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Across America: Old Bikes, Old Roads, Old Guys

David Glaser | Published on 3/21/2021

In 2018 we started a series in our newsletter giving a nod to the long haulers, who rode old bikes from coast-to-coast or any and everything in between. This is a story written in third person by AMCA member David Glaser, member #25357 picks up where that series left off.

There is in America a biker’s fantasy:  the open road, windswept vistas, a journey out of time and place across the country.  
This is about two old motorcycles—a 50year old 500cc. BMW R50, and a 36-year old single cylinder 248 cc Yamaha Exciter--and the two old guys, their owners and riders: David, in his mid-seventies, and George, pushing eighty, both long-retired college professors--who while they still could (or at least thought they could), while they were still young enough (in spirit at least) and functional enough (despite the hearing aids, glasses, hip operations, general erosions of age), were determined to ride their bikes across the country, from Seattle, where George lived, to David’s home in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Though they’d owned and traveled on motorcycles in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., they hadn’t before made a trip of such length together. In 1991, after the Berlin Wall came down, they’d planned to ride from Heidelberg, Germany, where they were working for the University of Maryland, to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. More recently, they’d envisioned an idyllic sweep through New England and around the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. Both times work, finances, the exigencies of life, etc., intervened. 
They planned their transcontinental trip carefully. Using paper and online maps they plotted an ambitious, almost 4,000 mile route.
They ruled out Interstates and four-lane highways. They would cross the country on primarily small, scenic, less-traveled back roads, rolling along at a leisurely 35-50 mph, averaging some 150-170 miles or so a day. They weren’t in a hurry. If they were, they both agreed, they’d be making the trip in a car, not on motorcycles. 

They were well equipped, their saddlebags heavy with cold-weather clothing, tools, bike manuals, books, maps. David also carried an extra coil, extra brake, clutch and throttle cables, spark plugs and points, George a quart of oil, chain lube, WD40, a tire pressure gauge, a Garmin portable GPS unit, a SPOT Messenger, and several bags of toasted almonds. Not wanting to further encumber their bikes with camping gear paraphernalia, they decided to overnight in motels.

Opinion among their friends was divided. Many (the “realists”) considered the venture foolish, foolhardy, just plain crazy--at their age, an ill-conceived attempt to relive, to recapture their youth. Bets were jokingly made about how far they’d get before they and/or their bikes gave out, and who would be the first to receive the “help” phone call.  The “romantics” were enthusiastic--and envious, wishing they could get away and make such a journey themselves.
The old guys did have their moments of uncertainty about whether they could make it across the country. But if deep down they hadn’t believed in themselves, they probably wouldn’t have attempted it. And if they didn’t make it to New York, no matter. The essence of a journey, as David put it, wasn’t getting to the destination, but the ride itself.
On May 25th the North Cascades highway was finally cleared of snow and opened to traffic. David shipped the BMW to Seattle, followed it two weeks later, and on the morning of June 15th, 2017 the sky overcast, air temperature in the mid-40s, the two old guys on their two old bikes set out.  

They rode through the North Cascades, the 8,000 foot passes, the small forest and farmland back roads to Inchelium and across the Columbia River on the Gifford- Inchelium ferry.
  It was another eighty back-road miles to Newport, then US 2 across the panhandle of Idaho and the forests of northern Montana to Kalispell and Glacier National Park. The Going-to-the-Sun Route was closed, sections of it still buried beneath some twenty feet of snow, so they stayed on US 2 around the southern boundary of the park, crossing the Continental Divide at the mile-high Marías Pass, then descending to East Glacier and Browning, where they headed south on US 89, the snow-covered sides and peaks of the eastern slopes of the Rockies shimmering in the afternoon sun-- their first sunshine and warmth since leaving Seattle.Their spirits rose.
Having made it some 800 miles and survived the crossing of the Cascades and the Rockies, they felt that they might get all the way to Plattsburgh after all. They cruised through the Little Belt Mountains, the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Big Belt and Castle Mountains, the towns of Choteau, Great Falls, White Sulphur Springs, Livingston, to Gardiner the northern, and original, gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
By then, a week on the road, they’d settled into a daily routine. An unhurried breakfast, a couple of hours on the road, breaks for coffee, gas, a stretch. After a light lunch and another few hours in the saddle they’d park and lock their bikes for the night at a motel (their only requirement was that it be within walking distance of eating establishments and of a bar, preferably one that served draught beer). After dinner a Cuban cigarillo sitting outside somewhere, on a rock, a bench, etc. discussing the day’s journey, the next day’s journey, life, politics, etc 

From Yellowstone they took US 14 and 14A across Northern Wyoming: Cody, Lovell, the Big Horn Mountains, the Devil’s Tower the corkscrew roads of the Black Hills; an obligatory stop in Sturgis, then on to the surrealistically grotesque Badlands, across the Missouri River at Pierre (still sandbagged from the May flooding), across the windswept but still green plains of South Dakota; zigzagging diagonally north and east through less exotic Minnesota to and through the mining country and national forests of  northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie, over the Soo Locks to Canada; a hectic, harassed run along the heavily trafficked National Highway 17 to Kingston, a short ferry ride to Wolff Island, an even shorter ferry ride from there to Cape St. Vincent in New York, then the final 163 miles along Rte. 3 through the gentle (by comparison to the Cascades, the Rockies, the Big Horns) Adirondacks to Plattsburgh. 

There were many memorable moments in those twenty-one days and 3,683 miles.  The high (and highest) point of the journey, and the severest challenge, for bikes and riders, was the US14A Medicine Wheel Passage route crossing of the still winter-bound Bighorn Mountains. In one ten-mile stretch they ascended 3,600 ft. up a steep 10% grade incline of multiple tight curves and switchbacks, the BMW struggling slowly upwards in 2nd gear, David worried, as he said afterwards in his characteristic dry humor, that if the bike were to falter and stall, the trip back down would be even more memorable than the ascent.  The bike didn’t falter. They made it to and over the 9,430 ft. summit and frozen but exhilarated, sailed through the bright white winter wonderland of frozen ponds and snow of the long pass. It was an affirmation for them, a dispelling of any doubts they might still have had about themselves and their bikes.  
And there were stressful moments of difficulty and potential disaster. Though they were dressed for the low mountain temperatures and wearing gloves, between Rainy Pass (4,875 ft.) and Washington Pass (5,477 ft.) in the North Cascades.  
The intense cold forced them to pull off the road to warm their numbed hands and fingers, which had become too stiff to safely manipulate their brake and clutch controls.  There were miles of post-winter road rebuilding and resurfacing projects. Long stretches over uneven loose gravel and wire-mesh surfaced roads. In Yellowstone’s Dunraven Pass (8,859 ft.), as they rounded a curve they narrowly avoided colliding with an enormous shaggy bison plodding towards them down the center of the shoulder-high snow-banked two-lane road. Fortunately for them he must have been a traffic-wise old veteran. Their sudden appearance and screeching brakes didn’t spook him. He just continued indifferently on his way, ignoring them as within arm’s length they walked their bikes gingerly past.  

Most stressful of all was David’s very close encounter with a large truck on route 17 in Ontario. The slow-traffic lane he was on ending at the crest of a steep hill, he merged onto the main road--into the path of a rapidly approaching truck, whose speed he’d misjudged. Fortunately the driver was alert and braked in time. 
But then, luck was with them the entire trip. After the two-hours of heavy rain that drenched them and slicked the roads the first day, they were never rained upon. Rain almost caught them in the Bighorns, but they made it through the pass and to the Bear Lodge restaurant in Burgess Junction minutes before the onset of an intense hour-long hail and thunderstorm. The one time a bike ran out of gas they were only five miles from a town.  They managed to get through Kingston rush-hour traffic to catch a ferry to Wolff Island, and then to streak across the island in time to catch the last ferry of the day to New York. 
They were lucky with their bikes. Other than the Yamaha’s easily repaired shorted headlight connector and malfunctioning electric start button, and the BMW’s reluctance from time to time to let itself be kick-started, not a single mechanical problem.  The old 30,000-mile veteran R50, though slow in the ascents, was rock-solid the whole way, held the road as if glued to it, and like a well-trained horse, responded effortlessly to David’s touch. The little Yamaha, fourteen years younger and 150 pounds lighter, was colt-frisky with energy. Like the old guys, both bikes had their crotchety moments, complaining at times about the steep ascents, the thin air of the 8,000 to 9,000 ft. mountain passes, the 85 octane gas they from time to time had to run on--the only fuel available at some of the small back-road stations. The old bikes did everything their old guys asked them to do. Carried them almost four thousand miles, and never missed a beat. 
A highlight of the trip was the people they met and interacted with along the road and in the villages and small towns--waiters and waitresses, barmaids and bartenders, shopkeepers, sales clerks, gas station attendants, motel staff, national park personnel--all helpful and friendly, genuinely friendly. 

There was, for example, the operator of the small Kiefer Oil gas station on Hwy 34 in the tiny (pop. 162) South Dakota community of Fedora, who didn’t hesitate to let them use his service bay and whatever additional tools they might need to change their oil, and who, as numbers of men they talked to during the trip, envied them, wished that he could take off and do what they were doing, wouldn’t accept payment from them for the use of the bay, simply wished them good luck and happy traveling. The motorcycle technician at Newport Power Sports in Newport, WA, who stayed on after closing time to improvise a replacement for the Yamaha’s damaged electric start button and headlight so that the bike would be road-ready in the morning. The university student on summer break, serving customers at her family’s small, homey Bootleggers Bar and Grill on Highway 53 in Wascott, WI that they’d happened upon after a long stretch somewhat lost in the woods, who treated them to Cokes and talked excitedly and admiringly to them about their trip, and then about the Harley she’d just bought and was planning to ride, solo, to the August roundup in Sturgis.  The owner of the Wyoming motel who concluded that the only reason they had such old bikes was that they didn’t have the money to buy newer ones, and the young man at the same motel who had a K model BMW and who, like them, was en-route from Seattle to New York, but unlike them was intending to make the trip in seven Interstate days, head down and bent over the bars the whole way. The mother-of-seven waitress in a Libby, Montana restaurant, in her mid-40s and still beautiful, who though she smiled skeptically about their questionable request for a pizza made with sliced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, convinced the chef to make it, and then she and the other disbelievers at the bar deigned to taste it and voila, a new special taste sensation--the “Seattle Pizza”--was added to the menu.  
And there were, of course, the bikers. Dozens and dozens of them, mostly older Harley riders traveling in pairs or in groups.  Though aware of the reputation and beauty of the old BMW R-series (1955-1969), many had never been in the presence of the actual machine. At gas stations and rest stops they gathered around David’s antique and unrestored R50, examining it, discussing among themselves and with David the classical beauty of its lines, the quality of its construction, it’s structural simplicity, its kick start, magneto system, shaft drive, earl’s forks, etc. They didn’t quite know what to make of the two old guys, dauntless enough (and foolhardy enough, some said) to attempt such a long and strenuous journey on such old (and to them, underpowered) and windscreen-less machines. They admired them for trying, and wished them well.  And made of them a continuing topic of conversation, as David and George found out at a rest stop gas station (the gas station) in Interior, South Dakota, where while refueling they were approached by a pair of old grizzled and tattooed bikers, riding grizzled old Harleys, who said they must be the old guys they’d been hearing about at the campgrounds where they’d been camping.  Said they were celebrities, that their reputation had preceded them.  Another biker who was fueling up, hearing this, asked David and George if he could take their picture. He should also have taken the picture of the grizzled and tattooed old guys, who’d been on the road for two months, camping out every night, round-tripping to and from Detroit through the South and the West. 

Another highlight was the land itself. Mile after mile of lonely, unbroken and unspoiled beauty: the mute primitive silence and ruggedness of the Cascades and the Rockies; the exquisite oasis of Neihart (pop. 91) in the Lewis and Clark National Forest; South of Livingston on East River Road (Montana Hwy 540) the idyllic gently winding and rolling thirty-two mile stretch of Paradise Valley, whose well-kept small farms and ranches reminded them of Swiss valleys they’d driven through when working in Europe  the dizzying views from the Bighorns of the river basin and plains thousands of feet below; the glistening white winter wonderland of frozen ponds and snow in the long frigid stretches of the Bighorn pass; the South Dakota ghost town of Scenic (pop. 9) --which was recently put up for sale for  $799,000) 

The desolation and surreal sandstone configurations of the Badlands; the pervasive sweet odor of clover in bloom all through the windswept plains of South Dakota; the forests of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Adirondacks. 
It was an exceptional experience. The sheer pleasure of riding the old classic bikes unhurriedly through the sparsely populated countryside along meandering, uncrowded, less-traveled roads. The sensory experience of leaning with the bike into and out of the curves. The intense concentration required, the total systemic involvement and coordination--hands, feet, eyes, ears, arms, sense of balance, etc., all working together. The openness to the environment and the freedom of physical movement you don’t have being cocooned in a car. Twenty-one exhilarating, invigorating. intensely focused days on the road, constantly alert to their surroundings, to traffic, constantly aware of their two-wheeled vulnerability--to the potholes, the condition of the road surface, the stones and detritus kicked up by cars and trucks, the sudden whip-sharp gusts of wind, to, to unpredictable drivers and those lacking respect for or having an antipathy towards motorcyclists. 
Three thousand six hundred and eighty-three miles of sheer adventure.
They arrived in Plattsburgh feeling (and looking, some said) younger, sharper, more cooled-out and mellow than they had in years.

Postscript: The morning after arriving home, David was unable to start the R50. During the trip, he’d speculated that the new ignition coil he’d installed before embarking was responsible for the problem he was having starting the bike. He replaced it with the old coil. The bike still would not start. 
So he took the R50 a hundred miles south to ”Heid’s Hodaka and BMW” in Johnsburg, NY …a shop run by old-guy mechanics who dug old bikes, especially classic old BMWs, and who’d worked on his R50 and made the trip possible. The problem wasn’t electrical, it wasn’t the coil, they told David. The problem was the bike had no compression. Not even enough to kick-start the engine! 
The bike could have given out anywhere in the 3,683 mile trek. But it held on until it brought David home. As though it weren’t an inanimate machine, as though the two had bonded--as had happened in the old days in the old West between man and horse. 
Something to think about. 
Anyway, the R50’s engine will get new rings, etc., David a new shoulder, George and his little Yamaha a thorough tune-up and going over, and come spring, the two old but younger guys have already decided, if they’re still functional, all faculties intact, they’ll put their heads together and plan what to do for an encore.   

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