Archive for October, 2008


The Long Way to Clovis (and back)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

If Napoleon had rewarded heroism with Iron Butt License Plate Frames, he would have won the battle of Waterloo.  Well, at least he could have formed a battalion of long distance motorcycle riders

I get ahead of myself.

I bought my Ninja 250 (aka ‘La Niña’) back in March, after approximately 30 years since my last motorcycle ride.  When I purchased it, I really wasn’t certain what kind of riding I would like, or even if I would like riding at all.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that when I got on my motorcycle, I didn’t want to get off anytime soon.  I found that after a few minutes of riding, especially riding in the country, that I entered a mental state something like what Zen practitioners call ‘being centered‘.  Trips that would be excruciatingly boring in a car were refreshing on my bike.  I began trying longer rides, my longest being about 450 miles.  My bike was clearly fine with these trips, and I was OK, except for a lot of butt pain in latter parts of these trips.

An inveterate web surfer, I long ago discovered the Iron Butt Association web site.  The IBA (‘World’s Toughest Riders’) is a group of riders dedicated to safe long distance motorcycle riding.  They sponsor a legendry motorcycle rally called ‘The Iron Butt Rally’, which involves riding 11,000 miles all over North American in 11 days.  

Entry to the IBR is limited to outstanding long distance riders. Many are called but few are chosen to be on the IBR starting line.

To become an IBA member and earn the highly coveted license plate frame one must accomplish one of their sanctioned rides.  The qualification ride most aspiring members choose is the Saddle Sore 1000, which requires a carefully documented ride of at least 1000 miles in less than 24 hours.

I bet over the last year I’ve read hundreds of IBA member ride reports.

Sometime over the summer I decided that in the fall I would attempt a SS1000.  I knew that I did not do well riding when the temperature gets much above 95F/35C. I would wait for fall, doing shorter cross country rides while I waited for cooler weather.

I love the fall in Texas. Often times large high pressure blobs of cool dry air park over the state, giving cool clear weather to us all.  After the fierce heat of summer it’s a great relief.

After Labor Day our weather finally started to cool off a bit.

By September I had the bike set up pretty much like I wanted it for a SS1000.  I had a good set of saddlebags, a small set of essential tools, and miniature air compressor.  I’d figured out how to use my CrampBuster as a redneck cruise control, and I’d installed bar risers. One of my last projects was hard wiring a XOG GPS power supply into my Ninja.

I was ready to go except for a problem with seat comfort. I knew that there was no way I could survive 1000 miles with the stock seat. For a while I’d had a ‘bead rider’ beaded seat cover, which helped, but I was still worried. 

About a week before my SS1000 I purchased an AMS Seatpad from New Enough.  This seat pad made the trip conceivable.  It’s a little bit of a hassle to get it positioned just right under your butt, but it makes a world of difference in comfort. 

I’d been looking at dozens of different routes for my SS1000.  The Austin Motorcycle Meetup Group recently had group ride out west on I10 roughly 500 miles then back via San Angelo, taking advantage of the 80mph speed limits on much of that route.  My Ninja will go 90mph, but I was a little concerned about 500 miles mostly at wide open throttle.  When the group decided to leave at 4:30am my decision was easy, my biorhythm absolutely prohibits starting a 24 hour day that early.  I understand that the group had a great time.

I wound up deciding to base my ride on a trip to Clovis NM.  Clovis was the last home of the EF-111, and its at the end of a good 70mph state highway that doesn’t have nearly the traffic that the big interstates have. It had been years since I’d driven in that part of the world.

Clovis is only about 480 miles from Austin, so I planned to come back via I20 to Fort Worth, thence I35W to Austin, for a total distance of around 1050 miles. I had my route.


By late September it was just a question of finding a time and weather and schedule window that would allow the attempt. Schedule and weather came together on the morning of Friday, October 17, 2008.  A huge high pressure air mass covered my route with cool crystal clear air.  My startup’s management reluctantly agreed to attempt to struggle on without me for a day.  My long suffering, wonderful spouse allowed that my attempt was alright with her. I think by now she’s accepted that she’d married a person given to occasional acts of insanity.

Thursday evening I spent several hours packing and preflighting the bike.  I got a good solid night’s sleep.

I woke up around 7:30am, feeling excited and a little apprehensive, but strong. The bike and I were as ready as we’d ever be.

Saying goodbye to my spouse, I drove around the corner to a good Exxon station, filled up, and obtained the critical start receipt with the timestamp of 8:24am.

In a few moments I was out of city traffic, heading north on US 183.  I was slightly chilly, but the day was beautiful and I really enjoyed the ride. 

I’ve always liked recorded books for fighting boredom on long trips.  I had ripped my CD audio book version of Treason’s Harbor, a favorite of mine, which would play through my XOG GPS for the next 12 hours, occasionally interrupted by the voice of the GPS reminding me to turn here or bear right there.

I remember thinking ‘this is what motorcycles are for’, just before a highway patrol car crested the hilltop ahead of me and immediately lite up all his lights and U-turned behind me. Darn.  I wasn’t speeding by much if at all, I didn’t think, but I didn’t monitor the downhills as closely as I guess I should have. 

I was unstrapping my helmet as the trooper walked up. ‘I stopped you because you were going a bit fast, but I notice your saddlebag is melting onto your pipe’. DoH!  I had not tightened up the saddlebags.  With all the stuff I had in them one had dropped down on an exhaust pipe, where it was burning a hole into the bag.  The trooper was nice enough to just give me a warning.  I did a quick emergency duct tape job on the bag, tightened its straps, and continued on, being more careful with my speed control.

My first gas stop was Coleman Texas.  I’d never been there before. Coleman turned out to be a beautiful little town, with a nice active old fashioned main street, complete with 1950’s style traffic lights.

After Coleman I rode through rolling hills, admiring the neat and tidy ranches and clever ranch gates on either side of the highway. 

Approaching Lubbock I was astonished at the huge wind power project that is going up there.  Huge windmills were everywhere.  I passed a construction facility where hundreds of the huge blades were apparently being stored, awaiting deployment.  The windmills were everywhere.

Fortunately for me, none of the blades were turning.  The forecast of light and variable winds was holding true.  Windless days are very rare in the Panhandle, I was very lucky in this respect.

The sun had been chasing me over my left shoulder, and by the time I was in Lubbock it was clear he’d pull ahead.

Overall the ride to Clovis was pretty much uneventful. I worked hard on staying hydrated. I had two water bottles in my tank bag, and I drank both between each stop.  I was pit stopping about every two hours.  The little Ninja has a big gas tank and easily go 3 hours between stops, but my bladder can’t.

I had ziplocks with cashews, jerky, and raisins which I nibbled on the road. At one stop I had some kind of power bar type thing, but no ‘sit down’ meals. 

In Farwell Texas, about 30miles from Clovis, there was a small traffic jam.  A guy in the car ahead of me stepped out of his car and started yelling at me. I couldn’t hear him at all, after a moment I pulled my helmet off and heard ‘your headlight is flashing!’.  Opps, I had left my headlight modulator on in the traffic jam.  I’m usually pretty good about remembering to turn it off when stopped in traffic, but after 450 miles I was little dazed I guess.

In Clovis I found a McDonald’s next door to a gas station, so I took my mid-tour break.  Instead of my usual quarter pounder with fries, I had just a chicken sandwich and a diet coke.  I had resolved to not overeat on this trip, I figured it would be best if I was just on the edge of hungry most of the time. I think this decision helped me when the going got tough.


As you can see, the sun is going down.  Not long after leaving Clovis it started to get dark.  As it got dark, it started to get cold.  The darker it got, the colder it got.

I thought I was prepared for the forecast  lows of 50F/10C. I was wearing silk long underwear, blue jeans, rain paints (for wind protection), a Pendleton wool shirt, plastic windbreaker, and Joe Rocket mesh jacket with zip in liner.  This wasn’t really enough, particularly since the actual temperatures dropped down to the low 40s along my route.

As the night wore on I motored south, heading for I20.  One interesting thing I observed as I approached Lubbock was the lights on the windmills.  A ridgeline on either side of Lubbock has a line of windmills extending several miles in each direction.  Each windmill has red lights on it.  All of these red lights flashed together.  For some reason I found this lighting effect to be fascinating.

The high pressure air was crystal clear, the stars were intensely bright.  It was very beautiful environment.

I stopped for fuel in Littlefield and Snyder on the leg from Clovis to I20.  At one of these stops, I forget which, there had been recent roadwork just in front of the gas station.  I hit some kind of lip in the road, and did a funky chicken on some gravel just before the driveway to the station.  I didn’t drop it, and probably the adrenalin did me good. This was the only real scare of the trip.  I was very worried about animals, but aside from two dogs I saw no critters on or near the road at any time.  No live critters, anyway.

By the time I turned on I20 the cold was a really serious issue.  There were times when I was ok, and times when I was really uncomfortable.  The limit at night on this stretch is 65mph, and there was no danger of me speeding.  I could not take the chill factor going any faster. Several times I slowed down to around 55 to warm up, or at least stop getting chilled so quickly.

I made an unplanned stop at truck stop near Abilene to warm up.  They had a funky red checkered flannel vest for twenty bucks.  I bought it on the spot.

Back on the road I was still very cold, but I think the funky vest helped just enough to make the trip tolerable.

I stopped for gas in Cisco at 2am.  I lingered a bit, but not real long.  The next leg to Fort Worth, only about 115 miles, would be the longest and hardest of the whole trip. 

I remember thinking that if I can make that Love’s Truck Stop in Fort Worth, I’m home free! Maybe. At least it will get warmer when we head south. I expected that in Fort Worth I would enter an event horizon emanating from home that would pull me the rest of the way.

I was feeling a little low for a while, but eventually the open plain gave way to an urban freeway.  There was a fair amount of traffic, and that actually helped distract me from the cold.

I really cheered up when I made the right turn from I20 to head south on I35W.  I was in familiar territory, on a road I’ve driven probably thousands of times.

I stopped at a Love’s Truck Stop for gas and a short break.  Since this was a corner post for documentation purposes I did an ATM balance check just to have a backup for the gas receipt. 

I had thought that at this point I might try an energy drink, but the fact is that I’ve never in my life had a Red Bull or anything like it.  It is in the Hall of Wisdom to avoid trying new things on a long ride, so I settled for a diet coke and a handful of cashews before pulling back out onto highway.

I35 between Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin just totally sucks.  Long stretches of it are under construction, often with only two narrow lanes.

At around 4am most of the traffic is trucks, and the trucks are very large when viewed at 4am by a rider on a little baby Ninja motorcycle. 

It was when one such truck was passing me that I had my only confirmed hallucination of the trip. I was in the right lane, going probably 60-65 mph.  I noticed the truck was pulling what appeared to be a long empty flatbed trailer.  As the truck pulled ahead it became apparent that the trailer was over a hundred feet long! I’d never seen anything so long on a highway!  Then I blinked, the ‘trailer’ disappeared, replaced by a highway guardrail, and the trailerless bobcat tractor continued pulling away from me. 

My brain had seen the indistinct guardrail and processed it as a flatbed trailer!

I was wrong about it getting warmer, it stayed cold. But I was right about the event horizon, the finish, the thought of a warm bed, was pulling me hard back towards Austin.  My rational brain started issuing stern warnings that were now on the most dangerous part of the trip, and that I was not to speed or take any chances. Between warnings my emotional brain was singing along to my music collection.

As I mentioned, I’ve driven this route many many times in the course of my life. Having a walnut sized bladder I’ve never made it non-stop, and this morning was no exception.  I had to make a quick pitstop in Waco. I almost ran in and out of the truckstop.

I had an issue when I started the bike. My XOG gps went into a continuous reboot cycle. It’s start screen would appear, then it would reboot. 

I was too tired to fool with it, so I unplugged it and continued on with no music or directions.  It was OK, I can find my house from Waco.

I was still very cold.  I wasn’t shaking, I don’t think I was turning blue, but I certainly was testing the lower bound of my total air temperature envelope with my current riding gear.

As I approached Georgetown I plugged the GPS back in, and this time it worked.  I latter determined that the battery was flat.  I think the $20 12v to 5v mini-USB power converter did not provide quite enough power to keep the GPS from drawing slowly on the battery.  After 20 hours, the battery was dead and probably the current draw required to start the gps receiver after my stop was just a little more than the converter could deliver causing the reboot.  A few minutes rest and the battery recovered just enough to limp through the startup cycle.

The horizon was glowing red and gold as I motored towards Austin.  I recall suggesting to The Almighty that it had been a while since he’d done a really neat miracle, and that if he would speed up the rotation for the earth for the next 20 minutes it would be really neat.

Well, I guess The Almighty had better things to do with his time, but I was grateful he didn’t just stop the sun in its tracks, as he’s done in the past to teach a guy a lesson. As turned off of I35 onto the new SH45 toll road the sun came over the horizon, lifting my spirits and warming my back.

I was careful not to speed, and soon I was back at my start point buying gas.  The final time stamp was 7:51am. 

It had taken me 23 hours and 33 minutes. That’s pretty slow compared to a lot of guys, but the duration is qualifying, and that was the goal.

My wife says I was pretty much a crazed babbling lunatic when I got home.  I don’t remember that real clearly, but I was very happy.  This was an important life goal achieved, and I was happy.

I slept most of Saturday.

On Sunday I obsessed over the fairly complicated IBA application paperwork.  I wanted to be sure that every t was crossed and i dotted.  I wanted my application and my logs to be neat and accurate, and my receipts, maps, and forms to be clear and legible.

It can take several months for an IBA ride be approved. Each application is carefully audited.  It is the care the IBA takes with these applications that makes the award so coveted by long distance riders.

I mailed my application on Monday, now all I have to is wait.

This was a real challenge.  It’s been a week now, and a large part of my mind is still out there on the road.

Lessons learned:

1)  The Ninja 250 is fine for a long cross country. Keeping up with Interstate traffic was no problem. I was pleasantly surprised at how little physical discomfort (other than cold) I experienced on this ride.  In order of importance, the key ergonomic elements were:

a) The AMS seat pad

b) The Motorcycle Larry handlebar risers

c) The ‘Mike’ touring windshield

d) The Crampbuster throttle rocker

2) A Mesh jacket is marginal for temperatures below 60F/18C.   A heated vest would be highly desirable.

3) I’d need a better system for drinking water on the road if I ever do a very long ride on a warm day.

4) 500 miles on a nice cool fall day is fun and easy.

5) Hard bags would rock!

6) Having an mp3 player was great.  The generic earbuds I used were marginal, I need a better system for playing audio on a ride.  The ability to make telephone calls via bluetooth would be great. Satellite radio would have been very welcome.

7) The Lowrance XOG worked well until the last leg.  I attribute the failure to the ebay power supply I was using,not the unit itself. The ability to have a custom overlay on the map view was great.  I had my speed and my destination ETA in big letters at all times, which was very helpful.

8 ) I only took a handful of pictures, I just didn’t want to spend the time. I’d like to have a second RAM mount, so I could put a small camera on the handle bars.

I can’t recommend that any other rider attempt a ride like this.  There is definitely some risk involved. Riders should engage in serious reflection before attempting a ride like this.

When I went back to my job as a computer programmer the following Monday I felt like I was Clark Kent, having spent the weekend as Super Ninja Boy!

Update: I made a YouTube slide show about this ride, it is located here.