Tough Times Tour

Riding The Great Northwest On $47 Per Day

It's late summer '08. Fuel prices have just risen to an all-time high; the economy looks uncertain for many of us. But like a lot of other motorcyclists, I still have to ride. And sometimes I feel the need for more than a one-day'er.

That adventure-ride bug just bit me again. I explain this to my wife, Jody, and she gives me the usual all-you-want-to-do-is-ride look. She's right, but I get the green light anyway and start thinking of how inexpensive a ride I can put together. The cost of fuel is a given. I haven't done much camping on street rides, but strapping on a tent and sleeping bag will save money on motels. Restaurant tabs add up, so I'll load up with cost-effective groceries: a lot of bread and the big jars of peanut butter and jelly. I'm just going to ride, camp and eat. Camping sounds like fun, and I like PB&Js.;

I brought my Suzuki SV650 with soft bags to a job up in Portland, Oregon. When I was done, I planned to ride east to the Rockies, then Glacier Park in Montana, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Wyoming. These three very special National Parks would be my main destinations. Jim and Mary Egging from Washington had become good friends since I met them on a ride to Alaska. They were on a Honda Gold Wing, and Jim and I had a lot to talk about. He couldn't say enough about his Suzuki V-Strom 650 and practically made me borrow it for my trip. Seeing as how it was outfitted with Givi hard bags, heated handgrips and a tall windscreen, I gladly accepted the offer. And I had to laugh at myself: My budget ride just started on a borrowed bike! My mantra became, "That didn't cost me nuthin'!" So, with my camping gear securely bungeed in place and the saddlebags stuffed with groceries, I headed east on I-84 out of Portland. It was a beautiful day and the scenery following the Colombian River through the gorge was spectacular. It sure is nice to start an adventure ride with good weather, though the long-term forecast maps showed some wet green blobs ahead. Well, what are you going to do?

Highway 12 from Walla Walla, Washington through Idaho to Missoula, Montana is a nice two-lane next to the Lochsa River that keeps me off the Interstate. It's part of the Lewis & Clark Trail, but they were in a canoe floating downstream to the Pacific Ocean. My goal is Big Fork, Montana to stay with my friends Jack and Karel Marino for the night. But after a late start, I found myself setting up my tent for the first time in the dark. I didn't do that good a job, and in the morning it was half-collapsed in pouring rain. Breaking camp wet, soggy and cold, I'm wondering how good an idea it was to not stay in motels. After a few hours riding in the rain, it felt great to dry out and reminisce with my childhood friend Karel. She's also a good cook, so I had a full belly entering Glacier Park that afternoon.

Going to the Sun Highway was now dry, so I planned to ride over Logan Pass to the east side of the Rockies. It's the end of August and I'm sure of warmer, dryer weather on the other side. At the top of the pass, I learned once again that you can't predict mountain weather. I took pictures of two retired couples from Yakima on their Gold Wings with numb fingers. This was the wives' first motorcycle tour, and as the snow fell, they assured me they were still having a great time. We all rode back down the mountain for coffee at the Lake McDonald Lodge, which is almost 100 years old and worth a visit.

Leaving the Marino house with another full belly, I prayed for better weather: There were no free couches down the road in Yellowstone. I struck up a conversation with Alex from Holland at a gas stop that afternoon. He had his bike shipped to Anchorage and had been riding and camping for three months, aiming for Tierra del Fuego nine months from now. We were headed in the same direction, so just like that we were two new friends with different adventures riding down the road together. When we got to Bozeman just before dark, Alex said this was the coldest he had been all the way through Canada and Alaska, but I was the guy who suggested sharing a cheap room for the night. Then we went across the street for a barbeque dinner. Beer too, but it was built into the budget. Man cannot live on peanut butter and jelly alone.

The next morning, Alex said he needed an oil change, and the Suzuki could use a rear tire. A new one would cost a lot of money, but it's the smart thing to do. My first call was to Nathan at the Bike Shack. He had a used Metzeler I could have for free. Perfect. Alex was impressed with this display of American hospitality. We both laughed as he said "Didn't cost me nuthin'!" We thanked Nathan and headed for Bear Tooth Pass. I just kept thinking of how lucky I am and how generous other motorcyclists are. We were both lucky to be climbing the 11,000-foot Bear Tooth with blue skies, puffy clouds and freshly fallen Labor Day snow still on the ground. If you ever ride that way, take Chief Joseph Highway (296) into Cody, Wyoming. You won't regret it.

The next morning we saddled up and rode out of town without having time to stop at the world-renowned museum. Entering Yellowstone Park's east entrance, riding through car-wheel tracks in the snow was exciting, but we had to keep going. Our plans were to see Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, then set up camp in Jackson Hole before nightfall, but we stopped to see Old Faithful blow its top. When I was a kid, it shot up what seemed like hundreds of feet every 15 minutes. Now you wait 92 minutes between shows and it only shoots half as high. Old Faithful didn't let us down, but as we rode off I couldn't help wondering what future generations would see. Scientists are monitoring ground movement under Lake Yellowstone, so this volcanic area could one day take on a very different look. Remember Mt. St. Helens?

We stopped for groceries in Jackson Hole before finding a campsite for the night, right on the Snake River. After dinner and breakfast with fresh coffee, I realized how unprepared I was. Alex had all the cool camping equipment. It didn't seem like he was roughing it at all. Knowing he had another month riding around the Southwest, I invited him to stop at my house for fresh tires and hospitality before heading south of the border. That would be my turn to be generous.

It's time to say our good-byes. Alex is on his way. I'm aiming for Miller Motorsports Park outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, and round one of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association national championship. I won last year's Vintage Superbike title, and if I could borrow a bike I'd slap a #1 plate on it and spice up this ride with a race. Arriving at the track felt like visiting family. I camped in the GP garage on pit lane and everyone was generous with BBQs, ice chests and blenders. Alice Sexton even lent me her Cagiva Alazzurra for the race. Great people riding cool old bikes, the atmosphere doesn't get any better than in the AHRMA pits. After peeling off my leathers, I made room in my saddlebags for a couple of first-place trophies!

Back on the V-Strom, I'm off to the Bonneville Salt Flats for a run down the black line, just like Chris Carr and all the other gods of speed before him. Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Park is next. Then Twin Falls, right on the edge of the Snake River Gorge, a couple of hundred yards across from the site of Evel Knievel's ill-fated Sky-Cycle jump. I still don't know how he figured to land on the rocky spot where I'm standing.

They say all good rides must come to an end, and it's time to get back to the beginning of mine. My sister-in-law Jill lives in Bend, Oregon--right on the way. After another nice, home-cooked meal, I give her kids the trophies I won, return Jim's bike and start dreaming up another good, long route to ride. It's a big country, and there are still plenty of roads I haven't ridden...yet.

Let's recap the budget on this 10-day, 3200-mile outing...

Gas $265
Food & drink $78
Motels $65
Campsites $27
National Parks fees $32
Total $467

Not bad for a memorable riding vacation. I was lucky enough to say, "That didn't cost me nuthin'" thanks to the generosity of family and friends. Your costs may vary, depending on how much you rough it. Like most motorcycle rides I've ever been on, this one was worth every penny!

All that's left of the ramp built to launch Evel Knievel and his Sky-Cycle over Snake River Canyon in 1974.
Just enough time to grab a quick shot of Lake McDonald, a.k.a. the largest lake in Montana's Glacier National Park. Large? It's about 10 miles long and 472 feet to the bottom at the deepest point.
Going to the Sun Road is a spectacular 52-mile ride across Glacier Park that crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Pretty exciting stuff for your first time on the back of a Gold Wing.
My instant friend Alex from Holland on one very cold McDonald Pass.
Alex (right) and I mug for the camera outside the Bike Shack in beautiful Bozeman with founder Nathan Houser (center), who graciously gave me a used rear Metzeler to keep the V-Strom moving.
Using my map-holding Cortech tankbag as a picnic table worked.
Changes to subterranean water levels mean Yellowstone's Old Faithful ain't quite as faithful as he used to be, blowing his top for about two and a half minutes at less regular intervals.