The title ‘Westward Ho’ comes from my recollection of the call of the wagon masters in cowboy movies of the 1940’s and 50’s, and maybe real life as the wagon trains started on their westward journey across the great plains.
We are roughly following one of the routes blazed by the pioneers in the 19th century in wagon trains across Iowa and Nebraska although we cover their daily average of 10-20 miles (16-32 kilometres) in as many minutes as we wiz along Interstate 80 (I80), at up to 70 mph (110 kmh). Denver will be a four day journey for the ‘2slowspeeds’ as we plan to cover up to 300 miles a day. We also have the comfort of motels, gas stations and numerous fast food outlets to aid our journey, something the early pioneers lacked.
Since leaving our Amish friends, we have skirted to the south of Lake Michigan – note we have now seen all 5 of the great lakes seeing the missing two, Erie and Ontario on this trip – passed Chicago and ridden across Illinois and Iowa. We pass signs with names like Ottawa, Peru, Marseilles plus both Oxford and Cambridge giving us a global tour off one road: should we dive down any of these links, I feel we may end up in that named location. The location names are perhaps an indication of the varied origins of the people who started to settle the Great Plains in significant numbers almost 180 years ago.
When we stop for fuel or food, ‘Streak & Storm’ always attract attention. It may be because we are riding so early in the season, while the local ‘hogs’ (Harley Davidsons) are still sleeping gently in the caves waiting for warmer weather, but more likely is the friendly nature of the people we meet along the way in the USA. If time permitted, I am sure our journey would be at an even slower pace with all these wonderful people to meet.
The winds blasted us as we travelled across central Iowa, gusting up to 35mph (55 kph) which made life interesting as the large trucks (semi trailers) overtook us. With more weight concentrated on the rear of the bikes, our front wheel contact is a little ‘light’ at times. While we are used to winds, having lived and ridden in Cape Town, on one occasion as one particular truck passed both of us, we found our handlebars started to oscillate for a split second. Very disconcerting! Never happened before and not since, must have been a rare combination of wind currents. Hour after hour constant buffeting is tiring especially as we were riding 280 miles (450 kilometres). I admire those who have ventured to the tip of South America to whom this wind would seem like a light breeze, we have experienced that region’s weather while hiking, but not on motorcycles. We will leave that to more adventurous souls.
I am surprised at the gently rolling nature of the landscape as far as Lincoln Nebraska: I had an image of this region as flat as far as the eye could see, but this is not the case to the East of Lincoln. The occasional woodland nestled in the undulating terrain gives us a moments respite from the unrelenting winds. Temperatures are as low as 2 degrees Celsius, 35 degrees Fahrenheit, it is bitterly cold which even six layers of clothing cannot cannot defeat. Our stops are more frequent as we thaw out enough to ride for another 45 minutes at a time. Roll on summer!
We take a break on our westward journey at the Golden Spike Tower, http://www.goldenspiketower.com which has a commanding view over Union Pacific’s (UP) Bailey Yard in North Platte, the largest rail-yard in the world. They have a great live feed on their website for any train buffs. Statistics are impressive, more than 8 miles long, 150 trains and 14,000 wagons per day pass through here. They are sorted, checked, fuelled and have their crews changed. Short trains can only be 8000 feet long to be able to fit on the 9000 foot sidings. Express freights with priority right of way can be any length. Amazing stuff.
There is a plethora of other interesting facts about this location, which you can easily find many online, but a couple of interesting ones I thought are that the eastbound and westbound hump sorting yards are in the same direction, to use the natural fall the land from West to East to save moving large quantities of earth and that during the Second World War the North Platte Canteen was founded as a volunteer and self funded organisation that met each of the troop trains passing through North Platte with coffee and cakes. Over six million military personnel passed though during that time. Even some marriages occurred due to hastily scribbled notes passed from volunteers to military personnel!
Our last full day on the road heading to Denver sees the contrast of clear blue skies and warmer weather that makes me feel I could ride forever, to the thrill/excitement/fear of skirting a massive foreboding storm to the east of I76, watching the lightening forking down to the ground from black clouds so low you feel you could reach out and touch them.
Our current destination is Denver where we will catch up with friends before deciding on our next move. As some of you may be aware we were keen to return to Alaska, but have decided that we will not be riding there this trip, perhaps another time. A couple of factors have influenced us, firstly while we are enjoying above average temperatures most days, further north has had one of the longest winters on record, snow is expected in Calgary for the next three days and as I write this we are riding with temperature that has dropped to 6 degrees celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) in the middle of the day. With windchill calculations travelling at 70 mph the effective temperature is -3 degrees celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit). This has led us to delay our northward move as we hear it has for others who have also planned Alaska trips this spring.
Secondly, we have found it difficult to secure transport for Streak and Storm back from Anchorage to Vancouver: we had planned to ride one way only to give us more time to explore Alaska and have the bikes trucked back to Vancouver. With a deadline to deliver the bikes for their next service, chain, sprocket and tyre change on June 6, we would just be riding long distances daily without time to enjoy the journey in the way we like do. We are also cognisant that we will have 30 days hard riding in Russia and Mongolia to meet our visa restrictions.
We still plan to explore parts of Western Canada but will spend a little more time in the lower 48 states. Where is still to be determined, but both old haunts and new opportunities beckon in warmer climes. We will keep you advised.