Crossing America on Route 66 must be right up there on any explorers bucket list. I know it is on mine. So when the opportunity arose for myself and Debs to go to a wedding in LA in late October (that of the venerable St.Davids-LA refugee Mike Galloway) we jumped at the chance to make the trip a little bit longer. A month longer. Route 66 longer.
Arrive in Boston, grab a motorcycle, ride across America via route 66 taking in as many National Parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty as possible, while catching up with as many old friends in the states as we can weave into the route.
Originally I wanted to buy a bike in my own name and ride it across. Simply surely? Those guys on Top Gear managed it. Err, well. Turns out not so. To get insurance you have to have the bike registered in your own name. Not so easy. After a couple of months of phone calls and e-mails to the American Department of Motor Vehicles (the DMV) I finally got my answer. Dealing with the good folk of the DMV is like dealing with a Japanese business man – very formal, very polite, but totally incapable of using the word ‘NO’. Yes, it can be done, sure, just get in touch with this person, that department.
A week before we are due to arrive, Barbera, Chesterfield Town Clerk, tells me straight – sorry Zeman it can’t be done. Doh. Barbara is the local can do lady for paperwork in the small district of Chesterfield where my good friend Adam Lempel lives. Adam of the Rock and Roll Wrestler Tours, Cambodia, fame.
ROCK AND ROLL WRESTLERS
Years before Adam and a group of 6 foot tall, tattooed bikers came out on tour with us, causing quite a reaction among the locals. A hotel receptionist and his side-kick in Kampot were watching World Wrestling Federation on TV late one evening when we rolled into town, dusty and disheveled, from a 12 hour dirt bike beating.Taking their eyes briefly off the TV to point at Adam and shout “Rock and Roll Wrestler!” The nick name stuck.
Barbara tells I can get my buddy to buy the bike, as a US citizen, and insure it for anyone to ride. But it can’t be in my name. Not if I want to leave the state with it. Then the hassles of selling a bike in someone elses name on the other side of the country. And, God Forbid, it might turn out to be a complete Lemon and keep breaking down…
Renting it is then. More costly, but with many advantages. Late model reliability, fully legal, and I can rent a model I’d really like to ride across America for the price of a second-hand bike I’d quite like to ride. Eagle Rider were duly contacted and a BMW R1200GS sourced. In Chicago. 800 miles from start point in Boston. Jeez, America’s big ain’t it.
Turns out America ain’t so big after all – I’m a bit out of sequence here (we’ve passed the halfway point of Route 66) as we’re now in New Mexico, but two days ago heading into Tucumcari on the i40, in some wild storms we passed a group of bikers – one of whom was Captain America. Tricked out chop a la Easy Rider. Well turns out this Easy Rider was Stephen King (here on Facebook)and a bunch of veteran Cambodia Dirt Bike Riders, who’ve been on tour with us! And yesterday we arrived in Los Vegas, New Mexico and dropped in a place for the lunch, where Danny, Stephen and Mick had eaten the day before. Shame we couldn’t have caught up for a beer but they’re heading East and us West…
ANYWAY – WHERE WERE WE? BACK IN BOSTON I THINK….
After grabbing the rental in Boston and shooting down to the Lempel House in New Hampshire, we kicked back for a couple of days, and took in the famous spectacle of the colour of the leaves changing in the a New England Fall. Adam lent us his Harley Davidson Road King and we went for a potter about and take in the sights. Including the 150 year old enclosed wooden bridge, we ‘selfied’ in front of above.
NEW HAMPSHIRE TO CHICAGO
After a very pleasant few days with the Lempels, adjusting to life in the states, amongst the changing colours of a leafy New England, we jumped in the rental car and turned in the direction of Chicago.
Posting a picture on Facebook of myself and Debs on Adams Harley had an unexpected result (other than the curious internet telling off I had for not wearing a helmet, which of course I was only doing for the camera, ahem) that of contact from long lost Irish Uncle and family I had never met.
POWER OF FACEBOOK
I, like over half the planet, have a Facebook account. 3 in fact. One for me and 2 for the tours. A fact that I occasionally feel slightly embarrassed about, like a naughty teenager with a dirty secret, although if I was I wouldn’t be on FB, I’d be on the latest and greatest social media that an old fart like me has no doubt never even heard of, but regularly check, if not post on. An unavoidable part of modern living.
Uncle Billy, upon seeing the Harley post says “if you’re in New England, you must come look us up in Detroit.” Quick scan of the map. Wow that’s only 50 miles off our course from NH to Chicago, via Niagara. Bonus. As a result the long lost Mccreadie tribe hold a jamboree in Uncle Billy’s house, I meet an Aunt for the first time and 2 teenage cousins. And Debs gets to meet more of the family. Way to go Facebook. (A trick repeated again at the halfway point of our trip with the other bikers – see above).
TRAVEL TIP #1
If going to Niagara to ride the Maid of The Mist, and have a full set of motorcycle waterproofs in the car – get em out. Otherwise you end up looking like this –
Nice. And believe me this blue plastic dustbin bag does nothing to keep the water out when it comes down like this –
Much to the surprise of not just myself and Debs but the huge group of immaculately presented Chinese Tourists who accompanied us. I haven’t been this wet on a boat for years – even as a boat skipper. Nor have I enjoyed an out and out tourist attraction so much in years.
So, 3 days and 800 miles that turned into 1300 miles of interstate, a classic set of falls and a totally excellent family catch up later and we’re in Chicago to pick up the bike. Weather has been a bit of a mixed bag. Super hot in Boston, cold in New Hampshire, damp in Detroit and severe weather warnings for the Texas Panhandle, possible tornado…Cool. Seems I haven’t lost my touch with the weather.
ZEMAN – INTERNATIONAL WEATHER MAGNET
I have the sort of luck with the weather that might encourage the LA Authorities to pay me to stick around – I’d soon see off their drought. Indian Himalyas on an Enfield – monsoon comes early, 5 days of constant rain and the mountains turn into scenes from a disaster movie; Scotland on an Africa Twin. Soaked. First Harley ride in the States cancelled due to snow. Second Harley ride in the States – rain for 5 days and resorted to wearing XXL Marigold gloves and a plastic packing bag, that once held pillows from a furniture store, under jacket to keep out the water. Climb Wu Dang Shan in China with Big Vern, walking. Nine hours straight up on foot at minus 10, for the legendary vistas, to find low cloud so thick you couldn’t see from one side of the hotel reception to the other.
But then you might say there is no wrong climate, just inappropriate season. Lets hope the seasons here are right… October in the US – sunny right?
BIKE COLLECTION IN CHICAGO
All went uneventfully, except for a bunch of drunk teenagers setting off the fire alarm in the Motel at 4am. Clever. And we get to meet the Chicago Fire Department in the Motel parking lot pre-dawn.
We didn’t actually go into Chicago as part of out Mission Statement was that we would avoid major centres, and concentrate instead on rural areas and places of natural beauty. Grab the bike from BMW of Countryside, pre-ordered through Eagle Rider. And, as has become the norm so far on this trip, the people at the shop couldn’t be more helpful, as we run back to the motel with the bike panniers and bags for a repack. Carey even picks me up at the Motel, with our repacked suitcase that they will forward to LA for us gratis (I’d expected to have to find a Post Office and do it myself, silly me, you’re in the land of service now buddy) and runs me back to get the bike, after hours, on a Saturday, when he is trying to get to a motocross race. Service. And although our hotel is only 3 miles from the shop it takes the seasoned local 45 minutes to drive back there…
Next morning, bike packed, rental car returned, we’re ready to find the official start of our trip. The beginning of Route 66
Which is not as easy to find as it sounds….
Joliet Jake, Burgers and V8s
And that’s Route 66. We’d agreed that we weren’t going to be too anal about following the exact route, but use it as the excuse we needed to get in the American countryside. Lucky as it turns out as die-hard 66 buffs, like the author of the guide book we were following will drag you miles out into the wilds for a beat up section of concrete 100 metres long, or a couple of goose prints in the original concrete, just coz it’s 66. We wanted to freestyle a little, take advice off the locals, get into. Which is why we weren’t also slavishly following a GPS. Just to prove the point my phone, which was our back-up GPS, would go flat pretty rapidly if not fully charged. Emergency back-up use only! I had Debs as my navigator, why did I need a GPS…
We joined the Old Mother Road, originally the first single road to link Chicago and LA, just outside Chicago – just north of our first major landmark and piece of Movie history. Joliet Prison, where Elmwood, collects freshly paroled Jake at the start of one of most insane road trips and extended Music Trailers in Movie History – The Blues Brothers. One of my favourite films and I have to admit to being a little star-struck. That feeling that you get in the states over and over again of just having stepped into one of your favourite flicks.
Flat, Straight, And Then Some More Flat
When I picked the bike up at Countryside BMW I noted the tyres were well on the way to being bald. Carey said, you’ll be on 66 to start and when the tyres wear down call me and we’ll arrange for you to get a new set fitted. Bit dubious about it, but OK. He said to be fair he couldn’t put a brand new set of tyres on everytime the bike went out but would happily change em when they were totally worn. We have similiar issues with the XR’s and F650’s, except we have a support truck to carry our replacement tyres on tour.
I thought the tyres would only last 500 miles but they did nearly 2000 more in the end. And the other crucial part I was missing was – there are no bends on Route 66. No corners. No hills. At least for the first 2000 k’s. So for bikes that only do 66, they come back with very square tyres. It’s a road for Harleys. They can build em 16 feet long with ape hangers and no suspension because – There Are No Corners. Just like Captain Americas bike that we would later see with Steven King and the other Ex-Cambodia veterans. (As the shop guy said to me when I would later bump into the bike at Eagle Rider, LA – “Oh, yeah, the Captain America Bike, they carry that in the truck on one of the tours so you can drop it down and have your photo taken on it…” so you boys didn’t actually ride it all the way across eh. Come on Fess UP!)
And goods to his word, just before we did hit some challenging twisties – New Mexico and North int Utah – we dropped by Sante Fe BMW and got a new set of shoes and an oil change. All on Careys credit card. Ideal. I like these rentals.
66 – Rural Americana, Rustic and Sometimes Run Down
The burgers, the bright lights, the 50’s nostalgia, are all stuff you expect of 66. The stories of how the Interstate came along and flushed peoples lives away in is the book. But it still came as a surprise to see so many derelict buildings, abandoned properties and businesses along the route – making the restored, over-the-top 66 Gift Shops, Diners and other essentially tourist trappings look even brighter, even more kitsch. Like brightly coloured flowers dotted in a grey prairie.
For good stretches of the run we were actually right along side the Interstate, seperated only by grass verges, no fences. Flat land. You felt like the 7th lane. Especially if 66 ended up to the left of the Interstate, then you might have 3 lanes of high speed traffic coming straight at you and another 3 lanes the other side of that heading in the same direction. Arrow straight of course. A massive expanse of tarmac. Trippy.
Sign in window reads ‘closed no new work’
The End of 66 and into the Mountains
We both loved 66, who wouldn’t, but I have to admit I like my roads with a few curves in them, and apart from a freestyle run south through Missouri, on a tip from two women outside a diner, it had all been straight so far. And flat.
Until Tucumcari, in the desert of New Mexico. Tucumcari is a 66 theme village. Period diners, cars, gift shop, murals. Everything 66. Everything unashamedly bright and shiny and full of burgers. Great joint. At least on the strip. I’m not sure I’d wanna venture into the back blocks too far… It was on the road in that we encountered both a massive dust storm and a huge black sky that had ‘Riders On The Storm’ written all over it. Riding on the interstate with the bike leaning right over into the wind, gusts pushing us around like leaves in a breezy yard, while trying to stay away from the 100mph semi-trailers…and on a ridge far to our right and above us was the brown swirl of a dust cloud 10 kms long set off against the angry grey clouds behind.
And we ran into Captain America’s bike (see above) piloted by a bunch of Cambo-Hooligans. In fact with the intense colours, sunset and sunrise, the harsh desert, and crazy looking plants, all seemingly photo-shopped vivid, as well as passing Captain America’s brightly painted choppers, it occurred to me ‘I’m not surprised people saw aliens out here, ghosts, demons – the everyday country shouts out ‘weird encounter!’
Sign says dead end and it really means it – the two lane highway stops DEAD.