Monday, October 18, 2010

Iron Butt Bun Burner

To ride 1500 miles (2500 kilometers) on a motorcycle in 36 hours is an activity, which when undertaken voluntarily, requires some explanation. In a world dominated by the pursuit of ease and comfort and the rigid security of the familiar, the choice to just bugger off to suffer discomfort and loneliness and horrid freezing cold seems absurd, ridiculous even.
One might call the Iron Butt ride a midlife crisis but for me my entire life seems to have been a midlife crisis. I have fought the notion of having a career, I have traveled as much as I was able and I continue to struggle with my desire for routine and my occasional outbursts seeking a break from the routine. When I first heard of the Iron Butt Association I thought it was goofy, long distance motorcycle riding for the fun of it. Then I realised if I took on an Iron Butt ride I would be setting myself a goal and attaining the goal would keep me riding during the hours that are darkest (and coldest) before dawn. Last year I took off, on a whim, on a thousand mile Saddle Sore. It seemed easy. This year I stretched the challenge, and let me say here and now this one was not easy. Not at all.My wife thinks it's goofy but she is the woman who ditched her legal career in California and took off sailing with me and two large dogs to Florida on a whim. In six months we had rented our Santa Cruz home, moved onto the boat, organized our lives and disappeared south to Panama. Riding an Iron Butt seems boyish. but not life challenging to her. Besides she doesn't envy me the journey when it is undertaken not as a leisurely tour, but as a rigid piece of bookkeeping with extravagant goals. She made me some sandwiches which I stuffed in a saddlebag and I ate the first one in a foggy freezing Interstate 95 rest area outside Jacksonville in the early hours of October 10th, just about 8 days ago. The chemical vending machine coffee warmed me, the candy bar gave me an energy boost and the sandwich reminded me of home. It was a bittersweet meal, eaten while squatting on the sidewalk looking at my Triumph and wondering what the hell I was doing.The dawn brought with it the promise of warmth and none too soon. I left home at ten o'clock at night planning to ride the warmer regions of Florida in darkness while crossing the Carolinas into the mountains of Virginia before the sun went down. So far so good even if it was colder than I had expected.To complete an Iron Butt you pretty much have to ride the Interstates to get the job done. I don't find them particularly scary for the most part, just boring, and it's that potential for boredom that makes an Iron Butt ride liberating. I don't need electrons, I eschew radios and while I ride the long miles I live with my thoughts. It is an activity very much like sailing in that the daily rules of living are suspended, my presence on the road needs no explanation, my life is suspended between daily routine at home and the successful completion of the ride. It is a most excellent adventure, which at age 52 reminds me of my epic rides of my youth through Europe and Africa on motorcycles far less suitable than my modest Triumph Bonneville.Throughout the Iron Butt ride I had but (!) one mechanical glitch. On that first night while looking for a gas station the front brake suddenly started rhythmically snatching when applied. I feared the ride was over in Edgewater, Florida, home of the Boston Whaler boat factory it turns out. The front disc was burning hot so I stopped under a street lamp and one of Edgewater's finest lit me up. I never disclosed my occupation but we chatted while the disc cooled and she told me about marrying a European (like me...sort of) and visiting Holland and so on and so forth. The disc gave me no more trouble for the rest of the trip despite my worrying about if for a few hundred miles so whatever corrosion had built up in the caliper had apparently been burned off forever.To get the coveted Iron Butt certificate one has to document the ride. My wife witnessed my departure from my home on Ramrod Key, I filled up with gas at the Ramrod Key Shell and marked that receipt number one obtained at 9:58 pm October 9th, 2010. The fourteenth receipt I obtained in Binghamton, New York, at 9:38 am October 11th 2010, about 1517 miles later. And all the way along I noted my breaks, my stops, my gas receipts to mark, indelibly my route up the Interstates for the benefit of the Association which will study my route with a fine tooth comb. When they say I rode a Bun Burner they mean the ride is certified. My top case, with my man purse inside, was my office with a manila folder and an envelope for the numbered receipts:I am quite familiar with Interstate 95 and I find myself quite fond of the creeks and rivers and estuarine marshes of the low lying coast of Georgia between Jacksonville and Savannah. The sun came up as usual and I couldn't resist a quick stop to photograph the scene.Photographs from an Iron Butt ride must perforce include lots of road shots, gas stations and motorcycle pictures. It is an imperfect way to illustrate the ride but from the seat of a 2007 Bonneville it looks a bit like this:I had no real idea what to expect on this ride. I knew I couldn't do it in 24 hours a so-called Bun Burner Gold, in Iron Butt-talk, but I had no clue how I would feel after spending a day and a night in the saddle with the prospect of twelve more hours to go. My Bonneville is essentially stock, with luggage and a windshield added and that's the way I like it to add a certain simplicity to a ride that can be swamped by technology on motorcycles that more closely resemble cars than the elemental machines I like to ride. Honda Goldwings and Japanese sport tourers or of course phalanxes of BMW tourers line up to dispatch impossibly long and complex Iron Butt rides. I like my motorcycle that more closely resembles a horse and buggy than a spaceship. A nap was in order in South Carolina south of Columbia on I-26 where I pulled off the freeway and found this perfect spot alongside a side road. Long distance riders call it the Iron Butt Motel when a rider collapses across his bike or on the floor alongside it for a quick nap. I spent thirty minutes here, napping, eating another sandwich and reading a motorcycle magazine to take my mind off the ride for a moment. The electrical junction boxes made ideal companions, silent and not the least inquisitive. The tall weeds made for a perfect outhouse. I resumed the ride confident I could do what needed to be done, even though I had little idea what was in store for me. Lunch was another brief pause in some bushes where I set up the camera and tried to look cheerful for the distant pose. What a fun way to spend one's weekend away from for a masochist perhaps? And so it went, rolling up the Interstate under sunny skies, 85 degrees at 75-80 miles per hour. Traffic was light and so was my heart as we approached a jam. Well bugger, this could wreck a man's attempt to be an Iron Butt. The gods favored me as I found myself at an on-ramp where I consulted the map and figured there was a state highway I could follow. I turned around and rode the wrong way down the ramp where I saw a Suburban pulling a sharp U-turn and so I immediately followed it into the wilderness. These weren't state highways but delightful back roads winding and twisting through the countryside. I caught up to the Chevy at a stop sign and explained my predicament to the driver who led me carefully to the open on-ramp up the Interstate. I must have lost five minutes travel time- if that. North Carolina gave me a nostalgia burst as Interstate 77 crossed the wine country we had visited with my sister and brother-in-law this summer. I stopped for a granola bar and a soda at a rest area and admired these relics from a forgotten era:I took this picture near Yadkin North Carolina, at 72 miles per hour indicated. Half past five, 90 degrees and 850 miles from home. Hum-de-dum-de-dum. As promised more Interstate pictures on a lovely sunny afternoon, my kind of weather.This bike rider gave me a big thumbs up as he went by. I caught up to him when I realised he was riding Jack riepe's favorite bike- a BMW K75, as described in his blog Twisted Roads ( ) . It was, I thought, an omen. Of what exactly I couldn't rightly say, but it cheered me up.
Up hill and down dale, the Blue Ridge mountains ahead, and night was approaching with about 500 miles left to go once I reached the intersection with Interstate 81 North.I did a weird thing when I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway at Virginia's Fancy Gap, I ignored the dictates of the Iron Butt to stay focussed on the ride. This piece of the state looked nothing like the Virginia everyone recognizes, horse country with mansions and pastures and post-and-rail fencing. This part of the state looked like nothing quite so much as the wild and woolly corners of Western North Carolina, where my sister-in-law lives outside Asheville, just off the Parkway. Because of family connections I know I will never get to ride the Bonneville around Asheville, I will always be forced to visit by car, so I took twenty minutes and got some pictures of the Bonneville on the Parkway. Just to say I did, and here's proof:Night started to set in just south of Roanoke. I wanted to pull off and sit in front of a fire with Sandra T and her organic farmer but I had a date with destiny up the road and as the shadows lengthened I came to understand that I-81 is a death trap, and could not be avoided.
I cannot exaggerate how nasty the traffic was on this section of freeway. The tractor-trailer rigs lined up, nose to tail, in the passing lane like elephants on amphetamines and chased each other through the twists and turns as though engaged in a Mad Max rally. The rest of us, the cars and me, cowed in the "slow" lane and watched the parade of behemoths rushing by, apparently to their destruction. How we didn't all die on the way to Harrisburg I don't know but by midnight I had had enough. I pulled off, found a shopping center and stretched out on the ground in another Iron Butt Motel between the Bonneville and the dumpsters. I ignored the alarm and to my shock slept soundly for 90 minutes. I leaped back in the saddle convinced I could ride 300 miles to Binghamton by dawn. Back on the road my vision was blurry and my head ached and I felt an overwhelming desire to drift out of my lane. I had to stop and sleep properly. I calculated that if I were back on the road by 6am I could make my mountain deadline in New York state by ten. I found a Rodeway Inn for $50 and sank into a coma.Getting dressed at ten minutes before six I noticed my three year old motorcycle boot was showing signs of wear and tear. Like the Bonneville this boot has 43,000 miles on it and perhaps it's time (unlike the motorcycle) to pull out my spare pair from the closet when I get home. It occurred to me in the darkness that this trip was wearing us out.Fuck shit bugger. It was cold on Interstate 81 climbing into the mountains above Scranton. It was beautiful and stark, the Bonneville was pulling like a dray horse up the hills, cresting at 80 miles an hour in a blizzard of freezing air. My teeth were chattering, partly from the cold and partly from the anticipation of failure. The clock on my handlebars ticked on and the miles never seemed to diminish. I kept hoping the sun would warm me up but the temperature never reached 60 degrees (15C). I hated this portion of the ride, and I swore I would never ever do this again. Fuck shit bugger. I swore to myself laconically and repetitively through clenched teeth.
I put my gloved hands on the cylinder heads left and then right in turn, the right hand glove on the downhills to keep us coasting as I let go of the throttle. Then I had to keep stopping to restore some semblance of circulation in the frigid morning air. The Bonneville was running fine, the clock was ticking mercilessly toward the 9:58 am deadline and I was too cold to care.I reached the city limits at 9:30 and though I knew nothing about the city, I knew enough that I had to reach a particular gas station I had checked previously on Google Maps. The distance was apparently 1517 miles from my home and I wanted those few extra miles as padding to make sure the Iron Butt checkers accepted my ride for certification. Thus it was I skipped the downtown exits and pushed on over the river and around the bend for an extra few miles in the pale sunshine (thank God it wasn't raining!!) before finally pulling off the freeway for one last gas receipt.Receipt in hand I asked the attendant where the cop shop was as Iron Butt rules require a witness signature to put you where you claim to be at the end of the ride. Amazingly she knew where it was, not one in a hundred people in Key West know where I work at the police department..." I go there to get fingerprinted to sell tobacco and alcohol in New York state," she said patiently when I expressed amazement at her knowledge of her town.The front desk deputy at the jail looked at me like I was a lunatic but he was game, as I slipped him a Key West police shoulder patch, the "trading card" of police agencies the world over. With all the paperwork complete I set out for a Greek diner I had seen on my way in where a grumpy New York waitress served me ham and eggs and potatoes and hot coffee till I felt I was ready to burst. Outside in the parking lot I stunned three French Canadians who were admiring my Bonneville by answering their queries in French. Then I went downtown wondering what to do now. I passed a Pack Mail office and I ducked in and photocopied my receipts, mailed them off to Naperville, Illinois for processing by the IBA scribes, such that well before noon my Iron Butt ride was over and the papers were all filed and on their way. Amazing! Even more surprising was the welcome parade the town put on for me as I arrived downtown.Somehow my energy levels were back and it was clear to me that staying the night in these mountains would not be a Good Thing for one of my delicate constitution. The talk in the diner was of rain to come in the night and temperatures were much colder up here than even back in Harrisburg or Roanoke. I decided retreat was the better part of valor and with my newfound energy from all that breakfast I got out of town and aimed my long suffering Bonneville at the nearby Catskill Mountains. There was time enough to ride some twisties on my way south. So we did, my Iron Butt Bonneville and me.