It’s no secret that Kim and I have been wearing Aerostich Roadcrafter one piece suits for years. You probably know that we really, really like them, so we wanted to be up front with our “bias” towards this piece of kit. That being said, we’ve had the opportunity to compare and contrast the differences between the standard Roadcrafter one piece suit and the newer Roadcrafter Light suit. We’ve literally ridden these suits tens of thousands of miles in extreme heat and cold. We’ve also ridden them for hours on end in dry, damp, rain and bucketing down rain. As such, we’d thought we’d offer our impressions of the suits.
Both of our original Roadcrafter suits have handled the years very well and we still use them on a daily basis. That being said, we’ve been riding in hotter and hotter locations and heat has become a more significant issue. Our recent trip along the Trans American Trail in the hottest, muggiest weather we’ve ever experienced, made checking out a lighter weight option almost mandatory. Ten or twelve hour days in the saddle in significant heat certainly makes the riding more difficult and potentially more dangerous.
So it was with some excitement that I ordered an Aerostich Roadcrafter Light for Kim for our wandering trip across much of Europe in mid July heat. Kim has a pretty off the shelf size frame, so I was able to order one right off the rack for her in grey and hi-viz yellow. It arrived in just a couple of days ready to wear.
The standard Roadcrafter is made with 500 denier cordura Gore-Tex with 1050 denier cordura in the ballistic areas (i.e. high impact areas). Both these deniers are much thicker and heavier than the 200 denier outer layer cordura Gore-Tex of the Roadcrafter Light. Aerostich claims that the Roadcrafter Light is has roughly two thirds the abrasion resistance of the 500 denier cordura. They don’t publish the denier of the ballistic areas for the Roadcrafter Light, but it seems to be similar to the ballistic material used in the standard Roadcrafter, meaning it is very sturdy.
There are significant differences between the standard Roadcrafter and the Roadcrafter Light. Think of the Roadcrafter Light as the evolution of the standard Roadcrafter. According to Aerostich, there have been numerous improvements including:
snap down collar,
removable rare-earth magnetic collar clasps,
water-resistant inner wallet/phone/iPod pocket,
adjustable impact pad positions,
inner pocket hook for accessory pocket
and a mini-carabiner helmet holder clip.
There are additional options, including:
Integrated Boot Raincovers,
Chest Impact Pad,
Chest Insulation Pad (Standard and Electric/Heated versions) can also be incorporated.
Having tried it on, Kim commented immediately it felt lighter than the standard Roadcrafter. The difference in weight is indeed very noticeable and it is significant. She also said that it felt ready to wear and exhibited none of that having to “break it in” feel. We note that although the standard Roadcrafter has a brief “break in” period, it eventually becomes like an old pair of jeans; very comfortable. Fit in the Roadcrafter Light appears to be the same and Kim thought it was quite comfortable. Getting in and out was also the same easy procedure as it is for the standard Roadcrafter.
Since the Roadcrafter Light has some claimed improvements, we thought it appropriate to discuss them. So far, the suit has been entirely waterproof. There have been no leaks and none of the previously dreaded Aerocrotch. The zippers do seem to have tighter teeth, but it has not effected the ability to zip or un-zip them easily.
The snap down collar (in the back) is easy to use and makes the collar snugger and easily closed. As you may know, there are now strong rare earth magnets in the base of the collar and in the collar tabs. They keep the collar down while riding so you don’t have to ride with the collar closed. They are very effective, however, perhaps a bit too effective. When you are suiting up and you want the collar up, you need to exercise a bit of care zipping up so that the collar doesn’t automatically fold down. This is a minor annoyance and if you had to choose between having or not having the magnets, you’ll definitely prefer that the suit have magnets unless you are riding in the Antarctic and the collar always has to be up. The water-resistant pocket seems to do it’s job, we’ve not seen any water in the pocket.
There is a very definite difference between the armor mounting in the two suits. The standard Roadcrafter has a sort of inner liner that has sewn in pockets to hold your armor. The Roadcrafter Light comes with separate pockets which you Velcro into the suit in the appropriate places. While the pockets stay in place once you position, Kim has found that she has to use a little more care when putting her booted foot into the suit, especially on the right leg where it does not open all the way. She’s never had an issue getting the suit on or off, it’s just that she needs to be more careful putting it on so that her boot doesn’t get hung up with the pocket. That said, if you don’t wear armor, this is a non-issue. If you do wear armor, it shouldn’t be considered to be a big enough issue to turn you off from buying the Roadcrafter Light. Lastly, the inner accessory hook and the helmet carabineer are nice to have, but aren’t anything spectacular.
We did not order the integrated boot rain covers, chest impact pad or chest insulation pad so we can’t comment on them or how well they do or don’t work.
Overall, Kim really likes the Roadcrafter Light and now wears it most of the time. If it’s going to be cold, she opts for the Roadcrafter standard, but in all other cases, she rides with the Roadcrafter Light. It is lighter, fits the same, watertight and packs smaller than the standard Roadcrafter. There’s really nothing not to like about this suit.
So if you are the type that always wants the most protection that you can get in a cordura suit, or you ride in mostly cold temperatures (i.e. 50 or below) you’ll probably want to opt for the standard Roadcrafter. But if you are ok with having two thirds the abrasion protection, in a lighter, cooler suit for $200 less, then the Roadcrafter Light may be for you.
You should really check out both suits yourself, but we thought we’d offer you our perspectives. Your perspectives may be different, so take the time to investigate what will work best for you.
Riding the TAT we’d been in rural areas for quite some time. But the deeper we ventured into Mississippi, we began to notice that we’d entered another level of rural and got the feeling that we had really passed into an era where time may have stopped for a while.
On the gravel, we found remnants of old farms and homesteads. It was a little mesmerizing riding through this part of the country. You could really get the feeling of old-time farming and people scratching a living from farmland carved from the thickly wooded earth. Each farmer cutting down trees by hand and pulling the stumps with horses or oxen.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Then suddenly, the farms disappeared. Fields gave way to forests once again. Forests partially relented and gave way to water. We were in the true wetlands of Mississippi. When I was a kid, we called these places swamps. We weren’t in a swamp, we were in the true definitions of wetlands. The swamps of my childhood were a smelly, litter infested, mud and still water mess. These were different.
Green and brown never mixed in such symmetry. The brown water was tinged with green and rolled lazily past the shores. Trees sprouted from the depths of the water on roots that gave the trees a “standing on tip-toes” look. The roots arched from the water forming a triangular base from which the tree trunk sprouted. Although they provided a platform out of the water for the tree trunk, the moss-covered roots reached away from the base and dove into the water. A clear sign that the tree needed water to survive. These rounded tubular roots were a natural straw, feeding the ever-growing trees life-giving nutrients and fluids. It was a great example of the circle that is life, be it human or otherwise.
We stopped to take a few pictures of this natural wonder and in the 30 minutes that we were taking pictures, not a single soul passed by. We were enjoying our frozen moments, but we had to get moving in order to make it to the Arkansas border for the day.
Before we knew it, we had transitioned into back onto hard surfaced roads and farms once again began made began dotting the landscape. Most were fairly large and crossing from one to the next took some time. We had passed several and as we rounded a corner and headed down a straight stretch of road, we came across a somewhat immovable object. There was a very large animal standing in the middle of the road.
Tracy had already ridden by the large animal but the rest of us were stuck behind. Kim saw it before I did and said into her communicator, “Oh look, there’s a cow in the road.” I paid more attention than I had been and sure enough, there was a very large animal standing in the middle of the road. I muttered into my comm back to Kim, “Um Kim, that’s not a cow, it’s a bull.” “Oh” was the somewhat unimpressed response. But the bull wasn’t going anywhere fast and he was in a somewhat testy mood. He stood his ground and stared directly at us.
Somewhat surreal, in a fenced field beside the road, a group of cows and calves stood at rapt attention watching and waiting to see what might happen. While the cows watched from the side of the road, the bull watched us and we watched the bull. We yelled at him and revved our engines, but still he remained unmoved. Now we were stuck. What could we do to get this bull’s attention and make him move? After a lot of shouting and revving of engines, I decided that we had to do something different. What could we do? There was only one thing left to do. I reached over to my handlebar and gave my NH approved street legal horn a blast. Said horn was of the rubber bulb type normally associated with little children’s bicycles.
After about the 6th “honk”, the bull slowly walked to the side of the road and stared into the brush. MaryLee took off in a flash and was past. Kim and I revved our engines, I engaged the clutch and… stalled my bike. Great! I immediately pushed the starter button and… silence. My battery was now dead, it had given up but we hadn’t. I kick started the bike furiously and it caught on the fifth or sixth kick and we were off.
With the bull facing to the right we rushed to the left side of the road and we were quickly past. Not happy with trespass, the bull immediately turned left and started chasing us! He followed for about 50 yards and then stopped. But in the end, I guess he felt had to show his bull chivalry and put on a show for the cows who had been watching.
With the bull dispatched, the next item on the agenda was to try to find a replacement battery for my KTM. I thought to myself, “Oh great, we’re out in the wilds of Mississippi. Where are we going to find a motorcycle shop and better still, one that is familiar with KTMs. As we trundled on, I resigned myself to kick starting my little KTM each time we stopped.
We hadn’t been back on the road for more than an hour when Kim called through the communicator, “Look on your left!” I didn’t see anything and motored on. She said “Turn around, there’s a KTM shop on the left!” Amazed, I said, “What? Did you say that there was a KTM shop?” “Yes!” somewhat loudly she responded, “turn around we’re going to pull in.”
I made a very rapid U-turn and sure enough, it was a combination farm store and motorcycle shop, complete with KTMs! I couldn’t believe our luck. I walked to the back of the store to the parts counter and asked them if they had a battery for a KTM 250XCF-w. Sure as heck, they did. They also had oil, filters and other miscellaneous parts that would come in handy. While I waited for the other parts I wanted, little did I know that Tracy had taken the battery, had it installed and I was ready to go. Wow, he had done that in the stifling heat and had never said a word about it. I was so grateful, I didn’t know what to say other than thank you. True friends are amazing. With a new battery in place, the bike fired right up and we were back on the road and hightailing it to our rest stop for the evening, a moored riverboat that was also a casino. The best part, only about $40 a night.
As we motored on towards the casino, we decided that the heat was too much and we needed to stop get into some air conditioning and quench our thirsts. We found a small roadside market and went inside. There we met some of the nicest people. One gentleman came over and sat down at our table and asked us where we were from. We told him a little about our trip and he told us about himself, his family and his farm. I was a great little chat, and I think he wanted to invite us over to his house for dinner, but just couldn’t get that part out.
It was just as well, as we’d walked into the market, there on the counter were two large gallon jars filled with picked pigs lips and pickled pigs feet. Help yourself. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to try that delicacy. But others had enjoyed it because both jars were only partially filled.
Having had a nice chat and cooled of in the air conditioning, we walked outside once again into the thick and muggy air. Kim was just finishing off her Coke when she decided that her “cool vest” had dried out. These vests are made to cool by being immersed in water and then as you move through the air, the water evaporates and cools you. “No worries”, I said, and quickly readied my hydration system to cool Kim off. One of the nice things about my hydration system is that it keeps the water fairly cold, especially when it had been filled to the brim with ice cubes that morning.
Before she could say anything, I had the hydration system going and ice cold water was shooting out at her. At first I don’t think she knew what to do. Be angry or be happy that she was being sprayed with ice cold water. Luckily for me, she liked it more than the initial shock and ultimately asked me to spray her all over. But I must tell you, when the water first hit her, her expression was priceless. Surprise, dread and relief all at the same. I was a wonderful sight and one that Tracy caught on film. It is one of my keepsakes from the trip that she and I now both enjoy.
A couple of hours later, we were pulling into the parking lot with our dusty and dirty little machines. We parked in front and went inside to the front desk outside of the casino. After about 15 minutes, we had our rooms and headed to the bikes to get our gear. We asked the doorman where we should put our bikes and he said, “Leave them right there, We’ll keep an eye on them for you.” Wow, we’d never been treated like that and after gathering our gear to go to our rooms, we left the filthy bikes next to the sparkling clean limousines. What a great scene!
Even better was our walk to our rooms. To get there, we had to walk through the casino. With people sitting at tables and at slots, we “moseyed” our way though. Some people were dressed to the nines and we had our own attire. Dusty riding pants and pressure suits were our wardrobe and they created a bit of a surreal picture. I just had to stop to take a picture of Kim. It came out wonderfully with Kim’s bright smile and dusty gear providing an amazing contrast to the well dressed people, flashing lights and ringing bells.
We’d had a long day, and it was time to turn in for a good nights rest. For tomorrow, we would make our way into Arkansas and start another hot humid day on the TAT.
With Tracy’s pannier repaired we were once again underway on the TAT. The day had been filled with enchantment and excitement and we wondered what other treats the TAT could drum up on this day. It wasn’t long before we would get a taste of some of the twists and turns of the TAT. Literally.
We found ourselves on a gravel road somewhere in Tennessee. The joy of travel sort of overwhelmed us and we just decided to go the way we thought we should be going instead of taking the time to properly assess where we were. What else could happen on this day’s journey? As the TAT wandered and snaked its way westward, we found that it still had a few tricks.
As we made our way, I guess we zigged when we should have zagged. Suddenly we seemed to be making a lot of turns when the route sheet said we should have been going straight. We had become wanderers instead of travelers and that was ok with us. Winding roads changed from gravel to asphalt and back to gravel. Soon we were pretty much lost but we were having fun.
We guessed where we were and turned left onto a gravel road. Shortly thereafter, we came upon a wooden bridge without guardrails of any kind and we decided it was worth a try. Boards laterally placed on beams comprised the base with with three rows of boards running along its length for each tire track. It was an easy crossing of a lazy stream and it sort of represented the kind of day we were now having. Easy going. We thought, what the heck let’s go and see where it led.
The road snaked through a short section of forest and then into an open field. Soon we found ourselves at a farm house with a gate at the end of the road. Wow, we had not been on a road, but we had been riding someone’s long driveway! A woman came out of the house and made it clear that we were on her property and she’d like us to leave.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
We said we were sorry for trespassing on her property and soon she calmed down. We told her we were riding the TAT and told her a little about it. She said that we weren’t the only ones to ride down her driveway without permission and asked us to tell all those TAT riders that they should keep off her property. Well I guess we weren’t that far off course then. All those TAT riders on her property? We must not be that far off course then. We finalized our apologies and rode back the way from which we had come.
Soon we were back on the trail and going in the right direction. The roads were good to excellent and we were once again having a lot of fun, wicking it up a bit through some pretty rural areas. Tracy and Mary Lee had the need for speed more than Kim and I did and soon we had nothing but their dimming dust trail to follow.
But Kim and I were not worried, we knew they would stop and wait for us at some intersection ahead. We were enjoying ourselves and took our time dawdling along. The road was covered with a thin layer of pea gravel on top of some very hard dirt. Not super challenging, but enough to make the bike move around underneath you a bit. Kim was doing great and she was merrily chugging her way along and I was just as happy to follow in her wake and take in the sights.
About ten minutes after we lost sight of them, we once again found Tracy and Mary Lee. Tracy’s bike was facing the wrong way, parked in a shallow ditch at the side of the road. Mary Lee’s bike was on the correct side of the road but sat in the middle of her travel lane. The two of them stood standing at the side of the road and they looked like they were in conference. They stood shoulder to shoulder, looking across the road hands gesturing as if explaining some exciting event.
Kim pulled over and stopped beside them both. I on the other hand went past them and pulled off to the side of the road and walked back towards them. Now I could see that Kim was in discussion with Tracy and MaryLee. All were animatedly chatting at a level that did not allow me to hear what was being said. When I arrived at the group, they told me that MaryLee had just crashed but was OK. That’s strange, I thought to myself. Mary Lee’s bike is parked on the road and Tracy’s bike is in the ditch, but MaryLee crashed? Hmm….
They proceeded to tell us the whole story. It was a minor crash and Mary Lee’s bike had escaped mostly unscathed. The bike and MaryLee had only picked up a few scratches in the incident. The only remnants of her fall were some shallow gouges in the pea gravel.
I was amazed at Mary Lee’s enthusiasm. She had just crashed and was relating the incident more like a war story than something that had just happened. One thing we learned about MaryLee, she did not do anything half way. She either went for it all out, or didn’t do it.
It turned out that she too had her own little secret (to me anyway). MaryLee is the first Woman’s Downhill Bicycle World Champion and she knows how to ride bikes (obviously)! She was also an Olympic Nordic skier and has retained her competitive spirit and drive throughout her life. Every time Tracy wicked it up a bit, MaryLee was right on his tail, on all sorts of terrain. Her spirit is indeed impressive, but she was fairly new to motorcycling and at the speeds she sometimes traveled at, I feared for her safety during parts of the ride.
But Mary Lee was unfazed from her little get off and she was raring to go. All that was left of her crash was a small spattering of pea gravel and some marks in the road. She was ready to go and so were we. So once again, we hopped aboard our little machines and headed toward new trails.
The TAT was once again going to deliver special sights, sounds and smells. The trail squirmed and twisted its way southward leading us towards Mississippi. With the southerly turn, the temperature started to soar even higher. It was well over 100 degrees F, and the humidity was unbearable. It became apparent that we would soon need to stop to hydrate and rest.
Passing through a small town, we arrived at the Olive Hill Store. Inside it was cool so we purchased some drinks and decided to stay a while. The proprietors for the day were a pair of 16-17 year olds talking about things that kids their age discuss, while apparently running the store. Soon a friend of theirs came in and the two girls talked about their friends while their male acquaintance passed judgment on the girls friends. It seems that small towns are the same the world over, people just being people.
After our brief respite, we returned to the bikes for some more heat, humidity and amazing sights. Riding along, it soon became apparent we were getting to places where not many people go and time slows down. It seemed we were going back in time and we were willing time travelers to this very special part of the TAT.
A narrow gravel road greeted us shortly after we got back on the TAT. Sunlight beamed through the trees and lit a sparkling path before us. It was like nature was putting on a little light show for us, egging us on to go further and faster along the TAT. The beauty and the excitement got the best of all of us but Tracy and I were the first to succumb to the enticing TAT. It sparkled our eyes and whispered to us sweetly. Enjoy this as much as you can for it may not be here forever.
For a short while, Tracy and I apparently lost our minds and we raced along, dust rising in our trail with the sun flashing through the green canopy like a golden strobe light. It was a mesmerizing environment and somehow time stopped. We had become as one with our surroundings. I knew we were moving at a rapid pace but the sense of speed was gone. The feel from my fishtailing bike in the soft gravel only made me feel more part of the environment. As the bike slowly swayed back and forth beneath me, I imagined being part of a school of fish. I followed the swaying tail of the bike in front of me, and sped forward trying to keep up with my fellow school member on a stream of gravel, not water. I knew something was propelling me. It was not fins, but the fire from within the bike as well as the fire inside me. Ultimately we came to a “T” in the road where we were forced to stop and the magic moments were no more. But we both exchanged knowing smiles, we both knew that we had been enchanted by this particular section of the TAT. The ladies of our group, apparently much smarter than us, caught up to us at the T junction. Tracy and I just smiled but I know the ladies knew we had been enchanted and our little escapade was a joyous event for Tracy and I. We sat at the junction for a brief time and told MaryLee and Kim how much fun we had just had.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Our little jaunt over, it was time to get going. As we rode the narrow gravel, we started seeing the first signs of water crossings. Small slabs of concrete had been poured over narrow creek beds. Most were less than 100 feet wide with a one inch deep flow of water lazily crossing half the width of the concrete. We straight lined most of them and before long, we got cocky. Once again, we started enjoying ourselves and Tracy and MaryLee quickly vanished into the distance while Kim and I dawdled along enjoying the green canopy that surrounded us.
I had almost forgotten about the our travelling companions when we rounded a corner and started down an incline. There in front of us lay Tracy’s bike on its side. A downtrodden looking couple stood and gazed down at the machine which seemed to be taking a nap in the very shallow water. It was a sorry sight. They both stood there for a while, a bit dazed about the whole event.
Tracy, a veteran rider of more than 30 years fell off his bike in less than an inch of water? How could that happen? I quickly got my answer as I stopped and dismounted my bike to assist. As I hurried over to them, I stepped into the tiny stream and almost ended on my backside. This was no ordinary water crossing. This water crossing was over a layer of stone, not concrete. An on that stone was an almost invisible very slippery and slimy algae. No wonder Tracy fell off! I have walked on skating rinks in my shoes before and I can honestly say that this rock was far more slippery.
Now the three of us stared at Tracy’s stricken machine while Kim stood at the side of the crossing taking pictures. For posterity! Surely three of us could easily pick up a 650cc motorcycle! But it was not to be. Each time we reached down to pick it up, we started scrambling for footing. This algae was slimy! So in a concerted and coordinated manner we proceeded to pick the bike up. After a couple of tries, we were able to get it back on two wheels. Now all we had to do was push it across the water crossing.
Very carefully, the three of us slowly pushed the bike to the opposite side of the water crossing. We decided that we had better get the other three bikes across as well. So Tracy and I agreed that we would take the ladies’ bikes across the water crossing ourselves. It wasn’t that the ladies were not good riders, it was the thought of either of them going down on this slippery rock would not be pleasant. But how to do it?
Riding with legs outstretched like outriggers, Tracy slowly rode MaryLee’s bike across. Then it was my turn, first Kim’s machine and then mine. But it must have been a real sight watching two middle aged men taking the bikes across the crossing. With only an inch of water, we must have looked like we were 4 year old beginners. It was not a difficult task, but it sure was a slow one.
When we had all four bikes across, it was time to inspect Tracy’s bike for damage. His right pannier was damaged significantly. It was bent backwards and downwards and its perfect rectangular shape was now a very interesting trapezoid. The lid lay hanging at the side of the pannier but it had retained its shape. Once we flipped the lid over the top of the pannier, two separate gaping isosceles triangles appeared under the lid leaving the contents of the pannier in the elements.
We would have to make a field fix if Tracy was to be able to use his pannier for the remainder of the trip. I got out my toolkit, but there wasn’t really anything that would help this mangled pannier. So we’d have to improvise and improvise we did. We roamed the area and found a fist size rock. That ought to do the trick I thought as Tracy prepared to do his best McGyver impersonation.
With a little pounding and tugging, we were able to get the pannier to be rectangular enough to be able to close the lid with the assistance of some good old duct tape. That stuff is great for everything!
After about an hour at and on the side of the trail, Tracy’s pannier was sealed and we were once again on the TAT motoring towards the evenings destination. Little did we know it but we were to have another challenge that day and let me say that this challenge was no bull!
The following morning, the sun rose quickly and immediately heated the muggy air to a grey haze. We finished a quick breakfast and headed out to the TAT once again. We were quickly back on the TAT and were greeted by narrow twisting roads under a lush green canopy from the surrounding trees. The traffic was non-existent leaving us to enjoy the swoopy corners and somewhat cooler air.
Again I was riding at the tail of the group, and clouds of dust rose from the gravel track. But it didn’t diminish the pleasure that the TAT was gifting to us. I watched from the back of the pack as Tracy faded into the distance and MaryLee and Kim played a kind of moto tag with each other. MaryLee would lead the way and Kim would sprint up to her until the dust began to get too heavy and faded back. I was enjoying the playful component of the ride immensely.
But after about an hour, the verdant canopies began to part and we found ourselves in farm country. Green fields contrasted with golden fields of grain. As we rode along, we saw evidence that the locals were working the fields to get the crops of grain in. We were used to seeing the huge plastic rolls of hay that are widely seen in New England. But the stacks we were seeing were vastly different.
Small piles were neatly stacked along side each other. The stacks consisted of what appeared to be individually bound bundles tossed in opposing directions making for a tightly bundled and geometrically shaped pile. We had never seen stacking like this and to us, it didn’t seem to be prepared by the large farm equipment that roams some of the fields back home. But something was stacking these small works of art dotting the fields. Who or what could be doing it?
It wasn’t long before we got our answer. As we turned from one small road onto another, there in a field directly in front of us was a pair of beautiful harnessed draft horses. As draft animals, they were huge and they dwarfed their owner who stood close by. Clad in jeans and a shirt topped off by a large brimmed black hat, a young Amish man watched as we approached and ducked down seemingly trying to hide. So it was him who had been making these beautiful stacks of grain.
Tracy stopped to take a picture and the farmer insisted that he not to take one, so as requested, Tracy put away his camera, said hello and rode off. As we continued our way through the county, it became clear that we were in fact in an Amish enclave. Good sized farms were all about but suddenly I noticed something a bit odd. At the roadside, there were no telephone poles and no wires running into the farms. They had no electricity!
Kim’s uncle is a farmer and we know how hard and thankless a job farming can be. Many, many hours are spent in the fields trying to bring a crop in and/or taking care of the animals. It has to be one of the most difficult and exhausting jobs in the world. And then it dawned on me. As difficult as it was to be a farmer, they often use electricity and power tools to accomplish the day’s tasks. Now take away the electricity and all the power tools and you have the life of an Amish farmer. It makes you think about how committed those people are to their beliefs. Forsaking even the most rudimentary of power equipment, they still carry on the difficult day’s work without complaint. It truly is an amazing act of faith to maintain such a life.
It also made me think about the little works of art that were the grain piles. No farm equipment making 10 foot rolls of hay were being used. The Amish used their own two hands and made each bundle individually. When you looked at the size of some of the fields, I felt a deep admiration for those people who toil so hard, while the tools to make their lives easier went unused. Their faith was their tool and they used it well to maintain a hard but appreciated life. Witnessing this, I thought to myself that to be Amish, you have to be a very stout person. Very stout indeed.
The enclave was fairly large and it took us about 10 minutes to pass through it. Along the way, we passed one of their well known plain black buggies. Pulled by a single horse, the buggy made its way along the road, with its lantern headlights and tail lights. Two women sat in the buggy, one middle aged and another old. I could just make out their black clothes and bonnets as I rode by.
It made quite a contrasting scene. Immediately in front of me were two women in a single horse drawn wooden carriage. While just ahead, I could see two women riding on small horses of steel and aluminum that far eclipsed the power of the larger single horse buggy. Riding through this little enclave, really helped me put things into perspective and open my eyes to a different way of life. A way of life that could be more physically demanding, but for them, more meaningful.
Soon after passing the buggy, once again the fields started to fade and we found ourselves traveling through very sparsely populated land. The road narrowed and the trees closed in. The road was now barely large enough to fit a single car, but it was nice to be in the shade at times. What structures there were on this road were very old and most abandoned. Wooden planks of siding sagged from the buildings, age having long since taken the remnants of colorful paint away. But in their grey hued glory, they told a story of remote living and of farms that had long since come and gone.
We lazily dawdled along in the oppressive heat under the canopy of green leaves and grey branches. At times, the gravel road gave way small concrete water crossings an inch or two deep. At first they were no more than 50 feet across, but they soon got wider and more treacherous. You might ask how a couple of inches of water might constitute a treacherous hazard. How could water on a hard surface only one or two inches deep cause any problems? We’ll talk about that in the next chapter.
We knew that to find some cool air we’d have to get off the TAT for a while. So we found the nearest paved road and hightailed it towards the nearest town. Along the way we found a small marina perched on the side of a narrow green river. A dirt parking lot greeted us with a single large willow tree drooping in the heat. We parked the bikes under its branches to get out of the sun.
As we walked towards the marina, the river’s yellowish green water sluggishly churned under an old rusted metal railroad bridge. The water looked to be moving as slow as we were, both of us slowly making our way towards our final destinations. We walked towards the marina boat house hoping to find somewhere to could cool off. Unfortunately there weren’t any apparent public areas. The few people at the marina looked at us but didn’t utter a word. We must have been quite a sight in our dusty, sweaty gear with our riding pants open at every vent. We smiled at the people, said hello but other than a short hi, there was no other response. It was clear that this place wasn’t going to provide us a respite from the heat so we returned to the bikes and got under way again.
Luckily for us, about 5 miles down the road, we came to a small gas station with a little restaurant and… air conditioning! We were elated. Kim and I needed fuel, but the cool air beckoned and we just couldn’t wait to get inside. We almost immediately ripped our gear off and rushed towards the restaurant. It was one of those 3 Stooges moments, each of us racing to get our gear off and looking at each other. Who was going to make it into the cool air first? If we had all gotten to the door at the same time, I could have seen me pulling Tracy backwards while I clawed at the door while just as I got to the threshold, MaryLee would jump on my shoulders knocking me to the ground and plunge for the entry way… until Kim would have grabbed MaryLee by her ankle and pulled her from the entry. And so it would continue until one of us had established our supremacy and fell through the door with a triumphant yell with the others hot on their heels.
Once inside, it was literally a breath of fresh air. Cold air blew from not one, but two air conditioners. So cold that Kim got goosebumps from being chilled; she was quite happy with that result. As we surveyed the rest of the scene, we found pure country. The gas station part of the store had all the little things that a local small town family owned store might have for its residents. Gum, fishing lures, comic books, pliers, firewood; you name the little market had it.
The restaurant was even better. The walls were covered with farm implements and the tools of farming. Fastened to the wall just above our table was a horse collar that had been converted into a mirror. Next to it was an empty feed bag and next to that were a couple of scythes. It was just a wonderful mix of eclectic farming implements used to make the place feel like all were welcome. It was a terrific place to stop.
Settled at our table, we read from a paper menu filled with down home items like meatloaf with gravy, hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches, potato salad, fries and chips and the like. There was no fancy stuff here, just comfort food. Having been cooled off, we were ready to eat. No sooner than we sat down, than almost as by magic a waitress appeared and took our order. Our requested food arrived in what seemed like no time and we got down to the business of eating.
By now we were very hungry and ready to shovel the tasty food down. But in this cool air, none of us was in a rush to finish and get back into the heat and humidity. We even took the time to order and eat dessert! By the time we were done, our 30 minute lunch had turned into an hour and a half meal. Ultimately we could delay no longer, and we ventured back out into the heat.
Once outside, we returned to our bikes and the girls decided that they’d had enough of the heat for the day. A suggestion was made to leave the TAT for the rest of the day and head towards the hotel at all due speed. Normally, we’d want to spend as much time on the gravel as possible, but in these conditions, no-one objected.
As we prepared to mount our bikes, Kim found that she had a visitor and it looked like he wanted to get a drink too. A three inch wide moth walked his way over the top of Kim’s gear and nestled himself (or herself) up against Kim’s water bottle. It looked like he was settling in for the ride and slaking his thirst before we departed. We tried to give him a little motivation to be on his way but he decided he wasn’t going anywhere but with us. Ultimately, we had to remove the little guy by hand and send him on his way so we could get started towards the hotel.
Moth removed, we put on our gear and went to fuel up the bikes. As we pulled up to the pumps, we noticed a small handwritten cardboard sign inside the pump proclaiming NO ETHANOL. Wow, no ethanol! In the US, no ethanol fuel is quite a find and is non-existent where we live in New Hampshire. So with our small tanks, Kim and I proceeded to fill our bikes to the brim with the undiluted high octane fuel. Little did we know that this one decision would have grave consequences on our ability to finish our TAT journey.
During lunch we had decided that we would take the shortest route back to the hotel due to the heat and humidity. Once again it would be all pavement to the hotel at this late time of day. But some fun times would still be had before we arrived at our evening’s destination.
Although it was really, really hot, we were having fun on the lonely twisting roads. We were not on powerful bikes, but it was still a joy to be on a lightweight machine swooping back and forth, playing with and on the curves. Speeds and spirits were high until I rounded a corner and saw the unmistakable markings of a police cruiser. I was about to grab the brakes but just beyond the cruiser sat another car parked next to the cruiser. It was an orange Dodge Charger with Confederate stripes on the roof.
Wait a minute, flashed through my head, that’s not a real cruiser. As I got closer, it was clear that it was not a real cruiser and the Charger was a replica of the General Lee from the old TV show Dukes of Hazzard. Cool!!! For this, I had to stop and the rest of the gang stopped to let me take pictures. I was never a big fan of the TV show, but both replicas were really well done and I had to get a few pictures. I placed the bike in front of both cars and snapped a couple of pictures as a remembrance of this nice chance encounter.
It was soon time for us to get underway and once again fortune smiled down on us. Our route would take us across the Natchez Trace. A brand new smooth ribbon of asphalt twisting through a forest. It was a two lane road with broad grass shoulders that made the whole road seem like a ride through a carefully manicured park. The road was virtually deserted and once again we had a chance to play on the curves of the road without any traffic. The heat of the day was almost forgotten as we swooped our way through lazy open sweepers, our group snaking lazily through the woods.
Once again I was tail end Charlie, but this time I wasn’t eating any dust and I was really enjoying the views as we made our way towards our hotel for the evening. Even though we were on the pavement for another hour and a half, the time literally flew by and before we knew it we had arrived at our hotel for the evening. We’d need to clean up a bit before dinner, but all of us were happy with what we’d done and where we’d been on this day.
Tomorrow would be another hot day, but we were undeterred, we were having a great time and with the next sunrise, we’d be on gravel most of the day. We were psyched and with a little rest, we’d be ready to attack the TAT once again.
Our brief night’s sleep was followed by a morning dawn of bright blue sky. Although the sun had set on our first day’s ride, the heat of the previous day had never broken. I stuck my head out the hotel door to sample the temperature and immediately a wall of heat and humidity streamed into the room. It was already sweltering.
I walked back into the room and I guess that my face told the story. Kim just looked at me and said “It’s sweltering isn’t it?” I gave her the look that said yes and she smiled and just started to get ready to ride for the day. We both stared at our dusty riding gear laying on a chair across from the bed. Neither of us really wanted to put on all that gear in the sweltering heat.
But the TAT was calling and the longer we waited, the higher the temperature would climb. So we put on our dusty gear and headed out for the day. Tracy and MaryLee were ready and we wasted little time in getting underway. A quick stop to pick up some fuel and a little meddling with the GPS and we were soon on the TAT.
After only about 15 minutes on pavement, we were once again back on the gravel of Tennessee passing verdant fields and small family farms. On today’s ride we would not see any of the massive commercial farms, only those run by enclaves of dedicated families who tilled the earth to bring us the food we eat each day. As we rode, proud but weary buildings told stories of those people who toiled each day to scratch a living from the earth. Some once proud very large barns had now given their all and leaned precariously or fell completely under the sweltering sun. Patches of once bright paint clung to the barn board that was now grey with age and withered with time.
Trucks from the 1950s and 1960s with their dulled paint and pieced together bodies sat side by side with newer expensive dual wheeled, closed cockpit air conditioned tractors. Each of these tools had its role, and each would be used until it could no longer give any more. Then like an old animal, it would be put out to pasture to lay in the sun, watching the seasons pass until it was no more.
We were only in this farmland for a couple of hours but with each passing farm scene I could see that each was but a chapter in the very beautiful story of how nature and man are inextricably intertwined. Viewing them made me feel very small and the world very large. Having taken all this in, I was awed by how unbelievably important our farmers are to us and how little we think of them and fail thank them each day.
It was now getting hotter with both the earth the riders baking in the sun. It was time to do something to get some relief. Anticipating some heat, Kim and I had brought cool vests for extreme heat. It was now or never and we put them to good use. Cool vests are vests that you wet down and then wear close to your body. As you move through the air, the vest retains the water but allows a small amount to evaporate cooling its wearer.
Both Kim and MaryLee were really suffering in the heat so I gave mine to MaryLee and Kim put hers on. Tracy and I could almost see immediately that the girls were more comfortable and the vests were doing their job. Under our riding gear, Kim and I were also wearing pressure suits. Pressure suits are like jackets made of mesh with molded in plastic armor. Not ideal for pavement but sufficient for gravel roads. Kim and I decided that we would offload our jackets and ride with the pressure suit as our jackets. Anything to get some cooling air past our bodies.
Lighter and somewhat cooler than when we started the day, we rode along taking in the farms and the green countryside. As we rounded a corner we approached a barn with a pond in front. Not unusual you might think, and as to barn there was nothing unusual. It was the pond that was a bit different. Inside the pond, a big black blob appeared to be moving slowly back and forth. What the heck could that be I thought to myself and as we got closer, we found that it was not a rock. It was something far more interesting. It was black with small splotches of white… and it was furry. It was a cow standing belly high in the pond.
As we approached and ultimately passed, the cow looked at us impassively and merely got back to the business of cooling off. Now I didn’t feel so bad. No I wasn’t a wuss, no sir. It was so hot that the cows were standing in the ponds to cool off. That my friends is pretty hot. Even though she had a leather jacket on, I did not give her any credit. Some of us were out riding in the heat, and others of us were simply lounging around in their natural pools.
We continued riding gravel and found ourselves somewhat lost. The TAT isn’t always that well marked and sometimes you just have to make a decision to go one way or the other until you can find the next section. So as we mosey-ed along, we came to another gravel road that could have been the right one for this segment of the TAT. The girls were pretty hot so Tracy and I went on ahead and scoped out the possible turn. What we found was pretty cool.
We rode a section of rather loose rocky gravel enclosed by trees. Branches of all sizes littered the road and there were some tree falls partially blocking the road as well. We rode around the tree falls and branches enjoying the somewhat cooler air in the trees. Ultimately, we ended up at a locked swinging gate that was supposed to barricade us from a wooden topped dam. We could ride around the swinging gate, but at the other end of the dam was a tall chain link fence that we could not get around.
I walked across the dam taking some pictures of the dam itself and an apparent power station. It must have been overly dry or they must not have needed the energy because although one side of the dam was full of water, the lee side of the dam was mostly dry. A mostly dry river bed ran to an impressive building and large array of power lines, but no water was churning any generators. It was a bit strange seeing all that engineering sitting idle while the supply of water it needed to produce electricity sat on the opposite side of the dam waiting its turn to go rushing through the generators and empty out into the river below.
Time passed very quickly during my little dam inspection and when I returned to the meet with the rest of the gang, it was clear that Kim was really suffering from the heat. She was all flushed and she literally had to sit down to keep her head clear. It was time to get into some cooler air pronto, so after we had plied Kim with water and recharged her cooling vest, we got under way to find some cool air and some food for our road worthy women.
The increasing heat and humidity turned the once bright blue skies and surrounding air to shades of grey. A murky haze surrounded us completely; so dense it appeared to be making everything sweat. Little did we know it at the time, but each of the pictures we would take this day would have a washed out, grey hue.
Our initial riding section was to be through some dirt country lanes. Plumes of dust were hurled skyward by each bikes tires. Dust clouds slowly rose and as each bike passed, the dust became more intense. As the fourth out of four riders, visibility was greatly reduced but it still didn’t dim my excitement about riding the TAT.
Our environment was beautiful. Trees surrounded us from both sides and overhead. We continued our ride thinking that the more we rode under the leafy canopies overhead, the cooler it would become. But the heat was unrelenting and even as we rode in the shade, the temperature and humidity continued to rise. I opened all the vents on my lightweight Goretex off-road gear, I an attempt to get some cooling air. However, as the tail end Charlie of our group, the vents only let in the dust which rapidly transformed from its airborne state to a muddy goo inside the suit. It was truly damned if you do or damned if you don’t situation.
It was beginning to become quite uncomfortable, but we were there to ride and we wanted to get the most from our adventure. It just so happened that at this moment,the adventure was becoming more difficult. So we continued our ride in the stifling heat and humidity taking brief stops here and there to drink some cool water.
As we were approaching one of those stops, I think the heat got to me. Tracy, MaryLee and Kim had already pulled to the side of the road to have a drink and check the maps. For some reason, I took this as an opportunity to do a bit of a fly by. Coming off the corner and approaching the trio, I twisted the throttle and went flying by letting them eat a bit of my dust for a change. Wooo…. Hoooo…. I thought as I passed them all.
However, my victory pass would be very short lived. I turned the bike around and then pulled up behind them. I turned the bike off and started to dismount. As I alighted from the machine, I lost my balance and dropped the bike to the ground in an exceptional display of ineptitude. Marvelous. Sometimes the heat can do crazy things to you. I scrambled to pick the bike up as quickly as possible using my best, “I meant to do that” look, but nobody was buying it. They merely looked at me like an insolent little child and went back to cooling off and checking the map.
We decided it was time for some fuel, something to eat and the possibility for some air conditioning. So we made our way through the canopies at greater speed hoping that we would soon come across a suitable stopping place. After about an hour, we found a small gas station with an attached mini-mart and restaurant. We had struck gold. We pulled in and fueled up quickly. We rolled our bikes away from the fuel pumps and quickly shed our outer riding gear.
Just as we were heading into the restaurant, a group of bikes pulled in, then another and still another. We had arrived at a bike rally of sorts. All different types of bikes were represented. From sports bikes to cruisers to our dual sports bikes, they were all there. We stopped and chatted about various topics and the types of bikes we were riding. We would have chatted with everyone, but not everyone was human. One of the riders had as his passenger, his small dog complete with goggles and skull cap. It was a great meeting of riders on diverse types of machines. But they were only there for fuel and while standing in the sun the heat was intense. Before we knew it, they were all on their way.
Our conversations completed and wilting from the heat, it was time for cool air and some food. We quickly made our way inside and the cool air was amazing. As I stood looking at the menu, I realized how hot it really was. Finally clear of all the covering gear, sweat poured from my head and into my eyes. My under layer shirt was totally soaked and I could feel the rivulets of sweat pouring down my back and into my pants. Being inside seemed only to intensify my awareness of how hot I had been. I thought to myself that I might be eating this meal very slowly to extend the time I had in the cool dry air. I didn’t want to hold everyone up, but I was really, really hot.
I needn’t have worried though. As we sat at the table together eating our sandwiches, we exchanged knowing looks that indeed all of us were feeling the effects of the heat and sun. There were only 40 trail miles left to go on the day’s ride, but we each knew it was 40 miles of dust, gravel, sun and heat that none of us wanted to continue in. The temperature was well over 100 degrees and the humidity was unbearable.
We decided that although we probably only had about two more hours of trail riding to go, we’d stick to the pavement and head straight to our hotel and air conditioning. Once we had eaten our sandwiches and hydrated ourselves, we put our gear back on and made for the hotel in Crossville, Tennessee. There would be no gravel roads on this final leg, just smooth pavement where we could maximize our speed and reduce our exposure to the heat.
Thus ended our first full day on the TAT. We had enjoyed our introduction, but we were rapidly learning that the TAT commanded respect in all aspects. We’d been taught respect for the roads and trails, as well as environment in which we rode. We knew that the TAT would provide some challenges, but we’d underestimated all of the types of challenges that the TAT could throw at us. We were now well schooled, and with new awareness we readied ourselves for day two.
We packed the truck quickly, cramming in all our gear and loading the two little KTMs into the bed of our little truck. The passenger compartment had three occupants, one more than would be riding the TAT. For the journey to Tennessee, we had Kim’s dad Dick along for the ride. Dick would drop us off and then drive the truck back to New Hampshire after stopping to meet some relatives along the way. It was a great deal. Dick got some someone to chat and keep company with on the way down (and past) and we got free transportation of the truck back to New Hampshire. It was a win/win situation for us both
Finally, we were ready to depart for Tennessee. The pressure associated with the decisions surrounding the extra fuel tanks was over since it the design was done and anyway, we would have to live with it at this point. The mood in the truck was pretty light as we all looked forward to things to come. Kim and I could hear the TAT calling and Dick was ready to have a visit with the relatives.
The trip to Tennessee was pretty straight forward with no real issues. As we made our way south, we passed through some areas that had just been struck by tornadoes and the damage looked pretty severe. Light posts were bent at odd angles, house were leveled or portions were in shambles. It gave us pause to think how lucky we are not to not usually have to worry such destructive displays of mother nature. We may get the odd blizzard or two or lose power for a while, but at least our house would still be standing after the blizzard had passed.
We stopped along the way for some Bar-B-Que at a roadside stand and it was good. We thought we must be getting closer to the south because you sure can’t get good Bar-B-Que in the north-east. At about 7:00 P.M. we decided to call it quits on the driving for the day and got a cheap hotel. Up early the next morning, we were raring to go. The TAT awaited! We quickly checked out and got back to the truck. Good, there were still two bikes in the back, so we were good to go. Soon back on the highway, we watched as we scooted past towns, rest areas and truck stops. The music was on, there was some light chat and we were feeling good.
In case you don’t know it, if you’d like to see any of these pictures in full size, simply click on one and you will be taken to a full size gallery where you can page by each picture you’d like to view.
Before we knew it was lunch time and we needed to stop to get fuel. Off at an exit that promised fuel, we found a mini-mart type gas station. In scorching heat, I filled the truck up and as I was looking around, spotted this most amazing sign. A smiling chubby pink pig in a chef’s hat leapt about and beckoned to us. His recommendation, the Sweet Lips Diner; Come In & Pig Out!
Well, this we had to see. Once the truck was fueled, we headed just down the road a bit and there it was. A long diner like you’d expect to see in a rural area. A dirt parking lot surrounded it and it was packed. We took that as a good omen and headed inside. We were seated at wooden tables and served home cooked Bar-B-Que. What do you know, the pig was right, the food was good and there was plenty of it. We stuffed ourselves on the great Bar-B-Que and waddled our way to the door. Our next stop would be Jellico and our long planned meeting with Tracy and MaryLee.
Back in the truck the time flew by. Before we knew it, we had made it. Just up ahead was the exit sign for Jellico, Tennessee and the hotel where we would meet Tracy and MaryLee. We pulled off and there it was, our hotel for the evening, the meeting place and our departure point for our TAT journey. It sat at the top of a small hill and as we pulled up the driveway, we saw two bikes. Both with Alaska plates, Tracy and MaryLee were in the house!W
We registered at registration desk and picked up our keys. As we were unpacking our gear, out came Tracy and MaryLee. They were a great sight. We hadn’t seen them in almost two years and here they were, ready to ride with us again on another adventure. We were psyched. We hugged and shook hands and had all the banter that good friends have when they haven’t seen each other in a while. The excitement of seeing them again was multiplied by the excitement of the upcoming TAT journey.
It was dinner time by the time we unpacked our gear and bikes from the truck and made it ready for packing on the bikes. There was time for a few “group” photos and sooner than we imagined, it was starting to get dark. Hunger overwhelmed excitement so we drove over to a small pizza joint and toasted our upcoming TAT journey with pizza and beer. The excitement was palpable and each of us was a bit giddy at the thought of starting the ride for real. We soon finished our dinner and headed back to the hotel. We wanted to get an early start so we called it an early evening and racked out for the night excited by the thought that by daybreak, we would be on the TAT.
When we awoke the following morning, it was already very hot; like 85+ degrees hot. You could cut the humidity with a knife and by the time the bikes were loaded, we were all somewhat overheated. I filled my hydration system with ice cubes and cold water and hoped that they would last for a while. I knew that water was going to be important.
We said our goodbyes to Dick and my little truck we were finally off. We took a leisurely pace and the first part of the morning was mostly on pavement. But as we wandered along, the sun rose and the air heated and stilted. The horizon turned grey with hanging moisture, and seemingly our bikes cut their own wakes through the murky moisture. It was as if we had an extra burden of pushing the laden air in front of us, each carving and then leaving our own wakes. The heat was growing so intense that in our full riding gear it was almost unbearable for these four northerners. We thought we might be somewhat unaccustomed to the southern humidity, but when we spoke to the locals, even they said it was overly hot. Boy did we pick a tough time to ride.
But as we entered the afternoon, things began to change to the better. We left the pavement and got onto gravel, a place where we all felt more at home. In addition, as we left the beaten track, we got into some wonderfully green and canopied lanes. Immediately the air was a bit cooler and we were shaded from the intensity of the direct sun.
Riding along was like being in a strobe lit verdant wonderland. Bright flashes of sun briefly blinded us to the terrain ahead. The view was then almost instantly replaced by wet, deep dark greens, soothing to the eyes and cooling to the body. We knew it was hotter than Hell, but with the show presented before us none of us wanted, or dared, to stop.
Time was indeed running out to complete our bike preparations. Two similarly colored red unbreakable fuel containers lay on the concrete. They were both supposed to be the same color but for some reason, one was bright red and the other was an organish red. From the cold concrete, they stared at me like non-identical twins, begging me to take them along for the ride. Oh well, at least we’ll be able to tell the two apart.
I was in a bit of a panic to get them on the bikes; but how? They were tall, slim and would be full of explosive gasoline. I searched the lines of the bikes to try to figure out where I would fit two fairly large odd shaped canisters on a very small bike. Normally, the back of the bike would be an ideal place for the fuel tanks, but that area would be consumed by our Giant Loop saddlebag crammed to the gills with our supplies for the trip. There was no way that they were going to go on the front. The front fender was only a couple of inches wide and lacked any real rigidity. Besides, that space was already taken up with our spare tubes and tire tools.
Where the heck was I going to put these absolute necessities? I thought about manipulating the bracket a bit to mount it low and on the side of the bike. But the right side was consumed with the exhaust and the exhaust exit. I wasn’t really keen on putting a fuel tank just forward of the hot exhaust and exhaust gasses. The left side was available, perhaps I could put it there, with the bracket hanging the tank over the left side. But the more I thought about it and looked at the actual position of the tank, the more I decided I didn’t like it. I did not like it one iota. As placed on the left side of the bike, it was in the perfect position to take the brunt of a fall. We would be riding on unknown (to us) terrain, so the likelihood of dropping the bike onto a rock or gravel and piercing the plastic tank was a fair possibility. I really wasn’t sure what to do.
I admit, I was stymied for a few moments. There really wasn’t any more space on the bike normally associated with where a fuel tank would be mounted. Anger began to boil inside me for having not thought through this issue earlier and also for not being able to solve it correctly now. It was one of those throw the wrench across the garage to feel better moments.
So as I stood in the garage, anger welling inside me, one of my fuel tank orphans stared at me from the concrete floor and the other waited patiently in my hand for a miracle solution. Unfortunately none seemed imminent and the phone rang. I put the tank I had in my hand on the tail of the bike and ran into the house to answer it. It was a call about my real job and that didn’t make my mood any better.
I finished the call as quickly as I could and hustled downstairs and into the garage. When I got there I found a sight that changed me altogether. There on the floor was the fuel tank that I had put on the back of the bike. Lying next to it, was the plastic cap of the fuel tank broken into two large pieces. I was mortified. My concern about mounting the tank anywhere a direct impact was likely, was correct. All I could then think about was Kim dropping the bike on the left side on a rock on the gravel. Fuel spraying all over from a broken cap or a split in the tank as Kim lay trapped under the bike. After seeing the cap lying on the garage floor in pieces, broken from a fall from about three feet on a non-moving bike, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t mount the tank on the side of the bike.
If we were going to bring the extra fuel, it was clear that some sort of drastic measures would be necessary. The tanks were designed to be used on ATVs and to be mounted upright. Hmm… Could I mount them upright just behind the seat but behind the Giant Loop saddlebag? It was this or nothing, and not having the extra fuel was out of the question. So I proceeded to mount the tank in an awkward position, high but in the center of the bike furthest away from direct contact with the ground in the event of a drop or fall.
It looked ridiculous. Mounted straight up, rigid at full attention, the tank cried out for a better design. But there was none to be had in such a short period of time due to my inattention. Matched side by side, the two tanks stood on the bikes like sentries guarding the bikes and all the goods on them. I felt foolish. But it was the only way we were going to get extra fuel on the bike.
In case you don’t know it, if you’d like to see any of these pictures in full size, simply click on one and you will be taken to a full size gallery where you can page by each picture you’d like to view.
I showed the mounting set up to some of my friends and some rightly chided me for the installation. “I had to be kidding; Didn’t I know anything about center of gravity?” He was right, the extra fuel weight would be up high and reduce stability. But I did not have to fill the tanks completely to maintain a significant addition in range and in total the weight would be less than 15 pounds, tank and mount included.
Others offered non-tank solutions such as canteens filled with fuel held in panniers at the side of the front fuel tank or other similar suggestions, but I did not like other aspects of these suggestions and besides, we were out of time. We needed to get going, Tracy and MaryLee were already on the road and headed towards Jellico, Tennessee for our meeting.
It was time to load up the truck with our bikes and gear and head for Tennessee. We only two days to make it to Tennessee in the truck and a total of two weeks (including the two days in the truck) to make it from there to New Mexico. We’ll tell you how the trip went to Tennessee and the beginning of the ride in the next chapter.
One of the mainstays of R2ADV is to suggest that by riding motorcycles all over the planet, you have the opportunity to meet new and interesting people, share and learn a bit about each other. Well such is the genesis of our story to traverse of the Trans American Trail, better known as the TAT. This journey to cross most of America actually began at a lodge in Alaska near Mt. McKinley. We had made a quick stop for a bite to each and as we were walking back to our bikes, it was there that we met a couple who we had a wonderful conversation with.
They had seen the New Hampshire license plates on our loaded bikes in the parking lot and wanted to talk about how our journey had been. We chatted for about half an hour and told them that we often blogged about our trips if he wanted to see more. They were excited and the man of the couple said, “We have a friend that rides motorcycles and he would love to meet talk to you. Do you mind if we give him your email address?” We said that we’d be happy to correspond with this new to be friend and the couple took our email address and left.
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A couple of days later, sure enough I received an email from Tracy, the person the couple had mentioned. He said that he lived in Alaska and he would like to meet if we had the time. We responded that we would be happy to meet and that one of our stops would be for an adventure riders gathering in Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon. Tracy said that he might be going as well and he’d try to find us there.
To make a very fun story short (you can read all about it in our ride story: Alaska – Gravel, Grandeur & Goofy Grins found elsewhere on this site) We met Tracy as we literally first got off our bikes in Dawson City. We had stopped at the visitor center to use the facilities and as we dismounted, a man approached us and said, “Are you Kim and Mike?” Tracy had found us and we had found him. We spent 2 days in Dawson City and then a full day with both Tracy and his wife MaryLee in their home town in Alaska, and we had a great time! We had made a great friendship that continues to this day.
Tracy and I continued to correspond to each other and tried to figure out ways that we could get together and ride. When the TAT ride was agreed upon as a mutual ride, we both set out to make preparations for our ride across much of America. Tracy and MaryLee would actually start from Toledo, Ohio and we would be starting from Jellico, Tennessee. The two couples would meet in Jellico and start our TAT ride from there. We picked early June to start our journey thinking that we would beat much of the well known midwest heat. Boy were we about to get a lesson in heat. But we’ll tell you much more about that later.
Making preparations for our trip consisted of a lot fun intertwined with moments of frustration and anger. We had decided to go “light” and take our two identical model KTM 250 XCF-w bikes upgraded for long distance travel. The thought was, if some of the terrain became difficult is much easier to manage a lightweight bike. In those instances where the terrain might cause a fall, we thought it much easier to pick up 250 pounds than 400 plus pounds.
So I set off to obtain the proper equipment and modify the bikes for the long ride ahead. Kim and I already had the majority of the gear necessary, we just needed some of the equipment that would be appropriate for a long distance journey on lightweight bikes intended for brief jaunts in the woods or single track, not on a 2,500 to 3,000 mile journey.
First to be purchased were the storage containers and for that we purchased some excellent Giant Loop saddlebag type panniers. I also installed some brush guards/hand protectors and sent the stock seats out to James Renazco at Renazco Racing to have them re-fitted for longer distances than the mostly stand up, sit down on occasion stock seats.
I also installed a couple of sturdier bash plates and road safety equipment such as mirror and horn so that we would be 50 state legal on those occasions where we were on public ways. To complete our retrofitting ensemble, I installed a couple of fender tool kits with tools and extra tubes and a GPS. Oh and Mr. Cotton, my mascot for most of our adventure rides jumped aboard as well and securely tied himself to the handlebars to keep an eye on me.
There, I thought we were ready to go. But about a week before the trip, one of my friends asked a fairly simple question. “What are you two going to do between fuel stops? I’ve heard it can be more than 200 miles between gas stations.” Drat! I thought I had thought about everything and this simple, but unbelievably important item had completely slipped my mind. Our little KTMs, although fuel sippers, had small fuel tanks and there was no way they would make it 200 miles between fill ups.
Thus began the quest to develop a standby fuel storage system for our two wheeled transportation. KTM did not make anything and even the aftermarket had nothing to fit the little KTMs. Double drat! So I went about my way to quickly find a portable fuel container to put on the bikes with less than a week before blast off. My head was spinning. There was little time for mail order and we needed whatever solution fitted on the bike and ready to go in less than a week.
I rooted through bike magazines and websites and all sorts of places where I thought I might find small fuel containers. Ultimately, I found a small plastic unbreakable 1.5 gallon fuel container with mount from an all terrain vehicle supplier. It was pretty much that or nothing for a factory engineered fix. I placed a rush order and got two of the containers and mounts. They arrived two days before we were set to leave and they needed to be installed in a way they were not originally intended to be. Yikes. Oh yeah, did I mention we both had day jobs to take care of as well?
I’ll tell you more about the install and the beginning of our journey in the next chapter.
For about six years now, Kim and I have been doing nearly all of our daily and adventure riding in an Aerostich 1 piece Roadcrafter suit. We thought that perhaps you’d like to know a bit about the suits themselves and how they’ve performed for us. The short answer is “remarkably well” with only a couple of reservations.
So let’s talk a bit about the suit itself. With its “armor” inserted, it’s big, fairly heavy, and at first not really easy to get on and off. Are you put off by this? You shouldn’t be, because here’s the complete story about the suit.
The suit is made of 500 Denier Cordura (i.e. heavy weight) which is highly abrasion resistant and which although not as abrasion resistant as leather, is pretty damn good. It’s also made of man’s single greatest accomplishment in textiles since the first diaper; Goretex. I am convinced that Goretex was a divine miracle of some sort. Water resistant (nearly water proof) and breathable, this fabric can keep water out and breathe (letting hot damp air out) at the same time. If you have ever ridden in the rain on a warm/hot day and you are wrapped in the sauna of an non-breathing rain suit, you know the miracle that Goretex represents. You stay dry and cool. Nice!
There are some bugaboos however. Downpours of greater than an hour or so will ultimately overcome the Goretex fabric and you will get wet. Light rain or drizzle for extended times can be handled without issue and you will stay dry. One issue that does occur on a hit or miss basis depending on the suit is what’s been known as “Aerocrotch”. After extended periods in the rain, water can accumulate in the crotch area of the suit and ultimately soak through leaving you with a wet crotch. It’s uncomfortable riding with a wet crotch and even more so when you arrive at your destination and you take off your suit with that “I just pee’d in my pants look.” Strangely, this doesn’t occur in all suits. I may have something to do with the fit of the suit. For example, I can get Aerocrotch, but Kim does not. Hmm….
I do note that Aerostich has redesigned the zippers of the one piece Roadcrafter suit and they claim the Aerocrotch issue has been solved. They are now offer retrofitting of old suits with new zippers and I was so satisfied with my suit that I sent mine in. Unfortunately, I still get Aerocrotch on occasion.
The suit has plenty of vents to let air in. One opens across the entire portion of your back and there is one under each arm that travels from mid-bicep to mid ribcage. There are also two hip vents just behind the hip pockets. As a result, as long as you are moving, you can get quite a bit of cooling air through the suit. Our experience has been that you can be comfortable in the suit as long as you are moving into the high 80s, low 90s. However, if you consistently must travel in a lot of stop and go traffic with temperatures in the high 80s or greater, you might want to seek another option.
A total of 4 large pockets are available as well as zippered pockets that allow access to your pants under the suit. You can carry just about anything you could possibly need in this suit. There are two velcro closable pockets on the thighs of the legs, a large zippered compartment on the chest, one on the left arm and two large pockets where pants pockets would normally be.
The neck and wrists are adjustable for size (and air flow) with velcro tabs. Options galore exist for the suit including clear map pockets for thigh, arm, made to specification sizing, extra comfort neck material. You should really go to their website at http://www.aerostich.com/roadcrafter-one-piece-suit.html to check out all the options.
After you learn how to put the suit on, it is really, really easy to get on and off. Literally, you can get the entire suit on or off in less than 30 seconds. Really. When you first get the suit, you feel very clumsy putting it on or taking it off, but as you learn how to get in and out, and the suit softens up (it is a bit stiff when you first get it – sort of like blue jeans) you’ll put the suit on or take it off just as fast as you take off all your other clothes. It really is that easy.
All in all, we really, really like these suits. They have served us very well in our travels all over the world including our rides on and off pavement. If you consistently ride in very hot temperatures in stop and go traffic, the regular Roadcrafter one piece suit is probably not for you. However, we note that Aerostich has come out with Roadcrafter Light and Ultralight suits that offer less abrasion and armor protection but are reportedly cooler and lighter weight. We have not tried either of these suits so we can not render an opinion on them. Oh and BTW, if you ever have a problem with the suit, or want it reconditioned (which we have done after abusing our suits for 5 years), Aerostich has fabulous customer service and will repair and refurbish its suits for a nominal charge. They offer the same service for crash damaged suits.
So what does this all boil to? If we were to use a star rating system, we would give the Aerostich Roadcrafter one piece suit 4.5 stars. We’ve seen a lot of suits and a lot of options, but the Aerostich Roadcrafter works best for us.
Having snaked our way up the side of Manic 5 we were underway for real on our TLH adventure. It had been a beautiful ride so far, but it had been an all pavement ride up to this point and we were really looking forward to a bit more challenging terrain to ride. We were about to experience some and find out what the TLH had in store for us.
As we made our way northward, the rain decreased in intensity and the low clouds began to lift a bit. We were able to see a bit more of our surroundings and enjoy the very green forests that encroached from all directions. The rain could do little to dampen our spirits as we soldiered on deeper into the forests of Labrador. Yes, we were really heading into the wilderness and we were loving it. The gravel road undulated and swooped up and down, sometimes with fairly steep grades. The gravel varied from hard packed to loose and piled, so we had to stay alert, but it was not hugely difficult riding. In fact, the rain was doing us somewhat of a favor and keeping the dust to zero.
After about two hours on the road and not a single car coming from the other direction, we were really in riding nirvana. All this to ourselves, lush green surrounded us, the grey misty skies embraced us and softened all the features to a gauzy dreamlike condition. If you could ride a motorcycle and enter a trance at the same time, now would be the time to do it, it was just that peaceful. Just when we thought that we were the last two people on earth (or at least in Labrador) as we crested a hill, we were reminded that we were still surrounded by “civilization” no matter how isolated we thought we were.
To the right side of the road atop an orange pole stood tall, thin, blazing red beacon with unlit yellow and green lights. It stood there silently with another square little box counting down the minutes and seconds as if it were waiting for something big to happen. Could this really be? A traffic signal in the middle of nowhere on the TLH? Indeed it was and it was the first of its kind seen by this city boy. It was a time controlled traffic signal and it was waiting for us and telling us to wait until it counted down to zero. But it was quite strange. Ahead we could only see sodden gravel road and varying shades of green trees, for what appeared to be a half mile. We still didn’t know what it was doing there but we waited somewhat impatiently for the countdown to end and the light to turn green.
In fact, it took so long that a car pulled up beside us and turned off its engine to wait as well. It’s occupants rolled down their windows and offered us some of the nuts they were munching on and we chatted a few minutes about our trip and where were from and where we were headed. They told us that up ahead, we would find some construction where the road would narrow to a single lane and that’s why we were being held, so that traffic coming the other way would have time to pass the construction and pass us. After the allotted time had passed we would be free to go and the folks on the other end would have to wait until we had passed by the timing of the traffic signal. When the light finally turned green, we wished our new friends well and let them go first since we were in no rush to get anywhere and they were headed for Labrador City, quite a distance away.
One of the “highlights” of the trip was to pass through the vanished town of Gagnon, Quebec. Gagnon provided us with one of the most eerie feelings we’ve ever had. Gagnon was founded by the Québec Cartier Mining Company to mine iron ore at Jeannine Lake. Construction of the pilot plant began in the winter of 1957. By August of that year, the plant had processed a thousand tons of ore. On January 28, 1960, the town was incorporated as Ville de Gagnon and named after Onésime Gagnon, the first Minister of Mining in Quebec. Thereafter it grew rapidly to 1300 inhabitants and by the end of that year, Gagnon had more than 4000 residents. It had an airport, churches, schools, a town hall, an arena, a hospital, and a large commercial centre, despite being isolated and only accessible by aircraft
In 1974, mining began at Fire Lake, some 80 kilometres (50 mi) north-east. By the mid-1980s however, the mine was no longer turning a profit and the mines were closed. More startlingly, the town fully was fully dismantled in 1985. All buildings and nearly all of the streets were demolished. The town’s main street is all that remains and it became part of Route 389 two years after the town’s closure. Eerily, that section of road retains a boulevard configuration, complete with a median, sidewalks, and sewers, despite being deep in the wilderness, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest active community, It was a very strange and unsettling feeling having traveled many miles on damp gravel to arrive at a paved section of road, complete with dividers and sidewalks, and see nothing around you but brush and trees. You could only stare and wonder, “What happened to all the people who used to live here and where are they now?”
We stopped for a brief time but needed to move on since we had planned a fairly long day and had planned to bed down in were bedding down in Labrador City. As we headed further north, towards Fermont, the mining town that led to the closure of Gagnon, the road began a set of twists and turns and multiple rail crossings. Despite the fact that you are many miles from any large city, there are plenty of trains traversing these tracks and you must be very careful at the crossings to ensure that there is not a train coming. While we completed this section in a single day, three separate trains passed by us.
Another hazard of the TLH is the “dreaded” road grader. Traveling at low speeds, the transit the TLH for hundreds of miles evening out potholes and adding a slight crown to the road to assist in drainage. While this is excellent for the four wheeled variety of vehicles, it can lead to more difficult riding for the two wheel variety. The graders often leave an in or two of soft mixed soil in their wake as well as very significant mixed gravel berms that can make negotiating the road quite difficult. The graders have gained a significant notoriety among the two wheeled adventure riding community and although their wake is not generally deadly, it can bite the unsuspecting if you turn your back on them as we’ll find out in Part 3.
As we said earlier, we stopped at the McKinley View Lodge where we were in for a special treat. After a brief lunch we learned a bit about the history of the lodge and its progenitor, Mary Carey. Mary was one of the first female pilots to fly an aircraft over Mt. McKinley and she also built the lodge with some of the tools and heavy equipment you see in the slideshow. Google Mary for she was a very interesting woman.
But we were in for a more interesting treat when as we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with a couple who noticed our NH plates on our bikes. After telling them about our journey and where we were headed, they asked if we would mind if they shared our email address with one of their friends who also motorcycled around the area. Of course we agreed and we were on our way.
We continued our way towards Cantwell in a dreary overcast, hoping that the cloud cover would lift a bit so we could see Mt. McKinley in all its glory, but persistent rain showers pestered us as we moved north. Although at times the clouds did appear to break a bit, they never fully opened and we did not get to see McKinley. But as the day progressed, it did brighten and we were treated to some breathtaking scenery.
When we rolled into Cantwell, it had pretty much cleared. It had been a long day of riding and we were pretty tired. We checked in to a small off the road hotel and asked them for a place to eat. It turned out that the closest place was called “The Perch” and was about 15 miles away. So we jumped back on the bikes for another ride which turned out to be quite beautiful and to top it off, the dinner was quite awesome as well.
After a long and sumptuous dinner, we lazily headed back to the hotel for a night’s rest before we headed out across the Denali Highway in the morning. I must say that I was concerned that it would a potholed, RV clogged, gravel disaster, but as we started out westerly on the Denali the following morning, it became quite clear that I needn’t have worried.
The “highway” was indeed gravel for all but 24 of its 135 miles, but it was nearly free of any traffic. As we rode along, we really could have used clamps to keep our hanging jaws shut as we were awed by one after another beautiful view or scene. Mountains rose from vast plains covered in spruce. The air was so clear you could see that the trees went on miles and miles until they reached the soaring mountains covered in snow.
Glaciers slid down the sides of several mountains leaving ice falls which glinted in the bright and sometimes almost harsh sunlight. The whites of the snow and ice at times became silver and almost clear as the refractory fire of the light bounced and reflected off the many facets of the mountains’ faces. Each time we thought we could not be more awed, we were indeed even more floored at the visual treats we encountered. It is difficult to explain the beauty of it all. In fact, we were stopping so much, we were in danger of having to stop and camp on the side of the highway if we didn’t get moving.
So with great difficulty, we soldiered on without stopping. After about 5 hours of stopping and starting on the road, we came upon the only place on the highway that serves food. We had seen only two or three vehicles the entire time we were on the highway, but as we pulled into the parking lot of the Gracious House and the Home Style Cooking Cafe we found where they all were. The dirt parking lot was packed and there was not a single seat in the house. Not one. We waited about 20 minutes and not a single seat opened. We then broke the code and decided that our lunch would consist of almonds, cashews, power bars and water, served on a bluff overlooking mountains and glaciers.
Boy did we make the right decision. It was a stellar 20 minutes of relaxation and communing. Few words were said between us while we munched on our meager lunch and soaked in all the surrounding elements would give us. It was 20 minutes or so that neither of us will ever forget. Soon it was time to get back on the road if we were going to get to our destination for the evening, the Tangle River Inn in Paxson.
We loaded up our gear and got back on the road, the scenery birthing a tranquility that I’d not previously known. We had been riding about an hour on a section of the highway that had been built up about four feet off the tundra. Steep embankments rolled off each side of the road into a thick green underbrush. I was just motoring along at about 45 miles per hour when suddenly from my right, a gigantic blackish blur darted out from the underbrush and ran up the embankment from in front of me. It was very large and it was moving fast, but then suddenly a second smaller brownish blur followed immediately behind the big black blur.
The only thing I could do was nail the brakes and try to avoid hitting the blurs. Then it dawned on me. As we were packing our gear, the agents that we used to ship Kim’s bike warned us that it was moose calving season and the moose were plentiful and wherever you might see a moose, there might be a calf with it. Well surer than heck, I’d just found my first two moose in Alaska. I managed to get my heavily loaded bike stopped about 10 feet short of and behind the adult female moose and the calf which was running with her. They both continued running across the road and down the opposite embankment.
It just so happened that we were approaching a small river at the time. I reached into the sleeve of my Stich to grab my point and shoot camera, but by the time I got it out of my sleeve, they had already dived into the river and gotten to the other side. By the time I could focus, they were in the brush and gone. I was so happy and sad at the same time. I had missed hitting the moose and avoided injury, but I had missed an awesome camera shot.
Moose avoided we only had about 40 miles to go to get to our destination. When we arrived, we found that the accommodations were less than stellar. But once again, in keeping with the Alaskan tradition, the food was home cooked and amazing and there was plenty of it. For dessert, there was spectacular scenery from our room with lake and mountain views. Well satiated after dinner, we took a few pictures outside battling our first real difficult encounter with Alaskan mosquitos, but it was well worth it. Tomorrow morning, we would head back onto the pavement towards Tok and ultimately the Canadian Yukon as you’ll see in Part 3.