We had a destination, sort of. The first half of our journey was to culminate in Butte, Mont. Steve’s cousin, Doug, and his cousin’s wife, Diane, live in Butte; they extended an invitation to us to stay for the weekend - to see the sights, ride their horses and generally recoup after riding for four or five days. Neither of us has had any experience with riding that far, riding horses (a couple of times for each of us, but not really), with Butte, with Montana or with most of the roads that would take us there. As an added bonus, the 9th annual Evel Knievel Days festival was also taking place in Butte that weekend, an event that turned out to be far more fun than I imagined it would be. Butte is not exactly a tourist town, but like any old city it has a colorful and rich history. Our resident tour guides showed us Butte like only a local can. In many respects, Butte’s founding on copper mining is not unlike Sacramento’s history based in the California gold rush. And Montana’s geographic beauty is equaled only by its expansiveness – indeed, the view from Doug and Diane’s deck is enough to earn the state’s unofficial nickname – “Big Sky Country.”
But getting to and from Montana was where the true magic of this vacation took place. Because it was just the two of us, we were free to make route decisions on the fly – and we did so regularly. The plan was to stay off of the major interstates and freeways as much as possible, but as far as plans go, this one was seriously open-ended. We left Sacramento going east to Truckee, Calif. on SR 49, SR 20 and old US 40, hopping on Interstate 80 occasionally before heading North on SR 89 towards and through Lassen Volcanic National Park, finally arriving in Klamath Falls, Ore. via US 97. We were delayed by road construction at various points throughout our 11-day odyssey and this initial leg was no exception. After getting some much needed overnight rest in Klamath Falls (our initial day was a 400-plus mile ride), we headed north on US 97 to Bend, Ore. before turning east along US 26 though numerous small towns scattered in and around the Ochoco and Malheur National Forests. This route took us through largely empty roads, long sweeping turns and magnificent scenery. Our second day took us nearly 500 miles and into Boise, Idaho for the night.
After two days of R&R in Butte, we decided to completely alter our plan (again, that wasn’t a plan) and go back north, west and south rather than south and west through Utah and the Nevada desert. Although we wanted to ride back through Utah, we were not at all looking forward to riding through an entire Nevada wasteland to round out our ride. We headed north to access US 83 through the Rocky Mountains to Kalispell, Mont. and then east along US 2 to the Idaho panhandle before turning south onto US 2/95, just 13 miles from the Canadian border. Our goal was to reach the Harley Davidson dealership in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and then spend the night in Spokane, Wash., but just prior to an eastern detour into the city, a phone call revealed that the dealership was closed on Monday, so we just went straight to Spokane for the night. Crossing the Washington state line, we reversed a small celebration we enjoyed so many days earlier when we crossed the Snake River from Oregon into Idaho – we put out helmets back on. Every state we rode in except Washington, Oregon and California does not require adults to wear a helmet – a form of respect for personal liberty that the nanny’s in these Pacific states don’t recognize. Our eighth day away and fifth day of riding yielded more than 500 miles.
From Spokane we went north on US 395 into the Cascades. We spent the bulk of our day on SR 20 riding again on some extremely challenging roads with nicely banked and well-marked turns. At many points on this journey I had felt as though I was one with the bike, a Zen-like state where everything falls perfectly into a naturally balanced rhythm in which the mind goes quiet and the senses are tuned to the road and nothing else; on this particular leg, that experience was at its most profound and seemed to never end. I rode my Harley Davidson Road King - sometimes in front of Steve and his Heritage Deluxe, sometimes behind - like it has never been ridden before. Some of these series of linked turns on this magical day reminded me of my younger days on my (much smaller) Kawasaki GPz 550. More than an individual oneness between us and our machines, the two of us were in tune with each other such that our coordinated attack of the road resembled a intricately choreographed dance… beauty in both form and function. We finished the day by crossing the Deception Bridge to Whidbey Island on Puget Sound and crossed the sound by ferry to stay in Port Townsend, Wash. for the night. At just more than 400 miles, it felt like much, much more.
We got a slow start the next morning – by this time we had been gone for nine days and ridden hard for seven of them. We still had more than 1,000 miles to go and planned to reach Coos Bay, Ore., by nightfall. Part of what slowed us down was the number of other vehicles occupying the road with us down the Washington and Oregon coast. We also made a small detour to Tacoma, Wash., for a short visit to Steve’s mother and graciously accepted a homemade lunch from her and her husband. Although this detour did not cost us many miles, it did eat up about two hours of daylight. In addition to the congestion, the temperature along the coast was just south of tolerable – we had to stop in Tillamook, Ore., not for the cheese, but for some long johns to keep our legs operational. We fell about 100 miles short of Coos Bay, stopping for the night in Newport, Ore. Our room was cheap, but nice, and it was within walking distance of the waterfront and world-famous Mo’s seafood. It was one of many fabulous meals (along with too many consisting of fast food), but this one was at least as good as those that cost twice as much. Despite the slow start and the less than comfortable temperatures, we still managed to cover more than 400 miles on what turned out to be the second to last day.
But for the last day to be the last day, it would mean our longest riding day of the entire journey. From Newport, the only reasonable route was to continue south along the coast on US 101. Our plan for the day was to continue down the coast along US 101 to California SR 1 and turn east at Fort Bragg on SR 20, but by the time we arrived in Crescent City, Calif., we had had enough of the cold and, furthermore, we decided that we would finish the ride that day. We had to change our route to accomplish two goals: Get inland where it was warmer and cut miles (and time) off our last leg. That opportunity came in Eureka where SR 299 cut east to Redding; we would finish the final 150 or so miles on Interstate 5. Darkness would fall before we arrived home, but this route did not present any danger from deer or other wildlife intersecting our path after dark (bugs do not count as wildlife…).
One of the things that struck us during the many miles we rode the inland states was the fact that the roads were generally in excellent condition, extremely empty and went on for not just a few miles of uninterrupted serenity, but, in some cases, for hundreds of miles. We couldn’t help but notice that in California, where these quintessential motorcycle roads exist, they are either crowded, in sad shape or short. Though I realize this is a generalization and that there are exceptions, it is also true that those roads in the other states were not some kind of hidden gem - they were everywhere. Imagine our surprise when we found SR 299 to be long, in excellent condition, largely empty and as challenging as anything we had ridden up until that point. And what better way to finish off this journey than to ride like the wind on a road in our very own home state. That Zen-like state found me once again. By the time we reached Redding, the temperature was beginning to cool from a high of around 90 degrees making for perfect t-shirt riding weather all the way back to Sacramento. The final day of riding was by far the longest, coming in at a little more than 630 miles and a total of 13 hours on the road.
When Steve approached me with this ride, I was apprehensive, skeptical and not sure if it was something I really wanted to do. As time wore on and the others who said they were in dropped out, my mind was reeling through numerous excuses why I could not go. None were valid, but the uncertainty on many levels had me questioning the wisdom of taking on such a long ride. Steve shared that he was experiencing some similar sentiments, but he and I share something else besides a passion for riding: we both have sons fighting for our country in Afghanistan. Steve explained it this way: If our sons are brave enough to go to war and be shot at, we can walk through any apprehension we might have about this ride. Besides, I made a commitment and I surmised that if I didn’t do this now, I might never ever do it – and it has been a dream of mine for some time.
As little as 10 years ago, both Steve and I were not only not in a position to attempt anything like this, we probably were not even able to dream it. I know it was out of any realm of possibility for me. In the ensuing years, we have both found that elusive purpose and value in life that makes dreams like this a reality. This was a lifetime experience that, if not for some major life decisions I made about six years ago, could not have happened – and Steve’s story is similar. I think I can speak for Steve… we are definitely doing this again.
Maybe Alaska next year?
Don’t bet against us.