I ditched The Impeller, which progressively disintegrated during my tour last summer, and picked up a 1981 Honda CX500 Custom, basically the same bike as the SilverWing, but in much better condition. I spent a few weeks in my sister’s garage wrenching: new tires, rebuilt carbs, new brakes, refurbished cooling system, new headlight, fluids flushed and filled, everything lubed, torqued, and tweaked. She isn’t pretty but she feels solid, knows how to move. I devised a packing system of ingenious simplicity using an old thick duffel bag strapped backwards over my back rest. A tank bag sits on top of the duffel. The whole stack is secured by a single strip of 1″ nylon webbing and a tensioning buckle. Soft saddle bags hover above each exhaust pipe. In all, there is just enough room to hold my clothes, rain gear, warm gear, extra shoes, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cook kit, food, books, repair manual, maps, tool kit, extra bike supplies, extra oil, jumper cables, camera, knife and flashlight… half of which I’ll never use. A 3 gallon gas container is bungeed to the rack behind the backrest. My Camelback is strapped to the stack of gear behind me, its blue hose dangling by my side. I am wearing my perforated leather jacket, which Randy picked up at a thrift store for $20, tough jeans pock-marked with battery acid holes, sturdy hiking boots given to me last summer by some traveling Canadians on BMWs, my RoboCop motorcycle gloves, and my craigslist helmet. I’m ready.
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Friday, July 27. A late start from Sister Kris’s house in Shoreview. Rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon, and then straight west out of town and into the cornfields. The urban crush gives way to lush and vivid Minnesota farm country. I suddenly start feeling a whole lot better.
I get caught in a tangle of detours on Hwy 212 in Western MN. I’m not in a hurry, but find myself getting annoyed at the 40 mile loop south and then the 25 mile loop north back to 212. I remind myself that I could have avoided the detours with a quick check of Google maps on my phone prior to departure. But myself replies: “Nah. How is it an adventure if you know what to expect?” Big smiles.
Two thirds of the entire nation is struggling through the biggest drought in half a century, but Minnesota looks green and vibrant in the setting sun. I cross the border into South Dakota and spend the night by a lake in a city campground outside of Watertown.
Saturday, July 28. The verdant green turns to brown as I ride west across South Dakota. It is hot and dry. The corn looks battered. The soy is shriveled and gray. The entire Midwest prairie is crispy with drought. I stop for a late breakfast at a small town cafe. I order chicken fried steak with eggs (when in Rome…) and over copious cups of weak coffee, I read the local agricultural news. Farmers are in a panic, selling cattle, crops lost. What is the government going to do about it? What are we going to do about? The articles say: We import hay. We export cattle or sell them for meat. We salvage what we can of the corn and soy. We thank God for what we have. We pray for rain.
Brown fields turn to scorched earth. Wildfires in Custer National Forest east of Billings have reduced countless acres of trees and brush to ash. The record drought is sparking a record number of wildfires across the Western states. Having had some experience starting fires, mostly camping, I can sense how primed everything around me is to ignite. A lightning strike or a cigarette tossed carelessly into the grass, fanned by these strong winds, could burst into a fast-moving inferno in minutes. Last time water, this time fire. I begin to see for the first time that one of our greatest challenges as the earth grows warmer will be fighting hugely destructive, nearly unstoppable fires.
Dry dirt and ash turn to dust. I’ve been leaning hard into the strong southerly winds all day. Ahead of me, I see a large dark swirling cloud, moving across the fields and over the highway. Is it smoke? Fog? No, it’s dust. Ash and topsoil lifted from the earth, blowing thick and fast. I pull my helmet visor down tight, close the air vents, and duck behind my windscreen. The clear light of day disappears. For a few moments, all visibility is lost. I can feel the density of the dust particles pressing around me. After a mile or so I emerge out the other side of the cloud, relieved to be free of it, with a renewed appreciation for the plight of those who struggled through the Dust Bowl.
I’m putting in miles today. I narrowly avoid a scraggly dog as it lopes across the highway toward an open trash dump, its tongue hanging out in the heat. I remind myself that constant attention and awareness are critical. It is late in the day and getting dark as I turn off 212 and onto the freeway toward Billings. I’m tired and don’t like riding at night, but I can’t find a good place to stop and pitch my tent. It grows colder as I continue to ride all the way to Red Lodge, then 20 miles past, winding up the mountain next to a river until I reach national forest. There is a clearing by a creak with a smattering of campers parked at the edges. I look at my phone for the time. It is 1 am. I pitch my tent in the middle of the clearing and am soon fast asleep. A very long day. Continue reading