I decided to sleep in a little longer today since Damon got in so late. We had our actual introductions once he got up. Crazy, but it’s been 7 years since I’ve seen him! This seems like a great excuse for a reunion. I’m impressed by how comfy his bike looks, but think it might be handful if we encounter any rough trail sections. However, he’s got a good 60 or so pounds on me, so he can manhandle it better than I could. We didn’t get on the road until about 10 or 1030. We only rode a few mile on gravel before we picked up pavement again. Today was a great ride. It was nice having someone with me, and we could talk pretty well on our Sena headsets, so we had a chance to catch up on life as we were riding. We went through some just beautiful country. Once again, everything is so green. Some of the home sites looking out over valleys were just amazing. And we passed several really pretty lakes. We went up and down through the mountains, going from 2500ft to 1100ft and back again. We also went from North Carolina to Tennessee to Virginia.
We made it to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (http://www.nps.gov/cuga/planyourvisit/camping.htm) and camped for the night. It was a pretty large campground with nice bathhouses. They had a pretty cool looking cave you could hike to, but apparently it was closed because people were getting some bat disease or something, so we missed it. Oh well.
Damon and I got up, had our oatmeal, and got on the road without much excitement. Just a couple of minutes outside the campground was the city of Cumberland Gap. We drove through but didn’t really explore. I’m sure there is some cool stuff to see. Next we headed through a tunnel through the mountain which was pretty cool. We ended up in Kentucky, driving past some coal mining operations and ended up climbing this mountain on a freshly paved road. It was some of the best motorcycle riding I’ve ever experienced, sweeping in and out of curves, with no traffic in our lane and smooth pavement with no gravel to worry about. Going down the other side, the pavement was nearly as nice because there were no coal mining trucks going that way to justify the maintenance, so it wasn’t as fun going down. We finished up the rest of the segment and made it to Jellico, TN. It seemed a little early for gas, so we pressed on. We made it to some little town in TN, I can’t remember the name, but we’re driving down the street looking for something to eat and they have a Chinese buffet. We were both starving so the idea of an all you can eat buffet sounded appealing. I had three plates, so I think I got my money’s worth. I talked to the woman there about how I’d been to China last year, and she seemed impressed, I’m sure most of the locals have never left the county. It also wouldn’t surprise me if her, her husband, and her two children were the only Chinese people within 50 miles of there. Kind of a weird place to have a Chinese buffet, but I was hungry so I went along with it. We still had a lot of ground to cover before the end of the segment in Rockwood, TN, so we got back on the road. We found ourselves on some Tennessee wildlife management area property, going down a gravel road. The gps tracks called for us to take a dirt road, which we did. It immediately turned into a pretty rough road over rock outcroppings. Next we turn and I see this huge puddle in the middle of the road, about 15 ft long. The areas on the sides of the road are thick with trees and bushes, so you have to go right through the middle. I give it a go, but don’t really get enough of a start, and before I know my rear wheel has slipped and I’m on my side. My first drop of the ride. I’m sure they’ll be many more. I try to heave the bike back upright, but the mud at the bottom of the puddle is slick as snot and I almost fall in trying to move the thing. Finally I get some sure footing and get it up, then restart the bike and walk it out while fanning the clutch. My bike weighs 370 pounds, and that’s not counting the weight of all the extra gas I’m carrying plus the numerous supplies. It’s heavy, probably closer to 500 pounds. Damon looks at me and says he’s not going that way. He’s got at least 100 more pounds of bike than I do, probably more than that. I say well let’s see what’s up ahead if we can just get past this stupid muddy area. He walks up around the corner and there is an even bigger mud hole there, about 40 ft long and who knows how deep. So I turn around and make it back through the puddle in one piece and we retreat and get back on the gravel road. Before people say man this guy sucks, a puddle scared him away, well this is a huge puddle, but more importantly is the mud not the puddle. It’s some kind of clay mud or something and it is super slick like being on ice. With big heavy bikes like we have, if the thing starts leaning you’re going down because you can’t get good footing to hold it up in this slippery stuff. Once we’re back on the gravel, it’s smooth sailing. We make it to Rockwood, TN and stop at a gas station to fill up and rest. Damon gets a power aid and an ice cream and we sit outside, while numerous customers ask us what the heck we’re doing. One family sees my Texas plates and ask me if I’m from Texas which they can’t believe. Damon later told me they approached him and said “Did your friend really ride that bike all the way from Texas?!” Hilarious. Yes, yes I did. Some fella comes up and starts talking to us and is one of those guys who never met a stranger. He’s got a sleeveless cutoff t-shirt and cutoff jean shorts and is telling us all kind of nonsense about anything and everything. He eventually tips us off to KOA campground nearby, which sounds better to Damon than the state park we were planning to go to since they have a laundry facility. So we headed to the KOA (http://koa.com/campgrounds/crossville). The KOA is nice, but not very secluded. The bathrooms are some of the nicest I’ve encountered. I really planned on roughing it more, but after days like today a shower sounds amazing. I tried washing a few clothes by hand last night and drying them off by tying them to my bag as we drove today, but they got covered in mud, so that plan didn’t work. As a bonus, this KOA campground has three domesticated rabbits that just hop around, so that’s fun. I feel really tired after today, so I think I’ll sleep well.
(fyi, my phone that’s functioning as my GPS unit was having some charging issues and powered down at the last part of the ride to the KOA campground, so there is a little loss of fidelity in the map at the end, but you can see where we ended up)
I’m sleeping well at the KOA campground, and it’s finally cool enough to lay in my sleeping bag without sweating. Then, I’m abruptly woken up by rainfall at 1:30AM. I spring up like a jack in the box because I remember all my stuff is exposed outside. The campground custodian had told us there was basically no chance of rain that night, so I’d left my rainfly off my tent and all my junk sitting on a picnic table. I’m scrambling trying to setup my rainfly and gather my gear and throw it in my tent while getting soaked, but I get it done in a few minutes. I finally get back to sleep, but it certainly upset my sleep cycle and I felt pretty tired when I eventually woke up for good. We start making breakfast, and I’m talking and not paying attention and for some reason mix my oatmeal with the water before I’ve cooked the water. Next thing I know I smell burning coming from my pot as my oatmeal is cooking. I tried to eat some of the stuff on top and put extra brown sugar with it, but it still tastes bad. Oh well, I’m hungry so I eat it anyways. I pour the burnt part out in a ditch, so maybe the herd of rabbits will eat it later or something. I try to clean the burnt part off the pan, but I’m not making much progress, so I make a mental note to buy steel wool the next time we stop in town. We get packed up and get on the road. When it’s finally lunch time, we randomly pass a Captain D’s in some town and Damon wants to stop, so I say sure. It reminds me of when I was kid and my dad used to love this place. I hated everything they served except hush puppies, which are just friend balls of corn meal basically. I got a three piece catfish dinner that was pretty good, so I was happy.
For some reason, today starts getting to me mentally. I think it was just everything compounding. When I started off on this trail, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’ve read parts of a few ride reports on ADV rider, but I guess I got a false impression of it. I knew it wasn’t going to be one continuous dirt road all the way across the country, but I didn’t expect what I actually encountered. The ‘trail’ has been about 90% paved road, which was disappointing but whatever. However, on top of just being paved, the guy tried to stay on the smallest possible paved road possible. Think smaller then a county road or farm to market road. These are usually roads like ‘Burch Lane’, etc. They are really only wide enough for one car, so you both have to pull over to pass each other. Still this is fine in concept, I love seeing the country. The problem is, these roads are full of turns and stop signs. So you can’t go fast. And half the time, we’re not even heading in the right direction. For example, we’ll cross over a major road you could go 55mph on, and actually be heading east, so we can intersect with another road that heads south. So at the end of the day we may ride 200 miles but only go 70 as the crow flies, and take all afternoon doing it. It’s frustrating. The stuff we were seeing on these small roads was nothing spectacular. However, there was nothing on the map to indicate where the cool off-road sections were and where the boring stuff was, so if you skipped these stupid roads and went for a major road to go straight and fast, you risked missing the cool parts of the trail. At the same time, we were spending so much time driving down these pointless roads that we didn’t have time to stop and see the cool stuff along the way, because we needed to get to Oklahoma before 05Aug for my work. It was a frustrating catch 22, and we stopped for a break and decided to lay down under a church’s carport. I was close to just abandoning this whole ‘Trans America Trail’ idea and just making my own trail across America using major roads and seeing cool stuff along the way and saying screw the off-road stuff. After stewing on it a while, I finally decided I’d be mad if I missed all the good off-road sections, and that I could do another road trip to see the cool sights another time. So I start looking back at the route on the trail and looking for a place to camp, and found the Old Stone Fort State Park (http://tnstateparks.com/parks/campground/old-stone-fort). It had decent reviews and included a bathhouse, so we headed there and found it to be nice.
When we woke up and broke camp, we decided to go check out the ‘old fort’ that the park was named after. We rode down about a mile and parked in the lot. As we’re walking up, Damon says that he could have sworn he read the ‘old fort’ was built by Indians thousands of years ago, but the building we see is made of rock and looks like it was built in the past few hundred years at least I’d say. Did Indians have mortar? I don’t think so, but I’m second guessing myself. I’m wondering if maybe he got his facts wrong, when I notice the building we’re looking at says visitor center on the side. Those tricksters. After some hasty sign reading, it appeared you had to do a 1.5 mile walk to see the actual ruins, but it sounded like it was just mounds aka piles of dirt. So I’m still wondering where this old stone fort is?? We decided maybe they just picked that name to sound catchy since ‘old piles of dirt state park’ didn’t sound like it would be a big draw for visitors.
Anyways, as we’re leaving, we both comment on the weather. Perfect blue skies, perfect temperature, it’s just a perfect day for riding. My spirits are much higher than yesterday ha. Somewhere in here, we start hitting some water crossings. See pictures below. The look innocent enough, but they have algae or something on them and they are SLICK, so dropping our bikes was common. A few times we just walked them across. One time Damon dropped his and bike kept running and did a donut which was impressive.
Anyways, so we’re driving down some road, and I’m finally leading after I patched together the micro USB charging port on my GPS phone with silicone sealant, when I see a motorcyclist ahead of us on what looks to be kind of an adventure bike. I kind of lose sight of him in a corner, then when I come around I realized he’s turning around in the road, so I wave as I drive by. I look down at my GPS and realize I’ve missed our turn, so I turn around too. I notice the other guy making the turn where I should have turned, and I think hmm I wonder if he’s doing the TAT too. We end up following him for several miles and he’s definitely doing the TAT, so he ends up waiting for us at a stop sign and we talk and found out his name was Gary and he was doing the TAT too. He decided to fall in behind us and ride with us, which was nice. We rode on a few more miles until we stopped for gas at Buckle Belt. This guy starts asking us about our bikes and what we’re doing, and it turns out he’s the owner of the gas station and diner there. He tells us about hitting a dog at night and wrecking his Harley, then takes us into his office and shows us the boot he was wearing and how the pavement wore right through it. Pretty crazy. We thought about staying for lunch to talk with him more, but it was barely 11 so we figured we needed to go a little further before our lunch break. I didn’t even catch his name, but he was a retired USMC vet and a Babson MBA alum, which was cool. Gary stayed with us as we set off down the road. We stopped a while later for gas, and tried to decide where we would stop for the night. The next segment was 130 miles long, and there didn’t appear to be any state or federal parks until the end near Savannah, TN. Given that it was past 4pm, we didn’t think we’d be able to make that before dark. So, we did a bunch of phone research, and I finally found that this Laurel Hill Wildlife Management Area had a lake with some camping there, about 30 miles into the trail. There was also a “Laurel Hill Trail and Campground” nearby, which appeared to be some kind of nearby privately owned place to ride horses. On the way, I notice there are just huge piles of turds all over the road in this one area. I’m thinking what is going on, is a fence down on one of these ranches and all the livestock got out or something? Well a few minutes later, I realize we’re in some kind of Amish area or something. Maybe they are Mennonites, or Quakers, I don’t know the difference. But they were sporting giant beards and horse drawn carriages and apparently selling handmade cedar furniture at their houses if the signs were true. They were very friendly and all of them waived back at me, which I obviously appreciated. Towards the end of our Amish tour, we did see this group of men with some kind of antique looking gas engine in a horse drawn trailer, and I start yelling at Damon on the headset “Whoa whoa whoa we’ve found some cheaters here!” I’m not really sure what the regulations are on that, maybe they can have pre WWII engines or something, I don’t know, but it looked weird. Anyways, back to finding a camping spot. So we went to the ‘trail and campground’ first, and it was a rundown house with like 20 RV hookups in the front yard. I was not impressed at all, and we couldn’t get anyone to answer the door anyways. So, we decided to try out the lake campground, which didn’t have a shower, but sounded fairly decent otherwise. We arrived at a pristine but small lake with hardly anyone there. The office was closed, and there were signs saying no camping unless you have permission, so we tried to call but realized we had no cell service, so we drove back up to the main road and called the number on the sign but no one answered. Well, I just left a message saying “hey I’m camping tonight hope that’s ok”, then we made our way back to the camping area. It was a little confusing, because there were signs saying all fisherman had to have a $5 day pass, and other signs saying all campers had to be fishermen, so we just took the high road and put $5 each in the slot. I figured since I stiffed the federal gov’t at the campground in the forest in Mississippi, it was the least I could do to help out the state of Tennessee. Gary stayed with us the whole way, and camped right with us as well. We’ll see how long he stays with us, but he’s easy to get along with and nice enough so I don’t mind having him.
We woke up and left for the nearby town of Holly Springs, MS to get Damon some engine oil and me some chain lube. Then we hit the highway to go east of town and get back on the trail. Most of the riding was off pavement, and it was a lot of the thick gravel that you have to be really careful on. Eventually, the trail called for us to make a turn onto what was basically a four wheeler mudding trail, which was pretty technical for a heavily laden adventure motorcycle. We were able to squeeze onto the side of most of the muddy areas, but I of course fell into one that was up to almost my knees. Once you start to lose your balance, there is nothing to push against to make yourself upright again, so you just tip over in slow motion.
Anyways, after doing a few of these, I look in one of my mirrors and realize I don’t see Damon or Gary, I wait a while and still don’t see them, so I get off to go check. After walking a couple hundred yards, I see them tearing into Damon’s BMW in the middle of the trail. I get closer to see them trying to remove the battery from the bike, which is all swollen, when a huge puff of steam comes out of the battery. Apparently, Damon’s air-cooled bike was getting warm with all the low-speed technical riding, and his wiring insulation was a little degraded. Those two things together led to the melting of the insulation on his starter wire, which caused the battery to short out and swell up. It also caused one of his fuel injection lines to develop a hole in it. Needless to say, he was dead in the water. Of course, being a BMW, it uses non-traditional sizes for every part. Gary and I rode to town looking for a battery, wiring, etc. We found most of what we needed, but could only find a battery about 1/3 of the size, because every battery in existence was wider than the BMW battery. So the tiny battery we did find would fit in the existing spot, but didn’t have enough amperage to actually turn the bike over. It’s getting dark, so we pushed his bike out of the woods a couple of hundred yards to a highway, then pushed him down a hill to bump start it. We jump on our bikes to catch up with him and find him a mile down the road with his bike turned off, saying that his catalytic converter was glowing red hot so he turned it off. We’re scratching our heads over what to do, as its now dark outside, when a guy drives up and says he saw us push starting the bike up the hill and that he has a truck and a trailer if we need him to take us somewhere. Damon immediately says “YES!”, and next thing we know this guy (Bobby) is back with his rig and we’re heading down the road to a motel in Holly Springs. We get Jason at Pizza Hut to hook us up with a meat lovers pizza even though they are about to close because we are starving. Soon after, we went to bed. It was a long day.
This morning, Damon starts googling on his phone and comes up with an idea from a forum about what might be wrong with his bike causing the catalytic converter to overheat, and sure enough that’s the problem (throttle cable on one cylinder was sitting on its shoulder instead of down in its seat).
We push started him and he rode for 30 minutes with no problem, so he decided he’d ride up about 45 minutes to Memphis to a BMW dealer there, get a new battery, then ride back home to Georgia and call it quits for his part of the trip. I was sad to see him go, but he’d dealt with a lot of frustration and was missing his family, so I didn’t blame him for leaving. I was really glad to have him with me for a week after it being so long since seeing each other. Gary and I left Holly Springs, MS a little after lunch and got back on the trail. There were a few sections of dirt, but nothing too crazy. We did get to ride on top of some river levees, which gave a good view. We passed by the Isle of Capri Casino, and I can still remember their advertising jingle from when I was a kid, so that was kind of funny. Immediately after that, we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas. The first town in Arkansas is Helena, so we stopped for gas, did some laundry at a Laundromat, then ate some Mexican food before setting up camp just before dark at the Storm Creek Lake campground (http://www.arkansas.com/places-to-go/lakes-rivers/lake.aspx?id=56) in the St. Francis National Forest.
The campground we stayed at last night only had pit toilets, but about ¾ of a mile away was a day use area that had restrooms and showers. So I got all packed up and rode there, only to discover that the showers weren’t hot. I wanted a shower, but not bad enough to unpack my stuff for a cold one. So, Gary and I just took off. We went back south to Helena, AR and got back on the trail, then headed west. Most of the trail today was off road. We started off riding through a bunch of crop fields, then started seeing signs for TAT riders to sign in up ahead. A mile down the road, we see this old building with an old guy sitting on the porch, and a huge 4’x8’ wood sign telling TAT riders to stop and come sign in. So we stop and this guy gets all excited and starts calling someone on the phone saying that there are riders here. Next thing we know, a middle aged woman comes flying into the parking lot in her car. She tells us that she’s the building owner’s daughter, and the old man we saw was his friend. Apparently the owner is a 79 year old man, and he has the building setup as kind of a museum full of old…stuff. Signs, bottles, antique stuff. She said he sits on the porch all day everyday (except today because he was getting a haircut), waiting for TAT riders to come by. He takes their picture and has them sign in. So, his daughter took our picture and we signed in. They told us a group of 8 from New Zealand had been through last week, and we were the first people they’d seen since then. They had a bunch of photos of previous riders, which was pretty cool. After visiting for a few minutes and thanking them, we were on our way. We had a late lunch at some place called ‘The Grill’ in Beebe, AR, we kept heading west. The terrain started to get slightly more hilly, but definitely not into the Ozarks. We decided we weren’t going to make it to the end of this segment, so we pulled off the trail south about 10 miles to camp at Wooly Hollow State Park (http://www.arkansasstateparks.com/park-finder/campinglistings.aspx?id=35). It’s not the most secluded campsite, and it’s pretty crowded because it’s Friday night, but the price is right and it’s a pretty area.
Gary and I are woken up by kids screaming and pots banging in the campground, which is one of the joys of camping on a nice weekend I suppose. We got up and got packed and I just had a granola bar for breakfast. Today was some of the best riding I’ve had on the trip yet. We finally got into some of the mountains of Arkansas, and went up them back down about 1500 ft before lunch, and twice more after lunch. We stopped at a gas station called “The Store” in Hector, AR and filled up, then noticed they had lunch cooking so decided to have a slightly early lunch at around 1130. The day’s special was a huge piece of ham on the bone, corn, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a roll for like $6. It was fantastic. I also had a huge can of peach tea to wash it down. We went about 70 miles NW to Oark, AR, which is apparently famous for it’s café the Oark Café. It seems to be a popular destination for motorcycle riders of all kinds due to being surrounded by the beautiful mountains. Since we’d just eaten lunch, I had some ice cream. I was happy to see that it was Blue Bell ice cream. We finished that up, then kept driving until we got to Ozark, AR where we filled up on gas again and started researching camping spots on a gas station bench. We had several old guys ride up on Harley’s over the next several minutes and talk to us, which provided interesting conversation. I found one place up in the forest that was a little bit out of the way, then another one that was perfect, but upon further research, the showers had apparently been shut down while they were lowering the lake or something, so it was a no go. Then, one of these random old guys says we should go to this state park south of town called Aux Arc state park (http://www.recreation.gov/camping/aux-arc/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=71013). I’d seen it earlier when I was researching, but it looked like it was in the middle of town so I didn’t give it much though since I’d rather be in the forest. Anyways, I check it out again after this guy’s recommendation, it looks pretty good and I’m getting tired of researching anything else, so we end up camping there for the night. It has a nice view and showers, so no complaints. As a side note, the US Forest Service really needs to update their website. Full of broken links, or things that aren’t linked. Huge lack of maps. It’ll list like 20 campgrounds, but you have no idea where they are in the forest. Also, none of those 20 are linked, so you have to google the name of each one. You’ll likely find information for them on the forest service website from google, but there was no link from the original forest service page to get you there. Not very useful.
I’m taking my time getting ready, so Gary leaves Aux Arc State Park before me to go to Walmart and hunt for supplies. I eventually get my shower and get packed up and meet him there. We launch north back into the Ozark National Forest and some great riding. Before too long we hit an optional hard section which turned out to be the most sizeable water crossing yet. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I was by myself, but we decided to do it. Gary walked some of more sensitive electronics across the creek, then we set off the crossing it. It was pretty deep and had a swift current, so we rode across with both feet down in the water and it was still pretty harrowing. Someone we both made it through without dropping our bikes under water. After that, it’s more good riding off pavement. We start seeing signs saying road closed in 4 miles, road closed in 3 miles, etc. We’re wondering how closed is ‘closed’ so we keep riding anyways until we find a bridge that has huge piles of rocks blocking it off. We get off and walk it and find out while the bridge it paved, the pavement is actually over wooden timbers, and one of the timber has rotted through making a hole in the bridge. This doesn’t seem to be a huge problem, so we move a few of the rocks and make a path to get through them and over the bridge. Another section of trail is pretty tricky, a fairly steep downhill strewn with large rocks and rock shelves. I actually dropped my bike once after hitting my skid plate on a rock then losing my footing, and the bike sloooowly went down and I couldn’t stop it. Pretty uneventful though. After making it through that, the rest of the riding was easier. Given these obstacles, our progress today was less than other days. It was getting to late afternoon when we crossed over the Illinois River near Tulequah, OK and rode right past the Eagle’s Landing campground. We were both exhausted, so we decided to camp there. I ended up getting into the river to cool off. It was crystal clear and moving pretty swiftly, but very refreshing. I wanted to take a shower, but the showers at this place were the worst I’ve ever seen. It smelled like an animal died in there, half of the showers didn’t even have handles, and the one’s that ‘worked’ didn’t have hot water. The most ridiculous part is that we were in the ‘family’ section of the campground. They also had a ‘late-night’ section, but the girls at the registration area told us that the showers there were terrible…meaning somehow there were worse showers than the ones I went into. Hard to imagine. Anyways, I didn’t take a shower, unless you count my river swim. After being chastised by river floaters for being on my laptop at the picnic table at our campsite, I went to bed.