Go Big on the TransAmerica Trail

And What's Bigger Than The Trans-America Trail?

Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Go Big - Trans-America TrailRobert Pandya

The sun was just starting to lose its warmth as another glowing Moab morning crept toward a bright, cloudless day. I raced ahead to get in position. In the morning silence, I could just hear the conversation of men crushed into the throaty roar of internal combustion. Perched in the worst possible spot on the edge of a deep canyon, I was awaiting "the shot." The trance of the moment was epic: roar times five, another 20 frames and roost on my back as a thank you! We were three-quarters of the way through The Go Big Ride, and the best was yet to come.

When asked about his Red Bull-sponsored jump on and off the replica Arc de Triomphe in Las Vegas on New Years Eve 2009, freestyle stud Robbie Maddison said, "Sometimes you just gotta go big." That bold statement was taken to heart by James Embro, a Georgia-based Paris-Dakar racer and owner of Husaberg dealership The Race Shop. Having assembled an impressive collection of pedigreed KTM rally bikes (the type now effectively banned from competition), Embro invited his friend John Sawazhki to ride them together somewhere...big. Sawazhki, a former collector of European vintage off-road machines, suggested tackling the Trans-America Trail.

Weaker men couldn't deal with it. They weren't invited anyway. John had recently been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS). This ride might be his last chance to truly Go Big-to push his body while it was still an option.

Bill "Mucho" Wheeler, owner of bay-area Black Tie Transportation, Chris Carter, former ISDT racer and owner of Motion Pro Tools, and Eric Anderson, a motorcycle industry veteran and president of the Vroom Network, filled out the flock. After a long period of begging Sawazhki and buying a used, street-legalized KTM 450 MXC, I got the chance to document the ride This would be an all-orange affair with sponsorship from Pirelli tires and Leo Vince exhausts.

Our cast of characters assembled in Tennessee with the understanding that this ride was all about not cutting corners. Embros' fully prepared Paris-Dakar support truck was loaded with spares. Tires, parts, wheels, tools and two complete back-up bikes ran a parallel highway route. The Race Shop's Sprinter van (with yet more support gear) ran ahead of the pack and was often in place at road crossings-usually right at lunch time with cold beverages and peanut-butter sandwiches at the ready. It's quite a sight when dust and luxury mix-ask the manager of any hotel we invaded. We did leave nice tips.

We brought five canons and a machine gun to a knife fight. The truth is the TAT can easily be covered on a slightly modified Honda XR650L with a pillow for extra padding and Power Bars for lunch, as proven by our en-route adopted brother Ethan Martin of Asheville, North Carolina. His humble platform was the turtle to our pack of rabid and raging hares-and he completed the trail a couple days after us with far less drama and cost than our cavalcade of rubber-swapping and frenetic blunderbusses. But the members of The Go Big Ride did not apologize for our extravagance; we reveled in it. Maddo would understand.

East of the Mississippi, the "trail" has been mostly-and poorly-paved. A Volvo station wagon running on three cylinders and a temporary spare could have made that portion. A wisp of hilly drama in the Ozarks passed by as the network of dirt roads took us westward.

It was the oft-maligned Oklahoma that surprised us. As fences with rotting posts and Tetanus-hosting barbed-wire had paralleled us most of the way to the Land Rush State, the relief of those fences turning perpendicular at the state line was awesome. All of a sudden, vast, open, rolling plains greeted us and the throttle-jockeying truly began. It was a well-kept secret until now, but eastern Oklahoma is way fun on a motorcycle!

The impassable morass of rain-soaked, clay-based western Oklahoma farm roads ("Turn left on E0020 Rd and ride dead-straight for 40 miles," sayeth the roll chart) pushed us off-course for a couple of days. Later, Ethan's stories of puffing through the slog confirmed our detour as a sound decision. Going big did not mean plowing bog. After all, we had some field meat to eat. Big smiles occasionally masked heavy hearts, however, as Sawazhkis' ALS made its creeping presence known daily. Clearly the toughest man on the planet, and the last to complain about his situation, John inspired us all to keep going big as long as we could.

Colorado is the gateway to dual-sport heaven. Here, elevation and the mix of trails and Jeep roads had the fleet thrumming happily along. If you dream the dream of knobby tires, the Rocky Mountains are calling you. The TAT routed us over mountain passes and through historical towns. Mockingly friendly waves to occasionally scowling locals became a hobby. Though our parade of hydrocarbon-spewing, sticker-encrusted and downright intimidating-looking machines did not jive with some, we were in fact most often greeted with smiles and questions by all sorts-including the occasional official gently asking us not to bivouac on the city-park grass.

Our luck was unsurpassed. Not one bad wreck. No major mechanical disasters. Indeed the plethora of spare bits stayed tucked away, though the tire-changing machine got a work-out courtesy of the high-horsepower Austrian rubber-shredders. Our mix of personalities meshed as well, with our awe of John keeping us together even when the days were long.

Arriving at the Pacific Ocean, we had dispatched 19 straight days with pinned throttle in hand, eaten many grand meals, belted out the laugh of condemned men and celebrated John for his depth of passion to friends, the ride and unflagging spirit in the face of a devastating disease. Time will erase our tracks and the dust will settle into our memories, but the spirit of The Go Big Ride will never fade.

Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Go Big - Trans-America TrailRobert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Going Big means bringing it all. Support drivers Dave "Pickle" Vlasicak, Ben Hill and Kenny Hardee had tires, tools, spare bikes, coolers full of beer, you name it. Spot Tracking devices kept tabs on the pack.Robert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
This prototype Motion Pro centerstand is not intended for production until 2012 due to problems with splintering. Paris-Dakar racer James Embro busts rubber like a Pro because he is one.Robert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Fancy dinners were no match for this crew. We were quick to get wait staff and bartenders on our side because we knew we would soon be chatting with the manager.Robert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
John Sawazhki on the gas on an Arkansas back road. Epic gravel is the norm west of the Mississippi. East of that knobbies are optional. The Trans-Am Trail isn't difficult, it's just epic.Robert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Embro leads "Mucho" Bill Wheeler over a bridge needing some federal funds. Following roll charts with a GPS back-up made for few excess miles and minimal frustration.Robert Pandya
Go Big - Trans-America Trail
Top of the world: Cinnamon Pass, Colorado, made for an ideal rest stop. Sawazhki was the inspiration for our group and chief comedian-basically Don Rickles with a whisky throttle.Robert Pandya