Chicago to Austin and back
I doubt you’ve asked the question, “How long does it take to kill a 1973 Honda CB750 on the open road?” But if you have, I can tell you: exactly 3,795 miles. Less than 24 hours and 41 miles after returning from a cross-country venture, a plastic latch on the ignition gave way and killed the bike. It was a fitting coda to a motorycle touring adventure that took me across 12 states and 3,754 miles. But let’s back up a bit.
I’m only partly sure why I want to take my bike on a cross country motorcycle trip. I think of wide open vistas, my bike piercing through the heart of the country on perfect winding roads. I think of sitting atop an engine smaller than a gallon of milk, carrying all my belongings strapped where possible, being absolutely self-reliant. But I’m also terrified at the idea of this self reliance since I am the sum total of help available, should things break down. But just as this fear gives me pause, it also prods me. It’s also probably the best reason of all to attempt this trip.
The bike is a 1973 Honda CB750 with a 1976 engine. It’s mostly stock, though the engine likely has a big bore kit. The electric starter doesn’t, so I kickstart it. I’ve swapped the 4-into-2 exhaust for a Mac 4-into-1, which has a decent sound. It has Dyna ignition and I converted the fuse box to use blade fuses. I splurge on a halogen headlight and new K&N air pods.
I spend all summer sorting out problems both real and imagined. I rebuild the steering stem, then spend a week rebuilding the swingarm and half of July tracking down electrical glitches. For a while, I think I have to rebuild the engine, but summer’s fading fast. Mid-September arrives and procrastination has out-muscled ambition. I’m failing the logic portion of this test. I’m trying to know the unknowable. I’m guessing what will happen instead of finding out what happens.
I start getting serious and find an Army rucksack to carry clothes and my laptop, along with saddlebags patched up with duct tape to carry tools and such. An $18 clearance tank bag completes the luggage. They say you can fix Hondas with a 10mm wrench and duct tape, but I’m not taking any chances. I bring fuel hose, new wiring, connectors and a Clymer manual, along with a 10-piece socket set. The tools take up one saddlebag, my rain suit takes up the other. The tools seldom get used; I use the rain suit a lot.
I spend two more days sorting the bike out. Carbs are synched, halogen headlight installed and three sparkplugs are replaced. The fourth one’s been jammed into place since spring — it’s cross-threaded and likely won’t go back in if removed. It stays, and I’m off.
I leave Chicago late on the last day of September and make a quick run to the liberal confines of my hometown, Madison, Wis. I can’t wait to exit Illinois. Anybody who’s travelled I-90 will tell you that as you pass the “Thank you for using the Illinois State Toll Road” sign, things magically become more interesting and hilly, not coincidentally as soon as you cross the border into Wisconsin. It’s like a Jesus poster, where a single ray of sunshine pierces the clouds and shines on you, the person who just left Illinois.
The next morning, temperatures are in the mid-40s and rain is forecast for the entire day. Guess I’ll find out whether this rain suit works. Heading to Minneapolis, I make my way along Route 14 and shadow the Wisconsin River. I’m in search of Blue River, Wis., and a local resident who has dressed up his property with the carcasses of dead bikes and snowmobiles. Apparently he’s quite the amateur sculptor and has made himself a local celebrity of sorts. I ask where this spectacle is and I’m told “you can’t miss it.” I round a sweeping right-hand curve and there it is. Along several hundred feet of fence are the remnants of dozens of old Hondas, Suzukis and, curiously, twice as many helmets. Snowmobiles are attached to boat pieces, then welded to bikes. At the far end of the fence, a tall upright boat is festooned with a plaque that reads, “Death Row.” Guess this is the title of the “piece.” Unfortunately, the artist isn’t home, so any deeper meaning to the display is left to conjecture.
The weather is the most miserable I’ve ever endured. There’s no way I’m getting to Minneapolis tonight, and if the roads are hazardous in daylight, they’re homicidal at night. I can barely see 50 feet in front of me during the heavier rain, and I have to stop every 30 miles to regain feeling in my hands. My $10 shop boots are basically sponges and leave tiny puddles with every step on dry pavement. I change socks in a gas station bathroom and wrap my feet in plastic bags, which helps a great deal.
I make it to La Crosse, crash at a hotel and wake up early to take pictures of the World’s Largest 6-Pack at the old G. Heileman brewery. It’s 38 degrees and raining for 140 out of 156 possible miles. If yesterday was unfun, today is worse. I discover that running open pods through heavy rain is a bad idea. The bike sounds like a lawn mower on the first day of spring.
I make it to the heart of downtown Minneapolis before getting properly lost. Former Governor Jesse Ventura famously claimed St. Paul’s city grid was laid out by drunken Irishmen, but I think the credit extends to its western neighbor.
It rains all five days I’m in Minneapolis and temps are about 10 degrees below normal, but sun makes an appearance on the morning of my departure. It’s 38. Again. The bike kicks over on the 15th try, and soon water and mostly gas are sputtering out of the exhaust. It takes 20 minutes to get the engine case warm enough to not drip ounces of oil on the ground.
I head south on I-35 to clear the city and soon pick up Route 27. Pulling into a gas station in Austin, Minn., I’m pleased to discover the sudden lack of a rear brake. I say “pleased” because it happened at 5mph, not 75mph. A farmer sees me under my bike, and in five minutes he returns from his house with a handful of bolts. I don’t have the heart to tell him my bike is 99 percent metric, but one of his standard bolts actually does the trick.
Having tried to enjoy the desolate wasteland that is Iowa countryside, I decide to make my exit as fast and painless as possible. So it’s I-80 west, then I-35 south for a grand total of 310 miles or so. The wind isn’t too bad, and the rain never reappears, so it’s a nice sprint. If you squint, the landscape half-resembles a bucolic beer sign setting, but mostly not. Iowa is apparently the birthplace of the thousand-yard stare.
Iowa gives way to Missouri, and for the first time I enter a state on a major interstate with rest stops and welcome centers. Although the landscape is the same, I can’t help but think the air is slightly warmer, the hills slightly bigger and roads a bit curvier. Silly, I know. I reach Kansas City in time to be blinded by the setting sun while attempting to navigate the serpentine I-35/I-70 interchange.
To my horror, my first meal in K.C. is a falafel at a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol. I begin to wonder about the true intentions of my hosts, a gal named Ink and her guy, Ben. Turns out this is merely for irony. We are soon attending “Power Hour” at the Dark Horse, where it’s all you can drink for $12 and two hours. The bar is filled with working class heroes and a few gangsters, some real and most imagined. Soon we head home to Ink and Ben’s garage. Ink and Ben both work on trucks at a Ford dealership, so they’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know about fixing anything, but it doesn’t stop me from loudly lying about ways I’ve fixed my bike with bits of string and broken zip ties.
In the morning I awaken to find that it’s 38 degrees. Again. Still, the bike fires up, impressing my hosts. Highway 71 south is extremely hazardous in that it can bore you to death. The only mildly interesting development is the oil slick developing on my right leg, courtesy of a bad O-ring on the oil pressure switch. An omnipresent oil puddle below the switch trickles down between the ignition and clutch cover, where it gets kicked up onto my pants.
At low speeds it lazily streams down the frame and covers the exhaust. I like this patina, it’s classic motorcycling. But the air pods aren’t having it. The No. 4 is covered with a heavy mist of oil, and the fuel/air effects are obvious. I take a rag and wrap it around the carb boot, and stuff paper towels in the fins, but the pod’s already gummed up. Nothing to do but keep going.
I enter Joplin, Mo., and briefly join Historic Route 66. I see a lawn sign informing people of a “Meth-Free Rally.” This might have something to do with why I can’t find a nice hotel in the downtown area. I suppose a “Meth-Free” rally beats a “Free Meth” rally. Exactly two things of note happen in Joplin. It’s 38 degrees when I wake up — again — and it’s the last time my tach works. Around Vinitas, Okla., I hit Route 69. This mercifully takes me in a fast, straight line out of Oklahoma and across the Red River to Texas. From Sherman, I divide the trip to Austin into two small jaunts, first to Waco, then to Austin.
In Waco I find a Hilton and hit the closest bar for some food and Monday Night Football, but tire of the atmosphere. Returning to the hotel bar, I strike up a conversation with a wheelchair-bound man with severe cerebral palsy. It’s hard to understand him at times, but well worth the effort. I feel vague pity for him, but it turns out no pity is necessary. He wheels himself upstairs to bed and gives me a copy of a book he’s written called Solitary Refinement. Touché.
The next day it rains hard. The storm finally passes, and by 2 p.m. I depart. I planned on taking country roads to Austin but I have three hours to make my own surprise party, so I-35 it is. Around Temple, I’m greeted with 80 degrees and swarms of dragon flies suiciding on my visor. Soon, I make a return to the city I called home for three years and to the best bike bar in southeast Texas, Lovejoy’s.
Two weeks pass in a haze of tacos, cheap beer and the company of good friends. I do make it out to Luckenbach for the Harvest Classic Vintage Bike show. The show features a nice sampling of bikes, from old British twins to 1970s UJMs and pre-war American. And, for the dirty and disreputable among us, a few fine examples of absolutely filthy rat bikes that haven’t seen cleaning products since the mid-1990s.
In Austin I source a stock airbox, minus carb boots. I change the oil and buy a new chain. The new chain requires removing several links, and I find my rear sprocket has 38 teeth, not the standard 48. This is great for highway riding, but explains why I have a hard time beating minivans at stoplights.
Swapping the drunken excess of Austin for the drunken excess of New Orleans, I leave on a bright and warm Tuesday and head for Huntsville, Texas. Should you go to Huntsville, I recommend visiting the Texas Prison Museum, then leaving abruptly. Being Texas, they execute a guy the night I arrive.
The next day I hit Lake Charles, La., and leave my key in the ignition overnight. I find an auto parts shop, charge the battery, then fight 25mph winds all the way to New Orleans. These are some of the toughest miles of the trip. It’s all I can do to hug whichever side of my lane the wind blows me to.
At dusk I reach the outskirts of New Orleans. Where the hell does this city start? I’m right on top of it, and all I can see is purple post-apocalyptic skies with dead trees rising out of the swamp. But traffic picks up, and soon I see signs of civilization. I make a wrong turn and end up in a cemetery, then a gas station in a bad area, another cemetery, and finally to my friend’s house and the waiting arms of my girlfriend.
My friends in New Orleans live on a street that’s more of a court. Being Halloween, everyone’s in costume, or so I think until the next day when some people are still wearing what I thought were costumes. We drink into the early morning with an alcoholic busker who does Tom Waits songs, and his sister, who plays the washboard.
We wake up the next day and have coffee with the busker. He’s a great guy, and has a million stories. Probably the best one involves him falling on an iron gate and impaling himself, and how the fire department used the Jaws of Life to free him. He is by far the most entertaining person I meet on this trip.
The next day I get carb boots and try installing the stock airbox. The boots won’t fit, so I curse a blue streak, throw all my tools into various flower beds and retire to make a Bloody Mary. The next day it comes together nicely, though the rubber boots aren’t sealing properly. Still, the bike instantly runs better. It runs rich, but seemingly has more power. I synch the carbs and find the readings largely where I left them in Chicago. I spray the air filter with chain lube, sew her up and call it a day. I watch the Packers lose to the Vikings again at a bar in the French Quarter, and the next day I leave with a heavy heart and a worse hangover.
Two days later, I hit Memphis. I thought it would be nice to stay downtown, but everything’s booked because of a church convention. I’m told there’s a nice Doubletree down the way, but apparently that’s Memphis-speak for “ghetto-tastic Motel 6 with bulletproof front desk window.” It’s a bit rough, but there is Internet access. I Google the hotel I’m staying at. The first review starts with the sentence, “Some guy tried to break into our room.”
But nothing bad happens, and the next day I’m up bright and early. Church convention be damned, the real church here is Sun Studios and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The Stax Museum has Isaac Hayes’ 1972 custom baby blue Cadillac rotating on a dais. Outstanding.
I reach Missouri, and for the first time in over 3,000 miles a large insect perfectly hits the air inlet below my visor and exits this mortal coil as a fine green mist on the inside of my helmet, forcing a stop by the side of the road. I spend one of the more entertaining nights of the trip getting drunk and watching country music videos in a hotel room in Sikeston, Mo. The next day, I raise my fists in salute as I pass the “Welcome to Illinois” sign.
It’s the final sprint to Chicago, and I finally remember to reset the cam chain tensioner. I’m stalking I-57 from a distance on U.S. 45, which is some of the best riding of the trip. I’m pushing 85 or 90mph where possible. For about two hours I take random right and left turns and try to take pictures while riding. I’ve ridden thousands of miles to get away from all this, but I’m strangely pleased by my familiar surroundings.
With the trip about to end, I find myself in a contemplative mood. I’ve made it, though in truth I’m a bit deflated. I left bravely facing the unknown, undertaking a quixotic journey that seemed destined to fail. But in completing it, I’m destroying the very thing that made it special. The unknown is now known. I rode a 36-year-old bike longitudinally across this country. Turns out it’s not that hard in some ways.
I make a triumphant return to my bar in Chicago, and they put on Easy Rider as a joke. I had to laugh. I didn’t see any of that on my trip. I didn’t see canyons, I didn’t see desert and I certainly didn’t see mountains. I didn’t smile and laugh as I sped down the road. I clenched my teeth, dug my knees in the tank and mostly just tried to keep from sustaining nerve damage to my fingers. It was an endurance match, not a pleasure cruise.
I’m back, alive and uncrashed. I can diminish the trip and what it entailed all I want, but I should celebrate actually doing something I spent all summer talking about. I ignored hundreds of reasons to stay home, and focused on one compelling reason to go — because I truly wanted to. What did I expect going through 12 of the flattest states in the union? Time to shut up, have a beer and tell outrageous lies about the trip.
I’m already planning a trip twice as long next summer, maybe through the desert southwest. This time I’ll try and follow the path Pee-Wee Herman took in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. MC