JerkQuest '03 Tour
This tour started on August 27, 2003 and was completed on September 8, 2003. The introductions below were prepared before we departed to provide background to readers who were following along in 'real time'.
You can reach our first report by by clicking here or the final Epilogue by clicking here. Or by clicking on the colored numbers below, you can navigate directly to each report..
"These things sure don't make a whole lot of power, do they?" mused Gizmo at our first refueling stop.
We were at a Chevron station in Stanwood, Washington, on our way from Seattle to Anacortes. The plan was to hop a ferry to the San Juan Islands where we'd pitch tents and "sleep with the bugs and snakes," as my motorcycling pal Peter Wylie likes to describe camping. Receiving the petrol were two stalwart foot-soldiers in the overwhelming Japanese assault on the 1970's American motorcycle market: a 1972 Honda CB350 twin and a 1975 Honda CB400F four-cylinder with pistons slightly larger than thimbles. Loaded to the gills with tank bags, panniers, and waterproof duffels, we were on a shakedown run, trying to find bugs in our plan to take these diminutive machines on our annual tour. A shakedown run that seemed, as our Commander-In-Chief's dad would be fond of saying, "only prudent."
These were my bikes and it was my idea to take them so, trying to put a positive spin on things, I retorted, "Well no, they aren't very fast, but man, we sure do look cool. Heck Gizmo, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can take a new liter-bike on tour. As long as we don't try and go terribly fast, they'll get us there." Gizmo looked unconvinced.
And where is there? Well, every other year, Gizmo and I get together with a few of our high-school friends to do some of the same boring stuff we did when we had more hair in the right places, and to collectively marvel about how we managed to make it through high-school with no one getting thrown in jail, maimed, or killed. This year, the "Jerks" as our group calls itself, had scheduled an early-September rendezvous in the Boundary Waters area near Ely, Minnesota where one of our friends had somehow managed to convince his in-laws that we wouldn't burn down the family cabin.
On these reunion years, Gizmo and I like to kill two vacation-birds with one stone and arrive via motorcycle. It's efficient with vacation-time, and besides, it makes for a grander entrance when we swagger in after a week on The Road, smelling of sweat, splattered bugs, and Mobil 1.
It's a long haul from Seattle to Minnesota and back, so we decided to adopt the Sturgis-attending Harley-rider's preferred mode of travel: trailering. We'd trailer the bikes about half the distance and ride the other half, allowing six days of hard riding to be compressed into two days of hard trailering, giving us a leisurely ten-or-so days to ride about 2,000 miles on the bikes. The halfway point was in the middle of nowhere in eastern Montana, not far from the place where Custer spoke his immortal words, "Where did all these Indians come from?" After dropping the truck and loading the bikes, we'd ride near the mighty Missouri across most of North Dakota, cross the Red River Valley, head northeast through the lake country of Minnesota, and catch the Echo and Gunflint Trails to our rendezvous point with the Jerks near Ely. There, we'd park the bikes, rent a couple small boats and proceed to the cabin situated on an island just across the Canadian border. Boat wrecks notwithstanding, it was (and still is) a good plan.
So once the destination and timing were set for this year's tour, I contemplated our travels across America's Great Plains. And I recalled "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," a classic book by Robert Pirsig. The book follows Robert and his son Chris as they motorcycle across the upper Midwest, Robert expertly using the tour and his bike maintenance regimen as a literary springboard to explore mankind's value system and love/hate relationship with technology.
Through the years, I had always wondered what motorcycle Robert and Chris rode on this tour. The book never explicitly identified the bike, but there were lots of clues: a publish date of 1974, a reference to a buzzy twin-cylinder Japanese engine making about 28 horsepower, and a discussion about adjusting valve tappets which ruled out the more common two-strokes of the era. By process of elimination, it had to be a mid-sized (for that time, small today) Honda twin: probably either a CB350 or its immediate predecessor, the 305cc Super Hawk.
Through the miracle of the internet, I found the above picture of Robert and Chris on a classy chrome-tanked Super Hawk, produced by Honda from 1961 through 1968. Not much bike for two guys on a 5000-mile motorcycle tour with camping gear!
It just so happened that I had two small vintage Hondas in my garage. Although not in everyday use, with a few weekends of work, both could be running well. Surely if Robert and Chris could do this long trip on one little Honda, then couldn't we do a shorter trip on two? And so a few weeks later, we were making our shakedown run.
But a few hours being power-challenged on open roads with tachometers hovering near redline and the hours spent in the shop afterwards attending to all the minor problems that cropped up (leaky fuel tank, blown fuse, cracked muffler baffle, clogged fuel valve), reminded me of the profound words spoken again and again by those who ride older motorcycles: "Old is old." This means that with proper maintenance and TLC, virtually any age motorcycle can be used to go virtually any place, but you'll never enjoy the performance and reliability of current motorcycles. Keeping old motorcycles in good repair is a wonderful labor of love, but if riding rather than wrenching is your goal, you take a current bike.
And it just seemed a little cruel to ask these classic machines to haul our sorry carcasses across two-thousand miles of table-flat upper Midwest prairie in the heat of the summer, a little like hitting your 85-year-old grandmother up to spend her weekend moving furniture into your new apartment in exchange for free pizza. So with much hand wringing, the little Hondas went back into retirement. I'm taking my usual BMW R1100S while Gizmo is taking ... well, I'll let him get into that.
Knowing that we are going to be on some of the same roads as Robert and Chris, I recently re-read "Zen" trying to get a better feel for Robert's and Chris' journey. And I was pleased to find Robert's words so connected to the thoughts and feelings that Gizmo and I feel when we tour. The way we are exposed to the raw inputs of life, the way we engage all our senses, the empowered feelings we get when riding, the way a motorcycle tour becomes both a reflection and a microcosm of life—Pirsig talks about all these things back in 1974.
I hope I'll have a chance to meet Pirsig some day. I'm reading his successor book ("Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals") and he is a very interesting writer. I have no expectation that Gizmo and I will manage to interweave motorcycling and philosophy in such an interesting way, so please read "Zen" if you haven't already. And while we won't have vintage bikes to talk about, we'll do our best to bring you our own brand of offbeat motorcycle-saddle philosophy, honed to a keen edge by The Road, Whizmo-and-Gizmo style.
“What’s a tiddler?”
We’re at the local coffee shop in mid-February. I’m warming my hands over my steaming hot latte, wondering if the weather is ever going to get nice enough to ride again. Whizmo is enthusiastically pitching his idea for our upcoming ’03 W&G adventure.
“A tiddler is an old, small motorcycle. Think of the bikes people used to ride when motorcycle riding first became hugely popular. No power, no elegance, but lots of fun!”
Hmm. I’m thinking over my progression of motorcycle ownership since we started doing our Whizmo & Gizmo tours. I graduated from the Harley Davidson Road King to the Beemer because I wanted more creature comforts and more power. But the idea of taking a classic old motorcycle on a long-distance tour had a certain appeal. Especially if we actually made it without being stranded somewhere in North Dakota. We’ve got an important date to keep this year with the Jerks. Don’t want to be late!
But Whizmo isn’t done. “Let’s make it even more fun! We’ll go camping too!”
Hmm. I’m not much of a camping kind of guy. My idea of camping is going without full hookups for the RV. But there’s a certain appeal to adding some new twists to this year’s adventure. Even if the twists are back cramps from sleeping on the ground.
So started the grand plan for our 2003 ‘Tiddlers Tour’. We’d ride these lovingly preserved old motorcycles, camp along the way, and be able to take pride in our rugged outdoorsmanship. Only a couple of challenges stood in our way.
“I don’t own an old classic motorcycle, and I’m not sure I want to.”
Whizmo has anticipated this objection. “No problem! You can use one of mine!” Whizmo has a garage-full of wonderful and exotic motorcycles begging for some exposure to daylight and fresh air. I’d be doing him a favor. “And by the time we’re done with this tour, I guarantee that you’ll be begging to buy this bike from me.”
“What about camping gear? I own a sleeping bag.”
Whizmo has anticipated this objection as well. “No problem! I have an attic full of camping gear, since my family won’t go camping with me anymore. I’ll set you up with everything you need.”
Hmm. The image has a certain attraction. Two aging motorcyclists, riding two aging motorcycles. We make our way cross country, camping along yesterday’s forgotten byways, heading for the biennial JerkFest. I’m warming up to the idea.
We polish the concept. We agree that we should spend every other night in a motel so that we can get online and post our updates to the website. We decide to reduce the number of miles ridden on these little torture racks by trailering halfway. We agree that we need to do a shakedown run to make sure that we’re properly prepared for this adventure. I’m committed. Or maybe I should be.
So now I’m looking at my trusty BMW K1200LT which has gotten me from point A to point B and back reliably and safely for the last several years. I’m thinking “I’m not going to be putting any serious miles on this bike for over a year. It’s just going to sit and rot.” And I’ve been seriously thinking about switching to a lighter mount, like maybe a Honda ST1300 or a Yamaha FJR. “I know … I’ll sell the BMW, and get a new bike next year!” The trusty K12 is soon a fond memory. Yes, I sold it. But that’s OK, ‘cause we’re riding twizzlers! Or tiddlers. Whatever.
Shakedown day arrives. I show up at the appointed hour at the Whizmo garage. The bikes are looking good. They fire right up. Whizmo reminds me that these bikes use little valves (petcocks) to control gas flow, and have these quaint levers (the choke) to coax them into not stalling when they’re cold. I vaguely remember this stuff from the good old days.
We ride about 100 miles to our destination in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands, and I’m liking it. There’s something to be said for riding a smaller bike with less power. You really have to exercise the bike to get where you’re going. You need all the gears, and most of the engine range. Frankly, it’s a more challenging ride. Score one for the Tiddlers. But I can’t get over the mental image that I’m riding on a miniature stunt cycle. I feel like my arms and legs are sticking out akimbo, like some cartoon clown heading for disastrous fall.
We get to our reserved campsite at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. It’s a perfect day—mid-60’s on the thermometer, a gentle breeze, filtered sunlight. We set up camp, and according to plan, fire up the laptops powered by the motorcycle batteries. Imagine, if you will, the reaction of our camping neighbors, to the sight of us sitting at the picnic table, typing away in this idyllic setting. I imagine they were thinking “what the &*^%$ are these guys doing? Camping does NOT involve computers!” We look at each other and realize that if conditions were any less perfect, computing in the dirt would be a big problem. If there was rain involved, there might not be any computing at all. And wireless internet connections can be very sketchy, especially in the remote areas we're going to be camping at. Minus one for the camping. I voice my concerns to Whizmo. We agree that maybe camping AND doing daily postings to the website is a bit too aggressive.
OK, so we’re still manly men. We’re still going to ease these museum pieces across the Great Plains, adjusting a tappet here and a chain link there. Sure, we’ll be staying in luxury motel suites along the way, but we’re still out there on The Road, teasing fate each and every day for your amusement.
We review the schedule and the necessary miles to accomplish every day to arrive on time for the JerkFest in northern Minnesota. We’re both having our doubts about the wisdom of relying on these senior citizens for timely delivery to our destination. And Whizmo has found a number of minor problems with the bikes. Nothing serious, but it is obvious that we're probably going to have to do some fixing of stuff along the way which jeopardizes our schedule. With deep regret, we agree that a Tiddler Tour would be more appropriate without Jerks waiting for us on the other end. We’ll file the idea for a future tour.
Hmm. Back to square one. No camping. No classic motorcycles. We'll just go back to what we rode last year. Uh oh. I don’t own a motorcycle! Once again, Whizmo is ready with the answer. “No problem. You can take another bike of mine.”
So, with our scheduled departure date arriving quickly, Whizmo generously sets me up with the latest member of the Whizmo harem, a 2000 Kawasaki ZRX, recently acquired from Little-Rock-Arkansas-Based Whizmo-And-Gizmo armchair tourer Allan Gold. We do some quick fitting of the necessary Gizmo components – the GPS, an electrical tap, my duffel and a tank bag. We’re ready to roll. My new steed is pictured below, just behind the mug shot.
This year marks 10 years since our first JerkFest reunion, held in 1993 on Henry Island in the San Juan Islands. The Jerks, as you probably know by now, are six high school best buds who graduated together in 1971. As with previous JerkFests, I expect new nicknames and new unbelievable urban legends to emerge from this year’s festivities. You’ll be in on all the action, yet comfortable at a safe distance while Whiz and I risk our lives once again in the face of certain peril.
Thanks for riding with us!