35 Days In The Rockies

Part 1: No Job Means No Timetable

"Well Bill, I have bad news for you. We're closing your department."

And with those words, I was free to do something that I've wanted to do since well before I ever saw my first issue of (former sister publication) Motorcycle Escape magazine: Take a long motorcycle tour.

I left word with my network and a few headhunters that I was now "available to the industry," prepaid my rent & utilities, notified my credit card company that I would be traveling, and packed for an extended trip.

There are two things to keep in mind; first, up until this trip I'd been a fair weather rider and had never taken an overnight trip on the bike. Second, I'm a project manager by trade, which usually means that I spend more time planning a vacation than I do on the vacation itself.

This time was different. Finding myself in the middle of a divorce and laid off, I decided that my personal version of a mid-life crisis would be to leave on an unplanned trip and see what happened!

What resulted was a 35 day, 7500 mile trip that carried me through eight states, two provinces, and 11 national parks.

San Francisco To Seattle
Not having touring experience doesn't mean that I don't have travel and camping experience, so I put my Eagle Scout training to good use in developing a packlist, consulting back issues of Motorcycle Cruiser and Escape to round it out. Of course, that meant that I had to buy a tank bag and some touring luggage. After some research I ended up with a Marsee Magnetic Tank Bag and Cruiser Bar Bag.

My friend Pete Puccio heard I was available and invited me up to start the trip with a four day run through the Cascade Mountains in Washington. So, on the last day of April I packed up, left San Francisco, and headed north.

I can see the Northern California coastline over any three day weekend, so I immediately hit Interstate 5 and headed across the Oregon border.

Since I had a couple of days to get to Seattle, I wasn't in any particular hurry-which was a nice change of pace for me. I started off (as usual) with my iPod, and for the first time found it distracting. It went into the saddlebag for the rest of the trip. This was only my second vacation in between jobs, and there is something seriously relaxing about being off work and knowing that there is not going to be 500 emails waiting for you on your return. And even if it was a Super Slab, there was something refreshing about kicking out the highway pegs, leaning back, and rolling along with no real schedule.

I spent the first night outside, at a campsite in Grants Pass with the intention of taking the next two days riding Highway 101 up the coast to Washington. I was sleeping in a hammock when it started raining at 3 A.M.; the following morning I rolled out of the campsite slightly damp, but none the worse for wear, taking Bear Camp Road (using my directions from Yahoo Maps) toward Gold Beach.

I didn't know it at the time, but many of you will remember Bear Camp Road as the ill-fated route that cost CNET Editor James Kim his life in December of 2006.

What should have taken 90 minutes on the map ended up taking over three and a half hours. The road had just been opened and what stared out as a beautiful two-lane highway quickly turned into a washed out gravel road fit only for dual-sports and half-ton trucks.

On one of the more treacherous sections I suddenly found the bike doing a pirouette on the newly installed highway bar. And in case you are wondering, picking up a fully loaded Vuclan 1500 by oneself on gravel is not exactly a simple endeavor. Luckily, the only thing that touched down was the highway bar and there was no damage.

By the time that I reached Gold Coast, it was well after lunch and raining hard. One of the things I was to think of often on this trip is that the great thing about having no plans is that it's really easy to change them.

So, rather than risk a rain soaked Highway 101 for too far, I turned inland on Highway 38 and made my way to Eugene to find a hot shower, a friendly brewpub, and a dry bed.

Day three reminded me why I'm not all that keen on riding in the rain. Except for the constant rain between Eugene and Seattle there wasn't anything to see, take pictures of, or to complain about for that matter.

Driving all day in the rain gives you little time for thinking about anything other than the road, what's in the road, and if the driver of the cage next to you is actually paying attention to the road. I actually saw one guy text messaging as he was driving.

I was in town a day before Pete was free to leave, so I stayed with mutual friend Bob Rankin so I could arrange for my 4000 mile service on the bike, update the blog I was keeping on the trip, and pick up some better motorcycle boots.

While staying with Bob and family, I even had the chance to participate in a little family history: Bob's eldest son Connor joined us for his first cigar.

Northern Cascades To Eastern Washington
Up Highway 5 to Burlington and then east on Highway 20 was our route. Somewhere along the 20 the rain lightened up enough for a smoke break.

Standing in the misting rain after lighting his cigar, Pete looked over at me and said "This does not suck!" As you might imagine, his quip became an oft repeated phrase for the remainder of the trip.

Pete is all about the journey-and he fully intends to enjoy himself on it. So for his four-day trip he brought along 40 Rocky Patel Jr. cigars. This meant that we stopped at every opportunity to enjoy the views and the smokes.

And stop often we did. The Cascade Loop is a beautiful ride; well maintained, long sweeping curves, majestic views, and plenty of pullouts to stop and take in the beauty.

When we started out it was chilly, in the mid-thirties and raining. Somewhere near Washington Pass and Ross Lake it started snowing on us, so we decided to stop lollygagging and get to the other side of the pass.

As we began to descend the eastern side of the Cascades, it began to warm noticeably. By the time we reached Winthrop, Washington around 3 P.M., it was 75 degrees and sunny. It had turned into a beautiful day and we were past ready for a cold beer, so we had a late lunch, and checked into the Duck Brand Hotel.

Over dinner, the discussion turned to "where do we go from here?" After discussing several options, we decided that if we got up early we could reach the Tri-Cities area of Southeastern Washington (on the Oregon border) by Saturday night and stay with some of Pete's friends there before heading north along the Columbia River and staying with friends of mine on Sunday night. That would give Pete time to get back to work, as scheduled, on Tuesday morning.

The ride to the Tri-Cities area was navigated over a zig-zagging network of state highways and county roads. Having come out of the Cascades, these particular roads weren't all that memorable and the best part of it all was just being on the bike-and not being in the rain!

After a grand night at Pete's pal Tim Moon's house (including the obligatory fire pit, adult beverages, and cigars) we started the next morning by making our way to Highway 25 and up the Columbia River.

This is truly a spectacular ride in the spring. While not quite "twisties," there are plenty of opportunities to find the lean limits of a cruiser. The road is in great shape and (except for an occasional log truck straying over the centerline) quite a fun and scenic ride. Our route took us across the Spokane Indian Reservation and into Stephen's County, through Kettle Falls and finally just short of Northport, Washington.

Our intention was to make it to our destination for the evening well before dusk, since the entire route appeared to be a continuous deer crossing, and evening would only make things worse. We made one final stop at the China Bend boat ramp on the Columbia to smoke a cigar and realizing that Pete's part of the trip was about to end...so I hatched an evil plan.

Crossing The Border
While we smoked, I pulled out the map and sold Pete on the idea that if he could arrange for two more days off, that we could be in Banff, by Monday night, run the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) up through Jasper National Park, spend the night in Kamloops, British Columbia Tuesday night and have him back in Seattle by Wednesday evening.

In truth, it was an easy sell. Pete got the extra time off and we spent the evening catching up with my friends Dave and Sue Chambers in Northport, WA and planning our most aggressive drive yet, a whole 326 miles!

You see, we had discovered that stopping, taking pictures, smoking cigars, and generally enjoying ourselves is not all that conducive to covering a lot of ground-so we pretty much gave up covering a lot of ground. After all, we weren't in a hurry, we were seeing country we'd never seen from a motorcycle and we certainly weren't training for an Iron Butt.

Crossing into Canada I had my first and only real mishap of the trip. I had missed the turn off to the border crossing and after we doubled back to find it, I hit gravel in a curve and low-sided at 5 mph. With the bike all the way over on its side, it took both of us and a Good Samaritan who stopped to help us get it back up. Luckily, the only damage were scratches.

And, although not hurt, there was a bit of damage to my ego; it took the remainder of the day before I began to feel confident again in the curves.

The last two hours of the ride to Banff were through Alberta's Kootenay National Park where we saw deer, bald eagles, moose, and bighorn sheep too numerous to count.

Arriving in Banff, we topped off the day with a great steak at the Saltlick, and decided that we could take our time the following day on our way up to Jasper and still have time to make it to Kamloops by the end of the day.

On Day Nine, we took the Icefields Parkway which cuts through Banff National Park and later Jasper National Park on its way to the city of Jasper. With a beautiful sunny morning and plenty of time, we stopped at almost every pullout to drink in the beauty. This was recommended to us by Bob as one of the most scenic rides on the continent and we'd be hard pressed to disagree. If you haven't made this trip, it belongs on your bucket list.

This stretch of road is amazing. If Pete hadn't had a deadline, we would have turned around at Jasper and ridden the same route back to Banff just for the experience.

The weather had different ideas, however. By the time we reached the actual ice fields near Jasper, there was a storm brewing on the other side of the divide. It started to snow, and we quickly determined that the best place for us would be on the western side of the mountains in Kamloops.

The next three hours were about as miserable as the entire trip ever got. Just above freezing, we hit a torrential downpour of rain. With no shoulder to pull over to and no place dry to stop we elected to push on to Kamloops hoping that we'd eventually get out of the storm.

After about an hour, our gloves soaked through, our hands freezing, our low-gas lights on, and our helmets fogging up to the point we couldn't see . We pulled in behind a logging truck going about 40 mph and followed his taillights-hoping all the while that he wouldn't run off the road or stop suddenly.

Needless to say, wet, cold, tired, and hungry, we didn't make it to Kamloops, although we did find a gas station in the nick of time. It was to that point both the best and worst day of the trip. Exhausted, we found a cheap, dry hotel in Valemount and called it a day, only about 200 miles short of where we wanted to be.

Day Ten found us dry and well rested on 10 hours of sleep. With sunny skies, we saddled up for Pete's last leg of the journey. In stark contrast to the previous days, the only wildlife we saw today was a very large black bear on the side of the road. I rode by thinking "Sit! Stay!" It did, and we made good time to Merritt, B.C. (the "Country Music Capital of Canada") where we had lunch, grabbed a quad espresso and finally split up with Pete headed to Seattle and I back to Northport to spend a another day with the Chambers.

While this ride didn't have the grandeur of the Rockies, it was beautiful nonetheless. About an hour and a half of the ride was down Highway 97 beside Okanagan Lake which is clearly a vacation destination in its own right. At 560 miles, this turned out to be my longest day yet in the saddle and I was very appreciative that Jeff Meehan had loaned me his AirHawk pad for the tour.

I then took a day off road to visit with the Chambers in Northport.

Yellowstone National Park & The Grand Tetons
My first trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons was when I was 15 years old. I fell in love with the park and with the Rockies in general at first sight. Having never really gotten over that love affair, I couldn't get Yellowstone out of my mind for the next destination. Given that there are some incredible rides in Idaho and Montana I'm sure I did myself a disservice by not taking my time through those two beautiful states-but the heart doesn't always make the best decisions.

I hit the worst section of highway coming out of Spokane on Interstate 90. It was highly rutted and in dangerous shape for motorcycles. The bike became so difficult to control that I actually pulled over to see if something was wrong with it.

Crossing into Idaho the road smoothed out and this being the thin part of the state, I never realized when I crossed into Montana. Montana is known as Big Sky country and it does have some incredible vistas. Unfortunately, the state board of tourism and the highway department haven't seen fit to provide many turnouts on Interstate 90, so I just rolled on through to Deer Lodge.

The following day is when the ride got really beautiful again. After a few hours on Interstate 90, I turned south on Highway 191 to get to the West Entrance of Yellowstone. Well paved, sweeping curves running along trout streams, and plenty of pullouts.

I reached Yellowstone a little after lunch and it of course was everything I remembered-a highlight of the trip. It is early enough in the season that the buffalo and other wildlife are still down in the valley and the only open campground was perhaps half full.

If you haven't visited Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in the spring on a motorcycle, it's another thing to add to that bucket list. I spent the next two days idling through the parks, stopping to photograph the wildlife and the grand vistas that Ansel Adams help make so famous.

The real thrill of being on a motorcycle here is the ability to be so connected to the environment. As I crisscrossed back and forth around the park, I truly felt sorry for all the tourists that were stuck in their motorhomes and automobiles.

The Beginning Of The End
After experiencing the Tetons and Yellowstone, I turned east on Highway 26 along Wind River to Casper Wyoming and then dropped down thorough Denver to stay a few days with my friends Eric and Rachel Beck in Bailey, CO. It was also time for another service on the bike and I needed to follow up a call from a headhunter.

So, nineteen days into the trip, the headhunter arranged for a phone interview with a potential employer, a digital agency in San Francisco. I spoke with one of the founders for about an hour and we both came away feeling that we might have a potential fit. He asked me when I would be back in SF, and I mentioned that I didn't really plan on coming back until I had a job. A second call later in the day was an offer by them to fly me in the following week for an interview.

Things were looking up. And, since I still had a week before I needed to be in SF, I decided there was plenty of time to continue south through Silverton, Durango, Mesa Verde, Sedona, and eventually to Phoenix to catch my flight and see if I'd found my new job.

Here's a shot from atop the Sunwapta Pass on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. It was the last real high point of the day. Within an hour we were soaked, freezing, and hunting any dry place to hole up.