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Two Up Across America: A motorcycle adventure part 1

Taking a passenger; missing a tornado

POSTED: September 25, 2011 1:30 a.m.
BILL REZAK/For The Times

Inside the kettle of an ancient volcano west of Los Alamos, N.M., lies 89,000 acres formally known as the Valles Caldera.

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Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series chronicling a trip Bill Rezak made across the U.S. on a motorcycle.

I've ridden a motorcycle cross country twice before in the U.S. and once in New Zealand, always alone. This trip would be my first with a rider seated behind me — my girlfriend, Diane. To the uninitiated, this is called riding two up.

Diane helped me select a new-to-us 2008 105th anniversary edition Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic for this trip. It's a beautiful metallic copper color with black trim. I really like the anniversary editions, and this one has a lot of nice eye candy, including real dual exhaust with Screamin' Eagle pipes — no missing our presence!

It also has the proverbial Lazy Boy in the rear for Diane, a feature she grew to love as she napped her way across boring stretches of the country. Also included are a neat intercom system and a goody that my arthritic right wrist really learned to appreciate: cruise control.

We don't do camping. We like our end-of-day shower and a nice soft mattress, so motels are our overnight staple. The Ultra came with trunk and saddlebag liners, so all we had to do was lift them out and plunk them down on the motel cart.

We planned this trip to be five or six weeks in duration. I wanted to start in late spring in order to enjoy the national parks before school was out for the summer. I also thought that this would help us avoid the hottest weather.

The day of our departure, May 20, was clear and sunny with a morning temperature of about 60 F and a high of 85 F with low  humidity — perfect biking weather. We left Gainesville going north on U.S. 129. This is an oft-traveled route for us, as it features some of the best biking and scenery in the country.

It's fun to hop onto Ga. 284 to Clermont and follow it till it dead-ends into Ga. 115. Take a right there to Cleveland, then north again on U.S. 129 to Ga. 75 Alternate. That takes you east toward Helen past the gorgeous Smithgall Woods (thank you Lessi and Charles) to Ga. 348, the Richard Russell Parkway.

The Richard Russell just might be the premier biking road in Georgia. We rode up to the top of Blood Mountain and stopped for a couple of great photos. Diane, the bike, the road, the vista, the grand weather — what more can an old man ask?!

From there we headed north again on U.S. 129 through Blairsville and took U.S. 64 west in North Carolina. U.S. 64 is right up there with 129 for scenery and sweeping curves.

We soon left it and traveled north to Tellico Plains, Tenn., where we stopped for lunch at the Tell Cafe. You can be pretty certain if there a lot of bikes parked at a restaurant that the food is good and it's reasonably priced; my kinda place.

After a tasty lunch (you work up a great appetite on a bike), we wandered northeast on Tenn. 68 across the Tennessee River at Watts Bar Dam and up to Crossville where we picked up U.S. 70 west to Smithville. We holed up there for our first night on the road after logging 275 miles.

Next morning found us skirting Nashville to the east and picking up U.S. 41 northwest into Kentucky. It was another lovely mild day as we made our way to Hopkinsville for lunch at The Wood Shed BBQ Restaurant. It may not be as good as Johnny's or Mickey Pig's, but it's close. We had barbecue chicken and beans — YUM!

From Hopkinsville, we headed due west to Wickcliffe, Ky. Wickcliffe is just southwest of Paducah at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There we decided to look around a bit, since the Mississippi was extremely swollen at that point.

We found the Fort Jefferson Cross on the east bank of the river. It signifies the flowing together of the waters and the people (Native and other Americans). It's a lovely spot situated as it is atop a bluff overlooking the two rivers, which were about two miles across due to the massive flooding to the north. The locals told us that the road just east of the levy was closed until the week before due to the high water level.

The Cross is 90 feet high and is a lovely spot to watch the sun go down. It is lit at night and may be seen from Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri.

Next morning, we crossed the Ohio River on U.S. 60, but the bridge over the Mississippi was closed due to high water. We detoured across the Mississippi on Interstate 24 through Cairo, Ill., the most depressed looking city I've seen in America.

We picked up U.S. 60 west as soon as possible; it's no fun to ride on busy interstate highways. You see so much more of the country on U.S. and state highways.

Robert Pirsig said it best in his classic, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "When you're in a cage (read car), everything you see is framed by the window. On a bike you're part of the picture postcard. There's just no comparison."

It was a hot, humid day with intermittent light rain, one of those days where you keep putting on and taking off your rain gear. We lunched at the Float Stream Restaurant in Van Buren, Mo. Home cooking at its best, one of the best joints on the entire trip.

From there, we were rumbling along making great time toward Joplin. About 3 p.m., the sky to the west began to darken. By 4 p.m., it was black as night. I suggested to Diane that we call it a day in Springfield, so we checked into a motel after covering 290 miles.

That turned out to be a brilliant move. When we awoke the next morning, Joplin, 70 miles to our west, was gone, hit by the massive tornado. It rained hard till early afternoon of the fourth day, so we hung out in Springfield at the Harley dealer and bought Diane a new rainsuit. Riding a Harley is like driving a Chevy or a Ford; you're never more than 50 miles from a dealer.

By the time we made Pittsburg, Kan., the rain had stopped. It was incredibly sultry, though. We made just 160 miles what with our late getaway and the rain. We were just glad to be west of poor Joplin.

We found Kansas flat and boring heading west on U.S. 160 on our fifth day. Expanses of wheat fields lined the highway along with the Union-Pacific Railway. The little towns weren't much more than grain silos gathered beside the tracks with a couple of houses and maybe a restaurant.

Our goal for the day was Medicine Lodge, Kan. With a name like that, you'd figure they'd have a decent hotel, wouldn't you? No such luck!

We stopped at the local bank and asked for information regarding the closest acceptable accommodations. The bank folks were most cooperative and suggested that the nearest good facilities were in Pratt, about 30 miles north.

Oh well, another 30 miles won't kill us, we thought. It dang near did! As we left Medicine Lodge, we noticed black skies to the south from where the wind was originating. Surely we can outrun it, I thought.

Outrun it we did for about 15 miles. Then the heavens opened and the lightning began to strike all around us. We were so close to Pratt that we blew off the rain gear and made a run for it. Neither one of us wanted to stop in the deluge with thunder and lightning all around to pull on overalls and jackets.

Just as we arrived in Pratt (two drowned rats!) the sun broke through and it was summer again. We found a motel with a guest laundry and did a quick change to dry clothes. Don't want to get caught like that again.

From Pratt, it was only 75 miles to Dodge City. I love these old midwestern cattle towns and wanted to spend some time there. Cattlemen in Texas had to drive their herds to the nearest rail head for shipment to slaughter houses in Chicago. Dodge City was one such rail depot.

We found the local visitors center in Dodge and got the lay of the land. Wyatt Earp was deputy sheriff there for a couple of years before moving on to Tombstone, Ariz. Bat Masterson was sheriff. Wyatt and Doc Holliday teamed up there.

Front Street features a couple of blocks of late 19th century stores complete with period merchandise. The Long Branch Saloon is prominent among these — you will remember that the radio and TV series "Gunsmoke" was set in Dodge.

We each had a sarsaparilla at the Long Branch. Life-sized silhouettes of Miss Kitty (played by Amanda Blake) and Matt Dillon (James Arness) were everywhere. It's a realistic museum and worth a stop.

Boot Hill (allegedly the original) is a hoot. It's very small and is tucked upon a steep hill just north of Front Street. There are some bogus headstones, but no one seems to know who is buried there, no one of notoriety, anyway.

The next day, after a most enjoyable visit, I was finally able to voice these memorable words to Diane: "Let's get the hell outta Dodge!"


Bill Rezak is a retired engineer and college president who lives on Lake Lanier and enjoys riding the north Georgia mountains on his motorcycle. His first book will be published next year.

 

 



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