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SKYBIRD:
Dale Brown’s Ops Report
Copyright © 2006, TDPI

SPECIAL EDITION: The Rally

T Minus 3 Days
Lake Tahoe, Nevada

It's one of those decisions, one of those opportunities, that you regret agreeing to--and at the same time are really excited about.

My friend Michael asked me if I wanted to go with him to Sturgis, South Dakota in August for the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally, one of the largest motorcycle gatherings in the world. Unlike most baby-boomers who go to Sturgis, Michael wants to ride his Harley-Davidson Road King all the way--1,800 miles one-way for him. Michael's an experienced rider whose idea of a relaxing Sunday is to drive a couple hundred miles up and down California's Central Coast. Most of Michael's motorcycle-riding friends are older riders who don't share the same passion, so he mostly rides solo. When I got my second motorcycle, a 2005 Honda Gold Wing on eBay, Michael was excited because now he had a buddy with a bike big enough to keep up with him.

The planets are starting to align--for him at least.

Apparently Michael has always had this dream of riding to Sturgis. He's been to Street Vibrations, the motorcycle rally in Reno, Nevada, which is the third or fourth largest American motorcycle rally. But Sturgis is the classic rally: it's the Playboy Mansion, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge of bike rallies, the one everyone wants to attend at least once in their riding experience… …well, almost everyone. I had heard of Sturgis, but I never had any desire to go there. I'm not really into rallies, conventions, meets, seminars, conclaves, reunions, or any other variety of gatherings of large numbers of people with loud machines. I hate crowds. My idea of a perfect convention is attending a few classes or panels and then hanging out at the pool in a cabana with my wife Diane, my son Hunter, a few drinks, and a few friends.

So, of course, I agree to go to Sturgis with Michael.

Sturgis is not a Harley-only rally, but because it's the granddaddy of American motorcycle rallies, Harleys are definitely the kings. Me and my "rice-burner" can go but will we be welcome in Sturgis? And Michael doesn't want to trailer the bikes behind a motorhome or have them delivered to him by truck or train while we fly there--he wants to ride all the way. Michael puts five thousand miles on his bike each summer--I'm lucky if I put two thousand miles on mine all year. He's aching to do it, and I agreed to go with him. What was I thinking?

It's not exactly my idea of an idyllic vacation: 3,200 miles round-trip in less than two weeks on a motorcycle in the middle of summer to the northern plains, without the family. I'm not a vacation guy. When I go someplace, I can't just lie around--I have to have something to do. I usually plan vacations around flight training or business trips, not for any tax-deduction reasons but because I don't want to plan on doing nothing. I'll be happy to do Universal Studios with the family, but the reason I go to Orlando is for airplane simulator training. If I don't have anything to do, I'll end up opening up the laptop and working, which drives my wife nuts; or I'll end up eating and drinking to excess, which drives my doctor nuts.

Secondly, I don't like leaving home for a vacation unless the destination is nicer than my home, and that's a tough standard in summertime. I live near Lake Tahoe year-round, and I can guarantee that there is no place on Earth nicer in summertime than Tahoe, with its almost perfect summer weather: hot cloudless days, perfect for sunbathing, but with a nice cold alpine lake to take a dip in when it gets too hot; evenings cool enough to require a sweater and which keeps the bug population way down; very little rain to spoil outdoor concerts and long-awaited (and expensive) beach plans; and very low desert-like humidity. I love the sun and the outdoors but I'm a fair-skinned Irish boy and sunburn quickly and painfully, so I try to avoid direct, prolonged exposure to sunshine as much as possible. So six traveling days on a motorcycle, plus at least a couple more cruising and sightseeing once we get to the Black Hills--perfect for me, right? I will look and feel like a lobster when this thing is over.

If there's one negative about Tahoe in summertime, it's the crowds--which is another bizarre twist which I can't reconcile with myself. I hate crowds. Did I already mention this? Except for occasional meals, picnics, or beach days with the family, I avoid the lake and the casinos around Tahoe during high season. It's a good time to stay at home and work. So naturally I agree to immerse myself for five days in a small town in western South Dakota that normally has less than ten thousand residents but will reportedly swell to over one million visitors during the Rally. Yikes.

So that's the situation I was faced with after I decided to go: travel over three thousand miles on a motorcycle in the dead of summer and attend a rally with a million other bikers, most of whom were probably hard-core motorcycle guys who would spend most of the rally snarling at tourists, gawkers, and pretenders like me who were spoiling "their" rally. The Harley-Davidson slogan "Live To Ride, Ride To Live" means something to them. For guys like me, it was a fleeting urge, like dressing up like a biker for Halloween.

Traveling long distances never bothered me. I was a navigator-bombardier on the B-52G Stratofortress bomber in the Air Force, which was the king of "global reach, global power" long-range aerial strike. My average training mission in the B-52 was nine hours; my longest mission ever was 27 hours. As the navigator, night and day are meaningless except perhaps choosing which celestial object to shoot with the sextant to help navigate the plane: if it was daytime I'd shoot the sun, and of course use the stars, moon, and planets at night. Otherwise, life in the windowless belly of the B-52 looks the same, and the job is the same. As long as I kept the plane on time and on course, I was OK. Except for the complaining from my butt, twenty-seven hours in a B-52 was no sweat.

When I was younger, driving from California to Kansas or Arkansas to visit family was no big deal. I once drove from Sacramento to Yellville, Arkansas in 40 hours in a Plymouth Horizon--which had a smaller engine than on my Gold Wing!--catnapping at rest stops and drinking gallons of coffee to stay awake. It was a badge of honor back then. If the car could make it, I could make it.

But that was a long time ago. I still fly as a private pilot, but my normal mission is a maximum of about three hours per leg--about the most my passengers' bladders can stand, since peeing is rather problematic in a small plane, even if it's equipped with a lavatory--and no more than two such legs a day. My longest flight in a small plane in one day was three legs in nine hours. With fuel stops and time changes, that is a fourteen hour day in the saddle, which with all the pressures of solo private flying--navigation, weather avoidance, instrument flying, and landing at unfamiliar airports--is quite enough.

My longest drive on the new Honda Gold Wing was bringing the bike home after purchasing it in Paso Robles, California: about 400 miles in 8.5 hours, stopping every 2 hours or so for gas and to stretch my legs. I started to get nervous every time the gas gauge needle dipped below the halfway mark, so that's when I'd stop. It was an uneventful but exciting ride on a new high-tech machine in perfect weather and little traffic. The first season I had the bike, about three months, I rode it for about 1,500 miles. That was 500 miles more than ALL the miles I had ridden my previous motorcycle, a 2000 Harley-Davidson DynaGlide Sport I bought at a charity auction in Reno, in 2 years. Most of the rides were from home to Minden-Tahoe Airport to go flying, with occasional trips to book signings or visits.

So how was I going to do this? I'm committed to go; I've decided I'm not going to make excuses or try to weasel out. In fact, I've decided that if for some reason Michael can't go, I'm STILL going to go. How in the world did I reach THAT epiphany?

One of my favorite sayings is: If you don't like the answer, change the question. Think of the situation in different ways; look at it from a different perspective. I wasn't going to think of the trip in terms of the distance, noise, vibration, heat, and crowds--I was going to think about how I was going to do the ride MY way.

One thing to point out before we go on: I'm not a casual rider, flyer, or much of anything else for that matter: I believe in education, preparation, equipment, practice, and planning. Call it "anal retentive" if you want. Like flying, riding motorcycles has always been a task, not an escape or experience. I could never understand the "slip the surly bonds" mystic romance of aviation. Perhaps it's my military aviation background, which always emphasized "Plan the flight, then fly the plan," but I never liked flying as a way to "clear my head" or "commune with the Almighty" or anything like that. In aviation, I always wanted to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and as safely as possible. I armed myself with every bit of data I could about the flight, and I brought along every possible tool I could think of to best accomplish the mission--whether or not I'd actually use it.

It was going to be the same with motorcycles. I know that motorcycles are a hundred times more deadly than riding in automobiles, just like I know that general aviation is a hundred times more deadly than commercial aviation. My objective in riding motorcycles, especially riding long distances in short amounts of time, was to do it as safely as possible. I wanted no surprises, or at least as few as possible. I know there's risk--the important thing for me was to minimize and manage the risks, then determine in my own mind if the remaining risks were worth the reward.

Let's start with comfort in the cockpit. The stock Honda Gold Wing is already a pretty comfortable ride: it is big and powerful, with a smooth-running horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder 1800cc liquid-cooled engine, five-speed transmission plus electric reverse, cruise control, and digital electronic ignition. Inside a full-face helmet, it is sometimes hard to hear the engine running at all! So I'm starting out on a good bike built for the mission--long-range cruising.

The first safety item to consider was the helmet. My first bike, the Harley DynaGlide Sport, did not have a windshield or fairings to deflect and divert wind, bugs, and debris away from me, so I wore a full-face flip-front helmet that protected my entire face and head. The Gold Wing partially surrounds the rider in a fiberglass and Lexan cocoon that effectively blocks most flying objects and eliminates wind blast pressure from the body. With all that protection, a "shorty" or half-helmet or a three-quarter helmet are options. A half-helmet is the lightest and certainly the most comfortable of the three, but how much protection does it realistically offer? A full-face or lift-front helmet offers maximum protection and deadens sound the best, but can be heavy, hot, stifling, and you can't drink water unless you take it off or lift the front (not something you want to do while riding); a three-quarter helmet offers better head protection than a half-helmet but has no face protection and decreases sound only a bit more than a half-helmet.

Let's be honest here: to my way of thinking, there are two kinds of motorcycle riders: those who have crashed or laid down a bike, and those who will. Let's deal with the very real possibility of a crash and how to prepare for it:

Jumping off a three-foot table onto the floor approximately duplicates hitting the ground at five miles an hour. Not a big deal, right? Well, try landing face-first or head-first onto a concrete floor from that height, and you have a better understanding of the traumatic forces involved in even a slow-speed crash. Five miles per hour is barely enough forward movement to steer a motorcycle. Now imagine landing head-first or face-first after jumping off the roof of a single-story building. Now you're traveling at thirty miles an hour--still not freeway speed, barely into third gear. What would happen to your face and head if it hits first? You'd be pretty messed up without some kind of substantial protection.

I'm all for comfort, but I want a "brain bucket" that's going to protect me. So I'm taking the full-face flip-front helmet.

What about other riding gear?

I used to ride with leather chaps--pull-on pants-like leggings--because they offered far better abrasion protection than jeans. But they are too hot and confining for summertime use, so I think I'll stick with jeans over calf-height boots.

The best motorcycle gloves I've worn in summertime are not motorcycle gloves at all, but baseball batter's gloves--they are armored on top, with soft leather on the palms that makes it easier to twist the throttle. I also carry gauntlets--thick leather winter-weight gloves that extend well above the wrist so jackets can be tucked under them. I might look for nicer gloves in Sturgis, but for now my batter's gloves are ideal.

I used to ride with a rather thick black leather motorcycle jacket, and in colder weather I will still do so, but to Sturgis in August I'll wear a thick silver mesh Gold Wing summer-weight riding jacket which has protective armor in the elbows, arms, shoulders, and spine. The mesh construction allows air to penetrate on hot days. For colder morning rides I'll wear a long-sleeve workout shirt over a T-shirt under the jacket, and I'll strip off the long-sleeve shirt during a rest stop when it's warmed up enough.

I don't plan on bringing a lot of clothing. I'm a big believer in the old travel truism, "bring half the clothes and twice the money." I can stock up on T-shirts in Sturgis.

The Gold Wing has a great big broad cushy seat, perfect for my big broad cushy ass. But keeping my legs bent for hours on end in the standard seated riding position is not comfortable, so I discovered the joys of highway pegs. These add-ons let you lift and extend your legs into a more comfortable reclined position, almost like sitting in a partially-reclined Barcalounger. My choice for highway pegs are not actually "pegs"--they are small floorboards mounted on steel arms that support the entire foot.

In this position, pressure is no longer completely on my butt but has been transferred to my lower back, which now needs some support, so I added a larger back rest. Now in the semi-reclined highway position, I can press my lower back firmly against the back rest, which provides great comfort, support, and stability. I can't swing my right leg over the seat any more, like Clint Eastwood getting on his horse, but frankly getting on a motorcycle, especially a monster like the Gold Wing, has never been a pretty sight for me.

One of the gadgets I got for the bike early on was a very cool double golf club bag rack which bolts onto a receiver hitch that my brother Ken installed on the Gold Wing. I'll use the rack to hold a Rollaboard-sized suitcase for my clothes and other gear that I won't take out unless we stop for the night; I'll save the other three storage compartments on the Gold Wing for stuff I might use during the ride.

By the way, my brother Ken has been my maestro in installing and caring for the Gold Wing, just as he has been taking care of my airplanes for the past three years. He is a licensed FAA airplane mechanic, a former long-haul trucker and diesel mechanic, and a plain old mechanical genius--all he needs are the manuals, and I swear he can fix a rainy day. He laughs at some of the gadgets I've gotten for the bike, but he's installed all of them with no difficulties. It sure is nice to have an experienced and unafraid wrench-turner to rely on.

Along with highway pegs, a receiver hitch, a driver's back rest, and a golf club bag rack, Ken has installed high-beam flashers; fog lights; an audio system integrator that ties in radar detector audio, cellphone audio, and GPS audio into the Gold Wing's built-in intercom; a trunk luggage rack; handlebar extensions; a 12-volt power outlet; passenger armrests; and front brake covers.

The ultimate accessory that Ken has installed recently on the Gold Wing: a set of Safety Features Inc.'s SafeStop "landing gear" wheels. These are hydraulically-operated wheels that lower to support the bike at slow speeds and retract so the bike can be ridden normally.

I installed the wheels because of an incident not long ago when I dropped the bike while driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 92 between Half Moon Bay and San Mateo, California--I put my right foot down on a turn with a high crown, my foot slipped on some gravel, and down I went. I leapt clear of the bike so it didn't fall on me, and I was only going at a walking pace so I wasn't hurt at all, but it was a sobering incident. The Honda Gold Wing weighs about 850 pounds, and when it reaches the "point of no return" it's going to go--unless you're Arnold Schwarzenegger, you're not going to stop it.

At first I was a little self-conscious about having "training wheels" on my bike, but they are the coolest invention I've ever seen on a motorcycle. They take some getting used to, however. You must be riding straight, not in a turn or leaning, when lowering the wheels; you must be completely off the wheels before retracting them or else you experience a momentary swerve; and turning with the wheels down is very unsteady and has to be limited to below 20 mph. But the kickstand is now obsolete and I don't have to use the dreaded center stand, with which I had to physically pick up the bike in order to roll it up on the stand--not always easy to do.

So now I have the bike "customized" with gadgets to hopefully make the long rides more tolerable, and I've narrowed my choice of clothing down to a manageable set that should be comfortable, versatile, and not weigh too much. What else have I got?

The main way I try to even the odds of completing any trip is with high-tech electronic gadgets--I loved it in the military, I've done it with my airplanes since the first one 16 years ago, I do it with my eighteen military techno-thriller novels, and now I'm doing it with my motorcycle.

As a great American, Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway (played by Clint Eastwood in the movie Heartbreak Ridge) said: "You can shoot me, knife me, crush me, or kill me--just don't bore me." If I'm going to spend at least 6 days on a motorcycle, I am resolved to not get bored.

Because the Gold Wing has a built-in audio system with AM/FM/Weather bands and intercom, it comes with an audio input cable to plug in a MP3 music player. I went one step further by attaching an HP IPAQ Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) to the bike on a RAM mount on the handlebar. The IPAQ is incredibly versatile. Properly equipped, the IPAQ can not only play digital music, audiobooks, and Podcasts, but can also serve as a street navigator, voice notebook, and cellphone. I have an HP IPAQ 6515 which even has a built-in GPS satellite navigation receiver. The audio integrator allows me to make and answer the cellphone while riding--something I don't plan on doing often, but it's still possible.

But I went one step further. In my Cessna P210 airplane I use a special satellite navigation receiver made by Garmin that not only has a nationwide database of highways, roads, addresses, and points of interest like hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and ATM machines, but it can also receiver digital music and weather via the XM satellite system. I found the mounts for it and simply attached this incredible little box to the Gold Wing. Now I'm no longer confined to scanning the AM or FM bands or loading up the PDA with enough audiobooks for the whole trip--I can receive over a hundred audio channels anywhere in the continental U.S., plus I can receive radar weather maps, current weather, and weather forecasts with real-time precipitation displayed right on the navigation map! I can see weather ahead for miles and plan a stop before reaching it.

The third gadget on the bike is a Solo S2 battery-powered radar and laser speed trap detector. I always believed that the only folks who have radar detectors were ones who had gotten popped for speeding, and since it had been 20 years since I received a speeding ticket I didn't have one--until recently, when I got a speeding ticket. I had the radar detector days later. I was always skeptical about their effectiveness. But it has given me enough alerts (mostly false ones) that I watch my speed very carefully nowadays.

The fourth gadget is an experiment I'm doing specifically for Sturgis: mounting an Elura 90 camcorder to the bike to shoot video while riding. I don't intend on using it all the time--hundreds and hundreds of miles of freeway is the epitome of boring vacation movies--but riding through Sturgis, with the streets lined with thousands of machines and pedestrians, the sight should be amazing to watch.

I have a small ice chest in the left saddlebag which holds some ice and a six-pack worth of drinks. I've supplemented bottled drinks with a one-liter CamelBak backpack water bag strapped to the back of the driver's backrest, which has a drinking tube long enough to put on my lap for easy access.

Yes, the Gold Wing's cockpit looks pretty cluttered, and yes, taking all this stuff off the bike and stowing it every time I want to go to the bathroom or get a burger, then putting it back on when I get back, is a hassle. But for me, the gadgets are my way of feeling a bit more comfortable with this trip. It'll be interesting to see which things I used, which things I didn't, which things I lose, and which things I wish I had brought instead. The cellphone to record voice notes or make phone calls while driving--probably unnecessary. The camcorder--probably be used very little. Once I get to Sturgis, I'll probably stow the radar detector and GPS navigator completely until it's time to head back on the freeway.

What else am I carrying? Here's a list: tire repair kit (air compressor, repair fillers, glue), Gold Wing tool kit, two-piece Cabelas rain suit, duct tape, electrical tape, rags, windshield cleaning wipes, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, a quart of oil, Gold Wing manual, protein snacks, beef jerky, GlobalStar satellite phone, LS800 tablet PC, first aid kit, denim jacket, and a bag with FOUR POUNDS of AC adapters, cables, portable keyboards, spare batteries, etc. The Gold Wing has a max payload of 488 pounds including fuel and rider, and with all this stuff I'm right at the limit.

I debated bringing all this gear many times, but in the end I decided to bring the stuff I normally bring on most two-week trips, plus a few safety and emergency extras. I find I don't really need or use most of this stuff, but I've got it in case I do. As long as I don't overload the bike, I'm taking it.

I did one more little piece of preparation: I prepared a living will and distributed it to my family and put a copy in the bike's glove box. The living will details my wishes if I am still alive but am unable to verbalize my wishes due to injury or illness. It mostly deals with when to "pull the plug"--I state in it that I refuse any and all "heroic" measures to save my life, even water or painkillers, that might put an undue emotional or financial strain on my survivors. I don't want there to be any Terri Schiavo-like controversy about what I want if I'm brain-dead or in some other massive no-cure vegetative condition.

I got the idea for the living will when I was in Arkansas with my father last winter. He had suffered a stroke while undergoing cardiac surgery. At the time we didn't know the extent of any damage to his brain, and so we were urged to prepare documents so one of us six kids could make decisions for him if he was unable to do so. While talking with the hospital social worker, we got around to talking about motorcycles, and the social worker strongly urged me to prepare the same documents for MYSELF and put a copy right in the motorcycle, along with the registration and insurance card. If I'm ever crumpled up on the side of the highway unable to speak, the living will details my wishes to whoever finds me.

I thought about this suggestion, wrote one up using the hospital forms and some other legal templates I had…and then forgot about it until just recently. Actually I hadn't forgotten, but I hesitated in getting the document notarized and witnessed. It was a creepy feeling to discuss my own death, traumatic injury, withholding medication and water, and even euthanasia. The form stared at me for months, until with less than a week to go before departure I couldn't put it off any longer, and I took it to my former assistant Suzanne to get it notarized and witnessed.

My wife Diane was incensed when I told her about it, angry that I hadn't talked it over with her first. I explained that they were MY wishes about what to do about ME. I already have a will to handle things when I'm dead, and she's the executor, but the living will details what I wish others to do if I'm still alive but beyond hope of recovery and unable to voice my wishes. She hasn't mentioned it again and hasn't asked to read it. My relatives should be getting their copies soon, and it'll be interesting to see what their reactions are.

My last bit of prep work for the trip to Sturgis: a hotel room in Sturgis. I know, I know, all the hard-core Rally attendees say that staying at one of the campgrounds like the Buffalo Chip or Glencoe is the way to go to get the full experience. But I don't want my reward for three days of riding to be sleeping on the ground next to thousands of other snoring, drinking bikers with their engines revving day and night. I don't know if it'll be any quieter in the hotel, but at least it'll have walls and a mattress!

So I think I'm ready to go. At this point, all I need to do is pack the suitcase, strap it on, say good-bye to the family, and go.

T-minus 29 hours

Michael asked me if it was OK to leave about fifteen hours earlier, and I said yes. So I will depart here Tuesday 1 August around 1300 and meet up with Michael at the Reno Hilton, then head east on Interstate-80 from there. We plan on driving to Winnemucca and spending the night somewhere there. This will reduce all of the other legs in the trip to less than 400 miles or about 9 hours of driving, which should make it easier and a bit more relaxing.

Diane and Hunter are on their way to her Mom's place in Oregon today, then on to Cub Scout camp in California from there. By the way, I invited Diane on this trip. There are a lot of campgrounds in the area, and some specialize in taking care of Rally attendees' families--they won't allow motorcycles on the grounds, only in the parking lot, for example. But Diane knows that this is a guy trip, and she declined.

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Edge Of Battle (May 2006)

Violence and tensions along the U.S.-Mexican border have never been higher, sparked by battles between rival drug lords and an increased flow of illegal migrants. To combat the threat, the U.S. has executed Operation Rampart: a controversial test base in southern California run by Major Jason Richter and members of Task Force TALON.

But their success is thretened by a drug kingpin and migrant smuggler named Enrique Fuerza, and the Mexican president, a nationalist who causes a storm of controversy on both sides of the border, calling for a revolution to take back the northernmost "Mexican states"-the southwest U.S.

Soon Richter and his force are reassigned to the FBI to investigate the murders of several Border Patrol agents-a deadly mission that will set off a wave of bloodshed that threatens to become an all-out guerrilla war.

The "best military adventure writer in the country today" (Clive Cussler) takes it to the terrorists with high tech firepower in this electrifying new military thriller.

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