Motorcycle ride from the prairie to the mountains and back

     4.5 days, 2,000 miles on a motorcycle, Memorial Day weekend, 2023.  I started at 6am Thursday, headed west on Interstate 80. I always wait until the sun is up to allow nature’s critters to move from their feeding place to their comfort place before I take off. Few things are as frightening as hitting a large animal at high speed on a motorcycle. I’ve had friends get hit by a deer while riding a motorcycle and it is devastating.

       I’m on a 2023 Honda Gold Wing, the ultimate in touring bikes. I’ve only had this bike for a little over 2 months and 4,000 miles, so I’m still getting used to it. It has a 6 cylinder engine and a chassis built to race if you so desire. The suspension changes with the switch of a button from cushy soft touring ride to a “Hell on wheels, let’s tear up some pavement” setting. So, I named her Helen. The musical group “Wings” wrote a song about her.

        90 miles later, I turn off the Interstate and onto Highway 2, the Scenic Sandhills Byway. Nebraska was long ago under the sea and when the water left, there were vast rolling sand hills. Time and nature covered these with grass.  In places where the grass has been damaged or died, the wind erodes the bare sand and leaves a neatly carved hole. These are called “blowouts” and look a lot like a sand trap on a golf course.

        This fragile ecosystem once was cared for by large herds of bison. The bison ate the grass and returned the unused portion to fertilize and nurture the soil. This worked great until settlers killed all the bison. So much for the history lesson, let’s ride bikes.

        The area right around Grand Island has had good rainfall and the grass is lush and green, right up to the edge of the road. One benefit of being a biker is the stimulation of the senses and the sense of smell is a wonderful gift. The air is so pure out here that you can smell water when near it. On this day, the smell of rich black earth is heavy in the air. This is the smell from which life will emerge. Grass, wild flowers and a wide variety of native plants at springing forth.

        The Scenic Byway is heaven on a bike. There are many curves and very little traffic. The land is just like it’s always been in many places. There aren’t any signs or bill boards and very few visible homes. There will be 3 to 5 miles between oncoming traffic. Yes, it is that sparse and natural.

        Before I know it, I’ve traveled 190 miles without stopping and I’m in Alliance, Nebraska. The best restaurant around is Ken and Dale’s, on a corner lot about the center of town. I ask about the special and it is chicken fried steak. This is no pre-made frozen “fritter”. This is aged Nebraska beef, hand breaded in the kitchen and pan fried. It comes with real mashed potatoes, the kind with peelings in it and enough large lumps to show it’s a real potato.

       I enjoy a nice sit down meal, then gas up and head north. My destination is Deadwood, South Dakota. Yes, it is the home of Saloon #10, where Wild Bill Hikok died after being shot in the back during a card game. Legend has it his hand was a full house, Aces and 8s. This will become forever known as a “dead man’s hand”.  There are 2 Saloon #10’s, but only one authentic.

        But I digress. I took a little side trip to get a picture of my bike in front of the Sturgis sign. Sturgis, South Dakota is the home of the Black Hills Motorcycle rally, attended by hundreds of thousands of bikers the first week of August every year.

        I check into my motel after riding nearly 600 miles on my first day.

Part 2

       Today, I’ll ride 2 of Wyoming’s best motorcycle roads, the highway between Buffalo and Ten Sleep and the Wind River Canyon.  These roads will be a challenge and I suppose planning to ride 450 miles this day only enhanced the whole idea.

         I load the bike and leave Deadwood as the sun is coming up. Free breakfast at my hotel is too late for me, so I’ll just bring my home brewed Starbucks coffee along. I cover some secondary mountain roads and head for Interstate 90. There are places where you can see for miles and it’s a good thing. In the distance I can see a very large thundercloud that goes all the way to the ground. Once again, the Wicked Witch of the West is intent on challenging Superbikerchick with a little weather. 

        There is a place I can pull over and put on my rain gear. My boots are waterproof Gortex, so I don my rain pants and my “100 mph rain coat” from Bass Pro Shop. Yes, I even have waterproof gloves. This is one rat that’s not getting wet. The best way to stay dry on a motorcycle is to put on all your gear before it rains. Once it starts to rain, you get soaked before you can gear up. If you are dressed for it, it won’t rain. So, I know I’ll stay dry.

        I’m just a few dry miles along Interstate 90 when the Wicked Witch sets up the road construction brigade. Great, now I have grooved pavement, uneven pavement and loose rock with which to deal. The Gold Wing is a dream and we deal with this easily. Then the rain comes. My Wing is an automatic transmission with 4 different settings. I switch to “Rain” mode. This reduces power and enhances the other control features, like traction control, vehicle stability assist and anti-lock braking. I must say this feels almost like cheating, as the bike is as stable as can be. The tires are grippy and smooth. In a final moment of desperation, the Witch releases the Flying Monkeys who put mud on the pavement. It doesn’t work. I drive out of the rain without incident and end construction. I switch back to “Tour” mode and ride on.

        I’m soon in Buffalo, Wyoming and can take off my rain gear. The sun is out, the air is clean and I’m ready to ride. The road rises and starts to curve. This is a nice introduction and soon there are luscious curves back and forth. The dangers here are coming across obstacles in the road in a curve. While a car can apply brakes in a curve, this is a huge no-no on a bike. Motorcycle classes stress this over and over. Use the brakes before you enter the curve. If you have to brake, straighten up first. Easy to say, not so much to do. Throttle can be applied in a curve without concern.

        Death fearing bikers will use the road signs to gauge how fast to enter a curve. When it says 50 mph, you’re good. At 30 mph, use some judgment and when it says 15 mph, believe it. The real danger to a 15 mph turn is running off the road coming out of it, as the bike is leaning a lot. It takes discipline to pull up and straighten out.

      As I get into serious curve country, I put the bike into “Sport” mode. For first time Gold Wing riders, the “S” stands for Stupid. As in, when you want to ride like a stupid person, use this setting. While the rain mode reduces the throttle by wire response, the S mode gives you full power from the hopped-up 6 cylinder engine. It also stiffens the suspension and changes how it shifts gears from the 7-speed automatic transmission. Honda wins all the bike races and their engineers have this down to a science. The bike even has “grade logic”, so it knows whether you are going uphill, downhill or level ground.

        As I start riding a little more aggressively, the computer keeps the engine speed in the power band. From 3,000 rpm to 5500 rpm, it makes serious power. The sport mode keeps the transmission from shifting up and reducing engine speed. Wherever you are, the throttle is ready for racing response with no lag. Also, rolling off the throttle for a downhill curve, this slows the bike without using brakes. Well, hello sailor, this is going to be a lot of fun.

         The engine slows the bike for a curve, the bike tips nicely and the tires grip like the paws of a big cat. As I pass the apex of the curve, I can apply throttle and shoot out of that corner like a shot. I’m not the fastest on this road, there is a red pickup on my trail. I slow down and signal him to pass. As I come across slower traffic, I can pass them easily when the road permits. About 3 seconds is all it takes to accelerate and pass.

        As I came around one sharp curve, I was glad I was being careful, because a hard rain had washed a lot of loose gravel across the road. I was able to straighten the bike enough to reduce speed and correct my direction, then ride safely across the gravel. Other than a few pavement breakups, the road was excellent. I finished the 63 mile trip and was happy to be done, as this type of riding takes all your attention to do it safely. I am bonding with this bike.

        I stopped in Thermopolis at the One-Eyed Bison bar for a burger. Bar burgers are part of the riding experience. It was very good and the place was packed. Off I went to Wind River Canyon, which is a very scenic ride along the wall of a canyon, with a beautiful river below. The railroad is on the opposite bank.

        I checked in to my hotel in Casper, Wyoming in a hail storm. Yes, hard rain and real hail. Just another reason I wear a helmet and a jacket with body armor, even in the shoulders. It was quarter size hail and it hurt my hands. Tomorrow, more mountains and Steamboat, Colorado.

Part 3 Shake, Rattle and Roll

       I carefully calculate each day’s ride and each gas stop. My bike reports fuel mileage and counts miles remaining of fuel. I always want to stop with at least 40 miles of fuel left. I leave Casper full of fuel and my next stop is Cheyenne, Wyoming. Not much in eastern Wyoming, but the scenery is lovely. Temps are cool, wind is very light and so is traffic.

        I evaluate risk of hitting an animal by road kill I see on the Interstate. There is very little and few trees or brush next to the road.  Leafy shelter hides wildlife and dawn and dusk are times when they are moving from activities to rest. I try to give them time to do so by not leaving until sunrise. This is where the deer and the antelope play. Antelope are smaller and faster than deer and can really jump.

        I relax and engage the cruise for 80 mph. The Gold Wing is happy for any speed I set, but the owner’s manual advises the cruise won’t engage at speeds above 100 mph. Really? The bike is extremely stable at any speed, although I haven’t pushed it to the limit. The trip is uneventful and we are soon entering Cheyenne. There is road construction and I don’t see any good places for gas.

     Soon there are concrete barricades, reduced speeds and I have to pay attention to make my very slow turn onto Interstate 80 headed west for Laramie. I guess I’ll get gas on the way, it’s only 45 miles and my miles to go shows 38. I’m concerned that as soon as I get on I80 there appears no civilization next to the road. Only a few miles in, I realize there are no truck stops here. I need to turn around and go back. The median is very wide and I don’t see any places to turn around, either.

        It gets worse. There are no exit ramps because there are no towns. There are no people living here. It doesn’t seem possible that there are no fuel stops for almost 50 miles. I need to take immediate action. I can’t turn around, I can’t exit and there’s no place to buy gas. My best strategy is to try to make my gas last and I’m still 7 miles short, assuming there is a gas station right at the city’s edge. There is a setting that shows instant feedback for fuel mileage in a little bar graph. So, I slow down to 55 mph, put on my emergency flashers and focus on the graph. 35 to empty and 43 to Laramie.

        Apparently, the miles to empty assumes I will continue at the same pace I’m driving. Rats, even slowing down doesn’t close the gap. I slow down further, but the road is uphill and it takes power to climb. I remember that the last bit is a steep downhill descent, but it’s a long ways away. I’m still pulling uphill and at 23 miles to empty and 35 miles to go, I’m right on the edge of the Interstate with trucks flying by and giving me space.

       The bike has an automatic transmission and we’ve been conserving fuel by staying in 7th gear and very low engine speed. Suddenly, the bike shifts to 6th, then 5th and I’m slowing down fast. I realize that I have just run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. I pull off to the shoulder, but I can’t be out. Bingo, I’m riding uphill. My mind quickly thinks that if I shake the bike, I might get fuel to the pickup in the tank. So, I start shaking the bike back and forth and I’m down to 20 mph. Suddenly, the engine springs to life and we’re back moving again. So now I’m shaking and rolling and praying for another miracle.

       Desperate people will see a mirage in the desert when the buzzards are circling above them. I think I see a tiny gas station on the opposite side of the road. It’s a tiny shack. As I get closer, I imagine what looks like gas pumps in front. How will I get there if there is one?  God just put the first exit in 35 miles right here just for me. I pull off the road and find a little underpass that gets me to the other side. The bike is still running and pulls me up the hill, still shaking and into Buford, Wyoming, population 1. It’s a single building, a convenience store and gas station. The sign on the front proudly proclaims it to be the highest gas stop on Interstate 80 at 8,000 feet.

        I fill the tank and based on the owner’s manual I had .3 gallons left. That’s 3 cups, barely enough to keep the bottom of the tank wet. I would not have made it to Laramie. My guardian angels put that station there, so don’t count on seeing it if you travel Interstate 80 from the east to get to Laramie.

         This just proves it’s better to be lucky than good. I still can’t believe it.

One thought on “Motorcycle ride from the prairie to the mountains and back

  1. Love reading about your riding adventures, Becky..!! Once I get my right hip all healed up, I am gonna go out on some epic rides myself..!!
    Keep the rubber side down..!!

    — Troy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *