Escape: American Idyll

Trans-Continental Twilight Ramble

A couple summers back, I rode the then-new BMW F800ST from the northeastern edge of New Jersey to the midwestern rim of California. The two weeks and 4200 miles included side trips to visit old friends, a pause for the vintage races at Mid-Ohio and a wrong turn in Yellowstone that put me in Montana. All time well spent.

And damned if it wasn't fun!

As an Ohioan born and raised, the familiar roads of the Midwest were much the same, and the girls just as pretty. But the new hardships across the land were obvious, and the pervasive sense that this chapter in the American drama was coming to a close. But that's what eras do: They end. Which means that new ones begin. And so long as you have available both road and motorcycle, the response is equally apparent: Just ride.

Pennsylvania's I-90 ranks among our better slabways, snaking through the pleasing greenery of the Pocono Mountains. Sharon, Pennsylvania, requires a stop at Quaker Steak & Lube for the "Best Wings USA" (with 19 barbecue sauce varieties) and a cold Yuengling Lager draft (brewed in Pottsville since 1829). In Canton, Ohio, three days of rain let me catch up with old friends Bill and Barb Schiltz, and exhaust their supply of Dortmunder Gold Lager (Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland). Bill provided my first two-wheeled ride on his Cushman scooter 50 years ago.

At Mid-Ohio, I run into a platoon of Hoosiers helping Harley rider Jon Shultz during practice. Bruce Alexander is the first of many to ask about the new BMW twin, which I have to say is a remarkably good motorcycle. Turns out Bruce has an extra room at a Mansfield motel, and it's next to a Mexican restaurant! This taxes my credulity: Mexicans in Mansfield? In my day, the town was synonymous with the Ohio State Reformatory, a gothic prison built in 1886, featured in the film The Shawshank Redemption. The refrain echoes in my memory: "You just keep it up young man, and you're gonna end up in Mansfield!"

But sure enough, El Campesino is staffed by real Mexicans and the margaritas come in quart-sized goblets. Jon hadn't the best day at the track; a leaking fuel tank on his '54 Harley KH, a quick soldering job... iffy... see how it goes tomorrow. But that doesn't account for the pain now gathering in his face, and I notice the chile verde salsa in front of him, and the droplets of sweat forming on his eyebrows. What is it, Jon?

"Gasp... don't eat the green stuff," he whispers.

The next day, familiar faces are everywhere in the pits: Nobby Clark, tuning a Norton International; Joe Bolger, the original hero of Spanish two-stroke motocrossers in the '60s; fellow Buckeye and Ducati single ace Jonathan White; Dave Roper, the reigning geezer guru of vintage racing on the ex-Cal Rayborn Aermacchi Sprint. Jay Springsteen and Gary Nixon are here, and Henry Hogben, lord high master of the Ducati single. My own new hero, however, is young Brice Cooper in the Triumph Thruxton Cup Series, who has a beer magazine, Draft, as one of his sponsors. Sweet.

Plus, the Shultz cooler offers up a Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat beer (Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, est. 1867.) Could life be better?

Hard-nosing the Heartland Highway
By Indiana, I yield to the reality of hot weather and the baby Beemer's sporting saddle and strap on the Airhawk. Much better. Logansport's Olde Style Inn offers 75-cent drafts on Monday, and a decent hamburger for $2.50. God bless America! On to Peoria, Illinois, home to one of the last great TT scrambles, and Galesburg, where I pay my respects at Carl Sandburg's birthplace. Bound for Moline, I leave the charming farms and towns of the Midwest and make for the next stretch of Interstate, the big 80 straight across Iowa. I lay up for the night in Iowa City to gather strength. A Reuben sandwich and a bottle of John's Generation White Ale (Millstream Brewing Co., Amana, Iowa), seem to help.

By the time I get to Casey in the morning, the mental image of a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee has held me captive for miles. Downtown Casey stretches two blocks in each direction, paved with bricks the size of small bread loaves; a 19th-century farm town with a bank in the middle and a grain mill at the edge. And the KC Café, where the waitress asks if I I'd like coffee, then says "We have some good home-made cinnamon rolls if you're interested." I'm not making this up.

Two walls of the café are covered by bright murals of the American flag, Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. Next to the flag is the text: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."-Edmund Burke. Uncle Sam is rolling up his sleeves, his pant legs morphing into the World Trade Center buildings; Lady Liberty holds a flag-wrapped child in one arm and in the other a revolver: "The most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her children."

Closing in on Wall, South Dakota, the air temperature and motel prices are on the rise. Nearly 800 miles have rolled away below the BMW today-time to relax. The 67th-anniversary rally crowds are a few days hence, and Sturgis in the morning has few bikes lined up; shopkeepers are still setting up their displays, truckloads of T-shirts being unloaded. Gunner's isn't open yet, but Rodent is holding court in front. He's senior events editor for Barnett's magazine, from the mega-Harley dealership in El Paso, Texas. I mention that at my last Sturgis stop some years ago, the city had just outlawed the exposure of female breasts on Main Street, declaring it a $50 misdemeanor. "Well, the chicks are a lot older now," he says. "Now, it's a felony!"

The road to Deadwood curls through the Black Hills, former home of Crazy Horse, Wild Bill Hickok and Rocky Raccoon. Nearing town the four-lane skein narrows to two, where I come upon a rolling chicane of cruiser riders, evenly staggered, cruising in formation. Weaving carefully through the ranks, and into town, a sputtering rider rushes up on my right. "What the hell were you doing back there, weaving in and out like that? You don't do that!"

Too dumbstruck to even ask if they have a parade permit, I watch him sputter away. And sure enough, headed for Spearfish I happen upon another school of groupers, rumbling along at 40 mph behind a plumbing truck. Double-yellow be damned, I snick the twin down two gears and and hit the wick. Enough with the Anti-Destination League.

For some reason, I'm reminded of The Hollywood Squares: When Paul Lynde was asked why Hell's Angels wear leather, he said, "Because chiffon wrinkles too easily."

Yellowstoners and the Montana breaks
By that measure, I'm reminded that Yellowstone-in-tourist-season lies ahead. But so, too, do the Big Horn Mountains, the Absaroka Range, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Rocky Mountains themselves. At Buffalo, Wyoming, the rains are marching south along the eastern slopes of the Big Horns. The church hall portico offers a dry patch, where the BMW becomes a recliner, and I kickback against my duffel with a copy of Larry McMurtry's Telegraph Days, a fictional account of Buffalo Bill Cody's time in the territories as narrated by his intimate friend Nellie Courtright, a lusty young career woman from Virginia by way of Oklahoma. Good read.

The southern road is the shorter of two arteries through the Big Horns, magnificent sweepers dropping into the Badlands just east of Worland, Wyoming. It's at that point, just clearing a rise, that State Trooper D.J. Smith's radar later says I was doing 78 mph in a 65 zone. Trooper Smith is downright polite about it, affording me not only the Wyoming $10 discount for wearing a helmet, but also the cautionary advice to watch out for antelope crossing the road this time of day. You just can't beat Western hospitality.

Cody lies just in the distance at the edge of the yellow stones, and it's there I must rest, plan another day's ride, have a beer, watch the sunset, do some laundry and smoke a cigar. Hard to ask for more than that. Maybe another beer (Snake River Lager, Jackson Hole, Wyoming). The Irma Hotel (1901), named for Buffalo Bill's daughter, is the centerpiece and retains a century's worth of cigar smoke, whiskey dreams, wild times and cowboy lore within its walls. Yellowstone, the world's first national park (est. 1872), is the West at its geologic wildest, with volcanic fissures still percolating after two million years. Active seniority.

My own senior moment puts me next not at Yellowstone's western gate as intended, but at the northern entrance. So the Tetons can wait for another ride, and I head north through Gallatin National Forest to Livingston, then west for Bozeman, Montana. Below Butte, Highway 43 kicks west into Idaho, over the Big Hole River and Lost Trail Pass, to 93 south along the north fork of the Salmon River.

Glorious. The valleys are lightly fogged with smoke from a forest fire to the north in the Bitterroot Range, but the road is mostly mine at mid-afternoon, following the river through the mountains. Some places, as writer Jim Harrison has noted, "seem to demand consciousness." Music is playing in my head (through the iPod), "Ride The River" by J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton:

"Floatin' down that old river, boy, leaves me feelin' good inside.

Floatin' down that old river, boy, tryin' to get to the other side.

Yesterday slowly fades, I been waitin' now forever for this ride."

At the Wise River Club, a fisherman's motel/way station, I pull in for a snack and a bottle of Moose Drool Brown Ale (Big Sky Brewing, Missoula, Montana). Back on the road to Salmon, fly fishermen cast into the afternoon shadows, and barefoot boys drop lines from big rocks. The river's contours command the rhythm of the road, and the abiding majesty of the wilderness settles the soul.

Salmon's layover status is confirmed by the appearance of Bertram's Brewery in the middle of town. The brew pub offers an excellent ration of fish 'n' chips and a beer sampler of seven. (Try the Summer Ale.) Day next, southward bound, the river narrows into its east fork as the road swings west to the Sawtooth Wilderness, then south again over Galena Summit (elev. 8700 ft.) and into Ketchum and Sun Valley.

This old man goes rolling home
Crossing Ebbett's Pass south of Reno, I'm back in California to the delights of Highways 4 and 49 through gold-rush country. In Murphys, I pull in to make sure the E Clampus Vitus Wall of Comparative Ovations remains in place, which it does. The club, a lampoon of early fraternal organizations, posts plaques at historical sites throughout the state, and tries to maintain its original credo of providing for the "welfare of widows and orphans, especially widows." The Murphys Hotel bar serves Apricot Wheat Beer (Snowshoe Brewing Co., Arnold, California.)

Down in the valley so low, headed for the coast, the BMW's info screen posts an ambient temperature of 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. At the last gas stop, a fellow elder fellow is surprised that I've ridden all the way from New Jersey. "Ain't you a little old to be goin' that far on a motorbike?" he asks. "You tryin' to relive yer childhood or sumthin'?"

Nope, just trying to prolong the first one. Which reminds me of another old high-school chum I was unable to visit near Chicago; said he and a partner were launching a high-end hot dog, made with prime grain-fed beef from their own spreads. Plans to call them Good Dogs. I recommended they use the line from the old Johnny Copeland blues song:

"Every dog's got his day,
And if he's a good dog,
He just might have two days."

And if it's a good day, you just might have two dogs. And a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

The American Idyll
Idaho, which has what must be the country's highest per capita of tractor-trailer rigs and Buicks, also has some curious labels for gas-station convenience stores.
Ducati pilot Jonathon White (97) recently sold his original 750cc racer to a Californian named Jonathan White. Both have daughters named Jessica. Go figure.
The Mid-Ohio pits were sprinkled with curious machinery. Take this Sportster-based dual-sport from Lakeland Harley-Davidson in Florida-please.
Rival leadership factions have weakened AHRMA racing in recent years, but the foundation of fellowship and friendly camaraderie remains in place.
What could be better than hangin' with a racing buddy who has a beer magazine for a sponsor? Having your picture taken with the beer girls in the paddock, that's what.
Dave Roper has been a vintage-racing legend for three decades, and is still the only American ever to win at the Isle of Man. This photo was taken shortly before the second of his twice-annual haircuts.
Named after his daughter Irma, Buffalo Bill Cody's hotel is the centerpiece of Cody, Wyoming. Plenty of Wild West memorabilia adorns the walls, and the prime rib is the best west of the Pecos.
Home for two days, it was time to head to a Red Shift track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Turns out the BMW F800ST is an extremely versatile motorcycle.
Sometimes Motorcyclist test rider Thad Wolff was on hand at Mid-Ohio, riding a Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000S Superbike much like the ones he raced in the early-'80s. He still hauls ass.
Jon Schultz tries to work up a smile after a rough day of practice. Just about everything that could go wrong did. Now for a margarita, a few tacos and some green chile sauce