Full photo gallery at bottom of article.
My old college roommate, Luis, is a musical conductor and music professor in Montana. What sort of friend would I be if I failed to visit him and his wife Mandi and daughter Sofia? Time goes by fast, but I did not realize that Sofia was already two! Bad roommate. To make amends, I figured I could take the trip with my dream motorcycle I bought in 2011. I had wanted a 1995 R1100GS since about 1995. The year of getting used to the bike was well spent in covering many local miles; but despite riding since I was 12 years old, I had never taken a long ride like a trip from Minnesota to Montana.
Typical me, I love the gearing up and anticipation of any trip. This time, I needed the GPS and phone mounts and wiring. I left a USB port inside the windscreen so I could recharge the second intercom while I used the other. I already had the tent from a Land Rover trip last year, but I needed the waterproof bags. I had a new Swiss volcano cooker I planned to use for dining.
The only surprises on day one were the force of the North Dakota winds and that my bottom did not get weary. I found a KOA with a pool just over the border in Montana. A dip, change of clothes, meal in town and a Louis L’Amore book completed the evening.
I was delighted to make good time the next day and arrive in Missoula by mid-afternoon. I had a lovely couple of days visiting with an old friend and his beautiful little family. I made good use of the time by stretching my right wrist. I was sore from the throttle, but at least I learned how to not fight the Throttlemeister anymore. The adventure part started when I left Luis and his family.
It turns out Missoula is near Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least drive through it. The sky was threatening as I approached the north entrance to the park, so I put on my rain gear. I find it is so much more effective when put over dry
leathers. Of course, the park is stunning, but also smelly from the sulfur. It was getting to closing time, and I was only at the south entrance meaning to make it around to the east entrance. I figured I could just connect through in Wyoming. I exited and found a line of parked cars along the highway. They were watching a tall-as-me bear walking away from the road! I kept moving. I asked the GPS to get me to Cody, and it directed me back into the park. That was impossible, not just for the time of day, but I had somehow lost my park entry receipt. I pressed on south.
Near sunset, I was down a hill and around a turn when I happened upon a view of the Grand Tetons! At least that is what the GPS called them. What a sight! I was not alone in stopping to take pictures. I pressed on and started sniffing around for a campsite. The GPS noted one about 30 miles ahead. There were still other cars on the road ahead and I was even following one at an intersection where my route turned to dirt. I passed a quaint restaurant where that car stopped but continued following the little pink line on the GPS. The dirt road narrowed to a single track, and it was well and truly dark by now. The moon was up and I heard no engine in any direction. I had a thought to just camp on the track, but then remembered the big roadside bear and how there is safety in numbers at a campsite. I moved on.
This time, I stopped asking the GPS to get me to the campsite but rather to the nearest gas station. The little pink line lay ahead of me for another 20 miles until I returned to the highway. This section was just gravel as it was under construction. I found gas at a lodge around 11 p.m. and asked about camping. The attendant mentioned a campground up the road where I had come from. Optimistically, I remounted.
The going was slow in the gravel and I had to keep stopping for the crossing herds of elk. Another hour later, a reflective beacon of a park campground sign caught my eye. I quickly pulled into a spot, set up the tent and hauled my right side hard bag, the food bag, up a tree away from my tent. Sleep came quickly. In the morning, the view was amazing toward the mountains. I cooked coffee in the volcano and strained the grounds though my teeth while making a mental note to acquire cheesecloth at the next opportunity. The warm drink felt good on the 40 degree morning.
Somehow still trusting my GPS, I headed for Cody. The highway was at least pointing east, and the views were full-on cowboy: scrubby desert, broad brimmed hats, horses and cattle. There looked to be a short cut to the north that would lead to a mountain pass to cross over the east–west range parallel to the highway. This road got narrower and less maintained until it turned into a sand track. The GPS reassured me it was only 20 miles until the highway. The pronghorn and jackrabbits ran away from me as I approached. The mountains stayed to my left and I gullibly continued expecting a pass.
When I stopped for water and a Clif Bar lunch, I looked all around and saw nothing but desert. It was hot. I was imagining how I could manage overnighting in this place as I circled the bike. Oh, the tent had been shaken off. I had to go back. By now the fuel was getting on the low side, but I really liked that tent and I would need it for the night. Fortunately, it was only 20 minutes back that I saw the waterproof orange bag languishing in the tire track of this sand road. I ratcheted down extra tight and angled one of my mirrors to include the bright orange end. Then, I noticed that the intercom that was charging was no longer on the dangling plug. Fortunately, it had just fallen into the console. I changed my question to the GPS asking for fuel, and it showed me a different route. I had to turn the bike around.
As nimble as the R1100 is, I forget how heavy it is in sand. The edges of the track had sharp looking scrubby brush, so I was reluctant to make a wide U-turn. Things started to look greener ahead. The sand track ended at an intersection with a tarmac road. Behind me, I could barely make out the buck-shot-sign warning about trespassing on the desert land. It would have been nice to have one of those on the other
end of the trail!
The rest of the day was hot but uneventful. The bank signs were reading 95 degrees. In my leathers dating to the same era as my bike, I had to keep up with the water loss—remember, it is better to sweat than to bleed. I made it to Sturgis three days before the rally. Things were really getting warmed up. The parking lots were full of bikes, the T-shirt stands were already selling pithy and sometimes vulgar slogans and the Sturgis label whiskey was on sale. I stayed for a grilled cheese and then left town.
Again asking my GPS for directions to a campsite, I was brought into a downtown area of Rapid City. I had no intention of camping in that vacant lot next to the YMCA. Back on the highway, I arrived in Wall and found an adequate campsite behind Wall Drug at around 11:00 p.m. A couple shots of Sturgis whisky and a toast to the stars and I was ready for the tent.
The next morning, I was out and parked in front of Wall Drug for the obligatory photo but had breakfast at the diner across the street. The Harley-Davidson store was open early, so I popped in to see if they had a replacement helmet speaker. I had torn out the wire while removing my helmet, so I was listening in mono. No such luck: just T-shirts and chaps. I continued on to the Badlands drive-through park. This was really amazing in the morning light and well worth the detour off Interstate 90. I even got to wave to a woman on a new looking three-wheeled BMW. I took the recommendation of a Harley guy back home and took the quainter and direct Route 12 the rest of the way home. The highway connected tiny towns with little gas stations that sell ice cream. The banks registered another 95-degree day.
As I neared the east side of South Dakota, I had second thoughts about my last overnight on this trip. I had planned to take it more slowly and maybe finish that Louis L’Amore book in my hammock. Instead, I looked around and realized the scenery of corn fields, cows and lakes was just what I have at home. After the dramatic vistas I had been steeping in, this was much less stimulating but familiar. I pressed on. I made it home before the kids were to bed after a 13-hour day in the saddle. My bottom was not sore, but my right wrist still ached.
As is typical, I am reviewing all of the brain time I had and the epiphanies. I feel very blessed to have been able to make this kind of trip to visit a good friend. I am also very thankful to have sampled long distance travel and a taste of the GS life. Now, what do I need for my next trip?
About the Author: Garrick is a family practice doctor and the lead for their providers in Hastings, Minn., and Prescott, Wisc. He is nearing the end of a Wilderness Medicine Fellowship through the Wilderness Medicine Society. Garrick is married, has two kids and is very involved in the Minnesota Land Rovers Club.