Wendy did you hit your head?! “A six cylinder four wheel motorcycle, cross country with a stranger in one of the hottest August’s on record, are you crazy?” A question I kept hearing from my two wheel riding buddies when I told them of my next adventure. Crazy yes, and crazier is that I agreed to do it!
While on the mend from a recent racing accident I met with a reporter from a international Spanish speaking TV news station, Antonio Valverde. He wanted to interview me. I was a bit hesitant, for my Spanish sounds like that of a five year old, and I was still in a splint unable to ride yet. We met for a pre-interview at my shop where I keep both classic and racing motorcycles. and at a home garage housing modern street bikes.
I ride many very different motorcycles and like them all. Especially Ducati Multistradas. I am height challenged at 5.5″, and the pre-2010 models have narrow seats which allow shorter people to touch ground. This was important as they are my “go to” touring and camping bikes. Two he asks? I explain because I put on many miles and alternate them, and good for when an out of town friend is going to show up for a road trip. Antonio and I are the same size, he asks to sit on one, I see a cloud forming over his head. We agreed to check back in a couple a weeks.
My splint is removed! Doctor states activities are “as pain permits.” He had no idea who he was talking to, a mid-distance ex-runner… what pain? I decide physical therapy would be a nice long ride to put positive miles between me and my accident. I was recovering not only from a displaced right arm break, but seven broken ribs, four broken lower vertebrae, a compressed disk, cracked illium and a collapsed lung. I was not ready to race but I was definitely ready to ride, it had been almost three months. The bike I wanted to ride was for sale in Brooklyn, NY, a vintage gentleman’s tourer.
The city slicker wants to ride! I tell Antonio about my upcoming endeavor and little did I know that the cloud over his head had gotten bigger. I soon find out is that he wanted to get back on a motorcycle after a 30 year hiatus. He had not ridden since selling his bike after being rear-ended by a car at an intersection in his home country, Argentina. He fantasized about going motorcycle camping as he had in the Patagonia. I offered to let him ride my ’70’s Yamaha DT2 and ’04 Honda 250x dual sport bikes around town to get rid of the rust. He does, a few times, complaining about having to kick start one and pushing the other seven blocks when it ran out of fuel. I tell him it’s all part of the training and conditioning, also learning to troubleshoot. It didn’t help that he was wearing dress boots while riding. He’s lucky I didn’t make him fix the flat!
Meanwhile I learn that the bike in New York, a 1970 BMW R75/5 was not likely to make the trip to California without a complete going thru. This was unfortunate news, and a deal breaker for me due to the costs. I tell Antonio I am now available to complete our interview as there will be no New York trip. I am quickly told about his plan to acquire a bike and asks if I will help. After his visit to my garage he started searching for a motorcycle and found one in Jackson, Mississippi…a used Honda Goldwing with a Tow-Pac kit. This is a 1500cc six cylinder motorcycle with two fairing wheeled out-riggers that act as stabilizers, so four wheels total! The original rear wheel remains and still is the drive unit, unlike a trike, and almost as wide as a car. It can tow a small trailer, this was not included…thank god! I help him negotiate the bike purchase, and save him a thousand dollars. He is excited.
Curious, I ask him why such a big bike? His reply; “Safety. I want to be seen by traffic, I don’t care about going fast or splitting lanes. I want to be able to go camping and produce stories on the road so I need to bring my camera equipment. Will you help me get it home?” I soon learn what he means by “get”… he means ride it home…in August!!! I am reluctant. He sweetens the deal, throws in a Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga closing tour concert in Washington D.C., as well as a stop in Nashville for more music before picking up the bike. A paid vacation…so I think! It will be fun so he thinks! Only each of us will soon discover just how much work it will be, a test on many different levels.
I regularly cross country with my Sprinter van and race trailer. They are long miles even with air conditioning and a great sound system during the hot summer months. I have also ridden a couple thousand miles on several bike trips in the States and in other countries. On a motorcycle you are exposed to the elements and the worst is long interstate highways. One mile feels like ten in triple digit heat and humidity or freezing cold. Especially when they are straight and there are no interesting stops, like U.S. Interstate 10 thru Texas. I am glad I inspired him, but now also feel responsible for making sure he gets home in one piece. Just not sure of his choice… the Pro’s, it can’t tip over… the Cons … I have no idea how it will handle and more importantly will it make it home? The reasoning, it’s a Honda Goldwing, with 70K miles, what could possibly go wrong? I nervously agree.
Long distance motorcycle travel requires many skills sets. I quickly learn my student did not suffer from “riding rust” but rather “riding green”! My first clue, he arrives with with four stuffed kitchen plastic bags of clothing along with a carry-on roller bag, and a two pound bottle of cologne. I gave him a medium sized pack back and tell him to prioritize. Your things must fit in this I tell him, hint…pack light and efficiently. I show him mine, which included my laptop and camera, it is possible. The second clue, is his camping gear, none of it is motorcycle light.
Has he really gone motorcycle camping before? I question if he had really ever gone motorcycle camping before. He appears to have no idea of what is required for motorcycle camping. We go to REI for the summer sleeping bag that compacts to the size of a football and a baseball sized camping pillow. I had a tent and stove, explaining we were motorcycle dry camping, and to imagine ” we are gauchos”, Argentinian cowboys. Our waterproof camping bag will go on the top case luggage rack and our things must not be too heavy for our horse. The camping bag with sit on top of the top case and will containg the tent, tarp, two sleeping bags, pillows, stove, towels and dishes. His electronics and cameras will go in the top case for protection, 25lbs is the limit. Leaving the side cases, one for each of us on the bike for our back packs holding clothes and toiletries. He packed the two pound bottle of cologne!
The beginning starts off fun, music concerts and interviews, easy peasy! Then the first real test starts when we pick up the bike on the fourth day of our trip in Jackson. We ride to New Orleans, he starts the first leg of the journey. After only 46 miles he pulls over, he is tired? We switch. I ride 120 miles, a full tank, he then rides 40, a pattern starts. We will need to average at least 300+ miles a day. Antonio tells me when I finally ask, that he had only ever ridden a couple of thousand miles total on a motorcycle, and in a country where there is no traffic, you make your own road! I am disappointed to hear this and to learn the triple digit heat and humidity is stifling him . It quickly became apparent my student needed conditioning. It did not help that it is early August, and one of the hottest summers on record globally! I check weather along Interstate 10, 102F+, a change of route is in order. We decide to head north to Interstate 40, it is 10 degrees cooler. Only issue now will be the high plains thunderstorms.
Extreme weather conditions, heat, cold, wind and rain. I noticed Antonio being very uncomfortable with the heat, making it more difficult to hold the needed concentration of sustaining long distance highway speeds. Luckily for me finally the years of racing in the Mojave desert year round in heat and cold, as well as high winds paid off . He was not use to riding fast, and it didn’t help that the bike’s outrigger fairings vibrate viciously at higher speeds. Outside of California most states interstate speeds are 75mph, and this includes tractor trailer trucks. At these speeds the wind is deafening as well as fatiguing, faces exposed, and wearing intercom half helmets that came with the bike, too big and ten years old did not help. I also soon discover Antonio slows way down until a car passes then suddenly speeds up when it is in front. I then realize he can’t see at night! I become anxious and concerned, from now on I will ride night miles. We are now in Lake Charles, Louisiana, it is only the second day of riding. We head north up to Interstate 40, and on our way to Austin we stop at the Houston Honda Dealer for new full face flip up helmets that actually fit. A welcome relief and well worth the investment.
Austin offered more great music, stories, and a chance to do laundry. But it is still stifling triple digit heat, we wait to leave at sunset landing in Ft. Worth and then on to Amarillo. A stop at the famous Cadillac Ranch is in order after I introduced him to an Americana road trip Waffle House breakfast whereby the staff entertained us as they continued to grill with out lights even though the city was experiencing a major power outage. In nearly every city we met interesting people and gathered stories, and everyone has one. At the same time the 24/7 travel hours allow for us to learn each others, along with our short comings, I am reminded that mine is patience.
I have been known to leave a journalist during a road trip. Motorcycle distance travel is not for the faint of heart nor ideal for a high maintenance individual. It is important to be flexible and communicate, positively and effectively. In this situation, safety was becoming an issue due to the disparity in experience levels. I found myself forced to find patience and try to remember what it was like when I was first learning to ride, over 20 years ago. I didn’t know much on my first long distance trip, and it was time to pass on what I did know, being careful on the method of delivery. At times I had to raise my voice when it came to safety issues. This didn’t help things between us. Being a rider makes it difficult to be a passenger unless I have complete confidence in the rider. I will attempt to ride the motorcycle from back seat if necessary. You couldn’t do that on this vehicle. When your student unplugs the helmet intercom…purposely… you are at his mercy. English is Antonio’s second language, couple that with a very “Latin” attitude and pair that up with an independent American woman, who has limited Spanish skills and both are head strong. It was a good thing that I didn’t catch all his very fast Spanish words, when there were some heated moments, imagine “I Love Lucy” meets “Married with Children”.
Crisis are good tests. We had a few over the nine days on the bike and 3200 miles. A GPS sending us in circles, getting caught in several lightening storms, a monsoon, a desert sand storm known as a “haboob”, daily humidity, sweltering heat as high as 110F+, 125F+ asphalt road surfaces, a broken tail pipe, night time welding in the rain, a flat tire, and a dead battery were some memorable ones. Then there was the lost gear, a jacket, glove, a map, charging cables and nearly lost our cellphones a couple of times. Each time a lesson learned, mostly be organized, and I shared with him the golden rule of touring, “Anything important on you or in the bike!”
Our load several pounds heavier, we finally make it back. Like the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez movie “The Long Trailer” in which Lucy collects rocks at each stop and sneaks them in the trailer on a cross country trip, so did Antonio with his requent souvenir purchases. He started sneaking things to avoid me asking, “Where’s that going to go?” We had added two additional days of riding to account for the weather and repair delays and several more pounds to our luggage as well as quite a few stories. Did I mention, we never once camped? It was either too hot, or too wet. We managed to survive the incredible heat, trials and tribulations and arrived back to California still talking to each other. This was something I pondered about before the trip began, knowing traveling long distance is a test. In fact, prior to leaving wrote “Will we still be talking to each other?” on a notepad we had left behind. He found it on the return and responded with….”I would do it again.” I guess I wasn’t that bad of a teacher after all and very glad that I could inspire someone to go on adventure, pass on some knowledge, and learn to set aside my prejudices, regardless of how many wheels a vehicle may have!
– Wendy Newton, “Helmets n’ Heels”