There aren’t many days in one’s life that combine terror and love in quite the same way your wedding day does.
The first test any marriage is put through is known as “wedding planning.” Having bluffed our way through these trials and joined our lives as one, my wife, Nicole, and I decide we’re going to take a cross-country honeymoon ride, me on my 1973 Honda CB750 and Nic on her 1973 Honda CB350G twin.
As one of the best wedding presents ever, her brother has our bikes shipped out to his home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., so, “all we have to do is ride them home to Chicago.” Rather than traveling through the boring parts of this great land to see the exciting parts, we’ll start at the exciting parts. And if we break down early on, the scenery will be better.
In preparation, and with 12 hours to spare before the bikes get picked up for shipment, new tires are mounted on my 750. And I have 12 hours to see if my fork rebuild worked, whether I can fix a misfire and if I can Helicoil a header mount. The answers are Yes, No and No, but I fixed it with J-B Weld.
Nic’s 350 just needs gas. It’s a time machine — it still has the clear warning sticker on the gas tank. Assuming all goes well, she’ll be the hero of the trip. Thousands of marginally talented riders have ridden cross-country on 750s. But doing it on a small twin will be a bit more challenging.
With bikes shipped, we arrive at LAX, and our first obstacle is our own stupidity. We brought nothing but black leather gear for a July trip through the desert. After a trip to Chaparral Motorsports, we’re outfitted in white textile clown suits. These jackets will mean the difference between possible and probable heatstroke.
We plan a route roughly heading to Las Vegas and parts beyond. We enjoy half a day of lovely curves on SR 18 and SR 38 by Big Bear Lake before we set off to see the dinosaurs at Cabazon, Calif., which were featured in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Reaching the valley floor, it’s about 100 F, and soon hits 110 F. It’s close to untenable, even with the new gear. We see the dinosaurs and manage to make it to Palm Springs before heat-induced vomiting and fainting can begin.
Nic’s fading fast, so we stop at the first hotel I see, which turns out to be abandoned. The second hotel is the Movie Colony, a vast improvement. Rapid recovery is made with beer and a 24-hour pool, but neither of us has ever experienced 114 F heat before. How do old people survive, never mind thrive here?
The intense heat casts doubt on our trip goals. Forget the bikes, what happens if we break down in the middle of nowhere? In the spirit of conquering common sense, I talk Nic into trying SR 62, which will eventually take us 160 miles to Parker, Ariz. Nearly 100 of these miles will be without any kind of civilization. If we leave at 6 a.m., we should miss the mid-day heat. We encounter 110 F heat, and manage to reach the junction at US 95 and a gas station. If ever you’ve wanted to ride through that desert planet on Star Wars, this is it. I find out my bike has a bad front wheel imbalance and unhappy carbs. Nic’s bike just needs gas.
On the advice of some bike rag we visit Oatman, Ariz. (See Destinations: Oatman, Arizona.) An original stretch of Route 66, CR 10 is one of the most amazing roads I’ve ever ridden. Curvy with terrifying bluffs in the background, it’s exactly what I had in my head when we planned this trip. It’s the nothing and nowhere we’ve been lusting after.
“Wild” burros roam the street of Oatman. As cheesy as it is, I think it’s awesome that a dozen people make a small living off tourist rubes like us. The town was used as a set for the movie How the West Was Won, so if that’s not Western pedigree, I don’t know what is.
After reaching Boulder City, Nev., we pass through the Valley of Fire State Park. With 20 miles to Mesquite, Nic is suffering from heat exhaustion. Reaching Mesquite, Nic gets a massage and decides she’s got a few days left in her.
Interstate 15 along the Virgin River takes us to St. George, Utah, where I try to get my unbalanced front wheel fixed. Sixty dollars and two Harley mechanics later, my speedo cable’s busted and I still have a basketball for a front tire. Nice guys, but they over-tightened the axle nut, so the speedometer hub turns with the wheel and rips out the cable. A disinterested employee at the Honda dealer says “some guy at the next exit” works on BMWs and might work on old bikes, too. “Some guy” turns out to be Chris at Bavarian Werkstätte in Washington, Utah, who sells me the speedo cable off his own CB550. Chris, you are a mensch.
We take SR 59 to Colorado City, Ariz., home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and plural marriage. Nothing of note happens. We get gas, drink a Yoo-hoo and snap a clandestine picture of “The Merry Wives Café.” About 10 miles outside of Colorado City, Nic’s 350 pukes out the left exhaust baffle. Finally. Until now, all she’s done is add gas and roll her eyes at my 750. We can’t reattach the baffle and the bike’s OK without it, so we collect the pieces as souvenirs and loudly continue.
We reach Bryce Canyon National Park, where we meet six Japanese tourists touring the U.S. on Harleys. They love our bikes and take pictures by the score — of us, of us with them — and leave two origami cranes on our doorstep the next morning. Bryce Canyon leaves us breathless, literally and figuratively. Despite the 8,100-foot altitude, we spend the entire day shooting pictures and hiking.
We take US 89 north to SR 62, then SR 24 to Loa, Utah. The scenery is stunning. It’s starting to feel like a proper honeymoon, as desert gives way to bucolic hills and green meadows. Fighting heat-related illness and pushing the limits of physical endurance is not romantic, but it’s paying off. A week into our month-long trip, everything is in front of us, and there’s no one I could do this with except my new wife.
The next day we take SR 72 up to I-70, where we grab SR 10 to Price, Utah. SR 72 is astounding, as if you took the Alps and stretched them out on a canvas and stripped them of people. From Price, US 191 takes us north through yet more gorgeous canyon, onwards to Vernal, Utah. They call the remnants of truck tires “gatorskins,” and we manage to dodge a cloud of them around Ft. Duchesne when a semi blows a tire in the opposite lane. Take that, death.
Vernal is great. We pass a “biker friendly” bar called Gateway Saloon and Social Club. We’re hardly bikers, but being a couple of refinement and distinction we’ll have a cocktail at a social club. A bunch of people chat us up and give us a new strip of duct tape for my tank, to continue our trip log. It’s hot pink, but a gift is a gift. It stays.
We leave Vernal early and aim for Wyoming. Reaching Rock Springs, we stay at the Best Western Outlaw Inn, which has many laws and rules. We try to tastefully break as many as possible in the comfort of the pool. A French contingent of Harley riders sing La Marseillaise at the hotel bar. It’s Bastille Day, after all, July 14th.
With 85 octane gas and air screws opened way up, the popping on my bike is almost gone. Our average altitude is varying by thousands of feet from day to day, so it seems pointless to constantly hunt for the ideal setting. My 750 wheezes at the top of every pass, and gradually find its legs again at some point in the descent.
The next day we break down. Not mechanically, but physically. Nic sits down at a gas station and doesn’t move. We are 70 miles from our next stop, but we won’t be arriving there tonight. We ask about a hotel nearby. There is one, called Sitzman’s Motel.
The lady who runs it is nice enough. Her house and office doubles as a repository for antiques and cat boxes. She brings a pitcher of water, because while you can shower in the water, you can’t drink it. This is only half right. Her water is either contaminated with sulphur, or too close to her cesspool.
With Nic recuperating, I explore southwest Wyoming. Some 25 miles northeast on SR 28 I happen upon a historical marker for “The Parting of the Ways”, where wagon trains either followed the Oregon Trail to Oregon or turned left and headed for California.
The next morning we take off on SR 28 towards Riverton. Clipping the bottom of the Tetons, it gets incredibly windy and beautiful. Grass and hillside are clawed away to reveal bright red earth and bluffs.
From Riverton, we head north, then east on US 16. Every mile presents a backdrop out of an old beer sign, complete with rolling water and lush, verdant valley. We’re heading into the Bighorn National Forest, and for the first time all trip, we’re in a great spot to camp. We stay at Deer Haven Lodge where we can sleep under the stars and have a campfire. Unfortunately, our tent is about a foot shorter than either of us. The Texas-themed tent maker apparently does not believe in Texas-sized tent accommodations.
On through Buffalo and Gillette, we’re a day’s ride from the Black Hills. We’ve been waiting for this the whole trip. We’re heading to Sturgis and Deadwood. This is the spiritual home of unwise road trips, souls separated from better sense and T-shirts with lightning and wolves on them. If we should be anywhere, we should be here.
Deadwood is exciting. There’s legal gambling and bars with museums in them. As hokey as everything is, it’s nice to be surrounded by blinking lights and nightlife. We stay at the beautifully restored Martin & Mason Hotel, which dates to 1893. Drinks are had at local watering holes, with an extensive talk with the bartender at the Nugget. He explains the town’s relationship with Kevin Costner, eventually admitting he once worked for the actor himself. We’re to keep this secret, on the down-low. It’s cool, we say. We saw The Postman, and no one cares about Kevin Costner anymore.
After two nights in Deadwood we make our way to Sturgis. The rally is two weeks off, and empty storefronts and stares greet us. Fortunately, the Sturgis Museum is as engaging as the town is not. It’s a tiny building with two floors. With a custom Henderson V-8 and three Indians you could be fooled into thinking this is going to be an all-American bike show. But downstairs, the first bike one encounters is a 1972 CB350. There’s also a Gold Wing and a CB750. It’s an even cross section of bikes, with Harleys at its spiritual core.
To these eyes, the most fascinating bike is former Wisconsin state Senator Dave Zien’s 1991 FXRT, on which he logged more than a million miles. Every one of those miles is apparent when you see the patina of oil, grime and bumper stickers that cover the bike.
Nic and I have the mother of all arguments, and part ways for the afternoon. We took US 14 coming in, so I take Vanocker Canyon Road out and head for wherever that takes me. I reacquaint myself with the art of powering through curves and the light buzz of footpegs vibrating against pavement. Living in Chicago, I can’t remember the last turn I made that didn’t have a stoplight. There’s little traffic, so the “Italian tuneup” commences in full. Vanocker Canyon Road runs into Nemo Road, where I take US 385 back to Deadwood.
My appetite for curves not sated, I reach Deadwood, then head west on US 14. Where 14 splits from US 85, it follows the stream that cuts through the canyon. To call this portion of the Black Hills “scenic” is like calling the Sistine Chapel “nice.” There’s no better way to sand the squares off your tires than by carving up these canyon roads. It’s the best 14.2 miles I ride all trip long.
We say our goodbyes to Deadwood and Sturgis the next morning and head off in search of Mt. Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore is impressive, the quintessential expression of America, from the 51-cent souvenir pennies to the gleaming white faces of former political greatness.
Keystone is downhill from Mt. Rushmore, which comes in handy when I badly mis-shift and lose every gear except first. No neutral, either. I’m able to coast for a mile or so and we pull into a restaurant parking lot. Ron the restaurant owner and a friend come out to help us; having no idea how to fix old bikes they provide free beer and bring us pans to collect oil. Removing the shifter cover, the shifter spindle seems to be in the wrong place, but a tug by Ron’s friend puts it right. The gasket’s intact, and we’re good to go. We’re treated to excellent barbecue and we’re not allowed to pay a cent. If you ever break down and/or need barbecue in Keystone, S.D., I suggest Red’s Chicken House & BBQ. Nic’s bike just needs gas.
Keystone is probably the coolest place we stay all trip. We find a fleabag hotel, and there’s an abandoned gold mine and a lapidary/rock shop that’s open till 10 p.m. next to the coolest bar we visit all trip. It would be unfair to call Halley’s Store just a bar. It’s a combination community center and upscale junk shop. Retirees mingle with underage kids playing pool and drinking soda. You’re free to grab your beer and just wander around in the dark mustiness. They’ve got everything from disco records to 100-year-old stoves. I could spend all night here.
On to the Badlands
We bid goodbye to the Black Hills and head east. Ever since I saw Terrence Malick’s Badlands, I’ve always wanted to go there; never mind that the Badlands don’t appear in the movie. It fits into our theme of visiting places that can kill you. We enter the park, find a hotel and take my 750 back into the park to take pictures. It’s the perfect last hurrah to this trip. Everything is wild and beautiful. We spend the last discernible light at the Prairie Wind Overlook, a lush view of how much of America looked thousands of years ago. We wait until the horizon has exhausted a rainbow’s worth of shimmering colors and head back.
We’re almost out of honeymoon. It’s 320 miles to Sioux Falls, where we’ll stay with parents before we put the bikes in a truck and head back to Chicago. The last night of our trip is spent in Platte, S.D., and the next day we take off for Sioux Falls.
Aside from several hundred dead bugs and a quart’s worth of oil mist, Nic’s beloved 350 looks pretty good. Aside from the missing baffle, the bike’s fine and just needs an oil change. The 750 hits the shop again, and it turns out the spokes on the front wheel were loose. Whether it’s good maintenance, Honda’s over-engineering or just blind luck, we made it. And though I was a bit disappointed to never get a turn with the 350, it secretly fills me with pride and admiration that my tough-as-hell wife never let me.
As sad as we are about returning home, the trip’s a nice bookend. The book of life we write is often banal and boring, a steady litany of pay stubs and grocery lists. But looking at that gilded bookend, you’d be fooled into thinking it supported some grand tome or story. It’s a thought that will see us through the coming days of job searches and inconsequential poverty. Even in the middle of cold, gray February days, we’ll still have a tiny ember from that 114 F day in Palm Springs. MC