Final Days

I think we parted around Colorado – well, nearly out of Colorado. Before leaving the state though, we had one interesting sounding place to visit –  Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in La Junta.

A badger skin and a hat made from badger fur


Bent’s Old Fort was one of the significant centres of the fur trade on the Santa Fe Trail, influencing economies around the world. Built in 1833 by brothers Charles and William Bent and their business partner Ceran St Vrain. The fort was the leading industry west of the Mississippi in the early 1830s. For 16 years. the three men managed a prosperous trading empire. The fort was located on the Arkansas River which was, at that time, the international border between the USA and Mexico, to the south side of the river. Strategically located on an established road, it helped pave the way for the occupation of the whole west by the US Army, and was an important factor in the invasion of Mexico in 1846.

But by 1849, the trade which had made the fort so important was deteriorating. Local bison populations were in decline, cottonwood groves were wiped out and the lives of the Plains Indians had been disrupted by trade and the growing stream of settlers, gold-seekers and soldiers during and after the Mexican-American war. Clashes with the Plains Indians had become more frequent, cholera was sweeping the area and William Bent’s first wife and three brothers had died.

Anyhow, the fort was a lovely place to visit, very well restored and a great place for photographing lines and shapes – those will have to wait until I’m back on Mac.

Time to head out on the road east again. Now we had the vast expanse of the Plains of Kansas, the weather remained unstable – showers and thunderstorms – for the first day. As the Kansas cornfields increased, so too did the heat.

The Plains are not an accurate description – there are some gently rolling hills here and there. But mostly we rode through 9 -12 foot high cornfields and a song from some film kept running through my head – ‘I’m as corny as Kansas in August’  – about the only line I can remember, it being a bit before my time! That’s the thing about traveling across America; there seems to be a song for every place you visit. I remember on our (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 trip, as we approached Amarillo, I kept singing, at the top of my voice, ‘Show me the way to Amarillo’. But as we reached the outskirts, we became wedged in a lot of heavy traffic – mostly Big Mack and Pete trucks – and we were sucked along inside of this wall of huge wheels. By the time the traffic eased, we passed a sign saying, ‘Thank you for visiting Amarillo’. So I had to change the lyrics to, ‘Was that the way to Amarillo?’

So, back to Kansas. And heat – terrible, suffocating, debilitating heat. We had planned to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – we actually got there and went into the preserve.

But the heat was so intense, we both trudged listlessly up the first hill towards the lookout point. I couldn’t raise an ounce of enthusiasm to take photos – and the lookout point didn’t exactly inspire me either – I think this is an area you need to explore on a horse, wandering well off the beaten track – and with the golden glow of sunrise or sunset and not the flat, harsh glare of a scorching midday sun.

So we trudged back down to the bike, climbed wearily on and continued eastwards. By 2pm, the mercury in thermometer that I carry had risen above the top of the figures printed on it – 120 F or 50 C. Riding was like being directly behind the engine of a plane. My hands burned so much I tried to hide them between our two bodies. We pulled in for drinks – 2 litres each of Gatorade. There was no shade to be found in the gas station either.

By 4pm, we were in the town of Emporia. A creeping nausea had begun to escalate to the good chance of an imminent eruption into my helmet. As we came to a stop light, I leaned forward and told Jan I had to get off the bike. It took the last of my energy to climb off, the lights changed and Jan carried on around the corner to park the bike. There was a brick surrounded flower-planted area on the sidewalk, so I sat on that and pulled my helmet off. The salt from sweat stung my eyes until I couldn’t see a thing. I couldn’t even think straight – who I was, where I was – and I’m sure I almost passed out. Jan came around the corner and said the only thing he could find that was open was a bar.

Once inside, I slid my jacket off, letting it drop to the floor and flopped into a chair. A waitress came over and, immediately aware I didn’t seem well, brought a large glass of iced water over. The bar owner came across then and said ‘sit there for as long as you like and keep drinking the water’. He fetched a big bowl of pretzels – ‘for the salt’. About an hour later, with the water and the air conditioning, I began to feel normal again. We chatted with the bar owner – and it turned out he was a pro photographer.

He told us the nearest motel was in the next town and so, reluctantly, we ventured back out into the heat. It was around 6pm by now – but still over 100 F. It was, maybe, another 80 miles to the next town. As always, we stopped to fill up with fuel for the following morning. The gas station was only across the road from the motel – but it looked too, too far away for Jan who, by now, was also feeling the effects of overheating – he said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back on the bike and ride it any further. But a couple more litres of fluids and he did scrape the energy together to get us over the road.

The motel was dinghy and had an air of neglect – but we didn’t give a damn; we needed a room where we could strip off, shower and lie down. The air conditioning barely coped, but it was still shelter from the oppressive heat.

It was with a sense of dread that we ventured out the next morning. Thankfully, it wasn’t so hot – 110 F was the maximum that day. I did hear on the news that the temperature had reached 127 F the previous day – the highest recorded temperature in Kansas.

The next state on our return journey – Missouri. The weather seemed to change  once again – back to clouds and occasional showers. The humidity was up, but the temperature, thankfully, never went above a 100 F. We rode along some wonderful undulating hills in the state. Missouri isn’t too wide and we left it behind when we crossed the Mississippi.

First town in Illinois was the very same one where the creator of Popeye was born – Chester.

Reasons To Avoid Illinois.

Yes, there is some lovely scenery – beautiful country roads with the occasional winery. But I have this thing against Illinois. Maybe it is with good reason…..

The first time we rode through, we ended up in the pit of pits, Chicago Heights. Gas stations had bullet-proof glass and turnstile gates and the people hanging around would have shot you had you fixed the wrong expression on your face.

The second time, we stayed in one of the worst motels ever – move over the Bates’ . The woman managing it had to be close to death from her heroin addiction and the room was so bad, we put our waterproof jackets on the bed and rolled up tee-shirts for pillows. We slept in our clothes (including shoes) and held our pee all night rather than use the bathroom.

Third year – on checking my emails before setting off for our day’s ride, I had an urgent message to call home. My mum had died. We had to ride for two days to get to the home of friends in Tennessee so I could leave Jan to sort out getting the bike back to Toronto and into storage while I flew home – via Knoxville, North Carolina, Munich (Germany) finally to Manchester. I remember those 2 days riding – ironically enough, following the Illinois ‘Trail Of Tears’ – the route the Native Indians were forced to march for hundreds of miles – being ‘ re-located’.

Last year, we ended up in a huge, busy city – I think it may have been St Louis – when there was some sort of major sports event – no rooms to be had anywhere. We ended up driving along a busy, busy interstate until about 1am, turning off and riding around 50 miles on pitch black roads with no sign of life other than suicidal deer – until, UNTIL, we dropped off an uneven road surface and nearly jarred our teeth out, carried on and soon had a state trooper flashing us. Our back light was out – a result of the big bump in the road. The officer was very nice – and we did have a spare bulb. Absolutely knackered, we finally found a motel at about 3 am and after riding 500 miles.

That’s at least four reasons. There’s a big deficit in motels and those we do find are usually not very nice. Then there’s the roads. Worst in the country for (lack of) maintenance. Jeez – the most remote roads we’ve ridden on have been way better maintained. The bike is constantly bumping over ridges and down potholes.

So, there we are, riding along when we realise we have missed a turning. Jan carries on until he sees a place to turn around. He indicates and turns left. Planning to do a U-turn, he keeps to the very edge of the road. Now, here’s another thing about Illinois. There are lots of gravelly edges and infill as some sort of stop-gap between (non-existent) road repairs. What looked like a bit of gravel, was actually a gravel pit. The front wheel went onto it – then into it – nearly halfway up the wheel. We both stuck our legs out – getting a bit tangled in each other. Jan’s left leg was trapped behind my left leg. My left leg was stuck out trying to save us from going all the way over – to the left. I managed to get off and try to hold the bike up, but no, over she went. To the right of us was a deep ditch. SHE-IT. Jan climbed off and we began to try to right the bike – not a chance mate. Just as we decided we would have to remove the bags – a pick-up pulled up and a nice chap got out to help.  We got the bike upright and Jan climbed on and started her up – no go, not in all that gravel.So the friendly chap and I  had to dig the gravel away from the front wheel with our hands. Jan had to ride down into the ditch turn the bike and then back uphill again – this is not a dirt bike! The bike couldn’t quite make the top of the hill to the road – so friend and I got behind and heaved and pushed until the wheels got a grip and made it out.

Poor bike (a bit undignified), my poor thumb (a bit dislocated) and Jan’s poor ankle (a bit bruised). We were very grateful for the help of the Good Samaritan – but we didn’t even get his name. Good karma to you amigo.

In the next town we came to (no motels again) we noticed a large building that seemed to have been burned down. We had parked up to ask about motels and I went to take photos – there was an American flag stuck in the grounds around the building. I asked a passerby what the significance was and was told the building had been struck by lightning a couple of weeks back and one firefighter had died while they were trying to put the fire out. Accepting we would have to ride to the next town, we rode into a gas station to fill up again. Always hopeful, I thought I’d ask one of the other customers in the gas station if they knew where the nearest motel might be. I chose a female-type form, leaning inside her car.
The response from Jan as I returned to the bike was something like,

“CHRISTINEWHATTHEBLOODYHELLWEREYOUTHINKINGOFIWISHYOU’DWEARYOURGODDAMSPECS”

He was right; as soon as this remnant of a woman turned around, I noticed her haggard, careworn face, big blue bags under her glazed eyes, fag drooping out of the side of her cyanotic lips and stick arms and legs decorated with needle marks and tracks, I realised, I would not care to go to any motel she might know of. I really ought to wear my specs more.

But I didn’t miss this sign behind the ‘Welcome To Illinois’ one…

Note the sign in the background – just about sums up Illinois for me 😀

I’m always happy to wave goodbye to Illinois. Next state – Indiana (Indiana wants me, Lord I can’t go back there – dada da da dada). Not too bad in Indian (Lord I can’t go back there).and it’s a nice narrow state. So very soon – we were on the banks…..

Altogether now…. OF THE O-HIO.

We were following HW 127 north. Something strange was happening on HW 127 north in Ohio. Every man and his dog was having a YARD SALE. In every little country town we rode through – lawns (yards) were littered with once desirable, now unwanted – STUFF. Next time we filled up, I asked the girl in the gas station if Ohio was having a Ohio Yard Sale day. No, she told us – the whole of HW 127 from northern Michigan to the southernmost of Florida was having a Yard Sale; neat eh?

Rain welcomed us back to Sandusky county and soon we were on familiar roads where we ride with our friends here. When we nearly had a more serious tumble. Many roads in the USA have railway tracks crossing them. About 5 miles from the home of our friends, in a town called Rising Sun, we came to an especially nasty set of tracks that cross at a 45 degree angle to the road. We could see yellow lights flashing ahead, so Jan slowed to about 30mph. We could see a truck with a motorcycle on one side of the road and a truck on the opposite side. There were 4/5 guys on either side – all stood around looking at us. Well, we hit those tracks and the wheels were snatched to the side. Jan regained his balance but was immediately wrenched in the opposite direction. The wheels were getting trapped in the tracks and he had difficulty getting any balance or traction with the wet road surface. We wobbled like mad, but kept going. Finally, over the tracks, the bike gave one last wobble and almost hit the pick-up on our side – I mean, we missed it by about 3 inches. You know, those bastard guys – and BIKERS too – didn’t do a bloody thing to warn us – they didn’t even react when we wobbled, just stood there, arms folded and watched silently. Evidently, one biker had lost it on the tracks and that’s why a bike was loaded onto a truck. They didn’t even react. Bastards.

Not to worry, a few minutes later, we pulled into the drive of Pete and Barb’s home – well, actually, we overshot it at first. We couldn’t see the house cos, The corn was AS HIGH AS AN ELEPHANTS EYE……..

And so were we within a few hours (well, not that kind of high) as the cats can testify;

 

Well, this has been another rush job as we are always in a hurry – people to see, parties to have, beer to sup etc. But we’ll soon be back in motel land (tomorrow) as we head back to Toronto (not sure which way we’re going yet) and get the bike ready for another long time of storage; servicing, oil changes – that sort of stuff.

I’m going to put a video together showing a miscellany of rides – once I have some free time. So see you down the road 🙂 TTFN

3 Replies to “Final Days”

  1. A fantastic read. I can understand why you dislike Illinois so much – sounds like a god-awful place!

    I had two months in India last year where the temperature exceeded 45 degrees every day…the thought of 50+ with bike gear on just doesn’t bear thinking about!

    Safe travels xx

    Like

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