By Ray Hyland
Many thoughts go through my head at the beginning of a long ride. First and foremost on this one was, “What the heck am I doing here? Why am I sitting on a motorcycle, struggling with a 40-knot crosswind, when I could be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, sipping a cocktail, and zipping back to my home and family?”
The answer of course, is that this was a trip I had never done before. And as an overlander, a trip you haven’t done is a bit like a climber coming around a corner, and seeing a big beautiful rock wall in the distance. The temptation is almost irresistible.
Now I should add a caveat here. I was riding between Arizona and British Columbia, a drive I have done at least seven times previously. The difference was that on my previous trips I was either driving a Land Rover Defender 110 (with an efficient but slow, small-displacement turbo diesel) or I was driving a Land Cruiser LJ78 (with another efficient but slow, small-displacement turbo diesel).
This time I was on a completely different animal, a Yamaha Super Tenere motorcycle. With a 1200cc, liquid-cooled twin, the bike was anything but slow. The other big difference was that this time I was alone. Usually I have my family along when I do this trip.
I’ve always enjoyed this drive; the winding diagonal route means that almost the entire trip is in mountains, and what mountains! From the dry, crumbling landscapes of the Nevada high desert, to the vibrant young peaks of the Northern Cascades, the trip is a mountain-lover’s playground.
The trip started ominously. The riding gear I planned to test didn’t arrive on time, delaying my departure from morning to late afternoon. To make matters worse, when I was about to leave I discovered I’d left the key on earlier in the day, resulting in a dead battery. Trust me, pushing a 650-pound loaded bike through the parking lot to bump-start it is not the most fun way to start a long ride.
Once I got going, all the stress of departure melted away. Nothing to do now but enjoy the ride. Unlike driving a car or truck, on a bike I don’t even answer a call with my hands-free kit. I just turn the phone off, focus on the road and the scenery, and settle down to get intimately familiar with the bike I am riding.
This bike belongs to Touratech USA, and I had collected it from them at the Overland Expo two weeks earlier. It came with all the kit I could want: big aluminum panniers for my gear, skid plates, crash bars, extra lighting, wide pegs, a lowered seat, higher handlebars, and a tank bag. The only thing I didn’t have was a GPS. The bike was set up with a large bracket for a Garmin Montana GPS, but the actual GPS unit was back in Seattle. No matter, five minutes with an Allen key and the bracket was in a pannier, tucked in my shoe to avoid rattling. The tank bag had a big clear map case Velcro’d to the top, so I photocopied a couple of pages from the Hema road atlas, and tucked them into the map case.
I figured the first night I would camp somewhere along the shores of Lake Mead just outside Vegas. I had a little Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock in the panniers, and if I could find a tree or a fence post for one end of it, the bike on its center stand would do for the other end. Since I had left so late I decided to stay on the interstate and make up some time.
If you’ve ever travelled Interstate 40 through Arizona, you’ll know that the speed limit is 75 mph, and the slower traffic is doing about 80-90. When I turned off the interstate in Kingman and started north on 93, I never noticed the big bold “65 mph” sign. (Driving an old diesel Land Rover or Land Cruiser, there has never been a need to pay attention to speed limit signs, as I never seemed capable of reaching the speed limit anyway).
So when I rocketed past an Arizona Highway Patrol cruiser on the roadside, I promptly slowed to 75 and waited to see if the lights came on. To my chagrin, they did, after he’d followed me for a few miles at a steady 75 mph. Once I’d pulled my helmet off, the conversation went something like:
Officer “Do you know how fast you were going?”
Me “80… ish?”
Officer “Do you know what the speed limit is here?”
Officer “Are you on a cross country trip?”
Me “I’m testing the bike and some gear for a magazine.”
Officer “Which magazine?”
Me “Overland Journal.”
Officer “Really? I love Overland Journal!”
The conversation quickly became a discussion about bikes, camping spots, overlanding in Arizona, and my route to the Pacific Northwest. I was sent on my way with a stern warning to pay greater attention to speed limit signs when I was on something that could in fact exceed the speed limit.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. It was pretty late when I crossed the Hoover Dam and I didn’t feel like sorting the hammock out in the dark, so I got a cheap $17 room in Vegas and was asleep before my boots hit the floor. The next morning I was up early and headed up Hwy 95 towards Death Valley while the air was still cool.
While the scenery was gorgeous and I was enjoying the view, the bike was running on knobby tires, and it would be a shame to spend all my time on pavement. But since I was riding alone and there was not a chance of picking this bike up by myself if I dropped it, I felt the prudent choice was to stay near the asphalt. After another hour of pavement I hit on a solution. The fence beside the highway had an ATV track running alongside it, that the rancher would use for inspecting his fence. Gravel, packed sand, exposed bedrock, and the occasional drainage ditch meant a little excitement, and a nice break from the highway. I had more than a few cars slow down to see what I was doing, as I stood on the pegs, dodging the occasional cactus or empty beer bottle, with a big grin on my face. I am sure they were thinking, “Why is he over there in the dirt? Can’t he see there is a perfectly good road right over here?”
All good things come to an end, and within the hour the little track disappeared. We strongly adhere to Tread Lightly principles at Overland Journal, and the lack of an established track meant that I was forced back onto pavement, just as I came upon the sign pointing the way to Mercury.
I’d never been to Mercury so it was tempting to go check it out, but then I remembered that Mercury is 48 million miles away, and this bike doesn’t have an extended-range tank, so I decided to leave that detour for a day when I had some jerry cans, although as I got a little further down the highway I came across a place where I probably could have picked up all the supplies I would need for an interplanetary trip.
The Tenere has a decent-sized tank, and I expected it to go between 200 and 250 miles before needing a top up, but I’ve learned in the past that even with half a tank, sometimes it’s good to top up when I can. Case in point, my map showed an intersection of two good-sized roads, and I remembered an old road-atlas having a gas station marked there. But since I needed to stop for a coffee and a bio-break, I topped off my tank early. Good thing too. When I reached the intersection, it was obvious there hadn’t been any fuel there for a long time, although it looked like other enticements to stop may have outlasted the gas station.
This is where I encountered the crazy crosswinds I mentioned at the beginning of this story. The high plains of northern Nevada are notorious for wind. As one friend remarked, “I remember riding sideways through Nevada.” I decided to get off the plateau and into sheltered valleys.
Crossing into California, I followed a series of winding little roads through the Cascade forests towards Mt. Shasta. The immediate difference in climate and topography was dramatic. Suddenly I was surrounded by giant evergreens, riding through dappled sunlight in the fresh and cool mountain air.
I decided to pull off next to a little stream to drink some water, and immediately I was in the most serene place I’ve been in months. Singing birds, big bumble-bees, and colorful dragonflies surrounded me, as I watched trout flit through the shallows of the babbling brook. Downstream I could just make out a lone fly fisherman casting a line. I could have spent the whole day there, but hunger made me press on.
The road eventually took me to the little town of Mt. Shasta, where I ate and then turned north towards Oregon. After all the dust and heat it was nice to be close to the coast, and everywhere I looked I was shocked by the giant trees, vibrant flowers, and great coffee.
As I rode up the coast it was great to be surrounded by water, boats, and bridges again. Being in the desert for a few months always makes me appreciate the seaside.
Eventually I crossed into B.C., turned east on the Trans-Canada Highway, and headed for home. Our cabin is in the mountains, and as soon as I see Mt. Outram in front of me, I know I am home.
It took a few extra days, and there were no in-flight cocktails, but I’m glad I did the ride. I was able to stop and appreciate little details I’d never noticed before, and the rhythm of the road was very different on a bike. It felt like a trip I’d never done before, but then again, I guess it was.
Epilogue – While obviously not a trail bike, the Super Tenere is a solid all-rounder, able to cover thousands of miles effortlessly, explore moderate trails with the right tires, and even keep up with a couple of whipper-snappers in the mountains.