Our trip in numbers
10 weeks, 39 US states, four Canadian provinces, 23,991 miles (10,007 from the Iron Butt Rally, 13,984 from our tour), three sets of tyres (the front needs changing again), 11,325 photographs and 100GB of video.
Americans have a fascination with history. Every town seems to have its own piece of it, even if it is all a reproduction because the original buildings have disintegrated. We enjoyed the replica town of Winthrop which is unashamedly a tourist trap and we also enjoyed Cooke City which felt authentic even though there was no evidence it was trying to be ‘historical’.
Our favourite bits of US history were the ancient settlements in caves – they really did give an insight into how these ancient people lived. It must have been a very hard life especially when you consider how hot and arid it is in those locations.
We were treated to many fantastic cloud formations. I love looking at clouds and capturing interesting ones in a photo as I know it will always be unique.
Coming from a country that is renowned for being wet and not very warm we had rather a shock at some of the temperatures we encountered along the way. We are not used to such quick variations either (e.g. cold mountains to hot plains in half an hour at the start of our first jaunt across the country). There were times when we were so pleased to see black clouds ahead knowing we would be getting very wet and much cooler shortly. At home that would be cause to get waterproofs out as it would probably last a while and we’d be pretty cold during and afterwards. In the US the storms passed so quickly we often didn’t even get our gloves wet through and soon afterwards we were hot and dry again.
Pennsylvania proved to be the exception to this, the first and last days of the IBR were very wet. I blame Kevin for this as he said he’d be happy for it to rain for all 11 days of the rally as we’re used to it and preferred it to the heat. Even Kevin might have asked for a little less rain on the ride back to the last checkpoint though. When it rains in the US it really rains and not just in PA. We saw walls of water coming towards us on several occasions.
Roads and Riding
We covered just under 24,000 miles which is a fair bit of road. American roads, like the country itself, have vast contrasts. On one hand are the super-straight highways or interstates joining one huge swathe of land to another, on the other are the small local roads clinging to mountains or sea sides. We have to admit our preference is always for the interesting smaller roads but for sheer mile-eating-ability the interstates are wonderful. We were warned we would get bored and yes, at times, it was rather monotonous seeing the same scenery passing by but hey, this was our first time there on a bike so everything was new and interesting to us.
The road surfaces varied from super-smooth tarmac to super-bumpy concrete. Many roads suffer terribly from the cold winter weather and the resulting battering they get from snow ploughs and frost heave and we came through miles and miles of roadworks.
Fines are doubled if you get caught speeding in a construction zone and there are huge penalties if you injure or kill a worker. We could have experienced long delays but in the US they only enforce the lower speed limits for roadworks when the road workers are present and working. Very sensible and something our country could learn from although I doubt that will ever happen here as many of our speed cameras are revenue earners rather than safety aids. On the whole we breezed through the roadworks, sometimes on pieces of road that could barely be called that but usually just on half-finished repairs. We were puzzled by the amount of combing. In Europe that would normally be done as a prelude to repairs but on some US roads it appears to be the norm as the lane-dividing lines have been painted over the top.
Some of the traffic cones in the US are more like dustbins than cones.
Tar-snakes, as they are called over there, were the worst bit about the US roads – they do love their over-banding as a quick fix. Squirt squirt squirt with the tar, sometimes producing more tar areas than road surface. Yuk! The climate often means they are very slippery even when dry. The only place in Europe we have seen such prolific use of over-banding is in Belgium and even they seem to use less.
They also put rumble strips in the middle of the carriageway, presumably to stop people wandering over the middle line. Kevin says they’re not a problem at all but I don’t like them.
We are lucky in Europe as there is a healthy motorcycling lobby and roads are constructed with motorcyclists in mind (except when money is short and they replace relatively safe crash barriers with lethal wire). This is clearly not the case in the US where the car is king and they don’t seem to appreciate the dangers bikers can face in negotiating road repairs. We came across several roads where there was a 2″ drop between lanes and that has to be approached very carefully.
It goes without saying that road signs are different to what we are used to and they don’t seem to have subscribed to the UK view that too much information can be a distraction. Major roads in Europe (not the UK) often have a couple of names – the country-specific one and an EU one. Even quite minor roads in the US seem to have multiple names and the plethora of signs, none of which on occasion seemed to coincide with what the SatNav was telling us, resulted in us taking the wrong one at times.
Drivers on the whole were very polite – they don’t seem in so much of a hurry as European drivers – although we did notice cars and trucks would often pull out in front of us as if we weren’t there. Not being able to filter (lane split) is frustrating when you’re used to being able to. Even in California where filtering is permitted drivers don’t appear to be very aware of people doing it and don’t leave space. Conversely, when we overtook cars on smaller roads the driver often braked and pulled over to the right for some inexplicable reason.
Getting petrol (gas) has been a frustrating experience; probably the biggest frustration of our trip. Nearly all US petrol stations require payment before petrol can be pumped and our credit/debit card rarely worked as the pump required the entry of a zip code (we’re not sure why they can’t use PINs, like Europe and Canada does, which aren’t country-specific).
Sometimes I could leave a card behind the counter, pump, then pay, most times (more often than necessary in my view) I had to over-pay then go back for a refund once Kevin had finished filling the tank. Some garages want cash, some won’t take it. Very occasionally you can pump then pay at the counter, just like we do here, without any problems. In Oregon, by law, it’s all pumped by a forecourt attendant. And then, to make it just that little bit more difficult, in California they have a final joke – ‘recycling the fumes’ covers on the nozzle which have to be retracted before the pump will operate. In a car that wouldn’t be a problem as inserting the nozzle into the tank would automatically retract it. On the GS the petrol cap sits at 90 degrees so there’s no room for the fume-cover which had to be retracted by hand. California was the only place Kevin regularly spilled petrol as he tried to juggle filling the tank while holding back the fume cover. He was sure there must be some knack to it but he didn’t discover it.
We used a lot of petrol and there were very few fills where they went as we would have liked – pump then pay or prepay on the forecourt. Buying petrol in Canada is the same as getting it here – fill the tank then pay – which is much more civilised.
The curse which is Ethanol in petrol has also made an appearance over there. However, unlike the UK the US pumps clearly label whether it has ethanol or not.
It’s very difficult to get a meal with what we consider proper vegetables in a restaurant. Order a meal with vegetables and it will invariably turn up with a dollop of mixed peppers and squash; what happened to cauliflower, broccoli, runner beans, carrots, cabbage, peas, etc.? We did discover a new vegetable called broccolini which is apparently a cross between regular broccoli and a Chinese variety. I have to say I prefer the original.
Of course we consumed too many McDonalds’ meals but we interchanged these with Wendy’s, the latter not opening until 10:00 for some inexplicable reason; they must be missing out on a lot of breakfast trade. Another chain, Denny’s, also proved a good place for a relatively quick meal and has the best ‘chain’ milkshakes.
We noticed an oddity in that there are ‘English’ foods such as English Muffins that we’ve never come across in England (they were rather nice though). I cooked at Paul and Mary’s one evening and was shocked they don’t have Oxo cubes in the US. No wonder the ‘gravy’ in restaurants is more like a thick brown sauce.
Portion sizes are definitely bigger than you would generally get in the UK and this is recognised in some restaurants where they make a small charge for sharing a meal.
You may have noticed we’re rather partial to ice cream and the heat meant our ice cream consumption went up a lot (well that’s our excuse anyway!). There are many small ice-cream producers and we made every effort to try as many of these as we could. When one wasn’t available we discovered a rather scrummy strawberry cheesecake lolly which garages sold and this became one of our staples.
After a long day on the bike Kevin’s favourite drink is Jack Daniels and Coke which proved difficult to get at many eating places. Unlike here where an alcohol licence allows people to sell any kind of alcohol, in the US there is a licence differentiation between wine and beer, and ‘liquor’. Lots of places had wine and beer to sell but no spirits. To add insult to injury they don’t really sell cider either.
Iron Butt Rally
The IBR was the primary driver for our holiday and we spent over two weeks preparing and taking part in the event. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as everyone who has ever expressed an opinion about it (either from participating for real or vicariously via the internet) said it would be really difficult. We were told we wouldn’t get any sleep, we would live off trail rations and, somewhat tongue in cheek, as a couple we’d need marriage guidance afterwards. I’m happy to say none of these things happened. We stopped in a motel and got a few hours sleep and a shower every night but the last. We didn’t eat ‘properly’ but we didn’t live off peanuts and bananas either (we even managed to maintain our ice cream intake!).
We really enjoyed going to the bonus locations. There were lots of places we’d never have even thought of visiting without the rally and there were places we definitely want to revisit when we go back. It was great when we bumped into fellow competitors – the feeling of ‘we’re all in it together’ was tremendous. Some people were so engrossed in their own rally they said very little or nothing but most people were glad to exchange the odd word or two.
I was really surprised at how much enjoyment non-competitors seem to derive from the rally (although seeing how Kevin has followed the rally in the past I shouldn’t have been). People like our friends Paul and Mary, who have never been on a bike, were avid followers getting regular Spot ‘fixes’ and reading the rally commentary and I know there were loads of people from the biking community watching as well. At all the checkpoints people come along to encourage participants and watch the riders coming in. I didn’t expect it to be so much of a spectator event but meeting them was always a boost.
Coming into the last checkpoint after the night we’d had trying to get back in the torrential rain produced a feeling of achievement I can’t describe. I expect it’s akin to how a marathon runner must feel crossing the finishing line. All the photos of me at the finish show me with my head down as I had tears in my eyes and I knew I looked an even bigger wreck than usual (some part of me was still the Virgo!).
You feel so tired that all you really want to do is go to bed but there’s documentation to be completed to prove what you’ve done. There’s such a buzz around as people see friends who have also finished and some who haven’t quite had the result they were hoping for. People are queuing up for verification, chatting to others in the queue or just sitting quietly letting it all sink in. There’s a sudden commotion as someone is rushed through by one of the organisers with minutes to go to being time barred. That was close! Somehow it all falls into place and you are finally able to get to your room for some well-deserved rest.
We’re told completing the rally is hard enough but doing it two-up is even harder. Kevin says it’s definitely slower – motels every night (which he wouldn’t do if solo), petrol, food and sleep stops are longer – and there are two people’s needs to take into account – we try to keep in sync but that doesn’t always work out and I generally need to stop first, occasionally because I think Kevin needs to stop. To balance that, having someone there with you to encourage when you’re despondent, to check the plan is sound, to make sure you have sleep/food/drink, to keep an eye on the road signs and road, to look for bonus locations and above all, just to share the experience with, is priceless. Harder? We don’t think so, just slower.
Thanks to all those involved in the rally organisation for making it possible and to everyone for their encouragement. We mustn’t forget to also thank the people who took photographs at the various rally checkpoints then allowed us to use them here in our blog – Bob, Joe, Steve and Tyler.
The scenery is breathtaking. No matter where you are there’s something new to see. Mountains, lakes, rivers, rolling hills, prairies, fields, cities, towns, villages (we were never quite sure what the definition of these three is as we’ve been through cities that are one street with a few houses and villages that go on for miles), lakes that are like seas, deserts, forests with the biggest trees you’ve ever seen, the list is endless. I took so many photos it will take me several weeks to sort them all out. I’m hoping to be able to garner enough good ones to print a photo book for us which will be a nice souvenir of our trip.
The go anywhere ability of the GSA is why we chose to take it and it didn’t miss a beat. Scheduling servicing on a trip like this is always a bit of a struggle but we managed to get the major services done and it had an oil and filter change mid-rally. The standard seats aren’t the most comfortable in the world, even with Airhawks, but they’re much more comfortable now they’ve been rebuilt by Rick Mayer. We wish we’d seen Rick at the beginning of the trip rather than at the end. The tyres – Anakee 3s – were generally changed at places convenient for our journey and before they needed to be so the change interval isn’t a true reflection of tyre life. The fronts seem to wear out before the rears which is different to our other bikes where the rears always go first. The bike is coming back by sea which will take at least five weeks and we’ll definitely miss it as it’s been our home for ten weeks.
Kevin bought a Klim Badlands Pro suit just before we left and didn’t regret it. He says it’s very comfortable, waterproof and the vents let in lots of air (they are a complete PITA for me to do up and undo when we’re on the move though!). I bought a Halvarssons Electra jacket before we left to replace my old faithful black Halvarssons Furia jacket. The Electra is OK but let down by several aspects such as the sleeve zips which I struggled to do up whilst on the bike and the vents which didn’t really let much air in due to their positioning. They’ve very considerately put a softer material at the bottom of the arms but unfortunately it soaks up and holds water. I had a pair of Halvarssons Prince jeans which were great, even though they were too big for me (did my bum look big in those? probably, but it wasn’t all me!!). Both items were waterproof, even through the downpours, but if I’m honest my old jacket (which is also waterproof) is better.
The Panasonic Lumix TF2 cameras we’ve had for a number of years worked well (as ever) but I do wish the on/off switch was less indented to make it easier to turn on while wearing gloves. The cameras continue to resist my attempts to break them when they are accidentally dropped and remain waterproof on the whole although there is now some condensation in one of them which eventually resulted in it being consigned to the top box in disgrace. Hopefully some time in the airing cupboard will sort that out.
We’ve always resisted video in the past as it takes long enough to sort out the photographs let alone editing video but we bought a GoPro Hero 3 Black a couple of days before we departed so we could give it a try. The jury is still out. It adds three things to our charging schedule each night – (at least one) battery, expanded battery, remote control – which is a PITA and we have GBs of data that we may or may not get around to editing. We eventually gave up on it as the remote would start a recording but nothing we could do short of manually turning the camera off would stop it; maybe we’ve got it into some funny mode? We suspect our experience would have been a lot better if we’d bought it early enough to have become familiar with it before we left. We haven’t yet looked at most of the video we took but were quite pleased with this one of the Moki Dugway. It doesn’t show the scale and majesty of the place nor how steep the descent is but it’ll give you a flavour (after you start the video click the YouTube icon on the bottom right for a larger view).
We had quite a list of places we wanted to see but the decision to attempt an IBA National Parks Tour gave us focus for our ride rather than just aimlessly wandering and we travelled on some great roads with fantastic scenery. We went to 78 National Park Visitor Centres in 28 states which, assuming they pass validation, will result in a Silver award. It’s a pity we didn’t get to Alaska to turn it into a Gold but it would have turned the last part of our trip into a bit of a marathon and we were enjoying ourselves too much to let that happen. Alaska is on our must-visit list anyway and it will be much better at a later date when we’ll have time to enjoy it.
I have to say we were not looking forward to coming back to the UK’s congested, speed camera infested roads but thank you to Richard and Sheena who led us round part of Wales last weekend (on our FJR as the GS is still on its way back) which reminded us what the UK has to offer. The problem is mostly limited to the crowded south-east where we live so we need to move.
We have met the most warm, generous, friendly, people on this trip. Complete strangers have offered us accommodation. People have been so interested in what we’re doing that it has sometimes been hard to move on. I can only recall one grumpy petrol pump woman (in Maine) and one person (in El Paso) who ‘would rather be cleaning his Harley than riding that bike’ which said more about him than anything I could think of. Ah well, each to their own.
We’d like to publicly thank Kris and Scott, Brenda and Tom, Grace and Neil, Vicky and Dan, and Kim and Don for their hospitality and friendship – we really enjoyed every day we spent with you. Thanks also to Dan, Don, Tom K and Tom L. for their road suggestions, every one of which was excellent, and to Tom L. for the maps. Last but definitely not least, thanks to our Californian surrogate family Paul, Mary and Erin; it’s always special spending time with you.
We started writing about our trips in 2008 in electronic postcards sent home to family and friends. Kevin also used to modify the emails for posting on various forums. When we started our web site we ported those emails here and have subsequently posted reports about trips and rallies. Our primary reason for doing this is it’s our diary which reminds us of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. We switched to WordPress and a ‘blog’ for this trip as it was quick and easy to use and a one-stop shop where anyone who wishes can read it. At some point we’ll collapse the blog and turn it into a write-up but that can wait for a while. There have been over 4,500 page views while we’ve been away so we hope you enjoyed coming along for the ride with us.
Well that’s all for this trip anyway. Our previous long trip like this (round Europe) was five years ago. We hope it’s not another five years before we can have another one.