Written by Yermo.
For the last many months, I've been spending the majority of my time developing software for the site. It's been an all-encompassing effort, which is why I haven't been writing. I have this naive wish to turn Miles By Motorcycle into something cool that we can all use to plan trips, organize rides and tell the inevitable tall tales that come up along the way. It's turned out to be so much more work than I ever imagined. It's almost May and I've been at this since last July. It's coming along, albeit slowly. I've installed portions of what I've built on the site and it sort of works. There are still too many bugs and missing features. The site runs way too slowly which I'll have to address soon. At the present rate, I wonder if I'll get it all to be "good enough" before I run out of money later this year. When that happens, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I'd really like to be able to continue this effort, but I'll need to find a way for it to generate some money or maybe get investors.
As far as software projects go, I've enjoyed this one more than I've enjoyed any other, but it's challenging me in ways that I'm ill-prepared for. My achilles heel is that I'm not visual, I'm conceptual. I can do the abstract data models and backend software and protocols and all the rest of the stuff under the hood that people typically think is technical and difficult. But I can't make it look sexy to save my sorry life. At least, if this thing ever takes off, I've got things set up so that if someone who knows how to do sexy better than I can comes along, they would be able to help with the visual work. In the meantime, I'll try my best on all these fronts and continue to make slow progress.
Despite all the shortcomings on the site, I've been getting lots of encouragement and most riders I talk to seem to like the idea of the site. I'm close to having most of the features built that I want. For the last few weeks, I've been building the mapping system that I've been talking about for ages. My hope is to get everything built and basically working, including the road-tagging mobile app, before August when I intended to use it.
Because in August, I'm leaving on another big trip.
It was many years ago on our very first trip down to Deal's Gap that Ian and I met Francios. He rode a Suzuki DR650SE, which for the uninitiated is a so called 'Dual Sport' motorcycle designed to be a 50/50 compromise between riding on pavement and playing in the dirt. It does both competently but like most compromises does not excel at either. He had modified it extensively and mostly I remember the big gas tank he had on it. Towards the end of our trip, so many years ago, he invited us to a nice a nice dinner in Knoxville, I think it was. I remember thinking that he, like so many crazy Canadians we've met, could ride like nobody's business and on the way to dinner he had to slow down repeatedly for us to catch up. After all, our premium European sport touring machines were no match for a piss-ant little dual-sport on knobby tires. That made an impression. At dinner, topics ranged across the spectrum of motorcycling. At one point he started talking about the Trans Am Trail. I don't remember if this was the first time that i had heard about this trail, but it was the first time that I can remember thinking, ominously, "I may have to do that some day." It's an off-road route from Western North Carolina across the continental United States to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. It goes across the Smokies, into the Great Plains, through deep Canyons, across deserts and over the Rocky Mountains, all off-road. There are photos of the trail that are simply stunning. But, I confess, it sounds like a ridiculously difficult and treacherous trip. There are countless obstacles and hazards along the way including rocky river crossings, small paths along steep hills, mud, endless fields of mud and other threats. Most of the road reports I've read about the trip involve serious injury and riders falling down mountain sides.
But it's one of the "Big Trips". Deadhorse, Alaska is one. Patagonia in Argentina is another. The TransAmTrail is one of these trips.
Francios suggested a small bike was definitely best suited for such an adventure. He had done some sections of the Trail, but not all of it. The conversation moved to other topics and thoughts of the trail faded. I had always wanted to come back and take them out to dinner, but the years ticked by and the opportunity never arose.
The thought about the trail recurred some many years later, before my soul snapped and I left for Alaska. I even went so far as to get some of the maps to study, but I dropped the idea and it faded from my mind once again.
I don't remember who it was, but back in Septemeber, someone, I think it was probably Duncan, posted a photo to Facebook of a rider on the Trans Am Trail and he captioned it, "So who wants to do this?". I thought little of it until friends started chiming in, "Sure, I'm in!".
It was one of those pivotal moments where the decision is made before you're even aware of it. As if it were past tense, I knew I was going to go. In a way it makes sense to do it this year. I still have the funds and the flexibility. Once I have to start making money again, it's unlikely I'll be able to do anything like this. So if I don't do it this year, I probably won't get to do it unless my fortunes change, which is unlikely.
So I announced, boldly but unconvincingly, that I would do the trip this year.
Yun talked about going. He's a good friend who's gotten heavily into riding in the last year. Unfortunately, his schedule doesn't work as he would only be able to go through the middle of the summer which, based on what I've read, is really not the time to go.
Unexpectedly, Rob, who went with us to Deal's Gap last year, said he was up for the trip. It was clear he was very serious. Life is conspiring to give him just enough time, during the right part of the season, to do it. In the last year, we've ridden together quite a bit and I have the feeling that of the new people I've met, I could do the trip with him, which is saying quite a lot. It's a tall order to travel far by motorcycle together. It's an even taller order to do it off-road through the hard parts with someone you haven't known extremely well for decades. Both he and I have had difficult trips that didn't go as well as hoped and don't want to repeat them. Personalities matter. Attitudes matters. Perspective matters. Risk tolerance and a whole host of other factors, matters. Most of all, getting out of your own head matters. If you go and do something difficult, something you've never done before, you have to let go of ego. You have to do the trip at the trips pace.
"If we do this thing, I don't want to be on a schedule. The trip takes what it takes." I would say as we discussed the trip. "Absolutely. I want to stop and look at things. If we make it only half way and run out of time, so be it. No goals." That was key for me. Being the CTO of a relatively large networking company, at least larger than any I've been involved with, Rob has lived deadlines, obligations and stress. He knows what it's like to be where the buck stops. He knows what it's like to be in that place where choices are made for you by outside forces and you have to respond not at a time of your own choosing. He's done the mega-long days week-in and week-out. Do this for enough years and it shapes you. I've often wondered if I'm really "entreprenuerial". I've helped found companies. I've helped build businesses. I've created and launched products, but, because nothing I've ever done has been all that successful, "two-bit loser entrepreneur" I sometimes joke, and because I'm singularly averse to promotion, I've always felt like somewhat of an imposter, a fraud. Interestingly, talking to Rob has changed that. After many conversations and so many valuable insights that he's shared, I've come to realize, "If you have the scars of an entreprenuer, then you are an entreprenuer." Valuable lesson learned. I think this concept can be applied elsewhere as well. He did a hell ride to Alaska as a younger man, just like I did, except that he made it and I didn't. He doesn't want a hell ride. If you have the scars of the long distance rider, then you are a long distance rider.
Another key thing about Rob, despite being one of those annoyingly rock solidly healthy balanced and well socialized individuals, he understands how to interact with those of us who are more broken. Like Duncan and Bruce, he's not the kind of person to push you when your health or psyche are failing you. Unlike many others out there who are in it for themselves and value their own enjoyment above the people around them, he believes in team. If I get sick, and I will, we'll stop and wait. That is Good.
The decision was made. We will do this trip. It will be long and likely the hardest travel by motorcycle that I've ever done. Because I'm sick, it'll be even more challenging with all of my flakey dietary restrictions and unpredictability. We're going to try to camp in the wilds two out of three nights which presents it's own challenges. There will be rain, wind, hail, mud, river crossings, treacherous passes, insects, wildlife and likely angry farmers. There will be mechanical failures. The possibility of injury looms large. But we are going. And we will be leaving sometime late August or early September.
We will travel off-road for approximately 4500 miles across the Continental United States.
(note very cool map. Note that it is created with my in-development mapping code. Now say "ooooooh. aaaaaaah". I feel better. Thanks.)
I will likely travel back across country after meeting up with Ian. I'll visit Bruce either on the way out or the way back or both.
This trip has some added complexities. First, I don't have a motorcycle nor any gear appropriate for off-road travel. This means I'll have to buy a bike, equipment and a full seat of riding gear for off-road use. Secondly, it's been over 20 years since I've done any real off-road trail riding. I'm not entirely confident that I have the skills anymore. I may be a modestly accomplished motorcyclist, but this is all a completely new context and I must approach it all with the eyes of a beginner, otherwise mistakes can be made and Trouble(tm) can happen. The most dangerous motorcyclist is someone who rode years and years ago and comes back into it thinking they know what they are doing. Be humble. Take it slowly. Re-learn.
So in the intervening months, there was much agonizing about what kind of bike to get. I absolutely wanted to get something fuel injected with heated grips. This implied a BMW. I read up on everything under the sun. I thought what I would need for a trip like this was an "Adventure" bike. These are machines designed for world touring. Technical machines. I thought fuel injection was a necesssity since we'll be going over passes that reach 12,500 feet. Carburators, being mechanical devices, can't compensate for the change in altitude and bog down at higher elevations. In addition, I hate carburators like the plague. Evil devices designed to inflict frustration and pain.
So I test rode every bike I could think of. We all went to the International Motorcycle Show and sat on every kind of adventure bike there. We pondered. Rob liked the Triumph or the Yamaha Tenere. At one point, we both thought the BMW Sertao was the right bike. But it was crazy heavy.
Sometimes to figure out what you want you need to contrast it again what you know you don't want. So, on a whim, I sought out a very low cost "dual-sport" bike to sit on. The one I chose, because it happened to be close and I had read was highly regarded, was Francios's bike, the Suzuki DR650SE. It was a non-starter for me. No fuel injection. "It has a carburator? In this day and age? You've got to be kidding me!" I said aloud. No heated grips. Puny alternator. Yet it was very inexpensive and there was something to it. It was tall, but not too tall. It was light and narrow. I could flat foot it, which in my mind was a key requirement. "To solve a problem, sometimes you have to decide what wants you need to let go." I've said I hold on to my wants loosely. Could I live without fuel injection? Could I do the trip on this bike? I had really wanted a BMW partially because I thought I have so many good contacts of incredibly knowledgeable people in the BMW world that I could get lots of help. Maybe I could even get Bob's BMW to allow me to host a post-trip event. If I do the trip on a non-BMW, that option is unlikely.
So for the next several weeks, I tried to find a suitable BMW. There's a bike called the X-Challenge which is very similar to the DR in size. It's heavier but equally off-road capable. It's a dual-sport bike, not an adventure bike. Milner, another friend who's in the forum, got one and had it shipped across country. A decent machine that I thought would fit the bill, but I couldn't find one. I considered the F650GS which is more street oriented and I thought I could use it as a trainer.
I also considered that if Rob and I got the same bike it would offer an advantage. We could share knowledge and parts. In my mind, it just made sense. Rob seemed to think it was largely irrelevant and suggested I get whatever bike I was happy with. Still, I think riding the same bike offers more advantages than disadvantages especially when things go wrong.
I looked for a while longer and finally relented. I could not find a BMW that I thought I could reliably do the trip on. Either they were not dirt oriented enough or they were just too big and heavy. There's a big difference between riding a fire road and trail riding, and I would find out later that there's an even bigger difference in "true-off-road" riding, but that's a story for another time.
I read a lot more and finally settled on the idea of at least trying the DR650SE. I think it was Yun, or maybe Milner, who forwarded me the link to a 2009 DR650SE up in New Hampshire. It was clean with low miles. I forwarded the link to Rob because we had been talking about it. A few days later, as I was still agonizing, he told me he had ordered it and it would be shipped down in a couple of weeks. That settled it for me. DR650SE it was whether I liked it or not. A short while later, Yun or Milner, forwarded me a link to one for sale locally. It was also a 2009 and it had only 419 miles on it. "Done." I thought. No shipping. No having to get it through inspection. 30 day warranty.
Audrey gave me a ride up to Frederick where I picked the bike up. She was busting my chops a bit as I was mentioning that I had some reservations about Japanese dealers. I could hear her think, "BMW snob." But the Japanese vendors I've tried to work with have left me feeling like there's something missing. It always seems to me that they are not there to support you. They just want to move product and take your money. And that's exactly what it turned out to be. Even Audrey saw it as they were unable to answer even the most basic questions about any of the bikes they were selling. The dealer knew virtually nothing about the DR at all. "It's made by Suzuki. It's a DR650. That means the engine is a 650." Yea, thanks. Every time I've had a question about a BMW over a Bob's regardless of the vintage of bike they could tell me what it excels at, what it's deficiencies are, exactly what recalls were needed and done, what types of issues I might encounter during my intended use, things to watch for, history of other riders who had the same bike and what issues they ran into, suggested modifications, third party vendors they have relationships with that can do custom work, etc. Mattigan at the parts desk is an incredible wealth of knowledge. There's a certain pleasure I gain from working with people who really know what they are doing and take an interest in it beyond it just being a job. Do something you want to do, something you want to be good at. Don't just cash a paycheck. If you are there to help me for the long haul, I will pay more. It's only fair. For these people, selling this Suzuki, it was just a job, so many dollars. BMW snob? Honestly, not really. But the bike I ride is about more than just the bike. I rely on the people behind it. That's why I've been able to keep my beloved Blue Oil Burner running for the last 21 years. With a Suzuki, I know I would be on my own.
Since it was a used bike, they did at least let me take it on a test ride. That changed everything. It took me all of a quarter mile to realize this was the bike for the trip. Of all the single cylinder bikes I've tried, even the BMW's, it was by far and away the smoothest. It's crazy light. It's dirt simple. That latter point made feel ok with the fact that I knew I was on my own with it. There's nothing on this bike I would not be able to do myself. The bike has been made the same way since 1996 so there's a ton of serviceable, if not superbly engineered, after market parts for it. Rob had the exact same make model and year of bike. It was crazy inexpensive but I confess it feels remarkably solid. I was very surprised how much I liked it despite having virtually none of the key features I thought I needed.
So I bought the beast.
There's a series of videos by some crazy Canadians documenting their offroad excursions. Amongst the bunch is one DR650. They named their DR the Mighty DR because it was quite capable.
Shortly after I got my DR, Rob got his and came by for a visit.
His is white, mine if black. The bikes named themselves. Meet the Mighty DR's Yin and Yang.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the bike as is is not ready for the trip. As you can see there's no place to store anything. Also, the gas tank is very small at only 3.5 gallons. The headlight is not very bright and there's no plug for charging electronics. Fortunately, mine already had the skid plate. I thought these plates were a bit of an affectation, but my opinion on that subject would be violently changed for me. The bike is fairly tall and I had considered lowering it so that I could use it as a trainer. I know quite a few people who want to learn how to ride and if the bike were a bit lower it could serve that purpose. I would also learn that a lowered suspension is a serious liaibility. Rob kept saying that he was going to raise the suspension on his. I didn't understand why.
So I did a bunch more research. One thing that I understood all too well is that I know virtually nothing. I also know there is a tendency when you know nothing and you're going to embark on something difficult, to make the attempt to guard against too many eventualities. Since you have no experience, there's no way to know what kinds of things might happen. I've seen guys carry spare tires but never use them. How likely is a tire to get shredded? Guys put guards over the headlight. How likely is a headlight to get smashed? From personal experience, I know levers break in even the smallest falls so have spare levers to bolt on is key. There are engine guards available? How likely is that? So I just don't know. I decided to take a middle ground. I imagined trail riding on dirt, mud, gravel and sand. I imagined the kind of riding I did as a kid. So I decided to prepare the bike for that.
I would need to carry equipment so I ordered a rear rack, side racks for soft luggage. I opted for soft luggage instead of hard luggage to keep the weight down. I got a tank bag. I got a guard for the headlight in addition to some driving lights. I got a tool tube which goes under the seat on the left to put tools in. I got a BMW style power outlet for it so I can plug in the electronics I already have. I got a used motorcycle GPS. It's waterproof and mounts nicely to the handlebars. And I got a thermometer. Misery is usually less miseralbe when you can put a number to it. I also got a huge gastank for it in addition to a center stand. I figure changing tires and oiling the chain is easier with a centerstand. I also picked up a slightly lower seat made by Sargeant.
A couple of days of wrenching and forcing parts that don't quite fit together to fit and it was done.
I confess I like the way the bolted on parts make the beast look a bit meaner than it did stock.
The next task was to figure out what kind of gear to get. As anyone who's spoken to me knows, I am a big believer in protective gear. Since I had nothing suitable for a hot off-road adventure, I needed to get a complete new set of gear. This meant an off-road helmet, gloves, jacket, pants and boots. This turned into another round of agonizing and I explored every vendors offerings I could find. I even attended a special event up at Bob's to look at all the latest gear coming out. The M-BY-MC crew made a special trip up to Revzilla in Philladelphia, PA. Revzilla is another company filled with people that live and breathe motorcycling. You go there and you can just feel that the people that work there want to be there. It's not just a job to them. We are big fans of Revzilla. They rock. They are also greatly technical. Their website is simply fantastic and the product videos they put together are great.
I considered every suit under the sun. I don't do heat well, so I know, riding in August and September, heat was going to be a bigger problem than cold. After much more agonizing, I settled on the Alpenstar Cape Town jacket. A nice woman working for Revzilla pointed out they do not offer matching pants but that a wide range of pants from other vendors can be made to match. I picked up a pair of Olympia mesh pants. Audrey kindly sewed the zipper so that the Alpenstar jacket now matches up nicely with the pants. I settled on the Alpenstar Scout II boots. A pair of Revvit off-road gloves and the Arai XD-4 helmet.
The Alpenstar jacket came with foam pads instead of real armor so I upgraded the armor to their latest offering. It included chest plates which I would learn is key. The boots have serious shin guards and as Rob pointed out, after he posted some gruesome photos of shin injuries, they are a requirement. Apparently a common injury in off road riding is having your feet some off the pegs and shattering your legbone. Ouch.
Not having any experience with any of this gear, I didn't really know if it was going to work out. I made my best guess and was going to have to live with it.
So the time came to take the Mighty DR Yin for a test ride. My intention had been just to take it for a 30 mile or so street ride. I got on it and immediately felt like I had been transported back to an earlier time in my life riding trails. It took just a few turns and an instinctive, "I wonder what's at the end of this promising looking no outlet road." for me to find a system of trails. I spent the next few hours getting the DR quite dirty. These trails were far more technical and difficult than anything I had done as a kid. I overcame obstacles on this bike that I would never have considered even as a little kid. "You live your life backwards." Duncan would always say.
Interestingly, within about 10 minutes of going offroad, a branch hit me square in the chest on one of the chest plates. It was a very slow impact so even without the protector it would not have hurt, but I found myself wondering if this might be foreshadowing.
The cliche "It's like riding a bicycle." came to mind. I had no trouble handling the bike. I had no trouble climbing hills. In this stretch of time I intentionally found and overcame every obstacle that I could imagine I might find on the trip except a deep water crossing, or so I thought.
I would learn the error of my ways and come to understand a new context I had not considered.
Some time after I declared that I was confident in my offroad abilities having done more technical riding than anything I did as a kid, Rob suggested that we do a weekend camping trip in Taskers Gap in the George Washington National Forest. It's a series of OHV and ATV trails. "OK, sure. No problem. I'm up for some trail riding. It'll make for a good shake down run and let me get some experience travelling with this new bike and gear."