The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
And finally, The West, the part of America I have returned to again and again in subsequent years.
The Black Hills were pretty, especially after the long run over the Great Plains, but they’re rather spoilt by dozens of tacky tourist traps. These fill the side of the road leading to Mount Rushmore and consist of such things as The Life of Jesus Wax Museum. The famous faces on the mountain itself look rather funny for some reason.
Most of the Black Hills is totally unspoilt, and I found myself a little free Forestry Service campsite, where I was joined by two other riders. One had a CX500, the other an immaculate Harley Sportster. We lit a fire, drank what booze we had between us and watched the satellites passing over in the crystal night air. An elderly couple travelling in a camper joined us, and brought an enormous shopping bag full of fresh popcorn. What a night!
There’s a system of balance in nature. After you’ve had a good time for a while, you get a bad time. Mine started the next morning with a flat tyre, and continued when the bike wouldn’t start. Too high up, perhaps. We were a mile high. Much pushing finally got us under way, after I’d filled the tube with latex foam from an aerosol can.
The bike laboured all that day against a strong headwind across Wyoming, the original cowboy country. Rolling grassy hills as far as I could see, broken by mostly dry water courses with names like Dead Horse Creek and Mad Woman Creek.
It was overcast and chilly. But the sun came out the next day, and as I rode up to the Powder River Pass and Tensleep Canyon I thought of John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, who had said, ‘There is something in the sight of the mountains that restores a man’s spirit.’
I could have done with a little extra restoration in Basin, just on the other side of the mountains. The rear tyre was flat again, and I began the mammoth task of repairing the old tube. Mammoth because I kept pinching it while putting it back in. I wasn’t yet used to the new set of tyre levers I’d bought, and the tube was very old.
By the time the rear tyre held air again, the tube had six new patches on it and I retreated to the local bar to try to drown my sorrows. At least I found convivial company and a couple of good games of pool, and had my first taste of decent Coors beer – a significant improvement on the usual American slops.
I also got a lot of sympathy for not being American, and specifically for not being from Wyoming. The entire clientele of the bar assured me that Wyoming was the best place in the whole world, even if Basin, with its population of 700, might be a bit “slow”.
My road west from this little oasis kept heading for a window in the thick general overcast, a window filled with sunshine and pretty little clouds. But I couldn’t catch it, and it finally disappeared when I reached Cody, a town devoted to the memory of Buffalo Bill Cody, or at least devoted to the amount of tourist money that memory could bring in.
Up in the mountains once again, I found a bloke lying on the ground next to the most decrepit bike I have ever seen – and I’ve seen some decrepit bikes in my day, some of them mine. This was a 250cc Honda of indeterminate vintage, with one muffler tied to the rack and most parts held on either by grease or wire.
The owner of this apparition proudly claimed the road as his and bummed a few coke cans of petrol from me – this being the most convenient receptacle to drain the petrol into – and went cheerily on his way.
Shoshone Canyon provided some exciting riding the next day, and took me up to the gates of Yellowstone National Park, and the snow once more. It was disappointing to learn that all the bears had been moved up to the high country, but it appeared that they had been having trouble with the humans. There was no danger of my meeting any bears that night anyway; I checked into the Old Faithful Lodge. Snow had been forecast for the night, and my tent suddenly seemed awfully flimsy.
Yellowstone Park itself was beautiful, like a piece of the world just after the creation, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by the Old Faithful geyser. One Japanese bloke was, though. He spent most of the evening sitting at the bar’s picture window, a barely tasted glass of whisky in front of him, concentrating on the geyser.
My evening was brilliant – I celebrated New Year’s Eve with the staff. A trifle odd seeing that it was 31 August… It appears that a few years ago a party of visitors had been trapped by an early snowstorm towards the end of August. They reasoned that since they were stuck anyway, and it was white outside, they might as well celebrate Christmas. The staff have taken this up as a tradition, and there’s always a Christmas and a New Year’s Eve party towards the end of August.
I had a marvelous time meeting everybody, discussing politics, the MX system and the iniquity of the labour laws; all those things which are endlessly fascinating when you’re drunk, getting more drunk and the surroundings feel good. One of the fascinating things I discovered that night was that if you’re over 6ft 7in tall, you’re safe from the draft. The US Army isn’t set up to cope with people taller than that. So grow!
All the celebrating must have disturbed my sense of direction (which assumes that I have one), because I took the wrong road in the morning. Instead of heading for Craters of the Moon National Park, I found myself on the road to Missoula. I made the best of it anyway and enjoyed the sweeping wheat fields and later the enormous trees of Lolo Pass.
Just over the pass, an elderly chap on a KZ400 with a sidecar waved me over to the side of the road and offered me a cup of coffee. We stood in the thin drizzle, drank coffee out of his thermos and compared travelling styles. He was travelling even more slowly than I!
Outside Lewiston I had another flat tyre. This time I replaced the tube, but the bike needed new wheel bearings as well. The old ones had been severely knocked around from having the wheel removed so often. The bike was running much better now that I was out of the high country. Perhaps it would have been worthwhile to change the jetting after all.
I didn’t need any directions to get to Portland – just follow the Columbia River, right along the tops of the sheer cliffs that border its northern side. But once in Portland, I did need directions – just to find the post office. It seemed I had come to the wrong town. The first person I asked was a biker who had broken down on the freeway.
He told me I wanted the exit two back. This on the freeway, where you can’t turn around. After I’d found my way into town by myself, I asked a lady at a street corner. She did her valiant best, but became totally incoherent within a few seconds. We both finally gave up.
I then found the post office by myself, checked for mail, and made the mistake of asking for the road to the west. First my informant tried to talk me into going south. Then he told me to go down a certain street and turn left just before I could see the viaduct. What is the matter with Portland?
At Lincoln City, when I finally did reach the coast, I saw the Pacific for the first time since the beginning of the trip. In a way, my circumnavigation of the Earth was over.
But of course my ride was far from over, so I headed off down the coast the next morning. I stopped quite early at a lookout to take a photo of the fog swirling in to bathe the foot of the cliffs. When I got back on the bike, it was once again those ominous couple of inches lower. Another flat rear tyre – and this time there was an enormous sliver of glass in my nice new tube. Out with the tyre levers once again.
The coast was lovely, with forests and cliffs and dunes and hills and enormous trees – and a family of moose in a meadow by the river. The Youth Hostel in Bandon, a well-preserved old fishing town, provided shelter for three days while I relaxed, reading and checking over the bike. A new chain was overdue, so I made a shopping trip into the local metropolis, Coos Bay.
The Honda shop had a chain, and a small supermarket had some beer in white cans just marked ‘Beer’. It was explained to me that this was what was known as a ‘generic’ product – no brand name, no advertising, and therefore a low price. I bought a six pack.
On the way back to Bandon I also picked an enormous plastic shopping bag full of blackberries. I was just congratulating myself on how well everything was going when the rear chain broke. Well, well. When will I learn not to congratulate myself? It was rather convenient that I was carrying the brand-new replacement in my tank box.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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