Joe Gresh vs. the Trans-America Trail, the Sequel | Twenty-Seven Days

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Robert Williams, Vance Hunter, Joe Gresh

The tach needle on The Widowmaker, my Kawasaki KLR250, wavers between 7000 and 8000 rpm. Oklahoma rain lashes down. Loaded with camping gear, tools and life’s little necessities for a month on the road, the little 250’s steering head feels like it has been relocated to a spot directly beneath the saddle. I’m running non-DOT full knobbies, adding to the squeamish pavement manners.

We’re doing a mile a minute heading due west and Vance, riding a Honda XR650L, calls this trip Unfinished Business. He would: He pulled a trip-ending, collarbone-snapping header last time we tried it. Now we’re retracing our steps on the Trans-America Trail, trying to get it right. This ain’t my dream, buddy. My job on this ride is Enabler-in-Chief.

The internet-sourced, six-man, two-stroke mob we assembled for our three previous assaults on the Trans-America Trail has swirled back into the vast data servers from whence it came. Only the two of us remain, and our sole objective on Mission #4 is to get Vance’s vintage Yamaha DT400 from Broken Collarbone, Nevada, to Port Orford, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast.

You think the TAT is a game? Grim determination trumps fun when you’re rattling together thousands of miles of trail. Vance’s new Toyota FJ and custom-built Yamahauler were purchased just for this ride. Retired Master Sergeant Robert Williams has gone on ahead with the FJ and two more motorcycles. That’ll be three guys, four motorcycles and a massive pile of spares. After succeeding at failure, we don’t play with the TAT.

All roads lead uphill on the mid-’80s-designed KLR250. Heading into New Mexico’s winds I’m maintaining 55 mph, but need to drop into a racer’s tuck and fifth gear to do it. I’ve got the throttle pinned and Vance, on his 650, is far, far away. Sitting up costs 10 mph—a luxury I can’t afford—so I stay hunkered down, chin on the gas cap, knees clamped, elbows in. I ride this way for three days, 10 hours a day.

Oklahoma and New Mexico are verbally abusive to The Widowmaker, but Colorado gets physical. As the air thins, the KLR’s tach reading slowly drops into a torque-free zone between 5000 and 6000 rpm. With the KLR climbing the passes at less than 30 mph in second gear, Vance has lots of time to check out roadside attractions. Look, there he is now: parked, helmet off, reading one of those bronze massacre placards. Maybe he should take up smoking…

In Baker, Nevada, we rendezvous with chase-truck driver Robert, who unloads Vance’s 1975 two-stroke and straps the back-up Honda onto the trailer alongside the bippity-bap, back-up Yamaha WR250. Dragging along three bikes, you would think Vance’s odds of completing the TAT have tripled. You’d be wrong: He still has only two collarbones.

Leaving Baker, the TAT crosses the Great Basin National Park via hundreds of miles of sand, choking talcum powder and ruts. The bikes are running perfectly, the weather is beautiful and Vance’s dream deferred is becoming a reality.

We make Eureka, Nevada, by nightfall to find several other roving bands of TAT riders have decided to stop at the same motel. The guys are fawning all over Vance’s DT400, impressed that the bike runs at all.

Midway through the next day, the DT slows and starts misfiring. Vance checks the sparkplug, pulls the carburetor and pokes around inside, then fiddles with various electrical connectors. A sense of dread: not again. After four years of trying, I’m so over Sam Correro’s diabolical cross-country route that I’ll push that damn two-stroke to Oregon if I have to! The bike sputters to life; another 20 miles and we stop again. Check the carb, check the plug, dump the fuel, pour in fresh gas from our extra cans. Riding again; 30 miles later the DT tightens up, then seizes.

Some dreams die hard: “Fifty-thousand f*cking dollars I’ve spent on this f*cking TAT! Four years of trial, f*cking chase-truck drivers, f*cking chase trucks, trailers, tires, spares—all to ride this damned two-stroke cross-country!”

I’ve never seen him so mad. “F*ck Nevada!” He yanks the carb from its rubber manifold; gas spews onto the talcum, turning it into flammable adobe. Vance disassembles the carb, spoiling to hit somebody, anybody. I hover just out of range, shooting photos of the wreckage and telling him it’ll be good for the story. “Hit the f*cking SPOT Checker, damnit!” I press the bright-orange SPOT satellite locator position update button three times—our code to Robert that we are out of commission.

Vance wanders off into the desert. I stare at him staring at the broken rocks, barren purple-red mountains and a fantastic moonscape of emptiness. The sun moves west, shadows elongate and tilt. He walks back. “Hand me those pliers, will ya?” Under the blue dome of Nevada’s endless horizon, the emulsifier slides into the carb body. Now the main jet with its copper washer, the O-ring, now the bowl. Vance reassembles the carb onto the black-rubber spigot. The DT starts but it’s clearly sick. After a mile, maybe three, we park next to a free-range cow. “No sense ruining the engine.” There’s not much else to say while we wait for Robert.

Vance finishes the day’s route with the WR250F and we take a few days off in Battle Mountain trying to get the DT going again, to no avail. With his newfound Zen-ness, Vance is saying things like, “It’s not the bike, it’s the journey,” or “The TAT is a test of man, not machine.” He’s driving me crazy with this neo-serenity dribble, so I spend most of our downtime trying to piss him off. Things are so bad that when the WR250 gets a flat three miles from the California border and I gleefully hand him a tire iron to throw, Vance just gives me this beatific look, raises his hand, palm outward like the Pope waving from the Popemobile, and says, “I’ll be glad to get out of Nevada.”

The KLR was happier pacing the old DT400. The WR250 is light years ahead in power and suspension, and I’m wringing the poor little bike’s neck trying to stay in Vance’s fuel-injected dust cloud. Clipping the upper right-hand corner of California, we roll into Oregon. The WR has developed a chain-eating problem. Vance adjusts the tension every morning, but by mid-day it’s dragging the ground. Instead of freaking out, he says, “I’ll get sprockets and a chain at the next Yamaha shop we see. We sure are lucky it hasn’t broken.” I can’t stand it!

Oregon’s endless switchbacks wind through tall trees, over mountains and down to streams. We repeat the sequence ’til driven insane. Moving 30 miles west requires a hundred miles of trail. The sun sets, the temperature drops. Vance starts telling me how good we have it. “Imagine what it was like for the first settlers with their Conestoga wagons, fighting constant hunger and disease.” Instead, I imagine I liked him better when he was screaming and spilling gas. Somewhere far away Port Orford recedes into the night.

Closer to the coast, the TAT is blocked by rockslides and locked gates. Vance re-routes, trying to stay on dirt, but creeping civilization wins. Our last miles to the Pacific Ocean are on pavement.

There are a couple of things you can do in Port Orford. You can have a fish sandwich or ride down the steep access road that leads to a dark-sand beach. We went to the beach. X marks the end of the Trans-America Trail, the end of a four-year endeavor that consumed us for no good reason except that it was there. Fog rolls in, suiting the muted celebration. We conquered the TAT, but not how we wanted to. Such a long, hard ride, ending less than perfectly.

There’s no time to feel melancholy, though. Vance has 2000 miles of trail plotted for our return trip. Delays have pushed our schedule, so we load all four bikes onto the Yamahauler and drive to Roosville, Montana, where we pick up the Canada-to-Mexico Continental Divide Trail.

With fresh knobbies The Widowmaker bites nicely into the damp earth. A few hundred miles of graded roads and we enter Glacier National Park’s unmanned east gate. Cold rain starts to fall. Then sleet. We slog our way over Logan’s Pass and drop down into East Glacier. Snow begins to fall.

Dawn. It’s still snowing. A Florida boy hates to trail ride in snow, so Vance agrees to bypass the divide ride for awhile. We saddle up and work our way south on pavement. The Widowmaker’s chain is jumping teeth and the WR’s has reached the end of its axle adjustment. The snow builds up on my faceshield, hardening to ice. I’m riding blind. We stop every 10 miles to thaw our hands on the exhaust pipes. Eighty miles of this treatment and we are frozen solid; we call it a day. As I walk into the motel lobby, sheets of ice crack and fall from my jacket.

Today is chain day. We bust out the wrenches; the KLR and WR get shiny, new sprockets complete with greasy new O-ring chains. Running much more smoothly, we rejoin the Continental Divide Trail, crisscrossing the country’s east/west slope somewhere around three million times. My underpowered KLR putt-putts over each pass at 20 mph. If it weren’t for downshifting I’d have no shifting at all. Against the howling headwinds of Wyoming, through Yellowstone and down to Colorado, the KLR’s tiny heart beats a weak tattoo across America’s spine.

This morning we spent four hours on some godforsaken mountaintop beating the bikes against jagged rocks like dirty laundry. Net gain: 20 miles and a softer, fluffier motorcycle. Colorado has some of the best trail riding in the country, but using Vance’s modified CDT route, we see a fair bit of the worst of it. I’ve had plenty of time the past weeks to study Vance’s trip planning, and I’ve come to the sneaking suspicion he’s ratcheting up the technical difficulty in a misguided attempt to atone for the failure of his two-stroke on the TAT. Deep within the recesses of his twisted mind, I think he believes he’s doing me a favor.

The final run across New Mexico and Oklahoma is fast and furious. With the wind at my back the KLR250 effortlessly spins to 70 mph with me sitting bolt-upright, even over Oklahoma’s mild hills. Four weeks on the road, 3000 miles of dirt, 2000 miles of pavement and countless 10,000-foot passes and I’ve never let The Widowmaker’s tach drop below 5000 rpm. Always moving slowly while never feeling relaxed, the little 250 proves unburstable, having exceeded both my expectations and my ambitions. Looks like I’ll need to step down to a 125 for my next trip...

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Nice write-up Joe. You're a better man than I....on a 250 no less! Thanks for sharing a trip I will never EVER take myself. Ever. LOL
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