OVER THE GREAT DESERTS TO THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
On Tuesday, June 27th, I rolled out of my motel bed, fumbled into on my riding gear, and checked out with my helmet on and my pannier bags under my arm. 10 minutes later, I was settling into my second day of the ride with a gorgeous Nevada morning. This second day would take me into Utah, across the Bonneville Salt Flats, over the Wasatch mountain range, and into the rolling hills of Wyoming. I had been concerned that the second day would be worse than the first day, however, after fueling up and the initial discomfort of climbing back into a saddle in which I had just spent 16 hours wore off, the clear early morning air had me exhilarated and ready to settle into the 570 miles I needed to cover to reach our next rendezvous point in Laramie, Wyoming. Little did I know that I would not make it to the to Laramie that day, nor that I would end the day 200 miles short of the rest of the group.
For the first hour of the morning, I descended roughly 1,000 feet down to the Salt Flats, winding down between slate gray mountains that rose abruptly from the flat, scrub covered valley floor. Just outside of Wendover, the highway crests a ridge as you enter Utah and you are given a magnificent view of the vast expanse that is the Bonneville Salt Flats. From here, the road stretches out in a straight unbroken line for 50 miles across the glaring white of this strange natural phenomenon. Although I almost immediately regretted it, I decided that in the interest of time after filling up in Wendover, to continue straight on rather than taking the North exit for a quick visit to the Bonneville Speedway. It is difficult to imagine the awe with which this vast natural desert, flat as a level and stretching 50 miles across and double that from North to South, must have inspired in early travelers. Even after hearing about the Salt Flats and watching record attempts on the screen, it is impossible to comprehend their immense scale and flatness with the intense bright light, all against the backdrop of spectacular distant mountains. The highway crosses the flats on a slightly elevated berm which must serve to protect it from the yearly flooding that inundates the flats and maintains its level surface. In recent years, record attempts at the Bonneville Salt Flats have been severely reduced or cancelled due to the dwindling size of the appropriate salt for speed attempts. The original course was almost 9 miles long, whereas the current salt only allows for a 2.5 mile track. I was glad of the usually irksome traffic that sped in both directions as it would have been a very lonely 50 miles across that vast expanse.
As I neared the eastern side, a new range of mountains rose to meet me on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Winding around Farnsworth Peak with the lake to my left, I entered the outskirts of that citadel of the Mormons, Salt Lake City. Again, I did not have time for tourism or to visit the Mormon headquarters or temple, but stopped at a convenient gas station to fill up and got back on the road as quickly as possible. Back in the saddle, and heading east on I80, the terrain of the valley immediately gave way to the steep ascent up and over the Wasatch mountain range. These mountains bore considerably more foliage than I had seen for the past day although there were almost no trees to be seen. After gradually climbing 2,000 feet to Summit Park, I began a slight descent into a series of arid, high altitude valleys with herds of cattle grazing on both sides of the highway. I refueled in Coalville and headed on towards the junction with I84 at Echo, Utah.
As I neared Echo, my Sena headset began ringing and I hit the call answer button. It was Tim Masterson calling to see how I was doing. He and Cliff Wall, the ride master, were concerned that my hardtail ride and sprung leather seat might be taking a toll on me. As it happened, they were more right than they knew. As the day progressed I spent most of my time concentrating on not thinking about how uncomfortable I was or how much longer it would be until my next fuel stop. As it was, my fuel stops seemed to be increasing in frequency… Tim said Cliff had an extra AirHawk seat that he would let me borrow. They were quite a few miles behind me, but would try and catch up with me and meet me in the next 100 miles or so. With the promise of a more comfortable ride, I settled into a good pace and let the miles slide by through the dry Utah canyons. I had chosen to invest in a sheepskin seat cover which had proved quite bit more comfortable that the stock leather, however, while the fleece did improve air flow, it did nothing to cushion the seat. The genius of the Airhawk seat is that it uses a series of interconnected air pockets to support circulation and comfort on long rides where the main cause of fatigue is damage to the capillaries, and loss of circulation. Not long after I left Wasatch I crossed my forth state line into Wyoming. I stopped in Evanston, Wyoming for a quick fuel stop and got back on the road as quickly as possible. Around 30 miles outside of Evanston I got another call from Tim—he was not far behind and would probably catch up with me at the next stop, Little America. Half an hour later I pulled off the highway and fueled up at the Little America gas station. A few minutes later Tim and Cliff rode in on their big touring bikes. As I wolfed down a sandwich, Cliff helped my install the Airhawk on the Halcyon seat. The trick was to just barely inflate it so that as you moved it would constantly redistribute your weight and redirect your circulation.
Finally, Tim reiterated the central points of good “ride-craft”. He reminded me that the best way to visualize any long distance ride is not by the total distance, but as a series of individual stages between fuel stops. Because speed is a factor that is limited physically (especially in my case), legally, and by common sense, the best way to make good time on a long distance ride is to limit stops to the absolute safe minimum. Because of the limited size of my fuel tank, I was stopping anywhere from 8 to 12 times a day to refuel. If I spent 15 minutes at each stop, that would add up to 3 hours to my total trip time. Iron Butt riders have figured out ways of systematizing their fuel stops to maximize efficiency and limit time. For starters, the clock begins, not when you arrive at the fuel pump, but when you roll off the throttle. That clock continues to run until you roll back onto the throttle. They laughed as I checked my pockets for all my belongings and went over the bike in preparation for departure. Apparently, I was catching on to the routine of long distance riding! To make the most of Tim’s advise, I wasted no time and headed back onto the interstate. The first thing I noticed, apart from the immediate lessening of posterior pain, was that I sat up considerably higher on the bike. This took a bit to get used to, but I noticed that another benefit of the seat was that it allowed you to easily change your position and relieve cramped muscles, etc. A few miles on, I crossed the Green River and settled into a far more comfortable ride.
But as if to spite my newfound comfort, the remaining portion of my ride was to be very short. Not 60 miles past my meeting with Tim and Cliff, and ten miles past the little town of Rock Springs, I noticed the engine noise suddenly increase. The increase in noise was then accompanied by a sporadic loss of power. Fearing the worst, and cursing my earlier joys, I took the first exit I could find and pulled onto the shoulder. A quick inspection of the bike revealed the cause of the problem: the intake manifold was loose and had blown the gasket between the cylinder and the intake. “No problem”, I thought as I pulled out my tool bag and spare parts. While I had not brought a spare gasket, I figured I could make something work. As I tightened the intake bolts, however, my optimism faded. No matter how much I turned the bolt, nothing seemed to happen. I pulled out the bolt, and sure enough, it appeared that the threaded hole on the cylinder into which the bolt was attached was stripped of its threads. I considered my options. I could try to strap the intake down and continue, or return to Rock Springs and attempt to re-tap the hole. I decided that my best bet was to return to Rock Spring and re-tap the hole. I gave Tim a call and let him know I had an issue. I started the bike up and eased my way back onto the on ramp, but it was not to be. As soon as I applied power, the bike would sputter and cough. I stopped and set to work jury rigging a means of clamping the intake down without a bolt. As Cliff and Tim pulled up and we looked over the bike, I knew right away that I would either need to tap the hole for a larger size bolt, which would be difficult as it was already in a cramped position, or use a helicoil insert to create new threads of the same size. Not longer after this, it started to rain. I was 200 miles short of Laramie, it was raining, and I needed to perform what, even in a shop, would be a tricky operation with no second chances. The optimism that had been my steady companion for the journey thus far looked as if he might just keep on going down I80 without me.
Around this time another set of bright auxiliary lights and a safety yellow Aerostitch suit turned off the highway and stopped to see what was going on. It turned out to be Joe Green. Cliff, Tim, and Joe all offered assistance with the bike, but it was clear that as the designer of the bike, I had a clearer understanding of the issue and the best chance at fixing the problem. Tim offered to run back into town to pick up the required supplies to make the repair on the side of the road. Cliff decided to head on up the road to be able to greet the rest of the group at the rendezvous, but Joe decided to see if he could help me rig up a solution. When Tim returned we discovered that we did not have a drill bit of the appropriate size to open up the hole for the helicoil and that to do so would require the removal of more that just the carburetor. At this point, I resigned myself to the fact that I was not going any further that day. My best bet was to limp back to Rock Spring, find a motel, and go in search of the required tools. Again, Joe generously offered to escort me. I was able to strap down the intake with a hose clamp and get it to the point where it would run. As there was literally nothing else he could do, Tim wished me the best of luck and headed on to the rendezvous. It was reassuring, as I eased the bike along the shoulder back toward Rock Spring, to have Joe’s flashing auxiliary lights behind me. After missing an exit, I eventually found a cheap motel and waved Joe on with many thanks.
The motel I chose was a mile from an Auto Zone, and across the street from a run down Walmart. I asked for a ground floor room and was rewarded with a shabby room on grade with the parking lot. I lost no time in unloading the bike, running to the Auto Zone and picking up a drill bit and gasket paper. I then stopped at the Walmart to pick up a cheap drill and 90-degree chuck to negotiate the cramped space in which I needed to drill. On my return, I took a page out of our Owners Forum, glancing around and quickly rolling my Halcyon through the door and into my room. Once inside, I set about removing the gear from the bike, laying out my tools, and preparing for the task of tapping the hole. At this point I felt fairly confident that I would be able to make something work, but had no idea how long it would take, so I walked across the parking lot to what looked like a great barbecue spot and enjoyed a solid meal and soft drink.
Back in my room, and just before I was going to start drilling at an almost impossible angle, I went over the whole situation and examined the hardware. As I inspected the hardware and intake manifold, I noticed something odd. The 6mm bolts that held the intake on barely extended long enough through the intake and gasket to have any threads in the cylinder. All at once it dawned on me that the bolts were too short and that on top of that, the whole situation was entirely my fault! In the weeks prior to shipping the bike, I had decided that I wanted to have the bike as close to stock as possible in order to discover any possible issues and offer the best testing of our current set up. This included a new heat gasket between the intake and the cylinder for emissions compliance. This new gasket was 1/4” thick where previously there had been only a paper gasket that could only be a tiny fraction of that at the most. I had reinstalled the intake with the new gasket using the original hardware that was at least 1/4’ too short! A close inspection of the threading on the intake showed that less than 1/16” of the threads were damaged. It was honestly a miracle that the bolts had held as long as they had!
I pulled two new 6mm bolts of the correct length out of my spare parts bag and they threaded in perfectly. At this point, I didn’t know if I should be relieved or upset… A problem that was entirely my fault, and that could have taken me 5 minutes on the side of the road, had cost me a 200 mile setback and probably any chance of making the finish with the rest of the group. I consoled myself with the thought that I would likely be riding by myself for the majority of the ride anyway and that at least I was back in the game with what added up to a bike without any problem at all! I ended up laughing at myself and deciding to get some sleep.
As I packed up the bike and prepped everything for the next day, a new idea began to form in my head. Was it possible to make up the lost 200 miles? Perhaps. But could I catch up with a bunch of big BMWs and Hondas on a little 250 Janus? As I turned over the idea, I realized that my early stop meant that I could potentially get to bed quite early and try and jump the beginning of the next day's ride by starting in the early hours of the next day. With that possibility, I took the unused tools down the hall to the office and donated them to the rather confused but grateful couple who owned the motel. I prepped everything on the bike, leaving only my riding gear out, and set my alarm for 1:30am.