In mid-January I planned to take three days on my motorcycle to try out a small section of what's called the Trans-America Trail. I say planned, because a lot of crazy things happened and I was only able to complete about two days. Read on to find out why.
The Trans-America Trail is a cross-country route meant for dual sport and adventure motorcycles. It crisscrosses the nation from the sandy beaches of the Carolinas to those of Oregon, going across Oklahoma and Arkansas in the process. It's 95% unpaved, for the most part following small county roads, logging and forest roads and the like. My Dad was the one who told me about it, and it's a dream of ours to one day ride the TAT together.
One of the reasons I got a KLR 650 was to take it off-road. Unfortunately, there are almost no motorcycle-legal unpaved roads near where I lived at the time in central Oklahoma. The TAT was the nearest unpaved trail I knew of, so I resolved to try it out. With a three day weekend coming up, I needed an inexpensive way to get away and unplug. Plus I was itching to try out the saddlebag racks I'd just built.
Note: This is a great example of making room for spontaneous exploration and discovery in your life, which I wrote about previously.
I was lucky to get in touch with a guy named Kevin who runs an adventure bike site. He sent me the GPS files for the TAT. With a smartphone map app like Orux, I was able to display and follow the TAT sections.
I threw my gear into bags, loaded them onto my bike, and rode due north to link up with the trail. As you can see, the TAT follows the northern border of Oklahoma into Arkansas.
I did have a few logistical concerns to think through. Gas might be a problem, as there's often over 100 miles between gas stations. I had no tent- just a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and a bright orange waterproof cover for the sleeping bag called a bivy sack- so I had to make sure I would be warm enough at night. For food, I'd brought peanut butter sandwiches, cans of beans and hot sauce, and ramen noodles. I was relying on my phone for its GPS, but I didn't have any way to mount it to the bike and had to pull it out every 5 minutes or so to make sure I was still on course. I also had an external battery to keep my phone charged over the extended weekend.
Sometime after mid-day, I arrived at the trail. It was with much excitement that I turned my KLR onto the dirt and gravel road and took off. This was to be my first extended off-road ride.
In short, I enjoyed it a lot. Sometimes it was a bit boring- long, straight roads across Oklahoma prairie- and I went faster than I should have across some of these sections.
But for every long straightaway that cut across the Oklahoma grassland, there were curves to take, forests to pierce, and streams to ford.
There was a lot of beauty to take in, particularly as the sun set. As I traced gentle curves around soft hills loaded with yellow straw and pocked with cattle, the sun hit the horizon and the whole scene just lit up. I felt like Midas as the lonely landscape turned to gold.
I was on the lookout for a place to spend the night at this point. When I passed by this abandoned barn, however, I couldn't resist the urge to check it out.
Probably the most interesting things were the racoon living in the barn, a cow skeleton in another building, and a polluted old well that was filled with trash. There wasn't anything in the old rail car, but I wonder why it was mounted on the oil drums to begin with. Storage perhaps?
I had to continue on my motorcycle as darkness was quickly settling. A ways beyond the barn, I turned off the TAT on to a tiny single track that lead up a hill, to an ancient oil derrick that looked to be more rust than not.
I got set up for the night, and cooked baked beans mixed with hot sauce over my homemade camping stove. Considering where I was, with not a sign of another human soul in sight, it tasted delicious. I spent the rest of the evening reading- the sun must have set not later than 7pm, so I had time to burn. I was reading The Last Lion by William Manchester. I fell asleep to the yips and howls of coyotes while, far away from city lights, I watched shooting stars and satellites crisscross the sky.
It got below freezing that night, but between the sleeping bag, sleeping mat, bivy sack, two pairs of pants, 3 pairs of socks, sweater, 2 jackets, watch cap, balaclava, two scarves, and a couple of feet warmers, I managed to stay warm. And the sunrise the next morning made the cold worth it.
The further east I rode, the more interesting the scenery became. Riding through these lakes early in the day, for example, was a hauntingly memorable part of the trip. This was near Whoopoorwill, Oklahoma, in the Hulah Wildlife Management Area.
Things started going wrong after this.
First, I started to feel like crap. You know the malaisey muscle aches you get right before the flu hits? That's what I began feeling.
Second, my bike started having problems. The power to the lights and console would flicker on and off, and even go out for minutes at a time before mysteriously blinking back on.
For now, I kept riding.
Until I came to this river crossing.
The muddy hill on the other side, for an unexperienced off-road rider like myself, looked very, very intimidating. I felt like a newbie surfer watching a tsunami-sized wave coming on.
Then I did something stupid. I shrugged my ill-feelings away and charged towards the hill like Don Quijote against his windmills. Crossing the stream took away most of my speed, and when I made it to the mud on the other side I went maybe 10 feet up the hill before my rear wheel lost traction. Panicking a bit, I accidentally opened the throttle up more and went crashing into the muddy wall on the side of the trail.
I scrambled to my feet, my entire left half muddy, bleeding from who-knows-where, and with a 400 pound motorcycle stuck in the mud on a hill whose summit now started to seem as far away as Djibouti. I'd snapped off my left-side luggage rack in the crash as well.
Like Pickett's men repulsed from the hills at Gettysburg, I retreated. More accurately, I pushed, pulled, cussed, and cajoled the motorbike out of the cement-like mud and back across the stream, soaking my boots in the process- which I'd sorely regret later in the day when the sun set.
I needed a couple minutes to calm down after that, before I tried going up the hill again. I didn't crash the bike, at least- I just stalled out on the mud. I retired in ignomious defeat, seeking a road that took me around the impossible hill.
As I rode, I reflected that for a dual sport, that hill may have been unclimbable. In fact, while I was attempting to go up it, most riders would have been going down it. Remember, the route is meant to be ridden westward. I was riding eastward. Thankfully, apart from a bruised pride, I was okay, and my bike seemed to be holding up as well. I rode on.
An hour or so later, the TAT took me through a small town whose name I can't recall. As I pulled up to one of the town's only intersections, my bike died. Even more worryingly, it wouldn't start back up, and now the lights weren't coming on at all.
I wheeled it over to the sidewalk. After thirty minutes or so of fidgeting around, I managed to get the KLR going again. I must have moved whatever loose connection there was back into place. I should have turned home at this point, but I kept going.
I was in Adair when it happened again. I stopped for gas, and the bike's lights wouldn't come on. Demoralized, I realized why: the ignition switch (which I had previously repaired) is held in place by two screws, one of which was missing. The other was loose. The power comes on when the key is in and turned because it's completing a circuit between the lights, console, ignition switch, and battery. Without the screws holding the ignition cylinder firmly in place, a good connection between the two metal plates in the ignition can't be had and the circuit isn't completed. From the perspective of the bike, you may as well have lost the key.
The screws were size M4, which would be impossible to find in a small town like Adair. I walked around to the few stores in the area that might have had them, with no luck. Most were closed. To add insult to injury, the town cop saw me walking around from store to store (I guess pedestrians are a rarity there). He pulls up behind me. I thought he was coming to help, until he demands my ID and starts an on-the-spot interrogation of me.
I returned to my bike, wondering what to do, when I got very, very lucky. While I was troubleshooting the issue, a man came by to ask if he could help. I explained the problem of the missing screw. He left and came back with the right size. That was an incredibly kind thing of him to do, and it meant I didn't have to call a tow truck.
Replacing the screw, the bike hopped back to life. Exhausted and worried by my bike's performance, I head home.
To make a long story short, my bike broke down once more, this time in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. I'd stopped at a gas station to refuel and warm up a bit (my feet, hands, and face were freezing). When I went to leave, the lights came on (thanks to the replaced screw), but the bike wouldn't turn over. I was dumbfounded.
I stood there for about ten minutes, flabbergasted by my bike's cruel and malicious trickery. I was maybe an hour away from home. Then I got very, very lucky for a second time that night. A stocky red-headed man (aptly nicknamed Red) approached.
"What's wrong with your bike?"
"I don't know. The lights come on but the damn thing won't start!"
"Ah, you're in luck. My buddy over there is a motorcycle mechanic!"
Red calls over his friend, who inspects my bike and quickly tells me to roll it into his bike shop that just happens to be... right across the street.
Seriously, what motorcycle rider breaks down in front of a motorcycle shop?
Anyway, the two of them were awesome and helped me get my bike going well enough that I could limp home. I could only go about 45 miles per hour, and I was freezing, but I made it back to my Mom's house in Prague around 11pm.
Shivering so much that I was practically spasming, I ate a bowl or two of warm soup in front of a space heater before collapsing into bed, a cold achey puddle of mucus and flu-goo. I was out for the next 3 days, waking barely enough to use the toilet and eat.
It had been quite a trip. I enjoyed the parts of the TAT I was able to ride (about 250 miles by my estimation), and I hope to ride more of it in the future. I only pray that both my bike and my body survive it.
Looking back through my notes and journal entries from the 2 days, I'm struck in particular by these lines, which perhaps explain part of the attraction of a route like the Trans-America Trail:
When one takes a route like the TAT.. the result is that you feel like you're travelling through, in between the stitches of man and man's society. The debris attests to the seemingly ancient and remote constructions, now ruined, alongside the roads built by God knows who. Houses spoil the effect. When one reemerges on a highway he is then shocked at feeling himself to be an intruder, a foreigner. I mean to say, he has grown accustomed to the silence and solitude of such a never-travelled road and now the business of even a small town cuts a deep impression.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much