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Dale Brown’s Ops Report
Copyright © 2006, TDPI

SPECIAL EDITION: The Rally Conclusion

Wednesday, 2 August 2006
Little America, Wyoming

So far this trip has been a real pleasure-and yes, I probably sound like I'm surprised.

Michael and I met up at the Reno Hilton yesterday around 1400 and headed out. The trip has been great. We're making terrific time-usually 5 mph over the speed limit, nothing excessive or dangerous at all. We stop every 90 minutes or so. Michael's Harley Road King has a 4 gallon gas tank, compared with my 6.5 tank, so just about the time I get comfortable on the bike, we're already pulling over to the right lane and looking for an exit.

The weather is sunny and hot and ideal for riding. I wear a jacket the entire time, a nylon mesh jacket with armor on the arms and back (the places most likely to hit the pavement in a fall, I guess). Michael ditches his corduroy jacket when it gets really hot and goes with just a T-shirt (and lots of sunscreen-I don't see any evidence of sunburn on him at all). We stop about 1700, head for the bar as soon as we lock up the bikes, and we're done for the day.

We get up at 0600-actually I was up at 0300, 0400, 0500, and then out of bed for real by 0600--and we're on the road by 0645. I forgot to put on my long-sleeve shirt and have to put up with the cold for the first hour or so, but the mornings warm up quickly. The traffic has been very light. We pretty much blow off meals except for fast food-we do potty breaks, water, and sugar-free Red Bull at gas stops, and we get back on the road.

Our "flight plan" had us stopping at Salt Lake City on the night of 2 August, but because we left early we stopped at Winnemucca, Nevada the first night and then pressed on all the way to Little America, Wyoming on the night of the 2nd. I don't know where we'll stop tomorrow. We should easily make Cheyenne, but if we can get a room we might stop at Deadwood, South Dakota before going into Sturgis on the 4th.

Saturday, 5 August 2006, 1040 MT

We made great time out of Little America, and after finding out that our hotel had a vacancy, we decided to go all the way to Sturgis instead of stopping in Cheyenne.

We stopped at Deadwood, South Dakota for dinner and to look around. The place was packed, with three days to go before the Rally officially started. We found parking after a short search and walked around town, glad to be off the bikes after a 13-hour riding day. There were costumed actors re-enacting gunfights on the streets, legal gambling, plenty of saloons, and hundred of motorcycles of every description. Deadwood is definitely basking in its new-found HBO celebrity status, but it is a cute spiffed-up looking town with some nice hotels, casinos, and restaurants.

The "meter maids" were thick and strictly enforcing parking regulations, but the police presence was unobtrusive. After a burger and some time to stretch our legs, we were off for Sturgis, about 20 minutes away. We had plenty of bikes accompanying us.

From US-85 we cruised onto Lazelle Street in Sturgis, one of the town's main drags. The streets were choked with vendors and more motorcycles than I've ever imagined existed. We missed our turn because of traffic and ended up one block north on Main Street, which had twice as many motorcycles--both sides of the street and two rows in the center were shoulder-to-shoulder motorcycles. I still don't know how major collisions were avoided. There seemed to be some sort of unwritten rule about how many bikes could go through a stop sign at one time, how long to wait before moving, or how to determine when it was safe for pedestrians to cross. I'd either have to learn the rules or avoid Lazelle and Main Streets. I didn't notice any accidents.

The SafeStop wheels on the Gold Wing made creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic easy, although I received plenty of comments about them. The comments generally ran fifty percent "Hey, cool!" and twenty-five percent "Hey, look at the training wheels!" with the remaining twenty-five percent starting out negative and then changing their opinion after seeing the wheels come up, which I ended up doing quite often just to impress people.

We finally got turned around properly going south on Junction Avenue towards the interstate and found the Best Western Sturgis Inn hotel, about fifteen blocks from Main Street. We changed and got ready to head downtown. Because of the traffic and our desire to party that night, we decided to keep the bikes parked and walk to Main Street, just twenty minutes away.

Turned out to be a very good decision.

The saloons were not that crowded (compared to later on that weekend) so we checked out a few of them, especially One-Eyed Jacks and Gunner's Saloon. In between there are rows and rows of shops, tattoo parlors, food vendors, folks of all descriptions, and of course the constant roar of thousands of motorcycles all around you. The bartenders were young ladies, mostly from out of town (from as far away as Florida), typically dressed in a bikini or their underwear with leather chaps and boots.

Now I am not a lightweight when it comes to partying, but for some reason--the ride was over, I was tired, I hadn't eaten in a few hours, or I plain just had too much--the first night in Sturgis was rough for me to say the least. I have no idea how I got home, up the stairs, or into bed. Michael later told me he flagged down a pickup truck to get us the 15 blocks back to the hotel. Not cool. I spent most of my second day in Sturgis sitting in the sun, drinking fresh water, watching the hordes of motorcycles cruise past the hotel, and quietly trying to live down my previous night's performance. I was better by that evening and we managed a couple hours on Main Street, but we were in bed early that second night.

Thankfully I felt back to normal the third day, because that was Tattoo Day. Yes, I succumbed to the outlaw open-road biker imagery and got my first tattoo in Sturgis during Rally Week, a rather large four-color swooping eagle on my right upper arm with my son's name over it.

Before you tell me how stupid it is to get a tattoo from an out-of-town artist working out of a temporary location in downtown Sturgis, South Dakota in the middle of a large loud drunken biker rally, let's back up:

Like the entire trip, I did a little planning before getting my tattoo. I searched out comments on artists online and corresponded with a few that had good feedbacks from last year, and I settled on "Shanghai" Kate Hellenbrand, the owner of Seven Seas Tattoo. It turns out that Shanghai Kate has been doing tattoos for over thirty years. She is Howard Stern's tattoo artist and had a shop in Manhattan before Nine-Eleven, then moved to Buffalo, NY when her shop, just eight blocks from Ground Zero, was condemned. She is a well-respected and well-known veteran artist.

It was a good choice. Kate is careful, meticulous, and scrupulously clean. We talked about taking care of the finished work for a half-hour before she started, not only to be sure that I understood what I needed to do after I left her shop but to reassure her that I was in the right frame of mind to go through with it. She is a saleswoman and is proud of her extensive portfolio, but she also seemed ready to suggest a postponement or cancellation if the client didn't positively indicate that he or she was ready to take care of it or if she detected any second thoughts or hesitation.

When I saw Shanghai Kate use a jeweler's loupe to examine the needles before getting to work, rejecting several because of a microscopic burr or slight bend in the tip, I knew I picked a good artist to do this job. Yes, she could have been doing this for show, but this was my first tattoo--if she HADN'T done it, I never would have known anything was amiss. It impressed me.

Four hours later, the eagle was done. I DIDN'T SEE ONE DROP OF BLOOD--not one! I could certainly feel the needles but it wasn't painful--I'd describe them as "puppy-teeth bites." It's the same as getting a good experienced nurse to give you a hypodermic shot or draw blood versus an inexperienced one: you still feel both, but an experienced nurse will make the procedure virtually painless, while the inexperienced one will make it uncomfortable at best and traumatic at worst. I wouldn't call the process of getting a tattoo "fun," but the end result is beautiful and I'm glad I did it.

A lot of folks warned me not to get a "Sturgis tattoo," arguing that out-of-town artists won't have all their normal equipment or their cleanest and most comfortable working conditions; they also argued that the $600 city license fees and county health department inspections don't deter a lot of second-rate artists, and the license fees are a major money-raiser for the city so they may be less apt to reject a substandard artist. My bottom line: do a little homework, pick an experienced artist with a long and sterling reputation, don't shop for an artist by price alone, and if you don't like anything you see or hear while in the shop, turn around and leave.

Sunday was cruising day. It felt good to get back on the bike again after two days of walking. We took a ride to Mount Rushmore and then to the Crazy Horse Monument. It was my first visit to Crazy Horse, and learning about this incredible project was a real eye-opening surprise. The size of the project is astounding: Crazy Horse's head alone is the size of Mount Rushmore! There will eventually be an entire complex built at the site to honor and support the North American Indian tribes, with a university, medical center, museums, parks, and cultural event venues there.

My son or even his children might not see its completion--the fully privately-funded project has been going on for over 50 years and is perhaps ten percent done--but when it's finished, it will eclipse Mount Rushmore and even the Pyramids in size and grandeur.

We rode the bikes downtown that night and joined the growing numbers cruising the streets. It's a very eerie experience, surrounded by the noise, the crowds, and the excitement of that place. Finding parking within three blocks of Main Street was almost impossible, yet there is no hint of anger or frustration out there--you can pay a homeowner five bucks to park on their front lawn, or you can take another turn around the block and keep looking, or you can walk.

The best thing I noticed about cruising Sturgis is that no one is judgmental of your bike, your riding skills, your appearance, or anything else I could determine. I was always on edge about making sure I was in control of my bike so I wouldn't look like the rookie I was, but it turns out that no one out of the thousands out there cared. I saw plenty of sharp-looking riders on great-looking bikes have trouble getting in or out of tight parking places or finding first gear; lots of otherwise experienced riders had trouble negotiating the muddy parking lots of Thunder Road and the Full Throttle Saloon, just as I did. Thankfully I didn't dump my bike on this trip, but the fact is that motorcycles dump--they're two-wheeled vehicles supported by nothing but friction, inertia, and balance.

Everyone knows that riding is a skill that is never truly mastered; you know that there are those that HAVE dumped their bikes, those that WILL, and those that will do so AGAIN, and they respect others for getting out there and riding anyway.

Monday we took a cruise out to Devil's Tower National Monument, came back, rested up, then decided to check out the two large venues a couple miles outside Sturgis itself, Thunder Road and the Full Throttle Saloon. Thunder Road is a miniature version of downtown Sturgis, with the same vendors, shops, and displays, mostly featuring manufacturers reps and custom bike builders. The Full Throttle Saloon is a gigantic indoor-outdoor entertainment area, with live bands, all sorts of girl shows, The Wall Of Death motorcycle stunt show, the burnout cage (where for some unknown reason you can see how fast you can make the rear tire on your motorcycle explode), mechanical bull riding, countless bars and T-shirt shops, and of course the endless crowds and motorcycles as far as you could see.

The weather changed that day too, with the first real ripping thunderstorms we'd encountered on the whole trip. Although we ran into a little light rain on the cruise to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, this was the first real thunderstorm I'd ever rode in, and it was not fun. Like making night landings or shooting an instrument approach in real no-shit bad-weather conditions, you become highly attuned to your speed, road conditions, and bike handling abilities. I was glad to be out of it and safely back in the hotel.

I think our attitudes changed with the weather too, because we decided to leave Sturgis and head home a day early. As with the ride out, we were up at 0600 and on the road before 0700. We told each other that we could take it easy and have a nice relaxing ride back, but we did what we always did--I set the cruise control just slightly above the speed limit and we headed off, taking very short fuel and stretch breaks every sixty to ninety minutes. We didn't even pause for lunch.

Tuesday we came back a slightly different route--Interstate 90 west to Buffalo, Wyoming; Interstate 25 south to Casper; WY Route 220 and US Highway 287 to Rawlins; then back onto Interstate 80 to Reno. It was a much more direct route than going through Cheyenne, and it was a fast, beautiful ride. We were a little on edge because there are few fuel stops along the 120-mile route between Casper and Rawlins, but we had no problems making it.

The two closest calls of the entire ride were on this leg of the trip: the first was a driver in a pickup truck that I thought was going to turn right in front of me while I was jetting by at nearly seventy miles an hour; and the second while passing a long-horned goat or sheep on the side of the road--I was POSITIVE the animal was going to leap right on top of me, but thankfully he just stood there on the side of the road as I whizzed passed. The trip back was going smoothly and even though the setting sun was going to be right in our eyes we decided to keep going to Salt Lake City--another 13-hour riding day.

Somewhere outside Salt Lake City I noticed a little mushiness in the rear end of the Gold Wing, so I checked the tire pressure after we found a hotel, and sure enough it was 20 pounds low. I didn't see any breaks in the tire, so I pumped it back up to 45 psi, and it held--or so I thought. The next morning it was completely flat. I tried some tire sealant, but it came gushing out of an unseen inch-long gash on the side of the rear tire. Thank God it went flat in Salt Lake City and not in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming! I called AAA, got a flatbed tow truck to take it to a Honda dealership for a new tire, and we were back on the road before noon.

We finished the trip at Michael's vacation place in Tahoe Keys in South Lake Tahoe around nine p.m. on Wednesday night. We were both too tired yet too excited from our trip to sleep, so we stayed up until around midnight telling stories and calling our families to tell them we were back safe and sound. I left Michael's cabin first thing the next morning and rode along the shores of beautiful Lake Tahoe in the cool, still mountain air--a big change from the mostly hot, gusty conditions we'd encountered on the ride--back home.

A safe and successful trip: 2,600 miles in about 40 hours on the road, including fuel and rest stops, plus another 500 miles in side trips; Michael had driven an additional 600 miles in side trips and getting from his home in the Bay area to Reno, where we began our trip. No accidents, no incidents, no injuries, no dings, no tickets.

So what did I learn from this experience?

The number one tool we used that really made the trip enjoyable and safe: taking a break every 60 to 90 minutes on the road. On the ultra-comfortable Honda Gold Wing it's easy to go three hours before I had to start looking for a gas station, but I didn't do it, and I think my butt held up better because of it. It's obvious that once the pain begins in your butt or your back it won't leave until you stop riding for the day--the trick is to never let the pain begin in the first place.

Using the Garmin GPSMap-396 to find the nearest gas stations and restaurants worked great. The 396 also displayed weather well before we rode into it, so we were able to get our rain gear on before entering the storms. Listening to XM satellite audio on the 396 really helped to whittle away the miles too. It's the best overall useful accessory for a long-distance ride.

I ended up taking the radar detector off the bike because we never exceeded the speed limit by more than 5 mph. We learned that when a road sign says a particular speed limit, you can't sneak over that speed 5-10 mph like in a car--when it says "55 MPH" for this curve or "65 MPH" on a certain stretch of interstate instead of 75 mph, sneaking over that speed even a few mph made negotiating that curve or section hazardous. In addition, the speed limit on the interstates on our trip was generally 75 mph, and going more than 80 mph passing large trucks or in areas with unexpected crosswinds and wind gusts was downright scary, even riding the big heavy bikes.

Even though there is no helmet law in Wyoming or South Dakota, and I did take advantage of it a few times, I didn't enjoy riding without a helmet, jacket, gloves, or boots, even in town. Wearing a lift-front helmet on this trip was far more comfortable and secure-feeling than just wearing a baseball cap or "doo-rag." The vast majority of riders I saw at Sturgis didn't wear safety equipment.

I think you have to judge for yourself. If it's legal, and if you can forget how safety equipment greatly minimizes your injuries in the event of a crash, try riding with and without a helmet and see how it feels. I tried it, and I didn't like it. There's too much noise, too much buffeting against your ears, too much pain from bugs hitting your face and head, and too much risk of sunglasses blowing off into space. In town the risks are less, but they are still there.

Using the lift-front helmet to drink while riding made me feel better, so I kept the CamelBak water bottle filled with sugar-free Red Bull and ice and sipped it often. Since we were taking breaks quite often, I never felt like I was too far from a bathroom. As long as I had the CamelBak's drinking tube properly positioned before starting off, I never felt it was dangerous to lift the front of the helmet, uncap the tube, drink, and lower the front again while riding. In fact, it was only possible to do when riding on the interstates at freeway speeds--it was too dangerous to do while riding on multi-access highways or in town.

Three cans of sugar-free Red Bull diluted with a cup of ice in the one-liter CamelBak was good for most of a day of riding, and it was diluted enough so I didn't feel a buzz from the stuff. Plain water in the CamelBak was OK, but even though my CamelBak was clean and disinfected it always tastes a little rubbery, so I prefer something other than plain water in it. Diluted Red Bull was a good choice.

I can usually fall asleep in a heartbeat in any vehicle in which I'm a passenger, and I can sometimes get drowsy on a long solo cross-country flight even if I'm the pilot in command, but I never had any drowsiness problems on the bike--again, I credit our decision to make frequent stops for that.

I never used the camcorder mounted on the bike, because it was VERY distracting to try to frame a shot and operate the controls while riding. In the end, the Gold Wing's handlebars became very uncluttered: just the Garmin-396's mounting remained. I'm putting my cup holder back on, however!

The rain gear came in handy, and I did use the satellite phone once in the boonies just to try it out, but (thankfully) I didn't have to use the first aid kit, air compressor, tire repair kit, flashlights, or most of the other stuff I brought. I used the ice chest, but it was easier to just fill up the CamelBak with ice and drinks purchased on the road rather than carry the ice chest and keep it filled. I think in future trips I will still bring most of that stuff, for peace of mind if nothing else, but I know I can pack lighter. Without the ice chest I could have packed all my stuff in the left saddlebag in a small gym bag and not brought the Rollaboard or golf club bag rack at all.

Michael and I made a pretty good riding team. Stopping for fuel and brief stretch breaks every 60 to 90 minutes evened out the capabilities and deficiencies of our bikes and bodies. Neither of us are into sightseeing, extensive partying, touristy stuff, shopping, big meals, or carousing--we both wanted simply to get an early start, put on the miles, stop early in the evening, have a glass or two of wine with dinner, then hit the rack and get ready to do it all again the next day.

We've discussed doing some future rallies--probably Street Vibrations to Virginia City, possibly Laughlin, Nevada or Glendale, California. And as tempting as it may be to trailer the bikes behind a nice big comfy motorhome with a satellite dish, microwave oven, and big-screen TV, we'd probably ride all the way again. After Sturgis, any West Coast trip will be a piece of cake for us!

There was a bumper sticker making the rounds at Sturgis that read, "FIFTEEN GRAND AND FIFTEEN MILES DOESN'T MAKE YOU A BIKER." I identified with that at the beginning of the trip. But not any more. We may not be Wyatt and Billy from "Easy Rider," but I think we earned the right to be called "bikers" now.

See you in September! GBA, Dale Brown...

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