Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Bucket List - commentary

Summer is here and it is again bucket list time. For those of you who don’t keep up with summer movie releases, “Bucket List” is a current movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It is about two men terminally ill with cancer who head off on a road trip with a list of things to do before they kick the bucket. I did a similar thing a few years back when I decided that as an old man I’d rather be rocking on my front porch remembering the things I’d done than wishing I’d done them. That was the summer I rode my motorcycle to Homer, Alaska, and back to Jonesboro.

So when I say summer is here and it’s bucket list time again, I mean it is the time of year to create another memory by scratching another item off the bucket list. This year I intend to ride the holy grail of motorcycling, Tail of the Dragon, in Eastern Tennessee. The Tail features 318 curves in 11 miles. But, this is just a little side trip. The real ride will be the Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas portion of the Trans-American Trail.

For adventure motorcyclist, there are two major trails in the U.S.: The Great Divide Trail which follows the Continental Divide from the Canadian border to Pie, New Mexico, and the Trans-American Trail that goes from Jellico, Tennessee, to the Oregon coast. Both trails follow back roads, county roads, forest service roads, farm and ranch roads, logging roads, etc., as much as possible. There are books and maps available that describe the details of each. There is even a set of charts available for the Trans-American Trail that gives section by section directions: go two miles and turn right; go eight miles and angle to the left, and so on. These were put together by mountain bike and adventure motorcycle enthusiasts.

I will be riding alone this trip, though on these trails one is never really alone as others have put them on their bucket lists. On the other hand, when riding a motorcycle, whether with others or not, you still ride alone, that is unless you’re foolish enough to hook up an intercom to accommodate a back seat driver. And, since I am a retiree on a limited budget, I’ll camp along the way and do my own cooking. The only question is how much cooking do I want to do? Do I want to eat out of cans, or do I want to take my Dutch oven along and do some good old cowboy cooking.

My chosen motorcycle for this ride is a 2006 model Russian Ural with a sidecar. This machine was originally designed as a World War II combat vehicle and hasn’t changed much since and so was engineered for off road, rough treatment. The sidecar allows me to easily carry all the gear I want, including the Dutch oven and charcoal and maybe even a small grill for an occasional steak.

The negative side of this rig is its lack of reliability. If Ivan put it together on Monday after drinking too much vodka over the weekend, it is prone to breakdowns. At times, I fear mine is prone to breakdowns. On the other hand, a fellow named Gary Smith has ridden one from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the tip of South America and produced several documentaries called “The Mule has Three Wheels,” and Carla King rode one around the entire perimeter of the United States and wrote a book about her trip called “American Borders.” The positive is that they are old school rigs and easy to repair along the trail unless something serious happens like a scored cylinder wall or worn out transmission and crank shaft bearings. Yes, I’ve had both happen, but since I have those failures out of the way, I should be alright. If not, I have a road side service insurance, plus, I’ll take along plenty of WD-40, zip ties, duct tape, J-B Weld, and bubble gum.

I’m not sure how I happened to want this rig in the first place, except that I have a penchant for the odd or the unusual. It all happened a couple of years ago after a disastrous ride out to Washington on my KLR 650, a wonderful little adventure bike. Unfortunately I filled the fuel tank with five gallons of diesel near Kennewick, Washington. It was about 105 degrees out. I took off and couldn’t figure out why the thing was running so rough, but since I was on the freeway, I had no place I could really turn off for four or five miles. By that time, I realized what I had done and knew why the thing was running so poorly. If it weren’t for the heat, I doubt if it would have run at all. When I pulled off the freeway, the poor thing was hemorrhaging oil. I brought it home on a U-Haul. When I got into its innards, it was seriously damaged.

By the time I got all the difficulties corrected with the little fellow, I was out of patience and ready for something else. I can’t remember how or when I first came across the Ural, but one look and I was hooked. It is unexplainable. It’s like looking across that crowded room and spotting that woman you know was meant for you. So, when I saw a used Ural on a motorcycle lot in Mesa, Arizona, I knew it was time to make the switch. It’s best to stay married to the same woman for a lifetime (45 years so far) but with motorcycles, you can love ‘em and leave ‘em and lust after all of them you want.

So when you read this, I’ll be on some back road in Tennessee, Mississippi or Arkansas cooking up a cowboy dinner. Or, I may be sitting along a road scratching my head while trying to figure out why the Ural won’t run right and trying to decide whether this is a job for WD-40, duct tape, or J-B Weld. But when it is over, one more thing will be scratched off my bucket list.

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