by Jay Martin, Spring 1998
My daughter, Libby, and I needed to leave-one way or another–Tuesday morning. Monday night it was snowing hard, dampening our spirits and our chances of traveling together by motorcycle. Rather than dwell on it, we decided to wait until morning to finalize our plans. But, I get ahead of myself.
Jay and Libby (and the R90/6)
This trip actually started a few days earlier with Libby and I seated on our 1976 BMW R90/6, both of us reading books. My father-in-law used to go hunting on horse back. Prior to each hunting trip, he’d set a saddle on a tipped over 55 gallon drum. Each day he would go out and sit on the saddle, conditioning his backside for what would otherwise be a very miserable first day or two of riding. Libby and I figured we would give it a try.
Ehrbar had been atop the maintenance platform most of the winter. He was all put back together now, but the weather had allowed only 2 short, shake-down cruises. One of these 25 mile jaunts shook the head lamp out. I had the headlamp out earlier when converting it to run off relays. I now know about and own the BMW upgrade to the head lamp retaining ring. I also leashed the unit to the shell with a piece of fishing line should the upgrade ring prove ineffective. We had planned, made lists, packed, and re-packed. As the previous owner has still not produced the panniers that supposedly were part of the deal, we had to fit everything into the tank bag.
Tuesday morning, March 31st, was cold but sunny, revealing 3″ of new snow. By 9:00 a.m., the streets seemed dry enough to go for it. We figured if we could not make it over Monument Hill just south of Denver, that we would come back and take the car. Monument Hill was wet, snow on the shoulders, but very passable. Libby motioned me over at the top into a slushy rest area so she could put on a third pair of gloves. Naively, we both only have summer gloves, inside of which we put Polartec gloves, and then a pair of synthetic silk liners. Our hands were still cold all day. We spent the day racing south, figuring we would withstand the added wind chill of riding fast for the prize of warmer weather to the south, a race we lost.
By lunch, I could tell Libby was getting chilled to the bone. Although she never once complained. A few days earlier, after running down her list of academic and scientific activities, a college admissions counselor asked her what she did for fun. Without hesitation, Libby told him she rides on the back of her father’s motorcycle. There would be no complaining from Libby the entire trip.
After a few hundred miles, we jumped off the freeway and onto rural back roads, still racing, but now a setting sun. I was watching for deer and only heard about them the next day when Libby asked me if I had seen all the deer beside the road. Just past dark, a man pulls his company pickup into our fuel stop and chats about the bike. He gets out pictures of his R90S and K with sidecar, both immaculate. He gives Libby a neck warmer and shakes hands before parting ways. His good will and my upgraded head lamp see us through to Las Cruces, NM, our day’s goal. When I tell Libby our mileage she just shakes her head and says we only went half of what it takes to get into the IBA. Today’s mileage: 612.
The next morning I took the freeway to Tucson, Arizona, leaving Libby in Las Cruces, New Mexico to visit with friends. Warmer weather let me cut back to 2 pairs of gloves. I passed by Deming, NM noting how they have named their frontage road, “Motel Drive.” Lordsburg, NM 60 miles further to the west, figuring there was no need to reinvent the wheel, also has a big green freeway exit sign for Motel Drive. You have to love the simplicity of the southwest. The desert was green from heavy spring rains, occasionally spotted with small patches of yellow flowers. The surroundings are expansive. Reddish rock formations jut out of the desert floor like wooden icebergs. The taller peaks in the distance each were dusted with snow. A severe cross wind tutored me on bike control, providing a final exam outside Benson, AZ. The road cut through a small hill where the left-to-right running cross wind was now bouncing off the wall and pushing me toward the center line. I was heeled over to the right, braced against it. As I exit this little man-made channel, the wind blasts me again from the left. I use my entire lane, quite rapidly, to compensate for the sudden change in wind direction. A car passes and the driver turns around to look me over, doubting whether or not I am really in control of this thing. Pulling out of one fuel stop and up a long freeway entrance ramp, the bike stumbled. I made a mental note to check the carb bowls for water, thinking I might have just taken on some bad gas. I reached Tucson in the early afternoon and joined up with my son, John. We were going to get him situated for a fall start at the University of Arizona. Day’s mileage: 285.
I awoke the following day to cold, damp weather; the snow line had come down the Tortilla mountains nearly into my host’s backyard. His yard of cactus back dropped by the white mountains was a spectacular sight as the sun came up. John and I spent the bulk of the day checking out the U of A and getting a foretaste of the bureaucracy that comes with an institution of 35 to 40,000 students. On the way back to the house, we visited Iron Horse, Tucson’s BMW dealer. Upon announcing we had ridden from Denver and were here upon the recommendation of the folks at Denver BMW, we were given the royal tour of their new facilities. While there, 2 riders came in, returning from an extended trip to Mexico: one on a K with hack and the other on a Moto Guzzi. It turns out I knew the K rider from an Airhead tech session I had attended in Colorado Springs a few months ago. I visited with Paul in the parking lot while he plunged his bare arm into his tank of gas and changed out his fuel filter. That evening I checked my carb bowls for water and found none. Day’s mileage: zero.
Friday brought a light frost to Tucson. I left the city by a marvelous road that goes past the Saguaro National Park and joins Interstate 10 east of the city. Wednesday night’s heavy rains had produced rivers that crossed this road in 2 different gullies. The deeper one, 12 to 18 inches, threw water up to the bottom of my windshield out in front of the tire. I spent this day predominantly on secondary roads that somewhat follow the Mexican boarder.
Bisbee, AZ is a mining town built at the bottom of deep ravine. Main street runs along the creek bed and the store and houses are on either side of the one street and up above you. I explored the little town and took a side street that ascended the wall of the town, making me think this is what it must be like in some of those European coastal communities that are built on hillsides that come straight up out of the ocean. There beneath a carport in this most unsuspecting of places was a shiny red and yellow K1. We connect–me and this rider-less K1. Here I am in a strange town, in a section of the country entirely new to me, and seeing this bike sparks a reaction in me as if I had just bumped into someone I know.
Beyond Bisbee, the high desert was in full bloom. The flower covered hills were as colorful as the Rocky Mountains in fall with the Aspen trees turned yellow. I went hours without seeing anyone else and reflected on how so few people would see these few days of spring splendor. The area is so rural that the driver of each approaching car would wave. It was here that I could feel, for the first time on this trip, the sun penetrate my clothes. The border patrol diverted my attention from the scenery with a road block and subsequent helicopter escort. I soaked everything in, oblivious to the mess I would be in if my stumbling bike decided to give it up. To give it up here where the only people were those involved in a multi-million dollar game of hide and seek. To give it up here where the only service station was a diner with one gas pump out front that read “Unleaded” and where a dark-skinned woman started the pump for me with a Cresent wrench. In Deming, NM I stopped to see Steve “Big-Numbers” Aiken’s BMW dealer. Now that I have seen Steve’s backyard first hand, I realize there would be little reason to not ride 130 mph most of the time. But those are numbers well beyond my little R90’s capabilities. The nice folks at Deming Cycle Center suggested I check for a dirty air filter or a hole in a diaphragm. They also pointed out a back way to Las Cruces which helped me avoid Motel Drive and keep all but 40 miles today off of the Interstate. Day’s mileage: 374.
Saturday morning came quickly, and Libby and I tiptoed out of our host’s home by 6:00 a.m.. We reluctantly chose Interstate 25 for our route as the weatherman was promising a window of warmer temperatures, and we really did not want to get as frozen as we did on the ride down here. Plus, Libby needed to do school work tomorrow, her last day of spring break. Although indeed warmer than when we arrived, our first hour of upper 40’s and 80 mph still seemed chilly. We stopped in Truth or Consequences, NM for breakfast. While waiting for our food, I used our table to repair a broken connection to the electric vest that Libby now wore. The predominantly over-60 breakfast crowd eyed us with curiosity, as we had not taken the time to dress down before entering the restaurant. Our elderly waitress was flustered by my request for the check before she had even given our order to the cook. I made it up to her with the tip and explained to her that we had a long way to go today. Shortly after breakfast a fierce south wind kicked in, prodding us homeward, jerking our attention every time the road swung either to the east or west. Up to this point on our trip, we had only seen a half dozen riders. Of those, only the Beemer riders stick out in my mind: the solo rider who passed us on an 80’s RT with camping gear and the 2 guys heading east out of Tucson on new RT’s. Between Las Cruces and Albuquerque Libby waved her arm off, waving at Gold Wing riders all headed south. We rode to reserve, again and again.
With a slight detour at Watrous, NM we picked up our only National Park stamp of the trip at Fort Union. The red adobe remnants of barracks, a jail, a hospital, and officer’s quarters stand in stark contrast to the wind swept, yellow, grassy surroundings. I gazed off toward the Rockies. Their complete snow coverage reassured me that our decision to not route over Wolf Creek Pass was a good one. It was just too early in the spring.
Parking in Raton, NM for a late lunch, I asked myself if this wind was strong enough to knock the bike off its side stand. It was, cracking the right mirror. In case you did not know, leaving your tank bag on does a couple of things for you in a tip over. First, the soft cloth base absorbs all the gas that leaks out the filler cap. Second, and even better, is at freeway speeds the cloth upper portions of the tank bag wick the gas up and out of the base material, distributing it evenly throughout the entire bag and its contents. A few clouds gather; the engine stumble worsens, the sun sinks lower with an accompanying drop in temperature, and Libby and I continue our focused run north, hoping to reach home before it gets as dark and cold as it did on day 1. Our last fuel stop is only 60 miles from home. The bike tips over at the pump, Libby and I standing next to it, helplessly watching it beach itself on the little, center island. The windshield is cracked from top to bottom. Perhaps weariness has deceived me. I could swear the parking area is table-top flat.
We assembled the maintenance platform as soon as we drove into the garage, pushed Ehrbar back on top, dropped the fluids, and left it for another day to track down the source of the stumble. It had served us well on this trip; the bike was indeed reliable. Day’s mileage: 680.
It was 2 years ago when I decided to learn to ride a motorcycle so that I could use it to tour British Columbia and Alaska. This my longest trip to date assured me my aspiration is achievable while at the same time teaching me some important lessons. This trip also included 2 new personal bests for daily mileage. I learned that for cooler weather, very likely in Alaska, both the rider and passenger may need some electric clothing. This implies I will also need something to alert me when I attempt to run the bike’s meager electrical system at a deficit. I also learned that what I once took for nit-picking about the stock side stand actually has some basis in truth. We traveled 1,951 miles in 5 days, 4 of which involved riding. We averaged 41 mpg. The wear and tear on the bike includes a torn seat cover, cracked right mirror, split windshield, missing swing arm cover, and a stumbling engine. Although I do not believe it true in all cases, at least for this trip I agree with Nietzsche that that which did not kill us made us stronger.