Lewis and Clark...and Allstate?

Old friends and older two-stroke "twingles" trace the path of Lewis and Clark

President Thomas Jefferson was a man who kept incredible, detailed records, and some have speculated that this almost compulsive need to tally fueled his curiosity. While his predecessor, John Adams, had a true worldview, worrying about the French Revolution, Jefferson's sights were closer to home: He wanted to know everything about the new American West, a vast territory extending from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. By the early 1800s, westward expansion had become a hot topic for the president, and he secretly ordered Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to the area. Jefferson's motives were clear: "To explore the Missouri River and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean...may offer the most direct and practical water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce." Lewis and William Clark used a $2500 expansion stipend to assemble a team of 33. The expedition commenced on May 14, 1804 and ended on September 23, 1806 when Lewis, Clark and the aptly named Corps of Discovery returned to the heartland, leaving behind an 8000-mile trail of hardship and sacrifice and bringing home unfathomably hard-won knowledge.

Dial your time machine ahead approximately 198 years and you'll find Dennis Wolter and a corps of hardy motorcycle riders attempting to follow the Lewis and Clark trail from east to west. Oh, and get this: They made the trip on two-stroke 250cc Puch "Allstate" motorcycles once sold at your friendly neighborhood Sears. Not something, in other words, you'd see in a Ken Burns documentary.

"But...why?" you ask. Wolter sums it up: "I've always been a history buff and have been fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. I wanted to see what was left of the trail, and I wanted to do it on the Allstates." Wolter pauses, preempting the next question with, "Because I wanted to prove you could. Anyone can do a trip staring through the windscreen of a new Harley. Much of the trip was on logging roads, and sometimes we had to lift the bikes over fallen logs. You can't do that with a 500- or 600-pound motorcycle." Along the way, Wolter turned his band of riders into Allstate believers, to say nothing of the scores of motorcyclists he met along the way. Although certainly not as dangerous or austere as the Lewis and Clark expedition, Wolter's ride had two ground rules: The riders would stay at campsites whenever possible and live simply.

Wolter describes this journey as the trip of a lifetime--an opportunity to see the still vast American West at a pace gentler than that offered by the great interstates.

The bike is a 1969 Sears 250 built by Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (say "pook," not "pooch") in Austria. "We're in Bismarck, North Dakota, on the fifth day of the trip. It had rained up until that point; it was the first sunny morning of the trip. The first three days it was, 'Dennis, how long are we going to ride in the rain?' And I said, 'I don't know. The guy you have to ask messes with lightning.' We're in a state campground, all four of us; we stayed in a hotel only one night of the trip (the first)."
On day four the group had a charging-system problem with this '65 model that was totally restored. This was one of three repairs needed on the road. Working on the bike is Matt Quirk, who has a company called Motor West Inc. that imports Puch parts. A wire had come loose; "We twisted it together, soldered it up and we were fine. I had ridden one of these bikes in college and it was the first bike where I only changed life-limited parts; I never went into the engine. I wanted to prove that you could buy one of these for $400 or $500 and ride it to the West Coast."
A rest stop on the afternoon of the fourth day on the road in northern Missouri. The first bike in line is Quirk's, a '67. In the late '60s, Puch restyled the bikes and made them look like little Hondas. By far the most desirable bikes, and the ones worth the most money, are the earlier models with the round tanks, which are more Continental-looking. "Here we're at some little place to eat lunch with the six of us on the trip at the time. The group dynamic was fascinating: A couple of old hands, two guys who had never really ridden before and a couple in between."
On the Lewis and Clark trail in North Dakota. This was a known place where Lewis and Clark had been, though the river has been vastly changed in the time since. The river has been dammed so many times it has taken over much of what is left. Left to right: Bill Vermillion, an experienced rider more comfortable with Harleys ("When I told him he was going to be riding the Allstate he looked at me like I'd just shot his dog," Wolter says); Dennis Wolter; Luke Boldman; Keith Wolter. Neither Boldman nor Keith Wolter had ridden much before the trip.
"We were trying to beat some thunderstorms across Montana and the gas cap did not vent properly, which made the mixture too lean. Plus we were running flat-out into a heavy head wind. All of a sudden, Luke, who was on his bike, and I saw an orange flame shoot out of the carburetor about a foot long. Scared the crap out of him," Wolter says. Stopping by the side of the road, they found molten aluminum in the back side of the air filter. At that point, Keith Wolter departed the group in Helena, Montana, which left an extra bike. Perhaps ignominiously, this bike spent the rest of the trip in the chase van.
"We're crossing the Columbia River Gorge in Astoria, Oregon. Emotionally, this was difficult because I knew the end of the trip was near," Wolter says. "Although I felt a lot of pride in the fact that we'd made it on these bikes, I also [felt] a lot for the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had no available supplies and had to deal with truly rugged terrain. It gave me a great appreciation for what these guys went through with no supplies. And the terrain is hard."
One of the fuel tanks split due to vibration, and another of Wolter's friends, Ken Kayser, repaired the tank with JB Weld and fiberglass. "Worked like a charm," Wolter says. "These weren't made as high-speed machines, and we were running the crap out of 'em." Kayser, also an Allstate owner, joined the trip for a long weekend.
This is the first actual night on the road. (In fact, the group spent the first night in a hotel due to inclement weather; the rest of the trip they moved from campground to campground.) Wolter's friend Jerry Hunter, a machinist, hosted the group at Myland, Indiana. This was a short first stint to make sure everything worked. "It rained profusely that night."
In North Dakota between Mitchell, South Dakota, and Bismarck, on the actual Lewis and Clark trail. "You may notice the windshield stanchions on the fork. We were fighting 60-mph winds and the combination was hard on the bikes. I was following in the van the day before, going up a long hill and watching, thinking, 'Man, that bike sure is running clean,' when all of a sudden I see the rear wheel hopping. The pipes were blue. I pulled a pipe and the piston rings were porridge. I reworked that bike that night in Mitchell in the campground. The next day I broke it in carefully, and that motorcycle went on for the rest of the trip."
Riding along the Missouri River in South Dakota. "This is where all the history is," Wolter says. "It's one of those places closest to what Lewis and Clark saw. You ride a nice two-lane dirt road down to the river. I had hoped more of the trip would be on roads like this, but that's progress."
Up to Highway 500, the Lolo Motorway in Idaho. "You're seeing the good part of the road. When you get to the top it turns west. It's open for a month during the summer. This road goes up from Highway 12, which follows the river at about 5000 feet, ascends to 7000 feet and runs into an east-west trail; this is the actual Lewis and Clark trail. This road is going to become a full state highway. And they're going to make it so you can drive motor homes over the trail. This is the reason we wanted to do it when we did."
Along the Clearwater River in Oregon. "We're following along Highway 12. This road goes down to a bridge at Kill Cold Creek. The expedition had to kill a horse here. This was the prettiest part of the trip, clear and cool even in early June."
This is where Lewis thought the Mississippi River began, at Chill Cut Pass. Just over the mountain, a spring flows out of the Continental Divide, and Lewis believed that half the water fell west to the Pacific and half east to the Atlantic.
Bridal Veil Falls along the Columbia River. "It's a touristy thing, but we had to stop in. This is such a beautiful place."
Cape Disappointment looking south, with the Pacific to the right. "We had camped the night before at a campground right on the Pacific. We were out touring that day to see the Cape and Fort Clatsop," where the expedition made camp on the southern shore of the Columbia for the winter of 1805. "The park ranger, when he found out what we had done, gave us all gold pins. I cut the stab off and epoxied one to the tank of my bike."
Hat Rock in Montana. "A parking lot and a bronze plaque is all that marks the spot where Lewis and Clark first saw the Rocky Mountains way in the distance. This must have been an incredible feeling, to see those mountains. They must have wondered just how in the hell they were going to get over. Later in the expedition, Lewis noted that the Columbia surged every 24 hours, and from that they knew they were close to the end."
The end of the line, the monument in Astoria. "We were in really good spirits, knowing that we'd done a really neat thing and that we'd made it to the Pacific. The police cleared the square and allowed us to take this shot."