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Cruising (and dodging bison) in Yellowstone

Just four miles into Yellowstone National Park, at a most inopportune moment, my check engine light was triggered, highlighting a potential issue with my 2008 Harley-Davidson® Police Road King, which had already been pushed through a week of scorching 95-degree-plus temperatures, softball-sized hail storms and changes of elevation from sea level to 10,947 feet at the top of Beartooth Pass. This bike may have made it this far, but I feared that Milwaukee’s best might not be good enough to transport this writer safely through a park as synonymous with roaming bison and grizzly bears as Coney Island is with hot dogs.

redlodge-morning

The morning in Redlodge before setting out for Beartooth Pass

One week earlier:

I had just left my job of ten years and decided that the next day I would take that year’s project bike and ride from Boston to Oregon then down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles. I would take the northern route through Canada and then stop at Sturgis, SD, where Motorcycle Week coincided nicely with the trip.

Niagara Falls on morning two of the cross country trip

Niagara Falls on morning two of the cross country trip

The bike was truly a project and took much of the previous winter to build. It was a police bike used by the Rochester, NH, police department and was sold to me for far less than a newer model would cost. I would modify almost every aspect of the bike, likely making it completely unrecognizable to the peace officer who graced it with 8,000 miles over the past years.

The 2008 Road King Police bike ready to run from coast to coast

The 2008 Road King Police bike ready to run from coast to coast

Knowing that I only had three weeks to cover 5,400 miles and that prime-time for Sturgis Bike Week was within five days, I would not have much time to pack the bike. This half-baked planning is not my normal modus operandi but would have to suffice for this journey. Packing light would be the order of the day.

Leaving the world of excess in a trail of exhaust with a safety net of two saddlebags and a backpack to traverse the country could be nerve-wracking. It turns out this process of eliminating gear down to the necessities is a catharsis normally reserved for discarding pictures of an ex-girlfriend who moved in with your best friend while you were visiting your sick mother in the hospital … but I digress.

At 5:00 a.m. the next morning I would be on a solo trip to enlightenment on the open road. A friend would ride the first 150 miles by my side to provide the proper send-off, but then it would just be one man and his machine.

Several hours later as the day was coming to an end, I would cross the Canadian border a few miles from Niagara Falls. The mercury had ticked up to 99 degrees and there was a nasty storm headed in my direction. Then it happened—the first sign that my Harley was fallible. The check motor light illuminated and the bike began to shake. That day I had just registered 500 tough miles and the bike was beginning to protest. I needed to keep the RPM up so it wouldn’t stall and put an end to the trip before it really started. This aversion to heat would be a constant theme for the next few days but would not become a major issue until it was too late to address.

Bighorn Mountain on the way to Yellow Stone

Bighorn Mountain on the way to Yellow Stone

One week later and back to Yellowstone:
After reversing course in the park and spending an hour fiddling with my bike near the park ranger station, it seemed that the bike was settling down. I had removed the gas cap to relieve some pressure in the tank and the check engine light went off. It would be time to ride through the park and hope that the machine kept moving to my destination of Jackson, WY.

Unfortunately, machines are unsympathetic creatures and don’t quite understand the need for reliability when that need is crucial. The bike would sputter and threaten to stall all through Yellowstone. As long as I kept the wind blowing on the air-cooled engine, the bike would be fine. This was the reality I chose to believe and it allowed me to make forward progress despite the real likelihood of being charged by bison or eaten by grizzlies. Sometimes the internal monologue on solo bike trips speaks much louder than the voice of reason and thus wins the battle.

All went according to plan until a few dozen bison decided to cross the street in front of the chain of cars leading me through the park. This is not a rare occurrence at Yellowstone, as the animals have the right of way, but, unfortunately, it would cause me to slow and the bike’s temperature to rise. I would be forced to ride slowly to the left of the cars and wait until the animals moved out of the road—that is when I would make my move and fly by the herd.

This plan seemed reasonable as I passed twenty or thirty stopped cars packed with tourists, wedging myself in behind the third car in line. Almost immediately, the street was clear enough for the cars to start moving past the herd.

One car passed, the second closely behind, as was the third—I would stick right on his bumper and be clear of the modern-day wooly mammoths, until it happened.

The car in front of me drove just into the center of the pack before jamming on his brakes and provoking the snarling beasts with an inopportune photo. I nearly became a complimentary trailer hitch ornament as it took every ounce of strength to stop my 900-pound machine from smashing into his minivan. There I was eye-to-eye with and surrounded by bison, which had immediately become aggravated by the loud Yaffe pipes on my King.

They quickly reversed course and tried to charge me, the minivan and anything else in sight.

A split second reaction required me to hit the throttle and narrowly cut between the amateur photographer and an oncoming car causing my heart to race faster than the twin cam below my tank.

An hour later, the bike would be parked for the night and I would be celebrating life with the most incredible burger and pint at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, WY.

The entirety of the trip took me through some of the most spectacular views in Canada, a random sunflower patch in South Dakota, a desert in the middle of nowhere outside of Boise Idaho, and a random chance to eat gator in Walla Walla,, WA of all places. My farthest point in the northwest was a town 80 miles west of Portland, OR (where the 1980s film The Goonies was filmed), finishing with 1,000 miles down the coastline of the western U.S. through Redwoods, San Francisco down to Santa Monica.

Random Sunflower Field breaking up the cornfields in South Dakota

Random sunflower field breaking up the cornfields in South Dakota

There were so many incredible memories from this trip, but it is never the smooth riding that sticks in one’s mind. It is the tough road conditions, the times that test the bond between man and machine that distinguish these road trips as life-defining journeys. Several weeks on the road, 5,400 miles covered, 135 gallons of gas and countless memories created made this the solo experience of a lifetime!

A quick stop at the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI on the way to Sturgis

A quick stop at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI on the way to Sturgis