Motorcycle Touring in the USA
The King of Every Kingdom
Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Sitting Bull ate a handful of gunpowder every day. Maybe I should have been drinking petrol..
The bike was still running well and lapping up the excellent roads of Arizona and Nevada. But it was getting a little hard to start again, so whenever I pulled up to take a look at the Canyon, I tried to find a slope to make clutch starting easier. Despite these concerns, I still found the Canyon stunning.
The sheer size is overpowering, and it takes quite a while before the mind can take in its scale. It’s very pretty, too, but it reminded me irresistibly of an enormous layer cake that’s been attacked by monster mice.
From here, I turned north-east towards Durango and the Rockies. The old Indians at the roadside stalls where I stopped to buy turquoise souvenirs had the most awe-inspiring faces I think I’ve ever seen – except perhaps for some of the Tibetans in Nepal. Lined and sombre, their faces reminded me of photos of Sitting Bull. Did you know that he reportedly ate a handful of gunpowder every day to protect himself from gunshots?
The road past the bald head of Engineer Mountain and up to the 11,000 ft pass leading to Silverton was great. Quite aside from the fact that I was enjoying having corners again – despite its weight and nearly worn-out shock absorbers, the XL was fun on winding roads – I also got an altitude high.
This happens to me occasionally when I get too high up, and I start making faces, singing, cracking jokes and laughing like crazy – all to myself. It also helped that I was back in the lovely Rockies, with forests of aspens and conifers on the steep slopes and that bracing, cold, clean air. Some of the aspens were already beginning to turn from green to gold. Winter was on its way.
I hurried to get to Denver, where I expected mail to be waiting for me, but of course the best-laid plans of mice and bears… Just outside Conifer, some 40 miles from Denver, my throttle actuating cable broke. I was on the very edge of the huge rampart of mountains that leads down to Denver, so I tried coasting.
I got 18 miles before I ran out of hill! Then – at Bear Lake, to add insult to injury – I finally had to give in and switch the return cable with the broken one. This gave me a throttle control, but of course it now turned the opposite way—to accelerate, I had to turn the throttle away from me. Lots of fun in peak-hour Denver traffic!
By now it was too late to go to the post office, and when I got there in the morning there was no mail for me anyway. It’s always a bit depressing when you’re on the road for a while and don’t get mail. You really feel lonely.
But I still had the address of John-with-the-BMW, whom I’d met in Michigan, so I went up to Boulder to stay with him. In traditional American style, I was made most welcome by all the inhabitants of his house and spent a cheerful few days there. Boulder is full of musicians and has an excellent library. I loafed and read and listened to music. My mail was waiting for me when I got to Denver again a week later, and my bliss was nearly complete. But I was still missing Annie, very much.
Down I rode to Colorado Springs along the row of frozen combers that make up the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, and then up and around Pike’s Peak to Cripple Creek. An early mining settlement, this little town has now suffered the fate of all picturesque places in the US – it’s become a tourist trap and derives its substance from the buses. It was still pretty, though, and the scenery on the way even more so. Some of the trees were now changing from gold to bright scarlet and the slopes were marbled with the different shades.
Sand Dunes National Memorial, an enormous dune formed by wind forced to drop its load of dust and sand by a mountain range, was not as impressive as the booklet had suggested, so I took my leave again and headed for New Mexico. Leaving Kit Carson’s old fort to one side (he was the local hero here), I made Taos in the early afternoon. This has to be just about the ultimate in tourist towns – it gives the impression of having been built exclusively for the trade. Not that it isn’t pretty, it just seems so phony. Perhaps I shouldn’t talk. I only spent an hour there.
I slept up in the hills above Santa Fe that night, deep in another world. Everyone here speaks Spanish, the shop signs are in Spanish and the fluorescent Coors advertisements all say ‘cerveza’ instead of ‘beer’. I felt as though I’d made it to Mexico. In another sad case of prejudice, a white Anglo-Saxon-etc American I asked wouldn’t tell me where any of the local bars were. He didn’t think I really ought to drink with ‘those people’.
From Santa Fe I took the back roads to Albuquerque and found myself back up in the mountains. It was drizzly and cold, too, but the road was well surfaced, narrow and twisty; I had a good time here. I also stopped in a weird little town called Madrid. It had obviously not long since been a ghost town, but now a great crew of hippies was busy restoring, shoring up and beautifying the wonky-looking timber houses.
On the way to Ruidoso and the Aspencade Motorcyclists Convention, I began to worry about the chain again. I’d had to tighten it rather frequently – neither of the chains I’d bought in the US lasted very well – and now the bike was jerking quite noticeably. I had all sorts of fantasies about bent countershafts (silly) and twisted sprockets (sillier).
Riding was becoming unpleasant. I made it to Ruidoso anyway, and spent a relaxed couple of days watching the bikes roll in. I’d been in touch with Honda, and they had expressed an interest in having my XL250 on their stand at the trade show, so, once the show started, I spent my evenings down there talking to the visitors – who found it very difficult to believe that anyone could be crazy enough to ride a 250 around the world.
Days were spent drinking with my newly acquired friends Norman – who left his little dog Honda guarding their Gold Wing – and Bob, who’d ridden to the show on one of the very few two-strokes around.
Nothing much was going on, rather a disappointment after the bustle of European rallies, but it was great to talk to so many people, from so many walks of life, who were all devoted to motorcycling. I was a little surprised to see relatively few Harleys compared with the waves of Gold Wings that inundated the place.
I rode the new Harley Sturgis, and was very impressed with the belt drives, and spent a lot of time admiring the custom bikes. Unfortunately, they mostly looked as though they’d been put together out of three only slightly different mail-order catalogues. There was not really much variety. The trikes were spectacular, but once again there was little variety among them. On the third day, I won the ‘Longest Distance-Solo Male Rider’ trophy, which still hangs proudly on the wall of my office.
Then it was off again – a straight run for the coast. Every trip has a limited lifespan, and after 11 weeks this one was gasping its last. So it was out onto the Interstate, a road I generally avoided, and off.
Seventeen miles from Yuma the steering went heavy. Inspection showed that the patch we had put on the front tube in the Khyber Pass had lifted. It was well over 35 degrees C, there was no shade, and in fact it was very similar to the conditions in which the tube had first given out. It went flat again just outside Yuma, so I had a new tube fitted.
I rather begrudged that now, seeing we were so close to the end of the trip, but I couldn’t be bothered with any more flats. In El Centro I also found an excellent bike shop, where they located a good second-hand Tsubaki chain to replace my old, worn-out one. So I was ready to face the last stretch with confidence!
The road to the coast was most enjoyable, through rugged hills on an excellent surface. In San Diego a solid wall of smog was waiting for me. I made my way down to the Pacific – nice to see an old friend again – and watched the huge oily rollers coming in all the way from Australia.
Up the coast into the rat’s nest of freeways that is Los Angeles, and a stop at the Road Rider magazine office, where I was received very kindly and offered the use of a typewriter to belt out a few stories for them and refresh my traveling kitty.
I spent the last few days before my flight was due wandering around, by bike mostly, and sightseeing. I found Hollywood especially interesting – not so much the homes of the stars as Hollywood Boulevard. Then I had lunch with the friendly folk from Honda USA, entrusted my little bike to them for forwarding to Australia and climbed aboard the plane with the big red kangaroo on the tail.
I spent the flight planning the next trip…
And that, as they say, is all he wrote. But of course I wrote a lot of other stuff after this… and I’m grateful to all of you who read it.