A 600 mile test run through the Sawtooth Mountains, along the Salmon River, barren high winds high desert, and across the Craters of the Moon. One of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the USA. The old Silver Wing is purring like a kitten. The long haul begins tomorrow.
View Nate’s Motorcycle Trip Summer 2011: Test Run in a larger map
This is how it was supposed to happen: Randy finds me a workable motorcycle. I fly into Boise, one way ticket. We spend a couple days tuning up the bikes, then hop in Randy’s Eurovan and head to the mountains for a week of backpacking above the treeline. Return to Boise. Fire up the bikes. Head for the ocean.
This is how it happened: Randy found me a motorcycle. After many days of perusing Craig’s List Boise, and after Rand has gone out to test a few options, we settle on a 1981 Honda GL500 Silver Wing with “no issues”. Listed at $800. Randy talks the guy down to $675. It sounds like it’s just what I need: not pretty, but an affordable reliable mid-weight touring bike that, with a little love and luck, should get me around the Southwest and back to Mpls comfortably.
I wire Randy the money. He overnights the title. I take a Basic Rider Course at Century College, which allows me to get my Minnesota motorcycle license in spite of the state shutdown. Everything is coming together nicely.
Saturday, July 16, 3:30am and I’m dodging lightning and a torrential downpour as I walk the blocks from JG’s house to the light rail to make my 6am flight. No sleep at all last night. Wheeling my suitcase behind me. I land in BOI at 10:30am. Randy and family are camping and won’t be back until evening, so I drag my bags the mile or so down Vista to Randy’s house in the hot and lovely Idaho summer sun. 85 degrees and it feels like a fresh Spring morning compared to the thick and sticky heat I left behind.
Turning the corner onto Abbs Street. There she is, propped up on her center stand on Randy’s front walk. Key in the ignition. I’m delirious from lack of sleep. A brief nap would be prudent prior to operating heavy machinery. Next thing I know, I wake up on the floor of Randy’s living room. At 5pm.
Fire up the Honda. She starts humming. And I’m off. I buzz around Boise a bit, to get used to the traffic, see some familiar sights. Then straight into the desert to open her up without distraction. Seems to be running a little hot, the temperature gauge is pushing red. I turn East and head up the mountains and toward the reservoir. Maybe I can climb out of the heat a bit.
Three hours later I pull back into Rand’s driveway. This bike is burning up. Coolant is pouring out the motor.
And so it begins. The “no issues” bike turns out to have issues. Randy returns and we start chasing down the coolant leak. The further we get, the more parts we take off, the more hours–then days–go by, the more dire the situation becomes; until finally we arrive at a complete show-stopper. Prying off the water pump cover to check out the “dreaded” mechanical seal, we discover that the impeller, which forces coolant through the bike’s system, has become detached from the cam and is wedged against the cover plate, unmoving. The impeller’s splines are stripped beyond repair. No wonder the bike ran hot.
Having already spent three days waiting for new o-rings from the Honda dealer, I now find myself in need of a functional impeller. Guess what? No longer made. The Honda dealer can’t locate one. The salvage yard has nothing. I find three slightly suspect options listed on eBay and purchase two of them, paying double to get them shipped fast.
Meanwhile, I learn that Randy’s bike, a Kawasaki KLR 650, hasn’t started in years. The carbs are goopy. The tank is full of rust.
We spent eight days wrenching, sacrificing our entire hiking expedition, in order to get both our bikes up and running. That was a hard pill to swallow, and my patience suffered some permanent damage, but in the end I got a hard-and-fast introduction to motorcycle mechanics. We ended up repairing and tuning almost everything: new impeller, mechanical seals, o-rings; new thermostat, radiator cap, fan; multiple coolant flushes; new oil and filter; drained and filled the front forks with some stiffer stuff; bled and filled brakes; new spark plugs; adjusted the cam chain; flushed and filled the final drive oil; cleaned out fuel lines; cleaned up the battery; checked electrical; new air filter; greased and lubed everything. The 1981 Honda GL500 Silver Wing (hereafter known as “The Impeller”) is primed, tuned, and purring like a kitten.
In retrospect, with an old bike, it would probably have been foolish to do anything less, especially with the intention to push it around for several thousand miles, especially having never done this before. At this point, if something goes wrong, I pretty much know how to fix it.
And so for the test run.
Head East on 21 from Randy’s house and within 30 miles you are twisting up the mountains, through river meadows scattered with wild elk, towards spectacular vistas. Four hours later, you arrive in Stanley, at the foot of the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountain ranges. Stop at the Bridge St. Grill and Bar, and sit outside on the balcony, mere feet above the Salmon river, snow-capped peaks in view. Follow 75 along the Salmon as it winds its way past Sunbeam hot springs through the ghosts of old mining towns and on toward Challis. Take 93 until you find a place to duck down and set up a tent next to the river. Next morning, continue on to the town of Salmon and then either turn North through Lolo pass(wow!)toward Missoula, or head South through a vast and empty mountain valley on to the arid high desert of Southern Idaho. When you reach the desert, turn West, the endless sage soon transforms into an ocean of sharp black lava, the Craters of the Moon. Hit the taco truck in Arco and continue West straight into the sun as it drops toward the horizon in front of you, hot and blinding. 600 miles from your point of departure, you are back home, buffeted and burned by the wind, ass sore, grin big and silly.
I’ve been through variations of this route many times, always in a car. Every time I’ve been on 75 chasing the Salmon river, I’ve dreamed of riding through there on a motorcycle.
Dream realized. It’s as brilliant as I imagined.
More about riding soon. The Impeller is happy now, and so am I. A great touring bike, fully tuned, and I’m primed for adventure. But it’s 3am and Randy and I have the bikes loaded and ready to take off in the morning for the real tour, making our way to the California coast via some Oregon hot springs. He has about a week before he has to turn around. I’ll keep going, eventually riding all the way back to Minneapolis. I’ll try to write when I can. And there will be pictures, I promise.