The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged

Cross-Country From Oklahoma To Utah On Vintage Two-Strokes

The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged

The Trans-America Trail, Unplugged

The TransAmerica Trail, UnpluggedJoe Gresh

Where's Mark? Twelve miles into a six-day dirtbike ride and we've already lost one rider. At least it's not me this time. I normally ride alone, so it's kind of cool having someone else to blame. Vance mashes the red button on his left handlebar and the speakers inside his helmet cackle with the sound of our chase-truck driver, Nick, telling him he's loading Mark's Yamaha RT360 onto the trailer. One down, four to go.

The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Team TAT (left to right): Dave, Gary, the writer, Vance and Mark. Remind me to get some shins someday.Joe Gresh

It started with a digital missive. Baotiger, a.k.a. Vance, was going to ride the Trans-America off-road trail from Oklahoma to Utah on a vintage two-stroke. Did anyone want to come along? is deluged with 5000 responses to Vance's query, but digital attrition is heavy. In the end, five of us convene at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Joining Vance, grand master funk of ceremonies, is Gary, who busted his collarbone just weeks before; Dave, titanium-kneed metal-masher extraordinaire; Mark, moto-boy wonder; and me, thesaurus function junkie. A Chat Mob motorcycle gang.

With Mark safely in the chase truck, we get back underway. Gary's and Dave's bikes are running an aftermarket fuel-delivery system with an adjustable mixture dial. Their 400cc two-strokes are getting astronomical fuel mileage-nearly 40 miles per gallon versus Vance's and my 30. One of the 400s begins playing up. Gary kicks his DT 20 or 30 times to get it running. I watch him lunge on the start lever, expecting his freshly knit shoulder to garishly separate from his torso like that liquid-metal cop in Terminator 2. Two hundred miles in, his bike won't start at all. I stab my right foot onto Gary's tailpipe and bulldog the DT up to 30 mph using my 360, lovingly nicknamed Godzilla, before his bike builds enough compression to light off. Eighteen miles from the end of our first day, Gary's bike seizes. We begin calling the adjustable fuel system "Dial-A-Seize." Vance tows the locked-up DT to our motel.

I love my newfound Internet brothers as much as I can love anybody I've never met before. Instead of an eHarmony relationship, we have an eVolumetric Efficiency connection, as all of us have checked the Stinky Old Two-Strokes box as our number-one turn-on.

The other guys' bikes are lathered with high-tech video cameras, radios and GPS plotters. Tangled umbilical cords stream gigabytes of data to quick-release multi-pin plugs on their helmets. Everything happening is being recorded, tracked or talked about. The boys try to rig my bike for radio communication. The '71 RT360's immune system rejects the 21st century technology. No outside voices will be inside my lonely head as it rocks to and fro atop my body for the next 1300 miles of off-road nirvana.

For a judge sporting a broken collarbone and a burned-out bike, Gary is in surprisingly good spirits. Working in the motel parking lot by the oversaturated glare of auto headlights, he removes the melted 400 top end and installs a spare piston and cylinder. The bike fires off around midnight, rattling our motel-room windows. Surround sound with smoke effects.

Five vintage bikes hit the trail this morning. Mark tinkered with his bike yesterday and has his 360 up to 50 mph. We rip along the TAT sounding like a steroid-juiced band of lumberjacks. Six intoxicatingly glorious miles later, Gary's 400 sticks again. A few miles more and Dave's 400 stops dead. Dial-a-Seize is working its special brand of magic. Crippled two-strokes litter the trail and Nick has to work double shifts to ferry the locked-up bikes back to civilization. Mark's 360 is running slower and slower. He throws in the towel and putts back to town shadowing a trailer loaded with dashed Dial-a-Dreams.

We stand and wait on the trail while this bike shuffling sorts itself out. An Oklahoma cowboy sporting a perfectly waxed Rip Torn moustache stops to ask if we need help. I hold my tongue. It is moist with a slightly rough texture on the upper surface.

Now there are three: Vance on his DT400, me on Godzilla, and Dave riding Vance's backup Honda XR650L-a lowly four-stroke. Since the XR has been in relatively unchanged production since 1983 (except for making it even heavier), it qualifies as unimaginative, a word containing enough letters to spell v-i-n-t-a-g-e. On the TAT, we rationalize that which we cannot control.

Flying along at 60 mph through slippery mud, the bikes weave from side to side in a futile search for traction. My front wheel locks up, and Godzilla and I go down. Vance blows past for another 100 feet until his wheels stop turning and he joins us. We can't get up fast enough to warn Dave, and the Honda plows into the mud, carving a canyon so deep and wide that three donkey-tour operators open for business before we can right the bike.

The mud isn't deep, but it's incredibly sticky. We can't move. Our knobbies turn into underpowered mud pumps, stalling the motors. Working together, the three of us manage to push the Yamahas 10 feet at a time to the high road. The Honda is another story: With the additional weight of the mud, it's now so heavy that even light cannot escape its gravitational pull. It takes four hours to progress one mile. If we maintain this pace, we will die of natural causes before we get to Utah. Vance alters our course to the south and we log a mere 114 miles in 12 hours of hard riding.

Behind schedule, we cheat and ride 40 miles of pavement through Oklahoma. We get back on the TAT and put in 260 sweet, uneventful miles to our next stopover. Vance-who I suspect has not only kissed the blarney stone, but in exchange for a 75-foot aluminum crew boat and 200 cases of beer has had it removed from Blarney castle and installed in his prairie mansion, Greystroke-is laying the butter on our waitress this evening. She's impervious to mirth, however. Her parting shot, "I don't like biscuits and gravy," has us wondering what kind of food service Vance is suggesting.

Throughout this ride, I share motel rooms with Dave. We are complementarily cheap, so it works out great. Each night, we pound fistfuls of prescription meds. We're taking more pills than Kerouac ever did, but the only thing getting high is our blood pressure and cholesterol. Dave's snoring shakes the walls. Each morning, I have to sweep off bits of ceiling plaster and tufts of pink insulation to get out of bed. But to save 30 bucks a night, I'll sleep next to a howitzer.

We climb out of New Mexico into Colorado and my piston-port 360 starts losing power. At 6000 feet, I'm running in first gear to make the steep, rocky climbs. We go higher and higher until Godzilla is blubbering so badly, I change down to a #220 main jet. It's still too big, but it's the smallest I have. Vance tells me his 400 is running fine.

LaVita, Colorado, is our next stopover and Dave wants to barbecue. It takes four of us to figure out how to build the Chinese-made grill. Nick insists on using all the stuff in the package even though everyone knows they always include too many parts. I start tossing washers and plastic bits into the cornfield next door. We have the best meal of the trip.

After dinner, Vance stuffs a huge plug of Red Man into his lower lip and we shoot the breeze late into the evening. An oilman (spit), Vance is expansive on his previous petro-adventures in Africa (spit). Most of them cannot be repeated (spit) in this story (patooey), because the Geneva Convention rules (spit) are still being followed in some other, less progressive countries.

Sky-high, the old bikes pop on. Vance's reed-valve 400 has enough power to motor up the hills in fifth while I slip the clutch and row the gearbox. At 9000 feet my bike is geared wrong, piped wrong, jetted wrong, and I'm not feeling too good myself. I've been watching, and Vance has yet to put his foot down on this climb. My feet, my hands, my chin, even my liver and lower intestine have come in contact with the dusty surface, and we are not even to the high part.

In Salida, Colorado, we meet Vance's old friend Rodney. From the start of this ride Vance has been telling us, "Wait 'til you meet Rodney-he's unreal." Rodney accompanies us on our ride over Marshall Pass on his '77 Honda CB750 equipped with a Windjammer fairing and king/queen seat replete with sissy bar. Locals tell us Marshall Pass is washed out. Unfortunately for us, Marshall Pass is the Trans-America Trail. The pass is gone 60 feet across and 40 feet deep.

Rodney bushwhacks an alternate route up a steep, rocky hill, through close-set aspens, down a slippery grass slope, across two streams and then a final sharp, muddy climb to the roadbed on the other side of the wash-out.

Vance tackles the bypass first and gets within 5 feet of the other side. I'm next and clear the lip with 6 inches to spare. Vance and I sit on the road sucking wind, and I can't believe what I'm seeing: Rodney is smashing the big Windjammer fairing through the aspens. The trees shiver in his bow wave as he rumbles down to the streams, and with the CB750 wailing like it's on the Daytona high-banks, he powers his way up the muddy hill onto the road. On skinny street tires. With a thermos of hot coffee in the fairing.

Dave is tentative about attempting the route, but Rodney's display of dirt prowess seals his fate. He works the 650 hard until the front wheel edges onto the road. With less than 2 feet to go, the ruebenesque Honda slowly topples over.

"Well, boys, I didn't come here to BS," Rodney exclaims as he starts down the pass. Dave, Vance and I busy ourselves excavating our jaws from the roadbed. What if he had a dirtbike? It doesn't bear thinking about. I give chase on the RT, taking full advantage of the downhill slope and the high-rpm power of its Bassani expansion chamber. Godzilla and I are cooking, power sliding both wheels through the turns, redlining in fourth on the straights. About 5 miles later, I catch Rodney at the bottom of the pass. He breaks out his thermos and I spend my time waiting for the others genuflecting before his greatness.

After Rodney leaves us, the passes become higher. Some ascents are too steep. I jump off Godzilla and run alongside, pushing the gutless 360. I'm stopping. I'm dying. We are 2 miles high and I have no air. Dave gives me a push when the RT is too weak to get moving. Vance, on the other hand, has yet to put his foot down and his DT is running fine. There's no end to my disgust. In slow, rough sections I slip the clutch mercilessly in first gear, the engine internals graunching in complaint.

The final day, Vance lets Dave and me navigate. The night before, we take the maps into our motel room and study them. It's way too complicated. I confide in Dave my embarrassing mental handicap: I can't think. Dave works on the maps while I watch Pirates of the Caribbean on TV. We miss the very first turn-off and Vance takes over navigation again. This was my plan all along.

The TAT saves the worst for last. The final passes from Lake City to Monticello, Utah, are all but impassable. Twelve-foot snow canyons greet us as I shove the asphyxiating Godzilla along, 2.25 miles above sea level. Our final descent is a mélange of boulders, ice and snow, but at least I'm not pushing. Dropping back below timberline, we encounter the first of many downed trees blocking the trail. Dave singlehandedly lifts the mass of branches as Vance and I shove the trunk off the trail. Dave dumps the cetaceous Honda down a 10-foot vertical drop and crushes his right foot. It smacks of work, but our chat mob is the first since last fall to bust through these trails.

We are running the two-strokes so hard that Vance runs out of injector oil. After priding himself on using nothing but Yamalube since his DT was new, he dumps a half-quart of dirty, old Honda crankcase oil into the injector tank. Dave is grateful for any weight reduction on the big Honda and suggests draining all the oil to further lighten the beast.

The altitude drops and Godzilla starts feeling friskier. We have a small moment of truth near the end. The TAT runs roughly parallel to the main highway for the last 30 miles. No one would know. Our arms are falling out of their sockets. The asphalt is Teflon-smooth. After a grueling 13 hours, gimpy Dave says no way to the highway; he's finishing the damn trail. We reach our final destination, Monticello, Utah, just in time for a beautiful purple sunset.

There's more to the TAT, but I've had enough. I'll keep an eye on my inbox though, and if a random pattern of ones and zeros arrange themselves into an offer to ride the Utah-to-Oregon portion, I'll sell three or four hundred pairs of my wife's shoes to finance the trip. Because while the planning stages may be digital, the Trans-American Trail is some of the most enjoyable analog riding in the country.

The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
One of the stops on our "Replace America's Broken Windows" tour. It wasn't our exhausts, I swear.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
This is the fastest Gary's bike went the entire trip. He could have made it in less time on horseback.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Yet another irate motel owner collecting damages after Dave's snoring destroyed the room.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Dial-a-Seize turns Gary's ride into a nightmare.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Vance consults the GPS, which claims we should go straight here. And for that he paid good money?Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
That's not Play-Dough, it's Oklahoma mud. This stuff put the "quag" in "quagmire."Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Dinosaur motorcycles making dinosaur tracks. No sign of a Tyrannosaurus rex anywhere.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
According to my GPS, there should be a Starbucks around here. Maybe it went out of business...Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
You can dress them up, marry them off and add 45 years, but they'll still run through puddles.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
The mighty Godzilla at rest, mainly because at this altitude I've had to push it for the last mile.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Sitting on top of the world. Definitely not standing. It was all I could do to push the shutter button.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
If you think this looks bad, you should have seen it installed on the bike. Just say no to electronics.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
The sole survivors at the end of the 1300-mile run. Next time I'll try curling.Joe Gresh
The TransAmerica Trail, Unplugged
Trail maintenance: Don't believe the hype. most of the Trans-America Trail is easy like this section.Joe Gresh