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Sid's Vicious Dual-Sport Ride: Cross-country trails and tribulations

June 21, 2013

Sidney Dickson admits to a “genetic predisposition to travel earthen trails.” He can relate harrowing tales from numerous off-road motorcycling exploits, although he steadfastly resists being called an adventurer.

“Adventure,” he protests, quoting naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, “is the result of poor planning.”

Regardless of the label you apply, there’s no doubt Dickson has taken the kind of motorcycle journeys most riders only dream about. Beginning in 1958, when he toured Europe on his first bike, he rode extensively around the globe, taking his inspiration from the likes of Danny Liska, who traveled the length of South America in 1959, and John Penton, who made a record-setting coast-to-coast U.S. ride in the early 1960s.

Dickson got out of motorcycling in 1972, but it didn’t last. In 1987, at age 49, he started putting together international riding adventures (sorry, Sid) again, heading to remote spots like Iceland, Australia and Peru. And he came up with a unique idea for a ride here in the States, too.

Always looking for ways to stay on dirt instead of asphalt, Dickson decided to see how little paved surface he could traverse in a ride from the West Coast to his home in Maryland. Since then, Dickson has made a half-dozen dual-sport trips across the U.S., finding more off-road alternatives each time. He now calculates that he has ridden roughly 90 percent of the way across North America on unpaved routes.

The following excerpts are from Dickson’s diary of his 1990 “trail ride” from the Los Angeles area to his home on Chesapeake Bay. In 23 days, he rode more than 4,500 miles on a Honda XR600—and over 3,000 of those miles were on dirt roads and trails.

 

Wednesday, August 22: Any dirt rider knows that riding cross-country is fun, but I’m convinced it’s more: If you’re patient, it’s also a viable form of transportation.

If we want to keep off-road routes open, we have to use them. And my plan for this cross-country trip is to use as many as possible.

As a warmup, I joined several guys from the motorcycle industry on a dual-sport ride. Off-road racer Bruce Ogilvie took one look at my five-year-old Honda and advised me to carry a spare ignition box.

 

Thursday, August 23: I set off for the San Bernardino Mountains, stopping by Malcolm Smith’s shop in Riverside to stock up on some of Kathy’s famous cookies. I noticed a nylon tow strap behind the counter, and added it to my tool kit.

When I checked in with the rangers at the San Bernardino National Forest, they advised caution along the edge of trails, because if I dropped off I probably wouldn’t be found until I started to smell.

After leaving the road, 104 glorious off-road miles took me through a vast panoply of scenery around Big Bear Lake—one moment on a rocky trail, the next in a glen of Mediterranean vegetation, the next among towering ponderosas. Then I dropped into Lucerne Valley, and headed into the desert.

 

Friday, August 24: Ludlow, California, was originally a watering spot for steam locomotives. Diesels now rumble by—trains on one side of town, trucks on the other. During breakfast, the waitress warned me about getting lost in the desert. So I called a buddy, left a garbled message with his secretary, and set off about 20 percent secure that if I didn’t check in before midnight he’d know I was lost.

I spent the day in the East Mojave, headed for Henderson, Nevada, about 190 miles as the tortoise crawls. I stumbled upon a collection of tumble-down buildings called Cima, where a sign at the post office/general store said to ring for service. I didn’t need anything, but I rang anyway and I’m glad. Proprietor Bob Ausmus was a storehouse of desert lore. I bought a couple of books before heading for Las Vegas, where I mounted fresh tires.

 

Saturday, August 25: I explored several trails to nowhere in the mountains northeast of Vegas. In 150 miles of dirt riding, I never saw another soul.

I always try to stop at night in civilization, preferring to spend the dark hours with hot tubs, real meals and soft beds rather than dust, gooey trail food and snakes. But as I set off to cross the northwest corner of Arizona, headed toward my night’s destination of St. George, Utah, cactus thorns almost changed that plan.

Without warning, the Honda’s front end started that wishy-washy swimming motion that signals a flat. The tire was loaded with little curved thorns, looking like so many cat’s claws. I picked out all I could find and replaced the tube, then returned my attention to riding through the mountains.

It was a beautiful day, but I was nagged by the prospect of unseen thorns still embedded in the tire, waiting to wreak havoc as I rode. . .alone. . .in the mountains. . .on my last spare tube.

I chickened out and joined the tourist and tractor-trailer parade on Interstate 15.

Just as I reached the St. George exit, the front end swam again. A few remaining thorns had found their way to the tube. They reminded me of Paul Bunyan’s beard, which was said to be so tough that instead of shaving he drove his whiskers in with a hammer, then bit them off inside.

To celebrate my victory over the thorns, I wolfed down two double-cheeses and a large fry, and checked into the local econo-luxury motel.

 

Sunday, August 26, 2 p.m.: The Honda quit running at 10:30, and three other travelers—Doug, Bubba and Tightsy Bondy—found me reading my shop manual about noon. The failure was with the spark, and of course I didn’t have a spare ignition box.

In comparison to where I’d been in the past four days of riding, the Honda chose a convenient spot to quit. The Bondys delivered me to a crossroads where I was scheduled to meet local denizens Jim and Joe Sloat if we didn’t first connect on the trail. It was 80 degrees, clear and windy. A dilapidated schoolhouse offered shade and a view of the dusty crossroads. I settled in to wait.

 

Sunday, August 26, 4 p.m.: A trucker stopped and told me he’d seen an abandoned motorcycle up the road. I surmised the Sloats were also having problems and settled in to wait some more.

The trucker graciously left me a plastic-wrapped Mountain House Dinner Number 8: freeze-dried beef, rice with onions, crackers, banana chips, chocolate-nut snack, drink mix, coffee, sugar, coffee whitener, matches, salt, pepper, napkin and a spoon. If I was destined to starve, I decided to eat the coffee whitener last, after the spoon.

 

Sunday, August 26, 8 p.m.: If you’ve never been towed down a rocky road on a motorcycle behind a dirt bike ridden by a friendly maniac, perhaps you can imagine the fun of it.

The Sloats found me just as I began contemplating how many rattlers might be living under my schoolhouse. We tied my tow strap to the rear of Jim’s Honda and set off for a 66-mile tow. Although I was dressed for the occasion, every now and then an efficient projectile launched by Jim’s knobby would penetrate my armor and add to my welt collection.

Just as I thought I had the hang of this towing business, we hit a bunch of deep ruts and I was pitched off. When I finished crashing, I had one hell of a headache, but was otherwise OK.

We finally arrived at the Sloats’ truck, loaded the bikes and made tracks for the Kanab, Utah, Pizza Hut. After several medium supremes, we consulted Jim’s electric testing meters, which confirmed an ignition failure. The closest repair shop was, you guessed it, back in St. George.

 

Monday, August 27, 12:01 a.m.: I called a friend, Bill Broadbent, in St. George.

“Bill, this is Sidney.”

“Sidney, where are you?”

“I’m in Kanab, at the Sloats. . . and I’m broken down.”

“I’ll be there in two hours.”

“But Bill, it’s midnight!”

“I know, but I’ve gotta work tomorrow, so I’ll have to come get you tonight. I’m on my way.”

Bill rolled up at about 2:15, and by 4:30 we were back in St. George. He never did get to work.

We located the parts I needed on a used bike, which I bought on the spot. The bike also had a larger gas tank that would fit my machine. We finished swapping pieces just in time for dinner with Bill’s wife and daughter at the Peppermill Restaurant. We devoured an all-we-could-eat feast for $26. Things were looking better.

 

Tuesday, August 28: I left St. George for the second time. It was a glorious day—shirt-sleeve riding up cliffs and across open desert. I saw more mule deer than motorists.

I ended up outside Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey, Utah, had a delicious T-bone and spent the night in an old-fashioned general store with three rooms upstairs to let.

 

Wednesday, August 29: I rode through the park on a beautiful 12-mile stretch of pavement following a little stream. From there, I turned south on a graded road smooth enough for your new Cadillac, then up a pot-holed trail into the Henry Range. There’s gold in those hills, but I settled for lunch with two deer hunters.

I turned onto a tar road and suddenly noticed the heat. The appropriate cliche would be “searing.” The black tar absorbed the heat and seemed to multiply it until I feared my air-cooled engine would overheat. I later found out it was 104 in the shade, but the engine ran just fine to Lake Powell and the Hite Marina—the only gas, food and water stop before my day’s destination of Blanding, Utah.

There’s a dirt route, some 100 miles long, from the Hite Marina to Blanding. I was fueled up, but I couldn’t decide whether to take it or the more direct paved road. I wanted to ride the dirt, but it was getting late and I’d be cutting it close on fuel. The road would be boring, but if I ran out of gas, someone would happen along to help. On the dirt route, on the other hand, I’d probably be on my own.

I decided to play it safe. Later, as I rolled into Blanding, the bike began sputtering. I congratulated myself on a wise, if not very brave, choice.

 

Thursday, August 30, 8 a.m.: Breakfast in Blanding. The sign at the Prospector Motel showed a crusty old digger tugging on a burro. It reminded me of a slogan I heard somewhere in the South: “Be kind to tourists; they’re worth a bale of cotton and much easier to pick.” Certainly, tourists seem to provide an easier living than digging gold.

After discovering that the bike really hadn’t run out of gas the night before, I cleaned my air filter, hoping it was the source of the sputtering. Then I hit the road.

 

Thursday, August 30, 8:30 a.m.: It wasn’t the air filter.

What I like is a good hard ride by day, followed by a warm bed and a hot bath at night. What I had was a Honda single hitting on all but one cylinder, and it seemed intent on destroying both.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to accept breakdowns with relative calm.

 

Thursday, August 30, 8:45 a.m.: My optimism is based partly on how I’ve been treated by people who have no reason to help other than their own good nature.

This time, it was another motorcyclist who stopped. As I described my bike’s symptoms, he remarked, “You picked a good spot to break down.”

“How’s that?”

“Didn’t you see that red sign down the road on the left?”

I hadn’t seen a Honda dealership in the past 900 miles, which made this one, on the outskirts of Monticello, Utah, a particularly welcome sight. I spent the day with Hondaland proprietor Jim Peterson, testing various remedies. We finally tried a new spark plug cap and the bike ran smooth as a mashed potato sandwich on Wonder Bread, with mayo.

 

Friday, August 31: I rode into Colorado to visit my old friend Imogene, a 13,100-foot mountain pass leading from Telluride to Ouray. Then I stopped for lunch in Silverton, where the narrow-gauge train built to haul gold and silver out of the mountains now hauls tourists to Durango.

Later, I learned my ignition wasn’t fixed after all. I sputtered to a stop just as I came upon two motorcyclists parked off the road, and inquired if they needed help.

“No, but it sounds like you do.”

We discovered that the plug wire was shorting out on the bottom on my new metal gas tank. Placing a piece of hose around the plug lead did the trick.

I headed up Engineer Pass, another route that climbs to nearly 13,000 feet. There are 500-foot drops along the trail, but that didn’t make a hoot to me. I’m afraid of heights, so I kept my eyes focused on the trail, well away from the edge!

 

Saturday, September 1: Rapid ascents and descents sometimes give me a mild headache, a sign of altitude sickness. I watched for symptoms throughout a sunny, cool day, but I felt fine, and the Honda’s ignition stayed fixed.

By dark, I reached Wally Dallenbach’s ranch on Frying Pan Road in Basalt. I signed up for the Colorado 500 trail ride, scheduled to begin Monday. I was just one of 250 riders in the event, but as far as I could tell, I was the only one who arrived and departed on a motorcycle.

 

Monday, September 10: A week passed quickly cavorting around the Great Divide with the rest of the Colorado 500 riders. Then it was time to be getting home.

I descended the eastern flank of the Rockies, leaving Mount Harvard, Mount Princeton and then Pikes Peak behind. Abruptly, I was onto the Great Plains. I mourned the loss of the cliffs, the rough stone tracks, the stream beds, and the footpegs banging off boulders. That was the past. The present was a long, hard day’s ride.

At dusk, thunder squalls appeared across the plain. Rain streamed down in slashing sheets, driven by fierce winds. Commercial trucks thundering out of the gloom scared me into the nearest motel. I got my hot shower in Cheyenne Wells, just a whistle blast from the Kansas border

 

Tuesday, September 11: I’m lured to dust like a shark to a chum line. Sometimes I only find a farmer plowing his field, but on this day I found a road net that laces Kansas.

The state is divided up into neat little mile squares, and you can zig-zag across the whole thing on graded dirt roads. I found remains of the Butterfield Trail, an important commercial link between Kansas City and Denver before the Civil War. From its western terminus, it sags into southern Kansas, then up to Kansas City.

By noon, I’d crossed only 10 percent of Kansas and was short on gas. A road-grading crew cheerfully dumped a spare can of fuel in my tank and sent me on my way. Reluctantly, I retired to the interstate. By midnight, I was 525 miles across Kansas, a state that is only about 400 miles wide if you take the direct route.

 

Thursday, September 13: Wednesday, I ran 601 tedious miles across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and half of Kentucky. This morning’s run brought me to Mt. Storm, West Virginia. It’s appropriately named: A bleak rain began to fall as soon as I crossed into West Virginia.

 

Friday, September 14, 7 a.m.: Today didn’t dawn; the black just turned to a misty gray.

I would normally welcome a ride on a winding stretch of U.S. 50, but my rear brake was sticking, and the roadway was a slick mixture of oil and mist.

The traffic consisted almost entirely of giant ore trucks. With low clouds, fog and visibility of perhaps 100 feet, the first sign of their presence was often the acrid smell of burning brakes as they came up on me, or the sudden sight of a huge tailgate as I came up on them. You’re afraid to pass because you can’t see what’s ahead, and afraid to stay put for fear there’s one behind you who’s lost his brakes. It’s the one you don’t smell that’ll get you.

 

Friday, September 14, 4 p.m.: On a bike, wet is cold even at 70 degrees. Raindrops whacked me like BB shot, and spray trickled down my neck. My soaked clothes acted like a giant wick. I didn’t feel cold, I was cold. Seriously cold. But home was almost in sight.

 

Friday, September 14, dusk: From the Appalachians to the coastal plain, around the Washington Beltway, across Chesapeake Bay, then 35 miles to St. Michaels, Maryland: The ride was done. And I was more convinced than ever that we have the most beautiful nation on earth.

I’ve enjoyed dirt-infested roads all over the world, and can’t imagine a better way to experience travel than by going overland, off the pavement. It takes patience, it takes planning, and things don’t always go the way you anticipate. But that’s half the fun. 

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