Small bike, big adventure

With just his girlfriend, his moped and the open road ahead of him, Doug Dewey embarks on an epic ride across the United States. Who said size matters?…

“Look out!!” my partner screams, as I glance up to see a five-foot long ice dagger plummeting towards me from far, far above. It glances off my backpack and falls 200 feet further to the cliff base. Damn that was close!

Our mountaineering friend Brandon gulps down another mouthful of IPA, clearly still very shaken. It’s his story to tell thankfully, not ours, although we do have a few involving mountain passes, ice, and rising levels of panic. Brandon is an experienced mountain guide who, only the day before, was nearly killed whilst scaling the formidable Hossack-MacGowan Couloir of the Grand Teton mountain.

24 hours earlier Aby and I had been pootling around Jenny Lake, gazing up at Grand Teton absent-mindedly and wondering what we were going to have for dinner, as our friend climbed for his life. We were both exploring limits that day, as yet ignorant of one another and due to meet soon only by chance. To share these strong sentiments for discovery, to be in such close proximity and yet pass unknowingly is a curious situation. How many others banded together by this love of exciting escapades drift by unnoticed?

Mad, or just free?

Rewind six weeks to a youth hostel bunkhouse in New Orleans. It’s March and my girlfriend and I are over a month into our trip but the adventure proper is only soon beginning. The idea of two wheels instead of four, less is more, has hit us, and we can’t shake it. There is something irresistible about the freedom (and rhyming couplet) of it all that eats away at us until shortly we find ourselves on the prowl for a scooter. 7,000 miles of road stretch out before us through endless rivers of Arkansas forest, bleak Delta farms, Kansas prairie, over formidable Colorado peaks, and into Canada.

If we were being rational, we’d know that sooner or later we will reach some hurdles but with our cans of beans, dried rice and a little two-man tent strapped onto our saddlebags we’re not being sensible – we’re being free! The road is smooth and the petrol mighty cheap around here. This is what two wheels is all about.

Roads passed

After several weeks in Louisiana, chasing paperwork and the holy grail of a license plate, we hit out north on our new two wheeled toy and roll ourselves steadily up and across the Deep South and into Ol’ Miss. Bleak Delta farmland stretches to the horizon and bends are sedate and scarce. After losing our sleeping bag on an unknown dreary farm plain because of a melted bag incident (which we shan’t dwell on) we enter the lush Arkansas landscape of forest and waterfalls. The Ozark Mountains greet us with a cold embrace, but fellow biker friends Carrie and Don equip us with some old motorbike jackets and jumpers, as well as good boots and a warm shower for Aby.

Clipping the southwest corner of Missouri we blast into Kansas and take on the endless featureless roads, arrow-straight in all directions with tumbleweed to boot! 100 miles due west to Wichita, with a ripping crosswind testing my concentration and handling skills more than the bike’s. The terrain gives few options for camping but we make the best of it.

After a brief hurricane-induced stopover with new friends in Wichita, Kansas, we careen 500 miles further west, plugging away at 60mph and slowly seeing the white tops of Colorado creep into view. We were more than ready for some hairpin bends and changing gradients. On the first real hill we meet Sandy, our bike, coughs and splutters her way to the top and past the Sangre de Cristo Ranches, losing power dramatically. We worry initially, but it seems this is just how a 20bhp bike climbs with two people and a load of camping gear strapped on. Fair enough.

In Colorado we get every aspect of mountains; from fantastic sun-glazed heat traps to dreadful descents on sleet strewn passes – hands frozen to the brake leavers and eyes clamped on the road. Time is well spent camping and playing in the colossal and surreal Great Sand Dunes National Park. From this balmy paradise we continue on to endure several more frigid occasions; a particularly gruesome ascent at 10mph up to Telluride ski town, in a blizzard, convulsing from the chill comes to mind. We also find some magical hidden hot springs, tucked away at the edge of the enormous San Luis Valley. This proved a brilliant place to while away the afternoon.

Rejuvenated, as much by the calming springs themselves as by the absence of buffeting snow, we power across the edge of Utah and into Wyoming. Before we know it we’ve been on the road for well north of 3,000 miles and are sharing horror stories with friends over finely crafted pale ales.

Here we are

We have spent a week in Jackson now; Sandy was in need of some new rubber about 200 miles ago, so locating a friendly bike garage in town to order tyres from is partly the reason for our extended stay. Jackson is a ski town and home to the astounding Teton Mountain Range, with the tallest, Grand Teton, reaching 13,775 feet (4,199m). The associated National Park is great for nature lovers whilst several successful micro-breweries (Snake River Brewery, Q Roadhouse, I could go on…) cater for those who are more interested in the ‘liquid culture’.

The roads spanning the plateau beside the Teton Range weave sedately through copses dappled sporadically on the vast expanse of grassland. A river meanders lazily on the western side of the meadows, through a huge channel it has spent around 9 million years carving since the Teton Mountains uplifted. It is worth taking a ride down Highway 26 and turning off down one of the many options to explore the area. It’s a wonderful place to spot wildlife with herds of buffalo wandering the plains as well as plenty of deer and pronghorn. Dawn is the best time if you can face the 5:15 alarm.

Spending the day with biker friend Michael

All that glitters ain’t yellow

Once Sandy is newly shod and everything strapped on double tight once more, we head out and take the Teton Pass Highway towards Wilson. Direction: Yellowstone National Park. Things immediately get more serious with a 15% incline proving without doubt that this will be the toughest mountain pass yet for our modest steed. A queue of traffic begins to form behind…

Once at the summit of Mount Glory, the initial section of descent is steep and twisting which is a fun surprise; no need for throttle, just a bit of brake and a lot of leaning with Aby holding on tight to our auxiliary baggage! Once down the other side we pass from Wyoming into Idaho traversing waves of tarmac as, to our right, we wave goodbye to the Tetons. Looking back up at those formidable heights I wonder if there are any other wild souls up there, finding new limits, as we ride forward to find ours.

After long hours en-route we arrive in Yellowstone as dusk draws in, pulling up at the only open campsite in the park (it being early season): $25 per night. We decide, somewhat conspiratorially as we huddle together, to “head back into town a find a cheap motel for the night” – which is code for go and camp in a bush for free. Our biggest mistake is not hiding the bike.

Five hours and a $125 fine later we are back in the same cursed campsite, bleary-eyed and slightly more bitter at the world. It seems the sheriffs are hot on regulations around here. We aren’t usually people to actively flaunt the law, but it seemed wrong to be in such wonderful wilderness, purposefully kept unspoilt for over 140 years, yet be forced to abide by arbitrary rules and spend our nights in a manicured campsite. We were looking to experience nature, not a tame version of it with toilet blocks and SUV neighbours.

Two days after our ill-fated arrival we have had our fill and take the west exit towards Bozeman, tracing the Wyoming/Montana border before crossing the meadow area of Big Sky. The distant horizons in every direction are bejewelled by peaks of every kind. It is breathtaking.

Celebrating a comedy lie down

A vested interest

Back in inclement Colorado, where we had spent a fair amount of time freezing our behinds off, we met a wonderful man in a café called Michael. He was also on a bike and seeing our chilly predicament he promptly took off his own heated vest and gave it to us. A true gentleman, we are now heading for his place in Montana to give him his vest back, thank him again and, knowing us, abuse his hospitality! This we do and we do it well, even having a go in his airplane, but the call of the mountains in the distance again has us, and a few days later we are saying our goodbyes.

We follow the Missouri River up to Glacier National Park and the beginning of some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen. The serene water of Lake McDonald is utterly astounding on the morning we find it, surrounded by calming peaks and refreshingly untouched forest. The Going-to-the-Sun Road passes the south-eastern edge and is initially flat with mild corners, passing on one side a perfect blue emerald backed by snowy peaks; on the other, wild evergreen forest dappled in golden rays. The road continues all the way across the park, snaking over Logan Pass and coming down next to stunning Saint Mary Lake, but at this point in May the pass is still snowed shut. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is legendarily epic, with Lonely Planet describing the 53-mile route as “a strong contender for the most spectacular road in America”. This is definitely one to come back for.

Who’s writing?

Doug Dewey is an excitable, adventurous chap searching for fun, new experiences and great coffee across the globe. He hopes to always be on the road, taking in fresh sights and sounds at his own speed, in no hurry to arrive anywhere. Doug used to be a professional road cyclist in France but packed that in to begin exploring – first Haiti and the Caribbean on foot, then into the United States and beyond on scooter. Thoroughly bitten by the motorbike bug he now lives in Glasgow with his girlfriend Aby, and they intend to explore as much of the great outdoors as possible on two wheels.

A date with the law

As I feverishly flick through the stamped pages of my passport I realise it has come down to a matter of days before my US visa is up. Two days in fact, to get to Canada, avoid a federal conviction and potential lifetime exclusion from America!

Did I mention we’d been having some starting issues recently? Issues which a $190 carburettor clean didn’t fix. Perhaps I also forgot to tell you, dear reader, about our ‘unorthodox’ fuel gauge which fluctuates with gradient, temperature, time of day and what t-shirt I put on that morning.

OK yes, so we run out of fuel single figures from the Canadian border. And okay, she won’t start once or twice after we refuel her. But those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and those who ride a scooter 6,000 miles non-stop shouldn’t complain when the old gal gets a touch temperamental. We get her going again and take off into the afternoon along one of the finest roads of our entire trip.

To Canada

East Glacier Park Village is a small gathering of log cabins just east of the National Park off Highway 2. On the advice of the lovely owner of ‘Brownies’, a friendly cafe and lodge, we take a lesser known route up the 49 to Looking Glass Hill. A more apt route for our frantic run-for-the-border scenario is hard to fathom, with stunning backdrops, hairy drop-offs, some tricky road surfaces and a final open straight sprint for the Carway border crossing.

Great swathes of evergreen tumble down to the basin of Lower Two Medicine Lake far below and we spend minutes gawping, engine running for fear of breaking down again. Over the lip of the hill-sweeping turns snake through Blackfeet Indian Reserve, decorated tragically by memorials at the roadside and frequent deposits of empty beer cans. A coincidence, I think not and an ugly reminder of thoughtless behaviour.

The descent down is on cracking and puckered roads, with big drops to the left and corners that corkscrew tighter as you come through them. It is great fun with a magical view of Red Mountain, but this road demands respect and I am suddenly grateful for the concentration boost my afternoon caffeine fix has given me. A flatter section reveals a lonesome moose grazing in the distance, like us enjoying the hazy evening light. We bear right to climb a touch more then descend on fast, wide roads through acres of dead forest unceremoniously annihilated by the mountain pine beetle infestation. Swinging right the road bisects cattle grazing land, with sensational views to the border and of Chief Mountain on our left as we race under crimson skies. Reaching the sleepy checkpoint we have a five minute chat and are through. Welcome to Alberta, Canada.

Two days of gorgeous lake views in Waterton National Park, a jump start later and we are looking down upon the huge sprawling mass that is Calgary. The scale of human influence on the landscape is humbling. Copycat terraces seep endlessly in every direction interspersed with roaring strips of tarmac and high-rise protrusions. Take me back to the mountains!

One night’s treat in a particularly dreary motel and then we are on a four-hour hunt for a decent bike shop. We hit the jackpot with The Old Motorcycle Shop, a proper local establishment with Phil, an ex-pat Englishman from Essex, at the head of affairs. Before we know it, we are being sorted with a new battery whilst we drink tea and chat adventures! The guys absolutely love our mad little trip and pay no heed to the make of our wheels or the ridiculous racking system we have going on. Closing time, and several offers later we head back to mechanic Jordan’s to meet his lovely girlfriend Amanda. Well-travelled both, Jordan also has a thing for British bikes and is building a Royal Enfield from scratch using the original handbook.

Without realising it we end up staying a week with our friends, taking heady day trips baggage-free to Banff National Park just down the road. We rode the gondola up to Sanson Peak on a perfect day, peering into the rustic meteorological observatory building constructed in 1903 and once home to a cosmic ray station in the 50s. Despite my minor vertigo the views are magnificent in every direction with the snowy shoulders of the Rocky Mountains laid out grandly before us. The air is thin and fresh, the sun pure and I’ve never been to a place that feels more like the top of the world. Even taking the easy route to these heights gives a real sense of accomplishment and my mind drifts to Brandon and others like him who value this feeling over all things comfortable and familiar, perhaps even over life itself.

I realise how, as a species we are a funny bunch. Some are content with a life lived easily, but for many this isn’t enough and they require exploration, adventure and adversity to survive. Like our friend Brandon I suppose who, in order to feel alive, has to go to the edge of being so.

Many people that we met on our trip hold within them the desire to venture to new places, finding things they could never search for because exploration always provides profound discoveries. These people know, like us, that to live a life entirely planned means to lose any opportunity for true adventure, as this demands freedom to explore a situation you’ve never encountered. We had met many but how many had we missed, hidden specs on a stormy sea, dots on a snowy ridge, shadows in a forest?

And us? Well, whilst we’re hardly teetering on cliff edges there are certainly easier ways to travel The States. Ways involving fewer bungee cords and covert campsites and fried batteries; but then those ways are much less fun and much more forgettable!

The Bike

A 2003 Piaggio BV 200 called Sandy Scooter, because of the sand from the Gulf Coast of Florida which we kept finding for months afterwards. She’s no speed machine but she is a tough old girl who will plug away at any snowy mountain pass or rocky alpine path you throw at her. It was usually us who cracked before she did! We were lucky enough to chance upon Sandy in New Orleans and initially it was just practicality that attracted us to her – bigger 16” wheels for long-distance, 200cc for a bit more vigour on the hills. We soon fell in love, though, with her outperforming what people think possible for ‘just a scooter’, and with a considerable load of baggage too! She packs a punch for a shy little scoot.

Want to ride the USA? Here’s how you can…

Getting there: You can pick up cheap flights to the States if you are prepared to go at odd times and have stopovers, so spend some time looking on Skyscanner.

Accommodation: We camped roughly six nights a week, so paid nothing for that, and spent one night a week in a motel. Depending on the specific area and your desired level of luxury these can cost from $40 (roughly £25) upwards. We usually opted for cheap ones and they were absolutely fine.

When to go: Any time from late spring until early autumn. If you like your fingers and toes it’s unwise to plan crossing mountain passes in Colorado in the winter. We had some chilly experiences even in May and the weather can turn brutal very quickly.

How long to go for: The USA is huge, varied and incredible. It would be rude to go for less than three weeks in my opinion.

Buying or hiring a bike: Buying a bike out there is easy enough, but insuring and registering it is a total nightmare, unless you have a permanent Stateside address or US i.d. card. It’s much simpler but potentially more expensive to stick to hiring depending upon how long your trip is going to be. A good place to start is Eagle Rider rental with prices starting at about £80/day plus some taxes and one-way fees if your route requires it.

Shipping your bike over: Sometimes you just want to ride your own bike, and fortunately there are some great, hassle free options for getting your machine to the US. At current prices, airfreight from London to Denver costs from £1,125 for a BMW R1200GS sized motorcycle. For more information visit www.motofreight.com.

Who’s it for: America is huge and has a lot to offer to different types of people. We chose to follow a very nature-oriented route, avoiding major towns and camping where we found pleasant places to stop. You could easily city hop if you slightly altered route, but this would immediately forego the possibility of camping for free and up your costs significantly, as well as change the character of the trip entirely.

General advice: Pack light! When travelling two up on a scooter (or any bike for that matter) excess baggage is for fools. We had to substantially streamline our possessions the minute we bought our bike, so save yourselves the hassle and don’t even bring it. You will always be able to pick up suitable extra clothing if needed when you get somewhere. Also, bring some decent reusable water bottles and nice healthy(ish) snacks. Long hours in the saddle need good fuelling.

Documents and Visas: Passport, ESTA. You will need an ESTA (which is free) for a stay up to 3 months. Any longer and you’ll need to apply for a visa and pay for it. Make sure you have your return flight booked otherwise you might have some trouble getting in at customs.

Rules of the Road: Ride on the right-hand side of the road, Petrol is ‘gas’ and gas is also gas. In terms of filtering, road rules vary across states and can be a bit confusing if travelling cross country. Currently it is only legal to filter (or lane split, as it is known across the pond) in California while in Colorado and Nebraska it is strictly prohibited. Laws in other states don’t have explicit rules about lane filtering, though laws are interpreted to prohibit the act.

Tipping: Always tip for meals AND drinks. It’s normal to tip a dollar per drink, even a beer.

Weather: The weather report is worth paying attention to. hurricanes are the real deal over there.

Language: Get used to a massive overuse of the teenage angst go-to word, ‘like’.

Medical: Check your vaccines and immunisations are up to date.