bardicvoice (bardicvoice) wrote,

2004: The Biker Babes' California Dreamin', Part One

The Biker Babes – Grand Canyon and California Dreaming, 2004


This year was our biggest trip yet: 5,689.5 miles, covered in three weeks and a day, from Milwaukee, WI to San Bernardino, CA, and back. Along the way, we visited history, spectacle, friends, and family, and had a great trip. Come along for the ride ...


September 3, 2004, Friday: Milwaukee to Des Moines


We started out at about 3:15, with one last stop to mail a letter. Then we hit the highway. Apart from a lot of chilly fog, the ride was delightful. We stopped for breakfast at the same Iron Skillet in Rochelle where we had our first day breakfast on our very first big ride to Branson back in 2000. Once again, we had fun with the truckers!


We continued to push on to the Amana Colonies in Illinois, and we reached the visitor center at 9:30. Come 10:00, we made it to the Woolen Mill in Upper Amana.


Alas, the Colonies were not worth the visit. They were much more commercialized than Mom and Terry remembered from a previous visit several years ago, and places that used to have informative tours were reduced to a few signs, no guides, and no interpretations. The woolens were beautiful, the signs told small parts of the story of the Colonies, but the overall impression was a disappointment.


We had some particularly fun moments along the way to Des Moines.  How’s this for a sign of the times: as we approached a rest area in Illinois, we saw a new sign on top of the usual blue “Rest Area” sign listing the amenities, which proudly proclaimed, “Wireless Internet.”  There’s no escape!  On the back of another highway sign in Iowa, Terry spotted a bluebird house, painted bright yellow. Might as well make those highway signs do double duty, hey?  And finally, along the way we passed the self-proclaimed “World’s Biggest Truck Stop,” with space for 800 trucks, on what was the very first interstate highway in the country, Highway 80.


We continued on our way to Des Moines, arriving about 13:30. We checked in to our Hampton Inn to leave our luggage, and then backtracked down the highway to Zook’s Harley-Davidson. Zook’s was unique: the place is built as a massive barn, with a silo that houses an elevator between the floors. Zook wasn’t in, but Terry left him a note on behalf of John, one of the guys back at the House of Harley in Milwaukee. I got my first photo of the trip: Mom and Terry pointing up at the huge banner on the silo that proclaimed, “ALL TIRES $99.00!!” This will be a good joke on the House, when Terry goes in to negotiate her next tire change!

From Zook’s, we went on to the Living History Farms. Unfortunately for us, we arrived a little after 15:00, so we missed the last cart to the “300 year walk” through the three period farms themselves, the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, and the 1850 and 1900 Farms. We were able to walk around Walnut Hill Town, an 1875 Iowa frontier town. This place was really neat, and judging from the town, the Farms must be spectacular. The Living History Farms bill themselves as “hands-on history,” and they deserve more time than we had to spend there. We chatted with a woman sewing doll clothes in a lovely house true to the period (Terry loved the chimneys, the parlor wallpaper, and the room mouldings from which pictures were hung); with the blacksmith, making a knife; with a woman making straw brooms; another woman making fancy hats; a man at the farm implements store; and women in the general store/post office and in the pharmacy. The bank was unstaffed, but had everything set up ready for a teller to handle your business.


Terry also had fun in the gift shop, finding creamed cinnamon honey to ship home as gifts for friends. We were sorry to leave, especially without having seen the Farms, but I’m betting that we’ll be back someday. It’s not so far a trip!


Back home at the hotel, we took our swim and then planned for tomorrow – an eight-hour push to North Platte, NE.


September 4, Saturday: Des Moines, IA to North Platte, NE


This was mostly a pushing day, covering about 400 miles. We left our hotel – which, again reminiscent of our very first trip, was largely inhabited by Shriners! – about 8:10. We stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, and then kept going. Crossing the Missouri wasn’t as dramatic here as it was up in Chamberlin, SD – the character of the land didn’t change nearly as much nor as quickly this much further south.  The further we got into Nebraska, the more the hills gradually flattened out until we rode on a seemingly endless plain.


Our only tourist stop on the run today was the Archway Memorial at Kearney (pronounced CAR-nee). That was different!  The attraction is quite literally an archway built over Route 80. You’re met at the door by a costumed historical figure, who explains the setup to you. Ours was Curly, a grizzled, bearded mountain man in fringed buckskins and moccasins with a wooden staff. He explained that, once we bought our tickets, we would collect headsets and ride up the escalator to the arch. Once we were at the top, the narration on the headsets would activate and play as we walked all the way over the highway on one level, and then back across on the second floor. That’s right: the arch over the highway is a two-story museum structure!

As you go up the escalator, you’re climbing a steep, rocky pass, and you go through the arch at the top even as the wide-screen film that’s running around you makes you feel as if you’re riding up in a prairie schooner. At the top, you’re in Fort Kearney, a starting point for wagon trains to Oregon, California, and Utah. The headset recordings, activated by each room along the way, play on continuous loops, so when it reaches the point where you came in, you can progress to the next chamber along the way. The journey takes you past a young couple with their oxen and wagons, the flood of Forty-Niners in pursuit of gold, and the westward pilgrimage of Mormons, with the tale of a rescue of a group of handcart pioneers who set out too late in the year and were caught in snow. You stand in the middle of a buffalo stampede, see a Pony Express rider swap mounts at a way station, hear of Mark Twain’s stagecoach journey, and listen to the account of the Golden Spike being driven to connect the two parts of the Transcontinental Railroad. You see the “Lincoln Highway” (sometimes called, in the earliest days of motor vehicles, the “Lincoln No-Way” for the unpaved roads that swallowed 1920’s cars in mud) and the very first growth of the automotive movement crossing the West. Then the archway takes you through automotive development, including outdoor drive-in moves and ‘50’s diners, and brings you in the end to a diner with a wrap-around mural covering two walls, spanning the history through which you’ve just walked, and with two windows onto Route 80 below you, complete with radar guns tracking the speed of the unsuspecting cars. Really neat! The narration, by the way, combines straightforward descriptions of events and places with excerpts from letters, speeches, news stories, and the like.


As we were collecting our commemorative photo (shades of our cruising days: they take your picture in front of a map of the Great Platte River Road before you start up the escalator into the arch!), the young fellow selling us the pictures commented on our chaps (since we were making this stop on the fly, with the bike still fully loaded with our luggage, we couldn’t lock our gear in the bike; the ticket-selling lady kindly stored our jackets in the ticket cage, so we at least weren’t burdened with them). Turns out someone else at the Arch had recently acquired a sidecar outfit, so Terry wound up talking sidecars, first with the young man, and then with the sidehack owner. Terry was only the second sidecar driver the man had ever met, and he really appreciated the tips she passed on.


From the Arch, we ran another 90 minutes to our overnight home in North Platte. As we rode, we saw clouds building and starting to chase us. The wind kept trying to push us off the road, and tugged so constantly on my helmet that my poor ears felt rubbed raw, even though the new helmet fits better than the old one did. Yank on it enough, and it will still chafe.


We reached our hotel around 19:00. It was still dry, but all signs pointed to a likely ride in rain on the next day.


At our hotel, I took a couple of irresistible pictures for my car-crazy carpoolmate John: side-by-side vintage Austin-Healys. The red convertible (a 1956 or 57; hey, old as I am!) had the license 1REDCAR, while the black convertible was RDUMCAR. Not hardly! They were both magnificently restored.


September 5, Sunday: North Platte, NE to Denver, CO


Something I forgot to mention about our ride yesterday: we crossed the Platte River – or pieces thereof – at least five times before we reached our hotel, and we made all those crossings on the very same highway. The Platte has got to be the most meandering river I’ve ever seen!


We started the day at St. Patrick’s Church in North Platte, and gave yet another parish something to talk about.


We started the day wearing our rain pants. It had rained in the night, although not a lot. While the bulk of the storm had gone past us, we saw clouds building on the road ahead. It looked a lot better ahead of us than behind, but it still looked like rain. The poor Austin-Healy drivers were heading east, and needless to say, their rag tops were up.

We hit the road and found that we were running directly into the wind. That cut our speed and put our gas mileage in the dumpster. We made more gas stops than we would have needed under normal conditions.


We ran 80 until we reached 76. As soon as we reached the new road, the road quality dropped, and so did the volume of traffic. In Colorado, civilization dwindled. The only signs of habitation for miles on end were fences and power lines, and the smell of cow manure. Interstate 76 was the deadest stretch of road yet, even though it rolled more than Nebraska did, providing at least a bit more visual interest than Nebraska’s flat, flat, and flat.


At an early gas stop, we put on the rest of our rain gear, and it was a timely choice: the raindrops were falling by the time we pulled out. It never fell very hard, but it was cold under the clouds and we were happy to have added our black fleece shirts along with our rain jackets.


The wind, the rain, the chill, and the stress of riding in rain gear made the run seem longer than it was. We caught lunch at a little Sinclair station with a small diner called The Overland Trail café, a fleck of humanity in the middle of a lot of nothing. At our last gas stop before Denver, we shed the rain jackets because we were running in bright sunshine. By the time we reached Denver, at about 15:50, I was very glad that I’d opened all my jacket vents, because it was getting positively warm.


Our Hampton Inn was in the suburbs of Denver, near Cherry Creek. Once we checked in, we took a walk along Cherry Creek into Four Mile Historic Park, getting in most of our 10,000 steps. Then we returned to the hotel, took a swim, and settled in for the night. Terry did our hand laundry while I was tasked with checking out the Tour Book to figure out what we’d see during our one tourist day in Denver.


Some things we’d meant to do were off the table because of the Labor Day holiday. The Botanical Gardens and Art Museum were both closed, as was the Harley dealer where Terry had intended to take the bike for an oil change. But the Nature & Science Museum, the Colorado History Museum, and Colorado’s Ocean Journey all sounded good, as did the Wings Over the Rockies Museum (my first chance at airplanes along the way ...). We knew we wouldn’t be able to do them all, but we wouldn’t lack for choice.


And we also looked forward to the treat of having dinner with our oldest sister Ruth, who would be in Denver on business. Happy coincidence!


September 6, Monday: Denver, CO


Today was our day to play tourist in Denver. We slept in, ate breakfast, and then went out to see the sights and find our way to the attractions we planned to see. We were a bit early for our first one, and killed time taking a short walk along the riverfront.

First stop was Colorado’s Ocean Journey. That was neat! In this land-locked place is a museum containing huge tanks full of fish and other underwater creatures. The museum follows two major river journeys: the Colorado River, from its beginnings in mountain snowmelt down to the Pacific; and the Kampar River in Sumatra, from its rainforest beginnings all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This was a wonderful place, well laid out and with many knowledgeable and friendly docents happy to provide information. Many exhibits are hands-on: you can pet stingrays (whose stingers, being made of essentially the same substance as human fingernails, can be kept clipped to protect human hands without injuring the rays), sea urchins, and other river and sea life. In addition to the fish, the place has Sumatran tigers (the smallest of the tiger species, with thinner skins than the others, all the better to tolerate the humid heat of the rainforest), multiple types of birds, and both sea and river otters. The otters were a hoot, since the river otters in particular spent most of their time in play. We saw a teaching session with the male sea otter (who weighs 70 pounds and eats 12 pounds of food a day – talk about a high metabolism!). They train the otters to give them stimulation and hold their interest, and also to display behaviors that help the staff to be able to check all aspects of their coats and physical condition.


Did you know that an otter has as much hair in one square inch of hide as a human – well-endowed! – has on his or her entire head?


There was a lot to do and see and learn and enjoy. Even though the tigers were being quiet at the moment, they had a hilarious video running showing them playing with balls, logs, and a bobbing watermelon in the water. These cats love to swim, and the staff gives them toys to keep them from getting bored. We all agreed that this museum was time and money very well spent. If you’re heading there, take your AAA card; there’s a discount.


We went down to the civic center area, near the capitol building, to catch lunch at the special event we lucking into, the Taste of Denver. What a crowd! You could buy 9 tickets for $5, and then trade the tickets for food at the various booths. We ate at the tent of the Lemongrass Grille, a Vietnamese place that took first place at the Taste this year. Meat eggrolls and either pork and shrimp or veggie spring rolls to dip into a delicious sauce topped with ground peanuts – yummy!


We went on to the Colorado Historical Society Colorado History Museum. They had a special exhibit running of Pulitzer-prize winning photographs on the main floor, with their standard history exhibits one floor down. The photos, which included the stories of how they were shot, had great impact. The regular museum featured multiple dioramas built during the Depression with WPA funds. There were also exhibits of mining equipment and a spread of Cheyenne ledger art. The Cheyenne painted events in their own history on paper in ledger books, and many pages from one such book were on display, with descriptions and translations of the events depicted.


I was a little disappointed in the museum overall. The Ocean Journey made much more of an impression on us all.

Back at the hotel, we met up with Ruth and her co-worker Pat, and went out to a little Mexican restaurant practically across the street. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, not to mention good food. Getting a chance to see Ruth was great.


Tomorrow will be a seriously pushing day, from Denver over the Rocky Mountains to Richfield, Utah, about 475 miles, I think – and they had snow in the highest pass last night, according to the morning news. We’re definitely traveling in turtlenecks and fleece under our leathers!


Oh – Terry made a young boy’s day. We met this young father in the swimming pool last night, coping with two infants plus this youngling. Today, while we were waiting for Ruth and Pat, Terry saw the family out at their van, parked beside the bike, with the little boy ogling the bike for all he was worth. Terry went out and invited the kid to hop onto the bike. He didn’t need much encouragement! He tried out the big driver’s seat, but decided that the sidecar was the best! Wouldn’t get any argument from Mom ...


September 7, Tuesday: Denver, CO to Richfield, UT


This was a first with the bike: crossing the Rocky Mountains. We pulled out of Denver a little after 7:00, and found ourselves in rush hour traffic. That didn’t last long, though, and then we were running west on 70. In a short time, we were starting to climb. At a gas stop in the morning, Terry called ahead to the Las Vegas Harley dealer, and was told there should be no problem with getting an oil change and a new rear tire when we get to Vegas tomorrow.


Terry worked hard today, getting the bike around lots of curves going both up and down. Ironically enough, we got the best mileage per gallon of the trip so far, courtesy of drafting semitrailers (trust me: when a big 18-wheeler blows past you, you can feel the bike leap forward, easily gaining 5 mph from the wind-tow off the truck!) and lots of freebie downward runs. About halfway into the upward climb, we had to stop at a rest area to change gloves because it was getting really cold, and although the rest of our bodies were well bundled in fleece and leather, the normal leather gloves just couldn’t provide any warmth. Terry plugged in her heated ones to the bike’s electrical system, and I felt a lot better in the big Gore-Tex storm gloves she’d passed on to me last year.


While we were tanking up in Eagle, Colorado, partway through the Rockies, we ran into a woman who was so excited about seeing us that she insisted on taking a picture of us – and since she didn’t have a camera, she borrowed mine. She just couldn’t get over seeing us, but in all her eagerness and delight, she didn’t leave me with her name or any way to send her a copy of the picture. She just seemed thrilled to know that a photo would exist! People are fun. That’s my only photo from the entire day. We didn’t really have the leisure to stop, and I can’t snap on the fly from the bike, so all the mountain images just stay in our minds’ eyes. Someday, a helmet camera ...

We caught lunch at a Village Inn in Grand Junction, and then kept pushing on. It was amazing to see how dramatically the country changed as we climbed, even over short distances. We did see a little white stuff on the ground off the highway at the highest points, but it was nothing more than dust.


Particularly spectacular was the transit of the Eisenhower Tunnel, up at the 11,013 foot elevation. I don’t know how long that tunnel was, but it was a marvelous piece of work. It was irresistible: Terry revved the engine once to bounce the sound off the walls, and we all had a good laugh.


Once we hit Utah, we hit high desert, and a surprise. We had tanked up about 25 miles before Green River, and as we passed the Green River exit, we saw the ominous sign: No services next 106 miles. Yipes!  Quick decision: buy what little gas would top off the nearly full tank, or go for it? Terry chose to go for it. As we drove on across desolate high desert, we saw the gas gauge going slowly down. It was reaching the nerve-wracking point when we saw the most welcome sign: Steep downgrade next 7 miles. As we passed that sign, the gas light came on. But courtesy of that lovely long downgrade, we made it to the first gas stop. Assuming that the gas tank actually does hold precisely five gallons, we made it with four-tenths of a gallon to spare!


We tanked up, drank our water, and then took the last 16 or so miles to our night’s home in Richfield. The town is well named: all around is arid countryside, but the Richfield valley has water and soothes the eye with growing things.


We caught a small dinner at a Taco Bell across the street, came back to the hotel, and tossed our t-shirts and jeans into the laundry while we went for a swim. This hotel took best pool of the trip thus far: large and immediately warm, close to the temp Mom and Terry keep the pool at home. There was also a nice circular whirlpool.


September 8, Wednesday: Denver, CO to Las Vegas, NV


We said goodbye to the nice pool and hit the road for Vegas. The drive was great again. We kept marveling at how abruptly and often the country around us changed. I actually missed seeing our big laugh of the day: there was one place where, amid highway construction, a prairie dog was sitting up right in the middle of the lane, as if he owned the road and had no concerns whatsoever about the traffic on it. Mom and Terry got a good chuckle, if a somewhat wry one, given the limited life expectancy of a prairie dog that bold (or that stupid).


By midday, it started to get really hot as we rode. We’d started out wearing the fleece because the morning was chilly, but by noon we were sweating. It wasn’t too bad while we were moving, but slowing down and sitting still were enough to start you panting like an overheated dog.

We reached Las Vegas at around 13:30 local, having crossed into Pacific time along the way. Finding the hotel was a little bit of a challenge, simply because Mapquest got one piece of the directions wrong; it said to take the exit for east Tropicana, toward UNLV. Wrong! To get to the hotel, you needed the westbound Tropicana exit. We took an inadvertent mini-Strip tour getting to a spot where we could stop and Terry could call the hotel for a clarification. Fortunately, she managed to find some shady trees in the Monte Carlo’s drive to keep us from cooking our brains while she called. We were set right and on our way in no time, and got a nice surprise at the Hampton: one of the hotel shuttle drivers told us to park right beside the front portico, next to the place where the shuttle buses park, where the drivers – who work 24 hours providing service to the Strip as well as to the airport – could keep an eye on it for us. Reserved parking, under guard, right beside the front door! Not a bad deal, especially for Vegas.


We caught a quick lunch at a Jack-in-the-Box right up the street, and then took the bike in to the Harley dealership (which boasts to be the world’s largest) for the oil change and new rear tire. Pulling in was fun, as usual, and provided a few laughs, especially when one of the service guys mounted the bike to drive it into the service bay. It was painfully obvious that the guy had never driven a sidecar rig before, and hadn’t a clue how to make tight turns. Terry debated offering her services as a ferry driver, but the fellow eventually got it turned around and aimed for the service doors. Then came the next funny: the doors, opened normally, weren’t wide enough for the outfit! They had to open a third, normally fixed panel to get the thing inside! Once inside, though, the service bay was huge.


It took about two and a half hours from start to finish, but that gave us time to plan our next day. I called my former neighbors Ron and Ruth, who live above Vegas in Henderson, to switch our get-together to tomorrow after our Hoover Dam tour and Lake Mead cruise, and we looked at the maps to get a sense of where we’d be.


When the bike was finished, we parked it back at the hotel, shed our leathers, and took the shuttle over to the Bellagio. We walked through the place (which was used during the filming of Ocean’s Eleven), lost a few bucks in the slots, missed the dancing waters show, and walked on. We stopped for dinner at the Harley-Davidson café. Terry and Mom decided that their barbecued ribs, which we’d split as an appetizer, weren’t nearly as good as the food at Tumbleweeds, their favorite barbecue stop in Milwaukee. The veggie wraps, though, were very tasty; the portabella mushrooms set off the roasted squash and whatnot very nicely.


We kept strolling down the Strip to New York, New York, and called for our ride back to the Hampton. A good day, even if not what we had originally planned back before Labor Day in Denver disrupted our bike maintenance schedule. 

Read Part Two

Tags: harley, motorcycle diaries, real life, travelogue

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