Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Great West – The Trip Out – part 1 of 2

Waterloo, IA to Mitchell, SD -- 7/10/10

miles covered: 389

Having traveled nearly 650 miles the previous day seeing little other than the marvel of Eisenhower’s Interstate system and a few million acres of corn, I figured that it might be good to make a side trip today.  I had already blown past the National Motorcycle Museum which is east of Cedar Rapids, IA.  I don’t allow myself to backtrack when traveling.  Especially not when I have such a distance to travel.  I chose to stop at the Stockman House in Mason City, IA.

Arriving at Stockman House, I quickly recognized it as Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Style.  I took several minutes to walk around and explore the facade of the structure.  The siting of this house couldn’t have been any more FLW.

I was ready to have a look around the inside.  To my surprise, the door was locked.  It took a few moments for me to realize that I had passed into a new time zone the day before.  Instead of having been open 45 minutes, Stockman House was 15 minutes from opening.  I wondered where that hour had gone since I had left the Motel.

The morning was gorgeous and the setting nice enough that I didn’t mind to wait.  Besides, I’d just picked up an extra hour for my day’s travels.

I learned through the guided tour that no matter how well the site suited the character of the house, it was not the its original location.  It stood a couple blocks away and was rescued from being torn down(!!!) by a local church wishing to expand their parking lot.  There are plenty of writings and photographs available detailing the house, so I won’t bore you with any more specific details.  I will tell you, though, that the guided tour is worth the price of admission.

Also of interest in Mason City, IA is a Bank/Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The bank and hotel were undergoing extensive restoration and were barely visible across the park.  I hope to return someday to see the finished renovation.

Having gallivanted all morning, it was time to hit I-90 to make some tracks.  On to Minnesota, South Dakota, and beyond.

To my surprise, southeast Minnesota looked pretty much like Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.  I guess they call it the Midwest for a reason.  South Dakota was completely different, though.  Having traveled through Iowa, Indiana, and Southern Minnesota, I was becoming accustomed to seeing unimaginable distances in every direction -- at least they were unimaginable for me, having grown up in the foothills of the Appalachians. 

Approaching the border of SD, it was apparent I was heading into a different region.  There were fewer and fewer trees, and the golden hues of the grasses told me that this region I was entering was more arid than from where I had just come.  It was my first visit to the plains.  Even without any major landmark (like a river) separating the states, it was clear that the Midwest was left behind.  Most shocking was how abruptly the scenery changed.

Bombing along the Interstate, I passed through Sioux Falls, SD thinking I’d stop at the next major town.  I was in for an education about sparsely populated South Dakota.  I had a hankering for ice cream.  Approaching Canistota, I saw a sign for a hotel.  I figured if the town were big enough for a hotel, it was surely big enough for a McDonalds.  I was wrong.  I spent a lot of time driving around the Dakota plains to discover this fact.

What Canistota did have was a sort of town fair going on.  I believe the activities I saw were related to “Sport Days” but I wouldn’t swear to it.  On the way out of town, there were flags flying, horses, and sharply dressed cowboys and cowgirls.  At the center of the action was a dirt path that appeared to be for some sort of competition – similar to a jousting arena.  It could have been a rodeo if the “arena” had been bigger.  I wish I had more time to stop and see what all this was about.

Admitting defeat, I worked my way back to the Interstate on the local roads and headed West towards Mitchell.

I stopped at McDonalds in Mitchell for that long awaited ice cream cone.  I’m not sure that I stopped so much for the ice cream as I just wanted to stop.  It was a warm July day and ice cream seemed like the right thing to do.  Over my “twist” ice cream cone, I studied the map and the darkening horizon.  It was 6:00 PM but I felt like I could continue.

Because of the time and the impending weather, I decided that getting a room and stopping “early” was probably the best plan.

After getting checked in to the hotel, unpacked, fueled up, cleaned up, washed out, washed off, and covered up, I walked to dinner.  This pattern will repeat itself many times during the next couple weeks.

I typically try to avoid chain restaurants while traveling – at least for dinner.  I only eat fast food such as McDonalds while traveling and consider regional chains before national chains; local joints before regional chains.  Whisky Creek is a regional chain that was just across the street from my hotel.  The atmosphere was nice and the first temptation was their selection of beer – specifically the Boulevard Wheat Beer.  Why not have a wheat beer?  I’ve traveled along fields of wheat all day.  The beer was truly refreshing after a long day in the saddle.  I had St. Louis style ribs for dinner with mashed potatoes and BBQ beans – ugh, I shouldn’t have done that.

When the lights started flickering, I decided it was time to cut dinner a little short.  With boxed-up leftovers, I huffed back across the street.

I’ve heard it said that when on the plains one can see tomorrows weather on the western horizon.  Though this may be a bit of an exaggeration, I learned this night that one can certainly see the evening’s weather approaching.

The wind blew like mad and it began to rain.  I made it back to the room a little before the skies split open.  It stormed for quite a while.  Marble-sized hail fell from the sky.  I was almost certain that the hotel was going to lose power – the lights briefly went off several times.  Thankfully, the power stayed on.

Once the storm had passed, I was treated to a rainbow.  I’m sure glad I didn’t try to push a few more miles out this evening.

Mitchell, SD to Billings, MT -- 7/11/10

miles covered: 651

I woke up Sunday morning absolutely dreading the thought of getting back on the Interstate.  It wasn’t that the traffic was too heavy or that my motorcycle wasn’t capable.  I felt like I wasn’t seeing much of SD.  I wanted to travel on the roads locals used.  Maybe I could even see some South Dakotan towns.

My goal was to get to Spokane by Tuesday or Wednesday.  I’d just made enormous progress the two prior days – thanks to the Interstate.  The speed limit on two lane state highways in South Dakota is 70 MPH.  The Interstate speed limit is 75.  With such little difference in speeds, I figured that so long as I was heading north or west, any road would do.  I chose SD Hwy 34 which parallels I-90 -- my originally planned route.

Breakfast was the familiar, and soon to be very familiar, Holiday Inn Express buffet.  Certainly one of the better continental breakfasts – unless you’ve had it several days straight.  I had everything packed back onto the bike and was headed north out of town by 8:30 local time.  As I came through town, I noticed on the Instrument panel that the rear tire was a pound or two low.  I stopped just down the street from the Corn Palace to air the tire at a local filling station.  This is as close as I came to visiting this historic landmark.

No disrespect to any South Dakotans, but I guess I just didn’t care.  The historic purposes of the structure which were to draw people to live and farm in South Dakota make sense to me; however, I do not understand the purpose of the structure today.  Maybe this is why I should have stopped? At least I grabbed a picture from the filling station.

Working north towards Hwy 34, Mitchell was quickly left behind.  Cruising along an almost deserted Hwy 37, I spotted a crop dusting plane in action.  The skill demonstrated by this pilot was nothing short of amazing.  I had to go back and see it.  I spent several minutes watching and photographing the little plane as it buzzed overhead back and forth over the corn rows spreading its toxic poison (kidding).

Delighted that I had finally captured a photograph of a working crop duster, I made a u-turn and headed back north.  Getting off of the Interstate was beginning to pay off.

Except that the road was as straight as an arrow, not much was notable about Hwy 34.  The towns were extraordinarily small and sparse.  The road surface was a red colored “chip n’seal.”  Seeing chip n’seal on a state highway was a huge surprise to me.  Back home, chip n’seal was a substitute for gravel – used mostly in alleys or private lanes.

West of the Crow Creek Reservation I came into some terrain.  Suddenly, as I crested the top of a fairly good sized hill, the Missouri River came into sight.  Just as quickly as it appeared, I started down the other side of the hill.  The sight was so impressive, I made a u-turn to go back for more.

I will reluctantly admit that, at the time, I did not realize that this was the Missouri River.  The river at this point appeared to me to simply be a large crescent shaped lake.  In some ways, I was right to identify the water as a lake.  In fact, this section of the river is known as Lake Francis Case.  It may not look to me as it did to Lewis and Clark in their epic quest to discover a western passage, but it was still pretty cool following their footsteps west.

I continued on Hwy 34 to Pierre, SD.  Pierre is the capital of South Dakota.  It is also where Central Time ends and Mountain Time begins.

In hindsight, I should have spent more time in Pierre.  I had nearly a half a tank of fuel and didn’t feel the need to stop.  I had spent much of the day stopping to check things out.  I felt compelled to make western progress.  With more than 130 miles remaining to this tank, I figured I would get fuel down the road.

Down the road turned into towns without gas stations or where the the approach to the station was dusty loose gravel.  I foolishly passed by those gravely options.  Finally, down the road turned into vast open plain.  I started to become concerned after passing several signs that read something along the lines of “No services next X miles.”  After those X miles passed, I would come into a cross roads with several houses but no gas stations.

With only 75 miles remaining, I started punching on the GPS to find a source of fuel.  50 miles due west, it read.  There was a station in Howes, SD.  About 20 or 30 miles into this 50 mile stretch, I felt a sense of panic as I realized that it was Sunday.  I searched the GPS once more to be sure that this was, in fact, the closest fuel stop.  Indeed it was.  Open or not, I was now committed.

To put my mind to rest, I decided that I would call the station and confirm that they were open.  No answer.

Howes turned out to be more of an intersection than a town.  With 25 miles of fuel remaining in the tank, I pulled up to the pump.  As feared, the station was closed.

The only thing this “town” had to offer was a closed gas station and an outdoor privy.  The gas station was run out of an addition to someone’s private residence.

I sat down and weighed my options.  Banging on the residence and begging to purchase gas was clearly my best option.  No answer.

I checked the GPS again, surely there was some mistake.  According to its database, the nearest gas station was 50 miles away.  It occurred to me that I could phone Erica and have her check the Internet for a gas station that is nearby.  I quickly ruled this out as I didn’t want to worry her about my situation. A call to my Dad seemed more appropriate.  It was Sunday afternoon, would he be home?

Unbelievably, my phone had a good signal.  I phoned Dad.  He answered.  My first words were, “I need your help.”  Silence.  Dad had been following me through a rented satellite tracking device.  He knew I was several days drive from his house.  He said, “…what do you want me to do!?”  He must have thought that I’d been imprisoned or something of that sort.  I explained that I needed to locate a gas station.  We ended the call so that Dad could begin the search.

About that time, an SUV pulled up with California plates.  I approached it and met a kind gentleman in his mid-forties who offered me water and a look over his map.  He knew the area somewhat but not enough to tell me where the nearest gas was.  The man was meeting some local tribesman.  As best I can gather, he was allowing his two adopted Indian daughters to see their brother, who still lived on the reservation nearby.

After a trip to the privy, my phone rang.  It was Dad.  He said, “There’s a town about 27 or 28 miles north of you called Faith.  There are two hotels there, surely they have a gas station.”  I told him I’d give it a try.  The worst that could come out of this is that I run out of gas a few miles out of town.  I could even spend the night at one of the Hotels if the (presumed) gas station was closed.

The parking lot reunion was well under way when I donned the gear to leave.  It was complete with video camera, etc.  Quite a strange situation.  I have to think that it was also very sad.  The girls’ parents must not have been able to provide for them.  Then to consider that the boy was still with the family.

Twenty-five miles is how far the trip computer estimated that the remaining fuel would last.  This estimate was based on the last 200 miles blowing through the plains at Interstate speeds.  For the trip to Faith, I chose a speed/gear combination that resulted in the highest return on every ounce spent.  The magic speed was 52 MPH in fourth gear.  For extra measure, I dropped the windscreen back, pulled in my elbows and got down on the tank.  Less wind resistance meant less walking.  All of this combined for a rough average of 52 miles per gallon.  I must have looked like an idiot poking along the interstate in the stance of someone trying to break a land speed record.  Good thing that there were very few cars on the road.

I watched as the miles fell away on both the GPS and Trip computer.  I started with 28 miles on the GPS and 25 miles remaining on the trip computer.  I kept hoping that my streamlined profile would start to bring the numbers closer together.  This never happened.

As the trip computer neared zero and switched to “---“ I started to sweat.  I still had several miles before reaching Faith.  I waited for the engine to sputter to a halt.

Finally, a sign of civilization.  Mostly agricultural/industrial structures appeared on the South side of town.  I wondered, “Do they have a gas station?”  “Where could it be?”

A stop sign came into sight along with junction signs for  US 212.  Just across the Intersection was a gas station.  I blew through the signs after barely checking for cross traffic.  The station was OPEN!  I had made it.  You can always count on my Dad.

Although I’ve not quite tested its outer limits, I’m told that the R1200RT holds a little over six gallons of gasoline.  I pumped something in the order of 5.9x gallons of precious Premium Grade gasoline into her.  I’ve never before nor since pumped this much gas into the bike.

My Dad insists to this day that I just needed a little faith.  I’d like to believe that the full tuck racing position behind the windscreen helped too.

After filling up, I had the best burnt-up gas station hot dog, I’ve ever eaten.  It is funny.  When my fuel tank was empty, I didn’t have food on my mind.  The moment it was full and paid for, I found myself hungry.

Leaving the gas station, it started to rain.  It didn’t matter.  I had a full tank of fuel and I was heading west.

My friend, Roger, had warned me about the lack of fuel between Belle Forche, and Crow Agency – a distance of about 190 miles.  I had only traveled 40 or so miles from Faith; however, I filled her to the brim.  I wasn’t going to have another close call.

From Belle Forche, I continued towards Crow Agency via US 212.  Roger was right, it was a delightful stretch.  Several miles east of Broadus, I found myself in a full-out lighting storm with gusty winds.  I don’t mind riding in the wind or rain, but I found on this trip that my tolerance for lightening was very low.  I cranked on the right handgrip to work past the storm in as prompt a fashion as safe.  By the time I reached Broadus, the rain had set in.

Inn a parking lot of a local convenience store, I met a fellow by the name of Rocky.  Rocky was heading back to Howes from an extended trip into Canada on his red and black Honda Valkerie.  As I related my story of nearly running out of gas between Howes and Faith, Rocky responds, “…I’ll bet ol’ Bob opened up the store for you didn’t he?”  Bob must not have been home.

As the rain continued, Rocky and I chatted about where we were going and where we had been.  What the conditions were ahead.  Thankfully, I was in for better weather ahead.  Rocky wasn’t so lucky based on my observations.

Parting ways, I made my way towards Crow agency.  The scenery was spectacular.  If it hadn’t been for the weather, time constraints, and road construction, I would have liked to gone back and done it all again. What a great route Roger recommended.

Reaching Crow Agency, I fueled up once more and called ahead for hotel reservations in Billings.

Unpacking at the Holiday Inn Express, Billings, I met Paul and Jeff – fellow club members heading to the rally.

We met in the lobby and rode to dinner together.  Though it was great to have company we were all so tired that it was difficult to make a choice on dinner.  We ended up at the Texas Roadhouse after finding our first choice, a barbeque joint spotted on the way in, was closed and our second choice, Jake’s Steak House, looked to be too swanky.

Even though we were all quite tired, it was nice to talk to these guys after three days of solo riding.

Miles covered to date: 1682