Sometime last year, I stumbled across the website advrider.com. It’s a forum for adventure riding, an activity I wasn’t familiar with but was instantly drawn to. Basically, I’d some it up as the better points of motorcycle touring, hiking, and camping. The idea is to try to get off the main roads as much as possible and try to get off pavement as well.
There are some motorcycles that are specifically made for this task, and others that are close but require some modifications to get there. And within the world of adventure riding, there is a spectrum of bikes depending on how rough of terrain you plan to tackle.
I decided I wanted to do one of these trips as it sounded like fun and a personal challenge, and I settled on doing the Trans America Trail (http://www.transamtrail.com, https://sites.google.com/site/gpskevin/adventurerides/trans-america-trail) from east to west. Rather than ship my bike, I also decided to ride from Texas to the start of the trail in North Carolina, then from the finish in Oregon back to Texas, effectively driving coast to coast twice. I’ll have to take a small break at about the halfway point in Oklahoma for some Navy Reserve training, but other than that should be fairly uninterrupted.
At first I thought I’d take a Yahama WR250R that I purchased in December 2013, but I ended up buying a Suzuki DR650SE in April 2014 that I thought might be better for the long stretches of pavement I’d have to tackle on my trip. I welded up some side racks and fashioned a way to attach some dry bags to them. I also put a folding chair, a Navy ‘sea bag’ with some smaller bags in it, and a backpack on top.
I suppose you could call this ride the small towns and country roads tour, plus the Trans America Trail. I hope to stay off of interstates and major highways as much as possible, and see some pretty country, meet some interesting people, and have some fun along the way.
I had aimed to get up first thing this morning and head out, but I’ve been behind pretty much all week so that wasn’t going to happen. My somewhat unexpected Navy Reserve work on Saturday and Sunday really set me back too. I stayed up pretty late last night getting ready, but I went to bed with only a pile of supplies and nothing truly packed. Morning came and went and I was still getting ready. About lunch time, I got everything loaded on the bike, and realized a) the right side cover was touching the muffler because the right side bag was bulging through its supports and b) the weight of all my gear on the back of the bike, coupled with the fact that the bike was lowered while retaining a stock kick stand meant that the bike would barely keep from falling over on level ground. With these two realizations in mind, I decided to raise the rear suspension up to its stock setting (about 1.5” higher) and make a plywood backer board for the right side bag to keep it from pushing the side cover into the muffler and melting. Pulling both of those off took several hours. Then as it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it to my previously set stopping point in central Louisiana, I decided to try to find a closer place to stop. My dad was trying to get me to just stay and leave another day, but I wanted to make some progress, and a check of the weather showed that DFW was under a thunderstorm/flood warning from Thursday morning until Friday afternoon, which would have delayed me even more. So I decided I would head for east Texas tonight and make some progress, although minimal. There were ominous clouds around my Dad’s house as I left, but the radar showed only a small storm cell. However, about 10 minutes after leaving the house I found myself in a fairly heavy rain. Eventually I was able to stop under an overpass and put my rain gear on, but not before getting fairly wet. Of course, after I put the rain gear on, it never really rained again. I kept going southeast, taking a few calls on my Sena SMH10 bluetooth helmet add-on along the way. People seemed to be able to hear me fairly well, but the wind noise was so loud in my helmet I felt like I almost had to yell at them. If I wasn’t on the highway, things were obviously better. It was somewhere about 10pm when I made it to Athens, TX and was thinking of just quitting for the night, but my dad said I should just stop and eat and see how I felt. I ran across a local diner with a chicken friend steak, mashed potato, texas toast, apple pie and salad special for $7 so I had that. I love little hole in the wall places like that. I pressed on to Jacksonville, where Dad had scouted a campground that was closer than my original plan. He first guided me via phone to the west side of Lake Jacksonville, then realized he read the map wrong and redirected me back the highway and over to the east side. I finally found the campground he was talking about when a cop stopped me and said the campground was locked and that you had to have paid during the day in town. After telling me there were no public campgrounds in town, I decided to push on. Eventually I made it to my original destination, a campground at some bluff overlook in the Davy Crockett National Forest (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/texas/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=30226&actid=34). I turned off the highway and went down about a mile or two of dirt roads. I found a clearing that I figured must be the camping area, unloaded my bike, set up tent, and now I’m here writing this. It’s pretty hot and humid in my tent, but its 2 AM so I might just be tired enough to go to sleep anyways. Tomorrow will be a long day. I have a lot of ground to cover if I’m going to stay with my plan of getting to Florida by Friday morning, but we’ll see how the day goes. It feels kind of weird to be camping by myself at this very remote place. I’m in the woods, at least a mile from the road, and even that road while paved is a country road with not much signs of life. Hopefully I survive the night and my bike starts in the morning.
I woke up around 6am to the sound of raindrops on my tent. My first thought was one of panic, thinking that the storms I had outrun from Dallas had caught up to me. While rain is generally just a nuisance, given that I was camping down a dirt road, I was worried that might be stuck and unable to get out of the national forest. As I sat there thinking of what to do, the rain started coming down harder. I tried checking the weather radar on my phone since I still had cell service luckily, and it looked like it was an isolated cell. Things finally calmed down after about 20 minutes, and I popped up and checked on the road. Turns out, the road was actually more of a roadbase/gravel material than just sandy dirt, so the rainwater didn’t make things too muddy. So with that, I packed up my stuff as quick as I could and got out of there, foregoing breakfast in case the rain came again. When I got back to town (Alto, TX), I stopped at subway for a quick breakfast sandwich and gas then got back on the road. I went east and finally made it across the Toledo Bend Reservoir and into Louisiana. As I crossed the state line, I saw a ‘welcome to Louisiana’ sign and a little park, so I decided to stop. I realized I was feeling pretty tired after my abrupt wake up, so I took a nap on a picnic table in the park for close to an hour, then made some tortilla with peanut butter wraps and got back on the road. I pressed on through Louisiana then across the Mississippi River into Mississippi. It was cool getting to see some of the smaller towns and the architecture. It was getting dark, but I kept heading east toward my campground in the Desoto National Forest (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mississippi/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=28843&actid=29). I had originally planned to make it into west Florida, but my late start meant that I’d have to stop in Mississippi and my dad had found this campground for me and told me about it on the phone. It was seemingly more remote than my first one, though ironically more improved. I drove way off the highway down a road, then turned down another country road. I think I passed maybe 2 or 3 cars in like 30 to 45 minutes, and just a handful of houses. A few more turns onto more and more remote dirt roads and I was there. I saw a truck a few hundred yards away and thought it might be another camper, but it came over to me after a while and turns out it was some 20 somethings swimming in the creek at midnight. They said they don’t usually see people at the campground since it’s so far out there. The campground actually had a bath house with a hot shower which was nice, you just had to push the button every 20 seconds to make water continue coming out.
Today wasn’t too bad. I got up and planned to make my way to Panama City, FL. I road on I10 for a while to makeup some time since I got a later start than I wanted, but the bike just doesn’t like to go more than about 60 or 65mph for an extended amount of time in its current configuration, so I got back on smaller roads after a while. Though I wasn’t planning it, I found myself going through Niceville where my friend Kyle from my MBA program is from, so I took a picture at the city limit sign for him. Things started to look familiar the closer I got to PCB, although it had been about 4 years since I’d driven through the area. I finally arrived an hour or two after lunch. My friend Dane that is going through Navy Dive School was still in training, so I decided to stop by my old office to say hi and kill some time. After that, I drove down to the water and rested at a picnic table until he called me to meet up. We hung out for a while, then I met up with a friend at a restaurant that used to be called The Boatyard, but apparently changed names to Bud and Alley’s. After an awesome meal of scallops, cheese grits, and tuna dip, we decided to go to Spinnaker Beach Club. This hilarious cover band Whiskey Kiss was playing, and we ended up staying until almost 3AM. I finally made it back to base where I stayed with Dane in his small hotel room.
Dane and I slept in until almost lunch time, then met up with a couple of his dive school buddies to grab some breakfast off base. We ended up going to this place called Fatty Patties, and while it was good, we had to wait over an hour for our food and they weren’t even busy. After that, I went and hung out with some old friends for a few hours, then came back and did some laundry and worked on figuring out where I’d be camping in Georgia. I met up with Dane and his friends at Mellow Mushroom for some pizza for dinner, just down the street from where I used to live.
I got up and of course it was raining. Dane helped me get everything downstairs and moved my bike under a canopy for me so I could get it loaded up. I rode over the Hathaway Bridge to the St. Andrews area of Panama City to meet a friend for coffee before I left. The rain only got worse, so I tried to wait it out and do a little more planning, but eventually I knew I just had to tough it out, so I left town about 10AM. Instead of taking highway 231 or 77 like I’d normally do when I lived in town, I went further east toward Wewahitcha to see some new country. The rain kept up most of the day, and made life pretty miserable, but I needed to get moving. After a long day, I finally arrived at George L. Smith State Park in GA (http://gastateparks.org/GeorgeLSmith). It would have been more apt to name it Mosquito Lake State Park. They had primitive campsites, but apparently you had to hike into them from the parking lot, and I didn’t feel like carrying my stuff from my bike an unknown distance into the woods. So, I went to the RV camping area instead, which luckily wasn’t crowded. My campsite was about 10 feet from a lake that could have passed for a swamp, with cypress looking trees growing out of it everywhere and stagnant water. The good news was they had a bathhouse, so I got a hot shower, then immediately began to sweat once I got out due to the humidity. Oh well. At least it didn’t rain on me while I was there.
I left GA bound for NC today. While I was able to get packed up and going on my bike when it was dry, the rain came soon enough. Things were going fairly well, but the rain kept getting harder and harder. Eventually I stopped in South Carolina near the North Carolina border for gas and found a smoking break shelter to park my bike under and regroup. My goretex rain gear was no match for the duration and strength of the rain, and everything I had on was soaking wet. The weather radar showed no signs of relief, so I figured I needed to change my itinerary and find somewhere dry to sleep for the night. Luckily, my planned campground stop wasn’t too far away from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC, so I called ahead and reserved a room there for $36/night at the All Points Inn (http://www.lejeune.marines.mil/NewPersonnel/SettlingIn.aspx). I got back on the bike, crossed the state line, and cut across the country bound for Jacksonville, getting poured on the whole way. About 20 minutes from my destination, I felt the back end of my bike all the sudden get really squirrely on me, sliding around everywhere. I very hesitantly started slowing down with my front brake. Of course it’s still pouring so the road is slick, there is no shoulder at all but a ditch full of water is there, and there are about three cars behind me. I finally get stopped and look and my rear tire is completely flat. I didn’t think I hit anything, but it was hard to see in the rain so I guess I could have. I’m looking around trying to find a safe place to park my bike for further inspection when I randomly notice the Jacksonville, NC chapter of the Armed Forces Motorcycle Club across the street about 100 ft down the road. What are the odds? I ease the bike over there and park it in the parking lot. There were two Harley’s and a truck in the lot, but no one answered the door, so I got to work taking off my bags to get better access to the tire. Thankfully, the rain subsides. Eventually, someone came outside and introduced himself as ‘Sumo’. He was certainly rough around the edges, but friendly enough. After I determine nothing is in the tire, I start to get it off the bike. As it starts to get darker, Sumo grabs the light that is illuminating the flagpole and aims it in my direction. He can provide absolutely no mechanical or technical assistance, but he is a good light holder. I get the wheel off the bike by propping the bike up with some cinder blocks he found me, and then get to work breaking the bead and getting the tire off. Let’s just say the tire was on there pretty good, but I eventually got it off. Turns out the stem broke clean off the rest of the tube, making about a two inch hole in the process. This was clearly not patchable, but luckily I had a spare tube with me. It was much thicker than the original one, so hopefully it will last the rest of my trip. I also elected to go ahead and put on the tire I’d been carrying at the same time, as the current tire was getting pretty worn due to all the pavement over the past few days. Well, nothing is easy. Getting the new tube’s valve stem back through the rim was almost impossible, and then I thought I was going to bust a blood vessel in my head I was straining so hard trying to get the tire mounted back on the rim. Some soapy water would have probably helped in hindsight, but my soap had spilled all over my bags in GA and I didn’t think to ask if Sumo had any. With everything mounted, I hooked up my crappy 12V pump to the pigtail I made it and plugged it into the bike. It inflated the tube at a snails pace, and I didn’t get the impression I’d be able to seat the tire bead on the rim with such a little pump. Furthermore, I apparently left my dial indicator pressure gauge at home, so I had no way of knowing what pressure the tire was under. I got Sumo to run me down to the gas station where I bought a cheap pressure gauge and used their pump to seat the bead. All was good, and I got back and loaded everything up and was on my way after giving Sumo $20 for his trouble. I finally made it to Camp Lejeune and got checked into my room close to midnight I think. I was completely exhausted, so I took an amazing shower then went to sleep.
I woke up this morning still tired from the day before, and after realizing that it was supposed to rain a lot of the day and everything I owned was wet and smelled terrible, I decided to stay here another day and regroup. I had lunch at the Officer’s Club on base, an edible Chinese buffet. I spent the rest of the day checking the weather, washing clothes, and updating this blog. Hopefully I’ll drive to the beach tomorrow and start the trail, but I’ll likely run into rain…again.
I got a little bit of a late start today since I was still trying to figure out exactly where I was going as of this morning. Today marked the first day that I got on the Trans-American Trail (TAT). The word ‘trail’ is used liberally, so it’s probably best I define what it is. There are no signs along the trail, and it isn’t sanctioned by any state or federal government bodies. You could argue it’s all in your head. You might have even been on it before and not even known it. The TAT is just a collection of roads that are all connected together to take your across the US. The TAT tries to go on dirt/gravel roads as much as possible, and when not stick to smaller paved roads. Another wrinkle is that there are two providers of the trail, one paid and one free. The paid one actually starts in Tennessee, but the free one (the one I’m doing…surprise!) starts in North Carolina. They more or less mirror each other from what I’ve read, but there are a few differences along the way. The free TAT actually starts out on the Outer Banks, and upon further investigation would require me to ride way north of Jacksonville, NC to get on the Outer Banks, then ride a ferry back to the mainland. This seemed like an unnecessarily long detour, so I modified the route to take me to the Atlanta Ocean without hitting the Outer Banks.
I rode to the east end of Emerald Isle where I found Fort Macon State Park, it would have been cool to take a look at the fort, but I wanted to get going, so I took a picture near the beach and hit the road. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do in the sand with the heavy bike, plus people were on the beach fishing, so I didn’t want to go too far out.
Soon after heading back inland, I linked up with the TAT just outside of Newport, NC. I was driving down a two lane road that all of a sudden turned into gravel, which was my first taste of anything besides pavement of the whole trip (excluding access roads to campsites in national forests). It was short lived and I was back on pavement. However, a while late, I encountered some off road terrain again. This time, the road transitioned to dirt/gravel and there were a bunch of no trespassing signs. It seemed like it belonged to a logging company. I pressed on, figured it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. About 10 miles in through this forest, I run into a locked gate. I decide to try to go around it, since backtracking would take forever. The little gap on the side of the gate is an angle up a hill, with a steep drop into a ravine in front of it. I try to weasel my bike through but I can’t get my rear tire up high enough on the hill to clear my side bag on the gate, then my front wheel starts falling into the ravine. I get off and try to straighten things up, but I’m only making it worse, with my front wheel falling further down the hill and my handlebars getting tangled in a bush. I’m sweating profusely, miles from any humans, and thinking about what to do. Obviously, this gate says no trespassing too mind you, although I think it was for a hunting club or something. I decide to take all the bags off my bike to both make it lighter and narrower. With that done, I am able to pull the front wheel up and slide the bike past the gate. It was a trying ordeal, but I made it. Putting all the bags back on my bike takes at least 10 minutes. I finally get loaded up though and soon after I’m out of the forest. I stop for a late lunch at some Mexican restaurant which actually had a pretty solid burrito. I keep going, but its starting to get late, so I realize I’m not going to get as far as I wanted plus I’m getting tired. When I get to Newton Grove, I decide I’m going to find a place to camp. I drive around town to have a look, then park my bike in front of a store with a bench to check my phone. As soon as I get off my bike, I’m stricken by the worst villain on my trip yet: gnats. These stupid things are flying around my head and will not stop. It’s the most annoying thing I’ve ever encountered. I can’t even look at my phone, so I get back on my bike to find another spot. I randomly find a police officer in his car, so I stop and ask him if he knows any campgrounds. After he makes a few phone calls, he sends me a few miles down the road to Taste of Heaven RV Park (http://www.tasteofheavencampground.com/). It looks a little suspect from the main road, but after you drive down their private road half a mile you realize they have a bunch of trees and a private lake. I park then walk around looking for an office, but the two buildings that look like offices are closed. I spot a random guy on the porch of his RV (and when I say porch, I mean he’s constructed a permanent wooden deck onto his travel trailer, so he obviously was staying for a while), and he calls the owners for me and tells me to camp by the lake. The owner eventually drives down after I’ve set up camp to collect my $17 (on the higher end for camping, but whatever, it had a shower). The owner is a 75 year old farmer named Albert and he has the thickest North Carolina country accent I’ve ever heard. He was honestly hard to understand. He was certain I was 20 years old, I remember that. The gnats were driving me crazy there too, but Albert invited me to come up to this party room thing he’d built and sit on the porch where he’d turn a fan on to keep the bugs away. It was pretty nice sitting there on a rocking chair. Eventually I went back to my tent and hit the hay.
Since I went to bed fairly early last night, I was able to get a pretty good start on today. I woke up around 6, but didn’t get out of my tent until about 645. I got all packed up and was gone before 715. It felt good to make progress earlier in the day. Since I ate a late lunch yesterday, I didn’t eat dinner, just snacks. So, I never unpacked my stove and food from my bike. This morning, I didn’t want to get all that unpacked just to make some oatmeal, so decided to eat breakfast at subway. Somehow, it’s cheaper to get a 6 inch flatbread combo than just the sandwich by itself. I didn’t want a coke, so I just got a cup of water. But the lady also said you could get coffee with it. As I was eating, I look over and notice the coffee machine is some kind of fancy pants thing with a bunch of flavors. I decide to give the vanilla cinnamon nut cappuccino a go and it was solid, so I might doing that again another day. Most of this morning’s ride has been paved, but I did hit two good sections of gravel though forests. I’m also starting to slowly gain some elevation. I wouldn’t say I’m in the foothills of the mountains just yet, but I’ve gone up probably 400ft so far today, and have definitely transitioned from mostly farms to more forests.
I stopped for lunch in China Grove, NC at Jimmie’s Restaurant. I started with a grilled chicken breast with cornbread, pinto beans, and green beans, but decided to order a cheeseburger when I finished that because I was still hungry. I thought about my dad, because the daily special today was chicken livers, which he loves and I hate.
Random though…do you know what I love? Getting waves from farmers on trackers, small town folks on their front porch, and people walking down the sidewalk. Do you know what I hate? Pretty much any situation in which someone doesn’t wave back at me when they clearly see me waving at them. If you have arms and aren’t carrying something, why can’t you wave? How grumpy must you be to not be able to lift you hand up? Maybe though, people are just too surprised to know what to do. I love walking into a restaurant and getting crazy stares like I’m some kind of alien. I usually still have my helmet and gloves on, and if it’s raining or close to raining, I have my goretex woodland camo jacket and pants on too. Maybe the getup is just too much for some folks to process, and they momentarily lose control of their limbs and the paralysis prevents them from waiving.
After lunch, things really started taking off. I made it to Lenoir, NC and started following the road up into the mountains. It started sprinkling, so I stopped at a church under a carport and put on my rain gear. Shortly thereafter, the rain stopped and it was blue skies so I took the jacket off. Next thing I know I’m heading further up the mountain and hear comes rain again, so I pull into some random house’s carport to put on my jacket while giving a friendly wave to the guy who’s mowing his grass in the rain. He didn’t seem to mind. As I go further up the hill, the road changes to gravel. It’s well-manicured and wide though. Further still, the gravel road narrows. Then it turns to dirt. Then back to gravel, but with grass growing in the middle. I’m looking at my GPS trying to see how far it is to the campground, and it looks within a few miles, but there were SO MANY switchbacks and twists and turns, I couldn’t seem to make any progress. I must’ve been on that road at least an hour, without seeing another car or human. It felt very remote. Things were a little hairy a few times on the dirt road, but with gravel it wasn’t too bad. Eventually after what seemed like forever, I rounded the corner and found the National Forest Mortimer Campground (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recreation/bicycling/recarea/?recid=49006&actid=31). It’s pretty nice, and for $10 includes showers. It also has a picnic pavilion if a storm comes. There were a surprising number of people at the campsite for a Thursday when it was sprinkling, but still over half of the 19 sites were available. I had no cell phone service, and tried to get a message out to my friend Damon via my InReach SE, which was difficult given the tree cover. I finally went to bed and fell asleep. The air was actually cooler for a change and I wasn’t sweating. Next thing I know, I see a flashlight through my tent and hear “Aaron is that you?”. It’s 1145, I’m sound asleep, and Damon has apparently just rolled up. It took me a few minutes to put that together since I was so out of it and forgot about him meeting me in my slumber. He got all unloaded and finally went to bed. I couldn’t believe he found me, but he had apparently come up to the campground a much less treacherous route than I had.