Florida to Alaska on a 1973 Honda CB550: The Summer of 1986

Writer Neale Bayly takes us along for the ride from Florida to Alaska in 1986 aboard an unloved 1973 Honda CB550.

  • One thoroughly overloaded Honda CB550 and one very jubilant Mr. Bayly.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • “Elsie” in all her glory, somewhere on the road to Alaska. A somewhat tired, 28,000-mile bike when found, the 1973 Honda CB550 made the trip with relative ease, even riding two-up.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Karen and Elsie in New Orleans.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • The Melrose, Kansas, Trading Post (it’s still there today).
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • The Parker Newbanks family with their Triumphs in Hugo, Colorado.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Neale Bayly, somewhere in Montana. Gotta love the hair.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Riding through the incredible scenery of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Now the hard part starts — welcome sign for the Alaska Highway.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Heading north, still on pavement with worse to come.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • Camper vehicles were a regular threat, throwing up dirt and going slow, forcing passes over gravel piles in the middle of the road.
    Photos by Neale Bayly and Karen McIntyre
  • The Arctic Circle at last: Neale and son Patrick (foreground) in 2014.
    Photo by Ray McKenzie

“Where ya headed, buddy?” “Alaska,” I replied. The look the garage man gave me indicated that I might as well have said the moon.

Who could blame him? Our well-used 1973 Honda CB550 had holes in the twin exhausts and was covered with bright red tape. It was hopelessly overloaded with yard-sale luggage, and my girlfriend, Karen, and I were dressed in thrift store clothes and hand-me-down open-faced helmets, clearly not looking prepared for such a journey. He murmured “good luck” as I strapped the old hold-all to the gas tank and kickstarted the beast into life. Clicking into gear and rolling out of the gas station, we headed for the highway, destined for 10,000 miles of fun and adventure.

The Honda, which cost us $475 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, had no front brake, so our first ride was a bit hair-raising as we went looking for parts. A second-hand caliper and a tune-up produced a very smooth-running bike, even with the signs of neglect it had clearly experienced while accumulating the 28,000 miles on its odometer. We spent $10 on bungee cords, bought a box of plastic bags and a couple of cheap rain suits, sprayed our tent with waterproof spray, said goodbye to Karen’s family, and hit the road.

The South

Riding off with America stretched out in front of us, we were in high spirits as the flat, low scrublands of central Florida gave way to the swamps and bayous of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. We made New Orleans in an easy three days of back road meandering, and right in the middle of the city the ignition switch failed. An old cab driver hot-wired it in minutes, and we found a new one at the local Honda dealership. New Orleans was weird and wonderful, and we saw as much of it on foot as possible before the call of the road drew us back into the saddle.

Following the Mississippi River north to Memphis, Tennessee, we turned west toward Arkansas and the beautiful Ozark Mountains, but not before an amusing incident with some local swamp rat dancing naked in the headlights of his car outside our camp one night, leaving us wondering whether to fear for our lives or die laughing. Fortunately, the sound of laughter put him off and we were left alone. For safety’s sake, we packed up and rode until dawn, stopping at a small diner for some much-needed breakfast and coffee.

We spent a couple of days in Arkansas, exploring the twisting mountain roads and small backwater towns in the soft rolling mountains before exiting out onto the prairies of Kansas. We had decided to make this journey across America on quiet back roads, away from the fast-moving freeways, and as we encountered small curiosity shops, slow-moving cars, and people who were ready to wave and smile, we knew we had made the right decision.

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