Tour of Tater: Milk Shake and a Nap by the River
Funny conversation with a credit card representative in the Fraud Early Warning department.
Rep: "Thank you for notifying us of your travels, sir. That explains the discrepancies. Are you enjoying your trip?"
Me: "Hell yeah, I'm enjoying my trip. I'm riding dirt bikes all over Idaho and spending like crazy with my credit card!"
The last two days have produced some perfect rides. I have hooked up with some pretty regular riding partners in Mark, Scott and Stan, and we have arrived at the consensus that we can deviate from the standard, very aggressive route without feeling any sense of regret. Stan's son, Ryan, laid out the routes to provide a variety of off-road terrain and a good workout each day. The rides seem average around 200 miles on dirt roads, which is quite a distance when you do it day after day for eight days.
Day 10: Anaconda, MT to Salmon, ID (180 miles)
My day began with part of the Flomax crew, specifically Bob and Greg, as well as Dan and Joe. With Greg in the lead, we headed out of the town of Anaconda, Montana and up into the mountains. Greg's GPS located a snowmobile track that seemed to lead us in the right direction. He wicked up the pace, but I felt reasonably confident because my skills have increased during this trip. Also, I had changed my front tire the previous night in the parking lot of the Vagabond Motel.
I noticed Bob drop off behind me, and I thought he might have experienced a minor fall or just slowed down. I was afraid to stop due to the steep, rutted trail ahead of me. I had to climb up one side of the trail, then hop to the other for improved traction and then repeat. This took place on a section of trail steep enough that you would slide backwards if you attempted to stop and put your foot down.
I rounded a corner to see Greg's front tire hanging over the right side of the trail. He stood up and moved around, but he was unsteady on his feet. Dan and Joe stopped their bikes to help raise Greg's heavy KLR 650 from the ground. The group seemed to be turning around, and with that situation handled, I focused my concern on Bob. I found a level spot where I could turn my bike, and I headed down the trail cautiously, hoping not to meet Bob head-on as he blasted up the mountain. He straddled his bike toward the bottom of a slope, headed downhill. He said he had fallen off and rung his bell, and he was going to try another route.
We found that we had cell service because we were just outside of town, so we called Lloyd so Bob and Greg could hook up with the chase truck. The group met up back at the Vagabond Motel. Dan, Joe and I decided to continue our ride, and we waved good-bye to our compadres. We rode mostly pavement, but riding the pavement in Montana is still an adventure. I saw the largest herd of cows I have ever seen, grazing in a grass field by the roadside. Farmers' fields generally line the road, but the mountains loom up behind them.
These mountains become a presence in your consciousness. They become a character in the novel that runs through your mind as you ride these roads. Sometimes we try and conquer them by riding to the summits with our little dirt bikes, but we are only kidding ourselves because you can never conquer a mountain.
We rolled into Wisdom, MT and saw two dirt bikes outside a bar and pizza place. Due to our late start, it was around lunch time, so we turned in and met our friends, Mark and Scott. The Antlers Saloon featured homemade pizza, and we enjoyed a great lunch served by a woman wearing a Kermit the Frog t-shirt. "The kids gave it to me," she said apologetically. "You're never too old for Kermit the Frog," I replied.
With lunch under our belts, we decided our next destination would be Shoup, ID, the place with the old time country store that served milk shakes. Shoup is located on a dirt road on the banks of the Salmon River. We enjoyed sweeping left, right and left again, following the curves of the river. In one left hander, I noticed that the water followed a similar cadence to a motorcycle flowing through a corner. Moving into a corner, the current seemed to pile up on itself and brake, burrowing deep into the bank. Then the river gathered steam and shot out of the corner. I cannot count the number of rivers beside which I have ridden on this trip. A road that follows the contours of a river is a great road, and we have ridden lots of them.
Our group of five arrived at the Shoup general store and ordered up some milk shakes. Mark and I split one because we could not stomach an entire shake after a hearty lunch. Afterwards, we meandered outside, and everyone picked a place in the grass under some shade trees, and we nodded off to sleep with the sound of the river rippling in our dreams. We woke up after and hour or two and hopped on the bikes to head on dirt roads to Salmon, ID.
This was my kind of riding--some challenging dirt trails, followed by some pavement, followed by a milk shake and capped off with a nap in the grass. Within these dispatches I laid out various goals for myself like "exceeding expectations" and "keeping up with Mark's tail light." Now I just want to make it to the end with both me and my bike in one piece. We have had little attrition, considering the aggressive schedule, but we still had to send two riders home on planes, one who had severely sprained his ankle and another who realized he did not enjoy dirt riding so much.
Dan and Joe are great riders, and they led the way out of Shoup. We followed the GPS and tried to head south on dirt toward Salmon. As we rode up the mountain from the river valley, the wide dirt road diminished to double track with lush vegitation. The path narrowed further until we slowed to first gear, making sharp turns while attempting to see through a tunnel of overhanging brush. The path had not seen much motorized traffic in quite a while, and it ended at the edge of a forest with some trees that had been felled by logging operations. We could not identify a path beyond the logging area, so we reversed course and headed back toward Shoup. We would have enjoyed finding a dirt route straight through to Salmon, but you can't complain about re-riding a 40-mile route that includes overgrown double track, dirt roads and sinous blacktop that follows the contours of a river.
A few miles past the Shoup general store, Scott pulled over to the side of the road with a flat rear tire. This was an inconvenience, but it was not a show-stopper since the trip planners had encouraged everyone to come prepared to ride as if you were riding solo. We had plenty of tire irons and spare tubes, should they become necessary.
But first we wanted to try re-inflating the tire. A street motorcyclist might wonder why that would work. Most of the trip participants had filled their inner tubes with Slime. Slime is a fluorescent green substance that contains bits of rubber and magic, and it often plugs tire punctures. I *heart* Slime. Using a combination of Slime and heavy-duty inner tubes, I rode 14,000 miles to Panama and back, and I only had two flats. Slime fixed the second one after I re-inflated the tube five or 10 times.
Although Scott was a mechanic, he had not yet been converted to the Slime religion. Mark and I proselytized as best we could. We used Scott's handy-dandy battery-operated tire pump (manufactured by Slime, yay!) to bring the tire back to 20 PSI. Then Scott mounted the bike and headed down the road. He pulled over again in 5 minutes, so we tried it again. Sometimes Slime requires a few tries before it "takes." That lasted another five minutes. Mark and I watched with bated breath while Scott re-inflated the tire a third time. "Third time's a charm. You've got to keep a positive attitude!" Mark said.
Scott rode 30 feet, and the tire immediately went flat. He hauled himself off the bike, dropped his drawers and mooned the camera that Mark was using to document the repair process. After a laugh, we set about the laborious process of removing the rear tire to replace the inner tube. Although the sky was growing dark at 8 PM, the situation was not so dire because we had roughly one hour to travel on smooth pavement.
We arrived at the Wagons West Motel in Salmon, ID around 9:30. I quickly walked to the restaurant next door, where our fellow riders had sat down to dinner. The group greeted my late arrival with a cheer, and I took the occasion to ham it up for the crowd. "Don't you just hate it when someone shows up for a trip, and they're woefully unprepared? I'm really worried about Scott. He has not sorted out his equipment."
The group greeted this comment with a roar, which might have had something to do with my comedic skills, or it might have related to the three empty bottles of wine on the table. Regardless, this was funny because Scott was a mechanic, and he was incredibly helpful, offering advice and getting his hands dirty with every rider's bike. By constrast, I had joined the trip as a late arrival, and I had not performed a lot of maintenance on my bike. The maintenance I *had* performed had the effect of stripping the oil drain plug threads and requiring a pick-up by the chase truck on the second day of riding. With that background and three bottles of wine, you would think my comment was funny, too.
Day 11: Salmon, ID to Arco, ID (180 miles)
Our second-to-last day of riding was supposed to comprise more than 200 miles of off-road travel, according to Ryan's route sheet. By now, some of us had grown smart and figured out that we had to ignore the route in order to enjoy ourselves. On this day, Ryan's father, Stan, put together the mother of all routes that provided challenging hill climbs and amazing vistas while still getting us to our destination in time for dinner.
We traveled through downtown Salmon, Idaho, and I felt a pang of regret as I rode past the quaint brick storefronts and underneath a banner that advertised a local rodeo that weekend. If I were traveling on my own, I would take the time to slow down and enjoy Salmon, as well as many other destinations along our trip, but one must accept the compromises that come along with a group ride.
The rest of the day involved no compromises and revealed to me one of the major benefits of group rides, which is following in someone else's tracks and discovering something completely unexpected. Following a GPS track he had laid out earlier, Stan steered us onto a dirt double track and pointed into the distance, where 40 miles of flat terrain terminated in a dead end at the base of a massive mountain. "We're going over that," he said.
I took in a gulp of thin air and considered that although the sight of that mountain range frightened me, my dirt bike proficiency had improved to the point that our group of four rode at roughly the same skill level. If this experience turned out to be painful for me, it would be painful for everybody.
We headed up the first incline, and I used a new-to-me riding style that I had adapted for my Suzuki DR650. Back on the East Coast, I had ridden mostly smaller bikes for shorter stints in the saddle. Riding a rented KTM 200 two-stroke up a steep mountain was like riding a bicycle compared to riding a DR650 loaded down with enough tools and gear for eight days on the road. On a lightweight bike, you rev the engine high, spin the rear tire and just bounce from rock to rock on your way up the hill. If you bounced in the wrong direction, a light shift in body weight would put you back on track. If you somehow happened to fall on a light bike, you would feel more embarassment than pain as you hefted the bike back to upright position.
The DR650 required more respect due to its weight, but it had the benefit of more power. I remembered watching my cousin-in-law, Todd, ride his similar Honda XR400 up steep hills, just sitting in the saddle and letting the strong motor pull the bike up the hill. You can lug these engines down to low RPMs like a tractor, and the large flywheels will keep the engine running. It's much less dramatic than how you would ride a lightweight bike, but it wears you out less. I would need that extra energy in case I really screwed up and fell off the bike on this mountain.
We arrived at a steep slope, and Stan made it up the hill quickly, although he had to pull his feet off the pegs to catch a slide near the top. Scott rode next. At this point in the trip, he was probably our strongest rider, and he made it without incident. I was set to follow him, but Mark pulled me aside and said, "Let me go first, just in case I fall off and need help picking up the bike." Yikes! I had ridden behind Mark for seven days at this point and observed my experienced, 78-year-old buddy make it down every trail with no problem, and now he was relying on me for help.
Mark made it up that slope, and I girded myself for the challenge ahead. I followed Mark's line and headed up the left side of the deepest rut in the trail. At the steepest part, I had to switch sides for improved traction, but the rear wheel unweighted for a second and started to spin. I forced myself to avoid fanning the clutch and let the revs drop a bit, while screaming inside my helmet, "You are a tractor! A tractor! You will tractor up this mountain. Yeeaaah!" The motor bucked a few times and seemed to consider stalling, which would have put me straight on my butt, but somehow the bike kept running.
I cleared the top of the hill only to see another one in front of me. Stan was climbing a tricky, off-camber section where the trail went up and sideways at the same time. He popped off the bike suddenly and began a head-over-heels cartwheel down the side of the mountain. With his arms and legs flying, he looked like someone bounding down the mountain inside a huge beach ball, trying to create an avalanche, except he was missing the ball. He arrested his fall after two somersaults and quickly hefted his heavy bike up to his thigh. I ran up to help get him back on the trail, and I found myself out of breath just getting there. We were probably standing at 7,500 feet elevation by this time. I asked Stan if he wanted to rest before maneuvering the bike back to the trail, and thankfully, he said yes. I was impressed at his ability to get the bike upright after enduring one of the most dramatic get-offs I had ever seen on the trip.
We headed up one more slope a few hundred yards up the trail, and Mark came off his bike this time. Watching a 78-year-old fall off a motorcycle always causes concern, but his experience was more of a flop to the side than a spectacular flight. Thankfully, he was ok, and Scott helped him set the bike upright. The rest of the climb took place without incident, and we stopped to take some photos at the summit, with purple mountain peaks in the background and the smell of sage in the air. Photos and back-thumping contributed to a spirit of celebration. We congratulated ourselves on making it to the top, and we congratulated Stan on organizing a terrific ride for the day. We had conquered our last difficult climb, and we felt confident that we would finish out the Tour of Tater in one piece.
We had climbed in a few short miles from 5,000 to 8,500 feet, and we had to head downhill in due course. We came to one steep section, just as tricky as the one we had climbed. Mark, Scott and Stan waited for me at the bottom as I headed off the precipice. I used Scott's recommendation of killing the motor in second gear and using the clutch to provide additional braking at the rear wheel. I get the impression this is a novice cop-out move, but I would use every trick in the book to avoid landing underneath a heavily laden DR650.
I stood up and leaned back in the seat as much as I could with my dry bag strapped to the back. I attempted to keep the rear wheel rolling, but my right toe put too much pressure on the brake pedal, which caused some sliding. It felt like the rear end of my bike was trying to come around and race me to the bottom. The rear slipped some more and then the front, and I decided to let the bike gather some speed to avoid falling down. The terrain smoothed out near the bottom, and then I worried about barreling into my friends and knocking them off the mountain. I arrived safely at the bottom with slightly shaken nerves, and we moved on.