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Road trip 2019: Motorcycle pilgrimage to the Harley Davidson Museum

Getting out on my bike has become less of a common thing the last couple of years.  The reasons are not terribly interesting: disruptions in health, work pressures, depression.  But I still build up a need for two wheel therapy, probably even more so than when I was riding every weekend.  And so I’ve focused on ‘long form’ road trips to get my motorcycle fix, and this year was a biggun’: a ride to take my 2011 Road Glide ‘back home’ to where she was born: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Map (rough) of 2019 route

Not the exact route I took, but close enough…

Where to, and Why?

My motorcycle road trips generally follow the principle of “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”.  But I always have some goals, some specific objective: and I also usually over-plan.  For 2019, my target was the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.  I wanted to ‘take my bike home’: back to where she was assembled, where all the work was done.

I felt like this was something I wanted to do as my bike is reaching its ‘twilight years’ in my ownership: I’m starting to think it is time to upgrade to a newer model.  And I also felt like seeing the Harley Davidson Museum would be pretty cool.  With the destination in mind, the course was set.  I plotted a route that touched on some roads and sites I’d seen before. 

This initial plan was extended when my friend Chris told me his family was planning an automobile road trip to the coast at a roughly suitable time for a meet-up.  I added that in to my route, and started scheduling things, booking hotels and the like.  This is where my ‘over-planning’ comes in: I like to know where I’m going to sleep each night, and that prevents the kind of spontaneity some people would love.  One day I’m going to have to try a different process: maybe next year 😉

I worked out a trip that would take about three weeks, the last week being spent ‘taking it slow’ with my best friend and his family. 

Memories

In total, the trip was a great success.  My bike ran flawlessly for nearly 8,000 km, making me doubt whether it really is time for a renewal.  The roads and weather were in the whole as close to perfect as can be.  Most days were sunny or sunny-adjacent, the occasional bout of bad weather short-lived and manageable.  Day after day, I was more than successful at clearing my head and achieving the ‘zen’ state I seek from my rides.  I came home a slightly improved version of myself, something which I needed after a tough year or so of depression and health-related issues.

The downsides were fairly minor: I caught a nasty cold that lingered/morphed up until a month after my return home; and I had a bit of an anger management moment one day regarding some failed room bookings.  Some ‘snapshots’ from my memories follow:

Pre-trip: motorcycle service problems

Every long motorcycle trip starts, for me, with my bike being serviced.  The service interval on a Harley like mine is 8,000 km: so starting an 8,000 km trip fresh makes sense to me.  My bike got all her fluids replaced and a full inspection, which showed that I needed to have my front tire replaced as it was nearing the end of its tread life.  But here is where things went a little bit wrong.

First off, Barnes Harley seems to have recently replaced all of their older service staff with millennials.  Not a problem, except it seems like none of them have much Harley Davidson ‘memory’.  Things that were second nature for the ‘old crew’ like how to move my bike around from the ground seemed ‘brand new’ to these guys: they got on my bike and ‘duck walked it’ because they didn’t feel confident walking it from the side, for example.  I get that: I’m the same.  But the old guys just seemed more… confident, I guess.

This lack of HD ‘memory’ carried over to a problem with my tire replacement.  I’ve had RideOn tire sealant in my tires since pretty much my first tire change nearly a decade ago.  This stuff has probably saved several of my trips: on at least two occasions I’ve brought my bike in for post-trip service to get a report that one of my tires has a screw stuck in it, sealed and safe due to the RideOn. My old service guys just knew this about me: change the tires, put the RideOn in.

But not the new crew.  They’ve been trained on newer bikes that all have TPMS sensors built in to the wheels, something which don’t get along (apparently) with RideOn.  So despite me specifically asking for it, the RideOn hadn’t been added when I picked my bike up.  They even challenged me saying (paraphrasing) “we don’t put RideOn in front tires, but it’s your funeral…”  The end result was having to take my bike back to get the RideOn added, which wasted my time and theirs.

Crossing the border: delays, relief

 

I started my first day on the road, June 30th, at 6:30 AM.  This is an early start for me: it meant waking up by 4:00 AM to get my final packing done and get out the door.  My intent was to get across the border before it got busy.  That didn’t work out, and I at least partially blame my choice of border crossing.  I ended up sitting at the Pacific Highway truck crossing for over an hour and a half: the line up wasn’t long at all, but a) they only had one lane open; b) some guy with a classic 50’s era European sports car had a break down in the line.  It all worked out, but it was exactly what I was trying to avoid- sitting.

But then I was free: free to ride, free to stretch out my mind and become ‘aware’.  It was a huge relief, and that first day ride to Coeur d’Alene was outstanding.

Staying awake: caffeine drinks

 

Getting sleepy, or more accurately falling face down out of exhaustion, by mid afternoon has been an increasingly common issue for me.  This is a tremendous problem when riding a motorcycle, a time when you absolutely want all your attention and wits about you.  I struggled with this throughout the trip, and was finding it hard to travel more than an hour or so without stopping to splash water on my face and shake myself awake.  If there was one thing I wish I could ‘fix’, this would be it.

I ended up compensating with caffeinated drinks.  I became familiar with all the gut wrenching flavours and various levels of caffeine on offer in things like RockStar Recovery, Mountain Dew GameFuel, and various Starbucks canned drinks.  300 mg of caffeine seemed to be the ‘sweet spot’ to get me back in the game quickly.  But I think this state of affairs is sub-optimal: I’m pretty sure it will lead to me planning and thinking about my road trips differently in the future.

Lazy rivers: Minnesota, Mississippi

 

Most of the rivers and streams I’m used to in my life have been fast-moving things.  The kind of river that cuts through mountains and hills, that sort of thing.  But on this trip I encountered my first truly ‘lazy’ rivers: the Minnesota and Mississippi.  Both of these rivers, at least in the parts where I was riding near them, seem to spend more time looking like lakes than rivers.  They give off strange ‘banjo-playing hillbilly’ vibes, with thoughts of ‘gators and airboats, even hundreds or thousands of miles from where such things are likely common.

But looking at the map, a southward turn from Red Wing, Minnesota (one of the towns I passed through), and it is only 600 km to Nashville… 

July 4 Fireworks in Milwaukee

 

I arrived in Milwaukee on July 4th, something which I was concerned might present a problem.  But as it turned out, traffic was fine and parking/checking into my room at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino was no real hassle at all.  I ended up on the 15th floor and this turned out to be a great place to watch the more or less city-wide July 4th fireworks.

I have never really been in a ‘larger’ American city on July 4th: they really seem to go all out with the celebratory explosions, though.  I was expecting to see fireworks from maybe one or two sources, but there appeared to be at least half a dozen large events, firing the ‘big’ splashy displays more or less at the same time.  It wasn’t disturbing: I could have easily slept through it.  But I watched for an hour or so, something I enjoyed but hadn’t planned on at all.

Harley Davidson Museum

This is definitely a ‘must see’ for anyone who is interested in the history of Harley Davidson in particular, and in motorcycles in general.  The museum is large, so I found it worthwhile taking a guided tour to get oriented, then wandering around on my own after.  As an aside: Harley Owners Group (HOG) members get free admittance.  I forgot that when I pre-ordered my ‘will call’ tickets, so I handed my ‘spare’ to a guy in line behind me.  He was surprised, but tracked me down later in the museum to (kindly) force me to take the full price in cash.  

The museum is amazing.  HD is a company that seems to respect their own history- they kept ‘exemplar’ bike of each model fresh off the assembly line from every year- this means they have pristine, running examples of bikes going back to 1905.  And on top of this, they have hundreds of unique and special bikes in their archives: racing bikes from the Buell days (full teams!), climbing bikes, bikes owned by famous people like Elvis, protoypes that really show some interesting ‘might have beens’… a non-stop flood of history.  

One thing I found interesting: Harley Davidson produces replacement parts for bikes going back seventy plus years.  One way they do this: pull a bike from the museum, scan the part, and CNC mill it to original specs.  I can’t think of any manufacturer that can come close to that level of detail.

Also on-site: a pretty good restaurant, and a fantastic gift shop full of stuff for the Harley buff. One thing I really missed: I wasn’t able to arrange a factory ‘steel toe boot’ tour.  These are offered at the motor factory in Menomonee Falls, a bit outside of Milwaukee- the Museum is no longer an active factory site.  I should have booked the factory tour several months in advance, apparently, since they are all guided tours and are only offered a couple of times a day for groups of 20 or so people.

Catching a cold

I caught a bad cold… it sucked.  It turned into an allergic chest condition which ultimately only started getting better this week after steroid treatments. I seem prone to these things when travelling, and wish this were not the case. 

Having this cold did damage my enjoyment of the ‘back half’ of my trip, and I’m sure my non-stop coughing drove Chris and family insane.  I ended up having to spend two extra days in Belle Fourche,  South Dakota, to try to get feeling better.  This meant cancelling a number of earlier reservations, which was frustrating- but it was the ‘right’ thing to do.  I’m slightly wiser about this kind of ’travel illness’ than in earlier years; pushing on is not wise, even if it means disrupting plans.

And I got to enjoy the kindness of strangers, something which was uplifting.  The staff at AmercInn in Belle Fourche not only accommodated my change in plans, they also made real efforts to help me by breaking out a stash of cold remedies they keep on hand for sick guests.  It saved me from having to go out shopping when I really had no energy to do so, and the thoughtful act on their behalf itself was touching.

Getting (nearly) arrested

I had to make new room arrangements after cancelling several days of accommodations so I could recover in Belle Fourche.  In this process I encountered a severe short-coming with using Hotels.com and similar services, a shortcoming that caused me to blow my top and nearly get the cops called on me.

Here’s the dirty secret of Hotels.com and similar web-based booking agencies: they often have no real relationship with the hotels they are booking.  Hotels.com will take your money (charge your card) without any real confirmation from the related hotel, even calling the room ‘pre-paid and guaranteed’.  This is sketchy as hell, and I didn’t fully understand this when I started making bookings with much shorter advance notice than is my usual process.  The wheels fell off completely when I arrived in Kalispell, Montana, where I had a room booked (I thought) at the Red Lion Inn.

My problem with the Red Lion hotel booking was entirely my own fault: I booked for the wrong day.  I’ve done this before when making repeated bookings on Hotels.com; for me, at least, it is easy to miss updating the date. The folks at Red Lion tried to help by calling other nearby hotels; they seemed to sense that I was tired (I’d spent over an hour stuck in stop and go traffic on the way in to town), and were being kind.  They found a room for me, but when I tried to call to book it, the room was already taken.  Apparently there were several softball/other sports tournaments going on in Kalispell, so things were busy.  

At this point, I was out over $300 for the mis-booked room at the Red Lion, and still had no place to stay.  I brought up Hotels.com, searched, and found a room available at the La Quinta hotel, five minutes away.  I nearly got creamed by a truck on the way there, so my stress levels were further elevated.  When I arrived at the desk, the clerks were busy; one had her ‘angry bitch face’ on while talking to someone on the phone, and was probably having a bad day.  Of course, she’s the one I got: it was a match made in hell.

I do the usual “I have a reservation through Hotels.com…” intro, and she interrupts: “No you don’t, we are fully booked”.  I say “Oh come on, I have a pre-paid guaranteed room…” … she interrupts again, ‘No you don’t, that’s with Hotels.com, not us.”  I say “Oh for fuck sake, you have got to be kidding me, I’ve paid for the room…” Now she’s angry: “We have zero tolerance for abuse.  You are being belligerent.  Get out of this hotel now or I will call the police.”  I say “Seriously?  You call this service?  This is the most pathetic excuse for customer relations I’ve…” And she repeats her intent to call the cops.

So I leave, fuming at this point, and sit on the curb next to my bike to call Hotels.com and give them hell.  And boy am I mad: but Hotels.com manages to calm me down by talking me through the process, admitting that they don’t actually have a contract or guarantee agreement, and finding me a room at a different and better (Hilton) hotel at no additional charge.  Like I said to Hotels.com and later, when I called the La Quinta corporate complaints line: if they don’t want to work together, they should remove each other from their respective listings.

So yeah, I almost ended up in a police confrontation: first time in my life anyone threatened to call the cops on me.  I wasn’t in the right, but neither do I feel I was entirely in the wrong.  I’ll probably not use Hotels.com for ‘quick’/last minute bookings in the future.  I’ll never stay at a La Quinta again, and will tell anyone who asks me to avoid them because, apparently, their staff have no customer relations training beyond ‘zero tolerance’.

Different approach: touring with Chris and Family

Connecting up with my friend Chris and his family was fantastic.  It was like completely shifting gears: I wasn’t ‘going’ anywhere, I was ‘staying’ places.  His mode of travel was more destination focused: we spent several days in each of Revelstoke and Osoyoos, partaking of the local sites.

We rode a steam train, visited a beautiful winery, saw a desert snake presentation at a native museum, and spent a day out on a pontoon boat touring lake Osoyoos.  Barbecues and fine meals, relaxation, and good company.  I love my motorcycle trips, but I think I need to find a way to ‘shift gears’ more often, maybe reducing the miles travelled, or using a ‘hub’ approach to travelling e.g.: stopping and touring around an area for several days from one base of operation.

 

Pictures

Over 400 pictures, none of them labelled, for your enjoyment! 😉

Concluding thoughts

I continue to enjoy my more or less annual motorcycle road trips.  The 2019 trip was fantastic, better than last year.  As with every one of my road trips, I’ve learned some things about myself and how I ‘fit’ into the world: some good, some bad.  I really enjoyed my time sharing the trip with my friend Chris, Billy, Pat, and Richard.  

I’ll probably be ‘changing things up’ next year, and will likely plan on covering fewer miles and having a bit more time in several locations.  I will likely also try to figure in some visiting with friends and family.  I may or may not replace my bike: I’m still debating that, and it is somewhat dependent on the status of my motorcycle ‘investment fund’.  The old girl has served me well for a decade and 120,000 km, but there is no urgency to upgrade; just an itch.

 

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