Circle the West

Posted on September 23, 2013


Good friends I’d grown up with had all finally gotten dual sport bikes and everyone was going to be in California this summer, so it was time for a big ride. I was the newcomer to motorcycles as Mike, Rob and Josh had all owned one or another in the past. Just after high school Mike had set off on his $400 Honda CB550 with a suitcase bungee corded to the back seat, criss-crossing the USA and Mexico. It was one of the coolest things anyone I knew had ever done.

Three Suzuki DR650s and one DR350 rounded out our fleet. We must have spent nearly a year emailing back and forth about bike mechanics and modifications, riding gear, camping gear, and potential routes. Discussing the merits of different types of camp stoves and tire levers makes for an excellent distraction while riding a desk all day. I only had two weeks available away from work, but the other guys had an entire month, which opened up lots of possibilities. We decided on a route that would take us north across California via what is to be the California Backcountry Discovery Route (BCDR), along the Oregon BCDR, turn eastward across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, then ride south on the Great Divide Route through Colorado. The other guys would then continue westward on the Trans-America trail across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and back to Oregon. We downloaded GPS tracks for each of the routes to guide us on our way. The track looked something like this:

Logistical challenges were met. Rob got his bike shipped out from New York City, Josh got his electrical system sorted out for about the fourth time since installing LED blinkers, and Mike got his suspension finished at the 11th hour by the mechanic who accidentally forgot about his bike for 6 weeks while he was away in Ireland. When we all convened in San Francisco, we found considerable variation in our setups and gear. Rob and Josh both had proper motorcycle dry bags, I had kayak dry bags strapped to either side, and Mike had some small side bags with his backpacking pack bungeed to the back rack. Some things worked well and others didn’t and by the end of the trip everyone had holes in their bags for one reason or another. Here is my setup:

We set off across the Golden Gate Bridge totally excited to finally be off on a motorcycle trip. Just north of Clear Lake we finally left the highway, which was none too soon for any of us. As we began to bounce along the forested foothills of northern California, Mike began to lose some of his cargo. Running down the track every quarter mile or so you would find some article of clothing or a funnel or something lying on the dirt in front of you. We were all still getting our dirt legs underneath us and I was still not very confident cornering especially on steep downhill sections. I was surprised how tired we grew after 100 miles or so of riding in the dirt and we were always pretty happy to find a good spot to make camp.

Dusty conditions resulted in an all-day dirt burger diet:

Mike had by far the least amount of time to prep his bike the trip arriving home from Ireland 1 day before left. So he had to do some on-the-fly bike assessment and TLC – checking oil level frequently, finding appropriate air filter cleaner, and adjusting his already substantially stretched chain (that didn’t even make it through the entire trip). He did manage to stop his luggage from decorating the trail quickly enough.

Oregon brought pristine lakeside campsites, a few mud bogs, and our first water crossings at which we had mixed success. Aside from many miles of long boring logging roads, the riding was fantastic with downed trees forcing us to find our way through the forest here and there and even blasting some hairy uphill singletrack to connect two switchbacks. Fast running on some of the deep gravel logging roads had our front wheels dancing all over place as we just tried to keep our bikes pointed straight ahead.

Our first few low-speed get-offs resulted in dented cookware stored in panniers.

We crossed from Oregon into Idaho and then Montana and the path began to feel even more remote. We were never alone though, there always seemed to be plenty of cows in the national forests that we rode through to keep us company.

Strange habits were begun.

Some of the tracks through Montana seemed seldom traveled and we did some rocky rooted out trail riding as we headed southward. We bounced along over grassy ridges with fantastic vistas and spied elk, moose, and grizzly bears for the first time. When two grizzly cubs came loping down a hill slope towards the road section that Rob and I rested on, we didn’t hang around long to find out where mom griz was.

In Montana the skies opened up on us sending us scrambling to get things stowed away. Some were better prepared than others.

Sometimes it was just too much fun to slow down even when we were tired.

During a day of dodging thunderstorms we approached a railroad track crossing at high speed coming off fire road and had our first real crash of the trip. Mike hit the tracks unable to square up and on the brakes. His front wheel slid out quick and he ended up high-siding. He landed hard, knocked the wind out and did some minor damage to wrist, finger, and mirror. We lifted his bike up off the tracks, found that he could ride and we motored gingerly down into Helena, Montana to hide from the rain, perform some bike maintenance and let beaten bodies rest.

Heading south, the high desert of Wyoming was a highlight – emptiness for hundreds of miles. The roads were good and you could go 60 even 70 mph if you were really on it. Everything was bright with very little contrast between the surface that you rode on and the landscape ahead, creating this euphoric feeling of floating along the trail. This feeling made it easy to overcook a 70 degree corner as the dirt beneath your tires slid right along with you under hard braking. I managed to leave my tool tube half unscrewed and drop all of my tire changing gear out somewhere behind us. I went back to retrieve my tools as the other guys rode on. The ride back turned out to be longer than I thought and I ran out of gas, but not before I had made a good decision to make a run for the highway. I found very nice guys at some hillbilly trailer compound type place to sell me some gas and arrived back to the other guys just as they were mounting the rescue mission as they only just barely made it into the town themselves.

Just before we crossed the border into Colorado, I had to head off to be back for work the following Monday. It was terribly disappointing, as I’d hoped that I’d be able to at least cross the Rockies with the crew. I rode west on highway 50 through Utah and Nevada as everyone else braved thunderstorms and flash flooding heading into Colorado.

After arriving home came the hardest part of the whole trip for me: looking at the other guys’ photos of Colorado and Utah posted online as I sat at my desk all the next week trying to work between daydreams.


What Others Are Saying

  1. Erin Brutlag September 26, 2013 at 2:25 am

    wow. really beautiful. What a great trip! Montana is one of my favorite places in the world.

  2. garnaro October 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    its was fantastic – I’d like to do another trip like that. Can’t believe that it took so long to get there..

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