The TransAmerica Trail

By Silverduck - Posted on 09 September 2008

Arkansas River Crossing TAT

So, how does one go about riding 2200 miles of dirt roads, trails, and gravel with the idea to put as much mileage under your butt as you can without any asphalt on a motorcycle?

Last summer, one of the FloribamaRiders club members posted a link to a website called the Adventure Rider site.  On this site, I was introduced to a couple of middle-aged guys named “Gaspipe” and “Big Dog”. I was hooked out of the box simply from the nicknames of these two characters.  Their write-up of their experiences on the TAT (Trans-America Trail) mesmerized me.  I think I started reading the treatise  about 8 pm and wound up finally tearing myself away from my computer at the crack of 2 am.  Wow. A Ride across America.  On dirt. With the idea of seeing America with bugs in your teeth and in a mode that 99% of our population will never get a chance to experience.

Originally, my plan was to do the trail solo. After phone calls from LT Snyder, Stu Vernon, and some other folks whose opinions I value, I set about looking for a riding partner.  Bob Shields has been a close friend of mine for years, and he and I have both enjoyed time in the mountains on our skis.  Bob loves to trout fish, and I am sort of responsible for getting him into the world of motorcycling.  I sent Bob the link…. And let it percolate. After about 3 weeks, I called him and we did one of our famous breakfast meetings at the Ranch House restaurant in Vestavia, Alabama.  “Hey Bob… did you get a chance to read that blog about the guys who rode across America in the dirt?”  To say the least, he was as intrigued with the idea as I was. Now you have to realize, I had not ridden on the dirt for almost 25 years. I used to be a decent woods rider, and I competed in the Mid-South at enduros, Hare and Hounds, and other various off road events on a Yamaha DT 250B.  But, that was 1973 through 1978, 30 years ago.  Bob, had never ridden dirt.  So, we both bought dual sport bikes.  My choice was the KLR 650. If it is good enough for the Marines, then it had “Big Daddy’s” name on it. Bob found a Suzuzki DR 650.  We both spent time putting the correct tires, hand guards, aftermarket tanks, engine guards, and other sundry items to help prep the bikes for a 2000 mile off road journey.  My decision to mount a Rubbermaid “Actionpacker” ($16.00 at Walmart) as the storage device proved to have later repercussions.  I also stuck a spare gas can on the back of the trunk.  Paranoid? Yeah. I was very nervous about getting stranded after reading Gaspipe and BigDog’s accounting of the trip. I was basically saying, “hey Murphy, here is MY Irish salute” with my middle finger. Other implements that made the list were siphon, medical kit, Garmin Etrex Legend GPS, GPS topo maps of the areas we would cover, and the SPOT tracker device.  When my wife heard that I had a 911 ability and that the Emergency response teams could find me down to my exact lat-long, she did a mental stand-down on the trip.  I think she would have said “ok” anyway, but the SPOT was a good insurance policy.

Originally, I had planned to depart in July, but Colorado had another huge dump of snow as late as the 1st week of July. The passes were clogged and some were closed. As it turned out, August really was the optimum time to do the trip.  About 3 weeks before the departure date, I put out a post to the FBR list about riding with us in Arkansas. Tim O’Brien, gave me a call and wanted to know if he could tag along.  I have known Tim for a few years and have always enjoyed his company on the road, as well as on the track. He changed the tires on my Blackbird, so the guy has always been A-OK with me.  “Heck Yeah, Tim”  “Come on along”.  Again, serendipity raised its head….. I find out that the bike Tim is going to ride is a KTM 640 Adventure which he was going to borrow from Ditchboy Statum.  After meeting for a showing of “The Long Way Down” with Ewan McGregor, I expressed some concern. A KTM? Argh…. Tim assured me that this bike could more than pull its weight, after all, it was Gaspipe’s bike in one of the TAT rides.

Holy Cow!  Talk about closing the circle… here is the exact bike that Gaspipe had used on the TAT… the guy that got me interested in doing this wacky ride.

My attitude changed and it was as if we were being guided by a celestial hand that was either pushing, or pulling me, toward the trail.  The next weekend, Bob called with fateful news…”Calhoun, I have broken my ankle…”  While practicing for the TAT up at the Bankhead forest, Bob had a pretty bad get off that ended up with the bike fracturing his ankle.  Oh no. That meant that the two of us, Big Tim and Big Daddy, were gonna do the trail as a tandem.

The days counted down…. And I still didn’t have a clear plan of how to get back from Utah. Finally, about a week before departure, Pat Coleman, another Floribama Rider, calls me and says, “hey, I am headed to Colorado to ride the Colorado 500 charity ride”, “do you guys want to carpool to Arkansas, let me drop you off, then ride out to meet me in Colorado.”  Ummmmmmmmmm. Yes!  Again, the fates had turned a large smiling face on the trip and we now had our way onto and off of the trail.

Friday, was departure day.  A 4:30 AM start put us in Arkansas early enough to meet my folks at BJ’s for chicken fried steak sandwiches and their world famous onion rings.  Pat helped us unload at my mom and dad’s then headed west for his date in Colorado. Tim and I enjoyed visiting with my folks and did some last minute fettling on both bikes. While at a gas stop on the way to Memphis, Pat noticed I had lost one of my rear brake pads. This precipitated a stop at a worthless Kawasaki dealership on Summer avenue.  “Nope, we ain’t got any brake pads…” I think I cussed for a few minutes at the desk until the young salesman said, “dude, I just called the dealer in Southhaven Mississippi and they have pads.” Argh. That was gonna put us almost 2 hours down… so off we went.  Serendipity spoke again, because in about a quarter of a mile, I spied a Cycle Gear store. It was 9:50 in the morning, so we had to chill out to wait for the 10 o’clock store opening.  Right next door, is a “strip mall” hair place. Tim, was looking pretty shaggy, so he goes over to the Jungle Gardenia queen of coif to ask if they can hook him up as we wait.  Tim disappears into the leopard motif hair parlor as I make my purchase for a rear pad. About 10:15, Pat and I are done with our Cycle Gear transaction, and wonder where the heck Tim is.  We both meander into the hair hospital. A lady was cutting Tim’s hair, with Snakeskin pants, a black silk top, and some fairly nasty looking hair. At least I thought it was a woman until he-she opened his mouth. “Oh my, you look like your beard could use a trim…” He purred to me.  Pat spun around with a disgusted look on his face as I plopped down to watch Tim squirm to get away from her majesty.  That is the only photo that I regret not taking from the trip. We had a good laugh about Tim’s animal magnetism.

After a good visit with my folks, Tim and I began our journey. To get to the trail, we had 140 miles of great roads to ride.  Tim had never ridden Arkansas, and like most folks I take up there, was completely blown away by the ride.  He mentioned, “dang, we don’t even have to leave Arkansas to have a great time!”  Tim had total agreement from yours truly, but we had a quest to fulfill and we hooked up with the TAT in Cassville, Arkansas. After the requisite photo ops, off we went.  The Arkansas trail is beautiful, running beside pasturage, through old growth forests, and through the many rock formations that the glaciers deposited hundreds of million years ago. I had to take a deep breath in my helmet as we departed. This is it. This is the trail west.  We are about to do what few others have done.  Butterflies really don’t describe the feeling in my stomach or the large knot in my throat. Luckily, the trail was pretty much gravel road on the first day, with the exception of a couple of spots that saw us rock crawl down a pretty big hill for a mile or so. Our first day was our baptism by fire…. Neither of us had much experience with either our GPS nor running a roll chart. By the end of the day, we darn well had the gist of both, after playing Moses in the wilderness. “Hey Tim, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 40 years of my life to devote to the White Rock wilderness area.”  After about 120 miles on the trail, we decided to go ahead and zoom down to Alma, Arkansas to spend the night.  That evening, we reoriented our GPS so that they both were always north facing, like reading a map. I also figured out that if I reset my Odo to zero at every third turn or so, I could keep up with roll chart and be spot on with the directions.  The Arkansas portion of the trail had lots of (r) for 2.2 miles, then (l) for 1.6 miles. It was a crazy quilt of patched together back roads, trails, and gravel roads. All of which kept us both busy as riders, and occupied as navigators.

We passed through some wonderful riding in Arkansas, going through the national forest and crossing several streams that the trail passed.  We had lunch in Oark and visited with the owner, who had just purchased the old general store about a year ago. Oark had the only gas pump in about a 40 mile radius, so we refueled both our bodies as well as our respective mounts.  During our sojourn there, we saw tons of Arkansas youth out for a sport on their ATV four wheelers.  In all, there were probably 15 couples zooming around on the public roads without helmets, carrying big coolers of beer. The most enduring mental picture was of a very fat chick carrying a very skinny guy.  I had to laugh, and it wasn’t laughing “with them”, as mama used to say. I was definitely laughing at them.  After some fairly rough riding, we finally crossed the flats of Arkansas into Oklahoma. This area of Oklahoma is very much like Arkansas, just wetter.

The trail that Sam Correro laid out routed you through as much great scenery as he could find.  We ended up going through a very large wetland area that proved to be home to Egrets, Herons, Hawks, and various other waterfowl that are not ever typically seen in this part of the country. As we tooled along a very large lake, we could see the trail disappear under the water. The recent heavy rains had pushed the lake WAY out of its normal pool, and it now was about a 40 foot slough with no way around.  It was go through, or turn around. Tim looked at me with some fairly big eyes (the KTM was NOT happy in water) and said, “what are we gonna do?”  I just said,” if you see the top of my helmet, come get me.”  I chugged into the lake with Kelly, and the water rapidly come up to about mid tank. The trusty KLR just chugged across…  I stopped to watch Tim make his submarine run and sure enough, the KTM did its “cough..cack… spat, sput” routine, but give Tim credit, he revved the heck out of it and whipped the  Katoom on across.  A quick high five sent us on our way.  Lake crossing? Big deal. I felt my balls swell just a bit…(at least in my own head)   We continued on through heavily forested areas and saw some delightful rivers and streams.  We crossed several of these as we rode, until we came upon a washed out bridge.  This posed a bit of a challenge in that the river was swollen and about 100 feet across.  I rode north to see if there was a place to ford the river, but no luck.  After consulting the maps, we saw we could backtrack and then hook up with a highway that would route us around the impassable situation.  It was at that time that we both assumed the mantra of, “you take what the trail gives you”.

If you are anal retentive, don’t do this ride.  If you can roll with the punches, the trail brings a continuous change in surroundings, vistas, trail condition, and places to keep heading west.   After eating a TON of dust, we made our way to Bartelsville, Oklahoma for a date with a Comfort Inn, a Pizza joint, and a Walmart. More to come...