Week 58 - Among Apaches, Truth or Consequences

It took a some time to get clear of the sprawl around Phoenix, and on the way I stopped to buy groceries, change my oil, and put balancing goo into the tires. I'd sworn off interstates, and luckily there were good alternative routes to my next destination of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Shortly after clearing the exurbs, US 60 started to climb into the mountains, with lovely switchbacks, tree-filled ravines, and roadside weeds heavy with flowers and seed pods. I climbed over a very scenic 8,000 foot pass, filled up my water bottles at a kiosk in Globe, and entered the San Carlos Apache reservation. As I passed a tribal grocery store, I had a brief urge to stop in and see if they had any unique items, but I'd gotten a late start and daylight was limited, so I decided to push on. As I approached the center of the reservation, I pulled over at a small gas station to top up my tank before the long stretch ahead. Just before I stopped the engine, I noticed the green idle indicator light flickering, but it didn't really register. As I pumped the gas, I noticed a strange smell, somewhere between spoiled food and chemicals, and looked around for the source of it but didn't see anything obvious. When the bike refused to start again, I began to wonder if all these things were related, and started to sniff around to see where the smell was coming from. It seemed to be strongest near the battery box, and when I removed the cover a cloud of smoke poured out of the battery. I couldn't see any flames yet, but I worked quickly to pull the battery out and disconnect it before it could damage the rest of the wiring.

I moved the battery away from the pump and around to the side of the store, and stood there watching it smoke and melt on the asphalt. It was late in the afternoon on a Sunday and it was clear I wasn't going anywhere soon. A bike with a newer CDI ignition system like I had on Punkin could run without a battery, but Sugar couldn't, the battery was essential to regulate the voltage, and I needed a 6 volt one which is less common these days than the standard 12 volts. There was a small tribal hardware store across the road, and I decided to wait and see if they had a battery in the morning. The kind I needed are used for electric fences and those tiny cars for kids, so it was possible. A man and some children were repainting the yellow parking bumpers, and he said I should be able to camp there. My anxiety about being broken down slowly started to give way to a feeling of calm. And I noticed an interesting thing: as long as I'd been in a going mindset, this place seemed like the middle of nowhere, but as soon as I stopped and slipped into a being mindset, it turned into the middle of somewhere. I'd never spent time on a reservation before and here I was right in one, at a local gas station that seemed to be somewhat of a community anchor point. A guy in the back of a pickup truck asked if he could have my armored shirt. A gaggle of children asked me questions while their aunt went inside to buy them all ice cream. There was a lot for me to experience here, and as soon as I had no place to go, it all became interesting.

After the battery had cooled off, with both sides melted through and showing the metal plates inside, I threw it away and looked around for a good place to camp. There was an empty lot in back, behind which was a line of brush dividing it from a small neighborhood. I pushed Sugar back there and started unrolling my bedding to camp, but a guy from the store came out to tell be it would be much better to sleep out front where the security guard could keep an eye on me all night. He said there would be a lot of young people on meth walking back and forth all night, and they were likely to mess with me. Of course I'd spent the night in Victorville next to LZ while he paced around on meth, and that turned out okay, but then again I'd met him first. I decided to trust local wisdom and moved out front to the parking space in the far corner where he directed me. Then I went into the store to buy some snacks and look around. It was mostly the standard-issue junk food, sadly, but in the back they had some display cases with artifacts, a long counter with souvenir sweatshirts, towels and so on, and another even longer one filled with beads and beading supplies. I chatted with some of the staff, who assured me I'd be safe out front and said they'd already let the security guard know I'd be there. It seemed I wasn't the first to be stranded there overnight. Back outside it was getting dark, and I sat up for a while reading Shackleton's account of the trans-Antarctic expedition, which lifted my mood by putting my own troubles into perspective: it wasn't as if my vehicle had been crushed in the middle of impenetrable pack ice or anything. A few people pulled up in their cars to offer me food or money; I thanked them and told them I was fine, but their good intentions alone were heartening. I've noticed that it's almost always somebody in a beat-up old vehicle that stops and offers to help, which makes me wonder if it might actually be better to break down in a "bad" neighborhood than a "good" one. A guy walking past on the nearby path asked if I wanted "a sliver", which I also politely declined.

The night air was cool and dry, and I slept great, only waking up a few times to see the security guard's truck parked out there past the gas pumps. I was up before dawn and met the guard himself, who offered to get me coffee. I accepted a cup of hot water to which I added some of my apple cider vinegar, and we stood outside talking. He lamented all the young people on meth. "They don't act like Apaches," he said, "they act like n*****s". He talked about his daughter's college graduation and some of his nieces who had recently completed a coming of age ritual called a sunrise ceremony. As we watched a guy unloading cases of groceries from a delivery truck, the sunrise silhouetted the distant mountains, and the security guard turned to the east, said a prayer in Apache, and crossed himself. "That was a prayer to protect you," he said, "It'll keep the covid off you and your relations." I thanked him and he left to get on with his day. The hardware store didn't open until seven, so I spent some more time walking around, and met a medicine man who'd just got done with some sunrise ceremonies. He said all the medicine men had been very busy lately with the ceremonies that had been delayed by pandemic restrictions.

When the hardware store opened I crossed the road to check it out. It was very small, housed in a double-wide prefab, and didn't carry any batteries larger than for a flashlight, but I did pick up some electrical terminals I was out of. I returned to the gas station and was just weighing my options when an older man pulled up and asked what was wrong with my bike. When I told him, he said he was pretty sure the hardware store back in Globe had the batteries I needed and asked if I wanted a ride. It would be about a twenty minute drive and the store opened in twenty minutes. I said I didn't want to take up too much of his time and he replied that he was retired and didn't have anything else to do anyway. So I hopped in and we headed west.

On the way, we got to talking about this and that, and the conversation turned to petroglyphs. He pointed out into the desert and described some of the ones he'd seen, along with the footprints of "the little people". "You mean like fairies and elves?" I asked, and it turned out it was more along the lines of a forgotten race of tiny humans still living in the desert. It's possible my non-judgemental interest helped him open up, because then he started telling me about his UFO sightings in New Mexico, which were quite engaging. At the hardware store, there was a shelf with 6 volt AGM lead-acid batteries in several sizes. The ones that looked best were small and cheap, so I bought two of them just in case they didn't last very long. On the way back, he told me about his experience growing up in foster care and going to school outside the reservation with white kids, and the wider view of the world that had given him. He said it was hard being able to see things that those around him couldn't see, and that he couldn't seem to talk to other locals because they would get offended. I said that as far as I could tell, that seemed to be a more general problem in the country as a whole. The rest of the conversation drifted to spiritual matters and was quite interesting but hard to summarize. It struck me that I was giving him something in return for the ride: a sympathetic ear, and maybe that was a more valuable gift than I'd realized. Back at the gas station we said goodbye and he took off.

As I altered the wiring to fit the new battery and wedged it into the bike with folded up piece from a cardboard case of Arizona Tea (a fitting souvenir I thought), an old man in a cowboy hat, missing one eye and a number of fingers and teeth, came up and leaned on his walker to smoke a cigarette. We chatted a bit, and I often had to stop working and come closer to make out his mumbled speech. He'd grown up on the Fort Apache reservation to the north, but he'd moved here a long time ago and had even helped build the country store. When I got the battery installed and my luggage stowed, the bike started right up, I waved goodbye and continued on my way east. For a few miles I fantasized about having a more modern and reliable motorcycle, but then I realized that if I'd had one, I would never have stopped there, never have met any of those wonderful people, never have experienced the daily life of another culture from close up. It was Indigenous People's Day too, and what better way to have spent it? The road began to wind gently through rolling hills, and the constantly changing views were quite pretty. When the land flattened out it began to look wetter and richer, and I passed through large fields of sorghum and Pima cotton. I stopped for lunch in Thatcher and then started to climb back into the mountains. Trees began to line the road as I entered the Gila National Forest, and at the top of the ridge I pulled into a camping spot on the Continental Divide Trail. There was only a little daylight left, and the wind was cold, but sitting among the leafy trees and alpine meadows felt lush and restful after so long in the desert.

In the morning, the forecast threatened rain, so I skipped breakfast and got on the road shortly after dawn. As I descended from the ridge, the sun shone eerily under dark and threatening cloud banks. Here and there, the mountain had been carved away into massive terraces, like shining stone pyramids thrusting out of the forest in a rainbow of subtle pastel hues. As I reached Silver City, it looked like it could rain any minute, so I pulled into a covered parking area near the visitor's center. Ever since the crash, one of my waterproof saddlebags was riddled with holes and this was much easier than rigging a tarp. A few deciduous trees had taken on brilliant fall colors, which stood out in the gray light and made an exciting change from the olive drab of desert foliage. I set out in search of breakfast, crossing a footbridge over a deep ravine and exploring city streets lined with cute old buildings. Finding a coffee shop, I went inside out of the cold, and ordered a piece of quiche with green chilies and a big mug of tea. As I waited for my food, I was warmed by the hot tea and also by a sudden intense feeling of home. There were none of the smooth and shiny surfaces of a modernist interior, but instead it was all wood and brick, the ceiling painted like the sky and lit by a skylight shining down through blackened wooden rafters embellished with natural tree branches. The decor seemed to be the eclectic collection of an old hippie, with a banjo clock, a hurricane lamp, oil cans, old woodworking planes, stained glass pieces with wind chimes dangling over a statue of Buddha, a sitar hanging on the wall next to an electric guitar. I ate my quiche, which came with a side of roasted butternut squash flavored with sage, felt the last of the chill leaving my bones, and sat for a bit on a large and comfy sofa. When I left, the sun was shining, and the outside was chillier but every bit as pleasant, with burbling fountains, trees growing through holes in the wooden deck, and lots of little nooks for intimate conversation.

I'd dodged the rain, but the weather report warned of 45 mph gusts of wind along my route. I rode through the strip mall outskirts of Silver City, filled my tank at a tiny gas station that only took cash and only sold 83 octane, and got onto route 152 through the Gila National Forest. This turned out to be one of the prettiest rides I'd ever ridden, the road winding tightly up the mountainsides, low speed limits and only a handful of other cars, wide vistas, tall trees, rushing streams, and birds soaring on thermals. I reached Emory pass, admired the view as long as I could stand it in pummeling wind so strong you could lean against it, and headed down the other side. Here in the rain shadow it was drier and the vegetation was sparser, but it was still quite majestic. The road dropped back to the plains and wound through tawny rolling desert hills. I could see high mountains in the distance, but the rocks were softer, more sculpted by erosion than the craggy ranges of Nevada. The wind tried to knock me over every so often, and the air was sometimes filled with swirling dust. I came to a large reservoir and turned to ride parallel to the Rio Grande to Truth or Consequences. The town was dusty and dry, and looked like it'd seen better days, but when I arrived at the place I'd be staying for a few days, it felt like a magical oasis. There were several little houses and one big one, arranged around a walled courtyard shaded with apricot and peach trees and desert willows. There was an outdoor hammock and a screen porch with a big couch I could work and sleep on. Best of all, there was a geothermal hot tub, the mineral-rich water coming out of the ground at 95 degrees and being heated with propane to 110. I went out for dinner and groceries, then soaked in the tub while talking with the host, who was a serial entrepreneur who'd left ranching life in Texas to do all sorts of interesting things, like living in Tijuana on the proceeds from hauling the cast-off furniture of university students in San Diego across the border to sell. The trees overhead rustled in the gusty desert wind.

I stayed there for the rest of the week, working and sleeping on the screen porch, filling up on fresh vegetables, and soaking. One day I heard talk of motorcycles from the hot tub and went over to meet three friends from Houston staying in the big house. One was a tax accountant for a major oil company, one was a sculptor, and the other ran a motorcycle parts business specializing in vintage Hondas. He was just planning to get into selling parts for CT-90s, so it was a fortuitous meeting on both sides, and he dropped a lot of useful knowledge on me and talked me through some much-needed maintenance procedures. It was incredibly helpful to have someone with experience tell me what kind of things to worry about and what kind of things not to, and thanks to him I managed to get my engine into much better tune and solved the persistent problem of the rubber bumper falling off the end of the cam chain tensioner. The universe seemed to be putting me near the right people at the right time. I was really glad to have stopped at Truth or Consequences, and by the time I left I felt rested enough to tackle the windy plains of West Texas.

Things I Learned

  • It's a bad idea to put a lithium battery into a vintage motorcycle. I thought it would be a major improvement over the vintage style which is basically just strips of lead in a bucket of sulfuric acid, but the motorcycle expects it to handle overcharging gracefully and regulate the voltage, and lithium batteries just don't. The tiny AGM battery I got from the hardware store for $11 seems to work just fine and I still haven't needed to replace it or use the spare.
  • Diesel truck oil like Shell Rotella T4 is apparently the best kind to use in a vintage motorcycle. It's designed to run hot and fast, which air-cooled engines tend to do, and has an old-school formulation that works with the metallurgy in some way that goes over my head.
  • In the hot water district of Truth or Consequences, right next to the Rio Grande, you can drill down just 20 feet to get geothermal hot water.

Wonderful Things

  • Eating a ripe pomegranate fresh off the bush.
  • A fence decorated with really elaborate junk art made from chrome hubcaps, old license plates, mannequin parts, and such.
  • Tiny puppies that jump around like popcorn on a hot skillet and enthusiastically lick whatever they can reach.

Interlude - Catching Up

This blog has gotten way behind. Sorry about that! I've been keeping busy and using my free time to rest, and the days are getting shorter. The last post got as far as Phoenix, and now I'm writing this from back in Cobb Camp at Osceola National Forest in Florida, which means I've made a complete loop around the country: 23 states and over 9,000 miles on a pair of old Honda CT90's. I'll try and catch up soon, now that this journey is drawing to a close and I'm headed back home to North Carolina. I may switch to another format for the next adventure, but I'll keep you posted on that.

To those arriving here from Mike Walley's post on Facebook, welcome! A YouTuber who goes by Biker Dad reached out and asked for a summary of the who, what, when, where, and why of the trip, which I never wrote down because this started out as a way to keep friends and family up to date, and I never had any kind of master plan. The whole blog up to now is the length of a good sized novel, so I'll just take a moment to answer those questions in a shorter form.

In the summer of 2020, I'd planned to take a solo trip to kayak around the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden, but that fell through because of travel restrictions. I'd been wanting to try motorcycling for a long time, and casting longing looks at every Honda Ruckus that passed by, so I bought one, named it Kiddo, improvised some saddlebags, filled them with camping gear, and rode up into the mountains of Virginia from Durham NC, where I lived at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and it helped me get over my anxiety about driving, which had kept me from ever getting a drivers license. My office had already closed and gone remote back in March, and when my marriage fell apart and my house was sold, there was nothing keeping me anywhere in particular, so in September of 2020 I started riding Kiddo around North Carolina and Virginia (where no license was needed). I carried my stuff in two 18 gallon plastic bins strapped to the sides.

Meanwhile I'd become somewhat obsessed with watching bikers on YouTube, especially Ed March of C90 Adventures, who'd ridden a 1980's Honda C90 from Malaysia to the UK and all over the Americas. I wanted some of his spirit. When I told a mechanic friend I'd like to fix up an old C90 for touring, and he had a friend with a 1968 CT90 sitting in a shed that I could have for free, it seemed like fate was guiding my way. I spent three months living in a tent over that cold wet winter, getting my first drivers license and motorcycle permit, learning about motorcycle mechanics and fitting a Lifan 125 engine into the bike, which I named Punkin. In trying to get a title for it, I found out that the original owner was Santa Claus and he gifted it to me as a Christmas present. As soon as I had a license and a license plate, I headed south to Florida for some warmer and drier weather, then back up through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, following the spring as it moved north. From the Upper Peninsula I headed west through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota to Montana, where I took a break of almost two months, flying back to North Carolina for the month of August. Along the way I was working remotely from a cellular connection and riding mostly on the weekends, camping in national forests or in the yards of friends both old and new.

As I was leaving from Montana, Punkin broke down, and I decided to leave it there and buy a 1971 CT90 with only 2000 miles on it, which I named Sugar. On Sugar I rode across Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, arriving back in Florida where I'd been in the spring. Along the way I connected with friends and family, met many interesting people, saw more of my country, and got a better idea of just how big the world is. I also got steadily healthier and happier, and grew spiritually, usually when I wasn't really planning to. When I started, I had no real idea what I was getting into, but then again I believe a real adventure is one where the world pokes its head in with plans of its own. Slowly but surely, I've started learning to treat these moments as gifts to accept rather than obstacles to overcome. The important journey happens on the inside, and can't be measured in miles or any other unit I know of. And home is with the people I care about, and can't be located on any map.

I hope this finds you all well!

Weeks 56-57 - Chiriaco Summit, Phoenix

Getting out of Los Angeles took a while but it was easier than I expected. I got right on the interstate, but traffic was light and the speed limit was 45 so I could actually keep up with it. As I cleared the outskirts, there were fewer lanes and the speed limit ratcheted up to 70, but having a vague impression that California cops were sticklers for the law, I stayed in the rightmost lane rather than riding the shoulder. Traffic became pretty heavy and included more tractor trailers than I'd seen so far. After a while a highway patrolman pulled me over. We established that it was technically legal for my motorcycle to go on the interstate, but he pointed out that I was disturbing the flow of traffic, and that it might be better for me to use the shoulder. With official permission granted, I did just that, and it certainly felt safer although not particularly pleasant. Apart from the turbulence of passing trucks and the boring scenery, the shoulder was littered with debris of all kinds, and I had to put a lot of effort into spotting and dodging it. But I made it to my chosen stop at Chiriaco Summit without further incident. What drew me there originally was the free campground, but from the map I could see there was also a restaurant, a museum, and a trailhead to Joshua Tree National Park. When I rolled into the campground a little before sunset, there was nobody else there but the host. He asked if I was planning to stay for more than one night, in which case I needed to register, and although my original plan had been to continue on to Phoenix in the morning, the place felt nice enough to stay longer.

I wound up staying for three nights, which turned out to be a great decision. During the day I worked from camp, with my tarp pitched as a lean-to for shade, one corner held up by Sugar and the other by my single tent pole. It blew down a lot in the wind until I finally managed to secure it sufficiently. Down the road was the gas station, with a convenient water tap outside, and across the street from that was the diner. The food was generic diner fare with some Tex-Mex options, but its best feature was a lovely outdoor patio surrounded by shade trees and big potted plants, with a large altar to some incarnation of the Virgin Mary in one corner strewn with offerings of flowers and coins. A burbling fountain completed the peaceful oasis atmosphere, and I really enjoyed all my meals there. On Monday afternoon I went to the museum, which is dedicated to General George Patton, who founded the Desert Training Center nearby to prepare tank crews for the harsh conditions of North Africa in World War II. I learned a lot from the exhibits, and got to wander around the numerous tanks parked outside. On Tuesday afternoon I decided to hike into Joshua Tree National Park to the Lost Palms Oasis. The trail followed the remnants of an old dirt track, then gradually climbed through a wide wash that became narrower and narrower until the only way forward was to scramble up a cascade of massive granite boulders. It was challenging enough that I almost turned back, especially after slipping and scraping my leg a little. But I decided to push on, and was rewarded with the sight of big palm trees springing up from rocky ravines, their old fronds hanging down around them like ankle-length grass skirts. The slanting golden light of late afternoon picked out the contours of the outcroppings overhead and created a vast sense of space. I stopped to eat a snack and headed back down, and luckily the going was much easier because I found ways under a lot of the boulders I'd climbed over or around on the way up. As I reached the bottom of the wash, the sun was setting behind a nice bank of clouds, the first really colorful sunset I'd seen in the desert. By the time I got back to camp it was nearly dark and my feet were sore, but I'd seen big-eared desert rabbits, running birds, and hyperactive ants, and learned the names of a few trees like the Jerusalem thorn with its striking green bark and the desert willow with its fragrant blossoms.

On Wednesday morning, after breakfast at the diner, I decided to make the push to Phoenix. The morning's ride was uneventful, and about 100 miles from my destination I stopped for lunch at a remote exit with just a truck stop, a tire shop, and a taco truck. As I was getting back on the road, the steering felt a little strange, and when I stopped the bike to inspect, it turned out the rear tire had lost a lot of air. I pulled out four staples that had done the damage, but to stop the leak I had to fix the tube, which required taking off the back wheel, which required removing all my luggage. Trying to work quickly in the hot sun, I got everything pulled apart, then decided to install my spare tube, since the old one was punctured in so many places that patching was going to be iffy. An Arizona highway patrolman stopped to tell me that being on the shoulder by myself was dangerous, as if I was there for pleasure. But eventually I got everything back together and was back on the road. Now I was going to need to make good time to reach Phoenix by dark, but it seemed possible. Then, just a few miles down the road, as I was passing a rest stop that was closed for construction, I heard the sound of sheet metal going under my wheels, and seconds later the steering went rapidly out of control and I hit the pavement at something like 40 miles per hour.

I got up, switched off the engine, and checked for injuries, but the combination of a light bike and good safety gear had worked wonders. My left glove was worn through and one of my elbow pads was showing its guts a little, but I myself had gotten away with only the tiniest of scrapes on palm, elbow, and knee, and, as I later learned, a painless bruise on my hip with a waffle pattern from the inside of the pad. I picked up the bike, saw that the back tire was completely flat, and pulled a 2.5 inch sheet metal screw out of it, which had gone in so deep it hit the inside of the rim and bent. Someone must have reported the incident, because two more highway patrolmen rolled up to make sure I was okay. After they left, I inspected Sugar for damage and it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. A piece had cracked out of the plastic headlight bucket, the road had grated several holes in the left side of my luggage, and the front mudguard was bent but easily straightened out by hammering on it with a rock. There was nothing to prevent me from riding except the flat tire, but it seemed clear I wasn't getting to Phoenix by dark. I rolled the bike off the road to a flat place between the shoulder and a chain link fence and weighed my options. The rest stop was closed to cars so I wasn't likely to be able to hitch a ride in a pickup. Truckers were still using it but they generally weren't allowed to carry passengers and few had a good place to carry a motorcycle anyway. I went over and talked to the construction workers, but none of them were going to Phoenix because they were all sleeping on site. I looked up a motorcycle towing service in Phoenix and gave him a call. He said he already had a lot of calls in and might not be able to make it out until the next day, but at least I had a fallback plan in case I couldn't fix the problem myself.

I spent the rest of the daylight hours trying to get one or the other of the tubes to hold air. A lot went wrong, including pinching a tube while installing it, failing to patch properly, and finding another staple that I'd somehow missed which made multiple small punctures right next to a seam. I did learn a lot of little techniques and got much quicker at putting the wheel on and taking it off. I sweated a lot and ran out of water, but luckily there was a spigot at the rest stop. By the time the sun went down I had a tube that I thought might just hold air, even though in one place it had one patch on top of another to seal that leaky seam. Feeling a bit downcast, I called my friend SE in Montana for some support, and she reminded me that the journey I was on was really a spiritual one, and my apparent mistakes and setbacks weren't of much consequence as long as I could learn to love myself through it all. As we were talking I watched a storm roll in, lightning flashing a few miles out in the desert. I got off the phone and tarped over everything as best I could in the stony ground. The weather report said the storm cell might contain hail, torrential rain, and 55 mph winds, and I watched the radar closely to try and see which way it was headed. Hadn't there already been enough challenges for one day? Miraculously, the menacing clouds passed slowly by on either side of me, while all the while I could look straight up and see stars. I made my bed next to Sugar and slept better than I thought I would between the lights and noise of trucks passing on either side of me, rushing past on the highway or pulling slowly into the rest area.

First thing in the morning, I inflated the tire. It reached 26 psi and held steady, with no hissing. Half an hour later it hadn't lost any pressure, so I mounted the wheel back on the bike and was just adjusting the back brake when I heard a sudden hiss and it went flat. I was disappointed that one of my patches had failed, but also relieved that I hadn't been riding when it did. I'd done all I could and it was time to call for help. When I called the tow guy again, he said he had five jobs in front of me and wouldn't be able to get out until the afternoon. Apparently with the weather cooling off a bit, lots of people were riding for the first time in months and maybe found out the hard way about that rat that had been chewing on the wires or whatever. I told him no problem, wheeled my bike around the fence to a good pickup spot at the rest area, moved my luggage under the shade of a tree, and sat down to work for half a day. Having plenty of food and water, sun, shade, internet, and help on the way, I was quite content. When the tow guy arrived, he had a really neat truck with a platform that lifted off and sat down flat on the ground to load, then returned to the truck bed once the motorcycle was secure. We had a great conversation on the way to Phoenix, and he even called a friend at a motorcycle shop near my hotel to see if they would help me out and give me a discount. He dropped me off at the hotel and I managed to check in just before they started to give rooms away to people on the waiting list. When I got my bags up to my room, I started to feel how tired I was. After two days of hiking, riding, crashing, and fixing, I was definitely going to need a rest.

Luckily I was in a great place for motorcycle maintenance. I went to Nash Powersports, which was in walking distance of my hotel, but they only had one tube of the size I needed, and referred me to Screwie Lewie's, which was a bus ride away (free like in LA), but was able to sell me two very heavy duty tubes, a bottle of Ride-On (which balances the wheel and seals punctures), and a new set of tires which would arrive the next week from their California location. I decided to go with street tires this time, because they would last longer and the vast majority of my riding was on pavement anyway. On Saturday I went on a sort of pilgrimage to Bob's Used Motorcycle Parts, the largest motorcycle salvage yard in the country, which was in walking distance of my hotel. When I got there an older man behind the counter asked what I was looking for. "You can find the CT90s in the third yard," he said, "but they've been pretty picked over by now." I followed his directions to the third yard and found a large cluster of CT90s from many years in red, yellow, and orange. He was right, they'd been picked over pretty well, and what parts weren't stripped off the frames tended to be fairly damaged by wrecks, electrical fires, sun exposure, and rust. I'd decided to look for one of the silicon rectifiers that Honda started using in '72. Although I didn't strictly need one, since the modern unit I got online was working okay, having something to look for made it into more of a fun treasure hunt. I was also looking for a new mirror to replace the one that got smashed, which might come from any kind of bike, but they were few and far between, being such a fragile part. After I'd looked over the third yard without finding anything, I wound my way through the other two as if I were in a museum of models from many makers, styles, and eras. With five acres of bikes, there was plenty to explore, much of it along narrow weedy paths where I had to step carefully over obstacles. Gleaming chrome exhaust tubing was stacked into intestinal piles, and racks of two-stroke expansion chambers looked like metal stomachs. As I was wandering aimlessly, a distinctive yellow frame caught my eye, and it turned out to be a lone CT90 separated from its flock. I dug into the electrical box and sure enough it had just the rectifier I wanted, a little muddy but otherwise in good condition. I removed it with the toolkit in my backpack and brought it inside to pay for it. The special thrill of finding a treasure among piles of junk!

I took Sunday as a day of rest, and over the remainder of the week I worked from nearby parks and explored the local restaurants, like a fried chicken joint with Kool-aid "on tap", a Japanese-Latin fusion restaurant, and several excellent Mexican places. My tires came in and I spent some time repairing and upgrading Sugar. The new tubes and tires felt far sturdier than the old ones, which was reassuring. I wasn't about to take any more chances with blowouts. I also ordered and installed some unbreakable mirrors, bent the mud-guard back into something resembling its original shape, and covered the hole in the headlight bucket with a piece cut from a red plastic canister I found on the side of the road, which originally contained masks for children. When cut out and glued on, the superheros printed on the side formed a kind of abstract design reminiscent of a Hawaiian shirt print. Sugar was no longer the pristine-looking collector's item that I'd bought in Montana, and somehow that made me feel more attached. Maybe it was also that we'd been through something together and survived.

Things I Learned

  • There's a conspiracy theory that George Patton, who died shortly after the European victory from an injury sustained in an apparent car accident, was actually assassinated, complete with a tell-all by one of the supposed killers. It does seem like some people would have liked to keep him out of post-war politics, as he tended to follow his own path. The museum had a wall of Patton quotes and one of my favorites was: "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
  • A little bit of lubricant around the bead of a tire makes it way way easier to get on and off the rim.
  • Arizona is a good place to find rugged tubes and tires because they have so many things to puncture them: spiny seeds they call goatheads, sticks covered in two-inch thorns, sharp rocks, and so on. "Everything out here is dangerous," said the guy at the shop.

Wonderful Things

  • A tiny hummingbird sipping from the flowers of a desert willow in the twilight.
  • Finding green sprouts springing up from the desert sand and gently easing off the seed cases that were holding their two little leaves together. It's not too often you get a chance to help out a wild plant.
  • Finding a meal I liked so much that the waitress started asking "same?" when I sat down.

Week 55 - Los Angeles

My next stop was Los Angeles, and since there weren't a whole lot of routes to get there, I decided to ride down the shoulder of Interstate 15. Getting out of Las Vegas was a little stressful, but once the road went out into the Mojave Desert it was smooth sailing. The shoulder was wide, so it was like I had a lane to myself, and just had to watch out for stopped cars and exits, of which there weren't very many. The first really interesting sight was the towers of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which uses an array of hundreds of thousands of sun-tracking mirrors to focus sunlight on a boiler to produce steam. The collectors on top of the towers gave off an eerie glow which reminded me of the Eye of Sauron without the polluting gas flames. The rest of the day's ride was pretty boring, although I did see some Joshua trees along the roadside, and in the afternoon I pulled into my first camping option on a rocky hill outside of Victorville. There was nobody there, but the place had an incredible amount of trash of all kinds from shotgun shells to clothes to mattresses to the hulks of abandoned cars. I looked for a nook where I could hide away but the place just gave me a bad feeling, so I looked at my map of free camping locations to choose another spot. The only other option was an empty lot behind the Victorville Walmart, not promising but I figured I might as well check it out. When I got to Walmart, a rough dirt road went by the parking lot in front and turned along a fence enclosing a large drainage ditch at the back. But it was actually a lot nicer than it sounds, because the other side of the fence was lined with poplars rustling in the breeze and pines giving off a pleasant smell, and both casting cool shadows on the edge of the road. I parked in the shade, set up my solar panels, took off my shoes, and sat down to do some blogging.

After a while, a man walked past pushing a jogging stroller loaded with camping gear, one wheel squealing periodically. He stopped, approached me, and asked if I was a cop (maybe it was my tactical laptop). I reassured him on that point and he introduced himself as LZ, a Mexican-American trucker with a drug problem (I'm pretty sure meth but he didn't say). We sat down on the ground and started talking. His account was a little hard to follow at times, but it seems that God had spoken to him and told him to go out in the desert for some time, stay celibate, and somehow atone for the sins of his father. He said he'd started seeing visions, like at one point he saw Jesus standing next to us but Jesus disappeared when LZ had a brief angry thought. I said that didn't really sound like his style to me, and he probably disappeared for some other reason. LZ talked about seeing an actual burning bush nearby and trying to put the fire out because he felt bad for the bush. It seemed like he was waiting for some guidance from me but I didn't really know what to say other than to listen sympathetically to his stories. After a while, he said he was going to make camp at another empty lot across the street, but as he walked away, a Black guy rolled up on a kid's BMX bike with no brakes. The three of us started talking as the sun set. Bike Guy recommended that LZ get laid, and also that he read some books. I asked what books, and he recommended James Patterson, and then Donald Goines, who was inspired by Iceberg Slim, whose autobiography it turned out we were both fans of. It turned out that Bike Guy lived just down the road, but his wife was hanging out with her friends from high school, they were too loud for him, and he had come there to chill and wait for his brother to show up. He offered some life advice about keeping things calm at home by doing whatever his wife wanted, and told a story about the neighbors calling the cops on him for a supposed domestic disturbance, and how difficult it was to get them to leave. He also recommended doing kid stuff with kids to stay young.

After a while I said I was getting sleepy, and they told me that although people would be walking by, I would be totally safe sleeping out there, although it would be unwise to leave my stuff unattended. Bike Guy said, "if this was the South, there'd be all kinds of weirdos out here, but we got rid of 'em. Blew all their heads off." I was pretty sure there were at least three weirdos present and accounted for but didn't say so. I said goodnight, pushed my bike a little ways out into the desert scrub so I wouldn't be swept by headlights, set up camp, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Around 10 pm, I woke to see LZ pitching his tent nearby. Then he started walking back and forth, muttering to himself, with his blanket wrapped over his head like a some old-time desert prophet grappling with demons. I suggested he get some sleep and he said he would try. I woke again at 12:30 am to the sound of him packing his tent. He said he'd slept for a little bit, but he could tell he was seeing things, and maybe it was time to give up on his mission from God and "hit the showers". When I went out to pee and came back, He said that as I knelt over my own sleeping bag, he briefly hallucinated that I was an attacker trying to harm the sleeping me, and he was worried that another hallucination like that might lead him to do something stupid. I said it was a good sign that he could still recognize what was happening, and he said he was going over to the other field in the hope that he'd feel more peaceful there. I said goodbye and wished him luck on his journey. After his stroller squeaked away into the night, I slept fairly well until dawn, only waking once when a man and a woman walked by talking in the wee hours.

At dawn I ate a hearty breakfast at the Carl's Jr across the street, filled up my water at an open spigot behind AutoZone that LZ had told me about, and started riding the back roads connecting to the Angeles Crest Highway that winds across the San Gabriel Mountains. It was really lucky for me that the other end of that road came out right in Glendale, where the friends I'd be staying with lived, allowing me to bypass all the urban sprawl to the east. As the road started its steep climb out of the Victor Valley, there were more and more trees and the air got cool and crisp. Traffic was light and the switchbacks through pine-scented shade refreshed my soul. When I reached Big Pines, the road was blocked off, I believe because the Angeles National Forest was closed until the following Wednesday to reduce the risk of wildfire. Luckily I didn't need to backtrack, and was able to take an alternate route that traversed sun-blasted slopes stippled with gnarled shrubs. In one section, a wildfire had killed and blackened the sparse vegetation. A lone house stood among some tall green trees in the middle of the devastation, with a large sign out front thanking the firefighters. Eventually I joined up with the Angeles Forest Highway, and the road was absolutely lined with motorcycles coming out of the city for a Sunday morning ride. The shoulder was a mass of gleaming chrome, and sport bikes whizzed by at ludicrous speeds. Along with all the expensive-looking motorcycles, there were some expensive-looking sports cars; it seemed every boy was out with his toy (there was a very very small contingent of women). I puttered along through this scene for miles, and luckily most of the traffic was still coming in the opposite direction, because it made me a bit nervous to be passed at those speeds with such limited visibility and maneuvering room.

But the views were spectacular, especially when the road hooked around the end of a ravine so you could see it winding back into the distance. A group of bikers stopped at a hollow in the rocks raised their hands in the air to cheer me up the hill as I chugged by in second gear, my engine screaming just to make 25 mph, which made me smile and lifted my spirits. I reached the top and started the descent, pumping my brakes to keep to the sensible speed limit while cars and bikes screamed past me going even faster than on the way up. And the risks they were taking were made all too apparent when the opposite lane was blocked by an ambulance, the medics tending to a dazed and dust-covered biker who'd slid off the road under a rocky overhang. On my way down the mountain I passed seven other emergency vehicles going up, so I imagine that wasn't the only accident. I crested a ridge and passed into a wall of cool moist air, with a faint whiff of the Pacific that might only have been noticeable to a desert traveler. The mountains turned to hills, and then I was in the valley, riding on nice quiet flat city streets lined with lush vegetation. The change was so sudden that it took a few miles before the new landscape seemed entirely real. I navigated to where my friends NS and CK lived in the Atwater Village neighborhood, on a quiet shady street lined with massive oaks.

NS and I have been friends since childhood, and I've known his longtime partner CK for years too, but I hadn't seen them very much since they moved out to LA. After parking Sugar in the garage and meeting their friendly Siamese cat Misu (short for Tiramisu), I sat down to join them in watching the Tottenham vs Chelsea match (they are very dedicated Tottenham fans). After that we went out for a late lunch at a deli that had converted their parking lot into outdoor dining (a very popular trend in LA). Then we went grocery shopping in a building that had once housed the original Disney animation studio, and passed the little houses where the animators used to live, styled to look like a Snow White village, with painted half-timbering complete with painted patches of peeling whitewash. On the way back I got a driving tour of the area, NS being the perfect guide because of his knowledge of modern architecture and his old job delivering pizzas. We went by a high school that's featured in many films, crossed the Shakespeare Bridge, and rode up and down a terrifyingly steep street. I enjoyed the landscaping and the architecture of many styles and eras.

NS works for a film production company doing screenwriting, concept art, and development, but he also has a side hustle buying and selling antiques, with an expertise in mid-century modern furniture and ceramics. So the apartment was like a museum of cool pieces and curios, some on their way to being sold someday, others just things that NS and CK really like. It was a lot like staying over at NS's house as a kid, since his mom had a similar business and his dad is a keen collector of natural and historical artifacts. The animal skulls on the wall of the room I slept in (European-style mounts from the 20s and 30s), also reminded me of the creepy zombie-like sculptures NS made as a teenager and hung on the walls of his room, but luckily I don't get freaked out as easily these days and slept amazingly well on the firm sofa (a vintage piece of course). On Monday CK went off to her job as a librarian and NS and I hung around the house and worked remotely. It was fun overhearing some of NS's story meetings, with grown people digging into the existential nuances of a children's puppet show. I worked a little outside on the sidewalk, and got some funny looks, but LA is full of oddballs so most people paid me no mind. We went out to some more outdoor restaurants, and one night went out for drinks with TG, another childhood friend who also happened to wind up in show business. It was fun hearing about how the industry looks from the inside, and also catching up and reminiscing a little.

I figured I should touch the Pacific so as to have properly crossed the country, but I wasn't about to ride through LA traffic any more than I had to, so I took the bus, which it turned out was temporarily free. I was told that Zuma Beach would be nice, so I rode to Santa Monica and then took another bus north from there, and it was a long ride so I did some work on the way there and back. When I arrived, everything was blanketed in a cool fog, which started to burn off as I walked toward the beach. I dipped my feet in the water ceremonially and sat watching the waves for a bit, then took the winding inland road up to Point Dume, where rocky cliffs tower over the ocean and present spectacular views across the bays on either side. There was a group of stunt people rappelling down a cliff face-first, so it appeared as if they were walking straight down. The day had grown bright and the ocean was sparkling. I'd been told you could sometimes see whales from up there, but unfortunately I didn't, although I did see some container ships in the distance, waiting their turn to unload at the ports. I hung out up at the peak in the sun and wind, and then came back along the shore, having to scramble over rocks to get around the reconstruction of the washed-out road. At one point I had gotten a little hot climbing a hill in the sun and contemplated a swim, but the water was very cold and the wind was intense. From Zuma Beach, I walked along the highway to a little French Cafe in a shopping center, ate a late lunch, and got on the bus back to town. During the bus ride, it was time for a Zoom meeting with some friends, so I decided to hop off the bus and join the meeting while walking, which ended up adding another eight miles to the day's total, but I got to make a transect through the city as the sun went down, smell the cooking from Little Armenia and Thai Town, and pass through vibrant night markets. When I got back I was good and tired, but I'd officially crossed from one ocean to the other.

I decided to stay Saturday as well so I'd have time to do some more work on Sugar. I mainly just rebuilt the carburetor and put in an oil additive to try and stop the slow leak, but I also made some progress in processing the kind of anxiety that comes up when there's a chance I might do something wrong and stop the bike from working. This was especially triggered when it wouldn't run right after I put the carb back together, but it turned out that I just didn't understand how to use the safety interlock on the gas can, and was only putting little dribbles into the tank (first thing to check always: is it getting gas?). But my troubles drifted away when we had a nice brunch at a Mediterranean place and went to the farmer's market, where I bought some apples and dates for the road (deglet nours, which the farmer told me were best for travelling). Coming from the east coast, the variety of local produce you can get from a farmer's market in LA is kind of mind-boggling, and I really regretted not being able to take more of it on my motorcycle. After one more night, it was time to turn around and head back east.

Things I Learned

  • I got introduced to Baja Fresh (and fresh-Mex in general) back when I worked in LA circa 2005, but hadn't eaten there since. After some thought, I figured out what I used to order (the roasted veggie burrito with guacamole) and it was still just as tasty.
  • I passed by the Hollywood Walk of Fame on the bus, and it struck me how many of those stars there are on the sidewalk, and most of them you wouldn't have heard of. My hosts' friend and neighbor showed me his beautiful old boat of a car that was first owned by Rock Hudson, who most people my age would probably only know as the first celebrity to die with AIDS, if they knew who he was at all. Fame is more transitory than we like to think. Well, unless you start a popular religion, or kill or oversee the killing of a really large number of people, then it can last for thousands of years.
  • The homeless population of Los Angeles is up to more than 66,000 people by the official count, and it's pretty hard to ignore although I'm sure many are doing their best. I hope someday our country can find its way to something more humane and helpful than just clearing out their encampments.

Wonderful Things

  • Weather where you pretty much only ever need to put on or take off a long-sleeved shirt over your t-shirt.
  • Eating home-style chana bhatura and bhel puri at the Indian grocery/restaurant down the street.
  • Gorging on a delicious pav bhaji that CK cooked after I bemoaned the fact that said grocery only served it on Sundays.

Weeks 53b and 54 - Nevada

I was now entering the distinctive basin and range topography, which was created by the continent stretching and pieces of the crust rising, sinking, or tilting without the support of their neighbors. This resulted in long mountain ranges running roughly north to south, with flat valleys in between. Where the crust has tilted, the mountains are gently sloped on one side and steep on the other, which I could see very clearly from the air when flying from Denver to Bozeman. From the ground, my experience of riding through these valleys was of a fairly unchanging scene, with the mountains being flattened and simplified by the haze of wildfire smoke in the air. I kept thinking about the joke video game Desert Bus, which is really boring yet requires constant attention. Funnily enough, the bus in the game travels at 45mph just like me. But after a while I made it to Wells, Nevada, where there was reportedly a nice hot spring about 12 miles out of town, straightforwardly called Twelve Mile Hot Springs. While filling up with gas and water at the gas station, I asked the attendant about the springs and he said he used to go there a lot, but that the road out to it had gotten bad over the years since he was a kid. He thought I would have no problem getting there though, and that it would be worth the trip. The first ten miles were smooth sailing on a paved road with a few sparse houses, and at the end of that road, a dirt track went off to the right. It had definitely not been graded in a very long time, and wasn't so much rutted as wavy, with tall humps every 6-8 feet that would probably strand any vehicle with normal clearance. I engaged another of Sugar's special features: the sub-transmission. The flip of a switch makes all the gears about half their usual speed, giving a lot of extra torque as long as there's no need to go faster than 25mph. And on this road there was definitely no call to go even that fast. There were two moderately deep water crossings, which I probably could have ridden through but decided to go around to spare my old engine from the effects of rapid cooling. One of them would have been impossible to go around without a motorcycle, as I had to slip between two rocks.

There was no going around the third water crossing, so I decided to pull over and camp, on a grassy little slope overlooked by shade trees, with the gurgling stream from the strings flowing by. It was one of my prettiest campsites in recent memory. As I was setting up, a guy rode by on a little green ATV and waved. I finished setting up camp, filtered some drinking water out of the stream (as the gas station water tasted pretty gross), and waded across the water toward the hot springs. When I got there, the guy had unfolded his lawn chair in the water and was relaxing with a beer, but nobody else was around. I joined him in the pool, which was a long rectangle around 50 feet by 9 feet and 3 feet deep, a very pleasant temperature, and no hint of sulfur. We started talking and it turned out he had driven an hour from where he lived in Carlin to get there, but was originally from Oregon. His hobbies included working on and racing stock cars and prospecting for gold. After a while I moved over to the other end of the spring where the hot water came out, and we sat enjoying the peaceful atmosphere as the sun went down and dragonflies buzzed overhead. Sometimes a string of bubbles rose from the gravelly bottom as if something was living down there (I suspect it might have been chemotrophic microbes). My neighbor took off to drive home, and I stayed for a little longer and then headed back to camp, very relaxed.

In the morning I threaded my way back to the paved road. Some campers had arrived in the night and unfortunately I had to rev my engine near their tent while getting my bike out of some mud. After eating breakfast at a diner in town, I met a friendly newbie trucker who had some time to fill, and gave her directions to the springs and advice about where she might be able to turn her rig around at the end of the paved road. She'd become a trucker to see the country and was currently living out of her cab, but she'd also traveled a whole lot on foot and by motorcycle in Thailand, South America, and South Africa, and had some good stories to tell. It sounded like it might be tricky to drive the truck to the springs during her mandatory rest period, but she said she'd call a more experienced friend who might know a workaround. I wished her luck and got on the road.

It was another long and boring ride, although as I approached my campsite at the Weepah Springs Wilderness, I started to notice some subtle changes. The valley floor rolled a bit more, and the sagebrush was a brighter shade of green, as if there was some water just below the surface. Then the terrain got substantially more interesting, the road turned between high rocky cliffs, and I arrived at my campsite. The rocks, broken apart and rounded by erosion, were very pretty in the sunset light, and the place had the feel of an ancient camping spot, confirmed by the petroglyphs scratched into the rusty red surfaces of the large boulders. Some were straightforwardly about hunting four-legged animals with spears, and others were more mysterious with human figures manipulating geometric objects, perhaps in some forgotten ritual? I laid out a sleeping area, then moved it after it became clear that I'd interrupted the path of some fast-moving ants. A few biting flies showed up, but moved on once it became clear that I was not a low-risk target. As the daylight faded, I realized that my solar battery had died somewhere on the ride, on account of spending so much time riding and so little time charging it. My phone's battery had run down to 10%, and there was no reception to speak of in that canyon. There wasn't much to do but shut everything down and go to bed. Of course with no human settlements for many miles, the stars were amazing in the cool, clear air.

In the morning, I found a solution to my power problem. Once all my luggage was in place, I unfolded my solar panel and strapped it to the outside so I could charge while riding. Just to be on the safe side, I memorized the few turns I'd have to take to get to the edge of Las Vegas and left my phone off for the most part. When I arrived at the edge of town, the road was at first sedate, with enormous race tracks on one side behind a sparse line of palm trees and vast networks of dirt ATV trails on the other. Then I was suddenly caught in what felt like a vast web of strip malls. The traffic became stop-and-go, and the slight stickiness that had begun developing in my throttle cable became quite annoying, although on the upside I got a lot of practice changing gears. I felt terrible for my engine, which was bathing in the heat radiating off the pavement and had to constantly idle with no airflow to cool it down. The traffic was so dense that I often had to stop at green lights behind the pileup of cars. The same big box stores seemed to repeat at regular intervals, making it feel like I wasn't making any progress. To me the best part of riding a motorcycle is being exposed to everything and feeling really present in the environment, but when that environment is unpleasant enough it can suddenly become the worst part of riding a motorcycle. When I couldn't take it anymore I pulled into the next shopping center, parked in the shade of a building, and went into the air-conditioned darkness of a very nice Thai restaurant to have some lunch and re-hydrate.

After that I felt restored enough to finish the drive down to Henderson, where my friends GM and LS live. As I approached, the commercial activity started to thin out and there were a lot more trees and other plants. The roads started to wind aimlessly in that master-plan community way which discourages non-local traffic, they were named after places in Italy, and all the houses were stucco with red tile roofs. My friends were still at work, but I pulled up outside their garage and sprawled gratefully on the grass of their shady backyard. Everything was so peaceful and green after the spareness of the desert and the hot stench and noise of town. After a bit of rest and unpacking, I took a quick trip to the store to get some fresh veggies I was craving and some milk to feed my kefir. When LS and GM got home from work, we had some dinner and caught up. I'd missed their wedding because of being on the road, so it was good to be able to spend some quality time together. GM is kind of like my cousin, and is now a professor and researcher studying links between chronobiology and exercise. His wife LS works as an occupational therapist at a hospital. They have a dog named Boone, a friendly chocolate lab with a keen interest in food of any kind (he carefully watched all cooking and eating and would happily snack on a broccoli stem). After dinner and conversation, I rolled out my bedding on the lawn and the air was so pleasantly warm that I hardly needed a blanket until temperatures dropped into the 70s in the early morning. Luckily, just as my hosts were going to bed, they remembered that the lawn sprinklers were set to start up at 6:30 in the morning and turned them off.

On Friday they went off to work and I spent the day working in the backyard, periodically moving to get out of the sun. Although the day got up to around 100 degrees, I found it very tolerable in the shade, especially with the humidity below 30%. On Saturday when we all drove up to Mount Charleston for a hike, the brisk mountain air was even nicer, the ancient twisted pine trees gave off a fine scent, and the views were spectacular. On the way back, we skipped the well-loved restaurant at the top of the mountain and went to a smoothie place in the valley instead, which was too bad because that restaurant burned down a week or so later! On Sunday morning, LS went to work, GM went out bicycling, and I finally got down to doing some maintenance on Sugar, digging into the pile of parts I'd ordered from the road as I noticed things that were broken. I replaced the front brake lever which I'd broken by dropping the bike while trying to park it on gravel in Idaho (and temporarily fixed by turning the useless rear brake lever upside down and switching it to the other side). Then I replaced the old selenium rectifier with a modern silicon one and the lead-acid battery with a lithium-ion one. I lubricated the sticky throttle cable by making a funnel out of tape and pouring engine oil through it, which worked better than I'd expected. I installed a new chain to replace the stretched one that came with the bike. There was only one real issue left, which was the oil leak, but fixing it was going to involve digging into the guts of the engine in a way I'd never done before, so I was hesitant to start on it for fear of breaking something.

When LS got back from work, we went out on the town. Dinner was at an amazing vegan sushi restaurant, where they didn't try to imitate fish but instead used vegetables and tofu in really creative ways. One menu item listed "suspense" as one of the ingredients, and when we asked about it our server said they put a piece of ghost pepper into the sushi roll so that it winds up in one of the six pieces, but it's impossible to tell which one. Given that there were only three of us (and one with a low spice tolerance at that), we decided our odds were not so good and ordered something else. But everything was unique and delicious and we left with a solid food buzz. Then we went to the Rio Theater, where I'd gotten us tickets to Penn and Teller's show. I'm a big fan, and had watched all but the most recent season of their TV show Fool Us, so I expected to see mostly material I'd seen before. But it turned out that because of pandemic restrictions they'd been unable to perform for over a year, and against the advice of their friends who said they'd be rusty and should stick to old tricks they knew in their sleep, they'd instead spent their downtime developing a whole lot of new material. They were also palpably excited to be in their first few weeks of performing live again, and it was a special experience to be there. The show finished with a display of fire-eating and an intimate firelight talk about the value of not pretending to understand the trick and just letting mystery exist in the world. As Penn explained, there actually isn't really a trick to fire-eating, and we could all hear him curse when he burned his mouth at one point. But that's my favorite thing about Penn and Teller: they go beyond magic as an entertainment and use it as a lens to call our approach to reality into question.

In the next few evenings, I overcame my anxiety about breaking something and dug into Sugar's engine. I drained the oil, pulled off the left crankcase cover, and took apart the sub transmission. Then it turned out I had to cut out a large and intricate gasket to replace the one I'd removed, because neither of the two kits I'd ordered matched my exact model. This took me three tries, but I think I learned most of the things not to do when cutting a gasket. And it was kind of fun in a crafty way, kind of like a hybrid between my mechanical and graphic arts skills. At the end I had a gasket that was far superior to the handmade one I'd taken out, which had partly covered up a lot of internal oil channels and had some cursive letters written across the material which I eventually figured out spelled "asbestos"! And while I was in there, I found that a piece of the cam chain tensioner hadn't been properly installed and corrected that. Eventually it all went back together, I filled it with oil, and to my great relief it started up and ran as well as before. On Wednesday morning, GM and LS took off for a family trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and Boone went to a stay at a friend's house, so I had the place to myself for a few more days to complete repairs and organize my gear. By Saturday morning I felt I'd topped up on fresh veggies, become a slightly better mechanic, and was ready to get back on the road!

Things I Learned

  • It's really hard to keep kefir grains healthy when crossing a desert. It turned out that after so many days in the extreme heat and agitation of my saddlebag, they had over-fermented and produced too much acid, which then injured their bacterial component. So I let go of my kefir culture, which had the upside of freeing some space in my luggage for the new tools I'd bought.
  • You can buy a car from a vending machine. We passed one next to the highway and there they were, lined up behind glass like huge candy bars. We tried to imagine the circumstances where someone would do this, but I guess it's all part of living in the future.
  • The continental divide is complicated! I thought there was only one and it sort of went down the middle of the continent, but actually it branches a whole lot and even circles around the great basin, or really the great basins since there are many of them, and some of the boundaries aren't even clear enough to draw a line and we just kind of make one up. I guess this makes sense when I think of how smaller watersheds are shaped, and the basins being a bit like huge dry puddles or ponds which the water can never get high enough to spill out of.

Wonderful Things

  • Mountain ranges with whorled and twisted textures like the exposed wood grain of a massive dead tree. Being out west makes me wish I knew more geology.
  • Landscaping with all sorts of interesting desert plants I don't know the names of. Some of them were in bloom and put wonderful exotic scents on the breeze.
  • Waking up to see the sunrise, and with no temptation to snooze since the sprinklers are about to come on!

Week 53a - Idaho

I wouldn't have thought people would want to be riding ATVs in the wee hours, but at Bannock Pass there was a steady traffic of trucks loading and unloading through much of the night, and I could see tiny headlights and tail lights creeping over the mountains in the dark. Maybe they were all getting in position for the start of Elk season like those Minnesotans. I was up to see the sun rise over Montana, and walked briskly up and down the hill to see it better and beat the chill. After a cold breakfast of oats soaked in kefir with nuts and dried cherries, I packed up and headed down the other side of the mountain into Idaho. As I crossed the border, the road turned to very rough pavement, but I hit the good flat asphalt in Leodore and joined the course of the Lemhi River, with cow pastures and hay fields on either side and the mountains behind them. Somewhere along the road, the bike died in the same way it had when I'd ridden it from the dealership. The battery was depleted, and again, once I got it started it would run fine as long as the lights were off. So it seemed the problem was upstream of the battery. I had a strong urge to fix it as soon as possible, but decided to hold off until I got to Las Vegas where I would have time to wait for parts and a clean garage to work in. I stopped in Salmon for lunch at an old-fashioned diner, and bought some apples and some local raw milk to feed my kefir grains at a little grocery store. The road then headed south up the Salmon river, with many twists and turns between majestic mountains and some stunning views. When I stopped for gas I calculated my mileage and it was 93 miles per gallon, which I think is considerably better than Punkin ever managed.

But it was a short day, only seventy miles or so, because I'd decided to camp for the night at Goldbug Hot Springs. When I arrived, the trailhead had a lot of cars and campers (it was Labor Day weekend after all), so I figured I might have trouble finding a camping spot, but after climbing up the incredibly steep switchbacks at the start of the trail, I found a fine little spot right next to the creek that flowed down from the springs. It was just a little flat spot across the trail from a group of young people (one of whom was busy changing into a pirate costume), but I didn't need much space since I was just sleeping in a bivy sack. I filtered water out of the stream, packed it with my towel and some food, and headed up to the springs. Apart from that steep climb from the parking lot, the trail was pretty easy for the first mile, mostly across fields of sagebrush and occasionally meeting up with the tree-lined mountain creek. Then it started to get steeper and steeper, the last 3/4 of a mile climbing 800 feet, with stone stairs in some places and scrambling over boulders and scree in others. I was already sweating heavily by the time I approached the springs, and breathing hard with the exertion and the thin air at 5000 feet. But holy cow was it worth the hike. Hot water gushed out of the mountainside above and welled up from cracks, and people had built countless rock pools at many levels in a broad cascade, separated by lush foliage. I found a pool near the top with a spectacular view down the ravine and soaked there for a while, watching the sun creep down toward the peaks above. When I asked a local how Goldbug ranked among Idaho hot springs, he said eight to ten out ten, so it seemed I'd hit the jackpot right off. I explored a little and found the hottest pool and the one with the best back-massaging torrent. Even though there were quite a few people, there were enough pools for them to spread out, and it didn't feel crowded.

After drying off, I ate my dinner next to the pool with the great view and talked to some other visitors, a guy who lived in Salt Lake City and traveled the world updating hospital software systems, and a couple based in Las Vegas that had both been in the Air Force, one of whom had the day job of flying skycrane helicopters. I thought about soaking some more but decided I'd had enough, and headed down the mountain with the folks I'd just met. They told me that there were bears in the area, so I returned to the parking lot to secure all my food properly in my bear-proof canister, and then stopped to talk to another guy I'd seen at the top who, after a morning hunting deer in Montana, ran up to the springs, happily smoked a cigarette while soaking in the pool, and ran back down. I made it back to camp just as it was getting properly dark and settled in. Again there was a surprising amount of foot traffic in the night. My neighbors had made a campfire, which I later found out was very much illegal, and I have a foggy memory of sheriffs dropping by to investigate a complaint about it. Then there were the midnight hikers going to soak under the stars, and just before dawn another wave of them trying to catch the sunrise. But having soaked in the springs myself, I couldn't find it in my heart to be annoyed, and besides, the hike and the hot water had jellified my muscles and I slept deeply between awakenings.

The next day, I passed by Slate Creek Hot Springs, wanting to get a little further down the road before stopping. The river passed through steeper canyons, where the sun wouldn't shine until late in the day, and I rode against a cold headwind channeled through the mountains, past a man and a boy fishing in matching black hoodies. As I approached Stanley, the valley widened out and the day got warmer. I'd spotted another hot spring called Elkhorn or Boat Box marked on the map, but didn't find it at the marked location, and had to ask a fisherman for directions. It turned out I'd passed it by about 3/4 mile; it was just off the road by the river, but hidden by a steep drop-off. The hot water flowed out of a pipe from under the road and spilled into a deep cauldron big enough to fit three or four people if they were cozy. The only way to get the water cool enough to be comfortable was to remove the hot water pipe and add buckets of cold water from the river, which two young men were doing when I arrived. Their middle-aged father was lounging in one of the shallow pools that collected the spillover from the tub, making comments and occasionally sipping from a bottle of spiced rum. I joined him in the pool, where the hot water mixed with the cold water from the river, found a place where the temperature was to my liking, and dug out a spot for myself. I struck up a conversation with the guy, whose family had come from Wisconsin more than a century ago and lived in the area ever since. He used to run 250 head of cattle, then downsized to 100 when the federal government said they were eating too much green grass. He started a "cow camp" where kids came from all over the world to learn ranching skills, then was forced by the government to shut down the operation entirely. He now had a small construction business (which he hinted might be a cover for selling firearms) and has paid off everything he owns, so whenever he gets some money he uses it to travel around in an old Willys Jeep from the 50s. When I said "small vehicle, big adventure", he agreed a hundred percent.

As we talked, a bunch of people arrived who were guests at a wedding down the road in Stanley, and a couple of Indian guys started flying a drone over the river, which my pool mate threatened to shoot down. He didn't actually shoot it down because he was too comfortable to go back to the truck for his shotgun, but he said he'd taken out quite a few drones in the past, even going to court for it, but apparently local judges tended to have no sympathy for the drone pilots. I was taking advantage of the clothing-optional tradition of the place, although nobody else was, and he said they all used to soak naked too until two years ago, when the springs started to get really crowded. He disparaged Goldbug because there were so many people there and said I really should have gone to Slate Creek, but to me the social aspect is a major draw. My fingers were getting pretty wrinkled, so I said my goodbyes and got back on the road. I passed through Stanley and found a free camping area a few miles to the south. In one of the sites, there was a really cool short school bus with solar panels and a wood stove, and a bunch of RVs with kids running around. I cooked up a pot of millet which stubbornly refused to get soft (I thought maybe it was the high altitude) but I ate it anyway and crawled into bed. The night got down to just below freezing and I woke up with frost on my sleeping bag.

In the morning I met a neighbor, an 85 year old woman who used to ride a CT90 on mountain trails back when she was only in her forties. When I told her my planned route, she was concerned that I wouldn't be able to make it over the pass at Galena Summit, which is 8,700 feet above sea level. I said I was sure I could, it was just a matter of how slow I'd have to go, and this turned out to be true. At times I was crawling up the grade at 25mph with the engine screaming in second gear, but there was never any danger of stopping. The views were fantastic despite the haze of wildfire smoke, and then I was over the top and flying down the road on the downhill side, surrounded by more lush deciduous foliage than I'd seen since my visit to North Carolina. The road twisted down into a warm breeze, and I stopped for lunch in Ketchum at a vegan organic restaurant (I guess this was a crunchy part of Idaho). From there I continued to descend onto the flat, arid Snake River Plain, crossing over many dried up rivers and canals, although as I approached Twin Falls, irrigated crops started to appear. Just before crossing the bridge into town, I turned left onto a dusty track through the desert and arrived at my campsite, which was right on the cliff edge of the Snake River Canyon, overlooking an epic view of the distant waterfalls and the blue-green river more than 400 feet below, flanked by tall trees and dotted with tiny kayakers and swimmers. Birds flew by at eye level and dove to perch on the rock outcroppings. When darkness fell, the distant city lights shimmered in the dry air, and mysterious smells arrived on the wind, perhaps from the sugar beet or potato processing plants. Apparently Twin Falls has many unusual agro-industrial smells, and the locals just say "it smells like money".

In the morning I rode across the Perrine Bridge into town, and on a tip from the guy at the Elkhorn hot spring, pulled over at the visitor's center to watch the BASE jumpers. Apparently it's the only place in the US where you can jump year round without a permit, and it's pretty convenient because jumpers can walk out onto the walkways on either side of the bridge, paraglide down to the river bank, hike back up the trail to the visitor's center, and do it all again. I watched how it worked and it seemed there was a buddy who held onto the rip cord so it would open right away. After taking in the scene for a bit I continued into town to run some errands and eat a hot meal, and then crossed the border into Nevada.

Things I Learned

  • Salmon swim 1100 miles from near Portland, Oregon to the headwaters of the Salmon River in Idaho, climbing a total of 6100 feet. They're easy to catch, but locals won't eat them because their flesh is unpleasantly soft from having expended all their energy on the journey. They die soon after spawning.
  • Lots of middle-aged people out west recognized the CT90 from childhood. One guy bought one with money from his paper route, another used to use it to work on his family farm's irrigation systems, and another went hunting on it and used it to pull elk out of the woods. I even met some kids who recognized it because their Grandpa had one.
  • In Idaho it's legal to sell raw milk openly in stores, without needing the fiction of claiming it's only for pets like people do back in North Carolina. Just like a lot of prohibition laws, people are apparently fine without it.

Wonderful Things

  • Thinking I've got the perfect way to fold my jacket into a pillow, and then discovering an even more perfect way.
  • Camping without having to worry so much that it might rain. It was surprising how much thought and effort I normally put into making sure me and my stuff don't get wet, which I only really noticed when desert camping allowed me to stop worrying about it.
  • Finding that crevice in a hot spring where the really hot water comes out and wallowing over it.

Week 52 - On the Road Again... and Again

Okay, I may have waxed poetic about North Carolina's humidity, but I must admit I enjoy the dry weather too. Daytime temperatures in Montana were in the 70s and nighttime temperatures were in the 40s. I slept out under the stars every night, and with the smoke cleared a little they were quite brilliant. With the shorter days it got dark more quickly, and you could walk out and see the milky way just an hour or two after sunset. I spent a good bit of time catching up with SE and TB, since we'd had a month to think of new ideas to exchange, and I worked a couple of half days, but my main agenda was getting my stuff squared away to hit the road on Wednesday. All my gear was much as I'd left it, which is to say fairly disorderly. I spent two afternoons unpacking everything completely and getting rid of things I could do without, or that didn't spark joy, as Marie Kondo puts it. Probably the most major item that I ditched was my tent, which I was finding to be bulky, hard to pitch, and kind of confining. Instead, I kept the tent pole and my new camo tarp, although I wouldn't need even that most nights as long as I was in the desert.

My route plan had changed dramatically. I had been planning to head west across Idaho and southern Oregon to reach the ocean at the northern edge of California, but this also happened to be where all the worst wildfires were. I'd heard a lot of roads were closed, and the state of California shut down all their national forests, which are one of my go-to camping options. As I was talking with my mom about it just before leaving North Carolina, she pointed out that I could simply go around the fires, and as soon as I thought of doing that I felt a huge sense of relief. More than avoiding the chaos, I wanted to avoid breathing smoke for days on end, and being unable to get out of it quickly or to go inside. So instead, I decided to go halfway across Idaho and then head south down the eastern edge of Nevada, down to Las Vegas where I had some friends to visit. It was a shame to miss the redwoods and all my friends in northern California, but I felt sure it was the better move, and I could always go back there when conditions were better.

By Tuesday night, Punkin was packed and ready to go. On Wednesday morning, SE took a picture of me, we hugged goodbye, and I was off. Punkin was a little hard to start, but I put it down to having been in storage for a month. The engine was running okay, aside from a few little hitches in the power, but as I rode it started getting worse and worse. About seven miles into the journey, the power loss was really obvious. I checked the fuel tank and valve, which seemed fine, pulled apart the throttle, and noticed the carb needle was adjusted all the way lean. I tried making it one notch richer and the engine wouldn't run at all, so I put it back the way it was. After a few more miles, the engine cut out completely and wouldn't start. I checked everything I could think to check, and couldn't find anything obvious stopping the bike from working. Maybe the mysterious problem I'd been chasing had just reached its endpoint. I called SE for a rescue, and TB set out in the truck to pick me up. I pushed Punkin across the road and laboriously up a hill, then as I was rolling down the other side, managed to start the engine and putter into a pull-off where loading would be easier. While I unstrapped my luggage and waited for the truck to arrive, I thought about what to do. I'd poured a lot of time into trying to fix this problem, and nothing I tried worked. It could be as simple as a piece of debris in the fuel system, or it could be something tougher like a damaged valve. Whatever it was, I knew I didn't want to spend a week or two trying to diagnose what was wrong and waiting for parts to arrive. On a whim I pulled up the Bozeman area Craigslist and sorted motorcycles for sale by price from low to high. And lo and behold, on the second page of results there were no less than three CT90s for sale. Maybe it was a sign. As soon as I thought about just buying a working bike, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. This was a problem that money could solve, and luckily I had money to solve it. Of course I felt bad about abandoning Punkin, because I'd really been hoping we'd make it all the way from coast to coast together, but at the same time I was excited about having a machine I could trust to take me a few thousand more miles.

Out of the three bikes for sale, one had just recently started blowing smoke out the exhaust, which ruled it out. Between the other two, one was in better condition and being sold by a dealership, so I decided to go with that one, because a mechanic would have checked it over, and I knew the buying and title transfer process would be quick and smooth. The only catch was it was in Manhattan... Manhattan, Montana that is, only 50 miles or so away. By the time TB arrived with the truck, I'd already called the dealership to make sure they still had it and sketched out a new plan. We lifted Punkin into the truck, drove back the ranch, unloaded there, I packed my helmet and riding gear, and we headed straight to the dealership. When we got there I looked over the bike and it was in really nice condition, obviously restored by a collector and with only 2077 miles on the odometer. It was a little hard to start but that was to be expected after sitting for a while, and when I took it on a test ride around the building, it sounded right and ran extremely well. It was a 1971 model, and Honda had improved so many things starting in '69: the suspension was better, the brakes were better, there was a kickstand as well as the center stand, the cargo rack was sturdier, the key was in a more convenient location, the front mudguard was less likely to rub, and so on. I agreed to buy it, and TB headed back to Whitehall while I was doing the paperwork, since the plan was for me to ride it back as a little shakedown cruise.

Once the deal was done, I headed up the road to eat lunch at a little cafe, and then started riding west out of town. After about nine miles, the bike started losing power and I pulled over. It wouldn't start. Holy smokes, not twice in one day! I looked to see if I could figure out the problem, but there was plenty of gas in the tank and the valve was open. I did notice that the headlights were really dim, so maybe it was an electrical problem. I called the dealership and told them where I was, and the shop manager drove out with a trailer to pick me up. I was in the dumps and feeling like I'd made a huge mistake, trading one unreliable geriatric bike for another. I'd signed a contract saying I bought it as-is, but maybe they had another one I could trade it in for? After some waiting and repeated tries, I managed to start the engine again, and was able to get to a convenient pull-off; such a strange echo of my experience in the morning. My rescuer arrived and took a look inside the battery box. He found a blown fuse which someone had bypassed with a piece of foil... maybe the solution would be something simple like the foil making poor contact and shaking loose with the vibration of riding. We got in the truck and headed back. He'd thoughtfully brought a bottle of water for me, and gently tried to sell me on trading in for the lightly used Honda Africa Twin they had in stock. Certainly it would be a reliable adventure bike, but it was far too big for my taste in every way. Back at the dealership, their best mechanic was just about to head home, but the manager got him interested in the problem and he stayed to take a look. He swapped out the fuse holder for a more modern blade-style one, and adjusted the clutch, since I'd noticed the gears had seemed to be doing something funny as well. They test-rode the bike and called it good.

Once again I rode out, and this time I was still downtown when the bike stopped working. I managed to start it and ride it back to the shop. Luckily the mechanic was still there, and I hung out while he checked into things a bit more deeply. It seemed likely that the battery might be bad, but they didn't have a replacement. He called another mechanic nearer to Whitehall who had one, and said I could just pick it up there and the dealership would cover the cost. While we were discussing the transmission, I suddenly realized that it was exactly backwards from the one on Punkin! Instead of shifting up from neutral to 4th, you had to shift down from neutral to 4th. This explained why it had seemed so strange to me, because I was always shifting in the opposite direction from what I wanted and the engine would start racing whenever I thought I was up-shifting. Well, I'd need to rewire my brain but it shouldn't be too hard. The low battery voltage made starting harder, but we determined that once started, the bike would run indefinitely as long as the headlights were off, so I decided to proceed with the original plan. It was a lot later than I'd anticipated, but I'd gotten to know the guys at the dealership, had some good conversations with them, and learned a thing or two. Actually I think the most useful thing I learned was that with some vehicle problems, diagnosing them is really hard and stumps even the professionals. I tend to assume that when I run into trouble it's only because I'm ignorant, and although I definitely still have a lot to learn, it was comforting to know that when I fail, I'm failing at something that's fundamentally not easy.

I got back on the road, this time with all the lights off. This was definitely not legal, but I figured the sun was bright, I was wearing a high visibility orange vest, and I had a good explanation if I ever did get stopped. The only thing was, I really needed to get back by sunset, and it was going to be a close call. The late afternoon sun picked out the texture of the hay fields and distant mountains and gave them an air of magic, but as it sank lower the air started to get a little chilly. It had been nice and warm when we left the ranch, and I hadn't counted on things running this late, so I hadn't packed any layers. In fact I hadn't really packed anything at all apart from what I was wearing. But the scenery was enough to take my mind off the cold, particularly the section of Highway 2 which winds alongside the Jefferson River between London Peak and Cave Mountain, which I think might be the most stunning few miles of road I'd ever been on. I got back to the ranch just before dark, shivering with cold. But the test ride was a success, and I figured maybe I could actually trust this bike to get me down the road.

In the morning, TB and I got back in the truck to go pick up the new battery. On the way, we had a great conversation where I talked out my anxiety about breaking down on the road, and figured out it was largely because I didn't want to need any help from other people. Even asking my friends to help wasn't easy for me, let alone strangers. But after thinking it over, I realized that most people actually like to help others, and if I broke down in some remote area it would probably just lead to befriending some locals and having a different kind of adventure than the one I'd planned. I relaxed a little and my anxiety shaded into excitement. When we got to the mechanic's shop, it felt like a very comfortable place for me, with the many vehicles in all states of disassembly, the fascinating clutter, and the friendly dog hanging around. It so happened that SE and TB knew R, the mechanic, and he was a legendary wizard with small engines of all kinds. He put acid in the new battery to activate it, and while waiting for it to charge, we started talking and I found he was a fellow CT-90 enthusiast. He showed me a pile of them out back and we talked about the fine points of different model years. One of his rusty barn bikes had a really cool spare gas tank attachment, and I almost would have bought it from him except that it would have been hard to access with my luggage setup. On the way out, he showed us a live rattlesnake in a five gallon bucket, which he'd caught on the property and was saving for his girlfriend to cast into a piece of resin art. You can always count on small town America to be weirder than you expect.

Back at the ranch, I spent the rest of the day on mechanical work like installing the battery, transferring my cargo racks and luggage from Punkin to the new bike (which I decided to call Sugar), making sure all the bolts were tight, and so on. In the process, I found a few more little issues, like the carburetor being improperly attached, but nothing that couldn't be fixed with a few parts from the hardware store. One interesting challenge is that while I'd fitted Punkin with a 12 volt electrical system, Sugar was still running a the original 6 volts, so there was no easy way to keep my phone charged while riding. Instead, I decided to route a cable from the solar battery in my luggage and use that, which seemed to work pretty well. In the evening, SE and I went into Whitehall to get reliable internet for a Zoom meeting with some friends, and since we had to rush off before dinner was ready, TB was awesome enough to finish his scratch-made pizza and deliver it to us in town.

On Friday morning I was finally ready to hit the road again. We said goodbye for real this time, although some part of me fully expected to break down yet again a few miles down the road. But all went well, despite a scare when I unexpectedly ran out of gas because I hadn't correctly understood the labels on the fuel valve. Luckily my 1.5 liter auxiliary tank saved the day, and I wouldn't make that mistake again. I stopped for lunch in Dillon, and wound up parking next to a craft fair, behind the booth of a woman selling Ghanian baskets. We wound up chatting for a bit, since I'd taken an interest in visiting Ghana when it was one of the few countries allowing international travel. She wouldn't say where she was from, identifying as a pan-African citizen, but she'd clearly traveled in Africa quite a bit, and she recommended Aburi in Ghana, which has a very cool high-altitude climate, and also Senegal and the Seychelles. Back on the road, I joined up with the Beaverhead River, gently climbing past its flow of milky aquamarine. For a while my route followed a frontage road along the interstate, which was at first paved, then gravel, then suddenly a rocky track between a steep slope and the concrete wall that stopped boulders from rolling onto the highway. Well, it was time to see how Sugar could handle some fairly technical offroading, picking my way between large rocks. The bike handled perfectly and the telescoping suspension made for a much smoother and safer ride. The only real downgrade was that the seat wasn't quite as comfortable as the wide and soft CT110 seat I'd put on Punkin. Oh well, it would force me to take more breaks, which would be good for me.

After a long, slow climb I reached the headwaters of the Beaverhead at the Clark Canyon Reservoir, a massive artificial lake with tall rocky islands rising out of the shimmering water. From there the road began climbing more steeply toward my campsite for the night at Bannock pass, high up in the Bitterroot Range on the Idaho border and the Continental Divide. As I rose above 6000 feet, I tested out one of Sugar's advanced features, a little knob in the carburetor that can be pulled out to compensate for high altitude. I couldn't tell much difference but it seemed like it must do something. Toward the end of the climb, the road turned to dusty gravel, and then crossed a cattle gate and leveled out into a large parking area, with a sign giving the altitude as 7672 feet. I pulled up behind some young men unloading an ATV from a trailer. Turns out they had driven straight from Minnesota for the first day of the season for bow-hunting elk, which would start at midnight. We chatted as they packed their food and camping gear into the ATV, and when one of them cut his thumb and couldn't find their first-aid kit, I provided a Steri-Strip from mine. They finished packing, waved goodbye, and puttered off up a steep mountain trail, while I unfolded my solar panels to catch the last of the evening sun. Just after sunset it got cold fast, and I went for a brisk walk and then bundled into my sleeping bag next to Sugar. As I looked up at the starry sky, I reflected on my past year of adventuring, which I had started on a tiny scooter loaded with two plastic tubs and finished at this high place most of the way across the continent, with a complete living system in my saddlebags and my duffel bag. I'd gotten a drivers license and a motorcycle license, learned to clean and adjust a carburetor, made new friends and reconnected with old ones, and achieved the best health of my life so far mentally, physically, and spiritually. I have absolutely no idea what the next year of adventuring will bring.

Things I Learned

  • Montana has cattle guards across the interstate on-ramps. It makes a whole lot of sense when you think about what it would be like to hit a cow while driving at the 80mph speed limit.
  • It's really hard to judge the grade of a road while driving on it. For a long time I kept worrying that Sugar's engine was starting to lose power and it always turned out to be just a hill or a headwind. I set my mapping system to display the altitude and that helped a lot to calm my fears.
  • People sometimes implant an RFID tracker into a rattlesnake, paint it orange, follow it back to its den, and wipe out the rest of the snakes in the den. I happen to like snakes, but at least it doesn't seem as if they're endangered out west, since R said he was catching dozens of them a year just around his shop, and that eventually they would make a new den.

Wonderful Things

  • Seeing the milky way clearly again. I remember seeing it back home as a kid, but I think the light pollution from nearby towns had made it harder and harder over the years.
  • A little toddler walking around her family's Mexican restaurant, holding a piece of chocolate in one hand and waving enthusiastically at me with the other. The cutest part was that the lower half of her face was completely smeared with chocolate.
  • Having good friends to help me get out of a jam.

Week 51 - Hadley, Whitehall

This was my last week of visiting home, so I tried to pack in the social time. On Saturday night AP and GB came over and we had a light dinner on my parents back porch. On Sunday morning I went over to my friend JD's house to have brunch with him and his Croatian girlfriend N, who had finally managed to get a visa to visit the US. He was making biscuits with eggs and bacon by way of introducing her to some local cuisine, and I brought over a few tomatoes from the garden. Everything was delicious, and as N pointed out it was also very filling. We talked for a few hours, a bit about adventures and sailing, but mostly about differences between Croatia and here. Time after time, Croatia came out looking like the more sensible place. Many pesticides and herbicides are outright banned. There are no factory farms, so all meat and eggs are produced on a small scale. Doctors prescribe dietary and lifestyle changes before pharmaceuticals. Political lobbying is considered corruption and is illegal. Working more than a certain number of hours is considered a health hazard and is not allowed. The quality of a neighborhood is judged by how many things you can get to in a 15 minute walk. There are cafes everywhere where people eat, drink, and socialize with neighbors. It really got me thinking about all the things I've lost trust in. There's low-grade poison in the food supply, so buy organic. There's low-grade poison in some tap water, so you need to filter it or buy quality bottled water. Doctors will miss rare diagnoses or recommend expensive and unnecessary drugs and procedures, so get a second or third opinion. Modern city planning is hostile to the pedestrian, so pay a heavy premium to live in a walkable area. I could go on but you probably know what I'm talking about. I guess I'm used to having this level of distrust, but I wondered what it does to a person's psyche. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) my news feed the next day had a story about an American living in Croatia on a one-year visa for digital nomads and loving it. Very tempting!

I spent the rest of my Sunday going to Carrboro to spend 90 minutes in a float tank (aka sensory deprivation chamber). I had bought credits years ago when the place opened and still had one left, so I figured I should go ahead and use it while I was in town. The session wasn't as good as the last one in the winter, possibly because my body was a lot more relaxed going into it, but it was restful and gave me a chance to get really clean. When I came out it was raining, so I ducked into a restaurant patio and ate Neapolitan pizza while I waited it out. The ride home featured towering clouds lit by the sunset. In the middle of the week, I spent an afternoon down by the Haw River with my parents, AP, GB, their 2-year-old daughter A, and their newborn M. It's a spot my family's been going to for a long time, with smooth water-sculpted blue rocks and a massive boulder extending out into the water like a dock with pebble and sand beaches on either side. It added some gravitas to think that every time we went there could be our last, since the land is for sale and the new owner might not be okay with neighbors swimming on it. But we had a wonderful time and the place was as beautiful as ever. I supervised A as she crawled around on the rocks exploring the little round pools carved into the stone, filled with sun-warmed water and other fascinating things like pebbles and the shells of mussels and black walnuts. At first I was sure she was going to fall at some point, but she was actually quite nimble, despite seeming not to hear all my friendly advice about what to be careful of.

On Friday I went into Durham for a few more social calls and to prepare to fly back to Montana. On the way there, I stopped in to get my tattoo touched up (which took like 5 minutes), and then checked in at my lodgings right next to Duke's East Campus. I took a nap in the grass near a spreading magnolia tree, and then it was time to meet my friends AA and RF to hang out and see Eddie Griffin doing standup comedy in Cary. It was great to catch up with old friends and see them thriving, and I also got to see RF's wife DF and her sister RH, who'd gone to the earlier show. The opening act of the show was by a local comedian named Mike Mellow, who I liked a lot but only did about 5 minutes of material. Eddie Griffin was a bit shouty and most of his humor leaned on unsophisticated violation of taboos around race and sex, which is not my favorite style, but it was interesting to hear what someone says without the mediation of big media or big tech. I doubt you could've put any 5-minute section of that show on YouTube without it getting removed or buried by the algorithm, yet people paid real money to see it. I hadn't really thought of this as part of the value of in-person entertainment before. I spent Saturday morning and early afternoon with my friend DN, and we had a lot of catching up to do because the day we'd planned to meet up when I was in town back in April, he had an unexpected health crisis. It was good to see him recovering from that, and to hear all the things he's been thinking about, like a racing sailboat design that splits the boat into a hydrofoil and a power kite. It's always nice to spend time with my fellow eccentrics :-). In the afternoon I took a walk with HW on the Ellerbe creek trail and we caught up on the last few months. Then I sorted all my gear, took things back to my storage unit, and went to bed.

On Sunday I was up well before sunrise so I would have time to ride Kiddo back to AA's house and take a Lyft to the airport from there. My driver was talkative, and I learned that he had recently retired, but had been annoying his wife by hanging around the house, so his son recommended he try driving for ride-sharing apps. He wound up loving it so much that he drives eight thousand miles every month. "Every day is an adventure," he said, "I just never know where I'm going to wind up." I asked him if he met any interesting people and he said he met all kinds of interesting people. As much as I hate how ride-sharing apps are brutally competing for monopoly power, I've met drivers from all walks of life who say they love what they do, but I think wouldn't have fit into the old taxi framework. The flights to Denver and then to Bozeman were uneventful, and the two hour time change meant I arrived in the early afternoon. SE picked me up at the airport and we stopped at the co-op in Bozeman so I could stock up on food for the next leg of my motorcycle journey. It had been raining a lot in the last few weeks and Montana was greener than I had left it; farmers were cutting a second crop of hay. The jet stream had shifted and there was much less smoke. So when we got back to the ranch it was a lot like it had been when I arrived, except that the crisp, dry snap of fall was in the air.

Things I Learned

  • There's a kind of toilet flushing mechanism I hadn't seen before, where inside the tank there's a pivoting plastic basin that fills up with water, and the handle tips it over and spills the water down the drain. The filling mechanism is supported by the copper tubing that feeds it water, and sits all in a line down the axis of the semi-cylindrical basin. It's very elegant and seems like it would be reliable and easy to repair.
  • The Denver Airport has signs everywhere pointing you to tornado shelters, at least some of which are simply the bathrooms.
  • Even at the airport Chik-Fil-A is closed on Sunday. Not that I would have eaten there if it was open (for a number of reasons), but it's unusual to see a business have enough conviction to resist the demands of our go-go-go culture.

Wonderful Things

  • Sungold tomatoes eaten right off the vine, which basically taste like solidified sunshine.
  • Water snails with brilliant green spots on their shells, the color of verdigris.
  • Mist spilling out of a roadside field at dawn.

Weeks 47-50 - Whitehall, Durham, Holden and Myrtle Beaches, Hadley

The ranch was suddenly a lot less lonesome when SE and TB returned from their trip to New York. Several days of driving had left them pretty exhausted, so I cooked up a homecoming feast. SC also joined us for dinner, having just come back from Washington to work on his electrical project. We ate leftovers for the next couple days while they settled back in. SE and TB were surprised at how bad the wildfire smoke had become, although I'd gotten pretty used to it by now. It even seemed to be interfering with their internet connection, which came in over long-range
WiFi and seemed to drop out every few minutes. SC filled in his trench, and then I helped him pull heavy wire through the conduits while he lubricated and lifted it into position on the other end; a very satisfying job. His work done for the moment, he headed back west to Washington. On Wednesday afternoon, I struck my tent, organized my stuff in the garage, and packed for my trip back to the Carolinas. It was tricky to decide what to take so as to be somewhat independent but still traveling light, but it helped that I still had a lot of spare gear at the other end in my storage unit and at my parents house. I did pack some of my kefir grains into a pill bottle with powdered milk, along with a complete kit for fermenting them. I slept on the couch and woke up before dawn on Thursday morning. As the sun rose, SE and I got in the truck to drive to the Bozeman airport, and we had such a great conversation that the hour-long drive felt like nothing.

This was my first air travel since March of 2020, and I was expecting it to be somewhat worse than normal, because I figured all the precautions would amp up the general crankiness and crowding. But I was pleasantly surprised at how chill everyone seemed. The masks felt like a pretty decent idea even for ordinary times, given how much I've gotten sick after flying in the past. In my experience, flying comfortably is all about making peace with discomfort, so what's one more? People still stood close together though, and it made me realize how much more orderly it's felt to stand in line since social distancing started. Maybe it's only the illusion that a line is going faster when it moves at six feet per person, but still. Also I've always hated those little air vents above the seats and I usually turn them off, but this time I figured I'd leave it on and point it straight at my head to form a positive-pressure zone, and it actually felt kind of pleasant. I read Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, which was an excellent antidote to air travel's veneer of wealth, sterility, and cheeriness, and spent the rest of my time dozing, thinking, or looking out the window. The layover in Chicago was extended by an hour due to a delay, which gave me time to eat a leisurely lunch, and before I knew it we were landing in Raleigh.

The moment I stepped into the jetway I could feel the hot, wet North Carolina summer greeting me with a sloppy kiss. It felt really nice, as if the air around me suddenly had weight and substance, and I realized that I actually like humidity, at least when it's warm out. The official airport taxi service had shut down, so I took a ride-share to my friend AA's house to pick up Kiddo. Looking out the window, the foliage was shockingly lush and green to eyes adjusted to Montana's dry and spare landscapes. The trees seemed to tower overhead and every un-manicured edge was choked with a tangle of shrubs and vines clamoring for light. It's always an interesting sensation to see the place I grew up as strange for a brief moment, and it can only happen after some kind of physical or psychic travel. But it soon faded and I settled into the feeling of home. I grew up under these trees and I think it's always where I'll be most comfortable. When I got to AA's house, I put on my helmet, which had taken up most of the space in my "personal item" and hopped on Kiddo to ride to Durham. There I checked into the hotel, bought some milk to feed my kefir grains, and then fed myself on a felafel burger.

My main agenda on Friday was to prepare for the trip to the beach. I spent some time at my storage unit doing routine maintenance on Kiddo, gathering supplies, and turning a pair of backpacks into improvised saddlebags. In the afternoon I walked around town to do some shopping and stretch my legs. On Saturday morning I was up early and on the road just after eight, heading towards the beach at Kiddo's top speed of 38mph. I stopped for two surprisingly good meals (breakfast at True Flavors Diner just outside of town and lunch at a little diner in Salemburg) and a nap in Tory Hole Park outside of Elizabethtown. I really enjoyed the lush fields I passed through: the dark and muscular tobacco, cotton leaves like hands reaching for the sky, and tall corn decked out with tassels. By four I was approaching the beach, and it seems that all the rental houses now have their check-in time at four on a Saturday, which creates quite a concentration of traffic. SUVs loaded with chairs and boogie boards were passing me constantly for half an hour, and soon I came to the back of an incredibly long line of stopped cars. But I simply rode onto the shoulder and passed all of them, not without a certain smug satisfaction at the tables being turned. Forgive me, it's a very rare event that I pass even one car, let alone dozens. I got to the house just after my parents. They'd brought my hammock and a new camo tarp I'd ordered (since the one in Montana was pretty shredded), and I spent some time setting up an outdoor shelter for myself under the porch.

AP, GB, their daughter A and her newborn baby brother M arrived, and BF, and they started unpacking massive amounts of food, including probably at least fifty pounds of tomatoes just picked from the garden. We ate the traditional peanut butter and tomato sandwiches of my people and caught up. The weather forecast for the week showed a lot of rain, and it was not wrong. Soon after I'd rigged my shelter, there was a huge downpour. JP and his mom arrived after having driven slowly through it for hours. And then, well, it was a week of beach vacation with no need for shoes or pockets, very pleasant but not that exciting to tell about. The periodic storms brought some of the most fantastic skyscapes I've ever seen, and there were also stretches of sunny weather where we lounged and read novels under shades and went swimming. My parents' chosen family has been going to the beach together every year for more than four decades, first camping, then all in one house, then more and more houses as the children started families of their own. Now we're up to four houses total. We all gathered on the porch for tapas to celebrate AP's 40th birthday, and the next day AP, JP, and I joined GB in celebrating her 34th birthday by doing 34 burpees, 34 speed squats, and so on. AP brought a vintage copy of Hero's Quest and several quests were played. AP and JP are my oldest friends and the closest thing I have to siblings, since we started playing together as babies. It was great to hang out again with plenty of time to talk about random stuff.

Just when we were fully settling into vacation mode, it was time to go. Saturday morning started with torrential rains that flooded half the road, and I packed up and waited for a break in the clouds. I had left my rain gear in Montana because it's so bulky, and now I was slightly regretting that decision. But I had to go sometime, and as soon as the sun came out I rode away and headed south toward North Myrtle Beach to visit my friends the M-S family. As soon as I got onto highway 17, I spotted a wall of dark cloud ahead and there was no way of avoiding it. I was quickly soaked, but the weather was so warm that it wasn't actually uncomfortable. It was kind of strange to feel water running down my back and draining out through my pants legs as if they were pipes. The rain didn't last long and I spent the rest of the 40 miles drying off until I was merely damp. I arrived in the early afternoon and pitched my tarp and hammock in the front yard, the only place where the trees were really favorably positioned.

Since I was there last, the side yard was being cleared out in preparation for an addition, the trees had leafed out fully, the summer garden had sprung up and faded, and the fingerling goldfish from the store had settled into the koi pond and grown to be at least eight inches long. Otherwise it was much the same, and I slipped into the rhythm of working all day on the back deck, going for a swim in the pond, helping to fix dinner, and having long conversations about everything from geometry to spirituality until well after dark. Every day I swam one more time across the pond and back, until I was up to 900 feet. The green shade under the towering oak tree, the smell of the fresh water, and the babbling of the little waterfall above the fish pond were so relaxing, and I began to feel really rested, to the point where I got excited about travel again and started looking at maps. I kept forgetting to go to the beach, although one day I did take a walk across the burning sand and for a few miles along the waterline, just to absorb the atmosphere of it. It was quite crowded compared to Holden beach, which makes sense given all the high-rises, but people seemed in good spirits, mostly relaxing in the sun or the shade of large umbrellas. Some piled into inflatable "banana boats" towed by a jet-ski, and were ferried out in zodiac rafts to go parasailing.

After a week and half in North Myrtle Beach, it was time to head back to my family's land in Hadley NC. Wednesday morning had a possibility of rain in the forecast, but it wasn't raining when I woke up so I decided to chance it. Just as I finished packing, a heavy shower started, and I had to wait it out inside, but as soon as it passed I hopped on Kiddo and took off, hoping I could manage to avoid being drenched. Looking ahead, I could see massive thunderheads, but since both of us were moving, it felt a bit like playing a game of Frogger on a massive scale. Once I strayed into the edge of the storm and got sprinkled on, and once I parked outside a tire shop and waited for the dark clouds ahead to get out of my way, but I managed to stay pretty dry, and by early afternoon I was safely past the storm system. The sun came out and the sky was filled with puffy clouds. In the fields, the crops I'd seen on the way to the beach had matured: the tobacco leave turning bright yellow, the cotton blooming in delicate white and pink flutes, and the corn becoming dry and brown. I stopped for groceries in Pittsboro, and then rode the last familiar miles back to the place where I grew up. As I went down the gravel driveway into a tunnel of shade, the day seemed to advance by a few hours. Everything here was even more lush and green than anything I'd seen since landing in NC. I spent the next few days sleeping in my hammock at night and working in my parents screen porch during the day. I visited JH in Bynum for a swim in the Haw River and a delicious dinner. I ate raw veggies fresh from the garden: tomatoes, okra, purple beans, and watermelon. Several thunderstorms rolled through and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I've got one more week here in the woods and then I'll head back out west.

Things I Learned

  • Halotherapy is a thing. I saw a new "salt cave" in Durham and had to find out what it was. According to proponents, a little salt in the air is good for the lungs, and a session in the cave is equivalent to a couple of days at the beach. I had no wish to go into the cave, but it was nice to know that my beach vacation might have some extra health benefits.
  • What's left of Atlantic Beach is a tiny strip of land about 1/4 mile wide, completely surrounded by North Myrtle Beach, but only connected to it via the beach and US 17. All the other roads that would connect end at a fence that seems to encircle the whole community. Is it any surprise that this geographical oddity is an artifact of the Jim Crow era? Walking along the beach, it stands out because the dunes are undisturbed by buildings or walkways and more of the beachgoers are Black. Driving along 17, there's a notable concentration of strip clubs, cannabis shops, and thinly-disguised brothels. I would love to have seen it in its heyday as a center of Gullah business enterprise though. How long it will hold out against gentrification is anyone's guess, but there's an empty lot selling for nearly triple the asking price of two years ago.
  • It seems fructose might be hard on the liver (paper). Most non-artificial sweeteners are about half fructose, except for agave "nectar", which is more like 75% fructose, and rice syrup, which is almost entirely glucose (in the form of maltose). Nobody is saying you shouldn't eat fruit though. There's also an entire website dedicated to rehabilitating fructose's reputation (fructosefacts.org but I won't link to it). You know, in the public interest.

Wonderful Things

  • The endless intricate complexity of the world when seen from high above.
  • Sitting under the shade of blooming crepe myrtles, with the evening light shining through the pink blossoms.
  • After a thunderstorm, fireflies lighting up the mist between the trees.

Weeks 44-46 - Whitehall

Well, more of the sedentary life. The Montana weather remained very pleasant, but smoke from the surrounding wildfires got worse. Nearby mountains were always hazy and the distant ones sometimes disappeared from view altogether. The sun would turn a dark red while still high in the sky, creating an eerie twilight. Sometimes the air smelled like a campfire, but mostly I guess my nose got used to it. Spending almost all my time outside, there wasn't much I could do about it, except to change my exercise program to be mainly stretching so as not to breathe hard. It was also a bit of a psychological adjustment to stay in one place for so long without a specific mission, but the more I slowed down, the more I realized it's exactly what I needed after nearly a year of being on the move and/or filling up my free time with projects like restoring Punkin.

On the Fourth of July, SE wanted to spend a day water-fasting and walking or sitting alone in nature on the land, and TB and I agreed to do the same by way of support. We started at seven in the morning by smudging with the smoke of sagebrush (which grows everywhere here), and then we took off in three different directions, each with a gallon of water. I circled slowly around the land, admiring the rays of morning sunlight streaming down from the clouds, climbing slowly over the rocky hillside, picking up pebbles from the sun-baked clay pits, meandering through a marsh buzzing with bees, and following the shady path of the creek where the cows were grazing. But I was pretty sure that eventually, not eating would get my body burning fat and detoxing, which makes me feel tired, so I found a place to spend the day resting. It was a sort of cave high on the hillside, under a large flat rock balanced on three others, with a gnarled desert shrub growing up and out at one end. I drank water, snoozed, and pondered all through the hottest part of the day. In the late afternoon I scrambled to the top of a boulder to watch a storm blow in from the west, and then curled into a dry corner of my cave until the driving rain had passed. Then I felt up to moving again, and walked across the highway to the other part of the ranch, which is just desert grass and sagebrush, but has a high hill in the middle. I made my way to the top and stood in the strong buffeting wind, which felt like it was blowing me clean. At seven in the evening we gathered back at the house to tell our stories and eat a little soup. Even though I had no blinding spiritual insights, it felt like a day of letting go of things I'd been carrying, and that felt valuable.

On Tuesday the 6th, the three of us went into Whitehall, ordered takeout from the Two Bit Saloon, and headed to the rodeo grounds to watch the weekly barrel racing competition. It was free, and the small number of other people in the stands all seemed to be friends and families of the riders. There was no clown, and the announcer mainly just told the names of the women and their horses, and announced their times when they finished. Barrel racing seems really intense and challenging. It's timed by a laser beam down to 100ths of a second, so even tiny errors add up. To do it fast, you have to get perilously close to the barrels, but each one knocked over adds a penalty of 5 seconds, which pretty much takes a rider out of the running. It was fun to watch girls and women of all ages putting their all into the ride, and to see the distinct spirit of each horse. Less exciting than the Big Timber Rodeo perhaps, but also more relaxing and with a small-town feel.

On Thursday the 8th, SE and TB got in their minivan to drive to New York and help SE's daughter fix up an AirBnB unit. They would be gone for a few weeks, so I was left to do some light house-sitting like watering plants and bringing in the mail. SE's brother SC arrived from Washington state to work on an underground electrical line. To remove a large rock from the trench, he drilled holes in it, filled them with gunpowder, placed an electric match, tapped in a piece of wooden dowel on top, and detonated from a distance with a car battery. It was pretty exciting to watch the explosions from a safe distance. One day I rode along with him to Bozeman and stocked up on fresh produce and other staples at the food co-op downtown. Otherwise I was the complete homebody, generally travelling no further than the mailbox. SC worked non-stop on the trench, drove back to Washington for a few days, and returned with a massive box of bing cherries fresh off the tree that he'd bought from some neighbors. Freshness really matters with cherries, they were a far cry from the ones you usually get on the east coast where every other berry is limp and insipid. I didn't think it was possible to eat them all but between giving most of them away and eating them with every meal, we did seem to manage it.

On the weekends, I mostly relaxed, but I also spent some time going over Punkin and finding all the little things that needed fixing: a burnt out tail light, loose electrical connections, tight valve clearances, and so on. I replaced the speedometer/odometer with one from eBay, which had apparently sat out in the sun for decades and looked much worse than the original despite having only 2,000 miles on it rather than 12,000. But hey, it could show the speed without even waggling much, and that was what counted. RM's joke about it being the Motorcycle of Theseus become more and more true. I changed the oil and both of the tires, tubes, and rim strips. I sprayed SeaFoam into the air intake to clean out any carbon buildup. I washed dust out of the heat exchanger fins. Basically I did everything I could think to do, and I believe Punkin can make it to the Pacific now, and hopefully further, although I keep expecting the engine to quit on me at any moment. It's a paranoia born out of inexperience I guess. But if that actually happens I feel like I'll either be able to fix the problem or continue the journey in some other form. It no longer causes me the kind of anxiety it used to.

One day my folding solar array just stopped working. I took it into the shop, cut it open so I could reach the electrical contacts, and determined that two out of three panels were still functional. I cut off the dead one, and the electronics package, and re-attached the cable to the remaining panels with wire nuts. It looked awful, and put out a third less power, but at least it worked long enough for new panels to come in the mail, and I was pleased to have been able to "fix" a piece of modern electronics, which is so rarely possible. It got me thinking about my electrical system though, and I decided to replace my battery pack as well. It's always annoyed me to have to run my laptop using AC power, because a few watts are lost converting the DC to AC, then even more is lost converting it back to DC for the laptop. Plus, it runs a noisy little fan that clashes with the sounds of nature. So I got a DC power supply for my laptop, a lithium battery, and a cheap charge controller. In total it was half the cost of the old one, 20% more capacity, easily replaced components, more efficient, and completely silent. It's fun to learn from experience what I want, and to get my gear closer and closer to that ideal.

In the third week, EL and her mom came to visit. EL is a friend of SE's who manages her AirBnB units, and she came to see the place so she can help guests better and also experience the local tourist attractions. They drove all around the area and saw and did so much that it made me feel a bit lazy for hanging around the ranch all the time. But I did join them to go eat dinner and see the rodeo in Whitehall, part of the annual Frontier Days celebration. The Two Bit Saloon was packed and the waitresses were dressed up in corsets, top hats, and the like. We ate an excellent dinner and then headed over to the rodeo grounds. This was a smaller affair than Big Timber, but much bigger than the barrel racing. The stands were so packed that I got antsy and went to watch from the fence; I guess I've gotten pretty shy of crowds. There were some new-to-me events. The cutest was "mutton busting", where tiny boys and girls try to stay on sheep that are frantically trying to join their herd. Dads picked up the fallen children and dusted them off. After one dramatic fall the announcer said, "this is a family event so I can't repeat what Layton said, but he's all right!" There was saddle bronc riding, of course, and standing by the fence and seeing a wild horse rearing within yards of me, its raw power was palpable and frightening. Even with a fence between us I jumped back, and some kids playing happily nearby were showered with clods to their great surprise. Then there were the IronMan and IronWoman events, which start with roping a steer and then releasing the rope, transition into a barrel race, and finally require jumping off the horse, grabbing a tethered goat, and tying three of its legs together. The plight of the goat was especially pathetic, because after the first time, it was clearly terrified about what was coming but unable to get away. At least they changed goats a few times, but it still seemed pretty traumatic. I think I might be about rodeo'd out for the time being.

Things I Learned

  • The local wild hot spring was a no-go this summer. The river has to be at the right level to fill the pools, which requires 700 cubic feet per second of flow, but instead the flow is around 70 because of the drought. My planned route through Idaho passes by three wild hot springs, hopefully at least one of them will be working.
  • A lot of roads are closed in Idaho because of wildfires. I heard this from some motorcycle tourists out of Arkansas, and they said some of the closures on small mountain roads required back-tracking up to 50 miles. I'm hoping that things are better in September when I plan to cross Idaho myself, but for all I know they could be worse. I'll just have to stay flexible.
  • Apparently customers have a strong preference for redder fruit, and new varieties tend to get redder over time as mutants with color variations are discovered and propagated. SC used to own an orchard growing cherries and apples and he said he saw this happening with the apples over the years.
  • An alternate route of the Continental Divide Trail passes through Whitehall. On my way into town one day I saw a large number of people with backpacks walking along the road, and wound up talking to two through-hikers resting on a bench downtown (trail names Rewind and Spicy). Apparently they were diverting to avoid wildfires and smoke.
  • What happens when you start an engine with the dipstick unscrewed? A hell of a mess. Oil goes everywhere.

Wonderful Things

  • A baby pronghorn, colored like a rock and pogoing away on all four legs.
  • Catching a hummingbird that was stuck in the shop and feeling its tiny body against my hand.
  • The rich smells after a rainstorm sweeps through the desert.
  • Bunnies hopping here and there in the early morning, and cute little ground squirrels scurrying around me as I work.

Weeks 42-43 - Whitehall, Big Timber Rodeo

Well now I've stopped for a while and things are slowing down. I plan to spend July in Montana and August in the Carolinas, then it's back to the journey west. So there'll be less motorcycle adventure, and I might post every other week sometimes so there's more to talk about.

On Monday the 21st, I arrived at the ranch of my friends SE and TB, who I hadn't seen since shortly before they moved from North Carolina to Montana last fall. My head was still buzzing from the road, but soon I was relaxing at their dining room table, sipping star anise tea and catching up. Then we were off and running into a grand conversation, dreaming up a travelling conference center to heal the world. They're therapists, artists, entrepreneurs, and free thinkers, so we always have plenty to talk about. They took me on a tour of their place, which has a stream running through it, a high hill covered in massive boulders, and a lush pasture with three Swiss brown cows owned by a Swiss neighbor, complete with melodious bells that took my heart straight to the Alps. There were 100 acres on one side of the road and 100 acres on the other, which is all dry grass and sagebrush with a lone hill called Big Lumpy rising high above it. I chose a campsite in a little nook down by the creek, flanked by boulders and spreading junipers, whose ripe fallen berries exuded an intoxicating scent like warm beeswax.

It was so fun being social with SE and TB, and we had so much catching up to do, that my side projects and my blogging were squeezed into off hours, and sunset was so late that I often stayed up way past my bedtime. When the weekend came around, my body hit some kind of wall and I had to rest. I did manage to start some fun food experiments, since making lacto-pickled vegetables has been working so well. I bought some kefir grains to make my own on the road, which will be great because milk is always a lot easier to find than kefir. The equipment is simple and there's no need for refrigeration, so I think it's going to work. I also started testing a method of growing sprouts in a cotton bag, which is promising but a bit more of a challenge in such a dry climate. And boy was it hot and dry, with practically no rain since I arrived and not even clouds most days. The sun beat down and baked the land; some days there was a visible haze from distant wildfires started by lightning. Apparently the first hay crop had to be harvested early and there may not be a second one. I guess other areas of the country had it worse. With temperatures only in the 90s and humidity around 30-40%, I stayed pretty comfortable under my tree. Summers back home in North Carolina can be far more brutal.

On the second Wednesday after my arrival, we went to the rodeo in Big Timber. It was a two hour drive, but we stopped halfway in Bozeman for dinner at a nice Korean restaurant. When we arrived at the fairgrounds, there were a whole lot of horse and cattle trailers, and a big wooden sign out front that said "ambulance", presumably so the drivers would know where to pick up the injured cowpoke in case of emergency. We paid our $15, found a place in the stands, and pretty soon the action started. Event sponsors had to be announced of course, but refreshingly, their logos were not flashed on some giant screen. Instead, a series of cowgirls on horseback with fluttering cavalry flags stuck into their boots circled the arena. It was pretty wild to see the US Space Force being promoted from the back of a horse. Last came an American flag with a gold fringe, the announcer gave a speech about those who gave their lives for this country and read Lincoln's letter to the woman who lost five sons in the Civil War, the National Guard buzzed the bleachers in a C-130, a surprisingly inclusive prayer was said, and the national anthem was sung, hats on hearts all around. Travelling through the vast expanse of this country must be having an effect on me because I found myself tearing up with patriotism at times. The mention of the Statue of Liberty brought to mind Emma Lazarus's poem: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". There seems to be plenty of room out here in the middle, and people still do come here to do great things.

Then the event started in earnest. First up was saddle bronc riding, where cowboys tried to stay on a bucking bronco for at least eight seconds. The scoring system is pretty interesting: 50 points are allotted for how hard the horse tries to shake the rider off, and 50 points are allotted to the rider's form, which includes things like staying centered, being in rhythm, and keeping the spurs engaged. Yes it's a bit cruel, and the steady waft of beef smoke from the hamburger concession directly under our seats was a constant reminder that the rodeo is rooted in demonstrating the skills of the historical cattle industry. But it was an exciting thing to see at least once. The rodeo clown did a stand-up routine which culminated in jumping up into the stands, grabbing a woman's phone which she was talking on, telling her he wouldn't give it back until she helped with his routine, and making her hold out flowers which he exploded by cracking a whip. Then came the steer wrestling, which consists of riding alongside a calf, jumping off the horse onto its back, grabbing it by the horns, and flipping it over. It's scored purely on time. Then came was tie-down roping, which involves lassoing a steer, jumping off the horse, flipping it over, and tying all four legs together. It's kind of amazing to see the thing done at all, but the fact that competitive times are down around 5-6 seconds... is pretty mind-blowing. Then the clown got into western wear and did an impressive trick-roping act to the accompaniment of Uptown Funk and an electronic version of Cotton-Eyed Joe, with a finale of jumping through a flaming lasso.

Then came team-roping, a seemingly even harder challenge where two cowboys ride on either side of a steer, then one ropes its horns and pulls it around 90 degrees so the other can rope its back legs. Again, this is happening in around ten seconds or less. Then came the women's events. First breakaway roping, where the cowgirls lasso the steer and release the rope, and then barrel riding, where they ride in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels at breakneck speed. Again, it's incredibly fast-paced, with good times down near 10-12 seconds. The grand finale of the whole rodeo was bull-riding, which is much like the saddle bronc event except with bulls. The main difference being that the bulls are way bigger, and unlike the broncos who just seemed eager to get away once the rider was off, the bulls were pissed and fully ready to gore someone. The clown was now in a barrel, padded and open at both ends, which he moved around to provide cover for the two handlers who opened the gate and distracted the bull once the rider was down. Darkness had fallen and the scene took on a surreal character. Cowboys in hockey masks, flak vests, and flapping leather chaps jumped through clouds of glowing dust, and bugs danced like sparks around the spotlights overhead. A 1500 pound bull threw its rider and rolled over him. The man staggered away clutching his stomach and groin while the bull knocked over the clown's barrel. And that was the end of it.

I haven't been to many sporting events in my life, but this was definitely the most entertaining. For three hours, there was never a dull moment; even between events we could watch the two hardworking cowboys who patiently rounded up all the stray animals. I'm not sure I'd go regularly, but if I ever do go to another one, I can now honestly say, "this ain't my first rodeo."

Things I Learned

  • This far north, around the solstice, the sun makes an arc over the course of the day that's far bigger than 180 degrees. It took me some getting used to, because it feels like it's going around me rather than over me, if that makes sense. Very few spots are shady all day long.
  • Smells don't carry nearly as well on dry air as they do on humid air.
  • Hip-hop and country music seem to be slowly converging, which would be no surprise to Thomas Sowell, who claims they both come from the redneck tradition, which in turn comes from the old outlaw culture along England's border with its neighbors.
  • The Women's Professional Rodeo Association is the oldest women's sports organization in the US and the only one governed entirely by women.

Wonderful Things

  • Fresh baked sourdough bread made from Montana-grown whole grain organic kamut.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of a babbling brook.
  • Cactus flowers and wild lilies.

Week 41c - Theodore Roosevelt NP and into Montana

NOTE: This week is broken into multiple parts on account of having too much material for one post. The week starts here.

Let me start by adding a little commentary on white-truck-guy from week 41b. I don't want y'all to think I'm turning naive about people or trying to suppress genuine protective fear. I've been mugged before with a (supposed) gun pointed at me, and felt that kind of basic fear that's very centering. Of course in that situation I was carrying absolutely nothing to steal and wound up sitting down with the muggers and having a conversation, which they left thinking I was eccentric, which is not wrong. Maybe a better example is seeing a poisonous snake, or stumbling near the top of a cliff and getting an immediate bodily reminder to be more mindful or move away from the edge. But with white-truck-guy that wasn't it, I felt less of a fear of being harmed than an anxiety about being disliked. I'm used to people being anything from guarded to taciturn to friendly, but being directly insulted freaked me out in a cold, reptilian sort of way, even though at some level I know it couldn't have had much of anything to do with me. I don't know what right action in that situation was, maybe he wouldn't have been willing or able to be helped, maybe I actually did help in some small way, maybe I could have made a friend. Maybe it would have been pretty close to what actually happened. What I do know is that anxiety about being disliked is, for me, a force that shies me away from the kind of right action that comes from the heart. That's what I was disappointed about, and that's what I'd like to change.

Anyhow, on Wednesday afternoon I pulled into The Cottonwood Campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and since they made all the spots first-come-first-served, it wasn't full, although even in the middle of the week all the shady spots with a view of the river were already taken. Things were really hopping at the national parks; I even heard you needed advance tickets just to drive through Glacier, but they were nearly impossible to get because they would sell out within minutes of being available, unless you wanted to make the drive before 6am. Anyhow I picked a decent spot and set up my tent so as to serve as a sun shelter but be open to the air. The campground did have lots of cottonwoods and junipers, and felt like a relaxing place where I'd enjoy spending a couple days. As usual, Punkin attracted attention from men of a certain age. I had a great talk with a guy who grew up on an island in Puget Sound where CT90s were very popular. He and his family were on their way to his son's wedding in North Dakota, and he offered to take me out to his island house if I ever got up into Washington. I also met BF, a retired water-quality expert from Columbus, OH. He was heading out to Idaho to watch a friend rock-climb, I accepted a few sips of his beer, and we talked about various adventures. He'd canoe-camped a lot in the Boundary Waters, which is something I'd love to do myself.

In the morning, BF took off to investigate the North Unit of the park, and I decided that I wanted to spend the day not riding a motorcycle, not even to go to a trailhead. Heck, if I was planning a future life of travel by walking, there was no reason to be lazy now. So I packed a lunch and walked the 1.5 miles to the nearest trail system at Peaceful Valley Ranch. To get to the trails, I first had to ford the Little Missouri River. I met a trio of young hikers on the other side and joined them in drying off feet and putting shoes back on. Then I headed off into the bone-dry prairie on the other side, through a maze of sagebrush and yellowed grasses, past weathered fence posts with numbers carved into them. I came out into a wide lawn dotted with little burrows: a prairie dog town! Looking out over it I counted five levels of prairie dog alarm. Farthest away from me, they were running to the closest burrow, and slightly nearer, they were standing at attention in the classic pose. Nearer still and they started to make a chipping alarm call through their fat cheeks, sounding a lot like birds. As I approached, they would go quiet and start wiggling their tails frantically as a visual signal, then all of sudden dive into their holes. Those disappearing little butts were pretty cute! Down the trail I found a hiding spot to watch the residents of another town loping around and nibbling plants in a more relaxed state.

I topped up my water bottles at an old artesian well, a tad metallic and sulfurous but nothing to complain about on such a hot day. Then I headed up the hills to the Big Plateau. Stopping to take in an awe-inspiring view of the badlands, I met the trio of young people again, who were walking the same route as me but in the opposite direction, and heard their excited story about a herd of bison blocking the trail ahead. On the top of a butte with another fine view, I stopped under a spreading juniper for lunch and a siesta, then made my way down to the high plain. The herd of bison had moved off the trail by now, but I spent some time looking at them through my binoculars. Such majestic beasts! A feeling of deep gratitude at being alive in this universe swept over me and brought tears to my eyes. As the heat of the day started to really beat down, I walked another few miles, forded the river again, and arrived back at camp tired, with my feet just on the verge of blistering. I took a second siesta while waiting for the heat to pass. Two friendly and excitable young guys from Miami moved in next door, sporting wild manes of hair and beards ala Carlos Santana in 1968, out on a grand tour of the country.

When the day cooled off, I decided to look over Punkin's electrical system to see if I could figure out the misfires, and almost at once it went horribly wrong when the spark plug boot, cheap and already starting to crumble from the heat, came apart completely. And all of a sudden I didn't have a working motorcycle. Luckily BF had found the campgrounds in the North Unit not to his liking and came back for another night, and he agreed to give me a ride to the nearest auto parts store in the morning if I needed it, even though it was out of his way. Just in case, I went around the loop asking all the handy-looking people I saw if they had a spare one, but nobody did. I tried to figure out how to make a repair but was stumped. I started feeling pretty dejected, although it was far from being a bad place to be marooned. I was soothed by phone calls from my friends JD and RM back home, and just when I'd resigned myself to taking up an hour or two of BF's time, a guy approached from across the road. "You don't really need that thing anyway," he said, "just stick a piece of wire in the end of the cable and wrap the other end around the plug." I asked if he really thought that would work, and he said he didn't know for sure, but he did know how electricity worked and it ought to. "He's a retired electrician," his wife told me. "Do you have any solid copper wire?" he asked. I only had stranded, but again I was in luck because his hobby was making jewelry out of copper wire, and he happened to have a twist of 18 gauge in his box. I did what he said, and sure enough the engine started right up! I wrapped the whole job in electrical tape and told BF he was off the hook, then he and I spent a while contentedly watching a male bison grazing on the other side of the river and swapping wildlife stories.

In the morning I had a choice to make about which NAPA store to go to. I could go to the closer one, which was only 17 miles away in Belfield, but that meant backtracking to the east. Or I could go 30 miles to the one in Beach, which would take me along my route west. I opted for the latter, and what tipped the scales was that the store had Farmer's Union affixed to the name, and I figured anyone in the business of serving farmers would know how to do unusual things to make an engine run. I kept my speed low to avoid cooking or shaking loose the improvised repair. The engine didn't run very well, but it was enough for me if it didn't stop. When I arrived, the electrical tape was a gooey mess, but it had held. I went inside and waited my turn. The guy behind the counter examined the old boot with a look that told me this wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. But although he didn't say much, he seemed both knowledgeable and determined, and he spend a long time rummaging bins and methodically turning every page in a catalog. I was extremely glad not to be making BF wait outside for all this. After a while the guy behind the counter said, "I can maybe build you a new cable, can you pull your coil out?" I went back to the parking lot, removed the coil, and brought it back in. It turned out the cable could be easily detached from it, and he started hunting for parts to make me a new one. This took some time, but the end result was well worth it. The new cable jacket was heat-resistant silicone, and the new boot was covered in high-quality rubber and solidly crimped onto the cable so it wouldn't come loose like the other had. Also the old cable had barely been long enough but I had him cut the new one three inches longer so there was room to spare. Everything went back together and I thanked the guy for his time. The whole repair, plus a roll of electrical tape, had cost less than $14. I felt vindicated for buying a cheap engine that could be repaired with generic parts.

I stopped for brunch at Buzzy's, then a hot shower at the Flying J (truck stop showers are amazing if you've never tried one), then I was on the road to Montana! There was no dramatic change in the landscape as I crossed the border, but towns became few and far between on my route. From Baker to Miles City was 82 miles of hilly rangeland, with almost no sign of human habitation except for for a rest area with a pit toilet exactly halfway. In Miles City, I headed to the Parks Department and bought a Recreational Use License for $10, which allowed me to camp for free on any state-owned lands for a year. In the office, I found out that the animals I'd been seeing by the roadside, stockier than deer and with large white patches, were pronghorns. Not technically antelopes but the closest we've got in North America. Then I headed north across the bridge and down many miles of gravel roads to find a place to camp on some patches of state land by the Yellowstone River. After a false start at a place that turned out to be too buggy, I found the perfect site under a lone, large cottonwood at the edge of a vast field of waving grass. The evening breeze was cool, dry, and refreshing, the tree whispered softly above. I watched the half-full moon rising over the field and played my jaw harp for a deer, who stood stock still listening to the strange sound.

I woke up to birdsong in the tree above, the sun covering everything with a gentle warmth. I skipped breakfast and got right on the road, but in the first few miles the air was as delicious and satisfying as a rich cup of tea. I stopped in Forsyth where the railroad met the river, and had a gourmet breakfast at The Joseph, right across the street from the gallery of Bob "The Crowbar Man" Watts, who paints quite deftly with a crowbar and apparently has a large collection of barbed wire that I would like to have seen, but unfortunately the place was closed. As I left town it was clear the misfires were getting worse, and I started to worry. I made it to the top of a bluff overlooking Billings, and fighting against the hill and the powerful headwind that was kicking up made me realize how much the engine was losing power. I pulled over behind a family that was changing a tire on their trailer, spread out my tarp as best I could in the buffeting wind, and tried to fix the problem. The fuel filter was extremely dirty, so I swapped in a new one, but that didn't fix it. I fiddled with the mixture but it only seemed to make things worse. I pulled the carburetor apart, but it was already pretty clean inside, so that wasn't it either. At one point, as I was popping the clip off the throttle needle, taking great care to hang onto the tiny clip, the needle popped out of my hand and seemed to disappear. I searched for it with increasing desperation. The ground was covered with straw from horse trailers, so if it went that far I'd literally be looking for a needle in a haystack! But when I found it hiding on the hinge of my toolbox... what a relief.

Just as I was packing up, a guy named LA came over and asked if I needed help. He went through all the engine problems he could think of and unfortunately I'd already tried all of them already, but we got into a great conversation, and he told me how he'd just come from a pistol-shooting competition with his highly customized Glock 40. He showed my a video of him competing, and it looked like quite an exciting sport, because the contestants have to start out with their pistol holstered and move rapidly around a small shooting area, hitting a large variety of targets scattered all around, some of them swinging. The kicker is that it's scored on both time and accuracy, so there's a whole lot of strategy involved. He'd grown up in Billings and told me about a boyhood adventure to the Pryor Mountains, two kids on a bike not much bigger than mine and with only one set of footpegs to share, loaded down with a cooler, a tank of gas, a rifle, a bow and arrows, and other such necessities. As we parted ways he said he was going back home to Bozeman the next day, and would have been happy to give me and Punkin a lift if he'd been driving his truck. I thanked him but said I wasn't giving up until the engine did. But I did decide to forego the scenic route and get as far west as I could in the remaining daylight. My stopping point for the week was with friends near Whitehall, and if I got close enough I'd be in range for an easy rescue. I rode down off the bluff, where the wind was mercifully gentler, stopped at a gas station picnic table for a quick meal of kefir and oats, and headed west along the route of I-90, mostly on frontage roads, but riding along the shoulder of the highway for a few miles when there was no other choice. Clouds rolled in, and dark mountains loomed up in the distance around me. I managed to go 50 more miles, stopped at a fishing access near Greycliff, and pitched a simple tarp shelter off of Punkin's handlebars, because rain was supposed to come in the wee hours of the morning. One more day's ride. I texted my friends and they said they'd be happy to pick me up if I broke down, so I could relax about the engine now.

I woke up at 3:30 in the morning. I'd noticed something the day before, which was that the engine ran okay as long as it was hot and going fast. What if the spark wasn't hot enough? When I installed a new spark plug in Beach, I hadn't checked the gap on it. There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep, so I got up and checked the gap. It was perfect. But now that I was out of bed, and the rain hadn't come in yet, I might as well pack up my gear while it was dry and hit the road. I was packed and out of there by 5am, still no rain. As I looked down at the speedometer I noticed that the needle, which had been waggling at high speeds since forever, had now fallen completely off. Shit was falling apart left and right. But what the heck, my mapping app could tell me my speed, and since I needed to keep the engine revving fast anyway, the gears would regulate it for me: 2nd for 25mph, 3rd for 35mph, and 4th for 45mph. Gosh it was almost like Punkin wanted to get there just as bad as me. And my early rising was well rewarded. As I climbed up the gravel of Convict Grade Road, the clouds broke up a little and the view hit me right in the chest. I was surrounded by mountain pastures as stark as Iceland. Cows looked at me placidly, and a herd of deer jumped the fences right in front of me in flawless muscular motion. To my left was a range of snow-capped mountains, and to my right a butte pushed up above the trees. The sun rising behind me shone through a gap in the clouds and lit up the hills on the other side of the valley in a vivid golden glow. I pulled over and watched until the clouds closed in and a light rain started falling. But holy shit, Montana was winning the scenery contest even on a bad weather day.

I arrived in Bozeman hungry, and found a little cafe by instinct. It being a college town, the fare was much better than I expected. As the rain started coming down outside, I was warm and dry, enjoying a frittata with artisanal sourdough toast and a pot of organic green tea direct from the farm in China. Much as I enjoy small-town diner food, a bit of luxury is nice every now and then. By the time I finished eating, the rain had stopped, and I headed west at full throttle, criss-crossing the route of Lewis and Clark. I thought about all the people buying powerful BMWs or KTMs to ride from Argentina to Alaska, and realized that I have no need to go that far to challenge myself, because the smaller the vehicle, the bigger the adventure. And there was more stunning scenery as I joined the course of the Jefferson River through a mountain pass, sheer rock faces rising up on both sides, striated with pines. I was soaked by a final cloudburst, and it wasn't even noon when I finally pulled up at my friends' ranch near Whitehall, my back tire nearly worn out, my engine limping, and my speedometer needle flopping uselessly. I made it!

Things I Learned

  • There are no bears in North Dakota, which is handy because sometimes it's hard to find a good tree to hang your food from.
  • The National Park only allowed horses that had been fed on "certified weed-free forage". After a minute I figured out that this wasn't to prevent stoned horses, but to prevent the spread of invasive species in the park. It's something I'd never thought of before, but I can see how seed-contaminated horse poop could be a huge problem. Unfortunately the only ways I can think of to guarantee that forage is weed free would be chemicals that probably aren't great for the horses.
  • River mud with a little sand in it works nearly as well as pumice soap (aka Gojo) for getting grease off your hands. However, it doesn't smell nearly as good.

Wonderful Things

  • Finding a handful of bison fur on the ground, soft as a cloud.
  • Sunset through drifting cottonwood seeds.
  • Watching a pronghorn jump along the edge of an irrigation sprinkler to cool off.

Week 41b - Across North Dakota

NOTE: This week is broken into multiple parts on account of having too much material for one post. The week starts here.

Leaving Lac Qui Parle in the early morning, I rode into Big Stone County, passed by what I believe was the big stone, and arrived in Ortonville, a little old town on the steep banks of Big Stone Lake. I stopped at the post office to mail my wood stove home; it was starting to feel like a waste of space for several reasons, not least the unusually hot weather that continued to hang over the Midwest. The staff were very friendly as I tried out various creative ways to fit all the parts into a flat-rate box, padded by some clothing items I didn't need. I stopped at the hardware store to buy fuel alcohol, and it was one of those old-fashioned places that sell all kinds of stuff: furniture downstairs, housewares, an aisle of board games. Resisting the urge to browse through this time capsule of a store, I got back on the bike, and since the only breakfast option in town was at the bowling alley, I decided to press on and see what I came across. The road wound along a bluff with views out over the lake and bent north up to Beardsley, where I stopped at a place called Betty Jo's for breakfast. As well as being a restaurant and catering weddings, it seemed to serve as a defacto community center; a business meeting for some local organization proceeded quietly in one of the rooms. After getting some foil to pack the leftovers from the huge portion of hash browns, the owner asked if I was riding a pedal bike. "If I was riding a pedal bike," I said, "there
wouldn't be any leftovers."

From there it was just a few miles before I crossed the Minnesota River into North Dakota. In the distance I could see the bluffs rising on the other side of the James River, but otherwise the land was gently rolling and fairly featureless grassland. And yet... there was something captivating about it. This was the Prairie Pothole Region, where glaciers carved out countless ponds and lakes and heaped up the spoil into hills. I realized then why the prairie is so much prettier than cultivated fields: it's because the fields have only one shade of fertilizer-enhanced dark green, while the grasslands have many shades. Swathes of greens, yellows, and browns surrounded still waters that reflected the metallic blue of the sky. The papery smell of rotting marsh grasses hung in the air like the smoke of a just-lit cigar. A crop duster seemed to be playing as it hovered and turned for another pass over the field. I entered Sheyenne National Grasslands, where I planned to spend the night, drove down many miles of dirt roads, and found the entrance to the area I'd chosen on the map.

Without GPS and a good map I would certainly have missed the overgrown dirt track. There was a primitive gate across it that consisted of several strands of barbed wire nailed to wooden uprights, and secured to the fence-posts on either side with loops of wire at the top and bottom. I figured out how to open it, rode through, and closed it behind me, which required a substantial amount of stretching and pulling. The road on the other side was very rough, and got even rougher as I headed farther into public lands. Deep ruts and sandy patches tried to throw me, but my practice riding on sand in Florida paid off and I stayed upright. I passed an old windmill-powered pump, the mechanism stopped with rust and the cattle trough below it filled with nothing but sand and dry weeds. I passed what was left of a coyote's carcass, just some desiccated skin, a few bones, and a bushy tail. It felt like such a wild place, and as I worked my way deeper into it, I began to feel a little uneasy at the remoteness of my position. But after a while the track joined a wide and well-graded gravel road, though the one I'd been on was marked exactly the same on the map. With the easier riding, I could take in more of the scenery. This was the only area of native tallgrass prairie under USDA protection, though unfortunately it was too early in the year for the grass to be "hat high" as they say. Nonetheless, the grassy hills were very pretty, dotted with oaks spreading over pools of deep shade, and bordered by larger groves that filled the low places where the water was closer to the surface. But above ground, everything was so dry! When I got off to scout campsites, the sun beat down and the grass crackled underfoot.

I reached the place I'd picked out to camp for the week, and there was a white truck parked there, which appeared to be empty. I figured it might be someone out walking on the nearby North Country Scenic Trail, and that they might give me some local knowledge when they came back. I picked out a spot, rode Punkin to it, and started to set up camp. As I was clearing away a mostly-dried cow turd, I heard a voice from the truck: "What the fuck are you looking at, asshole?" I still couldn't see anyone inside. "Are you talking to me?" I replied. "Yeah I'm talking to you, you little Twitter bitch," said the voice. "I'm not on Twitter," I protested. "Yeah you are, you little bitch," said the voice. I thought introducing myself might help: "Hi, my name's J." "Fuck you!" said the voice. "Uh, I was just going to camp here," I said. "Fuck off, find somewhere else." Yeah, that did seem like a good idea, and luckily I hadn't unpacked much yet. As I was about to leave, I thought about what Peace Pilgrim would do in a that kind of situation and decided to try one last thing. "Are you okay?" I called out. "Fuck you," said the voice. "Well I hope things get better for you," I said as I started the engine and rode off, followed by a continued stream of abuse along similar lines. I felt a bit shaken as I rode with no destination in mind. I could see that the man was in a very painful place, and I wanted to have been able to help him. But at the same time, I knew why I couldn't, because the fear I'd felt had prevented me from being fully open and loving. My offer of help had come from the right place in my head, but not in my heart. Maybe you'll think I'm crazy and the best possible move was to get away, because the retired mob chauffeur back in Beaufort was right about guys in white trucks being dangerous. But I still wanted to have been able to handle it in a less fearful and more loving way. It got me thinking.

But hey, with over 70,000 acres to camp on, there was certainly room for any number of people to be alone. As I put miles between me and that guy, my nerves started to settle. I didn't like the extreme dryness and decided instead to explore campsites along the Sheyenne River. I found one small canoe access that looked good, but decided to check out another before deciding, so I went up to Mirror Pool to see if it might be better. On the way, I tried a shortcut across the prairie, which didn't pan out but was a whole lot of fun. Mirror Pool didn't look like a good place to camp. There was a dirt parking lot, and on the edge of it a sign forbidding target shooting, which was barely readable because of all the bullet holes in it. The only other sign of life there was a beat up burgundy sedan, the trunk tied closed with string, the windows open, clothes across the back seat, and a phone with a cracked screen charging on the console. Something about it made my heart reach out to this poor and trusting person, and on an impulse I decided to leave them an envelope with $1000 in it that I'd been carrying to distribute to those in need. On the envelope I wrote: "You can probably use this better than me. Safe travels! You are loved." And that cleared away all my remaining disturbance about the guy in the white truck. Then I headed back to the canoe access, made camp, filtered water from the river, and cooked a big pot of sweet potato stew. Much later when darkness fell, fireflies drifted by, some yellow-green and some a rich amber.

I'd been planning to stay put for the rest of the week, but I changed my mind and decided to continue west. I found that at least for me, born and raised in the forest, the prairie was a fine place to travel through but less comfortable to stay in. I would see a fine shady tree in the distance that looked like a perfect place to stop, but when I got there it would be somehow unfulfilling. The view of the tree was more compelling than the view from the tree, and so the landscape held a kind of restless energy for me. So after a peaceful night, I packed up and headed west. In North Dakota, there are only a few places to cross the Missouri River, and I decided to aim for the one that was least out of my way, which was the bridge at Bismarck, right in the middle of the state. I passed through fields of canola in bright yellow bloom. A dry cold front sweeping in brought a lot of wind, with gusts near 35 miles per hour. But I'd learned my lesson in Minnesota, and packed all the heaviest items as low as I could, so Punkin was a lot more stable, and I'd picked up a few skills as well. I felt the air as a such a strong and palpable element, with variations in temperature, speed, and direction, and the draft of passing trucks sucking me back or pushing me along. Once I stopped to switch over to my reserve fuel supply, noticed a historical marker sign, and decided to see what it pointed to. It turned out to be Standing Rock Hill, a hilltop about a half mile off the paved road topped with a pointed stone protruding four feet out of the top of it. From up there you could see for miles around, and the place had understandably been a sacred place for the indigenous people of the area. Some offerings of stones and bones had been left at the base of the rock, and I sat there for a while feeling the quality of the place, waiting for spiritual inspiration, and singing a little.

Back on 46, I passed several touring bicyclists going east, and one woman on a recumbent tricycle with a sun shade and a little trailer. We exchanged waves and big smiles. I crossed the continental divide, which in that area was so gentle I would have missed it without the sign. Ripples of wind passed over the grass on lush fields that reminded me of parts of Ireland. I was finding North Dakota a very pleasant place to ride. The sparse population meant there were few cars on the road, and people didn't seem annoyed about passing me, maybe because they were so used to passing agricultural equipment. Heck, even I was passing agricultural equipment. And when they passed they always gave plenty of room, because after all there was lots to go around. On one long stretch between towns I nearly ran out of gas, and only made it by slowing way down to conserve fuel. Lesson learned: out here it was wise to refill more often instead of waiting until I got low to look for a gas station. Another thing I like about North Dakota is they have over 200 Wildlife Management Areas, and nearly all of them allow free camping any place except on the road or trail. It was at one of these WMAs that I stopped for the night, called MacLean Bottoms and just south of Bismarck on the Missouri River. I camped right on the bank under a big cottonwood tree.

On Wednesday morning it was still very windy. I rode to the health food store in town and got there just as it opened to buy some fresh vegetables and replenish my kefir supply. In this area I was starting to see a few pointy outcroppings and buttes, one right next to someone's house but three times larger. But after I got out of the Missouri basin these petered out and it was back to hill country. Then the road turned to dirt, lined with field bindweed flowering pink and white, and surrounded by conical mounds of rock. I saw my first tumbleweed bouncing across the road. I stopped at a diner in Dickinson for lunch, and as soon as I sat down the man behind the counter served me a taste of cream-of-cabbage soup, which was delicious. He asked where I was coming from and I told him North Carolina. He wanted to know what the winters were like there. "Not as cold as here..." I said, and he interjected, "hell, nowhere is!" "...but a lot wetter," I finished. "I wintered down in Texas a few times," he said, "and with that humidity, shoot, thirty above was actually cold! Here you don't need a jacket at thirty above if the wind's not blowing, even ten above if the sun's shining." I enjoyed how he qualified his temperatures with "above" which we don't do where I'm from because there's no ambiguity about which side of zero we mean.

Over the past few days I'd noticed my engine was misfiring more and more, and at some point I stopped to take a look and found that the spark plug was thoroughly blackened and the electrode worn to almost nothing. But replacing it with a new one didn't completely fix the problem, so I'd need to do some more diagnosis once I stopped. The road turned to dirt again, snaking into proper badlands, and I scared up a herd of cows, sending them all running. Then I entered the little old cattle town of Medora and a few miles north of there reached my destination at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I payed the $25 entrance fee and rode the last six miles along the scenic drive to the campground, climbing up and down through steep bluffs overlooking stretches of prairie with grazing bison. Yes, I could have stayed for free in the Little Missouri National Grassland which surrounds the park, but first, I felt ready for some human company, and second, the campground was called The Cottonwood Campground, and having recently fallen in love with cottonwood trees, I just couldn't resist.

Things I Learned

  • Gas stations in North Dakota are more like miniature truck stops, in that they provide all kinds of things you might need, not just snacks and drinks. I guess there just aren't many other kinds of stores around out there. The stations also seem like time capsules, often with ancient gas pumps labeled "unleaded", as if leaded gasoline hadn't been phased out 25 years ago.
  • Standing Rock Hill was formed by a thrust moraine, where liquid groundwater was so pressurized by the glacier that it burst up through the top layer of rock and pushed a chunk of it into a more vertical position. From the top of the hill you could look out and see the pond that formed in the hole that the water punched out.

Wonderful Things

  • An old man and a boy digging for fossils in a cliff face by the side of the road.
  • The cottonwood tree! I'd read about them in books, but it was more wonderful than I imagined to be in the presence of one. First, they look very majestic rising above the grass, often with several limbs damaged by lighting but none the worse for it. Then, there's the sound of the leaves: in a gentle breeze it's like the very beginning of a rainstorm, in a moderate wind it's like a babbling brook, and in a strong wind it's like the ocean. And last but not least, when the fluffy seeds drift slowly down and glow in the evening light, they create a magical sense of space. What a tree.

Week 41a - Across Minnesota

NOTE: This week is broken into multiple parts on account of having too much material for one post.

After breakfast and a shower, I said goodbye to DS and got on the road, headed west toward Minnesota. The air was filled with the sounds and smells of summer: buzzing insects, grass and aromatic field herbs effervescing in the sunshine, and spring's pollen fermenting in lakes and ponds. I'd elected to take the scenic route to squeeze the last bit of juice I could out of Wisconsin, and I was soon on gravel roads that coated my brand new chain in dust. I passed by some cranberry bogs (not especially attractive until fall, I've been told), and through the natural marshes of the Necedah Wildlife Refuge. I took my time on shady gravel roads meandering through farmland, and stopped for brunch in Sparta at a cute little restaurant called Ginny's Cupboard. After a delicious meal, I noticed that there was a farmer's market across the street, and wound up buying some white beets and some unfamiliar varieties of radishes. I tried to find out more about them, but the farmer's wife working the booth was an older East Asian woman who spoke very little English, so I had to be content to learn by tasting. As I got back on Punkin and rode out of town, every person I saw seemed especially beautiful, and every animal and plant and facet of the landscape. I started singing Give Yourself to Love, and choking up. A feeling came over me that I can only describe as falling in love with the whole damn world. Just glad to be alive in this perfect little corner of the universe.

As I approached La Crosse, there began to be more and more hills, quite a bit pointier than the ones I'm used to. When glaciers came from the north in the last ice age, grinding everything flat, they stopped just north of this region, which is called the Driftless Area because it lacks the deposits of glacier-carried rock that are called drift. So the land was shaped by water instead of ice, and has a carved-out appearance. I crossed over the Mississippi River, looking down at beaches full of people splashing around to escape the heat, and stopped for gas just on the other side in Minnesota. There was a group of motorcyclists taking a break there, and one of them, a New Zealander, cheerfully mansplained to me that "that's an Australian bike you're riding, mate!", confusing Punkin with the Honda CT110, known down under as a "postie bike" because of its use by the postal service, kind of like we have those iconic trucks used by the USPS. I just nodded and smiled, and well, Punkin does have the seat from a CT110 so it's not entirely wrong. Leaving just as the Kiwi and an Irishman started chaffing each other, I took a road called the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive, which climbed in gentle switchbacks through lush apple orchards, up onto a ridgeline with a fantastic view out over the river. As the view opened up I noticed a lot of people parked on the right side of the road and looking east. Oh how nice, I thought to myself, people stopping to sit in lawn chairs and just look at the river, in this day and age. When I pulled up next to an older couple on a Harley Softail to find out what was going on, it turned out there was an airshow going on at the airport over on the Wisconsin side, and these were the people who were unwilling to pay $55 per car to see it close up. "I've been hearing the Blue Angels practicing all week," the woman told me.

There was no schedule posted and they didn't know when the next act would be. With binoculars I could see the six planes of the Blue Angels lined up on the Tarmac, but they didn't appear to be ready for takeoff yet. So I passed the time chatting with the couple, hydrating myself, and tightening bolts on Punkin, while dragonflies put on a small but impressive airshow of their own over the grass by the roadside, already bent over heavy with seed. After fifteen minutes or so, a roar echoing from the distant hills announced the start of the next performance. At first the plane was hard to spot because the engine noise lagged so far behind it. For a moment the roar seemed to be coming from a nearby bald eagle soaring up on a thermal, and then I caught a sparkle of sunlight glinting off the fuselage of the F-35A Lightning II (uh yeah, I looked it up later). I locked on with my binoculars, and watched the pilot pulling back into a breathtaking vertical climb, looping back and barrel-rolling into an upside down pass over the airport. Then she flew out over the hills until we couldn't hear the engine and returned for pass after pass of aerial ballet. For the finale she angled the plane up so that the thrust of the jets was directly creating lift and drifted along so slowly it seemed almost impossible, like the plane was hanging in midair. I wondered aloud whether this was a more difficult maneuver than most people would assume, just like riding a motorcycle very slowly requires special skill, and got a chuckle from the Harley guy. Well satisfied with my stop, I waved goodbye and got back on the road. Holy smokes, a bald eagle and a fighter jet flying over the Mississippi River? It doesn't get much more American than that, folks.

The road wandered away from the river for a while and when I passed a restaurant with a sign that appeared to say "Burgers - Beans - BBQ", I made a U-turn. Any place that advertised their beans had to be my kind of joint. On closer inspection, the word on the sign was "Bevies", but they did in fact have beans on the menu so it was all right. Down the bar from me was sitting a guy who resembled a lanky Lutheran minister dressed in camo, which to me, as a first time visitor, seemed extremely Minnesotan. After that second and final lunch stop, my route went back to the river and tracked along it for tens of miles. Despite the varied scenery, I started to get sleepy in the late afternoon, and pulled over at a trailhead to nap in the shade. Then I got back on the road, admired the blue water glinting through the trees and the marinas forested with sailboat masts, skirted around historic Red Wing because I was too overstimulated to enjoy it, and headed west to find a campsite in the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest. The spot I'd picked out on the map turned out to be at the end of a rutted dirt road with some houses on either side and "Private Property" signs plastered everywhere... not a good sign. And the turnaround at the end of the road was damp, buggy, and ill-favored, so I decided to keep looking. The second site I found was between the road and a large creek, next to an ATV bridge. It was at the edge of a small unpaved parking lot... but good enough for one night. Lots of motorcycles were passing north on their way back to the city, and one rider saw me and pulled over to talk. He turned out to be a short-haul truck driver with a Slavic accent named B, who was out scrubbing in a new tire on his Suzuki V-Strom. He asked right away if I was inspired by Ed March and Rachel Lasham, which indeed I was (congrats B for being the first person I've met who'd heard of those crazy Brits). We were certainly on a similar wavelength when it came to motorcycling, but he had to make use of the remaining daylight and I needed to get to bed, so our conversation was short.

I awoke to drops of dew on the tips of the tall grass and sunlight on the treetops across the road. A trout fisherman pulled up and struggled into his waders. I'd camped minimally with just my mosquito net, so I was able to quickly pack up and head for the nearest diner, which was in the cute little historic town of Cannon Falls. While I was waiting for it to open, a pair of bikers pulled up on KTM 750s, and we had a nice conversation about the merits of gravel roads and taking the slow way. The diner filled up within minutes of opening, which made sense because the food was pretty good. From there I headed to Northfield to stock up at Just Food Co-op, my last chance to buy organic produce and all things crunchy until I got to Bismarck in the middle of North Dakota, and I'm really glad I stopped there because it turned out to be one of the best natural food stores I've ever shopped at. On my way out I met a guy named L, who was there buying water, and we got into a conversation. He felt like the river was poisoned and the world was falling apart, and I tried to convey a little bit of what I've been gleaning from Walt Whitman and Peace Pilgrim. I'm pretty sure he got what I was trying to say because, along with some pictures and video he'd taken of me, he sent me this Whitman quote:

I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn'd to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death,
And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact,
And that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.

Good stuff. From there the land gradually began to flatten out. I found the road names funny, riding along a gravel track through farmland with a name like 137th Avenue, as if planned in advance to be part of some vast megalopolis. But I'm sure it would have been hard coming up with meaningful names for all the roads in such a vast expanse with very few remaining natural features. I saw my first windmills among the grain silos, quite majestic and pleasant to look at. Before long I was riding into a strong headwind from the west, sometimes so powerful that I was only crawling along at 35mph with the throttle all the way open. But it was even worse going north and taking it from the side, and it didn't help to have all those groceries loaded high up and turning Punkin into an inverted pendulum. There were a few gusts that leaned me over far enough to get my heart racing, but I managed to keep control without too much trouble. Mainly what wore on me was the mental struggle of staying constantly prepared for an unpredictable push from the side. Again I got sleepy in the afternoon, and stopped next to the cemetery in Bunde to nap under the shade of the tall oaks in the churchyard. The trees rustled pleasantly in the dry wind, and a buzzard circled in a thermal with three swallows diving around it. Eventually biting flies found me, such powerful fliers to brave that wind, and I had to move on. I stopped for gas at an old-fashioned station called Sunshine and Whiskey (named after a country song, the cashier told me), with an attached liquor store called Salty Heifer Off Sale (named after a drinking incident, the cashier told me).

Soon one side of the road started to be natural prairie while the other was boring old cornfields, and I tried to puzzle out all the ways they made the same landscape look so dramatically different. Then there was prairie on both sides, interspersed with woodlands, as I reached the day's destination at Lac Qui Parle State Park. The park's name, which means "lake that speaks" in French, is because of the vast numbers of waterfowl that land there during migration, but I guess I must have missed that because the place seemed pretty quiet. I reserved a spot in the upper campground, which was on a small section of prairie, and pitched my mosquito net under the one tiny tree. I made pickles out of most of my fresh vegetables, and ate a lazy dinner of quick oats soaked in kefir. An inquisitive little 13-lined ground squirrel visited my campsite and came within a few feet of me, striking cute poses, and I admired the beautiful markings on its coat, which alternated between solid and dotted lines. I watched a magical sunset over the lake, flaring out through a line of pines on the horizon. I woke up briefly during the night to the howling of wolves. Life's good.

Things I Learned

  • There's a prairie plant with the kind of spiky seeds that break off and stick into your skin. Luckily they aren't like the kind with barbs so they brush off pretty easily and are only a minor annoyance.
  • There's a kind of tiny black fly that moves very fast and so is very hard to kill. It's a major error to let one of them get inside the mosquito netting. Are these the dreaded blackflies I've heard horror stories about? Thank goodness I haven't encountered swarms of them yet.
  • Northern states all seem to have signs duplicating the road markings. For example, the beginning and end of passing zones are indicated with signs, as are the turn lanes at intersections. At first I thought the traffic engineers had a low opinion of the populace's intelligence, but then I realized it's because you can't see the paint on the road when it's covered with snow!

Wonderful Things

  • The smell of a cereal factory, even if I wouldn't eat the kind of cereal they make.
  • A slender deer silhouetted atop the ridgeline of a cornfield.
  • Riding alongside a great blue heron as it flies up the river.
  • Rainbows gliding along the length of a massive irrigation sprinkler as I ride by.

Week 40 - Wisconsin Rapids

Well I'm not usually into touristy things, but DS and I decided to go down and see the Wisconsin Dells on Saturday. But first we stopped by the very nice farmer's market in Stevens Point to pick up fresh produce and duck eggs. DS knew most of the vendors because he used to sell there, so I got to hear all the inside dirt. Then after a few errands, we started on the hour and a half drive west to the dells. When we got there, it reminded me a lot of a beach town, with a huge main drag lined with everything from the largest water park in America to an upside-down White House, and of course the usual stores selling sunglasses, bathing suits, and souvenirs. The weather was hot and sunny, and the place was jam packed with recently-cooped-up midwesterners exploding into the great outdoors. Of course the traffic was terrible, but eventually we got to our destination and bought tickets for a two hour boat tour of the upper dells. A shuttle bus took us to the boat launch, and we boarded the top deck of the General Bailey.

The dells are a fascinating land formation where the Wisconsin River winds through towering sandstone bluffs and canyons forested with evergreens. Sometimes the rock stands in turrets or overhanging cliffs, pockmarked with the nests of swallows. Although the scenery was lovely, the boat ride was somewhat marred by the patter of the tour guide, delivered in the golly-gee nasal style of the region. And what with Wisconsin being such a big dairy state, of course the jokes were cheesy. For example: "We're coming up to the Devil's Elbow where the river bends at a right angle, and you might feel it getting a little warmer... because it's always ninety degrees." I'm so sorry. But I did manage to ease into the spirit of it eventually, once I saw it as a bit of local color (or some might say lack thereof). The tour made two stops, the first at Witch's Gulch, where a boardwalk wound inland through a deep and narrow canyon filled with the sound of rushing water and cool green shade... to a concession stand where you could buy hot dogs and nachos. But the swirling rock formations were really stunning, and DS and I lingered to enjoy them on the way back to the boat. Those moments of quiet contemplation were the real highlight of the trip. The second stop was at Stand Rock, where the inventor of stop action photography had taken a prizewinning picture of his son jumping across a gap. We gathered to see a German Shepherd making the same jump as part of the tour package, and then followed a shady trail to... yes, another concession stand! And also a gift shop. But the dells were a unique place to see, and DS hadn't taken that boat tour since he was a teenager in the late 60s (of which he didn't remember much because he'd been mostly paying attention to his girlfriend), so I was glad we went.

On Sunday morning I filled in a missing piece of my education as a 20th century American man and did some mowing with a gas powered lawn mower. It was actually quite a good workout due to the heat, the thick weeds, and the irregular terrain. The mower kept clogging up without me noticing until DS would point out that grass was no longer coming out the side. I had to learn similar lessons back when I mowed with a scythe, where you have to move slower when the grass gets thicker, and the cutting keeps getting ever so slightly harder as the blade dulls. You've just got to pay attention and stop to sharpen it. Seems like there might be a life lesson in there somewhere. In the afternoon DS's three daughters and their families came over for a pool party, and there was a brief interval of splashing chaos as the grandchildren hit the pool, with squirt gun fights getting serious and a surprise vomiting incident. I hung out on the porch, chatted with the adults, and enjoyed this little slice of the wholesome family life. Then the kids got tired, everyone went home, and DS and I returned to a quiet bachelor existence. I spent the late afternoon reading on the lawn, once looking up to find a rabbit feeding nearby.

I'd been chasing a seemingly eternal spring since back in late February, and now it was finally turning into summer. The warm weather kept up all week, and there was an atmosphere of vacation, with no need for shoes or pockets, no need to go anywhere. A few fireflies arrived, and also a few mosquitoes. Afternoons were hot in the shade and scorching in the sun; who knew Wisconsin could be so goshdarn hot! Apparently it usually isn't this time of year. Once I swam some laps around the pool to cool off, which was lovely. I continued to eat incredibly well, with an appetite like a teenager (although more particular about how I satisfied it), and started to feel healthier than I can ever remember feeling. DS gave me two chiropractic adjustments, which were interesting and helpful. He's a thoughtful and empirical practitioner, not one of the "rack 'em, crack 'em" school of chiropractors, and we've got very similar views on the foundations of health. It was fun to have someone to geek out with about stuff like trigger points, physiology, and ergonomics. What with the sauna outdoors, the healthy diet, and the bodywork, my week felt something like being at a spa.

Relaxing as it was, I still had a lot of miles to cover before my next major stop in Montana, and travel hung in the air. DS and I spent some time going over maps, fine-tuning the first part of my route through Minnesota to get the best possible scenery. His friend DM stopped in for a night on his way from New Mexico to Pennsylvania and told some great stories about his own adventures on the road. I replaced Punkin's chain and sprockets and did an oil change. On Friday, my last day in Wisconsin Rapids, we took a walk around the sandy pine woods out back and looked at animal tracks and pioneer plants, then DS cooked me a farewell dinner of steak, cauliflower, and broccoli, with a little celebratory red wine. I was definitely going to miss this place and my new friend.

Things I Learned

  • I'd noticed that the whippoorwill in the yard was sometimes surprisingly loud, and I figured out that it's because he's singing from a concave corner of the house, using the walls to project his voice.
  • The Bob and Brad Massage Gun is ridiculously powerful and effective for deep-tissue massage.
  • The sand hills around Wisconsin Rapids were once at the bottom of a large glacial lake, and when all that water was suddenly released, it carved out the Dells of the Wisconsin in about two weeks! Geological time isn't always slow.

Wonderful Things

  • Coming in from the gentle morning heat to air conditioning and the smell of coffee brewing. It reminded me of being at the beach.
  • Practicing typing on my Twiddler, feeling frustration tensing the middle of my back, and looking up to see baby birds leaving the nest for the first time and hopping along on the grass, trying their best to fly. Learning new things is hard! But also rewarding.
  • Watching a rufous-sided tohee sitting on her nest in the crab apple tree just above the back porch, and a ruby-throated hummingbird landing on a branch.

Week 39 - Nicolet NF, Wisconsin Rapids

Despite having done most of my packing the night before and being out of bed very early, I got into an enjoyable conversation with my hosts and didn't say goodbye and hit the road until after 9. The plan was to travel as far west as I could on Sunday, then take Monday to reach the middle of Wisconsin. I rode down to Kinross, and past the prisons and the Chippewa County International Airport (presumably with flights to Canada in better times), and worked my way southwest on farm roads. OsmAnd took me down yet another dead end called Dam Road, which was annoying, but it was a pretty place and I filed it away as a good area to camp in on future trips. Eventually I hit Route 2, which runs along the coast of Lake Michigan, and headed west alongside white sand beaches and blue water. The traffic was fast enough that I had to ride full throttle for long periods, and the wind was cold at that speed, but it also meant I was logging a lot of miles. I stopped for lunch and warmth at a friendly little diner in Naubinway, and then got back on the road. Once when I stopped for gas, there was another guy filling up a fully loaded Honda VFR1200F. We got to talking and he asked where I was headed. "Around the country," I said, to which he responded "Well, duh!" A refreshing change of pace from the usual "On that?!" Turns out he was nearly home from a 3000+ mile tour down to Colorado. He told me how leaning into the winds of South Dakota had made his tires wear unevenly, and his cellphone had been blown off into the ditch. While we were talking, another guy rode up on a fully loaded Honda. It was like a little convention! I got back on the road and blew past my original target of Cedar River, set the clock back as I crossed into Central Time, and ate dinner right across the Wisconsin border in Marinette.

From there I knew I could make it to Nicolet National Forest before dark. On the way I stopped for gas, checked my chain tension, and found that the chain adjustment nut on the right side had fallen off. This wasn't a case of not tightening things, because there's no way to make that nut any looser or tighter, it simply holds the chain in a certain position, and I guess the lock washer wasn't doing its job. Luckily I still had some spare M6 nuts on hand from the exhaust repair back in South Carolina; I put two on each side and jammed them together. Less convenient but more secure (at this point jam nuts and cotter pins are about the only locking systems I really trust). Well the chain had been running out of line for who knows how many miles; it wasn't in great shape and was making noise, but it was moving me along so I figured I'd take care of it later. I searched the map for places to camp and found a stub road that went off 64 toward the Oconto River. When I got there it looked like a river access that'd been blocked by fallen trees and abandoned, but it was flat and the remaining part was just long enough to hide me from the road. After I made camp I scouted around a little and found a rotting Forest Service signpost that had been knocked flat, with a yellow placard reading "No Camping Here", which I pretended not to have seen. Not that being hassled was very likely in a place so forgotten as to not even have any trash scattered around. I texted with a friend who was just coming out of a long period of struggle, and went to sleep happy, waking in the night to see a blurry moon behind the clouds and a single star.

I was up at dawn and headed south to Suring to get some breakfast at a small diner. They had a parking area for ATVs and Snowmobiles, which I thought was cool. Inside, the bar was filled with old men, and there was a large table with a group of middle-aged people chatting. I ordered potato pancakes and green tea (which I hadn't expected to find on the menu), and listened in. There was a lot more swearing than I'd expected to hear in the Midwest, so I guess my stereotypes are a bit out of date if they were ever right. One of the old guys wandered over from the bar and someone asked him, "How's that guy doing that was caught in that paper roller?" "Oh, they saved his arm so far, but he's had six or seven surgeries." Then the discussion moved back to small talk about the doings of the police force and the local parks reopening for the spring. While I was eating, I got a text from my friend DS, who I was heading down to stay with in Wisconsin Rapids. He told me about a park that I might like to see called Dells of the Eau Claire, so I recalculated my route to go there. It added about 30 miles to the trip, but recommendations from locals aren't to be discarded lightly so I decided to go.

And what a great decision that turned out to be! The new route took me northwest, at first through cornfields and dairy farms. The word that kept coming to mind was "wholesome", it was like I was riding into the graphics on a fancy carton of organic milk. The low morning light lit up tender sprouts of corn, planted in sinuous lines across the dark brown earth. The hedgerows converged on red barns and silos perched atop rolling grassy fields. Then I crossed into the Menominee Reservation, through some of the prettiest woods I'd ever seen, maple leaves fluttering fresh and green above, and the forest floor decorated with mossy rocks surrounded by ferns. Again, my navigation system led me to a dead end, although this time it couldn't have known because the road went through a swamp that had flooded it. I had to backtrack three miles, but again I didn't mind because it was such a pretty place. And the alternate route along an old logging track was even prettier. It didn't seem like many people passed this way; I rode over a fallen log and then stopped to clear it away for future drivers. When I got back to pavement, it was a section of 55 that twisted along beside the Wolf River with teasing glimpses of rushing water. Then it was back to miles of one-lane gravel roads through the forest, and I saw no vehicles except where people had parked their trucks to go fishing. Just after turning onto Pig Pen Road, I got caught in a deep rut and dropped Punkin, got back up, then did some water crossings and rode over the top of a fallen tree. This was real adventure riding! At several points along the trip, I thought to myself that even if the Dells sucked, it would have been worth it just for that ride. Perfect weather, lovely landscapes, no rush to be anywhere, and no worries in my mind... this right here was exactly why I was riding a slow little motorcycle.

And as a bonus, the Dells did not suck! It was a nice little park where the Eau Claire river winds through cuboid outcroppings of metamorphic rock, and has carved out potholes and a variety of other formations. I walked along the trail by the water, which went steeply up and down, sometimes showing a view up at the bluffs and sometimes down from on top of them. I ate my lunch high on a rock, watching the people and the river go by, and then got back on the road. I passed through Junction City of Hedwig fame and saw a couple in Western dress going down the street on horseback. After some more farm roads and county highways, I entered Wisconsin Rapids, passed the paper mill that had recently shut down (it made high-quality glossy paper for magazines, which is a declining market), and went through the downtown, then through the suburbs and back to county roads, and arrived at DS's place just after 3.

DS is a retired chiropractor and organic gardener who lives on 20 acres outside Wisconsin Rapids. I met him down in North Myrtle Beach, where he was spending the winter establishing a community garden and giving free chiropractic care to folks in the Meher Baba community. When I pulled up, he was sitting on his front porch and, having not seen Punkin back down south, he was surprised at how small it was. At least that cleared up the mystery of why it'd taken me all day to get there. We caught up for a little bit, then went over to meet his daughter ASA and son-in-law TA, who live about a mile away, and to look after some plants in the high tunnel on what remains of the farm that DS and TA used to run there. Then we stocked up on groceries, DS cooked me a delicious meal from his stockpile of homegrown produce, and we attended the weekly Zoom meeting that LS organizes from down in North Myrtle Beach. TM noted that I was "moving through the boxes" on the screen, and it's true, because the next major stop on my route plan will be in Montana with my friends SE and TB, who are also part of that group. While we were talking, thunder and hail swept through, beating against the skylights until we could barely hear the conversation. When I got up in the night, I was mystified by the white patches around my tent, but in the morning light they turned out to be little piles of pea-sized hailstones, still unmelted.

On Monday morning, we went to visit DS's old chiropractic office, which he designed and had built in the late 90s. Chiropractic care is quite the family business, DS's father was a chiropractor and so are two of his brothers and a niece. Also two of his daughters (ASA and MS) are chiropractors, and they took over his old practice when he retired. They'd just moved their office from the upper story of the building to the lower story, so the upper story could be rented out to a psychotherapy practice. Over the course of the week I learned a lot about the history and culture of chiropractic, and later got to watch ASA do an adjustment on DS, which was extremely quick and efficient despite her stopping to explain things to me. When we got back to the house, I worked from the backyard, which was lovely. A stray kitten, orange with a white belly, passed through the woods mewling with hunger, but he ran away when I tried to approach. I had been planning on heading to North Dakota the following weekend, but some work-related factors, and the consideration that I could use a restful weekend for once, made me decide to stay for two weeks instead. It didn't hurt that the weather was gorgeous, with highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s, and not at all humid (at least according to this southern boy). The mosquitoes hadn't even emerged yet, so I could spend most of my time outside on the shady grass. I did some cooking (and now that I've showed my hand at that I'll probably have to be the cook for the rest of my stay here :-). Not that it'll be much of a burden given the quality of ingredients on hand: ranks of home-canned tomatoes, pickles, and okra, freezers packed with homegrown produce, jars of seeds and nuts, and a good portion of a local grass-fed cow.

I got to see a cheese-making operation with long stainless steel vats the size of a school bus, stirred by massive blades travelling back and forth on tracks, while people in white coats dumped 5-gallon buckets of salt into the curd. We also visited the Rudolph Grotto Gardens, one of the most magnificent pieces of folk art I've ever seen. It's a sort of shrine built between 1927 and 1982 by a succession of Catholic priests and one lay helper, inspired by the one at Lourdes in France. Most of it is made from the local reddish igneous rock, dry-stacked, mortared, or laid into concrete domes and arches, with accents done in tile work and opaque chunks of multicolored furnace glass. There's a tiny chapel made from notched logs, which would give the "smallest church in America" a run for its money in the size department, and is certainly prettier inside (following my general impression that Catholic churches tend to have better architecture than their Protestant counterparts). But the main attraction, for which a $3 ticket is required, was the "Wonder Cave", a tunnel that winds for half a mile below grade and up through an artificial hill, lined with dioramas illuminated by multicolored lamps and biblical quotes meticulously punched out in sheets of metal and lit from behind. Artificial stalactites hung from above in places. Some sections of the ceiling were painted, each rock blue with a white pinstripe around it or red with a yellow pinstripe, perhaps illustrating an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell; it was a simple but surprisingly potent effect. When the tunnel emerged on top of the mound, the path wound down through exuberant plantings, past benches for quiet contemplation and a colorful mosaic sundial. The path and everything else was laid out in an organic way, without any simple geometry that I could discern, and for me this really added to the charm of it. A lot of so-called "sacred geometry" leaves me cold (maybe it's too cerebral or generic), but this bore the strong imprint of the handful of individuals who designed and built it, and it warmed my heart to imagine the generations of aging men puttering over it for half a century. In other words it had a great deal of the Gothic nature in it. The scale of the 7.5 acre grounds alone is remarkable given how few people were responsible; over the years they collected thousands of tons of rock that farmers had pulled out of the ground to make room for the plow. Anyhow I would say it's very much worth the visit if you're in the area and like that sort of thing.

To sum up, Wisconsin is very beautiful, I'm eating well, sleeping well, and generally enjoying life a lot.

Things I Learned

  • Restaurant stops are a great time to clean my visor, because napkins and water are always provided and I can lay on the soaked napkin for a long time to loosen up all those dried bug carcasses. There are a heck of a lot of bugs on the road up north in the spring!
  • Post-pay gasoline is a thing up here, and it seems like every place I've stopped that doesn't have credit card readers lets you pump first and then pay, whereas I've literally never seen that on the east coast. I wonder if it's a sign of a more high-trust culture.
  • I read a review of a restaurant that went something like: "the furniture is a bit run down, but I don't mind because it keeps away the yuppies and the FIBs." Apparently that acronym is local to these parts and stands for F**king Illinois Bastards.
  • Where I'm staying is on the edge of Wisconsin's sand plains, which formed the bottom of a large glacial lake during the last ice age. So the soil is sandy and the landscape very reminiscent of a coastal plain, with many pine canopies and clean-looking, well-drained forest floors. There are a lot of potato fields in the area, but also some more surprising crops like cranberries and ginseng.

Wonderful Things

  • Digging into a really good philosophical conversation or a simple but satisfying meal.
  • Napping under a shade tree on a warm afternoon.
  • Watching a deer and a wild rabbit feeding together on the far side of the field.