pegs a couple of times during these exercises, despite riding the tallest bike in the group. It was easy to tell when my eyes or head moved out of that ‘look through’ position because my bike would twitch and swerve along with my line-of-sight. Even my throttle control varied with my eye and head position. Whenever I looked steadily through the curve my cornering technique was smooth and even.

And then the rain came. During a lecture on tires earlier in the day, instructor Jeff commented that modern street bike tires are capable of far more than most bikes and riders will demand of them. He also said that they provide up to 80% traction on wet road surfaces, still above what most riders will need. Those comments gave us the confidence to keep taking the curves in the range exercise even after the rain had the pavement soaking wet.

We rode in at least an hour of hard rain, and I personally found it exciting to take the same corners at the same speed but on very wet pavement. It boosted my confidence dramatically.

(A rider from British Columbia modeled his new leather Aerostich Transit suit after we returned to the classroom. He said he really liked it and that it was well worth the cost.)

After retiring back to the classroom at 6pm, the remainder of the session was about suspension. Since the suspension on my V-Strom has very little adjustment capabilities, I decided to bag the rest of the class and head back to my motel in the rain.

I parked under the front cover at the motel and verified I had permission to do so. Back in my room, I spread out my gear to dry out, showered, then headed to the Shari’s next door for dinner. The rain was falling heavily and never let up for the remainder of the trip.

On Sunday I gassed up and headed home via I-5 in the heavy rain without stopping. Unlike the 260 mile route I took getting to Olympia, the southbound freeway was the 140 mile direct route home. It’s amazing how much more exhausting riding in the rain is compared to riding on dry pavement. My gear held up well, including my Aerostich triple-digit glove covers, but the big winners were my Darien Jacket and my Sidi Canyon boots. They performed admirably as always.

I’m in the latest Aerostich catalog

The 2011 annual Aerostich catalog came in the mail today. It’s kind of like the Cabelas catalog but for motorcyclists. I was reading it cover to cover as I usually do, and was pleased to see Neil Peart sporting their new leather Transit suit on page 5. I always figured one of his quotes would appear in the catalog, not a full picture.

Page after page, I kept turning. When I came to page 152 I saw something very familiar. On the bottom half of the page was a photo of yours truly standing over Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain, wearing my Aerostich Darien jacket, showing its distinctive retro-reflective strip across the back. It was a picture taken by Janice, a friend from California that went to Steens with me and her husband, Mark, back in September, 2010. The caption reads:

“Traffic? What traffic? (Steve Williamson standing over Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain in Southeast Oregon. Photo by Janice Nelson, 2010)”

I had sent the photo to Aerostich shortly after returning from the trip. They thanked me for the pic but never said another word about it.

Late January local rides

I’ve had some time off of work and took the opportunity to get some long day rides under my belt. My first trip was up the Clackamas river road to Ripplebrook ranger station. Not wanting to turn back, I kept going up toward Lake Harriett. My intention was to keep riding toward Timothy Lake until snow or road conditions forced me to turn back. Unfortunately they had the road gated closed about a mile past Harriet and I had to turn around and head back.

Gated road to the back side of Timothy Lake

I veered off onto the gravel road to Lake Harriet and rode past a half dozen die-hard fishermen trying to catch brown trout at Harriet. Several looked at me funny but nodded in approval anyway as I rode past.

Two days later I took a jaunt south toward Stayton. I stopped at the Silver Creek Coffee House in Silverton for a mocha and chatted with Greg, the new owner. He had ridden a lot as a young man but now had too many other hobbies to afford a motorcycle (including working 7 days a week at his coffee shop). Warmed up, I continued south until I got to a crossroad with highway 214. I headed east on 214 and rode the loop past Silver Falls State Park which brought me back into Silverton. There was quite a bit of gravel on the road from recent freezes so I had to take it slow when riding through the park. I fueled up in Molalla on my way back home.

Between the two rides my bike was filthy but happy sitting in my garage. Riding this time of year usually involves cold temperatures and precipitation, so my bike tends to have a dull well-ridden look. I also have my outdoor water faucets turned off to prevent freezing so washing the bike is not an easy option.

In a product related note, I’ve been wearing a pair of Aerostich triple-digit glove covers during the colder rides lately. They work as advertised, keeping moisture away from my gloves underneath and adding warmth. A more accurate way to describe their function is they enable me to ride longer in the winter before my hands get cold — which they eventually do no matter what.

Chilly rides into work

[Updated 1/4/2010] It’s been a pair of chilly rides to work this week. The temperature gauge has been below 25 every morning. Air seeps around my face shield and chills my cheeks and forehead. I got a pair of ‘Triple Digit‘ glove covers from Aerostich as a Christmas present and they work great in the cold weather. After taking a week off between Christmas and new year, it was good to get back to work. I only got a few short rides in during the break, all of them cold or wet. This time of year, that’s about the extent of my rides.