XCountry – Pt 3 (2006)

The Return Home

Map Link

Now that I’ve spent time with family and friends, it was time to go home and return to daily life in Seattle. Its a fairly straight line across the country, but I’ll try and make it interesting.

The deer were still out, so it was slow going through the Oglebay Resort, but once I hit I-70 in Wheeling there was no stopping me. There’s not much in the way of diversions along this route. I re-traced my tire tracks back to Zanesville and then was onto new territory: Columbus, OH, Indianapolis, IN, Peoria, IL (almost) and then finishing up in Madison, WI. All this way in hot, humid conditions and I was tired. I hadn’t slept well the previous night and the early morning were both working against me. I stopped often at rest stops to close my eyes for 15 minutes, but an hour later down the road I was fighting my eyelids again. I had hoped to do a Saddle Sore 1000 (1,000 miles in 24 hours) when I left Madison the next day, but I knew that after this day there was no way I could do it. I was already going to cover 714 miles today and another 1,000 in the morning just didn’t sound like something worth attempting. Oh well, there would be another time. The weather cooled off slightly as I got further north in Illinois, and some welcome rain fell for a few miles. It was finally getting to be comfortable riding weather.

I paid my toll, crossed into Wisconsin and started to follow my directions for Dave’s house. The instructions were simple and it didn’t take too much effort or time to find his driveway in Cross Plains, just west of Madison. I don’t know how they did it, but I was just taking off my gear as he and his wife Deb finished sautéing the garlic and onions for a wonderful chicken dinner. It was very good and to top it off we walked to the local Culvers for custard. Some pleasant conversation later and then we all made an early evening of it. I was truly ready for the guest bed after 13 hours on the road in draining, humid conditions.

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Ohio farm

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Minnesota grasses

The next morning was quick, with Deb heading off to play in some bad weather while Dave offered to take me on his route to work before I went on my own way. What a route to work! I have to say I was impressed, and wouldn’t mind that every morning. It wasn’t long, and soon Dave was turning off for his office and I was continuing along to find more fun roads. I picked randomly from the map in front of me and enjoyed what I found. I took a wrong turn once or twice, which allowed me to inspect a local town 2 or 3 times more than I wanted to. But then I looked at the clock. How does time manage to slip away so easily? I took a likely route north to Tomah, WS that then let me hop onto I-90, American’s longest interstate, and all points westward. Wisconsin passed under my tires quickly and I stopped after crossing the Mississippi into Minnesota to take a break and grab a map. From there I stayed on I-90, making a brief stop in Blue Earth to see the 55′ statue of the Jolly Green Giant and to find some vittles. If I had known that Blue Earth is the birthplace of the Ice Cream Sandwich I might have made an effort to find one. As it was, I had a hard enough time finding a good place to eat. I could not find a diner or cafe in the entire town, despite a slow cruise down and back. The hot dog vendor in the grocery store parking lot had quite a crowd around him and I admit that I was tempted to stop there. But I wanted someone to wait on me, and a comfy, cushioned seat under my bum, so kept searching. I settled for the “Country Kitchen” and while not terrible, it certainly wasn’t anything worth stopping for again.

The original Wall Drug store was opened in 1931. It languished for five years before finding its niche as the epitome of American kitsch. Minnesota showed me my first “Wall Drug” billboard, 355 miles from Wall, SD. Let the countdown begin! South Dakota isn’t as bad as most people make it out to be. Sure, it’s flat. And long. And dry. And hot. But still, there is always beauty to be found if you look for it. I enjoyed the sights of rolled hay in the fields. Or how every farmhouse was surrounded by a dense cluster of trees, shielding it from the heat of summer and bitter cold of winter. You could tell there was a farmstead miles away simply by the dark cloud of greenery against the tan colored hills. I stopped in Mitchell, SD because I wanted to see the Corn Palace. All I can say is “interesting”. I confess that I didn’t go inside, but merely took a picture of it from across the street, but that was enough to satisfy me. I also found some tacky State Travel Stickers for my bike in a local souvenir shop.

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Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, MN

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The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD

From Mitchell there was nowhere to go but west. I wanted to make it to Wall Drug the next morning; so the closer I got tonight the less I’d have to travel later. I was going to camp, I had promised myself, and kept an eye on the KOA signs and distances. There was a lot of road construction in South Dakota, which created some slow stretches, but for the most part it was easy going. After 686 miles and 12 hours I finally gave up at Belvedere’s KOA. I pulled in, not having stayed at a KOA since I was a young’un camping with my family. I was dismayed at the $20 camping fee, although I do recognize that the campground did offer a lot of amenities; I just wouldn’t be using many of them. The woman who ran this site was very helpful and friendly and did her best to make me feel welcome. I apologized for being cranky, explaining that I was just hot and tired. She seemed to take it all in stride. I was escorted to my site by a friendly staff member and was left to set up camp. I saw one other motorcycle when I pulled in but when I walked around later the bike was gone. I went into the KOA store to see about dinner and to look around at what they sold there. In a matter of minutes the other motorcyclist was there ordering an Indian taco for dinner. I introduced myself as a rider and he invited me to join him for dinner. We sat near each other and were soon discussing where we had come from that day and what we had seen. Jim was newly retired and this whole idea of traveling without a time frame was new to him. Traveling alone, he was very eager to strike up a conversation and talk about his trip and plans. He was spending his time checking out “things of the bizarre” such as the Giant Ball of Twin and Babe and the Blue Ox. He was disappointed to learn that he had been within a block of the Jolly Green Giant and still somehow missed him. His was the sort of ride I was wishing I had, with no time limits or deadlines. But each of us was enjoying our trip in our own way. We were both headed for Wall Drug in the morning and Jim asked if I’d like to ride there with him. I agreed, and then after eating our meal we walked back to his campsite where he showed me photos that he had taken on his trip thus far. His bike is a Vulcan pulling a trailer and looked very well set up for travel, but Jim confessed that the fuel range was very limiting and he’d probably sell this bike next spring. It was dark when I walked back to my campsite and I climbed gratefully into my sleeping bag for a night’s sleep under the stars.

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South Dakota views

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Belvidere KOA

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Camping in Belvidere, SD

The morning light didn’t wake me as much as the singing of the songbirds did. Redwing blackbirds and mourning doves were prominent in their chorus to me as I lay comfortably in my tent. I poked my head out of the door and saw that despite the low clouds on the horizon, it was well into morning already. I got up, dressed and packed everything up in short order before riding the bike around to the office where I would wait for Jim. It was early, as the office didn’t open until 7am and the door was still locked. I sat quietly outside and soon a KOA employee came by to open the door and then Jim showed up on his Vulcan. The day would begin.

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Jim’s rig

Jim led us back to the interstate, tooling along at a cruiser’s pace; a man retired from the world and with no where to go. I chomped at the bit behind him, but consoled myself that it wasn’t far to Wall Drug and we really weren’t going that slowly. Jim signaled and pulled off onto a scenic overlook. I wasn’t sure what was so scenic about it and probably would have passed by without a second glance, but again, I was adopting Jim’s traveling practices for this little jaunt and played along. We walked to a hilltop where we were treated to a glimpse of the Badlands. “Glimpse” because that’s about all I saw. I took a picture anyway, which was to be the last picture ever taken with that camera. It fell to the ground while putting on my helmet and while not appearing to be greatly damaged; it must have died from internal injuries. Jim and I mounted our bikes and took off once again for Wall Drug, a thankfully short distance at this point. When we arrived in the town, Jim and I parked our bikes on the main street. He was ready to explore, I was ready to keep going. I had stopped for one thing: a sticker, and I knew that I could have it and be gone in 10 minutes or less. I mentioned this to Jim, suggested that we part ways and thanked him for his companionship. He strolled down the sidewalk, already taken in by everything there was to see as I dashed into the local arcade for my prize.

One sticker later and I was headed west again. I argued with myself about replacing the camera. Should I wait until I got home and then shop around for a good deal, possibly even e-bay or craigslist? Or was it important that I get one now, to take pictures for the rest of the trip? And just how much more of the trip was there? Only Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, BC and Washington. I’d been to all of these places before and couldn’t imagine what I might come across that would demand a picture then and there. The miles continued as I made my debate for either side. As I approached Rapid City I let my impulsiveness take over when I saw the sign for the Rushmore Mall. I would find a decent camera shop and then be on my way.

The Mall was closed. Oh, it would open in about 10 minutes, but I had to stand around in my gear for a while, waiting for the Ritz shop to finally raise its gate and open its cash register. Once inside, I made a fairly hurried purchase, took only the important part of the packaging and was back on my bike in less than 20 minutes. Now, where were those photographic events??

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The last picture taken with my camera before I dropped it

South Dakota gave way to Wyoming and I could see in the distance Devils Tower, a ghostly spine on the horizon. I looked for things that would look good in the camera lens and kept on riding. Eventually I was rewarded with the Big Horn Mountains. I had crossed them a few years ago and I was looking forward to reliving the experience. A quick stop at a gas station in Ranchester to call a local friend (who wasn’t home) and then chat with a couple of motorcyclists from Manitoba and another rider who was heading back to Pittsburgh after four weeks on the road gave me a moment to suck down some fluids and recharge my mental batteries. I bid the riders adieu and was on my way.

Ranchester is essentially the beginning of the Big Horns and it took no time at all for the flatness of the plains to drop away as the road scaled the sides of these ancient mountains. The area is called Shell Canyon and is known for the vast number of fossils found there. The pink formations gave an unreal feeling, and the road cut deep into the sides to expose even more colors. I had to fight my way past some remarkably slow drivers but after that the road was mine. A quick stop at Burgess Junction for “old time’s sake” and then I continued my blissful ride through gently sweeping corners and along scenic ridge tops. The air had cooled off considerably as the road gained elevation and I thought about stopping to close some vents, but couldn’t quite bring myself to stop for anything. After thousands of miles of interstate slab, I was enjoying this too much. I did finally stop at the highest point, where I was offered tremendous views of the flatness that is central Wyoming. The wildflowers were out in profusion, which always seems like a rare thing to me. I took some pictures of both the flowers and the views and then began the rapid descent down the western side of the mountain range. At the bottom, the road was in view of the Big Horn River, a large and fertile looking body of water, a place that I could easily see myself stopping at if I were a pioneer. But then there were lots of places that I’d consider stopping at, which is what makes me marvel about those hardy souls who found the strength and determination to keep going. Right now, I would be ones of those souls who kept going.

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Devil’s Tower, WY

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Mounds in eastern Wyoming

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Approaching the Big Horn Mountains

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Climbing up Shell Ridge

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Shell Ridge

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Looking east from the Big Horns

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Views along the Big Horns

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Looking back

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Looking west from the Big Horn mountains

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Big Horn flowers

I had wanted to ride Beartooth Pass last year on my big ride, but the road had been closed due to many slides. I thought that perhaps now would be my chance and considered the distance to be covered as compared to the height of the sun in the sky. Unless I wanted to fight with deer at the other end of the Pass, it would not happen on this trip. I resigned myself to an alternate route that would prove interesting, even if not as spectacular as Beartooth. I passed through infrequent small towns, each with their own reduced speed limit, and made up time in between them. While rolling into one town near the Montana border I saw a “Port of Entry” sign, but with a near-empty parking lot. For days now I had wanted to weigh my bike, fully packed and with a full tank of gas. I was down about 2 gallons (out of 8) on this tank, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I pulled into the lot, parked the bike and went inside. The woman behind the counter was helping the lady with the truck out front, but as soon as they were done she asked how she could help. I asked her if it would be possible to weigh my bike. “Sure thing!” All I had to do was pull it onto the scale, step off to the side and when the green light came on that meant that she had my number. I smiled excitedly and went out to move my bike. The green light came on and I saw her give me a thumbs up behind her window. I re-parked the bike and went back inside. She handed me an un-official looking piece of paper that had a generic printout on it. But the key information was there: 720 pounds. That was a lot of bike to haul around! Pleased with this knowledge, I thanked her, tucked the paper into a safe spot and went in search of Montana.

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Montana road

Montana has its own brand of beauty, most of it in the western half of the state where I was coming into. The road I was on paralleled a small mountain range and was kept company by railroad tracks and little else. I wondered how far I could expect to get today, with the sun falling in the west and me barely even approaching I-90 again. Less than an hour later I picked up the highway again at Laurel and mentally ticked off the towns as I crawled past them. Montana is a big state. I looked on the map at Missoula, hoping that I could get that far but knowing that I probably wouldn’t. I looked at Livingston, which was coming up soon and knew that I could get further. I considered Bozeman but it seemed too close as well. I set my eyes on Butte, MT as my destination for the night. I considered stopping for something to eat, not having eaten since I left Wyoming that morning, but I wanted to do “one stop shopping” and eat wherever I decided to stop that night. I got through Three Forks and the highway continued its slow progress west. Homestake Pass was fun, with high-speed corners to play on and easily out-accelerating anything else on the climb up its sides. All too soon it was over and I was once again merely making time. The sun dropped below the horizon in an unspectacular setting and I was left with a growing darkness and dropping temperatures. Butte finally made its way onto the exit signs and I stopped where there was a plethora of motels to chose from. I stopped at Days Inn, touted on one billboard as the most “economical in town”. At $89 a room, I was afraid to try anything else, but I did go to the Super 8 as my BMW membership is supposed to offer me a discount there. Room rates were less than the Days Inn, but still not to my wallet’s liking. The helpful receptionist suggested that if I got back on the highway there was a motel, the Rocker Inn, about 7 miles further down the road that had good rates. I thanked her and once more got on the bike and back on the highway.

The Rocker Inn was unremarkable, but it was cheap and I got the last room. I figured that I’d run over to the Arby’s for a quick bite of dinner before unpacking the bike, maybe even bring it back to the room to eat in solitude. It was much more difficult than it should have been to find the Arby’s and when I did finally walk inside, their fryers and grills were almost empty. There would be no dinner for me tonight. I rode back to the room, unpacked the bike and after a relaxing hot shower I settled down for some bad TV.

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Montana sunset

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Company in my hotel room

Today I was to meet up with another STN friend of mine, this time in Nelson, BC. My original route had this as an easy day, only 147 miles. But because I didn’t attempt the Saddle Sore 1000 out of Madison, I was sorely behind schedule and would have to cover about 450 miles. I arose at a decent hour, repacked the bike and, once again, got on I-90. I was treated almost immediately to the peaceful sight of two deer standing by a flowing river. One deer was on the far bank and the other deer was standing in the water, maybe 6″ deep, with the sun low in the sky behind them both. It gave me a very serene feeling and a wish that I could have photographed it. Miles later, I saw a similar sight and was struck by the fortune of seeing both of them so close to each other. Montana blends well into Idaho and it’s hard to tell when you’ve left one state and entered another. And while Montana has Homestake Pass, Idaho has Lookout Pass, a much more involved and complicated series of highway twists and turns that I was more than willing to partake in. For the first time, I found a weakness in the GS, although I believe it to be very correctable with a simple shock adjustment. When cornering at 80+ mph, somewhat leaned over and with full baggage, the front end tends to wallow a bit. It’s rather unsettling (literally and figuratively) and did make me keep my speeds down somewhat. Regardless, I was able to enjoy my ride through Idaho, with its pristine streams, fully wooded mountains and small, cozy mining towns along the way. When I reached Coeur d’Alene I switched directions and headed north. I had decided to put full faith in the GPS to get me to Nelson on the quickest route possible, and this would be part of it.

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Excellent breakfast stop in Montana

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Peaceful Idaho river

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Dozens of swallows circle overhead

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Swallow nests in the cliffside

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What was supposed to be a beautiful, natural picture

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I thought it was an interesting angle

The panhandle of Idaho was unremarkable, as was the crossing into the northeast corner of Washington State. I recognized many town names from previous travels in the area and was once again counting down to the border crossing. It was getting hot again and my bum had been plaguing me for the entire trip, never quite leaving me in peace. Therefore it was with dismay that I came to a construction zone less than 10 miles from the border. I had been passing over hard packed gravel sections for a while now, but they barely caused me to alter my pace and posed no problems. Now I was being stopped by a flagger who informed me that there would be a 15 minute wait for the pace car to come through, and that the road itself was “very bad”, with lots of loose gravel. I parked the bike in the shade and unzipped as much gear as I could while waiting. Two cars came by and were waiting in line as well, but they sat in the sun and the flagger was talking with them. Finally, after an amazingly long time, the pace car came through to start the parade. The flagger informed me that I would bring up the rear so that I could take my time and go as slow as I wanted. I initially scoffed at this consideration, thinking that instead I was going to get flicked by rocks and choked by dust. But as the four of us threaded our way past construction vehicles it became apparent that the “very bad” description was not too much of an exaggeration on the flagger’s part. While most of the zone consisted of the same well-packed dirt as before, there were also really long stretches of loose gravel. Fist-sized loose gravel in ruts and grooves that sucked at my tires and turned the front wheel willy-nilly. I did keep up with the cars, but mostly with the consolation that at least if I dropped the bike there would be someone around to help pick it up. And then I wondered if the state would pay for damages… But that never came to pass. I choked on the dust, I fought my way through the gravel and I suffered under the hot rays of the sun at very slow speeds. It was only 7 miles, but it was the longest 7 miles I had experienced in a very long time. And it didn’t end until the border.

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Old power station in Washington

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My bike, tired of waiting for construction vehicles

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Construction site from hell

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Nelson!!!

I thought that I’d be home free at the border, with only one vehicle in front of me now to stall for time. Instead, I was left sitting in the sun with my bike, waiting for the patrol to finish grilling the driver ahead of me. I’m not sure what their issue was with him, but I had plenty of time to consider what it may be. I removed my helmet and gloves. I pulled out my passport in preparation. I watched the driver sitting in his truck. I got off the bike and walked around it a couple of times, admiring the dirt and dust from the trip. I considered taking a picture of the International Border markers. I read the plaque on one small monument. I wondered if the border patrol was picky about cameras at the crossings. I walked around the bike again. Finally the border guards let the driver go and it was my turn to pull forward. I pulled up the window and handed the young guard my passport. He asked me the usual questions, to which I gave him the usual responses. I asked him if he’d stamp my passport but he informed me that they don’t do that any more. I countered that the other crossings in the state stamped it for me. He was firm in his refusal. He then asked me a series of questions to which my answers must have sounded very bad.

Patrol: “Where are you going?”
Me: “To Nelson to visit a friend”
Patrol: “What’s your friend’s name?”
Me: (hesitating, because I only really know him by his screen name, and saying “Baz” just didn’t seem appropriate) “Barry”
Patrol: “Where are you staying in Nelson?”
Me: “I’m not sure. A hotel. I have the name written down somewhere.”
Patrol: “How long are you going to stay?”
Me: “Just for the night.”

A very subtle eyebrow rose and he handed me back my passport. Feeling sheepish for the exchange that had just taken place, I decided to push my luck. I gave him a big smile, blinked my big blue eyes at him and asked one more time “Are you sure you can’t stamp my passport?” He sighed, took the passport back, closed the window, exchanged a couple of words with his co-worker and I could see the stamping paraphernalia coming out of a drawer. Ha! I got a stamp!

The ride into Nelson was, as always, enjoyable. The temperature immediately became comfortable and the roads were winding, clear and smooth. I love this area of the country. It was 4:30 local time when I pulled into the hotel in Nelson. There was some concern because I was at the wrong hotel (I didn’t realize they had two locations), but I soon found out where I should be, found the room reserved by Barry and took a much-appreciated shower. Barry had left a note saying where he was and when he’d be back, so I left him a note telling him where to find me. I also called a good friend of mine who lives in Nelson and invited him to join Barry and me for dinner. The three of us had a great evening with enjoyable conversation and a delicious meal. A good night’s sleep was the perfect end to a perfect evening.

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Baz (Barry) in Nelson

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Me leaving Nelson (Baz takes better pictures)

It would take me just a day to travel the 400+ miles to home but I wanted to get there in the early evening, so I made sure to leave before it got too late in the morning. I rolled out of Nelson before 9am and was cruising along what Canada calls a “highway”, known locally at Highway 3. It’s a good road for making good time and still enjoying the ride. A quick stop in Osoyoos to secure a bottle of wine for my cat sitter, an easy crossing at the border and then I was back in Washington. I had posted to STN that I would be in Winthrop around 12:30 or 1:00 for lunch, in case anyone from the area wanted to meet up with me there. I wasn’t too late, pulling in to Winthrop at 1:20 as my trip odometer rolled over exactly 7,000 miles. I coasted through the cruiser-riddled main street looking for familiar bikes but was not surprised that I didn’t see anyone I knew. The odds of someone seeing my post and actually being able to make it were slim. Therefore when I took off my helmet and looked up to see my friend Doug standing there I was surprised, to say the least. He had found my post the previous night, had no specific plans for the weekend and thought he’d ride down to meet up with me. We had a nice lunch in town and then, because neither of us really had to be anywhere for another day, decided to make a day of it in Winthrop, staying somewhere in the area for the night. That’s when I remembered that my veterinarian was building a cabin somewhere nearby. I somehow remembered his home phone number, rang him up and asked if I could use the cabin for the evening. He gave me permission, told me where the key was and mumbled out some directions. Doug and I got on our bikes to find the cabin, which was rather like a treasure hunt. The directions hadn’t been clear, but eventually we found the cabin, located about 4 miles beyond the paved roads of civilization and within what seemed like the state’s largest deer herd.

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Duck Inn, Winthrop, WA

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Duck Inn

The cabin was beautiful, but unfinished. We had to turn the water on, and it would not be convenient to make dinner there. We got back on the bikes, returned to Winthrop and stopped at the Duck Inn, a beautiful hotel and restaurant. As we put our names down for a table, a young woman approached us. She and her husband had watched us pull up, had a table for four and were wondering if we would like to join them for dinner and conversation. I’m very glad that we did, as it was one of most enjoyable evenings I had ever had. But as all things good, it came to an end when the meal was over and dessert had been consumed. Stefan and Liga returned to their room and Doug and I made it back to the cabin just as the last of the evening’s light left the sky. Then, in the dark and isolated woods, in a borrowed cabin, we watched a horror movie that had been rented in town. The cabin isn’t small, equipped with three bedrooms, two full baths, a second floor, living and dining areas. And lots of doors to open in the dark. It’s a good thing that I don’t spoke easily!

A leisurely breakfast back at the Duck Inn took place before we tackled my last leg of my journey. Doug would ride with me over the North Cascades Highway before heading back north to home. I would head south to Seattle and my kitties. A momentary lapse of judgment led me to pass a car about 30’ before the dotted line actually started, and a State Patrolman pulled me over, issuing a ticket for this stupid infraction. I could not believe that I had traveled 7,000 miles incident and ticket-free, only to get one 200 miles from home. I was livid.

Boiling for the rest of the ride, both because of the ticket and the heat, I followed Doug’s lead across the mountain passes and let him set the pace. I was happy to take a break at Rockport, our dividing point, and recover my sense of joy of the trip. Doug and I said our good byes and I took some more back roads before being jettisoned into the traffic flow of I-5. It was 5pm on Sunday, 19 days after leaving, that I pulled again into my driveway to be greeted by my kitties and thoughts of my own bed.

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The cabin in the woods

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Breakfast at the Duck Inn

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Anyone know what this is?

Return to Part I
Return to Part II

Tell me what you think! I want to know!