Thursday, August 15, 2013

Leaving Chicago, and crossing the flatlands

I'd been in Chicago for about a week and a half, ordering parts, taking care of some work-related stuff and getting the bike repaired.  And just as I was packing to leave, I got a call that I had one more errand to run; my father was up in Minneapolis for a few days, but the day before had forgotten his backpack (with his clothes and toiletries) back in Chicago.  Me, being the good son that I am, strapped it to my bike and headed northwest.

I spent some time living in India a few years ago, and my time there taught me that there is no limit to how much crap you can strap onto a motorcycle.
My plan was to super-slap it west for the next few days, just to get across the plain states as quickly as possible and into the Rocky Mountains, before heading north to Alaska.  It was late in the day by the time I finally left Chicago (due to having to get my dad's backpack from his house), and by the time the sun was setting I was only just north of Madison, Wisconsin.

Stealth camping in the flatlands is tricky; the geography doesn't offer much concealment and because it's so flat, everything is developed and there's not much BLM or National Forest land to turn to. 

I made my attempts and finding someplace, eventually making enough wrong turns that I ended up heading down this unimproved road.  Perfect, I thought!  This looked like it had potential to get me someplace nice and undeveloped!

But a quarter mile up this road, I was reminded of a key fact; I'm not very good at motorcycles.

In my defense, FUCK SAND.  SRSLY.
I didn't even make it a day without dropping/crashing my freshly repaired bike.  >:(  The damage wasn't too bad, but my new and straight luggage mounts were now slightly tweaked.  Again.

Anyway, I learned my lesson and ended up in a state park campground for the night (at $27, WTF).

The next day was more of the same; lots of flat, long interstate.  I stopped in Minneaopolis to drop my dad's stuff off to him, and in his gratitude (and not at ALL because I guilt tripped him about how good of a son I was and how he should be eternally thankful), he presented me with an REI gift card, which I used to get a new stove.

The current stove that I'd been carrying, and been carrying for the past few years, was origionally a hand-me-down from my dad; he'd taken it around the world a few times, and at this point it was over 30 years old.  It still worked okay, but was in dire need of a cleaning and servicing; it took upwards of 5 minutes sometimes to heat up, and had next to no flame control.  This new stove gives way more control over the heat output, and gives a wider choice of fuels to burn.

I did manage to stealth camp this night; following what looked to be a snowmobile trail off the road, and then taking an offshoot from that trail found me in a clearing just barely big enough to park the bike and set up the tent.

The next day, in fact the next couple of days, were dominated exclusively by this:

This, and only this, for 12 hours.  Soon, we can have robots do all the farming for us and then there will be no reason for anyone to live in these places anymore.

I ended the day somewhere in North Dakota, and tried to find someplace to stealth camp, without any success.  I followed enough side roads but they were all surrounded by farmland, fences or the occasional house.  Even the really poor condition roads didn't lead me to anywhere that looked campable.

Figuring that paying $20 or whatever was better than $60 for a motel, I poked at my phone and guided myself to what google maps said was a campground/lake resort.  And I got there to find that it indeed was a campground/lake resort . . . but was completely deserted.

It was your typical serviced campground, lots of amenities and cabins, but no one was there, at all.  I even knocked on the caretaker's building, to no avail.  But it was getting late, and I was in the middle of nowhere, so I went ahead and set up in the tent area.  I figured if there was anyone around in the morning, I could settle up with them then?

But the next day there was still no one in site, so I packed up and rode off.  If they want my money, they need to at least be around to take it.

The first few hours of the day were cold and foggy with the occasional drizzle.  But by 10am it had burned off, and I could at least see again the majesty of North Dakota.

A HILL!  It's like, almost a hill!  Real change in elevation!

What are we going to do with this hill?  We're going to park a giant cow on it!
The day was, as the last couple of days had been, quite warm.  The high was touching 90F and it felt much hotter in the sun, and I was ROASTING in my yellow suit.  This suit was great in Labrador when it was 50F and raining, and I'm sure I'll be grateful for it when I'm in the Arctic Circle, but for now it was just awful.  Even with all the vents open, it was only barely livable at highway speed, and once you stopped it was like having your own personal sweatbox.

Later in the afternoon, as the sun was beginning to get a bit lower on the horizon, I made it to western North Dakota and passed near Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Finally, something to look at!

There's a 36 mile scenic loop around the park, and given that I have a yearly pass and had spent the last three days on arrow-straight super-slab, I welcomed the corners (and occasional wildlife)

I spent the night in one of the park's campgrounds; $10 was reasonable enough to save me from having to hunt something out in the flatlands again.

The next day got me into Montana, which while it has some places that are stunning beyond words, most of the eastern 3/4 are yet more rolling plaines.

Another full day spent burning miles on the slab got me far enough west that FINALLY, I could get back to what I felt motorcycle trips are always supposed to be.  Dirt/gravel roads that actually take you somewhere that you want to be.

HOORAY!  Back in the hills, back in the forests!

I'd spent the last few days so worried about how to find someplace to stay that I'd forgotten just how easy it is in National Forest land.  The instant you ride in, there's side paths every which way going to clearings and campsites.  It almost felt like cheating, and I had to consciously force myself to just take one of the easy locations, rather than trying to hunt down some twisted little deer path to follow or something.

I did get quite freaked out in the middle of the night when I heard some animal sniffing and pawing around at my campsite, but it was just these guys.  They seemed friendly enough, but I didn't feel like taking my chances with what seemed to be pretty wild dogs.  They hung around for most of the morning, undoubtedly hoping for snacks or something, but eventually decided I wasn't a soft enough touch and wandered off.

Lewis & Clark National Forest is only an hour or so outside of Great Falls, where I had a rear tire waiting for me.  I was well past the wear bars on my current tire, and it felt good to get fresh rubber on.

I ended up having to run around town for another couple hours; my rear brake pads were worn to the point of non-existence, and this place didn't have pads in.  A call to the local Suzuki dealer sorted me out, and although they couldn't sort out why the rear brake is so spongy and soft, at least now I've got pads on it again.

I pushed west that evening, making it into the Rocky Mountains just as the sun was starting to set.

Camping this evening SHOULD have been easy.  There's national forest land everywhere, it's in the mountains so the geography is conductive to hiding in random clearings.  And I had a nice new rear tire, giving me . . . well not great grip in dirt, it was much better than the worn-smooth tire I had before.

But when heading down a little ATV trail, I was reminded that my bike is much wider than I sometimes think it is.

While that drop in the sand a few days ago might have tweeked it a bit, this sort of an impact REALLY bent the rack out of shape.  I'm not going to lie, I was bummed out about it, really bummed out.  I'd spent the better part of a week and $400 on new parts, and I couldn't even last a week before bending everything out of shape again.  Not only was the rack bent, but the saddlebag itself has gotten so out of square that it almost doesn't close anymore.

By the time I got back to the road, it was getting quite dark.  I headed a few more miles up the pavement and took a different turn off, past a "Road Closed" sign, and eventually found myself camping on a clearing halfway up a hill.  I started settling in for the night, when I was given a lesson as to exactly what this road was for.

It was a service road for the train tracks, no doubt to make maintenance work on this track shed covering thing easier.  The first time a train passed, doing maybe 15mph as the locomotives were struggling to pull the 100+ cars up the hill, I thought it was really neat!  Big, loud machines and stuff!  But after about 15 of these over the coarse of the night . . . well, it started to get a little old.  But that's the breaks of stealth camping; sometimes, your site is less than ideal.

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